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“BUT I WAS SO MUCH OLDER THEN” - DEN BROWNE'S SEPTEMBER ROUND UP
Johnny Rogan - Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless, volume 1 (Random House/Omnibus)
Zoe Howe - Florence + the Machine: an Almighty Sound (Omnibus pbk)
David Buckley - Kraftwerk: Publikation (Omnibus)
Bill Sykes - Sit Down! Listen To This!: The Roger Eagle Story (Empire Pubns)
Shaun Ryder - Twisting My Melon (Kindle edn)
Its been a busy month for books here - at last I'm coming out of the Reading Dungeon, but not for long, there's always more. So straight to business...
Johnny Rogan - Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless: The heavyweight prize this month is a 'no-brainer', Johnny Rogan’s “Byrds: Requiem for the Timeless” - weighing in at nearly a kilo - and worth every ounce of it. Johnny Rogan's becoming something of a regular here, making a quick return after the recent updated "Smiths: Severed Alliance" (reviewed here last time). He'll soon have a shelf to himself in the Mudkiss Library. This book brings together his earlier “Timeless Flight” writings on the Byrds, with added new material and the most massively annotated research section I've ever come across. There’s also a seriously in-depth discography, and some rather cool pics. There's never any secret that the author loves the group and their music. There’s a place for detached impartiality, but committed fandom counts too - and the author’s never shy of dealing with the many personal and musical “issues” with the group. I share his opinion that for all the billions of plays and sales of songs like “Mr Tambourine Man“, the Byrds don't really get the recognition they deserve now. How many other groups virtually invented Folk Rock, made some of the greatest music of the Sixties (usually in single format), combined “raga rock” with free jazz influences like Coltrane, pioneered Country Rock - not forgetting the occasional side-trip into sci-fi and space music? While it’s just about compulsory for any indie group to name check the Velvet Underground, the Byrds - especially their combination of smooth harmonies and unsettling lyrics - are just as important as influences. Anyone can like the Beatles, but I know which 1967 album I'd rather hear today out of “Sergeant Pepper” and “Younger Than Yesterday“.
The greatest strength of this book is in the relationship the writer’s built up with the group members over the years. This is all first-hand material, and it’s fascinating to read their differing versions of What Really Happened. The book shows how ego, greed and drugs can erode any creative energy and integrity that haven't already been destroyed by turning a buck for the Biz. For all their talents, most of the group seemed to have possessed a big Self Destruct button when it came to relationships or sustaining a career. In addition, they’re all highly articulate, and at times hyper-sensitive guys with plenty to say. Jim McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby are always handy with anecdote and opinion (just don't expect them to agree on much!), along with other major players like manager/Svengali Bob Dickson. Chris Hillman’s views on the Gram Parsons paradox - rich kid waster and Rolling Stones wannabe, one of the original Cosmic Cowboys - are especially revealing.
There's a beautiful little passage that crystallises the atmosphere, detail and perceptiveness of the book, where the author describes the aftermath of a very un-Peace & Love 1967 photo shoot which ended in a band punch-up: " In many ways the beach saga enshrined the Byrds' myth in microcosm: Crosby's passion &and petulance; [Gene] Clark's moral indecision and uncertainty about his role; Dickson's creative vision, blurred by frustration and anger; McGuinn, coldly observing events and disguising his feelings; Hillman absenting himself from the action; Clarke stumbling into conflicts that he barely understood. With so many disparate personalities and conflicting points of view, it was a miracle that the Byrds ever recorded their second album." The book’s also strong on the back-story and context, such as the differences between the LA and San Francisco groups usually lumped together as the ‘West Coast sound‘, and takes in the bigger picture of how the scene changed during the Byrds time, plus a great supporting cast of 60's heavyweights like Dylan, the Stones and the Beatles.
Zoe Howe - Florence + the Machine: an Almighty Sound: Zoe Howe is a Mudkiss regular, and has got to be one of the most prolific writers around. It seems like only the other day I was reading the very tasty Wilco Johnson book, and now here's another, tracing the ongoing ascent of Florence Welch and her associated ’machinery’. Where most of the books here are mainly looking back, this one's very much about the present and looking forward. It’s distinguished by a real breathless immediacy as Zoe Howe traces the ascent of Florence Welch + the Machine over the last few years. Where I'd imagined her as a rather pre-Raphaelite, ethereal/mysterious type like Kate Bush, Siouxsie or Elisabeth Fraser - or Bat for Lashes, more recently, maybe - she comes across as more of a hard-nosed, ambitious singer like Annie Lennox - but also one with a wicked sense of fun and humour, who doesn't always take herself too seriously (Bat For Lashes take note). With a strong support network of family and friends, she’s been able to handle the rapid ascent of her career better than the many disposable TV-reared singers around now.
The book also reminded me that she's been around longer than I'd thought - being one of those who lost out in the Speech Debelle fiasco at the 2007 Mercury Prize awards She’s lasted longer and seen off plenty of the competition in that time. Since then the music biz has been hurling more and more women singers of every shape, style and persuasion at us in the hope that something'll stick. Among the latest contenders are Emelie Sande, Ren Harvieu, Imelda May, Janelle Monae and many more. It’s hard to keep up with the turnover at times - will Kate Nash and Lily Allen be able to pick up where they left off, or will they go the way of Duffy and Ms Debelle? Meanwhile an aristocracy of Adele, Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry rides the corporate machine as it drives on remorselessly. Even Charlotte Church wants to be a full-on Rock Chick now (stop laughing at the back...)
