Top Twenty (Or So) Rock Reissues of 2023

As time goes on and gets more and more distant from my favorite period of popular music, the reissues and vault finds get ever more specialized. They also get closer to the margins of what might be considered the core repertoire of major acts, and more and more obscure as far as artists who haven’t gotten much if any mainstream attention.

So it goes with my nearly Top Twenty list, where there are yet more live concerts by big stars (and part of seemingly continuous lines of them by Jimi Hendrix and the Doors); a huge expanded box by the Who (many other such boxes not on this list have been recently released as well); more live and rare early Renaissance than anyone thought was around; and a five-CD Heinz box, the very concept of which would have been unimaginable just a decade or two ago. Overdue career-spanning anthologies still come out, like the one for the Daily Flash, but there aren’t all that many such comps as noteworthy that are left in the wings.

While I don’t get too hung up on numbers and rankings, it was a fairly tough decision as these things play out to choose #1. Had none of the Doors’ March 1967 Matrix tapes ever circulated, that would have been an easy choice, but prior availability of tracks does factor into my list. Much of the Renaissance material was unheard, at least by me, which makes it more of a novel discovery, though that box is weighed down by some repetition and (though on less than half of it) subpar sound. There was no 2023 reissue that was clearly of such major importance that it was as easy a choice for the #1 spot, as, say, the first volume of Joni Mitchell’s Archives series and George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass were in recent years.

The Doors are by far the more important act, their 1967 tapes are definitely their most interesting live recordings, and the new box is the most complete collection of these, adding some previously uncirculating tracks. Ultimately that gives them the nod, though the top spot could have easily gone to the Renaissance collection, particularly if the welcome surprise of hearing some interesting stuff I didn’t know existed is taken into account.

1. The Doors, Live at the Matrix, 1967 (Rhino). A double live LP, Absolutely Live, by the Doors came out in 1970 while the group was still active, and there have been so many archival concert releases that even Doors fanatics have a hard time keeping track of them. Aside from their 1968 Hollywood Bowl show and the rather short, cover-dominated London Fog 1966, however—as well as a few lo-fi scraps that made it onto Boot Yer Butt!: The Doors Bootlegs—none of them predate 1969 save for Live at the Matrix, 1967. A double disc of material from their March 1967 shows at the San Francisco club came out in 2008, but this five-LP box lives up to the new and improved tag in a couple respects.

Crucially, the box has a lot more of what survives on tape from their March 7, 8, 9, and 10 Matrix shows. Most of the tracks gaining release for the first time have been in unofficial circulation for years, but this material’s taken, to quote Joel Selvin’s liner notes, “straight from reels of Scotch 201 quarter-track tape recorded at 7 ½ ips.” The 2008 compilation had been (it was belatedly discovered) mastered from third-generation copies, though it was thought at the time they were first-generation. 

Yet what’s most important is that these are the only recordings that capture the Doors in peak form before they became stars and their set lists became more rigid and predictable. Their first LP had been out for a couple months, but “Light My Fire” wouldn’t enter the charts until three months after their Matrix stint. The Doors were still an underground act, and the audiences at the club were so small that, as guitarist Robby Krieger’s quoted in the liner notes, “We looked at it as a paid rehearsal. There were five to ten people in the club. We did it for ourselves.” Although the sound quality on these tapes is a little thin and distant, these are the best and most interesting of the live Doors recordings, both for the hungry, wiry intensity of the performances and the presence of quite a few songs that aren’t available in many or any concert versions.

They didn’t mail/phone it in, playing most of the songs from their debut album (no “Take It As It Comes,” “End of the Night,” or “I Looked At You,” sadly); every song from their yet-to-be-recorded second LP, Strange Days, except “Strange Days,” “Love Me Two Times,” “You’re Lost Little Girl,” and “Horse Latitudes”; and even one that didn’t make it onto vinyl until their third album, “Summer’s Almost Gone.” Plus a heap of blues/R&B/jazz covers, some likewise never part of their catalog while Jim Morrison was alive, like “Gloria,” “Money,” “I’m a King Bee,” “Get Out of My Life Woman,” and “Rock Me Baby.” Plus a few instrumentals to give Jim a break, including “Summertime” and a couple, Miles Davis’s “All Blues” and Milt Jackson’s “Bags’ Groove,” that to my knowledge have never before circulated anywhere.

Best of all, the band plays, and Morrison sings, with passion and spontaneity, even given that many of the songs (even the long version of “Light My Fire”) are rewarded with light tennis match-type clapping. “Moonlight Drive” (included here, like several of the songs, in two versions) differs from the Strange Days arrangement with a middle section where Morrison and Ray Manzarek sing improvised-sounding parts against each other, Manzarek playing organ instead of piano. “Unhappy Girl” opens with a long piercing organ solo that doesn’t appear in the studio version. Morrison asks to be shown the way to the next little boy in an alteration to “Alabama Song”—a change which, it’s safe to assume, would not have been allowed on a commercial release in 1967, even by a label as progressive as Elektra.  

Although the songs were often enhanced by bass guitarist session players in the studio, the absence of a bassist means the arrangements are generally leaner here, and it’s interesting to hear Manzarek carrying the bass parts with the lower notes of his keyboard. Too, Ray had to play all his parts on an organ without utilizing piano for color and variation, which means songs like “People Are Strange” sound appreciably different.

As for the two previously uncirculating instrumentals, while naturally the band needed Morrison’s vocals to be at full power, they’re not without interest. The languid, repetitive riffs of “All Blues” are on the filler side, but an eight-minute forty-second “Bags’ Groove” (on the one-sided seven-inch that comes with the box) is actually pretty cool, the group hitting a nice jazz-bluesy sort of Doors-meet-the-MG’s groove. So is the lengthy (and previously available) instrumental “Summertime,” which the Doors arrange to suit their trademark hypnotic rock-jazz-blues style.

Not everything about this box is ideal. The sound quality isn’t remarkably different or better than the previous official and unofficial versions, though everything is now speed-corrected. Indeed, it isn’t as good as it is on the best and most historically significant officially issued Matrix tapes by other acts, those being the two LPs by the Great Society (with a pre-Jefferson Airplane Grace Slick) and 1969 Velvet Underground Live, Morrison’s vocals somehow not coming through as well as the singing does on those great records. The blues covers largely illustrate that early Rolling Stones-style blues-rock wasn’t the Doors’ strength. “Crawling King Snake” (later of course recorded for L.A. Woman) has some of the most amateurish harmonica (presumably by Morrison) to grace any release by a top rock act, though those bleats are brief and more amusing than annoying.

There is one standout among the covers, that being “Who Do You Love,” which the Doors would cut in a mellower version for Absolutely Live. The much earlier one on this box is good and preferable, with some nice swooping slide guitar and well-timed insertion of demonic organ breaks. Note that although the annotation describes this collection as the complete Matrix recordings, two versions of “Who Do You Love” purporting to be from the club in March have circulated. They’re easy to tell apart as Morrison’s vocal on the first verse is higher and nastier on the shorter one not included on this box, among other differences. One would guess the missing version might not have been taped at the Matrix, though it seems to be from the same era, and has similar fidelity. (A slightly edited version of this review will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things magazine.)

2. Renaissance, Live Fillmore West and Other Adventures (Repertoire). For a group of notable significance, the output of the original Renaissance—the lineup featuring ex-Yardbirds Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, as well as bassist Louis Cennamo, ex-Nashville Teens pianist John Hawken, and Relf’s sister Jane—was slim. There was just one album, 1969’s self-titled Renaissance, before the group’s personnel started to shift and splinter. By their third album, not a single original member remained. Renaissance itself had just five songs, though three were between seven and twelve minutes long.

This five-disc set does much to amplify their sparse discography, with four CDs of previously unissued live performances, TV and radio broadcasts, and demos, along with a DVD of British and European television clips. That’s a heavenly gift for fans, though it comes with some limitations. The sound quality is uneven, though the performances aren’t. And though there are a few songs that didn’t make the studio LP, there are inevitably a lot of multiple versions of the five that did.

The majority of the material comes from live concerts, the whole of the first disc featuring their March 6, 1970 show at the Fillmore West. While the instruments come through fairly well, there’s no denying that the vocals are on the submerged side. In common with many live tapes of plenty of acts from the era, the songs are stretched to markedly longer arrangements, “Kings and Queens” and “Bullet” lasting fifteen minutes apiece. The odd ghostly, almost avant-garde ending of the studio version of the latter wasn’t replicated in live performance. As a major bonus, however, in addition to all five songs from the LP, three others that didn’t make it were played. All of their compositions have the group’s idiosyncratic blend of rock, classical, and exotic non-rock styles, often layered with a tense, ominous mood.

None of the non-LP numbers are quite up to the level of the material on their studio releases, the eight-minute “No Name Raga” going into some less focused improvisation than was their usual wont. The nine-minute “After the War,” songwriting credited to “unidentified,” is hard to fully judge. It boasts some wailing Jane Relf vocals, but the extent to which they’re under-recorded is a deterrent to full listening pleasure, though there are some forceful riffs and wah-wah guitar, and McCarty’s drumming gets into more uninhibited soloing than he ever did with the Yardbirds. The two-minute “The Tao of Myself” is a two-minute improvisation tagged onto the end of “Bullet,” and the words Keith Relf are singing can’t be easily deciphered. (For that matter, the ways vocals were placed in the mixes and arrangements sometimes made it difficult to make out early Renaissance’s lyrics with exact precision even when they were recorded in classier audio.)

Disc two combines excerpts from concerts in Helsinki (May 1969) and Switzerland (April 1970) with a May 1969 version of “Kings and Queens” from a Swedish radio broadcast. It’s perhaps the least notable disc owing to less-than-sparkling audio quality, sticking to versions of just three of the five songs from the album. There’s also a brief Helsinki interview with Hawken and Keith Relf that just makes basic points that the group, which had only done a few concerts, was trying to do something different.

The sonic imperfections of the first two CDs might put them in the “for hardcore fans” only category, but that’s not the case for the other CDs. Disc three features more than forty minutes of material from a February 25, 1970 Cincinnati concert, and while the fidelity might have been a little too dull to make the cut for the usual standard official live album, it’s appreciably better than what the preceding two discs offer. Crucially, it has not only every song from Renaissance except “Innocence,” but also has far better sounding versions of “No Name Raga” and “After the War,” although “Bullet” lasts less than half of what it does on the Fillmore tape.

Cincinnati’s Music Hall might not have had the glamour of the Fillmore West. But these recordings, made just a couple weeks earlier than the ones from the Fillmore, are a decidedly better representation of the band—who play and sing well everywhere in this package, regardless of the variable technical qualities of the tapes. Disc three is completed by the similarly acceptable-fi audio of 1969-70 British and European TV spots, though those are better experienced as the film clips featured on the DVD.

The first half of disc four has decent-sounding BBC radio broadcasts recorded in October 1969 and March 1970, with versions of all songs from the debut LP except “Wanderer.” Of most interest, there’s also (from the March 26, 1970 taping) a Jim McCarty original, the delicate folk-classical Jane-sung “Face of Yesterday,” that’s the sole song on the entire package that found a place on Renaissance’s second studio album, 1971’s Illusion. There’s also a brief Keith Relf interview where he explains how different factions in the Yardbirds led to a different sound he and McCarty wanted to explore with Renaissance.

The second half of disc four contains the least characteristic, yet in some ways among the most interesting, tracks on this compilation. These nine “rarities and demos,” as they’re titled here, are almost an entire studio album of its own, though they were recorded at various times and with different combinations of musicians. It would have been nice to have exact personnel listings and dates, if they even exist. But Cennamo’s comments in Chris Welch’s lengthy liners indicate most were done between the Yardbirds’ split and Renaissance’s formation, though some were done significantly later. 

Whatever their precise origins, they show a somewhat folk-poppier, less ornate, and more concise side of the band, and a very good one, even if some fans might prefer their more avowedly progressive efforts. One highlight, the buoyant but bittersweet “Line of Least Resistance,” showed up a few years ago on Repertoire’s collection of Keith Relf rarities, All the Falling Angels. So did “I’d Love to Love You,” a lovely acoustic duet between the Relfs, and  “Together Now,” though this a different (and inferior) version with added orchestration.

Generally these studio recordings afford greater room for Jane Relf’s vocals, both in quantity and range of expression. Certainly one peak, not only of this anthology but of her whole career, is her glowing interpretation of “Carpet of the Sun,” which a later lineup of Renaissance  would record in a much more bombastically arranged version, with Annie Haslam on vocals, on a 1973 album. Cennamo states in the liners that this Jane-sung version was cut “after the original Renaissance broke up,” which might make it the latest track on this compilation.

But most of these demos and rarities have an enticing haunting, melancholy-with-rays-of-sunshine bursting through feel, and would make a nice (if short) album of its own, despite its disparate sources. (McCarty’s “Prayer for the Light,” for instance, comes from the obscure Schizom soundtrack.) As a whole, they point to attractive directions the original Renaissance lineup could have explored more fully, whether during their brief lifetime or had they stayed together longer. They also more fully show the appeal of Jane’s singing—in a different way than her brother, though she likewise didn’t have the power of more celebrated British vocalists, she projected personal, enigmatic emotion that more than made up for that.

While it would be a cliché to propose that the whole set’s worth buying for the 40-minute DVD, especially with respect to collectors’ budget considerations, the one that closes this anthology comes close to deserving such an accolade. Besides well-preserved color clips of 1970 broadcasts of performances of “Island” and “Kings and Queens” on the Germany TV program Beat-Club, there’s a much less frequently seen fourteen-minute BBC mini-documentary from late 1969, also in vivid color. This shows the original group working in the studio, where producer Paul Samwell-Smith and engineer Andy Johns can also be seen; in more casual settings, with brief interviews with band members; and at a live performance of “Island” in London’s Revolution Club in October 1969. In black and white, but in good shape, is a clip of the band in Paris in January 1970, again performing “Island,” obviously a favorite of the group and, apparently, television programmers.

This would have arguably worked better as a three-disc set without the first two discs, as higher-fi versions of almost all the songs from the first pair of CDs are heard on the final three. It’s also true that the abundance of multiple versions—seven apiece of “Island” and “Kings and Queens”—makes this too much to take in at once. Yet some fans would argue, with some reason, that if you’re going to have some rare material, you might as well have it all. It’s all here, and if early Renaissance was in some ways not as immediately accessible as far more famous post-Yardbirds projects by their three celebrated guitarists, this does reward patient listeners. It also boasts its share of incandescent songs and passages that strike home right away. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

3. Joni Mitchell, Archives Vol. 3: The Asylum Years (1972-1975) (Rhino). The third volume of Mitchell’s five-CD box sets of almost entirely unreleased material actually spans late 1971 to 1975, to be technical. The title refers to years during which she was on Asylum Records. Like the previous two boxes, it’s a deft mix of demos, outtakes, and live recordings, including a few on which James Taylor sings or Neil Young plays, though Mitchell’s the focus on those. The one previously released track might have been missed even by Joni collectors, since “Raised on Robbery,” recorded in 1973 with Neil Young & the Santa Monica Flyers, only came out on Young’s Archives Vol. 2: 1972-1976.

Unlike the majority of listeners, I’m a much bigger fan of Mitchell’s earlier work, an era spotlighted on the previous two boxes, which spanned 1963-1971. But I liked this more than I expected, in part because the different nature of the sources ensures there’s more variety than there is on any studio or live Mitchell album from this period. If the studio LPs (For the RosesCourt and Spark, and The Hissing of Summer Lawns) had more polished production, the songs from those albums certainly don’t suffer in earlier and often plainer musical settings. Personally I prefer the less elaborate productions, especially to those using the slicker fusiony sounds of Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, though that outfit can be heard on some of the numerous songs from her March 3, 1974 concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles.

There’s enough material from that show and her February 23, 1972 Carnegie Hall concert to have made two separate albums, and these (as well as scattered much shorter excerpts from other live appearances) mix then-new compositions with older songs that were already favorites, like “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock,” Both Sides Now,” and “The Circle Game.” Some of her between-song raps are quite long and spacey, including an unexpected reference to the Performance movie. A studio medley duet with James Taylor of “Bony Moronie,” “Summertime Blues,” and “You Never Can Tell” demonstrates both that Mitchell had a genuine love for early rock and roll, and that it wasn’t her strong suit as an interpreter or performer.

The more (at the time) recent and less familiar compositions are the highlights, however, though some similarity in her approach on quite a few songs in this era means this wouldn’t qualify as the most consistent Mitchell listen – not that this was the intention of an archival box like this. Some of the better and/or more interesting items include a pre-For the Roses live acoustic version of “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio,” and an outtake of the same tune backed by Neil Young and the Stray Gators; a band-less demo of her biggest hit, “Help Me”; good demos and alternate versions of a couple highlights from Hissing, “In France They Kiss on Main Street” and “Dreamland”; and likewise the demo and Neil Young-backed versions of a Court and Spark highlight, “Raised on Robbery.” Best of all is the Court and Spark outtake “Bonderia,” in which Mitchell scats wordlessly with an unusual nearly middle eastern-gypsy-ish melody that’s almost experimental by her standards. Along the same lines, “Sunrise Raga” is offbeat as it’s nearly instrumental save for some wordless singing, and Mitchell’s backed by bongos on an Indian-flavored piece. Both tracks make me wish she’d done more such ventures.

Like the previous Archives boxes, Cameron Crowe interviewed the singer for the liner notes. While some might wish she’d been grilled in greater depth about some of the specifics on these vault retrievals, it’s enough of a miracle she can speak at some length to an interviewer given her recent health scares. While this might not be my favorite volume owing to my personal tastes, in its selectivity and packaging it’s up to the standards of its predecessors, and the series as a whole is already established as one of the best of its kind in those regards.

4. The Who, Who’s Next/Life House (Polydor). This is basically a superdeluxe edition of Who’s Next, though much of the material was originally intended for the unfinished rock opera Life House (as it’s now apparently spelled, rather than Lifehouse). How does it not rank higher or at the top of this list, considering I wrote about it in about half of my book Won’t Get Fooled Again: The Who From Lifehouse to Quadrophenia? It’s not the greatest value for money, boasting a $250-300 price depending on where you get it. More importantly, the extra material isn’t always that exciting, though at least Pete Townshend refrained from putting on post-1970s re-recordings or interpretations of Life House elements. The original Who’s Next album is one of the discs, and a Blu-ray offers mixes of tracks (all heard elsewhere on the set) that some consider higher-fi than what’s possible on average stereo systems. Everything else was not on the Who’s Next LP, though a fair amount of it’s been released elsewhere.

The most interesting material is found on the two CDs of Pete Townshend demos. Much of it’s done the rounds on limited edition release and bootlegs, but they include solo versions of much of the material on Who’s Next that have a different, sometimes more personal, less glossy, and vulnerable cast than the highly polished group studio tracks. There are also some songs that didn’t find release by the Who or sometimes anywhere at the time, with the tender, acoustic folk-based love song “Mary” and the wistful “Time Is Passing” being highlights. An early iteration of “Baba O’Riley,” titled “Teenage Wasteland,” uses a far different melody for much of the performance than the later familiar version. But most of the songs not eventually reworked for Who’s Next aren’t as good as what was selected for that album, “Pure and Easy” being a notable exception. The most unfamiliar of these, “Finally, Over” and “There’s a Fortune in Those Hills,” don’t leave much of an impression.

This box is one of these infrequent instances where, for my purposes, limiting it to these two CDs would have been more enjoyable listening (not to mention more affordable) than working through the whole set. There’s a disc of their first go at the album at New York’s Record Plant in early 1971; alternate versions cut at Olympic; and quite a few non-LP singles and outtakes from 1970-72, sometimes in longer unedited versions, though all of these have appeared in some mixes/edits on other archival compilations. Some fans have already offered different and much more enthusiastic assessments, but I don’t find any of the alternates too appreciably different than the final arrangements, let alone superior to them or on the same level. The non-LP singles and outtakes include some very good songs (“The Seeker,” “Join Together,” John Entwistle’s “Heaven and Hell”) and a bunch of decent-to-okay ones (the Roger Daltrey-written 1970 B-side “Here for More” is underrated), but the unedited longer versions don’t significantly add to their quality.

There are also two CDs of live recordings from London’s Young Vic on April 26, 1971, and two CDs of live tracks from December 12, 1971 in San Francisco. Acknowledging that many Who fans groove mightily to live recordings of the band from this period (and not just Live at Leeds), these aren’t my favorite ways to experience their music. The execution can be blustery, the songs overlong, and the odd unexpected covers (“Bony Moronie,” Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” and Freddie King’s “Going Down”) unremarkable. Overall, there are just too many multiple and not-terribly-varying versions of songs throughout the box to make for listening that’s as stimulating as it might seem on paper.

Also in the box is a 102-page hardback book of deeply researched liner notes that does a lot to help illuminate the stories of both the unfinished Life House and the album it morphed into, Who’s Next, as well as the many extra tracks recorded by the band between 1970 and 1972 (excepting Live at Leeds recordings). The newly written graphic novel based on Life House that’s also part of the package is not as essential and, in my view, inessential. The rare period memorabilia in an LP-sized sleeve, including reproductions of posters and concert programs, is nice but not amazing. If omitting the Blu-ray and the quite sizable graphic novel would have lowered the list price considerably, I would have preferred such a revision.

