Biking and Hiking in Kauai

Since I started this blog, all of my posts about hiking and biking (except one for Reno) have been about places to do so in the San Francisco Bay Area. So why a post about where to do it in Kauai? It’s a five-hour flight away. True, but I was there in early September, I took a bunch of pictures, and San Francisco is about the closest US city to Kauai. And as pretty as San Francisco is, you’re not going to find pictures like these walking around the Bay Area:

Ke'e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

Ke’e Beach, viewed from the Kalalau Trail.

That’s from the Kalalau Trail on the island’s northern shore, overlooking Ke’e Beach. It’s a popular trail, though not overcrowded. Since the parking lot at its southern entrance also serves Ke’e Beach, it’s pretty hard to find a space there—and you probably will need to drive, since public transportation doesn’t go this far north. There’s a very rough dirt parking lot a quarter mile south, and a few dozen other places to leave your car on the side of the road within a half mile.

The Kalalau Trail runs eleven miles in all, and it’s not going to be possible to go all the way out and back, unless you camp at the northern end. It’s enough of a challenge to go five miles in and five miles back, as I did. Walking ten miles isn’t a problem for me, but this is a hilly trail—it has to be to get high enough for views like this:

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There are also a lot of rocks to clamber through at points; a stream to fjord (or just take off your shoes and wade through, as I did) after a couple miles or so; and a lot of mud. So much so that most hikers spend at least a couple minutes washing themselves off at the outdoor beach showerheads after coming out the Ke’e Beach end, as well as thoroughly dousing their shoes (and sometimes, other clothes). Unless you have high-end hiking boots, consider bringing a pair of worn-out shoes that won’t be good for many more hikes anyway, as I did. In fact, the shoes I wore won’t be good for any more hikes after this one.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

Much of the trail cuts a narrow path through jungle-like terrain.

There are other hikes on Kauai, but with only a week and so much swimming and snorkeling to do, I didn’t take any others. There are some in or near incredible canyons like this one that I’ll try if I go back:

Waimea Canyon.

Waimea Canyon.

Biking, like hiking, takes a distant place behind snorkeling and swimming on Kauai. You have to use a road that rings much of the island to get most places, and there’s a good amount of traffic, especially when it goes through the town of Kapaa, where I stayed. I did see some triathlete-types bicyling the road (really a highway), but most recreational cyclists stick to the Kapaa Bike Path, which runs about seven miles. Most of them stick to the four miles or so that run close by the ocean north of town.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

A stretch of the Kapaa bike path.

The good news: there are plenty of bike rental places in Kapaa, and while I didn’t do a price survey, the one I used, the Kapaa Beach Shop (which is just yards away from the path on the northern edge of town), charged a very reasonable $10 for the entire day. The not as good news, though hardly bad news, is that the bikes rented by all establishments seem to be clunky three-speeds. If you’re used to eighteen or so speeds as you whiz around paths connecting to the Golden Gate Bridge, as I am, it’s slow going. That’s not a big problem, though, as the path is pretty level with only very mild gradations, and you don’t really want to be going that fast with the ocean views on your right anyway. (Or going that fast considering there are a lot of tourists on bikes who might not be able to handle higher speeds too well.)

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Short shaded inland detour off the main bike path, at its northern end.

Since it’s not that long, and not that much of a workout, I’ll consider actually walking the path (as many do, in part or whole) if I return. However you navigate it, there are periodic shaded shelters to lean your bike in, close to views like these:

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But as much as I hike and bike at home, I have to say you should prioritize swimming and snorkeling if you’re coming all this way. (The Kapaa Beach Shop also rents snorkeling gear at very reasonable rates, and the friendly, straightforward staff did not, like the first place I used, try to sell me things I didn’t ask for and in which I wasn’t interested.) Ke’e Beach, photographed below, and Tunnels Beach, which is only a mile or so south (though again presenting parking challenges), are the most highly recommended spots:

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There’s other stuff to do and see in Kauai besides outdoor exercise, though I’d do that as breaks between the ocean. Here are a few:

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

The river the Hanapepe Swinging Bridge overlooks.

Talk Story in Hanapepe, "The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States" (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Talk Story in Hanapepe, “The Westernmost Independent Bookstore of the United States” (as it proclaims on the lettering at the bottom of the awning).

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Rock gardens in Kukuiolono Park.

Peter Green: The Ideal Imaginary Compilation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The cover of Fleetwood Mac’s first LP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hiking on the Marin Headlands Coastal Trail

There are several trails near the Golden Gate Bridge that even long-time residents, let alone visitors to the Bay Area, have seldom or never trod. I’ve written about them in previous posts about the Pacific Overlook Batteries to Bluff Trail and hiking from the Golden Gate Bridge to Rodeo Beach. Some take a few miles more to get to by bike and car, like the one down to Black Sands Beach, and the Marin Headlands Coastal Trail near Rodeo Beach, which I walked for the first time in late July.

