Tag Archives: Ringo Starr

It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll

(But We Like It)

It's Not Only Rock 2

It’s Not Only Rock ‘n’ Roll: Iconic Musicians Reveal the Source of Their Creativity by Jenny Boyd Ph.D. with Holly George-Warren (John Blake, $14.95, 322 pages)

A book that does not quite live up to its subtitle.

“Musicians are the mouthpieces for our age.”

“Musicians are the torchbearers, the spokespersons of our time.”

Jenny Boyd George Harrison

Jenny Boyd’s (George Harrison’s one-time sister-in-law) book might have been called Conversations Touching Upon Creativity. This is a book in which she quotes numerous musicians, including Harrison and Ringo Starr, about the magical, mystical and mystifying process of creating music. But the book only takes us to the edge of the process and never smack-dab into the middle of it (e.g., the source of creativity). Boyd, in fact, seems unable to define what creativity is or exactly how it works. And the quotes she includes are often contradictory; for example, on the effect of drugs and alcohol – some musicians see these as a boon, others as a bane.

While the book is readable and somewhat entertaining and some of the statements from major musicians are interesting, there’s far too much reliance on lesser figures. Sinead O’Connor, for example, seems to be quoted on about every second or third page. The reader would have been better served if Boyd had focused on a few particular songs or albums and discussed with their creators the steps they took from first thought to finished recording. (Not surprisingly, such books already exist.)

Boyd is caught up with exaggerating the role of modern day musicians, portraying them as societal leaders and major change agents: “Artists are not afraid to break down the old to make way for the new….” Since this is what she clearly and strongly believes, she may wish to consider writing a follow-up book about this thesis. However, this work led me to realize why even Bob Dylan has disdained the role of prophet, socio-political leader or “spokesperson for his generation.” That crown may be too heavy for any musician to wear.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Songwriters On Songwriting

Individuals with a strong interest in the subject of songwriting and creativity may want to read Songwriters on Songwriting: Revised and Expanded by Paul Zollo (Da Capo Press), which covers the topic in 752 pages.

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The Waiting

Music Review: Benmont Tench – ‘You Should Be So Lucky’

Is Benmont Tench’s solo album just competent or is it more than that?

Benmont_Tench-353x

Benmont Tench has been in the music business for thirty-four years. As a member of the Heartbreakers, backing Tom Petty, there’s little doubt that this keyboardist’s first solo effort would display musical competence. But does it soar? Let’s take a look at the tracks on You Should Be So Lucky before arriving at a verdict.

The nearly 46-minute long album opens with “Today I Took Your Picture Down,” on which Tench provides a Bob Dylan-style vocal and lyrics: “Today I took your picture down…/The eyes that followed me around/Daring me to stare them down/Today I turned my back on you/The celebrated face that stole a piece of/Every soul that wandered through this place.”

There’s a piano sound that might have been inspired by the E Street Band. It’s a fine, confident opening that nevertheless fails to take off.

“Veronica Said” sounds as though it was recorded immediately after Tench had listened to Lou Reed singing “Sweet Jane.” Enough said.

“Eccor Rouge” is a film noir movie soundtrack-style jazzy piano instrumental. It manages to destroy whatever momentum had developed from the previous tracks. Boring. “Hannah” is a love ballad from the school of Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits: “Hannah, if this is a dream/The kind that don’t come true/You’re worth every mile I ever drove for you….”

“Blonde Girl, Blue Dress” was released as a single. It sounds like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with Mr. Petty on bass guitar and Ringo Starr on tambourine. It’s catchy but not quite exceptional.

“You Should Be So Lucky” is the title song and it is the highlight of the album. It’s like a lost track from a Traveling Wilburys album and contains some adult-rated language.

Tench covers the traditional “Corrina, Corrina” using Dylan’s arrangement. It comes off as flat; it does not whistle or sing. “Dogwood” is a song with religious connotations that, like its protagonist, is pretty much without direction.

“Like The Sun (Michoacan)” is a very good, very short, track that brings to mind a contented George Harrison. Unfortunately, it’s followed by “Wobbles,” another instrumental and another throwaway. On “Why Don’t You Quit Leaving Me Alone” Tench sings: “Every radio station plays the same forsaken song….” They probably would not play this Randy Newman knock-off.