5. Various Artists, Tape Excavation (Independent Project/P22). This came out in LP form in 2020, but there are reasons to include this on a 2023 list. Even if you’re the kind of collector who gets in line for Record Store Day releases at dawn, you might be frustrated by trying to acquire the LP-only release if you don’t already have it. It was available only as limited editions that added up to 600 copies. More importantly, this CD version adds eight tracks to the original fourteen, now making for a total of twenty-two. It compiles previously unreleased tracks from various Bruce Licher musical projects spanning 1980 to 2019, including material from his most famous band (Savage Republic); pre-Savage Republic outfits Project 197, Bridge, and Final Republic; and post-Savage Republic projects Scenic, Lanterna, Lemon Wedges, Bank, and SR2, along with post-Savage Republic Licher solo recordings. A booklet with liner notes explains the origins of the tracks.

Tape Excavation’s selections are actually of similar quality to Licher’s previous official releases, even if the fidelity and polish might not be as high on a few tracks (particularly the earlier ones). Although it covers four decades, there’s a continuity in the eerie instrumental textures, which both use conventional instruments (especially Licher’s unusually tuned guitar) and blend them in unconventional ways. The earlier efforts bear some traces of early-‘80s post-punk dissonance, yet are likely to appeal to people who don’t usually like post-punk, at least if my own tastes are an indication. There’s even some appealingly cheesy new wave keyboard on Final Republic’s “Chase,” though the same group was responsible for the foreboding waves of overlapping reverb dominating “The Unknown.” The earlier of the additional eight tracks tend to be noisier and more industrial in nature than the original core fourteen.

Licher focused more on sort of post-punk equivalents to surf music with elements of psychedelia and middle eastern melodies as time went on. His pair of 1997 solo demos are of special note; “Cedar” is worthy of exotically dreamy Ennio Morricone-like soundtracks, and “Tundra” can’t help but sound like an end-of-the-century takeoff on the Byrds’ “Why.” The later excursions might be less edgy and frenetic than his ‘80s endeavors, but maintain his knack for atmospheric instrumentals that are more mature yet not at all wimpy.

The tracks of later vintage added for the CD fall into this area, highlighted by Exploratorium’s “The Atmosphere” and the dreamy yet slightly foreboding late-‘90s home recording “SF Cima Song,” a variation of a song from Scenic’s Incident at Cima album. The most recent of the added items, the 2009 solo home recording “Mesopotamia” and the 2017 solo home recording “There Is Always a Light Which Will Illuminate the Way, Even in the Darkest of Times,” are also up to the standard of the selections on the original LP, as spooky instrumentals evoking the kind of photos of desolate landscapes found in many of the booklet’s illustrations. Licher went through dozens of boxes of recordings to cull these tracks, and if even a small percentage of these approach Tape Excavation’s standard, a series of archive releases would be welcome. 

6. The Daily Flash, The Legendary Recordings 1965-1967 (Guerssen). It’s hard to know where to rank a compilation on which the best half dozen or so tracks are so much better than the other dozen or so. On the basis of their handful of previously available rare singles and outtakes, the Daily Flash were among the better early folk-rock groups, with particularly outstanding covers of Ian & Sylvia’s “The French Girl” and Eric Andersen’s “Violets of Dawn,” as well as searing early psychedelia on “Jack of Diamonds,” which opens with an unholy blast of feedback. They had good vocal harmonies and guitar-oriented arrangements that were polished without getting too slick, creating the impression they could have been significantly bigger if they’d gotten more breaks.

A whole LP’s worth of material, including all of the above songs, appeared back in 1984. But this 19-song comp was eagerly awaited as it includes about ten cuts that haven’t been easily available, and in some cases never before issued. Yet none of the extras are in the same league as most of what appeared on that 1984 LP, I Flash Daily. The folk-rock versions of Dino Valenti’s “Birdses” and Bob Dylan’s “Let Me Die in My Footsteps”—themselves hard to hear in versions by their composers back in the mid-1960s—are just okay. Some of the other folk-rock updates of folk tunes, like “When I Was a Cowboy,” are disappointingly forgettable. Only a couple of original compositions (both by Steve Lalor) are here, and while “Barbara Flowers” isn’t bad poppy folk-rock, the previously unissued “Again and Again” doesn’t make much of an impression.

This Seattle group’s failure to write much, or very interesting, original material was the biggest factor in their failure to rise to the heights of the better folk-rock groups of the time. Like Buffalo Springfield, for instance, who were also produced and managed by Charlie Greene and Brian Stone (and whom Daily Flash guitarist Doug Hastings joined for a bit when Neil Young left the Springfield). Despite the excellence of their best sides, they just didn’t have what it took to be a major band, as much as folk-rock fanatics like me might have wished this comp to prove otherwise. But it does, after a gap of many years, fully represent their legacy, with thorough if occasionally drifting liner notes untangling their history and what happened when, including recording dates. There are three versions of Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately,” though there’s a purpose to the repetition: two different versions were released on singles, and the third one’s a live recording.

7. Various Artists, One Mile from Heaven (Mapache). In the 1970s, there were loads of privately pressed singer-songwriter albums—many, perhaps most, of them poor and amateurish. There were also some decent and, on rare occasion, striking ones, or at least some striking tracks here and there on such releases. This twenty-track double LP curates some of the most noteworthy, with a couple (from Jim Sullivan in 1969 and Bobb Trimble in 1980) falling just outside the ‘70s. In the words of Daniel Resines’s liners, “It’s a compilation of hardly known (if not completely unknown) songs that nobody was waiting for—the sheer opposite of a greatest hits album.” In other words, the kind of thing that many collectors of vintage rock esoterica are waiting for.

But while none of these are household names, some of them are known, to UT readers at any rate. Maitreya Kali (aka Craig Smith) is a star in UT’s world, in large part due to our publisher/editor’s excellent book about him, and his “One Last Farewell” leads off this collection. Another star of sorts in our alternate universe is Merrell Fankhauser, whose prime was just honored with a six-CD box. Gary Higgins, Michael Yonkers, and Jim Sullivan have their own smaller cult followings; Alicia May and Chuck & Mary Perrin have been honored with CD reissues of their albums. At least half the artists, however, are apt to be unfamiliar to most collectors, other than the kind who write reviews for the fine reference books overseen by Richard Morton Jack and the late Patrick Lundborg.

This sort of privately pressed singer-songwriter fare could hardly be called a “scene”—few of them knew each other, and few listeners heard these records when they were released. There is, however, a unifying thread, at least when you hear them with half a century or so of distance. Though not nearly as desolate or outsider-ish as many “loner folk” efforts, there’s a bittersweet after-the-party feel to much of the material. There’s often a pensive, subdued air, but it’s not exactly laidback or mellow. And while these generally had much lower recording and promotional budgets than mainstream ‘70s singer-songwriters on “real” labels did, the sound is always professional, and usually nearly or on par with major label efforts of the period.

At the same time, it’s far enough removed from the bigtime music business to ensure a lot of idiosyncrasy and, within this anthology, diversity. Maitreya Kali’s “One Last Farewell” does stand out as a highlight for its spookiness, but other selections worth noting include Billy Hallquist’s eight-minute “Persephone,” which builds to an extended anthemic choral climax nearly worthy of Fairport Convention’s take on “Percy’s Song,” to cite a rough comparison. Yonkers’s “And Give It To You” is far more delicate and sensitive than his more famed, yet more bombastic, earlier and far heavier, far more electric-oriented recordings.

Joni Mitchell fans are likely to enjoy Alicia May’s “Summer Days,” which was recorded by the same engineer Mitchell used, Henry Lewy. Naomi Lewis’s “More Beautiful” is classy melancholy mid-‘70s singer-songwriting with a more effectively deployed sparse arrangement than most of her more celebrated peers were prone to use. Carm Mascarenhas has, according to the liners, been compared to vintage Van Morrison, though I hear some of fellow Canadian Neil Young in his approach. For something a bit more eccentric, there’s Michael Angelo’s “Field of Lonely Eyes,” which blends nice close vocal harmonies with eerie synthesizer on a cut that’s more homespun and lo-fi than most of the other selections, but pleasantly so.

While hardcore collectors might insist you need to experience these artists with their full albums, this works well as a sampler whether you want to go deeper or content yourself with some of the cream of this niche genre. If you don’t specialize in that niche, the appeal of the individual tracks might be enhanced by hearing them in similar yet versatile company, rather than on full albums by the artists that some might find wearisome to take in all at once. The booklet has background info on all of the performers, with pictures of most of them, and reproductions of all the LP covers from which the material was drawn. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

8. David Blue & the American Patrol, The Lost 1967 Elektra Recordings & More (Hanky Panky/Mapache). Blue’s self-titled 1966 Elektra debut LP was one of the most blatantly early electric Dylan-inspired records, at a time when there was no shortage of Dylan imitators. He did a second, but unreleased, album for Elektra in 1967 with, or at least credited to as with, backup band the American Patrol. Eight of the ten tracks that would have comprised that album are this vinyl-only LP release, along with three acoustic folk tracks he contributed to Elektra’s 1965 various-artists compilation album Singer Songwriter Project, where he was billed under his birth name, David Cohen.

Blue still sounds derivative of Dylan to some extent on much of the 1967 material, but he was taking steps toward finding more of his own voice, both as a singer and a songwriter. “23 Days in September” (which he’d re-record in a more laidback version on his 1968 album of the same name), “Scales for a Window Thief,” and especially “Best of Your Childlike Smiles” are rather nice, if still slightly Dylanesque, pensive folk-rock. There’s a wistful quality to Blue’s softly intoned vocals and more bittersweet melodic turns than most circa-’66 folk-rock (though this was taped in 1967) of this sort had. He gets into more playful, lighthearted moods, with variable but basically acceptable results, on some of the other songs; “Anna” is the best of these, and “You Need a Change” has a slightly ahead of its time country-rock tinge.

It’s unfortunate, however, that “Vaudeville Blues” and “Dr. Smith’s Electrical Light Machine” have a cringeworthy dated vaudeville rock feel, along the lines of so many similar tracks from the time from bands that seemed to feel they should put one such cut on their LP, as if they had to prove their diversity. It’s doubly unfortunate that two other tracks from the unreleased LP, “Anything You Find on the Floor Is Yours” and “Tell Me What It’s Like When You Get Back,” were not made available for this release, as they have a decidedly rougher and bluesier, almost garage rock feel than the rest of the material. As far as demonstrating versatility goes, they’re far better than the vaudevillian tunes, and one wishes they could have been included, or even included at the expense of the vaudevillian numbers. They’d also be more interesting than the pretty run-of-the-mill folk performances from Singer Songwriter Project, an LP that hasn’t been too hard to find (though some editions exclude the tracks by Richard Fariña, which are the best on that compilation).

Who loses in this exclusion? Only fans and history. Had they been possible to add to the tracklist, this LP would have ranked a notch or two higher. History is given, at least, by Mark Brend’s extensive liner notes, decorated by some rare pictures and graphics. This was issued in a limited edition of 500 copies, the same label also putting out a 500-copy vinyl run of Blue’s debut LP at the same time.

9. Los Shakers, ¡Shaker Mania! (Guerssen). Los Shakers, or the Shakers as they’ve sometimes been billed, were the finest Uruguayan rock group of the 1960s, and indeed probably the best one in South America. Some might feel this is damning with the faintest of praise considering how much distance in quality there was between South American rock and North American (and British) rock. But singing in both Spanish and accented English, they were also among the better explicitly Beatles-influenced groups from anywhere in the globe. Plenty of people wouldn’t count this as a major asset either, and it’s easy to imagine some rock critics making fun of how heavily derivative their records were, not to mention the accents and awkward English phrasing. But their records were pretty enjoyable, if no match for what the Beatles (or even the better bands with some similarities to the early Beatles, from the Hollies and the Bee Gees to the Beau Brummels) did. 

Plenty of Shakers music has actually been readily available in English-speaking countries for a long time, both on CD and through an English-language LP Audio Fidelity actually issued in the US in the mid-1960s, Break It All. For those such as I who do care about their catalog, this (so far vinyl-only) compilation offers something different, focusing on non-LP singles and rarities, even including three previously unreleased tracks. As a whole they’re not quite up to the level of the best Shakers CD compilation, Big Beat’s 2000 release ¡Por Favor (compiled, like this LP, by Alec Palao). Nor does it offer anything especially different from what’s been more commonly available. It’s just good sub-Beatles ‘60s pop-rock, sometimes (though not often) with a more South American influence, especially on the closing bossa nova-inflected “Nunca Nunca.” “Don’t Call Me on the Telephone, Baby” is uncomfortably close to Larry Williams’s “Bad Boy” and how the Beatles did that, but nothing else here is as obviously derivative.

Note that “Only in Your Eyes” isn’t the Break It All version, but the much rarer earlier one recorded for a single in March 1965. The complicated origins of the rarities are explained and annotated in Palao’s liner notes. 

10. Various Artists, Let’s Stomp!: Merseybeat and Beyond 1962-1969 (Strawberry). As the liners to this three-CD, 93-track collection begin, “Merseybeat was a relatively brief phenomenon—still a local scene in 1962 and fading by the end of 1964.” But did any other such brief boom echo so loud and long in the history of rock? This was the true beginning of a distinctive British rock sound, which would transform not just the country’s music industry, but also music and even youth culture the globe over.

Much of its mammoth influence, of course, was due to the band who wasn’t only the biggest and best on the scene, but also the best rock group of all time. Alas, the Beatles aren’t represented on this compilation for licensing reasons—not even by one of their pre-EMI Hamburg recordings. But virtually everyone else is. While some of the selection can be debated, it’s the most all-encompassing Merseybeat compilation both in its quantity and its range.

All of the non-Beatles hitmakers are here: the Searchers, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, the Swinging Blue Jeans, the Mojos, the Merseybeats, the Merseys, the Fourmost, and Cilla Black. So are the names known who didn’t quite make it big, even if they’re known to many: the Big Three, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, Jackie Lomax, Tommy Quickly, the Remo Four, Tony Jackson post-Searchers. So are plenty of names known only to those who were there or ravenous collectors, like the 23rd Turnoff, Wimple Winch, Jason Eddie, and Ian & the Zodiacs. So are some names that were unfamiliar to this know-it-all reviewer, from Jeannie & the Big Guys to Satin Bells. The only omission I’d argue for is the Pete Best Combo, whose “The Way I Feel About You” is pretty storming garage pop, even if it was recorded in the US.

Every British Invasion collector would have a different selection to propose for such an anthology, and a few acts aren’t heard at their best. Certainly the Merseybeats’ “Our Day Will Come” and Ian & the Zodiacs’ “Beechwood 4-5789” hardly count among their best work, and Gerry & the Pacemakers’ “Slow Down” is a non=starter compared to the Beatles’ version. Like a good number of compilations of this sort, the mix of classic hits (the Swinging Blue Jeans’ “Hippy Hippy Shake,” Kramer’s “Bad to Me,” and the Searchers’ “When You Walk in the Room”) with deep cuts and obscurities means that almost anyone who buys this will already have some (and maybe even much) of it elsewhere.

But heard a few times, this does grow on you for its sheer diversity. There’s certainly Merseybeat in the classic chipper catchy guitar-driven style; the Fourmost’s “I’m in Love,” one of the lesser known Lennon-McCartney songs the Beatles didn’t release, is one of the best such items. But there are plenty of woman solo acts and girl groups, often in a pop or soul style; journeyman club rock’n’roll by some of the Beatles’ peers who never quite made it outside of Liverpool and Hamburg, like King Size Taylor; light psych from Focal Point; mod from the Thoughts (whose “All Night Stand” is featured in its rarer US version, though it’s not much different than the UK one); and demented early freakbeat, though Jason Eddie’s ‘Come On Baby” is pretty well known to devotees of the form.

Listing all the non-hits of high quality (albeit mixed with some mundane efforts and routine covers) would take quite a few paragraphs, but listen especially for Jeannie & the Big Guys’ tough interpretation of Titus Turner’s “Sticks and Stones”; a surprisingly worthwhile run through “Sally Go Round the Roses” by ex-Vernon Girl Lyn Cornell; and the Remo Four’s solid blue-eyed soul/rock take on Gloria Jones’s “Heart Beat.” Although they’ve done the reissue rounds for decades, the bittersweet, ethereal psychedelia of the 23rd Turnoff’s “Michael Angelo” (sic) and Wimple Winch’s mod mini-epic “Rumble on Mersey Square South” are among the very few items here that show local bands innovating with the changing times and more serious, sophisticated compositions. As the Beatles did—and, somehow, their Liverpool peers didn’t, almost without exception.

There are just three previously unreleased tracks, all carrying some degree of interest. The Maracas’ “A Different Drummer” is a Joe Meek production. Samantha Jones’s “This Is the Real Thing” wasn’t on one of her numerous ‘60s singles, and was retrieved from an acetate. Shel Talmy produced the Pathfinders’ moody and well-harmonized “Lonely Room,” the best of this trio of vault finds, is a fine cover of an Ivy League composition.

Is there much more to be found by many of these acts on other compilations, single-artist or various-artist? Sure (though probably not in the Pathfinders’ case), and everyone will have their favorites, sometimes many, that aren’t featured here. For the less fussy who want a good overview of the breadth of ‘60s Merseybeat, however, it works as a starter or sampler, with detailed, bountifully illustrated liner notes by compiler Jon Harrington. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

11. David John & the Mood: Diggin’ for Gold (Cherry Red). David John & the Mood put out only three non-hit singles as part of the mid-1960s British R&B/rock explosion. But they’re pretty fondly regarded by collectors, in part owing to their inclusion on numerous specialist archival compilations. This 22-track anthology is the first actual compilation of material by the group, though it doesn’t actually include much in the way of songs they didn’t release. All six cuts from the 45s are here, but much of the rest are alternate versions and backing tracks. There’s just one song, the outtake “That Little Old Heartbreaker Me,” that wasn’t on the singles in some form. Even that song is presented in three different versions, one of them a backing track with backing (but no lead) vocals.

Although David John & the Mood were a second-tier British R&B/rock outfit, most of the half dozen numbers on their singles were pretty good. When their material first appeared on reissues, there was speculation that “David John” might actually be a pseudonym for David Bowie, as there’s some similarity between how John (given name David John Smith) and very early Bowie sing in a high, sometimes squealy and mannered voice. “I Love to See You Strut” in particular is pretty taut and brash; “Bring It to Jerome” is a good Bo Diddley cover, if not on the same level as the original or Manfred Mann’s version; and “Pretty Thing,” likewise no match for the original or the Pretty Things’ cover, captures the naive energy of the young British R&B acts well, with one of the all-time great weird dissonant sloppy guitar solos of the genre.

On reflection, John doesn’t sound quite as much like early Bowie as sometimes suspected when “Bring It to Jerome” and “I Love to See You Strut” appeared on Pebbles Vol. 6 back at the end of the 1970s. There are hints that he and the Mood could have developed into something more notable and important than a fairly typical, if slightly better than average, early sub-Stones et al. combo. They didn’t get the chance, however, owing to some bad breaks and questionable management, though they were able to record a couple singles with producer Joe Meek.

While I like David John & the Mood, it can be disputed whether they’re worth the kind of treatment the Beach Boys get with their box sets, where many of the selections are backing tracks and not-so-different alternates. The different versions on this comp aren’t notably different than the familiar (at least to the kind of collectors who accumulate this stuff) ones, though an acetate version of “Diggin’ for Gold” isn’t as close as the others. Even most such collectors would be satisfied with an EP or mini-LP of the singles plus the outtake and acetate. This does, however, come with a 20-page booklet with a full history of the group that documents them much better than anything else that’s been published.

12. P.J. Proby, Presley Style: Lost Elvis Songwriter Demos 1961-1963 (Bear Family). P.J. Proby was most known for his brief period of superstardom as an expatriate American singer in Britain in the mid-1960s, though he had only modest success in his native US. In the early 1960s, before he was known for his own records, he recorded numerous demos of songs for Elvis Presley to cut. That’s been known for a long time, but this 21-track collection marks the first release of any of the material. While it’s of more interest as an historical oddity than for its intrinsic merits, it’s not without such merits, if something of a footnote in the careers of both Proby and Presley.

Proby could credibly emulate Elvis’s style, though he had more of a warble and was ultimately no match for Presley’s greatness. Nor were the songs featured on this anthology among Elvis’s best, even by the standards of his Presley’s generally somewhat diminished early-‘60s output. If you’re looking for highlights from the Elvis catalog from this period like “Little Sister” or “Return to Sender,” or even “Just Tell Her Jim Said Hello,” be aware no such items are here. Also be aware that these songs aren’t even among his best or best known secondary early-‘60s output, and were mostly used as filler on his soundtracks, or not even used at all by Elvis. All but three were written by the Sid Wayne-Ben Weisman composing team, hardly the best songwriters of the era, or even among the best who wrote for Presley.

All those reservations out of the way, this isn’t such a bad listen, though it’s uneven and has a few turkeys. Proby undoubtedly attacks the material with professional zeal; the backing, likely by the Wrecking Crew at least some of the time, is like the vocals better than the material; and some of the songs are pretty fair, and occasionally rock out. “Come and Get It,” for instance, is a decent tough bluesy rocker that would have been one of Presley’s better LP tracks had Elvis done a version (he didn’t). “Carnival of Dreams” is a neatly dramatic torch song-cum-rocker. There are also songs neither Proby nor Presley could have done much to elevate, the military ode “Snap To!” being the most flagrant example. 

This collection does raise the issue, as does much of Presley’s post=’50s output, of how much he would have benefited from being able to record more songs by writers closer to his age and musical passions by the likes of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Or even by using songs from composers with a good rock sensibility who were older than Elvis, like what Doc Pomus wrote with Mort Shuman. The issue isn’t discussed by the thorough liner notes, which treat the material as if it’s of deserving of canonization as anything Presley did. If ultimately something of a curiosity, as such curiosities go, it’s pretty interesting. 

