Monday, October 27, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles Lyrics

Hunter Davies is a renowned author of novels who also had the good fortune to have gotten to know and write about the Beatles.  As the author of the first and only authorized biography on the band, first published in 1968, he was afforded unprecedented access to them between 1966 and 1968, not only interviewing them and their families, but being allowed to sit in on their songwriting and recording sessions during the Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and early White Album sessions.  Although he was asked to excise some bits from the final version (mainly by John's Aunt Mimi, who didn't like the way she was portrayed), his book is still required reading for any Beatles fan. Having developed long lasting friendships with the four Beatles, he compiled and edited the exquisite book The John Lennon Letters, which has been reviewed on this site.  In that book, he chronicled John's life through his letters, presenting numerous scans of the letters and postcards John sent to everyone in his life along with transcriptions and detailed discussions on the meanings behind each one.  Now, with the brand new book The Beatles Lyrics, he turns his hand to the words behind their songs.

***special thanks to Victoria at Little Brown for sending me a copy of this book to review!***

The brilliance of Lennon and McCartney lies in one of the things that has always made them unique as a songwriting team, which is that they both worked on the music and the lyrics.  While the music behind their songs has rightly been lauded, studied, dissected and deconstructed, their lyrics have escaped the same level of scrutiny.  That's not to say that their words have not been appreciated and praised...they have. It's just that the almost academic level of study that has been devoted to their music has not been applied quite as much to the words. With this new book, Davies goes chronologically through every song the Beatles recorded and released in their lifetime as a band, starting with "Love Me Do" in 1962 and finishing with "I Me Mine" in 1970. Along the way, he has worked to track down as many existing lyric manuscripts as he can, including them in the entries for their respective songs. Many of these are little more than scraps of paper, envelopes, cards, anything upon which John, Paul, and George could scribble down their lyric ideas. Many of them are fully written out on paper or typed up and annotated, final (or near-final) versions they wrote prior to going into the studio to record the songs.  Some are torn or stained, and a few are missing pages. There are obviously fewer pages existing for the really early songs, but by the time their peak period of Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and the White Album is reached, there are manuscripts for nearly every song.

Hunter Davies in the 1960s, while he was shadowing the Beatles

Davies today, with Lennon's handwritten draft of "In My Life"

The Beatles didn't think much of these drafts, often throwing them away or leaving them laying around the studio, at their homes, friends' homes, cars, wherever. Davies himself has nine of these manuscripts, collected from Abbey Road studio (after he asked the Beatles if he could have them) while he was shadowing the band in the 1960s for his book. There are seven in the collection at Northwestern University in Chicago, while the rest are in the possession of various collectors around the world who were kind enough to anonymously send Davies scans and photographs to include in the book. The entries for each song have a short synopsis detailing what the song is about, any personal memories or opinions Davies has from his firsthand experience with the band, and when a manuscript is available, a discussion about where it came from and what it says. In many cases, the lyrics are different from what was finally recorded and released, which makes them endlessly fascinating to go through.  It's an absolute treat to read these drafts in the Beatles' own handwriting (or sometimes written out by Mal Evans as they dictated the words to him) and see how the words evolved toward their final versions. Sometimes, the songs were fully formed from the beginning. In other cases, there may be a few words here and there that ended up being changed, or lines that were placed in a different order. Oftentimes, entire verses and lines were excised and never used. Many of these deserved to be left on the cutting room floor (so to speak), while others were so good that they would have made a great song even better.  What's even better is seeing all of it in their handwriting, often with the little doodles or decorations that they added, clearly lost in thought as they were trying to hammer the lyrics into shape. There are little in-jokes, puns, pop culture references, and even self-deprecating comments scribbled in as well (my favorite is when Paul wrote "another Lennon-McCartney original" at the end of a draft for a song circa 1968-69, harkening back to how he and John titled all of their early songs in a notebook when they were teenagers).  It's also really nice seeing certain bits of paper that they wrote them on which have a date written or typed on them; it not only makes it easier to place it in chronological context, but in a way it enables the draft to transport the reader back to that specific time and place.

