Monday, June 30, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Cream: The Legendary Sixties Supergroup

In the pantheon of influential 1960s rock bands, Cream still loom large forty-six years after their split. Formed in 1966 by Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, and Ginger Baker, their career lasted a brief three years, but the studio albums and live work they left behind have continued to influence generations of musicians and fans. They were the first bonafide supergroup, bringing together three players who were considered to be the best at their respective instruments, and they showed that virtuosity could go hand in hand with high-quality, well-crafted pop songs, as well as providing a framework for dazzling onstage improvisations that were almost free-form jazz in nature. Cream were one of the first bands, after the Beatles, that I became obsessed with as a teenager, especially once I started playing guitar. Thus, I had been on the lookout for a definitive book on them for as long as I could remember.

In this book, veteran Melody Maker journalist Christ Welch, who interviewed Cream extensively during their heyday in the 1960s, has written a comprehensive overview of their career. Published in 2000, the book covers their entire 1960s career, as well as their 1993 reunion for their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Welch draws upon his interviews with the three band members from 1966 to 1968, as well as more recent interviews with Bruce, Baker, former roadies Ben Palmer and Mick Turner, and others. Even with the lack of contemporary interview material from Clapton, Welch manages to make the story cohesive and comprehensive. I bought this book in 2000 when it was released and have read it many times, but for the purposes of this review I've read it again in order to have a fresher perspective on it.

Beginning with short biographies of each of the band members, the story of Cream's coming together in the summer of 1966 is traced through their various musical apprenticeships and the bands they were a part of leading up to their formation. By setting up the main story of Cream in this way, the reader is able to see how each member honed their skills and grew their reputation to the point that their forming Cream was indeed a big deal in 1966. From here, Welch tells the story of their career from the beginning, when he was present at their second-ever rehearsal at a school hall in London, to their first gig at a small club (the Twisted Wheel in Manchester) before their debut performance at the Windsor Jazz and Blues Festival. What's striking about the overall arc of Cream's career is how their management, which they constantly questioned at the time (and which they still cite as a source of problems to the present day) was short-sighted enough that the band were sent out to play a series of one-nighters at small clubs all over the UK and Europe, barely earning more than they did in the previous bands. This was despite the fact that they quickly built up a reputation and a large and devoted fanbase who clamored to see them. As Ginger said, "there were as many people outside the venue as there were inside...sometimes more!" However, it was when they made their way over to the USA that things really took off for the band; forced to play longer concerts and fill up the time they were allotted, they began stretching out and improvising onstage, creating a new genre of heavy rock, and blowing minds and earning devoted fans all across the country. As their popularity rose, so did their earning power and they ended up becoming one of the highest grossing concert acts of the still nascent 1960s rock scene. Somehow, while being worked literally to the brink of exhaustion by manager Robert Stigwood, they managed to cram in recording sessions when possible and produced three excellent albums: their 1966 debut Fresh Cream, and their two classic albums: 1967's Disraeli Gears and 1968's epic Wheels of Fire. However, by the time of their marathon US tour in the early part of 1968, the cracks that were had been present from the beginning (namely, the earlier issues/feuding between Bruce and Baker) and the grueling and punishing pace of the tour led the band to split at the height of their popularity. After wrapping up the year with two farewell concerts in London, by early 1969 and the release of their final album, Goodbye, Cream were no more. Apart from the 1993 reunion and the London and New York concerts they played in 2005 for an actual reunion, that's been it for the band.

In addition to the story of the band, there is a chapter in the middle of the book that features a more detailed look at each member of Cream, focusing on their talent and influence. Since each section is written by a fellow musician (including Dave Gregory, the superb guitarist from XTC who wrote the section on Clapton), it delves a bit more into the equipment and technical set-ups they each used. As a musician myself, I really enjoyed this but I can see where it might be more than what is necessary for a more casual or non-musician reader. There is also a detailed diary of Cream's entire career at the end of the book, listing in chronological order all of their recording sessions, concert, TV, and radio appearances, and record releases. These are punctuated by recent comments from Baker, Bruce, Palmer, and others who were there at the time. It's a nice section to have, especially for putting into perspective just how many concerts they played (around 275!) in their all-too-brief career. Finally, throughout the book there are some really nice photos, not only of the band, but of various tour posters, memorabilia, records and record sleeves, and more.

