Across much of rock history’s last half-century, the double album has stood for a certain stakes-raising ambition and creative envelope-pushing, with artists asking fans for a little more of their attention and a little more of their disposable income. Among the sample titles pictured in this post, you’ll find some of rock’s most revered and, in a few cases, most reviled recordings. What do these titles have in common other than they were originally released as two-disc packages? In some ways, not a lot. As one might expect, the musical styles and subject matter are as varied as the far-flung pop universe itself. Delve into these records and soon enough you’ll come across overtures, artful sidelong suites, titanic instrumental jams and concept works based on socio-political and fantasy themes. There will be room for genre dabbling, sound collages, acoustic interludes and maybe even space left over to let the bass player sing a number.
How did these outsized albums come about? After all, as conventional wisdom would have it, rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not concise. The early songs of Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly et al rarely exceeded four minutes and were often closer to two. And that framework—the short, concentrated blasts of rebellion and celebration, dance and romance—are still often held up as the ideal of the art form. But art forms are rarely or ever immutable. They evolve and expand often to the point of earning a backlash, circling back closer to their original incarnation. Rock music is no exception to the rule. In its initial era of greatness, the 45 RPM single was the coin of the realm for rock ‘n’ roll’s pioneers. The latest smash by Bill Haley or Jerry Lee Lewis was played on a jukebox at the drop of a dime or heard on the AM radios of the big cruising sedans of the 1950s.
Long-playing records existed back then more as a vehicle for the most successful acts, pooling together a few hits and adding on some cover versions or dashed-off filler material.
In the wake of the Beatles’ worldwide success in 1964, rock music evolved into an artist-driven force to be reckoned with. Along with the Fab Four, bigger artists like the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Bob Dylan were able to assert more creative control. Soon, establishment-friendly fare like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” wasn’t cutting it any longer, especially as the Sixties became a more turbulent, crucial decade. Moreover, people like Dylan had multiple influences to begin with and it was just a matter of time before they all came to the fore. Sure, ol’ Zimmy was inspired by the great country artists like Hank Williams he’d pick up on his radio during lonely nights in northern Minnesota. But alongside them—and rock ‘n’ rollers like Little Richard that he would soon emulate in his high school band—there was a Beatnik strain as well.
Many of early baby boomers who came of age in the Sixties looked back in admiration at the literary rebels of the previous generation (Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac) as a touchstone to a new subversive epoch. For the Beats, the chosen music was jazz, an exploratory long-form medium that connected with a crowd searching for something more cosmic than what the Eisenhower years generally had to offer. The combined effect of a seized artistic freedom and a tempestuous era eventually led to ambitious rock music and it was Bob Dylan on the leading edge. His seminal Blonde on Blonde is widely regarded as rock’s first double album, ranging from ruminative balladry to fierce and free-associating blues rock; it set a very high bar for all four-sided efforts to follow. The officially-given release date of Blonde on Blonde was May 16, 1966 although there are claims that it didn’t show up (at least on the charts) until that July. In the month in between, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention debuted with a two-record set aptly called Freak Out! This anarchic blend of protest rock, Dadaist vocalizing, revisionist doo-wop and avant-garde aural collage was an early indicator as to how far off the margins counterculture music could go in the decade to follow.
By the end of the Sixties, the hippie masses had been treated to the Beatles’ White Album, the Who’s Tommy and Electric Ladyland by the Jimi Hendrix Experience, among others. We were off to the races. In a few days, I’ll start with a review of Blonde on Blonde that will, like other posts in this series, look at the album in view of how it pushed out at the boundaries of rock music (or at least tried to).
Throughout 2018, I’ll post a new one every 10-14 days, jumping around in time and genre. This is for a once a maybe future book project and I have about a third of it written. If you have any suggestions, let me know in the comments section (you can use the album cover images here as a jumping off point). Note that I have made double live albums and best-of compilations ineligible for this series, though half-studio/half-live records will be included.
In Part Two: When September rolls around, our four heroes become quick friends. But the hazy tranquility of post-hippie high school life in Wilsontown is shattered when they have to deal with an early-onset case of Trumpism. April decides she has to take matters into her own hands. This time it’s personal….
Part Two will appear in the full 24-page printed comic. Please note that anyone out there who has purchased my book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” and would be willing to write a short Amazon review of it, will get sent a free copy. (Just let me know when it’s up). If you would like to purchase “Rock Docs” directly through me, I will throw in a copy of the comic as well. Just $18 for both and that includes shipping within the U.S. If interested, leave a comment or email me.
Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll
By Peter Bebergal—2014—229 pages—J. Tarcher/Penguin Books
What would you think of first if someone asked you to give a quick example of the union between pop music and the occult? Maybe you’d mention a choice Black Sabbath track like “Children of the Grave,” or recollect an Alice Cooper stage show from high school days or perhaps a death metal show for those of younger vintage. Some of you would quickly counter that naming one example is merely scratching the surface. In his new book Season of the Witch, author Peter Bebergal makes the case that the ”occult imagination” is in fact central to the appeal and success of rock music, and may be its very lifeblood.
Ozzy says: “I got your occult imagination, right here!”
