Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Review: 'When They Were Boys: The True Story of The Beatles' Rise to the Top'

Before they were wielding more control over pop culture than any four men before or after them, The Beatles were sleeping in arm’s length of filthy toilets in Hamburg and playing shockingly raw rhythm and blues with a dude named Pete Best on the backbeat. They were rejecting the formidable entertainment impresario Larry Parnes and getting the thumbs down from Decca Records. Every Beatles biography begins with these familiar tales. When They Were Boys distinguishes itself from most of these books by focusing exclusively on these rough and tumble early years and doing so from a uniquely personal point of view. Author Larry Kane travelled with the band on their American tours of 1964 and 1965, where he developed a rapport with John, Paul, George, and Ringo and their associates. Consequently, Kane does not have to rely on a wealth of outside sources to bring his book to life. The vast majority of quotes, whether they come from the Fabs or Yoko Ono or Mal Evans or Pete Best, were spoken to the author directly. Kane also sat down with a number of lesser-known figures in Beatles history to flesh out his narrative and give due credit to how folks such as Bill Harry, Freda Kelly, Tony Bramwell, and George’s sister Louise, who pushed American DJs to give her brother’s band a listen, helped steer the boys to success.

Kane also veers down side roads during his journey to spend some time profiling Lonnie Donegan, the skiffle star who allegedly had a greater influence on The Beatles than any other artist, the Jacaranda coffee house where they hung out and played and chased girls, the other popular Mersey Beat groups that never made it out of Liverpool, etc. He’s also intent on putting certain misconceptions—particularly the belief that Best was canned because he was a lousy drummer—to rest.

Kane’s tone throughout is highly admiring, often reverential, whether discussing The Beatles or the other players in their drama, though he seems to slightly begrudge McCartney’s aversion to spilling his guts to the press. He also seems to want to make it very clear that he knew all these people, and the tendency of all his interviewees to refer to him by name (“It was after the show, Larry…”; “And let me tell you, Larry…”; “Remember, Larry, we were just boys then…” etc.) made me wonder if the writer forced his name into a lot of these quotes. But considering how few people have actually sat down and picked the brains of the legends who populate his lively, entertaining, and warm-hearted book, you can’t really fault the guy.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

Review: 'Otis Redding: The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection'

His tragic plane crash on December 10, 1967, left Otis Redding with an unfairly abbreviated career. It had only been seven years since he released his first record, “Shout Bamalama,” on Confederate Records. Of course, Redding’s best-loved sides came out on Stax/Volt, and Atco’s relentless posthumous release campaign left the King of Soul with a hefty singles discography 36-discs strong. With the exception of a couple of early records on the Confederate and Alshire labels, they’re all on Shout Factory’s new box set Otis Redding: The Complete Stax/Volt Singles Collection. That’s a total of seventy A and B sides, all presented in the original, bone-vibrating mono mixes that best convey Booker T. & the M.G.s’ transcendent chunkiness.

Because he was the first soul star to make LPs as essential as his singles, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles isn’t all the Otis you’ll ever need. Otis Blue and Dictionary of Soul are particularly indispensible, but so is Shout Factory’s new set, which fills in all the gaps. Obviously, all of the hits are here, but the inclusion of those posthumous releases and B-sides (would you believe the classics “Mr. Pitiful” and “Hard to Handle” were flip sides?) give voice to a lot of his hottest album cuts (“Ole Man Trouble,” “I’m Sick Y’all,” “Sweet Lorene”), live performances (essential renditions of “I’ve Been Loving You Too” and “Try a Little Tenderness” from the Monterey Pop Festival), and oddities (a version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” he finishes off with some crazed, James Brown shrieks), so we get a well-rounded portrait of the man’s career.

The packaging is gorgeous too, with full-size, full-color reproductions of each A and B-side with all vintage dirt rings, pen marks, punctures, wears, and tears intact from Billy Vera’s astonishing personal record collection. What’s missing are any extensive notes or essays. We get basic personnel information and that’s it. We don’t even get release dates or chart positions. That’s a significant informational oversight. As far as musical oversights go, there aren’t any, just seventy tracks of the most brain-boilingly exciting soul ever made.

20 Things You May Not Have Known About Mick Jagger!

You've heard he was a student at the London School of Economics before becoming a Rolling Stone! You've heard that he and Keith Richards became friends after running into each other on a Dartford train platform! But these are 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Mick Jagger, who is celebrating his 70th birthday today! And we've got sights and sounds and marvels to delight your eyes and ears, and you'll be able to read the very first one of those in a few moments…

1. Andrew Oldham’s original business partner, Eric Easton, basically trusted Oldham’s belief that a new band called The Rolling Stones could be the next big thing, but he just couldn’t believe the singer had any charisma or talent. According to Robert Palmer’s The Rolling Stones, only after much convincing from pianist Ian Stewart did Easton agree to allow Mick Jagger to retain his lead vocal position. If only Mick had been similarly supportive of Ian…

2. In 1964, the hysteria over The Rolling Stones’ shockingly long hair reached new heights of idiocy when Mick said he was approached by an eighty-year-old woman who asked if he was a member of The Supremes and “She wasn’t kidding!”

