I’m one of those people, apparently not too common, who goes through the extra features on DVD releases. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they don’t really say or illuminate much, and sometimes they’re a waste of time. On the DVD release of the 2019 documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name, most of the deleted scenes, extended interviews, and Q&A with an audience aren’t too remarkable. But the two extra interviews are worth your time if you’re interested in Crosby, and in the Byrds in particular.
In the main movie that played in theaters, Roger McGuinn is only interviewed for a bit. The other surviving original Byrd, Chris Hillman, is only interviewed for a few seconds. Much of the coverage of the McGuinn-Hillman-Crosby relationship is relegated to a kind of contrived animation sequence recreating the incident in late 1967 when McGuinn and Hillman drove to Crosby’s house to fire him. The animation seems to fairly accurately depict what happened, but it’s a little strange considering that all three characters were available to talk about it on camera.
The McGuinn and Hillman interviews in the DVD extras—actually, they are the only interviews featured in the DVD extras—run about six minutes each. Here both of them are able to discuss their relationships with Crosby in more depth. Unusually for a documentary, their comments generally reflect better on both Crosby and themselves than what makes it into the film. It’s almost as though the filmmakers (and maybe Crosby) wanted to portray the subject in a worse light than he really was/is, whether to heighten the movie’s drama or for another reason.
Much of the Byrds’ portion of Remember My Name focuses on the circumstances leading to Crosby’s departure from the group. This came to a head when David wanted to put his controversial song “Triad,” about a menage a trois, on their fifth album, The Notorious Byrd Brothers. The other Byrds didn’t want it on the LP, though the group did record the song, which is now available as a bonus outtake on CD. As is well known, Crosby’s friends Jefferson Airplane recorded it on their fourth album, 1968’s Crown of Creation, though Grace Slick’s made it clear it does not refer to a three-way from her personal experience.
McGuinn and Hillman favored other material, including one song Crosby especially didn’t like, the Gerry Goffin-Carole King composition “Goin’ Back.” For one thing, David felt the group should be emphasizing their own material, and perhaps Crosby’s songs in particular. But his dislike of “Goin’ Back” in particular seemed genuine.
As an aside, though several historical accounts authenticate this dispute, I couldn’t find a direct quote from Crosby voicing his specific opinion about “Goin’ Back,” though he’s discussed “Triad” and how he felt about its rejection on several occasions. Several other close associates of Crosby, however, have verified David’s distaste for the number. These include producer Gary Usher, road manager Jimmi Seiter, McGuinn’s first wife Ianthe (in her memoir), and, in his bonus interview, Chris Hillman. The explanations vary a bit, but basically state Crosby found the song too poppy and too sappy.
“David really hated the Carole King song,” elaborated Ianthe McGuinn (now known as Dolores Tickner) in an interview with me. “I know he thought it was insipid. I think that really was the catalyst [for his departure]. Certainly the Byrds evolved the song. They definitely improved on it. But I think it was the lyrics that David objected to. I think it didn’t have the bite that the other songs had had. I remember it like very fluffy, the ‘la la la la las.’ I can see why David objected to it.”
Most Byrds fans disagree with Crosby, and find it a fine interpretation in the classic Byrds folk-rock style, complete with ringing guitar riffs and luminous harmonies. It’s the best version of the song, though some prefer Dusty Springfield’s far more pop-soul-inclined interpretation.
Judging purely from what you see in Remember My Name, you might get the impression McGuinn and Hillman couldn’t stand Crosby and couldn’t wait to get rid of him. That might have been true the final months David was in the band, but in his bonus interview, Hillman spends far more time lauding Crosby than tearing him down. More than once, Chris emphasizes David had his back, especially back in the early days of the Byrds, when Hillman was the shyest member and considerably younger and less experienced than Crosby and McGuinn. He also reveals how he and his wife gave money to Crosby when David was getting ready for a liver transplant, and how David insisted on paying Chris back a year or two later, over Hillman’s objections. That, Hillman states, is the real David Crosby, behind the bluster for which his ex-bandmate’s most known.
Hillman does confirm, at greater length than the movie allows, that Crosby didn’t like “Goin’ Back.” “David hated it, wouldn’t sing on it,” Chris remembers. “I sang the harmony, not as good as the mighty Croz.” He also affirms the portrait of Crosby’s mindset in the Byrds’ final days: “He was not a contributing band member at that point. He was bored.”
The tension between Crosby and McGuinn seems greater than it was between Crosby and Hillman. If anyone was the leader of the band, Roger was, though David was threatening that position by 1967. But despite some harsh criticism that’s flown back and forth between them over the years, McGuinn has much glowing praise for Crosby in his bonus interview segment.
“David Crosby is the best harmony singer in the world,” Roger declares. “Singing with David Crosby….It’s just wonderful. He’s got the perfect sweet blend, especially with my voice.”
On top of that, McGuinn admits, “It was a mistake to fire him. To fire the best harmony singer in the world. It was the best sound we ever had vocally…never got that good again. We missed David. David was an essential part of the Byrds.”
McGuinn’s comments aren’t all peaches and cream. Although Crosby’s said he was told the remaining Byrds could make better music without him, Roger states he never said that, actually telling David the Byrds could make good music without him, which is a crucial distinction. McGuinn also notes that just as Crosby was kicked out of all of his schools, he was kicked out of all of his bands. David’s current long-running one is an exception, Roger believes, as he’s the leader who can be in control.
McGuinn probably speaks for many viewers when he expresses mystification at the termination of the close decades-long friendship between Crosby and Graham Nash, who are no longer even on speaking terms. “I’m so sorry to see the rift between David and Graham, because they were such good friends,” he observes. “Graham would just support David to the grave. I mean, he just loved him to death. It’s so sad to see that. I don’t even know what it’s about. It’s about, like, Neil Young’s girlfriend? C’mon. That’s petty stuff, man. Get over it.”
Elsewhere in the bonus features, by the way, is a real interesting observation by Crosby on an important achievement of his just after he left the Byrds. The nearly half-hour film of a Q&A between Crosby, Cameron Crowe (who conducts interviews with Crosby in Remember My Name), and an audience after a screening of Remember My Name is, like most such things, only mildly interesting. But one of the questions/comments is one that I would liked to have put to Crosby. An audience member tells David he’s always loved Crosby’s production of Joni Mitchell’s 1968 debut album (Song to a Seagull aka Joni Mitchell), although both Mitchell and Crosby have almost apologetically denigrated the record’s imperfections.
Back in 1968, Mitchell told Gene Shay of Philadelphia radio station WHAT that “the process that took off the hiss from the album took off a lot of the highs, which is the reason it sounds like it’s under sort of glass…under a bell jar, that’s what Judy [Collins] said. So you really need the words inside the book to follow my diction, which is pretty good, usually.” Part of that problem could be traced back to Crosby’s ingenious miking of piano strings as Joni sang her vocals into a grand piano, which created unforeseen difficulties later in the production process. “I wanted to try and get the overtones that happen from the resonating of the piano and, of course, it recorded at way too low a level,” Crosby told Wally Breese of the JoniMitchell.com Web site in 1997. “If you use those mikes at all you get a hiss, so we had to go in and take those things out.”
In Remember My Name, Crosby doesn’t backtrack that assessment, but accurately feels that the album did capture “her essence.” Personally, I’ve always loved the LP’s hushed ambience, which creates an almost ethereal mystery. I loved it even when I got a fairly beat-up used copy for $3 at a socialist bookstore back in 1982 as a twenty-year-old. I never noticed flaws in the sonic quality, and if I’m much more aware of how Mitchell and Crosby perceive them as such now, they’ve never bothered me. And Crosby’s response to the fan in the audience who loves the album elaborates upon its unique atmosphere in a way I’ve never seen or read him do elsewhere.
“I love that record,” he says. “I think the main thing I did was I didn’t let the rest of the world try to play on that record because they wouldn’t have known how. And because her arrangements at that point were indicated arrangements of an entire band, which is what we folksingers do on the guitar. We kind of approximate the sound of a band. And she was better at it than anybody. Better at it than me, that’s for sure.”
As we get on in the 21st century, boxed sets are appearing that would have seemed unimaginable even ten years ago, let alone pre- CD era. The Cherry Red group have been at the forefront of this, whether it’s a four-CD set on a cult band that never put out an LP (the Action) or triple CDs on obscure corners of UK late-‘60s/early-‘70s folk-rock. Still, I never expected there to ever be a three-CD set for the Honeycombs, which appeared early this year on Cherry Red’s RPM imprint.
The Honeycombs are often thought of as a one-hit group, particularly in the US, where their 1964 stomper “Have I the Right” was their only high-charting single (though another, “I Can’t Stop,” fell not too short of the Top Forty). It made #5 in the States in 1964 when the British Invasion was gathering unstoppable steam, and #1 in their native UK, where they did manage to land another Top Twenty entry with “That’s the Way.” Along with the Tornados’ 1962 instrumental chart-topper “Telstar,” it was the only production by the legendarily eccentric Joe Meek to hit big in the US, though Meek was some other hits (and numerous notable and not-so-notable flops) in his native Britain.
Because of the peculiar compressed crunch of “Have I the Right,” its eerie high-pitched male vocal, and the presence (very rare in ‘60s rock) of a woman drummer, the Honeycombs have sometimes been kind of dismissed as a gimmicky fluke act. That’s especially the case since, unlike most notable British Invasion groups, they wrote almost none of their material, most of which was composed by their managers and (more occasionally) Meek. They projected little in the way of image, other than the immediately distinctive visual trademark of a woman drummer. What relatively little has been written about them doesn’t lend much insight into the group’s musical motivations and aspirations, even in the 24-page booklet of liner notes in this new anthology.
Yet the Honeycombs recorded a lot more than most people realize, even among British Invasion fans. Have I the Right: The Complete 60s Albums & Singles has 79 tracks, including their three albums. Yes, they had more LPs than they had big US/UK hits. And they had a lot of non-LP singles: eight, which together with the decent non-album B-side of “Have I the Right” (“Please Don’t Pretend Again”) adds up to more than another LP’s worth of sides on their own. Throw in a German-language version of both sides of the “Have I the Right” single; a couple songs broadcast on 1965 radio programs of uncertain origin (the bass on the radio take of “That’s the Way” is unexpectedly powerful, by the way); five previously unreleased studio outtakes; and some post-Honeycombs solo singles from singer Denny D’Ell and original guitarist Martin Murray, and you have enough to fill almost four hours.
Wise guys would counter that’s almost four hours too many, but in fact, there’s a fair amount of really good material here, almost all of it virtually unknown beyond Meek geeks. There’s a lot of silly, even puerile stuff too. Not infrequently, those qualities are mixed together. Their body of work is among the most peculiar of any ‘60s group to make a significant mark on the rock world.
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re almost certainly familiar with “Have I the Right,” the one song that’s familiar to almost everyone in the UK and North America. Many of its attributes (some would say annoyances) are found throughout their records. Dennis D’Ell had a weird, whiny waver of a voice that could sound like Gene Pitney speeded up from 33 to 45. (Maybe that inspired Brian Jones, as has sometimes been reported, to call an Australian radio station while on tour Down Under to play the disc at 78.) Whether played by Honey Lantree or reinforced by the other Honeycombs and other feet and hands, there was often a floorboard stomp to the rhythm, perhaps influenced by the then-huge success of the Dave Clark Five.
As with many Meek productions, there was an eerie almost outer space shimmer to the hissy compression and sped-up-sounding vocal and instrumental tones. Less noted—actually, I’ve never seen it noted—was the distinctive piercing, curling, needle-prick guitar, which like D’Ell’s voice often teetered on the edge of the note. Since similar spooky guitar is heard on some other Meek productions, it wouldn’t surprise me if the producer manipulated the sound of the instrument in the studio.
Honeycombs managers Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley were responsible for writing the bulk of the group’s repertoire (though they’re more famous for doing the same thing a bit later for Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, who had a long string of UK smashes without breaking through in the US). Even by the standards of early British Invasion lyrics, their Honeycombs songs were twee in the extreme. Early Beatles songs like “Love Me Do” might have banal words on paper, but they were delivered with sincerity and soul. The Honeycombs bore, in keeping with their name, rather sickly sweet sentiments, accentuated by a voice (D’Ell’s) that almost seemed about to run away and hide in the corner out of nervous embarrassment.
What saved the best of their recordings—indeed, sometimes made them exhilarating—were of course the production, but also some haunting melodies, surprisingly effective unearthly background vocals, and a certain sense of manic ebullience that transcended the source material. Sometimes “deep” Honeycombs cuts could be surprisingly spooky, like soundtracks for walks through a moonlit cemetery. From their first LP, “Without You It Is Night” and “This Too Should Pass Away” (both enhanced by ethereal organ) certainly qualify on those grounds, even if the songs are pretty much alike. The non-hit single “Eyes” is too, building to a suspenseful climax and perpetually restless in its key shifts and fractured waltz tempo.
“Something I Got to Tell You” (buried on their second LP, 1965’s All Systems Go!) was, along with the bouncily innocuous “That’s the Way,” the only song on which Honey Lantree sang lead. With a fairly pleasing and far more conventional voice than D’Ell’s, she was underutilized in this role, and “Something I Got to Tell You” was more mature than most of songs that surrounded it. But still spooky, with its pensive melody and, more notably, faint swirling backup vocals that seem to have floated up from the bottom of a fish tank. This sounds like it just could have been a hit, but its prospects probably would have been doomed by the unusual use of “hell” (“something’s giving me hell, baby”) in the lyric, which was rarely heard on AM radio in 1965. A far more chipper, and much inferior, version was produced by Meek for another of his clients, Glenda Collins.
The Honeycombs’ finest moment, however, was “I Can’t Stop,” a US-only follow-up single to “Have I the Right” that actually made it up to #48 in the American charts. With infectious stop-start stomps, downward glissando sweeps, and nearly crazed yelps and screams, it was one of Meek’s finest productions, though I’ve never seen it hailed as such elsewhere. Such was its idiosyncrasy that even though I heard it on oldies radio just once as a young adolescent in the mid-1970s, I never forgot it.
Warning: the version of “I Can’t Stop” on All Systems Go! is an entirely different remake, and a ghastly one. I can think of no other remake done relatively shortly after the original that is so inferior. Everything about the 45 is right; everything about the LP counterpart is wrong, plodding around without the vocal yelps, glissandos, machine-gun drumming in the bridge, punchy sonics, or general sense of out-of-control euphoria. I keenly recall my disappointment at finally finding the track on a best-of LP around the late 1980s, and my horror when realizing I was hearing a poor substitute. Its existence (especially as it’s the first cut on All Systems Go!) is inexplicable, though a fellow collector speculated the original wasn’t used as guitarist Martin Murray left the band in December 1964 under somewhat less than amiable circumstances, receiving a substantial cash settlement. “I Can’t Stop” might have been redone so Murray wouldn’t get paid for a performance by a different lineup.
Getting back to the Honeycombs’ catalog, another highlight is All System Go!’s “Love in Tokyo,” with its otherworldly electronic keyboard glow and typically spectral Howard-Blaikley tune. Alas, another warning is needed: the version on the new CD box has a defect, skipping a whole second (which includes part of a vocal) around the 22-second mark. So for all its breadth, this three-disc comp is still the Incomplete 1960s albums and singles, if only by the slimmest of margins. (The original, defect-less version did appear on the expanded All System Go! CD on Repertoire in 1990.)
Yet another warning: the second LP was coveted by some non-Honeycombs fans for its inclusion of a rare Ray Davies composition the Kinks never recorded, “Emptiness.” But—in common with most of the songs great British Invasion bands like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Who “gave away” for other acts to do—it’s not that good, and certainly not in the same league as what the songwriters were holding back for their own groups. The Honeycombs also tried one of the Kinks’ better early songs, “Something Better Beginning,” though the Kinks’ version is way better.
Back to more positive notes, a good number of Honeycombs tracks—the majority, I’d say—have something to recommend them in the way of odd production and appealing strange melody, even if a good number of these are kind of variations of a formula. An obscure standout is their final single (from September 1966), “That Loving Feeling.” Almost sounding as if the group’s fighting to be heard from behind a closet in its dense compressed clutter, it also has the feeling of a band sensing their end is near. That’s not referred to at all in the lyrics, but there’s a desperation to the gloomy melody and combination of lead and backup vocals, as if the group knows the time for their sound is fast running out.
That same vibe also comes through in a more muted way on the B-side, the Meek-penned “Should a Man Cry,” with an unexpectedly guttural fuzzy guitar solo. Time really was running out for Meek. The Honeycombs might have ended their recording career, but they didn’t die. Meek did in on February 3, 1967, killing himself after shooting his landlady.
In a different way, however, “That Loving Feeling” could have pointed to the future. It was one of just two original compositions the band managed to release, the other being the Murray’s lightweight “Leslie Anne” on their debut LP. “That Loving Feeling” was the work of Colin Boyd, part of the much-altered lineup of the Honeycombs’ final year or so. Boyd also wrote two neat (and yet more muffled-sounding) outtakes that make their first appearance on this compilation, indicating he could hit the right kind of haunting Honeycombs tone with his compositions had he been given more opportunities. “Tell Me Baby” in particular has the kind of mix of melancholy and exuberance heard in some of their best material, with a somewhat more mature air than Howard-Blaikley’s ditties. But that wasn’t to be, the group petering out not long after Meek’s death.
For all my enthusiastic championship of the Honeycombs’ work as worthy of reexamination despite its extremely unhip reputation, even a fan like me has to admit there’s a fair amount of guff in their discography. Some Howard-Blaikley constructions could be sugary in the extreme, starting with the leadoff cut from their first LP, “Colour Slide” (though that song does have its devotees). All Systems Go! has some treacly oldies covers, like their take on the Platters’ “My Prayer.” The rare Japan-only LP (issued in late 1965), In Tokyo (Live), is mostly comprised of mediocre covers of American rock hits. And the solo singles by Martin Murray (one, from 1966) and Denny D’Ell (two, from 1967) that close the box are undistinguished pop, and not produced by Meek. Who was going to listen to a cover of Bobby Vee’s “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” in the summer of 1967, which D’Ell put on the B-side of his final 45?
Even after digesting this quite hefty box (and even though I already had most of the tracks elsewhere), some puzzles about the Honeycombs remain. How much of their records was down to Meek and Howard-Blaikley, and how much to them? There are few other hitmaking bands from the time that played their own instruments that seemed so dependent on their producer and a specific outside songwriting team for whatever distinctive sound they managed. How did they feel about the process, in which some might view them as mere vehicles for the others who did the creative grunt work?
Also: was Meek trying to do something particularly special for the Honeycombs in the studio, in contrast to his numerous other clients? Why were so many Honeycombs discs released in the wake of “Have I the Right,” including a second studio LP, at a time when even some UK groups with big hits never got the chance to do more than one longplayer in their home country? Why in the world wasn’t the single version of “I Can’t Stop” issued in the UK? How did the group’s early singles end up on the little known Vee-Jay subsidiary Interphon in the US—making the Honeycombs the only British group besides the Beatles to have American hits on Vee-Jay?
The sources that would seem most likely to contain some insight—the 24-page booklet of liner notes with this anthology, and John Repsch’s biography The Legendary Joe Meek—offer disappointingly little in that regard. The chapter on Howard-Blaikley in Johnny Rogan’s Starmakers and Svengalis doesn’t offer much either, but does contain this interesting passage:
“Reviving the chart fortunes of the Honeycombs proved immensely difficult, particularly as the group seemed relatively unconcerned about their status in the pop world. According to Howard, they preferred singing in pubs to appearing on television and reacted to their chart-topping achievement with humble satisfaction rather than awe-inspiring egomania. Their lack of ambition was also reflected in lackluster live performances which often ended in jeers from over-expectant members of the audience. In desperation, their managers temporarily sent them abroad where pop-starved fans were less discriminating.” (Indeed, according to the liner notes, much of their final year was spent in Israel.)
With some of the Honeycombs now gone and little interest in investigating their work among mainstream rock historians, we’ll probably never wholly know what made them and their team tick. Their story is in some ways as mysterious as their music.
Hard as it is to believe, we’re one-fifth into the twenty-first century. Maybe even harder to believe, plenty of material continues to surface on rock reissues. Often these aren’t reissuing official recordings, but unearthing half-a-century-or-so-old items often not even suspected to exist. Most of the really fine LPs from the time have been re-released (sometimes several times), and virtually all of the really fine acts who recorded a good amount of fine music have been honored by compilations.
As I already have a lot of those, most of what I’m getting on reissues these days tends to be studio outtakes, live concerts, and radio recordings, often circulating for the first time anywhere. Otherwise they tend to be bulky boxes containing much or all of what a significant artist did in their entire career, or at least the peak (or one of the peaks) of it. Just one of my best-of picks from the 2019 litter is a straight album reissue, and even that album was barely distributed upon its original release.
So it’s boxes and vault rarities—which sometimes fill up boxes on their own—that dominate my best-of list. It just about made a round twenty in number, throwing in a couple 2018 releases I’d missed at the end. I heard a good number of other reissues, but these are the ones about which I got enthusiastic, or at least somewhat enthusiastic. Although the chart-topping winner has plenty of merit, I had more negative comments about the way the music was released than I ever expected to put into any review of a #1 pick.
1. David Bowie, Conversation Piece (Parlophone). As a five-CD compilation of material Bowie recorded in 1968 and (more often) 1969, this box has great musical value. It’s not such great economic value for the kind of dedicated Bowie fans most likely to want it, since the majority has been previously released. Even most of the material unavailable before 2019 had been issued before this box came out in November. First I’ll focus on the enormous musical positives, and then get into the troubling part of how this stuff was dispensed to the marketplace.
The most significant disc by far is titled The ‘Mercury’ Demos. I’ve been touting these early-’69 demos (almost certainly done around late winter or early spring) as a major body of unreleased music since I first found it on bootleg (minus one song, though this LP has all ten) in the late 1980s. As I wrote on my blog a few years ago:
“Unusually, this captures Bowie at a point in his career where he was a folky, or at least folk-rocky, singer-songwriter. As hard as it might be to believe, he—with backing by second guitarist/harmony singer John Hutchinson—sounds something like a British Simon & Garfunkel here. The songs, of course, are quite different from those of Paul Simon even at this early stage in Bowie’s development, and include acoustic versions of highlights from his 1969 and 1970 releases like ‘Space Oddity’ (with a primitive Stylophone effect), ‘Conversation Piece,’ ‘Janine,’ ‘Letter to Hermione,’ and ‘An Occasional Dream,’ the last of which is one of the greatest unreleased Bowie performances (and most overlooked Bowie songs, period) of all.
Other songs aren’t as impressive, and some, particularly ‘When I’m Five’ and ‘Ching-A-Ling,’ are kiddie-like leftovers from his overly theatrical phase. But even the minor tunes include some neat oddities, like a cover of Lesley Duncan’s ‘Love Song’ (done slightly later by Elton John on Tumbleweed Connection) and the haunting ‘Lover to the Dawn,’ which never made it onto a Bowie release, though it evolved into a song that did, ‘Cygnet Committee.’ And you get to hear Bowie and Hutchinson unexpectedly segue into the chorus of ‘Hey Jude’ near the end of ‘Janine.’
Aside from being the only document of that brief period in which Bowie and Hutchinson worked as a duo, I find this of even greater importance for capturing what might have been the true personal Bowie—or at least as personal a Bowie as he could summon given his chameleonic nature. Sincerity is not a quality we usually associate with him, but if there was any time where he meant what he sang, instead of writing as a character (or writing about other characters), this might have been it.”
There you have my musical assessment. What specifically about this official release of the tapes, however? The good news is that this does definitely sound better than the numerous bootlegs of the material, all of which had a lo-fi, muffled, and sometimes wobbly sound. This isn’t super hi-fi, but it’s much clearer, whether they used a different better tape source, did a lot of sonic cleanup, or some combination of the two. Many Bowie fans have known about this stuff for a long time, but they’ll be pleased to have it in significantly more listenable form. This is the disc on the box that makes it an important release, and would have been #1 on its own if it had been issued as a standalone CD without the other material.
Another disc in the box of 1968-69 home demos is also quite valuable and interesting, if not nearly on the musical level of the Mercury demos. The best are eight songs (actually just six different ones, as there are three versions of “Space Oddity”) recorded in December 1968 and January 1969 on a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder in Bowie’s London flat. If nothing else, these clear up something that’s always been uncertain to me: the exact source of the two demos of “Space Oddity” and “An Occasional Dream” that were bonus tracks on the 40th anniversary edition of 1969’s David Bowie/Space Oddity album. According to the liner notes for this package, they came from these sessions (and are not the fairly similar demo versions recorded about a couple months later in 1969, which have long been bootlegged). This also includes earlier versions of a few other songs that are on those slightly later demos (“Ching-a-Ling,” “Lover to the Dawn,” and “Life Is a Circus”), along with one that isn’t (“Let Me Sleep Beside You,” which Bowie had already recorded for Decca in September 1967).
On to the music itself: these are sparse, folky acoustic performances with Hutchinson on second guitar and backup (and occasional lead) vocals, and some Stylophone on “Space Oddity.” They show Bowie developing into a far more interesting and idiosyncratic singer-songwriter than he had been on his earlier, official 1964-68 studio recordings, especially on “Space Oddity” and “An Occasional Dream.” There is both a tender melodicism and a feeling that Bowie’s not only gotten more personally expressive, but is about as genuinely personal as he’d ever get, given his subsequent taste for genre-jumping and character-assuming.
The performances on the Mercury demos just a couple months later are a little bit less inhibited and more assured, and for that reason (along with the bonus of interesting lighthearted between-song banter), I’d give them the edge. These are still interesting to hear, though, and in pretty good quality considering the fairly primitive circumstances of the original recordings.
There are also fifteen Hutchinson-less 1968-69 demos (if any are from 1969, they’re probably from early in that year) of more historical than purely musical interest. Bowie wouldn’t put most of those songs on his studio releases, and while they show him fitfully developing a more mature, rockier singer-songwriter (and less annoyingly theatrical) style than what he’d done in his Decca son-of-Anthony Newley phase, the compositions aren’t that great or memorable. Exceptions are an early version of the 1970 B-side “Conversation Piece” and a different version of his kiddie tune “When I’m Five” that, relatively speaking, is far gutsier and more listenable.
The final three discs on the box are steadily less interesting, mostly because most of the tracks have long been available. One’s largely devoted to 1968-69 BBC sessions (all previously released) that offer worthwhile variations of late-‘60s studio recordings, with marginal bonuses of a couple mono mixes of 1969 studio tracks and an inferior alternate studio arrangement of “Space Oddity” when Hutchinson was still aboard. Disc four has his 1969 album David Bowie aka Man of Words, Man of Music aka Space Oddity, which as the “aka”s alone signify has been reissued more times than anyone cares to count, with bonus tracks of early mixes and the full length version of his Italian-language rendition of “Space Oddity.”
Disc five, the least essential, has a 2019 Tony Visconti mix of the album, with the original 45 versions of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sala,” as “Space Oddity” was titled in Italian. The 120-page book of liner notes is pretty good, with detailed annotation and lots of rare photos, as well as some particularly interesting repros of period memos, press releases, gig posters, and newspaper clippings.
Now for my value-for-money rant. Most of the previously unissued tracks on this package were issued in three separate, expensive vinyl boxes earlier in 2019. That included two sets of demos on seven-inch singles that were about $35 each after tax, and the Mercury demos as a vinyl LP selling for $69.98 at my favored local independent store. These prices are extortionate. Yes, the Mercury demos LP comes in a big box reproducing the typed and handwritten lettering on the original tape box, with a photo of Bowie and Hutch, a couple contact sheets of more photos, and liner notes. That doesn’t justify charging triple or so the rate for the usual new vinyl album. And while the liner notes are pretty good, they’re on six stapled pages with small, faint type, and no illustrations.
Worse, at no time to my knowledge was it announced that all of the tracks on those expensive vinyl releases would be later made available on CD as part of the Conversation Piece box, and soon. And I get press releases from the label who put all these Bowie projects out. I certainly would have been willing to wait to save $150.
So the way these cuts were doled out checks all of my boxes of showing disrespect for the fans that have made such archive projects possible, and profitable. Overpriced packaging. No advance notice that the music on those overpriced vinyl sets would soon be made available in one place on a more reasonably affordable CD box. Only a dozen tracks on that five-CD box that were previously unavailable, some of which are not-so-interesting alternate mixes. And one disc almost wholly devoted to a 2019 remix of an album, which I find, like most remixes, unnecessary (and actually here, in the case of the remixed “Space Oddity,” notably inferior). Even if it was done by Bowie’s most important producer.
I honestly don’t know the expenses involved and profit margins for packages like this. But I do know that many fans would much prefer to buy this material all at once as a standard-priced CD, and not feel like they’ll risk being able to hear it at all if they don’t buy the expensive vinyl boxes as soon as they appear. I only hope that some of the money goes to John Hutchinson, as I think he can use it much more than the Bowie estate.
2. The Beatles, Abbey Road 50th Anniversary Edition (Apple/Universal). This would top this list based on the original 1969 Abbey Road album at the core of this four-disc box. But a reissue list, or at least my reissue lists, judge releases like this by what they add to the original, not by ballyhooed new mixes. In this case, this box falls short of the fiftieth anniversary box of The White Album, and maybe even of the fiftieth anniversary box of Sgt. Pepper. Sure it’s still worth getting for Beatles fans, but it’s overpriced. So was the Sgt. Pepper box, and arguably The White Album box, but this is more so.
The positives are mostly to be found in the two CDs of session outtakes. The compilers, however, faced a challenge as there weren’t nearly as many outtakes as there were for The White Album sessions; what outtakes were generated weren’t as interesting; and some of the best such outtakes were already used on Anthology 3. And in case you were hoping that some previously unheard original compositions might have been discovered, that’s not the case. In fact, just a couple of these (Paul McCartney’s long-bootlegged home demo of a song given to Mary Hopkin, “Goodbye,” and his demo of “Come and Get It,” made into a hit by Badfinger) were not released in a different form by the Beatles in 1969. All of the other tracks are alternate versions, including alternates of every Abbey Road song and both sides of the “Ballad of John and Yoko”/“Old Brown Shoe” single.
Alternate versions can be pretty interesting, as much of the White Album box demonstrated. I’m glad to hear them here, but nothing really blows me away. George Harrison’s solo demo of “Something”—not the same as the one on Anthology 3, as this has two piano parts in the mix—is the best of the batch. The differences among the other alternate versions are minor, and sometimes very minor. The version of the side two medley (here titled “The Long One”) differs in the edit and mix, not the performances. The take of “Something” that isolates the strings, and the “strings & brass only” one of “Golden Slumbers”/ “Carry That Weight,” are of primarily academic interest.
And the package is also missing some outtakes that have been documented (most thoroughly in Mark Lewisohn’s Beatles Recording Sessions) and sometimes even bootlegged. Most notable among the absentees is the different version of “Something” with a long, doom-laden piano-led instrumental tag, with a tune later recycled by John Lennon for “Remember” on Plastic Ono Band. This is even referred in the box’s book of liner notes, making its failure to appear here all the more irritating. Maybe the feeling was that multiple versions of alternate takes shouldn’t be used, though there were some on the White Album box, and no one minded to my knowledge.
To the displeasure of some readers and acquaintances, I’m generally unenthused about new mixes and blu-ray audio, which take up the other two discs. The same holds true here—there wasn’t anything wrong with the original, and I find the differences both minor and inconsequential. One consequence, however, can’t be ignored: it shoves the list price into the three figures. The package does include a 100-page book with plenty of interesting text and illustrations, but even this isn’t quite as good or big as the books with the White Album and Sgt. Pepper boxes. Don’t forget, too, that the Sgt. Pepper box came with a DVD of a twenty-fifth anniversary documentary. Maybe it’s unfair to chide a box for not having as much bonus material to draw from, but that does make the Abbey Road fiftieth anniversary edition less worthwhile than its counterparts.
3. Craig Smith/Maitreya Kali, Apache/Inca (Ugly Things). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were a good number of obscure, often privately pressed acid folk albums, where the performer (usually a solo artist) seemed lost between reality and fantasy. Most of them weren’t very good, and certainly not as good as the standard bearer for the genre, Skip Spence’s Oar. Apache/Inca, credited here to singer-songwriter Craig Smith and his alter ego Maitreya Kali, is an exception. It’s very good, and in some ways spookier even than Oar, which is saying something. The original double LP, which appeared in the early ‘70s, was also quite haphazardly assembled. It mixes well-produced Buffalo Springfield-meets-the-Monkees late-‘60s recordings by his group the Penny Arkade with later spare, haunting solo performances reflecting his descent into mental turmoil, even madness.
The later material, dating from when he adopted the name Maitreya Kali, is usually folky, acoustic, and swathed in reverb. The sentiments are a long way from the good-time folk-rock he’d delivered with the Penny Arkade. “Love and pain are the same,” he crooned on “Old Man,” echoing the similarly creepy sentiments in Charles Manson’s deranged songs of the late ‘60s, though with far greater melodicism and musical skill. On “Love Is Our Existence,” he gave his vocal such a tinny fishbowl effect that it was all but indecipherable; “Revelation” was hardly any easier to make out, but couldn’t quite bury a dynamite folk-rock riff, as well as some intriguing lyrics both glorifying and questioning the validity of Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, and other deities. Other songs were more straightforward, if exceptionally haunting, folk ballads. Yet they always gave the impression of a seeker questioning reality, and not quite finding satisfactory alternatives.
This CD marks the first official reissue of Apache/Inca, embellished by 32 pages of liner notes from Mike Stax. The original master tapes have disappeared, but this has been, to quote the liner notes, “restored and mastered…from the cleanest vinyl source available.” Although the juxtaposition of Matireya Kali and Penny Arkade tracks can be incongruous, those Penny Arkade cuts (none issued back in the late 1960s) are among the finest obscure Los Angeles folk-rock of the period. For a full Penny Arkade CD with all of the tracks by the group used on Apache/Inca and more, look for Sundazed’s Not the Freeze compilation. For more on Smith, check out Stax’s fine biography Swim Through the Darkness.
4. The Artwoods, Art’s Gallery (Top Sounds). Not to be confused with their 1966 album Art [no ‘s] Gallery, this is a collection of previously unreleased 1965-66 BBC performances by the British R&B band featuring singer Art Wood (older brother of Ron), drummer Keef Hartley, and a pre-Deep Purple Jon Lord. Since sixteen other BBC tracks were included on the three-CD set Steady Gettin’ It: The Complete Recordings 1964-67, you might wonder how essential another set of BBC cuts might be, especially for a hitless British Invasion band who were decent but not great. Maybe it’s not essential unless you’re a big Artwoods fan or a huge British Invasion fan in general. But it is highly worthwhile, for a few reasons.
