All posts by Folkrox

San Francisco resident Richie Unterberger is the author of numerous rock history books, including Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll and a two-part history of 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High. His book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film won a 2007 Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. His latest books are White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day and Won't Get Fooled Again: The Who from Lifehouse to Quadrophenia. Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High have now been revised/updated/expanded and combined into the ebook Jingle Jangle Morning, which adds a 75,000-word new bonus mini-book. He is also author of The Rough Guide To Music USA, a guidebook to the evolution of regional popular music styles throughout America in the 20th century; The Rough Guide To Jimi Hendrix; The Rough Guide to Seattle; and (as co-author) The Rough Guide to Shopping with a Conscience. He is a frequent contributor to MOJO and Record Collector, and has written hundreds of liner notes for CD reissues. Since 2011, he’s taught courses on rock music history at the College of Marin. He lives in San Francisco. He gives regular presentations on rock and soul history throughout the Bay Area incorporating rare vintage film clips and audio recordings, at public libraries and other venues. Since summer 2011, he has taught community education courses at the College of Marin on the Beatles, San Francisco rock of the 1960s and 1970s, and the history of rock from 1955 to 1980. For more info, go to richieunterberger.com.

Brother From Another Era

My oldest brother, Glenn Unterberger, died unexpectedly in his home just outside Philadelphia on October 14, aged 65. He had many interests besides music, and there were many worthy aspects of his life besides his passions for music and sports. But as those passions were repeatedly cited by relatives and friends at his funeral this week, and as I’m known mostly as a music writer, this tribute will focus on how his musical loves impacted my own life.

Glenn Unterberger, my oldest brother, 1952-2018.

Glenn Unterberger, my oldest brother, 1952-2018.

Glenn was nine years older than I am, and our careers and lives took very different paths. Moving to the San Francisco Bay Area (where I’ve mostly remained since) right after college, I became a writer and, in recent years, a rock music history teacher and lecturer as well. He took the more secure path of practicing law, first with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, DC, and then for a law firm in his native Philadelphia for the last nearly thirty years of his life.

Yet his influence on the way my life turned out was considerable, if somewhat subtle. In my work as a writer and adult education teacher, people often ask me, how do you know so much about music that was made when you were too young to hear it? Well, mostly I learned it on my own, the hard way, listening to whatever I could on oldies and classic rock stations while growing up; reading whatever rock history books I could, though there weren’t many in the 1970s; and buying whatever I could that I got curious about, often on the basis of just a few songs I’d managed to hear that got on the airwaves.

There was no internet to instantly call up a library of millions of vintage songs; no college/public radio stations I could get with specialty shows playing non-hits; no groaning shelves of biographies, histories, and memoirs of pre-1970 rock greats. I didn’t have to walk through three feet of snow to a one-room schoolhouse at 4am, but you get the idea.

But I did have a foundation that most kids my age didn’t. Glenn himself got into rock at an early age — “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun” were a couple of the first records he bought, aged 11. By the time he was 15, he was going to concerts at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory, seeing such greats as Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and Arthur Brown.

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My parents were indifferent to rock music, and what they might have thought if they’d actually seen Hendrix humping his guitar, Pete Townshend smashing his guitar (as he did when Glenn saw him), and Brown running around in a fire-breathing helmet couldn’t have been good. It’s to their credit, however, that they didn’t try to stop him—and, later, me—from listening to whatever they wanted. If I remember right, they even gave him and his friends rides to those Electric Factory shows when he was too young to drive.

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That meant there was rock around the house, if not quite around the clock, a lot more than most other five-to-eight-year-olds had in suburban Philadelphia in 1967-70. He had plenty of singles, sometimes stored sleeveless in those wire racks that did so much to scratch and scuff the vinyl, and lower their financial value to future generations. By the time he entered college in fall 1970, he owned somewhere between 100 and 200 albums, to the best of my recollection. And when he wasn’t listening to what today we might call hard copies, he often had the FM radio on, underground rock emerging as a force on local station WDAS (and slightly later WMMR), as it was in cities throughout the US. 

He and friends also managed to make fairly high-quality reel-to-reel tapes off turntables and, somehow, even off the radio by figuring out how to plug something into the back, years before the cassette and higher-tech stereos would make the process much easier and more painless. I’m not aware of any campaigns by the music industry insisting that reel-to-reel home taping was killing music, but the concept was much the same—friends sharing and filching whatever they could.

Yet this wasn’t done out of any sense of piracy or malice, as the RIAA contends every time technology allows duplication and distribution without a cash exchange. It was simply to acquire and enjoy whatever they could, when very limited budgets meant they couldn’t buy all several dozen or so cool LPs that were seemingly generated on a monthly basis as the album overtook the single as the main commercial and artistic format for rock music. That also meant ordering Columbia Record Club freebies under a series of false names (“Ziggy Gormley” was a favorite) until my parents caught on and put a stop to it. That scene in the Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man where much the same thing happens wasn’t just made-up whimsy (though they unfortunately got the chronology wrong—you couldn’t order Santana and Creedence Clearwater Revival albums in 1967, the groups not having yet released anything). The same thing was likely happening in middle-class homes all over America—and, probably, often in Jewish middle-class homes, as ours was, and the one in the film was as well.

If his record-buying budget was limited, as an eight-year-old too young for an allowance, mine was nonexistent. Hearing rock that wasn’t playing on the radio involved its own form of nefarious sabotage. For me, it was playing Glenn’s records when he wasn’t around. He was pretty tolerant if I wanted to play his singles, maybe feeling he, like many teenagers verging on college, was outgrowing the seven-inch medium. So I got to hear most of the Rolling Stones’ classic 1965-68 hits as 45s, some still in their picture sleeves. I still have a few of them today, and still remember my shock when he told me the blond guy in those photos, Brian Jones, had recently drowned in his swimming pool.

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Wyman

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I even still have the one from the Byrds’ Eight Miles High, though it’s pretty tattered and beat-up by now. Before I’d ever heard the record, I loved the image of drummer Michael Clarke bending a spoon behind an oblivious David Crosby’s head, as if he’s about to flick it right into his noggin—something you could believe wasn’t staged, given how much in-fighting there was in the band.

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There were also a couple by the Beatles that have unfortunately been lost, and I admit to being guilty of trading the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” sleeve for another Beatles rarity. Glenn had been gone from home for a few years by then, and as he was apparently uninterested in moving his collection of 45s with him, I confess to having considered them fair game. But I kept the actual single, of course, playing “Strawberry Fields” over and over again at the height of the “Paul Is Dead” rumor in 1970. It really does sound like John Lennon’s saying “I buried Paul” or “I’m very slow” at the end, not “cranberry sauce,” as John always maintained.

The picture sleeve for the "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" single.

The picture sleeve for the “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever” single.

Most of Glenn’s bedroom walls were covered with photos from Sports Illustrated, but he put up a few 45 sleeves too. Collectors may cringe at the prospect of slapping these onto a wall with scotch tape and such when they’d now command some money if they were in mint condition. But then he wouldn’t have had the pleasure of looking at the Dave Clark Five’s “Try Too Hard” every night, or the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine”—the first image of the foursome I remember seeing.

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Or the Blind Faith family tree he also posted on the wall, which intrigued and baffled me with its lines connecting Eric Clapton from the Roosters and Casey Jones & the Engineers to the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, and Cream; Stevie Winwood from the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic; Ginger Baker from the Graham Bond Organisation and Cream; and the non-superstar of the quartet, Family’s Ric Grech, who looked like a tacked-on leftover in such company. He must have torn this out of the October 1969 issue of Life magazine, after everyone else in the family was done with it.

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If only in retrospect, some of his most valuable 45 finds came in those bargain bins where Woolworth’s and the like would toss flop singles for a dime or so. Or you could buy a ten-pack for a dollar, the downside only being able to inspect the top and bottom labels, the other eight remaining unknown until you’d parted with your bill. Few suspected that many of those cheapo turkeys would be sought-after rarities decades down the line. Not too many survived in his bedroom drawers by the time I got into college and scoured them for goodies to play on my college radio show, but here are a couple:

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Yeah, the Music Machine’s “The People in Me” did make #66 on the national charts, but I didn’t hear it on oldies radio (or anywhere else) once before I spun Glenn’s copy. And it’s a great song, as are a good number of their other singles, despite their unfair stereotype as a trashy one-hit wonder.

I’ve always wondered how this UK import 45 made it into his collection. Imports of any kind were hard to come by in the mid-’60s, especially singles:

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Sure, both of these songs wound up on the Yardbirds’ Having a Rave-Up LP (more of which later), but both are great classic moody Jeff Beck-era cuts. And “Still I’m Sad” has a super-brief strange garbled voice at the end I haven’t heard on any other versions.

I’m a little sorry I didn’t keep a couple more obscure seven-inches he somehow came across, even though I didn’t think the music was that great, and even though the music is easy enough to call up now. One was by the Chicago Loop, the short-lived group that featured Stefan Grossman and Barry Goldberg. Another was this weird Vanilla Fudge EP:

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EPs of any sort, of course, were by the late ’60s rarely issued in the US. I’d never seen one before looking at this as an eight-year-old in 1970, and was kind of weirded out by it. Apparently this was a promo-only release, and I wonder how he managed to get a DJ copy. That was something else that probably found its way into the bargain bin, or grab bag ten-packs.

Another 45 I somewhat inherited of which I have particularly fond memories is hardly a rarity. “Light My Fire” was one of the highest-selling, and one of the greatest, #1 hits of the ’60s. It wasn’t until tenth grade that I got curious enough to play the B-side. It was no small task to do so, by the way. Remember how 45s might accidentally chip at the edges, as if a mouse had bitten off a piece? This one did, though not quite chopping off the soundless groove before the music. You had the put the needle on it very carefully if you didn’t want it to slip off the vinyl onto the turntable, followed by that excruciating high-volume scrape against the spinning wheel. But if you managed to get it onto that sliver of space where it would stay on the seven-inch, you were rewarded by “The Crystal Ship”:

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And when I heard it, I went, WOW! I played that quite a bit in the fall of 1976, when, as hard as it might be to imagine today, the Doors were seldom heard on the radio anymore. It stoked my hunger for more, starting with a greatest-hits collection, but quickly moving on to the self-titled debut album on which the track had first appeared. A few years later I had all the Doors albums; eventually I’d have dozens, if you count all the archival live/rarity releases, box sets, and bootlegs; and now I’m developing a six-week adult education course on the Doors. Glenn’s single is echoing on my work more than four decades later, and I never did tell him what he’d inadvertently started.

What about Glenn’s albums? Well, 100-200 LPs might seem like a measly collection today, but it was pretty big for a teenager in the late ’60s. It does seem like the way we collected records was different. When I got really into groups, I’d really get into them, collecting as close to their complete work as I could, or at least as close to a complete work of what I’d consider their only worthwhile era. That started with the Beatles (everything), went on to the Rolling Stones (only their ’60s material), and eventually on to cult groups like Love (only their first three albums). Glenn’s method looked patchier, maybe because he could fill some of the gaps with his reel-to-reel comps. He had just two Beatles albums (Beatles ’65 and Sgt. Pepper, in retrospect a peculiar tandem), for instance, though he had the entirety of some others (The White Album, Abbey Road, Meet the Beatles) on those homemade reel-to-reels, where he also placed much of their other material and non-LP singles here and there.

The only relatively “complete works” sections I recall were for Jimi Hendrix—he even had that lousy album of stuff Jimi recorded with Curtis Knight before getting famous, maybe taken in by its deceptive marketing as a “new” or “real” Hendrix album—and Cream, whose short career made the task easier. He had most of the Who through Who’s Next too, and before I really knew who the Who were, I delighted in the Happy Jack (as it was titled in the US) LP’s daft instrumental “Cobwebs and Strange.” It was impossibly silly and, as I remember, a performance at which Glenn always laughed, though he must have heard it many times before he played it a few more for his younger brothers’ benefit.

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Some of the records intrigued me by their covers and titles alone, long before I really paid in-depth attention to the music. One was The Worst of Jefferson Airplane. It was actually a best-of collection of sorts, of course, but the irony was lost on an eight-year-old. Why in the world would anyone put out a comp of their worst stuff, I thought? And what was the beyond-weird instrumental “Chushingura” doing on it? (Actually, I still wonder WTF it was doing there.) 

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Then there was the cover for In the Court of the Crimson King—as guaranteed to give a young guy nightmares as the scariest episodes of Night Gallery. The record was as good as the cover, but I wouldn’t fully appreciate that until I got my own copy almost a decade after its release. Glenn had their second album (In the Wake of Poseidon) too, which also had good eerie artwork. Artwork, I dare say, much more interesting than the record itself, which was neither too similar to nor nearly as good as its predecessor:

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The cover for King Crimson's second LP, Wake of Poseidon (bottom), was almost as good as the cover for their debut (top), but the music wasn't half as memorable.

The cover for King Crimson’s second LP, Wake of Poseidon (bottom), was almost as good as the cover for their debut (top), but the music wasn’t half as memorable.

Aficionados of private pressings, small local labels, rare indie discs, and the like will be disappointed to hear that he had little in the way of product by bands known primarily in his city or region. There were a couple of exceptions, though these were of the most renowned such groups. There were albums by the Nazz and Mandrake Memorial, both of which were by far the most successful acts of the psychedelic age from Philadelphia, a town with a fairly meager white rock scene considering its status as one of the five most populous cities in the country.

Mandrake Memorial's debut LP is one of the better relatively unknown psychedelic albums.

Mandrake Memorial’s debut LP is one of the better relatively unknown psychedelic albums.

Neither of those bands made much of a nationwide or for that matter global impact, though they were quite popular in their hometown, and Nazz leader Todd Rundgren of course went on to a still-ongoing career as a solo star. They often appeared on bills with much bigger touring acts, and I wonder if that helped Glenn become aware of them, though they got their share of radio airplay too. Especially the Nazz, who actually had a big double-sided local hit with “Hello It’s Me”/”Open My Eyes.” That single only got to #66 nationally (with the B-side charting at #112 in its own right), but must have been big in Philly, as I remember it getting quite a bit of airtime on AM radio shortly after I started listening (yes, I was able to listen to AM radio at night in the late 1960s, as young as I was). 

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So big was it that I assumed it must have been a hit all over the country, but it was one of the later examples of the regional variation in sales/airplay that’s now far rarer in the US. Wikipedia informs me “Open My Eyes” was a #1 hit at WMEX in Boston, and that both sides were often played in late 1969 and early 1970 on Philadelphia FM station WMMR by Michael Tearson, who went on to a very long career at that station and Sirius XM (and whom I often listened to in the ’70s, not suspecting that he’d become familiar with my writing and eventually meet me for dinner in 2010). 

This won’t fly well with some ’60s rock fanatics, but I think those two songs were by far the best Nazz cuts—which, before anyone gets angry, were two more great tracks than most groups manage to come up with in their entire lifetimes. When Rundgren had a big solo hit with “Hello It’s Me” a few years later, I not only thought the remake notably inferior to the original, but was astonished that no one I knew—remember, these would have been junior high students who were seven years old or less when the Nazz version came out—seemed to be aware of its existence.

Years after Glenn was gone at college, he stopped schlepping his LPs back and forth. To my memory, for his last year or two at school, he left most or maybe even all of them at home. Although I probably was supposed to keep my hands off, I seized the opportunity to audition quite a few records on my own, mostly British Invasion discs. So it was I got my first extended exposure, via best-ofs, to Gerry & the Pacemakers, the Animals, and the Kinks.

Gerry

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I quickly determined that Gerry and his gang might have come from the same town (Liverpool) as the Beatles, but weren’t nearly as good—not one-tenth as good, in fact, and (unlike the Beatles) pretty nerdy. The Animals (whose “House of the Rising Sun” I’d already heard and enjoyed plenty) were much better, but I was mystified by the liner note’s backhanded slight against the Beatles—”my mother, who follows the pattern of most mothers, is now an avid fan of the Beatles (they’re clean).” The Kinks were real kool, especially that berserk guitar solo in “All Day of the Night.” I never could have predicted that more than 40 years later, I’d have the opportunity to interview the guy who played that solo, Dave Davies, for hours.

