Sweeney Ridge Trail in Pacifica

Considering it’s just south of San Francisco, Pacifica doesn’t get nearly as many visitors as some other communities neighboring the big city, like Berkeley, Oakland, and much of Marin County. A few weeks ago I went to a birthday party at the southern tip of Pacifica, however, and on the way down, I took the opportunity to do a hike I’d heard about but never done.

Ocean view from Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Ocean view from Sweeney Ridge Trail.

The first challenge in walking Sweeney Ridge Trail is getting there in the first place. Since it’s right off the road the runs by the ocean, Highway 1, you’d think that wouldn’t be such a big deal. You can’t turn right into the entrance if you’re heading south on 1 from San Francisco, though, and even after you make a U-turn and retrace your steps, the steep short road toward the trail is so sharp and short that you’ll easily miss it if you don’t know exactly where to turn. Look for the Shelldance Orchid Nursery sign when you’re going south – it’s actually much easier to see from the ocean side of the highway – and steel yourself for turning sharply and immediately when you see the sign after doing the U-turn, though that sign’s almost hidden from sight when you’re driving north.

The Sweeney Ridge trailhead, in the back of the Shelldance Orchid Nursery parking lot.

The Sweeney Ridge trailhead, in the back of the Shelldance Orchid Nursery parking lot.

After you drive up the steep, narrow, short hill and park behind the nursery, the next challenge is getting up the steep path. Hikers in reasonable shape should not have a problem, but many casual weekend walkers might cower at the sight of the path veering upward as soon as you set foot on the trail:

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And it’s not as if you scamper up that bit and then level out, or take a leisurely wind up to the peaks. Seems like it keeps on going up and up, usually at a fairly-to-quite-steep grade, for a good half hour or so:

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By keeping on the trail as it veers right and starts to near the 1,000-foot-elevation mark, you come across a most unexpected, and not entirely welcome, landmark:

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This is one of the abandoned buildings from the Nike Missile base, one of about a dozen scattered throughout the Bay Area (there was also one on Angel Island, near Marin County and Alcatraz). It’s quite jarring, this ugly reminder of the cold war right in the middle of a hike otherwise dominated by rolling hills on almost every side:

Abandoned shed in the Nike missile site on Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Abandoned shed in the Nike missile site on Sweeney Ridge Trail.

Nike buildings aside, are there views, of both the Pacific Ocean to the west, and the San Francisco Bay to the east? Sure, but they’re not the most unspoiled ones:

Small lake and San Francisco Bay, viewed to the trail's east

Small lake and San Francisco Bay, viewed to the trail’s east

That's the San Francisco airport, on this slightly different view of the bay from the trail

That’s the San Francisco airport, on this slightly different view of the bay from the trail.

You’re really not that far from civilization here, and even Highway 1 is often visible from the trails:

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As another reminder of man’s intrusion onto this natural space, albeit almost two centuries before the missiles briefly planted themselves here, there’s this monument to the spot where European explorers first discovered the San Francisco Bay:

The inscription on this monument reads: "From this ridge the Portola Exhibition discovered San Francisco Bay November 4, 1969"

The inscription on this monument reads: “From this ridge the Portola Exhibition discovered San Francisco Bay November 4, 1969″

Yet there are spots where the highway, the housing, and even the airport are hidden, and you can revel in the ocean view:

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You can take walks of quite varying lengths from the trailhead, though going about five miles or so roundtrip (about a mile past the Nike missile site, and then back), as I did, makes for a pretty full to two to three hours. For more information, check http://www.everytrail.com/guide/sweeney-ridge-golden-gate-np-conservancy or http://www.parksconservancy.org/visit/park-sites/sweeney-ridge.html.

Ai Weiwei Exhibit on Alcatraz Island

Like most San Franciscans, I’ve hardly ever been to one of the city’s biggest tourist attractions, Alcatraz Island. Before last week, I’d visited twice—which is one or two more times than many local residents I know. There’s a good reason for anyone to go this spring, however, since it’s now hosting a one-of-a-kind exhibit of work by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei.

The dragon kite that greets visitors in the first part of the Ai Weiwei exhibition.

The dragon kite that greets visitors in the first part of the Ai Weiwei exhibition.

Ai Weiwei is not only an acclaimed modern artist, but also a noted human rights activist. Currently he’s not allowed to travel outside of China, and could not visit Alcatraz during the planning of this exhibition, which opened on September 27 of last year (and runs until April 26). Alcatraz makes for an especially apt venue for his artwork and installations, as like the prisoners who famously inhabited the island for much of the twentieth century, he is unable to freely travel, and his interaction with the outside world is restricted.

The trip to the exhibit begins, as it does for all visitors to Alcatraz, at San Francisco’s heavily touristed Fisherman’s Wharf. As has long been noted, the beauty of the island’s setting in the San Francisco Bay is a sharp contrast to the notorious prison (for many years open to tours) it once housed:

The view of Russian Hill, with Coit Tower to the right, as the boat pulls out of Fisherman's Wharf on the way to Alcatraz.

The view of Russian Hill, with Coit Tower to the right, as the boat pulls out of Fisherman’s Wharf on the way to Alcatraz.

The view as the boat approaches Alcatraz Island.

The view as the boat approaches Alcatraz Island.

Even in their current semi-ruinous state, some of the buildings left from the days when the prison was in operation make for a jarring juxtaposition against a small island that, on its own, is a quite pretty oasis:

Derelict building on Alcatraz, with the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the background.

Derelict building on Alcatraz, with the San Francisco Bay Bridge in the background.

You can’t see it too well in a picture taken at twilight, but some structures on the island still boast hand-painted slogans from the brief period in which Native Americans occupied the island in the early 1970s. This water tower is emblazoned with the red-painted slogan “Peace and Freedom: Home of the Free Indian”:

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Those features can be viewed on any trip to Alcatraz. What makes the ones you can do now unique, however, is the opportunity to view Ai Weiwei’s art in this environment. The first stop on that tour is the New Industries Building, which features colorful kites such as these:

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Look closely at some of them, however, which are emblazoned with quotes such as these reflecting current affairs and human rights situations/violations:

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That aspect of Ai Weiwei’s work is far more pronounced in the room behind the kites, which uses LEGO bricks to build portraits of almost 200 people from around the world “who have been detained because of their beliefs or affiliations,” as the guide pamphlet states:

LEGO of Agnes Uwimana Nkusi of Rwanda, a newspaper editor "convicted of defamation and threatening national security."

LEGO of Agnes Uwimana Nkusi of Rwanda, a newspaper editor “convicted of defamation and threatening national security.”

LEGO of Oh Kyu-won Suk-ja, imprisoned in North Korean after her economist father requested asylum in Denmark.

LEGO of Oh Kyu-won Suk-ja, imprisoned in North Korean after her economist father requested asylum in Denmark.

In the cellhouse, a block of cells now contain sound installations playing the music, poetry, and speeches of figures from around the globe who (again quoting the guide pamphlet) “have been detained for the expression of their beliefs.” Some of the more famous voices represented are those of Afrobeat giant Fela, Chilean singer-songwriter Victor Jara, Russian punk band Pussy Riot, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Also represented are Czech rock band the Plastic People of the Universe, who were prosecuted for playing avant-garde free-form rock in the 1970s and 1980s:

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A tape of the Plastic People of the Universe plays as visitors sit in this tiny cell.

