Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 38

The last one of these in 2013...some un-"Convention"-al albums mixed in here, all of them live (sorry for the pun!)

Credence Clearwater Revival - The Concert
The Who - Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, Holland 9/29/69
Led Zeppelin - Convention Center, Ft. Worth, TX 5/19/73
The Beatles - Convention Hall, Philadelphia, PA 9/2/64
Genesis - Convention Hall, West Palm Beach, FL 1/10/75

First up is a great live CCR album from 1970, showing that in addition to their numerous great hit songs, they were also a powerhouse live band. No frills, this is just straight ahead rock! The Who's opening show of their 1969 European tour is in a pristine sounding recording and while it's not their greatest show, The Who still blew the competition away on a slightly off day, and there are still some absolutely majestic and frightening moments of power in this show (such as Amazing Journey/Sparks). Led Zeppelin's show in Ft. Worth takes place a day after a rather tense show in Dallas, but this one is much more relaxed and fun, finding the band in absolutely top form on what was their last consistently great tour. The Beatles' show in Philly is wonderful sounding and very powerful, showing that they were still a top live band even after all of the mania hit the US earlier in 1964. Finally, a Genesis show from early 1975 on the massive tour support the epic Lamb Lies Down on Broadway tour rounds out this batch. It sounds great, quality-wise, and is a tight and dramatic performance, even without all of the visuals and costumes that accompanied all of the shows on that tour.

A Look Back While Looking Forward

It's that time of the year that happens every year around now, where we're all about to turn the calendar page on yet another year gone by. It's always a good time to reflect on the year that's ending and to look forward to the year to come. Whether that means making the annual resolutions that none of us seem to ever keep, or just setting out goals we'd like to achieve for 2014, it's a nice exercise to see how far we've all come over the past twelve months and where we'd all like to go in the next twelve.

Since this is my site, I'm (obviously) going to discuss my own life over 2013 and what I hope 2014 has in store. I've never really made resolutions for each new year although I typically set goals that I'd like to accomplish for the next year. Last year around this time, that was to be able to run a half-marathon. At the time, I was maxing out at around 6 miles each time I went for a run. So how well did I hold to this goal? Well, by June I was able to run 9 miles every time I went running and was well on my way. However, we moved house during the month of June and I wasn't able to run as often as I was used to. Additionally, I suffered from a runner's block (think writer's block, but for runners) and for whatever reason, the mental hurdles translated to the physical and I was stuck struggling to complete 4 miles each time out. I'm happy that I seem to have finally gotten through that, so I'm hoping that in 2014 I can finally move toward that goal and finally run 13 miles in one go.

My other big goal was to do more writing, as it's something that I enjoy and really want to make a go of, at least the best I can given that right now it must remain a side hobby while my day job takes priority. I had meant to continue work on the novel that I started in 2010 and have worked on intermittently since then, but sadly I wasn't able to add more than a few pages to that manuscript this year. I am making it a goal to get a substantial amount of writing done on it this coming year; whether that means finishing it or simply getting a lot of it written, I'll have to see. However, I *was* able to do a lot of writing this year on this very website! After starting this blog in 2011, I hadn't really devoted a lot of attention to it, not in terms of the quantity of the content nor the quality. I feel that I've more than made up for that in 2013 (and I hope you agree with me!). In addition to writing more about interesting music, books, and other topics, I've also taken on a side-gig since the late summer of reviewing books on this website. It's been great fun and I've been able to read a lot of interesting books and get my name out there in the blogosphere. I'm going to continue to try in 2014 to get more recognition for my reviews and hopefully also be able to parlay that into some freelance writing opportunities for websites and magazines, be they dedicated to music, sports, politics, or anything else of interest.

I completely failed to write and record a batch of new songs for another album of my own this year...in fact, I barely had time to pick up my guitar a few times this year and throw down a few demos onto my iPad and scribble some chords and lyric bits onto some paper. Part of that was down to the fact that I had a killer commute to and from work that got worse and worse as the year went on. The big change right now is the fact that we moved house again (yes, twice in 2013!), this time much closer to my job. Now instead of a 2 hour drive each way, I have a 25 minute drive each way. The time I've gotten back to spend with my wife and kids, just in the three weeks since we've moved, has been fantastic and I need to apologize to my wife profusely for resisting the move over the past few years; as usual, she was right and I wish I had been less stubborn about it a few years ago!  In any event, it's now a reality and I'm really looking forward to the increased time at home to spend with her and our four wonderful kids, who are all growing up far too fast!

Finally, I did get to do some cool things in 2013 (in no particular order):

- I made several trips for work to Rhode Island, Niagara Falls, and South Carolina 

- I got to see Niagara Falls on that business trip, which was very cool. On my birthday, no less!

- I saw Peter Frampton in concert 

- I saw Paul McCartney in concert at Fenway Park

- I got to see our amazing children grow so much over this past year 

- I added another ~450 miles to my running total 

- I sold a lot of copies of my second Blur book (released in December 2012) 

- I was interviewed for a French Who fansite

- I got my first sponsored post on this blog

- I interacted with a lot of interesting (and some famous!) people through my writing and presence online

- I finally made the move closer to work so that I can reclaim hours of my life each week and spend more time with my wife and kids 

I think 2014 is going to be a good year. At the very least I'm going to try and make it the best year I can for me and my family. I think that's all we can ever do, is to take life as it comes, work hard, enjoy it, and try to make the best of what happens to us, good or bad. 

What about you? What are your reflections on 2013 and what are you looking forward to in 2014?


Friday, December 27, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: R.E.M.: Perfect Circle

I need to say upfront that I immensely enjoyed reviewing this book on a deeply personal level. While I grew up listening to mainly the bands of my parents' generation, who still make up probably half of my overall listening choices and of which many bands rank among my all time favorites (The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, etc), I also am a great fan of many of the American and British alternative/indie (depending on which side of the pond you were on) bands of my own era of the 1980s and 1990s.  Chief among them are the first band of my own time that I really and truly properly "got into," R.E.M.. Quintessentially American with their Southern and folk roots, but also drawing heavily from the British-dominated rock of the 1960s, R.E.M. were the first band that were "mine." I distinctly remember really liking their songs "The One I Love" and "It's the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)" when I first heard them as a seven year old in 1987. The videos for those two songs were in heavy rotation on MTV (back when MTV actually played music) and the songs were always on the radio. Once Green came out in 1988 and "Stand" was their big single in 1989, I was hooked and from that moment forward, I was a hardcore fan, devouring everything and anything they released, and even seeing them three times in concert (all in 1999: once in London, once in New York City, and once in Boston). During my first year in college, a friend sent me the excellent book "It Crawled From the South" by Marcus Gray, which to that point was hands-down the definitive book on R.E.M., and one which I read and re-read countless times over the years. Upon calling it a career in 2011, I wondered if and when there would ever be a definitive account on their entire time together, not least of which because this was the rare band of the past thirty years that not only had a legitimate mystique and aura about them, but also literally built themselves from the ground up.

***special thanks to Charlie at Omnibus Press and Midas PR for sending me a copy to review!***

Perfect Circle is actually the third and final version of Fletcher's biography on the band, being first published in the late 1980s as a picture-heavy (in his own words) book titled Remarks and then subsequently updated and fleshed out years after as Remarks/Remade. Along each step of the way he's had the full cooperation of the band and their associates and as such, this can be considered as their authorized biography.  The author does state in his introduction that he has not updated the text from Remarks/Remade, only added it to it, and this does become noticeable in a few places (such as when he states that a certain single or album is their most recent "as of 2002," for example, even though the book and the band's career carry on beyond that). However, such things are minor and not particularly noticeable unless you're looking out for those sort of things (as I was). 