First, just a couple of the songs (“She Knows What to Do” and “Smack Dab in the Middle”) are represented by BBC versions—completely different ones—on The Complete Recordings. Second, seven of the thirteen tracks weren’t done by the Artwoods on their studio releases. Third, the sound quality, while not brilliant as these are not the original broadcast tapes, is quite acceptable. And most importantly, these are for the most part really good slabs of mid-‘60s British R&B/rock, with a more prominent organ (by Lord) than most such outfits boasted. I don’t find Art Wood a great singer, but he doesn’t get in the way of the instrumentalists’ cool grooves.
And while a few of the rarities are average, there’s some really good stuff here that stands up to their best studio work—a dynamite organ-paced instrumental soul-jazz-rock version of “Comin’ Home Baby,” a jazzier instrumental in Les McCann’s “That Healin’ Feelin’,” and a certainly-good-enough workout on James Brown’s “Out of Sight.” While the BBC versions of songs also found on their studio releases might be less eye-catching, some of them are fine supplements to the studio takes, like a moody treatment of Lee Dorsey’s “Work, Work, Work” (“just a tad slower” than the studio track, accurately state the liner notes); the Bobby Blue Bland raveup “Don’t Cry No More”; and two peppy versions of their best song, “Oh My Love.” On the whole I find these significantly better than the numerous BBC tracks on The Complete Recordings—whose title is no longer accurate now that these additional radio tapes have surfaced.
The Artwoods were never going to be a top-tier British R&B act, owing both to Art Wood’s relative shortcomings as a singer and their near-absence of any original material. But does it matter so much when you can enjoy a collection like this over and over? I didn’t expect it to rate so high on this list, but that’s what it comes down to in the end.
5. The Yardbirds, Live and Rare(Repertoire). The Yardbirds released quite a bit of material in the five years they were active – about four or five albums’ worth, if spread among a wealth of LPs, singles, and EPs in several countries that would have been difficult to track down in total even back in 1968. Since then, however, their catalogue has multiplied several times over with archival live recordings, BBC sessions, outtakes, and even commercials. Even for fanatics, it’s hard to keep track of what’s come out where.
So a new five-disc box of Live and Rare cuts can understandably be greeted with some skepticism as to whether it has much, or anything, you don’t already have somewhere or other. It’s certainly likely to duplicate a good amount of stuff in your collection if you care enough about the Yardbirds to consider buying a five-CD rarities box in the first place.
That’s the case with Live and Rare, but it still has some vital things going for it that make it worth your attention whether you’re a completist or just want to start rounding out your Yardbirds library. Unlike some such anthologies, it has decent annotation, including overview notes by UT’s own Mike Stax (though the disc-by-disc liners are by veteran UK rock journalist Chris Welch). And if you want a kind of multi-disc best-of-the-rare, it’s a decent survey, taking in many of their better BBC/TV sessions and non-Five Live Yardbirds live recordings.
But to skip to the chase, the main reason for hardcore fans (and I’m one) to pick this up is the DVD, which has 21 songs spanning 1964-1968 with the Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page lineups (and even the Beck-Page one). Much of this has circulated unofficially or semi-officially for years, especially the March 1967 appearance on the German Beat! Beat! Beat! TV program. But here you have it in bulk, with quality likely to better (or certainly at least equal) other sources.
The big find is a windy, outdoor seven-song Paris performance from April 30, 1967 that hasn’t shown up anywhere else, at least to my knowledge. Here are the only live clips of “Mr. You’re a Better Man Than I,” “My Baby,” and the unlikely Dylan cover “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” from anywhere, as well as the only Page-era one of “Heart Full of Soul.” Half a year after Beck’s departure, Page is in fine form. In all honesty—and this coming from someone who’s a fan of lead singer Keith Relf, not just the Yardbirds as a group—the same can’t be said of Relf, who sometimes wanders off-key or even off-mike, even as he prowls the stage with commanding enthusiasm.
Yet there are good-to-great features of all the other live clips, though Relf’s vocals sometimes aren’t a match for either the studio versions or the sheer volume of Beck and Page. The takes of “Louise” and “I Wish You Would” from British TV in July 1964 are the only surviving ones with Clapton, and the three songs from a June 1966 French TV spot the only ones of the Beck-Page lineup besides their Blow-Up bit. (Warning, however: this dates from the time Page was still on bass, not yet sharing lead guitar with Beck.)
Sadly, both numbers (“Shapes of Things” and “Train Kept A-Rollin’”) from the May 1966 NME Poll Winners Concert are incomplete, though you can hear the audio in its entirety on one of the CDs. It’s even sadder that the best of their live TV performances, on Shindig in 1965 with Beck, aren’t here, though most of you probably have or know how to see them anyway.
The three-song March 9, 1968 appearance on the French TV program Bouton Rouge is of special note not just as the last time they were filmed live, but also as the best evidence of the Jimmy Page lineup at its best. “Goodnight Sweet Josephine” (their final 45) might not have been much of a song, but they storm through “Train Kept A-Rollin’” and, more notably, offer a tour de force “Dazed and Confused,” complete with violin-bowed Page solo and Page-Relf harmonica raveup. And here Keith is in fine vocal form. It’s the best glimpse of what could have been had the group stayed together (or even managed to lay down “Dazed and Confused” in the studio), but wasn’t.
The audio for all the video can be found on the other discs, but the CDs have a lot more material, going back to seven tracks attributed to the 1964 National Jazz & Blues Festival. Know this, however: though these include a couple Chuck Berry numbers of which no other Yardbirds versions have circulated (“Little Queenie” and “Carol”), the first three songs (including “Queenie”) almost certainly don’t feature Relf on vocals. Expert listeners are pretty sure this is Mick O’Neill substituting for an ill Relf, and frankly he doesn’t come off too well, with a gruff delivery ill-suited for the band’s style.
Even if the CDs don’t offer a lot of surprises (or perhaps any, if you’ve kept up with everything in the by-now-massive Yardbirds oeuvre), certainly there are a lot of highlights, with even the lower lights never less than interesting. The radio broadcasts focus on some of the songs and versions less likely to make Yardbirds BBC collections, including storming versions of “I’m Not Talking” (two of that song, actually) and tunes that didn’t make their studio releases, like the melancholy folk lament “Hush-A-Bye” and the blues classics “Spoonful,” “Bottle Up and Go,” and “The Stumble.” The Page lineup usually came off better live than in the studio, and that’s amply represented by the two discs of 1967-68 recordings, including BBC versions of the two best songs from their waning days, “Think About It” and “Dazed and Confused.”
There’s a bit of the fill-in-the-blanks feel to the 1966 disc, most of which is given over to studio rarities, including their notorious Italian pop single; commercials for Great Shakes and Maclean’s toothpaste; and mono versions of “Happenings Ten Years Time Ago,” its B-side “Psycho Daisies,” the “Stroll On” cut from the Blow-Up soundtrack, and everything from Relf’s pair of solo singles (including the alternate version of “Shapes in My Mind” that starts with a horn instead of an organ). Like almost any multi-disc Yardbirds compilation of bits and pieces, however, it all goes to show that even at the margins of their recorded work, they were usually much better than most other bands were at their best. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things magazine.)
6. The Searchers, When You Walk in the Room: The Complete Pye Recordings 1963-67(Grapefruit). While the Searchers made some records here and there for fifteen years after the mid-’60s, their legacy rests firmly on the wealth of material they cut for Pye Records from 1963-67. This six-disc, standard CD-sized box is likely the last-word package on that body of work. There are stereo and mono versions of all five of their UK Pye LPs; sixteen bonus tracks culled from outtakes and French/German-language versions; and an entire CD of non-LP singles, which throws in the EP-only cut “The System.” Add a 36-page photo/memorabilia-jammed booklet with a thorough history by UK rock scholar David Wells, and what’s not to like?
Nothing of consequence as regards the way this was assembled, certainly. (Although hard-to-pleasers will note the absence of stereo versions of two songs from their first album, “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” as sources don’t exist for those.) But though they were the best Liverpool group besides the Beatles, and at their finest one of the best early British Invasion outfits, they certainly didn’t boast the consistent high quality or songwriting talent of their finest rivals. In fact, their LPs were pretty patchy, as those hoping to unearth hidden gems might find to their disappointment.
The gap between their uniformly fine 1963-66 singles — most of them UK hits, and several of them fairly big US ones — and most of their LP cuts, to be brutal, is almost huge. There are a wealth of mediocre covers of American rock’n’roll standards that are not only way less memorable than the originals, but also quite a few leagues below the best ones by their peers. Compared to the Beatles’ knocked-out-of-the-park interpretations, their takes on “Money” and “Twist and Shout” (both from their 1963 debut Meet the Searchers) are anemic. That might be an unfairly high bar for anyone to match, but generally their LP tracks—as was standard before the Beatles started to change the rules in that regard—suffered from thin, rushed-sounding production, contrasting poorly with the generally fine and full treatment afforded their 45s.
The Searchers didn’t write anything on their first three LPs, and while cover-dependent albums were common at the onset of the British Invasion, their interpretations were frustratingly erratic. Many are simply unmemorable or unimaginative, and sometimes unwisely chosen attempts at massive familiar American hits like “Be My Baby” and “Stand By Me.” Aside from their surprisingly great raveup treatment of the Coasters’ “Ain’t That Just Like Me” (which gave them a small US hit, and destroys the Hollies’ tamer UK hit version of the same tune), they just weren’t cut out for the kind of ferocious covers many of their peers mastered. Some of them—”Farmer John,” “One of These Days,” “Tricky Dicky,” “Alright,” and “Hungry for Love” (which was a British hit for Johnny Kidd)—have an engaging nervous, hyper-tempo Merseybeat, but lack the dangerous edge of the more R&B-oriented bands that would soon threaten the whole Merseybeat movement.
If it seems like I’m down on the Searchers, let me hasten to clarify that’s not at all the case. I’m a big fan of their best stuff, and some of that’s on these spotty LPs. When they slowed down a bit for more measured, taut R&B covers spotlighting their fine vocal harmonies, they scored deserved pulled-for-the-US-market hits with the Coasters’ “Love Potion No. 9” and LaVern Baker’s “Bumble Bee.” When they branched into folk standards and near-folk-rock, they hit on a wistful sensitivity whose strength they might not have fully realized at the time. That’s heard to excellent effect on their fine, if sparely arranged, covers of “All My Sorrows,” “Four Strong Winds,” and Jackie DeShannon’s yearning “Each Time,” as well as the group-penned “Too Many Miles.”
Indeed, “Each Time” sounds like it might have been considered for a single, boasting as it does more sonic depth than most of their LP-only efforts. And while some of their British hit 45s weren’t on their UK albums, the singles that did find a place on them—”Sweets for My Sweet,” “Sugar and Spice,” “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” “Take Me for What I’m Worth,” and above all “Needles and Pins”—amply illustrate just why the Beatles cited them and the Rolling Stones when a teenager asked the Fabs to name their favorite British groups on a June 5, 1964 Dutch TV program. They had gorgeous vocal harmonies; they had finely sculpted, if restrained, arrangements; and, above all, they had ringing guitars that anticipated one of folk-rock’s trademarks.
And those five albums were hardly all there was to the Searchers’ discography. The sixth disc—devoted solely to 26 non-LP tracks—is so strong that they no longer sound like a middling band who managed enough great and good songs to make a fine best-of. Suddenly, they sound like a near-major act—which, of course, they were, but not on the strength of their longplayers. All of the hit singles that didn’t find a way onto their UK albums are here—”Someday We’re Gonna Love Again,” “When You Walk in the Room,” “What Have They Done to the Rain,” “Goodbye My Love,” and their moody original “He’s Got No Love.” So are some just-about-as-fine low-charting UK entries, like their covers of Jagger-Richards’ “Take It or Leave It,” the Hollies’ “Have You Ever Loved Somebody,” and Bobby Darin’s “When I Get Home.”
Most notably, so are a clutch of generally fine B-sides mostly known only to Searchers fanatics, many of which gave them a chance to write their own material. The delicate folk ballad “‘Til I Met You,” the peppy “This Feeling Inside,” the Buddy Holly-meets-formative-folk-rock of “So Far Away,” and the uncommonly mordant, grim-and-bear-it “Don’t Hide It Away” (with equally uncommon jazzy piano solo) are all among their best work—which, when you’re talking about the Searchers, is very good indeed. As Searchers guitarist John McNally lamented to me when I interviewed him nearly twenty years ago, “If you’d had said, like Andrew Loog Oldham did to the Stones, ‘go and write some songs and don’t come out ‘til you’ve written ‘em’ to us, we’d have been a much better act.” Some momentum was lost on their final three, not-so-impressive singles (all from 1967), but these at least seal the “complete” in the box set’s title.
It could be that for most Searchers fans, a best-of or at most double CD are enough. But it’s unlikely any selection would corral all of anyone’s individual favorites, so the Pye box it is if you want to dig deep. And be aware that while it’s the complete Searchers at Pye, it’s not the complete ‘60s Searchers, as no less than four other compilations—Live at the Star-Club Hamburg, the pre-Pye 1963 demos The Iron Door Sessions, BBC Sessions, and Swedish Radio Sessions—offer a wealth of worthwhile radio, live, and demo recordings. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things.)
7. Family, At the BBC(Madfish).Although they never quite broke into the rank of the top British bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s, Family were nevertheless fascinating during their five-year-or-so-run. They unpredictably mixed various shades of blues, funky jazz, pastoral folk, and even country into their sorta-prog rock, though without melodic hooks as memorable as another group with slightly similar eclectic blends, Traffic. Roger Chapman’s bleating vocals were never going to have the mass appeal of Stevie Winwood, but certainly projected a distinctive personality, even if some would find them an acquired taste. Family were also quite capable at matching their intricate studio arrangements in concert, as this mammoth eight-disc set proves.
Even given that Family were far more successful in the UK (where they had four Top Ten albums and three Top Twenty singles) than in the US (where they barely charted), it’s amazing how often they played on the BBC. This box features 95 tracks from no less than 20 different Beeb broadcasts, spanning November 1967 to May 1973. Many of them have come out on CD before, but twenty make their first appearance here. And a DVD presents nine performances from five different programs in 1969-1971, mostly in color.
The songs that will arouse most interest among hardcore Family fans are those that didn’t appear on their official studio releases. “Bring It On Home” isn’t the famous Sam Cooke soul hit, but the Willie Dixon song that Sonny Boy Williamson recorded at Chess. “I Sing ‘Em The Way I Feel,” issued by bluesman J.B. Lenoir on an obscure 1963 single, is an even greater testament to the depth of their blues collection. “Blow By Blow” is a six-minute jam with some similarity to “A Song for Me.” A 1973 concert-closing “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu,” however, falls into the category of “must have been fun to play,” but hardly indicative of the band’s core strengths.
All of those tracks have appeared on previous Family archival releases, which makes the twenty that are available for the first time of special note. Of particular value are Top Gear sessions from November 1967 and April 1968 predating the release of their debut album Music from a Doll’s House, including not just previews of six songs from that LP, but also their beguiling 1967 non-LP debut psychedelic single, “Scene Through the Eyes of a Lens.” While the fidelity on these two sessions and some other early broadcasts are obviously “off-air,” they sound fine and perfectly listenable, the whole box benefiting from considerable sonic cleanup.
Two other sessions—five songs from Colour Me Pop in May 1969, and another five from the Bob Harris Show in October 1972—also make their first appearance here. Family remained respectable to the end, but it’s a fair bet that UT readers will find the earlier half or so of this box the best. That’s the stuff that captures both Chapman and Family at their most sinister and haunting.
Although Family worked their way through much of their catalog on these broadcasts, inevitably this means there are multiple versions of many tunes—five apiece of “The Weaver’s Answer” (one of their best songs) and “Processions,” in fact. In common with most BBC performances, they’re not so drastically different that they redefine the compositions, but have a good live feel at times looser and more spontaneous than the studio counterparts. As some of the BBC takes preceded the official vinyl versions, arrangements could be in the process of getting refined. The March 1969 rendition of “Holding the Compass,” for instance, is electric, though the one surfacing a year and a half later on their 1970 LP Anyway would be acoustic.
The DVD is not a superfluous throw-in; in fact, much of it’s spectacular. With the exception of the earliest clip (“Dim,” from March 1969), it’s in vivid color and looks great. True, the wildly gyrating blonde girl dancer and period solarization effects on the Top of the Pops “The Weaver’s Answer” are a little distracting, but very much in the spirit of period fun.
Gearheads will thrill to the sight on some numbers—seldom duplicated by other bands, as far as I know—of two double-necked guitars in the same lineup (combining standard electric six-strings, a twelve-string, and a bass into two instruments). While he was in the group, also cool were the unusual contributions of Poli Palmer, whose electric vibraphone and flute added exotic instruments rarely employed in rock music. Strictly speaking, the four songs from a 1970 appearance on Doing Their Thing don’t belong here as that was broadcast on ITV rather than the BBC, but no one’s complaining.
For all its bulk, Family at the BBC doesn’t include everything they did on radio and film. Twenty-one songs from eight separate 1967-72 broadcasts (all detailed in the liner notes) haven’t survived, or been found. There’s also some other Family footage, such as their spots on the German TV show Beat Club, and their appearance in Stamping Ground, the obscure concert documentary of the 1970 Kralingen Music Festival in Holland. And while the group worked their way through much of the material on their albums over the course of the broadcasts compiled on this box, of course the studio recordings remain more definitive—and numerous, with plenty of bonus tracks augmenting their LPs on various compilations.
But for serious Family fans, this is a worthwhile if hefty investment that’s a significant supplement to their primary body of work. Packaging-wise, it could hardly be bettered, with a bound-in 52-page hardback book of liner notes that include meticulous details on the sessions; a Family family [sic] tree; and plenty of photos, along with a repro poster of their September 15, 1969 concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall. It’s a testament to the live sound of the band that, as John Peel notes in his introduction to their January 1970 session, was “one group that I would travel continents to see.” (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things.)
8. Various Artists, Diggin’ in the Goldmine: Dutch Beat Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the Dutch Beat Era and Beyond(Pseudonym). Astonishing in its size and scope for such a niche genre, this eight-CD box of 1965-70 Dutch rock surveys arguably the most productive ‘60s scene from a non-English speaking country. Nor does it even stick with the most well known tracks and acts, offering many rarities that had seldom or never been heard even by Dutch beat collectors, whether by the “big names” like the Outsiders or no-names who made just one or two 45s that are impossible to find.
As the box shows, derivative as many Dutch acts may have been of overseas rock trends (especially British Invasion bands), they also developed a distinctly regional sound that wasn’t mere imitation British R&B. The Dutch groups added a distinctively morose, sullenly rebellious attitude that carried a massive chip on its shoulder. Bluesy guitar and harmonica riffs were twisted into something strangely sinister, as was the English language, even if that might have had as much to do with writing in English as a second-language as deliberate lyricism.
While the box isn’t as strong or consistent as the two Nuggets boxes that are the kind of standard-bearers for the ‘60s garage/freakbeat genres, they document a vibrant scene that wasn’t just raw punk and freakbeat by the likes of the Outsiders, Les Baroques, and Q65, though it’s heavily represented. Acid folk, blue-eyed soul, guitar pop, hard rock, and other offshoots are also on board, testifying to the incredible productivity of a country that didn’t really get its rock into gear until 1965 or 1966.
Some standouts fall well outside the Dutch beat stereotype, like Nona’s weird folk “The Other Side of the Mountain”; Roek’s Family’s “Get Yourself a Ticket,” which is slightly risqué pop that’s almost like a more rock-oriented “Je T’Aime…Moi Non Plus”; and Phoenix’s very credible Hendrix tribute/emulation “Ode to Jimi Hendrix,” the last track on the box. Dream’s hard rock “Rebellion” has some killer organ and guitar. There’s breezy pop that owed more to Merseybeat than freakbeat by acts like the Golden Earrings (before their name change to Golden Earring).
The box is enhanced by a 204-page hardback book of photos, memorabilia, and liner notes by Mike Stax, editor and publisher of the top ‘60s rockzine, Ugly Things. Besides track-by-track descriptions, it even includes rarity values for the original discs on which the tracks appeared, some of which are in the several hundreds of Euros. There’s much more Dutch beat elsewhere by the best acts represented on this anthology, but this has a representative span of much of the best and rarest, without duplicating a lot of what’s available on the more high-profile reissues. You can read more about the box in my interview with Mike Stax for the pleasekillme.com site.
9. Fleetwood Mac, Before the Beginning: 1968-1970 Rare Live & Demo Sessions (Sony). This peculiar release has three CDs, and three and half hours, of recordings from the Peter Green era of Fleetwood Mac that hadn’t been officially released. Despite “demo” getting equal billing with “live sessions” in the subtitle, almost all of it’s live. Presumably all of it’s from 1968-1970, but despite fine and detailed liner notes in the 44-page booklet, the exact sources of the tracks aren’t cited. In fact, those are about the only details not specified in the liner notes, which otherwise comment at length about all of the songs and performances, as well as giving a good deal of historical context for the Peter Green period.
Gleaning what you can from the cloudy clues in the packaging, it seems like a good deal of the earlier material hails from a summer 1968 concert, or concerts, on their first US tour. A good deal of the later material seems to come from the US tour spanning December 1969 to February 1970. Only three tunes are represented by multiple versions (and then just twice each). The four tracks (there are only four) identified as demos are only referred to as “studio quality recordings” with little info, though they certainly sound like performances that have been bootlegged (in worse fidelity) on compilations of Fleetwood Mac BBC tracks. These and three of the live cuts on disc three are described in the notes as originating from 1968 “recordings done for different promotional shows,” one of the vaguest labels I’ve ever read applied to rarities. Also vague: a “horn-like harmonica player” is praised for contributions to a couple live numbers, but not identified, or even acknowledged as unknown.
According to the superdeluxeedition.com site, “the recently discovered recordings [for the collection] date from 1968 and 1970 and were discovered unlabeled in the US, so not much is known about them other than they have been authenticated by experts and approved for released by Fleetwood Mac.” It’s almost as if there’s a reason someone’s hiding or deliberately failing to disclose the origins of the material. Its the kind of thing associated with gray area releases, except that this was approved by the band (according to superdeluxeedition.com), “lets us re-live the power of the original Fleetwood Mac on stage with material personally selected by Peter Green” (according to the liner notes), has those lengthy in-depth liner notes, and has come out on a major label.
That long-winded explanation of why I can’t give you more precise source notes out of the way, the music is on the whole worthwhile, if (like all of the Peter Green-era catalog) uneven. The sound quality’s good, and the performances generally very good, avoiding the kind of too-long jams heard on some of the other early live Fleetwood Mac that has made it into official or unofficial circulation. Overall I prefer it to the most well known such material, that being several albums worth of early 1970 Boston recordings that have been packaged under numerous different titles. There’s a mix of some of their most famous songs (“Oh Well (Part 1,” “Rattlesnake Shake,” “The Green Manalishi,” “Albatross”), quite a bit of the straight blues at the base of their early repertoire, some of the mediocre rock’n’roll oldies they could never resist inserting into their sets, and some songs that didn’t make it onto the three late-‘60s LPs with Green. The distance between their very best stuff and their lesser output was wider with early Fleetwood Mac than with almost any other major rock group, but the best of this batch is very fine, and most of the rest at least satisfactory.
Highlights include a nine-minute version of B.B. King’s “Worried Dream,” which doesn’t get dull and features some magnificent slow-sad Green blues riffs. The performance of “Albatross,” not much different from the hit single, is very good too, and the cover of Otis Rush’s “Homework” sensational (I think the latter might be from a French TV program). It’s good to have a longer, live take on one of Green’s best obscure originals, “I Loved Another Woman,” though this and a few other cuts have some periodic faint vocals. “Before the Beginning,” another of Green’s best not-so-famous compositions, is rendered with despondent eloquence, though it ends rather abruptly. If you want real long variations, “Shake Your Money Maker” is eight minutes, Danny Kirwan’s “Coming Your Way” eleven minutes, “The Green Manalishi” almost twelve, and “Rattlesnake Shake” thirteen (though there are much longer versions of “Rattlesnake Shake” around). Too bad, though, that the first part of “I Need Your Love So Bad” is missing.
Although they’re a minor part of the set percentage-wise, the tracks tagged as demos (though I believe they’re from the BBC) are some of the best. In fact, one of them’s the very best cut – a version of Willie Dixon’s “You Need Love,” originally recorded by Muddy Waters in the early 1960s, and the basis for key parts of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.” It’s a terrific version, with dual guitar riffing, a jittery propulsive beat, and one of Peter Green’s best vocals, alternately commanding and playful. And it sounds much clearer here than it has on bootlegs. The demo (again, I think, BBC) cover of T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World” is a really good blues shuffle, and the other two demo/perhaps BBC numbers are solid enough as well. “You Need Love” alone justifies this set’s release—and if you’ve had enough of such clichéd boasts in reviews by writers who get some stuff free (though I did pay $14.99 for a used copy), you’ll be relieved to know this three-CD set was selling for a reasonable $18.98 at my local large indie store.
As a final note, fewer bands have been as heavily documented on above-ground and underground discs as early Fleetwood Mac, considering they only put out three proper LPs with Green. In my collection, I count, besides those three LPs, an official two-CD set of BBC broadcasts; about eight or nine official CDs’ worth of studio outtakes; seven official CDs or so worth of live recordings; one unofficial CD of BBC recordings; and seven CDs of unofficial live recordings. There’s even more out there. And maybe even more will come out officially, though for the time being, it’s hard to imagine too many fans craving additional helpings.
10. Manfred Mann, Radio Days Vol. 1-4 (East Central One Limited). Since Manfred Mann were one of the more popular British bands of the ‘60s, and still had sizable (if more sporadic) success going into the ‘70s, it’s not a surprise they recorded plenty of BBC sessions. The sheer bulk of this new series still takes you aback. The eight discs span 1964-1973, and take in not just many hits, but also lots of lesser-known B-sides and album tracks. There are also a good number of covers, and even some originals, they never put out on their studio releases. And the third volume digs beyond the BBC vaults to unearth more than a CD’s worth of soundtrack recordings and commercial jingles, throwing in some outtakes and a non-LP 45. It’s maximum Manfred.
Manfred himself is the only guy to appear on all four sets, and while it’s probably not the intention of this series, cumulatively they illustrate how his group changed more than almost any other over the course of that decade. And not just via their numerous personnel changes, in which Mann was the only constant presence, and the outfit’s very name changed from Manfred Mann to Manfred Mann Chapter Three and Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Each of the four comps might almost have been recorded by different bands, so drastic were his gear shifts. Fleetwood Mac might have been the only comparably popular outfit who changed so much in their first ten years, to the point where they and the Manfreds were almost unrecognizable from when they started.
Each volume covers a distinct phase of Manfred Mann, volume one documenting the Paul Jones era. Even then Manfred Mann were kind of several bands in one, handling jazzy R&B and classy pop-rock with ease, and taking odd detours into other areas with less success. There’s no “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” here, as sadly several sessions spanning late 1963 to late 1964 don’t survive. Their other 1964-66 hits are represented, along with some standout LP/EP outings like “Groovin’,” “What Am I To Do,” “Look Away,” “Machines,” and “The One in the Middle.” In one of the many brief interview segments (from the original broadcasts) interspersed throughout the CDs, Jones discusses how he wrote “The One in the Middle” for the Yardbirds, who turned it down as “Keith Relf said that’s not my sort of personality.” There are two versions of a half dozen numbers, including a cool “Sha La La” where they throw in a deliberately subdued chorus that builds back to a full-throated finale.
As (in line with the great majority of BBC sessions from the era) the radio arrangements don’t vary enormously from the studio versions, the most curiosity will be aroused by the songs that aren’t otherwise available, particularly three penned by Paul Jones, though these are in some ways the most disappointing. Jones wrote some good tunes, but his compositions “That’s the Way I Feel” and “It Took a Little While” are by-numbers R&B workouts; “You Better Be Sure” is a bit livelier, and might have made acceptable filler on one of the later LPs he cut with the Manfreds. Weirder, though not good, is their unlikely novelty cover of the Hollywood Argyles’ “Long Hair, Unsquare Dude Called Jack” (co-written by Kim Fowley), dating from the brief period when Jack Bruce was in the group.
Volume two spotlights the Mike d’Abo era, in which Jones’s replacement sang a series of big UK hits from 1966-69, though only “The Mighty Quinn” also hit it big in the States. All of those are here (sometimes twice), along with some strong originals that many singles-buyers never heard, like “Each and Every Day” and “Cubist Town.” They also took the opportunity to play some covers that never made it onto this version’s ‘60s vinyl, like “Mohair Sam,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” “Hound Dog,” “The Letter,” “Fever,” “Abraham, Martin & John,” “She’s a Woman,” and “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man,” the last of which was the only song performed by both the Jones and the d’Abo lineups. Note that some of the versions of the hits use previously recorded backing tracks – sometimes taken from the official release — with vocal and instrumental overdubs. That might have saved time back in the day, but makes them less interesting than many another BBC session, whether by the Manfreds and countless other acts.
As the BBC-exclusive covers wouldn’t have been highlights of their records, the big attractions are a few originals that didn’t see the light of day at the time, some of which are rather different to what the d’Abo lineup were usually doing. The d’Abo-composed “Handbags and Gladrags” became far more famous via covers by Chris Farlowe and, more notably, Rod Stewart. Its failure to make a Mann LP (or even single) is vexing, and though d’Abo put it on his 1970 debut solo album, a fine full Manfred Mann BBC version is a highlight of this collection.
Also notable are two good Mike Hugg compositions the Manfreds never placed on their official discs, the pensive “So Long” (not the same as their cover of Randy Newman’s “So Long, Dad,” which is also here) and melodic ballad “Clair” (sung by Hugg himself, with bassist Klaus Voormann on flute). D’Abo’s to the fore on the pleasantly poppy “Oh What a Day” (also resurfacing on his 1970 LP, though Manfred Mann didn’t release a version). He previewed his solo career with his ballad “The Last Goodbye,” on which he sings and plays piano without backup from the rest of the group.
There was a significant gap between the almost bubblegum pop of some of their late-‘60s hits (a la “Ha! Ha! Said the Clown”) and the more serious work on some of their LPs of the time. That disappeared when Mann and Hugg reorganized the band as Manfred Mann Chapter Three, whose work occupies the third volume. Arguably they got too serious, their records offering a sort of turgid early progressive rock with pop/R&B speckles, albeit in an oft-intriguingly gritty way that could verge on the grimy. Some of it almost sounds like Dr. John gone prog, though Hugg isn’t in the same league as a vocalist.
This has versions of a few of the songs from their pair of LPs on both the BBC and Swedish radio, as well as enough rarities to confuse discographers for years to come. Hugg’s “Breakdown” (from the 1970 Swedish broadcast) isn’t available elsewhere, as far as I can tell. Neither is the go-go-flavored instrumental “Bluesy Susie,” a live version of which plays behind a fairly entertaining interview with Manfred’s wife (“my wedding night was spent going with a boyfriend to see Manfred play”). There are also different 45 versions of “Happy Being Me” and “Devil Woman”; mono demo versions of “Konekuf” and “Time” that are different from the ones on the first Chapter Three LP; three tracks from Chapter Three’s unreleased third album (the burbling circular riffs of “So Sorry Please,” recorded July 1970, vaguely anticipating some of the synthesizer riffs on 1971’s Who’s Next); and a song they contributed to the soundtrack of the B-movie Swedish Fly Girls.
And that’s just disc one of the third volume. Disc two has their pretty snazzy 1969-70 jingles for Michelin, Maxwell House, and ski fitness, as well as background music for a 1968 BBC play. Most of the CD, however, is devoted to their soundtrack to the 1969 sexploitation movie Venus in Furs. The film had no relation to the Velvet Underground classic, and neither did Mann and Hugg’s music, which was an eerie mix of avant-garde horror and downbeat jazz. There are too many repeated motifs, and the sound too lo-fi, to make this something you’ll spin often. But in a way it’s the most fascinating section of this whole series, uncovering a side of Manfred Mann’s music unlike most of the other work in his voluminous catalog.
Mann overturned his personnel, and his sound, yet again in the early ‘70s with Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Although he’d ultimately return to the top of the charts under this billing, their 1970-73 BBC sessions comprise the fourth and least interesting volume of this series. At least as determinedly prog-rock as Chapter Three, it wasn’t as eccentric, and pretty unlike Manfred’s ‘60s work, though there were links to the past in the choice of covers, particularly Randy Newman’s “Living Without You” and Bob Dylan’s “Get Your Rocks Off.” Dylan’s “Father of Day, Father of Night” gets a couple extended workouts (its studio counterpart would be one of the Earth Band’s most heavily played early-‘70s cuts on FM radio), and “Mighty Quinn” is revisited a couple times too. Leadbelly’s “Big Betty” had actually been recorded (as “Black Betty”), but not released, by the d’Abo lineup, and “Dealer” was a revamp of an LP track (“Dealer, Dealer”) from the d’Abo days.
It could be that prog-heads find volume four of this series the best of the lot, and have the least use for the Paul Jones days – and that British Beat fans feel exactly the opposite. You’d need to have very broad taste to like all four volumes more or less equally. But as they’ve been released separately, that’s not an issue if you want to give one or more a pass. The sound quality is usually good-to-excellent, and though some off-air recordings and soundtracks are not up to usual release standard, these are detailed as such in Mann biographer Greg Russo’s extensive liner notes. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things.)
11. John Renbourn, Unpentangled: The Sixties Albums (Cherry Tree). He was one of the finest British folk guitarists, but John Renbourn was overshadowed by both his band and the other guitar player in that band. With Bert Jansch, he gave Pentangle the best acoustic guitar team in the country. But his own records weren’t as exciting or groundbreaking as his group’s. Nor were his own records as exciting as Jansch’s, since he wasn’t quite as creative a guitarist, and more decisively not as good a singer or songwriter. Despite his unquestioned virtuosity and eclectic mastery of folk and blues styles, his best contributions were as part of a unit, not as the focus of a spotlight.
That doesn’t mean his ‘60s work outside Pentangle wasn’t worthwhile. And while none of the six albums on this box set are that hard to get elsewhere, it’s handy to have all of them in one place, with a 24-page illustrated booklet of historical liner notes. Each of the albums is housed in a sleeve replicating the original front and back covers, and all but one has bonus material, though not so much that it’s an automatic acquisition for Renbourn fans.
The heart of the CD-sized box is in the three solo albums: the 1966 self-titled debut, the follow-up Another Monday (from later in ’66), and the tongue-twistingly titled Sir John Alot of Merrie Englandes Musyk Thyng & Ye Grene Knyghte, issued in 1968 almost simultaneously with Pentangle’s debut LP. There’s also 1966’s Bert and John, which isn’t so much a dry run for Pentangle as a kind of capstone for Jansch and Renbourn’s pure folk era. Filling out the set are the two albums he did with expatriate American singer Dorris Henderson (1966’s There You Go and 1967’s Watch the Stars), which were sought-after rarities for many years, but made easily available on CD quite some time ago.
