Sunday, August 30, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles

The actual cover of my well-worn copy of this classic book

You're probably asking yourself "another Beatles biography?" as you start reading this post. You'd be entirely justified in wondering just how many biographies on the band are really necessary. Indeed, while there have been many excellent books on the various aspects of the band's life and career, the publication in 2013 of the first volume of Mark Lewisohn's epic three-volume biography of the band almost instantly made it the definitive Beatles bio, just about relegating all that has come before as superfluous. However, the biography by Hunter Davies that is the subject of the present review is still required reading for any serious fan of the Fab Four. Why is that, you may be asking yourself? While it's quite a good book in its own right, the fact remains that it is and always will be the only authorized biography of the Beatles, done with their consent and direct input, written, researched, and published in 1968 while they were still a vibrant, active, and working band at the height of their powers. For that fact alone, it has a secure place in history; the fact that it's an interesting book and a true product of its time and circumstances enhance its standing.



Seasoned Beatles fans will know that Hunter Davies has written additional books on the Beatles in the years since 1968, notably his recent John Lennon Letters and Beatles Lyrics books, both of which have been reviewed on this site previously. However, he is first and foremost known amongst fans of the group for this biography, which has been continually in print since 1968. There have been several updated editions, all of which are worth seeking out as the prefaces and afterwords Davies has written in the intervening years are quite enlightening (and in actuality, adding the prefaces and afterwords up gives a page tally approximately equal to the original biography itself!). Much of the prefaces are taken up with describing the backstory of how he came to write the book, as well as how much editing went into the final manuscript. These are fascinating bits of information to read and worth discussing in their own right. Davies was a published author and columnist in 1966 whose novel Here We Go 'Round the Mulberry Bush was being made into a film. While interviewing Paul McCartney in the summer of 1966 for a feature on the Beatles' upcoming album Revolver and the single from it, "Eleanor Rigby," Davies asked Paul two questions: would he compose the soundtrack for the film? (Paul was interested but ultimately passed...the soundtrack ended up featuring the Spencer Davis Group and their new offshoot, Traffic). And what would Paul think if he (Davies) were to write an authorized biography on the Beatles? Paul seemed interested in this and gave Davies permission to broach the subject with manager Brian Epstein. After getting approval from all of the Beatles, their family, and their friends, Epstein and Davies negotiated a contract in early 1967 and the project was started. Davies began by interviewing Beatles family members, friends, and associates, and then reported back to the individual band members to corroborate facts, see how it spurred their own memories of events, and conduct in-depth interviews with them. He also shadowed them for much of 1967 and 1968, both in the studio, in their homes during songwriting sessions, and as a fly-on-the-wall for many day-to-day occurrences. His involvement with the band ended shortly after their return from India in the spring of 1968 as they began work on their self-titled double album (aka the White Album).

The cover of the 1st edition, published in late 1968


The book roughly follows the lives and careers of the Beatles chronologically, starting off with their childhoods in wartime Liverpool and, in the case of John and Paul, the tragedies of them both losing their mothers while they were teenagers. From here, Davies traces the meeting of the two in the summer of 1956 and, bringing George (a childhood friend of Paul's) into the fold a year later, the origin of the band that would eventually become the Beatles. The story of how they morphed from the skiffle Quarrymen to the rock and roll Beatles, settling on a line-up that also included Stu Sutcliffe on bass and Pete Best on drums, is well known and doesn't bear further repeating here. The same goes for their apprenticeships in Hamburg at the various clubs and dive bars they played while there. However, an interesting part of Davies' book is that he did manage to interview Pete Best, who offered some rather pathetic (in the literal sense of the word) yet interesting morsels of information regarding his time in the band and his feelings about being sacked. Once Ringo entered the picture in the summer of 1962, their story is so well known that, again, I won't waste your time or insult your intelligence by repeating it here. The Beatles recording career, as the public acknowledges it, is covered in the book from 1962 through early 1968, again in roughly chronological order. First tracing their slow but steady rise to the top of the UK scene under the tutelage of Brian Epstein, Davies spends the bulk of the book on the Beatlemania/touring years of 1963-1966, with a handful of revealing tidbits from the Beatles themselves. However, it's the section of the book dealing with their lives and careers between 1966 and mid-1968 (when his interviews ended as he prepared to go to publication) that offer the most revealing insights into the inner workings and hive mind of the band. It's almost certainly with the benefit of hindsight, as no one at the time could have predicted what was to come with the band's unraveling in 1970, but there are numerous candid comments by all of them, but mainly George and John (no surprise there) at how Paul was now their defacto leader, how they wouldn't care if it all went away in a flash, and how they on one hand could see the band continuing on for a long time, yet on the other hand knowing it wouldn't last. Even those around them, such as George Martin, Neil Aspinall, and Mal Evans (all also interviewed for the book) offered some off-the-cuff remarks to the same effect. What's interesting is that the comments about Paul being their driving force post-Brian were made not in snide, accusatory tones, but with almost thankful admission. This was particularly revealing coming from John, who would later use this aspect of Paul's personality as a verbal cudgel once they commenced their very public feud between 1970 and 1973 (keeping in mind that anything John said about the Beatles and McCartney in the immediate aftermath of the band's split was said out of hurt and anger, often hyperbole, and said just to be contrarian and dramatic, as Lennon himself admitted years later).



The book is rounded out with chapters on their dalliances with drugs, Indian religion (with Davies none-too-subtle Maharishi-as-charlatan bias coming through, to which I've long agreed), and their songwriting process. The last of these chapters is interesting as he was a fly-on-the-wall for many writing and recording sessions. In the book, he documents the making of the Sgt. Pepper album and the Magical Mystery Tour film and album. While commenting on their haphazard and time consuming creative process, he also paints a rather bleak picture for Ringo, who is depicted as sitting in the studio at his drums, set apart from the others crowded around their guitars, amps, and microphones, waiting to record the backing tracks and any percussion overdubs, for which after his services are not really required. Ringo himself has confirmed as much of being rather bored with many of the sessions post-1966, but this must have been a bit of a shock for fans to read at the same time as the band were at their zenith and most perceptions at the time were of the four as constantly happy-go-lucky. The last four chapters are each dedicated to an individual Beatle. Again, nothing groundbreaking in terms of what is revealed, but there is some subtle context that once more comes through with benefit of hindsight. John comes off as proud of the Beatles, but bored with life and marriage and cognizant of the fact that the entire machinations of fame, wealth, and critical acclaim and acceptance are all a farce. Paul is painted fairly accurately as a likable yet driven, ambitious, and supremely talented musician who has been the engine of the band post-1966. Ringo is very self-deprecating and seems almost a bit lost, puttering around the house with his wife and two young sons, while George even at this stage is fairly cynical and negative about the band, their music, and the trappings of fame. However, they all do admit that they need the other three in their lives and that there is a bond that only the four of them will ever understand. This is confirmed by their wives and closest associates (Martin, Aspinall, Evans). Again, fascinating to read since we all know what happened two years later...