For the most part, this book is an absolute treat, incredibly fun to read as well as magical...the sense of wonder and awe any Beatles fan will have while reading this can't be explained with words. Davies, on the whole, does his usual excellent job transcribing the lyrics and offering a lot of great personal recollections, especially on the ones during which he was present during the creation. There are even several photographs from his personal archives of him in the studio, on the train, or on vacation with the Beatles in the 1960s.  While I didn't always agree with his assessments of certain songs, I can respect his opinions and most his reasons make sense. The one thing this book suffers from are some typos sprinkled throughout (most egregiously, writing May Pang's name as "Peng") and some factual inconsistencies that clearly slipped past whoever edited the final version of the book. The biggest offender was when Davies repeatedly stated that John's mother died when he was fifteen, which is not the case (she died when he was seventeen). However, later in the book, he states she died in 1958 (which is correct, and John was not quite eighteen when it happened)...and still states John was only fifteen! Whether this is a fact Davies didn't know (unlikely) or a result a faulty memory (more plausible) isn't as important as the fact that this clearly got past the final edit of the book. An honest mistake, but one that stuck out like a sore thumb to me (and many other readers, I'm sure) as a devoted Beatles fan.

John and Paul working on some lyrics, 1968

These minor complaints aside, this is an exquisite book and absolutely one that any serious Beatles fan needs in their personal library. It does for their lyrics what Ian MacDonald's excellent Revolution in the Head (which I'll be reviewing at a later date) does for their music, but in a less-clinical, warmer and more fun way. Whereas MacDonald tends to deconstruct and analyze the songs to the point where they're stripped of all of their magic and fun, Davies keeps the magic intact and in most cases, adds to it.  When you can read the hand-written lyrics for entire albums like Sgt. Pepper and the White Album, you've got to feel a sense of awe and excitement, and you will.  Simply put, this is one of the essential books for any Beatles fan.


(Before anyone asks me why I didn't include any images of lyric drafts from the book in this review, I would have loved to have included some but due to copyright issues I could not. However, I urge any fan to buy this book for themselves, where you will be able to see them all!)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Frank Zappa

Visionary. Genius. Iconoclast. Provocateur. Madman. Mad scientist. Guitar hero. These are just some of the ways Frank Zappa has been described since he first burst onto music scene and the public consciousness in the mid-1960s.  Impossible to pigeonhole and ridiculously prolific, FZ has always defied categorization. His canon can be intimidating to the uninitiated, and he had so many phases of his career that people can and do like, all, some, or none of his work.  The music of Frank Zappa can seem impenetrable to the outsider, and he's rightly been mischaracterized as someone who writes "comedy" or "novelty" songs, who was needlessly vulgar (he was, sometimes), and "dangerous," but those who have an open mind, a sense of humor, and are willing to really pay attention to the music  will find that most of the above labels do apply to Frank, and they will be richly rewarded.

Frank Zappa was born on December 21, 1940 and, after moving around with his family for a while, grew up and graduated from high school in the Los Angeles area.  From a young age, he developed an interest in music, but not the typical rock and roll that other teenagers in the 1950s were going crazy over. Instead, Zappa had an interest in classical, jazz, avant garde, blues, and doo-wop music, all of which would eventually find their way into his subsequent career. After initially starting off on drums, he moved to guitar as a teenager, which is the instrument he would become famous for. After high school, Frank started working at a studio, eventually taking it over and dubbing it "Studio Z" before it closed down. He finally got with a serious band in LA in 1965; calling themselves the Mothers (later changing it to the Mothers of Invention at the insistence of their record company), he embarked upon the career that we all know and love.

I think from here that it's most convenient to discuss Zappa's career by phase, starting with the first one. This is his classic Mothers phase that ran from 1965 through 1969.  One thing to note is that throughout his career, Frank had numerous different band line-ups. All of them were comprised of incredible musicians; they had to be in order to play the complex music he wrote. Many of them went on to successful careers after their tenure with him, such as Steve Vai, Terry Bozzio, George Duke, Adrian Belew, Mike Kenneally, and many others. All of his bands had their own unique identity and sound, both of which neatly corresponded with the particular phase Zappa was in. So, getting back to the original Mothers, this was the lineup that announced to the world that this wasn't your run of the mill American rock group of the mid-to-late 1960s. They certainly couldn't have burst onto the scene with a better debut than 1966's Freak Out!, which was a double album showcasing Zappa's eclectic style, with songs ranging from pastiche and parody to social comment and scathing teardowns, all of which would remain a staple of his entire oeuvre. Songs like "Trouble Every Day" ruminated on the 1965 Watts Riots in LA while the more avant garde and musique concrete songs, especially "Return of the Son of Monster Magnet" predated the Beatles' own forays into this with "Carnival of Light," "What's the New Mary Jane?" and "Revolution 9." The album was, in fact, a favorite of Paul McCartney's and one of his inspirations when coming up with the concept for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Further albums such as Absolutely Free, Uncle Meat, and 1968's brilliant piss-take of Sgt. Pepper, hippies, and the commercialization of the Summer of Love, We're Only In It For the Money, showed that Zappa and the Mothers were a band to which attention must be paid. However, internal struggles and band members bristling against Zappa's dictatorial control led to the disbanding of the group in 1969, giving way to phase two of his career. Beginning with the excellent Hot Rats album in 1969, Zappa began stretching his instrumental chops and embarked on a more theatrical phase of his career. A new band, fronted by Flo & Eddie (really Mark Vollman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of the Turtles who had to assume stage names for legal reasons) recorded and toured their version of an rock and roll vaudeville troupe, with extended song suites that told stories, like "Billy the Mountain," the hilarious "Groupie Routine," culminating with the 1971 film and album "200 Motels," about life on the road in a "typical rock band" (which they certainly were not!).  An incident in 1971 almost killed Frank, however, when a deranged fan who was paranoid that the band were going to steal his girlfriend away rushed onstage during  show at the Rainbow Theatre in London and shoved Zappa off the front, into the concrete orchestra pit below. His injuries resulted in a broken back and leg and a crushed larynx. The broken bones led to him being confined to a wheelchair for a while and the incorrect healing of his leg led to it being shorter than the other, resulting in a lifetime of back pain. The crushed larynx resulted in his voice being lowered by a third for the rest of his life, which is most pronounced on his first non-instrumental album after the injury, 1973's Overnite Sensation (which we'll return to later...).

