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'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

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 33

"C" albums heading into the weekend...

Dream Theater - A Change of Seasons
Paul McCartney - Chaos and Creation in the Back Yard
The Charlatans - The Charlatans
The Who - Charlton Football Ground, London 5/18/74
The Who - Charlton Football Ground, London 5/31/76

Dream Theater's standalone 1995 EP contains the classic epic title track, which is one of their crowning achievements and is essential listening for any prog rock fan. The rest of the EP is taken up with tracks from a covers-night concert they did that are inessential but good fun. Paul's 2005 album is one of his greatest achievements, and is Paul at his most reflective and melancholy. That being said, it's full of his effortless and trademark melodic touch and has an aching yet ultimately uplifting quality to it, both musically and lyrically, that make is one of his finest efforts. The Charlatans' self-titled album, their final complete record with their intact original line-up (the follow-up album, "Tellin' Stories," was marred by tragedy when keyboard player Rob Collins was killed in a car accident midway through recording) is also one of their best and is probably my favorite album of theirs. It perfectly combines their swirling psychedelia with hard driving British rock. Wrapping up my listening heading into the weekend are a pair of Who concerts at Charlton Football Ground, two years apart. The '74 show is the more well-known one (by virtue mainly of the entire show being filmed) although they were a bit worse for wear (ie Pete was drunk) and turn in a sloppy and shambolic, although ultimately excellent show. The '76 show is a better performance and is the world record holder for the loudest rock concert of all time.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 32

Continuing on...

Johnny Winter - Captured Live!
Caravan - Caravan
Rush - Caress of Steel
Ride - Carnival of Light
Led Zeppelin - Celebration Day
...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead - The Century of Self

Johnny Winter's 1976 live album is one of the greatest live albums of all time; high-octane blues and rock with his virtuosic playing, backed by a smoking band. I remember listening to this on my dad's vinyl as a kid and it still packs the same punch. Caravan's debut album is a great slice of late-1960s psychedelic prog and has its fair share of the band's quirky humor contained in some great songs. Rush's third album sees them tread water, in a way, bridging the high-powered early rumblings of their prog leanings on previous album "Fly By Night" and their full-blown ascension to superstars in the follow-up album, "2112." While this album didn't do as well as either of them, it's still a great, albeit transitional, album, and has their first two long epic songs, "The Necromancer" and "The Fountain of Lamneth." Ride's third album is one of my favorite of theirs, being the perfect combination of their earlier shoegazing sound and quintessential 1980s/90s British jangly power-pop. The Zeppelin album is their live set from 2007 and is fantastic. Jason Bonham is nearly indistinguishable from his father and the band are tight and play with a real fire that puts many modern bands to shame. Finally, Trail of Dead's sadly overlooked album from 2009 is absolutely fantastic. Perhaps I only say this as a massive longtime fan of the band, but it's got all of the classic Trail of Dead elements: noise, melodies, bombast, prog-rock leanings, etc that I love about them.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Day by Day, Anyday Now: Four New Books I'll Be Reviewing Soon

I'm awaiting a copy of several new books to review. The first is "The Beatles Day By Day: The Sixties As They Happened" by Terry Burrows. I'm looking forward to reading and reviewing this, as it seems to be a new twist on the day-by-day diary book in that it places the events in the greater context of what was going on in the 1960s. Should be interesting!

The second book is Tony Fletcher's excellent extensive biography on R.E.M., "Perfect Circle." They've long been a favorite band of mine and other than the older (and excellent) book "It Crawled From the South," there really haven't been any good books on them. Fletcher has had a long association with the band and also had the personal input of the members of the band, so this looks to be the excellent and definitive word on this quintessentially American legendary band.

The third book is "Magical Mystery Tours: My Life With the Beatles" by Tony Bramwell. Tony was a childhood friend of George Harrison's and worked for Brian Epstein and the Beatles all through the 1960s. Tony has agreed to an interview with me after I've reviewed his book, so stay tuned here for that...I'm very excited about this!

Lastly is a work of "faction" (fact and fiction, as coined by the author) called "Into the Sky with Diamonds" by Ron Grelsamer, whom I know as a fellow forum member on the excellent Beatles Bible Fab Forum ( Ron was kind enough to contact me and offer to send a copy of the book to me to read and review, and it looks to present a different twist on its look at the 1960s. I'm quite interested and intrigued to read it!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 31

Finally into the "C" albums! 