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And there were three albums by the Yardbirds, highlighted by Having a Rave-Up with the Yardbirds, side one of which (as was written by someone else years before I became a professional writer) is one of the best LP sides of studio tracks recorded by anyone. All of those songs featured Jeff Beck as lead guitarist; somehow, though Beck was in the band when the album was released, all of the songs on side two were older live recordings (first heard on the UK LP Five Live Yardbirds) taken from 1964 performances by the man Beck had replaced, Eric Clapton. Even then, when I was 11 or whatever, I thought it was a weird juxtaposition, and pretty obvious the Beck era was a significant upgrade. I thought better of the live Clapton cuts when I was finally able, in 1979, to hear the Five Live Yardbirds album in its entirety, instead of just the half airlifted to fill out a US longplayer.

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But getting back to Glenn, the other two Yardbirds LPs occasioned some of the more embarrassing faux pas of my early record collecting career. One of their greatest achievements, the 1966 single “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (one of their few recordings from the few months in which both Beck and Jimmy Page were in the lineup), was for many years unavailable on LP. Except, that is, on their Greatest Hits compilation. Which Glenn had, though by the time I realized you could only hear it there, it wasn’t there. It was in DC, where he had in fact relocated his entire collection by the mid-’70s.

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On a visit my parents and I made to the suburban DC apartment where he was living with his wife while I was in high school, I took advantage of his invitation to play anything I wanted. I went right for “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” thinking that the stereo was set up so it would only play through headphones. It wasn’t. My parents came running out of their guest room—everyone else was getting ready to go to sleep—commanding me to turn it down, or better yet, off. Suitably chastened, I did quickly figure out how to cut off the main speakers and listen to it through the headphones. Certainly no one else was demanding to hear the whole track, which was discontinued long before it even got to the atomic guitar solo.

The other Yardbirds album was Little Games. Their only studio LP with Jimmy Page as lead guitarist, I found it just as disappointing as reviews of it in rock encyclopedias had led me to expect, though a few of the cuts were fairly-to-very-good. Glenn kindly said I could borrow it, though it ended up being an, um, permanent loan, as I never did get around to returning it. It’s not the proudest moment of my record collecting career, even if it’s a practice, in all honesty, I never did repeat. But it does testify to our shared passion for the band, Glenn telling me about 20 years later that he was reading a Yardbirds bio online, agreeing with its assessments, and thinking the critic really knew their stuff—and, arriving at the byline on the bottom, realizing it was written by his youngest brother. Validation!

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Going back to 1970, Glenn would occasionally let me and my other brothers hear some of the music he’d taped onto reel-to-reels off friends’ turntables and the radio, but didn’t have on vinyl. I still remember the thrill of hearing Meet the Beatles and getting, although this lingo was not yet in common use, blown away by the sheer quality and variety of songs. Shortly afterward, I’d make Meet the Beatles the first album I owned, asking for it when I was entitled to a present of my choice (the only way for an eight-year-old could obtain such an item).

By this time a senior in high school, Glenn was noticing I’d be playing records on his equipment when he wasn’t around, his complaints leading my parents to buy me a cheap turntable of my own—not the most graceful way to get something I wanted, but another testimony to our shared fanaticism for rock’n’roll. At least by that time, I had the Beatles’ “Let It Be” single—with its (then) seldom-played B-side “You Know My Name,” which we’d laughed at together when he played it off a tape, I incredulous at its sheer strangeness, a la the Who’s “Cobwebs and Strange.”

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Also on reel-to-reel was The White Album, which as mentioned he consented to play for us from top to bottom, though just once, in part because that took a good hour and a half. That led to another of my not-too-proud-to-remember stolen-music moments, when I and another brother determined we could listen to this reel-to-reel on our own when neither he nor our parents were home. It didn’t take long, naturally, for Glenn to discover we were doing this—maybe we stored the tape tails in instead of tails out, or something like that. That was the end of our secret reel-to-reel session, and I might have been too embarrassed to ask him to play me anything off the reel-to-reels after that.

As long as we’re on the Beatles, by the way, I recall Glenn telling me in early 1970 he’d just heard a new Beatles single on the radio. This was right before or around the time they were breaking up, and also just after I’d become a Beatles nut, trying to hear or find out anything I could about them. This was more exciting news than the arrival of the Messiah, and I excitedly pressed him for more details.

To my surprise and disappointment, he was kind of vague and lukewarm about what he’d heard, only able to comment that it was kind of like a cowboy song. This wouldn’t have been the Beatles tune most likely to fit that description, “Rocky Raccoon,” which had been on The White Album (which he had, if only on reel-to-reel) for more than a year by that point. I wonder if it was “For You Blue,” the George Harrison-penned-and-sung number used as the B-side to “The Long and Winding Road,” the first posthumous Beatles single. That’s much more of a blues than a cowboy song, but it does have kind of a loping, galloping feel.

Glenn had many reel-to-reels, at least several dozen I think, which were double-sided, probably accommodating about two hours of music each. The tracks on each were meticulously and neatly handwritten, amounting to his generation’s equivalents of what we’d call “mixtapes” when cassettes came into vogue. Amongst the expected songs by the Beatles, Traffic, the Doors, and the like were real oddities, at least in that company, that never got too much sales or attention. There were, for instance, items by the Beacon Street Union and Earth Opera—maybe they were getting airplay at the height of the “Bosstown Sound” hype.

You could also tell when he didn’t care much about some acts others would consider legendary. There was very little Bob Dylan, for instance (I remember “Positively 4th Street” was on one of them), and if you’re thinking he didn’t want to duplicate material he had on vinyl, he didn’t have any Dylan LPs or singles. There was just one Velvet Underground cut, “White Light/White Heat,” though in fairness they were not getting much airplay or sales at the time, and far less known than, say, Traffic, or maybe even (in Philadelphia, anyway) the Nazz.

These tapes were eventually left behind at home when he went to college, and, unlike his LPs, not destined to travel with him when he married shortly after graduation and moved to DC. That meant I was at liberty to play those reel-to-reels without fear of punishment. Alas, the relatively cumbersome task of threading it onto a machine and cueing up to the songs I wanted meant I did little of that, at a time when I did have some of my own vinyl to play. I do remember finding and playing the early Beau Brummels hits “Laugh Laugh” and “Just a Little” on one of those tapes. But eventually they’d be thrown out, their only use in the digital age as documentation of what one teenaged rock fan was listening to back in the late ’60s, as captured on those handwritten tape boxes.

So after all this early exposure to music we both loved, did we end up getting the same things in collections that expanded to thousands, comparing notes on new discoveries? No. As far as I could tell, his shelves of discs grew little after the early 1970s. There were other, newer interests occupying his time. Those included working as the sports editor on the University of Pennsylvania’s paper, preparing for application to graduate school, and, most significantly, meeting his future wife, Alyse, whom he married in 1975, spending the last 45 years of his life with her.

Eventually much of his passion resurfaced, especially when he was able to play the music for his two now-grown sons (one of whom, my nephew Andrew, now writes for Billboard magazine). In turn, my nephews made him aware of much more contemporary music. Even if he never took to twenty-first century sounds with quite the energy he gave to ’60s rock, I remember being surprised when he mentioned listening to the Decemberists in his office.

It’s also worth noting that during this entire period he, like millions of young American men, was under threat of getting drafted to serve in the Vietnam War. When the draft changed to a lottery system, his birthdate, December 4, drew #1—meaning he was in the very most likely group to be inducted into the military. Like many young men of the time, he had a college deferment, and the draft was thankfully eliminated in 1973, well before his graduation.

I bring this up not only because it might have complicated his record-collecting life, but also because he’d played Country Joe & the Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” for me back in the late 1960s. Back then as a six- or seven-year old, I’d laughed at its sheer jovial novelty, much as I’d treated “Cobwebs and Strange” and “You Know My Name.” It is a funny song, but I was oblivious to the quite serious issues it was satirizing in lines like “be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in the box.” Glenn was laughing too, but it must have been a nervous laugh, knowing even at the age of 15 of how that might happen to him or people he knew.

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Much later, my parents and I (without Glenn) visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in DC, shortly after its 1982 opening. I’m grateful his name was not on it. As many now remember, the memorial was quite controversial when it was unveiled, in part because it seemed to be burrowing into the ground. While my family was liberal and opposed to the war, they had not expressed their opposition (or strong political opinions of any sort) too vocally or angrily, at least in my presence. But talking about how the memorial seemed to be going into the ground sparked an uncharacteristically blunt remark from my mother, who blurted, “That’s where that war belongs.”

Fear of losing her first-born son was still fresh nearly a decade after the draft was abolished. By that time those were sentiments with which I wholeheartedly agreed, even if that’s now tempered with acknowledgment that we must remember what happened if we’re to avoid such tragic waste in the future.

By this time, in many ways my knowledge of music from this era was surpassing Glenn’s—not just because my collection had grown into the hundreds, but also because of my voracious appetite for finding out anything I could about rock history. Eventually it would grow into the thousands, and I’d write a dozen or so rock history books. Now I’ve taught adult/community education courses on rock history, on almost a dozen different subjects.

This isn’t to say I was smarter than him, or even that I was more passionate about the music of the time. But unlike him, I made it a big part of my life’s work, discovering acts—let’s take the Pretty Things, as one of the more celebrated examples—of which he and most Americans were totally unaware of in the ’60s. Or even “deep tracks” (a term not in common use back in the day) by stars he was well aware of, from the Kinks and the Byrds to the Who and Hendrix. Although I was pleasantly surprised to learn from a close friend of his, the evening of Glenn’s funeral, that he actually was a fan of the Move—a group barely any more familiar to Americans than the Pretty Things, though they had numerous UK hits.

The Move never did explode in the US, despite this ad's confident prediction.

The Move never did explode in the US, despite this ad’s confident prediction.

It’s fitting that the last time I saw Glenn this year in San Francisco, where I live, we spent hours talking about music and baseball, passions he shared and handed down with so many of his friends and relatives. But the most important inspiration Glenn gave to me wasn’t about rock’n’roll, sports, or his many other interests. It was in the way he lived his life, always thinking about others before he thought of himself; committing good deeds for his family, community, and at his workplace; and doing so with such humility, never making those around him feel like he was doing them favors or expecting any in return.

For Glenn, practicing good values was part of his daily life, whether shouldering much of the responsibility for taking care of my parents in their final years; speaking about the importance of environmental sustainability at his synagogue; or, yes, not losing his cool when his eight-year-old kid brother listened to his records and tapes when he wasn’t at home, even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to do that. He was gone too soon, and we’ll miss him every day. But the way he put his principles and his passions into his life will always be with me, and, in an apt footnote, continues to be heard today.

At his funeral service, the rabbi mentioned Glenn had read from the Book of Ecclesiastes just a couple weeks ago, and quoted the very lines Pete Seeger adapted into “Turn! Turn! Turn!”—a song that, in turn, the Byrds turned into a #1 folk-rock hit. A song that, as it happens, I used as part of the title of one of my books, Turn! Turn! Turn!: The 1960s Folk-Rock Revolution.

And that evening, one of his closest friends told me how Glenn won a coveted prize at a party back in the mid-1960s: the Byrds’ second album, also titled Turn! Turn! Turn! It was a time, he explained, when getting any LP was a big deal for a 13-year-old with little disposable income, let alone a good album by one of the top bands of the era. And then I remembered Turn! Turn! Turn!‘s continued presence, years later, in his library of albums.

Glenn’s voice continues to echo in my life and work. He continues to speak to me, even today.

ByrdsTurn

 

Père Lachaise Cemetery: Jim Morrison and the Graves Beyond

Most of my posts about hikes and bike outings are for relatively untouristed spots in the Bay Area. So what’s a piece about Père Lachaise  Cemetery doing here? It’s the biggest cemetery in one of the most heavily touristed places in the world, Paris, drawing more than 3.5 million annual visitors. That makes it the most visited cemetery in the world, let alone Paris.

The main entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

The main entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Well, I was there in July, and while I’ve been there a few times before, I didn’t have a camera with me then. And there is a music connection to some of the numerous celebrities buried here, most famously Jim Morrison, the only one with a strong (and it’s extremely strong) connection to rock history. So why not a post with photos from Père Lachaise, emphasizing some of the lesser known and less celebrity-oriented corners of this massive space?

That noted, I’m starting with a picture of Morrison’s grave, the most popular attraction within one of the most popular attractions in Paris:

Morrison

As even many Doors fans who haven’t been here know, the grave has frequently had to been cleaned, as it’s been overrun by graffiti and countless mementoes left here — not all of which are the pretty innocuous ones you see in my picture. I’ve never seen hard drugs left here, but I’ve heard they have, in addition to the marijuana joints you might well spot depending on when you come. I’ve also heard that unruly partiers disturb the peace here, especially at night, when you have to make unauthorized climbs to get in the grounds. 

I must say that on each of my visits dating back to the early 1990s, the crowds gathered at the grave — and there are usually a dozen to two dozen or so — have been quite respectful. Even when there was a tape machine playing Doors music, fans were just smiling and bopping along to songs like “The Soft Parade,” and not in any way creating disturbance. There’s still controversy about whether Morrison should remain here, and the site has to be guarded, even in the broad daylight of late afternoon, which is when I took this photo. And yes, the grave isn’t all that easy to find (get a map inside the gates for the specifics), though if you follow the paths that more people seem to be taking than any others, you can likely get there without one.

Beyond the celebrities, however, Père Lachaise is simply an amazing place to visit, even if it didn’t hold any famous names. It’s kind of a mini-city in itself, with streets of sorts both leafy and haunting:

ShadyLeaves

Haunted

I especially like the many picturesque graves of people who aren’t at all famous, often embellished with tasteful and moving keepsakes. Here’s one of a woman who died in her early thirties in 2014:

VanessaPichard

Some of the more ancient ones are shells of their former selves:

Empty

Some of the structures surrounding the graves are as or more elaborate than the gravestones:

Tires

And the varied landscapes make for some haunting hillsides of sorts:

Hillside

Some of the most affecting parts of the cemetery, however, commemorate incidents in French history that are among the nation’s most troubling from the past 150 years. Most famously, the Communards’ Wall marks where more than a hundred communists were shot in May 1871:

MortsWall

MortsPlaque

Just as soberly, several monuments mark the deportation and deaths of French Jews in World War II:

Buchenwald

Auschwitz

Enfants

Flossenburg

Sachsenausen

Getting back to the famous people buried here, Jim Morrison’s grave hasn’t been the only one defaced. Here’s Oscar Wilde’s grave, and below that, the sign that’s posted nearby:

OscarWilde

AuPublic

Of the non-rock recording artists, the most internationally famous is Edith Piaf:

Piaf

Sometimes missed is the nearby grave for her daughter Marcelle Dupont, who died at the age of two: 

MarcelleDupont

Piaf is famous throughout the world, but French cemeteries carry reminders that many of the country’s stars are primarily known in France. Such as Gilbert Bécaud, whose grave is quite ornate:

Piano

Becaud

“Thanks,” reads the inscription in the above picture. “Your public won’t forget you.” Which you could also say, many times over, for the memorials to Morrison, Wilde, Piaf, and the victims of government atrocities elsewhere in Père Lachaise.

The Rolling Stones Dartford Tour

Lots of people, including myself, visit sites marking where the Beatles grew up in Liverpool. In fact, there are a number of tours that will take you around — the best by some distance is the one that goes into Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s childhood homes (https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/beatles-childhood-homes). A good number of people go to Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, Mississippi, and of course tons go to Graceland in Memphis. No doubt there are some other rock landmark tours — it’s not official, but a fellow writer took me around to places in Belfast where Van Morrison grew up and mentioned in his songs. 

But few people visit landmarks of the Rolling Stones’ early years. In part that’s because, unlike the Beatles, they didn’t all grow up in the same town. All but Brian Jones were raised in London or near London, Jones hailing from Cheltenham near the Welsh border. But London’s vast and the other four weren’t near each other. Except, that is, for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who both grew up in the London suburb of Dartford. That is, if you can accurately call this town of nearly 100,000 about a forty-minute train ride from the big city a suburb — more on that later.