If I have a criticism of the book, it's that I feel that Chris Welch is a bit too close to the subject and thus writes with a slightly less than unbiased view. It is, of course, always nice to read a book written by a true fan of the subject, but the best of these authors will be able to detach themselves a bit and maintain a somewhat critical eye, realizing that not everything produced by the artist, no matter how talented they are, is worthy of praise. While Welch is by no means sycophantic or wholly laudatory of Cream, on the whole he is overwhelmingly positive about nearly everything, such that the few times he does offer any criticism, minor as it is, it ends up being a bit jarring.  In addition, the reliance on his 1960s interviews makes some sections of the book seem very "cut and paste." However, at the same time, the book raises several excellent points, ranging from how Stigwood used Cream and their unexpected success (and the financial rewards that came about as a result) to finance his true passion, the Bee Gees. Also, the obsession by Atlantic Records to record the band live throughout 1968 forced Clapton to change his gear and settings in order to accommodate the limitations of the recording a result, the gorgeous, miles-long sustain and feedback he had throughout 1967 (listen below) was gone. As a result, while his playing was still otherworldly, his tone and attack changed slightly for the worse. The dispute over songwriting credits and publishing royalties, especially given what was agreed upon at the inception of the band, receives substantial discussion throughout the book, enhanced by extensive comments from Jack Bruce's songwriting partner Pete Brown. It is nuggets like these that elevate the book beyond a simple band biography and really shed additional light on the inner workings of the band, as well as the issues that brought about their eventual downfall.

Cream as they sounded best, in 1967, when Eric had sustain that would last you for days and they played with absolute abandon

While rather brief by the standards of many band biographies, coming in at just under 200 pages, this book is still well worth getting and reading for any fan of Cream, and despite its minor flaws, stands as the definitive book of their career. For more in depth looks at the individual members, I would direct the reader to hunt down copies of each of their autobiographies (which I've linked to in the first paragraph of this review). But if you want the most detailed story of Cream as a band, this book is where you'll find it.

MY RATING: 7.5/10

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Kink: An Autobiography by Dave Davies

Yes, it's time for a review of another Kinks book. Except this is one of the most important ones because it is Dave Davies' autobiography. Interestingly, it was released in 1996/1997 at the same time as Ray's first book, X-Ray. Even though Ray would release a second book on his life in 2013, there was a lot of tension between the brothers during this period as the Kinks wound down their career, calling it quits for good in late 1996. Amidst all of this, they were both working on memoirs, and while X-Ray ended up being a quirky tale of Ray's life told amidst the backdrop of dystopian fiction, Dave's was a more traditional telling. I first bought this book around the time it came out in the late 1990s and enjoyed reading it but it then sat on my shelf until I re-read it for this review.

While Ray is rightly hailed as the songwriting genius and frontman of the Kinks, Dave is equally important as the other half of the heart and soul of the band; his lead guitar, harmony vocals, and occasional songwriting are as essential and integral to the band as Ray's contributions. In addition to their brotherly bond, they are of course well known for their eternal sibling rivalry and feuding, which also added a component of tension and excitement to the band's records and live shows. However, while Ray has always been a bit withdrawn emotionally and tends to keep his cards close to the vest, Dave is the polar opposite. It is this honesty and openness that makes Kink not only deep and interesting, but also wildly shocking in places.

Dave tells the story of life starting from the beginning with a bit of family history, detailing how his family came to end up in Muswell Hill, north London and how Ray and he were the seventh and eighth, respectively, of their parents' eight children (and the only sons). Offering his own perspective on their relationship throughout the years, it's clear Dave approaches it from the viewpoint that in many ways he felt that even as the younger brother, he had to protect and look out for Ray given Ray's personality and emotional issues. It's clear from both brothers through their books that they love each other, although whereas Ray takes a somewhat condescending view of his brother's life choices over the years, Dave seems more hurt that Ray was never as emotionally supportive and close as he needed him to be, especially during several crucial times in their lives when Dave was there for Ray (ie Ray's divorce, his health scares later in the 1970s and 80s, and so on). However, he also offers perhaps the best insight on Ray that you're likely to read, and it's clear that while he does carry a lot of hurt and resentment, he's also extremely proud, loving, and defensive of his brother.

