Peter Checksfield’s recent book Undercover: 500 Rolling Stones Cover Versions That You Must Hear! details, as the title makes clear, a ton of Rolling Stones covers from 1964 to 2022. As many covers as it covers, however, it inevitably has to be selective. Although many of the versions it documents are of 1960s songs, and many of those were released in the 1960s, it didn’t include all of them.
All of most famous ones are there, of course, including the Who’s “The Last Time,” Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By” and “Sister Morphine,” the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wild Horses,” both Otis Redding and Devo’s “Satisfaction,” the Searchers’ “Take It Or Leave It,” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “Honky Tonk Women.” A lot of obscure ones are too, like the Swinging Blue Jeans’ 1965 BBC performance of the early Mick Jagger-Keith Richards composition “So Much in Love” (never released by the Stones); the Blue Jeans’ version was only issued on a 2019 digital-only compilation, and even the Blue Jeans’ Ralph Ellis doesn’t remember doing it. Virtually all of the Stones’ originals from the ‘60s were covered at some point, and it took some digging to uncover some of the most obscure; the UK “Paint It Black” B-side “Long, Long While,” for instance, was done in 1968 by a Greek group, the Idols.
Still, a few cool or at least interesting ‘60s Rolling Stones covers didn’t make the cut. While this is not an official supplement to the book, or a criticism of it for not documenting every last cover, here are a few obscurities that might be of interest to serious collectors and/or Stones fans. I’ve listed these not in the order they were released, but in the order the Rolling Stones released the originals.
The Bootjacks, “Stoned” (1965, Sonet 45, Sweden; originally released on the UK B-side of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” November 1, 1963). “Stoned” was the very first Rolling Stones original to be released, albeit a (mostly) instrumental song that was credited to “Nanker-Phelge,” the pseudonym used for early group compositions. With a basic walking blues beat interrupted by periodic stoned/drunken-sounding utterances of the title (and a few other rambling words) by Mick Jagger, it remains particularly obscure in the US, where it didn’t make it onto an album for decades.
It wasn’t particularly well known anywhere else either, which makes it a peculiar choice for a Swedish group to cover a couple of years later. The Bootjacks only issued four singles in their brief career, and their interpretation of “Stoned”—a strange song to begin with—was pretty weird. First, it was a live five-minute recording, at a time when live cuts and songs that lasted five minutes weren’t common on singles. While it sticks pretty close to the original arrangement, the vocals, such as they are, sound a little slowed down and distorted, as if the turntable’s running at the wrong speed. They do accelerate things for a bit of a bashing rave-up at the end. The oddest aspect is the abundance of teenage screams, which are as fervent as if the Rolling Stones themselves are in front of them.
The Bootjacks must have been big Stones fans, since another of their singles was a cover (which I’ve never been able to hear) of the first strong and well known Jagger-Richards original to feature on a Rolling Stones disc, “Tell Me.” They’re most esteemed, however, for their outstanding (and also odd) 1966 Who-ish mod rock single “In the Circle,” which was reissued for the fine Searchin’ for Shakes: Swedish Beat 1965-1968 compilation back in the mid-1980s.
The Termites, “Tell Me” (January 29, 1965, Oriole 45 UK; original release April 26 1964 on the UK LP The Rolling Stones). Despite the Beatles-takeoff name, the Termites were two girls aged 15 and 16, not a rock group. Their harmony-heavy cover of “Tell Me,” with light orchestration, is no great shakes. But it’s refreshing as there weren’t too many girl groups who did Stones covers in the ‘60s. There’s not much info on the Termites, who put out just a couple UK singles. This track was produced by Ted Taylor, who might have been Ted “Kingsize” Taylor, leader of Kingsize Taylor and the Dominoes, one of the most locally popular Liverpool groups of the early 1960s, though they didn’t have hits or make many records.
The Fabulous Four, “438 S. Michigan Avenue” (1968, Mystery 45 Sweden; original release August 14, 1964, UK Five By Five EP). Although this is titled “438 S. Michigan Avenue,” it’s obviously a cover of the fabulous 1964 Rolling Stones instrumental “2120 S. Michigan Avenue,” named after the address of Chess Records in Chicago. It’s also properly credited to “Nanker-Phelge,” at least on the reissue compilation I have. While the Swedish group plays pretty tough garage rock on this cover, what really makes this stand out are the presumably overdubbed, downright deranged screams, cat-like yowls, and gunfire and car motor noises, which are almost more dominant than the music. At four and half minutes, it’s considerably longer than the Stones original, too.
Otherwise, the Fabulous Four were a pretty bland, much more pop-oriented band, which makes it all the more astounding when the sixteen-song LP anthology I have ends with this blast. It’s almost as if they were getting all of their repressed unhinged rock’n’roll energy out at once. Like the Bootjacks, they were probably pretty dedicated Stones fans, since the other side of this single was a routine cover of “Sittin’ on a Fence,” a song the Rolling Stones hadn’t put on a UK release by this point (though they did put it on the US 1967 LP Flowers, and it had been covered in 1966 by the UK duo Twice As Much, who took it to #25 in the British charts). The name of the label on this 45, by the way, really was Mystery.
Thee Midniters, “Whittier Boulevard” (June 1965, Chattahoochee 45; original release August 14, 1964, UK Five By Five EP). They might have called it “Whittier Boulevard” and credited the songwriting to Thee Midniters, but this single by this outstanding Latino East Los Angeles group was really “2120 S. Michigan Avenue” in all but name. Sticking to the basic groove of the original, Thee Midniters did add muscular horns and infectious “areeba, areeba” shouts, as well as other miscellaneous screams and the spoken introduction “let’s take a trip down Whittier Boulevard!”—the main drag of East Los Angeles. The parts where the song has a stuttering, emphatic instrumental chorus of sorts aren’t found in the original, either.
On another 1965 single, Thee Midniters also did a good soul-rock version of another song from the Rolling Stones’ Five By Five EP (all five tracks of which were on the 12 X 5 LP in the US), “Empty Heart,” with a stomping beat and marching band-like horns. (That cover is detailed in the Undercover book.) Thee Midniters—that is the correct spelling, with a “Thee”—covered a lot of ground in their career, mixing soul, rock, garage, and some Latin music, though they didn’t get heard much outside of Los Angeles. They were the best Latino rock band before Santana. For their story, you can check out the chapter on the band in my book Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators and Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock.
The First Four, “Empty Heart” (November 1965, Claridge 45; original release August 14, 1964, UK Five By Five EP). For a song that was just on an EP in the UK and an LP in the US, “Empty Heart” got a fair number of cover versions. Nine are listed in the huge ‘60s garage rock discography TeenBeat Mayhem!, including the ones by Thee Midniters and this one by a group from Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia).
An entirely different outfit from the Swedish Fabulous Four noted in a prior entry, they slow the song down a little and seem to be taking it a little more seriously than the Stones, whose original was (in a good way) a bit sloppy and tossed-off, especially in the vocal harmony department. Most notably, the First Four add a soul-like section in the middle where the lead singer urges the others to “bring it on down.” A few other drawn-out lyrics are added in this section that aren’t in the original, though the songwriting credit properly read “Nanker-Phelge.”
Ian & the Zodiacs, “So Much in Love” (May 1965, Philips 45; original release by the Mighty Avengers in August 1964). In their early days as composers, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards “gave away” some songs to others to record that the Rolling Stones didn’t or hadn’t yet put on their own records, though Stones demos of some ended up on the 1975 Metamorphosis compilation. Unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s giveaways, not many of these were hits, with exceptions like Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By” (later of course a Top Ten US hit for the Stones themselves) and Gene Pitney’s “That Girl Belongs to Yesterday.” All of the Jagger-Richards giveaways not issued by the Stones in the ‘60s are covered in Undercover, including “So Much in Love,” originally recorded by the Mighty Avengers, who did get it into the British charts at #46.
For a rather average number aptly described in Undercover as “one of Jagger-Richards’ most convincing attempts at writing a Mersey-style Beat song,” “So Much in Love” got a good number of covers. As noted in this post’s intro, the Swinging Blue Jeans did one in 1965 on the BBC. British group the Herd tried with a somewhat harder rocking and more soul-influenced arrangement in 1966, though before Peter Frampton joined that band for their late-‘60s British hits. So did Ian & the Zodiacs.
Although they were one of the better Merseybeat groups, Ian & the Zodiacs didn’t have much luck in their own country, and actually got more records released in the US and Germany. Their version is a little better and certainly more lively than the more ponderous one by the Mighty Avengers, as they take it with a notably brisker and Mersey-ish tempo. Oddly, it was titled “So Much in Love With You” for their single. Also incidentally, though the song “The Crying Game” is primarily identified with Dave Berry (who had a #5 hit with it in 1964 in the UK), Ian & the Zodiacs’ version is better, with distinctive tone pedal guitar.
Patti Smith, “Time Is On My Side” (1977, Stoned I Never Talked to Bob Dylan bootleg LP; original release January 15, 1965 on the UK LP The Rolling Stones No. 2). This is taking some liberties as “Time Is On My Side” was definitely not written by the Rolling Stones. It was written by Jerry Ragovoy under the pseudonym Norman Meade, and first done as an instrumental by noted jazz trombonist Kai Winding. With additional lyrics by Jimmy Norman (although Ragovoy disputed this contribution), it was done as a gospel-flavored soul song by the great New Orleans singer Irma Thomas. That, and not Winding’s, is the version through which the Stones learned the song.
Nonetheless, it’s the Stones’ version that is by far more well known, giving them their first US Top Ten single in late 1964. And the Stones’ version—the one starting with an extended guitar solo that appeared in the US on their first greatest hits collection (Big Hits) in 1966, not the organ-led one that was on the 45—is definitely the one on which the Patti Smith Group modeled their arrangement. There are several live ‘70s Smith versions floating around, but the most well known one was recorded in concert in Stockholm on October 3, 1976, in part because it was also filmed for television. It’s been on several bootlegs, and I think the 1977 one titled I Never Talked to Bob Dylan (on the Stoned label) was the first.
Her take isn’t too different from the original, though more oriented toward ‘70s hard rock, and of course featuring her distinctive vocals, sometimes shouted as much as sung. The spoken bit in the middle is kind of different and improvised, too, as it was on some of the other classic rock songs she covered. There’s also a live version from October 21, 1976 recorded in Paris on the B-side of the official French single release of “Ask the Angels” in 1977. One way to distinguish the two is that she gives a shout-out to the Stones at the end of the Stockholm performance, but a shout-out to the MC5 in Paris.
Napoleonic Wars, “The Singer Not the Song” (January 1967, 20th Century Fox 45; original release October 22, 1965 on B-side of “Get Off of My Cloud”). This group from the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania suburb of Greensburg were among the few acts to tackle this relatively obscure Jagger-Richards composition, used as the B-side of “Get Off of My Cloud” in the UK and on the December’s Children LP in the US. As a rather folky number with harmonies, it was also rather atypical of what Mick and Keith were writing by late 1965, and one of the final gasps of the Merseybeat influence on some of their early compositions.
This was the second of Napoleonic Wars’ pair of rare 45s, and while the Stones’ original has been criticized for some off-key guitars and vocals, this group takes it more seriously. Taken at a slightly higher key than the original, the delivery is accomplished and heartfelt, with an organ (and in the instrumental break, brief plunking piano notes) not heard in the Stones’ arrangement. They also go into a higher key for the final verse. It’s not a radical reinvention, but it’s a pleasingly straight and sincere cover of a relatively neglected early Stones song, which Alex Chilton did on a 1977 single (covered in Undercover) to far greater attention.
Rotary Connection, “Lady Jane” (February 1968, Cadet Concept LP; original release February 4, 1966 on the UK Aftermath LP). I’m a little surprised this didn’t make Undercover, and I’m guessing it’s because a couple other Rolling Stones covers by this Chicago psychedelic soul group did. “Lady Jane,” however, is the best known of their Stones interpretations. And it’s quite different from the original, with a lengthy classical instrumental introduction with high operatic vocals that sounds like it’s from an entirely different song.
The bulk of the track, however, gives the actual “Lady Jane” song a distinctive and dramatic orchestral baroque-classical-rock treatment. Those stratospheric high vocals are by Minnie Riperton, seven years before she had her huge hit solo single with “Loving You.” Remarkably, a clip of the Rotary Connection performing (actually miming) the song on local Chicago television in the late 1960s has surfaced–recently, I think, since I only found it a few months ago.
Blondie, “My Obsession” (2016, RoxVox CD The Old Waldorf, SF CA 21 September 1977 Early and Late Shows; original release Between the Buttons LP, January 20, 1967, UK). One of quite a few outstanding songs on Between the Buttons that’s underrated and not terribly well known to most of the public, “My Obsession” was a most unpredictable cover choice for Blondie. Although they didn’t put it on their records, they even led off the early set of their concert with it at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco on September 21, 1977.
As you’d might expect, they speed and fuzz it up, with a clangorous climax. In fact, the drumming’s so fast that it teeters on collapsing on itself. Like Patti Smith’s “Time Is On My Side,” the biggest point of interest is the difference between Jagger’s original vocal and Debbie Harry’s. Blondie probably didn’t endorse this live CD, but it’s been reasonably available since 2016.
The End, “Loving Sacred Loving” (January 1968, Sonoplay 45, Spain). It’s not so well known outside of serious Stones fans, but Bill Wyman wrote a fair number of songs that were recorded in the 1960s, and sometimes released. The only one the Rolling Stones issued was “In Another Land,” a genuine highlight of Their Satanic Majesties Request album that even made the bottom reaches of the Top 100 as a single billed to Bill Wyman. The Stones did record a couple other of his compositions in the ‘60s, but “Downtown Suzie” only saw the light on Metamorphosis in 1975. The other, the routine R&B-rocker “Goodbye Girl,” was recorded in 1964, but remains unissued, although it’s long circulated (with Jagger on lead vocals) on bootleg.
Some other Wyman compositions, however, were recorded and sometimes released by other artists. None of them were hits, and in fact they’re pretty rare. They include a 1965 B-side by the Cheynes, who for a while had Mick Fleetwood on drums. Wyman sometimes wrote with Pete Gosling of Moon’s Train, and there’s a whole CD of Moon’s Train material, cut between 1965-67, with a bunch of their collaborations.
Why hasn’t there been a CD compilation, Moon’s Train aside, of the songs Wyman wrote for others in the 1960s? Well, they’re not very good, unfortunately. “In Another Land” doesn’t seem so much like a sign of untapped potential as an outlier. But Wyman was involved in writing some better psychedelic-flavored material for The End, who evolved from Moon’s Train, and had one Wyman-produced album, 1969’s Introspection.
Introspection has some cult followers, but I’m not too big on the LP. The exceptions are two songs that appeared on singles by The End in early 1968, particularly the first of these, “Loving Sacred Loving.” Although Wyman doesn’t sing or play on it, or even wholly write it (collaborating with Gosling), this is the kind of thing you’d expect more of from the guy responsible for “In Another Land.” It’s beguiling woozy psychedelic pop, with a near-hypnotic haunting melody, and shifts between eerie meditative passages and full-out rock ones – again, like “In Another Land.” Tightening the thread to the Stones, Nicky Hopkins is on harpsichord.
“Loving Sacred Loving” hasn’t been too hard to get in the CD era, with full reissues of material by the End, though it’s hard to say what’s available at any given time. Although it was first released as a single, it was also on Introspection, which also includes “Shades of Orange” (see below).
The End, “Shades of Orange” (March 1968, Decca 45, UK). Similar to but not quite as impressive as “Loving Sacred Loving,” this is another Wyman-Gosling co-write. It’s got more of the whimsical child-friendly bounce you associate with the lighter end of British psychedelic pop, and sounds closer to the kind of psychedelia of early Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett was their leader, though not as good. Wyman’s made clear his love for the blues and R&B, but based on “In Another Land” and the two End singles, for a brief time he seemed quite influenced by Sgt. Pepper-era British psychedelia.
And an honorable mention to:
The Score, “Please Please Me” (November 1966, Decca 45, UK). “Please Please Me,” of course, is a Beatles song, not a Rolling Stones one. So what’s it doing here? Well, this heavy mod-rock makeover of the Beatles’ first hit ranks as one of the most imaginative ‘60s Beatles covers. In part that’s because it wittily, and briefly, quotes the famous main fuzz riff from “Satisfaction” near the end without overdoing it. Not much info has circulated about this London group, who only recorded this one single, which flopped at the time, but fortunately has been reissued on numerous compilations of rare ‘60s British psychedelia.
This article first appeared a few months ago on the Fonoteca Municipal do Porto website in a Portuguese translation. I’m making it available here in the original English since a few people have asked if they could read it in that format. The Portuguese translation is here. Fonoteca Municpal do Porto isa sound archive and public space for music appreciation centered around a large collection of vinyl records from the city of Porto, Portugal.
The Velvet Underground released four albums between 1967 and 1970 while Lou Reed was in the band. Each of them is an important statement, and each of them is entirely different from each other. Had the group only issued these four LPs, their place as one of the greatest rock acts would be assured. But the Velvets also recorded a lot of other music in the studio, much of which is nearly as good as what came out while they were active, and some of which is just as good.
The best of these outtakes, along with some material that clearly wasn’t up to their usual high standards, emerged on the archival compilations VU and Another View in the mid-1980s. VU is an especially vital addition to their discography, featuring much of what would have likely been part of a “missing” fourth album between 1969’s The Velvet Underground and 1970’s Loaded. Another View, sometimes spelled Another VU,is more of a compilation of whatever additional leftovers could be found, although it has some noteworthy highlights.
Much of the material on VU was unofficially circulated on bootleg LPs before its release in February 1985. Back when Velvet Underground bootlegs first started to appear in the 1970s, the possibility of an officially sanctioned collection of the band’s outtakes seemed not only unlikely, but absurd. Their records hadn’t sold well on their official release, and by the early 1970s, some of their early albums were being sold at ridiculously low prices in bargain bins. The MGM label, which had put out the first three LPs, and companies that later acquired the rights to the records clearly thought that interest in the Velvet Underground would disappear.
Instead, the Velvet Underground’s fanatical cult built and built. The mere existence of VU bootlegs, usually reserved for superstars like the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, testified to the intensity of the fans’ devotion. As more and more punk and new wave acts cited the Velvets as a seminal influence, occasionally covering Velvet Underground songs on records and (as Patti Smith did) in concert, the music industry realized there was still money to be made from the VU catalog.
VU was the first of the major excavations into the Velvet Underground’s unreleased material, and perhaps the most commercially successful. It reached #85 in the US charts—a much higher peak position than any of their albums had managed while the Velvets were active, when their highest-charting LP (The Velvet Underground & Nico) only crawled to #171. Of equal importance, it helped turn on a younger generation of listeners to the rich Velvet Underground legacy, ensuring that their four original studio albums never went out of print again.
More important than its commercial impact, however, was the actual music on VU. Eight of the ten songs were taken from 1969 sessions between their third and fourth album. The remaining two comprised a sort of unreleased 1968 single taped between their second and third LPs. Although Another View would be the title of the next outtakes compilation, these ten tracks indeed gave us a kind of “another view” of the Velvet Underground than what we hear on their first three albums.
For the most part, the songs and performances have a more light-hearted, even fun approach than the more serious and abrasive ones heard on 1967’s The Velvet Underground & Nico, still their most famous LP by far; 1968’s White Light/White Heat, easily their noisiest and most aggressive; and 1969’s The Velvet Underground, their quietest and folkiest, yet with lyrics as complex and probing as those heard on their previous work. The Velvet Underground remain most known for their more disturbing and controversial creations, especially those that ventured into previously taboo explorations of hard drug use, unconventional sexual behavior, and dissonant avant-garde drones and electronic distortion. Yet their range also encompassed upbeat, catchy celebrations of pleasure, passion, and rock and roll, as much of the VU compilation demonstrates.
Some of that good-time feel is heard in abundance on one of the two 1968 outtakes, “Temptation Inside Your Heart.” Here the Velvets seem to be trying on soul music for size, though they can’t help letting their inner ambiguity seep through. There aren’t many soul songs, for instance, that would taunt “I know where the evil lies inside of your heart.” Or, for that matter, leave the microphone on so it caught guys murmuring “electricity comes from other planets” or comparing what they’re trying to Motown and Martha & the Vandellas, complete with uncharacteristic upper-register soul harmonies on which they seem on the verge of bursting into laughter.
Also recorded at this February 1968 issue was the lovely ballad “Stephanie Says,” graced with celeste and beautiful John Cale viola, played with as much skill as he brought to the instrument on the more grating drones he employed for the likes of “Venus in Furs.” It seems possible their Verve label (a division of MGM) wanted to somehow coax a commercial single out of the Velvets with these two songs, with the more polished “Stephanie Says” the most likely candidate. Its failure to find release in 1968 is inexplicable, though for all its attractiveness, it coats a typically ambiguous Reed portrait of a globetrotter facing death with bravery.
It also anticipates a few future Lou Reed compositions whose titles follow a woman’s name with “Says,” like “Candy Says” and “Caroline Says.” Also in that sequence is VU’s “Lisa Says,” from the sessions that might have formed the core of a missing 1969 album. This heartbreaking romantic Reed ballad is arguably the highlight of VU, although it’s not as good as the live recording heard on their great concert double LP 1969 Velvet Underground Live (recorded in late 1969, but not released until 1974). That live version has a jaunty second bridge missing from the studio track, and the composition’s failure to get revived for the Loaded sessions is a mystery.
“Ocean” vies with “Lisa Says” as the best song on VU, and is certainly the most serious, Reed and band invoking an almost hypnotic meditative state. The quiet sections contrast with crescendos that ebb and flow like actual ocean waves. This would get attempted again at the Loaded sessions in 1970, though again it’s puzzling that it failed to find a place on that LP.
The other half dozen cuts from the 1969 sessions on VU find the Velvets in a surprisingly cheerful mood, perhaps reflecting a desire to move toward a more rock-oriented and possibly more commercial sound after three years or so of failing to land a hit record. The tunes aren’t in the same league as Reed’s best compositions, but all of them have some charm. “I Can’t Stand It” is an explosive riff-driven rocker, as well as a vehicle for some of Lou’s weirdest humor as he suffers all sorts of indignities while pining for his lost love. “Foggy Notion” isn’t much more than a catchy choppy riff with some engaging absurd lyrics, partially inspired by an obscure mid-1950s B-side by the early rock’n’roll vocal group the Solitaires.
Less impressive, but certainly pleasant, are the uncommonly straightforward midtempo love ode “She’s My Best Friend”; the whimsically wistful “One of These Days,” which shows the Velvets at their bluesiest; and “Andy’s Chest,” an almost comic number with a touch of vaudeville, later explained by Reed as what he thought about Andy Warhol being nearly shot to death in 1968. Drummer Maureen Tucker gets a rare lead vocal on the yet more vaudevillian “I’m Sticking with You,” which almost seems like it could have been used in a western saloon-set musical from the nineteenth century. That puts it in somewhat the same style as the one track on the Velvet Underground’s four principal albums on which she sang lead, “After Hours,” though “After Hours” is better.
Although mildly criticized by some critics and fans for its 1980s-oriented mixes, VU is a valuable supplement to their four fully realized studio albums. It’s more lightweight and not as provoking as any of those records, but consistently entertaining. “Stephanie Says,” “Lisa Says,” and “Ocean” are as artistic as almost anything else the band did at their best. Half of the songs would be remade for Lou Reed solo albums, but in every instance, the Velvet Underground’s version is better and rocks harder.
It’s not exactly the “missing” fourth album between The Velvet Underground and Loaded, however, and not just because two of the songs date from between the second and third LPs. A few more 1969 outtakes were retrieved for 1986’s Another View compilation, which the relative commercial success of VU likely made possible. The album also featured some other outtakes, dating back as far as late 1967. But Another View simply isn’t of nearly as much value as VU, and much more like the sort of random assortment of odds and ends that comprise many archival digs through the vaults.
There are still strong cuts that every Velvet Underground fan will want to hear. The best is the propulsive opening rocker “We’re Gonna Have a Real Good Time Together,” which according to a 1969 article in the Distant Drummer was being considered as a single that year, though it didn’t come out. Basic yet supremely joyous, a live version had long been available on 1969 Velvet Underground Live and outdoes the studio take in sheer frenetic energy. The finest other song on Another View, a 1969 studio version of “Rock and Roll,” is likewise outdone by both the 1969 Velvet Underground Live performance and the 1970 remake on Loaded.
Some of what was unearthed for Another View was unfinished, and it’s often obvious why the other tracks were not released at the time or even chosen for VU. The compelling hard rocker “Guess I’m Falling in Love,” “I’m Gonna Move Right In” (which isn’t much more than a repetitive riff), and the innocuous “Ride into the Sun” don’t even have vocals, although versions exist of all of these with singing.
Filling out the album, two versions of “Hey Mr. Rain” are among the most (and few) monotonous numbers in the Velvets’ catalog. “Coney Island Steeplechase” displays Reed’s sometimes regrettable taste for vaudevillian tunes. To a milder degree, so does the strange “Ferryboat Bill,” its nagging circular melody anchored by a forced pun about a dwarf.
There are many Velvet Underground fans who want to hear everything they can by the band, and they’ll treasure, or at least want to own, Another View. But VU is a much better dig into their archives, and one of the rare compilations of unreleased material that hangs together as a consistent and enjoyable listening experience. The music later appeared on other reissues, including as bonus cuts for deluxe box set reissues of White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground. But for the more selective fan, it still serves as the best introduction to the studio material not featured on their 1967-1970 albums, as well as documenting much of the more accessible and rock-and-rolling side of this magnificent band.
Reissue trends of the last few years continued apace in 2022, at least for the kind of reissues I want to hear. Just a couple of items on this list are from artists with whom I was previously unfamiliar, or virtually unfamiliar. Most of them are expansions of material I already had, or focus on BBC/live/demos/outtakes that, even if very good, don’t measure up to the cream of the artist’s output. Some of them are very expensive and large box sets, whether anniversary editions or not.
Still, this list does have a mix of interesting reissues of artists ranging from very obscure to the most famous of all. The most famous of all gets the #1 position, as they probably will if their reissue program continues to generate superdeluxe editions of albums from their catalog.
1. The Beatles, Revolver super deluxe edition (Apple/Universal). Since 2017’s Sgt. Pepper super deluxe box, these multi-disc editions from the Beatles’ catalog have become an annual event, though they’re not proceeding in chronological order. In 2022, it was time for Revolver, and time for another vexing decision as to where to rank something like this. On its own, the original LP would of course automatically be at or near the top of a reissue list. While this isn’t merely a reissue of the original album (though that’s here), and has a couple discs of largely unreleased extras, the packaging is by no means the best value for money it could have been. And the extras aren’t as special as they are for other periods of the Beatles’ career, though they’re worthwhile and more interesting than I anticipated.
The basics are that if you get the five-CD version, as I did, one CD has the original mono master; another a new stereo mix overseen by Giles Martin; and another a mere EP’s worth of stereo and mono mixes of the “Paperback Writer”/“Rain” single, recorded during the Revolver sessions (but not released on the original LP). I’m not nearly as into discussing the merits of new mixes and/or mastering on previously available material as many critics are, not finding them as different from what I’ve previously heard as many do. My focus, as a listener and in this review, is on the rarities.
Revolver didn’t generate nearly as many interesting outtakes and alternates as some other Beatles albums, like The White Album, whose deluxe had many, and some (particularly the disc of demos) that were very good. There were no songs they worked on during the sessions that didn’t get on the LP or single. While all of those sixteen songs except “Good Day Sunshine” are represented by alternates or rehearsals, some of them aren’t much different from the official versions, or are backing tracks, fragmentary rehearsals, or variant mixes. A few were already issued a long time ago on Anthology 2, although here they last a little longer and have some more pre- and post-take chatter.
But there are some exceptions, and at least one genuine surprise. Take 1 of “Love You To” is unplugged, with some nice Paul McCartney harmonies that didn’t survive to the final arrangement. The base take of “Rain” is presented at its actual faster speed before it was slowed down for the single, and while that might sound like an academic difference, it’s almost rapid-fire compared to what we’re used to, particularly in Ringo Starr’s much-praised drumming. The earlier, more Byrds-like take 2 of “And Your Bird Can Sing” is finally heard without the giggles that distracted mightily from enjoying it on Anthology 2, and take 5 is, as detailed in Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions, notably heavier than the Revolver version. A basic acoustic solo Lennon demo of “She Said She Said” has different and cruder lyrics, though that’s long circulated on bootleg.
The big surprise is a “songwriting work tape”—a home demo, I’d guess—of John Lennon singing and playing a verse of “Yellow Submarine” on his own. It’s only about a minute, but has a key lyric difference, changing the words to “in the town where I was born, no one cared.” That’s a sentiment that fits Plastic Ono Band more than the #1 Ringo-sung hit single, and also evidence that Lennon’s role in writing the song was greater than most had realized, since it’s usually been assumed that McCartney wrote virtually all of it. A longer songwriter work tape has both John and Paul, singing two of the three verses that would end up on the studio version with only acoustic guitars and obvious camaraderie. That’s more evidence that they were closer collaborators in the song’s composition than the usual way it’s told.
The Revolver LP was only 35 minutes, and the mono master and stereo mix could have fit on one disc, presumably lowering the price. While the outtakes/alternates discs had just a little more material than could have fit on one CD, they’re only between 40 and 41 minutes each. It seems a few more tracks could have been added to each, even if they were more marginally different from the familiar versions than most of the cuts that were selected. As compensation, at least the package includes a 100-page hardback book with lots of inside info about the songs, recordings, and general history of the Beatles at the time of the sessions, as well as many photos and illustrations.
2. David Bowie, Divine Symmetry (Parlophone). Subtitled “The Journey to Hunky Dory,” this is more like a five-disc expanded box of his 1971 album Hunky Dory. The tracks from the original LP are here, if only on the Blu-ray audio disc (the other four discs are CDs), though just about anyone who buys this must already have the original Hunky Dory in some form. But most of this features material that wasn’t released at the time, and in fact most of this wasn’t previously issued anywhere. These include demos, 1971 BBC recordings, a live September 1971 show, and numerous rare/unreleased mixes. That makes this a better value for money than many an expanded reissue, like the Revolver box reviewed above.
Although some of the demos (all of which are featured on CD 1) are lo-fi, it’s the most valuable disc, as some of the songs are not available elsewhere in any form, and some of the familiar ones significantly different from the standard arrangements. While none of the half dozen songs that wouldn’t find official release are striking enough to cause wonder that they didn’t get on record at the time, they are decent and at times close in quality to his official early-‘70s output. That’s particularly true of “King of the City,” which has the yearning pensive quality, unexpected melodic shifts, and background harmonies found in much of his Hunky Dory-era songwriting. “How Lucky You Are,” one of the more developed extras, has the ominous piano-paced cabaret flavor of some of his less upbeat early-‘70s work. The demos of compositions that would be on Hunky Dory often offer a nice contrast, as so many decent demos by major artists do, for much more basic arrangements with an intimate quality. Even the lowest-fi tracks have appeal for their solo almost folky performances, like a version of “Quicksand” recorded in a San Francisco hotel, and a haunting “Amsterdam” where he sings in a lower register for the second and third verses.
The BBC material comes from programs in June 1971 and September 1971, and about half of it hasn’t previously been officially issued. Bowie’s underachieving a bit on the June program, in part because he altruistically let friends—George Underwood, Geoff MacCormack, and Dana Gillespie—take lead vocals on some of his compositions. The version of “The Supermen” is a standout, but the cuts sung by others prove he was the better singer, sometimes by far, of that material. Things are more serious on the September session, his vocals, 12-string guitar, and piano accompanied only by Mick Ronson on guitar, bass, and backup vocals. With five songs from Hunky Dory, another good version of “The Supermen,” and “Amsterdam,” these again are worthwhile less slickly arranged counterparts to the fully produced ones on the LP.
The live show from Aylesbury, England on September 25, 1971 has long been bootlegged (though it went through some sonic cleanup here), and has sound quality that varies from good to slightly subpar. Some of the songs feature just Bowie and Ronson, but others the full Spiders from Mars, with Tom Parker on piano. These aren’t the best versions you’ll hear, and Bowie seems uncharacteristically nervous at times. But it’s still good and interesting to hear him at the relatively formative stage of the Ziggy phase, and some of the numbers are uncommon, like “Buzz the Fuzz,” Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round,” and “Waiting for the Man” (also heard as a San Francisco hotel performance on the demos CD). It’s unfortunate this doesn’t include “Queen Bitch” for technical reasons, as on the bootleg you can hear him introduce it as a song by the Velvet Underground “who aren’t that well known.” A few lusty cheers confirm there are at least a few people who’ve heard of them, prompting Bowie to retrace: “Sorry, a very well known band over here called the Velvet Underground. They don’t know about them in Beckenham [the South London suburb where Bowie lived in the early ‘70s], I’ll tell you!”
Disc four fills out the set with numerous alternative/rare mixes/versions, including a few fair outtakes from around the time of Hunky Dory: “Bombers,” “Lightening Frightening,” and “Amsterdam” (the last of which showed up on a B-side). Unlike many such mixes (often recently created) that puff up the list price of many archival boxes, these do sometimes have noticeable differences, though many will need to follow along with original Hunky Dory co-producer Ken Scott’s detailed notes in the accompanying book to catch all of them. These include a different saxophone solo at the end of “Changes,” an earlier take of “Quicksand,” and some very faint chatter at the end of “Life on Mars” where you can hear Ronson cursing.
Unlike the majority of listeners who follow Bowie’s work from this period, I prefer the harder and edgier sound of his previous album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, to the lighter and somewhat poppier Hunky Dory. But this is a good expansion of his work from this creative era, and while dedicated fans might wonder about the absence of versions of “Moonage Daydream” and “Hang Onto Yourself” on singles credited to Arnold Corns (which were Bowie tracks in all but name), maybe those will appear on an upcoming Ziggy Stardust box. Some, such as myself, will find the Blu-ray disc an unnecessary addition that jacks up the list price, considering most of it has material found elsewhere, whether the original Hunky Dory LP or tracks found on CD elsewhere on this box.
To ease the pain of the high list price, the packaging is superb, with a 100-page hardback book of detailed liner notes, reprints of vintage press releases and articles, memories of the live Aylesbury show, and numerous photos and illustrations. There’s also a facsimile reprint of a “Hunky-Dorey” (sic) student notebook with drawings, handwritten lyrics, what look like set lists, and other miscellaneous notes, though it’s not explained what these referred to—perhaps that information’s not available. To get the David Bowie/Hunky Dory tote bag and poster given away at least one major independent record store, you had to buy this very quickly after its release, as I was able to do to receive those unexpected bonuses.