A tape of the Plastic People of the Universe plays as visitors sit in this tiny cell.

I wrote a chapter on the Plastic People in my book Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, which you can read here. When I wrote this back in the late 1990s, I never thought they’d be featuring in a major art exhibition on Alcatraz. But life sometimes has more imagination than we do.

In the cellhouse’s hospital, some tubs, sinks, and the like are now filled with porcelain bouquets:

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In the cellhouse’s dining hall, you can write postcards to prisoners of conscience around the world (including some from the United States). Binders on the tables have paragraph-long synopses of their situations. As an illustration, here is the profile of the one I selected to write a card to, Irom Sharmila Chanu in India:

“Charged with an attempt to commit suicide. Chanu is a political and civil rights activist. She began a hunger strike in 2000 to protest the killing of 10 civilians who were allegedly shot by Indian paramilitary forces. Since then she has been arrested, released, and re-arrested every year. Currently she is held in a hospital security ward, where she is force-fed. This is the 14th year of her fast.”

Laundry basket of postcards filled out by visitors to the exhibition.

Laundry basket of postcards filled out by visitors to the exhibition.

Ai Weiwei’s communication with the world, incidentally, is largely build around Twitter messages. Take a look at the dragon kite again, and notice that the eyes are twitter birds:

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Tickets for the Ai Weiwei exhibit are available through Alcatraz Cruises, but you should book now if you’re interested. I don’t know how much space is left, but when I reserved tickets in early December, there weren’t any available until February. More information about the exhibit is at AiWeiWeiAlcatraz.org; the main forum for ongoing conversation about the exhibit is #AiWeiWeiAlcatraz.

The San Francisco skyline, as seen from Alcatraz Island.

The San Francisco skyline, as seen from Alcatraz Island.

Eve of Destruction Answer Records

For all its success – it was, after all, a #1 single on September 25, 1965 – Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” isn’t all that well respected by critics. Even at the time, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Paul Simon Pete Seeger, Noel Stookey of Peter, Paul & Mary, and Manfred Mann lead singer Paul Jones all slagged the song in the press. At the time, however, it caused simply enormous controversy, getting discussed in forums ranging from Time magazine to a Pittsburgh rabbi’s Yom Kippur sermon. It also generated at least two “answer” records that attempted to counteract “Eve of Destruction”’s pessimism, though the motives might have been more mercenary than political.

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Of the two answer records, the better known by far is the Spokesmen’s “The Dawn of Correction,” which actually made #36 not longer after “Eve of Destruction” topped the charts. This combination of self-righteous counterrevolutionary attack and unfunny satire—replete with twanging Jew’s harp and clanging bells—was actually the work of songwriters who had a hand in a classic early rock’n’roll hit. One of the three composers, Dave White, had been in Danny & Juniors and sung on their 1957 #1 single “At the Hop”; another, John Madara, was credited as a co-writer on “At the Hop.” The third perpetrator of “The Dawn of Correction,” Ray Gilmore, was a Philadelphia DJ.

Whether their sentiments were sincere or exploitative, there’s no doubt “The Dawn of Correction” was helped by the very single it was rebutting. As music trade magazine Cashbox reported at the time, “according to the label, a great many stations are now playing the record back-to-back with the McGuire disk, asking their listeners to call or write in their comments.” KCLV in Clovis, New Mexico (the small town most noted as home of the studio where Buddy Holly & the Crickets recorded much of their material), perhaps confused and trying to cover fallouts from every direction, banned both “Eve of Destruction” and “Dawn of Correction.”

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But there was yet another, far more obscure “answer” record refuting “Eve of Destruction” that I only became aware of very recently. Tony Mammarella’s condescendingly moralizing “Eve of Tomorrow” didn’t make the charts, however, and with good reason. Nobody was going to push a button to detonate a nuclear bomb, chanted Mammarella to a martial drumbeat as woman soul singers wailed in the background, as long as we Americans had a button to push as well. “If you’re gonna say uncle, make it Uncle Sam!” he admonished in conclusion.

Producing and arranging this has-to-be-heard-to-believe-it monstrosity was Richard Barrett, who (as Richie Barrett) had co-written and recorded the original version of the first song the Beatles were filmed performing, the explosive soul-rock classic “Some Other Guy.” In just three short years or so, Barrett had come a long way down from issuing the record that was one of John Lennon’s all-time favorites. As John Lennon declared in Rolling Stone on September 17, 1968, “I’d like to make a record like ‘Some Other Guy.’ I haven’t done one that satisfies me as much as that satisfied me.” He probably never heard “Eve of Tomorrow”—but then, hardly anyone did.

Richie Barrett (right), the man behind both "Some Other Guy" and (to a lesser degree) "Eve of Tomorrow."

Richie Barrett (right), the man behind both “Some Other Guy” and (to a lesser degree) “Eve of Tomorrow.”

I’m not aware of any reissue disc that includes “Eve of Tomorrow,” though you can hear it in the usual places online. The most prominent of which, when I cued up “Eve of Tomorrow,” also led me to another folk-rock exploitation disc that had somehow escaped my attention all these years. There’s a Beatles connection here, too, as the “singer” was none other than the self-proclaimed fifth Beatle, New York radio DJ Murray the K.

The very week that “Eve of Destruction” made #1, a single by “Eve of Destruction” composer P.F. Sloan entered the Top Hundred. Titled “The Sins of a Family,” it was, as he noted in his memoir What’s Exactly the Matter with Me? (written with S.E. Feinberg), “a song about my very young first cousin Barbara who sometimes resorted to giving sexual favors to men to get money for her schoolbooks. She was both angry and pleased with me about it.” It would be Sloan’s only single to enter the national charts, though he wrote or co-wrote numerous mid-‘60s hits for others.

A non-hit single by P.F. Sloan.

A non-hit single by P.F. Sloan.

For whatever reason, Murray the K took it upon himself to cover the song. His vastly inferior cover version, featuring Murray’s artless vocals fighting it out with farting horns and woman backup singers, isn’t so much bad—though it’s not good—as pointless. Again according to Sloan’s memoir, Murray “play[ed] it constantly on his show.” That’s a conflict of interest that couldn’t happen nowadays, of course. Could it?

China Beach on Super Bowl Sunday

Unlike much of California (especially the southern part), San Francisco is not a place you go to cavort on the beach. It’s too cold and foggy for that. Well, until global warming started changing things around in that regard recently, anyway. While most of the US has frozen this winter, San Francisco’s had quite a few warm, sunny days in the 60s and even 70s, making beach trips more of an option than they’ve ever been in memory. All those clueless tourists who come to San Francisco in shorts expecting hot sunny L.A weather are dressed appropriately for once.

The beach that draws the most visitors, whether from in-town or out of town, is Ocean Beach, by far the longest and widest in city limits. Not far north of the Golden Gate Bridge, Baker Beach draws its share of beachgoers too. Between the two is the smaller, and more obscure, China Beach, which I’d wager has the highest percentage of local residents, as it isn’t played up too much to the tourist trade.