Where Dave differs from Ray, however, is in how he lived his life, especially during the heady days of the 1960s and early 1970s. Whereas Ray had his own drinking problems and emotional turmoil but was content to try and retain some semblance of normal family life as a husband and father, Dave lived up to every inch of his nickname "Dave the Rave."  Booze, drugs, parties, and numerous affairs with women (and some men) were all part of the whole experience for Dave, although to his credit by the late 1960s he began to tire of it all, realizing how phony and superficial it all was. Getting married and starting a family seemed to calm him down, although the incessant touring and recording the Kinks undertook once their ban from performing in the USA was lifted in 1969 wore him down to the point that he suffered several mental breakdowns which were only exacerbated by his prodigious drug intake. Eventually he had a strange metaphysical episode and spiritual awakening in 1982 that led to his now lifelong pursuit of alternative spirituality, yoga, and meditation. The book continues through the Kinks career up to the year it was released in 1996, but cuts off before the band split at the end of that year. Through it all, Dave offers up his candid opinions on the Kinks' various band members, their records, and his brother Ray, as well as contemporaries from the Beatles, Who, and Stones to the punk and new wave bands who cited the Kinks as inspirations during their late-career renaissance as arena megastars in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In addition to his thoughts on music and life, Dave is very upfront about the drug and alcohol abuse in his younger days, as well as his numerous sexual escapades. While he retells some of the incidents quite graphic detail, it never seems too gratuitous, and it's rather refreshing that he questioned what it all meant at the time and looking back on it, he has some regrets. Along these same lines, it's heartbreaking to read of Dave's anguish over the first love (and daughter) he never got to know as a young man and the jumbled emotions he carried with him for decades, which affected his attitudes toward women and marriage until he was finally able to reconcile everything in the early 1990s.

As for criticisms of the book, I don't have many apart from the fact that it does get bogged down a bit when Dave carries on about the voices he heard in his head and the new spirituality he awakened to in the late 1970s. It's not that I'm close-minded about it, and much of it is quite interesting. It's just that it tended to meander and go on longer than I felt necessary which killed the momentum of the book a little. Also, it would be nice if Dave updated this book to include the demise of the Kinks, his stroke and recovery in 2004, the death of Pete Quaife, and his ongoing and current rift with Ray the sadly continues to the present day.

While Kink is a more straightforward book than X-Ray, it's no less valuable or essential in trying to understand the two sides of the brothers who are the heart and soul of the Kinks. It's also a study in contrasts; as anyone with a close sibling will know, it's amazing how you can come from the same family and yet be almost polar opposites in every way. Any Kinks fan who ventures beyond the band biographies like God Save the Kinks, You Really Got Me, or All Day and All of the Night will need to read Kink (as well as X-Ray and Americana) to get a fuller picture of the band and the Davies brothers.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

Monday, June 23, 2014

The Beatles' Only Painting: "Images of a Woman" from Tokyo 1966

"Images of a Woman" by the Beatles (top left: John; top right: Paul; bottom left: Ringo; bottom right; George)

Between June 30 and July 2, 1966, the Beatles were in Tokyo, Japan to play a series of concerts at the Budokan Hall. Because of fanatical Beatlemania from the Japanese fans as well as the fact that it was their first (and only) appearance in Japan, they were virtual prisoners in the Tokyo Hilton Hotel for the duration of their stay. While they were used to this from their tours in years past, by 1966 it began to grate on them and was one of the many reasons they decided to stop touring at the end of the summer. However, in order to pass the time in Tokyo, they decided to work jointly on a painting. The resulting work of art would be the only one created and signed by all four Beatles (although they did also collaborate on a pen and ink drawing "greeting card" for the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, to which they were invited to perform but politely declined).

