Monday, 19 August 2013
Eleven Random Recent Purchases
Dear all, this is probably the longest gap between physically writing articles since this website started. A combination of being away for a fortnight, coping with ATOS forms, a bad chronic fatigue spell, a change in jobcentres and a whole heap of DWP nonsense means that it’s ever so slightly over a month since I wrote to you last. Hopefully you haven’t noticed – knowing I was going to be away I’d built up a queue of articles and luckily our website has a ‘time –code’ which means it will only publish the reviews on the days I want it to (even while I’m away!) However, I’ve now run out of backup articles so am forcing myself to get back into the swing of things. To be honest, it seems like years I’ve been away – these articles used to flow at a hundred miles an hour and all I could do was hang on, this one is already a pain to write! Ah well, I’m sure I’ll be back into the swing of it soon (the run that ended unbroken after 56 issues, by the way, is our longest extended writing spell yet lasting over a full year). I still have no internet access by the way, so please be patient with me answering messages – its taking ages to save up for a ‘baby Dell’ laptop but we’re getting there and it should be soon!
Anyway, while being away I’ve accrued more AAA albums and purchases (like you do) and there’s a few from the past few months I never got round to mentioning (mainly from my birthday last month)so here is another (the fifth?) collection of ‘random recent purchases and whether they were a good idea or not:
Dave Davies “I Will Be Me” (CD, 2013)
I ought to be getting to used to the sheer shriek and power behind Dave Davies’ solo albums by now (this is number six), but even compared to the others this is noisy. Kinks fans who love the band noisy and grungy (as a sort of updated heavy metal take on ‘You Really Got Me’) will love it for it’s sheer power and refusal to grow old gracefully and yet the problem (as with the first two albums ‘AFL’ and ‘Glamour’) is that there’s no dynamics here: no let-down in steam and speed as there was with albums three and four (‘Chosen People’ and ‘Bug’, the best two out of Dave’s half dozen solo releases). In fact, if you come to this album straight from one of the Kinks’ more lyrical moments such as ‘Waterloo Sunset’ (or any of Ray’s mid-70s concept albums) then you might struggle to recognise the playing at all (this is a noisy, thrashing sound the Kinks stopped playing at all between 1965 and about 1977). Some of the songs are wonderful, such as Dave’s typically quirky opener ‘The Little Green Amp’ where he tells us the old story of slashing his amplifier with a razor blade to get his trademark sound, only for the neighbours to complain. It could easily have got silly, but a poignant middle eight still yearning for girlfriend Sue 50 years on now (who became pregnant by him, aged 15, in 1963 shortly before the Kinks broke big and their respective families ‘split them up’) adds just the right touch of heart to this autobiographical tale. Title track ‘I Will Be Me’ is great too, Dave spitting out his defiance in an update on ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’ from 1965. At long last an AAA member tackles the Coalition, too, in the track ‘Living In The Past’ in which ‘The blind lead the blind leading towards death’ and in which the credit crunch came suddenly ‘everyone was still laughing’. Unfortunately, the other 10 songs on the album don’t make much of an impact and seem to pass by in a sea of noise. Worse still, Dave’s voice is still hesitant and awkward after fighting back from the stroke that hit him ten years ago and is at times painful to listen to. Still, that’s not his fault – it’s wonderful to have Dave back at all and far from mellowing him that stroke only seems to have made him stronger and more determined to go back to making music ‘his’ way, without thought to commerciality or – at times – listenability. ‘I Will Be Me’ is far from Dave’s best work but it has much to recommend it if you like your Kinks loud, proud and unbowed.