Early chapters of this intriguing and informative (if occasionally meandering) book traces this influence back to European and American artistic/spiritual movements while also telescoping back to the pre-slave-trade African traditions that would give birth to gospel music and the blues. Bebergal very ably dissects the surprisingly close connections between the sacred and profane that passed into the culture of the American South. “Rock’s origins are in the blues and folk,” he writes, “forms of music deeply ingrained with Christian traditions and values, but whose own roots grew in the soil where other gods were worshipped.” Although he notes that modern Christianity tried to “seal off” these more ancient impulses, they always remained to some extent (speaking in tongues, ring shouts) and this ambivalence shows in the life and careers of early rock ‘n’ roll pioneers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. But the influence of the occult (defined broadly as supernatural beliefs and the pursuit of esoteric knowledge) with its rebellious and unorthodox nature was a natural when this new music came along with the ascendance of youth culture in the Fifties.
Arthur Brown, after his god-of-hellfire days, formed Kingdom Come, seen here waiting on some hobgoblin action.
In fact, as Bebergal points out, early efforts by parents and ministers to stymie this new music likely backfired in the worst way. “Intentions to stop the music in its tracks instead started a conflagration that has never gone out,” he writes and indeed the relative innocence of those early years was superseded by the influence of the Beat writers, Aleister Crowley, Eastern spiritualism, and of course LSD. Through the likes of Pink Floyd, the Stones, the Beatles (in the post-“Revolver”/Maharishi era), Arthur Brown, Hawkwind, David Bowie, Sabbath, Sun Ra, Yes, Led Zeppelin and many others, “rock created a mythos around itself suggesting it was somehow heir to secret wisdom.” All of these case histories are given a good airing out without (usually) getting lurid. The author is clear-eyed about his subject, noting the negative side effects (drug abuse, cults) but also endorsing its role in affecting personal empowerment and acting as a counterweight to lockstep establishment thinking.
Madonna at the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, with her carefully-coded performance announcing the imminent takeover of the world by the Illuminati. And here’s me thinking it was just egomania.
Season of the Witch is a fine addition to the ever-growing canon of rock literature. Granted it’s not perfect: with so many artists to cover, some of Bebergals’ insights may sound a bit second-hand to devotees of a particular group. A few things are just wrong (Alice Cooper was not the name of an accused witch burned in 17th century Salem; besides they were hanged). But he does wrap it up nicely, moving the timeline up into this century, noting Jay-Z’s free-associating use of Freemason imagery in his videos and Madonna’s over-the-top halftime show at the 2012 Super Bowl, replete with pompous pageantry based on the kind Egyptian and Kabbalistic iconography that sent New World Order conspiracy theorists into a tizzy. But let’s put aside those vain one-per centers and remember that the magic in music can inspire people to a higher spiritual plain that will benefit us all in the end.
(If you like Books That Rock, please check out my tome Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey by clicking on the link below. A 30-page is available there, so try you can try-before-you-buy. Thanks, Rick Ouellette) http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html
“Everybody wants to rule the world,” British New-Wavers Tears for Fears slyly proclaimed on their 1985 hit of the same name. Of course, there is irony there: everyone knows that most people would be happy with just a fair shake in life. But even that modest expectation seems naïve today when so many “leaders,” whether in politics or business (and really, what’s the difference?) seem more intent on dominating than on leading.
“So glad we’ve almost made it/So sad they had to fade it” (Everybody Wants to Rule the World, written by Roland Orzabal, Ian Stanley and Chris Hughes)
Never mind for a minute the actions of a certain U.S. president whose dingbat megalomania and all-consuming need for loyalty and adoration seems to bubble up from a bottomless pool of self-hatred that is dreadful to contemplate. So yeah, never mind it. But what about those global top dogs of high-tech, so admired for their paradigm-shifting innovations? Which brings us (well, me) to Amazon. Millions, if not billions, love the we-have-everything-quickly customer-centric giant. So in the bargain for this prevelant need for ever-optimized consumer convenience, Amazon can impunitively send traditional brick-and-mortar businesses into tailspin, evade taxes, treat their warehouse employees like indentured servants subject to clinically-tested psychological pressures (making for smashing magazine exposes) and shortchange content providers big and small. Especially small. There’s no irony when CEO Jeff Bezos wracks up these headlines:
How Jeff Bezos is Hurtling Towards World Domination (Newsweek)
A Quest to Rule the Universe? Bezos Expands His Rocket Plans (L.A. Times)
Jeff Bezos Wants to Rule the World (take your pick across the Internet)
The content provider issue is the one that involves me, though there are hundreds if not thousands of other indie authors with similar gripes. As I put my finishing touches on my second book, “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” last fall, I hinted in my postscript of the potential of rock music, especially through its visual recorded history, to keep the spirit of youthful idealism alive one’s whole life through.
So off goes my tenderly nurtured labor of love off to BookLocker.com, the print-on-demand publisher I had used on my first tome, “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film.” I try to steer would-be buyers of the book to them, a smallish and trustworthy mom-and-pop business that strikes the right balance between consumer and content provider, treating both fairly. It spreads the wealth around and puts a little extra something back in the pocket of the writer trying to make back their up front investment.
But let’s face it, Amazon is what people understand nowadays and many people will just go through them by force of habit. Imagine the dismay, when just a couple of months after being released the Bezos gang start listing my book as “Temporarily Out of Print.” Since “Rock Docs” is a print-on-demand title, this is categorically impossible.
So after a slew of emails between myself and the “Help” people at Amazon’s Author Central, I was told, with the same unnerving passive-aggressive certitude used by their CEO, that it was because they had no copies in their warehouse (and could we send them some at no charge), that the involvement of a third party slows down their preciously pursued turnaround times (even though BookLocker uses Ingram for printing, a reliably fast printer who even use Amazon shipping labels) and by the way, wouldn’t I be happier using their self-publishing services? Well, obviously I gave them a definitive No to that question, but while BookLocker gallantly play David vs. Goliath (they’ve already won one settlement against Amazon) my book take a predictable plunge in the latter’s ranking, down into the millions, a predictable predicament when the book is falsely claimed to be out of stock.