Rory Gallagher - Calling Card
The Beatles - Candlestick Park, San Francisco 8/29/66
Husker Du - Candy Apple Grey
Steely Dan - Can't Buy a Thrill
The Who - Capital Centre, Landover, MD 12/6/73
Led Zeppelin - Capital Centre, Landover, MD 5/26/77
Led Zeppelin - Capital Centre, Landover, MD 5/28/77

Opening up the "C's" is what may be my favorite Rory album of's just chock full of great songwriting and playing, and includes some of his best songs such as the title track, "Do You Read Me," and "Jack Knife Beat." The Beatles' concert is their last-ever concert (apart from 1969's rooftop gig) and is actually a pretty decent show, although I still maintain that "Paperback Writer" never really worked for them in a live setting. Husker Du's major label debut after several seminal albums on indie labels is excellent...they've perfectly married their noisy hardcore/punk sound to the more melodic bent that was always bubbling below the surface. Steely Dan's debut album is almost two albums in one: those written and sung by eventual sole front man Donald Fagen, and those by the other fellow who would leave after this album. It's amazing how ahead of its time this record sounds, especially classics like "Do It Again," "Change of the Guard," and "Reelin' In the Years." Finally, a trio of shows from the same venue in Landover, Maryland. First, the Who's final show from their 1973 "Quadrophenia" tour...excellent and high voltage playing from the band at the end of what was a troublesome tour behind my favorite album of theirs (and one of my favorite albums by anyone, EVER). Wrapping up this batch are the 2nd and 3rd nights out of 4 nights Led Zeppelin played at this venue on the 1st leg of their 1977 US tour. Excellent shows, although typical of this tour with both exemplary and sloppy/lazy playing from Jimmy Page, who at this point was so under the influence of heroin that it really affected his performance from song to song, and sometimes within the song itself! Robert Plant's voice is also noticeably weaker in the second show, although he manages to recover after he warms up.  The band in general sound a bit sluggish in the second show when compared to the first.  All in all, however, these are two of the better shows from the 1977 tour.


A running joke nearly my whole life has been that any time there's a band I'm listening to, someone says to me "gee, I bet they're British, right?" Hey...I can't help it! While I'm a proud and patriotic American, I cannot deny that the vast bulk of my listening tastes are musicians that hail from the UK. While not as much with books, TV, and film, I still do enjoy a lot of British books, shows, and movies. It's led me over the years to try and reflect on why this is the case...I've been to England three times in my life (1993, 1999, 2003) and thoroughly enjoyed every visit, but I don't think it's down to those travels since I was already an Anglophile before the first one.

As anyone who knows me personally or has read my writings here on this site or elsewhere, I'm a huge music fan (and I realize that's probably the understatement of the century). I'm a lover of jazz, blues, classical, and of course, rock music. And my tastes as far as rock music go run the gamut from classic rock to heavy metal to progressive, folk, indie, alternative, BritPop, and so on. Part of it is what I grew up listening to predominantly: classic rock (my parents' records) and UK indie/US alternative (from the 1980s and 90s, when I grew up). Being a musician myself has led me to be more open-minded and adventurous (to a point) with what I'll add to my listening palette.

But a funny thing happened, and this has stuck in my mind even though it was a seemingly unremarkable incident. Around 1999, I was a junior in college and was working in the laboratory during the summers to get experience and earn money (for those who don't know, I am a chemist). I had just bought some new CDs, and the one I put into the CD player in the lab (we chemists love to listen to music while we work) was the newest album from Supergrass. A graduate student who was in my group at the time said "let me guess, are they British?" When I asked him why he asked, he mentioned that it seemed EVERYTHING I played in the lab (The Smiths, Blur, Mansun, The Beatles, Suede, The Who, etc) was British so he just assumed. And that got me thinking, was he right?

A quick list off the top of my head of some of my favorite bands confirms it:

The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Mansun, Suede, Blur, Hendrix (I consider him British since he had to go over there to get famous and had British bandmates for most of that time, as well as basing himself out of London), Oasis, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Franz Ferdinand, Spacehog, Supergrass, The Bluetones, Radiohead, Beta Band, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, and so on. And while I'm a big fan of many American bands (Black Crowes, REM, Smashing Pumpkins, Soundgarden, Allman Brothers, Rush, Spock's Beard, Dream Theater, etc) they are dwarfed in number by the amount of British bands in my musical pantheon. Why is this?

