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.
Shohei Ohtani. What can you say about the 2021 American League MVP that hasn’t been said already? Which doesn’t stop broadcasters and pundits from repeating a variation of that sentence ad infinitum. Even some people who aren’t baseball fans might know that in 2021, he almost became the first guy to have both ten wins and ten home runs in a season since Babe Ruth did it a little more than a hundred years ago, in 1918. Which would have made him the only guy besides Ruth to have done that. Actually Ohtani had nine wins and forty-six home runs, though unlike Ruth, he seldom played in the field when he wasn’t pitching.
It’s not often been mentioned, however, that there are a couple of other guys who’ve both won ten games in a season and hit ten home runs in a season, though not in the same year. One of them’s the only player besides Ruth to both win twenty games and hit ten home runs in separate years. Another’s the only guy besides Ruth to both win ten games and hit twenty home runs in separate years. There are a few other guys who came close to notching double figures in both wins and home runs, one in the same year.
One of those other men pulled off the double-double, if you want to call it that, fairly recently. As a rookie, Rick Ankiel showed great promise in 2000 for the Cardinals, going 11-7 in thirty starts with a 3.50 ERA and striking out 194 batters in 175 innings. Rather infamously, he melted down in the 2000 playoffs, with stats that still astound – four innings pitched in three games and two starts, a 15.75 ERA, eleven walks, and nine wild pitches.
These were the early days of being able to follow a game online if you couldn’t watch it or hear it on the radio, and I still remember wondering if the site relaying the play-by-play was having a meltdown by displaying wild pitch after wild pitch. No, it really happened. And Ankiel never regained adequate control, though he pitched a few more games in the majors. His 2001 minor league Triple A stats are particularly gruesome—4.1 innings, seventeen walks, and twelve wild pitches—and though some low-minor stints went much better, in a few years he decided to concentrate on trying to make it back to the bigs as an outfielder.
That went pretty well, and in 2008 he hit 25 homers as a Cardinal. He didn’t sustain that success, in part due to injuries, and finished with 76 career home runs—the only man besides Ohtani and Ruth to win more than ten games and hit more than 70 homers, as Wikipedia will tell you. Would he have been a better hitter, or star, had he focused on hitting and fielding from the beginning? We won’t know, though his overall unspectacular record suggests he wouldn’t have been an all-star.
The other man to have double-digit seasons in both the home run and win column is much more obscure. As a rookie, Reb Russell went 22-16 for the White Sox in 316 innings, with a 1.90 ERA. Norms were much different for pitchers in the dead ball era, of course, but that’s still an impressive start. Russell also won 18 games for the Sox when they won the World Series in 1917, and started one of the series games, but was pulled after failing to retire a batter. He wasn’t given much of a shot, getting relieved after just three batters – a walk, single, and double. (Which is, by the way, another rabbit hole baseball trivia question: how many starters were pulled from World Series games without recording an out? See the end of this post for some follow-up.)
Back to Russell: he’s one of the most obscure members of the Black Sox, pitching to just two batters in one June game (retiring neither) in 1919. He’d been a good if unspectacular hitter for a pitcher, with ten triples in White Sox uniform. Like Ankiel, he also converted to outfield and worked his way back to the majors by hitting well in the minors. When he played for the Pirates in the final months of 1922, he played better than well.
Get a load of this stat line: 60 games, 12 home runs, a .368 batting average, a .668 slugging average, and 75 RBI. Over 150 games, that works out to 187 RBI, which threatens Hack Wilson’s all-time record of 191. Sure, that’s inflated by the conditions of the early 1920s, a boom time for hitting, but even relative to those, that’s stunning. Could he have been a bigger star if he’d been an outfielder all along?
Russell didn’t even get much more of a chance in the majors. He was 33, and while he did get a fair amount of playing time in 1923, his stats fell back to ordinary status, though he did hit nine home runs. Had he hit one more, he would have joined Ruth and Ankiel as the only players to have both ten-win and ten-homer seasons more than once. He didn’t play in the big leagues again, defensive limitations also being a factor, though he hit well in the minors the rest of the 1920s.
Who’s the closest to pulling off a double-double without quite managing it? Fairly famously, Wes Farrell holds the record for home runs in a season by a pitcher—nine, in 1931 with Cleveland. He also holds the record for home runs in games in which the player is a pitcher—37 (he had 38 lifetime, but one was as a pinch-hitter). He was a pretty good pitcher too, with 193 lifetime wins, and six seasons where he won twenty or more. One of them was 1931, when he won 22 games besides bashing those nine homers.
Ferrell seemed headed for a Hall of Fame career, but developed arm trouble as he entered his thirties. I once read it suggested that Ferrell would have been a Hall of Famer had he been an outfielder, and he did try to play outfield for about a dozen games in 1933 while maintaining his career as a pitcher, though that was soon abandoned. I’m not so sure about that.
While he was undoubtedly the best-hitting pitcher in history who primarily played games as a pitcher, it’s a little curious he—unlike Ankiel, Russell, and a couple others we’ll soon get to—didn’t make it back to the majors as a position player after his pitching career ended. He did play as an outfielder for a few years in the low minors in the 1940s before and after the war, putting up some awesome numbers—a .425 BA with 24 homers and .766 SA in class D in 1948, for instance, at the age of forty. Maybe he was too committed to pitching to make a relatively quick conversion after his arm troubles, or maybe considered too old to advance once he’d started tearing up the low minors as a hitter.
There are a couple other guys who didn’t miss the double-double by much—one pretty well known, one not so well known. Smoky Joe Wood, like Ferrell, seemed on track for a Hall of Fame career after going 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA with the Red Sox when they won the World Series in 1912, aged just 22. He hurt his arm the next year and, while effective with a much reduced workload the next three years, barely pitched after 1915.
But he was a good-hitting pitcher—.290 in the year he won 34 games, with 13 doubles. In 1918 he came back to the minors with Cleveland as an outfielder and, if not exactly a star, did okay, hitting .366 as a part-timer in 1921. The next year, as a regular, he hit .297 with eight homers—not star material by early-‘20s standards, but alright. He probably had some baseball left in him and maybe could have had a shot at hitting ten home runs in a year. But as he told it in The Glory of Their Times, “Could have played there longer, too, but I was satisfied. I figured I’ve proved something to myself. So in 1923 when Yale offered me a position as baseball coach at the same salary as I was getting from Cleveland, I took it. Coached there at Yale for twenty years.”
Also getting a chapter in The Glory of Their Times was the far less famous Rube Bressler. As a nineteen-year-old rookie pitcher with the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics, he was outstanding—10-4 with a 1.77 ERA, though he didn’t get to pitch in the World Series, which they lost to the Braves. A’s manager Connie Mack notoriously sold off most of his star players after the Series loss, and in 1915 the team fell to last, Bressler contributing with a 4-17 record and 5.20 ERA. It looked like he was on his way back by going 8-5 with the Reds a couple years later, but he didn’t pitch much after that. He got into some games with the 1919 Reds, but didn’t pitch in the World Series, which they won over the Black Sox.
Yet by then he was playing more in the outfield than the pitcher’s mound. By 1921 he was just a position player (sometimes at first base), and nearly a regular, hitting .307 in just over a hundred games. While he wasn’t a star as a semi-regular for the Reds during much of the 1920s, he was okay, and had a lifetime .301 average with 1170 hits. In 1924-1926 he posted averages of .347, .348, and .357, helped by conditions that inflated batting averages to historic proportions throughout the majors. He never had much home run power, but he did have nine in 1929, just missing double figures.
An honorable mention should be given here to Don Newcombe, one of the first outstanding African-American major league pitchers. Besides winning 153 games (mostly for the Dodgers, including three years when he won twenty or more), he was one of the best-hitting pitchers of his or any era. In 1955, besides going 20-5, he hit .359 with seven homers, nine doubles, a triple, and 23 RBI in 117 at-bats. Wrote Bill James in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, “That was, with the exception of one Wes Ferrell season and Babe Ruth, the best-hitting season by a pitcher in the twentieth century.”
After wrapping up his big league career at the beginning of the 1960s, Newcombe played one season in Japan. However, he only pitched one game, playing outfield or first base the rest of the time. In about a half season (81 games), he held his own, hitting 12 home runs to go with a .473 slugging percentage. If you consider the Japan Central League a major league, that means he hit double figures in wins and homers in two different seasons – in fact, that he both won twenty games in a year and hit ten homers in a different one. In fact, that would make him the only player to win 25 in a year (he won 27 in 1956) and ten in a different year. Even Babe Ruth didn’t do that.
(Back to a question posed earlier: how many starters besides Reb Russell were pulled from World Series games without recording an out? I’m not going to research that at the moment, but I’m guessing there couldn’t have been that many. There were at least two. Harry Taylor of the Brooklyn Dodgers faced four batters (two singles, a walk, and a fielder’s choice) without getting an out in the fourth game of the 1947 series. That game’s famous, for an entirely different reason. It’s the one where Yankee pitcher Bill Bevens had a no-hitter with two outs in the ninth, only to lose the no-hitter and the game on Tommy Henrich’s two-run double. And neither Taylor nor Russell, by the way, ever pitched in another World Series game, thus never retiring a batter at all in World Series competition.
Another World Series starter not to retire a batter was Hank Borowy, who faced three batters in the final game of the 1945 World Series, giving up singles to each of them. There were extenuating circumstances. After starting games one and five for the Cubs against the Tigers, he pitched the last four innings of a twelve-inning game in relief the day after game five to get the win. Then, just two days after game six, he started game seven, and didn’t have much left on such short rest. He’s one of the few pitchers to get four decisions in a World Series, winning two and losing two. Another, Red Faber, was a teammate of Reb Russell in the 1917 World Series, when he went 3-1, winning the game that Russell started.
And there’s another 1917 game in which a starting pitcher didn’t retire a batter that’s fairly famous, and involves another guy in this survey. On June 23, 1917, Babe Ruth walked the first batter against the Senators, and was thrown out of the game for arguing with the umpire. He was relieved by Ernie Shore, who, after the runner who’d walked was thrown out stealing, retired the next 26 batters in a row. For many years this was considered a perfect game, though now it isn’t officially classified as one.)
Once in a while a reissue comes out that isn’t good enough to make a best-of list, but is kind of interesting, if only for the strangeness of its concept. One such item from 2021 is The Roy Orbison Connection: 34 Roots and Covers of Roy Orbison, on Bear Family. All of these tracks were either covers of songs Orbison did, or versions of songs that Roy covered. Bear Family’s done similar collections for Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.