During his convalescence, Zappa and his band recorded two instrumental big band rock/jazz albums, both of which are excellent: Waka/Jawaka and The Grand Wazoo.

Once he was fully healed, the next (and my favorite) phase began, with the aforementioned Overnite Sensation. Starting with this album and running all the way through 1979's Sheik Yerbouti, this was the closest Frank came to mainstream success. This was due to a more accessible sound, where he pared down the avant garde leanings while still retaining the ridiculous musical complexity he was known for. This is also the stretch where he really began to flex his muscles as a guitarist, with a soloing style and tone that was wholly unique. The apotheosis of this prowess was three albums of instrumentals focusing on his various guitar solo styles: the albums Shut Up N' Play Yer Guitar, Guitar, and Trance-Fusion. There are so many great albums during this stretch of the 1970s (and Frank was so damn prolific) that it's almost impossible to cover them all in a reasonable-length post, but my favorites are Overnite Sensation, Apostrophe('), One Size Fits All, Zappa In New York, Sheik Yerbouti, and Lather. 

After Sheik Yerbouti, Frank continued his prolific pace with some excellent albums, like the scathing rock opera Joe's Garage and the complex music contained on the albums Studio Tan, Sleep Dirt, and Orchestral Favorites. However, it was also around this time when he seemed to get unnecessarily vulgar and puerile, and while his lyrics still meant something, he was often saying it in ways that were so obscene and juvenile that it got tiresome. I'm certainly not someone who gets offended easily, and being offended is not the reason I feel this way; it's just there, whereas previously Frank did it sparingly and cleverly for maximum impact, by this point it was his default position and just got boring after a while. The nadir of this approach is 1984's ThingFish album, which I've only been able to listen to a handful of times.  It was also during this phase where Frank scaled back his relentless touring and focused instead on composing his classical pieces, mainly on a new piece of technology called the Synclavier. Honestly, there is very little of this period of his music that I listen to on a regular basis. The lone bright spots (for me) are the live recordings released that come from his penultimate tour in 1984 and his final tour in 1988, both of which featured perhaps his most technically accomplished band. However, this tour ended abruptly in acrimony due to band infighting and FZ's worsening health. He had been diagnosed with inoperable prostate cancer in the mid-1980s, but he worked until he literally couldn't work anymore. Frank passed away surrounded by his wife and kids at the age of 53 in December 1994.  However, he left behind mountains of recorded music (he recorded EVERYTHING), much of which has been released since his death and is quite good.  A lot of this is live music, and on a good night, Frank and his band were unstoppable. He also encouraged audience participation, making the concerts truly interactive. They look and sound like they were a blast and it's one of my regrets that I was born too late to ever see him live.

