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Richie Unterberger comments and reviews on vintage rock music.

Sandy Denny in Swedish Fly Girls

Sandy Denny and…Swedish fly girls. Whatever Swedish fly girls are, the two things don’t seem to go together, do they? But they did, when Denny sang four songs in 1969 or 1970 for an obscure Danish (not Swedish; more on that weirdness later) film titled, for some (but not all) markets, Swedish Fly Girls. It’s an absurd juxtaposition that you couldn’t make up.

The "Swedish Fly Girls" soundtrack LP.

The “Swedish Fly Girls” soundtrack LP.

Ever since first hearing those four tracks on a bootleg that was itself so obscure it never made it past the CDR stage, I’ve wondered how Sandy ended up participating in this odd project. (I know listening to bootlegs is not the officially approved way to hear things like this, but I never would have even found out they existed if not for that unauthorized disc!) I haven’t found out how she ended up on the soundtrack, exactly, but hearing the four songs in better fidelity than that bootleg on the recent 19-CD (!) Denny box set stoked my interest again. Enough that I even saw the film earlier this month, though it hasn’t been officially issued on DVD. No, the copy I viewed wasn’t authorized. But in the absence of official product, how else are you going to carry out this vital historical research?

First, a basic scenario, especially for those not familiar with the songs: the Swedish Fly Girls soundtrack LP (and there is an actual soundtrack LP) has four tracks sung by Sandy Denny—“Water Mother,” “What Will I Do With Tomorrow,” “Are the Judges Sane?,” and “I Need You” (the last of which also has vocals by a male singer, one Mose Henry). These are poppier and rather unlike anything else she recorded in the 1960s and early 1970s. They have a lightly orchestrated (with flute and strings), almost dreamily pseudo-cinematic feel, unsurprisingly so given their purpose as rather incidental music in what verged on a soft porn film (more details soon). If there’s any participation from her bands of the time, Fairport Convention and Fotheringay, it’s not evident.

The back cover of the "Swedish Fly Girls" soundtrack LP.

The back cover of the “Swedish Fly Girls” soundtrack LP.

“Water Mother” and “What Will I Do With Tomorrow” are actually rather nice wistful pop-folk ballads. The tenser, more somber “Are the Judges Sane?” ends in a dizzying swirl of strings, and has some fairly faintly mixed but burning blues-hard-rock guitar somewhere in the background, which I’m guessing is likely the work of a seasoned London session axeman. Allan Holdsworth, perhaps? Eric Ford? Big Jim Sullivan? Maybe even a big name like Jeff Beck moonlighting for some quick cash between tours? (All theories gratefully received at this address.) “I Need You” is perhaps the least characteristic thing Denny put on vinyl back then, being something of a fruitily orchestrated country-pop feel-good ditty where the greatest British folk-rock singer shares vocals with the decidedly colorless Mose Henry.

Why did Denny deign to lend her pipes (anonymously, even; again, more on that in a bit) to such a left-field endeavor? Well, getting Melody Maker accolades didn’t necessarily translate to a large bank balance, and a number of respected British artists took on what some might consider hack work to help pay the bills. There were all those soundalike covers of hits that Elton John helped crank out, for instance, or the Pretty Things cutting film library music on the Electric Banana LPs (and agreeing to back amateur singer Philippe DeBarge when the well-heeled Frenchman paid them for the privilege). It wasn’t even the only instance in which Denny lowered herself to such sidelines, as she also sang on a butter commercial in the late ‘60s.

A poster for the Swedish Fly Girls movie.

A poster for the Swedish Fly Girls movie.

Digging around online, I found a fairly detailed recollection (dating from 2002) of the soundtrack recording from Mose Henry (who died in 2010), at http://sandydennylist.blogspot.com/2009/12/swedish-fly-girls.html. It’s fairly interesting, if a bit overblown, but lengthy, so I’ll just post the most essential excerpt here:

I was in London for 12 weeks the spring and summer of 1970. Manfred Mann and I co-produced the music for “Christa.” The rhythm section was the band who did the London Production of “Hair” and we used London Philharmonic strings and brass. At times a 30-piece rock orchestra for the film. I wrote all of the music, Derek Wadsworth arranged it Manfred # 1 Producer I was associate producer without credits. I sang “I Need You” with Sandy. Sandy was ill and after she saw the lead sheets of the music she came to the studio to record it anyway. She told me “What Will I Do With Tomorrow” was the most beautiful song she had ever heard. In my book she sang it like an angel. When she sang the final take for that recording the entire studio was lifted to another place and time words cannot describe. The recording said it well enough.

Although some sources date Sandy’s tracks as having been recorded in mid-1969, here Henry’s clear in his assertion that the work was done in spring and summer 1970, when Denny was in Fotheringay (a timeline also supported by the best Denny biography to date, Clinton Heylin’s No More Sad Refrains). As for Denny telling Henry “What Will I Do With Tomorrow” (for which Henry got a co-songwriting credit with an unlikely partner—more details soon!) “was the most beautiful song she had ever heard,” I suspect she was just being nice to him. This from the woman who’d recorded such memorable songs as “She Moves Through the Fair,” “Tam Lin,” Joni Mitchell’s “Eastern Rain,” Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song,” and Dave Cousins’s “And You Need Me”? Not to mention her own “Fotheringay,” “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” and “Autopsy,” though she would likely have been too modest to cite her own compositions?

Read some more in that lengthy Henry post, and you’ll find out that he’d been in the whitebread US folk group the Highwaymen, though long after (his stint spanning 1964-68) their 1961 US chart-topper “Michael” (aka “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”). What’s more interesting, however, is that, as the excerpt above notes in passing, he co-produced the soundtrack with Manfred Mann. Mann, of course, already had significant experience in film scores, his group having done the generally decent, acclaimed music (some with vocals) to the Swinging London-set 1968 kitchen-sinkish drama Up the Junction.

Manfred Mann's soundtrack LP to the 1968 movie Up the Junction.

Manfred Mann’s soundtrack LP to the 1968 movie Up the Junction.

Now the plot gets yet more interesting — more interesting than the plot in the film that generated the Swedish Fly Girls soundtrack, certainly. There was an actual Swedish Fly Girls soundtrack LP that came out in the US in May 1972, with music by, among others, Melanie (one of her better-known songs, “Beautiful People”) and Manfred Mann himself/themselves. Weirdly, the performers were uncredited, accounting for why Denny’s contributions remained virtually unknown for so many years, though it’s immediately obvious that it’s her as soon as she opens her mouth on each of the four tunes. All four of which, incidentally, bear the songwriting credits of Mose Henry and…Jack O’Connell. Who was Jack O’Connell?

Well — and what an extraordinary coincidence! — he was the director of Swedish Fly Girls (and, for that matter, also its producer and writer). I’m not aware of any other musical credentials to his name, but shortly before taking on the film, he’d been involved with a movie that will likely be much more familiar to ‘60s rock fans. For he was also producer-director of the rather infamous 1968 quasi-documentary Revolution, which purported to capture the 1967 Haight-Ashbury scene, but verged on hippie exploitation. At least that movie had an interesting soundtrack, including tracks by top Bay Area acts Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Steve Miller Band, and Mother Earth that are not found on their regular LPs (and, on top of that, some versions of songs on the album by those artists that are heard in the movie itself, but not included on the record).

The soundtrack to the 1968 film Revolution had rare tracks by Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Steve Miller Band, and Mother Earth.

The soundtrack to the 1968 film Revolution had rare tracks by Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Steve Miller Band, and Mother Earth.

The actual Revolution film was less impressive. Here’s what some of the people involved on the musical side told me when I interviewed them for a story on rare San Francisco psych LPs in the April 2013 issue of Record Collector:

Powell St. John of Mother Earth: “As for the movie, one thing that [Mother Earth singer] Tracy [Nelson] insisted upon was that there was no sensationalism, and no exploitation of the so-called ‘hippie phenomenon,’ no lurid details of naked orgies or other such nonsense. I think we were all of one mind about that. The film people assured us they were good guys and would never do anything so crass as to produce an exploitation flick so we took them at their word. Well if you’ve ever seen the posters for that film you know that exploitation is exactly the right word for it. So, needless to say we were not pleased with the results.”

Mother Earth manager Travis Rivers: “The film was such a disaster it showed only in pornographic movie houses for at least two decades. My impression was not enhanced when I ran into a local who told me she would be starring in the ‘documentary’ and that Jack had changed her name to ‘Today Malone.’” Rivers also said O’Connell gave Allen Cohen, editor of leading local underground paper The San Francisco Oracle, “money on the side to set up that awful fake be-in” near the start of the movie.

Steve Miller Band manager Harvey Kornspan: “The movie itself was a cartoon. I doubt that it cost more than a hundred grand to make at the time. Malone was pretty in a soft hippie girl kind of way, but she had no acting chops. None!” he laughed. “The director was kind of an opportunist sleazy cat.”

Poster for the 1968 Revolution film.

Poster for the 1968 Revolution film.

How do you follow an act like that? Well, you make your next film in Denmark, apparently because Revolution had done well there. Interestingly, the score to Swedish Fly Girls was originally handled by Al Kooper, but ended up being taken on by Manfred Mann. A couple websites hint at dark undercurrents to the transition, one noting that “he was replaced by Manfred Mann, reportedly because of artistic and financial difficulties.” As the film is not even mentioned in Kooper’s quite substantial and entertaining memoir Backstage Passes & Backstabbing Bastards, it might not have meant that much to him in the first place.

And what of the film itself? Like many such things, actually watching the thing is something of an anti-climactic letdown, especially considering all the intriguing connections and credible rock musicians who were (or almost were) associated with the soundtrack. First issued as Christa in 1971, it follows the serial affairs of a young Danish (not Swedish, despite what its subsequent retitling would lead you to believe) flight attendant. There’s much casual sex, and a fair amount of nudity, though not so much that you could say it’s a skin flick. Christa, and most of her lovers, have a guilt-free zest for intercourse that screams 1969, as do her and her American housemate’s dresses and the mod decor of her Copenhagen residence. Her suitors have a rather oily Eurotrash vibe, though the hippest of them looks kind of like David Essex. Fortunately (especially considering the bootleg DVD doesn’t have English subtitles), over half of the dialogue is in English, most of her lovers being passengers she takes a shine to on her globetrotting flights. Truth be told, it wouldn’t be all that hard to follow the “action” even if all the talk was unsubtitled Danish.

A poster for the film bearing its original title, Christa.

A poster for the film bearing its original title, Christa.

It’s hard to believe, as one reviewer wrote, that the original running time was close to four hours; 100 minutes is quite enough. As for the soundtrack, it can’t seem to decide whether to be period cinematic pop or pop-rock, something true (in a different way) of Manfred Mann’s contributions as well as Sandy Denny’s. And it’s a good thing the soundtrack LP came out, since you only hear brief snippets of Sandy’s songs in the actual film.

I haven’t heard the original soundtrack album (or even seen an actual copy), which must have been scarce even in the early 1970s. As for why it was retitled Swedish Fly Girls, one can only guess that Swedish stewardesses were deemed a more commercial proposition than Danish ones, and in English-speaking markets, who was going to be able to tell the main character was speaking Danish, not Swedish, anyway?

In the extensive 2002 message from Mose Henry posted on the http://sandydennylist.blogspot.com/2009/12/swedish-fly-girls.html site, by the way, he makes this outrageous claim: “Almost every movie since then has been modeled on “Christa” it was the first film edited to the beat of the music and other film makers are using a lot more music in their soundtracks. We were the first to edit to the beat of the music with “Christa.” What? A Hard Day’s Night doesn’t count?

Surprisingly considering the film’s modest merits (and states of undress), the film was actually reviewed in the New York Times on August 21, 1971. At least reviewer Howard Thompson had some fun with his assignment, beginning his piece, “The heroine of Christa is a pretty, sweet, warm-hearted blonde of 23, an airline stewardess, and a loving mother to her illegitimate baby. Christa also yearns for a Prince Charming. She finds him, whereupon the nasty man from the past pops up menacingly. Will Christa find true happiness? Does a dog have fleas?”

If not for Sandy Denny’s presence on the soundtrack, it’s fair to say, Swedish Fly Girls, or whatever you want to call the film, would be forgotten. Fortunately, that soundtrack LP did somehow surface before the movie vanished into obscurity, leaving us with some of the strangest — if fairly enjoyable — novelties in her entire, quite mammoth discography.

All four songs that Sandy Denny sang in Swedish Fly Girls are on this 190CD Sandy Denny box set.

All four songs that Sandy Denny sang in Swedish Fly Girls are on this 19-CD Sandy Denny box set.

 

The Beatles Vs. The Rolling Stones

“The Beatles Vs. The Rolling Stones” – it’s kind of a silly debate, if not nearly as silly as “The Beatles Vs. The Four Seasons,” as Vee-Jay Records titled one cash-in LP. You’ve got what many, even tens of millions, consider two of the greatest rock bands of all time – do you really have to choose one over the other? Or, worse, choose one and not the other, as some hard-liners (more Stones fanatics than Beatlemaniacs) maintain? They’re both great (or, at least, the Stones were great), and I’ve taught comprehensive courses on both groups.

Beatle_Stones

But here’s something I’ve never seen brought up when “The Beatles Vs. The Rolling Stones” is mentioned – how did those bands fare on the relatively rare occasions when they did go head-to-head? Not on the same stage or boxing ring or anything like that, but on the same song? For the two acts did sometimes do the same song, and a little more often than many think. True, there were just two occasions when they actually released studio versions of the same number. But if you count BBC and live performances, the quantity nearly doubles, though even then, it doesn’t reach double figures. Taking the attitude that no one else will do this unless I will, here’s a play-by-play rundown of those infrequent instances when the titans performed the same tune, with just-for-fun verdicts that shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Let’s start with the only two songs the Beatles and Stones both did in the studio, with all four versions, as it happens, getting waxed in 1963 near the beginning of their careers.

Money: Despite the differences between the groups played up by the media and some fans, the two bands actually admired quite a few of the same US rock and soul artists, and it’s not all that surprising that they would cover some of the same songs. The only such animal to make it onto their 1963 discs, however, was “Money,” one of the first Motown hits (though not quite as big as many remember, Barrett Strong’s original peaking at #23 in 1960).

The Beatles did “Money” on their second album, and it’s really not all that controversial an opinion to assert they totally outdistanced the original, both by virtue of John Lennon’s fierce lead vocal and Paul McCartney and George Harrison’s exuberant backup harmonies. There are actually a few Beatles versions of “Money,” starting with a fairly anemic one from their January 1, 1962 audition for Decca Records (with Pete Best still on drums), and also including a half-dozen BBC performances. The studio cut on With the Beatles, however, is the best from every angle, and one of the best of the many fine covers they recorded.

the-beatles-money-deccagone

It’s also not that controversial an opinion to declare that the Beatles pretty much kill the Stones in an A-B comparison of their respective versions. In fact, a lot of listeners probably still don’t even know the Stones did “Money,” as it first appeared on a January 1964 UK EP, and wasn’t issued in the States until the More Hot Rocks compilation almost ten years later. The Rolling Stones’ version is raw to the point of almost being sloppy, has rather hoarse and untutored backup vocals, and is pretty murkily recorded (though it’s hardly alone in that last department among early Stones tracks). For all that, it’s not that bad, with some cool if slightly haphazard harmonica and generally commendable enthusiasm. The Stones were hardly the only other British Invasion group to do “Money,” by the way, other entries being cut by Freddie & the Dreamers (a predictably silly and stilted one) and Bern Elliott & the Fenmen (who took their rather generic interpretation to #14 in the UK), among others.

rolling stones euk8560472

The Verdict: Still – a clear victory, perhaps even a knockout, for the Beatles.

I Wanna Be Your Man: The other song the Beatles and Stones cut studio versions of in 1963 wasn’t even, for one of the bands at least, a cover. The famous story’s a little too long to recap here, but basically Stones manager Andrew Oldham, in need of a song for his clients’ second single, stumbled into John Lennon and Paul McCartney in central London, and corralled them into visiting a Stones rehearsal, where they finished off “I Wanna Be Your Man” on the spot. “I Wanna Be Your Man” would be the Rolling Stones’ first substantial British hit (stopping just short of the Top Ten), though it wouldn’t even be an A-side in the US, where it didn’t even appear on an LP (or, for many years, even on a compilation).

Though it was released a few weeks after the Stones’ version, the Beatles’ rendition was recorded about a month earlier. While something of a filler track on Meet the Beatles, with lyrics even more basic than most of the early Lennon-McCartney compositions, it pummels along with great, slightly bluesy effervescence, Ringo Starr on lead. It’s a good rocker, if a fairly secondary one in the scheme of early Beatles material. A little later, they’d do a cool version on the BBC with a slight Bo Diddley beat.

i wanna be your man sheet music

That said, the Rolling Stones’ arrangement beats the Beatles hands down. The slide guitar by Brian Jones is downright vicious, Bill Wyman plays an into-the-red pumping bass, and Mick Jagger gives it a sneer wholly missing in Ringo’s vocal. Where the Beatles play it jocular, the Rolling Stones are assaultive, bringing out the song’s subtle blues flavor so that it becomes a genuine pounding blues-rocker. John and Paul gave them a great assist by giving them the tune, but the Stones made it in their own, in a version both superior to and quite different than the Beatles’.

the-rolling-stones-i-wanna-be-your-man-decca-9

The Verdict: A clear victory for the Stones, though not the knockout that “Money” was for the Beatles.