3. Duffy Power, Innovations (Repertoire). In another of the “this would have ranked higher if” qualifications that dot my lists, this would have had a higher ranking if all the material hadn’t been previously reissued on various compilations. Fourteen of the tracks, in fact, came out back in 1971 on the LP Innovations, itself reissued in 1986 under a different title, Mary Open the Door. Confusing the situation more, everything on Innovations was recorded in 1965-67. Keeping his discography straight isn’t the main reason to listen to this or Power, however. It’s vital because it’s excellent and largely overlooked British blues-rock, with more of a folk-blues-jazz flavor than most of the genre. And this reissue of Innovations is bolstered by eleven other 1965-67 tracks that have appeared on other compilations. This 25-track CD is the first one to assemble everything from Power’s most productive period onto one place, and it hasn’t previously been easy to find all the bonus cuts in particular as they’ve been spread out on various Power anthologies. Even if you’ve already managed to get everything (I have, I confess), it could be worthwhile for that reason.
This material’s notable for the stellar, nay legendary, backup musicians alone, including at various times Jack Bruce, John McLaughlin, and Pentangle’s rhythm section, Danny Thompson and Terry Cox. While Power might not have the lowercase power of some of the top British blues-rock belters, he has an ingratiatingly versatile, likable blues-folk-rock-jazz delivery, and wrote (sometimes with McLaughlin) good material in that vein, most of these songs being originals, with some occasional covers. The acoustic bass heard on much of this gives it a different vibe than the more typical heavier British folk-rock approach, and some jazzmen on drums (Phil Seamen and Red Reece) lend a jazzier tone too. Almost all of the tracks are solid, and some great, like “Rosie,” the soul-influenced “Mary Open the Door,” the propulsive “Little Boy Blue,” and “Louisiana Blues,” a solo performance which has some amazing creepy slide blues guitar from Duffy himself.
While the tracks that didn’t appear on Innovations as a whole aren’t as consistent as the original LP, they’re decent and occasionally up to Innovations’ standards, especially the ominous “I’m So Glad You’re Mine,” a cover of Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Rags and Old Iron,” and “I Want You to Love Me,” which has more of his spooky acoustic blues guitar playing. Note that while the bonus tracks include two songs also found on Innovations, these aren’t mere alternates, but substantially different versions that appeared on a 1966-67 French EPs, though they’re a little more polished and not as good. There are two versions of “Hound Dog,” and completists note that the one that finishes this collection, from a 1966 French EP, was only reissued once, and then way back in the late 1980s on the various artists compilation-reissue The British R&B Explosion Vol. ’62-’68. With good liner notes and a few booklet illustrations, this is the definitive anthology of Power’s mid-‘60s work, and recommended to any fan of early British blues-rock.
4. Neil Young, Harvest 50th Anniversary Edition (Neil Young Archives). Kind of like the Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix, Young’s catalog releases have become so frequent and expansive that more vintage material often appears on an annual basis than fresh material often did doing their primes. And as with the Beach Boys, Hendrix, and some others, a fervent fan base does not welcome even mild criticism of some of these projects, even though much of it is marginalia compared to their core discography. This five-disc Harvest box is more than marginalia, however, even if there’s not much hardcore collectors don’t already have. The big prize is the previously unreleased two-hour documentary DVD Harvest Time, based around footage taken (often in the studio, sometimes elsewhere) of Young and associates during the making of Harvest. It’s also been screened as a stand-alone film, and so is reviewed in much more depth in my best-of list for 2022 music documentaries. My basic summary is that it’s worthwhile for the studio performances in various locations (some with the London Symphony Orchestra), some casual performances outside the studio, and some interview footage, although some of the content’s superfluous or drags, especially on the occasional instrumental studio jams.
Otherwise, the box does include the original album, something virtually anyone who buys this already has in some form. There are decent outtakes, but a mere three (“Bad Fog of Loneliness,” “Journey Through the Past,” and “Dance Dance Dance”) on a CD EP of sorts. Another very good, if a bit brief (32-minute), DVD has the fine solo acoustic concert broadcast on BBC TV on February 23, 1971, though that’s circulated among collectors for a long time. This is notable not just for the solo acoustic format—other concerts from this time he did like that have been available for a while—but also for some unconventional song selections. Those include “Love in Mind,” “Dance Dance Dance,” and “Journey Through the Past”, along with a helping of familiar classics (“Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “A Man Needs a Maid,” “Don’t Let It Bring Me Down”), and many of the songs were unavailable on record at the time. The audio is also on a separate CD on the box, if you just want to hear the music. A 56-page hardback booklet has a good essay by longtime Young archivist/photographer Joel Bernstein, as well as a good number of photos from the period.
5. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Original Lost Elektra Sessions Deluxe (Run Out Groove). To try to summarize a complicated back story quickly, before the Paul Butterfield Blues Band recorded their 1965 self-titled debut LP, they recorded an unreleased album, or enough for an unreleased album and then some. Producer Paul Rothchild thought he and the band could do better, so they started over and recorded the self-titled album, redoing some of the same songs, adding some others, and failing to revisit some of the tunes from the original sessions. Five tracks from the first attempt at the album did appear on Elektra’s 1966 various-artists compilation What’s Shakin’, and another, the first version of “Born in Chicago,” on the Elektra sampler Folksong ’65. Nineteen tracks recorded for the aborted first album were compiled on the 1995 release The Original Lost Elektra Sessions. What’s Shakin’ has been on CD, and the Folksong ’65 version of “Born in Chicago” made it to CD with 1997’s An Anthology: The Elektra Years. That seemed to be the end of this story.
But no, since this triple-LP vinyl June 2022 Record Store Day release expands the document of the mid-‘60s sessions that were unissued at the time quite a bit. The first three of the six sides have all nineteen tracks from the 1995 The Original Lost Elektra Sessions, making their vinyl debut, if that’s important to you. Of greater importance, the final three sides present previously unreleased material, mostly though not all from the sessions for the original pass at an LP. Yes, some of these are alternate takes or unedited/extended versions. But there are also songs that were previously unavailable in studio versions by the mid-‘60s Butterfield group, including a demo of Percy Mayfield’s “Memory Pain”; the slow instrumental jam “Blues for Ruth”; Otis Rush’s “Keep on Lovin’ Me Baby”; and the moody “Danger Zone,” also written by Mayfield, and recorded in the early 1960s by Ray Charles.
Most notable of all is the previously unreleased seven-and-a-half-minute instrumental “Love Song,” which has a similar rhythm to their great classic instrumental title track of their second LP in 1966, East-West. While the liner notes refer to this as an early version of that song, in fact the melody isn’t that similar, though it has a related jazzy offbeat feel that makes it conceivable it evolved into “East West” over time. This and “Danger Zone” were on a reel labeled “third album demos,” which would have made them postdate East West, though annotator Brett Milano writes that “Love Song” “was clearly demoed for [the] second album rather than the third.”
Could this sprawling, expensive package have been done better? Maybe recording session dates, if known, even generally, could have been more clearly noted, especially as not all of these are from the initial sessions intended for the debut LP. The availability of the unissued tracks on a separate CD would certainly be a money-saver for those not inclined to spend $60 or so on this triple-disc vinyl edition. But overall it’s well done, with decent liner notes and a full-color mid-‘60s picture of the band that doesn’t duplicate other commercial releases. Of more importance, the actual music showcases a band who were the best white (or majority white, anyway) US blues-rock outfit of their time. They had a lean and hard-hitting sound, even if their instrumental chops (especially Mike Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitars, and Butterfield on harmonica) outstrip Butterfield’s adequate vocal abilities. It’s not as good as their actual official debut LP or more adventurous signature follow-up East-West, which went into rock and psychedelia on some tracks. But on the whole, it’s not far below the debut LP’s standard for tough blues that can verge on blues-rock.
6. The Sons of Adam, Saturday’s Son: The Complete Recordings: 1964-1966 (High Moon). The Sons of Adam were one of the best mid-1960s Los Angeles groups not to make it big. They were also notable for including ace guitarist Randy Holden (later in the Other Half and Blue Cheer) and future Love drummer Michael Stuart, though those guys weren’t in the band by the time the last of their three singles came out. In terms of packaging, this compilation is near-ideal, with both sides of all three of their 1965-67 singles; three decent studio outtakes; eight previously unreleased songs, in good fidelity, from a live August 6, 1966 show at the Avalon in San Francisco; and both sides of the 1964-65 singles by Holden’s previous surf outfit, the Fender IV, as well as a couple Fender IV outtakes. Voluminous liner notes by Alec Palao have lots of material from first-hand interviews with members of the group and details about how everything was recorded. While the studio material has been previously available on a long-ago EP and Japanese compilation, this gets all of that together for the first time in better sound quality, plus of course the previously unheard Avalon performances.
At their best, the Sons of Adam were on the cusp between raunchy garage and early psychedelia, paced by Holden, who had the best ferocious guitar sustain this side of Jeff Beck. They weren’t the most consistent act or most prolific generators of original material, however, which put them below the level of top competitors like Love. Only one of the eight Avalon tracks (“Saturday’s Son,” their best and best known single) was done in the studio, but that’s a mixed blessing, since the hitherto-unheard original compositions weren’t as good as their best singles, and the covers of “Evil Hearted You” and “Gloria” not so hot. The post-Holden-Stuart single “Feathered Fish” is here, fortunately, and will be of special interest to Love fans as it features a good Arthur Lee composition Love never put it on their own discs. Good too is the B-side, “Baby Show the World,” a raunchy blues-rock-psychedelic number with some fierce guitar and bass. The Fender IV sides might not be as cutting-edge as the Sons of Adam tracks, but have some great wild surf guitar by Holden on the instrumental “Mar Gaya,” as well as a fine bisection of surf and Merseybeat on the vocal offering “You Better Tell Me Now.”
7. Georgie Fame, The Complete Live Broadcasts 2 (Rhythm and Blues). Like part 1 (released in 2021; see review in 2021 section below), this is a two-CD compilation of radio and TV sessions from the mid-1960s, these spanning early 1964 to late 1965. It might be a little less exciting overall than volume one, with occasional lower (though not bad) sound quality, and failing to include a few of his slightly later UK hits. Still, it’s generally a pleasing collection in which his enthusiasm and band arrangements for his distinctive blend of soul, blues, pop, jazz, and rock can’t be faulted. Certainly the diverse set reflects his wide-ranging and eclectic repertoire, though many of the songs are offered in multiple versions—four of “Let the Sunshine In.” If yet four more versions of “Yeh Yeh” after three on volume one might seem a lot, he never gets tired of performing that big hit with zest. Note that “You’re Breaking My Heart” has a guest lead vocal by Long John Baldry, though otherwise it’s all Fame on lead.
True, Fame versions of all of these songs have been previously available, whether as part of his actual 1960s releases or other versions, including live performances circulated many years later. These two collections of broadcasts, however, allow bulk hearing in a couple concentrated groupings, instead of spread around archival discs that are sometimes obscure and expensive. It’s also amazing there’s so much non-studio Fame from this period, making one wish there was as much from some other British Invasion acts, though that’s another issue entirely.
8. Dana Gillespie, Foolish Seasons (Decca). Gillespie’s 1968 debut album might be better known now than it was back then, when it sold hardly anything. In part that’s because it was inexplicably issued only in the US, though Gillespie’s British and was signed to a UK label. Although she’s most known for her 1970s association with David Bowie and his management, and for many far bluesier records she did after that, Foolish Seasons is much different in tone. Broadly speaking, it’s kind of like some of Marianne Faithfull’s artier and more ambitious ‘60s recordings in its blend of orchestrated pop, folk, and rock. Unlike Faithfull (at the time), Gillespie wrote some of her songs, though they’re in the minority on this album, which also has compositions by Donovan, Richard Fariña, Billy Nichols, and poppier material by writers like Jeff Barry, Andy Kim, and her producer Wayne Bickerton. She also rocks out somewhat more than Faithfull did in the ‘60s, though not that hard, and this is in some ways more adventurous than Faithfull’s early stuff.
This isn’t a top-tier record, even within its limited genre, but it’s an enjoyable and imaginatively produced/arranged set. It hasn’t been that rare since it was reissued on CD in 2006, but makes this list by virtue of having a 2022 vinyl Record Store Day release. That in itself wouldn’t put it here, but the new LP edition adds two previously unreleased songs from the sessions,. Both were written by Gillespie and both are up to the general caliber of the rest of the album, though the moodier “Come to My Arms” is better than the more uptempo “Goin’ Round in Circles.” The front and back covers of the gatefold sleeve have different full-color photos from the same session that generated the pictures used on the original LP. And Gillespie wrote new historical liner notes for the inner gatefold. Will that make it worth Record Store Day prices if you have a previous edition? Maybe not, but at least the extras are relatively significant as these things go, and the package well done.
9. Norma Tanega, I’m the Sky: Studio and Demo Recordings, 1964-1971 (Anthology). For me, singer-songwriter Tanega is one of numerous artists who falls between the major and minor: overrated by a cult following and not nearly as significant as the best talents in her field from the era, but too interesting and creative to dismiss as an also-ran. Remembered by the general public almost exclusively for her whimsical 1966 hit “Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog,” she had a couple full albums of mildly eccentric/eclectic pop-folk-rock, delivered in a voice that could sound like a wayward Carole King. This double CD includes much (but by no means all) of the material from her 1966 album Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog and her more obscure 1971 LP I Don’t Think It Will Hurt If You Smile, along with thirteen previously unreleased demos and a couple tracks from an unreleased 1969 Capitol album that would have been titled Snow Cycles.
If not brilliant, Tanega is wide-ranging and unpredictable, drawing from dulcimer folk, gospel, Brill Building pop orchestration, and other elements outside of the common singer-songwriter approach. Her outlook can vary from sunny romance to quirky humor. But only occasionally do the melodies and spirit really soar, as on the buoyant “I’m the Sky,” the almost funky Brill Building pop of “A Street That Rhymes at 6 AM,” and “Jubilation,” all from the first album. Most of the previously unreleased demos, most of songs not on her 1966 and 1971 LPs, are grouped together on the second disc, and while they’re generally winsome, they tend to blur together, as singer-songwriter demos often do when they’re not graced by studio elaboration/orchestration. The clear highlight, the ebullient “What More in This World Could Anyone Be Living For,” is a sparer version of song that appeared on I Don’t Think It Will Hurt If You Smile (the LP version is on disc one). Folky with multi-tracked vocals, it’s far superior to the odd sluggish LP arrangement, with burbling wah-wah funk guitar.
Tanega didn’t seem to give many interviews or be very forthcoming in those, but the liner notes in the 28-page booklet do about as well as they can with the info available. The package can be criticized, however, for switching back and forth between tracks on Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog and I Don’t Think It Will Hurt If You Smile on disc one, instead of presenting them in a more logical chronological order. And since the total running time is only 85 minutes, there could easily have been room for all of the tracks from both LPs and the two non-LP tracks from 1966-67 singles, and maybe more from Snow Cycles too. Real Gone’s 2021 reissue of Walkin’ My Cat Named Dog (for which I wrote, in full disclosure, the liner notes) has both non-LP tracks, but I Don’t Think It Will Hurt If You Smile hasn’t been reissued on CD. And while it might be a small point, there are no details about the previously unissued demos except the date range. Is it so much to ask of reissues in general to at least note in the annotation that nothing is known about the specific dates and/or sources of such material, instead of just putting it out there with little or no elaboration?
10. Merrell Fankhauser, Goin’ Round in My Mind: The Merrell Fankhauser Anthology 1964-1979 (Grapefruit). When many of us were just discovering Merrell Fankhauser via reissues both legit and pirate in the 1980s, the very thought of a six-disc box of his prime work would have seemed like 21st century fantasy. Now that the 21st century is well underway, that six-disc box is here. It’s entered around the three albums that cemented one of the strongest cult followings of any ‘60s artist who never approached significant commercial success or (at the time) critical recognition.
The wealth of extra material doesn’t approach the high, if quirky, quality of those three late-‘60s/early-‘70s LPs. This set would have ranked considerably higher on this list if all of the material hadn’t been available for quite a few years on various previous reissues, meaning many apt to be interested in this set will already have much of it. But it rounds out the picture of the SoCal singer-songwriter-guitarist’s improbable journey from folk-rock and psychedelia through Captain Beefheart-linked late bluesy psych.
The least familiar cuts here are on disc one, dating from 1964 and 1965, and have barely a glimmer of the potential he’d realize just a year or two later. Largely unreleased at the time (though five of the nineteen tracks appeared on rare 45s), these feature Fankhauser as leader of Merrell and the Exiles, who at various times included future Beefhearters Jeff Cotton (on guitar) and John French (on drums). Operating (like Beefheart) way north of L.A. in Lancaster, they were a just slightly above-average combo of the time, whose heavily Mersey-influenced sound still had some echoes of the surf era and earlier icons like Del Shannon and Buddy Holly. None of the numbers stand out much, though “Send Me Your Love” is a decent catchy garage-Merseybeat blend, and “Run Baby Run” has a somewhat tougher and bluesier feel. (Note that nothing is here by Fankhauser’s earlier surf group, the Impacts, who put out the Wipe Out! LP.)
There was a huge change, however, and much for the better, with the self-titled album by the Fankahuser-led Fapardokly (given a circa February 1968 date here, though it’s previously been reported as a 1967 release). Although it’s a haphazard mix of ca. 1966-67 sessions and 1964-1967 singles, it has some gorgeous if goofy prime L.A.-style harmony and chiming guitar-driven folk-rock (“Lila” and a somewhat bitter comment on Hollywood’s cut-throat competition in “The Music Scene”). There’s also “Eight Miles High”-like psych (“Gone to Pot”), whimsically weird acid-folk-rock (“Mr. Clock” and “Glass Chandelier”), a folk-rock-Zombies blend (“Tomorrow’s Girl”), and the gleefully commercial (in the best sense) “When I Get Home.” The 1964-65 singles boast incongruous if well-done pastiches of Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, and Roy Orbison, yet somehow add to the likably eccentric and eclectic program, topped by “Supermarket,” which I’ve likened to a psychedelic airline commercial. Fankhauser’s likable clear, high vocals are a constant throughout, though the three at-the-time-unissued 1966-67 bonus cuts on disc two aren’t at the same level.
He went for a more consistent pop-psych sound on late ‘68’s Things, credited to Merrell Fankhauser and HMS Bounty. While it’s not as thrillingly odd-yet-accessible as Fapardokly, it projects more of the good-natured warmth at which he could excel. Some songs (like the title track) approach straightforward L.A. late-‘60s pop-rock; some surprising bluesy hard rock-psych tension, however, makes its way into “Drivin’ Sideways (On a One Way Street).” But it’s at its best at its most psychedelic, like “A Visit with Ashiya,” which recalls Donovan’s Indian-informed work at its best; the wistful “Ice Cube Island,” more proof that Fankhauser couldn’t seem to avoid some oddball lyrics even when he was obviously aiming for the most melodically accessible vibe he could; and the quietly sinister “Madame Silky.” Bonus non-LP cuts from flop 1969 singles include the surprisingly tough slide blues guitar-powered “I’m Flying Home”; “Tampa Run,” which is strangely upbeat considering its drug smuggling-inspired lyric; and a just plain weird mariachi arrangement of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’.”
Fankhauser reunited with Jeff Cotton for 1971’s self-titled MU, the name inspired by a supposed lost continent. In another surprising shift, the music at times sounds like a far more accessible Captain Beefheart, whose clutches Cotton had just escaped. That’s especially evident on the opening Cotton-composed “Ain’t No Blues,” though more often it’s a little like a spacier take on the kind of psych generated by Grateful Dead-like outfits, with occasional spooky mournful howling backup vocals and jungle-like percussion. “Look at the sun, look at the moon, brother we are one” date some of the more utopian sentiments to the early-‘70s, though this remains far and away the favorite of Fankhauser’s albums among those who favor this kind of thing over pop-psych-folk-rock. Three bonus cuts from 1972-73 singles don’t have quite the same level of mystic-tinged strangeness.
Those foretell Fankhauser’s general drift into mellower territory in the early-to-mid-‘70s, in tune with the times and perhaps influenced by his relocation to Maui. MU’s The Last Album, featuring tracks recorded in early 1974 but not issued until quite a few years later, has a drowsy island feel that’s not as engaging as the more energetic ’71 LP, though Cotton was still aboard. Fankhauser went solo, and on a more straightforward singer-songwriter path, on 1976’s The Maui Album. By this time his sound had moved more toward new age-flavored adult contemporary music than vintage folk-rock, though he could summon spare and airy odes like “I Saw Your Photograph” and hippyish celebrations like “Make a Joyful Noise.” Five bonus tracks from 1975-77 were not released at the time, the set finishing with his 1979 single “Calling from a Star.”
The 36-page booklet has a wealth of photos, info, and Fankhauser quotes, as well as clarifying some of the more mysterious corners of his zigzagging discography. (For instance, it turns out that Don Aldridge, who wasn’t even in Fapardokly, sings lead on “Mr. Clock” and “Glass Chandelier.”) It’s too bad you literally need a magnifying glass to comfortably read the brief notes on the back of the CD cover of disc one. But as you’d expect from the Grapefruit label, on the whole this box is an expertly assembled and packaged compilation of Fankhauser’s prime decade or so. His evolution was among the most extreme of any ‘60s cult rocker, and sometimes among the most adventurously listenable. (A slightly edited version of this review will appear in a future issue of Ugly Things magazine.)
11. Duffy Power, Live at the BBC Plus Other Innovations (Repertoire). Although nineteen of these tracks came out on Sky Blues back in 2002, the first two discs of this three-CD set form a much bigger overview of this British blues-rock-folk-jazz singer’s BBC recordings. There are a total of 41 BBC tracks from 1963-1997 (along with three brief radio interviews), all but seven from 1963-1973. Power’s best recordings by far were the ones he did in the studio in the mid-1960s that came out in 1971 on the LP Innovations, itself just reissued with eleven bonus tracks (see review #3 on this list). This compilation isn’t on par with those, or with the folkier ones on his Duffy Power LP of 1969 material, and the sound quality varies from good to muffled but acceptable, depending on the source. Note that a few seconds near the beginning of one of the 1963 versions of “I Saw Her Standing There” seem abruptly edited out, hopefully as a result of an imperfection in the surviving tape, rather than a manufacturing defect.
But that’s how BBC compilations usually are; they’re extras to be savored by fans who want more than main dish. These radio performances fulfill that purpose well, including some originals and covers unavailable in studio versions. Some of those are just okay overdone rock’n’roll/R&B standards like “I Got a Woman,” “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” and “Roll Over Beethoven,” but usually the repertoire’s fairly off the beaten track. The backing varies from full band, including the Graham Bond Organization with John McLaughlin on a half-dozen 1963 items, to much sparer solo and duet outings. Other sidemen of note include Alexis Korner, Danny Thompson, and Terry Cox on a couple 1968 cuts, and Rod Argent on piano on five numbers from a 1971 session.
While most of this falls into the “good” rather than “striking” category, some highlights include a 1965 take on Little Walter’s “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”; the lilting pop-blues original “La La Song,” from 1968; an intense solo performance of the kind of low-key blues-folk-jazz at which he could sometimes excel, “The River”; and a solo acoustic guitar and vocal run through “That’s All Right Mama” (1970). Some of the backing on the four-song 1973 session’s too heavy to ideally suit Duffy’s more subtle style, but the ones on which his singing and guitar are backed only by Argent’s piano make for a nice change of pace from his usual approach. Their arrangement of “Little Boy Blue” isn’t nearly as good as the explosive full-band studio one from the mid-‘60s, but again, at least it’s notably different. The moody, minor-key ballad “Where Am I?,” which he’d done on an obscure single also recorded the year (1964) this BBC version was laid down, is the poppiest thing here. It’s also the best, and far better sung—and more simply and appropriately arranged—than the orchestrated studio version, though probably not the kind of material he was most passionate about.
Disc three has largely unreleased studio recordings from 1995-2001, and while it’s a cliché to note how long-after-the-prime efforts are usually of limited interest, that’s true of these (and the 1997 BBC recordings on disc two). Power was still in pretty good voice, but the backing leaned more toward polite jazz than it had in his best decade. Peter Brown wrote part of the liner notes, and while I like and respect his contributions to the British music scene in which he was a peer of Power, few would agree with his opinion, as voiced in these notes, that Duffy’s version of “I Saw Her Standing There” was better than the Beatles’ original. I don’t, though Power did an interesting more soul-rock arrangement with Bond’s band as backup, heard on an early 1963 single (reissued elsewhere) and two 1963 BBC versions here, with Jack Bruce on bass, Ginger Baker on drums, and McLaughlin on guitar. There’s also a solo guitar-and-vocal rendition from 1971 that’s definitely not as good as the ones from 1963, let alone the one by the Beatles.
12. Lou Reed, Words & Music, May 1965 (Light in the Attic). Why isn’t this collection of previously unreleased, circa spring 1965 demos higher on the list, considering I wrote a huge book on the Velvet Underground? Its historical importance is massive and undeniable. But it’s not nearly as great as what he and John Cale (who sings some harmony on these demos, and sings lead and plays a bit of percussion on one) would be doing with the Velvet Underground about a year later. It’s also surprisingly folky, and even sometimes has a bit of a hillbilly twang. This can also be said of the nearly 80 minutes of July 1965 demos (also including Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison) that came out on the 1995 Peel Slowly and See box set. But even those July 1965 demos were considerably more polished, relatively speaking, than these earlier efforts, probably taped shortly before he mailed the tapes to himself as proof of copyright on May 11, 1965.
The demos on this collection only hint at the brilliance of the Velvets, even though they include a few early versions—in fact, the earliest versions—of some of their classics. The arrangements and execution are kind of bare-bones and occasionally a little ragged, even for “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man.” Some harmonica makes it sound closer to tail-end folk revival music than anything the VU recorded. A big surprise is a performance of “Pale Blue Eyes,” not released by the Velvet Underground until their third album in early 1969, though it’s known the band were playing it live as early as mid-1966. This has some verses with lyrics that didn’t make it on the official version, although they’re not as good.
“Pale Blue Eyes” and “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams,” the latter with Cale on lead vocals, are the highlights of this release. While the Velvets didn’t put the latter song on their albums (although it’s on Nico’s 1967 Chelsea Girl LP), “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” is the track that most clearly anticipates the much different, and much more innovative, sound of the Velvet Underground in its spooky, slightly menacing atmosphere and haunting, literary lyrics. It sounds a bit like a Welsh folk tune in this arrangement, as indeed it does on Peel Slowly and See.
There are a half dozen original songs the Velvets wouldn’t do, but they’re rather threadbare and unimpressive, whether a near-English trad folk satire (“Buttercup Song”) or vague soul-pop-rock throwaway vibe (“Buzz Buzz Buzz”). None of them sound like promising compositions that could flower with more development. They’re more like the kind of thing that almost every record company or music business figure would reject as both uncommercial and unmemorable. They’re interesting nonetheless for revealing just how enormous a distance Reed and Cale had to cover before setting the foundations for the Velvet Underground sound, and how quickly that did occur, since most of their first album was recorded in spring 1966. A few extras—a 1958 generic early rock’n’roll rehearsal track and home 1963-64 recordings that reveal Reed’s surprising bent for folk at the time (including covers of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, “It’s All Right”)—are yet more purely of historical interest.
Note, incidentally, that none of the 1965 tracks are the same as the unreleased ones (including two versions of “Heroin”) Reed and/or Cale recorded at the studios of Pickwick Records on May 11, 1965. As the detailed liner notes explain, that’s an entirely different tape/performance, none of which is included on this compilation.
13. Jimi Hendrix, Los Angeles Forum April 26, 1969 (Experience Hendrix/Legacy). There’s such a constant flow of archival Hendrix releases that it’s almost like he’s a contemporary artist. Even as someone who keeps up with these, it is getting to the point where they’re not as essential as they used to be. This is from the final months of the original Experience, and it’s a looser, more improvisational-oriented set than most of what they’d done. That’s not for the better, in my view—some of the soloing goes on way too long, with “Spanish Castle Magic,” a concise tune when it was on Axis: Bold As Love, lasting twelve minutes. The opening “Tax Free” would have been unfamiliar to almost all of the audience (and still isn’t too familiar today), but it’s a pretty sprawling, undisciplined workout without much in the way of hooks and melody. While three albums were under his belt at this point, there isn’t much in the way songs uncommon to concert recordings, and a couple of overly familiar staples in “Foxey Lady” and “Purple Haze.”
Certainly there are fans who like the more unreined side of Jimi, and his guitar work is always incendiary, if unfocused here when compared to many of his other recordings. And you do get near-maximum running time with 79-plus minutes, including versions of “Red House” and “Voodoo Child,” and less commonplace items with “I Don’t Live Today” and a cover of “Sunshine of Your Love.” There are also decent historical notes, but it’s not among the best Hendrix live sets, which are now so numerous that this is more for the dedicated fan than the average enthusiastic fan.
14. Ralfi Pagan, With Love (Craft). Pagan was one of the more successful artists on the Fania label, which targeted Spanish-speaking (and especially Puerto Rican) residents of the US in the 1960s with Latin jazz and boogaloo, a mixture of Latin, jazz, and soul. With a high, sensuous voice that could almost be mistaken for a woman’s, he was also one of the more mainstream Fania acts, with some of his sides in the early-‘70s sweet soul bag. He could also sing salsa, and both salsa and soul are on this vinyl reissue of his 1971 LP. Side one is by far the more salsa-flavored, all but one of the songs being in Spanish. Side two is pretty straight soul, including his Top Forty R&B cover of Bread’s “Make It With You.”
Pagan was more distinctive as a soul singer than a salsa one, at least to listeners like me who are more soul than salsa fans in general. “Make It With You” actually isn’t the best of the soul tracks, that honor belonging to “To Say I Love You,” with its aching catchy descending melody in the chorus. That’s enough to propel it to a position on this list. Much of the rest of side two is closer to decent but not as memorable period ‘70s sweet soul ballads and midtempo romantic tunes. It’s not far from some Philadelphia soul of the time in feel, and though the vintage liner notes call them “low-down soul boleros,” they’re more like low-key, immaculately produced soul songs – not that there’s anything wrong with that.
15. Phuong Tam, Magical Nights: Saigon Surf Twist & Soul 1964-1966 (Sublime Frequencies). It’s kind of amazing this 25-song compilation even exists, since Vietnamese popular music recordings from this era are hard to find, and those that are retrieved are often not in good condition. Through the industriousness of Sublime Frequencies, this extensive collection of this woman Vietnamese pop singer has been assembled. It might be of more historical interest than outstanding musical quality, though she was a decent vocalist. Much but not all of it’s rock, usually in a generic early-‘60s style, though there are often haunting idiosyncratic Vietnamese elements to the melodies and arrangements.
There’s considerable Western twist and instrumental rock influences, and some surf (particularly in the guitar tones, which likely owe something to the Shadows too), though not much British Invasion (despite the 1964-66 dates) and less soul, at least as Western audiences usually perceive the term. At times this approaches torch song, jazz, or even novelty military-beat territory, though it’s rock more often than not. The recording quality and instrumental execution can be on the crude side, though that adds to its exotic air, at least in comparison to commonly available rock from non-Asian countries. Tam can really belt it out with some raw throaty vocals at times, though she opts for a smoother approach at others. This reasonably engaging, though not brilliant, glimpse into a sort of mash-up early ‘60s-styled rock unfamiliar to most of the global audience comes with informative notes from her daughter and compiler Mark Gergis, the booklet also including a wealth of vintage photos and memorabilia.
Bert Jansch, At the BBC (Earth Recordings). This eight-CD box of the great Scottish folk guitarist’s BBC recordings gets only an honorable mention since it’s only the early material that interests me a lot. While the set spans 1966-2009, only 45 minutes predate 1971—after which there’s a significant gap, picking up in 1977 in a session that features Mary Hopkin as singer. Those 45 minutes from the early years have variable fidelity ranging from fine and clear to iffy, and the performances aren’t up to the best he did on his numerous solo records (and ones in which he played as part of Pentangle). But they offer superb folk guitar with a generous blues influence, as well as engaging emotional vocals, even if his singing was never destined to be as notable as his instrumental work.
Four of the tracks are duets between him and fellow Pentangle guitarist John Renbourn, and in fact some of the tracks are solo spots from broadcasts largely featuring Pentangle. A few of the songs aren’t found on other releases, including the original “Whiskey Man” (not the Who song, from 1966); another original, ‘Speak of the Devil” (1970); and the traditional folk number “Thames Lighterman” (1968). The package is excellent, with thorough liner notes, but not enough to make this expensive set worthwhile if you likewise aren’t too interested in his post-mid-‘70s material.
The following reissues came out in 2021, but I didn’t hear them until 2022:
1. Georgie Fame, The Complete Live Broadcasts 1 (Rhythm and Blues). Although some mid-‘60s BBC recordings by Fame were issued on box set The Whole World’s Shaking, this offers a much more comprehensive selection. The two-CD set has 47 tracks he did for the BBC between 1964 and 1967, along with numerous brief interview snippets. With so much material, it’s a little surprising that just a couple of the songs, to my knowledge, don’t appear in any form on other Fame releases, unless you want to count an abridged vinyl collection on the same label (Rhythm & Blues At the BBC 1965). These are Ray Charles’s’ “Tell the World About You” and, more impressively, Booker T. & the MG’s’ instrumental “Boot-leg,” on which Fame and his band the Blue Flames really cook. Note too that three songs are actually from a 1966 Lulu session on which the Blue Flames backed the singer, and those were previously available on the Lulu BBC session collection Live on Air 1965-1969.
Otherwise this is in line with the usual BBC sessions of British Invasion notables from the mid-1960s: live-in-the-studio takes that often have a somewhat looser feel than the official versions. (And a guitar solo, though not a great one, on “Get on the Right Track, Baby” instead of a sax one.) There are some multiple versions of some of his more popular tunes—three apiece of “Yeh Yeh” and “Point of No Return,” in fact—but there’s not too much repetition. The sound is fine and clear, and this wouldn’t rank below a good Fame mid-‘60s best-of collection for enjoyable swinging blues-soul-jazz-pop-rock. A pre-Jimi Hendrix Mitch Mitchell is on drums for some of these, most likely the sessions spanning December 1965 to June or October 1966, though the annotation isn’t too clear about this. Otherwise it’s packaged pretty well, with fairly comprehensive liner notes and a few photos.
2. Lou Reed, I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos (RCA/Sony). This was available so briefly in its full version that you might have missed it, or at least missed it when it was on iTunes for a couple days, as I did. Here’s the story: around the very end of 1971 or the very beginning of 1972, Lou Reed cut seventeen solo demos in an unknown London studio, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. These include versions of all ten of the songs that were used on the self-titled solo debut album he recorded in London in January 1972, as well as a few (“Perfect Day,” “I’m So Free,” “Hanging ‘Round,” and “New York Conversation”) held over for his follow-up, Transformer. Rounding out the demos are “Kill Your Sons” and the Velvet Underground leftovers “She’s My Best Friend” and “I’m Sticking With You.”
