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Richie Unterberger comments and reviews on vintage rock music.

Peter Green: The Ideal Imaginary Compilation

To most people—certainly most people in the US—Fleetwood Mac are most known, indeed often only known, for the lineup that produced massive hits from the mid-1970s onward, especially the Rumours and Fleetwood Mac albums. Many people—again, especially Americans—are wholly unaware that Fleetwood Mac began as a much different blues-rock group, and had a lot of success in the late 1960s before undergoing a bunch of lineup changes. The first major change was the loss of Peter Green, their original principal guitarist, singer, songwriter, and overall visionary.

Peter Green on the cover of the UK magazine Beat Instrumental.

Peter Green on the cover of the UK magazine Beat Instrumental.

As a guitarist, Peter Green was the master of a biting, sustain-laden bittersweet tone. As a songwriter, he celebrated both joy and despair (if more often the low than the high) with a naked honesty rare in rock, and the equal of the African-American blues greats who’d inspired him to become a musician. While his singing was on the rough and husky side, it excelled in projecting idiosyncratic character and personality as unvarnished and devoid of pretense as his songs.

Peter Green was a major figure in late-‘60s rock, and one who still hasn’t achieved the recognition he deserves, even though a few of the songs he wrote and sang with Fleetwood Mac were big British hits. In part that’s because memories of his time with the band have been superseded by the much more famous records they made after Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks joined. By that time, the main remaining similarity with the band’s early days was the Fleetwood Mac name.

Yet it’s also in part because Green’s 1967-1970 recordings with Fleetwood Mac were quite uneven. The best early Fleetwood Mac tracks were those on which he sang (and, when they weren’t covering other people’s songs, wrote). These are interspersed, however, with quite a few sides featuring Jeremy Spencer as lead singer/guitarist and/or writer, and some (after mid-1968) on which Danny Kirwan takes those roles. Some of those are pretty good, but the distance between their abilities and Green’s is substantial.

This comment won’t endear me to some fans of the band, but some of Spencer’s tracks are quite mediocre and repetitious. Even Jeremy himself conceded in an interview with me that by the time the group recorded their third album, 1969’s Then Play On, he’d run his Elmore James style of blues into the ground. The best of those tracks in that mold were good, but he was limited to that form of blues and early rock’n’roll satires that aren’t all that funny, at least on record. Someone who was there at their early concerts once scolded me for offering that opinion, declaring that if you were in attendance, they were hilarious. Well, I wasn’t there (I was seven when They Play On was recorded), and maybe that’s my loss, but Jeremy’s rock’n’roll parodies can be a comedown when interspersed with Green’s penetrating blues-rock.

Kirwan’s songs were not so much comedowns in company with Green’s as slighter than the leader’s. As they’re usually lighter in mood, they make for nice contrasts with Peter’s material. But they’re not as close in distinction to the main act’s primary songwriter or songwriters as, say, George Harrison was in the Beatles, and Peter Tosh was in the Wailers. Kirwan also had a fairly high percentage of original material on the releases in Green’s latter days with the band, which makes for imbalance and lack of consistent quality. Perhaps in time, Kirwan might have grown more into his responsibilities, and the gap might have narrowed; Peter and Danny were already a formidable lead guitar team of sorts. But we won’t know what might have happened, since Green quit Fleetwood Mac in early 1970, less than a year after Then Play On.


Peter Green on a poster for a January 18, 1970 Fleetwood Mac concert.

What’s the ideal disc, then, to get a concentrated dose of Green’s talents? There isn’t one, actually. All of the Fleetwood Mac discs on which he played are still in print (along with quite a few live concerts and BBC sessions). But all of them, even the compilations, mix Green-dominated tracks with ones, often notably inferior, on which other guitarists and singer-songwriters have the spotlight. And some of the cuts with Green at the forefront aren’t that great, though these are largely confined to Fleetwood Mac’s second album, Mr. Wonderful, and some of the band’s many outtakes/live tapes.

With today’s technology, however, you can make your own ideal CD-length playlist of the best Peter Green. What follows is the track listing, with annotation, of mine, clocking in at just under the 80-minute limit of commercial single-disc CD releases. Of course every fan would compile a different selection of tracks given his or her rein, and many would object vociferously to the some of the inclusions, omissions, or sequencing on the one I assembled. I do think this disc comprises a solid summation of Green’s greatness, or, as some hucksters would have it, “all killer, no filler.”

This disc goes in roughly chronological order, though I made a few exceptions when I thought a non-chronological ordering simply sounded better. I also took the liberty of including a couple outstanding tracks from his brief time (between about mid-1966 to mid-1967) with John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, which kick off this imaginary compilation CD.

1. The Super-Natural (from A Hard Road by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, released February 17, 1967). Although most of the tracks Green did as part of the Bluesbreakers featured leader John Mayall as lead vocalist, there were some that gave Peter the spotlight. This highlight from the sole LP Green did as part of the band, A Hard Road, is a splendid fierce instrumental showcasing Peter’s trademark searing sustain. It was also a huge influence on Carlos Santana, who wrote in his autobiography The Universal Tone (co-written with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller), “On ‘The Super-Natural’…Green’s guitar sound was on the edge of feedback. That track left its mark on me. I think it was the first instrumental blues that showed me that the guitar could really be the lead voice, that sometimes a singer is not necessary. And I loved that tone.”

Hard Road

2. Out of Reach (B-side of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers single “Sitting in the Rain,” released January 1967). Written and sung by Green, this was a magnificent despondent downer of a blues classic, both for Peter’s tortured vocal and the icy, reverberant guitar tone that would become one of his trademarks. As it didn’t appear on LP at the time, and subsequently only appeared on rather out-of-the-way compilations, it’s still not nearly as well known as it should be. In-the-know fans of British rock did pick up on it, however. When Trouser Press did a reader’s poll quite a few years later for the best B-sides that were better than their A-sides, “Out of Reach” was one of the top picks.

A few other tracks on which Green played (and sometimes sang) with the Bluesbreakers, like the outtakes “Please Don’t Tell” and “Missing You” (first released in 1971 on the John Mayall compilation Thru the Years), were also good. The rest of these selections, however, were recorded by Peter as part of Fleetwood Mac.

3. I Loved Another Woman (from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, released February 24, 1968). With its minor-keyed melody and Latin-flavored beat, the arrestingly haunting “I Loved Another Woman” quickly demonstrated that there was more to Fleetwood Mac, and more to Green specifically, than standard 12-bar electric blues. It also anticipated the Latin flavor of another, much more famous song he’d soon record with the band, “Black Magic Woman.


The cover of Fleetwood Mac’s first LP.

4. Looking for Somebody (from Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac, released February 24, 1968). For this track from Fleetwood Mac’s debut LP, Green didn’t even touch his guitar, delivering a doleful lyric to an equally doleful harmonica and the stuttering sparse, hypnotic beat of the McVie-Fleetwood rhythm section. Though close to standard blues in form, this has a lackadaisical irreverence that sets it apart from the Chicago blues he and the band obviously revered as their chief influence.

5. Black Magic Woman (single, March 29, 1968). The first of these songs to be familiar to the average rock listener—though this specific version isn’t well known to the average rock listener. Indeed, most people don’t know that the original version of “Black Magic Woman” was not by Santana, who had a huge hit with it in the early 1970s, but by Fleetwood Mac, and written by Peter Green. “Black Magic Woman” developed the tentative Latin-minor blues he’d explored on “I Loved Another Woman” into a tour-de-force. His wavering sustain wove a sorcerer-like spell wholly in keeping with the magic woman lamented in the lyrics—actually Green’s real-life girlfriend Sandra, whose own spell of celibacy was causing Peter no end of frustration.

Although it marked a definite break from the 12-bar blues that had been Fleetwood Mac’s mainstay, “Black Magic Woman” had definite roots in the unusual minor-keyed blues of Chicago blues great Otis Rush. The rolling Latin rhythm, and even the break into a more evenly spaced shuffle near the end, strongly recall the tempos employed on Rush’s 1958 single “All Your Love”—a song Green undoubtedly would have been familiar with, as it kicked off John Mayall’s 1966 Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton LP (on which Fleetwood Mac bassist McVie actually played).

Even so, Peter and the band put a lot of their own personality into “Black Magic Woman,” which has an almost basement garage feel in comparison to the much more famous cover by Santana. Featuring the lead guitar work of a star who counts Green among his greatest influences, Santana’s version reached the Top Five in the US at the end of 1970. Inexplicably, the original version made only #37 in the UK (and failed to chart at all in the US), and many fans of both bands remain unaware to this day that Fleetwood Mac did it first.


6. Need Your Love So Bad (single, July 5, 1968). A cover this time, this one of a mid-‘50s R&B/early rock tune by Little Willie John, though Green decided to record it after hearing a version by B.B. King. As both a concession to commerciality and an adventurous wish to explore something beyond the blues barriers, strings were used in the arrangement (by American guitar great Mickey Baker, who as half of Mickey & Sylvia had a big 1957 hit with “Love Is Strange”).

There was still plenty of blues and soul in Green’s vocals and delicate, heart-rending guitar. Recorded, like “Black Magic Woman,” without Jeremy Spencer—something that would happen more and more at Fleetwood Mac sessions as the ‘60s drew to a close—it did hardly better than “Black Magic Woman,” peaking at #31 in the UK, and not even getting released in the US.


7. Fleetwood Mac (from The Original Fleetwood Mac, released May 14, 1971). We’re out of chronological sequence here, as this was actually recorded around mid-1967 before the band had properly formed, and not released until the 1971 outtakes collection The Original Fleetwood Mac. Nonetheless, it’s a propulsive, moody instrumental that assumed more historic importance when Green used the title of the song as the name of his new band with fellow ex-Bluesbreakers Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, Fleetwood Mac.


8.  Love That Burns (from Mr. Wonderful, released August 23, 1968). One of the few highlights from the generally disappointing Mr. Wonderful album, “Love That Burns” was a slow-burning soul ballad with horns. It was very much in the mold of “Need Your Love So Bad,” but this tune was an original, not a cover, with a woozy sadness that took it into yet more melancholic territory.

The unbeloved cover for Fleetwood Mac's second LP, Mr. Wonderful.

The unbeloved cover for Fleetwood Mac’s second LP, Mr. Wonderful.

9.  Homework (from Blues Jam at Chess, released December 5, 1969). Actually recorded in early 1969, the super-session Blues Jam at Chess, on which Fleetwood Mac recorded/jammed with Chicago blues stars, was like many such combinations more disappointing on record than it looked on paper. The one exception is the magnificent version of Otis Rush’s anguished “Homework,” featuring stinging, wailing Green guitar and vocals, Otis Spann’s piano being the only non-band augmentation. Rush’s obscure original version is good, but this is at least its equal.


10. Albatross (single, released November 22, 1968). A huge #1 single in the UK, yet a near-total-misfire in the US (where it just missed the Top 100, peaking at #104), “Albatross” was very much a departure for Fleetwood Mac. Not yet even a year and a half old at the time this was released, the group were nonetheless very much known as a blues band. Even more than “Black Magic Woman,” this was a single that was bluesy in feel and spirit without sticking to the rigid melodic or structural format that typified much classic American blues.

Recalling Santo & Johnny’s similarly dreamy 1959 instrumental smash “Sleep Walk,” the meditative mood of “Albatross” was drawn out by a throbbing undercurrent of mallets and cymbal washes that built to periodic crescendos. Recorded at their first session with Danny Kirwan (who made the band a quintet after joining in August 1968), it was also an influence on the biggest band of all, George Harrison citing it as “the point of origin” for the Beatles’ “Sun King” in an interview with Musician. Here’s a little known footnote that’s not in my Fleetwood Mac book: this was used on the soundtrack of noted German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1973 science fiction film World on a Wire, long before it was common for classic rock to be used in such a fashion.


11. Coming Your Way (from Then Play On, released September 1969). Almost all of the tracks on this fantasy compilation feature Green as singer and/or songwriter. I made an exception for a couple items from the band’s most outstanding LP, Then Play On, which was almost evenly divided between compositions by Green and Danny Kirwan. Kirwan’s “Coming Your Way” opened the album with near-tribal rhythms and snaky guitars that curled to anguished climaxes.


12. Closing My Eyes (from Then Play On, released September 1969). If only in retrospect, much of Green’s material on Then Play On hints, or downright states, his growing dissatisfaction with the superficiality of rock stardom. “Closing My Eyes” might have reflected some restless discontent, but did so with beguiling serenity, like an oasis within the storm of Peter’s newly chaotic rock-god life.

13. Showbiz Blues (from Then Play On, released September 1969). If the hints of discontent in “Closing My Eyes” were subtle, in “Showbiz Blues” they were in your face. “Tell me anybody, do you really give a damn for me?” Peter scoffs on the sparse and scary “Showbiz Blues,” with some of the most keening slide blues guitar to be heard on any recording.


14. Although the Sun Is Shining (from Then Play On, released September 1969). The second of the trio of Kirwan-penned-and-sung selections, featured some exquisitely sad guitar. Though superficially chipper, “Although the Sun Is Shining” hints at the demons that would drag Danny down and out of the music business, much as Peter was slightly before him.

15. Rattlesnake Shake (from Then Play On, released September 1969). Almost as if to consciously puncture the oft-downbeat mood of Then Play On, “Rattlesnake Shake” is an all-out exuberant rabble-rouser, more in line with the macho hard blues-rock of just-emerging British bands like Led Zeppelin and Free. They performed this on one of the relatively few surviving film clips of the Peter Green lineup on January 8, 1970, on the syndicated TV show Playboy After Dark, hosted by Hugh Hefner. That’s not as unlikely a forum as it seems; Playboy After Dark had quite a few rock star guests, including the Grateful Dead, Deep Purple, Linda Ronstadt, and Country Joe & the Fish.


16. Like Crying (from Then Play On, released September 1969). While Fleetwood Mac were usually a pretty loud and raucous electric blues band in the Peter Green era, they could also play material more in line with the rural blues that was electric blues’ direct ancestor. The third and final of the Kirwan-penned songs here is a good-time low-key near-country blues that nonetheless masks some underlying anguish.

17. Before the Beginning (from Then Play On, released September 1969). Another track that shows Green’s knack for minor-key blues, “Before the Beginning” concludes Then Play On with despondent eloquence, as if he’s making his farewell statement almost a year in advance of actually leaving the band.


18. Man of the World (single, released April 1969). A #2 hit in the UK, “Man of the World” again showed the band stretching out beyond—even way beyond—the blues into a flowing, melodic rock that was blues in feel but not in form. Sung with grace by its writer, Peter Green, this was another song that was in retrospect an expression of his growing discontent with stardom and its phony trappings. Unlike the lyrically similar tracks on Then Play On, however, it steered clear of gloom with a relatively upbeat melody that was more pensive than sad, the laidback verses exploding into a hard rock bridge.


19. The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown) (single, released May 15, 1970). One of the most unlikely Top Ten singles of the classic rock era (at least in the UK; it didn’t make the US charts), “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Pronged Crown)” was an unrelentingly ominous, grinding track with stop start-tempos and angry flurries of hard rock guitar riffs. Set against a full moon and dark night, the words were just as menacing, and at times downright fearful in their anxiety. Just after its release, Peter Green quit Fleetwood Mac, unwilling to continue in what he felt was the hypocritical music business. The music business is still hypocritical, but very few people act on their feelings and cut their ties with it at the apex of their stardom, as Green did.


20. Oh Well (Parts One and Two) (single, released September 26, 1969). Although “The Green Manalishi” was the final Fleetwood Mac release with Peter Green, the epic “Oh Well” makes the most suitable closer. Issued as a two-part single, the first half of the song was a tense modified boogie of sorts built around a captivating circular hard-rock riff, the instrumental breaks corkscrewing to unsettling climaxes. The lyrics were certainly unusual for a big hit (as this was in the UK), Green painting a most unflattering self-portrait (“I ain’t pretty and my legs are thin”) and questioning whether one could know what anyone was thinking, even when God himself was queried.

As offbeat as this portion was, it in no way prepared listeners for the second half of “Oh Well,” which bore more resemblance to flamenco-flavored classical music than blues or rock. Purely instrumental, its mournful melody featured Green on nylon-string and electric guitars, timpani, and cello; his girlfriend Sandra Elsdon on eerie recorders; and Jeremy Spencer, finally making a useful contribution to a 1969 recording session, on elegiac piano. It could have hardly been more different than “Oh Well (Part 1),” as the first half was titled when it was used on the A-side of a single, the second part being used on the flip as “Oh Well (Part 2).” Yet the pieces complemented each other well, as if the band (and particularly Green) were finding some measure of peace after nearly getting swallowed by the storm. It was not only the peak achievement of the Peter Green era, but as fine a track as Fleetwood Mac recorded in any era, and as notable as any rock recording by anyone in the late 1960s.


In the rock history courses I teach, I periodically pause upon some figures to emphasize that they have not gotten the mainstream media coverage they deserve and are more important than most mainstream rock histories give them credit for being. Gene Vincent, Link Wray, and Sandy Denny are just a few examples. Peter Green is another. As he was just 23 when he left Fleetwood Mac, one almost weeps to consider what he and the band might have achieved had he stayed with them longer. One also almost weeps to survey the sporadic, artistically nearly negligible records he’s sporadically done since leaving Fleetwood Mac, none of which remotely approached the majesty of his best work with the group. The tracks on this imaginary CD should have been just the beginning of a lengthy string of achievements. But for reasons that still elude easy comprehension, the beginning was all there was.


My book Fleetwood Mac: The Complete Illustrated History was released earlier this month (September).

Top Ten Rock Music Works of Fiction

Just like there aren’t that many good movies based on a fictional story that takes place in rock music, there aren’t that many good fiction books based around rock. I’ve tried quite a few, and given up on quite a few. Part of the problem is one that also hinders attempts at rock fiction films. It’s hard to convincingly portray a successful rock band when the band doesn’t exist in real life, and often doesn’t sound like anything people would especially want to hear, whether it’s being described in prose or actually played in a movie. It’s not a coincidence that the most successful rock movies have been of the greatest group essentially playing themselves (the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night), or satires with flawed or failed bands whose music has to be bad or silly to work (Spinal Tap or the more obscure punk send-up Hard Core Logo).

To compile this post’s list of top ten rock fiction books, I had to stretch the concept (some would say cheat) to actually fill up the list with ten titles. Only a few of these are actually novels in which rock plays a part. There are short story collections and, taking more liberties, fiction by rock musicians. There are even film scripts and poetry.

But I think it adds up to a more enjoyable list than it would if I forced matters and put on so-so novels or ones that are hard to finish. The #1 choice is a quite famous one that would show up near or on the top of many such lists, because it’s that good.

1. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby (1995). I knew this was popular, and that sales might have been jacked up by the subsequent 2000 movie based on this book. But it still surprised me to find out online that this has sold more than a million copies, which might be the equivalent of selling ten million copies of an album. The main characters aren’t in rock bands (and the one started by one of the guys is kind of a joke), but this very accurately and humorously captures the banter and obsessive behavior of record collector and record store employees. Because Hornby is himself a huge rock fan, the historical references to all sorts of records, rare and otherwise, are accurate—something you can’t take for granted in fiction books (or movies, for that matter).


Even as someone who’s sensitive to film adaptations that screw up some/much/or all of what are good about the books on which they’re based, I liked the film version of High Fidelity. I still prefer the book version, in part because it’s based in the UK, and the decision to move the locale to Chicago seemed kind of arbitrary (though it did make room for Jack Black to play the acerbic record clerk). Also, the movie is, as you’d expect, missing some good and funny scenes from the novel, like the one where a jilted wife tries to sell the protagonist her husband’s incredibly valuable record collection for pennies. (That scene was filmed but not used, and can be seen as an extra on the DVD release.)

Now that it’s twenty years since the book was published, it’s a little painful to think that it would be much harder to find real-life stores like the one portrayed by Hornby. For the general shrinkage of physical product in the music business has meant that many such shops—which even in the mid-1990s were surviving on a shoestring—have closed.

Hornby has, by the way, made rock music a minor or major part of some of his subsequent novels, especially Juliet, Naked (in which a reclusive cult singer-songwriter strongly figures) and A Long Way Down (one of whose suicidal characters is an American rock musician). I’ve liked most of his post-High Fidelity books, or at least liked some aspects of them, but never nearly as much as I like High Fidelity itself.

2. Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner (1993). If you’re not a science fiction fan, the premise of Glimpses might sound daft. The protagonist is an obsessive rock fan who develops the ability to travel back 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. (Those being Get Back, Smile, Celebration of the Lizard, and First Rays of the New Rising Sun.)


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. The dialogue featuring Jimi Hendrix, for instance, is very much in the fractured and somewhat stoned way in which he spoke, in interviews and on stage. Like a lot of time travel stories, his efforts to change history don’t quite work out the way the main character intends, though you’ll have to read this to find out why.

3. Waterloo Sunset, by Ray Davies (1997). This short story collection isn’t nearly as well known as it should be, even to big Kinks fans, some of whom remain unaware that it exists. It didn’t help that it didn’t come out in the US until two years after its UK publication. I don’t think the American distribution/publicity was that good, as I just had to go online to confirm it came out in the US, not remembering ever seeing an American edition.


Anyway, Davies is a very good writer—by any standard, not just a “good for a rock musician” one. As you’d expect from his songs, he stories are witty, sad, and poignant. Some of them are about fictional rock musicians, and no doubt some of the characters and stories have roots in Ray’s real-life experiences. But there are good stories that have little or nothing to do with music. In fact, the stories are better than his post-1970s music, even as they bear similarities to the best songs he’s written and sung.

Some readers, by the way, would contend that Davies’s semi-autobiographical X-Ray should be on this list, as some of the fantasy sections are obviously fictional. Yet although I liked X-Ray very much, the core of it seems pretty much an actual autobiography (and a very good one) of his life with the Kinks in the 1960s, not a work of fiction—even historical fiction.

4. Show Business, by Kevin Coyne (1993). The late Coyne was a cult rocker with odd, sometimes creepy songs that split lines between blues rock, singer-songwriter music, music hall, prog rock, and more. Show Business is a short story collection with engrossing vignettes, musical and otherwise, that detail peculiarly British character neuroses with both menacing humor and subtle compassion. There’s a nastier streak than there is in the character sketches of Ray Davies, but that’s fine—there’s room for more than one kind of British rocker who can also tell tales on paper.


Dark with a comic bite, Coyne’s stories often mercilessly satirize the experiences of the touring rock band—the neglected sidemen, the has-beens undergoing cosmetic surgery, the one-shot wonder being milked dry by greedy relatives. If a musical play based on squabbles in rock’n’roll heaven between Sid Vicious, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison strikes you as tasteless, you may be better off giving it a miss. If you like your rock’n’roll fiction with both savage wit and a dose of all-too-true realism, however, Coyne’s your guy. “All I know is that the musicians who’ve read it have laughed their heads off,” Coyne told me in an interview. “I must be reaching somebody and doing the right thing.”

Coyne’s literary ambitions, incidentally, predated the publication of Show Business by more than twenty years. The January/February 1970 issue of ZigZag reported that “Kev is writing a book about rock’n’roll.” Coyne explained to the magazine, “I feel that the subject has never been covered properly. It’s either written about by people who don’t really know enough about it, or else by people who insist on dragging out obscure artists and saying how fantastic they were, like someone has just come out saying that some guy called Charlie Feathers was better than any of the other old rockers. As far as I can see, the best people were the ones that were the most popular—like Fats Domino.” In a sense, Show Business could be said to be his history of rock’n’roll, but from a fictional first-hand perspective that, to its credit, does not look at it from the view of the musicians who “were the most popular.”

5. Tales of Beatnik Gory, by Ed Sanders (1990). Sanders is known to rock fans mostly as the leader of the Fugs, and to the general public mostly as the author of his history of Charles Manson’s cult, The Family. This is a big (almost 550-page) collection of short stories that, as he wrote in his introduction, “are set in the Lower East Side of New York City, where I lived from 1960 to 1970.” No doubt many are based to some degree on his personal experience, he (and the Fugs) almost epitomizing the bohemian Lower East Side to the world. Mostly quite short (there are about thirty stories in all), these tales are witty reflections of life on the artistic edge at the time, when the neighborhood was teeming with figures like Sanders who were somehow surviving as ambitious poets, writers, activists, and general counterculture innovators. It’s also a reminder of a vanished era when such young men and women could get by in any part of Manhattan on a low income. Sanders has also written a non-fiction memoir focusing on his 1960s days in the Fugs, Fug You, which is highly recommended.


6. Vinyl Cafe Unplugged and Vinyl Cafe Diaries, by Stuart McLean (2000 and 2003). McLean is the host of CBC Radio’s The Vinyl Cafe on CBC Radio, in which he performs comic story-monologues about a Toronto record store owner and his family. More genteel and family-friendly than Davies (and certainly Coyne), he might be something of a Canadian Garrison Keillor without nearly so much sentimental corn. Not all of his stories revolve around or even involve main character Dave’s record store, but some of them do, which makes them qualify for this list.


