History, Mystery, Music and Pop…

Random thoughts on books and events.

Category: book review

Andrew Hickey: The Beatles in Mono

This is one of the finest books on the Beatles I have read. In it, Andrew Hickey, has, with wit and insight, examined the Beatles’ re-releases and remastered songs. This means of course you don’t get a book as comprehensive as McDonald’s Revolution in the Head, but it has strengths that McDonald’s essential book lacks.

One of the things Hickey does is explain exactly why Ringo Starr is one of the great drummers. As he points out, the reason that the Beatles’ odd metrical songs work is due to the nuanced, subtle and skilled playing of Ringo. He is less complimentary on Ringo’s singing.

Hickey has an almost unrivaled knowledge of the recordings. He has a keen ear, and points out slips and errors that many have missed. For example, ‘Hey Jude’ should have been banned from airplay. Hickey tells you why, and, not just that, when you’ve heard it, you will never not hear it. I would add that the first voice in this incident, who he doesn’t identify, sounds to me like Eric Clapton, who was at some of the sessions (and who was conceivably part of the ‘na-na-na’ chorus). But I don’t know for sure.

Hickey also painstakingly points out the quiet genius of George Martin. More than anyone else, Martin was able to take the often vague arrangement ideas of Lennon or McCartney and actualise them. Hickey falls on the side of the pro-Spector side for Let It Be, explaining the tracks were substandard. Listening to Lennon’s bass on the song ‘Let it Be’, which I’d never done, demonstrates this amply.

Hickey is not blind to the faults of the Beatles. He dislikes every one of the Carl Perkins covers, and is not afraid to disparage a Lennon/McCartney composition. He praises though, where deserved, and will tell you why, say, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is great.

The book originated from a blog, but has, apparently, been substantially revised from its original form. Nonetheless, it has some of the best qualities of a good blog – discursive, entertaining, witty. But, some minor typos and literals aside, it is a proper book. If you are a Beatles fan, or a fan of pop music, it is an essential purchase.

You can get it here

Who I Am: Pete Townshend

Pete Townshend is one of the very few rock stars who can talk about making art without seeming ridiculous or pretentious. A highly literate and deeply intelligent man, Townshend’s compositions are among the most important of the rock genre, and the twentieth and twenty-first century. The Who, renowned for their destructive and energetic stage shows, set the template for many acts after, including Queen, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, The Sex Pistols. The Clash, Pearl Jam and Nirvana. Plus many others. Shaped by Townshend’s angry, funny, poignant and fun songs, and acerbic and loud guitar, led by the Wagnerian vocals of Roger Daltrey, and driven by the powerful rhythm section of John Entwhistle and Keith Moon, the Who were vital, important, and most of all, great.

Townshend asks the right question in this book. There are seemingly many Townshends: the arrogant, drunken, stoned rock star; the little boy starved for affection; the insecure artist; the family man; the alcoholic; the spiritual searcher, and follower of Meher Baba; and many others. Townshend tries to reconcile all of these. As other reviewers have said, Townshend is most critical of himself. A portrait of a damaged, yet vital man appears.

Townshend did not have a normal childhood. My reading of his childhood is of a man who has examined it many times, resolved some of it, but not really fully come to terms with it. There is an emotional distance. His parents’ troubled marriage (both are alcoholics, and that’s just the start) see him sent to his grandmother’s home. His grandmother is emotionally distant and (I think unintentionally) psychologically abusive. He does poorly at school, though makes some useful friends. Like many ne’er-do-wells of the time, (Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood), he goes to art school. He also learns harmonica, but soon realises the guitar is his instrument.

Art school turns his head around, and he eventually joins The Who, who become the High Numbers, who then become the Who again. Like nearly every rock biography, except Dylan’s Chronicles, there is not a lot of new information. What is new, though, is Townshend’s examination of his life. He has bled publicly for years, but this book it seems to me, is Townshend trying to distance himself, yet look closer. Townshend’s life was chaotic. Constant struggles with alcohol and drugs (was it Billy Connolly who once quipped that Pete Townshend was trying to quit God and get back to hard drugs?) leads to all kinds of personal problems. His first wife, Karen, comes across as a saint: Pete himself comes across as an arrogant, selfish drunk.