Now we’ll start getting into territory beyond the two official instances in which the bands released the same song, much of which remains unknown to the general public:

Roll Over Beethoven: Another highlight from the Beatles’ second album, “Roll Over Beethoven” was an excellent Chuck Berry cover, from George Harrison’s adept soloing (and lead vocal) to the insistent propulsion of the rest of the band on backup. Again they did this a bunch of times on the BBC (a particularly good June 24, 1963 one with a twice-as-long instrumental solo is on the iTunes download-only compilation The Beatles Bootleg Recordings 1963), and there are good live versions floating around on tape and film (though the one done in Hamburg in December 1962, like the rest of the live tapes from that quasi-official batch, has pretty poor sound).

BeatlesBeethoven

It’s still not generally known that the Rolling Stones recorded “Roll Over Beethoven” at a BBC session on September 23, 1963, in large part because it still hasn’t been officially released. Bootlegged with very good sound, it’s a tremendous version, and, again, quite different to the one by the Beatles. Keith Richards’s guitar has a more raucous edge, Mick Jagger’s vocal a more cutting bluesy tone, and the tempo’s more frenetic. Most notably, Richards unleashes a simply marvelous solo with a heck of a lot more bluesy note-bending. Of the numerous songs the Stones did on the BBC without counterparts on their official records (though these weren’t nearly as numerous as the ones the Beatles taped), “Roll Over Beethoven” might be the very best. (They also did a less impressive, looser version of “Roll Over Beethoven” at a later BBC session on March 8 , 1964.)

The Rolling Stones performed "Roll Over Beethoven" on BBC radio in 1963, but did not release a studio version.

The Rolling Stones performed “Roll Over Beethoven” on BBC radio in 1963, but did not release a studio version.

The Verdict: Too close to call, really, though if pressed I might choose the Stones’ version, Keith’s solo being the deciding factor.

Carol: Another Chuck Berry song both bands did, the twist being that this time, the Rolling Stones’ version is the more familiar one. “Carol” was a highlight of the band’s first album in 1964, with a pushy buzz, and authoritative Keith Richards guitar licks, that made it slightly different from the original, if not terribly different.

StonesCarol

The Beatles did not record this at EMI, but did a top-flight version for the BBC on July 2, 1963. Much more well known to the general listener after its official appearance on Live at the BBC in 1994, it was one of five songs from this session they didn’t put on their 1960s releases. Let me quote from my description in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film: “’Carol’ is handled here by John on solo vocals, and slightly precedes the much more famous delivery of the same song by the Rolling Stones on their debut 1964 album. It’s a contentious assertion, but the Beatles’ less noted interpretation is yet better than the one by the Stones, who took the song at a much more even, clipped beat. The Beatles’ interpretation has a more forward-thrusting groove, Lennon’s best cocky rock ’n’ roll voice, and propulsive Harrison guitar riffing, especially when he flicks off some cliff-descending notes near the end of the instrumental break.”

the-beatles-carol-3

The Verdict: Like the above paragraph notes, a contentious assertion, but I think this is a clear victory for the Beatles, though the Rolling Stones’ effort is quite respectable.

Memphis, Tennessee: Here we have a case of a song that neither the Beatles nor the Rolling Stones put on their official ‘60s releases, though both did it for the BBC. The Beatles, in fact, had done it on January 1, 1962 back at their Decca audition, and at their first BBC session on March 7, 1962, with Pete Best still on drums. Their arrangement (and indeed the whole band) had improved by the time they did it four more times for the BBC (with Ringo) in 1963, John Lennon still on lead vocals. On the whole, though, it’s not one of their better covers, though it’s okay.

the-beatles-memphis-deccagone

Again, not many people are aware the Rolling Stones did “Memphis” too, as their September 23, 1963 BBC version (recorded at the same session they did “Roll Over Beethoven”) hasn’t been officially released. Which is too bad, in part because it’s decisively better than the Beatles’. The Beatles’ arrangement is a little lumpy, but the Stones do it with just the right deftness, exquisitely interwoven guitars, and an appropriately wistful Mick Jagger vocal. As an aside, it is a shame that just four of the band’s 1963-65 BBC tracks have come out (and then only as a bonus disc on the expensive super-deluxe edition of their GRRR! compilation), as there are enough to fill up a double CD.

StonesMemphisTennessee

The Verdict: A clear victory for the Rolling Stones, which doesn’t mean that the Beatles’ 1963 BBC versions (some of which have been officially issued) aren’t worth having.

I’m Talking About You: As if there’s any doubt that Chuck Berry was the most common meeting point in their influences, here’s yet another song covered by both bands. The Rolling Stones’ version (slightly retitled “Talkin’ Bout You”) is by far the more familiar, having appeared back in 1965 on the December’s Children LP (in the US) and the Out of Our Heads LP (in the UK). It’s a good one that’s funkier and slyer in execution that the original. The group, incidentally, did a yet earlier version for the BBC on September 23, 1963 (in the same batch including “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Memphis, Tennessee”) that unfortunately hasn’t survived. For that matter, that same session included a version of “Money” that didn’t survive either.

StonesTalkinBoutYou

Until very recently, the best of the two surviving Beatles versions of “I’m Talking About You” was quite obscure. An energetic but lo-fi one from December 1962 had been available since 1977 on the Hamburg Star-Club tapes. A better, though not totally hi-fi, BBC performance from March 16, 1963 finally came out in late 2013 on On Air: Live at the BBC Vol. 2. It’s pretty good as well, benefiting from a brash John Lennon lead vocal, and an odd chuckle right before they go into the instrumental break, with a George Harrison solo that (like many of his BBC performances) are rawer than what he was wont to put on the group’s studio releases. The bass line of the Chuck Berry original, incidentally, provided the inspiration for Paul McCartney’s bass on “I Saw Her Standing There.”

The Beatles' BBC version of "I'm Talking About You" is included on this 2013 compilation.

The Beatles’ BBC version of “I’m Talking About You” is included on this 2013 compilation.

Still – the Beatles’ version is not quite as distinctive, or as different from the original, as the Stones’ take. So –

The Verdict: A decisive win for the Rolling Stones, though not by a huge margin.

Little Queenie: It’s rather amazing – of the half-dozen recordings of seriously performed songs that both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones did in the 1960s, four were Chuck Berry tunes. Again, this should eliminate any doubt that he was their most common shared point of reference, though no doubt there were some other songs (by Berry and others) both bands covered that one or both of them didn’t put on surviving tapes.

The Stones’ version of “Little Queenie” is by far the better known of the two, a late-’69 concert performance having featured on their Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! album. Give the group credit for not just replicating Berry’s version (which some of their earlier Berry covers verge on doing) but slowing it down considerably and making it funkier and more salacious, though that was in keeping with how their whole approach had changed by the late 1960s, especially with Brian Jones out of the band.

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It’s a shame that the only existing Beatles performance of “Little Queenie” is from their lo-fi December 1962 Star-Club tapes, which makes it a little hard to properly face off against the much later one by the Stones. Nonetheless, I’ll go out on a limb and say the Beatles’ version is better. It has a terrifically infectious Paul McCartney vocal, and a really unusual, exhilarating George Harrison guitar solo that has no counterpart in the Berry original. If only they’d recorded this for the BBC in good fidelity, a la “Carol,” there would be no doubt whether this surpassed the Stones’ interpretation. Nonetheless –

The Verdict: The Beatles win, though the marginal fidelity of their version, and the respectable quality of the Stones’ rendition, makes it something of a borderline triumph.

The only Beatles version of "Little Queenie" is on the tapes they recorded in Hamburg in December 1962.

The only Beatles version of “Little Queenie” is on the tapes they recorded in Hamburg in December 1962.

By the way, the Beatles did casually jam on a few other songs the Stones also did during their January 1969 sessions for what was then intended to be the Get Back album and film, though it would be retitled Let It Be. Among them were Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike,” Hank Snow/Ray Charles’s “I’m Movin’ On,” Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” and even the Stones’ own “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Lady Jane.” These were just too casually executed, however (and sometimes poorly recorded), to consider serious attempts at a recordable performance. For that reason, they’ve been excluded from this discussion, though for what it’s worth, the versions of “Hitch Hike” (with George Harrison’s fine lead vocals sadly undermiked) and “Not Fade Away” (ditto) aren’t bad.

In sum – is there a winner in the Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones? Even if judged solely on the few songs on which they went toe-to-toe? Seems to me it’s about as close to a draw as it gets. And isn’t that how it should be?

beatles-vs-stones-300x200

Some Rock History Fanzines You Might Have Missed

Most of the people I know think I have a lot of fanzines, especially when they help me move and ask if all the boxes are going to be this heavy. (Even the movers I hire ask that!) Relative to how many fanzines have been produced, however, I have a pretty meager trickle, even if they do fill up three or so drawers and two or three more boxes. And of the ones I have, I’m usually missing, assuming the zines put out more than one or two issues, a “complete run.” The only long-running one of which I have a complete run, in fact, is Ugly Things, still going strong after having passed its 30th anniversary last year, and just having put out its 37th issue.

The latest issue (#37, spring/summer 2014) of Ugly Things.

The latest issue (#37, spring/summer 2014) of Ugly Things.

To those not immersed in fanzine culture, that might not sound like a schedule worth boasting about. How can a magazine that puts out about one issue a year (it’s actually been on a dependably regular two-a-year schedule for several years now) be considered a raging success story, you’re asking?

Believe me, it is – in fact, Ugly Things has outlasted virtually all of its competition in the longevity sweepstakes, though I’m sure there are one or two UK early rock’n’roll specialty publications I’m unaware of that might have been around longer. That’s one of the distinguishing trademarks of zines – they usually don’t publish regularly or last long. Their ridiculously fanatical niches almost guarantee that, and by their very definition, they’re run as sidelines by “fans,” not as money-making enterprises. Those short lifespans and limited press runs do mean that much crucial coverage they contain gets hard to find once they cease publication, especially as they’re not exactly likely to be carried by the local library (though fanzine archives are starting to be built, if still rarely, in some libraries).

This post is not going to attempt to list and describe every rock history fanzine of note – that’s a library’s job, perhaps (and the “job” of someone who’s paid to do that). Instead, I offer some thoughts on some personal favorites that might have passed you by, and could be hard to find even in this day of ebay and Internet auctions, though they don’t have such high monetary value.

Note too that this won’t cite every worthy rock history zine of note, including my two favorites (both of which are currently published), Ugly Things and the twice-a-year, five-issues-strong Flashback (in part because I’m a contributor to both of them, each of which is professional enough that they’re verging on becoming “real” magazines). Other omissions include some of the most respected and popular ones from earlier decades of rock history fanzinedom, like Bomp, Kicks, Forced Exposure, and Ptolemaic Terrascope. That doesn’t mean there isn’t worthy material in those. I wanted to concentrate on some of the more obscure ones that are getting in danger of being entirely overlooked.

If you do like the energetic ‘60s rock in which Ugly Things specializes, the focus of Here ‘Tis was rather similar, if a little more focused on US rock (though not exclusively, issue #8 featuring a cover story on Mott the Hoople). Like Ugly Things and in fact many zines, in their early days they started as a stapled-together, slim thing with extremely basic fresh-off-the-typewriter design, though that changed quite a bit as they got farther down the road. Its forte, like the best rockzines, was very in-depth features on cult rock musicians, often built around first-hand interviews. Standouts included a mammoth interview with Shadows of Knight/H.P. Lovecraft guitarist Jerry McGeorge (running 20 pages!), a nearly-as-long Q&A with Seeds keyboardist Daryl Hooper, and a 20-pager on the Fallen Angels. I’m actually not a Fallen Angels fan (or much of a Seeds one), but part of the measure of a good fanzine is that it can make a good story out of a band that might not be among your personal favorites.

The final (#9) issue of Here 'Tis.

The final (#9) issue of Here ‘Tis.

By the time of its ninth issue (published in 1999), Here ‘Tis ran 78 pages. But that was as far as they got – and it had never come out too often or regularly, issue #4 (the earliest in my collection) having appeared back in 1988. Aside from that fourth issue, all I have is issues six through nine, which I had to pick up as and when they suddenly appeared – one of them I could only find in London, though it was published in the US. Take heart, however – you can still find issues 8 and 9, for the eminently reasonable price of $8.98, through the Sundazed Music store at http://www.sundazed.com/shop/index.php?cPath=53.

Also at the same page on the Sundazed store is issue #3 of another ‘60s-centered zine, Outasite, run by Greg Prevost (then-Chesterfield Kings singer). The first two issues, barely bigger in size than the palm of your hand, appeared in the early-to-mid-1980s, laid out with a haphazard enthusiasm equal to his passion for ‘60s garage and raw British Invasion sounds. These were crammed with capsule reviews of impossibly rare 45s and interviews with the legendary Barbarians drummer Moulty, the Chocolate Watch Band’s Sean Tolby, and – in a measure of how access to legends was easier in some ways many years ago – Byrds bassist Chris Hillman (who memorably divulged, “People think that we didn’t play on that first album. All you gotta do is hear that first album, and it’s us, because it’s so sloppy”).

If you think Here ‘Tis was published irregularly, it was outdone and then some by Outasite, whose second issue appeared around 1985, and third came out in…1997. And a fourth issue from 2000 (which I haven’t been able to find, unfortunately, and which is not carried by Sundazed) is, as far as I know, the last issue. But in the “interim” between the second and third issues, if that’s the right word, it did expand to conventional 8 ½ X 11 size and a length of more than 100 pages, including interviews with Ray Davies, Nancy Sinatra, Jorma Kaukonen, and Blue Cheer, as well as heroes of Prevost’s who didn’t make it big (like the Nightshadows). He didn’t abandon writing altogether, fortunately – his huge history of the Rolling Stones’ equipment (co-written with Andy Babiuk), Rolling Stones Gear, came out this year.

Outasite3

The zines hailed so far all have a general 1960s focus. Some good ones, however, had a far more specialized regional one. Such as the short-lived Cream Puff War, which lasted just two issues (spread two years apart) in the early 1990s. In that time, however, editors Jud Cost and Alec Palao conducted groundbreaking interviews with major early San Francisco rock acts who had never been interviewed or investigated with such depth, including the Great Society (Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane group), the Charlatans, the Chocolate Watch Band, the Vejtables, and the Mojo Men. Issue #1 even came with a flexidisc of the Final Solution (a spinoff band of the Great Society), whose story was naturally told in the issue itself; the one-sided flexi remains their only released recording.

It was a disappointment that such a zealously assembled zine came to a halt so quickly. But in a sense both editors continued their work as liner note writers and researchers for numerous CD reissues assembling the music of early San Francisco cult rockers, often featuring previously unreleased (and indeed previously unknown) tracks. In some cases, this allowed them to clarify, correct, and expand upon the features they’d done on some of these musicians in Cream Puff War. This is not an uncommon outgrowth of zinedom, incidentally, with the editors of Kicks, for instance, going on to run Norton Records, and Bomp’s Greg Shaw transferring his focus to labels putting out both reissues and records by new bands.

The first issue of Cream Puff War.

The first issue of Cream Puff War.

A couple of years ago, by the way, a friend of mine was selling some of his archives at a local record swap. As I was helping him set up his table, someone came by and asked how much an unpriced copy of the first issue of Cream Puff War was selling for. Before I could say anything, my friend said he’d let it go for a dollar. It’s worth at least ten and perhaps more, but hopefully the buyer appreciated his bargain.

Another ‘60s zine with a strong regional focus was Doug Hanners’s Not Fade Away, subtitled “The Texas Music Magazine.” As with Cream Puff War, a few decades down the line, a lot more is known and easily researchable about Texas ‘60s bands, even those that never had a hit or never made much or any impact beyond the state. Back in the early 1980s, however, this was the only place you could find that info, in part because Hanners spoke at length to principals from some of the best Texan bands. Issue #3 (I’m not sure there were any issues after that) had a big interview with “Mouse,” aka Ronnie Weiss, of Mouse of the Traps (of “A Public Execution” fame). There was another with Carl Becker, who ran the J-Beck and Cee-Bee labels, generators of some of the best garage/psych of the era, especially on recordings by teen wizards Zakary Thaks. So impressed was Eva Records with Not Fade Away’s interview with the leader of Kenny & the Kasuals that they printed the entire thing on the back of one of their compilations of the group – which, these days, might be easier to find than the actual issue in which it appeared.

NOT FADE AWAY 4 _1.tif

Single-artist-centered fanzines tend to be overly gushing in praise of their subject, as, again, you might expect if someone’s enough of a fan to start one. Some, however, have done a great deal to document an artist surely in need of exposure and hard information. The best of these was What Goes On, dedicated to the Velvet Underground. When its first issue came out in 1978, the VU cult, though rabid and quite large, wasn’t anything near as big as it is today. In parallel with the VU’s following, however, What Goes On quickly grew from an eight-page-stapled-together job to a pretty good-looking 56-page one by issue #3 (published in 1982). By that time it had inside tracks to some pretty inside interviews, including chats with Andy Warhol, Nico, and early VU associate Tony Conrad.

Issue #3 of What Goes On.

Issue #3 of What Goes On.