To encapsulate it in not-too-long-of-a-paragraph, I just like the "British sound" better. In my view, British bands, starting in the 1960s, created the perfect blend of American and British sounds and made it into a wholly new and original sound.  For some strange reason during the early 1960s, Americans had little or no interest in their own homegrown jazz and blues music, whereas the British, and especially the youngsters who would eventually emerge in the 1960s and beyond in all of those legendary bands, had an almost insatiable appetite for it. It took The Beatles and the subsequent "British Invasion" of rock bands in the early-to-mid 1960s to expose and influence American audiences to their own homegrown sounds. Beyond that, I've always felt as though British bands, even to the present day, have a very distinctive and original sound that amalgamates so many different influences, from rock, blues, and jazz to classical, British music hall, folk, and country. Also, the production of British records and the characteristic sound they all have is in marked (at least to my ears and a lifetime of listening) different from American records. Again, there are MANY American bands I am a huge fan of, but I do think, on balance, that the British are the are the kings in this field.

At the risk of this becoming too much of a music-centric post (which, of course, on this blog is such a rarity, he says sarcastically), I also want to touch on my enjoyment British TV and film. In general, I tend to not watch a lot of TV and I can count my favorite shows on one hand (within the last several years, only Burn Notice and The Walking Dead are "must-watch" TV for me), but over the course of my life, I've really enjoyed a lot of British comedy, which are still shown on local PBS stations. I grew up as a big Monty Python's Flying Circus fan, first because my parents were fans from its original airing, and later because I grew to enjoy that brand of absurd/farcical humor, which is uniquely British, on my own. Their Monty Python and the Holy Grail movie remains a favorite of mine to this day as well. As for British comedies, I watched whichever was shown on our TV stations, from Keeping Up Appearances and When Time Goes By to Are You Being Served? and Yes Minister and many more. I also was and still am a big fan of British cartoon series like Danger Mouse and Wallace and Gromit, and strange as it was, I remember (mainly for nostalgia purposes), Bananaman, too! More recently, I've enjoyed The Office (UK) and several other British series, made easier now by having them available on Netflix.

Overall, I wouldn't say I prefer British pop culture to American pop culture, but I do think that compared to most Americans it makes up a larger percentage in my life than it does for most. Obviously, it's all down to personal preference and with music, certainly, I *do* prefer British sounds, on balance, to American sounds. Of course, at the end of the day the #1 deciding factor in whether or not I will like it is: IS IT GOOD? And that's something I, or you, should never forget.

Monday, November 18, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Morrissey: Autobiography

One of the most highly anticipated memoirs this year finally became available for all to read in October with the publication of Morrissey's imaginatively titled book, "Autobiography." After a dispute with his publisher, it was released, with some controversy (at least in the media), on the Penguin Classics imprint, with detractors stating that as a new book, it does not deserve to be on such a prestigious imprint. Putting that aside, what heightened the anticipation for this book amongst numerous fans (myself included) was the fact that Morrissey, while at times highly opinionated and outspoken, not to mention endlessly fascinating, is also, thirty years into his career, still an enigma.

***Special thanks to Rosie and Etty at Penguin Books for sending me a review copy of the book!***

The first thing I want to mention is that the book is as quirky as the man behind it. There are no chapters or breaks in the writing. It simply starts on page one and goes. Beyond that, for the first 100 pages or so, there are also very few paragraphs, with the prose just written sentence after sentence. It makes for a bit of a struggle at first, until your eyes and brain get used to Morrissey's style. Once you do, it's fairly easy to work your way through. A second stylistic point I want to make is that Morrissey has a habit of jumping from topic to topic, oftentimes in rather jarring fashion. He may be writing about an incident from his youth in one group of sentences, and in an instant, he's then discussing his favorite records from 1973. Such leaps disrupt any flow that he may have built, although as any fan of Morrissey knows, the quirks come with the territory, whether you like them or not.