13. Heinz, The White Tornado (Cherry Red). For someone often berated for having little vocal or instrumental talent, and sometimes cast as a stooge of sorts (putting it politely) who never would have gotten on disc if not for the patronage of producer Joe Meek, Heinz sure made a bunch of good records. It’s true they might have owed more to stellar backup musicians and Meek’s production than Heinz’s limited skills. But “Just Like Eddie” (his sole big UK hit), “Big Fat Spider,” “Movin’ In,” “I’m Not a Bad Guy,” “Hush-A Bye Baby,” and “That Lucky Old Sun”—to name just a few—are certainly dynamic, highly enjoyable sides in an Meek-meets-the-British Beat explosion way. How much Heinz, however, is too much Heinz?

This five-CD box certainly begs the question, even for Heinz/Meek fans. With the accent on demos and alternate takes found in Meek’s seemingly bottomless “tea chest tapes,” there’s certainly insight to be heard into how the tracks were generated and polished. Many of them, however, can’t help but expose the weaker (and sometimes weakest) elements of Heinz’s voice, and the sometimes undistinguished and/or corny material, before they were burnished by Meek and company. And while almost all of his 1963-66 releases are represented by the original versions or versions that are close to what was issued at the time, there are few songs that weren’t on those discs.

am a Heinz fan, at least of most of his singles and some of the tracks from his sole LP. But let’s be realistic—his demos, backing tracks, and alternate takes don’t carry anything like the charge, let alone historical importance, of the kind of similar marginalia that fills up box sets of the likes of the Beatles and the Beach Boys. It can be tough to wade through slightly different or meager outtakes by those groups too, but at least they nearly always illuminate the creative process of some of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. For all his attributes, Heinz wasn’t one, and for all his erratic studio genius, Meek wasn’t on that level either.

For most fans, a selective compilation, or even the uneven double CD Just Like Eddie: The Heinz Anthology (which has all his 1963-66 tracks), is far preferable to this far scrappier if far more extensive overview. Even serious Heinz fans—and it’s hard to imagine many who get this set won’t already have his standard output—might have been better served by a much more selective trawl through his extras. Some of the alternates are simply the official versions at the original speed, and while the revelations that Meek often sped up the recordings for release are interesting, the slower-running variations aren’t better. The annotation could have been clearer about who’s singing what—it’s usually Heinz, but Meek himself (who was a woeful singer) and songwriter Geoff Goddard are also heard on vocals at some points.

It’s not often that the less familiar material on this box will perk up your ears, whether because it’s different from what you’re used to or it’s pretty good. But there are some tracks that do strike such chords. A demo of “Heart Full of Sorrow” is slower and gutsier than the single, missing the chirpy female backup vocals; a “Big Fat Spider” demo, though missing the incredible creepy guitar licks of the 45, has a notably different bouncy feel and prominent organ; take 7 of “Movin’ In” isn’t much different from the single, but has stunning guitar work, also demonstrating that Heinz could summon satisfyingly raw vocals once in a while. 

There are a bit more than half a dozen songs that didn’t make it beyond the demo/outtake stage, including a rudimentary cover of “Fever.” Most of the others are poppy trifles, some of them bearing an “unknown” songwriting credit. But even these can’t be wholly written off, the box ending on its highest note with “Voices On the Wind.”

As haunting as all but the best Meek compositions and productions—and Joe had many of those—this spare yet effective performance has a decent Heinz vocal and is utterly devoid of the frivolity found in many of his (and Meek’s) other efforts. Although the ending refrain goes on for too long, this stately and somber number is easily up the standard of Heinz and Meek’s better tracks. It reminds us why many listeners still care about their work sixty or so years later, even if they have to be very dedicated to their legacy to spring for this box’s super-deep survey. (A slightly edited version of this review appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)

14. Various Artists, You Thrill Me to Pieces: Beat & Pop from the United Kingdom 1963-1966 (Teensville). This has an even more tenuous spot on a best-of list than the Heinz box above. And like that Heinz box, it’s only on here because it’s in a genre in which I specialize – perhaps the genre (mid-‘60s British rock) in which I specialize more than any other. None of these 34 tracks were close to hits, and in fact few of the groups are at all recognizable even to most British Invasion collectors, except the Merseybeats (represented by a demo, “Janie, I Love You,” that might be rare, but isn’t very good). Some of the musicians achieved greater subsequent fame in other contexts, most blatantly Mick Taylor, whose early combo the Juniors weighs in with a forgettable 1964 single. There are some other famous associations in the Echoes, who were Dusty Springfield’s backup group, and the Cockneys, whose Mick Grace filled in for an ill Ray Davies on a brief mid-‘60s European Kinks tour. But for the most part these musicians made little impact at any time.

In its favor, unlike many similar compilations, this doesn’t have lame covers of American rock and soul songs. It’s wholly comprised of compositions you don’t come across anywhere else, many written by the acts themselves, and some that might be by famous songwriters (Goffin-King, Clint Ballard Jr., Les Reed-Barry Mason, Roger Greenaway) but are utterly unfamiliar. It’s far more pop-rock (and sometimes more pop than rock) than R&B, and there’s nothing by the kind of obscure bluesy mid-‘60s UK acts that made good rare discs, like the Fairies, the Birds, and the Wheels. Merseybeat might be the biggest influence, but generally these acts and their writers/producers/labels were trying to make catchy hits.

To be cold, most of them aren’t that catchy, though enough of them are pleasant to be modestly enjoyable while they play, even if they don’t stick with you. It’s a testament to just how prolific the British scene was at the time. But it does make you wonder whether the labels—and there were only a few big ones in the UK, who dominated the business, and were responsible for every one of these 34 tracks—were that wise in giving so many acts a chance. Even at the time, it seems like most of these would have been given little chance at being hits by either average listeners or the record companies, or sometimes even by the performers.

Two of these tracks – not a high percentage, admittedly – do stand out in this crowd, and to my knowledge have never previously been issued on CD. One is the most famous, the Cockneys’ Mick Grace-penned “After Tomorrow,” to which they mimed in the opening sequence to the quickie British rock movie Swinging UK in 1964. Not that it’s brilliant, but it has the kind of quirky unpredictable chord changes, mix of major and minor melody, and exuberant harmonies found in the better Merseybeat (although they were from London). Another is “Kiss Me” by the Viscounts, most remembered (if at all) for Gordon Mills—later manager of Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, and Gilbert O’Sullivan—being a member. Although it’s kind of corny and diluted a bit by orchestration, it does have the sort of catchy Merseyish melodies and all-out chipper harmonies that had genuine hit potential. As another testament to the imperfection of the British record business, it was used as a B-side, and to my knowledge has never been reissued before this compilation.

15. The Doors, Live in Bakersfield, August 21, 1970 (Rhino). Should this be the only live Doors release in existence, it would rate much higher on this list, as their box of 1967 Matrix tapes does. It isn’t, of course; besides the double Absolutely Live album they put out back in 1970, there are many posthumous concert discs, with more than a dozen discs of material from 1970 alone. This double CD isn’t too much different from those, while the sound, from a two-track tape on a reel-to-reel recorder by road manager Vince Treanor, isn’t quite as good as the others, though it’s alright. It’s also the last of the Doors concerts that was recorded to make it to official release, with the exception of their Isle of Wight appearance from only about a week later.

The Doors were sticking to pretty similar set lists during this time, and my heart did not race at the prospect of yet another medley of “Alabama Song/Back Door Man/Five to One.” Still, this Record Store Day release (on both LP and CD) – not too hard to get on CD a few weeks later, despite its limited-edition status – has its merits. More often than you’d expect, the Doors sort of clowned around and didn’t always seem to take their songs too seriously in the later concerts they did with Morrison. There’s none of that here, the band playing things fairly straight, and with a lot of commitment, even if they might have done “When the Music’s Over,” “Roadhouse Blues,” “The End,” and the medley many, many times by this point.

Less traveled tunes like “Universal Mind” (combined with parts of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue”)” and “Ship of Fools” are also included, along with a medley of “Mystery Train/Away in India/Crossroads” that might strike some beginning Doors fans as out of the blue, but which they did at a number of other concerts from this time that have come out. Most exciting is a nine-minute “Love Me Two Times,” both because there aren’t many live versions of that around, and because it’s a lot more stretched-out than the familiar, much shorter hit single, even detouring into “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “St. James Infirmary.”

It’s unfortunate that Treanor’s tape ran out after ninety minutes, leaving some of the two-hour-plus show undocumented (and also missing the first few bars of “Roadhouse Blues”). Maybe that had some other less run-of-the-mill tunes. What’s here has some interesting improvisations, and although it’s sometimes reported that the band and particularly Morrison were losing some heart at this point, they’re giving it their all, with some especially intense screams and crescendos on “The End.”

16. Nina Simone, You’ve Got to Learn (Verve/Universal). More Nina Simone from the 1960s is always welcome, though this live July 2, 1966 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival is rather peripheral to her large discography. At about 33 minutes, it’s pretty short, and note that while there are seven tracks listed, one is a forty-second spoken “Intro to Blues for Mama.” The sound and performance are very good, but the song selection is a little on the sedate side, particularly with “I Loves You Porgy” and the ballad “Music for Lovers.” Better and more forceful, though not scintillating, are Charles Aznavour’s “You’ve Got to Learn,” the Simone-Abbey Lincoln co-write “Blues for Mama,” and the highly percussive quasi-spiritual “Be My Husband.” The highlight is a “Mississippi Goddam” that’s taken at a more relaxed funkier pace than the more familiar frenetic versions. It’s not as good as that faster version, but at least it’s notably different. Even within just six songs, this testifies to the unpredictably wide eclecticism of her repertoire, though it doesn’t match the highlights of her recorded work in the era.

17. Jimi Hendrix, Hollywood Bowl August 18, 1967 (Legacy). This was one of the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s first shows in the US, after their triumphant appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and concerts at the Fillmore, but also after their disastrous, aborted time as an opening act on a Monkees tour. They were still an opening act (for the Mamas and the Papas) at this Hollywood Bowl gig, a week before the US release of Are You Experienced. Recorded by a radio station technician, the sound is good, and the audience reaction somewhere between what you’d imagine the feedback to have been at their previous Californian shows and the Monkees concerts. In a way that helps, since there’s little audience noise to compete with the music. On the other hand, Hendrix sounds a little displeased by the indifferent crowd, judging from between-song remarks like “thanks anyway” after “Killing Floor” and a promise to do a song “from the bottom of our hearts” before “Like a Rolling Stone.” “We’d like to dedicate this last number to ourselves,” he says before “Wild Thing.” “Well, might as well, there’s nobody else here.” Noel Redding even handles a few of the announcements.

As for the performance, it’s pretty good, but at this point not a standout in the bulging Hendrix catalog of posthumously released live shows. It’s similar to their long-available Monterey set, but not as fine. Jimi forgets a few words during “The Wind Cries Mary,” and the interplay between him and the backup vocals on “Fire” is kind of sloppy, though there aren’t other notable flaws. The set does include a few songs that weren’t available on early Hendrix discs, notably “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Catfish Blues,” and a couple covers he had performed at Monterey, “Killing Floor” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

18. Jackie DeShannon, The Sherry Lee Show (Sundazed). Here’s another one for the “primarily of historical interest” pile, although the music is of solidly respectable quality, if hardly nearly as good or characteristic of what the artist would do at her best. It’s amazing enough that these were found and preserved, as this presents 31 songs DeShannon sang on an Aurora, Illinois radio show in 1956 and 1957. She was only in her early teens, and going by the name Sherry Lee. She didn’t sound too much like she’d sound when she started to make many, and often very good, recordings in the early 1960s as a pop-rock singer, often writing her material. Instead, she sounds like a young early honky-tonk performer, with country her main influence, though there’s some early rock and roll in the mix.

These tapes—in decent, though not studio, quality—are somewhat like the early (mid-1950s) country efforts of Wanda Jackson, or the earliest singles by Patsy Cline. DeShannon rocks a little harder than Jackson or Cline did on those discs, but nothing is nearly as hot as Jackson’s early rockabilly classics, and she’s not as deep in the country bag as Cline (whose “Walkin’ After Midnight” she covers here). Most of the cuts are fair honky-tonk tunes, and while DeShannon’s vocals are strong for a youngster, they lack the personality she’d stamp many of her cuts with in the 1960s, almost  to the point where she sounds like an entirely different artist here. About the only thing that does separate her somewhat from other early honky-tonkers are some ventures into Elvis Presley and Fats Domino songs, though they way they’re arranged here is more on the country side of things than rock’n’roll. It sure sounds, by the way, like she sings about catching someone in bed (rather than dead) in her version of “Baby Let’s Play House,” on which she doesn’t bother to change the subject from a girl.

Once in a while on my lists, I note a release from a couple years back that I somehow missed at the time. Here’s one for this list, though it came out in 2021:

Laura Nyro, Go Find the Moon: The Audition Tape (Omnivore). This is really more an EP than an album, the eight tracks lasting a mere eighteen-and-a-half minutes, including some incomplete fragments, studio talk, and a false start. This previously unreleased 1966 tape is – the phrase must be again used — primarily of historical interest, even for Nyro fans, due to its brevity and far barer arrangements than even her first album would boast. There aren’t really arrangements, actually; it’s just her on solo piano, going through a few songs that would appear on her early albums (“And When I Die,” “Lazy Susan,” and “Luckie”), and three that didn’t make any of her records (“Go Find the Moon,” “Enough of Your,” and “In and Out”). It’s not fair to judge a solo audition tape against a fully arranged studio album, but like other such demos, it illustrates how much the songs benefited from full backup, as they did on Nyro’s debut More Than a New Discovery.

Her talents as a songwriter, and also (though they generally haven’t gotten as much acclaim) singer and pianist, are evident, particularly on the song that’s by far the most famous, “And When I Die.” The others, including the previously unheard compositions, aren’t as striking, though they show her knack for blending soul, pop, Tin Pan Alley, and gospel was already developed, and her vocals fully mature. The producers (Artie Mogull and Milt Okun) deserve some credit for detecting her big potential, although the solo piano backing makes much of the material rather similar sounding. Asked if she can play some songs that she didn’t write, Nyro seems rather stuck for a musical response, going through a partial version of “Kansas City” and just a few lines of “I Only Want to Be With You.” Whether or not she knew other people’s songs by heart, maybe she was reluctant to do any but her own at this audition, although ironically, she’d do the best all-cover album by a noted singer-songwriter a few years later on 1971’s Gonna Take a Miracle.

Top Twenty-Five (Or So) Music History Books of 2023

There are still plenty of album reissues and music films that interest me, but there are a deluge of music history books in comparison. There are so many that there are at least a half dozen or so such 2023 books I’d like to check out eventually, but I ran out of time. I’m sure there are others from 2023 I’m not yet even aware of that I’ll read in the future. At least my #1 choice was clear-cut, though there were plenty of other fine or at least somewhat worthwhile volumes.

The supplementary list of 2022 books I didn’t read until 2023 is pretty long, running to a dozen titles. I know my way of making annual lists is different than some and perhaps many other writers, who are strict in only considering releases from one calendar year. My feeling is that I’d rather cover deserving books late than never, especially considering that some would have placed quite high on my main 2022 list had I read them in time, and that some are not going to get wide attention. My feeling is also that just because a certain amount of time has passed between a release and a review doesn’t mean it’s any less worth reading, as much as some publicists would like for reviews to only appear at the time (or even before) a book is released. 

Without trying to pat myself on the back too much, also keep in mind that unlike many listmakers, I don’t post mine until the final days of the year, instead of in early December, November, or even earlier. I know this happens because some publishers insist on having these lists compiled on earlier deadlines, and that there’s often a belief that they have to be made in time for holiday or even Black Friday shopping. But not everyone builds their shopping around these times, and not everyone celebrates these holidays. Of more importance, I’m always able to fit in a few more books, records, and films on my lists by writing about those I come across in November and December, instead of relegating them to perpetual absence from annual lists.

1. Nick Drake: The Life, by Richard Morton Jack (Hachette). Drake only gave a couple scanty interviews during his brief life, and information about the British folk-rock singer-songwriter has been on the fairly scarce and contradictory side. That hasn’t stopped there being a few previous books about him. This one far surpasses those in depth, and is a superb biography by any standard, even leaving aside the challenges of piecing together the life of a man about whom even some basic facts have been shrouded in mystery. The comprehensiveness of the research is astounding, and not only for the lengthy interviews conducted with his closest surviving associates, those being producer Joe Boyd, engineer John Wood, and sister Gabrielle Drake. Morton Jack tracked down dozens of others, from school friends who’d never previously spoken on the record to publicists, journalists, Island Records staff (including label head Chris Blackwell), and other musicians amateur and professional. He also draws from many other sources, some quite obscure, going to the heroic extent of tracking down a piece in which Drake was interviewed for the UK magazine Jackie, though for many years it was thought he’d only been interviewed in one article (in Sounds).

Beyond the sheer wealth of information, however, the author also pieced together both his musical career and complicated, troubled personal life with critical acuity and perceptive sensitivity. All of Drake’s three albums, as well as the considerable amount of material taped but not issued during his lifetime (including his mother’s recordings of her compositions), are expertly described and contextualized. Some long-standing mini-myths are punctured along the way, such as him dropping off a tape of Pink Moon in Island’s office without a word (he actually gave it to Blackwell personally); his second album, Bryter Layter, coming out in late 1970 (actually it was delayed a few months until early 1971, causing Drake considerable distress); Drake seldom performing (actually he did a few dozen concerts); and Nick never receiving critical praise while alive (actually there were quite a few good reviews, including some in the US and even one in Penthouse, though these didn’t translate to big sales at the time). 

Drake’s extremely withdrawn personality, and his decline into mental illness and 1974 suicide at the age of 26, presents a greater challenge to document. Fortunately Drake’s father Rodney kept a diary during this time, and Morton Jack had access to this and other letters. While the family’s struggles in the last three years of Nick’s life don’t always make for a pleasant tale, this difficult time is relayed with objective detail and empathy for a situation that his parents and friends handled as best they could, but were ultimately helpless to alleviate. Some rare, sometimes previously unpublished photos and documents help round out the story in a 500-page book that’s far more info-packed and authoritative than anyone would have thought possible.

In accordance with full disclosure, I note that I read a draft of the book before it was published, and gave the author detailed comments. I also interviewed him about the volume at a July 2023 bookstore event, and you can read the transcript here. This biography would certainly have earned the same place on this list, however, had I not been slightly involved or known the author.

2. All the Leaves Are Brown: How the Mamas & the Papas Came Together and Broke Apart, by Scott G. Shea (Backbeat). The Mamas and the Papas had been covered extensively in books before this overall history came out, including in the autobiographies of Michelle and John Phillips; a biography of Cass Elliot; and Go Where You Gonna Go: The Oral History of the Mamas & the Papas. All of those have value, but this is the first really comprehensive biography of the group as a whole, and the best of the lot. It not only ties together a lot of the strands addressed partially in other books, but also adds quite a bit of additional info not likely to be found elsewhere. The numerous pre-Mamas/Papas outfits in which the members served time are all documented, and the music of the actual band intelligently and objectively discussed. So are the Monterey Pop Festival that John Phillips and their producer Lou Adler co-organized, and the brief ascendance of Scott McKenzie with the Phillips-written “San Francisco.” In contrast to the approach of many biographies, their much duller years after their 1968 split—both solo and together (including their 1971 reunion album)—are only given as much space as needed, which is to say, not very much.

As for their volatile internal relationships and squabbles, as well as their drug use and temper tantrums, those are here too, as they can’t be wholly separated from the music they made and the songs (largely written by John Phillips) they composed. They don’t overshadow the music, with specific tracks discussed in depth, and detailed examination of how they were produced and arranged. What’s perhaps only striking in retrospect is how much their oft-ebullient and joyous music contrasted with very troubled personal lives, and how brief their creative peak was—about a year and a half—before Phillips’s songwriting declined and they passed out of fashion, not long after they were at folk-rock’s cutting edge. Phillips comes in for both much praise for his musical abilities (at least during that brief peak) and criticism for his personal behavior, which echoed beyond the grave when his daughter Mackenzie publicly stated she and her father had sexual relations.

3. I’m Into Something Good: My Life Managing 10cc, Herman’s Hermits & Many More!, by Harvey Lisberg with Charlie Thomas (Omnibus Press). Unlike Brian Epstein, Andrew Oldham, and Allen Klein, Harvey Lisberg is not a name known to most British ‘60s rock fans, though he was a peer of and interacted with them to various degrees during the British Invasion’s heyday. He’s not even as well known as some managers from that scene lower on the totem pole of public recognition, like Giorgio Gomelsky. But he was very successful, and if he didn’t have any clients other than Herman’s Hermits and (starting in the 1970s) 10cc who made big and long-range impacts, they did very well by him. And though 10cc, and certainly Herman’s Hermits, don’t have the critical clout of clients like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Yardbirds, their stories are pretty interesting. Lisberg played a big role in popularizing both bands, and has a lot of good anecdotes about them and some others in this fun and well written memoir. It’s not huge, but it doesn’t need to be, telling the tale with economic wit, and not getting too caught up in personal or non-musical detours that don’t carry nearly as much interest as the stars at the center.

If Herman’s Hermits’ catalog doesn’t command enormous critical respect (and Lisberg doesn’t blow up their importance any more than it deserves), he has good, interesting insights into how they quickly became international stars after he began working with them. Despite their squeaky clean image, not everything was smooth sailing. They had to replace their rhythm section when Mickie Most agreed to produce them; they started to resent Most for not being able to play on all their own records or have as much artistic self-determination as they wished; and Allen Klein was lurking in hopes of moving into their affairs, though he was fended off for the most part. Lisberg began working with 10cc’s Graham Gouldman long before 10cc started, and the reports of how Gouldman developed a reputation as a songwriter of hits for the Yardbirds and Hollies are also of high value, and not without their quirks – rather absurdly, it was hoped the Beatles might record Gouldman’s “For Your Love” before it found a home with the group supporting the Beatles on a 1964 Christmas bill, the Yardbirds.

