Tag Archives: music history

Trouble in the Heartland

Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon & Schuster, $32.50, 528 pages)

“It’s a town full of losers/I’m pulling out of here to win…”  Thunder Road

Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography Born to Run (what else?) is not for the faint of heart.   But, then, neither is his music.

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Springsteen fans have heard many of these tales before, but not directly from The Boss, and not in this format.   The stories of his complex relationship with his father and his battle with depression are quite gripping.   The coming of age tales of his early days trying to break in to the music business are more engaging than his tales of the E Street Band, though many of those are interesting.   (Note for the current generation – there was a day before The Voice).

Springsteen essentially lived as a vagabond for a decade, including after he signed his recording contract with Columbia.   It is hard to believe that after Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town he was not in the clear financially until after The River tour.   This was due to many things – not making much money at first, signing a very one-sided contract, legal fees, and studio time.   It is still rather hard to imagine.

One can hear the song in his prose, and it compels the reader to go back and listen to his records.   Springsteen had a vision.   He put himself on the line until this vision was all he had left; he relentlessly pursued it until it became a reality.   This book reminds us that Springsteen and the E Street Band were singularly unique.   The concert I saw in April of 1984 was the greatest performance I have ever witnessed.

Springsteen impresses with his candor.   Although careful at times, he comes across as genuine and forthright.   Springsteen did not set out to write a fluff book of nostalgia; rather, in his words: “I fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story…  I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces… and its power.”   This is some undertaking.

Though his personal relationships were often tumultuous, he views the E Street Band as his family.   He professes his love for wife Patti Scialfa.   And he admits that he did not always treat everyone as he could or should have.

Springsteen speaks with reverence of those that have passed.   He writes of the death of organ player Danny Federici – who asked to play “Sandy” on the accordion at his final concert.   He also writes of Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, who had to sit on his last tour and be helped on and off the stage.   Springsteen may be driven, but one comes to like this book because of his honesty.   If he’s not honest here, he may be the biggest con man of all time.

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One thing that does not quite jibe with me is Springsteen’s commentary on drummer Max Weinberg, whom he categorizes as both a great timekeeper and soloist.   I’ve never viewed Weinberg as being in the class of innovative drummers like Keith Moon. But, then, who am I to question The Boss?

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

This book was delivered to the reviewer by Santa Claus.

Dave Moyer is an educator, the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, and a drummer who has yet to be asked to join The Who.

 

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Have I The Right?

Great British Studios

The Great British Recording Studios by Howard Massey (Hal-Leonard, $34.99, 357 pages)

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for the audiophile in your life who loves British rock music of the 60s and 70s, this is it. Howard Massey’s coffee table-sized book examines 46 major recording studios of the period (permanent and mobile), looking at their personnel, their equipment, the individual recording rooms, and the original recording techniques. It’s all here, as verified by Sir George Martin in the Foreward.

Massey supplies the answers to some great trivia questions, including “Where did the Beatles record, other than at Abbey Road?” and “Which great, highly successful record producer began his studio work as a ‘tea boy’ (a lowly paid, quasi-intern who brewed tea for anyone who wanted it)?” He also explains how the brilliant Glyn (Glynis) Johns recorded drums using just three microphones, and looks at the bizarre career of the paranoid recording producer Joe Meek. Meek was to record “Telstar” by the Tornadoes and “Have I the Right?” by The Honeycombs in his rented flat in London before he killed himself and his ever complaining landlady.

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Massey supplies the background story on several prominent recordings – such as those by The Who, The Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Queen, Procol Harum and Blind Faith. As per the latter, he provides an explanation of a how an extremely unique sound was produced that enlivened Blind Faith’s somewhat dull track, “Had to Cry Today.” And, Massey details how reverb, echo, and phasing (“Pictures of Matchstick Men”,”Itchycoo Park”) tricks were used. A fascinating ultra-morsel for music lovers!

