Thursday, July 30, 2015

Supraterranean Homesick Blues

(with apologies to Bob Dylan for the title of this post!)

It's been just about a year since my wife, kids, and I moved to Pennsylvania from New England. The adjustment has taken quite a bit of time as both my wife and I had lived all but two years of our lives there, and those two years away were during my postdoctoral fellowship in South Carolina when we knew we'd end up back home once I got a job. Our kids were all born in New England and it's all they had ever known. However, I don't regret the move from the standpoint of providing for my family; I love my job and know that this is an opportunity that will allow me to provide for them in a way I would have struggled to do had we stayed in the Boston area (which is one of the most expensive in the country in which to live). Still, I think that out of all six of us, I've taken it the hardest as far as being homesick. We live in a really nice town, the kids go to a good school, we've made several really good friends, and we find a lot of fun things to do as a family.  Even so, as well as things are going, I really...REALLY...miss home. My wife and kids have made trips back to visit, but I haven't been able to because of work. The last time I went back home was Thanksgiving 2014, and we were going to take a vacation next month to spend time there to stay and visit with family, but it fell through due to conflicting schedules so it's not going to be until October before I go back, and only then for a weekend.

The weird thing is that the homesickness hits me at different times, seemingly at random, and can be triggered by the littlest things. Sometimes I overhear someone mention a town/city in New England that they've been to (for instance, a colleague mentioned a business trip he took to Boston last year). Other times it's when I see someone at a store wearing a Red Sox hat. It might be the emcee at a magic show we took the kids to last week who mentioned he grew up in the same town in Massachusetts where I was born, or someone at work asking me how far our company's facility in New Hampshire is from the town I'm from (it's only ten minutes away and I remember seeing it many times). Beyond these reminders, I find myself missing a lot of the little things you take for granted when you've lived somewhere for so long, especially when the place you're from has a unique and interesting culture of its own the way New England does.

What do I miss? A bunch of different things, really. I miss saying particular regional slang, words, or phrases and having everyone understand what I one knows what I mean when I ask for jimmies on my ice cream (chocolate sprinkles in New England), I found myself explaining brown bread in a can to some coworkers last week (a New England staple with hot dogs and beans!), and explaining the difference between a milkshake and a frappe is a losing proposition. I get teased for using the word wicked all the time, but always in a good-natured way. I miss being able to wear Red Sox/Patriots/Celtics/Bruins shirts or hats in public without getting funny looks (everyone here LOVES the Steelers and HATES the Patriots). I miss getting real, fresh seafood anywhere I want, real whoopie pies (they try hard here, but they're not the same), having Dunkin' Donuts everywhere, and grocery shopping at Market Basket. I miss never being more than an hour from the ocean, and I miss the different New England accents I've heard all my life, so much so that when I met a coworker who had a thick Massachusetts accent a few months ago, I struck up a conversation with him because it was so nice to be able to talk to someone about home. I miss listening to the sports talk radio shows on the Boston stations during my commute, with all of the passionate (and sometimes delusional) fans calling in to debate our teams strengths or (more entertainingly) perceived weaknesses. I miss being able to watch every Celtics, Bruins, Patriots, and Red Sox regular season and playoff game on TV because all of the teams have their own channels that are automatically included in every cable package. I miss seeing trees and mountains instead of endless rolling fields of corn, and I miss being less than an hour from a world-class city like Boston with its numerous museums, concerts, and sporting events (the dearth of live music and being way off the beaten path for any musician I would go see in concert is a HUGE killer for me here).

I realize when reading back that list, which by no means covers everything I miss, it seems as though I'm complaining. I'm I said above, things are going well here and we're adjusting slowly but surely.  That being said, I spent 32 years of my life (accounting for the two postdoctoral years down south) in New England and always thought I'd live the rest of my life there and would die there. That's why it was so jarring for me, and for all of us, to move away. The good thing is that we've met some other New England lifers who are now living here; there's an instant connection when we discover someone else is from back home. Even better, we're only a 5-6 hour drive from home. In the meantime, while I don't think I'll ever stop being homesick, I've been embracing what it is to be from New England and how that makes me unique. The internet helps me keep up with events and news back home, and I'm able to get the Boston sports channels on DirecTV so I can watch my teams. All in all, I've found it's okay to be homesick as long as I don't let it get me down. I'm getting better at focusing on what we've got going for us here, still missing home without getting (too) sad, and realizing that like everybody else, I'm a product of where I'm from and that's something that I'll carry with me no matter where I am.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Quintessential Songs: Reducing a Band's Essence to Just One Song (PART 1)

Recently I was having a conversation on Twitter with someone about the Rolling Stones when their great song "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" was brought up. The fellow I was chatting with mentioned that, to him, this was the quintessential Stones song. Since it's one of my favorite Stones songs, I could totally see his point, but it also got the wheels in my head turning. Does every band that any of us like have that one song that perfectly encapsulates everything about them? And could this be a fun and interesting way to help each other discover new music by grabbing our interest with that first, special song? I allowed my imagination to get away from me a little bit more and the longer I mulled this over, I decided to have some fun with it. 

So here's the challenge:

Imagine that you've just met a time traveler...they could be from 100 years in the past or from 100 years in the future. Or maybe you've met an alien being from another planet who has no idea what music is. Regardless of the scenario, pretend that you are confronted with this person and have to describe what music is (doesn't have to be rock music, it can be any genre). You're explaining it and they're just not understanding what it's all about. You think to yourself "you know what? It'll be easier if I just play them some music...that will convey it better than mere words can." However, they don't have a lot of time before they have to be on their've only got time to play them ONE SONG from each artist, so you need to make sure it counts.  This one song needs to:

- encapsulate the artist's essence and overall sound
- be memorable enough that it will stick in their head after just one listen
- if the artist has distinctly different eras to their music, it should cover enough of them such that it can bridge most, if not all of them in the one song

Sounds tough, right?

After a lot of thinking and analyzing, here are the quintessential songs I've come up with for some of my favorite artists, with explanations why (and audio) to help my arguments. If you like some of these bands, please share your picks in the comments section, as well as your picks for other bands not mentioned here. This is Part 1 of what will be as many posts in the series until I run out of ideas, so here goes!

The Rolling Stones: I have to start with the band that was the impetus for this entire exercise, don't I? I thought long and hard about this because "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" as discussed above would be a great choice: it's got an iconic Keith riff at the beginning, a sexy groove, sneering vocals from Mick, and a killer jam during the second half. However, it's not my choice for their quintessential song mainly because it's not too well known outside of serious Stones fans. That's not to say that the quintessential songs should be the most popular ones, but they should have enough mass appeal such that someone uninitiated could pick up on why after just one listen...after all, that's the reason the song is popular in the first place, right?  With that being said, my choice is...

Jumpin' Jack Flash. Released as a non-album single in 1968, for me this song (which narrowly beat out "Satisfaction" and "Gimme Shelter") has all of the ingredients that capture what the Stones are all about: an instantly recognizable riff, a slinky groove, a catchy chorus ("well it's aaaaaaaaaaall right now...") strutting, cocky vocals from Mick, and a darkness and swagger about the lyrics.  It's also has one foot in the experimental 1960s Stones approach that they were soon to leave behind while the other foot is firmly planted in the powerful blues/roots rock approach they'd reach their zenith with over the next five years. In short, it captures everything great about the Stones as they were exiting the singles-driven Brian Jones era and entering the album-driven Mick Taylor era. 

The Beatles: This was a really tough one because, I mean, how do you only pick ONE song to explain to someone how great the Beatles are? Beyond that, they had so much artistic growth in such a ridiculously short period of time that it's almost impossible to choose just one track that encapsulates everything they did. The early years were marked by infectiously catchy and exciting pop songwriting, the middle years had more complex songs, arrangements, and pioneering recording techniques, and the final years had a more stripped down but no less innovative approach. Beyond that, the sheer number of insanely popular and beloved songs means that there's a huge amount of stuff to choose from. That being said, I thought long and hard about this and came up with my choice, which is...