This one and only authorized Beatles biography is a time capsule of an age gone by, one that was changing at a rapid pace yet was still more innocent, fun, and naive than the present. Hunter Davies did an admirable job capturing this essence and really humanizing the Beatles, who at the point he got them were already viewed as gods removed from the rest of us by fans, critics, and academics alike. The book did a great job in stripping away a lot of the myth in order to show them as they really were: four very young, very talented, very successful men who got to where they were by skill, sheer hard work and determination, and smatterings of luck along the way. It also froze them in place and time as they never would be again; in mid-1968, John was married to Cynthia, George was married to Pattie, Ringo was married to Maureen, and Paul was engaged to Jane. Within less than six months of the book's publication, John was with Yoko, Paul was with Linda (both of whom the two Beatles would respectively marry in early 1969 and remain married to until Linda's and John's deaths); within five years Ringo and Maureen were separated and headed for divorce, as were George and Pattie.  Combined with the chaos of Apple Corps., the arrival of the wicked Allen Klein, the eventual bitter lawsuits, the acrimony, and the sniping in public and private between the four of them, the entire Beatle empire began to crumble to dust around them almost as soon as this book was released. Indeed, Davies' postscript, added to the 1985 edition, is along these same lines and is as valuable and worthy an addition to the book as anything originally in it. Speaking of that, while there are some surprisingly candid admissions throughout (such as Cynthia Lennon admitting that if she hadn't gotten pregnant, she and John wouldn't have gotten married), Davies laments the censoring he had to agree to after finishing the manuscript in order to appease the four Beatles, or in reality their families. Unsurprisingly, the two most difficult thorns in his side were John's aunt Mimi and Brian Epstein's mother Queenie, both of whom wanted their respective son's lives whitewashed, facts be damned. In Mimi's case, she took issue with John's recollections of his bad behavior at school and with his friends during his childhood, while in Queenie's case any mention of Brian's homosexuality was off limits. Davies did leave in some daring and rather cheeky references to Brian as "gay" in the original book, playing off the original connotation of the word as a synonym for "happy" while still making it obviously clear in context what he really meant. But the mores of the time, as well as the need to please everyone involved, meant that some major cuts needed to be made. Because of this, I've long hoped for an unedited original manuscript of the book...Hunter, if you're reading this, how about it?



The book is very readable and enjoyable although it does tend to read as a series of Davies' shorthand notes fleshed out into sentence and paragraph form, at times the prose coming across a bit stilted. There are also several small errors, mainly in dating certain photos or events. However, he achieved some real coups for the time, such as tracking down and interviewing Pete Best, Richard Starkey (Ringo's estranged father), and Fred Lennon (John's estranged father). Apart from the errors and the rather repetitive nature of several passages, the book holds up remarkably well and must be resonating well enough to remain in print continuously since the first edition almost fifty years ago! Essential reading for any Beatles fan, Hunter Davies book is a slice of life directly from the Beatles that chronicles their story from (mostly) their own recollections, catching them at their peak when the possibilities seemed endless and the successes effortless. Like the band, the book is of its time yet also timeless. It also holds up well to repeat readings, something I can personally attest to. While he was rather self-deprecating in his forward, Davies should hold no regrets with respect to his achievement with this book, although somehow I think that deep down he must know what the rest of us do when it comes to The Beatles: nothing has changed. Just as the prevailing thought in 1968, the Beatles will go on forever in some form or another, and so will this book.

MY RATING: 8/10


Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Concert Memories: Gorillaz at Agganis Arena, Boston, MA October 6, 2010

Before the show...

***Please note that all photos on this post were taken by me and I'd appreciate it if you didn't use them without my permission. Thanks! ***

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, one of the reasons I started writing about the numerous concerts I've seen over the years is my belief that every one of them has an interesting story behind it. Whether it's something minor or something major, no matter the magnitude, something memorable happened around each show I've been to. This next one is no exception! In 2010, I was fortunate enough to see Gorillaz, the "side project' from Blur frontman Damon Albarn that somehow ended up being a commercial and critical smash here in the USA in a way his main band, Blur, have never been. Gorillaz have recorded three albums, but they never played many live shows. To support their self-titled debut album in 2001, they played a handful of shows behind a screen onto which the animations were projected. To support 2005's Demon Days album, they played a few more shows silhouetted entirely behind a screen. However, when it came time to support 2010's Plastic Beach, Damon finally put together a big band and took it out on a proper worldwide tour. Being a huge Blur and Damon fan, I knew I had to try and see a show on the tour but didn't know if I'd actually be able to make one. Then, a series of events played out that went from fortuitous to bizarre to a bummer before it all worked out in the end. Before I get to all of that, first I'd like to reproduce the review of the concert I wrote for the now-defunct Audio Perv website. 

“'Blur are better.'

Anyone who knows me well would expect me to conclude this review with those three words…I’ve been a massive fan of Damon Albarn’s “other band” for 15 years and always considered Gorillaz to be his solo side project and nothing more. But after seeing Gorillaz rock out the Agganis Arena in Boston last night touring in support of their third album Plastic Beach, I’ll have to reevaluate that sentiment later on in this review. For those not in the know, Albarn, the genius behind Gorillaz, is a multi-talented songwriter, vocalist, keyboard/guitar player who originally rose to fame in the 1990s as the frontman for legendary British rock band Blur…since 2000, he’s been the musical soul behind the three mega-selling Gorillaz albums, partnering with Jamie Hewlett, who is the brains behind the visual presentation. 


My ticket stub from the show; there's a story behind it...


The concert began with openers N.E.R.D., who this reviewer was not familiar with at all, although the crowd of mostly college kids seemed to know every word. Songs I did pick out were Party People, Rock Star, and Lapdance. They also announced they were playing some new songs from their upcoming album, to be released “sometime in November.” Their mix of hip-hop and R&B singing was fairly interesting although as someone who isn’t a fan of those genres, I spent most of the set waiting for it to be over. However, they performed well…I did enjoy their vocal harmonies, as well as the incredible drumming by their two drummers.
 
Finally, around 9pm, Gorillaz took the stage in front of a massive video screen and large multicolored-lit letters spelling out their name. Decked out in pirate and sailor gear (hats, striped shirts, naval jackets, eyepatches) they fit right in with the theme of the upcoming show. Albarn himself, not needing any costume due to his incredible charisma and stage presence, dressed simply in a red and black striped top, black jeans, and sneakers. The set began with an extended instrumental intro before a video of Snoop Dogg synced to the rest of the band welcomed everyone to the “World of the Plastic Beach.” For the next 100 minutes, Gorillaz weaved their way through about as perfect a set list as you could ask for, playing songs from all three of their albums, including the “hits” like Clint Eastwood, DARE, Feel Good, Inc., Stylo, and 19-2000. Highlights for me included Last Living Souls, O Green World, Kids with Guns (which contained an awesome extended jam at the end), and long and excellent versions of Empire Ants and Glitter Freeze. The ending encores of Don’t Get Lost in Heaven, which segued into Demon Days, was suitably epic and sent the crowd home on a blissful high.
 


The Gorillaz band itself was excellent, highlighted by Damon Albarn’s incredible vocals and keyboards. Paul Simonon (bass) and Mick Jones (guitar), both of The Clash, were fantastic, and they were augmented by another keyboard player, two phenomenal drummers, backing singers, a string septet, and for some songs, a Middle Eastern quintet. While various animations and videos played behind them, this band wove intricate soundscapes and rocked out as tight and as hard as any band that’s out there. Joining them at various points in the set were Bobby Womack (Stylo, Cloud of Unknowing), Snoop Dogg (via video on Welcome to the World of the Plastic Beach), De La Soul (Superfast Jellyfish and Feel Good, Inc.), Little Dragon (Empire Ants, To Binge), Bashy and Kano (White Flag, Clint Eastwood), and Shaun Ryder (via video on DARE). After Phases I and II, during which the live performances of the first two albums (Gorillaz and Demon Days) involved the band playing behind screens or in shadows while the animations took center stage, the live show is now centered on the band itself, out there for all to see.
 


And what can be said about Albarn himself? One of the most talented musicians of the last 20 years, he was as dynamic a frontman last night as he was in his Blur days, jumping and dancing around the stage while delivering vocals that ranged from soft and heartfelt to strident and powerful, and everything in between. Although he did mention Boston was one of the first places he ever came to in the USA (back in 1991), he wasn’t very talkative, certainly not as much as he is when playing with Blur (and as someone who has seen Blur and listened to over 200 of their live recordings, it was very obvious to me). The man was all business on tonight, although you could tell he was genuinely happy to be there doing what he was doing onstage.
 