3. Mick Jagger supposedly played a role in launching The Beach Boys’ popularity in England when he gave “I Get Around” a big thumbs up on (depending on the source) Juke Box Jury or Ready, Steady, Go in 1964 and it became the Boy’s first top-ten hit in the UK. Apparently, Mike Love had forgotten the favor twenty-four years later when The Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Said Love during his bizarre tirade at the ceremony, “I'd like to see Mick Jagger get out on this stage and do ‘I Get Around’ versus ‘Jumpin' Jack Flash’, any day now… I know Mick Jagger won't be here tonight, he's gonna have to stay in England. But I'd like to see us in the Coliseum and he at Wembley Stadium because he's always been chickenshit to get on stage with the Beach Boys." Cuckoo.

4. According to Bob Spitz’s The Beatles, Mick Jagger was in attendance for the Fabs’ milestone gig at Shea Stadium on August 15, 1965. The crowds’ crazed reaction reportedly freaked Jagger out.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: 'Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of The Rolling Stones'

Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why was one of the very first books about The Beatles I ever read. It’s a track-by-track analysis that really opens up the unconscious brilliance of Lennon and McCartney by exploring their songs from a music theory basis while never fumbling into off-putting academic speak. Riley examines their performances and production strokes with equal keenness. It is enlightening, unpretentious, and iconoclastic (certainly Riley must have been one of the first writers to actually challenge the quality of some of The Beatles’ best-loved works, including Sgt. Pepper’s). I read Tell Me Why right around the time I was first becoming obsessed with The Rolling Stones. Naturally, I started dreaming someone would write such a book about those guys too.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Non-Review: 'The Beach Boys in Concert'

When I agreed to write The Who FAQ for Backbeat Books I knew there would be one unfortunate side effect of the joyous occasion: I’d no longer be able to review the publisher’s books. This made me a little sad because I’ve enjoyed reading several of their titles in the past. Plus I love getting free stuff. Nevertheless, I figured it would be a conflict of interest or some other ethical issue to continue reviewing Backbeat’s titles after I started working for them, so I stopped requesting review copies.

Despite my resolution to be a good, ethical boy, I still received an unsolicited copy of a new Backbeat title called The Beach Boys in Concert. I assume this was either because Backbeat's publicist is not aware that I'm writing a book for Backbeat or it's a really subtle way of letting me know I've been fired. In any event, I read and enjoyed Ian Rusten and John Stebbins’s book, so I figured it would not be unethical to at least give it a little shout— not a “review”… that would be very naughty—but a shout, like when you shout at a fellow employee, “Good job!” I assume people with actual jobs do that sort of thing.

Rusten and Stebbins give a thorough view of 50 years of Beach Boys concerts, not just listing dates, venues, and when available, set lists, but providing a more colorful portrait of the shows with excerpts from period concert reviews and recollections from early Beach Boy David Marks, backing musician Daryl Dragon, fans in attendance, and others. I found the reviews particularly enlightening: I was surprised to see how early on the critics had grown tired of Mike Love’s jackass stage act (although at a performance on December 28, 1966, Love did manage one genuinely funny quip amidst a career of painful groaners). It’s a good summer read.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Newly Unearthed David Lynch Video Interview from 1979!

In 1979, Tom Christie was a student at UCLA. On assignment for his television production class he interviewed a young cinematographer named Frederick Elmes and a young filmmaker named David Lynch. Lynch had just released his first feature: a little romantic comedy called Eraserhead. 34 years later, Christie has posted his interview on a little romantic comedy called The Internet, and it is an utterly fascinating time capsule. This is a rare and valuable opportunity to see Lynch discussing his most perfect film upon its release, giving a few tantalizing insights on its making and meaning, and reacting to a few reactions from critics. We also see the wildly varying reactions of an audience exiting a midnight screening at the Nuart cinema. Some find Lynch "inane." Others admit to having already seen Eraserhead eight times. Elmes says a couple of things too.

This is completely necessary viewing for Lynch fans and can be watched here.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Cult Club: 'The Man from Beyond' (1922)

In this feature, Psychobabble looks at classic cult items beyond Horror and Rock & Roll.

Harry Houdini the escape artist is legendary. Houdini the movie star is less celebrated. This may be due to the poor state of the four features he made: the first two, 1919’s The Grim Game and 1920’s Terror Island, are apparently missing reels. Perhaps it is also due to the quality of the surviving films. I cannot speak of Houdini’s final film, 1923’s Haldane of the Secret Service, which I have not seen. The Man from Beyond, the film he wrote and starred in the previous year, I have.