Gouldman, Lisberg, and the other members of 10cc realized the importance of constructing and running their own Strawberry Studios before realizing they should form a group of their own to work there. This wasn’t just a notable signpost in their growth; by the standards of the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was very progressive to have an artist-run studio in Manchester, at a time when the British recording scene was heavily dominated by London. Lisberg had some less durable, and sometime passing, associations with artists like Julie Driscoll, Andrew Webber and Tim Rice, and Barclay James Harvest, and these are relayed without more space than they merit, though they’re also well worth reading.

4. Happy Trails: Andrew Lauder’s Charmed Life and High Times in the Record Business, by Andrew Lauder and Mick Houghton (White Rabbit). Like Harvey Lisberg’s, Andrew Lauder’s name might not be too well known to the average rock fan, even less so in the US than the UK. But as an A&R man (and sometimes working in other capacities) in the British music business since the late 1960s, he worked with an astonishing variety of interesting artists. None of the UK or German artists he was instrumental in helping to get record deals and/or building their careers became big in US, with the exception of Elvis Costello, with whom he didn’t work with as closely as most of the others with whom he was involved. You might also count Jeff Lynne, who was part of the Idle Race, one of the first acts championed by Lauder at his long stint at the UK branch of Liberty Records, though Lynne moved on to the Move and Electric Light Orchestra.

Yet the list is quite impressive and eclectic, including Hawkwind, the Bonzo Dog Band, Dr. Feelgood, Buzzcocks, the Groundhogs, Nick Lowe, Man, and then up through the late 1980s and early 1990s with the Stone Roses. He was also key to bringing German 1970s rock to international attention (even if the acts never rose to more than a cult level in the US) with Can, Neu!, and Amon Düül II. He worked on the UK end of careers of American performers like the Flamin’ Groovies, Buddy Guy, Canned Heat, and John Lee Hooker. All of these artists are discussed with inside (though seldom scandalous) and entertaining info, Lauder also bringing zeal to his memories of cult figures who never even made the dent that the likes of Neu! did, such as post-punkers the Pop Group and early-‘70s progressive rockers High Tide. The stunt of flying a planeload of journalists and hangers-on to Brinsley Schwarz’s legendary hype-ridden appearance at the Fillmore East is covered in detail, though the rest of their time as a band is respectfully noted too. 

The ups and downs (though in Lauder’s case, it was mostly ups) of working within the volatile music business are likewise documented with detail. Andrew moved on from Liberty to Radar, (briefly) Island, Demon/Edsel, and Silvertone. While his recollections of deciding what to reissue and how well the releases sold on Edsel might be regarded as too specialized by some, for record nerds the nitty gritty of how compilations by the likes of the Action and reissues of cult acts like the 13th Floor Elevators were arranged are fascinating. Some of the cold machinations and personal conflicts at various labels are also interesting, and though Lauder seemed to avoid the worst of these, certainly his frustrations at Island Records put that label and its chief Chris Blackwell in a poorer light than is usually reported. The worst foibles of the bands he interacted closely with are given far less sensationalism than many memoirs would, though they do come into play at times, Lauder remembering how a member of the Flamin’ Groovies would blast the Rolling Stones’ “Tumbling Dice” repeatedly in the wee hours while staying with Andrew in London.

Reading this, you can’t help but wonder at how much the business has changed since Lauder literally wandered into a publishing company in London as a teenager and was offered a job on the spot, starting his climb up the ladder. His post-Stone Roses activities are kind of rushed through in a few pages, but that’s fine, as his interest in being a player in the record world was diminishing, though his passion for music never has. It encompassed a remarkably wide field, from progressive rock to blues and Krautrock to post-punk and catalog reissues. Lauder treats each genre with equal devotion, without prioritizing the bigger commercial successes as more significant.

5. The Island Book of Records 1959-68, edited by Neil Storey (Manchester University Press). From a purely visual point of view, and to a large degree just for the information it contains, this nearly 400-page coffee table book is stunning. Covering the first decade of Island Records’ existence, it does indeed focus on the records the label issued, though there’s lot of history of the company. Starting with its considerable attributes, there are reproductions of most of the covers of the LPs it issued during this era, many quite rare, often adding back covers, inner labels, and non-UK editions. There are also lots of photos of the artists, reproductions of ads from the period, Island-related documents like press releases and tape boxes, and other memorabilia. 

There are also many extensive quotes, drawn both from interviews done for this project and plenty of other sources, some dating back to when the records were made. Oriented toward interesting anecdotes, these add up to an oral history that’s a book in itself. They feature memories from those involved in founding and running the company, especially its main executive, Chris Blackwell; numerous artists who were on the label; and ancillary figures with something interesting to pitch in, including photographers of the LP covers, producers, and recording engineers. While most of the first half or so of the book focuses on the ska and reggae upon which Island was initially built, there’s much coverage of the rock it moved into in the mid-1960s. Traffic in particular get a lot of space, including plenty of pages on their legendary cottage in the British countryside.

While early Island releases by some other celebrated artists like Fairport Convention, Jethro Tull, and John Martyn are noted in detail, refreshingly, quite a few of the less renowned Island acts receive a good share of attention too. These include Spooky Tooth (dating back to their initial incarnation as Art), Nirvana, Wynder K. Frogg, and jazz musician Harold MacNair. Although the first artists with whom Blackwell had success, Millie Small and the Spencer Davis Group, actually had their big hits licensed to Fontana Records, as Island was able to repackage some of their material, they’re also detailed at length. There are also entries, though understandably shorter ones, for Island’s flops and odd records where no one can quite remember why they were green-lighted. There’s even a section on their “adult” line and rugby discs, which weren’t notable aesthetic accomplishments, but played a big part in keeping the label afloat.

For all its assets, the text could have been better assembled. When some of the figures are first quoted, there aren’t parenthetical notes identifying their role in Island, although brief bios are given in an appendix. This and some of the sequencing can sometimes make it harder to follow than it could have been with that additional context. Some of the quotes are on the mundane, technical, or list-heavy side and could have been more tightly edited. It could be contended that more attention could have been paid to Island’s singles, although there’s a lengthy discography of those in an appendix, and there were so many that giving all of them detailed entries would have expanded the book to an unpublishable size. Still, there were some interesting acts who only had singles or EPs on Island, including the Smoke, the Anglos, and Chris Farlowe. And there are a good number of typos throughout the book – hardly a rarity in music book publishing, unfortunately, but there are more here than in most such productions. It’s to be hoped the next volume, which will only cover the years 1969 and 1970, won’t have as many.

Here’s a mistake that might never be pointed out anywhere else, for what it’s worth. On page 171, in the multi-page entry for The Best of Millie Small, there’s a picture of the Rolling Stones with a young woman on the cover of a March 1964 issue of Pop Weekly. There’s no caption, so one assumes this was placed here because it was thought the woman with the Stones is Millie Small. It isn’t. It’s Cleo Sylvestre, whom the Stones backed on a 1964 single produced by their manager at the time, Andrew Oldham.

6. But Will You Love Me Tomorrow? An Oral History of the ‘60s Girl Groups, by Laura Flam and Emily Sieu Liebowitz (Hachette). The authors interviewed more than a hundred singers, songwriters, producers, and associates for this book, as well as using a good number of quotes from other sources when figures were dead or unavailable. While this doesn’t uncover a great deal of basic info that wasn’t already known, there are many stories about the songs, the records, and the oft-fraught business side and internal relations in the girl group scene. The emphasis is very much on the top acts, and most of this is devoted to those – the Shirelles, the Ronettes, the Crystals, the Shangri-Las, the Chantels, the Dixie Cups, the Chiffons, the Supremes, Martha & the Vandellas, and the Marvelettes, with a little on the Exciters, the Cookies, the Angels, and others. That’s still enough to fill more than 400 pages, and get into some fairly little known stories like the Cookies singing backup vocals on the Chiffons’ “One Fine Day,” and Little Eva’s “The Locomotion” originally being intended for Dee Dee Sharp.

The quotes are sometimes gossipy in nature, and occasionally go into observations about the music business of the era and early days of rock’n’roll that aren’t tightly related to the girl group subject. Note also that this doesn’t cover the numerous fine solo artists who sang in the girl group style, like Mary Wells and Lesley Gore, or some of the actual groups who made good records, like the biggest one-shot of the whole genre, the Jaynetts’ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses.” There’s a little too much space at the end on reunions and post-‘70s oldies touring, and for the likely small minority that cares, it would be good to have the sources of the quotes that weren’t from first-hand interviews noted. These are minor flaws in an overall useful addition to girl group literature, and one that details some of the darkest sides of the story. The failure of many of the artists to get their just royalties isn’t so unknown, but there were also rapes of a couple girl group stars; frequent falling-outs that ended close friendships in many of the groups; and, for Estelle Bennett of the Ronettes, struggles with mental illness and homelessness.

7. Time Has Come Today: Rock and Roll Diaries 1967-2007, by Harold Bronson (Trouser Press Books). Rhino Records co-founder Harold Bronson has written a couple previous books based around his former business and associated activities, The Rhino Records Story and the more specialized, anecdote-driven My British Invasion. There’s some inevitable overlap between topics covered in those and this volume, which puts many of his experiences in a chronologically ordered diary format. It’s still pretty entertaining whether you’ve read the others or not, tracing his journey from high school music fan to preeminent label reissue executive, getting to meet many of the interesting characters in all levels of the music (and sometimes general entertainment) business along the way. These go all the way from the Beatles down to a down-and-out Sky Saxon, and even some of the stories relating to stars are unfamiliar, like Bronson getting the scoop from Andrew Oldham as to why the Rolling Stones’ Big Hits album had a different version of “Time Is On My Side” than the hit single. Oldham told Bronson he didn’t remember being asked before, though Harold brought it up decades after the tracks were recorded.

Peter Noone, the Monkees, the Standells, Blondie, the Pretty Things, Arthur Lee and Love, the Yardbirds, the Music Machine, and obscure names known only to collectors like the Autographs – Bronson has stories about all of them and dozens of others, often detailing conversations (and brush-offs) that caught them more off-guard then they usually were. He got to interview some of them, as well as some acts he and not too many others were terribly interested in—which generate some amusing stories that are more interesting than their then-current records—as a rock journalist in the 1970s before concentrating on Rhino. There might be a little more than necessary about his semi-pro, humor-oriented bands in the early years, but the focus is on other personalities. Which are sometimes more disagreeable than some fans want to hear, as when Paul Rothchild dismisses his attempt to interview him about working with Love because the producer thought a reissue compilation wouldn’t sell, or Jeff Beck declining to authorize a Yardbirds BBC compilation.

An aspect to these reflections that might be more subtle, but is also striking, is Bronson often dealt with figures who were on the downside of their career, or way past the point where they were even involved in making records. As a young writer in the ‘70s, he often spoke with people who had been stars, but were just a few years past their peak work, though they weren’t so past their primes that they weren’t still figuring on getting back to the highest level. Some who were long past their hits—sometimes just one or two hit singles—still were under the impression they were just another hit record away from getting right back in the game. Some had kept physically fit; others had gone to waste. Bronson treats them respectfully without making undue fun of their delusions or conditions, but they’re still sobering reminders of how the stretches in which musicians are famous and at their most artistically productive are often short.

8. Leon Russell: The Master of Space and Time’s Journey Through Rock & Roll History, by Bill Janovitz (Hachette). I admit I’m not especially a fan of Russell’s records, even from his brief period as a big star in the early 1970s. But Russell’s life is of interest to almost anyone with a serious passion for rock history, owing to his collaborations with many artists and his substantial achievements as a ‘60s Hollywood session man and arranger. This 500 plus-pager has loads of research and detail on all phases of his colorful, sometimes volatile career and life, though the bulk of it is on his most significant years as a recording artist, from around the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. Maybe some of the minuter detail could have been pared down about his various homes and family relationships. Sections on his post-‘70s/pre-final years, when he largely toiled in obscurity in small venues and many meager records, can be tougher to navigate, though the author acknowledges the shortcomings of much of Russell’s work during this rough stretch. Russell’s descent from stardom was bumpier than most, and his resurgence in the 21st century (largely engineered by Elton John) among the more unexpected music comebacks, and that unnerving path is meticulously documented here.

The book doesn’t unduly dwell on the fallow period, however, though it doesn’t pull punches as to his stormy artistic and personal interactions There’s plenty about his slow rise from session player and arranger (most successfully on hits by Gary Lewis & the Playboys) to making his own records, combining multiple roots styles and more. There’s a lot about his most celebrated guest appearances and concerts, particularly on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and the Concert for Bangladesh, and his work with Delaney & Bonnie. There’s also quite a bit about Les Blank’s early-‘70s documentary film on Russell, unreleased for many years due to Leon’s objections, though it became available shortly before Russell’s death.

9. David Bowie Rainbow Man: 1967-1980, by Jérôme Soligny (Monoray). While there’s no shortage of Bowie biographies and reference books, this stands out for its sheer length (almost 700 pages) and a different approach than most other major Bowie volumes. Soligny focuses on extended quotes from interviews, most though not all done by the author, with a great many people who worked with Bowie. This includes major figures like producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott, the Spiders from Mars, and side musicians like Carlos Alomar. There are, perhaps even more valuably, memories from many who haven’t been extensively interviewed, including significant figures like Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s late-‘60s girlfriend who was part of a trio with him and John Hutchinson (who’s also interviewed). And there are quite a few interviews with much more obscure figures with more peripheral but interesting relationships, usually working rather than personal ones, with Bowie. These include sleeve designers, photographers, recording engineers and technicians, and musicians who just played with him a bit on record and/or on stage. 

It’s true some key colleagues’ voices are missing, like Brian Eno, Angie Bowie, and manager Tony Defries (see the comment from the book’s author on this post for a note on those). He spoke with a great many others, however, usually in pretty recent times (the 2010s). Some of the stories clear up or actually contradict stories and incidents long reported as fact. Some of them might disappoint those who enjoy some of the more mythical ones. Singer Antonia Maass contended, for instance, that the lyrics to “Heroes,” long reported to be based on a meeting by the Berlin Wall between her and Visconti, were written before they started their affair. The oral histories are linked by commentary from the author about each of the albums Bowie recorded between 1967 and 1980, and together with extensive footnotes, they provide the basis for separate chapters organized around each album. His pre-1967 work is also discussed, as are some singles and side projects (particularly his work with Iggy Pop) not contained on the albums.

Inevitably there’s some overlap between the extensive info here and what you can find in other Bowie tomes—which, given the length of this book, are likely to have been read by many who read this volume. The reason this doesn’t rank higher, however, is that Soligny’s prose can be overly grandiose, and the oral histories often extol Bowie’s virtues to an extreme degree, though there’s room for some (not many) controversial or negative views. The footnotes are also too numerous and often too extraneously detailed, though as they’re separated into sections of their own at the end of each chapter, they don’t interrupt the text as much as they could have.

10. Arhoolie Records: Down Home Music: The Stories and Photographs of Chris Strachwitz, by Joel Selvin with Chris Strachwitz (Chronicle). Dying shortly before this book came out, Chris Strachwitz was a major figure in the documentation of American (and occasionally non-American) roots music as the head of Arhoolie Records. He recorded many blues, zydeco, Tex-Mex, folk, and old-time country discs, often going to where the musicians worked (usually in the South) and sometimes making what were essentially field recordings in humble low-budget settings. He took many pictures along the way, and this 240-page coffee table book has lots of them, spanning the 1950s to the 1990s. There are plenty of major figures, too many to list in a sentence or two, though some of them include Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Rose Maddox, John Fahey, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Barbara Dane, Fats Domino, B.B. King, Lydia Mendoza, and Clifton Chenier. Some well known stars who were playing with or observing roots musicians are here too, like Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt, John Fogerty, and Ry Cooder. However, there are just as many images of performers who are barely known or even unknown, and while almost half a century is represented, the bulk of the pictures date from Arhoolie’s prime in the 1960s and early 1970s. While photo-centric books don’t figure as strongly as standard text-oriented ones on my lists, this is the best music photo book of the year.

Although Strachwitz didn’t boast much of his skills with a camera, most of the pictures are fine and sometimes striking from sheer visual points of view, aside from preserving important musical history. Maybe professionals with the techniques sometimes judged to be superior to semi-pros like Strachwitz would have taken photos considered of greater aesthetic quality. But it’s doubtful they would have gained the intimate trust that allowed him to take these pictures—in settings in which outsiders were sometimes viewed with suspicion—in the first place. There are so many exceptional photos that these again can’t be thoroughly listed in a mere review, but the one of Sonny Boy Williamson playing in an alley behind an Arkansas radio station in 1965 is particularly iconic. The trio he’s heading, with promotional handlettering for their radio show on the drum, almost seem to make a definitive pose for the birth of rock and roll, even if this was taken in 1965, long after rock’s actual birth. Not all of the most memorable images are of famous artists or from the 1960s, a 1986 shot of a blind harp musician and his wife working as street musicians in Guadalajara serving as another example.

The introductory 40-page essay by Joel Selvin gives a thorough history of Strachwitz’s work with Arhoolie Records, also noting his other accomplishments as the owner of the Bay Area record store Down Home Music and compiler of reissues of rare roots music. Strachwitz himself gives succinct yet detailed captions for all of the photos, relaying interesting memories of how the pictures were taken and what interested him in the performers. Often he had to put himself in precarious and sometimes even threatening situations to hear, photograph, record, and get to know the musicians, and such stories dot his memories. In his travels, particularly in the earlier years, he also got to experience a side of the United States—in ethnic communities with little representation in mainstream media, and often quite poor ones—that was experienced by few outside of those areas, as is vividly conveyed in some of the images. A “Rock and Roll Cafe,” as it was billed, in Texas in 1969 was a tin shack that looks on the verge of falling over with a good kick or two. Writes Strachwitz: “I didn’t stay for lunch, even though the door was open.”

11. I’m Told I Had a Good Time: The Micky Dolenz Archives, Vol. 1 (Beatland). Micky Dolenz took and kept a lot of pictures while, and shortly before and after, he was in the Monkees, as well as accumulating memorabilia along the way. This nearly 500-page coffee table-sized volume reproduces a lot of the material, as well as presenting memories from Micky about the images in captions ranging from extensive to brief. While naturally the core audience for this is Monkee fandom, these aren’t just pictures of Micky and the group, as there are also figures with whom he toured and interacted. Of special interest are a few of Jimi Hendrix during the short time in summer 1967 when he was a support act on a Monkees tour, though there are also very good ones of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino from the Monkees TV special on which they appeared. Going back to his childhood and little known pre-Monkees mid-‘60s bands, the coverage extends to 1977 and his work as part of a duo with Davy Jones during that time, though the post-Monkees section isn’t large and the mid-‘60s take up the bulk of the book. Along the way are other non-Monkees pictures of note, including some of stars like Harry Nilsson, Cass Elliot, Eric Clapton, and Stephen Stills.

The text, based around interviews with Dolenz by editor Andrew Sandoval, is straightforward and witty, though not too lengthy on some of the Monkees-era photos, with quite a few of the images of the group on tour simply presented as they are. Encompassing early report cards to a receipt from the Beatles’ Apple fashion boutique and much else, one of the more interesting pieces of memorabilia is a memo from Screen Gems-Columbia Music recommending Dolenz’s composition “Randy Scouse Git”’s title be changed (as it was in the UK to avoid controversy, with the newly titled “Alternate Title” reaching #2). The post-1970 section is more interesting than some might anticipate, particularly Micky’s story of being cut from a program for the inaugural ceremonies of Richard Nixon’s second (and uncompleted) term. Dolenz speculates a Watergate joke he might have been overheard making could have responsible.

Among the more memorable observations in the captions is Dolenz’s remark about a picture of Hendrix aboard a Florida boat in July 1967: “It kills me. Jimi, you’re wearing a fur coat! It’s 90 degrees!” And there’s a frank reflection on his post-Monkees singles for MGM: “Looking back, I should have just continued doing Micky-the-Monkee-flavored stuff.” Some more extensive captions for some of the Monkees-era pictures would have been welcome, but for a massive Monkees history, there’s Andrew Sandoval’s The Monkees—The Day-By-Day Story, which like this book has exceptional production values.

12. Happy Forever, by Mark Volman with John Cody (Jawbone Press). Along with Howard Kaylan, fellow singer Volman was the mainstay of the Turtles and Flo & Eddie. They were also part of Frank Zappa’s group in the early 1970s and sang backup for a bunch of records by other artists (notably T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong”), as well as doing some radio and other entertainment ventures. This has an unusual structure for an autobiography, as it’s more an oral history of Volman’s projects dominated by quotes from many professional and personal associates. Volman himself adds only occasional text, and it’s almost like a history of Volman as seen through those who knew and worked with him. It doesn’t suffer for that, but most of the perspective is on the outside, and it serves as much as a history of the Turtles and Flo & Eddie as it does a Volman memoir.

Plenty of people were interviewed for the book, most notably almost all of the other Turtles (including Kaylan, naturally); other members of the Mothers of Invention when Volman and Kaylan were part of the band; ex-wives and relatives; and lots of other musicians who interacted with Volman, sometimes extensively and sometimes slightly, from Alice Cooper and Ray Manzarek to Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. Of most interest are the detailed comments from fellow Turtles, including some who aren’t heard from much, like Jim Pons (who was also in the Mothers), Jim Tucker, Johnny Barbata, John Seiter, and Al Nichol. There are some conflicting and at times contentious accounts that, as in most acts with a happy-go-lucky image, reveal tension and infighting behind the scenes, as well as considerable business problems. There are also stories of how their hits were selected and constructed, and how Volman and Kaylan made the transition to a more underground comic duo after the Turtles broke up at the beginning of the 1970s.

