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Richie Unterberger comments and reviews on vintage rock music.

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.

Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii Exhibit

As rock music becomes more entrenched as part of not just popular culture but mainstream history, major exhibitions devoted to iconic artists are becoming more common. Recent years have seen touring exhibitions devoted to the Rolling Stones and David Bowie, and a big one on Pink Floyd is at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum until October 1. I won’t be able to make that unless something unexpected develops. But I did, to my surprise, see a much smaller but worthwhile exhibit on Pink Floyd’s October 1971 performances for the Live at Pompeii movie when I visited Pompeii for the first time in early July.

Poster for the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii movie, early 1970s.

Poster for the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii movie, early 1970s.

The Live at Pompeii movie is not a universal favorite among rock and film critics, some of whom find it (and the cutaways to brief interviews and scenes of the band in the recording studio) on the pompous side. Pomp is certainly appropriate for a movie made in a site that starts with the letters “Pomp,” though, and you have to admire the chutzpah of a group (and director, Adrian Maben) who somehow commandeered the amphitheater of the legendary excavated city for a concert documentary.

Of most significance, it captures the Floyd performing a good cross-section of material from the late 1960s and early 1970s in an impressively exotic, haunting setting. What’s more, they opted not for the usual concert doc with cuts to rabidly enthusiastic fans, but for a show without an audience — or so they thought (more on that later in this post).

Being a big Pink Floyd fan, I headed straight for the amphitheater to begin my five-hour Pompeii visit. Like many such locales that take on a legendary aura when you see them in memorable movies or pictures, it’s rather more ordinary when you view it in person:

The Pompeii amphitheater where Pink Floyd played in October 1971, as it appears today.

The Pompeii amphitheater where Pink Floyd played in October 1971, as it appears today.

It’s also kind of hard to imagine a concert with an actual audience being staged there now, at least in the traditional amphitheater way, as much of the seating is gone or overgrown:

Overgrown

So that would have been that, except to my surprise, there was a substantial exhibit on Pink Floyd’s Live at Pompeii performances in the underground passages near the entrance. I hadn’t heard about this at all in the media, and it’s still hard to find out much about it online. I did learn that this was first staged in Pompeii’s town hall during most of July 2015, and then moved to the amphitheater when Floyd guitarist David Gilmour played two shows there in July 2016. I still can’t determine how long the exhibition will run.

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Although there weren’t huge numbers of people at the exhibit, the underground space is small enough — maybe a few dozen meters to either sides of the entrance, with just a few feet between the two walls of material — that it’s not always easy to comfortably view and see everything, even when there are just a few dozen people. Also, some of the displays — such as some of the ones showing scenes from the Live at Pompeii movie or playing Pink Floyd recordings — will be familiar to serious Floyd fans. However, there were some off-the-beaten track items and info, which I’ll focus on in this post.

There are quite a few photos, some taken by French cameraman Jacques Boumendil. There are also some stills from Chit Chat with Oysters, a recently rediscovered December 1971 16mm Maben film of the Floyd doing overdubs for the soundtrack at the Europasonar studio in Paris.

Still from Chit Chat with Oysters, finding David Gilmour in a particularly merry mood.

Still from Chit Chat with Oysters, finding David Gilmour in a particularly merry mood.

Here’s one of the vintage ads for the film. One of the tests for how rare an image is these days is whether you can find it online or not, and this one passes, as even a search with Google Images fails to unearth it:

ThinkPink

Asked what he was thinking as the filming was taking place, drummer Nick Mason supplied these comments for one of the displays:

“Well, I think, we were unaware of just what a good idea it was. I mean, I’d love for any of us to be able to take credit for it, but it was very much an idea that had been sprung by Adrian Maben, who’s the director of the film. That combination of the venue, which was romantic in its own right, and the fact that it was outdoors with the wind blowing and empty meant that we were completely free to re-shoot things. It gave it a live feel without actually having to go through the process of curtailing the show because we had a real audience to please. I thought it was a fantastically successful formula that unfortunately owed nothing to the band’s [laugh[ creativity.”

Nick Mason performing at Pompeii.

Nick Mason performing at Pompeii, photographed by Jacques Boumendil.

As it turns out, however, there was an audience — though a very small and unseen one. As Maben explains in one of the displays:

Live at Pompeii was conceived as an anti-Woodstock film. The amphitheater was supposed to be completely empty except for a handful of technicians, roadies and the French Italian camera crew. But when I returned to Pompeii in 1999 for the [DVD director’s cut] I met a group of adult men in their mid-[forties]. They told me that as teenagers they had skipped school and gate-crashed the amphitheater to watch the Pink Floyd concert. They remained hidden near the open windows on the upper floor of the amphitheater.

“They called themselves ‘ragazzi degli scavi’ because they often visited the archeological site to play in the ruins. I was amazed because I had never seen them or sensed their presence. In 1971, I was convinced that we were alone.”

Teenagers who gate-crashed the Pompeii concert, back then (top) and in recent years (bottom).

Teenagers who gate-crashed the Pompeii concert, back then (top) and in recent years (bottom).

As an aside, even though this happened more than 45 years ago, it’s hard to imagine a time when you could gate-crash a concert filming by a major band in this fashion. Pink Floyd weren’t nearly as big as they’d be when 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon became one of the all-time best-selling albums, but they were already pretty big — more so in Europe than in the US. Now that Pompeii welcomes two-and-a-half million paying visitors a year, it’s also hard to imagine a time when you could just slither in and play in the ruins.

But rock wasn’t nearly as big a business back then as it is now, and I guess Pompeii wasn’t either. As another part of the exhibit notes, “Pink Floyd and the film crew stayed in the large Gran Rosario Hotel for four nights during the filming of Live at Pompeii because it was conveniently close to the amphitheater entrance. In the ‘40s and ‘50s this hotel was very popular but in 1971 it was completely empty. We were the only guests.”

The Gran Rosario hotel, as it appeared when Pink Floyd and film crew stayed there in 1971.

The Gran Rosario Hotel, as it appeared when Pink Floyd and film crew stayed there in 1971.

I also enjoyed reading some memories from script girl Marie-Noelle Zurstrassen, who recalls:

“I see myself in the hall of the hotel telling the French cameramen Jacques Boumendil and Claude Agostini that they should pack their bags to catch a plane back to Paris. We had more or less finished the shoot and were leaving [Maben] behind as a hostage because there was no money left to pay the bills!…

“After a clash with the Floyd about their daily expenses, I told them that I was not going to pay their daily cannabis and other substances because it was not my responsibility. But I think they were joking, it was probably just for fun.

“Above all I remember the magic night shoot of ‘One of These Days I’m Going to Cut You into Little Pieces’ with the drummer Nick Mason who was by far the most approachable of the four members of the band. I often dream at night, even now 45 years later, about the Floyd and the music they played in the amphitheater. Especially ‘Echoes’ and ‘One of These Days’…The moon was shining, the ruins were mysterious and there was that strange slow dance of the 35mm cameras that took place during the circular tracking shots.

“It was a sort of fairy tale that fascinated me. I even forgot to look at my stopwatch when I was timing the shots. I kept telling myself that they shouldn’t improvise too much because we were running out of film and that would be the end of the shoot because we couldn’t reload the 35mm Mitchell cameras.”

Script girl Marie-Noelle Zurstrassen on the set with director Adrian Maben.

Script girl Marie-Noelle Zurstrassen on the set with director Adrian Maben, photographed by Jacques Boumendil.

Of course, this exhibit isn’t the only reason to visit Pompeii, even if you’re more interested in Pink Floyd than the town that was buried under a volcanic eruption almost two thousand years ago:

Elsewhere in Pompeii, taken the day of my visit.

Elsewhere in Pompeii, taken the day of my visit.

The last day of my nearly month-long visit to Italy (actually mostly spent in Sicily), I stumbled across another Pink Floyd event of which I was unaware. In the amphitheater of the ruins of Ostia Antica near Rome, a tribute concert was being staged to their 1970 album Atom Heart Mother. As the poster below notes, this would include the kind of orchestral and choral arrangements featured on the original LP (though no actual musicians from Pink Floyd were involved).

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Pink Floyd did play Atom Heart Mother material in concert with a choir and orchestra. On their recent mammoth Early Years 1965-1972 box set, you can see a 21-minute version of “Atom Heart Mother” itself that they performed with the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble and the John Alldis Choir, filmed in London’s Hyde Park on July 18, 1970. Twenty-first-century technology no doubt makes this sort of combo easier to pull off onstage, though it arrived decades too late for Pink Floyd to take advantage of it in their prime.

I was flying home the day of the concert, so I couldn’t stay around for the performance. I did get these shots of technicians setting up for the big event in Ostia Antica’s Teatro Romano that morning:

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Sgt. Pepper Deluxe Box: Off the Beaten Tracks

What do you say about 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? The six-disc deluxe box of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a big step in the right direction in the packaging of the Beatles’ catalog, which until this 50th anniversary edition 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 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 them 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 on the DVD/Blu-Ray discs (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) 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” (not to mention “Only a Northern Song,” recorded during the sessions, but not released until Yellow Submarine)—that would have made the box more definitive, if more expensive.

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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 pretty 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.

In the bulk of this post, I’m not going to focus on a track-by-track rundown. (Brief commercial interruption: I describe each “bonus track” on the deluxe box that wasn’t released back in 1967 in the updated ebook version of my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film.) Nor will I detail the merits of the Giles Martin remix; there’s been enough of that on Facebook, NPR, and classic rock magazines. Instead, here are a few more obscure aspects of the reissue that fanatics might find interesting.

What’s been added: Besides the many bonus tracks, the deluxe edition has also added “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” It wasn’t well known at the time—though it’s pretty well known now, even if you’re not a Beatles obsessive—that both of these tracks were recorded early in the Sgt. Pepper sessions, and originally intended for the album. But pressure from Brian Epstein and EMI resulted in both songs getting issued in February 1967 on a single, in part because they were desperate to get a Beatles record on the market, as none had appeared for—gasp—six months! That’s nothing today, but that was the longest gap of their career up to that point, and hunger to quell rumors the Beatles were breaking up (as they’d taken the drastic step of retiring from live concerts) also played a part.

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Wrote George Martin in his book With a Little Help from My Friends: The Making of Sgt. Pepper (written with William Pearson): “It was the biggest mistake of my professional life.”

Let’s look at the full context of that remark, from the same book:

“Realizing how desperate Brian was feeling, I decided to give him a super-strong combination, a double-punch that could not fail, an unbeatable linking of two all-time great songs: ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane.’ These songs would, I told him, make a fantastic double-A-sided disc—better even than our other double-A-sided triumphs, ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work It Out,’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’/‘Yellow Submarine.’

“It was the biggest mistake of my professional life.

“Releasing either song coupled with ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ would have been by far the better decision, but at the time I couldn’t see it.”

A few observations here:

It’s hard to see where “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” would have fit onto Sgt. Pepper, even though each of them were better as individual songs than any on the LP, except possibly for “A Day in the Life.” Maybe that’s because we’re so familiar with the thirteen songs that did make it onto LP, and the exact sequence of those songs, that it’s now hard to imagine the album any other way.

I guess “Strawberry Fields” could have ended side one and “Penny Lane” started side two, though the heart-stopping sudden climax of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is hard to beat for a side-ender, especially in the days when you had to get up and actually flip the record. But that would have compromised the sound quality of the vinyl LP, in the days when even 45 minutes of music was pushing it. And then, which two songs do you take off? They’re all important to establishing the record’s mood, even lesser ones like “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

Speaking of which, I think it would have been a disaster to put “When I’m Sixty-Four” on a B-side, as it was clearly inferior to either “Strawberry Fields” or “Penny Lane.” More importantly, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were a better pairing than any Beatles 45 boasted—and perhaps any 45 by anyone boasted. They were both about Liverpool childhood, in very different ways; they coupled one of John Lennon’s best songs (“Strawberry Fields”) with one of Paul McCartney’s best (“Penny Lane”); and the single had a distinctive picture sleeve.

This wouldn’t have been possible with “When I’m Sixty-Four.” And if you can only choose “Strawberry Fields” or “Penny Lane” for the LP, how can you possibly make a good choice of one over another? And if you can’t use “When I’m Sixty-Four” for the LP, doesn’t that throw off Sgt. Pepper’s balance, as one of its virtues was encompassing so many styles, for which “When I’m Sixty-Four” represented vaudeville?

No one I’ve come across—and just about everyone I know is familiar with Sgt. Pepper—has ever complained about missing “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “Penny Lane” on the album. George Martin’s about the only one I’ve heard express regrets. Along the same lines, George Martin was vocal, quite a few times, about wishing the Beatles would boiled down The White Album from two LPs to a much stronger disc. But very few other people would agree with him on that. And even if they do, no one would agree on which half of the songs to discard.

George Martin's book about producing the Sgt. Pepper album.

George Martin’s book about producing the Sgt. Pepper album.

Maybe if it had been the CD era and sound quality on a longer album had not been an issue, putting “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” on Sgt. Pepper would have been the right call. All things considered, however, back in 1967, it was the right call. And now that it’s the CD era and there are big expensive expanded box set editions of classic albums, it’s the right call to add the tracks, separated from the main thirteen songs so that it doesn’t change the sequence of the core LP.

Before this 50th anniversary release, by the way, I saw some comments on social media about what a bad idea it would be to add “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Maybe those comments grew out of fears those songs would be inserted into and change the album’s main running order, which I agree would have been a mistake. So it’s worth emphasizing that they are separate from the core LP (as they are on the more modest two-CD deluxe edition).

If their very presence anywhere is considered bothersome, that seems as ridiculous as the complaint I once heard from someone who disliked any bonus tracks on CD reissues of albums, finding them distracting and injurious to the integrity of the original LP. If you really do find CDs with bonus tracks a ripoff—a concept about as sensible as complaining that free health care is too expensive—you can, of course, simply not play the extra cuts, or better yet, not buy these reissues.