The Beatles' greeting to the Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

Working at a table with a lamp at the center of the canvas in order to hold it down and give them some light, each Beatle took a corner and painted what they wanted to in their own style. The resulting white circle at the center of the painting (a result of the lamp covering the canvas) was where they each signed next to their quadrant of art. The resulting piece, titled "Images of a Woman," was given to a prominent Japanese entertainment executive and head of the Japanese Beatles fanclub before they left Tokyo. When he died, his wife sold it in 1989 to a Japanese collector who kept it displayed in his living room before storing it under a bed until 2012, when it was sold again. The full story of its ownership can be found here.

Luckily for us Beatles fans, their friend the photographer Robert Whitaker was traveling with them on tour and managed to take many photographs of them working on the painting. In fact, he recalls that they were at the most relaxed and happy when working on it, and were always keen to get back to the hotel room to work on it after giving their concerts at the Budokan. Inspired by my recent post collecting photographs of the Who at their famous Leeds concert in 1970, I thought it would be fun to do the same for this painting that I've read so much about over the years. Again, NONE OF THESE PHOTOS ARE MINE and I DO NOT own the copyrights to them...they belong to their rightful owners. My purposes for posting them here are simply for fun and enjoyment.

Below are all of the photographs I could find of the Beatles creating this painting, as well as a video of one of their complete concert at the Budokan. If you know of more photos that I could add to this post, please let me know in the comments section below!

The Beatles live at the Budokan 1966

The center of the painting with their autographs

John holding up the finished painting (note that the center circle has not been signed yet!)

Friday, June 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles in Cleveland

The enduring images of Beatlemania are etched into 20th century history...photographs, news reports, and video footage of fans going crazy at the mere sight of the Beatles during their touring years of 1963-1966 capture the frenzy, excitement, and insanity their presence caused. There was, quite literally, a mini-riot nearly everywhere they went. In fact, it's one of the main reasons they decided to retire from touring in August 1966. However, what many fans may not realize is that two concerts in particular, occurring on two separate US Tours, were the sites of fan rioting the likes of which the Beatles had never encountered. More than that, they happened in the same city!

***special thanks to author Dave Schwensen for sending me a copy of his book!***

Dave Schwensen, author of the excellent book The Beatles at Shea Stadium which I reviewed earlier this year, is a Cleveland native and was actually present at the 1966 Beatles concert at Municipal Stadium. Using personal memories of the experience, as well as the extensive research and interviews he conducted, he takes the reader back to the heady cultural crossroads of the 1960s, presenting the contrast between 1964's innocent, good-time Beatlemania with 1966's growing restlessness in a way that takes you right back to those moments. This is especially the case for readers (like me) who are too young to have experienced it all firsthand. 

Dave begins the book with a foreword describing how a random drive through the streets of Cleveland on a rainy day in 2006 while listening to side two of Revolver brought all of the memories of that special night forty years earlier at Municipal Stadium rushing back to him. He then describes what Beatlemania was like for the teenagers and young adults who were growing up at the time before he relates his interviews with those responsible for bringing the Beatles to Cleveland on their 1964 US Tour. That concert, at Cleveland Public Hall, was in front of approximately 10,000 screaming fans and had to be stopped partway through after fans began rioting, destroying seats and rushing the stage! The situation was so bad that the city banned the Beatles from appearing again, and indeed the band bypassed the city on their 1965 tour.

The 1964 crazy as this got, it was even worse two years later!

Police halt the concert and try to calm the situation
However, in 1966 promoters were able to convince the city to give them another chance, and the Beatles were booked to play the much larger Municipal Stadium, which could seat as many as 80,000 (in the end, 20,000-25,000 fans attended the show). The thinking was that the larger outdoor venue would make it easier to control the crowd. However, this didn't end up being the fact, things were worse than before! A full scale riot and stage invasion ensued during the fourth song, "Day Tripper," with the concert considerably delayed and at one point cancelled outright before local DJs on stage and the police calmed the crowd down enough so that the band could finish the show.  With makeshift barriers and a minimal police presence that would be laughable today, it is a wonder that no one was seriously hurt although there were several people who were nearly crushed to death at the front of the stage by the crowd pushing from behind.