I found the chapters on his work with Faber fascinating. I had no idea he commissioned one of my favourite rock books: Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic. (I must check the acknowledgments again). He gained the respect of the literary elite in Britain – Ted Hughes, poet laureate, in particular. Yet he cannot get close to many, and his often self-destructive behaviour distances him from many.

As to the Who, he clearly is very proud – and with good reason. Distance has probably dimmed the grief he feels for the early death of Keith Moon: Townshend admits that Moon could be ‘a bit of a twat sometimes’. Roger Daltrey, sometimes friend, sometimes foe, comes across extremely well in Townshend’s eyes. The years have cemented a deep connection to the two, I suspect.

Keith Richards’ Life does not have the depth of analysis. Eric Clapton’s autobiography was light, and ultimately unrevealing. We are still waiting for McCartney’s, and Jagger’s memory and lack of enthusiasm for the project saw him return a large advance and along with it any chance of his view of things. Ray Davies’ is apparently excellent. Townshend tells us little about his times, but, with a bit of digging, plenty of his life. Whereas Richards plays up to his ‘rogue’ image, Townshend tries to explain his. Richards tends not to praise anyone. Townshend tends to seem more tolerant. (Townshend indeed gives the opposite view to Mick Jagger’s physical prowess to RIchards’ own description.)

So, who is Pete Townshend? As he states himself, most of his fans would claim to know him, but he ‘wasn’t quite real’. He also acknowledges (in a conversation he remembers with Eddie Vedder) that the public elect you to be a rock star, whether you want it or not. Townshend struggles with his public image and private man throughout the book. In his last chapter, he summarises himself, and quotes from the letter he wrote his eight-year-old self. He acknowledges his strengths and his weaknesses. I was most touched by this touching book by the appendix, in which he opens a fan letter from 1967. He concludes that although now he can recognise the love inherent in the letter, had he recognised it in 1967, his life would have been vastly different.

Fame, wealth, creativity and talent have come at a price to Pete Townshend. His rock star lifestyle has led him to make some bad choices. As a fan, I can’t claim to know the real Pete Townshend, but I can claim to have some insight with this book. He seems, at the end of the book, to be in a good place. I thank him for the Who, and I hope he can continue to find some peace and contentment. Most memoirs diminish the writer. This one enhances him, despite, or most likely because of, its tough and brutal approach on its subject.

Hot Wired Guitar: The Life of Jeff Beck by Martin Power

Jeff Beck is the consummate electric guitarist. No-one plays guitar like him: he regularly tops ‘Best Guitarist polls’, and his inventiveness, musicianship and sheer ability on the guitar is pretty much untouched. This very fine book is a record of Beck’s life. It has some flaws, but it raises some interesting questions. Martin Power has done a fine job in introducing the wider world to one of the more difficult characters.

Beck, like so many of the English Blues revival, grew up in the South of England (Surrey). He had a rather unremarkable childhood, though he was, apparently, somewhat of a chess adept. Power describes post-war Britain quite evocatively. Young Geoffrey Beck (he was to change the spelling later) was born towards the end of the war (1944, just after D-Day), to Arnold (an accountant) and Ethel Beck (a factory worker). Young Beck (the second child), fell in love with rockabilly – particularly the guitar playing of the elusive Cliff Gallup. A trip to the movies with his mother led to an abiding love for hot rods.

Beck’s brilliance is tempered by some bad luck, some bad decisions, some personal failings (or at least perceived personal failings…) and just sheer stubbornness. An early stint in the Yardbirds (after Eric Clapton had left in somewhat of an elitist snit) cemented Beck’s reputation as a great guitarist. After then, other guitar players, particularly Hendrix, inspired him to become more or less better. Beck pioneered Zeppelinesque groups (The original Jeff Beck group featured Ronnie Wood on bass and a young, highly talented Rod Stewart on vocals). He formed one of the great power trios (Beck, Bogert and Appice). He also did that rare thing: recorded an accessible fusion album (two, actually), and after a period (one of many) of inactivity and seeming irrevelance, returns to the scene with instrumental albums and lucrative guest spots.

Certainly, there’s a sense in which Beck should be better known: most casual music fans would know him as a great guitarist – some might even know his records. Yet, when it comes to great solos, very rarely does a Beck performance make the list. I suppose after the Hendrixes, Mays, Claptons, Van Halens, et cetera, no Beck piece is seen as iconic. It is somewhat of a cruel irony that Beck’s most famous song in the UK is ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’, a piece of pop that, while catchy, is not really representative of his work.