None of these postdate the 1960s, and include a wealth of big names, among them Bobby Fuller, Bobby Vinton, Gene Pitney, the Everly Brothers, Wanda Jackson, Bruce Channel, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Del Shannon. If you’re wondering how they could come up with 34 tracks, there must have been way more than 34 that would qualify.
The British group the Four Pennies, for instance, did “Running Scared” in the 1964 film Swinging UK, and it’s not here (nor is it especially worth tracking down). The Beatles did a far better and more historically significant cover of “Dream Baby” on their first BBC radio appearance (when Pete Best was still drummer) on March 7, 1962. It’s often been bootlegged, but never been officially issued, most likely because of its taped by a cheap recorder next to a radio speaker fidelity.
There are a bunch of no-names, or at least ones that will be unfamiliar if you’re not a huge collector. Vernon Taylor, Don Duke, Mike Redway, and the Schneider Sisters, anyone? And there are names that are primarily familiar to rockabilly aficionados, like Narvel Felts, Sid King, and Janis Martin. Ken Cook recorded Orbison’s composition “Problem Child” for Sun Records in 1956, but it didn’t come out until 1976. Joe Melson won’t be a name recognized by many, but he had an important role in Orbison’s career as a co-writer (with Roy) of much of Orbison’s material in Roy’s prime in the first half of the 1960s.
These kind of collections are seldom great listens all the way through, let alone as good as the most familiar versions. That’s even true of the very best artists, like the Beatles, or songwriters, like Carole King and Gerry Goffin. A lot of these cuts are more curiosities than quality efforts, or even too interesting.
That applies to The Roy Orbison Connection, where there are few cuts that stand out as particularly worthwhile, though few are subpar. Often they’re rather unimaginatively close to Orbison’s version, and unsurprisingly not as good. This could be said of Del Shannon’s “Oh, Pretty Woman,” Waylon Jennings’s “The Crowd,” or Bruce Channel’s “Dream Baby.” Bobby Fuller’s “Rock House” is pretty good, but not notably different or leagues above Orbison’s rendition. Johnny Cash’s “You’re My Baby” (which Roy could cover) is just weird, Cash almost sounding like he’s forcing himself to do rockabilly, especially on one chorus where he emits a bizarre yelp.
Amidst the generally run-of-the-mill, or sometimes worse, variations are a few good performances. Wanda Jackson sounds sexy (and rather like Brenda Lee) on “Candy Man,” though Roy and for that matter Fred Neil (who co-wrote the song with Beverly Ross) did it better. Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Down the Line” is solid and better than Orbison’s original; he did a good “Mean Woman Blues” in 1957 too, though Roy both did it better and made it his own when he had a Top Five hit with the song in 1963.
Dalida’s French-language treatment of “It’s Over” stands out in this company just because it’s different than anything else, both in the language and the European orchestrated arrangement. You don’t have to be fluent in French to catch that its retitling as “Je T’Aime” (“I love you”) isn’t an exact translation.
The clear winners as Orbison’s most important interpreters are the Everly Brothers. Before Roy had a big hit of his own, they took a rousing run through his composition “Claudette” into the Top Thirty in 1958 (as the B-side of the chart-topping “All I Have to Do Is Dream”). It’s considerably superior to the version Orbison later did on his 1965 LP There Is Only One Roy Orbison.
The Everlys also did a superb interpretation of Boudleaux Bryant’s “Love Hurts” on their 1960 album A Date With the Everly Brothers, itself one of the best-pre Beatles non-compilation rock LPs. They used a pretty straightforward mild rock arrangement with a gingerly swelling electric guitar. Orbison put the song on the B-side of “Running Scared” and opted for a much more orchestrated approach that could have been a big hit as an A-side. It’s close to a tie as to which track is better; I guess I’d go with the Everly Brothers, though they’re so markedly different that each can be appreciated as a highly worthwhile production.
There’s one selection on The Roy Orbison Connection that stands out as a recording that’s both obscure and better than Orbison’s original. “I Like Love,” written by Sun producer Jack Clement, was Roy’s last single for the label in 1957. An average, even generic Sun rockabilly number, it made no commercial impact, but was picked up across the Atlantic by Vince Taylor, one of Britain’s few notable pre-Beatles rock singers. Actually he couldn’t sing too well, but made it for it with oodles of enthusiastic attitude and some good studio backup musicians. In that respect he had much in common with another of the UK’s few pre-Beatles rockers of consequence, Screaming Lord Sutch.
Taylor’s most remembered for “Brand New Cadillac,” covered much later by the Clash, and for supplying part of the inspiration for David Bowie’s Ziggy character. He wasn’t remotely close to Orbison in either the quality of his music or his historical significance. But his 1958 single “I Like Love” has frenetic energy and is decisively better than Orbison’s rather unmemorable prototype.
There’s some more historical significance to Taylor’s “I Like Love.” It has some of the best guitar on any 1950s British rock’n’roll single, and indeed some of the only good guitar in 1950s rock, especially in the manic if brief solos. That guitarist was Tony Sheridan, who’d go on to fame, of sorts, as a mentor in Hamburg in the early 1960s to the Beatles, who’d back him on some recordings in Germany before they started their own recording career. Now there’s a Roy Orbison connection that echoed way beyond the rather specialized niche of who did Orbison songs, or whose songs Orbison did.
When I post about things to see and do in the Bay Area in my blog, I focus on biking and hiking. I also focus on sights and locales that are off the beaten path. San Francisco cable car rides are not off the beaten path, and they don’t involve biking or hiking, either. They’re among the city’s biggest tourist attractions. So what gives with this post?
My excuse, if you want to call it that, is that for the entire month of August, all San Francisco cable car rides were free. They’d been out of commission, like so many things all over the world, for almost the last year and a half. This is part of a city plan to test the equipment after they’d been out of service for so long. Maybe that doesn’t make the most cautious of riders feel so easy when the cars stop and start down some of the steepest urban streets in the country, though the risk seems pretty minimal, or at least not appreciably greater than taking the cars has always been.
Here’s an embarrassing confession: although I’ve lived in the Bay Area for about 35 years, it had been decades since I’ve taken a cable car. Rides are a lot more expensive than they are on the city’s regular streetcars, buses, and trains: $8.00 one way. Cable cars go to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is considered a tourist ghetto by San Francisco residents. Sure, some snobbery comes into play – why pay extra to jam yourself onto a car with a bunch of tourists to someplace you don’t want to go, when you have more important things to do?
You can’t turn down a free ride, though, so I took a couple in August. So here’s another confession. The ride’s great, fun, and not an overblown tourist hype. Not worth the $16 roundtrip in normal times, perhaps, but certainly worth a ride at some point. Even if, by the time you read this, the free rides will be over, and who knows if they’ll ever happen again.
As far as I could tell, the only line in service during this free month test run was the one people usually take, running downtown from Powell and Market Streets to Fisherman’s Wharf. It was a twenty-thirty-minute wait, but there’s some entertainment on offer when the operators make the manual turnaround at the terminal:
There are some mediocre street entertainers at the stop that are too loud for my taste. Surprisingly, however, one dancer played Yellow Magic Orchestra’s “Firecracker” on his boom box at one point during his routine. That’s not exactly standard fare for street entertainment. (Trivia note: Japan’s YMO were one of the few non-African-American acts to appear on Soul Train.)
There’s no canned music on the cable car, and plenty of views as it makes its way up Powell and then down Hyde to Fisherman’s Wharf. This is from the stop at Lombard (where it’s, famously, the world’s crookedest street) and Hyde:
From Powell and California, the Transamerica Pyramid:
You can see the Bay Bridge at some point, though usually not too much of it:
This isn’t the kind of scenery that will draw many photos from tourists, but near the end of the ride, you’ll see a significant new park (to be called Francisco Park) under construction where there used to be a reservoir:
The ride ends just a few blocks down the hill from there:
There’s another turnaround when you take the ride back to downtown from the Hyde Street terminal. There’s a line, too, though it was more like ten minutes instead of twenty-thirty the second time I took it:
There’s also a view of Golden Gate Bridge from the terminal, though it can be pretty foggy:
What to do in Fisherman’s Wharf? The only thing I like to do, except bicycle through it, is check out the sea lions on Pier 39. There’s always a crowd on the benches, but it’s worth the view:
As time goes on, it seems like there are more and more tribute/covers albums than ever before by acts known mostly for doing their own material. Songs from the 1940s, x superstar interprets compositions by x songwriter, an all-blues covers session – there are plenty of examples. In fact, such projects have been a part of rock from its start, whether it was Elvis Presley doing a Christmas album or Ray Charles doing Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music. Del Shannon even did a Sings Hank Williams LP in 1965, though like many such combos, it looks more interesting than it sounds.
Arguably, the first such post-Beatles detour by an established star known for doing original material to gain wide attention was David Bowie’s Pin-Ups, devoted to classic British Invasion covers in 1973. Around the same time, the Band did their oldies record, Moondog Matinee, and Bryan Ferry his all-covers LP, These Foolish Things. A little more than a year later, John Lennon put out his oldies covers collection, Rock’n’Roll.
Sometimes these records seemed to mark time when a band had run out of inspiration or fresh material (Moondog Matinee). Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll was at least partly cut to settle a legal dispute over song copyrights. The motivation behind other projects seemed kind of inscrutable—Bowie kept pumping out original material shortly after Pin-Ups, and maybe just wanted a break from the pressure to deliverable more compositions after his ascent to glam superstardom.
With this post, I’m listing my favorite such sort of side endeavors predating Pin-Ups. Even considering there weren’t as many such projects back then, it’s a little surprising how few of them excite me. There are a good number such attempts by artists I like very much that basically leave me indifferent. I’ll list a few of these with brief notes at the end.
The clear winner—the only one that sounds very good, makes for a good album-length statement, and doesn’t sound like a novelty or a distraction from the main course—is:
Laura Nyro and LaBelle, Gonna Take a Miracle (1971). Nyro is most known as a songwriter, and mostly for songs that were big hits for other people, like “Eli’s Coming,” “And When I Die,” “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Sweet Soul Picnic,” and “Stoney End.” She was also, however, a very good singer, with a bigger soul influence than most musicians put in the singer-songwriter bag.
So she was well suited for doing an album of soul covers, most of them fairly big hits, although some of the older and more doo-wop-flavored ones (“The Wind,” “Desiree,” and “The Bells”) weren’t as familiar. And while temporary teams of well known performers usually aren’t special, she also blended well with LaBelle as backup singers for the sessions. Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who produced the album as they were rising to prominence in the Philly soul sound, don’t lay it on as lush as they did on many of their hits, which also works well with Nyro’s approach.
