Henry Scott-Irvine: The Ghosts of ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ - With “A Whiter Shade of Pale” Procol Harum probably have one of the best known/most covered/eternally reissued songs on the planet, up there in the stratosphere with chart-transcending tunes like “My Way” and “White Christmas“. The group were far from one-hit wonders though, and racked up a series of great singles and powerful, imaginative albums from the 60’s onwards. But there’s an inescapable feeling that they should have a higher profile - especially in the UK - where they’re often consigned to the patronising “national treasure” category. This book goes a good way to correcting this, taking a year-by-year approach to their story, recounting the changes in personnel, albums, tours and much more besides.
Author Henry Scott-Irvine is uniquely placed to do this, having been friends with singer/composer Gary Brooker and lyricist Keith Reid since 1979, and involved in much Procol Harum-related activity over recent years. Most music books are (more or less) skilfully assembled cuttings and research jobs, so it makes a change to read something that’s inspired by a passionate love of the group’s music and a desire to spread the word, especially about some of their less well-known material. I’m not quite as enthused with all things Procol as the author, but it’s still a very good story, related with real knowledge and insight.
The early Southend mid-60’s days are beautifully evoked - the high water mark of the Beat Group era - where Gary Brooker’s mod-styled R&B band the Paramounts ruled the seafront world of café and club gigs. They toured with people like the Stones, developed a real following, and often threatened the charts. In Brooker they had one of the best singers of his generation (or since), with a voice that could handle soul, rock, ballads, whatever was required. What held them back at this stage was their reliance on covering US sounds - and of course the whole scene was about to undergo a huge change as the decade went day-glo, instantly sidelining any groups who couldn’t come up with their own material. All that changed when Keith Reid got involved as non-performing lyric writer for the group, like Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead) or Bernie Taupin with Elton John. There are many fascinating conversations and insights with Keith Reid - clearly a man who doesn’t tolerate fools etc - which probably wouldn’t have occurred with another author. He doesn’t duck answering the inevitable “So what’s ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’ all about then?” question for the billionth time - with interesting results - and even provides a couple of additional verses that give a little more detail to the song.
After the initial global success of “That Song” they came up with fine albums like “Shine On Brightly” and “A Salty Dog“, while spending more and more time touring the US and beyond (or that was how it looked at the time). It’s one of my few criticisms of the book that as cumulative evidence mounts, chapter by chapter, of Procol Harum’s quality and ability, I wanted more of an extended overview of why weren’t they absolutely Pink Floyd-style mega successful, during an era where journeymen like Supertramp and ELO were raking in the bucks. Management? Record company?
Despite his friendship and involvement with the group, this isn’t an uncritical fan job, and Henry Scott-Irvine doesn’t duck some of the awkward moments that are inevitable when guys are around each other for 40-odd years. As main writers, Gary Brooker and Keith Reid were a on a different financial level to the rest of the group (see also Pete Townshend, as main composer of the Who’s output). This led to various comings and goings and festering resentments, although the core players like Chris Copping or legendary drummer BJ Wilson always seemed to come back in the end. All this culminated in a sad and prolonged court case, reminiscent of the Sex Pistols and Smiths hearings - where founder/organist Matthew Fisher tried to claim a share of the “Whiter Shade of Pale” income and royalties. In addition, there are some nice extras from diverse Procol Harum fanatics like writer Sebastian Faulks, and film directors Martin Scorcese and Alan Parker. There’s also a generous amount of b/w and colour photos which enhance the telling of the story. All in all, the book does a great job of unravelling the group’s transit from the mid-60’s to the present day, especially the double-edged blessing or curse of always being associated with and defined by their first single, and in so doing presents a strong case that Procol Harum should have a lot more status than some of their luckier contemporaries (fill in as applicable!)
Pete Townshend: “Who I Am” - Pete Townshend’s never been short of a word or two, or wearing his heart - and just about everything else - on his sleeve. Initially I was put off by the sheer size of the book (over 500 pages), but was intrigued to find that it’s all his own work and started to read… I’m glad I did, as the book tells both Pete Townshend’s own personal story and the Who history with fascinating detail and insight.
