Monday, September 30, 2013

Review: 'God Save The Kinks: A Biography'

Despite their position at the forefront of British pop, The Kinks have never gotten as much ink as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, or The Who. There have been a few slim biographies by Jon Savage, John Mendelssohn (both published way back in the eighties), and Neville Martin & Jeffrey Hudson, one exhaustive day-by-day guide by Doug Hinman, and perhaps most significant of all, landmark autobiographies by Ray and Dave Davies. That’s about it. Recognizing the void, Mojo writer and kultist Rob Jovanovic got to work on his own biography five years ago in an effort to bring The Kink kronikles up to date. It’s likely Jovanovic did not realize that at the same time, his fellow writer Nick Hasted was working on his own Kinks biography with input from Ray, Dave, and drummer Mick Avory and that You Really Got Me: The Story of The Kinks would beat his book to the shelves by two years. That must have been frustrating, especially since both books cover a lot of the same ground (they even come in at almost the same page count) with the major added bonus of those new interviews with the brothers Davies.

Here’s why God Save The Kinks: A Biography remains a relevant read for Kinks fans: more so than Hasted, Jovanovic looks beyond the core members of the band to explore the experiences of those not named Davies. Naturally, Ray and Dave remain the key players, as they should, and like Hasted, Jovanovic also gets quotes from Avory and bassist Pete Quaife’s brother David. However, we also get primary perspectives from bassist John Dalton, keyboardist John Gosling, and back-up singers Debi Doss and Shirlie Roden, whose contemporary remembrances and period journal entries commandeer the storytelling during The Kinks’ mid-seventies theatrical phase. The rest of the book is good too—a well-written, reasonably thorough blow-by-blow of the Davies’s activities and accomplishments alone and together up to the present day—but it is the expansion of the orbit from the brothers to their extended musical family that makes God Save The Kinks an essential companion volume to You Really Got Me.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Review: 'Loch Ness Monster and Other Unexplained Mysteries'

A couple of months ago I reviewed a sweeping debunking of the most famous cryptids called Abominable Science.  While applauding the sound arguments of authors Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero, I also lamented—ever so slightly—how their book put such a resounding end to dreams of the Loch Ness Monster, the Yeti, Big Foot, and others of their phony family. Humbug these creatures may be, but they’re fun too. Prothero, the stauncher skeptic of the duo, argued that cryptozoology does more damage than good because the “I’ll buy anything” attitude it allows undermines our faith in science, and before you know it, the wackos are teaching “intelligent design” hooey in public schools.

Fair enough, but I for one protest the unintelligent designers ruining the fun for the rest of us who understand the difference between scientific fact and harmless fairy tale telling. For us, JF Derry’s new book Loch Ness Monster and Other Unexplained Mysteries will come as a sweet chaser to Prothero and Loxton’s tart medicine. Derry is a science writer, yet he’s more editor than author of this book, which compiles a century of articles on Nessie, Bigfoort, the Yeti, aliens, and ghosts that were originally published in the UK tabloid The Daily Mirror. Because there is no commentary here (aside from Derry’s brief introduction and his cheeky photo captions) we can just take the articles at face value, and many of them ripple with dry, wry British wit. Case in point: on a Lady Yeti, the Mirror informs us, “the Snow-woman woos her mate and kills him if he refuses. And sometimes she kills him if he doesn’t refuse.” Some of the encounters with these fantastic beasts read like pulp magazine stories. Complimenting the amusing archive of articles are numerous cartoons, illustrations, and photos, all making for a very presentable package. There’s little here in the way of hard science, but there is plenty of fun, which is what Nessie and his mates should forever be.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: 'The Complete Beatles Recordings: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970'

In the early eighties, John Barrett was an Abbey Road engineer suffering from cancer. The studio’s general manager, Ken Townsend, tried to take John’s mind off his illness by having him catalog and notate every Beatles tape in the library. Not an unpleasant chore. John’s work is the core research within The Complete Beatles Recordings: The Official Story of the Abbey Road Years 1962-1970. Writer Mark Lewisohn fleshed out John Barrett’s findings with his own interviews and studies of the tapes to create one of the key documents of Beatles history. Not only is this book a sort of studio-centric forerunner of the Day-to-Day books so popular today, it is also the bouillon from which many, many future Beatles books would be brewed. No Beatles historian worth his or her salt will be without The Complete Beatles Recordings on his or her shelf, at the ready whenever a question about a recording date arises. Before the Anthology CDs appeared nearly a decade later, Lewisohn’s book was the only place law-abiding (i.e.: non-bootleg buying) Beatlemaniacs could get a sense of how those now-familiar outtakes (“How Do You Do It,” “That Means a Lot,” “If You’ve Got Trouble,” “Leave My Kitten Alone,” “Not Guilty,” etc.) sounded. Of course, now that we can all listen to these tracks without the fear of spending the rest of our lives in bootleg prison, Lewisohn’s comments about how such tracks have been heard by few people are dated. The Complete Beatles Recordings is also missing details that had not yet come to light in ’88, such as the probability that George Harrison, not Paul McCartney, played bass on “She Said She Said.”