Beyond his writing, guitar playing, and relentless productivity, FZ was also a pioneer as a producer, inventing and developing several studio techniques that led the way to wholly unique and interesting sounds and which are now taken for granted. His extensive use of overdubbing and varispeeding allowed him to make clarinets and saxophones sound like string symphonies and various percussion overdubs to sound like monstrous drum kits. He also created and developed a technique he called "xenochrony," where he would lift passages from live performances, drop them onto a reel of studio tape, and build entirely new songs around them. In most cases, it was a guitar solo from one of his songs that he would lift, put onto a new tape, and build an entirely new song around.  If this sounds daunting, it is...think of the different time signatures and keys that a single guitar solo track would be played in. It's a testament not only to Frank's genius but the skill of his band members that they could play what he wrote so well that the songs sound fully formed and cohesive. Most of the Joe's Garage album was constructed this way, as well as the song "Rubber Shirt" from Sheik Yerbouti, which was put together by taking a drum track from one live song and a bass guitar track from a totally different song and blending them together. Different time signatures and rhythms, but it worked.  FZ was also the master of introducing what he called Conceptual Continuity into all of his albums, where everything he ever recorded was somehow connected to what he'd done before and what he had yet to do. This was done via musical passages, vocal melodies, lyrics, in-jokes, and album artwork and has led fans to spend years digging for every link they can possibly find between songs and albums.

Despite the public perception of Frank Zappa as a musical mad scientist, from everything I've read and heard about him, he was a fairly normal guy (relatively speaking). A lifelong cigarette smoker, he hated drugs, having admitted to trying pot a few times in the 1960s but disliking it, and he never touched any illegal substances. He strongly discouraged his band members from doing drugs, although he certainly used some of their road exploits as fodder for his songs (see: 200 Motels). He was married to the love of his life, Gail Zappa, for nearly 30 years until his death, and they had four children (Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva). He had an intense dislike of organized religion and the education system and politically, he was a hardcore libertarian. He hated both Democrats and Republicans equally and believed in small government, personal freedom, and self-sufficiency. He was also an ardent anti-censorship advocate, famously testifying before Congress in the mid-1980s. 

So how did a normal middle-class kid in New England become such a big FZ fan? I had heard a few Zappa songs as a kid, such as "Montana" and "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," but it wasn't until I started high school in 1993 and a friend of mine played me a tape of Overnite Sensation that I was hooked. It was also around this time when one of the guitar magazines I routinely read had a multi-page cover feature on FZ and his playing, which led me to explore his discography and start buying all of his albums. As a teenager learning guitar, playing trumpet in jazz and symphonic bands at school, and trying to absorb as much music of any genre as I could, it was a revelation.  There was always something new to discover, and even now in my mid-30s, I find new musical quotations, conceptual continuity clues, and interesting aspects to his compositional and instrumental styles when I listen to his music. Certain songs that I must have heard hundreds, if not thousands of times still make me laugh out loud when I hear them now, and much of his social commentary has not only not dated, but is as applicable now as it was then. The targets of his words may no longer be with us, but the words themselves still resonate.  People typically have two opinions on Frank Zappa: they either love him or hate him. All that I would ask is, if you want to give him a try, is to have an open mind and pay attention to the whole package...the music and the words. He bristled against the notion many held that he only wrote "comedy music" (even sending himself up on 200 Motels regarding this). He was funny, yes, but he was a true musical visionary, genius, and a one of a kind talent that the world sorely misses. He died too young, but he left such a staggering body of work, both in terms of quality and quantity, that those interested will continue to discover, explore, and enjoy it for decades to come. 

If you're new to FZ and want any advice on where to start discovering his music, or if you're a big fan like me and want to talk about his music, let's talk in the comments section below!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Pretend You're in a War: The Who and the Sixties

No band from the 1960s identified and asked as much of their audience (and vice versa) than The Who. Driven by the creative genius of songwriter and guitarist Pete Townshend, the Who not only wrote and performed music that articulated the insecurity, angst, and confusion of their audience, but they shared in it themselves. From snot-nosed adolescent punks in the early 1960s to the elder statesmen of rock that they became in the 1970s, the Who were one of the few of the major bands to emerge from 1960s England that meant more to their audience than the casual fan would or could ever know. However, most of the Who's legend is due to their groundbreaking album Tommy and their appearance at Woodstock, both from 1969, as well as their stadium rock anthems throughout the 1970s. These songs are staples of classic rock radio and touchstones for wannabe rock musicians all the way to the present. What is less known and appreciated is who and what they were in the 1960s, and why. That is the thesis of Mark Blake's excellent new book, Pretend You're In a War: The Who and the Sixties.

***special thanks to the author for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

During the 1960s, rock music unquestionably had its golden age, when the sheer number of influential and talented bands all coexisting was at its peak and the breadth of their styles resulted in a staggering number of classic albums and singles. While the scene in America was exciting and produced many great bands, it is inarguable that the majority of the best bands of the decade hailed from the UK.  The Beatles led the way wire-to-wire throughout the decade, but the Rolling Stones, Who, and Kinks were hot on their heels and would all outlast the Beatles after the Fabs split in 1970.  Of the four great bands, however, the Who had the strangest and bumpiest ride to stardom (although the Kinks didn't fare much better in either of those departments). Additionally, while all British bands of the 1960s generation were unquestionably shaped by growing up during and immediately after WWII, the Who harnessed that influence in a manner and intensity that stood apart from the rest of their musical peers. The title of this book comes from an answer a young Pete Townshend gave to a reporter who asked him how the band get themselves up for their powerful, loud, and often violent live performances. However, as Mark Blake shows, this answer applies not only to their stage act, but permeates everything about the band's career. 