One thing I noticed was that the crowd for the Gorillaz was much more age diverse than that for N.E.R.D., with 50 and 60 year olds dancing alongside teenagers and college kids (and even some young children). Mostly, however, it was a mix of every age in between. The crowd as a whole was a bit static and lame, especially close to the stage, which was rather surprising. No such problems a bit further away, where I was sitting…everyone was dancing and singing along with enthusiasm.
 
On a cold and rainy night that was anything but enjoyable outside, Gorillaz delivered one of the best concerts in recent memory for this reviewer. To return to the statement that opened this review, are Blur better? Yes and no. Blur will always be Albarn’s “main” band (at least to me), the one he’s best known for and the one that will always be my favorite. But in my mind, Gorillaz is no longer just his side project. They’re a legitimate band in their own right who are just as good and just as exciting. Gorillaz is as good as Blur.
 
Go see Gorillaz live if you can…you won’t be sorry" 

As you can see, I thought the show was great even though I was a bit skeptical going into it. I was definitely a fan of Gorillaz' music (I still am) but I'd never put them on quite the same level as Blur until seeing them live. How I ended up getting to the show is where the real story lies...




As soon as I heard about this tour, I knew I needed to do what I could to see a show, especially as there would be a stop in Boston. Still, I wasn't sure if I wanted to splurge on a ticket so I kept going back and forth on whether to pull the trigger or not. As I kept mulling it over in my head one day on my commute home from work in Boston, I got an message on my iPhone from a friend who forwarded me a tweet he'd seen earlier in the day.  It was from a now-defunct music news and review site called The Audio Perv that was looking for someone to review the Gorillaz show in Boston coming up in a couple of weeks. Needless to say, I wanted in on this opportunity, so I promptly pulled my car over (I was nearly home anyway) and fired a tweet back to the site's account gallantly offering my services.  A little while later I heard back from the fellow and we arranged a phone call for later in the evening. On the phone, he gave me the pitch: he had a press pass and ticket for the show and would I be interested? I'd be right at the front of the stage in the photographers pit and might even get to go backstage after the show to speak with the band and take photos. I was floored at the opportunity, especially as it would be 100% free. Just to make sure there was no catch, I asked what I had to do in order to be so privileged, to which he told me I simply had to go to concert, take a bunch of photos, and write a review for his site. That seemed more than fair enough for me so I readily agreed. Not only was I now going to see the Gorillaz concert, but I would have a prime seat right at the foot of the stage! How could anything be better?

Let's fast forward to the day of the concert and I'll answer that question! October 6th was a Wednesday that year and I spent the day at work, as usual. I was working in a south Boston suburb so I didn't have to leave work too early to get into the city to make the show. The day had been overcast and dreary since morning and by the time I drove into downtown Boston it was murky, cold, and dark...not an atypical October day in New England. I'd originally planned on parking a bit further out from the arena (which is on the Boston University campus) and taking the subway to Agganis, but on a lark I decided to drive all the way in and park at the arena. Deciding to forgo dinner, I went to the ticket window and proudly mentioned that I was there to pick up my press pass and ticket, to which they told me I needed to go to the side entrance where all of the press folks picked their passes up. No problem, I thought, and walked around the side of the building to the press entrance. There was someone there waiting so I again confidently walked up and said that I was there to get my press pass. She asked the name of who I was representing, I told her, and she said she'd be right back with it. I was standing there absolutely thrilled, still in disbelief that I would soon be right in front of the stage seeing Gorillaz and one of my musical idols in Damon Albarn, when she came back and said that she was sorry but there was no press pass with my name on it. I couldn't believe it...had I been duped? At the same time as this exchange was going on, another fellow showed up and handed his card to her. She said she'd go back and check again for me while she got the new fellow's pass. As she walked away I asked him where he was from and he showed me his credentials...Rolling Stone magazine. We made some small talk and waited for her to come back, and when she did it turned out she had bad news for both of us! There were no press passes for us and we were told that we'd have to go in through the main entrance. Out came the cell phone as I made a call to the fellow from the website who had set the entire thing up for me. He was pretty miffed at the situation and told me he'd call the venue and sort things out. I waited several anxious minutes before he called back, only to tell me that for whatever reason, the band and their management had revoked ALL press passes and there was no way I'd be getting into the show with one. To say I was gutted would be a complete understatement as a whole range of thoughts went through my head. Did I just have bad luck? Had I been played for a fool? Was it true that the band revoked all press passes or just for the site I was supposed to be representing? I never did find out, although the Rolling Stone guy walked away pretty pissed off, too, so I don't think I was played for a sucker. The best the fellow who ran the website could tell me is that if I did review the show, he'd definitely publish it on his site. I slowly trudged around the building back to the ticket window asking myself if I should buy a ticket and go in anyway or if I should just go home? It didn't take me long to come to my senses and realize that I was already here and my car was already parked close by...why the hell wouldn't I take advantage of the situation and catch the show anyway? Sheepishly, I went back up to the ticket window and bought myself the best seat I could. Sadly this meant that instead of being in the photographers pit at the foot of the stage, I'd be up a ways back from the stage. Luckily since it's a college arena, it wasn't too big and so I still had a great view of the show. Once the music kicked in, I forgot about the circumstances that led me to that moment and spent the rest of the evening up on my feet dancing and thoroughly enjoying the music. I even recorded the entire show on my iPhone...the quality was horrid, especially in the poor acoustics of the echoey arena, but it made for a nice souvenir. I also took a bunch of photographs, many of which you see here in this post.

 The entire show is on YouTube...check it out!

As for the show itself, I already reviewed it five years ago and you've read it above, so I'm not going to go through it again. I will say that after the show I was ecstatic at what I had just seen and heard. It was now full-blown raining outside, one of those cold and wet October Boston nights that can chill you to the bone. Luckily I only had a short walk to my car. I hit a late-night drive-through for some food as soon as I got out of the city (I was STARVING, having not eaten anything since lunchtime that day) and drove back home. I think it was around 1:30am when I arrived home and by then I was too wired awake to go to sleep right away. Worst of all, I had to be up by 5am in order to drive back into the city for work the next day, but I didn't care. I was still so buzzed from the concert that I never regretted being absolutely, wearily exhausted at work the next day. It still stands as one of the best concerts I've ever seen, even if the circumstances around why I went and how I finally got in didn't seem so amusing at the time. Luckily, everything worked out and in hindsight, it's given me another great story (and memory!) which I've now shared with you...I hope you enjoyed it!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

ALBUM REVIEW: Screaming Eagles: Stand Up and Be Counted

Screaming Eagles

The latest independent band I'd like to present to you is Screaming Eagles, a hard rock band from Northern Ireland. I first became aware of them a couple of months ago and was really struck by their no-frills, straight ahead driving hard rock sound. It's very 1970s/80s sounding but with a modern feel, and a lot of fun. Sometimes you just want to rock out and have a good time listening to music. That's exactly what Screaming Eagles deliver. I was able to listen to their EP, entitled Save Me, and their brand new album Stand Up and Be Counted, which was released in July.  My track by track review is below, but before that, here's some more information about the band from a recent press release:

"Northern Ireland rock quartet Screaming Eagles, who achieved international recognition after their single ‘Rock N’ Roll Soul’ was featured on the hit US TV Show - Justified, will release their 10-track second album STAND UP AND BE COUNTED on 13th July, 2015, preceded by a multi-track EP and first single SAVE ME in June. The band, whose debut album ‘From the Flames’ was described by Classic Rock Magazine as “absolutely smokin’, hotter than hell, the work of a group burning up with fiery ambition,’ are signed to Worldwide-Distributing label ‘Off Your Rocka Records’, home of the Quireboys and Bonafide. 