Gonna Take a Miracle doesn’t sound like a novelty or side project, but a strong album on its own merits. I wouldn’t say any of these versions surpass the originals, but they’re appreciably different, and moving enough that you aren’t mentally comparing them to superior renditions. The 2002 CD reissue enhances the product with four previously unreleased soul covers (none of them on the studio LP) from a 1971 Fillmore East concert, though a couple of those are pretty brief.
Why did Nyro do this at a time when few other artists of her stature were embarking on similar studio projects? It’s harsh, but the best of her songwriting was already behind her, although she was just 23 when this was recorded in June 1971. Indeed, most of her songwriting was behind her. Her next album didn’t appear until 1976, and there weren’t many others before her 1997 death. Maybe she had dried up and had few notable new compositions to offer. As she’s already done some soul covers in concert, it could have been seen as a way of marking time until she had new material. Instead it ended up being her last album of note.
Odetta, Odetta Sings Dylan (1965). While some albums in this post are by artists who wrote most of their own material, some aren’t. By the admittedly loose standards I’m applying, I included some where noted artists did something different than what they usually did, even if they wrote few or none of their songs. Here’s one instance, from early 1965, with folk legend Odetta presenting an entire album of Bob Dylan compositions. This was, to the best of my knowledge, only the second such Dylan cover LP—there was a very obscure one by Linda Mason (How Many Seas Must a White Dove Sail) in 1964, but neither that album nor that singer are very good.
Odetta Sings Dylan, however, is very good. Her singing is expectedly strong, her interpretations sensitive, and her accompaniment—by guitarists Bruce Langhorne (who’d played on some Dylan albums) and Peter Childs, and Les Grinage—is excellent. While the songs include a few that were already well known (“The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”), a number of them wouldn’t be released by Dylan in the ‘60s (“Baby, I’m in the Mood for You”; “Long Ago, Far Away,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time”; “Walkin’ Down the Line”; and “Long Time Gone”). The ten-minute version of “Mr. Tambourine Man” might have been released before Dylan’s own rendition, if only very shortly before that.
The 2000 CD on Camden adds two worthwhile bonus tracks from previous Odetta albums, both Dylan covers (“Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Paths of Victory”). One reason this isn’t #1 is that it’s a folk album, not a rock one, though it has close connections to an artist at the time he was making the transition from folk to rock. Dylan cited Odetta as one of the biggest influences in his changing focus from rock to folk as a teenager.
Various Artists, Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (1963). How does a various artists compilation make a list like this? It does if you consider Phil Spector the artist on this LP of Christmas songs by acts on his Philles Records roster, including the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Darlene Love. For the record, originally it was titled A Christmas Gift for You from Philles Records, and then A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector.
Generally I don’t like Christmas music, but this is an exception that proves the rule, mostly because Spector held nothing back in laying his wall of sound on these tracks. So they sound more like Phil Spector records than Christmas ditties, though the singers perform them with praiseworthy passion, especially the Ronettes on “Sleigh Ride.”
It’s well known by historians that this was released on the day JFK was assassinated. While it’s been written that the album was heard by virtually no one because the United States wasn’t in the mood for such a record, that’s not entirely true. For what it’s worth, it made #13 on Billboard’s Christmas album sales chart in December 1963, though I don’t think records on that chart sold in huge numbers. It’s reached plenty of listeners through subsequent reissues, however, even making the charts at various points—including a #12 on Billboard’s pop chart quite recently at the beginning of 2021.
The Beach Boys, Beach Boys Party! (1965). No, this isn’t as good as the Beach Boys’ next (and best) album, 1966’s Pet Sounds. It’s not even as good as most of their previous LPs. It wasn’t really recorded at a party, either; it was done in a studio, with some of the party sounds overdubbed later. It’s seen as a stopgap to satisfy Capitol Records’ demand for more material as they, and particularly Brian Wilson, prepared to embark on their most serious project, Pet Sounds.
Still, there’s an inviting loose and casual atmosphere to this collection of largely acoustic covers. Most of them are far from the same league as the originals, including a couple songs by their chief rivals, the Beatles, and even Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” But despite the artificial pretense of eavesdropping on an actual party, they sound like they’re having fun, and it’s kind of like a bootleg that got released. And it was quite successful – Party! got to #6 in the US, and #3 in the UK.
There was one cover that did match and, commercially certainly, surpassed the original. That was “Barbara Ann,” which soared to #2 in the US and #3 in the UK, with a lot of help from an exuberant co-lead vocal by uncredited guest Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean. That alone made the album session worthwhile. Greil Marcus’s claim in the Stranded book that “Barbara Ann” “feels better than anything on Pet Sounds—or Sgt. Pepper” is not so much revisionism as extremism, however.
Call me behind the times, but I wasn’t aware until writing this that there’s an 81-track expanded edition of Party! from 2015, titled Beach Boys’ Party! Uncovered and Unplugged. Some of it has alternate takes, but there are also a good number of covers that didn’t make the original LP. Much if not all this had been bootlegged, and it’s fair to say it’s probably too much even for many listeners who enjoy the core album, though it’s out there if you want it.
The Temptations, The Temptations Sing Smokey (1965). As another example of how loose this category can be, here we have an act who wrote none of their own material filling up an LP with compositions by a guy who wrote (or co-wrote) most of their early hit songs anyway. Still, it was unusual in the mid-1960s for rock or soul stars to prominently bill an album as having been written by, or at least entirely comprised of songs by, a specific songwriter. A couple of the tracks, “The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl,” had already been big hits. Some of the others had been big hits for others—“You Beat Me to the Punch” by Mary Wells and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” by Smokey Robinson’s main group, the Miracles. Others had been previously released by the Miracles, even if they hadn’t been big hits (“(You Can) Depend on Me” and “Who’s Lovin’ You”).
“The Way You Do the Things You Do” and “My Girl” are easily the best items here, and I’m not as big on this album as some other soul critics are. Still, it’s fairly solid and was certainly a big hit with customers at a time when Motown (and soul) performers didn’t prioritize LPs, hitting #1 on the R&B charts. Motown used a similar strategy on a release by their biggest female stars, 1967’s The Supremes Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, spotlighting material by the songwriting-production team who’d penned and produced all their hits.
Here are some brief comments on similar detours by other notable artists, some of which are valued much more highly by some others than I rate them:
The Everly Brothers, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us (1958). I wish I liked this album more than I do, since I’m a big Everly Brothers fan and the concept is kind of interesting. But this collection of folk songs—an audacious move at a time when the Everlys had just ascended to rock’n’roll superstardom—is kind of dull, with only minimal accompaniment. They harmonize well, but it accentuates how great their early hits (and, for the most part albums) were, with superb catchy songs boasting rock and pop influences that are missing from these tunes.
Skeeter Davis, Skeeter Sings Buddy Holly (1967). I like Skeeter Davis, and I love Buddy Holly. But this album’s just okay, with country-rockish backing, occasional light strings, and competent straightforward, upbeat interpretations by Davis. It was a bit weird to be doing an album like this in 1967, when Holly wasn’t in the forefront of pop and rock consciousness.
The Hollies, Hollies Sing Dylan (1969). This album’s most famous, or infamous, for helping spur Graham Nash’s departure from the Hollies at a time when he felt they, and artists in general, should be writing their own material. The album itself isn’t discussed that much, although it did reach some listeners at the time, making #3 in the UK (though, titled Words and Music By Bob Dylan, it missed the charts entirely in the US). Despite the group’s frequent skill at interpreting material by others, it’s not too memorable and doesn’t suit their strengths, particularly their rich vocal harmonies. Give them points at least for tossing in a song, “Quit Your Low Down Ways,” that hadn’t appeared on a Dylan release, though Peter, Paul & Mary did it on their 1963 In the Wind album.
Rolling Stone, by the way, offered a couple radically different assessments of the results in a couple books bearing its imprint. In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock’n’Roll, Ken Emerson wrote the group “stood Dylan on his head with brilliant rearrangements that made no sense but produced ravishing music.” In The Rolling Stone Record Guide, however, John Milward countered, “When [their] formula was applied to more serious-minded interpretations, as on the Dylan album, the effect could be disastrous.”
Harry Nilsson, Nilsson Sings Newman (1970). I like Harry Nilsson a lot; I’m not a fan of Randy Newman, much less so than many critics are. There was some courage in doing an entire album of a song by a different composer at a time when Nilsson had just one big hit, “Everybody’s Talkin’,” and when Newman wasn’t too well known, though some stars had already scored some success (and, in the UK, big hits) with his songs. But these songs, and this record, leave no lasting impression on me. Nilsson sings well, but a lot of these kind of albums are sung well. You need a lot more to happen to make a good LP.
Booker T. & the MG’s, McLemore Avenue (1970). I like Booker T. & the MG’s a lot, and the Beatles are my favorite act of all time. So what could go wrong with an album that covered Abbey Road? Nothing wrong, exactly, but nothing nearly as special as Booker T. & the MG’s’ best instrumentals, let alone Abbey Road itself. This is often described as an instrumental version of Abbey Road, but it’s not quite that. All of the songs are combined into medleys in different order than the Beatles used, and “Octopus’s Garden” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” aren’t here at all.
And a footnote for an album that was considered, but never completed: When the Beatles were recorded what was initially titled the Get Back album in January 1969, one idea was to make a record comprised entirely of oldies covers, perhaps as a partner to an LP with original material. As many hours of bootlegged material from the month reveal, they jammed on many, many oldies during the sessions. However, most of those covers were pretty bad, and many of them incomplete, or afflicted with poor memories of the lyrics. Maybe they could have been capable of an interesting such disc had they focused on it, but that focus wasn’t there during the Get Back sessions.
Earlier this month, I traveled outside of the San Francisco Bay Area for the first time in a year and a half. Not that far outside of the Bay Area, I admit. In fact, I took about as short a drive as I could—around two hours—that would technically get me outside of the region. All the way south to Watsonville, about eighteen miles southeast of Santa Cruz.
What do you do in Watsonville, once you’ve gotten your day trip to Santa Cruz out of the way? Well, I wasn’t looking to do much. The main thing was to be able to relax, read, and work a bit for a few days in a place other than my usual home base. I was especially eager to do so after a year and a half of being, like most of us, confined to a limited space due to circumstances beyond our control.
Watsonville isn’t that big (a little more than 50,000 people), and neither is Santa Cruz County compared to the Bay Area. But you wouldn’t always know it from the way cars crowd onto and speed along the highways, and the traffic snarls in Santa Cruz itself, which isn’t that much bigger than Watsonville.
There are a few sloughs (pronounced “slews”) with short walking paths in downtown Watsonville. But it’s far more rewarding to venture a little outside the center for something far more isolated from traffic, with far more abundant trees and water. It’s in the five miles or so of walking paths in the Elkern Slough Reserve—the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve, to use the official name.