That’s quite a productive three-year run, considering he was also busy cementing folk-rock-pop stardom of sorts with Pentangle from 1967 onward. If these LPs weren’t on the level of Pentangle or Jansch’s, they have their pleasures, if fairly modest ones. The first two solo outings make for highly agreeable low-key, cool-out listening as he fluidly ambles between folk, blues, and various combinations of the two. Another Monday holds additional interest for the presence of a pre-Pentangle Jacqui McShee on low-profile vocals for a few tracks. If Renbourn’s singing was pretty faceless compared to Jansch or McShee, and not even quite as imbued with character as adequate British folk singers like Davy Graham, it doesn’t drag things down either.
Sir John Alot (as everyone refers to it for convenience) finds him branching out a bit, if not hugely, with some ventures into medieval-flavored music. There’s also some modest backing from other musicians, including hand drums by Pentangle’s Terry Cox, though it stops well short of the more-or-less folk-rock Pentangle themselves were generating at the same time. Mostly instrumental, Bert and John might have been taken as the ultimate British folk guitar summit meeting at the time, and was certainly appreciated by some rock musicians, Jimmy Page likely among them.
Renbourn takes a more secondary role on Henderson’s records, but he’s not an incidental accompanist. His guitar work is arguably more interesting than the vocals, which are okay but not up to the standard of McShee’s, to take an obvious comparison. The sole bonus cut to Watch the Stars, however, is an interesting oddity on a couple grounds. Her cover of “Message to Pretty” on a non-LP 1967 single, if indeed Renbourn is playing on it (the liners have no specific comments about the personnel), is the only time this set gets into pure electric folk-rock, done fairly well in this instance. It must also be one of the few Love covers by British artists of the time. Was it perhaps even the first to make it onto disc?
Other bonus cuts include a couple alternate versions from Sir John Alot; a song apiece from Jansch’s It Don’t Bother Me and Jack Orion albums (as Renbourn played on those tracks); and outtakes from John Renbourn, including the blues “Can’t Keep from Crying” and Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game.” Renbourn went on to make many more albums, but these are his most notable ones outside Pentangle, and worth attention by both Pentangle completists and ‘60s British folk fans in general. (This review originally appeared in Ugly Things.)
12. Bob Dylan, Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 (Sony Legacy). This might be stating the obvious, but this three-CD set would rank higher if I was more of a Dylan fan, or even more of a fan of this era of Dylan. Basically it focuses on John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline outtakes, with four tracks he performed with Earl Scruggs in 1970 for a Scruggs documentary. Which means the years in this package’s title should really have been 1967-1970, but no refunds are likely if you complain about the inaccuracy.
The highlights are the alternate takes of seven John Wesley Harding songs. While overall they’re not terribly different from the ones used on this quickly recorded LP, sometimes they’re a tad rockier than the ones selected, especially on a much faster “I Pity the Poor Immigrant.” Conversely, the alternate “As I Went Out One Morning” has a much slower, more irregular beat, and isn’t as good as the official version, but is at least different. Never having liked Nashville Skyline much, I wasn’t too interested in the alternates for that LP, the exception being “Take 2” of “Lay Lady Lay.” Though hardly inadequate, it’s inferior to the hit single in every way, particularly as Kenneth Buttrey had yet to play his cowbell and bongo percussion. Technically speaking, it’s not previously unreleased, as it was available “as a digital download with iTunes pre-orders of Together Through Life.”
Almost twenty Dylan-Johnny Cash duets from February 1969, many of them long bootlegged, take up about half the collection. It’s nice to have these in better sound quality, including a few tracks (like “Wanted Man”) that haven’t shown up on bootlegs I’ve seen. But while the rockabilly-cum-country-rock treatments are fun to hear, they still sound rushed and ragged, with Cash’s vocals and songs far more to the foreground than Dylan’s. Filling out the set are the audio from a few songs Dylan did on Cash’s TV show in 1969; a couple Self-Portrait outtakes from May 1969; and the folky, and marginally interesting, Scruggs-Dylan collaborations. The annotation’s decent (though not exhaustive), but it’s one of the less essential installments in Dylan’s Bootleg Series, even as it diligently documents the leftovers from his Nashville country-rock phase.
The Self-Portrait outtake of “Folsom Prison Blues,” by the way, starts accelerating like an out-of-control locomotive near the end. It’s worth reviving Paul Cable’s observation on this cut in his book Bob Dylan: His Unreleased Recordings: “All Dylan can find to do with it is speed it up to a ludicrous rate as the end of the song approaches. If this was not the musicians playing a joke on him it must have been Dylan deciding he wanted to get this whole Nashville bit out of the way as soon as possible.”
13. Julie Driscoll, Brian Auger & the Trinity, This Wheel’s on Fire: The Lost Broadcasts (Vogon). There are no liner notes, or annotation as to when and where these tracks were recorded, on this gray area-looking release (nice color cover photo, though). That diminishes its value somewhat. But if you can cope with the absence of context, it’s a solid collection of late-‘60s-sounding radio and/or TV broadcasts, with pretty good sound that never has lo-fi bootleg quality. Besides featuring this British soul-rock/jazz/slightly psych act’s sole big hit, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” it also has some of their better known songs (a cover of David Ackles’s “The Road to Cairo,” “Save Me,” “A Kind of Love-In,” “Why Am I Treated So Bad”) and less traveled items like “Shadows of You” (a really swinging treatment that’s the disc’s highlight) and “I’m Going Back Home.” There’s also a song from Driscoll’s 1969 solo album, “A New Awakening” (no details about whether this version was cut with Auger, natch). Also present are some instrumentals spotlighting Auger’s organ (again, no info on whether these were done with the Trinity), including an almost unrecognizable arrangement of “A Day in the Life.” I find Auger’s organ more impressive than Driscoll’s singing, but their combination was unusual and interesting, if not destined to last considering their individual ambitions.
Also out this year on the London Calling label is a less impressive collection of a dozen Driscoll/Auger/Trinity live/TV recordings, Live on Air 1967-68. A problem is that they didn’t vary their repertoire too much for these performances, which include three versions of “Save Me,” two of “Season of the Witch,” two of “Tramp,” and two of “Red Beans and Rice.” At least it has an orchestrated cover of Nina Simone’s/the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” that’s not found on their studio releases. It also has basic liner notes that at least give dates and locations for all of the tracks, though on the whole it’s not as impressive or adventurous in its material and execution as The Lost Broadcasts.
14. Tim Buckley, Live at the Electric Theatre Company Chicago, 1968 (Manifesto). Can you have too much previously unreleased live Tim Buckley? Not if you’re as much of a fan like I am, but even I have to concede some of those archive recordings aren’t for everyone, or even for frequent listening by fans. This double CD of live recordings from May 1968 falls into this category, as indeed does much of his posthumous live discography, which now include about a dozen discs’ worth. When you add on a few CDs of studio outtakes, there’s now way more posthumously issued stuff in Buckley’s catalog than what he managed to put out while he was alive—and he was fairly prolific in generating official albums when he was alive.
This isn’t everyone’s opinion, but I find most of Buckley’s live tapes markedly inferior to his studio output. He really did benefit from good production and full arrangements, which fortunately he often had. Outside the studio his songs, particularly on his more acoustic-oriented sets, were more bare-bones, and tended much more to sound like each other. That’s true of these performances, on which he’s backed only by Carter C.C. Collins on congas and an unidentified bass player. And like plenty of artists in concert, he often went on for too long.
So what’s this doing on this list, if near the bottom? His voice was so good it’s always good to hear it, even if it’s often more interesting here than the material. The songs include a good number of pieces he didn’t put on his studio albums, among them the largely instrumental “Look Out Blues” and, more interestingly, “The Father Song,” though that was heard in the obscure film Changes. Among the covers are Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” which he somehow stretches to almost eight minutes in a nearly unrecognizable interpretation. Much more satisfying is Fred Neil’s “Dolphins,” sung and played well here, and the definite highlight of the set. Add good liner notes with comments by Buckley songwriting collaborator Larry Beckett and sideman Lee Underwood, and there’s enough here to make this worthwhile for Buckley collectors, though it’s not a place to start even in his posthumous catalog.
15. Janis Joplin, The 1969 Transmissions (Leftfield Media). No big surprises here on what looks like a gray area release, as it’s not on Sony, which handles Joplin’s solo catalog. This 76-minute CD simply presents good-sounding live performances from Amsterdam on April 1, 1969, and the Texas International Pop Festival on August 30 of the same year. A note on the back says this is from FM broadcasts, and while I’m not sure about that, the fidelity’s very good, about up to official release quality. It’s not much different from official live material that’s come out from other Joplin performances from that year, and doesn’t have any big surprises in the set list. But her singing’s good and the backup decent (though not as inspired, if more polished, than Big Brother & the Holding Company). Plenty of her favorites are here, sometimes in multiple versions, like “Summertime,” “Combination of the Two,” “Ball and Chain,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Try (Just a Little Bit Harder).” There’s more from Amsterdam than Texas, the Amsterdam set getting the edge. A good supplement to your Joplin collection if you’re a big fan, though not absolutely vital.
16. Various Artists, Land of 1000 Dances: The Rampart Records 58th Anniversary Complete Singles Collection (Minky). Where do you list a four-CD box set in which just one of the discs is really good, and only about three-quarters of that one disc at that? Here, I guess. Rampart Records was one of several imprints run by Eddie Davis. It specialized for the most part in the kind of soul-pop-rock-Latin hybrids generated by numerous East Los Angeles acts in the 1960s and early ‘70s, most of them by Latino artists (as well as a few African-American ones). Spanning the singles issued on Rampart from 1961 to 1968, the first two CDs are kind of so-so. The two actual hits (Cannibal & the Headhunters’ “Land of 1000 Dances” and the Blendells’ “La, La, La, La, La”) are by far the best tracks.
Yet, at least relatively speaking, most of disc three catches fire, at least for the first fourteen of its eighteen tracks. Featuring 1968-72 singles, none by well known names, these are really fine soul-pop-Latin confections. Sometimes they have a gauzy production that helps make them sound about five years older than they actually were, but that’s part of what makes them cool. Even the cover versions—of “Evil Ways” and Bobbie Gentry’s “Mississippi Delta” by the Village Callers, and “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by the Invincibles—are worth hearing. You wouldn’t think Tommy James’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion” a logical choice for a soul harmony group cover, but the Invincibles pull it off very convincingly and well. There’s a dreamy production to some of the sweet romantic tunes that’s unlike most of the other soul of the era, and some Latin-rock toughness to the more uptempo arrangements. The Hummingbird 4’s 1972 instrumental “Cho Cho San” is guaranteed to hit the spot for anyone who liked El Chicano’s somewhat similar hit “Viva Tirado.”
Unfortunately, the last four songs on CD three, and most of CD four (which has 1976-1991 recordings), are kind of terrible, with a lot of space for mediocre disco. The value’s enhanced by a good book of detailed liner notes (most by the late Don Waller) and fine photos, and if CD three was a standalone disc that cut off the four late-‘70s disco numbers, it would have made the top ten. It’s not, so it’s kind of in the honorable mention/just-sneaked-into-the-bottom part here.
17. Booker T. & the MG’s, The Complete Stax Singles Vol. 1 (1962-1967)(Real Gone). The best early Booker T. & the MG’s singles, like “Green Onions,” “Soul Dressing,” and “Hip Hug-Her,” tend to make it onto their best-of compilations. They’re also quite a bit better than most of their other singles, whether tracks from the A-sides and B-sides. Still, it’s neat to have everything from their first five years of 45s on one 29-track CD. The playing’s always sharp and often stellar, even if some of the material is run-of-the-mill R&B. There are also some good cuts that aren’t well known, like their moody-verging-on-spooky interpretation of the oft-covered “Summertime” and the delicately minor-keyed “Winter Snow,” one of those rare Christmas-affiliated discs that wholly avoids sappiness. I don’t have too much more to say about this collection, but there’s plenty about their early years in the 16-page booklet.
18. Jimi Hendrix, Songs for Groovy Children: The Fillmore East Concerts (Legacy). Back in 1970, six songs from Hendrix’s January 1, 1970 show at the Fillmore East comprised the Band of Gypsys album. Since then, additional material from all four of the sets he did at the Fillmore East on December 31, 1969 and January 1, 1970—with Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums—has come out on an assortment of subsequent releases, and sometimes only on concert film, or in edited versions. This five-CD box presents, for the first time, everything from all four of the sets. Seven of the tracks haven’t been available anywhere. So for these reasons alone, it’s an historic document.
But what about the listening experience? Opinions on Hendrix’s catalog vary strongly, and one school feels this more R&B-oriented, post-Experience approach with African-American musicians is what he should have followed, or even been following all along. Mine is that this trio wasn’t nearly as good as the Experience with Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding. They don’t do the Experience-era songs as well, and the more recent compositions by Hendrix weren’t as good as his earlier ones. And despite the skill of the players, plenty of the tunes meander or go on too long.
As this is Hendrix (with Buddy Miles taking vocals on a few songs), this is still worth hearing. “Machine Gun” alone, heard in three separate versions, validates this era, even if none of his other newer compositions were up to that epic. Billy Cox’s liner notes are interesting, and the booklet has plenty of cool photos. But I can’t say I’ll pull this out for nearly as much listening as my favorite Hendrix recordings, accounting for its low slot on this list.
Getting honorable mentions, as well as fulfilling the all-important task of padding this list into a round number of twenty, are two albums that were released in 2018, but which I didn’t get to hear until 2019:
1. David Bowie, The Lost Sessions (2018, Leftfield Media). While this double CD is almost certainly an unauthorized release, that hasn’t kept it from being sold online through the most mainstream commercial outlets, or in fact from being stocked by a public library in my area. Nonetheless, it’s a useful supplement to the official Bowie at the Beeb compilation, gathering 1967-71 radio sessions (as well as a couple stray outtakes, a brief 1966 interview, and a 1972 TV appearance) that didn’t make it onto that two-CD collection. There’s nothing in the way of songs unavailable in any form elsewhere, except the unexceptional 1970 studio outtake “Tired of My Life.” But there are a good number of performances of relatively obscure items from his catalogue, like “Little Bombardier,” “When I Live My Dream,” “Width of a Circle,” and “Amsterdam.” The sound’s usually pretty good, but only fair on the eight tracks from February 5, 1970. Other strikes against it: five other tracks from that February 5, 1970 broadcast have long been available on bootleg, but are not present here. And the liner notes are almost nonexistent, although at least the dates and sources of the original broadcasts are listed.
2. The Beach Boys, Wake the World: The Friends Sessions & I Can Hear Music: The 20/20 Sessions (2018, iTunes). It’s hard to say whether these things qualify as “albums” these days, since they’re only commercially available as downloads from iTunes. Still, they do add up to three CDs of outtakes from late-‘60s Beach Boys LPs, issued just in time to extend their copyright, a la some other iTunes-only releases by big acts. Maybe they should be considered as two reissues, but I’m combining them into one review here as the batch came out all at once, and almost everything was recorded pretty close to each other.
I’m not nearly as big a fan of Friends or 20/20 (or for that matter any of their post-Smile recordings) as some other Beach Boys cultists are. Here we have leftovers and works-in-progress from LPs that weren’t among their best, or even particularly great. The modest hit singles from these albums—“I Can Hear Music,” “Do It Again,” and “Friends”—are still by far the most memorable tracks. Some of the covers are really ill-suited for the group, whether tunes that ended up coming out on the albums like “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” or “Cottonfields,” or weird choices that didn’t (“My Little Red Book”). Like the 1967 Beach Boys outtakes that came out recently, a lot of these are fragments, or have a backing track/incomplete feeling, like the almost grim instrumental version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Rock and Roll Woman,” though original material dominates.
So what’s the good news? It’s still almost always nice to hear their harmonies, which still sound identifiably Beach Boys and like no other group, even when their material had changed enormously from just two or three years before these sessions. The arrangements and melodies might not be a match for that classic era either, but they’re often eccentric enough to keep your interest. They frequently hit a weird zone between the almost experimental and a desire to be accessible that just can’t be suppressed. Even some of the incomplete-sounding compositions are considerably attractive, above all “Been Too Long” (also known as “Can’t Wait Too Long”). It sounds like a nice hook in search of some more lyrics to fill out verses, or a chorus in search of the rest of the song. So you can file this in the “good to have” section if you’re a big Beach Boys fan, with the caution that it’s even more peripheral than many such outtake collections are.
There’s no subject too big or little for rock books these days. Memoirs by and bios of superstars and obscure cult figures; overviews of entire genres; a 920-page reference book that covers just one country and one decade; coffee table photo productions; even a bit of fiction – they’re all here. It’s a more fertile ground for me these days than rock reissues or film documentaries, and more time-consuming, since you can listen to or watch records and movies in an hour or two, but most books take up more time than that. Sometimes considerably more time, when you get in the 500-1000 page realm, as a few of these do.
It’s so hard to keep up that it’s impossible for me to get to (or even become aware of) everything I’d like by the end of the calendar year in which they’re published. So, as usual, this adds some 2018 titles to the end of the main 2019 list. More than usual, actually, since there are almost ten of them. No one’s griped about my doing this in years past, but if this is thought to be cheating somehow, my feeling is it’s better to review these books at some point—and really, 2018 wasn’t so long ago—than not at all. I’m sure there will be some 2019 books supplementing my 2020 list, impurifying my legacy even more.
It’s a close race, as usual, between the #1 and #2 picks, whose order could easily be reversed. If a tiebreaker’s needed, I usually go with the subject that hasn’t been as fully documented elsewhere, as I did for this list.
1. That’s the Bag I’m In: The Life, Music and Mystery of Fred Neil, by Peter Lee Neff (Blue Ceiling). The subtitle isn’t hype: more mystery surrounds Fred Neil’s life than that of almost any other significant cult figure, from folk-rock or ‘60s rock or otherwise. It seems like making a 300-page biography would be an impossible task given the absence of crucial hard information about the singer-songwriter, who only gave one print interview (and that a not very in-depth one). Considering the obstacles, Neff did a heroic job of uncovering a lot of previously undocumented details, including Neil’s real name (Fred Morlock), his upbringing (wayward but not quite as volatile as some have speculated), and his time as a Brill Building songwriter and sporadic recording artist in New York in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. His mid-‘60s prime—when he recorded folk-rock classics like “Everybody’s Talkin’,” “The Other Side of This Life,” and “The Dolphins”— properly gets the bulkiest coverage, with plenty of stories from associates and his many (often more famous) admirers. Plenty of hitherto unknown background comes to light, including the lowdown on several unreleased albums’ worth of live and studio recordings; session details for some of his best work; plans, unrealized, for him to play at Woodstock and, even more obscurely, Altamont; and a good number of rare and unpublished photos of the notoriously reclusive Neil.
Of more importance, the writing is of a very high standard—certainly way higher than it is for most self-published books, and many books about cult figures. Neff admires Neil’s work with fervor, but looks at his life with commendable objectivity. He points out not only his oft-overlooked generosity, but also his problems with drugs, women, and the music business (which seemed to have taken more advantage of him than it did of most comparable figures). One surprise is speculation, backed up by some evidence, that Neil might have been dyslexic to the point where literacy was a true problem, explaining to some degree his struggles with contractual and financial matters. His post-1970 activities, or perhaps more accurately inactivity, are also examined, and don’t take up more space than necessary, considering his musical output was sporadic and eventually dwindled to nothing.
Even with the book’s considerable length, much mystery still does remain about Neil. Particularly, why he wrote so little after his classic 1966 Fred Neil album; why he performed so little in the wake of his best work; and why he seemed reclusive not just to the point of zealous privacy, but near-mania. Those mysteries probably can’t be unraveled any more than Neff did here, even though he interviewed many people who knew Neil. One gets the sense that Neil wouldn’t have had much or anything to say even if he’d been cornered into a retrospective interview. But as much as fans might
hunger for more detail on the deep-voiced, enigmatic songwriter—a big influence, as often testified in these pages, on a great many singer-songwriters who became more famous (including David Crosby, Stephen Stills, occasional collaborator John Sebastian, Joni Mitchell, Barry McGuire, Denny Doherty, Jerry Jeff Walker, Tim Buckley, and others)—there probably won’t be any more than you’ll find here.
2. Guitar King: Michael Bloomfield’s Life in the Blues, by David Dann (University of Texas Press). There have been some massive over-600-page rock bios in recent years. But they’ve usually been for pretty big names like the Beatles, the Byrds, and Ray Davies, and not for somewhat lesser known, if still very significant, artists from the same era. Michael Bloomfield’s one such figure, and this is one such book, running to about 750 pages. That might scare off some potential readers, but remarkably, there’s very little filler in a volume that’s both extremely detailed and a very enjoyable read from beginning to end. With deep research that extends to quite a few unreleased live and studio tapes, Dann covers the blues-rock guitarist’s journey from Chicago blues through stardom, or something close to it, with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the Electric Flag, and collaborations with Al Kooper.
Bloomfield’s descent after the ‘60s was a long and painful one, but it’s still interesting to read about—more interesting, I dare say, than the erratic records he fitfully released during his last decade or so.
His problems with drugs, insomnia, and women are not ignored, and in fact are discussed pretty extensively, though not with sensationalism. The tragedy of his life isn’t only how he couldn’t maintain the artistic highs of the likes of the East-West Butterfield album and his work on Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. It’s also how he lost interest and motivation in maintaining significant creative musical output in the 1970s, in part because of his unwillingness to make the usual accommodations to the music business that are necessary to keep a career going.
The prose occasionally flirts with getting too in-depth. Readers probably don’t need to know a play-by-play of the Monterey Pop Festival lineup (everyone who played, not just the Electric Flag), for example. Bloomfield’s albums and live tapes are dissected song-by-song, which can be too exhaustive for the mediocre ones (and the author agrees that some were mediocre or flawed). But the quality of the writing’s very good, and some little-discussed works that deserve greater recognition get full due—I’m not sure there’s this much coverage of the Electric Flag’s The Trip soundtrack anywhere else, to take one instance. This is worth the considerable investment of time you’ll need to digest the whole tome, and a significant addition to blues-rock scholarship.
3. Outside the Gates of Eden, by Lewis Shiner (Subterranean Press). This is an arguable inclusion in a best-of list for music books. Not because of its quality (which is very high), but because it’s not exactly a music book, and not even non-fiction. Like some other novels and short stories by Lewis Shiner, however, it draws heavily on rock music. And unlike most authors that try to use rock in fiction, Shiner really does know a lot about rock history, and how rock musicians speak and act.
At first his latest and by far most ambitious book, Outside the Gates of Eden, seems to set the stage for another story set in the rock world. Hero (and sometimes anti-hero) Cole works his way up through ‘60s Texas teen garage bands to the Fillmore and the verge of rock stardom before seeming to throw it all away. The journey takes him through the college frat circuit, the San Francisco psychedelic scene, and Woodstock before it goes off course.
But Outside the Gates of Eden is much more than a tale—albeit much more convincing and realistic than almost any other—of a fictional rock almost-star. Its 870 pages take in many other characters and many other milieus of Cole’s generation. These journey from back-to-the-land communes and the snobbish New York art world to abusive police, broken families, and a struggle for integrity and justice that leads Cole and his best buddy into dangerous crime-ridden Mexican climes. And it somehow culminates fifty years after its mid-’60s launch with a high-stakes poker game in Mexico, where the stakes are higher than mere money, or even a mere life or two.
Cole’s struggle to regain a foothold in the music business might be the strongest thread of the book’s latter sections, but it’s hardly the only one. There are also struggles between the political and lifestyle philosophies of different generations, especially with Cole and his estranged father. There’s a delicate balance of family and romantic relationships, always threatening to fall off a high-wire as the characters change, sometimes radically, and at different rates. There are insider takes, unfortunately pretty accurate as far as this music journalist can tell, of the ruthlessness of the music industry.
Not least, although saved mostly for the last, there are the main characters’ quests—as they grow from middle age into senior citizens—to help do their part for environmental and social sustainability in the time they have left. It’s not only an urgent attempt to hang on to the idealism they’d first cultivated in the ‘60s; by the time of the book’s conclusion near 2016, it’s become an absolute necessity. It’s not just the story of a generation, but of an uncertain future, even as it gets ready for the final phase of its life.Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic, both in scale and sheer length.
It’s a tribute to Shiner’s strength as a writer, however, that it’s a riveting read that never sags. Besides taking on very big questions, from the value of capitalism to the sacrifices one makes both for art and the planet, it’s just plain entertaining. And if you are a rock fan, this might stand out, as it does to me, as one of the few works of fiction with strong rock elements that ring, as I wrote in a back cover blurb, “with journalistic authenticity and painstakingly accurate detail.”
Which leads into a disclaimer: I did write one of the back cover blurbs for Outside the Gates of Eden. I’m also prominently thanked in the Author’s Note, as I helped show Shiner around San Francisco (particularly Haight-Ashbury) one weekend as he researched some of that painstaking detail. I also read a draft and gave him some general notes/feedback, including clarifications about the kind of rock history details he wants to make sure are right, whether it’s when something happened at the Jefferson Airplane house, or who exactly was in the Yardbirds at a certain San Francisco show.
But whether or not I’d become friends with Lewis, I would have put Outside the Gates of Eden high on this list. Elsewhere on this blog, you can read my interview with him about the book shortly after it was published in spring 2019.
4. Janis: Her Life and Music, by Holly George-Warren (Simon & Schuster). For all her fame, there was only one good and thorough Janis Joplin biography, Alice Echols’s Scars of Sweet Paradise, before this one. While both are worth reading and there’s inevitable overlap between the two, I’d give this the edge since, as the title indicates, this pays some more attention to Joplin’s music. It doesn’t bypass her colorful personal life, but too much Joplin literature emphasizes the sensationalistic aspects of her career (and there were many), and/or her status as a cultural/feminist icon. Those features are important and noteworthy, but her music is what’s most important.
It’s covered in depth here, with lots of description of both released and unreleased recordings, as well as first-hand interviews with associates and research into archives and personal letters. While there’s lots of detail, it’s also a fast and absorbing read. Her post-Big Brother output might get less space than the two-and-a-half years with Big Brother, but at a little more than 300 pages, it doesn’t skimp on anything crucial. Her sometimes murky activities, musical and otherwise, in the first half of the 1960s are tracked with as much diligence as they ever have. Two good inserts with dozens of photos too, some uncommon.
5. CSNY: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, by Peter Doggett (2019, Atria). For all their massive fame, this is the first really good book about Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Although their prime only lasted for the year and a half after they formed (and Neil Young was only aboard for the final half or so of that period), there’s more than enough to fill 330 pages, even if it rightly focuses almost exclusively on that era. Doggett dug deep into their unofficial studio and live archives, and if for nothing else, his work’s valuable for sorting out the mass of confusing and sometimes contradictory accounts of such basic elements as where and when they formed. The book also details not just the two studio albums CSN/CSNY did in 1969 and 1970, but also the extensive tendrils of other demos, live recordings, and outtakes they cut at the time, sometimes solo or without all three or four present. In addition, Doggett draws on interviews he’s done with CSN and some of their associates over the course of many years, as well as interviews they gave for others, some quite obscure.
As just a few examples of the relatively little-covered territory examined at length, there are accounts of their numerous failed (and sometimes ludicrously over-ambitious) film projects, or how exactly a non-Woodstock performance of “Sea of Madness” ended up on the Woodstock soundtrack. But the abundance of interesting trivia doesn’t overwhelm the main story, which focuses on how such talented but egotistic folk-rock performers managed to get together in the first place, and the fragile balance that made unity impossible to maintain, even as superstardom briefly reached near-Beatles levels. Wisely, it doesn’t stretch out the tale beyond its primary points of interest, taking care of their post-1974 tour reunion projects (many aborted) in just twenty pages.
Minor criticism: the primary sources for the many quotes are listed only once “to avoid repetition.” Some of us do care where all of these quotes appeared. If the aim was to save a lot of paper, in this day and age, it’s not too hard to post them online and include the link in the footnotes.
6. Galactic Ramble,edited by Richard Morton Jack(self-published; galacticramble.co.uk). When its first edition came out about ten years ago, Galactic Ramble seemed an unimaginably huge reference work for British music’s beat-to-prog prime. Its 530 pages combined vintage and newly written reviews for a vast range of British Isles LPs from the mid-‘60s to the mid-‘70s. Could a new edition even find that much more to document, let alone count as an essential purchase for serious fans and collectors?
The answer’s an emphatic yes. With more than 900 near-coffee-table-sized pages of three-column print and more than a million words, it’s not just radically expanded. It’s one of the biggest books of any sort you’re likely to own. Crucially, it’s not just or primarily lists of discographies, though the most essential release/label/catalog # info’s here. Under the guidance of Flashback magazine editor Richard Morton Jack, a team of a dozen or so expert writers/collectors review virtually all of the entries in descriptive depth, alongside extensive excerpts of reviews from the UK press at the time the LPs were issued.
Alongside entries for familiar stars and classics are thousands of reviews of albums seldom listed (let alone critiqued) in standard reference books, from major label flops to obscure indies and private pressings. There can’t be many other books that review fourteen Peter & Gordon LPs, to take one example. Although rock’s the main focus, quite a bit of jazz, folk, Christian rock, library music, and even school project records are also covered.
It’s also astounding how many vintage reviews Jack’s uncovered, and not just for the expected popular records. There are nine, for instance, of Peter Bardens’s solo debut, and eleven (!) for Trader Horne’s sole full-length. They’re sourced not just from the usual weekly papers like Melody Maker, NME, and Sounds, but from literally dozens of others as well, ranging from underground mags like IT and Oz to forgotten music business rags like Record Retailer. There’s even a Penthouse review of Bert Jansch’s debut, to cite one especially deep dive.
While the vintage reviews are of considerable value for giving us a sense of how these records (famous and otherwise) were received at the time, they’re also often more blandly positive than you’d expect, as if they have an eye toward trying to sell as well as judge product. It’s also a hoot to read some misfires on LPs now accepted as core classics. NME thought Van Morrison sounded “for all the world like Jose Feliciano’s stand-in” on Astral Weeks, putting the boot in (or deeper down its mouth) by adding, “Morrison can’t better or equal Feliciano’s distinctive style.” The same publication felt Nick Drake’s “voice reminds me very much of Peter Sarstedt, but his songs lack Sarstedt’s penetration and arresting quality.”
Written decades later, the retrospective reviews commissioned for this volume are not only usually substantially lengthier and more detailed, but also more knowledgeable and critically acute in their assessments. They’re also peppered with interesting trivia and clarifications, though not at the expense of highly readable, entertaining, and (usually) concise overviews of the music. Who would have thought the rare CBS double LP sampler Rock Buster, a 1970 release with a young Arnold Schwarzenegger on the cover, includes a completely different take of Trees’ “Polly on the Shore”?
Sometimes the fresh reviews might overreach in their cross-references to records that might draw a blank even with huge collectors. Patchy Fogg’s Today’s Weather, itself a pretty unknown item, “was released on the same label as Oberon, but is more comparable to bands like Galley or Gallery.” Sometimes the bolder assertions are almost spoiling for a fight, as when a Searchers review asks, “even as a singles band they didn’t leave us much to remember. Beyond ‘Needles and Pins,’ how many of their hits can you name?” And there’s revisionism that can cross the line to extremism, a review of Jesus Christ Superstar concluding, “Has there ever been a better rock opera? Certainly not Tommy.” Ack!
And for all its comprehensiveness, Galactic Ramble actually does miss a few titles here and there, or omit some artists some collectors would have liked to make the cut, like Irish folkies the Johnstons and Ronnie Lane post-Faces. It’s selective in US-only releases (no Got Live If You Want It! in the Stones section, for instance), and there’s little reggae. On the other hand, plenty of non-UK albums by British Isles artists (usually with material partially or wholly unique to the releases) do make the cut, including some variants even fans of the artists might be unaware of, as well as odd titles by British acts issued in the States but not at home, like Dana Gillespie’s well-regarded Foolish Seasons.
Other big pluses include reproductions of literally thousands of vintage LP ads with graphics ranging from the striking to absurd, some of them with text that’s quite interesting in and of itself, like Pete Townshend’s extensive comments on behalf of King Crimson’s debut; a couple inserts with full-color reproductions of dozens of particularly rare or peculiar-looking LP covers; an extensive introduction by producer David Hitchcock with insider insights into all facets of the UK record industry at the time; and numerous top ten lists that get into some real esoteric yet fascinating territory, a la “ten sleeves that rarely show up in top shape” and “ten LPs with cringe-making spoken sections.”
Vernon Joynson’s massive discographies covering the same era in various continents have their value, of course, and the late Patrick Lundborg’s The Acid Archives goes deep into American obscurities from the same era. Morton Jack’s own Endless Trip applies much the same approach as Galactic Ramble to North American releases. Galactic Ramble, however, is the best rock reference book to date for documenting a specific era with such detail and blend of enjoyable criticism with hard information. It’s expensive (£100, with shipping running to £35 if you’re not in the UK or EU), but essential for serious rock scholars, and won’t be around forever, as this hardback edition’s limited to 500 copies. (This review previously appeared in Ugly Things. You can read my interview with Morton Jack about the book here.)
7. Elvis in Vegas, by Richard Zoglin (Simon & Schuster). Title to the contrary, this isn’t totally a book about Elvis Presley’s stints in Las Vegas, though it takes up a good chunk of the text. It’s about as much a book about how Las Vegas entertainment took shape in the mid-twentieth century, and how Presley’s shows, specifically those in 1969 and 1970, changed the way it was presented. That’s not such a big deal, since the book’s very good, even if it might disappoint some Elvis fans expecting something different. In fact, more than half the book’s over with before it gets to his 1969 comeback shows, first dealing with how Las Vegas became a gambling capital, and how shows at the casinos and hotels evolved from the 1940s onward. Even if you’re not especially a fan of the kind of acts that blossomed there, like the Rat Pack, this is pretty interesting, laying out how the musicians and comedians were primarily there as loss leaders for the real money to be made from gamblers. But over decades, the kind of entertainment accompanying that business took on a life and character of its own, with glitz, schlock, and a haven for pop singers and standup comedians whose work was drying up as popular tastes shifted.
Presley fans, fear not: there’s a lot about Elvis too. Not just his comeback shows, but also his unsuccessful first series of Vegas shows in 1956, and his periodic stops in the town for R&R over the next ten years, as well as the film Viva Las Vegas. The buildup to his decision to return to performing after his 1968 TV special and artistic renaissance on record is also covered, and naturally the first series of shows in summer 1969 is extensively documented. The subsequent Las Vegas residencies are examined in steadily diminishing detail, which is okay, since they became less interesting as time went on. Zoglin also looks at how Presley’s Las Vegas shows both changed the city’s entertainment and how Presley’s concerts were influenced (if not enormously so) by the new era, including the stage act of another singer who made Vegas a second home, Tom Jones. The book also supplies the answer to an interesting trivia question: the only artist to play both Woodstock and Vegas in 1969. (Answer: Blood, Sweat & Tears.)
