Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Review: 'And on Piano... Nicky Hopkins: The Extraordinary Life ofRock's Greatest Session Man'

Pop on your favorite album. Is it Exile on Main Street? Who’s Next? Imagine? Mine’s The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society. And what is the common thread weaving through all these classics? Each features the instantly recognizable yet endlessly varied work of Rock’s finest piano man for hire. Whether cascading like a speed freak through “The Ox”, tastefully drizzling sparse melodic droplets over “No Expectations”, or pounding out harpsichord arpeggios on “Session Man”, Nicky Hopkins always knew exactly what to contribute to a song and almost always nailed it in one take. He played on hundreds of sessions, starting with supporting work for proto horror-rocker Screaming Lord Sutch then moving on to The Who, The Kinks, The Stones, The Beatles (collectively and solo), The Jeff Beck Group, Donovan, Jefferson Airplane, Harry Nilsson, and way, way too many more to mention here. For a guy with such an astounding résumé, Nicky Hopkins received little respect during his time, was often deprived of proper credit on the albums he helped make (he held a particularly nasty grudge against Ray Davies for this reason), and barely earned cab fare for playing the roiling solo on The Beatles’ “Revolution”. That Hopkins was an unassuming chap who favored quiet seething over demanding the respect and pay he deserved didn’t improve his lot much. Neither did his chronic health problems, self-destructive lifestyle, and tendency to allow himself to be manipulated, either by his opportunistic wife, the “use up everyone in sight” Rolling Stones, or the Scientologists who replaced his drug addiction with a dependency on their cult.

It’s reflective of Hopkins’s anonymity that the first writer planning to tell the pianist’s story in biography, Ray Coleman, died before his book could be finished. Fortunately, Julian Dawson, a musician and personal friend of the late Hopkins, is now giving him his due. As definitive a biography of this subject as there will ever be, And on Piano… Nicky Hopkins is the result of ten years of extensive research. Dawson interviewed Hopkins’s friends, family, and business associates, who invariably seem to have loved the guy, even if that love wasn’t always mutual. Because he was so quiet, so understanding of the fact that he was a hired hand and not the star, the old cliché about being an extra in ones own story often applies to this book. Nicky tends to fade into the corners while big personalities like Mick Jagger, Joe Cocker, Sutch, and Nicky’s wife, Dolly, elbow their ways to the narrative’s fore. The main character makes his presence most felt in the chapters discussing his sickly boyhood and his problems with addiction. In chapters titled “Session Man: The Who and The Kinks” and “Satanic Majesties Request: The Rolling Stones- Part I” there’s no confusing who the star is. But this gives us a more accurate portrait of Hopkins, a man generally content to perch on his piano bench in the shadows, only to drift into the spotlight on occasion to make one glorious flourish.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘From a Whisper to a Scream’

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth today, I’ve been checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films all week.

From a Whisper to a Scream (1987- dir. Jeff Burr)

A Vincent a Day week reaches its dastardly conclusion with one of the man’s final films. Price supposedly regretted taking this role, and it’s not too hard to suss why. From a Whisper to a Scream is the kind of cheapo scuzz yesterday’s Madhouse prognosticated. This portmanteau offers torture, incest, necrophilia, human vivisecting, child murder, a cheesy monster baby, a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-torso, and gobs of fairly convincing gore. The dialogue is witless (“She’s got legs all the way up to where the hair grows!”) and the acting is idiotic. These are also the qualities that make this junk fairly entertaining junk. Price appears in the wraparound in which he explains the sordid history of Oldfield, Tennessee, to an uncharacteristically restrained Susan Tyrrell. The great Lawrence Tierney is wasted in a part that barely even qualifies as a cameo, but each of the movie’s episodes isn’t much worse than your average Tale from the Crypt. And though the production values are cheaper than those in Creepshow, the stories are better. From a Whisper to a Scream is the worst thing I’ve watched this week, but I’m pleased that even this crap is pretty good. That’s quite a track record, Vincent! Happy 100th.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘Madhouse'

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Madhouse (1974- dir. Jim Clark)