Before I go any further let me get to my main point (or plug). If you’re interested in my book (and if you’ve been visiting this blog you are probably in the target audience anyway) go visit BookLocker.com at the link below or a non-Amazon online bookseller, like Barnes & Noble at bn.com. Note that there’s a 30-page excerpt available at my BookLocker author page
Let’s spread the wealth while there’s still some left to spread. The wife-husband team that operates BookLocker are a diligent home-schooling couple who have built a nice business for themselves. I can’ but help to think that Jeff Bezos would rather have them slaving away at one of his draconian warehouses than willingly let somebody dare be in the same business as him. Maybe he’ll prove me otherwise someday, rather than making collateral damage of hundreds if not thousands of indie writers.
“Help me make the most of Freedom and of pleasure/Nothing ever lasts forever,
Everybody wants to rule the world.”
Of course, this whole thing is indicative of a larger societal problem in the upper strata: the “we can do it, so we will” mentality, where no advantage will be left untaken and no admission of fallibility or wrongdoing is possible, ever. You know, I never had a lot of time for the therapy-session pop of Tears for Fears back in the Eighties. But I did always like this song and its image of a couple “holding hands while the walls come tumbling down” in the face of a callous world. With the passage of time it’s gotten only better and I found this recent performance pretty inspiring. Ironically in terms of this post, it was produced by Spotify, infamous for compensating musical artists micro-pennies on the dollar on their streaming service. Nevertheless, great job, guys—I only hope you got paid for it.
Oh, to have grown up in the Seventies. That’s not a hypothetical, because I did. To me, the later baby boomers got a bit of the best of both worlds, musically speaking. At the start of the decade, we had just graduated from the kids table and many of the best Sixties performers still going strong, while the glorious excesses of newer rock gods like Led Zeppelin were on the vanguard. If the music scene seemed to be a bit on the wane by the middle Seventies, that was OK. By the time we were off to college or moved away to the big city a couple of years later, the punk and indie-rock movement was just taking hold. In my new book, Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey, I examine this ever-shifting and regenerating rock history through how it was captured in concert and documentary films.
From The Song Remains the Same (1976)
Jimmy Page’s fantasy sequence, the most conceptually fine-tuned of the four, arguably holds up the best. It comes during the twenty-eight-minute, nuclear-option version of “Dazed and Confused,” the fame-making psycho blues from the band’s first album. The concert incarnation of “Dazed” featured several sections not heard on the studio original, most notably the unearthly interlude when Page took a violin bow to his guitar, fed it through an echoplex, and played to the crowd like a modern-day Merlin. Then the scene switches to his property near Scotland’s Loch Ness where he had recently (and un-coincidentally) bought the former home of occult figurehead Aleister Crowley. The atmospherics are just right (full moon and a light snowfall) as Page climbs an escarpment in a near re-creation of the “Stairway to Heaven”-suggestive gatefold illustration in Led Zeppelin IV. At the top he meets the same Tarot-deck hermit but it’s actually himself in advanced old age. In a special effects shot that always got a cheer from theater audiences, the hermit’s face then morphs back in time, eventually revealing Page in his Yardbird days, as a schoolboy and as a young tot—suggesting, as Page said in a 2007 magazine interview, that enlightenment “can be achieved at any time in a man’s life.” To top it off, the hermit’s staff turns into a multi-hued light saber.
From Soul to Soul (1973)
Ten years after becoming the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence in the post-colonial era, Ghana celebrated in part by staging a huge cross-cultural concert event. Featuring local performers and an array of mostly black soul, pop and jazz musicians from the U.S., this was an age before a word like “multiculturalism” was part of everybody’s vocabulary and there is a real sense of discovery here on both sides, though the solidarity is touched with befuddlement at times. The biggest star to the 100,000 fans is clearly Wilson Pickett, whose bravura performance inspires a giant mosh pit.
From The Kids are Alright (1979)
Despite the Who’s tendency to tomfoolery in interviews, in the end all you need is in the music. Jeff Stein made his best directorial move in cajoling a reluctant band to go back on stage at Shepperton Studios and give him one definitive take of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” for the record (there was an invited audience of about 500). Townshend’s eight-minute manifesto of self-determination in an unreliable world is one of rock’s great galvanizing classics and the fired-up band pulls out all the stops. The years of hard living were catching up to Moon (as they would with John Entwistle in 2002) and he showed up for rehearsals overweight and out of practice. But coming out of the song’s electronic keyboard interlude (with its 2001-inspired laser light display) Keith nails the thunderous drum cadenza and Roger lets rip rock’s most histrionic “Yeah!!” while Pete leaps clear across the stage, landing in a knee slide straight at the camera. Yes, rock ‘n’ roll does matter despite the Who’s self-conscious protestations.
From The Filth and the Fury (2000)
Julien Temple started filming the Sex Pistols from their earliest gigs in 1976. He starts The Filth and the Fury with a bracing montage of British social upheaval, discontent and rioting in the mid-70s that left the country ripe for the Pistols’ confrontational and chaotic revolt. It is the ex-Rotten John Lydon who gets off a lot of the best lines in the contemporary interviews, during which group members are shown individually and in silhouette, as if in witness protection, still somewhat menacing. Lydon recalls his life and times as a “damn ugly fuck-up” who emerged “brain-wiped” after being in a coma for a year with a bad case of boyhood meningitis, then realizing at age fourteen he had only a short time left to escape a third-rate fate. By the end, Lydon tears up at the memory of the ill-fated Sid Vicious, admitting to his inability to pull his childhood friend off the dismal path to junkiedom—it affords Sid a humanity rarely allowed to him by both detractors and idolizers.