In late December 2021, all of the material was very briefly made available by RCA/Sony Music through iTunes to extend its copyright before its fiftieth anniversary was reached, though it was removed just a couple days later. Most, but not all, of the tracks came out on a vinyl Record Store Day LP in 2022. Although the title, I’m So Free: The 1971 RCA Demos, gives these a 1971 date, they seem more likely to have been done in early January 1972, right before or as the sessions for Reed’s first solo LP started in London. In excellent quality, these are fine, heartfelt performances that are more forceful and edgy than the far more slickly produced tracks used on his debut. Although the similarity in the plain acoustic guitar backing can become a little wearing over the course of the 56 minutes, it would make a fine bonus disc for a more widely available expanded version of his self-titled debut Lou Reed album.
The demos of “Hangin’ Around” and “Perfect Day,” incidentally, are the same ones that were added to the 30th anniversary edition of Transformer as bonus tracks. “Perfect Day” is a little different, however, as a brief half-minute aborted take one is also included, ending with a curse and a laugh after a stumble. Reed then promises, “I’ll leave out the tricky guitar bits, I think.” The version of “Ocean” is the same superb, dramatic performance as one that had been bootlegged for many years without details as to its source, finding its first official release here. However, as with “Perfect Day,” it’s preceded by a brief take 1, which combines some vague studio chatter with a mere fifteen seconds of instrumental guitar strumming before it’s abandoned.
Richard Robinson, who produced Reed’s debut LP, is likely present for most or all of the demos, as Reed gives an “okay Richard” shout-out near the end of “I Love You.” “I’m Sticking with You,” “Going Down,” “Ride Into the Sun,” “Hangin’ Around,” and “Love Makes You Feel” are all identified as “take 2,” leaving open the question as to whether other takes exist. These might simply be brief incomplete first takes, like the ones of “Perfect Day” and “Ocean” that did make the copyright extension release.
3. Booker T. & the MG’s, The Complete Stax Singles Vol. 2 (1968-1974) (Real Gone). The later years of Booker T. & the MG’s were kind of odd, as their two 1969 Top Ten singles, “Hang ‘Em High” and “Time Is Tight,” were as popular and good as anything they recorded, except maybe “Green Onions.” Overall, however, they weren’t as creative or consistent as they had been in their pre-1968 period. Some of the cuts are rather routine and laidback, and the instrumental versions of “Mrs. Robinson” and “Something” don’t rework those familiar monster hits in interesting ways, though they actually did reach the charts, “Mrs. Robinson” entering the Top Forty. Five of the post-1970 tracks were billed to “The M.G.’s,” and as you’d expect suffer from the absence of Booker T. Jones.
This is still pretty pleasant groove music, often decorated by Steve Cropper’s always sharp bluesy guitar. There’s a general shortage of killer riffs, however (“Hang ‘Em High” and “Time Is Tight” excepted). And Jones’s nicely melancholy composition “Meditation” certainly seems to owe a lot to “Summertime,” though he might have underestimated “Hang in High”’s B-side, the moody and jazzy “Over Easy,” with Booker on piano instead of his usual organ. Although it’s one of the best little known tracks, he called it “me and my cohorts at our most pretentious” in his autobiography, adding, “the song is so un-Memphis-like, so un-MG’s-like. It sounds as if it was recorded at some swank Chicago nightclub on the South Side.”
4. Various Artists, Something Inside of Me: Unreleased Masters & Demos from the British Blues Years 1963-1976 (Wienerworld). It’s not so obvious from the song list, but this four-CD, 96-track compilation includes five previously unreleased cuts of particular historical note. These are the five by Boilerhouse, who included a teenage Danny Kirwan shortly before he joined Fleetwood Mac. A few of the other artists will be known to serious British blues aficionados, including one-man band Duster Bennett; Dave Kelly; and Al Jones, though Jones is more known for less blues-oriented mild folk-rock he released in the early 1970s. Maybe throw in Brett Marvin & the Thunderbolts too, but otherwise these names will draw blanks even with those interested enough in this genre to pursue rarities, like Dynaflow Blues; the D.J. Blues Band; the Nighthawks (unrelated to the far more famous US group of the same name); Tight Like That; Jeff Curtis & the Flames; and Shakey Vick’s Big City Blues Band, to name a few.
Certainly this isn’t nearly on the level of notable multi-disc British blues compilations like Sire’s History of British Blues back in 1973, or Grapefruit’s Crawling Up a Hill: A Journey Through the British Blues Boom 1966-1971 just a couple years ago. With a couple exceptions, these are more like the foot soldiers or, to be blunter, also-rans that populate the back ranks of any genre in force. Most interesting by far, if as much or more for historical interest than the quality of the music, are the five songs by Boilerhouse, recorded in summer 1968 very shortly before Kirwan joined Fleetwood Mac. Elmore James’s “Something Inside of Me” would be redone by Fleetwood Mac, and the earlier version here isn’t too different in arrangement, with Kirwan’s talents obvious at this formative stage. The other Boilerhouse material isn’t as impressive, highlighted by an instrumental version of Otis Rush’s “All Your Love.” Note that there’s a brief skip on “Something Inside of Me” as the acetate from which it’s sourced is damaged, which is conscientiously explained in the liners, as are some other sonic deficiencies.
Some of the better other material is supplied by Duster Bennett, with seven July 1965 recordings (with a bit of percussion accompanying Bennett’s vocals/guitar/harmonica). These are highlighted by the brief off-kilter instrumental “Kimberly,” a refreshing break from the standard blues progressions dominating most of this anthology that sounds more like Davy Graham than straight blues. It’s too bad the 1968 acetate from which “Worried Mind” was taken is in rough shape, but it’s one of his more energetically satisfying performances. The D.J. Blues Band, at the earliest part of the period covered here with four November 1963 cuts, have an enjoyable sort of blues-rock-jazz crossover a bit reminiscent of some somewhat better known groups of the time making the crossover from jazz to more accessible blues-pop-rock, like the Mike Cotton Sound. While I’m not a big fan of Al Jones generally, some of his country blues-flavored outings (all from the early ‘70s) show more gutsy imagination and folk guitar dexterity than most of the other acts on this collection, particularly “Liza.”
There’s not as much so say about the numerous other artists and tracks on this compilation. Most of them aren’t bad and indeed often reasonably enjoyable while they’re playing, but don’t stick out either in terms of performance or material. Jeff Curtis and the Flames are really more like early British Invasion rock’n’roll than blues with their heavily Chuck Berry-flavored sound on their late-’63 efforts, not that it’s a bad thing. The Nighthawks (the most heavily represented act with eighteen tracks) and Brett Marvin & the Thunderbolts are pretty tight if pretty generic and unexceptional; the selections more inclined toward jug band, straight country blues, and piano blues can grate. So this can’t be recommended even to many average British blues fans, unless you’re a Fleetwood Mac completist. But if you do have a particular fanaticism for the first decade when the form was at its peak, it can still strike an acceptable chord, accompanied by a super-detailed 150-page booklet with plenty of period photos/graphics and session info.
Compared to music documentaries and reissues that are up my alley, it’s more of a prime age for books. There are many rock history books, and some in related styles that interest me, getting churned out now, some on stars, some on acts and niches that seemed unimaginable to get honored with full-length volumes just a few years ago. There are so many I couldn’t get to them all, with a dozen titles at the least lined up on my list of things to check out that I couldn’t in time for this blogpost. No doubt I’ll become aware of at least a few other 2022 books I haven’t yet found out about. Good ones will be reviewed as the “this came out in 2022” part of my 2023 list, though that’s probably cold comfort to the writers and publishers.
But there are a lot of books on this list, including some in a special section for 2021 releases I didn’t read in time for my 2021 blogpost. Some of them rank as high as they do because of my special interest in the subject matter, such as my #1 and #2 picks. For some others, detailed research into some artists I’m particularly passionate about make up for imperfections in the writing, and I’ll always favor that over immaculate prose for subjects that don’t arouse my curiosity.
A word about those imperfectly written books. There are some comments in the reviews spotlighting mistakes and sloppiness. While those aren’t the main things I look for in reading and reviewing, it seems like more such carelessness is slipping into such books, and not just self-published ones. Sometimes they’re in best-sellers written by famous musicians and music business moguls. Most reviews don’t have the space to point specific ones out, and when I do, it’s a reminder that more care should be taken in getting dates, sequences of events, spellings, and larger issues right.
That’s especially the case considering many such facts can be easily researched, and that knowledgeable writers and fans are available to read the copy and correct errors before they get into print. This is often done for histories of major social movements and politicians, and music history isn’t less important to get right. Fortunately, the majority of books here don’t make numerous obvious slips.
1. The Byrds: 1964-1967, by Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman & David Crosby (BMG). Even by the standards of coffee table books, this is a literally heavy tome, weighing almost nine pounds. At about $150, it’s also pretty expensive. And it’s a photo book, not a standard narrative one. Still, it ranks pretty high on my list because I’m a big Byrds fan. The photos are really good, and I haven’t seen many of them (some of them outtakes from sessions that generated familiar images, including record covers) before, although I’ve seen many Byrds photos. And the three surviving original Byrds do contribute numerous quotes for the text, done specifically for this book, not taken from archive sources. While there are a few dozen pages at the end about some Byrds reunions, most of this does properly focus on their 1964-1967 prime.
While I always like more text in books like these, their memories are pretty good and entertaining, usually concentrating on the actual pictures and their settings, not so much on their general history (although there’s some of that). Sometimes they admit they don’t remember the photos or the events in which they took place, but at least they don’t pretend to and/or state false memories that are factually inaccurate. The departure of drummer Michael Clark at the end of 1967 should have been explained at least a bit more, but for those who want more of the actual Byrds story, there are Johnny Rogan’s massive Byrds tomes, though those are expensive too.
Here are just a couple deep dives that struck me of interest. Crosby, perhaps unsurprisingly, has some very ungracious things to say about their first co-manager Jim Dickson, and also their first producer, Terry Melcher. He says “Melcher couldn’t produce a Kleenex box. He knew nothing about audio, nothing about recording, nothing about songs, nothing about our band. Knew nothing about anything.” McGuinn, always more diplomatic, is quite complimentary about Melcher, whom he “believe[s] was a big part of the Byrds’ success,” and points out that “Terry didn’t like David’s songs, so he wasn’t putting them on the album. That was the key point that they disagreed on.”
Also, some Barry Feinstein photos make it clear that the great picture sleeve for the “Eight Miles High” single, where Michael Clarke is about to flick a spoon at an oblivious David Crosby’s head, was taken in mid-1965 in Chicago. The book, however, doesn’t include the actual photo from the picture sleeve. Which I would have liked, in part because that might have given McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby a chance to explain what was happening in that wonderfully goofy photo. It’s a minor missed opportunity, but again, at least they didn’t make up something factually wrong.
And there’s not much memorabilia in the book, but an item of great interest reproduces the unused liner notes publicist Derek Taylor wrote for their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn! These refer, with extreme (by the standards of the day’s notes) candor, to a physical fight between Crosby and Clarke in the studio; to Crosby undermining Clark’s confidence as a guitarist; to McGuinn and Crosby maneuvering to let only three Clark songs on the album; and to Columbia manufacturing 200,000 unused sleeves for a “The Times They Are A-Changin’” single that didn’t come out. And this is from a publicist! These kind of frank insights into a band’s conflicts were rare in any kind of press in the mid-1960s, and certainly unheard of in liner notes. But it’s definitely valuable as a historical document, even if no one should have been surprised that it wasn’t used on the LP’s back cover.
I have more detailed comments about specific parts of the Byrds’ history I found especially interesting in the book in this blogpost.
2. The Beatles 1963: A Year in the Life, by Dafydd Rees (Omnibus Press). Like the Byrds book reviewed above, this day-by-day log of the Beatles’ activities in the 1963 is for the devoted fan, not so much for the general one. With about 500 pages of entries for every day of the year, and many sidebars of eyewitness accounts in tiny print, it might even be for the hardcore fan. I think people who read lists like mine aren’t average casual rock fans, however, so it’s okay to put this pretty high on mine, acknowledging that not everyone’s as big a Beatles devotee as I am. Although this covers just one year, within that frame it’s more detailed than any of the other calendar Beatles books out there. Every gig, radio show, TV appearance, and recording is here, delineated in pretty exacting detail, along with other activities of numerous sorts the group undertook. The growth in one year of the band from an emerging group with a mid-chart debut hit to the biggest entertainment phenomenon the UK had ever seen, with some stirrings of early Beatlemania in the US at the very end of the year, still astonishes. So does the sheer amount of work the group packed into 1963, going all over the British Isles (and for a week to Sweden) and fitting in sessions at EMI, the BBC, and numerous other media obligations almost nonstop, with just a couple vacation breaks.
Although this is well written and very readable, there’s some unavoidable repetition in the nature of the concert accounts, especially in the final months, with show after show of kids lining up hours or days beforehand, hysteria at the event, the difficulty of getting the band in and out of the venues, the inability of the audience to hear the music over the screams, and so forth. These are still spiced up with some unusual stories, including from many youngsters who were there at these events. Better, however, are a good number of eyewitness accounts and memories from notable peers, including members of the Searchers and the Fourmost; Rod Argent of the Zombies; Peter Asher; and even Vic Arnold, bassist of the Lorne Gibson Trio, who remembers that he and the trio’s guitarist, Steve Vaughan, are playing with some members of the Beatles for the “Pop Goes the Beatles” theme on their BBC radio series of the same name. The majority of rock fans might not care about trivia like that, but I do, as I’m guessing a good number of other Beatles fanatics do. Mark Lewisohn’s in-the-works Beatles history is better for more readable insight into their career with huge detail and context. But he undoubtedly won’t be able to fit in as much forensic detail on 1963 as this book does, for those who are interested.
3. The Islander, by Chris Blackwell with Paul Morley (Gallery). The memoir by the founder and, for about four decades from the late 1950s, head of Island Records is satisfying on most levels. Much of the music and how he was involved in signing and helping to guide Island artists is discussed, in an even-handed tone that avoids the boasting and self-involvement found in many such autobiographies. There are inside, though not unduly gossipy, stories about many key Island stars, from his roots in early reggae and Jamaican music to his first big hits with Millie Small and the Spencer Davis Group, and then on to Traffic, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley, Free, and U2. Refreshingly, there’s also some attention paid to performers on the Island roster who would be considered cult artists, like John Martyn and Nick Drake, as well as to some key producers, like Guy Stevens and Jimmy Miller. Island’s brief and mixed detours into New York no wave and Washington, DC go-go music are also here as evidence of its eclecticism, but not overplayed. The ruminations on the business end of setting up and running a label don’t get bogged down in dry industry talk, and there’s not too much about his nonmusical personal life to distract from the main focus on the music and the music business. The point is sometimes made, but not overbearingly, that often the most effective way of running an enterprise such as Island is to let artists be themselves and let things happen, instead of pushing them in short-term commercial and artistic directions.
It might seem crabby to carp about some shortcomings in a pretty good book, but it’s frustrating that some art rock groups —particularly King Crimson, Jethro Tull, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer—that had huge success for Island in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and were presumably key to building the company’s strength, are barely mentioned. Some pretty interesting cult artists from their vintage years, like Nico and Kevin Ayers, are also barely mentioned, and while he gives brief high praise to Marianne Faithfull’s comeback on Island, you’d think there’d be more to say about that than just a few sentences. Meanwhile Grace Jones gets most of a chapter, and it’s not one of the more interesting ones. If the thinking of the author and/or publisher was that it would be excessive to expand the book by one or two hundred pages, that’s a mistaken line of reasoning for fans such as myself, and I think there a quite a few.
There are also a few inaccuracies that demonstrate these books aren’t always copyedited by people with deep knowledge of popular music history. Peter Grant’s referred to as making the leap from driving visiting American rock’n’roll stars around the UK in 1963 to managing the Jeff Beck Group and Stone the Crows a year later on the way to managing the Yardbirds. But the Jeff Beck Group and Stone the Crows didn’t even get together until a few years after 1964, and it would be a pretty neat trick to manage Stone the Crows on the way to managing the Yardbirds, since Stone the Crows didn’t start until 1969, and the Yardbirds broke up in 1968. You don’t need to know anything about music to realize that Millie Small couldn’t have been fifteen when Blackwell arranged for permission to bring her from Jamaica to England, since it’s written that she was born in 1946, and the letter of parental permission, reprinted in the book, is dated March 12, 1963. Later in the book she’s referred to as dying in May 2020 at the age of 72. Is it so hard to do the correct math?
4. A Song for Everyone The Story of Creedence Clearwater Revival, by John Lingan (Hachette). Although there have been a few previous books on CCR, this is the first one to tell the story thoroughly and well. It’s not ideal, as the author too often ties in commentary about what was generally going on in the world and counterculture during their lifespan. But the bulk of the text is devoted to CCR’s career, going from their lengthy origins as the Blue Velvets and the Golliwogs, with a lot of coverage of their 1968-1972 peak. The heart of the research is based on extensive interviews with bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford (though John Fogerty did not participate), and there’s a lot of inside detail into the band’s evolution and considerable highs and lows. The story is told without quotes from Lingan’s first-hand interviews, and while I favor the approach that uses direct quotes rather than telling the story as a narrative without them, it works okay here.
The group’s improbable transformation from also-ran, undistinguished regional band to superstars is explained with plenty of passionate analysis of their recordings, Fogerty’s songwriting, and their fraught relationship with Fantasy Records. Naturally much of this dwells on Fogerty’s creative process as he wrote virtually all of their original material, besides being lead guitarist, lead singer, and the most responsible for how their studio tracks were cut. The crucial point of his ascendance to dominance of the band seems to be when he overdubbed the backing vocals for “Proud Mary” without their presence, explaining to the others right afterward that he was going to be controlling almost everything other than playing rhythm guitar, bass, and drums from that point onward. Despite their phenomenal success in 1969-1971, they didn’t seem too happy (Fogerty included), and their painful breakup is explicated at length. Appropriately, there isn’t too much about their post-CCR work, though Fogerty’s battles with Saul Zaentz of Fantasy Records merited a bit more space. But you can read about those in Fogerty’s Fortunate Son memoir, which also gives his forceful point of view of his role in CCR’s history.
5. This Bell Still Rings: My Life of Defiance and Song, by Barbara Dane (Heyday). Now in her mid-nineties, Dane has had an incredible career, even if she’s never been too famous or approached having anything like a hit record, whether singing folk (the style she’s most identified with), blues, or jazz. Her 450-page memoir is rich with detail about her career and life, stretching back to the first stirrings of the folk revival in the early 1950s. To a greater degree than almost any performer of note, her life and art has been entwined with leftist politics, her recording and performing career likely suffering commercially as the result of the many stands she took. She’s not regretful about this, recounting her at times wildly up and down experiences in the record business, the performing circuit, and activist organizations with candor and occasional humorous zings. It’s both thoughtful and entertaining, and goes by faster than you might expect, as there are so many chapters there are a fair number of beginning-end pages with a lot of white space.
There are a lot of areas covered here, and her recordings aren’t neglected, with her stints at various indie labels from tiny to sizable noted, all the way up to her one major label LP (for Capitol) in the early 1960s. There are associations, from fleeting to tight, with a host of famous figures, ranging from Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger to less predictable ones like the Chambers Brothers and future Frank Zappa/Linda Ronstadt manager Herbie Cohen. There are inside stories about some of the most celebrated folk clubs, like the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, and rather tireless international travels, often to places rarely visited by Western performers, especially Cuba, but also the likes of the former East Berlin and Soviet Union.
There were obstacles thrown into her path by the government, which made it more difficult for her to travel abroad and spread her music and speak about her politics, and more surprisingly the Communist Party, who threw her out in the 1950s on spurious charges. Even more surprisingly, she discovered many years later that her first husband, Rolf Cahn—himself a figure in the folk scene—had informed on her to the FBI, though with little apparent consequence. She admits to some mistakes and regrets in both her professional and personal lives, particularly balancing commitments to her family with the need to constantly be on the road promoting her music and politics. In her early career, however, that was necessary just to survive with a growing family and no reliable income from her first two husbands.
The narrative does start to rush more and more after the 1960s, and at times I would have liked more detail on certain events, like the Paredon label she and her third husband, longtime Sing Out! editor Irwin Silber, founded in the early 1970s for non-mainstream international folk, often of a political bent. It’s disclosed that there are a fair amount of unreleased tracks she recorded for Capitol in the early 1960s and Arhoolie a few years later, and some more info, if known, about how that happened would have been interesting. Or, more on how she managed to record a folk album for a different label while signed to Capitol, a complication that’s only noted in passing.
It’s also mentioned in passing that the manuscript was cut in half, and while the whole thing would be too much for most readers, here’s a message to publishers in general: could it be considered to do deluxe editions of such books with all or most of the available text? That was done for Mark Lewisohn’s Tune In (the first of his planned massive three-volume Beatles discography), and there are at least two other music books I’ve liked where I know the original manuscript was at least twice as long. There are extended and superdeluxe editions for lots of music recordings, and that can be done for music books too.
6. Felix Cavaliere: Memoir of a Rascal, by Felix Cavaliere with Mitch Steinman (self-published). Since this is a self-published work (though easily orderable online), this has escaped much notice. I haven’t seen a single review, and wouldn’t have known of its existence if not for a passing mention in an online post about something else. While a figure like Cavaliere is deserving of more thorough proofreading and higher quality photo reproduction, for the most part it’s a decent, solid, and entertaining autobiography that properly focuses mostly on his time in the Rascals. It’s certainly better than the yet more obscure memoir a few years ago from another member of that band, guitarist Gene Cornish, that had far more of the pitfalls associated with self-published books.
While many of the basic details of the Rascals’ career here will be familiar to serious fans of the group, Cavaliere relays them in a fresh storytelling manner that’s not embroidered with too many gratuitous thank-yous and bitter asides. There are stories of how he wrote or co-wrote numerous Rascals songs; their Atlantic Records recording sessions; and their efforts to help the cause of desegregation by insisting black acts share their bills. He generally has positive memories of the other Rascals, but does portray singer Eddie Brigati as a frequently difficult and contrary guy who held back their longevity, with some reservations about Dino Danelli’s commitment in their post-hits years. There are some unusual anecdotes that don’t make it into standard histories, like how “You Better Run” was written about a particular fraught affair he had, or how the other Rascals tried to do some recording (still unheard) without him when he took a brief vacation from the group in the late 1960s.
In common with many a memoir, the last sections are by far the least interesting, focusing on reunions and some repetitious sentiments about how blessed he’s been, how some opportunities were missed, and the awards he’s won. Some of the typos and mistakes that could have been easily eliminated with better proofing are frustrating if minor flaws in what is otherwise a worthwhile book. It shouldn’t take that much more time, for instance, to fix the spellings of “Marvin Gay” and “Barry Gordy” in the same paragraph, or avoid the embarrassment of noting an Otis Redding show at the Whisky a Go Go in 1968, the year after his death.
7. Wayward: Just Another Life to Live, by Vashti Bunyan (White Rabbit). Vashti Bunyan was briefly managed by Andrew Oldham in the mid-1960s and recorded a couple obscure mid-‘60s pop singles, including a song written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “Some Things Just Stick in Your Mind,” that the Rolling Stones didn’t release in the 1960s. More famously, but not exactly famously, she put out an obscure Joe Boyd-produced 1970 mild folk-rock album, Just Another Diamond Day, with musical contributions from members of the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. The LP was rediscovered a few decades later and has gained a considerable cult following, leading Bunyan to reactivate her musical career and do a couple more albums. All this in itself would make for a pretty interesting story, but her early life was far more unusual than it was for most musicians with this kind of back story. In the late 1960s, she and her then-partner traveled by horse and wagon from London to the Outer Hebrides, the experience generating many of the songs that were written for Just Another Diamond Day.
This memoir isn’t huge, but it doesn’t have to be bigger than it is. It properly focuses on her late-‘60s journey, with some coverage of her more poppish pre-1970 recordings and experiences with Oldham, as well as a final section on her comeback of sorts. Much like the singer’s music, it’s rather modest and self-effacing, but also forthright and entertaining. There are detailed stories of the numerous odd incidents and mishaps she had on her way from roughly the south to the north of Britain, as well as the unexpected kindnesses and hassles for being hippies that she suffered. In retrospect some of her and her partners’ decisions to live rough for so long might seem reckless and naive, but she acknowledges this. She also notes, without undue bitterness, how she was sometimes disrespectfully treated by her partner Robert Lewis. It’s a countercultural saga that’s difficult to imagine happening today, and while some fans might wish for more of a focus on her music, her songwriting and recording sessions are recounted in satisfying detail. So is her dissatisfaction with much of her work at the time, and her belated appreciation of it when she realized how much it meant to listeners she didn’t know she had.
8. On the Street I Met a Dog: An Autobiography and the Definitive Story of the Chesterfield Kings, by Greg Prevost, edited by Massimo del Pozzo (Misty Lane). Although perhaps not a name well known or known at all to many general rock fans, Prevost has been a mainstay of the garage revival scene since the late 1970s, usually as singer with the Chesterfield Kings. His lengthy memoir has a lot of interest to Chesterfield Kings fans, including meticulous details of their origins, tours, and recordings, down to track-by-track rundowns of many of these. But it should carry considerable interest even if you’re not a major fan of the group, as it’s stuffed with colorful anecdotes common to many a struggling underground act: the tour mishaps, shady promoters, recording deals that backfire, unsympathetic studio engineers, and more. In Prevost’s case, it was perhaps in some ways even more difficult than for the typical underground/indie act as he was diligently reviving styles out of sync with both contemporary and alternative trends, in particular the mid-‘60s garage rock he focused on (and often covered) with the Chesterfield Kings.
Prevost is also an archivist, historian, and writer of note, and while the book mostly covers his activities as a musician, there’s also coverage of his work as a noted fanzine publisher (of Outasite in particular) and manic collector. There are also encounters with an amazing roster of figures, not all of them the ‘60s garage rockers you’d expect, though some of them are here too, like Question Mark and Mark Lindsay. There are also meetings with Ray Davies, Graham Nash, Mick Taylor, and even (briefly) Mick Jagger that cast a somewhat different, and usually sympathetic, light on these superstars than usual. There are also some brief encounters that case big stars in an unflattering light (Elvis Costello, Joan Jett), and some interactions that are downright surprising (a double date including Lydia Koch, soon to rename herself Lydia Lunch).
Not all of this might entertain those not too deeply into his catalog, as there are sometimes microscopic details of recording sessions (including the obscure origins of the many songs he’s covered), tours, and even collecting vintage TV shows. But it’s a testament to the extraordinary perseverance needed to maintain a half-century or so career playing music more for love than for realistic hopes at stardom or even profit, though some brushes with major label interest and big-time media coverage made it seem momentarily possible. While critical at times of some of his associates, particularly as the Chesterfield Kings wound down and reached a cul-de-sac of sorts, he doesn’t spare himself in examining faults and failures. His recent more blues-oriented efforts as Greg Stackhouse Prevost are also discussed, leaving the impression of a man more at peace with his stubbornly uncommercial approaches than he was at times when he achieved wider recognition in his youth.
9. Zal! An Oral History of Zalman Yanovsky, by Simon Wordsworth (self-published, firstname.lastname@example.org). This nearly 300-page, large-sized paperback draws on interviews with more than 75 people who knew or were associated with the Lovin’ Spoonful guitarist. The quotes are connected by overviews of what was happening in his career and life for each chronologically sequenced chapter. This covers not only his time in the Lovin’ Spoonful, but also his pre-Spoonful groups the Halifax 3 + 1 and the Mugwumps; his obscure, not so great late-‘60s solo album; his brief time as guitarist in Kris Kristofferson’s band at the beginning of the 1970s; and assorted other miscellaneous musical projects. Those, however, were sparse after the early 1970s, Yanovsky devoting most of his final quarter century to running a restaurant in Kingston, Canada.
There’s a ton of information, usually relayed in a storytelling format, about this colorful fellow. The best parts, to no surprise, are those about the Spoonful, and there are plenty of those. Yanovsky does come across as someone whose over-the-top humor and pranks were not for everyone, or certainly could wear out their welcome. Sort of like Keith Moon, rather than being fun most of the time but hard to deal with the rest, it seems more like he could be fun some of the time and often hard to deal with, though he wasn’t as destructive or manic as Moon. There is a lot about his guitar work and the Spoonful’s records and concerts, and the controversial fallout from the drug bust of him and Spoonful bassist Steve Boone in 1966 is not overlooked. While descriptions of a lengthy interview (and he rarely discussed the Spoonful after the ‘60s) he gave Karl Baker in the 1990s lead you to believe it was somewhere between disappointment and disaster, actually the interview (reprinted in full near the end) is pretty good and informative.
As valuable as this is for serious Spoonful fans, the book could have benefited from some editing, and not just for the occasional misspellings and awkward grammar you find in many self-published volumes. There are quite a few “maybe it was funnier if you were there” stories, and repeated testaments to his good heart and zany humor, that could have been tightened up or dropped. There’s a lot of space for his time as a restaurant owner, cook, and Kingston citizen in his later years, and not everyone will be too interested in that era. There are many photos and memorabilia reproductions, quite a few rare, though some are printed in such small size that it’s difficult to make them out. These shortcomings shouldn’t seriously bother dedicated Lovin’ Spoonful fans, who will likely be willing to sift through the material for what they want to know. And there’s more coming, as the author and Baker are putting together a Lovin’ Spoonful “day by day” book.
10. The Who: Concert Memories from the Classic Years 1964-to-1976, by Edoardi Genzolini (Schiffer Publishing). The production values of this large-sized hardback might be more impressive than the contents, and this ranks as high as it does because of my avid interest in the Who, rather than the pure quality of the material. Still, it does collect many previously unpublished accounts of Who concerts, mostly from fans, though there are a few from people who knew and/or worked with the group. There are also many photos of them in concert, hotel rooms, or other locales, often taken by fans rather than professionals, and sometimes taken by the same fans who provide their memories. The eras are tied together by some basic historical overviews of various points of their career by the author.
The entries by those who saw the Who could have sometimes done with some editing, sometimes going off into rambling non-band-related tangents about the era or personal experiences of growing up during the times. There’s some repetition, between entries and within entries, of basic sentiments about how incredible they were in concert. But there are some good stories, including some specifics about instrument destruction at various shows, and a non-show-one where Sally Mann Romano remembers Keith Moon abandoning an expensive rented Porsche with the motor running in an empty intersection in Los Angeles traffic when he got impatient at a red light. Most remarkable, however, is how accessible the Who could be to fans determined to meet them offstage—not just in the pre-Tommy pre-superstar days, but on occasions well into the 1970s. Fans who managed to wangle their ways into backstage areas or hotel rooms were often welcomed, and they, especially Pete Townshend, could be generous with inviting them along to shows and sometimes giving free tickets.
Many of these photos are rare, but they run the gamut from top professional images to numerous blurry, out-of-focus and/or dark/poorly lit/distant amateur snaps. My favorite is certainly the one of an August 10, 1968 gig at the Jaguar Club in St. Charles, Illinois that shows Townshend swinging upside down from a pipe above the stage—during the show, not at a soundcheck or something like that—after smashing his guitar on the pipe. There aren’t many pre-1968 entries and overall they’re heavily tilted toward US shows. It’s a book that will primarily be valued by serious Who fans, but there are many of those, and they’ll get a lot out of the pictures and words, though there are numerous better Who books with a wider scope.
11. What Was the First Rock’n’Roll Record?, by Jim Dawson and Steve Propes (Genius Music Books). In 1992, the first edition of this valuable book had entries for fifty singles issued between 1944 and 1956, discussing in depth how each of them led to rock’n’roll, ending with actual rock’n’roll classics by Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley in 1955 and 1956. This updated and revised thirtieth anniversary edition adds some corrections, clarifications, and additional material. It’s hard to tell how much bigger it is since the layouts of the editions are different, but there’s definitely more text. If the bulk if it hadn’t been previously published, it would occupy a much higher position on this list.
Whether you read it for the first time now or are a completist making sure you have the new edition, this is essential for its fluidly stated, heavily researched descriptions and analyses of these fifty singles, many of them pretty famous, some quite obscure, even if they were R&B or country hits in their day. Seminal discs by the likes of Bill Haley, Joe Turner, the Drifters, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, and the like are here. Chart positions and notes about what records influenced them (and which records it went on to influence) and cover versions supplement the detailed histories of how the records were made. But there are also numerous less celebrated records and artists by the likes of Arkie Shibley (“Hot Rod Race”) and Stick McGhee (“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”), as well as key one-shots by groups like the Crows, Chords, and Penguins. Of course there are arguments to be made for many classic tracks that could have been included, like Haley’s “Crazy Man Crazy” or Presley’s “Mystery Train,” though if a list has to be limited to fifty, it’s inevitable it can’t cover everything. It makes one wish the authors would do a second volume covering fifty other singles that didn’t make it, though as almost all of the artists and their associates are gone, that would make first-hand research much more difficult.
12. Stunt Rocker: The Many Adventures of Andy Ellison, by Andy Ellison (Wintergarden). He’s not a household name, but singer Andy Ellison has a considerable cult following for fronting 1960s British mod band John’s Children, and then Jet and Radio Stars in the 1970s. His 200-page memoir has a chatty diary sort of feel, though it doesn’t suffer for that, as he’s a pretty good storyteller. The stories are usually pretty good, too, though they emphasize the daredevil leaps and pranks he did onstage, which caused him many injuries, some quite serious, over his nearly six-decade career. Generally he and his bands were more interested in causing mayhem than anything else, not just onstage, but on endless if entertaining mishaps they went through (some of their own making) on tour, and even in school and on holiday. They must have had a considerable amount of charm to get away with what they did, and also to get managers and record deals, some of them high-profile, like Simon Napier-Bell, who was managing the Yardbirds when he took on John’s Children. Marc Bolan’s brief and tumultuous time in John’s Children is discussed, as are Ellison’s brushes with numerous famous stars, including the Who, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and David Bowie. There are also unsurprising but amusing conflicts with record labels, and plenty of odd jobs Ellison took to keep going between bands.
How’s the music fit into all of this? Well, sometimes it feels wedged between the emergencies, confiscated equipment, and staying one step ahead of the authorities. But it’s there, Ellison discussing the writing and recording of some of the more notable records he was involved with, like John’s Children’s “Desdemona” (with Bolan), and some obscure ones, like his wistful 1967 single “It’s Been a Long Time,” used in the film Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. The idiosyncrasies of his numerous bandmates over the years get space too, and he expresses regret over the firing of original John’s Children guitarist Geoff McClelland, forced out of the band at Napier-Bell’s instigation to make room for Bolan. I wouldn’t have minded more about the music and records, though you can read some more specific comments about his ‘60s discs in his liner notes to John’s Children’s A Strange Affair comp.