Some of the comments, particularly from fellow legacy acts who didn’t actually intersect much with the Turtles’ paths, are more about the general 1960s/1970s rock scene (and particularly the unjust contracts and financial rewards) than Mark Volman. In keeping with the cliché reviewers often have to note, it gets much less interesting after the Turtles, Zappa, and Flo & Eddie. Sections about Volman’s entry into teaching for much of his career and his late-life embrace of Christian religious faith could have been shortened, indeed drastically reduced. So could repetitious testaments to his good nature and fine character, though there’s occasional criticism of his behavior. 

13. Too Late to Stop Now: More Rock’n’Roll War Stories, by Allan Jones (Bloomsbury). For more than twenty years from the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, Jones was a writer for and then editor of Melody Maker. Then he went on to a long stint at Uncut, where he had a regular column recalling his interactions, often though not always wild, with many musicians. These provided the basis for both a previous book, Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, and this similarly structured follow-up. Several dozen chapters, usually very short ones, recap his interviews (and sometimes travels) with a host of stars and more cultish critical favorites, from Elton John and Peter Gabriel to Chrissie Hynde, Elvis Costello, and the Blasters. These usually emphasize the bawdy times and behavior at least as much as discussing the artists’ music, quite often ending up (or even beginning with) an onslaught of drinks quaffed by both Jones and his subjects. Such is the flow of alcohol that you wonder whether holding your liquor, or at least doing “when in Rome” amounts of booze (and sometimes coke), was considered one of the prime qualifications for and perks of the job.

Like Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down, this is largely pretty entertaining, if a little wearing when these mini-portraits give so much weight to substance intake and eccentric, at times aggravating behavior, often relayed with matter-of-fact amusement. Particularly in the later pieces, Jones sometimes goes in greater depth with more focus on the music than he did in his younger days. These are the most valuable chapters, all drawing from extensive first-hand interviews. The best are the ones spotlighting Hynde, John Cale, the Clash, and Wilko Johnson, where some historical perspective takes the place of more youthful searches for kicks. Although pretty long at 360 pages, it goes by faster than you’d think, as the wealth of chapters ensures a fair amount of white space at the beginnings and ends.

14. CSN&Y: Love The One You’re With, by Henry Diltz (Genesis Publications). At a price of about $375, this limited edition (1650 copies) book is of course not for the standard consumer, or even for the budget of the standard CSNY fan. Like other Genesis publications, however, it has considerable value for those who can afford it, or at least who are able to read if not own a copy, as I was. It has 835 photos by Henry Diltz—one of the most renowned rock photographers, especially for his pictures from the late 1960s and 1970s—and almost 60,000 words of text from Diltz, CSNY, and more than a dozen others who knew and observed the group. While the text doesn’t have much basic information that’s not in the numerous other books about the group and their members (and some of it’s taken from previously published sources), it’s entertaining and has some stories and observations that aren’t common fare, like John Sebastian suggesting either Graham Nash or Phil Everly when they were looking for a high harmony singer, and Stephen Stills having a different account than David Crosby and Nash as to how the three got together (the usual story being Cass Elliott was responsible). 

While some of these pictures will be familiar to CSNY followers, plenty probably won’t, including some outtakes from the famous session for the first CSN (no Y at that point) album. And while the story of how the cover shot was taken and the house had been demolished by the time they went to try a reshoot is fairly well known to devotees, it’s interesting to hear the detailed accounts behind the photo session. Less interesting are the pictures and text about their several reunion tours, although those make up a low percentage of this volume. It’s not a thorough history of the band, as it’s built around the times Diltz photographed them; nor does it go into much depth as to their numerous side and solo projects, although some are covered for each of the four. Note that while numerous pages are reproduced from Diltz’s notebooks of the time, these are less valuable than you might hope. His observations are rather mundane, and more troublingly, his handwriting is simply hard to read.

15. 1964: Eyes of the Storm, by Paul McCartney (Liveright). From late 1963 through late 1964 (though mostly from late 1963 through early 1964), Paul McCartney took a lot of photos of the other Beatles, himself, associates, and the press, fans, and public that were chasing and sometimes hounding them around almost nonstop. This book has 275 of them, largely spanning their rise to Beatlemania in the UK in late 1963; their trip to Paris in early 1964; and their subsequent initial trip to the US in February 1964, though there are a few from late in that year. McCartney wasn’t a professional photographer—he never has made that part of his profession, actually—and the pictures are primarily of documentary value, though he was paying some attention to learning about composition and lighting from some of the photographers that regularly worked with the group.

Of course, this was a very historic time at which Paul was at the center, so even average pictures carry a good deal of significance. There are images of the Beatles backstage, onstage, in hotels, and on vacation in Miami, and of key figures close to them like Cynthia Lennon, Jane Asher, Brian Epstein, and road managers Neil Aspinall and Mal Evans. There are some unexpected musicians of note like French star Johnny Hallyday and drummer Mickey Jones. And there are plenty of pictures of fans, photographers, reporters, police officers, and anonymous observers to the giddy madness. There are also pictures taken by professional photographers from the time, particularly the ones in which Paul and/or the whole group can be seen. Some of the ones McCartney took are above average as standalone images, like one of George Harrison wearing two goofy hats on top of each other, and onstage shots of Billy J. Kramer and Sylvie Vartan.

With the abundance of books, many of them photo-oriented, covering the Beatles, some might consider this an inessential extravagance. But while it’s not part of the core Beatles library, it’s better than many such coffee table rock photo volumes. There’s not much text, but McCartney did write a thoughtful lengthy opening introduction that’s not just the too-common “I’m so honored to be able to present this book” paragraph or two many celebrities offer. He also has shorter, but still substantial, introductions to each of the five sections. There’s also a lengthy essay by Jill Lepore about the cultural context of the Beatles during this period and a similarly lengthy, serious appraisal of the artistic qualities of the pictures by Rosie Broadley, Senior Curator of the 20th Century Collections at London’s National Portrait Gallery, which had an exhibition of many of these photos around the time this book was published. McCartney’s captions for the photos are very brief, and it would have been good to have more in-depth comments and recollections, but on the whole this is more worthwhile than many such projects.

16. The Searchers: Crazy Dreams! Every Song from Every Session, 1963-2023 ( A thorough critical Searchers discography might have a small niche audience, but I’m glad Peter Checksfield’s doing this and other such specialized books. This has entries for all of the songs they released, along with descriptive paragraphs that can be generous in their judgments. But they’re useful, especially since not too many people are familiar with this British Invasion band’s work aside from their handful of hit singles. Besides covering their singles and LPs, there are entries for work that might not even be known by serious fans, like EP-only tracks, non-LP B-sides, and foreign language versions. There are even thorough details about the fairly numerous recordings Tony Jackson did after leaving in the mid-1960s (even including an unreleased BBC session) and the few drummer/singer Chris Curtis recorded after leaving. The 1963 live Hamburg performances and their 1963 album-length demo of sorts taped at Liverpool’s Iron Door club are included, and their numerous BBC and TV performances listed. 

Some info here and there is so obscure it might even be unknown to owners of multi-disc Searchers compilations, like the original performers of lesser known songs they covered like “Alright” (the Grandisons) and “Each Time” (the Bon Bons). It’s also spotted that there are two versions of “I’ll Be Doggone,” the more common one with a Frank Allen lead vocal, the less heard one with Curtis on lead from on a US LP. And did you know that the French version of “It’s All Been a Dream” has Mike Pender on lead vocals, though Tony Jackson sang the English-language original? It’s true the music, and hence unavoidably the text, gets less interesting after 1966, and the post-Sire comeback entries really play out the string. Reproductions of many record covers, many of them rare and foreign editions, dot the layout.

17. The Byrds: Every Album, Every Song, by Andy McArthur (Sonicbond). Although this won’t have much information serious Byrds fans don’t know, especially if you have Johnny Rogan’s mammoth books about the group, it’s a good and succinct overview of their recordings. Every single track on their albums is detailed and critically evaluated, including non-LP B-sides, bonus tracks on their reissues, the pre-first-album recordings that have been on the various packages with Preflyte in the title, and other bits that only show up on compilations. Some interesting trivia is sprinkled throughout, and the author doesn’t hesitate to criticize subpar songs or give slack to their post-1968 work, which was considerably inferior to their consistently innovative prior efforts.

18. Jerry Lee Lewis: Breathless! Every Song from Every Session, 1952-2022, by Peter Checksfield( Relentless researcher Checksfield continues his series of self-published reference books with a hefty volume detailing every song Lewis recorded. Presented in alphabetical order by song title, 707 separate titles are described in paragraph-long entries varying from a couple sentences to quite a few sentences. There are more than 707 entries, as Lewis recorded multiple versions of quite a few songs, and each separate version, including remakes, live performances, and the odd LP- or 45-only variation are also discussed. There are even tracks from bootlegs, of which there are more than many fans are aware of, and download-only items. You know it’s comprehensive when the entry for the 1966 recordings of the non-hit single “Memphis Beat” notes the substantial differences between the LP and 45 versions, and on the next page, it’s noted that a rare Japanese quadrophonic release has a slightly longer edit of a 1973 remake of the same tune.

You have to be a rabid fan to tackle such a mammoth catalog, and some of the assessments might strike some as too generous. That’s especially so when dealing with the many recordings Lewis made after the early 1970s, a time when he’s generally considered to have passed the point at which his releases were of much commercial significance or peak artistry. But Checksfield doesn’t hold back from criticizing, sometimes severely, efforts he deems subpar or flawed – not just from Lewis’s final half century, but going back to the Sun Records days. The writing’s clear and informative, and though the design is basic, it’s broken up by numerous black-and-white reproductions of record covers, inner disc labels, and screen shots of filmed performances.

19. Blood in the Tracks, by Paul Metsa and Rick Shefchik (University of Minnesota Press). It’s pretty well known – well, at least to a lot of serious Bob Dylan fans — that half of Blood on the Tracks was recorded in New York, and half in Minneapolis. Dylan actually recorded all the songs in New York, but decided to re-record some of them in Minnesota in the final week of 1974. The stories of the musicians who played on the records aren’t so well known, and this book discusses their backgrounds and post-Blood activities in depth, though the actual two Minneapolis sessions (December 27 and December 30, 1974) for the album are the heart of the narrative. 

Although one of the session men, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, did go on to became a pretty well known folk musician, the others didn’t. Their tales are of more interest than expected, especially as they’re sometimes dismissed as pretty anonymous figures that were assembled on the spur of the moment. It’s true Dylan’s brother, David Zimmerman, got the backup together very quickly, but several had done or been on records, with connections ranging from Leo Kottke and Olivia Newton-John to a fake Zombies. Although he (unlike the musicians and some others with ties to the sessions) wasn’t interviewed for the book, David Zimmerman had been involved in record production and music management, and it’s interesting to hear details of some of those, as not much has been written about him even in some huge Bob Dylan biographies. The sessions themselves are described in engaging almost play-by-play fashion. The impression’s also given that while Dylan was frustratingly uncommunicative to the musicians he used in New York, he was relatively friendly and open to suggestions in the studio where the Minneapolis sessions took place, Sound 80.

Some critics, fans, and musicians have contended that the more sparsely arranged New York sessions (whether in the takes chosen for release and the outtakes) were better and more in line with the emotions of the songs. Space is made here for those views, but also for ones by the musicians that the Minnesota performances were better, though one of the less aesthetic arguments is that they were more suited to being played on the radio. Some of the later section given to post-Blood on the Tracks work by the session guys, and their reunions in sorts of tributes to the album and Dylan, isn’t too captivating and could have been cut down. Even there, though, you get a good story about Peter Noone’s brief new wave group the Tremblers (in which one played), revealing Noone’s guitar skills were so lacking that his instrument was surreptitiously disconnected onstage, though “he never caught on.”

There’s just one mistake here that cries to be called out. There’s a reference to that Tremblers/Dylan sideman, Gregg Inhofer, being snubbed by Dylan when Bob was checking out the Stray Cats as a possible opening act at a Minneapolis club a few months after Blood on the Tracks was released. That would have been in 1975, but the Stray Cats didn’t form until 1979.

20. Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin): A Memoir, by Sly Stone with Ben Greenman (AUWA). Since Sly Stone hasn’t been heard from much in decades, and hasn’t appeared to be in the best shape when he has, it’s a surprise that he produced a memoir at all around the time of his eightieth birthday. Stone’s very colorful music and life have never been covered by a satisfactory biography, and while this account has its value, it leaves the impression there’s much more that could have been said. It’s not as lively as might be expected, telling the basic story of his amazing rise from producer/DJ/sporadic recording artist to superstar in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That’s about the first half of the book; the second half details his rather spectacular fall into both professional and personal abysses, and like many such memoirs loses considerable momentum as his life hits the doldrums.

The book is best, and Sly seems most engaged, when talking about his music. There are interesting details of songs, recordings, and albums, though it’s a bit like reading box set liner notes with a lot of participation from the artist. Be cautioned, too, that he spends almost as much time on his post-prime (say post-1973) records as his glory years, though almost anyone would feel those later discs  are considerably inferior and less deserving of insights. There’s more that could be said about his time as a producer of acts like the Beau Brummels and the Great Society (with Grace Slick on vocals) at Autumn Records, though he does give more time than anticipated to his Stone Flower label for other artists in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

His numerous controversies—showing up late for shows (which he feels has been overblown, blaming this in part on getting multiple  bookings, though few other artists of his stature from the era have cited this as a problem), heavy drug use, financial ruin—are relayed with some nonchalance, and without much regret or remorse for any pain it might have inflicted. The birth of his child with the Family Stone’s Cynthia Robinson suddenly crops up in the narrative with an aside that the pair had off-on flings while she was in the  group; the departures of original Family Stone members are sometimes noted with brevity and little explanation; even an attack by one of his dogs on one of his kids that resulted in the child losing part of an ear is dispatched relatively quickly. It leaves a feeling of a guy who lacks almost as much of a full explanation for his fall from grace as dedicated fans do.

21. The Jive 95, by Hank Rosenfeld (Backbeat). With a bit of linking text, this is an oral history of San Francisco radio station KSAN, one of the most celebrated of the underground-oriented stations (for both music and public affairs) operating from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. Plenty of books are uneven, and among those, this is more uneven than most. There are a good share of interesting stories from DJs, engineers, local rock critics, and others who worked at or were associated with the station, as well as its predecessor KMPX, from which much of the staff moved to KSAN after a 1968 strike.

Some of those quoted (some from archival rather than first-hand interviews) are pretty well known, like original Rolling Stone music editor and occasional DJ Ben Fong-Torres; San Francisco Chronicle rock critic and author Joel Selvin; news reporter Scoop Nisker; and Raechel Donahue, DJ and wife of the station’s most famed figure, longtime DJ Tom Donahue. Some of the more colorful passages include accounts of how the Symbionese Liberation Army sent tapes to the station to broadcast their messages; a Tom Donahue interview of John Lennon around the time of Lennon’s Walls and Bridges album; and the general looseness of a time when DJs could play what they wanted, sometimes when they were stoned, and the general station operations were more casual and spontaneous than commercial stations would be in later decades.

It’s not a smooth read, however, as some of the comments are brief general observations about the San Francisco scene that have been written about for many years. Some of the transcriptions of on-air passages would probably sound a lot funnier when heard than read (and links are provided to hear some airchecks). Some quotes, especially toward the beginning, are uninformative in their brevity, and it’s not always easy to follow how the station’s programming and personnel evolved and changed. The mixed response to the introduction of punk and new wave into some programming by the late 1970s is covered, as is KSAN’s sad transformation into a mainstream popular music station, and then a country station, with none of its former identity intact. There’s some imperfect editing and a few factual mistakes that should have been caught, like identifying Jefferson Airplane’s first woman singer, Signe Anderson, as “Signe Wilkerson.”

22. Rod Stewart: The Classic Years, by Sean Egan (Backbeat). While this is more of a critical overview than a biography, and covers a somewhat wider era than what many would consider Stewart’s core classic years, it’s still a worthwhile endeavor. The focus is roughly on the years 1969-1972, when Stewart made what almost everyone considers to be his best solo albums (particularly Every Picture Tells a Story), and also had a simultaneous successful career as lead singer of the Faces. Egan draws on some first-hand interviews with insiders, especially Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan of the Faces; drummer Mickey Waller; manager Billy Gaff; and Rod’s romantic partner of the early 1970s, Dee Harrington. There are detailed critiques of the albums that, unusually for books of this sort, don’t hold back in pointing out their shortcomings, even for records the author obviously admires. Egan, like most critics, doesn’t like Stewart’s post-1972 records as much, but there’s still a lot of coverage of them up through the early 1980s, although it’s not as extensive as what’s given the previous ones. It can be tough going to go through the tracks of records that are both more boring and not as familiar as the classic stuff, and the best of the book — like the best of Stewart’s discography —lies in the earlier material, particularly what’s dealt with in the first half of this volume.

23. Don’t Tell Anybody the Secrets I Told You: A Memoir, by Lucinda Williams (Crown). Williams has had a life more interesting than that of the usual musician who rose from cult to mainstream popularity. She didn’t have records that charted until she was well into her forties. As she overlapped the country, folk, and rock worlds, the record industry did not quickly embrace an artist they found difficult to classify. Although a little on the brief side, her memoir is a good read, beginning with a troubled upbringing with a mother struggling with mental illness and failure to complete high school owing to clashes with authority. She needed to constantly move with her family growing up, and continued to move from New Orleans to Austin to Los Angeles to New York to Nashville as she tried to forge a living in the music business, making her debut album for Folkways in the late 1970s for a $300 fee. There were numerous troubled relationships on the way, some of which informed her songwriting, though a lot of the text does discuss her music and records as well as her personal life.

Some of the most interesting sections describe clashes with record labels and producers in her long journey toward establishing herself as an acclaimed recording artist. She deliberately got herself booted off RCA by criticizing the label in public; her contract was bought from Rick Rubin when an album was going to be delayed by two whole years due to a business complication unrelated to her record; producers mixed some of her work to her dissatisfaction, leading to some re-recording and a permanent falling out with a colleague. By the 21st century she’d achieved considerable sales and widespread critical praise, yet there’s little in the book from the last fifteen years. Indeed the depth of coverage trails off considerably by the time it reaches the 2000s, which might disappoint some fans, though the previous years are documented in reasonable depth.

24. Cream: Clapton Bruce & Baker Sitting on Top of the World (Schiffer Publishing). This slim picture-oriented book is pretty narrowly focused and thus might have a narrow appeal, even considering Eric Clapton and Cream remain hugely famous. It’s devoted to the group’s San Francisco shows at the Fillmore and Winterland between February 29 and March 10 in 1968, during which some official and unofficial recordings were made. The numerous pictures vary from highly professional to dark, blurry amateur audience shots; there’s a big difference between the ones by the top rock photographer of the time, Jim Marshall, and many of the others. These are broken up by text commentary and memories from some who were there, including filmmaker Tony Palmer and engineer Bill Halverson. Some of the writing could have benefited from some editing and higher professionalism, but there’s some interesting information for devotees, particularly those clarifying what was played when and what circulates on unofficial tapes. Memorabilia like tape boxes, posters, and ads are also included.

25. The Tremeloes: Even the Bad Times Are Good!, by Peter Checksfield ( Peter Checksfield’s books are for the serious fan/collector. But even compared to most of his other volumes—including two others that came out in 2023 and are reviewed above, on Jerry Lee Lewis and the Searchers—this has a pretty specialized audience. It’s similar in format to those books, going through all of the Tremeloes’ releases (including those when they were Brian Poole and the Tremeloes from 1962-66) chronologically, with descriptive entries for each. These are enhanced by first-hand and archive quotes from the members (including Poole), as well as quite a few photos and reproductions of record sleeves. The members’ solo releases—not just Poole’s, but the yet lesser known ones of other guys in the group—and tracks that found release on archival comps are included, and many covers of Tremeloes’ material noted. Appendices include a timeline, discography, and thorough list of TV and film appearances, and BBC radio sessions.

All of this is assembled and written well, and the book would rank higher had I been more interested in the Tremeloes. I do have most of their 1960s recordings, including the ones with Poole as a lead singer, which are barely known in the US. But aside from their two big US hits (“Here Comes My Baby” and “Silence Is Golden,” both in 1967), I don’t rate them too highly or find them to have much of a musical personality. Certainly Checksfield rates them pretty highly, praising much of their output enthusiastically, though there might not be many other fans (let alone critics) who find their versions of Joe Tex’s “Show Me,” Bob Dylan/The Band’s “I Shall Be Released,” and Brenda Holloway’s “Every Little Bit Hurts” superior to the originals.

If like me you’re not a big Tremeloes fan but are a big fan of ‘60s British rock in general, however, this is more interesting than you might expect. There were a lot more covers of Tremeloes material than most people would guess, some from pretty unlikely sources and non-English-speaking countries, and it’s unlikely they’ve ever been or will be traced with as much detail as they are here. Some of the stories behind how they changed personnel, found their songs (and passed on “Yellow River” before Christie had a big with it), or made sporadic attempts to change with the times are reasonably engaging too.  Despite their limited US success, they had quite a few hits that charted strongly in territories ranging from the European continent to New Zealand and Zimbabwe, as well as many in their native UK. It’s quite a struggle, however, to get through the final sections on their post-1970s comebacks, reunions, and numerous re-recordings of material from their prime.