On to the book now, it starts off with the backgrounds stories of the four band members and how they came to be in Athens, Georgia by early 1980 when the band was formed. While the author doesn't go into too much detail beyond the basics, it's enough and a welcome change from many books where the life stories simply take up too much time. Eventually, the band forms and play their first gig, even though they lack a band name, in April 1980. From here, the narrative is both exceptionally detailed but eminently readable at the same time. Whereas many books tend to either get bogged down in details when the discussion turns to such things as record contracts, royalties, management, etc or gloss over them as superficially as possible, in Perfect Circle, Fletcher is able to convey the (often) convoluted details in a very engaging was, helped along by numerous firsthand accounts from the parties who were involved, whether they be former record company executives, A&R men, producers, management staff, etc. It also helps shed new light on some notable behind the scenes goings-on, such as why the band left I.R.S. Records when their deal was up in 1988 even though it seemed like the perfect label for them (the band knew if I.R.S. sunk all their money in advances, there would be nothing left for promotion), why Warner Brothers was the major label they eventually signed with in '88, how and why they negotiated their mammoth renewal with them in 1997, their eventual climb to the top of the music world in the late 1980s/early 1990s, their time as the biggest band in the world in the 1990s, and finally their slow commercial (but not critical) decline and eventual disbanding in 2011. For a band that overall was pretty "boring" in the sense that there was never any drug or alcohol abuse, brushes with the law, groupie stories, or public fighting, the book still makes for gripping reading, based solely on the personalities of the band, the fantastic music they made, and how they achieved it all. From the relentless touring in every little town and big city across the entire US, to the uncompromising and independent way they approached the writing, recording, and promotion of their albums, R.E.M. were truly a grassroots band and reading this is not only exhilarating but inspirational, even though there's probably no way any band could do it today how R.E.M. did it in the 80s. From their eventual emergence from cult heroes (MAJOR cult heroes, I should add) to their international breakthrough into the mainstream in the early 1990s, it's all discussed and brought to life. Parts that I was particularly interested to get to, being a longtime (in actuality, nearly lifelong) fan, included the falling out with original manager Jefferson Holt in 1996, Bill Berry's departure from the band in 1997, the lone disastrous album that was 2004's Around the Sun, and the 2011 break up of the band. I knew as many of the (intentionally) sketchy details over the years but I really wanted to see if Fletcher could and would shed new light on any of these, and while there were no groundbreaking revelations, he did fill in enough gaps to give a more fully formed and informed story behind each of these events. I won't give any of these away and I'll allow the readers to find these out for themselves, but I will say as a longtime fan that I was satisfied with the way these (and other matters) were handled in the book.

While the book clearly benefits from the author's access to and friendship with the band, it's also the fact that he is also a huge fan of the band himself that makes it such an enjoyable read. Additionally, Fletcher is very even-handed with the band and does not shy away from objectively discussing the bands failures, as few and far between as they remarkably were in a thirty-two year career, alongside their more numerous successes. He also injects a bit of personal opinion and editorializing when discussing songs or albums which are interesting to read, especially if you agree or disagree with him. As for negatives, I will say that personally, the editorializing got a bit tiresome when he discussed R.E.M.'s political stances, not because I disagreed with them (and I do disagree, vehemently, but that's besides the point), but because this was the one part of the book that the author did not treat objectively and it got tiresome. Finally, a few instances of sloppy editing were pretty noticeable, with a couple of glaring errors sticking in memory: first, discussing U2's parallel career trajectory by discussing their 1987 album The Joshua Tree and their subsequent album Achtung Baby from "1981" (he meant 1991). The worst error was the second one I want to point out, where he describes R.E.M.'s induction to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and their backing fellow inductee Duane Allman! Even though I'm a fan of the Allman Brothers Band myself, most music fans will know that Duane tragically died in 1971 and that his brother Gregg is still alive and it is he who Fletcher was talking about. I have to believe this was down to sloppy editing and not poor research, as the information is readily available online. If it is down to poor research, that doesn't make it  any less inexcusable. But while these errors are the most egregious they're also the majority of them...overall, the book was very well done. Finally, a seemingly minor quibble of mine is the cover; I understand that Bill Berry left the band in 1997, but still, I feel like a cover photo including all four members of R.E.M. would have been more appropriate, especially as he still cast a presence and influence over the band even over the final fourteen years of their career when he was absent. I simply feel like that would have been a slightly nicer touch, but perhaps that's just me.

Notwithstanding how much R.E.M.'s music has meant to me on a personal level for the last 25 years and counting, this was an exceptional book and probably one of the best band biographies I've ever read. As such, it's a must-read for anyone who is a fan of the band, or even just a fan of the great indie/alternative music that came out of America in the 1980s. While the band is now defunct, this book is a very worthwhile read and will have you reaching for the albums to listen as soon as you're finished reading...I know it had that effect on me!


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

I'd like to wish all of my family, friends, and you visitors to my site a very Merry Christmas! Regardless of whether you celebrate it as a religious holiday or simply treat it as a free day off from work/school, I hope everyone gets the chance to relax and spend time with the important people in their lives, exchange gifts, have a nice meal, and do whatever it is you normally do on Christmas Day.  Also spare a thought for those who can't be home with their loved ones today for whatever reason, whether they're in the military, law enforcement, firefighters, doctors and nurses, etc.

On a personal level, while I'm not able to make it to church today, nor am I able to spend it with EVERYONE in my family, I'm feeling very blessed to be able to spend the day with my wife and our four wonderful children.  It's also a nice day to reflect on the past year and gear up for the turning of the calendar page next week as we get ever closer to the end of this year and the start of next year.

Enough from me...I won't keep you longer than necessary, and besides, you should be enjoying Christmas with your family and friends, not reading any more of this post!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Jimmy Page: Magus, Musician, Man

Led Zeppelin were without a doubt the biggest band of the 1970s; it can be credibly argued that they were to the 1970s what The Beatles were to the 1960s. Both bands were trailblazers who defined their respective decades and constantly pushed boundaries and perpetually evolved, never wanting to stay creatively in one spot for too long. However, while The Beatles were almost universally accepted and admired, each band member being known in their own right, Led Zeppelin was a different sort of band. An air of mystery and intrigue, much of it purposely cultivated by the band and their manager Peter Grant, shrouded their every move. Perhaps no one in the band personified this more than lead guitarist, songwriter, musical director, and producer Jimmy Page. As the face and voice of the band, Robert Plant was necessarily out front, while the rhythm section had their own distinct identity as well: John Paul Jones was not only the supremely talented bassist/keyboardist/arranger in the band, but he was very well known for his sessions and arranging work in 1960s London. John Bonham, who along with Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and Mitch Mitchell, makes up the quartet of finest drummers to emerge from 1960s Britain, was a larger than life personality on and off the stage. However, while Jimmy Page was *the* star of the band at their inception due to his session work in the 1960s and his stint as the final of three guitar legends in the Yardbirds (following Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck), he was also the most private, mysterious, and unknown member of Led Zeppelin.  

***special thanks to Wes at Backbeat Books for sending me a review copy of this book!***

Author George Case, a self-described Zeppelin and Page fanatic, has written this unauthorized biography of Jimmy Page in an attempt to tell the story of the man behind the music. As a huge lifelong fan of Led Zeppelin, I was very interested and excited to read this book and finally learn more about Page, who is also one of my major influences as a guitarist.  Of all of my guitar heroes of that era (Clapton, Townshend, Hendrix) he's certainly the one I know the least about, so I was very interested in reading this book.

The book is laid out in chronological order, and each chapter covers a small chunk of Page's life (for example, one chapter covers 1968-70, the next 1970-73, and so on). An interesting twist on the entire book is the author's focus on Page's well-known interest in the occult; this is manifested in quotes from Page's favorite occultist, Aleister Crowley and other occult writers, which lead off each chapter.  While I've never been of the belief that his interest in this subject was anything other than a personal quirk, there are many who believe that it played a larger role in his life and music, so I can at least understand why the author has taken this angle in discussing Page.