China Beach on Super Bowl Sunday.

China Beach on Super Bowl Sunday.

I admit that though I’ve lived here for a little more than a quarter of a century, I’d only been to China Beach once, and briefly, before biking out there on an unseasonably hot Super Bowl Sunday. Even on warm days like that, it’s too cold to swim, unless you have a wet suit or are extremely hardy. Sunbathing’s an option, though, as you see when you descend the stairs-path and get a view of the roof of the lifeguard equipment pick-up station:

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You do see a few surfers here, if not many:

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And if you like checking out where the other half live, there are some likely ridiculously unaffordable homes hugging the cliff:

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Posting photos of the Golden Gate Bridge from just north of the structure is almost as cheap a shot as shooting fish in a barrel, but you’ll have some undisturbed views here:

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And there are a few swimmers here, though it’s a lot more comfortable to lie on the beach than venture into the water:

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Named after Chinese fishermen who used the beach as a campsite in San Francisco’s early days, China Beach is reached through some small, out-of-the-way streets in the Sea Cliff neighborhood. There’s a small parking area on the hill above the beach, and a small bike rack just inside the entrance. There’s basic information about the beach at http://www.nps.gov/goga/planyourvisit/chinabeach.htm.

The monument honoring the fishermen after whom China Beach was named, just inside the entrance.

The monument honoring the fishermen after whom China Beach was named, just inside the entrance.

Top Ten Reissues of 2014

I don’t hear as many rock reissues as I used to every year. So my best-of 2014 list is, no doubt, missing some titles that would have come in for strong consideration had I acquired them. I still heard enough, however, to build a Top Ten list of pretty strong releases, all of which have substantial merit.

My vote for best reissue of 2014.

My vote for best reissue of 2014.

As I explained in yesterday’s post about my favorite rock history books of 2014, a note about the parameter of the following list: You know those best-of 2014 lists you’ve seen this month? Well, in many instances, they’ve been compiled a few months before they appeared. That’s due to publication deadlines and, in my mind, a rather ridiculous belief that it’s more important to put best-ofs in an issue bearing a December or January date than to actually allow consideration of everything released in a calendar year.

All of the records below, however, bear a 2014 publication date. And this post wasn’t published until just a couple days before the end of the year. I suppose it’s possible something will arrive in the mail this week that I wish I could have included, but I considered everything I heard before the year came to an actual close. Indeed, I didn’t hear one of them for the first time until the day after Christmas.

Note that I’ve given several of these far lengthier reviews in issues #4, #5, and #6 of Flashback, the London-based ‘60s/’70s rock history magazine:

1. The Velvet Underground, The Velvet Underground: 45th Anniversary Super-Deluxe Edition (Universal). This six-CD box set is expensive and necessitates the purchase of much material many VU fans already have. But it’s a near-definitive document of their third album and their subsequent live and studio recordings (unreleased at the time) in 1969, with three different mixes of The Velvet Underground; all of the 1969 studio outtakes from VU and Another View; and two CDs of live recordings from late 1969, about two-thirds of which are previously unreleased. If, in an alternate universe, you’d never heard this music before, it would be a revelation. Most fans buying this have heard most of this before, so it’s not such a great value. As compensation, however, those eleven previously unreleased live ’69 tracks are really good, including some songs not presented in any form on 1969 Velvet Underground Live, like “I’m Set Free” and “There She Goes Again.” And some of the studio outtakes have notably different mixes, especially “Coney Island Steeplechase,” which gets rid of the annoying through-a-megaphone vocal effect and makes Lou Reed sound like a normal human being again. Read my full, lengthy review of this box for Record Collector News here.

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2. The Bonniwell Music Machine, The Bonniwell Music Machine (Big Beat). I’ve said this before, but it’s worth saying again: too often dismissed as a one-shot group, the Music Machine had many excellent songs, and were one of the greatest garage rock outfits. Disc one is the definitive collection of the Music Machine’s later phase, including numerous underrated psychedelic/garage tracks that only found release on flop non-LP singles and an album (1968’s The Bonniwell Music Machine) that few people heard. Disc two, though less essential, is a historically invaluable assortment of demos and outtakes, many previously unreleased.

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3. The Moody Blues, The Magnificent Moodies: 50th Anniversary Edition (Esoteric). Two-CD compilation of everything recorded by the original lineup of the band, when Denny Laine was their lead singer, including an entire disc of rare/previously unreleased demos/outtakes/BBC sessions. The Moody Blues, as most British Invasion fans know, were a much different group at their outset than they became by the time they moved into psychedelia and progressive rock. In the mid-‘60s phase this release documents, they specialized in haunting R&B/pop, with especially eerie vocal harmonies and a slight classical feel to the arrangements (particularly in Mike Pinder’s piano). Besides containing everything from their UK debut LP The Magnificent Moodies, this has a wealth of non-LP singles, some of them about as superb as their one big hit (“Go Now”), such as “From the Bottom of My Heart” and “Boulevard de la Madeleine.” Both of those songs were written by Laine and Pinder, responsible for all of the Moodies’ original material at this stage.

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4. Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11 (Legacy). While I don’t find this as godhead as many critics and Americana bands do, this six-CD box rounds up everything usable known to have survived from the quirky 1967 recordings Dylan made with the Band. This found the musicians working counter to most trends in rock music that year, mixing folk, country, blues, gospel, and rock’n’roll on idiosyncratic original Dylan material (sometimes written with help from Band members). They also ran through many covers, some quite obscure, though these have a rather loose, informal warm-up feel. So do some of the originals, many of which seem casual toss-offs or frustratingly incomplete. The most fully formed and celebrated songs – generally, the ones that also appeared on the 1975 Basement Tapes double LP – are available on a two-CD distilled version of this box, The Basement Tapes Raw.

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5. Mike Bloomfield, From His Head to His Heart to His Hands (Legacy). Erratic three-CD box nonetheless has much fine music he recorded with Paul Butterfield, Electric Flag, Bob Dylan, and on his own, including some rare and previously unreleased stuff. Curated by his friend and frequent collaborator Al Kooper, it must be said that the first disc is by far the best, focusing on the mid-‘60s and including some previously unreleased tracks from a 1964 Columbia audition, as well as an alternate take of Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues” and an instrumental backing track to “Like a Rolling Stone.” Disc two is dominated by jams of varying quality, and disc three has a playing-out-the-string feel, but these still have their inspired passages. The box also contains an hour-long DVD documentary, Sweet Blues, that’s disappointingly short on archive footage, but has some informative, moving interviews with family, musical peers, and Bloomfield himself. My full-page review of this box appears in the March 2014 issue of Mojo magazine, though there’s no online link to it.

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6. Various Artists, Halloween Nuggets: Monster Sixties A Go-Go (RockBeat). Three-CD set of all manner of ghoulish rockin’ oddities, highlights including Ervinna & the Stylers skin-crawling version of “The Witch Queen of New Orleans” and Kenny & the Fiends’ garage rocker “The Raven.” The absence of annotation besides original labels/years of release (which are noted on the covers of each disc) is disappointing, but the breadth is certainly impressive, jamming nearly 100 tracks onto the three discs.