Vincent Price is Paul Toombes, a horror star institutionalized after a masked killer chopped off his girlfriend’s head with a letter opener. Everyone thinks the man who made his name playing B-movie villain “Dr. Death” is responsible. Madhouse is kind of like a sleazy Targets. Just as Peter Bogdanovich’s film was a knowing tribute to Boris Karloff, Jim Clark’s reflects on Price’s career, but with less insight and elegance. Madhouse is depressing at times, not because we’re witnessing a terrific actor lamenting the devolution of horror into graphic exploitation à la Karloff in Targets, but because we’re watching one actually participating in such a movie. Two if you count Peter Cushing. There’s an interesting push and pull between the quaint monster movies of yore (note former-“Van Helsing” Cushing in pancakey Dracula makeup during a costume party) and the graphic, misogynist slasher films that replaced them. Like so many self-aware horror movies, Madhouse wants to have its cake and eat it too, functioning as both exploitation-criticism and exploitation. This creates a self-loathing unease, and Price’s orneriness throughout the movie probably isn’t mere acting. Yet Madhouse rises above the mass of slasher flicks because of a good performance from Price, a great one from ghoulish Adrienne Corri, and an ending that approaches brilliance. Madhouse also retains some of the spookiness and splashy color of Price’s work with Roger Corman, which we actually see in old footage scattered throughout the movie. Vintage images of Karloff and Basil Rathbone (both deceased by ’74) in these clips contribute to the elegiac tone.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘Dr. Phibes Rises Again’

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972- dir. Robert Fuest)

When we last left the abominable Dr. Anton Phibes he was dispatching the surgeons he blamed for his wife’s death in gruesome manners inspired by the ten plagues of Egypt. I hadn’t seen the original Phibes in years, so I really appreciated the campily narrated recap that begins Dr. Phibes Rises Again. This sequel finds Vincent Price’s disfigured master of revenge returning to provide more AIP-style thrills. This is a long way from the relatively subtle Vincent we saw in Shock the other day. This is Vincent in full-ham mode, and that’s the Vincent we love bestest. As I said, it’s been a while since I watched The Abominable Dr. Phibes, so I can’t really comment on how much of a retread the sequel may be. Taken on its own, Rises Again is a gas: campy and clever in perfect proportion. There’s a real Ken Russell feel to director Robert Fuest’s use of extreme color, framing, and psychedelic art design. The film often resembles the interior of a pinball machine, something Russell would take to grotesque extremes when shitting up Tommy a few years later. Dr. Phibes Rises Again doesn’t blare in your face the way Russell’s films usually do, but it ain’t exactly what you’d call restrained either. Phibes unleashes his beautiful assistant Vulnavia (!) to sic clockwork snakes, a hydraulic brain poker, a spiky torture chair, a giant vice, and a menagerie of critters that crawl and fly on a new crop of chumps while hunting for an Egyptian potion capable of bringing his wife back to life. Vincent glowers like a coo-coo and intones purple vows of vengeance through it all. In one delightful scene, he eats a piece of fish through his neck. The concluding chorus of “Over the Rainbow” is… ahem… Priceless.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review: Elvis Costello and The Imposters at The Beacon (5/23/2011)

1986 was a year of refreshment for Elvis Costello. After an extended period of indifferent work further diluted by the off-puttingly glossy production of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, he got back on track with two great albums. King of America found him at his most sophisticated; Blood and Chocolate at his hungriest. In support of his latest triumphs, Elvis burnt up the road with a brilliant new gimmick. Adopting the sardonically sleazy persona of a game show host, he invited fans on stage to twirl his “Spectacular Spinning Songbook”, a giant wheel-of-fortune featuring 40 hits, oddities, and categories dictating the next number he and the Attractions would rip-snort their way through.

25 years later he’s pulled the wheel and his charmingly smarmy alter ego, Napoleon Dynamite, out of storage to give fans another chance to win big. Last night Elvis and the Imposters took their spectacle to NYC’s Beacon Theater. The show was a colorful, cartoony free-for-all in which kids, a few minor-celebrity guests (T-Bone Burnett, Willie Garson, most fondly remembered by this writer for his bit part as “Heavy Metal Roadie” on “Twin Peaks”), and a drunken wannabe stripper roamed the stage like coyotes. Toss in a couple of Go-Go dancers and all the action could be a bit distracting. But this is a spectacle, and the show certainly delivered on that level, even if the wheel was a big of a shaggy-dog prop. More often than not, Elvis would cheat by manipulating the wheel to his preferred song, most likely to give preference to punter-pleasers like “Oliver’s Army” rather than deep cuts like “Country Darkness”. No matter. Groovy surprises, such as covers of Prince’s “Purple Rain”, Nick Lowe’s “Heart of the City”, and The Stones’ “Out of Time”, elevated the show beyond a rote recital of greatest hits. The band sounded great; particularly after drummer Pete Thomas’s daughter Tennessee joined him behind the kit. Playing in super-human synchronization, the Daddy/Daughter team turned stuff like “Turpentine” and “Peace, Love, and Understanding” into sonic avalanches. A rare appearance by Elvis’s brother, Ronan MacManus, and a small Irish ensemble called Bible Code Sundays that joined him on "American Without Tears" and “Little Palaces” was another familial treat that lent a bit of necessary intimacy to one really big show.