To give you an indication of how rare records can figure into the stories, one of them actually mentions a tape of demos Syd Barrett made for the Purple Gang during his Pink Floyd days. Barrett did tape such material, which doesn’t survive and hasn’t been bootlegged, though Dave actually possesses a copy in the story. (Which, also in the story, is provided to him by myself, though I assure readers that I don’t have a copy and have never heard it.) And yes, more than one volume is listed in this entry, but as they’re all collections of short stories, I think it’s okay to consider them of a piece. McLean has also issued some spoken word CDs of live performances of stories from his program, if you want something offbeat to play in the car (especially in the US, where he’s not nearly as well known as he is in Canada).

A la High Fidelity, it’s uncomfortable to think of what might have happened to Dave’s record store in real life. The kind of store he runs in the stories was on the verge of becoming an endangered species by the early twenty-first century, though some of the ones that specialized in vinyl have made a comeback in recent years.

7. Poetic Licence, by Martin Newell (1996). Should poetry count as fiction? Why not, at least for the purposes of this list, when it’s good and funny? This is a slim but humorous collection of about forty poems published in The Independent by Martin Newell, the quirky cult British indie pop-rocker who’s released records on his own and as the figurehead of Cleaners From Venus. Not all of the poems are about music, but quite a few of them affectionately take the piss out of sacred cows like Eric Clapton, Shadows guitarist Hank Marvin, Pete Townshend, Ringo Starr, and the Beach Boys. Sample speculation of how one Beach Boys lyric would have read if Brian Wilson had been born in the English seaside town of Clacton: “She’ll have fun fun fun till her daddy takes the tea-bag away.” On Ringo: “Took a glammy second wife/Having had a hard days life.”


8. Sick of Being Me, by Sean Egan (2003). On the gloomier side of things, we have this novel about a troubled rock musician who doesn’t quite make it to sustained success, getting done in by troubles with drugs, women, a depraved upbringing, and his own psychological demons. Written in the first-person, it’s a harrowing look at rock’n’roll’s seedier aspects, in which using the music as a cathartic enlightenment doesn’t work as a springboard to stardom. Light moments are few, but Egan does know the rock world of which he writes, as he’s a respected rock historian who’s written fine books on the Animals and the Creation, among other musical subjects.


9. A Cowboy Like Me, by Thomas Edward Shaw (1992). Thomas Edward Shaw is Eddie Shaw, who played bass in the Monks, the mid-’60s cult group formed by ex-American servicemen in Germany to play furious minimalist pre-punk. Their very interesting story is told very well by Shaw in his memoir Black Monk Time (co-written with Anita Klemke). Far less known is this collection of short stories, which take place not in the Monks days, but in his earlier youth in Carson City, Nevada. Not as dark as Sick of Being Me or even Show Business, these are pithy tales of a bygone time in which personal and social turbulence was bubbling under the surface of placid, conformist American small-town life. They’re not as dark as the Monks’ music either, but in their way they also probe into disquieting parts of mid-twentieth-century culture.


10. This Is Spinal Tap: The Official Companion (2000). It’s stretching things to put a film script on a list like this. But when I realized that I did not own and couldn’t quite fully remember a contender for the bottom of the list that I won’t name (but did read, via a library copy), I thought it better to go with something you can vividly remember and enjoy. This book has the script to what most viewers, spanning several generations and musical tastes, would agree is the funniest rock satire. It also has lyrics to Spinal Tap songs, a Spinal Tap timeline, and (the actual bulk of the book) an A-Z of listings/descriptions of people (real and fictional), songs, albums, and so forth in the Spinal Tap saga.


10. The Beatles in Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night: A Complete Pictorial Record of the Movie, edited by J. Philip Di Franco (1977). Tied for tenth is an even more outrageous cheat. This has the script for A Hard Day’s Night, linked/accompanied by many stills from the movie. Since the Beatles were essentially playing themselves in A Hard Day’s Night, some would argue it isn’t even fictional, let alone a fiction book. But the movie was fiction and not a documentary, as much as it boasted a cinema vérité style, and as much as some scenes were close to those they went through in Beatlemania. The book is more valuable than you might think from this description, as the script includes quite a bit of dialogue and shot instructions that were cut from the final film (and are clearly marked as such). There’s also a lengthy interview with director Richard Lester, and intros by producer Walter Shenson and film critic Andrew Sarris. Although it’s been out of a print for a long time, it sells online for quite reasonable prices, usually between $10-15.


Honorable Mention: Pete Townshend’s short story that is printed on the inner sleeve of the Who’s Quadrophenia is untitled, very short, and not a book or anything close to it. But it conveys the essence of Quadrophenia’s plot and protagonist very well, and fits very well within the spirit of Quadrophenia’s music.


Some Favorite Non-Rock Books on Rock Music Culture of the 1960s and 1970s

Throughout its history, rock music has always been deeply affected by sociocultural changes in the larger world of which it’s part. In my books, classes, and even my blogposts, I’ve concentrated on the music of rock, whether the performers, the records, or rock books and movies. I’m not often asked by rock fans to recommend books that aren’t strictly about rock music. Nonetheless, I’ve asked myself: what are some non-fiction books about the 1960s and 1970s that are not exactly about rock, but have much that relates to rock, or reflected how rock music changed the world?

There are many that could qualify on at least some grounds, even discounting fiction books that had a substantial influence on rock culture, like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Ken Kesey’s work. Here, however, is a rundown of some of my favorites. Music figures strongly to slightly, but I’d recommend all to readers who want a sense of how rock’s effects—or energy similar to that driving changes in rock—rippled throughout our entire culture.

Many of my list-review combo posts rank them in order of quality, or at least my favorites. I find that hard to do with books that are in many ways so different from each other, so I’ve just put them in the order that flows best to me, with no numbers attached.

Season of the Witch, by David Talbot (Free Press, 2012). It’s refreshing when a book is both very popular and very good, like most of the best rock music used to be at its peak. That’s the case with the most recent entry on this list, Season of the Witch, which covers the changes undergone by the city of San Francisco in roughly a decade and a half, between the late 1960s and early 1980s. The Summer of Love and Haight-Ashbury are discussed, of course, but that’s just a part of the text, which moves on to how the ideals of the counterculture (and Establishment efforts to repress it) spread into community activism of all sorts in struggles over development, social justice, and the empowerment of ethnic minorities. The dark side of fringe radical movements is not ignored, with sections on Jim Jones, the assassination of Harvey Milk, and the SLA. It seems a bit strange to hone in on the 49ers’ 1982 Super Bowl victory as a triumphant/redemptive point for the city’s turnaround, but this is an engrossing read that weaves together many strands of San Francisco’s evolution during these crucial years, including its rock music.


The Haight-Ashbury: A History, by Charles Perry (Wenner Books, 1984). This is the best account of the neighborhood more identified with the psychedelic movement and the Summer of Love than any other. Music’s a big part, of course, but this focuses more on the Haight, the drugs, the radical groups who took root there like the Diggers, and the changes (or decline, really) the area went through as the Summer of Love passed. Perry was there as a participant and as a journalist (which included work at Rolling Stone), and this is unlikely to be surpassed as a social history of the Haight in the 1960s.


Rolling Stone Magazine, by Robert Draper (HarperPerennial, 1990). Although this covers the first twenty years or so of the history of the most famous rock music magazine, much of it’s devoted to the publication’s beginnings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s. That puts it on the border of a book that’s as much about music as it is about publishing or other things. But it’s much more about Rolling Stone itself, how it reported on music and the counterculture, and how it changed drastically after it moved to New York in the mid-1970s than it is about rock. A very entertaining read heavy on anecdotes about major musicians and rock journalists, especially Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner. Like many such books, it also, sadly, reflects how ideals that fire a worthy enterprise at its genesis often get diluted and commercialized as time passes, particularly after success arrives.


The Rice Room: Growing Up Chinese-American from Number Two Son to Rock’n’Roll, by Ben Fong-Torres (University of California Press, 2011). The autobiography of longtime music critic and San Francisco media personality Ben Fong-Torres isn’t solely about rock’n’roll. But it has a lot of material about reaching adulthood in the midst of the Summer of Love, and becoming one of Rolling Stone’s first editors shortly after the magazine was founded in San Francisco. There’s also a lot about his family, and how rock and the radio were instrumental in making him take career paths and personal lifestyles that his parents did not expect or, at least initially, always endorse. Originally published in 1995, this recent reprint is slightly updated and expanded.


Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971, by Jonathon Green (Pimlico, 1998). Moving from San Francisco to London, this 450-page oral history is by no means exclusively devoted to ’60s British rock music. But it has a lot of coverage of it nonetheless, and is great for the context of the counterculture in which UK psychedelic rock was born and thrived. About 100 figures are heard from in this absorbing volume, from musicians and producers to figures involved in the era’s British film, design, underground press, visual arts, clubs, literature, promotion, management, political activism, radio, TV, and more.


Give the Anarchist a Cigarette, by Mick Farren (2002, Pimlico). This verges on being a rock memoir as Farren was a cult rock musician as a member of the underground band the Deviants. But he was also a funny and talented writer, and this account of his career on both fronts in the 1960s and 1970s is a triumph of both style and content. It continues the story well past the Deviants (who are discussed quite thoroughly) through his time as a star NME writer in the ‘70s, all the way up to the punk era. Besides his memories of performing music, there’s a lot about the British underground press (in which he was actively involved) and the overall underground UK counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s.


In the Sixties, by Barry Miles (Jonathan Cape, 2002). Another key figure in the British underground was Barry Miles, a personal friend of Paul McCartney and later author of McCartney’s own pseudo-memoir of the time, Many Years From Now. This is his own memoir of the period, during which he edited London’s leading underground paper, International Times, and ran Apple’s short-lived spoken word/experimental label, Zapple. (His time at Zapple is the focus of another book, the 2015 release The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label.) As a book, this is less sharply honed, funny, and penetrating than Farren’s, but it’s still worthwhile.


Your Face Here: British Cult Movies Since the Sixties, by Ali Catterall & Simon Wells (Fourth Estate, 2001). This isn’t so much a general survey of British cult movies since the ‘60s as it is a collection of essays about a dozen particularly notable British cult movies spanning the 1960s to the 1990s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and this has outstanding pieces, totaling 300 pages in all, on films that are worthy of in-depth study: A Hard Day’s Night, Blow-Up, If…, Performance, Get Carter, A Clockwork Orange, The Wicker Man, Quadrophenia, Withnail & I, Naked, Trainspotting, Get Carter, and (in the only questionable inclusion) Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels. Some of these, obviously, had quite direct connections to rock history (A Hard Day’s Night, Quadrophenia, Performance); some others caught the era’s rebellious or taboo-smashing ethos (If…, A Clockwork Orange), or at least used rock on their soundtracks. These aren’t conventional film critiques, but place most of the emphasis on telling the stories of how the films got made, spiced with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories and first-hand interviews with many of the actors, directors, writers, and other principals. What’s more, in many cases the authors identify specifically where famous location scenes in the movies were filmed in Britain, knowing that the kind of people likely to read these sort of books are precisely the kind of cultists that like to visit the actual places in the films if possible. The hard information is balanced by some insightful criticism, as well as some sharp general observations about what makes a cult film “cult,” and why these films struck particularly devoted chords that have enabled them to build staunch followings over the course of years.


Take 10: Contemporary British Film Directors, by Jonathan Hacker and David Price (Oxford University Press, 1991). It’s more scholarly and less breezily accessible (though still highly readable) than Your Face Here, and not as geared toward films with a cult or cult rockish sensibility. But Take 10 is still worth attention for those interested in the cutting edge of British film in the latter part of the twentieth century. There are essays on and interviews with ten filmmakers, some of whose work is also discussed in Your Face Here, such as Nicolas Roeg and Lindsay Anderson. Other directors featured include one who was quite actively involved (in his 1977 film Jubilee) in documenting the UK punk scene, Derek Jarman, as well as other big names like Stephen Frears, Bill Forsyth, Kenneth Loach, and John Schlesinger.


Creative Differences: Profiles of Hollywood Dissidents, by David Talbot & Barbara Zheutlin (South End Press, 1978). Though perhaps not as oriented toward the counterculture as Your Face Here, this has extremely interesting profiles (incorporating first-hand interviews) of directors, actors, and others in the film industry who struggled to make more personal, political, and ideologically meaningful movies than Hollywood wanted or accepted. It extends from the Cold War/McCarthy blacklist era through the 1970s, two of the more famous subjects being Medium Cool director Haskell Wexler and Jane Fonda. It was not until writing up this listing that I realized co-author David Talbot is the same guy who wrote, quite a few years later, Season of the Witch (see first entry).


Woodstock: An Inside Look at the Movie That Shook Up the World and Defined a Generation, edited by Dale Bell (Michael Wiese Productions, 1999). Not as well known as it should be, this is a fascinating inside look at Woodstock, the movie—not Woodstock, the rock festival—from the perspectives of those who worked on and produced the film. Verging on an oral history, it has extensive memories from directors, producers, camera operators, and, yes, musicians who played the festival. Like the festival, the movie was a seat-of-the-pants operation that needed some miracles to get pulled off. Histories of Woodstock usually emphasize the music, but it was the film that did the most to pass it into legend, and here’s the story from the other side of the camera.


Woodstock: The Oral History, by Joel Makower (Tilden Press, 1989). Despite its considerable heft (350 pages), this too does not focus especially on Woodstock’s music. Instead, the concentration is on Woodstock the event, as told from the perspective of the organizers, promoters, medical staff, food vendors, political activists, area residents, and yes, occasionally the musicians. In fact, there’s not much material here from the musicians, which might disappoint some readers. But Woodstock, for both good and bad, wasn’t just a big music festival—it was an epochal happening, recounted here only about two decades after it happened, when memories of what took place were at least somewhat sharper.


Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, by Michael Palin (Thomas Dunne, 2006). Monty Python have been sometimes hailed, rightfully I think, as something of the Beatles of comedy, combining great individual talents into an entity more than the sum of its parts. Their irreverence, first on TV and then with their movies (and some various side/solo projects), was as groundbreaking and taboo-breaking in its way as what was often taking place in rock music. Some of their biggest fans were rock stars, some of whom helped fund Monty Python & the Holy Grail. As one of Monty Python, Michael Palin was right in the middle of it. Remarkably, considering how busy he and his group were, he found time to keep extensive diaries for their first decade. Some of the early ones, unfortunately, were lost, but in any case, they became much more extensive and reflective as the 1970s progressed. The ways in which Monty Python helped change the status quo, and were themselves changed into something bigger and unpredictably influential, in some ways mirrored the same process at work in rock bands like the Beatles. Palin documented it with the same kind of verve and wit he brought to his work in Monty Python, though this is naturally a good deal more serious and less silly than some of the group’s famous sketches.

Palin’s next two volumes of diaries, covering 1980-1988 and 1988-1998, just aren’t as scintillating, much as reading about the Beatles’ solo years isn’t the joy you get from reading about the years in which they worked together. Other worthwhile Python books that are more standard biographies or oral histories include The Pythons Autobiography By the Pythons, a coffee table first-hand oral history that’s kind of their counterpart to the Beatles’ similarly formatted Anthology; David Morgan’s Monty Python Speaks!, another oral history with entirely different contents; and Kim “Howard” Johnson’s more fan-oriented The First 20 Years of Monty Python, which still has much fun behind-the-scenes details of all of the episodes of their TV programs.


The Prisoner, by Alain Carrazé & Héléne Oswald (Virgin, 1989). Just as Britain gave us the two best rock groups of the 1960s in the Beatles and Rolling Stones, so did it give us the two best TV programs of the time, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the much different, far graver The Prisoner. The Prisoner brought up many of the issues rock music and the counterculture were also examining in the 1960s: the questioning of authority, rebellion against conformity, the abuse of power, and the nebulous nature of reality itself. There have been a few books about the series, and my favorite is this sumptuously illustrated coffee table one (translated from the original French) that details and examines each of the seventeen episodes. Also good, if more modest in production values and fannish in approach, is Matthew White and Jaffer Ali’s The Official Prisoner Companion.


Ball Four, by Jim Bouton, edited by Leonard Shecter (Turner, 1970). A sports book, in a post devoted to books that reflected how rock was changing and changed by larger society? True, there’s not much rock music in Ball Four (though there’s some; check out one of my previous posts for the lowdown). Yet Ball Four—still, almost 50 years later, the most famous sports memoir—brought something of the era’s rock rebellion into the wide world of sports, a much more conservative one than the music business, even if many ballplayers were (like most of the era’s rock musicians) in their twenties. Bouton was, like many rock musicians, nonconformist, willing to speak his mind with unpopular opinions, and irreverent toward conventions that wanted employees (i.e. athletes) to keep their mouths shut and not rock the boat. He was also very funny—something that distinguishes Ball Four from other tell-all memoirs as baseball loosened up in the next few decades. Some other memoirs have been hailed as worthy cousins to Ball Four, and I’ve tried some (such as Bill Lee’s), but none seem, to use baseball terminology, even in the same league. Maybe part of that well-written wit is down to sportswriter editor Leonard Shecter, whom Bouton has never shied away from crediting as a collaborator. I have to think, however, that much of it is down to Bouton just being a naturally funny and insightful storyteller who’s not afraid to shoot sacred cows. This has come out in various slightly expanded editions with afterwords going over some of his post-Ball Four life, the latest (and presumably last) one being 2014’s Ball Four: The Final Pitch.


Loose Balls: The Short Life of the American Basketball Association As Told By the Players, Coaches, and Movers and Shakers Who Made It Happen, by Terry Pluto (Fireside, 1990). Along the same lines, we have this less famous oral history of the ABA, which in its way brought a rock’n’roll sensibility to pro basketball and all of major league sports. It jazzed up the game with three-point plays, dunks, flamboyant stars, and flag-colored balls, even as it perennially teetered on the edge of disaster with its fly-by-night organization and finances. Some of the players had excesses on par with rock stars too, especially Marvin Barnes. My favorite story, related by Bob Costas in the book, is when Costas asked him for an interview, which Barnes said he would grant if he’d drive him to visit some friends. When Barnes didn’t come out of his hotel room, Costas called, only for Marvin to tell him, “Listen, Bro, why don’t you go see those dudes without me?” To which Costas pointed out, “Marvin, I don’t want to go see those guys, whoever they are. I don’t even know those guys.” To which Marvin responded, “Oh…yeah.”


Growing Up Underground, by Jane Alpert (Citadel Underground, 1990). Alpert spent four years in hiding for her role in New York bombings by radical groups. I’ve found most of the memoirs I’ve read by radical ‘60s/‘70s activists to be self-righteous justifications of their behavior, often for some mistakes they made that hurt others. Alpert’s autobiography is an exception, as a more balanced and thoughtful portrait of why she and others felt it so urgent to take drastic steps for social change, acknowledging in hindsight the missteps, dogma, and naive ignorance that often hindered their progress. There’s not much about music, but an interesting passage notes how she played Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline—not one of his biggest hits among critics even at the time of its 1969 release, though it was pretty popular with the public—over and over again. Perhaps she found in it a mirror of her own hoped-for-journey to the end of the rainbow after the revolution had eradicated global injustice. As she observed, “In the beginning of his career he [Dylan] had struggled so hard to be himself that his voice had always been strained, his lyrics contorted and difficult…. Now, at 28, he was a survivor, had fallen in love again, had discovered that life could be startlingly, lyrically easy.”

Another memoir that I’d give more a more qualified recommendation to is Cathy Wilkerson’s Flying Too Close to the Sun: My Life and Times As a Weatherman, which also is willing to examine the flaws of the movement along with its strengths, and integrate some interesting personal autobiographical detail with the more political material.


And an honorable mention to:

There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of the ’60s, by Peter Doggett (Canongate, 2007). This does cross the boundary of being more about music than society or another subject. But it’s a large (nearly 600-page), extensively researched, and acutely perceptive examination of the relation between rock and revolutionary politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, equally emphasizing the music and the social activism. Doggett’s more recent Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone: 125 Years of Pop Music is more about music than society, but also often draws on cultural context to examine the many stylistic and technological changes that popular music has undergone since it was first reproduced and sold.


Rock at Home: The Non-Generation Gap

On this Mother’s Day, and with Father’s Day coming up next month, it’s now been more than five years since both of my parents passed away. As more time passes, I think about ways in which I’m similar to and different than my mother and father. As much of my professional life has been devoted to writing about music, I naturally think about our similarities and differences in that area.

More so than most of my family, the life I’ve led has been different than that of my parents, who were much more conservative in lifestyle, though politically fairly liberal. This extended to my musical and artistic tastes. Born in the mid-1920s, they were of a generation way past their teens when rock exploded in the mid-1950s. Even before that, my impression is that they were not big fans of the pop music of their youth, which was dominated by big bands and crooners. Their record collection, probably running somewhere between one and two hundred albums, was dominated by show tunes and classical music, genres for which I’ve never had enthusiasm.

A representative LP from my parents' collection.

A representative LP from my parents’ collection.

On the other side, they had no interest in rock music, the form that dominated the popular entertainment of their children’s generation. To their credit, however—unlike many such parents—they made no effort to stop me from listening to it. From the age of five, I had a radio (AM only until 1972) in my room that I could listen to pretty much whenever I wanted. As a consequence, I’m familiar with almost all of the big AM radio hits from the end of 1967 through the 1970s from first-hand experience, not just from oldies radio or records. The first one that stuck in my mind was the Beatles’ “Hello Goodbye,” which makes sense as the radio arrived in my room around the 1967 holiday season, only a month or so before I turned six. I knew the song very well before I even knew it was by the Beatles.

More remarkably, I was allowed to stay up until 9:30 as a first-grader, and increasingly later with passing years. In part that’s because until I was eleven, I shared a room with a brother four years older. But when my first-grade teacher went around the class asking what students’ bedtimes were, that still sparked a puzzled, perhaps even worried expression on her face, given that virtually everyone else had a bedtime 60-90 minutes earlier. Many adults in the late 1960s (and even now) would view this as excessively permissive. In hindsight, my guess is that by the time I—the last of four sons in nine years—arrived, my parents were too busy supporting and raising the family to even think much about setting and enforcing bedtimes.

Around the time I entered high school, with my own record collection and interest in music of the past rapidly expanding, I became more curious about whether there’d be anything of interest in my parents’ collection. By this point they rarely played records, though they had more space to do so now that I was the only child left at home. But time was not bringing our interests closer together. There were exactly two LPs that piqued even mild curiosity on my part.

One was this #1 album by Harry Belafonte from 1956:


It’s a testament to how huge that record was that my parents, who did not seem to be even slightly aware of pop trends, had this in the household. It was #1 for 31 straight weeks. My point of entry into the album, such as it was, was its opening track, the #5 hit “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” It was, every so slightly, influenced by—or at least an influence on—early rock’n’roll. It was a few years before I learned that Bob Dylan made his first appearance on a record as a guest harmonica player on a Belafonte LP (the title track of the 1962 album Midnight Special). It wasn’t until quite a few years after that that I grasped the full impact of Belafonte upon the pop and folk scene, even if his contribution to the folk revival was on its poppiest side.

The other was the first album by an act that was at the very center of the folk revival:


There were some other albums by Peter, Paul & Mary in their collection, but this (with the hit “If I Had a Hammer,” though not with their biggest early-‘60s hit, “Blowin’ in the Wind”) was the strongest. To my recollection, there were no other records by folk revival artists among their LPs. As with Belafonte, this is a testament to just how huge Peter, Paul & Mary were—they sold albums to people who weren’t even folk or pop fans. I don’t have the empirical evidence to back this up, but judging from how popular and well known they also were among my parents’ friends, my guess is that Peter, Paul & Mary probably sold more per capita among suburban middle-class Jews than any other artist.

Although they rarely discussed popular music with me, my guess is that my mother was by far the more driving force behind listening to any sort of roots-tinged pop than my father. She still had some records—from back when “albums” were actual 78s grouped in photo album-like packaging—by Paul Robeson, though these were too fragile and harmful to styluses on modern equipment to play often, or at all.

In contrast, in one of his few memories of listening to music as a boy, my father admitted that when his friends raved about big band stars like Tommy Dorsey, he’d say something like, “yeah, that’s alright,” but more to be part of the gang than out of passion for the sounds. The only record I recall him singing along with was “What Kind of Fool Am I,” from the Broadway soundtrack LP to Stop The World—I Want to Get Off. (My response to that, had I known about the record at the time, would have been to play the Electric Prunes’ garage-psychedelic classic “Get Me to the World on Time.”) Response to rhythm and soul seemed deeper on my mom’s part, and maybe that was passed on to me, or at least more from her than my dad.


What about my parents’ reaction to my collection, or what I played on the radio? There was virtually none. Again, with hindsight they were likely just too busy working and family-raising to think much about it. The only time my father came into my room to turn the radio down was when, circa early 1973, it was playing Timmy Thomas’s huge hit “Why Can’t We Live Together.” That might not seem like the loudest or rowdiest tune from the time to get upset over, but my radio was directly on the other side of the wall from my parents’ bedroom, and the high organ squeaks were driving him up the wall.


The only time he had a specific comment about a record I was playing was equally unpredictable. On a visit home from college when I was about nineteen, I had Nico’s Chelsea Girl on the turntable. It might have been playing the song “Chelsea Girls.” In comparison to much of the rest of my collection, Chelsea Girl is for the most part a very low-volume, folky LP—and not one that many other people my age in 1981 would have had (not that he would have known that). But Nico’s voice strikes many as pretty peculiar, which is why he walked into my room and asked, “What is he [sic] singing about?”

