Monday, March 1, 2021

Review: 'Rock Me on the Water: 1974—the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics '

I’ve always considered 1974 to be a low-water mark for pop culture. The year’s central sound was the bland MOR rock wafting out of Los Angeles. So I was curious to read Ronald Brownstein’s new book Rock Me on the Water: 1974—the Year Los Angeles Transformed Movies, Music, Television, and Politics not because I’m interested in the pop culture of ’74 but because I wanted to know why anyone would select that year for examination.

There’s no question that the year Watergate blew up and Nixon resigned was politically crucial, but Brownstein mostly steers away from politics aside from occasionally checking in with California’s aspiring governor Jerry Brown. The author’s decision to limit his scope to LA is an issue with a book that is already limited by the creative fatigue of the year it examines. British artists such as John Cale, King Crimson, Genesis, and Roxy Music, who all did great work in 1974, get left out. That leaves chapters on the Eagles, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt: an uninteresting cast of characters making dull music. Because of that LA-focus, Matos’s look at film doesn’t do much Peter Biskind hadn’t already did with Easy Riders, Raging Bulls

By far the most engrossing chapters in Rock Me on the Water deal with the year in television, though 1974 is more significant as a breaking point than a creative peak since the shows Brownstein examines—All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show— had all been on the air for several years by ’74. The year is only significant because it ended with federal regulations designed to scale back what was permissible on TV, hampering the development of more adult shows and paving the way for piffle like Happy Days and Three’s Company. The discussion is still fascinating, particularly when Brownstein gets into the strides women made behind television cameras during this period, and his writing is engaging enough that even the less vital chapters on music and film are highly readable. I’m still not sure why he specifically chose 1974 though.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Review: 'Fandom and The Beatles: The Act You've Known for All These Years'

No band can have a real career without fans. Fans are the bodies who crowd the floors at concerts, the wallets who purchase tickets and albums, and the voices who advertise their fave groups and recruit new fans. No band has had a career like The Beatles' and no fans have been as integral to the history of the band they worship as Beatlemaniacs have been. How many other fan groups have their own, widely known name? 

The ten essays in Fandom and The Beatles: The Act You've Known for All These Years look at different aspects of Beatlemania throughout history. Candy Leonard's "Beatles Fandom: A De Facto Religion" attempts to piece together a core Beatles philosophy mostly by cherry picking a dozen songs that support the band's "All You Need Is Love" ethos. The essay might have been more compelling and nuanced had it made room for the less palatable philosophies of songs such as "Taxman", "Dr. Robert", and "Run for Your Life". Punch Shaw's look at Lennon's role as cultural and political icon could have used more analysis and fewer objective bullet points of Lennon's most noteworthy and inflammatory moments, although Shaw's willingness to acknowledge Lennon's hypocrisies fleshes out the discussion a bit. Co-editor Kit O'Toole's essay on how Beatle fans engage with online media overdoes the statistics and underdoes the analysis. More insightful is Katie Kapurch's "The Beatles, Gender, and Sexuality", which challenges sexist stereotypes of Beatlemaniacs as mindlessly screaming girls. Other essays deal with fan fiction, cover bands, and how the young Beatlemaniacs of the twenty-first century express their fandom online and elsewhere. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Deluxe Edition of 'The Who Sell Out' Coming in April

While The Who's legacy has long rested on Tommy, Live at LeedsWho's Next, and Quadrophenia, a pretty vocal minority of fans (such as myself) have long trumpeted the ad-addled, radio-parodying, musically heavenly The Who Sell Out as the band's best album. Those other albums and the band's 1965 debut My Generation have already been released as multi-disc deluxe editions, so fan fave Sell Out was the next logical choice for the big-box treatment. After years of rumors, promises, and thumb twiddling, that long-awaited set is now scheduled to deliver more music, more music, more music. 

On April 23, Universal Music will release The Who's 1967 album in three different editions. The biggy is a 5 CD box that features the original album in its original mono and stereo mixes with bonus outtakes and '67/'68 singles, a disc of sessions, a disc focused on 1968 dubbed "The Road to Tommy", and a disc of Pete Townshend's demos. 