The Set List:

LIPSTICK VOGUE w/ Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys

300th Post!

Jokerman: The Humor of Bob Dylan

With the probable exception of John Lennon, Bob Dylan has been the subject of more solemn reverence than any other Rock & Roller. From the mid-‘60s when daft journalists branded him the “voice of his generation” to this very month when a bunch of celebrities supplied their two cents in an overly respectful homage in Rolling Stone, Dylan’s work has sure inspired a lot of boring accolades. Well, fuck the boring accolades and fuck solemn reverence. No one would be more offended by it all than the man, himself. Dylan’s greatest work is not solemn. It is not the expression of a generation’s angst or whatever. It’s hilarious. Not witty. Not clever. Not “My, doesn’t he have a delightful sense of humor.” Hilarious. Choke on your toke, spew a tuna sandwich out your nose hilarious. For me, the key Dylan line is not “How many roads must a man blah, blah, blah” or “I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand” (which boring old Bono boringly compares to “one of the great Psalms of David” in that boring Rolling Stone article). Dylan’s key line is this probing profundity from “Tombstone Blues”:

The sun’s not yellow
It’s chicken.

There’s your voice of a generation right there, beatniks. There’s your “modern Shakespeare” (another writer who inspires much boring solemnity but was never above cracking a good fart joke). Dylan pulled off his most brilliant prank when he ditched the overt preachiness of his early acoustic work in favor of surrealism and a good beat. The punch line wasn’t just all of the former fans outraged by his embracing of Rock & Roll electricity but those who continued to search for the meaning of existence in his outrageous comedy. Of course, there was still profundity in a lot of this stuff: the socialist tirade of “Maggie’s Farm”, the sneering swipe at gaudy materialism in “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, and even the slanted perspective of poverty in “Tombstone Blues”. But the righteousness of these tracks is inebriated with sheer nonsense. If The Times They Are A-Changin’ was Fail Safe, then Highway 61 Revisited was Dr. Strangelove, and we all know what the greater film is.

So, what does the above pun on “yellow” and “chicken” have to do with the overall message of “Tombstone Blues”? Not a goddamn thing. Does this lowest form of humor detract from the song’s message? Your call. Does it make Dylan analysts look goofy when they try to decode its meaning? It sure does (observe how goofy I come off in the proceeding paragraphs). That may be the line’s purpose after all: it exposes the fatuousness of those who missed Dylan's point that sometimes there is no point. It’s also keen proof that in reaction to those who demanded he be their generation’s social conscience (such pressure!), he was not going to alter his path for anyone. If he had something to say about society, he’d say it. And if he wanted to interrupt that message with a really dumb joke, he was gonna do that too. Dylan was not about to allow his decisions be dictated by his critics or his followers. His own abundant and gloriously absurd imagination would forever call the shots.

That really dumb joke in “Tombstone Blues” would probably come off as nothing more than a really dumb joke had it been sung by a singer with a less funny voice—not funny sounding (although it could be that too), but deliberately funny. Dylan delivers the punch line (“It’s chicken!”) with such assuredness it’s like he’s finally summing up his entire philosophy in a short, sharp sound bite for a desperate public. “Here’s your revelation, kids: The sun’s not yellow…it’s chicken! Amen.” No one but Dylan could do that kind of self-parody without making him or herself look a fool. Witness once again, Bono, who adopted a crass capitalist persona as a joke in the ‘90s. With Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan made his critics and lauders look like clowns. With “Zoo TV” and MacPhisto and his press conferences at K-Mart, Bono made himself look dopey (we’d have to wait until the hillbilly minstrelsy of Nashville Skyline for Bob to finally become the brunt of his own joke).