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7. Various Artists, Troubadours: Folk and the Roots of American Music Vol. 1-4 (Bear Family). Extensive, and generally well done, compilation of North American folk (and a bit of folk-rock) from the 1920s to the 1970s, heaviest on the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the entries are questionable and some big names are missing, but there are some rare off-the-beaten-track gems as compensation. Examples include Mike Settle’s gutsy “Hallelujah”; Earl Robinson’s “Joe Hill,” exhumed by Joan Baez at Woodstock; Terry Gilkyson’s “The Cry of the Wild Goose,” an unlikely #1 for crooner Frankie Laine a year later in 1950; and Paul Clayton’s “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Ribbons When I’m Gone” (from 1961), which was the obvious model for Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.” Notable absentees, however, include Peter, Paul & Mary, Simon & Garfunkel, and Leonard Cohen.

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8. George Harrison, The Apple Years (Universal). All six of the albums Harrison issued on Apple, garnished with a few outtakes/rarities and an infomercial-ish DVD. Rewarding for its exhilarating peaks (All Things Must Pass and, to a more limited extent, the Wonderwall soundtrack); frustrating for the relatively few rarities and the dismal quality of his final records for the label. Had Harrison continued to explore the wildly diverse avenues of his first three releases (which also included the avant-garde synthesizer exploration Electronic Sound) under his name throughout his solo career, his catalog would be more nerve-wrackingly eclectic than Neil Young’s. Alas, he did not continue on the road less traveled, and the last half of the box is disappointingly ordinary, even mundane, in comparison. Beatles completists note: it does include a previously unreleased outtake, an alternate (though not very different) take of “The Inner Light”’s backing track.

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9. The Small Faces, There Are But Four Small Faces (Charly). Reissue of their US-only 1968 LP is stretched to fill out two CDs with a few alternate takes/mixes and the mono promotional DJ version of the album. But the packaging and notes are excellent, and it remains a fun listen even with all the padding. Also, though this was largely based on the 1967 UK Immediate LP Small Faces, it’s actually superior, adding three 1967 singles—“Itchycoo Park,” “Here Come the Nice,” and “Tin Soldier”—that simply improve the record a lot, much as the inclusion of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” and “The Wind Cries Mary” made the US Are You Experienced a better listen than the UK version. Another good addition (or substitution, depending on your view) is the B-side “I Feel Much Better,” which almost could have been a hit in its own right.

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10. Phil Ochs, A Hero of the Game (All Access). Technically speaking, this isn’t a reissue, but a previously unreleased live concert. It was a close call between this and another Ochs live performance (see review below). But I gave the nod to this previously unissued tape of a December 15, 1965 radio broadcast on WBAI in New York. True, the fidelity isn’t sparkling, though it’s okay. But the performances (particularly Phil’s underrated singing) are fine, including some songs that are not exactly common fare even on archival Ochs releases, like “Song of My Returning,” “Morning,” “City Boy,” and “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land.” Some of his most famous tunes (“Crucifixion,” “Changes,” “Power and the Glory”) are represented as well. From a historical standpoint, this is interesting as just one of the songs (“Power and the Glory”) had been released at the time of this broadcast, indicating that his expansion into non-topical material — like “Morning,” “Song of My Returning,” and “City Boy” — was underway well before it became fully evident almost two full years later on his late-1967 album Pleasures of the Harbor. If you want more rare live Ochs, also check out the honorable mention below, Live Again!, which has a May 1973 show:

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10a. Live Again! (RockBeat). Like A Hero of the Game, technically speaking, this is not a reissue, but a first-time issue of a May 26, 1973 concert. Not his best live recording, but an interesting addition to the many items in his discography that supplement his standard albums. There are solo acoustic versions of songs spanning his career, some of them relatively obscure, like “Boy in Ohio” and “Pretty Smart on My Part.” There’s little evidence of the depression/writer’s block that afflicted Ochs in his later years, though unfortunately it would be just three years before Phil committed suicide.

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Also in 2014: I published updated/revised/expanded ebook versions of some of my print books, with plenty of new material. All of these titles are available on Amazon, iBooks/iTunes, and other outlets:

Combines my two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High, into one volume with updated material, including bonus 75,000-word mini-book detailing nearly 200 tracks. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

Combines my two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High, into one volume with updated material, including bonus 75,000-word mini-book detailing nearly 200 tracks. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

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.

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.

documents twenty cult rockers from the 1960s. The book features extremely detailed investigation of the careers of greats like the Pretty Things, Arthur Brown, Richard & Mimi Farina, and Tim Buckley. The extensive chapters all include first-hand interview material with the artists themselves and/or their close associates. The ebook version is significantly expanded, revised, and updated from the print version, adding 20,000 words of new material.

Documents twenty cult rockers from the 1960s. The book features extremely detailed investigation of the careers of greats like the Pretty Things, Arthur Brown, Richard & Mimi Farina, and Tim Buckley. The extensive chapters all include first-hand interview material with the artists themselves and/or their close associates. The ebook version is significantly expanded, revised, and updated from the print version, adding 20,000 words of new material. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

Top Twenty Rock History Books of 2014

Maybe it’s a function of age; having already heard so much music from my favorite era; or getting kicked off numerous promo lists. But these days, seems like I’m spending more time reading books about rock history than I am listening to newly released rock reissues. I had a lot more trouble filling up my Top Ten of 2014 rock reissues (coming in my next blog post) than my Top Ten of 2014 rock books. There were enough books of note, in fact, that in addition to a Top Ten (which follows below), I’ve also listed a dozen other books worthy of some note, and a half-dozen that were released too early to make the 2014 lists.

My choice for #1 rock music history book of 2014.

My choice for #1 rock music history book of 2014.

A note about the parameters of the following lists: You know those best-of 2014 lists you’ve seen this month? Well, in many instances, they’ve been compiled a few months before they appear. That’s due to publication deadlines and, in my mind, a rather ridiculous belief that it’s more important to put best-ofs in an issue bearing a December or January date than it is to actually allow consideration of everything released in a calendar year.

All of the books below were published in 2014, and this post wasn’t published until just a couple days before the end of the year. I suppose it’s possible something will arrive in the mail this week that I wish I could have included, but I considered virtually everything I read before the year came to an actual close.

I’ll start with my actual Top Ten of rock history books issued in 2014. Note that I’ve given several of these far lengthier reviews in issues #4, #5, and #6 of Flashback, the London-based ‘60s/’70s rock history magazine:

1. Different Every Time: The Authorised Biography of Robert Wyatt, by Marcus O’Dair (Serpent’s Tail). It’s a little surprising this hasn’t gotten more attention, as it’s an excellent comprehensive biography of Wyatt from his pre-Soft Machine days to the present, detailing his many group and solo projects with plenty of first-hand input from Wyatt himself. Just as crucially, the book achieves a fine balance between deeply researched information and astute, humorous-when-appropriate critical insight from the author. Unusually for a straight biography, it’s also crammed with many rare and interesting life-spanning photos. Few people seem to know about this book in the US as of this writing, as Wyatt — for all his achievements across a spectrum of pop, psychedelia, and progressive rock with too many esteemed collaborators to fit into anything less than a half-dozen paragraphs – remains a cult figure Stateside. Fortunately, however, the book will be published in the US by Counterpoint Press in fall 2015.

