Monday, 15 December 2014

Six Random Recent Purchases (Kinks/G Dead/Stones/Hollies/Nils Lofgren)

Dear all, I haven't written a 'proper' top five/ten for a while now - mainly because the ebooks are being worked on at a rate of knots now and goodness knows that's been giving me more than enough material to fill each week what with non-album songs and solo albums and tv appearances. We still have a lot more to come, starting with the Buffalo Springfield, but before we get on to that and our Christmas 'review of the year' special next week I thought I'd take a slight pause and fill you in with a handful of goodies I've collected in the past six months but which don't constitute a full review of their own (these will all appear in our ebooks too one day). Yes this can only mean only one thing - it's another of our occasional (biannual nowadays it seems) 'random recent purchases' issue!

1) Ray Davies "Americana" (book, 2013)

The long-delayed follow-up to 'unauthorised autobiography' 'X-Ray', 'Americana' reads on the back of the jacket like a travelogue: you too can be in the front seat with Ray as he travels America in search of the book's subtitle 'The Kinks, The Road and the Perfect Riff'. However what this book actually is is a confessional, effectively the next installment of a new autobiography. Only this being Ray it's essentially missed out all the middle section ('X-Ray kind of ended with 'Preservation'; this book starts with Ray getting shot by a mugger in New Orleans in 2004 and only occasionally goes backwards via flashback). Here's what I was expecting: Ray's usual mixture of worry and strength, that 'short term pessimism, long term optimism' that creeps into most of his music and his witty reminisces are if anything even more powerful than 'X-Ray' (which, seeing as they told 'through' as character interviewing Ray, always seemed slightly removed and distant). What I wasn't expecting is how vivid this book is: like his songs Ray has a way of summing up a complex situation without really using many words (quite unlike yours truly!) The other thing I wasn't expecting is how devastatingly sad this book is: Ray went to America in search of the 'dream' he once felt in his childhood, when American TV repeats were more glamorous than anything the BBC could do on their budget and whose music bowled him over. After a gap in the1960s (when The Kinks were banned for hi-jinks on an aeroplane), Ray and co only arrives across the Atlantic in force in the late 1970s and even then felt like they never belonged. Ray finally seeks asylum there after the end of the Kinks and after a new start with a new girlfriend in tow he leaves expecting comfort and hope. Instead he gets shot for trying to protect his girlfriend's handbag and ends up in the most backward hospital imaginable, one where the nurses shrug off heart attack inducing tests, call him 'Mr Ray' and refuse to believe he's a rock star and where 'nobody visits, nobody grieves' (even Ray's girlfriend disappears a few pages into the book, presumably still without her handbag). Lying there, feeling he's dying, Ray feels as if life is trying to tell him something - but he doesn't know what it is. He never quite finds out either, but the message is learnt along the way, not at the destination and it's Ray's reading of the small details of life a la 'Waterloo Sunset' and 'Autumn Almanac' that make this book interesting.

Written alongside the 'Other People's Lives' album (one he was about to mix when the incident with the mugger happened and whose songs haunt Ray as he enters the operating theatre), this book is one long unravelling version of 'The Lonesome Train', with Ray realising that the American dream is just a front - that he's far away from home, having run away from his problems and discovering that, actually, they aren't that big. The Kinks are mentioned in flashback, they're noticeably absent from most of this book - Dave for example is barely mentioned and according to this book never seems to have any contact while Ray lies dying in hospital (given what happened in 'X-Ray' though, this might be a re-telling of the truth...) The only musician around to help Ray is Big Star/Box Tops star Alex Chilton (who was tempted out of retirement for Ray's Godawaful duets album a few years back), who sounds like the person Ray fears becoming and yet longs to be: alone in a hotel room, living out his life without any feeling for music or need to pick up the guitar; Ray can't walk away from music, though, which supports him and runs through him even at the darkest time of his life. Along the way we get a few happier gems that we haven't heard before - Arista boss Clive Davies being thrown into a swimming pool in his business suit being about the best - but this isn't one of those 'I remember...' autobiographies, it's an 'I'm dying and I want to live because of everything that came before!' kind of autobiography. One wonders why Ray only released it relatively recently (for Christmas 2013); perhaps he felt too close to it at the time it was written or perhaps he feels happier about the book now that there's a 'happy ending' (ie he didn't die). Insightful and moving as ever, but easily the most 'serious' project Ray has ever been let the public see, it's a good strong read but be warned - your perception of the singer will almost certainly change before the end and like 'X-Ray' not always for the good. Ultimately, though, this is one of those autobiographies that isn't about 'us' - it's about the writer learning about himself and the perception of how the world works. One hopes that if Ray ever writes a third book it will find him in a much happier state of mind - till now Ray has only written books at the 'worst' times in his life; I'd love to see what a 'happy' Ray reads like. 8/10

2) Bill Janovitz "Rocks Off: The 50 Tracks That Tell The True Story of The Rolling Stones" (book, 2013)