Coastal view near the beginning of the Coastal Trail.

Coastal view near the beginning of the Coastal Trail.

Here’s one perk that Bay Area residents will appreciate straight off: parking is easy in the lot or on the road near the trail entrance at the north end of Rodeo Beach, at least on a weekday. (It’s not hard to bike there if you’re in good shape, but it’s hard to park your bike there; a note on that at the end of this post.) The trail is pretty well marked and doesn’t require any special gear or footwear. It is pretty steep in parts, so it’s not recommended if you’re not in decent shape or have knee/leg problems.

Be aware that most of this is uphill until you get to the part of this walk that takes you back down to the parking lot. Also be aware that if you strictly follow the signposts for the Coastal Trail that stick to asphalt for its first part, you’ll miss some of the prettier parts and better views. Before you get to the post early on that puts you on wide asphalt, instead detour for the far more scenic, narrower dirt one nearer the water that takes you much closer to the bay. It’s only about ten minutes out and ten minutes back, but you’ll see truly coastal views like these:

Outcropping near the end of the branch of the Coastal Trail that runs near the water.

Outcropping near the end of the branch of the Coastal Trail that runs near the water.

Going back to the main asphalt part of the ascending trail, you wind past a couple batteries – not my main thing – before stairs take you to the highest point in the trail. Even if you don’t have significant health problems, some hikers might find those more daunting than they’d like for a pleasant stroll:

Steep stairs leading up to the highest point on the Coastal Trail.

Steep stairs leading up to the highest point on the Coastal Trail.

But here are some of the striking views you get at the top:

Fog-shrouded top of Golden Gate bridge, with Marin Headlands in foreground.

Fog-shrouded top of Golden Gate bridge, with Marin Headlands in foreground.

Sutro Tower in San Francisco, seen from the Coastal Trail, with the bay blanketed in fog.

Sutro Tower in San Francisco, seen from the Coastal Trail, with the bay blanketed in fog.

Yes, it was a foggy day on the bay when I went. The pictures are a bit deceptive, though, because though there’s lots of fog down yonder, it was actually pretty comfortable and sunny on the trail – breezy and in the low-to-mid seventies.

Strange graffiti on strange shelter-like pit on the trail.

Strange graffiti on strange shelter-like pit on the trail.

Not long after you take the trail past this spot, you have the option on continuing on the official Coastal Trail – which actually isn’t that near the coast for much of the way – or bearing right a bit to go on the Wolf Ridge Trail, which after 0.7 miles hits the Miwok Trail, which will take you back to the parking lot. Not immediately, by any means: it’s almost two and a half miles from the Coastal/Wolf Ridge intersection. One day I want to walk the Coastal Trail to Muir Beach, but you probably need to coordinate with two cars (one parked at either end) to do that, especially as there isn’t bus service back from Muir Beach.

Mountainous vista near the intersection of the Coastal Trail and the Wolf Ridge Trail.

Mountainous vista near the intersection of the Coastal Trail and the Wolf Ridge Trail.

Foliage on brief uphill section on the way down.

Foliage on brief uphill section on the way down.

Though not as majestic as some of the Coastal Trail, the Wolf Ridge and Miwok Trails are pretty enough, and all downhill. I do mean all downhill. It might be easier on your lungs, but it’s actually harder on your legs than the ascent. There’s a somewhat disappointing stretch of a third of a mile or so when you reach the road leading to Rodeo Beach, as the trail runs alongside traffic for a while. But then the homestretch gives you this view of the beach, at the end of which is the parking lot where you began:

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If you have a car, getting to Rodeo Beach is easy enough. It’s possible by bus, but your options are limited – San Francisco’s MUNI runs a #76 bus to the beach, but only on Sundays and holidays. It’s not too hard to bike there (though some hills are inevitable no matter where you’re coming from), but it’s disappointing there are no bike racks in the vicinity of the beach or trail entrance. A park ranger told me I wouldn’t have a problem if I locked my bike up to any structure that wouldn’t intrude on public facilities, but unless you have a big chain, a U-lock will be difficult or impossible to put around the stationary poles/fences/railings. There’s a visitor center almost a mile away that has bike racks, but that adds a lot to a walk that’s rather long as it is.

Rodeo Beach.

Rodeo Beach.

Top Ten Rock Music Works of Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner (1993). If you’re not a science fiction fan, the premise of Glimpses might sound daft. The protagonist is an obsessive rock fan who develops the ability to travel back in time through his dreams, where he tries with mixed success to help the Beatles, Brian Wilson, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix complete their unfinished masterpieces. (Those being Get Back, Smile, Celebration of the Lizard, and First Rays of the New Rising Sun.)