Power does suggest reasons why Beck isn’t more renowned. Let’s be fair though, he has managed to earn enough to live in a castle and sustain a hotrod collection. Yet, Beck can be difficult. Power documents Beck’s stubborn and at times, seemingly self destructive behaviour disinterestedly (not uninterestedly), and one wonders: what makes up such an artist? He is seemingly cavalier about equipment (at one time in the 60s, forgetting his guitar for a lead guitar session; another time he leaves a new Fender Stratocaster in the back of his pickup, and is surprised when it’s gone when he comes out). He uses few effects, suggesting the maxim that 90% of your tone is based on your fingers is correct.

Beck was a headache to his bandmates (the Yardbirds collapsed in part because of what they saw as his unreliablility and what he claimed was illness); a nightmare for producers (he and George Martin argued over the direction of the second album they did together); a pain for other artists. Yet, the seeming bad luck that plagued his career has not helped. Nile Rodgers can’t focus on Beck as he is focussing on his own career, leaving a disjointed and unfulfilling album (many of Beck’s albums have been described this way). Mickey Most forces him into a brief career as a pop singer, despite Beck hating pop and singing. BBA break up. Beck sustains a car accident which puts him out of action for months. Jimi Hendrix appears….

Power relates all this: sometimes it’s a little too hagiographic, but on the whole it’s pretty evenhanded. What Power doesn’t say, but what became clear to me is that Beck seems to have had, more or less, the musical progression that Hendrix might have followed. In pushing the electric guitar to its limit, Beck has shown what a diverse, and marvellous instrument it is. Power rightly points out ‘Where Were You?’ as Beck’s highlight (though it’s possible that his version of Nessun Dorma is just as important.). ‘Where Were You?’ utilises the tremolo bar in such a way that it becomes much less of a flashy gimmick and far more a tool for deep musical expression.

Jeff Beck’s odd career is paradoxical: most people who followed his lead would find themselves out of the industry. Yet he has managed to maintain a 45 year career with the deep respect and regard of his colleagues. I suppose that when one has such a unique approach, the industry can sustain a little bit of true rock star behaviour. Power’s book is a worthwhile and enjoyable addition to the literature of rock music.

Queen: the complete works, by Georg Purvis

One of the greatest concerts I had the good fortune to see was Queen, with Freddie, at the Sydney Entertainment Centre – my first international rock concert. And, yes, it was incredible. I still (some *numbers redacted* years later) use it as the benchmark for concerts I’ve seen since. I loved (and still love) Queen’s oeuvre: from the bold statement that makes the first eponymous album, through the glory which is Queen II, the stripped back (? really?) Sheer Heart Attack, the magnificent Night at the Opera, the underrated (but not by fans) Day at the Races… And on…. I knew all the songs, by heart, all vocal parts, and could sing along with guitar, bass, drums and keys… I’m too young to have bought all except those albums from The Works onwards on release. This diversion is meant, in some way, to show my especial qualification to critique the very well done indeed book, Queen: The Complete Works

Purvis has listened to and examined every recorded track that the members of Queen participated on: from their early bands, right through to the various solo projects (both during the original quartet’s run, and after Freddie’s death). This is no mean feat: the music of Queen is superficially inconsequential – fist pumping arena rock, metal, some synth pop, some ballads. ‘Superficially, in that the music and lyrics often betray a depth and complexity which are as elusive to discover as they are rewarding on their discovery. Purvis digs deep into the stories around the music, and a revealing biography of the band appears. Purvis actually finds the story of the band, in a perceptive and almost unconcious way. (Like the band, the book is full of seeming contradictions. This is a good thing.) He examines singles, albums, live concerts, videos, in a probing and intelligent fashion