Micky Dolenz “Remember” (CD, 2012)
It’s been a while since Micky released an album (1992 as far as I can tell) but there’s actually very little difference between this album and ‘Micky Dolenz Puts You To Sleep’. Both are nostalgic albums full of memories from the past and – sadly – are almost all cover-based (in his Monkees heyday Micky wrote songs every bit as good as Goffin-King, Boyce-Hart, Leiber-Stoller and all those other famous songwriting acts the group used to cover). Micky’s voice is older and deeper now and he sensibly doesn’t strain it, which gives something of a pipe-and-slippers feel to the record – in fact had Micky and Dave Davies got together to make half an album each you’d have had the perfect record; just as Dave is too dominantly loud and noisy, however, so this album needs a bit of ‘life’ to get it going. Again, though, there’s much for old fans to enjoy: Micky tackles no less than three old Monkee favourites and whilst ‘I’m A Believer’ is a little obvious a choice (sung in a similar but superior way by writer Neil Diamond on his last LP) the other two are fantastic. ‘Sometime In The Morning’ by Carole King, the highlight of second LP ‘More Of The Monkees’ is a sweet song about first love, rattled off by a teenage Micky in heart-throb mode in 1967 and now revisited as something warmer, more heartfelt and nostalgic, as if the couple are still together some 40 years later. ‘Prithee’ (Better known by Monkees fans as ‘Do Not Ask For Love’) is one of the most famous Monkee outtakes, finally released with Micky singing it in 1987 some 20 years after it was recorded (Peter Tork sings it in the ’33 and 1/3rd TV special’ in 1968). Dispensing with the Elizabethan backdrop of harpsichord and strings, Micky reaches further back in time to make this song a madrigal, complete with a dozen chanting Micky’s. The result isn’t quite up to the original, but it’s still mighty impressive and the song is a great choice, still one of the best Micky ever sang. The real album highlight, though, is ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’, a Beatles song with a Monkees connection (you hear a snatch of it in the last ever Monkees TV episode ‘The Frodis Caper’ written by Micky; Dolenz asked John Lennon for his permission, making this the only time in the 1960s a Beatles song was ever heard on television outside of a fab four appearance). One of Lennon’s most under-rated songs, it misses the punchy strings and grungy McCartney guitar of the original but fits the album’s slowed-down nostalgic mood really well (‘Taking a walk by the old school’). It’s a more adventurous choice than yet another cover of ‘In My Life’ anyway! Overall, then, there’s maybe four songs from ‘Remember’ that are, well, memorable – the rest really aren’t up to much, but the peaks of the album make up for some of the lesser moments.
Gerry and the Pacemakers “The EMI Years 1963-66” (CD set, 2012)
Released at the same time as the superlative ‘Clarke-Hicks-Nash Years’ Hollies set (which was our favourite AAA purchase of the whole of last year) were these two other sets by Merseybeat bands. Both suffer badly by comparison with the Hollies’ huge highs and their sheer consistency (Hollies studio tracks from the six CD 150 track set that didn’t make my MP3 of highlights: four) but work pretty well on their own terms. Indeed, the packaging for all three sets is superb and is by far the easiest and cheapest ways of getting ‘complete’ sets of these bands (that’s ‘complete’ in inverted commars because there still are a handful of songs by all three bands still locked firmly away in the vaults). As with the Hollies set, the other two EMI sets also take the fascinating decision to present all the songs in the order they were recorded, not released, giving the listener a chance to hear these bands progress (or not) song by song and allowing famous singles to mingle alongside album tracks, B sides, EP tracks and outtakes which gives such a better understanding of context than those awful hurried cheap best-ofs with track listings plucked at random do.