“We had an incredible start to 2015 after signing a licensing agreement with Sony Music Pictures in the US,” said Chris Fry, Screaming Eagles’ lead vocalist, “who included our first single ‘Rock N’ Roll Soul’ on the first episode of the final season of Justified, to an audience of more than 4 million. We cannot wait to continue that success with the release of Stand Up and Be Counted and play it live to the masses. I’m extremely excited as when we got the final mixes through it sounded immense. I think it shows a progression, musically, with a mixture of what we do best - the Rock N’Roll anthemic sing along chorus’ and driving riffs, mixed with some darker rib-shaking belters." Of the first single "Save Me", Chris had this to say "it's a more grittier and intense sound than we're known for, from the sirens in the intro to the eerie guitar distortion, this song will live long in your memory and have you chanting the chorus in your sleep!" 

The first single from the album - a 7 track EP/single titled ‘Save Me’ will feature bonus material including a cover of Australian rock classic “Good Times” featuring guest vocals from Pontus Snibb of Bonafide as well as live material recorded at Hard Rock Hell 2013. The ‘Save Me’ video will debut on YouTube on 24 June via this link: https://youtu.be/VmtfMeMt8Os. Off Yer Rocka CEO Jonni Davis commented "we’ve watched our Irish Eagles with extreme interest since they won one of our national competitions and have seen their career accelerate in the UK, US, Germany and Australia 100 fold after the Justified release. This is exactly what we challenged them with for the next step and to say they have over delivered is an understatement." After exclusively debuting new album tracks at Hard Rock Hell Ibiza in May of this year, the band will soon go on tour including a date on the Main Stage at November’s Hard Rock Hell UK alongside Saxon and Black Label Society. Over the past 2 years Screaming Eagles have shared bills with the likes of Airbourne, UFO, Black Star Riders, Blue Oyster Cult, and The Answer, at various festivals such as Giants Of Rock, Minehead, The Great British Rock N Blues Festival, Skegness, Southern France Aquitane Showbike Montalivet and Hard Rock Hell, Wales and their biker edition in Ibiza."



Screaming Eagles are:

Chris Fry - vocals
Adrian McAleenan -  guitar
Ryan Lilly - bass guitar
Kyle Cruikshank - drums

Save Me EP




1. Good Times
The song sounds very much like mid-1970s AC/DC with crunchy guitars, steady drumming, and growling vocals.  The singer has some range and at spots sounds like Bon Scott or Brian Johnson from ACDC. The lyrics name check lots of classic rock tunes (Bony Maronie, Long Tall Sally, Short Fat Fannie, etc) and this is a fun opening track.

2. Hungry For More
From here on to the end of the EP, these are live recordings from Hard Rock Hell in Wales.  This tune has a really heavy riff like the best 1980s metal and sounds a bit like GNR (Guns n Roses) in terms of its sound, riff,  and guitar solo. Slash would be proud!


3. Down the River
The riff is out of the Angus Young songbook and crunchy! This tune is very catchy. 


4. Immigrant Song
A Led Zeppelin cover. Fry's vocals are a bit shaky when he tries to do the classic Robert Plant wails, but those would be extremely tough for anyone to do exactly as the man himself did. Who can sing like Plant circa 1970 anyway? Still, he does an admirable job, while musically it's a bit more metal-sounding than Zeppelin's version. That being said, they do an very good job on a tough cover of one of the defining Led Zeppelin tunes.


5. Blood
A brighter sounding song with a cool riff. There's a false ending at the four-minute mark before they come storming back for another couple of minutes, complete with a ripping guitar solo in middle. The sound reminds me a little bit of what a Black Crowes song crossed w/ACDC might sound like. Speaking of the rockers from Oz, the last couple of minutes morph into a cover of their song "(It's a Long Way to the Top if You Want to Rock and Roll)." Fun!


6. Rock and Roll Soul
This is the song that put the band on the map within the past year when it was used on US TV in the show Justified. It's got a pummeling riff and beat, a very Jimmy Page-ish guitar solo, and overall just awesome playing. There are a couple of fluffed guitar notes tucked in there but hey, this is live rock n roll and we don't care...it still sounds great! A great song and, for me, the highlight of the EP.


Stand Up and Be Counted:



1. Ready For the Fall

The album opens up with some thunderous drums and a massive guitar riff reminiscent of early 1980s Iron Maiden/Judas Priest. The nice thing about this song, and indeed all of the Screaming Eagles' songs, is that it is still very melodic and memorable. A nice, anthemic chorus rounds out this effective way to kick things off.

2. Save Me

One of the best songs on the album, starting off with some eerie sirens and guitar feedback before another very aggressive, chunky riff propels things along. There's not anything I can say that you can't hear for yourself in the video above...awesome song, I really dig it! 

3. Stand Up and Be Counted

The title track. It's got a cool ascending/descending riff and another anthemic vocal and chorus...I can imagine a room full of people bouncing up and down with their fists in the air singing along.  This song sounds a like what ACDC would sound like if they wrote far better melodies. 

4. Bow Down to the Blues

It starts off sort of like a late 1960s/early 1970s Led Zeppelin song before it gets into a chugging bluesy groove. Not one of the more memorable songs on the album but still solid and enjoyable.

5. Chase You Down

A heavy riff and drums kick it off before it gets into a shuffle-type blues groove. As above, a fun, short but sweet tune.

6. Get Out While I'm Ahead

Brooding riffs and arpeggios, some pulsating tom-tom beats build the song up at the beginning. Another crowd-pleasing chorus and a bit of a curveball as to my ears this song sounds a bit like Rush (musically) which is fine with me since I'm a huge Rush fan! 

7. Breakin' All the Rules

A slinky, bluesy riff with some subtle slide guitar in the background gives this song a very nice Southern rock/Black Crowes vibe before it gets into a cool open-string/alternating riff. A very southern, fun song.

8. Streets of Gold

Powerful, insistent riffing starts it off and there's a really trippy and great chorus/breakdown section.  The guitar solo is old-school and drenched in wah-wah, which is right in my wheelhouse. It again sounds a bit like Slash but is still wholly unique...some of the best playing on the whole album.

9. Screaming Eagles

The band's title song! It's got an insistent, pulsing riff and drums before they lock into the groove. Once again it has that 1970s/80s hard rock/metal type feel, with a chorus that shouts out that "screaming eagles gonna block out the sun!" A bit cheesy, perhaps, but great fun which comes through in the band's delivery. Another awesome guitar solo in the middle is augmented with some sampled dialogue and airplane/machine gun/war noises in the background, all the while the excellent solo keeps going.

10. 27 Club

The album closer. A really rocking tune with lyrics obliquely referencing the tragic members of the 27 club. One final ripping guitar solo in the middle, played over a menacing riff. Some really cool vocal "oh's" end the song are lain over the wailing guitar as the song and album come to an end.

All in all, Screaming Eagles are straight-out rock and roll. No ballads, no slow songs, just balls-out rock n roll.  These are songs where you want to raise your fist in the air (hence the entirely appropriate album cover!) and sing along to the choruses, headbanging along with the riffing and rhythm section.  Screaming Eagles have a sound that draws on several influences but never sounds derivative...in many cases, they improve upon the best of what their inspirations have to offer, and an added strength of theirs is the always underlying melodic instinct which ensures that most of these songs will stay in your head long after you're done listening to them. I know the band are gigging in the UK...I hope they're able to build on their US success of "Rock and Roll Soul" and are able to play some shows here, as I know it would be a really fun gig to see!

As always, SUPPORT INDEPENDENT MUSIC! Buy their albums, go see them live, and spread the word! You can buy Screaming Eagles' music on Amazon...if you like what you've heard here, check them out and support them by purchasing it...rock on!



Sunday, August 16, 2015

Far East, Man



I've traveled quite a lot in my life, both for business and for pleasure. Growing up and into my early 20s, I'd gone on several vacations with my parents and siblings to several places here within the US as well as numerous trips to Canada, England, Germany, and Greece. Since that time, I've mainly traveled within the country, mostly to California as Mrs. Chemist has a lot of family out there. I've also made many, many trips for work...San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Charlotte are just some of the cities to which I've made multiple visits each for business. However, now I'm gearing up to go to Asia for the first time in October, which I'm pretty excited about. A research paper of mine was accepted at a technical conference that my company participates in and I was invited to attend and present it in front of an audience of my colleagues. The conference location rotates around the world every year and this year it's in Shanghai, China!