WyattBook

2. Hotter Than a Match Head: Life on the Run with the Lovin’ Spoonful, by Steve Boone with Tony Moss (ECW). The Lovin’ Spoonful were one of the most important ‘60s groups who, before 2014, had yet to be chronicled in a noteworthy book. At last, we have it here in this detailed inside history of the band, given from bassist Boone’s perspective. Naturally it’s not as balanced or objective as it would be if all the members had a say. But unlike most memoirs of this type, it pays a lot of attention to the records, songs, and how they were recorded – and not just the hits, but all of the album tracks as well. This also has Boone’s account of the 1966 bust of him and lead guitarist Zal Yanovsky, which seriously crippled the group’s momentum and longevity, and has never been documented in anything like the detail of the chapter devoted to it here.

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3. Rolling Stones Gear, by Andy Babiuk and Greg Prevost (Backbeat). Mammoth (672-page) history of the instruments and equipment the Stones have used throughout their career, emphasizing their most interesting decades (the 1960s and 1970s), with incredibly in-depth research and a wealth of cool illustrations. And while the technical data is here, it’s not just for gearheads, containing a lot of information about their recording sessions and general career path. Of course that gets a lot less interesting after their first decade or so, through no fault of the authors, as the Stones’ music and career got progressively less interesting.

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4. Bowie & Hutch, by John “Hutch” Hutchinson (Lodge Books, www.johnhutchinson.co.uk). Entertaining and humorous memoir by a guitarist/singer who played with Bowie during three interesting junctures of his career: 1966 when Bowie was a struggling mod rocker, 1968-69 when he was a folky singer-songwriter, and 1973 when he was a superstar. Unlike many people in Bowie’s orbit, Hutchinson knew the singer when he was a relatively accessible person who’d only recently changed his name from David Jones, and not the glam icon he’d become by Hutchinson’s final stint with the band. Especially interesting are the sections covering the ’68-’69 period, when Bowie was just finding his compositional voice, and Hutchinson was important to his sound as a guitar accompanist and backup singer (as heard on 1969 acoustic demos, only a few of which have been released, and all of which are discussed here).

Hutchinson

 5. Brian Jones: The Making of the Rolling Stones, by Paul Trynka (Viking). The best biography of the founding Stones guitarist/multi-instrumentalist/visionary, though perhaps too hard on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ roles in edging him outside of the band’s creative center. Contains a lot of information about his pre-Stones life that will be unknown even to most hardcore Stones fans, as well as interesting details on some of his artistic ventures, such as his recordings of Moroccan musicians. Many of Jones’s friends and associates were interviewed for the book, though how such a talented and charismatic figure could have screwed himself up so badly remains perhaps unanswerable by anyone who writes about him (or knew him).

Brian Jones

6. The Beatles Lyrics, by Hunter Davies (Little, Brown). Not just lyric reprints or dry analysis – reproductions of the actual lyric manuscripts of more than 100 of the Beatles’ songs, with generally astute commentary from their authorized biographer, who knew them about as well as anyone not in their inner circle (and was responsible for actually preserving some of the handwritten manuscripts that otherwise would have been thrown away after recording sessions). Davies’s analysis is sometimes a bit flippant and unfairly dismissive, but generally well-informed, helpfully zeroing in on variations in the written versions when they occur (though these were rarely too extensive).

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7. A Man Called Destruction: The Life and Music of Alex Chilton, From Box Tops to Big Star to Backdoor Man, by Holly George-Warren (Viking). Well-researched, well-written biography documenting one of the strangest career trajectories in rock history. How did a guy who sang a classic #1 soul-rock song as a teenager end up in a cult band, and then doing lo-fi shambling projects that made that cult band (Big Star) seem slick? It’s not all that easy to explain, but this makes a fair effort of at least filling in the steps along the path, properly de-emphasizing his less interesting twenty or so final years.

Alex Chilton

8. Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956-1972, by Harvey Kubernik (Santa Monica Press). A little haphazard and rambling in structure, this oral history-formatted volume nonetheless has a lot of great first-hand interview material, touching most of the main bases of rock during L.A.’s prime. Most styles in which L.A. made strong contributions are here – not just folk-rock, surf, and psychedelia (though those are heavily documented), but also blue-eyed soul, pop, garage rock, and more.

Turn Up Radio

9. Dance of Death: The Life of John Fahey, American Guitarist, by Steve Lowenthal (Chicago Review Press). This could have been longer and more descriptive of some of his recordings, but it’s the best source of information about the basic outlines of the life and career of this enigmatic artist. Like a Fahey documentary that came out in 2013 (In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey), it’s frustrating because it leaves you wanting more, though it offers some good info and insights. Both book and video leave the impression of a very troubled man, haunted by childhood traumas and psychological/physical difficulties as an adult.

John Fahey

10. Exorcising Ghosts: Strawbs & Other Lives, by Dave Cousins (Witchwood Media Limited). The head Strawb recounts his unusual journey from acoustic folk to folk-rock and progressive rock, with generally insightful and amusing text, though it’s padded by a long section near the end detailing his late-20th century career in UK radio. There are more saucy rockers-on-the-road stories than you’d expect given the Strawbs’ somber image, and also some surprising stories about a legend who passed through the Strawbs’ lineup in their early days, Sandy Denny.

Strawbs

Also of note were these 2014 books:

11. Play On: The Autobiography, by Mick Fleetwood and Anthony Bozza (Little, Brown). Fleetwood wrote another as-told-to memoir, Fleetwood: My Life and Adventures in Fleetwood Mac, almost 25 years ago with a different writer (Stephen Davis). So why did he do another one that covers largely the same ground? I don’t know, but for what it’s worth, I did like it, and this time around the story’s a better read. Maybe he needed the money: for someone who’s made as much as Fleetwood has, he’s made some surprisingly unwise investments, recounted here with a humor that verges on pride.

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12. What’s Exactly the Matter with Me?, by P.F. Sloan and S.E. Feinberg (Backbeat). The talented pop-folk-rock singer-songwriter’s memoir leaves you wondering how he managed to intersect with so many different upper-level movers and shakers in the mid-1960s, with a wealth of improbable stories that have not appeared anywhere else. Of most value is the appendix, in which Sloan gives his personal account of the many songs he wrote or co-wrote, including the interesting flops and gems on his solo LPs, not just the big hits like “Eve of Destruction,” “A Must to Avoid,” and “Secret Agent Man.”

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13. Nick Drake: Remembered for a While (Little, Brown). A hefty compilation of essays about Drake, lyrics by Drake, and many pictures and memorabilia. This would have ranked higher had it not recycled (and sometimes excerpted) quite a bit of information that’s appeared in other books, and gone so heavy on analysis of his music by critics and acquaintances that frankly doesn’t add a whole lot to the literature on this cult singer-songwriter. Big pluses, however, are the reprints of many rare clippings, photos, and assorted documents, as well as some gripping, heart-rending passages from the diary his father kept in Drake’s final years, when Nick was slipping into the depths of mental illness.