Hey Jude. Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is also my favorite Beatles song of all time, but I think it really does capture the essence of the band.  Play, or even just say, those first two words of the song to anyone and they'll instantly know what you mean. Hell, all of my kids knew this song when they were so young that they could barely speak. It's got a beautiful melody, uplifting lyrics, a great arrangement, and an anthemic chorus that you can't help but sing along to every time you hear it (go ahead and try to resist...I dare you!). Seeing Paul play this (and singing along with the entire crowd) when I saw him in concert was one of the highlights of my life, and that's no joke. It hearkens back to the pop craftsmanship of the early years, the stripped down sound of the later years, and an ambitious production (strings and horns at the end) as in the middle years. Plus, John Lennon was on record for after stating that it was his favorite song that his longtime collaborator ever wrote...coming from John, that's got to count for a lot, doesn't it? (Songs it narrowly edged out: too many to list!)

The Who: There's a lot of ground to try and cover here with this band if you're going to reduce it down to just one song. There's the early, high-energy R&B stuff (1964-65), the mid-1960s power pop with all of those great, classic singles (1966-68), the rock opera/stadium anthems of the 1969-73 period, or the more introspective, cynical, and experimental later era stuff (1975-78). For me, there is and has always been one Who song that perfectly captures the essence of the band, and tough as it is to pass over classics like "Won't Get Fooled Again," "Pinball Wizard," "My Generation," "Love Reign O'er Me," "Slip Kid," and "Who Are You" among many others, the ultimate Who song for me is...

Bargain. First of all, this song has been hailed by critics, fans, and the band themselves as containing one of, if not THE best ensemble performances of the Who's entire career as captured on record. As Pete Townshend once said of this song, "I didn't play the guitar on that played me." It's the perfect balance between the hard rock they were masters of and the melodic introspection Pete was always able to inject into his songs. And of course, you have Roger Daltrey getting inside the heart, mind, and soul of the main character, delivering the vocals with incredible passion and power. The chorus is instantly recognizable and hits you like a ton of bricks ("I call that a bargain...the best I ever had...the best I EVER HAD!"), and the quieter middle section sung by Pete Townshend is so beautiful and moving, musically and lyrically, that it's enough to make you cry. And that, to me, is what makes this the quintessential Who song: it goes from ass-kicking rock to tear-jerker back to kicking your ass again in the span of a few minutes. It doesn't hurt that in addition to Daltrey's and Townshend's tremendous performances, Keith Moon and John Entwistle turn in one of the performances of their lives. John's bass guitar is all over the place, melodic and powerful, while Moon is a monster on the drum kit but is at the same time incredibly tasteful and plays to the song. His double-bass drum flutters and the workout he gives his entire kit during the outro is exciting as all get out, and the final strummed guitar chords and synth melody still give me chills after all these years. Everything great about the Who, all in one song...that's the whole point of this post, isn't it?

 (I had to include this live version from San Francisco in December 1971 because it's just so damn good!)

The Kinks: Along similar lines, the Kinks' career was so long and so varied that there are numerous distinct eras that need to be taken into account. There's the early R&B and proto-punk rock/heavy metal of early singles like "You Really Got Me" and "All Day and All of the Night." There's the mature, groundbreaking string of brilliant hit singles from 1965-1968 like "Tired of Waiting For You," "See My Friends," "Waterloo Sunset," "Sunny Afternoon," "Autumn Almanac," "Days," and more. There was the string of brilliant albums beginning with 1966's Face to Face and running through 1972's Everybody's in Showbiz. There was the concept album phase of the early to mid-1970s, their hard rock/arena rock phase of 1977-1984, and the gradual petering out of their career from the mid-1980s until 1996. Ray Davies was one of the most brilliant and prolific songwriters of his, or any, generation (and his brother Dave was no slouch in this department either) and managed to steer the Kinks on an always unpredictable course over their thirty-two year career. And as a fan of all of their material, I found it incredibly hard to choose just one song to encapsulate everything about this great band. How do you pick just one song to cover all of the ground that they did over such a long career? Surely some aspect of their essence, their sound will be left out, right? Keeping all of this in mind, and thinking long and hard about this, I came up with...

Lola. An obvious choice, perhaps, but hear me out. I was trying to come up with one of the more obscure, but no less excellent, Kinks songs to fit the bill and while several came close, all roads kept leading back to Lola. For me, it's the right song for a number of reasons. It has an instantly recognizable and iconic riff at the opening of the song. It straddles the hard rock side of the Kinks' music with a bit of theatrical camp. It has classic Ray Davies lyrics that are not only cerebral and thought-provoking, but very humorous. It's got great harmony vocals from Dave (which I've always found to be absolutely integral and vital to the Kinks' sound), as well as a great band performance from all involved. And the chorus is catchy and, at this point, known by just about anyone in the English speaking world whether they even know the song or not. It also fits perfectly within the Kinks' ethos of being a great standalone single, yet also fitting in context perfectly on the album it was lifted from.  Finally, the seemingly humorous (and true!) tale of a man falling in love with a woman who may or may not be a man in drag hints at deeper things, such as questioning and reaffirming what it is that makes the singer masculine. The ambiguity when Ray sings "well I'm not the world's most masculine man, but I know what I am and I'm glad I'm a man, and so is Lola" is classic Davies: is Lola glad he's a man, or is Lola a man, too? It's left unresolved and for the listener to decide. In my mind, the answer to this open-ended question has always been "yes" unresolved as the question itself. That's the mark of a great song, and for me Lola is quintessential Kinks.

Led Zeppelin: Yet another band who had distinct phases to their career, although perhaps in a different way to the Kinks, Who, or Beatles. While they definitely incorporated different elements into their sound and effectively utilized dynamics and acoustic instrumentation, they never strayed too heavily from their heavy blues and folk roots. Still, they were definitely a 1960s band that evolved as the 1970s went along, unlike the one-dimensional heavy metal bands they subsequently inspired. That being said, it was still quite difficult for me to distill their musical essence down to just one song because there were so many facets to Led Zeppelin: hard rock, blues, Celtic/English folk, and more. Beyond that, there are signature elements of their sound, from Robert Plant's powerful vocals and Jimmy Page's virtuoso guitar work, to John Paul Jones' brilliant bass guitar and multi-instrument work and John Bonham's fantastic drumming. In addition, Bonham and Jones were one of the finest rhythm sections in the history of of the few that really locked in and could swing. I had to keep all of this in mind when making my decision, which ended up being...

Over the Hills and Far Away. No, I didn't go for the obvious choice of "Stairway to Heaven"...great song, but overplayed to death. As for other signature Zeppelin songs like "Black Dog," "Whole Lotta Love," "Immigrant Song," "Achilles Last Stand," and others in that same vein, they didn't have as much of the famous light and shade that Zeppelin traded in. Honestly, this song beat out "Kashmir" and "Ramble On" by a very slim margin: "Kashmir" just doesn't feature enough of Page's guitar or Jones' bass, while "Ramble On"...well, it's a GREAT song but I just feel "Over the Hills and Far Away" beats it by a nose. In my opinion, it's got it all when it comes to Zeppelin: a quiet acoustic intro that builds up, a hard rock main body of the song, Plant singing in his best, most powerful wail, driving bass and drums from the Jones/Bonham rhythm section, a great Page electric guitar solo, and a gentle acoustic outro. Plus, it's catchy and melodic, two things Led Zeppelin almost always was (and for which they don't get nearly the credit they deserve). It may not rock as hard as their heaviest moments, but Led Zeppelin was never only about being heavy, and to me "Over the Hills and Far Away" is the perfect cross-section of everything that makes Led Zeppelin great.

The Doors: For the last entry in Part 1, I've decided to pick a song from one of the greatest American rock bands to come out of the 1960s, and again, a personal favorite: The Doors. Besides being one of the biggest bands of the era, the legendary band from Los Angeles had one of the most unique line-ups and sounds in all of rock, consisting solely of guitar, organ, drums, and vocals. No bass guitar at all in the band except on some of their studio tracks. The bulk of the bass parts on record, and all of them on stage, were handled by keyboard player Ray Manzarek's left hand on a Fender Keyboard Bass; at the same time, he played his intricate and complex keyboard/organ/piano melodies with his right hand. Beyond Ray's talent, they had a solid and talented drummer in John Densmore who had more of a jazz background than in rock, but he had a very unique style and sound. The same can be said for guitarist Robby Krieger, who was not a blues and rock based guitarist like the vast majority of his peers, but rather was rooted in classical, jazz, and flamenco guitar. He played without a pick, had a one-of-a-kind style, and wrote the majority of the band's music (along with Morrison). While their various albums had subtle shades and shifts in sound, at their core the Doors were a blues-based psychedelic band with more classical and jazz leanings than anyone around at the time. With all of that said, and with all of their music to choose from, I perhaps still took the obvious way out by choosing their first #1 single...