In common with some other zines here, however, What Goes On ran out of some steam despite high quality and (for a zine) a wide base of support. Only two more issues came out, and those not until 1990 and 1996 (a 1986 compilation issue of sorts did add a useful discography/filmography). Frustratingly, a lengthy interview they did with Sterling Morrison – one of the first he ever gave post-VU — was never published. I know, because I volunteered to transcribe much of it. More VU coverage was offered by the perhaps-too-plainly-titled-for-easy-indexing The Velvet Underground zine, whose five issues (from 1993-1996) were highlighted by a long Doug Yule interview in #3.

vufanz03

Though it never outgrew a basic 14-page format, one fanzine-verging-on-newsletter I liked, in part because its subject was never exactly fashionable among the underground, was Jackie, published by the Jackie DeShannon Appreciation Society. It might not have had much in the way of hard inside information and interviews, but it at least did a lot to document the many songs she wrote that were covered by other artists. And it came out pretty frequently for a while – I have issues 6 through 20 (though I missed #16 somehow), all of which gushed forth between 2001 and 2007. Like some other single-artist zines (such as What Goes On), it also offered rarity compilations that, while not the kind of things you could find in any store, did a lot to fill in discographical gaps that were almost impossible for the average collector to find, due to both their rarity and expense.

jdsaslogo

An outstanding one-shot production along these lines was Fairportfolio, which unlike virtually every other fanzine was written and compiled by an insider, not an outsider. Author Kingsley Abbott was a close friend of the band in their early days, and the 64-page production features not just his personal memories of how they formed, recorded, and performed in 1967-69, but also some memorabilia that only he had access to, like handwritten set lists (including some songs Fairport never recorded). I was pretty fortunate to find this shortly after it was published in 1997 (I’m pretty sure I only saw it once), and it must be nigh-on-impossible to locate today. Don’t despair, however; a lengthy article with similar text, quality illustrations, and additional material that basically adopts the essence of Fairportfolio was published just a few months ago in Flashback #5.

Fairportfolio

Even some mediocre one-artist zines have their uses. Yardbirds World, a 110-pager from 1989 (actually a compilation of a few issues of the original Yardbirds World fanzine), was no more elaborately designed than a typewritten college paper, and even then contained more than its share of typos and misspellings. Much of its research into studio and radio sessions has been superseded by more definitive efforts. Yet in the midst of this is a 14-page interview with Jane Relf – sister of Yardbirds lead singer Keith Relf, and singer (alongside Relf and Yardbirds drummer Jim McCarty) in the original lineup of Renaissance. If ever there was another printed interview with Jane Relf, let alone one of this length, I’m not aware of it.

YardbirdsWorld

Looking at the price tag, I see it sold for an outrageous $21.95. (Puzzlingly, there are two price tags – one from a now-defunct retail chain and one from a distributor.) I’ve gotta think I got this out of a box of severely discounted stale stock, or at the very least with store credit; I might be a big Yardbirds fan, but I’m not sure I would have paid that much for this. As a bonus, my copy was signed by Jim McCarty – though I’m guessing all copies were signed by Jim McCarty.

Then there are those zines that seem to get off to a promising start and promptly vanish. I liked Breakthrough, a pretty densely packaged 52-pager from 1984 with contributions by some of the top names in early rock history fandom. Most impressive was a long interview with Richard Tepp (of cult ‘60s garage rockers Richard & the Young Lions) and a detailed article on the Myddle Class, New Jersey pop-garagers who headlined the first official Velvet Underground gig in late 1965. All for the (even in 1984 money) eminently reasonable price of $2.00. And then…nothing.

Breakthrough

There are also those zines in which you’ll find something of great value you’d never expect them to contain. Pawing through a box of very low-priced “get-rid-of-these-by-any-means-possible” odds and ends at Sub Pop’s Seattle retail store in 1997, I stumbled across an issue of Feminist Baseball with a huge interview with…Randy Holden, guitarist in a succession of ‘60s surf/garage/psych/early metal bands, from the Sons of Adam and the Other Half to Blue Cheer and Population II. I’d been a fan since finding the Other Half album in 1983, but hadn’t been able to find out anything about Holden. As far as I know, this was the first extensive interview ever done with him. (I believe I did the second just a bit after finding this zine, for my book Urban Spacemen & Wayfaring Strangers: Overlooked Innovators & Eccentric Visionaries of ‘60s Rock. It’s very hard to be first, as I’ve found out on repeated occasions.)

I’m all for feminism and baseball, but would you expect to find this in a zine titled Feminist Baseball? But there it was, in issue #14, spring/summer 1995, for a buck or two. I don’t remember seeing it before I stumbled upon it, and I don’t remember seeing it since.

Holden

Do I read anything besides ‘60s rock zines, you might be wondering at this point? Well, that’s most of what I collect as far as rock zines go, but there are some others I read, and one for which I even have a complete run. Let’s close with a hand for Chin Music, which put out seven issues between 1997 and 2004. Its focus was the unlikely crossover between baseball and alternative rock music, two institutions that most people would think had as little in common as…well, feminism and baseball.

But Chin Music did its best to bridge that gap, asking alternative rock icons like Guided By Voices and Maximum Rock’n’Roll editor Tim Yohannon about baseball, and actual major league baseball figures like San Francisco Giants pitcher Sean Estes about rock music. Even if no interviews were involved, major league baseball was written about with an irreverent punk rock attitude you’re simply not going to find in your daily paper or ESPN. Nor will you find any sports magazines with this kind of cover image, which – as almost all Chin Music readers would immediately know, but relatively few general sports fans (or general magazine editors) would suspect – satirized the cover of Roxy Music’s 1974 LP, Country Life:

Back issues of Chin Music are still available through chinmusic.net.

Back issues of Chin Music are still available through chinmusic.net.

Ugly Covers from the Golden Age of Vinyl Reissues

One of the more commonly cited reasons to hold onto vinyl — and for institutions to archive same — is to preserve the artwork, which often didn’t make the transition to CDs (where in any case it would have been shrunk to a fraction of its original 12 X 12-inch size). We all have countless examples of cover illustrations we love. There were, however, quite a few hideous-looking sleeves too.

Some of the tackiest seemed reserved for vinyl reissue compilations, at a time when reissues were generally packaged with less care and passion than they are now. Not that there isn’t some loathsome artwork on CD reissues, but generally they show more understanding of the musical catalogs they’re exploiting. This post will take a look back at some of the more amusing testaments to vinyl ugliness.

Everybody has their personal favorite, if that’s the right word, in this category. It would take quite some doing, however, to beat this rather obscure 1976 German double-LP Velvet Underground compilation for both frighteningly awful design and a total failure to represent the music of the artist:

VU

It’s like a bad satire of Roger Dean, the guy who designed all those fantasy-laden Yes covers. Is that a lobster expelling a spaceship? If this is meant to represent the “Underground” in Velvet Underground, isn’t it a little more like a science fiction cartoon than the street life Lou Reed took such relish in documenting?

Of course, some VU fans might vote for this far better known 1974 double LP, though at least that contained great music that hadn’t previously seen the light of day:

VU69

Whether it was haste, cheapness, or both, a good number of British Invasion reissues suffered from literal representations of band names. Let’s start at the beginning of the alphabet, with the Animals:

Best Of LP Abkco

The liner notes and track sequencing were no great shakes either. But if you were looking for a “starter” Animals comp in the late 1970s, as I was in high school, it was the only game in town — despite the absence of numerous essential tracks, some of which had even been big hits, like “Inside Looking Out.”

The Animals compilation was issued by Allen Klein’s company, ABKCO, which outdid even this low standard with its most infamous, yet probably most commercially successful, release:

Metamor

As I wrote in a previous post, it’s almost as if they were trying to scare listeners away. If so, they weren’t wholly successful, the album making #8 in the US charts despite being a critically panned collection of motley outtakes. I suppose that means it wasn’t technically a “reissue,” but it’s close enough, especially considering most of it was about five to ten years old when it came out in 1975.

True, the bugs that share center stage with the Stones on the cover could be explained as a literal representation of the title, since Franz Kafka’s classic short story Metamorphosis documents a man’s transformation into a huge, monstrous insect. Some might even suspect this was Allen Klein’s way at getting back at his former clients, arranging to package outtakes they didn’t want released in the most unappealing manner possible. For a guy with such an avaricious reputation, however, wouldn’t that have been rather uncharacteristic self-sabotage?

And here’s another “let’s represent the title literally” on the back cover of this far more obscure release by the Stones’ biggest rivals, the Beatles, this time without a trace of irony:

beatlestasteofhoneyobin

The idea being, on this Russian compilation, to put the title — “A Taste of Honey,” a cover tune from their debut LP that was one of the Beatles’ least celebrated tracks — into a picture as well as words. I would never have come across this particular unlovely relic had not someone given it to me about 25 years ago. An utterly random collection of 1962-64 tracks, its absurdity was capped by a front cover design featuring images from the giveaway photos in The White Album, which of course didn’t come out until 1968.

The+Beatles+-+A+Taste+Of+Honey+-+LP+RECORD-318529

The Yardbirds suffered most from LP designers taking their name literally. Epic Records issued no less than three Yardbirds albums depicting actual Yardbirds:

Yardbirdsfavorites

 

Ybirdsfeaturing

 

220px-LiveYardbirdsfeatJimmyPage

One of these, Live Yardbirds Featuring Jimmy Page, is not exactly in common circulation. A none-too-great recording of the band at New York’s Anderson Theatre on March 30, 1968 (complete with dubbed-on bullfighting crowd noise), it was quickly withdrawn after its September 1971 release when Page threatened legal action. It’s been heavily bootlegged since then, however, ironically sometimes with the same uninspired artwork as graced the original.

Epic Records also foisted this compilation of another great British Invasion band on the public:

zombies

What better way to advertise a band specializing in superb, moodily melodic minor-keyed rock than a drawing of actual zombies, the kind you’d see on a B-movie poster? The track selection on this double-LP compilation was none too stellar either, combining their 1968 album Odessey and Oracle with a slapdash LP side of mid-‘60s tracks (making sure to include the hits “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No”) and an LP side of leftovers/outtakes. But again, like the Animals best-of, it was the only game in town if you wanted relatively obtainable Zombies in bulk in the late ‘70s. We would not have counted on a multi-disc Zombies box set back then, along with other comps mopping up every released recording and many BBC recordings and outtakes, as eventually came to pass in the CD era.

Until then, you had to scrounge for some of the non-hit singles and B-sides on scrappy anthologies like these, which wouldn’t have won any prizes for imagination either:

The+Zombies+-+Early+Days+-+Sealed+-+LP+RECORD-436112

The front cover illustration bears only casual likeness to the actual guys in the Zombies. Which wouldn’t have bothered the listener who’d never seen them, except the label made sure to stick an actual photo of the band on the back.

The literal representation thing got a little out of hand with these wildly different sleeves on the same record. Here’s the first version:

Byrds

Again, technically speaking, Preflyte wasn’t a reissue, but a collection of archive recordings. And a very good one, of early demos that were about five years old when they came out in 1969. The idea on the original was to put the Byrds in a nest — pretty corny, but at least they used photos of the five guys from the group’s early days. Then the same tracks came out again, with the same title, but a much different sleeve:

220px-TheByrdsPreflyteAlternate

The idea here was to portray the Byrds as astronauts, the ultimate manifestation of the “flight” they were ready to take once they left the nest. And true, some of their songs did branch into space travel — “Mr. Spaceman,” “Fifth Dimension,” “Eight Miles High,” “2-4-2 Fox Trot (The Lear Jet Song),” “C.T.A. 102,” and “Space Odyssey” being only the most obvious — though most of those weren’t recorded until two or three years after the demos on Preflyte.  And Preflyte does include “The Airport Song,” one of their lovelier earliest efforts. But while the cover illustrations very closely resembled their real-life images, the ultimate effect was to make them look rather like extras in The Jetsons. (When this post went up, a reader informed me this illustration was the work of a young Barry Smith, who had recently finished a stretch working on Marvel’s Conan comic book.)

Literalism took another turn on this double LP of early David Bowie tracks, issued in 1973 right after he finally started to crack the US market. Taking advantage of the early Bowie’s propensity for  descriptive song titles with very specific nouns and characters, a la “Karma Man,” “Rubber Band,” “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” and “Silly Boy Blue,” each of the 21 tracks were illustrated with garish cartoons:

David+Bowie+-+Images+1966-1967+-+DOUBLE+LP-310958

 

bowie_imagesB

It was too loud and crass for some Bowie fans, but I have to admit I kind of like it. And marketing-wise, it might have been both more effective than a vintage photo of Bowie in 1966 and 1967 (which would have looked totally unlike his 1973 image) and less misleading than an early-‘70s photo of the man (which might have left the mistaken impression that it was a collection of recent recordings). And while it’s been superseded by a much, much more comprehensive collection of his pre-Space Oddity recordings for Deram (now on an expanded two-CD edition of his 1967 David Bowie LP), back in the ‘70s it was the lengthiest survey of that era available, including his best recording of the time, the late-1966 non-LP B-side “The London Boys.”

Then we had some compilations that not only weren’t much to look at, but seemed to have no relation to either the band or the contents. The first album discussed in this post, the German The Velvet Underground Featuring Lou Reed, falls into this category. So does this less blatantly surreal cover for a much more well known (though not exactly famous) LP, The Great Lost Kinks Album:

kinks

As to what all those dice-head figures and semi-traffic signals are meant to represent, you really got me (haw haw). Again, one almost suspects the Reprise label was deliberately not trying to sell records, although this mixture of rarities and outtakes is actually quite good. The sense of self-sabotage was amplified by John Mendelsohn’s infamous liner notes, which trashed the Kinks’ then-recent (at the time of this January 1973 release) output — which just happened to have been released not on Reprise, but the label the band jumped to, RCA. At least there’s a picture of Ray Davies on the back cover, but the head Kink was not amused, pressuring the label to withdraw it from circulation by the mid-‘70s.

There are too many rather unappetizing, yet rather boring, reissue designs to mention in a relatively brief survey like this, a la the one for Jefferson Airplane’s generally worthy 1974 outtake/rarity compilation Early Flight:

Jefferson_Airplane_-_Early_Flight_Cover

Even an actual drawing of an airplane would have been better than this. Jefferson Airplane as a pterodactyl?

We also had this reissue — although the reissue itself had first appeared just four years earlier! — of one of the most famous reissues of all time, the garage rock compilation Nuggets, first released on Elektra in 1972 in this sleeve:

Nuggets,_Volume_1

Not the greatest sleeve in the world, actually, but at least more in line with its contents than the 1976 edition:

Nuggets_-_Sire_Album_Cover

Ugh. Had it not been for the small-type “Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era: 1965-1968” subtitle at the top, I might have mistaken this for a Triumph album when I first came across it in a cutout bin as a 17-year-old in late 1979.

Detouring from the downright ugly to the merely silly, I always found the Chess Blues Masters series of double albums peculiar:

LIttleWalter

 

Chess Blues Masters Series

Maybe the idea was to picture these icons in blues heaven, though Little Walter looked more like he’d been shipwrecked in Hawaii. Howlin’ Wolf as a pilot (or something) in the desert was also a most incongruous setting for a master who’d thrived on Chicago’s South Side.

Now we come to the winner — or loser, depending on how you see it — in the ugly reissue LP cover sweepstakes. For me, it’s gotta be this turkey:

Gollwogs

This does have both sides of all the singles the Golliwogs recorded for Fantasy between 1964 and 1967, before they changed their name to Creedence Clearwater Revival. The idea was obviously to show them as an embryo before they’d hatched, but the image didn’t so much lay a golden egg as a rotten egg.

But like a number of the records detailed in this post, it’s pretty hard to find today. All of the tracks did come out on CD, but only as part of a 2001 Creedence box (which, to be fair, did add eight previously unissued outtakes). If you want them on vinyl, it’s still a sought-after rarity — albeit one that might be missed in the used bins even by some CCR fans, considering Fantasy didn’t even bother to put a photo of the musicians on the cover.

Liner Notes in the Golden Age of Vinyl

Sound file storage technology seems to be changing, upgrading, and taking up less space by the hour. So it might seem questionable whether we — as individuals or as a society — should be archiving vinyl record sleeves. They take up so much more room than those sound files, and the whole concept of such things taking up “space” might be forever altered if they can be stored in the “cloud” or some such thing anyway. Why hold onto what are, after all, just glorified pieces of cardboard?

Even leaving aside the issues of artwork that would be lost and whether it’s possible to create files that sound as good as the original vinyl, there’s another vital component to many LP releases that’s of great historical importance, and often entirely overlooked in these discussions. Many of them came with liner notes that contained crucial writing and information that’s often never been reprinted. Even some notes that didn’t benefit from the much deeper research available in later decades contain perspectives and criticism of great value.  At the very least these should be digitized, and archives be careful not to eliminate duplicates if vinyl editions contain entirely different annotation.

The surprise winner in my choice for vinyl release that contains the most valuable historical liner notes unlikely ever to be reprinted.

The surprise winner in my choice for the vinyl release that contains the most valuable historical liner notes unlikely ever to be reprinted.

It would be impossible to list, let alone review, all the vinyl reissues from the pre-CD era that had fine liner notes. Here’s a selection of some of my favorites, however. In a good number of instances, I don’t think they were ever reprinted in CD editions (though I admit I’m not going to buy the records all over again in a different format to find out). Some are thorough artist histories; some are artist appreciations; and some are, for lack of a better description, something else.