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14. Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Eric Clapton, The Faces . . ., by Glyn Johns (Blue Rider Press). Johns was engineer and/or producer for many classic records of the 1960s and 1970s, especially by acts mentioned in the lengthy subtitle. It’s more matter-of-fact and dry than I’d hoped, and some classic recordings are summarized in just a few sentences. (In comparison, the 2012 book Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust – written by another major British engineer/producer of roughly the same era, Ken Scott — is a much more engaging, fun, and insightful read.) But there are inevitably the expected share of interesting inside stories about recording sessions and interactions with these giants.

Glyn Johns

15. The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light, by Carlos Santana with Ashley Kahn and Hal Miller (Little, Brown). Santana’s memoir is pretty good on his dramatic transition from life as a teenager playing Tijuana bars to the forefront of San Francisco psychedelia. I was less interested in the sometimes sentimental accounts of his family life, and his intersections with celebrities, Miles Davis in particular getting more ink than the incidents deserve. But it’s strong on the alchemy that led to his late-‘60s breakthrough, and gives credit to Peter Green (and particularly his searing sustain on the Bluesbreakers’ “The Supernatural”) as a key inspiration/influence.

Santana

 16. Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile, by Robert Greenfield (Da Capo Press). This has the feel of a toss-off, as it’s the third book Greenfield’s written on the Stones in the early 1970s, and at least some of the stories and quotes appear in his Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones. I kind of like it anyway, as this account of their “farewell” tour to the UK in spring 1971, padded with some (pretty good) anecdotes of hanging out with the band during their subsequent (if brief) exile in France, is more humbly and humorously written than his other two Stones volumes. You can read my full review of the book here.

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17. On the Road with Janis Joplin, by John Byrne Cooke (Berkley Books, 2014). Cooke was road manager for Big Brother & the Company, and then Janis Joplin, for most of the last three years of Joplin’s life. This is his account of his experiences, and not a superficial one, running 400 pages. There is some extraneous material about his non-Joplin experiences, but there are also some inside stories about both Big Brother and Joplin that aren’t anywhere else, including some insights into their studio work as well as their concerts. Cooke was himself a musician (with the bluegrass band the Charles River Valley Boys), and the son of famed journalist/broadcaster Alistair Cooke.

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18. Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, by Rick Bragg (Harper). Most people who’ve read this biography – and it’s a biography, not an autobiography or as-told-to job, despite the title – seem to like this book better than I do. I found some sections too floridly written, especially the early ones, and though Lewis was interviewed for the book (hence the title), his accounts aren’t as revealing or extensive as one would hope. Still, there are good stories here, particularly on the period most covered – his rise to fame at Sun Records and quick fall from grace, which happens to be his most interesting period musically as well as personally.

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19. Before the Beginning: A Personal and Opinionated History of Fleetwood Mac, by Samuel Graham (Monkey Needle Productions). An ebook-only release by Graham, who wrote a quickie (if pretty decent) paperback bio of the band in the late 1970s (Fleetwood Mac: The Authorized History, issued by Warner Books in 1978). This is an odd variation, as it’s not a reissue or updated version of that book, but something of a best-of of that volume, taking some of the best stories and highlights. Taking advantage of the ebook format, these are augmented by several dozen 30-90-second soundbites from the actual interviews Graham conducted, as well as some interesting documents. It covers the group’s history from the beginning (and best) years when Peter Green formed and led the band, not just the mid-‘70s superstar era. It’s not very long, but as compensation it’s pretty cheap, selling through iBooks/iTunes for $4.99.

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20. Some Fun Tonight!: The Backstage Story of How the Beatles Rocked America: The Historic Tours of 1964-1966, by Chuck Gunderson (Gunderson Media). Mammoth, expensive two-volume, 600-page hardback set documenting the Beatles’ mid-‘60s North American tours in exhaustive detail. This is more for the Beatlemaniac than the general reader, owing to the price but also the coverage of material that will be of most interest for reference purposes. It’s certainly in-depth in its research into how the concerts were set up and took place, however, and is lavishly illustrated with photos, posters, and documents, some quite rare.

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And honorable mentions for these two titles, which just missed the cutoff:

21. Benson: The Autobiography, by George Benson with Alan Goldsher (Da Capo Press). I’m not a Benson fan, especially. But this as-told-to memoir was fairly good nonetheless, reminiscing about his rise from sideman on the club scene to crossover pop superstar. Not so much inside dirt on his personal life, which is fine, keeping the focus on the music, as it should be in these kind of autobiographies.

Benson

22. The Time of My Life: A Righteous Brother’s Memoir, by Bill Medley with Mike Marino (Da Capo Press). Not a hugely in-depth read, the autobiography of Righteous Brother Bill Medley (that was his deep lead vocal on “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'”) is still a breezy ride from his roots in Orange County R&B bands to hits with Phil Spector. For the first half or so, that is; there’s also far less essential coverage of his road to Vegas entertainer. There aren’t as many controversial  revelations as you might hope or expect, but here are some things you’ll learn: he never wanted the Righteous Brothers to end their relationship with Spector; Spector wanted Medley to go solo after “Lovin’ Feelin’” was a smash; Medley produced “Unchained Melody,” “regardless of what the label read”; Phil wasn’t even in the studio when the other Righteous Brother, Bobby Hatfield, sang lead on “Ebb Tide”; and  George Harrison was knocked out by the solo on the early Righteous Brothers single “My Babe,” though other stories of touring with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones don’t dig up many other nuggets along the same lines.

Medley

If you’re wondering why the following books weren’t mentioned, it’s because they came out in the latter part of 2013. Honorable mentions, however, to these titles, which are also worthy of your attention:

1. The Beatles: Tune In: Extended Special Edition, by Mark Lewisohn (Little, Brown). I feel like this monumental biography – just the first of three volumes, covering the Beatles’ lives and career until the end of 1962 – still hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. It’s easily the most comprehensively researched volume on this much-written-about group; the writing is very good; and it extensively draws on the musical and social context of the times in interesting, useful ways. The “standard” edition of this runs about 900 pages, but the two-volume “extended special edition” – running about almost twice the length at around 1700 pages — really is worth the costly (about $125 on Amazon today) investment. It has considerably more information, from important additional context to fascinating trivia.

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2. Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, by Robert Gordon (Bloomsbury). Since there was already a good Stax history back in 1997 (Rob Bowman’s Soulsville U.S.A.), I was unsure if this volume would be necessary. But it’s an excellent book that doesn’t duplicate too much of Bowman’s work, and in the inevitable overlaps, a different perspective is brought to Stax’s legacy. Having co-directed the Stax documentary Respect Yourself (also recommended), Gordon already had a wealth of first-hand research to draw upon for his book, which might be a more accessible read than Bowman’s, though lacking some of Bowman’s intense detail.

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3. Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter, by Alyn Shipton (Oxford University Press). Overdue, fine bio of an important if quirky singer-songwriter. For all the happy nature of some of his most celebrated work, Harry Nilsson’s story was tragically beset by mental, physical, and marital difficulties. These are covered here, but so is his musical evolution from behind-the-scenes songwriter to unlikely solo star.