8. Up Jumped the Devil: The Real Life of Robert Johnson, by Bruce Conforth & Gayle Dean Wardlow (Chicago Review Press). As Robert Johnson’s life has been hazily documented in the absence of much hard evidence as to what happened when, it’s something of a miracle that a fairly lengthy biography has been constructed of the bluesman. Much about him remains and will likely remain mysterious. But this still pieces together many of the basics, drawing on painstaking grunt research and interviews with seemingly everyone who could have been found who knew or knew something about the man. Obviously many of those interviews took place decades ago, and it must have taken a long time for all or at least some of these pieces to fit together. Now we have a reasonably comprehensive account of Johnson’s rambles, music, and recordings, including his death (from poisoning, although the drink that did it seemed intended just to make him ill) at the age of 27 in 1938.
Occasionally there’s an overabundance of contextual detail (particularly in early sections detailing which relatives lived where) that could have been condensed. Yet it’s also for the most part very readable, avoiding the stilted academic prose some scholarly blues works fall into, and also steering clear of too much conjecture to fill in the gaps. The two recording sessions that yielded all of his recordings are discussed in depth, including how he got briefly jailed the night before the first day of these, and why it’s unlikely he recorded facing a wall (as an illustration for an early Johnson compilation intimated). John Hammond’s too-late search for Johnson to appear at a New York concert is noted, and it’s briefly relayed how he did try out an early electric guitar during a New York visit, but preferred to stick with an acoustic, though he liked the electric instrument’s volume.
There isn’t often much humor in books like this, but here’s a funny comment from the daughter of a guitarist the young Johnson learned from, Ike Zimmerman. “There wasn’t no crossroads,” states Loretha Zimmerman. “They went ‘cross the road.’” More soberly, Johnny Shines had this to say about Johnson and women: “Did Robert really love? Yes, like a hobo loves a train—off one and on another.”
9. Dick Waterman: A Life in Blues, by Tammy L. Turner (University of Mississippi). Dick Waterman was a booking agent, promoter, and manager for many blues artists during the 1960s blues revival. He continued to work with many of them after that decade, as well as managing Bonnie Raitt for many years at the start of her career. Waterman didn’t want to write his own memoir, but this biography almost reads like one, so extensively is he quoted. That works fine, since he’s a good storyteller, not just about the music of the artists he handled, but also about the ups and downs of the business end that most fans don’t see. That includes shepherding elderly bluesmen who haven’t played professionally for decades from gig to gig, trying to get back royalties for musicians who’ve seen little money, and even getting beaten up trying to defend a bartender at a club where his clients regularly played.
The list of artists with whom he worked closely, and tells quite a few stories about, is extremely impressive. Among them are Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy (it’s noted here that Apple Records expressed some interest in signing him), Fred McDowell, Maria Muldaur, and of course Raitt (with whom he had a romantic relationship for years, though her ascendance to superstardom happened after they parted ways. Also rather amazing, however, are the number of other interesting figures with whom he had significant interactions, not all of them from the blues world. Again, a partial list: the Rolling Stones, Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Dion, and Taj Mahal.
There are stories here and there that could have been cut or shortened, but most are very interesting, spanning the gamut from funny to tragic. Although it’s not a big part of the narrative, there’s also a sense of how difficult it was for Waterman to survive in this profession, falling into the outskirts of poverty not just as a youth, but throughout his career. Also included are some of the many photos he took in the ‘60s of the legends with whom he interacted.
10. My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed, compiled by Michael Heath and edited by Pat Thomas (Hat & Beard Press). Lou Reed was notorious for giving acerbic interviews and his hostility toward journalists. There’s certainly some of that in this collection of three dozen interviews spanning 1971-2007, many of them never reprinted before (or, in the case of a few radio interviews and press conferences, never printed anywhere before, to my knowledge). Yet he’s also, and not infrequently, pretty informative and straightforward, depending on whether he seems to respect and trust the interviewer. Anyone with an interest in Reed (and the Velvet Underground, who do come up in conversation fairly often although he’d left the band in 1970) will find a lot of comments with worthwhile perspectives and uncommon nuggets of trivia and recollections. Even the pieces in which he’s polite and friendly are usually spiced with some sarcastic and cutting remarks, some of them simply rude, but some also pretty funny and witty.
The sources range from high-circulation mags (Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, MOJO, Melody Maker) to unlikely mainstream publications (Hit Parader, Hits), big daily papers, Trouser Press, and the BBC to outlets where many wouldn’t think to look. Bob Reitman’s 1976 interview for the Milwaukee Bugle-American, for instance, is one of the better lengthy chats Reed gave (and virtually devoid of any rancorous attitude or game-playing). There’s even a 2003 interview with Kung-Fu magazine. Some of the writers were celebrities in their own right, including Lenny Kaye, Lance Loud, singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy, and, of course, Lester Bangs (though just one of his Reed articles, from the non-obvious source of Let It Rock, is here). Besides presenting the text of the original interviews, the original pages and covers are often also reproduced, though the type in those is so small you’ll be glad all of the text is also presented in readable size in the format used for most of the pages. It’s a welcome addition to the Lou Reed library, and you can read more about it in my interview with editor Pat Thomas.
11. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Wild, Definitive Saga of Rock’s Greatest Supergroup, by David Browne (Da Capo). It’s true: two very similarly titled biographies of CSNY came out at almost exactly the same time (the one by Peter Doggett is reviewed higher up the list). That must have delighted the authors and publishers no end. But readers basically win, since both are worth reading, even if I prefer Doggett’s. The main reason? Although the writing in both volumes is good, as noted in my rundown of Doggett’s, he focuses mostly on their brief late-‘60s/early-‘70s prime. Browne’s covers the whole, often painfully drawn out half century, including the many solo and side projects. In fact, about three-fourths of it is post-4 Way Street, which makes for a mighty long, slow (and sometimes steep) decline in musical value, at least in terms of CSN if not Y.
Still, Browne interviewed more than a hundred people, including Crosby and Nash (but not Stills and Young, who did not make themselves available). And though the sporadic actual post-‘70s reunions of the quartet (and to an only slightly lesser degree the CSN trio) were both disappointing and frustrating, their tumultuous personal lives make for pretty interesting reading, if in kind of an elongated train wreck way. Browne is overly generous in his assessment of much of their work (post-1970 CSN/CSNY and otherwise), but doesn’t hesitate to discuss the flaws in their weaker efforts.
Here’s something that still escapes me, however. In some interviews, and in the recent Remember My Name documentary, Crosby emphasizes his need to keep touring at an advanced age and precarious health just to support himself. According to the figures in this book, however, numerous post-‘80s CSN/Y tours have grossed quite a few millions of dollars. Could his financial struggles just possibly have something to do with living beyond his means, or at least considerable monetary mismanagement?
12. At the Birth of Bowie: Life with the Man Who Became a Legend, by Phil Lancaster (John Blake). Phil Lancaster was drummer in the Lower Third, the group that backed a young David Bowie for about eight months from around mid-1965 to early 1966. As their sole officially released output on disc amounted to two low-selling singles, it’s not a period of his development that’s received too much attention. Still, this recollection of that fairly brief period is a pretty good read for Bowie fans, and despite its 300-page length a pretty quick one, owing in part to its large print. Even so it’s a bit puffed up around the edges with some obvious asides and observations, but for the most part Lancaster sticks to the story, recounting Bowie’s stint with the Lower Third with as much detail as he can manage. Not only are their sessions (few as they were) with hit producers Shel Talmy and Tony Hatch pretty fully sketched out, but Lancaster also lists as much of their repertoire as he can remember, including some unreleased demos and unlikely covers, like “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (from Mary Poppins). There are also notes about their passing encounters with big British Invasion stars like the Who, Small Faces, the Pretty Things, and Ray Davies.
Bowie (still billed as Davy Jones when the first of the two singles appeared) really hadn’t found a distinctive style at this point, borne out by his first 45 with the Lower Third, “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving,” which owed a great deal to the early Who. Lancaster was a huge Who fan, and remembers the Lower Third playing with nosebleed volume at their live shows, though this largely was not reflected by their meager recorded output. They did cut a version of Bowie’s first outstanding song, “London Boys,” with Hatch, but as Lancaster relates in one of the most interesting sections, this was apparently withheld from release due to Pye Records’ uneasiness over its reference to pill-taking. Lower Third manager Ralph Horton helped split the act by focusing on Bowie and isolating the backing musicians, leading to their departure at an early ’66 gig when they demanded to be paid or not play at all. Despite the bitter ending, Lancaster looks back at both Bowie and the era with affection. Much of the book does capture the excitement of being on the mid-‘60s British rock circuit, even for groups like the Lower Third that were trailing the leaders of the pack.
13. Face It, by Debbie Harry (Dey St.). Harry’s memoir is largely entertaining and informative, though it falls prey to a few of the common flaws of rock star autobiographies. Chatty, candid, and sometimes rambling, it does largely stick to her long path from singing backup in forgettable late-‘60s group the Wind in the Willows, waitressing, Playboy-bunnying, and generally boho-ing until Blondie got off the ground in the mid-1970s. Blondie fans who’d like more of a song-by-song rundown of their best albums might be disappointed, but Harry discusses their musical evolution and personnel changes/contributions quite a bit, as well as the general milieu of the CBGBs scene. There are also some brutal hardships in the days leading up to Blondie, including a sociopath stalker and, even more grimly, a robbery and rape in the apartment she shared with boyfriend and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein. Sour management deals also led to, unbelievably, her and Stein going broke around the time the band broke up, which was also when Stein almost died from a rare and prolonged illness.
Harry relays this with much less bitterness than most celebrities in her position, which is one of the book’s strengths. Not as strong are the detours into some extramusical subjects that aren’t of such great interest, at least to me, like some of her fashion choices and her passion for pro wrestling. Like many a memoir, the final sections are less interesting as Blondie’s music becomes less vital following their reunion, Harry filling out the text with recollections of her numerous movie roles. The abundance of portraits of Harry by her fans used in the illustrations (which also include numerous good photos) are unnecessary, but not so extensive that they interfere with the enjoyment of a fairly solid effort in the rock memoir sweepstakes.
14. Fried & Justified, by Mick Houghton (Faber & Faber). Starting his career as a music journalist, Houghton became a publicist of some note in the UK from the late 1970s to the late 1990s. He worked with some of the era’s most successful or at least renowned alternative rock acts, including Julian Cope, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Jesus & Mary Chain, the Undertones, KLF, Sonic Youth, the Wedding Present, and Felt. His memoir of those times would rate higher on this list if I was a bigger fan of those artists, and the era. But it’s still an interesting look at some of the inside action from both the mainstream/major label and indie/underground sides of the new wave/post-punk scenes.
To hear Houghton tell it, you might think a publicist’s job was more to stay out of the way and let the clients have their way than to push their product hard, though I suspect he did more grunt work than he lets on. His job at times went beyond the stereotype of sending out press releases and hounding writers for stories, whether it was taking Sun Ra shopping in London or leaking KLF’s plans to throw buckets of sheep’s blood over the audience at an industry awards show to tabloids (to help ensure the event didn’t happen). Some of the stories are funny, some are depressing, but most illuminate the zany capricious ways of the period’s music business and its stars, or semi-stars. Even his more successful charges sometimes seemed so ill-suited for the spotlight that it’s not so much a question of why they didn’t get bigger, but how they got as far as they did. People like Houghton probably have more to do with it than they get credit for, though he declines to take much in this humorously deadpan account.
15. A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen, by Barry Alfonso (Backbeat). For all McKuen’s massive book sales as a poet and lengthy discography as a singer-songwriter, this is the first biography of the man. I’m not a McKuen fan, but as he was a significant part of the era of musical history in which I’m most interested, I was reasonably interested to find out more about his life. This biography delivers pretty well on that account, with a highly readable and critically astute survey of his personal and professional life. Understandably, the author’s evaluations are more generous than mine.
But Alfonso take a balanced view of McKuen’s strengths and weaknesses, and how the artist’s sentimental romanticism was leavened by some vulnerable loneliness, eroticism, and even some tawdry bits here and there. His personal life was more troubled than one might assume, with family abuse in his early years and a sexual identity he largely hid from the public eye. As the author acknowledges, it’s difficult to piece together his life, particularly but not exclusively his pre-fame years, with total accuracy. In part that was due to his reluctance to divulge full personal details, and in part that was due to the sometimes dubious or untrustworthy memories he did make public. This book diligently traces whatever trails it can and notes the tales that should not be taken as gospel, or did not to surviving evidence ever happen.
There’s probably lots more that could be said about his records (there were many) and writings, but given his work’s unevenness, Alfonso wisely emphasizes McKuen’s most essential and interesting efforts. As a consequence it’s not a terribly long volume, tallying around 200 pages. But it probably didn’t have to be longer, which would have risked delving into the mundane parts of his oeuvre. A fuller story would have also risked losing the interest of more general readers like me, who’ll appreciate the book’s concise overview of this popular yet oft-scorned figure.
16. Henry Cow: The World Is a Problem, by Benjamin Piekut (Duke University Press). British progressive rock group Henry Cow is one of those acts whose history I find more interesting than their music. One of the most leftist acts to make any kind of name for themselves, they combined rock, jazz, improvisation, then-cutting-edge electronic technology, and political text. The result found favor with many critics and garnered a passionate underground following, especially in Continental Europe. At the same time it was almost defiantly inaccessible to the masses, as much as Henry Cow wanted their music to make a political statement on behalf of the oppressed and working class. Appropriately, this hefty biography—almost 500 pages after the lengthy section of footnotes—is a mixture of accessible history and academic theorizing that will lose many general readers. The author even acknowledges in his lengthy sociological introduction that “die-hard fans of the band might find the most satisfaction by jumping directly to the narrative history that begins in chapter 1.”
Fortunately, the straightforward history substantially outweighs the sections focusing on rigorously delineated cultural context and musical analysis. Everyone in the band was interviewed except Lindsay Cooper (who was too ill to speak about their history), along with many associates. In common with many left-wing organizations, Henry Cow had a lot of internal struggle and debate, some of them actually common to many rock bands, like romantic relationships that got in the way, equipment and van breakdowns, disputes over musical direction, and rocky interactions with record labels. There were not many other groups, however, who hashed these out with meetings like those of political collectives, including some written statements both to the public and among themselves that could verge on political diatribes. Whether on the surface or not, the contradiction between playing adventurous music outside of the mainstream and trying to use that to rally the masses was often at the heart of these tensions.
Aside from lots of stories about Henry Cow’s genesis, mid-‘70s peak, and protracted dissolution, there’s also inside information about some other interesting topics that played a strong role in their tale. Those include fellow European prog group Slapp Happy (whose members would work and for a time merge with Henry Cow); the early days of Virgin Records, when it was for the most part an underground label, not the mainstream one it became; and the birth of Recommended Records and the Rock in Opposition movement, both of which they (and especially drummer Chris Cutler) were vital in launching. It’s also revealed that director Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted them (along with Pink Floyd and Magma) to soundtrack his adaptation of Dune, and that guitarist Fred Frith might have been considered to produce the Sex Pistols. Like Henry Cow, the book is sometimes a struggle (especially the theoretical introduction and afterword, which can be skipped by most rock fans without missing anything, or even offending the author). But it’s worth persevering with for those interested in a very different kind of rock music and history.
17. Look What They Dun! The Ultimate Guide to UK Glam Rock on TV in the ‘70s, by Peter Checksfield (self-published?). Like Checksfield’s previous, much bigger volume Channelling the Beat! The Ultimate Guide to UK ‘60s Pop on TV, this is a reference book listing TV appearances of a specific style and era. This time it’s British glam rock, listing all known TV appearances (and occasional movie ones). Helpfully, the footage known to survive is listed in boldface, making it easier to access at a time when it’s easier to do so than any other in history. Much of this is pure listings with dates, program, and songs performed, but Checksfield does knowledgeably (if often briefly) describe many of the surviving clips. The heavyweights like David Bowie, T. Rex, and Roxy Music all get chapters, but so do British acts that never made it big in the US (Slade, Hello, Mud); not-exactly-glam acts that nonetheless tapped into glam both visually and sonically (the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, the Kinks, the Move); and artists that never even made it particularly big anywhere (Kenny, Paul Da Vinci). Keeping the scope more manageable and the content more interesting, the end of the ‘70s is used as a cutoff point, though many of the acts continued their careers afterward (sometimes long afterward). I’d be more passionate about the book (as I was about Channeling the Beat!) if I was more of a glam fan, but it definitely has its use as a clearly formatted and thoroughly researched reference work.
18. Woodstock: 50 Years of Peace and Music, by Daniel Bukszpan (Imagine). The 50th anniversary of Woodstock spurred a flurry of books, several of which have their modest attributes. This is the best of the four reviewed here, chiefly because the author actually interviewed a lot of the performers, promoters, audience members, and crew who helped put on the event. There are small (usually two-page) chapters for each of the performers, with their set lists, and sections on the genesis of the festival, the behind-the-scenes machinations, the poster, the aftermath, the soundtrack LP, the movie, artists who were invited but didn’t play, and so on. And there are plenty of photos and illustrations. Some of the performer chapters are padded by general observations about their music, but specifics are given as to their actual sets.
19. Woodstock: Three Days That Rocked the World: 50th Anniversary Edition, edited by Mike Evans & Paul Kingsbury(Sterling). Actually this first came out ten years ago, but opportunities to capitalize on a 50th anniversary only come around once. While as an overview of the festival it’s basic, it has plenty of good photos; set lists and brief profiles/set descriptions for all of the acts; quotes from a lot of the musicians, and some of the others associated with Woodstock, as well as audience members; and a foreword by Martin Scorsese, who was operating one of the cameras for the film. Some contextual chapters about preparations for and the aftermath of the event range from interesting to superfluous. On the whole it’s better than another Woodstock retrospective issued in 2019 (50 Years: The Story of Woodstock Live, reviewed below), though both will give you a good idea of what happened, and each has material not in the other.
20. 50 Years: The Story of Woodstock Live, by Julien Bitoun (Cassell). Most of this volume’s given over to short chapters on the performance of each of the several dozen acts at Woodstock. There are set lists, brief descriptions of the actual music, some background info on the acts, and plenty of photos, though not all of them are from Woodstock itself. There are also some small pieces on the events leading up to the festival, the movie, the soundtrack albums, and the stories behind the acts that didn’t make it to the event. It’s kind of like what you imagine the liner notes to the 38-CD limited edition complete Woodstock box might be like, though this is a lot cheaper than that $800 extravaganza, especially if you take it out of the library. The writing (translated from French) isn’t that great and the critical assessments are often too generous/enthusiastic, and sometimes rather peculiar. Still, this has its use for the fairly complete documentation of what was played and when, though that’s also in other Woodstock books now.
21. Girl: An Untethered Life, by Julia Dreyer Brigden (self-published). “Girl” was the nickname of author Julia Dreyer Brigden, whose first husband was David Freiberg, of Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Starship. There’s some material about Freiberg and those bands here, but mostly this is a memoir of growing up in Marin County in the 1960s and 1970s. By the time she reached adolescence, Girl was kind of wild, running away to Mexico, marrying a local rock star ten years her senior as a teenager, and having a daughter with him not long afterward. Even well into their marriage, Girl often took off for wayward travels around the world, though she settled down into a more conventional and grounded life after quitting drugs (and, post-Freiberg, drug dealing) by the ‘80s.
This is pretty interesting and well written as memoirs of coming of age in the loose environment of the ‘60s Bay Area go, but it will disappoint those looking for inside info on the rock scene. There are a few interesting stories about the internal dynamics of Quicksilver; Dino Valenti comes off very badly, and Gary Duncan not much better, especially as regards their sexism. And there are a few observations about Paul Kantner, Grace Slick (who advised Girl about seeking help for her substance abuse problems), and David Crosby (Girl was nearly a passenger in the accident that killed Crosby’s girlfriend Christine Hinton in 1969, and was among the first to arrive at the scene of the crash). It’s more her personal tale of her rocky journey from girlhood to adulthood, distinguished from other accounts by the Bay Area setting and the circles in which she traveled. And the chronology’s shaky on some of the experiences with rock stars, though that’s only likely to picked up by the kind of rock nerds who actually remember when Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name was recorded.
22. Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music, by Michael Lang (Real Art Press). Fiftieth anniversaries only come around once, so Woodstock’s fiftieth occasioned several graphics-oriented coffee table books, as well as a PBS documentary and a 38-CD box set. This one, by Woodstock co-promoter Michael Lang (who with Holly George-Warren put out a conventional text memoir of the event, The Road to Woodstock, ten years ago), has less text than the others listed in this survey. Unlike those others, it doesn’t focus on the music, and in fact has relatively little about the music, concentrating instead on how the festival was created, organized, and run. So it’s less interesting, at least to me, than the other two, though the text has its points of value. More interesting are the wealth of photos, in both color and black-and-white, the majority taken by Henry Diltz. These cover the festival from many angles, from inception to aftermath, including not only star performers, but also many shots of the audience and members of the upstate New York community.
Of particular note are some rarely seen documents, like a poster for the festival at its original (canceled) location in Wallkill; the contract for Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s appearance (“under no circumstances are Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to open the show”); a list of artists and their fees, including some who didn’t appear, like Iron Butterfly ($10,000) and the Moody Blues ($5000); and most especially a July 7, 1969 letter from Apple offering to present Billy Preston and James Taylor. They didn’t appear, as Lang didn’t find the unopened letter until about forty years later. The letter also offered to show a film by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, also stating “we will also present for the first time in America ‘The Plastic Ono Band,’ which actually is a series of plastic cylinders incorporated around a stereo sound system.”
23. Jim Marshall: Show Me the Picture, by Amelia Davis (Chronicle). The companion book to the documentary Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall has many pictures by the acclaimed, usually San Francisco-based photographer. Marshall was mostly known for his work with musicians, and photos of rock, blues, jazz, soul, and country artists in the 1960s and early 1970s (most in black and white, and a few in color) dominate the volume. There are also some non-music pictures, mostly dating from the early 1960s, and often of the American poor and/or minorities. Although the text is fairly sparse, there are also memories and appreciations of Marshall from some who knew and worked with him. His legal and drug troubles, as well as frequent unruly behavior, are not ignored, though the essayists emphasize the positives of a talented but troubled man.
24. Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock & Roll, by Jayson Kerr Dobney and Craig J. Inciardi with Anthony DeCurtis, Alan di Perna, David Fricke, Holly George-Warren, and Matthew W. Hill (The Metropolitan Museum of Art). The catalogue of a 2019 exhibit of rock instruments at the MET in New York is a full-blown hardback book, with essays by seven contributors on different related topics: “Guitar Gods,” “The Rhythm Section,” “Creating a Sound,” “Creating an Image,” and Iconic Moments” are some. The text has adequate overview-type information, though as only a relatively small number of musicians (most stars) are specifically examined, there’s some repetition of both details and viewpoints.
More notable than the text, which doesn’t contain much fresh or surprising information for knowledgeable rock fans, are the numerous photos, many of which are of instruments from the exhibit. Gearheads might get more out of this than the average reader, but there are some unusual and especially historic items. Those include the 1964 Fender Stratocaster Bob Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; a beat-to-hell-looking Fender Esquire Jeff Beck used with the Yardbirds in the mid-1960s; and one of the Mellotrons the Rolling Stones used in their brief 1967 psychedelic period. It’s kind of expensive ($50) for what you get in the 236-page book, and some interesting instruments from the exhibition (listed in an appendix) aren’t pictured in the book, like a Telecaster Jimmy Page played with a violin bow in the Yardbirds. It adds up to something most of us should get from the library if we can, unless you’re an instrument collector or fetishist.
The following books were all published in 2018, although I didn’t read them until this year:
1. What We Did Instead of Holidays: Fairport & Its Extended Folk-Rock Family, by Clinton Heylin (Route). This isn’t solely a history of the first dozen or so years of Fairport Convention, although they’re the core around which the text revolves. This also covers the numerous spin-off acts Fairport generated, including Steeleye Span, Matthews Southern Comfort, Trader Horne, Fotheringay, the Albion Country Band, and the solo careers of Sandy Denny, Richard Thompson, and Ian Matthews. A lot of those acts (including the still-active Fairport) kept going a long time, but this book is only devoted to the era starting with Fairport’s founding in the mid-1960s, and ending with Richard and Linda Thompson’s breakup in the early 1980s.
Heylin follows a format he’s used on some of his other books, mixing his own text with many quotes from the participants, both from his own interviews and archival sources. It’s an interesting and fast-moving tale that, while documenting one of rock’s more subdued styles (British folk-rock, in which Fairport were the most important band), brings to light many tumultuous artistic and personal forces that were taking place behind the scenes or playing out in public. In his numerous books (including his biography of one of the principal figures in Fairport, Sandy Denny), Heylin can be smugly opinionated, but that’s dialed down here, and mainly reserved for barbs at CD compilations he feels could have been better assembled. Some other books, such as Heylin’s Denny biography, do go deeper into the details of specific acts like Thompson and (in the memoir Thro’ My Eyes) Matthews. But this weaves the complicated story of Fairport and its offshoots together pretty well, and is better than the best other Fairport book, Fairport By Fairport.
2. Truth, Lies & Hearsay: A Memoir of a Musical Life in and out of Rock and Roll, by John Simon (self-published). As the subtitle notes, Simon was “producer of the Band, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, Blood, Sweat & Tears, etc.,” though that sentence lists most of the familiar acts with whom he worked. Although his autobiography’s 332 pages, it’s a quick read, since he writes in short paragraphs and uses plenty of margins and white space. That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile, though it’s not major, either. He has a fairly engaging, storytelling style that runs through his experiences with all of the aforementioned acts; a few others he produced that are well known (the Cyrkle, Gordon Lightfoot, the Electric Flag, Cass Elliot, Steve Forbert); and some who aren’t well known or even often discussed by cultish fans, most of those dating from after the early 1970s.
The bulk of the book covers the late 1960s and early 1970s, when he achieved his peak successes with the Band and Big Brother & the Holding Company. Some of the tales will be familiar to knowledgeable followers of those groups, and maybe more interesting for his down-to-earth, humble perspective on his role and their records than the actual facts involved. But he does inject meaningful observations on his contributions as a producer, and indeed how the nature of a producer’s contributions can vary according to the specific project. There are also wry, cynical takes on the capricious and sometimes cruel music business. For those looking for something not covered in the usual mainstream histories, he discusses his own quirky obscure solo albums, which do have their admirers, though not legions of them.
It’s a little odd that while the first two Band LPs are examined in more detail than anything else, he doesn’t get into why he didn’t continue to work with them. Too, some fairly interesting people he produced, specifically Jackie Lomax and Bobby Charles, are only mentioned in passing. Maybe that’s a matter of him not feeling those projects have good stories behind them, rather than glossing things over. But their absence is still felt, considering some that abundant white space could have been filled. I interviewed Simon about the book here.
3. Rock Graphic Originals: Revolutions in Sonic Art from Plate to Print ’55-‘88, by Peter Golding with Barry Miles (Thames & Hudson). There have been plenty of rock poster books, and this one’s a cut above most of them, for several reasons. There are a lot of reproductions, many of them not often seen in books, and most of them (despite the wide yearspan of the subtitle) from the mid-‘60s through the early ‘70s. Unlike most such volumes, a good number of the illustrations show how the work progressed, again referencing the subtitle, from plate to print. That’s a technical process that might interest professionals and specialists more than general readers, but it’s not overdone and doesn’t take away the main stage from actual poster repros. The captions aren’t too extensive, but nonetheless are more informative than they are in similar anthologies, with basic essential details and some interesting info about how/where/why these were produced.
What’s coolest is that while San Francisco rock posters might be the largest category here (in common with a good number of other rock poster books), this also makes room for posters from different regions, and on different subjects. There’s even a psychedelic poster for a Haight-Ashbury ice cream parlor. Posters from London, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other non-Bay Area locations get some ink. So do posters for non-rock events/subjects like a Diggers happening and a legalize pot rally, and rock poster-influenced publications like underground papers and comics. Some of the San Francisco posters hold special interest, like the one for the Fillmore with a lion that was redrawn by Lee Conklin for the cover of Santana’s debut album. There’s a little too much Grateful Dead here (again in common with some other poster surveys), but most of this is novel and refreshing, even if you’ve seen a lot of these kind of graphics elsewhere.
4. Imagine John Yoko, by John Lennon & Yoko Ono with contributions from the people who were there (Grand Central Publishing). I’m not a big fan of John Lennon’s Imagine album; otherwise, I’d like this 320-page coffee table book devoted to the record more. Still, it’s a very well put together volume that has a lot of text, photos, and graphics to entertain and enlighten if your interest in Imagine is at least casual. Besides extensive memories of the sessions and comments on the songs from Lennon and (to a lesser degree) Ono, there are comments from many people who were involved in the album and its associated projects, including films and art exhibitions. That includes not only session musicians like Klaus Voormann, but also numerous engineers, personal assistants, filmmakers, and others. These are drawn from both interviews done for the book and vintage sources—all of them vintage, unfortunately and obviously, in Lennon’s case.
Visually, there’s an abundance of photos, movie stills, handwritten lyrics, and other ephemera. Most of the images are meticulously dated with locations noted—something that should be a given for books like this, but too often isn’t, especially in rock/popular culture publications. It raises hopes that more such works will be produced for classic rock albums/artists in the future, as not many succeed with both the text and visuals. John and Yoko could be vainglorious in their zealous documentation of their art and lives (something that comes through far more strongly in their Imagine film), but the book largely avoids this, for all its thoroughness. Favorite Lennon quote from these pages (about the song “Imagine”): “The World Church called me once and wanted to say, ‘Can we use the lyrics and just change it to “Imagine one religion”?’ So that showed that they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song; the whole idea.”
5. The Association: ‘Cherish’, by Malcolm Searles (Matador). Although they were white-hot commercially for a couple years, the Association have never gotten the critical respect of comparably successful rock bands from the mid-to-late 1960s. That’s likely part of the reason there hasn’t been a bio of the band until this one, which should satisfy anyone who wants a complete story of the pop-rock harmonizers. At nearly 450 pages, it draws on extensive first-hand interviews with original members Jules Alexander, Jim Yester, and Terry Kirkman, as well as a wealth of quotes from them and other guys in the band from many sources (all properly footnoted). Not a whole lot of people (at least relative to the millions who bought their big hits) were too curious about all their albums and flop singles, but Searles goes through them, going back to their pre-“Along Comes Mary” folk-rock-pop singles.
He also documents their beginnings in various folk combos, and uncovers some press and publicity in which the group from which they evolved (the Men) were quite possibly the first outfit referred to as a folk-rock act, even before the Byrds and Bob Dylan really popularized the term. And there are extensive quotes from quite a few reviews of the band, even way past their prime. The author’s prone to sentences that run on way too long, and perhaps the book does too, with their post-mid-‘70s descent into the nostalgia circuit (and many revolving lineups) taking up more than a hundred pages. But it’s a readable and reasonably objective account that doesn’t sugarcoat their poor recordings, though he’s clearly a big fan of their better work. Their peak wasn’t really that long (taking in five big hits between 1966-68), but fortunately the ‘60s take up the main chunk of the volume, although it won’t convince non-fanatics that they were a major group, as big as those huge hits were.
6. Phil Gernhard, Record Man, by Bill DeYoung (University Press of Florida). The term “record man” is usually used for titans of the industry known to much of the general public, like Mo Ostin of Warner Brothers or Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records. But the music business is populated by many “record men” who operate somewhat under the radar of even many knowledgeable fans, notching up hits here and there without getting identified with a particular style or vision. Phil Gernhard was one of them, not so much carving a niche as latching on to an almost random-seeming series of hits in various capacities over a span of decades. As producer, publisher, A&R guy, and whatnot, he was involved in Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay”; the Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron” series of singles; Dion’s “Abraham, Martin & John”; and Dick Holler’s original version of “Double Shot,” before it was made it into a hit by the Swingin’ Medallions. That’s just the 1960s; after that, he played large parts in the careers of Lobo and Jim Stafford, and then for country stars the Bellamy Brothers, Tim McGraw, and Rodney Atkins.
It’s pretty doubtful anyone’s passionate about all these records and artists. The common denominator is success and sales, not a consistent aesthetic. But if you are interested in any of them, this is a quite well told tale of Gernhard’s peripatetic, troubled career, with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories about the songs and the discs. DeYoung did his research, talking to many of the musicians (not Dion, though he tried), business associates, and family members. He doesn’t inflate it into a bigger story than it deserves, getting the job done in 160 pages. If you want a few accounts of intriguing failures, some of them are here too, like a clutch of odd Florida garage rock and psychedelic singles he tried to launch. There’s something of the “throw it at the wall to see what will stick” vibe about his operations, but then, that’s often how things get done (or screwed up) in the record world. Gerhard’s career might have been a marginal one in the grand scheme of things, but the way it’s covered here still makes for worthwhile reading, if often downbeat owing to his sad personal life and sometimes seedy business practices.
7. World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story, by Gillian Gaar (BMG, 2018). Sub Pop might be the most famous independent label, or at least semi-independent label (having sold much of the company to Warner Brothers in the mid-1990s, though retaining majority ownership), of the last few decades. This mini-book of sorts, running about 150 pages, is a no-fat overview of the label’s foundation and rise, taking the story all the way to the 2018 year of publication. Veteran Seattle-based writer Gaar was well positioned to see the label’s progress all along, and the text benefits from first-interviews with label co-founders Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman. Several other key figures in the label’s creative and administrative departments are also heard from, including producer Jack Endino and illustrator Charles Peterson.
Sub Pop’s rise to a prominent and, eventually, very commercially successful company was an improbable and chaotic one. The most interesting parts of the story are those unlikely beginnings, with the label growing out of a fanzine by Pavitt that started to include cassettes, leading to the formation of a proper record label. It often verged on collapse in its first dozen or so years, even after getting big cash infusions with the Warner deal and the boost Nirvana’s success gave to its back catalog. By late 1996 Pavitt had even left the label as the relations between the founders broke down, though those were repaired and he did come back years later to do some consulting. With stability came a more conventional (if still relatively unconventional) business atmosphere. The latter sections detailing its various ventures into music of many styles from throughout the world—not just the Northwest base for which it’s most renowned—are not as interesting, not through any fault of the author, but simply because the story became less quirky and unusual.
8. Shake Your Hips: The Excello Records Story, by Randy Fox (BMG, 2018). Nashville’s Excello Records is most known as a label that issued prime swamp blues by artists like Lightnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, and above all Slim Harpo. Actually, the company put out a lot of records in a bunch of different styles over its lengthy history, including gospel, soul, rockabilly, and more. Their saga isn’t really so involved or monumental that it deserves a volume on the order of books that have been done on Sun or Stax. But this well done book doesn’t overextend its reach, putting the story into 170 compact pages in a spread-out palm-sized format. Its most interesting points aren’t just some stories about how much of Excello’s swamp blues (particularly Slim Harpo’s) was recorded by Jay Miller. It’s also an insight into the complex and unpredictable genesis of labels like Excello, who emerged not so much from the vision of music lovers or even a guy looking to capitalize on music trends, but as an outgrowth of Excello head Ernie Young’s interests in jukeboxes and retail/mail-order record distribution. That itself was an outgrowth of his prior experience in non-music-related businesses, like pinball machines.
