All posts by Folkrox

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

Top 20 (Almost) Rock Reissues of 2017

Even after so many vaults from rock’s first quarter century have been cleared, I had no problem selecting nearly twenty reissues (sometimes featuring previously unreleased material) for a list that many critics would limit to ten choices. I by no means heard every obscure reissue, or every expensive box set. If I come across some of them next year, I’ll add them to the end of my 2018 list, as I have here for some noteworthy 2016 releases I didn’t hear until the past twelve months.

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

If there’s a trend in reissues, or at least the ones I like to hear, it’s the growing number of albums that are about as notable for their historical interest as their musical value—indeed, sometimes more notable for their historical interest. I feel there simply aren’t many acts left from this era I haven’t heard, or albums (released or otherwise) from this era I haven’t heard, that are going to blow me away. Is a record holding a high percentage of its merits in its historical significance such a bad thing, though? Not for those of us who care about how music’s made and its context, illuminating the corners of key performers and musical genres, as well as solving some mysteries about music that’s been around the block for decades.

1. Dion, Kickin’ Child: The Lost Album 1965 (Norton). Although part of its subtitle reads “the lost album,” it should be clarified that this isn’t an unreleased album. Instead, it’s a compilation that simulates what a Dion folk-rock LP might have sounded like had these fifteen tracks been released on a full-length disc in 1965 (all having been recorded between spring and fall of that year). All of the material, as far as I can tell, has been previously available, even if you had to be a pretty dedicated Dion fan to hunt all of it down on various non-LP singles, the obscure Wonder Where I’m Bound LP, and the CD compilations Road I’m On and Bronx Blues. The tracks selected for this anthology are more, as Scott Kempner writes in his liner notes, “significant recordings comprising Dion’s ultimate folk-rock album [that] are presented now as they were originally intended…fifteen tracks that have been unavailable for decades.”

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

My choice for the #1 reissue of 2017.

That out of the way, it’s still good to have the cream of his 1965 folk-rock-oriented recordings in one place, and not have to weave in and out of incongruous material that it was sandwiched between on previous compilations. It’s also a good way to appreciate Dion’s rather unappreciated, if uneven, contributions to early folk-rock, when he was among the first singers (and virtually the only veteran rock star) to immerse himself in the style fairly deeply. There are similarities to early Bob Dylan and (far more distantly) early Byrds in the backing, which has the tentative yet daring exploratory feel of some other artists following the Byrds and Dylan’s more confident leads (particularly as most of this was produced by Tom Wilson, who also oversaw Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel’s early folk-rock recordings).

Material-wise (and Dion wrote the majority of the songs here), he lacked the knockout punches of the leading folk-rockers, and some of these cuts are in truth more blues-rock than folk-rock. There are still some standouts, however, like his terrific adaptation of the obscure early Dylan song (unreleased by Dylan at the time) “Baby I’m in the Mood for You”; his cover of Tom Paxton’s “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”; and his fairly successful if somewhat derivative ventures into gentle melodic folk-rock originals, like “Now,” “My Love,” and “So Much Younger.” (My story on Dion’s mid-1960s folk-rock phase, based on a recent lengthy interview with Dion himself, is in the November 2017 issue of the UK monthly magazine Record Collector.)

2. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (six-disc deluxe version) (Apple/Universal). Where do you rank an album that, back in the year in was issued, would have topped many best-of lists, but has become so over-familiar that even a six-disc expanded version isn’t as exciting as it could be? If you’re me, you don’t worry too much about what number it takes on the list, but it doesn’t get #1, even in this deluxe box version. It’s a big move in the right direction in the packaging of the Beatles’ catalog, which until this 50th anniversary box had not taken the obvious step of expanding their classic albums in reissued formats. This one has the stereo and mono versions, plenty of outtakes, the classic cuts from the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane” single (originally intended to be used on Sgt. Pepper), and the audio on Blu-ray/DVD discs if that rings your chimes. But the extras aren’t as exciting as they are on some other box set editions of classic vintage LPs, and the fans most interested in the bells and whistles probably already have a good deal of this in their collection, sometimes many times over.

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That doesn’t mean I don’t care about Beatles material that hasn’t been available before. With The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, I wrote a whole book on that subject. But as I noted in that book, 1967 might have been the least interesting year of the Beatles’ career (if we focus on their core 1962-69 era) in terms of material that was unissued at the time. No longer touring, they were focusing on studio recording, and in making those recordings, building up tracks layer by layer. That means the different versions of songs they recorded for the LP—which form the bulk of the three dozen or so extra cuts on the box (counts vary according to whether you might consider a “2017 mix” previously unreleased)—aren’t all that different from the album versions we’ve heard all these years. Sometimes you essentially just get the backing track or elements of a track, which is interesting, but not so much that you’re likely to enjoy it over and over.

Whatever edition of Sgt. Pepper was issued (the 50th anniversary CDs also came in two-CD format with less bonus tracks), media coverage focused on the stereo remix by Giles Martin, George Martin’s son. I seem to be one of the critics least excited by ballyhoed remixes; it’s good, but it’s not that stupendously different from the original, and the original always sounded pretty good in the first place. The 1992 TV documentary The Making of Sgt. Pepper, featuring interviews with Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison, and George Martin (who brings up separate elements of some tracks at the mixing board) that’s also in the six-disc version is good, but long available on bootleg.

The 144-page hardback book might be the best reason to buy the box, as it hasn’t been available before and can’t be easily bootlegged, and is pretty well done, even if the details on some tracks (like the bonus ones on the mono CD) could have been better. And for all its size, the box is missing a few bootlegged or known-to-exist items—the avant-garde “Carnival of Light” outtake, John Lennon’s home demo of “Good Morning Good Morning,” and Lennon’s home recordings of “Strawberry Fields Forever”—that would have made the box more definitive, if more expensive.

You can probably tell I don’t feel like the $150 or so this box cost (prices vary according to where you buy it and the shipping, if that’s involved) quite justified the price tag. But don’t get me wrong – the quality even on the oft-circulated stuff is better than the bootlegs; a few of the previously uncirculated tracks (like the “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” where Lennon has a mechanical vocal, changing to a more rapid and natural phrasing at McCartney’s suggestion) are interesting, if not phenomenal; and the overall packaging is of a commendably high standard, even if there are a few questionable decisions and omissions. Hopefully there will also be a deluxe box for The White Album’s 50th anniversary, especially as there are much more, and much more interesting, extras to choose from (especially if you count the couple dozen or so demos they did at George Harrison’s home shortly before the sessions started). And then maybe they’ll finally go back to all of their albums to construct deluxe editions.

3. The Rolling Stones, On Air (Deluxe Edition) (Universal). More than most top rock bands of the era, the Rolling Stones have been tight-fisted about issuing rarities from their vaults, putting out little unreleased pre-1970 material. For that reason, this compilation of 1963-1965 BBC sessions can be welcomed as a major crack in the floodgates (though the super-deluxe box edition of their 1965 Charlie Is My Darling documentary did include an entire CD of previously unreleased material of the band in concert in March 1965). Although there’s a “standard” single-disc edition of On Air with eighteen tracks, the two-CD deluxe edition is much preferable, adding fourteen more songs.

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As cautionary notes, there’s hardly any original material (though there are versions of the first two Jagger-Richard-penned hits, “The Last Time” and “Satisfaction”). At this point in their career, their repertoire was dominated by American blues/R&B/soul covers, and that’s what dominates this anthology (although it also has a rendition of Lennon-McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man,” their second UK hit). Of course, they did such covers as well as anyone in the UK (or the world), and many of them are here to enjoy in versions different than the ones on their early records. The fidelity varies from tinny to excellent, but it’s always listenable.

There are also eight songs (all covers) that didn’t find a way onto official Stones releases, including a smoking “Roll Over Beethoven” that outdoes even the Beatles’ excellent version, as well as a superb “Memphis, Tennessee.” The other such tracks aren’t quite as good, but include the semi-blues-rap of Bo Diddley’s “Cops and Robbers,” as well as another Diddley number in “Crackin’ Up.” There are also performances of “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” “Fannie Mae,” and items from the catalogs of two of their biggest influences, Chuck Berry (“Beautiful Delilah”) and Jimmy Reed (“Ain’t That Lovin’ You, Baby”).

That wraps up the formidable positives, but here are the more critical observations. To bring up the Beatles comparisons that might be unfair but are inevitable, the Beatles were much more creative and adventurous in taking the opportunities with their BBC sessions to perform songs not available on their commercial releases. They did three dozen such numbers in all, albeit just one of which was an original composition. Although it’s known the Stones did a fair number of songs onstage in their early years that didn’t make it onto their records, as noted above, there are just eight here. It would have been great if they’d done more otherwise unavailable songs by their early idols Berry, Diddley, and Reed.

Of more importance, the Stones and their record label can’t change what they taped for the BBC, but they can be faulted for not making this compilation more comprehensive. There are fifty surviving 1963-65 BBC cuts that have been bootlegged, which means that eighteen are missing from this collection. Sure, some of them are additional versions of songs represented on the deluxe edition. But some are not on On Air at all, including nifty lesser-known tunes they recorded in the studio in their early years, like “Bye Bye Johnny,” “You Can Make It If You Try,” “Meet Me in the Bottom,” and “Don’t Lie to Me.” It’s even missing their BBC version of “Not Fade Away,” their first big British hit. Everything could have fit onto two CDs, as they have on past bootlegs. Had On Air included everything possible, it would have contended for a higher position on this list.

4. Laura Nyro, A Little Magic, A Little Kindness (Real Gone). Nyro’s career lasted, rather fitfully, almost thirty years. Her best two albums by some distance, however, were her first two, recorded when she was very young: More Than a New Discovery (1967) and Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (1968). They haven’t been too hard to get over the years, but this two-CD reissue is notable for featuring the rare mono versions of each one (in the US, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was only issued in mono to DJs). Although there are only three bonus tracks, they’re significant: the 45 version of “Stoney End” (with different lyrics and vocal), the 45 version of “Save the Country” (re-recorded with a different arrangement for her third album), and, less essentially, the edited single mix of “Eli’s Comin’.” I wasn’t even aware there was a different version of “Stoney End” on 45 until this compilation, which also features lengthy historical liner notes.

Nyro

Despite the high marks for the packaging, listening to these back to back doesn’t mask imperfections in the original works. The LPs were uneven, with a fair distance separating the most well known classics (“Wedding Bell Blues,” “Blowin’ Away,” “Eli’s Comin’,” “Sweet Blindness,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “When I Die”) and the more run of the mill tracks. The relatively average tunes, too, suffer from some similarity to each other, and the arrangements and production sometimes could have been a little gutsier and more imaginative. Yet as uneven as this is, it contains the bulk of her best material.

5. Gene Clark, The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982 (Sierra). This compilation is available in a few variations, the cheapest being a single CD, the most thorough being a package that also puts the songs from the CD on vinyl LPs; adds a couple CDs with extra tracks, even though these only add up to an EP’s worth of material; and a DVD with a mid-1980s Gene Clark interview. This review is for the most comprehensive edition, which with shipping will set you back almost $100, a high price considering a double CD could have fit all the music for those who aren’t fussy about deluxe goodies. This doesn’t stand up to Clark’s best solo material (let alone what he did with the mid-’60s Byrds), and like many such anthologies is more of historical interest than musical brilliance. But as Clark was an important figure as the primary songwriter in the original Byrds (and later a respected cult singer-songwriter and country-rocker), historical significance is a good enough reason to treat this as a notable release.

GeneClark

Of most note, at least to listeners like myself who view his Byrds work as his peak, are the seven 1964 solo acoustic demos (one previously released) that show him in uneasy transition between the troubadour folk era and the British Invasion. It’s as though he can’t quite decide whether to be a more mature version of the Kingston Trio or try his hand at more teen-oriented pop-rock, and the songs lack the grand melodies of even his early Preflyte songs with the Byrds, though there’s an affecting yearning naiveté. A couple rather ornate 1967 solo cuts (arranged by Leon Russell, with Hugh Masekala as a musical guest) are curiosities; “Back Street Mirror,” whether intentionally or not, sounds like a Bob Dylan satire.

Devotees of Clark’s solo work will focus on the early ‘70s tracks at the heart of the compilation, including eleven 1970-71 solo demos; a 1970 cut with the Flying Burrito Brothers; and four full-band country-rock-oriented efforts from 1972. Like much of Gene’s work, these (especially the solo endeavors) exude sincerity and contain some interesting wordplay, though I don’t find the melodies terribly memorable. Unfortunate but true: in common with many such archival releases, the later the recordings, the least interesting they are, as is the case here with five 1982 numbers. For all the work Clark did after the mid-1960s, I have to conclude he never found nearly as suitable a vehicle for the full arrangements of his songs as the Byrds — and never again wrote material as superb, as interesting as some of his solo stuff was in an idiosyncratic singer-songwriter way.

So on the whole this is for specialists, but at least for the high price you do get quality packaging, including thorough liner notes by Clark/Byrds biographers. The half-hour DVD interview done at Clark’s home in 1986 by Domenic Priore, incidentally, is pretty good, if basically filmed. Clark talks with intelligence and fair depth about various aspects of his career, including precise details about the writing of “Eight Miles High” (which he wrote for the most part, he explains). At times the visuals cut away from a straight shot of Gene talking to rare pictures (dominated by images from the mid-’60s), which add another element of interest.

6. Various Artists, Making Time: A Shel Talmy Production (Ace). American-born Shel Talmy was one of the most important producers of British ‘60s rock, most famous for the mid-’60s hits he worked on by the Kinks and the Who. At various times, he also produced David Bowie (in Bowie’s pre-fame mid-’60s days), the Pentangle, the Easybeats, Manfred Mann, the Creation, Chad & Jeremy, Roy Harper, Lee Hazlewood, and the Fortunes, as well as interesting flop discs by the likes of the First Gear, the Mickey Finn, and Ben Carruthers & the Deep. All of those artists and more are on this 25-track compilation, functioning as a basic overview of his range, although it doesn’t get deeply into any one act or include much in the way of rarities that comprehensive collectors won’t have elsewhere. If you are on the lookout for rarities, there’s a previously unissued alternate version of the Easybeats’ “Lisa”; Bowie’s “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” (released under the name Davy Jones) with a “previously unissued alternate overdub”; all-women rock group Goldie & the Gingerbreads’ “That’s Why I Love You,” with Genya Ravan; and Perpetual Langley’s girl group-ish “Surrender.” This might be a better comp for someone just getting into this era rather than the experienced collector likely to have a lot of it, but the extensive 28-page booklet of notes by compiler Alec Palao are a good bonus.

Talmy

7. Jon-Mark, Sally Free and Easy (RPM). Jon-Mark is mostly known for his work as part of Mark-Almond, and his brief but significant time in John Mayall’s band in the late ‘60s (which included one of Mayall’s best albums, The Turning Point). Deep ‘60s collectors will also remember he was part of the semi-supergroup Sweet Thursday (also including Nicky Hopkins and future Cat Stevens guitarist Alun Davies), who made some of the most accurate and best quasi-Bob Dylan/Blonde on Blonde tracks, and played on some of Marianne Faithfull’s ‘60s recordings. Before most of this, he was also a solo artist in the mid-’60s, though he didn’t release much at the time. Sally Free and Easy is a notable gap-filling compilation, its 24 tracks including an unreleased Shel Talmy-produced LP he recorded for scheduled (but unfulfilled) release in autumn 1965, along with some outtakes and a 1965 single.

JonMark

Fans of British folk guitar will detect similarities to Davy Graham in Jon-Mark’s dexterous eclecticism and, more distantly, Bert Jansch and Donovan in his skill on the instrument and vocals. He is, nonetheless, not as talented or exciting as any of those artists, whether as a guitarist, singer, or interpreter of folk songs. But it should be emphasized that big fans of the kind of music Graham, Jansch, and Donovan were doing then will like this. Occasionally, the approach is daringly innovative for 1965, whether it’s the use of sitar in “Sally Free & Easy” (also done by Faithfull and Pentangle in the ‘60s) or modest full band backing on the single “Baby I Got a Long Way to Go”/”Night Comes Down,” the latter song better known via the mod rock version by Mickey Finn. Also of interest is “If You’re Gonna Leave Me,” recorded in a much more orchestral pop-oriented version as “Bye Babe” four years later by Lee Hazlewood. Largely, however, the accent’s on his solo acoustic arrangements of folk standards. All of this was produced by Shel Talmy, and as with the Talmy compilation listed above, this CD features detailed liner notes by Alec Palao.

8. Various Artists, Great Guitars at Sun (Bear Family). There were great piano players at Sun (Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich), and good performers on several instruments, but guitars are what first come to mind when you think of the Sun sound. There were many more Sun recordings with fine guitar than can fit on a single-CD 28-song compilation. But this one does a good job, like its companion-disc-of-sorts Drums at Sun, at mixing tracks by legends (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Roy Orbison) with important less famous names (Junior Parker, James Cotton, Rufus Thomas, Bill Justis, Little Milton, Earl Hooker, Billy Riley) and, at least to non-Sun aficionados, no-names (Dick Penner and Ernie Chaffin, among others). And while there are some familiar classics (“Mystery Train” by both Presley and Parker, Perkins’s “Matchbox,” Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Carl Mann’s “Mona Lisa”), most of the selections aren’t ones you’ll find on average Sun best-ofs. To mix things up a bit more, Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby” and Billy Riley’s “Red Hot” are not represented by the versions on original Sun singles, but by alternate takes. Extensive track-by-track annotation enhances appreciation of this material, even if you’re pretty knowledgeable about Sun’s history.

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9. Various Artists, Great Drums at Sun (Bear Family). Are drums the first thing you think of when you think of Sun Records? I thought so (meaning the answer’s “no”). Superb singers, yes; guitarists, definitely, whether great solo artists like Carl Perkins or noted session men like Roland Janes; and piano players, even if you can only name Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich. So this 28-track compilation feels a bit like an excuse to generate a novel anthology of interesting Sun material. On that level, however, it certainly succeeds, mixing material by icons like Perkins, Lewis, Rich, Elvis Presley, and Roy Orbison with names known primarily or exclusively to collectors, whether Billy Lee Riley or guys who make Riley seem familiar, like Jimmy Williams and Vernon Taylor. Give the compilers credit, however, for largely opting for off-the-beaten tracks by the bigger artists, and sometimes choosing alternate takes (including for two of the most famous songs here, Perkins’s “Boppin’ the Blues” and Rich’s “Lonely Weekends”) instead of the usual hit versions. It’s a good listen, even if I find it a peculiar concept, enhanced by excellent liner notes that focus on the drumming heard on these selections.

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10. Van Morrison, The Authorized Bang Collection (Exile/Legacy). We’re back to primarily-more-of-historical-interest for this three-CD compilation of everything Van Morrison recorded for Bang Records in 1967, when he started a solo career after leaving Them. Except for the hit “Brown Eyed Girl,” I’m actually not that big a fan of this brief transitional era, when Morrison recorded in New York with producer Bert Berns. The material (which do include early versions of a couple Astral Weeks songs) isn’t that great, and while Morrison’s singing is good, the production (as he’s sometimes pointed out, and does again in the liner notes) wasn’t always sympathetic.

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But if the actual music wasn’t among his very best, the archival packaging here is stellar. The seventeen songs on disc one have been issued in a lot of formats, but this CD uses original stereo and mono mixes. More interestingly, disc two (subtitled “Bang Sessions & Rarities”) has a bunch of previously issued alternate takes, as well as original mono single mixes for the completist. Disc three, the notorious “contractual obligation session” at which Morrison tossed off 31 ditties of less-than-serious song fragments as a kind of up-yours to help get out of his Bang contract, has been issued on previous CDs. Its authorized appearance here is a bit of a surprise given both its marginal quality (not fidelity, which is okay) and Morrison’s likely view of these performances as inessential to his core legacy. But they do make this compilation as complete as possible, though the 1967 date attached to them here seems puzzling, as previous Morrison literature has logically reported that they were cut in 1968 after Berns’s death, when Van was particularly eager to cut his association with Bang.

As another surprise, Morrison himself has the byline on the principal liner notes, which are fairly lengthy and quite interesting. As the notes bearing his credit for The Complete Them 1964-1967 a couple years ago were similarly fine, one wonders if Van might actually have it in him to generate a good memoir covering his entire career.

11. The Beach Boys, Sunshine Tomorrow (Capitol). Something like, but not exactly, an expanded version of Wild Honey, this two-CD compilation is a rather peculiar collection of Beach Boys recordings from mid-to-late 1967 (with one stray live track from 1970). Wild Honey itself is here in a new stereo mix, if that is important to you. The rest of disc one, however, is devoted to previously unreleased Wild Honey outtakes, alternate versions, backing tracks, and “session highlights,” as well a few November 1967 live recordings (along with a 1970 concert version of “Aren’t You Glad”). Disc two mixes Smiley Smile outtakes/alternates/backing tracks—not to be confused with material from the far more ambitious Smile, which preceded Smiley Smile—with more summer/fall 1967 live performances (or “live in the studio” recordings that the band considered overdubbing with crowd noise), as well as a 1967 version of “Surf’s Up.”

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What you have here, then, is an extensive document of that half-year or so after Smile was abandoned that the Beach Boys worked together as a real band again, playing their own instruments, rather than supplementing Brian Wilson’s session-player-heavy productions. It would be a more definitive document, of course, if Smiley Smile itself was also included, but that couldn’t have fit onto two CDs. It’s a bit like getting a high-quality bootleg (complete with expert liner notes) of bits and pieces from various sources, many of the non-LP extras sounding incomplete or half-hearted.