What’s missing: Can there be much missing from a six-disc deluxe edition, with several dozen bonus tracks, some of which haven’t even been bootlegged? Yes, if we’re looking at the time frame between mid-September 1966 (when Lennon made his first informal composing tapes of “Strawberry Fields”) and when the album was finished on April 21, 1967. That’s even if you don’t count their 1966 Christmas fan club disc or home recordings (most by John) that were obviously too chaotic and lo-fi to merit serious consideration. Here are the most notable absentees:

“Strawberry Fields Forever” home tapes: John Lennon made quite a few tapes of “Strawberry Fields” in the two months before the Beatles started working on it at the studio in November 1966, some at home, and some (the earliest) in Spain, where he was filming his role in How I Won the War. It’s true it’s pretty repetitious to hear all of these (plus the various different recordings the Beatles made of the song in the studio before finalizing the track) all at once. But it’s historically fascinating, especially as it evolved from a much simpler near-folk song in its earliest solo acoustic versions. And they do circulate unofficially, on CDs such as the one below:

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“Carnival of Light”: One of the most discussed Beatles studio outtakes that has never circulated, this wasn’t ever intended for Sgt. Pepper, but recorded on January 5 for use at a multimedia event of the same name at London’s Roundhouse on January 28 and February 4. From its description in Mark Lewisohn’s book The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions, it sounds heavily avant-garde, and perhaps tuneless. Hints have been dropped for years that it would find release. But its non-appearance on this deluxe box seems to indicate it might never appear—and that it might just not be very good and listenable.

“Good Morning Good Morning” home demo: Of the many home tapes John Lennon made in the late 1960s, this is the only one of a Sgt. Pepper song. In fact, it’s the only home recording of a Sgt. Pepper song. It’s just a bit over a minute long, and the chorus hasn’t been worked out, but it’s still interesting, in part because he chuckles after the fragment of the chorus (and the people he sees are “fast” rather than “half” asleep). Maybe home tapes were considered off-limits for a set featuring only EMI recordings, but that didn’t stop some such tracks from getting included in the Anthology series in the mid-1990s.

“Only a Northern Song”: The only real song recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions that didn’t make the album, aside from the “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” single. Sometimes people ask me what my least favorite Beatles song is, and while I don’t have many contenders (as I like almost all of their songs), this is among the ones I mention. About thirty years ago I did come across someone who thought it was great, but I’ve never met anyone else who shares that opinion. Actually I’ve heard few opinions voiced about this George Harrison composition whatsoever—it did find a place on the Yellow Submarine album, but many listeners simply don’t remember it well, or at all.

“Only a Northern Song” was rejected for Sgt. Pepper. George Martin seems to have been particularly unenthusiastic, remembering in With a Little Help from My Friends, “I groaned inside when I heard it.” He suggested Harrison try to come up with something better, which the Beatle did with “Within You, Without You”—not only a better song, but an infinitely better fit for the Sgt. Pepper LP.

It’s hard to imagine where “Only a Northern Song” would have fit, had the tune simply been accepted as George’s contribution. It seems like it would have brought the carnival-like mood to a dead stop, with its rather careless half-baked swirl. It wouldn’t be a great fit even for the Sgt. Pepper deluxe box, where I suspect few miss its absence. And unlike the other recordings in this section, you can get it on another official release, Yellow Submarine, in any case.

The title of "Only a Northern Song" was inspired by the name of the Beatles' publishing company.

The title of “Only a Northern Song” was inspired by the name of the Beatles’ publishing company.

So much is said in silence: Many times, I’ve read that there is no silence or no gap between tracks on Sgt. Pepper. This was mentioned in some writing on the LP shortly after it was released, and it’s still often referred to as a feature of the album. Kevin Howlett’s essay on the record’s “Songs and Recording Details” book in the deluxe box, for example, states:

“…the album sounds like a unified work. The elimination of the usual few seconds of silence between tracks helps to create this impression. The songs flow together without a break, like a surreal music hall variety show. Interestingly, the idea not to have ‘rills’ on the record had been considered before Sgt. Pepper. A month ahead of starting work on Revolver, in an interview published in NME, John discussed ideas for the group’s next album. ‘We wanted to have it  so that there was no space between the tracks—just continuous. But they wouldn’t wear it [sic].’ The group was eventually allowed to carry out that idea, not only on Sgt. Pepper, but also on subsequent albums.”

I think I was around eight years old (which would have been 1970) when I first read about there being no silence between the tracks in a couple books. Even then, that assertion puzzled me. There are just three instances when there is no silence: when the title track segues into “With a Little Help from My Friends” as they sing “Billy Shears”; when the animal noises in “Good Morning Good Morning” turn into the guitar that starts the reprise of the title track; and when the cheers at the end of the reprise fade and “A Day in the Life” starts.

Otherwise, there’s silence between the tracks. Very short gaps of silence, yes, lasting just a couple seconds or less. But they’re there. The other tracks don’t segue into each other, or slam right against each other, as they do in my favorite album in which this occurs, the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money (which of course was in part a Sgt. Pepper satire). I think the Mothers’ 1967 album Absolutely Free, released at almost the exact same time as Sgt. Pepper, was the first rock LP in which there was truly no silence separating tracks.

For what it’s worth, on my vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper, you can clearly see thin bands separating all of the tracks (even the ones that blend into each other), as you can on most LPs. Granted, it’s not a first pressing, but I don’t recall seeing other copies of Sgt. Pepper with no thin separating bands. (Update: just after this post went up, Peter Bochan (see comments section) clarified: “I got the first edition Sgt. Pepper shipped over from UK. It didn’t have visible track separations, if you looked at it closely you could see some of the songs ending by way of intensity of the groove patterns. US copy had tracks.”)

This is far from the most controversial issue surrounding the Beatles or even Sgt. Pepper, but I think the continued reference to no silence between the tracks is simply inaccurate. For that matter, although most of side two of Abbey Road is commonly described as a continuous medley starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money” and ending with “The End,” there is in fact a definite, if short, silence between “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” and “Golden Slumbers.” I don’t know how these things get entrenched, but once they do, it’s hard to stop them. (Also note some tracks on The White Album fade into each other without silent breaks, like “Back in the USSR” into “Dear Prudence” and “Revolution 9” into “Good Night,” but that’s never referred to as an LP without separating tracks.)

One more silence-related issue to bring up about Sgt. Pepper: the original UK issue had a bit of gibberish in the run-out groove after “A Day in the Life” ended (as well as a high-pitched whistle only dogs could hear), but the North American one didn’t. The book in the deluxe box explains how this might have happened.

As early as April 19, well before Sgt. Pepper’s release, some US radio stations somehow obtained copies of some tracks and began broadcasting them without authorization. Capitol Records wanted to counteract this by issuing the LP as soon as possible, and a cable from EMI indicates the mono tapes were sent on April 21, with the stereo ones hoped to follow the next day. “At this stage, the target release date was 8 May 1967,” Kevin Howlett writes (though it wouldn’t come out until the beginning of June). “The haste to supply Capitol with tapes partly explains why the American version of Sgt. Pepper did not include the material embedded in the run-out groove of the British record.” (Don’t worry, it’s on the 50th anniversary reissues.)

I honestly don’t remember discussing this run-out groove with anyone in my lifetime. My opinion is that on a CD, it’s much more effective to just have the memorable final piano chord of “A Day in the Life” (and the whole album) fade into silence, without anything to follow. And maybe that’s how it should have been on all editions of the LP, too.

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ADT on “She’s Leaving Home”: ADT refers to “automatic double-tracking,” a device often used on Beatles recordings to thicken sounds, especially lead vocals. One of the more interesting bonus tracks on the deluxe box is the “first mono mix” of “She’s Leaving Home,” which has four cello notes at the end of each chorus that were edited out of the final version. In addition, the opening notes on the harp, played by Sheila Bromberg, are treated with ADT, giving them a strange artificial effect that was not used on either the mono or stereo versions on the final album.

In 2011, Bromberg was interviewed by BBC One television about playing on the track. The brief segment is interesting, as I don’t recall her discussing this anywhere else. She recalls that Paul McCartney had the musicians (none of the Beatles played on the track) try several different ways of playing the song, and had trouble verbalizing how he wanted Bromberg to change her part, especially as he didn’t write or read music. After all those attempts, it was the first take that ended up being used.

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In the segment, the BBC interviewer states, “When Sheila heard the track, she realized they’d used the first take. The sound McCartney had been after, a doubling effect of her playing, had been created by the engineers.” “That’s how they got that sound. That’s what he was after. Yes!” exclaims Bromberg.

It makes a good story, but the “doubling” or ADT effect was not used on either the official stereo or mono versions. You can clearly hear the difference on the intro of the “first mono mix.” As Mark Lewisohn writes in The Beatles Recording Sessions, “As an experiment, ADT was applied to the song’s opening harp passage on [mono] remix one, but the idea was dropped after that.”

So why would Bromberg have thought the track was “doubled”? Is it even possible she was accidentally played the then-unreleased “first mono mix” when interviewed for the program?

Another Beatle myth exploded: The book in the deluxe box set doesn’t have much information that’s different to how the genesis of Sgt. Pepper has usually been reported. Here’s the most important exception:

Almost since the time it was released, it’s generally been accepted that “Strawberry Fields Forever” was edited together from two different takes. These were performed in different keys and different tempos, so it would have been virtually impossible to do this with 1966 technology without sounding awkward. George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick managed to do so, however, by speeding up take 7 and slowing down take 26. Miraculously, the keys and tempos now matched, almost as if by divine miracle. Takes 7 and 26 are both on the deluxe edition.

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Or, at least, that’s how it was usually reported, as it is in The Beatles Recording Sessions. However, the book in the Sgt. Pepper box gives a different account. Here, Kevin Howlett writes that “the speed of take 26 was reduced by 11.5 percent and, as John’s voice was lowered by over a tone in pitch, the effect was created of a sleepy slur as he sang. The speed of take seven was not altered.”

Well, isn’t that a cold shower. I’ve told the story about both takes being altered and matched with calm authority at least half a dozen times when I’ve taught a course on the Beatles. Now I can’t tell it anymore. But it does go to show that Beatles mysteries continue to be untangled fifty years after the fact, buried in the deep recesses of EMI’s tape vaults.

The previously unreleased material on the Sgt. Pepper box, along with all of the other recordings the Beatles made that weren't released while they were active, are written about in detail in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film.

The previously unreleased material on the Sgt. Pepper box, along with all of the other recordings the Beatles made that weren’t released while they were active, are written about in detail in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film.

Walter De Maria, Pre-Velvet Underground Renaissance Man

One of the rewards of doing research for intensely detailed books is that the deeper you dig, the more there is to find. (There certainly aren’t many financial rewards involved!) Such is the case with untangling the histories of the Velvet Underground’s associates, especially in the years before 1966, when quite a few people from the avant-garde scene influenced the path the band would take. Sometimes it leads you to experimental records and movies you never would have checked out otherwise, and even makes you aware of interesting other projects with little or nothing to do with the Velvets.

One of the more interesting people who was involved, if briefly, with future Velvet Underground members was Walter De Maria. He was the drummer in the Primitives, the group formed by Lou Reed and John Cale with another guy who wouldn’t go on to the Velvets, Tony Conrad. The band was only around for about two or three months in late 1964 and early 1965, and only Reed appears on the sole Primitives single, “The Ostrich”/“Sneaky Pete,” recorded before the other musicians were recruited. But it was in the Primitives that Reed and Cale first worked together, forming the core of the Velvet Underground after Conrad and De Maria drifted away to other pursuits.

The Primitives, late 1964. Left to right: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale.

The Primitives, late 1964. Left to right: Tony Conrad, Walter De Maria, Lou Reed, and John Cale.

The work of Tony Conrad is fairly well known, at least to many people with an interest in the avant-garde arts. He played in La Monte Young’s group with Cale before and (for a little while) after the Primitives and made quite a few seriously avant-garde recordings, a good number of which were made commercially available. He also made one of the more noted experimental films of the 1960s, 1966’s Flicker, comprised solely of alternating black and white frames.

Walter De Maria’s work outside the Primitives is not so well known, at least to those whose interest in the Velvet Underground is focused on their musical manifestations. He is quite well known as an environmental installation artist, though many who know him for that work are unaware of his relatively slim activity as a musician. In fact, his 1977 piece The Lightning Field is one of the most celebrated examples of “land art,” its 400 stainless steel poles occupying a grid measuring one mile by one kilometer in New Mexico. Other noted, smaller-scale De Maria creations, New York Earth Room (a room filled with 250 cubic yards of earth) and The Broken Kilometer, have been on permanent display in New York City for many years. Some of his visual artwork can be seen, along with some footage of De Maria himself, in the 2015 documentary Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art, which is pretty interesting even if your interest in De Maria (and land art itself) is casual.

The poster for the documentary "Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art" features a photo of Walter De Maria.

The poster for the documentary “Troublemakers: The Story of Land Art” features a photo of Walter De Maria.

While De Maria’s musical activities are relatively obscure, they’re more extensive than many people realize. Serious Velvets fans — at least those serious enough to read my book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day — know that not long after the Primitives, he was drummer in the Insurrections, fronted by fellow avant-gardist Henry Flynt. Flynt had his own fairly close Velvets connection, filling in for John Cale at a few actual Velvet Underground shows in fall 1966.

Later in 1966, Flynt recorded an album’s worth of material as the guitarist and singer in Henry Flynt & the Insurrections. The group’s raw, primitive sound is similar in some respects to the Velvets and the Fugs, but has more of a hillbilly flavor (particularly in the vocals), and is frankly not nearly as impressive as the music being produced by their Lower East Side peers. The recordings weren’t released until 2004, on the Locust Music album I Don’t Wanna.

Walter De Maria plays drums on these 1966 recordings by Henry Flynt & the Insurrections, which weren't issued until 2004.

Walter De Maria plays drums on these 1966 recordings by Henry Flynt & the Insurrections, which weren’t issued until 2004.

That’s about as far as I got on the trail of De Maria’s musical activities for the first edition of White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day, and I didn’t think there was much if anything left to exhume. It turns out, though, that De Maria had released an actual CD of 1960s recordings so obscure — at least, obscure enough to evade my detection — that I wasn’t even aware of it until working on my revised ebook edition in recent months.

At some point in 1964, De Maria recorded a 24-minute instrumental piece, “Cricket Music.” Although the ingenious conceptual composition mixes his drumming and the sounds of crickets, their chirps are hard to detect until about the middle of this lengthy recording, on which De Maria solos in a rather jazzy, repetitious style. Soon, however, the crickets rise in volume until they’re louder than the drums, eventually dominating the soundscape as De Maria continues to plug away in the background, slightly varying his rhythms. By its conclusion, “Cricket Music” is all crickets. The entire track was eventually issued on his 2000 self-pressed CD Drums and Nature, which was reissued in 2016, though you’ll probably have a hard time finding a record store that carries it.

"Cricket Music" and "Ocean Music" were finally officially issued on this 2000 CD.

“Cricket Music” and “Ocean Music” were finally officially issued on this 2000 CD.