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Muscle Shoals

Film Review: “Muscle Shoals” – Music Muscle from the Deep South

A 2013 documentary about an Alabama musical legacy, Muscle Shoals brings to light and life a group of musicians who never had their day in the sun.

Muscle Shoals

Two iconic recording studios in the tiny town of Muscle Shoals, Alabama – FAME (est. 1959) and its spin-off Muscle Shoals Sound (1960) – became the “must have” sound for, among others, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynrd, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Boz Scaggs, Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Etta James, and many other legendary Rock-and-Roll artists. The magic of a group of background musicians, who called themselves the “Swampers,” some of whom were classically trained, were the touchstone of FAME. The Swampers were all white (a fact that was to surprise Paul Simon). Keep in mind this is the early 60’s.

Muscle Shoals, which premiered at the Sundance Music Festival in January of 2013, is the love story of America’s music roots in the Deep South. For this viewer, some of the most spellbinding scenes focus on Rick Hall, the pioneer and open-minded founder of FAME studio. Hall’s own poverty and family upheavals allowed him to empathize with the racial hostility young music artists of color faced in most of the United States, not just the south. Before the Civil Rights Movement became a force shaping our country’s history, FAME gave some of our most creative musicians their break in the music business. The film gives the impression that the principals of FAME were unaware of the significance of their race-neutral music production.

Hall was to bring black and white music together. He produced signature music: “I’ll Take You There,” “Brown Sugar,” and “When A Man Loves a Woman”. White studio musicians were to make unknown black artists famous.

Muscle-Shoals-sign

Muscle Shoals bears witness to how Hall’s color-blind passion for music infused a magnetism, mystery, and magic into the music that became known as the Muscle Shoals Sound. The filmmaker allows the key players to speak for themselves, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, and Etta James. On its own, the cinematography of Muscle Shoals, the backwater town along the Tennessee River is an eye opener. And Muscle Shoals is not to be missed for its music history, racial progressiveness, and its imagery. It’s a visceral and magical vision!

Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

Postscript:

1.) The original Muscle Shoals Sound Studios building is listed in on The National Register of Historic Places and maintained by the Muscle Shoals Music Foundation. The foundation’s goal is to turn the historic building into a music museum.

2.) FAME is still owned by Rick Hall and his son Rodney. Beats Electronics, because of this film, is underwriting the renovation of FAME to support young musicians.

3.) Actor Johnny Depp is developing this movie into a TV series, according to Variety.

You can read more from writer, artist and retired Stanford professor Diana Y. Paul at her blog Unhealed Wound:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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Do You Remember

Cowboys and Indies: The Epic History of the Record Industry by Gareth Murphy (Thomas Dunne Books, $27.99, 400 pages)

This book held out the promise of being a fascinating look into the radio and record industries, from 1853 until the present day. Unfortunately, it’s a bit more pedestrian than exciting as the account veers between focusing on record executives and producers, and the artists themselves. It’s more successful when it does the former; the latter is a pretty standard history of rock and pop music.

The story at times becomes incomprehensible, as in Chapter 30, “Bubblegum Forest,” where one reads that, “The gaudy covers of manufactured bands (in 2000-2001) paid their way into the end caps and began scaring away older audiences.” What?

Cowboys and Indies succeeds when it focuses on small, interesting tidbits of information, such as telling us about the production of Millie Small’s breakthrough cover of “My Boy Lollipop” in 1964. There’s also some good stuff on George Martin and the history of Abbey Road (whose studios were last significantly refurbished in 1931). And kudos to the writer for pointing out that the debate about the compression of music has been going on since 1953 – when John Hammond wrote a New York Times article “blaming modern production methods for compressing the sound on jazz records….”!

Cowboys

All in all, this book is likely to be too much “inside baseball” for most readers. There are other, truly fascinating, books out there about the music trade.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Note: Publishers Weekly stated that, “Murphy captures the ever-changing nature of the record industry as it ebbs and flows…” However, the publication also noted that this is an “oft-covered topic.” Indeed.