26. Cosmic Scholar: The Life and Times of Harry Smith, by John Szwed (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Harry Smith’s life was so complicated that it’s hard to classify him, although another subtitle reads “the filmmaker, folklorist, and mystic who transformed American art.” Only part of what he did, and hence what this biography covers, is related to music. But his musical activities, which are covered in detail, were notable. He recorded and assembled numerous albums, by far the most well known of these being the three-volume Anthology of American Music. That three-volume series of reissues of various folk discs of the 1920s and 1930s that influenced important performers of the folk revival, some of whom (like Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan) went on to become rock stars. He also produced the first Fugs album. But as extensive as his musical ventures were, including collecting and taping plenty of recordings of far more arcane performers and styles, these didn’t even account for the majority of his work. That also entailed experimental film, painting, constructing/collecting string figures, and collecting and classifying/disseminating paper airplanes, Ukranian-decorated eggs, Native American dress, and other material.

The range of his work, and his generally itinerant existence, presents a challenge in documenting his life. The author does about as good a job as could be done, but there are many gaps and uncertainties that probably can’t ever be pinned down. The low ranking on this list doesn’t reflect the quality of the research or writing, which is presented in an accessible and readable fashion, though it sometimes roves pretty widely back and forth in chronology. It’s more an indication of my relative lesser interest in Smith’s non-musical doings, though his film, animated and otherwise, like his Anthology of American Music volumes, had an influence outweighing the relatively few people who saw or heard these when they were first produced.

His erratic personal habits, which saw him nearly destitute and unable to take care of essential needs like food, shelter, and health care for much of his adult life, are also described, and are often disturbing. Smith lost or, worse, willfully destroyed much of what he created and collected; often failed to finish ambitious projects, although he completed a good many as well; often freeloaded from friends and benefactors without compensating them; and frequently insulted those same friends and benefactors, as well as audiences, though he could be generous and kind to others as well. His treatment of Allen Ginsberg, who put him up and to a degree financed him toward the end of Smith’s life, was sometimes exploitative and cruel. Some might have rationalized he was worth putting up with because he was a genius folklorist of sorts, but he was a pretty unsocialized one, which makes the man more difficult to admire (and read about) than his accomplishments.

27. Fashioning the Beatles, by Deirdre Kelly (Sutherland House). I’m not nearly as interested in the Beatles’ clothes and haircuts as I am in their music. But it’s undeniable their fashion was visually interesting and enhanced their huge appeal, and this book is a reasonable overview of the many phases it passed through, from their Hamburg leather days through the matching Beatlemania suits, psychedelia, and more casual wear near the end of the 1960s. While the general outline of these changes is known to many Beatles fans, this does have some unusual info that isn’t well-trod, like the fur coat George Harrison wears in the January 1969 rooftop concert being the same one he wore to his wedding three years earlier. For that matter, during their 1969 Get Back sessions, Paul McCartney wore the same shoes he’d worn as part of his Sgt. Pepper uniform. The numerous shops and designers patronized are detailed, down to the Le Château store John Lennon and Yoko Ono bought some clothes from during their 1969 Montreal bed-in. Bet you didn’t know, either, that all of the Beatles except Harrison wore suits by Nutters of Savile Row on the famous photo on the cover of Abbey Road. Some color and black-and-white photos illustrate their constantly shifting image, and it’s interesting to see them modeling Lybro jeans in a 1963 ad that wasn’t printed at the time, as well as Ringo Starr modeling a Tommy Nutter suit in a 1969 Vogue magazine ad.

28. The Art of the Bizarre Vinyl Sleeve, by Simon Robinson and Steve Goldman (Easy on the Eyes). Co-author Steve Goldman has spent a lot of time collecting the strangest vinyl record sleeves he could find, which are often among the ugliest you’re likely to find. A lot of them supply the illustrations for this 180-page book, accompanied by quite a bit of text describing (and often gently mocking) the artwork, often filling in the background on these oft-obscure performers. Sure it’s a bit of a novelty volume for a niche among the record collecting crowd. But there are a fair number of collectors in that crowd who appreciate the weirdness of these designs, most from LPs, though some singles are included. That’s the case even if most wouldn’t want to actually buy or collect many of them (even at the cheap prices they often sell for if they can be found), let alone listen to them. And from the description of the music on the discs, many of them do seem like they’d sound horrible, especially as many were self-pressed vanity efforts, outings by minor celebrities, discs by semi-pro folk musicians, and the like.

There is, however, a pretty wide range of oddities selected from all over the world, including areas not usually covered by Western pop journalism, like the Eastern bloc. And for all the obscurity of many of the entries, questionable artwork on some releases by big-name artists are here, including sleeves on records by the Village People, Prince, and Deep Purple. The odd respectable cult favorite makes it too, like Lothar and the Hand People’s debut LP, adorned with yearbook-quality photos. Designs by respected labels are here, one surprise being a Box Tops best-of on Rhino, where the cover photo had one of the guys (not Alex Chilton) making a ridiculous ugly grimace. On occasion the artists or others involved in the process were tracked down and offered some details, although the stories behind the designs of many of these records—and the careers of many of the artists—remain and are likely to remain mysterious.

The following books came out in 2022, but I didn’t read them until 2023:

1. The McCartney Legacy Volume 1: 1969-73, by Allan Kozinn and Adrian Sinclair (Dey Street). Running a little more than 700 pages, this would have certainly placed pretty high on my 2022 end-of-year list had I read it in time. It would have rated even higher than it does if I was more of a solo Paul McCartney fan, though the Beatles are my favorite group, and I think his contributions to that group were as good and important as John Lennon’s. But if you are a big McCartney fan, or even if you aren’t but are a big Beatles fan and/or at least interested enough in his early solo years to find out more about them, this probably won’t be beat. The original intention was to focus on his recording sessions, and those are described in great detail, along with some of his more informal demos, most of them still unreleased. This is woven together, however, with general in-depth coverage of his professional and personal life, including a lot about his wife Linda and the group he formed around him and her, Wings.

This should be hailed above all for finally laying down, with dates and details, the particulars of almost all of his studio recording sessions during these years, which encompassed his first five post-Beatles albums (whether with or without Wings), numerous non-LP singles, and other recording/songwriting projects. Those demos —often uncirculated even unofficially — are often bountifully described, too, including more than a couple dozen he recorded between McCartneyand Ram, among them a good number of songs he wouldn’t otherwise record. There’s also a lot about his disputes, and lawsuits, involving Allen Klein, and the protracted process that he initiated as necessary to dissolve the Beatles partnership. And there’s much about the various Wings lineups, illustrating how Paul, and to some degree Linda, had a hard time ceding as much creative control, commitment, and money as his sidemen would have liked. 

However, the authors give Wings and McCartney more respect for what they accomplished than many music critics did and have – not just Band on the Run (whose Nigerian sessions in Lagos are among the more interesting sections), but everything else as well. Even “Bip Bop,” to pick on a song that’s probably been singled out for more harsh flak than anything else he did at the time, is examined with seriousness, as are pretty obscure B-sides like “I Lie Around” and “The Mess.” If Paul and Linda could be callous with their employees, the point’s also made that they could be generous too, and overall they don’t come off as worse than average in the rock star behavior department. The photos that dot the text are good and unusual, and the text is clear and, if more enthusiastic about his music of the period than I am, not blind to its flaws.

One minor but unfortunate flaw in the book is the lack of an index, and clearer designations as to what was released from his sessions at the time, what came out on archival reissues, and what’s never come out, though that can be deduced from the text. This is, by the way, volume one of a multi-part series, with another half century or so that could potentially be covered in the future. For me, those will hold much less interest past the years documented in this volume, which were the most interesting of his post-Beatles life from both musical and personal angles. 

2. Decades: Donovan in the 1960s, by Jeff Fitzgerald (SonicBond). This is part of the very extensive, and rapidly growing, series of SonicBond books devoted to detailed track-by-track overviews of the work of specific recording artists, both famous and cult. Donovan’s one of the more famous ones, and this slim (134-page) survey wisely sticks to his 1960s output, although there’s a brief overview of his post-‘60s career. Every track he released in 1965-1969 is discussed, usually for at least a paragraph. It’s well-written and rich in detail, not just in how the track sounds, but some of its sources (particularly in the occasional instances when Donovan covered someone else’s song) and some little known stories and trivia associated with some of them. Although it’s primarily a critical assessment rather than a biography with first-hand research, Fitzgerald did interview arranger John Cameron, and several interesting comments for those tracks on which Cameron worked are here. Even for a Donovan fan like myself, some of Fitzgerald’s evaluations are on the overly generous side. On the other hand, the singer-songwriter’s been so generally underrated it’s good to see him given serious critical analysis that doesn’t get stuffy, with interpretations that some might find debatable, but aren’t overwrought. There are very occasional factual mistakes, but on the whole it’s accurate and useful for serious Donovan admirers.

3. Soul Survivor: The Autobiography, by P.P. Arnold (Nine Eight). Although she’s African-American, Arnold is much better known in the UK in the US, as she had some moderate British hit singles in the late 1960s. She also had more overlap with the rock world than most soul singers, as she recorded for Immediate Records and worked with Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, the Small Faces, and the Nice. While her discography isn’t the work of a major artist, her memoir is an interesting journey through the highs and lows of the music business. In some ways, she had a lot of good fortune: getting asked to stay in the UK after touring there as an Ikette with Ike and Tina Turner, the Immediate and rock star connections leading to moderate chart success, and living the high life of just-post-Swinging London with plenty of celebrities. The lows were really low: getting raped by Ike Turner as an Ikette, losing her young daughter in a car accident, escaping an abusive marriage as a teenager when she became an Ikette in the mid-‘60s, and losing much of her lavish lifestyle as she fell out of favor with the music business and couldn’t get a recording deal.

Arnold also had relationships, though sometimes brief, with a number of rock legends, most notably Mick Jagger (begun when she toured with the Turners on a UK tour headlined by the Rolling Stones), Steve Marriott, Rod Stewart, and CSNY/Manassas bassist Fuzzy Samuel. These are detailed without sensationalism, as are her professional interactions with numerous major figures she crossed paths with along the way, like Barry Gibb, Nick Drake, Doris Troy, and Brian Jones. All of the aforementioned are recalled in very positive terms, but some others left much worse impressions, like Lulu, P.J. Proby, and John Mellencamp. She felt she was too rock for black audiences and too soul for white rock listeners, making it harder for her to find record deals or make the music she most wanted to. Arnold made some decisions she regrets in her attempts to continue her career in the UK, Los Angeles, and other places, especially in the effect all the moving had on her family and the stress of often living beyond her means. She doesn’t spare herself in attributing responsibility, and while the underside of the music business isn’t the main or sole focus, it’s evident how much of a toll it takes on those who make some inroads without quite becoming stars.

4. Living on a Thin Line, by Dave Davies with Philip Clark (Headline). Considering what a major and beloved figure he is, this autobiography by Kinks lead guitarist and occasional songwriter and lead singer didn’t get much attention. In part this might be because it’s actually his second memoir; the first, Kink: An Autobiography, came out back in 1996. It’s not a sequel covering the intervening years, in which he hasn’t released much music at any rate. It too covers his whole life and career, and while there have been more than 25 additional years in the meantime, the great bulk of it takes place earlier, and much of that is devoted to the Kinks’ first and greatest decade. Inevitably there’s a lot of overlap between the two books, though no actual text from the earlier volume is recycled. So even major Kinks fans might wonder if it’s worth reading if they already have Kink.

The books are different, however, even if it much of this one is a matter of telling the same stories in different ways with some different details. While Dave is not the writer his brother Ray is (in Ray’s own memoirs and short stories), this has pretty straightforward accounts of the Kinks’ evolution and numerous of their classic songs and recordings. Going back to the beginning of their success, for instance, you get his take on Ray’s shout of “oh no!” in “You Really Got Me,” and his view of how the follow-up “All Day and All of the Night” was better. There are also musings on his dalliances with bisexuality and generally dissolute behavior. Occasional detours into his ventures into spirituality and the paranormal, as he’s aware, will strike many as fairly wacky, and are the least interesting sections.

There’s also much on the volatile relationship between the Davies brothers, and if it seems like Dave should have known Ray as well as anyone could, his older sibling remains enigmatic. Dave loves Ray, he often reminds readers, and they could work together very effectively when they were getting along and Ray was open to his younger brother’s input. Ray also often acted in ways that Dave interprets as undermining Dave’s confidence, and can come across as an erratic individual who could be by turns affectionate and alienating. In terms of the Kinks’ output, that might have hurt their work by not allowing more space for Dave as a singer and songwriter, though Dave did make some solo albums (and worked toward an unreleased LP back in the late ‘60s). Those are discussed here, if at less length than the Kinks’ most highly regarded work.

5. Anatomy of 55 More Songs, by Marc Myers (Grove Press). This is a follow-up volume to the author’s 2016 book Anatomy of a Song, and uses the same format. Myers writes the “Anatomy of a Song” column for the Wall Street Journal, which analyzes a famous rock/pop/soul song by interviewing songwriters, musicians, producers, and other more ancillary figures involved in its creation. Myers gives a brief general summary of the song and its position in history, devoting the rest of the column to quotes from his interviews. This differs from his first book only in that it covers 55 songs, rather than 45 songs. All of the 55 chapters first appeared as columns, except for the piece on Arthur Brown’s “Fire.”

Covering a wide range of songs from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, the main source of quibbles among most readers will be the ones chosen. Depending on your taste, everyone will have favorites, and everyone songs they’ll dislike. The selection has a bent toward mainstream hits, though some new wave tunes are included. From my point of view, there are undisputed classics like “Dancing in the Street” and “Sunshine Superman,” and dubious if high-selling choices like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin.’” Although virtually all of the selections are famous, it’s hard to make a case for Keith Richards’s “Take It So Hard” making the grade in this company.

Even the songs I (or anyone) might not enjoy hearing do have some interesting details behind their creation, which are sometimes more entertaining than listening to the recordings themselves. Although it looks to be a hefty volume at 368 pages, it goes pretty fast since there are a lot of blank/partially filled pages and full-page pictures. And there’s numerous odd trivia that isn’t widely known, some of it not directly related to the song being featured, like Cars drummer David Robinson, who came up with the band’s name, noting “funny thing is I didn’t even own a car at the time.”

6. Rock’s In My Head: A Memoir, by Art Fein (Trouser Press Books). Perhaps principally known in the Los Angeles rock scene, Art Fein has worn many hats in his time on various edges of the music business. That includes working for Capitol Records as a promotion man; being a music editor for Variety; managing or semi-managing a few bands, including the Blasters; free-lancing as a writer for numerous publications; hosting a popular cable TV program with various music journalist and musician guests; and more, though seldom holding a conventional full-time job. His memoir is pretty enjoyable and briskly paced, with inside stories, though usually not too lengthy or salacious, of musicians from the famous (John Lennon and Yoko Ono), rather cult (the Cramps), and the lesser known (the Heaters). Always lurking in the background or foreground, though he doesn’t overdo it, is the difficulty in making a living doing what you love if you’re a music geek and not too inclined to engage in the politics often necessary to gain employment. Declining to get serviced by a hooker at one team-building record company get together, in fact, helped cost him his job, according to his account.

Much of the latter part of the book — too much, really — is devoted to his lengthy friendship with Phil Spector, and his numerous if somewhat sporadic meetings with the producer during Spector’s final few decades. Like numerous other memoirs, his devotion to a volatile figure, whose behavior ranged from generous to abusive, raises the question of how much anyone should put up with from a figure whose art they admire, but whose behavior could be cruel. Not just once or twice, and not just to Fein, but to friends and associates in general. There’s a lot about Spector’s quirks here, right  up to his trials and imprisonment, though Fein does intersperse passages about his extra-Spector life. The writing’s humorous without crossing over to pathos or cheap laughs, and while he has done some other books, it makes one regret that he didn’t write a few more, and a few serious histories and biographies.

7. The Birth of Rock’n’Roll: The Illustrated Story of Sun Records, by Peter Guralnick and Colin Escott (Weldon Owen). As a 250-page coffee table book, this is more of a basic overview than a full history of Sun Records, one of the most important labels in the history of rock. In fact, you get a lot more info about Sun from books written by the authors, those being Escott’s Good Rockin’ Tonight (co-written with Martin Hawkins) and Guralnick’s biography of Sun Records chief Sam Phillips. Nonetheless, what’s here is pretty good, the format allowing for many more, many bigger, and a good number of rarer pictures and illustrations than could be used in standard formats. Guralnick wrote specific reviews of seventy Sun recordings, including most of their biggest hits (though Carl Mann’s “Mona Lisa” and Jerry Lee Lewis’s “High School Confidential” are missing, to name a couple omissions) and quite a few obscurities. These include key rockabilly recordings by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Lewis, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, and Carl Perkins, as well as important blues sides by James Cotton, Junior Parker, Rufus Thomas, Jackie Brenston, Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King, and others.

8. Needles & Plastic: Flying Nun Records, 1981-1988, by Matthew Goody (Third Man). The most important New Zealand record label, Flying Nun improbably became one of the most highly regarded independent alternative rock companies in the world, at least as measured by its global cult following. This densely packed, nearly 400-page slightly oversized volume has more detail about their first seven years than is likely possible to match. Every one of its many releases has a thorough entry that not only describes the oft-quirky music in depth, but also goes into a lot of the background information as to how and when they were recorded and the general history of the act at the time. Many quotes from the period from the musicians, label employees, and reviews are taken from a wide range of sources, often from New Zealand papers that have seldom or never been seen by overseas fans. There are also many illustrations in color and black and white, including many photos, even of some quite obscure acts, and lots of posters and promotional material. These are more interesting than they usually are in such books as the Flying Nun’s promo material often used distinctive multicolored graphics, and sometimes work by noted cartoonist Chris Knox, who (especially as part of Tall Dwarfs) was one of the label’s most vital artists.

Although well written, this is infused with so much intense detail that its appeal might be primarily limited to major Flying Nun enthusiasts. There’s considerable similarity to how many of the bands got together and their oft-shambolic attitudes and methods, which might make it hard to digest too much at once. The 2016 memoir by Flying Nun founder Roger Shepherd, In Love with These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records, is a better general read, especially for those unfamiliar or casually familiar with the company. For those who want more, though, this is a godsend encyclopedia of sorts. Every release by Flying Nun’s more well known acts—the Chills, the Verlaines, the Bats, the Clean, and Tall Dwarfs are some, usually with a bent somewhere between noisy punk and oddball post-psychedelia—are covered, as well as those by the more cultish acts like Look Blue Go Purple. But there are also entries for discs that even collectors might not know, like the 1987 LP by Kim Blackburn, which despite its lack of impact sounds like one of the label’s more unusual detours (“some linked Blackburn’s vocal style to Nico, something she bristled at, while others…compared her to Joni Mitchell…Colin Hogg in the Herald was somewhat mystified by the album: ‘She comes on all beatnik with a collection of freeform jazz-poetry.’”) Another 1987 LP was by Dead Famous People; Flying Nun might have not have led the indie world in sales, but it might have led the whole world in odd band names.

Goody also starts each chapter with overviews of what happened in a certain year, and includes small sections on Flying Nun’s impact overseas, especially in the UK and US. This fills in some of the label’s overall history, which is unlike almost any other indie’s of the period, in part because of its New Zealand base. At its beginning, Shepherd sometimes even did business between serving customers at the record store where he worked; sales of just a few hundred copies could put a release in the charts; for years, some of their more successful records didn’t sell as much as they could have and dropped off the charts because the small runs couldn’t be repressed fast enough; and the whole label was endangered when the last vinyl pressing plant in New Zealand closed in 1987, making it necessary for Flying Nun to strike a distribution deal with WEA. As another reminder of how things can work differently in different parts of the world, some acts on the label were able to afford recording with arts grants. While all of these conspired to make the simple act of putting out records and keeping a label afloat more challenging in many respects than it was in many other locations throughout the globe, it also might have fueled the idiosyncratic identity that’s made Flying Nun’s following endure for decades. It also might have made it harder for many of their acts to maintain careers, many of them lasting only briefly before hanging it up.

Like another recent history of a prominent independent label from the time, Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records, this book raises the question as to why some of the company’s catalog is no longer available, and whether it will be reissued. Although the author chose to concentrate on the label’s first seven years, in part because some feel it lost some of its identity when it moved from Christchurch to Auckland, there is also certainly room for him or another writer to document their next few years. Flying Nun did continue to record interesting hard-to-classify music for some time, both by some of its more noted veterans and acts who joined the roster after it moved to Auckland.

9. Pattie Boyd: My Life in Pictures, by Pattie Boyd (Reel Art Press). Boyd was George Harrison’s first wife, and subsequently married Eric Clapton, though she’s no longer married to him. This coffee table book has much more in the way of pictures than text, not only of Boyd with Harrison (and many less with Clapton), but also plenty of photos from her modeling days, mostly from the mid-1960s. There’s lots to look at here if seeing images of a mid-‘60s Swinging London fashion icon is your thing, in many poses, dresses, and some wigs, as well as a shot with Twiggy. Is there anything in the way of rock history? Not much, but there’s some interesting stuff here and there in Boyd’s captions, and a few memorabilia illustrations.

For instance: her diary pages on the day Harrison first asked her out (“George Harrison asked me out!!!!!”), March 6, 1964; Brian Epstein as chaperone for that first date at a restaurant (“George and I were both shy so he helped break the ice”); a posed shot with all five of the Rolling Stones on April 28, 1964; her initial impression of their first home as a couple, Kinfauns (“it was so suburban, ghastly, hideous”), though she loved it after they gave it a psychedelic paint job; and a hand-drawn birthday card John Lennon gave to her on the Beatles’ trip to India in early 1968. Then there’s a picture of her and George with Frank Sinatra in Los Angeles in 1968; a couple love letters, in anguished romantic prose, to her from Eric Clapton in the early 1970s, when she was still married to Harrison; a long weird rambling typewritten letter to the Harrisons from John Lennon advising, “I think we should give Apple to the lowest bidder”; and a color shot of Paul McCartney and George Harrison playing together (with drummer Jim Capaldi) on stage at the wedding party for Pattie and Eric Clapton. All this is scant info for a 240-page book, but good enough reason to check it out of the library.