As I've discussed before, the Who were four guys who really didn't particularly care for each other even though they cared about each other. Daltrey, Entwistle, and Townshend all met at school and had been in bands together when they joined forces with Keith Moon in early 1964. After going through a couple of name changes and managers, they came under the guidance of Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, two fast-talking hustlers who would go down as two of the craziest managers of all time. The Who were, for most of the decade, the quintessential singles band, releasing numerous quirky and powerful singles that were all successful in the charts, from "I Can't Explain," "My Generation," and "Happy Jack" to "I'm a Boy," "Pictures of Lily," and "Magic Bus."  However, the band fought each other as much as they fought with producers, the press, and unruly fans. Constantly in debt from having to replace the instruments they smashed on an almost nightly basis and having signed one of the worst record deals of the decade, they were kept financially afloat due to their fast talking managers. Lambert and Stamp spent as if they were Brian Eptsein and employed every sleazy trick in the book to stay one step ahead of the debt collectors. The chaos and instability of their management company could only have happened in the 60s, but eventually their faith in the band and Lambert in particular nurturing and encouraging Pete's artistic and songwriting ambitions led to a rapid development that helped the band keep pace with their three closest peers (the Beatles, Kinks, and Stones) before they finally hit the jackpot with 1969's Tommy. Not only did the band break America wide open, but they managed to become trailblazers with the first full blown rock-opera, connecting with fans and critics alike while becoming the best live band of their generation and beyond. 

Mark Blake draws on several influential primary sources, as well as his own new research and extensive interviews with the band and those close to them in order to fully paint the portrait of the Who during the sixties. In particular, he sets up the book in order to show that, of all the sixties English rock bands who grew up during and after WWII, the Who were the ones who bore the marks of its impact in just about every facet of their being. It's worth noting right here that one of the things I've long thought interesting is the difference between the American and British of that generation in terms of the War's impact on them. While the Americans fought the war abroad and returned home to a country that had pulled out of a depression and went right into an unprecedented period of affluence and stability, the British returned home to a country ravaged both physically and psychologically by the conflict. Ruined cities and towns and a crippled economy went hand in hand with continued rationing of food and luxuries and a drab pop culture. They looked to American movies and music for excitement and inspiration.  As Blake and many others have pointed out, it was in this climate during which the 60s generation in Britain came of age and which would shape the outlook and output of the musicians, actors, writers, directors, and artists.  The Who dealt with this by channeling their violence, insecurity, and anger into their music, demeanor, and live presence, most manifest in their destruction of instruments and stages.  While the Beatles were lovable, the Stones were scruffy, and the Kinks a bit odd, the Who looked like they were fixing for a fight at any moment, and they were. They fought each other, their audience, and attracted an undercurrent of violence and tension no matter where they went. Blake traces this throughout their evolution during the decade, from their early days playing hard-hitting R&B to their phase as mods with which they are most readily identified in the 60s. The author does a nice job giving background into the mod movement and exploring the band's, and in particular Pete's, fascination and embrace of the movement before they outgrew it and left it behind. At every turn, however, the Who had to fight: with themselves, their managers, and the musical environment they found themselves in. If it wasn't a battle to get up the charts, they had to stave off challengers like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin, never mind the Kinks, Stones, and Beatles. Blake paints a vivid and detailed picture of the turmoil and upheaval felt during the decade and how it shaped the Who as musicians and people, with the scars from WWII always just beneath the surface. 

While I was able to recognize certain bits of info sourced from other Who books I've read, there was still a huge amount of new information in the book that was new to me. For instance, I knew that Roger had been kicked out in '65 for his conflict with the other three, but I never knew that he flat out quit in '66 due to uncertainly over the band's future before deciding to stay.  Indeed, they all wanted to quit at one time or another but could never bring themselves to do so, always being drawn back to each other.  Additionally, just how dire the band's circumstances were in 1968 and realizing just how make-or-break Tommy was is thrown into sharp relief when compared against what their peers were doing. While the White Album, Beggar's Banquet, and the Village Green Preservation Society were all released in 1968 and are classic albums, the Who spent the year working on Tommy and gigging heavily simply to earn enough money to pay off their debts. This is just one of the many juxtapositions the author makes to show how unique the Who's situation was compared to their legendary peers of the era (although the Kinks had just as tumultuous a decade in their own right). 