The major news is that two titles familiar to Who fans that we have never actually heard have been unearthed for this set. A studio backing track for "Facts of Life" is included on the 1968 disc. Among Townshend's demos is "Kids! Do You Want Kids, Kids". 

The 5-CD set also includes vinyl singles of "I Can See for Miles" b/w "Someone's Coming" and "Magic Bus" b/w "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde". There's also an 80-page hardback book and various posters, postcards, stickers, and other such business.

There will also be a 2-CD edition featuring the first two discs of the box set and a double vinyl LP with the stereo mix of The Who Sell Out on the first LP and a dozen outtakes on the second. The digital edition will include six additional tracks: "Our Love Was" (Take 12 Rejected Mono Mix), "Rael (Early Mono Version) (2018 Mix)", "I Can See For Miles (Early Mono Version) (2018 Mix)", "Someone’s Coming (UK Single Mix)", "Magic Bus (US / UK Mono Version)", and "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (US Mono Single Mix)".

Here's exactly what will be on the box set and vinyl:

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Scat Records to Reissue Guided by Voices' Early Albums

Guided by Voices did not become indie It Boys until they released the critical favorite Bee Thousand in 1994, but the kings of lo-fi pop had been making great albums since their earliest days in the late eighties. For a long time, the only way to get those albums was in the Box CD box set that has been out of print for quite some time. 

That is about to change as Scat Records is releasing GBV's pre-Bee Thousand albums on multiple formats. The label had already rereleased 1933's Vampire on Titus last summer. Next month will see the release of the eclectic Propeller on vinyl, CD, and cassette for those who were always disappointed that Guided by Voices' albums don't sound quite shitty enough. 

After getting those two albums that immediately precede Bee Thousand out of the way, Scat will wind way back to the beginning and reissue GBV's LP debut, Devil Between My Toes, "in early summer-ish" according to the label's website. The site promises the rest of those early LPs (Sandbox, Self-Inflicted Aerial Nostalgia, and the spectacularly underrated Same Place the Fly Got Smashed) "over the next two years." Hopefully that will also include the R.E.M.-by-any-other-name mini-album Forever Since Breakfast.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Review: 'Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago, and the 1960s'

The Beatles and Chicago, Illinois, were both very hot in the sixties. The Beatles were hot because they sold tons of records and concert tickets while radicalizing pop music, fashion, and attitudes about drugs, sex, and religion. Chicago was a volatile hotbed of violence and racism. In August, 1966, white supremacists pelted Martin Luther King, Jr., with rocks and racial epithets, prompting him to make the very pointed comment, “I think the people from Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn how to hate.” Sixties Chicago was where the Catholic Church wielded extreme conservative power, segregation still prevailed, murder ran rampant, and the 1968 Democratic National Convention served as the site for an infamously violent clash between young protestors and the police.

John F. Lyons’s new book Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago, and the 1960s looks at the Beatles phenomenon through a Chicago-centric lens and vice versa. At its most focused, it covers The Beatles’ live appearances in the city in 1964, ’65, and ’66 in minute detail; how the Chicago press covered The Beatles for good and bad; and the impressions of the band from local fans, detractors, and fellow artists. However, I kept waiting for the book’s two central topics to intersect more profoundly. Lyons does a fine job of explaining why The Beatles and Chicago were important in the sixties, but he doesn’t really show why they were particularly important to each other. The reminiscences of Chicago-based fans could have been the reminiscences of fans from anywhere. When the author discusses John Lennon’s incendiary “bigger than Jesus” comment at length, I was expecting to learn of some little known consequence when The Beatles played in Catholic-controlled Chicago shortly afterward, but there was nothing particularly noteworthy about their visit.


Joy and Fear is still a compelling read because The Beatles and 1960s Chicago are such compelling topics. And though Lyons reveals nothing new about the latter, he includes enough obscure quotations from the people who knew, loved, or hated The Beatles that the biographical material still feels fairly fresh.      