Considering the Stones are (or at least were) the most popular group in the world bar the Beatles, and that Jagger and Richards were (and are) the most important members, it’s a little surprising there aren’t more pilgrims. There is, however, at least one operator of regular Stones-Dartford tours. I and a friend took it on a July Sunday. We didn’t have any trouble booking it — actually, we were the only two on the tour, the operator taking us around for a couple hours in his car.

I’d have to say that if you’re not a big Stones fan, you’ll be pretty nonplussed by the tour, which takes you around to a series of buildings that most would find nondescript if not for their Jagger-Richards associations. (And you do need a car to see them in a couple hours; Dartford’s not that big, but the sites are fairly spread out around town.) If you drag someone along who’s not pretty passionate about the band, they’ll likely feel kind of like I do when I tag along with friends looking at tapestries. But if, like me, you are intensely interested in their history, it’s worth doing, if only to get a sense of how utterly average Mick and Keith’s surroundings were until they helped form the Rolling Stones.

The most significant stop is actually the very first one, and something you can easily visit on your own if you wish. It’s the Dartford train station platform where the pair met on October 17, 1961, setting into motion the events that led them into the Rolling Stones. Indeed, the spot’s now marked by a blue plaque honoring its significance:

StationPlaque

Sure, there’s not much space for explanatory text on these plaques, but it’s not quite accurate. Mick and Keith did know each other casually at various points while growing up in Dartford, and this didn’t mark the first time they met. And as I heard very quickly when I posted this picture on social media, many fans took exception to the plaque’s claim that they “went on to form the Rolling Stones.” In their view, it was Brian Jones, or Brian Jones and keyboardist Ian Stewart, who formed the band, or at least got together to form a band that Jagger and Richards joined very shortly afterward. I don’t find this important enough to argue or get upset about. I think that Jones, Stewart, Jagger, and Richards were all important in the initial stage of the Stones’ evolution, which was quite complicated and would see a number of people go in and out of the lineup until they settled on five members (not including Stewart) in early 1963.

But this was the meeting that sparked Mick and Keith’s very close personal friendship and musical collaboration. The story’s pretty well known (even to some non-Stones fans), but after they recognized each other while waiting for a train, Richards spotted albums Jagger was carrying from Chess Records — a label that issued many records by some of their favorite artists, like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters. That got them to discovering they had very strong common musical interests, as well as both knowing another budding musician into the same material, Dick Taylor (an original Rolling Stone, though he left by the end of 1962 to found the Pretty Things). 

So yes, it was a momentous occasion well worth marking, though maybe not worth the hour and a half roundtrip train ride from London just for the plaque alone. Otherwise it’s an unremarkable train platform:

Platform

As a side note, only about ten days before taking this tour, I actually saw Dick Taylor performing. The Pretty Things have a lengthy, fascinating history that can’t be summed up in a paragraph (and there’s a whole big chapter about them in my book Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ’60s Rock if you’re curious). Suffice to say they were the best British Invasion band never to make it in the US, and sounded much like a raw Rolling Stones in the mid-’60s, unsurprisingly as they drew from very similar influences. On July 13, 2018, I saw them give what was introduced as their last London club performance, with Taylor and original singer Phil May still in the band:

Dick Taylor (left) and Phil May of the Pretty Things onstage at the Half Moon Putney, July 13, 2018.

Dick Taylor (left) and Phil May of the Pretty Things onstage at the Half Moon Putney, July 13, 2018.

Of greater surprise to me, when I referred to Dartford as a London suburb in my social media posts, I quickly heard back from a couple British residents who took exception to this categorization. “Technically, Dartford has never been a London suburb,” wrote one.  “It has never been part of any unitary authority centred in London (the LCC or its successor, the GLC) and it isn’t even part of the Metropolitan Police Area. Just why this is so, I can’t really say, any more than I can explain why Watford and Epsom were never included in Greater London for administrative purposes.” Another simply stated, “Dartford is in Kent, it’s not a London suburb.” Now, most small-ish cities/large towns twenty miles or so from one of the biggest cities in the world would be, I’d say, fairly described as suburbs, at least in the sense US residents use the term “suburb.” My main point, as I explained, is that Dartford is near but not part of London, a forty-minute or so train journey away.

Getting back to the Dartford train station, I’d guess the surrounding area has changed a lot since 1961. Walk over the road and there’s a huge shopping center. It’s as impersonal as its US counterparts, though a theater was staging a production based on the Rolling Stones’ biggest rivals:

LetItBe

And Dartford being proud of whomever famous they can dig up who was also born in the town, there was a permanently mounted poster honoring artist Peter Blake, most famous for his work as a designer for the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album:

PeterBlake

Get a bit away from the train station area, and there are older buildings and less rampant modern development, some of which have strong Stones associations. Here’s the hospital where they were born, though as I remarked to the tour operator, it looks more like a doctor’s office than a hospital:

Hospital

Then there’s the Holy Trinity Church where Mick was christened and Keith sang in the choir — actually quite an aged structure, with the oldest parts dating back to medieval times:

Church

Cities don’t in general do much to honor living rock legends, and Dartford’s no exception. There is a statue of Jagger, but it’s way off the beaten path in the town’s Central Park. It’s so far along a path leading away from the park’s chief open space, in fact, that it’s not too easy to find unless you have a guide. The statue’s so slender that even within feet of reaching it, the sideways view makes it look like some piece of metal sticking up from the ground until you get right in front of it:

Statue

It’s not obvious, but the thing in front of the bench that looks like a small metal door is supposed to represent a Vox amplifier. Why? The answer’s revealed later in the tour.

Mick and Keith didn’t live in the same homes the whole time they were growing up, and the tour visits two former residences of each Stone. Here’s the earlier one for Richards, above a shop:

1stKeithHome

Unremarkable, certainly, except for a plaque marking its significance:

1stKeithPlaque

Rock god, sure. But “cult film star”? Is that really worth mentioning on a plaque?

It’s impossible to get a good clear picture, but inside the window of the store (which was closed it being a Sunday), there was a photo of Keith coming back to visit the building many years later:

KeithPicture

The first of Mick’s childhood homes on the tour is just a couple blocks or so away. As Jagger and Richards were born just half a year or so apart, certainly they must have run across each other in the neighborhood. Mick’s building is yet less remarkable than Keith’s:

1stMickHome

You could say the same about the nearby primary school they both attended for a while:

PrimarySchool

The next stop was Mick’s subsequent childhood home. It’s not that visually stimulating, but it does generate a little more thought. It’s pretty big — certainly big for a suburban London home for a family of four (Mick has a younger brother) in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Jagger’s final years in Dartford. His father was a physical education instructor, which isn’t a profession we associate with affluence, but the family must have had some decent income and resources. Or, at least, more than the Richards family, whose subsequent home (coming up later) was bigger than their earlier one, but not as big as this one. It’s a little like seeing the difference in size between McCartney and Lennon’s childhood homes — Lennon might have put “Working Class Hero” on his first album, but he definitely had a much bigger and nicer house than McCartney or the other Beatles had. 

2ndMickHome

Part of the reason Mick and Keith didn’t know each other that well before their train station summit was that after going to the same primary school in early childhood, they attended different institutions. Jagger went to Dartford Grammar School, which now also houses the Mick Jagger Centre, a “multi-use facility holding a music venue, theatre, dance studio, meeting rooms and bar/café which are all available to hire on request,” according to its website.

JaggerGrammar

JaggerCentre

Just a few blocks away from Dartford Grammar School is an arguably more interesting structure. While Jagger was going to school nearby, a brand of equipment the Rolling Stones and many other ’60s bands used was being developed just a few blocks away, as the plaque on the building declares:

Vox

So that’s why there’s a Vox amp near the statue of Jagger in Dartford Central Park. It’s not a very big or impressive looking building, and is now occupied by an entirely unrelated business:

AdsCentre

The last stop on the tour was Keith Richards’s other, later childhood home. Visually unexceptional, it does naturally have a plaque explaining its importance:

2ndKeithHouse

2ndKeithPlaque

I’m well aware these photos don’t make for a stunning spread, or even one as interesting as other childhood homes of future heroes, like the ones of the Beatles or Elvis. What they do reflect, however, was how utterly ordinary a suburb Dartford was, and is.

When Mick and Keith were getting turned on to the artists of Chess Records, I imagine it must have fueled their hunger to see more of the world. Or at least something different and more exciting than the plain and predictable, if safe and secure enough, neighborhoods in which they lived and went to school and church. Going to Chicago, home of Chess Records and the greatest blues artists, wasn’t an option. But going to London was, and only a year or so after meeting on the train platform, Jagger, Richards, and Brian Jones were living together in a legendarily squalid apartment in the city’s Chelsea district, in Edith Grove.

As Robert Christgau’s chapter on the Rolling Stones in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll noted, “Only two of them [Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman] came from working class backgrounds…This is not to say the Stones were rich kids; only Brian qualified as what Americans would call upper middle-class. Nor is it to underestimate the dreariness of the London suburbs or the rigidity of the English class hierarchy.” (Hey, there’s another US writer referring, if indirectly, to Dartford as a suburb!) Rock’n’roll, soul, and the blues didn’t offer Mick and Keith a route from poverty; they weren’t poor, though Mick’s family seemed a lot better off than Keith’s. But it did give them a route out of the suburban lifestyle that Dartford certainly reflects.

 

Beatles Hamburg Landmarks

Considering that 55-60 years have passed, it’s amazing how many of the most important landmarks of the Beatles’ stints in Hamburg survive. Just one major site—unfortunately, a very major one (details later)—is gone. Otherwise, the clubs they played, the places they stayed, and some other odds and ends (including the doorway of a very famous photograph) are pretty intact, if understandably usually altered. It took a long time for me to get here, but almost fifty years after I first read about their Hamburg visits (at the age of eight in Hunter Davies’s Beatles biography, back in 1970), I finally made my pilgrimage in July 2018.

The Indra, the first club the Beatles played in Hamburg.

The Indra, the first club the Beatles played in Hamburg.

To be honest, if you’re not a big Beatles fan and don’t make the connections between these landmarks and their early history, they don’t look like much. I was here on my own, but I imagine that if you’re visiting with someone who’s not a fan (or even if they’re a casual fan), they might feel like I do when I tag along with fellow travelers eager to linger over vintage tapestry collections.

Hamburg, however, was the most crucial city to the Beatles’ evolution, other than their Liverpool birthplace. It was here they mutated, in just a couple years or so, from a ragtag semi-pro outfit who couldn’t find a permanent drummer to—without exaggeration—the best group in the world.

They certainly were by the time they played their last Hamburg show on New Year’s Eve in 1962, even if you can’t quite tell from the surviving lo-fi recordings of them in late December of that year at the Star Club. Playing for eight hours or so a night (with some breaks) for weeks or months on end not only accelerated their growth, but forced them to drastically expand their repertoire. Also important was their exposure to the St. Pauli district’s seedy nightlife, which similarly accelerated their growth from teenagers to adults.

There are Beatles landmarks throughout the St. Pauli district, but the most vital are concentrated on the Grosse Freiheit, a small but vibrant street off the western edge of the area’s main drag, the Reeperbahn. Three of the four clubs they played in Hamburg were here, within about a block of each other. The Reeperbahn entrance to Grosse Freiheit is marked by Beatles Platz, its circular shape meant to mimic a record.

Four Beatles statues on Beatles Platz.

Four Beatles statues on Beatles Platz.

To the side, the lone statue representing Stuart Sutcliffe.

To the side, the lone statue representing Stuart Sutcliffe.

Five spindly statues on Beatlesplatz represent the group as they were when they first played Hamburg between August 1960 and mid-1961. Four are grouped together; one, of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe (who left in mid-1961 and died in spring 1962), is considerably off to the side. The idea behind these not-immediately-identifiable-images is for you to pose inside them as if you’re actually one of the Beatles. Yet less immediately apparent are the song titles inscribed into the Platz, which name many of their biggest hits from throughout their career.

"Let It Be," the final song title inscribed onto Beatles Platz.

“Let It Be,” the final song title inscribed onto Beatles Platz.

The first club the Beatles played in Hamburg was the Indra, though they didn’t draw much due both to its small size and their relative inexperience. Remarkably, it’s still there and still a music club, though a bit removed from the main action, about half a block north of where the other commercial establishments end. 

IndraSign

Translation of Indra club plaque:

Translation of Indra club plaque: “On August 17, 1960, the Beatles took the stage at the Indra. It was their first German engagement and the beginning of a huge career.”

Often missed by passerby are some interesting photos and posters above the entrance, which you have to get very close to in order to make out. The Beatles poster is of their last show in Hamburg — not in the Indra or even St. Pauli, but in the Ernst-Merck-Halle, as by this June 1966 gig they were global superstars, not a struggling club band. Less common are the photos of Jimi Hendrix; though he didn’t play the Indra, he did play the Star Club in March 1967.

BeatlesBlitztourneePoster

HendrixBetweenlegs HendrixBehindBack

Experience

The Indra closed about six weeks into the Beatles’ first visit, and they moved to the Kaiserkeller. Though less than a block away, it was much better situated to draw in the foot traffic from Grosse Freiheit, and a much bigger and better venue. It’s still here and still a club, with a doorway poster for some of their shows. Note they’re billed below, and in much smaller type than, fellow Liverpool group Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (misspelled “Hurican”), whose drummer was Ringo Starr.

Kaiserkeller

RoryStorm

The Star Club, the final and biggest place the Beatles played in Hamburg for 1962 engagements, was just across the street and south of the Kaiserkeller. Unfortunately the building burned down in 1987, and the former entrance now looks a bit like a mini-mall:

StarClubEntrance

The entrance to the former Star Club, as it looks today.

But at least there’s a marker in the large open space inside, commemorating some of the many legends who played the Star Club. Besides the Beatles, these included fellow Liverpool bands both famous (the Searchers) and relatively obscure (Ian & the Zodiacs). But quite a few are great acts from elsewhere (you’ll have to blow up the picture to read them), including the Pretty Things, the Spencer Davis Group, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the Walker Brothers, and US rock’n’roll greats like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers, and Ray Charles — an amazing roster (and this is just a partial list, missing some notable names like Jimi Hendrix,  Cream, and Soft Machine).

StarClubMarker

The interior of the space the Star Club used to inhabit at least gives a good idea of how big it was.

The interior of the space the Star Club used to inhabit at least gives a good idea of how big it was.

Grosse Freiheit itself is still teeming with gaudy nightlife, and many locals and tourists who likely aren’t there to pay homage to the Beatles:

The entrance to Grosse Freiheit.

The entrance to Grosse Freiheit.

Around the corner from Grosse Freiheit, on the Reeperbahn itself, is the Top Ten club, where the Beatles played in late 1960 and spring 1961, between their Kaiserkeller and Star Club stints. There aren’t many traces of its history from its current appearance. It’s now a club featuring late-night DJ sets a few times a week, though the entrance looks more like one for an apartment building:

Entrance to the former Top Ten club, now a DJ venue called Moondoo.

Also around the corner from Grosse Freiheit, at #33 on the far quieter Paul-Roosen Strasse, is the building that housed the Bambi Kino, the cinema over which the Beatles slept in legendarily filthy quarters on their first visit:

Bambi

Yes, it’s marked by an actual Bambi, though that space is now a garage, not a cinema (which actually only operated for a couple years or so). There are still apartments above it, and they don’t look all that plush from the outside. The youngsters in this photo are at tables placed on the sidewalk by a cafe across the street. There’s a plaque a few feet to the right of the Bambi marking the Beatles’ residency, another landmark you might miss if you don’t know to look out for it:

English translation of Bambi plaque: “The Beatles lived here in 1960.”

The Beatles didn’t actually enter their rooms on this street, instead using a back entrance on Grosse Freiheit. As documented elsewhere, they probably didn’t get much sleep, as the Bambi Kino started running films at loud volume at noon, after the Beatles had stayed up all night and then some playing music and winding down:

BambiBackDoor

The back entrance to the Bambi.

The Reeperbahn itself is still jammed with nightlife—much of it of the red-light variety—for about half a mile, sex clubs sitting side by side with falafel joints, bakeries, and tawdry bars. Not my kind of scene, but it gives you a taste of the wild side the still-teenaged Beatles were thrown into without preparation in summer 1960. 