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Part of what makes this work is that Shiner really does know a lot about these legendary aborted records, and a lot about rock in general. He also knows a lot, or went to the trouble of learning, about how the artists actually spoke and acted. The dialogue featuring Jimi Hendrix, for instance, is very much in the fractured and somewhat stoned way in which he spoke, in interviews and on stage. Like a lot of time travel stories, his efforts to change history don’t quite work out the way the main character intends, though you’ll have to read this to find out why.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And an honorable mention to:

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

Doggett

Biking and Hiking in Reno

Time was when Reno, Nevada was known — like Las Vegas and the entire state of Nevada — for its casinos. A town where, as Richard & Mimi Fariña sang in their song “Reno, Nevada” (done better by Fairport Convention a few years later on the BBC and on French television), “The odds have been doubled, and it ain’t worth the trouble/And you’re never going nowhere at all.” And to look outside my hotel when I visited in late April, you’d think that nothing had changed.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

The street scene in front of my non-smoking, non-gaming hotel.

Yet these days Reno, Nevada is a lot more than a casino city. In fact, you could easily visit, as I recently did, and not come across casino culture at all, most of it being contained within about three or four square blocks. Reno’s also a fairly liberal place where biking, hiking, and outdoor activities in general thrive, as does a decent arts scene.

Reno’s not too big, and it’s just a ten- or fifteen-minute drive to the Huffaker Park and Mountain Trail. No, these are not going to challenge the vistas and greenery of the many fine parks in the San Francisco Bay Area, my home base. On the other hand, it’s nice to walk around for an hour or so on a weekday morning, as I did, and come across no more than a couple other people. The trail’s narrow and rocky, but gives you some good looks at Reno’s compact downtown and the surrounding area, though the solitude’s sometimes interrupted by the sound of airplanes landing at the nearby airport:

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

Note airplane coming in for a landing at the far left.

If you want to get some biking miles in (I do) and don’t care to do some rugged mountain trails (I don’t), the flat and mostly well-paved Truckee River Bike Trail runs twelve miles, and can easily be picked up bang in the middle of downtown:

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

The bike trail in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

Opulent homes overlooking the river in downtown Reno.

The best views are on the four miles or so that run west of downtown, passing through some of Reno’s well-to-do neighborhoods, including some small well-kept parks:

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Near the western end of the bike trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Bridge near the western end of the trail.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

Idlewild Park, west of downtown.

The eight miles east of town are a little rougher, both in physical character, as the paths are sometimes gravelly, and in physical appearance, often running right alongside industrial parks and trailer parks just to the north. There’s also a tent city of transients a mile or two to the east of downtown, near the Grand Resort and Casino skyscraper:

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You wouldn’t guess that there are run-of-the-mill (to put it gently) industrial/trailer parks on the other side of this trail from some of the views of the south side:

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Though the trail does come to an inglorious halt at its eastern end, butting right up against a highway and railroad tracks:

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If you’re looking to watch sports as well as engage in them, Reno is home to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ AAA team. The stadium’s just a couple blocks walk from downtown, and $20 gets you a ticket eight rows back of the dugout. It looked like a good place to see a game, but I didn’t actually see a game here, though I had that ticket, as it got rained out:

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Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Reno, viewed from a bridge just east of downtown.

Rock at Home: The Non-Generation Gap

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

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

A representative LP from my parents' collection.

A representative LP from my parents’ collection.

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

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

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

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

Belafonte

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rest of the 5th Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Thomas played mellotron on this White Album track.

Chris Thomas played mellotron on this White Album track.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A record that helped break up the Beatles.

A record that helped break up the Beatles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad magazine satire of the Beatles-Maharishi fling.

Mad magazine satire of the Beatles-Maharishi fling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

160218_CBOX_Beatles-eleanor copy.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2

smukhere

 

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

Astrid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hopkins

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

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

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

Brian Jones

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

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

 

The Top Ten Fifth Beatles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pete Best documentary.

Pete Best documentary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geoff Emerick's memoir.

Geoff Emerick’s memoir.

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

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

Richard-Lester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Martin, The Fifth Beatle

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

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

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

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

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

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

playback

George Martin’s Playback memoir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

deccasessions

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

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

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

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

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

Another album of George Martin versions of Beatles songs.

Another album of George Martin versions of Beatles songs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the-george-martin-orchestra-and-i-love-her-parlophone-3

 

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author Richie Unterberger's views on vintage rock music; San Francisco Bay Area biking and hiking; socially responsible living; and baseball.