The book begins with Page's birth and childhood in Surrey, and the years leading up to his early musical career are quite interesting. Going into this book, I really hadn't known much about Page's early life so it was nice to learn about this part of his background. From here, the author details his burgeoning interest in music and his taking up of the guitar, his first forays in a band (Neil Christian and the Crusaders), and eventually the road fatigue that led him into his first career as the top session guitarist in London.  After initially turning down a chance to join the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton left the band (instead, he referred his childhood friend Jeff Beck), Page finally accepted when an opening in the band came up. Initially brought on as a replacement bass player, he later paired for a short-term dual guitar attack with Beck before the latter left the band. Page gamely carried on, turning the talent-limited band into a band that was a psychedelic hard-rock powerhouse onstage but who were still being groomed as a teeny-bopper singles band in the studio. Upon disbanding the Yardbirds, Page and manager Peter Grant used Page's celebrity to launch a new band, bringing in the other three members of the eventual Led Zeppelin and plotting their domination of the next decade's musical landscape.  The bulk of the book is taken up with the career of Led Zeppelin, although, given how phenomenal that career was, it's chronicled with a slightly rushed and superficial feel. In fact, this would be one of my main issues with the book: while it's clear that the author is a passionate fan of Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page, the short length of the book (it's just under 300 pages) means that he can't delve into as much detail as is warranted. By the time the book is halfway done, Led Zeppelin has already disbanded due to John Bonham's death. The remainder of the book is devoted to Page's post-Zeppelin career; his wandering through the musical and personal wilderness as he coped with crippling drug addictions, failing relationships, and finding his place in the music world after the demise of Led Zeppelin. Forays into a new band (The Firm) and a proper solo album, as well as some less-than-spectacular Led Zeppelin one-off reunion gigs, finally saw him collaborating with Robert Plant again, this time on new material. Finally, a triumphant return to a proper Led Zeppelin concert in 2007 showed that there was still life left in the band and their legacy. However, while Plant and Jones were content to leave Zeppelin in the past and continue to move forward, Page has never seemed able to really let it go. Perhaps this is because his role since the band's demise has also been as the curator as their legacy (since he was their producer and artistic director, after all). But the portrait painted is of a man who has come to peace with the ever-present and towering legacy of his former band, but has never really accepted that it really is all over.

Being a guitarist and gear devotee myself, it was quite enjoyable to see how the author, who himself plays guitar, describe quite a lot of Zeppelin's music and Page's role in it in more technical terms. He goes into some detail discussing the different tones and sounds Page achieved via his various guitars, amps, and effects, as well as many of the pioneering studio techniques he used as a producer. Even though some of the information was not new to me, much of it was, and in any event even a non-musician reading these passages would gain a bit more understanding into Page's approach at creating and performing the music. As for the style of the book itself, the author mentions in the afterword that he has never met Page personally or spoken to him or any of his associates. This is obvious from reading the book, as there are numerous quotes and passages taken from interviews, articles, and other books (all with citations, thankfully). Many of them were already familiar to me from other books and articles on Led Zeppelin that I have read over the years. However, unlike some books where the entire book seems to be made up of these snippets (see my review of the latest Blur biography for a poor example of this), Case does a good job in this book in fleshing out the in-between narrative in his own style and voice, blending in these cited passages quite seamlessly. There are also some examples of humorous wordplay on the author's part that add to the effect. And while it's clear that he is a passionate fan of Page and Zeppelin, he is also very fair and does not shy away from detailing some of the more sordid parts of Page's life, many of which were new to me and a little bit shocking (in some cases).

While the bulk of this book is naturally taken up with Page's career in Led Zeppelin, the two sections of which bookend this are where I learned the most new information. While the Zeppelin portion of the book did contain some tidbits that I hadn't known before, it also seemed to be told almost as much through the voices of the other band members and Peter Grant as it did Jimmy Page, whereas the sections dealing with his pre- and post-Zeppelin life and career focused squarely on the man himself and revealed more that was new to me. Overall, this is a very readable and enjoyable unauthorized biography on one of the biggest and greatest guitarists and producers of the rock era. While it's not perfect and the emphasis on the occult and magic as it pertains to Page's life seems a bit unnecessary to me, it's certainly a valuable read for any fan. Being the most comprehensive and complete biography on Page makes it almost essential reading for any fan of Led Zeppelin.

MY RATING: 7.5/10

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 37

I'm getting there, more than 3/4 of the way through the "C" albums!

Rush - Clockwork Angels Tour Live
Pixies - Come On Pilgrim
Suede - Coming Up
Pixies - Complete B Sides
Genesis - Complete BBC Sessions
Credence Clearwater Revival - Assorted Rarities From the Complete CCR box set
The Beatles - The Complete Christmas Collection
The Stone Roses - The Complete Stone Roses

A lot of "Complete" albums! First, a bit out of order since it's a new release and was just added to my iPod, but Rush's latest live album is fantastic. The performance of their new album with a string ensemble is absolutely brilliant, although Geddy Lee's voice is finally showing signs of real strain. The Pixies are represented here first with their debut EP which is classic after classic, and then a B-sides collection that has some buried gems along with some really bizarre covers. Suede's first post-Butler album is probably the best album they made after he left the band up until this year's Bloodsports...short, concise blasts of more poppy British rock but still through Suede's slightly warped and darkened filter. Genesis' BBC sessions are very interesting...the early, pre-fame sessions are more pastoral while the sessions from 1971 onward show them flexing their newly found prog muscles.  The CCR album is the leftover non-album tracks from their box set, and while it's not essential listening, it's interesting to hear their first incarnation (as The Golliwogs) when they were trying to be a more poppy 1960s band. The Beatles' collection of all of their official fan club Christmas records from 1963-1969 is a real joy to listen to, and something I play every year around this time to get in the spirit. Off the cuff and humorous messages to fans, skits, and original Christmas songs (in addition to slightly changed versions of Christmas classics) makes for a really fun listen every year around this time. Finally, the Stone Roses' album is a collection of their non-album singles (or single edit versions) and B-sides, with many songs that probably should have been on the albums themselves! There are also some pre-debut album tracks that show how much darker and more aggressive their sound was in the early days.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With the Beatles

There is no shortage of books on The Beatles written by those who interacted with them, and these people can range from people who were close to them, such as ex-wives, friends, family members, and colleague, to those who had barely any contact with them. Some of the books have been worthwhile (ie Cynthia Lennon's "John," Pattie Boyd's "Wonderful Tonight," to name two) and some have been fraudulent hatchet jobs (Peter Brown's "The Love You Make," to name but one). Tony Bramwell, who was a childhood friend of George Harrison and Paul McCartney, and knew all of the Beatles growing up in Liverpool, falls into the first category. 

***Special thanks to Komal at Anova Books and Tony Bramwell himself for sending me a copy of this book to review!***

The subtitle of this book is "My Life With the Beatles," and while this is at its core Bramwell's memoir, it heavily features the Fab Four in it, which is understandable given his lifelong friendship with them and the fact that he worked for them from the very beginning of their career all the way into their solo years. The book is written in a very direct and warm manner and the author's tone is very pleasing to read. As far as the way the book is set up, it's arranged in a straightforward, chronological manner and split into sections, beginning with the author's birth and childhood in Liverpool and progressing from there. 