Light My Fire. Written mainly by Robby Krieger (with significant input from Jim Morrison), the Doors breakthrough single from 1967 is widely considered to be their signature song and in my opinion, is the ultimate Doors song. Starting with a machine-gun crack of John Densmore's snare drum, it's got every element of the Doors sound wrapped up in its 7-minute duration. First, there's Ray Manzarek's throbbing keyboard bass and classical flourish lead melody line that drives the entire song. There's Krieger's bluesy/jazzy fingerpicked guitar licks filling the spaces between throughout, playing more of a supporting role to Ray's keyboards. Densmore's Latin-influenced jazzy drumming and rock-steady backbeat underpins it all and is the foundation the other three rest upon. Jim Morrison's vocals, ranging from his hushed baritone before he gets into his throat-tearing screams, build excitement before he ends the song by whipping himself into a frenzy at the end of the song. The lyrics range from a simple professing of the singer's desire for his girl's love to some slightly darker, almost mysitcal elements as to what needs to happen so that they can "set the night on fire." Sandwiched in between the beginning and ending verses is a long solo section that takes up half of the song and is a showcase for both Manzarek and Krieger, the former playing a hypnotic bassline with his left hand while his right hand solos masterfully, the latter playing a very jagged and dissonant solo that sounds nothing like all of the blues noodling of his fellow American guitar contemporaries. While the Doors had loads of great songs throughout their career, for me, "Light My Fire" is the song that has all of the elements that made the Doors one of the biggest American rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

So concludes Part 1 of this series! It was a lot of fun and made me really think about what it is about each of these bands that appeals to me when it comes to their music. If you're a fan of any of these bands, what do you think of my selections? Agree/disagree? And for your own favorites, what would your one song be to show an uninformed listener what they were all about?  Part 2 will have more of these song choices from other bands, so I hope you'll stick with me as we go through this exercise!


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Interview with Ray Foulk & Caroline Foulk, authors of When the World Came to the Isle of Wight: Stealing Dylan From Woodstock

Author Ray Foulk

Author Caroline Foulk

Today I'm very pleased and very excited to bring you the following interview with Ray and Caroline Foulk, authors of the fantastic new book When the World Came to the Isle of Wight, Volume 1: Stealing Dylan From Woodstock. I reviewed the book earlier this year and Ray and Caroline were kind enough to answer my questions regarding the second Isle of Wight Festival in 1969, what is was like booking Bob Dylan for the festival, and much, much more. Before we begin, how about a little background on the authors?

Ray Foulk, now based in Oxford, has fostered many passions since his early days as a promoter. After the dizzy heights of the Isle of Wight Festivals and stadium events in London, the Foulk brothers were head-hunted by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to help plan the leisure content of their new city. Through this, Ray brought the inventor/scientist/designer Buckminster Fuller to the project, embraced his environmentalism, and eventually trained as an architect himself at the University of Cambridge. Combining design, education, and promotion he spent much of the nineties and noughties as an environmental campaigner, and led the ambitious in-schools project, Blue Planet Day, rekindling the satisfaction, and more, that the festivals had brought to his youth. Recent years have been dominated by environmental architecture and writing.

Caroline Foulk has worked with her father, Ray, for many years, researching, writing, and co-promoting the schools environmental project, Blue Plant Day. Recently, together they have completed a screenplay for the cinema about the invention of modern art. Caroline trained and worked as a teacher and lives in Oxford with her husband and three children.

RNRChemist: First off, can you give us a bit of background on you? How did you come to settle on the Isle of Wight? What year was that and what were the circumstances? How did you like living there?

RF: After the relatively sudden death of my father in 1956 it was no longer practical for my mother to keep up a large house in Derbyshire with 5 young children to bring up. We moved to the Island because my Uncle already had property there. Also my aging grandmother lived there. It suited Uncle Ronald to encourage Mother to move.We were disappointed in some respects with the island, especially the house we relocated to, which was parochial and small compared to the amazing mansion house we left behind. Sutton Rock had seemed such a marvel to my father’s family who had lived for generations as coal miners. I think we had an overall general feeling of immense loss, but the seaside was a plus.

RNRChemist: What was the impetus for you and your brothers to decide to stage the first festival in 1968? Why did you decide to do that?

RF: We put on the first IOW festival because my brother Ronnie got involved in raising funds for a local charity – IWISPA, whose remit was to raise money for an indoor swimming pool for the IOW.

RNRChemist: That first festival seems to be the forgotten one of the three you promoted...looking back on it, what are your thoughts on it?

RF:  The first festival seems almost a little embarrassing in retrospect. Although it was put on with a degree of professionalism, the stubble field was painful to sit on and we made wild claims about the national significance of the event, for instance we put it about that the Beatles would attend, (little did we know that they really would come the following year). We were disappointed that only about 10,000 attended. My brother Bill had assured us of the importance of Jefferson Airplane, Arthur Brown and the various underground bands. The island felt like a hopeless place for events.

RNRChemist: What did you have to go through to get Jefferson Airplane to headline that first one? How was their performance?

RF:  My brother Ronnie had to keep plugging away for Jefferson Airplane. He was casting around for any big names really. He had little knowledge of the contemporary scene and was turned down many times. He had no track record as a promoter and had to rely on his abilities as a salesman to finally convince the Clayman Agency that we were really serious contenders able to host an event worthy of an international band like Jefferson Airplane.

When it came to playing the Airplane were on form. Although it was freezing cold they brought rock genius into the night and lifted everybody’s spirits. They made everything seem worthwhile even though their light show was constrained by the dusty conditions.

RNRChemist: When you decided to plan the festival for the following year, what sort of things did you feel you needed to improve upon from 1968?

RF:  The IOW festival ‘mark one’ had seemed makeshift in many ways. We definitely wanted to make our festival-goers more welcome and comfortable – to go bigger and better in every way. It was important that we found a decent grassy site with proper facilities. Probably the biggest difference was that we styled it a ‘Camping festival’, which was unusual at this time. Because we were on an island we wanted people to have enough time to travel. Trench type toilets were replaced by cubicles and we appointed staff, often friends, to different departments overseeing every aspect of festival necessities. Everything was more designed from the tickets, to the programmes, posters etc. to the stage. We tried to address everything with excellence.

RNRChemist: Why Dylan? What made him your top choice as headliner for the second festival? Did you think you had a realistic shot at booking him? Was it more a "shoot for the moon" type thing?

RF:  It was obvious that we needed the biggest names to draw people across the water. Jefferson Airplane hadn’t been able to do this – the task of finding somebody with enough clout seemed daunting. Dylan really was the holy grail in 1969, he had acquired a god-like status due to his influence upon a whole generation. He was more than an ordinary musician, whether he liked it or not.

RNRChemist: I'm assuming you were expecting to be turned down outright by Dylan's management when you first called? What was your reaction when they didn't immediately say "no?"

RF:  I don’t think we set out believing that we had a chance to get Dylan. The fact that Dylan’s management didn’t dismiss us out of hand was a green light to us. We resorted to scheming over what might make the difference, bearing in mind that we had very few resources at all.

RNRChemist: Can you describe in more detail what the process was like for dealing with Block and Grossman as you warmed Bob up to the idea of coming to the island?

RF:  We had less dealings with Al Grossman than with Bert Block owing to the demise of the Dylan-Grossman contract. Dylan was in the process of distancing himself from Grossman. During my visit to New York for the signing when I dined with Grossman and the lawyers almost immediately at a Chinese restaurant (something I’d never experienced before). And after the signing when we visit Grossman’s flat at Gramercy Park. It was there that Al skinned up a joint to celebrate the deal (to my alarm). Al was like a presence but not so much involved. He came to the festival with Michael Lang and seemed more interested in seeing the Who than Dylan.