The book begins right away with his birth in Manchester in 1959 to Irish immigrant parents, and he spends the first hundred pages or so detailing his life from that day up until his early 20s when he finally meets up with Johnny Marr. Along the way, he goes into excruciating detail to paint a picture of how miserable and filled with hardship his childhood was, especially his schooling. A friend of mine who has also read the book used the term "Dickensian tragedy" to describe how he felt Morrissey was depicting Manchester in the 1960s and 70s, and I think that term is completely appropriate.  Beyond that, however, what is interesting to read is just how extended and close a family Morrissey had growing up. His parents, grandparents, and various cousins, aunts, and uncles all emigrated from Ireland and settled in Manchester, and while he and his sister (who he describes as "having tried to kill me four times" as a small child) did indeed seem to have an existence marked by financial hardship and family tragedy (such as the death at a young age of one of his uncles), they also had the closeness and support that are the typical hallmarks of any immigrant family. He goes to great lengths to point out how his mother has always been there for him, while his father was always emotionally distant and did not nurture him at all (for instance, Morrissey came in fourth place at a school track meet, his best finish to date, yet the only thing his father said to him was "you didn't win").  Additionally, anyone who is a Morrissey fan will know how he has looked back upon his school years, and he spares no expense in words bringing to life just how horrific an experience it was for him. As soon as you read sentences like "she would grow old, and die having never married, smelling of old attics" (describing one of his teachers), there is no doubt as to who's book you're reading.  While I don't doubt that those years in Manchester schools (run by "Manchester ghouls," to quote one of his Smiths lyrics) were indeed bad, I also have to believe that there is some embellishment, although to what degree I of course have no idea. Still, it's hard not to sympathize with the shy, small, introverted boy who has his knuckles wrapped and backside whipped for the most minor of transgressions, and to read about his molestation at the hands of one of his teachers, in however obtuse a fashion as Morrissey describes it, is heartbreaking. What is most striking about these years of his life is how encyclopedic his knowledge is about television and records/singles during his formative years. Interestingly, as anyone who is a fan knows, his tastes do not run through the typical Beatles/Stones/Who/etc gamut. Indeed, apart from the more typical Bowie/T. Rex reference points, his favorite artists from that era range from girl singers (Sandie Shaw, Cilla Black) to obscure/one-hit-wonder singles, culminating with his first obsession, the New York Dolls. Additionally, he becomes an avid reader of (and writer of letters to) the musical papers, most notable Sounds, NME, and Melody Maker.

All of this is, of course, leading up to what is the most interesting and important part of his life, the music he made in The Smiths and later, as a solo artist. From the point in the book where Morrissey first meets Johnny Marr (around page 120 or so), the pace of the book really picks up. Unfortunately, Morrissey chooses to only spend around 60 pages on the entire career of the Smiths and all of the wonderful and legendary music they made, and for most of those pages, he snipes and moans at Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis and the failure of any Smiths records to chart high in the UK. Additionally, while their UK tours are well received, they have an almost Beatlemania-like reception in the USA, yet none of it was reported in the UK; another slight for Moz to gripe about. What was really interesting to me in this bit was how glowingly and complimentary he wrote about his fellow Smiths (Marr, Mike Joyce, Andy Rourke), because as soon as the band broke up (which he details in exasperatingly short shrift), he does nothing but slight them at every opportunity. He even engages in some foreshadowing, describing the "upcoming Joyce lawsuit," which he then rails on about for another 60-70 pages. The description of his solo career is quite interesting, starting right after the Smiths' break-up and chronicling all of the highs (Viva Hate, Your Arsenal, Vauxhall and I) and lows (Kill Uncle, Maladjusted) as well as inter-band struggles. It's exhilarating to read of the scenes of pandemonium that accompanied him across his US tours, and heartbreaking to read of how he lost three of his closest friends to death in a short span in 1993.

Once he gets to the Mike Joyce lawsuit, however, it's just page after page of moaning and sniping and character insults lobbed the way of the other three Smiths as well as the judge, the prosecutors, his defense lawyers, and anyone who was around at the time. While one can certainly debate the merits and eventual outcome of the court case, the undeniable fact is that it is over and done with, and yet nearly twenty years later, Morrissey has still not gotten over it. Also, the contrast between the praise he heaped on his bandmates during the pages dealing with the Smiths years and the scorn he heaped on them during the recounting of the trial is eye-opening. The remainder of the book (roughly the final hundred pages or so) deals with his solo career from that period to the present and all of the trials and tribulations, imagined or otherwise, that Moz went through. Finally, while he seems to have been able to find some happiness with a few partners in the intervening time (a man, a woman, and presently another man he only cryptically names as "Gelato"), Morrissey does not come across ultimately as someone who has ultimately found peace and happiness in his middle age (he is 54 at the present), although I can't shake the feeling that he is so comfortable in his solitude and misery (whether actual or not) that he's okay with it...and perhaps that's his own version of inner peace at this stage of his life. His exhaustive reminisces of the various tours he's undertaken the last decade, and the adulation he's received, seems to validate his self-worth more than anything else. As he says late in the book, he is unable to accept the love of one, but can accept the love of millions (loosely paraphrased).