So a 25 year-old book is dated in a few respects. We still must pay respect to it for compiling so much essential research and information. And there is information in this book that was new to me (or at least, information I don’t remember reading elsewhere): engineer Norman Smith’s revelation that the guys nearly recorded one of his songs while making Help!, Geoff Emerick’s that the seagull sounds on “Tomorrow Never Knows” are guitar (I’d heard it was a sped-up loop of Paul giggling), the fact that “Christmastime (Is Here Again)” was edited down from a 6:37 take, and so on. As “Carnival of Light” remains unreleased, The Complete Beatles Recordings is still the best place to read a detailed description of that intriguing 14-minute avant-garde experiment. Plus George Martin’s hilarious response to John’s request to record his voice by direct injection is worth the price of the book alone.

Out of print for some time, Sterling Publishing is now reprinting The Complete Beatles Recordings unaltered and complete with its lovely selection of color and B&W photos. 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: 'The Beatles in 100 Objects'

The Beatles’ story has been told many times and in many ways, so congratulations to Brian Southall for finding a fresh way to do it again. In the sixties, Southall was a teenage Beatlemaniac. In the seventies, he met Paul, George, and Ringo (but not John) as an EMI employee. Now he has compiled a slew of instruments, documents, rare and international records, articles of clothing, and weird merchandise and memorabilia into a handsome book called The Beatles in 100 Objects. Southall uses each item as an in on a key aspect of The Beatles’ career, starting with the Antoria guitar Paul borrowed to play his milestone first performance with John Lennon in 1957. The neat thing is that Southall doesn’t just use the guitar to repeat an oft-told story; he also tells us a little history of Antoria guitars. These 100 objects are not just storytelling devices; the writer takes a genuine interest in them, so his book is not just a cleverly formatted story interchangeable with any of the million other Beatles books. The choice of objects also allows discussions of less traveled paths of Beatles lore, such as their roles as Grammy and Ivor Novello award-winning artists, George’s penchant for photography, and Paul’s enthusiasm for motorcars.

Sometimes Southall loses focus. The entry on John’s iconic granny glasses is actually about Mendips, his Aunt Mimi’s home, and the glasses only receive a cursory mention in the final paragraph. But a house may not make for the most fascinating viewing (especially when the next entry is on Paul’s boyhood home), and the photos are a big part of The Beatles in 100 Objects. This isn’t all eye candy. The various contracts and business letters may be significant from a historical perspective, but they aren’t as much fun to gawk at as the shots of Ringo’s Premier drum kit (less celebrated than his iconic Ludwig), an undistributed Beatles harmonica by Hohner, John’s psychedelic Rolls Royce, George’s tripped-out Stratocaster, a Beatles record player, Julian Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky” drawing, and a goofy mop top “Magnetic Hair Game.” Fab! 

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Review: Ray Davies's 'Americana'

Ray Davies is the most British of British pop stars—even more so than his brother Dave, whose whiskey yowl owed too much to David Ruffin to wave the Union Jack as high. Ray’s slight Cockney inflection, his quiet-desperation perspective, and his obsession with village greens, cricket, and afternoon tea are as far removed from Jagger’s R&B poses as is imaginable. Yet Ray did make room on his records to give his jaundiced view of America as early as 1966’s “Holiday in Waikiki,” and he’d do it with greater focus on latter records such as Everybody’s in Show-Biz and Low Budget. Ray has even more right than other Englishmen to be skeptical of the states. America is where The Kinks were unofficially banned during four crucial years in the sixties. It is where he was asked that ever-original question “Are you a Beatle or a girl?” and where he saw a man shot and convulsing outside his New Orleans home. It is also where he himself was shot by a purse-snatcher in 2004. So the idea of Ray Davies writing a book called Americana must seem like some sort of great, big wind-up against we Yanks.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Review: 'Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses—Roger Corman: King of the B Movie'