The amazing thing is that no one seemed to get the joke at the time. They didn’t understand that this really, really, really funny guy was even trying to be funny. Dylan went through a period in which he was inseparable from a giant light bulb, for Christ’s sake! Naturally, the press wanted to know what this meant. “Keep a good head and always carry a light bulb” the singer explained in Don’t Look Back.

Decades down the road, the guy is still discharging priceless burlesque. Dylan clowned us again in 2004 with his autobiography. Chronicles Volume One is a rambling shaggy dog story in which the living legend rhapsodizes over a bunch of people you’ve never heard of while offering scant insights on his own life and career. The myth deflates yet again. That same year, he made good on an offhand joke cracked 39 years earlier that the only product he’d shill for is “ladies undergarments.” Imagine the shock of those who still wallow in solemn reverence while spinning “Masters of War” when first seeing Dylan in a Victoria’s Secret ad. Imagine 63-year old Bob rolling on the floor with fits of laughter after crooning alongside underwear models. In 2009 he gave us the funniest Rock & Roll news item in recent years when he was arrested for vagrancy by a clueless young cop.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, “Master of War” and “It’s Alright, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” get my self-righteous juices flowing just like everyone else’s. Yeah, I agree that “Like a Rolling Stone” is a brilliant, poetic portrait of disillusion and generational waywardness or whatever insufferable label we might slap on that great Rock & Roll song. But nothing moves me like the above quote from “Tombstone Blues”, or when Bob imagines making love to Elizabeth Taylor and catching hell from Richard Burton in “I Shall Be Free”, or when he completely cracks up at the beginning of “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” before launching into a six and half-minute tall tale about how he discovered America. Dylan moves me the most when he’s making me laugh. Even Weird Al can’t do that.

Bob Dylan turns 70 today.

A Vincent-a-Day: ‘Return of the Fly’

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Return of the Fly (1959- dir. Edward Bernds)

Vincent Price took a side role in the first Fly as the brother of a scientist who accidentally transforms himself into a giant dung licker. Although he still doesn’t get to play the monster, Price gets more screen time in Return of the Fly. The end of the original left The Fly’s tiny counterpart in the clutches of a hungry spider, so it’s up to his son to continue dad’s wacky experiments. With its black and white cinematography, lightning storms, creepy coffins, and Price’s withered opening narration, Return of the Fly feels a bit more in line with the monster movies of previous decades than the bright and colorful Fly (vigilant viewers will also notice a character clutching a replica of the wolf/pentagram walking stick from The Wolf Man). As was the case with its predecessor, there’s a long, slow build to the transformation. I wanted more creature in this feature! But the introduction of actual villains is a nice touch. Return of the Fly is run-of-the-mill stuff for matinee popcorn tossers with the occasional quirk (oh, those guinea pig hands!). Of course, that means it radiates nostalgia.

Monday, May 23, 2011

A Vincent-a-Day: 'Shock'

Leading up to the 100th anniversary of Vincent Price’s birth I’ll be checking out one of the maestro’s lesser known films every day this week.

Shock (1946- dir. Alfred L. Werker)

The festivities begin with a film rather different from the others I’ll be reviewing this week. Despite its title and dark-and-stormy-night credits sequence, Shock is more melodramatic noir than monster movie. Vincent Price still gets to work his creepy hoodoo as a psychiatrist who has his own psycho episode that zaps emotionally fragile witness Anabel Shaw into catatonia. This is straight up, B-grade Hitchcock, with its macabre voyeurism, psychobabble, and nifty twist: naturally, Price turns out to be the shrink brought in to rescue Shaw from Daffy Town. Alfred L. Werker’s direction is stylish, tossing a psychotic dream sequence, a spooky stalking scene inside a mental ward, and plenty of montage into the stew. But Price is the cat who really makes this picture swing, playing his mad-doctor-of-a-different-sort with hand-wringing guilt and slow-talking menace. I dug it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Psychobabble’s 200 Essential Horror Movies Part 3: The 1940s

In this feature, Psychobabble creeps through 100 years of horror cinema to assemble a highly personal list of the genre’s 200 most monstrous works, decade by decade.