Personally, I never felt that Gerry and the Pacemakers were on the same level as, say, The Hollies or their fellow Merseybeaters The Searchers: Gerry and Co were out for a good time and enjoying the ride as long as it lasted, rather than trying to shape the music world. However, they were so much more than the novelty band they’ve been painted as: the first act ever to make #1 with their first three singles (a feat only ever matched by Frankie Goes To Hollywood twenty years later), Gerry was a promising songwriter who sadly got going just a tad too late (his greatest songs come in late 1964 and early 1965 when anything Liverpudlian is deeply out of fashion after two intense years). In addition, Gerry’s brother Freddy is one of the greatest drummers of the 1960s, giving the band’s rockier material a real edge that none of their contemporaries (except perhaps The Hollies) could match. Rumour is he was nearly drafted into the Beatles instead of Ringo but chose to stay loyal to his brother...As for the recordings presented here, they’re highly variable. Sometimes G&P really hit the groove and make a cover their own, not withstanding the fact that every other band was doing it too (theirs is the definitive version of ‘A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues’) and the little-known ‘Here’s Hoping’ and ‘Baby You’re So Good To Me’ with its distinctive piano riff may well be their best songs even with the hits: two straight-forward stompers with unusual harmonies and Gerry’s optimistic lopsided grin at its finest. Gerry’s own ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ is also a song way ahead of it’s time by 1964 standards. There are quite a few gems like these smuggled across the four CDs (unfortunately the fourth – stereo editions of tracks already heard in mono – is a bit of a waste as nothing is all that different), but an awful lot of dross too. The shame is that G&P were clearly capable of a lot more than they ever gave and could in fact have been in the reckoning right up to the psychedelic years (although the thought of as grinning Gerry Marsden in a kaftan holding a sitar is perhaps a progression too far). You do wonder why - when the clock is obviously ticking circa 1966, the band are being asked to record less and less and are now relying on three minute singles for impact, not whole albums – they couldn’t come up with something more substantial (like, say, The Hollies did and The Searchers tried to). There’s also a lot more unissued work than I’d have expected – even with all the compilations down the years and the fact that, by the end, EMI were releasing the daftest and most unsuitable of songs (the raunchy ‘Girl On A Swing’ had no chance with the G&P name attached to it). Still, under-rate this band at your peril: they might not have been the very best the 1960s had to offer but they are proof that even the ‘second league’ of bands from that most magical periods could – briefly – be as articulate, memorable, adventurous and clever as the best of bands.
The Swinging Blue Jeans “Good Golly Miss Molly: The EMI Years 1963-69” (CD set, 2012)
If anything, the Swinging Blue Jeans’ reputation has fared even worse down the years: only ever ‘allowed’ to make one rushed and heavily flawed LP, they arrived to the Merseybeat party fractionally late and ended up perhaps two or three singles behind the competition at a time when the music scene changed week by week. Again, though, at their peak the Blue Jeans were as great as anyone around them, including the Beatles: their covers of ‘Good Golly Miss Molly’ 'Hippy Hippy Shake' ‘Shaking All Over’ and especially ‘You’re No Good’ are every bit as raw, powerful and perfectly judged as any of their bigger named compatriots. Singer Ralph Ennis turned into quite the songwriter too, coming up with most of the band’s recordings by the end of 1964/early 1965 (rather than an occasional writer like Gerry was) and the Blue Jeans run with all the period’s unexpected changes (folk, blues, heavy rock, psychedelia, retro rock) so well it’s a surprise their records didn’t sell for a longer period. Their line-up changes dramatically throughout the set which doesn’t help matters much (including a year’s stint by Terry Sylvester, Graham Nash’s replacement in The Hollies), but the Blue Jeans always sound as if they’re giving it their all (the Pacemakers were definitely getting audibly fed up by the end of their set and even The Hollies go through something of an ‘uncertain’ phase in 1968). Personally, I found more highlights in their set to enjoy (20 unmissable songs as opposed to Gerry’s 14) and these last through to the last disc. Memorable songs you might not know include the poppy B-side ‘That’s The Way It Goes’ (which should have been an A side), the unusual cold and detached grungefest ‘I’m Gonna Have You!’, the moving psychedelia-folk ballad ‘What Can I Do Today?’, the brass-led ‘Tremblin’, the unusual ‘Rumours, Gossip, Words Untrue’ and the surely unique ‘Don’t Go Out Into The Rain, You’re Gonna Melt, Sugar’ (which is either one of the greatest tracks in my collection or one of the worst!) Hollies fans also get the chance to hear Terry sing ‘Sandy’ – no, not the Bruce Springsteen song the Hollies cover in 1975 but a swirly 1968 ballad and his first lead vocal on record. Yes, again, there’s a lot of dross to sit through to snuffle out the gems (the ‘Blue Jeans A Swinging’ longplayer is a surprise disappointment, nothing like as inventive or polished as even the B sides of the period) but the Blue Jeans are one of the 1960s’ greatest forgotten acts and continue to be one of the greatest live acts from the decade still going (they blew even the Searchers on a 1960s package tour I saw – and I say that as a Searchers fans for whom they can usually do no wrong!)