I loved the Who as a teenager (first gig I went to) and the early chapters here are wonderful, as he evokes 60’s West London, the Mod Scene and characters like DJ/producer Guy Stevens, early meetings with Roger Daltrey, and forming a group playing mainly Tamla/soul covers. Once Keith Moon came in on drums, the Who were on their way (while Gary Brooker & the Paramounts were morphing into Procol Harum - one of several Townshend/Brooker connections over the years). That’s all preceded by some serious introspective analysis about his childhood, some chaotic and abusive situations he endured, and speculation about how it’s affected him, which all comes into sharp focus later in the book.
He writes very sensitively about the deaths of Keith Moon and John Entwistle, and is very perceptive about the relationships in and around the group, as wealth and success lead them far from home and roots. There are some great in-depth stories of the early hits and albums, like “A Quick One” and “Who Sell Out“, which are a must for any Who fan. And naturally there’s a serious extended exposition of works like “Tommy“, “Quadrophenia” (or ’Son of Tommy’ imho) as well as the real Rock God albums like “Who’s Next” and “Live at Leeds” which propelled them to mega stardom in the US.
There’s also the best description I’ve read yet of the aborted “Lifehouse” project (which anticipated the internet by 30 years), an ambitious folly that foundered in Old Vic theatre workshops attended by puzzled Who fans who thought they going to hear the group playing their new single. In addition to the material here, there are web links throughout the book for anyone who wants even fuller information. No-one’s ever going to accuse Pete Townshend of false modesty, but equally there’s no tougher, more unforgiving critic of him than the man himself, especially over issues like his marriage, family, drink and drug use, and how he treats other people in general.
The story unfolds like a vast novel as the years go by, taking in all his solo and non-Who activities as well, and in the end it’s impossible not to warm to the man for his candour, imagination and sustained creativity. We certainly shouldn’t begrudge him the evident pleasure he takes in buying stuff (houses, boats, recording studios occur at regular intervals). Earlier today I enjoyed seeing a cheerful and mellow Daltrey and Townshend joshing together on TV as they announced the UK leg of their “Quadrophenia” tour. Logging on for more info, the first thing I read was a comment along the lines of “Why’s he any different to Jimmy Savile?” - this is an issue that clearly won’t go away, and one that he doesn‘t sidestep or avoid. Presumably whoever posted that comment isn’t likely to read this book, but for me, Pete Townshend gives a typically honest account of what happened and his own naivety at the time when following leads on a story about child prostitution in Mafia-controlled bogus Russian orphanages. Like the Procol Harum book, there are some really good photo sections as well. Don’t be put off by the size, this is a really well-written and original account of Pete Townshend’s life and work.
Victor Bockris: Keith Richards - The Unauthorised Biography - Victor Bockris is near brand-name status for writing about cool stuff, generally with a New York connection, with a CV including books on the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, William Burroughs, Patti Smith, John Cale, Blondie, Bebe Buell and Andy Warhol. This book first came out ten years ago, but due to the huge success of Keith Richards’ own book in 2011 and the continuing refusal of the Rolling Stones to quietly depart the stage, it’s now been updated to take in the events, tours, albums and hits packages since then. Victor Bockris first interviewed Keith Richards in 1977 immediately after the Toronto heroin bust and is well-placed to tell the subsequent story. Trawling books and magazine interviews, and talking to members of the Stones’ extended entourage, he describes how “the most elegantly wasted man on the planet” (as he was known) saw off everyone who’d expect him to OD before the Seventies were out, and made the transition to the universally respected and loved figure he is today. Although a lot of the book is concerned inevitably with the tales of addiction, excess and scrapes with the law, what comes through strongest by the end is the sheer obsessive intensity of Richards’ commitment to the music above all else. As well as detailed insights into the Stones’ recording and writing processes, the author writes very perceptively about the relationships in and around the group, especially the “Odd Couple” bond between Jagger and Richards.
Once again, some deftly selected photos convey the many changes, both for Keith Richards and all of us, since those black-and-white days in the early Sixties when he first spotted the blues albums under Jagger’s arm as they waited for a train at Dartford. Other people can claim to have made better or more original music, or sold more records than the Stones, but no-one can compete with them in terms of back-story, and Victor Bockris is the ideal chronicler when it comes to rock’n’roll history.