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Nowhere Man

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton (Three Rivers Press, $15.99, 352 pages)

Ethically, it was never a problem for me…

The noted writer-reviewer John Updike once said, “Review the book, not the reputation.”   If this memoir had been written by an average Joe, it would likely draw comparisons to James Frey’s fake memoir (now labeled fiction), A Million Little Pieces.   Like that work, this account is filled with descriptions of inhaling massive quantities of illegal substances, of dangerous behavior and of hurting oneself and others no matter the consequences.   But this memoir is written by a multi-millionaire musician, one who treats near-priceless Ferrari automobiles like disposable coffee cups, one who walks on 30-story hotel ledges, and one who repeatedly and tragically hurt others:  “I suddenly told Pattie I was leaving…  I was like a flame in the wind, being blown all over the place, with no concern for other people’s feelings or for the consequences of my actions…”

Suffice it to say that the Eric Clapton found here is not a very nice or likeable person.   He’s a person, who until the end of this account in near present times, sees the world as existing to serve only his own pleasures; so this is at times both an immoral and an amoral telling of the events in his life.   If this sounds too harsh, here are Clapton’s own words:  “I was off having one-night stands and behaving outrageously with any woman who happened to come my way, so my moral health was in appaling condition and only likely to get worse…  I was already trying to sabotage my relationship with Pattie, as if now that I had her, I didn’t want her anymore.”   (emphasis added)

The person who knows little about Clapton prior to picking up this book – something that is not recommended – likely is aware that Clapton took Pattie Boyd Harrison away from George, one of Clapton’s very best friends.   That says volumes about his behavior, behavior which is only ampiflied in the 328 pages of this autobiography.   One might hope that this version of events, written by a spirited musician, would contain some life in it, but it’s flat and omits many of the details that were provided in Pattie Boyd’s earlier-penned memoir, Wonderful Tonight.

We must presume that Clapton wrote this memoir on his own as there’s no attribution to another writer (“Eric Clapton with…”) nor an “as told to” credit.   Frankly it reads as if it were dictated to a stenographer or into a recording device.

There’s little for the rock music lover to discover here, as Clapton’s accounts of playing with certain bands/musicians are sparse, and he never does describe how he came to learn his own brand of playing.   A lot of time – too much, it seems – is devoted to explaining his love of the blues, even though (despite his insistence here) most of his career has centered on playing rock rather than traditional blues music.   And there are many odd and questionable statements throughout the book…  For example, when Cream plays one of its first dates opening for The Who.   Clapton wonders then whether Cream could possibly succeed with just three musicians in the band, even though they saw that The Who (a musical trio – Roger Daltrey generally being just a vocalist) had already proven the success of this musical business model.   Odd.

Bad choices were my specialty, and if something honest and decent came along, I would shun it or run the other way.

Ah, yes, Clapton (in a style reminiscent of John Lennon) blames his bad choices in life on the fact that a parent abandoned him “all those years ago.”   This seems like an excuse that was used for far too many decades.   In his mind, because his mother abandoned him, he was free to seek revenge by abandoning everyone who came into his life; except, of course, that he’s now happy with a third wife and four daughters.   Good for him.

I remember when I was considering reading Boyd’s memoir Wonderful Tonight, and I came across an online comment to the effect that if one read her book one might well cease to be a fan of the musician Eric Clapton.   I feel the same way here – it will be much harder to listen to Disraeli Gears or 24 Nights or Derek and the Dominoes or Journeyman after this.   At one point, Eric Clapton seemed like Forever Man.   In this autobiography, he comes across more like Nowhere Man.

Joseph Arellano

The reviewer was lent a copy of this book.

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Life Is What Happens

“Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”   John Lennon (“Beautiful Boy”)

This is an interview with John M. Borack, author of John Lennon: Life Is What Happens: Music, Memories & Memorabilia (Krause Publications; $26.99; 256 pages).   The book was released in late October of this year.