 Incredible footage, including the riot that happened during "Day Tripper" (at 3:25 in the video)

Using his own recollections as well as those of other fans who were at the shows, in addition to local television, radio, and newspaper personalities, Schwensen paints a vivid and exciting picture of how electric the atmosphere was for both concerts. It's also a lesson in how innocent and new everything was back then, especially large scale rock concerts. Until the Beatles, rock music was still played in theatres and music halls, packaged together with other acts in travelling variety tours. Breaking new ground with every step, the Beatles helped to rewrite the rules but in the process were part of many of the growing pains of the nascent rock industry, such as crowd control in these two cases!

In addition to the memories of those who were there at the time, there are numerous photographs of memorabilia relating to the Beatles and their two concerts in Cleveland, most of them from the author's personal collection (including his ticket stubs from the 1966 show!). There are also many photographs of the two concerts, including the scenes of stage mayhem in 1966 which are quite shocking to see! Fans are pulling on Ringo's arm, wrapping Paul up in bearhugs, and tearing at their suits. They had to escape to their trailer behind the stage and poor Ringo had to jump off of his drum riser off the back of the stage and be caught by the crew before being rushed inside. It's all captured in pictures and is a bit scary to see! Throughout it all, according to witnesses inside the trailer, the band (especially John) thought it was all a big laugh although it's almost certain that crazy situations such as these, especially with John's comments on Beatles and religion having been taken out of context in America and adding to the tension over the course of the entire tour, were a huge factor in the cessation of their touring.

As with his Shea Stadium book, Schwensen is able to put the reader back in that moment in time and convey what the feeling was like...short of having been there in the first place, it's the next best thing. The only things in the book that I found to make minor complaints about were a few minor typos and some of the photographs being hard to make out because they are all in black and white. Otherwise, the book was a fun read and really gave an idea as to what Beatlemania was like in this one particular city; it also shows the reader that these were not isolated incidents and that it was like this everywhere else the band played. Whether you were around at the time or are too young to have been there, The Beatles in Cleveland will show you what it was like to be in the center of the maelstrom of Beatlemania while it was happening in your city.

MY RATING: 8.5/10

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band live at Providence Performing Arts Center June 15, 2014: A Concert Review

Last summer I was lucky enough to see one of my favorite musicians of all time live in concert...he also happened to be a former member of my favorite band and the best band in the history of rock music. Yes, it was Paul McCartney, formerly of the Beatles! This past Monday, I was lucky enough to see another Beatle in concert when I saw Ringo Starr and his All-Starr Band live in Providence, Rhode Island at the Providence Performing Arts Center (PPAC). As a venue, the PPAC was gorgeous, in the heart of downtown Providence and just a beautiful, ornate, old-fashioned art-deco styled theatre. The environs of the PPAC were warm and welcoming and the sound was great, which is a good thing because it was a night of fun music played by a tight and excellent band of musicians!

It's Ringo!
For those who don't know, Ringo has been touring with his All-Starr Band for over twenty years. It's a collection of musicians who are famous in their own right and the nice thing is that, in addition to backing Ringo in singing his Beatles and solo songs, they also each play a few songs from their previous bands, so there's a nice mix of music throughout the evening. The membership is always years past, such luminaries as Peter Frampton, Jack Bruce, John Entwistle, and many others have been members of Ringo's band. His current band who appeared with him at this show comprised of a fantastic collection of musicians; the line-up was Ringo (vocals and drums), Gregg Bissonnette, session drummer extraordinaire (drums, backing vocals), Warren Ham (saxophones, vocals), Gregg Rollie, founding member of Santana and Journey (piano, Hammond organ, vocals), Steve Lukather, former founder of Toto and master session guitarist (lead guitar, vocals), Richard Page, former bassist and vocalist from Mr. Mister (bass guitar, vocals) and Todd Rundgren,  singer/songwriter/producer (rhythm guitar, vocals).

The set list they played is below:

It Don't Come Easy
I Saw the Light
Evil Ways
Bang the Drum All Day
Don't Pass Me By
Yellow Submarine
Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen
Honey Don't
You Are Mine
Oye Como Va
Love is the Answer
I Wanna Be Your Man
Broken Wings
Hold the Line
Act Naturally
With a Little Help From My Friends

Give Peace a Chance

There were many highlights of the show. First off the bat, as with Paul, Ringo seems ageless. He's very active and engaging on stage, dancing and singing and jumping around...I had to remind myself and my mum (who I went to the show with) that he'll be 74 next month! He also spent half of the show playing drums and providing the legendary rocksteady backbeat (along Bissonnette's incredible lead drumming) that he's known for, and I have to say that I did spend a lot of the time just watching Ringo play the drums. Not only was it great to see his technique and style in person, but as with Paul last summer, I was watching a Beatle playing right in front of my eyes! And it was more than cool to see Ringo do his trademark head bop from side to side as he played...add longer hair and it's like watching him play with the Beatles in concert during the 1960s.