A lot's happened since her early days building a following on XFM. I've lost a bet along the way that the Machine would have been dispensed with by now. While many of her contemporaries and rivals are pure product, she's got the voice, ambition and personality to transcend the innate disposability of the scene. Watching her at one of the recent festivals, there was a sense of an artiste at the crossroads. She has strong connections to the fashion and design worlds, no surprise given her own artistic background, and then there’s always the film world. For the story so far, this book is the real deal, taking in the full story of Florence’s ascent, with many nice little touches along the way, like stepping outside the world of music biz media control for regular input from fans. the book stands as a fascinating screen-grab of a career heading for the next level.
David Buckley - Kraftwerk: Publikation: Unlike the Byrds, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, the main players in Kraftwerk declined involvement in David Buckley's "Kraftwerk Publikation". That's a pity, but hardly surprising given their reclusive reputation, and the mystique that's been cultivated around the group. Given the huge influence their music has had across most of the musical spectrum, there's a fascinating story to be told, and David Buckley - an English writer based in Berlin - has done a really good job in getting most of the group's former members to talk to him, along with key players on the scene like producer Conny Plank. Apart from talking to Kraftwerk people like Wolfgang Flur, Karl Bartos and Michael Rother, the other interviewees demonstrate the breadth of the author's research, taking in diverse people like Afrika Bambaataa, Peter Savile, Jon savage and groups like OMD and Human League, to name a few.
Most people's introduction to the group came with hearing “Autobahn” for the first time, or seeing their legendary “Tomorrow’s World” appearance in ‘75, besuited, playing bacofoil syndrums, and explaining to a puzzled presenter how ultimately they wanted to make a jacket that could be played like a musical instrument. They seemed to have arrived almost out of nowhere, with their own sound, theory and aesthetic. They didn't even bear much resemblance to the sort of music that passed for electronic(influenced) in the UK, or anything like the intense psychedelic sounds made by groups like Can and Ash Ra Tempel earlier in the decade.
The book's very strong in placing Kraftwerk in the context of the late 60's/70's scene that produced groups like Harmonia, Neu & Kluster, who were also to have significant impact outside Germany. There are some really interesting stories about Eno's early explorations of the scene, and the making of Bowie's Berlin albums. Having established the group's avant-garde roots and context, and shows how by the end of the decade they were already changing music with their massive input in the early hip hop, Detroit techno and electro scenes. However between ‘81 and ‘03 they were only to release one album due to their unwillingness to tour, while their Kling Klang studio became increasingly cluttered with hi-spec bicycles and cycling gear. It's a really nicely written book, inspired by love of their music, but with a quirky, humorous touch that nicely balances the serious intellectual/"High culture" side of the group's outlook. There are some excellent colour and b/w photos that enhance the book's rather stylish lay-out, and even an index, praise be!
Bill Sykes - Sit Down! Listen To This!: The Roger Eagle Story: is just the kind of book we really love here, going into deep detail about Roger Earl and the Manchester live music scenes, styles and clubs, and of course set in Mudkiss‘ North western spiritual heartland. In many ways the book reminds me of the excellent trilogy by Tony Beesley about the punk scene in and around Sheffield - lots of insider anecdotes, some superb photos, and a real fan's attention to detail. Roger Eagle had a fascinating career, mainly as a club DJ/promoter, along with a variety of activities on the fringes of the music biz. His motivation was always a passionate love of music, especially original blues & r'n'b, roots reggae & classic Soul. Unlike the more commercially minded entrepreneurs who usually cleaned up and made their money in his wake, his main motivation really does seem to have been his passion to spread the word and turn people on to the music he loved so much. Always more of an idealist than businessman, there's a recurring thread thru the story of his enterprises going bust (usually to the detriment of his business partner at the time), and other people taking his ideas and turning them into more profit-oriented ventures.
Author Bill Sykes was an associate and friend of Roger Eagle - though not blind to the man's faults - and is ideally placed to speak to the people who mattered. It's an extraordinary story, starting in the black and white world of the early 60's with the Twisted Wheel club in Manchester. Generally once a scene started to go mainstream, he'd move on. Next came the hippy trippy Magic Village, and then stadium promotions in Liverpool. The next phase, Eric's in early 80s Liverpool, is one of the highlights of the book, with some fascinating supporting characters like Jayne Casey, Bill Drummond, and Will Sergeant, evoking the Teardrops/Wah/Bunnymen era really powerfully. There are cameo appearances too from familiar faces like Tony Wilson, Mick Hucknall (founder of the great Blood & Fire label, never mind Simply Red). In addition there are plenty of original photos, plus repros of fliers, tickets and press cuttings which add to the atmosphere of the story and catch the feel of changing times. And just in case there's any doubt, Mudkiss editor Melanie Smith was an Eric's regular, and testifies to the man's generosity and unfailing commitment to good times.
Shaun Ryder - Twisting My Melon: Meanwhile, an honourable mention for Shaun Ryder’s “Twisting My Melon”. I got it as a light bedtime read on the kindle, and wasn’t expecting much from it beyond a trawl through familiar territory. I was never big into the Mondays or Black Grape, but I’ve got to say its a really good read - the only surprise is that they made ANY music in-between the adventures, addictions and bust-ups! Again, we’re back in the Hacienda Club/Factory records era, but the old stories have a different angle here. He really conveys the atmosphere of the exciting and unsettling period in the late 80's/early 90's when the rave scene took off, and the effects it had - first on the music scene, and then in panicking Thatcher's government into blatant repression. There are perceptive insights and stories of the major players like Tony Wilson, the New Order/Joy Division faction, &and successors like Ian Brown. The man himself comes across as very honest - often to his own detriment - and how he achieved the hard-earned awareness that means he’s still here, living his life & loving his family rather than being another rock star burnout casualty.
Right, I’m off to the opticians for some new night-vision reading glasses, or maybe see if there’s a USB that can download direct to my subconscious. The next lot of books are already jostling for space, so see y’all here next time.
Reviews by Den Browne