What initially drew me to this movie, in which Houdini plays a man unfrozen after 100 years in a block of ice, was the simple curiosity of seeing the guy in action. The thing is, there isn’t a ton of action in The Man from Beyond. The set up, in which a pair of explorers chip Howard Hillary (all of Houdini’s feature-film characters share his initials) out of his chilly tomb, goes on for an eternity. When he’s out, he only performs a single escape. Those who paid their four cents, or whatever a movie ticket cost in 1922, to see a film starring Harry Houdini must have been disappointed by this dearth of the man doing what he was famous for doing. They were probably further disappointed that he slips from his straight jacket in an extremely long shot that gives no indication of the artistry behind the escape. It’s the kind of thing any old actor could have accomplished with no greater special effects than a few poorly fastened buckles. His subsequent shimmy up a rope and out the window of a prison-like asylum is more impressive, but nothing any reasonably athletic stuntman couldn’t have done. In short, there isn’t much of what made Houdini HOUDINI in The Man from Beyond.

Houdini's tiny, blurry escape.

What there is is a surprisingly effective supernatural love story. Before becoming trapped in ice, Hillary was in love with a woman named Felice Norcross. After his revival, he finds the spitting image of her just as she’s preparing to wed the nefarious Dr. Trent. By far-fetched coincidence, this woman’s name is Felice too, but her surname is the more appropriate Strange. Not yet knowing that he’d spent a century in hibernation, Hillary insists that Felice is his girlfriend, and she gets some serious déjà vu pangs. This is when Hillary ends up getting carted off to the asylum. With his escape comes the most exciting portion of the film as he and Felice hustle to spring her dad from Trent’s clutches. There’s a decent bit of fisticuffs and a nice climax in which Hillary and Felice almost pop over Niagara Falls. In the end, there is talk of how Felice Strange is the reincarnation of Felice Norcross, who makes a ghostly appearance in the film’s most overt special effects shot.

Even with Houdini’s climb from the asylum and the Niagara Falls incident, it is the love story that most resounds in The Man from Beyond. Houdini and Jane Connelly give effective performances as the multi-generation-spanning couple (Connelly is particularly impressive, so I was surprised to see that her only other credit on imdb is an uncredited role in Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.), and the appearance of Norcross’s apparition makes for a quietly transcendent epilogue. This ending is all the more poignant because within four years, both Harry Houdini and Jane Connelly would suffer early deaths. 

 Harry Houdini and Jane Connelly

I may have heightened that poignancy a bit with my choice of soundtrack, and Kate Bush’s The Hounds of Love—with its sweeping romance, eeriness, and side-long concept about a man who freezes to death after falling overboard only to be reincarnated at the last minute—was an appropriate choice (Bush had her own fascination with Houdini, to whom she paid tribute on her previous album The Dreaming).

Despite its flaws—its slowness, its paucity of great escapes—The Man from Beyond was still worthwhile viewing for its romance and for the very reason I checked it out in the first place: the opportunity to see Harry Houdini move and breathe, the chance to see history come to life.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Review: 'The Mammoth Book of The Rolling Stones'

The cover of The Mammoth Book of The Rolling Stones announces the book as “An anthology of the best writing about the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world” and Sean Egan as editor. This isn’t really accurate. In fact, half of this book’s mammoth 500-plus pages are filled with Egan’s newly written record-by-record critique/history of The Rolling Stones, making him far more than a mere editor and his book far more than an anthology of previously published pieces. There is an entire book authored by Sean Egan alone shuffled in with the magazine articles he culled from 50 years of Stones history. It’s a cool format telling a very linear tale lacking any obvious holes. We get Egan as our tour guide through every phase of the band’s career, and the various articles as authentic period perspectives of those phases. As will always be the case with this sort of thing, I did not agree with a lot of the author/editor’s assessments (he’s particularly hard on Rolling Stones No. 2, Between the Buttons, “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” and Let It Bleed), but I appreciated his appreciation of the Stones’ pop and psych periods, which most critics tend to dismiss outright. He even caused me to reevaluate Out of Our Heads, which I usually think of as a lesser effort.

Egan is as thorough with his article selections as he is with his own look at the Stones’ long career. There are management-sanctioned hype pieces from the band’s early days, interviews both enlightening and rambling, concert reviews, portraits of each Stone whose name is neither Jagger nor Richards, career retrospectives, and a fluffy blog piece that brings the band into the twenty-first century. There’s even an uncomfortably insightful hoax from a journalist who happens to be named Bill Wyman but presumably never touched a bass guitar.

The one problem is that much like the Stones’ deathless career, The Mammoth Book is a bit too mammoth. There are a few too many reminders of the band’s decline after the seventies, both in Egan’s sneering criticisms of every album after Some Girls (he has a point with most of them, though we do disagree on the best and worst tracks from this later period) and the abundance of articles that backload his book. But there’s a lot to dig before the long, slow depressing downfall starts setting in around page 350, and if nothing else, The Mammoth Book of The Rolling Stones would be worth the cover price for an 80-page—80-page!— interview with Keith that appeared in abridged form in Rolling Stone magazine in 1971. Now that’s mammoth.

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