Ben Edmonds: “Kill City” - Insomnia and some cold nights have led to a fair amount of Kindle duty recently. The format’s still developing, but it’s an absolutely ideal medium for writing that’s too long for a magazine but not really book-length. Former “Creem” editor Bob Edmond’s “Kill City” title started out in the “Sleeve Notes” series. Here it’s been expanded into a very readable account of the album‘s origins, the author’s involvement in getting the album started and recorded, arranging Iggy’s releases from rehab, and much more. “Kill City” is a really crucial album in the story of Iggy & the Stooges, having been abandoned in 1975 due to general drug and alcohol insanity, culminating in Iggy’s spell in a psychiatric clinic before David Bowie came to the rescue. Having made an astonishing rise from the ashes with “The Idiot” and “Lust for Life” in 1977, Iggy then resurrected the old “Kill City” songs with guitarist James Williamson to make the last album credited to the original Stooges line up. The project suffered from some of the production issues and lost-tape dramas that bedevilled other 70’s albums like “Raw Power” or the Heartbreakers’ “LAMF”. There’s now a definitive remixed version (as recounted here), and this guide should have anyone scurrying to get hold of it. Iggy might be an avuncular old dude selling insurance and doing the festival circuit these days, but this catches him right on the edge, from the lyrics of the title track “Kill City … it’s a playground for the rich, but it’s a loaded gun for me” to other stunning songs like “I Got Nothing” and “Johanna“. Ben Edmonds has a real feel for the Stooges and the intensity of their 70’s musical firestorm, and is also very astute about Iggy’s trump card/secret weapon - his ability to slow it down and do deep but damaged ballads a la Jim Morrison as well as crazed rocking out.
JMR Higgs: KLF - Chaos Magic Music Money There’ve been whispers recently of unsourced KLF material appearing online again. Famously they broke up and deleted their entire back catalogue at the peak of their success. This certainly isn’t a straightforward history of the group. KLF always had a very sharp sense of how to play the media, reaching a climax with the burning of £1M on a remote Scottish island. Opinions have been divided ever since, & seems to have had a serious psychological impact on Bill Drummond & Jimmy Cauty ever since. Initially they claimed not to know why they did it, with the film as a kind of document/aide-memoire. In fact it generated mainly hostile reactions and was quickly and quietly shelved.
Author John Higgs’ previous work “I Have America Surrounded - the Life of Tim Leary” examined the 60s/70s psychedelic scene & its evolution thru the life & career of Tim Leary of tune in turn on fame. It’s a really good read & avoids the clichés & lazy assumptions of so much 60s nostalgia. He applies the same inquisitive free-roaming approach in his approach to the KLF, and looking at some of the non-mainstream art life & thought movements of the 20th century. I thought I knew my Situationists from my Lettristes, but there’s all kindsa stuff here - some familiar, like Dada and surrealism to seriously strange stuff like Discordianism, the origins of the Justified Ancients of Mummu and the Illuminati. Along the way there’s time for Alan Moore, Ken Campbell, Dr Who, Julian Cope, Zoo Records, sampling culture, and the evolution of punk to the rave scene, as well as timely excursions into the nature of money and where does “interest” come from?
This is as far from a conventional band biography as you’ll get, but along with all the theory and weirdness, John Higgs does a great job in capturing the effect of KLF obliterating “Top of the Pops” and the chart competition with their mix of Viking ships, dance beats, heavenly choirs - and Tammy Wynette! This was a group who could balance their subversive ideology with massive sales and mainstream media presence (see the Mercury Prize/dead sheep episode, or the Whitbread Prize stunt - a precursor to The Burning) - not some obscure act in “The Wire”.
Whether this was an art happening, a media stunt, or a contemporary alchemical ritual of purification, it’s a great story - and one which isn’t over by any means. Fortunately this edition is attracting interest from publishers, so look out for a book-format edition later in the year.
Read on, dream on … see you all next time!
Reviews by Den Browne 02/02/13