Starting with his adventures playing around in post-war Liverpool, Bramwell describes his first meetings with George Harrison and Paul McCartney when they were all young schoolboys, as well as the rest of their gang of boys and what fun they got up to growing up. Eventually, the Quarrymen, and later the Beatles, form and begin their rise to worldwide fame and fortune. Tony is able to get into the gigs for free by helping carry some of the gear and it's really special to read about all of the pivotal moments in the development of the band's early career that he was witness to; he makes it feel as if you're there in that very moment, with all of the excitement and anticipation that the boys must have felt all those years ago. From those earliest gigs in and around Liverpool, the north of England, Scotland, and Wales, Bramwell was eventually asked by manager Brian Epstein to come work for him at NEMS, pending the approval of the author's mother given his relatively young age! Tony took a job at NEMS and worked for the Beatles throughout their career in the 1960s, first as a "do anything" who did everything from delivering their pay packets to organizing the logistics of arrival, set up, and departure from concerts, radio and TV appearances, and interviews. When the entire operation moved to London in 1963, so too did the author, who then began overseeing their film companies (initially Suba Films and later on, Apple Films) as well as running the day-to-day operations of Epstein's Saville Theater, putting on concert by The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and other giants of that era.  In working for the Beatles, Bramwell did indeed, in his own words, "TCB (take care of business)" in just about every way. He didn't have a set job like most of the other NEMS employees, but rather had a hand in multiple projects within the company. In the wake of Brian Epstein's death in August of 1967 and upon the arrival of Allen Klein in 1969, Tony was one of the lucky few who were immune from the mass house cleaning Klein undertook at Apple as a way to consolidate his power.  He helped run Apple Records until, like so many who hated Klein, he eventually quit and began a second career in record promotion. His career continued to be interesting and substantial in record promotion in the 1970s, not least of which his role in helping to launch the career of Bruce Springsteen, who to this day is a close friend of Tony's.

Along the way, the author gives personal reminiscences and insights into the Beatles, both their personalities as well as the inner workings of their enterprise. As he rightly mentions, they were breaking new ground and charting unknown virgin territory at every step of the way, and because of this there were some missteps and lessons learned the hard way. In particular, while he is clearly fond of Brian Epstein (as were the Beatles), it's nice that he doesn't shy away from some of the failures of Epstein's stewardship, such as the merchandising rights fiasco in 1964 or how the company was structured such that the Beatles were still being paid 40-pound-a-week wage packets in 1967 when they each had millions in the bank! Bramwell also gives insight into the insanity of the entire Apple madhouse, although he seems to have weathered the storm alright by staying away from most of the craziness.  However, during the later years of the Beatles' career, the author really shares his opinions on probably the most divisive person in the entire story, Yoko One. As a personal disclaimer, I'll make it be known that I am no fan of Yoko at all. While I don't think she was *the* reason the band broke up, I definitely think she was *a* reason, and a big one at that. Much of it was down to John necessitating her presence everywhere, most irritatingly (to the other three Beatles and George Martin) in the studio, where there had always been an unwritten rule that girlfriends and wives were never to hang around there. Paul even had a quote in later years, stating that the band being in the studio was "like miners going down the pits, and the women stayed at home." However, the majority of the blame lies with Yoko herself, who was rude, pushy, and  quite willingly inserted herself as a wedge within the band and most purposely, between John and Paul. That being said, the level of vitriol the author has for her is beyond anything I or any other fan could feel. This is only natural given he had firsthand contact with her and was witness to many situations that beggar belief. I have no problem with his descriptions of her and her behaviors (and to be fair, he also slags John off for his part in the whole thing). Bramwell does not call her names or use any derogatory terms, but he is still able to make clear his absolute disdain for her and her behavior, and anyone who is interested in some of the more interpersonal aspects of the breakup will appreciate some of his insights.

Finally, as it's clear that the author has had an extraordinary career in the music business, he includes several little anecdotes about the various people he's met over the years, everyone from musicians (Hendrix, Clapton, Jagger, Dylan, Springsteen, etc) to actors and actresses (Taylor, Burton, Hoffman, etc). Additionally, some chance encounters (for instance, he dated Christine Keeler without knowing who she was until a friend casually mentioned it to him) show that Tony Bramwell led a truly Forrest Gump-like life, in terms of being at so many historically significant events with historically significant people, except that Tony's life was real and it really happened!

Overall, while the Beatles feature heavily in this book given the author's long personal friendship and association with them dating back to childhood, this doesn't feel like a cash-in by someone who is using that association for any personal gain. It's a warm, frank, and enjoyable memoir by someone who has led a remarkable life and was a firsthand witness to so many moments and so much history that was made at a pivotal and exciting time. While I do have some minor quibbles, such as a few incorrect facts (he mentions Abracadabra was the working title for Rubber Soul when it was actually for Revolver; ditto for Everest which was the working title for Abbey Road, not the White Album) or a few digressions that didn't seem to add too much to the narrative, overall this is a really nice read that any Beatles fan would be better off having gone through.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

***Tony Bramwell has agreed to an interview with me for my site, so stay tuned for that!***

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 36

Getting into the back end of the "C" albums:

Led Zeppelin - Coda
Billy Joel - Cold Spring Harbor
Cream - Coliseum, Oakland, CA 10/4/68
The Rolling Stones - Coliseum, Oakland, CA 11/9/69 (early show)
The Rolling Stones - Coliseum, Oakland, CA 11/9/69 (late show)
The Beatles - Coliseum, Washington, DC 2/11/64
R.E.M. - Collapse Into Now

Led Zeppelin's "leftovers" collection from 1982 has a few tunes worth seeking out, including some that should absolutely ended up on the albums they were recorded for (ie 1970's Poor Tom, and 1978's Ozone Baby, Darlene, and Wearing and Tearing). Bill Joel's debut album is a solid and enjoyable slice of piano-driven rock with the quirky distinction of being too high in pitch due to the pressings all being at too high a speed! A quartet of shows at arenas named "Coliseum" follow: a great show from Cream's farewell tour, two shows from the Stones' legendary 1969 US tour; the first one, where equipment problems forced them into two acoustic songs right after the opening number, and constant complaints from Mick Jagger throughout, and the second show which was released as one of the first ever bootleg records in 1970, "Liver Than You'll Ever Be." The Beatles' Coliseum show was their first proper concert in the USA after they'd made their Ed Sullivan Show debut days earlier. It's a raucous and energetic performance and really enjoyable. Finally, R.E.M.'s final album before their 2011 break-up is a solid and enjoyable, if unspectacular finale to a stellar career. Bereft of an obvious standout single, it was an acceptable, if not understated and slightly weak way to end a career.

Monday, December 9, 2013

In Memoriam

"Some are dead and some are living,
In my life I've loved them all..."

The past few weeks marked the passing of a couple of my favorite musicians and people; though I never met either of them, they've proven to be inspirational and interesting to me, in terms of both their virtues and flaws. I've never bought into mythologizing public figures, even the ones I really admire, and anyone who has read my writings on this website or who knows me personally will know that I realize that both of the following men were all too human and were not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, despite all of their talent. However, because these two (and their two other bandmates) have been such an integral part of my life for basically its entire duration, marking both of their deaths each year is indeed important to me.

(Before I continue, please realize that I mean all of this in a relative sense...obviously, I love and cherish my family and friends more than any public figure I've never actually met. Please read the following keeping that context in mind)

November 29 this year marked twelve years since George Harrison passed away from cancer at the age of 58.

I think this is a very sweet picture and quote

George was always the Beatle I and many others understood the least, both because he was intensely private and also because he was a very complex and unique individual. I'm not going to get into the details here as they are not the point of this post. Having read the new biography written about him, I feel that I finally have a much better understanding of who he was and why he was that way. He was the youngest member of the band and yet was probably the most secure in himself, and had been for most of his adult life. I remember being shocked at hearing of his death; I was 21 when he passed away and even though I knew he'd been sick and had read about his prior bout with cancer in the late 1990s, as well as the home invasion attack he survived in 1999, I'd just assumed he would beat the cancer again and be around for many more years. More than that, he was the first Beatle who died when I was old enough to know what was happening, and that made it very sad for me.