If the intention is to argue that the Beach Boys remained at a creative peak after the collapse of Smile, I hate to rain on this beach, but I’m not sold. Aside from its best few songs (the mild hits “Wild Honey” and “Darlin’,” and maybe “Here Comes the Night” and “I Was Made to Love Her”), Wild Honey’s material doesn’t come within hailing distance of their best work during Brian Wilson’s prime.

Wild Honey has been around forever (even on CD), of course, so the main reason to dig into this is for the abundant stash of extras. But the studio outtakes, with some outstanding exceptions like “Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Time to Get Alone,” just don’t make for cuts you want to hear after you’ve absorbed their scholarly significance to how the Beach Boys were working in the studio. And the live tapes are, to be harsh, a bit of a damp squib, the band sounding generally thin and sometimes perfunctory, and at times (especially during the live-in-the-studio tapes) not even appearing to take the task too seriously. “Surf’s Up” is good, but that was really a Smile cut, not a post-Smile endeavor. As a ‘60s Beach Boys completist, I’m glad this is out there for purposes of historical research, but it’s really not too exciting on its purely musical merits.

12. Tim Buckley, Venice Mating Call (Manifesto). There have been quite a few live/outtake/demo Buckley releases in the CD era. Indeed, the amount of commercially available material Tim didn’t release during his too-short lifetime now exceeds the considerable running time on the nine studio LPs he put out before his death. The discography balloons quite a bit more with this two-disc set, taken from the same September 1969 gigs at the Troubadour in Los Angeles that yielded the 1994 CD Live at the Troubadour 1969. None of these performances duplicate tracks from the 1994 CD, although some of the songs are the same. Some of the tunes, however, don’t appear on Live at the Troubadour at all, among them such notable ones as “Buzzin’ Fly,” “Lorca,” and one (“(I Wanna) Testify”) that actually doesn’t appear on any other Buckley release.

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As glad as Buckley fans (and I’m one) should be that this is available, it really is for Buckley fans only. Not because it’s deficient, but because Live at the Troubadour 1969 itself gives you a good idea of how he sounded in concert at this juncture in his career. Maybe it’s too harsh to label it more of the same, but it’s not too radically different. As a yet more contentious point, Live at the Troubadour 1969 was not Buckley at his most (or even relatively) accessible, Tim offering long, improv-leaning, jazz-folk workouts that were sometimes as much jams as songs, and not as melodic or craftily arranged as his best late-’60s studio recordings. It’s a little wearying to hear over the course of two CDs, especially if you’ve long digested the similar outings on Live at the Troubadour 1969. And guess what? If you want yet more, the single-disc Greetings from West Hollywood (also released in late 2017) has other previously unreleased recordings from the September 1969 Troubadour gigs, though two of the performances on Greetings from West Hollywood are also heard on the more highly recommended Venice Mating Call. 

13. Zoot Money’s Big Roll Band, Big Time Operator (Repertoire). Of the three most popular British acts of the mid-1960s to combine soul, rock, and jazz, Zoot Money was a fairly distant third (to Georgie Fame and Graham Bond) in significance. Even more than Bond, he’s barely known in the US—even Bond’s band is known by some as the place where Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce played together before Cream. And though his Big Roll Band was a very popular club act in the UK, they just managed one British hit, and that a fairly mild one (“Big Time Operator,” which made #25 in 1966). They were handicapped by a near-total reliance on covers of American R&B songs (albeit some of which were obscure even in the States), and Money’s raspy voice didn’t rival Britain’s top R&B singers. Even the presence of a young Andy Summers (then known as Andy Somers) on guitar wasn’t too notable, his work with the Big Roll Band being pretty low-key and jazzy.

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Still, the Big Roll Band’s records—and there were a lot of them—were usually at least adequate, and sometimes more exciting than that, especially when Money’s organ and the horns got a chance to stretch out. This four-CD set can’t be faulted for thoroughness, including both of the Big Roll Band’s mid-’60s LPs (one studio and one live); a 1966 live set at the Flamingo in London; their nearly dozen non-LP singles; a couple tracks from a 1964 various-artists album; and four from Money’s 1968 Transition LP (presumably more weren’t included due to lack of space). All of these tracks have come out on previous CDs, though you’d have to be a pretty dedicated collector to already have all of them. But even if you do, there’s a significant bonus with eighteen previously unissued BBC tracks from 1964-67, which include some songs (all covers) not on their other releases.

Even on their few original songs, the Big Roll Band weren’t too memorable or groundbreaking. An exception is the obscure 1967 B-side “I Really Learnt How to Cry,” a Money-Summers original in which they finally move from fairly conventional R&B to something more melodically adventurous and personal, with an intricate classical-flavored guitar break. You also hear this on one of the Transition tracks, “Coffee Song” (more famous via its earlier, less subtle cover by Cream), though this was written by non-Big Rollers Tony Colton and Ray Smith. Money’s best track of the 1960s, the superb psychedelic early Pink Floyd-ish “Madman Running Through the Fields” (issued in 1967 during the brief time Money and Summers formed the band Dantalian’s Chariot), actually isn’t here—though fortunately it, its B-side, and other tracks Dantalian’s Chariot recorded for an unreleased album, were issued back in 1996 on the Chariot Rising CD. (A longer review of this album, along with my recent interview with Zoot Money, will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

14. The Beatles, The Christmas Records (Apple). The seven Christmas discs the Beatles made available only through their fan club from 1963-1969 have been bootlegged forever, and it’s unlikely many serious collectors of the group don’t already have these recordings in some format. It’s also true that while these seven-inch flexidiscs were amusing to some degree, they weren’t (unlike almost everything they released to the general public) brilliant art, mixing comic sketches with occasional not-so-serious musical ditties. And it can’t be denied that this seven-inch-sized box of all the singles is expensive, retailing for about $73 (not including shipping) online. Although it’s marketed as a “limited edition,” I can’t find any source that details how limited it is.

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Now that I’ve dumped all the negatives in the lead paragraph, I can add that the packaging is very good, presenting each disc as a vinyl seven-inch single with the original artwork (which got quite florid from 1966 onward). The booklet has some brief historical liner notes, but also reproduces the fan club newsletters sent with the 1963-67 discs. And as I wrote in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film, it’s striking how the material, “as much as any compilation of actual 1963–1969 Beatles tracks, reflects their changing characters, images, and even (to a limited degree) music and studio experimentation. Initially just a vehicle for a more-or-less standard Christmas greeting, even by the mid-’60s they were restlessly expanding beyond the limitations of their initial wholesome moptopness. Becoming increasingly less concerned with keeping up appearances, the ‘messages’ became more and more sardonically humorous, the ‘music,’ ‘sketches,’ special effects, and editing progressively odder, even avant-garde at times.” And now it’s commercially available to everyone, filling in a notable if minor gap in their official discography.

15. The Monks, Hamburg Recordings 1967 (Third Man). Getting deeper into primarily-of-historical-interest territory, this EP is of more value for the light it sheds on a cult act’s history than its actual contents. Not discovered until shortly before this release, these five previously unissued 1967 recordings were cut not long before the Monks—a group whose legend rests primarily on their furious minimalist pre-punk 1966 Black Monk LP—broke up. “I’m Watching You,” an outtake from the sessions from their final single, indicates there might have been a way for the Monks to maintain their eccentric ferocity while expanding their melodic boundaries, even if it sounds like a rather incongruous blend of pounding garage rocker and spacy, more psychedelic bridge. The other four tracks, cut at Hamburg’s Top Ten club later that year, are less promising attempts to meld the Monks’ trademark stiff rhythms with a poppier sensibility; the best of them, the moody “Yellow Grass,” is sadly unfinished, lacking vocals.

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16. Various Artists, West Coast Nuggets: Transparent Days (Rhino). A double-LP vinyl release of thirty rarities from 1965-1968, mostly though not always from California, stretching all the way from Vancouver to San Diego. One side’s devoted to garage rock, one to folk-rock, one to psychedelia, and one to pop-rock. It’s doubtful that anyone but compiler Alec Palao has all of these in their original form, ranging as they do from the roaring Marin County garage rock of the Front Line’s “Got Love” to an unreleased 1966 demo of Beau Brummels guitarist/chief songwriter Ron Elliott doing “Candlestickmaker” (later reworked on the title track of his 1970 solo LP). Even the few relatively well known groups, like the Electric Prunes, Love, and the Music Machine, are usually represented by non-LP singles and rarities. Unlike other volumes in the various iterations of the Nuggets series stretching back to the Elektra double LP of the same name back in 1972, its scope is limited to acts from the Warner Brothers-controlled catalog. It’s not as knockout as the most celebrated Nuggets collections, but is extremely diverse and bound to have some items that even big collectors of the era and region haven’t heard.

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17. Neil Young, Hitchhiker (Reprise). At the opposite end of the pole from the Monks, we have an album of previously unreleased material by a very famous artist, not a cult one, that also makes the list more for historical interest than the music it contains. Not that it’s bad—far from it. Recorded in a single night on August 11, 1976, this has solo acoustic versions of songs that would, for the most part, be re-recorded for 1977-1980 albums (though the title track wasn’t issued in an officially reworked version until 2010, and two songs, “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength,” were previously unreleased). “Pocahantas,” “Powderfinger,” “Campaigner,” and “Human Highway” are among the most famous of these tunes; “Campaigner” is actually the same performance as the one on Decade, but has an extra verse that appeared on a German release and test pressing.

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It’s always nice to hear Neil Young unplugged, as you can on archival releases and bootlegs of concerts going back to the mid-‘60s. I wouldn’t count these among his best compositions, however, and there’s a similarity to some of the melodies that tends to make the songs blend into each other. It’s a minor, pleasant addition to the huge Young canon, but not a significant statement as a standalone album. A more significant unreleased Young LP from the 1970s is the legendary Homegrown, recorded in late 1974 and early 1975, and almost released before Young decided to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. What is he waiting for?

18. Doctor Ross, Memphis Breakdown (ORG). Doctor Ross is one of those guys I’ve heard a few tracks from on various compilations, but I’ve never heard an entire collection of his work until this one. This anthology of fourteen sides recorded for Sun Records in the early to mid-1950s actually has the exact same recordings, in the same sequence, as a 1987 LP of the same title. There’s also a considerably more extensive compilation of his Sun work on Bear Family, on the 2013 CD Juke Box Boogie: The Sun Years Plus. For those reasons, this doesn’t get a higher position on this list. Nonetheless, it’s still brash early city blues—not full-tilt electric, but certainly far more urban than pre-‘50s country blues, with propulsive drive and some electric guitar, harmonica, and percussion. The most familiar song here is “Cat’s Squirrel,” covered by Cream on their first album, though they seem to have modeled their version on a more developed subsequent rendition Ross did for Fortune.

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19. Various Artists, Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts (Bear Family). Shortly after Woody Guthrie’s death from Huntington’s Disease on October 3, 1967, tribute concerts were organized at New York’s Carnegie Hall to benefit research into the illness. Both shows took place on January 20, 1968, and a similar benefit/tribute was staged at the Hollywood Bowl on September 12, 1970. Excerpts from both the New York and Hollywood concerts were released on a two-volume set in 1972, and now have been expanded into this three-CD box, which includes quite a bit of unreleased material. More than any other item on this list, this makes the cut more for its historical interest than its music, as this was more notable as an event than as a showcase for memorable performances.

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The 1968 shows featured Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Odetta, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger. All of them did reasonable unplugged covers of various Woody songs, Paxton’s “Pastures of Plenty” perhaps coming off best, though none of these tracks were career highlights. The real reason these recordings are remembered is the surprise appearance of a superstar who hadn’t played onstage for more than a year and a half. Backed by the soon-to-be-Band (who’d soon record their debut LP), Bob Dylan delivered breezily confident versions of “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” and the most obscure of the three Guthrie tunes he covered, “Dear Mrs. Roosevelt.” While these are by no means among the best of his ‘60s rock tracks, in this context they’re clear highlights, fairly rocking the house in the midst of this otherwise rather sedate presentation (linked by stilted onstage narration from actors Robert Ryan and Will Geer). These cuts are actually more polished and focused than most of The Basement Tapes, and one wonders what kind of concert Dylan and the Band could have done at this time focusing on original material, though this would not come to pass.

Some of the same acts (Arlo Guthrie, Seeger, Havens, and Odetta) were also part of the Hollywood Bowl bill, joined by Country McDonald, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Joan Baez. Again, these performances (Baez’s “Hobo’s Lullaby” being a standout) are neither disappointing nor electrifying—although this time around, more had full-band arrangements (the backup musicians including Ry Cooder and sometime Flying Burrito Brothers Chris Ethridge and Gib Guilbeau). Again there’s narration (by Geer and Peter Fonda) that, while important to preserve as a document of the event, dampens the momentum of the listening experience.

As usual, Bear Family goes the extra mile and then some in the packaging. The label dug up around a couple dozen unissued tracks, though none of them are by Dylan, and most are from the Hollywood Bowl performances (tapes couldn’t be located for some other songs known to have been played). There’s also a 160-page hardback book of liner notes, and a hardback 85-page replica of The TRO Woody Guthrie Concert Book, a songbook-with-photos companion to the concerts that was originally issued in 1972. As with some other Bear Family boxes, the book of liners is in some ways more interesting than the CDs, with detailed memories from the participants; vintage photos from the shows; and reprints of programs, tickets, newspaper reviews, posters, and original manuscripts of Woody Guthrie lyrics. Bonus tracks on the third CD include interview excerpts with some of the performers about the concerts, and the long-winded seven-minute poem Dylan recited at his April 12, 1963 concert at New York’s Town Hall, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” (though that was previously released on his 1991 box The Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3). (My fuller review of this box will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

The following four records came out in 2016, but are worth a mention, as I didn’t hear them in time to put them on my 2016 list.

1. Fela Ransome Kuti and His Koola Lobitos, Highlife-Jazz and Afro-Soul 1963-1969 (Knitting Factory, 2016). This observation isn’t going to fly well with some Fela fans, but his Afrobeat recordings — and I’ve heard about a dozen albums of them, spanning the late 1960s to the early 1980s — aren’t the most varied musical endeavors. Often it seems as though you can chart the peaks and buildups of his lengthy tracks as though they were following similar graphs. If you prefer more heterogeneity in your sounds, you might prefer, as I do, this three-CD set of his earlier work. Taken from singles, his first studio album, the slightly lo-fi concert LP Afro Beat Live, and other recordings, it in some ways finds him evolving toward the Afrobeat style. But it also, as its title indicates, has a fair amount of soul, jazz, and highlife, sometimes instrumental, sometimes with English lyrics. The songs are usually in the three-to-five-minute range instead of groove-oriented workouts, and they’re fairly diverse, with some great weird slightly dissonant (or are they actually slightly out of tune?) horn lines. They’re also fairly different from the non-African soul and jazz he was clearly influenced by, mixing in a lot of African influences and his own originality. There’s plenty of uplifting energy throughout this extensive compilation, which has value far exceeding its historical documentation of Fela’s pre-Afrobeat roots.

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2. Bob Dylan, The 1966 Live Recordings (Columbia/Legacy, 2016). Even if I’d obtained this 36-CD box set before 2016 ended (I admit I didn’t), it’s doubtful I could have listened to the whole thing before I compiled my best-of list for that year, as it was issued November 11. Even some people I know who bought it upon release haven’t gotten through everything. I have, and you don’t have to hear it to know that, even if you’re a Dylan fan, you have to be extremely committed to hear the entire production. Including much or the entirety of many shows from his 1966 tour, the set list rarely varies. So you hear well over a dozen of these concerts in part or full, usually in excellent sound, though a few lo-fi audience recordings are placed on the final discs.

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Especially since one of the best of these shows came out in 1998 as The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (though it was actually recorded in Manchester), this is really more of an extensive historical document than a pleasure cruise. Of course, this was about the most historic rock tour ever, with Dylan encountering some controversy and occasional audience hostility for playing loud rock music with future members of the Band, even though he split his sets into acoustic and electric halves. If you’ve heard the Manchester set over and over (as many have, since it was bootlegged for decades before its official release), the primary interest lies not in the music, which is rather similar (if passionately delivered) from date to date. It’s in the audience reaction, which isn’t as negative as has often been reported, with a clear majority applauding the electric rock numbers.

However, the objections of the small minority of hecklers are very vocal and nasty, especially in his UK concerts. That leads to some strange, at times impenetrably indistinct stoned-sounding spoken introductions and comments from Dylan. One of his between-song ramblings at his final London concert goes on for several minutes, and Dylan’s not noted for such extensive on-stage banter. For those who do want to focus on the music, it’s good, though one wishes his electric version of “Positively 4th Street” was taped more than once in good fidelity (as it was for the first concert preserved here, in Sydney on April 13, 1966). Other than that, the main variation in the electric sets is in the tempos and some vocal nuances, though he and the soon-to-be-band (then still the Hawks) clearly settle in and get more comfortable the more the tour progresses. If you want detailed analysis of the tour and the recordings, Dylan scholar Clinton Heylin supplies it with his 2016 book Judas!: From Forest Hills to the Free Trade Hall: A Historical Overview of the Big Boo.

3. The Zombies, The BBC Radio Sessions (Varese Vintage, 2016). Is this double CD good value if you’re the kind of Zombies fan who wants to have everything they did? No; there are just seven unreleased tracks, one of which is an interview, another of which is a third version of “Tell Her No.” Is it still a good listen, especially judged against a rather shallow pool of reissues of specific interest to me? Sure, and it’s enhanced by good thorough notes by Andrew Sandoval. The Zombies’ greatest strength was their moody, often minor-keyed original material, so in a sense it’s a shame that the majority of this features covers of American R&B/soul material, at which they weren’t as skilled interpreters as, say, the Beatles or Rolling Stones. On the other hand, many of these covers didn’t make it onto Zombies studio releases, so this gives you the chance to hear otherwise unavailable songs. Although a few of the bluesiest items are awkward, generally these cuts are pretty good, the clear highlight being their almost eerie reading of “The Look of Love.” As is par for most BBC sessions, the performances of the originals aren’t as strong as the studio versions, but there are some good ones here, including some neglected flop singles and B-sides like “Just Out of Reach,” “I Must Move,” and “Whenever You’re Ready.”

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4. Various Artists, Spiritual Jazz 7 (Jazzman, 2016). Sometimes a reissue’s interesting, or certainly offbeat, enough to merit a place on lists like these even if it’s in a genre that’s not my main passion. Qualifying on those grounds is Spiritual Jazz 7, subtitled “modal, esoteric & progressive jazz inspired by Islam 1957-1989.” (There seems to be a typo there, as one of the track’s from 1999.) There are a few prominent names here (most notably Yusef Lateef and Pharoah Sanders), but few of them are too familiar, and probably some of them aren’t likely to have been heard even by listeners with big jazz collections. The Islam content isn’t too overt, even on the tracks with vocals; the spiritual inspiration, whether for these specific cuts or for the musicians’ lives and art in general, is spelled out more explicitly in the extensive liner notes. The religious dimension aside, it’s a varied collection of progressive jazz over a period of a half century, more than half of it hailing from the 1960s and 1970s. Some of the material’s damned obscure, and/or from damned obscure small labels, one (the Lightmen’s “All Praises to Allah (Pts. I & II)”) even sourced from a seven-inch single on the drummer’s Lightin’ imprint.

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Top 25 (Almost) Rock Books of 2017

There wasn’t any particular trend in the rock books I liked well enough to list here from the past year, except that there were a lot of them. Biographies, memoirs, genre overviews, journalism-on-rock-journalism, oral histories, volumes on non-rock musicians who made some impact on rock and pop—all are represented below. And there were quite a few others I read, or gave a try, that I didn’t think good enough to make the cut.

My choice for the #1 rock book of the year in 2017.

My choice for the #1 rock book of the year in 2017.

I still ended up with nearly 25 books worth writing about, plus about half a dozen from 2016 I didn’t read until the following year. One slight oddity is that in all four of the annual book lists since I’ve started this blog, the #1 choice has gone to a British author, as it does in the volume that leads off my 2017-best of.

1. Roots, Radicals and Rockers, by Billy Bragg (Faber & Faber). Subtitled “How Skiffle Changed the World,” on its most valuable level this serves as a fine history of skiffle, the peculiarly British mixture of folk, blues, country, and DIY amateurism that helped revolutionize UK music in the 1950s. More subtly, this connects the dots linking skiffle to previous roots music movements (in the decade following World War II) in the country’s traditional jazz revival, and to the first generation of British rockers it helped inspire, first in the late 1950s and then (far more meaningfully) in the mid-1960s, when teenagers who’d graduated from skiffle to rock launched the British Invasion. Such links aren’t always so easy to hear in skiffle itself, especially to American ears, to whom trad jazz and skiffle sound both unlike British Invasion music and rather tame when compared to the best US jazz, blues, and folk.

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But whatever you think of skiffle (and I—as one of the few Americans, I’m guessing, who owns a skiffle box set—am not much of a fan), this is an interesting and well written document of a revolution that was both social and musical. Bragg also draws in the rise of the British teenager, the stirrings of a British folk revival, the emergence of television, and other non-strictly-skiffle subjects without either detouring from or overextending the reach of the book’s main subject. Although Bragg’s more known as a musician than a writer, it’s a serious volume that (unlike many books by celebrities) is not inappropriately self-referential and is diligently researched, even if many of skiffle’s key figures are no longer alive to be interviewed. It deserves the wide acclaim it’s received, though if you like it, be aware you should also check out Pete Frame’s The Restless Generation (Rogan House, 2007), a fine hefty volume that takes a wider view of 1950s British music.