Food and beer court in the middle of the Reeperbahn has some welcome relief from the rows of sex clubs and bars lining both sides of the drag. The sign in the background translates to “the heart of St. Pauli.”

The most notable landmark outside of the Grosse Freiheit area is the doorway in which John Lennon posed for a memorable picture by Jurgen Vollmer, later used on the cover of his 1975 Rock’n’Roll album. To find it, you need to go to the arch reading Jäger-Passage at Wohlwillstrasse 22, go into the passage, open the gate, and go into a small garden. The doorway is easily recognized on your right. In the picture I took on July 7, 2018 (Ringo’s 78th birthday, as it happened), my guide held a copy of the Rock’n’Roll LP on the left edge:

Vollmer

By chance, a shop named after the opening lyric to the Beatles’ “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” opened a few doors to the right of Jäger-Passage. Not an authentic Beatles Hamburg landmark by any means, but it’s an interesting coincidence:

MissesMuch

Farther away from the Reeperbahn, the Pacific Hotel—where the Beatles stayed for their final visit at the end of 1962, and a much nicer place than the Bambi Kino—is still in operation, only a block or so from Feldstrasse U-Bahn station. It still looks like a rather nice place to stay, in fact:

PacificHotel

A couple blocks from there is the former shop where the Beatles got leather suits, though it’s not in operation anymore:

Leather

And near the Feldstrasse U-Bahn entrance are the fairgrounds where Astrid Kirchherr took the first great pictures of the Beatles in late 1960. It’s still used as a fairgrounds a few times a year—but I was there a couple weeks before one of those occasions.

The fairgrounds where the Beatles were famously photographed by Astrid Kirchherr in late 1960 usually sport this empty look today.

Maybe it’s an indication of how rock history has yet to be taken as seriously as it should, but there isn’t as much boosterism of the Beatles in Hamburg as you might expect—certainly little outside of Grosse Freiheit. Museums and souvenir stands had plenty of postcards of local landmark churches, lakes, buildings, and such, but none that I could find of the Beatles in Hamburg. Fortunately I did get one from the guide I used, Stefanie Hempel, who runs tours on Saturday evenings (info at http://www.hempels-musictour.de/en) that cover all of these sites in detail.

There are other things to do and see in Hamburg (a city of nearly two million), of course. Here are pictures of just some:

City center skyline from Binnenalster Lake.

City center skyline from Binnenalster Lake.

Fountain on the lake.

Fountain on the lake.

View of the shipyard from the top of St. Michael’s church.

Zolkkanal.

 

Elbphilharmonie building.

Elbphilharmonie building.

Planten un Blumen Park.

But really, for me, it was the Beatles landmarks that made me decide to finally visit. Besides Liverpool and London, Hamburg’s the city with the most important of these.

Favorite Ten Pre-Beatles Rock Albums

Among their many accomplishments, the Beatles did more than anyone else to elevate the standards of the long-playing album in rock music. It’s a cliché, but largely true, that pre-Beatles rock LPs were often thrown-together affairs, surrounding one or two (or more) hit singles with hastily recorded filler. Even the ones that involved more thought and time were often filled out with dull covers of popular songs, sub-standard original material, or even, in ill-advised attempts to build all-around entertainer credentials, non-rock songs.

The Beatles' first album, largely recorded on February 11, 1963 (four tracks were recorded for their first two singles in late 1962), and released in the UK on March 22, 1963.

The Beatles’ first album, largely recorded on February 11, 1963 (four tracks were recorded for their first two singles in late 1962), and released in the UK on March 22, 1963.

Starting with their debut album Please Please Me in early 1963, the Beatles changed that. Every song, even their American rock’n’roll covers, was almost as good as, or sometimes even as good as, their hit singles. It’s often marveled at in rock literature that they recorded the album in one day, but it’s sometimes not noted that actually four of the songs were previously recorded in late 1962 for their first two singles. So they weren’t recording a standalone album in its entirety from scratch. But cutting ten tracks of such high quality in one day for the bulk of the LP was still a remarkable achievement.

I make these observations when I teach my non-credit community education classes on the Beatles, or indeed on general rock music history. I do add that there were some rock LPs prior to the Beatles that were very good and consistent, though not too many. I have in mind some of the records on the following list in this blogpost.

What makes an early rock LP a standalone album, and not a compilation? As noted, even Please Please Me contained some previously released material. The qualifications will vary and even be hotly contested according to the critic and fan. For the purposes of this post, I’m only considering albums in which at least half the material was previously unreleased. I know that’s kind of a loose standard, but standards were generally looser in the early days of the long-playing record.

Before writing this, however, I’d never devoted much thought to measuring just how many really good pre-Beatles rock albums there are. Kind of to my surprise, I had a hard time filling out a Top Ten list of my favorites in which I could really get behind each LP as something I’d enthusiastically play from beginning to end. I had to cheat a little bit — inserting a live album recorded before but released after Please Please Me, records in which the last sessions took place just after Please Please Me was finished, and a folk revival LP by an artist who later went into folk-rock – just to push the number up to ten.

Many artists who have compilations never put out an outstanding LP. Some came close, but they or their labels didn’t select or program available tracks well. Some early LPs regarded as classics turn out to have been dominated by singles. There are enough examples of interesting non-qualifiers to fill up an entirely separate post, but I’ll note some at the end of this list.

On the whole, the paucity of really good pre-Beatles rock LPs testifies to the group’s innovations on this front, maintained with their second LP (With the Beatles, late 1963) and expanded upon in almost every subsequent album they released. There is a clear winner as far as the act that made the best LPs before the Beatles’ emergence, which might surprise listeners only familiar with their numerous hit singles.

1. The Everly Brothers, It’s Everly Time (1960, Warner Brothers). The Everlys’ first album for Warners, following a long run of stardom at Cadence Records in the late ‘50s, did have a hit single (“So Sad”). Otherwise, however, all of the tracks were new to disc. They were all decent-to-excellent, and varied, including five compositions by the duo that wrote quite a few of their early hits, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant; quality covers of recent rock and R&B songs by Ray Charles (“What Kind of Girl Are You”) and Fats Domino (“I Want to Know”); and a good non-wimpy version of the pop tune “Memories Are Made of This.” Some of the Bryants’ contributions were really strong, those being the bouncy “Some Sweet Day” (covered to fine effect by Fairport Convention on the BBC in the late ‘60s), the fairly gritty (certainly for the Everlys) “Nashville Blues,” and “You Thrill Me.”

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About the only complaint you could make, which is one that would apply to many early rock LPs, is that the running time’s too short, the dozen tracks adding up to 27 minutes. The guy who turned me on to this more than thirty years ago felt that the songs on this and their next album (see next listing) tended to fade out too early. But those are minor drawbacks for a rare early rock LP of mostly new material where every song is good. And though not many people talk about it today, it was a big hit in its time, making #9 in the US and #2 in the UK.

2. The Everly Brothers, A Date with the Everly Brothers (Warner Brothers, 1960). Issued just five months after It’s Everly Time—product line expectations really were higher back then—A Date with the Everly Brothers was another LP by the duo that was well above the standards of the albums by their peers. If not quite as killer as its predecessor, it was similar enough to It’s Everly Time that it almost sounded as if it could have been recorded at the same sessions. Indeed, two of the songs were—the huge classic hit “Cathy’s Clown” and its B-side, “Always It’s You.” Those songs, and “Lucille” (the B-side of “So Sad”), are the only three of the twelve tracks that had been previously released.

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“Lucille,” an excellent guitar-centered cover of the Little Richard hit, became a sizable hit in its own right, reaching #21. Other highlights included the first version of the famous Boudleaux Bryant composition “Love Hurts,” predating Roy Orbison’s more famous rendition, and the catchy Felice & Boudleaux Bryant collaboration “So How Come (No One Loves Me).” As it happened, those three songs made for a great start to the second side of the LP, even if that momentum couldn’t be kept up over the course of the whole program.

As the Beatles did fine versions of “So How Come (No One Loves Me)” and “Lucille” (in an arrangement much closer to the Everlys’ cover than the Little Richard original) on the BBC in 1963, here’s guessing they must have had a copy of this LP. They weren’t alone in their home country. It made #3 in the UK, and #9 in the US—numbers they’d never again approach.

Like It’s Everly Time, however, this is a short album, clocking in at 28 minutes. Fortunately, in 2001 WEA International combined both LPs onto one CD, adding seven bonus tracks also recorded in 1960 (including the hits “Walk Right Back,” “Ebony Eyes,” and “Temptation”). That makes for a great value package of the duo at their Warner Brothers peak.

That peak didn’t last too long, in part because the Everlys were distracted by stints in the Marine Corps and attempts to break into Hollywood as actors. More seriously, a publishing dispute broke off their access to compositions with the Bryants (though the dispute wasn’t with the Bryants themselves). They did record more fine material for Warner Brothers in the 1960s than most people realize, but never again made LPs as good as their first pair. In fact, they never really made an album that seemed designed as a strong standalone piece until 1968’s country-rock Roots, when solid LPs by rock acts were much more common and expected than they were in 1960.

When history looks at unfilled potential of rock greats, the strongest focus is unsurprisingly on artists who died young, like the Everlys’ friend Buddy Holly. One wonders, however, whether the Everlys might have made much better LPs after 1960 had the military, Hollywood, and the publishing problem not gotten in the way. And, indeed, whether rock history might have been altered in some way, if they could have demonstrated it was possible to sustain a run of quality rock albums before the Beatles came along.

3. The Beach Boys, Surfin’ U.S.A. (1963, Capitol). It’s true the Beach Boys’ second album doesn’t find them as much at the top of their game as other artists were on LPs on this list, like the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. It’s also true that some might disqualify this record from consideration as it was actually released three days later (March 25, 1963) than Please Please Me, which came out on March 22. And although some of the sessions took place before the Beatles finished Please Please Me on February 11, seven of the twelve tracks were cut on February 11 and February 12.

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Also in the “it’s true” category: the Beach Boys never did manage a really great start-to-finish album before 1966’s Pet Sounds, and never did after Pet Sounds for that matter. They had a good number of strong LP tracks—much more so than most ‘60s acts with plenty of hit singles—but through the mid-1960s, they were spreading their assets too thin over too many albums issued in rapid succession. Even on Surfin’ U.S.A., the two songs that had been on a single (“Surfin’ U.S.A.” and its hit B-side “Shut Down”) were easily the best on the record.

Having listed the reasons why Surfin’ U.S.A. maybe shouldn’t be on this list, let’s turn to why it is on the list, and at #3 at that. At a time when the usual quality of rock LPs was pretty low, Surfin’ U.S.A. was pretty good. Aside perhaps from a couple of the weakest instrumentals, none of the tracks were dispensable. Some were pretty good—“The Lonely Sea” (actually dating from a June 1962 session) is a superb ballad, “Farmer’s Daughter” a pretty decent midtempo harmony rocker, and “Noble Surfer” a fair vocal surf song. “Stoked” is actually quite a hip surf instrumental, and while the covers of Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” and “Misirlou” aren’t as good as the originals, they’re respectable.

Unlike many of the records (including many big hits) they’d issue over the next four years, Surfin’ U.S.A. was played by the Beach Boys, without any session men. If their skills were a little on the rudimentary side, they were nonetheless a capable, even exciting band on their own. If its impact wasn’t as big as the Beatles’ first albums, it was pretty big, making #2 in the US, and demonstrating that a self-contained rock band could make a varied, highly enjoyable full-length album of mostly original material.

4. Elvis Presley, Elvis Presley (1956, RCA). Give RCA some credit–although the label might have been nervous about whether its then-astronomical investment in Elvis might pay off in early 1956, it quickly committed to a full-length album. The self-titled LP was issued on March 23, a day before “Heartbreak Hotel” became Presley’s first single to enter the Top Twenty, on its way to a seven-week reign at #1. What’s more, the record didn’t have “Heartbreak Hotel” or any singles.

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Nine of the twelve songs were issued on EPs in March, I’m guessing simultaneously with the LP. Some purists might maintain their availability on records that might have predated (if just slightly) or come out the same time as the LP would disqualify it from this listing. In part because the LP (which made #1) was by far the format on which fans were most likely to first hear the songs, and in part because whatever difference existed was probably very little, I’m not letting this prevent it from getting on this list.

On to the music: it was very good, if not quite on the level of his early singles for both Sun and RCA. It was also a bit of a jumble: seven tracks were cut in January 1956, but the others were Sun outtakes from 1954 and 1955, three of them rather restrained ballads. The covers of recent early rock’n’roll hits (including “Tutti Frutti,” “I Got a Woman,” and most famously “Blue Suede Shoes”) were appreciably different from, but not quite as good as, the originals.

I do like his version of the Drifters’ hit “Money Honey” better than the original, and a couple of the other January 1956 tracks (“I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Cry (Over You),” covered well by the Beatles in 1963 on the BBC, and “One Sided Love Affair”) are very good. So are the earthier Sun outtakes, “Just Because” and “Tryin’ to Get to You.”

So it adds up to a good, often electrifying debut that quickly demonstrated Elvis’s talents went well beyond what he put on his singles. I’m aware many critics would put it higher on the list—some even at #1—but the recordings just aren’t quite as good as his best early 45s.

It’s also missing his great January 1956 version of Arthur Crudup’s “My Baby Left Me,” saved for use as the B-side to his second RCA single, “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” In my opinion, it’s his greatest post-Sun recording besides possibly “Hound Dog” and “Jailhouse Rock,” and his only RCA recording that sounds like it could have been done at Sun Records. Its presence on the Elvis Presley album would have boosted it considerably. So would the inclusion of another Crudup cover he cut on January 30, 1956, “So Glad You’re Mine,” which was saved for his second RCA LP, Elvis (which otherwise was solely comprised of tracks from early September 1956 sessions).

As a footnote, if a record gets a bonus point for a memorable cover, Elvis Presley certainly deserves one. By now, it’s well known that it was emulated almost a quarter century later on the Clash’s London Calling.

5. Dionne Warwick, Presenting Dionne Warwick (1963, Scepter). This might come as a surprise, as Warwick’s not especially thought of as an album artist; as she had such a long run of hit singles written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David; and some might feel that her brand of soul/pop was too mild to be categorized as rock, though I’d disagree with that. It turns out, however, that this debut LP was issued on February 10, 1963—the day before the Beatles finished Please Please Me. What’s more, just four of the twelve tracks had been issued as singles. It’s even possible the second of those singles, “This Empty Place”/“Wishin’ and Hopin’,” was issued a bit later than this LP; I can only pin down its release date to the month February 1963, though I’m guessing it probably came out around the same time as the album.

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In common with the majority of other LPs on this list, the singles here—her debut “Don’t Make Me Over,” and both sides of the aforementioned Febuary 1963 45—are decisively the best tracks. But it’s a strong album on the whole, with some of the other Bacharach-David-penned tracks almost matching the quality of those singles. She acquits herself well on “Make It Easy for Yourself,”  which had already been a hit for Jerry Butler, and would also be a hit a couple years later for the Walker Brothers. The same’s true of “It’s Love That Really Counts,” a poppier version of which would be a very small (#102) hit for the Shirelles, and also a #24 UK hit later in 1963 for the Merseybeats.

Yet another track, “The Love of a Boy,” was also a hit for someone else (Timi Yuro, who took it to #44), though Warwick’s reading was far more gracefully understated. And “Wishin’ and Hopin’” would be a Top Twenty UK hit for the Merseybeats in 1964, the same year Dusty Springfield took it into the US Top Ten. Bacharach-David’s “I Cry Alone” sounds like it should have been a hit for Warwick, but it wasn’t a hit for anyone, and not issued on one of Dionne’s singles.

The rest of the material on the LP wasn’t quite up to the level of these songs, and some weren’t even written by Bacharach-David. But overall it was a fine debut, and generally an unveiling of Warwick’s distinctive orchestrated pop-soul, as produced and written by Bacharach and David. It’s also somewhat more R&B-oriented, and less lushly arranged, than her subsequent work, which is a plus in my book.