I was not about to explain that it was about residents in New York’s Chelsea Hotel, where junkies and other hangers-on in the Andy Warhol scene engaged in bouts of depravity. I did point out, however, that low-voiced Nico wasn’t a he, but a she. Puzzled, even uncomprehending, he just shook his head and walked out of the room.


An awkward night of music-watching was spent with both my parents on March 22, 1978. That evening, Eric Idle’s brilliant Beatles satire The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash was broadcast on NBC. This was before the days when home videotaping was common, and that night I had to be traveling with my parents. I insisted that we watch it in our hotel room. Which we did, and neither my mother nor my father—neither of whom were Monty Python or Beatles fans, more out of lack of interest or comprehension than distaste—laughed once. Very few of the inside jokes for which you needed some knowledge of the Beatles’ story to appreciate—and there were many—would have been caught by either of them. My father did redeem himself the next day, when he unexpectedly brought up the scene in which the Beatles play Che (instead of Shea) Stadium, named after Che Guevara. That was pretty funny and clever, he observed.


The lone instance in which my mother commented at any length on a record I was playing was equally unanticipated. This was during a brief stay after I graduated from college and before I moved to California. More than thirty years later, it’s hard to envision a time when Muddy Waters’s catalog wasn’t extensive or all that easily available, which is why my Muddy album was a 14-song budget compilation issued in 1982, Rolling Stone. It was a good one, though, with some of his core classics like “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” “Tiger in Your Tank,” “Got My Mojo Working” (the Newport 1960 version rather than the original single), and “Rollin’ Stone” (an “unreleased alternate take”).

When I went downstairs, she asked what I’d just played, and I told her, though I don’t think the name Muddy Waters would have meant anything to her. “That’s my favorite kind of music,” she said, unexpectedly. Music with kind of a Dixieland, New Orleans feel, she elaborated. Yes, I knew full well by then, and had for almost ten years, that Waters was a giant of Chicago electric blues, and had moved to the Windy City from Mississippi. But there was no lecture from me about his history. She was close enough. And with its stop-start rhythms and rolling piano, “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” to take one song from that compilation, isn’t all that far from New Orleans R&B, or even from the earthiest Dixieland.


When it got to the point where I was writing about music for much of my living, and then writing books (not always about music), my parents remained fairly puzzled and uncomprehending about the actual music, but supportive of my efforts. As a final music-related incident worth recounting, when I was about eleven, I’d ask for Beatles LPs for gifts (and did manage to get all of their significant US ones by the end of sixth grade). Around this time my mother remarked to one of her friends, with me present, that it was just a phase I was going through. It wasn’t a phase, however, for me or other rock fans, some quite a bit older than me. She didn’t live to see me teach a Beatles class at the University of San Francisco in front of 200 students aged fifty and older (sometimes quite a bit older), but that would have been quite a full circle to close.

My mother might not have been a rock fan. But she, much more than my father, was a reader of books, with a strong interest in art, which she sometimes taught in schools. On this Mother’s Day, I’d like to think that she passed at least some of that sensibility on to me, even if I’d use it in ways that she could never have predicted.

The Rest of the 5th Beatles

My vote for the Fifth Beatle, if there was such a thing, goes to George Martin, as I wrote about in this previous post. The others in my top ten, based primarily on their contributions to the Beatles’ music, are in another previous post. Here we go through, with briefer comments, fifteen others who made significant contributions.

As I noted in my earlier top ten list, I’m ranking people according to what they added to the Beatles’ legacy, which in my view rests primarily with their music. I’ve made more room on this list for non-musical figures in the Beatles organization, though it still favors musical contributors.

11. Eric Clapton. Who to put at the top of the non-Top Ten, when there are so many contenders for the also-rans of this list? As so many can make cases, why not pick someone who, at least, has a very famous and identifiable musical contribution? That’s Eric Clapton, who played lead guitar on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” If you want a good question for your next trivia contest, ask contestants to name all four of the famous rock musicians to play on Beatles recordings. The most likely first answer will be Eric Clapton; many will also guess Billy Preston. The other two are harder (and are farther down this list): Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones (who plays saxophone near the end of the B-side “You Know My Name”) and ace British session keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, who plays electric piano on the single version of “Revolution.”


Clapton’s contribution to the Beatles’ repertoire wasn’t entirely a one-shot deal, although the other instance was more subtle. It was in his garden that George Harrison, skipping business meetings at Apple on one of the first warm spring days of 1969, wrote “Here Comes the Sun.” Also in the late 1960s, they wrote Cream’s “Badge” together, with George adding some guitar to that recording. When George briefly quit the Beatles in January 1969, John Lennon—apparently at least half-seriously—suggested replacing him with Clapton, though this was likely more heat-of-the-moment anger than something he was intent on enacting. Eric and George would be close friends (and occasional collaborators) for much of the rest of their lives, and George’s first wife Pattie would later marry Eric, though that’s beyond the scope of the story of the Beatles as a group.

12. Glyn Johns. If things had gone more according to their initial plan with the January 1969 recordings the Beatles made with the intention of doing an album, Glyn Johns might rate a higher position on this list. Already the top rock engineer in the UK for his work with the Rolling Stones, the Who, and others, Johns was making the transition from engineer to at-least-sometimes-producer. That’s what he was doing on at least some of the sessions for the album that was at that time titled Get Back, which generated much of the material for the LP eventually called Let It Be.

Whether exactly Johns was an engineer or producer at these sessions—at which, the impression is, the Beatles were to at least some extent producing themselves—was unclear even at the time. But he did take a lot of the responsibility for recording the Beatles in a tense month which produced some brilliant, if overall uneven, work. Johns was also the guy first given the task of trying to make an album out of the sessions, which he was doing with acetates even before the sessions had finished.

One of the bootlegs of an acetate Glyn Johns prepared from the Beatles' January 1969 sessions.

One of the bootlegs of an acetate Glyn Johns prepared from the Beatles’ January 1969 sessions.

Had the Beatles gone with one of his mockup acetates (some of which have been bootlegged) of what an album could sound like—which remained faithful to their original intention to record an entirely live LP—it would have sounded better than the actual Let It Be record. Unable to decide on whether it should come out or in what form it should come out, it got delayed in favor of Abbey Road. When Let It Be came out, Phil Spector, co-credited with George Martin and Glyn Johns with production, had added strings to some songs and done some remixing, altering the more back-to-basics goal of the original project.

13. Chris Thomas. Cited in passing on the previous top ten post, Thomas’s contributions to The White Album were greater than was acknowledged at the time, and have been acknowledged since. When George Martin took a vacation in the midst of these tense sessions, his assistant Thomas, just 21 at the time, was asked to in effect act as the unofficial producer of the sessions while Martin was gone. It was (rather like primary late-‘60s Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick) to a large degree a matter of being in the right place at the right time, but the Beatles wouldn’t have stood for an incompetent, and Thomas proved his worth by sticking out the sessions.

Of perhaps greater importance, Thomas also played keyboards on a few songs, though there isn’t absolute agreement which ones feature him. It seems pretty certain, however, that he plays harpsichord on “Piggies” and mellotron on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”; Thomas has said that he also plays piano on “Long, Long, Long,” electric piano on “Savoy Truffle,” and keyboards on “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” though some sources express uncertainty as to whether his contributions are in the final mixes.

Chris Thomas played mellotron on this White Album track.

Chris Thomas played mellotron on this White Album track.

Thomas’s active role in Beatles production might have been brief, but he went on to long and notable career as a producer. Among the records he’s produced are albums by Procol Harum, John Cale, Badfinger, Roxy Music, the Pretenders, and the Sex Pistols.

14. Neil Aspinall. Now we get to non-musicians that many other writers would put much higher on their lists. I understand how others would take a different view, but mine is that road managers and personal assistants, such as Neil Aspinall and (see below) Mal Evans, did jobs that could have been done by many others. They did them well; quickly earned and kept the band’s trust; and spent more physical time around them than anyone else, probably even more than Brian Epstein and George Martin. But although they took some occasional token minor roles on Beatles recordings when an extra instrument needed to be played that didn’t demand experience or skill, they were not significant contributors to the Beatles’ music.

Neil Aspinall stood in for an ill George Harrison at a rehearsal for the Beatles' first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Neil Aspinall (center) stood in for an ill George Harrison at a rehearsal for the Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

Of the two road managers, I would say Aspinall was the more important one as their first, going back to the early 1960s. He also (unlike Evans, who died in 1976) took an active role in the Apple organization for many years, where his background in accountancy came in useful, calling on skills more involved than road managing. It’s been speculated, with hindsight, that Aspinall might have made a better choice for managing the Beatles—or at least acting as their business manager—in the late 1960s than Allen Klein, as he had good, even-handed personal relations with all four members. It was felt he didn’t have the necessary high-level experience, though again in hindsight, he hardly could have done a worse job than the tougher and far more experienced Klein, who did his share to ensure the Beatles broke up. It’s a measure of the respect the Beatles felt for him, however, that he’s one of only three non-Beatles (the others being George Martin and publicist Derek Taylor) interviewed in their Anthology documentary.

15. Mal Evans. More so than Neil Aspinall (who became the Beatles’ road manager in the early 1960s because he was a good friend of Pete Best), Mal Evans lucked into his spot with the Beatles through serving as a bouncer at the Cavern. Big, brawny, and extremely likable, Evans served the group dependably through their touring years, and then for several more as an assistant at Apple. That’s him working the anvil when the Beatles run through “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” in the Let It Be film, and like Aspinall, he can also be heard making minor non-skilled contributions to other Beatles recordings.

Mal Evans had a cameo role as the lost swimmer in Help!

Mal Evans had a cameo role as the lost swimmer in Help!

Evans did not have the aptitude Aspinall had for organizational work off the road, and didn’t fare as well when the Beatles broke up. He deserves some credit for bringing Badfinger to Apple’s attention and producing some of their early tracks, though “producing” probably meant more keeping an eye on the proceedings than making active musical contributions. He probably would have had a lot to say about the Beatles in the memoir he was working on in the mid-1970s, but he was shot to death by police in Los Angeles in a January 1976 incident that remains controversial.

Although Aspinall seems to have contributed much more heavily to the running of Apple, it’s interesting that in his Rolling Stone interviews with Jann Wenner shortly after the Beatles split up, John Lennon says bitterly, “You see a lot of people, all the Dick Jameses, Derek Taylors, and Peter Browns, all of them, they think they’re the Beatles, and Neil and all of them. Well, I say fuck ‘em, you know; and after working with genius for 10, 15 years they begin to think they’re it, you know. They’re not.” A few questions later, he takes pains to exclude Mal from that list, indicating he held Evans in greater esteem and affection. Nothing else I’ve read, it must be said, intimates that Neil Aspinall took undue credit for the Beatles’ success or basked inappropriately in their glory.

16. Phil Spector. A controversial listing, to be sure. Did Phil Spector contribute to the Beatles, or did he detract from them? Paul McCartney would certainly say Spector’s involvement as co-producer of Let It Be—really a post-producer, as he did some remixing and overdubs on the tracks in early 1970, with only Ringo Starr contributing (and then only slightly)—was a negative. In particular, Spector’s overdubs of strings and female voices on “The Long and Winding Road” is often cited as the final straw in McCartney’s decision to leave the Beatles in April 1970. McCartney even went to the extent of helping generate what was essentially a de-Spectorized version of Let It Be, titled Let It Be…Naked, in 2003.

A record that helped break up the Beatles.

A record that helped break up the Beatles.

Spector’s role as Let It Be producer wasn’t as extensive as is sometimes intimated. His overdubs on “The Long and Winding Road” were heavy-handed to the point of being in your face, but he only added strings to a couple other songs, “I Me Mine” and “Across the Universe.” Elsewhere his remixing, I feel, usually neither significantly improved nor diminished the record (though I feel the 45 single mix of “Let It Be,” in which Spector wasn’t involved, was considerably superior). If he wasn’t there, it’s possible the Let It Be LP might not have even come out, as John Lennon and George Harrison in particular felt Spector’s involvement was necessary to salvage an album out of the material.

As noted in previous posts, contributions to the Beatles solo careers don’t count in those listings. But it’s worth noting that Spector made significant and impressive contributions to the early solo records of George Harrison and John Lennon as producer, in a much more sympathetic style than he applied to “The Long and Winding Road.”

17. Jimmy Nicol. Where do you draw the line with temporary Beatles? Do you include all of the many Quarrymen who dropped out before John, Paul, and George formed the nucleus of the Beatles? How about Chas Newby, who filled in on bass for a few shows when the Beatles returned from their first Hamburg visit without Stuart Sutcliffe? Or Roy Young, who sometimes played keyboards with them onstage in Hamburg? I say you don’t.

But Jimmy Nicol, though never an official Beatle, did play drums onstage with the Beatles at the peak of Beatlemania. He filled in for Ringo, who was ill with tonsillitis, for the first ten days of their mid-1964 world tour. Some recordings (and a bit of film footage) from shows with Nicol survive, and though it’s not too fair to judge a guy who had to join a band at a moment’s notice, he’s not as good as Ringo. Or at least, it can certainly be stated that his style didn’t fit in as well with the Beatles as Ringo’s did. He’s too busy and overplays. He seems to be settling down by the time of the final unofficial live recording of the Nicol lineup (from June 12 in Adelaide, Australia). But the band were immensely relieved when Ringo rejoined a few days later, both to have Starr’s musical assets and to have their buddy back instead of a stranger.

Although this is the only thing Nicol’s remembered for, he did have a long performing and recording career, going back almost to the dawn of British rock’n’roll, and extending a few years past the Beatles. You might not think it possible to make a book out of his life, but of course there is one. The obscure The Beatle Who Vanished has his story, even if it has to be stretched quite a bit to fill up 238 pages.


18. The Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Another selection bound to attract criticism. Just as it’s certain McCartney views Spector as more of a negative than a positive, it’s likely that Lennon would view the Maharishi in a similar light.

But if the Beatles hadn’t met and then traveled to India to study with the Maharishi, The White Album would have certainly been different. It’s not just because experiences in India specifically inspired the creation of a few of the songs—not just “Sexy Sadie,” a thinly veiled attack on the Maharishi, but also “Dear Prudence,” about fellow meditator Prudence Farrow, and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” an American hunter they met in India.

Mad magazine satire of the Beatles-Maharishi fling.

Mad magazine satire of the Beatles-Maharishi fling.

More subtly, and less famously, the visit to India—although it ended badly, with none of the Beatles staying for the duration of their intended course with the Maharishi—gave them an environment conducive for writing plenty of songs. First because, for the first time in about five years, they were isolated from the day-to-day hysteria of a public and press clamoring for their attention. Second because, as they were often meditating, that—at least it’s been credibly theorized—gave rise to the surfacing of many subconscious creative ideas that found their way into their songs. And third, since they had only acoustic instruments with them, they could give some of the songs an interesting folky flavor. Which leads into the next listing…

19. Donovan. Briefly considered a creative and commercial peer of the Beatles in the late 1960s, Donovan was friendly with them, especially Paul McCartney. He contributed the “sky of blue and sea of green” lyric to “Yellow Submarine.” That alone wouldn’t be enough to get him on this list, but he was also with the Beatles when they studied transcendental meditation with the Maharishi in India. It’s been speculated that he was there in part because he was chasing George Harrison’s sister-in-law Jenny Boyd (the subject of Donovan’s hit “Jennifer Juniper,” later to marry Mick Fleetwood). But that’s as good a reason as any to suspend your career for a couple months to fly halfway around the world.

“While the Beatles and I were in India they wrote the White Album songs,” Donovan told me in an interview for the book Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk-Rock in the 1960s. “It was obvious The White Album would have a distinctive acoustic and lyrical vibe. Paul, John, George, and I all had our acoustic guitars with us. George would later say that my music greatly influenced The White Album. I played all my styles, and the Beatles were exposed to weeks of Donovan. John was influenced to write romantic fantasy lyrics on the two songs he wrote, ‘Julia’ and ‘Dear Prudence,’ after my teaching him my finger-style guitar method. He was a fast learner.”

In late 1968, an unreleased tape captures Donovan and Paul McCartney informally playing and singing a few tunes together acoustically at a Mary Hopkin session. More pleasant than remarkable, it’s sort of an adult version of the ditties Donovan put on his 1967 children’s record, For Little Ones. As a final Beatles connection worth noting, while in India, George Harrison wrote a verse for Donovan’s hit song “Hurdy Gurdy Man” that was not used in the studio recording; Donovan in turn helped George write “Dehradun,” an unreleased version of which Harrison recorded in 1970.

Bootleg that includes the informal session between Paul McCartney and Donovan (more commonly dated to 1968, though this gives it a 1969 date).

Bootleg that includes the informal session between Paul McCartney and Donovan (more commonly dated to 1968, though this gives it a 1969 date).

20. Andy White. The only guy besides Ringo and (when Ringo quit the band for a few days during The White Album) Paul to play drums on a Beatles record, Andy White was the session musician that George Martin used when the group cut their first single, “Love Me Do”/“P.S. I Love You.” As it happened a take with Ringo was used on the single (though he’s playing tambourine, and White drums, on the LP version), but Starr was relegated to maracas for “P.S. I Love You.” When the group recorded an early version of “Please Please Me” on September 11, 1962 (the session where they finished up their first single), White was also on drums, as can be heard on the version released on Anthology 1.

Andy White played drums on the B-side of this single.

Andy White played drums on the B-side of this single.

These are pretty meager contributions on which to claim the role of notable associate. But White could nonetheless say he played on a Beatles record—and on one of the band’s core instruments, not as a session musician on something the Beatles never or seldom played themselves. For what it’s worth, though, the drum parts he plays on “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” aren’t that prominent or interesting. And when he takes more of a presence on “Please Please Me,” his drumming is not very good—a la Jimmy Nicol later, it’s inappropriately busy. Kudos to George Martin for letting Ringo play forever after, even he didn’t have the conventional studio chops of session veterans like Andy White, as his style was a far better fit for the band.

21. Klaus Voormann. Had Klaus Voormann learned the bass a little earlier, he would have made a reasonable replacement for Stuart Sutcliffe in mid-1961. Though a bit older than the Beatles, he would have fit in okay visually and personally, despite not speaking English well at the time. Of course, had he not stumbled upon the Beatles in Hamburg’s red-light district, he wouldn’t have become interested in rock music at all, let alone pick up the bass.

By the time Voormann became proficient, the Beatles were well on their way to fame as a foursome. But Klaus kept in touch with them, moved to England, and joined other rock groups, working his way up to one of the bigger British bands, Manfred Mann. Of most note, he designed their Revolver sleeve, putting his art school background to appropriate use.

Klaus Voormann (center) during his stint as Manfred Mann bassist in the late 1960s.

Klaus Voormann (center) during his stint as Manfred Mann bassist in the late 1960s.

“You can imagine how I felt after having heard some of the songs that were going to be released by the Beatles soon,” Voormann told me in a 2007 interview about the Revolver sleeve. “A new trend was going to be set, and there was little me having to come up with something just as daring, or at least give the record buyer a lead to what they were getting themselves in for. Brian Epstein was scared the fans might turn their back on the band and say, ‘What happened to our Beatles? I want them the way they were before.’ But when Brian saw the Revolver cover he said, ‘Klaus, your cover manages to build the bridge from the music to the fans.’”

That—along with introducing the Beatles to photographer and friend Astrid Kirchherr in Hamburg—is enough to get Voormann onto this list. Voormann would also play bass on solo recordings by John Lennon (the first of those being the Live Peace in Toronto album, done in September 1969 when Lennon was still in the Beatles), George Harrison, and Ringo Starr. He’s on “I’m the Greatest,” the John Lennon-penned Ringo Starr track also featuring Lennon, Harrison, and Billy Preston. He was also the bassist in the nonexistent group most of the Beatles were rumored to be forming in the early 1970s, the Ladders, who would have also included Lennon, Harrison, and Starr. Which would have made him the Fourth Beatle of sorts, but the Ladders never actually formed.

It’s pretty well known that Voormann designed the Revolver cover, but it’s not so well known that Klaus also designed the covers for sheet music of Revolver songs. Here are a few of them:





22. Astrid Kirchherr. The only woman besides Yoko Ono to make this list, Kirchherr was vital to the creation of the Beatles’ image in the early 1960s. First she did so by taking the first truly first-class and striking pictures of the group in Hamburg. She has also been credited with devising, or at least getting Stuart Sutcliffe to adopt, the Beatles hairstyle. The other Beatles followed (Pete Best excepted), giving them their top early visual trademark. Aside from getting engaged to Sutcliffe (though they didn’t marry as Stuart died in April 1962), she was also simply a valued friend to the Beatles as they played in a foreign land to strangers in their Hamburg days. Like her ex-boyfriend Klaus Voormann, she had an artistic and bohemian sensibility with which they felt much more at ease than they did with the usual patrons of the Hamburg clubs they played.


It is strange and unfortunate that Kirchherr—discouraged by the lack of interest in her pictures that didn’t feature the Beatles—failed to pursue photography more seriously after the Beatles rose to fame. One certainly thinks she could have photographed an album cover or two for them. Robert Freeman’s photo for With the Beatles, whether intentionally or not, features half-lit faces similar to some of Kirchherr’s shots of the group. But other photographers would take the bulk of the Beatles’ pictures from 1963 onward, including Freeman, Robert Whitaker, Dezo Hoffman, Michael Cooper (for the Sgt. Pepper album), Ethan Russell (near the end of their career), and others.

23. Derek Taylor. Here you get to the point where fifth Beatles get less directly involved or less exciting to detail. Yes, Derek Taylor did a lot of work for them as a publicist near the outset of Beatlemania, and then as a press officer for Apple in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As PR guys went, he was probably the most interesting and colorful, if given to over-florid prose in his press releases. But did you really have to work too hard to publicize such a commercial commodity as the Beatles? Would their career have been too different if he hadn’t been there?

I’d say no, though he was good for some stories in Beatles histories, having known them better than most people in their inner circle. Which is probably why, as previously stated, he was one of the three non-Beatles interviewed for the Anthology documentary. It’s a shame, however, that his limited-edition 1983 memoir, Fifty Years Adrift, has never been issued in an affordable edition for the general public.

How much would you pay for this book? For the astonishing answer, read on...

24. Nicky Hopkins. Now that we’re past the point in this list at which there were really major contributors to the Beatles’ legacy, how to round this out to a list of 25? How about by listing a couple guys who, though their interaction with the group was fleeting, you can actually hear on their records? Or at least one record, which is the case with Nicky Hopkins? He played on lots of discs by other British ‘60s artists, almost to the point where he could be considered a fifth member of the Who for their debut album My Generation. And he plays electric piano on the Beatles’ “Revolution”—the “fast” single version, not the one on The White Album.

When Paul McCartney and John Lennon sang uncredited background vocals for the Rolling Stones’ “We Love You” at a June 1967 session on which Hopkins played piano, Nicky later recalled, that led to the invitation to play on “Revolution.” According to a Hopkins quote in Julian Dawson’s Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life of Rock’s Greatest Session Man, “There weren’t really any instructions, except where they wanted the piano to start and I basically just played some blues stuff and we did it in one take. I’d have preferred to do it again, but they were fine with that. I remember I was surprised at the amount of distortion; it was John’s rough side coming out and it sounded wonderful. I quickly got tuned into hearing it that way and it still holds up great—a wonderful record!”


As to why he wasn’t asked to play on other Beatles sessions, according to another Hopkins quote in the same book, Lennon told Nicky, “We just thought you were too busy, with the Rolling Stones and all.” As some compensation, Hopkins played on solo releases by all four Beatles, his most memorable contribution perhaps being to George Harrison’s 1973 #1 single “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth).”

When the Beatles did promo films for “Revolution” in late 1968, they did live vocals, but used the backing track from the record. If anyone tries to tell you it’s not, ask them why you can hear an electric piano—the part played by Hopkins—even though a piano isn’t on the stage.

25. Brian Jones. Brian Jones was known more as a guitarist in the Rolling Stones (whom he left in June 1969, dying less than a month later) than anything else. But he played many instruments, and before he’d gotten into the blues and rock, he’d played jazz. It was still strange that, when he was invited to lend a hand to a Beatles session, he showed up with an alto saxophone, rather than a guitar or something else more in line with what he usually played, like a harmonica.

Brian Jones

Characteristically, instead of getting unsettled, the Beatles were unfazed and made use of what he’d brought to the party. Jones’s rather tremulous sax is heard in the final part of their goofy B-side “You Know My Name,” adding appropriately woozy jazz to the lounge music satire. If you’re wondering how he could have guested on a track used on a 1970 single, remember that the first sessions for “You Know My Name” were done in 1967, Jones playing sax on the one on June 8.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that's come to light since the original edition.
Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that’s come to light since the original edition. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.


The Top Ten Fifth Beatles

In my last blogpost, I made a case—and the subject made it very easy—for George Martin as “The 5th Beatle,” if anyone deserves that title. Many other figures have, seriously and facetiously, been cited as “The 5th Beatle,” or “5th Beatles” of sort. As I wrote in my post about George Martin, I think that only two people are really serious contenders for that title, those being Martin and Brian Epstein. How do the others rank, if you’re going for a list that the Beatles themselves would probably never make, or scoff at?