10. Sun Ra: Art on Saturn (Fantagraphics). Sun Ra accumulated such a huge and often baffling discography that it’s doubtful a complete one will ever be assembled, especially if it pays attention to the many variations in cover art. This was especially true of the many discs he self-released. Many of the covers are reproduced in this coffee table book, focusing on those he issued on his Saturn label. Whatever one’s opinion of their artistic merit, their range was extraordinary, from the most homemade and rudimentary designs to gaudily psychedelic ones. Often elements of the homemade and DIY were mixed with the more professional, florid, and arty on the same sleeve. Although there are a few essays about the records, the pages are dominated by cover reproductions, including some inner label and back covers.

This doesn’t get into much biographical information or musical description analysis; for that, there’s John Szwed’s Space Is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. The essays are largely interesting reading, even if they occupy a small portion of the book, especially the memories of Glenn Jones of distributing Sun Ra’s limited editions via Rounder and seeing Sun Ra play numerous times starting in the early 1970s. It would have been interesting for there to be at least some text about the specific albums and the music they contained, though that might have been difficult due to the often scant and confusing information about the material’s origins. Interestingly, it’s speculated Sun Ra might have been deliberately haphazard in how he packaged and released music on Saturn, or at least unconcerned with details, letting the music speak for itself. The book’s on the expensive side at $75, but it’s something that might appeal to people interested in album design and/or record collecting even if they’re not Sun Ra or even jazz fans. And it’s a lot cheaper than trying to buy the rare original discs.

11. Totally Wired: The Rise and Fall of the Music Press, by Paul Gorman (Thames & Hudson). This book’s scope is almost as wide as it can get for a popular music volume, starting with the founding of Melody Maker in 1926 and going up to around the time very shortly before this was published in 2022. Its strong points are coverage, if sometimes on the basic side, of the launch, prime, and decline of many magazines during this period, often with interesting accounts (some from first-hand interviews) of writers, editors, and publishers. It’s strongest on the highest-profile British publications of the rock era, particularly Melody MakerNME, and later The Face, though US magazines big (Rolling Stone) and small (fanzines like Kicks) are also a part of the narrative. The wide breadth in some ways works against the flow, however, since many of the endeavors are only given a little space, and the wealth of territory means there are constant jumps between subjects, and sometimes (though not drastically so) eras. To its credit, it includes a lot of the smaller players; specialized publications in areas like soul and experimental music; and attention to the triumphs and obstacles faced by writers of color.

The constant shifts can be dizzying in number, however, and sometimes readers might wish for more specific than general detail on the lesser known publications and figures, though that would require a lot more than the 362 pages here. The twenty-first century gets just a few pages of epilogue; some notable publications aren’t referenced at all, though it’s impossible to hit everything; and some might disagree with the impression that music journalism is on the decline or even dying, even considering many print publications have gone out of business, and the nature of the music press has changed with the rise of online platforms. The author’s 2001 book In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press, structured as an oral history (with some of the material also appearing in Totally Wired), makes for an overall better read as that format lends itself better to historical bites, though Totally Wired allows for more context of how the magazines were operated and competed against each other. Which, in turn, sometimes makes for depressing overload with many quotes about circulation and the sometimes tacky decisions taken to increase readership.

12. Holy Ghost; the Life & Death of Free Jazz Pioneer Albert Ayler, by Richard Koloda (Jawbone Press). Free jazz is not my forte, accounting in part for why this isn’t higher on my list of favorites. This book is well done, however, combining much research into Ayler’s life and career with detailed description of his records, as well as substantial quotes from reviews printed of the saxophonist’s work at the time. This doesn’t clear up all the mysteries of his oft-shadowy history, including the biggest mystery of all, how and why he died by drowning in 1970, though suicide seems like a strong possibility. Some second-hand and first-hand interviews with family and associates are drawn upon, most crucially author interview material with Ayler’s younger brother Donald, who was part of Albert’s band for an important period, though they grew estranged to some extent.

Although often acclaimed since his death as an important pioneer, points are made that during his life he received mixed reception running to extremes of highs and lows from critics and peers, and often had a hard time consistently recording, gigging, and earning money. The period near the end of his life during which he went into more commercial and poorly regarded records is covered without gloss, though there’s more focus on the lengthy stretches during which he explored new and daring territory with his avant-garde playing and material. There’s also interesting detail about his relationship, generally good but financially unremunerative, with the most notable of the labels he recorded for, ESP-Disk, and its eccentric owner, Bernard Stollman.

Honorable Mention:

Peter Asher: A Life in Music, by David Jacks (Backbeat). This nearly 400-page, rather small-print biography of the British Invasion hit performer (with Peter & Gordon) and, more famously, producer and manager (especially for James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt) is very well researched, and pretty well written. It’s in the “honorable mention” category because I for the most part couldn’t get past the mid-1980s, owing to my lack of interest in his more recent activities. That did get me about 250 pages into the book, which is about a book in itself. But I didn’t read the whole thing, hence its honorable mention status.

While it’s hard to determine how many of the quotes were from first-hand interviews and how many excerpted from other sources, the author did talk to Asher for at least some of them. He also spoke to many people who worked with him over the years, and not just obvious choices, but also engineers, assistants, session musicians, and the like. It gets points for taking Peter & Gordon’s career seriously, down to detailed descriptions of non-hit singles, LP tracks, and session details, and doesn’t even get to Asher’s transition to production with Apple until after 90 pages. There’s also some attention paid to the music and social scenes he was a part of, whether swinging London, in which he was more plugged into the underground than most knew, and the Hollywood rock community he became a big mover and shaker in starting in the early 1970s. 

As a producer, Asher did much to shape the slicker, sometimes more laidback part of the SoCal ‘70s rock sound, especially with his use of skilled session pros. Some critics see that as a big negative, but usually the public disagreed, especially regarding Taylor and Ronstadt, though some obscure albums he worked on by the likes of Jo Mama and Tony Kosinec are also covered. So is, winding back to his earlier years, his part in the British Invasion and his close relationship with Paul McCartney. It won’t surprise many that Asher, in keeping with whatever public profile he’s established, comes off as a highly intelligent, calm, and professional figure, and there’s not much wild behavior depicted here. Actually there are so many testimonies to his kind generosity that some might suspect some of the less positive aspects of his life weren’t addressed, though there might not be too many if any to dig up.

Top Twenty (Or So) Music Documentaries of 2023

There aren’t any blew-me-away music documentaries that came out in 2023, on the order of, say, Get Back. There are still quite a few worth viewing, often on subjects that would have been deemed impossibly uncommercial or impossible to film not too long ago. I did miss some I know have at least screened at festivals, and should they be easier to access in 2024, I’ll include them on a supplement to that list. There were still almost twenty I found worth writing about, and if they were heavy on well known figures, docs on the likes of Barbara Dane and Peter Case continue to emerge.

1. Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd. When this came out, I was concerned whether this was necessary since there was a pretty good documentary (primarily distributed through the DVD market and not widely screened in theaters) on Barrett almost twenty years ago, The Pink Floyd and Syd Barrett Story. I even wondered whether it was just a retitled or rejigged version of that documentary. It’s not; it’s an entirely different production. And though there’s naturally overlap in what’s covered (and some of the interview subjects), it’s worthwhile, primarily for the amazingly wide assortment of first-hand interviews with people who knew Barrett. That includes Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, but also a host of others. Among them are early Floyd managers Peter Jenner and Andrew King, Barrett’s sister Rosemary, and several of Barrett’s girlfriends. Some who only pop up for brief comments are celebrities in their own right, like Pete Townshend and playwright Tom Stoppard.

Some of these interviews were obviously done quite some time ago, as several have since died, and co-director Storm Thorgerson died ten years ago. I could done without a few sequences in which actors with passing resemblances to Barrett seem to be silently reenacting surreal things Syd could have experienced or imagined. But mostly there are interesting memories and stories, and while the archival footage of Barrett with early Pink Floyd will be familiar to big fans, some of the vintage pictures won’t. It’s probably not giving anything away to readers of this blog that Barrett’s story was tragic in many ways, and his descent into mental difficulties and retreat from the music business isn’t glossed over. His substantial contributions to psychedelic rock are celebrated in detail, however, particularly his songwriting.

2. The Stones and Brian JonesKnown for quite a few movies with rather sensationalistic first-hand investigations by the filmmaker, Nick Broomfield has gotten more straightforward with his recent Leonard Cohen film (Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love) and this documentary about Brian Jones. There’s a lot more to say about Jones than can fit into about 95 minutes, and this doesn’t cover everything about his life and music; Paul Trynka’s biography Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones is the best source for that, and there are plenty of other details in other books. A longtime rock journalist I respect has also criticized this film for not using much for the original Rolling Stones’ compositions on the soundtrack; in a related weakness, not adequately covering the scope of Jones’s contributions to numerous songs by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on unusual instruments; and the image quality of a few interview segments recorded on Zoom.

Fair enough points, especially if you’re looking for the ideal Jones documentary. But even as a longtime Stones/Jones fan, I liked what the movie did cover. A lot of the footage and photos are uncommon, and even if much of it can be uncovered in other various sources, it’s used adroitly to tie together strands of Brian’s story. A good number of soundbites from interviews with Jones’s girlfriends are used that aren’t exactly well-trodden info either, from Linda Lawrence to the less well known ones like Pat Andrews and Dawn Molloy. Bill Wyman has a lot of on-camera comments done recently specifically for this project, and some other lesser-heard-from figures were also interviewed, like film director Volker Schlöndorff, for whose film A Degree of Murder Jones composed the soundtrack. Sure it would have been nice if Jagger, Richards, early Stones manager Andrew Oldham, and some other key figures had been interviewed. But many, also including Marianne Faithfull and Jones’s father, are represented by relevant vintage interview fragments, often in voiceover rather than film (and it’s not always possible to tell what might have been taken from other sources rather than done for the documentary). 

While Jones’s philandering and drug abuse are covered, there’s plenty of attention to his music, Wyman noting his slide guitar work and how Jones and Richards combined their riffs. Brian’s failed attempts at songwriting are discussed, and one particularly noteworthy segment includes a tape recording of a few lines from a tune he’s trying to work out. Unlike some other books and films, this doesn’t dwell on or sensationalize the controversial circumstances behind his 1969 death, though it is of course covered near the film’s conclusion. There are some minor inaccuracies in the chronological sequencing of the events that slightly diminish the film’s value, though they’re of the kind that don’t seem to bug many viewers except fanatics who trainspot these sort of details.

3. San Francisco Sounds: A Place in Time. Streaming on the MGM+ channel, this two-part, two-and-a-half-hour documentary focuses on the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene of the last half of the 1960s, though episode two goes a fair way into the 1970s. This is a decent overview that focuses on the most celebrated acts of the time: Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother & the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, Santana, and Sly & the Family Stone, with some attention paid to Country Joe & the Fish, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Charlatans, Steve Miller, and the Tower of Power. Many of the artists dead and alive are represented by voiceover clips; the only talking heads seen on screen from recent interviews are a few non-musicians, including critic Ben Fong-Torres, radio DJ Dusty Street, light showman Bill Ham, and poster artist Victor Moscoso. There are quite a few (if very brief) archive film clips and photos, some quite rare or at least infrequently seen. Highlights among those are Big Brother in rehearsal, a snippet of Dan Hicks performing informally and solo, and famed radio DJ Tom Donahue.

What this documentary could have benefited from, at least for those who take this scene very seriously, is simply more time and depth. There were many interesting secondary musical acts in the scene who aren’t seen or even mentioned, some of whom were certainly filmed in decent quality, like It’s a Beautiful Day and Cold Blood. Some that barely or never recorded have interesting film clips too, like Ace of Cups. The Beau Brummels’ contribution as the first major ‘60s San Francisco rock group is, as usual in these productions, entirely overlooked, although you actually do hear an instrumental passage from one of their recordings in the background at one point. There’s arguably a little too much attention paid to non-musical aspects of the scene, like posters and light shows. And extending the coverage at the end to the Doobie Brothers and, more particularly, Journey (whose “Lights” plays over the end credits) is extending it too long. 

My expectations might have been too high considering the co-director, Alison Ellwood, did such a good job (as the sole director) of Laurel Canyon, a survey of the 1960s/1970s rock scene in that area of L.A. that was one of the best recent music documentaries. A similar format is employed here, but the subject’s really worth four full hours.

4. Reinventing Elvis: The ’68 Comeback. Debuting as a stream on Paramount Plus, the documentary looks at Elvis Presley’s fabled 1968 comeback network television special. The story is told well in the book Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback, by Gillian G. Gaar, who is interviewed in this film. But this doc also benefits from interviews with some of the program’s dancers, audience members, a choreographer, and most importantly, director Steve Binder, whose extensive comments are the narrative thread of sorts. There are also, of course, numerous clips from the special itself, as well as outtakes not in the original broadcast. Running nearly two hours, it’s padded a bit by commentary on the general sociocultural context of 1968, Elvis’s pre-1968 career (especially his descent into poor movies), and, more problematically, testimonies from current artists as to Presley’s huge enduring influence (as if that’s ever been in doubt).

Binder’s detailed recollections of his interactions with Elvis, and the obstacles Colonel Tom Parker (largely unsuccessfully) threw in the way of doing the show Elvis and Binder’s way, are the key attractions, though the other interviewees have their share of worthwhile stories and insights. The tragic footnote was how Binder and Presley could not sustain their friendship after the special as the director was unable to contact Elvis, one interviewee speculating that had they remained close, Presley’s career would have turned out differently and better.

5. Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis). Technically this first played a film festival in 2022, but didn’t start to circulate too widely until mid-2023, so I think it’s okay to put this in the regular 2023 listings. Hipgnosis was the design studio responsible for many classic rock album covers from the late 1960s through the late 1970s, formed by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell, though  Peter Christopherson came in as a third partner in the 1970s. They’re most famous for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, but did several other Floyd covers as well as famous ones by Led Zeppelin, 10cc, Wings, and Peter Gabriel. They’re all discussed in depth in this documentary, directed by noted rock photographer Anton Corbijn. It’s straightforward in format, progressing chronologically with interviews with Powell, Paul McCartney, the surviving members of Pink Floyd, Robert Plant, Graham Gouldman, and Gabriel, as well as lesser known associated and friends. The only arty touch is filming the interviews in black and white, though the album covers and art are shown in full color.

As Thorgerson died about a decade ago, he’s only represented by some archival interviews. There’s vintage footage of Powell too, but he participated more than anyone in the interviews done for the film. Maybe some hardcore fans will lament the absence of coverage on some of their many relatively obscure album designs, whether for String Driven Thing (in which Helen Mirren can be seen) or Toe Fat. And while there are several books by now that tell much of the Hipgnosis story relayed here, it’s a well-paced overview of its highlights, as well as a reflection of a time when much time, art, effort, and money was put into elaborate sleeve designs, to the point of making special trips abroad in deserts and mountains to get the exact shots desired. Although appropriately brief, the time at which the team split in disputes over direction (some wanting to abandon sleeve design for videos) and finances is covered, Powell poignantly  noting that he and Thorgerson—close friends as well as colleagues—didn’t speak for next twelve years.

6. Little Richard: I Am Everything. Little Richard makes a good subject for a documentary, and this is a good one, but with some minor flaws that keep it from being an excellent one. It covers much of his career with a wealth of vintage interview excerpts and performance snippets, along with comments by quite a few peers, associates, musicians he influenced, and (least essentially) academics. The singer is consistently charismatic as a vocalist, pianist, and storyteller, if one that constantly inflates his importance, if usually in a humorous way.

Although much attention’s given to his mid-’50s superstar peak, there’s also some adequate space for his detours into gospel music both in the late 1950s and later decades, as well as his reversions to rock in the early 1960s and later. Various notables, some obviously in interviews dating back many years, testify to Richard’s greatness, including Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, Nona Hendryx, and Nile Rodgers. Some of the less famed people who worked with him get some time too, like “Tutti Frutti” lyricist Dorothy LaBostrie and drummer Tony Newman of Sounds Incorporated, who backed Little Richard on UK shows in the 1960s.

As exciting as it is to watch him perform, the vintage musical clips, though numerous, are frustratingly short — very short, like just a few seconds. Some of the writers and scholars make obvious or redundant comments about his sexuality and the discrimination he suffered. Longer music excerpts would have enhanced the impact considerably, and if those behind the film felt that would have made it too long, that’s underestimating the appetite of the audience. I believe most of them, myself included, would have welcomed extension of the film by about twenty minutes to reach the two-hour mark, if that would fit in more such material. Performance visuals aren’t the only things shortchanged — Jimi Hendrix’s pre-fame mid-’60s stint in Richard’s band is only mentioned, and the sequence of what happened when, as it is in many documentaries, sometimes gets out of order, though few except serious fans will catch these.

7. What the Hell Happened to Blood, Sweat & Tears? Blood, Sweat & Tears are never going to be considered among the hipper acts of the late 1960s and early 1970s. But for a couple years or so, they were one of the most popular rock bands in the US. While there’s much about their history in this documentary, it centers on their 1970 tour of Eastern Europe, which included shows in Yugoslavia, Romania, and Poland. (For what it’s worth, contrary to a remark in the film, this wasn’t the first time an American rock band played behind the Iron Curtain; the Beach Boys played a few shows in Czechoslovakia in June 1969.) A different documentary of that tour was made at the time, and while much of it is lost, the recent discovery of some of the footage means that a fair amount of it is used in this movie. The director of the tour documentary, Donn Cambern, is interviewed in this new overview, as are several key members of BST, including singer David Clayton-Thomas, Steve Katz, and Bobby Colomby, and Jim Fielder. So are record executive Clive Davis and rock journalist David Felton, who wrote critically about the band at the time.

It wasn’t known by many at the time that BST agreed to the State Department-sponsored tour to keep Canadian native David Clayton-Thomas from being deported. The band had mixed feelings about doing it for other reasons, including embarking on what could have been considered cooperation with the government at a time when there was a lot of opposition to its policies (especially US involvement in the Vietnam War) among their audience. Footage from the tour itself reveals wildly varying reception from the Eastern European audiences, from enthusiastic near-rioting to, if at only one concert discussed, hostile indifference. Upon their return, some of the musicians noted their discomfort at visiting countries where some personal liberties were curtailed and suppressed. This in turn generated some hostility from the counterculture and rock press who viewed them as tools of the US authorities, their hip quotient further diminished by taking gigs in Las Vegas. This is cited by some of those interviewed as a principal factor, perhaps the principal factor, in the band’s diminishing popularity and descent from superstardom.

Although it’s interjected irregularly, the film does also cover some of the group’s general history. It takes a while to get to it, but their origins as an Al Kooper-led group with hipper musical credentials on their debut album is detailed (though Kooper isn’t interviewed), as is his departure and the recruitment of Clayton-Thomas, the band feeling they needed a better lead singer. So is their appearance at Woodstock, including some concert footage, though not much was filmed of them at that festival, their manager at the time getting blamed for asking for money. A subsequent manager was recommended to them despite his being in jail at the time; he was hired, and was the manager during their Eastern European tour. There’s also discussion of their integration of horns into rock arrangements and its influence at the time, though even at that time, it wasn’t as big a hit with critics as with the public.

While very interesting, if a little erratically constructed, the film doesn’t entirely satisfactorily deal with the effect of the tour and the group’s subsequent struggles. The tour might have cost them some credibility with critics (like Felton, who wrote about them in Rolling Stone at the time) and some audiences, but there certainly wasn’t an immediate effect on their popularity. Their third album spent a couple weeks at number one in August 1970, after the tour was finished. The possibility that Clayton-Thomas’s departure (which isn’t mentioned) in the early 1970s, and a drop in quality in their recordings, might have played a significant role are not considered as factors.

8. The 9 Lives of Barbara Dane. Dane has had an interesting life, to say the least, both as a musician and activist. Although most identified with the folk revival, from the 1950s through the 1970s she also recorded some jazz and records that even bordered on pop-rock, as well as doing a mid-’60s album with the Chambers Brothers. Her left-wing activism included membership in the Community Party in her younger years, involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, obstacles her politics threw in her career path during the McCarthy era, and travel to Cuba in the mid-’60s at a time when few American artists went there, which led to appearances throughout the world, including in East Germany. She was married for a long time to Sing Out magazine editor Irwin Silber, and helped run a record label, Paredon, that put out many world music and politically minded discs. She turned down a management offer from Albert Grossman, before, she says in the documentary, he handled more famous clients like Peter, Paul & Mary and Bob Dylan.

All of this is covered in this film, though it can’t go into all this and more as much her recent memoir The Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song does. This does offer numerous recent interviews with Dane, still alive as of this writing in her mid-nineties, as well as children and fellow musicians and activists, Jane Fonda and Bonnie Raitt being the most famous. Considering she never became a star or even sold too many records within the folk or jazz communities, there’s a surprising wealth of archive footage, including network TV appearances on the Alfred Hitchcock Hour and Playboy After Dark. Most amazingly, there’s also footage of her travels and musical appearances in Cuba in the 1960s, and many interesting photos help round out the story. It doesn’t always follow a straight chronological order, though she was doing so many things nearly at once it would be hard to film this in timeline fashion. Her post-1970s years, during which she was largely inactive in music, don’t get much time, though there are quite a few clips of her when she began performing more in her eighties. The narrative intersperses those with her basic history from the 1940s through the 1970s, which actually works better than lumping that in at the end.