Neil Young “Sugar Mountain – Live At Canterbury House” (CD, recorded 1968 released 2010)
Phew! There’s been a six month gap in the Neil Young schedules after a very hectic three or four years so I can finally catch up with the one ‘Neil Young Archives’ release I never got hold of. And a jolly good thing too, because ‘Sugar Mountain’ might well be the best of the batch so far. The concert is named after the one performance that has been released (‘Sugar Mountain’, one of Neil’s earliest songs written on his 19th birthday in 1964 and re-released many times over the years on B-sides and as part of the excellent ’Decade’ retrospective in 1977) and yet doesn’t sound much like the one track we know: ‘Sugar Mountain’ is sombre, tight and together; the rest of this gig is sprawling, unrehearsed and featuring moments of genius right next to fumbling mistakes. This ‘gig’ doesn’t sound like some grand entrance of a future superstar – instead it’s an intimate, rambling gig where a self-deprecating Neil speaks to the audience at length in between each number and even – for the first and probably last time - takes requests (his response to being asked to play ‘Out Of My Mind’, saying ‘I didn’t think anyone out here would ever have heard of that song’, is priceless!) All that speech rather gets in the way of the music at times (the CD is split quite evenly between chat and music) and Neil’s interactions with audiences down the years has always been, erm, unusual (although he surpasses himself here with his stoned five minute ‘rap’ about being fired from a bookshop for taking mushrooms, a detail that has absolutely nothing to do with ‘The Loner’, the song he plays next). At it’s best, however, this quite concert is the perfect souvenir of it’s times, capturing Neil on the verge of leaving the Springfield and at the point when he hasn’t yet decided to make his debut eponymous album an over-produced epic. Indeed, much of that first record (even the monkeynuts ten minute ramble ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’) sounds much better here, with minor gems like ‘If I Could Have Her Tonight’ and ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’ flowering in their new home (although you miss the heart-tugging strings on ‘The Old Laughing Lady’). Unusually for Neil there are no unreleased songs here, although an early version of ‘Birds’ (two full years before its appearance on ‘After The Goldrush’) sounds very different and ‘Winterlong’ (unreleased till 1977) is heard in frustratingly shortened form. There are three album highlights, though, all originally from the same album (the AAA classic ‘Buffalo Springfield Again’): ‘Mr Soul is darker, lighter and yet somehow more intense in acoustic form; the exotic beauty ‘Expecting To Fly’ is every bit as fragile and pretty even with Neil’s simple acoustic guitar part subbing for a full-blown orchestra and most impressively of all sound collage ‘Broken Arrow’ is turned from some garish psychedelic soundscape epic into a clever and heartfelt Dylanesque song about denial and the spaces between people. The Neil Young Archives is a very up and down collection at its best – past sets have included a strangely bland Crazy Horse set from 1969, a very up and down acoustic show from Massey Hall in 1971 and a so-so International Harvesters album from 1986 (which did at least manage the easy task of improving on the ‘Old Ways’ album – see news and views 147). ‘Sugar Mountain’ is another live set that’s variable, to say the least, but it’s probably the best of the four in terms of offering historical importance, great music with arrangements quite new to anything out before and getting to the real heart and soul of what makes Neil Young tick. You might want to keep the skip button handy for the monologues, but even they have a certain charm (once or twice) – overall ‘Sugar Mountain’ is an excellent purchase (and more fool me for buying ‘Massey Hall’ and ‘Live At The Fillmore East’ first!)