As for the set, the Beatles songs of course got the biggest cheers, with Ringo making several funny jokes about them. Before "Boys," he said "here's one we used to play in the band I used to be in..." *massive cheer from the crowd* "That's right...Rory Storm and the Hurricanes!" He also mentioned before one song that "if you don't know the words to this one, you must be at the wrong show...perhaps you're waiting for Sly and the Family Stone?" Then they started playing "Yellow Submarine."  He told his band that there was no need to reveal the name of another song, which ended up being "With a Little Help From My Friends." Over the entire show, Ringo was in a funny mood, interacting with the crowd, even joking when he played a couple of his recent solo songs that he wanted to thank the people in the audience who bought his last album..."both of you!" He also mentioned after "Don't Pass Me By" (where he even played the intro on keyboard!) that after he'd written it, "I thought to myself, look out, Lennon and McCartney." 

In addition to Ringo's songs, the songs by his bandmates were great, with several of them ending in long jams (including all three of Rollie's Santana songs, which brought the house down). Even the songs from bands I'm not a fan of, like Toto and Mr. Mister, were really fun because they are songs I still knew the words to from hearing them on the radio countless times as a kid, and it was just a blast to hear them at the show and sing along with the rest of the crowd. What was also interesting was that, for the songs sung by other band members, Ringo just sat at his kit and played drums or percussion and seemed to really enjoy being just another member of the band, which I thought was really cool. And that is the theme of the entire experience of seeing Ringo and his All-Starr Band in's just a ton of fun! Ringo will never be confused for Paul or anyone else when it comes to songwriting or having an acclaimed back catalog, and he knows that. But what he does do is present a show with a top-notch band, playing songs that just about everyone in the crowd will know and offering a solid two hours of non-stop musical enjoyment.

Speaking of his band, I can't stress enough how tight and good they were...they have chops to spare and it was obvious not only from listening to their playing but from watching them that they were having an absolute blast onstage, which was infectious and was given right back to them by the crowd. Several times during the concert, they mentioned how they've become a band of brothers and how much they enjoy each others company. I'd knew everyone in the band before the concert except for Warren Ham, and he is absolutely on the same level as the rest of the guys. He sang fantastic lead and backing vocals and brought the house down with several incendiary tenor and soprano saxophone solos. The crowd itself was made up of a range of ages, from twelve year old kids all the way up to seventy year old grandparents, yet everyone sang along to the songs and clapped and danced and had a great time. I went to this show with my mum, just like last summer's Paul show, and just like that concert, it was great to be able to share the experience with her not only because she's my mother and I love her, but because it's because of her and my dad that I'm a musician and obsessive music (and Beatles) fan myself.  One thing that struck me is when Steve Lukather mentioned between songs how he was honored that he now gets to play with one of the guys who is the reason he is a musician; for me, seeing Paul and now Ringo in concert is the same's because of them (and my parents) that I have the relationship with music that I do. Seeing Ringo completed the circle started by seeing Paul last summer, and for any Beatles fan I would highly recommend's an experience you will enjoy immensely, and I know that if given the opportunity, like Paul McCartney, I'd go see Ringo Starr again in a heartbeat.

(All of the photos in this post were taken by me, I took more, but these are the best ones.  I hope you enjoy them!)

The stage set up before the concert

Ringo and the All-Starr Band take the stage and start the show!

Todd Rundgren takes a turn leading the band

Gregg Rollie leads the band in one of three excellent Santana songs

Richard Page leads the band through one of his songs from Mr. Mister

Ringo drumming and singing...legendary

Ringo kicks off "Don't Pass Me By"

Steve Lukather leads the band in a Toto song and played incredible guitar throughout the show

Give Peace a Chance!