From Rust Never Sleeps (1979)
Never mind the Jawas: an open-ended life quest, in the end, is concept enough for Rust Never Sleeps. Never as overtly confessional as some of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, Young connects with his fan base using a more loose-ends type of questing poetry. It’s the type that is easy to project oneself into even when the language gets elaborate and impressionistic. Is the Dylanesque “Thrasher” a beguiling manifesto of creative and personal independence or a thinly-disguised dissing of his former and future colleagues named Crosby, Stills and Nash? Of course, it could be both and more, and the imagery (“Where the eagle glides ascending, there’s an ancient river bending/Down the timeless gorge of changes, where sleeplessness awaits”) of escape and discovery are universal. Rust Never Sleeps, both the film and his then-current album of the same name can be seen as an end-of-decade mission statement.
Please contact me via a comment below if you are interested in purchasing a copy. Thanks, Rick Ouellette
Rock festivals, especially those in the golden era of the late 60s and early 70s, are the source for some of the best filmed footage in pop music history. The primary reason for this is pretty obvious. The parade of musical talent for 1967’s Monterey Pop, 1969’s Woodstock and 1970’s Isle of Wight festivals is awe-inspiring, especially in retrospect: high-water marks of a genius era. But they are also great sociological snapshots of their time period and often the audience members are just as entertaining as the performers!
Below are five excerpts from my book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey about this important rockumentary sub-genre, with accompanying vdeo clips. For more info about purchasing information this book, please leave a comment below. Thanks, Rick Ouellette
From the review of Monterey Pop (released 1968, directed by D.A. Pennebaker)
There’s hardly a baby-boomer to be found who doesn’t know something of the quartet of near-mythic Monterey Moments: the Who’s pre-punk working class anthem “My Generation” ending in a cacophony of smashed equipment, Janis Joplin’s no-holds-barred belting on the bluesy “Ball and Chain,” soul singer Otis Redding’s electrifying set winning over the “love crowd” in a career peak just six months before dying in a plane crash, and, of course, Jimi Hendrix’s epic eroticisation of the hitherto harmless ditty “Wild Thing.” The Seattle native had gone to England to make his name, and here reintroduced himself to America with a stunning display of six-string mastery that culminated with the famous fiery sacrifice of his instrument.
From Woodstock (released 1970, directed by Michael Wadleigh)
The logistical and crowd scenes that pop up after every three or four songs are every bit as interesting, especially the bravura ten-minute sequence depicting the famous Sunday thunderstorm. It drenched a crowd that had just been galvanized by Cocker’s dramatic recasting of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and thrust the stage crew into the role of reassuring the sea of humanity while simultaneously fretting over the fate of their vulnerable light towers and staving off the possibility of electrocution. When the crowd comes out the other end of this mud-covered crucible with their good spirits intact, their reputation is made.
From Message to Love: The isle of Wight Festival (released 1997, directed by Murray Lerner)
With six hundred thousand rock fans ferrying over from mainland England in August 1970, the third annual Isle of Wight Festival was one of the biggest concert events in history. Unfortunately, the five-day festival turned out to be a financial failure, and the commissioned footage from director Murray Lerner’s crew did not emerge as a feature film until a quarter of a century later. Nevertheless, Message to Love is a documentary that deserves to sit up on the same mantle as Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter. It contains a wealth of great musical moments; especially notable are clips of both Jimi Hendrix and the Doors’ Jim Morrison shortly before their deaths as well as footage of the Who at the very apex of their career. It is also a clear-eyed view of an event that was supposed to be an English Woodstock but instead descended into utter chaos as the Aquarian hippie ideal knocked heads with the emerging notion that rock music was ripe for mass-market exploitation.
From Wattstax (released 1973, directed by Mel Stuart)
Every music festival film has at least one classic show-stealer and in Wattstax that moment arrives when Rufus Thomas, the perennial Memphis favorite duly advertised as “The Prince of Dance” on the L.A. Coliseum scoreboard, takes the stage. Appearing for all the world to see in a hot pink suit with short pants and white go-go boots, he works up the crowd to such a degree with “The Breakdown” that when he then instructs them to “Do the Funky Chicken,” thousands of dancers storm the football field to oblige him.
From Glastonbury (released 2006, directed by Julien Temple)
The Glastonbury Festival in rural England holds a rather unique place in the annals of rock as being the one outdoor event started in the Woodstock era that has continued—despite a few missed years—straight into the present day, adapting and growing exponentially but still retaining much of its counterculture spirit. Rockumentary master Julien Temple has funneled this considerable history into a vibrant, if occasionally jumbled, film record of just under two and a half hours. He benefits from the availability of vintage early footage (some of it from 1971’s Glastonbury Fayre) and adds in his accounting of the modern festival (Temple shot there from 2002-05) with much attention to the event’s evolving sociology and an extensive sampling of live performances clips. What is just as memorable as this multi-generational musical cornucopia is the thirty-ring post-hippie circus that accompanies it: a freewheeling pagan arts fair and anti-establishment concave that equals or even overshadows what’s on the main stage.