The Moody Blues “Timeless Flight” (Box Set, 2013)
It wasn’t all that long ago that you could buy a house for the kind of money this box set is selling for – and the jury’s still out as to whether or not I’d rather have a house or just this box to keep me warm at nights. First up, the good news. If you’re new to the Moodies (but know enough about them to want to get into them feet first) then this is a great way of finding out about them. In fact, there’s not very much at all this 17 CD/DVD set is missing (although, personally, I’d have liked to have gone the whole hog and added in what’s missing on another two or three bonus CDs and made this set ‘complete’). As ever with the Moodies the packaging is excellent (especially the ‘bonus’ cassette with early copies of this set, which is a replica of the ‘greatest hits/Days Of Future Passed’ home-made copy taken up into space by Apollo astronauts in 1972) and the hard-back book finally makes good on the stingy amount of literature we Moodies fans have been given to read over the years (somebody write a book on this band – it’s long overdue!) But – and it’s a big but – if you own even a few of the already pretty pricey CD re-issues from five or so years back then you really don’t need to bother. The wealth of bonus tracks dug out from the archives (even though a lot simply turned out to be full edits of songs segued on albums in the 1960s and 70s) was impressive, but all that’s been dug out of the archives now are a sweet but ropey Blue Jays gig from 1976 and a pretty awful 1980s set by the band at their synthesiser peak. The DVDs are better, rounding up most of the rare TV appearances and promos from around the world, but even this should be better and more complete (why no ‘Legend Of A Band’, for instance, the increasingly rare interview video from 1986?) Whilst given that the Moodies cared more for their sound and technology than most, is it also really necessary to feature ‘extra’ DVD audios of CDs already included separately in the same box set? And do we really need a ‘Timeless Flight fabric patch’ to complete the set? (Admittedly this set will cost the shirt off your back, but will it really wear out your trousers as well?) Yet again, as with their last CD re-issues, the Moodies come close to getting it right, but include either way too much or not quite enough to make this the ‘complete’ experience it should be. And frankly charging £160 for perhaps three hours of live audio and a few interesting clips during the time of a credit crunch is insulting to fans who’ve followed this band through thick and thin – and paid for this stuff several times over (some AAA bands don’t treat their bands very well, but the Moodies have nearly always been very giving to their fans over the years). Make this set a hundred pounds cheaper and add in the missing 1980s, 90s and 00s songs (some of them, like ‘Keys To The Kingdom’, pretty rare these days) and this old fan would have been very happy; sadly in its current state this is a rip-off with interesting bits.
The Jam “Setting Sons” (1980)
Unlike 99% of Paul Weller fans, I’ve been working backwards. I fell in love with his mid 90s renaissance at the time, enjoyed filling in the gaps in his solo work as it fell into my lap and dabbled a bit with the early Style Council before they became a bit, well, 1980s. I haven’t got into the Jam much before because a) their stuff has always been expensive, at least compared to Weller’s later stuff and most Jam albums barely last half an hour (in the great early 60s tradition) b) I’ve never really forgiven them for nicking the opening of ‘Taxman’ that blatantly for single ‘Start’ (if George Harrison got intro trouble for ‘My Sweet Lord’ only having a vague resemblance to ‘He’s So Fine’ then Paul Weller should have been locked up for that one) c) their cover of The Kinks’ powerhouse ‘David Watts’ (which should be so up their street) always sounded disappointingly limp, as if they missed the point of the rich kid who has everything (although their Who cover ‘Disguises’ is much better) and d) their music doesn’t really mix with chronic-fatigue induced headaches. However there’s a fine new chain of shops named, fittingly ‘That’s Entertainment’ (after possibly the best Jam song) selling off three, four or five CDs for a fiver and I’ve managed to fill in a few gaps. ‘Setting Sons’ is the best of the four Jam albums I own, a Kinks-like musing on schoolboys growing apart as they grow up that neatly shadows the end of the Jam in just 18 months’ time. The power and energy is there on all the Jam albums, but it’s the lyrics that makes this record: most of it as pertinent to our hard-bitten dodgy politician privileged-posing Coalition era as it ever was under Thatcher. I could have done with another couple of songs to really drive the point home (and the cover of ‘Heatwave’ at the end is a curio) but then Weller, as ever, was rushed into completing this album and – like Ray Davies so many times before him – had no hope of making the masterpiece he wanted to. No matter, ‘Setting Sons’ comes close, with the wit of ‘Eton Rifles’ (chosen by David Cameron as his ‘favourite song’ for some interview or other, possibly because it has the name of his old school in the title – actually it’s about exactly his kind of arrogant brat assuming they deserve the best in life and picking on the working class kids), the subtlety and adult awareness of ‘Thick As Thieves’ (a ‘Do You Remember, Walter?’ for a younger generation) and the hard-nosed adrenalin rush of ‘Wasteland’ the stand out tracks. After all, what chance have we got against a tie and a crest?