The Yardbirds, More Golden Eggs. Bootlegs usually don’t come with good notes; often they don’t come with any notes of substance. Even back in the 1970s, however, there were exceptions. In fact, I’d go out on a limb and declare this bootleg compilation of then-rare Yardbirds tracks (most have come out on official CDs) to have the most historically important liner notes that have never been reprinted anywhere, to my knowledge — and aren’t likely to, considering the unauthorized nature of this LP.

For the album came out with an extensive interview with Yardbirds lead singer Keith Relf — the longest interview he ever gave about the Yardbirds, as far as I know. Running seven pages, and covering various aspects of the band’s career, not just the songs on the LP, it was exhaustive enough for Relf to declare at the end: “You guys have given me the roughest night of my life.”

The back cover of More Golden Eggs had the first part of the interview with Yardbirds singer Keith Relf featured in the liner notes, continued on an insert inside the sleeve.

The back cover of More Golden Eggs had the first part of the interview with Yardbirds singer Keith Relf featured in the liner notes, continued on an insert inside the sleeve.

It is not exactly common practice for band members to give extensive interviews for bootlegs, and the full story was told about twenty years later in Clinton Heylin’s book Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry. As cover designer William Stout (who did the artwork for numerous early rock bootlegs) told Heylin, “I was really proud of the Yardbirds’ More Golden Eggs because that was the first semi-legitimate bootleg. Keith Relf of the Yardbirds was living nearby. He was just forming Armageddon, and he needed rent money. So we paid his rent that month and in return we were able to interview him and play him the bootleg record and he commented on each of the songs as they were being played…We printed the interview on the cover and as a four- or five-page insert as well, and got his signature on the cover too.”

Within a couple days of arrival at college as a 17-year-old in 1979, I happened upon a used copy of More Golden Eggs at a campus record store, in excellent condition, for the unbelievable price of $2.50. There was a catch, though — it was missing most of the interview. The first page was printed on the back cover, but the insert with the rest of it was gone. I wasn’t able to obtain a copy of the insert until almost thirty years later.

The Move, The Best of the Move. When this double LP appeared in 1974, it was early days for archival reissues of groups that never had a hit in the US, to say the least. Yet it was packaged with uncommon sense and quality, pairing the Move’s 1968 debut album with a dozen A-sides and B-sides from 1967-70. Best of all, the inner gatefold featured extensive, well-written liners by drummer Bev Bevan that commented on every song, penned in July 1973. How many other occasions were there when a member of a major ‘60s band wrote in-depth historical liner notes about his own group just a few years after the material was actually recorded? Any?

Move - Best Of The Move FRONT

Much more recently, Bevan contributed some of the notes to another archival Move release, 2012’s Live at the Fillmore 1969. A few years ago, I heard he was shopping a proposal to write a book about the Move, but there’s no deal for that yet, as far as I know. It would be a shame if someone as obviously interested in his own band’s under-documented history wouldn’t have a chance to write a memoir before time runs out.

For all its other qualities, however, The Best of the Move did boast a cover that wasn’t exactly on par with its contents. Adorning the front was a drawing of a moving van — one of several instances when early best-of comps for British Invasion bands (like the Zombies, Animals, and Yardbirds) had artwork which illustrated the name of the artist all too literally.

Them, Them Featuring Van Morrison. It’s terribly unhip to declare this, but I’m not the biggest Lester Bangs fan. At his best he was very good, however, especially when he seemed reined in by some nominal space limitations that forced him to focus more than usual. You find this in the chapters he wrote for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll. And he never wrote anything better than the notes he penned for this 1972 double-LP Them compilation on the London label, crammed into the inner gatefold with barely a line to spare.

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It’s a masterful balance of zealous enthusiasm and sharp, disciplined description, with joking asides that are funny, not excessive. Bangs on “Gloria,” for instance: “It was the first distinct rock’n’roll classic to come from the pen of Van Morrison, and perhaps still the greatest. I mean, ‘Doctor My Eyes’ is fine and all, but it shore ain’t ‘Louie Louie.’” On Them’s cover of James Brown’s “Out of Sight”: “Its instrumental break isn’t going to give Brother JB any sleepless nights (although these days, it should).”

Unusually, Bangs comments on a number of songs that didn’t make the 20-track compilation, including such classics as “Baby Please Don’t Go,” “All For Myself,” and “Don’t Start Crying Now.” You have to dig into Phonograph Record Magazine’s coverage of Them Featuring Van Morrison to find out why, as Richard Cromelin’s review, highly unusually, included quotes about the LP and notes from Bangs himself. Regarding the track selection, he admitted, “I don’t feel real good about it. For one thing, they didn’t include ‘Baby Please Don’t Go’ and ‘Don’t You Know.’ But it’s not London’s fault. English Decca came up with the idea and the package, so don’t make it sound like I’m knocking London.”

If his quote here is to be trusted, however, his methodology for the liner note writing conformed to the Bangs legend: “They called me and asked how soon I could have the notes for them. I said tomorrow and stayed up all night and banged them out and stuck them in an envelope the next morning.”

The Velvet Underground, 1969 Live. Not all liner notes have to be historical or lengthy to be memorable. Elliott Murphy’s annotation for this double LP of great live Velvet Underground recordings is just ten paragraphs, some of them very short, taking up one column on the right-hand side of the inner gatefold. But this was a time when the Velvet Underground’s cult was just starting to take off, and their place in history just starting to get reassessed. It was unusual enough for a band that had never entered the Top 100 to get a lengthy double album of previously unreleased recordings in 1974, just four years after they’d broken up. (For the full story behind that release, read Mercury A&R guy Paul Nelson’s entertaining summary in Everything Is An Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson.) For an emerging singer-songwriter (as Murphy was) to trumpet the VU’s importance in no uncertain terms was no small declaration.

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“It’s one hundred years from today, and everyone who is reading this is dead,” Murphy’s notes began. “You’re dead. And some kid who is taking a music course in junior high, and maybe he’s listening to the Velvet Underground because he’s got to write a report on classical rock’n’roll, and I wonder what that kid is thinking.”

Now the very notion of the Velvet Underground getting studied in 2075 or whatever would have seem absurd, even laughable, to most academics and cultural pundits in 1974. Today, it’s not so laughable. In fact, it’s already happening. As I’ve written a book on the Velvets myself, a 12-year-old actually called last year to ask me questions for a school report she was doing. And that’s no joke.

“Rock’n’roll people tend to live on the edge,” Murphy wrote. “That’s what this album is all about. Rock’n’roll has always been and still is one of the few honest things left in this world. That’s what this album is about … I hope parents will still get scared when they find their daughter listening to this music.”

Murphy was asked to do the notes by Paul Nelson, the famed rock and folk critic who was working in A&R at Mercury. “Paul’s taste was wonderfully eclectic,” Murphy explained to me. “He told me that Mercury had bought the rights to some live Velvet Underground tapes from around the same period as Loaded and invited me to come to the Mercury Studios and listen to them with him. Then he kind of offhandedly asked me if I wanted to write the liner notes for the album, which came as a big surprise. Paul made acetate copies for me to bring home. I’m still not sure why he asked me, but maybe it was because of something I said while listening to the tapes with him, something about that music lasting for 100 years.

“I knew that Lou Reed was from Long Island like me, so I was comparing myself to him and looking to his music for strength and reflecting on how rock’n’roll was both saving my life and destroying my innocence and forcing me to cut with my suburban roots. What pleases me most about my liner notes or the album is that I wrote them when I was still purely a fan; I hadn’t recorded my first album [Aquashow] yet, and knew little of the soul-splitting machinations of the music business. My ears were pure in a manner of speaking, and those notes were coming from an excitement and passion for rock’n’roll that was totally uncorrupted. It’s both a wonderful and dangerous place to be when you’re 22 years old, for you hear the glory calling and you see none of the pitfalls, of which there are many. Regardless, I knew it was the world I was determined to enter, and those notes were my calling card to get in the high gates.”

At least one member of the Velvets appreciated what Elliott had to say about the music. “I don’t even know if the band had ever heard the tapes before Paul,” Murphy told me. “But I know he was in touch with Lou Reed and eventually sent my liner notes to Lou, because a few months later Lou called my mother in New York City to speak to me. I was out and he had a nice chat with her, because when I came back to her apartment she said a nice boy named Lewis Reed had called for me.”

Brief commercial break: Murphy’s original handwritten liner notes for 1969 Live are reproduced in my book White Light/White Heat: The Velvet Underground Day-By-Day.

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The Easybeats, Absolute Anthology. In the early 1980s, it was enough of a miracle to find a two-LP, 43-song collection of a band that had just one hit in the US (“Friday on My Mind”), and most of whose records were almost impossible to find, particularly those that had only been issued in Australia. But to truly set it apart from the run-of-the-mill reissue, the inner gatefold had a stitched-in, LP-sized twelve-page booklet (itself a concept something that’s largely vanished in the 21st century) with an authoritative history on Australia’s biggest ‘60s band, complete with quotes from band members. (No, the quotes weren’t first-hand, but where were you going to find those back then?) In fact, it stood as pretty much the best history of the band until the 2010 book Vanda & Young: Inside Australia’s Hit Factory (University of New South Wales Press, Australia), over half of which focuses on the Easybeats, though the title emphasizes their primary songwriters Harry Vanda and George Young.

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Getting back to Absolute Anthology, the liner notes also had a stupendously detailed discography before those things were common in rock reissues. It did come out on CD, and I guess there’s a good chance the liner notes were printed in that too, if in much smaller size. (As it turns out, I learned shortly after posting this that the liner notes on the CD version “are just a very basic overview; a huge disappointment compared to the LP”; see comments section.) That LP-sized stitched-in format remains neat to behold, however, and was also used on a few other reissues whose notes this post will discuss.

Gene Vincent, The Capitol Years ’56-’63. Monstrous box sets have become a fact of life these days, at least for those of us either foolish enough to spend the money on them, or clever enough to get comps. Even as recently as the mid-1980s (as recently as a good thirty years ago, in other words), they weren’t such common fare, at least in my household. They were sometimes accompanied by magisterial liner notes, such as the ones in one of the few boxes I did spring for (with store credit of course), a 10-disc UK box of Gene Vincent’s Capitol output.

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For not only was there an LP-sized 36-page booklet with the kind of ridiculously detailed sessionography only the British seemed to able to summon the energy to do in those days. Icing the cake, each of the sleeves for the 12-inch discs had detailed notes on the musical contents, none of them duplicating the text found within the main booklet. That format was also used on at least one other box of a major ‘50s rock pioneer (see next entry), and it’s something not often duplicated these days, when box sets of vinyl 12-inches are still pretty rare, even with the vinyl revival of the last few years.

No doubt there were other such boxes that I missed from the late 1970s through the late 1980s, when CDs started to overtake vinyl as the dominant format in record sales. There have been yet more extensive Vincent CD boxes, and for all I know, those have yet more extensive notes. I still value this relatively “modest” vinyl counterpart, however, and more for the notes than anything else. It’s a pity that nothing Vincent recorded after 1956, however – i.e., most of this large box set – comes near the stratospheric rockabilly brilliance of his best early sides, on which Cliff Gallup played lead guitar.

Buddy Holly, The Complete Buddy Holly. It’s hard to believe that until relatively recently, there wasn’t a box set with most or all of Buddy Holly’s recordings. That meant that for many years, this 1979 six-LP package – issued at a time when major labels seldom did such things for rock artists – was coveted, even by people who’d largely stopped buying vinyl in favor of CDs. A terrific bonus was the 64-page LP-sized booklet of liner notes and photos – and, as with the Gene Vincent box detailed above, more music-specific notes on one side of each of the sleeves containing a vinyl disc. Indeed, aside from Jon Goldrosen and John Beecher’s superb biography Remembering Buddy, it’s the best source of information anywhere on Holly. Uncoincidentally, Beecher co-wrote the notes to this box as well.

Holly

Universal’s 2009 six-CD box set Not Fade Away: The Complete Studio Recordings and More filled the digital gap in Holly’s discography, and the notes in the 80-page accompanying book aren’t bad. The graphics are certainly better than those on the notes on this comparatively ancient vinyl box set. But I’m not getting rid of that vinyl box, in large part because of those notes.

Buffalo Springfield, Buffalo Springfield (1973 double-LP on Atco). Not to be confused with their self-titled debut LP, the left side of the inner gatefold of this compilation featured a basic band bio by Jean-Charles Costa. In a less frenetic manner than Lester Bangs’s Them notes, it combined some basic factual overview with passion that kept, just, from teetering over the edge into fanzine-type zeal.

Buffalo

There’s been lots more written about the Springfield since then that’s drawn on the much greater wealth of biographical detail that’s subsequently surfaced in books. Some is even on the generally disappointing booklet in the Buffalo Springfield box set, which at least contains a thorough list of concert dates. But it’s still great to browse Costa’s contagiously enthusiastic he-was-there praise, with such how-did-he-fit-so-many-words-into-that sentences as this description of their shows at the Whisky A Go Go:

“With Richie bouncing all over the stage on tip-toes backwards, Bruce with characteristic back to the audience pose cranking out amazing bass lines from an old warped instrument strung with four bottom E guitar strings, Neil spitting out ferocious and economical lead guitar lines, Stephen smoothing everything out with beautiful integrated harmonies and sinuous guitar, and Dewey providing the right dose of Memphis back-up funk on drums, the band meshed right away, sounding as if they’d been playing together for years.”

Or this:

“Neil Young’s ‘Mr. Soul’ stands out as the most chillingly accurate portrait of the rock-‘star’ syndrome ever put on vinyl, with lines like ‘the race of my head and my face is moving much faster’ making the listener do psychic slow takes throughout the song. Shotgun imagery, totally on target that now turns up in other people’s books as ‘found poetry’ and so far beyond a lot of the mundane flatulence that passed for ‘heavy’ lyrics in the mid-sixties that it established him in the eyes of many as the real poet of rock.”

There’s one other reason not to get rid of this anthology, and a good reason you might  even want to seek it out. Though most of the well-selected tracks are easily available elsewhere, one – a nine-minute version of “Bluebird,” the last part of which is a long jam – has never appeared anywhere else.

The Merseybeats, Beat and Ballads. When Britain’sEdsel Records emerged in the early 1980s, few other labels were packaging the kind of relatively obscure ‘60s rock they did at all, let alone packaging it well. Many early Edsel releases came with a detailed four-page insert with thorough small-print artist histories and rare vintage illustrations. You really can’t fairly single one or two out for the highest praise, but I liked their fairly extensive Merseybeat series, whose liner notes (by still-active Liverpool rock historian Spencer Leigh) often drew on first-hand interviews.

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Anthologies such as this one for the Merseybeats not only made the best of a band’s work widely available in LP form for the first time (certainly in the US), but also served the first true sources of hard information about many second-line British Invasion groups – not just the Merseybeats, but also the Mojos, the Artwoods, and the Creation. In the cases of some of the more mediocre Merseybeat bands like the Escorts and the Big Three, dare I say, the liner notes were much more entertaining than the music.

There have since been more extensive CD compilations for the likes of the Merseybeats and the Mojos, but the liner notes on these thirty-year-old-or-so collections remain the best. I especially like this quote in the Mojos’ Working: “When I asked one Mojo if [the name of manager Spencer] Lloyd-Mason was hyphenated, he replied, ‘Yes, and I wish the hyphen was between his head and the rest of his body.’”

Del Shannon, The Vintage Years. Sire’s extensive series of double-LP anthologies titled The Vintage Years are still fondly remembered by those who were around in the 1970s and early 1980s as among the best, and sometimes the only, way to get the most essential recordings by important hitmakers whose work wasn’t all that accessible. It’s hard to believe there was a time when that was true of the Small Faces, the Pretty Things, and the Troggs, not to mention the Nuggets compilation (originally on Elektra, and reissued by Sire). But all of them were given Vintage Years volumes. Some of the Vintage Years comps were already making it into the $3.99 and $4.99 cutout bins by the time I entered college in late 1979, making them affordable to 17-year-olds like myself. I even remember getting the Troggs and Nuggets anthologies at the small cutout bin at Urban Outfitters!

Shannon

Also in the Vintage Years series were pre-British Invasion hitmakers like Duane Eddy who, although they might have had skimpier best-ofs in print, didn’t have anything with the kind of in-depth historical liner notes Sire’s writers provided. Another such entry in the Vintage Years honored Del Shannon. Maybe the CD era has seen Shannon packages with more extensive annotation, but if so, I’m not aware of any. Bomp editor Greg Shaw crammed in as much microscopic-sized text as both panels of the inner gatefold could allow, save a right-hand column with a useful discography listing all his singles (A-sides and B-sides) and LPs.

I’ve read the genesis of “Runaway” described several ways, but the way these notes tell it remains my favorite: “Nobody remembers what song they were in the midst of when Max Crook, who sometimes sat in with the band on the musitron (an odd sort of modified organ that made a sound like an electric ocarina, never failing to fascinate audiences) hit on an appealing chord sequence in the course of his solo. ‘Hit those chords again!’ commanded the singer, while the band kept up the rhythm and the people in the club looked on, bemusedly. For the next fifteen minutes, singer and musitronist worked on those chords, which were merely A-minor and G, until an entire new song had been constructed around them. Nobody there was quite sure what had happened, least of all the singer.”