My book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey traces rock history through its depiction in documentary film. Rock ‘n’ roll has always been a strong visual medium and movies based around it, like “Jailhouse Rock” and “Rock Around the Clock” and others with the “R” word in its title, were all the rage by as early as 1956. But it wasn’t really until 1964, with the Beatles’ seismic impact on the entertainment world, that this music started being committed to film by documentary producers. In the first of five themed samplers from the book, I look at those early days, accompanied by related video clips.
If you are interested in purchasing Rock Docs, please note that the book is now only available directly thru me. Please comment if interested. Also, feel free to join my “Rock Docs” Facebook page. Thanks, Rick Ouellette
It was only ten weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy. With the pall of national tragedy still in the air that winter, filmmakers Albert and David Maysles got a call from Granada Television in England saying a musical group named the Beatles were arriving in New York in a couple of hours and asking if they would mind heading down and maybe getting some footage? They arrived just in time to record that famous moment when John, Paul, George, and Ringo hesitated a moment at the top of the steps while leaving their plane, realizing that the hordes of people lining the balcony of the terminal were there for them and not some head of state as they first thought. And just like that, the Maysles brothers found themselves in the middle of one of the twentieth century’s defining cultural moments.
From The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit (1964/1991)
Produced by their manager Andrew Loog Oldham reportedly to get his rising stars used to the idea of film, Charlie is My Darling was the first documentary about the Rolling Stones. Back in the screaming-teenager epoch of the mid-1960s, the boys are whisked off to Ireland for a quickie tour hastily arranged to capitalize on the recent smash hit “Satisfaction.” It’s a bit of a revelation here to see the Stones in the first flush of their youthful success. They were already well known for the riotous audiences they attracted and by the end of the third number in Dublin the stage invasion is in full stride, memorably captured by Peter Whitehead’s in-the-wings camera.
From The Rolling Stones: Charlie is My Darling (1965)
It’s been described as the ultimate Battle of the Bands—James Brown and the Famous Flames vs. the Rolling Stones. It definitely helped that both still had a lot to gain at this point in their careers. Brown coveted the crossover audience that so far eluded him and the Stones were fighting to crack into the American pop marketplace. Though Brown wanted to close the show the producers opted for a British Invasion finale. It hardly mattered: The Flames’ eighteen-minute set is justly hailed as one of the more thrilling concert sequences of the rock era. This in turn made the Stones step up their game and during all this the audience makes the final transformation from excitable to certifiable.
Although blues great Son House has been seen doing an electrified set with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (and going over well with it) it’s another story when Bob Dylan plugs in with the same guys and launches into “Maggie’s Farm,” complete with a searing guitar solo by Mike Bloomfield. The reception is actually mixed, in contrast to the legend of him being booed off the stage. He is coaxed into coming back with his acoustic guitar, but the die has been cast. The authenticity claimed by folk fans earlier mentioned has shaded into defensive orthodoxy and Dylan, seeing the similarly gifted Beatles already becoming worldwide icons, was off to chart a new course.
From Festival! (Murray Lerner’s compilation film of the Newport Folk festival 1963-66)
Cream was one of the first media-ordained supergroups and their final show, at London’s Royal Albert Hall in November ’68, was one of rock’s first self-consciously grand events. There was an imperative to capture the talented but fractious band on film before the split. The non-concert segments have an oddly defensive tone, with the power trio’s music having to be compared to the “traditional arts” by the BBC narrator. Back then, the thought of a longhair band and their scruffy fans taking over the august Albert Hall was probably still a bit controversial. Even if they had “almost single-handedly given rock an authority which only the deaf cannot acknowledge”!!
The T.A.M.I. Show. Don’t Look Back. Monterey Pop. Woodstock. Gimme Shelter. Let it Be.
The Last Waltz. The Kids Are Alright. Stop Making Sense. Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Filth and the Fury. Searching for Sugar Man. Twenty Feet From Stardom.
Over the last half century, music documentaries like these have provided us with a priceless moving-image history of rock ‘n’ roll. My just-released book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is a first-of-its-kind anthology of the rockumentary genre, viewing pop music’s timeline through the prism of non-fiction film. Since its earliest days, the look of rock ‘n’ roll has been integral to its overall appeal. Up and down the hallways of pop history there is always something interesting to see as well as to hear.
This book reviews over 150 films–actually closer to 170 but that number didn’t seem right on a book cover. It starts with a ground level look at the Beatles’ world-changing first visit to America and comes full circle fifty years later with “Good Ol’ Freda,” where the Fab Four’s secretary looks back through the years as both a fan and an insider. In between, readers will find many films to re-experience or discover for the first time.
The anthology format consists of 50 feature-length reviews and paragraph-length pieces on the remaining 100+ titles. In the coming weeks, I will be posting selected clips from the book. If you are interested in purchasing the book, please click on the link below for my author page at BookLocker.com. The link also has a click-through where you can view a 30-page excerpt.
David Bowie, Paul Kanter, Maurice White, Lemmy Kilmister, Keith Emerson, Glen Frey, George Martin… these are some of the notable pop music figures that have died over the last few months—and those are just the ones off the top of my head. We have come to the age where social media tributes to our fallen rock heroes seem to be taking over from the perpetuation of the artform in practice. It’s almost like we’ve become the modern equivalent of the old-timers who always turn first to the obituary section of the local newspaper.