9. Psychedelicized: The Electric Circus StoryFrom 1967 to 1971, the Electric Circus was one of New York’s leading rock clubs, located in the East Village on St. Marks Place. While this 90-minute documentary isn’t extraordinary from a filmmaking point of view, it’s very competent, mixing archive photos and footage with interviews with some of the venue’s main figures, concertgoers, and a couple performers from major bands who played there. Among those interviewed are founders Jerry Brandt and Stan Freeman; Lester Chambers of the Chambers Brothers; and Sly & the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico. There isn’t much film of actual musical performances at the club, those being limited to silent clips of Sly & the Family Stone and the Voices of East Harlem. But there are a good number of bits of the many non-musical circus-like acts who also performed there; shots of the audience grooving; and news clips of the time covering the Electric Circus and interviewing audience members.

Although overshadowed by the Fillmore East, and even some other venues like Steve Paul’s Scene, in coverage of New York’s psychedelic-era rock, this film makes the case (not overtly) that it should get more attention. More than other venues in New York and elsewhere, it was a multimedia experience, not just due to the light shows, but the aforementioned circus-like performers, like mime artist Michael Grando, one of those interviewed for the documentary. The space’s prior history as the Dom (noted for regular Velvet Underground performances in spring 1966) and the Balloon Farm is acknowledged. So is the tragic bombing, for still unknown motivations, in 1970 that injured seventeen and likely increased the damper on things that led to the club’s closure in 1971. So is the bust of Brandt for having a joint in his luggage when entering Canada, which led to him being ousted from the club’s operations, and a split between him and Freeman that was never repaired. I streamed this from a festival and it’s possible it might not screen widely or make it to home video, but it’s worth watching for fans of ‘60s rock. 

10. Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over. This is yet more average than the average music documentary, with plenty of testimonials to Warwick’s talents and character; plenty of snippets from archive clips, most very short, but including many of her numerous hits; and lots of recent interview comments from Dionne herself. As evidence of how widely respected she is among her peers, the interviewees—some of whom must have been filmed a few years before this went into wide release, and not everyone is still alive—include Burt Bacharach, Smokey Robinson, Chuck Jackson, Gladys Knight, Berry Gordy, Elton John, Clive Davis, Barry Gibb, Cissy Houston, Stevie Wonder, and even Bill Clinton. There’s not a great deal that serious fans won’t know, but her style and collaborations with producer/songwriters Bacharach and Hal David are discussed, as is her wide appeal to both black and white soul and pop fans. There’s attention to her activism during the Civil Rights era (which included a risky attempt to change lyrics in “What’d I Say” to refer to integration) and, more extensively, her involvement in AIDS-related causes. Although there aren’t many non-hit songs among the vintage clips, one of the most unusual has her singing in Italian, and there are so many clips sourced that few if any viewers will have seen all of the originals.

This is also like many documentaries in how it loses steam when it passes her musical prime. The last third or so is more about her considerable post-1970s humanitarian activities than her music, which got a lot duller after her association with Bacharach-David ended. How that (and indeed the partnership between Bacharach and David) ended isn’t discussed, and while her controversial involvement with the Psychic Friends Network and bankruptcy are, they’re not examined in much depth. Her sister Dee Dee, who made a lot of records, some very good, without getting big hits isn’t mentioned, although she’s seen in a news clipping. A documentary can’t cover everything, or everything in depth, but some fans, and I’m one, would like to know more. And not necessarily about the negatives—there isn’t anything substantial about her relationship with the Scepter/Wand label, which put out most of her big hits, or Florence Greenberg, who ran the label. Or how she felt about Cilla Black quickly covering and getting a big hit with “Anyone Who Had a Heart,” though that’s been gone over elsewhere. For many subjects, there are supplementary books to fill in a lot of gaps that documentaries can’t address. There hasn’t been a good one by or about Dionne Warwick, and time’s running out to get first-hand comments from those who were there for such a volume.

11. Joan Baez, I Am a NoiseWith a lot of participation from Baez in recent interviews and concert footage from shortly before her retirement from touring, this nearly two-hour film has a greater autobiographical feel than many documentaries. That helps lead to pluses and minuses, the pluses being a good deal of archive footage going back to childhood home movies and 1958 live performance (with sound) at Cambridge’s Club 47. There are also lots of photos, rare documents, and letters (principally by Joan herself) going back to her pre-professional years. Other figures represented by interviews both vintage and done for this project include ex-husband and noted antiwar activist David Harris, her son Gabriel, and other family members. Important junctures in her career that are covered include early appearances at the Newport Folk Festival; her musical and professional relationship with Bob Dylan; her mid-‘70s resurgence with the Diamonds & Rust album and touring with the Rolling Thunder Revue (though, oddly, her one big hit single, a cover of the Band’s “The Night They Rode Old Dixie Down,” is not mentioned); and social activism that at times landed her in jail. Some scenes briefly show a huge archive of Baez material, some of which presumably was sourced for this movie.

Baez also spends a good deal of time ruminating over her difficulties with her family, including intimations of abuse on the part of her father, though the particulars aren’t too thoroughly detailed. She also gives a lot of space to discussion of her psychological problems, often referred to in letters that are blown up on the screen, and sometimes illustrated with animation. There are often transitions between her history and recent scenes of her traveling and on tour, and as often occurs, the recent sections are both less interesting and derail some of the momentum of the pre-1980 stories. Much that could have been covered of her purely musical evolution isn’t here, whether how she got acquainted with the traditional folk music that comprised the bulk of her early repertoire; her at times awkward attempts to move from solo folk to fuller arrangements and rock, which included an attempt at an unreleased mid-‘60s rock album produced by her brother-in-law, Richard Fariña; and her longtime relationships with Vanguard Records and manager Manny Greenhill. One of the recordings heard is a presumably teenaged Baez singing “Why Do Fools in Love,” and it might have been interesting to hear her views on rock, why she opted for folk, and how she felt about how the music scene changed as folk and rock mixed.

Some of this is covered in other books (though not very satisfactorily in Baez’s autobiographies) and liner notes, as well as the 2009 American Masters documentary How Sweet the Sound. I had the feeling, however, that Baez was undervaluing her musical career, or at least underestimating viewers’ interest in it. Maybe that says more about what I want in a documentary than what Baez wanted to express in this one. Still, there’s a gap in Baez’s legacy without a memoir, documentary, or biography that gives more space to her music and influence. Doing such a project wouldn’t prevent her from writing books and being in projects outside of music; Judy Collins, for instance, has also written multiple books, but did focus on her musical prime in Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. Baez did have the sense of humor to mock the cover of her Blowin’ Away album as one of the worst of anyone’s, attributing some of the impetus behind deciding upon the strange attire in which she’s dressed to her use of Quaaludes at the time.

Baez’s sometimes strained relationship with her younger sister Mimi Fariña gets a lot of screen time, and something should be noted about its portrayal. It’s presented as a loving but competitive and sometimes fraught one. Viewers might get the impression Mimi— who played guitar and sang in a duo with first husband Richard Fariña on pretty impressive mid-‘60s albums, as well as doing some later far less noteworthy recordings—wanted to have Joan’s stature as a musician, but lacked the talent and spent her adulthood in her sister’s shadow. Musically that might be true to some extent, but it’s not mentioned that Mimi Fariña founded the esteemed (and still operating) organization Bread and Roses. It presents concerts for parts of the population that might have a hard time going to such events otherwise, such as prisoners and people of all ages struggling with disadvantages. That’s as much of a legacy to society as what Joan did in her own highly valuable work for social causes.

12. Peter Case: A Million Miles Away. As a disclaimer, I’ve known singer-songwriter Peter Case for nearly twenty years, and also been friends with his wife, journalist/author Denise Sullivan (who’s interviewed in this film), for longer than that. I’ve known a few other people interviewed in this documentary too. But I do think this film will be of interest to anyone interested in the more adventurous side of the mainstream music business in the past half century or so, and the more mainstream side of the independent/underground world. Case has sort of straddled those worlds, first as part of new wave groups the Nerves and the Plimsouls in the 1970s and 1980s, and since then as a solo act who has blended and flitted between folk and rock. He’s never made it “big,” in part because, as he acknowledges here, he hasn’t been the greatest at working personal relationships with people who work at labels and publicizing musicians.

This doc has archive clips going back to his days as a street singer in San Francisco in the 1970s, interspersed with excerpts from recent performances. Case recounts his breaks and setbacks with wry humor, as laid out in one of his first interview remarks, when he remembers David Geffen asking him “what happened?” after Peter’s career didn’t take off. “I go, ‘You’re David Geffen,’” Case replied. “You tell me what happened.” He also recounts, with no shame, how he got “lower education” in the San Francisco streets while his peers were getting higher education in school, and how he was dropped from a major label because he was too inexpensive (sic) to promote.

Refreshingly, there aren’t interviews with more famous musicians and writers to validate how important he is; instead, we hear from peers from the world of performers that gained critical respect without stardom, like members of the Balancing Act and Lone Justice, Chuck Prophet, and Case’s ex-wife, fellow singer Victoria Williams. Prophet chips in with a witticism of his own when noting how, along the lines of the oft-quoted line that all of the few people who bought Velvet Underground albums formed bands, all of the few people who bought Case records were also inspired to leave their bands and go solo. Case seems happy enough in his cult-ish niche, though the major scare he endured in his fifties when he needed to have a bypass operation without health insurance is also part of the story, as is the rally of fellow musicians and fans to help cover his expenses.

13. Little Richard, American Masters (PBS). This is an entirely different documentary than the theatrically screened film Little Richard: I Am Everything, which was released shortly before this episode in the American Masters series was broadcast on PBS. Inevitably it covers some of the same ground, but it’s certainly less lively. Maybe that’s to be expected from an installment in a long-running series known for a straightforward style, but it’s less interesting than I Am Everything, even though it’s almost as long. It too mixes vintage interview and performance clips with comments from associates, British Invasion stars Ringo Starr and Keith Richards (both of whom played on bills with Little Richard in their bands’ early days), and  writers. Specialty Records chief Art Rupe is represented by audio, at one point noting the company did everything to get the star to record rock’n’roll again after he went gospel, even withholding royalties as part of that effort. Unlike I Am Everything, Pat Boone is among the interviewees, and while his take that he helped break Little Richard to a wider (and whiter) audience is dubious, at least he’s given the chance to offer his two cents.

As in I Am Everything, the performance clips are too brief. As great as Little Richard was, both documentaries make too much of him as an almost singularly titanic figure, boosted of course by many comments from Richard himself. It’s not an issue worth arguing too fiercely about since his importance is undisputed, but it should be noted, and is not in this film, that he wasn’t the only African-American rock’n’roll pioneer crossing over to white audiences in a big way starting in the mid-1950s; Chuck Berry and Fats Domino were just the biggest of those stars. Finer details about how his 1960s and early 1970s rock’n’roll comeback records on various labels didn’t catch on in a big way aren’t discussed, and Jimi Hendrix’s brief but colorful pre-stardom mid-‘60s stint in Richard’s band isn’t mentioned. If such info’s felt too mundane by documentary filmmakers, it’s out there in various books, though there hasn’t been a great one on the singer. If not as good as I Am Everything, this American Masters installment still adds material to documentary coverage of this icon, though it’s more supplementary than as interesting a film in its own right.

14. Max Roach, American Masters (PBS). The American Masters series broadcast episodes on three major African-American musicians in 2023, a welcome contribution to the PBS schedule. This nearly 90-minute overview of jazz drummer Max Roach was the best of the three as far as how well made a film it was, and would rank higher on this list if I was more of a jazz fan and thus more interested in the subject matter. It offered a lot of interest for me nonetheless, covering his journey from bebop (especially in the lineup he led with Clifford Brown) to Civil Rights-oriented music with then-wife Abbey Lincoln and later projects that focused on solo drumming and percussion ensembles.

With a guy whose career spanned more than half a century and had a discography of well over fifty albums (not counting the many he played on for other bandleaders), it’s not possible to do such a program without leaving a lot out. That might annoy some serious jazz aficionados, but what’s covered is covered well, with some excellent performance footage of his bebop days, excerpts from his Freedom Now Suite (his most well known and arguably most important work, with vocals by Lincoln), his M’Boom percussion orchestra, and even a clip of him and Lincoln performing in Iran in the late 1960s. There are also interviews with several musicians who worked with Roach, and several of his children.

15. Roberta Flack, American Masters (PBS). Like all American Masters episodes on musicians, this mixes archival clips with interviews, some vintage, some recent. It’s artier in its format than most installments in the series, though, using voiceovers instead of talking heads for the interviews. These include not just a lot of comments from Flack, but also from associates like producer Joel Dorn, ex-husband and jazz musician Steve Novosel, some musicians who played with her, and more contemporary journalists and musicians. There’s a lot of detail on her big hits “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” and (with Donny Hathaway) “Where Is the Love.” These include comments by Lori Lieberman, who did the original version of “Killing Me Softly,” and Clint Eastwood, whose use of “First Time” in Play Misty for Me revived interest in Flack’s cover and propelled it to #1 three years after its release on her debut LP. Attention’s also paid to the origination of her pop-jazz-soul in front of club audiences in Washington, DC; the prejudice she endured as a result of her interracial marriage; and a few lesser known songs, including a few of her more socially conscious ones from her early recordings.

It might not have been the intention of those making the film, but this wouldn’t make a big case for her being a major artist, certainly not to those not very familiar with her work. As noted, not too many of her songs are discussed aside from the three big hits, and there’s not much of a sense of how many records she did and what others might have been significant. Maybe room, for instance, could have been made at least for the Janis Ian-penned “Jesse,” her Top Thirty (just) 1973 follow-up to “Killing Me Softly.” The documentary also adheres to the cliché of getting much less interesting after an hour or so, with a lot of space for her association with Peabo Bryson and some general comments from more contemporary artists.

16. Garland Jeffreys: The King of In Between. A singer-songwriter who never broke through to large-scale commercial success despite a lot of critical acclaim, Jeffreys was also hard to classify owing to his mix of rock, soul, reggae, and more. Hence the “in between” of the title, also referring to his mixed-race background. This 70-minute documentary is as modest in scale as his impact on the music scene was, even at his 1970s height, and is standard in format, blending interviews and archive clips. Those interviewed include Jeffreys himself, his wife and daughter, some brief bits of praise from contemporaries like Bruce Springsteen, and colleagues like guitarist Alan Freeman and producer Michael Cuscuna.

Such was the rather subtle and sometimes low-key nature of his work that it’s hard to imagine newcomers being blown away from exposure to it, but the movie, like his music, is reasonably interesting. His volatile relationship with the record industry, which saw him bounce between several labels, had something to do with his failure to make more commercial headway, though this could be said of many artists. There are a good number of brief clips of him in action from the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the strange juncture in which he blackened his face with minstrel-like getup for performance is covered. So is his sole hit of sorts, “Matador” (though then only in a few European countries), whose release as a single was suggested by Gene Simmons. His albums grew sporadic after the early 1980s, and his last few decades are covered lightly, ending with conveying the sentiment that he came to appreciate the devoted following he had rather than ruminate over his lack of greater recognition.

17. The War on Disco (PBS). A polarizing musical and cultural force, disco was both phenomenally popular and widely hated, culminating in a Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey’s Chicago Park in which records were burned and a major league baseball game forfeited. That event is also the key culmination of this hour-long episode of PBS’s American Experience series, which looks at how disco both rose in the 1970s and generated fierce antipathy among many music listeners. This doesn’t have much examination of the music itself and how it evolved out of soul and was produced in the studio, though some key records like “Soul Makossa” and “I Will Survive” are highlighted. The dominant viewpoint in this doc, expressed by some cultural commentators and a few disco performers, is that disco largely grew out of the black and gay communities, and the backlash was from white males who both felt threatened by its cultural expression and disliked the perceived elitism of clubs like Studio 54. Some other viewpoints are expressed, some feeling that the Chicago DJ (Steve Dahl) who spearheaded the Comiskey Park event wasn’t racist, but bitter over getting fired when his station changed format from rock to disco (though he quickly landed a job at another station). The archive footage and photos feature clips of dancers and clubs rather than performers, and naturally the Comiskey Park event where the record blowup grew into beer-fueled chaos.

The following films came out in 2022, but I didn’t see them until 2023:

1. In the Court of the Crimson King: King Crimson at 50This first screened at very select outlets in 2022, and didn’t get its first San Francisco screening—or, apparently, much screening in commercial theaters—until November 2023. So it could have gone into the main section of this list, though it wouldn’t have been too highly ranked. This alternates between interviews with/footage of King Crimson in 2019 and some attention paid to their lengthy history, including interviews with some of their numerous past members and some (and certainly not a ton) of archive clips. If anything, this favors the 2019/recent footage, almost to the extent that it’s as much a documentary of that iteration of the band as it is of King Crimson as a whole. This is a fairly common approach in music documentaries, and not one I usually endorse, especially for a band with a career as lengthy and complex as King Crimson’s. Maybe the filmmaker wouldn’t have had as much access—including a lot of recent interviews with King Crimson mainstay Robert Fripp—as he did without giving the then-current (and still fairly recent) lineup as much weight.

There’s some history here, but in bits that are more tantalizing than satisfying. From the band’s first and still most famous (if short-lived) iteration, Michael Giles, Ian McDonald, and lyricist Pete Sinfield are all interviewed, but without much insight into how the group came up with their highly distinctive brand of progressive rock, or the musical (rather than personal) specifics as to why it quickly collapsed. There are also interviews with important subsequent members like Bill Bruford, Jamie Muir, Mel Collins (who rejoined in the 2010s), and Adrian Belew, but no substantial discussion of how and why the group’s style changed so often (and, sometimes, radically) over the decades. Clips from as early as 1969 (though in crude black and white for that year) and the ‘70s and ‘80s are cool, but very brief. A brief homage in the credits to all the members who aren’t heard from (and, in some cases, not mentioned) fills up an entire screen, including such key names as Greg Lake, David Cross, Boz Burrell, and John Wetton. It could be argued that the main audiences for the film are King Crimson fans who know a lot of that stuff anyway, but then again some of that audience wants to learn more of that stuff, or at least hear and see some surprising and fresh content.

If you want to concentrate on what’s here rather than what’s missing, Robert Fripp lives up to his image as a curmudgeon with stuffy and reasonably amusing comments. These both attest to his musical perfectionism and make clear his disdain for being analyzed, as well as the time such interviews take away from practicing and concentrating on his work. Various fanatical fans testify to the strength of Crimson’s cult—a predominantly male one, it’s fair to say, especially judging from the audience shots from various 2019 concerts. One subplot of the recent coverage is of special note for being poignant without getting maudlin. Multi-instrumentalist Bill Rieflin was part of the group for most of the 2010s though he’d been diagnosed with a terminal illness, spending his final years playing with the band in an effort to do as much as he could before dying in 2020.

2. The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie (Paramount Plus). At around the fiftieth anniversary of this massively popular song, this hour and a half documentary looks at its genesis and realization. It’s stretched out a bit more than it should be to get to its length, but on the whole it’s pretty interesting, even if you’re not a huge fan of the song or McLean. Crucially, it’s not just about the song, also devoting some time to McLean’s early years and recording career. It also goes over the circumstances behind the plane crash that took Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper’s lives, and inspired, if that’s right word, the composition. McLean himself is interviewed a lot, as are some other relevant figures, like producer Ed Freeman, session musician Rob Stoner, and a sister of Valens. Some short segments with contemporary artists performing and discussing “American Pie” aren’t necessary, but they don’t take a lot of screen time.

There are some sides to the story that are interesting and not so well known, like the influence of Tim Hardin’s “Bird on a Wire” on McLean; the crucial role session pianist Paul Griffin played in the hit recording; and a 1971 radio broadcast in which Pete Seeger, with whom McLean had played, hails “American Pie.” McLean also goes through the lyrics and construction of the song in detail (verse by verse at one point), and there’s recent footage from the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Holly, Valens, and the Big Bopper played their last show before their deaths.

3. Nightclubbing: The Birth of Punk Rock in NYC (MVD). This focuses on just two clubs, Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, mostly during the 1970s, when they were both vital to the birth of punk and new wave. There’s considerably more coverage of Max’s than CBGB, although the latter isn’t neglected. It’s a rather modest documentary, without much in the way of star power or amazing vintage footage. But a good number of people from the scene are featured in the interviews, some of them famous or pretty well known, like Alice Cooper, Lenny Kaye, Syl Sylvain of the New York Dolls, and Billy Idol, along with somewhat lesser knowns like Jayne County, Elliott Murphy, and (briefly) Suicide’s Alan Vega. And there are quite a few contributions with more cult or behind-the-scenes figures like photographer Bob Gruen, Max’s booker Peter Crowley, New York Dolls manager Marty Thau, and members of Ruby and the Rednecks and the Testors. 

While you can find out plenty more about Max’s, CBGB, and New York punk/new wave from many other books and documentaries, this still has a lot of decent stories and perspectives that will interest aficionados. Some of them verge on more details that you might want to know (particularly the anatomical ones of County), but insightful points are made about the peculiar attractions and repulsions of each space; how some bands were more interested in getting record deals than making artistic or political statements; and Max’s struggles to simply survive with changes in ownership and financial/legal troubles, which according to some accounts here included counterfeiting money. There isn’t as much performance footage with full audiovideo as there should be, much of the non-talking head visuals filled in by silent clip excerpts and photos. There are, however, a few actual vintage live clips of Murphy, Ruby and the Rednecks, Sid Vicious, and the Testors to evoke the atmosphere of seeing the acts on small stages in the era.