6. The Everly Brothers, The Everly Brothers (1958, Cadence). This ekes onto the list, as six of the dozen tracks had been issued on the Everlys’ first three Cadence singles. These included their huge hits “Bye Bye Love” and “Wake Up Little Susie”; their quality Don Everly-penned, less uptempo B-sides “I Wonder If I Care As Much” and “Maybe Tomorrow”; and the less well known mild hit single from early 1958, which paired a cover of Ray Charles’s “This Little Girl of Mine” with the Everlys original “Should We Tell Him.”

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Inevitably, these overshadowed the other tracks on the LP. But even though it was largely filled out by covers, these versions weren’t mailed in. The Everlys aren’t noted for being fine R&B interpreters, but actually they were pretty good at the style. On this debut, they offer respectable, and respectably hard-rocking, versions of Charles’s “Leave My Woman Alone,” Gene Vincent’s “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” and Little Richard’s “Keep a Knockin’” and “Rip It Up,” though none of these match the originals (“Leave My Woman Alone” coming the closest). In all it made for a solid listen, and sold pretty well at a time when LPs had a much smaller slice of the teenage/rock market, making #16.

Some other critics might put their next album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, on this list as well, but I find this record of low-key traditional-oriented folk and country covers less exciting on the turntable than it is as a concept. It did demonstrate that the Everlys were putting more effort into making their albums distinct entities than most of their early rock peers. They also picked a concept with more integrity than other detours that early rockers attempted on LPs, like entire albums of Christmas music (though the Everlys would eventually do one of those too) or pop/jazz standards.

7. James Brown, Live at the Apollo (1963, King). Although released in May 1963, a couple months after Please Please Me came out, this was actually recorded on October 24, 1962, before all but two of the tracks on the Beatles’ debut were cut. Unusually for a soul LP of the era, it was a big hit on the pop charts, where it peaked at #2. It also did a great deal to launch Brown into a higher level of stardom, though he was already a big figure in the R&B world.

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I’m aware that many critics would place this higher on a list like this. Some might even put it at #1. But musically, I don’t find it as impressive as its reputation. It’s more oriented toward ballads than you might expect, and drags a bit for me. If everything here was as kinetic as the frantic version of “Think,” I might indeed put it at #1, or at least a lot closer to the top position. But it doesn’t reach those heights otherwise, or indeed the heights of his best subsequent ‘60s singles (or Live at the Apollo Vol. 2, recorded in June 1967), whether uptempo or not.

If any record on this list gets points for historical significance, however, this certainly does. It was the first live rock or soul album to have a huge impact; one that did a good deal to expand the audience for earthy soul; and one that demonstrated that earthy soul LPs could sell in massive numbers. Not that it matters much, but it turns out that though the record has been praised for capturing the onstage and audience energy of a live soul concert, much of the crowd noise was overdubbed from recordings of white teens in the audience at a Cincinnati sock hop. Many live recordings throughout the history of the record business have employed such overdubs, but that does mean it’s not as authentic a document of early soul as had been assumed for many years.

8. Buddy Holly, Buddy Holly (1958, Coral). Like the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly took somewhat more care with his LPs than most early rock stars did. Unlike the Everlys, he didn’t get to the point where he delivered a couple albums dominated by LP-only material. Fully half of his first solo album—really his second, since the debut by his band the Crickets had come out a few months earlier (see next listing)—had come out on singles. And yes, these were pretty much the record’s best songs, including the A-sides “Peggy Sue,” “Words of Love,” and “I’m Gonna Love You Too,” along with the excellent B-sides “Listen to Me” and “Everyday.”

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Still, the rest of the cuts weren’t that run-of-the-mill, and one was great. The great one was “Rave On!,” which became a hit when it was issued as a single after the LP came out. His cover of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” is actually pretty tough, as is his version of “You’re So Square “(Baby I Don’t Care),” first recorded by Elvis Presley.

Holly was a forward-thinking guy for a late-‘50s rock star, writing most of his own material and taking an increasingly firmer hand on its production. One has to guess he would have been likely to attempt more sturdily conceived standalone LPs had he not died in February 1959, but we’ll never know for certain.

9. The Crickets, The “Chirping” Crickets (1957, Brunswick). In a situation destined to confuse future generations, some of Buddy Holly’s records were credited to his group the Crickets, and others credited to Holly alone, though they essentially sounded like the work of the same artist. Although billed to the Crickets, this can be considered Holly’s debut LP. Four of the twelve songs had been on singles, including “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy!,” and the B-sides “Not Fade Away” and “I’m Looking for Someone to Love.” And yes, they were a cut above most of the rest of the material.

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Nonetheless, even on the less top-flight tunes, Holly was pretty good, and sometimes more than that. “Maybe Baby” was so great, in fact, that it became one of his biggest and best hit singles in 1958. While Holly’s covers weren’t nearly as distinctive as his original compositions, his versions of songs by the likes of Chuck Willis and Roy Orbison are okay. They don’t stand out in the company of hits, however, whether here or on subsequent Holly compilations. Interesting footnote: this was the first album Eric Clapton ever bought.

10. Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963, Columbia). No, this isn’t a rock album. It’s a folk album, even if one track (the traditional song “Corrina, Corrina”) has feather-light band backing, including drums. It was released two months after Please Please Me on May 27, 1963. And though over two-thirds of it was recorded in mid-to-late 1962, four of the thirteen tracks were cut on April 24 of the following year, by which time the Beatles’ debut had been in UK shops for about a month.

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But aside from the all-important need to push this list to exactly ten selections, this is the first album by a major figure who’d move from folk to rock that was dominated by original material. (There were only two original compositions on his prior album, his self-titled debut LP.)  Even before Dylan moved into electric folk-rock in early 1965, it was influential on rock musicians, most famously the Beatles. And it demonstrated to the rock generation in general that an album could be a major standalone statement without hit singles, or even by an artist who at the time wasn’t making a dent in the 45 market.

It was little known at the time, but is widely known now, that some rare copies of the first pressing of Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan had different tracks. Four songs from that version—dating from 1962 sessions, and generally more traditional folk-oriented than the most famous songs on the album—are missing from the common edition, which replaced them with four others. Two of those others (“Girl from the North Country” and”Masters of War”) were among the most celebrated songs on the LP, validating whatever decision might have been made to alter the contents.

So those are my personal favorites, and my reasoning, which I’m sure would be debated if submitted to a panel constructing an official list of this sort of thing. And, possibly more controversially, here’s my reasoning for not including some other early rock LPs that have their champions:

Elvis Presley. His second album, simply titled Elvis (from October 1956), has its moments, and like his first does not use big hit singles to fill out the running order. I just don’t find it all that exciting, with the exception of his cover of Arthur Crudup’s “So Glad You’re Mine” (the sole track, as previously noted, to date from January 1956, all of the others being cut during the first three days of September 1956). His versions of Little Richard’s “Rip It Up,” “Ready Teddy,” and “Long Tall Sally” are okay, as are the Leiber-Stoller ballad “Love Me” and the calypso-tinged “How Do You Think I Feel.” Much of the rest, however, I find forgettable.

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Ray Charles. If you were making a list purely on the basis of historic significance, certainly his 1962 album Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music (and to a lesser degree its sequel from the same year, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music Vol. 2) would rank high. It made #1, and achieved unprecedented crossover appeal by having a soul singer perform country-oriented material. I’m just not such a big fan of it, and particularly of the sometimes sappy arrangements. Some of his other pre-1963 albums have their advocates, but they don’t really grab me, and a la many LPs of their era, are usually highlighted by hits that overshadow the non-hit tracks.

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Gene Vincent and Wanda Jackson. Both were on Capitol Records, and both did a lot of fine tracks besides their big hits. For whatever reason, however, the cuts that were grouped into their LPs were uneven, even though with more selectivity, each could have constructed a fabulous album from the best recordings of their peak era.

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Howiln’ Wolf. His self-titled album from 1962, sometimes called “The Rocking Chair Album” after the cover photo, is really good—there’s no dispute about that. It’s electric blues, but it’s close to rock in execution, and undeniably a big influence on the later blues-rock of the ‘60s, especially from British bands. But although it’s not a best-of—and Wolf didn’t really have enough chart success to generate a conventional best-of album—at least ten of these twelve tracks had already been on singles, and the other two (“You’ll Be Mine” and “Going Down Slow”) were on a 45 that might have predated the LP or been released around the same time.

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Billy Fury, The Sound of Fury (1960, Decca, UK). What about pre-Beatles rock albums in the UK? Well, there weren’t too many of them, especially if you don’t count the ones by Cliff Richard & the Shadows. This one (actually issued in the ten-inch LP format, rather than the standard 12-inch one) by an early British rock star who’s known to few in the US (where he had no success) has its boosters. It’s unusual for consisting entirely of original material by Fury, sometimes credited to the pseudonym Wilberforce. Also unusually, just two of the ten songs were issued on a single, which seems to have come out about the same time. Here’s the thing: I don’t think it’s that great. It’s rather mild rockabilly, much inferior to the original US variety generated by Sun Records and other labels.

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Roy Orbison, Link Wray, Dick Dale, Gene Pitney, the Shirelles, to name a few. They’re among my favorite pre-Beatles artists, and all have great compilations, whether they’re best-ofs or with a different focus. But none of them made really good standalone LPs. I could name several other such acts.

The Collins Kids. The album Introducing Larry and Lorrie looks like a late-‘50s LP, even if the artwork’s a little too cleanly tasteful. The twelve tracks would certainly qualify the cult brother-sister duo for this list, as they’re fine and at times white-hot rockabilly from the late 1950s. But it’s not an actual 1950s album. It’s a compilation, and was issued in 1983.

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China Camp Part 2

Back in February, I posted about my hike in China Camp near San Rafael, noting I didn’t have time to walk some of the trails. I did get back there in late winter, and while there’s not nearly enough time to walk the rest of the trails on one visit, I did see quite a bit more than I had on my first visit. So here’s a brief “China Camp Part 2″ post.

One of the recommended loops on the Friends of China Camp site is taking the Bayview trail one way and the Shoreline trail another. I already posted some pictures from the western part of the Bayview trail, so here are some from the eastern part, which does have some views that lives up to its name:

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That’s the best one, where you see the San Francisco skyline faintly in the background (it was a cloudy day) behind the San Rafael-Richmond bridge. From the same point, a wider view:

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Also from the Bayview trail, a less dramatic view of Turtle Back Hill:

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But a more dramatic view, considerably to the east, of Rat Rock Island (that is its real name):

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From this photo, you might think you’re in the middle of the Pacific. The island’s pretty close to shore, however, as this wider perspective reveals:

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Just to the west of the island is Rat Rock Cove:

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Following the Shoreline Trail east after it meets the Bayview Trail, you might come across this rock garden of sorts at the eastern boundary of the park, if it hasn’t been removed:

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The Shoreline Trail is pretty flat, if a bit rolling, compared to the Bayview Trail, and much closer to sea level (and the actual water of the San Francisco Bay). So it’s less exciting. But if you’ve walked much of the length of the Bayview Trail first, as I did, it’s much easier on the feet, and sensible to do in the last part rather than the first. The loop of sorts took about four hours, and with the dirt surface and considerable elevation changes of the Bayview Trail, it is a decent workout, even if you’re in good shape. And you have a good chance of spotting some wildlife, as I did near the end:

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On this cloudy March Monday, there weren’t many people in this quite large park, which you’ll have mostly to yourself. Approximate tally for the day: about half a dozen hikers, about half a dozen mountain bikers, and about half a dozen deer.

Women Rockers on Film: 15 Great Moments

I’m presenting a three-part lecture series on Women in Rock at the Berkeley Art Center this spring and summer, featuring film clips of the performers discussed in this post, among quite a few others. Details on the first of the events, on Thursday, May 31 from 7pm-9pm, are on this page of the center’s site. Details on all three of the events (others follow on June 21 and July 26) are on the center’s calendar.

At several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve taught a course on women in rock during the first quarter-century or so of rock’s evolution, from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. One of the pleasures this involves is presenting filmed performances, some quite off the beaten track, of women rockers from around the globe during this period. Even with the increased accessilibity of rock history clips on DVD/Blu-Ray and online, many of them remain rarely seen, or  even unseen by some fans.

Here are fifteen great examples of such footage. I haven’t ranked these in a best-of order, instead just progressing in chronological order, from late-‘50s rockabilly to early-‘80s new wave. Along the way are unforgettable glimpes of girl groups, psychedelic stars, folk-rockers, singer-songwriters, soulstresses, and more.

Wanda Jackson, “Hard Headed Woman” (Town Hall Party, Los Angeles, November 29, 1958). Although Town Hall Party was a country-oriented TV program, it featured quite a few rockabilly stars in the late 1950s, almost all of whom had started in country music. Wanda Jackson wasn’t the most famous of them, but she was one of the best, and certainly the finest woman rockabilly singer, belting with throaty zest. While her appearance on the show unfortunately didn’t feature her finest early rockabilly songs (the white-hot “Fujiyama Mama,” for starters), she does well with “Mean Mean Man” and “Hard Headed Woman.” The latter song’s most famous as a 1958 hit for Elvis Presley, a boyfriend of Jackson’s for a while, who encouraged her to sing in an earthier and rockier fashion than she had on her tamer initial country records.

She also distinguishes it from Presley’s version with a deceptively mellow introduction: “I tell you what, we haven’t done a real good love song. Joe, play me some real pretty, you know, twinkly stuff up there. Real sad.” Guitarist Joe Maphis follows suit. “Y’all like love songs, do you?,” Jackson resumes. “Good. I like those. This one really tells a beautiful story, if you can pay real close attention to the words, and if you like love songs, well, we think this is one of the most beautiful love songs that’s ever been written. And we’d like to do it especially for all of y’all. It goes like this. Do that again,” she instructs Maphis, “that’s pretty.” Upon which she launches into a take-no-prisoners growl: “A hard headed woman, a soft hearted man, been the cause of trouble ever since the world began!,” shaking her hips and pointing for all she’s worth as Maphis spins off sharp rockabilly licks and Jimmy Pruett pounds the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis.

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Dusty Springfield and Martha & the Vandellas, “Wishin’ and Hopin’” (Ready Steady Go, London, March 16, 1965). In early 1965, several Motown artists toured the UK, just as records from that label were developing a fanatical following across the Atlantic. To commemorate the visit, the leading British pop music television program of the time, Ready Steady Go, did a special “Sounds of Motown” episode. A highlight was a unique, playful duet between the leading British woman pop-rock singer of the ‘60s, Dusty Springfield, and one of Motown’s greatest groups, Martha & the Vandellas.

“Wishin’ and Hopin’” was actually originally recorded by another soul star, Dionne Warwick, and written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, who also produced Warwick’s version. It was Dusty Springfield who had the Top Ten hit with the song in the US in 1964, however (oddly, it was not a hit for her in her native UK, where Liverpool band the Merseybeats took it into the Top Twenty). At a time when there was much more segregation between black and white (if less in the UK), it was a fine and bold statement to see two fine black and white acts singing together on television.

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The Ronettes, Be My Baby (The Big T.N.T. Show, Hollywood, November 29, 1965). “Be My Baby” had been a hit for about two years by the time the Ronettes did it on The Big T.N.T. Show concert movie in Hollywood in late 1965. They must have sung it hundreds of times by then, but you wouldn’t know it from the elan Ronnie Spector puts into both her singing and her exuberant onstage presence. From this clip alone, it’s obvious how much she loved performing, and how much joy she put into her vocals. Which makes it all the more tragic that within a year or so, she’d started an enforced retirement of sorts when her new husband Phil Spector—who of course had produced “Be My Baby” and the Ronettes’ other classic girl group hits—insisted she give up her career and stay at home.

Ronettes

Richard & Mimi Fariña, “The Bold Marauder” (Rainbow Quest, Newark, New Jersey, February 26, 1966). Richard Fariña was the main singer and songwriter in the duo he formed in the mid-1960s with his wife Mimi, the younger sister of Joan Baez. But Mimi was crucial to the pair’s early folk-rock recordings as a harmony singer and guitarist. Fortunately they were filmed as the guest stars of a half-hour episode on Pete Seeger’s public television program Rainbow Quest, just two months before Richard’s death in a motorcycle accident. Although they ventured into tentative early electric folk-rock on their two albums, they play acoustically (sometimes joined by Seeger) on this program. Nonetheless it does justice to their sound and fine material, one of the highlights being this sea shanty-like number (with Richard on dulcimer), whose lyrics sound both like an ageless folk song and a commentary on twentieth-century abusers of power.