This book does for the Who what no other book on the band does, which is focus solely on their formative years and the role the 1960s played in their career. Most in-depth looks at the band tend to skim over the decade and begin really focusing on Tommy and 1969, and this does the band and their fans a major disservice. Thankfully, Mark Blake has rectified this with Pretend You're in a War. It's the first book I've read with a detailed chronicle of their youths, especially those of John and Roger. In addition, while their years as the Detours in the early 1960s has been written about in some detail in various other books, I've never read (or enjoyed reading) as much detail about their time under Lambert and Stamp as I did with this book. The level of detail and the manner in which it was written shows just how insane the situation was and that it could only have happened to the Who. Myths are busted, stories are set straight, and the truth is revealed over the course of the book...what it all adds up to is an achievement worthy of being the definitive biography of the band's early life and career up to and including 1970. My only wish now is that the author will follow this up with a companion book on the Who in the 1970s...after all, they were still pretending to be in a war even then.  In fact, as Blake's afterword shows, even in 2014, Pete and Roger, as the surviving members of the band, still are. 

MY RATING: 9.5/10

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Blogging Advice and Tips from the Rock and Roll Chemist (PART 4)

Part 4 of this series is going to be about a very important (and very fun!) aspect of building up your blog.  It's one of the things I've enjoyed most in getting the Rock and Roll Chemist off the ground and growing in exposure and popularity. While this series of articles is solely based on my own experiences and the knowledge I've gained since I took up blogging several years ago, I think the theme of this part is something that most bloggers more seasoned and successful than me will still agree with.  That thing is ENGAGEMENT!

Not that kind of engagement!!

By engagement, I mean interaction...with your readers, with potential readers, and with the larger blogging community as a whole.

THIS kind of engagement!

I've broken it down into three phases: Attract, Sustain, and Growth.   Let's take them one at a time:


If only it were that easy...

Merely posting interesting content on your site will not entice anyone beyond the few who stumble upon it to read your blog, nor will it make them want to leave comments on your posts and tell their friends to check out your site. In order to attract people to your blog, you're first going to have to act as your own PR agent. This can be a lot of fun but you also have to tread carefully here. Similar to how I explained getting exposure for your book in my series on How To Write a Book, there is a fine line between being excited about your work and wanting to entice others to check it out, and coming across too aggressively like a huckster who is only trying to get something from your audience. It's okay to be really excited about what you've written and wanting to share it with as many people as you fact, that's essential! Why else are you blogging? But make sure to do it in a tasteful and somewhat restrained way so that your targeted audience doesn't feel like they're being bludgeoned over their metaphorical head...that ends up having the opposite effect by turning people away.  This phase is one you will spend the most time on in the earlier stages of getting your blog off of the ground and working to make it successful.  That's not to say you will never have to do it again once you've established a faithful readership base and reputation as a're always going to want to attract more eyes to your site and it will always take some effort. But the amount of effort you'll spend on it will lessen the longer you're established as someone of quality and trustworthiness that readers can expect great content from.

In terms of engaging with your audience, this means getting involved in various ways, whether it be social media, message boards, blogging communities, etc and tastefully enticing people to check your blog out. Personally, I use a combination of all of these: Twitter, Facebook, InstaGram, and Tumblr for social media, various message boards I am active on relating to music, certain bands, writing, sports, etc, and blogging communities like Blog Catalog and twitter blogging chats that occur regularly every week like #blogchat, #bloggab, and others.  These are all great ways to interact with your audience, fellow bloggers, and potential new readers of your site. 


The second stage of engagement is to sustain it. This means that you want to keep most, if not all, of the readers you've attracted to your site coming back time and again to read what you're writing. It also means that, in order to sustain that growth, you need to continually produce new quality content on a regular (or semi-regular) basis.  Much of what you need to do here overlaps with what I wrote in Parts 1 and 3 as far as producing quality content on a somewhat regular basis and establishing yourself as someone your audience can trust, respectively.  I'll also add that comments on your blog posts come under this umbrella. Once you've got enough interest that readers start commenting on your posts, making sure to interact with them and keep the discussion going is a great way to maintain and sustain their interest. Additionally, any feedback you get from readers on social media or elsewhere should be promptly answered and the engagement nurtured for the same reasons.  Like the Attract phase, the Sustain phase never ends. However, unlike the Attract phase, the amount of effort you'll need to spend on the Sustain phase will never really diminish, not if you want to keep the gains you've made from slipping away.  However, these two phases are intimately entwined and both lead down the path toward...