Like so many such memoirs, the last sections rush through the last few decades and various reunion shows and tours, and there are good and often rare photos throughout the book. There’s also a good share of jumbled chronology, like Ellison meeting Lennon at Apple’s headquarters on Savile Row before he comes across him when the Beatles are working on Magical Mystery Tour, which was broadcast before the group moved into Apple. More innocuously, he remembers mailing a copy of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers with pot and LSD sealed inside to Spain in July 1970, almost a year before the LP was released. This won’t bother too many readers or seriously impede the fun, but is another testament to how these small-run books could benefit from some outside proofing by knowledgeable fans.
13. Some New Kind of Kick: A Memoir, by Kid Congo Powers with Chris Campion (Hachette). Although his name isn’t well known to the general public, Powers is fairly famous in the rock underground as a guitarist who did stints with the Gun Club, the Cramps, and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds. If a bit uneven, his memoir is pretty good, covering his time in all of those groups in some depth, though there’s considerably more space given to the Gun Club, particularly how he learned guitar and developed a style from scratch with encouragement from Gun Club singer Jeffrey Lee Pierce. He also writes a lot about his pre-pro years growing up as a Latinx gay misfit in Los Angeles, and though numerous memoirs follow a similar trajectory of finding identity through punk and new wave as a teen, he tells it in a more interesting and humorous way than the norm. A good number of his mishaps crossed the line from typical teen high jinx to obnoxious and even dangerous incidents, and while there might be some more detail about them than necessary, they are relayed without much pride or guilt.
Fans of the Gun Club, Cramps, and to a lesser degree the Bad Seeds will find a lot about their music and peculiar inner dynamics. Being in the Cramps, for instance, was a bit like being in a cult, and his time in the Bad Seeds came to an unceremonious end when Mick Harvey announced he was returning to guitar from bass. Jeffrey Lee Pierce comes off as a talented but volatile figure who was nearly impossible to put up with. But because his collaboration with Pierce meant so much to him artistically, Powers usually did, as associates of hard-to-abide behavior of talents sometimes do – even if Pierce wasn’t nearly as legendary as figures of the sort like Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, or even Captain Beefheart. In the process, he came up with a guitar style that was, although some would consider it amateur given his lack of prior experience, distinct and individual. As in so many musical memoirs, Powers fell prey to addiction and relapse, his path through those fairly similar to what you’ll read in other autobiographies, though it doesn’t dominate the narrative as much as it does in some other such books.
14. Like a Rolling Stone, by Jann S. Wenner (Little, Brown). Two previous books on Wenner and/or Rolling Stone—Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers (2017) and, to a much fainter degree, Robert Draper’s Rolling Stone Magazine (1990)—portrayed an ego-driven publisher and editor. In Sticky Fingers in particular, Wenner comes off as pretty despicable. These books shouldn’t be discounted, but Wenner’s own huge 550-plus-page memoir has its merits and interest. The style is rather matter-of-fact, covering his life and career from his upbringing and co-founding of Rolling Stone in 1967 up to his and the magazine’s changes through 2020. Much of the text is broken into bites of one to several paragraphs, roving from incident to incident and observation to observation.
Wenner’s criticized by some purists for not liking music enough or even at all, but there is a lot of musical coverage here. Not all of it’s the same-old, either, as he discusses some topics not dealt with much in other sources, like the British edition of Rolling Stone in the late 1960s; his production of Boz Scaggs’s debut album, which in his account was far more involved than being a token presence; and, in a surprising brief political aside, the revelation that 1984 presidential candidate Alan Cranston asked if Wenner could do fundraising concerts for him where the money from ticket sales would go unreported (Wenner admits to saying yes). The book isn’t bereft of self-deprecating humor (though it’s not abundant), and he confesses that his rather infamous rave review of Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming “should have been sent back and cut in half.”
As expected, the most exciting parts of the book discuss the early San Francisco-based years of Rolling Stone, when the magazine was marking new territory in rock and then general journalism. It gets less exciting as the years roll on and Wenner gets less interested in music, and more in expanding a publishing empire that would also include US magazine. It’s a long way from putting Captain Beefheart on the cover in 1970 to getting excited, as Wenner does, about getting a scoop on Brad Pitt’s marriage to Angelina Jolie. Many of their more serious stories, music and otherwise, are detailed, though the constant references to the awards they won are unnecessary. Some of the less flattering footnotes to his journey are glossed over, like his putting his landmark early-‘70s interviews with John Lennon into book form against Lennon’s wishes (though he writes “I had the clear right to do so”), or not examined, like Garry Trudeau’s mildly satirical portrait of him in Doonesbury as “Yawn Wenner.” There are more stories of hobnobbing with pals Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, and Bette Midler than most readers would likely wish, and the huge pile of short, oft-jet set-celeb-oriented anecdotes gets tiring by the volume’s later stages.
Time for mistakes that not many readers will care about: there are a few minor ones relating—surprisingly considering how well Wenner knew the Beatles’ catalog when he interviewed Lennon—to the Beatles, such as placing their final concert in 1965, and the recording of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in 1969. More annoyingly, he remembers buying the UK version of Revolver in London in the summer of 1966 when it “had been released in the UK but was not due out in the US for another two months.” Revolver was released almost simultaneously in the US (albeit missing three tracks from the UK version) and the UK in August 1966. Maybe the confusion arose from those three missing tracks having been released in the US two months earlier on Yesterday…and Today, though that’s hardly the same thing as Revolver coming out in the UK two months earlier. Alas, it doesn’t stop there; in the index, the entry for the album reads “Revolver (album; Rolling Stones).”
15. Wicked Game: The True Story of Guitarist James Calvin Wilsey, by Michael Goldberg (HoZac). Jimmy Wilsey is most famous for playing lead guitar on Chris Isaak’s early albums, particularly on Isaak’s early-1990s hit “Wicked Game.” Before that, he was bassist in the Avengers, San Francisco’s leading punk band in the late 1970s. That might not seem like enough to build a 416-page book around, but his life was pretty interesting, if tragic, as he died homeless in 2018 after about a quarter century of drifting through drug abuse, troubled relationships, and only sporadic musicmaking. This biography covers almost as much as that life as possible, including interviews with the other Avengers, other members of Isaak’s backing band Silvertone, girlfriends, and others dating back to his Midwest childhood.
Although the depth of research is impressive, the text could have benefited from some pruning, with a good share of the comments reiterating basic facets of Wilsey’s sweet, good-natured character and how his addictions damaged his life and creativity. His music isn’t ignored, with detailed passages about his distinctive rockabilly-surf-influenced guitar work. Although they weren’t nearly as commercially successful as Isaak, the sections on the Avengers are extensive, with a lot of colorful context about the early San Francisco punk scene in which Wilsey became immersed. His rewarding but ultimately frustrating (particularly on the financial and credits sides) collaboration with Isaak is covered in depth, though Isaak himself and Wilsey’s wife were among the few notable figures not to grant interviews for this book. Wilsey’s descent into irresponsible addiction was longer than most, and it dominates the post-1990 chapters, making for even more prolonged decline than is usually featured in the many other rock books that end this way.
16. From Squeaky Clean to Dirty Water, by Larry Tamblyn (BearManor Media). Tamblyn was keyboardist in the Standells, most known for their classic garage rock hit “Dirty Water,” though they had a few other smaller hits and a respectable body of mid-‘60s recordings in the more accessible garage rock style. His memoir covers their career in detail, from their beginnings as a Los Angeles club band to their peak with a tougher sound in the mid-‘60s. There’s a lot about the big range of ups and downs of being on the road and navigating the rough waters of the Hollywood record business, including a good share of touring mishaps and affairs with admirers. There are also anecdotes, if sometimes short ones, of artists they met and played with, such as the Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds, and even of briefly meeting Syd Barrett (“who seemed to be spaced out, not unlike our own Dick Dodd at the time”).
The best sections, however, are those that go over their mid-‘60s prime, including pretty in-depth memories of their most well known recordings, produced and sometimes written (as “Dirty Water” was) by Ed Cobb. If you, like many viewers, first saw them (whether at the time or on reruns) when they guest starred in an episode of The Munsters, well, there’s more here on that experience than you’ll read anywhere. So’s some lowdown on their appearance (including performing the title song) in Riot on Sunset Strip. More obscurely, it’s not so widely known that Dewey Martin was on drums for a bit before Buffalo Springfield, and Lowell George briefly a Standell in the late ‘60s, as discussed in the book.
While it’s not uncommon in rock groups, it’s unfortunate that Tamblyn has had some major conflicts with band members over the years, on which he gives his lengthy perspectives. These were worse with guitarist Tony Valentino than any of the others, Larry feeling Tony angled for more attention and credit than he merited from around the mid-‘60s onward. He’s respectful of Valentino’s musical abilities, however, writing that he “may not have been the greatest guitarist, but he had a knack for coming up with the simplest most enduring guitar riffs.”
He’s also complimentary about drummer Dick Dodd’s value as a lead singer, though critical of Dodd’s decision to leave for a solo career (Dodd had actually left for a bit before “Dirty Water” hit, which is where Dewey Martin came in). Cobb comes in for both some praise and flack, Tamblyn expressing disappointment in some of his and Tower Records’ decisions (and the failure of “Try It” to gain more airplay owing to supposed controversial lyrics), although he projects his pride in lesser known tracks like “Someday You’ll Cry” and “Rari.” The group’s decline in popularity and tumultuous sporadic comebacks are covered in the final chapters, but the emphasis is rightly on their ‘60s prime.
17. Undercover: 500 Rolling Stones Cover Versions That You Must Hear!, by Peter Checksfield (self-published, www.peterchecksfield.com). This might be of limited interest to those who aren’t rather hardcore Rolling Stones fans, but that’s a pretty sizable niche, and this is the kind of book that such intense devotees will value. Checksfield details 500 cover versions—principally of compositions by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, though some by Bill Wyman and the early group pseudonym Nanker-Phelge are also here—from 1964 to the present. Besides noting recording info for both the originals and covers and succinctly describing each cover, there are also interviews (if usually pretty brief) with 130 musicians involved in the cover versions. There are naturally some pretty famous interpretations detailed—the Who’s “The Last Time,” Marianne Faithfull’s “As Tears Go By,” the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Wild Horses,” both Otis Redding and Devo’s “Satisfaction,” and Ike & Tina Turner’s “Honky Tonk Women” are just a few.
But the accent is on pretty obscure ones, and it’s doubtful anyone but Checksfield has heard all of these. As one of the most outstandingly rare examples, the Swinging Blue Jeans performed the early Jagger-Richards composition “So Much in Love” (never released by the Stones) on the BBC in 1965; it was only issued on a 2019 digital-only compilation, and even the Blue Jeans’ Ralph Ellis doesn’t remember doing it. Virtually all of the Stones’ originals from the ‘60s were covered at some point, and it took some digging to get them represented; the UK “Paint It Black” B-side “Long, Long While,” for instance, was done in 1968 by a Greek group, the Idols. The songs Jagger and Richards “gave away” in the mid-1960s without putting on Stones records are covered, and some of the musicians who did those are tracked down and interviewed, including some from mighty unknown outfits like the Toggery Five and West Five. While there aren’t many interview comments from the most famous figures who interpreted the Rolling Stones, there are a few, like Devo’s Gerard Casale going over his group’s “Satisfaction” in great detail, and Sandie Shaw discussing her 1969 rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil.”
Even narrowing down the list to 500 requires selectivity, and obsessive collectors might note the absence of a few covers that might have been worth including. To cite just one, it’s surprising Rotary Connection’s quasi-classical arrangement of “Lady Jane” (with Minnie Riperton on typically stratospherically high vocals) isn’t here, though a couple other Stones covers they did are. There are also a wealth of pretty obscure post-1970s covers that aren’t as interesting to read about as the earlier ones (particularly those from the ‘60s), though the interviews asking musicians about how and why these were recorded are okay. There are also basic black-and-white illustrations, mostly of artwork and labels from the cover recordings, and stills from filmed performances of some of the cover versions.
18. Chuck Berry: An American Life, by RJ Smith (Hachette). Besides being one of rock’n’roll’s top founding figures, Chuck Berry had an enormously complicated and often controversial personal life. Both are covered in this biography, which isn’t the first one of Berry, even if you don’t count Berry’s autobiography. Despite its heft, it’s not wholly satisfying, even if the writing is livelier in some ways than it is in the best Berry book, Bruce Pegg’s Brown-Eyed Handsome Man. There are numerous digressions into the context of Berry’s times and music, particularly his early years in St. Louis, some worthwhile, and some more like superfluous padding. Smith intelligently analyzes much of Berry’s music, and digs into some of his recording sessions, but hardly covers or fails to mention some of his classics at all, including “Memphis, Tennessee”; “Reelin’ and Rockin'”: “Little Queenie”; “Carol”; “Almost Grown”; “No Particular Place to Go”; and others.
Although Smith did more than a hundred interviews for the project, many of the key figures (not just Berry himself) are gone, and some of the ones Smith does quote have peripheral or no connections with Chuck. Much attention is given to the most controversial activities that got him into trouble (particularly those that got him in jail in the early 1960s), and while those can’t be glossed over, some more weight on his music would have been preferable. Or more inside accounts, like good ones he does get from Steve Miller, whose band backed Berry in concert in 1967.
It’s too spotty to be definitive, though all Berry fans, of which there are many, will find much material to interest them in what’s covered, spanning his entire life. If you are a big fan, although you probably know this already, be aware that the documentation of his less admirable traits might make you feel like you know more about him than you wished. These include his oft-gross sexual fetishes, his mercurial insistence on using and sometimes tormenting scrappy pickup bands, and his generally unpredictably wayward manner of dealing with many social situations.
19. Lightning Striking, by Lenny Kaye (Ecco). Kaye, veteran rock writer most known for assembling Nuggets, and veteran guitarist most known for his longtime association with Patti Smith, picks “ten transformative moments in rock and roll” as the subject of this book’s chapters. These aren’t the kind of historical overviews that will uncover much material that’s unfamiliar to readers who know a lot about these junctures, whether it’s Memphis in the mid-1950s, Liverpool in the early 1960s, or London in 1977, up to Seattle in the early 1990s. Kaye does touch upon and colorfully detail/analyze many of the highlights, the essays’ value lying no much in the information (though there are some little known stories and facts) as his perceptions of how they signified and pushed through the evolution of new styles.
He also draws upon some of his own experiences as a young fan, aspiring musician, early rock critic, and guitarist in the Patti Smith Group, and these are the most interesting passages in the book, though they’re much less numerous than the straighter historical accounts/summaries. They’re especially to the fore, as you’d expect, in the chapter on New York in 1975, which has much coverage of how the Patti Smith Group formed and rose to fame; other memories of his time with Smith dot some of the later chapters, going up to a Seattle concert that got canceled at the onset of the 2020 pandemic. There’s some pithy humor and attention paid to bit players, as in this bit about a Frost album in the chapter on Detroit in the late 1960s: “There’s eleven minutes of the Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place,’ though they won’t be getting out of Detroit.”
20. Leonard Cohen: Untold Stories: From This Broken Hill, Volume 2, by Michael Posner (Simon & Schuster). Posner interviewed more than 500 people for a mammoth, three-volume Leonard Cohen oral history. This first volume, reviewed on my 2020 best-of list, covered his life until the end of 1970. This equally long (475 pages) book covers 1971 until the late 1980s, and is similar enough in structure and tone that I could almost reprint my review of volume one. The difference is that the era it deals with is somewhat less interesting, though it included some notable or at least notably odd projects, like the album he did with Phil Spector and the composition of “Hallelujah.”
Again the sheer volume of information and stories might at once impress serious fans and exhaust many readers. Although the music and records are given substantial coverage, there’s more room given to his serial and sometimes simultaneous affairs with women than anything else. Maybe some people feel that these are as interesting, or at any rate as important to Cohen’s story and character, as anything else he did. I’m not one of them. It gets to the point where you dread transitions on the order of “while he was still constantly seeing and bedding x and y, when he traveled here he also started a liaison with z.” Even more than many lengthy oral histories, there are contradictory accounts and interpretations of many incidents, as well as genuflections about what a genius Cohen was and how kind he could be on many occasions.
After making my mixed feelings clear, here’s one of the more interesting stories from the book, and one I don’t remember hearing or reading elsewhere. Eric Andersen says a friend of Cohen’s told him that Leonard came to her home, saw some of Andersen’s records, and broke them over his knee. In the very next quote, this is vehemently denied by that friend, Aviva Layton.
21. The Dylan Tapes, by Anthony Scaduto (University of Minnesota Press). Anthony Scaduto’s 1971 book Bob Dylan: An Intimate Biography was one of the first comprehensive biographies of a major figure in rock. Many subsequent books and much subsequent research has filled in tons of details he didn’t find, but it was an admirable job in establishing a foundation for what Dylan had done. This equally lengthy book has transcripts of interviews he did with a couple dozen of Dylan’s associates, ranging from his high school girlfriend Echo Holstrom to Dave Van Ronk, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joan Baez, and John Hammond Sr., as well as conversations he had with Dylan himself after most of his research was done.
Like some similar books, this brings home how a finished product that selectively quotes from and contextualizes interviews is a better read than the relatively raw information. However, serious Dylan historians will appreciate being able to read the original interviews, although maybe not so much for additional facts as for insight into the personalities of some of these people from how they talk and react. There isn’t too much in the way of prime stuff that didn’t make the cut, though there are some such bits, like Elliott filling in more details as to how he ended up singing on the original 1964 outtake version of “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and why that wasn’t used; Carolyn Hester discussing the mixed effects of many folkies’ boycott of the Hootenanny TV show (due to the show’s refusal to book Pete Seeger), which she thinks cost the whole scene a lot of exposure; and Dylan telling Izzy Young that Peter Stampfel was one of his favorite singers. There’s also Eric von Schmidt dismissing Phil Ochs’s verdict of Highway 61 Revisited as the best album ever made with the words “Phil Ochs judging, you know, a total musical thing is, is like me judging, you know, a kind of tea-drinking contest. I don’t think Phil Ochs knows that much about music.”
It’s also interesting to see how much was still unknown about some basics of Dylan’s life and career only about ten years after he turned professional. Numerous interviewees get basic facts about what happened when wrong or don’t remember, even though only five to ten years had passed in most cases. Scaduto also missed talking to many figures who’d speak about Dylan in the 1960s in years to come, especially musicians and producers who worked with him after he moved from folk to rock. But Dylan scholars now have more to chew on with the publication of these transcripts, though Scaduto’s finished book remains of significantly greater value.
22. For the Records: Close Encounters with Pop Music, by Gene Sculatti (Swingin’ 60 Productions). As a rock journalist for about half a century, Sculatti’s most known for co-authoring the book San Francisco Nights: The Psychedelic Music Trip, 1965-1968, as well as presenting radio and Internet shows featuring music he loves. This slim semi-memoir is dedicated to very personal memories of records and music that were special to him, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s, though there’s some attention paid to later sounds. As a one-sitting reading it’s reasonably entertaining, if not full of information that will be unfamiliar to serious enthusiasts of early rock, though some rarities are discussed.
It’s dotted with some inside stories of experiencing the San Francisco scene, working in the rock biz as a writer and record company employee, and record collecting—he once came across twenty copies of the Grateful Dead’s rare debut 45 on the Scorpio label before it was fully realized how valuable it was, though only three of them were purchased. More often, however, he expresses appreciation for hearing the music, often dating back to his first experiences with certain bands and records. One observation that was crucial to elevating this to a place on this list was his remark that songs on the Beach Boys’ Friends album “wouldn’t have been out of place in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”—a comment bound to enrage many Beach Boys fans, but also one that’s pretty accurate.
23. Corporate Rock Sucks: The Rise & Fall of SST Records, by Jim Ruland (Hachette). In the late twentieth century, SST was one of the most prominent and downright ubiquitous independent labels, often but not always recording noisy rock with connections to punk and (less frequently) metal. This documents its rise and, well, not so much fall as near-disappearance in the twenty-first century. For an outfit that put out discs by Black Flag, the Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, Screaming Trees, and (more briefly) Sonic Youth and Soundgarden, among others, there’s been some mystery about how it operated and fluctuated. It put out so much product that even 400 pages isn’t enough to fully detail the music it generated, and some acts who issued a lot (Leaving Trains) or little (Opal) on SST don’t get nearly as much attention as the aforementioned bands. But this gets a lot of the nuts and bolts (including Raymond Pettibone’s distinctive artwork on early SST releases) into print, drawing on both first-hand and archival interviews, although Greg Ginn, the most important figure as Black Flag guitarist and the chief force behind SST, did not make himself available.
As anti-corporate as their ethos were (at least at the start), it’s not always an uplifting story. Mine is not a universally popular opinion, but the attitude the artists and music often espoused, at least in SST’s early years, could be wearisome in its constant aim to alienate audiences with music and confrontational behavior that pushed the boundaries of both volume and obnoxiousness. The label sometimes put out an absurd oversaturation of product—seven albums, unbelievably, by the unappealing and uncommercial (even by SST standards) Zoogz Rift in 1987 alone—much of it mediocre mixtures of punk and hard rock. That helped lead to some problems with acts being able to release their records in a timely manner, the label being able to get promptly paid by distributors, and the SST roster being able to get paid promptly or at all. Those issues aren’t unique to SST or to big independent labels. But combined with Ginn’s growing legal battles (particularly those involving experimental band Negativland, which are extensively detailed), SST shrank into a catalog outfit by the twenty-first century. Much of its catalog is out of print, and the author speculates this might be in part due to tapes getting damaged or lost, also advocating for the return of the music to the acts so that they can be restored to availability.
If it seems like a tale that doesn’t lend itself to humor, there’s some, although it’s often of the gallows variety. In a tribute to how laboriously Black Flag toured and helped build a circuit for SST bands to play, Ruland describes Ellensburg, Washington (home of Screaming Trees) as “a place so out of the way that Black Flag had never played there.” After Chuck Dukowski (part of several SST acts, including Black Flag, as well as being heavily involved in the label’s operations) went into a long discourse in an interview with Flipside explaining how verbalizing thoughts was futile, the editor reminded him, “Unfortunately, we are a printed publication.” In an offhand acknowledgement of SST’s significance and prolific discography, Screaming Trees Mark Lanegan noted, “We loved everything on SST. We listened to all those records—even Tom Troccoli’s Dog.”
24. Jimi, by Janie Hendrix and John McDermott (Chronicle Chroma). Certainly this well-produced coffee table volume would have rated higher had there not already been many Hendrix books, including some by co-author McDermott, who’s generally done the best of these. This is more like an overview to coincide with Hendrix’s eightieth birthday, without much material that will be new to big fans. While the basic historical text is fine, it functions mostly as a complement to the many images. Those are dominated by photos of Hendrix onstage and offstage, interspersed with some memorabilia like concert posters, advertisements, tickets, some unattributed vintage reviews, drawings, and handwritten lyrics. A good share of the pictures are rare or at least infrequently published, some dating from his pre-Experience days as a sideman. One surprise is an ad, apparently from early 1967, which bills a Sunday show as “roaring into 1967 with the new weirdo trio Jimi Hendrick’s Experience.” But this is more something for a casual fan, or to give to a youngster just getting into Hendrix, than for someone who’s already read a lot about him.
25. Rock on Film, by Fred Goodman (Running Press). There was another book titled Rock on Film back in 1982 that’s the best such work, although it naturally only covered films through the early 1980s. This is an entirely different book, and while it’s not nearly as comprehensive, it’s still a worthwhile if rather basic overview of a genre that’s spun off hundreds if not thousands of titles that could be considered rock on film. It has a few pages each on fifty rock documentaries, biopics, concert films, movies starring rock stars, and such from the mid-1950s to the present. There are also brief “double feature” sidebars in each chapter on rock films that are good complements to the ones in the longer essays. Those essays strike a decent balance between concise description and more in-depth, sometimes behind-the-scenes detail, with intelligent perspectives on their assets, flaws, and how they fit into the context of their times.
Most of the movies are pretty familiar, if generally worthy of selection. There aren’t many obscure titles, and every fan will find some notable films missing, whether famous ones like Help! or relatively little known ones such as Hardcore Logo and recent documentaries like Alison Ellwood’s Laurel Canyon (an entirely different movie from the fiction one of the same title from 2002 directed by Lisa Cholodenko, which is included). The author’s a little too generous toward biopics, but there’s some first-hand material via interviews with directors Cameron Crowe, Jim Jarmusch, Penelope Spheeris, Taylor Hackford, and John Waters. For many entries on lots of films that don’t make this book, the 1982 Rock on Film is recommended, as (less strongly) is Marshall Crenshaw’s 1994 book Hollywood Rock. While mostly accurate, there are a few factual mistakes in this one that should be corrected if there are subsequent printings, such as: Rock’n’Roll High School was released in 1979, not 1976.
26. Looking for the Magic: The Arista Records Story, by Mitchell Cohen (Trouser Press). What do Barry Manilow, Patti Smith, Graham Parker, Lou Reed, Gil Scott-Heron, Cecil Taylor, and Whitney Houston have in common? Well, they were all on Arista Records for at least part of the label’s first decade from around the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, when Clive Davis started and ran the company after losing his job as a Columbia Records executive. Arista certainly put out some significant and even alternative, at times downright underground records. But really, it was a mainstream record company without as much of an identity as many other successful independents, from Atlantic and Elektra to Sun and Motown.
Cohen, who worked at Arista for much of this period, doesn’t spend more time than necessary drawing out this history in this slim but snappy overview. It helps that he doesn’t take Arista’s importance unduly seriously, with some pretty witty summaries of various hits and flops’ impact. On Reed’s Street Hassle, for instance: “The critical consensus was that it was Reed’s best album since whatever the critic thought his last best album was.” Besides some interesting stories on how the likes of Smith, Reed, and Parker were signed and marketed, there’s quite a bit of attention paid to artists and records that remain obscure, whether they had much quality or not, by the likes of Linda Lewis, Willie Nile, and David Forman.
There’s also quite a bit of space on Arista’s early ventures into jazz, which were about the most avant-garde of any sizable label of the period. How did Scott-Heron, Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Anthony Braxton, and the like end up with a pretty big company when they had no chance of making a big profit? It’s not entirely clear, except that some people at Arista had the chance to sign people they liked on the basis of their art and did so. Also covered are the label’s roots in Bell Records, with some tasty trivia such as a note about the saucy cover version of David Crosby’s “Triad” by actress Sally Kellerman (true!). Arista also organized some quality semi-forgotten reissues of vintage jazz and R&B by buying the Savoy catalog, promos of which gave them a chance to strengthen relationships with rock critics like Lester Bangs. Which is a lot more interesting than reading about Whitney Houston’s breakthrough, which ends a book spiced with numerous vintage Arista-related photos, ads, and record covers/labels.
27. Lifted, by Ringo Starr (Julien’s Auctions). Some major Beatles archival projects over the last few years have highly worthwhile, including the Get Back documentary, Paul McCartney’s The Lyrics book, and to varying degrees superdeluxe box set editions of their final albums. Like The Lyrics and those box sets, this 226-page coffee table photo-oriented book is expensive, but it isn’t nearly as valuable. Starr presents and (usually briefly) comments on photos from throughout the Beatles’ career, some of them uncommon, but a good number of them pretty familiar. As you’d expect, his comments are down-to-earth and radiate plaintive wisdom, making his affection for the other Beatles and pride in what they accomplished clear, though without disclosing surprising inside information.
Maybe it’s too much to expect a detailed account along the lines of The Lyrics or (as a better but relatively overlooked source of recollections) Miles’s Paul McCartney: Many Years Ago. But considering this is $100 or so counting postage (and only available through Julien’s Auctions), some more text, or maybe some unpublished memorabilia if any more exists in Starr’s vaults, would have been welcome. Still, Ringo sometimes phrases things in a right-on manner that could only come from him, like his memories of how the Beatles’ grandiose plans for early 1969 concerts in exotic locations for the Let It Be film ended up with them just going up to the Apple roof: “We often began with big ideas, and then in the end, we got it down to the right idea.” And if the price tag makes you wince, take heart that at least the profits go to Starr and his wife’s charitable Lotus Foundation.
28. I’ll Be There: My Life with the Four Tops, by Duke Fakir with Kathleen McGhee Anderson (Omnibus Press). Duke Fakir wasn’t the most well known of the Four Tops; the late Levi Stubbs, their main lead singer, was. But he’s the only one left of a group that managed to stay together in its original lineup for more than forty years. His memoir is average at best, though it does cover the basics of their slow, decade-long rise from a club act that only put out sporadic records, through their 1960s peak at Motown and their post-Motown decline in recording popularity. There’s not as much detail on specific hit records as fans would like, though some, like “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” and “Walk Away Renee” are discussed in reasonable depth. There’s a lot on faith, family, and good fortune that isn’t too stimulating, and some if not much coverage of the Tops’ problems with substance abuse and ill health, which aren’t too extreme by star standards. It’s a minor point, but it’s disappointing that their brief pre-Motown time at Columbia is just given a passing mention, considering their 1960 single for the label was produced by John Hammond.
If this is something of primary interest to serious Motown fans, here are a few relatively little known items, according to these pages. Levi Stubbs was offered a solo career, but declined to stay with the Four Tops; he also turned down a starring role opposite Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues because there weren’t roles for the other guys in the band. The Four Tops originally thought of their signature song, “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” as an album track and disagreed with Berry Gordy’s decision to make it a single, changing their minds when they heard how good it sounded on the radio. Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations sang Fakir’s tenor part on the hit “Bernadette” when Duke wasn’t feeling well. Fakir is half Asian-American, as his father was from Bangladesh. He remembers making plans to marry Mary Wilson of the Supremes in the mid-1960s before going back to the family he had with his first wife. The account of how Four Top Obie Benson helped Marvin Gaye write “What’s Going On” is also interesting.
But here are a few errors that should be noted, and even if they’re not central to the Four Tops’ saga, it’s surprising they slip through in a book from a publisher that’s put out many music history volumes. I’m not a jazz buff, but I know that when Fakir talks about the Four Tops seeing pianist Earl Garner, that should be Erroll Garner. More seriously, Fakir gives a couple pages to talking about how David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks both left the Temptations in 1968 “at the same time.” That’s not correct. Ruffin did leave the Temptations that year, but Kendricks stayed with them until 1971, for a period that saw some of their biggest and best hits, including a #1 single Kendricks sang lead on in 1971, “Just My Imagination.”
29. Christmas Everyday! Glam Rock Albums 1970-1976, by Peter Checksfield (self-published, www.peterchecksfield.com). Although this 204-pager isn’t too extensive, it’s useful for those who want a basic reference guide to British glam rock of the 1970s. Most likely this is the only such guide. Two hundred albums are each given a page with a rating, track listing, basic discographical information, British chart positions, a list of TV broadcasts on which material was performed, and non-album A-sides recorded around the same time. The author also gives brief opinionated reviews of each record, and while the reviews could have been longer, they’re descriptive and not afraid to run counter to conventional wisdom – Roxy Music’s albums are not highly regarded, for instance. Who exactly qualifies as a British glam rocker is up for debate, but the selection is more inclusive than exclusive, allowing for the Move, Rolling Stones, Faces, 10cc, and others who might have been more of an influence on glam (or influenced by glam) than glam per se. Glam bedrocks like David Bowie and T. Rex are here, of course, as well as a good number of fairly obscure acts like Jet, Slack Alice, and the Winkies.
In 2022, the prolific Checksfield also put a 650-page large-sized paperback,Top of the Pops: The Punk & New Romantic Years 1976-1985. This lists every clip on every episode of the top British pop music program, along with the chart positions of the songs performed/played on the week the clips aired; thousands of stills from the clips; basic additional info about the performers; and a few first-hand stories from artists about being on the program. This doesn’t just focus on punk and new romantic music aired on Top of the Pops; it’s a reference book that lists everything. This isn’t my favorite era, but is worth knowing about for enthusiasts, though it’s too bad there aren’t more first-hand interview bits from performers, as those are the most interesting part of the book. One example is Andy Ellison of Radio Stars remembering how they were accidentally cued to play Wings’ “Mull of Kintyre,” and went into a “furious, impromptu, heavy punk version” until a producer demanded they stop.
30. The Jordanaires: The Story of the World’s Greatest Backup Vocal Group, as told by Gordon Stoker with Michael Kossner and Alan Stoker (Backbeat). The Jordanaires are most famous for singing backup vocals on many Elvis Presley records. But they also sang on records by more than two thousand other acts, including Ricky Nelson, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, and Clyde McPhatter, usually though not always recording in Nashville. This is a patchy kind-of-memoir, since it’s based around memories Stoker (who died in 2013) relayed at various points in his life. The text is filled in by some linking narrative by Kossner and other comments by relatives and associates, particularly Stoker’s son Alan. Their work with Elvis, as you’d expect, gets the most ink, and there are some good stories, like how they first heard him when “Mystery Train” came on the radio and immediately heard a link to the kind of gospel they had sung, or how they hated the vocals they did on “Hound Dog.” (On that score, they were outvoted by the public, who made it a huge deserved hit and have probably rarely noticed imperfections.) There’s also a lot about working with Patsy Cline, including details about a minor mistake on “She’s Got You” that again very few have noticed. There are also obscure historical anecdotes of interest here and there, like Buddy Holly’s plans to have them overdub vocals on a gospel album he was planning before his death, or how Nelson’s “Lonesome Town” originally had a beat and backup instruments before it became a ballad with just guitar and vocals.
However, there’s a fair amount of repetitious testimonies to the abilities and good character of the Jordanaires and some of the legends they worked with that could have benefited from tighter editing. Gordon Stoker’s own observations have a good deal of the “I’ve been so blessed and fortunate” sentiments that are often found in such books. A fair number of major artists with whom they worked aren’t discussed at all; there’s little or nothing on records they sang on by Ringo Starr, Connie Francis, and Fats Domino, to give just a few examples. Maybe not much is remembered about those, considering they were so busy they treated their work as something like a regular job. But if you’re hoping, for instance, for insight into their vocals on an obscure but excellent record like the Blue Things’ mid-‘60s folk-rock single “I Must Be Doing Something Wrong,” you won’t find details here. The text sometimes rambles between topics and eras, and there are also quite a few quotes and stories—some interesting, some not so interesting—about the general Nashville studio scene rather than about the Jordanaires in particular. The book’s best treated as something to dip into for some specific stories about artists they worked with that are of particular interest to you.