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Big Brother & the Holding Company, “Ball and Chain” (KQED, San Francisco, April 25, 1967). Of course, the most famous performance of Janis Joplin singing with Big Brother and the Holding Company is seen in the Monterey Pop film, where she delivers one of the best rock vocals ever on “Ball and Chain.” A couple months earlier, the band—still mostly unknown outside of the Bay Area—did a half-hour live-in-the-studio set at San Francisco’s public TV station, KQED. While this version of “Ball and Chain” doesn’t match the Monterey Pop one in charismatic intensity, it certainly serves notice that Joplin would be a force to be reckoned with. Probably inadvertently, the group’s version of the traditional folk song “Cuckoo”—on which guitarist James Gurley takes the shaky lead vocal on the early part, Joplin taking over on the hurricane-like conclusion—demonstrates just how much they needed her to get on the map. She’s also good on other early Big Brother material on the program, like “Down on Me,” the band’s rough-and-ready early psychedelic rock complementing her sensual style well.

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Aretha Franklin, “A Natural Woman” (Konserthuset, Stockholm, May 2, 1968). Fortunately, there’s a lot of footage of Franklin’s Swedish concert on this date, in which at points you can literally see sweat dripping from her face. It’s a bit uneven, but she hits her stride on her soul hits, including “Chain of Fools,” “Respect,” “Dr. Feelgood” (on which she plays her underrated piano), and “A Natural Woman,” co-written of course by another woman (Carole King) and her first husband, Gerry Goffin.

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Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” (Woodstock, August 17, 1969). They couldn’t have planned this, but because the Woodstock festival was running way behind schedule, Jefferson Airplane didn’t take the stage until just as the sun was rising on Sunday morning that weekend. That made for a magnificent backdrop to their set, which like much of Woodstock was filmed, including this radiant version of Grace Slick’s most famous composition, “White Rabbit.” (She also sang “Somebody to Love” here, but that was written by her brother-in-law, Darby Slick.) There have been several expanded editions of the Woodstock film and it’s hard to keep up with what’s appeared where, but “White Rabbit” doesn’t seem to be on any of them.

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Nina Simone, “Four Women” (Harlem Cultural Festival, New York, August 17, 1969). There are many great clips of women rock and soul performers, but this is my very favorite. In vivid color, Simone delivers one of her most dramatic compositions, each verse detailing the tribulations of four different women (the title “Four Women” is not actually sung in the lyrics). The backup is sparse and moody, and the piano solo rather aggressively incorporates her classical training. At the end a gust of wind blows some sheets off her piano, but she doesn’t miss a beat as she vainly tries to stuff them back into place. Mesmerizing. And yes, this took place the very weekend the Woodstock festival was being held elsewhere in New York State, and later on the very day that Grace Slick sang “White Rabbit” with Jefferson Airplane there (see above entry).

Simone

Joni Mitchell, “California” (BBC, London, October 9, 1970). Joni Mitchell wrote a famous song about Woodstock, but didn’t actually perform there. We do have this footage from about a year later, taken from a half-hour program taped for the BBC, live in front of a studio audience. She does a few outstanding songs here as a solo performer, including “Chelsea Morning,” “For Free,” and “Big Yellow Taxi.” I think “California” is of special interest, not only because it’s not as well known as most of the other songs in the set, but also because it showcases her skill on the dulcimer, which she plays to accompany herself on this tune.

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Carole King, “A Natural Woman” (BBC, London, April 27, 1971). Although she wrote many hits with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, throughout the 1960s, it wasn’t until early 1971 that King became a star on her own with the Tapestry album. Just a couple months after that LP was released, she did a half-hour live-in-the-studio program for the BBC, as part of the same concert series that Joni Mitchell had done an episode for (see above entry). She did a few of her hits as a solo artist (“I Feel the Earth Move,” “It’s Too Late”), but also did her own versions of some songs that had first been hits for other artists, as “A Natural Woman” had been for Aretha Franklin. Listening to her sing this and other material on this program, it’s hard to believe it took her so long to emerge from behind the scenes to become a recording star as a singer and solo artist, so accomplished are her vocals.

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Nico, “Femme Fatale” (The Bataclan, Paris, January 29, 1972). Nico left and/or was fired from the Velvet Underground in spring 1967. She hadn’t shared the stage with Lou Reed and John Cale for almost five years when this one-off Reed-Cale-Nico concert was presented in Paris in early 1972. An unplugged semi-Velvet Underground reunion (though no other Velvets were present), part of the concert was fortunately filmed, giving each of the three turns in the spotlight to sing lead. One of Nico’s songs was “Femme Fatale,” written by Lou Reed, though sung (like two other Reed compositions) by Nico on the Velvet Underground’s first album. Cale and Reed supply subdued backup harmonies to her on this acoustic version, on a TV program marking the only time the three were filmed performing together in decent image and sound quality.

Bataclan

Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood, “Summer Wine” (Riviera Hotel, Las Vegas, 1972, probably February). The oddest couple of the 1960s, Nancy Sinatra and her producer Lee Hazlewood had several unlikely beauty and the beast hits, including “Some Velvet Morning.” “Summer Wine” was another bittersweet-to-the-point-of-moodiness highlight of their discography, performed with rather irreverent sassiness in Las Vegas as part of a Swedish documentary on the pair in Sin City.

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Patti Smith, “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time Together” (Konserthuset, Stockholm, October 3, 1976). In the same venue where Aretha Franklin was filmed for TV in 1968 (see earlier entry), a program was shot of the Patti Smith Group in concert. There are other good clips of Smith from the ‘70s, but this is the best sustained document of her electrifying stage presence. Although it includes strong original compositions like “Land,” “Redondo Beach,” “Free Money,” and “Ask the Angels,” it also has some covers she didn’t put on records in the 1970s. The best of these is the one that opens this program, a hyper charge through the Velvet Underground’s “We’re Gonna Have a Good Time Together,” to which Smith, as was her wont, adds some different lyrics.

Smith

The Avengers, “The American in Me” (The Mabuhay Gardens, San Francisco, 1978). Although they didn’t get to release many records at the time, the Avengers were the top early San Francisco punk band, fronted by Penelope Houston, who both sang and looked as though she could bore right through your head. The Mabuhay Gardens was the top early punk venue in the city, and this clip captures the ferocious energy of both their performances and the Mabuhay audience’s frenzied dancing.

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Shonen Knife, “Kappa Ex” (Japan, promo video, mid-1980s). This is the most recent of the selections on this list, yet I know less about its background than any other. It was one of the mimed clips on a promo video sent to a music magazine where I worked at the time. This Japanese trio mixed pop and punk in about equal measures, at a time when all-women bands were even rarer in their country than most anywhere else. Even if it’s cornily enacted, this is a charming clip of one of their better songs, the threesome not taking the low-budget props and lip-syncing entirely seriously.

ShonenKnife

I’m presenting a three-part lecture series on Women in Rock at the Berkeley Art Center this spring and summer, featuring film clips of the performers discussed in this post, among quite a few others. Details on the first of the events, on Thursday, May 31 from 7pm-9pm, are on this page of the center’s site. Details on all three of the events (others follow on June 21 and July 26) are on the center’s calendar.

1970: Baseball’s Bumper Crop of Fluke Seasons

Baseball season’s starting, and with it the unavoidable hopeful predictions that so-and-so is poised to have a “breakout” year. Much of this is hype from managers, owners, broadcasters, and sometimes the players themselves. Every year sees some “career” years that are unexpected, but you can’t count on too many of them, no matter which team you’re following. Here on the San Francisco Giants, for instance, it doesn’t seem impossible that Brandon Belt would somehow put it all together one year and hit .330 with 35 homers and 120 walks. Even if he did, however, it’s likely that would be his one “peak” year, and he’d revert to his usual streaky slightly-above-average performance at the plate.

Some years do see more out-of-context performances than others. I don’t know if there’s any way to measure such things, but for some reason, 1970 seemed to see more of them than most other seasons, and perhaps any other season. You could field a killer All-Star caliber team with the guys who, for just that year, exceeded their career norms by implausibly high margins.

Perhaps the most improbable of them, given his age (33) and how he’d never before approached stardom in his nearly decade-long career, was Cubs outfielder Jim Hickman. His career high in homers had been 21, his highest batting average .257. He’d even been demoted to the minors for a while a couple of years previously, at the age of 31. Suddenly he was a Triple Crown threat, hitting .315 with 32 home runs, 115 RBI, and 93 walks. He even delivered the game-winning hit in the bottom of the twelfth inning of the All-Star game—the famous one in which Pete Rose scored the winning run by crashing into (and injuring) catcher Ray Fosse. Hickman had a couple of fair years for the Cubs over the next two seasons, but never approached those numbers again.

1970 Jim Hickman (f)

On base between Hickman and Rose as that All-Star finish played out was Billy Grabarkewitz, who that year hit .289 with 17 HR, 84 RBI, 95 walks, and 19 stolen bases for the Dodgers—the only season, unbelievably, in which he had more than 200 at-bats. Grabarkewitz had hit a mere .092—that’s not a misprint—in 65 at-bats the previous year, in his first big-league trial. Injuries would limit his playing time to 90 at-bats in 1971; he his a woeful .167 with more action (144 at-bats) in 1972; and he never got regular playing time again. What happened?

“What was amazing was the day after the All-Star game, which was a day off, [Dodgers general manager] Al Campanis calls me into his office and says, ‘You’re doing real good, but you know you need to cut down on your strikeouts,’” Grabarkewitz told Michael Fedo in the book One Shining Season. “So he got [coach] Dixie Walker to go out and work with me. I’m hitting .376 and Dixie wants to change my whole hitting style again. And he says, ‘First of all, you need to quit swinging for home runs.’ He switched me to a heavier bat again, and it’s like I didn’t have a choice. I’m being told to do this. So in the month of August, I don’t think I struck out six times. And I think I hit .101…[in September] I went to [the lighter] bat, and the last month I did real good again—hit home runs, struck out a lot, but got base hits.”

GrabarkewitzBilly

For the record, Grabarkewitz was actually batting .341 at the All-Star break; he’d have two walks and a two-run homer, his tenth, the first day after the break. But he was indeed down to .289 (and had been dropped from leadoff to the eighth spot in the order) by the end of August, in which he batted .173 (not .101, but bad enough). (He also struck out 26 times in August, not six.)

What really killed his career, however, might have been (again according to his memory in One Shining Season) being told to work on double plays for a long time the second or third day of spring training the following year. That hurt his shoulder badly enough to keep him out of the lineup most of 1971, and he never got a foothold in the big leagues again, with the Dodgers or several other team he’d play for over the next few years.

Or, there might have been a more prosaic explanation. I wish I could find it for reference, but I remember Phillies broadcaster (and ex-center fielder) Richie Ashburn writing in a newspaper column that Grabarkewitz had come looking for him after a game because of a negative comment from Ashburn. Ashburn wrote something along the lines of that if Grabarkewitz had tried to hit him, if Ashburn had curved, Billy would have missed.

Also on the Dodgers that year, in the midst of a much longer career, was Wes Parker, regular first baseman for the team since the mid-1960s, including on the pennant-winning squads of 1965 and 1966. Although acknowledged as an excellent fielder, Parker had never seemed to live up to his potential at the plate. His best season had been 1969, when he hit .278 with 13 homers (though just one came after July, around the time he had an emergency appendectomy). In 1970, however, he had his only superb year, hitting .319 with 111 RBIs, and leading the league with 47 doubles.

WesParker

His explanation for why he didn’t approach those figures again will no doubt vex Dodgers fans unaware of Parker’s attitude at the time. “After doing that for one season, I decided it wasn’t worth it,” he revealed in One Shining Season. “It was a conscious decision on my part that the sacrifices and effort, the amount of energy that had to go into it, was more than I thought it warranted. 1970 was for one season only. I’m glad I did that once, but I wanted to enjoy all aspects of my career, part of which was dating again, part of which was enjoying people. I didn’t want to live like a hermit again”—which he’d done in 1970, so he could focus almost exclusively on baseball—”and I really believe that’s what it would have taken for me to have another year like 1970.”

There could have been other grounds for criticizing Parker’s approach to the game. Again I wish I could find the newspaper story, but I remember in 1976, Phillies manager Danny Ozark (who’d been a coach with the Dodgers in 1970) was getting on outfielder Jay Johnstone for not hustling on extra-base hits that could have been triples, stopping at second to pad his doubles total. (Johnstone hit 38 doubles that year, finishing second in the National League.) Parker, Ozark remembered, had led the league in doubles back in 1970 by doing the same thing.

Moving across the diamond, at third base Tommy Harper had a superstar year for the Milwaukee Brewers, then playing their first year under that name after having started life as the Seattle Pilots in 1969. Harper always had speed—he’d stolen 73 bases the previous year—and he’d flashed some power by hitting 18 homers for the Reds in 1965, though he’d never hit more than ten in any other season. Suddenly he hit 31 homers to go with 38 stolen bases, a .296 average, 35 doubles, and 104 runs. He’d never come too close to that stat line again, and never hit more than 17 homers in his remaining years, though he did lead the American league with 54 stolen bases in 1973.

Tommy Harper

At shortstop, Bert Campaneris had the best career of any player to have a fluke season in 1970. He made the All-Star team six times; led the American league in stolen bases six times; and was the shortstop on the A’s team that won three straight World Series in 1972-74. He was not, however, a power hitter, with 79 home runs in a 19-year career. Except, that is, in 1970, when he somehow clubbed 22 roundtrippers (and 28 doubles). In no other year did Campaneris manage more than eight homers. In 1969, he hit two; in 1971, five.

Bert-Campaneris

There’s no vintage anecdote explaining what happened, but it’s interesting to note that Campaneris turned on the power again for a few weeks a few years later, when it mattered most. In 1973, he hit just four home runs (and slugged just .318) in the regular season. Yet in the postseason, he hit three—two in the American League playoffs, and one in the World Series.

In San Diego, Cito Gaston, like Jim Hickman, had a near Triple Crown-worthy season — .318 average, 29 homers, 93 RBI. It was all the more shocking coming after a rookie year in which he’d hit .230 with two homers, slugging .309. Unlike Hickman, Gaston was relatively young (26), and fans of the second-year-expansion Padres entertained reasonable hopes they had their first superstar. Yet the following year, his average dipped to .228, with 17 homers. Only once did he top ten homers again, with 16 in 1973, his last year as a regular.

1970 Clarence Gaston (f)

As great as his 1970 was, Gaston never did master the strike zone. Even in ‘70, he struck out 142 times—the same year he had his highest walk total, a modest 41. His 121 whiffs in 1971 (accompanied by a mere 24 walks) suggests poor command of the strike zone that pitchers learned to exploit. Gaston’s greatest fame, of course, came not as a player, but as a manager with the Toronto Blue Jays in 1989-1997 and 2008-2010, where he was the first African-American manager to win a World Series (in both 1992 and 1993).

Behind the plate, San Francisco Giants catcher Dick Dietz had an amazing 1970, at least at the plate. He hit .300 with 22 HR, 107 RBI, and 109 walks, not to mention 38 doubles. He’d only played semi-regularly in his earlier seasons, but for that year, was almost as good a hitter as the National League MVP, fellow catcher and future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench.

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Dietz tailed off in 1971, but was still very above average for a catcher as a hitter, with 19 homers and 79 walks. Somehow he was waived (not traded) to the Dodgers in April 1972, where a broken hand ruined his 1972 season, in which he hit .161 in 56 at-bats. He rebounded with a rather phenomenal, if unheralded, year as a reserve (playing more first base than catcher) for the Braves in 1973, hitting .295 and walking 49 times in just 139 at-bats, compiling a .474 OBP. That translates to about 150 walks in a full-time year.