 I mostly dealt with Grossman’ partner, Bert Block. We developed a good rapport, over the phone initially.  Sometimes Bert wrong-footed me. When he said ‘bring the dollars’ (in preparation for my trip to meet Dylan) I really had to think about what he meant. I looked after him whenever he visited the Island. I made it my mission to make sure Bert was okay and therefore Dylan was okay. Bert seemed a really good old timer, kind of avuncular, though he probably wasn’t that old in reality. I recall I scared Bert a couple of times with my driving, but he always had faith in our abilities as promoters. As for the process of dealing with Block and Grossman it was pretty smooth, apart from Rikki Farr’s little indiscretion. They were decent, friendly and business-like. We knew we had to present ourselves in a business-like way at all times, especially in order to surmount our youthfulness and it paid off.  I had too much to think about to be too overawed by their stature as managers.

RNRChemist: How was it traveling to New York to meet with Dylan and his management? Can you describe how that whole trip went?

RF:  Travelling to New York was a lot of fun. I hadn’t been abroad before of course. Once I had my passport, visa and the guarantees for at least most of the performance fees I could almost sit back and enjoy the ride. A downside was Rikki and his antics. He was a loose cannon and wont to step in claiming he was the organiser, which he patently wasn’t, as well as louse things up, but I had the benefit of his demeanour as a bonafide show producer. We needed to be a convincing duo and Rikki certainly helped.

RNRChemist: After you got Bob, how did you guys feel? I'm guessing it was relief mixed with the immediate pressure of "now how are we gonna make sure it all goes smoothly?

RF:  Securing Dylan was unbelievable but the time period (5 weeks) between him signing and the festival itself was so short that there was really no time to do anything but get organised as rapidly as possible. Ticket sales were the priority. We had to raise enough cash to meet the contracts and build a city. But it wasn’t like a relief it was more euphoric than that. 

RNRChemist: Why choose Dylan? Why not the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix, someone else? What about Bob made you want to go for him above all others?

RF:  Dylan was a way bigger draw than the Stones or Hendrix at this point. The Beatles would have measured up to Dylan but they were in the process of their break up and hadn’t played live in eons.  Elvis’s name even came up, but we couldn’t imagine him playing in a field.  We were after one of the big three. Dylan was the only viable option. It’s easy to underestimate how big Dylan was at this time.

RNRChemist: You mention that you and your brothers weren't promoters, you were did that gibe with trying to put on these massive festivals?

RF:  Although we were businessmen rather than promoters I was pretty heavily into some of the issues of the time and was active with the IOW CND and labour party. In fact I set up a CND group in the West Wight. So although I was making a living in business my heart was with the counterculture.  The same is true of my brother Bill who was a student at the Royal College of Art. It’s true that my musical education was lacking at the time of the first festival. Bill was easily able to point us in the right direction groups-wise. But it suited us well to have a business-like approach to the festivals.  The organisation of the two large events was very complementary from the viewpoint of those that mattered, ie. the health authorities, police and bulk of the audience. It just wouldn’t have been possible to host such large numbers without a budget, plan, capable staff and their departments, at least not without creating a disaster area.

RNRChemist: You mention that you were a late convert to Dylan and weren't necessarily a huge rock fan at the time...what were your listening habits like in the 1960s? Did they change after putting on these three festivals?

RF:  My musical taste changed dramatically. Above all I persisted with Dylan and soon became a genuine fan. We were fully incentivized to get familiar with as much current music as we could find the time to listen to it. It was soon flooding in too with demos coming at us from all quarters. Before this time I was a Johnny Cash fan, I liked the Beatles, trad jazz and knew about (by then) old hat stars like Adam Faith and Billy Fury.

RNRChemist: Can you give us a little flavor into how it was organizing this massive festival out of your house, and with 1960s technology to boot! I'd bet most young people today couldn't even imagine how much harder it was than it would be now.

RF:  In some ways organising the massive Dylan festival was easier than it might be nowadays. We had less technology available, but those were the days when the fixed line telephone really worked. People tended to answer reliably and it was easier to make contact even with celebrities. In the case of going above people’s head a person-to-person call would often do the trick. Social media nowadays can take up a lot of time and work. Being restricted to largely paper publications, telephone, radio and television for advertising actually meant concentrating on the job would have been easier in some ways. We employed messengers to deal with some of tasks now taken care of by email and text. Conditions at Mother’s house were hardly consistent with a world-class rock festival but we did make use of a suite of rooms on the upper floor, which became workable office space. Of course dining tables doubled as desks etc. as far as furniture was concerned. Mother was fairly self-contained in a separate wing of the house, but would help on occasion by answering international phone calls in the middle of the night, or providing voluminous quantities of good home cooked food for whoever might be staying.

RNRChemist: What were some of the most difficult parts of the entire festival for you in terms of planning and execution?

RF:  Raising funds was always the most problematic planning issue from the moment that Dylan agreed to sign especially in the early stages when potential backers just really wouldn’t believe that an event headed up by Dylan would happen. Without funds nothing could happen smoothly, but once Dylan had signed of course tickets were selling like lightening, which freed us up to concentrate on other vital matters like building the arena and finding Dylan and co. places to stay. One of the hairiest moments was when Dylan disembarked from the QUEII following his son‘s accident on board. Everything was riding on Dylan’s appearance. We suddenly realised how vulnerable we were.

RNRChemist: What was it like meeting the Beatles and other titans of the music world in 1969?

RF:  It was quite surreal meeting famous people like the Beatles and other rock titans but to be honest I wasn’t interested in hanging around such people too much. There were plenty of others ready to do that. We were so consumed by the operation at hand that you could only take it in your stride. We were there to do a job and we had to concentrate hard on the necessities of keeping the thing together.

RNRChemist: What was Dylan like as a person? How about George Harrison? The other Beatles? The Who? Other rock musicians you met at the festival?

RF:  My first impression of Dylan was that he was quite shy, probably shyer than me even. He was very ordinary, a regular down to earth kind of guy, polite and well spoken. He was dressed in jeans and a leather jacket and I suppose he appeared smaller than I expected, not that he is especially small but anyone with that big a name you kind of imagine to be larger.

George had all eyes for Dylan and clearly set about resuming the relationship he had been building with him after he had visited the Dylan’s home some months before. I enjoyed very much standing there and listening to them harmonizing beautifully to some Everly Brothers hits. That was a truly special moment, like a private concert.

The Beatles were very charming and seemed relaxed either hanging out at the farmhouse or backstage. They were keen on talking between themselves and were apologetic, saying that they didn’t get much chance to talk shop. John and Yoko were quite clingy as I remember.

The Who? We developed a good relationship with them which continued after the 1969 and 1970 festivals with Rock at the Oval in 1971. It has been said that the Isle of Wight gigs were the events of the Who’s career, which I’d be inclined to agree with. They could only have been pleased by their performance, reception, everything worked like a dream for them.

RNRChemist: What was your relationship like with your two brothers, Ronnie and Bill? How about with Rikki Farr? He certainly seemed to have had a knack for saying the wrong thing at a most inopportune time!

RF:  The relationship between my brother Ronnie and I had always been close and inevitably under the circumstances we pulled together. Ronnie is a visionary. I would endeavour to bring in to reality whatever the latest idea was. We worked well as a team and developed ideas together around the clock. Our brother Bill was younger and away at the Royal College of Art some of the time. He was a very important advisor to key decisions such as what acts to go for, what type of festival we were putting on aside from his general duties on site and stage design.

Rikki was a mixed blessing. He was loud, gregarious and amiable. We had a good working relationship with him though he could be unruly. He would breeze in from his Portsmouth menswear shop as something of a VIP but he really wasn’t around on the Island that much. Most of his input came to the fore at the festival itself. He could be a liability in terms of saying the wrong thing, at other times he was able to pull us out of a difficult spot and had valuable experience to add to our credibility.  It was said that he took after his boxer father using his mouth like other people use their fists!

RNRChemist: How did you feel about things heading into the moment when the festival was actually about to start? Confident? Nervous? Terrified? All of the above?

RF:  There were so many balls to keep in the air there was barely time to think about whether we felt nervous or terrified.  In reality there were moments of feeling overawed by the event – like the first time stepping on to the stage at Woodside Bay and seeing that immense crowd – that was quite something.

RNRChemist: Who were your favorite acts from the entire weekend?

RF:  Dylan was the favourite act for me that weekend. It was only during his set that I really sat down in the wings and listened without distraction. The Bonzo Dog Band were certainly amusing as I recall, The Band were stunning and Gary Farr did well. There were many great moments.  Ronnie was really excited about the Who, though sadly he heard them only from a great distance away.

RNRChemist: What was it like to see a crowd that size? How do you remember them? Overall, were they well behaved?