The Troggs, The Vintage Years. One more cheer for the Vintage Years series, this time for the Troggs installation, written by the estimable Ken Barnes. Barnes also wrote good notes for the 1992 double-CD Archeology (1966-1978) compilation, which has a lot more tracks (52 to the “mere” 28 on Vintage Years). I still like the Vintage Years notes, however, including a rundown of each of the 28 songs, the one lyric in “The Raver” hailed as “doubtless fraught with mystic significance as regards the human condition.” Also funny are his memories as playing bass for San Jose’s “most sluggishly-rising bar band, the Savage Cabbage,” in which he’d sing “I Can’t Control Myself” in “my gruffest, toughest Reg Presley growl.”

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The Kinks, The Kink Kronikles. It’s hard to believe, but to quote James Brown, “there was a time” when much of the Kinks catalog wasn’t easily available. This double-LP didn’t quite wave a magic wand to instantly rectify the situation. But it was a smart combination of well-known hits (starting from “Sunny Afternoon” onward) and LP tracks with singles, B-sides, and rarities that were surprisingly hard to find in the US when this came out in 1972 (like “Dead End Street,” “Autumn Almanac,” “Mindless Child of Motherhood,” “Big Black Smoke,” “Mr. Pleasant,” “She’s Got Everything,” and “Days”). Also fine were John Mendelsohn’s notes, which crammed as much text (accompanied only by two small photos) as possible into both sides of the inner gatefold.

Kinks

Mendelsohn’s observations were sharp on both musical description and the origins of the more obscure cuts. Best of all, however, was this amusing paragraph, itself worth a buck or two if you find the album these days, even if the vinyl’s trashed:

“Ray Davies, who at most times seems incapable of injuring the proverbial fly, in April, 1971, blithely reported the following to Rock’s Anne Marie Micklo, ‘I tried to stab Dave [his brother/Kink guitarist] last week. Stab him. With a knife. We were having eggs and chips after a gig and he reached over with his fork and took one of my chips and I…I could have killed him.’”

And again, let’s raise a glass to those days when one-sentence paragraphs like these escaped the editor’s pruning:

“As is the case with ‘Strangers,’ one of his two endlessly intriguing contributions to the Lola album, the literal meaning of Dave’s ‘Mindless Child of Motherhood’ is decidedly elusive – while its individual images are all so intensely personal as to be impenetrable, they add up to an enormously powerful expression of rage whose potency is greatly heightened by the fury and anguish of Dave’s strange strangled voice (which, if you hadn’t noticed, is quickly becoming as expressive an instrument as Ray’s).”

In his notes, Mendelsohn also, with refreshing candor, lamented the absence of rare B-sides like “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” and “Sittin’ On My Sofa.” The first of these (though not, oddly, the second) would soon be included on 1973’s The Great Lost Kinks Album, which combined rarities with unissued material. It is most notorious, however, for notes on a double-sided insert devoting about half their space to savage criticism of the then-current-day Kinks (who’d just left the label that issued this comp, Reprise). Those notes were by…John Mendelsohn.

Sample: “In the recent Everybody’s in Show Biz, there’s hardly a trace of my own favorite Davies, the immensely-social-conscienced champion of the forgotten ordinary people. Instead, it’s a bitchily egocentric Davies who dominates the work, one whose primary interest is making clear to his listener the agony he must endure to stay on the road entertaining us.”

Which is followed by another one-sentence paragraph special:

“To which this kronikler’s own response is: if it makes him so miserable that he can think of little but the insufferable cuisine of the motorway and how he’s compelled to consume maximum portions of same in order to retain sufficient strength to come onstage to perform for us, he certainly and we probably would be better off in the end if he’d retire from touring and get back to sensitizing us – with some of the most beautiful songs anyone’s ever written – to aspects of the world that few other writers even perceive.”

The Great Lost Kinks Album was soon unavailable, and here’s betting its liner notes have never been reprinted with commercial CDs (and never will). But now that its quite rare and fine tracks are not all that hard to find, those notes give you one more reason to snap this up should it show up in the used bin – in which case, alas, it will probably be a lot more expensive than vinyl copies of The Kink Kronikles.

Jan & Dean, Anthology Album. For a time in the early 1970s, United Artists inaugurated a conscientious reissue program that actually gave some early rock artists double LPs with respectful packaging and lengthy stitched-in LP-sized liner notes. There were a few good entries in this series, like the ones for Eddie Cochran (with liner notes by Lenny Kaye) and Ricky Nelson. My favorite entry was the one for Jan & Dean, with liner notes by both Dean Torrence and a young Dave Marsh, then of Creem magazine.

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It’s kind of hard to think of Marsh now as a more or less underground rock writer, but that’s more or less what he was at the time. And giving Jan & Dean major praise for both their music and comic talents, as Marsh does here, was not exactly the safest path to take at a time when pre-Beatles rock such as this was just starting to get taken seriously by a critics, rather than getting dismissed as childish tripe. There are also, oddly, two columns of type about Marsh himself – about the longest writer bio I remember seeing in liner notes, now that I look at it — though I couldn’t say whether that was Marsh’s decision.

Also valuable is a chart, taking up the whole right inner gatefold, of most of Jan & dean’s most notable songs, detailing not just date recorded, studio, equipment, lead vocal, label, and highest chart position, but also number of background vocal overdubs; Jan’s girlfriends at the time of each recording; Dean’s girlfriends at the time of each recording (anyone ever notice that Dean’s late-‘60s squeeze was Patty Findlater, one of the Palisades High School students profiled in the popular 1976 book What Really Happened to the Class of ’65?); Jan and Dean’s respective cars at the time each track was cut; and the number of records each tune sold (the last one, a 1968 cover of the Beach Boys’ “Vegetables,” is simply noted as “not released,” though it made its first appearance on this compilation).

Yet I must admit my favorite feature on Anthology Album is not in the liner notes. It’s talented graphic artist Dean Torrance’s cover, whose five panels present drawings of the pair as they change from crewcut teenagers to mod surfers and – poignantly, in the last one – Dean alone, Jan Berry having been sidelined by a terrible car accident.

The Byrds, Preflyte. Some liner notes aren’t serious contenders for the most scholarly works or the most entertaining, feverishly enthusiastic prose, but have endearing historic value anyway. Like this one for Preflyte, a collection of fine early Byrds demos that was one of the first (the first?) serious archival collections of previously unreleased work by a major rock band. The liner notes are by someone who knew them well, publicist Billy James. He puts things in perspective as follows with honesty unusual for a ‘60s release of outtakes: “If you enjoy works in progress, if you like to watch growing things, you will like this album – but bear in mind they are work tapes only, recordings for rehearsals. Jim Dickson, who with Eddie Tickner was the Byrds’ manager and who produced these recordings and a few other things in his good time, says these are sort of like baby pictures – and it takes a while before you feel comfortable showing them.”

Byrds

As it turns out, the music was not just historically interesting, but quite good on its own merits, perhaps enduring for far more years than even associates like James thought possible. Billy lapses into earnest sentimentality that gives a more personal touch to his recollections than most such annotations when he writes, “‘You Won’t Have to Cry’ really gets to me; damned if I know why. It just seems so poignant; there’s this peculiarly serious aura about the whole thing.”

Preflyte would eventually be expanded to a whopping forty tracks (from its original eleven) on a 2001 two-CD reissue, with a fifty-page booklet of historical liner notes. You still need to find the original vinyl edition (whether on its original Together label or subsequent reissue on Columbia), however, to read Billy’s notes.

Love, Best of Love (1980 compilation on Rhino). Though it soon became the leading reissue label in the world, in its early days, Rhino usually had to squeeze all its liner notes onto the back cover. Such is the case with this early Love compilation – it’s a measure of how “early” it was in the reissue game that most of Love’s catalog was unavailable. Even by liner-notes-printed-on-the-sleeve standards, this one has teeny-tiny type, the kind that makes friends with worse vision than mine ask me to read the menu to them at restaurants.

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These particular notes are not a serious contender for the Top Ten of liners from the vinyl era. Yet they’re an interesting example of how even such rather unprepossessing packages can contain text that generates its share of interest and controversy. In particular, Elektra engineer/producer Bruce Botnick states that Arthur Lee “was real unusual – on acid 24 hours a day. In fact, everybody in the band was out-of-it.” He also reveals that their 1967 classic Forever Changes “started out as a project that Neil Young and I were originally going to produce,” and that “I was prepared to record the album with Arthur singing and playing on his songs, and Bryan singing and playing on his songs, with backing by studio musicians,” two tracks being recorded that way before a shocked, crying band got it together to play on their own material.

These observations have been amplified upon and given different perspectives by other participants in the subsequent decades. But at the time, they were of great interest to Love fans, to say the least. Little information was available about the group then, and this and less controversial quotes on the sleeve from Botnick and Elektra chief Jac Holzman were part of the start in getting more knowledge about Love into circulation. It took thirty years, but eventually a 300-plus-page book about the band – John Einarson’s Forever Changes: Arthur Lee and the Book of Love – would come out, a circumstance unimaginable when this LP was issued back in 1980.

Lee himself, it should be added, offered some of his own prickly memories of the band in the notes. “We used to work every night,” he remembered. “After we started making money, the more we made, the less we worked, the less we were a unit, and Love deteriorated. People’s personal habits started to come before the music. Initially they would listen to me because I wrote 90% of the songs. After we became successful, they got big heads. Everybody had money, everybody had a house, a car, a flash Cadillac. They didn’t need me. Money spoiled them – it spoiled me too. It was a strange time. I thought I was gonna kick the bucket.”

Ian & Sylvia, Four Strong Winds. Lastly, our sole entry that was not a reissue, but a contemporary LP, issued in 1964. This and several other early Ian & Sylvia albums, however, had liner notes that almost could have been for reissues, such was their scholarly detail. That sort of approach – a lengthy delineation of the origin of each song (even the original compositions), along with detailed biographical notes that read more like a newspaper article than an album sleeve – weren’t that uncommon in early-‘60s folk. But Ian & Sylvia were the king and queen of the format, Four Strong Winds in particular covering almost every inch of available space with type.

Ian&Sylvia

As I wrote in my book Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk-Rock in the 1960s, “The lengthy liner notes to numerous early-1960s folk releases now seem stilted and over-serious in their minute details of the multitudinous sources of these ballads, blues, and broadsides from North America and around the world, like entries in an unspoken competition for who could range over more territory than anyone else.” Looking back at such sleeves now, however, you almost feel pangs of nostalgia for the days when liner notes like these wore their influences on their sleeves, unafraid to emote with all the diligence of a master’s thesis. These days, such an approach would either be laughed at as ridiculously earnest, or mistaken for tongue-in-cheek satire. In the CD era, the innocence of such seriousness has been lost.

Coke After Coke: Rock Music Commercials in the Late 1960s

Early this summer, I prepared materials for my upcoming community education course on the Who at the College of Marin. The Who Sell Out are a big part of week two, and that got me thinking about the relationship between major rock artists of the era (the LP came out in late 1967) and commercials. Not only does it seem like more bands than not did a commercial at some point; there are so many such commercials that it seems that very few groups refused an offer. The Who, of course, were at the forefront of this interchange, not only on The Who Sell Out (which featured the band-composed-and-played commercials between many of the tracks), but in “real life” as well.

The cover of The Who Sell Out was as famous as the record itself.

The cover of The Who Sell Out was as famous as the record itself.

The relationship between recording artists and commercials goes back to the very beginning of recording (and radio), of course, with many top blues, country, and rock musicians singing jingles when they appeared on the airwaves. Certainly it goes back to the beginning of rock; Elvis Presley cut a commercial for Southern Maid Donuts on November 6, 1954, a surviving tape of which, remarkably, still has not been found. Here follow the lyrics:

You can get them piping hot after 4pm, you can get them piping hot,

Southern Main Donuts hit the spot, you can get them piping hot after 4pm.

Elvis Presley's jingle for Southern Maid Donuts hasn't been found, but one that Johnny Cash did has, and is included on this compilation.

Elvis Presley’s jingle for Southern Maid Donuts hasn’t been found, but one that Johnny Cash did has, and is included on this compilation.

Never were commercials and rock as artfully combined as they were on The Who Sell Out, programmed to mimic a UK pirate radio broadcast (though they blew it by suddenly discontinuing the commercials a little into side two). There were even unused commercials that have showed up on the two-CD expanded edition and bootlegs. Obviously the jingles for Heinz and Charles Atlas referred to real products, but dummy me didn’t know until recently that the longest “commercial,” for Odorono, was a real deodorant. The name was so ridiculous that I figured it was a satire of a nonexistent cosmetic; turns out the joke’s on me.

There were many, many commercials cut at the time that weren’t satires, however — some even by the Who themselves. There have been enough, indeed, to fill up many CDs assembled by private collectors — eight volumes, in fact, in a series titled Psychedelic Promos & Radio Spots (though these also include commercials for records and commercials not sung or played by credited recording artists). That’s way too many to cover in a blogpost, but here I’ll mention some of the ones I’ve found most interesting.

The Who did a couple commercials for Coke: a relatively (for them) conventional variation on the “Things Go Better with Coke” jingle with Beach Boys-like harmonies, and a far more satisfying grungy one where they chant “coke after coke after coke after coca-cola” with enough force to put you in a diabetic coma. (There were, incidentally, enough ‘60s rock commercials for coke alone to fill up a few CDs worth of jingles.)  They also did one for the forgotten Great Shakes soft drink that used the rhythm of a song from their first LP, “La-La-La Lies.”

A compilation of Great Shakes commercials, highlighted by contributions from the Who and the Yardbirds.

A compilation of Great Shakes commercials, highlighted by contributions from the Who and the Yardbirds.

As a greater stain on their discography, Pete Townshend did a most politically incorrect public service announcement for the US Air Force, at a time when opposition to militarism was heating up as death tolls from the Vietnam War skyrocketed. As “Happy Jack” (!) plays in the background, Pete gushes, “I just want to say that the United States Air Force is a great place to be. A great place to learn a space-age skill and serve your country too…see your United States Air Force recruiter.” Townshend doesn’t mention this in his recent autobiography, though according to Dave Marsh’s 1983 Who bio Before I Get Old, “Today, of course, Townshend is mortified that he ever did such a thing.”

As karmic balance, the Who did an anti-smoking commercial, “Little Billy,” for the American Cancer Society. They were asked to do it by an agency that handled publicity contracts for both that organization and the band, and even considered issuing it as a single, if Townshend’s introduction to the number at an April 6, 1968 concert at New York’s Fillmore East is to be trusted. According to that intro, the society specifically requested it after hearing “Odorono.” Do these places have no sense of irony?

A complete song in the vein of the tunes about odd characters that populated their early repertoire (a la “Happy Jack,” “Whiskey Man,” “Silas Stingy,” and “Mary Ann With the Shaky Hand”), “Little Billy” never was used as a commercial. But it found a place on their 1974 outtakes collection Odds and Sods about a half dozen years later, and some fans got to hear it in concert shortly after it was written:

The Who's live version of "Little Billy" can be heard on a tape of their April 6, 1968 concert at New York's Fillmore East, long available on bootlegs like these, and the best-quality live recording of the band prior to 1969 that's circulated.

The Who’s live version of “Little Billy” can be heard on a tape of their April 6, 1968 concert at New York’s Fillmore East, long available on bootlegs like these, and the best-quality live recording of the band prior to 1969 that’s circulated.

On February 6, 1964, the Rolling Stones cut a brief Rice Krispies TV commercial at a get-it-over-with tempo wholly in keeping with their early frenetic R&B style, complete with wailing harmonica and sneering Mick Jagger vocal. It’s been reported this was co-written by Brian Jones with the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, but it certainly isn’t a sell-out musically, though the old-time blues guys probably wouldn’t have written songs about reaching for breakfast cereal first thing in the morning.

Rare disc containing the Rolling Stones' 1964 Rice Krispies commercial.

Rare disc containing the Rolling Stones’ 1964 Rice Krispies commercial.

The Yardbirds did a commercial for Great Shakes that was a little more creative than most, part of it using  a variation of the “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” riff. Some sources report that this is one of the few recordings done by the lineup featuring both Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page on guitar, with a recording date of October 19-20, 1966, but I haven’t been able to verify this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Want harder stuff than Coke or Great Shakes? Cream did a commercial for Falstaff Beer that, like some of the nuggets detailed in this post, eventually found release on an archival collection. It’s built around something like the “Sunshine of Your Love” riff twisted into a pretzel, though Jack Bruce’s vocals are characteristically rich.

Jack Bruce sang his heart out on Cream's commercial for Falstaff Beer.

Jack Bruce sang his heart out on Cream’s commercial for Falstaff Beer.

Getting back to Coke, the Moody Blues did more than one commercial for the world’s most popular (if hardly its most healthy) beverage. In fact, the first of these was done with their initial, far more R&B-inclined Denny Laine lineup, with stuttering Mike Pinder piano and their typically haunting vocal harmonies. “It’s workin’ out fine, whoa-whoa” improvises (I assume) Laine at one point, perhaps digging up inspiration from Ike & Tina Turner’s similarly titled hit to fill out the minute. The post-Laine jingles draw, as you’d expect, heavily on the mellotron that was such a primary feature of their late-‘60s sound.

This Moody Blues bootleg has commercials they did for Coke in 1965 and 1967.