Excello also had a strong tie-in with the emergence of R&B radio, particularly John Richbourg’s show on WLAC in Nashville. The practice of paying for airtime might seem like payola now, but back then, it was just considered the normal course of building a business, both from the record and radio side. Some of the descriptions of Excello’s many releases verge on lists as Fox tries to cover so much territory, but there are also some colorful stories, such as the unlikely emergence of one-hit wonder the Crescendos’ huge rock’n’roll hit “Julie” when a guest girl singer was enlisted. As is the case with virtually all significant labels, unusual connections abound, like Swamp Dogg’s involvement with the company as a producer in the early 1970s, and (unfortunately) Miller’s Reb Rebel label, which in Fox’s words specialized in “jaw-droppingly racist records.” Also covered is the affection several British bands held for Excello, Atlantic executive Ahmet Ertegun even once declaring, “I think [Mick] Jagger would have liked to be on a funky label. I think Jagger would have liked to be on Excello. We were the closest he could get to Excello and still get five million dollars.”
9. Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography, by Eric Idle (Crown Archetype, 2018). Is Eric Idle’s relationship to music tenuous? Sort of; he’s much more famous as a comedian than he is as a musician. Still, he was part of the Rutles (on film if not on record), and the main force behind creating that comic satire of the Beatles. He was the most responsible for Monty Python’s frequent musical parodies, as both a singer and writer. And he was friends with quite a few rock stars, most famously George Harrison. His memoir’s a breezy and pretty witty read, spread about evenly between his ‘60s beginnings, Monty Python’s TV show and movies, his various side and solo projects, Monty Python reunions, and the Broadway Spamalot musical. There’s a lot of name-dropping in the latter sections of his palling around with famous celebrities, not all rock stars, from David Bowie and Mick Jagger to Robin Williams. It doesn’t quite cross the line into boastful gossip, though it reminds us that the likes of Idle travel in different, more rarified and privileged circles than the likes of nearly all of his readers. Certainly there could have been more about the Monty Python TV/movie/live performances for which he’s most celebrated, but then he does talk a lot about them in several Monty Python books, most notably the oral histories The Pythons and Monty Python Speaks!
It was a good year for rock history videos, at least as measured by how many were worth watching. If you don’t have cable, you’ll probably miss out on some that don’t get into theatrical or DVD/Blu-ray distribution. I don’t have cable, and have to scramble to catch some when I’m house-sitting up the road. So I didn’t get to see everything, just like I didn’t get to read or hear everything. Yes, I know the Linda Ronstadt documentary, for instance, isn’t here. I haven’t seen it, though I probably will eventually when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray.
Most of these dozen or so films got far less distribution than the Ronstadt doc, and some of them were barely seen at all. My #1 choice might surprise some readers, since it focuses on an era later than my usual specialty.
1. Desolation Center. Between 1983 and 1985, Stuart Swezey promoted exotic underground punk/avant-rock rock and industrial music shows in the Southern California desert near Los Angeles. He was also behind an equally unlikely “Joy at Sea” one aboard a boat in the San Pedro harbor, featuring the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen. Taking place under the Desolation Center banner, these are documented with more detail than anyone thought possible in the new film of the same name. Directed by Swezey himself, it’s built around an abundance of shaky vintage lo-fi film clips and audio, as well as recent interviews with many of the musicians and participants (including Swezey). Almost all of the surviving notable performers contribute recollections, including not only some Minutemen and Meat Puppets, but also key members of Sonic Youth (though not Kim Gordon), Einsturzende Neubauten, Savage Republic, Redd Kross, Perry Farrell (then part of his pre-Jane’s Addiction group Psi-Com), and industrial/performance art group Survival Research Laboratories.
Even if you’re not into that kind of underground rock, you might well find the film fascinating. Now well into middle age and veterans of hundreds if not thousands of shows, the musicians (and indeed the numerous audience members and organizers who also have screen time) often still speak of these happenings with a sense of awe. The archive footage and photos capture the odd settings to which fans were bused to (in actual school buses) from L.A., at points beyond which paved roads ended. Both musicians and audiences were free to mingle and experiment in ways not possible in conventional indoor venues, sometimes using explosive pyrotechnics. In retrospect, as some of them acknowledge, that could have been dangerous, as when a metal plate in one of Survival Research Laboratories’ exercises went flying over the audience.
Usefully, the first part of the film also explores how difficult it was to stage punk shows in Los Angeles in the early ‘80s due to police harassment, leading in part to taking the music to a place beyond their reach. They couldn’t escape the authorities altogether, the Bureau of Land Management sending Swezey a letter in 1985 that helped him decide to discontinue the events. The musicians and others at the Desolation Center shows discuss them with humor and insight, also noting their influence on subsequent far bigger desert spectacles like Coachella and Burning Man. The Desolation Center concerts, however, had a sense of spontaneity and edginess missing from those far bigger enterprises, and that comes across vividly in this well-made documentary. I interviewed Swezey about the film here.
2. Leonard Cohen, Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love. Two notes first that are not words of caution, but of clarification. Although the title leads you to believe this is centered around Leonard Cohen’s lengthy relationship with Marianne Ihlen, and much of the film does dwell on that, it’s about as much of a Leonard Cohen documentary as a movie about the couple. And while it was directed by Nick Broomfield, known as a sort of guerilla documentary filmmaker who corners people who don’t want to talk on screen about controversial subjects, this is a pretty straightforward movie that doesn’t use that approach. It combines plenty of vintage footage (much taken from home/amateur movies, especially the scenes with Ihlen), Cohen concert snippets from throughout his career (none too extensive), and interviews done for the film with figures who knew Cohen or Ihlen.
Just because it’s not quite what you might expect doesn’t mean this isn’t worthwhile, whether taken as a Cohen documentary or one on him and Ihlen. There might not be a whole lot here you don’t know if you’ve read the best Cohen biography (Sylvie Simmons’s I’m Your Man), but it’s a well done overview that ties together the major points in his evolution. Although the interviews aren’t that numerous, some key associates weigh in with interesting observations, including Judy Collins, producer John Simon, less expected participants like folk singer Julie Felix, and Cohen guitarist Ron Cornelius, who actually has the most lively comments. Some relatively unfamiliar territory is covered, like Cohen’s concerts, apparently fairly numerous, at mental institutions. Also discussed are the difficulties faced by children who grew up in the permissive bohemian environment of the Greek island Hydra (where Cohen and Ihlen spent much time), who as adults succumbed to alcoholism, suicide, and in the case of Ihlen’s son (not with Cohen) Axel, mental illness.
Most moving of all is the observation by one Cohen associate that of the many women who were involved with (and often threw themselves at) Cohen, Ihlen was the only one who wasn’t star-struck. Although their relationship was not destined to stay the course, Cohen did send her a tender message when she was virtually on her deathbed – and the scene of her hearing that message is actually in the film.
3. Barbara Rubin, Barbara Rubin and the Exploding New York Underground. Filmmaker Barbara Rubin’s relationship to rock music was tangential, if notable. She was the person who alerted Andy Warhol and the Factory to the Velvet Underground at the end of 1965; maybe they would have gotten together anyway, but that doesn’t mean her connection wasn’t prescient and important. She was also a friend of Bob Dylan (whom she also connected with Warhol, if briefly), and appears with him in a picture on the back cover of Bringing It All Back Home. But she’s primarily known as an experimental filmmaker, although her career in that field was brief, and most noted (and notorious) for her half-hour 1963 movie Christmas on Earth, which was rawly sexual and radical for its time, and perhaps still is today.
Since this documentary aptly focuses much more on her movie-making, and her substantial influence on underground scenemakers like Warhol and Allen Ginsberg, than her role in rock music, it could be questioned why it’s on this list. Well, it’s far more interesting, and much better done as a film, than some documentaries on much more famous actual rock musicians on this list. Even if Jeff Beck and John Lennon might have had more interesting lives, the docs on them reviewed near the bottom of this list aren’t that great. This one deftly weaves a great deal of footage from Rubin’s movies, home/amateur movies, films by Warhol and others, and recent interviews with those who knew her for a fast-moving portrait of a pretty uninhibited character whose volatile life took some wildly unpredictable turns. It’s pretty amusing, as a rock snob aside, to see Kinks spelled “Kings” on a list of celebrities she hoped to feature in a film that didn’t get made.
After her film career sputtered, her late-‘60s rural retreat with Ginsberg and some other friends didn’t end well, culminating with a wholly unexpected shift to Orthodox Judaism. Although the director didn’t corral really famous people into his interview list (with the possible exception of avant-garde filmmaker/critic Jonas Mekas, who worked with Rubin quite closely), relatives, friends, and colleagues speak pretty eloquently about her inspirational and frustrating character. There’s some footage of the VU and Dylan (not much if any exclusive to this documentary), and a few stories about their interactions with Rubin, for those who especially want to zero in on the rock content.
4. John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Above Us Only Sky. Technically this bears a 2018 date, but it doesn’t seem to have been shown on TV until 2019, and didn’t come on DVD until later in the year. Although it’s centered around the making of the Imagine album, there’s a fair amount about their lives in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There’s nothing quirky or unexpected about the documentary’s approach, which is fine. Besides plenty of period footage of Lennon and Ono at the Imagine sessions and in the Tittenhurst estate in which they were then living, there are recent interviews with a host of people who were around them at the time. Among them are Imagine musicians Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, and Alan White, as well as less well known personal assistants, engineers, photographers, music bizzers, and journalists who were on the scene. There’s only a bit of recent interview footage with Yoko herself, but more of John’s son Julian. Unlike some of the numerous Lennon docs, this doesn’t over-idealize his life, though the portrait is gentle and positive. It sticks mostly to actually covering what happened, which more music documentaries should do.
The DVD has a few modest but noteworthy extras, particularly color footage of John and Yoko busking through “Oh Yoko!” on May 24, 1969 at their brief stopover in the Bahamas before continuing to Montreal to stage their Bed-In for peace. There’s a fuller version of the strange, halting conversation between John and Curt Claudio, a creepy American fan who managed to get into Tittenhurst; Lennon shows a good deal of consideration and rational humility considering the intrusion. There’s also split-screen footage of John working on “How Do You Sleep?” and “Oh My Love.”
5. Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation (PBS). Does a TV program count as a film or video? Well, this did play a few festivals and theaters, including one in Berkeley where a few people involved in the film had a Q&A. So yes, this movie-length work, a part of PBS’s American Experience series, makes the cut on technical grounds. More notably, it’s worth watching as a decent survey of Woodstock as a social/cultural event, with vintage and fresh voiceover interviews with many of the event’s promoters, producers, performers, and attendees. Note that those wanting a focus on the festival’s music might be disappointed; it isn’t entirely neglected, but there are only bits of actual performances, commentary running over some of that footage. That’s okay, though, considering how much footage is in the actual Woodstock film (both the original and expanded versions), and how much more circulates unofficially. This is more the story of the event’s genesis, and how the festival was experienced, musically and otherwise, by the huge audience.
Besides the extensive voiceovers (no talking heads here), there’s quite a bit of previously unreleased footage of stage construction, and audience reaction/swimming/free food feeding, taken (according to the Q&A) from 35 hours of Woodstock movie material made available to the filmmakers. The most amazing facet of the festival is how it happened at all, considering how many logistical problems it encountered, and how hopelessly behind schedule things were even before it started. At one point, one of the organizers remembers being told that for everything to be built according to plan, they’d have to wait until November. Audience memories of the communal vibe that arose on the grounds and the weekend’s significance to their lives are poignant while, for the most part, avoiding undue sentimentality. And just as it became a free festival, you could watch this on PBS for free – something you can’t say of the 38-CD fiftieth anniversary Woodstock, which lists for $799.98.
A couple music nerd notes: the previously unseen footage includes snippets of performances by some of the most obscure artists at Woodstock – indeed, so obscure that most people don’t know they were there. Among them are Sweetwater, Quill, and Keef Hartley. Also, while David Crosby refers in a voiceover to CSNY’s set as being their first live appearance, it was in fact their second; they’d done their first concert just a couple days before, on August 16, in Chicago. In fact, on the original chart-topping Woodstock album, Stephen Stills himself refers to it as “the second time we’ve ever played in front of people.” It’s not as egregious a myth as the oft-repeated assertion that the Rolling Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil” when someone in the audience was killed at Altamont (they were actually playing “Under the Thumb”). But it’s an urban legend whose momentum will only gather steam after this broadcast, and needs to be halted before it gets out of hand.
6. Peter, Paul & Mary, At Newport 1963-65 (Shout Factory). Peter, Paul & Mary’s energetic, downright swinging performance of “If I Had a Hammer” was a highlight of Murray Lerner’s Festival documentary, which featured footage from the mid-‘60s Newport Folk Festivals. So it’s a delight to have about an hour of clips of the trio at the event on this DVD, which leads off with the same version of “If I Had a Hammer” seen in Festival. PPM’s biggest hits are here (“Hammer,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and an odd Peter Yarrow solo rendering of “Puff, The Magic Dragon”), but so are some of their better “deep” LP tracks, like “If I Had My Way,” their covers of Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In” and the Weavers’ “Wasn’t That a Time,” “The Rising of the Moon,” and “Hangman.” The less impressive songs tend to be the ones that are shown only in partial performances. The filming is basic but effective, the best jobs being done with the clips that focus on the trio at an apparent nighttime spot, huddled closely around the mikes. Yarrow and Noel Stookey added a bit of commentary on the soundtrack, but these are brief bits that don’t unduly intrude on the music.
It’s true that they weren’t nearly as good at blues or comedy as straightahead earnest folk, brought home by their covers of “San Francisco Bay Blues” and “Betty & Dupree,” and an excruciating semi-parody (featuring just Yarrow and Joan Baez) of the tiresome folk tune “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.” If you want more niggling complaints, there certainly could have been more in the way of annotation. The different years of the performances aren’t even identified, though Yarrow contributes some succinct liner notes. But overall it’s a valuable document of Peter, Paul & Mary at the peak of their fame and powers, at the festival that meant more to them and the folk community than any other.
7. David Crosby, Remember My Name. David Crosby’s had an interesting life, both musically (primarily as part of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young) and personally (with well-documented drug and health problems, romances, and feuds). This documentary doesn’t cover a whole lot that you can’t find out in numerous books, some very good, about the Byrds and CSNY, along with his own middling memoir. It does have numerous archive snippets of live performance and interviews, and some fresh interviews done with past and present associates. But its main value lies in the extensive interviews done specifically for the film with Crosby himself (by veteran rock journalist/director Cameron Crowe, although Crowe didn’t direct this movie). He talks with more candor than the usual documentary subject about, on the negative side, the women he’s hurt, his overindulgence in drugs, and the trail of musicians in the Byrds and CSNY with whom he’s no longer on speaking terms. He is less evasive than most stars (or former stars, if you want to be cruel) in the line of questioning, readily admitting to his failures without much in the way of excuses or self-pity.
While it’s okay, and maybe more than okay given the fair entertainment value in listening to Crosby tell stories in his own words, there certainly could have been more, or more specifically about his music. If you’re looking for insights into his contributions to “Eight Miles High,” or how exactly songs were chosen out of a large pool for CSN’s debut (or CSNY’s Deja Vu), you won’t find them. General observations about the Byrds and CSNY’s contributions (incidentally, he views CSN and CSNY as entirely different ensembles) are fairly on-target, but not surprising to those who know their folk-rock history. Occasional comments stand out, like his admission that he didn’t go a great job producing Joni Mitchell’s first album, though he feels he did capture her essence. More embarrassingly (though it seems Crosby’s beyond embarrassment at this point), he remembers Mitchell taking the floor at a private party to debut a song obviously directed, negatively, at him – and playing it twice.
Some of the interviews with Crosby intimates are frustratingly meager. Certainly I would have liked more than a few words from the Byrds’ Chris Hillman, perhaps at the expense of photographer Henry Diltz’s blathering about the significance of Croz’s astrological signs, which even Crosby finds overbearing. There’s also a lack of specifics as to exactly why no one else in CSNY (including longtime best friend Graham Nash) will talk to Crosby now, either from Crosby or the other three. There’s the sense those relationships fell apart not only through actual dislike, but just from the burnt-out stress of their off-on supergroup dynamics over the course of nearly half a century. And in keeping with so many documentaries, there are almost obligatory insertions of less interesting sequences of him performing his recent music, and discussing how much family and home now mean to him, though these are kept shorter than they are in many comparable productions.
8. Bill Wyman, The Quiet One. A documentary about Bill Wyman works with a big advantage and a big drawback. The big advantage is that Wyman kept a thorough, almost obsessive-compulsive archive of his career. The big drawback is that, although serious fans of the Rolling Stones appreciate his contributions, he was the least interesting member of the group in the three decades or so he was their bassist. So this film does have a lot of cool vintage photos that haven’t often or ever been seen, as well as numerous snippets of rare or home movies (though nothing on the order of, say, an exciting performance of a full song). These are more interesting the earlier in the career they’re from, going back to his pre-Stones days in the Cliftons.
The drawback? Although Wyman provides fairly extensive comments and there are a few voiceover comments from other Stones and associates (though not Mick Jagger or Keith Richards), many aspects of his and the Stones’ music are not discussed. Wyman was an important contributor to the development of “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Paint It Black,” but this is not mentioned, which is a flaw, not a mere oversight; even if he didn’t want to get into the thorny issue of why he didn’t get songwriting credits, the stories themselves would have been interesting enough. There’s nothing about his songwriting for the group, which though meager was interesting (especially “In Another Land”), or how he felt about Jagger-Richards’ near-total domination of the band’s composing. For that matter, there’s nothing about how he worked with his bandmates in the studio, let alone how he felt about Keith Richards playing the bass parts on some of the records.
I suppose there are some general moviegoers and critics who’d complain that getting into such details would bore the audience, who’d prefer what the movie does discuss about his difficult romantic life, especially his controversial second marriage to a woman who was underage when they started dating. But such a documentary by definition has its strongest appeal to big Rolling Stones fans, who would appreciate hearing more about the music, and maybe about some aspects of the music and Wyman’s role that haven’t come to light. The movie doesn’t get as deeply into the more controversial aspects (and, for that matter, interesting non-controversial aspects) of his personal life and the Stones as his books Stone Alone and Rolling with the Stones do. Those books are out there for those who want a fuller story, but there’s no reason this movie couldn’t have been a fuller portrait as well.
9. The Harder They Come: Collector’s Edition (Shout Factory). Certainly this would have ranked higher, and near the top, if this marked the first time this legendary early-‘70s Jamaica-set film was reissued. It doesn’t, so it’s primarily judged here for its extras, which are both bountiful and uneven. The main bonus is director Perry Henzell’s follow-up movie No Place Like Home, which though mostly filmed shortly afterward was not finished until 2006. Compared to The Harder They Come, it’s a letdown, though it too is set in Jamaica. Reggae music isn’t a significant factor this time around, but more crucially, it has a half-baked feel, whether due to its troubled production or not. Tracking the brief affair of a visiting American helping with a TV commercial shoot and an ambitious young Jamaican on the set, it blurs a slender plot with cinema verité-ish glimpses of various facets of island life. There are some interesting scenes and certainly some gorgeous scenery, with much intense hi-tech restoration necessary once the footage was found. But it seems more like a sketch than a fully realized project, though there are insights into culture clash here and there.
That’s just part of one disc of this three-disc set, which also has the original The Harder They Come, a cult classic for its reggae soundtrack, star singer Jimmy Cliff’s performance in the title role, and its gritty portrayal of Kingston ghetto life. There are hours of extras, but the commentary by reggae expert David Katz is disappointing, sounding as if he’s reading from an essay instead of directly commenting on the action. In that case, it should have been used as liner notes, and a film expert or surviving person involved in the production used as commentator. There are a bunch of short documentaries and interviews (including with the late Henzell) related to the making of both The Harder They Come and No Place Like Home that range from quite interesting—the one with Harder photography director David MacDonald is the best—to associates who ramble too long. The ones tied to No Place Like Home do reveal what a struggle it was to complete the movie decades later, with much detective work involved in finding surviving footage and restoring it to much more watchable condition.
A third disc includes more bonus features on Dynamic Sound Studios, the restoration of No Place Like Home, anatomy of some scenes, Henzell’s home and production center, and Henzell’s disciples. The disc would not (unlike the other two discs) play in my Blu-ray player, and I’ll add comments on it when I’m able to view it in proper operation.
10. Bob Dylan, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (Netflix). Although Dylan’s mid-‘70s Rolling Thunder tours don’t seem like the most controversial subject, this documentary caused its share of controversy, mostly because some of the interviews are with fictional characters (and the one with Sharon Stone is about fictional incidents). But the bulk of this two-hour, twenty-minute film uses actual footage from the tours, mostly focusing on performances by Dylan. Those scenes are the highlight of this for-the-most-part documentary, as his renditions (mostly of mid-‘70s material, with a few pre-Blood on the Tracks classics as well) are intense, sometimes to the point of being weird. Dylan was interviewed by filmmaker Martin Scorsese, but doesn’t say much of consequence, admitting he doesn’t remember much. A few other real participants in the tours get some talking head time too (like Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Scarlett Rivera, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Ronee Blakley), but it’s not the most straightforward or thorough account of what took place.
Opinions about this doc were strong, both from viewers ecstatic over its contents, and those who felt the fictional segments diminished its merit. I’m not passionate enough about the subject matter to take a vehement position. If fictional stuff was thrown into a documentary on an act or period that meant more to me, I might be up in arms. It doesn’t bother me here; in fact, from a cinematic perspective, these are some of the more entertaining parts. They’re also pretty convincing, since the actors – uncommonly for tricks like this – underplay their roles, instead of giving away the game with obviously outrageous statements or exaggerated behavior. As a history of the tours, this would have been more valuable had it included more material on the non-Dylan acts; Baez, McGuinn, Elliott, and even Joni Mitchell are seen only fleetingly in the vintage footage. What’s here, however, has its value, even if it might be something of a lost opportunity to make the history as accurate as it could have been.
11. Echo in the Canyon. The focus of this documentary is a little fuzzy, but basically it’s about Los Angeles rock of the mid-1960s, some (but not all, despite the title) associated with Laurel Canyon. In particular, it celebrates the music of the Byrds, Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mamas & the Papas. Members of all those acts (Roger McGuinn, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Brian Wilson, and Michelle Phillips) are interviewed, as are some others with strong associations with that scene (producer Lou Adler, Graham Nash) and frankly mild ones (Eric Clapton). There are also very brief snippets of vintage footage. All of this, however, is interspersed with a tribute concert/recording of sorts that younger musicians did not long before this film’s release. Those include Regina Spektor, Norah Jones, Cat Power, Beck, and most particularly Jakob Dylan, who’s kind of the host of the production, conducting the interviews as well as being the central figure in the tribute ensemble.
As interesting as mid-‘60s L.A. rock is, there are enough serious flaws in the movie to fill up at least a paragraph. Not even taking into account that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys had no strong association with Laurel Canyon, the film overlooks some important figures who did, like Love, the Doors, and the Mothers of Invention (the last of whom are only mentioned in passing). More significantly, the device of mixing the historical interviews/footage with a contemporary tribute concert is unnecessary, considering the covers aren’t as good as the originals, and how it takes time away from the subject matter of far greater interest. If all this sounds like the gripes of a curmudgeon who just wants to live in the past, bury himself in more arcane interview footage that will drive impatient listeners to their cell phone screens, and should be castigated for failing to appreciate the attempt to bridge history with a new generation of musicians and listeners, fine. Bring it on!
Yet even with the film’s modest length (a bit more than eighty minutes), there are bits that might be unfamiliar to those who’ve already heard a lot of the stories. For instance, McGuinn remembers the Byrds’ wardrobe changing to a more casual one after their faux-Beatles suits were stolen from Ciro’s on Sunset Strip, where they had an early residency. Stephen Stills reveals his composition “Questions” was partially inspired by rearranging some of the elements of Judy Collins’s “Since You’ve Asked.” A piece of footage I don’t remember seeing before has Neil Young explaining to Dick Clark how Buffalo Springfield formed after he and Bruce Palmer just happened to drive their Hearse by a car with Stephen Stills heading in the opposite direction. Ultimately it’s worth the price of a matinee ticket, and no more.
12. Sam Cooke, The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (Netflix). I saw a flurry of mixed reviews of this documentary when it first became available. Some unfavorably compared it to ABKCO’s 2003 doc Legend, or at least questioned the need for another one. While I wouldn’t rate this newer production as a major work, I think it’s okay, and has enough material and perspective not in the previous one to make it worth viewing. There are reasonably interesting interviews with some surviving peers and associates like engineer Al Schmitt, Smokey Robinson, and Friendly Womack, and if the talking-head clips with academics and historians aren’t as interesting, they’re not without value. There are plenty of seldom seen vintage photos and film clips (though these are quite short), and a few overlays of audio-only Cooke interview snippets.
The coverage takes in not only his evolution from gospel star to pop-soul giant, but also his associations with civil rights figures and Muhammad Ali. The final section on his death notes speculation that the mob and/or record industry figures might have been involved, but gives different sides of the issue, and stops short of finding a conspiracy given the fragmentary evidence. The chief frustration with the 75-minute movie is that it could have gone in more depth, not only by offering lengthier performance clips, but also by discussing a few more of his records, some hits not even gaining a mention. If you want that, however, there are two big books that offer that kind of detail, You Send Me (by Daniel Wolff with S.R. Crain, Cliff White, and G. David Tenenbaum) and Peter Guralnick’s Dream Boogie.
Also, the following documentaries came out in 2018, but I did not see them until 2019:
Conny Plank, The Potential of Noise (Cleopatra). Actually first screened in Germany in 2017, and released in the US in 2018. But Plank is not exactly a household name, so how about a review here? The German producer might be best known in the hipster world for working with several key Krautrock groups, including Kraftwerk, Neu!, Cluster, Can, and Guru Guru. His association with them is covered here, but some might be disappointed that it only occupies some of this documentary, since he produced quite a few other acts before his death in 1987, aged just 47. Those ranged from Scorpions and Ultravox to Killing Joke, DAF, Eurhythmics, and a few names who might not be too familiar to English-speaking audiences, like Gianna Nannini and Rita Mitsouko. Many of them are interviewed in this film, which is a straightforward mix of comments from associates, family, and friends with numerous (if brief) bits of archive footage of his more illustrious clients.
If there’s any structural twist to this documentary, it’s that it was co-directed by his son Stephan, who didn’t get to know his father as well as he would have liked before Plank died when he was a teenager. Stephan himself does much of the interviewing and narration, and in common with many artists, Plank comes off as a figure more concerned, sometimes to the point of obsession, with his work than his family. His devotion to recording led to the construction of his own studio in a barn in semi-rural Germany near Köln, where much of the music he produced was cut. His standards for music deserving of his attention and time led him, he states in an interview excerpted for this film, to turn down opportunities to work with the Cars and U2 (whose Bono he dismisses with a vague disdainful comment). If there’s anything seriously lacking in this generally satisfactory overview, it’s more of a sense of what made the Plank sound distinctive, especially since his records (especially the non-Krautrock ones) covered a lot of different territory.
Jeff Beck, Still on the Run: The Jeff Beck Story (Eagle Vision/Universal). While there’s some good stuff in this fairly straightforward and conventional documentary, I have to admit it lost me about halfway through. Not so much because of the reasonable quality of the film, but because Beck’s career hasn’t been so interesting after the 1970s, at least as far as the records he’s done. The first half does have coverage of his ‘60s and ‘70s work with the Yardbirds and Jeff Beck Group and his solo fusion efforts, though it’s not so in-depth that much will astound fans who know a lot about the guitarist. Its greatest value is that Beck, not always the most voluble of interview subjects, talks a lot about himself and his music throughout the documentary. So even some of the familiar stories, like how he got the sitar-like sound for “Heart Full of Soul,” are interesting to hear in his own words.
Associates like Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart, Jan Hammer, and Ronnie Wood are also interviewed, though a few of the guys testifying to Beck’s prowess, like members of Aerosmith and Guns’n’Roses, were not exactly his peers. As he hasn’t done landmark albums over the last few decades, the last part of the film kind of wanders through various observations from lesser known people who’ve worked with him during that time, along with bursts of performance clips dotting those years. There’s a little about his fascination with cars, but not so much that it takes over from music as the center stage.
Aretha Franklin, Amazing Grace. Technically this premiered at a 2018 festival, though it wasn’t widely shown until the following year. Actually this film of January 1972 Aretha Franklin performances recorded for her gospel album Amazing Grace was supposed to have come out back then, but was shelved because of problems syncing the audio track. Now those technical difficulties aren’t apparent, and though Franklin blocked the release, after her 2018 death the film could finally be seen. Directed by noted director Sydney Pollack, it’s a pretty straightforward document of the performances at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, accompanied by the Southern California Community Choir. The band includes top session players Bernard Purdie (on drums) and Chuck Rainey (on bass), and gospel star James Cleveland performs a bit during the proceedings.
As respected as the Amazing Grace album was by critics—and as big a seller as that LP was, reaching the Top Ten—I don’t find the material nearly as exciting as Franklin’s classic soul music. It’s interesting, though, to see her performing in a pretty small church, with a largely African-American congregation as audience, though Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can briefly be spotted. Her father C.L. Franklin, himself a respected gospel singer, also gets on stage for a bit. For secularists like me, the highlight is her gospelization of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
John Lennon, Looking for Lennon (Echo Bridge). Will this documentary tell you much about John Lennon’s childhood and teenage years if you’ve read widely about the Beatles? To be a snob, no. Just the Beatles biographies of Hunter Davies (who’s interviewed in this film) and Mark Lewisohn will tell you a lot, and (especially in Lewisohn’s case) quite a bit more, than can fit in a 90-minute movie. It’s made more awkward by scenes with a few talking head experts/academics who tell part of the story, without much charm or revelatory insight, while walking among Liverpool/Lennon landmarks.
So why give this doc a look? It does have interviews—albeit many so brief they’re more like soundbites—with quite a few people who knew Lennon growing up, some of whom have never or seldom been quoted in books or seen on film. That includes some of the surviving Quarrymen (even the most obscure “original” one, Bill Smith) and the late promoter Sam Leach, though Astrid Kirchherr, who was almost as important as any early Beatles associate, speaks for just a few seconds. There are also quite a few photos, many well known and often reproduced, but quite a few that are both unfamiliar and interesting. Should you not know much about Lennon’s early life, this will give you a fair overview. Otherwise, it’s a marginal addition to the wealth of footage/analysis devoted to him and the Beatles.
Releases of previously unissued vintage rock material are routine in the record business these days. Not a week passes, it sometimes seems, without compilations of unavailable or mostly unavailable tracks, many of which would have been inconceivable in the 20th century. Two CDs of Abbey Road outtakes? David Bowie 1969 home demos? A multi-disc package built around Bob Dylan-Johnny Cash collaborations from the ‘60s? All are out this fall alone.
Back in the actual late ’60s, however, rock albums of unreleased material that were motivated by their historical importance were virtually unknown. That’s not to say, of course, that LPs comprised of or built around non-recent recordings hadn’t appeared since about the time rock started. Usually, however, these were vault leftovers that were only put out to exploit the success of an artist with tracks that were unlike and/or not nearly of the same quality as what had made them famous. Often these were attempts to squeeze the last juice of a lemon after artists had passed their peak, or out of spite after they’d reached a much higher level of success with a different label.
Admittedly, it can be a fine line as to whether an archive release built around previously unheard cuts is exploitative, a sincere attempt to document history, or some of both. Certainly all of the early LPs with some element of historical importance were compiled at least in part to make some money, and not simply provide listeners with a vital public service. But almost as certainly, they were also devised at least part due to the urge of someone — whether a producer, label staffer, artist, or someone else — to give fans the opportunity to hear music that had no chance of selling too well, but was crucial to appreciating the history of the musicians. And, not incidentally, was often really good on its own terms, and deserved to be heard in any case.
Here’s a list of a dozen notable early rock LPs that archived unreleased (or almost wholly unreleased) recordings, from the late 1960s to the late 1970s. I feel like I might have missed something, but I gave my vinyl collection a once-over in addition to thinking hard about what qualified. I know I haven’t listed some that aren’t to my taste, but most or or all of these should have some appeal to big fans of rock from the mid-‘60s through the early ‘70s.
The Great Society, Conspicuous Only In Its Absence/Collectors Item: How It Was (1968). Strictly speaking, these were two different LPs. I’m putting them into one listing as the second came out not long after the first; they were both taken from live 1966 tapes at the same venue, San Francisco’s Matrix club; and have since often been packaged together, as a double LP and then a single CD.
These records almost certainly wouldn’t have come out, as least back in 1968, if not for the subsequent huge success the Great Society’s chief singer, Grace Slick, had with Jefferson Airplane. While they were active, the Great Society’s catalog was limited to just one barely distributed single, albeit one that had an early version of “Somebody to Love” (then titled “Someone to Love”) on the A-side. Fortunately they were recorded in pretty good quality at the Matrix in mid-1966, just a few months before they broke up when Slick joined the Airplane.
The first and better of these albums, Conspicuous Only In Its Absence, would have been notable for the inclusion of early versions of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” alone. But both records were dominated by original songs, quite a few by Grace Slick, that never appeared elsewhere. Usually these were very good. And as they were among the first and best of the San Francisco groups to integrate free jazz improvisation, Indian influences, and free love-oriented lyrics into their rock, the Great Society were also the most underrated psychedelic pioneers from the city, and indeed among the most underrated psychedelic pioneers from anywhere.
Columbia would have never touched these recordings if they couldn’t have prominently placed Grace Slick’s name and image on the covers. Yet the liner notes — by top early rock critic Ralph J. Gleason on the first volume — added some credibility to their status as projects documenting exciting history, not just ringing up some more change while the psychedelic craze lasted. I’ve also heard an interview with a close associate of the band who stated the recordings saw the light of day, at least in part, due to efforts from Grace Slick herself.
The Byrds, Preflyte (1969). Before they signed to Columbia, and even before they’d played live, the Byrds had the opportunity (via co-manager and early producer Jim Dickson) to use free studio time to practice and refine their sound. They could also tape themselves so they could play back and dissect what they were doing. That alone would make these early tapes, probably dating from around late 1964, of vast historical importance. But even if you knew nothing about the Byrds or didn’t care much about tracing their pre-“Mr. Tambourine Man” evolution, these are hugely enjoyable primordial early folk-rock efforts, from a time the ex-folkies were just learning how to play together as an electric rock band.