When you think about it, there are very few bands or artists who really warrant the type of attention that this type of book requires. The Beatles have been well served by Ian McLachlan’s Revolution in the Head. Clinton Heylin’s examination of Dylan’s songs Revolution in the Air is as definitive, if not more so. There is a poor one on the Rolling Stones I have lying around somewhere (and the Stones deserve better, even if you finish with Tattoo You). David Bowie has had one done (rightly). A study like this would be an excellent companion piece to Charles Shaar Murray’s definitive book on Hendrix, Crosstown Traffic. Perhaps Michael Jackson could sustain one. Zappa seems to disqualify himself from a complete works, just from the sheer impossibility of it. Prince would seem to be a candidate. Jethro Tull would as well. Perhaps some of the more progressive bands: Rush, Dream Theatre. Metallica? Slayer? Megadeth? Perhaps. The articles at The Band’s website should be collated and put into a book (Declaration: I actually wrote one of them, but the majority were written by Peter Viney. Others though have also contributed.) Possibly Elvis? Maybe early Elton John (say, up to Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy, certainly: after then, Elton gets a bit patchy..). Velvet Underground? Radiohead: certainly. REM? U2? I’m not sure… Other suggestions of course always welcome.

Heylin actually traces the development of Dylan’s songwriting, but Purvis is closer to Mclachlan. The main difference between McLachlan’s approach and Purvis’s approach is of course the nature of each band. Whereas the Beatles were longstanding friends who grew up and matured in each others company, and who were a tight-knit, protective circle, Queen were not quite like this. Queen formed later in life: all members had been in less successful bands: May and Taylor had been in Smile, Freddie had been in Wreckage, and John Deacon had been in several groups.

By the time Queen had coalesced, they had passed that age where young men naturally hang in a pack – while close friends, they were a business entity. They learned some harsh lessons about the business (mostly thanks to the Sheffield brothers, and, in a personal slump, with new management, pulled their masterpiece Night at the Opera out of the air – and powered by the unlikely, yet in retrospect, unquestionable, classic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the band moved in to real, sustainable superstardom. Changes of direction followed, and the story of their ‘death’ and ‘resurrection’ – Freddie’s encoded, yet obvious homosexual appearance; the difficult and uneven album Hot Space, the ill advised and politically mishandled trip to South Africa, and the release of the ‘I Want to Break Free’ video: showing the band in drag, turning the American audience off. This is all redeemed by the iconic and incredible ‘Live Aid’ performance, in which Queen stole the day (watching it as a teenager, I remember feeling quite sorry for the act who followed). Of course, the return to success is tempered by Freddie’s death from AIDS (long rumoured, there was no announcement until the day before he died).

Purvis sheds new light on these, and also introduces new perspectives. Queen of course open up new markets in South America (having been shabbily treated in Australia at the Sunbury festival, they only visited as a band once after 1972, well into the 1980s). And of course, the Queen back catalogue always sells. Queen’s Greatest Hits collection is second only to the Eagles greatest hits in terms of sales. Queen struggle to change and develop with the fans (although they do much interesting stuff as they grow: their later stuff seems to me to be as well-crafted and creative as their early efforts. (I must admit, I prefer the early efforts, but there are some magic moments.))

Purvis has robust and firm opinions. Most of them I agree with: those I don’t are subjective, so I’m not going to argue with him. (I will say I thought the Miracle was their worst album, which Purvis seems to say as well). Purvis shows a band which is professional, unified (if not united) and always willing to push its own boundaries. It is a band with four exceptionally talented and highly intelligent men, driving the band to where they believe the band is best served. The background and personality of the four are slowly revealed: but Purvis avoids the tabloid revelations which might have marred such a work (the marriage breakups, Freddie’s Farsi background and personal life, the children etc are not ignored, but only mentioned in context of albums and songs).

A couple of things might have improved the book. A bit more musical analysis would have helped. (one of the things I really like about McLachlan is his index of songs, which has not only the page number they appear on, but the original key they were written in.) To take Bohemian Rhapsody, for example, there’s a real sense of recontextualised rock and roll, as well as an Italian opera. I assume the licensing for pictures was too expensive, explaining lack of pictures To be fair, there’s not exactly a lack of photos of Queen. I suspect there are minor recordings which are missing, and my setlist of the Australian show differs slightly from Purvis’. (Mine of course, was done in an adrenaline-filled rush the day after, as I relived as much of the concert as I could remember. So I might be wrong.)

These are minor issues in a marvellous book. You can read it as a narrative, use it as a research tool (maybe even a definitive one) or, best of all, browse through it. If you are a fan of the band, a fan of popular music, or even of pop culture, I would recommend this.