Cult, horror, and schlock freaks will always think of Roger Corman primarily as the producer of some of their favorite cheap-o’s, whether they be Little Shop of Horrors, Attack of the Crab Monsters, or Grand Theft Auto. Serious cinephiles feel no guilt in praising the artistry of the best Poe pictures he directed, particularly House of Usher and The Masque of the Red Death, or his even less celebrated venture into message films, the remarkable anti-segregation The Intruder. They also appreciate how he distributed works by European artists such as Federico Fellini, Akira Kurosawa, and Ingmar Bergman (who loved the dubbed version of Cries and Whispers Corman put in drive-ins!) in the U.S. Many of our most respected filmmakers—Scorsese, Coppola, Bogdanovich, Demme, Nicholson— revere Corman as the guy who gave them their real starts in Hollywood. Feminists who know more about him than his insistence on stuffing gratuitous nudity into his movies appreciate the opportunities he afforded women directors, producers, writers, and crew people in an industry infamous for its sexism. Indie filmmakers of every stripe should bow down to Roger Corman for his pioneering the frugal business practices that made thousands of low-budget pictures possible.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Zacherely in 'Horrible Horror: The Special Edition'

As a Netflix subscriber, I probably shouldn’t poop on the conveniences of the Internet age. As a retro geek, nostalgia nut, and middle-aged guy, I still can’t help but pine for those days when I’d walk out the door with friends and walk to our local seedy video shop to rent some crappy movie in the pre-Blockbuster © eighties. On the back wall of those holes cramped with shelves stacked with bulky VHS boxes (the tapes were always safe from shop lifters behind the counter) was the real junk: the B-horror and science fiction flicks with the most garish covers in sight (the most garish of all belonged to the porno tapes kept behind a curtain in their own closet-sized section).

Review: 'Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks'

The longevity of “Twin Peaks” is a truly staggering thing. To think that a show that lasted a mere 30 episodes, that shined for a brief season before being treated like a televised pariah by critics, network execs, and former fans, could have such renewed life two decades after the fact was surely unthinkable in 1990. Blame the fans. We’ve kept the dreamiest place on Earth alive with our blogs and conventions and DVD viewing parties and University screenings and campaigns to bring the damn fine show back. You can now hop onto etsy, ebay, and café press and find a wide variety of fan-made merch (as I write this, I’m controlling my mouse on an unauthorized “Twin Peaks” mouse pad I bought on café press several years ago).

A new series by Intellect Books called “Fan Phenomena” takes a look at the relationships between pop culture and we obsessives. Amazingly, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series is among the flagship subjects, which include such much longer lasting and better-known items as Star Wars, Batman, and “Star Trek.” That the fan-written essays in Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks are so consistently well written may speak to the intellect of the average “Twin Peaks” fan, or it may just speak to the good job editors Marisa C. Hayes and Franck Boulègue did. Or it may just be that these particular fans tend to be scholars and professional writers.

The main purpose of this series is to present writings less academic than those found in the usual analyses and ones primarily focused on the fans’ roles in keeping the subjects alive. For the first few essays, this holds true with neat pieces about that new wave of fan-made merchandise, Audrey Horne’s style, and the influence of “Twin Peaks” on the “golden age” TV series that followed it (this one really could have been expanded a lot, especially since the writer fails to even mention the first “Peaks” spawn, “Northern Exposure”). Inevitably, the pieces get more academic as the book continues on, though these essays are primers on the essential “TP” topics (duality, dark secrets, dreams, etc.) that are more accessible than those in David Lavery’s Full of Secrets and certainly Martha Nochimson’s migraine-inducing The Passion of David Lynch. So even if it doesn’t completely hold true to its non-academic, fan-focused goal, Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks is still a fun read and very heartening evidence of how the series’ influence continues to resound and its fan base continues to swell.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Psychobabble’s Perfect Beach Boys Box Set Recipe!

The review of the new Beach Boys box set I posted last week led to some interesting comments. The consensus seems to be that while Made in California has a number of legit selling points, it’s not quite the perfect six discs of Beach Boys classics and rarities. This inspired me to compile my own sextet of sun, fun, and warped psychedelia.