This will be a new experience for me as I've never traveled anywhere before where I've needed a travel visa. I've already gotten my Chinese visa and I booked my flight the other day. I'm a bit worried about the travel part of the trip as I don't tend to do too well on really long flights. I've been to the California and to England several times each and those flights of 5-6 hours are usually my limit. Germany took me 7 hours and Greece took 11 hours, and by the end of both of those flights I was ready to get off of the plane. I think it's a combination of the confined space (which almost makes me feel claustrophobic after a while), the stale air, and the inability to sleep sitting up or (barely) reclined. I've never been able to sleep on my back, only on my side, so I've never been able to do more than doze for ten minutes at a time on airplanes. My upcoming flight to and from Shanghai is going to be around 14 hours each way, which has me worried. However, I'm a bit less concerned than I normally would be because I'll be flying business class each way. Besides the much roomier seats and nicer amenities, the seats in business class recline completely flat and will be long enough for me to stretch out my 6'5" frame so that I can actually get some real sleep. I'm also a little nervous about going to China since culturally it will be unlike anywhere else I've been. I know that they censor the internet there, which I'm bummed about as I was hoping to chronicle my trip in real time and share it with my family and friends back home...that will just have to wait until I get home, I suppose! The upside is that I will be meeting up with a lot of colleagues from work there and I've been told that Shanghai is the most Western and modern city in China. These minor concerns aside, I'm actually getting pretty excited for this trip the closer it gets.

I'll write about it all and share some pictures after I get back, which will be in late October...in the meantime, have any of you ever been to China? I'd love to hear your impressions of it and how you liked it! Please share in the comments below so we can discuss it further...thanks!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Getcha Rocks Off


And now for something completely different...instead of a memoir by an established, well-regarded musician, a memoir by an established, well-regarded music WRITER. Mick Wall is a renowned music writer who has, over the years, written for magazines from Sounds and Kerrang! to Classic Rock and Mojo. He's also written many musician biographies, two of which are on Led Zeppelin and the Doors and have been reviewed on my site. However, he's probably most well known for his work in the 1980s when he was one of the preeminent hard rock/heavy metal writers for Kerrang! and a presenter on the UK TV show Monsters of Rock. It's this period of his life and career that Mick focuses on in his new memoir of this era, Getcha Rocks Off.

***special thanks to Margot at Orion Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***


This book is not an autobiography in the usual sense in that it doesn't cover the author's entire life. Rather, it focuses on a specific time period beginning in 1976 when he was 17 years old and a speed freak living an aimless existence in a squalid London flat. On a lark, Wall answered an ad in an issue of Sounds magazine looking for writers. Having never written anything before, he had no idea what to expect and soon found himself traveling all over England to write about now-forgotten British punk bands of little to no redeeming value, musical or otherwise. Lacking confidence in his ability and the pittance he earned from it, Wall drifted into band PR with similar luck. After deciding to ditch it altogether, he somehow ended up writing for the nascent magazine Kerrang! which was launched in 1981 as the UK's first periodical dedicated to hard rock and heavy metal, two genres that were exceedingly uncool in early 1980s Britain. However, bands from both sides of the pond like Def Leppard, Iron Maiden, Bon Jovi, Guns n Roses, Motorhead, Metallica, and others were making waves throughout the decade and Wall was there to write about it all. Never mind having a front row seat...Mick was almost in the band in many cases and developed friendships (and in some cases, blood feuds) with many of the guys in the bands.



The bulk of the book is taken up with tales from Mick's time covering some of the absolute titans of the 1980s heavy metal and rock scene, especially Def Leppard, Guns n Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, Iron Maiden,  and Motorhead. There are funny tales with some of the greatest characters from that era, as well as his own personal tales of excess. Indeed, most of these are pretty eye-opening for the sheer amount of sex and drugs consumed by Wall, which almost rivaled that of the bands he was covering! Graduating from speed to just about everything else, especially booze and cocaine, the author lived as hard and fast as anyone and nearly paid the price for it. Tragically, he witnessed this very lifestyle take the life of two of his friends, Def Leppard's Steve Clark and Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, both of whom died young from their drug habits and, more poignantly, their inability to find joy in their music, their fame, and the wealth they achieved at such young ages. There were the almost comical, pre-reality television visits and meals at the home of Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne, hilarious conversations with Lemmy, somewhat disillusioning and almost pathetic interactions with Jimmy Page (which, as a Led Zeppelin fan, didn't surprise me in the least to read), and out of control times with Guns n Roses. This last one is of interest because to this day Axl Rose has a vendetta against Mick for something he wrote in Kerrang! in the late 1980s. It even earned Wall a namecheck and a not-so-nice invitation to do something with a part of Axl's anatomy in the lyrics of a song from GNR's Use Your Illusion II album. What's most interesting and enlightening as the book goes along is how Wall eventually saw how fake and empty the existence was for most, if not all, of the bands he covered...eventually, he realized that the same applied to his own life, especially after he relocated to Los Angeles. Realizing that in many cases he didn't even listen to many of the bands he reviewed, he also gave behind-the-scenes glimpses throughout the book as to how the music industry really worked in those days; even lousy albums would be reviewed positively in order to keep the writers in the good graces of the labels and bands, as well as to keep the perks like free limos and hotels, free drinks and food, and backstage passes coming. Fitting in perfectly with the California setting, it's all revealed as being exceedingly fake, tacky, and left me even that little bit more jaded and cynical about the industry than I already was. 

While the stories of madness are engaging and interesting, at its heart the book is still Mick Wall telling the story of his life during that time period and as such, includes a lot of reflection into what it meant and how it left all involved reeling, battered, and dazed at the end of the decade; this is especially true once grunge and alternative rock came along and killed 1980s rock and roll and its ethos of excess off. Returning to London to find his barely-paid-attention-to girlfriend gone and his lifestyle strangely out of place in early 1990s London, by the end of the book he realized that it was all a lark and one he was lucky to come out the other side of alive. The book is written in Wall's typically flamboyant and conversational style which I really enjoyed. Also, as a warning for the faint of heart, there is some pretty graphic language used when describing several of his sexual and pharmaceutical escapades of that era. They certainly didn't offend me, but I just want to make any of my more sensitive readers aware before they go seeking out the book. However, in my view it gave the book a more realistic, earthy, and seedy look into how those times and those situations really were. 




Getcha Rocks Off is a really enjoyable book and kept my interest throughout, which is a testament to Wall's writing and storytelling...this is especially true since I'm really not a fan of anyone he wrote about in the book apart from Ozzy and Jimmy Page. I loved Def Leppard and a handful of songs by Guns n Roses and Iron Maiden in my youth, but for the most part I was never a 1980s hair metal/hair rock fan. Even so, I couldn't put the book down. My criticisms of the book are minor, but there are a few. First, there aren't any photographs, which I feel would have really added to showing just how nuts Wall's life was back then...he even alludes to several photographs taken of him in crazy situations, so to show them would have been an added benefit. Second, while the road tales are great, I would have liked a bit more of the personal story from Mick to flesh it out a bit more. Finally, the end of the book felt rather abrupt and unresolved...yes, that entire rock scene and those caught up in it seemed to run out of steam all at once, but the way the book tried to wrap everything up was much the same. Some more reflection on where Mick and everyone else were left when they hit that wall, as well as what everyone was generally up to in the years following would have made for a slightly more satisfying resolution.  With all of that being said, for anyone who just loves rock music, loves rock music writing, crazy stories from the road, or (preferably) all three like I do, Getcha Rocks Off will help you do just that...metaphorically speaking, of course!