2. In the Midnight Hour: The Life & Soul of Wilson Pickett, by Tony Fletcher (Oxford University Press). Until this book, Wilson Pickett was one of the few remaining giants of soul music who hadn’t been honored with a decent biography. This is it, Fletcher doing his expected good job in interviewing plenty of associates, researching Pickett’s recordings in depth, and giving more detailed description of the singer’s records and music than most soul biographers do (even of the turkey discs Pickett cut after the early 1970s). Although he had a volatile personal life and temper, Pickett’s life wasn’t quite as interesting and dramatic as some of the legends he approached but didn’t match in influence, like James Brown, Otis Redding, and Aretha Franklin. Yet if his story isn’t as epochal, it’s not apt to be told better than it is here. For those (like myself) who notice such items, the two eight-page spreads of pictures are better than average than they are for such things, including some seldom seen photos of Pickett in the studio, onstage, and with family.

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3. Spider from Mars: My Life with Bowie, by Woody Woodmansey with Joel McIver (St. Martin’s Press). Woodmansey was the drummer in David Bowie’s band the Spiders from Mars for about three years at the beginning of the 1970s—still the most celebrated period of Bowie’s career. From the larger-than-average size of the type, I was braced for the kind of superficial memoir you get from many notable associates who weren’t stars. But this is a pretty good breezy read, justly focusing on those Spiders from Mars years, though there’s some background on his earlier experiences and a bit on the post-Bowie times. He could be bitter considering he was unceremoniously dumped from the Spiders right after Bowie’s short-lived “retirement” in mid-1973, and given the news on his wedding day. But he looks back on the era with equanimity, and goes over almost all the Bowie records on which he played track by track.

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Refreshingly, Woodmansey also has quite a bit to say about how he played drums on these, changing his style to integrate himself into the songs (and Bowie’s own swiftly mutating personas) as suitable. There’s some sex (and yet less drugs), but the spotlight is very much on the music and their fairly fast, though hard-earned, rise to stardom. The sections on his post-’70s activities (including a reunion with bassist/producer Tony Visconti as part of a sort of The Man Who Sold the World tribute band) aren’t very interesting, but the great bulk of the book is directly Bowie-related, and is recommended reading for Bowie fans.

4. Soul Survivor: A Biography of Al Green, by Jimmy McDonough (Da Capo). A la the Wilson Pickett bio reviewed above, it’s hard to believe this is the first decent book on this soul giant. In part that’s probably because Green’s life is daunting to research given his enigmatic behavior; the proliferation of murky incidents dotting his history; and the inaccessibility of the still-living Al himself, who did not grant interviews for this volume. McDonough did speak with many people who’ve worked and known Green, however, including many involved in the Hi record label for which he cut the hit records for which he’s most famed.

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It’s a story full of many twists and achievements that are hard and sometimes impossible to unravel, given the many different accounts and perspectives given by associates and Green himself. As is proper, his post-’70s work gets much less space than his prime, though McDonough does not, unlike many biographers, make excuses for or build up his subject’s many subpar post-peak records. Sometimes the author’s style is overly flippant and glib; otherwise this might have ranked higher on this list. But this is a very interesting and deeply researched book, covering his move into gospel and preaching, and his complicated relationships (including comprehensive reporting of the incident in which a woman scalded him before shooting herself) as well as his music.

5. Peggy Seeger: A Life of Music, Love, and Politics, by Jean R. Freedman (University of Illinois Press). Although she’s seldom gotten attention from the pop mainstream, Peggy Seeger’s had a pretty interesting life, as well as doing significant music as part of the first family of sorts of American folk, also including half-brother Pete and brother Mike. Written with access to Peggy, this is a thoroughly researched account of her improbable journey, in which she spent much of her life in the UK as partner to Ewan MacColl, a key figure in the British folk revival. Unlike a good number of thoroughly researched accounts on university presses, it’s also a pretty accessible, entertaining read, without sacrificing depth of detail and analysis.

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The child of musical academics who played their own large parts in popularizing folk music, Seeger left Radcliffe to travel around Europe and perform after growing up in a more or less middle-class household – itself pretty unusual for a young woman in the mid-1950s. Happenstance led her to London and an affair with then-married MacColl, culminating in her becoming a British citizen and spending most of the next few decades abroad. Her story’s interesting enough on musical terms, which found her performing the original version of MacColl’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Her Face” (inspired by Seeger) and writing a well known feminist anthem, “I’m Gonna Be an Engineer.” But it’s also notable for its many intersections with currents that helped shape the music and culture of the 1950s and 1960s, including the staunch leftism and sometimes off-putting musical purism of the British folk revival; the harassment undergone by many US musicians for their left-wing associations; the couple’s use of radio to tell stories of the working class mixing music and social commentary; and her celebrated colorful, if sometimes instable, family life, both before and during her relationship with MacColl.

Inevitably, the story gets less interesting in the last third or so of the book after the early 1970s, when the folk revival’s influence and audience shrank. I also would have liked more coverage of Seeger and MacColl’s relations with record labels, which saw Peggy record (with MacColl and on her own) an astonishing wealth of discs that continues to the present day. On the whole, however, it’s a high-quality biography that’s superior to Seeger’s disappointing memoir, which appeared later in 2017.

6. American Witness: The Art and Life of Robert Frank, by RJ Smith (Da Capo). Strictly speaking, this isn’t a music book, as Robert Frank is a photographer and filmmaker. However, his work did overlap significantly with the musical world, most notoriously in his still-officially-unreleased documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 American tour, Cocksucker Blues. He also co-directed a 1959 short based on beatnik life (including Allen Ginsberg), Pull My Daisy, that had music by jazz musician David Amram. And a more obscure 1988 film he co-directed, Candy Mountain, had a music-centered plot, with a cast including Tom Waits. He remains most known, however, for his photography, especially his late-’50s book The Americans, but also for his work used on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.

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Now that my first paragraph’s justified its inclusion, it’s time to emphasize that it’s a very good book, especially given that Frank has been pretty reticent about reflecting on his career in the media (and did not grant interviews to the author of this volume). It’s extensively researched, however, and for the most part gripping, starting with Frank’s difficult youth and early adulthood as a Swiss Jew during World War II. Frank made a career out of doing the unexpected and uncommercial, and was an innovator both in his gritty techniques and in choosing unconventional subjects that often did not reflect on the United States in a flattering manner. While his years as a filmmaker did not match his photographic work in influence, these too were idiosyncratic and iconoclastic, sometimes apparently in willful avoidance of putting his professional livelihood on a steady footing.  As a reminder that it could be rough sailing in the publishing world almost sixty years ago, The Americans, now considered a core classic of photography, was remaindered the year following its initial release.

If you’re more interested in his work with the Stones than anything else, that’s covered in much detail here, though it’s just one section of a lengthy book. It is interesting to hear speculation that Cocksucker Blues was not released because the Stones were concerned that its depiction of drug use would imperil Keith Richards at a time when he was in danger of going to jail in Canada on drug charges. (It should be noted that Frank had been working on the 1972 footage for almost five years at that point, and might have stood a better chance of getting it into circulation had he kept to a more conventional schedule.)

Bill Wyman, not known as the most colorful interviewee in the Stones, had this refreshingly irreverent take on the matter (quoted in the book with attribution, though not from one of the author’s interviews): “I thought it was a piece of shit, actually. It was so amateur and poorly done. I just couldn’t relate to it. [Robert Frank] was obviously just looking for anything sensational. That’s why me and Charlie [Watts] are hardly in it, because we weren’t sensational. All the good bits, I thought, were cut out. It was just like a poor home movie, shot badly.”

The book as a whole, however, is likely to be appreciated by many people with an interest in the visual arts and popular culture, not just Stones fans. Here’s one thing it does have in common with many popular music books, however. It kind of peters out in the final sections, as Frank (still alive at the age of 93 at this writing) hasn’t done too  much in the past few decades, and the narrative gets both less interesting and jumps around more loosely between different eras and disparate events. This isn’t that huge an error, but it’s also unfortunate it repeats the too-often-stated-as-fact myth that the Stones were performing “Sympathy for the Devil” when a murder took place at Altamont (they were actually doing “Under My Thumb”).

7. Psychedelia: 101 Iconic Underground Rock Albums 1966-1970, by Richard Morton Jack (Sterling). An engaging, finely designed 250-page coffee table survey of top psychedelic rock LPs. Each of the 101 albums gets a two-page spread of its own, with a detailed one-page review and a nearly full-page reproduction of the LP under discussion (with the back covers sometimes reproduced as well). There are also plenty of uncommon photos and ads, some from the author’s own extensive personal collection.

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As the introduction acknowledges, whittling down such a fertile genre to a mere 101 selections is bound to stir the ire of psych-heads, all of whom would pick different favorites. But it should be stressed that in addition to expected classics like Sgt. Pepper and The Doors, the book also features a great number of obscure albums that are virtually ignored by all other histories of the period getting published around the 50th anniversary of the summer of love. Blossom Toes, Silver Apples, Mad River, the C.A. Quintet, Tomorrow, the Deviants, and H.P. Lovecraft are all here, as are some even more obscure acts like the David, Ill Wind, and Dragonfly. There are also a few picks from outside the US and UK, like the Churchills (Israel), Traffic Sound (Peru), Os Mutantes (Brazil), and Group 1850 (Holland).

The book’s greatest virtue is not its admirably wide-ranging coverage, but its crisply written histories of these records, which combine enthusiastic description and astute critical appraisal. The author draws upon a wealth of vintage quotes from dozens of publications, some quite hard to find and rarely cited by other critics, such as Mojo Navigator, Top Pops, Flower Scene, KRLA Beat, and Fusion. There’s also first-hand material from interviews he conducted with dozens of the musicians. Special sections on UK/US music publications of the time, the best non-LP psychedelic singles, late-’60s rock festivals, and psychedelic rock on film add to the fun. No doubt many would wish Richard Morton Jack was able to pick 201 or even 1001 psychedelic LPs, or at least that he has the opportunity to do a sequel. As it is, however, Psychedelia pulls off the rare feat of both serving as a fine introductory survey of many (if hardly every) notable psychedelic albums, and entertaining and offering some new information even to acid rock experts. (A longer version of this reissue appears in issue #45 of Ugly Things.)

8. Otis Redding: An Unfinished Life, by Jonathan Gould (Crown Archetype). There were a couple previous biographies of Redding, one of them (Mark Ribowsky’s Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul) just a couple years older than this one. (See #16 in http://www.richieunterberger.com/wordpress/top-twenty-rock-history-books-of-2015/ for my review of that.) So could there be that much more to add? No, but this does have some pluses over Dreams to Remember, with some more depth (running about 500 pages) and very detailed, acute critical description of Redding’s records.

Redding

There are some minuses, too. The earlier parts of the book are overcontextualized, with a lot of passages about the general history of R&B, soul, and southern black life that don’t refer to Otis at all, and could have been removed or trimmed way down. There are entire (albeit short) chapters, for instance, on Ray Charles and Specialty Records, and these subjects aren’t such a strong part of Redding’s story that they deserve those sections. Fortunately, the book focuses more and more on Otis as it progresses, and almost solely on the singer for the most interesting part of his life, when his recording career picked up steam in his last few years. The only real dirt not widely known (though it has come to light elsewhere as well) is Redding’s involvement in a 1964 shooting that could have led to an attempted murder charge. This is detailed but not sensationalized, the text properly concentrating on his music and professional accomplishments.

9. Byrds: Requiem For the Timeless Vol. 2, by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House). If you thought Johnny Rogan’s epic 1200-page Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless Vol. 1 was the last word for the matter, think again. For Requiem for the Timeless Vol. 2, Rogan combines six biographies of varying length into one, devoting different sections to the lives and pre- and post-Byrds careers of the members who are no longer alive: Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Kevin Kelley, Gram Parsons, Clarence White, and Skip Battin. It runs to 1248 pages – and that’s not a misprint, although the last 200 are taken up by an extensive discography and index. It should come as no surprise to those familiar with Rogan’s work (also including large volumes on Van Morrison and the Kinks/Ray Davies) that it’s a thorough enterprise, drawing on scores of first-hand interviews and unearthing quite a bit of obscure information and perspectives.

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The most interesting parts, alas, are the ones falling closest to when these guys were actually in the band. Gene Clark has the longest of the six chapters – it’s a full book in itself, really, at 400 pages – and it’s the best section, covering his pre-Byrds days in the New Christy Minstrels and his many solo projects. Clark fanatics will be fascinated to hear of unreleased tracks like “Don’t You Know What You Want” (demoed for CBS, but never released, by girl duo the Cookie Fairies in spring 1966) and the apparently different 1965 song “That’s What You Want,” demoed by Gene himself in a solo acoustic version. Everyone will be dejected to read his long spiral into commercial obscurity and health problems, culminating in an early death in 1991.

Gram Parsons has been covered extensively in other books and documentaries, but Rogan does add some spice to Gram’s story with a lot of details on the guitarist’s myriad of pre-Byrds projects, as well as unexpected associations like a session the embryonic Flying Burrito Brothers did with Jesse Ed Davis. There’s also the dirt on an uncompleted Melcher-produced early-’70s Parsons solo album, during which Melcher threw up in A&M executive Jerry Moss’s brand new custom-made Yamaha piano. Clarence White has not been as extensively documented, despite gaining his own cult following for his country-rock guitar work. Rogan again fills in a lot of blanks about his pre-Byrds days, transition from bluegrass to electric rock, and personal life, which like Parsons’s ended prematurely in 1973.

There’s less to say about the creativity of the other three Byrds covered. Original drummer Michael Clarke didn’t write much for the Byrds or sing, though he comes off as an affable happy-go-lucky sort whose drumming was underrated. Kevin Kelley, drummer for much of 1968 (and the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album) before pretty much vanishing from the public eye, is granted the slimmest portion of text, though there’s still room for plenty of interesting stories about the Rising Sons (where he played alongside Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder and was produced by Terry Melcher).

Skip Battin, Byrds bassist from 1969-73, might be the least popular member of the group among fans, in part because the songs he wrote for them (some composed with Kim Fowley) were often considered ill-fitting or subpar. Yet his chapter is more interesting than you might expect, in large part because much of it’s devoted to his tangled and quite unusual pre-Byrds history. After a couple hits as part of Skip & Flip in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, he—like, in a different way, Kim Fowley—spent a decade throwing a smorgasbord against the wall in hopes that a plate or two would stick, including some mid-’60s folk-rock with Steve Young and Van Dyke Parks; a short-lived band with ex-Leaves guitarist Bobby Arlin; and a weird late-’60s LP with Evergreen Blueshoes.

All six of these Byrds’ demises are recounted in detail, and that’s part of the reason this isn’t as engrossing, or certainly as uplifting, as part one of Rogan’s Byrds history. This isn’t solely because reading about unchecked substance abuse and its morbid consequences can make for tough, even glum reading. Save for White (killed by a driver while loading equipment in 1973) and Parsons, these guys spent literally decades playing a post-Byrds bar band/nostalgia circuit (sometimes as part of dubious semi-Byrds reunion/tributes), issuing poorly distributed indie records barely anyone heard, and coping with drastically dwindling financial resources.

Rogan valiantly makes the best of some of their efforts, but it’s simply not nearly as exciting to read about them as it is about the Byrds’ remarkable accomplishments in the ‘60s. It’s yet less exciting to plow through the hassles with club promoters, the squabbles over rights to use the Byrds name, and fights over the estates that also plagued some ex-members. Not as essential as its predecessor, Requiem for the Timeless Vol. 2 nonetheless digs up an abundance of material Byrds fans will judge essential, explicated by dozens of pages of footnotes, some of them quite fascinating in and of themselves. (My fuller review of this book appears in issue #46 of Ugly Things.)

10. In the Wings: My Life with Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, by Ianthe McGuinn (New Haven Publishing). As Roger McGuinn’s girlfriend and then wife from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, Ianthe McGuinn bore two of his children; knew all of his fellow Byrds, often attending shows and sometimes going to recording sessions; and encountered quite a few other Hollywood celebrities in the band’s circle before the marriage ended. So her memoir’s of considerable interest to Byrds fans, and thankfully not the catalog of complaints some other ex-rock spouses’ books have been. Sure, the relationship was rocky; it ended after she caught McGuinn in bed with Roger’s next wife at their road manager’s home. But Ianthe is also appreciative of her ex’s better qualities, including the music he made, which she often writes about in this appropriately concise volume.

Ianthe

There’s plenty of interesting trivia, from where the dialogue for “2-4-2 Foxtrot” was recorded to the revelation that “I See You” was written about a one-night stand McGuinn had with a young girl on the band’s first British tour. But there’s also useful insight from someone who knew McGuinn as well as anyone, and also knew the other Byrds and their managers pretty well. When Gene Clark left in early 1966, “David and Jim realized they had to become better collaborators. They jammed more frequently together, sharing song ideas, and they experimented musically with new influences.” Shortly before Crosby was fired the following year, he “went on diatribes about songs-in-progress on [The Notorious Byrd Brothers], in full opposition of ‘Goin’ Back.’ He was surreptitiously exerting his desire to be a leader in the band, wanting to have the final word.” When Crosby was indeed fired shortly afterward, “I felt Roger [as he was by now known] had decided to take control of the group, and I could see that he was joyous.”

Although the Byrds’ post-Crosby years weren’t as interesting as their mid-’60s peak, there are plenty of notable anecdotes from the band’s (and the McGuinn’s marriage’s) latter years. Carl Sagan “was intrigued by Roger’s use of space science and sci-fi in his songwriting,” asking for Byrds albums in exchange for his book Intelligent Life in the Universe, but their management screwed up and didn’t send the LPs. “Jesus Is Just Alright,” one of their strongest tracks from their final years, “was a song that [producer] Terry [Melcher] had bought the publishing rights to,” perhaps explaining at least in part why they recorded this gospel number (though Ianthe does not make this supposition). Coming across Ry Cooder in a line at the DMV, Ry told her, “I can’t believe what the Byrds have done to Clarence White. His character has changed so much. All that drug use is really destroying his talent.”

Dotted with previously unpublished photos of the McGuinns and the Byrds (though they’d benefit from sharper reproduction), In the Wings adds a valuable dimension to the Byrds’ tale. I wrote a longer review of this book, and also interviewed Ianthe McGuinn, in issue #46 of Ugly Things.

11. Dusty: An Intimate Portrait of a Musical Legend, by Karen Bartlett (Lesser Gods). Although issued in the UK in 2014, this Dusty Springfield bio didn’t come out in the US until 2017; I can only hope purists don’t think I’ve committed the gravest of sins by thus putting it on this list. Like some other books on Springfield, this focuses more on her (largely gay) sexuality and less on her music than is optimum. But it does pay more attention to her music and recordings than those other volumes, with detailed descriptions of many (yet not all) of her best singles and albums. Some key musical associates weigh in with pretty detailed first-hand recollections, including Mike Hurst of the Springfields, Kiki Dee, Madeline Bell, and producers Jeff Barry, Brooks Arthur, and Kenny Gamble. So do some ex-lovers, including musicians Julie Felix, Carole Pope (of the group Rough Trade), and Teda Bracci (from the all-women ‘60s San Francisco group the Freudian Slips, though she and Dusty met much later), though not Norma Tanega, who was with Springfield for a few years in the late 1960s.

Dusty

Naturally there’s also quite a bit – perhaps a bit too much – on her tumultuous personal life, which saw lengthy struggles with alcoholism, mental problems, and general reckless behavior, particularly after the hits stopped coming and she moved to Los Angeles for much of the 1970s and 1980s. The bulk of the book, however, is on her pre-early ‘70s glory days. The chronology, though generally linear, sometimes wavers a bit, and the coverage of her ‘60s recordings has some gaps; it’s unbelievable that a full-length book doesn’t even mention “The Look of Love,” which was both a pretty big US hit and one of her best tracks. Detailed critical description of Springfield’s records, by the way, are available in Paul Howes’s meticulous The Complete Dusty Springfield (published in 2001), which is recommended to serious Springfield fans.

12. Lightfoot, by Nicholas Jennings (Viking). I like Gordon Lightfoot, most particularly his early work, but he’s never struck me as the most colorful character. If his music’s anything to go by, he’s solid, reliable, and a fine craftsman, but not too quirky or unpredictable. Those assumptions are mostly borne out by this biography, the first thorough one of this Canadian legend. Written with some first-hand input from Lightfoot (though the songwriter still seems fairly guarded and reclusive in what he’s willing to reveal), this is a well-constructed survey of his career, though not likely to surprise or intrigue most non-Lightheads. It covers his beginnings as a struggling country-pop sort of singer to his emergence in the mid-’60s as a significant folk-pop-country singer-songwriter, which saw his most inspiring recordings, though he really didn’t hit mainstream stardom until his big ‘70s hits. Those (“If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”) are written about in depth, and Jennings talked to a fair number of Lightfoot’s associates for some perspectives on various eras.

Lightfoot

Still, I was hoping for some more unexpected stories about songs like “I’m Not Sayin’,” along the lines of a passing note that Trevor Lucas toured with Lightfoot in Britain in 1966, perhaps explaining why Fotheringay did Gordon’s “The Way I Feel” a few years later. His management by Albert Grossman (and certainly his parting of ways with Grossman) isn’t much discussed, and more comments by his producers would have been welcome, if they had much to say. Nor is there anything, to pick on one example, on nearly three dozen demos (including a lot of material that would never resurface) that have circulated bearing a mid-’60s date. You do learn about his marriages and serious relationships, most interestingly a lengthy one in the early 1970s with Cathy Smith, most famous for her role in John Belushi’s death (and previous associations with the Band).