These are lyrics from Paul's 1982 song "Here Today," which was his tribute to John
I was only ten months old when John was murdered on December 8; I always like to be able to say that I was alive when all four of the Beatles were. I don't know why but that's comforting to me, even though I had no idea what was going on at that time, being a baby and all! I remember that when I was five years old (circa 1985) and mentioned to a kindergarten classmate of mine that I liked the Beatles, he told me that John had been shot and killed. I still can remember being very upset when I got home from school and telling my mother the awful news, only for her to calmly inform me that it'd actually happened five years before. Ever since then, it's a day I always mark with a little bit of sadness and a lot of happiness. I say this because I always play some of his music on that day and it instantly brightens my mood, just as it does the other 364 days of the year (the same goes for George's music, by the way!). I'll be the first person to tell you that John was far from the saintly figure he's been made out to be by Yoko and the media since he died, but that makes his senseless murder even more tragic. As sad as George's passing was, it was at least somewhat expected given his prior bouts with cancer in the 1990s. John's murder was shocking and no one could have predicted it in their wildest dreams. What makes it ultimately tragic is that he had just turned forty and was finally (seemingly) at peace with his life as a musician, husband, and father. He'd repaired his friendship with Paul years before, had always been friends with Ringo, and though he'd been estranged from George since 1974, there's no doubt they still shared a deep bond and enduring friendship. Furthermore, evidence has surfaced since his death that he was planning to finally get back to England to visit his family (he hadn't been back since 1971), his first tour as a solo artist had already been planned for 1981, and he was seriously considering working with the other Beatles again. Whether that last one would've come to actually pass, the world will never know, but it's the mere promise of it potentially happening that makes the thought so tantalizing and ultimately, so tragic.

Anyway, those are my two little tributes to two musicians and men who have had an influence on my life as much as anyone who I've never personally met possibly can. How about those of you who are reading this? Who among the people you admire but have never met, whether they be musicians, athletes, actors, etc, has influenced your life in a positive way? How have they done so? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

(DISCLAIMER: I did not make the above photos, nor do I know who did...I found them while trawling across the Internet over the past few weeks. As such, I do not claim them for my own nor do I intend to slight whoever did make them by not acknowledging them...I simply don't know who did!)

A Little Quote

In reviewing the new Kinks biography, it was interesting to me, as it always is, to read about the interactions between all of the bands during that golden age of music in 1960s London. This quote by Ray Davies regarding when The Kinks opened for The Beatles in 1964 made me laugh out loud, so I thought I'd share:

"Paul McCartney was the most competitive person I've ever met. John Lennon wasn't. He just thought everyone else was shit."

In light of yesterday being the 33rd anniversary of John's murder, I thought it'd be nice to share something that summed up the essence of John's belief in himself and his band at that moment (later on, he became a big Kinks fan himself).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles Day By Day: The Sixties As They Happened

The Beatles and the 1960s are two things that are intimately intertwined; one cannot talk about one without the other. Along that line of thinking, it's an exercise in futility to try and separate out which influenced which more: did the Beatles have a bigger influence on the 1960s, or did the 1960s (as a decade) have a bigger influence on the Beatles? While there is probably no way to solve this interesting mind exercise conclusively, the almost symbiotic relationship between the two cannot be understated. There have been many books trying to take a scholarly approach to this, most notably Ian MacDonald's excellent and essential "Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the 1960s." This new book by Terry Burrows, "The Beatles Day By Day: The Sixties As They Happened," does not try to take such a scholarly approach. Rather, it attempts to combine the diary format of Mark Lewisohn's seminal "The Complete Beatles Chronicle" and a lighter cultural analysis into an attractive, easy-to-read, and informative book.

***Special thanks to Sarmistha at Chartwell Books for sending me a review copy of this book!***

The book is laid out similarly to Lewisohn's aforementioned book: it's split into eras, which roughly coincide with each year of the 1960s and the Beatles albums released in that year, although there is a bit of bleed over (ie the entry for Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour spill over into early 1968, and the White Album section doesn't start until May 1968 when the recording sessions for that album began in earnest).  Within each section, key dates and events are highlighted...at just shy of 200 pages, this book doesn't attempt to be as exhaustive as Lewisohn's book, which literally lists what the band were doing on every day of every year throughout their career. Rather, this book takes the high profile dates and tries to present them in the broader context of the decade. Concurrent with this are inset boxes on the side of each page that highlight a particular cultural event or figure relevant to that part of the 1960s. These include anything from the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, to Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, to Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, and so on. By this method, the author is trying to place what's happening in the Beatles' lives in wider perspective with the goings-on of the decade as a whole.

The book is laid out in a nice, easy to read layout with each entry not taking up more than a small paragraph, typically between three and seven sentences per entry. There are a lot of very nice pictures throughout the book, most of which have been seen before but several that were new, at least to me. These pictures, while predominantly of the Beatles, also include full images of relevant sixties figures, from The Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin, Howard Wilson to Queen Elizabeth, etc.

As for the content itself, while it's an enjoyable book to read front-to-back, it's also easy to choose a particular time of interest during the 60s and just read about that. Since it's not as exhaustive as Lewisohn's diary of the Beatles, most hardcore Beatles fans like myself will find little, if any, new information in this book. However, for a younger or newer fan, or one who is just not as concerned with all of the minutiae of the band, this book will be of interest and will also be quite informative. As for my only really major complaint with the book, it is part of a troubling trend I've noticed lately with new books (for instance, see my review of The Beatles in 100 Objects): TYPOS! And lots of them, at that! In some cases, it's only a letter or two that is incorrect (such as "Dob Dylan" instead of "Bob Dylan"). In most cases, however, it is incorrect information: in one instance, in the section detailing 1965, a picture of John, Ringo, and their wives which was clearly taken in 1965 (based on their hair and outfits), the picture is captioned as being from 1967! In another case, an entry in late 1968 refers back to the Lady Madonna single as being released in February 1969, when it was of course February 1968. Ringo is even having been mentioned in the 1962 section as having "joined the band in spring 1962" when it was actually in late summer (August) 1962. These are not errors that I believe the author or editor were simply wrong about, as these facts are easily and readily available and known to any Beatles fan with more than a passing interest in the band. I put these down as simply sloppy editing and proofreading, and are my major grip with an otherwise attractive and enjoyable, if lightweight, book. This isn't an essential book for a diehard fan, but at the same time I'm happy to have it on my bookshelf and I do think it will be a great starting point for my children (who are already big fans of the Beatles' music and are starting to get interested in the band) to learn more about them...a sort of gateway book, if you will, an entry to learning more behind the band beyond the music.


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Rock and Roll Christmas Songs

Christmas is fast approaching, and with it are the at-first pleasant, and soon-to-be annoying strains of Christmas music on the radio and playing over the speakers just about everywhere you go. And when I complain about annoying songs, I'm not talking about traditional tunes, but the incessantly played same ten or so songs that get done to death every year. You know which ones I'm talking about: "Last Christmas," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "All I Want for Christmas is You," and so on.

Well, enough of those, I say! I say let's listen instead to some Christmas ditties from some of the best musicians and bands of all time. Below is the Christmas playlist *I* want to hear during the lead-up to Christmas Day. Have a listen to these and see if you agree...

The Beatles recorded Christmas singles for their official fan club every year from 1963 to 1969. These included spoken messages, jokes, and skits. This song from 1967 was their only legitimate Christmas composition, and while it's a bit repetitive, it's also a lot of fun. Every year I listen to all of their Christmas singles in order and it's a great way to kick off the season!