The small visitor center by the parking lot doesn’t give out physical maps, though they have a big one they have available for reference photos. It’s not such a huge place, however, and you can just pretty much wander around without worrying about getting lost, as I did for the three hours it took to walk most of the paths.
The best destination, if your time is shorter or you just want to cut to the chase, is the small Hummingbird Island. I always find it interesting to see abandoned crumbling buildings of unexplained origin, and there are a couple shortly into the walk:
Hummingbird Island is pretty small—about as small as an island can be, really—and to get there, you have to cross active railroad tracks. Park staff gently warns you to be careful of oncoming trains, though I didn’t see or hear any the morning I was there.
The trail rims around much (though not all) of the island, ending up at a finger shooting into the water. Be careful at the very tip—it looks fairly solid, but it’s marshy and you’ll slip in regular walking shoes.
If you like weird trees, there are a few here and there throughout the reserve, though for the most part it’s standard if pleasant foliage, water, and marsh:
Although I went on a Saturday morning, it wasn’t very crowded with hikers, and I guess it probably seldom does get crowded, owing to its fairly remote location (though it’s actually not too far from central Watsonville or hard to reach). If you like solitude, there wasn’t a single other person on the Long Valley Loop and Murphy Trail that are pretty near the visitor center, though it’s nearly as pretty as best sections of the other trails:
A visit to the Elkern Slough Reserve doesn’t require any advance planning, but note that it’s only open Wednesday through Sundays 9am-5pm. There’s plenty of info, including a trail map, on its website at https://www.elkhornslough.org/esnerr/visitor-information/.
Bay Area residents see Treasure Island a lot, since the middle of the Bay Bridge passes over it, and it can be seen from numerous spots on both sides of the bay. Not too many people actually set foot on the island, however, considering how often millions drive right by the exit ramps that lead down there. Few have biked on the island who don’t live there, either. But it’s become a lot more accessible for bikers recently, with a path winding down from the bike/pedestrian path on the eastern part of the Bay Bridge – which itself only opened a few years ago.
There’s actually not too much to see, and maybe less to do, on Treasure Island. It’s most known for hosting the Golden Gate International Exposition, i.e. a world’s fair, back in 1939. A naval station was there for 55 years, but closed in 1997. Now there are just a little more than a couple thousand residents, clustered in blocks whose bland architecture reflects its past as a military base.
It’s easy enough to get to by bike now, however, and worth thirty to sixty minutes of your time if you ride the Bay Bridge. Bike westward until the bike/ped path ends just before the tunnel. On weekends and holidays only, you can take a path that winds down from the left and goes under the bridge, Then a short steep uphill, and a long steep downhill, gets you down to Treasure Island.
Certainly the most scenic part is the bike path that runs along the water on the island’s western and northern side. Almost as soon as you reach the bottom of the hill, cross over to get on the path. It only goes for about a half mile or so, but you get some nice views of San Francisco and the bay. There are likely to be few people about, so it’s quieter than much of the Bay Area as well:
The path doesn’t go around the whole island’s perimeter, and in fact only for a fairly brief part of it. Here’s an outpost near where it terminates on the north side:
You can also bike around the neighborhoods – more like a neighborhood – with little traffic. A little to the south of the residential area are some pretty decrepit buildings. This used to be an education center, but it doesn’t seem to have been in use for some time:
There’s a market here and at least one cafe, though it’s hard to tell what might have shut down in 2020-21 and when or if they’ll be active again. The same thing goes for occasional festivals that are held on the island. Bringing your own food seems advisable if you want to picnic.
Be advised that the path back up to the bridge is a really steep and long uphill. The photo here doesn’t really reflect how tough the upgrade is, and you should be in good shape to pedal the whole stretch without interruption. Don’t be a hero if you’re having trouble breathing; walk part of the way if you have to.
Of course, you can’t bike to the island from San Francisco, though you can put your bike on a bus rack and take it there by public transit. If you don’t live in the East Bay, the nearest BART station to the Bay Bridge bike path is MacArthur. It’s only a mile or two to the entrance, opposite the IKEA on Shellmound Street in Emeryville.
Is there much left to learn about early San Francisco psychedelic rock, or indeed 1960s rock in general? Sometimes it doesn’t seem that way, considering the many archival recordings that have become officially and unofficially available. Many memoirs, books, and liner notes have illuminated what was going on behind the scenes as well. But interesting documents do continue to pop up, such as previously uncirculating recordings. A couple that just got into circulation are live tapes of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Steve Miller at the Matrix club in San Francisco that are the earliest recordings of those groups that have surfaced, at least beyond a very tight inner circle.
What do they tell us? Well, the tapes don’t present the groups at their best, which shouldn’t be surprising since they’re from very early in their careers and development. As the sound quality isn’t great (though it’s listenable), it’s unlikely they’ll be officially issued. So here are some observations and assessments, especially considering they’re unlikely to be reviewed in depth in many or any other places.
The Quicksilver tape dates from August 9, 1966. Although they wouldn’t release their first album until mid-1968, this isn’t as much as a find as many listeners without deep collections might assume, since there are numerous other concerts in official and unofficial (or quasi-official) circulation from 1967 and even late 1966. A bootleg of a show dated to September 1966 in San Jose has been doing the rounds for (at least according to one source) more than forty years. Another show dated September 4, 1966 from the Fillmore can be heard on wolfgangs.com.
Still, this Matrix tape is from earlier, if only by about a month. The group are a little less polished, and a little more garage, though they were older and more experienced than most garage bands. The set’s dominated by blues-rock covers, with a little bit of folk-rock and rock’n’roll, including some songs (“Mona,” “Pride of Man”) that would be among the most popular of the ones they put on their official ‘60s LPs.
The only surprise of this tape are a few unexpected covers that didn’t seem to survive in their repertoire even until September. There’s a rocked-up folk tune, “My Gal,” which I’m guessing they learned from the version on the Lovin’ Spoonful’s 1965 debut album (and which the Spoonful had been inspired to do by Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band’s version). Their version is spirited, but not as good as the best one – which wasn’t by the Lovin’ Spoonful, but by the mid-‘60s UK group the Sorrows, who gave it a driving fuzz-speckled mod rock treatment.
More unexpectedly, they do Del Shannon’s chart-topping early-‘60s classic “Runaway.” This is the only point on the tape—or indeed any Quicksilver tape—where they sound sort of like a typical high school garage band, and not especially distinctive. Quicksilver’s repertoire was entirely devoted to covers at this point, but most of the covers were either fairly well known blues-rock songs; not-especially-well-known blues/R&B songs; or some with folk origins that also wouldn’t have been well known to either fellow bands or their audiences. Maybe they felt obligated to throw in a famous oldie so some of the youngsters in the audience without tastes as esoteric had something to latch onto, and dance to. Or maybe they just liked the song (which is indeed great), although this isn’t a great version.
Although only “Pride of Man,” “Dino’s Song,” and “Mona” would show up on Quicksilver’s pair of late-‘60s Capitol albums, all of the other songs do (unlike “My Gal” and “Runaway,” to my knowledge) appear on other circulating live or studio recordings. Some are very well-traveled classics done by many people (“Got My Mojo Working,” “Smokestack Lightning,” “Suzy Q,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Hoochie Coochie Man”). Some are rather arcane, particularly “Dandelion” and “Hair Like Sunshine,” both taken from jazzman Jack Sheldon’s 1962 Out! album. In Quicksilver’s hands, these become rather routine blues-rockers, though at least it makes for something different and not found even on many other QMS tapes.
Also here is Tarheel Slim’s “It’s Too Late,” a moody minor-keyed blues/R&B tunes that was one of their better obscure covers in their early sets. Here’s the place to note that, even on some official Quicksilver releases, this is persistently mistitled “I Hear You Knockin,’” and the composition miscredited to Dave Bartholomew & Pearl King. Bartholomew and King did co-write the song called “I Hear You Knockin’” that was a big R&B hit for Smiley Lewis in 1955, and then a big pop hit for Dave Edmunds in 1970. But although the phrase “I hear you knocking” is a major part of the lyric of “It’s Too Late,” the Tarheel Slim original, released (billed to Tarheel Slim and Little Ann) in 1959, is an entirely different song.
While the following opinion is not universal and indeed not welcomed by some Quicksilver enthusiasts, although I’m a general fan of the group in its ‘60s incarnations, I think their primary strengths were as instrumentalists (especially guitarist John Cipollina) and interpreters. Their strengths were not as songwriters—actually they didn’t write that much at all, and nothing on this tape—or singers. And their strengths came through best on their more unusual folk-rock covers—particularly “Pride of Man” Dino Valenti’s “Dino’s Song” (both featured on their 1968 debut LP) and “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You” (which appeared on the Revolution movie soundtrack LP), of the songs here—and some of their more exotic outings that allowed them to stretch out instrumentally, particularly “Gold and Silver” (which isn’t here).
On this August 1966 tape, their strengths don’t come through as well as they would in later recordings, in part because some of their best songs aren’t present, and in part simply because they understandably became more polished and proficient as they gained experience. As a straight blues-rock group, they usually weren’t anything special, and certainly not as good or imaginative as the best British ones of the time, though it might have been exciting to people in their audiences who had seldom or never heard such material live. But hey, it’s still good to hear as a glimpse into history that slightly predates what had been the official record, though the sound quality’s kind of tinny.
The Steve Miller tape from the Matrix was recorded almost half a year later, on January 27, 1967. Like Quicksilver, Miller didn’t have his first album (which was also on Capitol) released until mid-1968. There’s not as much pre-first LP live Miller in circulation, and this dates from before Boz Scaggs joined his band. So you’d think this might be interesting, and certainly different from Children of Future. It is different, but not as interesting as you might hope.
While Miller was already a proficient guitarist, and perhaps in some ways more experienced and skilled (certainly at electric guitar) than some of his San Francisco peers on the instrument, he wasn’t among the most imaginative musicians on the scene. I admit I’m not as big a fan of the Miller band as I am of Quicksilver, but some of the same reservations apply. At this point, they were largely doing electric blues-rock, and not nearly as compellingly as the best British bands based in that style. The singing is only adequate, and there’s not much in the way of interesting original material.
Among the more familiar tunes are K.C. Douglas’s “Mercury Blues,” which way down the liner would be on Miler’s Fly Like An Eagle hit album; “Junior Saw It Happen,” which would be on Children of the Future in a much more polished arrangement; and their hyper take on Isley Brothers’ “Your Old Lady,” which they played on the soundtrack LP of Revolution. But they still seem in search of a repertoire, with improvisation-oriented instrumentals taking up much of the tape. The final instrumental, in fact, lasts a good 23 minutes of so.