MY RATING: 8.5/10

Friday, August 7, 2015

Quintessential Songs: Reducing a Band's Essence to Just One Song (PART 2)

Welcome to Part 2 of this little series of posts where I try to choose the one, and only one, song that encapsulates all there is about some of my favorite bands. I won't belabor the point by rehashing the "rules" for this little thought exercise...if you want to refresh your memory, you can read them at the beginning of Part 1. With that out of the way, let's jump right in to Part 2!


Blur: One of my favorite bands ever, and really the only band from my own generation (although others are close) that I place in the same rarefied air as all of the 1960s bands I have in the top tier of my rock music pantheon. If you want to talk about a band that constantly changed and evolved their sound from one album to the next, Blur will be near the top of that list. While this factor is one of the things that has made them so successful, both critically and commercially, it also makes my task here that much harder. How on earth do I choose just one song that covers all of the different aspects of their sound, which encompasses everything like classic British pop and rock, American lo-fi, English Music Hall, electronic, and world music? Like any great band, they have an instantly identifiable sound but no two albums sound alike and they've spent their entire career constantly pushing forward. It took me a really long time to come up with that one song that captures everything about them, but I think I made a good choice with...

Beetlebum. It's probably my favorite Blur song of all time anyway, and the more I thought about it, it seemed like it was the right choice for this little game we're playing here. With that muted guitar intro before launching into a memorable riff, it grabs your attention right away. The chorus is gorgeous, catchy, and very Beatle-esque...in fact, the entire song is. I've read it described elsewhere as the darkness and light of the White Album all in one song, and for me that's a perfect description. It's the ideal mix of Blur's melodic gift, their edginess and experimental tendencies, imaginative production, and fabulous musicianship.  While Blur's entire career is chock full of superlative moments on both the single and album scale, in my mind "Beetlebum" has always been not only their best song, but their quintessential song.


Rush: Rush is one of those bands you either love or hate...there doesn't seem to be any middle ground. Their fans tend to be predominantly male, musicians themselves, geeky (ie into sci-fi, philosophy, science, technology), and in many cases highly intelligent. Indeed, as a massive Rush fan myself I fit all of those criteria, as do 99% of the the fellow Rush fanatics I've met over the course of my life...the amount of guys I've known in my career as a chemist who are also Rush fans is huge. Musically, all three of the guys in the band are virtuosos, and lyrically they are very smart, philosophical, and playfully humorous. Even with a career spanning 40+ years and millions of records sold, people either love these guys or despise and dismiss them. Putting all of that aside, the biggest challenge for me in choosing just one Rush song to represent their long career has to do with all of the different musical phases they've had. First was the hard rock power trio prog era of 1974-1976. Starting with 1976's breakthrough album 2112  through 1984 they were one of the finest rock bands on the planet, melding hard rock with progressive rock's virtuosity and ambitious concepts and compositions. From 1984-1988 they heavily incorporated synthesizers into their sound, while from 1989 to the present they've returned to a more stripped down, heavier sound. There's an awful lot of ground to cover, although in the end my final choice wasn't as surprising to me as I thought it would be...

Red Barchetta. It's the second song off of their biggest selling and most well-known album, 1981's Moving Pictures, a record chock full of hits like "Tom Sawyer," "YYZ," "Limelight," and "Vital Signs." "Red Barchetta" is a fantastic song, but probably only known to hardcore Rush fans, so why did I choose it as my essential Rush song? There are a variety of reasons, the first being that it comes from an album smack dab in the middle of the period in their career when they were transitioning from the long, elaborate song-suites to leaner, more streamlined songs. Moving Pictures was the last Rush album to contain a long, 10+ minute song ("The Camera Eye") and they still had one foot (barely) planted in their prog past as they looked toward the more stripped down, synth-laden 1980s. "Red Barchetta" straddles this divide as it's nearly 7 minutes long and progresses through several distinct sections, yet is such a complete, unified song that it never seems that long. It's got tasteful yet essential synthesizer parts woven within the musical tapestry, but is still mainly reliant on the virtuosic instrumental abilities of Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, and Neil Peart. The lyrics are based on a short science fiction story set in a future when the simple freedom of driving a car is illegal and the world lives in fear of a despotic communist government who controls its inhabitants every move. It's an adventure tale of a young man who, along with his uncle, keeps an old antique sports car (the titular vehicle) hidden in a barn and takes it out occasionally for joyrides. On this particular day, the young man is caught by the police force and uses his driving ability and the smaller size of the car (when compared to the "gleaming alloy air-cars...two lanes wide" used by the police) to outrace them and return to his uncle's farm, where they laugh about the incident by the fireside that night. It's catchy, a fun story, some killer playing (that guitar solo!) and captures everything great about Rush, including their humor, something they have always had in abundance but which the uninformed tend to overlook. If you're not a Rush fan, give the song a listen...you just might like it!


The Smiths: They were one of the most legendary indie rock bands of all time and almost single-handedly kept guitar-based music alive in the UK and Europe during the dark musical times that were the 1980s.  Splintering right on the cusp of international stardom in the US (where they already had a huge and devoted cult following), the Smiths' reputation has only grown and grown since they acrimoniously disbanded in 1987. They never strayed too far from their very British lush and powerful sound that owed so much to the great 45rpm singles and albums of the 1960s and the punk records of the 1970s Morrissey and Johnny Marr loved so much, but there was definitely a progression on their albums toward a more mature, powerful, and exciting sound. The debut album, while solid, is a bit underwhelming, but from there through their next few albums, as well as all of those fabulous non-album singles and B-sides, there's a veritable cornucopia of stuff to choose from in deciding which single song is worthy of encompassing the essence of Smiths. My choice...

There Is a Light That Never Goes Out. If you're a Smiths fan, this is perhaps not a surprising choice, but even so, how can you go wrong with such a fantastic song as this one? It's buried as the penultimate track on what is widely considered to be their masterpiece album The Queen is Dead (for me, as much as I love that album, I actually prefer Strangeways Here We Come or even Meat is Murder) but it's worthy of far better. The fact that such a song could have been sequenced on the album that way speaks volumes as to the quality of the Smiths' output. The song has an instantly recognizable hook kicking things off that is repeated throughout the song and its beautiful, lilting melody and rhythm is propelled by excellent performances from Marr, Andy Rourke, and Mike Joyce. On top of this all is one of Morrissey's finest vocals and lyrics, chronicling the doomed romanticism of the lovesick narrator who is too crippled by shyness and insecurity to express his feelings: he'd rather he and the object of his affections die together in a car crash and be linked together for eternity in death than to risk rejection. The Smiths (well, okay, Morrissey) are often mocked as being perpetually dour and depressing by those too unfamiliar or lazy to actually listen to more than one or two of their songs, but this song melds Moz's tragic story (along with his humor, far too often dismissed throughout his career) with the gorgeous musical backdrop written by Marr and brought to life by the three instrumental Smiths. It's everything special and unique about the Smiths in one three-minute song.


R.E.M.: It's ironic that I decided to choose an R.E.M. song to immediately follow the Smiths, as the two bands ran eerily parallel careers on opposite sides of the Atlantic during the 1980s, the main difference being that R.E.M. was truly more of an all-for-one-and-one-for-all band, whereas the Smiths were more of a creative partnership (Morrissey and Marr) and two subordinates. The other major difference between the two bands it that R.E.M. went on to achieve massive worldwide stardom and critical acclaim upon finally signing with a major label (Warner Brothers) in 1988, whereas the Smiths split before ever recording a note for their major label (EMI). Because of this difference, R.E.M. went on to have an extremely successful 31 year career as opposed to the Smiths' mere 5 years. R.E.M.'s music covered the gamut from jangly guitar rock, folk, punk, country, glam rock, Americana, and every other genre that influenced them. Even among R.E.M. fans, there are many who only prefer the earlier jangle-pop, some who prefer the later, lusher material, and some like me who love it all. Because of this last fact, I thought it would be difficult to choose just one song to represent them, but in fact the more I thought about it, all roads led back to my favorite R.E.M. song which I also think crystallizes their essence perfectly.  