As far as overall impressions with the book, once your eyes and mind get used to Morrissey's writing style, the book ends up being an enjoyable read.  However, the first fifty pages or so a real struggle to get through because of this. He has a tendency to pepper the text with his own lyrics and song titles; this can oftentimes be quite amusing, but it also comes off as pretentious and gets a bit irritating in other spots. While Morrissey is often self-deprecating and in a humorous way, more often than not it seems he brings a lot of the sorrow on himself; he certainly deserves the "miserable" label he's gotten over the years, but as is seen in this book, he also has done a lot to purposely cultivate that image.  That being said, it cannot be denied that he's very witty and talented with the prose, and anyone who is a fan of his music will go into this book knowing this already; there are many laugh-out-loud moments. Lastly, I think a line from one of Morrissey's own songs, "Girl Least Likely To," sums up the majority of this book: "page after page of sniping rage." One can almost think of this book as character assassination with an autobiography sprinkled in, as opposed to the other way around. Perhaps I'm exaggerating a bit with this, but apart from his own mother, lifelong friend Linder Sterling, and Stephen Street, who all escape unscathed and with praise, barely anyone else he mentions in this book is as lucky. 

I still think, after all these years, that Johnny Rogan's "Morrissey and Marr: The Severed Alliance" remains the definitive Smiths biography (although Tony Fletcher's new Smiths book, "A Light That Never Goes Out" appears as though it is also a worthy candidate). However, if one wants to know the inside story as told from the perspective of one of the main players, especially the most mysterious and complex personality, then this book offers the "horse's mouth" telling of his own history. With the news that Johnny Marr will be releasing his own memoir in the coming years, the story of the Smiths beyond their excellent music doesn't seem to be running out of new angles for the foreseeable future. I can't see myself rereading this book on a regular basis; maybe I'll read it every several years for entertainment, if not informative, purposes. But, if you're a fan of the Smiths and/or Morrissey, you have no choice: you *MUST* read this book.


Friday, November 15, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 30

Finished with the B's and clearing out the week's listening (hey, I had a busy week!).

E - Broken Toy Shop
The Allman Brothers Band - Brothers and Sisters
Chris and Rich Robinson - Brothers of a Feather
Oasis - B-Sides
Radiohead - B-sides
Eels - B-sides and Rarities
Happy Mondays - Bummed
Frank Zappa - Burnt Weeny Sandwich
Gov't Mule - By a Thread
The Black Crowes - By Your Side

Phew, lots to get through! E's second solo album (before he started Eels) is a nice collection of his style of melodic pop songs, although the Eels B-side and rarities compilation I listened to later on is quite weak. A few nice songs, a few interesting ones, and some really bizarre/forgettable ones (mainly remixes). The Allman Brothers Band album is the last one they made with their legendary original line-up (minus Duane Allman, who died the year before, and Berry Oakley, who died midway through the making of this record). It's the last album of theirs I listen to, but it's wonderful. The Robinson brothers' album is a really nice live recording of an acoustic gig they did during the Crowes' hiatus, while the final "B" album, by the Crowes, is a transitional one but has some really solid and soulful songs (including the exquisite Virtue and Vice). The Oasis and Radiohead B-sides compilations have a lot of garbage but a lot of absolute gems, songs that are stronger than many of their respective A-sides and album tracks. The Happy Mondays' second album is their first truly essential record and is just soaked in the drug and rave culture of late 1980s Britain. The Zappa album is rather understated but one I've always really liked. It's mostly instrumental (apart from the opening and closing tracks) and has some great ensemble playing, not to mention some of Zappa's most challenging and interesting compositions of that era in his career. Finally, the Gov't Mule album is excellent, as is typical for them...I don't think they've made an album yet that I haven't really enjoyed. Now, on to the "C" albums!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

A New View For My Reviews

I'm really excited to let everyone know that my reviews can now be seen on the excellent new site, All Music Books. It's a really great site full of reviews of music books, by fans and for fans, and not just rock music books, but every genre. There's lots of great content over there, with more added all the time. I'm excited to be a part of that site and I hope you'll check it out, too. But don't worry, I'll continue to post my reviews (and other content) here as well.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 29

Catching up and clearing out the weekend listening...