Drums and Nature also includes his 1968 recording “Ocean Music,” which is rather similar in conception. Starting off with several minutes of the sound of ocean waves, his 20-minute piece “Ocean Music” eventually blends the waves with his jazzy repetitious drumming, until by the end the drums have totally overwhelmed the ocean sounds. It’s thus something of a mirror image of “Cricket Music,” in which the sounds of crickets eventually submerge his drumming.

What’s more, both “Cricket Music” and “Ocean Music” were used in De Maria’s 1969 movie Hard Core, which like his other projects was hardcore avant-garde. The half-hour film’s composed primarily of slow pans over a mountain-shadowed dry, cracked lake bed in the desert. (One source says this was in the Mojave Desert; another says it was in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.) These are periodically interrupted by super-brief shots of two cowboys preparing for a duel, ending with a lengthy shootout. That’s not quite the final sequence, however, as it’s followed by a lingering close-up of an Asian girl’s face, perhaps as an oblique reference to the war in Vietnam.

hardcore-filmstill-hc1

It’s not so easy to see the film these days, but it can be viewed for a $25 fee in the Film Library and Study Center of the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California. Fortunately I live just across the Bay in San Francisco, and so was able to watch it earlier this year.

What’s most interesting to me about Hard Core is not the film — which is largely static — but that it was actually broadcast on television, and indeed made for San Francisco’s public TV station KQED, which aired it in 1969. I admit I don’t watch everything on KQED (still the biggest public TV station in the Bay Area, and indeed one of the most watched such stations in the US), but I have a hard time imagining it would screen something like this these days. Maybe there are some such items I’m missing (perhaps in their periodic broadcast of work by local independent filmmakers), but I don’t recall seeing anything close to as, well, hardcore as Hard Core.

What’s more, Hard Core was not some one-off that found its way onto KQED by a fluke, but part of its experimental Dilexi Series. This is the only installment of the series I’ve yet seen, but it also includes Frank Zappa’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich film and an episode, Music With Balls, featuring a performance by Terry Riley (himself a performer with pretty close Velvet Underground associations, collaborating with John Cale on the Church of Anthrax album shortly after Cale left the Velvets).

Zappa-Burnt-Weeny-Sandwich

The twelve-part Dilexi Series was not solely devoted to music or work by filmmakers who were in, or (like De Maria) somewhat in, the musical world. There was also an episode by Andy Warhol, although his contribution, The Paul Swan Film, was (along with Burnt Weeny Sandwich) one of the two entries that had already been filmed, and wasn’t specifically produced for this series. Other installments were contributed by top photographer Robert Frank (later to direct the legendary unreleased documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 US tour) and the Living Theater’s Julian Beck. Episodes featuring and/or directed by less celebrated artists encompassed dance, found footage, documentary, and satire.

Incidentally, there’s another connection between this series and a top rock band. It was produced by John Coney, and Jim Farber worked on it as a production assistant. In April 1970, Coney and Farber would co-produce an hour-long film of a Pink Floyd concert (performed at the Fillmore in San Francisco, though not in front of an audience) that was subsequently broadcast on KQED. Most, though not all, of that footage is on a DVD/Blu-Ray disc in Pink Floyd’s recent box set The Early Years 1965-1972.

Even considering the Pacific Film Archive allows you to view up to two hours of material (appointment needed in advance) from its library for the $25 fee — something, unfortunately, I wasn’t aware of when I reserved Hard Core for screening — you’d need three sessions, and $75, to see all dozen episodes. The Dilexi Series seems historically important enough to issue on DVD, or even to re-broadcast on KQED, should the station have the rights to do so. My guess is that some or most of the installments, like Hard Core, are not terribly accessible, and in some respects tough going to watch. They’d serve as a reminder, however, of the risks television can take, and the exposure it can give to important talents far outside the mainstream.

The Record Plant in Sausalito

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

Hot tubs, water beds, sex, and drugs — all were staples of the Record Plant in Sausalito, home to some of the highest times of any Bay Area studio in the 1970s.

Yet there was no small amount of rock and roll too. The dozens of famous albums partially or fully recorded at the Plant in the ’70s include Sly Stone’s Fresh, Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life and Prince’s debut album For You. The Plant continued its reign as one of the top studios in the Bay Area into the early 21st century, through several ownership changes that, at one point, saw the federal government running the facility.

That wasn’t the sort of atmosphere its founders had in mind when the Record Plant opened in late 1972. After establishing himself as a top recording engineer with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa, Gary Kellgren opened successful branches of the Plant in New York and Los Angeles with business partner Chris Stone before the two set their sights on Sausalito. As Raechel Donahue (who coordinated KSAN’s live-in-the-studio concerts from the Plant) puts it, “They invented this idea of having a recording studio that gave everybody a comfortable place to be.”

 

The Record Plant in Sausalito, as it looked when photographed in November 2016.

The Record Plant in Sausalito, as it looked when photographed in November 2016.

“Basically, it was a party atmosphere to record in,” says Jim Gaines, who produced and engineered records by the likes of Santana, Journey and Huey Lewis at the Plant. “They built this studio up here to go for the Bay Area bands. But not only that, bring up people from L.A. that wanted to get out of L.A. They had a hot tub in it, they had a boat at one point in time [to] take people out. The house”— where members of bands like Fleetwood Mac would stay during their Plant sessions — “was part of the package deal. And Kellgren was a party kind of guy.”

Indeed, when Gaines interviewed with Kellgren for a job at the Plant, “I’m shaking hands with this guy in this purple or blue Napoleon outfit. He’s got the hat on and everything. I’m thinking, ‘Do I want to work for this guy? Good lord.’ It was all about a big party for him, as well as working. He seemed to put those two together. That’s why the studio was built.”

Gaines turned down the job in favor of staying at Wally Heider’s studio in downtown San Francisco, adding that “when Heider found out that they were coming into Sausalito, he went out and found a building. He had plans to build a studio in Mill Valley to counteract ‘em.” Notes engineer and producer Stephen Barncard, who, like Gaines, also worked sessions at both Heider’s and the Plant, “Wally had plans for a studio in Mill Valley near Tam Junction. I actually saw the plans. He was gonna get [TV and film production company] Filmways to pay for it, and when the Record Plant went in, it was over. It never happened.”

As just one example of the detail lavished upon the facility, recalls Gaines, “the ceiling in Studio B looked like clouds. They were made out of cut-out plywood in different forms, and covered with velveteen or velvet or something like that; they looked like clouds hanging up there. Kellgren was smart; he wanted his rooms to look different. He knew he wanted to make it artsy.”

Word about the Record Plant got out through its lavish opening party, as well as KSAN broadcasts of live-in-the-studio programs featuring such heavyweights as Bob Marley & the Wailers (part of whose October 1973 performance at the Plant was issued on the Talkin’ Blues CD), Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt and Fleetwood Mac.

 

Part of this archival Bob Marley release features material recorded at the Plant in 1973 for a KSAN broadcast.

Part of this archival Bob Marley release features material recorded at the Plant in 1973 for a KSAN broadcast.

“At this time it wasn’t really common to do live broadcasts, especially from a recording studio,” explains Raechel Donahue. “When we were at KSAN, our version of a live broadcast was me and [DJ] Terry McGovern and a 100-foot microphone cord which I would feed out the window to him, so he could interview people on the street. It really was [KSAN manager] Tom [Donahue], Chris Stone, and Gary Kellgren who figured out, ‘Ah, there’s obviously a way to do this if we could only just figure this out.’”

KSAN kicked off its Record Plant broadcasts with a legendary 72-hour marathon. At one point during Kris Kristofferson’s performance, according to Raechel Donahue, “this wackadoodle guy came wandering through the studio singing ‘He’s a peach pit, he’s a pom pom, he’s a pervert, he’s a fool’” — bastardizing the lyric of one of Kristofferson’s most famous songs, “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33” — “and then just walked out the other door.”

“Everyone who was anyone was there, and they wandered in and wandered out,” Donahue said. “All I had to do was figure how to coordinate that. But that’s kind of what KSAN was all about, figuring out how to make reality blend into music. It was a crazy thing to do, but it did start the whole Record Plant live thing.”

It wasn’t the only craziness at KSAN broadcasts; Bob Simmons, the announcer for some of them, recalls Last Tango in Paris star Maria Schneider “wandering around trying to get someone to get in the hot tub with her” during one.

The Plant soon attracted not only stars from L.A. and out of state, but also quite a few from the Bay Area itself. The setting was as vital to its appeal as the studio itself. “Heider’s was downtown in the Tenderloin,” says Gaines. “That’s a whole different concept down there. I mean, just to park your car and get to the studio without being mugged is a feat. The Record Plant, you could just walk out, and you’re only like one door from the water. Then you got some public tennis courts down the streets. When I was working with KBC Band — Marty Balin and [Jack] Casady and Paul Kantner — Marty would go down there and play tennis while we weren’t working.”

The studio’s most famous feature, however, was on the premises, and more notorious for its, shall we say, extracurricular activities. The sunken area known as the Pit was, in Barncard’s words, “partial boudoir and studio. It’s basically for a place to do track-by-track overdubs and vocals, and then make love to your girlfriend between, in breaks over in the side.”

“Sly Stone moved into that back room for a while,” reports Gaines. “They had a little bedroom for him. Just a bed, with little frilly stuff over it. He wanted all of the doorknobs moved up. It’s like he was a kid or something. The doorknob couldn’t be in a regular place, it had to be like a foot higher. I finally changed that. I said, ‘Man, I can’t deal with this.’ There’s a lot more [stories], but I don’t know if I could tell some of ‘em.’”

Part 2

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

After getting up and running in the early 1970s with some celebrity local musicians and KSAN broadcasts (see part one of this feature), the Record Plant in Sausalito seemed to be thriving in the last half of the decade. Steve Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, and Rick James all used the studio to record hits, and it’s where Prince cut his debut album. Yet there was no small amount of turbulence behind the scenes, culminating in the Plant almost getting shut down in the mid-1980s before reasserting itself as a top recording facility.

For all the glamour passing through its grounds, not everyone was enamored with the sounds. Although Fleetwood Mac did more than 3,000 hours of recording there for Rumours in early 1976, relatively little was used on the final album, which was largely recorded later that year in L.A. studios. Stevie Nicks may have used the privacy of the sunken area dubbed “the Pit” to write “Dreams,” though it was just as famous as a retreat for drug use by musicians and their visitors.

“The Pit was a complete idiotic idea,” says engineer/producer Stephen Barncard. “That’s how hard the studios were fighting to get those kind of clients.” While the drug use it fostered might have helped attract name players, as Barncard points out, it wasn’t always conducive to the best results. At one session he worked with short-lived semi-supergroup KGB (who included Mike Bloomfield, Carmine Appice, and Barry Goldberg), “Keith Richards was in the next room, and he was apparently passing around some kind of green snortable substance. [Producer Jim Price’s] friend who came along had snorted it up, and got really ill. That kind of put a pall over the whole session.”

As an engineer, Barncard is also critical of the space from some technical respects. “Even perfect equipment doesn’t necessarily always guarantee you’re gonna have a better record,” he feels. “I am really a fan of natural acoustics, of natural spaces. The Record Plant did not have natural spaces. It was the most unnatural. It was designed for totally isolated, multi-track recording, where you don’t have leakage between the tracks. Where you can go and punch in and fix things, and you won’t have anything behind there to give away the fact that you punched in there.

“Stevie Wonder, Songs In the Key of Life? That’s the deadest record ever recorded. That’s the Record Plant sound. I didn’t like to record there because I lacked time to make stuff sound decent, but I liked the people, the gear and the location,” Barncard continues. “Many, like [producer/engineer Jim] Gaines, were able to create hit records from there, and that’s all that counts in the end. But they had the gigantic budgets and my experience was a couple of overnight quickies and two weeks with New Riders of the Purple Sage, so take my opinion with a grain of salt. In the end, we’re talking different styles of producing, and it’s all good.”

Artwork for Stevie Wonder's 'Songs in the Key of Life'

 Projects continued to roll into the Plant in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the studio’s ownership was in flux, soon threatening its very existence. Co-founder Gary Kellgren, the engineer/producer who was the artistic force behind the operation, drowned in his Hollywood swimming pool in 1977. In the early ’80s the other co-founder, Chris Stone, sold the Plant to a quadriplegic teenage music fan, Laurie Necochea. In 1984, a year before her death, it was sold to Stanley Jacox.

Around that time, the Pit was rejigged for more constructive purposes. “While I was doing the Con Funk Shun record [‘Electric Lady’], John Fogerty calls me,” Gaines said. “He’s coming out of retirement, quote-unquote, and he wants a studio. I had just opened up [the former Pit as] the little C room in the back. He said ‘Jim, I’m just gonna do this record myself. I’m playing all the instruments. Can you engineer it?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m in the middle of a record, I’ll give you my assistant Jeffrey Norman. Just move into the back. We need to open up the room anyway, and you’ll be easy.’

“When we turned it back into a real studio, Centerfield was the first record cut in that little room. There would be days when I had Starship in one room, Huey Lewis in another room, and Fogerty in the other.”

Artwork for John Fogerty's 'Centerfield'

Yet soon after that, Jacox was accused of manufacturing amphetamines in his home and investing some of the proceeds in the Plant — and the studio was actually taken over by the federal government.

“The day the studio was shut down, I had a session with Journey,” remembers Gaines. “I noticed there’s a lot of cars in the parking lot for 9:30. As I’m approaching the door, here comes federal marshals; all kind of police are surrounding me. They said, ‘We’ve just taken possession of the studio, and we need to interview you.’

“They went through the studio, looking for drugs. They thought that was the source of the ‘drug manufacturing,’ quote unquote,” Gaines says. “They didn’t find any drugs. I mean, there might have been a joint or something in one of the road cases, but they were highly disappointed.

“They basically told me, ‘Look, we’re gonna take possession.’ Fortunately, I had Journey in there with all their gear and stuff. I said, ‘Well, you can’t take possession until I get all my band’s gear out of here, and tapes. ‘Cause we’re working on a record, and you cannot have any of this stuff. It doesn’t belong to the studio.’ I called the band up and said, ‘We gotta clear outta here. Everybody come and get stuff.’

“It was shut down for around six months or so, maybe more. At one point, the federal marshals offered me a position to open and run the studio. I said to them, ‘Look, if my clients knew I worked for the federal marshals, you think that they would come in here? Here’s the deal. Take my secretary, make her the studio manager, and I will come in and do some work.’ I actually opened the studio with Santana when that part reopened.”