(Updated in September 2021)

33. The Mummy’s Hand (1940- dir. Christy Cabanne)

The commercial and creative success of Son of Frankenstein in 1939 revived Universal Horror—and horror as a whole— after a four-year slump. The studio followed with further sequels, beginning with The Invisible Man Returns in the first days of 1940, but hitting a more confident stride the following September with silent-film vet Christy Cabanne’s The Mummy’s Hand.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: 'Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World'

So stylish and vibrant and graphic, how has Rockabilly not been the subject of some sort of illustrated history until now? I don’t know, Daddy-O, but fans will be pleased that one has finally arrived, and it ain’t just pretty pictures. I’ve read several of Voyageur Press’ coffee-table Rock & Roll compendiums, and editor Michael Dregni’s Rockabilly: The Twang Heard ‘Round the World is the one that gets it the rightest. Beautifully written by the likes of Greil Marcus, Craig Morrison, David McGee, and others, this book covers the various corners of that funky fusion of C&W and R&R with greater breadth and insight than one might expect from an illustrated history. Nice biographies of luminaries including Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Billy Riley, are joined by explorations of lesser known innovators and decisive moments in the genre’s evolution—often with the help of the folks who made them happen. McGee provides a fascinating history of the creation of “Blue Suede Shoes”. Paul Burlison explains how he got that nasty distortion on “The Train Kept A-Rollin’” in an interview from 1982. Marcus compares Elvis’s faux arrogance to Buddy Holly’s wholly convincing self doubt and speculates winsomely on how the latter’s career may have played out had the music never died. Rockabilly also includes looks at the fashions, guitars, amps, and recording techniques that made the genre come alive, as well as the latter day rockers (Sleepy LaBeef, The Stray Cats, The Cramps, etc.) who gave it life after the ‘50s. Numerous lengthy interviews (Ronnie Hawkins! Wanda Jackson! Sonny Burgess!), oodles of great photos, and a very amusing afterward courtesy of Luc Sante round out the book.

Monday, May 16, 2011

20 Things You May Not Have Known About 'Pet Sounds'

45 years ago today, The Beach Boys unveiled a record that would stimulate Rock & Roll’s evolution like few others. You’ve listened to Pet Sounds, you love Pet Sounds, now it’s time to get hip to 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Pet Sounds!

1. While Mike Love was on tour with The Beach Boys in Japan, Brian Wilson was forced to look elsewhere for a lyricist to help him compose the tracks that would comprise Pet Sounds. He decided on Tony Asher, who made ends meet as a jingle writer. Asher only took a brief leave of absence to work with Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds. As soon as his involvement in the project was finished, he returned to the advertising world. Asher later collaborated with John Bahler on a number of songs for TV’s Partridge Family.

2. To achieve a “live” sound, Brian took the unorthodox approach of recording many of his vocal parts at the same time the engineer mixed the album.

3. In the mid-‘90s, Mike Love sued Brian for co-writing credit on a number of Beach Boys songs, including “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. When the Pet Sounds Mailing List asked what Love’s involvement in writing the song was, Tony Asher replied, “None, whatsoever.” Love claims he helped co-write the bridge.

4. The bridge of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was the source of further controversy when The Beach Boys took the song on the road. While working out backing-vocal arrangements for live performances without Brian, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine clashed on the “words.” Wilson believed them to be “Run-run-wee-ooh,” while Jardine favored “Run-run-ree-ooh!”

5. Despite Love’s legal issue with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, and his general ambivalence about the entire Pet Sounds project, he admitted it was his daughter’s favorite song in 2006.

6. “You Still Believe in Me” began life as a composition with a rare Brian Wilson lyric called “In My Childhood,” which is why bike horns and bells can be heard honking and ringing at the end of the track.

7. Although Phil Spector’s house band, The Wrecking Crew, recorded the

Friday, May 13, 2011

Review: ‘Isle of the Dead’ (1945)

Isle of the Dead was the last psychological horror film Val Lewton produced for RKO (Bedlam was more macabre period piece than pure horror). The film displays Lewton’s weakest and strongest tendencies bolder than any of his earlier pictures. Boris Karloff stars as General Nikolas Pherides, a wicked officer who sojourns on a spooky Greek isle to visit his wife’s grave. At an inn on the isle, he discovers another guest has died of what he believes to be the plague and enforces quarantine. A superstitious woman, however, accuses a pretty sleepwalker of not only being the killer but a mythical vampiric creature called a vovolakas.