Man On the Moon. Yes, it's one of their most well-known songs and comes from their most commercially and critically acclaimed album, Automatic For the People. Even though it might seem like a safe choice, I really think it does everything it's supposed to do for this little thought exercise. It's got a ridiculously catchy chorus, showcases all four members' musicianship, and integrates multiple aspects of their sound such as rock, country, Americana, and pop. It's also got lyrics that are at once nonsense yet meaningful and funny, often at the same time. Coincidentally, it comes almost in the middle of R.E.M.'s career and covers all of the musical ground in a way I can't really explain any more. Just listen for yourself to see what I mean, unless you're a fan in which case you'll already get it.



Suede: Shifting gears back to the other side of the pond, I've already written a feature on Suede here on the blog, so I won't get into too much detail regarding their career. Briefly, though, while they've been around for 25 years, they've only released six albums (in addition to a host of superb non-album singles and B-sides).  They certainly changed their sound up from album to album, but they definitely remained true to their roots, with all of their music drawing heavily upon 1970s David Bowie, the Smiths, and Pet Shop Boys. They did foray into more straight-ahead 1960s-tinged pop with 1996's Coming Up and electronic experimentation on 1999's Head Music, but by and large the sound they established on their 1993 self-titled debut has remained the foundation upon which all of it is built. That being said, Suede still managed to pen songs that rocked in equal proportion to dark, achingly beautiful and despairing ballads. Perhaps that's why my go-to song for Suede is none other than...

The Wild Ones. Repeatedly cited by Bernard Butler as his favorite Suede song ever, I find it hard to argue. A beautiful ballad with an incredibly complex guitar part running throughout, it also contains one of Brett Anderson's best vocals and lyrics and is at the top of the list for the best of the Anderson/Butler songwriting partnership. A romantically doomed ballad of a love rapidly slipping through the singer's fingers, the extended version has another fantastic Butler guitar solo (is there any other kind?) which was inexplicably edited out of the album version on 1994's Dog Man Star. For me, this only adds to why this song is definitive Suede and why it's the only choice if you have to choose only one song of theirs.


Frank Zappa: Perhaps Zappa is too weird or ambitious a choice for this series of posts: the man's career spanned 30 years and almost 100 albums before he died, and dozens more releases have appeared after his death, drawn from his almost endless vault of studio and live tapes. If ever one artist truly tried to, and oftentimes succeeded in, bringing just about every style of music in existence into his own work, it was Zappa. Blues, rock, jazz, classical, avant garde, spoken word, concept albums, doo-wop, electronic, and many more styles were all amalgamated into his music. As I've written in more detail previously, he was also a keen and wicked social critic and commentator, and there was usually an element of humor to his songs as well. Frank is probably the one artist of whom I'm a fan that is probably impossible to reduce down to one song, but I'm committed (or should be, hah!) at this point, so what the hell...

Montana. Yes, my choice is a song about a fictional dental-floss farmer in Montana who rides a pygmy pony in the moon-lighty-night, rustling his crop with a pair of zircon-encrusted tweezers in his hand. No, there's no cutting social commentary buried in the lyrics to "Montana"...it truly is just Frank having some fun and coming up with a silly, bizarre story. However, it never ceases to bring a smile to my face or elicit a chuckle even after having heard it hundreds of times over the years. Beyond the lyrics, musically this is as complex and rich a Zappa song as you'll hear. Some of the lines the horns, vibraphone, guitar, bass, and drums have to play in unison are staggeringly difficult and showcase the always fantastic musicianship Frank demanded of his band members, no matter who came and went over the years. The vocal arrangements are inventive and harmonically interesting, and of course when you're talking about Zappa, you can never leave his guitar playing out of it..."Montana" has one of the great FZ solos on record, with his snarling, nasty tone achieved through playing through a small amp at maximum volume. His inventive and wholly unique guitar style and technique come through loud and clear...this solo is but one of the numerous reminders that Zappa was a one-of-a-kind master of the guitar. "Montana" doesn't cover all of the musical ground FZ managed to cover in his career, but it incorporates enough of them that in my opinion it's the perfect song for showing anyone who has never heard him what he was all about.


So that's Part 2 wrapped up...I hope you enjoyed reading my picks and would love to hear from you on some of yours. If you're a fan of any of the above musicians, which tracks would you choose for them? And if you've never listened to any of these bands, how did you like these songs?

(stay tuned for Part 3, which will be coming soon!)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Mick Jagger



As one of the most famous frontmen in this history of music, Mick Jagger has been the face (lips?) and voice of the most popular and longest-lived rock and roll band in the world. His voice, his stage presence, his dance moves and mannerisms in concert, and his raucous and raunchy private life are the stuff of legend and usually the first things anyone thinks of when they hear his name. However, perception is not always reality and for such a high-profile and famous public figure, let alone one who has been in the public eye for half a century and counting, Mick Jagger is also one of the most enigmatic, mysterious, and least understood figures to have come out of the 1960s rock music scene. Unlike his more forthcoming and open childhood friend and songwriting partner Keith Richards, Mick seems to be one for whom the expression "playing it close to the vest" was seemingly invented. Because of this, there haven't been too many in-depth looks at Mick's life before Philip Norman took a stab at it with his 2012 book, which is the subject of this review. 


Philip Norman is a well known writer and biographer, perhaps most famously known for his divisive early 1980s Beatles biography Shout! Norman famously took an almost hero-worshipping pro-John Lennon stance in that book and so incensed the other three Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, that Paul has since referred to the book as Shit! and refers to the author was "Norma Philips." Norman subsequently wrote what was to be the authorized biography on Lennon, entitled John Lennon: A Life, with full cooperation from Yoko Ono until the very end when she withdrew her stamp of approval. Norman published it anyway and it has since become a definitive look at Lennon. (As an aside, I've read both of those books and intend to re-read them and review them for this site at a later date.) He is also in the process of writing a comprehensive biography of McCartney, who has since softened his stance and, while not authorizing the book, has given permission to his friends and family to talk with Norman if they so choose (this book is due out in 2016 and will be reviewed here). Getting back to Mick Jagger, having read Shout! (which I'm not crazy about) and the Lennon book (which is quite good), I'd been meaning to read his Jagger book for a while but hadn't gotten around to getting a copy. Luckily, a few weeks ago I was browsing in a local bookstore and saw a copy on the discount shelf for a mere $6...a deal too good to pass up! It's a hefty tome, weighing in at 600+ pages. In his introduction, Norman describes the process he used in researching his previous biographies on the Beatles and Lennon, and described how he had hoped to get authorization from Mick in the same way he did for the Lennon book. His requests were rebuffed, although he was able to add a lot of firsthand material from friends and family of Jagger's to supplement his research.



The book begins with young Michael Phillip Jagger's birth and childhood in the suburbia of Dartford, Kent. Young Mike (as he was known for all of his childhood) was born into a solidly upper middle class upbringing by parents Joe and Eva. Mike and younger brother Chris were raised in a strict but affectionate household where Joe, a physical education teacher, emphasized clean living and physical fitness.  As a student, Mike did very well in his classes and was unconventionally attractive to his female classmates, while his chameleon-like ability to adapt his personality and even accent to particular situations meant he passed through his schooldays relatively unscathed, earning him the nickname of the "Indian Rubber Boy" from his peers. Like so many his age, he was bitten by the music bug although in his case, he had no interest in playing an instrument...rather, he wanted to be a singer. While building up his blues and R&B record collection, he reconnected with an old grammar school friend whom he hadn't seen in years: Keith Richards. Mike was by now attending the prestigious London School of Economics, while Keith was at Sidcup Art College. They started playing together and eventually came across Ian Stewart and Brian Jones, forming the band that would become the Rolling Stones. Adding Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts to the line-up finalized the roster. Steady gigging saw them build a devoted following on the London club circuit, and bringing Andrew Oldham on as their manager in early 1963 set them on their way to stardom.