Gaines was also working with Santana at the studio for the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

“Carlos and one of his main guys had just left to go shopping when that quake hit. I was working with Chester Thompson doing some organ overdubs. We were in studio A; I didn’t think we were gonna get out of there before that damned thing came down. When it hit, you can feel there’s some low-end rumble or something going down. So CT looks at me and says, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ I said, ‘What are you doing?” And we both said, ‘Uh-oh.’

“And we hit flying into that door, man. We’re out on the ground out in the parking lot, and the ground is rolling along. I had a bottle in my car; we sit in the parking lot, found us some cups, and turned the radio on, listening to ‘Bay Bridge collapsing and the freeway collapsing.’ One of the consoles got beat up pretty bad, and twisted a little bit. We was down for about at least three or four days. Phones didn’t work. The only thing that worked was the fax machine, for some reason. We never figured that out.”

Part 3

This story was first posted on the KQED Arts website’s new series Into The Mix, which focuses on little-known stories from the Bay Area music scene’s past and present. Reproduced courtesy of KQED.

When Arne Frager took over the Plant in Sausalito in 1988, he wasn’t much interested in sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

“I was really interested in rebuilding the studio into a really great sound emporium for making records,” Frager said.

If hits are what a studio’s judged by, it generated plenty of those over the next decade and a half or so. It held sessions for big albums by Carlos Santana, Metallica, Dave Matthews, John Lee Hooker, and Mariah Carey, as well as for lesser-selling but celebrated artists like the Kronos Quartet.

 

A doorway to the Plant, as it looked in November 2016.

A doorway to the Plant, as it looked in November 2016.

“It was a party studio throughout the ’70s, until the government seized it in 1985,” says Frager, as the first two parts of this series illustrate. “I had Herbie Herbert, the manager of Journey, tell me he’d never go there, even though he knew I was rebuilding it and was more serious about business. He said, ‘I tried to talk Journey out of going there, and they went there and wasted lots of money just partying. I didn’t like that.’”

So if the partying, if not eliminated, was no longer as much the focus, what was drawing so many acts to the Plant, both from the Bay Area and beyond?

“You would have the ability to step outside and be surrounded by these gorgeous, tall eucalyptus trees, and walk a few steps out to a beautiful dock by the edge of the bay,” remarks producer/engineer Enrique Gonzalez Müller (now also a professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music), who was on the staff for several years starting in 1999, and continued to work on Plant projects until its 2008 closure. “But at the same time, you didn’t really feel the need to step out of the studio because the vibe was amazing!

“One of the studios that had a lot of use, called the Garden—which used to be Sly Stone’s personal room back in the day—the lounge for that studio was literally outside, in the open air. The lounge was this beautiful little garden that had fish in a pond and a Jacuzzi that you could relax in. It wasn’t really the type of atmosphere that you find in a lot of big studios where you do want to step out for air and escape the pressure of making records. People just relaxed, hung out, and that level of ease and comfort definitely transpired onto the music being captured within those walls.”

Just because Frager was the owner didn’t mean he always got special treatment. When Van Morrison was booked for an album, “the only words he spoke to me in the month he was at the Plant were ‘Hi, I’m Van’” as Arne was waiting to greet Van the Man at the studio’s front door on the first day of the sessions. When Frager went to Studio C to introduce himself to Starship, their manager “blocked the door and said ‘hey, you can’t come in here,’ and locked the door in front of me.” When Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind kept parking his motorcycle in Arne’s space by the front door, according to Frager, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted relieved himself on the vehicle in rebuttal, though by the time Jenkins came out at night hours later, the stink had evaporated.

Such hijinks, however, seemed to take a back seat to more serious work, such as sessions Gonzalez Müller worked on for the Kronos Quartet’s You’ve Stolen My Heart. “Kronos decided that they were going to record and re-create every single element heard in these [vintage] Bollywood scores, which have gigantic orchestral, super-quirky, unconventional instruments,” he recalls. “We needed to do a ton of overdubs. If they wanted to record one melody, they would record it three, six, eight times to create the sound of a larger orchestra. It became this beautiful monster for us engineers. We had to be on top of this massive amount of musical input that then we had to filter, sift through, and condense into something palatable.

“They brought in Asha Bhosle,” the Indian singer on the original recordings of this material, composed by her late husband, R.D. Burman. Then in her early seventies, “Asha had more energy than any of us, and the Kronos Quartet are an energetic bunch. When she started singing, it was an exact photocopy of what you had heard her do in the ’50s. Every single peak and valley of her vibrato seemed to be performed perfectly, deliberately, and assertively.

“Here we were in a laboratory making this beautifully layered, complex Persian rug one little tedious hair at a time. I might be misquoting the year, but to paraphrase, she shared this anecdote: ‘In 1943, I had to do two albums in one day. I remember reading the score as a young singer, and it had instructions for when to ‘duck,’ because the entire orchestra was recorded with one single microphone, live!’ The flutes were behind her, and if she didn’t duck, the microphone couldn’t capture their fragile sound accurately. That was such a profound story for me for how there’s a million ways that you can capture emotionally captivating music.”

asha

While Frager takes great pride in hits like Santana’s Supernatural (where a Polygram executive who signed Carlos came to sessions for a couple weeks just to hang out because he was such a big fan of the guitarist), he’d also sometimes let up-and-coming bands use the facilities. “We did a band on spec, just to help them, called the Monophonics,” who are from San Francisco and are “kind of a funky horn band. They’re out there touring all over the world doing really well. We gave ‘em the time at the Plant just for their first record. No charge.

“I always felt it was a crime to see a studio with a million-dollar investment, or 2 million, sitting there empty. If people approached me, and had a project—sometimes I had an interest in the project—sometimes we just gave ‘em the studio,” though he acknowledges he also did so for “a long list of bands nobody’s ever heard of.” 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit “What’s Up” was also cut at the Plant. But as Arne notes, singer-guitarist-songwriter Linda Perry never brought “another dollar’s worth of business into the Plant” after leaving the band for a solo career.

Frager sold the studio in 2008, although it kept running for another month or two. Since then the Plant in Sausalito has ceased operations, though the building’s now being used by Harmonia, “a health and well-being social club” (as its website describes it).

“We started losing money in 2000 because of Napster,” says Frager. “Young people who used to buy records suddenly found out that you could get music for free. I kept it alive for eight more years with my own money. I put [in] over $1 million, thinking ‘this can’t possibly stay this way. These record companies are gonna figure this out.’ I ran out of the ability to use my own personal funds. By the end of 2007, I could no longer afford to keep the doors open. Nobody’s making any records there, and that’s really what that building is for. They’ve been trying to sell it ever since I closed the doors.”

While Frager has moved on to a new chapter in his life and is now “signing and developing unknown artists,” he maintains the Plant Recordings Studios site “because that’s my brand. Above any studio I’ve ever been in that was a major studio, this place kind of had a laid back, relaxed feel. It was very conducive to making records. I always felt there was magic in that building. I still do.”

For Sale sign on the Plant property, November 2016.

For Sale sign for the building formerly housing The Record Plant in Sausalito, November 2016.

Rolling Stones Memorabilia

Last month in New York, I saw the Rolling Stones’ massive traveling exhibition of memorabilia, instruments, costumes, photos, and whatnot, Exhibitionism. Part of my intention was to write a blogpost about the exhibit, which was partially foiled by a no-photos policy. They do allow cell phone photos, but I don’t have a phone that can take pictures. That’s why the first graphic here is not of something in the exhibit, but of an EP boasting a cover from one of their first photo sessions, which I bought at a record convention back in the early 1980s for $6. “Where else are you gonna see a picture of Keith Richards looking like this?” was the dealer’s pitch.

Note that "Stoned," the B-side of the Rolling Stones' second single, is misspelled "Stones" on this EP.

Note that “Stoned,” the B-side of the Rolling Stones’ second single, is misspelled “Stones” on this EP.

You’re not going to see it at this exhibition. Now even with nine big rooms, such a space isn’t going to be able to show close to everything. Still, another reason this blogpost isn’t exactly an extended Exhibitionism review is that it was just okay, nothing extraordinary. There wasn’t a whole lot to wow the diehard Stones fan/collector. With ticket prices close to $40, it wasn’t nearly as good a value as that EP, even adjusting for inflation.

Of course, it wasn’t a total loss by any means. I liked the re-creation of the squalid 1963 flat in which Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones lived, as well as some of the vintage instruments. A fact sheet Brian Jones filled out in 1964 reveals he was a fan of Richie Barrett (original writer/singer of “Some Other Guy,” the first song the Beatles were filmed performing) and the New Orleans R&B label Minit. A tape box for tracks from Their Satanic Majesties Request has working titles for some of the songs (“2000 Light Years from Home” is inexplicably called “Toffee Apple,” for instance).

That’s not enough to fill up a solid blogpost. What the displays did do for me, however, was generate some Stones memorabilia I was unfamiliar with when I searched for some of the things I saw at the exhibit online. For instance, one of the neatest instruments you could see was a Vox amplifier Bill Wyman used when he auditioned for the band in late 1962. As the now well known tale goes, they weren’t particularly eager to recruit Wyman. But Bill was, as Roy Carr wrote in The Rolling Stones: An Illustrated Record, “embraced not only because of his ability, but because he appeared to possess more amplification equipment than the rest of the group put together.”

The amp that made such an impression back in 1962 doesn’t seem so mighty these days:

voxamp

Retrieving this image, however, called up a couple cool Vox endorsement ads the group posed for early in their career. (A few such ads can be seen in Andy Babiuk and Greg Prevost’s fine book Rolling Stones Gear: All the Stones’ Instruments from Stage to Studio.)

voxwymanbass-1965

The shot of Brian Jones on the left is obviously from a later era than the earlier one circa mid-late 1963 on the right, when the Stones were still wearing uniform suits of sorts.

The shot of Brian Jones on the left is obviously from a later era than the earlier one circa mid-late 1963 on the right, when the Stones were still wearing uniform suits of sorts.

I couldn’t find a Satanic Majesties tape box, but the search coughed up one for their 1964 5 X 5 EP. The great instrumental “2120 South Michigan Avenue” is missing “South” in the title. Much more interesting is that it’s subtitled “(And Muddy Came Too).” This might be a source of (almost certainly false) rumors that Muddy Waters, the blues great the Stones did meet when they went to Chess Records at 2120 South Michigan Avenue in Chicago, plays on the track. Also check the note “fade at approx 2 mins—between marks,” though on a German LP (and a CD reissue of the US LP on which this appears), the track runs about a minute and a half longer, that instruction getting discarded.

5x5-tape

There were some promo posters for Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed that were new to me, and rare, considering not many are online. As this one for Beggars Banquet (spelled Beggar’s Banquet in the copy) shows, this June 1968 photo session at the seventeenth century Swarkstone Hall Pavilion in Derbyshire, England was also the source for the more famous picture that appears on the cover of the Hot Rocks compilation:

beggars-banquet

rolling-stones-back-album-cover-for-hot-rocks

You can stay at this (now restored) building, by the way, though it’s expensive, and its website does not volunteer information about whether you can just go there and walk around the grounds for a few minutes.

As long as I was searching (largely unsuccessfully) for the other late-‘60s promo posters, this ad I’d never seen for the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” single turned up;

jumpinjack

Looks like Wyman had a rough night. He looks more worn out than Jones in this picture—not an easy thing to do in 1968.

The film section of the exhibit was kind of disappointing, just offering a few clips from a few of their rockumentaries with some commentary. The poster for Gimme Shelter wasn’t at the exhibit, but it’s interesting as it uses an outtake from the session for their famous December Children’s LP cover shot. Brian Jones wasn’t in the Stones, of course, when Gimme Shelter was filmed in late 1969 more than four years later, and one has to guess New York’s Plaza Theatre just used whatever picture they had quickest access to:

gimmeshelterad

The guitar that Keith Richards used for “Sympathy for the Devil” was one of the more interesting instruments on display. I couldn’t find a picture of that online, but the search generated some picture sleeves for European singles that backed “Sympathy for the Devil” with “Prodigal Son,” an odd choice for a 45 even considering it was a B-side. Maybe this version of a song by bluesman Robert Wilkins (read more about how the Stones might have found his recording of it here) was selected by Decca to deny songwriting royalties to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Here’s the Dutch single, which has a really oddball sleeve design:

1324381

It turns out that there’s actually a logical reason the Stones are pictured sailing a ship named Veronica. Radio Veronica was a long-lived Dutch pirate radio station that was still broadcasting when this single came out in 1973—hence the lettering “Veronica’s favourite choice” at the bottom.

Should you visit Exhibitionism, take a walk afterward just a couple blocks north on New York’s great High Line park. The elevated walkway features ever-changing public artworks such as these, which I saw on my visit:

billboard

coffee

woman

sunbath

wheel

At the southern end of the High Line, there’s also the Whitney Museum of American Art, one of the foremost art museums in the US. Here’s a view of the neighborhood from one of its outdoor decks:

whitney

Top Twenty Rock Reissues of 2016

We’re half a century away from rock’s golden era—well, at least my favorite era of rock—and the reissues keep coming. There was no trouble filling up a Top Ten-and-then-some list for 2016, but there aren’t so many discoveries of previously unheard goodies these days, at least in my pile. The trend is more toward embellishment of previously available material into more definitive deluxe editions, with some overdue first-time-on-legitimate-CD issues of LPs that fans have long been clamoring to get back into print. There’s also a massive box of previously unreleased material from the prime of a major band (Pink Floyd) with the kind of hefty thoroughness that should be done for such acts, but seldom is.

Not that I hear many complaints from people who read this blog or other writing of mine, but the chronological scope of these reissues is narrow, though a few of them do fall outside of the mid-to-late- 1960s. This is, however, an honest list of my favorite 2016 reissues that I’ve heard. No doubt there were some I would have liked that I missed; contrary to some people’s belief, just because you’re a nice guy who’s written about this kind of stuff for a long time doesn’t mean you automatically get sent copies of everything you might want to hear. But if you care about rock history, you should find some items here you’ll want to know about, even if your concentration or specialties are different than mine.

1. Pink Floyd, The Early Years 1965-1972 (Pink Floyd/Legacy). Selecting a monstrously large, expensive box by one of the biggest acts of all time doesn’t make for the most exotic #1 year-end choice. With a price tag hovering around $500, you can’t exactly exhort readers to rush out and buy it either. Yet this does have an enormous amount of rare, or at least off-the-beaten track, material from their pre-Dark Side of the Moon era. The package adds up to ten CDs and nine DVDs (the disc count goes up if you add the blu-rays, though these don’t have significant material not on the other discs). It doesn’t quite have everything of note you can’t find on their 1967-72 studio albums (more on that in a bit). But it has a great deal of it, often in better quality than you’ll find on bootlegs of the same cuts and clips.