Anyone who has seen a Lewton movie will suss that Isle of the Dead isn’t going to play out like the typical supernatural horror film. The opening hour of the film draws its chills not from fangy monsters but from Pherides’s cruelty and the slowly building tension of his prisoners. As is often Lewton’s way, this portion of the film also suffers from its somnolence. Fortunately, director Mark Robson also delivers what may be his most genuinely frightening sequence in a Lewton production when one of the victims rises from her coffin for a last-minute vengeance spree. This finale is a mini- masterpiece of ghostly eeriness, dense shadows, and surprisingly explicit violence for a Lewton film. Feel free to let your mind wander during that opening hour, but be sure to set your alarm clock to goose you awake in time for the last ten minutes of Isle of the Dead.

Read more about Val Lewton in Psychobabble’s 120 Essential Horror Movies Part 3: The 1940s next week...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: 'The Who By Numbers: The Story of The Who Through Their Music'

So much has been written about The Who that I’m skeptical whenever another book is published on the band. Who could possibly have anything new to say about the guys? Steve Grantley and Alan G. Parker actually don’t have much new to say themselves in The Who By Numbers: The Story of The Who Through Their Music, particularly in light of John Atkins’s similar track-by-track review, The Who on the Record, published two years ago. Yet, Grantley and Parker accomplish something Atkins did not by performing a heroic level of research. Atkins’s assessments of The Who’s numerous albums, singles, and outtakes are the backbone of The Who on the Record. Grantley and Parker offer their own opinions about all of this great music, too, but they regularly step aside to allow Pete, Roger, John, and Keith to interject with their opinions and insight. This books’ bibliography is staggering, and most of the quotes the writers pulled from their multitudinous sources are totally new to me. Entwistle provides revelations about the composition of “I Can’t Explain” and the drumming on “I’m Free”. Pete explains the unique way Jimi Hendrix inspired him to write “Tattoo”.

Grantley and Parker’s personal opinions about The Who’s music aren’t without merit: they articulate some of the issues with Endless Wire very well, even if they're too hard on the record overall. Yet, they provide a lopsided portrait of The Who by not delving deeply into the music until after the band's ‘60s golden era. Those looking forward to detailed explorations of My Generation, A Quick One, and Sell Out will be disappointed by the writers’ cursory treatment of these classics. They also fail to mention a lot of the B-sides that didn’t make the running orders of the ‘90s reissues, such as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, “Dogs Part II”, “When I Was a Boy”, and “Here for More”. I still recommend The Who by Numbers to any serious fan who hasn’t read absolutely everything available about The Who, because Grantley and Parker do such an ace job of cherry picking enlightening tidbits from everything they’ve read. And they’ve read a lot.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

10 Reasons Donovan’s the Most

Donovan quickly evolved from a folksinger many critics dismissed as the UK’s pale response to Dylan to a completely unique psychedelic minstrel. As Mr. Leitch turns 65 today, let’s dig ten reasons why he’s the most.

1. Do Look Back

With his little cap and acoustic guitar, the press were quick to label Donovan a Dylan clone, and Bob was rightfully skeptical when reading headlines about his new rival during the 1965 tour D.A. Pennebaker captured in Don’t Look Back. When Dylan hosted a Double-D summit in his hotel room, the guys sat down and debuted their latest songs for each other. Donovan’s was the flimsy, twee “To Sing for You”; Dylan’s the lacerating “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. For years this sequence was held up as a prime example of Dylan’s hipness and Don’s lameness. Viewed decades removed from the incident, it’s hard not to see this scene in a totally different light. Sitting off to the side in his shades as Donovan sings, Dylan is condescending and patronizing (“Hey, that’s a good song, man!”). Donovan comes off as sweet and gracious in light of the undercurrent of ridicule. In just a little over a year, Donovan would reemerge with a totally new sound, and no one could justifiably accuse him of clinging to Dylan’s Cuban heels again.

2. All Raga All the Time

In 1965, The Kinks (“See My Friends”) and The Beatles (“Norwegian Wood”) introduced a new pop subgenre by melding modern folk-rock with the drone and instrumentation of Indian raga. By the next year, everyone was jumping on the “raga rock” wagon: The Stones, The Cyrkle, The Byrds, The Yardbirds. And though The Kinks and The Beatles were not finished with the form yet, only one artist fully explored raga rock as a conceptual thread streaming through nearly every track on 12 inches of vinyl. In September of 1966, Donovan released Sunshine Superman. Aside from a couple of rocking tributes to Swinging London (the title track, “The Trip”) and one spooky vision of apocalypse (“Season of the Witch”), the LP was essentially Rock’s first full-length raga rock album. Donovan approaches the style from the modal acoustic folk of “Legend of a Girl Child Linda” to sitar spiked stuff such as “Three King Fishers”, “Ferris Wheel”, “Guinevere”, and “The Fat Angel”. Intoxicating.