David Bowie - Bowie at the Beeb
Rush - Brainwaves (Convention Center, Tuscon, AZ 11/20/78)
Billy Joel - The Bridge
Transatlantic - Bridge Across Forever
Spock's Beard - Brief Nocturnes and Dreamless Sleep
McAlmont and Butler - Bring it Back
Frank Zappa - Broadway the Hard Way

First up is Bowie's BBC collection, which is split between his pre-1970 earlier material, and the material that made him a star (1970-72). An excellent collection. The Rush show is nice and long and has great sound, although it was quite rowdy, with the band and promoter threatening to end the show early on if the crowd didn't settle down! Billy Joel is someone I've been a big fan of my whole life but am sometimes embarrassed to admit to liking! This is his big album from the late 1980s, and is quite good. Next up are a pair of Neal Morse bands...first is Transatlantic's second album, which is simply fantastic and a good primer on what the Beatles might have sounded like were they a prog band. Next is Morse's former band (he was a founding member and principal songwriter), Spock's Beard, and their latest album. It's fantastic, easily their best in year, and even features Neal writing two songs and playing on them (his brother Alan is still in the band). McAlmont and Butler's second and, to date, final album is another excellent collection of British soul-pop and it's a real shame their third album, which they recorded several years back, remains unreleased. Finally, Zappa's second live album from the 1988 tour contains more of his political and humorous songs. Many are dated, being frozen firmly in the 1980s, but overall it's still pretty enjoyable, if not my least favorite of the three (the others being The Best Band You Never Heard In Your Love, which I've already listened to on this MMLT, and Jazz From Hell).

A New, Forthcoming Book for Review

 I'm very excited to be waiting on a review copy of this new book on one of the best bands of all-time, and one of my favorites, The Kinks. I'm working my way through Morrissey's memoir, and after that I have this and the new George Harrison biography next on my list. Stay tuned for my reviews!

Friday, November 8, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles in 100 Objects

Besides their timeless music, the influence of The Beatles stretched, and continues to stretch, beyond music and into fashion, film, and so on. Concurrent with their massive initial success in 1962-64 in the UK and USA was an explosion of merchandising, the likes of which had never been seen before (and is now so commonplace as to be almost passe). In the new book "The Beatles in 100 Objects," noted Beatles memorabilia researcher and writer Brian Southall approaches the history of The Beatles a little differently and tells the story of the band through 100 objects "used, created, and inspired" by them.

***Thank you to Josh at Sterling Press for sending me a review copy of this book!***

The book is laid out in a very organized and pleasing manner, with each two-page spread set up the same way: the left hand page has the title of the object followed by a page-long mini-essay on what it is, it's significance, and any historical details to go along with it. The right hand page has a full-sized photograph of the object. In many cases, the following page spread has a photograph of one or more of the Beatles with said object, putting it into visual context. The author has also organized the objects chronologically, starting early in their careers with, for example, guitars used in the Quarrymen days and moving through the years in order. The bulk of the book is taken up by items from the Beatlemania period of 1962-1966, although several interesting objects from 1966-1970 are certainly also present. The objects themselves range from personal items (George's leather jacket from Hamburg, Paul's Hofner bass, George's first Gretsch guitar, Ringo's Premier drum kit when he first joined the band, etc) to ticket stubs, concert posters and programmes, and record charts. Additionally, there are several interesting pieces of vintage merchandise (a mini Beatles record player, a Beatles harmonica, a Beatles "create-your-own-hairdo" toy, etc). All of these objects are presented in very nice quality color photographs that really help bring them to life. The essays themselves that accompany each item are interesting and informative, even if they don't contain any new information for diehard Beatles fans, such as myself. 

However, this discussion on the essays leads me to the one major criticism I have of this book: typos. Lots and lots of typos.

These range from those that could result simply from slipping through the editorial cracks, such as:
- "Tom Ten Club" instead of "Top Ten Club"
- "win" instead of "in"
- "were" instead of "where"
- "Fee weeks" instead of "few weeks"
 After a while, I gave up keeping track of all of the typos.

Some mistakes are factually inaccurate, such as claiming that the Beatles final live appearance in Liverpool was in December 1964 when it was really in 1965. And some are simply embarrassing, such as calling Tony Sheridan "Mike Sheridan," especially since this error occurs one paragraph after he's correctly called Tony! This same error is repeated with Peter Blake, who is called "Peter Black" only one paragraph prior. The final one may be the worst of all: when explaining one of the objects, which is a postcard that Ringo sent to a friend when they were on tour supporting Little Richard, the author describes what is written and makes the bizarre claim that Ringo was being "cheeky" and called Little Richard "fat." Not only does this make no sense, but if one reads the postcard on the opposite page, even given the scribbled handwriting, one can conclude from context that Ringo wrote "Little Richard is fab," not fat.  Besides making infinitely more sense than randomly calling him "fat" within the context of the postcard, it should be common knowledge, especially to the author who has worked on projects concerning the *Fab* Four before, that this was a word in common use at the time, especially among the band themselves. While typos and the odd bit of specialized trivia can be (somewhat) excused, this "fab/fat" error is on the author. Perhaps it bothered me more than it should, but there you have it in any event.