This Moody Blues bootleg has commercials they did for Coke in 1965 and 1967.

Rounding out our British Invasion citations, the biggest group of all, the Beatles, never stooped as low as to do a commercial to my knowledge, perhaps needing neither the exposure nor the money. It doesn’t exactly count, I know (especially as it aired on a radio network that didn’t even broadcast commercials), but they did do a half-minute in-house jingle for one of the BBC shows on which they appeared, Saturday Club. Sung to the tune of “Happy Birthday,” it’s been written that the chugging musical arrangement was based on Heinz’s then-recent (and only big UK) hit “Just Like Eddie.” That could be, though to me it sounds like a generic Eddie Cochran-inspired approach, Eddie being the then-recently-deceased rocker being paid tribute to by “Just Like Eddie” itself. Recorded on September 7, 1963, this was finally officially released last year on On the Air: Live at the BBC Vol. 2, though it had been bootlegged for decades.

The Beatles' "Happy Birthday" jingle for the Saturday Club program appeared on this bootleg, about 25 years before it was finally officially released.

The Beatles’ “Happy Birthday” jingle for the Saturday Club program appeared on this bootleg, about 25 years before it was finally officially released.

Although anti-establishment sentiment was supposedly a hallmark of much psychedelic rock, some of the most countercultural psychedelic stars did commercials for very commercial products. The most famous of these might be the ones Jefferson Airplane did for Levi’s, a couple finding official release on the 2400 Fulton Street compilation. As with the Who’s “Coke After Coke” jingle, one does wonder if they were taking the opportunity to subvert the whole process by producing as strange an advertisement they could manage while getting paid for it. One of their Levi’s ads features Grace Slick’s unmistakably strident vocals hailing white Levi’s over a heavy raga-rock drone; another is an almost Mothers of Invention-like chaotic sound collage.

This rare disc includes not only a couple Jefferson Airplane Levi's commercials, but a couple done for the same company by a much more obscure San Francisco group, the Sopwith Camel.

This rare disc includes not only a couple Jefferson Airplane Levi’s commercials, but a couple done for the same company by a much more obscure San Francisco group, the Sopwith Camel.

Among the Airplane’s psychedelic peers, Quicksilver Messenger Service did a commercial for Chevrolet’s Camaro cars. The most political of the major Bay Area psychedelic bands, Country Joe & the Fish, did a commercial too — but not for a commercially available product, putting a brief spoof ad for LSD on their second album.

country1

And though the Lovin’ Spoonful (from New York) got into hot water with Haight-Ashbury when two of their members cooperated with authorities after getting busted for pot in San Francisco, they were among the apparently few groups to turn down a Coca-Cola commercial, for the same reason they’d turn down the chance to be the star band in The Monkees. As Spoonful bassist Steve Boone writes in his new memoir Hotter Than a Match Head: Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful: “We might have made more money, or been able to trade off our name a bit longer due to the visibility of the show, but we probably would have sacrificed some self-respect and critical respect too. A similar argument came up later on when we turned down the opportunity to do what would have been a very lucrative, very high-visibility commercial for Coca-Cola.”

Contrast that to the attitude of one of the earliest San Francisco groups to have a rock hit, We Five of “You Were on My Mind” fame. Incredibly, after contracting with the McCann-Erickson agency in late 1965 to do some Coke ads, they spent “hundreds of hours attempting to provide what the agency requested, with each spot being rejected as either ‘too from contemporary middle of the road’ or, conversely, not ‘teenage’ enough,” according to Alec Palao’s liner notes for There Stands the Door: The Best of We Five. Says We Five bassist Pete Fullerton in the notes, “All they wanted was ‘when I woke up this morning, Coke was on my mind,’ and we just wouldn’t do that. That’s probably the biggest reason We Five split apart, because of the amount of work we put into it.”

A couple previously unreleased attempts at supplying Coke with a commercial are on this 2009 compilation of We Five material.

A couple previously unreleased attempts at supplying Coke with a commercial are on this 2009 compilation of We Five material.

This doesn’t strictly count as a commercial, I suppose, but I was unaware until a few months ago that before they had a recording contract, the Doors did the incidental background music for, of all things, a Ford training film geared toward improving the customer service by employees at its sales outlets. Aside from periodic washes of instrumental music (there’s no singing or evident participation by Jim Morrison), it’s a positively excruciating 25 minutes, in line with the skeletal production values and dated do-gooder ethos of industrial training movies. There is one bit near the end where they go into a passage similar to the tune of a song on their fabulous 1967 debut album, “I Looked At You.” And it’s easily accessible now that it’s one of the extras on the Doors’ R-Evolution DVD in 2013, which compiled their promo films and TV appearances.

The Doors were indeed credited for the music they provided for a 1966 training film for Ford employees.

The Doors were indeed credited for the music they provided for a 1966 training film for Ford employees.

Another recording that isn’t really a commercial, or at least meant for the general public, was “cut” by Bob Dylan on May 12, 1965. This wasn’t a “song,” but a tape for a Columbia sales convention in Miami. Dylan plays it fairly straight, though some chuckles indicate he has a hard time taking this business obligation entirely seriously, declaring, “This is Bob! Uh…thank you very much for selling so many of my records. I wish I could be there with you right now at this minute, but unfortunately I’m all tied up.” Actually he was in London, attempting, quite unsuccessfully, to record “If You Gotta Go, Go Now” backed by John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, with Eric Clapton on guitar. “God bless you all, and keep selling a lot of records!,” he concludes.

Bob Dylan's 1965 greeting to a Columbia Miami sales convention has appeared on bootlegs like these.

Bob Dylan’s 1965 greeting to a Columbia Miami sales convention has appeared on bootlegs like these.

Moving to some artists who weren’t particularly known for their sociopolitical stances, one of the most entertaining psychedelic ads was waxed by the Electric Prunes for Vox wah-wah pedals. “You can even make your guitar sound like a sitar!” exclaims the overexcited salesman, the commercial introduced by a bee-buzzing riff all but identical to the one that launches “I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night.” Unlike many vintage rock ads, this has been in fairly wide circulation for more than 30 years, since its appearance on the ‘60s garage comp Pebbles Vol. 2. The first volume of that long-running garage series had already excavated the Shadows of Knight’s silly rave-up “Potato Chip,” a combination interview/musical performance on a cardboard disc included in bags of Fairmont potato chips.

The Shadows of Knight sang for Fairmont potato chips.

The Shadows of Knight sang for Fairmont potato chips.

Also in the Chicago area, the city’s best psychedelic group, H.P. Lovecraft, did a one-minute ad for Ban deodorant that made rather effective use of the precise sort of haunting vocal harmonies and eerie organ heard on most of their 1967 debut LP. I was quite excited to find this a few days ago, only to learn that it came out more than 20 years ago on the official compilation Oh Yeah: The Best of Dunwich Records. Well, you know, I haven’t heard everything.

H.P. Lovecraft's commercial for Ban deodorant was officially issued on this compilation.

H.P. Lovecraft’s commercial for Ban deodorant was officially issued on this compilation.

The Left Banke did at least three commercials for three different products — Coke (in the “Things Go Better with Coke” format), Toni hairspray, and, less expectedly, Hertz Rent-a-Car. These are not so notable for any oddity within the commercials themselves, but for their very existence, since the group’s lifespan was so short that they only recorded a couple of LPs and a few odds and ends. These were even bootlegged on a three-song seven-inch a long time ago, each side playing the exact same three commercials.

A bootleg seven-inch with three Left Banke commercials.

A bootleg seven-inch with three Left Banke commercials.

The great British folk-rock singer Sandy Denny is most known to the general public via her cameos on Led Zeppelin’s fourth album (where she appeared on “The Battle of Evermore”) and the orchestral version of Tommy (where she sings two lines as the nurse in “It’s a Boy”). A much less celebrated cameo was her vocal on a brief late-’60s commercial titled “We’re All Better for Butter.” This didn’t even make it onto her recent 19-CD box set, though it didn’t escape the attention of one of the leading UK music papers of the time (see below).

Sandy Denny exposed in Melody Maker article.

Sandy Denny exposed in a Disc article.

There were a whole lotta soul singers doing commercial back then, naturally, and one of the strangest was done by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. In mid-1968, they proudly advertised their home town on “I Care About Detroit,” a promo single unavailable to the general public. He certainly wasn’t representing the true sentiments of the label he recorded for (and served as vice-president at), Motown Records, which even then had begun the process of moving from Detroit to Los Angeles.

robinson_detroit

There were also many instances in which acts appeared in a filmed commercial, or in some association with a product or organization — even unlikely ones like Pink Floyd, who did a recently unearthed video for “Jugband Blues” (with Syd Barrett) for the Central Office of Information, the UK government’s marketing and communications agency. Or David Bowie, who was in a Lyons Maid ice cream commercial in the late ’60s, when he was struggling to even have a record deal. That’s a whole other can of worms for another time and, perhaps, a different blogpost.

John Fahey Documentary Review

Just as the last couple decades have seen more music reissued than anyone expected, so have the last few years seen documentaries that no one could have predicted on cult artists of all stripes. Like John Fahey, for instance. For all the respect he’s given throughout the alternative music spectrum, he wasn’t filmed or interviewed all that much, which must make constructing a full-length feature a challenge.

The new documentary on John Fahey.

The new documentary on John Fahey.

The hour-long In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey has actually been out a year and a half, and I have to admit I missed it the first time it passed through the San Francisco Bay Area for the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival. Fortunately it screened at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater last night (July 9), and here’s guessing there aren’t many other cities that could draw 75 or so paying customers to a Fahey documentary (shown with a doc of similar length on Bill Callahan).

It speaks well of a documentary, I suppose, when it leaves you thirsting for more. While some people unfamiliar with Fahey might think an hour’s plenty of time to cover a guy who never sold many records, actually his achievements were diverse enough, and his character so quirky, that you want the music and stories to keep on flowing. That’s especially the case because the movie’s well done, interviewing several associates and critics — including Barry Hansen (aka Dr. Demento, who met Fahey when both were studying ethnomusicology at UCLA), fellow guitar virtuoso Stefan Grossman, third wife Melody, and Nancy McLean (who plays flute on his early track “The Downfall of the Adelphi Rolling Grist Mill”) — who are interesting figures in their own right. Star power’s supplied by Fahey fan Pete Townshend, a testament to how far up the pop ladder Fahey’s impact reached on occasion.

There’s not much vintage Fahey performance footage to draw from, but a few clips from various phases of his career are quite entertaining. The excerpts from a 1969 TV show hosted by one Laura Weber showcase some spectacularly skilled pieces. I know little about Weber, but she seems rather straight-laced and out of her comfort zone with John, especially when he explains the real-life origin of the title of “The Death of the Clayton Peacock.” After Fahey goes into the actual death of the slain peacock in more detail than Weber probably wished, the host observes what a sad incident it was; Fahey then quips, with no apparent remorse, that the creature’s expiration made for a good song title.

Five Fahey performances from the 1969 program "Guitar, Guitar," hosted by Laura Weber, are on the DVD In Concert and Interviews 1969 and 1996.

Five Fahey performances from the 1969 program “Guitar, Guitar,” hosted by Laura Weber, are on the DVD “In Concert and Interviews 1969 and 1996.”

Renowned for his enigmatic, at times surreal humor (especially as manifested in his song titles), Fahey could be acerbic as well as funny. One of the lower-fi concert clips captures him likening Stefan Grossman’s playing to that of a dainty lady with long fingers — and the jibe doesn’t seem entirely complimentary. John even titled one of his tunes “The Assassination of Stephan Grossman,” managing to misspell his rival’s first name in the process; Grossman responded by naming one of his compositions “The Assassination of John Fahey.”

As feuds go it’s not exactly up there with the Hatfields and McCoys (or even the Mothers of Invention and the Velvet Underground), and the animosity doesn’t seem to have run that deep, since they even planned a tour capitalizing on the assassinations. Unfortunately Grossman couldn’t do the tour for health reasons, and was hapless to prevent Fahey from claiming he’d actually assassinated Stefan when fans asked why the other guitarist wasn’t around.

A kinder side of Fahey is praised by Townshend, who remembers with fondness how John bothered to write him a letter (shown onscreen in the documentary) after hearing Tommy. Alas, according to the Who guitarist, it was obvious Fahey wasn’t a Who fan. I’m not so sure about that; Fahey was more open-minded to contemporary rock than some might guess, praising Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, Country Joe McDonald, Jefferson Airplane, and the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper in a 1967 interview first published in Dust-to-Digital’s awesomely packaged five-CD Fahey box set Your Past Comes Back to Haunt You: The Fonotone Years [1958-1965].

This box set features the rare recordings Fahey made for the Fonotone label between the late 1950s and mid-1960s.

This box set features the rare recordings Fahey made for the Fonotone label between the late 1950s and mid-1960s.

For all his oddness, Fahey took a lot of things seriously, and they’re treated with appropriate respect by the documentary. He was one of the first white fans to delve seriously into early blues recordings, and even helped track down one of the great country bluesmen who’d fallen off the radar, Bukka White, in the 1960s. He, along with similar free spirits like dedicated collector Joe Bussard (the first figure to record and release Fahey discs, and also interviewed in the film), even went door-to-door in black Southern neighborhoods to offer money for used records. As another interviewee points out, there was a real risk of getting roughed up or worse for doing that at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement, when segregation was severe and their hunger for rare records could have been misinterpreted as something far more threatening or devious.

Too, the financial and health problems Fahey weathered near the end of his life were no laughing matter. A motel room he ended up living in is remembered by a visitor as “a dump”; he wouldn’t even bother to scrape off pennies that stuck to his back when he rolled over in his bed. He retains some intelligence and humor in snippets of interviews conducted in his latter years, at one point observing how his music somehow got categorized as “gothic industrial ambience.” The way he enunciates the term projects both amusement and faint incredulity, and perhaps a whiff of disgust as well.

For all its merits, In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey could have been more comprehensive. I would have liked more on how he founded and ran the Takoma label, which issued both his own best work and notable records by other adventurous acoustic guitarists like Robbie Basho. His pioneering DIY ethic is properly lauded — if Fahey wasn’t the first musician to do things entirely himself in the name of art above all else, he was certainly one of the earliest and most influential such innovators — but it would have been good to detail some of his major-label ventures as well. Some notable associates, like ED [sic] Denson, fellow Takoma acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, and producer/manager Denny Bruce, were not among the interviewees. [Since I first posted this, Bruce told me that the filmmakers were planning to interview him, but canceled it when they ran out of money to do more filming.]

Hopefully some gaps are filled in by the new biography Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, which I hope to read soon. I also want to see In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey on DVD, as according to the film’s website, it “includes extra performances and interviews with Fahey, Townshend, [Chris] Funk of the Decemberists] & more.” If nothing else, I want to be able to freeze-frame those shots of the letter Fahey wrote to Pete Townshend, which zoom by too quickly to digest in the theater.

The new John Fahey biography, just issued by Chicago Review Press.

The new John Fahey biography, just issued by Chicago Review Press.

Postscript: A few weeks after I put up this post, I did see the  DVD. As is sometimes the case with extras, they’re actually not too extensive or vital.  There are just two songs performed by Fahey, though those clips are okay. The extended extract from the Pete Townshend interview holds some interest, but — not too surprisingly — Townshend often talks more about himself than Fahey, sometimes in a way that strays from the question or the documentary’s actual subject.

 

Strawberry Fields Memorial — Please Turn *On* Your Cell Phones

Like many Beatles fans — and, indeed, many visitors to New York — I’ve been to Strawberry Fields in Central Park, most recently on my trip to the city last month. Memorializing John Lennon near the building where he was shot in 1980, it’s a pretty peaceful spot, though there are usually a few musicians there busking Beatles/Lennon songs.

The Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park, June 3, 2014.

The Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park, June 3, 2014.

That’s in spite of the sign below:

QuietZone

“No amplified music or musical instruments; no bikes, rollerblades or skateboards; no organized, active recreation or sports,” it reads. I haven’t heard any amplified live music on my visits, but there have certainly been plenty of guitars a-strummin’, played by musicians of widely varying abilities. Perhaps in acknowledgement that you can’t keep cell phones out of anyplace these days, there’s also this sign:

Yoko

I seldom carry cell phones except when I travel. But here I was with a cell phone in my backpack, and minutes to use up before my next $20 payment. So why not dial the number to hear Yoko Ono’s commentary, even on my cheap Virgin Mobile that’s hard to hear in public places?

Ono’s nearly three-minute message is a straightforwardly factual description of the space and its purpose; the text is printed almost verbatim here. New to me is this explanation of one of “Strawberry Fields Forever”‘s key lyrics: “His aunt, who raised him, disapproved [of the young John Lennon going to Strawbrery Field], but he insisted it was, ‘nothing to get hung about.’ Hence, the song’s famous lyric.” More than 120 countries, she states near the conclusion, have endorsed Strawberry Fields as a Garden of Peace, as listed on a bronze plaque near the memorial’s black-and-white mosaic.

The Dakota, where John lived for the last few years of his life (and was shot in front of), is nearby at 72nd and Central Park West. And not exactly easy to capture without a wide-angle lens, though this is what you’ll see as you exit the park:

Dakota

I passed by Strawberry Fields on my way to the Lincoln Center, on the Upper West Side less than half an hour walk away. To my surprise, there was a visit on the ground floor of the Library for the Performing Arts commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in early 1964. To my greater surprise, it displayed some items that were illegal to manufacture and distribute:

An early bootleg of the Beatles' Ed Sullivan appearances.