It’s no secret: rock ‘n’ roll as defined by that name in the mid-1950s, and hitting its popular and creative critical mass in the Sixties and Seventies, is getting a little long in the tooth. With so many of our heroes from the classic-rock era now creeping into their seventies, this passing of an era thru the passing of its great practitioners is only going to be felt more acutely the farther we get down the road. Oh sure, there’s still lots of rock to be had. “Legacy artists” tour the summer sheds each year, there are CD re-issues and vinyl to be hunted down in funky little shops, thriving local scenes and even a fair number of younger bands who have picked up the baton—though I’m not sure if I’ll be up for Tame Impala’s 30th Anniversary Tour, due in 2037.
Lemmy prepares to blast his way thru the pearly gates
Of course, it’s not just the slow and steady march of time that is at issue when it comes to pop music and mortality. Ever since February 3, 1958—the day we lost Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper but gained a Don McLean epic—who shuffles off the mortal rock coil and how has been a big part of the music’s culture. In 1971, Boston-based Fusion magazine, who also dabbled in publishing, placed a back cover ad for three books they were releasing (Ok, I’ve been going thru my old magazine collection again). One of them was called “No One Waved Good-bye” (where “some of your favorites write about the taste for death in the pop palette”) and I was able to find it for short money at alibris.com. This slim paperback is a fascinating look back to the early days of rock fans’ folkloric attitudes towards mortality. It stands in sharp contrast to Jeremy Simmonds’ 2006 tome “The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars,” a 600-page cataloguing of deceased demi-gods and laid-to-rest lesser-knowns.
“No One Waved Good-bye” came out so early in the game that the book has as its primary focus only four figures: Janis, Jimi and two Brians, Jones and Epstein. This is a more-steely eyed review than one would expect now and generally written in a discursive style more uncommon in our less literate, what’s-the-takeaway age. Edited by Fusion chief Robert Somma, contributors include rock scribe pack-leaders like Jon Landau, Lillian Roxon, Richard Meltzer and Al Aronowitz. Lou Reed also chips in with a piece and there is a probing two-way interview between Danny Fields and educator Jeff Nesin. “Ten years ago, dying was a faraway place, something that happened to other people,” Somma writes in the introduction to the earlier book, pointing out rock’s relative youth (Jim Morrison hadn’t even died yet!). Many of the writers here are reckoning with the effects of the scene’s wayward drug-and-drink overindulgences and the eternal paradoxes of fame.
Some detour off that now well-worn path and offer novel takes on the subject. Australian writer Craig McGregor notes the “intolerable pressures” on artists when “the media revolution force-feeds 20th century art to an early maturity” (comparing pop’s progress to the hyperdrive developments in mid-century jazz) and observes that talented but less emotionally stable practitioners are sometimes “crushed in the compression chamber.” The high-spirited Lillian Roxon, author of the seminal “Encyclopedia of Rock” and only two years away from her own sudden demise from a severe asthma attack, pays tribute to Janis in terms of her wayward sexual liberation and beauty-salon-denying, gypsy fashion sense (“Can you imagine going to Woodstock in a pantygirdle or taking hair curlers? If you didn’t look like Janis when you got there, you sure as hell looked like her by the time you left”).
This is a 1970 photo of rock singer Janis Joplin. (AP Photo)
Elsewhere, one gets a fresh sense of a more rigorous analytical style much less given to today’s lionizing. “There was clearly and blankly no real music left in Janis,” opines Neil Louison. Lou Reed dissects Jimi Hendrix’s dilemma about how to get his audience to move beyond the trippy theatrics that may have attracted them in the first place: “The lover demands consistency, and unless you’ve established variance as your norm a priori you will be called an adulterer.” Roger that.
Of course, Lou would live long enough to be elevated in an age of Rock Elders where long past aberrations are more easily overlooked or celebrated—yes, I’m looking at you, “Metal Machine Music.” He was still around for the 2006 publication of “The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars” (a 2nd edition came out in 2008). But there are plenty of names, both legendary and not so much, to fill out this volume and if a third edition were released today it would likely be the size of a cinder block. In his opening chapter, author Jeremy Simmonds kicks things off in the intro with a recounting, as best he can given the murky circumstances, of the death-by-poisoning of blues legend Robert Johnson back in 1938.
Early inklings of the dreaded “27 Club” of which Robert Johnson was a charter member
The mystery and untimeliness behind Johnson’s death sets the tone for the roll call to follow, which begins in earnest in 1965 (chronological by demise date). One repeated and unfortunate theme is the general unsavory nature of so many star deaths: the “justifiable homicide” of Sam Cooke, the unsolved killings of people like Bobby Fuller and Jamaican dub pioneer King Tubby, or barely punished ones like the shooting death of Felix Pappalardi by his wife, not to mention the many drug overdoses and high-speed accidents.
Each name starts with a brief bio and the high profile deaths are given lengthy entries. This will give the reader all they want to know and more about the unhappy, unusual or just plain sordid circumstances surrounding the last moments of everyone from Dennis Wilson to Sid Vicious to Gram Parsons to Kurt Cobain and so many others. In view of this, Simmonds’ books acts better as a reference work than something to read front to back. There are lots of interesting facts to be learned or reminded of (I didn’t realize there were some 60 copycat suicides in the wake of Cobain’s death) and even some of the more obscure entries can be at least instructional. Not many outside of the Jethro Tull fan base may care to read about their late 70s bassist John Glascock but the entry acts as “a stern warning to those who ignore dental problems” as a neglected tooth abscess led to a fatal heart infection.