Here are my rankings, with some explanatory comments. Note that I’m ranking them according to what they added to the Beatles’ legacy, which in my view rests primarily with their music. Other pundits might rank them more according to how well they knew the Beatles, how closely they interacted with them, and how they affected their commercial success and business. That’s a valid approach, but I think the musical contributions of their associates are the most significant and lasting ones.

1. George Martin (see lengthy comments in my previous post)

2. Brian Epstein. After stating that I’m listing fifth Beatles according to their musical contributions, it might seem strange to put a non-musician who did not play in active role in their records as #2. But Epstein, much more than anyone else, created the environment in which the Beatles’ music could thrive. First, he believed in them and pushed them toward a record contract when no one else with his resources was interested in doing so. He did so with diligence and skill. He refined their image to maximize their popularity with and impact upon the public, without interfering with their music. He thought in big terms that made that impact international, not just limited to the British pop scene. He was also, unlike many managers then and now, devoted to them personally as well as professionally, and considered—maybe not immediately, but certainly eventually—a friend by the band, not just an associate. As John Lennon famously said when interviewed by news cameras just after Epstein’s death in August 1967, “He was one of us.”

Brian Epstein's autobiography, ghost-written by Derek Taylor

Brian Epstein’s autobiography, ghost-written by Beatles publicist Derek Taylor

Just as George Martin was the best imaginable producer for the Beatles, so was Epstein the best imaginable Beatles manager. That doesn’t mean his record as manager was as impeccable as Martin’s performance as producer. As often detailed after his death—the 1972 book Apple to the Core was the first source to do so to a significant degree—he made some poor and at times disastrous business decisions that cost the Beatles millions of dollars in the short run, and perhaps many millions more in the long run.

But he made some good ones, too, if more cannily in terms of getting them publicity and exposure than in dollars and pounds. Had he not been in Liverpool in the early 1960s, it’s scary to think of the consequences. The Beatles might well have never gotten a record deal or become known outside of Hamburg or Liverpool. Had they used another manager, he or she might have exploited them, or lacked the dedication and competence to make them successful and put them in a position where they could maximize their innovations.

Marianne Faithfull had a funny and appropriate line about this in the BBC documentary The Brian Epstein Story (still unavailable on DVD, though it should be): “He may not have been the greatest businessman in the world. He may well have made a lot of mistakes…not that I care. I couldn’t care less about things like licensing T-shirt deals. It just isn’t interesting. And I don’t think it’s so bad to not be good at that sort of thing.” Not to minimize the financial impact on the Beatles, but the point is, it’s not the merchandising of the Beatles and the money it made that interests us about them all these years later. It’s the music, and Epstein, more than anyone else, helped bring that music to the world.

It’s sometimes speculated that Brian Epstein didn’t care much about rock music, and that he managed the Beatles for the money and glamour it brought him. It’s true he didn’t know too much about rock music before taking on the Beatles (though he might have known more than he let on, as he ran the most successful record store in Northern England). Compared to someone like Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, his personal image and musical tastes might have seemed pretty conservative. But if he didn’t know much about the Beatles’ music at the beginning, I believe he did quickly grasp and comprehend their essential appeal, with a greater insight than most managers of the time would have possessed. Take this quote, for instance, from the 1966 television special The Beatles at Shea Stadium (another historically important documentary that should be made available on DVD):

“I’m very much a Beatle fan,” he proudly confesses. “In fact, I’ve always realized this, that I’ve always been, right since I’ve known them. I’ve felt, probably, everything that any Beatles fan”—here he chuckles, perhaps realizing that he’s getting a little too revealing about his homosexuality, which was very much a secret to the public at the time—“male Beatles fan has ever felt. All the various things I’ve liked, I think, is what the fans have liked…the marvelous quality [of] the Beatles both in their music and in their general manner is that they in fact do original things, and new things, as they go along. Their songs are always new and different, and so are their performances, in sort of different, small, subtle ways.” Although these observations are uniformly accepted today, back then few adults could see that the group’s unparalleled thirst for change and artistic evolution was a key to their astronomical popularity and influence. While Epstein has sometimes been criticized for failing to appreciate the full dimension of the Beatles’ aesthetic sensibilities, this comment seems proof enough that such accusations hold no merit.

A book based on the BBC documentary The Brian Epstein Story.

A book based on the BBC documentary The Brian Epstein Story.

Just as George Martin did not produce other artists nearly as great as the Beatles, Brian Epstein did not manage other artists nearly as great as the Beatles, though some were very successful. It was probably a consequence of his early-‘60s Liverpool base as much as anyone else, but the biggest other hitmakers he chose to put in his stable—Merseybeat bands Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, and pop belter Cilla Black—were much more lightweight and less artistically adventurous than his primary clients. (Uncoincidentally, all of them were also produced by George Martin.) There are indications that had he lived, he might have expanded his roster into more interesting areas, especially as the Beatles needed and wanted less of his attention. There were indications he wanted to get involved in the Velvet Underground’s career in some way (and the path would have been clearer after Lou Reed fired Andy Warhol around mid-1967), though the specifics remain fuzzy and Epstein died before he could take any action.

Likewise he had some interest in getting involved in Eric Andersen’s career, and if Andersen wasn’t nearly as significant an artist as the Velvet Underground, he was hipper than Billy J. Kramer or Cilla Black. He also praised Jimi Hendrix in an April 1967 radio interview with Murray the K, before Hendrix was known in the US, and Hendrix gave a concert at a major venue Epstein leased, London’s Saville Theatre, right after Sgt. Pepper was released. The Four Tops had played the theater the previous year, and the Motown group credit Brian with helping them become known in Britain.

Would the Beatles’ story have ended differently had Epstein not died in August 1967? It’s impossible to say, and I agree with historians who feel their breakup was inevitable. It’s also true that, with more now known about Epstein’s psychological problems and some strains between him and the Beatles, he might not have remained their manager anyway, or at least would have taken a far less active role in their affairs. I do think that the Beatles’ breakup would have been less rancorous, if for no other reason that they wouldn’t have wanted to hurt him more than necessary. Epstein certainly had much greater concern for them as individuals than Allen Klein (who by the end of the 1960s was managing all of them except Paul McCartney) did, and his ability to communicate with them might have eased the tension somewhat.

All of that’s a big if. What’s not a big if is Epstein’s towering importance in the Beatles’ story, surpassed only by George Martin.

3. Pete Best. Pete Best was fired from the Beatles in August 1962 primarily because he wasn’t a good enough drummer, though there were other reasons. So why is he so high up on this list? It’s an arguable ranking, but unlike everyone else here save Stuart Sutcliffe, he actually was a Beatle, not just an honorary one. And not just for a couple weeks or so, like Jimmy Nicol—he sat in the drum chair for two full years. With the inclusion of about half of their January 1, 1962 Decca audition tape and a couple tracks from their first session with George Martin in June 1962 on Anthology 1, he’s actually now represented on official Beatles records. He was already represented on official Beatles records with the recordings they made in Germany with Tony Sheridan, even if those sessions didn’t reflect the full range of their embryonic talents. He played many shows with them in Merseyside and Hamburg; let them use his home as a base for many of their operations; and his mother, Mona Best, did a great deal for their career in the early 1960s in unofficial managerial capacities.

Pete Best documentary.

Pete Best documentary.

Best has his defenders, primarily fellow early Merseybeat musicians; see the documentary Best of the Beatles for some of those. But even based on the slim body of recordings on which he plays (also including a couple lo-fi 1962 BBC broadcasts), Ringo was decisively the better drummer. Even more decisively, the ebulliently humorous Ringo was a far better fit for the Beatles as a personality. The question that never seems addressed when a vociferous few claim that Pete Best was better, or at least that the Beatles were better when Best was their drummer, is why the Beatles’ popularity did not suffer when Ringo replaced him. To the contrary, it exploded, even if some loyal Best supporters in Liverpool never forgave the band.

But Best was there, every step of the way, from August 1960 to August 1962, when the Beatles rose from a barely professional group to the best one in Liverpool, and the cusp of being the best in the whole world. His image might not have fit in with the band as well as Ringo’s, but his, to use the cliché, mean, moody magnificence was important to establishing their Liverpool popularity in the early 1960s. For those reasons, he deserves a high spot on this list.

4. Billy Preston. After the first two or three slots on the fifth Beatle list are filled, the choices are much more variable depending on the compiler, and more open to controversy. After listing a couple figures who were with the band for most of the 1960s, and then someone who was in the band for a couple years, how can you list someone whose primary contributions to the Beatles boiled down to about ten days? Which was about how long Billy Preston played and recorded with the Beatles in late January 1969, though he did also play on a couple Abbey Road tracks, “Something” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

The "Get Back" single was credited to "The Beatles with Billy Preston."

The “Get Back” single was credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston.”

But if we’re talking musical contributions to the Beatles’ legacy, Preston made more to their recordings than any other rock musician outside of the Beatles themselves. And they weren’t insignificant or merely decorative—for that portion of January 1969 on which he recorded (and, at their January 30, 1969 rooftop concert, performed live) with the group, he was about as close to a fifth member as you could get. He didn’t write any of the material, but his keyboards are an important, indeed vital, part of the tracks that came out on the “Get Back”/ “Don’t Let Me Down” single and, eventually, on the Let It Be album. On “Get Back, “Don’t Let Me Down,” and “Let It Be” in particular, his work is both stellar and integral to the arrangements. John Lennon was so impressed that after just a couple days of working with Preston, he even (on January 24, 1969) told the other Beatles he’d like to make Billy a permanent member, though an incredulous Paul McCartney defused John’s likely over-impulsive enthusiasm.

The Beatles did, however, generously use the billing “The Beatles with Billy Preston” for the “Get Back”/“Don’t Let Me Down” single. Also generously, they signed him to Apple Records as a solo artist, which is likely one reason he didn’t play on more sessions with them after January 1969. Although contributions to the Beatles’ solo careers don’t factor into these rankings, it’s also worth noting that Preston also played on numerous solo releases by Lennon, Ringo Starr,, and George Harrison, including the track (Ringo’s “I’m the Greatest”) that came closest to reuniting the Beatles in the studio, as Starr, Harrison, and Lennon also played on this John Lennon composition.

5. Geoff Emerick. Unlike the four names above him on this list, Geoff Emerick isn’t so well known to the general public. However, there’s now a greater knowledge of and appreciation of recording engineers than there was when many of them actually worked on their most famous recordings in the twentieth century. Emerick was the engineer on most of the Beatles’ recordings from Revolver onward, though he quit partway through The White Album, resuming work with the band for Abbey Road.

Geoff Emerick's memoir.

Geoff Emerick’s memoir.

Although it’s harder to pinpoint specific contributions for Emerick (and engineers in general) than it is for producers like George Martin, Emerick was there when the Beatles were doing their most sophisticated and experimental recordings. Although a few other experts have disputed some of what he wrote in his memoir Here, There and Everywhere (co-authored by Howard Massey), that very worthwhile book helped raise his profile. If much of his opportunity to start working with the Beatles when he was barely in his twenties was due to the luck of being in the right place at the right time, he had the open-minded appetite for trying new things that made him a good match for the band as they expanded the boundaries of what was possible in the studio.

6. Richard Lester. Richard Lester directed the two films in which the Beatles starred as actors, 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night and 1965’s less impressive Help! These movies, perhaps as much as their mid-‘60s records and concerts, established the Beatles’ image with the public. As subsequent comments (especially by Lennon) revealed, this image wasn’t entirely accurate and was somewhat sanitized. But Lester deserves enormous credit for capturing much of the essence of the Beatles’ appeal in their fun-loving humor, irrepressible energy, and relative naturalness in the oft-phony entertainment business. In A Hard Day’s Night in particular, he often did so with a fun-loving cinematic energy on par with that radiated by the Beatles themselves.


Although Lester wasn’t a musician, it’s also worth noting that the musical sequences were easily the best that had been used in rock movies to that point. Quite possibly (again, especially in A Hard Day’s Night), they remain the best musical sequences in rock movies more than fifty years later. By complementing the songs with images, camerawork, and editing that were as vivacious as the soundtrack, Lester did his part to get the music over to the public, especially to those who’d be converted into Beatles fans (and sometimes into general rock fans) by the A Hard Day’s Night movie.

Lester could have done more films with the Beatles. It’s likely the first few months of 1966 were set aside for making a third Beatles movie, as the group didn’t perform or record during that time. But they couldn’t find a script or story they liked (though some, like the western A Talent for Loving, came under consideration), and it’s likely that by 1967, they were losing interest in acting in a fictional film anyway. Lester did direct John Lennon (without the other Beatles) in late 1966 in the satire How I Won the War, which—though Lennon does okay with his part, which is small—is in my estimation a pretty awful, unfunny film that’s difficult to sit through in its entirety.

7. Norman Smith. Perhaps even less known to the public than Geoff Emerick, Norman Smith was Emerick’s counterpart in the earlier part of the Beatles’ career as the engineer they most often used before 1966. Since their recordings were more straightforward and less technologically intricate during that era (though they were quickly becoming more elaborate as 1965 progressed), Smith’s contributions seem to have been less creative than Emerick’s, and certainly than George Martin’s. He certainly did well with them, however, even if he properly bowed out after Rubber Soul, feeling less interested in the group’s music as it changed. According to Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere, Smith overdubbed some drums on “Can’t Buy Me Love,” though this hasn’t been accepted as gospel throughout Beatledom.

If Smith, as is sometimes intimated, didn’t enjoy their more progressive direction, it’s a little strange that he then went on to work with two bands who were the most recklessly experimental in Abbey Road other than the Beatles themselves. The first was Pink Floyd, whose first three albums Smith produced. Pink Floyd don’t have much to say about him, and the impression is given in Floyd literature that he’s something of an EMI functionary. But certainly those albums are impressive early psychedelic/progressive rock LPs, especially the 1967 debut Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Smith also produced the Pretty Things’ 1968 LP S.F. Sorrow, which though not a big seller has been recognized as one of the most sonically adventurous psychedelic albums. In contrast to Pink Floyd, the Pretty Things have been vocal in their appreciation of Smith’s contributions, to the extent of hailing him as an unofficial member—the sixth Pretty Thing. You’d have to think he picked up something of the Beatles and George Martin’s hunger for expanding the parameters of what could be done in the studio while working with them, and brought at least a little of that to his work with other psychedelic bands in Abbey Road.

The Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow album, produced by Norman Smith.

The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow album, produced by Norman Smith.

Smith would be far more famous in Beatles lore if, as he revealed years after the incident, one of his compositions had been used on 1965’s Help! LP. As he told it, when the group were struggling to find enough material to fill up the album, he played a song he’d written to them, which they gave serious consideration to recording. They decided not to, in his account, because they needed a song with Ringo on vocals, which ended up being “Act Naturally,” and although they said they’d do Smith’s composition later, they didn’t return to it. It’s mysterious, however, that Smith could not remember the title of the song or even describe it too well. The possibility cannot be discounted that John and Paul were humoring or stringing along their longtime studio colleague, but as Smith told the story (on more than one occasion), their enthusiasm for the tune was genuine.

There were several other members of Abbey Road staff who made important contributions to Beatles recordings, particularly Chris Thomas (who was an unofficial producer of some White Album sessions and plays keyboards on some of the tracks); Ken Scott (an engineer on some of their late-‘60s sessions who later became a producer of note, particularly on early-‘70s albums by David Bowie); and Alan Parsons (who helped with engineering on Abbey Road). And Glyn Johns and Phil Spector were credited as co-producers (with George Martin) of Let It Be, while Ron Richards effectively produced “Love Me Do,” although George Martin was credited as producer. But Smith’s contributions outweighed all of these figures in quantity, even as one would be hard-pressed to identify any specific imprints he gave the Beatles recordings he engineered.

8. Stuart Sutcliffe. Along with Pete Best, Sutcliffe was the only guy other than John, Paul, George, and Ringo to be a full-time Beatle. His stint was short—a year and a half—and musically insignificant, according to most accounts. Some (such as Klaus Voormann, who saw the Beatles often in Hamburg) have contended that Sutcliffe was not as bad a bass guitarist as is usually reported, and that he was competent, or verging on competent. The substantial majority of Beatles literature, however, gives the impression that he never did master the instrument. And even if he might have gotten better had he kept with it, he left the group in mid-1961, an indication that he just didn’t have the interest in or hunger for playing and writing music that the other Beatles did.

Sutcliffe’s chief contribution to the Beatles, as many have noted, was in the image department. In the early ‘60s, he was key to establishing their moody leather look; after taking up with Astrid Kirchherr, he was the first to adopt a Beatles haircut. Pictures taken of Sutcliffe shortly before his death in April 1962 indicate he would have actually fit in well with the Beatles visually, certainly in their early days. Had he not died, there’s speculation he might have done some work with him as a visual advisor of sorts, maybe designing record sleeves or logos, though that honor (for the Revolver cover) would fall to his friend Klaus Voormann.

The picture in which Stuart Sutcliffe looks most like he could pass for a member of the 1962 Beatles.

The picture in which Stuart Sutcliffe looks most like he could pass for a member of the 1962 Beatles.

Unlike with Pete Best, very little survives in the way of Beatles recordings on which Sutcliffe plays. He wasn’t even on the Tony Sheridan sessions in 1961. He is, as far as we know, on numerous lo-fi 1960 rehearsal tapes (a few of which were officially released on Anthology 1), at which point he’d only been playing bass for a few months. On these, he plays with an artless thump that does more to distract from the proceedings than fill out the sound, though at any rate it’s often faint and hard to make out.

9. Yoko Ono. I have no doubt this will be the most contentious of these rankings, especially since Ono, fairly or unfairly, is often cited as the biggest reason the Beatles broke up. Although a good number of listeners and critics would come to her defense and champion her musical work after the Beatles split, that doesn’t mean that the majority of Beatles listeners regard her in a favorable light. Judging from the reactions of my students in my Beatles classes, she’s almost as unpopular now as she was then. And this isn’t solely a matter of sexist male Beatles fans being chauvinistic—at least half of the negative reaction, which is often quite vociferous, comes from women.

But Yoko did have a substantial influence on John Lennon’s songwriting after they got together in spring 1968. And, hard as it might be for some of her critics to concede this, often it was positive. Or at the very least, some good-to-great Beatles songs emerged that would not have, at least in the same shape (especially lyrically), had Yoko not been in John’s life. These include songs specifically inspired by their relationship (“Don’t Let Me Down,” “Ballad of John and Yoko,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”); songs in which some of her poetry and art was likely an influence (“Julia,” with its reference to “ocean child”); and “Because,” partly inspired by Yoko’s rendering of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on piano.

Yoko almost seems like a fifth member of the group in the picture sleeve for "The Ballad of John and Yoko."

Yoko almost seems like a fifth member of the group in the picture sleeve for “Ballad of John and Yoko”—photographed, interestingly, by Linda McCartney, who’d go on to become an actual member of Paul McCartney’s band, Wings.

Yoko was also a substantial contributor to some White Album recordings, though the results were far more controversial than the songs in the previous paragraph. She was John’s primary collaborator on “Revolution 9,” probably the Beatles’ most unpopular track. She also contributed quite a bit to the somewhat more tuneful White Album outtake “What’s the New Mary Jane” (one version of which was officially issued on Anthology 3), which though far more obscure is not too popular among the Beatles fans who’ve heard it. She also sings the line “and when he looked so fierce” on “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill,” though no one minds that as far as I can tell.

The Beatles songs on which Yoko was a prominent influence, “Ballad of John and Yoko” excepted, did not refer to her specifically, and even “Ballad of John and Yoko” was more of a journalistic travelogue than a relationship song. Lennon’s songs would get more particular and detailed in their depiction/celebration of Yoko on his solo albums. One imagines that if he’d tried to have the Beatles record some of these (such as “Oh Yoko,” an informal version of which he recorded in a Montreal hotel back in spring 1969), he would have met much more resistance than he did to the likes of “Don’t Let Me Down,” which could have been about anyone.

Yoko did, incidentally, perform as part of the Beatles on January 10, 1969, shortly after George Harrison had walked out of the studio that day to quit the Beatles, returning about ten days later. That makes her more the Fourth Beatle than the Fifth Beatle on that occasion, though the noisy jams on which she scream-sings—backed by John, Paul, and Ringo—are not beloved by those who’ve heard them on bootlegs.

Remarkably, an unreleased three-minute color film scene capture part of a loud, angry jam by John, Paul, and Ringo with a black-clad, black-hatted Yoko on caterwauling, wordless vocals, just hours after Harrison temporarily left the band on January 10. This must have been one of the strangest, tensest passages not just of the entire Get Back sessions but of the Beatles’ whole career. If Yoko seems distraught about the group’s crisis, she certainly doesn’t show it. Indeed, she’s smiling radiantly, fueling conspiracy theorists who view this segment as evidence of her not-so-subtle pleasure at being the center of attention for once within a Beatles performance and perhaps her delight at the prospect of a possible group breakup. Ringo’s seen flailing as wildly and energetically on his drums as he ever was during the January 1969 filming. Paul, perhaps more out of grim “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” resignation than anything else, contributes to the chaos by studiously, humorlessly massaging a speaker with his bass to coax some appropriate feedback out of the instrument.

It still boggles the mind to think the band was grinding this out, with cameras recording the action no less, just at the point when their very survival was more in doubt than it had been since they became a foursome. Shock and incomprehension at George’s abrupt departure seems like the only possible explanation. As Ringo reflected in the Anthology book, “George had gone home. When we came back [from lunch] he still wasn’t there, so we started jamming violently. Paul was playing his bass into the amp and John was off, and I was playing some weird drumming that I hadn’t done before. I don’t play like that as a rule. Our reaction was really, really interesting at the time. And Yoko jumped in, of course, she was there.”

10. Tony Sheridan. Sheridan was never a Beatle, but he got pretty close in a way, as he’s the lead singer on most of their first truly professional recordings. On these tracks (mostly recorded in 1961 in Germany), however, the Beatles are just a backing group, with little of their personality emerging (or allowed to come through). “My Bonnie,” which was a small hit after the Beatles became famous on their own, is the best of these, in part because you can easily hear Paul McCartney’s enthusiastic backup vocals, and the band’s backup is fairly powerful. The others, though, are frankly dull, Sheridan coming across as just another early-‘60s sub-Elvis Presley.

The Beatles backed Tony Sheridan on "My Bonnie," though on this release they were billed as "The Beat Brothers."

The Beatles backed Tony Sheridan on “My Bonnie,” though on this release they were billed as “The Beat Brothers.” The picture on this release was taken by their friend Astrid Kirchherr. Another photo from this session, in which original Beatles bassist (and Kirchherr’s fiancé) Stuart Sutcliffe can also be seen, is in the book Astrid Kirchherr: A Retrospective.

Sheridan’s chief importance to the Beatles wasn’t on the few records on which they backed him, but as a mentor of sorts in their Hamburg days. Though he was just a few months older than John Lennon, he was far more musically experienced than anyone in the Beatles, and gave them plenty of instrumental and stage tips. They performed together fairly often live, it seems, when they were playing the same Hamburg clubs.

Sheridan would later say he was disappointed in the pop direction the Beatles’ material took when they started making hits, preferring their rougher and bluesier early Hamburg sound. Judging from his own pedestrian records, however, he had little in the way of songwriting talent or originality—qualities the Beatles had in abundance. As much as they might have looked up to him in 1960, they quickly surpassed him on all fronts.

There were, of course, many other people who played a significant role in the Beatles story, even if I don’t think they impacted their music as much as the figures on this list. Numbers 11-25, with briefer comments, are detailed in my next post.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that's come to light since the original edition.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that’s come to light since the original edition. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

George Martin, The Fifth Beatle

The recent death of George Martin sparked some discussion—which has been ongoing since, without exaggerating, at least 1964—as to who deserves the title of Fifth Beatle. New York radio DJ Murray the K might have been facetiously self-promoting when he came up with the term to describe himself after attaching himself to their entourage on their first US visit, but many serious and casual fans like to debate the question. Who, to phrase it another way, was the most important figure in the Beatles career besides the Beatles themselves?

One of the LPs featuring George Martin's versions of hits by his most famous clients, the Beatles.

One of the LPs featuring George Martin’s versions of hits by his most famous clients, the Beatles.

People often make jokes—which by now are quite tired—in their answers, citing such obviously silly choices as Ed Sullivan or Murray the K himself. Really, however, there are only two serious contenders for this title. One is Brian Epstein, their manager from late 1961 through his death in August 1967. The other is George Martin, the producer of virtually all of their studio recordings.

Epstein’s importance to the Beatles can’t be overestimated. He believed in and pushed them when no one else with his resources did; he did not interfere with their music; and, despite some questionable business decisions, was devoted to their artistic and personal interests. But when you come down to it, the most important thing about the Beatles was their music, and the most vital components of their musical legacy were their studio recordings. And their most vital collaborator on those recordings, by far, was George Martin. He never promoted himself as the Fifth Beatle, but if anyone should get the title, he deserves it.

Numerous recent obituaries have pointed out his contributions to the Beatles’ records, and entire books could be written about them. (As I noted in my post last year about rare rock books, Martin himself wrote one, Playback, which was a very expensive limited edition that now sells for hundreds of dollars, and which I haven’t read; his less extensive With a Little Help from My Friends, which focuses on his work on Sgt. Pepper, is readily and cheaply available.) Martin tributes rightly praise his sympathetic and skilled use of orchestration on their recordings from the mid-1960s onward; his ability to translate the Beatles’ more daring, sometimes wild, ideas into effective recordings; and the generally superb sonic quality of the band’s records, for which Abbey Road engineers and staff also deserve some credit. In this post, I’ll point out a few things which don’t get quite as much attention.