But for all its length (and it is too long), that instrumental is the most interesting and original excerpt from this performance. Perhaps influenced by the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s “East-West”—Miller had spent time in Chicago and likely would have been aware of that 13-minute psychedelic instrumental, and certainly aware of the group—it has catchy jazzy changes and rhythms, and escapes the rigid blues format for the most part. Miller also experiments with extended rapid raga-ish solos and distorted sustain, and pretty effectively. Like Quicksilver, and many other groups with a blues-rock base, they were best when reaching for something more original and less imitative. It’s the strongest hint that they had something more to offer than competent electric blues-rock.
Like the August 1966 Quicksilver performance, it seems doubtful this will get lined up for official release, in part because it too has somewhat (although not terribly) thin audio quality. Many shows, incidentally, were recorded at the Matrix, not just by San Francisco Bay Area acts, but touring out-of-town ones as well. And only the albums derived from 1966 shows by the Great Society (Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane group) and 1969 gigs by the Velvet Underground are really great—not just for their historical significance, but mainly for the actual music. Although good official archival releases of early-’67 Doors and early-’68 Jefferson Airplane at the Matrix are also available, much of the rest I’ve heard is more of historical value than sheer musical entertainment. Which is fine—there’s room for history lessons as well as fine sounds in archival tapes, and they’re worth writing about in posts like these.
Ever since rock started top songwriters, whether soloists or in bands, have had some of their compositions covered by other artists without releasing their own versions. Sometimes the same guy or guys have covered more than one such surplus tune, as Billy J. Kramer, the Fourmost, and Peter & Gordon did with Lennon-McCartney songs the Beatles didn’t release while they were active. But it’s rare that an artist covers half a dozen such extras at once, none of which had been released by anyone.
The 1970 self-titled album by Yellow Hand might be the most extreme example of an act giving so much of a rock LP over to such items between the mid-‘60s and early 1970s. The group covered no less than half a dozen Buffalo Springfield outtakes that had never been issued by the Springfield or anyone else. Among them were two Neil Young songs (“Down to the Wire” and “Sell Out”) and four Stephen Stills compositions (“Come On,” “Hello I’ve Returned,” “Neighbor Don’t You Worry,” and “We’ll See”). These weren’t even accompanied by other songs by the same writers that had been released.
Although a Buffalo Springfield version of “Down to the Wire” came out on Young’s 1977 triple-LP Decade retrospective, Springfield versions of the other five didn’t come out until the twenty-first century (though most of them circulated on bootlegs). Basically, Yellow Hand got access to the outtakes because Buffalo Springfield’s original manager/producers, Charlie Greene and Brian Stone, had the publishing on the songs and wanted to make a little money off of them.
I told the whole story of Yellow Hand—based on recent interviews with the group’s guitarist, Pat Flynn, and their singer, Jerry Tawney—in a lengthy (nine-page) feature in the spring 2021 (#56) issue of Ugly Things magazine. Then a teenage guitarist, Flynn was actually given a literal shoebox of cassettes of Buffalo Springfield demos to learn the songs, the band Yellow Hand subsequently forming and recording their LP for Capitol.
Are there any other examples of, as my unwieldy headline for this post reads, “Multiple Covers of Unreleased Songs by Major Acts on the Same Album, From the Mid-’60s to the Early ’70s?” None that are as extreme, but here are a half dozen albums that made the most of someone else’s vaults:
1. Coulson Dean McGuinness Flint, Lo and Behold. McGuinness Flint, featuring ex-Manfred Mann bassist/guitarist Tom McGuinness and ex-Bluesbreakers drummer Hughie Flint, had a couple big UK hits in the early ‘70s without making much headway in the US. Teaming up with Dennis Coulson and Dixie Dean, their 1972 album Lo and Behold was devoted entirely to interpretations of then-obscure Bob Dylan compositions. None of the ten songs had appeared on official Dylan records, though his versions have subsequently appeared on archival releases.
At a glance that seems to outdo Yellow Hand, but not all of the ten tunes were previously unissued by anyone. The Byrds, for instance, put “Lay Down Your Weary Tune” on their second album, and Jim & Jean put out their version soon afterward. Happy Traum had done “Let Me Die in My Footsteps” back in 1963 as “I Will Not Go Under the Ground.” John Walker, Thunderclap Newman, and others had done “Open the Door, Homer.”
One of Dylan’s own versions of “The Death of Emmett Till,” though recorded in the early 1960s, came out on a Folkways compilation in 1972 credited to the pseudonym Blind Boy Grunt, though it’s difficult to tell whether that LP appeared before Lo and Behold. So points off for mixing in songs that had already been available, if you keep tabs on that sort of thing.
As Tom McGuinness told me in his interview for Ugly Things #49, “I was lucky because I got a lot of the acetates from the time of the Band. Because Albert Grossman came to London with the Basement Tapes and played them to Manfred Mann, the whole group. So I had all these Dylan acetates lying around. Then McGuinness Flint, we were published by Feldman’s, who were Dylan’s publishers in the UK at that point. A guy up there gave me like fifty cassettes of Dylan demos. So I just had this idea of doing some of the little known Dylan songs that were on these cassettes. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.”
2. Hamilton Camp, Paths of Victory. Playing the Dylan card much earlier than Coulson etc., Camp’s Paths of Victory, issued around late 1964, had seven songs by the man. No less than six of them had yet to appear on Dylan’s own albums, though “Girl from the North Country” had been on Dylan’s second LP, and Bob had done “Only a Hobo” under his Blind Boy Grunt alias for the 1963 compilation Broadside Ballads Vol. 1. Again, Dylan’s own versions of the other five of his compositions here have all come out on archival releases.
Of those other five, “Walkin’ Down the Line” had been on Jackie DeShannon’s self-titled 1963 album, and “Tomorrow Is a Long Time” on a 1963 LP by Ian & Sylvia. Release dates have been variably reported for early-to-mid-‘60s folk LPs, but Camp seems to have beaten Odetta to the punch with “Long Time Gone” and “Paths of Victory,” which appeared on Odetta Sings Dylan, probably issued in early 1965. That left just one of what we might call an “exclusive,” as “Guess I’m Doin’ Fine” doesn’t seem to have been covered by anyone else.
Camp was an interesting figure who already had a solid reputation in the folk world for his recordings (under the name Bob Camp) as a duo with a bigger name from the early folk revival, Bob Gibson. He also wrote “Pride of Man,” his original version highlighting this LP, a few years before Quicksilver Messenger Service did a great rock cover. But this is a folk album, not a rock one. And while he deserves points for scouring for half a dozen of Dylan’s more obscure tunes at a point before Bob was quite as iconic as he’d be in a year or so, not all of them had been previously unissued by anyone.
As for how Paths of Victory got so Dylan-heavy, Camp told me in an interview nearly twenty years ago, “Dylan was hot, so [Elektra Records chief] Jac [Holzman] thought it was very smart to put more Dylan tunes on there, much to my regret. I originally had done a kind of very eclectic collection. I don’t think any tunes [that didn’t make the final LP] were original, but there were different interpretations of a lot of kinds [of] folk songs, [like] ‘Railroad Bill.’ I liked the album that way.
“But he didn’t like that. He said he wanted more Dylan tunes. So they sent me a tape out of Dylan’s, it was reel-to-reel. I learned three or four tunes, and slapped them on, much to my regret. Because I really got hit for it, in especially the Minnesota folk scene. A magazine called The Little Sandy Review that came out of Minneapolis — it was all Dylan cronies — they just hated it!”
3. Nico, Chelsea Girl. An underrated baroque-folk production, Nico’s first album, released around the beginning of fall 1967, showcased obscure or wholly unreleased songs by a wealth of fine songwriters. Among them were Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, and no less than five tracks—half the LP—of compositions by fellow Velvet Undergrounders Lou Reed and/or John Cale (with Sterling Morrison getting a co-credit on one and Nico herself on another).
All of these were fine and generally folkier than most of The Velvet Underground & Nico, on which Nico had of course sung a few classics. A few were really fine, namely the epic “Chelsea Girls” and the haunting “It Was a Pleasure Then,” which is a Velvet Underground recording in all but name, as Nico’s backed by Reed and Cale. None had been previously released by anyone, though a 1965 VU demo of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” would appear on a 1995 box set.
But this is in a way more a Velvet Underground spin-off album than a record by an artist who digs up a batch of otherwise unrecorded songs by an unrelated major act. Nico had sung with the Velvet Underground, albeit only on a few tracks; Reed, Cale, and Morrison all played on the Chelsea Girl sessions, though it can’t be pinpointed what they did on each cut. This doesn’t take anything away from the LP’s considerable status. But it isn’t quite as, to use the word again, “extreme” as Yellow Hand’s Buffalo Springfield homage.
4. The Pretty Things, Philippe DeBarge. Any excuse to put the Pretty Things in as many places in Ugly Things as possible, right? But seriously, this 1969 album was seriously teeming with previously unheard Pretties originals. True, three of them (“Alexander,” “Eagle’s Son,” and “It’ll Never Be Me”) had been done by the band without credit on the Even More Electric Banana album, and one (“Send You With Loving”) for a May 1969 BBC session. But not many people knew about that then, and frankly not many do now, especially if you don’t count Ugly Things readers. Otherwise this is pretty fair psychedelic pop that got an even smaller audience than Even More Electric Banana, since it didn’t get released back then.
And what’s it doing here, if it’s a Pretty Things album with Pretty Things songs? The story’s been told by Ugly Things editor/publisher Mike Stax in his magazine and the liner notes to UT’s CD of the recordings, but basically this was a Pretty Things album with a singer who wasn’t in the band. French fan Philippe DeBarge took the lead vocals, though usual Pretties vocalist Phil May co-wrote all of the songs.
May was diffident about the project when I interviewed him in 1999. “Wally [Waller] and I just wrote a bunch of songs for this French millionaire,” he told me. “No kind of falseness about, ‘He was a musician.’ He just wanted to make a record with the Pretty Things, and he was prepared to pay.”
Added May in Mike Stax’s liner notes for the Philippe DeBarge CD, “I don’t think any of us had great expectations, but we didn’t approach it in that way. We approached it like it was another record to make, and we were getting stuff out of it for ourselves, apart from the finances. It was a good stepping stone between S.F. Sorrow and Parachute.”
In the same notes, Waller also acknowledged the sessions had some value. “For me it was a chance to be the boss in the studio for the first time. I had always been really involved with the production process on all our albums. And I just loved to have the chance to write a few songs and see them through to the end. I think the project put us in a much better shape to tackle something like Parachute.”