An early bootleg of the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan appearances, as seen in the case of an exhibit at the Lincoln Center  Library for the Performing Arts.

I never thought I’d see the days when Beatles bootlegs were exhibited in one of the world’s most prestigious venues for the arts. The disc in the case labeled “Kum Back” in the picture below,  by the way, is one of the first Beatles bootlegs, issued around late 1969/early 1970, featuring some then-unreleased outtakes from their January 1969 recording sessions (which eventually spawned the bulk of the Let It Be LP, as well as the Let It Be film).

KumBack

I’m very familiar with Kum Back. It was the second album I ever owned (at the age of eight, believe it or not). The LP in this exhibit wasn’t the actual record I had, of course. But the inner label of the one I bought back in 1970 (which I still own), complete with my handwritten name, is reproduced in my book The Unreleased Beatles: Music and Film. While you’re in the area, check out some of the other beautiful spots nearby, especially if you’re lucky enough to get the beautiful early June weather I had:

Rowboat3

On the lake in Central Park.

The Central Park reservoir.

The Central Park reservoir.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: An Alternate Top Ten

Now that my two weeks of research at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives are finished (thanks to the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation), it’s time to address an issue that often comes up when the Hall’s discussed. It’s not one that relates to my visit, but I sometimes get asked about it all the same, even though I don’t have a formal relationship with the Hall. Which is: why aren’t some rock artists in the Hall of Fame? Who should be in it who isn’t already?

First off, I should note that I don’t vote in the Hall of Fame elections (and haven’t been asked to). Of more importance, it’s my feeling that musical passions are subjective enough that it’s impossible to apply objective, or even somewhat objective, criteria to an award like this. If someone isn’t in the Hall of Fame whom you really like, what matters most is that they’re in your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It shouldn’t cause distress if other people haven’t voted them in yet.

Still, sometimes I’m lobbied to sign petitions for some artists to get into the Hall. I don’t remember all of them offhand, but I know Doug Sahm and Roky Erickson were two. Those are cultish artists who are frankly a longshot to get in soon or at all. But it’s not just hip underground types that are being championed — at one of my presentations, I was asked why Connie Francis wasn’t in.

I certainly wouldn’t mind if Sahm and Erickson made it (and don’t think Francis should be in there), but really, you’d have to build another wing or two to accommodate everyone in my personal Rock Hall of Fame. They’d include at least a few hundred bands and solo artists who aren’t in yet, and the Hall isn’t going to induct that many new honorees in the next few years (or, most likely, in my lifetime). That’s not even counting all the producers and vital non-musicians who rate consideration.

The Sir Douglas Quintet, led by Doug Sahm (left).

The Sir Douglas Quintet, led by Doug Sahm (left).

For what it’s worth, I do have opinions on my favorite acts who aren’t in yet. What follows is a list of the ten artists I’d most like to see in the Hall. I took into consideration their quality, longevity, and impact on the whole of rock. Let me be upfront, however: this is a very subjective list, guided by my personal tastes, not one which tries to take into account how many fans musicians have, how many records they sold, and how critics regard them. It’s what I like, not a consensus of what everyone likes. My personal Hall of Fame, even if the adjunct is only in my mind.

Rated in rough order of preference, here we go:

1. Love. One of the great folk-rock bands of the mid-1960s, Love generated one of the all- time classic rock albums with their third LP, Forever Changes. That record has performed better on critics’ all-time best-of lists that almost any other, and their first two albums, though not on the same level, had their share of good-to-greatness too.

An ad for Love's "My Little Red Book" single.

An ad for Love’s “My Little Red Book” single.

I don’t know if the Hall of Fame’s voters and nominators sit around discussing fine points of qualification, like many fans and sportswriters do for the baseball Hall of Fame. If they do, however, my guess would be the major strikes against Love are that their peak was brief — just those three albums, in 1966-67 — and their commercial success was limited, though they did have two small national hits with “My Little Red Book” and “7 and 7 Is.” I do feel — though some fans vociferously disagree with me — that Love’s quality fell off drastically after Forever Changes, and that none of their subsequent records (on which principal singer-songwriter Arthur Lee was the only remaining member from their mid-‘60s heyday) were very good or distinctive, let alone on the same plane as their mid-‘60s work.

But that mid-‘60s work was brilliant — and certainly, especially in the case of Forever Changes, influential. And not just on cult artists of subsequent decades — ask Robert Plant. Cult artists haven’t fared too well in Hall of Fame voting, but some groups with limited commercial success have gotten in, like the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. If there’s room for them, there should be room for Love.

As to which members of Love should be inducted, that will be even more of an imbroglio than other disputes over inductees from bands with multiple lineups. Even in the course of their first three albums, Love had seven members. I’d go with the five guys on Forever Changes (Lee, guitarist/next-most-important songwriter Bryan MacLean, guitarist Johnny Echols, bassist Ken Forssi, and drummer Michael Stuart), perhaps adding Snoopy Pfisterer, who played drums and keyboards on their first two albums. I wouldn’t take in anyone from the post-Forever Changes lineups save Lee.

2. The Zombies. One of the great British Invasion groups, ranking near the very top of the tier once you get beyond the best half-dozen or so (the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, Yardbirds, Kinks, and Animals). And besides the Beatles and maybe the Beach Boys, the most inventive melodicists of their time, especially in their use of minor keys.

One of the Zombies' numerous fine mid-'60s flop singles.

One of the Zombies’ numerous fine mid-’60s flop singles.

The Zombies have gained considerably in popularity among critics and fans in the past decade or two. It’s a little mysterious that they’ve been passed over so far, especially since lead singer Colin Blunstone and keyboardist Rod Argent are keeping the flame burning with regular and pretty well-received touring. My guess is that there might still be a perception — an unfair one, but one that is held by some listeners — that their impact was limited to their three big hits: “She’s Not There,” “Tell Her No,” and “Time of the Season.” One friend (not a voter) even insisted to me that having heard those three songs when he was growing up, he felt no need to investigate the rest of their catalog.

But the point is that the Zombies had a lot of other good songs in their catalog, even if none of their other singles made the Top Forty, and many of them bombed commercially. Not only that, those singles (and some of their LP cuts) were quite diverse. And at the end of their career, they did prove capable of making a strong album that expanded their lyrical parameters beyond melancholy romance, Odessey and Oracle.

It probably shouldn’t sway nominators and voters one way or the other, but all of the Zombies save guitarist Paul Atkinson are still alive, and would likely be very appreciative of an induction while they have their health. Unusually, there will be no controversy as to who should be inducted — during their 1964-68 lifetime, the Zombies were the quintet of Blunstone, Argent, Atkinson, bassist Chris White, and drummer Hugh Grundy, with no personnel changes.

3. Them. Like the Zombies, a band that ranks just below the top half-dozen British Invasion bands in quality and originality. Plus they had a future star in their ranks, singer Van Morrison, who also wrote their original material in the two-and-a-half years or so he was in the group.

Them's first US album had one of the great British Invasion LP covers.

Them’s first US album had one of the great British Invasion LP covers.

The problem Them faces, I would surmise, is that their peak was brief, and their commercial success even a bit less extensive than the Zombies’. It’s really the explosive 1964-66 R&B/rock recordings with Morrison that matter, though they did hang on for four more LPs in the late 1960s and early 1970s with Van-less lineups. They had just four hit singles of varying degrees, none of which made the US Top Twenty: “Here Comes the Night,” “Mystic Eyes,” “Gloria,” and “Baby Please Don’t Go.”

A couple of these were much bigger in the UK (“Baby Please Don’t Go” hitting the Top Ten and “Here Comes the Night” soaring all the way to #2), but great UK popularity hasn’t seemed to manage much to the Hall, overall a pretty US-centered institution. Though I wouldn’t buy this argument, it might also be contended that since Van Morrison’s already in the Hall, there’s no need to induct Them, which he fronted for a small if significant part of his lengthy career.

But Them’s legacy, even limited to the Morrison years, isn’t really all that slim. There are about 50 tracks, many of them superb. Their impact was greater than their chart performance, even in the US, where many musicians were fervid Them fans, from the Doors and Iggy Pop to Byrds bassist Chris Hillman. Plus they did the original version of one of the all-time, and most-covered, rock standards with “Gloria.”

Do they deserve their own, separate induction? Yes. Will it happen? Probably not, perhaps in part because, even by the volatile standards of who to induct and who not, the process of selection for Them will be a nightmare. Bassist Alan Henderson is the only guy who was in all their lineups, and even during Morrison’s time with the band, there were a dozen or so lineup changes (even the estimates of how many lineups there were varies according to the source). I’d go with Morrison, Henderson, original guitarist Billy Harrison, and Harrison’s replacement Jim Armstrong — though leaving out a drummer is problematic (I’d go with John McAuley), as is leaving out a keyboardist (I’d go with Peter Bardens, though he wasn’t in the band too long), especially as spooky organs were a big feature of Them’s distinctive sound.

4. The Pretty Things. Let’s be honest here — these guys aren’t going to get in, at least during my lifetime, unless the usual criteria for selection radically change, or the Hall radically expands in size. But they should get in. It’s almost a cliche to state this by now, but the Pretty Things were the best British band of the ‘60s not to have a hit in the US. It’s almost as much of a cliche — but true — to note that at their outset, they were very much like the Rolling Stones (and Pretties guitarist Dick Taylor had even been in the Stones in 1962), but rawer. They also evolved into an important psychedelic group, and recorded one of the first rock concept albums, S.F. Sorrow (1968), whose release predated Tommy by about six months.

A pioneering psychedelic single by the Pretty Things, even if it pictures a previous lineup than the one that recorded these tracks.

A pioneering psychedelic single by the Pretty Things, even if it pictures a previous lineup than the one that recorded these tracks.

What works against the Pretty Things? Well, though they’re way, way better known now than they were in the 1960s, they’re still not very well known in the US. Even in the UK, their commercial success wasn’t that great, and mostly experienced near the very beginning of their career, when “Honey I Need” and “Don’t Bring Me Down” were British Top Twenty hits, and their debut album did well. There are few rock bands that inspire as passionate cult devotion as the Pretty Things, and justifiably so. But the fact is, most Americans still don’t know who they are — and even many knowledgeable rock fans and critics who’d like them, given half a chance, don’t know much about them, and have heard little of their work.

Electing the Pretty Things would strike a great blow for honor based on quality, rather than the usual yardsticks of sales and fame. Deciding who to induct would be the usual challenge. Singer Phil May, who’s been on the ride almost all along, is a no-brainer, as is guitarist Dick Taylor, who was there for all their finest ‘60s work. The other guys in the quintet that made their early recordings (bassist John Stax, drummer Viv Prince, and rhythm guitarist Brian Pendleton) should probably get in too. But so too should other members who figured strongly in their recordings later in the ‘60s — drummer Skip Alan, multi-instrumentalist Wally Waller, keyboardist Jon Povey, and probably even drummer Twink, who played on S.F. Sorrow. I don’t feel passionate about putting in various other guys who played on post-S.F. Sorrow albums.

5. The Moody Blues. Now here’s a band that not only stands a fair chance of getting in, but has had armies of fans knocking on the door for quite a while. It’s not a secret that the Moody Blues are among the most popular of artists not currently in the Hall. In polls asking rock listeners which acts should be inducted, the Moodies regularly score near or at the top.

The Moody  Blues' first UK album, when Denny Laine was still their lead singer.

The Moody Blues’ first UK album, when Denny Laine was still their lead singer.

So why aren’t they included? The Moody Blues did not fare especially well among critics, although the albums during their 1968-1973 commercial prime were huge sellers, and included some fair-sized hit singles. To many, they epitomized the pretentious pomp of progressive rock; to some more serious underground aficionados, they were too twee and pop to stand comparison with more experimental prog rockers. Art-rock in general hasn’t fared that great among Hall voters, perhaps in part because of its dominance by UK acts; although Genesis made it, Yes, for instance, are still waiting, in spite of their huge global popularity.

But for me, the Moody Blues have a strong case based on their 1964-1968 recordings alone. Few fans know much about their pre-Days of Future Passed recordings aside from their one mid-‘60s hit, “Go Now.” But their mid-‘60s British Invasion-era discs — featuring future Wings-man Denny Laine as lead singer, guitarist, and (with keyboardist Mike Pinder) co-songwriter — are quite strong, with a haunting R&B/pop feel quite distinct from their peers. While Days of Future Passed introduced some of the bloat and bombast they’ve been lambasted for, it was one of the first notable quasi-concept rock albums, and (when the orchestral passages took a break) had some genuinely fine, soaring rock songs. Their albums got steadily less impressive from that point onward in my view, but made their mark as some of the most popular progressive rock LPs of their day, even if they leaned toward the poppiest and most romantic side of that spectrum.

It seems like only a matter of time for the Moody Blues — but then again, people have been saying that for about twenty years. There will be no dispute that the quintet on their late 1960s/early 1970s recordings (original Moodies Mike Pinder, drummer Graeme Edge, and singer/flautist Ray Thomas, as well as guitarist-singers Justin Hayward and John Lodge) should be on the plaque. But look forward to lively arguments as to whether to include Denny Laine (whom I would say absolutely has to be part of it), though it’s likely few will care whether the bassist in their mid-‘60s lineup, Clint Warwick, will be part of the discussion.

6. Fairport Convention. There are a number of acts, I think, who would undoubtedly be in Rock Hall if it was based in London and the music’s history was approached from a British perspective. Cliff Richard, the Shadows, the Jam/Paul Weller, T. Rex/Marc Bolan, the Smiths, Kate Bush, and others all would have been in for quite some time if that were the case. That’s fodder for a different article, but Fairport Convention are another band I think would have been enshrined long ago. Their importance to the British strain of folk-rock looms larger than any other artist’s does, and some might even contend the style wouldn’t exist without them.

The US cover of Fairport Convention's second album, featuring their best lineup.

The US cover of Fairport Convention’s second album, featuring their best lineup.

But in the US, Fairport were never big sellers. Not that they were huge sellers in the UK either, but (like their early peers Pentangle, another band deserving of consideration), they always had a much bigger presence in the British scene, on the charts and otherwise. On their US tours, they were more bill-fillers or support acts than headliners. They’re another act that have a white-hot US cult following, but the great majority of US citizens still remain largely or wholly unfamiliar with them, historical importance be damned.

This is just speculation, but if Fairport ever got far in the nominating process, there might be genuine concern over the uncertainty over which members to induct. They shifted personnel so often that their style changed quite substantially as well, from the West Coast folk-rock-influenced tone of their early records to the staunch rocked-up traditional British folk approach they’d settled into by the early 1970s. That style’s much less to my taste than their earlier efforts, but they’d deserve a place in the pantheon for their four late-‘60s LPs alone.

If it was up to me (it isn’t), I’d make sure to include the quintet from their second and best album: singer Sandy Denny (who deserves strong consideration for induction as a solo artist), bassist Ashley Hutchings, drummer Martin Lamble, singer Iain Matthews, and guitarist Richard Thompson. I’d also include original woman singer Judy Dyble and the three Daves who were crucial in their shift to more traditional British folk — drummer Dave Mattacks, fiddler Dave Swarbrick, and bassist Dave Pegg. There have been a number of other musicians in this still-active band, but those are really the names that matter, even to the majority of Fairport fanatics.

7. Mary Wells. Motown stars have done pretty well in the Hall voting, so it’s another mystery to me as to why Wells hasn’t gotten in the door. She had a good number of good-to-great hits in 1960-64, including one of the label’s biggest, 1964’s chart-topping “My Guy.” At that point — which has often been forgotten — she was Motown’s biggest star. It was also at that point, unfortunately, that she left the label, never to recapture much commercial success.

An overseas release of "My Guy," with better cover art than most of Motown's LPs of the period.

An overseas release of “My Guy,” with better cover art than most of Motown’s LPs of the period.

If I can draw a loose parallel to the baseball Hall of Fame for a moment, perhaps Wells’s case has suffered because there’s a wide disparity between what some baseball experts would call her “peak value” and the rest of her career. There are numerous ballplayers who perform at a superstar level for three or four years, but whose case for Hall induction suffers by the relative ordinariness of the rest of their time in the big leagues. Wells performed at a superstar or near-superstar level — commercially and, much more importantly, artistically — for such a period of time. She made some fair records during the rest of the ‘60s for other labels, but was really just another soul singer after leaving Motown, in part because she was no longer produced by Smokey Robinson, who also wrote her best material.

Yet the best records Wells made while at Motown — and there were quite a few good ones, not just the hit singles — were really good. Her voice has been criticized by some historians as lacking when compared to dynamos like Gladys Knight, but for me, personality’s always mattered much more than conventional lungpower. And Wells had vocal personality galore, projecting shy sexiness better than almost anyone.

Mary’s prospects for Hall of Fame induction have also likely been hurt by the lowering of her profile since her death almost 25 years ago, and the absence (to my knowledge) of a strong campaign on her behalf. While her career itself was not cut short by death, we have to wonder what might have been had she stayed at Motown and continued to work with Robinson. Had that been the way things played out, there’s probably no doubt she would have been in the Hall a long time ago.