RF: Generally the crowd was well behaved (with certain exceptions like towards Mr and Mrs Thackham, with their bungalow adjacent to the stage, or suffered a minor insult). We never expected otherwise. In fact there was earnestness in the demeanour of most folks, like they really came to hear the music – that was what they were there for.  Generally nobody stood up during the acts. Etiquette was that you would sit and refrain from obscuring the view of your brother or sister in front of you. Otherwise you might find yourself pelted with coke cans.

RNRChemist: What was going through your head when the Band were delayed for a couple of hours and Dylan was getting antsy?

RF: We were not overly worried about the delay to see Dylan. It wasn’t as if the crowd was going anywhere and 10pm would have been a rather early finish. Of course it did cut out the likelihood of Dylan playing on longer, which would have been a bonus and certainly knocked out the possibility of a jam with the Beatles or Stones. Of course that was never really going to happen anyway. We were most aware of the discomfort and general scrimmaging in the press arena. We didn’t really intrude on Dylan during his preparations so we weren’t really too aware of his level of discomfort.

RNRChemist: Dylan's set: your thoughts? How do you think it went down then, and how do you feel about now with hindsight (and being able to listen to it in full via his recent release of it)?

RF:  I enjoyed Dylan’s set immensely. Sure he was different.  He sounded for the first time like he could really sing well. It was a well-constructed set, the Band were perfect in sync with what he was doing.  There were quiet moments and raucous moments. It was great music. The digital release of recent times bears out the quality of the gig and it is a joy to hear it in its remastered form. The audience listened attentively rather than reacted in raptures and calls for encores continued for 20 minutes. There is no doubt that he was well received. For all those expecting the wired rock poet of 1966 they would have been disappointed. Dylan had leapt ahead in with his stage persona. Many were left behind wondering where the old Dylan was.

RNRChemist: How accurately (or not) do you feel the press covered Dylan's set, as well as the whole festival, afterward? It certainly seemed that both you and Bob weren't too keen on what was printed!

RF:  Positive press reports were widespread. There was negativity expressed afterwards in certain quarters of the UK gutter press regarding Dylan cutting short his set - which of course was not true, but perhaps this might have been a reaction to the pre-festival hype predicting a super-jam with the Stones and the Beatles. Others were casting around for something to write – a peaceful trouble-free festival was really not exciting enough. The negatives were easily outweighed by the positives, but it was significantly damaging to Dylan for him to reflect uneasily on playing in the UK afterwards although initially he had seemed delighted with the event. Comments were as varied as George Harrison’s words reported in the Daily Mirror ‘I could go on talking about Dylan for eight hours. He’s unlimited in what he’s doing…’ to the Daily Sketch’s ‘Dylan cuts it short after midnight flop’ For us the flimsy complaints were irritating to say the least but by and large we were very happy. Reporting in general ranged from generally accurate to accounts laden with descriptions of debauchery and depravity, some of which could be quite funny.

RNRChemist: After the festival, can you describe how you felt? How did you think things went?

RF:  After the festival and the initial exhaustion, we felt elated combined with a huge sense of relief for having pulled it off. We were astonished at how well it had gone really. We were completely inspired to repeat the event, if not to surpass it.

RNRChemist: What was the festival site like after everyone left? How long did it take to clean up and return to normal?

RF:  The festival site was awash with rubbish as far as the eye could see. As you might expect, but there was no permanent damage other than minor damage to the catering tent, which had been used as a vantage point by Bob-spotters. It took three or four weeks to restore the site to its former condition.

RNRChemist: Any folks in particular that you want to single out as being particularly helpful throughout the whole festival, from planning to execution to wrap-up?

RF:  There are certain individuals who were particularly helpful throughout the festival. Turner Smith on site was a powerhouse of a man, strapping and strong and willing to take on any task. He had good knowledge of construction and general engineering matters. Electrician Harry Garrood was similarly around from the beginning. He was very skilled and kept with us. Another older gent Dr Quantrill was willing to stick his neck out for us in influencing the authorities to have faith in us and to dismiss scurrilous health scares as ridiculous.

RNRChemist: What was the local reaction before, during, and after the festival?
RF:  Local reaction to the oncoming festival was not initially as great as you might think. In fact a large number of Isle of Wight residents simply had no time to really contemplate what was actually arriving on the Island. Obviously there was great excitement among the youngsters. Some of this was evidenced on site when youths would come by and offer to do any job, sometimes without pay. Older people expressed dismay at the prospect of the Island being flooded with festivalgoers – perhaps our slogan ‘Help Bob Dylan Sink the Isle of Wight’ didn’t help there. During the festival itself there were stresses on certain resources for instance provisions in local shops -but others saw the festival as a great opportunity and set out their stalls, literally!  The reaction afterwards was similarly mixed. On the whole young people were very much in favour of the festival while those of the older generation who objected were wild with antagonism and would express their hostility in extreme terms.

RNRChemist: Why did you decide to jump right into planning the next one? How much time did you take to relax and bask in the afterglow of the '69 festival before starting to plan for '70?

RF:  After just a few days or weeks of reflection, recuperation and taking stock our thoughts gravitated towards another festival. It was inevitable. There was no question of basking in an afterglow for very long. There was just too much to do if we were to repeat the festival only go one better.

RNRChemist: What's your overarching memory of that year and what you and your colleagues accomplished with the 1969 Isle of Wight festival?

RF:  It was a staggering realisation to have accomplished what we had set out to do. It was life changing. It felt like we could do anything or that anything was possible, once the finance was organised.

RNRChemist: Ray and Caroline, thank you so much for your time and insight. You've got me looking forward to volume two even more and I hope we can continue our discussion after that book is published. In the meantime, to my readers, I can't recommend Stealing Dylan From Woodstock enough...if you're a fan of the era and/or any of the acts that played the IOW in 1969, you'll definitely enjoy reading about how it all came together. Britain's answer to Woodstock was bigger and in many ways better, and incredibly they topped it the following year, but the story of how that happened will have to wait for volume two...

Friday, July 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Pete Townshend: Who I Am

As much of a Beatles fanatic as I am, I'm as big a fan of the Who. In fact, while I absolutely adore everything the Beatles did and count John Lennon and Paul McCartney as two of my favorite (and two of the best) songwriters of all time (along with Ray Davies), for reasons which I've gone into before and will touch on briefly here, the top songwriter in my life has been and always will be Pete Townshend. I don't exaggerate when I say that no other songwriter and guitarist has had a bigger influence on me than Pete. As a musician myself, his songwriting and lyrics are among those I've studied and deconstructed the most over the years and which I've tried to amalgamate into my own songwriting. Likewise, his inventive and fantastic guitar playing is the closest comparison to my own style and ability of anyone else I've ever been influenced by. He and I are both excellent rhythm players, better soloists than we give ourselves credit for, and we both have to find new and interesting ways to express ourselves through the guitar. (Let me stop here and say that I readily acknowledge that I'm not half the guitarist Pete is...his fingerstyle playing continues to blow my mind yet still slightly elude me, while I'm nowhere near the composer or pianist he is). As a fan, his songs have meant more to me than those written by probably anyone else, part of their magic and impact coming from the fact that they mean different things to me now that I'm a grown man than they did when I was a confused teenager, but no less relevant. Finally, as one of the most articulate, intelligent, and ambitious musicians in all of rock music, I'm always interested in what Pete has to say, and his vulnerability, self-esteem issues, and somewhat tortured soul have always fascinated me, not least of all because I can personally relate to them in my own ways.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying that I all but worship at the altar of Pete Townshend, so when I first heard the news in 2011 that his long-awaited memoirs would finally be published, to say I eagerly awaited the book would be an understatement. It was released in 2012 and my thoughtful wife bought me a copy for Christmas that year, knowing as she does how much Pete and his music mean to me. I read it cover to cover in a matter of days over the Christmas holiday and thoroughly enjoyed it, but then a funny thing happened...I started to read comments from music fans and Who fans online, on Amazon reviews, and elsewhere and they were a mixed bag. Many people felt the same way as I did and loved the book, but an even larger contingent of fans, as well as reviewers, disliked the book, saying it was too narcissistic and focused too much on Pete's personal life and not enough on the Who. I found this very strange since the whole point of a memoir is to discuss one's entire life, not just the most exciting bits. With that in mind, when it came time to review the book for this site, I decided to give it a fresh re-reading, and so that with that I'll (finally!) get on with it...