3. Legend of a Girl Child Linda

Linda Lawrence thought she had it made when she hooked up with Brian Jones, the pretty, enigmatic, and absurdly talented original leader of The Rolling Stones. Things turned sour when she became pregnant with one of the many kids Jones sired. True to form, he lost interest in Linda when she broke the news. Even more loathsomely, he got violent. Brian and Linda’s scuffles were so dire that The Pretty Things, who roomed below Jones, could here the crashes through the ceiling of their flat. Linda lucked out when Jones took off for good, and sweet, gentle Donovan entered her life. After a long courtship, the two married in 1970, and Don became father to young Julian Brian Jones, now Julian Brian Leitch. Linda and Donovan had two kids together, and celebrated their 40th anniversary last year, which must be some sort of Rock & Roll record.

4. Busted

The Drug Bust that rattled the ‘60s pop world was certainly the one that went down at Keith Richards’s Redlands estate on February 12, 1967. Keith and Mick faced stiff sentences on trumped-up charges, and the outcry from their fans, peers, and even the press (conservative William Rees-Mogg’s famous Times editorial “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?”) was unprecedented. The Stones’ bust may have been Britain’s loudest, but the first was aimed at innocent little Don. A few months after some of Donovan’s friends were depicted enjoying a toke in the TV doc A Boy Called Donovan, the blue meanies arrived to whisk him off for holding a little grass. Fortunately, the charges evaporated and Don was free to continue sprinkling his psychedelic pixie dust on the tracks that would comprise Sunshine Superman. If Donovan’s bust shocked the older generation, his complete renunciation of all drugs after meeting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi a couple of years later must have been equally shocking to the kids.

5. Sky of Blue...

John, Paul, George, and Ringo were quite generous with their talents, assisting pals such as The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, Ron Wood, Cream, and Elton John in the studio. But the first artist deemed worthy of a Beatle’s helping hand was Donovan. Paul McCartney could be heard bumping and grinding on Don’s late ’66 hit “Mellow Yellow” (he is especially audible ad-libbing during the instrumental break). Months earlier, Donovan became the first composer aside from Lennon to co-write a tune with McCartney when he contributed the “Sky of blue, sea of green” line to “Yellow Submarine”.

6. “All they know is what we teach ‘em.”

Donovan made an even greater contribution to Beatledom in 1968 when he tagged along with the Fabs on their Indian retreat with the Maharishi. During the trip he reportedly taught both Paul and John the fluid finger picking technique taught to him by finger picking virtuoso Bert Jansch years earlier. Without this valuable knowledge, “The White Album” may have lacked such tracks as “Blackbird” and “Julia”. Thanks, Donovan!

7. “Getting a little bit better, no doubt.”

Lots of ‘60s rockers spoke out against war, but few put their money where their mouths were like Donovan did. His first single of’67 was, in the opinion of this writer, his greatest. “Epistle to Dippy” is musically beguiling, with its twangy guitar hook and cheeky fiddle break. Lyrically, it is a message to Donovan’s old friend, who went by the nickname “Dippy” and was currently serving in the ranks of the British Army stationed in Malaysia. When Dippy heard himself name checked in Donovan’s latest hit, he contacted the singer. And what did Donovan do after reconnecting with his buddy? He personally paid for Dippy’s military discharge! We should all have friends like that.

8. For Little Ones

The inescapable popularity of “Yellow Submarine” inspired every artist swinging in mid-‘60s London to bake up their own confection for the kiddies. The Kinks, The Who, The Move, even The Rolling Stones all made records fit for pre-teen consumption. But none of these artists were as apt for such tunes as whimsical Donovan. In late 1967, he released Rock’s first full-on children’s album. The double-disc (and Rock’s first box set) Gift from a Flower to a Garden included one record aimed at adults called “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and one appropriately titled “For Little Ones” on which he delivered such delicate fantasies as “The Enchanted Gypsy”, “The Tinker and the Crab”, and “Starfish-on-Toast” (the two discs were released as separate albums in the U.S.). Solidifying his devotion to making listenable music for tots, he put out H.M.S. Donovan in 1971. This time all four sides of the double L.P. were custom made for the kiddies. Young parents must have expelled a hearty sigh of relief knowing they could finally toss those old copies of “The Hokey Pokey” in favor of a platter more pleasing to mature ears.