But with its glib undertow, tipped off by the groan-inducing subtitle “Heroin, Handguns and Ham Sandwiches,” this book kind of buys into that “taste for death in the pop palette” a bit much for my tastes. Perhaps the morbid fascination with how it all ends for our pop heroes is part and parcel of the fan devotion and why we loved them in the first place. “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse” was never one of my favorite sayings, but at the rate we’re going the only alternative left will be the Rock ‘n’ Roll Rest Home. At least the doctors won’t have to wonder why we’re all hard of hearing.
Just Kids, London division: Viv Albertine, Keith Levene and Mick Jones in 1975.
In this latest installment, there’s a decided emphasis on the Seventies. I guess we always gravitate to our coming-of-age period. As opposed to the canard that writing about music is a suspect endeavor (which I knocked around a bit in Part One) there seems to be interesting books coming out all the time, esp. by women rockers. New books by Chrissie Hynde and Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon are on my eventual to-do list (but after this, I want to get back to some fiction reading) and “M Train,” Patti Smith’s follow-up to her celebrated “Just Kids” is due in October along with an author tour. One such book that I have read, and couldn’t recommend enough, leads off here.
“Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys” by Viv Albertine (2014)
“Anyone who writes an autobiography is either a twat or broke. I’m a little bit of both.” That has got to go down as one of my all-time favorite opening lines for this type of book. Out of seemingly nowhere, Slits’ guitarist Viv Albertine has hit the stores with this live-wire memoir of growing up in Sixties England and being at ground zero for London’s mid-70s punk rock revolution. Her prose is as frank, unsentimental and dryly humorous as the music of the cutting-edge all-girl band she joined shortly after picking up a guitar for the first time at 22. Viv is not especially famous (the Slits only made two albums in their 70s incarnation) but this works in the narrative’s favor. Her scene-making and (eventually) music-making exploits come up the years in a virtual timeline of street-level Brit-rock history. The talking points are many: discovering the Beatles on her babysitter’s record player (“I feel as if I’ve jammed my finger into an electricity socket, every part of me is fizzing”), being a barmaid in the pub-rock era, spending the long hot summer of 1976 criss-crossing London with pal Sid Vicious, being the girlfriend of the Clash’s Mick Jones (“Train in Vain” was about her) and, of course, finding her “voice” as the guitarist in a seminal band. This punks-as-pedestrians angle is a novel take on a much-traveled subject. It uncovers the inner workings of a relatively small group of people who shook up the pop music world with fierce commitment in an analogue age—imagine arranging practice sessions when members live in various squats without even a landline, never mind a cell phone or email. Albertine is also spot-on in her recollections (honest but never disrespectful) of her fellow travelers, like the pre-Spungen Sid Vicious and the dynamic Slits singer, the late Ari Up. Of course, there’s a long second act after she left the music biz following the dispiriting break-up of her band. From aerobics instructor to TV producer to wife and mother, to major health problems (she is a cervical cancer survivor) to divorce and then a long climb back to music-making as a solo artist. What burns through all of it is Albertine’s lifelong belief in the lasting value of creative non-conformity in spite of all the obstacles life throws your way. Inspirational.
What You Want Is in the Limo—Michael Walker (2013)
Michael Walker, the L.A.-based author whose previous pop-history tome was “Laurel Canyon”, investigates a key transitional year in rock music with his second book. The pivotal but under-appreciated year of 1973 is a subject near and dear to me and my own post on the subject (“Between Patchouli and Punk”) can be accessed from the “Rock on Record” category on the right. Walker calls this “The Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Roc k Star was Born” as he vividly re-lives the recording of three huge albums and the Dionysian U.S. tours that followed them—Alice Cooper’s “Billion Dollar Babies”, the Who’s “Quadrophenia” and Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy.” Here in spades are the tales of debauchery and superstar privilege, the dawning of the age of the single-headliner stadium shows in place of the collective ballroom or festival experience of the 60s, and a shifting business model where savvy acts were now raking in the dough alongside the promoters, managers and record companies. Much to his credit, Walker also perceives the social gradation when younger baby boomers came into their own “wishing only to continue the Sixties hootenanny of which they are given a tantalizing glimpse… they saunter into high schools trailing pot smoke and wan entitlement, the first postwar generation not to have to register for the draft.” A high-school sophomore in ’73, I was wishing for a little more of that to go with the piled-on anecdotes of rented jetliners, groupies, hotel room thrashings and wayward substance intake like Alice’s daily consumption of uncountable cans of Budweiser and shots of VO whiskey. But even here Walker’s even-handed instincts notes that the record companies, not yet under the yoke of their “corporate overlords” still spent money on artist development, even if that led to the coked-out excesses of the later 70s. Each of the three bands claimed a martyr to that everything-all-the-time period—drummers Keith Moon and John Bonham were gone by the end of the decade and Cooper band guitarist Glenn Buxton (so fried by the 1973 tour that there was a backup guy playing most of his parts) died in 1997. But a survey of ‘73s top records, seen in this book and in my aforementioned post, confirms it as one of rock’s most invigorating times and Walker brings it back most admirably.