The Beatles “I Saw Her Standing There” (CD, 2012)
Ah that 50 years copyright rule. We speculated a few years back what this might mean for the AAA bands and the rules were duly tightened to songwriters receiving something closer to 70 years of royalties in most cases. However, a few recordings fall by the way side, especially those unreleased at the time or – as in the case of most of CD one – given a limited release at the time and blocked ever since. So here is the first of a three-way batch of material from 1962 (ie 51 years ago) which is semi-legal (ie the Beatles don’t want it out - indeed they’ve banned some of these tapes many times over the years - but can’t do anything legally to challenge it this time around). Yes, it’s the return of the Tony Sheridan recordings, taped by the Beatles (under the name of ‘The Beat Brothers’ because ‘The Beatles’ was considered to be a ‘stupid name’) in Hamburg in aid of a friend who needed a backing band at the last minute. ‘My Bonnie’ was rightly chosen as the single and is the best thing here by a country mile – McCartney’s harmonies and Harrison’s stinging guitar solo in particular demonstrating what it might have been like to hear the fab four in Germany on a good night. Re-released on ‘Anthology One’ in 1995, this CD sports an alternate version with a German intro which is new to me (and to bootleggers as far as I can tell). The other tracks here on CD one (only a few of which feature The Beatles but all of which feature Sheridan) aren’t in the same league but are nice to have and sound better than they do on most other sets. In addition, CD one includes the first two ever Beatles radio sessions , from March and June 1962 respectively (remember, ‘Love Me Do’ didn’t come out till October that year!) These tracks have turned up on bootleg lots, sometimes in better sound, but astonishingly were left off the official ‘At The BBC’ set in 1994 – ‘Dream Baby’ and ‘A Picture Of You’ (songs the band never returned to again) are particularly interesting, while it’s also fascinating to hear subtle differences in the arrangements for future Beatles powerhouses like ‘Please Mr Postman ‘Ask Me Why’ and Chuck Berry’s greatest song, ‘Memphis Tennessee’. At first the last track on CD one – a Cavern version of Ray Charles ‘What’d I Say’ – looked like the ultimate rarity, but no; chances are it’s not even by the Beatles (or if it is then they’re deeply drunk and running at the wrong speed).
CD two contains a fuller account of the infamous ‘Decca Audition tapes’ recorded on January 1st 1962, which Dick Rowe rejected along the lines that ‘no one wants to hear guitar groups anymore (shockingly Brian Poole and the Tremeloes were hired instead). Most reviewers who’ve heard the tapes since claim that Decca was right: the Beatles sound staid and nervous and don’t sing much of the material they were known for even then (Brian Epstein thought doing more ‘standards’ would go down well, although McCartney – the default vocalist for these – sounds terribly ill at ease here). However, I think people have been unkind: the band were in an unfamiliar studio, in an unfamiliar London (where none of them had ever been before) and had absolutely no rapport with Decca from the first (unlike EMI, where both George Martin and Ron Richards were welcoming, even if through gritted teeth at first). Some of the songs here shine greatly: ‘Money’ already sounds definitive (despite the band nicking it from a similar arrangement the Searchers were doing), ‘To Know Her Is To Love Her’ shows Lennon fully in tune with Phil Spector only seven years before the pair work together on ‘Let It Be’ and best of all the Lennon-McCartney original ‘Love Of The Loved’, while not their greatest early song, is already as good as the standards in their set (later given to PJ Proby to sing, it would have been a perfectly respectable addition to ‘Please Please Me’). Best of all, Pete Best’s drumming is superb, far from the amateurish playing so many people have assumed for so many years, and is easily the better of anything Ringo plays with the band 1962-63 (the que3stion of course is whether Pete’s heavy sound would have ‘grown’ with the band like Ringo did is of course unknown, but the Pete Best Combo nail the 1965 folk-rock sound so my guess is yes he would). A bunch of Cavern Club rehearsals come next, including an unreleased McCartney Shadows pastiche (‘Catcall’, heard twice here – the second recording of which is new to me), a ragged ‘One After 909’ (seven full years before ‘Let It Be’), an exciting ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and best of all a dynamic ‘Some Other Guy’ (reportedly Lennon’s favourite ever song, so it’s amazing it never ended up on a Beatles record – although The Searchers arguably got there first). We really didn’t need ‘Love Me Do’ and ‘PS I Love You’ (any Beatles fan interested enough to buy this set already owns that first single many times over), but full marks for including the ‘first’ radio interview a fortnight after the release of ‘Love Me Do’ (note, though, the first ‘interview’ is the TV footage from a ‘People and Places’ Liverpool special that was taped with the ‘Some Other Guy’ footage). Overall, then, an enticing and exciting way of getting many Beatles gems from 1962 together in the same place at a cheap price – I look forward to buying both the Beach Boys ‘Surfin’ 1962’ (their first ‘Surfin’ Safari’ album plus outtakes) and Janis Joplin’s ‘California Blues’ (her much-bootlegged set as a teenage folkie with an already powerful voice) in the same series soon. Not to mention eagerly anticipating the 1963 releases for the Beatles and Beach Boys et al next year when they too fall out of copyright...