8. Link Wray. While it seems ridiculous to categorize such an innovative early rock’n’roll guitarist as a one-hit wonder, it has to be remembered that most fans have heard just one song by Link Wray: “Rumble.” As much as that classic did to pioneer the imaginative use of electronic distortion, it’s hardly all there is to his legacy. He recorded many great instrumental records in the late 1950s and early 1960s; in fact, he was quite prolific. Not all of his releases were great, of course, but he had a higher batting average than most pre-Beatles rockers, including some in the Hall of Fame.

A compilation of classic Link Wray tracks.

A compilation of classic Link Wray tracks.

And he wasn’t just all weird and wacky effects, using the guitar in many manners of thrilling ways, often with original material. Not that Duane Eddy and the Ventures don’t deserve their plaques, but I’d rank Wray way ahead of them, and he was certainly way more fearlessly experimental. The raw, often savagely wild power of those late-‘50s-to-mid-’60s records is the foundation of his case, but he also made some good vocal roots rock discs in the early 1970s, if far lower-key ones.

Wray’s influence on at least one much more famous guitarist is unquestioned, Pete Townshend testifying to it in liner notes he wrote for one of Link’s releases. He has far fewer hit records than the few other primary instrumental acts in the Hall, however, and I’d guess he has to be considered a longshot for induction anytime soon.

9. The Shangri-Las. One of the greatest girl groups, the Shangri-Las also had some huge hits, particularly “Leader of the Pack.” I’d wager their short career has worked against them in Hall voting, however. There were only three other big singles (“Remember (Walking in the Sand),” “I Can Never Go Home Anymore,” and “Give Him a Great Big Kiss”), and they were really only strongly in the public consciousness for a year and a half or so in 1964 and 1965. Like Wells, they were hurt with the loss of their support team at their label, in their case when Red Bird Records went out of business in 1966.

Although Betty Weiss was part of the original Shangri-Las, by the time of the photo on this release, they were down to the trio of her sister Mary Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser.

Although Betty Weiss was part of the original Shangri-Las, by the time of the photo on this release, they were down to the trio of her sister Mary Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser.

That brief recording career, however, was enough to produce more great records than many acts manage in two decades, let alone two years. And not just the hits mentioned above — “Past, Present and Future” was an amazing mid-charter, “Dressed in Black” a phenomenal B-side, and “He Cried” and “Out in the Streets” also possessed of great drama. Some of their other tracks were merely good or okay, but a Shangri-Las compilation (virtually everything they did can more or less fit on one CD) makes for much stronger listening than most single-artist girl group anthologies.

As archetypes of fetching teenage angst, the Shangri-Las could not be beat. Sadly, the Ganser twins who comprised half the group are not around now. But lead singer Mary Weiss is, and having upped her public profile drastically in recent years, one imagines she’d be very pleased to accept the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honor.

10. Scott Walker. Like the Pretty Things, don’t let this listing get your pulse racing too fast — he’s never going to get in, not unless the very nature of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame changes. There aren’t many other figures in popular music, however, who’ve made such a heavy mark with two quite different styles — one as a pop-rock balladeer (and quite a good one) as lead singer of the Walker Brothers, and the other as an increasingly serious, almost arty singer-songwriter and interpreter as a solo artist, especially in his early career. That’s not even counting his way-avant-garde excursions from the late ‘70s onward — not ones to my taste, but efforts that are wholly uncompromising, and have an avid if specialized cult of their own.

Scott Walker's best album, from 1970, entirely featured original compositions.

Scott Walker’s best album, from 1970, entirely featured original compositions.

Walker did have some US hits as part of the Walker Brothers, but he really isn’t all that familiar a figure Stateside, even though he was born and raised in the country. The Walker Brothers, though all were American (and none were brothers, or even named Walker), were much, much bigger in the UK in the mid-‘60s than the US, briefly inciting teen adulation almost on the level of Beatlemania. Scott had some British hit singles and albums in the late ’60 after leaving the Walker Brothers, but they were virtually unheard in the US. Like the Pretty Things, he’s much, much better known (speaking of his work as a solo artist) in the States now than then. But all those Mojo magazine huzzahs notwithstanding, he’s still very much a cult, if a pretty large one.

If his profile ever raised to the point where his induction was seriously considered, his style might work against his success. To some listeners, he’s far more a pop singer than a rock one, especially in his late-‘60s/early-‘70s records. To me, he’s enough of a rock singer to make such distinctions unimportant. To take the point just a little farther, if a singer like Bobby Darin’s in the Hall (he is, and made a lot of discs that were as much or more pop than rock), Scott Walker is certainly “rock” enough too.

Here’s one consolation to any rock voters or nominators feeling pangs of guilt. Though Walker’s alive and in good health, he — unlike most of the quality artists not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — almost certainly does not care whether he gets in or not, having made clear his disdain for the usual trimmings of industry success for many years now.

************************************************************************

There’s my Top Ten of sorts. Remember, again, that I’ve never been involved in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination or election process, or been approached to do so. So arguing these choices, or lobbying for others, will not have an effect on who gets selected. This is just a personal list.

There were many names who also received strong consideration, and just missed the cutoff. Sandy Denny, as mentioned in the Fairport listing, was one, as the greatest British folk-rock singer. Robert Wyatt, who’s had a lengthier career in more “underground” genres than almost anyone, was another, and someone else who likely would have been in the Hall had it been administered from a British perspective. John Mayall’s records were uneven (though often very good) and often overshadowed by his star guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green, and Mick Taylor, but there is hardly any other figure as influential in helping to launch significant careers, and for helping to ignite the British blues-rock explosion in general. I’d like to see Francoise Hardy in the Hall, not only for her excellence during much of her first decade as a recording artist as a singer and songwriter, but as a step toward “internationalizing” the Hall beyond performers from English-speaking countries. She’s likely the longest shot of any artist mentioned so far.

francoise-hardy-dis-lui-non-say-it-now-disques-vogue

My books, and lists on my website, give you a good idea of some of the other artists I’d like to see in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (as I keep saying, there are many). Maybe I’ll go through numbers 11-20 in a subsequent post. I’ll end by just listing a few other favorite artists who seem to me to have very strong cases:

Nick Drake; Procol Harum; Jonathan Richman/The Modern Lovers; the Marvelettes; Tim Buckley; the Collins Kids; Harry Nilsson; the Beau Brummels; Bobby Fuller; Lesley Gore; Jackie DeShannon; Big Brother & the Holding Company; Pentangle; the Soft Machine; the Troggs; Judy Collins; the Move; Nico; John Cale; Doug Sahm/The Sir Douglas Quintet; the Searchers; Marianne Faithfull; Phil Ochs; Free; King Crimson; Irma Thomas; Dick Dale; the Spencer Davis Group; Arthur Alexander; Barbara Lewis; Jan & Dean; the Outsiders (the Dutch ’60s group); Dionne Warwick; Mike Bloomfield; the Paul Butterfield Blues Band; the Wailers (the reggae group); Johnny Kidd; Nina Simone; Ian & Sylvia

Blues artists (as influences on rock): Junior Wells; Otis Rush; Sonny Boy Williamson; Slim Harpo; Bukka White

Country artist (as influence on rock): The Delmore Brothers; Patsy Cline

Jazz artists (as influence on rock): Dizzy Gillespie; Lionel Hampton; Slim Gaillard; Wes Montgomery; Mose Allison

Folk artist (as influence on rock): John Fahey

Producers/Engineers/Songwriters/Managers/Label Owners/Journalists: Joe Meek; Lee Hazlewood; Giorgio Gomelsky; Shel Talmy; Paul Rothchild; Jimmy Miller; Joe Boyd; Tom Wilson; Tony Visconti; Norman Whitfield; Peter Asher; Mickie Most; Burt Bacharach & Hal David; Bob Johnston; Norman Petty; Bert Berns; Fred Foster; Norman Smith; Geoff Emerick; Chet Helms; Estelle Axton; Carol Kaye; Lillian Roxon; Graham Gouldman; Nicky Hopkins; Pete Frame; Paul Williams (the Crawdaddy founder, not the singer/songwriter); Shadow Morton

The Move's "Blackberry Way," a #1 UK single in 1969, but (like most of their releases) unknown in the US.

The Move’s “Blackberry Way,” a #1 UK single in 1969, but (like most of their releases) a flop in the US.

Folk-Rock Findings at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives

Last night I gave a presentation at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives about my books on 1960s folk-rock. Most of it was centered around rare film clips, but I was also asked to talk a bit about the research I’ve done at the library over the past two weeks ((thanks to a grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation). This is for the expanded ebook edition of my two-volume work on 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn! (published as a print edition in 2002) and Eight Miles High (published as a print edition in 2003), which I’m combining into a single ebook, Jingle Jangle Morning: Folk-Rock in the 1960s.

It would take many hours and many pages to cover all of the material I’ve discovered at the library. So I used just a few images to illustrate how rare items could shed some light on folk-rock’s history, even after having written about it for 600 pages in the print editions. All of these are taken from ads that appeared between 1965 and 1967 in Cash Box, the biggest music trade magazine besides Billboard, but (unlike Billboard) very hard to find copies of these days, in public libraries or anywhere else.

Let’s start with an ad for one of the first folk-rock releases of all, by the most famous songwriter associated with the genre, Bob Dylan:

CASHBOX_Dylan001_watermarked-page-0

While Dylan had been a pretty big album-seller for a couple of years by the time this ad (and the 45 it promotes) appeared in March 1965, he had yet to issue a hit single, and in fact had barely issued anything in the seven-inch format in the US. The biggest sales of recordings of Dylan songs belonged not to the songwriter himself, but to Peter, Paul & Mary, who made the Top Ten with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.”

This ad shows Columbia got heavily behind Dylan as a singles artist as soon as he made the transition from acoustic folk to rock. Whether that was because they thought rock would be more commercial or because they were getting tired of other labels reaping higher sales from Bob’s songs is impossible to say. But here the company emphatically makes the point that “no one sings Dylan like Dylan” — a phrase that would be quoted many times in subsequent years, and might make its first appearance here. Too bad the ad’s photo (from the cover of Dylan’s third album, The Times They Are A-Changin’) that was about a year out of date by the time “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was issued, both on a single and on Dylan’s fifth album, early 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home.

It wasn’t long before a Dylan song from Bringing It All Back Home got to #1 — not as performed by Dylan, but by the Byrds, who took “Mr. Tambourine Man” to the top of the charts. The Byrds were also on Columbia Records, which might have removed the sting just a little. That ignited a near-instant rush by other artists to cover Dylan songs, even as Columbia issued another Dylan cover from the Byrds’ debut album, “All I Really Want to Do,” as the follow-up to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” In fact, another Hollywood act, Cher, put out her version at the same time, outperforming the Byrds on the Billboard charts. Cash Box took the extraordinary step of combining both versions into the same chart entry, the (presumably) combined sales and airplay getting “All I Really Want to Do” to peak at #9 in the magazine’s listings on August 14, 1965.

Exercising damage control, and maybe out of desperation, the Byrds’ single was flipped and remarketed with the original B-side, Gene Clark’s composition “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” promoted as the A-side. This ad tells the story:

CASHBOX_Byrds001_watermarked-page-0

Byrds PR man Derek Taylor (most famed for his work in a similar capacity for the Beatles) tries as best he can to be pissed off with dignity in the ad’s copy, declaring: “All we really want to do is remind you that America is a spacious country and that Bobby Dylan is a large talent. There’s ample room in the vast embrace of the nation’s record-buyers and Dylan’s creativity for the Byrds, for Sonny and Cher, and a score more. Having made the point, we feel a whole lot better.” But despite the ad announcing the single’s entry into the Top Twenty on four Los Angeles charts, “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” wouldn’t break out nationally. At least the incident afforded an opportunity to use a great, seldom-seen picture of the band, with leader Roger McGuinn consulting the slide rule he was reported to carry around with him, this photo supplying the proof.

Sliding farther down the Byrds and Gene Clark thread, Clark — the band’s primary songwriter on their first two albums — left the group in early 1966 to pursue a solo career. This wasn’t commercially successful, his debut solo LP, Gene Clark with the Gosdin Brothers, failing to chart at all when it appeared in early 1967. Clark has a devoted cult following, and many hardcore fans of Clark and other artists who don’t get sales on par with the passion of their admirers blame record labels for the failure of such records to reach a wide audience. Undoubtedly poor promotion is indeed often to blame in such instances, but it’s simply not true that Columbia did nothing to promote Gene’s solo career. The December 10, 1966 issue of Cash Box contained this extraordinary two-page ad for the single that previewed the record, “Echoes”:

CASHBOX_Clark001_watermarked-page-0

 

CASHBOX_Clark002_watermarked-page-0

It was rare for labels to take out a two-page ad for anything, and also rare, in 1966 at any rate, for ads to reprint lyrics of a single in full. There were a good number of ads that did so in the final years of the ‘60s, however — a change that folk-rock likely did much to foster, as it made rock lyrics (and lyrics in popular music as a whole) taken far more seriously than they had been before folk-rock’s emergence.

As an aside, there were quite a few instances when I came across prominent ads for records that had been alleged to have been poorly promoted. Take, for example, this single by Blackburn & Snow, one of the finest underrated and overlooked early San Francisco folk-rock acts:

CASHBOX_Blackburn001_watermarked-page-0

Despite an abundance of fine, and finely harmonized, original material, few tracks (and no LP) were issued by Blackburn & Snow while they were active in 1966 and 1967, though a full CD finally emerged in 1999. Only two singles came out at the time, however, and even those appeared somewhat belatedly after they began their recording career. “I think if it had been marketed well, and it had come out early enough, it would have done something,” Sherry Snow (now known as Halimah Collingwood) told me when I interviewed her for the book. “It isn’t like I didn’t try,” countered Frank Werber (most famous for managing the Kingston Trio), who recorded them for his Trident production company. “There was not a lot of interest. From anybody.”

I don’t want to pick on Halimah Collingwood by using this ad as an example — she gave me a lengthy, friendly, and candid interview. Many other artists have claimed their releases were inadequately publicized. But this full-page ad does indicate that there was some substantial promotion behind their “Stranger in a Strange Land” single, when it finally did come out, about a year the track was recorded.

And as a trivial note, who wrote “Stranger in a Strange Land”? David Crosby, who’d been a housemate of Snow’s in Venice, California, before the Byrds formed. The Byrds tried it in the studio themselves, but only got as far as cutting the song’s unissued instrumental backing track, subsequently released on the expanded Turn! Turn! Turn! CD.

Sometimes ads can tell a more serious story than the loss of record sales due to bungled promotion. Janis Ian’s “Society Child” was turned down by numerous labels owing to its controversial subject (interracial dating), and even after it was released in 1966, many radio stations were reluctant to play it. It was only after she sang it on a Leonard Bernstein-hosted CBS special on pop music in April 1967 that it was picked up by enough stations to make it a national hit. The story’s been told many times, by Ian and others.

I didn’t doubt Ian’s account, but a couple Cash Box ads supplied vivid proof. Look at this one, from October 1, 1966:

CASHBOX_Ian001_watermarked-page-0

Here the Verve/Folkways label’s praising 17 radio stations in 13 cities that had the courage to play “Society’s Child,” including, most surprisingly, three in the South (in Columbus, Georgia; Augusta, Georgia; and Columbia, South Carolina), where resistance to the single (and integration in general) was heaviest.

Now look at this ad from more than seven months later, after “Society’s Child” finally started to break out nationally:

CASHBOX_Ian002_watermarked-page-0

That verifies the influence the TV special had in making the single a hit, but more intriguingly, contains this note from KRLA, one of the most powerful radio stations in Los Angeles:

“In the past, KRLA has taken pride in displaying the courage and honesty to broadcast controversial material of social and artistic significance. We are embarrassed however, by a recent timidity in not playing a remarkable record which deserves to be heard…Now, with thanks to Leonard Bernstein for leading the way…and with apologies for our ‘cop-out,’ KRLA presents 16-year-old JANIS IAN with SOCIETY’s CHILD.” — Radio Station KRLA, Los Angeles

A vivid illustration, then, of both the initial obstacles to the record’s success, and network television’s role in getting a key outlet to reconsider its stance. Then, as now, it’s rare for an institution of any sort to apologize for anything so publicly.

By the way, the reason Ian got on the TV show in the first place was because New York Times music critic Robert Shelton played “Society’s Child” for Bernstein’s producer, David Oppenheim, who in turn played it to Bernstein. Shelton’s most known for writing the first prominent, glowing review of a Dylan show (back in September 1961 for the Times), as well as generally helping Dylan’s rise as his most prominent champion in the press. Here’s another instance, however, in which he helped change pop history.

Not every ad has to make such a heavy point to be worth investigating, or tell you much about why a record did or didn’t make it. I leave you with this goofy-as-all-get-out ad for Simon & Garfunkel’s single “At the Zoo”:

CASHBOX_SandG001_watermarked-page-0

Here’s guessing Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel did not see or approve this ad before it got printed in March 1967. Maybe Art wouldn’t have minded being cast as the lion, but it’s hard to see Paul being pleased to be the panda. As the ‘60s finished, artists like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young would insist such frivolous promotion be discontinued. And they’d get their way — just one overlooked example of how folk-rock helped give musicians more control over not just their product, but also their promotion, as musicians demanded and received a voice in how they were advertised.

Thanks to the staff at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Library and Archives for their help with assembling images for this post.