31. Still Alright, by Kenny Loggins with Jason Turbow (Hachette). No, I’m not a Kenny Loggins fan. Still, like so many post-‘60s stars, he did some unlikely time in garage and psychedelic bands. He was briefly in the Electric Prunes (after the lineup that did their first three and best albums altered), and before that a teenage L.A. garage band, the Second Helping. That was enough to get me to check this out of the library, and actually Loggins does cover both of those stints with some detail, though not a huge amount. It turns out, for instance, that Leon Russell helped with the fuzztone guitar effect for the Second Helping’s best known recording, “Let Me In” (which has shown up on ‘60s garage compilations). There are a few pages on his time with the Electric Prunes, with an amusing abundance of near-disaster touring stories.
Of course, the bulk of the book is devoted to his stardom with Loggins and Messina and as a solo artist. I’m not very interested in those recordings, but the book itself is more interesting than you might think. There’s a fair amount of drugs and sex—not enough to rival many accounts from the era, of course, but more than you’d guess from his pretty clean-cut image. There’s also a lot about the weird and sometimes ruthless mechanics of the record industry in the ‘70s and ‘80s, told with more wit and less ego than expected. (He even describes one of Loggins and Messina’s biggest hits, “My Music,” as “a jaunty piece of crap” whose sax solo “sounds to me like a giant fuck-you to Jimmy, and probably to me, too.”)
There’s a lot about his mixed musical and personal relationship with Jim Messina, who could be much more controlling than Loggins liked, though Kenny constantly gives him a great deal of musical respect too. There are some of the drug problems, dives into new age-ish experiences, and family matters that are usually staples of rock star memoirs, but not so much that they’re overwhelming. For those who wish, there are also inside perspectives on some of his compositions and recordings. In the quality of the writing and the personable perspective, it’s above average for musician autobiographies, though certainly not for everyone whose tastes often drift beyond the mainstream.
The following books came out in 2021, but I didn’t read them until 2022:
1. A Pig’s Tale: The Underground Story of the Legendary Bootleg Record Label, by Ralph Sutherland & Harold Sherrick (Genius Music Books). The legendary bootleg label this documents is Trademark of Quality, one of the most prominent—if not the most prominent—such enterprises when rock bootlegs took off at the end of the 1960s through the mid-1970s. This 328-pager mixes text on the label’s story with many illustrations, which include the artwork for every one of their releases from 1969 to 1976. Also pictured are some of the original tapes and tape boxes used to source the music, as well as details for the tracks and where they were recorded, whether they were live performances or studio outtakes. Magazine and newspaper clippings covering early rock bootlegs are reproduced, and the label’s one venture into extensive liner notes—a seven-page interview with Yardbirds singer Keith Relf, for the Yardbirds bootleg More Golden Eggs—is, remarkably, reprinted in full, if in type so small it strains the eyes.
The text is the most interesting part, as it traces the history not just of this label, but of early rock bootlegging, which has generally been secretive and ill-documented. The TMOQ people started their operation with the first famous rock boot, Bob Dylan’s Great White Wonder, soon moving on to actually recording one of the other most famous early ones, the Rolling Stones’ Live’r Than You’ll Ever Be. The details of how some young guys with modest resources found the rare tapes, pressed and distributed the records, and soon graduated to secretly taping decent-fidelity concerts by big acts are pretty fascinating. It’s amazing how relatively easily they were able to smuggle fairly sophisticated recording equipment into big venues to record the likes of the Stones. Naturally these activities also got them pretty close to trouble with the law, leading to the imprint’s shutdown in the mid-1970s.
I could have done with more text with specifics about some of the productions, like how they got to interview Relf for Modern Golden Eggs, although that’s been covered elsewhere. The text, while pretty thorough and well written, sometimes has a fairytale tone, and obviously some pseudonyms are used for some of the people and places involved. It’s still a valuable book whose appearance would have seemed as unlikely fifty years after the label’s heyday as those Stones and Dylan bootlegs were when they first appeared in 1969.
2. Keep on Shining: A Guide Through the Music of Love & Arthur Lee, by William E. Spevack (WES). For its thoroughness, this 570-page volume can’t be faulted. It analyzes and describes every recording by Love and Lee in depth, and not just the Love albums from the 1960s and 1970s that are most familiar. It also includes his handful of more obscure pre-Love recordings; his sporadic and erratic, usually low-profile post-1970s releases; and, crucially, the many solo recordings by Bryan MacLean, even MacLean’s barely known Christian music releases. While it’s a reference book more than anything else, it’s more readable and entertaining than the usual such enterprises, with plenty of quotes from the band and their associates drawn from books, articles, liner notes, and interviews, some pretty hard to find. Like a lot (most?) small press/self-published volumes, this has its share of typos and grammatical lapses that could have benefited from editing, but they’re not nearly as egregious as they are in many such productions.
The author’s assessment of Love and Lee’s work can be very generous, particularly for his work after Love’s fine first three albums in the mid-1960s. It’s much more generous than mine, for instance, as I fall into the camp of those who find his post-Forever Changes material far inferior, and sometimes quite dull. Still, Spevack isn’t afraid to dole out criticism when merited, and does know his stuff well, though sometimes the language is overly precious. Love, Lee, and MacLean did put out a lot of material recorded after 1967, and it can be a slog to get through every last entry—though not as exhausting as it would be to actually listen to all of it. Take heart, however—a little more than 200 pages deal with pre-1969 recordings, which itself offers a lot to digest, even if it’s by far the most interesting section of the book.
3. Through the Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive, by Aubrey Powell (Thames & Hudson). With Storm Thorgerson (and later Peter Christopherson), Powell was part of the Hipgnosis design team that produced album covers and other artwork for numerous rock bands. They are, by far, most famous for the numerous Pink Floyd covers in which they were involved between the late 1960s and early 1970s. But they also designed covers for Wings, Genesis, 10cc, Led Zeppelin, and plenty of other acts, as well as eventually moving into film. Powell’s book isn’t a thorough from start-to-finish memoir, but covers a lot of the main bases of his experiences, primarily with Hipgnosis, from the time it started in the late 1960s. The accounts are usually focused on the stories behind their most famous LP sleeves—several by Pink Floyd (not just The Dark Side of the Moon), The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Venus and Mars, and Houses of the Holy—though covers by the likes of 10cc are noted too, as are projects like product design and videos.
Powell is a pretty good storyteller, and his accounts are spiced by numerous illustrations—not just album sleeves, but also photos from location shoots and various unused designs. Maybe some of the more obscure Hipgnosis sleeves could have been discussed, like the hideous one for Toe Fat’s Two. Then again, the most interesting stories tend to be the ones associated with the most famous covers, like the elaborate operation necessary to get the image of the pig and Battersea Power Station for Pink Floyd’s Animals, or the burning man (actually a stunt man) for the same group’s Wish You Were Here. For those interested in the mechanics of how these designs were done, he sometimes offers details like camera models, though these aren’t too abundant.
It is striking how extreme and fanciful the ideas of some of these rock stars were for their covers, and how heedless of some risks Hipgnosis was in getting them done, whether it meant hanging out of helicopters or transporting statues to the Alps. These sometimes involved a lot of money and environmental resources, and were sometimes altered or canceled at the whim of artists and their management. Are those days gone? They’re certainly not the same as they were in the late twentieth century, especially as Hipgnosis often insisted on photos of real scenarios and objects.
4. Chapel of Love: The Story of New Orleans Girl Group the Dixie Cups, by Rosa Hawkins and Steve Bergman (University Press of Mississippi). Hawkins was one of the three women in the Dixie Cups, who had the #1 hit “Chapel of Love” in 1964 and a few others in the mid-‘60s in their brief recording career. The reasons it was so brief are explained in this slim but worthwhile memoir, although the book’s padded by some general historical information about the times. In one respect, the Dixie Cups’ ascent to brief stardom is like a fairy tale, getting discovered by Joe Jones (who had a big early-‘60s hit with “You Talk Too Much”); getting whisked to New York to get a record deal with Red Bird Records, run by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller; working with top Brill Building songwriter/producers Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich; and getting a #1 hit within a few months. Unlike many stories from such figures, Hawkins does go into the recording sessions, record releases, and general process of working out the songs in some detail.
The flipside of this near-instant success is grim even by the standards of music business duplicity. Hawkins’s account portrays Jones as a villain on the order of Gary Glitter and Jimmy Savile. He not only, as she tells it, repeatedly ripped off their earnings in numerous ways, hassling their right to use the Dixie Cups name for decades beyond the 1960s. He also repeatedly raped Hawkins, as well as physically taking advantage of the one of the other singers in a later version of the Dixie Cups. He also got them off Red Bird to a brief deal with ABC Paramount that didn’t work out well, and Hawkins feels they didn’t get much of a chance to record because of Jones’s bad reputation. Admirably considering the circumstances, the story’s told in a calm manner, making room for some other interesting things the group went through, like their harrowing tour of Vietnam and their cross-country bus tours and interactions with other mid-‘60s stars.
5. Tenement Kid, by Bobby Gillespie (Third Man). To UK audiences, Gillespie needs no introduction. The longtime frontman of Primal Scream had numerous British hit records, and before that was drummer in Jesus & Mary Chain in the mid-1980s. In the US, Primal Scream never got more than a cult following, maybe accounting for why this didn’t come out Stateside until 2022, though it was published in the UK the previous year. His memoir covers his tough working-class upbringing in Glasgow through his approximately decade-long rise to British stardom with Primal Scream’s 1991 album Screamadelica. It’s a pretty straightahead account in which Gillespie makes no bones about his frequent excesses, whether confrontational behavior onstage or indulgence in drugs, particularly ecstasy as Primal Scream immersed themselves in the acid house scene. This is tempered by his championship of socialist values and the communal experience of the acid house crowd, though the tension between maintaining these passions with a hunger for rock and roll stardom isn’t often addressed.
Aside from recounting his oft-volatile rides through Jesus and Mary Chain (where he was told he had to quit Primal Scream if he wanted to stay in the band) and Primal Scream, as well as his more obscure pre-JMC group the Wake, there’s a lot about the context that gave rise to musicians such as Gillespie. He was a big punk fan before performing, then getting into ‘60s garage and psychedelia, and then acid house, most of the while maintaining a passion for investigating other styles like soul. You kind of wonder how he found time to listen to all the records he was influenced by and incorporate them into what he was writing and recording. There are also insights into what it was like to be an act for the Creation label, whose chief honcho Alan McGee had been friends with Gillespie since their teenage years. For American audiences, even ones with knowledge of punk and post-punk from the time, he writes with zealous ardor about many bands and discs that were barely known in the US at the time, maybe even if you were constantly listening to college radio. His cockiness as to the innovations he saw Primal Scream making and joy in provoking audiences might verge on inflated self-importance to some readers, though as a writer he’s incisive and for the most part keeps your interest even if you’re not familiar with the ins and outs of his story or milieu.
6. Rock Concert, by Marc Myers (Grove Atlantic). Subtitled “an oral history as told by the artists, backstage insiders, and fans who were there,” this has accounts of performing and staging rock concerts from the early 1950s through the mid-1980s. That’s too big a subject to fully document in a 300-page book, and if you’re inclined to cite gaps like the relatively skimpy coverage of British and soul gigs, they’ll be plenty to pick on. It’s better to treat this as an episodic collection of memories and anecdotes, many by stars like Roger Waters and Alice Cooper, but also plenty from more behind-the-scenes promoters, stagehands, and concertgoers. Rock festivals in particular get a lot of space, but there’s also room for the earliest rock shows put together by Alan Freed in the early-to-mid-1950s, as well as the spectacle of Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There are also some thoughts on how rock transitioned to arenas and stadiums, though some of the nuts and bolts of how electronic ticketing developed and how shows with special effects were devised can be kind of dry.
7. The Blues Dream of Billy Boy Arnold, by Billy Boy Arnold with Kim Field (University of Chicago Press). Chicago blues singer, songwriter, and harmonica player Arnold is most known for a batch of sides he cut for Vee-Jay in the mid-1950. In particular, he’s known for the original versions of “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You,” both of which were covered for singles in 1964 by the Yardbirds when Eric Clapton was in the group. He’s also known for playing harmonica on Bo Diddley’s classic “I’m a Man,” one of the sides on Diddley’s first single in 1955. He didn’t record much in the two decades or so after that, unfortunate as that was the prime of electric Chicago blues and its crossover to R&B and rock. Still, he played a lot in the city and knew many of the Chicago blues, early rock’n’roll, and blues-rock greats, sometimes accompanying them on stage.Now in his mid-eighties, Arnold has a much sharper eye for detail than many musicians his age. His memoir is nonetheless uneven, if worthwhile for serious Chicago blues fans. Some parts ramble between subjects, and some are rather list-oriented as to things like who played at what club, or the basics on his numerous post-‘70s albums. The best sections are the detailed accounts of his early sessions on Vee-Jay and with Bo Diddley, but also his numerous comments on giants of the local scene and what is was like to meet and play with them. These include many key figures, like his early idol Sonny Boy Williamson (the first one), Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells, and Little Walter, as well as young ‘60s white blues guys like Paul Butterfield and Charlie Musselwhite. He also has interesting memories of the Chess and Vee-Jay labels, and, sadly unsurprisingly, not getting paid royalties, particularly for “I Wish You Would” and “I Ain’t Got You.” He offers more, and insightful, comments about the need to write and perform original material than many blues musicians do in interviews and books, though he didn’t get as much chance to record it in his younger days as he should have.
Also out this year, but not a music book: My book San Francisco: Portrait of a City, on Taschen Books:
There was a slight slowdown in the kind of music documentaries I like to see in 2022, and not as many top-tier ones as there have been in some recent years. And there weren’t classic documentaries on the order of last year’s The Beatles: Get Back and Summer of Soul, or 2020’s Laurel Canyon. That’s how it goes sometimes. You can’t have high points like these every year.
Nonetheless, there were enough worth seeing to fill out a dozen or so reviews on my 2022 list, supplemented by reviews of a few 2021 releases I didn’t see until this year. As always, I didn’t get to every doc I might have liked, like the one on King Crimson, for instance. Some others I haven’t seen have only screened briefly at festivals so far, like the ones on 1970s L.A. session musicians, Judee Sill, Dionne Warwick (first screened at a 2021 festival, but not airing on CNN until January 2023), Roberta Flack (already screened at a festival, and not airing on PBS until January 2023), and Don Letts. If I see those in 2023 and like them, they’ll make it onto my 2023 best-of blogpost in my usual supplement of items worth noting from the previous year.
1. Travelin’ Band: Creedence Clearwater Revival at the Royal Albert Hall. In April 1970, CCR were filmed in concert in London’s Albert Hall. While the footage has unofficially circulated for a long time, this hour and a half documentary marks its first official release. To fill out the running time, though purposefully so, the first part is a condensed but useful rundown of how Creedence rose to superstardom, with excerpts from TV/concert performances and promo films, and some brief interview snippets from the era with band members. The majority of it simply presents the concert, filmed in a straightforward no-frills fashion. The image and sound quality are better than they are on the unauthorized copies, and the performance is solid and gutsy.
Creedence weren’t the most visually exciting act, and besides leader John Fogerty, they weren’t too animated onstage. Fogerty famously dominated their music, and he also dominates their concert presence, singing and shaking like an electric current is surging through his body. In retrospect the setlist could have benefited from some of their less frenetic classics like “Down on the Corner” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain.” But most of their big early hits are here, including “Proud Mary,” “Born on the Bayou,” “Green River,” “Fortunate Son,” “Travelin’ Band,” and “Bad Moon Rising.” So are some of their better relatively deep tracks, particularly “Commotion,” and decent covers of “Midnight Special,” “Night Time Is the Right Time,” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The set-closing “Keep on Chooglin’” choogles on too long, but that’s how it often goes for concert finales, and most of the set features far more concise numbers.
A good number of music documentaries these days try to be arty and act as much as a vehicle for a director’s personal expression as an actual document of the performer and the music. One such movie is detailed near the bottom of this list. That’s really not necessary most of the time (and is sometimes a significant drawback), and wouldn’t be at all appropriate for Creedence Clearwater Revival, one of the most straightahead no-nonsense great groups of all time. So you get a straightahead, no-nonsense document here, and that’s how it should be, even if their interview comments are on the brief, ordinary, and sometimes even mundane side. I had not seen the promo film of “Looking Out My Back Door” that plays alongside some of the credits, so make sure you stick around for those.
2. The Lost Weekend: A Love Story. “The Lost Weekend” is the name often given to the year and half or so from around mid-1973 to early 1975 when John Lennon and Yoko Ono were separated. The love story this documentary addresses was between Lennon and May Pang, an assistant to John and Yoko who became Lennon’s girlfriend during this period. She narrates this 95-minute film, which tells the story of her and John’s affair from her perspective. While her voiceover can be sentimental and melodramatic, it’s reinforced by a wealth of period film clips, photos, and interviews, some pretty rare. There are excerpts from TV interviews Lennon gave at the time, and Pang’s given since; home and amateur movies from the era; and interviews from associates like publicist Tony King, Alice Cooper, and session drummer Jim Keltner, though John’s son Julian is the only one featured in recent on-camera interviews (besides Pang herself in a brief reunion with Julian near the end). There’s not much Lennon music, but there are a good number of his drawings, some specifically (and graphically) about his relationship with Pang. Some animated sequences fill in some gaps where not much or any period films/photos/graphics are available.
Of course with John Lennon being long gone and Ono only represented by a few film clips, this might not be the fullest record of a pretty complicated situation. It does let Pang voice her take on it and memories at length, emphasizing that in her view Lennon had a lot of love for her and was often happy during this time. Yoko comes off as a fairly manipulative figure, helping to arrange the affair until she wanted to resume her life with John, and then setting up a scenario where Lennon visited her and never came back. It’s noted that communication and even intimate relations between Lennon and Pang didn’t entirely stop after he returned to Ono, though the post-1975 years don’t get much coverage. There are also some recollections and comments on Lennon’s sporadic visits with Paul McCartney in the mid-1970s, who delivered a message from Yoko to John asking him to return, though that wasn’t acted upon for some time. Considering she worked for Allen Klein’s company before becoming a personal assistant to Lennon and Ono, there aren’t comments on Klein and how he affected relations between the Beatles, though the termination of his position with the Beatles at the end of 1974 is noted with photos. But you can’t have everything, if Pang indeed had any insight into that complicated situation.
3. Neil Young, Harvest Time (Neil Young Archives). It’s hard to know whether to even list this as a standalone film, since it’s part of—and just one DVD disc—in a five-disc box of the 50th anniversary edition of Young’s Harvest album. In keeping with the kind of eccentric catalog marketing we expect from him, although a website dedicated to the film indicated that screening times would be displayed starting December 1, none have. It has screened a few times in at least one theater in Marin County, however, and that’s enough to count it as a documentary you (hopefully) won’t have to buy the whole box to see.
Harvest Time is a two-hour documentary, or perhaps more precisely, a compilation of footage taken during the making of Harvest. This includes recording sessions at his barn in Northern California and Nashville with the Stray Gators; vocal overdubs in New York with Stephen Stills and David Crosby (for “Alabama”) and Stills and Graham Nash (for “Words”); the two tracks Young recorded, on piano and vocals, with the London Symphony Orchestra in London; and miscellaneous scenes of Young and others being briefly interviewed, fooling around and relaxing on his ranch and in studios, and Neil being interviewed at a Nashville radio station. Basic subtitles tell you who’s who, though since it does jump from place to place in non-chronological sequence, it would have helped to have some other basic subtitles explaining how the clips fit into the album’s evolution.
Since the pace is erratic and at times drags, this is primarily for serious Young fans. There are a lot of those, however, and the better parts, which comprise the majority of the film, are certainly interesting, for close looks at the Harvest material as both works-in-progress and nearly-final versions. Some of the repetitious jamming on basic riffs and chord progressions at the barn goes on way too long (especially in the instrumental part of “Words”). But the more concise performances are very good and very live, including Young playing with the symphony, which is done in the same room as the orchestra, not as overdubs. It’s pleasing to see Young getting along well with the rest of CSNY on their vocal sessions, and there are appearances, if cameo-like, from a number of important associates, like producer Elliot Mazer, keyboardist and sometime arranger Jack Nitzsche, and Louis Avila, the ranch caretaker who inspired “Old Man.”
While the interview bits can be mumbly and unrevealing, a few interesting comments pop up. Young says “Alabama” wasn’t so much about the state Alabama as things he was feeling, and when London Symphony Orchestra conductor David Meecham asks him if he knows about Pink Floyd, he seems unfamiliar with the group—not as surprising, maybe, as you might think, since they had yet to become US superstars with Dark Side of the Moon. The young boy (who looks about ten) who does an impromptu off-the-air interview with him at the radio station actually asks reasonable questions for someone his age, and Young tells him his favorite artist, at least at the moment, is Merle Haggard. The kid had interviewed Ringo Starr when he was in Nashville to do Beaucoup of Blues, and says Ringo told him he didn’t enjoy making Let It Be. Young comments, fairly reasonably, that it could have been because that record was done in pieces (albeit most of it was done in January 1969), and that Buffalo Springfield’s last album was also done that way.
Some of the musical highlights are performances that didn’t figure or are unlike those on the final album, like a solo piano version of “Journey Through the Past”; a solo banjo version of “Out on the Weekend”; and an unplugged guitar-harmonica version of “Heart of Gold.” If you want more from this era, the box has Young’s just-over-half-hour BBC TV concert from February 23, 1971 on both DVD and CD.
4. Johnny Hallyday: Beyond Rock (Netflix). Hallyday was about the closest equivalent France had to Elvis Presley, though it’s doubtful his rabid French fans (and there were many) would quite claim he was Elvis’s equal. This five-part, nearly three-hour documentary series covers his long and volatile career with fervor, with many, many archival Hallyday performance and interview clips. There are also archival clips of his wives and lovers (including his first wife Sylvie Vartan, herself a big French singing star), and several associates, biographers, and general media figures are heard in voiceover comments. The pace is so fast it verges on hectic, covering his life from his beginnings as a teenage hitmaker heavily influenced by American rock’n’roll, through his next half century or so as an up-and-down superstar and occasional actor.
Although there are a good number of clips of Hallyday in musical performance from the early 1960s through the early twenty-first century, nerd collectors from the English-speaking world should be cautioned that it’s not too heavy on analysis of his records and musical progression, such as it was. If you want stories about the Jimi Hendrix Experience opening for him on some of their first shows in late 1966, or the Small Faces backing him on some late-‘60s recordings, or his attempts to break into foreign markets by recording in Nashville and appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show—or even his fine starring role in the 2002 film The Man on the Train, which might be the artistic feat for which he’s most known to English-speaking audiences—be warned that there are none. There is, however, a lot about his stormy marriages and romances, which besides Vartan included noted singer Nanette Workman and star French actress Nathalie Baye (herself more known to British and North American audiences than Hallyday), as well as the teenage daughter of one of his best friends, who became his third wife. There’s also a lot about his generally reckless celebrity behavior, including car crashes, alcoholism, and an attempted suicide.
Plus there’s plenty of time given to his over-the-top, massively expensive in-concert spectacles, which got ever more gargantuan in his later years. Even if Hallyday’s music is not to your taste, these have their share of sheer weirdness, as when Paul Anka keeps trying to get a sort of MIA Johnny to come out and start a major Las Vegas concert in the mid-1990s. Hallyday helped fly over many French fans for these shows, which were considered a major disappointment. These were committed admirers of the singer whose general appraisal of the man’s talents were unlikely to be dampened, but non-French viewers will likely still be mystified by his massive French superstardom, culminating in a large state funeral after his 2017 death. As unlikely as this series will be to make new converts outside of his homeland, it has its share of entertainment and social history value, if bloated a bit by the frequent focus on his personal foibles and family issues.
5. Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On. This hour-and-a-half documentary in the American Masters series follows a common format for that PBS program: interviews (many recently done with Sainte-Marie), numerous brief archival performance and interview clips (many of the music ones are exceptionally brief), and plenty of historical photos. The format might be typical, and with a career as long and multi-dimensional as hers, there’s no way to cover everything, or cover much of what it does touch upon, in depth. What is presented is worthwhile, however, particularly Sainte-Marie’s own extensive memories and perspectives, even if some of them have been covered quite a bit in other interviews. Associates interviewed include Taj Mahal, Steppenwolf’s John Kay, Robbie Robertson, and in a testament to how highly regarded she is by some other musicians who sold a lot more records, Joni Mitchell (interviewed while the film was in production, and after her very serious illnesses of recent years).
While her music is naturally detailed from her early-‘60s folk revival roots to a November 2021 concert shortly after the famed venue (Toronto’s Massey Hall) reopened, so is her acting (including her long-running part-time cast membership in Sesame Street), activism on behalf of Native Americans, and her views on how she feels her music was actively suppressed by the government in the 1960s and 1970s. Her sometimes rough experiences in the music business, and particularly Vanguard Records, are noted. So are, to an unusual degree even for a public television special, the sexual molestation she suffered as a child and the abuse she endured in her marriage to her second husband, musician/arranger/songwriter Jack Nitzsche. Although there’s much praise heaped upon Sainte-Marie’s music and character, an unexpected note is sounded by Joni Mitchell (who generally is very complimentary about Buffy) in how Mitchell changed her opinion about “Universal Soldier,” feeling it was inappropriate for the effect it might have on soldiers returning from Vietnam.
Sainte-Marie says that Mitchell didn’t sign to Vanguard because of how they’d treated her, and Mitchell remembers not going with Vanguard because of unreasonable terms, specifically requiring multiple albums per year. It’s a footnote of sorts within this documentary, but it would be interesting to get Vanguard’s point of view on this, whether their perspective would be different or not. Maynard Solomon, the key executive at Vanguard, died in 2020, and of course might not have been available or willing to participate in a project like this. I did get to speak to him briefly when I was researching my books on 1960s folk-rock about twenty years ago, and I don’t know whether the label’s relationship with Sainte-Marie would have come up had I interviewed him, but in any case he declined to be interviewed.
6. Bonnie Blue: James Cotton’s Life in the Blues. Cotton had a long career as one of the best blues harmonica players, and was also a serviceable singer and songwriter, though his instrumental virtuosity was by far his biggest distinction. This documentary is kind of sketchy as far as presenting a thorough biography, though it hits on key points like his first recordings for Sun Records in the 1950s; his work as a vital sideman to Muddy Waters; his crossover to white rock audiences starting in the late 1960s; and his struggles with throat cancer late in life, which didn’t keep him from continuing to play harmonica and record. Cotton was interviewed for the film not long before his 2017 death, though these segments aren’t too numerous, and subtitles are used as his voice had been ravaged by disease. There are many comments by some who knew or worked with him, and of course some crucial associates from his prime, like Waters, are gone (in some cases very long gone). So much of the interview material was done with musicians who worked or were influenced by him in his final decades, some with rather tenuous connections to the man. Also interviewed were two of his managers (one of whom was also his wife in his final decade), along with a girlfriend from the ‘70s.
Much is left uncovered in this film, like his records for Verve and Vanguard in the late 1960s, arguably his best (and for that matter most of his other records). A previous wife is mentioned, with few additional details. But there’s some good stuff, like his memory of how he came up with the harmonica riffs for Waters’s classic “Got My Mojo Working,” which he feels sold the song. There are also archive clips, if usually on the brief side, of Cotton in performance going back to his appearance in Muddy’s band at the Newport 1960 Folk Festival. Some color footage of Cotton at his most animated, looking to be from the late ‘60s, is good enough that you wish there was more, perhaps as DVD/Blu-ray extras in the future. His spot on Playboy After Dark in the late ‘60s, with Luther Tucker on guitar, is conspicuously missing, maybe for licensing reasons.
One minor part of the film that caught my attention, though it’s not too crucial to the whole: Al Dotoli, who managed Cotton in the 1970s, discusses freeing James from a management deal with Albert Grossman. Dotoli says that Grossman sent Cotton out for low-priced gigs to fill out bills when bigger stars weren’t available, and feels Grossman was destroying the bluesman’s career by undervaluing him. He remembers freeing Cotton from Grossman’s management after telling Grossman that he’d be getting a lawyer involved. Subsequently, Dotoli relates, Cotton’s fees went way up for concerts. Grossman did not have a reputation of being easily cowed, and I wonder if there is more to this story, though I don’t think it will be told if so, especially with Grossman also long gone.
7. Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues. There’s a lot of material sourced for this documentary, including archival clips stretching from the early 1930s to shortly before Armstrong’s death in the early 1970s; interviews, some with Armstrong, some on camera but most heard as audio-only over images, with several dozen musicians and critics; and interview tapes the jazz legend made discussing his life in his later years. While it covers a lot of territory, it’s kind of rambling, jumping between eras and subjects, if in a somewhat chronological order more often than not. There are many other places you can learn about Armstrong in a more thorough manner that’s sequenced in an order where it’s easier to follow what happened when. However, there aren’t many other, if any other, places you can see and hear so much of and about him at once, much of it rare. For that reason it’s worth viewing, though it might be more something to stoke your curiosity about learning more than a definitive summarization up of what’s most important about Armstrong.
Within a format that’s not my first choice for structuring documentaries, this includes quite a few clips from his numerous appearances in films; discussion of his civil rights activism, though this was muted in comparison to some of his contemporaries, particularly younger ones; and his overseas trips that helped spread jazz and US culture abroad. His music isn’t ignored, some of the points made including how he helped define the range employed by jazz with his use of high notes, and how his style of scat singing was, like his trumpet playing, innovative and influential. One of the most amusing references is to a quote by James Baldwin, who after hearing Armstrong’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner” remarked that it was the first time he’d liked that song. Reviews of this film have sometimes emphasized how the previously unheard interview tapes have a lot of racy language, but although that would have been scandalous had it been widely heard at the time, it’s now not too much out of the ordinary for how many celebrities have been caught talking on record.
8. Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story. This is tangentially related to rock music history, and even that tangent might be little known or unknown to many outside of the UK. In the UK, however, Savile was hugely famous as a radio disc jockey and host of Top of the Pops. He was also highly visible in other TV programs and media, and as a fundraiser for charities and general hobnobber with celebrities, getting knighted in 1990. In the US, his connection to rock is mostly known via his role as compere in mid-‘60s NME Pollwinners Concert clips that have gained wide circulation. Globally, he’s now hugely infamous as having been revealed as a sex predator in hundreds of cases that came to light soon after his 2011 death.
This two-part, three-hour documentary doesn’t cover his life in a linear fashion, and non-UK viewers might come away with gaps as to his rise to fame and his chief activities. Instead, it emphasizes his ghastly private life, and the trail that led to the posthumous revelation of his nefarious deeds, as well as his successful burial of those from legal and public eyes while he was around. As the subtitle announces, it’s a horrific story, combining lots of vintage footage with interviews with many of his associates and investigators. Grim it is, not only if principally for documenting his sex crimes. Those aside, he was a pretty creepy fellow with no apparent inner life, and, at least to this viewer, not very funny, though it was as a comedian of sorts that he gained renown. Many of his jokes about what he did in his free time, glossed over as not-so-naughty bits when they were uttered in very public forums, are strikingly sexist. With hindsight, they’re also very strong hints as to what he was really up to on his own time, which makes the public’s acceptance of his behavior galling, as well as the actual behavior itself.
9. If These Walls Could Sing. The history of Abbey Road Studios, formerly EMI Studios, is enormously extensive even if you don’t count what the Beatles recorded there. It’s too much to cover too comprehensively in a ninety-minute documentary, which does include a lot of Beatles, though not as much as you can find out in many other sources. The subject warrants a multi-part series, but leaving aside the incompleteness and just going on what is covered, this has some interesting material. This includes first-hand interviews with Ringo Starr, Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Cliff Richard, Elton John, the Gallaghers from Oasis, and naturally Paul McCartney, whose daughter Mary directed this Disney-streaming feature. There are also some interesting archive clips, not just of the lives of the above-named artists, but also less obvious names like Cilla Black and classical cellist Jacqueline du Pre. There are a few uncommon stories and unexpected inclusions, like Jimmy Page and Shirley Bassey remembering recording the theme to Goldfinger, where Bassey collapsed after hitting the final operatic sustained note, and Fela, who’s discussed (not interviewed, obviously) in relation to his ‘70s recordings there.
Fans of all sorts of mainstream and specialized tastes, of course, can list a bunch of interesting artists and projects that aren’t covered. Just in the Beatles era, there’s the Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle and the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow, which might not be as iconic as Sgt. Pepper, but also expanded the boundaries of what was possible in a rock studio recording. The Hollies are only covered in relation to Elton John’s piano part on “He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother,” and Merseybeaters Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer pretty much skipped (not to mention George Martin-produced mod band the Action, if you want to get cultish). Speaking of Martin, what about the Goons and Peter Sellers comedy records he made before the Beatles? Or even the early Beatles solo records by George Harrison and John Lennon where sessions were held at Abbey Road?
The list could go on, though for what’s covered, the value lies not so much in novel information as hearing the stories told in the words of the participants. Starr has a funny comment about how McCartney would nag the Beatles to record: “If hadn’t had been for him, we’d have made like three albums instead of eight.” Actually the Beatles made more than eight albums (eleven full ones in the UK plus some non-album EPs and singles), but the point’s clear enough. The last sections dragged as I’m not interested in John Williams’s Star Wars soundtracks or the more recent artists, but appreciation of those parts will vary according to viewers’ tastes, not the competent direction.
Spoilsport alert: a clip of Pink Floyd from early 1967 identified as having taken place in Abbey Road’s Studio Three was actually filmed in Sound Techniques, as verified by numerous Pink Floyd/Syd Barrett books. Quality control slipped on that one. More seriously, the section with Kanye West, though brief, is the kind of inclusion not welcome here or anywhere else.
10. The Sound of 007 (Prime Video). There have been no other film series besides James Bond’s where the music is so well known or important. Of course, there have been few if any popular series of this length, accounting in part for the familiarity of many of the theme songs (and some motifs in the soundtracks) even to viewers who haven’t seen many of them, or aren’t particular fans of the franchise. This documentary covers a lot of the music used from the first Bond films in the early 1960s to the present, with first-hand and vintage interviewers with many of the performers, composers, record producers, and film producers. There are also many clips from the movies and some of performances of the songs, which are necessarily brief to keep within the ninety minutes.
No one’s taste is going to be so broad that they’ll like all (or perhaps even the majority) of the Bond music, as the styles stretch over more than half a century. But it’s likely almost everyone likes at least something, even if you haven’t kept up with the series for many years, as I haven’t. Performers represented, and sometimes interviewed, include Paul McCartney, Shirley Bassey (of both “Goldfinger” and “Diamonds Are Forever” fame), Tom Jones (“Thunderball”), Nancy Sinatra (“You Only Live Twice”), Jack White, Billie Eilish, Tina Turner, Duran Duran, and naturally John Barry, the most important by far of the composers who’ve worked on the instrumental part of the soundtracks. The origination of the super-familiar principal instrumental theme is discussed in some depth, and the point is rightly conveyed that Barry managed to combine big band and orchestral music, as well as parts of jazz, pop, and rock. Structurally this jumps back and forth between eras and themes pretty quickly, and a more chronological approach would have pleased me, if not necessarily the majority of viewers. There’s still something of interest for almost everyone here, though it’s likely few if any will be interested in all of the music discussed.