This book is a great idea - many a time I've started a Stones review only to realise that I could easily write a chapter on particular songs and yet others have no redeeming interesting features about them whatsoever (and yes, I did review 'Emotional Rescue' recently - how did you guess?!) Some of the choices are good ones too - moving up from the boring '40 licks' selection Janovitz offers us some excellent songs that never get the recognition they deserve: 'Rocks Off' itself, sadly forgotten B-side 'Play With Fire', 'Sway', even 'Plundered My Soul' (an outtake from the recent 'Exile On Main Street' deluxe CD). However, as I've learnt to my cost, the best Stones songs don't always make for the most interesting reading and all too often this book dispenses with the actual song in a sentence or two and then starts weaving in all sorts of ideas with only loose connections to the song (how much did Brian Jones contribute in 1968? How did Mick Taylor's sound change the band? How much did Keith Richards really smoke in the 1970s?!?) This is the start of an entertaining biography and Janowitz - now a regular Stones writer - knows his subject well. But unfortunately its only the 'beginnings' of one: dipped in and out of the book is fine, but taken as a whole it's slightly flimsy, the sum less than it's parts. A smaller book just on the songs or a longer one telling the whole story in the first half and then the songs in the second might have been better. Still, there's a lot to learn from this book if you're patient and Janowitz has better taste (ie closer to mine!) than most Stones biographers! 6/10

3) Jay Blakesberg "Between The Dark and Light: The Photography Of The Grateful Dead" (book, 2004)

There aren't half a lot of photograph books of the Dead out there considering that they didn't actually do that much on stage except play (they weren't even considered that great in the eye candy stakes according to quite a few fans). That's to the band's benefit in terms of their archive CD releases: we don't need to 'see' what's going on to get the 'atmosphere'. However, this book of pictures without the sounds is definitely the lesser half of the deal, especially given that Blakesberg didn't start shooting the band until 1978 (way after their heyday). All that said there are still plenty of plusses in this book's favour: Blakesberg really is a good photographer and knows how to capture Jerry Garcia in particular (there are some excellent shots of him back-stage, playing to camera - he clearly liked Blakesberg as there aren't many people Jerry would do this for). Blakesberg was there for all the big moments from the time he joined: the Egyptian gigs at the foot of the Pyramids, the various music videos, quite a few Fillmore East new year's eve parties, etc. The small nuggets of information provided for each 'chapter' are genuinely illuminating and are added sensibly: smaller than the pictures (what everyone has come to see) but not so small that fading Deadhead eyes can't read it. Bassist Phil Lesh also contributes a nice forward in which he remarks at how lovely it is that someone was there to record so many happy memories for him to look back on (although most of it is spent remarking again how in awe of Grateful Dead fans he is). The end result is that you don't really need this book - if you were there then your memories are probably more interesting than what went on and if you weren't then you didn't miss much visually (not from this period anyway). But considering all of that this is a nice book, made with a lot of love and care, and there are far worse photo-books about far worse bands clogging up our shelves out there. 4/10

4) Phil Lesh "Searching For The Sound" (book, 2005)

To date, the Dead's bass player is the only member of the band to have written an autobiography and it somehow manages to be informative and entertaining without ever telling you quite as much as you thought it was going to (perhaps because so many 'outsider' bands have covered this material so many times by now). Lesh is one of those musician-turned-authors who spends a lot of the book worrying about what his role in the band was and why the Dead are so significant, even though he explains why time and time again when the book almost giggles with glee at the delight of being part of such a great band. Slightly older than most of the group and working long hours as a postman when the Dead gig arrived, Lesh never quite lost his sense of awe as to what he and his equally wayward buddies cooked up. Along the way there are a few interesting bits and pieces: Garcia having a screaming row with him when - distracted by personal problems - Lesh lost his place in a jam and stopped playing (something he learnt never to do again!) , along with a bit more info about Mickey Hart's dad Lenny taking the band for a ride when he became their 'manager'.  Lesh is keen not to ruffle too many feathers and doesn't have a bad word to say about anybody until after Garcia's death, when the splintering of the band into different projects clearly affects him; he sounds quite bitter, in fact, when talking about 'The Other Ones' (the band Bob Weir, Billy Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart sometimes played in). Thankfully there's a happy ending the book doesn't know about yet - everyone seems to be good friends again now - but this leaves an oddly bitter aftertaste in what's actually generally a friendly, bouncy, exhilarating sort of a book. Don't come to 'Searching For The Sound' expecting too much insight, but it's a book to enjoy while you're actually reading it. 7/10

5) Nils Lofgren "Face The Music" (Box Set, 2014)