In common with many a bio, it loses steam when Lightfoot starts to tread water after the ‘70s. For quite a few years (and in common with many a classic ‘60s/’70s rock musician), he’s been a popular touring act, but has done little in the way of recording and composing. He almost died in the early 2000s (and was mistakenly reported to have died in 2010), but some detours into his passions for canoeing and (as a fan) auto racing make for less exciting detail. When you do make it into the 1980s, however, there’s this priceless aside: “To clear the house after a concert by punk rockers X, staff at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles once played Lightfoot’s music over the sound system, emptying the venue in record time.”

13. Rolling Stones On Air In the Sixties, by Richard Havers (Harper Design). Subtitled TV and Radio History As It Happened, this is a survey of the Stones’ radio and television appearances from 1963-1969. There’s at least some detail (even if it’s just a few words and a listing) about every such known appearance around the world—not just the BBC, Ready Steady Go!, and Ed Sullivan, but local TV appearances in the US, French radio concert broadcasts, performances on Swedish and Australian TV programs, and the like. As a serious Stones fan I’m glad to have this, and the coffee table-sized book is designed well, with plenty of photos and memorabilia, some rare or previously unpublished. It’s a rather peculiarly constructed volume, however, that I would have done differently.

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What such book wouldn’t you have done differently, you’re asking? Fair point, but the level of coverage of these many appearances is variable, and at times unsatisfactorily skimpy. Maybe the author hasn’t been able to hear and see all of the rare material (it’s hard to tell in some cases). But even for some long-bootlegged items like the Europe 1 Radio broadcast of their April 18, 1965 concert at L’Olympia Theatre in Paris, some more actual description of the performances would have been welcome. Although all of the performances (and songs the broadcasts contained) are listed at the end of each chapter, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether specific songs were mimed or live. And unlike some reference-type books of this sort, it’s not organized in strict chronological order with individual entries for each appearance, leading to some mildly confusing back and forth between dates and locations.

The audience for a book like this is limited, but of course if even a small percentage of Stones fans are interested in the subject, that’s a bigger readership than the entire audience for many bands. And I do value learning about things like a March 18, 1964 live broadcast for Radio Luxembourg of more than a dozen tunes that included a song for which no Rolling Stones version circulates (Bo Diddley’s “Pretty Thing”), or that Brian Jones and Mick Jagger talked about “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on a few Radio 1 shows, though again you’re left hungry for more info about many such rarities. The most notable graphics, incidentally, are reproductions of correspondence from the BBC, including some snarky remarks from early in their career indicating that institution would have been glad to bar them from the airwaves had they not been so popular with teenagers. A particularly telling November 26, 1964 memo from the BBC’s Patrick Newman states, “The agent of the Rolling Stones (Eric Easton) is a jolly nice helpful fellow (who appears to have bitten off more than he can chew in handling this group), whereas the agent for the Animals (Don Arden) is a thoroughly naughty man.”

14. The British Underground Press of the Sixties, by James Birch & Barry Miles (Rocket 88). This handsome hardback is basically a catalogue for an exhibition of covers of British ‘60s underground papers at London’s A22 Gallery in 2017, though with more content and higher production values than many such catalogues boast. It features covers of every issue of some of the most famed underground papers, including Oz, Friends, the related Frendz, the more obscure Ink and Gandalf’s Garden, and the most famous by far of all of these, International Times (commonly known as IT). Some covers of the yet lesser known Black Dwarf are also here, along with some covers of, to quote the back cover, “the major adult comic books that grew out of the underground press: cOZmic Comics and Nasty Tales.”

BUPposter

While the bulk of the book’s given over to high-quality reproductions of those covers, there are also a few pages of text introducing the section for each paper. These are penned by the biggest authority of all on the topic, Barry Miles, who was heavily involved with International Times as an editor and writer. Inevitably some of his commentary overlaps with his memoir In the Sixties (an expanded edition of which was also just published by Rocket 88, and is reviewed elsewhere in this roundup), particularly in the IT chapter.

The focus of The British Underground Press of the Sixties, however, is on the covers, not the history. Those covers were sometimes psychedelic, sometimes messy, and sometimes garish, but almost always interesting, rather like the rock posters of the era, though they weren’t as classy. Sprinkled among the covers are a few interesting inserts (like the one in a January 1968 Oz advertising Yoko Ono’s Film No. 4) and posters (such as one in an October 1970 Oz for Jimi Hendrix by Mike McInnerney, who did the illustration on the cover of the Who’s Tommy). Appendices reproduce graphics and documents from IT and Oz, like a flyer for the Roundhouse launch concert for IT in late 1966 with the Soft Machine and “the Pink Ffloyd” [sic]; a poster for an “Oz obscenity fund benefit” featuring Traffic and Alexis Korner; and an Apple Records ad for the Elastic Oz Band single to help with Oz’s legal fees, in which John, Yoko, and Ringo participated.

What this book doesn’t feature are reproductions of the articles themselves, many of which included interviews with major and minor rockers that can now be difficult to access, even if IT and Oz are fortunately now archived online. Wouldn’t you love, for instance, to be able to read the story on the seldom-covered Sandy Bull in the October 16, 1970 Friends? Here’s hoping this well done catalogue/book hybrid inspires some other magazines to establish archives, bolstering the visibility of an underground press that, as Miles concludes in his introduction, we need “now more than ever.” (My fuller review of this book will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

15. Lou Reed: A Life, by Anthony DeCurtis (Little, Brown). On its own terms, this 500-page biography is a decent book, written by a longtime rock journalist who knew Reed, though he doesn’t falsely position himself as a close buddy. The author interviewed a few dozen people, some who worked closely with Lou, and some of whom haven’t talked much or at all about their experiences with the man, like Richard Mishkin (who was in a college band with Reed and occasionally filled in with the early Velvet Underground); Eddie Reynolds, guitarist in the Tots, who backed Reed onstage in his early solo career; and writer Rob Bowman, who had typically frustrating experiences with Reed when they collaborated on a box set. Every phase of Lou’s career is covered, though the Velvets aren’t investigated as thoroughly as they are in some other books, and there are some intensely detailed track-by-track overviews of post-mid-1970s albums that don’t interest me as records.

Reed

This isn’t as good, however, as the first major Reed biography following Lou’s death, Howard Sounes’s Notes from the Underground: The Life of Lou Reed (issued a couple years ago; see #3 on my post for top twenty rock history books of 2015). That book, which was intensely researched, got some criticism—some of it quite harsh—for putting too much emphasis on Reed’s more irksome qualities, though any book on him would find incidents in which those were evident plentiful. DeCurtis doesn’t paint as negative a picture. But though an introduction fondly looking back upon their friendship steels you for a possible hagiography, the author doesn’t ignore the less appealing aspects of the man, telling many stories of how Reed could be difficult, and at times nasty (and at times kind and generous).

16. Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine, by Joe Hagan (Alfred A. Knopf). This unauthorized biography got some mainstream media attention upon its release, as Rolling Stone editor/publisher Wenner was upset about his unflattering portrayal. One can see why, as he comes off as thoroughly unlikable. According to the accounts of many of the more than 200 people Hagan interviewed, Wenner’s often been greedy, unethical, untrustworthy, and hungry to hang out with and butter up celebrities, sometimes affecting Rolling Stone’s coverage of them. Wenner himself has plenty of time to tell his sides of the stories, as the author interviewed him extensively, in addition to accessing his extensive archive. Still, after the book’s 500 pages, you might have more than you ever needed or wanted to know about a guy whose egotism has sometimes crossed the line into narcissism.

StickyFingers

The book itself is extensively researched and gives a lot of insight into how the rock press and popular culture has changed since Rolling Stone was founded in 1967. About three-fourths of it takes place before 1980 (and the magazine’s steady move toward more mainstream coverage tilted toward non-music celebrities), so there are plenty of good stories about its glory days when it was based in San Francisco, and actually had much groundbreaking content about rock and the counterculture. For all his flaws, Wenner himself made some notable contributions to rock journalism through his own interviews in Rolling Stone’s early years, particularly his marathon conversations with John Lennon and Yoko Ono shortly after the Beatles split. (Wenner then managed to screw up his friendship with Lennon by printing the interviews in book form, against Lennon’s wishes.) If you want more stories about Rolling Stone at its peak, and less on Wenner himself, Robert Draper’s 1990 book Rolling Stone Magazine is recommended, though it doesn’t dig as deeply into Wenner’s life (including his homosexuality, which he didn’t publicly acknowledge until the mid-’90s).

17. In the Sixties (Expanded Edition), by Barry Miles (Rocket 88). Barry Miles was perhaps the most vital figure behind the most influential British underground paper, International Times (aka IT); ran the similarly inclined Indica Bookshop, patronized by the Beatles and others; got to know the Beatles (especially Paul McCartney) well, eventually working for their short-lived experimental Zapple label; and also had inside views of the worlds of Pink Floyd, the UFO Club, Allen Ginsberg (and numerous other poets), and Frank Zappa. He documented his experiences during the decade well with his memoir In the Sixties, originally published in 2002.

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Rocket 88’s new expanded edition makes some corrections (though it didn’t catch everything) and adds some text, though the printed material is pretty similar (and reduces the sections on Zapple, now covered in Miles’s full-length 2015 book The Zapple Diaries). Had In the Sixties itself first come out in 2017, it would place higher on this list, as this is in some ways a reprint of a title that’s been around a long time.

The big change—and the major reason to consider getting this edition, if you already have the original—is the addition of hundreds of illustrations. These aren’t crammed into their own separate section, but placed in the wide margins of the pages throughout the book in a visually appealing layout. They include not just photos, but also flyers, business cards, correspondence, press releases, ads, posters, magazine covers, event programs, and the like, many from Miles’s own extensive collection.

These could alone fill up a worthy exhibition catalog, and a couple of paragraphs aren’t enough to list the coolest highlights. Among them are handwritten invitations for Ginsberg’s 39th birthday party; McCartney’s handwritten note listing the first four books he bought from Indica (including poems by the Fugs’ Ed Sanders, Gandhi on Non Violence, and Drugs and the Mind); a Fugs songbook (!), which Miles borrowed from McCartney himself; a two-page color photo spread of an early Pink Floyd gig at All Saint’s Hall; the Soft Machine playing at the International Times launch at the Roundhouse in late 1966; and the catalogue to Yoko Ono’s show at Indica Gallery, where she and John Lennon first met in late 1966.

And there’s more. There’s a picture of the photo shoot for the Sgt. Pepper cover (with Miles in attendance) I don’t remember seeing elsewhere. There’s a congratulatory telegram from George Harrison after Miles interviewed him for IT, and McCartney’s release form for including his signature on the 1967 ad in The Times of London supporting legalization of marijuana. And a poster for the first UFO shows features Pete Townshend’s wife-to-be, Karen Astley.

The Collector’s Edition of the book, incidentally—selling for twice as much (£70) as the standard edition—is signed by Miles with a slip case cover. More notably, it comes with a disc of sound files containing the audio of about five and a half hours of 1967-69 interviews Miles did with McCartney, Harrison, Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Pete Townshend. The audio on these is in variable lo-fi, but the speakers are understandable, and it’s amazing enough that the original cassette tapes survive. Townshend and (at least in parts) Lennon are the most interesting interview subjects, all of the conversations rambling somewhat between music and general discussions of the era’s lifestyles and social climate. Even though articles and transcriptions with a lot of the quotes from these interviews are online, these tapes do include some other material, such as Townshend’s dismissal of Shel Talmy as “a complete shit” and detailed comments on “Cobwebs and Strange” (Keith Moon “would never admit that it was bordering on jazz, but in fact it’s the freest bit of free-form jazz, in a way”). (My fuller review of this book will appear in issue #47 of Ugly Things.)

18. Who Wrote the Beatle Songs?, by Todd M. Compton (Pahreah). Generally, you can tell who the main writer was on the Beatles’ songs by who took the lead vocals; on some occasions where the lead vocals are shared, the split between Lennon and McCartney was near half and half. On the many Lennon-McCartney songs where one or the other made minor-to-major contributions even if they weren’t the primary composer, there are interesting stories behind who contributed what, as well as some disparities in accounts of the responsibilities. While this detailed look at who did what doesn’t have information that hasn’t been previously available, it’s intelligently and straightforwardly written, consolidating a lot of the available (and sometimes conflicting) information and quotes into one place.

Compton

Of most use to Beatles aficionados who’ve probably already come across a lot of this stuff (especially in Paul McCartney’s memoir Many Years From Now), it also diligently credits and footnotes the sources for the many accounts as to who did what, ranging from comments at the time the songs were released until memories offered decades later. While Lennon-McCartney songs are the book’s focus, all of George Harrison’s songs for the Beatles (as well as the few Ringo wrote or co-wrote) are also covered, along with some commentary on outtakes, cover versions, and songs written during the Beatles era that showed up on solo releases. The instances – and they weren’t that rare – where one of the Beatles made substantial contributions to a song where they weren’t listed in the credits, and where figures from outside the group (like Donovan and Beatles assistants/roadies) pitched in with ideas that didn’t merit a songwriting credit, are also documented.

19. Liner Notes, by Loudon Wainwright III (Blue Rider Press). The subtitle—”On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, & a Few of My Other Favorite Things”—clues you in that Wainwright does not take this memoir business as deadly seriously as some stars (or even some cult figures, of which he’s one) do. Like his songs, his prose writing’s witty, sardonic, glib, and not all that concerned with gaining a big audience. Although it follows a roughly chronological progression, it flits back and forth between eras and hither and thither through various themes and subjects, including big ones like marriage, love, sex, and death. And while it’s 300 pages, it’s really not that time-consuming, with plenty of short chapters whose last pages have white space, as well as lots of excerpts from his song lyrics and a few reprints of columns his father wrote for Life.

Wainwright

I could have done without those lyrics and columns, but actually I liked what was here, for the most part. Wainwright has plenty of interesting stories—many of them funny, though he doesn’t overdo the overt humor—about his adolescence, early career, touring, and sideline as an actor. There are also tales aplenty of the seesawing nature of the music business, which has seen him both hyped as one of the next big things and dropped by labels like a cold potato. There are also some more serious thoughts about family and marriages (he’s been through three of them), including stormy times with his first wife, fellow respected cult singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, and less stormy times with his second, Suzzy Roche of the Roches.

I would have liked more introspection about the development of his idiosyncratic style of singer-songwriting, and more about how he hit upon his irreverent take on the genre – he wasn’t just another new Dylan, which is a reason we’re interested in his life in the first place. And if you’re looking for even roughly sequential and detailed remembrances of his most notable albums and film/TV appearances, you’ll find many gaps, though you won’t come up totally empty. Maybe that sort of documentation just isn’t in Wainwright as an autobiographer, or doesn’t interest him. At least what’s here is more entertaining than many memoirs that offer not-exactly-in-order bits of varying size.

20. David Bowie: A Life, by Dylan Jones (Crown Archetype). This isn’t the first or second book you should get about Bowie if you’re looking for a big biography, even though this is 500 pages. If you already do know a lot about him, or even the basics, this is a good if imperfect supplement to the growing wealth of Bowie literature. For it’s not a conventional bio, but an oral history, with a bit (not much) of linking text from author Dylan Jones. Principally drawn from nearly 200 first-hand interviews (including some with Bowie himself, though they don’t dominate), it goes over his whole life and career, though not paying equal attention to each phase of his evolution. Some of the expected close Bowie associates are heard from, including the Spiders from Mars, Angie Bowie, Brian Eno, producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott, and longtime sidemen Mike Garson, Earl Slick, and Carlos Alomar. There are also, however, a good many figures who aren’t too well known to the general public, from childhood friends to photographers, directors, journalists, groupies, and some people whose time with the man was peripheral and/or fleeting, but good for a story or two.

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Even if you have a bunch of Bowie books, and/or are generally an expert on the singer, you’re likely to come across some interesting tales and observations. Here are just a few: a groupie on one of his early-’70s tours remembers David’s obsession with Jeff Beck, and confession to her, whether wholehearted or not, that he would have rather had Beck in his band than Mick Ronson. There’s also Bowie’s confession to producer Hugh Padgham that “My voice is actually a complete steal from Scott Walker and Anthony Newley.” And there’s Robert Fripp remembering recording his contributions to Heroes in two or three days, though Eno gives the impression they took even less time.

What’s the downside to this useful compendium? Well, Bowie’s life after 1983 or so wasn’t nearly as interesting as what preceded it, but about forty percent (200 pages) of the book covers that falloff. In this section, you (or at least I) get stories about his art collecting, home in Mustique, and video/photo shoots that really aren’t of high interest. The allotment of coverage is uneven, and not always justified; there’s a whole (if short) chapter on his Live Aid appearance, but nothing at all about Scary Monsters. And the many notes of how charming and down-to-earth he was get tiresome by dint of repetition, though some would say the frequency of that sentiment reinforces how genuine it was. If you want yet more memories of Bowie, the less impressive 2016 book A Portrait of Bowie gives fifteen people a chapter each to comment on the man, though there’s some overlap with David Bowie: A Life both in the associates interviewed and the stories told.

21. I Scare Myself, by Dan Hicks (Jawbone). Hicks’s rather short memoir (about 165 pages not counting some supplements by other writers) is much like the man and his music: nonchalantly dry and mutedly witty. (His assessment of the legendary Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in early 1967: “I only lived a few blocks away. I could’ve walked over, but I was working on some songs, and I guess that event wasn’t a priority for me.”) It’s not a big deal, but it’s also dotted with some minor inaccuracies and chronological misalignments.

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It adds up to a marginal inclusion on this list, but for those familiar with his idiosyncratic cult output, it’s fairly interesting and entertaining, going all the way back to his pre-Charlatans folkie days. Although the Charlatans put out just one single while Hicks was with them (a couple dozen or so tracks are now available on an archival release), his time with that notable early San Francisco hippie band is covered pretty well, as is the transitional time in the late-’60s when he started playing as a solo act. And of course his most celebrated era, the half-dozen or so years as leader of the idiosyncratically country-swing Hot Licks starting in the late ‘60s, gets a good amount of ink.

The book gets more downbeat in its final section, documenting his spiral into alcoholism, which took up most of the next twenty years. And while there are a good amount of interesting stories and ephemera for Hicks/Charlatans/Hot Licks fans, I would have liked at least some introspection into why his music, from the get-go, had a uniquely droll humor – a humor that comes through to some degree in the text, but is oddly not examined in his reflections on his creative work. The wrap-up (by another writer) of his final years isn’t nearly as interesting as the main body of the book, which is fleshed out by a lengthy critical discography and a brief afterword by producer Tommy LiPuma. There are quite a few good pictures (some in color), though, some of them rarely seen.

22. Everything Is Combustible, by Richard Lloyd (Beech Hill). The best part of the ex-Television guitarist’s memoir—and it does comprise well over half the book—focuses on his time in the group, as well as the half dozen or so years leading up to it, when he was an aspiring guitarist who met all sorts of celebrities and got into all sorts of sex and drugs. There’s also a fair amount of extraneous musings about his childhood and outlooks on the world that aren’t nearly as stimulating. And there are also quite a few gaps, and occasional chronological leaps back and forth, in his overview — very little, for instance, on his post-1980s solo career or time in a reformed Rocket From the Tombs.

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To be harsh, about 25-30% of the text could have been cut, whether or not some of those gaps were plugged as compensation. If that had been the case, the book would have ranked higher on this list. For when it’s on, it’s really on, with lots of stories about CBGB’s, Marquee Moon, Tom Verlaine (who comes off as an uptight controlling figure for the most part), and founding Television member Richard Hell. And the more interesting the subject matter, the more focused and honed the prose, making this kind of like munching on a watermelon until you hit the juicy core. That makes it a worthwhile but flawed read, Lloyd not particularly mourning his tribulations (which have included near-deaths from substance-related health problems and stints in mental hospitals), but regarding them as parts of life’s journey, to be experienced for their highs and lows. (Lloyd discussed this book and his career with me for my lengthy article on him and his memoir in the December 2017 issue of the UK magazine Record Collector.)

23. Art Sex Music, by Cosey Fanni Tutti (Faber & Faber). This is one of the shakier inclusions on this list, as Tutti’s musical projects (most famously Throbbing Gristle) are not on my playlist, and some of the text dealing with those and her fairly extreme performance/mail art weren’t of too much interest for me. Still, Throbbing Gristle, and the spinoffs in which she and her partner Chris Carter were principals, were a pretty big presence in the underground rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as a touchstone of the industrial genre. Tutti writes lucidly and candidly about all of her musical and performance/mail art endeavors, as well as her work as a nude model and stripper. She seemed to have often viewed such work as supplemental art projects in themselves, although they got her into some pretty nasty situations.

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There will be some surprises to those who know Tutti only from her more notorious, noisy, and confrontational endeavors with Throbbing Gristle and others. One is that, professional activities and sadly cruel father aside, she’s had a fairly conventional family life with Carter and her son, counting tending to her vegetable garden as one of her favorite pastimes. Another is how Throbbing Gristle, for all its noisy industriousness, actually had their roots in the hippie underground of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The saddest is how manipulative, cold, possessive, and vindictive Throbbing Gristle frontperson Genesis P-Orridge was throughout most of his personal and professional relationship with Cosey and the rest of the band, judging by the extensive accounts in this memoir. Their unexpected twenty-first century reunion worked out about as well as most regroupings of volatile bands, at least in terms of the anguish it caused Cosey and Carter, though she somehow manages to take pride in what music they managed to produce in spite of the circumstances.

24. Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, by David Yaffe (Sarah Crichton Books). There hadn’t been any first-rate biographies of Mitchell before 2017, and this isn’t one either, although it had more media attention than any previous book on her. Reasonably comprehensive coverage of what happened when, as boring as some authors and critics seem to find it, is the underpinning of any major bio. Reckless Daughter does not have that, with some significant gaps and unsteady nonlinear shifts in the timeline. I’m not a big fan of the author’s style, which can be ornate and a little gushy when it comes to Joni’s virtues.