11. Moonage Daydream. Perhaps the most discussed and to some degree acclaimed music documentary of the year, this somewhat avant-garde look at David Bowie got its share of good-to-rave reviews in the music and mainstream press, including five-star ratings by the Guardian and Record Collector. Every social media post I saw about it in the week after its release was similarly complimentary. I was wary, however, after a filmmaker, musician, and general fanatical rock/Bowie fan whose opinion I respect saw it in IMAX days after its release and expressed major, even severe disappointment. He went as far as dubbing it an infomercial for Bowie’s catalog. For good measure, he added that all the Bowie fans he knew—and he knows more than one or two—agreed with his assessment. So do I, even if I’m not quite as down on the movie as he is. If nothing else, it’s good to know I’m not alone, even if he and I might be in the minority.
It’s hard to know where to start in even describing, let alone judging, this strange take on Bowie’s legacy and accomplishments. It’s not laid out in linear chronological fashion, and doesn’t have interview material with anyone but Bowie, represented both by visual and voiceover archive interview clips. I can handle this, though it’s not my favorite form of documentary. However, it seemed like a good third or so of the movie was loud and garish hoo-hah, including lots of sequences featuring special effects graphics and historical images/photos that were not specifically (or often even generally) related to Bowie. Such images/photos were used a lot in Todd Haynes’s Velvet Underground documentary, which I also thought unnecessary in their abundance. But there’s a lot more such material in Moonage Daydream.
More importantly, even if I thought the VU documentary was imperfect, generally it was pretty worthwhile. I can’t strongly recommend Moonage Daydream, even after (yes) seeing it in IMAX. There are plenty of snippets, if usually brief, of Bowie in performance, some rare, some pretty common. There is, however (and it seems deliberately), little context, or sense of how exactly he evolved through his various unpredictable phases, other than some reflections on his move toward the superstar mainstream in the 1980s. There’s also an inordinately large amount of screen time given to seeing Bowie on escalators or walking around exotic locations, although at least he’s present, unlike in the march of images without Bowie associations.
One uncredited voiceover (not Bowie’s), presumably from a critic or media figure, credits him with running before he even walked considering his accomplishments in several media, including music, film, and (with the Elephant Man) theater. It’s true he explored all those mediums, but he did have to walk before he ran, struggling for five years with several record labels and non-hit records before his 1969 “Space Odyssey” hit. Then there were three more years before his next hit, which included some of his best (though not most commercially successful) music. This isn’t addressed at all, other than with the inclusion of some very brief images from the period. Nor is his short but significant shift toward blue-eyed soul music in the mid-1970s.
Many (especially young viewers) not too familiar with Bowie will likely find the movie’s arc hard or impossible to follow (and in his Record Collector interview, director Brett Morgen contended there was an arc and narrative). Big Bowie fans won’t find much here, at least in the way of hard musical content and perspectives from the singer himself, with which they’re not already familiar. So I’m not sure who’ll get a lot out of watching it—other than, admittedly, the numerous reviewers and fans who are praising or raving about the film.
Although some of the press for the film emphasized the director’s access to rare and previously uncirculating material from Bowie’s archive, there’s relatively little such footage to see (or voice to hear) for fans to chew on. Some of the footage most heavily drawn upon is pretty common, like sequences from D.A. Pennebaker’s Ziggy Stardust documentary of a 1973 concert, or scenes from his best known (and best) film as an actor, The Man Who Fell to Earth. Key associates like Mick Ronson are seen but not mentioned. Some key associates, like his first wife Angie, aren’t mentioned or, as far as I could tell, seen; it’s hard to say with the near nonstop assault of images, many brief. These include glimpses of a script for a Diamond Dogs film and a 1974 diary (I think that’s the year; it flew by onscreen fast) that would be interesting to read, though you only see fleeting glimpses that will be impossible to decode unless you can read freeze frames on home video.
So what’s this doing on my year-end list? There is some material that’s uncommon, like Jeff Beck’s guest spot on lead guitar when Bowie does “Love Me Do” and “The Jean Genie” in the 1973 “retirement” concert Pennebaker filmed, which didn’t make it into the Ziggy Stardust documentary. I’m not sure where the performance of “Rock and Roll with Me” was filmed—I think it might be an outtake from the mid-‘70s Cracked Actor TV documentary (excerpted a bit in various places in Moonage Daydream)—but I hadn’t seen it before. I’ve seen a lot, but not all, Bowie interview clips; some here were unfamiliar and fairly interesting.
There’s also some soundcheck and concert footage from 1978 London performances that Record Collector hailed as “the holiest of holy grails,” though it’s not my main Bowie era. Asked by the magazine whether the whole gig exists on film or Moonage Daydream includes everything from that source, director Morgen retorted, “Do you have another question?” It’s the kind of answer you might associate with someone like Lou Reed (himself seen only very briefly, despite his substantial influence upon and interaction with Bowie), and not an appropriate one for someone charged with accessing Bowie’s archive for what might be the only such extensive opportunity.
This was a long review, and for the short version, I’ll use a two-word quote from The Man Who Fell to Earth. Bowie’s character asks his former chief scientist (played by Rip Torn) if the scientist liked the album he’s made, The Visitor. Torn’s character replies tersely, “Not much.” An opinion to which the director of Moonage Daydream might respond by quoting Bowie’s character’s response: “Oh. Well, I didn’t make it for you anyway.”
12. Spector (Showtime). This three-and-a-half-hour, four-part docuseries isn’t quite a music history film. More than half of it’s specifically devoted to Spector’s trials for the murder of Lana Clarkson, though his musical career takes up the majority of the first episode, and some of the second. His trials, which resulted in a long prison sentence in which he died in jail, should not be ignored in an overview of his life, and nor should his frequent harmful and abusive behavior. Music was a big part of his life, however, and could have gotten more attention than it does here. What’s covered of that part of his history is pretty interesting, including good interviews with a number of close associates, among them Carol Connor of the Teddy Bears; fellow Brill Building songwriter-producer Jeff Barry; Darlene Love; La La Brooks of the Crystals (who gives a notably different account of the production of “Da Doo Ron Ron” than Love does); Nedra Talley of the Ronettes; session musicians Don Randi and Carol Kaye; biographer Mick Brown, who did the last interview with Spector before Clarkson’s death; and, if only briefly from archive footage, Ronnie Spector and Tina Turner. Phil Spector is represented by some archive footage, some interview clips from the early 2000s from Vikram Jayanti’s documentary The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (Jayanti is also interviewed), and scenes of Spector in the courtroom.
This is more of a true crime documentary than a music one, and that side of the story is covered exhaustively, and not just with courtroom footage and period news clips. There are also interviews with prosecution and defense attorneys, Spector’s driver the night of the murder, a juror, Spector’s daughter Nicole, Clarkson’s mother, and friends and associates of Clarkson, who’s seen in much footage taken from her work as an actress and comedian. If you’re as sensitive to chronological accuracy as I am, it’s unfortunate the sequencing can give the impression that Spector produced John Lennon’s Rock’n’Roll album before his marriage to Ronnie Spector nearly a decade earlier, though there aren’t other missteps on that order. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, from 2009, has not been available on home video or through streaming as far as I know, but has some other interesting information and perspectives about Spector’s work and criminal activity.
13. Just a Mortal Man: The Jerry Lawson Story. Jerry Lawson was lead singer in the Persuasions, the (usually) a cappella harmony group with a strong soul bent. This documentary aired on PBS, and Persuasions fans should be aware that it’s a film about Lawson, not specifically about the Persuasions, though they strongly figure in the coverage. The approach is conventional, with numerous brief bits of archival performance footage as far back as 1968 spicing memories from Lawson (who died when the project was in post-production), family, associates (the closest of which is manager/producer David Dashev), and later vocal groups who claim the Persuasions as an influence. There are plenty of sincere testimonies to his talent and character that, again in common with many music documentaries, could have done with some editing to avoid repetition of similar sentiments.
If you’re looking for in-depth examination of the Persuasions’ career, this comes up short. Frank Zappa’s involvement in helping launch their recording career is touched upon only briefly; the other Persuasions, aside from bass singer James Hayes, are barely mentioned; and their albums hardly discussed. There’s a lot about Lawson’s personal life, including his family background; his unfortunate fallout late in life with Hayes, the Persuasion to whom he was closest; his problems with alcohol, though he stayed sober the last twenty years of his life; his second marriage; and his post-Persuasions work helping the developmentally disabled in Arizona. While acknowledging that the intent of the filmmakers was probably not to cover all the bases of the Persuasions, the too-brief numerous performance snippets from the late 1960s and 1970s make one hope someone writes a biography of this unusual and creative group, as much of a niche project as that is.
The following movies came out in 2021, but I didn’t see them until 2022:
1. Ennio. Although this has a 2021 date, as far as I know this two-and-a-half-hour documentary on Ennio Morricone has barely shown in the US, where I saw it as an online stream as part of a festival. Morricone was incredibly prolific in his lengthy career, and maybe there are some committed fans who will be dissatisfied with what it doesn’t include, or the brief coverage of many of the soundtracks and recordings it does cover. I can’t imagine too many people being dissatisfied with this film, however, since it gets through an immense amount of ground. There are extensive interviews with Morricone himself, by the looks of them done not long before his 2020 death, in which his recollection is good and his stories interesting. There are also several dozen interviews with associates and composers, many of them not so well known to English-speaking audiences. But quite a few of them are, including Joan Baez, Clint Eastwood, and directors Sergio Leone, Bernardo Bertolucci, Roland Jaffe, and Quentin Tarantino.
There are also excerpts from dozens of the films he soundtracked, from the internationally famous to the obscure. There’s some attention paid to the ‘60s Italian pop records he worked on as arranger, and while most of those artists are unfamiliar to English-speaking listeners, he occasionally did work with American stars—not just Baez, but also Paul Anka and Chet Baker. There are also archive clips dating back to his boyhood of Morricone himself in performance (on trumpet or, later, conducting) and being interviewed, as well as of interviews about Morricone. It does drag a bit near the end as awards and tributes dominate the screen, and certainly the most interesting and bulkiest sections address the peak of his career in the 1960s and 1970s. But while two-and-a-half hours might sound like too much if you’re not a fanatic, the pace is pretty snappy, and the assembly of clips from so many sources impressive.
2. The Beatles in India (MVD). Indian music was a significant influence on the Beatles for a while, and so was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi for almost a year, culminating in the Beatles’ visit to study transcendental meditation with him in Rishikesh. This documentary looks at how they (and particularly George Harrison) integrated the sitar and Indian music into some of their songs and records in the mid-1960s, and their visit to Rishikesh in early 1968, which ended with the group leaving without finishing their TM course. This ground has been covered by many other books and some films, but to its credit, this does have some material that will be unfamiliar even to big Beatles fans. In particular, there are film clips and interviews from their 1966 stopover on the way back from Manila; clips from Harrison’s visit to study sitar with Ravi Shankar later that year, including bits from a radio interview that wasn’t rediscovered for many years; and quite a bit from the 1968 Rishikesh jaunt.
There are also interviews with some Beatles associates, most valuably George’s first wife Pattie Boyd; some Indian journalists and photographers who interacted with the group; and some of the other people who were in Rishikesh when the Beatles were there, including the mother of the tiger hunter who inspired “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill.” True, a lot of people aren’t heard from, whether the surviving Beatles, Donovan (also at Rishikesh), Mike Love (also at Rishikesh), or Mia Farrow (also at Rishikesh). There’s also some extraneous Beatlemania footage and interviews that could have been excised to pare this down a bit. It’s still above average for the many peripheral Beatles documentaries made without a ton of resources.
3. Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road (Texas Pet Sounds Productions). This follows a format that plenty of other rock and celebrity docs do, mixing some (not a ton) of vintage footage and interviews with plentiful testimonials from fellow musicians and recent footage of Wilson talking, recording, and performing. While some of the talking heads are from veteran stars (Elton John, Bruce Springsteen), others are from much younger artists of subsequent generations, making basic points about Brian’s life and work. Much of the content stems from conversations between Wilson and his music journalist friend Jason Fine as they drive around Los Angeles, sometimes revisiting his former homes and haunts. Wilson’s never seemed the most comfortable interview subject, and his memories and answers can be pretty terse here.
There are other documentaries that will tell you more about Wilson and the Beach Boys, and some big fans might be disappointed there’s not more substance in this one. So might some more casual fans, the film jumping back and forth chronologically without giving a linear history of his life and artistic evolution. Whatever your grounding, it’s best to treat this as a modest endeavor that doesn’t have excessive depth, but has interesting stories here and there. It does touch upon some sensitive subjects like his rough relationships with his father and psychiatrist Eugene Landy, and celebrates his ones with brothers Carl and Dennis, though Mike Love is barely mentioned (albeit Brian does praise his singing). There’s also some, though not much, old Beach Boys footage that isn’t often seen, like a 1964 interview in Oklahoma.
Note that the fifteen minutes of DVD extra are worth seeing if you’re interested enough to see the main documentary, since the outtakes are about on par with what’s in the principal feature, and don’t overlap in the subjects covered. If you want something to get angry about, a clip of the Beach Boys performing “I Get Around” is subtitled as being from 1963, though the song wasn’t recorded until 1964.
4. Fanny: The Right to Rock. Fanny were one of the first all-women rock bands who played their own instruments to make a mark, issuing a few albums on major labels in the early 1970s. I find their story more interesting than their music, which was hard rock with touches of glam, but the story’s told pretty well in this documentary. Most of Fanny’s members were interviewed (with keyboardist Nickey Barclay a notable exception), as were producers Richard Perry and Todd Rundgren, and a few admiring famed musicians like Bonnie Raitt, Kate Pierson of the B-52’s, and Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s. There’s not a ton of archival Fanny footage, but there’s some, as well as many vintage photos. Aside from the expected obstacles they ran into as a pioneering all-women band, the discrimination some members faced because of their Filipino background and/or gay sexuality is also discussed. So are the wild times at their Los Angeles group home in the early 1970s; the painful departure of original drummer Brie Howard, ascribed to getting pushed out at the behest of Perry; and how their Top Thirty single “Butter Boy” was inspired by (though not about) David Bowie, a fan of the group who had a brief relationship bassist Jean Millington.
Millington does speculate at one point that Fanny didn’t get bigger because they didn’t have great pop songs of the kind the Go-Go’s would. Personnel changes and lack of commercial headway led to their split in the mid-1970s, but Jean Millington, her sister and lead guitarist June Millington, and Howard reunited for a 2018 album. Much of the film focuses on this reunion and the recording sessions, though in a sad and unexpected turn of events, Jean Millington had a stroke that paralyzed her right side a week before the reunited lineup were to play their first show.
5. Punk the Capital: Building a Sound Movement (Passion River). From about the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Washington, DC had one of the most active punk scenes, becoming particularly known for hardcore-oriented groups from the early 1980s like Minor Threat. This hour and a half documentary covers its history pretty well, with interviews from key figures like Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye and Henry Rollins (who sang punk in DC before joining Black Flag), but also lots of other musicians, writers, recording studio personnel, and other scenemakers. Some of the bands interviewed and/or seen in archive footage are pretty obscure, at least if you’re not a punk collector, a la Enzymes, the Nurses, and Tru Fax and the Insaniacs. Others managed to make an impression outside DC and a good amount of records, like the Slickee Boys and Bad Brains. Be aware that much of the archive footage, with plenty of slam dancing and stage diving from the later years, is dark and blurry, though that’s kind of to be expected in much of what survives from the punk underground.
In some ways, the DC scene was typical of punk communities that made a mark: outsiders and misfits finding a home, wanting to do something different than the mainstream, doing things yourself when it seemed impossible through conventional channels, and the like. The key venues Madam’s Organ and the 9:30 club are part of the story, as is Dischord Records, who put out many records associated with DC punk, and were run by Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson. Like some other regional punk hotbeds, such as the ones in Southern California, DC punk was in danger of getting dangerous as the audience expanded and more thuggish violence occurred at shows. That’s discussed too, and it’s also noted that DC punk maintains a following as the scene was more heavily documented and archived than its usual counterparts.
The DVD has about fifty minutes of extras for the dedicated, including additional interviews with and footage of Scream, Void, and the Slickee Boys. 1960s garage rock completists should note that there’s an unexpected brief sequence with material about ‘60s DC garage band the Hangmen, since they were managed by the father of a couple guys in Scream.
As kind of a follow-up to my recent post “David Bowie Byways,” which covers some of the less discussed aspects of his career, here’s a much shorter one that my viewing of the new documentary Moonage Daydream sparked. This isn’t a review of the film; I’ll have a multi-paragraph one in my year-end rock documentaries wrap-up. My basic assessment of how much I liked the movie, to quote from Rip Torn’s response to the question from Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell to Earth as to whether Torn likes the album Bowie makes in that film: “Not much.”
However, Moonage Daydream has some material here and there that perked up my interest. Here are a few such items:
Jeff Beck’s guest appearance at Bowie’s “retirement” concert in London on July 3, 1973. Most of this concert appears in D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary of the event, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Beck guested with Bowie on a medley of “The Jean Genie” and the Beatles’ “Love Me Do,” as well as a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around” (a studio version of which was used as a Bowie B-side, though it didn’t make it onto his LPs of the era). Some of the “Jean Genie/Love Me Do” bit appears in Moonage Daydream, though not much. Actually most of the musical performances in Moonage Daydream are pretty brief snippets.
Several explanations have been given for why Beck didn’t allow these performances to be included in the Ziggy Stardust documentary. These include dissatisfaction with his performances and his wardrobe, especially his shoes. He didn’t know he was being filmed, either, which might have contributed to his reservations.
Inclusion of this footage in Moonage Daydream is welcome, butit’s not as rare as many would think. Beck’s appearance was included in a different version of Ziggy Stardust shown on ABC television in 1974 and, according to some online sources, an Italian print of the film. The sequence also made it onto Youtube, though the quality of what’s seen in Moonage Daydream is better.
Something not discussed in the film is a story that a groupie tells in Dylan Jones’s oral history David Bowie: A Life. She remembers Bowie telling her he would have rather had Beck in his band than Mick Ronson, himself a very Beck-influenced guitarist. Ronson’s on stage with Beck and Bowie in this retirement concert footage. I wonder if Ronson ever knew the story of Bowie preferring Beck to him, if true?
A Diamond Dogs script. Some memorabilia in Moonage Daydream flashes by so quickly you barely have time for it to register. One such piece is a script for a Diamond Dogs movie. Diamond Dogs, of course, was a big 1974 hit album for Bowie, but no movie was or has been made based on it.
Bowie also wanted to have a television adaptation of 1984. When that wasn’t possible, he worked on a film that would have been produced in conjunction with the Diamond Dogs album. According to davidbowienews.com:
“Combining the influences of Orwell’s novel together with German expressionism and the silent movies The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis, and Tod Browning’s Freaks, Bowie had also planned a film to accompany the new album. The film was storyboarded in detail and character parts were written, to be played by Bowie himself, Iggy Pop, Lyndsey Kemp and Cyrinda Fox, among others.
In early 1974 and during his stay at New York’s Pierre Hotel, Bowie together with supervision from cameraman John Dove began work on a short demo video for the Diamond Dogs film. The demo video was shot with a single RCA video camera, and included very basic opening titles, simple special effects and superimposed scenes and figures using cardboard cutouts. Unfortunately the film project was never finished.”
Just a little more than a minute or so of demo footage can be seen on Youtube, some of it containing what looks like a credits sequence. It’s highly abstract and Bowie isn’t seen much. You can’t get much of a sense of what the film as a whole might have been, and note that the electronic-flavored music isn’t by Bowie. It’s unknown whether the music (by Erkki Kurenniemi) was intended for the original movie, though my guess is it wasn’t.
A bigger question is whether the Diamond Dogs script will ever be published for public reading. Even if it’s not that good, it would at the least make for interesting additional Bowie history. As an example for comparison, the seldom seen 1970 movie starring and co-directed by Jim Morrison, HWY: An American Pastoral, isn’t very good, but the shooting script (by Morrison) did make it into the recent book The Collected Works of Jim Morrison.
Diaries. Some other memorabilia briefly glimpsed in Moonage Daydream include a page, or pages, from a diary. This material shoots by so fast that it’s hard to say for certain when it’s from, let alone what it contains, at least until this is on home video and you might be able to decode such info from a freeze frame. My impression was that the shot or shots were from a diary around 1974.
Again, these would have valuable historical information if they’re ever published or accessible to the public. I’m reminded of how Martin Scorsese’s George Harrison documentary made fans aware that Harrison was keeping a diary in the late 1960s, though what entries have circulated are pretty mundane. Even for the day he (temporarily) quits the Beatles in January 10, 1969, he devotes three words to the incident: “Left the Beatles.”
There were some diary entries of Bowie’s from 1973-1975 that were actually published in a British teen music magazine, Mirabelle. These can be seen on the bowiewonderworld.com site. It turns out, though, that they’re hardly useful items for Bowie biographers and researchers. In 1998, he admitted they were ghost-written by his American publicist, Cherry Vanilla. Presumably the diaries briefly seen in Moonage Daydream were legit.
Cracked Actor. For a film that’s never been on home video, this hour-long 1974 BBC documentary is pretty well known. It’s not only for the concert footage from his US tour just after mid-1974, but also for quite a few backstage/offstage/interview sequences. There are some obvious similarities between how he acts and looks and his character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, made not long afterward.
I actually don’t like it as much as many Bowie fans do. The concert performances and material are dimly lit and not-so-sensational. The offstage portions are often fragmentary and fairly unrevealing. Some parts of Cracked Actor do make it into Moonage Daydream for a wider and contemporary audience, however. While I can’t be entirely uncertain, footage of a live performance of “Rock and Roll with Me,” one of the better rare bits in Moonage Daydream, seems to come from the pool of footage shot for Cracked Actor, and has not circulated before to my knowledge.
Cracked Actor hasn’t been all that hard to see. Unauthorized copies have circulated for a long time, and clips show up on Youtube. When I’ve seen the material in this form, however, it’s had subpar sound and image quality. There’s an obvious market for an official, cleaned-up edition of the documentary, with some bonus footage, on the reasonable assumption some exists. It’s not clear why this hasn’t happened, though at a guess there could well be rights issues and legal obstacles involved.
Hansa Studios. Speaking of documentaries that aren’t as accessible as they could be, there’s a 2018 one on the studios where Bowie worked in the late 1970s in Berlin. Titled Hansa Studios: By the Wall 1976-90, it was broadcast on the British Sky Arts television channel, and given a positive review in The Guardian. Although Hansa’s most known for its Bowie association, other acts who made a mark recorded there, including Wire, the Birthday Party, and U2.
There are some still photos of Bowie working in Hansa in Moonage Daydream, but not much specific commentary on what he did there (and the film doesn’t have that much specific commentary on what Bowie did in general throughout his career). This would make the Hansa Studios valuable viewing, but I only know a couple people in the US who’ve managed to see it. It doesn’t seem available to stream or to buy as a DVD or Blu-ray, and it’s been four years since its Sky Arts broadcast. Why isn’t it accessible?
The new BMG book The Byrds: 1964-1967 presents 400 pages of photos from their prime period, with commentary by all three surviving original Byrds—Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and David Crosby. Even by the standards of coffee table books, this is a literally heavy tome, weighing almost nine pounds. At about $150, it’s also pretty expensive. And it’s a photo book, not a standard narrative one. For a Byrds history, Johnny Rogan’s huge two-volume Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless remains the most thorough account, and indeed one of the most thorough accounts of any rock group.
Still, The Byrds: 1964-1967 is worthwhile if you’re a big Byrds fan, as I am. The photos are really good, and I haven’t seen many of them (some of them outtakes from sessions that generated familiar images, including record covers) before, although I’ve seen many Byrds photos. And the three surviving original Byrds’ quotes were done specifically for this book, not taken from archive sources.
This post is not a review of the book; there will be a several-paragraph one on my year-end best-of list. It won’t be a clarification of what’s wrong, either, as the volume’s refreshingly free of significant inaccuracies. In any case, those are made easier to avoid as the quotes emphasize perspectives and details of specific photos, not exactly what happened when. And the three admit when they don’t remember something.
But even having read so much about the Byrds (and interviewed McGuinn and Hillman), there were still some interesting things here and there I don’t remember reading about much or at all elsewhere. This post won’t try to cite all of them, but muse upon some aspects of their mid-‘60s career that some of the material brought to mind.
Jim Dickson: As the group’s original co-manager, and producer of their very good early demos circa late 1964-early 1965 (long officially available under variations of the Preflyte title), Dickson was enormously important to getting the Byrds off the ground. Crosby is quite negative about him in the book, however, calling him an “asshole” and “an absolute shit” within a few pages of each other. Maybe that’s something you’d expect from a character like Crosby, whose quotes generally have the bluntest and most caustic tone.
But Chris Hillman, who generally doesn’t have many bad words for anyone, says Dickson “had some good moments, but he would always revert to playing us off one another…he’d always find a way to go after one of us and pit us against everyone else.” Amplifies Crosby, “Dickson was violent, and not a good guy. He beat the crap out of Hillman very early on…Dickson was just not a good man.”
Yet Crosby also notes how important Dickson was to refining the sound of the early Byrds by giving them free access to World Pacific Studios, where they made rehearsal tapes that immensely accelerated their development. “Bands go through a period where they’re garage bands and they’re learning how to play and it takes them a long fuckin’ time,” he observes. “If you have to listen to a tape afterwards, it takes a lot less time. So that was something that Dickson did that was absolutely correct. Hearing ourselves shortened that garage band period to a tenth of what it normally would have been. We went really fast.”
I can’t think of another instance from this era where a band used this process to such great advantage. Of course studio time was (and is) expensive, and the Byrds had the great advantage of doing it for free after hours. But wouldn’t it have made sense for more groups to do something like this, if possible? And these days, when home studios are so much more common and relatively affordable, are there notable acts that go through this—not just rehearsing and recording, but intently listening and then going back to improve what they can do better—with as much intensity shortly after formation? Not so many that you hear about, anyway.
For what it’s worth, McGuinn also remembers how Dickson literally fed the Byrds before they made records, keeping them alive long enough to hit with “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Michael Clarke’s drumming: Clarke’s drumming is sometimes not held in very high regard by critics. Or, at the least, some feel that his skills were limited, if sufficient for the Byrds’ purposes. It’s true that Clarke’s experience was very limited (apparently to informally playing some congas) before he joined, and that he was recruited primarily for his Brian Jones-like looks. This rather haphazard process of selection wasn’t so uncommon in 1960s folk-rock groups, where the ex-folkies who formed their cores knew how to sing and play guitars, but hardly knew any drummers, let alone had worked with any.
As Chris Darrow of another Southern Californian 1960s folk-rock group, Kaleidoscope, said when I interviewed him for my two-volume set of books on 1960s folk-rock (now available as the Jingle Jangle Morning ebook), Kaleidoscope’s John Vidican “was an 18-year-old hippie who looked pretty good, kind of the high school marching band drummer. He was the only one that had any kind of pop charisma in our band. These folk music guys, they’d never worked with drummers, so they just figured all drummers were the same. And if you could find one that looked cool, that’s pretty much what we all wanted. A lot of these guys, I think, did get picked on kind of how handsome they were, whether or not they could play the drums.”
So it’s cool to read the other Byrds actually complimenting Clarke’s musical abilities here. Crosby: “Michael turned out to be really good. He had a good sense of time, he looked absolutely great, and he was a sweet guy.” But Hillman’s praise comes with some reservations: “He could be lazy as all get out, but when he was on, he was good.” Chris, however, does feel Clarke could have been better: “Mike was a natural drummer, but could have benefited from some direction. Do you know how many drummers offered to take Mike under their wing? Hal Blaine and different studio musicians were ready to help Mike any way they could. I said, ‘Do it, Michael.’ He didn’t want to do it. He had the talent, but not always the drive.”
It’s unfortunate, of course, that the late Clarke didn’t have the opportunity to contribute to the book, which unfortunately doesn’t go into details about why he left the Byrds near the end of 1967. Although it’s beyond the scope of this volume, Michael couldn’t have been that lacking as a drummer, since soon enough he was drumming behind Hillman in the Flying Burrito Brothers, and afterward was drummer in the musically unremarkable but sometimes commercially successful Firefall.
Gene Clark: While acknowledging Clark’s fine songwriting, Crosby also admits, as has long been reported, that he pushed Gene somewhat to the background. “He couldn’t play guitar that well and I could, so I kind of nosed him out of the second guitar part.” Along a less traveled path, he adds, “He wanted to be the lead singer, and it was obviously Roger. Roger was five times as good at it.”
While the early Byrds are often hailed for their multi-part harmonies (Hillman not yet singing ,as he would starting in 1966 after Clark’s departure), Crosby also offers, “Almost nothing was three-part harmony. Gene and Roger would sing in unison on the melody, and I’d sing harmony. The structure of Gene’s songs lent themselves to me being able to do a non-parallel harmony, which I really liked to do.”
Crosby on McGuinn: Crosby has often had less than flattering things to say about his bandmates, in the Byrds and other outfits. But he’s extremely complimentary in his remarks about Roger in this book, on several occasions. After praising Clark’s early compositions, David elaborates, “Roger was playing better than anybody else, so he made Gene’s songs sound really great…Roger upgraded them. The minute Roger played them, they were better songs. And then I put harmony on them and that was it.” On their Dylan covers: “Roger was the best translator of Bob’s stuff. Nobody ever made records out of Bob’s music better than what Roger did. And I helped too.” On McGuinn’s solo on “Eight Miles High”: “That’s Roger listening to Coltrane and taking it in. He’s a genius at it. Absolutely better than anybody at that kind of adaptation.”
Terry Melcher: Crosby has some very ungracious things to say about the producer of the first two Byrds albums, Terry Melcher. According to David, “Melcher couldn’t produce a Kleenex box. He knew nothing about audio, nothing about recording, nothing about songs, nothing about our band. Knew nothing about anything. The people who ran the record company were failed shoe salesmen. They knew nothing about music, but he was the son of a movie star [Doris Day], so there you go.”
McGuinn, always more diplomatic, is quite complimentary about Melcher, whom he “thought was a good producer for that AM mono single kind of record, and I believe he was a big part of the Byrds’ success.” As for the possible real reason for Crosby’s grousing, he points out that “Terry didn’t like David’s songs, so he wasn’t putting them on the album. That was the key point that they disagreed on…We left the song selection up to the producers for the most part. We would kind of lobby them and say, ‘You know, here’s a song…check this out.’ But the producer would pick the songs, which is what got David angry with Terry Melcher.”
Maybe Crosby was particularly unhappy the Byrds didn’t release his composition “Stranger in a Strange Land,” which got as far as an instrumental backing track, now available as a bonus cut on the expanded CD edition of Turn! Turn! Turn! San Francisco early folk-rock duo Blackburn and Snow did an excellent version on a single, but the Byrds never put out a finished vocal arrangement.
Here’s another way Melcher upset Crosby, this from Johnny Rogan’s Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless: Vol. 1, and not related to one of David’s compositions. For their version of “He Was a Friend of Mine” on their second album, he complained, “Remember that organ note that goes all the way through it that seems very out of place? Terry put it on after we finished the song without even asking us, and mixed it that way. And the tambourine…I could have popped him in the lip for that.”
Hillman comes down on Melcher’s side, if sides have to be chosen. “He was encouraging to me because he knew I was just learning the bass in some ways,” he remembers. “He was very helpful, and I liked him. I never had a problem with Terry ever. But David locked horns with him all the time.”
However much nepotism might have helped Melcher get his position at Columbia Records, it seems unfair to dismiss him as knowing “nothing about audio, nothing about recording, nothing about songs.” With future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, he’d co-produced the Rip Chords’ early 1964 Beach Boys-lite hit “Hey Little Cobra,” as well as often producing and writing with Johnston on other records. On an unreleased tape of the Byrds working on the Gene Clark song “She Has a Way,” you can hear him making specific constructive and tactful suggestions, even competently singing part of the tune to illustrate points.
Billy James, manager of information services for Columbia’s Los Angeles office at the time (and author of the liner notes for the Byrds’ first album), characterized Melcher as a hip rocker, and far from a failed shoe salesman. “Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher were the first pals I had in my life who loved rock ‘n’ roll, who were in rock ‘n’ roll,” he told me. “Through my friendship with them and my respect for them, I began to develop an appreciation for rock ’n’ roll.” Although the appreciation was not always reciprocated by less open-minded Columbia personnel than James, who elaborated: “The West Coast A&R department was something of a thorn in the side of the home office in New York. Terry and Bruce were not typical corporate record company producers. There was a lack of comprehension and appreciation for the changes that were going on in popular music in general, and for what Bruce and Terry were doing in particular, at Columbia.”
As a final note about Melcher, a 1965 photo in the book raises some curious questions. It’s been documented that McGuinn was the only Byrd to play (and McGuinn, Clark, and Crosby the only Byrds to sing) on “Mr. Tambourine Man” and its B-side, “I Knew I’d Want You.” It’s also been documented that the full Byrds then played on everything from then onward (though Jim Gordon took the place of Clarke for some of The Notorious Byrd Brothers sessions). “We were playing well, but it’s not the smooth ‘session player sound,’” says Hillman in the book. “It’s a far more interesting and real sound that only the original Byrds could have produced.”
But the photo in question shows McGuinn, Clark, Crosby, and Melcher in the studio with three session musicians. One of them is definitely Bruce Johnston. I’m not sure about the other two guys, though at a guess they could be Billy Strange and Larry Knechtel. Hillman and McGuinn are mystified as to what’s happening in the picture, Roger admitting, “I don’t know what’s going on.” Crosby and McGuinn are playing guitars as an instrument-less Clark looks on; Johnston’s at a keyboard; the other two guys are holding guitars.
Could the session guys just be hanging out and giving them pointers, maybe between doing non-Byrds sessions with Melcher? Or could session musicians actually have played on Byrds records besides their first single? The photo probably wasn’t taken when “Mr. Tambourine Man” was recorded, McGuinn noting that “David is there, and he didn’t play on the ‘Tambourine Man’ session.”
The “Eight Miles High” single picture sleeve session: Some Barry Feinstein photos make it clear that the great picture sleeve for the “Eight Miles High” single, where Michael Clarke is about to flick a spoon at an oblivious David Crosby’s head, was taken in mid-1965 in Chicago. The book, however, doesn’t include the actual photo from the picture sleeve. Which I would have liked, in part because that might have given McGuinn, Hillman, and Crosby a chance to explain what was happening in that wonderfully goofy photo. It’s a minor missed opportunity, and I wonder if the three recognized the picture as coming from the session that generated the “Eight Miles High” sleeve.