As for DeBarge, speculated Wally, “Quite what he was going to do with it I don’t know. I don’t think there would have been any interest from the British music industry, and being in English it wasn’t really suitable for the French market. I think it was a grand indulgence on Philippe’s part. To be honest I was not surprised that nothing became of it.”
This is certainly a worthy adjunct to the Pretty Things discography, and as dedicated to otherwise unavailable songs by a major artist as anything here. But while it’s not quite a Pretty Things album, it’s a Pretty Things album in all but name, with even the guy (May) who didn’t take his usual position playing a major role as writer and backing singer. So it can’t quite be considered a record with “covers” of someone else’s songs, as interesting as it is.
5. The Everly Brothers, Two Yanks in England. Recorded in 1966, this decent LP looked a little like a Hollies tribute at a glance. Eight of the twelve songs were written by the Hollies, credited to the “L. Ransford” pseudonym for Allan Clarke, Tony Hicks, and Graham Nash. The Hollies also played on the sessions, and none of the songs the Everlys covered were well known.
While you had to be (and still have to be) a pretty big Hollies fan to know it, five of these eight songs had already been released on the group’s LPs and B-sides. Three of them would come out on Hollies releases over the next couple years, though you had to be a damned dedicated follower to know that “Like Every Time Before” surfaced on a 1968 B-side in Germany and Sweden.
So – good though not great concept, good though not great results, yet not teeming with previously unheard numbers by their benefactors. The last album on this list has even less such material, though it could have had more.
6. The Rose Garden, The Rose Garden. Like Yellow Hand, the Rose Garden had just one self-titled LP, though they’re far better known as they had a #17 hit at the end of 1967 with “Next Plane to London.” Even people familiar with the single usually didn’t hear their album, which meant that few realized ex-Byrd Gene Clark wrote a couple songs on the disc that hadn’t appeared anywhere else. The young band had developed a friendship with Clark, who offered them “Till Today” and “Long Time.” Both songs found a place on the LP, which had little original material by the group.
Two songs isn’t that much, and there are other examples of acts getting first crack at a couple tracks at once, like Silver Metre did with some Elton John-Bernie Taupin efforts on their 1969 self-titled album, and Jim & Jean did with a pair by their friend Phil Ochs on 1966’s Changes, before Ochs put out his own versions. What puts The Rose Garden over the top in this specialist competition is that they actually could have done more Gene Clark exclusives. Clark gave Rose Garden guitarist John Noreen a five-song acetate of songs to choose, but the band took only “Long Time” from that batch. They also recorded an unreleased version of Neil Young’s “Down to the Wire,” and passed on a few other songs by Young and Stephen Stills that were offered to them by Greene and Stone, including “Come On.”
So The Rose Garden could have been half-full of previously unheard Gene Clark songs – but wasn’t. (For that matter, it could have been half-full of previously unheard Clark compositions and half-full of previously unheard Buffalo Springfield leftovers.) If you’re fretting that those other Clark songs on the acetate are lost forever, fear not. The entire acetate (including Clark’s version of “A Long Time”) was issued in 2018 as bonus tracks to the CD reissue of a different eight-song acetate Gene cut in 1967, Sings for You.
When I write about places to see and walk, bike, or hike, I try to find ones that aren’t so well known. The Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in contrast, is very well known. Built in 1894, it’s the oldest public Japanese garden in the United States. It’s a major attraction in a park that itself is a huge tourist attraction. So why post about it?
It’s not so well known that on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, entrance is free about 9am and 10am. It’s hard to get into anything free these days, let alone in the Golden Gate Park museum concourse, where it costs $18 to ride the new ferris wheel, $15 for the de Young art museum (special exhibits not included), and more than $30 for the California Academy of Sciences.
The tea garden is $12 ($10 in the winter, $7 for San Francisco residents), and while that’s not wholly unreasonable, plenty of people have less money to spend over the last year or so. That also means some people have more time to take advantage of freebies. Unlike the nearby botanical garden, this free admission is for everyone, not just city residents, no matter what part of the Bay Area or indeed world you might call home. (The botanical garden is free for everyone between 7:30am-9am, but only free to city residents otherwise.)
Of course, a lot fewer tourists from around the world are traveling anywhere anywhere these days. But if you do live in the Bay Area, that also means you’ll find the tea garden pretty uncrowded, even during free admission hours. That’s how it was last week when I took advantage of the free hour for the first time, though I’ve been there a few times over the last few decades during regular paid admission hours.
Here are some images, taken during my visit, of what you’ll see in the small but meticulously maintained grounds:
As noted, nearby is the new ferris wheel, though it’s not yet known if this will be a permanent addition to the museum concourse. It was so foggy when I took this at 8:45am that someone said it looked like a photo from the 1890s:
The recent Joni Mitchell box set Archives Vol. 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) presents no less than five CDs of previously unreleased material. All of it predates her first album. I’ve written about the box, which is very good, elsewhere. But it not only has fine music. What it contains seems in a way unique among performers of her significance and era. As I’ve written, “No other performer of Mitchell’s stature wrote and performed such a rich and impressive wealth of music before making their vinyl debut.”
That doesn’t mean that Mitchell was the best artist of all time, or even the best at the beginning of a career. This bountiful pre-vinyl output seems as much a product of circumstance as talent. If she’d made her debut in 1964, she would have recorded a pretty good Judy Collins-style album of traditional folk songs that would have been a considerably above-average LP in the style (much like Collins’s first albums were), if dated.
If she’d recorded an album in late 1966, it would have been a pretty strong singer-songwriter folk album of original material. And it would have had some standout songs she’d already composed by this point (“The Circle Game,” “Night in the City,” “Urge for Going,” “Eastern Rain”), though not as many strong ones as were in her repertoire by the time of her 1968 debut Song to a Seagull.
Why didn’t she start her official discography earlier, especially considering pretty well known artists like Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Rush, and George Hamilton IV were already covering some of her songs by 1967? There’s no easy pat answer, but it seems to come down to a couple factors. She wanted much more control over her work than most artists do who sign her first contract, extending to being able to draw and design her own album covers. That probably put off some labels who otherwise would have signed her before she got her contract with Reprise.
Also, unlike almost every other folkie of note in the mid-‘60s, she didn’t go electric, not starting to use full-band accompaniment on her albums until the early 1970s, well after she was a star. That might have made her seem outdated or at least commercially unpromising, though her actual compositions, guitar playing, and vocalizing were modern and innovative. And as hard as it might be to believe now, at her outset she might have been considered more of a songwriter than a singer or performing artist, and someone whose value primarily lay in having others cover her songs. The first artists to have hits with Mitchell tunes, after all, were not Joni, but Hamilton IV (who had a country hit with “Urge for Going”) and, of course, Collins with “Both Sides Now.”
There’s your fairly condensed explanation/speculation as to why Mitchell ended up with such a backlog of good material before her first album. Fortunately it was often recorded in live concert tapes, radio and television programs, and home demos, many of which are heard on the Archives Vol. 1 box.
What about, however, the pre-vinyl output of some of her peers? How does that measure up to Mitchell’s? Was there anyone whose pre-official discography work was anything like this?
Here’s a survey, by no means all-encompassing, of the “pre-“ work of a dozen top 1960s acts, weighted toward my personal favorites. No one had as extensive and impressive entries in this department as Mitchell did, but almost all made some noteworthy recordings during those formative times, now often (but not always) commercially available. Some made some early recordings that were great, if not as great as their famous classics. Some made barely any recordings, or barely any notable ones. But as the cliché goes, it was a place to start.
The Beatles. Why not start at the very top, with the greatest musical act ever? There are a fair number of Beatles recordings predating their debut “Love Me Do” single. The most significant by far are their fifteen demos at their unsuccessful audition for Decca Records on January 1, 1962, when Pete Best was still their drummer. There are also a half dozen lo-fi songs they did with Best for the BBC in the first half of 1962; a couple tracks, again with Best, for their June 1962 audition for EMI; and a fiery August 1962 live version of “Some Other Guy” at the Cavern in Liverpool with Ringo Starr.
Yes, there are various other odds and ends, going back to a 1957 very lo-fi Quarrymen performance; shambling lo-fi 1960 rehearsal tapes; and their sessions backing Tony Sheridan in Hamburg, at which they managed to lay down a couple tracks on their own. Except for those two tracks (“Ain’t She Sweet” and the instrumental “Cry for a Shadow”), those other pre-1962 recordings are too rough and unrefined to merit much listening, other than for their historical value.
Although I like their Decca demos, they’re way less mature, and far less impressive, than what they’d be writing and recording by the “Please Please Me” single in November 1962, and the Please Please Me album in February 1963. For one thing, only three of the songs are Lennon-McCartney originals, and none of them were deemed strong enough for the Beatles to record when they signed with EMI, though all of them were given to other artists (“Like Dreamers Do” to the Applejacks; “Love of the Loved” to Cilla Black; and “Hello Little Girl” to the Fourmost). But also, the group sound much less confident, and their musical skills rather skeletal compared to where they’d be in a year or so. I write much more—almost 10,000 words, in fact—on the Decca sessions in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, and you can read that section online here.
My basic stance is that although the Beatles were crushed to fail the audition, it might have been the best break they ever got. It gave them considerably more time to write songs considerably better than what they had at the beginning of 1962. It gave them time to replace Best with Starr. It gave Paul McCartney time to find his own vocal style—he often sounds like he’s imitating Elvis Presley at Decca. And maybe most crucially, if they had signed with Decca, they wouldn’t have been produced by George Martin, who was the best possible producer for the Beatles.
The Beatles sound better on their BBC sessions in March and June 1962. In fact, they sound pretty good, and definitely a band that should have been signed, even if the surviving tinny tapes were recorded by putting a player next to a radio speaker. But only one of the songs, “Ask Me Why” (later the B-side of “Please Please Me”), was original. Only on the August 1962 live performance of “Some Other Guy” at the Cavern—raunchy and hard-hitting, despite the thin audio—do you get a pretty full sense of the magic that would overwhelm the world.
That magic isn’t at all present on the Tony Sheridan sessions. “Ain’t She Sweet” is a pretty perfunctory version of a Tin Pan Alley standard, if run through Gene Vincent, and with an identifiably John Lennon vocal. “Cry for a Shadow” is a kind of cool, haunting driving instrumental, but not at all the sort of stuff in which the Beatles would specialize. The two June 1962 tracks from the Decca audition are rather tame takes on “Love Me Do” (with erratic drumming from Best) and “Besame Mucho” (done better by the band at Decca and on the BBC).
So the brief verdict: plenty of promise on this pre-official debut material, but no match for what they were doing even by their second single.