9. Truth

Those who may have been inclined to dismiss Donovan as a lightweight have long praised him for one monumental contribute to heavy rock: his “Hurdy Gurdy Man” is the first record to feature all three of Led Zeppelin’s instrumentalists: Jimmy Page, John Bonham, and John Paul Jones. Actually, it isn’t. In fact, John Paul Jones is the only Zep to contribute to “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, but that does not squelch Donovan’s heavy credentials. On his next L.P., Barabajagal, he recruited The Jeff Beck Group to back him on the title track and “Superlungs (My Supergirl)”. The results are two bits of white-hot evidence of Donovan’s power as a pure rocker and the Jeff Beck’s Group’s ability to stir up a funky murk to rival Sly and the Family Stone.

10. “One chants out between two worlds.”

The Beatles got all the press for following Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but his most devoted pop follower was Donovan. More than four decades after his first Indian excursion to visit the Maharishi, Donovan continues to lecture about the benefits of transcendental meditation as a path to opening the consciousness and achieving inner peace. Donovan’s TM advocacy also resulted in one of pop-culture’s most unlikely teams when he joined forces with fellow meditator and freaky genius David Lynch to spread the word. As a member of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, Donovan works to promote the introduction of transcendental meditation into school curriculums.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Beach Boys Fans will SMiLE in September

We're still waiting for a specific release date for this year's most anticipated release--the SMiLE Sessions box set chronicling the rise and fall of The Beach Boys' aborted masterpiece--but an interview with SMiLE lyricist Van Dyke Parks posted today on Mojo.com sets the release in September 2011. Parks also discusses his new project in which he'll be releasing six vinyl 7"s of new material beginning this month.

 Brian pounds the keys; Van Dyke shimmies.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Review: Jefferson Airplane's 'Flight Log: (1966-1976)'

The record industry may still be struggling, but reissues of classic albums certainly seem to be arriving with vigor. Even some of the odder compilations have started receiving sonic upgrades. HD Tracks recently issued the U.K. editions of The Rolling Stones’ Big Hits albums as high-def FLAC files (they never even made it to CD). Now BGO is issuing the Western CD debut of Flight Log (1966-1976), the most eccentric comp by one of the most eccentric—and the best—San Fran psych group: Jefferson Airplane. Well, this 1977 double album is credited to the Airplane, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. The first disc is mostly devoted to that band, but the second checks in on the various projects the individual band members got up to following Jefferson Airplane’s early ‘70s dissolution. There are selections from Jefferson Starship, Grace Slick solo, Grace Slick with Paul Kantner, Hot Tuna, and Jorma Kaukonen’s Quah.

The song choices are unusual, passing over most of the popular favorites collected previously on The Worst of Jefferson Airplane for folkier album cuts that present the Airplane as a less punky band than they really were. The post-Airplane tracks are oddballs, too. There’s nothing from the Starship’s breakthrough Red Octopus (and thankfully, this set appeared years before rubbish like “We Built This City” or “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” could have made the running). Rather we get a gritty workout from Hot Tuna that allows Kaukonen room to show off his superior finger-picking skills: the guy was a good electric guitar player, but an absolute dynamo on acoustic. There’s also Jefferson Starship’s magical “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight”, some Slick histrionics on “Silver Spoon”, her more conventionally pretty “¿Come Again? Toucan”, and Quah’s lovely baroque folk “Genesis”. The booklet reproduces Patrick Snyder’s vivid original liner notes, as well as a priceless shot of the band dolled up as lounge lizards.

I love the idea of compilations like this getting second airings. A lot of listeners used such collections as gateways into the catalogues of their favorite bands, so they pack maximum nostalgia value. I’d personally love to see Good Vibrations: The Best of The Beach Boys (1975), The Beatles’ Rarities (1980), and Monkee Flips (1984) dragged out of the basement and into the mastering booth. Flight Log is a nice start, though.
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