George Martin’s Playback memoir.

While it’s more fun to focus on the positives of what did happen in Beatles history than speculate on what might not have happened had things turned out differently, it’s truly scary to think of how wrong things could have gone if they hadn’t been produced by George Martin. Which would have happened had they passed their audition with Decca Records on January 1, 1962, when Pete Best was still their drummer. At the time, they were crestfallen at their failure to get a contract with Decca (or any of the other big UK labels).

As I’ve emphasized in classes I’ve taught about the Beatles and presentations I’ve given about them, at the time, the group felt like it was the worst break imaginable. In retrospect, I contend, it was the best break they ever got. One reason is that it gave John Lennon and Paul McCartney time to write better songs than the original material—meager in quantity (three compositions) and not nearly up to their 1963 recordings in quality—they played at the Decca audition. Another is that it gave them about half a year in which to consider whether they wanted to replace Pete Best with a better drummer who’d also fit in with them much better as a personality—which Ringo Starr did, perfectly, when he joined in August 1962. The biggest, however, is that if they’d signed with Decca, they wouldn’t have been produced by George Martin, the best imaginable producer for the Beatles.

Imagine what would have come to pass if someone at Decca—perhaps Mike Smith, who conducted their audition for the label—had produced them instead. Smith himself had a frank and blunt assessment in Spencer Leigh’s book Drummed Out! The Sacking of Pete Best: “I don’t think I could have worked with them the way that George Martin did—I would have got involved in their bad parts and not encouraged the good ones.” As if to illustrate the point, he actually told the Beatles fan magazine The Beatles Book that Pete Best “was a better drummer than Ringo.”

Although it's fairly obscure, this is a pretty good book devoted solely to the firing of Pete Best.

Although it’s fairly obscure, this is a pretty good book devoted solely to the firing of Pete Best.

More specifically, had the Beatles signed with Decca and been produced by Smith or someone else on the label’s staff, it’s quite possible that:

A) They would have been forced to record inappropriate pop material written by composers from the equivalent of the British Tin Pan Alley. George Martin, as is well documented, actually wanted them to do this by recording Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It” (later a hit for Gerry & the Pacemakers) for their first single. He swiftly realized (to his credit) that it wasn’t a good match for the Beatles, and that they should be allowed to record their own material.

B) Session musicians might have been used on the Beatles’ records, as they often were in early-‘60s rock records in the UK (and US). Note again that George Martin did this by engaging Andy White to drum on the Beatles’ first single. Again to his credit, he realized that Ringo should be drumming, as Starr did on the 45 version of “Love Me Do” and on the band’s records from late 1962 onward. My guess is that very few producers of that era would have had the wisdom and humility to let the band be as they were, instead of imposing songs (sometimes, uncoincidentally, written by the producers) and musicians on them against their will and against common sense.

C) The sound simply wouldn’t have been as good on the records, regardless of what songs they cut. They would have likely been of higher fidelity than the basic, if acceptably professional, sound of the fifteen songs on the Decca audition tape (which have long been bootlegged, and about half of were officially released on Anthology 1). But they almost certainly wouldn’t have been as good as what was recorded in EMI Studios at Abbey Road. As an even scarier thought, it’s possible the Beatles might have been augmented by inappropriate orchestration and chirpy background vocals by session singers, as much lame pre-Beatles British rock was.

For another take on how a Decca deal might have turned out badly for the Beatles, read “Grid Leek”’s pseudonymous, lengthy essay “The Untold Story of the Decca Tapes,” which are small-print liner notes on the back of the 1979 bootleg LP The Decca Tapes (on Circuit Records). Leek writes the story as if ten songs from the Decca tapes actually came out on 1962 singles, with the other five added to this LP as “outtakes.” There are problems with its premise: had the Beatles signed to Decca, they would have made different recordings for release than the ones on their audition tape, and quite possibly cut different songs altogether. In Leek’s historical fiction of sorts, however, all five of the singles flop, with the Beatles only becoming successful after signing with EMI and releasing “Love Me Do” with Ringo on drums (as happened in real life).


The back cover of the first bootleg to feature all 15 songs from the Beatles' Decca audition had fictional liner notes recapping what might have happened had the Beatles signed to Decca and released material on the label.

The back cover of the first bootleg to feature all 15 songs from the Beatles’ Decca audition had fictional liner notes recapping what might have happened had the Beatles signed to Decca and released material on the label.

Who would have been a good producer for the Beatles, if George Martin hadn’t been their miraculous match? I’m not sure there was any other good producer for the Beatles in Britain at the time. London-based American expatriate Shel Talmy (who produced mid-‘60s hits for the Kinks and Who) might have done well or at least okay with them, but he hadn’t even moved to England at the time of the Decca audition. I had the chance to ask Talmy if he would have turned down the Beatles on the basis of their audition in early 1962, and though he had the benefit of lots of hindsight, he responded, “I don’t think I would have, because I’ve always been very song-oriented. Although they were not a wonderful band musically, the songs were outstanding, even then. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have turned them down.”

How about Andrew Loog Oldham, the Rolling Stones’ producer? He was really more of an image-making publicist and enabler of the Stones to sound like themselves on record than a creative force in the studio, without any of the musical training or extensive experience Martin brought to the job. Giorgio Gomelsky, who managed/co-produced the early Yardbirds (and unofficially managed the Stones at their very beginning), likewise lacked that musical/studio background, and though he had an appetite for daring experimentation, probably lacked the professional focus at which Martin excelled. Mickie Most proved with the best of his records with Donovan and the Animals that he could make great and innovative discs, but was really more of a guy with a good commercial ear than one who prioritized the best artistic results.

It comes down to this: George Martin was really the only guy in the whole of the British recording industry with good qualifications to produce the best British rock band. Just because he was the only guy, however, doesn’t mean he wasn’t a perfect guy for the Beatles.

Another album of George Martin versions of Beatles songs.

Another album of George Martin versions of Beatles songs.

Moving to what Martin actually did with the Beatles, one of his great contributions was encouraging them to focus on their original material, once he’d gotten over his initial brief resistance to using their compositions. I didn’t realize the full extent of this until reading the extended edition of the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s mammoth Beatles biography, Tune In (which only covers the story until the end of 1962). John and Paul hadn’t even done much writing in the first couple years of the 1960s before getting back in gear in 1962, and Martin hadn’t been too impressed by “Love Me Do” or the other originals they presented to him at their first sessions. Lewisohn’s book also takes the view that had pressure from publishing interests not been at work, the Beatles’ first single might very well have been Mitch Murray’s “How Do You Do It” instead of a Lennon-McCartney original, which would likely have altered history much for the worse.

Yet the modest commercial success of “Love Me Do” and enthusiasm over the freshly penned “Please Please Me” apparently spurred Martin to give the go-ahead to a Beatles album with much of their original material at a meeting with the group in mid-November 1962, even before “Please Please Me” was recorded, let alone on its way to becoming chart-topping hit. This was key to transforming their relationship from one of a band operating under a nonplussed record company functionary to one collaborating with a supportive and valued artistic ally. As Lewisohn writes:

George Martin’s idea that the Beatles should make an LP was extraordinary; that he wanted it packed with (and perhaps full of) John and Paul’s songs is even more so, and there can be no better barometer of both his transformed attitude and interest in seeing where it would lead. This was the man whose reflection on being shown ‘Love Me Do,’ ‘P.S. I Love You’ and ‘Ask Me Why’ was, ‘I didn’t think the Beatles had any song of any worth – they gave me no evidence that they could write hit material.’ Since then, he’d heard ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘Tip of My Tongue’ (much preferring the former) and that was it…but, nonetheless, he’d changed his mind…this was a volte-face of immense proportions.

Again, my guess is that very few producers of that era would have had the wisdom and humility to backtrack on their strategy, in effect admitting they were wrong. But not only admitting they were wrong—to also take a new and more effective strategy with enthusiasm that likely fired up John and Paul to write more and better songs, now that they knew their producer had their back.

Another virtue of Martin’s that gets a little underplayed—though many more people are aware of it now than they were in the 1960s—is just how often he actually played on Beatles recordings. Most often he was on keyboards, and though he had fairly little experience producing rock’n’roll (and, I’m guessing, virtually none actually playing it), he was a hell of a piano player. On early songs like “Slow Down” and “Rock and Roll Music,” he really is a fifth member of the band, playing piano with a furious bluesy boogie-woogie energy that even Nicky Hopkins (the top British session keyboardist of the 1960s) might have been hard-pressed to match.

"Slow Down" was released on a US single in 1964, and was (with its flipside, "Matchbox") a small American hit.

“Slow Down” was released on a US single in 1964, and was (with its flipside, “Matchbox,” on which Martin also plays piano) a small American hit.

If Martin helped bring out qualities in the Beatles that were instrumental in them breaking out of pure rock into orchestrated arrangements influenced by classical, music hall, jazz, the avant-garde, and other styles, the Beatles seemed to bring out the closet rock’n’roller in George, at least in their pre-1966 recordings. Which isn’t to diminish his less frenetic instrumental contributions to other tracks—the sped-up piano solo on “In My Life” might be the most famous, but there were plenty of other notable ones, like the honky-tonk piano on “Good Day Sunshine” and “Lovely Rita.”

As great as Martin’s contributions to the Beatles were, it’s a little curious that he didn’t make many truly notable records with other rock groups in the 1960s (or the 1970s, Jeff Beck’s early fusion albums excepted). He didn’t record much rock before working with the Beatles, making his greatest mark as a producer of comedy discs with Peter Sellers. His work with other Merseybeat groups like Gerry & the Pacemakers and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas produced some enjoyable hits, but was extremely lightweight and conventional compared with even the early Beatles recordings, with little in the way of remarkable ingenuity. He never abandoned middle-of-the-road pop, as his hits with Cilla Black and Matt Monro demonstrated. His own versions of Beatles hits that were released under his name were surprisingly bland, even square. His tracks with the one ‘60s rock group he produced other than the Beatles who had an assertive, guitar-oriented sound—mod band the Action, who never had a big hit, despite gaining a cult following that lasts to this day—were punchy, clear, and balanced, but don’t bear a specific imprint or utilize particularly crafty production touches.

Besides the Beatles, he Action were the best rock act produced by George Martin in the '60s.

Besides the Beatles, he Action were the best rock act produced by George Martin in the ’60s.

It may be that the Beatles were so all-consuming that Martin had little left in the way of extraordinary contributions to other acts with whom he worked. Just as it’s certain that Martin brought out the best in the Beatles, it’s possibly even more certain that the Beatles brought out the best in Martin. While he earns the title of fifth Beatle, there were of course many others who made crucial contributions to their music and career, starting with Brian Epstein. Numbers two through ten on my list will be discussed in my next blog post.



Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that's come to light since the original edition.

Critical description of all known unreleased Beatles recordings, their most crucial unissued film footage, and more. Updated with 30,000 more words to reflect newly circulating material and additional information that’s come to light since the original edition. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.







Dave Dexter, The Beatles, and Capitol Records

Dave Dexter is not the most popular figure in Beatles lore. He’s most notorious for adding reverb to some of their early recordings for their US releases on Capitol Records—mixes that can be heard on the CDs The Capitol Albums, Vol. 1 and The Capitol Albums, Vol. 2. He’s also infamous for rejecting the Beatles’ first four singles for American release, before Capitol finally issued “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the end of 1963 to launch Beatlemania in the US.

Dave Dexter.

Dave Dexter.

Remembering the first time he heard the Beatles in a 1988 interview with Chuck Haddix, Dexter groused, “When I heard Lennon playing the harmonica on this record, I thought it was the worst thing I’d ever heard. So I nixed it. I didn’t want any part of the Beatles.” (Probably the record was “Love Me Do,” though Dexter could not remember the title in this conversation.) In a mid-1980s interview for the radio documentary From Britain With Love, he elaborated, “I didn’t care for it at all because of the harmonica sound. I didn’t care for the harmonica because I had grown up listening to the old blues records and blues harmonica players, and I simply didn’t…I nixed the record instantly.”

As Mark Lewisohn wrote in the extended edition of The Beatles Tune In:

“The fact Vee Jay was having a huge hit with a harmonica record Dex had nixed a couple of months earlier [Frank Ifield’s “I Remember You”] prompted no circumspection, and neither did the success Capitol was having with another self-contained vocal-instrumental group, the Beach Boys. Dexter had no love for the British and a neat way of showing it. Though he rejected the Beatles, the Shadows, Cliff Richard, Adam Faith, Helen Shapiro and Matt Monro, he did issue ‘Bobbikins,’ a piano instrumental by Mrs. Mills. Gladys Mills was that most British of discoveries, an ample, 43-year-old, heavy-wattled housewife who chopped out party singalong numbers on a saloon-bar-like piano. After finding sudden TV fame late in 1961, she was signed to Parlophone by Norman Newell, but while her debut single was a hit, the follow-ups weren’t—and it was one of these failures that Dex decided America needed.”

Mrs. Mills, one of the British artists who was issued on Capitol Records at a time when the Beatles' early British hits were being rejected by the label for American release.

Mrs. Mills, one of the British artists who was issued on Capitol Records at a time when the Beatles’ early British hits were being rejected by the label for American release.

Not much has been written about Dexter and the Beatles (though it’s likely Lewisohn will have more to say about the matter in the next volume of his mammoth Beatles biography, Tune In only covering their history through the end of 1962). While researching something else, I stumbled across a section of the website of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s library that features some little-known memos from Dexter’s time at Capitol. These don’t exactly exonerate the executive’s handling of the Beatles, but do offer a more fully rounded picture of how he dealt with British product at the time the British Invasion was gaining steam.

There probably wasn’t much if any internal discussion about Dexter’s rejection of the early Beatles discs, or other early British rock records, before 1964. The Beatles’ second, third, and fourth UK singles—all British chart-toppers, with “She Loves You” becoming one of the biggest sellers ever in that country—were issued in the US by either Vee Jay or Swan after Capitol passed, and sold little. Very few British rock records of any kind had been hits on the US charts.

That changed instantly with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which was a massive American hit as soon as it was issued by Capitol on December 26, 1963. In his interview with Chuck Haddix (available as a sound file on the University of Missouri-Kansas City site), interestingly, Dexter remembers being played the song in September or October (he gives the year as 1962, an obvious mistake) by an A& R man on a visit to England. Probably knowing Dexter’s resistance to the Beatles, the A&R guy (Tony Palmer) played him the track without telling him who it was. “Boy, I heard about four bars of that and grabbed it,” he says, though A) it didn’t take golden ears to tell it had enormous sales potential, and B) other sources, to my knowledge, have never pinpointed Dexter as the guy who made the decision to release this in the US, or lobbied for its release there by Capitol.

Dexter does not improve his credibility by remembering the incident somewhat differently in his obscure 1976 autobiography Playback. There he remembers Palmer telling him the single was a Beatles record before playing it. That’s a minor detail, but Dexter also writes that he told Palmer, “Capitol will take full page ads in the three major trade papers, and we will send special pressings and biog sheets to all the important radio stations. We’ll go all out.” According to the Los Angeles Times obituary for Alan Livingston, however, the key impetus  behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand” gaining Capitol’s support was a personal call from to Livingston from Brian Epstein. The issue of who exactly was the big cheese behind deciding Capitol would not only release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but promote it heavily remains unclear, to the point of wondering whether several people at the label scrambled to take credit after Beatlemania took off in the US.

The biggest of the British hit singles Capitol did not release for the American market.

The biggest of the British hit singles Capitol did not release for the American market.

A February 20, 1964  memo from Dexter to Alan Livingston (the guy usually credited with approving “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for US release) indicates the heat was on for Dave to both examine British rock product more carefully, and justify why he’d passed on acts other than the Beatles who were now beginning to make American waves. “Billy Kramer and the Dakotas and Gerry and the Pacemakers were offered to Capitol nearly a year ago along with numerous other rock combos, solo singers, vocal groups, orchestras, comedy acts and other EMI artists,” Dexter writes. “I waived on both of them because neither had a particularly unique sound. Subsequently, they became big hits in England but the American labels who put them out here sold nothing.” Both groups would, of course, have big US hits over the next couple of years as the British Invasion became huge and labels issued or reissued their UK hits from 1963, some of which (like the Beatles’ 1963 singles) became belated American chart singles.

One wonders whether Dexter even knew that both Kramer and the Pacemakers were managed by Brian Epstein. Or that Kramer’s early hits were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney—the same duo, it’s barely worth repeating, who penned the Beatles records that were now selling in enormous quantities for Capitol. Both factors in themselves would have made them worth adding to Capitol’s roster, both to ingratiate the label with Epstein and to get some hits with (admittedly secondary) additional Lennon-McCartney songs. If Dexter knew all this by February 20, maybe he was playing dumb in case that knowledge got him in even deeper hot water.

Had Capitol not rejected Billy J. Kramer's early hits, it would have been able to issue otherwise unavailable Lennon-McCartney songs like these in the US.

Had Capitol not rejected Billy J. Kramer’s early hits, it would have been able to issue otherwise unavailable Lennon-McCartney songs like these in the US.

Interestingly, in the next paragraph Dexter offers: “Freddie & the Dreamers, in my opinion, have a most attractive rock sound and might make it big over here, although the first record we issued sold hardly any copies. Freddie’s second record comes out next week on Capitol.” The Dreamers would indeed have a couple hits for Capitol’s Tower subsidiary—though not until early-to-mid-1965, and then with singles (“I’m Telling You Now” and “You Were Made for Me”) that had already been big British hits in mid-to-late 1963. Was Dexter trying to cover his tracks by snapping up another early British Invasion band while there was still time?

In the next paragraph, Dexter is more dismissive about the prospects of the Swinging Blue Jeans (who’d have some moderate US success in 1964) and the Fourmost (an Epstein-managed act, again with some Lennon-McCartney castoffs that had been British hits, that never charted in the US). “In my opinion, Capitol can handle only a small percentage of these groups,” he states. And Capitol would not put out records by the Swinging Blue Jeans, though it put out a few (including a cover of the Beatles’ “Here, There, and Everywhere”) a few years later by the Fourmost.

In the following paragraph, his judgments get more interesting. He reveals that he has passed on Manfred Mann’s first record. Remember, this is more than six months before they’d have their first US hit (the #1 single “Do Wah Diddy Diddy”), though they’d just landed their first big British hit that month with “5-4-3-2-1.” “Because the record sounded like something that had been made by Chess in 1951, I promptly cabled Tony Palmer to go ahead and place it elsewhere,” Dexter writes.

It would be useful to know if the “first record” he heard by Manfred Mann was indeed their first UK single (“Why Should We Not”/ “Brother Jack,” which were rather tame blues-jazzy instrumentals) or their second single (“Cock-a-Hoop,” an R&B number with Paul Jones on vocals). If it was “Why Should We Not”/“Brother Jack,” Dexter’s judgment actually seems sound, and his comparison of it as “something that had been made by Chess in 1951” fairly if not quite dead-on accurate. If it was one of the Jones vocal numbers, his assessment was a misfire, especially if “5-4-3-2-1” was already proving its worth by climbing the British charts. Manfred Mann’s US rights would get snapped up by a branch of United Artists, Ascot.

Some of the early Manfred Mann tracks that Dave Dexter passed on were on this EP.

Some of the early Manfred Mann tracks that Dave Dexter passed on were on this EP.

In the final part of the memo, Dexter further justifies his positions: “Alan, I make errors in judgment as does everyone else, but when you consider the enormous amount of singles and albums sent to my desk every month from not only English Parlophone, Columbia and HMV, but France, Germany Italy, Japan, Austria, Australia, the Scandinavian countries and several other places, I am frankly amazed that we do not miss out on more hits as the months and years go by.” He also notes, “Last week in England, there was quite a hypo in the trade on a new type of music with Jamaican influences called ‘the Blue Beat.’ I have already cabled for two sides and hope to be the first in North America to issue this new music, which is a sort of hybrid combination of rock with calypso.”

That’s a fairly accurate, if imperfect, capsule description of Blue Beat, better known as ska. Like his reference to Chess Records in 1951, this indicates that Dexter wasn’t wholly unhip, and did have some knowledge of trends and styles in the rock and pop world. But the one sort-of-bluebeat single to become a big hit in the US, Millie Small’s “My Boy Lollipop,” would be on Fontana, not Capitol.

As 1964 went on, scattered memos indicate Capitol was taking a closer look at the procedure by which British recordings were accepted or rejected, also taking steps to get other people involved besides Dexter. On September 21, Livingston wrote Dexter, “I would like a review of current activity, in particular our success of Cila [sic] Black and Peter and Gordon, and any recent misses that we may have had. I am thinking specifically of the Animals and if I understand the situation correctly, we turned down a master which was subsequently unsuccessful. As a result of turning down this master, however, under our agreement we lost future rights to the artist and therefore did not have a chance to take the successful Animals record now on the charts [“House of the Rising Sun,” then at #1]. I would like your confirmation or any further explanation of this.”

In response, Dexter sent a quite detailed report on October 1 noting (with sales figures) how poorly most British singles issued by Capitol had done in the American market (especially before 1964), even when they were hits in the UK or by big British stars like Cliff Richard and Johnny Kidd. In a quite frank sentence, Dexter explains: “By paying a few pennies bonus to every record shop sales girl in thousands of stores throughout the 50 states, Capitol pushed [Helen Shapiro’s] third single up to nearly 19,000 but it was a phony ‘hype’ and as Epic proved a couple years later, the girl simply did not have the sound for success in the American market.”

Helen Shapiro had several big hits in her native UK in the early 1960s, but none in the US.

Helen Shapiro had several big hits in her native UK in the early 1960s, but none in the US.

At one point Dave makes a quite interesting claim: “Today it is obvious that Capitol never would have reacquired the Beatles had I not been in London last August, nor would Capitol have gotten Frank Ifield, who although dormant today, sold a lot of singles and albums for us in a brief period of time.” This is not the usual way the story of Capitol’s decision to issue Beatles product has been portrayed. If Dexter was in London in August 1963, he wouldn’t have been able to hear “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—the song he remembered in his interview with Chuck Haddix as grabbing his attention—which hadn’t been recorded yet. Maybe he’s simply misremembering the month (albeit only a year after his visit), but he also fails to mention that although Frank Ifield did have lot-charting singles for Capitol in late 1963, the label had missed out on his big US hit, “I Remember You,” which had gone to Vee Jay in 1962.

A little farther down, there’s more info that indicates that Dexter either didn’t remember exactly when he’d been in England, or that his role in the Beatles hooking up with Capitol is greater than is usually acknowledged. “In the summer of 1963, Vee Jay went bankrupt and Swan acquired the rights to the third American Beatles single [“She Loves You”]. Apparently, it sold fewer than 1,000 copies and Swan had no further interest in the group. By the time I returned from England in August of 1963, it was apparent that the Beatles were the hottest thing England had ever encountered and when I learned that Swan had waived on the group, I then somewhat hysterically started urging Livingston, [Capitol producer Voyle] Gilmore and Dunn to exert every possible pressure on EMI and Epstein. Mainly, promises of a promotional campaign,” he asserts.

There are a few odd aspects to this passage. Dexter writes this to give the impression that Swan had sold fewer than 1,000 copies of “She Loves You” and waived on the group around the time he returned from England in August of 1963 – though “She Loves You” wasn’t issued by Swan until September 16, 1963 (and not even by Parlophone in the UK until August 23). Just about every account I’ve come across has it that EMI and Epstein were pushing Capitol to release and promote Beatles records (and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” specifically), not the other way around.

Dexter goes on to admit he goofed by passing on Herman’s Hermits “I’m Into Something Good”; says he has “high hopes” for the Cherokees and “the committee feels that the Cresters and Shirley & Johnny have strong possibilities” (none of these acts would make the US charts); and though he liked the Zephyrs, “their artist royalty was more than Capitol cares to pay.” As for the Animals, he writes, incorrectly, that “House of the Rising Sun” was their third UK 45 (it was their second), adding that “House of the Rising Sun” was never submitted to Capitol “because we have waived on the group on March 27, 1964.”

He also claims that the Animals single they rejected, their debut disc “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” “did not sell any place in the world.” This was not true. It made #21 in the UK, a quite respectable showing for a debut at one of the most competitive junctures in British rock history. It seems like Dexter was trying to cover his Animals tracks here.


Then on to Manfred Mann, Dexter confirming that he rejected both of their first two singles, “Brother Jack” and “Cock-a-Hoop” (though it’s still not clear which of these reminded him of a 1951 Chess Records disc). Their third 45, “5-4-3-2-1,” was offered to him too, but he writes that it was already placed elsewhere by the time he was sent a sample. “The record was not very big in the U.S.A. but his succeeding records have been extremely successful,” he understates—at the time of the memo, “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” was making a beeline for #1 in America.

As for Gerry & the Pacemakers: “I have no excuses here. I did not think the sound of the group was extraordinary and I still believe that out of the hundreds and hundreds of samples submitted featuring various combos, that Gerry is nothing special. I missed!” On the Swinging Blue Jeans: “I missed on this group. They sounded like 983 other combos and they have enjoyed fair if not memorable success on a competitive American label.” For Billy J. Kramer and the Dave Clark Five, however, “I refuse to be the goat,” Dexter feeling he was pressured into making immediate decisions by Transglobal (a company licensing product to US labels) before he could give their product a fair hearing.