We'd all love to have an audience for our blog like this!

The third and final phase is the Growth phase.  Here, you'll take what you've done in the Attract and Sustain phases (both of which you'll continue doing) and begin to reap the benefits in terms of growing your brand and your blog.  It doesn't mean that you don't have to do anything in this phase in order to grow and expand, however. In this phase, you'll need to think long and hard about how you can change, improve, and move on to the next stage in your blogging career.  This might mean taking advantage of some new blogging opportunities that come your way, it might mean producing new and difference types of content for your site, it might mean trying to broaden your exposure through new channels, or all of the above and more.  However you do it, this growth will then lead to a new round of attracting and sustaining audience engagement with your blog. Think of this phase (all three of them, in fact), as a big feedback loop, where Attract and Sustain feed into Growth, which then becomes something new that feeds back into the beginning of the cycle, which will repeat ad infinitum.  The more you put into it, the bigger and more rewarding this cycles becomes.

As you can see, engagement with your readers and nurturing that connection in order to keep it alive and growing takes a lot of work, a lot of time, and a lot of creativity. However, it can also be the most fun and rewarding part of blogging...I know that, for me, the only thing about blogging better than the engagement part is the actual writing itself.  However, the reason I and countless others write is because we believe we have something worthwhile to say and we want to share it with others and get their feedback. When you stand back for a moment and look at it this way, it's easy to see why this is one of the most difficult and crucial things a blogger needs to do to be successful. Just remember to have fun with it!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

You Say It's Your Birthday!

Today would have been John Lennon's 74th birthday were he not tragically, senselessly, and savagely taken away from us on that night in December in 1980. Inasmuch as I'm a huge Beatles fan, I've also always felt a bit of a connection with John. Perhaps it's because I was born the same year e died, 10 months before. I'm proud of the fact that I was alive when all four of were, but also a little sad that I can mark my own age by the same number of years that John has been gone and that I'll always be able to.  His songs, both in the Beatles and solo, have had s profound effect on my life, all for the better, and while he was a complicated and conflicted man who said and did some bad things, on balance he was a good man who gave a lot to the're sorely missed, John!

Another famous John was also born on this day...he would be 70 were he still alive, and it's the legendary bass player from The Who, John Entwistle. The Who are a band, like the Beatles, who have had a real and lasting positive impact on me and continue to. John is a big part of that, from his incredible, groundbreaking bass playing, to his impeccable musicianship (he was also an accomplished piano and horn player, lending his talents to loads of Who songs) and his wry, classically British black humor. The Ox left us in 2002 bit like Lennon, he won't soon be forgotten. 

So crank up some Beatles and Who tunes in tribute to these two legends who share the same birthday today. I know I will!

Saturday, October 4, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Are You Experienced? The Inside Story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience

In the 1960s, The Beatles ruled the music world, but the sheer number of extraordinarily talented bands who were all making music at the same time in London was truly staggering.  In addition to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Cream, the Hollies, the Animals, the Zombies, the Yardbirds, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were all releasing fantastic singles and albums in this incredibly fruitful and fertile climate.  Within this collection of bands, the Hendrix Experience was perhaps the most unique of them all, formed in the autumn of 1966 when former Animals bassist Chas Chandler brought American Jimi Hendrix to London, recruited bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell, and put together a band that first took the UK, then Europe, and by mid-1967, America by storm.  I've always thought of Hendrix' career running in parallel with that of his good friend Eric Clapton's band at the time, Cream. Both bands were power trios with virtuoso guitarists, phenomenally talented drummers, and excellent bass players (although Jack Bruce's virtuosity lopsidedly compares with Redding's excellent skill, unfair because Redding was a guitar player who had never played bass before hooking up with Hendrix). Both bands burned brightly, releasing hugely successful singles and albums and changing the face of live rock with their loud, heavy, and long concert performances. Both bands earned record-setting profits on their ever expanding American tours, and by the end of the decade, both had splintered: Cream from internal clashes and egos, and Hendrix from overwork, creative differences, and tragically, Hendrix' death.  Similar to Cream, where each member has written a memoir, there exist books by each of the members of the Experience...I've reviewed the closest we'll ever get to a Hendrix memoir and Mitch Mitchell's book is on my to-read list, which leaves us with Noel Redding's book.