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Detailing and analyzing the contents in depth would take several thousand words minimum; go to the usual online sites for comprehensive track listings. For my own post, I’ll just note that while I have quite a bit of previously unofficial Floyd audio and video from this era, some of the audio and much of the video was entirely new to me. On the audio front, the most notable inclusions are their non-LP late-‘60s singles (previously reissued on numerous releases, but still not all that easy to find in total); six 1965 demos (previously released as a scarce limited edition) that aren’t that great, but are historically important as their first surviving recordings; and, most crucially, quite a few BBC sessions, many of which are really excellent.

Some of these, in fact, are arguably a match for, or even better than, the standard well known studio versions. The epic BBC rendition of “Interstellar Overdrive” from December 20, 1968—to give just one example—is both stupendous and quite different from the studio version, even if it (unlike many of the BBC cuts) isn’t quite hi-fi in fidelity. Other portions of the box are considerably less exciting, but sometimes—like the September 1969 live  Amsterdam performance of their rather half-baked conceptual album-that-never-was “The Man”—carry notable historical weight.

Video-wise, while some of this (like their 1967-68 promo clips) has been heavily bootlegged, much of it hasn’t. The quality, both as far as the image and (to a lesser extent) the performance, is variable. But some of the footage is excellent, and most (if not quite all) of it worth a look for the serious Floyd fan, even if there are too many versions of songs like “Set the Control For the Heart of the Sun” should you pack your viewing into two or three days. It’s admirable how they kept finding new and interesting ways to do “Interstellar Overdrive” in particular. If ambitious pieces like “A Saucerful of Secrets” couldn’t avoid patches of tedium, they usually attacked such challenges with commendable fearlessness.  Although the black-and-white footage of a near-full-length 1970 performance of “Atom Heart Mother” in Hyde Park is shaky, it’s certainly fascinating to see a large choir performing the piece with them live.

Could such a sizable collection possibly miss some worthwhile rarities? The answer, as it is for virtually all box sets of this magnitude, is yes. Even discounting the absence of several good circulating audio recordings of live early-‘70s concerts, the failure of Anthony Stern’s 1968 fifteen-minute avant-garde short film San Francisco to get included is a real loss, as its soundtrack is a hyper-jittery pre-record deal unreleased 1966 version of “Interstellar Overdrive.” There are plenty of Zabriskie Point soundtrack outtakes, but more have long been bootlegged. Their filmed-without-an-audience April 1970 performance (broadcast on San Francisco’s KQED public TV station) is missing some material shot for (but not used in) the program.

The absence of such items, however, will likely matter little or not at all even to most Floyd fans, as what’s here is abundant, of great historical interest, and often quite entertaining. Yet considering the scale and expense of this set, customers deserve more than the basic liner notes (by Mark Blake, author of the fine Floyd bio Comfortably Numb) here, although there’s a lot of neat memorabilia. Perhaps the three surviving Floyds could have contributed some quotes and memories with more details about this rare and oft-mysterious material, though it might not be easy to get them in the same room these days.

By the way, when I saw drummer Nick Mason in 2005 on the book tour for his  memoir Inside Out: A Personal History of Pink Floyd, he was asked whether there was anything unreleased of interest in the vaults that might come out in the future. He was nonchalantly dismissive of the notion that anything was worth putting out—an absurd contention even then, before the existence of everything on this set was known. Whatever could have happened in the intervening decade to change his and the rest of Pink Floyd’s minds?

2. The Move: Move (three-CD expanded), Something Else from the Move (expanded), Shazam (two-CD expanded), Looking On (two-CD expanded) (Esoteric). A few times on this list, I’ve taken the liberty of grouping a few related releases into one entry. This is the most notable instance, as these four reissues take the Move’s first three LPs (and sole EP) and radically expand them in size with bonus tracks. The result is a definitive representation of most of their career, though it doesn’t include their final LP and singles (done for a different label) or a two-CD compilation of live 1969 Fillmore performances that came out a few years ago.

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Although the Move are much better known in the US than they were in the late 1960s and early 1970s (due in part to Jeff Lynne and, if much more briefly, Roy Wood having gone on to the Electric Light Orchestra), they’re still not as widely known in the States as they should be. Aside from the Pretty Things, they were the best 1960s British rock group never to have a hit in the US. These CDs heap on a load of outtakes, demos, and (especially) BBC performances, some previously unreleased (though those of you who’ve kept up with other expanded editions and the Anthology 1966-1972 box will, alas, already have a great deal of this. They’re embellished with historical liner notes, a wealth of vintage photos, and (except for Something Else) mini-posters with reprints of articles from the UK press.

Space precludes a full examination of each CD; for that, you can consult my lengthy review of all four of them in issue #42 of Ugly Things. Let it just be said that if you haven’t heard or heard much of the Move, but you like the mid-to-late-‘60s work of the Beatles and the Who, these are highly recommended, as they combine some of the qualities of both bands with the added twist of Roy Wood’s eccentric but melodic songwriting. Move has their earliest and catchiest hits, as well as documenting the band in their poppiest (yet still pretty hard rocking phase); Something Else from the Move captures the band live at London’s Marquee club in 1968, and is surprisingly dominated by cover versions. Shazam finds them going into progressive rock-influenced epics (with some shorter songs thrown in), though not to the point of self-indulgence or sacrificing a catchy tune. Looking On, the only one of these albums recorded after Lynne joined, does sometimes verge on indulgent heavy progressive rock, though it retains some of their more songcraft-oriented elements. The wealth of BBC performances added to these CDs (Something Else excepted) include covers of quite a few songs the Move didn’t put on their regular releases, though these are usually ordinary in comparison to their studio performances of their original material.

3. The Yardbirds, The Yardbirds (two-CD expanded) (Repertoire). If you’re a fan of the Yardbirds—nay, if you’re a serious fan of ‘60s rock in general—you’ve probably had this 1966 album for a long time, and perhaps in more than one edition. If so, this two-CD expanded edition of the original album doesn’t have a whole lot of (and possibly no) goodies here you haven’t previously heard. But this is the definitive edition of their only full studio LP with Jeff Beck in the lineup, and in fact their first studio LP, period (the one album they did with Eric Clapton was live). Frequently referred to as Roger the Engineer because of its ungainly cover drawing of engineer Roger Cameron (and titled Over, Under, Sideways, Down in its US edition, which subtracted two tracks), it was an uneven but often thrilling collection of tracks that blended middle eastern/Indian-influenced melodies, hard blues-rock, pseudo-Gregorian backing vocals, social commentary, and Beck’s unequaled mastery of sustain and distortion, sometimes in the same tune. Taken together, it was a building block of psychedelic music, though the quintet that made this album would soon alter with the departure of bassist/co-producer Paul Samwell-Smith and the entry of Jimmy Page.

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This two-CD expansion has both the mono and stereo mixes, which sometimes differed radically, the mono mix of the weird-as-get-out instrumental “Hot House of Omagararshid” featuring a scorching Beck guitar solo missing from its stereo counterpart. It also has their incredible psychedelic single from later in 1966, “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago” (with both Beck and Page on guitar), as well as its humdrum non-LP B-side “Psycho Daises” and the sole other track from the Beck-Page era, “Stroll On” (the rewrite of “Train Kept A-Rollin’” they played in the Blow Up film). There are also all five tracks used on Keith Relf’s rare 1966 singles (which were in a far more baroque folk-pop mold than the Yardbirds tracks on which he sang), and some alternate versions of songs from the 1966 LP of only marginal interest. Historical liner notes with comments from Samwell-Smith and drummer Jim McCarty top off the package. While it’s not my intention to turn this post into an ad for Ugly Things, issue #42 features a lengthy interview I conducted with Paul Samwell-Smith in 2016, including numerous comments about the Roger the Engineer album.

4. Judy Henske & Jerry Yester, Farewell Aldebaran (Omnivore). This has long been on the list of the most desirable psychedelic rarities never to gain legitimate CD reissue, which it finally did this summer, complete with historical liner notes and extra tracks. Originally issued on Frank Zappa’s Straight label in 1969, it’s an assortment of enigmatic songs with oddball imagery encompassing blues-rock, country-folk, satire, and early synthesizer experiments. There’s no better obscure album by early-‘60s folk revival veterans ending up as weird psychedelicists at the end of the decade. The five bonus cuts are just instrumental demos of some of the songs from the LP, but the rare pictures, graphics, handwritten lyrics, and period press release in the booklet are good surpluses. If I may, I think I can take some credit for revival of interest in this LP that finally led (almost twenty years later) to its CD reissue, as I included a chapter on Henske & Yester in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll—now available in a radically expanded ebook edition, of course.

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5. Fleetwood Mac, The Complete Unreleased BBC Anthology 1967-1968 (Albatross, bootleg). You can’t get this in stores, the quality is a little hissy, and there’s no annotation. So why does this rank so high? Because the music is largely very good—if I ranked these albums by how often I played them, it might place even higher. Quite a few Fleetwood Mac BBC recordings from the late 1960s and early 1970s (most with original lead guitarist/principal singer-songwriter Peter Green in the lineup) are on the two-CD Live at the BBC, but quite a few others remain unreleased. This features 19 of the early ones that didn’t make it onto Live at the BBC, and if the fidelity’s not quite optimal, in all cases it’s actually of an easily listenable standard. Of more importance, a lot of these songs were not only not on Live at the BBC, but not on any official Fleetwood Mac release.

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While some of this is routine blues or rock’n’roll oldies covers (including “Sheila,” “Bo Diddley,” and “Peggy Sue Got Married”), there are some dynamite blues cuts not included on their LPs, like B.B. King’s “Sweet Little Angel” and T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World.” Most interesting of all is an excellent version of Muddy Waters’s “You Need Love”—the same song (written by Willie Dixon) that provided the basis for Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” a year before that Zeppelin track was released (and a couple years after the Small Faces used it as the basis for “You Need Loving” on their first LP). Danny Kirwan takes lead vocal on the supremely haunting blues “Crazy for My Baby,” and while I’m not the biggest fan of Jeremy Spencer’s parodies, his “Psychedelic Send Up Number” is pretty funny and accurate (especially the lyric “I am here and you are there and we are all going nowhere”). It seems kind of unlikely this material will gain official release soon, but it should, with any sonic clean-up that can be applied without deadening the sound. For a fuller review of this CD, see my blogpost about it here.

6. The Beatles, Live at the Hollywood Bowl (Apple). How does the first CD issue of the only commercially available concert recording of the best rock act of all time not make #1 on a year-end list? Over-familiarity, perhaps. This was first issued on LP back on 1977; has never been hard to find used; and, despite the Beatles’ brilliance, isn’t all that great, in part because it wasn’t so well recorded. It couldn’t be well recorded considering the screaming at their shows and the concert recording technology of the time. It’s been remixed from the original multi-track tapes, but there really isn’t all that much you can do to make the source material sound much fuller or clearer. And while some might find it heretical, I don’t hear too much difference between this and the original LP.

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Still, it’s an exciting document of their concerts—for it mixes tracks from 1964 and 1965 shows together—in the midst of Beatlemania. There are plenty of great songs and enthusiastic performances, even if the songs don’t veer radically from the studio versions (and, without exception, aren’t as good as those studio versions). And the CD does include new historical liner notes, as well as four bonus tracks (two apiece from 1964 and 1965 shows; one of these, “Baby’s in Black,” did previously come out on the 1996 Real Love CD single). Note, however, that three complete Hollywood bowl shows were recorded—August 23, 1964; August 29, 1965; and August 30, 1965. Yes, a mike failure meant that Paul McCartney’s vocals were missing from a few of the August 29, 1965 songs. But why not put out a double CD of all three shows—which have long been available in their entirety on bootleg—in the sequence the songs were performed?

7. The Mamas & the Papas, The Complete Singles: 50th Anniversary Collection (Real Gone). Is there much that’s previously unheard in any form on this double CD of Mamas & Papas singles that you won’t have if you’ve paid attention to the group’s releases, whether when they were active or since? No, and be aware that most of disc two has solo singles by Cass Elliot, John Phillips, and Denny Doherty that don’t measure up to the group efforts. Audiophiles note, however, that this anthology features original mono single mixes, some of whose components are significantly different than the ones used in the more commonly available versions.

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Of more importance, however, disc one is simply extremely listenable—the best single-disc compilation of the Mamas & the Papas ever, in fact, even though it’s just half of this package. It has all the familiar hits, naturally. But it also has more quality B-sides and low-charting 45s than you might remember the group boasting, a few of which—“Got a Feelin’” and “Strange Young Girls” in particular—are on the level of their big hit singles. “For the Love of Ivy,” “Safe in My Garden,” “Somebody Groovy,” “Once Was a Time I Thought,” “Did You Ever Want to Cry,” “Glad to Be Unhappy,” “Too Late,” and “Midnight Voyage” aren’t far behind, and that’s almost an album’s worth of good non-hits right there. Also in its favor are lengthy liner notes with first-hand quotes from Michelle Phillips and producer Lou Adler, as well as a weird, wordlessly hummed 1969 Mama Cass solo single (“All for Me”) so obscure you can’t even call it up on Youtube.

8. Sandy Bull, Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo (Real Gone). In the early 1960s, it was virtually unprecedented for a musician to cut an album weaving together folk, jazz, blues, classical, gospel, and even a bit of electric rock’n’roll. Sandy Bull didn’t only do so over the course of his debut LP, 1963’s Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo. He also often fused different strands of folk, jazz, and world music within the same track, particularly on the groundbreaking cut that occupied all of side one, “Blend.” Lasting twenty-one minutes and fifty-one seconds, with jazz legend Billy Higgins accompanying Bull on drums, “Blend” was both mesmerizing and impossible to classify. In its length and improvisational feel (as well as Higgins’s drums), it drew from jazz; in Bull’s guitar style, elements of folk; and in its droning qualities and accelerating climax, aspects of middle eastern and Indian music. If side two’s four tracks were shorter, they were no less eclectic, encompassing interpretations of German composer Carl Orff, English Renaissance composer William Byrd, a Southern mountain tune, and a gospel song. Here’s hoping his yet better and more adventurous follow-up, 1965’s Inventions, will follow on CD soon. Incidentally, I did the liner notes for this CD, though I hope the ranking reflects where I would have listed it had I not written them.