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The book does have first-hand interview material with dozens of Mitchell’s friends, collaborators, and associates, including some from relatively recent conversations with Joni herself. The interesting stories in some of those propel it onto this list, if only at its bottom. Despite the author’s admiration of her art, Mitchell does not come off as too personally likable or kind, dispensing harsh words (whether directly to Yaffe or via other sources) about the character and/or music of Judy Collins, Joan Baez, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and second husband/collaborator Larry Klein. As just one example, Mitchell remarks that Collins (whose hit version of “Both Sides Now” was crucial to getting Joni recognized as a major songwriter) “sounds like the damsel in the greenroom. There’s something la-di-da about her.” Notes Collins in the book, “I once asked David Crosby, ‘Why is Joni so mad at me?’ He said, ‘Joni hates everybody.’”

The following half-dozen books came out in 2016, but are worth a mention, as I didn’t read them in time to put them on my 2016 list. I also added just one from 2015 that I didn’t read until this past year.

1. Judas!, by Clinton Heylin (Route, 2016). Heylin might have documented Bob Dylan more thoroughly than any other writer, with books on the artist that include a day-by-day survey and detailed examination of every song he’s written. Judas! focuses only on the year or so between his first electric rock performance (at least his first such one since his teenage years) and the end of his 1966 world tour. That year, from about mid-1965 to mid-1966, was the most controversial of his career, the electric half of his concerts generating mixed reviews and some hostile audience response, even as his rock records made him a superstar.

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The book’s greatest value is in its exhumation of many obscure concert reviews from the time itself, giving us a view of how these shows were received at the time, rather than in retrospect. There’s also plenty of commentary from people who were there and analysis of each concert along the way, as well as some coverage of his studio recordings of the era, though his live work gets the greatest attention. In some of the early sections, the back-and-forth between the live shows, studio sessions, and media coverage is a little jumbled, though that is not a concern once the text gets into 1966. The verging-on-minute detail could limit its appeal for non-fanatics, especially as Dylan didn’t vary his sets much on his world tour, though Heylin always finds something to say (and often enthuse) about the variations. It’s somewhat similar to the 36-CD box The 1966 Live Recordings that came out around the same time as this book in that you’re glad it’s there for reference and historical posterity, but it’s kind of too microscopic in its documentation to be the most entertaining listen or read.

The many quotes from Dylan’s press conferences and interviews during this year sometimes get him hailed as a master of the putdown, but lead me to ask: am I the only one that finds many of his flippant responses (sometimes to fairly reasonable questions) dumb and unfunny? A more basic question: why are none of the pictures in the sixteen pages of photos (some uncommon) captioned?

2. Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul, by Stuart Cosgrove (Polygon, 2016). Divided into twelve chapters for each month of the year, this closely examines the artistically triumphant but internally turbulent year of 1967 at Motown Records. It also weaves in events shaking the Motor City outside of Motown in 1967, particularly Detroit’s summer riots and the police misconduct that led up to it, as well as the boiling local rock underground led by the MC5 and their manager, John Sinclair. It’s best when it closely examines controversial developments at Motown, particularly the firing of Florence Ballard from the Supremes and disputes which led the songwriting/production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland to leave the label. It’s less successful when it weaves in non-Motown material, particularly the MC5-Sinclair axis, which has been covered better elsewhere. The Motown details are absorbing for the most part, though there are some inaccuracies that shouldn’t have slipped through, especially in some references to non-Motown happenings: Jimi Hendrix did not burn the flag at Woodstock, for one. I got this 2016 book as an import remainder in San Francisco in 2017, but it does not yet seem to have been published in the US.

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3. Michael Bloomfield: The Rise and Fall of an American Guitar Hero, by Ed Ward (Chicago Review Press, 2016). This is a revised and expanded edition of a 1983 limited-edition biography of the sometimes brilliant, but personally and artistically erratic, guitarist. Bloomfield did his best work in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band for a couple years in the mid-1960s, the same time he did his best playing as a sideman (for Bob Dylan). He made some other records in the 1960s that had their moments with the Electric Flag, Al Kooper, and others, but that’s a pretty brief peak for a guy whose career continued until his 1981 death. This bio’s pretty brief too, running about 150 pages (not counting a reprint of a 1968 Rolling Stone interview and a lengthy discography).

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It might not need to be any longer, though, considering it does a decent job of covering the basics, and doesn’t dwell on his long decline longer than necessary. Several (though by no means all) of his close musical and personal associates were interviewed, and there are sharp evaluations of his recordings and influences that properly give the most attention to his playing with Butterfield and Dylan. His problems with drugs, insomnia, and family relationships are detailed but not stretched out, as is his curious lack of ambition after he’d help pioneer loud blues-rock guitar. There were probably more stories that could have been unearthed the book itself been more ambitious – how did he end up playing on a 1971 session with Ann-Margret with members of Little Feat, for instance? And how about more details on his contributions to the 1973 Steelyard Blues soundtrack? Some more info on his life and music is in Jan Mark Wolkin and Bill Keenom’s Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues: An Oral History, which is a good complement to this more conventionally structured overview.

Speaking of soundtracks, as a minor point, although Bloomfield was credited with scoring Pascal Wexler’s classic 1969 film Medium Cool, there seems to be a misconception that he played all of the music heard in the movie. This book states that “Bloomfield created an ominous surf-guitar instrumental to accompany the film’s opening sequence.” Actually that instrumental was not created by Bloomfield—it’s “Emotions,” a track off of Love’s debut album, which was not that obscure then (though its use in the movie was uncredited) and hasn’t been since. From what I can gather, Bloomfield’s role seems to have been selecting music for use on the soundtrack, rather than actually creating music for that purpose. It’s doubtful there will be any more books on Bloomfield, but his role on Medium Cool should be straightened out, and that instrumental in the title sequence should be properly credited to Love on reissues of the movie itself.

4. India Psychedelic: The Story of a Rocking Generation, by Sidharth Bhatia (HarperCollins). First published in 2014 in India and issued elsewhere later, this is an overview of the rather small and struggling Indian rock scene from approximately the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. As in other regions far both geographically and culturally from North America and the British Isles, Indian rock acts didn’t fully embrace trends until a year or three after they’d passed out of fashion in rock’s epicenters. Even relative to many such regions, however, India’s rock music was on the derivative and run-of-the-mill side, at least judging from the fairly scant body of recordings that were made.

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For that reason, this slim volume is of most interest for its well-researched look at the sociocultural context of early Indian rock, rather than for its coverage of the music itself. There were few places to play rock in the country, even in the huge cities; it wasn’t even easy to get adequate equipment; and many of the groups, as well as their audiences, featured Anglo-Indians with much greater resources and access to Western music and fashions than the overwhelming majority of the nation’s population. There weren’t even many opportunities for rock acts to record, both because of the relatively primitive state of Indian music industry and the general lack of widespread interest in rock both within and without the business.

The book’s a little matter-of-factly written, and the quotes (from a good number of first-hand interviews) on the brief and basic side. But it’s of value for its insight into a scarcely documented scene in which many of the benefits taken for granted in the Western world were only patchily available, or weren’t available at all. For those interested in the more purely musical side of things, there are brief chapters on some of the more notable Indian bands of the period, like Atomic Forest. Attention’s also paid to the few performers who started in India and made something of an impact in the US and UK, like Biddu and Asha Puthli, though it’s curious that it’s not mentioned that Biddu managed to release recordings produced by future David Bowie producer Tony Visconti after moving to the UK in the late 1960s.

5. Oh So Pretty: Punk in Print 1976-80 (Phaidon, 2016). When the subtitle states “Punk in Print,” what they really mean is how punk was reflected in British posters, fanzines, and other media reprinted here. Virtually everything was originally printed in England, although some of this material features US performers. No matter: even if the subtitle would have been more accurately phrased “Punk in Print in the UK,” it’s a historically valuable 500-page compendium of reproductions of not only posters and fanzine covers, but also some advertisements, press releases, mainstream publication covers, stickers, flyers, tour programs, and other ephemera. While many punk icons are represented on these – like the Sex Pistols (whose “Anarchy in the U.K.” single was actually advertised in programs for soccer matches), Clash, Patti Smith, Blondie, and Elvis Costello – there’s also room for artists who didn’t even make it to the strong cult level, like the Cortinas, Headache, London, Patrik Fitzgerald, and (featuring John Lydon’s brother Jimmy) 4” Be 2”.

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The graphics are usually crude, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be. The captions are brief yet considerably more informative than they are in many such books that reprint memorabilia, often offering interesting trivia and background bits that aren’t obvious just from looking at the graphics. What this doesn’t have are actual excerpts from the fanzines and other publications (besides the covers), which likely have quite interesting (albeit often quite amateurish) coverage of the early punk and new wave scenes. One of the few such substantial excerpts included, for instance, is a very detailed two-page account (credited to “Terry”) of the Sex Pistols’ September 17, 1976 performance at Chelmsford Prison, distributed on a two-page flyer. More such actual text reproductions would comprise a project, perhaps, for another time, as would a book similar to this that focused on US punk from the same era.

6. A Tribute to Keith Moon (There Is No Substitute), by Ian Snowball & the Estate of Keith Moon (Omnibus Press, 2016). I usually don’t list books where some sections are of such limited interest that I skip or skim them, but I’ll make an exception here given how interested I am in the subject. This volume presents a few dozen chapters, mostly just a page or two in length, in which many associates, drummers, and Moon fans give their thoughts on the Who madman. It’s a rather frivolous book, and there are quite a few sections in which musicians from bands who didn’t start until after Moon’s death pay tribute to him, which are of limited interest.

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On the other hand, there are some good stories by people who knew and worked with him, and plenty of fine pictures, some of them rarely seen. Contributors range from guys with quite close Who connections – like Moon’s replacement Kenney Jones, Keith’s personal assistant Dougal Butler, and John Schollar from Moon’s pre-Who band the Beachcombers – to journalists, roadies, tour managers, and just plain fans who remember a special concert or chance to meet Moon. There are also comments from notable peers like Jack Bruce, Kinks drummer Mick Avory, and Bonzo Dog Band drummer (and partner in pranks) “Legs” Larry Smith. There are also a couple paragraphs from a 20-year-old Florida girl captioned as a “Keith Moon Look-Alike,” so be aware that not everything here is on the serious side, though some may say that’s appropriate for a book on a drummer also famed as a manic comic.

And from 2015…

Say No to the Devil: The Life and Musical Genius of Rev. Gary Davis, by Ian Zack (University of Chicago Press, 2015). Often biographies of early blues musicians are more academic than readable, and/or suffer from a lack of source material from which to draw. This is an exception, even if there’s understandably much more on Davis’s post-World War II activities as a performer, recording artist ,and teacher than there is on his far more sketchily documented earlier times. The author spoke to many folk revivalists and rock musicians Davis knew and influenced, from Taj Mahal and Tom Rush to more obscure but notable ones like Jesse Kincaid of the Rising Sons. His descriptive analysis of the Reverend’s musicianship and discs is acute, yet easily comprehended even for those who aren’t guitarists, or don’t count country blues as one of their favorite styles. His personal flaws, though they weren’t so grievous in comparison to many musicians, are not overlooked, including his problems with alcohol.

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Top Twelve Rock Documentaries of 2017

The past few years, there have been just enough rock films to fill out a Top Ten list, and that’s only by slotting in a few movies from the previous year and non-rock documentaries that are nonetheless of interest to me (and hopefully some other rock fans). That’s the case again in 2017, with entries ranging from big stars to sidemen, and rock journalists to a real-life rock’n’roll high school of sorts. (The three films here released before 2017 are noted as such in the reviews.)

If there’s any trend—other than a heartening one toward subjects, such as Native Americans in rock, that likely would been considered too obscure to fund even a decade ago—it’s the increased availability of documentaries primarily or only on streaming services like Netflix or AmazonPrime. For those of us too cheap to pay for them in our home, that means catching up on some of them at homes of friends who can access them, as I did while house-cat-sitting during Thanksgiving. We can complain about these not being available on DVD, but then again, watching a movie always requires some sort of first-world expense or hardware, whether it’s paying for a ticket at a festival screening or having a home DVD player and television (and the electricity to run them).

1. Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story. There’s nothing structurally unusual about this documentary about the harmonica player, singer, and leader of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Nor are there notable surprises for viewers familiar with the basics of his career. And you know, that’s fine. What you get is what music documentaries should deliver at their core: a comprehensive, straightforward, mostly chronologically sequenced overview of a notable musician, with plenty of interviews with close relatives and people who played and worked with him. And the number of interviews the filmmakers landed is impressive, including just about everyone notable who’s still around: Elvin Bishop, Elektra Records chief Jac Holzman, drummer Sam Lay, Butterfield’s ex-wife Kathy, his brother, two sons, Geoff Muldaur, Maria Muldaur, Joe Boyd (about the Butterfield Band at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival), David Sanborn, Happy Traum, Mark Naftalin, and Nick Gravenites among them.

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Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of film footage from the Butterfield Blues Band in their prime in general, though this documentary includes excerpts from their performances at Newport, Monterey, and Woodstock, as well as some silent home movies dating back to the early ‘60s. Some little known bits of interest to serious fans pop up, like the actual location of the striking cover for the East-West LP, shot at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, or that a young Steve Martin shared the bill with Butterfield when the band played the Golden Bear in Southern California. Some of the more colorful memories from the interviews include Geoff Muldaur on Albert Grossman starting a fight with Alan Lomax after the folklorist gave Butterfield’s band a demeaning introduction at Newport (“that’s what a manager should do”).

Another observes that whatever Muddy Waters would have written, Paul Butterfield lived. Unfortunately that included a long decline over the last decade or so of his life, involving serious substance abuse and health problems, and the breakup of his family. But the bulk of the movie is on his better days in the 1960s and early 1970s, even though it doesn’t take the overt stance, as I do, that his most interesting music by far was made in the mid-’60s on his first two albums, when both Bishop and Mike Bloomfield were guitarists in his group. I don’t think Butterfield was a great singer or composer of note either, or at least as good in the non-harmonica playing/bandleader departments as the film’s general tone espouses. But his life deserves this worthy commemoration, though I was a little disappointed there wasn’t an excerpt from his stranger-than-fiction 1966 appearance on the show To Tell the Truth, which you can see at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2HSEDBeeDHg.

2. Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story. If you know a lot about David Bowie in the first half of the 1970s, there won’t be a whole lot that’s unfamiliar in this well-constructed, straightforward documentary of his primary guitarist during those years, Mick Ronson. Still, it’s fun to see and hear quite a few of his associates talking about him, including producer Tony Visconti, Angie Bowie, Rick Wakeman, Lou Reed (represented by archive footage), David Bowie (though seen in archive footage and heard in voiceover), Bowie keyboardist Mike Garson, and Ronson himself (also, naturally, represented by archive footage, particularly a pretty extensive interview from not long before his 1993 death). There are also some key voices missing, such as producer Ken Scott, manager Tony DeFries, and the other Spiders from Mars. His work with musicians other than Bowie is also covered, though not in great depth; likewise his unsuccessful solo career, the film not really addressing its failure due to Ronson’s weaknesses as a frontman/singer/songwriter. There is, however, plenty of footage of Bowie from his glam era as compensation. And if you want at least one perspective that’s unfamiliar, it turns out Ronson hated the Velvet Underground, though his co-production (with Bowie) of Reed’s Transformer was crucial to that record’s success. A DVD version (which I haven’t yet seen) of this has been released with extra features.

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3. Long Strange Trip. Not yet available on DVD, but streaming on Amazon Prime (and given a limited release in theaters), Long Strange Trip is a four-hour documentary on the Grateful Dead. Is that too much, or not enough? That depends on how much of a Deadhead you are. Whatever your interest in the band, the movie’s strengths are interviews with all of the founding members save Pigpen (Jerry Garcia represented, of course, by archival clips and recordings), as well as a wealth of footage from throughout their career. With so many Dead fanatics, one’s reluctant to declare that even Deadheads will see some material they’ve don’t know existed. But that seems likely given the abundance of home movies, good-quality color performance clips dating back to the mid-1960s, and excerpts of an unreleased documentary on their 1970 European tour. You seldom see a complete song, but that might be grist for another project.

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For all its length, this movie is not a history that covers all the key bases, and doesn’t progress in a linear manner through their career and albums, a la the Beatles’ Anthology. That’s in keeping with the Dead’s nonchalantly “whatever happens” attitude toward much of their lives. But it does mean some events and recordings (the film makes the point that they didn’t see commercially available albums as cornerstones of their work) that even some diehards would consider essential aren’t covered. Tom Constanten, a brief but important member in the late ‘60s, isn’t even mentioned. Nor is Mickey Hart’s extended absence for a few years in the early ‘70s, let alone how his father’s mishandling of the Dead’s management contributed to that. And some of the laudatory comments by committed Dead fans (Al Franken among them) about the relative merits of obscure concert versions of the same song, and the religiously ecstatic experiences of losing oneself in the Deadhead world, will seem weird and borderline-creepy to the unconverted, not to mention tedious at times.

Some key surviving associates and family are also notable by their absence, but the non-member interviewees do often offer illuminating comments and memories. Among them are Warner Brothers executive Joe Smith, early Garcia girlfriend Barbara Meier (who reentered his life near its end, though longterm girlfriend Mountain Girl is a notable absentee), lyricist John Perry Barlow, engineer Dennis Leonard, and tour manager Sam Cutler. There’s also publicist/biographer Dennis McNally, who refreshingly acknowledges that the obsessive tape trading among Deadheads probably doubled or tripled the band’s audience. McNally’s book on the Grateful Dead is the best source for further investigation into the numerous recordings and events this documentary doesn’t fit into its four hours, which do tell many of the most important tales of the band. But it probably won’t convince the undevoted (such as, I admit, myself) to reevaluate and elevate their significance.

4. Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary. Given a theatrical release and now available on Netflix, this is a 100-minute film on one of the most famous jazz musicians. Yes, this list is nominally a rock list, but I do make room for some other music documentaries of note, and Coltrane did influence some major rock stars. Two of them, Carlos Santana and Doors drummer John Densmore, are interviewed here, though they (and Coltrane’s influence on rock) are not a primary focus of the movie. Instead, it’s a fairly conventional overview of his life, music, and impact, including a good number of fine archive clips, including one from when he was still in Miles Davis’s group. A lot of people who were around Coltrane are not around at this point, but there are useful comments from a number of interviewees, including several of Coltrane’s sons and daughters, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, and Wayne Shorter. Bill Clinton even testifies to Coltrane’s importance, with Denzel Washington adding some narration from Coltrane’s writings.

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Of Coltrane’s albums, only A Love Supreme (and, in less depth, Giant Steps) get substantial coverage. For that reason, some Coltrane fans might feel a little unsatisfied, or certainly that an additional hour or so would have given a more complete record of his achievements. Given that this is probably targeted toward a more general audience, however, this does a decent job of representing his musical evolution and touching on his most significant achievements. A small note which is not a criticism: as long as Santana and Densmore were interviewed (and their comments are relevant and expressed well), it might have also been neat to have a bit from Roger McGuinn about Coltrane’s substantial influence on the Byrds’ most celebrated psychedelic song, “Eight Miles High.”

5. Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World. Native Americans have played notable roles in rock since its beginnings in the mid-to-late 1950s, when Link Wray was one of the most innovative early rock guitarists. This documentary covers some of the most notable Native Americans in rock (though some of them were only partially Native American), particularly Robbie Robertson of the Band, guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Redbone, and Jimi Hendrix (one of the figures whose ancestry was less than half Native American). Any film that gives some mainstream exposure to Wray and Sainte-Marie is worthwhile in my book, but that doesn’t mean this is an ideal survey. Some of the figures covered, like early bluesman Charley Patton and jazz singer Mildred Bailey, were active in non-rock styles that might have been influential on rock, but weren’t rock per se. There is more to say about some, maybe most, of the spotlighted musicians than this film fits in; the segment on Redbone doesn’t give much of a sense of their sound beyond their big hit “Come and Get Your Love.” It’s a matter of personal taste, but I wasn’t interested in the metal and hip-hop artists covered, even if it brought the story more up to date.

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Some viewers might feel it’s inappropriate to judge a film on what it doesn’t do rather than what’s there, but I wish this project could have been a series with full episodes on outstanding musicians, rather than a single feature that mixed them together. Within the movie itself, the focus sometimes wavers and rambles, with an occasional sense that they’re building up some performers’ Native American connections to make sure the end result reaches feature length. Some critics and friends did like the film more than I did, and increasing awareness of Wray, Sainte-Marie, and Davis in particular makes this a worthy effort in some key respects.

6. On the Sly: In Search of the Family Stone. Sly Stone superfan Michael Rubenstone spent years trying to interview the legendarily eccentric and reclusive Sly for a documentary he was trying to make on the soul star. It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that he didn’t get the interview; Sly has barely appeared in public for many years. But along the way, Rubenstone did speak to a lot of people who knew and worked with Sly, including Freddie Stone, Cynthia Robinson, Jerry Martini, Gregg Errico, and ex-manager David Kapralik. While the absence of comments from Sly makes this an incomplete picture, it’s nonetheless an interesting film, also drawing upon (if in brief bits) quite a few mesmerizing vintage performance/interview clips from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Sly

Rubenstone’s fandom is a bit creepily obsessive, but then if he wasn’t so besotted with the band, a project like this would probably have never gotten done. It almost didn’t get done anyway, as most of the footage is from more than ten years ago. Rubenstone gave up for almost a decade, getting especially discouraged after paying thousands of dollars for a Sly interview that never took place after the filmmaker was endlessly (if predictably) put off with shaky explanations. For that and quite a few other reasons, Sly does not come off as the most admirable of characters, inexplicably sabotaging his career when he seemed to have everything going for him. At least the strength of Stone’s music comes through, both from the vintage footage and the comments of his collaborators. This film is still flying way below the radar, having only played at a few festivals and special events (I saw it at the San Francisco Museum of the African Diaspora), though hopefully it will get wider distribution and eventual DVD release.