Who I Am took Pete many years to write and was originally over 1,000 pages long before his editor and publisher asked him to trim it to just over 500 pages.  When I had first learned this it disappointed me because I would love to read all 1,000 pages that Pete wrote...I remain hopeful that someday an unedited collector's edition of the full manuscript will be published for us hardcore fans. In any event, the book as constituted begins with Pete's birth in London in May 1945, mere days after the end of World War II in Europe. He was born into a musical family: his father Cliff was a saxophone player in the RAF and led a popular dance band called the Squadronaires, while his mother Betty was a well-known singer and dancer. Young Pete was not encouraged to pursue music as a child and in fact, in many ways he was discouraged, mainly by his father. He paints the portrait of a very lonely and isolated childhood, always on the road with his parents when they were performing, and of feeling left out at school. His lone friend was Jimpy, a neighborhood boy he fondly remembers. He was further traumatized at the age of six when he was sent to live with his crazy grandmother Denny, who he later says was literally "insane." His parents' marriage was falling apart due to their alcoholism and persistent extramarital affairs and for some reason that Pete to this day doesn't understand, they thought sending him to live with Denny would help. She was in the beginning stages of severe mental illness and abused him mentally, emotionally, and physically. She also allowed several strange men she would randomly invite in from the bus station across the street to sexually abuse Pete, the memories of which he would suppress until much later in his life. After this harrowing year, Cliff and Betty reconciled and brought Pete back to live with him. It was during these subsequent school years that he befriended future bandmates John Entwistle and Roger Daltrey (the latter who punched Pete on the playground during their first encounter...a rocky start to a lifelong friendship!). After displaying some musical aptitude while noodling on a piano, and encouraged by his beloved Aunt Trilby, Pete took up guitar, taught himself to play, and the rest is the well-known story of the Who.

I don't intend to go into much detail on the Who's career in this review as it's been done to death, both by me right here on this site, as well as countless others. Pete himself goes through their career in good detail, from his time in art college when he joined the Detours in 1961 to the solidifying of their line-up in 1964 and their subsequent career. The interesting part of all of this is how he describes his creative process as he learned how to write songs, developed his home recording studios (an area in which he was a true pioneer), and created masterpieces like Tommy, Who's Next, and Quadrophenia. Throughout this period in the book, he also touches on his feelings of loneliness, emptiness, and the spiritual vacuum that was eventually filled by his becoming a lifelong disciple of Meher Baba in 1968. This went hand in hand with his self-loathing and low self-esteem, especially as he slowly sank further into alcoholism and was sporadically unfaithful to his wife Karen. In fact, it's his constant relationship problems that run throughout almost the entire book which even to such a huge fan as myself, are difficult to comprehend. He was incredibly shy and lacked confidence around girls as a young man, and he didn't have his first sexual experiences with a woman until he was around twenty years old. From that moment on, it's not that he was a serial philanderer in the mold of Mick Jagger or many other of his rock and roll peers; Pete's problem was that he was a serial romantic. Apart from a handful of one-night stands during his years on the road with the Who, he mentions how he tried very hard to stay faithful to Karen, which he able to do for long stretches at a time. However, getting back to the "serial romantic" bit, he was constantly falling in love with other women and embarking on newly obsessive relationships with them. At the same time, he kept professing his love for the long-suffering Karen, wanting desperately to stay married and be a good father to their young children, yet his periods of fulfillment were always countered with flights of fancy with other ladies. As a husband and father myself, this is the biggest aspect of his personality of his that was most difficult for me to understand; it fascinated me that he could rationalize it as much as he did, while at the same time it confused and disturbed me, especially because Pete didn't seem to think there was anything unusual about his marriage or the way he fell in and out of love with just about every woman, including his wife. It was almost anti-climactic when he and Karen finally divorced in the late 1990s after 30 years of marriage (with long stretches of separations over the final decade). He does, however, seem to be finally happy (and faithful!) with Rachel Fuller, with whom he's been in a relationship with since 1996. As he himself admits, much of this is due to her being a workaholic musician and hot-tempered individual, just like him...finally, he has found someone who can relate to him on that level and vice versa.

As for the biggest revelations in the book, in my opinion those would be Pete's discussions about his struggles with alcoholism, his hearing loss, and the scandal involving his investigation of his past childhood sexual abuse which led to his arrest in an online sting operation. Regarding his alcohol abuse, he grew up with two parents who had drinking problems and though he was able to control it reasonably well throughout the main part of the Who's career, after Keith Moon died he used alcohol (and a newly developed drug habit) to cope with his grief. Indeed, he touches on how he has never been good at coping with grief or expressing his sadness, and called the decision to carry on the Who in the wake of Keith's death, especially so quickly, as "insanity." He spent a long time sober in the 1980s but fell off the wagon again until he finally sobered up for good by the mid-1990s. When John Entwistle died in 2002, Pete was no less devastated but was able to handle his grief much better and didn't need alcohol as an emotional crutch. As for his hearing loss, the incredibly loud volumes the Who were famous for playing at during their live career certainly contributed, but Pete also pinpoints several specifics examples of when his hearing was acutely and irreparably damaged, including the famous Smothers Brothers Show performance in 1967 (thanks to Keith Moon purposely overloading the explosive charge in his bass drum), and an instance in the 1970s when the PA speaker stacks fed back so loudly next to him that it brought him to his knees.

And then finally, we get to the "child pornography" scandal that has dogged him to this day, is misunderstood by most of the public, and for which Pete still gets unfairly labeled a pervert. In the late 1990s, Pete had been blogging on his personal website on the evils of exploiting children, a crusade which was inspired by a friend he'd made earlier in the decade who had escaped from a Russian orphanage that was involved in this criminal activity. During a bout of "white knight syndrome" which he now regrets, he accessed a site and paid a small fee on his credit card in order to prove in a subsequent blog post not only how easy this material was to access, but that banks and credit card companies were complicit since they processed the financial transactions that contributed to the abuse of children. He called his bank to cancel the transaction, published his blog post, and thought nothing of it until nearly four years later when he was contacted by investigators and told that he had been caught in a sting called Operation Ore. Pete cooperated fully with authorities, who found nothing on any of his computers from his houses and studios which they forensically examined...they didn't find any images at all. Not only that, but the transaction on Pete's credit card never even went through in the first place because the bank never processed it since they were involved in the sting. However, this last fact wasn't learned by Pete until much later, well after he was presented with two choices by the police: admit his guilt (even though they themselves didn't believe him to be guilty and had cleared him of all wrongdoing) and be placed on a sex offender registry for a few years, or go to trial, plead not guilty, and clear his name. At the point at which he faced this decision, Pete was so tired and stressed from the entire ordeal and didn't want to remain in the public eye and go through the ordeal of a trial, so he took the first option which he has regretted to this very day. Even the revelation of all facts in the case, as well as many of his friends and colleagues, including bandmate Roger Daltrey defending Pete in the media has not done enough to exonerate him in the public's eyes. For Pete, as he explains, it's just something he'll have to live with and his only comfort is that his true friends and fans know the real story.