I feel I must apologise to Nils Lofgren fans out there because, sadly, It doesn't look as if I'll be able to add a 'Nils Lofgren' book to my collection of ebooks. That's my fault not his by the way - I'm a huge fan, love most of it and like many fans curse the fact that Nils isn't as widely known and celebrated as he always should have been. The fact is there isn't that much information about him out there, the audience hit rate for his reviews is the lowest of all the bands we cover and I'm physically missing quite a few of his important releases (especially given that my vinyl collection is scattered halfway across the country).
However, one last plug: the nine-CD set 'Face The Music' isn't perfect by any means (it's still missing several key Lofgren songs and spends far too long on the less interesting modern era) but it is one of the great AAA box sets and a shoe-in for an appearance on our 'review of the year' next week. Nine CDs would be too much for most artists - in truth it's about two discs too long even for Nils - but it's an excellent way of re-issuing and reviving albums long deleted from his catalogue (some of which still hasn't appeared on CD yet) and the track selection is by and large spot-on (although the 'finished' take of 'Keith Don't Go' - one of Nils' most famous songs, about Stone Keith Richards - seems a glaring omission). The first two and a half discs (covering Nils' first band 'Grin' and running up to 1979's album 'Nils') are essential for any collector who likes the poppier side of rock and has an ear for a good song and virtuoso guitar-work. The fact that I now have CD-quality copies of such great forgotten songs as 'Wonderland' 'Can't Get Closer' and 'The Sun Hasn't Set On This Boy Yet' has come close to making my year. Things get less interesting thereafter, with some very dodgy picks from later years (our AAA 'core' album 'Damaged Goods' from 1995 - a genius cathartic scream on the level of 'John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band' - is represented by just five songs (compared to the miserable last album 'Old School', which takes up almost all of disc six), although I'll sit through anything to finally get my hands on the delightful 'Little On Up' (from the 'Acoustic Live' album - sadly there never was a studio take).

The real winner for collectors, though, are discs seven and eight which feature a generous helping of 40 unreleased recordings. Unlike some box sets I can think of, these really are 'unreleased' - not rare, not obscure, not barely distinguishable remixes of something we've known and loved for 40 years - but unreleased and even unbootlegged as far as my collection goes (well, apart from B-side 'Beauty and the Beast', which I now own more copies of than even 'Shine Silently'!) Not everything is that interesting and you can see why so many songs (again especially the modern tracks) got left behind. But the best of this material is up to the highest standards of the set: a lovely if fast take on 'Keith Don't Go' by Grin with early supporter Neil Young guesting on guitar; a gorgeous pre-Grin piano demo 'Mist and Morning Rain'; Grin outtake 'Last Time I Saw You'  with Bob Berberich's lovely voice on lead and moving Clarence Clemons - the sax player alongside Lofgren in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band -  tribute, 'We Miss You C'. The DVD - disc nine - is a bit of a disappointment, as most of it has come out before and much of the best stuff (such as Nils' jaw-dropping set at the Rockapalast in 1979) is missing. Yes things could be better, but by and large this excellent set - hand signed by Nils himself in this first print run, which might explain why the price is currently so high - is an excellent purchase and fully does credit to one of rock and roll's greatest musicians. In short, you'll flip your flip. 8/10

5) The Hollies "More Live Hits" (CD, 2014)

We've waited a long time for a second Hollies live album - 38 years to be exact (to put this in context The Rolling Stones, who started recording a few months after The Hollies, are on their eleventh!) So little has changed in terms of the track listing - no less than ten of the original 15 songs from that 1976 album are repeated on this double set and most of the 'other' songs can be divided into the awful 21st century songs ('Emotions' 'Weakness') and the awful 1960s songs ('Sorry Suzanne' 'Stewball' - in fact the two worst songs The Hollies recorded up to the 1990s). There's a lot of difference in how the band sound too: only two members are the same, long-serving guitarist Tony Hicks and equally long-serving drummer Bobby Elliott. However Bobby now sounds like every other drummer out there, sad to say, while new (well, he's been with them a decade old now - but to me he's still 'new') vocalist Peter Howarth is a poor substitute for Allan Clarke, unable to work a crowd and clearly from a 'musicals' background rather than a rock and roll one. The brilliant Hollies back catalogue deserved better than the limp-kneed 'Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress', tired-sounding 'Carrie Anne' and teeth-curlingly painful versions of 'Jennifer Eccles' on show here. Howarth's attempts to get the crowd up on their feet make it sound all the more embarrassing when the crowd don't and he gets more and more frustrated - but then why should they, when one of the greatest bands of the 1960s are turned into a karaoke pub band? Tony Hicks is the only member to come out with any credit, his relatively 'new' song (actually the title track of 2010's 'Then Now Always') being one of the record's few highlights and his guitar solos are still inventive (especially on the rare live reading of Mickael Rickfors-era 'The Baby', last played in 1972 and which features a custom made 'sitar banjo'!) Two other nice re-recordings include a folky 'Look Through Any Window' (which suddenly explodes into full power midway through) and the first official live Hollies recording of the sublime 'King Midas In Reverse' (which is a little wonky, but almost there). However, for the most part this is a shocking album which would have benefitted so much more from some rarer Hollies gems and a few new arrangements - a sad waste of one of the greatest back catalogues of them all. 1/10

Right that's all for now - thanks for reading not just this article but all the others from across the year! Be sure to join us next week when we'll be dissecting the great the good and the ghastly of 2014's crop of AAA related issues. See you then!

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