Leave it to The Kinks to offer up a hilarious story-song about Father Christmas, accosted by kids threatening "Father Christmas, gives us your money!" The opening lines alone are worth the price of admission: "What I was small I believed in Santa Claus, though I knew it was my dad." Classic Ray Davies writing, this one.

Next up is John Lennon's Christmas song from 1971. While it's now a radio staple this time of year, it wasn't an instant hit upon its release. While the anti-war aspect of the lyrics dates it slightly, apart from the presence of Yoko Ono, it's a fine song.

Not to be outdone by his former songwriting partner and lifelong friend, Paul McCartney released an original Christmas song in 1979. While it's a bit chintzy, it's also perfect for this time of year and is always nice to hear around the holiday.

Eels' song is quirky and enjoyable, just like most of their output, and only Mark Everett could write a song with a great title like that and not have it come off any better.

While The Who's "Christmas" is more a song fitting into the narrative of the rock opera from whence it came (Tommy) as opposed to a dedicated song about the holiday, it still is quite atmospheric, lyrically, especially in its descriptions of children's anticipations on Christmas morning. Plus, it's just a fantastic song.

At the end of 1992, Blur gave away a very limited number (only 500 pressed) vinyl single of this traditional English Christmas song. Beyond its physical rarity, it's unique in that all four members of the band take a turn singing a verse, which has never happened again in their career.

Jethro Tull got into the act in the early 1970s with this Christmas song, with their typical blend of British folk and rock into a song with a fitting mood.

Finally, Elvis' classic "Blue Christmas." Because even though you hear this song playing over the mall speakers every December, admit it, you love this song. Hey, it's the King, after all!

Those are my choices...what are yours?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Two Guitar Legends, Two New Books

I received copies of these two books over the weekend; biographies of two of the greatest guitar players of all time (and two favorites of mine), Johnny Winter and Jimmy Page. The Johnny Winter book is his authorized biography...he was involved with the author and shared all he knew with her. The Page bio is unauthorized but still looks to be rather interesting. 
I'll be reading and reviewing these books as I make my way through the book queue, so if you're fans of either of these two, stay tuned!

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 35

Picking up where I left off before the Thanksgiving holiday...

The Kinks - At the BBC
Derek and the Dominos - Civic Center, Santa Monica, CA 11/20/70 (early show)
Derek and the Dominos - Civic Center, Santa Monica, CA 11/20/70 (late show)
Genesis - Civic Plaza Assembly Hall, Phoenix, AZ 1/28/75
Dream Theater - Cleaning Out the Closet
Rush - Clockwork Angels
The Rolling Stones - Cobo Hall, Detroit, MI 7/28/75

First, a bit out of order since I got something new: The Kinks BBC set is a massive 5CD set with all of the BBC sessions available in their vaults. It's absolutely fantastic and essential listening for any Kinks fan. It includes two great concert they recorded for the BBC, one from 1974 and one from 1977. Two Derek and the Dominos shows from their only US tour are next, and these feature Delaney Bramlett on rhythm/slide guitar. While at times he gets in the way of Clapton's soloing with his aimless noodling, and he clutters Clapton and Whitlock's harmonies with his own rambling, overall these are fun shows to listen to and show Clapton at his peak, playing with a fire he hasn't exhibited since. A Genesis show from their final tour with Peter Gabriel, performing the complete "Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" concept album is fantastic and the pristine sound quality really brings it to life. Wrapping up this batch are a couple of prog rock giants: Dream Theater's 1999 fan club release, which was a compilation of studio leftovers and B-sides. All of the songs are really nice, especially Raise the Knife...why this was left off of "Falling Into Infinity" is a mystery. Rush's most recent album is one of the strongest of their entire forty year career, and has them at the most intense, creative, and heaviest, perhaps ever. Finally, a Stones show from their 1975 (the first with Ron Wood, who was simply a fill-in guitarist for the recently departed Mick Taylor) finishes off this batch. It's a solid show from an excellent tour, although Billy Preston as the touring keyboard player (complete with a couple of solo spots) is not my favorite.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: God Save the Kinks

It's a generally accepted truth that the greatest British bands to come out of the 1960s were The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and The Kinks. However, while The Beatles are considered the greatest band of all time and The Who and the Stones are always listed as some of the top bands of all time, the Kinks have always been the red-headed stepchild of the bunch.  What I mean by this is in the sense that, even though they are generally acknowledged to have created some of the best singles and albums of the 1960s and are mentioned by numerous bands from the 1980s, 90s, and today as a major influence, they are often left out of the conversation when it comes to the most influential and legendary of all 1960s bands.

For anyone who is unfamiliar, at the core of the Kinks' story is the love/hate relationship between the only two constants throughout the band's entire career, the Davies brothers. Ray Davies (songwriting/lead vocals/rhythm guitar) is rightly hailed as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation, and I personally place him on my "Mt. Rushmore" of great songwriters, alongside John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and Pete Townshend. His younger brother Dave (lead guitar/vocals/occasional songwriting) was an integral part of the equation for the Kinks, both musically and in terms of his attitude and approach to the band, both onstage and off. However, while Ray and Dave, as the youngest two children (and only sons) of the eight children their parents had, shared an obvious closeness and bond as brothers, there was also a huge gulf between them in terms of personality and approach to music, life, and interactions with others (for instance, Ray was incredibly introverted and self-centered, while Dave was very social and generous); this is the overwhelming crux of the Kinks' story as told in this new biography of the band.

***Special thanks to Amanda at Aurum Press for sending me a review copy of this book!***

God Save the Kinks is a brand new biography on The Kinks, written by Rob Jovanovic. It purports to be the definitive biography and has as its selling points new interviews that the author has conducted with many people in and around the band throughout their history, including founding member Mick Avory, longtime members John Gosling and John Dalton, the brother of founding bass player Pete Quaife, David Quaife, as well as the band's managers, backing singers, press agents, tour managers, studio engineers, and so on. The book is structured traditionally and each chapter covers a specific year/mini-era of the band's career in chronological order. The entire book is bookended with a synopsis of the drama around Ray Davies' performance during the 2012 London Summer Olympic games, where he had finally come full circle as a British national treasure. It's written in a clear and concise manner and is easy to read, and at quite a rapid clip at that.

Starting with the birth of the Davies brothers and their childhood, the author details the formation of the band through its many early incarnations and names before the classic founding Kinks line-up of Ray and Dave, Pete Quaife, and Mick Avory was settled upon in 1964. Jovanovic does a nice job throughout the book showing his enthusiasm for the band while still maintaining some balance when it comes to detailing not only their successes, but also their failures and more unsavory behaviors. As a fellow Kinks fanatic myself, it made the book more enjoyable to read knowing that the author himself understood just what this band was all about beyond the just the great music.

While reading this book, what struck me most was just how much struggle the band endured almost from the beginning of their entire career; it was almost ridiculous how hard everything came for them!  The author does a nice job discussing all of the various travails, such as the band nearly getting dropped from their first record company (Pye) until their third single, the seminal "You Really Got Me," was finally the first hit they had been banking on. He also discusses their troubled early tours, including their disastrous 1965 US tour, which for some inexplicable reason that is still not understood to this day, resulted in the Kinks being banned from live performances in America until late 1969. This career-crippling ban had the effect of spurring Ray Davies to write the best albums and songs of his career and encompassed the Kinks' run of near-flawless albums, beginning with 1966's "Face to Face" and ending with 1972's "Everybody's In Showbiz."  Once the US ban was lifted, the band literally started from the bottom of the ladder again and began the long, difficult process of touring in the USA throughout the 1970s until they finally achieved massive critical and commercial success in America throughout the late 1970s and into the mid-1980s. Conversely, from the early 1970s onward, they were for all intents and purposes completely ignored in the UK beyond their hardcore fans. Jovanovic does a great job, in my opinion, really bringing this dichotomy into focus, as it was something I had some idea about, but not nearly to the extent that it evidently was true.