“Across The Universe” (Film, 2007)
I really wasn’t expecting much from this film, which uses the ‘Mama Mia’ trick of telling a new story based on old songs. Mama Mia itself was a travesty, easily amongst the worst top ten films of all time, with a cast of actors who couldn’t sing tackling some really tricky songs on a plot that made no sense, with characters you wanted to throw in the nearest bit of Greek sea and the most banal and obvious Abba songs shoe-horned into their plot. This Beatles take is much superior, however: telling the story of ‘Jude’ and ‘Lucy’, it contains the same backdrop of 1960s revolution and sea-change the Beatles songs were written to in the first place and is done with a lot more care and heart. Director Julie Tambor clearly knows her Beatles and the script (by ‘Porridge’ writers Le Frenais and Clements) is full of Beatle references (every character is named after a Beatles song somewhere) and lots of little ‘in-jokes’ such as Maxwell clutching a silver hammer or Prudence making her entrance ‘through the bathroom window’. You don’t need to be a Beatles anorak for the film to work, however, and if you’re new to the Beatles a) how on earth did you find my site?! And b) this film will give you access to so many great songs you probably aren’t used to hearing (the film even made a mini hit of ‘It Won’t Be Long’, the first song we ever wrote about on this website and one of Lennon’s most under-rated pop concoctions). From what I can tell ‘Across The Universe’ was something of a flop when it came out (odd – it’s got way more appeal than ‘Mama Mia’ ever did) but did really well in the teenage audience, re-connecting the Beatles to a new audience quite successfully. It’s a shame more fans gave it the cold shoulder, although frankly it was hard just trying to track down a copy of the thing. Yes, bits of it are corny, the Bono and Eddie Izzard cameos (as Dr Robert and Mr Kite respectively) get in the way of a good story and the Liverpool accents are as poor as any other American film made in the modern era. But this film’s heart is in the right place and the Beatles’ very essence – their invention, imagination and ability to make often very left-field turns accessible – is well represented in this inventive, imaginative film. The highlight: Uncle Sam calling out ‘I Want You’ to new recruits about to risk their lives in Vietnam – and the long march carrying the Statue of Liberty on their backs to a chorus of ‘She’s So Heavy!’ Even Lennon would have chuckled at that one!