7. The Everly Brothers, Harmonies from Heaven (Eagle Vision DVD, 2016). This two-DVD release devotes one disc to an hour-long BBC documentary (with some additional interview material in the bonus features), and another to a live 1968 performance at a Sydney nightclub that was broadcast on Australian TV. You could easily make a good two-hour documentary on the Everlys instead of a sixty-minute one, and while there are some good interviews and vintage footage, there are also significant problems. There are too many talking heads, even if some of them are very relevant (both Everlys, a son of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant) or noted big fans who got to work with them (Art Garfunkel, Keith Richards, Graham Nash, Albert Lee). Some of them are not relevant, like Tim Rice and some producers, musicians, and critics who aren’t as famous or interesting. There are a wealth of excerpts from cool ‘50s and ‘60s clips which would be great to see in full, but are frustratingly short.

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Also, the commentary is often overcontextualized, drifting into general observations about early rock’n’roll, radio, and Nashville that are both unnecessary and take away time from more specific discussion of the Everlys. Although most of their early hits are discussed, their post-early-’60s career—which included quite a few good records, even if most of them weren’t commercially successful—is almost dismissed, barely getting mentioned. Don Everly does look a bit frail in his interview segments (Phil is represented by 2010 interviews done before his death), but he’s wholly articulate, and there seems no reason why more in-depth commentary from him wasn’t used. (Here’s one zinger he offers on his relationship with Phil: “We never got along. He was different than I. He was a Republican, I was a Democrat. I couldn’t believe he was voting for Republicans, I just couldn’t believe it. I was a complete Democrat. I was just a leftist.”) Rock’n’Roll Odyssey, a 1984 PBS special on the Everlys, did a better job, and is more highly recommended than this documentary, although it has performance footage from numerous sources (again, it must be said, brief) not tapped for the PBS doc.

The second disc is quite good, and better than you might expect given it’s from a half-dozen or so years after the Everlys stopped landing American hits. Don does talk too much between songs, and some of the comic bits are kind of dumb. But the duo and their backing band rock pretty hard, on a set including many of their early hits, even if a few of them are truncated or kind of rushed. It’s a little odd and unfortunate that even at this stage they were mostly an oldies act, but they do put it in a couple of their better country-rock-flavored late-’60s songs, “Bowling Green” and “Kentucky.”

8. Joe Cocker: Mad Dog with Soul. Documentaries that are only or primarily available online have become a trend in music docs. This one from Netflix on Joe Cocker is another, though in common with other such items that have made my lists, the production’s as good as what you’ll see in standard theatrical releases. Unlike a good number of documentaries on music and other subjects these days, it doesn’t take an obtuse or arty approach, instead just digging into a straightforward chronological survey of the singer’s life and career. That’s generally good news, and it does work here, alternating judiciously placed Cocker archive concert and interview footage with interviews with those who worked closely with him and knew him well. Among those interviewed with valuable observations are longtime Cocker keyboardist Chris Stainton, A&M Records executive Jerry Moss, producer Glyn Johns, Rita Coolidge (a backup singer on his Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour), Jimmy Webb, brother Vic Cocker, wife Pam Cocker, and manager Michael Lang.

Cocker

However, through no fault of the filmmakers, the last half of the movie isn’t nearly as interesting as the earlier part. True, there are very few music documentaries where the second half is more interesting than the first half, given how many artists peak early in their career, if their career lasts more than ten years. But a lot of momentum’s lost after the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour, and even more after the 1970s, with all of Cocker’s finest work coming in the first few years of his recordings. It is sad, if instructive, to hear the many tales of his alcoholic excess, though just a bit cheering that he straightened out, relatively speaking, in his latter years. If there’s a villain in this piece, it’s manager Dee Anthony, whose insistence (according to some interviewed here) that Cocker do the lengthy, unprofitable, and exhausting Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour when he could have used a rest contributed to his early burnout.

9. The Resurrection of Victor Jara. This film was actually first screened in 2015, but to my knowledge it didn’t make it to San Francisco until I saw it in February 2017, and then screened just once in a small space during a festival. A legend in Chile, folksinger Jara is most known in North America for having been executed in 1973 after a military coup in that country. In part sparked by this, Phil Ochs organized a benefit for the Friends of Chile in May 1974, at which he, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Melanie, Dave Van Ronk, and others performed. These events are covered in this documentary, but its focus is on Jara’s life as a whole, including his music and its influence from the mid-’60s to the early ‘70s, and how his memory was honored in Chile over the last few decades.

Resurrection poster 2-16-11

Actually, its focus was too diffuse for me; I felt I didn’t get a full grasp on his pre-musical career, how he came to be one of Chile’s most popular musicians, and the political activism of his life and songs. There are a good number of vintage clips, if usually brief and fuzzy, and some of his musical peers are interviewed, as well as American admirers like Guthrie and Judy Collins. It’s of value to most music fans interested in the relation between music and social activism, and a reminder that as bad as things are in many parts of the world now (including the US), they were really bad in the US-supported 1973 Chilean coup, where artists such as Jara were tortured and killed.

10. The High School That Rocked! You might think it a stretch to make a film, even a short, about the rock concerts at a suburban high school. Staples High School in Westport, Connecticut, however, wasn’t a typical such place, at least in terms of the acts it managed to book in the mid-1960s. Unbelievably, the Beau Brummels, Animals, Remains, Yardbirds (the Jeff Beck-Jimmy Page lineup), the Rascals, the Doors, Cream, Phil Ochs, Sly & the Family Stone, and Buddy Miles all played there within about four years in 1965-69. Although it’s not in wide circulation, this 27-minute documentary is well-paced and well made, emphasizing comments by students that don’t get overlong, trivial, or overstay their welcome. Their memories of the concerts and fleeting interactions with the stars (the class president even inviting the Yardbirds back to his home after the concert) are enhanced by plenty of vintage photos of the concerts, newspaper clippings, and local radio charts.

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How exactly did a high school, even from a fairly well off area, get so many plum acts? It was in large part due to students Dick Sandhaus and Paul Gambaccini (later a noted rock critic), who managed to make connections, particularly through rising talent agent Frank Barsalona, that secured some stars. One student, Charlie Karp, even ended up joining Buddy Miles’s band after his group backed Miles when the drummer played the school. He’s one of the students interviewed for this short, which has played some festivals, and is certainly worthy of screenings on public television.

11. Free to Rock (PSB Records, DVD). There will probably never be another documentary that gives roughly equal attention to Billy Joel and the Plastic People of the Universe. This 55-minute one does, however, by virtue of its unusual subject, examining how rock and roll helped bring down the regimes behind the Iron Curtain, especially in the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. There are interesting interviews (usually conducted in English without translation) with Soviet rockers of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, as well as some vintage film clips (though these are pretty brief) of those musicians in action. Rock musicians in other Eastern Bloc countries are also interviewed, discussed, and seen, including Czechoslovakia’s Plastic People of the Universe, whose way-underground Zappa/Velvet Underground-influenced sounds were crucial to the dissident movement that eventually overthrew the country’s rulers.

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Also covered are the Western stars who played behind the Iron Curtain before the Berlin Wall and the Soviet regime fell, including the Beach Boys, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Elton John, Billy Joel, and heavy metal acts like the Scorpions. Also interviewed are heavyweight politicians like Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, and even former KGB general Oleg Kalugin, though the musicians struggling to function and express themselves under these regimes are the most thought-provoking.

There’s the sense that much more could be said about the complex factors both driving the music being made in these regions and the social changes they ignited. (Some of these are explicated in the two-hour bonus disc, mostly of extended interviews, though in common with many such extras, they tend to be drawn out and drag after a while.) It can also be said that some of the music by the Soviet and Eastern bloc bands, as admirable as it was to have performed it under such repressive conditions, isn’t very good—and that some of the Western stars who managed to play in those countries before the early 1990s weren’t exactly the greatest the rest of the world had to offer. But even if it’s a bit of rush to document such massive movements in less than an hour, it’s still a worthy overview.

12. Ticket to Write. A documentary on rock criticism from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s (with a technical release date of 2016, though I saw it at a film festival in early 2017), this as expected focuses on interviews with rock journalists of the era. These include such well known ones as Ben Fong-Torres, Ed Ward, John Morthland, Sandy Pearlman, Gene Sculatti, Ira Robbins, and Jaan Uhelszki (with some too young to have been writing then, like Mike Stax of Ugly Things, providing some historical context). Its strengths are that some good stories are told, like the one about hookers descending upon a rock critics convention in the early 1970s, only to realize that guys getting paid $25 per review (if they were lucky) were not exactly prime targets. As a film, it has problems. The narration is overbearing; the sound quality of the interviews erratic; and the background music sometimes doesn’t sit comfortably in the mix of a talking head-heavy documentary. I also found some of the premises baffling, such as championing the Dictators as a turning point of sorts in reviving rock from the doldrums in the mid-1970s. And MTV is too conveniently pinpointed as a villain that killed the golden age of rock criticism, though there’s been plenty of rock writing since the early 1980s, even if there may never again be publications with the reach and influence of Rolling Stone, Creem, and Trouser Press. Barely any UK writers are involved, which means this is really an overview, if a flawed one, of US rock criticism of the era.

Ticket

Pink Floyd Concert on KQED-TV in San Francisco April 1970

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website.  Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

In the last week of April 1973, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon reached No. 1 on the American charts. In the last week of April 1970, though, they had yet to crack the U.S. Top 50 after three years of recording and performing. In the midst of their third stateside tour, they weren’t selling out stadiums.

It was during this tour, on April 30, that Pink Floyd played an hour-long set in an empty Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, filmed for broadcast by small local television station called KQED.

“At that point, they were really anxious to have whatever publicity they could,” remembers the program’s co-producer at KQED, Jim Farber. “We did not have much of a budget. Pink Floyd did the performance and offered the rights for a certain number of airings for practically nothing. My memory is we paid them $200.”

Roger Waters making sound effects during "Astronomy Domine"
Roger Waters making sound effects during “Astronomy Domine” (KQED)

Widely bootlegged in the decades since, the performance is now officially available on DVD from the band. Recently, KQED unearthed raw footage of Pink Floyd’s performance, which included a half hour of music not included in the original program. After months of negotiations, KQED has been granted the right to exclusively premiere film of one of those songs, “Astronomy Domine.”

You might be wondering: in 1970, KQED was more known for Sesame Street than psychedelic rock. So how in the world did the Pink Floyd program happen in the first place?

Connecting with Pink Floyd

Simulcast on KQED radio, the special was set up as a direct result of Farber’s enthusiasm for the group. He first saw Pink Floyd in a basement club in London in 1967, when Syd Barrett (soon to be replaced by David Gilmour) was still the band’s lead guitarist and principal singer-songwriter.

“When I went to work at KQED June of 1969, I proposed the idea that we do a program with them,” he explains. “John Coney, the other producer [who also directed the special], really liked their music. So we decided we might as well make a proposal to them.”

The KQED production team brought “a huge mobile truck the size of a boxcar that held the video recording equipment” outside the original Fillmore Auditorium so the performance could be “recorded as well as you could outside the studio at that time. There’s a certain amount of vibration that was caused just from the sound of the amps. Because the technology just wasn’t that advanced yet. Portable video, the way we think of it, didn’t even exist.”

Pink Floyd's Richard Wright singing during 1970 performance
Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright singing during 1970 performance (KQED)

The original Fillmore wasn’t hosting rock concerts in 1970 — Bill Graham had transferred his operations to the Fillmore West on Market and Van Ness — but it was made available to the band and KQED for this special TV performance. Pink Floyd played a concert in front of paying customers at the Fillmore West the following night, reprising all of the half dozen songs they’d performed for KQED’s cameras, as well as other early favorites like “Astronomy Domine” and “A Saucerful of Secrets.”

Unexpectedly, the program opens with aerial shots of desolate fields and marshes in the San Joaquin Valley — indeed, seven minutes of “Atom Heart Mother” pass before any of the musicians are seen on screen. During “Grantchester Meadows,” the performance is interspersed with what Farber calls “nature footage.” The cinematography is marked by close-ups of the casually dressed musicians and slow pans around the band’s perimeter. Periodic smoke effects and solarization add to the late-psychedelic-period mood.

“John Coney was doing some very experimental video work at KQED, and KQED at that time was really wide open in terms of they would let you do,” enthuses Farber. “So John mapped out a visual scheme for the production. There’s no narration, there’s not the usual PBS thing of explaining everything you’re going to see. It was very abstract.

“We had one go at getting the Pink Floyd performance, and one day to essentially do all of the effects and lay in everything in the studio. There was no such thing as stereo TV. People could put on the FM channel and then watch it on the TV, and that was how we approximated getting the best audio we could out of it.”

Pink Floyd playing for KQED in 1970. L-R: David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Roger Waters
Pink Floyd playing for KQED in 1970. L-R: David Gilmour, Nick Mason and Roger Waters (KQED )

Reception

It wasn’t unusual for KQED to broadcast rock concerts in psychedelia’s heyday, especially by local icons. Big Brother & the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, and Quicksilver Messenger Service all got airtime. In the more experimental realm, a long raga by minimalist pioneer Terry Riley sparked, reveals an amused Farber, “more nasty phone calls than anything we ever did at the station.” But Pink Floyd, for as strong an underground following as they building in the United States, were so eager for an American audience that they played a free concert at UCLA a week later. (Farber traveled to Los Angeles with the band in the hopes of getting some additional footage, but none was used. The free concert, he explains, “was really a disaster.”)

Not broadcast until Jan. 26, 1971, the special “got an incredibly positive response when we aired it in San Francisco,” says Farber. “After that, it had two national broadcasts on PBS.”

Pink Floyd’s concert for KQED hasn’t been broadcast on television for many years, and wasn’t made commercially available until its appearance on a massive 27-disc Pink Floyd CD/DVD box set in 2016, The Early Years 1965-1972. But Farber recently oversaw a meticulous transfer from the two-inch masters to DVD — “we cleaned them up as much as we could and the audio is superb.”

David Gilmour waiting to play
David Gilmour waiting to play (KQED)

“I’m amazed we got it done,” reflects Farber, now a Los Angeles-based writer. “We did it on such a shoestring, and it all came together at the right moment. You could take out certain little glitches, but I kind of like it for its roughness. ‘Cause it was a reflection of who we were at that time.

“The ‘60s were still very alive in San Francisco in 1970, and the thing that I loved about KQED is that you had a public television station, but the people on the staff were exceedingly hip. The amount of energy that was being generated at KQED at that time was remarkable.”

 To watch previously unseen video of Pink Floyd playing “Astronomy Domine” in 1970, click here.

 

Pitchers in Postseason

The Arizona Diamondbacks didn’t get very far in the 2017 playoffs, getting swept by the Dodgers in the NLDS. There was a memorable moment in the wildcard game they won to advance to that series, however. In their 11-8 win over the Colorado Rockies, reliever Archie Bradley hit a triple — the first triple ever hit by a relief pitcher in a postseason game. It was all the more unexpected coming from a player with a career batting average of .098 and no extra base hits in 61 at bats, which included 37 strikeouts. (Bradley than gave back the two runs his triple knocked in by giving up two consecutive homers in the top of the next inning, but that’s another story.)

Bradley

These are the kind of moments that make some fans wish so hard for pitchers to continue to be able to bat in major league games, at least in the National League. It’s hard to believe it’s been about 45 years since the designated hitter rule was adopted by the American League, but despite periodic rumblings of discussions that pitchers should bat in both leagues (or not bat in either), it looks like the DH is here to stay in the AL at the very least. Which robs of the unexpected lightning bolts like Bradley’s two-run triple, not to mention the occasional genuinely good-hitting pitcher like Madison Bumgarner, whose 17 lifetime home runs include two on opening day in 2017.

I’m an advocate of having pitchers bat in professional baseball. The overall pros and cons of the DH rule is a lengthy debate for another time that could probably fill up a book, but my rationale is one I never hear: that the game’s simply fairer when each player has to play both offense and defense (or go out of the game for good if he’s pinch-hit for). Bradley’s triple, however, did get me thinking about how many memorable hits by pitchers there have been in post-season play.

If you want a long list of such blasts as evidence the DH rule should be discarded, you’ll be displeased to know that pitchers’ performances in the postseason do not make for a compelling case. I don’t have a lifetime figure for how pitchers as a whole have fared since 1903 (perhaps one has never been compiled), but generally they’ve done pretty poorly — more so since the DH has been instituted, and less pitchers bat less frequently in the majors (or at any level). But I did think of about a dozen memorable instances in which hits by hurlers have been surprising or important, albeit virtually all in World Series competition. We can start with the most famously good-hitting pitcher of all: Babe Ruth.

Ruth

Primarily a pitcher in his first four years in the majors, Ruth was already considered a good enough hitter in his first full season that he pinch-hit in the 1915 World Series. In fact, that was his only appearance in the series, though he’d won 18 games in the regular season. By 1918, he was splitting time between the mound and the outfield (as well as some first base), as it became evident that he had unprecedented power at the plate.

In the 1918 World Series, however, he appeared mostly as a pitcher, starting and winning two games (though he pinch-hit in another). He only had one hit in his five at-bats, but it was a big one — a two-run triple to deep right-center field that proved the margin of difference in his 3-2 victory over the Cubs.

Ruth would play in seven more Series, all as an outfielder for the Yankees. He actually got off to a slow start as a hitter in these, getting injured in the 1921 Series and hitting .118 the next year. But then he asserted himself as one of the best postseason sluggers (in an era when the only postseason games were the World Series, of course), ending up with fifteen homeruns and a .326 average.

If any World Series hitting feat by a pitcher deserves an asterisk, it’s probably the one in the opener of next year’s series. Won 9-1 by the Reds over the White Sox, this was of course the infamous series in which much of the Sox team threw games for money. In that opener, winning pitcher Dutch Ruether hit not one, but two triples, as well as a single (and walking once), knocking in three runs. His hits are among many plays cited in retrospect as evidence that many of the Sox were deliberately losing, including that day’s opening pitcher, Eddie Cicotte. It’s interesting to note, however, that one of the triples was tagged off a mop-up reliever not involved in the fix, Grover Lowdermilk.

Reuther

Ruether is probably best known as one of the pitchers on the fabled 1927 Yankees, for whom he went 13-6 in his final year (though he didn’t appear in the World Series). He was a good-hitting pitcher (though no Babe Ruth), with a lifetime .258 average and seven home runs, and an ace on the Reds that year, winning nineteen games and losing six. It’s sometimes overlooked that the Reds were a very good team in 1919, going 96-44 in a season shortened to 140 games in the year after World War I.  It’s probable that the series would have been very competitive had the Sox played it straight, but we’ll never know.

This was a good stretch for Series hitting by pitchers, as in 1920, the Indians’ Jim Bagby clubbed the first homer by a pitcher in series history. This was about as interesting as an 8-1 game can get, as it also saw the first World Series grand slam, hit by Elmer Smith right after the bases loaded with no outs in the first inning. It’s most famous, however, for the unassisted triple play by Indians second baseman Bill Wambsganss later in the contest — a rare play in any game, let alone in the World Series.

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It was a capper on a great year for Bagby, who won 31 games in the regular season. He was a fair but not great-hitting pitcher, with a lifetime .218 average, and just two homers outside of World Series play (though he’d been pretty good at the plate  in 1920, hitting .252 with eleven extra-base hits in 131 at-bats).

Wrote Bill James in The Baseball Book 1992, for the series game in which Bagby homered (the fifth, in a series the Indians went on to win), “In order to increase attendance, [Cleveland] owner Jim Dunn had shrunk the field of play by installing temporary bleachers in center and right field. When manager Tris Speaker warned Bagby before the game to pitch with extra care to the Dodger home run threats, he replied, ‘Ah think ah’ll bust one out to those wooden seats. They seem just about right for me to hit.’ In the fourth inning, with two men on, Bagby was as good as his word, sending a fly to right center that barely made the bleachers.”

Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean is known more both for his pitching and his overall zaniness than his hitting, but he wasn’t bad with the bat, hitting .225 with eight homers. In his only World Series in 1934, he went three-for-twelve with a couple doubles (besides winning a couple games on the mound). Two of those hits, and one of those doubles, came in one inning in the seventh game — a seven-run inning that broke open the game, won by the Cardinals 11-0.

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Facing elimination in the sixth game of the 1940 World Series, the Reds shut out the Tigers 4-0 behind Bucky Walters, who also homered and drove in two runs. In winning the second game 5-3, Walters had doubled and scored. The Reds won the series, and it’s not an exaggeration to speculate they might not have without Walters on the mound and at the plate. It wasn’t a secret, but Walters did have an advantage over most other pitchers: he’d actually started his major league career as a poor-hitting third baseman, switching to pitching after a few years, at which he excelled, winning almost 200 games. That changed him from a bad-hitting infielder to a good-hitting pitcher, ending his career with a .243 average and 23 homers.

Walters

Jumping ahead to 1967, that year’s World Series had two home runs by pitchers. The first was a shocker: Red Sox hurler Jose Santiago, who hit .173 lifetime with just one homer, cleared the fences off Cardinals Hall of Famer Bob Gibson in the opener. It tied the game 1-1, the Cards pullng the game out 2-1.  Besides being a much better pitcher than Santiago, Gibson was a much better hitter, with 24 lifetime home runs. And he homered off Red Sox ace Jim Lonborg  in the deciding game seven, in his third win of the series.