“Duquesne Whistle” concludes the album. Dylan’s original bouncy version displayed moxie and sly charm, qualities that are mostly absent here. The life has pretty much been removed from the song, which is a shame. It’s a less than satisfying ending.

This album might appeal to those who are attracted to laid-back, understated and low energy recordings. However, for most listeners I fear it’s the equivalent of going to Starbucks and being handed a cup of unleaded coffee.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the record company (Blue Note).

This article first appeared on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/music-review-benmont-tench-you-should-be-so-lucky/

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Strawberry Fields Forever

The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz, read by Alfred Molina (Simon & Schuster Audio, $39.95, 9 CDs – running time: 10 hours and 13 minutes)

Be careful what you wish for…  Or, in this case, the fellows who would eventually become the iconic rock group, The Beatles, were in for a shock when they got what they worked so hard to achieve – being the Toppermost of the Poppermost.   According to Bob Spitz, the author of this band biography, attempting to perform before an audience of hysterically screaming teenage girls is very tiring and puts one’s best musical efforts aside for the mere fact of being there in person on stage.

The usual biographical story line follows the lads from their early efforts at becoming popular and famous.   It’s well known that diligent practice, some songwriting and struggles to get gigs led them from Liverpool, England to Hamburg, Germany and back to Liverpool.   Eventually, they played to the USA audience via television on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Well, as an ancient radio show host would say, “Now, you’re gonna hear the rest of the story.”   Spitz invested countless hours of research and sleuthing to come up with a more in-depth and, in some situations, gut-wrenching back story of The Beatles life cycle, from unknowns to way-too-famous performers.   This reviewer listened to the audio version of the book narrated by Alfred Molina, who is himself a well-known actor in films and on stage.   Molina’s confident depiction of the various voices and accents is a real listening pleasure.   It also helps to have a well-written narrative which Spitz delivers chapter after chapter.

The saga comes to life with frequent quotes from the people who populated The Beatles’ world (e.g., Brian Epstein, Sir George Martin, Stuart Sutcliffe and his wife, etc.).   To his credit, Spitz did not include any of the band’s music in the audio book.   Whether this was due to the cost of the needle-drop or a conscious choice, it kept this listener focused on the interactions and emotions felt by all involved.

Honestly, it’s easy to jump on one’s laptop, go to You Tube and enjoy their  music.   It’s more of a challenge to stay with the biography and learn that these adorable fellows had plenty of emotional baggage and personal interactions that did not always bode well for the group.   Also, the rock scene in England and the USA was fueled by a wide array of illegal drug use.   The Beatles enjoyed their share of drugs, girls and fame.   Donovan was a pal as were other famous British rockers.   In the end it all fell apart and they were a group – a band – for less than a decade.

As the final track of  the CD closed out, this reviewer felt the enormous loss of something magical, something heard for the first time over a Ford Falcon station wagon radio as Martha drove the carpool group to our northern California high school.   It was love at first listen and it still is…

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

This audiobook was purchased by the reviewer’s husband.   It is available via Audible.com .

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It Don’t Come Easy

Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (Da Capo, $26.00, 368 pages)

“Half the people are stoned/And the other half are waiting for the next election.”   Paul Simon

The year 1970, as some of us remember, was the year that Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water was both the best-selling album and single of the year.   But what might not be remembered is that S&G would soon be targeted – during the very same year – as rock’s ultra-conservative sell-outs.   The New Yorker music critic, Ellen Willis, wrote of Mr. Simon:  “I consider his soft sound a copout.   And I hate most of his lyrics; his alienation,  like the word itself, is an old-fashioned, sentimental, West-Side-liberal bore.”

Not to be outdone, critic Miles Kingston (who claimed to be a fan) wrote:  “Some people hate Simon and Garfunkel because their music has no guts, because it is a middle-class look at life, because it slips too easily from idiom to idiom.”   Kingston described their fans as “the left-out kids – the loners, the book-worms… (and worse).”   And then there was the Time Magazine reporter, assigned to do a cover story on James Taylor, who wrote that, “…the people interested in James Taylor are those who never quite got over a fascination with Simon and Garfunkel.   Upon whom it is now fashionable to dump.”