John Lennon “The Lennon Letters” (Book, 2012)
I must confessed I passed on this book when it came out because I don’t think I’d seen a Beatles book get that many bad reviews since Albert Goldman tried to turn Lennon into a hopeless pill-popping junkie in a 1982 biography. ‘That’s a shame’, I thought, ‘because there’s a great book in there somewhere’; even as a youngster Lennon was telling his Aunt Mimi not to throw away his witty writings and cruel comics because he thought he’d end up famous and would stick them in a book one day. Sadly not all that much survives from Lennon’s early days (in fact far less than I’d thought does – you’d think some of Lennon’s family plus the many school-friends who chuckled over his ‘Daily Howl’ would have kept copies, especially after he turned famous), but then Lennon was such a prolific letter writer during the 15 years (1965-80) this book mainly covers that it’s still a fat and revealing one. The reviewers mainly complained about two items: a 13-year-old request to a cousin to borrow a bike and a 37-year-old househusband list of instructions for assistant Fred Seaman to follow, claiming both were inane and unrevealing. Yes they are – but the other 282 items are terribly revealing, shedding light on multiple aspects of Lennon’s life. The highlights are many but for me include some very sweet letters to fans offering encouragement for their own adventures and dreams (even long past the Beatles days when you’d have thought he’d have given up), a fascinating diatribe written in defence of children’s television and especially Sesame Street (written not to a paper, like so many of these letters, but direct to a complaining mum who’d written in to Lennon’s local), a scrawled note on top of what Lenon erroneously thought was the Beatles’ 1962 Decca audition tapes (see above) and posted to McCartney with the claim ‘what a great band!’ at the height of their 1971 fall-out and his last ever signature, signed mere hours before his death. Along the way Lennon sheds light on his complicated family set-up (who knew that he’d got back in touch with so many of his cousins after moving to America?) although its a shame that their letters to him don’t survive to keep up the correspondence. Lennon, surely, must have had one eye on doing a book like this one day – even when tired, grumpy or pushed for time his responses are often laugh-out-loud hilarious and he often talked about making a book like this; full marks to his close friend Hunter Davies for patiently collecting so many of these letters and scribblings down the years, often tracking down fans who bought their items at auctions and graciously wanted their fellow fans to experience them too. The only thing really missing is some sort of timeline to pull the book together and help it keep the ‘smaller’ items in context against the bigger events in Lennon’s life and I’d also be mighty surprised if more of Lennon’s jottings about his music hadn’t survived down the years (surely a cassette anorak like Lennon, who taped everything, would have written logs or labelled his demos?) Still, ‘Lennon Letters’ is arguably the most revealing and fascinating Beatles book for ever such a long time, kind of like Ringo’s ‘Postcards From The Boys’ book (the Lennon ones are in this volume too) but bigger and better and with more research done to put each letter or doodle in context. The book Lennon deserved all these years – but if only it had been done 30 odd years ago when more of Lennon’s work (especially his teenage years) might have survived.
Paul McCartney “FAB – An Intimate Life” (Book, 2009)
Not wanting Paul to feel left out, I also bought a Readers Digest condensed version of this biography – and wished I hadn’t. While Paul doesn’t come out of this book as badly as some others down the years (try Geoffrey Gilluinao’s – he actively hates the Beatles, but that hasn’t stopped him writing four books about them to date), you still can’t help but feel that the author is trying to dish the dirt. So what we get here are lots of McCartney’s drug busts and Apple-era in-fighting separated by the odd bit of sniping from Denny Laine’s 1982 article after Wings were effectively ‘sacked’ (which to be fair he’s since retracted – in part anyway) and some petty snipes at the McCartney children (poor Heather McCartney – Linda’s eldest, not Mrs Mills – has been admirably out of the public eye and should be supported, not gawped at like a nosy neighbour over a fence which is how the author comes over at times in the book). You could argue that Macca courts the attention sometimes (nobody comes out of the Heather Mills era well) and yet compared to what he could have been I’ve always found Macca remarkably grounded and giving (at least the author is generous enough to mention the foundation of LIPA, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, exactly the sort of thing a teenage Lennon and McCartney longed for on Merseyside), for all his occasional faults and egotistical tendencies (after all, you can’t have that many people scream at you for that many years and come of it the same the other side). And yet at times this might well be the best McCartney biography around – certainly for the Wings era. The author has a good feel for McCartney’s music, which albums and tracks are his best (and which should have remained unreleased) and the contributing factors that made him turn a particular way at a given moment. My advice is, it’s worth it for a £1 (especially with three other, sadly non-music books included) and the odd flash of insight – but read it after a proper McCartney book (the Barry Miles ‘Many Years From Now’ one is still about the best, even if it’s a tad ‘officialised’ and skips over the bad bits) to get the full effect.
Right, that’s all from me for now – see you next week for more news, views and music!