Friday, February 19, 2021

Review: 'Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry and Audacity of Serge Gainsbourg'

Serge Gainsbourg didn’t have the most versatile voice in the world and he generally couldn’t be bothered with composing more than a verse and chorus and putting them on repeat, but he made the most of his musical limitations and lyrical advantages. In the sixties, only The Velvet Underground rivaled him for creative exploitation of repetition. For those of us who do not speak French, Gainsbourg’s gift for withering wordplay is lost, but there’s something about his monotone, sneering delivery that conveys all the cleverness and sleaziness that made him a superstar in his home country. There’s certainly no mistaking what’s going on once he starts grunting and Jane Birkin starts groaning in his signature provocation “Je t’aime … moi non plus” even if we miss the subtlety of lines like “Je vais et je viens entre tes reins (trans: “I come and I go between your kidneys”). I was so convinced that Gainsbourg was a wry comic genius and that perusing his lyrics would be more titillating than a metric-ton of dirty magazines that a few friends and I tried to learn French just so we could translate his songs when I was in my twenties (we did not get far).

Because Serge Gainsbourg’s predilection for provocation was as much a part of his life as it was a part of his art, his art sometimes played second fiddle to a life that involved such infamous moments as burning a 500 franc note and telling Whitney Houston he wanted to fuck her on TV. Jeremy Allen does not ignore those theatrical monkeyshines in his new book Relax Baby Be Cool: The Artistry and Audacity of Serge Gainsbourg because they were a genuine part of Gainsbourg’s artistry, which could be troubling indeed. As great as much of his work was, a lot of the shit he pulled would never fly today. Try writing a song about the frustration of not being able to have sex with your own pre-teen daughter today. You’d be ruined. You sure wouldn’t get a smash hit with it, as Gainsbourg did in 1984. 


Because so many of the things that made Serge Gainsbourg famous now appear reprehensible viewed through twenty-first century eyes, Allen has to walk a fine line in discussing the artist’s career. Allen does it the way it should be done: by being honest about both the talent and the problems. He also writes a book about music the way I wish more writers would. Instead of stepping back for a stiff academic assessment, Allen allows himself to enter the narrative, follows a flow of ideas rather than strict chronology, and steps away from the mic to allow others (including Gainsbourg’s daughter Charlotte and former partner Jane Birkin, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, Bad Seed Mick Harvey, Anna Karina, Mike Patton, and Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees) to comment on Gainsbourg’s artistry. This makes Relax Baby Be Cool a personal, unpredictable, and consistently engaging look at some very personal, unpredictable, and engaging music. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

Review: The Band's 'Stage Fright' 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

The Band were responsible for one of the most influential albums of the late sixties when Music from Big Pink helped spark the era’s “return to the roots” trend in 1968. They were responsible for one of the era’s very best albums when they released their perfectly crafted eponymous LP the following year. So The Band could be forgiven if their third album wasn’t quite as fresh or electrifying as their first two. Rather Stage Fright finds the quartet working in the deep groove they’d already etched out. “Strawberry Wine” is a return to the driving backwoods funk of “Up on Cripple Creek”, “Sleeping” is another delicate Richard Manuel vehicle in the model of “Whispering Pines” or “Lonesome Suzie”, and so on.    

If The Band aren’t quite stretching themselves musically third time around, they’re at least doing their thing as well as ever, and Robbie Robertson’s lyrical concerns have certainly shifted. While The Band looked backward to America’s past, Stage Fright looks inward for Robertson’s first truly personal selection of songs. Throughout the album, he is either contemplating his own lack of motivation or looking at his band’s work with alarm. The title track views live performing through a sweaty veil of anxiety. “All La Glory” is the one moment of true clarity as Robertson observes his newborn girl with awe and pens one of rock’s loveliest odes to new parenthood.


So Robertson’s personal investment is what really keeps Stage Fright sparking. The Band get themselves sufficiently worked up for a few tracks such as “Time to Kill”, “Just Another Whistle Stop”, and the title number, but the album could have used a bit more forceful rock and roll. Stage Fright is still a beautifully performed and recorded album full of catchy tunes and a worthy candidate for a deluxe fiftieth anniversary edition. It is receiving a slightly belated one no doubt due to the pandemic, but it is worth the wait.


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