More justification follows in the form of a paragraph noting many flop acts Dexter passed on. And indeed, even today many British Invasion experts would be hard-pressed to recognize most of the names, though Georgie Fame would have a couple big US hits (and more in his native UK); Chris Farlowe had a British #1 in 1966 with the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time”; R&B primitives the Downliners Sect have a cult following; and Sounds Incorporated got to tour with the Beatles. A longer list at the end of the memo includes a few other cool names who’d eventually have hits somewhere (but not the US) and/or have their own cult followings: Duffy Power, the Paramounts (who evolved into Procol Harum), ska star Laurel Aitken, and Julie Driscoll.

Dexter passed on Georgie Fame, leaving the path clear for Imperial to have a US hit with Fame's UK chart-topper "Yeh Yeh."

Dexter passed on Georgie Fame, leaving the path clear for Imperial to have a US hit with Fame’s UK chart-topper “Yeh Yeh.”

Dave also gripes about Capitol’s under-promotion of foreign acts in general: “Our exploitation of Cliff Richard was nil, although he was selling as many records during the Presley hysteria as Presley himself everywhere but the U.S.A. I am convinced we could have made Freddie and the Dreamers bigger than the Animals, Manfred Mann or Dave Clark, but we spent not a penny in his behalf.” (This was before Freddie & the Dreamers’ belated Stateside breakthrough in early 1965 with “I’m Telling You Now.”)

Freddie & the Dreamers would not become bigger than the Dave Clark Five, Animals, or Manfred Mann, though Capitol did issue a couple of their hits.

Freddie & the Dreamers would not become bigger than the Dave Clark Five, Animals, or Manfred Mann, though Capitol did issue a couple of their hits.

It must have been a strange, unsettling time for Dexter. Capitol, largely on the backs of the Beatles, was more prosperous than it could have possibly imagined in late 1963, especially considering it also had the Beach Boys and some other hit acts. At the same time, the label must have been beating itself up for allowing the first year or so of Beatles product to go to other US labels (though they’d get the rights to those early tracks by early 1965), and also for allowing other British Invasion acts on EMI UK to go to other American companies.

Dexter might have made an easy fall guy for this, though ultimately his judgment, to be charitable, was far from flawless. Out of the blue, seemingly, he was being inundated with music that no one in the US was paying any attention to before 1964. He was also getting called to account for the many decisions he had made and had to make about a style with which he was (again, like everyone else in the US) probably virtually wholly unfamiliar. As Dave wrote in the last sentence of his October 1, 1964 report: “The record business is a hell of a lot different than it was even a short year ago.”

Sadly, the link to memos dated April 8-June 14, 1965 titled “Turning Down Herman’s Hermits & Livingston’s Push That Capitol ‘Should Not Be Asked To Give Up An Artist Until They Have Had A Success Or Failure In England’” gets a “page not found” message on the University of Missouri-Kansas City Libraries site. A final brief memo from Alan Livingston to Dexter from August 31, 1965 indicates the Beatles wanted to exert more control over their Capitol releases, reading: “”In a meeting with Brian Epstein yesterday, he expressed the very strong hope that we would consider using the same art work for our Beatle album covers as England uses. Please let me know if this is possible, and if so, what the complications, if any, might be.”

The mixes used on early Capitol Beatles LPs were eventually issued on CD.

The mixes used on early Capitol Beatles LPs were eventually issued on CD.

By this time, Dexter might have had his fill of the Beatles, and not just because he was pretty much being called on the carpet for his decisions about them and other British Invaders. The bad feelings lingered for a long time. In a Billboard story about a couple weeks after John Lennon’s death, he wrote that Lennon and McCartney had called him from Miami on their first US visit “to praise the ‘fabulous’ sound Capitol’s engineers had achieved on American releases,” but that John subsequently “advised Capitol’s management that he didn’t care for the album covers Capitol was devising. Lennon didn’t like the back covers, either. Nor did he approve the sounds of the Beatles tapes issued by Capitol, an abrupt 180-degree turnaround from his previous praise of Capitol’s eq and reverb adjustments.”

Virtually all Beatles authorities, and probably most of their fans, feel that the artwork on Capitol’s Beatles LPs prior to Rubber Soul (at which point their covers started to be the same in the UK and US) was inferior to the designs on their UK covers. When it became widely known that Capitol was slicing and dicing UK releases to make more (and shorter) LPs for the US market, those decisions were rightly criticized as well. Even if some listeners didn’t mind the alterations for the US market, it’s undeniable that the releases were being packaged both without the Beatles’ approval and in a manner at odds with what they wanted. Dexter, perhaps unsurprisingly, sees things his way in his Playback memoir.

“With the dominance of the Beatles came a marked change of attitude on the part of Manager Epstein and his foursome,” he fumes. “No longer could I work felicitously with Marvin Schwartz in designing front and back album covers, choosing the photographs and annotation we thought best. Nor did the bedeviled Epstein allow me a choice of masters to be programmed into album form. Each single, each album, was made to specifications conceived by the Beatles’ organization in London. Artwork was mailed to the Capitol Tower from [EMI’s headquarters in] Manchester Square. So were the back cover editorial notes. None, I think, was an improvement over what we in California had been doing.”

As an aside, Dexter claims in Playback that George Martin told him there would be no soundtrack LP for Help! “because the boys won’t be featuring sufficient songs to fill an LP.” This, in Dexter’s view, forced him to cobble together the US Help! album from seven songs (the ones actually featured in the film) and the quite disposable non-Beatles instrumental music that filled out the American release. That’s a very odd recollection indeed, as the Beatles were writing and working in the studio at their usual industrious pace in early-to-mid-1965, coming up with a full fourteen tracks for the British Help! LP, released at about the same time as its American counterpart. It’s usually assumed the US version of Help! had just seven actual Beatles songs so the leftovers from the UK release (including the American #1 single “Yesterday”) could be parceled out on subsequent Capitol 45s and LPs, in keeping with the label’s usual strategy of spreading product out over more releases to maximize profits. What reason would there have been to keep Capitol’s staff in the dark about what tracks were completed?

(One reason less songs were available to Dexter, by the way, was that Capitol, in its eagerness to rush out as many LPs as possible, used three songs from the UK version of Help! on Beatles VI, released in June 1965 just two months before the US Help! soundtrack. On Beatles VI Capitol also used up another track recorded during the Help! sessions, “Bad Boy” (not issued in the UK until late 1966), as well as “Yes It Is,” the B-side to a song featured on the Help! soundtrack, “Ticket to Ride.” In fact both “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” (used on Beatles VI in the US and Help! in the UK) and “Bad Boy” were specifically recorded for the American market to help fill out Beatles VI so a US LP could be issued prior to the American version of Help! Presumably Beatles VI was compiled by Dexter himself, though he seems oblivious to this as a possible factor for the shortage of material to work from for the Help! soundtrack.)

Cover of the US Help! LP, begrudgingly assembled by Dave Dexter.

Cover of the US Help! LP, begrudgingly assembled by Dave Dexter.

The Beatles’ worst offense to Dexter, however, took place at a party Alan Livingston gave for the Beatles in 1964. Children of Livingston’s Beverly Hills neighbors, Dexter wrote in the Billboard piece, shouted “for the Beatles to come to the window and be seen. I asked Lennon, who was standing nearest the window facing the children, to move over a few feet and yell a ‘hello.’ ‘Why those bloody little bastards,’ Lennon replied, ‘they try to interfere with us constantly, try to deprive us of our privacy. We’ve had it with ‘em, mate.’ It was an unthinkably rude response. But Ringo and Paul obliged the children.” So unpopular was Dexter’s ill-timed article that Billboard that an editorial in the next issue ended, “We profoundly regret that some readers found it objectionable. We had no such intent and we apologize to those who were offended. Nobody’s perfect—not even Billboard.”

“They got so big-headed,” complained Dexter in his interview with Chuck Haddix. “They were so thrilled with the first few records and the first couple of albums we issued, and they called and thanked me. This was way back when…right after we got ‘em. And they thought that our sound was better on Capitol than on Parlophone.

“A couple years later, why, they went around complaining that Capitol’s sound wasn’t nearly as good as the British sound. And that was printed in all the music publications and…I don’t even like to talk about the Beatles. To me, it was just an unhappy…” he trails off.


Top Fifteen Rock Reissues of 2015

The competition for top fifteen reissues of the year—at least the kind of reissues I listen to—isn’t as fierce as it used to be. With so much rock from the twentieth century having already been reissued (sometimes several times), it’s harder to find lost nuggets that haven’t been available, or that most people don’t yet know. Reissues increasingly (and some examples are on the list below) depend on big boxes mixing oft-heard material with rarities; thematic compilations; and bells and whistles in the form of long (sometimes mini-book length) liner notes, DVDs, or rare (or, more dubiously, new) mixes. And the easy availability of music of all sorts of reissues (including some just-off-the-assembly line) on Spotify, youtube, and other online sources is making more people wonder why they should bother with physical product in the first place.

My selection for #1 rock reissue of the year.

My selection for #1 rock reissue of the year.

But even though I by no means hear every one, or most, of the reissues that might interest me on an annual basis, there wasn’t a problem filling a quality top fifteen for 2015. And, as I’ve said in previous best-of-the-year blogposts, this list covers everything I’ve heard in the calendar year 2015, through the end of December. Pressure from publications to meet deadlines sometimes means writers submit their lists two to three months before the end of the year. That not only cuts off some post-September releases, but eliminates contenders from throughout the year that they might not hear until the final months.

Note that I’ve given several of these far lengthier reviews in issues #7 and 8 of Flashback, the London-based ‘60s/’70s rock history magazine.

1. Them, The Complete Them 1964-1967 (Exile/Legacy). The sudden appearance of a three-CD set with virtually everything Them released with Van Morrison—including an entire CD devoted to demos, BBC sessions, outtakes, and other rarities—is kind of miraculous, plugging a major gap in the catalog of ‘60s British Invasion rock. Yes, the 1997 double-CD The Story of Them Featuring Van Morrison had most of the studio material here, but it’s been out of print for quite some time, and didn’t have most of the rarities on disc three of the new anthology. Far more miraculous is that the concise, insightful, well-written liner notes bear the byline of Van Morrison himself, who seems to have gotten over whatever rumored resistance he might have had to preserving Them’s legacy. Not everything Them recorded with Van was great, but much of it was, with a fusion of R&B, rock, angst, slicing guitar, spooky organ, and Morrison’s commanding vocals that at its best was simply magnificent. The one notable absentee is the notorious alternate version of “Little Girl” (only issued on the first pressing of the obscure 14 various-artists charity compilation LP) on which Van yelps an obscenity on the fade—which means this collection doesn’t yet make some bootlegs obsolete.


2. The Velvet Underground, The Complete Matrix Tapes (Universal). Four-and-a-half hours (and four CDs) of the Velvet Underground live at the Matrix, a small San Francisco club, on November 26 and 27 in 1969. Some of this formed the basis of the greatest live rock album, 1969 Velvet Underground Live. No other band was as good the Velvets were in late 1969 at imaginatively varying their songs not only from the studio versions, but from performance to performance. With Doug Yule having replaced John Cale a year earlier, the group were also reaching a concert peak as a powerful rock band, albeit one that did some odd songs and engaged in some experimental electronic dissonance and improvisation.

This is not an expanded version of 1969 Velvet Underground Live, and, despite its far greater quantity, not as great a listen. A few songs (notably “Femme Fatale”) from 1969 Live that were recorded in Dallas are missing. There are 42 tracks, but just 23 songs, meaning you get two, three, and sometimes even four multiple versions, which works against listening to all four discs at once. And just nine of these performances were previously unreleased, though the half-dozen tracks that previously appeared on Bootleg Series Vol. 1: The Quine Tapes are in appreciably better fidelity here.

Still, judged on its own merits, this is a major document of one of the greatest rock bands at their best. Some of the performances not on 1969 Velvet Underground Live—like the arrangements of “The Black Angel’s Death Song” and “Venus in Furs” with creepy organ, the longer version of “Sweet Jane” with neat improvised-sounding new lyrics, and a glowing “I’m Set Free” with some of Reed’s finest vocals—are either superb or at the least very interesting and different. And the magnificent, lengthy “version 2” of “White Light/White Heat,” long familiar from its appearance on 1969 Live, is in my view the greatest performance they ever taped.


3. Zakary Thaks, It’s the End: The Definitive Collection (Big Beat). This isn’t nearly as lengthy and elaborate as most of the items on this list, in part because this great Texas garage band only put out a half-dozen singles in the mid-to-late-1960s. Still, it’s my #3 pick, such was the quality of their work, with searing fuzzy lead guitar and manic galloping tempos, as well as some good Merseybeat-ish pop and dark psychedelia. They should have been heard beyond their Corpus Christi hometown (where some of these 45s were hits), but weren’t heard much beyond Texas, at least until rediscovery by collectors. This has both sides of all six of their singles (not sequenced, however, in strictly chronological order), the length bumped up to 22 tracks with some outtakes and alternative versions. Most of this material has been reissued before, but this is the best package, with comprehensive liner notes featuring extensive quotes from band members.


4. The Pretty Things, Bouquets from a Cloudy Sky (Snapper). It’s hard to evaluate a mammoth box that includes so much good material, yet also has a lot of inconsequential stuff, and excludes some rarities that need to be there to make it definitive. Such is this 13-CD, two-DVD, one-ten-inch-EP (whew!) box set for, as the tired but true cliché goes, the best British Invasion band not to make it in the US. You’d think a package of this size couldn’t help but contain everything they ever recorded, but that’s not quite the case. Take the best half of this (and add the missing rarities), and there’d be no question that it would be closer to the top of this list, and in fact find a place on lists of some of the best reissue boxes ever. As it is, it’s imperfect and, for all its attributes, quite expensive considering that almost any fan who’s tempted to buy it will already have the non-rarities.

To check off the good points: this has all five of their core albums from their prime, as well as all the non-LP tracks they issued during that 1964-1970 period. Two CDs of rarities (as well as the ten-inch EP) feature some rare and sometimes previously unreleased live/radio/TV recordings, alternate versions, and demos, though the first disc (roughly covering that peak period) is far more interesting than the second. One of the DVDs is an excellent documentary with numerous mid-to-late 1960s archive clips (presented in their entirety) that will not be made available separately. And the accompanying 100-page hardbound book of liner notes, by Pretty Things authority (and Ugly Things magazine publisher/editor) Mike Stax, has excellent text and numerous cool vintage photos and graphics.

On the flip side, the fact is that the half-dozen post-1970 studio albums aren’t nearly as essential as their predecessors (and, sometimes, just aren’t very good). There’s nothing from their interesting psychedelic-flavored contributions to late-‘60s film soundtracks (usually referred to as the Electric Banana LPs). There are just a few songs from the unusual psychedelic LP they did in the late ‘60s backing French fan/singer Philippe Debarge (though this has come out in its entirety on a separate CD). And there’s little from their numerous BBC radio sessions, though again, fortunately much of that material has been issued separately.

So it’s tough to recommend a box that, as big and impressive as it is in some respects, is also notably flawed and pricey. Yet its better half does do justice to this great band, who did so much at the cutting edge of both raucous early British R&B/rock (as heard in their 1964-66 recordings) and early British psychedelic/progressive rock (as heard in the 1967-1970 tracks).


5. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Vol. 12: Bob Dylan 1965-1966: The Cutting Edge: Collector’s Edition (Columbia). Where do you rate a huge box set of vast historical importance, but which by the very nature of its completism is often hard to listen to in sequence? Like the Velvet Underground boxes on this list that are almost more documentaries than reissue collections, it’s hard to say. I’m putting it in the middle, knowing that some historians and Dylan fanatics would want me tarred and feathered for not anointing it #1.

This is the 18-CD edition of a release also available in six-CD and two-CD versions. It has everything—literally—Dylan recorded in the studio in 1965 and 1966, in the most celebrated juncture of his career, when he shifted from acoustic folk to electric rock. That means you get all the outtakes, demos, and alternate versions from the sessions that produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, as well as a few non-LP singles. There’s also a disc of informal non-studio acoustic tapes done in hotel rooms during the period. Such is the sheer volume of material that books could be written about it; perhaps some are even in the works (and there are good mini-books of sorts of liner notes and photos accompanying this most deluxe of editions).

So it’s hard to sum up in a best-of-the-year roundup, even in five paragraphs. Here are some key points: there are some real interesting variations here, like a full-band electric version of “Desolation Row,” an uptempo approach to “Visions of Johanna,” an acoustic “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” a “Mr. Tambourine Man” with bass and drums, and (less successfully) “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” with car horn (seriously!). There are also many alternate versions that aren’t too different from the released ones, and as they often run together in bunches since the set is sequenced chronologically, those segments make for more scholarly listening than fun. There are sixteen versions alone of “She’s Your Lover Now”—a song not even released in any form until about a quarter of a century later.

In the more interesting alternate versions, minor lyric alterations and tempo adjustments abound. Some of the alternates also give you the chance to hear the Band (then the Hawks) on some songs that were re-recorded with other musicians for Blonde on Blonde. Heard in this mammoth as-it-happened roll call, it’s also striking how the box reveals Dylan getting much more comfortable with electric musicians over the course of these fourteen months (“The drums are driving me mad. I’m going out of my brain!” he exclaims when an attempt at “Mr. Tambourine Man” with drums breaks down). It’s also striking how much more melodic his compositions got between Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde.

As if that’s not enough, purchasers of this (very expensive) collector’s edition also got a free download of MP3s of 208 (!) unreleased live 1965 tracks by Dylan, adding up to more than ten hours of additional music. Those MP3s are lower-fi (sometimes very lower-fi), and not up to the level of the famous Live 1966 concert from his spring European tour (eventually issued as volume four of Dylan’s Bootleg Series) in terms of sound quality, performance, or epochal historical importance. But they do add to the complete picture of one of the most analyzed eras of any musical artist’s output—which, with this Collector’s Edition box, is now documented in more detail than anyone would have thought possible.

It hasn’t been commented upon much in the media, but Dylan’s official bootleg series—in combination with his “copyright extension” releases of unreleased tracks, and some other odds and ends—has now made so much of his work available that you can trace his 1962-1967 trajectory in particular in finer details than you can almost any other rock artist. With more “copyright extension” stuff on the way (1966 live shows would be next, is my guess), it seems probable that almost everything he did in his first decade as a recording artist will soon be officially available, if you have the money and the time. (If you don’t, it will probably still be accessible in the you-know-where places if you have the right technology.) This isn’t only a development that no one would have thought Dylan would have authorized, but one that should be a model for other major artists who haven’t green-lighted release of most of their vault material to follow, from the Beatles on down.


6. David Bowie, Five Years 1969-1973 (Parlophone). For many fans, these are THE five years when it comes to Bowie, as they saw the rise to stardom on which his legend is based. This 12-CD box set has all six of the studio albums he issued during this period, along with six CDs of other material that’s not as jammed with rarities as you might think or hope, though there are some. Most of them are on a double CD (titled Re:Call 1 ) that  wraps together most of the non-LP items from this period worth mentioning, from the Italian version of “Space Oddity” and the original 45 version of “Holy Holy” (marking its first official reissue, believe it or not) to the covers of “Amsterdam” and Chuck Berry’s “Round and Round,” as well as the original 1970 version of “The Prettiest Star” and its non-LP B-side “Conversation Piece.” Less essential are the Live Santa Monica ’72 disc (already issued separately and officially in 2008) and the double-CD soundtrack to the Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars documentary, which is  better experienced on DVD (and available since 2003 on CD). Least essential is a CD devoted to a 2003 mix of Ziggy Stardust (by Paul Hicks and original LP co-producer Ken Scott) that is both unremarkable and unnecessary.

As for other bonuses, each CD contains reproductions of the original inner sleeves and inserts, as well as reproducing original LP artwork on the front and back covers (with alternate shots of Bowie-on-Heddon-Street for the 2003 Ziggy Stardust mix). More significant is the palm-sized 128-page hardback book with detailed memories of each of the half-dozen studio LPs by producers Tony Visconti and Ken Scott, and a brief foreword by Ray Davies. The book also has reprints of from-the-time reviews and features, as well as mucho period photos, record sleeves, posters, and adverts (though the tiny print on some handwritten lyrics and tape boxes makes those hard to read).

But — the actual CDs are missing material that could have easily fit on the discs as bonus tracks. These include his numerous BBC sessions of the period (admittedly those are well-represented by the two-CD Bowie at the Beeb: The Best of the BBC Radio Sessions 68-72) and outtakes that have shown up on some expanded editions of the albums. Best of all would have been a legit release, finally, of his early 1969 demos with John Hutchinson (see my chapter on Hutchinson in the ebook edition of Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, based on a lengthy recent interview with him), which have long been bootlegged in lo-fi fidelity, though the release of a couple of these as bonus tracks on prior reissue CDs have boasted much better sound quality.

Is that a lot to ask? Sure. But since the label’s asking a good deal of money for the box, and the space is there, it’s not asking such a lot, really. Especially since, in common with a number of items on this list, most people considering buying this will already have a lot of the tracks. Which is one reason this package doesn’t rank higher. Judged on the music alone, it might well have risen to #3. But the Pretty Things, Bob Dylan, and VU boxes have significantly more material that’s both historic and rare.


7. Fotheringay, Nothing More: The Collected Fotheringay (Universal). Fotheringay were one of the more interesting one-shot bands, putting out just one self-titled album in 1970 that’s most notable for featuring Sandy Denny as lead singer. It’s pretty amazing that a four-disc box set was assembled for a band that only put out one album. But here it is, including both Fotheringay and the way-posthumous collection 2 (based on sessions for their unfinished second album): outtakes/demos/alternate mixes from sessions for those albums; nine songs from a live performance at a Dutch festival in June 1970; seven tracks performed for BBC radio; and a DVD with four live numbers they filmed for German TV in November 1970. Truth to tell, while this (aside from the absence of some BBC recordings) is the definitive Fotheringay document, even some major Sandy Denny fans may find this box a bit of a slog at times, owing to the multiple not-too-different versions of numerous songs. It’s also true this isn’t nearly as good as the late-‘60s work by the band Denny had just left, Fairport Convention, and that the tracks featuring her writing and singing are leagues better than those featuring her husband, guitarist-singer-songwriter Trevor Lucas. But if you do want to hear almost everything the band did, this is the best compilation likely to be produced, bolstered by 40-page liner notes by Sandy Denny biographer Mick Houghton.

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8. Robin Gibb, Saved By the Bell: The Collected Works of Robin Gibb (Reprise). For many 1960s collectors (and many Bee Gees fans who aren’t particularly fanatical general ‘60s collectors), a CD reissue of Robin Gibb’s solo recordings in the brief period he left the group between early 1969 and mid-1970 has been a holy grail. His 1969 solo album, Robin’s Reign, had mysteriously escaped CD reissue; an unreleased 1970 solo follow-up, Sing Slowly Sisters, was only available on lo-fi bootlegs that sometimes added other rare material. So the appearance of both albums and more unissued tracks on this three-CD compilation was greeted by many fans—and this is not a sarcastic exaggeration—with a “thank god I’ve lived long enough to see/hear this” fervor. Not only does it have Sing Slowly Sisters in actual real studio quality, and the elusive if official Robin’s Reign, but it also adds numerous outtakes, demos, alternates, BBC tracks, and even a couple Italian-language versions.

There’s no faulting the thoroughness of this project, then. As for the music, I’m more ambivalent. I like the early Bee Gees, and Robin’s my favorite singer of the Gibb brothers, but these aren’t quite lost masterpieces. There’s an almost unremittingly gloomy rainy-day cast to much of the material, which is cool if you’re in that mood (or looking out your window into a torrential downpour), but a little much in such full buckets. His use of drum machine on some tracks was undoubtedly ahead of its time, but also, if you’re not a fan of the instrument (I’m not), lends a mechanical air to some of the recordings. The incessant melodrama, particularly on the more orchestrated cuts, are definitive exercises in what I’d call the “gondola rock” genre. Meaning it’s almost operatic and more akin to sentimental pop balladry than rock, as if you’re being serenaded for actual Italian gondola rides, if ones that emphasize the crumbling side of buildings and relationships rather than celebrating sun-baked lakes.

But if I’m not as gung-ho on this odd phase of Robin’s career as many cultists, I emphasize I do find this interesting, if flawed. And Reprise has filled a major gap in a major artist’s work, at a time when it’s getting harder and harder to excavate such items for ‘60s/’70s reissues. Note, by the way, that both Barry and Maurice Gibb also recorded a lot of unreleased solo material during this murky 1969-70 period, though what I’ve heard isn’t as good as Robin’s efforts. Don’t be surprised if some or much of that finally sees the light of day in the future, especially now that this release has paved the way for solo Bee Gees recordings from the vaults that many thought would never gain official reissue.