“Who I Am” by Pete Townshend (2012)
I’m not usually one for reading hefty rock-star memoirs, but it was hard to pass this one up with the hardcover marked down to seven bucks (from a list of $32.50) on the Former Bestsellers table at Barnes & Noble. The Who are one of my favorite groups and leader Pete Townshend is well known as one of pop music’s more articulate and introspective figures, with a self-effacing streak that can usually counter the well-known excesses that come with the territory. The early chapters are rich with post-war London anecdotes but take a darker turn when young Pete is shunted off to stay for some months with his eccentrically unpleasant grandmother. Half-formed memories of cruel behavior (and possible sexual abuse by one or more of her “gentleman” callers) would haunt him and ironically lead to charges of downloading child porn almost a half-century later. When it comes to the Who, the familiar arc of their story is naturally enhanced by the first-person recollections. Townshend, as both an aesthete and a gearhead of the first order, gives a great accounting of both the ideas and the recording of grand works like “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia” and even clarifies the concept behind the super-ambitious (and never completed) “Lifehouse” project. As far as rock-star hijinks go, married-with-children Pete admits to being a vaguely envious side-glancer to the many exploits of bandmates Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but he and Roger Daltrey managed to avoid much of the druggy excesses that helped claim them both. “Prudish” with groupies, his main weakness (aside from his eventual serious drinking problem) was as a “fantasist” who succumbed to the charms of several women he met in his personal and business dealings, leading to long estrangements from his wife Karen Astley, from whom he eventually got divorced. His 2003 arraignment on child-porn downloading is a fascinating read, if only because it is refreshing to hear a side of the story that only seemed to invite knee-jerk condemnation of him at the time. Townshend had already funded a research group to combat this scourge (still haunted by his childhood half-memories) and he did it as an aggressive but ill-advised ploy to bring the problem to light. At 500 pages, “Who I Am” may be a bit too piled high with rock-geek details and anecdotes for general interest, but a rewarding read for Who fans and music history buffs.
“Love Goes to Buildings on Fire” by Will Hermes (2011)
Sub-titled “Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever,” Will Hermes’ wide-ranging and irresistible book surveys the “multiple creative frequencies” that beamed throughout the city from 1973-77. Although it takes its title from the Talking Heads’ first single, this means more than just rock ‘n’ roll, though the New York Dolls, Ramones, Television, Patti Smith, Blondie, Springsteen and others are all present and accounted for. But it was also a time of intense activity in other genres, and developments in salsa, loft jazz, disco, avant-garde and early hip-hop are also traced closely. But these are alternating timeline stories so a reader who is not altogether taken with the struggles of Philip Glass to stage a production of “Einstein on the Beach” (as interesting as that may be) can skip ahead until he or she comes across the next appearance of the words “Richard Hell.” Naturally, socio-political trends and events (the city’s brush with bankruptcy, Son of Sam, the ’77 blackout) are weaved in but despite the Big Apple’s many struggles in that era, for the musicians and their followers it is “less about escaping the nastiness of the city than reveling in it, amping it up to a cinematic scale, drawing a narrative in which (they) could wage heroic battle.” Hermes, a senior critic at Rolling Stone, fills his tome who who-knew anecdotes (“The summer was exceptionally hot. It gave Laurie Anderson the idea to hitchhike to the North Pole”) and is especially well-researched though I’m not sure if we need to know the exact address of every recording studio, dive club and crash pad. Still, “Buildings on Fire” is no mere good-old-days exercise. Hermes, who grew up in Queens but was a little young to partake in the original CBGB scene, sees musical culture a as continuum and in a generous epilogue concludes by both catching up with his Seventies’ cast of characters and looking at today’s scene as well. Despite what us Boomers may think, these kids feel the same sense of possibility as Hermes and his music-obsessed friends did back in the mid-70s, standing on the roof of a Queens apartment building gazing at the dazzling lights of Manhattan. “We were ready to fly to them.”
The New York Dolls in a New Years show at Mercer Arts Center. Photo by Bob Gruen in the earliest hours of 1973.
“Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island” edited by Greil Marcus (1979)
Released in 1979, “Stranded” may still stand as the ne plus ultra when it comes to rock-geek literature. Editor and music-critic dean Greil Marcus set up a nifty little parlor genre: if you were stuck on a desert island with only one album to listen to, what would it be? He sent that out to a would-be Hall of Fame of fellow rock scribes (Lester Bangs, Ellen Willis, Tom Carson, Janet Maslin, Nick Tosches, Ariel Swartley, Dave Marsh etc.) and got predictably fascinating and idiosyncratic results. Many of these twenty writers struggle with the core futility of the premise: Tosches duly notes that “being marooned somewhere with neither whiskey nor Jewish girls troubles me greatly” (before settling on “Sticky Fingers”) and Marsh is so flummoxed by the whole aloneness thing that he comes up with an imagined compilation record called “Onan’s Greatest Hits” and if you think that the Who’s “Pictures of Lilly” is included in that you are correct. Some choices are a bit strange—John Rockwell is so intent on finding a universal pop common denominator that he finds himself defending Linda Ronstadt’s “Living in the USA” for thirty pages!! But most of this is great as in Carson’s astute celebration of the Ramones’ “Rocket to Russia” (“the kind of deadly serious fun that rock and roll, and America, couldn’t live without”), Lester Bangs’ passionate dissertation of “Astral Weeks,” and the heartfelt and headstrong advocacy of both “The Velvet Underground and Nico” by Ellen Willis and the New York Dolls’ debut by Robert Christgau are strong statements about the value of music in one’s life in general. Also, Marcus’ extensive “Treasure Island” discography at the end will keep me discovering new platters until my time is called and I sail off to that island clutching a copy of “The Kink Kronikles.”
You can check out the excerpt of my book “Rock Docs: A fifty-Year Cinematic Jorney” at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html or by clicking on the book cover image above. If interested in purchasing, you can contact me directly for a special offer and free shipping! Thanks, Rick.