While there were no bombshell revelations in this book, there were a lot of smaller ones that were new to me. For instance, when Ray Davies was unsure of his singing and wanted the band to have a lead singer, a young Rod Stewart filled that role for a short time pre-1964, including playing a gig with them!  Beyond that, the author does a very nice job tying all the various bits of Kinks lore and legend into a more cohesive narrative, letting each piece of information make sense in its proper context as it fits into their history. I will say that one huge thing that I did realize when reading this book that I'd never realized before is just how troubled and difficult Ray Davies was/is. While he's long been one of my favorite songwriters, I had never known the extent of just how tortured he was, both emotionally and musically. I'd read of his eccentricities and the various clashes he'd had with his brother and other bandmates, but until I read this book, I hadn't realized just how miserable he could really be. While this obviously led to some great music, and it can't be denied that the underlying tension and simmering emotion between the Davies brothers and the rest of the band are responsible for much of the unique magic of the Kinks' music, it's also thrown into much clearer relief after reading this book how this resulted in ultimately tearing the band apart, bit by bit, as early as 1969. After reading through the entire book, you realize that it's even more remarkable that the band lasted as long as they did, from 1964 until 1996! Finally, reading about the rift between the two brothers and where it stands in the present day is actually quite saddening.  Since the mid-to-late 1990s, the only thing that has brought them together are their various health scares, and apart from corresponding via email, they currently have little to no contact with each other.

As a final aside, it was interesting for me, as a massive Beatles fan (obviously), just how much impact they had on nearly EVERYTHING in the 1960s, including their contemporaries. This goes beyond the Kinks opening for the Beatles in 1964 and John Lennon becoming a devoted Kinks fan; nearly everything in the music business during that decade was either measured against the Beatles, modeled on them, or designed to emulate or one-up them. It was a fascinating thread that ran throughout the portion of the book that covered the 1960s, and to read about how Ray was baited into saying something unflattering about John on the very day of his murder in 1980 (before he'd seen it reported in the UK press) was quite upsetting, especially reading after about how upset Ray was upon finally hearing the news.

Perhaps a minor criticism I have of the book, beyond a few scattered typos here and there (and one GLARING error that claims the Beatles never toured Australia while the Kinks did, which is wrong...the Beatles toured there in 1964 a full year before the Kinks did!), is that it doesn't dig down below the surface quite as much as I would've liked as a massive fan of the band. While the author does a nice job augmenting the narrative with very informative and effective interviews with many of the main players, I would've liked him to have gotten into even more detail when it came to the music and the intra-band issues. At just shy of 300 pages (not counting the footnotes, index, discography, and bibliography, which bring the total page count up to around 330 pages), the book seems a bit short; 300 pages doesn't seem like enough to chronicle the entire 32-year career of one of the greatest bands of all time. Still, it doesn't take away from the overall enjoyment of the book, and I can safely say that, as it stands right now, this is *the* definitive biography of The Kinks, at least of all of the books on them that I've read...and that includes the memoirs of both Ray and Dave Davies!

MY RATING: 8/10 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving

Today is the Thanksgiving holiday here in the USA and I'd like to use this post to wish everyone who is celebrating today a very Happy Thanksgiving! 
For me as a lifelong New Englander, Thanksgiving comes at the time when autumn bleeds into winter, when the weather is cold, the days are short, the trees are bare, and the smells of pumpkins, apples, and spices fill the air. Our family's meal is always a mix of traditional Thanksgiving fare (turkey, stuffing, squash, etc) and our Greek food (spanikopita, tiropita, kefthethes, etc) and a time to truly eat, drink, and be merry...and also watch football! 

It's a day to reflect on what you have and how thankful you should be with it. Personally, I'm forever grateful to God for my wife, our four kids, our family, our friends, our health, and the wonderful food we're able to enjoy together on this special day. I'm also ever thankful that I am an American and that I live in this great country with all of its freedoms and opportunities (although it gets harder and harder to feel this way as the years pass, but that's for another, future post…). 

I hope everyone reading this who is celebrating Thanksgiving today is able to enjoy the day and be thankful for what they've got. Remember, it's not about (only) material things...it's about the people in your life and the other things that are (often) more important. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 34

Loads of albums from the week heading into the Thanksgiving holiday!

Blur - Charmless Man
Big Brother and the Holding Company - Cheap Thrills
Blur - Chemical World
Spacehog - The Chinese Album
The Dukes of Stratosphear - Chips From the Chocolate Fireball
Paul McCartney - Choba B CCCP
R.E.M. - Chronic Town
Frank Zappa - Chunga's Revenge
The Who - Civic Arena, Long Beach, CA 12/10/71
The Rolling Stones - Civic Center, Pittsburgh, PA 7/22/72
Cream -  Civic Auditorium, San Jose, CA 5/25/68

Two Blur singles kick things off, and while Charmless Man has decent B-sides, Chemical World has some B-sides that are excellent and arguably as strong as album tracks of the era (most notably Young & Lovely, My Ark, and Es Schmect). The first great Janis Joplin album, with Big Brother and the Holding Company, is a (mostly) live album mixed to sound almost like a studio record, and is a perfect slice of 1967/68 San Francisco hard rock, and includes the classic "Piece of My Heart" and "Ball and Chain" among other gems. Spacehog's second album is a much more experimental and subdued affair than their debut but is an overlooked album that has some excellent cuts, especially "Carry On," "2nd Avenue," and "Mungo City." The Dukes were XTC's alter-ego and their homage to 1960s psychedelia, and is so good that sometimes you have to remind yourself that you're listening to music made in the mid-1980s and not the mid-1960s! Paul's first album of covers was initially a USSR-only release (hence the title, which translates to "Back in the USSR," of course) and a way to revitalize his flagging spirits in the wake of two lackluster albums in the 1980s ("Give My Regards to Broad Street" and "Press to Play"). It's quite good and would pave the way for his comeback with 1989's "Flowers In the Dirt." R.E.M.'s debut EP is pure power-pop perfection and still sounds as fresh and exciting as it did in 1982. Zappa's 1970 album is the first in his string of classic albums where he perfectly blended his experimental, social comment, and hard rock threads into more accessible music. It's worth the price of admission alone for the guitar solo on Transylvania Boogie and the beauty of the closing Sharleena. This batch of albums closes with a trio of shows from Civic-named arenas: a legendary Who gig from their incredible 1971 US tour (this is one of the best gigs on the whole tour), a great Stones gig from their legendary and over-the-top 1972 US tour, and a great show from Cream's penultimate tour of the US in 1968.

Monday, November 25, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door

While everyone knows who the Beatles were and can rifle off their names with ease, not many people know who the four guys were behind the band. In particular, while John Lennon and Paul McCartney are the most famous and well-known of the four, by virtue of their unmatchable output as the songwriters for 95% of the band's output, as well as the primary lead vocalists, and Ringo Starr is one of the most influential drummers of all time, as well as a friend to all, fellow musicians and actors alike, there has always been one Beatle who has been apart from the other three both in terms of his view on their legacy and how well the public knows about him. That Beatle is, of course, George Harrison, and quite obviously, he is the subject of this excellent new biography by author Graeme Thomson.

***I'd like to give special thanks to Charlie at Midas PR and Omnibus Press for sending me a review copy of this book!***

To most fans, casual or hardcore, George was the quietest of the Beatles, publicly (but as we all know, he was *not* "The Quiet Beatle," that moniker being incorrectly bestowed on him by a clueless press early on that unfortunately stuck with him his entire life). More than that, however, he was certainly the most private and guarded of all four, and also the most complex. Even more so than John Lennon, who certainly had his issues, George was the most complicated, conflicted, and deepest of all Beatles; he was someone who was ambivalent if not downright resentful of his fame, yet happy to partake in the riches he accumulated because of it, and someone who was looking for a higher spiritual path beyond the mortal world, alternately preaching that we should all resist earthly temptations while at the same time he succumbed to many of them himself (women, drugs, alcohol, money, possessions, etc). However, in order to understand how George got to be the way he was when he tragically passed away from cancer at the all-too-young age of 58 in 2001, Graeme Thomson endeavors to dig beneath the layers and, to use the title of one of George's post-Beatles songs, go "behind the locked door" (hence the book's title) to chronicle just who George Harrison was and why he was that way.