It's an age-old axiom that you should never meet (or learn too much about) your heroes, because you'll always be let down. I suppose in a way I've always been lucky in that I can separate the person from the art because if that weren't the case, there wouldn't be too much music I would be able to listen to! In the case of Who I Am, the book has done nothing to dampen my admiration for Pete Townshend the musician and musical innovator, and as for Pete Townshend the person, apart from his confusing views on love and marriage (which, given the strange and dysfunctional marriage of his parents, which involved his mother having a long-time boyfriend on the side that she made no effort to hide from Pete or his dad, explains why Pete had this attitude himself), there was nothing that made me like him any less. In most cases I was able to understand and appreciate why he is the way he is a lot more than I did before I read his book. A criticism often levelled at this book is that Pete is too verbose, pretentious, and that he goes on and on about boring things like the various houses and boats he's owned, or his recording studios. For me, I could listen to/read about Pete talk about recording gear and technique all day, but that's probably because I'm a musician myself...I realize that more casual or non-musician fans would find this boring. I can see certainly where these multiple criticisms come from and they do have some validity, as even I got a bit tired of reading about every house Pete decided to buy on a whim (to his credit, he is honest about the fact that he's rich and privileged in ways most of us aren't), but at the same time anyone who is enough of a Townshend fan to want to read this book should already have a pretty good idea going into it what he's like. Again with the disclaimer that I'm a massive Townshend fan, my only major complaint with the book is that I wanted sincere hope is to someday read the unedited 1,000 page manuscript. Otherwise, the book is enjoyable, easy to read, brutally honest and candid, and contains numerous examples of the trademark Townshend dry humor as well as some very insightful and thought-provoking passages. It's not a perfect book but it's damn good...needless to say, whether you end up loving or hating the book, it's essential reading for any Who fan.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Interview with Paul "Smiler" Anderson, author of Mods: The New Religion

Author Paul Anderson

The Rock and Roll Chemist is proud to bring you the following interview with author Paul "Smiler" Anderson. Paul is the author of the excellent book Mods: The New Religion which I reviewed earlier this year. For anyone interested in Mod style and culture and music, or just 1960s Britain in general, it's a must-read. Paul 'Smiler' Anderson has been involved with DJ'ing on the Mod scene for over 30 years and has been writing about it via fanzines, record sleeve notes and books for the same amount of time. He has DJ'd at many of the major Mod nights and has DJ'd at Mod rallies and events, both in the UK and Europe, since the 1980s. In 2011 he wrote and came up with the concept of the biggest ever exhibition of 1960s Mod artfacts, which alongside Damian Jones, he set up at Reading Museum entitled 'Reading Steady Go!' In 2009 he co-wrote "Circles - The Strange Story of The Fleur De Lys" about the little known 60's Mod band. in 2014 "Mods: The New Religion" was published and he is currently working on a new book entitled "Mod Art" due for release next year. Paul was kind enough to answer my many questions about his great book and his views on Mod culture. Enjoy!

RNRChemist: Hi Paul, thanks for speaking with me...I'm really excited to have the opportunity! Let's get started: can you tell us little bit about yourself?

PA: I’m 50 years old and I live in Reading in Berkshire which is approximately 40 miles from London. I  live with my wife Lorraine and my son is 4 later this year. I’ve been into Mod since 1979.

RNRChemist: How did you first get into Mod culture?

PA: I became involved in the Mod scene around September 1979 after watching it evolve from afar. At first the entry point was through the revival bands such as the Jam, Secret Affair, The Chords etc. Fashion-wise I hadn’t a clue: it was all white, socks, loafers and a parka. In 1983 I started work as a postman, and by then lots of the older original revival Mods were getting more into being scooter boys. In other words, their interest revolved around their scooters so clothes were not that important and their music choices changed. To me, being a Mod was always about clothes first, music second, and although I always have owned scooters, they really aren’t a necessity. At work I had to wear a uniform so I really appreciated dressing up in my leisure time, which I guess is the paradox to businessmen wearing jeans and sports wear in their free time. By 1984 locally most Mods had evolved into the scooter scene whilst I went in search of my Mod Nirvana which I found in London. I discovered clubs like The Phoenix and Sneakers which were full of young kids wearing tailor made suits and 60s vintage clothes dancing to original R&B, soul, ska, beat and jazz. I found my Mod heaven and that dictated my direction from then on. I was always in search of elusive vintage shirts by Brooks Brothers, Jaytex, Ben Sherman, Brutus, Austins, Jon Wood, Harry Fenton or Arnold Palmer. If you couldn’t get vintage you’d find a good shirt maker such as Katy Stevens who was based at 7 Archer Street in Soho at the time. She’d made shirts for The Beatles and The Small Faces in the 60s and was the best. Suits and trousers were either vintage or tailor made. We had a guy called Charlie Antoniou who had a tiny room above a shop in Carnaby Street. Beautiful mohair masterpieces in 3 or 4 buttons, or maybe double-breasted. You avoided the mass Mod market shops that were dotted along Carnaby Street and were cheap quality pale imitations. The street fashion by 1984 was Frankie says T shirts, linen one button ‘Miami Vice jackets’ or Casual gear such as Pringle, Lyle &Scott etc paired with Farrah slacks. Youth tribes from the period included ‘Boneheads’ (Skinheads racist ancestor), Punks, Psychobillies, Rockabillies, New Romantics, Casuals, Rockers, and Scooter Boys. Most hated us Mods but in a way it felt great to be involved in such an underground movement.

RNRChemist: What was it about being the Mod scene that interested and appealed to you?

PA: As above really. I had no interest in the present day fashions, really.

RNRChemist: How long did you spend researching and writing this book?

PA: The book took around five years to write and was at the publishers for two years before it was released! I did most of it the old fashioned way, recording interviews on a tape recorder, writing it out in ink, editing and typing it up. Most contacts were gained by getting phone numbers and taking a chance.

RNRChemist: What inspired you to write the book?

PA: I’d always written fanzines in the 1980s and I’d never actually read a book that I thought had done the original scene justice. Lots lean towards the Northern Soul route which really doesn’t interest me that much.

RNRChemist: Why do you think the time was right for the movement to start when it did in the late 1950s/early 1960s?

PA: Britain was still recovering from the destruction of the Second World War. Rationing was coming to an end. Hire purchase was on the increase for working class people. National Service ended and youths wanted to distance themselves from the grime and misery that their parents and siblings lives had seemed to be full of.

RNRChemist: Why were the Mods so obsessed with finding authenticity in everything? In particular, with their music?

PA: Mods love one-upmanship, so what better way than to search out an obscure artist or song? To find a rare record on an even scarcer label is always nice.

RNRChemist: Regarding the drug use by the Mods, how prevalent was it and do you think it was as bad as the media made it out to be at the time?

PA: Yes, I think it was very prevalent...probably worse than what was actually reported!! Amphetamines were a huge part of the Mod experience.

RNRChemist: Besides allowing the kids to stay up all night raving it up, why do you think they were drawn to uppers rather than alcohol, pot, or psychedelics?

PA: You have to remember most clubs were held in unlicensed premises, so alcohol was pretty much out of the question. Besides which, a lot of Mods were kids of, say, 15-17 so they were too young to drink anyway. You also have to remember that it was only later in 1964 that the "illegal use of drugs" act was proposed. Prior to that the drugs taken could be slimming pills or pick-me-ups for anxiety. Psychedelics would not enter the scene until ’66 or ’67, really.

RNRChemist: A lot of detractors thought the Mod males were a bit effeminate for caring so much about their appearance, but most of those guys were tough bastards! Why were working class youth so clothes conscious?

PA: The working classes have always liked to dress up, even back in the days of the "Sunday best" suit. You may be poor, but if you can dress up, the less people will judge you.

RNRChemist: The same goes for scooters. What was the appeal? I'm guessing it was some combination of getting around the city easily and appropriating another fashion from the continent?

PA: Yes, it was a glamour aspect combined with a relatively cheap form of transport for freedom. Plus, you could personalise them, and everything engine wise was covered up unlike the dirty, greasy motorbikes of the period.

RNRChemist: The entire movement seemed to have a live fast/live for today mentality...not many of the kids seemed to care to save their money; as soon as they earned it they seemed to spend it on clothes, scooters, records, pills, and going out. Was this simply a rebellion against the austerity and scrimping and saving they'd all known growing up in the 1950s?

PA: You have to remember that the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 almost saw the end of the world. A lot of youngsters wondered if there was much point in saving. They embraced the feeling of moving forward, but living for the moment at the same time. Plus you have to remember they’d grown up in the bomb sites and the grey days of rationing. This mixed with new fashions, music and inventions...why wouldn’t they want a bit of glamour?

RNRChemist: How do you view the whole Mods vs. Rockers thing? Was it a legitimate rivalry or was it trumped up and exaggerated by the media?

PA: A mixture really, yeah, it could be bad but in most cases Rockers lived in the country or the Home Counties. The press stirred it up for sure but in reality the worst enemy of Mods was other Mods. This being either young Mods coming up trying to gain reputations or the usual rival territories such as East London versus South London.

RNRChemist: In your opinion when did the original wave of Mod start to die out? Why do you think it did?

PA: Mod was constantly evolving. The late 50s Mods, well some may have even been gone by ’61 or ’62. The riots in '64 thrust Mod into the spotlight and caused many to disappear. Mod’s last true stand was probably over by ’66 and by ’67... it was definitely past its sell by date. This is due to music evolving, especially in ’67 where the white West Coast sounds took off, plus heavier drugs. For some it was boredom or for many, getting married and settling down. Mod may have still been found in Northern England  and other places, but London was pretty much over it.