Nilsson

4. The Rhino Records Story: Revenge of the Record Nerds, by Harold Bronson (SelectBooks). By its very nature, a memoir by a guy who co-founded and co-ran a reissue label – albeit the biggest US reissue label – is going to have limited mass appeal. If you were or are one of those record nerds that got a lot of Rhino reissues, you’ll like this entertaining account of how Bronson first founded one of the finest independent record stores (in Los Angeles, also called Rhino), and then branched out into a record label. Plenty of inside accounts of licensing deals, interactions with the stars being reissued, and the general madness of trying to be creative within the oft-corporate record business.

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5. Bert Jansch: Living with the Legend, by Heather Jansch (The Olchard Press). Heather Jansch was Bert Jansch’s first wife, and this is her incisive account of their relationship, which covered his peak years of popularity in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The stories of Bert as a man and musician are augmented by repros of personal correspondence and memorabilia, as well as some neat tales of the British folk and folk-rock scene of in which the Jansches took part. Designed as a spiral-bound notebook with sketches by Heather, it’s a slim (88-page) and expensive volume. But unlike many such books with limited distribution, it’s produced to a high standard and doesn’t waste words, sticking to the essentials.

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6. Yé-Yé Girls of ‘60s French Pop, by Jean-Emmanuel Deluxe (Feral House). I was a little disappointed with the text of this book, which was a little superficial and fannish, and not as deeply researched as I hoped. Still, this is the only English-language volume devoted to the yé-yé scene, combining pop, girl group, and British Invasion styles with a heavy French slant. It has basic info on the genre’s heavyweights (like Francoise Hardy and France Gall) and many of the minor singers virtually unknown to North American and British audiences. As its best saving grace, the reproductions of rare album sleeves are superb and plentiful.

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Finally, in 2014 I published updated/revised/expanded ebook versions of some of my print books, with plenty of new material. All of these titles are available on Amazon, iBooks/iTunes, and other outlets:

Combines my two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High, into one volume with updated material, including bonus 75,000-word mini-book detailing nearly 200 tracks. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

Combines my two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, Turn! Turn! Turn! and Eight Miles High, into one volume with updated material, including bonus 75,000-word mini-book detailing nearly 200 tracks. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

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.

documents twenty cult rockers from the 1960s. The book features extremely detailed investigation of the careers of greats like the Pretty Things, Arthur Brown, Richard & Mimi Farina, and Tim Buckley. The extensive chapters all include first-hand interview material with the artists themselves and/or their close associates. The ebook version is significantly expanded, revised, and updated from the print version, adding 20,000 words of new material.

Documents twenty cult rockers from the 1960s. The book features extremely detailed investigation of the careers of greats like the Pretty Things, Arthur Brown, Richard & Mimi Farina, and Tim Buckley. The extensive chapters all include first-hand interview material with the artists themselves and/or their close associates. The ebook version is significantly expanded, revised, and updated from the print version, adding 20,000 words of new material. Click here or on the cover image above to order through Amazon.

Goin’ to Kansas City: The Origins of The City’s Anthem

There was a lot more talk about Kansas City than usual in San Francisco last month, since the Giants were playing the Royals in the World Series. It came as something of a disappointment – no, an outrage – that at no time did the networks play the classic ‘50s rock song “Kansas City.” It even opens with the lyric “goin’ to Kansas City”! It was good enough to be used when the Phillies went to Kansas City to play the Royals in the 1980 World Series, and it’s more than good enough now, 55 years after it topped the charts.

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For those who found the song “Kansas City” playing in their head as the World Series played out, there was often some understandable confusion as to what version should be playing. The most famous one is the single by Wilbert Harrison that went to #1 in 1959. The second-most-famous one, and perhaps almost-as-famous one, was recorded by the Beatles in 1964 for their fourth LP. Yet the Beatles’ version sounds almost totally different from the Harrison one. How did that happen?

The original version was written by two 19-year-old white Jewish guys in Los Angeles, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber and Stoller would go on to become one of the greatest songwriting (and production) teams in rock history, but at that point were just getting a foothold in the R&B scene. As Mike Stoller remembers in Hound Dog: The Leiber and Stoller Autobiography, “Jerry’s idea was that we’d give him this geographically specific but musically traditional blues.”

After some apparently mild arguing about how authentically blues Stoller’s melody was, they placed it with Little Willie Littlefield, who had some regional success with the single in 1952. Littlefield’s version – done more as a jump blues than rock’n’roll, rock really not having been officially born yet — isn’t too different from Harrison’s, though a couple of the more risque lyrics would be modified. In the first act that would cause confusion for decades when fans traced the origins of the tune, however, the title was changed from “Kansas City” to “K.C. Loving” by Federal Records co-owner Ralph Bass (who considered “K.C. Loving” a “hipper” title, again according to Stoller in Hound Dog).

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On September 13, 1955, Little Richard recorded a cover that stuck pretty close to Littlefield’s version for the first verse, though in a bit more of an uptempo rock’n’roll style. But then, in the biggest wrinkle in the song’s evolution, he suddenly leaped into an improvised-sounding diversion, yelping “bye bye baby bye, so long,” interspersing a characteristic whoop in the middle. When he gets back to a verse of sorts, this also sounds like he’s making lyrics up off the top of his head, then making another detour to the “bye bye so long” bit. Indeed, this sounds kind of like a jam after the first verse gets out of the way.

Then on November 29, he cut a yet different version which – it’s obvious right from the opening riff – is the one the Beatles based on their cover on. Here Richard took so many liberties with the Leiber-Stoller original that it’s virtually an entirely different song, save for the very basic theme of going to Kansas City to find a girl and tie one on. He did retain the “bye bye baby bye so long” etc. bit from his previous attempt at the song, adding a yet different bit based around a “hey hey hey” chant. In all, this accounts for why the Beatles’ version is credited to Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, and Richard Penniman (Little Richard’s legal name), not just Leiber and Stoller.

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Now go back to the 1950s, but this time, the late 1950s. Journeyman R&B singer Wilbert Harrison had been doing Littlefield’s “K.C. Loving” live, and recorded it for a March 1959 single, this time changing the title back to “Kansas City.” Possibly Harrison was unaware of Little Richard’s liberal “cover,” sticking fairly close to Littlefield’s arrangement, though the lyrics were slightly toned down – “gonna get me some” was changed to “gonna get me one,” and the reference to a “bottle of Kansas City wine” was so slurred that many DJs and would-be-concerned parents might never have caught it.

But “Kansas City” wasn’t just a faithful replica of Littlefield’s by-then rather ancient single. Occasionally there are covers that vary the original only slightly, but by significant enough degrees to make it a much different listening experience and indeed much superior recording. And there may be no better example than Harrison’s “Kansas City.” What made it a #1 pop smash, where the original hadn’t even made the R&B charts?