Dietz was just 31, and it seems like he should have kept finding work as a reserve, perhaps moving to the American League to DH considering his subpar defensive reputation. It’s been suggested that he was blackballed owing to his role in the 1972 players strike, when he was serving as the Giants’ player representative (and, likewise, suggested he was waived to the Dodgers in early 1972 because of that as well).

With a bit of juggling, you have a starting eight of fluke 1970 seasons here. You could move either Grabarkewitz or Harper from third to second (both played some second base in their career). There are only two outfielders; you could add Bernie Carbo, who had a great rookie year as a platoon player for the Reds (21 HR, .310, 94 walks in just 365 at-bats) and never hit nearly as well again.

Carbo

Pitchers aren’t nearly as well represented by fluke 1970s, but there was one guy whose All-Star year came out of nowhere. Clyde Wright had started and relieved for the Angels for a few years without distinction, especially in 1969, when he was 1-8 with a 4.10 ERA. In 1970, he somehow won a place in the rotation and rocketed from 1-8 to 22-12. He’d have a couple other good years in 1971 and 1972 (winning 34 games with a sub-3.00 ERA) before declining into retirement by the mid-’70s. His 12-6 record at the break was good enough to get him a spot on the American League All-Star squad, where he gave up the game-winning hit in the twelfth inning to…Jim Hickman, which is where we started.

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Days of Future Passed: 10 Surprising Rock Albums of the Late 1960s

What makes an album surprising? The criteria will differ widely according to who’s making the judgment. Weren’t all of the Beatles albums surprises, in how each marked not just a significant departure and progression from the previous one, but often wholly unpredictable ones as well? Aren’t albums surprising in which a performer noted for a very specific style moves into a very different one, as Bob Dylan did on his electric rock recordings in the mid-1960s? How about ones that many consider to be duds, Dylan providing another example with 1970’s Self-Portrait?

Although none of the records noted in the above paragraph make the list on this post, most people can probably agree that surprising records are ones that don’t match, and sometimes even defy, expectations given an artist’s past releases. I thought about this recently after reading a new 800-page (yes, 800 pages – and it only goes through 1979!) book about the Moody Blues, Long Distance Voyagers. The Moody Blues aren’t for everyone, and an 800-page book about them definitely isn’t for everyone, or even every Moody Blues fan. But it naturally has a lot of coverage of their most famous album, Days of Future Passed, which was a pretty radical departure from their early sound when it came out in late 1967.

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Were many other significant LPs of the late ‘60s so different than what had preceded them? Not many – an inarguable point even if you don’t like the Moodies. There were some others that came close, in pretty different ways. The common thread on my personal Top Ten list here is the genuine sense of WTF reaction that must have greeted these records when they were first spun, even by dedicated fans. Some were baffled, some exhilarated, some outraged – but no doubt almost all of them were surprised.

The late ‘60s, of course, were not the only era in which such albums were unleashed. Over the next ten or fifteen years, others would appear that were strong candidates for lists of the some surprising LPs by significant artists, again for very different reasons – unlikely comebacks (Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English), utter departures from their usual approach (Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska), wholly uncommercial excursions into the avant-garde (Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music takes the cake in that regard), or outings so stylistically uncharacteristic they seemed designed to piss off longtime fans and record companies (Neil Young’s Trans, as well as several others he’s done). Analysis of those holds some interest, but is best left to different writers. I’m sticking to the era which I know the best – the late 1960s, the one in which Days of Future Passed was released.

1. The Moody Blues, Days of Future Passed (1967). Albums two and three on this list are vastly more critically respected than this one, and certainly album number two got much more press for defying expectations than this LP did. But really, have there been any other significant records that were as unlike what listeners would have predicted?

Moody

Admittedly, a big reason for their shift in direction was a substantial change in personnel. For about two years, starting with their debut single in late 1964, the Moody Blues were a good, though not great, British Invasion band with a haunting R&B/pop blend. The only song for which this lineup of the band (featuring Denny Laine, later of Wings, on lead vocals) is famous is their only big hit, “Go Now.” But they had quite a few other good tracks in the mid-’60s, many of them written by Laine and the group’s piano player, Mike Pinder. By fall 1966, Laine had enough of their fading commercial prospects and quit, their original bass player (the forgotten Clint Warwick) having already left.

For a year or so, the Moody Blues somehow struggled onward with replacements Justin Hayward and John Lodge, issuing a couple more flop singles. The story’s often been noted elsewhere (and is naturally told in considerable detail in the new Long Distance Voyagers book), but they were given the option of doing another LP whose function would be to demonstrate a new stereo recording method developed by the Deram label. The story has varied somewhat in different accounts, but the Moodies’ job would be to record a rock version of a symphony by Dvorak.

With no other real opportunity on the horizon, the band accepted — but then jettisoned the concept and substituted their own, that being a song cycle about different parts of a day from dawn to nighttime. It was a risk that in some ways might have been foolhardy (though not as foolish, perhaps, as just doing a Dvorak symphony as they were told), or at least resulted in them being kicked off the label and unable to find another recording contract. Probably more than 95% of the bands in a similar position wouldn’t have been able to pull it off. The Moody Blues did, reinventing themselves as an act bridging psychedelia and progressive rock with somber, stately songs with thoughtful-to-the-point-of-pompous lyrics, gothic vocal harmonies, and Pinder’s eerie Mellotron, marking him as the first adept user of the instrument in rock music. They sounded little like the Moody Blues of “Go Now” days with Denny Laine’s vocals, save for ingredients surviving in the haunting melodies and backup harmonies.

It was a career move that’s been hailed as not only adventurous, but courageous, the Moodies sticking out their necks for what they believed in when the record label funding the project was expecting something totally different. Which I agree with, but really, what did they have to lose? They’d made some good records in their early poppier style, but that approach wasn’t getting them anywhere in 1967. An album of Dvorak interpretation, aided by classical interludes, wasn’t going to make them commercial or critical favorites either. Indeed, it might have made them laughing stocks for being stooges for a company project aimed at hyping a stereo technique. Why not throw caution to the wind and go for broke, consequences be damned? They were probably going to break up anyway if they didn’t come up with a miracle — and that miracle wasn’t going to be the Dvorak album. The only chance they had, in the ultra-competitive world of 1967 rock, was coming up with their own distinctive original material.

It seems that at least a few people at Deram knew what the band was up to, but it would have been great to be a fly on the wall at the meeting at which the result was played to Deram staff expecting a somewhat exploitative Dvorak-meets-the-Moodies LP primarily designed not to advance the band’s career, but to show off their “Deramic Sound System.” Perhaps figuring it didn’t make sense to throw yet more money away to bury or redo the project, Deram released what the Moody Blues gave them. And everyone won, the album quickly gaining strong sales and positive feedback from fans and critics, and over time (which took a good few years) becoming a huge seller.

Something to emphasize that isn’t always pointed out when this tale is told: although the Moody Blues deserve praise for doing something both daring and true to their hearts with Days of Future Passed, it wouldn’t have worked if the songs weren’t strong. Indeed, they made for a stronger batch than any of their other albums, most made when they were established as a top act. Had the songs been on the okay-but-rather-unmemorable level of their pre-Days of Future Passed singles from 1967 with the Hayward-Lodge lineup, or the “Nights of White Satin” B-side “Cities,” the album would have been forgotten, even with the same concept and structure. And while Peter Knight’s instrumental classical interludes linking the band tracks can seem corny at times (the bit before “Peak Hour” almost sounds like the background to a frenetic city scene in an industrial training film), the album would not have worked as well without them, as they were vital to establishing a sense of epic grandeur.

2. Bob Dylan, John Wesley Harding (1967). As albums by artists who were already influential stars went, none was as surprising as John Wesley Harding, released in the final days of 1967. As Mike Jahn wrote in his 1973 book Rock, “As expected, it thoroughly stood folk and folk rock on their heads.” But not the way fans expected. It had been a year and a half since Dylan’s last album, Blonde on Blonde, which doesn’t sound like much now, but was an eternity by 1966-67 release schedule standards. In that year and a half following a July 1966 motorcycle accident, Dylan hadn’t played any concerts or released any singles, or even appeared much in public, sparking rumors of death or crippling injury. In that same year and a half, rock had changed at a dizzying pace, often getting louder and more psychedelic.

Dylan

Some listeners had to expect that Dylan’s next album might have been, if not psychedelic, even louder and more far-out than Blonde on Blonde, itself quite a bit louder and crazier than his early folk recordings. Instead John Wesley Harding was quiet, country-folkish, and barely electric, as though he was consciously restraining himself from rocking out. His lyrics were (with the exception of a song or two) as sophisticated and enigmatic as ever. But soundwise, he’s since been hailed as heading the rock world’s retreat from psychedelia to a back-to-basics, earthier approach, though in truth rock might have headed that way anyway as the possibilities of psychedelic music began to exhaust themselves, as they do in as any major innovative musical movement plays out.

John Wesley Harding’s almost quotidian calm was almost as contrary as possible to almost any Dylan fan’s expectations. Given Dylan’s already iconic stature in the rock world in 1968, many would pick it as #1 on a list of this sort. However, one factor in particular makes me reluctant to consider it for the top position. Although it wasn’t widely known at the time, Dylan was making a lot of music in 1967, if outside of conventional recording studios. Tons of music, in fact, as the recent six-CD expanded edition of The Basement Tapes verifies. By the late 1960s, some of it would be bootlegged, and of course many of the more accomplished songs found official release on the 1975 double-LP version of The Basement Tapes.

The Basement Tapes weren’t quite as hard-rocking as Dylan’s fiercest mid-’60s electric music, though they’re closer to Blonde on Blonde than John Wesley Harding. But they draw more on rootsy blues, country, and gospel than Blonde on Blonde, and if they’re not exactly halfway between Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, they’re something of a bridge. Had the best of The Basement Tapes been released in 1967, whether as a single or double LP (and re-recorded in a conventional studio to boost accessibility), they likely would have been very well received, and generated only mild surprise for not being as loud or outrageous as some might have expected. Now that so many Basement Tapes are available, the transition from Blonde on Blonde to John Wesley Harding seems less shocking, though hardly insubstantial.

As a footnote, at least a few people besides Dylan and the Band had heard some Basement Tapes before John Wesley Harding was released, when a few of them were circulated inside the industry with the intent of generating cover versions in late 1967. But almost everyone who heard John Wesley Harding shortly after its release had not heard any of these. Indeed, very few listeners even knew of their existence. So The Basement Tapes would not have mitigated the shock for any average purchaser of the John Wesley Harding album when it first appeared in stores.

3. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground (1969). Each of the Velvet Underground’s principal four studio albums (a couple outtakes compilations subsequently appeared in the 1980s) was markedly different from each other. Still, I’d have to say their self-titled third album was about as unlike what any of their growing cult fandom would have expected when it came out in March 1969. Having made one of the weirdest and noisiest records of all time with their previous album, White Light/White Heat (released in early 1968), the Velvets now seemed perversely determined to make the quietest album of all time, at least in places.

Velvetundergroundthirdalbum

I got the record (as a UK import; it was out of print in the US) as an 18-year-old in 1980, and still remember the shock of putting the needle down on the opening track, “Candy Says,” in which the group seem to be deliberately playing in as subdued and restrained a manner as possible, as if they’re afraid nudging the volume up even a bit would cause the needle to skate across the vinyl. And this was after having been thoroughly prepared for the VU’s change in direction by reading retrospective reviews of the LP (which weren’t all that easy to find in 1980, actually).

The Velvet Underground does rock out harder on some tracks, like “Beginning to See the Light” and “What Goes On,” and even gets avant-garde near the end on “The Murder Mystery.” But almost everything, even the mid-tempo rockers, is suffused with a feeling of containment, to the point where guitarist Sterling Morrison famously said (as a compliment) that it sounds as though it was recorded in a closet. It’s as if they’re trying to consciously annoy the fans who wanted more “Sister Ray” and the like by supplying the complete opposite.

With hindsight, however, we can put down much of the change in the Velvet Underground (as with the Moody Blues on Days of Future Passed) to a major lineup shakeup. John Cale was fired by Lou Reed shortly before the sessions for the album, replaced by more conventional (but very accomplished) rocker/singer Doug Yule. Allowing in turn for more conventional, melodic, and romantic songs by Reed, the results were excellent, and actually substantially more commercial than White Light/White Heat.

At the time, however, it confounded and even disappointed a good number of the fans the Velvet Underground had picked up — which weren’t nearly as great in number back then as Bob Dylan fans, or even the number of fans the Moody Blues had after Days of Future Passed. “A lot of people didn’t like our third album because they wanted more of the second,” Reed acknowledged to Metropolitan Review in 1971, after explaining he thought of the Velvets’ first three LPs as different installments of a novel or opera of sorts. “But they didn’t understand that that’s as far as you go with that, then there had to be a release, there had to be an ending. But I needed room to work, so I needed a separate album for each phase. I couldn’t have the ending on the second album, the second album ended very harsh. Then the third album starts out soft. So that was the idea all along, but no one seemed to pick up on it.”

As surprising in the context of a career as John Wesley Harding, I nonetheless put The Velvet Underground one notch lower, mainly for the following reason. John Wesley Harding’s change in direction was a shock for literally millions of listeners. The Velvet Underground’s, if equally profound, was at the time likely noticed by tens of thousands at most. It can’t compare in the magnitude of shock waves it generated, though fifty years later—with the massive expansion of the VU’s audience—it probably does have millions of listeners.

4. The Beach Boys, Smiley Smile (1967). Albums can be surprisingly disappointing, as well as genuinely surprising. This is the standard-bearer for such a record on this list. It’s almost a cliché to cite this 1967 LP as a massive letdown, or, as Beach Boys guitarist Carl Wilson famously described it, “a bunt instead of a grand slam.” But a letdown it was, after the sky-high anticipation fostered by reports of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys working on an album that would out-innovate the Beatles.

SmileySmileCover

That record, Smile, would never appear, and never even get properly finished, though simulations of what it would/could have sounded like (along with mounds of outtakes) have come out on both official CD and bootlegs. Although Smiley Smile was largely derived from subsequent and entirely different sessions, you couldn’t blame many consumers for expecting Smile when they bought it in 1967. The title was pretty similar, for one thing. And it had some songs (if not always in the same versions) that almost certainly would have been part of Smile, particularly the single “Heroes and Villains,” but also “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes.”

Apart from not sounding as groundbreaking, or just sounding as good, as what listeners expected/wanted after reports of the Smile sessions, Smiley Smile often sounds downright peculiar. With the non-Brian Wilson Beach Boys now determined to play their own music after classic mid-’60s records on which their contributions were largely limited to vocals, the tracks sound rather anemic. There’s an abundance of self-conscious, rather silly (if inoffensively so) humor, as though they’re not taking the endeavor entirely seriously, now that they’ve abandoned shooting for the moon. A classic single with pull-out-the-stops production (“Good Vibrations”), like “Heroes and Villains,” sounds out of place next to much more casual, tossed-off arrangements (including inferior versions of the Smile sessions standouts “Wonderful” and “Wind Chimes”) that can sound a bit like informal run-throughs. Some listeners find that informality charming, but it also veers on sounding like outtakes rather than finished arrangements, or something fun to hear on bootlegs, but not on par with the band at full throttle.

There have been some efforts to rehabilitate Smiley Smile, championing it as a rebirth of the Beach Boys’ collective group spirit, or as a continuation of their evolution rather than the signpost to the end of the band’s peak. I take pride in puncturing or deconstructing critical party lines in rock history when the music and facts call for it, but at the expense of losing a few friends on my social media lists, I’m afraid I’m siding with the party line here. Smiley Smile is a big letdown, especially when stacked against not only the buildup when Smile was being recorded, but the actual brilliant (if often flawed) Smile outtakes that are now freely available.

5. The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968). Much like Bob Dylan’s move to country-influenced sounds with John Wesley Harding was a shock, so was the Byrds’ sixth album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, when it came out about eight months later. The Byrds, along with Dylan, had been the leading lights of folk-rock; now they were fully on board with country rock. Dylan’s transition to country rock cost him virtually nothing commercially; John Wesley Harding was a big hit, if maybe not quite as big as it might have been if he’d done Blonde on Blonde Part 2. Sweetheart of the Rodeo, as many five-star reviews as it would get in rock history magazines and online sites decades later, was not a hit, in part because it wasn’t anything like what people expected from the Byrds.