This batch of tracks does include a few early versions of songs from their classic 1965 debut LP Mr. Tambourine Man, but also features some really fine originals they never put on their mid-‘60s albums and singles, mostly (but not all) written by Gene Clark. “You Showed Me” would be a hit for the Turtles in 1969. Like the other previously unheard originals, it shows the band trying to emulate the Beatles, but instead starting to forge a distinctive brand of melodic, harmony-laden folk-rock.
It seems like the Byrds themselves had reservations about making this stuff available, as they were only intended as rehearsals/demos of sorts. But almost all of the tracks are excellent. And while Together (the label that first issued these) might have been cashing in on the “classic” lineup’s success, the project was granted some more legitimacy by fairly astute (certainly by 1969 standards) historical liner notes from their early Columbia publicist, Billy James. Subsequent CD editions of the “Preflyte” tapes have added a lot of other tracks, many of them simply alternate versions of songs from the original 1969 LP, some of them worthwhile originals that didn’t make the Together album. The 1969 edition does contain the bulk of the best performances.
Various Artists, Early L.A. (1969). This is the most marginal inclusion on this list, and not just because it’s kind of a grab bag compilation of mid-‘60s outtakes by notable Los Angeles acts, most of whom were associated with producer Jim Dickson. Historical liner notes are usually the surest indication that some sense of altruistic purpose was involved in assembling an archive release. But the packaging on this LP, at least on my copy, is subpar even by the low standards of ‘60s budget LPs. For no apparent reason, the artwork mimics a chart by Los Angeles Top Forty AM station KFWB, complete with dated early-‘60s-looking black-and-white xerox-quality photos of disc jockeys. The liner notes are vague to the point of uselessness. It’s hard to even tell who the specific artists are for every track, as, irratatingly, the composers are given for each song on the back cover, but the performers themselves aren’t even listed, though some of the artists are named on the front.
But for all its shabby presentation, the contents are fairly interesting, entirely unreleased at the time, and still hard in many cases to find elsewhere. There are early, possibly pre-Byrds solo efforts, if not too distinguished, by David Crosby; a pre-Columbia Byrds outtake, “You Movin’,” that’s different from the one on Preflyte; an unplugged early pseudo-Beatles recording by Gene Clark, Roger McGuinn, and David Crosby (“The Only Girl”) that’s the earliest surviving Byrds, or sort of Byrds, performance on tape; a couple very early sort-of folk-rock hybrids by Dino Valenti; a couple nice mid-‘60s folk-rock outings by bluegrassers the Dillards; and, of least interest, a couple Canned Heat cuts.
Like the Byrds’ Preflyte, this came out on the short-lived Together label, whose apparent purpose was to issue archive anthologies such as these. Who knows what other neat oddities it might have exhumed from the tombs. But nothing else of note was forthcoming from the company, perhaps because the time was too early for such specialized dives into the vaults.
The Yardbirds, Live Yardbirds: Featuring Jimmy Page (1971). Arguably this wasn’t an official release, since it was only on sale very briefly before it was withdrawn from the market after Jimmy Page threatened legal action. Still, it came out on a major label, Epic, a subsidiary of Columbia. It was a historic concert recording of a top British ‘60s group, issued more than three years after it was recorded at New York’s Anderson Theatre on March 30, 1968. It also had historical liner notes by one of the best rock historians (and indeed best liner note writers), Lenny Kaye, who sometimes tempered his hype with phrasing intimating this wasn’t quite the holy grail he was making it out to be. Most amusing excerpt: “And from the very start, you know it’s about to happen, The Greatest Concert Ever, at least of this week…”
No doubt it was issued to exploit Page’s superstardom in Led Zeppelin, his prominent subtitle billing serving as evidence. It nonetheless made for an interesting document of the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page lineup, who didn’t record that much, and with a few exceptions didn’t make very good studio tracks. And not many live LPs of British Invasion bands were on the market at all during the actual British Invasion.
It turned out, though, that this album had its share of problems that went beyond the failure of Page and Yardbirds to approve its release, either back when it was recorded or in 1971. The tracks were overdubbed with inappropriate bullfight-type cheers. The actual performances weren’t all that great, or at least the Yardbirds in top form, either compared to the Eric Clapton/Jeff Beck eras or relative to the best live tapes of the Page lineup (though those had yet to circulate in 1971). Page’s playing is the highlight, though, and while the versions of mid-‘60s classics are no match for the Beck lineup originals, it did have a pre-Zeppelin arrangement of “Dazed and Confused” (titled “I’m Confused”), which the Yardbirds never cut in the studio. A cover, if not a great one, of another item not found on ‘60s Yardbirds releases (Garnet Mimms’s “My Baby”) was another bonus; Page played well on his acoustic guitar showcase “White Summer”; and “I’m a Man” was given an extended arrangement that made it quite different from either the Clapton or Beck versions on the Having a Rave Up with the Yardbirds LP.
Almost fifty years later, the material came out with much better sound, and minus the fake crowd noise, on the Page lineup-endorsed Yardbirds ’68. While better, that release also had some problems, namely the exclusion of singer Keith Relf’s between-song comments and some editing of the tracks that removed sections that can be heard on the long-bootlegged original Epic LP. My detailed review of Yardbirds ’68 can be read here.
Soft Machine, Faces and Places Vol. 7(1972). Starting in the early 1970s, Giorgio Gomelsky arranged to put out a lot of historical tapes he’d made through the French label BYG. While these included a bunch of big names like the Yardbirds (whom he’d managed and co-produced for their first few years), the Animals, the Spencer Davis Group, Graham Bond, and the Steampacket (including John Balrdy and the pre-fame Rod Stewart, Julie Driscoll, and Brian Auger), most of these were pretty scrappy live tapes or demos. An exception, even if these were also never intended for release, were nine demos he produced of the Soft Machine in April 1967. This almost amounts to a lost Soft Machine first album, especially as just one rare single was released by the 1967 lineup with Daevid Allen on guitar. As I wrote in my chapter on Giorgio Gomelsky in the extended ebook edition of my book Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock:
“In addition to being historically important (comprising most of the available material by the early version of the band with Daevid Allen on guitar), it’s also enjoyable and innovative early British psychedelia, with incessantly inventive tempo and melodic shifts, alternately goofy and affecting lyrics, and Robert Wyatt’s soulful singing. There are strong hints of jazz and the avant-garde, though these are still subservient to a hummable pop sensibility. That invigorating collision of elements is best heard on ‘Jet-Propelled Photograph’ and the emotional ballad ‘Memories.’”
These nine demos have been reissued so many times under so many different titles that it’s useless, if not impossible, to list them all. It seems like they’ve always been obtainable since first appearing (sometimes piecemeal on various-artists compilations) in the early 1970s. Gomelsky’s ‘60s archival tapes by other artists are pretty much for completists, an exception being a glorious ten-minute “Blues Raga” by the superb British folk guitarist Davy Graham, probably recorded around 1967. That and the less memorable Graham rarity “When Did You Leave Heaven?” were part of BYG’s various-artists compilation Rock Generation Vol. 8, but only added up to most of an LP side, not a proper album.
The Kinks, The Great Lost Kinks Album (1973). Here’s another LP that wasn’t approved by the band, Ray Davies actually taking action that resulted in it being deleted from Reprise’s catalog in 1975. Unlike Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page, however, there was no post-production nonsense, and the quality was higher, if not quite on par with the Kinks’ proper studio albums. Most notably, it featured a wealth of previously unreleased outtakes from their late –‘60s prime. While there was a bit of stuff that had been officially issued, back in 1973 those cuts—the great 1966 B-side “I’m Not Like Everybody Else,” and the 1969 UK single “Plastic Man”—weren’t so easy to find. And the outtakes weren’t far below, and sometimes about on the same level, as the songs on their official LPs, especially the Village Green Preservation Society leftovers “Misty Water” and “Mr. Songbird.”
All fourteen tracks have come out on CD reissues, even if they’re scattered among so many discs that collecting them all takes a hefty investment. There’s one reason to hunt down the original Reprise LP (not easy or inexpensive to find in good condition), despite its ugly and inappropriate cover. The insert features detailed liner notes by noted rock critic John Mendelsohn that trash the Kinks’ then-recent output—which just happened to have been released not on Reprise, but the label the band jumped to, RCA.
Jefferson Airplane, Early Flight (1974). Despite the ugly cover, this was a highly worthwhile, as the back sleeve proclaims, “collection of songs never before released on an album.” A few tracks (the 1966 B-side “Runnin’ Round This World” and the 1970 single “Mexico”/“Have You Seen the Saucers”) had been available on low-selling 45s, but everything else was unveiled here for the first time. And some of the ’65-’67 cuts were very good, like their version of “High Flyin’ Bird,” one of several items on the LP done with original woman singer Signe Anderson in December 1965. The Surrealistic Pillow outtakes “Go to Her” and “J.P.P. McStep B Blues” were as good as the secondary songs on that classic LP. A couple numbers were more obvious rejects/filler, but the rest certainly bolstered their reputation as one of the great ‘60s bands—not that their reputation was in need of a boost. It also gained some authenticity/official endorsement from the brief but informative liner notes by Airplane manager Bill Thompson, which clearly and succinctly explained the origins of each selection.
The Velvet Underground, 1969 Live (1974). Actually billed to “the Velvet Underground with Lou Reed,” probably this wouldn’t have come out if Reed’s early solo success hadn’t been available to exploit. Still, this double LP was hardly a quickie ripoff, with 103 minutes of music. Of greater value than its sheer length was its astronomically high quality. Fifty years after these fall 1969 performances in San Francisco and Dallas clubs were recorded, it’s still a contender for the best live rock album of all time. As I wrote in my book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Live, it’s “not just the Velvet Underground at the peak of their powers. It’s as good as any rock group has ever sounded live.” It also captures the group at a point where they were varying the songs considerably from the studio versions, and sometimes substantially improving them.
It’s nonetheless kind of amazing that a double album was green-lighted for what in 1974 was still very much a cult band that had never sold many records, even if it did sell for a lower price than the usual double LP. It might have marked the first time a cult band was so posthumously honored, if not for the presence of Reed, who did lend the project some star power.
It probably wouldn’t have gotten approved for release (on a major label, no less), however, if not for the dedicated efforts of rock critic-turned-Mercury A&R man Paul Nelson. He discussed how he pushed the project through with humorous detail in a chapter he wrote in the mid-1990s for an unpublished anthology on the history of Mercury Records, now available in the 2011 book Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. During one heated exchange, Mercury president Irwin Steinberg revealed to Nelson that it never would have come out “if one of our Nashville artists hadn’t gotten sick and had his LP delayed!”
While I’m not much for liner notes that eschew historical detail for fan appreciation, the brief but excellent notes to 1969 Live by singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy are an exception. “Rock’n’roll people tend to live on the edge,” he wrote. “That’s what this album is all about. Rock’n’roll has always been and still is one of the few honest things left in this world. That’s what this album is about…I hope parents will still get scared when they find their daughter listening to this music.”
The Who, Odds and Sods (1974). The Who took more interest in their own history than any major band of the 1960s and 1970s. So it made sense that they were the first such act to oversee a vault-combing collection themselves, Pete Townshend even writing track-by-track liner notes. All but one of the cuts were previously unreleased, and even the one that had seen the official light of day, the High Numbers’ 1964 single “I’m the Face,” wasn’t easy to find in 1974. Everything else was from 1968-72, doing much to fill in what had occupied them in the gaps between rock operas.
Odds and Sods’ contents aren’t great, and certainly not a match for their official LPs and singles. They don’t even feature much of their very best unissued pre-1973 stuff, a lot of which has since come out on CD. And the 1998 expanded CD reissue, which about doubles the length of the LP, has some good outtakes (like “Time Is Passing,” a 1967 studio version of “Summertime Blues,” a 1964 cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Baby Don’t You Do It,” and an alternate version of “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand”) that are as good as any selections from the original LP, and better than some that made the initial cut. Still, at the time it was not only a valuable supplement to the Who’s pre-mid-‘70s discography. It was also a heartening indication that some major rock musicians might start to take some more interest, and pride, in exhuming some of their leftovers for archive compilations.
Bob Dylan & the Band, The Basement Tapes (1975). A couple unreleased 1960s Dylan recordings achieved particularly mythic status before gaining official release. One, his “Albert Hall” May 1966 concert (actually recorded in Manchester and bootlegged as a London Albert Hall performance), wouldn’t come out until 1998. The other was the extensive collection of tracks he cut in 1967 with the Band, although it wouldn’t be fully realized for decades just how extensive those were. Although this 1975 double album only included a relatively small fraction of them, its appearance nonetheless marked the first time an artist of this stature had issued such widely hailed bootlegged material. And the package did include most of the very best songs from the era, like “Tears of Rage,” “Million Dollar Bash,” “Too Much of Nothing,” “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” “Nothing Was Delivered,” “Open the Door, Homer,” “Tiny Montgomery,” and “This Wheel’s on Fire.”
The presence of eight Band songs sans Dylan—some recorded in 1967, but actually spanning 1967-75—did dilute the concept. So did the 1975 overdubs to some of the tracks. What’s more, it was missing some of the best tracks from the sessions that appeared on bootlegs, like “I Shall Be Released” and “Mighty Quinn.” Some Dylan fanatics contented that some of the versions selected for the official release weren’t nearly as good as some bootlegged ones. As Paul Cable wrote in Bob Dylan: His Unreleased Recordings, “What sort of a sick joke is it to have Quinn the Eskimo on the cover but not on the record? It is very odd indeed that there should have been such devastatingly glaring omissions…It is almost as though someone at Columbia actually had an interest in keeping the bootleg scene going.”
This was remedied by the 2014 six-CD box The Basement Tapes Complete, which included all of the Dylan-Band recordings from the 1975 double LP (without overdubs) and a mind-blowing 138 tracks in all. Understandably, that’s rendered the 1975 version of The Basement Tapes superfluous to many listeners, unless you’re a Band completist. But it was still a major signpost in archival rock’s road to being taken more seriously by the record industry, and viewed as more marketable, with the 1975 set making #7 in the charts.
The Beatles, At the Hollywood Bowl (1977). Naturally a live mid-‘60s Beatlemania recording by the greatest band of all time was a milestone in the evolution of the archival rock industry. Of course, even at the time it appeared, many Beatles fans griped about imperfections. These went way beyond the unavoidably mediocre fidelity of the recording, the screaming audience making it hard both to capture the group on tape and for the band to hear themselves. The combination of tracks from their 1964 and 1965 Hollywood Bowl shows meant that a number of songs from each year were omitted. Its belated appearance on CD in 2016 improved but didn’t wholly fix things, adding just four bonus tracks. The Hollywood Bowl concerts—from August 23, 1964, August 29, 1965, and August 30, 1965—haven’t been issued in full, though they’ve long been available on bootleg.
Arguably, the original LP (and more so the expanded CD) are enough for the average listener, though there are enough non-average Beatles fans to make the absence of all the Hollywood Bowl material from their official discography irritating. The original LP did gain some authority with a fairly lengthy back cover liner note by producer George Martin (reprinted in the CD booklet, which adds a much lengthier historical essay written specifically for the 2016 edition). Martin’s note is dated by an exchange he reports with his nine-year-old daughter, who asked him, “Were they as great as the Bay City Rollers?” Replied the too-gentle Martin, “probably not,” though he added in his notes, “some day she will find out.”
The year 1977 actually saw two Beatles archival releases, the other being a double album from December 1962 live Hamburg tapes (not included on this list of a dozen key releases owing to its substandard sound quality). Yet the Beatles wouldn’t endorse another archival release until the mid-1990s, when the three-volume Anthology series of mostly unreleased material was generated to coincide with the documentary and book projects of the same name. And it wasn’t until the last few years, with the Sgt. Pepper/White Album/Abbey Road box sets, that they’ve really gotten fully behind a more diligent and thorough archival/vault program.
The Easybeats, The Shame Just Drained (1977). It might not have been on the magnitude of the original Basement Tapes compilation or Beatles Hollywood Bowl LP, but this well done anthology served notice that much less celebrated acts would start to enter the archival game. Not that the Easybeats were that obscure—they did have one big international hit (“Friday on My Mind”), as well as many huge smashes in Australia, where their career started. But with this Australian LP, we had a high-quality collection of studio outtakes, most drawn from their 1966-67 UK output. Its audience must have been limited to a pretty specialized audience of collectors in 1977, whether in Australia itself or overseas. It would indeed make its way to different continents as an import, Australian rock authority Glenn A. Baker putting the material in context with characteristically meticulously detailed lengthy back cover liner notes.
While none of this was on the level of “Friday on My Mind” or their best singles, some of it was certainly a match for their better LP tracks. “Lisa” and “Amanda Storey” were particular standouts. So was “Mr. Riley of Higgenbottom & Clive,” which not only was one of the group’s few stabs at social commentary, but stands up pretty well to similar (though not the best) efforts from the period by the Kinks.
Who knew that quite a few other Easybeats outtakes and live recordings would emerge after the 1970s, starting with Raven’s fine 1982 LP The Raven EP LP Vol. 2 (sic). But The Shame Just Drained was an indication that the drip of archive anthologies could become a flood—which would indeed happen, to an unimaginable extent that continues to this day.
While that completes my roundup of a dozen key early rock archival releases, here are a few notes about LPs I considered, and why I gave them a miss:
The Fugs, Virgin Fugs (1967). Comprised of outtakes from 1965’s The Fugs First Album, this might be considered too close to the original recording date to be a bona fide archive release. More distressingly, it’s not really that good, and even rawer and more cacophonous than the performances selected for the Fugs’ debut LP, which is saying something. The kicker is that it wasn’t authorized by the Fugs. ESP Records head Bernard Stollman admitted to me years later that “it was very stupid on my part. It was highly improper. I think Ed [Sanders, Fugs leader] had every reason to be enraged that we had put out material that he had not previously determined that he wanted to have out.” For all that, it has some amusing songs, like “Coca Cola Douche,” “New Amphetamine Shriek,” and “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rot.”
Tim Hardin, This Is Tim Hardin (1967). This falls more into the category of someone’s success being fairly quickly exploited than an archival release consciously assembled, at least in part, due to its historical value. Hardin’s first couple mid-‘60s albums for Verve, while not best-sellers, had already established his reputation as a major singer-songwriter when this batch of unreleased circa-1964 material appeared. It’s actually fairly good, due in large part to Hardin’s considerable vocal prowess. But as it’s largely given over to folk and blues covers, it’s not nearly as original or impressive as those early Verve LPs. A similarly flavored batch of ’64 recordings, Tim Hardin 4, came out in 1969.
The Beach Boys, Stack-o-Tracks (1968). A one-of-a-kind ‘60s release, Stack-o-Tracks took fifteen Beach Boys songs—largely a mix of hits and some of their standout LP tracks—and issued them without vocals. By presenting the songs’ backup tracks, it was something of a karaoke aid, especially as the cover blurb announced, “you sing the words and play with the original instrumental backgrounds to fifteen of their biggest hits.” A booklet was even provided as a guide for such sing-playalongs. Even overlooking the cuts’ previous incarnations with vocals, it’s really more of a novelty release than an archival collection. Beach Boys fanatics (and there are many) appreciate the opportunity to focus on the instrumental settings. But it’s not something many fans, or maybe even many fanatics, want to listen to many times.
Steppenwolf, Early Steppenwolf (1969). Like the Great Society albums, this was recorded at the Matrix, from a gig on May 14, 1967. Unlike the Great Society, Steppenwolf actually had hits, a couple of which had made the Top Three by the time of this release. This counts as an early historical release of sorts, and has liner notes by Steppenwolf mainman John Kay taking up most of the back cover. I just don’t like Steppenwolf too much, and though I like their two biggest hits, neither of them are here. Most of these songs are bluesier than those hits, and not in a very compelling way. And though I like “The Pusher,” the 21-minute version that takes up all of side two, with an extended freakout intro, is way longer than anyone needs.
Fleetwood Mac, The Original Fleetwood Mac (1971). Dating from 1967, these outtakes are from the period shortly after Fleetwood Mac formed. This is when they were close to a straight blues band, and the music has its share of historic value, dating from around the time they cut their debut LP, or a little before that in some instances. But while it’s okay, it’s not as good as that debut album, or really that memorable. The only exception is the brooding instrumental “Fleetwood Mac,” which swings along with a real verve. These cuts might be better heard as bonus tracks to Fleetwood Mac’s first album than on their own, though the tracks on this LP have never been hard to get.
The Velvet Underground, Live at Max’s Kansas City (1972). Issued a little under two years after Lou Reed’s departure from the Velvet Underground, this smacked a little of Atlantic Records trying to squeeze out some return on their investment. Reed had bailed from the band just before the one LP he recorded for the label as part of the Velvets (Loaded) was released. While Atlantic did record a few cuts with the Reed-less VU in November 1970, they didn’t follow through with an album by that lineup, indicating they didn’t feel it was worthwhile to work without Lou. Maybe they felt like a live recording with Reed on board was their only option for getting another Velvet Underground LP out of the deal, no matter how lo-fi it was. And it was lo-fi, having been recorded from the audience on a cassette at what’s dated as Reed’s last gig with the group on August 23, 1970.
Live at Max’s was issued about six months before Reed broke to a wider public with his second solo album (Transformer), and so can’t be considered an attempt to exploit his post-VU success. The biggest strike against awarding it status as a top archival release, however, is its quality. It’s not that great, in large part because of the thin bootleg fidelity. But the performances aren’t super, either. And the Velvet Underground archive release that did make my top dozen, 1969 Live, is infinitely better.
The Rolling Stones, Metamorphosis (1975). Along with Early Flight, Odds & Sods, and The Basement Tapes, Metamorphosis was part of the first rush of from-the-vault anthologies by major acts. So why isn’t it in the top dozen? Well, it’s not so hot, and dominated by mid-‘60s demos on which the entire band doesn’t play. Those mid-‘60s demos are mostly second-tier, or even third-tier, pop-oriented Mick Jagger-Keith Richards compositions They were cut mostly to help generate cover versions, which they did, though the covers usually weren’t very good either, and in fact often notably worse.
Metamophosis was often slagged upon its release—it even gets the lowest “bullet” rating (“worthless: records that need never (or should never) have been created”) in the original Rolling Stone Record Guide. It’s often been slagged since, though I actually like it more than most critics do. Even those half-assed demos have their modestly tuneful charms. “Don’t Lie to Me,” a mid-‘60s Chuck Berry cover with the full group, is pretty good. Side two has some uneven but fairly interesting late-‘60s efforts, especially the folky Between the Buttons outtake “If You Let Me,” Bill Wyman’s “Downtown Suzie,” and the reasonably strong Beggars Banquet extra “Family.”
But it doesn’t add up to a very strong album. And the packaging takes off plenty of points, with an ugly-as-sin cover and nothing in the way of notes detailing the where and when of the sources. Plus it’s markedly inferior to the tracklist Bill Wyman had proposed, which included a bunch of R&B cover outtakes from their early days.
The Beatles, Live at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, 1962 (1977). Certainly this is of vast historical importance, with a double album (slightly different from the US version in its Germany/UK release) of live recordings of the Beatles in late December 1962. There are also plenty of covers the group never put on its studio discs (though just a couple originals, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Ask Me Why”). So what’s the problem?
It’s no secret, but the sound quality is pretty bad, and the vocals especially muffled. The playing’s kind of sloppy, certainly by the Beatles’ sky-high standards. It’s not nearly as much of a problem, but the liner notes, while fairly lengthy, are fairly useless, and falsely claim the tapes were made when Pete Best was in the band (with Ringo just happening to be sitting in when the tapes were rolling). I’m glad this exists, but it’s not great listening. Fortunately a lot of early Beatles survives in much better fidelity (with much tighter performances) on their early BBC tapes, which likewise feature a lot of covers that didn’t make their official records.
This fall sees the release of a three-CD set, on the UK Grapefruit label, by “the Electric Banana.” Titled The Complete de Wolfe Sessions, the recordings were used as incidental music for film soundtracks of the era. They might have vanished into total obscurity had it not been known that the musicians supplying this material were not just anonymous session players. They in fact comprised a pretty well known band, the Pretty Things.
Besides being the best British group of the ‘60s not to make it in the US, the Pretty Things had an odd and colorful career. Most stories about them focus on their failure to tour the US as the oddest twist in their tale. Odder still, however, were these soundtrack recordings (sometimes termed “library music” in the UK), which no other group made as much of a sideline, if they ventured into this territory at all. If they hoped to keep their true identity hidden, the cover was blown pretty quickly by the presence of a spare version of “I See You” on the 1968 More Electric Banana LP. With much fuller production, it would be redone on their 1968 psychedelic album S.F. Sorrow.
Those hoping for a wealth of thrilling supplements to the core Pretty Things discography will be disappointed by the Electric Banana recordings. The group really were saving their best songs for S.F. Sorrow, 1970’s Parachute, and a couple creative flop psychedelic singles in 1967 and 1968. Much of what they were doing for the de Wolfe company was intended only as background music, to fit into scenes of movies that ended up a lot more obscure than even the Pretty Things’ rarer ‘60s releases. The extensive liner notes, while informative, coyly never cite the Pretty Things by name, as if there’s still a legal complication in acknowledging they were the guys behind these recordings.
That’s not to say these tracks are wholly without merit, especially for Pretty Things fans. The different version of “I See You” is effectively haunting (and somewhat similar to the Bee Gees’ “I Can’t See Nobody”), and the guitar riffs of “Alexander” anticipate similar ones on S.F. Sorrow’s “Balloon Burning.” Three of the songs also show up in different versions on the peculiar late-‘60s demo LP done with Philippe DeBarge on vocals (more on which later). Even More Electric Banana’s bittersweet, eerie instrumental “Dark Theme” is atmospheric dreamy psychedelia, and unlike these other cuts was not placed on the most widely available compilation of late-‘60s Electric Banana highlights,The Electric Banana Blows Your Mind. In all that would make a fair EP, the hard-charging harmony-pop-psych “Alexander” in particular becoming a fan favorite despite its relative obscurity.
But the rest is pretty trivial, some of the earlier efforts sounding like mediocre outtakes from their controversial 1967 psych-pop-with orchestration album Emotions. The post-1970 tracks get into turgid blues-rock, and the final de Wolfe album they worked on, 1978’s The Return of Electric Banana, was done long after their peak. A good number of the less celebrated cuts are instrumental versions of songs better represented by their vocal counterparts.
The Return of Electric Banana does offer a bit in the way of surprising detours from their usual average mid-‘70s rock that are surprisingly good, notably the almost Greek folkish “Whiskey Song.” But with an overflow of more forgettable background music and routine rockers, this is for the Pretty Things completist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially as the original LPs are super-hard to find, and the music’s usually only been available since then on grey-area releases.
Even considering how inferior the de Wolfe albums were to the bulk of the Pretty Things’ studio work, it’s interesting to consider how they ended up making so many of these—five entire LPs between 1967 and 1978. I can think of no other band of note that made this as much of a sideline. Probably a number of bands, or at least musicians from bands with “real” albums, played on library music discs. But if any others did too much of it, it hasn’t come to light.
I posed this question to one of the most knowledgeable UK collectors I know, who responded that Jade Warrior—a British progressive rock outfit who put out a number of LPs in the early-to-mid-‘70s without gaining much sales—“made a library album, which virtually no one is aware of. Maybe just me and the band!” He added, “It was long claimed that the two London’s Underground library LPs on Conroy were by Hawkwind, but that is nonsense. They were actually by a band featuring rock journeyman Garth Watt-Roy.”
So were the Pretties producing a steady stream of these to make a quick buck? Yeah, pretty much. Asked point blank “did you record them only for the money?” in a 1985 issue of the Gorilla Beat fanzine, singer Phil May replied, “Yeah, because we needed money at that time to continue what we were doing. I mean, nobody gave us any money for S.F. Sorrow, we had it about pencil written, then [guitarist] Dick [Taylor] and I were quite broken at that time and we didn’t get large wages from the records.”
Asked Gorilla Beat, “Did they come and say: ‘Write the music for this or that sequence?” May responded, “Every time we made a record and felt we had some songs left over, the guys came into the studio and bought the recordings we didn’t need. These songs were used in films, television series and so on. We were earning good money. This helped us to stay alive, really. What happened was, somebody would ring up de Wolfe saying: ‘Have you got some music backing for us. We got a sequence in a bar where a gangster shoots down another gangster and there is a jukebox playing in the background. So, what can I have?’
“And so they used material from the Electric Banana LPs. So when you see the film, this guy walks into the bar and there’s this rock music coming from the jukebox, that’s the Pretty Things, and then it was quieten down in the dialogue and the guy shoots the other man and leaves. We did it as I said to stay alive, really.”
Other members of the late-‘60s Pretty Things are similarly offhand in their Electric Banana assessments. Observed Wally Waller in Alan Lakey’s bio The Pretty Things: Growing Old Disgracefully, “It was of that time, it was all kind of flower-power stuff, I don’t think they really stand up today to too close a scrutiny, that’s my opinion. I’m not a fan and I can’t see why people find that exceptional. To my mind we’ve done lots of good stuff but to my way of thinking that doesn’t get anywhere near the real cream. Most of that stuff is second rate. Some of it is all rightish but most is stuff we didn’t think was good enough to put on an album of our own and we wouldn’t put our proper name to it.”
In the same book, Jon Povey was yet more dismissive: “Yeah, don’t really want to talk about that too much. It was just purely to get some money.”
Also in that volume, guitarist Dick Taylor explained how the group ended up doing four songs by non-band member Peter Reno on the first Electric Banana disc, and why they were sung not by May, but by Waller and Povey. “When it was first issued they put out all the vocals on one side of the album, they were on ten-inch vinyl with quite plain covers with a drawn banana and diagonal writing. They weren’t meant for public release but it was in the music library and it was really breaking the rules at the time because we weren’t paid musicians union rates because we were getting money for the writing and stuff, so it was very unofficial.
“So if a film producer wanted something to go on his film he could either choose something vocal or something instrumental and you may have noticed there were some that weren’t written by us, and the guy was a TV producer and he wanted his songs on these albums. So in some of his shows he could use his own stuff and he saw it as a way of making a little bit of money on the side so that other producers would think, oh Peter does this. I presume that’s how it works. Anyway, that’s how it started with Peter Reno.”
As an example on one of the Reno songs, “Wally sang that. It was a bit like when we got ‘Rosalyn’[their first single, in 1964] it was Denmark Street [London’s equivalent of Tin Pan Alley] with a bloke pounding it out on a piano. These were similar, they sounded a bit sub-Matt Monroe [a British pop crooner]. It was like ‘Oh, what the fucking hell are we gonna do with these things?’ We just put whatever riffs we could muster up against it, changed the chords around a bit and turned it into what they then became.”
In The Pretty Things: Growing Old Disgracefully, Waller also indicates that at least some of the de Wolfe tracks were cut with extreme haste. “Everything was done in a small eight-track demo studio just big enough to swing a cat around,” he said. “If we had a de Wolfe session coming up we’d sit down and in an afternoon we’d thrash out the whole thing and we’d walk into the studio still fixing a few lyrics and in an afternoon the whole thing’s down. That’s the way it works. It’s almost like a telephone box the bloody thing was so small, that little studio we used. In the early days it was only four-track, it was like a demo down Wardour Street [in central London].”
For all that, Taylor acknowledged to Lakey that some items of true worth found their way onto the Electric Banana albums. “Funny thing is the things like ‘Alexander’ and all the stuff around then is actually some of the best stuff we did,” he remarked. “A lot of people have said to me you should go back to it, it’s really good stuff. It’s a bit like the way we’re so rigid in our condemnation of Emotions, you listen to it again and think hang on, we’ve missed the point here. Here we are slagging it off but there’s some good songs, some good stuff on there.”
Were there other significant acts of the time that took on projects mostly to make money, and that some might view as sellouts, or at least certainly peripheral to their main body of work? Sure. Uncounted artists from all walks of rock did commercial jingles, and not just the fairly superficial ones you might expect, like Petula Clark and Freddie & the Dreamers. The Rolling Stones (albeit very early in their career), the Who, and the Yardbirds did too. (Among their many distinctions, the Beatles did not.) Even Jefferson Airplane did an ad for Levi’s, and Sandy Denny for butter. Some psychedelic groups who had relatively little commercial success got in on the action, like H.P. Lovecraft when they sang for Ban deodorant.
Aside from the Pretty Things, the group that might have made soundtracks and such their biggest sideline were Manfred Mann. In various lineups (with Manfred himself always present), they made no secret of doing plenty of commercial jingles, and you can hear a few—including ditties for Michelin, Maxwell House, and yogurt—on the recent compilation Radio Days Vol. 3: Live Sessions & Studio Rarities. They also did a full soundtrack—one specifically designed to be used as part of a dramatic feature film in which they didn’t appear, unlike the music heard by the Beatles, Elvis Presley, and many others in movies in which the artist actually appeared—for 1968’s Up the Junction.
It’s fair to say the Manfreds approached that fairly well regarded soundtrack with more seriousness than the Pretty Things did for the Electric Banana projects. It’s not nearly as well known that Manfred Mann contributed to a couple of far more obscure, exploitation-bordering flicks. They (well, really just Mann and Mike Hugg) did the soundtrack for the 1969 American International Pictures sexploitation movie Venus in Furs, which has no relation to the Velvet Underground classic of the same name. That’s also included on Radio Days Vol. 3: Live Sessions & Studio Rarities, though with lo-fi sound, the original tapes presumably being unavailable. It’s an eerie mix of avant-garde horror and downbeat jazz, though in common with many a soundtrack, there are too many repeated motifs to make this something likely to get many spins.
Mann also co-produced the soundtrack to the early-‘70s softcore production Swedish Fly Girls, as well as contributing some music. That soundtrack’s also notable for including a few cuts sung by…Sandy Denny, who wasn’t beyond taking on some studio sessions outside of her usual folk-rock efforts. Rock musicians didn’t make a whole lot of money if they weren’t big stars, and every bit helped. In perhaps the most famous instance, shortly before breaking through with his first hit, Elton John sang on numerous soundalike cover versions of hit records made for budget LPs in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; many of those performances were compiled on the Chartbusters Go Pop CD.
Maybe the closest parallel to Electric Banana, in terms of a well known group creating soundtrack recordings for use in productions few rock fans saw, was the Doors’ creation of incidental music for, of all things, a Ford training film geared toward improving the customer service by employees at its sales outlets. Aside from the periodic washes of instrumental music (there’s no singing or evident participation by Jim Morrison) it’s a positively excruciating 25 minutes, in line with the skeletal production values and dated do-gooder ethos of industrial training movies.
There’s a crucial difference between the Doors’ and the Pretty Things’ soundtracks, however. The Doors did this before they had a record deal. The Pretty Things had already made numerous singles, a couple of them big hits in the UK, and a few albums before hooking up with de Wolfe. Like the Pretties, the Doors did use a bit of riffage in the soundtrack that resurfaced on their proper records. At a bit near the end of the training film, they go into a passage similar to the tune of a song on their great 1967 debut album, “I Looked At You.” The movie’s easily accessible now as an extra on the Doors’ Re-Evolution DVD, which primarily compiled their promo films and TV appearances.