9. Procol Harum, Procol Harum [Two-CD Expanded Edition] (Esoteric). If this were judged merely by the quality of the album at the core of this expanded edition, this would vault to #3 or so on this list. Since this isn’t as overloaded with previously unavailable or era-spanning material as most of the preceding picks, and since that core album has long been easily available, it slides down to the second half. That’s not at all a negative reflection on this exemplary package, which augments Procol Harum’s classic debut LP (the UK version issued in January 1968) with both sides of the great “A White Shade of Pale” and “Homburg” hit singles, outtakes, BBC sessions, and stereo mixes. So the LP becomes a 37-song double CD, although some of the different mixes and extended stereo versions aren’t all that essential. The packaging is superb, with a 24-page booklet of liner notes by Procol Harum biographer Henry Scott-Irvine that’s jammed with rare photos and graphics, as well as a mini-poster of sorts reprinting a period ad on one side and lyrics to all the songs on the other. The superfluous nature of some of the extra tracks keeps this from ranking higher, but the best of this is excellent British psychedelic rock mixing soul, classical, blues, and poetry. It’s a model of how to treat an essential record with a definitive reissue, and though I don’t like their second album (Shine on Brightly) as much, Esoteric did a three-CD expanded edition of that LP that’s equally impressive packaging-wise.


10. Various Artists, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (Dust-to-Digital). The soundtrack to the fine documentary of the same name (see review in my best-of-2015 music film listings) compiles twenty recordings of Cambodian music—most, though not all, rock or rock-influenced—spanning the mid-1960s to the mid-1960s. Cambodian rock of this period was an odd (at least to Western ears) hybrid of surf, British Invasion, and psychedelia with more indigenous Cambodian influences. The music is haunting, sometimes spooky, and exotic in its improbable combinations, regardless of whether you know much about its social context.

The tracks on this collection are diverse enough that one hesitates to make generalizations about the Cambodian rock style, especially as this spans more than a decade. However, based on what’s here and on other comps, it certainly seems true that it often boasted high, trilling, at times tremulous female vocals; shaky, cheesy organs; twangy surf-ish guitars; and melancholy, winding melodies, along with some interjections of jazzy horns. The blend makes for a ghostly time-warp effect, evolving from primitive early-‘60s naiveté to something a little heavier. Yet those cheesy organs, as well as other attributes redolent of a decade-old era, were still hanging in there on some mid-‘70s sides shortly before the Khmer Rouge pulled the plug.

As unlikely as such a prospect might have seemed only two or three decades ago, vintage Cambodian rock is actually now fairly well represented by compilations such as the volumes in the Cambodia Rocks series. Whether you’re familiar with those or not, this is still a good wide-ranging anthology, with better packaging and annotation than other Cambodian rock comps I’ve seen. Keep in mind, however, that even basic information about some of the tracks isn’t always readily available, and though years and original label details are sometimes noted, some tracks don’t include them at all. The 36-page booklet does have basic profiles of many of the performers, as well as a wealth of vintage photos and record sleeves.


11. Ginger Johnson, African Party (Freestyle). Nigerian percussionist Ginger Johnson was based in London, and already in his early fifties, when he made this proto-Afrobeat album in 1967. He was (as the packaging for this CD reissue emphasizes) a mentor to Fela during that legend’s time in London in the early 1960s. He and his troupe also backed the Rolling Stones on their performance of “Sympathy for the Devil” at their 1969 concert in Hyde Park. Of more importance, this is a fine fusion of African music, jazz, and Latin influences, the oft-instrumental format punctuated by merry, sometimes chanting vocals, sometimes in high-energy call-response tradeoffs. In many respects it’s African highlife before that term was in wide circulation, but has more joyful spontaneity than many of the more formulaic recordings in the style from subsequent decades.


12. Various Artists, Dust on the Nettles: A Journey Through the British Underground Folk Scene 1967-72 (Grapefruit). Compiled and annotated by top British rock historian David Wells, this three-CD package includes 63 tracks, spanning top names who actually had hit albums to artists that even specialist collectors might not recognize. To start with the big names, Pentangle, Steeleye Span, early Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention are all here, though even so, the ISB and Fairport are represented by demos (of “First Girl I Loved” and “Fotheringay,” respectively) rather than the familiar album versions. (Donovan and Al Stewart are missing, but maybe it was felt they’re just too big, or at least that no enticing rarities could be licensed from their vaults.) Going a bit down the ladder, also on board are Clive Palmer, C.O.B., Dando Shaft, Trees, Anne Briggs, Duncan Browne, Trader Horne, Mick Softley, Vashti Bunyan, and Bridget St. John. Lots of other names will be known to those who’ve kept up with more cultish rediscoveries and reissues, from Shelagh McDonald and Mark Fry to Agincourt and Comus. Some of the other cuts are so fiendishly rare that it’s doubtful anyone has all 63 of the tracks in their collection, save perhaps Wells himself.

So you’re likely to hear something new here even if you think you’ve heard it all. Of greater importance is that it’s a well-sequenced set that will give you a good overview of the more interesting fringes of the British folk-rock (and sometimes just plain British folk) scene of the time, even if you own little of it. It’s diverse enough that it’s not easy to quickly summarize common threads. But some of them would include oh-so-mild psychedelic influences, whether via unusual instruments, a tinge of raga, or unexpected blasts of distorted guitar; a frequent mysticism, sometimes verging on hippy-dippy, sometimes rooted in a more medieval air; and an overall sense that, while generally rooted in folk, the performers were itching to write and record material that burst out of traditional folk’s sometimes stifling strictures. Sometimes the idiosyncratic collision of folk, rock, and pop elements can make the artists sound like folkier Moody Blues, as Oberon do on “Minas Truth.”

That doesn’t mean everything here will appeal to all tastes, even if this wide umbrella of a style is a specialty of yours. British folk-rock was generally considerably more reserved and subdued, and less electric, than the American variety, and sometimes I got impatient to hear a some more grit, some more oomph. In this context, the selections that are a bit edgier, and even the ones that use more memorable pop-influenced melodies, stand out in relief. But in its mixture of artists of various degrees of fame and varying sub-styles within the British folk/British folk-rock genre, as well as its abundance of rarities, it’s an excellent overview. If there was a best-of list for 2015 reissue liner notes, this would rank higher, as Wells’s small-print 36-page track-by-track annotation (decorated with plenty of rare photos and picture sleeves) is a tour de force.


13. Various Artists, Truckers, Kickers, Cowboy Angels: The Blissed-Out Birth of Country Rock, Vol. 1-4 (Bear Family). Bearing an arguably too-long title, this series is basically an anthology of early country rock, covering 1966-1971. The first volume covers 1966-68, and the others are dedicated to a year each (1969, 1970, 1971); all are double CDs except the single-disc Vol. 2 (1969), adding up to seven CDs in all. The series will continue beyond 1971, but most people—most critics, anyway—will probably agree that 1966-1971 represents country-rock’s peak creative period, though some of its greatest commercial successes would come in following years.

Nagging logistics out of the way, country-rock experts and novices will hear many of the artists who were most important to the style’s birth and peak over the course of the four volumes, and get a good idea of the range of music that fell under the country-rock umbrella. The International Submarine Band, the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gene Clark, Mike Nesmith, Poco, Bob Dylan, Rick Nelson, the Beau Brummels, the Everly Brothers, Hearts & Flowers, and Linda Ronstadt are all here. So are artists who only eased into country-rock on occasion, like the Grateful Dead, Link Wray, Moby Grape, the Youngbloods, Little Feat, and the Lovin’ Spoonful. More unusually, there are also singers primarily identified as country musicians, but who either admitted some rock into their music or appealed to lots of rock listeners, like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, and Buck Owens.

I wish there had been more rarities, but there are a few, such as a pair of tracks on the 1969 volume by the Corvettes, the short-lived Mike Nesmith-produced early country-rock supergroup of sorts with Chris Darrow, Jeff Hanna (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band), John London, and John Ware, the last two of whom would play with Nesmith in the First National Band. There are also selections by some minor acts who will be recognized by many specialists in sounds of the era, but have rarely or never been recognized by compilations such as these. The Gosdin Brothers, Nashville West (again with White and Parsons), Morning, Cowboy, Goose Creek Symphony, Country Funk, the Wildweeds, and Brave Belt (with just ex-Guess Who guitarist Randy Buchanan) all fall into that category. Not all of their selections are great, but they do a great deal to round out the picture of early country-rock’s evolution, supplying edges that are lost by retrospectives that just focus on the usual suspects. Also in this semi-rarity category, for better or worse, is the original 1971 version of “Delta Dawn” by Alex Harvey (no relation to Scottish rock legend Alex Harvey), who’s credited as co-writer of the song with rockabilly legend Larry Collins; it predates the hit country cover by Tanya Tucker and the huge 1973 pop cover by Helen Reddy.

Perhaps contentiously, there are tracks by artists who were more country-rock influenced than actual country rockers, like the Band. Doug Sahm, Elvis Presley, John Prine, Delaney & Bonnie, Hoyt Axton (with his version of “Never Been to Spain,” covered for a hit by Three Dog Night), British band Cochise, Bobbie Gentry, the Monkees (who did actually go into semi-country-rock sometimes) are a few examples; there are even cuts by Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin, stars associated with the San Francisco psychedelic scene. As controversial as purists might find their presence, they improve the listenability of the compilations, and also illustrate how country-rock’s reach extended beyond artists who specialized in the form, even if some of the choices might confuse listeners who aren’t too familiar with the style.

More objectionable are occasional choices that fall closer to easy listening pop than country-rock, like Glen Campbell’s “Galveston” and Kenny Rogers’s “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love to Town”), which are neither rare nor very good. Additionally, it has to be noted that a few artists whose country-rock-oriented efforts should have been on these volumes aren’t because of licensing hurdles, notably Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (and Neil Young solo) and Creedence Clearwater Revival. But on the whole, it functions as a reasonable overview of country-rock’s prime, and the in-depth liner notes also add up to a near-book on their own.

Note that technically speaking, the first two volumes are 2014 releases, not to mention that some might find a portion of an ongoing series something that should not get an entry of its own. But I thought it most sensible to group what are likely to be the best installments of the series into one entry, fully expecting to be held accountable for these transgressions by hardliners subscribing to the “one vote, one record, one year” motto. This might have ranked higher if I was more of a country-rock fan; such is the low-energy calmness, sometimes downright laidbackness, of this material that I was desperate for something raunchier and more exuberant after hearing all of these comps in a row.

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14. Slim Harpo, Buzzin’ the Blues: The Complete Slim Harpo (Bear Family). Louisiana bluesman Slim Harpo devised (with much help from producer Jay Miller) an intoxicating shuffling, riff-driven sound fusing blues with R&B, soul, and swampy rock’n’roll. If you don’t know anything besides his two Top Forty pop hits (1961’s “Rainin’ in My Heart,” covered by the Pretty Things, and 1966’s “Baby Scratch My Back”), you probably know the covers of his songs by major British Invasion bands the Rolling Stones (“I’m a King Bee,” “Shake Your Hips”), the Yardbirds (“Got Love If You Want It”), the Kinks (also “Got Love If You Want It”), the Who (who put new lyrics to “Got Love If You Want It” on their 1964 single “I’m the Face,” credited to the High Numbers), and Them (“Don’t Start Crying Now”).

The originals are all on this five-CD, 142-track box. All of the aforementioned songs, however, are on the best Slim Harpo best-of, Rhino’s predictably titled The Best of Slim Harpo. So do you need this? No, if you’re the average fan. As good as his style was, a lot of his songs were formulaic, whether of his early shuffle style or the more soul-influenced, reverberant guitar-heavy “Baby Scratch My Back.” A good deal of this set is taken up by outtakes and alternate versions, a few of which are good, but many of which are likewise similar to other and better tracks from his official catalog. And while the live material from two 1961 concerts that comprises disc five is historically interesting, the sound isn’t that great.

But if you’re heavily into the Slim Harpo sound and are up for a lot at once (or a lot spread over a reasonable span of time), this does set a consistently pleasing mood, such is the insistently swampy-to-the-point-of-humid buzz of most of his tracks. There are occasional highlights to the rarities, like the 1960 outtakes “Lover’s Confession” (with its haunting minor-keyed melody and spooky guitar reverb) and “Wild About My Baby,” with its raucous near-rock’n’roll feel. And Bear Family again comes up aces with the liner notes, which are actually an LP-sized 106-page hardbook book jammed with descriptive detail, session information, and pictures. And it’s just a taster for a full Harpo biography—also by the author of these notes, Martin Hawkins—that will be published Louisiana State University Press in 2016.


15. The Velvet Underground, Loaded (Re-Loaded 45th Anniversary Edition) (Rhino). If this six-disc expansion of Loaded had come out twenty years ago, it would rank higher on this list instead of bringing up the rear. It’s another of those difficult deluxe boxes that’s welcome for its completist/definitive (well, almost completist/definitive; more on that in a bit) expansion of a classic album, but one that’s too expensive and recycles too much material already in completist fans’ collections. Basically, this augments the Velvet Underground’s 1970 album (their final studio LP with Lou Reed) with mono versions; 25 demos, outtakes, alternates, and alternate mixes; the Live at Max’s Kansas City album (recorded in August 1970, issued in 1972), with some outtakes not on the original LP; a live show from May 9, 1970; and, least essentially, an audio-only DVD with hi-end remixes.

Loaded is my least favorite of the four studio albums the VU did with Reed (and the most conventional), but was still overall a major work with some of his best songs. Some of the alternate versions are important, whether it’s the significantly longer one of “Sweet Jane” or an “Oh! Sweet Nuthin’” with Reed on lead vocals instead of Doug Yule. There are also some very good songs that didn’t make it onto Loaded, though some would surface in different guises on Lou’s early solo albums (like “Ocean,” “Satellite of Love,” and “Sad Song”). But – and it’s an important but – most of these 25 extras were on Rhino’s 1997 two-CD Fully Loaded Edition, which most people considering a six-disc Loaded box will already have. And for all its length, Re-Loaded misses an “alternate demo” of “Satellite of Love” that appeared on the 1995 Peel Slowly and See box, as well as one of the long versions of “New Age” from Fully Loaded Edition.

There are problems with other parts of the box too. Rhino’s expanded edition of Max’s had 17 songs; Re-Loaded is missing two of those. The May 9, 1970 show (long available on bootleg) is simply a disappointment, with lousy fidelity that no twenty-first-century tech cleanup can make too listenable. And while Lenny Kaye’s essay is okay, the liner notes on Fully Loaded Edition and the expanded Max’s offered much more information than this package does. For all its quantity, there’s simply too much barrel-scraping and not-quite-100%-everything going on with this box to put it in the top ten, though it does just make the top fourteen. For a more detailed rundown of Re-Loaded, see my review in Record Collector News.


And an honorable mention to:

16. Françoise Hardy, Tous Les Garçons et Les Filles/Le Premier Bonhour du Jour/Mon Amie La Rose/L’Amitié/La Maison Ou J’Ai Grandi (Light in the Attic). These straight reissues of Hardy’s first five French LPs (originally issued between 1963-66) don’t have any bonus tracks. Even combined, they don’t cover this prime period of the greatest French pop-rock artist nearly as well as the 83-track, 4-CD box The Complete Vogue Recordings 1962-1967 (from 1995, on Vogue/BMG). So why is it here? First, because these mark the first time these albums have been available on CD in the US, and any more exposure for Hardy in this country is welcome. Second, the comprehensive English-language liner notes include a good amount of information that’s not easy (or possible) to come by elsewhere, including some first-hand interview quotes from the reclusive Hardy herself. Though it’s missing some very good material from this era that didn’t make it onto the original LPs, the 60 tracks on these CDs do show her growth from catchy early yé-yé—with heavy debts to American teen idols and girl groups—to spectacular mid-‘60s orchestral pop-rock of almost Spectorian grandeur.


Some final thoughts:

If there’s a trend in reissues, it’s the appearance of material in bulk that no would have envisioned even a few years ago, both because of its expense and the real or rumored reluctance of the artists to approve such releases. Bob Dylan’s unreleased work in particular is becoming available with such minute thoroughness that it seems like almost everything he did (especially prior to 1971) will soon be available. Van Morrison didn’t record all that much with Them, but as previously noted, the sudden appearance of a three-CD set that tracks down everything—with liner notes credited to Van himself!—indicates he’s had a change of heart in preserving his early legacy in a definitive package. The Velvet Underground now have four big deluxe boxes for each of their studio albums, and a four-CD set of live 1969 material, much of it unreleased until very recently.

Is this happening because the labels and the artists are getting more desperate to make money out of a sagging record business, or because the artists realize in their old age that it’s now or never if they want input into getting this material out there and rounding out their legacy? It’s probably both, I’d guess. It’s unfortunate that some such packages come with material that the people most likely to buy them are likely to already own, sometimes more than once. It’s also too bad that few of them can seem to manage the feat of being totally definitive and including everything possible. But at least we’re seeing (and hearing) far more such rock history than most of us would have expected in our wildest dreams—a windfall that’s likely, I predict, to continue in the coming years.

Top Twenty Rock History Books of 2015

It’s not a good time for everything—just listen to a presidential debate if you want a taste of what’s wrong with the world—but it’s a good time for rock history books. Maybe it’s a combination of more and more veteran rockers wanting to get their stories down while there’s still time, as well as the book market making room for more and more “niche” titles, now that many of the stories of bigger stars and styles have been told. But we’re still seeing lots of memoirs of musicians famous and obscure, along with biographies and less easily classified volumes that go down roads dismissed as of little interest to anyone just a few years ago. Even some of the books on superstars shed new light on their subjects, along with the inevitable recycling of lots of material that’s already familiar to knowledgeable fans.

My selection for #1 rock history book of 2015.

My selection for #1 rock history book of 2015.

Such are the wealth of choices, in fact, that it’s pretty hard to make annual “best-of” lists without missing a few contenders that you aren’t able to read (or aren’t even aware of) before the end of December. So this post is divided into a couple sections. One is my list of best rock books of 2015, for which only books published between January 1 and December 31 were considered. And as this post was finished only a day or two before the end of December, it does consider all books I read in the calendar year, unlike many best-of lists that are submitted to publications a month or two (or even three) before the year actually ends.

But since it does take a while to both find out about and catch up on books from the last year or two, this post also lists noteworthy 2014 titles that didn’t make my actual 2014 Top Twenty or so list. It’s always frustrated me, as a writer and reader (and listener), that many print publications consider books and records yesterday’s news after just a few months. Books from 2014 really aren’t that old, and – like music from before 2015, or any art regardless of its age – could and should be enjoyed at any time. These 2014 books do have the advantage over, say, 2004 books (let alone 1964 books) of still being easily available, even if you might not see them mentioned in upcoming review sections, or even year-end roundups. As for the 2015 books I haven’t yet been able to read, well, I’ll be able to mention some of them as a supplement to my 2016 list.

I’ll start with my Top Twenty books of 2015. I have much longer reviews of the ones relating to Sandy Denny, Ray Davies, and Merrell Fankhauser in issue #7 of Flashback, the London-based ‘60s/’70s rock history magazine.

1. I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Biography of Sandy Denny, by Mick Houghton (Faber & Faber). A major work, this 500-page biography doesn’t exactly make the only other significant book on Sandy Denny (No More Sad Refrains: The Life and Times of Sandy Denny, by Clinton Heylin) redundant. But this excellent volume is certainly better, and will certainly stand as the definitive account of her life, drawing on first-hand interviews with more than fifty of her surviving colleagues, family, and friends. Houghton was also granted access to the entire archive of Denny and her husband (and, in Fotheringay and a later version of Fairport Convention, bandmate) Trevor Lucas, including previously unresearched documents and photos. The wealth of material is tied together with an even hand that both praises and criticizes her music when warranted. Also included is a lengthy “playlist” section that places her recordings in useful context with releases by other artists (usually folk-rockers) who moved in the same circles as Denny, or had some influence on her.

Note that the race, if you want to call it that, between this and the #2 pick below (Ray Davies: A Complicated Life) for the #1 position was so close that the rankings could have easily been reversed, or declared a tie. I went with the Denny bio as she’s been covered a lot less than Davies and the Kinks, making it ultimately of very slighter significance and value.


2. Ray Davies: A Complicated Life, by Johnny Rogan (The Bodley Head). Although this is titled like it’s a biography of the Kinks’ main singer and songwriter, Ray Davies, it’s more like a book about the Kinks themselves. And it’s a very long and thorough one, too, running about 750 pages, including loads of first-hand and off-the-beaten-track interview material with the Kinks and close associates. Note that although Rogan wrote a previous Kinks biography that draws from many of the same interviews, there’s a lot more information here, including some re-interviews of subjects he spoke to the first time around. And while it does cover Ray Davies’s life to the present, the great bulk of it—well over half—is devoted to the Kinks’ prime decade, from the early 1960s to the early 1970s.

Another crucial plus is that Rogan interviewed many central and auxiliary figures, including all of the Kinks worth noting (though not much is used from drummer Mick Avory) and crucial associates like producer Shel Talmy and early managers Robert Wace and Larry Page. For this edition (if you look at it as a three-times-the-size expansion of his 1980s Kinks book), he tracked down some notable characters who’ve seldom or never spoken on the record, like pre-Avory drummers John Start and Mickey Willett, and Ray’s first wife Rasa, who sang on many of the Kinks’ ‘60s tracks. Although some of Rogan’s angles might get on the wrong side of some fans (particularly his frequent citations of Ray’s miserliness), it’s woven together with an expertise and readability that will make most of it a page-turner for Kinks devotees. In addition to his own research, the author also excerpts from a wide source of articles stretching back fifty years, as well as some unedited film footage, transcripts, and notes from interviews conducted by others.

Ray Davies

3. Notes from the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed, by Howard Sounes (Doubleday). Besides being the principal genius behind the Velvet Underground (and the creator of some good subsequent music during his long and erratic solo career), Lou Reed was notorious for being a difficult, cranky man who alienated many colleagues, romantic partners, and journalists. This well-researched, cogent biography won’t change that perception. But it’s backed up by first-hand interviews with many (though certainly not all) people who knew and worked with him throughout his life, including members of the Velvet Underground, producers, musicians in his bands, record label executives, and managers. Of special interest are comments on his married and family life by relatives and partners who have not often spoken on the record, particularly his first wife, Betty Kronstad, and his sister Bunny.

In line with many rock bios, the music Reed made got less interesting toward the end of his life, and Sounes thins out the coverage of his less essential efforts in appropriate fashion. The Velvet Underground years and his early solo work gets the most attention, and while the author doesn’t shy from criticizing Reed’s weakest records and songs, he also gives proper kudos to Lou’s best. While much of this ground will be familiar to Reed enthusiasts, it’s a better book than the previous major volume on the singer, Victor Bockris’s Lou Reed: The Biography. Sounes is considerably more accurate, did more legwork, and presents his opinions in a much more reasoned fashion.

Incidentally, another Reed biography, Aidan Levy’s Dirty Blvd.: The Life and Music of Lou Reed, appeared near the end of 2015. While I did not find it strong enough to include on my list, it does have some interesting stories from people who haven’t been interviewed much—including some people interviewed for Notes from the Velvet Underground (like Betty Kronstad) and some not (like Vinny LaPorta of the Tots, who backed Reed in concert for a while in the early 1970s). I’ve read reports that no less than three other Reed biographies are on the way, and while more info on Lou is always welcome, you have to wonder how those are going to avoid overlapping with what’s already out there.


4.  Allen Klein: The Man Who Bailed Out the Beatles, Made the Stones, and Transformed Rock & Roll, by Fred Goodman (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). As business manager of both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles in the late 1960s and early 1970s (as well as numerous other British rock acts), Allen Klein played a controversial role in their careers. Although he gained unprecedented concessions from record companies for his artists, he also sowed some discord within the Beatles and Rolling Stones through both his personal style and his financial practices. The legalities of his contractual relationships with his clients aren’t all that easy to wade through if you don’t have a head for that sort of thing. But this book lays them out for the layperson with about as much accessibility as can be attained, combining the business analysis with plenty of stories about the colorful manager’s abrasive style and relationships with the celebrated rockers he represented.


5. Shake It Up Baby! Notes from a Pop Music Reporter 1961-1972, by Norman Jopling (RockHistory). Jopling was a reporter for several UK music papers between the early 1960s and the early 1970s, most notably for Record Mirror, where he worked the bulk of that time. He’s most famous for writing the first piece about the Rolling Stones to appear in a national music paper (Record Mirror in spring 1963, before they had a record deal), but wrote about almost all sorts of rock and soul. His 500-page memoir is a very entertaining look not just inside the British music press, but the explosive growth of rock (particularly British rock) itself during that period, Joplin having written about and interviewed many legends from the Beatles on down. Some readers might find the frequent inserts of passages reprinting some of his old (usually brief) Record Mirror features distracting, but on the other hand, those articles are themselves of interest (and give a flavor for the era), and not easy to find elsewhere. Also of interest are his memories of an ill-fated attempt to start an independent record production company in the late 1960s with one-time early Who manager Pete Meaden.


6. Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life, by David Cavanagh (Faber & Faber). From 1967 until his death in 2003, John Peel was the most influential DJ in the UK, at least as measured by how many up-and-coming acts of all kinds and eras he helped expose to a national audience. This quite large (620-page) book is not so much a biography as a survey of 300 radio broadcasts he presented, including a few he did on the pirate station Radio London in 1967 before joining the BBC. Woven into the program descriptions are details about both Peel’s personal life and the rapidly changing music scene in general.