Yes, David Browne has a knack for finding interesting bits and bytes of information that challenge our collective memory.   This is a non-fiction account of the 1970s – and, specifically, the decade’s beginning – in post Kent State America.   Browne writes about the softening of rock ‘n roll in a year that saw the demise of three of the world’s most successful groups – The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY).   Yet, in a year that one publication initially termed The Year That Melody in Popular Music Had Died, it was to be a year of rebirth in music, of melody.

If the hard rock of the late 60s had just about killed melody (John Lennon had called Beatle Paul’s Helter Skelter, “just noise…”), it was soon brought back to life in the form of new performers like James Taylor and Elton John.   Browne’s account is actually a melding of two – one, a background look at the music of the time; second, a description of the social and political environments of the late 60s/early 70s.   In this it bears many similarities to Girls Like Us, an earlier-written account of the musical careers and times of Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon.

I noted that Browne has a knack for finding interesting factoids.   Here’s another one…  According to his research, backed by Paul Simon and Paul McCartney, two of the major songs of the decade were written not for the composer’s own group/band but for the voice of Aretha Franklin.   Yes, both Bridge Over Troubled Water and Let It Be were specifically written for the Queen of Soul, who – luckily for fate – rejected them.   It’s one reason that both songs, written within weeks of each other, share a gospel soul and structure.

If you’d like to read more fascinating things that you never knew about all of the band members and performers listed in the book’s subtitle, and about others like Joni Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Allen Klein, Mary Balin, and Billy Preston, you’ll want to run and pick this one up.   As James Taylor was to sing, “Hey, Mister, That’s Me Up on the Jukebox!”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Notes – Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon and the Journey of a Generation by Sheila Weller was reviewed on this site on February 2, 2011 (“Women of Heart and Mind”).

Elizabeth Taylor was to say that, “People don’t like sustained success.”   Which is perhaps why, in 1970, George Harrison sold more records than either Paul McCartney or John Lennon.

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Another Day

a day in the life

A Day in the Life of the Beatles by Don McCullin (Rizzoli; $24.95; 143 pages)

This is a charming set of Beatles photographs taken in a single day about 6 months before what was to be their dissolution.   What we seem to see is a band of brothers, happy to be together.   Something else is that they are not the Beatles who were photographed to look as much like each other as possible.   Instead, what we see are four separate individuals – a prideful and content Paul, a wacky John, a contemplative George and a Ringo who looks like he’s tougher than the rest.   (Paul’s dog Martha makes a guest appearance.)

It’s a bittersweet collection as it represents the last time the band members would not look either exhausted or angry.   These were the boys enjoying the calm before the storm.   They also seemed to occasionally be making fun of their earlier stage-managed image; some of the poses reflect an overly playful – if not over-the-top – Monkees aura.

At $24.95, it’s a Rizzoli that will be a bit rich for some budgets, and it’s not essential when compared to the large, comprehensive Chronology book.   But the picture of Paul, on pages 122-123, appearing to sleep with a smile on his face while his best mates laugh is worth the money.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.   Note:  One article about this book noted that at one point the Beatles tried to buy the rights to this collection of photographs.   This raises two possibilities: either the band members loved the photos so much that they wanted to release them as an Apple book, or they disliked them so much that they wanted to ensure they would never be released to the world.   A fun aspect of reviewing the pics is trying to decide which possibility was the more likely one.

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Days Like These

Starting Over: The Making of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy by Ken Sharp (Gallery Books/VH1 Books; $26.99; 262 pages)

starting over book

“You don’t have to do it anymore.   You can exist outside of the music.”   Yoko Ono to John Lennon, 1975

“There’s only two artists that I’ve ever worked with for more than a one-night stand.   That’s Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, and I think that’s a pretty damned good choice!”   John Lennon, 1980

Before this, only one book took you inside the recording studio with The Beatles, and that was Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles by Geoff Emerick.   Emerick’s book explained the fascinating work performed by sound engineers such as that which led (in some small measure) to the success of the four moptops.   One of the disclosures in HT&E was that the recording sound process at Abbey Road always began with ensuring that Ringo’s drums would sound right and/or unique on each track. (Paul McCartney, who lived around the corner, was the individual who usually tuned the drums used by Ringo and Badfinger’s drummer.)

Now, with Ken Sharp’s book,  we go into the sound studios of New York City circa the winter of 1980, with former Beatle John Lennon, his wife Yoko Ono and a new band of hotshot musicians.   Lennon’s final album, Double Fantasy, would be recorded just weeks before his death (the single “Starting Over” was the track the public heard first), and would be well-crafted enough to preserve his legacy as a musical genius.