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9. Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock Vol. 1 & 2 (Now-Again). It’s amazing enough that Nigerian rock bands managed to form, endure, and (after the fighting was over, for the most part) record during and after the country’s 1967-1970 civil war. These two compilations collect rare tracks, virtually unheard outside of Africa beyond intensely specialist collectors, by Nigerian groups between 1971 and 1978. The music is an exotically awkward, at least to the ears of the Western collectors at which these US anthologies are targeted, mix of rock, soul, psych, and funk, sprinkled with a bit of highlife and other African influences. The label garage rock-soul-funk might apply, but it’s a little bit stranger than that, with lyrics that sometimes seem stream of consciousness without any attempt at being arty. Influences from American icons like James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Carlos Santana can be heard. But these Nigerian guys (they’re all guys) didn’t quite have the equipment or experience to replicate them, instead coming up with something more interesting than simple imitation.

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Note that although these come packaged with extensive liner notes, the back cover blurb stating that these are “presented in two 100+ page books full of never-seen photos and the story of the best Nigerian rock bands told in vivid detail by musicologist and researcher Uchenna Ikonne” is a little misleading. These do indeed have interesting text and photos, but they don’t exactly add up to two books. Well over half of the text (and many of the photos) of the two volumes are identical, though each has some sections not in the other.

10. Graham Bond, Live at the BBC and Other Stories (Repertoire). It’s a testament both to the increased interest in demonic organist/singer Graham Bond’s music and the prolific body of work that survives that this four-CD set of 1962-1972 performances even exists. Most of its tracks are from the BBC, but some are taken from other live recordings, with a demo and rare studio releases on which Bond played thrown in too. Even if you have all his albums and the four-CD box of 1963-1967 material that Repertoire issued on Wade in the Water in 2012, you won’t have any of this. There are early-‘60s straight jazz recordings on which Bond played as part of the Don Rendell Quintet; 1963 BBC sessions (some backing singer Duffy Power) on which he and his group, with Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker, started to make the move from jazz to tentative R&B; and three January 1966 tracks on which the transition from jazz to his idiosyncratic brand of growling, hard-hitting soul-jazz-inflected R&B/rock was complete, as well as some bits and pieces from 1966-1972 of marginal interest.

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These account for three of the four discs, and if not for the fourth, this would be a kind of fill-in-the-blanks archival project for completists that couldn’t find a place on a year-end best-of roundup. Disc #3, however, would by itself earn a place on this countdown. Recorded by his short-lived Graham Bond Initiation outfit at two separate BBC sessions on January 31 and March 22 of 1970, it’s highlighted by a ferocious medley of two of his best compositions, “Walkin’ in the Park/I Want You,” and two equally galvanizing 13-minute interpretations of “Wade in the Water.” There are also two takes of one of his best post-Organization songs, “Love Is the Law,” as well as a couple others from his obscure, uneven late-‘60s US-recorded albums. The loose yet forceful “The World Soon Be Free” totally eclipses the comparatively anemic one on his Love Is the Law LP, and overall the ’70 sessions have a nearly mesmerizing blend of rock, blues, and hip jazz, with an aura that’s grim yet compelling. It’s Bond near his very best, playing and singing at a level he’d never again come close to in the four years remaining in his life.

11. The Boots, Beat! The Complete Telefunken Years (RPM). Besides the Lords, the Boots were the best mid-‘60s German “beat” band. They were also the German band most capable at emulating the British R&B style. Given the relatively few competitors they had in both categories on the German scene, and the generally poor standard of pre-Krautrock German rock as a whole, you could be forgiven for judging the first two sentences of this paragraph as damnation with faint praise. But while they were gold and silver medalists without much formidable competition, the Boots did (rather like the Lords) make records that were genuinely fun, even if they’d never win awards in the originality department. This two-CD compilation has all of their 1965-1967 recordings, including both of their LPs, some non-LP singles, and some compilation appearances and outtakes.

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Since the Boots for the most part covered songs recently recorded by British and American rock groups (or blues/R&B songs those bands covered) and wrote little of their own material, putting an idiosyncratic interpretive stamp on the material was necessary to make it noteworthy in any way whatsoever. This the Boots managed to do, with the help of Werner Krabbe’s mordant vocals and Ulli Grün’s funereal organ. And the Berlin band did have a feel for blues/R&B, whether on overdone standards like “Gloria” and “Dimples” or less clichéd choices like Cops & Robbers/The Pretty Things “You’ll Never Do It Baby” (here retitled “But You [sic] Never Do It, Babe”).

The non-blues/R&B tunes are in the minority, and might be disparaged by purists as too pop. Actually, however, these gave the Boots the chance to really ratchet up the haunted house factor that might have been their most distinguishing attribute. The Zombies’ great “Remember When I Loved Her” was eerie enough in its original guise; the Boots’ beyond-the-grave arrangement takes the despair of the original to the darkest corners of the cemetery. Similarly, the Shangri-Las’ “Remember (Walking in the Sand)” and the Walker Brothers’ “Another Tear Falls” were suitable vehicles for what we might call the Moody Boots, though not as striking as “Remember When I Loved Her.”

Disc one, dominated by their 1965 debut LP Here Are the Boots and early singles, is superior to disc two, given over mostly to the 1967 LP Beat with the Boots, on which they went in a far more soul-influenced direction. Even that includes a groovy organ-paced instrumental soul-jazz version of Mel Torme’s “Coming Home,” however. The best Boots material has been available on Bear Family’s Smash…! Boom…! Bang…! , but aside from its greater thoroughness, The Complete Telefunken Years has one more advantage. Unlike that Bear Family anthology, its liner notes are in English, summarizing the essentials of the Boots saga. That might be reason enough to make this the first comp of choice for English speakers, even if it’s more expensive.

12. Johnny Winter, Byrds Can’t Row Boats: The Unreleased Masters Collection 1965-1968 (Cicadelic). The numerous recordings Winter made in the mid-to-late 1960s a few years before he signed with Columbia have been around the block on quite a few compilations. These two-CD, 36-track collection gets points for thoroughness, even if less than half of it, despite the subtitle, is previously unreleased in any form (some of the other tracks are represented by previously unreleased mixes). To those wholly unacquainted with this period, it will come as a surprise to hear Winter trying out some folk-rock and psychedelia in addition to his usual blues-rock.

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For those who favor those styles, those tracks will actually be the highlight of this compilation, particularly the excellent moody Byrds-styled folk-rocker “You Were Once a Man,” which wonders what a statue would think if he came to life today. The kind of nutso pseudo-surrealistic-Dylan “Avocado Green” is worth hearing too, as are the soul-rock tunes “Easy Lovin’ Girl” and “Comin’ Up Fast.” Much of the rest of this is the accomplished but rather routine blues-rock that Winter would make his main diet when he came to national attention. He does, however, turn in a surprisingly affecting cover of the Byrds’ “The World Turns All Around Her,” which (actually included here in two versions) is one of the highlights of this historically significant set.

13. Eclection, Eclection (Esoteric). Despite issuing just one self-titled album, Eclection’s history was too unusual to summarize in a two-paragraph review like this. (If you must, there’s a full chapter on the group in my expanded edition of Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll.) Suffice it to note that although they were based in the UK, just one of the quintet came from the UK, the others hailing from Norway, Canada, and Australia. Their 1968 LP, one of the more interesting obscure folk-rock albums of the period, actually sounded more Californian than British. Its harmonies, slightly orchestrated production, and song construction strongly recalled early Jefferson Airplane, the Mamas & the Papas, and the Seekers, but the band split before doing any additional albums that might have carved a more distinct identity.

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This record’s been reissued on CD before; I did the liner notes for that edition, in fact. But this has the significant advantage of adding three non-LP tracks from late-‘60s singles, one of them featuring a different woman singer (Dorris Henderson) than everything else they released, on which Kerrilee Male handled the female vocals. The sound they achieved is more pleasing than the actual songs, to be honest, but that sound is a very pleasing one. This (like the Clear Light reissue listed below) would have ranked higher had the core album around which this CD is based not already been long available without the extras.

14. Clear Light, Clear Light (Big Beat). Nearly twenty years ago, I described Clear Light as sounding “like the Elektra Records roster (the Doors, Tim Buckley, Love) being tossed into a blender.” I’m aware Clear Light cultists would scream in protest that the one-liner was unfair, or even that they weren’t at all derivative of those acts. Still, I stand by that assessment, though I’ll also point out that it’s not a criticism. Clear Light might not have been nearly as original as the Doors, Tim Buckley, or Love, all of whom at various points worked with the producer of Clear Light’s self-titled 1967 album, Paul Rothchild. But the period Elektra psychedelic sound of their LP is appealing, even if I found it a bit generic.

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The Clear Light album has been previously issued on CD, but this Big Beat edition is easily the best, as it adds lengthy historical liner notes; the non-LP B-side “She’s Ready to Be Free”; the pre-Clear Light single by the Brain Train, from whom Clear Light evolved; and, most importantly, four previously unreleased outtakes. The outtakes aren’t too great or memorable, but add to the picture of this interesting psychedelic one-shot group (though it’s not a complete one, as two surviving tracks from their abandoned second album were judged of too low fidelity to be included). The best Clear Light track, included on here and on the original LP, remains their most over-the-top one: a gonzo six-minute version of Tom Paxton’s “Mr. Blue,” which transforms the rather tame folk tune into an epic psychedelic horror show.

15. The Tomcats, Running at Shadows: The Spanish Recordings 1965-66 (RPM). Despite the subtitle, the Tomcats were not a Spanish group, nor were most of their recordings in the Spanish language. Instead, they were one of the many hopeful British R&B/rock groups springing up in the wake of the Rolling Stones, somehow ending up in Spain, where they performed and got to record four EPs in the mid-1960s. Known (if at all) for evolving into the late-‘60s British psychedelic group July (who recorded one album that has a cult following), they never even released discs in their native UK. This compilation, esoteric even by British Invasion collector standards, has all the tracks from those Spanish EPs, as well as a non-EP track from a film soundtrack and a few demos from the Second Thoughts, a few of whose members went on to play in the Tomcats.

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The preceding paragraph is probably enough to put off listeners who want something in the way of name recognition before taking a chance on obscure material. But this is a pretty enjoyable release, if wildly uneven and not at all as original, distinctive, or creative as the bands (like the Rolling Stones and Pretty Things) whose paths they generally followed. The folk-poppy Spanish-language tunes done British R&B-style are genuinely strange, but also genuinely, at times atomically energetic. They do an unexpectedly terrific rock/R&B cover of Reverend Gary Davis’s country blues standard “Cocaine” that’s quite different from the prototype. The title track is a very good folk-rock-cum-British Invasion original that’s the only strong hint of development of a personality of their own. Much of the rest is generic early British R&B or uninspiring faithful covers of big mid-‘60s British and US hits, though even some of those are appealing. But the highlights make this worth investigating for British Invasion fanatics, though you have to be pretty fanatical to plunge this deep.

16. The Beach Boys, Becoming the Beach Boys: The Complete Hite & Dorinda Morgan Sessions (Omnivore). Before the Beach Boys signed to Capitol Records, they had a local hit with “Surfin’,” and recorded a few other tracks in late 1961 and early 1962 for producer Hite Morgan. These, and some outtakes from those sessions, have been on some other albums dating back many years. This double CD, however, is the most thorough exhumation of those sessions by far, including not just all nine songs they recorded at these sessions (also including an early version of “Surfin’ Safari”), but also many unreleased alternate takes of those tunes. It adds up to 63 tracks in all, augmented by lengthy historical liner notes (by Jim Murphy, author of the recent book Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963), cool rare graphics of tape boxes, and vintage ads/record labels.

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This, even more than some of the other entries on this list that dig into a very specialized corner of an artist’s career, is a “not for everybody” release. The many multiple takes of each song are presented in separate groups of nine, meaning you’ll hear run-throughs of the same song over and over again for nine consecutive stretches. It’s kind of like hearing a completist bootleg of surviving sessions (and there are many of those for the Beach Boys’ Capitol recordings, particularly in the 21-volume Unsurpassed Masters series), except this release is legitimate.

For scholars, however, it’s still interesting to hear the embryonic Beach Boys working out their harmonies, even if the alternate versions aren’t too different from each other, and the instrumental backing is so rudimentary as to border on the minimal. It’s also surprising, admittedly with the benefit of more than half a century of hindsight, that the Beach Boys had trouble getting a record deal after the release of “Surfin’.” Even at this stage, it’s obvious they had talent (particularly in the vocal department, and particularly in their harmonies and Brian Wilson’s leads). It’s also obvious, again in hindsight, that even so early on, they didn’t sound like anyone else, and should have been a group worth investing in—as Capitol did.

17. Tim Buckley, Lady, Give Me Your Key: The Unissued 1967 Solo Acoustic Sessions (Light in the Attic). How does previously unreleased material from the prime of a significant artist rank low on this list? It’s not because I feel he’s overrated. Indeed, I wrote a big chapter on Tim Buckley in my Urban Spacemen: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock book. And almost half of these 13 tracks were re-recorded for his best album, Goodbye and Hello.

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Perhaps inadvertently, however, these rather bare-bones demos illustrate just how much Buckley’s songs benefited from baroque-folk-rock studio production. In this rather naked state, they tend to sound rather alike and run into each other, as they do on another archival release on which Buckley plays backed by just his acoustic guitar, Live at the Folklore Center, NYC—March 6, 1967. Plus the songs that he didn’t put on his studio albums (although different versions of a couple have shown up on other archival reissues) don’t make one question the decisions to omit them in favor of stronger compositions.

The above two paragraphs might be seem like a harsher dismissal than intended. This is of considerable historical importance; Buckley’s singing is very good; and some of the numbers redone for Goodbye and Hello, particularly “No Man Can Find the War” (one of the finest protest songs ever), radiate obvious strength even in this unadorned condition. With excellent liner notes incorporating a wealth of comments from producer Jerry Yester and frequent Buckley co-writer Larry Beckett, it’s of great value to the serious Tim Buckley fan. It can’t stand on the level of Buckley’s best material and performances, however.

18. John Lee Hooker, The Modern, Chess & Veejay Singles Collection 1949-62 (Acrobat). I don’t get as many random unsolicited cool things in the mail as some people think. But sometimes items do show up that I probably wouldn’t have come across otherwise, like this four-CD, 101-song John Lee Hooker compilation. Now, as great as Hooker was, you couldn’t say he made the most diverse recordings, many of his sides then and later sounding pretty similar to each other in their earthy boogie stomp. (The last song on CD two, perhaps aptly, is titled “Too Much Boogie.”) So this might not be the kind of set you want to play in sequence too often, even if you’re a blues nut. It’s also not comprehensive, sticking to tracks recorded for three labels, though he cut a fair number for other companies (like Specialty, for whom he recorded more than a dozen in the mid-‘50s). Nor does it have the singles he did under a number of colorful assumed names, from The Boogie Man to the who’s-fooling-who John Lee Booker.