There are also numerous instances throughout rock history of an artist recording under a pseudonym, whether as a joke, as a sideline project, or to hide their true identity when they took part in a budget or exploitation project. The Four Seasons had a hit as the Wonder Who by covering Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” though lots of people guessed the group’s identity after hearing a few seconds of Frankie Valli’s inimitably high, screechy vocals. In more recent times XTC took the Dukes of Stratosphear name for an EP of retro ‘60s psych. There are examples with far cultier groups, like the Chocolate Watchband posing as the Hogs on the early psychedelic novelty “Loose Lip Sync Ship.”
Back to my British friend for more examples from 1960s and early 1970s known primarily in the collector world, and not even that widely within that: “Egg (or Uriel, as they were then) made the Arzachel LP for a quick buck, and later played on a Decca cash-in LP called The World Of Heavy Hits. Members of Savoy Brown and Foghat posed as Warren Philips & the Rockets for another. Members of Spice/Uriah Heep posed as ‘Head Machine’ for the Orgasm album.”
Back in the British Invasion days, also-ran Liverpool group Ian & the Zodiacs posed as the Koppycats on a couple budget exploitation albums of Beatles covers. Weirdest of all, the Eyes, a good mid-‘60s British mod group that never had a hit, put out an LP of Rolling Stones covers as the Pupils. They never got to do an album as the Eyes, and one thinks it must have hurt when they had to play exploitation covers on their only opportunity to make a full-length record.
The Pretty Things never had to stoop that low, but the Electric Banana exercises weren’t even the end of their late-‘60s extracurricular activities that were taken on primarily to generate some cash. In 1969, they were the uncredited band backing French singer Philippe DeBarge on an unreleased album exclusively devoted to originals by May and Waller. It’s a peculiar record of decent, but not stunning, pop-psychedelic material, especially since May doesn’t sing on it at all, though he co-wrote everything. Why would you essentially record a Pretty Things album without vocals by the lead singer?
Philippe DeBarge, the title given the album when it was issued on CD in 2009, was kind of a vanity project on the part of Mr. DeBarge. A big Pretty Things fan, he paid for the sessions, essentially for the privilege of being a part of the group in the studio, probably in hopes that he could find a deal for the LP’s release. He was even did a few versions of the best songs from Even More Electric Banana, including “Alexander,” “Eagle’s Son,” and “It’ll Never Be Me.” He wasn’t the worst singer, but he was no Phil May, or particularly distinguished in any respect.
May was diffident about the project when I interviewed him for the Pretty Things chapter in my book Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock. “Wally and I just wrote a bunch of songs for this French millionaire,” he told me. “No kind of falseness about, ‘he was a musician.’ He just wanted to make a record with the Pretty Things, and he was prepared to pay.”
Added May in Mike Stax’s liner notes for the Philippe DeBarge CD, “I don’t think any of us had great expectations, but we didn’t approach it in that way. We approached it like it was another record to make, and we were getting stuff out of it for ourselves, apart from the finances. It was a good stepping stone between S.F. Sorrow and Parachute.”
In the same notes, Waller also acknowledged the sessions had some value. “For me it was a chance to be the boss in the studio for the first time. I had always been really involved with the production process on all our albums. And I just loved to have the chance to write a few songs and see them through to the end. I think the project put us in a much better shape to tackle something like Parachute.”
As for DeBarge, speculated Wally, “Quite what he was going to do with it I don’t know. I don’t think there would have been any interest from the British music industry, and being in English it wasn’t really suitable for the French market. I think it was a grand indulgence on Philippe’s part. To be honest I was not surprised that nothing became of it.”
We’ve gone through quite a few cases where groups took on extracurricular work that wasn’t part of their core resume, whether to keep their heads above water, float a few of their lower-priority ideas, or a combination of the two. There weren’t, however, many other albums you could name where a well known, or at least pretty well known in the Pretty Things’ cases, group was engaged to be the band for a vanity project like this. Maybe Bob Markley, the benefactor of the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, counts in a way, since the only way a man with such minimal musical talent could take part in those records as a quasi-member was by helping to bankroll the whole enterprise. But the LPs by that group in which he took part were a part of that act’s core resume, and Markley, unlike DeBarge, did write some of the material.
In helping to keep the Pretty Things going, the Electric Banana and Philippe de Barge recordings served a larger purpose. Had they not been made, the band might not have even been around to record S.F. Sorrow and Parachute, two albums of psychedelic/progressive rock that took quite a bit of effort to construct in one of the top studios in the world, Abbey Road. While I don’t know how many copies those LPs sold, they weren’t hits (though Parachute did make #43 in the UK charts), and I doubt if they made much or any money. If they had to do these extra-Abbey Road gigs to make sure their real albums were completed, those are nothing they should be ashamed of—and some real good music did escape on those other records as well.
The relationship between Monty Python and rock music is pretty well known, in part because their first two movies probably wouldn’t have gotten made without investment from big rock stars. In particular, George Harrison’s Python fandom, and financial backing of Life of Brian, might be known even by some people who aren’t fans of either Python or the Beatles.
For all its significant role in their career, though, rock music itself wasn’t often used or even satirized too often in Python’s actual comedy. A rundown of the sketches in which rock played a part isn’t too hard to cover in one blogpost, though rock’s influence on the troupe predated Monty Python’s formation.
A good four years or so before Monty Python’s television series began broadcasting, Michael Palin hosted (or “presented,” to use the British term) a television show called Now! Based in the English city of Bristol, and done for the independent UK television network Television Wales and the West, it featured both sketches and appearances by British pop acts.
“Some of the groups we had on were very good—the Yardbirds, the Animals, Them, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers—some of them were very bad,” remembered Palin in the oral history The Pythons: Autobiography By the Pythons. “In fact, most of them were very bad, but that show gave me a financial cushion which ran from October /November ’65 until it finally petered out in May/June of ’66.”
This in itself is very interesting, as Palin sometimes played unctuous TV hosts on Monty Python sketches, and it’s a little hard to imagine him playing it relatively straight. What would be yet more interesting is being able to view some episodes, if any survive. I doubt it, in part because I couldn’t dig up any online, and I’ve never seen any bits excerpted in documentaries.
Palin didn’t specify whether the rock spots were mimed or live, but those would be especially interesting to view, especially if they were live (though I wouldn’t count on that). Even if the Yardbirds, Them, Animals, and Mayall were the only good acts on the program, those clips alone would make it worth sifting through the episodes. To my knowledge, there aren’t any surviving film clips of note of Mayall before 1968, which would make those especially worth seeing.
Palin, Eric Idle, and Terry Jones worked together closely as cast members of the British TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set for about a year and a half starting in late 1967. The Bonzo Dog Band did frequent guest spots, often involving performances of complete songs. While they were by no means among the hardest rocking of late-‘60s British bands, they were the best at blending music and comedy, and if the music owed more to vaudeville at their outset, soon much of their material had a rock base.
The most musically accomplished member, Neil Innes, would eventually because an auxiliary member of Python. He participated in their live shows, where he’d sometimes sing original satirical songs); took bit roles in the fourth year (the one without John Cleese) of the Python series; and had small roles in their first two movies. About twenty years ago, I asked him for his take on whether the Bonzos influenced the Pythons.
“There is a link,” he responded. “When the band first met Eric and Mike and Terry, there was a certain mutual suspicion, ‘cause we were crazy guys just coming off the road. They’d come from Oxford and Cambridge, and were young, up-and-coming writers; they’d written stuff for David Frost. It was a kind of cross-fertilization that took place over a couple of years. We all became very good friends.
“I think Eric’s acknowledged that there was an influence from the Bonzos in terms of the anarchy. Python wouldn’t have been Python, I think, if a lot of them hadn’t worked with the Bonzos. I’m not saying that the Bonzos taught them everything they know. But we certainly had the anarchy ingredient, which I think they found attractive, or useful to them. But they were more disciplined than the Bonzos. They knew how to get cameras to point at things.”
The Bonzos had also guested in the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, where they performed “Death Cab For Cutie” in the nightclub scene. While Monty Python had yet to have that kind of direct contact with the Beatles when they formed in 1969, they were of a similar age. At least some of them, like uncounted members of their generation, were huge fans. Here’s Palin, again from The Pythons: Autobiography By the Pythons:
“When we were writing in the late ‘60s, the Beatles were producing their albums and as far as I was concerned those were the greatest and most exciting examples of pop music around. On the day when we knew an album was coming out we just queued up to get it. The Beatles ruled the world, they were multi-millionaires, we were struggling away as comedy writers. Then I heard that during the first series Paul McCartney would stop his music sessions when Monty Python was on so that everyone could look at the show, and then they would go back to recording. That was the first moment I can remember when I thought, ‘This is extraordinary, the Beatles interested in us?’
“The other story, which I have no reason to dispute, was that George Harrison says he sent a congratulatory note to the BBC after the first show and it never got through to us, probably the BBC reception didn’t know who this Harrison man was, or what the program was or something. So right from the very start there was this connection between the best band in the world and our little band of comedy thesps.”
In the same book, Eric Idle enthused, “There was a big change in England brought about by the Beatles. Where everybody had been wearing tweed jackets with leather elbows, suddenly we were wearing leather jackets, and it was cool and you’d discuss your favorite George solo and things like that. That really made a difference and that kept going throughout the ’60s until glam rock, at which point you went ‘Oh, fuck off.’ You’d think ‘I don’t have to keep buying these records any more,’ because that used to be an event for us. Going down and buying the new Beatles album was something I did with [fellow British comedian] Tim Brooke-Taylor. We were quite mature men but still excited to go and buy the new Beatles album, even when we’d left Cambridge and were working for the BBC.”
So the Monty Python-Beatles mutual appreciation society was well underway almost from the story of Python’s TV series. Yet the core of that series — the 39 episodes, broadcast from late 1969 through early 1973, that included John Cleese — seldom employed or drew upon rock music, though it did often feature musical performances by the troupe. Why was that?
Maybe the other Pythons weren’t as big Beatles and rock fans as Palin and Idle. But also, their primary musical experience, such as it was, was in theatrical productions. None of them had been in rock bands. Performing and writing mock-musical pieces—which they did very well—would have come much more naturally than mimicking rock bands, which they never tried (though one would, famously, be a part of one of the most famous fictional rock bands about ten years later). I can only think of a few instances where rock, or even faintly rock-related pop, played even a small part in one of the Cleese episodes:
In episode thirteen, a psychiatric patient has auditory hallucinations of Julie Felix singing Tom Paxton’s banal kids’ song “Going to the Zoo.” A mediocre American folk singer somewhat in the Joan Baez mold, Felix would have been very familiar to British listeners/viewers, having achieved a fair amount of recognition after moving to the UK. She would have actually been more familiar from her appearances on television—including residency singing on the David Frost-hosted Frost Report and then hosting her own BBC TV series—than for her records, most of which weren’t big sellers, though a few made the British charts. “Going to the Zoo” was the title track to her 1969 album.
In the sketch, the patient gets taken in for an operation to get rid of his musical hallucinations. When he’s opened up, hippies emerged who’ve been squatting in his body. If you’re thinking this must be funnier on screen than reading about it, well, not that much. Even as a huge Monty Python fan, this struck me both at the time and since as one of their weakest sketches.
Moving ahead to episode 24, one of that program’s sketches presents a public service film on “how not be seen,” in which several people who are unsuccessful at hiding are blown up. The episode ends with “Jackie Charlton and the Tonettes” “performing” the Ohio Express’s “Yummy Yummy Yummy” in packing crates, so as not to be seen. It’s the actual Ohio Express bubblegum hit that plays, and that would have been familiar to both US and UK audiences, since it was a Top Five hit in both countries in summer 1968.
The Jackie Charlton reference, however, would only be picked up by British viewers. He was a well known British soccer (or “football,” as the sport’s known there) player, and managed the Irish national team at the 1990 World Cup finals. Not something that would be of much interest to Americans then or now.
The same episode had a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it zinger that was the best of the few rock references the Pythons wove into their scripts. A few men on the street offer absurd thoughts on peace (a gumby: “Basically, I believe in peace and bashing two bricks together”). Eric Idle, impersonating John Lennon (down to his Liverpool accent), chirps in: “I’m starting a war for peace.” A great six-word encapsulation of early-‘70s just-post-Beatle Lennon, engaging in peace activism while bashing Paul McCartney, George Martin, and lots of other things in interviews and songs, especially on his Plastic Ono Band album and marathon Rolling Stone interview.
Episode 28 ends with an appearance by an actual Beatle, though not Lennon. The tramp-like “It’s” man, regularly portrayed by Michael Palin throughout the series, is hosting a TV show with Lulu and none other than Ringo Starr as guests. After being briefly complimented by Lulu on his outfit, the end credits scroll and the Monty Python theme blares, the guests walking off in dismay.
According to Kim “Howard” Johnson’s The First 20 Years of Monty Python, the script actually called for John Lennon and Yoko Ono to be the guests. That changed to Starr and Lulu, Palin told Johnson, because “Ringo was the most extroverted of the Beatles, other than Lennon—he’s just that sort of guy. He’ll do anything that’s a bit silly and mad. He’s very nice and uncomplicated and easygoing.
“We wanted someone incredibly famous, and to get a Beatle at that time—we couldn’t get much higher than that. The others were all going through various sorts of withdrawals after the Beatles split up, and had their own particular egos, whereas Ringo just used to knock about. Graham [Chapman] got to know him, and asked him along.”
What about the other guest? “God knows where we got Lulu,” Palin added.
Episode 34 was, unlike every other one, not a series of sketches, but a single storyline, if one with silly and surreal turns. Palin played a goofy guy on a cycling tour who got into all sorts of comic misadventures. As a recurring sonic gag of sorts, Clodagh Rodgers’s bouncy, banal “Jack in the Box” is heard (and, sometimes, sung) throughout the program. The tune was the very embodiment of the kind of trivial puff heard in the Eurovision contest, in which “Jack in the Box” actually represented Great Britain in 1971. For that reason alone, it would have been extremely familiar to British audiences (and probably many other European viewers), the Northern Irish singer scoring a #4 UK hit with it that year. Alas, it and Rodgers would have been totally unknown to Americans, who could more or less laugh along with the gag anyway, fitting in as it did with the general silly fun of the episode.
Maybe an honorable mention should be given to a brief sketch in episode 5 in which a bumbling cop (Graham Chapman) tries to bust actor “Sandy Camp” (Eric Idle) for “certain substances of an illicit nature.” Chapman’s cop fumbles a brown paper bag out of his pocket so he can “take it with me for clinical examination,” only for Idle to discover it contains…sandwiches. “Blimey! Whatever did I give the wife?” exclaims Chapman. It’s an obvious spoof of suspiciously specious late-’60s drug busts of British celebrities, none of whom were more famous than John Lennon and George Harrison of the Beatles, and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. A few of those rockers speculated the drugs on their premises had in fact been planted by the police.
In his 2018 autobiography Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, Idle verified that when he first met Harrison in 1975, “George had assumed, probably rightly, that the sketch was based on his own drug bust in Esher, where the police had brought their own cannabis.” What’s more, in the same book he recalled how as a University of Cambridge student, “We bought black collarless Beatle jackets. We were first in line for their singles, we discussed our favorite Beatle, we adored A Hard Day’s Night.”
That’s it for rock in the TV series, and it wouldn’t be heard in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, which after all were mock historical epics that took place centuries before rock began. That wasn’t the end, however, of rock’s role in the life of Monty Python. Actually, a record label known mostly for rock acts (Charisma, who had its biggest success with Genesis)) had already done its part to supplement the Pythons’ presence with pretty popular Monty Python audio LPs. Back to Michael Palin in The Pythons: Autobiography By the Pythons for more:
“Gradually one began to hear more and more stories about bands and musicians who loved Python and felt a kinship with Python for some reason or another. I’ve never quite worked out why that was but there were more and more instances of it and you would meet musicians who would say, ‘That was just wonderful’ or ‘We love that show.’ I think they thought it was somehow quite cool, it was a cult thing.
“When it came to financing Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who came in but Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd as investors; the label on which we did most of our albums was basically a rock and roll label, so we were closely intertwined with rock music from very early on. But the fact that the Beatles noticed us was quite something. Almost as epic as when I read much later on that, in the declining years of his life, Elvis himself watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Genesis and Jethro Tull also invested in the film, and more famously, George Harrison’s Handmade Films company financed Life of Brian after EMI Films pulled out.
As a relatively little known footnote, there could have been a close relationship between Monty Python and the Holy Grail and a much less successful actual Beatles movie. As Palin wrote in his diary on January 10, 1975:
“It was suggested at a meeting late last year that we should try to put out the Magical Mystery Tour as the supporting film to The Holy Grail. There was unanimous agreement among the Python group. After several months of checking and cross-checking we finally heard last week that the four Beatles had been consulted and were happy to let the film go out. So today we saw it for the first time since 1967. Unfortunately, it was not an unjustly underrated work…”
As much as it might have pained them in some ways to turn down the opportunity, the Pythons made the right call. The Holy Grail is a flawed but overall great film; Magical Mystery Tour is a terribly flawed and pretty terrible film (which pains me to note myself, as I’m a huge fan of both the Beatles and Python).
All of the Pythons did plenty of solo projects, but just one would draw notably on rock, and indeed use rock as the core focus of the best Python solo product. Eric Idle had already featured some occasional rock satire in his TV series Rutland Weekend Television, especially on spots by Neil Innes lampooning Elton John, Bob Dylan, and others. George Harrison also appeared in one Rutland episode, playing the entry to “My Sweet Lord” before gleefully segueing into “The Pirate Song,” which he co-wrote with Idle. Rutland Weekend Television was not picked up for US broadcast, and its thirteen mid-‘70s episodes have seldom been seen by Americans.
However, one Rutland Weekend Television sketch would not only be widely seen in the US, but lead to a full-long TV special. Hosting Saturday Night Live, Eric Idle screened a Rutland clip of the Rutles, brilliantly spoofing the Beatles circa A Hard Day’s Night. That helped lead to the US TV special All You Need Is Cash, where the Rutles brilliantly spoofed the Beatles’ entire career. Idle himself played the Paul McCartney-type Rutle, though he (unlike the other Rutles) didn’t actually play or sing the witty Beatles pastiches on the soundtrack, penned by Neil Innes (who played the John Lennon-type Rutle).
Along with Spinal Tap, All You Need Is Cash is the best mock rockumentary. It took a long time, and just one Python and an auxiliary Python were involved. But Monty Python and the Beatles had finally fused, the result—unlike almost all other such combinations that promised more on paper than the screen—taking from the best of both worlds.
Lou Reed was notorious for giving acerbic interviews and hostility toward journalists. There’s certainly some of that in a new 300-page collection of three dozen interviews spanning 1971-2007, My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed (on Hat & Beard Press, compiled by Michael Heath and edited by Pat Thomas). Asked “are you happier as a brunette?” at a 1975 press conference at Sydney airport, Reed retorted, “Are you happier as a schmuck?” Added Lou a few questions later, “You don’t stand a chance with me, you know. Get your own parade.”
Yet he’s also, and not infrequently, pretty informative and straightforward, depending on whether he seems to repsect and trust the interviewer. Anyone with an interest in Reed (and the Velvet Underground, who do come up in conversation fairly often although he’d left the band in 1970) will find a lot of comments with worthwhile perspectives and uncommon nuggets of trivia and recollections. Even the pieces in which he’s polite and friendly are usually spiced with some sarcastic and cutting remarks, some of them simply rude, but some also pretty funny and witty.
Even if you’re widely read on Reed, you’ll certainly come across interviews you haven’t seen. Many of them were never reprinted before (or, in the case of a few radio interviews and press conferences, never printed anywhere before, to my knowledge).
The sources range from high-circulation mags (Rolling Stone, Creem, Circus, MOJO, Melody Maker) to unlikely mainstream publications (Hit Parader, Hits), big daily papers, Trouser Press, and the BBC to outlets where many wouldn’t think to look. Bob Reitman’s 1976 interview for the Milwaukee Bugle-American, for instance, is one of the better lengthy chats Reed gave (and virtually devoid of any rancorous attitude or game-playing). There’s even a 2003 interview with Kung-Fu magazine.
Some of the writers were celebrities in their own right, including Lenny Kaye, Lance Loud, singer-songwriter Elliott Murphy, and, of course, Lester Bangs (though just one, from the non-obvious source of Let It Rock, is here). Besides presenting the text of the original interviews, the original pages and covers are often also reproduced, though the type in those is so small you’ll be glad all of the text is also presented in readable size in the format used for most of the pages. As the first volume to collect a lot of his interviews in book form, it’s a welcome addition to the Lou Reed library.
Editor and longtime Lou Reed fan Pat Thomas has written about music extensively for decades. He’s also branched out into documenting the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s with his recent books Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and Did It! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, An American Revolutionary. I recently spoke with him about My Week Beats Your Year: Encounters with Lou Reed, and what Reed’s interviews tell us about this talented but mercurial genius.
What gave you the idea for the book?
Me and my co-author, Michael Heath, are both kind of lifelong Lou Reed nuts. We kept kind of discussing over the last several years, was there a book of Lou Reed interviews? There was something called The Last Interview and Other Conversations. I thought oh geez, we’ve been scooped. I bought the book, and it was this extremely thin book with only five interviews with Lou, most of them later in his life. So Mike and I realized that the playing field was wide open. That’s how the whole thing started.
There are a lot of Lou Reed interviews, in spite of his reputation for being one of the most hostile rock stars toward interviewers. (If you could call a guy with one big hit single and one Top Ten album that he virtually disowns a rock star, that is.) There must have been some selectivity involved in what to include, even in a 300-page book. What were your main criteria for what should be featured?
Basically, we wanted to span his whole career post-Velvet Underground. We certainly were looking for provocative stuff. For example, the August 1974 and July 1975 Australian stuff [taken from press conferences at the Sydney airport]. But to kind of have a balance, with obviously the focus on the ‘70s and ‘80s. The criteria was just kind of what was interesting, and I want to throw some credit to Mike Heath on this. ‘Cause he kind of led the charge with the first round of research.
A good number – certainly the majority – of the interviews are his lesser known ones. Some are really obscure, even to big Reed fans. What kind of detective work was involved in digging these out?
He kind of did a lot of that research. He went through the Underground Newspaper microfilm collection, which has alternative papers of all kinds from the mid-’60s through the mid-’80s. That’s where he got a bunch of the pieces in the book, especially the more regional interviews, like the ones with Bob Reitman in the Milwaukee Bugle-American, and Charlie Frick in New Jersey’s Aquarian Weekly. Then of course youtube, at least for these television and radio interviews that we grabbed, was very useful. I’m kind of proud of the fact that there is such obscure ones.
Reed’s so infamous for giving hostile, or at least uninformative and/or game-playing, interviews that it might surprise some readers to find that he played it fairly straight sometimes, even back in the mid-‘70s when he built much of this reputation. I had the feeling that what kind of interview you got depended on a number of factors. If he thought the interviewer was cool (especially if he already knew them and perhaps respected them in a context different than journalism, like Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye), he’d be pretty friendly and forthcoming. If he was having a good day, or in a good period of his life, he’d at least stick to fairly normal standards of politeness and decorum. If the interviewer stuck to the subject he wanted to discuss the most (usually his current album), he’d be easier to deal with. On the flipside: if he thought you were uncool, or it was a bad day/time in his life, or you pressed him on subjects he wanted to avoid or was uninterested in, you might not only get a bad interview, but get insulted, or maybe walked out on. Would you agree?
I would. We recently did a Lou Reed book event in L.A., so I invited a couple of LA-based journalists who are in the book. So there’s a guy by the name of the Dave DiMartino. In 1980, he interviewed Lou for Creem. He said he was expecting the grouchy monster. But he also kind of thought ahead. He knew that Lou was a big jazz fan, so he brought Lou some obscure jazz record and gave it to him, and kind of greased Lou with that record and that discussion. And then kind of switched over and talked about Lou himself.
Some of the interviewers were pretty fawning over what many listeners, even many fans, would say were among Reed’s lesser albums (but happened to be recent at the time of the interview), like Rock and Roll Heart. Reed seemed to lap that up and hence give them a better interview than normal. That might not have been so interesting when sticking to the subject of those albums, but it might have made him more open to discussing other topics too. Did you also get that sense, and that maybe some interviewers, whether in the book or elsewhere, did this so they’d get a more cooperative conversation?
Yeah. I think it was a really tricky balance, because Lou obviously wanted you to fawn over him. But he also didn’t suffer fools gladly. So you had to walk this fine line between kissing his ass. But you also really had to be knowledgeable about Lou’s career. I think he was not into general questions.
Lou ultimately was, like many of us, kind of a nerd. So if you could either accidentally or on purpose find that topic that he could nerd out on…it might be himself, obviously. Like if you said “oh, I really love the guitar tone that you got on the Blue Mask album,” then he would geek out on equipment or something with somebody.
With the exception of maybe people like Lenny Kaye or possibly Lester Bangs, who knew how to play him in advance, I think everybody just felt thrown to the wolves. This guy Rex Weiner [who did an interview published by Rolling Stone Italy in 2006] also came [to] this recent LA event. He said that he was kind of expecting asshole, and was kind of pleasantly surprised when he didn’t get one.
I’d like to compare Reed’s interviews with those of a couple other guys of whom I know you’re huge fans. Van Morrison is also noted for being hostile and/or abrupt with many interviewers, Yet, like Reed, he actually did (and still does) a fair amount of interviewers, in spite of his reputation of despising them. And sometimes the interviews are good. He’s even discussed his past in a lot of detail, without anger, on liner notes to Them and Bang label-era solo reissues, and on camera in the Bert Berns documentary [Bang! The Bert Berns Story]. Do you see some similarities between Reed and Morrison in how they handle the media, and how their kind of manic personalities might determine how an interview goes, sometimes due to factors out of the hands of the interviewer?
As you know, I’m like the world’s biggest Van Morrison fan, so I certainly some thoughts on this. First of all, I know for a fact that those liner notes in the recent reissues was him basically being interviewed in-house, and then somebody editing that so it felt more like an essay. I would agree, yes, if you go over Van’s entire career, he’s done a lot of interviews. But I think he’s probably done a lot less than Lou did. And also, Van famously went through a period that he’s come back out of, where he either refused or wanted total control.
For example, about fifteen years ago, I saw there was an interview in a period when Van was not doing a lot of interviews. It said, exclusive interview. As I read the interview, I realized he was being interviewed by his then-wife. And the interview was credited, or copyrighted, by his production company. So he basically either gave or sold [the magazine]a completely scripted interview. There’s a famous interview when he did the album with the Chieftains, where he’s live with one of the Chieftains, and he’s either refusing to talk or just giving very obnoxious…[There’s a detailed account of one especially hostile interview, with Liam Fay of Dublin’s Hot Press, in the introduction to John Collis’s book Van Morrison: Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.]
So like Lou, he can certainly shut down an interview, or has shut down interviews. But yeah, in his older age, he’s kind of come around full circle. I think that Van might be, of the sort of bigger names, the most cantankerous interview.
The other guy to compare him with is Bob Dylan. Dylan’s not as noted for being hostile as Reed and Morrison (though he sometimes was in the mid-‘60s, most famously in a scene in Don’t Look Back). But he’s noted, maybe even more so than those guys, for game-playing, and not giving the expected answers. Or not even giving honest answers, making up misleading ones for his amusement. Do you see some of that in Reed’s interviews?
I think Dylan…he can be cantankerous. He more just likes to maybe play with the journalist, although he’s capable of giving straightahead answers. There was this famous interview in ’85 in Spin, and the front cover said “Not Like a Rolling Stone Interview.” I still refer to that interview, it’s online. It’s one of the most candid interviews Dylan ever gave. I think his liner notes in the Biograph box set are remarkably straightforward.
But all three of these guys, probably if you had to rank ‘em: Van the most cantankerous, Lou the most also kind of rude, and Dylan the most elusive, perhaps.
With Reed, a kind of game-playing is particularly evident when he talks about Metal Machine Music. Even in the liner notes, it’s not sure whether the record’s a joke or a serious artistic statement. He keeps on riffing on that in his interviews, though maybe he was more forceful on the side of “it was serious” toward the end of his life, when it got revived onstage and some younger musicians praised it without irony. Do you think it was a serious artistic statement, was it kind of a joke (especially on the business) he wanted to get away with, or was it (as I’d say) kind of a combination of the two?
I would agree. I think it initiated a little more as a “fuck you” to the label, possibly to his fans. Then over time, I think he embraced… though he never played with La Monte Young, he obviously as we know played with John Cale, who played with La Monte Young. Lou had an affinity for the avant-garde. He loved Ornette Coleman, or whatever. So I think as he got older, Lou saw [Metal Machine Music] as like, “this is my contribution to the type of stuff that somebody like Cale was doing with La Monte Young.” I think over time Lou saw Metal Machine Music as his great avant-garde artistic statement.
But people may be surprised how much Lou also loved, at least at one point, mainstream music. Iain Matthews from Fairport Convention told me he met Lou in New York in 1974 or ’73, and Lou said, “I know who you are.” And Lou started playfully singing to Iain Matthews the songs off of Iain’s most recent Elektra album. When you think of Iain Matthews, you think of this sort of soft folk-pop or whatever you want to call it. We think of Lou as the aggressive rock and roll guy. So sometimes it’s interesting how these guys, Lou especially, would be listening to something you didn’t think he would listen to, like some kind of folky pop music.
Reed’s attitude toward his fans and more commercially successful projects could be ambivalent. With things like Sally Can’t Dance, almost like, “I put out a deliberately lousy record, and sure enough, it was my biggest seller. Which proves how stupid people are.” Almost like he got more satisfaction from proving the latter point than actually doing what he set out to achieve (sell more records). Or with Rock’n’Roll Animal, “it was a way to get the Velvet Underground songs heard,” almost like the masses couldn’t appreciate them if they were dumbed down – again proving his point, almost to more satisfaction than getting those songs heard, at least in some form. Do you also sometimes get that impression, and what do you put it down to?
I think Lou had this giant ego, starting all the way in the Velvet Underground, where Sterling Morrison – they were recording or writing a song, and Sterling played a really cool lead guitar lick or something, and Lou complimented him. Then Lou quickly said something like, “Well, if I hadn’t written this great song, you would never have played that great little guitar riff. So therefore, you should be thanking me.”
But then, because the Velvets never really took off—and I don’t know if Lou thought they should have been as big as the Beatles or whatever—he’s bitter that the Velvets didn’t have bigger success. He puts out this stuff that he considers substandard, like Sally Can’t Dance or these sort of quasi-heavy metal versions of the Velvets’ songs on Rock’n’Roll Animal. He’s pissed at his fans for buying the substandard work, and he’s also pissed that they didn’t buy his so-called quality work.
So there’s a lot going on there inside of Lou’s head. A psychiatrist would have a field day with this. Another one of our favorite artists is Pete Townshend, who also kind of I think has these various issues, although they manifest themselves maybe in slightly different ways.
But yeah, I think Lou sort of disdains his fans. Some of the people in my personal life who kind of hate other people, I realized as I got older that usually people that are bitter against other people kind of have a little bit of self-hate thing going on. I think Lou had that, at least at some points in his life.
The book spans 1972, when he first started to get noticed as a solo artist, to the early twentieth century. But it doesn’t have any interviews from when he was in the Velvet Underground. He didn’t actually give many then, as they weren’t too commercially successful. But he did give some, including some that were on the radio, but not in print. Was there a deliberate decision not to include those, maybe in part because they’ve been reprinted in specialist Velvet Underground books?
I think we felt, first of all, that there’s been a book or two with some of those. But more that we didn’t want to muddy the waters, so to speak. We wanted it to just be, like, this is Lou’s solo career.
Back in the Velvet Underground days, his few interviews might have been kind of eccentric at times, but definitely weren’t hostile. Also talking to fans of the band from back then, Lou always seemed pretty friendly and sincerely appreciative when fans would speak with him and tell them they liked the band. This friendliness, certainly to the media, seemed to change quickly after Transformer and a fair degree of commercial success, and a lot of notoriety. My feeling is that in the VU days, commercial success and media exposure was so meager for him that he was fairly eager to cooperate (and interact on a human level with fans) when he could get it. When things finally did turn around for him with Transformer, he seemed ill-equipped to deal with the attention and fair degree of fame, maybe in part because the lack of that for his superb work in the Velvet Underground had embittered him, and he thought what he was getting attention for wasn’t as good.
I think Lou pre-fame, pre-Transformer, was probably a bit more of a regular guy. Peter Abrams, who recorded those Matrix tapes [of the Velvet Underground in San Francisco’s Matrix club in late 1969] that eventually came out officially – I remember him telling me, or maybe I read an interview, or both, that they were at the Matrix for several days and he was recording, and Lou was just a regular dude. And he got regular conversations. And then [the Velvet Underground’s] 1969 Live album, [more than] half of it is from the Matrix tapes, and [some] of it is from Texas. But the part of it that’s Matrix tapes was Abrams doing a quick mix of those four-track tapes and just giving it to Lou at the time, [in] ’69, just so he could enjoy them.
Even though Abrams wasn’t an interviewer, I think this standoffishness comes later. One, with fame. And possibly, let’s face it, there’s all kinds of drugs that Lou seems to have been taking. Amphetamines, maybe some heroin, maybe not. But we do know that he was definitely drinking and drugging a lot throughout the ‘70s. And he just became this Lou Reed character.
There might be an interview in the book where he [says] “nobody does Lou Reed better than me.” [For example, in a 1977 interview with Allan Jones for Melody Maker that’s included in My Week Beats Your Year, Reed states, “I’m told that I’m a parody of myself. Well, who better to parody? If I’m going to mimic someone, I might as well mimic somebody good. Like myself. I can do Lou Reed better than most people, and a lot of people try.”] I think what he means is not just the music, but this whole – he sort of becomes a caricature of himself. The album cover of Take No Prisoners is all kind of about Lou Reed as a caricature, like a cartoon character.
So yeah, he’s playing a little role. People used to say that Bill Graham would be on the phone screaming and yelling at some other concert promoter, and then hang up the phone and smile to whoever was in the room. I’ve heard similar stories about Elliot Roberts, Neil Young [and] Joni Mitchell’s manager. It’s a little bit of an act with these guys. I think that might have been a little bit with Lou, consciously or subconsciously. It becomes a bit of a charade.
Were there any interviews you would have liked to use, but didn’t/couldn’t, whether because of rights issues or not being able to find them, or something else?