The weird Hullabaloo clip: When the Byrds sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on Hullabaloo in late 1965, it was on a set that was bizarre even by the oft-absurd standards of the era. Playing amidst some fake foliage, the Byrds were surrounded by models in hunting outfits wielding shotguns, with some fake dogs. What was the possible rationale?
Crosby explains: “They said, ‘OK, the Byrds are coming to the program. What do we do for birds? OK, we’ll have people hunting them.’ That’s their idea of how to relate? Hunting dogs and girls with shotguns…We thought it was unbelievably hysterically stupid. You can tell from how thrilled we look.”
Unused Turn! Turn! Turn! liner notes: There’s not much memorabilia in the book, but an item of great interest reproduces the unused liner notes publicist Derek Taylor wrote for their second album, Turn! Turn! Turn! These refer, with extreme (by the standards of the day’s notes) candor, to a physical fight between Crosby and Clarke in the studio; to Crosby undermining Clark’s confidence as a guitarist; to McGuinn and Crosby maneuvering to let only three Clark songs on the album; and to Columbia manufacturing 200,000 unused sleeves for a “The Times They Are A-Changin’” single that didn’t come out. And this is from a publicist!
These kind of frank insights into a band’s conflicts were rare in any kind of press in the mid-1960s, and certainly unheard of in liner notes. But it’s definitely valuable as a historical document, even if no one should have been surprised that it wasn’t used on the LP’s back cover. Did Taylor submit these as a kind of dare or joke, knowing how unlikely they would be to get approval? And did the Byrds even see these notes at the time? (The survivors don’t comment on them in the book.)
Gene Clark Goes Solo: The Real Story? The usual explanation for Clark leaving the Byrds in early 1966 is that he wasn’t up to touring with the group and generally having trouble coping with the demands of stardom, and specifically that he didn’t want to fly. McGuinn says in the book, and has said in the past, that there might have been some other motivations at work. “Dickson and his business partner Eddie Tickner had been thinking about spinning him off as another Elvis,” Roger remembers. “I found that out years later from Dickson, when he was very sick. My wife and I went to visit him in the hospital, and I guess it was like a deathbed confession. But Jim didn’t die then, and he later denied he said it.”
Whatever Dickson and Tickner might have been thinking in 1966, it seems strange to envision Clark as another Elvis, or even as a significant solo star. He was more talented as a songwriter than a singer, and not wanting to fly—therefore limiting his touring possibilities—would have been a significant disadvantage. But while Clark’s sizable cult following might disagree, I don’t see how his songs could have been considered sure-fire commercial bets, though he did co-write (according to some accounts as the primary author) “Eight Miles High,” and wrote “You Showed Me,” demoed by the Byrds in the Preflyte days and a hit for the Turtles in 1969, with McGuinn.
It doesn’t often work for a former member of a popular group, and the group itself, to maintain successful separate careers after separating. Such was the case with Clark, whose debut solo album failed to make the Top 200, and who never did sell many records as a solo artist, as much as his cult reveres some of his work. In fact all four of the other original Byrds had greater post-Byrds commercial success than Clark did.
The Fifth Dimension Album Cover: I’ve always thought the cover of Fifth Dimension that shows them on a magic carpet of sorts is cool. It’s hipper than most 1966 rock albums, and there are some outtakes of photos from the session in the book. So it’s a little bit of a surprise to find the Byrds didn’t have much to do with the concept.
McGuinn: “I don’t know what the thinking was with the magic carpet for the Fifth Dimension album cover. We didn’t have much say in the Columbia art department’s ideas. They just came up with things, and we went along with them.”
Hillman: “I don’t know who came up with this magic carpet idea, but they brought in lunch for us, and we’re just there [in one of the book’s outtakes] eating lunch and drinking coffee.”
Crosby: “When you look at how people tried to envision some framework to put us in, visually, they did funny shit like that over and over. They tried to shoot us in ways that were somehow relevant, but it never really worked.”
Linda Eastman: There are a few pictures of the Byrds in New York in late 1966 taken by Linda Eastman, two years before she took up with Paul McCartney. Her abilities as a photographer have sometimes been chastised, but Crosby matter-of-factly counters this impression: “Linda was taking pretty good pictures of a whole lot of people then. She was one of the only photographers we liked. She was comfortable with musicians, but mainly we just liked her because she was a good photographer.”
Crosby on the Doors: He didn’t like them, and more than fifty years after Jim Morrison’s death, he doesn’t mince words here: “I didn’t like the Doors. I was almost the only person who didn’t, but I just didn’t like them. They didn’t have a bass player and they didn’t swing. They were like a square wheel. If you listened to them play live, they just were never quite there. I also didn’t like Morrison as a singer. He was more of a poseur. He tried to be frightfully dramatic and mysterious, but he couldn’t really sing. I thought they were a crap band. And I said so, too, which earned me no end of enmity.”
His remark didn’t pass unnoticed by Doors drummer John Densmore. “Joe Hagan’s appreciation for David Crosby [‘Imperfect Harmony,’ Jan. 23] is imperfect, indeed,” read his letter in the Los Angeles Times on February 5, 2023. “I don’t agree with Hagan that ‘Crosby’s music backed up all his talk.’ In calling my band (The Doors) ‘crap,’ Crosby revealed that his singing and songwriting ability compared with Jim Morrison’s (who he regularly dissed), is clearly the lesser of the two.”
Larry Spector: Crosby didn’t like Jim Dickson, and he didn’t like the manager they took after cutting ties with Dickson and Tickner, Larry Spector. “I don’t think you really want me to tell you what I think of Larry Spector now,” he says. “He was a sneaky little guy, dishonest and bad.” Crosby has company on this count, Hillman adding, “He was absolutely horrible—dishonest and everything you could possibly imagine in a bad manager.”
“Lady Friend”: This non-LP, non-hit single was written by Crosby, and according to Hillman, “we really had it sounding great. Then [David] sneaks back into the studio and changes the vocal parts and puts these horrible horn parts on it. Ruined it. It became full of unnecessary noise packed into these tracks. It was a great song, but then it wasn’t so great.”
Hillman has discussed Crosby changing the vocals before (in Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless), but here he remembers David also inserting horn parts. Yet there wouldn’t be much in the middle instrumental break without those horns, which Crosby described (also in Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless) as “an idea of mine that I wanted to try. I envisaged a little French horn fugue in the middle of it.” It makes one wonder what might have been in a previous arrangement. Chiming guitars, or something else? Alternate arrangements or takes like that haven’t circulated.
It’s also a little odd that I can’t find any credits for who played the horns on “Lady Friend.” The Byrds had effectively used brass before with trumpeter Hugh Masekela on “So You Want to Be a Rock’n’Roll Star,” and the book has a couple cool color shots of Masekela performing with the Byrds at the Magic Mountain Music Festival on Mount Tamalpais in Marin County in June 1967. Could Masekela have been playing on the “Lady Friend” single?
Gary Usher: He produced the Byrds’ 1967-1968 records, and McGuinn keeps up the diplomatic good vibes with some staunch praise. (There’s nothing in the book about Fifth Dimension producer Allen Stanton, who seemed more like a Columbia representative keeping general tabs on the sessions than an active creative ingredient.) “Gary Usher was great,” McGuinn enthuses. “It was around this time that the Beatles were doing sound effects, and Gary came up with a lot of ideas in that vein—like a door slamming, pounding on a piano, and backwards tape…Gary was one of the first guys to take two eight-track machines side-by-side and synchronize the tape to go out of one into another to get sixteen tracks out of it. It was pretty clever…He was a fun guy to work with. I really enjoyed him.”
The End of the Era: As I mentioned, there’s no explanation of how and why Clarke left, but there’s a hint in one of the captions of a photo from late 1967, after Crosby had been fired. Next to a photo of the trio playing at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, Hillman comments, “You don’t see many photos of us playing as a three-piece, but we hacked it out and we did it. It was a little hard. Mike was thinking, ‘I’m getting out of here.’”
I’ll be teaching a course on the prime (pre-1984) of David Bowie for the first time starting mid-October, and spent a lot of time preparing the material during the summer. As I got my class together, I’ve heard and seen a lot more David Bowie than I have for a while.
There’s been a lot written about David Bowie. Still, there are a few aspects of his work that aren’t discussed much. Like I did when I offered a Doors course a few years ago, and when I offered a Pink Floyd course starting just a month ago, I’m going over some of them with this blogpost.
1 .David Bowie as cover artist. In his first couple decades, almost all of Bowie’s records featured original material, his 1973 all-covers Pin Ups album being a notable exception. But he’s often dotted his discography with cover versions. Indeed his very first single as singer with the King Bees, “Liza Jane”/ “Louie Louie Go Home,” had two non-originals, the first being a sub-early Rolling Stones-style adaptation of a bluesy spiritual (credited to his manager of the time, Leslie Conn), the B-side being a rather obscure “answer” record to “Louie Louie” by Paul Revere & the Raiders. The A-side of his second single was a Bobby “Blue” Bland cover (“I Pity the Fool”), though afterward the emphasis was very much on his original compositions.
Again with the exception of Pin Ups‑devoted solely to mid-‘60s British rock classics—his choice of covers over these two decades was, like much of his career in general, enigmatic, unpredictable, and quirky. There were (even not counting Pin Ups) covers of some famous songs by the most famous artists. There were obscure songs by obscure artists. There were songs that hadn’t even been recorded by anyone else. There were non-rock numbers. There was a ‘50s rock’n’roll classic, a Brecht-Weill classic, English rewrites of Jacques Brel songs, and a movie theme. On unreleased outtakes, BBC broadcasts, and a filmed live concert, he managed to fit in covers of two songs by one of his biggest influences, the Velvet Underground.
In my view, however—unlike the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, both of whom he covered, and not on B-sides or bootlegs, but on two very popular LPs—Bowie wasn’t such a good cover artist. Take those Beatles and Rolling Stones songs—“Across the Universe” on Young Americans, and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” on Aladdin Sane. They don’t add particularly interesting twists to, and are in fact quite inferior to, the originals. His interpretations of “White Light/White Heat” (on the BBC in 1972 and in the film of his July 3, 1973 “retirement” concert, Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture) and “I’m Waiting for the Man” (on the BBC in 1972, and back in 1967 as an outtake backed by the Riot Squad) are appropriate sort of tributes to his admiration for Lou Reed. But they’re pretty routine and average as musical performances.
Although some of the public disagreed—the album did make #1 in the UK and do okay in the US—I’d say the same of Pin Ups as a whole. While I might find the LP unnecessary, I acknowledge something it did do was bring attention to a few songs (and groups) that were hits in the UK, but not in the US. Those include the Merseys’ “Sorrow,” a #3 hit in Bowie’s remake in the UK (and actually first done by the McCoys, though the Merseys had the big UK hit with a 1966 cover); “Rosalyn” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” by the Pretty Things, the best British ‘60s band not to make it in the US; and the Mojos’ “Everything’s Alright,” the last big mid-‘60s rock hit (again, only in the UK) by a Liverpool group new to the hit parade. Presumably publishing royalties were a help to some of the writers of these songs, particularly Syd Barrett, who had been out of the music business for a few years and was well into his downward mental spiral by the time Bowie put Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play” on Pin Ups.
Most other Bowie covers don’t grab me either. These include quaint American singer-songwriter Biff Rose’s “Fill My Heart” (on Hunky Dory; he also did Rose’s “Buzz the Fuzz” in 1970 on the BBC); Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” considered for Ziggy Stardust but ultimately used as a B-side, and less interesting than the Rolling Stones’ dynamic 1964 cover of the same song; and, perhaps least predictably of all, the 1957 movie theme (and a hit for Johnny Mathis) “Wild Is the Wind,” done better by the legend who did the version that inspired Bowie’s, Nina Simone. There’s also his live cover of the ‘60s soul hit “Knock on Wood,” and his weird version of “Foot Stomping” (a 1961 early soul-rock hit by the Flares) on the Dick Cavett Show in 1974, which he did in concert as part of a medley with the popular standard “I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate.” And there was his take on Brecht-Weill’s “Alabama Song” on a 1980 single, which isn’t nearly as memorable as the Doors’ version on their 1967 debut album.
Bowie also did a few covers that weren’t officially released until quite a few years later. Continuing the thread of his hard-to-pin-down cover tastes, he did versions of Bruce Springsteen’s “It’s So Hard to Be a Saint in the City” and “Growin’ Up” before Springsteen was a superstar, though Bowie’s variations are neither suited to his style or in the same league as the Springsteen originals. And there were songs he did live in the late 1960s as part of a duo (with John Hutchinson on backup vocals and second guitar) that never made it to circulating tape, like Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s “Goin’ Back” (recorded in the late ‘60s by the Byrds and Dusty Springfield) and, most unlikely of all, “The Prince’s Panties,” from the 1968 album Phonograph Record by Mason Williams of “Classical Gas” fame.
If you put together a mix tape of the original versions of the songs on Pin Ups, it would make total stylistic sense and sound great. If you put together a mix tape of everything else Bowie covered, it would sound kind of crazy, or at least like a mix tape put together by polling a dozen listeners, not just one. I’ve made my opinion known that I don’t think he was a great cover artist. But did he do any good covers (or at least ones I like)?
Yes. “It Ain’t Easy” somehow got onto the otherwise all-original Ziggy Stardust, credited to “Davies.” I admit when I first came across it, I assumed it was by Ray Davies. At least one other friend with a very deep record collection did too. But I’m not as familiar with the post-‘60s Kinks as the ‘60s Kinks; otherwise I would have known the Kinks didn’t have a song of that title. It’s actually by obscure American singer-songwriter Ron Davies, and appeared on his equally obscure 1970 LP Silent Song Through the Land. Bowie never made as much of his record collection as someone like Frank Zappa did, but obviously he was open to a lot of sounds to even become aware of people like Davies and Biff Rose, which must have been yet harder to do in the UK than the US (which Bowie didn’t visit until 1971).
Not everyone likes “It Ain’t Easy.” In his fine book The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie and the 1970s (which goes through every song he recorded through 1980), for instance, Peter Doggett writes that Bowie “doomed his performance by assuming a strangulated vocal tone that was, presumably, meant to sound both southern and intense, without achieving either aim.” I wouldn’t rank it as a highlight of Ziggy Stardust, but it fits in okay, and has a very catchy chorus—one reason I thought it might have been written by Ray Davies. There’s also a decent BBC version (from June 1971, predating Ziggy’s 1972 release by quite a bit) on Bowie at the Beeb, if you want something a bit different.
Far less widely heard than “It Ain’t Easy” are a couple covers on the unplugged demos Bowie and Hutchinson did for Mercury Records around spring 1969. After circulating for bootlegs for years, they were finally officially released a few years ago, most notably as part of the box set of late-‘60s recordings titled Conversation Piece. The Mercury demos are all well worth hearing in any case, and if more for early Bowie originals than the two covers, those two songs are performed well.
One is somewhat well known, but not by Bowie. That’s “Love Song,” written by British singer-songwriter Lesley Duncan, who Bowie referred to as being an on-off girlfriend who wouldn’t stop playing Scott Walker records. “Love Song” is her most well known composition, but not because of her own version (issued on a 1969 single). It’s far more familiar—indeed, for almost all of the public, only familiar—as part of Elton John’s 1970 hit album Tumbleweed Connection. Bowie and Hutchinson do a very nice acoustic version, harmonizing on the chorus. It might not be appropriate to call this a Bowie recording, since Hutchinson takes the lead vocal—the only one he sang on the tracks the pair cut together.
The other Mercury demo Bowie didn’t write was about the most obscure cover he ever did—which, considering how obscure some of the others were, is really saying something. “Life Is a Circus” somehow came his way from the British group Djinn, who didn’t even put out any records. It was written by Roger Bunn—not a household name, but known to some as a very early member of Roxy Music, though he was gone by the time they started making records. (He also had a 1970 solo album, but the song isn’t even on there.) “Life Is a Circus” is a very nice haunting, minor-keyed folk tune, again with affecting Bowie-Hutchinson harmonies, perhaps showing some of the Simon and Garfunkel sound Bowie’s sometimes been reported to have briefly aspired to at this point.
There was one major singer-songwriter who Bowie interpreted very sell, though he might not be quite as well known to rock audiences as the likes of Springsteen and the Stones. That was Belgian Jacques Brel, who wrote songs with a European theatrical flair that fell outside of rock. His songs became well known to English-speaking audiences when American songwriter Mort Shuman (who’d penned quite a few early rock hits with Doc Pomus) translated some of Brel’s French originals into English. One of Bowie’s key early influences, Scott Walker, did quite a few Brel songs, including a couple Bowie performed in the early 1970s, “Amsterdam” and “My Death.”
“Amsterdam” made it onto a 1973 Bowie B-side, and a 1970 BBC version is on Bowie at the Beeb. He also did “My Death” onstage in the Ziggy era, and live versions are on both Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture and LiveSanta Monica ’72. Bowie does both songs with forceful, dramatic confidence, and it’s easy to hear how such Brel tunes might have influenced some of his more overtly theatrical compositions of the time, like “Time.” Doing a whole LP of Brel songs in 1973 might have made for a better album than Pin Ups, if definitely a less commercial one.
2. The missing broadcasts. Considering he only had one hit in the 1960s, and that one (“Space Oddity”) not until late 1969, there are a lot of Bowie recordings available from that decade. The same can’t be said of video footage. In fact, apart from a brief gimmicky TV interview from late 1964 where he talks about a (presumably short-lived) society he and his band the Manish Boys have formed for long-haired men, there’s nothing music-related on film of Bowie predating 1969.
You could also count a little seen 1968 short film in which he had a silent acting sole (The Image), and super brief appearances in a late-‘60s feature movie (The Virgin Soldiers) and ice cream commercial, but those had no links to his musical career. If then-manager Kenneth Pitt hadn’t arranged for a half-hour promo film of sorts to be made around Bowie in 1969, Love You Till Tuesday, there would be dramatically less pre-1970 footage at all. That film wasn’t very good or successful in getting Bowie the attention Pitt intended, but its survival at least ensures he’s on screen miming to a few of his early songs (sometimes with John Hutchinson and then-girlfriend Hermione Farthingale), including an early version of “Space Oddity.”
Yet Bowie did sing with early bands he fronted on TV, and more than once, in the mid-1960s. As dismal as sales of his 1964 debut single “Liza Jane” were, he managed to perform them with the King Bees on Ready Steady Go—the top British pop music program of the mid-1960s, and indeed one of the best such programs of any time—as well as the lesser known Beat Room. He also did his fourth single, “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” in March 1966 with the Buzz on Ready Steady Go, and his second single, “I Pity the Fool,” in March 1965 on Gadzooks! It’s All Happening.
These weren’t even the best of the half dozen singles he did before signing with Deram for an album and a few 45s in late 1966. But it would still be interesting to see him at such a young stage. Sadly, many British TV programs from this era—in a cost-saving move unimaginable considering how much they could have paid the initial cost back in the future, financially and culturally—were erased so the tape could be used again.
That’s even true of Ready Steady Go. Some episodes (particularly ones including groups already recognized to have huge commercial and historical value, like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Who) survive. Most of them don’t. Bowie didn’t have a hit record then, and he was probably never considered for preservation.
There were also 1967-1969 performances of material from his Deram sides, including “Love You Till Tuesday,” “Did You Ever Have a Dream,” and “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” on Dutch and German TV that probably don’t survive. Frustratingly, a live color clip of him doing “The Supermen” live with the Hype is not only very short, but partially overlaid with some narration from Tony Visconti. Could there be more from the Hype filmed on this occasion, or at least more of “The Supermen”?
Of possibly more interest—especially because some or all of the few missing mid-‘60s clips would have been mimed, not live, and not even to the best of Bowie’s pre-Deram songs— some other unreleased recordings from the time are known to exist. That includes some more demos with producer Shel Talmy than the five that came out on the Early On (1964-1966) compilation and the unreleased 35-minute song cycle about a suicide party (sic) by a character named Ernie Johnson that was recorded in spring 1968. A fragment of one of the Talmy demos, “I Want Your Love” (not a Bowie composition, and done by the Pretty Things on their second album), has circulated online; the Ernie Johnson song cycle is detailed at length in Peter Doggett’s The Man Who Sold the World book.
3. “The London Boys.” Buried on the non-LP B-side of a single from late 1966 that sold barely anything, “The London Boys” was aptly described by Roy Carr and Charles Shaar Murray in Bowie: An Illustrated Record as “probably the most moving and pertinent work that Bowie produced prior to prior to ‘Space Oddity.’” It hasn’t been hard to get since first getting reissued in 1970, but still isn’t extremely widely known, though in fairness that can be said of everything Bowie did before “Space Oddity.”
Bowie was famously, and in the eyes of some notoriously, cagey about revealing much of himself in his songs, or at least in discussing exactly how much in his songs was autobiographical. It seems likely, however, that at least part of “The London Boys” comes from personal experience. Unlike almost any other mid-’60s British pop record, it documents the morning-after comedown side of the mod experience, not the exhilarating amphetamined highs. While the oft-flatulent orchestration of Bowie’s Deram sides usually worked against him, here it—maybe inadvertently—complements the lyrics of a struggling mod. The sad blurry horns soundtrack what sounds like the weary aftermath of a night of partying and pilling.
“The London Boys” might have been too much of a downer to stand a chance of charting in 1966. More mysterious, however, is its failure to get pushed more prominently by his record labels. He actually first recorded it (in a still non-circulating or lost version) in late 1965 when he was still being produced by Tony Hatch (of Petula Clark “Downtown” fame) at Pye Records.
Somehow it was passed over for release at the time, Bowie giving the explanation, “It goes down very well in the stage act, and lots of fans said I should have released it. But [Pye producer] Tony [Hatch] and I thought the words were a bit strong…we didn’t think the lyrics were quite up many people’s street.” Perhaps they and Pye Records also thought the direct reference to taking pills would have blocked possible airplay.
Presumably “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” Bowie’s first Pye single, was deemed more commercial. It was, but not extremely so, peaking at a mere #36 in Melody Maker (and not entering any other UK charts). It’s been reported that it was suspected it was bought into the Melody Maker charts with some payola. Bowie’s next two (and final) Pye singles were yet slighter. Wasn’t it worth taking a chance on “The London Boys,” even as a B-side? Which of course Deram did in late 1966, but as the B-side of the vastly inferior “Rubber Band,” one of Bowie’s most blatant (and embarrassing) sub-Anthony Newley vaudevillian pop efforts.
4. The “real” David Bowie (or David Jones). Bowie’s often been characterized by, and lauded for, unpredictably changing styles, images, and even to some degree his personality, musical and public. This in turn has frustrated some critics who feel like it’s hard to figure out who the “real” Bowie is, or even suspect there isn’t a “real” Bowie, that he’s superficial gloss. At least in his music, which is often about other characters, or assuming a character, most famously Ziggy Stardust and then in his “Thin White Duke” phase.
There have been some apparent autobiographical elements in his songs, however. As noted in the above entry, “The London Boys” seems likely rooted in some personal experience as a mod in his late teens struggling to get a foothold in the music business. Even “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” as relatively slight as it is, seems to have some reflective doubt that comes out of adolescent confusion and at least one love affair. Years later on Hunky Dory, “The Bewlay Brothers” seemed, if only in its title, to refer to him and his half-brother Terry, who spent much of his life struggling with mental illness.
I’ve written this a few times before, but it seems to me that his brief “Simon and Garfunkel” phase as part of a duo with John Hutchinson might be the closest he came to singing as himself, not as a character or someone trying to elude being pigeonholed. The ten-song acoustic Mercury Records demo he did with Hutchinson in early 1969 seems like Bowie at his most sincerely personal, in part because the music (and not just the lyrics) is so unadorned and direct.
“Letter to Hermione” (titled “I’m Not Quite” on the demos) doesn’t even make any bones about who it’s addressed to, or change the name of the girlfriend he’d just broken up with (also a bandmate of his and Hutchinson’s in the short lived trio Feathers), Hermione Farthingale. “An Occasional Dream” also seems very specifically about his and Farthingale’s relationship, and though “Janine” was actually about the girlfriend of his good friend George Underwood, it has the knowing detail of something from real life. “Conversation Piece” is more abstract, but also seems to have a thoughtful and at times joyful spirit not filtered by self-conscious aspiration toward making oblique art. On the other hand, the most striking song from the demos, “Space Oddity,” is very much about an invented character and situation, and very effectively so.
Here’s what Hutchinson himself told me in a 2014 interview: “Yes, I would say, in those days he was just himself. David Jones and David Bowie were the same person. Whereas when Ziggy happened, it got a lot more complicated, and he was singing as somebody else. He was third person or removed, or whatever it is. He’d written songs for this alter ego or other person to sing. He could sing whatever he wanted them to, he could write whatever he wanted them to say, and maybe it wasn’t sincerity from him. But I don’t think he had a lot of that going anyway. I think it was all performance.”
“When you say you ‘don’t think he had a lot of that going,’ are you referring to the singer-songwriter approach?” I asked.
“Yeah, I don’t think he had very much of that going at all. He was playing a part, and writing his stories, as the character that he’d created. So I’m agreeing with you, I suppose, that he was much more honest during those ‘Space Oddity’ days, if you like, the acoustic days. I think he was totally honest then, and it’s just that the way that he wrote and performed changed when he realized he could invent a persona. You know, David Bowie was just a stage name. But Ziggy Stardust was a character.
5. ”The odd release history and reception of The Man Who Sold the World. Bowie’s third album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World, is both his most underrated and the first where he really found a strong, consistent, and distinctive sound and approach with top-notch material throughout the record. It didn’t sell very much, however, despite attracting some rave reviews even at the time. Why?
A few reasons can be speculated. There wasn’t a song as obviously catchy and hit material as “Space Oddity,” or for that matter, “Changes” from his next album, Hunky Dory. “Changes” was only a low-charting single in the US when it was released, but became something of a hit by virtue of heavy rotation on FM radio over the years. Nothing from The Man Who Sold the World got such airplay, to my knowledge, at least in the commercial sector.
Bowie also performed surprisingly little in the year or so after its release. Even when he visited the US for the first time in early 1971, he was limited to doing promotional interviews and activities in a few cities, and didn’t do any official concerts. He’d tour heavily for a year and a half or so soon in his Ziggy period, but that might not have helped boost back catalog sales of The Man Who Sold the World too much, since he featured little of its material in his Ziggy-era concerts.
A more subtle factor was its strange release history. The album came out near the end of 1970 in the US, where “Space Oddity” hadn’t been a hit, and Bowie was still nearly unknown, despite starting to build an underground following. In his native UK, where “Space Oddity” had been a hit, the record didn’t come out until April 1971, nearly six months later. How did that happen?
The answer isn’t entirely clear even in the best Bowie biographies, but it might have been due to him—unusually for a British artist at the time—being signed directly to an American label (Mercury), not a UK one. Mercury, for whatever reason, might have felt that the album, or Bowie himself, stood a better chance of selling well in the US than in his homeland.
Famously or infamously, there was also controversy over the cover. The US, and thus first, one had an enigmatic cartoon with a caricature of John Wayne and a wordless speech bubble. The subsequent, yet more controversial, UK one pictured Bowie in a full-length dress—outrageous for a male recording artist in 1971. Yet if Mercury was hoping the US was where Bowie would be break, they were disappointed. According to Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, it sold just 1395 copies in the US through June 1971, about half a year after it came out.
Despite that low sales tally, there are indications that where the album was heard in the US early on, it picked up some very avid fans. During that visit, he was able to do interviews on popular FM radio stations in Boston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Here’s an anecdotal testimony to early Bowie adapters: as a college student in the early 1980s, I was a DJ on a Philadelphia-area college radio station with a big vinyl LP library. It still had the original 1970 edition of the album. The back cover was itself nearly covered with enthusiastic handwritten rave comments from station DJs—not over the past dozen years, but at the time it was released. Very few albums in the station’s collection (which held tens of thousands of LPs) were blanketed with such handwritten praise, even some very famous hit and cult ones.
Too, the record attracted a rave review in Cashbox, the biggest American music business magazine besides Billboard. Wrote an anonymous reviewer in the publication’s December 26, 1970 edition, “David is a huge talent. His writing is unique in all of music and part of his recognition problem stems from the fact that he is way ahead of mainstream rock… If you feel you might like to get in on someone now who others will be shouting about next year, pick this up…every track trembles with excitement and musical expertise.”
Cashbox (and Billboard) usually reviewed albums with bland enthusiasm. Although only one paragraph in length, this review has a lot more fervor than was customary for a Cashbox reviewer. Here’s guessing a young staffer who got hip to Bowie and the album way ahead of most Americans made a determined effort to slip in a much more passionate recommendation than usual, maybe even taking advantage of a short-staffed Christmas-period week or two to get it into print. Less surprisingly, the album was also reviewed well in Rolling Stone, where it was hailed as “uniformly excellent” and “an experience that is as intriguing as it is chilling.”
The Man Who Sold the World eventually had its day, if not as bright as Ziggy Stardust or for that matter Hunky Dory. After Bowie broke as a star, it made #26 in the UK and #106 in the US—not too high, but a lot higher than missing the charts entirely, as it had first time around. But given how well it was received by at least some US press and radio back in early 1970, is it possible Mercury under-reported its sales through June 1971? It certainly seems like Mercury under-promoted the record worldwide, likely leading in part to Bowie signing with a different label, RCA, later in 1971, who threw much more weight behind publicizing the singer and getting his music heard.
6. Ken Scott. Of the producers Bowie worked with, Ken Scott hasn’t gotten ignored by biographers. But he hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the one Bowie worked with the most and most closely, Tony Visconti. There are good reasons for that. Visconti worked on quite a few Bowie records, from 1968 until Bowie’s death nearly half a century later. Unlike Scott, he played instruments on some Bowie records, most notably bass on The Man Who Sold the World. He was also generally a much closer friend to Bowie than Scott was, in part because Scott’s time with Bowie was relatively short.
But his time with Bowie was enormously significant. He co-produced (with Bowie) the singer’s most important albums in the journey from cultdom to stardom: Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust, and Aladdin Sane. He also co-produced Pin Ups, which wasn’t nearly as notable, but was a big seller. It’s likely Scott wouldn’t have replaced Visconti for these years if Visconti wasn’t wary of Bowie’s manager of the time, Tony Defries, with whom the producing Tony didn’t get along. Yet it’s hard to imagine Visconti, or anyone, doing a better job than Scott did.
Scott’s side of the story is well told in his book Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust (co-written with Bobby Owsinski), which also discusses his time engineering on late-‘60s Beatles sessions and producing other artists. Here are two of my favorite of Scott’s observations. As he admits in the section on Bowie, he initially viewed Hunky Dory as a chance to make the move from engineering to production in a low-key way with a low-profile artist where any failure on his part wouldn’t be noticed. He quickly realized that wouldn’t be the case—as he writes, “As we were going through the material it suddenly hit me. ‘Hang on, this guy is really fucking good. He could be a lot bigger than I expected and this album might actually be something that a lot of people will listen to. Crap.’ Here it was again. Trial by fire.”
Scott also hails Bowie’s efficiency in the studio, noting that “95% of his vocals on Ziggy and every other album I recorded with him were done in a single take.” That might not sound like such a big deal, but even half a century ago, it was hardly a given that anyone did their vocals in one take, especially as recording generally got more sophisticated and prolonged.
7. Bowie as benefactor. Bowie isn’t usually noted as an especially generous celebrity. Indeed, often biographers have portrayed him as pretty self-interested at various points in his career. But in the early 1970s, before he was an established superstar, he helped a few people out who really needed it, at a time when he was barely past the point of really needing it himself. At the time, it wouldn’t have seemed to many people that there was much in it for Bowie to be producing and writing for the people he did.
Yet he did help out a few major acts. He likely not only kept Mott the Hoople from breaking up by producing their All the Young Dudes album. He also wrote and produced their biggest hit, “All the Young Dudes,” at a time when he could have used a hit himself—his second big UK hit, “Starman,” wasn’t even in the charts yet (though it would enter them very soon). A little later in mid-1972, he co-produced (with Mick Ronson) Lou Reed’s Transformer, helping give one of his prime heroes his first hit LP and (with “Walk on the Wild Side”) biggest hit single. By many accounts, Reed wasn’t the easiest guy to get along with or work with, which makes Bowie’s advocacy all the more admirable.
Speaking of guys who weren’t always easy to work with, Bowie took a chance with Iggy Pop and the Stooges by helping him get to be part of the MainMan organization then looking after Bowie’s affairs. He also helped mix the Stooges’ 1973 album Raw Power, though accounts vary as to whether that was necessary or an improvement. Four years later, well after he’d cut his ties with MainMan, Bowie continued to help a down-and-out Iggy by producing, and co-writing much of the material on, Pop’s two 1977 solo albums. He even toured with Pop’s band at the time on keyboards, again when there seemed little for him to materially gain from the association, though he would get payback of a sort when he made one of the songs from the Pop 1977 albums, “China Girl,” a big hit in 1983.
Bowie also helped Dana Gillespie, a girlfriend of his back in the mid-1960s, get on the MainMan roster and did a little production for her, most notably on a cover of “Andy Warhol.” And he, most unexpectedly, produced a hit single for Lulu in 1974, “The Man Who Sold the World”/ “Watch That Man,” at a time she’d been off the charts for four years.
It could be argued that Bowie getting Mott, Pop, and Gillespie with MainMan was a mixed blessing, given manager Tony Defries’s mixed reputation and Bowie’s own break with Defries in 1974. In her recent memoir, Gillespie writes that litigation with MainMan meant she was unable to record for a few years. Nonetheless, her assessment of Defries is generous; she notes she never would have gotten to experience the highs of the glam era without him, and wouldn’t give up those years for anything.
8. The breakup of the Spiders from Mars. The Spiders from Mars are by far Bowie’s famous backup musicians, yet the full trio of Spiders only worked with him for about a couple years. Their famous “retirement” at the July 3, 1973 London concert filmed for Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture pulled the plug on them unexpectedly. It’s sometimes forgotten that two of the Spiders did play with Bowie a bit longer, with guitarist Mick Ronson and bassist Trevor Bolder playing on Pin Ups and at the 1980 Floor Show TV special filmed in London’s Marquee in late 1973, with Aynsley Dunbar replacing Woody Woodmansey on drums. Still, the Spiders were out of a job much sooner than they seem to have expected.