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Still, what’s here has the cream of his best recordings, including his top classics “I’m in the Mood,” “Crawlin’ King Snake,” “Boom Boom,” “Dimples,” “I’m Mad Again,” “Maudie,” “Boogie Chillun,” and “Louise.” (The last song might not be one of his core classics, but it’s familiar to rock audiences as the Yardbirds did a version on their 1964 live LP, though it might not have been based on Hooker’s, as John Lee wasn’t the only one to record it.) While some purists find some of the later recordings on this set inferior to his earlier ones due to their use of more electricity and full bands, I actually find many of these among his very best (and, in the case of “Boom Boom” and “Dimples,” his most famous). Sure, there are some routine tunes here, and the approach can veer on monotony. But rather like early Johnny Cash box sets are okay to hear all at once if you’re in the right mood, and in the mood for songs that don’t vary all that much, this is general quality listening that formed some essential building blocks of mid-twentieth century popular music.

19. Jesse Fuller, Working on the Railroad (Mississippi/Secret Seven). This six-song, ten-inch vinyl reissue is of considerable historical importance. Cut just north of Berkeley, California in El Cerrito in 1954, these were the first recordings by major folk-blues singer and one-man band Jesse Fuller, including his first version of the well-known “San Francisco Bay Blues.” But it’s also musically impressive as well. I’m not much for most recordings from the very early folk revival, of which these just about qualify, being geared more toward specialized folk fans than the commercial market. However, these recordings are rich and full, with some pretty amazing instrumental work (more so on guitar than kazoo) considering it’s all by one guy. Most of these songs (“San Francisco Bay Blues,” “John Henry,” “Lining Up the Tracks,” “Railroad Work Song”) would be overdone in the ensuing ten years of the folk revival. Yet as these are the first or among the first versions, they have a powerful freshness most interpretations lack.

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20. Various Artists, Kinked! Kinks Songs & Sessions 1964-1971 (Ace). Sometimes a record makes a list, at least my list, because of its historical significance instead of its musical merit. Yeah, maybe that’s not fair, but if that’s your stance, take heart that at least this is at the bottom. You can’t tell from the title, but this is a compilation of Kinks covers, not actually tracks by the Kinks themselves. What makes this special is that it focuses on, and rounds up most of, the songs Ray Davies (and, in one instance, Dave Davies) wrote, but the Kinks did not release, though some Kinks BBC versions/outtakes/demos of such tunes showed up many years later on some archival compilations. As with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, there were a fair amount of such items the Kinks “gave away,” though none of them were hits, with the arguable exception of Dave Berry’s “This Strange Effect,” a mild UK hit (and not a hit at all in the US), but a huge hit in Holland and Belgium. Some of these rarities have been hard to find in either their original versions or on reissues, and this anthology does hardcore Kinks fans a great favor by collecting most of them in one place. The CD’s rounded out by uncommon or offbeat covers of songs the Kinks released first, like Marianne Faithfull’s “Rosy, Won’t You Please Come Home” and Duster Bennett’s “Act Nice and Gentle.”

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All the same, there’s not a single outstanding cut among these 26 tracks—and nothing even on the order of, say, Billy J. Kramer’s version of Lennon-McCartney’s “Bad to Me” or the Toggery Five’s cover of the Keith Richards-Andrew Oldham composition “I’d Much Rather Be with the Boys,” to cite a couple Beatles/Stones giveaways. There are some better-than-average ones, like Berry’s “This Strange Effect,” the Pretty Things” “A House in the Country” (which has a verse not in the Kinks’ version), the John Schroder Orchestra’s wistful instrumental “The Virgin Soldiers March,” the Orchids’ energetic girl group take on “I’ve Got That Feeling” (whose release predated the Kinks’ recording of the song by about half a year), and the Thoughts’ “All Night Stand” (here represented by a previously unissued alternate take). But the most highly sought after rarities—those that don’t exist in any Kinks version—are surprisingly bland. Nonetheless, it fills in a notable gap in the Kinks (or at least Kinks-related discography), its value upped by compiler Alec Palao’s customarily thorough and informative liner notes. It would be nice if this paved the way for similarly expert comps of giveaways by the Beatles, Stones, Who, and others, but I wouldn’t bet on such collections appearing soon.

And an “historical mention” to:

21. The Doors, London Fog 1966 (Rhino/Bright Midnight Archives). Here’s another “historical significance” pick, yet one in which the historical significance outweighs the musical quality even more. This recently unearthed tape of a May 1966 performance at the London Fog on Sunset Strip is the earliest circulating live recording of the Doors, and the first of any kind with the quartet that made their famous albums. It’s not terrible; the sound is pretty good for an audience tape, though Jim Morrison’s vocals are a little hollow. But they sound a bit like an average, at times even plodding white blues-rock band, a little as if they’re trying to be an American Rolling Stones with a prominent organist.

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Five of the seven songs are covers, and while they hold interest as uncommon tunes in the Doors’ catalog, their interpretations of “Baby, Please Don’t Go,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Fight It,” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” (the last with Ray Manzarek on vocals) aren’t scintillating. It’s surprising to hear them do the original “You Make Me Real” at this early date, as it didn’t show up on their studio releases until 1970’s Morrison Hotel, though the version here is inferior. Only on “Strange Days” do you hear the hypnotic eeriness that would be one of the Doors’ most arresting trademarks.

It’s a little surprising that they’d cut their classic debut album (which didn’t include any of the songs here) just a little more than three months later, as Manzarek excepted, the members are some ways off their peak. Morrison’s vocals are almost there, though it’s odd to hear him shout-plead with the audience to dance at a couple points, in line with the semi-bar band they still were. Robbie Krieger’s guitar isn’t as assertive as it would become. Most surprisingly, John Densmore’s drumming—superb on their first LP and thereafter—is clunky enough that had I been told there was a sub or it was by a guy he replaced, I would have believed it. Unfortunately, another reel with “The End” taped by the same friend who taped the other performances is missing. And while this package includes some memorabilia and both CD and ten-inch LP versions of the material, $49.98 is too high a list price.

Top Ten Rock History Books of 2016

In terms of quantity, 2016 saw about as many rock history books as there have been in recent years. In terms of quality, I think there was a significant though not huge dip. There wasn’t a problem filling out this Top Ten list to ten books, but there weren’t many other serious contenders I was tempted to list, though I did read or try to read quite a few others.

Generally, the trend toward niche or special interest books that would have been unimaginable a couple decades (or even a decade) ago continues. So does the trend toward rock memoirs, including some by big and small names that did not make this list. There are also a couple 2015 releases I put at the end that I did not read in time to include on my 2015 list, and no doubt there will be some 2016 books I’ll read over the coming year that I’ll put on my list next year.

1. Small Town Talk, by Barney Hoskyns (Da Capo). In rock lore, Woodstock (the small New York town, not the festival) is primarily known as the base for Bob Dylan and the Band in the late 1960s. Since that time, however, it’s also been a long-term or temporary (sometimes very temporary) base for artists like Van Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Happy Traum, Maria & Geoff Muldaur, Paul Butterfield, Todd Rundgren, and numerous others. This is a thorough and satisfying account of what drew musicians to the area and what they did (which wasn’t always purely musical) there, by an author who knows the scene well, having done the best Band biography. Hoskyns draws from a lot of his research for that book (Across the Great Divide: The Band and America), but also talked to many other people, and deserves some sort of award for having interviewed the notoriously non-author-friendly Van Morrison specifically about his time in the region.

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A draw for its peculiar brand of pastoral hedonism, ultimately the Woodstock area just wasn’t big enough to keep producing enough music to establish itself as a permanent hip music mecca. Nor could it thrive as much after the mid-1980s death of Albert Grossman, who as manager and force behind the Bearsville label and studio did far more than anyone else to fund whatever scene was happening. There were enough interesting, sometimes wild times along the way, however (mostly between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s), to make for a worthwhile, substantial book.

2. Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, And the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day, by Joel Selvin (Dey St.). Like some other books of Selvin’s, this does not use the usual format of quoting from interviews, instead telling the story as a narrative, though drawing from extensive research. This is not my favorite approach, but in this case it works pretty well. Crucially, Selvin did draw from a lot of first-hand research for this examination of the Altamont festival, including more than one hundred interviews. Among them were people who had seldom or never given their accounts of what happened at the turbulent concert, including the girlfriend of Meredith Hunter (the boy in the audience who was murdered), law enforcement officials, concertgoers, and camera operators for the Gimme Shelter movie (which was partially filmed at Altamont). Some famous musicians who played there were consulted too, including members of Jefferson Airplane, Santana, and the Grateful Dead (though none of the Rolling Stones).

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What emerges is a tale of a good, or at least admirably utopian, idea that was altered and grew out of control, to the point that no one was really in charge of staging and supervising the event, and no one eager to be accountable for its negative consequences. The Rolling Stones do not come off well here, one of the factors contributing to the festival getting staged in Altamont being their unwillingness to give up some of the profits to the owners of a better alternative site (Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma County). Selvin doesn’t let this cloud his assessment of the music the Stones played at Altamont (a sixteen-track recording of which he was able to hear), which he judges as phenomenal despite the dire circumstances in which it was performed.

3. Good Vibrations: My Life As a Beach Boy, by Mike Love with James S. Hirsch (Blue Rider Press). Only a month before Brian Wilson’s memoir (see entry lower on this list), the Beach Boys’ lead singer came out with his. They couldn’t help but be compared in the press, especially as Love has often been accused by devoted fans and harsh critics of hindering the band’s artistic evolution, and specifically of blocking SMiLE by objecting to its experimentalism. At times his book reads like a defense to such charges. But more often it’s a quite detailed account of the band’s odyssey through garage surf music and classic orchestrated pop-rock to transcendental meditation, which Love embraced with a fervor far greater than the other Beach Boys (and possibly than any other rock star). Whatever your feelings toward Love—and he’s one of the most unpopular rock stars, at least among a band’s core fanbase—there’s a tremendous amount of info here, from the band’s crude beginnings through their infighting long past their prime (with passages actually quoting from court documents and taped conversations).

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The tensions within the band (especially between Love and Dennis Wilson) are not ignored, and considerable space is devoted to Mike’s struggles to win songwriting credits for many 1960s Beach Boys songs he recalls (in great detail) helping compose. Yes, their brush with Charles Manson is covered too. So, however, are insights into the making of their classic ‘60s recordings (and their not-so-classic subsequent ones). The latter sections, much of which are devoted to Love’s publishing battles and his long (still-running) stewardship of the band as they changed into an oldies act, are inevitably far less interesting than the first half or so of the book.

But no matter what side you favor in the band, this is an above average rock star memoir that, to my surprise, I found more illuminating than Brian Wilson’s, at least as far as hard info about the SMiLE history. It is interesting, too, that for all Love’s concerns about SMiLE (mostly with the impenetrable lyrics), “We all had questions, but we did what Brian wanted, and we worked harder on those vocals than on any others in the history of the band.” As to their commercial decline that coincided with SMiLE ‘s failure to reach completion, “Brian was our quarterback, and once he was out of the game, we could never keep up.”

4. Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith and the Mystery of Maitreya Kali, by Mike Stax (Process Media). You haven’t heard of Craig Smith? Most people haven’t, even among ‘60s/’70s rock obsessives. But in addition to writing and singing some idiosyncratic, high-quality folk-rock that barely got heard in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Smith’s story was like few others, his frustrating near-misses at success followed by a descent into gruesome madness and homelessness. Swim Through the Darkness is an amazingly thorough portrait of an All-American guy who seemed to have everything going for him, only to have it all go south.

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Like many artists who lacked a few good breaks or obvious hit songs to make a splash, Smith met and worked with plenty of famous stars on his road to oblivion. His journey, however, was yet more unusual than most, starting with his transition from squeaky-clean Andy Williams backup musician to the Mike Nesmith-produced band the Penny Arkade. When that group failed to find a record deal, he left for the Hippie Trail, where a mysterious incident in which he was likely beaten up and worse permanently changed him. When he returned from Asia at the end of the 1960s, he’d descended into madness, self-pressing strange but enticing acid folk LPs before doing jail time for assaulting his mother and drifting through decades of homelessness.

Mike Stax, noted as the longtime editor/publisher of the top ‘60s rock magazine Ugly Things, unearthed a startling (and oft-disturbing) wealth of info considering Smith’s records were largely unreleased or unheard, though Craig crossed paths with everyone from the Monkees to Manson (and Brian Wilson and Mike Love, for that matter). Besides finding and talking to many of his friends and associates, he unearthed police records and even helped arrange for a proper curatorship of Smith’s ashes. Smith’s tale is the dark side of the Hollywood dream that the likes of the Beach Boys and Monkees rode to worldwide fame, but left nearly-as-talented musicians like Smith (who died in his sleeping bag in North Hollywood Park in 2012) on the literal street. Stax not only tells his saga like a good detective story, but also makes us care about the music and the man.

5. Surf City: The Jan & Dean Story, by Dean Torrence (SelectBooks). The same time Mike Love’s memoir came out (and the month before Brian Wilson’s was released), half of Jan & Dean added his voice to surf history with his own autobiography. Jan & Dean’s story wasn’t as contentious as the Beach Boys’, or as influential and well known, which means this book won’t get nearly as much attention as Love’s or Wilson’s. But it’s a likable ride through the career of the second-most-successful surf’n’hot rod act, and one that had plenty of connections and intersections with the Beach Boys, whose Brian Wilson co-wrote and sang on Jan & Dean’s biggest hit, “Surf City.”

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Torrence remembers the pair’s late-‘50s beginnings as gawky high school students recording in Jan Berry’s garage, as well as their mid-‘60s prime as hitmakers and hosts of the legendary concert movie The T.A.M.I. Show. One’s struck by how much easier, in some ways, teenagers could get themselves into the music business in the early days of Los Angeles rock. It wasn’t as innocent as it sometimes seemed. Berry made sure their debut single “Baby Talk” was a hit by shoplifting copies from an L.A. store that was surveyed for the charts. And, of course, everything got gravely serious when Berry suffered brain damage in a 1966 car crash.

It’s unfortunate Torrence’s book doesn’t discuss their obscure post-accident late-‘60s recordings, though the part on his subsequent reinvention as a noted graphic artist (often for rock LPs) is interesting. It’s also too bad that his revival of a Jan & Dean touring act, clouded by his attempts to keep an addled and substance-abusing Berry in line, end this book on a more somber vibe. What’s here is, however, like Jan & Dean’s music, pretty fun, if not nearly as deep as the Beach Boys’ best records.