Byrds

Of course, much of that was down to personnel changes that had rocked the core of the band. Just two of the original five Byrds were left. Still, one of them was leader Roger McGuinn, and the other, bassist Chris Hillman, had become an important singer-songwriter contributor to their pair of 1967 LPs. Yet the characteristic electric jangle of their first five LPs was gone, pretty much. And country rock that often sounded close to straight country music was in its place, at a time when country music wasn’t very popular among much of the rock audience. Even the two Bob Dylan covers (of Basement Tapes songs Dylan had yet to release, no less) didn’t have the jangly, vocal harmony-laden appeal of “My Back Pages,” “Chimes of Freedom,” and several other Dylan compositions the Byrds did masterful versions of on their 1965-67 releases.

While many Byrds fans knew the group now had a couple non-founder members, few were aware of just how profoundly one of them, Gram Parsons, had changed the band’s overall direction. With the enthusiastic support of Hillman, the group abandoned McGuinn’s ambitious plan for a double album spanning the history of music, from traditional Appalachian folk to experiments with the then-new synthesizer. Nor were the band writing as much original material as usual.

The record’s since been hailed as a country-rock milestone by many. I confess I’m not one of the critics who admires the album. I think it’s pretty disappointing and rather dull — a statement that’s another ticket to losing Facebook friends. I champion change and unpredictability among top rock innovators, but had I been old enough to buy it in 1968, I admit my gut reaction would have been to mourn the death of the “classic” Byrds sound. As I’ve written elsewhere, I also wish the Byrds had tried McGuinn’s idea to span the history of music, as prone as that might have been to failure.

6. Tim Buckley, Lorca (1970). Released in 1970 but recorded in September 1969, Lorca was one of the most defiantly inaccessible albums by any rock artist, not counting pure avant-garde outings like Metal Machine Music and the early collaborations by John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Buckley had not been the most accessible of singer-songwriters on his early albums, progressing from slightly arty baroque folk-rock to orchestrated art song to near-jazz. But those LPs had been full of actual songs, and for the most part pretty pleasant ones, if often challenging in their lyrics and structure.

lorca

Side one of Lorca was not occupied by conventional songs. The dissonant tones and pipe organ of the opening track were more reminiscent of contemporary composers such as Olivier Messiaen or Arnold Schoenberg than of rock, folk, or even jazz. Buckley proceeded to moan with a shaking vibrato, often wordless, sometimes rumbling and sometimes gliding into pealing shrieks, that conveyed not so much anguish as it did sheer agony. It was art, but to unschooled rock listeners, it sounded like the atonal soundtrack to an acid-fueled monster movie.

The free-jazzish track occupying the remainder of side one, “Anonymous Proposition,” was only slightly more approachable, impressive as it was in Buckley’s almost athletic journey across several octaves and vocal shadings. Never mind that the second side of Lorca had material far more in the jazz-folk-blues mode of his 1968 LP Happy Sad, albeit looser and funkier. Some listeners might not have even gotten that far.

The label that released Lorca and Buckley’s first three albums, Elektra, was regarded as about the most artist-friendly record company of the time. But even Elektra had its limits, dropping Tim after Lorca. As Elektra chief Jac Holzman told Musician about the Lorca era years later, “He was really making music for himself at that point. Which is fine, except to find enough people to listen to it.”

Like David Bowie and (in jazz) Miles Davis, Buckley changed styles with unnerving frequency and unpredictability. Unlike Bowie and Davis, he hadn’t built up the sizable audience whose base was large enough to ensure that much of it would follow his career, even as some of it dropped out along the way (and others joined partway into the journey). Lorca’s very small audience didn’t dissuade him from continuing his idiosyncratic path, with parts of Starsailor (also released in 1970) just as strange, followed by unsuspected leaps into more commercial funk-singer-songwriting. As admirable as its uncompromising first side was, it ensured that Buckley remained a cult figure.

7. Blossom Toes, If Only For a Moment (1969). All of the other acts on this list are pretty well known, even if some of them are on the cultish side. Not so Blossom Toes, who make Buckley seem like Bowie. The British band put out just two albums, though these LPs mark them as one of the best and most interesting obscure groups of the psychedelic era. And of all the bands in rock history that have recorded just two albums, few can match the Blossom Toes’ rare feat of producing LPs that were not only first-rate, but totally different from each other.

blossom

Blossom Toes’ debut, 1967s We Are Ever So Clean, was charming whimsical British pop-psychedelia, somewhat like the Kinks jamming with the Salvation Army on the village green on Sunday afternoon. In contrast to the debut’s orchestrated pop-psychedelic summer-day whimsy, If Only For a Moment was all heavy guitars and March of Doom lyrics, closer in tone to Captain Beefheart than the Kinks. It’s far more accessible than Trout Mask Replica, however, with some of the classiest proto-progressive rock dual guitar leads (between Brian Godding and Jim Cregan) you’re likely to come across.

The group’s wistful vocal harmonies are also intact—the only real strong link between the two records. But the chirpy chamber orchestra of the first LP is gone for good. The somber lyrical tone of the extended compositions deals with bombs, war protests, and tortured uncertainty. It’s almost as if the smiley face of the debut album has been inverted into a puzzled frown.

At this point Blossom Toes might be more widely known to the international record collecting community than they were back in the ‘60s. Indeed, the number of albums issued by Blossom Toes during their lifetime is now exceeded by the number of discs of unreleased material available by the same band. They remain, however, virtually unknown to the general public. They’ll never have the cult of Tim Buckley or the Velvet Underground, but they deserve a wider hearing, even if your initial impression will vary enormously depending on which of their two albums you’ll hear first.

8. Nico, The Marble Index (1968). Nico is not tremendously obscure, due mostly to her association (actually fairly brief) with the Velvet Underground. Her second album, however, was truly obscure upon its release. It did generate a surprising number of thoughtful, and at times even positive, reviews. Judging by how hard it was to find used copies back when I was buying Velvet Underground records around 1980, however, it must have sold very little when it first came out.

The_Marble_Index_by_Nico

For those who were paying attention, it must have been a tremendous shock after hearing the three Lou Reed songs Nico sang on the first Velvet Underground album, and then the baroque folk (often orchestrated) on her almost as obscure debut solo LP, 1967’s Chelsea Girl. For one thing, Nico wrote virtually nothing on Chelsea Girl (though she got a partial writing credit for the sole track to sound like the Velvet Underground, “It Was a Pleasure Then”). On The Marble Index, she wrote everything. Not only that, it sounded nothing like the rather gentle pop-folk of Chelsea Girl. Instead it presented harsh, uncompromisingly bleak soundscapes dominated by her stentorian, icy vocals and somber harmonium.

As is now fairly well known, Nico was encouraged to start writing her own songs by Jim Morrison, with whom she’d had an affair, Morrison advising her to take inspiration from her dreams. Likely dismissed as a token glamour girl in the Velvets by many of their observers, she was eager to become more of an artist than a pretty face. Remarkably, she succeeded, and with an original style not easily comparable to either the Velvet Underground, the folky songs she’d done on Chelsea Girl (which seemed to be trying to make her into an underground Judy Collins of sorts), or the singer-songwriters (like Tim Hardin and Jackson Browne) she’d covered on the Chelsea Girl LP. She did have a great deal of help in this regard from fellow Velvet Undergrounder John Cale, without whose arrangements The Marble Index might have sounded too monotonous and meandering.

As it turned out, the music she did on The Marble Index would be far more typical of her solo career than what she’d done on Chelsea Girl or with the Velvets, Cale returning to help with the production and arrangements on much of her subsequent studio work. The Marble Index, like Nico herself, did gain more of a following over the next few decades, and is now available as part of an extensive double CD (with her 1970 album Desertshore) that includes almost a dozen outtakes. It is as unlike Chelsea Girl, however, as the second Blossom Toes album was from that group’s debut—a major difference between the acts being that Blossom Toes would then break up, while Nico would put out four more studio LPs, the last appearing in the mid-1980s.

9. John Cale, Vintage Violence (1970). Recorded in fall 1969 and released in 1970, John Cale’s debut album was wholly unlike what many expected—but not because, as was the case with several other albums cited here, it was weird. On the contrary, it was a shock because it was so damned normal. Or, at least, way more normal than you’d expect given Cale’s reputation as by far the most avant-garde member of the Velvet Underground, and by his many way-avant-garde (indeed, sometimes pretty unlistenable) prior recordings in the 1960s, though very few of them had been heard before they surfaced on archival CDs decades later.

Vintage_violence

Vintage Violence was a shock not for the radical nature of its sounds, but for the absence of virtually any radicalism at all. Instead, it was a relatively conventional singer-songwriter record. It was more normal, in fact, than anything the Velvet Underground had recorded, or for that matter any of the records Cale had made with Nico, the Stooges, or Terry Riley. It’s certainly more accessible and less jarring than any of those albums. (Cale’s collaboration with Riley, Church of Anthrax, did not come out until 1971, but the pair had started working on material together in the studio in March 1969, about six months before the Vintage Violence sessions.)

Instead of taking cues from his experimental past, Cale instead plugged into the earthy roots-rock of the Band, who by late 1969 were among the most influential groups in the music business. There were also elements of country-rock, folk-rock, and the introspective singer-songwriting now gaining currency in the pop LP market. Cale sings in a gentle and attractive, if somewhat restrained, voice, backed by the band Grinder’s Switch.

Listeners paying attention to the Velvets and Cale’s prior work certainly would have been far more steeled for something like Church of Anthrax. Just because Vintage Violence is conventional, however, doesn’t mean it’s bad. Far from it, actually. It’s a fine, accessible, pleasing record, full of intelligent if low-key songs, the only avant-garde weirdness popping up (and pretty mildly) on the macabre “Ghost Story.” It’s impressive too for the courage it took for Cale to attempt something not at all like the Velvet Underground, and his ability to pull something of the sort off.

For all its quality, Cale has been pretty modest, and sometimes even dismissive, in his assessments of Vintage Violence. They’re worth quoting at some length here:

In the liner notes to the 2001 CD reissue of the album, he calls it “a very naive record. Those songs were written immediately prior to recording them. I tried to imitate my favorite songwriters of the times, the Bee Gees or whatever. I was out to discover the world of pop songwriting and I thought tunes were the answer. I taught the band the songs in one day and recorded them the next, so we were finished in three days.”

In his autobiography (co-written with Victor Bockris), he writes: “Vintage Violence was basically an exercise to see if I could write tunes. There’s not too much originality on that album, it’s just someone teaching himself to do something…I thought the songs were simplistic. We were writing stuff that was very oriented to what the Band were doing, as the musicians on the album shared that same upstate New York country sensibility.”

More negatively, in the August 30, 1971 issue of Rock magazine, he impassively states, “It was a cop-out. I made the mistake of using other musicians. I should have gone in the studio and done the songs the same way I did Marble Index – overdubbing a lot, doing the parts myself, building the songs up the way I wanted. It would have been more interesting, more honest, more me. The songs on it are about things I’d thought about that morning. They all run into short stories I’ve written, the stories end up as maps and charts, lots of characters come out in my short stories. All of them have characters. Like ‘Adelaide’ is like an English rock and roll song. ‘Little White Cloud,’ like a Bee Gees thing. ‘Cleo,’ like old rock and roll.”

Vintage Violence is better than John Cale seems to think it is, although it’s not his most famous solo record, and still not all that widely known even to Velvet Underground fans, who’d likely pretty readily take a shine to it. I’m aware this list is pretty Velvet Underground-heavy, but then that’s a testament to the daring unpredictability of both the band and the solo work of their three most prominent members (Cale, Lou Reed, and Nico).

10. George Harrison, All Things Must Pass (1970). To fill out this Top Ten list to ten actual selections, I’ve taken small liberties. All Things Must Pass was not released or even recorded in the late 1960s, though it was on the market by late 1970, which isn’t that much later. Musically, it’s different from the Beatles or what George Harrison had done in the Beatles, but not hugely different. You can hear a lot of links between All Things Must Pass and the Beatles, and while it was different in notable ways—an increased emphasis on spiritualism in many compositions, a greater use of horns, and Phil Spector’s co-production (with George)—Harrison brought a lot of the Beatles’ melodicism to the songs, as well of course as his own singing and guitar playing.

Harrison

In this case, the big surprise was not in the content, but in its reception. When the Beatles broke up in spring 1970, everyone was wondering how they’d fare as solo artists. If you’d polled people then as to who would do the best records on their own, I’m guessing about 99% of them would have said the contest would have been between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. As for the 1% who would have figured it would have been between George Harrison and someone else, not all of the 1% would have picked George as the winner.

So it was a huge surprise—and a pleasant one—that George’s true solo debut (not counting his Wonderwall soundtrack and avant-garde doodlings on Electronic Sound) outsold Paul and John’s debuts, and was the best record of the three. (Again, I’m not counting Lennon and McCartney’s various soundtrack/avant-garde/live LPs, and considering McCartney and Plastic Ono Band as their true solo debuts.) I realize quite a few listeners and critics would pick Plastic Ono Band as the best LP of this batch, and some prefer McCartney, though champions of Paul’s debut probably rank a distant third in this contest. In my view, however, All Things Must Pass was easily the best, and indeed the only solo Beatles album I’d rate on a par with the band’s releases. It would have been even better had George not put dull jams on disc three of the triple album, and instead used yet more of the songs he’d piled up (some demos of which are available on archival releases and bootlegs).

If there was any one good thing to come out of the Beatles’ breakup, it was that George was finally free to record—in the way he wished—all of the songs he had accumulated during the late 1960s, some of which (such as “The Art of Dying” and “Isn’t It a Pity”) had been written as far back as 1966. All Things Must Pass suggests that John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Martin not only underestimated Harrison’s songwriting talent, but also his production skills. As much as all Beatles fans lament the passing of the group in 1970, it’s impossible not to rejoice in George’s great triumph, surpassing the expectations of even his most devout fans—and, perhaps, even surpassing his own.

Shoreline Trail in China Camp State Park

On my list of places in the Bay Area I’ve heard about but haven’t managed to visit, China Camp has been high on the list for a while. Earlier this month I finally made it out there on a Monday morning. I walked around for nearly three hours, but that’s not nearly enough time to cover this 1500-acre state park, a few miles east of Central San Rafael.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

On the Shoreline Trail in China Camp.

There are a good number of hiking trails, some of which are on the steep side. A good choice for a path with some length and variable terrain seemed to be the Shoreline Trail, which runs most of the length of the park near the San Pablo Bay. On a weekday at least, it was easy to park on the main road just outside the first campground entrance you come to after entering on the west side. Be aware there’s a parking fee if you go the lot a two-three-minute drive inside, and that you still need to pay a $3 walk-in fee at the trail entrance.

China Camp trail map.

There’s not much in the way of water views from the trail, though occasionally you get glimpses such as this one:

View

The bends on the trail might not offer scenes as spectacular as those in many more celebrated California parks, but they’re pleasing enough, as this series shows:

Trail1 Timber SunTrail Overhang FirstBendBridge

Unfortunately there are reminders that California’s in danger of suffering another drought. This is supposed to be a creek:

Creek

After a while you’ll get to the Back Ranch Meadows Campground (actually not far from the trail entrance if you take the much easier flatter path), where you’ll have a good chance of spotting a bit of wildlife, as I did:

Deer

Turkey

Across the main road that runs through the park, on the side by the water, there’s a very short trail, Turtle Back Trail, that true to its name winds around Turtle Back Hill. It’s actually just a minute-or-two drive from the campground where you can enter the Shoreline Trail. This seems like a good option for parents escorting small kids, and I saw a couple such pairs when I did the loop in just a few minutes:

Turtle Hill Trail path.

Turtle Back Trail path.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

Hill to the east of Turtle Back Trail.

The most popular spot in China Camp is China Camp Beach at the eastern end, which has a fairly big parking lot (fee required) overlooking the dock. I stopped just long enough to take a picture, and that’s where I’ll start on my next visit:

Dock

More info on China Camp State Park at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=466.