This was the happy-husband period for John Lennon who was pleased about everything, even the past:  “He never spoke about the Beatles in a negative way.   Ever.   He only said positive, affectionate things about them…  He was able to look back at their work and realize how great a band they were.”   (Andy Newmark, drummer)

And this was the John Lennon who filled his new album with what some viewed as recordings invading Paul McCartney’s well-marked territory – (silly or non-silly) love songs and songs of domestic harmony and bliss.   John was not at all apologetic about his new-found contentment:  “To work with your best friend is a joy and I don’t intend to stop it…  My best friend is my wife.   Who could ask for anything more?”

“…records do tend to either gain or lose aura as decades pass.   I would say Double Fantasy is one of the many excellent records that has gained a certain aura, glow, stature and presence.”   Robert Christgau

The participants interviewed for this book all display a sense of both bittersweet happiness and sorrow at having worked with John Lennon before his untimely death.   “I hadn’t listened to Double Fantasy in a long time.   I recently put it on and as soon as I started playing it, the tears welled up.   It was a real emotional experience for me.   There was a lot of joy doing that record…  When I hear the songs, I see John working on the tracks.   It’s the closing musical statement of his life and it’s filled with great songs.”   (Hugh McCracken, guitarist)

Well said, and this account is a well-written, detailed and loving tribute to someone who simply left us too soon.   Read this book and you will come to know and admire John Lennon’s honesty and his integrity.   By reading this book you’ll also come to discover the background stories of such great songs as “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” “(Just Like) Starting Over” and “Watching the Wheels”.

Think of Starting Over, the book, as the great lost album notes to the original vinyl release.   It will serve you well.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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All My Loving

mccartney-a-life

Paul McCartney: A Life by Peter Ames Carlin (Touchstone, $16.99, 384 pages)

“Take a sad song and make it better…”

Peter Ames Carlin wrote what was likely the second-best biography of Brian Wilson, Catch a Wave: The Rise, Fall and Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson.   It was very good but a bit dry in places, especially when compared to The Nearest Faraway Place by Timothy White.   White’s earlier biography masterfully blended the migration of the Wilson family from the Midwest to Torrance with the history of Southern California itself.   (The title referenced the phrase used by Brian’s mother whenever she wanted to escape to the not-so-close and not-too-far-away community of Ventura.)

This time Carlin has come closer to fashioning a definitive, lively and warmly human account of the man they call Macca in Great Britain.   More than half of this bio covers the story of the Fab Four, which seemed to have had its last good moment with John Lennon and Paul – just the two – recording The Ballad of John and Yoko.   Said Paul, “It always surprised me how with just the two of  us on it, it ended up sounding like the Beatles.”

This is far from a totally fawning tale of Sir Paul, and Carlin does well in picturing the band as a dysfunctional family.   In Carlin’s eyes, John was the wild husband, Paul the responsible mother figure trying to keep the family on track, George the often brooding and secretly rebellious son, and Ringo the “What, me worry?” older brother.   And yet…  Yet they all came to realize – in one way or another – that they had destroyed the household too soon.   The break-up came too early.

Carlin illustrates several times how much Paul came to miss John once he was suddenly gone:  “I really loved you and was glad you came along/and you were here today, for you were in my song.”   This is the Paul who was subsequently again destroyed by George Harrison’s untimely death:  “To me he’s just my little baby brother.   I loved him dearly.”

The one caution with Carlin is that you should certainly feel free to disagree with his musical judgments, as when he praises the disastrous – to this listener’s ears – remixes of the Beatles songs on albums like Yellow Submarine, 1s (Ones) and Love.   They’re louder and brasher, but not better nor true to the original recordings.   He also fails to understand the simple genius of the album called McCartney – which contained Maybe I’m Amazed, Every Night (the alternate version of You Never Give Me Your Money) and That Would Be Something.

But in the end, we see here a musician who carried on quite, quite well even after the loss of his two quasi-brothers and two wives (one by death, one through a bitter divorce).   If you love Paul McCartney, you will feel the same way about him once you’ve finished A Life.   If you’ve never much liked Beatle Paul, you may grudgingly make your way through this bio and find that he’s earned a bit of your respect.   “Take it away…”

Well recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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