I first purchased Noel's book in 1996 when it was first released. At the time, I read it and enjoyed it, but for the purposes of this review I've read it again, and I'm glad I did. It's subtitled "the Inside Story of the Jimi Hendrix Experience" and that is certainly true as Noel is candid, honest, funny, and bitterly cynical (when appropriate) in his telling of the meteoric rise and fall of the Experience's legendary career. He stays true to his word, too, as there is very little in this book about his life outside of his experiences as pertaining to the Experience. Born in Kent in 1945, like just about every musician of his generation, Noel was bitten by the music bug early and by the time he was in his early 20s, he was a working (and struggling) professional musician in and around London. His big break came in September of 1966 when he auditioned for a new band Chas Chandler was putting together around an unknown American guitarist named Jimi Hendrix. Redding was persuaded to switch to a bass, an instrument he'd never played before (but one which he would establish himself as one of the best of his era). Rounding out the band was former child actor and well-known London jazz and rock drummer Mitch Mitchell.  Steady gigging and fast recording sessions on a shoestring budget yielded hit singles right off the bat in the form of "Hey Joe," "Purple Haze," and "Foxy Lady" and by the time their debut album Are You Experienced? was released in mid-1967, the Experience were one of the most popular bands in England, with fellow musicians (Paul McCartney in particular) as their biggest supporters.  After their breakthrough at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, the Experience ascended to become one of the biggest concert draws of the 1960s, helped along by two further exquisite albums (Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland).  However, all was not well within the band, and this is what forms the meat of Noel's story.

From the outset, this was a band that was assembled, not a band of friends who slogged long and hard and worked their way up from the bottom together. While Noel describes a real friendship and affection that developed between all three members, he also points out that they came from such ludicrously different backgrounds (starving black American musician, former child actor of an affluent family, and working-class suburban kid) such that while these disparate roots were often a source of humor and bonding between them, they also served as wedges (most notably between him and Mitch).  Their prodigious drug intake and Jimi increasingly falling prey to numerous hangers-on and sycophants led to rows which came to a head during the making of their landmark third album, Electric Ladyland in 1968.  Hendrix' perfectionism and inability to delegate any aspect of the music making to anyone other than himself and Eddie Kramer led to Chandler's departure and Noel's detachment, two close confidantes whose abandonment shook Jimi deeply. A final disastrous tour in 1969 led to the break up of the band, and although an attempt was made at reforming in early 1970, Jimi and Mitch effectively froze Noel out and they never worked together as a trio again.  Eventually, Hendrix succumbed to various pressures, both internal and external, and died under mysterious circumstances in September 1970, an event that devastated those who knew him, including Noel. But the effects on Noel's life that his years in the Experience had was about to get even bigger.

Even though the band was earning huge amounts of money during their career, especially between 1968 and 1970, they saw very little of it thanks to their unscrupulous and shady co-manager, Michael Jeffrey. Noel would end up spending the remainder of his life fighting to try and get his fair share of the royalties and percentages on all music he played on and film with his likeness. From the point in the book when Jimi died up until the end, it reads like an almost farcical tale of navigation through a legal labyrinth that has to be read in order to be believed. While it's a sad and cautionary tale reading the litany of ways in which Noel, Mitch, and even Jimi were swindled out of their money (mainly by the villainous Michael Jeffrey, who has been discussed in just about every Hendrix book for the same reasons), after a while it begins to simply be a laundry list of failed lawsuits and bills piling up that Noel and his longtime companion Carol couldn't pay. It is quite sad to read of just how skint Noel one point, he and Carol were doing odd jobs around their village in Ireland simply to earn enough to buy bread, potatoes, and milk so that they could eat; they lived in a house that was in such a state of disrepair that they could not afford to fix, and they were constantly beset by people who treated Noel as though he were a retired millionaire (based on his time with Hendrix) who would then cut all ties with him when they found out he was broke. He eventually settled all claims to his rightful Hendrix money for a paltry sum that ate away at him until he decided to kick his addictions, buck up, shake himself out of his depression, and move on. By the end of this book, he was much happier and was earning good money playing gigs around the world with his own band or at Hendrix tributes, and had a publishing deal for his book.  Sadly, Carol, who had helped compile the book from his diaries, passed away in 1990 right before the book came out in the UK, another death of someone close that devastated Noel.

The feeling one takes away from this book after reading it is that, while Noel (mostly) had fun during his time in the Experience, the years afterward were wasted by lawsuits, depression, drug and alcohol addiction, and financial troubles that destroyed his love of music until he was well into his 40s. It's a candid, humorous, sad, and cautionary tale of a man who reached the peak of the rock music world at a ridiculously young age and spent the rest of his life paying for his youthful naivety and inexperience until finally finding peace and comfort before his untimely death later on in 2003 at the age of 57.