1.  Tell us a bit about your own background and what led you to write a book about John Lennon.

I’ve been a Beatles fan since the tender age of five, when my dad bought me my first Beatles record (the “All You Need is Love”/”Baby, You’re a Rich Man” 45).   Their output is what helped to shape my musical tastes, and when I first began writing about music in 1985 (for Goldmine Magazine), I was somewhat fixated on songs and artists that took their cues from the sound and spirit of the Fab Four.

Fast forward 25 years, and I received a call from the former editor of Goldmine, Peter Lindblad, asking if I’d be interested in being considered to write a book on John Lennon for Krause Publications, which is the same company that publishes Goldmine.   I practically jumped through the phone, I was so excited.   A few weeks later, Krause made me an offer I couldn’t refuse, and the rest is history!

2.  What will readers find in John Lennon: Life Is What Happens that they haven’t seen in the myriad of other tomes about Lennon?

Well, the account of rare/previously unpublished photos in the book is pretty impressive, for starters.   Also, I tried to keep the focus of the book on John and his music, and tell a relatively straightforward story of a complicated mans’ life, steering clear of most of the unnecessary drama that surrounded him.   To me, it’s a very nice-looking, coffee-table-style book, and one that can serve as not only a biography but also a critical look at Lennon’s music.   And did I mention that the photos are pretty cool, too?

3.  The amount of memorabilia and photos in this book is staggering.   Any personal faves?

As far as memorabilia, I love the shot of the Beatles pinball machine from 1966.   I’ve loved to play pinball since I was a kid, so this is one item I wish I had in my rec room – if I had a rec room.   I also like the personal letters and notes from Lennon that we included; I think they give an insight into John as a person and also showcase his awesome sense of humor.

4.  There was a photo of John and George Harrison on the banks of the Ganges in 1968 that stood out for me.   It’s so personal…  and tranquil.

That’s one of my favorites, too; I had never seen that one before.   I think it captures the two of them at a moment in time when they were coming out of the psychedelic scene and searching for something more in their lives.   It’s really a beautiful shot.

5.  What are some of the kookier things you came across?

I think the wax heads of John and Paul (from The Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool) are pretty wacky, as is the John Lennon Halloween mask from 1964.   It’s still fun to look at, though.

6.  As you accumulated the mass of material in this book, what did you learn about the man?   Did your research alter your impression of Lennon in any way?

What impressed me most during my research was the reinforcement of the fact that John Lennon was a true renaissance man.   Singer, songwriter, rhythm guitarist, poet, peacenik, author, social activist, husband, father – John was all of those and more.   He packed a lot of life into his 40 years, and he poured his whole heart and soul into everything he did.

7.   There’s a quote in Life Is What Happens taken from The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1980 where Lennon says, “I really thought that love would save us all.”   For a guy so famously cynical, that seems rather beautifully naive.   I don’t mean that in a bad sense of the word.   But do you think he really believed it?

John was a paradox; one minute he was singing about “Revolution” and “Power to the People,” and the next he was proclaiming, “All You Need is Love,” and imploring us to “Give Peace a Chance.”   I think John really believed in what he was singing (and saying) at the time he was singing (and saying) it.   The contradictions were part of who he was, but he wasn’t the type to say things he didn’t mean.

8.  This year has marked the 30th anniversary of John Lennon’s death.   What are your reflections on the man and his career?

John Lennon was a true original, the likes of which we’ll probably never see again.   The rock music world, and the world in general, is a bit less interesting without him.   Like many others, I really wish he was still here to lead us in new directions, flash his rapier wit and sing us some new songs.   Imagine…

Copyright 2010 John M. Borack, author of John Lennon: Life is What Happens.   John M. Borack is a Beatles collector and a Southern California-based music journalist whose reviews, columns and feature articles have appeared in periodicals such as Goldmine and Amplifier.   Courtesy of FSB Media.

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