The book starts with a prologue consisting of a snapshot of George's mega-successful Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and reminiscences on the event from fellow musicians and friends, most notably Ravi Shankar, who was not only George's sitar instructor but his lifelong friend and spiritual advisor. It's a nice bit of foreshadowing for the remainder of the book, in which it truthfully and in bittersweet fashion demonstrates how during that year, only one year after the break-up of The Beatles, George had hit his commercial and critical peak and would spend the rest of his career and life in slow, steady, and (mostly) irreversible decline, at least in musical terms. 

(Before I continue, I should mention that in between chapters there are little 1-2 page interludes, all titled "Be Here Now," (after one of George's songs) that set up each subsequent chapter with a snapshot of a certain forthcoming event in his life. I found these to be very clever and enjoyable, and I commend the author for using this device to great effect). 

Once the book properly starts, we are led chronologically through George's life, from birth and his youth in Liverpool to, of course, his meetings with Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and the formation of The Beatles. I won't get into all of the Beatles' history in this review, and Thomson does a good job assuming that most readers of his book are familiar enough with it that he doesn't dwell on band details. Rather, he spends more time focusing on George's life, thoughts, and growth during the most famous part of his life. We learn that as soon as the touring stopped in 1966, George no longer considered himself a Beatle, that he has very little fondness for the "Sgt. Pepper" album (either during the sessions or subsequently), and that he was actually completely on board with Paul's concept for the ill-fated "Get Back" project until the atmosphere in rehearsals became too much (and contrary to conventional wisdom, most of his beef was with John and Yoko, not Paul). As with the rest of the book, there are no great revelations of previously unknown details, but rather little bits of new information that help flesh out what we all knew (or thought we knew) about George. While many quotes and citations will be instantly recognizable to most Beatles fanatics (myself included), they are augmented by many new interviews the author conducted for this book, and the book never feels like a simple rehash of magazine articles and interviews (contrast this with the newest Blur biography, which I reviewed here and criticized for this very reason, among others).

The first hundred pages or so take us up to the end of the Beatles. After that, George's solo career and eventual death in 2001 fill out the rest of the book. As the years go by and he hits his commercial and critical peak in 1971 (although his 1973 album "Living in the Material World" is arguably as good as 1970's "All Things Must Pass"), what becomes more striking to the reader is how George was not really cut out for fame. A recurring theme throughout his whole life is the complicated dichotomy between his devout spirituality and shunning of the material world, and his indulgences in that very world (mainly women, money, fast cars, and houses) and all the riches fame bestowed upon him. Since his first visit to India in 1966, George was on an increasingly spiritual path, questing toward enlightenment and understanding, mainly through Eastern religions and his love affair with all things Indian. While this was certainly admirable, at the same time he became increasingly intolerant of anyone else in his orbit, be it his first wife Pattie, his fellow Beatles, family, friends, musicians, the press, or his fans if they failed to understand just what it was that he was going on about. There is no clearer example of this attitude of his than his ill-fated 1974 US Tour, where he seemingly purposely set out to destroy as much of the Beatles myth as he could by changing lyrics to the few Beatles songs he played, forced Indian music down the crowd's throat whether they wanted it or not*, and showed a general disdain for the fans who wanted to hear more George and less of his bandmates (many of whom, like Billy Preston, took solo spots at various points during the shows). Snide onstage comments to the audience and press didn't help, either.

*(While I personally do enjoy some Indian music and have always admired his relationship with and loyalty to Ravi Shankar, it can't be denied that, as the first Beatle to tour the US since 1966, the vast majority of fans understandably wanted to hear George play his music, and were not too happy to have to sit through a half-hour set of Indian music before George even took the stage)

As his musical decline continued and he increasingly withdrew from the music industry, his Friar Park mansion became more of a fortress in which he holed himself up in more and more, to the detriment of his first marriage, his career, and many friendships. The author does a good job showing just how out of touch with the real world George became in this period. Furthermore, while he increasingly became very bitter toward the outside world, his former bandmates (save Ringo), and those who didn't "get" his ceaseless evangelizing, he always fell back on playing the "Beatle" card to gain favor where most normal people could not, and certainly indulged himself via the vast wealth accumulated from the fame he so endlessly railed against. Eventually, he was able to make peace with himself and his lot in life via his new wife Olivia, son Dhani, and a reconciled relationship with Paul McCartney (he never got back on good terms with John Lennon, remaining estranged from him from 1974 until his tragic murder in 1980). Apart from brief critical rebirths in the late 1980s (his 1987 album "Cloud Nine" and the Traveling Wilburys), George went into semi-retirement apart from the "Beatles Anthology" project in the mid-1990s, (of which he was reluctant to do and only agreed to participate due to financial crises precipitated by his former friend and advisor, Denis O'Brien). However, it is quite enlightening to realize that, regarding the 1999 home invasion attack by a deranged intruder who nearly killed him and his eventual death from cancer in 2001, there was perhaps no one more suited and comfortable with passing from this mortal coil than George Harrison. While it was certainly sad to read of his passing (even though, going into the book, everyone knows that is what will happen), there is also solace and comfort in realizing that he was secure and confident enough in his lifelong spiritual journey and faith such that he died at peace. My one and only minor complaint with this book is that I feel it seemed rushed toward the end. From the "Beatles Anthology" until George's death was a little more than fifty or sixty pages, and it just felt a bit rushed to me. However, given George's attitudes toward his past and life and death, it also is probably appropriately fitting; he made very little fuss over the deaths of loved ones like Brian Epstein, his parents, and John Lennon, choosing to focus on the continuation of their souls leaving their physical bodies and continuing on into another life. He had the same attitude toward his own death, and, wherever his soul now is, probably looks kindly on the author for not making too much of a deal over his passing in this book.

While there weren't a ton of new revelations (some small ones, but not a lot) in this book, it is still one of the best musician biographies I've ever read.  Part of this is down to the author's style, which is eminently readable and enjoyable. Also, he strikes the perfect balance that so many have trouble finding, coming across as a real fan but at the same time writing dispassionately enough that he is fair in his assessments. Thomson is not afraid to point out where George was flawed or to paint him in a negative light when it's warranted. At the same time, he also seems a fan like the rest of us when he describes one of George's many triumphs, whether musical or personal. As an entire piece of work, this book does a fantastic job pulling all of the disparate bits of George's life and personality into a cohesive narrative that paints a more comprehensive picture of the man. While there wasn't a lot I learned (in terms of facts) that I hadn't known beforehand, I feel as though I've learned more about George overall, as both a musician but more importantly, as a human being, because Thomson does an expert job putting everything into the proper context and perspective such that the whole (George Harrison) becomes much greater than the sum of his parts (all of the individual events and facts about him). Additionally, with numerous citations and footnotes, it's clear Thomson did a lot of research for this book, and any reader can be confident that what they're reading is the most accurate chronicle of this very complicated, conflicted, and mysterious musician and man.

In concluding, "George Harrison: Behind the Locked Door" is a fantastic biography of the most enigmatic, complicated, and misunderstood member of the most famous band in the history of music. Readable, engaging, enjoyable, interesting, and a book to go back to and read periodically...these are all my descriptions of this book, and I cannot recommend it enough.

MY RATING: 9.5/10