Also out in 2016, by the way, is the very detailed (and very expensive) The Jan & Dean Record: A Chronology of Studio Sessions, Live Performances and Chart Positions. Like Becoming the Beach Boys: 1961-1963 (see note at end of next listing), it’s too detailed and at times too dry to find a place on this list. But it does have a lot of raw information of great interest to Jan & Dean fanatics, though those are much less numerous than Beach Boys fanatics.

6. I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir, by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman (Da Capo). Wilson is one of rock’s more complex and enigmatic personalities, but even going into this memoir with full knowledge of that, I find it hard to know what to make of it. If you prefer memoirs to have a linear beginning-to-end chronology (I do) and are a little annoyed by most that go back and forth all over the place (I am), it’s frustrating that this book falls firmly in the latter camp. Somehow over the course of about 300 pages, it does cover most of his and the Beach Boys’ albums, most of their famous songs (and many of their un-famous/infamous ones, even down to the Mount Vernon and Fairway bonus EP with the Holland album), and many of his major problems with his father, family, manipulative psychiatrist-of-sorts Eugene Landy, and mental illness. It’s highly readable and, at least for those who haven’t scoured other sources of details about the Beach Boys’ career, informative.

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Still, the text isn’t all that in-depth in terms of either facts that aren’t previously known, and perspectives that haven’t been offered in other sources. At times I felt like Wilson was an observer of rather than a participant in his own life, such was the detachment of some of the tone. His volatile relationships with father Murry Wilson, Landy, and (you knew he’d get to this) Mike Love are discussed at some length, but he seems to be holding back from criticizing or expressing anger at their worst excesses. There are some little known stories, like how he had hopes for the instrumental title track of Pet Sounds to serve as the theme for a James Bond film or that SMiLE is spelled the way it is because “it was partly about forgetting the ego, which is the reason all the letters are capitalized except for the lowercase i.” The sentences that affected me most explained how “at some point I knew SMiLE was done—or rather, that I was done with SMiLE. It was too much pressure from all sides: from Capitol, from my brothers, from Mike, from my dad, but most of all from myself.”

But it’s exasperating that Wilson seems to place about as much importance, and give almost as much space, to writing about his album of George Gershwin covers—and his recent, rather mundane daily routine—as Pet Sounds or SMiLE. He might be as interested in those other subjects as those classic albums he’s been asked about to death, of course. But some of those other projects aren’t too interesting to read about, and it was hard going to get through the passages on some of those recent endeavors. Sometimes he slips in small deadpan jokes as if to remind us that he doesn’t always take this memoir business 100% seriously, and despite generally holding my attention, it felt some ways short of being thorough and definitive. (For those who want something more intensely researched and factual, incidentally, the recent Becoming the Beach Boys: 1961-1963 has a wealth of information about their earliest years as a recording act, though I felt it was too dry to find a spot on the supplementary list of 2015 books in this post.)

7. The Rise, The Fall, And the Rise, by Brix Smith Start (Faber & Faber). I’ll be honest here: I hate the Fall. There, I’ve just lost at least a dozen readers already. But although I’m not part of the long-lived British punk band’s considerable cult, their history—as part of the UK punk movement and, after the early ‘80s, the general alternative rock scene—is pretty interesting. So is the life of Brix Smith (now known as Brix Smith Start), who was both a guitarist in the band and married to main Fall singer-songwriter Mark E. Smith for much of the 1980s (and returned to the band for a while in the ‘90s after their marriage ended). One testament of a good memoir is that it keeps your attention even if you’re not a fan of the artist’s music. So it is, for the most part, with The Rise, The Fall, And the Rise, which actually is only about half devoted to Smith’s life in the Fall.

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Brix has had a quite unlikely life passage, starting with an on-the-surface privileged upbringing in L.A. and Chicago that was disrupted by an abusive father and shuttling back and forth between different families. After meeting Mark E. Smith at a spring 1983 fall gig, a whirlwind romance resulted in her moving in with him in Manchester within weeks, marrying soon thereafter, and gradually becoming an actual part of the Fall around the same time. Although encountering some expected resistance from fans and critics who charged the Smiths with nepotism, she proved her worth as a full member of the band. But the idyllic romance with the mercurial Fall mainman soon curdled, as too many such associations do, when her husband sank deeper into substance abuse, psychological abuse, and infidelity. It affected the band too, Brix pithily observing, “It seemed to me that the deterioration of our relationship was reflected in my dwindling songwriting credits.”

The story doesn’t end with Smith’s departure from the band (and marriage) in the late 1980s. The see-saw continued with a volatile relationship with top classical musician Nigel Kennedy; struggles with depression and, for a while, waitressing upon her return to L.A.; and, most unbelievably, a return to the Fall for several years. I could have done without the lengthy section near the end on the success of her and her current husband’s London fashion shop, and there should be a rule against extended passages describing memoirist’s dreams (of which there are a few). Probably some other such material was cut from the manuscript, which according to the acknowledgments was reduced nearly in half from its original size. What’s here is usually quite penetrating and occasionally gripping, although when she calls Mark E. Smith on an impulse several years after leaving their marriage and then impulsively rejoins the Fall, I had to think to myself, “This is one reunion that isn’t going to end well.” And it didn’t.

8. In Love with These Times: My Life with Flying Nun Records, by Roger Shepherd (HarperCollins). In the early 1980s, record store manager Roger Shepherd founded Flying Nun Records, the most well known New Zealand indie rock label. His memoir focuses on its heyday in the 1980s and (to a lesser extent) 1990, when it issued releases by the lion’s share of the most highly regarded New Zealand alternative rock bands, including the Chills, the Clean, the Verlaines, and Chris Knox and the Tall Dwarfs. Even by late twentieth-century indie rock standards, Flying Nun was a seat-of-the-pants operation, Shepherd learning the business as he went along, often without contracts or adherence to standard practices (which backfired on him when Flying Nun issued a live Fall album that Fall singer Mark E. Smith objected to). By the late 1990s he’d been ousted from his own label, though he bought it back from Warner Music about a decade later.

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There’s plenty of information about the bands in the preceding paragraph if you want it, as well as stories about plenty more obscure acts like Look Blue Go Purple, the Gordons, and the Dead C. More interesting to me, however, were the stories about the precarious existence of an indie label proprietor trying to simply make a living in a small country where any degree of international exposure was necessary simply to keep his business afloat. If that meant traveling to Auckland or eventually London to relocate Flying Nun without knowing much about those cities or having many contacts there, so be it. Other obstacles you don’t often read about, like New Zealand police attempting to bust the label when pot was sent to them in the mail, or a London publicist who’d sell Flying Nun promos to fund his pub visits, had to be surmounted as well.

It also turns out that Shepherd himself suffered alcohol problems, in part because he was a manic depressive, a condition not diagnosed until well after Flying Nun’s heyday. If I can drop in a story not in the book, even in the midst of struggling with these afflictions and financial problems that were threatening to sink the company, he found time to personally pick me up from the Auckland airport when I visited New Zealand in late 1989 and set me up with a place to stay with a couple employees. I didn’t suspect any of this stuff going on behind the scenes at the time, and my only qualifications for such hospitality were editing an alternative music magazine in the US and having been given his name by someone else who visited. This humility spilled into Flying Nun’s music and packaging as well, which is a reason it’s picked up a small but devoted overseas following. This humility is also evident in Shepherd’s memoir, which might have too many details about running an indie label or particulars about the small New Zealand scene to interest a large audience, but will be valued by Flying Nun enthusiasts for precisely those reasons.

9. Perfect Day: An Intimate Portrait of Life with Lou Reed, by Bettye Kronstad (Jawbone Press). Bettye Kronstad was Lou Reed’s girlfriend and, briefly, wife in the early 1970s. A lot more was revealed about their relationship in the past few years when she gave her first interviews about it, but this is a full book covering her time with him. Contrary to what might be expected, when they became serious right after he left the Velvet Underground in late 1970, she found him a kind, gentle, sensitive poet. In fact, the first weekends she spent with him were at his parents’ Long Island home, where he’d moved back into when the Velvet Underground finished. Soon enough—in a pattern found in too many rock relationships—he was becoming moody, then moodier, then psychologically abusive, along with the substance abuse that often accompanies such slides.

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It can be a little frustrating reading Kronstad’s recollections, especially as she, as in so many dysfunctional relationships, thought endlessly of leaving but couldn’t or wouldn’t. Eventually she did, and right in the middle of a 1973 European tour. She wasn’t on the inside of as many songwriting and recording sessions as you might hope. But a day she and Lou spent together in Central Park, painstakingly re-created here, did provide the inspiration for “Perfect Day.” Some of her stormy childhood experiences also provided the basis for songs on his Berlin album, though she wasn’t exactly pleased when she realized what Reed was doing. Those passages alone might make this worthwhile for serious Reed fans. It’s unfortunate, however, that she writes (more than once) that John Cale was still in the Velvet Underground when Reed left, making one wonder how knowledgeable she was about a major portion of his career.

10. My Little Red Book: Love Day-By-Day 1945-1971, by Bruno Ceriotti (self-published ebook). Day-by-day books are almost by definition mostly for serious fans, which is not a criticism; I wrote one myself on the Velvet Underground. Although there’s much more quality Love historical literature in the twenty-first century than at any time previously (due to John Einarson’s Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love biography and drummer Michael Stuart-Ware’s memoir, as well as the Love Story documentary), this is a worthy supplement even if you have all of that material. Ceriotti’s research details all of their known gigs and recording sessions during this period (the only one of real interest, especially from 1965-68), including first-hand interview material from several members, particularly Stuart-Ware, guitarist Johnny Echols, and drummer/keyboardist Snoopy Pfisterer. There are plenty of little-known details about things like their few out-of-California gigs, the brief membership of Tjay Contrelli during the Da Capo period, and original drummer Don Conca’s (as his name was actually spelled) time in the band. Unfortunately a print edition scheduled for release in 2016 was canceled, but a PDF can be ordered for $10 from Ceriotti’s website, brunoceriotti.weebly.com. (Ceriotti has also done a smaller ebook for the Blues Project, and has free day-by-day rundowns on numerous other ‘60s bands on his website, including the Other Half, Clear Light, the Sons of Adam, the Rising Sons, and Blood, Sweat & Tears.)

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Honorable mention:

Homeward Bound: The Life of Paul Simon, by Peter Ames Carlin (Henry Holt). It’s a little surprising there’s never been a really satisfactory biography of Simon, or Simon & Garfunkel as a separate entity. This one doesn’t entirely meet my fussy standards, but is certainly the best one to date. Unlike all of the other books on Simon I’ve read, it does much to straighten out what actually happened, especially in his early years. The teen and young adult years spent bouncing among numerous different (almost universally mediocre) pop-rock discs and projects before S&G’s first LP are pretty well documented. So are, more interestingly, his extended mid-‘60s jaunts as a solo artist in England, which saw the release of his first solo album. While the details of his years as half of Simon & Garfunkel, and his subsequent solo stardom (and periodic volatile reunions with Garfunkel) are more known, these are also covered thoroughly, with plenty of actual description of the songs and recordings.

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Still, some more extensive new stories from associates (neither Paul nor Art were interviewed) would have been welcome. I still have the feeling that some interesting info remains to be discovered, or at least fully laid out, about his early years in particular (and to some extent his long period as a star). That’ll be harder and harder to get with each passing year, with Simon and many of the people he knew in their mid-seventies, if they’re still around. The most recent twenty years of his life are covered in a mere 25 pages (with 2016’s Stranger to Stranger meriting a mere two sentences), but let’s be honest: the skimpiness of those sections is not going to disappoint too many readers, who’ll be far more interested in what took place through Graceland.

Relatively minor note: although many, many books have mistakes, a few ones that are peripheral to the main subject show up here that really should have been caught. Jimi Hendrix did not play on the first night of the Monterey Pop Festival (which Simon & Garfunkel closed); he famously played near the end of the third and final night. Carly Simon was 21, not a mere 16, when she was one of many visitors to Paul’s Stockbridge vacation home in 1967. And Bob Dylan did not get the arrangement credit and royalties for the Animals’ hit version of “House of the Rising Sun.”

Just so it doesn’t seem like I’m singling out this book for such errors, similar ones are found in the Brian Wilson memoir reviewed elsewhere on this list, where Wilson praises Phil Spector’s productions of the Dixie Cups’ 1964 hit “Chapel of Love” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary.”  Actually “Chapel of Love” was produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (though Spector did  co-write the song with Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry), and Ike & Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” was produced by Ike Turner (Spector did produce recordings by Ike & Tina Turner, but that was about four years before they did “Proud Mary”).

The following two books came out in 2015, but are worth a mention, as I didn’t read them in time to put them on my 2015 list:

So Many Roads: The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead, by David Browne (Da Capo). This takes the approach of focusing on a key date in Grateful Dead history in every chapter, which might make this look to be a fragmentary overview at first glance. But actually that’s just a loose structure on which to hang a fairly standard biography, with the author devoting most of the text to filling in most of the essential background on the Dead. While not as through as Dennis McNally’s Grateful Dead bio A Long Strange Trip, some readers might find this career-spanning book more accessible. It draws upon quite a few first-hand interviews with the band and their many associates, though their move from a rather anarchic enterprise into a huge business, uninteresting slick records, and Jerry Garcia’s serious decline in health make the final sections pretty downbeat.

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The Road Is Long…The Hollies Story, by Brian Southall (Red Planet). Were the Hollies one of the most successful British Invasion bands? Absolutely, especially (but hardly exclusively) in their native UK. Were they one of the most interesting? Not really, as good as their best hits and non-45 tracks were. So their story is not as captivating as those of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Kinks, or even groups that had substantially fewer chart hits, like the Yardbirds and Small Faces. But it’s good for there to at least be one book about the Hollies, which finally arrived with this volume. The band’s career was not as nearly as dramatic as those of the other groups mentioned in this paragraph, and this is a competent rundown of their basic history, concentrating mostly on their prime ‘60s years. There are quotes from all of the principal members (though not all of them are first-hand), and the stories of their hits and tours are competently told, with some observations from some of their close associates. This doesn’t, however, have much description or analysis of their albums and, yet more disappointingly, some of their most special traits, such as Tony Hicks’s guitar playing and Bobby Elliott’s underrated drumming. It’s a good thing there are good liner notes in the box sets The Long Road Home, Clarke, Hicks & Nash Years, and 30th Anniversary Collection, which fill in some gaps not covered in this decently written but rather perfunctory biography.

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