One other thing I would do to change the book would be to actually number the objects. This is a minor quibble, but while it's nice that there is a list of all 100 objects in order at the front of the book (including page numbers), it would be nice as one is reading along to know what number object they are reading in order to have more of a sense of where they are in the Beatles story. It wouldn't make a huge difference, necessarily, but I still think it would be nice. Finally, the choice of objects is an almost impossible task to please everyone with, and I think overall the author does a nice job. While there does seem to be a bit of an over-reliance on ticket stubs and concert posters, overall I think he does a nice job choosing pieces of interest.

In conclusion, this is a very nice book that I think any Beatles fan, regardless of how serious a fan of the band they are, will enjoy. Apart from the typos, there's not much to complain about and if you don't let those get to you, you will thoroughly enjoy this book as much as I did.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 28

Getting closer to the end of the "B's!"

Blur - Blur
Bob Mould - Bob Mould
Bob Mould - Body of Song
Morrissey - Bona Drag
Frank Zappa - Bongo Fury
Pixies - Bossanova

Blur's self-titled album is my favorite of theirs...the perfect mix of their earlier BritPop sound and the noisier elements that were creeping into their consciousness, and it's an incredibly cohesive and fully-formed album. Bob Mould's two albums are solid, if unspectacular, as is most of his solo career, although the overuse of autotune on Body of Song grates after only the 4th song. Morrissey's Bona Drag is a collection of non-album singles and B-sides from early on in his career, but is a wonderful album in its own right. Beyond the obvious standouts (Suedehead, Last of the Famous International Playboys, Hairdresser on Fire) are absolute gems like Piccadilly Palare, Lucky Lisp, and Disappointed. Zappa's live album is in conjunction with his childhood friend Captain Beefheart. While I don't care for the Beefheart-led songs much at all, the non-Beefheart songs are great, especially Advance Romance and Muffin Man. Finally, the Pixies album is probably their most understated and overlooked, but is still one I really enjoy every time I listen to it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 27

The theme for today seemed to be "Blue-"

Suede - Bloodsports
Jimi Hendrix - Blue Wild Angel: Live at the Isle of Wight
Rory Gallagher - Blueprint
Jimi Hendrix - Blues
John Mayall - Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton
The Bluetones - The Bluetones

Suede's newest album is an excellent blend of their sound circa 1996's Coming Up and the best bits of 1999's Head Music and 2002's A New Morning, yet infinitely more enjoyable and haunting than either of those previous albums. Rory's album is a much more restrained album than was typical of him, although it contains his usual brilliant electric and acoustic playing. A few of the songs get a bit repetitive when they cross the 6-minute mark (Daughter of the Everglades and Seventh Son of a Seventh Son in particular), but it's still an enjoyable record. The two Hendrix albums are a stark contrast: his 1970 IOW show was only a few weeks before his death and it sloppy, mixing moments of brilliance with moments of uninspired and tired playing. Meanwhile, the Blues album has unreleased blues-based tunes he recorded and has some truly jaw-dropping performances. The Mayall/Clapton album is a classic and it's not hard to imagine why this was such a mind-blowing album when it came out in 1966: NO ONE was playing guitar like that, let alone a 21 yr old British kid! Finally, the Bluetones' self-titled album was their second-to-last album and continued their run of excellent, quality albums. It's perhaps a bit more subdued that previous albums but makes up for it in the quality of the tunes.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The Magical Mystery Listening Tour: Day 26

Lots of "Bl-" albums!

Black Sabbath - Vol. 4
XTC - Black Sea
Bob Mould - Black Sheets of Rain
Caravan - Blind Dog at St. Dunstan's
Blind Faith - Blind Faith
Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations

Sabbath's 4th album has the misfortune of having one of the worst album covers of all time, as well as two horrid songs (Changes and FX, which isn't even a song, it's just noise effects...get it?) but the rest of the record is Sabbath's typically bludgeoning and brilliant blend of metal (how's that for alliteration?). XTC's album may just be my favorite record they ever made, even more than Skylarking. Of particular note are two of the most brilliant tracks that were buried as album tracks, no less, "Towers of London" and "No Language In Our Lungs." Bob Mould's debut album is also my favorite of his, although the length of the songs (they all clock in at 4 to 7 minutes) grates after a while. Caravan's album is past their early-1970s peak, but is still enjoyable and a perfect example of their quirky take on prog rock in an album-long suite. Blind Faith's one and only album is still a supergroup masterpiece and it's very wistful to think what direction Clapton and Winwood could've gone in had the band not split up due to outside pressures after only one record. Finally, Eels' double-album masterpiece runs the gamut of every style Mark Everett ever tried his hand at, and is equally uplifting, depressing, joyous, mournful, and everything in between. Incredibly emotionally evocative and a towering achievement.

