Saturday, January 28, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles: I Was There

For the first half of their legendary career the Beatles were not only revolutionizing music in the studio, but they were also a hard working touring band. Honing their craft over countless hours onstage and in front of growing crowds, by the time they finally found fame in 1962 they were seasoned road dogs. As we all know, though, by 1966 they grew tired of the constant mania that followed them and the fact that the sophisticated recordings they were making and the boundaries they were breaking in the studio could not be replicated on stage. Save for a final surprise appearance on the rooftop of their Apple Corps building in January 1969, by August 1966 their days performing onstage were over. For those lucky enough to have seen the Beatles in concert, those are memories they'll carry with them forever and which are shared in the excellent new book The Beatles: I Was There.

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

In 2015, Richard Houghton collected stories from numerous fans who saw the Rolling Stones in the 1960s and compiled them into You Had to Be There! The Rolling Stones Live 1962-69 which I reviewed and thoroughly enjoyed. For this new Beatles book, he's done the same thing and collected reminiscences from people who saw the Beatles between 1957 and their final performance in 1966. The book is broken down chronologically in sections focusing on the major tours of their career. The entries from 1957 concern people who were watching the Quarrymen on the day John met Paul and are certainly very cool to read...there's even a photograph of one of the contributors being held as a baby right in front of a teenaged John Lennon on that very day. The book then jumps forward to the Pete Best-era Beatles of 1960-61 as they worked their way through the club and ballroom circuit around Merseyside and the northwest of England before Ringo joined the band and they became recording artists in the summer of 1962. From there, the memories of the Cavern Club crowd give way to the first UK tours the Beatles did, first supporting Helen Shapiro, Chris Montez, and Tommy Roe before their breakthrough where they supplanted Roy Orbison as headliner. Once Beatlemania was in full swing by the summer of '63, the main thing almost everyone had to say about the concert was that the screaming and crowd noise was so deafening and relentless that the Beatles simply could not be heard with the primitive sound technology of the time. Apart from a few individuals, however, almost everyone said that it didn't matter because it was simply the experience of being there that was important. What's interesting is that while I certainly understand what they mean, it also is exactly one of the main reasons why the Beatles stopped touring. As John Lennon famously said, "Beatles concerts aren't about music anymore, they're bloody tribal rites" and all of them have said variously over the years that they knew no one was listening and it demoralized them. It was also interesting to read memories from several people who were (and still aren't) Beatles fans, but who went to the concerts simply because it was something to do back then!

The time capsule nature of the book, aided by photographs and memorabilia, does a nice job placing the reader back in those simpler, more innocent (and exciting) times. It's also quite interesting to trace how live music and the rock concert industry has changed over the years; even just from 1962-1966, the Beatles tickets got more expensive and more difficult to get. It also brought sharply into focus the difference between the UK and the US during those years. While in the UK, most tickets cost less than a pound and could be obtained by simply standing in line for hours, in the US even the earliest Beatles tickets were anywhere from $3 to $6 depending on how good the seats were and had to be procured mainly via mail order. Yes, the US is a larger country and people had to travel longer distances to where the concerts were, but even so it seemed like a pretty big difference especially in those days before everyone had telephones, let alone the internet. It was also eye-opening to think about how even though $5 for a concert ticket was fairly expensive in 1960s dollars, it still was a lot less in relation to the incomes (and inflation) of those certainly puts paying $150+ for a similar arena ticket these days into sharper perspective!

While the book checks in at almost 400 pages, it's very enjoyable and easy to read.  The memories shared by the various contributors range in their length and detail and many of them are accompanied by period photographs of them, showing the fashions of those times. It was a little disappointing and surprising that some Beatles tours or significant appearances weren't represented much, if at particular, I'm thinking of their Japanese concerts in 1966, their final UK tour of 1965 (there were only one or two entries), their first American appearances in 1964 (the Ed Sullivan Show, Washington, DC, and Carnegie Hall), and the rooftop concert of 1969. However, the author assured me he did try to track people down for these and wasn't able to find any. Perhaps there will be an updated and expanded edition in the future that might include these? Apart from some typos and a few photos that I believe to be incorrectly captioned, the book was very enjoyable and, in similar fashion to the aforementioned Rolling Stones book, a fun trip down other people's memory lane. These are who were lucky enough to have seen the Beatles and who are able to say "I was there!"


Sunday, January 15, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Beatles and the Historians

There have been so many books written about the Beatles from almost every angle that there are almost too many to count. This is why I'm usually a little skeptical when I'm about to read a new Beatles many of them cover the same tired ground and usually offer nothing new other than more repetitions of fallacies and innuendo, oftentimes wrapped up in the author's personal bias. However, when I was asked to review the new book The Beatles and the Historians, it seemed different enough that it piqued my interest. Once I received the book, a quick glance at the back cover told me this wasn't a typical Beatles book at all; its angle was to look at not only what has been written about the Beatles, but how it's been written. With that tantalizing bit of information it seemed unique enough that it wouldn't be like any other Beatles book I've read and a few pages in, I knew I was right.

***special thanks to Stephanie at Mcfarland for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Author Erin Torkelson Weber is a history professor at Newman University in Kansas and in the introduction she lays out the premise of the book: she's not writing about the Beatles directly, but rather she's writing about the historiography of the Beatles. More to the point, she's examining how historians have been writing about them over the fifty-five years since they released their first single in 1962. As she stated, the book isn't the story of the Beatles, but the story of how their story has been told. Using established historical methods which she cites, her angle was to look at how the various authors of the most notable works on the Beatles have written about them and how it's shaped the narrative of Beatles history over the decades. As she rightly points out, the Beatles are unique in modern history in that they've been written about almost continually from the very beginning of their existence in the public consciousness and as such, most writings about them haven't (until recently) had the necessary historical distance in order to be fully credible and unbiased.

Weber breaks her book and the Beatles' history in four distinct narratives: 1) the official Fab Four narrative that was propagated by the band, their management, Hunter Davies' official biography, and the contemporary press, 2) the Lennon Remembers narrative based on John's blistering screed of an interview given to Rolling Stone magazine in the immediate aftermath of the band's 1970 split, 3) the Shout! narrative put forth by Philip Norman in his influential biography in the immediate aftermath of John's murder in 1980, and 4) the Lewisohn narrative that has become the prevailing orthodoxy since the late 1980s/early 1990s. By examining each of these narratives in order, not only does Weber discuss in detail the flaws and virtues of each, but she examines the evolution of how the Beatles history has been told over the previous half-century. The initial Fab Four narrative portraying them as a unified band of brothers captained by the unbreakable Lennon/McCartney partnership gave way to Lennon's complete tearing down of the myth in 1970. However, Weber shows that not everything about the Fab Four narrative was a myth, and she also shows how the unintended consequence of Lennon's attack (and Rolling Stone's knowing perpetuation of it even after Lennon disowned what he'd said years later) was to cause writers to take sides and become either "John fans" or "Paul fans." It's also shown how, in doing so, the invaluable contributions George and Ringo made to the Beatles were downplayed, neglected, and even ridiculed in the ensuing years. Later on in the 1970s and up until his death in 1980, John took back much of what he'd said in Lennon Remembers, but his sudden and senseless death froze him forever in the public mind and the resulting narrative spearheaded by Philip Norman in his influential biography Shout! served to almost canonize John. The unsuspecting victim of this was Paul McCartney, who now found his own contributions to the Beatles diminished/dismissed and his place in history reduced to little more than a conniving pretty face who annoyed everyone else in the band. Combined with the critical drubbing he received throughout the 1970s (much of which Weber shows was the result of the music press wanting to get on and stay on John and Yoko's good side in exchange for access to them), Paul has had to spend the last 30+ years trying to set the record straight and reclaiming the credit that's rightfully his. Finally, with the Lewisohn narrative, enough years have passed that, combined with his impeccable historical research methods and unbiased writing style, a new orthodoxy in Beatles historiography has taken hold and become the standard. Alongside seminal works by Mark Hertsgaard, Barry Miles & Paul McCartney, Ian MacDonald, and Peter Doggett (the last two of whom I will review in the near future), Lewisohn has shown that the Lennon/McCartney partnership was not only one of equals, but based foremost on their shared personal bond and friendship. He has also show how George and Ringo were not ancillary to the Beatles success but rather were fully involved and extremely valuable contributors to it, as well as various other myths and half-truths he's corrected.

When I began this book, I was afraid that the writing would be dry and academic given that it was a more nuanced and historical look at writings about the Beatles, and not the Beatles themselves. However, I needn't have worried as it was very engaging and interesting and easily kept my attention throughout its entirety. While I've read almost every book and article Weber cited (and she cited all of her sources), it was revealing to have them all placed into proper context and examined in a way I'd never thought about before. I was in unanimous agreement with her on the authors whose works merit respect (Lewisohn, MacDonald, Doggett, Hertsgaard, Davies) and those who don't (Jann Wenner/Rolling Stone, Goldman, Goodman, Connolly, Spitz, and to some extent Philip Norman). The person who comes off the worst, and deservedly so, is Wenner and his magazine Rolling Stone. Not only does the author cite proof that he forced critics Greil Marcus and Langdon Winner to rewrite their initially positive reviews of McCartney's first two solo albums (McCartney and RAM) to be 100% negative in order to appease Lennon and keep his favored access to John and Yoko, but in the face of numerous new facts coming to light debunking Lennon Remembers (including denunciations from John himself), Wenner continued to double down on his claims that it was a definitive and wholly accurate account. It wasn't until the early 2000s that Wenner had no choice but to admit it wasn't, but by this point in the book if one didn't already have a negative view of the man and his publication, it would beggar belief.

This isn't a book for the casual Beatles fan, but if you're a hardcore fan like me who has read just about everything there is to know about them, I encourage you to read this book. It's a completely different take on the Beatles...think of it as a book about Beatles books. The Beatles and the Historians is a fascinating examination of the history of how the most unique and influential phenomenon in 20th century popular culture, one that is as strong as ever in the 21st century, has been chronicled. For the more cerebral Beatles fan, one with an open mind and an intellectual curiosity beyond the band's well-worn story, this will be a valuable and enlightening book.


Friday, January 6, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Set the Boy Free (Johnny Marr)

Since Morrissey's autobiography came out a few years ago, most Smiths fans had been clamoring for a counterpart book from the other half of the legendary songwriting partnership behind their timeless music. Finally, in late 2016, patience was rewarded with the publication of Johnny Marr's memoir, Set the Boy Free. However, where Morrissey's book proved to be as obtuse, quirky, and cryptically dense as the man who wrote it, Marr's proved to be correspondingly the opposite. Always known for his friendly, gregarious, and conversational personality, Marr's book gave those interested the promise that he would touch on everything throughout his life and career.  On a personal note, the Smiths are one of the bands that have meant to most to me over the course of my life and Johnny Marr is one of my guitar idols; for these reasons, his was one of the books I most looked forward to reading in 2016. I'd waited months and months for its publication since first learning of it in Spring was it worth the wait? Read on to find out!

***special thanks to Kendra at Dey Street Books for sending a copy of the book for me to review!***

The first thing I thankfully noted was that Marr's book was laid out in traditional chapters unlike the non-formatted stream of consciousness that Morrissey's book was.  Beginning with his birth to Irish immigrant parents in Manchester, England on Halloween 1963, Marr (born John Maher) does an excellent and immersive job describing his life first in the two areas of Manchester he grew up in, Ardwick and later on Wythenshawe. These chapters really give the reader an idea of what it was like coming of age in 1960s and 70s Manchester. Johnny was bitten by both the music and guitar bugs at an early age and his earliest memories center on the first records he bought and the first guitar he ever played. By his account he was quite independent, even as a small child, and he was uncompromising in the path he blazed...the was someone who knew what he wanted to do and how he wanted to do it. Marr stuck to his own vision and achieved success at a very early age because of these qualities, which are rare in fully grown adults let alone teenagers. It makes this aspect of his career even more impressive. After playing with a variety of bands in Manchester during his teenage years, by the time he left school at fifteen he had met the love of his life (his wife Angie), played in several bands, and was working at two of the hippest clothing stores in Manchester (X-Clothes and Crazy Face). Spurred on by his boss and mentor Joe Moss and wanting to form a band and play the type of music he was writing without compromise, in 1982 he approached a fellow music fan and singer he had briefly met years before, Steven Morrissey. Together, they formed a songwriting partnership that would prove to be one of the most successful in UK history and after bringing in Marr's childhood friend Andy Rourke on bass guitar and finding Mike Joyce for the drum slot, the Smiths were born.

While the Smiths' history has been discussed in detail in several other excellent books (many of which I've already reviewed and linked to above), Marr's book is invaluable for the personal insight and thoughts on the band's career that he offers, as well as discussions on what his inspirations for writing many of the Smiths' greatest songs. While he shed a bit more light in the form of his perspective on the Smiths' split in 1987, it still irritates me a bit how in conjunction with other books, he and Morrissey continue to portray Rourke and Joyce as second-class members of the band. While it's true that Morrissey and Marr wrote all of the songs and ended up handling (rather ineffectively, it must be added) the management of the band, I had a difficult time reconciling Johnny's insistence that the Smiths were a "gang" and a "close-knit unit" while at the same time saying that the band was really just him and Moz. However, that's for a further discussion outside the scope of this review; on the whole, the book up to and including the Smiths' years were by far the most interesting part.

That isn't to say, however, that the rest of the book wasn't certainly was, especially when reading about Johnny's decision to take his health into his own hands later on by getting into running and fitness and his giving up alcohol and going teetotal. While the discussion of his various projects after the Smiths broke up was interesting, it did feel a lot like chapter after chapter of "I joined this band for an album and a tour and left, and then I joined this other band for an album and tour before I left them and joined another band for an album and tour..." and so on. Marr's quest to keep pushing himself as a musician has been admirable and garnered him a lot of well-deserved respect, but until he began fronting his solo band in 2013 and releasing solo albums, he's been a musical gypsy since 1987. While there's nothing wrong with this on a professional level, it did made the latter half of the book feel a bit disjointed and slightly less engaging. However, there was still a lot of interesting stuff in there, not least of which were his description of a 2008 meeting with Morrissey where they briefly (and not wholly seriously) bandied about the idea of reforming the Smiths, and a jam session he attended where he got to play with Paul McCartney. It was these anecdotes and also his thoughts on things like music, exercise, religion, and politics that saved the second half of the book from being little more than a list of projects he's worked on post-Smiths.

Overall, Set the Boy Free is an excellent, enjoyable, and informative book. Marr writes very well and is quite honest about everything he talks about. His passion and love for his music, his wife, and his kids is evident and seems nothing less than entirely genuine. Even though he's been one of my favorite guitarists for a very long time and even though I've read numerous books about the Smiths, it was always Morrissey about whom most accounts tended to focus on. While Johnny Marr is certainly not unknown, he wasn't as well known as his former songwriting partner, especially given Morrissey's proclivity for speaking (often outrageously and provocatively) to the press. With Set the Boy Free, Marr has given fans what they wanted: the story of his life and the details behind his craft, his bands, and what he thinks about it all. My one complaint would be that I wanted even more discussion on songwriting and guitar playing from Johnny, but seeing as the target audience isn't necessarily obsessive musicians/fans like myself, I'm content with what he gave us. As far as rock musicians go, Marr is highly regarded, healthy, happy, and has avoided almost all of the pitfalls that have befallen so many of his peers.  This is even more impressive when you consider that he was all of nineteen years old when the Smiths burst onto the scene. If you're a fan of the Smiths and/or any of Marr's subsequent projects, this is essential reading and as I said before, infinitely more enjoyable an experience than Morrissey's book.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Good Riddance, 2016...Please Be Better, 2017

I don't need to tell you that 2016 was annus've almost certainly figured that out for yourself. Whether current events in the wider world both abroad and at home, or personally, this year was one of the worst that I can certainly remember over the course of my almost forty years on this planet.  

In general terms, the year was awful for all of the unrest, violence, and disagreement that permeated American society as the lead up to the presidential election in November where in essence, regardless of who won, we all lost. There seemed to be a horrific terrorist attack somewhere in the world just about every week, and some hyper-sensitivity/PC-driven "offense" taken to just about anything that inevitably led to protests and rioting. The economy continued to be terrible, everything continued to get more expensive, and paychecks continued to stay flat. It felt like every week brought another celebrity death and while I think the reaction to most of them was quite hyperbolic and over the top (be honest: how many George Michael or Prince songs do you *really* know?), it's always sad when someone dies. We did lose some titans this year, none more so than David Bowie at the very beginning of the year. A popular meme even surfaced midway through 2016 that said "I'm not saying that David Bowie was holding the fabric of the universe together, but *gestures broadly at everything*" which, with his death at the very beginning of this forgettable trip around the sun, seems to sum it up rather nicely (if not completely coincidentally).

On a personal level, while there were several high points over the course of the year, even I and my family couldn't escape the clutches of 2016's awful grasp, culminating with my getting a nasty case of pleurisy in October and then getting unexpectedly laid off from my job in mid-November. For me, losing my job was the metaphorical kick in the crotch that capped the year...everything else has just been piling on. I've been lucky to have a loving, patient (beyond belief!) wife and four amazing kids, all five of whom have supported me and reminded me every day about what's really important in life. One huge silver lining in my situation has been the bonus time I've gotten to spend at home with her and the kids, which is something I could never put a price on and something I'm quite thankful for.

In talking with the intelligent and more level-headed Mrs. Chemist, we're looking at two possibilities for 2017: it'll either continue the dismal trend that 2016 excelled at, or it will be the polar opposite. Being the optimists that we are (well, Mrs. Chemist is, though she's helped me become better at being one as well), we're banking on the latter. We're hoping for a calmer, healthier, more prosperous, and downright luckier year to come. My wish is for this to be the case for all of you out there as well...

...and so I say, good riddance to 2016 and bring on a brighter, better 2017!