The reasons for this, as they are for a few other things discussed in this post, aren’t entirely clear. There seems to be a combination of factors: Bowie’s genuine desire to move on to a different style and different musicians; increased discontent from the Spiders at their relatively low wages, especially after they learned new keyboardist Mike Garson would be making a lot more; and a wishful-thinking plan/hope by Tony Defries that Mick Ronson could be a solo star (Ronson wasn’t), and growing tension between the Spiders and Defries.
Back to my 2014 interview with John Hutchinson for another viewpoint on why the Spiders finished with Bowie’s premature “retirement”: “It was just that they knew they weren’t selling tickets, and the money supply was gonna be cut off from RCA, basically.” Hutchinson wasn’t a Spider, but he played with them and Bowie on tour in 1973 as an extra 12-string guitarist. Bowie’s onstage retirement announcement was a surprise to him, as it was to Woodmansey and Bolder. Hutchinson was out of a job immediately, driving back to the north of England without a job or a place to live, owning only his car, guitar, and a suitcase.
“It looked to me like he was ready to take a break,” Hutchinson added. “I mean, I do remember on the UK tour, that everybody was getting pretty bored with it all. The same stuff had been performed every night pretty much in the same way. He must have been ready for a break in a financial sense, business sense, emotional, physical. I guess that’s why he retired. All those things. Rather than putting his band on hold. I think the Spiders were sort of likely to be sort of folded up anyway, that’s the way it was looking. That what he and Mick really wanted was a nine-piece band.”
Here’s a viewpoint of mine that I don’t see come up too often. While a split might have been inevitable, it’s unfortunate Bowie didn’t stay with the Spiders from Mars for at least one more studio album of original material. It seems like they could have handled Diamond Dogs, or at least much of Diamond Dogs. To draw a rough analogy, it’s kind of like how I feel Janis Joplin should have stayed with Big Brother and the Holding Company for at least one more album before working with other bands.
9. Bowie as actor. Bowie’s acting debut in a feature length film, 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, was impressive. The film itself was very impressive. However, there might be some weight to some critics’ observation that Bowie was playing a character not unlike himself. Or, at least, not unlike his mid-‘70s image, down to the wardrobe and dyed red hair. Mick Jagger got some similar criticism for his starring role in Performance, a late-‘60s cult film co-directed by Nicolas Roeg, the sole director of The Man Who Fell to Earth.
I haven’t seen all of Bowie’s subsequent films, but I don’t think he ever did as well as The Man Who Fell to Earth as an actor, or ever got another movie or role as good. These include parts in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, Absolute Beginners, The Hunger, and The Last Temptation of Christ. Some parts were substantial, some were rather minor supporting roles or even brief. The Linguini Incident was embarrassing in all respects.
It’s a little puzzling to me that he never got another starring film role in which he was as much the star as in The Man Who Fell to Earth. In part that’s because in 1980, he received considerable critical acclaim for his starring role in a Broadway production of The Elephant Man. As some biographers have noted, this was especially impressive given that theater critics would not be nearly as likely to be impressed by his rock star credentials as some film critics and many moviegoers, or likely to cut him slack because acting wasn’t his principal profession.
He didn’t star in David Lynch’s film version of The Elephant Man, which was probably for the best. John Hurt did a spectacular job in that role, and it’s unknown whether Bowie was up to the demands of playing the elephant man in heavy makeup that would have made him unrecognizable (unlike in the Broadway production, where he wasn’t required to be made up in that way). Why didn’t he get another respectable starring role or two in the cinema? Maybe it was just down to not getting the right film/director/offer pitched to him.
And here are a couple notes about footnotes in his career:
1.“Young Americans” on The Dick Cavett Show. When Bowie performed on The Dick Cavett Show in November 1974, he previewed the title track (and hit single) off his upcoming Young Americans album. Near the end of the studio recording, there’s a point where the instruments drop off and he slows down the lyric, singing “break down and cry” in about the highest voice he mustered. On The Dick Cavett Show, he doesn’t even try to hit those high notes, singing much lower ones.
His Dick Cavett Show appearance is usually discussed in terms of how strange he looked and acted, sniffling during the interview and looking so gaunt it seemed like he weighed less than a hundred pounds. That’s led to speculation that he was high on cocaine. Whether or not that’s so, or to what extent it’s so, one wonders whether less-than-optimal condition affected his ability to hit those high notes, or whether he thought he couldn’t in his condition.
One more note about this appearance: he sang “Young Americans” on national TV for an episode broadcast in early December 1974 (I’ve seen both the dates of December 4 and December 5 reported). That’s a good two and a half months before “Young Americans” was first released (on a single, a little before the Young Americans album). These days, such advance exposure of a new song/single would likely not just be rare, but considered by many in the business to be downright damaging. It would also be considered unwise, or even foolish, to spend precious network time presenting a song that was unavailable for purchase. But those were the days when industry policing of such things was far less restrictive, and we were all the better for it.
2. Is that David Bowie on “Penny Lane”? Not on the hit Beatles recording, of course, but on a soundalike version that came out on the UK budget LP Hits of ’67, devoted to recreating the sounds of big hits at a much lower price. And at a much lower quality – some of those soundalikes didn’t sound exactly like their prototypes. The version of “Penny Lane” has an anonymous singer who sounds so much like Bowie that when I played it many years ago for someone, she instantly said, “That’s Bowie.” And though at least one writer I’ve read dismissed such a guess as ridiculous, really more people than not think it certainly sounds like Bowie, and enough to possibly be a young Bowie picking up a few pounds as a session singer. Other vocalists who’d later become well known picked up some money on soundalike budget discs, most famously Elton John, who did enough such sessions that there’s a whole CD of his soundalikes.
The ”Penny Lane”-Bowie rumor picked up steam when the track was officially issued on the 2001 CD compilation Hot Hits on 45, though it had already done the rounds on Bowie bootlegs for quite some time before that. In January 2013, however, Record Collector magazine clarified that it wasn’t Bowie, but in fact a session singer named Tony Steven. The uncanny similarity wasn’t, of course, Steven imitating a then-nearly-unknown Bowie, but more a matter of both of them being influenced by Anthony Newley.
I’ll be teaching a course on Pink Floyd for the first time in late August, and spent a lot of time preparing the material over the last few weeks. As I got my class together, I’ve heard and seen a lot more Pink Floyd than I have for a while.
There’s been a lot written about Pink Floyd. Still, there are a few aspects of their work that aren’t discussed much. Like I did when I offered a Doors course a few years ago, I’m going over about a half dozen of them with this blogpost.
1. The musical demise of Syd Barrett. As much as there’s been about Pink Floyd the group, there’s much that’s been written and speculated just about Syd Barrett, although he made just one album and a few singles with them as their original leader. It’s widely known that he made some abortive attempts at doing some recording in 1974, about four years after his second and last solo LP. Some material from those sessions has long been bootlegged.
I didn’t realize, however, until viewing the 2012 documentary Pink Floyd: The Story of Wish You Were Here that a few scraps are heard in that film, marking the only officially available extracts. If Barrett’s solo albums were something like, to paraphrase Pink Floyd biographer Nicholas Schaffner, like much of the method had gone out of his madness, the 1974 sessions are like hearing a brain that’s almost closed down. There’s some personality fighting to get out of these instrumental bits and pieces, but it’s almost like it’s seeping out from some of the few empty bricks in a wall, to use a description Roger Waters might appreciate.
One wonders if the sessions were a last-ditch attempt to get Barrett involved in something positive and creative again, a last-ditch attempt to exploit whatever commercial value might be left in a recording by the original Pink Floyd leader in the wake of The Dark Side of the Moon, or something in between. Whatever the case, it couldn’t have been a pleasant exercise for anyone involved.
Considering Pink Floyd’s post-Barrett success—not just with Dark Side of the Moon, but really starting right away with the UK Top Ten success of their second (and first post-Barrett, for the most part) LP, A Saucerful of Secrets—one wonders whether he would have continued to dominate the group as much as he did on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, even had he remained mentally healthy. Even before Syd’s departure, Waters and Rick Wright were writing some LP tracks and B-sides that, if not among the best of the group’s work, were certainly respectable. One can only speculate that perhaps Waters and Wright would have written a significant and growing share of the songs as time went on, even if Barrett continued to pen the majority of the compositions. It’s a what-if that will never be known.
2. David Gilmour before Pink Floyd. Unfortunately there’s little recorded evidence of David Gilmour’s music before he joined Pink Floyd around the end of 1967, and what’s circulated isn’t very impressive. He was the group Joker’s Wild, and five unreleased tracks they’ve recorded have been heard. They’re all cover versions; there’s not even much guitar on most of them; and if Gilmour’s singing, it’s not easily detectable. It’s the kind of thing a semi-pro band might give to prospective promoters as evidence that they could replicate some hits and songs by famous acts live.
It’s not at all like Pink Floyd either, and in fact doesn’t have much personality whatsoever. There are faithful covers of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” but actually as done by the Beach Boys, not the original hit arrangement by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers; the Four Seasons’ “Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”; Manfred Mann’s bluesy “Don’t Ask Me What I Say,” written by their original singer Paul Jones, which at least was a pretty deep LP track that took some digging to find; and Chuck Berry’s “Beautiful Delilah,” not one of his more renowned numbers, though the Kinks covered it their first album and the Rolling Stones did it on the BBC. On “Beautiful Delilah,” Gilmour (presuming he’s the lead guitarist) finally peels off a solo, but it’s a routine competent one of the sort heard on tons of recordings by generic mid-‘60s British R&B/rock bands.
It’s sometimes speculated Gilmour got into Pink Floyd mostly because he was a friend of the group with (like Barrett and Waters) roots in Cambridge, and the Joker’s Wild demos would lend ammunition to that theory. I would think, however, that Gilmour must have improved a lot between the time of these demos and joining Pink Floyd, and/or that the demos simply don’t represent his talents well, since he quickly proved himself a good and distinctive guitarist, and a significantly talented singer and songwriter, after replacing Barrett. He might have been told “play like Syd Barrett” when he first joined the Floyd (augmenting the Barrett lineup for just a few weeks before Syd was gone for good), but he was sounding like himself soon enough. And at least some of that must have been cultivated before 1968.
3. Musical “voices” in Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd don’t have a reputation as a particularly exciting live act, or at least one that projected a lot of personality onstage. Fortunately there’s a surprising amount of footage of the group from 1967-1973, much of it on the box set The Early Years 1965 to 1972. They were a little more animated onstage than legend sometimes has it, and not just in the early Syd Barrett/psychedelic days. Certainly the most animated member was Roger Waters, especially in the clips (there are several) of “Careful With That Axe, Eugene,” where he screams and gesticulates with genuine menace.
As a launching point for a general observation, Pink Floyd, and usually Waters, used non-musical mouth voices more frequently and with more imagination than is usually acknowledged in literature about the band. These actually date back to the Syd Barrett era, and weren’t only done by Waters. On Piper at the Gates of Dawn, “Pow R. Toc. H” is almost hard to classify as an instrumental, despite the absence of words, since it’s full of vocal noises, almost like they’re communicating without language in the jungle. The 1967 clip of them doing an unfortunately very brief extract on the BBC has Barrett making the vocal percussive noises at the start. On most of the studio track, other effects are featured that almost sound like demonic birdcalls. And then there are the unforgettable interjections, best transcribed as “doy doy,” that intimate madness as much as anything Barrett was involved with.
4. Pink Floyd soundtracks—the movies. Pink Floyd had some of their music on soundtracks almost from the time they started. An early, hyper-fast version of “Interstellar Overdrive” from late 1966 was used as the soundtrack to Anthony Stern’s highly experimental, psychedelic fifteen-minute short “San Francisco” (the music came out on a limited edition Record Store Day release a few years ago). Only a little less obscurely, some instrumental pieces are heard in the hour-long 1968 British movie The Committee. They’re on the Early Years 1965-1972 box, and the film (starring ex-Manfred Mann singer Paul Jones, with a scene of Arthur Brown performing “Nightmare” at a party), came out on DVD.
More famously, and in some ways infamously, Pink Floyd soundtracked Barbet Schroeder’s movies More and Obscured By Clouds (aka La Vallée), which generated full-length Pink Floyd LPs in 1969 and 1972 respectively. It’s likely lots more people have heard the soundtrack LPs than seen the films, though both movies are on Early Years 1965-1972, and weren’t too hard to find on video before that. The music doesn’t comprise huge parts of those films, in which Pink Floyd don’t actually appear. But it’s used pretty effectively, if rather sparsely and subtly, and considerably less in Obscured By Clouds than in More.
I’d seen both More and La Vallée quite a few years ago, and watching them again recently confirmed my memory that they’re pretty lousy — as films, not the soundtracks. And not in a laughably bad B-movie or lower-grade movie way — in a boring way. More’s young junkie protagonists are pretty unlikable characters, and the German student lead is actually kind of loathsome in his chauvinistic selfish hedonism. The opening credits, over which Pink Floyd’s “More” theme song plays, is by far the best sequence, as Floyd’s music and the impressive cinematography are the focus. La Vallée’s French hippies in search of paradise in Papua New Guinea aren’t much less offputting than More‘s characters, and the last half hour or so in particular is turgid.
The films are unworthy of both Pink Floyd and cinematographer Nestor Almendros, who’d get much wider attention for his work on Kramer Vs. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice, and François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, among other far more famous movies. Here’s one blooper that’s escaped most viewers’ notice: in More’s opening credits, David Gilmour’s last name is misspelled as “Gilmore.” Or maybe they wanted the “mour” spelled the same way as the movie’s title?
Some Pink Floyd music is also heard in Michaelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point. Antonioni was an important filmmaker, and his movies Blow-Up (1967, with the Yardbirds playing one club scene with both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page in the lineup) and The Passenger (1975, starring Jack Nicholson) in particular are excellent. Which makes it all the more baffling that Zabriskie Point, filmed in English in Southern California, is so terrible. Part of this can be blamed on his decision to cast two amateurs rather than professional actors as the leads, but it goes beyond that. The story’s slim and uninteresting, the other acting is wooden, and much of the movie, like the Schroeder films, is just boring. And the lead guy’s decision to paint his stolen plane with silly psychedelic graphics and return it to the airport he took it from—where he gets shot by law enforcement officials—is daft even in the context of daft hippie-era movies.
Like a good number of flops by noted artists, Zabriskie Point has its revisionist champions. Only a month or so before this post, The New Yorker gave it a brief near-rave review in advance of a revival screening, hailing it as “a daring and flamboyant blend of fiction and documentary…By way of wide-screen images filled with the giddy illusions and gaudy forms of American advertising, architecture, and technology, [Antonioni] realizes his freest, wildest aesthetic adventure.” As with Bob Dylan’s Self Portrait, to name one of many examples I can cite, a revisionist rave doesn’t change my original opinion.
Pink Floyd’s contributions are fairly good, though, including their atypically good-time folk-country-rocker “Crumbling Land”; the ominous “Heart Beat, Pig Meat,” which plays over the opening credits (and, like the opening credit/theme sequence of More, has music that’s far more interesting than the onscreen action); and “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” (here titled “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up”), which plays as a house is seen exploding in the desert in slow motion from several angles.
As many Floyd fans know, and some general rock fans know, the original intention was for Pink Floyd to do the entire Zabriskie Point soundtrack. They didn’t have such a great time collaborating with Antonioni, however, and ultimately the soundtrack just used these three songs, augmented by some cuts by other acts, including the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Youngbloods, and John Fahey. Four unreleased Pink Floyd tracks from the sessions came out on an expanded two-CD version of the soundtrack, and lots more unreleased Floyd material intended for consideration for the soundtrack has circulated on bootleg.
Notable pieces that didn’t make the film include one that formed the melodic backbone of Dark Side of the Moon’s “Us and Them.” Another, likely intended for the surreal scene of couples making love in the desert, features the Floyd making snickering, sardonic jokes about devising a sort of sex soundtrack, including some blatant profanity that would have ensured it wouldn’t have been used, at least in a full unedited version.
Pink Floyd were considered for a soundtrack for a movie that would have been on the level of their musical contributions, Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. But Kubrick and the band didn’t agree on conditions for the music’s use. Nick Mason told a reader in Uncut in 2018 that it was “probably because he wouldn’t let us do anything for 2001…We’d have loved to have got involved with 2001–we thought it was exactly the sort of thing we should be doing the soundtrack for.” But 2001 was in production about three years before A Clockwork Orange, and Pink Floyd were far less famous then, so it seems unlikely Kubrick would have considered them for the earlier movie. In any case, 2001 or A Clockwork Orange both fared fine artistically without Pink Floyd music, though it’s interesting to speculate how 2001 might have been with Pink Floyd’s contributions.
In a way Pink Floyd, or certainly at least Roger Waters, got to soundtrack the film they wanted with The Wall, which in its way was as weirdly flawed and often hard to watch as More, La Vallée, and Zabriskie Point. After all that activity, the San Francisco short and the surreal The Committee—which isn’t great, but is certainly easier on the eye than the Schroeder/Antonioni efforts—might have been the best uses of Pink Floyd’s music in the movies. This doesn’t count Live at Pompeii, the early-‘70s concert documentary that, despite its own flaws, ably captures full live performances of early Pink Floyd standards.
5. The Dark Side of the Moon cover origins. The Dark Side of the Moon has one of the most famous covers in history. But part of its inspiration came from an unlikely mundane source. Look at the cover of the 1963 book The How and Why Wonder Book of Light and Color:
And, more notably, the graphics from a couple pages inside:
This reminds me of countless kid/young adult science books from the mid-twentieth century, and some Highlights-like magazines for kids that explained the world with colorful elementary graphics. This isn’t a hidden secret fanatical researchers discovered many years later for taking designers Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell to task. Powell acknowledges these sources in his recent book Through the Prism: Untold Rock Stories from the Hipgnosis Archive.
I didn’t realize how many books center on the work of Hipgnosis, who designed most of Pink Floyd’s covers, and many others, some of them quite famous. There are at least half a dozen. Alas, there’s a lot of repetition between them. Through the Prism is about the best for historical text, along with perhaps Vinyl, Album, Cover, Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue. That includes some obscurities along with the famous sleeves, including some that aren’t nearly as impressive as the ones they did for Pink Floyd. Like this one from the early ‘70s for the obscure British group Toe Fat, which Powell acknowledges in The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue was not one of their finer moments:
Urban legend has it that Toe Fat broke up, in part, because Hipgnosis wanted them to call their next album Toe Fu, and have a picture of a huge cube of tofu on the cover. To which Toe Fat retorted, “We’re not a bleedin’ health food store!” Well, it makes for a story, anyway, even if it’s not true.
Here are some more incidental side notes when you dig deep into the Pink Floyd saga:
1. The Purple Gang demos. By the 2020s, most bodies of intriguing unreleased work by top classic rock acts known to exist have been issued or are at least in unofficial circulation, whether the Beach Boys’ Smile or the Beatles’ Get Back sessions. One of the few such items that no one’s ever heard, outside of the creator and at least one record producer, is a tape of Syd Barrett demos from around early 1967. Here’s what Joe Boyd told me in a 1996 interview (I don’t have an exclusive, he’s told plenty of others too):
“One of the great sorrows in my collection is that I don’t have the demo tape that Syd gave me of six or eight songs that he hadn’t recorded. I was recording a band called the Purple Gang and we were looking for material, and Syd gave us this tape. There were some terrific songs, very different from [what he ended up putting on his solo albums]. Strong, melodic, good songs.”
The Purple Gang’s vaudevillian music was far from early Pink Floyd, or rock, and hasn’t dated well or gotten even a small cult following. It’s a little hard to see how Barrett’s songs, even if they might have been castoffs of sorts, could have fit into their repertoire, or their potential maximized by the Purple Gang. Still, if Boyd’s description has even some validity, they’d be fascinating to hear. And if they haven’t turned up yet 55 years later, it might be something of a miracle if they’re ever found, if they haven’t been destroyed, lost, or erased.
2. Medicine Head’s Dark Side of the Moon. It’s still not widely known—even by most of the tens of millions of fans who’ve bought The Dark Side of the Moon—that there was an LP with an almost identical title just a year earlier. And the artist wasn’t even that obscure, at least to UK audiences, though there are still barely any US listeners who’ve heard of them, let alone heard them. This is the British blues-folk-rock group Medicine Head, who actually achieved some significant commercial success in their homeland in the early 1970s.
Medicine Head had seven albums in the 1970s, and four British chart hit singles—“(And The) Pictures in the Sky” (1971, #22), “One and One Is One” (1973, #3), “Rising Sun” (1973, #11), and “Slip and Slide” (1974, #22). They had a connection to a much more famous group when ex-Yardbirds singer Keith Relf worked with them as a producer. Relf also joined the band on bass for a while, and is on their 1972 album Dark Side of the Moon. Not The Dark Side of the Moon—note the absence of the “The” at the beginning.
I’ve heard some though not all of Medicine Head’s records, and they’re not my thing at all. They have a rustic, at times almost skifflish sound, and not much in the way of memorable songs or to make them stand out much from many British blues or blues-influenced acts of the time. They don’t sound at all like Pink Floyd, even Pink Floyd at their bluesiest. But they did put out a record titled Dark Side of the Moon, and the year before Pink Floyd’s THE [capitals mine] Dark Side of the Moon.
I don’t know enough about the legal side of things to know if Medicine Head might have had grounds for taking legal action had Pink Floyd’s huge seller simply been titled Dark Side of the Moon. It did make it easier on Pink Floyd, however, that Medicine Head’s The Dark of the Moon didn’t sell well, clearing the path from much if any confusion with Pink Floyd’s 1973 album. Had Pink Floyd decided not to use that title for fear of overlap with Medicine Head’s record, it might have been called Eclipse, the title of the concluding track—not a bad title, but one that probably wouldn’t have served the group as well as The Dark Side of the Moon.
3. The Fresh Windows’ 1967 single “Fashion Conscious”—Syd Barrett under a pseudonym? Back in the very early days of compilations of obscure British psychedelic ‘60s flop nuggets—although it was already the early 1980s, well after the late ’60s—the key anthologies were the three-volume Chocolate Soup for Diabetics series. The first volume included a 1967 single by the Fresh Windows, “Fashion Conscious,” that was a quite good mod-psychedelic cut with biting humorous lyrics satirizing a trendy Carnaby Street-era girl. It’s not exactly like early Pink Floyd; it might be more like a slightly psychedelicized Kinks. But it has a playful yet seething vocal phrasing with some similarity to early Syd Barrett compositions, as well as a generally humorous yet penetrating aura that likewise can recall Barrett-era Floyd, if more slightly.
What really fueled speculation that the song might at least have been written by Barrett was the songwriting credit, “S. Barrett.” Could this have been a song Syd donated to another act, and could be maybe even have played or sung on the track?
There’s still not much known about the Fresh Windows, but it’s now known the answer is definitely “no.” The writer, singer, and lead guitarist was actually Brian Barrett, no relation to Syd. Some online posts speculate that the guy who put the unauthorized Chocolate Soup for Diabetics comp together deliberately and mischievously miscredited the composition to “S. Barrett” to generate such rumors.
Is there anything else by the Fresh Windows, considering the quality of “Fashion Conscious”? Just the other side of the single, “Summer Sun Shines.” And it’s not nearly as good.
British rock before the Beatles—before the October 5, 1962 release date of “Love Me Do,” if you want to be specific—is often dismissed as practically worthless. Certainly on the whole it was usually much wimpier than the British Invasion, and than the rock being produced since the early-to-mid-1950s in the music’s birthplace, the United States. In pre-Beatles times, it was also infrequently heard outside of the United Kingdom, with only one just-about-rock tune becoming sizable hit in the US.
British rock wasn’t entirely hopeless during this period, however, even if it lacked much of a distinct style, or innovations on par with what the Beatles and scores of other groups would boast from 1963 onward. This survey doesn’t try to make the argument that pre-Beatles British rock was rich with classics or abundantly populated with overlooked discs that demand rediscovery. It does, however, point out ten really good records that are worth hearing, as well as some honorable mentions of other fine songs by the artists that made this limited cut. It’s not a best-of list in order of quality, and is instead as chronologically ordered by release date as I can make it.
Cliff Richard, “Move It” (August 29, 1958). Some of the selections on this list will be pretty obscure, or at least little known to the general public. Some of them will be pretty famous, and often at least a little known even to many non-UK rock fans. This debut hit by Cliff Richard is one of the most famous ones, and though he’d go on to have dozens of big UK hits for the next few decades, it’s still his best record. Urgent, exciting, and tense, it also boasts a considerably advanced lean, penetrating electric guitar sound for its era, not only for the UK, but from anywhere. Richard does a pretty good Elvis-styled vocal, but its most memorable feature is its opening descending guitar riff. As a Liverpool teenager, Paul McCartney got so excited when he figured out how to play it after seeing Richard’s backup band the Shadows do it on TV that he immediately bicycled to John Lennon’s house to show him.
Honorable mention: “Apron Strings” (April 17, 1959). Originally a very obscure single by American singer Billy The Kid, this swaggering rockabilly number was a highlight of Richard’s first album. Although the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and some other top British Invasion groups are justly acclaimed for discovering and recording some very hard-to-get American songs, it’s interesting to note that some buried US discs were getting that treatment by British artists much earlier. Richard did a considerably better job on the tune than Billy The Kid, too. While he wasn’t a match for the best early American rock’n’roll and rockabilly singers, Richard did quite a few decent rockers in the late 1950s and early 1960s (along with quite a few dreadful pop numbers and ballads), though many of them weren’t spotlighted as A-sides.
Vince Taylor, “Brand New Cadillac” (April 1959). Although Taylor was brimming with the right kind of rockabilly attitude, his vocal chops weren’t so hot. That didn’t stop him from singing with just as much zest as if he really were Gene Vincent, Jerry Lewis, Eddie Cochran, and such. While “Brand New Cadillac” might be an obvious choice considering it’s by far his most famous song (owing largely to a cover version by the Clash), it’s still his best effort, with an ominous guitar riff crossing rockabilly and spy music. The guitar was played by session musician Joe Moretti, more famous for his soloing on Johnny Kidd’s “Shakin’ All Over” (see listing below), who made an ace contribution here too. It’s also worth noting Taylor wrote the song, at a time when it was far less common for rock’n’rollers to pen their own material.
Honorable mention: “Jet Black Machine” (August 1960). Almost a follow-up of sorts in both theme and sound to “Brand New Cadillac,” this stop-start shaker became a British Top Twenty hit—Taylor’s only one. He’s most famous for being at least a partial inspiration for the Ziggy in David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. Also of note is that early Beatles associate Tony Sheridan plays guitar on his 1958 cover of Roy Orbison’s “I Like Love,” which rocks harder than and outdoes the original.
Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, “Shakin’ All Over” (June 1960). “Shakin’ All Over” is known the world over, but not necessarily by Kidd. It was a North American hit by Canadian group the Guess Who in the mid-1960s, and more famously, a mainstay of the live shows by the Who, who put it on their 1970 album Live at Leeds. Kidd’s original version was a #2 British hit, and a classic by the standard of any country, particularly owing to its skin-crawling guitar licks from Joe Moretti. It’s one of countless songs proving that although rock was in a somewhat fallow period at the beginning of the ’60s, there were plenty of tough energetic rockers. Like “Move It,” this too shows a very advanced guitar sound and tone for the period. It was the best cut by the best pre-Beatles British rock act, who were a substantial influence on the Who, though they never became known in the least in the US during their lifetime, in spite of quite a few other good records. The biggest shame for posterity is that no film footage of the band has made it into circulation, if any’s even preserved.
Honorable mention: “Please Don’t Touch” (May 1959). A frenetic debut also decorated with plenty of bolts of skittering guitar. There were some other really fine Kidd singles in the late 1950s and early 1960s too, most notably the edgy “Restless,” “Feelin’,” “Let’s Talk About Us,” and “Please Don’t Bring Me Down.”
The Shadows, “Apache” (July 8, 1960). The Shadows were easily the biggest pre-Beatles British rock group, and had hits almost everywhere in the world except the US. Why didn’t they make it in the US, with their twangy, moody, slightly country-influenced sound? Well, they mostly performed instrumentals, which didn’t hurt them at home. But that might have made it harder to crack the American market, where the Ventures were more successfully popularizing haunting guitar instrumentals with less of a country twang. “Apache” is their most popular hit, but still their best, sounding a bit like a rock’n’roll western theme. If you’re thinking “wasn’t this a hit in the US?,” you’re kind of right—it was a big hit, but not for the Shadows. Danish guitarist Jorgen Ingmann took it to #2 in the US with a similar arrangement that added the sound of pinging arrows.
Honorable mention: “Man of Mystery” (November 4, 1960). The Shadows had lots of big British hits in the first half of the mid-1960s, and made a scary amount of records, not even counting the many on which they served as Cliff Richard’s backup band. A lot of them sound kind of the same, but not as good as “Apache.” “Man of Mystery” was their follow-up hit to “Apache,” and about as good as any of them, with the dark and mysterious vibe that kind of title demands.
Billy Fury, “A Wondrous Place” (September 2, 1960). Fury is rated very highly by some historians and fans, some of whom point to his 1960 ten-inch LP The Sound of Fury as the best British pre-Beatles recording. I’m not on board with this, finding that record rather mild rockabilly, much inferior to the original US variety generated by Sun Records and other labels. I’m not big on his hits either, and he had about twenty of them in the UK between 1959 and 1965 without making the slightest impression in the US. This 1960 song, however, is a nice moody rockaballad, and better than the more orchestrated, melodramatic original version by American pop-rock-soul singer Jimmy Jones (of “Handy Man” and “Good Timin'” fame). To spoil the party more, it’s not as good as the Merseybeatish version by the British band the Cherokees from early 1965, produced by Mickie Most, who had much more success with the Animals, Donovan, and Herman’s Hermits.
The Moontrekkers, “Night of the Vampire” (September 1961). Easily the least celebrated item in this Top Ten, though it did brush the bottom of the British charts. Like a good number of records produced by Joe Meek, this made the most of both horror movie imagery and exotic-for-the-time sound effects. Here they’re complemented by spidery guitar licks, a lumpy galloping beat bringing to mind monsters stalking graveyards, and flourishes of sweeping organ. Contrived? Sure. Fun? That too.
Screaming Lord Sutch, “‘Til The Following Night” (December 1961). Sutch couldn’t sing very well, but that didn’t keep him from becoming one of British rock’s great characters, and one of its most eccentric ones. Specializing in rock’n’horror, he took obvious cues from ghoulish American rocker Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, but gave it his own goofy twist. This is a tour-de-force of graveyard special effects by producer Joe Meek, the most important pre-George Martin British rock producer. But Sutch’s bands could rock pretty hard, and his ’60s records included session guitar by future stars Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Like Vince Taylor, he had the genuine rock’n’roll spirit, if not the vocal chops and originality that could have vaulted him into true stardom.
Honorable mention: “Good Golly Miss Molly” (December 1961). No, the B-side of ‘Til the Following Night” won’t make anyone forget Little Richard’s original. But it’s a testament to how hard and manically his bands could rock, though the “horror” sides of his ’60s singles were generally far more effective than his covers of early rock classics.
The Springfields, “Allentown Jail” (February 1962). Originally recorded in 1951 by pop singer Jo Stafford, this is a pretty deep cut even for Springfields fans, appearing on their LP Kinda Folksy. Featuring a pre-solo stardom Dusty Springfield, this trio were more folk-pop than rock or even pop-rock. But if only for Springfield’s presence, there’s enough of a rock connection to place it on this list. An uptempo number with swirling violins alternating between Springfield solo and group vocals, it’s a full-bodied pop production with a pinch of rock, though the song tells a story in the manner of a folk ballad.
At least two future folk-rock musicians were listening. According to Jerry Yester (then in the Modern Folk Quartet, which would move into folk-rock, and then in a later lineup of the Lovin’ Spoonful), he and Barry McGuire (then in the New Christy Minstrels) would “listen to that stuff, and it blew our minds. ’Cause we were still flat-out in folk music, and to hear this John Barry-[type] band behind the Springfields…we loved it.”
The Springfields had a few British hits, although “Island of Dreams” just misses the pre-Beatle cutoff as it came out in November 1962. Although it’s a bit corny in its blend of pop, folk, and country, it’s worth hearing for Springfield’s soaring solo vocal on the bridge, and is better heard on a less ornately arranged live TV clip from early 1963 that survives. The Springfields were also one of the few British acts to have a US hit before the Beatles, hitting #20 in 1962 with “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” which oddly did not chart in the UK.
Jet Harris, “Main Title Theme (From The Man with the Golden Arm)”(August 10, 1962). Jet Harris had been the bassist in the Shadows, and in 1962 started to release records under his own name, sometimes paired with ex-Shadows drummer Tony Meehan. He coaxed a remarkably thick sound for the era from his bass, making it, very unusually, a lead instrument on a handful of instrumentals he issued, some of which were big British hits in 1962 and 1963. The first of these was this moody, cinematic piece, whose chirpy brass combine with Harris’s booming bass to make this similar to early James Bond themes. Although it just misses a cutoff date since it was recorded on October 20, 1962 and released April 1963, the brooding “The Man from Nowhere” is even better. Harris’s career was derailed by a bad car accident in September 1963, and though he was very briefly in an early lineup of the Jeff Beck Group, he never got back into front line of British rock.
The Tornados, “Telstar” (August 17, 1962). A question almost guaranteed to win you points at whatever trivia game you might play: who was the first British rock group to have a #1 hit in the US? The Beatles were the second. The first was the Tornados, though their hit is more well known than the band. Producer Joe Meek’s crowning achievement, this mesmerizing futuristic instrumental still sounds like science fiction rock, from its opening launch to the twinkling fadeout, highlighted by eerie electronic keyboards. Why didn’t the Tornados become bigger? They were a primarily instrumental act, soon to be overrun by vocal groups like the Beatles, and didn’t tour the US when they should have capitalized on their hit.
Honorable mention: “Ridin’ the Wind” (October 1962). This came out on EP the same month as “Love Me Do” and I don’t know if its release date predated the October 5 one for “Love Me Do,” but at any rate, it must have been recorded before “Love Me Do” came out. Another spooky sci-fi rocker, not as distinctive as “Telstar,” but striking just the same, with a bit of a surf music feel. It made #63 as a single in the US a few months later—the only other time the Tornados made the American Top 100, though they had a few other British hits and many other records.
The Packabeats, “The Traitors” (November 1962). Easily the rarest item on this list (though it’s been reissued), this Joe Meek-produced instrumental came out the month after “Love Me Do.” Kind of a collision of the Shadows and the Tornados, it has infectious twangy guitar riffs, some of the ghostly electric keyboard riffs that were trademarks of Meek’s productions, and a cinematic sweep. It’s as good as the big British instrumental rock hits of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and acts like the Shadows and Jet Harris kept scoring high on the charts with these kind of songs through 1963. But that whole style was about to be swept away by the huge wave of new British vocal groups, the Beatles leading the charge.
Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.