Well, Harrison’s version just rocked more. He pounded the piano to set a compelling groove that might have had its roots in jump blues, but was as locked-in as it gets. Put on Littlefield’s version, and it’s just another above-average R&B song; put on Harrison’s, and your foot can’t help but immediately start pounding along with it. Crucially, Harrison also eccentrically varies the intonation on the vocals on the final lines of the verses so that he sounds like he’s leaning in and out of the lyrics, almost as if he’s tempted to sing it like a ska song. And most crucially of all, Jimmy Spruill lets loose with a wailing guitar solo (goosed on by Harrison’s shouts of “ah, but you know yeah, must-tah!” — well, that’s what it sounds like — and “ohhh yeah!”) that might be rooted in the blues, but is most definitely rock’n’roll. The record shot to #1, just a couple months after the plane crash that supposedly killed rock’n’roll – though, as “Kansas City” and countless other records prove, the music was very much alive and well at the time when rock’n’roll had supposedly died or vanished.

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But while it was #1 in the US, it didn’t chart at all in the UK. There the hit version belonged to Little Richard, whose “Kansas City”/“Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey” mutation (as it’s now titled on Beatles for Sale) made #26, not long after Harrison’s “Kansas City” climbed the American charts. It was “Kansas City”/“Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey,” then, that the Beatles and other British teenagers heard, and this was the arrangement that the Beatles began to play live as early as mid-1960, as its inclusion on group’s the earliest surviving setlist proves. Although “Long Tall Sally” is a more celebrated instance of Paul McCartney’s ability to match Little Richard in sheer intensity for upper-register raucous rock’n’roll singing, the Beatles’ interpretation of “Kansas City” is just as impressive in that regard.

There are, indeed, several versions predating the studio recording they cut on October 18, 1964. They did three versions for the BBC (July 16, 1963; May 1, 1964; and November 25, 1964), all of which were bootlegged before the November ’64 one came out last year on On the Air: Live at the BBC Vol. 2. An inferior alternate studio take came out on Anthology 1, and you can even hear a lo-fi but energetic one from September 5, 1962 before a live Liverpool audience at the Cavern if you look in all the places you’re not supposed to.

The Beatles also did it on September 17, 1964 when they, after getting an offer from Charlie Finley (owner of the Kansas City Athletics major league baseball team), added a Kansas City concert to their summer American tour. If it was good enough for the Beatles and Kansas City then, why wasn’t it good enough for Fox network last month?

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The 1960 World Series: The Game Remains the Same

With my hometown team, the San Francisco Giants, winning a world series in seven games this year, I got to thinking about other game sevens. These days, you can do more than think about them; you can watch them, or at least parts of some of them. The match often cited as the best game seven of all, the Pirates vs. the Yankees in 1960, is now online, or at least the last three innings of it.

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It’s been 54 years since that game, which the Pirates won 10-9, the home team winning when Bill Mazeroski hit a home run to open the bottom of the ninth. The game of baseball itself has changed a lot since then, and so has television. What surprised me the most on viewing these three innings, however, was how little baseball has changed in some respects. I’m not a fan of the other major sports, but I imagine if you saw a football or basketball game from 1960, it would look quite a bit different than it does today.

There’s been a lot of talk, mostly justified, lately about speeding up the pace of major league baseball, with many games dragging over three hours or more (four hours or more, sometimes, in the postseason). Watching games on TV is itself a much different experience than it was in the twentieth century, both in the barrage of commercials, in-house network promotions (often in the middle of innings), and onslaught of statistics that were largely inaccessible a few decades ago. Yet for all that, it’s not at all hard to follow the 1960 World Series game, even if you’re unfamiliar with the teams and players.

True, compared to what you see nowadays, the camerawork can seem elementary. There are just a few angles, and no instant replay. When Yankees shortstop Tony Kubek, for instance, is famously struck in the throat by a bad hop on a grounder that looked like a double play, there are no replays, where today there would likely be a dozen or so. The camera lingers on the scene for literally minutes as Kubek struggles, unsuccessfully, to recover and stay in the game.

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I’m not one of those purists who laments all the statistics on hand for broadcasters nowadays. I like hearing the OPS, BABIP, left-handed averages, and so forth, as long as it’s integrated smoothly into the flow. I have to say, however, that it’s a little refreshing hearing the announcer (Mel Allen) just stick to the action, and describe it very well. No frills, no bells and whistles, just acute play-by-play description of what’s going on, which in this game seven was very complex indeed, with several tough fielding plays, lead shifts, dramatic home runs, and a really strange play where Mickey Mantle evaded a tag to dive back into first to evade getting erased on a groundball double play that would have ended the game in the top of the ninth. Aside from the relative lack of those interminable delays when batters step out of the box to adjust things, or pitchers taking forever between pitches, it’s very close to the way the game’s still played today.

Here are a couple of notable differences, however. One is the lack of African-Americans and Latin-Americans. There are just a couple blacks: Hall of Fame Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente (from Puerto Rico) and Pirates pinch runner Joe Christopher (from the Virgin Islands). (If you’re wondering about the Yankees’ Elston Howard, the fine African-American catcher did not play that day.) These days just about every club has several Latin Americans on the rosters, and often several from the Dominican Republic alone.

A less expected difference was the absolutely atrocious state of the infield dirt. Yes, groundskeeping was less refined back then. But this is a World Series game, and the infield looks like golfers have been chopping out divots for hours the night before. No wonder Kubek got struck by that grounder – which, if not for that bad hop, probably would have been a double play and resulted in a far less dramatic Yankee victory, though of course the Pirates infielders had to contend with the same conditions.

Every year, there’s a hailstorm of moans and groans about how baseball’s slipping in popularity, is losing traction with young kids, doesn’t get high World Series ratings, etc. And every year, traditionalists bemoan how the game isn’t what it used to be, that it was better and more meaningful “back then,” whether 1960 or 1990. And really, play the game sevens (both close nail-biters) of 1960 and 2014 back-to-back, and there’s ultimately little difference in their ability to rivet with their suspense. As much as things have changed, that’s remained the same.

A 1960 World Series program.

A 1960 World Series program.

Hiking in the El Cerrito Hills, Part 3

Would you guess these impressive views are just a few blocks from some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s less highly esteemed suburbs?

Hermes3

Hermes2

 

Hermes1

I’ve written about the surprisingly scenic vistas in the El Cerrito hills on a previous posts. Last weekend I saw a few more, the big surprise being they were just a few minutes’ scamper from these unpromising signs:

CampSign

Prepared

Yes, just a little uphill from this boy scout camp, you’ve got these paths and hills to yourself, even on an early fall Sunday morning. They’re not too extensive, mind you, but there’s nearby Wildcat Canyon Park for that (see earlier post at http://www.richieunterberger.com/wordpress/hiking-in-the-el-cerrito-hills-part-2/).

This next shot isn’t exactly scenic, but the origination of this swimming pool might come as a surprise. It’s one of many, many projects constructed in the 1930s by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) that’s still in use:

Pool

On the way down the hill, also check out the virtually-unknown-unless-you-live-there Arlington Park, with this small family-friendly lake:

Lake1

Lake2

Sandy Denny in Swedish Fly Girls

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

The "Swedish Fly Girls" soundtrack LP.

The “Swedish Fly Girls” soundtrack LP.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A poster for the Swedish Fly Girls movie.

A poster for the Swedish Fly Girls movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poster for the 1968 Revolution film.

Poster for the 1968 Revolution film.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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