Santiago

Gibson

Gibson also homered in the 1968 series, making him the first player to hit two World Series homers as a pitcher.  (Oddly, he didn’t homer in either the 1967 or 1968 regular season.) But the unlikeliest homer in World Series history, perhaps, belonged to the opposite team that year. Mickey Lolich, a poor hitter with a lifetime .110 average, belted his only major league home run off Nelson Briles while winning the second game 8-1. He’d also win the seventh and final game of the series for the Tigers (his third win of the series), outdueling Gibson, though neither pitcher homered in that game.

Lolich

It took just a couple more years for Dave McNally to become the second pitcher to homer more than once in World Series play. He did  his bit to try to spoil the Mets’ upset victory over the Orioles by hitting a roundtripper in the fifth and final game in 1969. In 1970, he hit the only grand slam by a pitcher in the World Seres against the Reds in a game he won, and a series the Orioles won. McNally actually wasn’t very good at the plate, with a .133 lifetime average, though he did manage nine home runs. In the 1973 and 1974 postseason, he wouldn’t even get a chance to bat, the DH having been instituted in the American League (including in the championship series, which the Orioles reached in both of those years, though they lost both).

McNally

Pitchers could still bat in the World Series, however — in fact, they were required to between 1973 and 1975, before the World Series began permitting DH action (soon to be limited to National League home games in those contests). The team that beat the Orioles in 1973 and 1974, the A’s, benefited greatly from that requirement, even though their pitchers hadn’t batted at all before advancing to the World Series.

For in 1973, A’s pitcher Ken Holtzman hit two doubles and scored two runs in three at-bats. In the A’s win in the 2-1 opener, one of those runs he scored was crucial. He also scored the opening run in winning the seventh game. The next year, he did even better, homering and doubling in four at-bats (and walking once). supplying key hits and runs in two of the A’s four victories over the Dodgers. Holtzman actually wasn’t that great a hitter even for a pitcher (.163 lifetime average, two regular season homers), but the A’s were sure glad he was there when they needed him.

Holtzman

In that way, Holtzman was sort of a poster guy for advocates of banning the DH. So you think he might have personally objected to the DH rule, right? No. “I personally like the DH because it enabled me to stay in the game longer and not be pinch hit for,” he told Dan Epstein in a 2016 interview for the Jewish Baseball Museum website. “I never wanted to be taken out of a game, regardless of the score or situation, and the DH enabled me to pitch more innings, even though I would have to face one more tough hitter in a line-up than existed in the National League.”

An A’s pitcher also struck a key blow for their final World Series title to date, though it doesn’t seem as well remembered as many of the other feats on this list. In the fourth game of their 1989 sweep of the Giants, winning moundsman Mike Moore struck a two-run double. Having spent his whole career in the American League, Moore had batted exactly once in the majors before the series (and would never bat in the majors after this game, spending the rest of his days in the AL too). The A’s needed those two runs, too, as the final score was 9-6. The actual baseball of the 1989 World Series, however, tends not to be remembered too well, overshadowed by the earthquake that interrupted the series after the first couple games.

Moore

Jump ahead almost twenty years, and we have the only pitcher besides Mickey Lolich to strike his only major league home run in World Series play. Joe Blanton of the Phillies did so as the winner of a 10-2 blowout over the Rays in 2008. If Lolich was a bad hitter, Blanton was even worse, hitting .106 with no extra base hits in 216 career at-bats (and 92 strikeouts). Lolich did at least have five doubles and two triples, albeit over a longer career.

Asked at the time when he’d last hit a homer at any level, Blanton guessed it was high school. “I’m not a hitter,” he admitted. “I’m just going to close my eyes and swing as hard as I can, just in case I make contact.”

Blanton

Blanton and Lolich are the only pitchers to have hit their only major league homers in the World Series, but another deserves honorable mention, to break up the chronological flow of this post just once. Don Gullett’s homer in his opening win over the Pirates in the 1975 National League championship series was his only such major league blast. The Reds pitcher also singled in that game, driving in three runs in all. He actually wasn’t so bad at the dish, hitting .194 for his career, though without a four-bagger in regular season play.

Barry Zito had seldom batted in the regular season before starting a highly-paid and largely disappointing seven-year stint with the Giants. He was a legendarily bad hitter, chalking up a lifetime .102 mark with no extra base hits, though he did at least conscientiously work to improve his bunting during his time in the National League. You had the sense he even had trouble reaching the outfield on the fly, but he did come up with a surprise RBI single against superstar Justin Verlander  in his opening win over the Tigers in the 2012 World Series. He’d also driven in a run with a bunt single in his Game Five win against the Cardinals a few days earlier, in a key contest where the Giants were facing elimination.

Zito

Often reviled during his struggles with the Giants, those hits — and those wins, in his one fairly good year with the team — were enough to justify that big contract, at least to serious Giants fans. Are they enough to justify getting rid of the DH rule? That’s up for debate, but those occasional blows pitchers strike in the games that matter most do matter.

 

Holger Czukay Interview

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website, shortly after Holger Czukay’s death on September 5, 2017.  Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Blending insistent, almost tribal rhythms with keening guitars, keyboards, and electronics, Can were among the top German bands of the 1970s. It was something of a miracle, however, that the musicians came together in the first place to play rock. Their backgrounds were in jazz, classical music, and avant-garde composition. Yet they were determined to somehow become a rock band, dissatisfied with the stifling conventions of the more “serious” music in which they’d been schooled.

Improvising much of their material, and dedicated to creating their own style rather than emulating American and British rock trends, Can left much of their very career path to chance. When original singer Malcolm Mooney left after their 1969 debut album Monster Movie to return to the United States, he was replaced by Damo Suzuki, a Japanese busker whom bassist Holger Czukay spotted in a Munich cafe. Suzuki gave his first concert with Can that night, and over the next few years his stream-of-consciousness vocals almost acted as another instrument in the ensemble. Meaning was conveyed by the nuances of his mumbles and hums as much as the actual English lyrics he sang.

When Can were at their peak, they were barely known in the United States. Over the last few decades, however, they’ve built a substantial American cult following. Indeed, their minimalist approach, spontaneity, and incorporation of avant-garde concepts and electronics proved influential on underground bands all over the globe. Sadly, several of the core members of Can are no longer with us. The latest to pass was Czukay, who died near Köln on Sept. 5, aged 79, after a lengthy post-Can solo career.

Holger spoke to me from San Francisco’s Phoenix hotel on Jan. 18, 1997, for the chapter on Can in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll. The transcript of the interview appears here.

When Can began, the band had little experience with rock music. But you became a rock band.

We were bloody beginners altogether. Maybe except Jaki Liebezeit, the drummer. Jaki was quite experienced. He played one year with Chet Baker in Barcelona, and was a real jazz drummer. But the rest of Can was different. I was just nothing. I just studied with [composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen; I didn’t have any practical experience. I had some sort of weird ideas. [Michael] Karoli, the guitar player, was my pupil, and he started to study law. He had nothing in his hand too.

We were all bloody new beginners, and tried somehow to grow out of our soil. Irmin [Schmidt], he had some sort of experience being a conductor. But he was a beginner in playing in such a group. [Even] counting until four, he had really sort of big problems in the very beginning. [As did] every one of us.

What were Can’s main influences from the world of rock, as opposed to classical and avant-garde?

The influence, for me, of Beatles and Velvet Underground was most important. The Velvet Underground especially. They had something achieved which others didn’t achieve. Even Jimi Hendrix didn’t achieve [what they did]. One could have the opinion that this group is not able to play really properly right. They didn’t get the right rhythm, they couldn’t make a real tight rhythm. But the music was incredibly convincing.

This feeling made us encouraged to go on with rock music in general, instead of making avant-garde academic music. We liked to do something without notation. We didn’t want to read music off papers. We really tried to make instant compositions from the very beginning. This Can tradition actually [was] achieved very much when we played live.

What do you see as Can’s influence on German and European progressive music?

People of our generation, I think they were not influenced at all. When they attended Can concerts, they thought maybe it was exciting. But nobody of these people were ever thinking, “Hey man, this is something we should take as an
ideal, we should take as a way people follow up.” In Germany, actually, Can didn’t become such an image of being heroes.

But younger people who attended our concerts, [the] next younger generation, especially in England, they became addicted, actually, to the way of how Can made music. I found out in the last year, especially in Russia for example, [that] Can will be treated with young people sometimes [like] the Rolling Stones. The Russian people see a good way of making progressive music on their own without being forced to copy rock and roll.

How do you think Can has influenced the music of today?

Actually, I think they are not such a direct influence on these electronic people as Kraftwerk. In Germany the DJs and the young people, their fathers [were] not Can, it was Kraftwerk. Can actually was a real band, but the new music is not based on the idea of forming a band.

But when it comes, let’s say, of making a party or a live evening, making a big performance of nothing, then Can can become very important, because this was how Can was going on stage. Actually with an empty head, nothing pre-performed or nothing pre-whatever. We just went onstage, and who was throwing the first stone, we caught that and threw it back. And that was the beginning of the concert.

I think this music Can made had something to do with football or with sports. That means, you can’t really say in the next minute, where is that ball going to. A team which is playing with such a ball knows very well about those strategies. But actually you can’t say, by definition, when is the ball in this or this area. It’s the same with Can music. We know how to build up the whole thing, but the actual sound and the actual development of the thing was not foreseen.

In the studio too, each Can album was unpredictable.

It was like that. We knew making records, as other groups are doing, means pre-performing the whole thing, practicing songs and something like that, and then going to the studios and just perform[ing] and produc[ing] it. And after a short time, you are getting out of it again.

This was not our intention. We didn’t have anything on our mind. We just played together live in the studio as we would do it on stage, without audience.

Were there any albums you preferred more than others?

I regard the very first albums being the most important, as Can was most innocent at that time. If a group is new, young, and starting from the very beginning, actually you can’t do anything wrong. You do something wrong when you try to learn, and when you get older, getting experienced, this is when you can do mistakes and have some errors. It’s quite normal, I think, for every group. That’s the reason I really love Monster Movie, [1971’s] Tago Mago. Soundtracks [from 1970] is a great album.

When Can hooked up with Virgin Records in the mid-1970s after Damo Suzuki left, was there any sort of pressure to go commercial?

That was one of the reasons what made problems in the group. In the beginning, we were a real group, an entire group. That means we were recording straightaway on two tracks. Then we became successful, we had a hit in Germany, and we were able to afford a multi-track machine. From this moment on, you can say it was the beginning of the end of Can.

In such a group, everybody has to criticize the other one about what he’s doing wrong and so on. But when the multitrack machine came out, it was “I want to hear guitar, or I want to hear the bass, who has made this wrong?” [Musicians were] getting a little bit afraid, and said “Okay, okay, I do my part now and play it as good as I can, and the others shouldn’t be in there,” because it makes him nervous. This was the beginning, where the group suddenly was not such a strong group again. Even if they were more sophisticated about production.

I knew where the weak point of Can was. There [was] too much dealing just with themselves, and nothing which came from outside. So I looked out for radio and all these sort of devices, including telephone. That means you suddenly get information from outside, getting off from your routine, and getting fresh again from the very beginning. But in terms of becoming more commercial, maybe, the other members didn’t like this idea very much. That was why I got out and started on my own, towards the end of Can.

I wonder if you could compare the band as they were with Malcolm Mooney and as they were with Damo Suzuki.

With Malcolm Mooney we were very fresh. Malcolm was a great rhythm talent. He was a locomotive. That was the right singer [for] the very beginning. We were creating rhythms, but we were not very stable in doing that. That means someone who was pushing us into the rhythm, and giving us the feel that this is the right thing to do — this was Malcolm Mooney, and he got integrated very much into what all the other musicians did. He was the right singer at the right time.

When he left because of psychological reasons, Damo came in. The group was far more experienced by that time. Damo is not such a pusher. He is a different sort of singer, and therefore the group achieved such a stability. Damo fit perfectly into that.

The problem was, when Damo disappeared, Can was without a singer. Suddenly we felt a hole in our music. Michael was singing, but he is not…a guitar player actually should not sing, except like Jimi Hendrix or something like that. Actually a guitar player should play guitar. That was our problem. We tried out so many singers at that time, and nobody really fit again into this group. It was somehow Can’s fate, or tragedy, or whatever you can call that, that it happened like it happened.

It seems you could call Malcolm and Damo joining the group inspired accidents.

You can say, if you’re a religious person, they were given by god for starting something for mankind.

Does it come as a surprise to you or other people in Can to learn about the group’s cult following in the US?

Yes. You see, this following came up by the years. I always thought that if Can makes it, it will make it in America. I thought the way the rhythms were done, the way we played live, it was a hell of rhythmic impact. I thought that would fit far more into America than into Europe.

But in England, it was in [the] beginning accepted with greatest enthusiasm. Then the French people reacted on that very, very strong in the beginning of the ‘70s. But from America, we didn’t get really any reaction. We heard that we should come over and play, but somehow all this was so unstable. Nothing was really confirmed in such a way that we could say, “Okay, let’s do it, let’s go over.”

How have you drawn upon Can’s influence in your solo career?

When I started my solo career, I only could do that because Can was such a good time for learning everything you need to stand on your own feet. Without Can, that would be completely impossible. I have learned to play all the other instruments. For the first time I could play, you know, whatever. I could go back after more than twenty years to my guitar.

Working with other people – with Jah Wobble for example, or with David Sylvian – all this Can experience went into this collaboration with these people. For David Sylvian, it was completely new to have that style of working.

This open-minded conception which Can established, I think, is a good way to master the future. I can see that now, working with the young people from the electronic scene. They understand me perfectly. They are able to interact right away. This music now, with all these devices, is perfectly designed for the electronic world, it looks like. This is very living electronic music. Nothing is bad about that.

Bob Marley Mysteries, Part 3

The first two posts in this three-part series examined some mysteries surrounding the early career of the Wailers, in the decade before they signed to Island Records. Going in chronological order, this final post looks at the period right before they signed to Island, when they were in England in 1972.

The sole single Bob Marley released on CBS flopped when it came out in 1972.

The sole single Bob Marley released on CBS flopped when it came out in 1972.

The reason for Bob Marley’s relocation to London early that year was straightforward enough. Although it was coming up on its fifth year in early 1972, Bob’s association with manager-of-sorts Danny Sims and his fellow client Johnny Nash hadn’t yielded much in the way of tangible results. Yet for all his problems with them, they remained his only lifeline to the international music business. Now there was a chance Bob could sign with CBS Records’ Epic subsidiary, for whom Nash was now recording. In mid-February, Marley flew to London, not only to play on the album Nash was recording there, but also to do some tracks for CBS under his own name.

Marley went without the other Wailers (or, for that matter, his wife Rita, who was an honorary Wailer of sorts and had sung on quite a few of their records since the mid-1960s). This seems to indicate that Sims and Nash viewed him as the group’s primary asset, and perhaps sole asset in which they were truly interested. They’d signed Bob, Rita, and Peter Tosh to a songwriting/publishing deal back in 1968, but in 1971, Bob was the only one they’d flown to Sweden to work on songs for the soundtrack to an obscure film in which Johnny Nash starred. While in Sweden, Bob didn’t even mention the other Wailers to a Texan keyboardist also working on the soundtrack, Rabbit Bundrick. Maybe he was thinking of a solo career, or at least considering it as an option.

Marley recorded about half an album’s worth of tracks for CBS in London in 1972, but just a couple of them came out on a flop single. Sometime after this, the other Wailers—not just Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, but also bassist Family Man Barrett and drummer Carlton Barrett—were flown over to join Bob. As is typical with the imprecision surrounding many Marley dates, it’s not known exactly when this happened in 1972; some accounts give the impression this occurred in the spring, and others quite a bit later in the year. But they did go over to London, and were definitely there in the latter part of the year, when they approached Island Records.

One of the few surviving early Wailers concert posters, from 1966.

One of the few surviving early Wailers concert posters, from 1966.

It’s unclear, however, why the Wailers were flown over, presumably at Sims’s expense. The logical reason would seem to be that he and the Wailers hoped to build a British following by playing live shows. However, they barely performed at all. There was just one proper Wailers concert, and Marley and Tosh played a benefit at a London school to raise money for a new swimming pool, but that was probably hardly the gig they had in mind when they left Jamaica. Marley did some shows as a support act for Nash without the other Wailers, which couldn’t have been great for team morale, or do much to counteract the impression that Sims was mostly interested in Bob, not Peter or Bunny.

It’s been suggested that the main reason the Wailers were there was to learn stagecraft by observing Johnny Nash’s British shows. This seems yet odder than not having them play much on their own. First, it would have been expensive to fly the Wailers over and give them enough support (if basic in nature) to live in London for an extended period. Doing that so they could watch Johnny Nash seems like a rather frivolous investment. Also, the Wailers had been together since the early 1960s, and performing live concerts for at least some of that time, though timelines as to how many shows they did are about as cloudy as most other aspects of their early career. Even if they didn’t do all that many gigs, after a decade or so, how much more could they learn from Nash, and did they need to follow him around on tour for such an extended period as part of their education?

Maybe Bob asked, or demanded, that the other Wailers be flown over if he was to continue to try and make headway in Britain. Maybe part of the purpose was to record the Wailers in British studios, as Danny Sims did arrange for the Wailers to cut five tracks at CBS (including “Stir It Up” and four other songs that they’d re-record for Catch a Fire). But those weren’t issued, and there’s nothing to make one believe Sims knocked himself out trying to get the Wailers a band deal. Indeed, part of the reason they ended up at Island was because they were frustrated with their management, and took things into their own hands, approaching Island’s Chris Blackwell without the help of Sims.

Itinerary for the Wailers' first proper UK tour in 1973.

Itinerary for the Wailers’ first proper UK tour in 1973.

Blackwell was pretty quick to give the Wailers money to record an album, probably around early fall 1972. He’s gone over his meeting with the Wailers and decision to work with them in numerous interviews. Something that hasn’t come up much in Marley histories, however, is the extent to which the Wailers were known in the UK. The impression’s sometimes given that they were virtually unknown there (and everywhere else except Jamaica), with Island providing the gateway to an international audience. That’s basically true, but were they really unknown in the UK at the time?

If so, two perspectives that sometimes come up in Marley literature don’t compute. One concerns the breakup of their brief if productive relationship with producer Lee Perry in the early 1970s. The reasons for this were primarily financial, not artistic. They thought they had a deal to split royalties 50/50 with the producer, but according to Bunny Livingston, when it came time to dole out the money, Perry only offered ten percent. Straightforward enough, and ample reason to terminate the relationship if that’s how it went down.

Some accounts, however, intimate that part of the reason they were angry at Perry is that the producer made good money they didn’t see by licensing Wailers material for UK release. There was quite a bit available for that purpose, Perry having produced two Wailers’ LPs in the early 1970s, as well as some singles (and an instrumental version of one of the albums, Soul Revolution). If the Wailers sold enough records to the UK market to make enough money to be worth fighting about, shouldn’t they have had an easier time arranging to do shows in Britain, and in summoning label interest before presenting themselves to Blackwell?

One of the LPs of material the Wailers did with producer Lee Perry.

One of the LPs of material the Wailers did with producer Lee Perry.

It’s also sometimes (and by no means universally) been reported that Coxsone Dodd, who produced the Wailers’ 1964-1966 recordings and released them on his own Studio One label, was sent quite a bit of money from sales of their product in the UK that he did not share with the Wailers. Indeed, it’s sometimes reported that the Wailers weren’t even aware of that money until quite a few years later. Again, if true, wouldn’t that indicate the Wailers would already have been known, at least to a modest degree, in the UK?

Chris Blackwell, when remembering how Island’s association with the Wailers began, gives the impression that he really wasn’t all that familiar with their work, in part because the rock side of Island took off so stratospherically in the late 1960s. Blackwell had gained a foothold in the record business by licensing ska for the sizable if niche market of Jamaicans in Britain, but branched into progressive rock in the late 1960s with the success of Traffic, Free, Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, and others. It does ring true that he wouldn’t have kept up with reggae as avidly as he did back in the early-to-mid-1960s, though he did have one major reggae act, Jimmy Cliff (whose departure from Island was one reason he was keen to sign the Wailers). It seems like he might have known at least somewhat more about the Wailers than he let on, however, just like there are signs that Brian Epstein wasn’t really wholly unfamiliar with the Beatles when he first went to the Cavern to see them in late 1961.

The Wailers shared the bill with Bruce Springsteen for concerts at Max's Kansas City in mid-1973.

The Wailers shared the bill with Bruce Springsteen for concerts at Max’s Kansas City in mid-1973.

Does it matter if there was some strange, nefarious reason the Wailers were flown over and did hardly any shows, or if they sold a good number of records in the UK before signing to Island, or if Blackwell was much more knowledgeable about the Wailers’ history and records than he’d later recall? Probably not. They did sign to Island, and Island did break them into the international market, though Tosh and Livingston started solo careers after a couple albums, before Bob Marley became a household name as the Wailers’ frontman. It would still be interesting to know the answers to these questions, however—as it would be for so many uncertain and peculiar aspects of the Wailers’ first decade.

My book Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Ultimate Illustrated History was released earlier this month (September).

My book Bob Marley and the Wailers: The Ultimate Illustrated History was released earlier this month (September).

Bob Marley Mysteries, Part 2

In early 1966, Bob Marley left the Wailers to live with his mother in the United States, although the Wailers had released a string of generally pretty popular (sometimes extremely popular) singles  in Jamaica over the previous year and a half.  His mother had moved to Delaware about three years previously, establishing US residency after marrying in American.