At one point, it seemed like the bigger magazines, like Rolling Stone and Melody Maker, were kind of holding their interviews for ransom, so to speak. Our budget was everybody would get a hundred or two hundred dollars. Maybe if it was a bigger magazine, they might get a few hundred dollars or more or something. Some of these bigger magazines [were] like, we want $1000 for this. So there was a lot of negotiation. Elliott Murphy [himself a singer-songwriter who’d already released his debut LP by the time he interviewed Reed in 1975 for a piece in Circus that’s in the book] wanted a little more money than everybody else, so he tossed in a Polaroid of him and Lou together.
What was behind the reasoning of not choosing the interviews you didn’t use? Maybe they were too well known (like the ones with Bangs), or had been reprinted elsewhere? Or were just not that good, or redundant with better ones that made the cut?
The only thing that I did – I pulled out some of the later period interviews. In other words, stuff from the ‘90s, early 2000s, [that] to me seemed a little redundant. I think I might have only pulled out about three or four of Mike’s original list. We certainly went light on the Lester Bangs stuff, because I felt like that has been printed a lot, or at least reproduced on the Internet a lot. So we just kind of picked one Bangs thing from November ’73. In that case, we went for Let It Rock magazine rather than Creem, just because it was a little more obscure. I think when all is said and done, we got pretty much everything that we wanted to get.
One of the most recent interviews, with The Guardian, was a good example of how not to interview Reed, who walked out on it (and was persuaded to come back in and curtly finish). I like how Luc Sante wrote in the foreword, “He reduces a pathetic Guardian stringer to tears—deservedly so perhaps, given the wilted lettuce tenor of his questions.” While I don’t think being rude to (let alone walking out on) an interview you’ve scheduled is defensible, it almost is in this case, with the writer being so naive as to think that Reed will bond with him just because he likes “Walk on the Wild Side,” and starts off with tired and fuzzily articulated questions about subjects from his fairly distant past that Reed’s sick of discussing by this point. Do you think Reed attracted more of those kind of inappropriate interviewers than normal because of the nature of his work, or maybe it just seems that way because he had a much lower boiling point than most stars, who’ll usually field the questions even if they have to spout stock answers?
Probably it’s a mixture of all of that. I think that some of these, like, more mainstream newspapers probably just sort of assign somebody willy-nilly to the job, versus where somebody like a Mojo or Rolling Stone will be like, “let’s bring in this guy because he’s a big Lou fan, or Lou already knows him.” There’s actually an interview that’s not in the book, I don’t think we even considered it for the book, but it’s I think from the 2000s, where the interviewer is a TV interviewer. I think it’s British, maybe European. But the guy says something maybe disparaging about Lou’s more current work. And Lou quickly says something like, “well, that’s an interesting question, because everything that’s on TV is totally garbage. So you’ve got a lot of nerve asking me if today’s music is garbage when you’re part of the problem.”
Does Lou have a much lower boiling point? I think he does. Let’s go back to Van Morrison for a minute. Van often has said, “Would you interview a plumber for three pages? No. You should just consider me like a plumber, except that I’m not a plumber, I’m a singer-songwriter.” Van also has this slogan of like, “the showbiz slogan is, the show must go on. And I say, it doesn’t have to go on if you’re not in the mood for it to go on.” So Van is someone who doesn’t want to play the game. I think Lou played the game a little bit more than Van, but almost, like, punished the journalists for participating in their role.
I think Lou maybe was a little more eager to sell records than Van. Let’s face it, there were times when Lou wasn’t really selling records. I think he felt like, “Well, I better do this, or I might lose my record deal (laughs).” But again, he’s resenting the process, I guess is the best way to say it. When I think somebody like Gordon Lightfoot may not like to do interviews, but he realizes, “Well, this is part of the process.
It’s shocking how some of the worst and most poorly prepared interviewers are from some of the best publications, or at least some of the most respected ones. The Guardian is one of the best daily papers in the world. Another of the more recent interviews is done by a Rolling Stone reporter (albeit Rolling Stone Italy), who doesn’t seem too knowledgeable about his career or passionate about being there, and seems lucky to get away with a reasonable piece considering much of the territory covered is well worn. Is it almost like even major publications sometimes don’t take rock seriously enough to send someone well versed in the subject or up to the task, or are unaware of what you need to get something interesting out of a guy who by this time was known to be mercurial and temperamental with the media? Like the Guardian writer who thinks gushing over “Walk on the Wild Side” will work.
I know, I know. That’s not gonna work. You need to tell Lou you like his latest album, whatever the hell it might be. My thought was Rex, the Rolling Stone guy, should have known better. Because I think Rex is capable of doing the research needed.
Unfortunately too, it’s also a little bit of – over the last twenty years, it’s gotten harder and harder to get those writing gigs. So I think that cynically, some of these writers may be like —I’m just speculating — “if I can get this interview with Lou Reed and then sell it to a European magazine, I’ll do it.” So there’s a little bit of mercenary probably going on both sides of the fence there.
It’s interesting that while Reed was known to sometimes be infuriating to work with going back to the Velvets days, he often praises some of his colleagues fervently in interviews. Like he says Nico’s The Marble Index, Desertshore, and The End “are so incredible, the most incredible albums ever made,” though attempts to work together in the mid-‘70s apparently worked out badly. Or he’s grateful to Warhol for not demanding a percentage of future earnings when he was fired, though according to several accounts, the break was far more fractious and complicated than that. Did Reed maybe find it easier to be charitable when talking about them to the media than in person?
Two comments: selective memory and very mercurial. [Some] of that stuff that you just mentioned is all in the Lenny Kaye interview from [the] mid-‘70s. And obviously, maybe partially because it was Lenny, he’s almost over-gracious in that one. He’s also saying a lot of nice things about John Cale in that interview. Then of course, if you went to enough Lou Reed interviews, he can be extremely disparaging about Cale. Like, “Have you listened to Cale’s music?” “No, I haven’t.”
There’s a little bit sort of behind the scenes…because you realize that there’s a photo of Reed and Cale. They both are grimacing, or they’re drinking, in front of a Christmas tree in 1977. There’s a bootleg that has photos of Cale, Reed, David Byrne, and Patti Smith playing at the Ocean Club in ’76. So I think there’s periods where these guys are in contact, but we don’t know, or they don’t want us to know, necessarily, if that makes sense. It’s a little bit like the John Lennon-Paul McCartney thing, where obviously there was a lot of fallout post-Beatles. Then you might find out that those five years before he died, [Lennon] and McCartney might have been talking more on the phone than we were led to believe.
But I still remember, by the time those guys were on the cover of Optionfor Songs for Drella, they weren’t talking to each other. There’s also a famous story that Cale has told many times where after that Velvet Underground reunion in 1993, there was talk of doing a MTV Unplugged, which would be turned into an album, possibly a short tour. And Reed wanted total control. Cale just kept saying, “Lou, just relax, let’s talk about this.” And Reed said “no no no no, I’m producing the MTV project.” And finally, Cale just said, “Well, fuck you.” All’s I’m saying is that for as much as there was friendly stuff on and off over those decades, there was also a lot of anger with these guys.
One of my favorite lines in the interviews was when Bob Reitman tells Reed that Patti Smith told Reitman Reed considered producing her first album. Reed’s response: “I’ve considered whether it’s snowing outside.” Probably it would have been a lot more vicious if he seems to have already trusted him as an interviewer. Any thoughts on how Reed dealt with some unconventional turns of the conversation like this with this kind of dismissive sarcasm?
I would imagine that at some point he would have considered [producing Smith], and there’s photos of Reed and Patti together in public in the ‘70s. Could he have also been bitter because Cale wound up doing it? And that album was sort of a critics’ darling album, at the time. It still is. So again, he might have had this, “oh shit, maybe I should have done it.” Again, it’s that mercurial and selective memory thing.
He had a similar issue with Dylan, where he always claimed he didn’t really like Dylan’s music. But then of course, you hear those early demos [from July 1965 with Cale and Morrison, on the Velvet Underground’s Peel Slowly and See box set], you can tell he’s very Dylan-inspired. And there’s this story where Lou’s playing some kind of small concert or private concert in L.A. around the time of New Sensations, and he does that song “Doin’ the Things That We Want To.” And Dylan turns, I think, to [Lou’s second wife] Sylvia Reed, and says, “I love this song. I wish I’d written it.” So of course Sylvia Reed tells Lou, and Lou gets so excited that he goes out and buys all the Dylan albums that he’d missed, like twenty albums. And now he’s going around telling everyone, “Dylan is wonderful.” To the point where Lou of course appears on that Madison Square Garden [30thanniversary Bob Dylan tribute] concert doing “Foot of Pride.”
There’s several interviews where he’s like, “yeah, Dylan sucks, I never listen to Dylan.” All done before these events. He also kind of made peace with Zappa. Didn’t he induct Frank Zappa into the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame? Now, how many interviews did Reed do in the ‘60s where he said, Zappa sucks? I think there’s at least a few. [As one example, in an interview Lou gave Third Ear in 1970 while the Velvet Underground were recording Loaded, Reed called Zappa “probably the single most untalented person I’ve heard in my life,” throwing in “Dylan gets on my nerves” for good measure.] Again, was he jealous that they get more attention from Verve than the VU? Maybe. I don’t know. But he had this Zappa-hating thing going on for a long time, but he eventually gave up on.
[There’s] probably a little mental illness going on here too. Certainly narcissism.
It seems like one reason Reed quickly became a pretty prickly interview subject is that he got tired of being asked about his most sensationalistic songs so often, especially “Heroin.” Was he maybe too sensitive to this? Some of those interviewers would probably have gone on to less shopworn questions, or at least had sincere interest in his motivation instead of trying to use songs like that against him.
He probably just got tired of it. I’m kind of friends with Michael Shrieve from Santana, and even if you’re just a casual Santana fan, you remember that Woodstock movie drum solo, right? He can’t stand talking about it. It’s just been asked to death. I think that happened with Lou. think he just kind of burned out on it, as these guys probably do after a while.
Your own brief 1984 interview with Reed for The Notebook is in the book. He was pretty cordial and relatively friendly, if not terribly talkative and informative. Do you think that was one of those zones where he was fairly eager to be a reasonable interviewee, maybe because he especially wanted to promote a new release or things were going relatively well for him overall?
I kind of take the blame for that kind of non-interview. I was super-nervous. I think it’s the first major artist interview I ever did, and one of the things I learned over decades, especially when I did a hundred interviews for [my] Jerry Rubin [biography] much more recently, is to turn interviews more into a conversation. And certainly don’t ask questions that can easily be answered with “no,” “yes,” “no.” So when I re-read my own interview, I don’t go, “oh, Lou’s being a dick,” although he certainly could have helped me out a little bit there.
As you wrote in the book, you weren’t able to interview Reed again, in part because he didn’t show up when you interviewed the rest of the reunited Velvets during their European tour. What would you have liked to ask him if you had the chance?
So the Velvets get back together again, and I remember reading an interview with all of them. They kept talking about—at least Cale did, and I think even Lou—about how “we’re gonna have a ton of new material,” right? I don’t know if they were planning that like, “we’re gonna play it on a concert, we’re gonna make an album.” But they kept talking about these new songs. And of course, there was only one new song, which was probably the weakest thing that Lou has ever written, “Coyote.” Which not only is not a very good song, it really doesn’t feel like a Velvet Underground-type song.
So when Reed didn’t show up, I kept trying to pin Cale down – “can you tell me about these new songs?” It was as if that interview never happened. ‘Cause he’s going, “What do you mean? What new songs?” Finally he just said, sort of frustrated, “the only thing we did in rehearsal was begging Lou to turn his guitar down, because he was always the loudest guy in the room,” for these 1993 tour rehearsal[s]. And kind of just blew me off. So had Reed been there, in retrospect, I would love to have kind of tried to pin him down. Like, “Are you writing new songs for this band, this reunion? Would you like to be writing new songs?” That’s the angle I might have tried to go down if I had been able to interview Lou, specifically in 1993.
What are your favorite Lou Reed interviews?
I’ve always loved those two Australian interviews. Right before we decided to do this book, I used to listen to those or watch them on youtube. Just kind of for the sheer outrageousness of it. They’re definitely the best examples of Lou Reed being an asshole. In terms of interviews on the opposite spectrum, where he’s being cooperative, I think that 1976 Hit Parader interview with Lenny Kaye is good.
The thing that I always got bored with, I remember when albums like New York came out, he just wanted to talk about guitar sounds and guitar tones and his favorite amplifiers. Basically, a lot of his interviews started reading like Guitar Player interviews.
He also started doing that with Tai chi for a while. In fact, one of the weirdest things I ever saw a major artist do, is I saw Lou play at the Warfield [in San Francisco], I would say, early 2000s. In the middle of the concert, he brings his Tai chi master out. And the guy just sort of does interpretive dances in front of the band, on stage where the audience can see, while they’re playing some Lou Reed songs.
It was kind of that nerd thing that I mentioned earlier in this interview. When he got fixated on something he really got fixated. A lot of these artists are kind of OCD, they’re obsessive compulsive, and they get fixated on something. It may be music, or it may be, what gauge guitar strings does Lou like to play?
When most fans, myself included, think of Lou and these interviews, you do think of things like those outrageous Australian interviews, or the Lester Bangs stuff. I hope when people read this book, they realize that Lou could be thoughtful, he could be nice, he could be insightful. And I hope that the book shows some of that side.
Like some magazine asked if they could print some excerpts of Lou’s quotes from the book. I went through and found what I felt were some of the more insightful things. And then, sort of behind my back without asking me, the editor of that particular magazine went through and just grabbed all the asshole-y soundbites. I think this book hopefully kind of shows both sides of Lou, the crazy soundbite stuff as well as, Lou’s being normal or gentle.
I’ve been a fan of Lewis Shiner ever since I read his novel Glimpses about 25 years ago. Its protagonist, an obsessive rock fan, travelsback in time through his dreams, where he tries with mixed success to help the Beatles, Brian Wilson, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix complete their unfinished masterpieces. Part of what makes this work is that Shiner really does know a lot about these legendary aborted records, and a lot about rock in general. He also knows a lot, or went to the trouble of learning, about how the artists actually spoke and acted.
Glimpses is more or less science fiction, though Shiner’s also gone into the rock world with his non-fantasy novel Say Goodbye and several short stories. He’s also written novels in which rock plays barely a part, like Black & White, where buried secrets between North Carolina generations come to a head, and Dark Tangos, which takes on yet more disturbing, difficult secrets and culture clashes in South America.
At first his latest and by far most ambitious book, Outside the Gates of Eden, seems to set the stage for another story set in the rock world. Hero (and sometimes anti-hero) Cole works his way up through Texas teen garage bands to the Fillmore and the verge of rock stardom before seeming to throw it all away. The journey takes him through the college frat circuit, the San Francisco psychedelic scene, and Woodstock before it goes off course.
But Outside the Gates of Eden is much more than a tale—albeit much more convincing and realistic than almost any other—of a fictional rock almost-star. Its 870 pages take in many other characters and many other milieus of Cole’s generation. These journey from back-to-the-land communes and the snobbish New York art world to abusive police, broken families, and a struggle for integrity and justice that leads Cole and his best buddy into dangerous crime-ridden Mexican climes. And it somehow culminates fifty years after its mid-’60s launch with a high-stakes poker game in Mexico, where the stakes are higher than mere money, or even a mere life or two.
Cole’s struggle to regain a foothold in the music business might be the strongest thread of the book’s latter sections, but it’s hardly the only one. There are also struggles between the political and lifestyle philosophies of different generations, especially with Cole and his estranged father. There’s a delicate balance of family and romantic relationships, always threatening to fall off a high-wire as the characters change, sometimes radically, and at different rates. There are insider takes, unfortunately pretty accurate as far as this music journalist can tell, of the ruthlessness of the music industry.
Not least, although saved mostly for the last, there are the main characters’ quests—as they grow from middle age into senior citizens—to help do their part for environmental and social sustainability in the time they have left. It’s not only an urgent attempt to hang on to the idealism they’d first cultivated in the ‘60s; by the time of the book’s conclusion near 2016, it’s become an absolute necessity. It’s not just the story of a generation, but of an uncertain future, even as it gets ready for the final phase of its life.
Outside the Gates of Eden is an epic, both in scale and sheer length. It’s a tribute to Shiner’s strength as a writer, however, that it’s a riveting read that never sags. Besides taking on very big questions, from the value of capitalism to the sacrifices one makes both for art and the planet, it’s just plain entertaining. And if you are a rock fan, this might stand out, as it does to me, as one of the few works of fiction with strong rock elements that ring, as I wrote in a back cover blurb, “with journalistic authenticity and painstakingly accurate detail.”
Which leads into a disclaimer: I did write one of the back cover blurbs for Outside the Gates of Eden. I’m also prominently thanked in the Author’s Note, as I helped show Shiner around San Francisco (particularly Haight-Ashbury) one weekend as he researched some of that painstaking detail. I also read a draft and gave him some general notes/feedback, including clarifications about the kind of rock history details he wants to make sure are right, whether it’s when something happened at the Jefferson Airplane house, or who exactly was in the Yardbirds at a certain San Francisco show.
But whether or not I’d become friends with Lewis, I would have wanted to ask him about Outside the Gates of Eden. He answered my questions shortly after the book was published in spring 2019.
Outside the Gates of Eden covers some thematic ground that’s also found in your other books. There’s rock music and rock history, which is a big part of Glimpsesand Say Goodbye. It follows characters through volatile periods of social change with repercussions that last decades, as it does in some ways in Black & White. There are some dark and sometimes violent confrontations with authorities and between cultures, elements in Dark Tangos. There are conflicts between different generations, which came into play in different ways in Black and White and Glimpses.
Yet Outside the Gates of Eden is clearly different from your previous books. There’s the sheer size and scope, certainly. But I first want to ask, what kind of similar territory do you see the book exploring to what you have in previous work?
First of all, I’m relieved to hear you say that Eden is “clearly different.” I was a little nervous at the outset because Cole’s story arc seemed a little too similar to Say Goodbye, where a musician moves to California, gets some traction in the music business, but ultimately fails to become a star. Obviously the scope in Eden is much larger, and there are many other story arcs beside Cole’s, but does a larger scope imply a qualitative difference? In the end, I never felt like I was repeating myself in the particulars, so I hope my readers will agree.
One of the other themes you mentioned was generational conflicts, specifically father-son relationships. I had to revisit that territory in Eden for a number of reasons, maybe the biggest of which is thematic. The struggle between the counterculture and the establishment was in many ways that same father-son conflict, writ large. Also, I wanted to let the father have a voice, which is something I hadn’t done before. I think it’s important to get it out there that the World War II generation felt betrayed in many ways when their kids rebelled. Look at all I gave you, they said.
What are some of the other ways in which you set out to nonetheless make Outside the Gates of Eden markedly different from any of your previous books?
Really I think it comes back to the scope thing, which meant getting into more diverse viewpoints. I made some effort, I guess, in Black & White and Dark Tangos to get into the heads of the white supremacists and the right-wing terrorists, but I never really narrated from their point of view. So maybe that’s something that’s been evolving in my work over the years, but it definitely took a huge jump here. Not only do we see through the eyes of Cole’s father, we get viewpoints from Dave, a record producer, and Johnny Hornet, a DJ. Now both of those concepts—the record producer and the DJ—were pretty much brand new in the early-to-mid ‘60s. They were inventing those job descriptions as they went along. So it was very important to me to cover those bases, and to have Madelyn there for the art revolution in SoHo in the 1970s, and Cole there in Austin for the outlaw country music later in the decade, and so on. So maybe one big difference is that I was trying for a kind of completeness in Eden where my other books stuck closer to the classical unities.
Something I think can be said of Outside the Gates of Eden’s themes is that it looks at how a generation changes, sometimes unpredictably, both in how it affects its times and how the times affect it. Is that a fair assessment?
Definitely. Starting in the late ‘50s and going into the early ‘70s, young people brought about some really sweeping changes—Civil Rights, ending the draft and the Vietnam War, legalizing abortion, not to mention big cultural changes. Then the times began to change us. The assassinations of Malcom X, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King. The murders of students at Kent State and Jackson State. Those were all incredibly demoralizing. And the circumstances that had made the sixties possible—a prosperous white middle class, a booming economy, affordable college education—that all started to change, too. The gas crisis of 1973 was a big turning point, the first time that this young generation had to face real shortages. It was a wake-up call, saying “there’s not enough to go around anymore.” And a lot of people reacted to that by saying, “OK, then, I’m going to make sure I get my share.” That was the beginning of the end in many ways.
What were the challenges of taking on such a big area?
Number one, research. Starting with reading general histories of the times, then burrowing down into memoirs of people who were there, or were characters in my book. Conducting interviews myself, visiting San Francisco (where you generously showed me around) and the Woodstock site. All the way down to the incredible wealth of detail that’s available on the Internet. Set lists from concerts that I describe in the book. Complete schedules of who was playing at the Fillmore on any given day. Photos of Haight Street or the performer’s pavilion at Woodstock. So that’s one challenge.
The next is, one, making sure I didn’t overlook some event that absolutely needed to be in the book. Like, I went back and forth and back and forth on whether I should talk about 9/11, and, grudgingly, I decided I had to at least mention it. Two, deciding what to leave out. I mean, you can’t talk about everything. One of my big decisions was not to go in depth on the actual experience of being in Vietnam. I wasn’t there, almost nobody I knew was there, and those that were mostly didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t feel like I could bring anything fresh to that discussion.
It’s interesting—after I had the book pretty well mapped out in my head and was well along into writing it, one of my favorite writers, Jane Smiley, published something called The Last Hundred Years Trilogy, really a single novel divided into three volumes. She covers a single family from 1920 to 2019, and it’s a wonderful story, and it’s as different from Eden as it could be. There’s very little music in it, she spends a lot more time in Vietnam, and she has about the same amount of material for each year. I was fascinated, because I knew the problems she had to solve, and I admired the way she solved them in a completely different way than I did.
As a general observation, Eden’s a just plain big book, with 870 pages. That’s about two to three times (and more often than not three times) as long as most novels. It’s long even by so-called “epic” standards. Did you have such an epic in mind when you first conceived the book?
I knew it immediately. My first estimate was that it would be a thousand pages in manuscript, and I was close—the final draft was a bit over 1200.
How do you think such a long work (whether by you or others) is justified, when the great majority of other novels are shorter, and usually much shorter?
That’s easy. I like long books. Middlemarch, War and Peace, Our Mutual Friend, Anna Karenina. More recently, City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. It’s such a comfort to start a book and really like it, and know it’s not going to be over anytime soon. And I get excited when I feel like an author is going to be raising big issues.
Obviously not everyone agrees. I have a friend who is reluctant to pick up a book of more than 400 pages. My concession to those readers was to work really hard on tightening the prose, trying to cut out every word that I didn’t think was absolutely necessary.
I have a few questions specifically about the rock music element of the story, especially as I’m mostly known as a music history writer. As we’ve discussed on a number of occasions, many fiction books using rock music as a major or minor element don’t bother to get historical contexts right. Sometimes it’s almost as if the author doesn’t think they’re important, or just doesn’t mind that it seems careless and phony. Your books, especially this one and Glimpses, have very authentic rock historical detail not only in getting the facts right, but also in getting the feel of the musicians (whether real ones like Hendrix or fictional ones like Cole) authentic. Why do you obviously think it’s important to get the context right?
When I’m reading a historical novel, one of my criteria is whether the writer can surprise me with unexpected details. Sarah Waters, for example, is fantastic at this. You don’t have to be an expert on Victorian history to read her novel Fingersmith and know that she did an incredible amount of research, because she’s constantly coming up with stuff that startles or even shocks you. Conversely, when somebody is just making stuff up or relying on things they’ve seen on TV, the writing seems flat.
Also, I am terrible at making stuff up. The more I know about the realities of a place and time, the easier it is for me to write about it.
As one example of how you get into rock culture in the book with some detail, you don’t just go through one character’s dalliance with rock stardom at big venues and festivals, but also his rise through garage bands putting out scarce singles and playing gross frat parties with violence and sexual assault. Is there any autobiographical element to that part, whether as a fan or a musician growing up during that period?
Oh yeah. I was in lots of garage bands. Played lots of frat houses, both in the ‘60s and later on. The frat party I describe Cole playing at actually happened in the early ‘80s, and I was in fact in the band, and one of the kids did actually smash up a chair and try to light it on fire. I didn’t see anything there that was inconsistent with what I’d seen in the sixties at the frat houses I played at Vanderbilt.
It isn’t just the music and musicians that are depicted with naturalistic detail, but also the music business, and how harsh it is. Record deals blow up over petty details, and without giving much away, even when the main musician character gets some success late in his career, it turns out not to be as much of an unqualified victory as he thought it was at first. Is that something you feel important to do, to illustrate how tough and sometimes harsh the business can be, despite its often romantic image?
I think it’s much more common knowledge now that big label record companies can grind you into paste and wash you down the drain. Back in the sixties, a big label contract was the Holy Grail, and nobody knew about stuff like recouping recording costs and gross vs. net earnings. It was important to deal with that in Eden because the book does talk so much about art vs. commerce—as embodied in Alex [Cole’s best friend and, in his early days, bandmate], but also played out in SoHo or in the university system.
I’ve said elsewhere that the book was an all-out attack on capitalism, but that’s not really correct. It’s more of an all-out attack on unrestrained capitalism. That tension, between making art and making a living, between finding happiness and being responsible, is at the heart of the book. I mean, Woodstock is this symbol of peace and love, but somebody ended up paying the bill. The backers lost millions (initially, anyway), the National Guard had to fly in food and medicine, local farmers were handing out sandwiches—I mean, it’s great to be idealistic, but you have to also function in the real world, where things have price tags.
You actually research some of these rock history details, as you did with me when we walked around Haight-Ashbury, but as you’ve also done with real-life characters like producer Erik Jacobsen, and just by your thorough pre-existing knowledge, as comes through with the description of legendary unreleased music by the Beatles/Doors/Beach Boys/Hendrix in Glimpses. Why, I ask because it’s a positive, is it so important for you to get both the facts and the feel right in the rock elements of your books?
It probably won’t surprise anybody who reads Eden for me to say that I’m an idealist. I regard fiction as a calling. When it’s done right, I believe it can reveal truths about the human condition that non-fiction has to work much harder to achieve. If you’re after higher truth, you have to get the “lower” truth—a.k.a., the facts—right first.
You’ve already answered this question in a previous conversation, but I’ll ask it here as it’ll now go in print, and in case your answer’s changed at all. Lots of works of fiction use rock as part of the book, whether as the dominant part or just one part. Most of those books are bad or at least seriously flawed, in part because most of them don’t get the facts or feel right. Why do you think this is generally done so poorly, and done well so infrequently?
It takes a particular skill set to write good fiction about music. Note here that I’m not claiming that I do—this is just me talking as a reader. Obviously you need to write well. You need to really love music and be transported by it. And the really tough one, you have to know how the music is put together. You should be able to play at least one instrument, you should know some music theory, you should know what a Leslie speaker is and how that changes the sound of a Hammond B3. The reason is, if you don’t have a grounding in the reality of the physical instruments, your descriptions can get so metaphorical they read like bad sex scenes—throbbing waves pounding the yielding sands and so on.
Are there any other fiction books besides yours that you think have done this well?
I’ve read a few books where the music details were quite convincing—like Howard Massey’s Roadie, for example—but I had some quibbles with the writing style or the story. So George RR Martin’s Armageddon Rag remains my favorite rock novel. And I gave George some technical assistance on that one. Interestingly, my favorite novel about music is Longing, by J. D. Landis, which is about the classical composer Robert Schumann. Landis gets everything right—gorgeous writing, completely convincing musical stuff, some of it very technical, but never dry. And an absolutely heartbreaking story. Susan Hardin [Tim Hardin’s widow] turned me onto that book, for which I’m eternally grateful.
Have you tried any that have done so notably poorly?
I don’t mind picking on P. F. Kluge because he can laugh all the way to the bank. Eddie and the Cruisers is the poster child for a rock novel by somebody who doesn’t know how bands work. In the novel, the band has four (count ‘em, four) guitar players, a sax player, a drummer, and no bass. This, obviously, was one of many things they changed for the movie. And it’s not just the instrumentation that rings false, it’s the whole chemistry and day-to-day business of the band.
I don’t want to give away anything to those who haven’t read the book, but something that impressed me about it was that there weren’t pat and predictable resolutions to some deep conflicts between some of the characters. Some such conflicts are often resolved with a big tearful scene near the end, in both novels and films. Well, it doesn’t always happen that way in real life, and that’s seldom reflected in books and films. Do you think that’s a fair observation, and is that something you want to make a part of your plots and characters?
Again, this is something I’m glad to hear. I don’t know that I set out to overturn the idea of pat resolutions, but I did base almost everything in the book on either my personal experience or the experiences of my friends. I combined and split off characters and condensed or expanded timelines, but for some definition, most of the book aspires to “truth”—in that higher sense I was talking about earlier. As I’ve gotten older and seen the way events play out—deaths of parents, ends of marriages, people having kids and grandkids—it is increasingly clear that a lot of stuff never does get resolved. So that’s the truth I’m striving to be faithful to.
Also—you hear this a lot and I’m sure many will scoff, but more in Eden than anything else I’ve written, the characters took hold of their own destinies. I’m sure this reflects some kind of subconscious process that I’m just not in touch with, but it felt like they were controlling the plot. There were a number of benchmarks in the story that I had in mind from the beginning—a suicide, an extramarital affair, to name two examples—that it became clear the characters would not cooperate for.
I will say that I’m not a fan of ambiguous endings—I want the reader to have a feeling that it’s done. But “done” is not always the same as “resolved.”
Some casual readers, and maybe (though I hope not) some reviewers, will view or maybe even dismiss Eden as “another ‘60s book” in a tired arena that should be put to bed. But of course, while the ‘60s play a big part in launching the epic, if you do read the whole thing, it goes right up to the present, and addresses very contemporary issues like global warming, sustainability, and community among baby boomers who are now senior citizens. How important was this for you to make a part of the story?
Well, first off, I don’t think I’ve read that many ‘60s books. Maybe I’ve just been lucky that way. But my initial concept of the book was, “what happened to the idealism of the ‘60s, and how did we end up with a culture of greed?” That necessitates bringing the story at the very least into the ‘80s. To me, you don’t have a story yet when you say, “this kind of great thing happened for a while in the ‘60s, but it ended.” When you say, “this kind of great thing happened, and it was mocked and reviled and stamped out by the forces of repression, but it held on and now it’s coming back”—now you’ve got a story.
I liked one character’s line “I think the election of Reagan was a kind of cultural Iron Curtain, cutting off the ‘60s from the history of the future.” But not just because there was that one specific line — I think that thread is there throughout much of the book, especially the latter parts. Of how conservative/reactionary forces roll back cultural/humanitarian advances, or pretend they didn’t happen, or twist them into something else. I note, if subtly, in my books and courses that learning about music of the past isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia, but also relevant to what happens today or in any subsequent era. I think the book shows how the past is connected to the present, and how learning about the past can help us understand the present and move into the future. If that is indeed something you have in mind, do you want to comment on that?
It’s not just conservative forces, it’s the capitalist system. When it’s unrestrained—as it has been increasingly since the ‘80s, as we get further and further from the Great Depression that was caused by unrestrained capitalism—the rich just want to get richer and there’s nothing to stop them. Obviously history has a lot to teach us—not just about the Gilded Age and the Depression, which are so similar to what we’re seeing now—but about some possible solutions.
As far as music goes, there’s a lot to learn from that, too. I had an interviewer ask me for some of my favorite political songs from the ‘60s. I fumbled the question and kind of said, well, not that many songs were overtly political. But when I thought about it later, I decided that was wrong. So many songs were political, just not in obvious ways. When the Rascals sang, “A Beautiful Morning,” or the Kinks sang “Something Better Beginning,” or the Beach Boys sang “Good Vibrations,” those were like coded messages to the teenagers listening to the radio, saying, “It’s a new day, it’s time to rethink the world, we are at the very start of something wonderful and profound.” Those songs inspired us to believe in ourselves, to be idealistic, to challenge the existing order.
Although your sympathy definitely seems to be with left-wing and artistically progressive movements, unlike many epic novels with strong historical elements, you also note the flaws of some of these movements and organizations. The early-’70s communes in Eden have deep problems, for instance. Is that something you find interesting to explore, and do you get any flak, even these days, from veterans of those movements feeling like you’re betraying the cause or something similar by being critical?
One of the former commune members I interviewed actually told me my characters were too committed. Where was the fun? Fortunately he read an early draft and I was able to make things a little more relaxed. He had other criticisms, too, but not every commune was alike, and I followed my instincts. Again, as we’ve been talking about, you can try for the truth or you can try for what you wish was the truth. The second option doesn’t really help you deal with the future.
A related question: late ‘60s rock music, which plays a big part in the lives of the characters in the early part of the book, is often written about with rosy nostalgia. But Eden also goes into the seamier parts of the experience. Not just the business hassles and the frat parties that I’ve cited, but also when the two most prominent characters visit Haight-Ashbury at the peak of the summer of love, and it’s a bummer. Or when Woodstock turns out not to be a glorious dawn in the life of one, but kind of an ending of a big part of his life. Again: do veterans of the rock scene feel like you’re laying down a bummer trip by being critical of some parts of it?
The SF writer William Gibson was at Woodstock, and he told me back in the ‘80s how miserable it was there, and how many people walked away saying, “Thank god that’s over.” Only to have these incredibly rosy memories afterward, when the festival became kind of this sacred event. Of the Woodstock veterans I talked to, most were in the middle—glad to have it on their resume, so to speak, but not downplaying the discomforts of it. I haven’t caught any flak over my portrayal of Woodstock, which I tried to make pretty even-handed, but I haven’t heard from any Woodstock vets yet either.
Something else I think the book conveys, which might make even progressives uncomfortable, is that for a better future, a lot of sacrifice is involved. It will involve much more than voting for the best candidate or recycling your newspapers; it will involve big changes in lifestyle that not everyone might find easy to adapt to, certainly at first. Is that important for you to convey, and do you have a feeling that readers are picking up on that?
I would hope that the book inspires readers to make some sacrifices, but that kind of thing is hard to predict. I think one of the most controversial things in the book is the idea that idealists can’t save the world by themselves. No matter how much they hate the idea, they are going to have to get at least a certain number of rich people on their side. As I said earlier in the interview, somebody has to pay the bills. We need to have compassionate, idealistic rich people on board, or we’re doomed.
The book just came out, but how’s the reaction been so far? Not just among people who are familiar with your work (I imagine it’s been very enthusiastic among those), but among any who might be reading you for the first time?
The reaction has been remarkably good. I don’t know how many first-time Shiner readers I’ve been getting, but the thing that really surprises and pleases me is that people seem to be actually reading the book and not just putting it on the coffee table and admiring it. For a book this size, that’s really gratifying. Because it’s a limited edition from a small publisher, that tends to self-select for my existing fans. It’ll have a more general readership when it’s released in the UK in August, and we’ll know more then.