Monday, November 4, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles: Solo

While most Beatles-related books tend to (naturally) focus on their time together, there are far fewer that look at their careers after the split in 1970. One book I always go to from my personal collection is "Eight Arms to Hold You," which is a very readable comprehensive discography that unfortunately ends in 2000, when the book was published, thus rendering it dated (at least as far as Paul and Ringo are concerned). However, to the best of my knowledge, there hasn't been a narrative type look at their solo careers until now.

This new book, titled "The Beatles: Solo," is by Mat Snow and published by Race Point Publishing.

***I'd like to thank Steve at Race Point Publishing for sending me a copy of this for review!***

The work itself is split into four equivalent length volumes, one dedicated to each Beatle, and comes in a handsome slipcase to house all of them. Additional nice touches are the drawings of each Beatle's face that adorns the slipcase and their respective volume, and the general look of the set, which screams early-to-mid 1960s. The books themselves are presented more in a tandem narrative/photographic way, including many photographs from throughout the post-Beatles years alongside the narrative. Additionally, since each book focuses solely on the Beatle in question, it is not necessary to read them in any particular order, which is nice especially if one is a fan of certain members over others. This does, however, lead the author to repeat certain details between books (most notably the entire Allen Klein fiasco that led to their break-up and lingered on in lawsuits into the mid-1970s), but seeing as this affected the lives of all four members, it's understandable and the author does a good job in keeping it to a minimum.

As for the contents of the books themselves? Snow's writing is very easy and enjoyable to read and it's clear he has some passion for the subject. His narrative flows nicely and he chronicles the solo careers chronologically, touching not only on the music but their personal lives as well. The pictures range from small thumbnails all the way to full page, with a nice mix of black-and-white and color. Additionally, the photos are not only of the Beatles themselves but record sleeves, letters, and the like.

As for the negatives, my main complaint would be that for the hardcore Beatles fan (such as myself), there isn't really anything new or informative in these books. I didn't find any errors in the text, although one thing that bothered me was how, in the John volume, the author repeatedly alluded to Brian Epstein's death as a suicide. I understand that since the moment it happened in 1967, there's been a lot of speculation that it was indeed suicide, but the general consensus for many years, from the medical examiner, his friends and family, and the Beatles themselves, is that it was accidental. Perhaps a minor annoyance, but one that I wanted to point out.

While it's a nice idea for the set to be split into four equivalent volumes, by the time I finished, it felt slightly forced to me. The reason for this is that, if one is being honest,  Ringo (who I am by no means picking on, as I think he's great) can objectively be said to have had the least interesting and least successful solo career, at least when compared to the the other three. In order to stretch his volume out to the same length as the other three, it felt forced, as if the author had to dwell on some very minor points in order to do so. Conversely, the books on Paul and George, who had/have much more successful and interesting careers, felt rushed toward the end. For instance, after spending the first half to two-thirds of Paul's books on the 1970s and Wings, his career from 1980 to the present seemed to lack as much detail due to the author needing to cram all of it into the remaining allotted space. Likewise with George's career toward the end of his life. These are certainly not major criticisms of mine, and they don't take away from the overall enjoyment of the books, but I think it's worth noting nonetheless.

So, is this book worth getting if you're a Beatles fan? To that, I answer that it depends on the individual. On one hand, while this is an attractive set, there is really no new material in here than a dedicated fan won't already know, and while many pictures were new (to me, at least), most of them are fairly well-known and have been seen elsewhere numerous times over the years. On the other hand, it's really nice to have neat, well written, and enjoyable summaries of the solo careers of all four solo Beatles in one set, and it's certainly a set of books I see myself returning to every now and then to read simply for enjoyment. While the aforementioned "Eight Arms to Hold You" is more comprehensive in its discussion of the music contained in their solo careers (at least up to 2000), it's also less repeatedly readable and I think that's where The Beatles: Solo's true value comes in. While it's a matter a personal preference, for me, this is a book I'm happy to have on my shelf and in my collection.

MY RATING: 7.5/10