The Rolling Stones. In contrast to the Beatles’ Decca demos, the Rolling Stones’ rough equivalent—five demos recorded at IBC in March 1963, just a couple months before they cut their debut 45—show them virtually fully formed. These covers of Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, and Muddy Waters songs are brash and exciting, and rearranged substantially enough to rise above mere imitations of the originals.
It’s not a universally popular opinion, but I’d say these don’t just qualify the Stones as the best blues band in Britain at the time—not a huge accolade, since there weren’t yet that many. I’d go as far to cite them as the best white blues/R&B band in the world at that point. More controversially, I feel they sound as good as any blues/R&B band in the world at that point, white or otherwise, in the UK or North America.
But there are reasons this batch falls short of being as significant as Joni Mitchell’s box. First, it just isn’t that big—five songs, as good as they are. For the record, there’s a fragment of a recording from around late 1962 (of Bo Diddley’s “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover”) in circulation, as well as some lo-fi home tapes by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ pre-Stones group Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys from around 1961. They’re not substantial enough to merit much serious listening, other than for historical purposes.
Here’s another strong consideration to keep in mind—as good as the demos are, none of them are original songs. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wouldn’t start writing for almost another year, and wouldn’t consistently write great songs for about another two years. By contrast, most of Mitchell’s 1965-1967 tapes are of her own compositions. Even the Beatles had a few early Lennon-McCartney songs in their pre-“Love Me Do” batch.
Long bootlegged, all five of the Stones’ March 1963 demos were finally officially released on the “super-deluxe box set” edition of the 2012 compilation GRRR! It’s too bad the group didn’t record more around this time (though it’s been reported a sixth track was done at IBC, and also some recordings done for a short film of the band that hasn’t been found). As reprinted in his memoir Life, Keith Richards’s diary entries from early 1963 confirm several other covers were in their repertoire of which no recordings circulate, including “Bo Diddley,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Who Do You Love,” and Bo Diddley’s “Bring it To Jerome.”
Bob Dylan. Backtracking a bit chronologically, there are numerous tapes from 1960 and 1961—mostly in friends’ homes, some live—that predate Dylan’s sessions for his self-titled debut LP in November 1961. They show him to be a rapidly improving singer and musician who was becoming a distinctly earthy, bluesy folk song interpreter by the time he approached his Columbia deal. The big “but” is that at this point he was an interpreter, not a composer. Even on his debut album, he’d only write two songs. And even those (and many of his early compositions) were very derivative of previous folk songs and styles, especially Woody Guthrie’s.
The pre-album recordings have their place as performances of considerably historical importance, and do show seeds of his style and much promise, if some primarily evident in hindsight. But they can’t stand up to either Mitchell’s box or what Dylan was doing by the time of his second album, Freewheelin’.
The Beach Boys. This bends the rules a bit, but before signing to Capitol Records, the Beach Boys released just one single, “Surfin’”/“Luau,” recorded in late 1961 for the small Candix label. Its appearance wasn’t insignificant: although the production wasn’t much more elaborate than a demo, it was a substantial regional hit in the Los Angeles area, and #75 nationally.
Still, during that brief pre-Capitol period, the Beach Boys did quite a bit of recording that might be considered a “pre-“ body of work. A double CD of this material, Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions, came out in 2016, though there are just nine separate songs. There are 63 tracks, but a whole lot of multiple versions/takes.
The Beach Boys hadn’t been together too long (and had barely played at all in public), and sound pretty tentative compared to even their first Capitol single, “Surfin’ Safari”/“409.” Still, the best songs here— “Surfin’” and early, tentative versions of “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfer Girl,” both of which of course became big hits in re-recorded Capitol versions—are really, really good. The others are pretty flimsy and forgettable, but certainly their distinctive brand of vocal harmonies are well in evidence, if quite callow at this stage.
As basic as these are compared to what they’d be recording by the time of their second Capitol LP (1963’s Surfin’ USA), it seems insane that no Los Angeles record company was shrewd enough to pick them up after they lost their deal with Candix. Capitol did after a while, of course, but only with the help of much badgering from the Wilson brothers’ father/manager. It’s easy to say in hindsight, of course, when armchair critics don’t have to invest thousands of dollars in a young and unproven band with little stage experience. But it’s obvious that even at this early stage, they didn’t sound like anyone else, and deserved more record company interest and investment.
The Byrds. Although they weren’t together that long before recording their first single in January 1965, the Byrds produced a body of pre-debut tapes more impressive than anyone on this list. Shortly after they formed, around late 1964 and possibly into early 1965, they made a lot of tapes in World Pacific Studios in Los Angeles, where early manager Jim Dickson was able to get them a lot of rehearsal time. Some of them were issued in 1969 on the Preflyte compilation; while these had most of the very best tapes, there were other good ones, and eventually a double CD of material was made available.
To quote from a previous blogpost, as I can’t particularly say it any better here: Even if you know nothing about the Byrds or don’t care much about tracing their pre-“Mr. Tambourine Man” evolution, these are hugely enjoyable primordial early folk-rock efforts, from a time the ex-folkies were just learning how to play together as an electric rock band.
This batch of tracks does include a few early versions of songs from their classic 1965 debut LP Mr. Tambourine Man, but also features some really fine originals they never put on their mid-‘60s albums and singles, mostly (but not all) written by Gene Clark. “You Showed Me” would be a hit for the Turtles in 1969. Like the other previously unheard originals, it shows the band trying to emulate the Beatles, but instead starting to forge a distinctive brand of melodic, harmony-laden folk-rock.
It seems like the Byrds themselves had reservations about making this stuff available, as they were only intended as rehearsals/demos of sorts. But many of the tracks are excellent, and most of the others at least decent.
For sheer listening pleasure, I’d place this material #1 on this list, even ahead of Mitchell’s (and ahead, if not by much, by the much slimmer slice of work by the Rolling Stones). However, as significant as it is to both the Byrds’ career and the development of folk-rock as a whole, it does only cover a few months. The Mitchell box covers four-to-five years and considerably greater evolution, and of course many more original compositions.
The Yardbirds. Returning to the top British Invasion bands, the Yardbirds did a few demos before their first single in 1964, with Eric Clapton in the band. Live recordings of them at the Crawdaddy Club from December 1963 were also issued, though not until almost two decades later.
Just a few of the demos have circulated, with the Yardbirds covering John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom” and Chuck Berry’s “Talkin’ About You,” as well as performing an original in a similar R&B/rock style by lead singer Keith Relf, “Honey in Your Hips.” “Boom Boom” and “Honey in Your Hips” were also issued on rare European singles in the mid-‘60s, considerably later than when they were recorded. The demos are decent early British R&B, but kind of restrained compared to both the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds’ later work. “Honey in Your Hips” is actually a decent Diddley-influenced original, but the Yardbirds would never develop into consistently good prolific songwriters, though they wrote some great stuff.
The live tracks from the Crawdaddy are more lively, but also more basic compared to what they’d record with Clapton in 1964, both live and in the studio. It’s not all that different from their debut album Five Live Yardbirds (recorded at London’s Marquee in March 1964)—versions of “Smokestack Lightning” were performed for both sets of recordings—but not as assured, fiery, and imaginative. It’s definitely not as good as the two 1964 singles they cut with Clapton, and while some seeds of their improvisational rave-ups are heard, their great innovations lay a ways in the future.
The Kinks. Although it’s not so widely known, the Kinks recorded some material before they were the Kinks. Well, at least if the packaging on an obscure EP on the 1960s label is accurate. Issued in 2017, the four-song disc Ravensize Session: The Pre-Kinks Regent Studio Demos has early versions of three Ray Davies originals they’d soon record for Pye as the Kinks: “You Still Want Me” (the A-side of their second single), “”You Do Something to Me” (the B-side of their second single), and “Revenge.” The fourth, “Ooba Dooiba,” would not show up in the Kinks’ subsequent discography. Mickey Willett would have been on drums, Mick Avory not having yet joined.
Because more polished versions of “You Still Want Me” and “You Do Something to Me” were recorded in 1964 for Pye, these aren’t as surprising or revelatory as they might otherwise have been. These Ray Davies compositions, issued on the second of the two flop singles preceding “You Really Got Me,” find him and the Kinks imitating the early Beatles and Merseybeat groups. Rather enjoyably, actually, but not with great distinction, and certainly not in line with the far raunchier style they’d hit on with “You Really Got Me.”
That R&B-flavored raunchiness is more in evidence on the basic “Revenge,” where you can hear their early trademark power chords starting to emerge. It’s also heard a bit on the beyond-basic “Ooba Dooiba,” which has energy but almost embarrassingly formulaic songwriting and simple lyrics. Like all of the British Invasion groups listed in this post, the Kinks wouldn’t take long to find their forte. But it’s no more than a glimmer here, though this EP is reasonably entertaining in its documentation of their birth pangs.
The Who. There’s not much Who predating their first (and fine) single, “I Can’t Explain,” even if you count the 1964 single they issued as the High Numbers. That single was kind of an embarrassment, as early manager Pete Meaden lifted the tunes of “I’m the Face” and “Zoot Suit” wholesale from Slim Harpo’s “Got Love If You Want It” and the Dynamics’ “Misery.” He grafted new lyrics onto them paying rather blunt homages to the mod lifestyle. “I’m the Face” is rather tepid early British R&B/rock; “Zoot Suit”’s actually has a pretty cool minor-keyed melody, but little of the Who’s personality comes through, aside from Roger Daltrey’s fairly deft lead vocals.
An outtake of Bo Diddley’s “Here ‘Tis” from the sessions for the High Numbers single is fair, but no match for the Yardbirds’ exhilarating, and far more recklessly daring, cover of the same song on Five Live Yardbirds. Demo covers from late 1964 of two songs by Motown’s premier Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team, “Leaving Here” (also done at the High Numbers session) and “Baby Don’t You Do It,” are respectable but not arresting. (Both surfaced on the expanded CD of Odds and Sods.) Only in “Baby Don’t You Do It”’s unexpected, though brief, feedback break do they suddenly sound like the groundbreaking early Who.
A live recording of the Who at London’s Railway Hotel in 1964—some sources give the date as October 20, 1964—has long been bootlegged. Here too they sound like an average, or slightly above average, R&B/rock band with hints of something that might make them stand out from the pack. But only in Pete Townshend’s dive-bombing, distorted intro to “Pretty Thing” do they sound idiosyncratically different from everyone else. Daltrey’s vocals range from fine to embarrassingly out of character when he affects a low Howlin’ Wolf growl. Keith Moon’s drumming is fairly active, but not nearly as wild as it would be in 1965. There are unpleasantly meandering blues jams around the real songs, which are all covers, with no originals.