RNRChemist: It seems that most of the folks you interviewed in the book all share the opinion that when Mod went commercial and Carnaby Street became the epicenter for Swinging London, the scene moved past its expiration date (so to speak). Was that the death of the movement, losing its authenticity and becoming too mainstream?

PA: I think it was the combination of all that I mentioned in the previous question. In ’66, Swinging London was a tourist trap and a million miles away from how it all started.

RNRChemist: Regarding the people you interviewed, it was so wonderful to read all of their memories and to see many of them in their youth in the midst of the Mod scene. How did you manage to track down so many of them?

PA: Sheer hard graft is the plain answer. Just tracing leads, phone numbers on bits of paper etc. Asking one interviewee if he had other contacts, that sort of thing.

RNRChemist: Who were your favorites of the people you interviewed?

PA: Hard to say really as since making the book I have become good friends with many. Terry from The Eyes, Ali from The Birds, Chris Farlowe, Steve Ellis, Jeff Dexter, and Mike Quinn are some of "the famous" that I now count as friends, which is as surreal as it is lovely. Then the Mods: Mickey Tenner, Lloyd Johnson, and the Portsmouth Mods were all really great. I had loads of fun interviewing Jimmy James, Geno, Martha Reeves, Eddie Floyd, Owen Gray, Derrick Morgan…the whole journey was a blast! I had a lovely couple of meetings with Ian McLagan, sadly the last one was just before he died.

RNRChemist: Personal opinion of course, but who do you think were the leading figures during the scene, and why?

PA: Mickey Tenner was very influential and I was so glad to have him on board for the book. To me, the Birdcage Mods from Portsmouth seemed to have the whole idea and attitude down to a tee. I love those guys. Guy Stevens and Roger Eagle in terms of the music. I believe Chris Barber is the unsung hero of the scene, really. Whilst he was never a Mod, he deserves credit for bringing over all those early visiting blues artists. Of course then there are Andrew Loog Oldham, Peter Meaden, Johnny Moke, Willie Deasy. Most movers and shakers were just the actual Mods.

RNRChemist: Were there any interesting or crazy stories you gathered while interviewing everyone that didn't make the final cut of the book? Any chance you could share one with us?

PA: Ha ha! I could tell you that Andy Ellison and Johns Children actually got the job of painting The New Scene Club white after the Scene Club renamed itself in ’66 and got rid of its old blacked out image. John Lee Hooker used to piss in old empty beer bottles whilst on tour in the back of a van. One day another band used the van, took a corner too fast, and found themselves drenched in stale JLH piss!

RNRChemist: Which of the British bands of the 1960s era do you think were the most authentically Mod? Which ones are your favourites?

PA: I think Rod Stewart was definitely about on the scene in the early days so deserves more credit than he gets...he was everywhere! I believe that Georgie Fame had a lot of suss to cover what they covered musically. The Animals were also loved by the very hip crowd. There are loads of little bands that maybe could be there such as The Wes Minster Five or the Bo Street Runners. The Stones and the Yardbirds were very sussed in their early choice of blues material. You have to put in The Who really, because although kind of manufactured to be Mods, they were in the epicentre of it all. They were in the right clubs and had first pick of a lot of Guy Stevens records. Out of all the singers, to me Chris Farlowe has one of the most authentic sounding voices. Later bands like The Small Faces, The Action, and The Fleur De Lis contained actual Mods so are obviously included. I love aspects of all of these bands, really, so it’s hard to choose. I think The Action are to me the ideal package, though, in terms of material, look, and that fantastic Reggie King voice.

RNRChemist: Why do you think that, alone amongst the big 60s British bands, the Beatles were never really embraced by Mods? They seemed to dress the part and share the same influences as the Mods, yet their brand of pop and rock seemed to fall on deaf ears when it came to the Mods...

PA: Time has been a bit unfair to them. As my book states, they were one of Britain’s first bands to cover R&B. "Some Other Guy" by Ritchie Barrett was a fantastic song to cover, as was "Twist and Shout." But to London Mods they were aliens from "up North" and so were seen as behind the times. Their squeaky clean image was a bit too produced and they were perceived as a girls pop band. Although The Animals were from up North, too (Newcastle), I think they were regarded as a bit more "street" and tough, working class so they were accepted a bit better.

RNRChemist: Along these same lines, the rock and skiffle crazes of the 50s led to a lot of kids picking up an instrument and starting bands; indeed that's how almost all of the 60s bands got started. Yet it seems most of the kids who came up Mod weren't inspired to do the same...they were content to go see shows, dance, and listen to the records. Am I off base, and if not why do you think this is the case?

PA: Can’t really see that, as most early Mod type bands featured at least one person from art school so I think there was a definite creative flow there. Surely the Beatles and The Stones got as many bands to pick up guitars and form bands as did Elvis and even The Shadows? Most later rock groups like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, The Faces, and Status Quo all had that Mod background element in them.

RNRChemist: What aspect of Mod fashion is your favorite? How about least favorite?  What do you think are the best and worst aspects of Mod culture?

PA: I love a good button down shirt and tailored trousers with nice loafers, basket weaves, lace ups etc. A beautiful well cut suit is always aesthetically pleasing. I hate all the psychedelic garb, frilly shirts, day glow, big long collars. I’ve never liked boating blazers. The best part of Mod culture is the creative one, as in discovering new records, styles and facts. The worst part is the destructive one, which is the pompous, blinkered and egotistical bullshit that pollutes it.

RNRChemist: In your view, what was it that made the late 1970s climate in the UK and US so ripe for the Mod revival?

PA: The same as when the original scene sparked in to life: Britain was a depressing place. Faded rock stars, strikes, hippie flares, bad haircuts. Punk cut through that all, thank God, but a lot of it came from a middle class background. That added to the fact that punk was kind of like the Rocker thing in that the whole dressing down look was what the establishment and the general public expected. Working class kids in well-cut suits wasn’t, so the boundaries were blurred. Punk gave it the spark of energy needed but lost momentum. The Mod revival just added the energy needed.

RNRChemist: Which bands, if any, from the second generation of Mod (say, the late 1970s Mod revival through to the late 1990s BritPop scene) do you think embodied the spirit of the whole thing (whether in their fashion or music, or both)?

PA: The Jam obviously deserve most credit for having influencing so many of the bands to form or "go Mod." Paul Weller was very quick to point out that The Jam were not a Mod band, although he was a Mod in a band. Weller was pretty shrewd there and deserves credit. He saw what happened to Jimmy Pursey and Sham 69 when you align yourselves in such a way. They had trouble at lots of Sham gigs. Secret Affair took on the banner and suffered lots of trouble at their gigs with the Glory Boys etc. The Chords were great energy-wise as were The Purple Hearts. In honesty, The Style Council probably got a lot closer to the original ethics of Mod in the 80s. By the 80s bands were less punk influenced, so bands like The Prisoners, The Moment, Fast Eddie, and Makin’ Time were accepted by more discerning Mods. Although there were lots of fodder amongst them with bands like The Gents and such. I could not relate to these.

RNRChemist: What are your favorite bands from the original 60s Mod era? Favorite albums? Favorite songs?

PA: My favourite musical style is the blues so I love Jimmy Reed, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and all those greats. Booker T & the MG’s "Green Onions" probably is the ultimate Mod tune in my opinion with "Ain’t Love Good, Ain’t Love Proud" by Tony Clarke a close second. But my personal favoutite song ever is "Heatwave" by Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. I love all the stuff really. Not a fan of Northern Soul but I like bits of it. R&B, Jazz and Ska are always in my DJ sets. Paul Weller gets a lot of stick but in my opinion he is probably the most influential Mod ever. As much as I love the Small Faces, Marriott and co. were only part of the scene for a very small period. Bands like The Eyes and the Creation always sound so exciting, even today. I’m proud I still like all my revival stuff, too. Hell, life is good. Mod got me in to so many different things, from French Jazz to Brasilian sambas!!!

RNRChemist: Paul, thank you so much for speaking with me and enlightening us with your knowledge and thoughts on all things Mod! It was a true pleasure! For my readers, I can't recommend this book enough. If you're a fan of anything we touched upon in our discussion above, you need Paul's book as it is truly the bible for all things Mod.