For eight months, he worked at a series of menial jobs in Wilmington. These, in keeping with the inexact details of Marley’s early years, have variously been reported as including stints as a janitor at the Dupont Hotel, a waiter, a dishwasher, a parking lot attendant, a lab assistant at DuPont chemical company, and driving a forklift at a Chrysler auto plant assembly line. He probably didn’t work at all of these jobs (or at least all of them during the same visit), apparently returning to the US on a few other occasions over the next few years to combine visiting his mother with laboring for dollars.

A 1966 single by the Wailers, recorded without Bob Marley, as Marley was in the midst of an eight-month stay with his mother in the US.

A 1966 single by the Wailers, recorded without Bob Marley, as Marley was in the midst of an eight-month stay with his mother in the US.

It says much about the state and size of the Jamaican industry that Marley could make more money finding menial work abroad than he could as one of ska’s hottest stars. It would have been inconceivable, for instance, to find Curtis Mayfield—the Wailers’ biggest influence—quitting the Impressions to work in an auto plant out of economic necessity just as they were tasting the heights of success. But despite their Jamaican hits, they weren’t making much money, subsisting for at least a while on wages of three pounds a week each that were doled out by their producer, Coxsone Dodd. Dodd let Marley sleep in the studio for a time, but even that was in consideration of Bob doing extra work rehearsing other artists on Dodd’s Studio One label.

Ian McCann, editor of the UK monthly magazine Record Collector and co-author of Bob Marley: The Complete Guide to His Music, wonders if the early Wailers were as successful as some accounts would have it, even though surviving charts indicate at least few of their mid-‘60s singles made the Jamaican Top Ten. “It’s worth bearing in mind that if the Wailers were so big, where were all the other producers trying to tempt them away from Studio One, as invariably happens in Jamaica?,” he asks. “If The Wailers were having a string of smashes, someone would have lured them away.”

One also wonders why Dodd didn’t try harder to get Marley to stay in Jamaica if the Wailers were selling so many records—perhaps by increasing his measly wages, for instance, or offering him at least something in the way of royalties. Maybe Dodd thought the Wailers would do well enough without Bob. And, though it’s not often emphasized in Marley biographies, the Wailers did make singles without Bob in 1966 that were very good, like “Dancing Shoes,” “Can’t You See,” and “Sinner Man,” apparently at least sometimes with significant Jamaican sales.

The biggest mystery of Marley’s 1966 Delaware sojourn, however, surrounds its termination. Some accounts have it that he simply tired of the menial work and (during at least in some months of his visit) cold weather, and wanted to get back to making music with the Wailers, using the $700 he had saved to help start the band’s own label. That seems logical enough, but it’s also sometimes been reported that a notice from the Selective Service sealed his determination to leave the US.

That makes for a dramatic story within the story, but there’s confusion about when or even if this happened. Marley was not a US citizen, but young non-US men who resided in the States for more than six months did risk getting drafted into military service. It’s unclear whether the notice was instructing him to register for the draft or actually drafting him. It’s also unclear whether this happened in 1966 or on a subsequent visit to his mother in Delaware in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One Marley biographer wrote that the Selective Service didn’t even have a record of Bob in its system—though given how disorganized the government sometimes was about such matters, that wouldn’t necessarily mean they never contacted him.

Whatever happened or didn’t with the Selective Service, he was back in Jamaica with his wife Rita in late 1966. Not long afterward—January 1968, according to most sources, though a January 1967 date has also been given—he came into contact with American soul singer Johnny Nash, which in turn led to a deal with Nash’s manager, Danny Sims. Sims would pay Bob, Rita (who was in essence taking Bunny Livingston’s place in the Wailers while Bunny served a jail term in 1967-68), and Peter Tosh $100 a week each to write songs. Livingston wasn’t part of the deal, as he was still in prison.

"Hold Me Tight" was Johnny Nash's first big hit in 1968.

“Hold Me Tight” was Johnny Nash’s first big hit in 1968.

It’s not entirely clear what Sims and Nash hoped, or at least hoped most, to gain by the association. Probably they wanted to place some of their songs—especially Marley’s—with American artists, as the publishing royalties for US hits would mean a big payoff. They were also probably considering some of the material for Nash, who would indeed make one of Marley’s songs a big hit, though not for nearly five years. As a longer shot, there was the possibility of getting hits in North America and Europe for records performed by Marley and/or the Wailers themselves, though they were unknown in those territories, and reggae itself was barely known anywhere outside of Jamaica.

Probably starting around early 1968, Bob, Peter, and Rita began making demos for Sims and Nash’s JAD company. It’s not wholly certain whether these were intended to be shopped to other artists to generate possible covers; to get considered for interpretation on Nash’s own releases; to get a deal for the Wailers and/or Marley; or, if the demos were good enough, to even gain overseas release. Their purpose was probably some combination of all of these alternatives. The Wailers certainly had plenty of material to offer for consideration. Many tracks were cut for JAD—211, according to a 2004 Universal Music press release announcing a licensing deal between the two companies.

Here’s my first question about this situation for which I can’t figure out an answer:

If Johnny Nash was so hot on Marley as a songwriter, why didn’t he record any of Marley’s songs in the late 1960s?

Nash, previously a journeyman soul singer without much in the way of either hit records or artistic distinction, made #5 in both the US and UK with a breakthrough hit that drew heavily (and quite skillfully) upon Jamaican rock steady music, “Hold Me Tight.” Bob’s material would have fit in well with his new direction. Why didn’t he put any Marley tunes on his records of the period? And why was the one Wailers song he did cover at the time a Peter Tosh composition (“Love,” on his Hold Me Tight album, marking the first high-profile cover of a Wailers song abroad), not a Marley tune?

Johnny Nash's "Hold Me Tight" album.

Johnny Nash’s “Hold Me Tight” album.

Of course, Nash eventually would have great success with a Marley song when he took “Stir It Up” into the UK and US Top Twenty in 1972 and 1973 respectively. The album Johnny recorded around that time, I Can See Clearly Now, had some other Marley compositions. Why wait so long? Especially since “Stir It Up” had been around for a while, the Wailers recording the original version for a single back in 1967?

Here’s a more sensitive mystery:

If Bob Marley (and Rita) were being paid $100 a week each by JAD for writing songs, why did Bob periodically return to Wilmington to take more of the kind of menial work that he (according to Rita’s memoir) had sworn off for good after a vacuum cleaner exploded at one of his 1966 jobs?

$100 USD won’t even get you a good guitar today, of course, but back in the late 1960s, it went pretty far in Jamaica. A lot farther, at any rate, than the three weekly pounds that had been Bob’s wages from Coxsone Dodd for a while. Even considering that the Marleys had a growing family, it would seem the $100 stipend, along perhaps with some other money they picked up selling records and performing, would be enough to support themselves without Bob having to go back to work in a Delaware auto plant or some such thing.

Was the $100/week salary not in place for the entire period during which Bob was under Sims’s management (until around late 1972/early 1973)? Was it simply still not enough? Or did Bob just want to be able to periodically visit his mother, picking up some work while he was there to help things along?

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Did Bob even want to use those trips as a chance to see whether the Wailers might want to join him in the US to try and make it in the States? A couple accounts (predictably giving different years) have it that Marley actually wrote Livingston asking him and Tosh to come to the US to resume the Wailers’ career in the States. Uninterested in relocating, Bunny didn’t reply.

Whatever the reasons for them taking place, the post-1966 trips Marley took to the US and the jobs he took there—and, according to several sources, there were more than one such trips—don’t add up to me. Why would he have needed the money that badly? And if he didn’t need the money that badly, why would he have spent any weeks or months at such mundane jobs, as it would have taken precious time away from the music that was his main priority? Even if Sims wasn’t paying him and/or Rita $100 per week anymore, wouldn’t Sims have wanted Marley to concentrate on music instead of manual labor, and wanted to have given him some incentive not to make other work his focus? Could his ties to the other Wailers have been looser than is usually assumed, and Bob looking for options that might have involved a career without them?

That leads into the third and final of this series of Marley mysteries posts. The Wailers finally got a big record deal after relocating to the UK, with some bumps on the road. But why did they end up there, and were they really as unknown in the UK as is usually assumed?

Another compilation with material from the recordings the Wailers made for JAD.

Another compilation with material from the recordings the Wailers made for JAD.

Bob Marley Mysteries, Part 1

Bob Marley is now one of the world’s most famous musicians. For a guy who generates the fourth-highest income of any late musician, however, many aspects of his career and life remain murky. That’s particularly true of his first ten years or so as a recording artist, predating the Wailers’ first release on Island Records, the early 1973 album Catch a Fire. From that point until Marley’s death in May 1981, his music and other activities are fairly well if imperfectly documented, as he was constantly in the media spotlight and his records were easily available in Europe and North America.

The Wailers' first LP, mid-1960s.

The Wailers’ first LP, mid-1960s.

But from the time of his 1962 debut single “Judge Not” until he hooked up with Island, Marley’s records (almost all of them recorded as part of the Wailers) were largely unknown outside of Jamaica, as were the Wailers themselves. The Jamaican record business was not exactly big on documentation, and many early ska/rock steady/reggae reissues (including many of those by the Wailers) have frustratingly scant annotation. Such crucial information as recording and release dates often seem to be treated as closely guarded state secrets. As the Wailers weren’t given much attention by the Jamaican media (and virtually none by the non-Jamaican media) at the time, the same holds true for their activities outside the studio. It’s hard to piece together what happened when, and even the most thorough Marley biographies frequently report different dates and sequences for the same events.

This and the next couple posts present some of the Marley mysteries that I find most interesting (and sometimes, considering how confidently wildly varying accounts of these issues are presented as fact in multiple sources, irritating). Let’s start with the very first Wailers single, “Simmer Down,” a hit in Jamaica in – when?

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The liner notes to the 1992 Marley box set Songs of Freedom—probably one of the highest-selling box sets of all time, having gone double platinum—state that “Simmer Down” “was a number one in Jamaica in February, 1964.” Yet according to Roger Steffens and Leroy Jodie Pierson’s Bob Marley & the Wailers: The Definitive Discography, it wasn’t even recorded until July 1964. The guys who wrote this aren’t just assigning dates on a whim; Steffens is probably the most respected reggae authority in the world.

In this case at least, it seems pretty clear to me that “Simmer Down” probably wasn’t released until the second half of 1964. Take a look at this chart from September 18, 1964 for JBC—Radio Jamaica:

JBC_1964-09-18_1

This shows “Simmer Down” at #5, up from #10 the previous week (and #15 the week before that), which indicates it was probably a relatively recent release still on the rise. It’s doubtful it would be jumping from #15 to #10 to #5 after having been #1 in February. Later in September it got to #2, gradually falling lower in the Top Ten over the next couple months, judging from a few other charts on this website. It’s also doubtful it would have been held from release for a long time after it was recorded, so the July 1964 recording date is likely accurate, even though some accounts have the Wailers starting to record as early as 1963.

This leads into some larger issues not only in accurately assessing the Wailers’ commercial success, but also in the history of ska and early reggae’s popularity in Jamaica in general. There seems to be no source for which chart positions of Jamaican singles in the 1960s and 1970s can be easily consulted. I threw out the question as to whether Jamaican chart positions could be looked up anywhere to a large newsgroup to which I belong of many esteemed UK music journalists (I am from the US but an honorary member of sorts). None of them replied.

There’s not even agreement on what the national chart, or national charts, were. This chart was compiled by “JBC—Radio Jamaica.” JBC was the public radio station the Jamaica Broadcasting Company. Radio Jamaica is the name usually given to RJR, or Real Jamaican Radio. Was this chart a composite of what was most popular on both stations? Were there other charts?

Another cover used on the Wailers' first LP.

Another cover used on the Wailers’ first LP.

It should be noted that charts, in Jamaica and elsewhere (including the US), are not gospel as to what records sold the most, were played the most, or were generally the most popular. Measurements of record sales have always been inexact—more so back in the 1960s and 1970s, before SoundScan made tracking sales at least somewhat more of an exact science. Chart positions, although the industry doesn’t like to discuss the fact, have sometimes been influenced by financial considerations some might view as payola.

Nonetheless, chart positions, for all their flaws, are the best indications we have of how generally popular releases were. Singles throughout the Wailers’ first decade are given different chart positions, or different descriptions as to how popular they were, in various different sources. As a chart that seems like the same one as the JBC-Radio Jamaica chart whose Top Ten was reprinted in Jamaica’s major daily paper (The Gleaner), it seems like someone could or should go through those back issues and compile an actual reference publication or database with the peak positions, at least for Top Ten entries. Not a job anyone’s likely to pay someone for, I admit, but one that would be highly useful to historians in more precisely establishing how successful the Wailers were in their early years.

“Simmer Down” has been reported, by the way, to have sold about 70,000-80,000 copies. As Jamaica had a population of a little less than two million, that would have been the equivalent of selling about five million copies in the US. I have no way of confirming this, but I have the feeling that figure might have been somewhat inflated. If we’re playing the equivalence game, even the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” didn’t sell five million copies in the US that year. Was “Simmer Down” really more popular per capita in Jamaica than “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was in the US?

I know it seems like we’ve been on this chart business for quite a while, but bear with me and take another look at the one from September 18, 1964:

JBC_1964-09-18_1

It’s sometimes stated in Marley/reggae literature that reggae was not played as often as it should have on Jamaican radio, or even that it was seldom played. But early reggae singles occupy most of the places on this chart. There are a few American soul 45s by the Drifters, Solomon Burke, and Ben E. King, and one British Invasion disc—not by the Beatles or a rock group, but by Dusty Springfield. Other charts from the ‘60s and early ‘70s on this Peter Tosh website are dominated by reggae (if not quite as much), with similar sprinklings of American soul and the very occasional UK pop hit. Could reggae really have been played rarely on Jamaican radio? A student of mine who visited the island in the late 1970s said he indeed hardly heard any reggae on the airwaves when he was there; was there that much of a disconnect between the charts and the radio playlists?

Going by the charts (which cover only a very small portion of the years 1964-1972) on the Peter Tosh site, the Wailers did have a good number of Top Ten singles during these years—and probably a good number of others that don’t show up on the scraps of charts the site managed to locate. This didn’t seem to make them rich, though predictably, even accounts as to how poor or well off they were widely vary. Which leads into more Marley mysteries, as continued in the next post.

One of the few surviving posters for an early Wailers concert, from March 3, 1965.

One of the few surviving posters for an early Wailers concert, from March 3, 1965.

Swimming in Sicily

Sicily’s known for its cuisine, its Greek ruins, and its beautiful landscapes. As a large island, it has also has many beaches, some of which are spectacular. Quite a few others are, if not spectacular, certainly good. I’m not a great swimmer, but I love to swim outdoors and snorkel, and swimming in the ocean was one of the main reasons I went to Sicily for a few weeks in July.

The beach at Isola Bella, near Taormina in Sicily.

The beach at Isola Bella, near Taormina in Sicily.

Even three weeks or so isn’t nearly enough time to sample everywhere worth swimming in Sicily. But we did manage to hit quite a few spots considering our limited time. Even the five we visited were pretty different from each other, but all are worth a dip  should you make it over.

There are many reasons to visit Palermo, the capital of Sicily, including its architecture and lively streetlife. Beaches are not at the top of the list, nor close to the city center, but you might find yourself dying to cool off if you visit when the temperatures are nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, as we did. It’s a pretty short bus ride to Mondello beach a few miles outside the city.

Mondello beach, looking to the west.

Mondello beach, looking to the west.

Mondello isn’t a secret, and you’ll likely find it jammed in summer. But the water’s calm, its temperature moderate, and you’ll be able to wade out quite a ways without it getting so deep that you’ll lose your footing. And if the scenery isn’t as monumental as some other Sicilian beaches, it’s quite pleasing:

As with most beaches we visited, there are areas where visitors can plant themselves for free, and others where you’ll need to pay a fee for an umbrella and deck chair. Unless you’re traveling with a beach umbrella, it’s often worth it to spring for the paid spots, elitism be damned. The Mediterranean sun can be pretty searing — certainly more so than summer sun in California and New Jersey, the two states where I’ve done most of my ocean swimming in the US.

Mondello beach, looking to the east.

Mondello beach, looking to the east.

Agrigento is most famed for its Greek ruins, and we were lucky enough to also get caught up in a huge holiday parade and fireworks during our stay. South of Palermo and even hotter, you might again feel the need to cool off in the beach, even on a Sunday when few buses are running and little info on their departure stops and times is available.

Nonetheless we managed to catch one to San Leone, just a few miles outside town, not long before sundown. The manager of the umbrella/deck chair operation we patronized took pity on us and charged us about one-third of the going rate. It was quite a bargain for an hour or so of swimming in much choppier, more churning waters than Mondello. The beach is pretty narrow and stony, so you’re going more for the ocean than the lounging here.

The beach at San Leone.

The beach at San Leone.

Siracusa is another town whose beaches don’t dominate its image. (Anglicized as “Syracuse,” we referred to it by its Italian name Siracusa after the taxi driver taking us to Rome from the airport told us, “Syracuse is in New York.”) But this was one of my favorite places to swim, in part because the hot spot in the old historic town, Ortigia, wasn’t a beach or particularly dominated by tourists. Instead, you camp out on tall rocks in a site called the Solarium, with various points of entry, whether by stairs or slithering down the actual rocks:

Siracusa1

Even if you enter by stairs (which are only installed in the summer months), this site might not be for the more casual swimmer. The water gets pretty deep pretty quickly just feet from shore, and some parts are quite rocky, especially the narrow channel connecting different parts of the swimming area. Even wearing beach shoes in the water, I got a few cuts bumping my knees and thighs against the irregularly spaced and shaped rock formations under the surface.

Most of the swimmers here and at other beaches-with-rocks we visited nonetheless swam barefoot. Their heartiness is admirable, but I’d really advise considering taking along a hardy pair of beach shoes to wear while you’re actually swimming in the water if you don’t want to come home limping, or worse. It’s no time to be macho (in a crowd where many women and girls, I hasten to note, were swimming barefoot) if you’re not feeling like a local expert in navigating the rocks. My traveling partner is a much better swimmer than I am, and even she couldn’t avoid a hip bruise. I got my efficient beach shoes for less than $50 at REI, and those or equivalents shouldn’t be hard to track down before you visit.

Overview of the rockiest parts of the Solarium beach in Ortigia, in Siracusa.

Overview of the rockiest parts of the Solarium beach in Ortigia, in Siracusa.

Also in Siracusa, we took a boat ride out to some grottoes a few miles away, taking us close to the rocks to see purple hues such as this. One of the crew took a couple minutes to free a bird that had somehow gotten stuck in one of the fissures:

Grotto

On the same ride we passed by the rock below, off which people were jumping or diving into the sea (I can assure you I am not one of the divers in this picture). The captain of our small craft took this opportunity to swim to the rock and execute an impressive flip/dive into the water, nonchalantly swimmng back to the boat to pilot us back to Ortigia.

Divers

We were supposed to have a few minutes to swim in the grotto too, but the company selling the trip didn’t inform the boat crew, who were recruited spur of the moment after the original boatman didn’t make it. If you’ve seen Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, you’ll remember the scene where Eric Idle, playing a European waiter, leads us on a long walk through heavy traffic to the meaning of life, all the while intimating that it’s just around the corner. That’s how we felt when the young woman from the tour company led us to the boat, telling us all the while, “just two more minutes” before we ended up at a tourist office where we were asked if we could wait another hour. We couldn’t, so a substitute was hastily arranged, but apparently not informed that a grotto swim was part of the deal. Maybe next time.

There are a few places to swim near Taormina, including a small rocky one in Mazzaro where we went for brief immersions. The most celebrated by far, however, is Isola Bella, connected to a big beach by a sandbar through which you can wade even if you can’t swim:

Isola Bella, viewed on a bus ride down from Taormina.

Isola Bella, viewed on a bus ride down from Taormina.

Isola Bella is much photographed, and the opposite of unknown. Some things that have been heavily hyped — like Paris, the Beatles, or the seventh game of the 2016 World Series — are actually just as good as people say they’ll be, and Isola Bella is one of them. The swimming is varied and superb; there are shallow parts, deep ones, rocky areas, and rockless sections; there’s decent snorkeling, and patches several dozen feet deep, if you want; the clear water boasts stunning hues of blue, green, and purple; and the scenery is phenomenal:

Rocks to which we swam at Isola Bella.

Rocks to which we swam at Isola Bella.

That does mean you’ll never be alone on Isola Bella in the summer, and one day it was so crowded we couldn’t even rent one of the 20-Euro-per person umbrella-deck chair deals. But it’s worth  putting up with and then some, and once you get in the water, there’s space enough and more, especially as it’s not hard to get several hundred meters from shore in calm and safe conditions. You can also get a bit more breathing room by walking around Isola Bella itself, though there’s a small (four-Euro) fee for that, and much of the island remains off-limits to visitors.

If you’re staying in Taormina and using public transportation, taking the cable car down’s a must, with this view as you approach Isola Bella:

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The last beach we visited was in Cefalu, which would be worth visiting even without the water owing to the stunning and relaxed maze of alleys forming its historic center. There is a beautiful, lengthy beach, however, from which you can see the city’s breathtaking old quarter:

Cefalu2

Cefalu1

The swimming’s quite different from Isola Bella, or Siracusa. In those places, you really need to swim, not wade, if you get more than a few feet from shore, so deep does it get so fast. In Cefalu, it’s almost impossible to get out far enough to where your feet won’t hit the sand. And for most of the beach, it is smooth sand in the water — smooth enough that you won’t need those beach shoes.

Sunset as viewed from the beach in Cefalu.

Sunset as viewed from the beach in Cefalu.