Studio instrumentals purporting to be from a Who audition at Abbey Road in 1964 have also been bootlegged. It’s kind of unfathomable why the Who, or any British Invasion band, would have only been playing instrumentals at an audition. These too are kind of formless and undisciplined.
If you get the impression from this entry that I’m not a Who fan, rest assured that’s not at all the case. They’re one of my favorite groups. But I do believe that—unlike the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Animals, Them, and some of the other greatest heavily R&B-influenced ‘60s bands from the British Isles—they would never have made it as a blues/R&B/soul cover act. The truly original moments on their pre-1965 recordings are when Townshend suddenly uses distortion. The key to quickly lifting them to a front-line British Invasion act was the emergence of Townshend as one of British rock’s best songwriters in 1965, combining their manic energy and avant-garde inclinations with concise power pop and incisive lyrics.
The Velvet Underground. Turning to the US, and the only act on this list that would not experience significant commercial success, the Velvet Underground made some recordings before the spring 1966 sessions that yielded all but one track on their debut LP (though that album wouldn’t be issued until early 1967). No less than 80 minutes of these were issued on the 1995 box set Peel Slowly and See, all drawn from July 1965 demos. Actually these were probably at least as much home rehearsal tapes as demos. They weren’t recorded in a professional studio, but in a residence on Ludlow Street in New York, though the sound is clear and good.
Although the Velvets do early versions of a few songs from their first album, these tracks aren’t exactly the VU as they sounded by the time of the debut LP sessions. Drummer Maureen Tucker had yet to join the band, whose drummer at this point was Angus MacLise. More importantly, MacLise isn’t even on these tapes. In fact, there’s no drummer at all. Only Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison play on these recordings, giving the proceedings something of a folky unplugged feel.
So although “Heroin,” “I’m Waiting for the Man,” “Venus in Furs,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” are all here, they’re not nearly as powerful or fully formed as they are on The Velvet Underground & Nico. Cale and not Reed sings “Venus in Furs,” which sounds almost like a gothic folk ballad. “I’m Waiting for the Man” is almost a hillbilly stomp. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” also has an ill-suited country-folk feel.
Despite the 80-minute length, there are only six songs on the tape, as there are a number of multiple versions. Among the others, “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” would be done by Nico on her 1967 debut album Chelsea Girl, and again has Cale on lead vocals and a pronounced folk feel. “Prominent Men,” never to be recorded in a studio by the Velvets, is the least impressive composition of the batch, as a blatant aping of Bob Dylan’s early protest songs.
The tape is of enormous historical significance, proving that the Velvets were writing great and innovative songs (“Prominent Men” excepted) well before their official debut. Compositionally, the songs are barely different from their later incarnations. The key, and very significant, difference is that the sound of the band lags far behind the songwriting at this point. Going full-band electric, adding Tucker and Nico, and overhauling the arrangements so they were harder rocking and crossed rock with the avant-garde—all of those were necessary to elevate the Velvet Underground to greatness.
As relatively unimpressive as these earlier versions are in comparison, it really didn’t take all that long to happen. Only nine months separate them from most of the sessions for The Velvet Underground & Nico. There are a few other scraps of lo-fi early 1966 rehearsals that predate the first album, but those too aren’t in the same league as what was laid down for the LP.
The Doors. The Doors were another group whose songwriting developed faster than their musical arrangements, and whose first recordings weren’t done with the lineup that would become famous. It wasn’t too long after Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek decided to form a band that they cut a half dozen demos in September 1965, about a year before they made their classic debut LP. All of them would be re-recorded for their albums, and one of them, “Hello I Love You,” would be a #1 hit. True, “Go Insane,” the weirdest of the lot, only resurfaced as part of “The Celebration of the Lizard.” The others were all good-to-great: “End of the Night,” “My Eyes Have Seen You,” “Moonlight Drive,” and “Summer’s Almost Gone.”
But at this point, guitarist Robby Krieger hadn’t joined, although drummer John Densmore’s there. That absence alone makes a big difference. But also, Manzarek is on piano, rather than the organ that he played much more often on Doors records. Fleshing out the group were a stand-in bass player and, more problematically, Manzarek’s brother Rick on guitar. Guitar barely makes itself felt on the tapes, and what’s there is of no consequence. Another Manzarek brother, Jim, adds some harmonica, again to no notable effect. And Morrison’s vocals aren’t nearly as forceful or charismatic as they’d be within a year.
I wouldn’t go as far as to call the demos “raw and empty,” as James Riordan and Jerry Prochniucky did in their book Break on Through: The Life and Death of Jim Morrison. But I see their point; certainly they’re far less full and kaleidoscopic than the records they made with producer Paul Rothchild (and, at the end of Morrison’s life, without Rothchild, but with engineer Bruce Botnick as co-producer for L.A. Woman). They really benefited from having another year to work on their sound; to write more good songs, though the songwriting was already on a high level; for Morrison to gain more vocal confidence; and to refine their lineup with Krieger on guitar and Manzarek on, mostly, organ.
Until a few years ago, these were the only Doors recordings in circulation preceding their self-titled debut album. Recently May 1966 live tapes from the London Fog club became available. These have the Krieger lineup, and are a good eight months after the demos. But they’re not that good, in part because five of the seven songs are R&B/rock’n’roll/soul covers. Surprisingly, there’s also the bluesy original “You Make Me Real,” which they wouldn’t record in the studio until their fifth album, 1970’s Morrison Hotel. Only on “Strange Days” does their unique approach come through.
If the Doors had stuck to being a blues/R&B-oriented band heavy on the covers, they never would have made it. They weren’t nearly as good as the British bands who started with that kind of repertoire, or even as good as the best of the relatively few US bands with a similar orientation. And while I’m a big fan of John Densmore’s drumming, it’s surprisingly substandard on the London Fog tapes.
If a good tape of the Doors during their legendary 1966 summer residency at the Whisky A Go Go somehow emerges, maybe the value of their pre-debut LP sessions can be reassessed. But like several others on this list, their pre-official work has lots of promise without living up to the standards of their core catalog.
Neil Young. Most of the pre-1966 Young recordings that have circulated are on disc one of his Archives Vol. 1 box. You can also throw in a few mid-’66 demos on the Buffalo Springfield, though a few were done in July, the same month sessions started for the first Buffalo Springfield album.
The 1963-64 recordings with the Squires (two released on a rare 1963 instrumental single) aren’t of much consequence, as they’re heavily derivative of the Shadows and the early British Invasion. A few October 1965 tracks with Comrie Smith show more of his songwriting voice starting to emerge, especially on the yearning “There Goes My Babe,” though they’re still no great shakes.
It’s really on his batch of Elektra demos in December 1965 that a recognizable Young surfaces, especially as they include a couple songs he’d put on official releases, “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing” (with Buffalo Springfield) and “Sugar Mountain.” Part of “The Rent Is Always Due” would be recycled for “I Am a Child” on the Springfield’s third album.
Although the solo guitar accompaniment is bare and Young’s vocals not as confident as they’d be later in the 1960s, the best of the Elektra demos clearly show a fine singer-songwriter, even if the other songs don’t measure up to the ones listed in the previous paragraph. The genius most of us can apply in hindsight makes it seem obvious Elektra, or some label, should have signed this guy up, whether as a solo act or someone that could develop a band or get placed in a group. He didn’t get an Elektra contract, and it’s not even clear how seriously, or if, anyone at the label listened to the demos.
Young wasn’t as nervous for his mid-1966 demos, when he was already part of Buffalo Springfield and just shy of starting to record an album with them. The standouts are the two songs that made their debut LP, “Out of My Mind” (on which fellow Buffalo Springfielders Stephen Stills and Richie Furay sing backup vocals) and “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.” “I’m Your Kind of Guy” isn’t memorable, but “There Goes My Babe” has a heartrending melody, even if there’s no way Young would have recorded it as was, since it’s sung from a woman’s point of view. That’s because it was reportedly a demo for Sonny & Cher (presumably to have been sung mostly or wholly by Cher), fellow clients of the Springfield’s original managers and producers, Charlie Greene and Brian Stone.
Overall I like Young’s early demos, though the best of them are the songs that were re-recorded for official release, and the later versions are substantially better. But he didn’t record too much before Buffalo Springfield’s first album, and what he did record was uneven, though the signs of his future brilliance are clearly there.
Pink Floyd. Considerably in advance of their early-1967 debut single “Arnold Layne”/“Candy and a Currant Bun,” Pink Floyd recorded a half dozen demos in 1965 when they were still a five-piece with guitarist Bob Klose. These were issued on the extremely limited 2015 EP 1965: Their First Recordings, and then made more widely available as part of the very large and expensive box The Early Years 1965-1972.
Although original leader/lead singer/main songwriter/lead guitarist Syd Barrett wrote four of these songs, only the manic “Lucy Leave” hints at their brilliant, teetering-on-madness early psychedelia. It’s by far the best of the batch, marking a transition from their clumsy R&B origins (as heard here on an average cover of Slim Harpo’s “I’m a King Bee”) to a more sinister freakbeat sound anticipating elements of the brilliant 1967 recordings they made with Barrett. “I’m a King Bee” were in wide circulation before that. The other four originals, three composed by Barrett, are a bit twee and tame in comparison, and far poppier. Roger Waters’s “Walk With Me Sydney” is of note, however, not only as the bassist’s first composition to be recorded, but also for featuring Juliette Gale (Rick Wright’s first wife) sharing lead vocals with Syd.
There are also a few early versions of “Interstellar Overdrive” in circulation that are different from the one on their first LP. The one for the soundtrack of Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London is pretty cool, though unfocused after the first few minutes. Cooler yet is a hyper-jittery pre-record deal unreleased 1966 fifteen-minute version of “Interstellar Overdrive,” recorded for the soundtrack of Anthony Stern’s 1968 avant-garde short film San Francisco. Not so cool is the meandering “Nick’s Boogie,” also done at sessions for Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London.
In sum, pre-“Arnold Layne” Pink Floyd has a few interesting, even exciting cuts—the alternate “Interstellar Overdrive”s and, less compellingly, “Lucy Leave.” As for the rest, there’s not much, it’s not that memorable, and it’s not much like early psychedelic Pink Floyd, though they’re instructive to hear for insight into their roots.
Of course, just sticking to the 1960s, there are many other notable acts who made recordings prior to their official debuts. As I noted, this is a sampling of some of the most notable.
Of all these, only the recordings by the Byrds and the Rolling Stones are really fine and enjoyable, though there are good moments here and there with almost everyone else. And the Rolling Stones did hardly any such recordings, and the ones by the Byrds span, in all likelihood, just a few months. Joni Mitchell’s the clear winner in the obscure category of best and most extensive body of significant work done by an important 1960s artist prior to their first official disc.
Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.