Where the book first gets interesting is in how it lays out Oldham's  calculated plan to take Mike Jagger, rechristen him Mick, and present a persona to the media that was completely at odds with what Jagger was really like. The careful, cautious, intelligent, always-in-control Mick was reshaped such that he became the symbol of everything wrong with the younger generation, at least in the eyes of the establishment. While his bandmates Keith and Brian brought a lot of the troubles they got into with drugs and (in Brian's case) women onto themselves, Mick was viewed much the same way by the public even though he was never more than a casual dabbler in drugs or alcohol. Indeed, the only area where he was in any manner scandalous in his personal life was in regards to his relationships with women. Norman's main thesis is that Mick is the sole purveyor/sufferer of what he (Norman) has dubbed the Tyranny of Cool; that is, everything Mick does or says is all in the spirit of affecting that he is too cool, too unaffected, too above it all. Beyond this, the dichotomy between the public persona of one who is too blase to give a damn versus the private man who is actually very emotional, generous, and sensitive is a seam that Norman mines throughout the course of the book. The constant harping on this, though, gives the impression that Norman has a bit of an agenda with Mick, which given his previous experiences with the Beatles and McCartney in particular, isn't hard to imagine. It seems even more clear that this could be the case when he reveals he was on the shortlist to ghostwrite Mick's aborted 1983 autobiography but was passed over in favor of a relatively unknown, younger journalist. In any event, the book traces Mick's life and career from birth through the exhilarating 1960s (including an in-depth focus on the infamous Redlands bust of 1967 and its fallout) and into the 1970s. However, the book seems to lose steam after getting through the turbulent late 1970s/early 1980s era, Mick and Keith's feud, and the Stones split in 1986. Once the band reconvened in the late 1980s, the book seems to rush through its final 100 pages to bring the story to the present (that is 2012, when the book was published). While it's true that the Stones' activity has been sporadic at best from the mid-1990s onward, this book isn't a Stones biography...it's a Mick biography and as such could have easily gone more in depth with regards to his life during the past decade or two. As a side note but worth mentioning, Norman does show real sympathy, almost to the ultimate detriment of Mick, for the "second-rank Stones" (as he calls them) Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood. Also, in fairness, he goes out of his way to dispel many myths that have sprung up around Mick, such as his flippancy at Altamont (he was actually quite instrumental in preserving the small amount of order in the crowd), his feelings during Brian Jones' death (he was devastated), and the behind-the-scenes charity work he's done over the years (hidden from public view at Mick's behest, another casualty of the Tyranny of Cool).



While I did enjoy the book and found it to be on the whole informative and interesting, I do have several criticisms of it. The first is that it's not long enough. Yes, it comes in at exactly 600 pages (not counting the index), but the first 500 pages only bring us up to 1985 or so. From there, the final 100 pages cover the next twenty years at breakneck pace, leading to the end of the book feeling a bit unresolved. If Norman was to pay enough attention to Mick's life in these later years as he did in the earlier parts, he probably should have made the book at least another 50-100 pages longer.  The second criticism is that he very subtly comes across as having an agenda...he's certainly a fan of Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones, although even here he makes constant snide remarks to how Mick enunciates while he sings (there are MANY phonetically written jibes, such as "ah cayn't get naw satis-fac-shyun!"). There are the constant digs at Mick's Tyranny of Cool (some of them justified, such as several callous remarks Mick has made regarding his wives/girlfriends and even his children). Norman even manages to take a few swipes at Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, echoing his treatment of them in Shout, and this isn't even a Beatles book! While he seems to admire Keith's willingness to stay true to the Stones' blues and R&B roots, as well as his determination to finally kick his debilitating drug habit in the late 1970s, he also takes swipes at him for his attire and appearance, how he's aged compared to Mick, and even many of the things claimed in his own memoir, Life. Staying on the subject of Mick and Keith, Norman does do a nice job juxtaposing the two and showing that they were very different personalities from the very beginning. Keith was a working class boy raised in a loving extended family, shy and introverted, and for the most part a monogamous partner and husband throughout his adult life, almost always treating women with respect. He had no class aspirations and lived for the music and the band, remained a rebel at heart (however much it's waned in his old age), and has always been 100% genuine. By contrast, Mick's public persona projects whatever he wants it to based on his situation and suroundings. His accent varies between his normal Kent accent, faux-Cockney (ie Mockney), the affected airs of the upper crust, and everything in between. From the first flush of the Stones' fame in the early 1960s he had an almost insatiable desire to break into the ranks of high society, preferring to hobnob with movie starts, royalty, politicians, and the artistic elite, again showing a marked contrast to Keith. The biggest wedge between them in this regard was Mick's eagerness to accept a knighthood in the early 2000s, something Keith not only doesn't want but has actively said he would turn down if it were ever even offered. It all goes toward showing that the outlaw persona Mick has had since the 1960s was more to do with Oldham's PR engineering and guilt by association with Keith and Brian Jones' actual recklessness than any innate quality. The only area in which Mick is truly deserving of his reputation (apart from his parsimony) is in his treatment of women. Until his most recent long-term relationship with designer L'Wren Scott (who tragically committed suicide in 2014), Mick had no qualms about sleeping with whoever he wanted, whenever and wherever he wanted, regardless of his domestic situation. This led to break-ups with fiancee Chrissie Shrimpton in 1966, girlfriend Marianne Faithfull in 1970, and divorces from first wife Bianca in 1978 and second wife Jerry Hall in 1999. He has sired seven children by four different women (1 with Marsha Hunt, 1 with Bianca, 4 with Jerry Hall, and 1 with Luciana Morad), although to his credit he is, by all accounts, a caring and attentive father. However, it's hard not to be more than slightly repulsed by his attitude toward monogamy and the women whose hearts he broke with his reckless, selfish behavior. All of that being said, I felt the book tended to focus far too much Mick's relationships, especially during the second half of the book. While they're obviously an integral part of his life story and worthy of mention, Norman started to draw so much on sources and interviews with Chrissie Shrimpton, Marianne Faithfull, and especially Jerry Hall that at times the book came across more as a tell-all of Mick's spurned lovers than an comprehensive biography.



The portrait of Mick Jagger painted by this book is actually quite close to the perception more studied Stones fans (reinforced by Keith's jibes over the years) have of him: a talented and superb entertainer who is also quite miserly, runs the Stones' business affairs with an iron grip and an eye always on the bottom line, and an international jet setter who prefers to affect an air of the "common man" while in reality moving in rarefied circles. His persona as the original bad boy of rock and roll is almost completely at odds with the truth, and that's something the author takes great pains to emphasize. The Tyranny of Cool, while a bit tiresome by book's end, is quite apropos in many instances, not least of which is Mick's constant rewriting of his past and his claims to "not remember" events, no matter how inconsequential or even monumental; his claims to not remember anything of the Redlands bust, for example, beggars belief. Rather, it's a testament to the man who never lets anyone get to close and who, strangely among his generation of musicians, never (or hardly ever) injected any of his personal life into his music. Lennon, McCartney, Dylan, Townshend, Davies, Morrison...all of them (and more) put themselves into their music, but Jagger remained aloof from his; apart from a few morsels here and there ("Wild Horses," "Some Girls," etc) there wasn't much, and what we did get was never more than a few words or lines sprinkled througout various songs over the decades songs. Mick is a complicated figure and while this isn't the perfect book, it's probably the most in-depth and comprehensive Jagger biography out there and worth a read for serious Stones fans or anyone interested in learning what Mick is like behind the public facade.


MY RATING: 7/10