I believe a perfect Beach Boys compilation is more necessary than, say, a Beatles or Who comp because those groups generally made albums that demand to be heard from beginning to end. The Beach Boys didn’t quite reach this place until 1965’s Today. Before then, they mostly made hit-and-miss albums like Shut Down Volume 2. While that particular album houses the absolute classics “Don’t Worry Baby,” “The Warmth of the Sun,” “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” the rest of it is pretty poor. Most of the other early discs generally have a higher ratio of good stuff than Shut Down Volume 2, but even the best of them (All Summer Long) has some junk (“Our Favorite Recording Sessions”) that disrupt the flow of classics.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Review: The Beach Boys’ 'Made in California' Box Set

A lot has happened since the 5-disc, career-spanning box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of The Beach Boys was released in 1993, and much of it was unthinkable at the time. Carl Wilson was diagnosed with cancer in 1997, and we lost him the following year. Brian Wilson worked past his aversion to touring and performing, and even more incredibly, gave us both a solo version and approved a Beach Boys box set of his unfinished masterpiece SMiLE. He has reunited with the often-feuding surviving members of his group for a fiftieth anniversary album and tour. This year marking the five-decade anniversary of The Beach Boys’ unchallenged dominance of pop music (at least in America where the British Invasion was still a year away), it’s a good time to update Good Vibrations, and Capitol/UMe has released a 6-disc set called Made in California that brings the story to the present.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Review: 'Vuckovic’s Horror Miscellany'

So, you’re on a first date, and things are going pretty well. You’re having the old getting-to-know-you chat, and the discussion lands on “what’s your favorite book?” You say, “The Haunting of Hill House, of course!” Your date just gives you a blank stare. OK, so let’s move on to your favorite film. “Obviously, it’s Peeping Tom, the movie that practically destroyed Michael Powell’s career!” Peeping Tom? Michael Powell? Never heard of them. “Fine, fine. Fair enough.” Well then, what about your favorite periodical? “Four words: Famous Monsters of Filmland.” At that point, your date stands up and heads for the door, probably not understanding that Filmland is one word.

Just last week, there’d be no way to salvage what had been, up to this point, a lovely evening. But now, there’s hope. Don’t let your date leave. Throw yourself in front of the door, and plead, “If you’ll go out with me again, I’ll give you a present!” Then immediately sprint to your local bookstore and grab a copy of Vuckovic’s Horror Miscellany.

In fewer than 100 easily digestible pages, horror filmmaker, historian, and all-around superfan Jovanka Vuckovic will fill in that massive blank spot in your potential wife/husband/sex monkey’s horror education. Vuckovic’s Horror Miscellany offers a far-reaching historical, biographical, and trivial smorgasbord of all things monstrous from movies to literature to art to television to poetry to mythology to comics to fanzines to radio dramas to pulp magazines to video games to stage plays to music to real-life killers to breakfast cereal.

Because this is Vuckovic’s Horror Miscellany and not Vuckovic’s Horror In Complete, there are some blind spots here too. There is barely any mention of werewolves, and such essential horrorphernalia as Val Lewton, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “The X-Files,” horror-comedies, and Halloween (the holiday, not the movie) are ignored. However, Vuckovic makes up for such rare oversights by expanding her horror overview to drop such oddities as Kafka’s The Trial, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Mondo Cane, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and The Bible (which she correctly categorizes as a “novel,” much to my delight) into the cannon. She also places the most essential items—Frankenstein, Halloween (the movie), King Kong, Black Sabbath, and E.C. Comics—on a level playing field with such relative obscurities as Japanese writer Edogawa Rampo, Brazilian boogeyman Coffin Joe, and Witch Hunt treatise Malleus Maleficarium. So while your future date may not learn anything about, say, An American Werewolf in London, she/he will know that Carol Clover is the film theorist who coined the term “The Final Girl.” That should be enough to get you through that crucial second date.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: 'Monterey International Pop Festival' Box Set

The culture loves to shove Woodstock down our throats, but for my money, there was no better sixties festival than the Monterey International Pop Festival. The only truly great artists who would perform at Woodstock but not make Monterey were Sly and the Family Stone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and The Band. In exchange we got The Byrds and Otis Redding, whose performance cemented his legend as assuredly as The Who’s, Janis Joplin’s, and Jimi Hendrix’s cemented theirs. Staged at a time before endlessly wanking jams became compulsory, the best performances were pithier, punchier, and more genuinely exciting, reaching a crazed climax with The Who vs. Hendrix smash-off. We often forget that some boring crap from The Grateful Dead actually went down between those two literally incendiary sets because history has been kind enough to leave those hippies out of the documentation that is D.A. Pennebaker’s concert film Monterey Pop and an equally essential four-disc box set released in 1992. Sadly, Rhino Records’ Monterey International Pop Festival has been out of print for quite a while. Gladly, Salvo Records is getting it back in print, and for a nice price as a domestic release in the UK and as an import in the US.
All written content of is the property of Mike Segretto and may not be reprinted or reposted without permission.