I had my doubts about whether this format could work, but Cavanagh does an excellent job of balancing the different facets of what he covers. It’s neither an encyclopedic reference of what Peel played when or an account of his life (which Peel gave, rather unsatisfactorily, in the autobiography Margrave of the Marshes). Instead, it’s a highly readable volume that incorporates plenty of colorful anecdotes from his eccentric life, as well as documenting his eclectic tastes and avaricious hunger for new music. That made him an unlikely icon of both the psychedelic/progressive era and the punk/new wave one, though his enthusiasm for the brand-new could be reckless and dismissive of music that wasn’t up-to-the-moment, even music that he’d championed not too many years before he moved on to other styles. It also functions almost as a reflection of the many changes rock (particularly the underground variety)—and, to some extent, folk, world music, and hip-hop—went through between 1967 and 2003, Peel remaining keen all the while to find the new and the novel, even though his extreme ranges of taste guaranteed that no listener would enjoy everything he played.


7. Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock’n’Roll, by Peter Guralnick (Little, Brown). Huge (about 750-page) biography about the man who founded and ran Sun Records, the label that’s most famous for launching Elvis Presley in 1954 and 1955. Sun also did the first, or some of the first, recordings by rockabilly stars Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Roy Orbison, as well as bluesmen B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Ike Turner, and Junior Parker, along with many others. Guralnick interviewed Phillips many times over a period of more than twenty years, and also spoke with many of his artists, colleagues, and family (not to mention several women with whom Phillips had lengthy affairs). He also had access to quite a few letters, and rare photos and documents, some of which are reproduced in the book.

Nonetheless, I expected this to rank higher on my list than it does. As someone who holds Guralnick in esteem for the wealth of important writing he’s done on American roots music since the ‘70s; who greatly enjoys huge books whose length seems to put the general reader off; and has written huge books myself, it pains me to write the following cautionary. But it has to be said that while the story’s told in great detail, the detail is perhaps too great, as it really could have done with some editing to make the story more readable and less jammed with superfluous stories and repetitious over-effusiveness. To a greater extent, these flaws diminished his Sam Cooke biography; it has not been such a factor in my favorite Guralnick books, such as Sweet Soul Music and his two-part Elvis biography. If it’s the gist of the Sun story you’re after, you don’t miss too much if you go for Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins’s excellent, more concise Good Rockin’ Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock and Roll.


8. Beatles Gear: All the Fab Four’s Instruments from Stage to Studio: The Ultimate Edition, by Andy Babiuk (Backbeat). Beatles Gear has been a great reference since its original publication in 2001 (with a revised edition appearing the following year). Almost fifteen years later, we have “The Ultimate Edition.” Unlike many books bearing such tags, it really is a major expansion of the original volume, doubling in size to 512 coffee table-sized pages. The extra material comes chiefly in the form of more than 650 (!) additional photos, though there’s some new information in the text as well, often from people with inside stories about the Beatles’ instruments who contacted Babiuk after the first edition.

Of most importance, however, is that this remains one of the core Beatles books for those who want really detailed, intensely researched stories on how, why, and where the group played their many instruments. It covers not just their guitars, bass, and drums, but also the keyboards, harmonicas, sitars, amps, etc. they also used, all the way up to their deployment of the Moog on Abbey Road. It’s true that gearheads will get the most out of this, but you don’t have to be a musician to enjoy the text. It’s presented in a highly readable fashion, with the technical nitty-grittys usually shuttled into paragraphs that can be skimmed if you don’t need to know where all the knobs were. The photos are highly entertaining and of themselves, with lots of pictures of the Beatles’ instruments; repros of vintage instrument ads; memorabilia like receipts for the purchase of their instruments; and plenty of pix of the group themselves onstage and in the studio, a few of which have never before been published.


9. Sound Explosion: Inside L.A.’s Studio Factory with the Wrecking Crew, by Ken Sharp (Wrecking Crew LLC). As kind of a companion to the well-received documentary The Wrecking Crew! (see best-of-2015 music documentary listings), this paperback coffee table book is an oral history of the Los Angeles studio musicians who played on countless 1960s rock records. There are quotes, sometimes numerous and extensive ones, from many of the most notable session musicians from the scene, like Carol Kaye, Tommy Tedesco, Don Randi, Larry Knechtel, and Hal Blaine. There are also many quotes from artists who used those musicians and producers, including big names like Brian Wilson (and other Beach Boys) and Phil Spector. And there are many cool period photos, some in color, as well as rare graphics and documents from the time, including some session sheets (which tell you exactly who was on the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” session, for example). There’s some redundancy between quotes in the main section of memories, as well as some harsh assessments of the bands they were ghosting for (and indeed of rock’n’roll in general), giving the impression some of the players felt the whole music was beneath them. But their memories are overall worthwhile, and complemented well by a final section with detailed stories about several dozen 1962-70 hits on which the Wrecking Crew participated.


10.  Blood, Sweat and My Rock’n’Roll Years, by Steve Katz (Rowman & Littlefield). Guitarist, harmonica player, and singer-songwriter Steve Katz was an important part of the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. He was also in some lesser known if interesting groups (the Even Dozen Jug Band and American Flyer), and did some producing, most notably for Lou Reed in the mid-1970s. This is a straightforward recount of his experiences, focusing mostly on the 1960s and 1970s, and more on the Blues Project and early BS&T than anything else. Which is appropriate—unlike some other memoirs by veterans from the period, it’s not padded with extraneous material, cutting mostly to the bone of the music and craziness of the era’s music business.

With understated wit, Katz fills in a lot of detail about the dynamics of his bands, and has some pretty harsh things to say about his older brother (and, for a while, Lou Reed manager) Dennis, Blues Project/original BS&T keyboardist Al Kooper, and BS&T lead singer David Clayton-Thomas. (For another view of disputes between Kooper and Katz, there are missives from the other side in Kooper’s memoir, Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards.) If you’re wondering whether Reed comes off better here than he does in Howard Sounes’s Notes from the Velvet Underground: The Life of Lou Reed (see review earlier in this post), no, he doesn’t. Even as a fan of the Blues Project and first-album BS&T, there are a good number of stories that were unfamiliar to me, like Katz’s affair with Mimi Fariña, the brief presence of Emmaretta Marks in a Blues Project lineup, and BS&T’s tour behind the Iron Curtain. Most affecting was his summary of the Blues Project’s legacy—“a great live band who, thanks to an uncaring record company, made some pretty poor-sounding records that never further than FM radio.”


11. Nico: In the Shadow of the Moon Goddess, by Lutz Graf-Ulbrich (self-published ebook). In the last half of the 1970s, Graf-Ulbrich (then known simply as Lutz Ulbrich) was Nico’s off-on guitarist and boyfriend. This slim but illuminating English-language memoir concentrates on the years he toured with her, also adding a bit about his interactions with the singer before (when he was guitarist in the Krautrock bands Agitation Free and Ash Ra Tempel) and after that time. It’s enlivened by some rare photos, posters, and documents, as well as letters and postcards (in German, with English translations supplied) she wrote him during their relationship. Ebooks are making niche-within-niche books like these more viable, and more are likely on the way from all directions that fill in the cracks of cult rock history.


12. Psychedelic Bubble Gum: Boyce & Hart, The Monkees, and Turning Mayhem into Miracles, by Bobby Hart with Glenn Ballantyne (SelectBooks). As half of the songwriting/performing duo Boyce & Hart, and supplier of material for the Monkees and the Partridge Family, Bobby Hart was about as mainstream a figure in 1960s mainstream pop-rock as there was. So he won’t win any awards for hipness from many critics, but his nearly decade-long journey from journeyman singer to hit songwriter (both for the Monkees and Boyce & Hart) was pretty interesting. There’s nothing too earth-shaking about this memoir—it’s just a solid, straightforward account of his career, emphasizing the decade from his arrival in Hollywood in the late 1950s to his late-‘60s peak. There are plenty of stories about the more behind-the-scenes aspects of the era’s recording industry, from printing shops that generated the physical record labels on discs to the demo studios, Brill Building offices, and Hollywood lots where Hart (usually with Tommy Boyce) got much of their work and hustling done.

As prototypical as their career path was in many ways (though it reached a far higher zenith of success than most aspiring songwriting teams), there’s also the occasional surprise, like finding out Boyce’s girlfriend was stolen from him by New York record magnate George Goldner, or that Micky Dolenz’s wordless scatting in “Last Train to Clarksville” came about because he had trouble jamming in all the words of the original bridge. Hart was in some ways hipper than his music, as Boyce & Hart were active in campaigning to lower the US voting age from 21 to 18 and supported Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign. He also got heavily into spiritual matters from the 1970s onward, and one gets the feeling he would have been happy to write a lot more about that journey, though it’s largely limited to the final pages of this autobiography. Which is typical of the humility of his prose, which largely sticks to the story without making grander claims for himself than are merited.


13. How Can It Be? A Rock & Roll Diary, by Ronnie Wood (Genesis Publications). Page-by-page reproduction of Ronnie Wood’s 1965 diary, when he was lead guitarist in struggling London R&B/rock band the Birds (who had a few singles, but no hits). Although this is for pretty serious Wood/Rolling Stones fans, if you are one, it’s a fascinating “he was there” look at the London R&B/club circuit. That’s not so much for the diary entries, which are mundane details about their gigs and friends, but for the memories and observations about the time they spark in the many comments Wood wrote especially for this reproduction. It’s a real-time document of a different era, when a reasonably talented but ultimately also-ran band—one of many playing in the style of the Rolling Stones that sprang up after the Stones’ initial success—could regularly run into other legends on the scene like the Who, as well as many also-rans, like the Artwoods (with Ron’s brother Art on vocals). It’s also enhanced by numerous photos and reproductions of gig posters from the time.

It’s also a reminder of the underside of the scene in which daily life was not dominated by the hit records and headlines enjoyed by the Stones and Who, but exulting over a record getting into the Top Sixty (and panicking when it quickly fell out); getting a royalty check of 15 pounds or so; being unable to rehearse in the inept harmonica player’s big garage after kicking him out of the band; backing Bo Diddley on tour; and having your mother remember Keith Moon as a gentleman, not a crazed loon. And, in a publicity stunt cooked up by their manager, serving the Byrds (from the US, with a y) writs for using a similar name when they arrived at the airport for a British tour—an incident Wood expresses guilt for, though he does note it finally got them on the front page of Melody Maker. There are also occasional brief stories about Ron’s post-1965 career, like his memory of how he got into the Jeff Beck Group by simply calling him up after Beck left the Yardbirds and asking what he was up to. Note that while this first came out as one of the very expensive limited editions in which Genesis specializes, it very quickly also came out in an affordable mass-market hardback edition close to the standard list price that you might expect from a book like this.


14. Electric Shock: From the Gramophone to the iPhone: 125 Years of Pop Music, by Peter Doggett (The Bodley Head). Well, veteran rock and country historian Doggett didn’t set his sights low with this 630-page volume (710 counting index and source notes). This is quite possibly the most wide-ranging history of popular music—not just rock, but all forms of pop, roughly from the time records started to be made—ever written. Having the widest breadth, of course, does not equate to the deepest depth, and much of the territory might be familiar to readers schooled in one or more of the eras or styles discussed, from ragtime and swing to all forms of rock, reggae, hip-hop, and (at the very end) twenty-first-century electronic dance music.

The book’s greatest value is not in its hard information, but in examining the interrelationships between these styles; how many trends (particularly the absorption of African-American styles into the mainstream and Establishment condemnations of new, exciting genres as the end of civilization) have repeated themselves over and over since the 1890s; and, more than any other book of which I’m aware, how technology has done much to shape popular music, from wax cylinders through 45s, LPs, cassettes, CDs, and the current online mediums of Spotify, youtube, and iTunes. Inevitably, there are some gaps; American and British music is heavily accented, and there’s little attention given to some styles, like jazz-rock fusion, the late-‘60s British blues boom, and the outlaw country movement. On the other hand, there are surprisingly numerous sections on movements relatively little known to the English-speaking mainstream, like French yé-yé music and Brazilian tropicalia. No matter how encyclopedic your knowledge of pop through the ages, there will almost certainly be styles discussed of which you’re only dimly aware, with all sorts of nuggets of intriguing trivia and obscure factoids sprinkled throughout the text.

Shock cover 001

15. These Are the Voyages: TOS [The Original Series]: Star Trek Season One/Two/Three, by Marc Cushman with Susan Osborn (Jacobs/Brown, 2013/2014/2015). As I wrote when I listed this in a previous post about expensive/rare rock books, some readers will think this is an outrageous inclusion, and they have a point, since this is about Star Trek, not about rock music. What’s more, it’s not exactly a 2015 book, but a three-volume series, the third and last of which did happen to come out in 2015.

Still, there seems to be enough of a crossover between rock fans (especially of ‘60s rock) and Star Trek to make this three-volume set worthy of attention in a post like this, especially since they’re the kind of specialist books that haven’t gotten a lot of press outside of the Trekkie community. This is an astonishingly detailed episode-by-episode survey of all 79 programs from the original series, drawing on lots of first-hand interviews, photos, and production notes. In that sense, it’s kind of an equivalent to a rock book like Mark Lewisohn’s The Beatles Recording Sessions, giving even experts their first real play-by-play look at what happened behind the scenes. As the three volumes add up to a total of 2000 (!) pages, it’s not for the casual reader, or even the casual Trekkie. But while undeniably long, this three-volume series isn’t all that expensive, especially if you get all three at once—which you can do for $67.95 plus shipping through the website.


16. Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul , by Mark Ribowsky (Liveright). The title’s a little over-wordy and misleading: this is an Otis Redding biography, not something that focuses on his milieu rather than his life. It’s better than the only previous one of substance that I’m aware of (Scott Freeman’s Otis! The Otis Redding Story), offering more depth, though the absence of first-hand interview material with some key figures due to their death or non-participation is keenly felt. Some of the stories the author dug up offer a darker side to Redding’s life than his generally cheerful,  kindly image is associated with, though they’re hardly as numerous or controversial as ones that dotted the careers of the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis or Phil Spector.  Much attention is paid to his music, recordings at Stax, songwriting, and performances. Unfortunately there are some minor but apparent factual errors when the text ventures into some of the general rock and soul history outside of Redding’s direct orbit.


17. The Record Store of the Mind, by Josh Rosenthal (Tompkins Square). Rosenthal runs the Tompkins Square label, which has reissued many way-obscure folk, rock, and other kinds of recordings from the twentieth century, as well as putting out contemporary albums. This isn’t exactly a memoir as much as a series of short pieces setting down his thoughts on various musical subjects that interest him, whether they’re profiles of obscure artists or quirky stories about record collecting and working in the record business (at both Tompkins Square and Sony; he worked at the latter for quite a few years). As he cheerfully acknowledges, like Tompkins Square product, this volume is a niche product of limited interest to the public, writing at one point, “The only thing more likely to get ignored than your label is your book.”

But collectors of niche product will enjoy some of these stories, though their interest will vary widely according to their tastes. The best parts are those on artists who are seldom covered even by cult standards, like singer-songwriter Ron Davies, the early-‘70s Raccoon Records roster, and folk singer Tia Blake. Memories of the gigs he attended and artists he helped promote at Sony are more like hanging out with a seasoned record industry vet and hearing war stories. My personal interest runs most to the little known folk and folk-rock artists and records he discusses, though his more idiosyncratic stories about growing up as a rock fan in Long Island, running a label, and navigating the rough waters of the entertainment industry have their strong points too. The book’s range is too wide and the presentation too anecdotal and specialized to find an identifiable “market,” but the same could be said of the Tompkins Square label. And if your tastes are eclectic enough to include a few Tompkins Square releases in your collection, they’ll likely be wide enough to encompass a book like this too.


18. Photograph, by Ringo Starr (Genesis). First published a couple years ago as a very expensive limited edition, this book was issued in fall 2015 in an affordable (though not exactly cheap, with a $50 list price) mass-market version. This 300-page coffee table volume features photographs of and by Ringo, almost all of them predating 1975. There’s a little – not much – commentary on the pictures by Ringo, going back to childhood snapshots and mementos. Like some of the other specialized coffee table books on the Beatles and their members, it’s kind of in the “extras” category. But there are some interesting and rare images here, particularly from his pre-Beatles days in the 1950s and early 1960s, though some of the photos he took of non-Beatles topics are of more interest to Ringo than us, to put it kindly.

Although the text is more aptly described as extended captions than revelatory commentary, his plain-spoken to-the-point observations are sometimes bluntly informative and entertaining. On his decision to leave a factory to turn professional drummer: “Everyone in my family was disappointed, because I was going to Riversdale Technical College and working as an apprentice, and I could have come out of that with a piece of paper that said I was an engineer. That would have been big news in our house, that anyone would have passed anything.” And on his first solo album: “Sentimental Journey wasn’t just songs that my mum liked; it’s what my stepdad and all my family sang at these parties. I made that record with George Martin after I left the Beatles, partly because I didn’t know what else to do.”


19. The Zapple Diaries: The Rise and Fall of the Last Beatles Label, by Barry Miles (Peter Owen Publishers). How do you make a 272-page book out of a label that issued just two records? To quote from one of Ringo’s big hits, “It Ain’t Easy.” But it’s a lot easier if  you actually ran the label, as author Barry Miles did when he oversaw Zapple, the short-lived experimental subsidiary of Apple. It also helps if you’ve already written extensively about the Beatles in the 1960s and your personal interactions with them, as Miles has in several of his previous volumes. This might have rated higher had it not repurposed some material that appeared in his previous books In the Sixties and Paul McCartney: Many Years from Now. But if you’re a Beatles fanatic as I am, it has its share of interesting stories—first-hand, not researched from several decades’ distance—of Apple, the last days of the Beatles, and unusual albums Miles did for Zapple with Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, Ken Weaver of the FUgs, and others, though these weren’t actually released before Zapple went under, some of the material eventually appearing on other labels. There are quite a few interesting uncommon photos and reproductions of period documents too—another reason this was able to add up to 272 pages.


20. Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival, by Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen (Oxford University Press, 2015). Straightforward and thorough, if slightly academic and dry, history of the folk revival as it took shape and flourished in New York from the 1930s through the 1960s. Produced in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, this is highlighted by many rare and interesting photos and reproductions of posters and other memorabilia, which are the real reasons this ekes into the bottom of this list.


If you’re wondering why the following books weren’t mentioned, it’s because they came out in 2014. Honorable mentions, however, to these titles, which are also worthy of your attention. Indeed, some are so good that they would have been in or solid contenders for the 2014 Top Ten list:

1. Pretend You’re in a War: The Who & The Sixties, by Mark Blake (Aurum Press). Very in-depth and entertaining history of the Who through the beginning of 1970. This inevitably covers some of the same territory as a few of the other books on the Who, but does dig up some fresh first-hand information that sometimes questions or fills out myths that have surrounded the band.


2. Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music, by David Stubbs (Melville House). A very thorough and well-written overview of “Krautrock,” the name that’s come to refer to German progressive rock of the 1970s. Drawing on interviews with numerous key musicians, it focuses on the major bands of the movement (Kraftwerk, Can, Amon Düül II, Popol Vuh, Faust, Tangerine Dream, Neu!), as well as covering some other notable acts and putting the whole genre in the context of changes in German society after World War II.


3. Gil Scott-Heron: Pieces of a Man, by Marcus Baram (St. Martin’s Press). Solid biography of a pioneer in mixing soul, jazz, and socially conscious poetry. Includes looks at his literary beginnings and his sad, long struggle with the kinds of drug addiction he examined in some of his songs, leading to stretches of homelessness, imprisonment, and little new music in the final quarter-century of his life. I found this far superior to Scott-Heron’s unfinished-feeling autobiography The Last Holiday: A Memoir (Canongate, 2013), which left a lot of unsatisfying gaps both in regards to what actually happened and how he felt about his life and work.


4. Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys, by Viv Albertine (Thomas Dunne). Critically acclaimed memoir by the guitarist of all-woman early London punk band the Slits might have gained wider attention than any of the Slits’ records. Unlike a lot of the 2014 books on this list, it did receive a good amount of coverage when it came out; it just took me a while to read a copy. And the praise was deserved, as it’s a page-turning account of growing into age in the punk era in London, not only discussing her time with the Slits, but also her interactions with other leading lights of the scene like one-time boyfriend Mick Jones. It does run out of a little steam after she retires from music for a long time in the early 1980s, but most of the book takes place before that.


5. Possibilities, by Herbie Hancock with Lisa Dickey (Viking). Straightforward, highly readable memoir by the jazz/funk crossover star covers his unlikely evolution from straightahead jazz pianist in the 1960s (as both a solo artist and member of Miles Davis’s band) to pop star when he went into jazz-rock-funk fusion in the 1970s and 1980s. Some readers might have wanted less about his drug use and religious beliefs, but those passages are both subordinate to the coverage of the music, and for the most part woven into his musical story as appropriate.


6. I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers, and the March Up Freedom’s Highway, by Greg Kot (Scribner). Good straightforward biography of the Staple Singers, concentrating on their 1950s-1970s prime, when no other act made the transition from gospel to socially conscious soul and funk on a similar scale. Though one of their singers (Mavis Staples) is emphasized in the title, it’s more a book about the group as a whole, Staples giving the author by far the most interview material.


7. The Haight: Love, Rock, and Revolution: The Photography of Jim Marshall, by Joel Selvin (Insight Editions). 300-page coffee table book principally devoted to photos of the Haight-Ashbury and its affiliated rock/counterculture scenes in the 1960s, primarily in 1966 and 1967. While it has basic text about the Haight-Ashbury and San Francisco rock during the time by Selvin, it’s primarily a photo book spotlighting the work of top rock lensman Jim Marshall, with plenty of pictures of icons like Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, and Janis Joplin.


8. Brothas Be Yo, Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, by George Clinton with Ben Greenman (Atria). Clinton came up with a book title that’s as hard to remember as many of his album titles. But this is actually a pretty straightforward memoir of the Parliament-Funkadelic man’s career. I’ve never found his records as interesting to listen to as descriptions of them usually lead me to anticipate, but most of this book is a quick-moving and interesting read, told in straight-up language that avoids sentimentality and droll humor that avoids cheap yuks. There are lots of stories about his strange career path from his New Jersey adolescence and young adulthood, where he spent as much time working at the barbershop as on his music, to the hard-to-define weird mixture of funk and rock he masterminded with P-Funk. There’s plenty of sex and drugs to go with the rock, but there are a lot of details about most of his records as well. The legal tangles he became immersed in over rights to his songs and recordings start to overwhelm the narrative in the final chapters, which start to make for slightly exhausting and depressing reading, though nothing on the order of the depressing exhaustion Clinton has undergone in his battles with the music business.


9. Calling from a Star: The Merrell Fankhauser Story, by Merrell Fankhauser (Gonzo Multimedia). Just the mere existence of a Merrell Fankhauser memoir would have seemed unlikely back in the twentieth century, when his cult was still spreading. Indeed, as much as that cult has spread, it’s a good bet that many of you reading this post don’t know who he is. His legend, such as it is, rests on his stints with three bands from the mid-‘60s through the mid-‘70s: Fapardokly, which made some beguiling if rather uneven folk-rock-psychedelia; his subsequent group H.M.S. Bounty, whose sole late-‘60s LP follows the same thread, but in a poppier direction; and MU, who in the early-1970s sounded something like a stoned fusion of Captain Beefheart and the Grateful Dead. This 200-page volume is a thorough, if sometimes rather matter-of-factly rendered, account of his improbable musical journey, from his early-‘60s surf recordings through steadily weirder enterprises (including some interactions and shared members with Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band) until 2013. The most interesting sections, as you’d expect, are on his stints with Fapardokly, H.M.S. Bounty, and MU, including some improbable stories that might be unfamiliar even to Fankhauser fans, like their Barry White-arranged session for Del-Fi Records; a brush with the Manson family; and a scheme to sell pot on Maui to build a recording studio for MU.


10. Big Shots: The Photography of Guy Webster, by Harvey Kubernik and Kenneth Kubernik (Insight Editions). Guy Webster photographed famous LP sleeves by the Rolling Stones (Aftermath, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass), the Mamas & the Papas (their debut album), Simon & Garfunkel (Sounds of Silence), the Doors (their debut album), and Nico (The Marble Index), among others. This coffee table book doesn’t focus exclusively on those album sleeves, but the sections that do are the most interesting, featuring outtakes and stories behind the photo sessions. Also in the book are numerous ‘60s rock photos, as well as others from the era of non-musician celebrities like Jack Nicholson and Jane Fonda. Note that while at almost 300 pages this is substantial, it’s also expensive, with a list price of $75.


11. John Lennon: The Collected Artwork, by Scott Gutterman (Insight Editions). Not so much a major volume as a useful fill-in-the-gaps collection, this features, just like the title says, collected artwork of John Lennon. As even many casual fans of Lennon and the Beatles know, many of these were fairly basic if humorous character sketches. Many of them are found in this volume, stretching all the way back to his childhood, though most of them were drawn when he was an adult. Basic text by Scott Gutterman provides the context, as does a foreword by Yoko Ono.


Also out in 2015: the expanded/revised/updated ebook version of my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll. Twice the size of the original 1998 print edition, it profiles 75 cult rock acts from the 1950s to the 1980s. The 60 chapters in the print edition have all been expanded, and there are 15 entirely new chapters. Click here for more info and to order: