Friday, 24 June 2011

News, Views and Music Issue 103 (Top Ten): Pre-Fame Recordings

What do you get when you cross enthusiastic teenagers with their first real chance of fame? Well, on the negative side you do occasionally get The Spice Girls (yuk!), but sometimes you end up with pure gold, with raw and unpolished versions of late tracks with glimpses of the genius that will only come to pass years later. For this week’s top five/ten we’ve tried to pull together the ten best available and official or at any rate semi-available and semi-official AAA sets and what a varied bunch they are, from a ridiculously young Beach Boys trying out their instruments for the first time to poppy teenage spin-off records by Simon and Garfunkel light years away from ‘The Sound of Silence’ to an unrecognisable Janis Joplin re-cast as folk singer, classics all.

1)    The Beach Boys ‘Unnamed early tapes’ (recorded as ‘The Pendletones’ in Murray Wilson’s garage 1961, released under the name ‘Lost and Found’ in 2001): “Don’t pop me in the mouth!” The story goes that the Wilson parents Murray and Audrey had to go away for the weekend and decided, against their better judgement, to leave 19-year-old Brian in charge of the household for the weekend. Murray even left his eldest son a bit of money in case of emergency. The minute the car was out the drive, Brian Dennis and Carl were on the phone to cousin Mike Love and neighbour David Marks (then just 13!), who spent all their ‘emergency’ money on a bunch of rented instruments and tape-reels for Brian’s recording machine. The result is basic and crude and the Beach Boys’ faltering attempts at instruments are light years behind their carefully practised vocals (only Brian and Carl actually play anything), but there’s a real charm about these sparse but surprisingly modern-sounding recordings. The end result – which even an irate Murray Wilson grudgingly admitted was quite good when he came home and interrupted proceedings, in between whacking his wayward sons –is much as you’d expect, with a serious Brian and a dutiful Carl forever interrupted by a bored Dennis and a mischievous Marks, whose clearly just having fun hanging round with his elder peers rather than trying to make any real musical statement. Mike Love, for the moment, has a foot in both camps. Still, fascinating to hear, not least for Brian’s already impressive attempts at arranging old songs to sound contemporary and for the harmony blend which is already falling into place after years of singing at Love and Wilson family get-togethers over the years. Even if you do get awfully sick of hearing ‘Luaua’ time after time! Highlight: This early version of ‘Surfin’ Safari’ rocks even more than the record, whilst the Four Freshman ballad ‘Lavender’ is the best of the exclusive stuff, even if it is a tad slow. 7/10.

2)    The Beatles ‘Live at the Star Club, Hamburg’ (recorded as ‘The Silver Beatles’ in Germany December 1962, released under various names and on various record labels from 1973 to date): “And now the waiter’s going to do a song...” Allegedly these tapes only exist because ted ‘KingSize’ Taylor (of fellow Mersey band The Dominoes) wanted to test out his new tape recorder with the sound of some fellow musicians and John Lennon allegedly agreed, unknown to the rest of the band, in return for a drink (as Harrison later put it in court ‘one drunk taping a lot of other drunks does not constitute a business agreement!’) When the tapes re-emerged in the early 70s on a cheap label (later taken to court by the fab four) it completely split the group’s fans: those who loved the chance of hearing the band without the hype of even their earliest other existing concert recordings and those who were disappointed that the Beatles of Hamburg legend sounded bored, fed up and were on less than charming form in the wake of Love Me Do’s poor chart appearance and still suffering in shock with their first trip back to Germany after Stuart Sutcliffe’s untimely death. You also have to say that these recordings are key to the argument that Pete Best was a better drummer than Ringo – his shabby playing here, admittedly with a band he barely knows, is atrocious. Certainly, then, this isn’t the Beatles at their best and the recording is at times so grotty that it’s not worth your while trying to work out what’s going on past the sound of Star Club patrons and noisy waiters (did they always make this much noise?!) Note the lack of Lennon/McCartney originals in the set-list too (the German crowd were much more receptive to songs they vaguely knew, even if they were being sung in a foreign language) and the fact that practically all the cover songs are better heard in their BBC Session variety. But in a historical context, as the earliest live recordings of the fab four, it’s invaluable and even on a bad note much of this ‘album’ is revealing, exciting and lovable. Most of the Beatles still hate these recordings with a passion – one of George Harrison’s last non-musical act in the public eye was to appear in court demanding it’s removal when another label tried to revive it on CD in the 1990s – but Lennon in private is said to have been rather pleased (indeed, the rumour is still strong that Lennon ‘leaked’ his copy in order to see it get a ‘proper’ release!) There’s certainly much interest for the Beatles collector here with no less than five exclusive tracks: ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ ‘Reminiscing’ ‘Little Queenie’ ‘Falling In Love Again’ and ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ (12 and 27 years earlier, respectively, than the more famous Lennon and McCartney solo cover versions!), (plus a further two exclusive songs on the harder-to-find American version). Highlight: the Hamburg waiter taking a warbling cameo vocal on that old chestnut ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’– erm, no, only kidding, that’s the lowest point in the Beatles canon until at least ‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’, instead the highlight is probably an energetic McCartney tackling ‘Hippy Hippy Shake’ far more successfully than he will for the BBC two years later. 7/10.

3)    The Byrds ‘Unnamed early tapes’ (recorded as ‘The Beefeaters’ and ‘The JetSet’ among other names 1964-65 and released in part in 1984 as ‘Early Flight’ and 1988 as ‘In The Beginning’): “Tomorrow Is A Long Ways Away” Boy, success sure is a long ways away given these tapes. Hearing this impressively large batch of pre-Mr Tambourine Man demo recordings (17!), if I was a record company man I’d have groomed Gene Clark as a solo star and told him to give up on the rest of the band, because this is some of the poorest, loosest playing in the history of recorded music between skiffle and punk even though Mr Tambourine Man is worth the cost of admission alone. The Byrds were never the most virtuoso of musicians, but the sheer amount of bum notes and missed harmonies make a good 12 tracks on this set heavier going even than Byrdmaniax. In one sense, though, I’m amazed these recordings aren’t worse: the JetSet (as they were still known) are still very much learning how to play together (weeks before this recording Crosby was the bassist and Clark the guitarist, before Chris Hillman joined, while Michael Clarke was learning to drum on cardboard boxes because he couldn’t afford a drum kit). ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, in particular, sounds like sabotage by a bunch of uninterested youths still at school who took up music to avoid having to take PE or some other lesson, not a future number one.  But Gene Clark is undeniably terrific – he’d already written pretty much all of his great work by mid-1964, back when only Brian Wilson and Lennon/McCartney were into writing songs, and his voice never sounded better, with a winning mix of confidence and vulnerability. By contrast, the rest of the band are pulling on his coat-tails and getting in his way. The choice of material too then is almost there – most of the band’s first two albums’ originals are here and practically all of Gene’s work – it’s just the performances that suffer. The songs exclusive to this set, nearly all by Gene Clark, are terrific by the way and by far and away the highlights: two versions of ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Ways Away’ and the lost rock and roll classic that is ‘Boston’, all of which should have ended up on either ‘Tambourine Man’ or ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ David Crosby’s ‘Airport Song’, too, shows far more of the grace and originality that Crosby’s writing will show in the late 60s than pretty much any of his other songs for the Byrds and the group credited ‘Only Girl That I Adore’ is a sweet little song fully deserving of a re-recording, even if its painfully Beatles-like in every way. A curious mix of the painful and prophetic, the genius and the godawful, often at the same time, rescued by the unheard gems. 7/10.

4)    The Grateful Dead ‘Fire In The City’ and other early recordings (recorded in L.A. as ‘The Warlocks’, both solo and backing Jon Hendricks March 1965-March 1967, released in 2002 with early live recordings as ‘The Birth of the Dead’): “Who you are and what you do don’t make no difference to me!” The Dead had a surprisingly long apprenticeship in the studio before recording their first, self-titled album almost two years after these first studio dates. Lovingly collected by fan Dennis McNally over a period of years, these 16 unreleased recordings (some of them repeats) finally saw the light of day on Rhino as ‘The Birth of The Dead’ along with 14 variable live tracks from this early period and a curio backing one third of Lambert Hendricks and Ross on a jazzy pop song (which became a – very – minor hit in early 1967, though Jerry’s guitar sound at all like ‘our’ Dead). Some of them are junk, it has to be said, lazy blues that were done by a whole host of other people of the time better (and having four of the songs as ‘backing tracks’ in addition to finished versions seems like cheating). But the rest: the Dead are already flying, turning in some tentative but already completely original songs with a literary, hippie twist with band-written highlights such as ‘Mindbender’ ‘Can’t Come Down’ and especially the glorious pop of ‘You Don’t Have To Ask’ with Garcia and Pippen on especially good form as good as anything on their first album, if not a little better.There’s also an early version of the later epic ‘Caution (Do Not Stop On The Tracks)’ which, for fans of the ‘Anthem of the Sun’ album like me, is a must hear with a fully functioning blues song going on without all that feedback and sound effects. Above all, across these recordings  the Dead already sound like a ‘band’ – albeit a band of beginners still – and back each other up nicely, heading in roughly the same direction throughout, unlike say the early Byrds and Beach Boys tapes where the bands sound like they’ve only just met. Surprisingly excellent. 8/10.    

5)    Janis Joplin ‘The Typewriter Tapes’ (recorded in 1966 and released on various compilations, notably ‘Janis’ in 1992): Hearing a teenage Janis’ early recordings merely underlines how different and new her breakthrough sound with ‘Big Brother and the Holding Company’ was. You see, songs like ‘Silver threads and Golden Needles’ ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘San Francisco Bay Blues’ are pure folk, a million miles away from Janis’ powerhouse rock, blues and soul hybrid and much more in keeping with songs by Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary. Even a surprise cover of the old rock standard ‘Hi-Heeled Sneakers’ sounds more like some feeble folk band than the rocker we know Janis can be. Now, Joplin doesn’t sing these songs badly – and even before she’s quite learned what to do with it she has a terrific vocal presence I have to say – but she sounds woefully out of place here, so it’s not surprising her ad-hoc audience don’t sound that taken with her singing either. And whoever is backing her on guitar is no Sam Andrew! Thank goodness Big Brother came along and she could start being herself! 2/10.

6)    The Kinks ‘I’m A Hog For You Baby’ and ‘I Believe You’ (recorded in London as ‘The Ravens’ in November 1963 and released on the Kinks box-set ‘Music Box’ 2009 and the new deluxe re-issue of ‘The Kinks’ 2011): “I believe what you said – that loving days were through” Ray Davies has been notoriously stingy about releasing unfinished and unused tracks from his Komprehensive Kollection of Kinks oddities, but seems to have had a change of heart in the past three years or so. Thank goodness because while, frankly, the long-awaited Kinks set was a disaster the highlights were this charming pair of demos from the band’s earliest days as ‘The Ravens’ (a great name that, wish they’d kept it). The Kinks just sound like every other R and B band around, but already Ray’s distinctive uncompromising Muswell Hill slur and Dave’s attacking guitar style are there to be heard. Ther first song, of course, is an old soul standard (also covered by the Grateful Dead), while the second is a very Beatlesy Ray Davies original that actually sounds very like The Rutles. Still, it’s head and shoulders above most everything else around in late 1963 - The Stones, remember, had only just released their first single, remember and personally I’d put either of these songs on a par with ‘C’mon’ so in retrospect I’m surprised they weren’t released at the time. 5/10.

7)    The Searchers ‘The Iron Door Sessions’ (demo-tape recorded in Liverpool 1963 which helped the band get signed to Pye; released in 2002): “Let’s Stomp!” We tend to think of The Searchers as Beatles-wannabes these days, a fellow Merseyside band who covered much of the same material but were slightly slower of the mark in terms of landmark recordings and writing their own material. But how different things could have been because this set, taped live at the Iron Door Club in the Wirral – the Searchers’ equivalent of the Cavern Club – created far more of a stir with record companies. The Beatles had only released ‘Love Me Do’ when by the time this set was recorded, over George Martin’s better wishes it has to be said and that hadn’t exactly set the world alight; by contrast this set so impressed Pye producer Tony Hatch that he thought The Searchers were going to be huge. He’s right too – the band might be a little rough around the edges, but I prefer my Searchers recordings raw and exciting and dangerous and the sheer charisma of the under-rated lead singers Tony Jackson, Chris Curtis and Mike Pender is there for all to hear. Indeed, Curtis even gets one of his own tracks on the demo-tape (which is more than the Beatles did in Hamburg) with an early version of sweet B-side ‘I’ll Be Missing You’.The shock really is that it took six months for The Searchers to cut this album’s lead track ‘Sweets For My Sweet’, which is pretty much identical to the version here, by which time the Beatles had already changed the world (well, most of it). There are several tracks exclusive to this fascinating (if short) set though: guitar instrumental Jamabalya, the sweet ‘Rosalie’, Chuck Berry’s urgent ‘Maybelline’ and ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’, plus the album’s highlight, the scatter-brained dance number ‘Let’s Stomp’. Full marks to Tony Jackson for keeping his copy of this acetate – thought to be the only one in existence – in such a good condition over the years! (the acetate was found in his collection after his death in 2001). Overall rating 8/10.  

8)    Simon and Garfunkel ‘Various’ (released under the names ‘Tom and Jerry’ ‘Tico and the Triumphs’ ‘Artie Garr’ and ‘Jerry Landis’ between 1957 and 1962; re-released various times since 1969): “Said woo-bop-a-loop-chi-bah you’re mine, I knew it all the time!” Probably the most successful of the whole of this top 10 is a teenage Simon and Garfunkel singing under the pseudonyms ‘Tom and Jerry’ (Garfunkel is Tom, interestingly, and gets his name listed first!) whose first single ‘Het Schoolgirl’, a delightful bit of doo-wop pop, actually scored big in 1957 when the two singers were all of 14. Both singers are still quite fond of this song too (they were still performing it on their 2003 reunion tour and joked onstage in 1970 that their new best-of would be called ‘Hey Schoolgirl and 12 others’). A whole host of flops under a series of unlikely names followed though and in truth none of them are even close to that debut single’s charm. The duo then split – not for the last time – with Artie Garr (!) getting his only writing credit to date with a hopelessly banal ballad in ‘Dream Alone’ (the B-side is even worse!) and Simon (recording as Jerry Landis) getting increasingly desperate to jump on a pop bandwagon. Most of the songs available semi-legally (ie without Simon and Garfunkel’s permission) are pretty awful to be honest and show little of the skill to come (and it’s ironic that a song as strong as ‘The Sound Of Silence’ was an even worse flop than some of these songs the first time round in acoustic form), but there are some gems. I love Jerry Landis’ TV spin-off ‘The Lone Teen Ranger’ as it’s such a clever pastiche of other songs around at the same time, has a distinctive riff nicked from the William Tell Overture and has Paul Simon doing a pretty nifty job as a Texan cowboy. And ‘Two Teenagers’ deserved to do better as the follow-up to ‘Hey Schoolgirl’, even if it is suspiciously familiar to every other 1950s doo-wop song around (well, hey, the guys were only 15 when they came up with this – the Spice Girls are in their 40s now and still getting away with it!) This set is also fun for hearing huge Elvis fan Paul Simon desperately trying to sound like his idol – and succeeding for the most part, even though it’s a style he’s dropped by the time he turns 20 and gets into folk. 5/10.      

9)    The Who ‘I’m The Face’ (released as ‘The High Numbers’ in 1964, re-issued in 1974 on the ‘Odds and Sods’ compilation and in 1994 on the ’30 Years of Maximum R and B’ box set): “I’m the face if you want it babe!” Hmm, an r and b re-write of Slim Harpo’s ‘Got Love If You Want’ with lyrics about fashion isn’t the most auspicious or original start a classic band could have, but The Who always seemed quite fond of their first released track (hence its inclusion in outtakes set ‘Odds and Sods’ some 10 years after its first release and the ‘steal’ from this song for Pete Townshend’s mod-mad character Jimmy in the Quadrophenia song ‘Drowned’). ‘Face’ really doesn’t sound like The Who – Roger Daltrey sounds cod-American, while the dominating sound isn’t Keith Moon’s drumming or Townshend’s guitar but John Entwistle’s uncharacteristic bass ‘swoops’ and Daltrey’s harmonica – and manager Peter Meadon’s lyrics are easily the worst the band ever had to use (until the late 70s at least). And yet I love this song for all of its pill-popping mod-orientated madness – it’s not as perfect as ‘proper’ Who debut ‘Can’t Explain’ by any means but it somehow fits the band’s catalogue as the first real ‘Who’ recording and it’s a lot less wearing than most of the James Brown covers on the ‘My Generation’ LP. 6/10.

10) Neil Young ‘Aurora’ and ‘The Sultan’ (released in Toronto, Canada under the name ‘The Squires’ and finally re-issued in 2009 as part of the Neil Young box-set ‘Archives’): “Aurora!” When Neil Young finally got round to issuing his delayed-by-30-years ‘Archive’ box set, just about the only track still there from day one was this double-sided single by Neil’s first band ‘The Squires’. Interestingly, The Beatles hadn’t quite reached Canada by the time these songs were recorded – and Neil was never that big on Elvis – so these songs instead show a distinct Shadows influence (the only word on either song is a shouted ‘Aurora!’ in the chorus. Neil’s guitar work is, astonishingly, already on a par with hank Marvin’s style by the time he’s 16 and the rest of the band sound pretty hot too, especially the kid with the gong and surf style drumming (Bob Clark?) What a shame they had to fold when Neil tried to take the band out of Toronto because they could have been big too. It’s also pretty weird to hear what already sounds like Neil’s legendary style played quietly without it being drenched in feedback or hung out right on the edge. Still, Young fans who’d saved up hundreds of pounds for the box set on the strength of ‘Like A Hurricane’ and ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ were probably less than amused when the box set started with such an uncharacteristic pair of songs! 5/10.   

So what of our other AAA bands? Well, Belle and Sebastian’s demo tape is effectively debut record ‘Tigermilk’ (recorded as a project to sell as part of a business studies degree!), Buffalo Springfield were signed to Atlantic on the strength of their live work (now sadly lost), CSN were already stars in their own right (although some early demos have crept out on CD re-issues), Dire Straits started off with ‘Sultans of Swing’ and the rest is history, The Hollies’ audition tape became the lovely B-side ‘Whole World Over’, Jefferson Airplane recorded the censored ‘Runnin’ Round This World’ single, Lindisfarne’s early tapes as The Brethren are still under lock and key somewhere, The Monkees were signed before they’d played a note together (although their earliest recordings did come out on the ‘Missing Links Two’ compilation), The Moody Blues were signed on the back of live gigs as ‘Birmingham’s biggest band’ in the Denny Laine era, Oasis recorded a few demos which were released on the back of their early singles, Pink Floyd recorded the still unreleased ‘Lucy Leave’ and ‘I’m A King Bee’ (only available on YouTube), The Stones’ earliest recording became first single ‘C’mon’, The Small Faces  were signed on the strength of an untapped audition at Decca, Cat Stevens was signed after playing ‘I Love My Dog’ for a publisher and 10cc began life as ‘Hotlegs’ (see news and views no 36).

That’s all for another issue – see you next time!

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