Bobby Keys: Every Night’s a Saturday Night - The rock’n’roll life of legendary sax man Bobby Keys (Omnibus)
Mick O’Shea: The Anarchy Tour (Omnibus)
Al Fingers: Clarks in Jamaica (One Love)
Pat Long: History of the NME - High Times and Low Lives at the World’s Most Famous Music Magazine (Portico/Amazon Kindle edn)
Teddie Dahlin: A Vicious Love Story (New Haven Publishing)
Scott Gorham & Harry Doherty: Thin Lizzy: The Boys Are Back In Town (Omnibus)
Tony Fletcher: Perfect Circle: A biography of R.E.M (Omnibus)
Den kicks his reviews off with a bit of rock n’ roll, and the sax player Bobby Keys, heads into some anarchy with the Pistols tour, then gets hooked on Clarks shoes…believe it or not, culminating in the history of the most famous of music newspapers the NME.
Bobby Keys: Every Night’s a Saturday Night - The rock’n’roll life of legendary sax man Bobby Keys
Reading Bobby Keys’ “Every Night’s a Saturday Night” has been really therapeutic this last freezing week. The book oozes a down-home Southern Comfort warm vibe, as the sax-man recounts a very funky journey from deepest Texas to the peak of the rock’n’roll dream. I’m guessing that it’s transcribed from interviews with co-author Bill Ditehhafer, given the book’s colloquial feel. It’s basically Bobby Keys - with occasional contributions from other musical mates - pulling up a chair on the porch and telling his stories. He takes us from 1950’s Lubbock, Texas and early encounters with Buddy Holly and the Crickets playing on a flatbed truck, through teen years sneaking out the bedroom window to catch hot blues men like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters playing the local clubs. At the time he didn’t know that across the Atlantic a million suburban kids like me were being turned on to this stuff by the Rolling Stones, and now our Beatles singles were giving way to r&b albums on the Chess label. By the time the scene came back home to the US, Keys was making his name as a hot young rock’n’roll sax player. Early meetings between Keys and the Stones on their first US tours led to friendships with Brian Jones and Keith Richards, but little musical impact, due to the lack of brass on early Stones’ sounds
All that had changed a few years later. By then the Stones were elevated to Rock god status, surrounded by an atmosphere of decadence and defiance to the authorities. By then Bobby Keys had graduated to playing with Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, highly rated at the time as showing a way back to authentic rootsy music (as with the Band) and away from the dead-end of plodding guitar rock and prog. Hanging out with people like Leon Russell would stand him in good stead in later years, with many Joe Cocker tours and sessions in Stones’ down-time. As the atmosphere around Delaney became decidedly less “Friend-ly” and more a case of boss and hired hands, Keys moved on to the sound that would define the rest of his life and career from then on (while the remainder of the group voted with their feet and became Derek and the Dominos with Eric Clapton)..
Contributing sax solos (and bringing trumpeter Jim Price with him as a mini-Memphis Horns) to tracks like “Brown Sugar“, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and “Bitch” on the “Sticky Fingers” album took him into another world. Suddenly the Stones’ musical and atmospheric palette had been gloriously enhanced as these two Southern dudes proved that brass can be as essential to rock’n’roll as the electric guitar. After that it was rock star heaven for the next few years, best buddies with Keef, recording the stunning “Exile on Main Street” set in France - the author doesn’t hold back on describing the sheer joy of being on top of your game, young, rich, stoned and fit, with Europe as your playground and the best soundtrack in town to keep you company - and you certainly don’t begrudge him a moment of it…Naturally such intensity can’t be maintained long-term, and Bobby Keys wasn’t the first casualty who’d flown too close to the sun during his high times with the group. He certainly lasted longer than Gram Parsons or some of the other high-profile Stones’ casualties in trying to keep up in Keith Richards’ slipstream. However by the mid-70’s his enjoyment of a drink and a joint had hardened into serious drug and alcohol problems. Stepping off the merry-go-round (for the sake of his own survival) leads to some of the most interesting writing in the book - until then there’s been a fairly star-struck view of the Stones, but Bobby Keys found out the hard way about the rule that, as with the Mafia, “No-one leaves the Stones of their own accord - and don’t expect to come back later”. For a while even Keith Richards blanked him, and his always tenuous relationship with Jagger froze over completely. As a hired hand, paid per tour or session, life outside the Stones’ protective entourage soon became tough as he fought the battle to get clean while earning enough to support his family. Luckily his musical chops and his old mates come together and see him thru to where he is today - a maximum respect musician and man - and there’s even been a rapprochement with the Stones.
It’s a good tale well-told, with an easy colloquial flow to the narrative. Keys comes over as an honest, funny guy who never sells himself short but is just as capable of being ruthlessly honest about his failings. He writes with real passion about horn-playing - emphasizing that he’s totally a rock’n’roll musician despite the jazz & soul connections of the instrument - but without any muso overkill. If in doubt head for “Sticky Fingers” or “Exile”…
Mick O’Shea: The Anarchy Tour
“The past is another country” as LP Hartley observed in “The Go-Between” (1947) and that phrase came to mind repeatedly when reading “The Anarchy Tour” by Mick O’Shea, with its echoing Rotten-cry “I thought it was the UK/ Or just another country”. The book does a great job of evoking the divided, strike-ridden, damp, cold, paranoid atmosphere of mid/late 70’s Britain. The absurdity of geriatric councillors uniting with religious fanatics to ban local musical scenes is simply astonishing now, along with the sheer oafishness of the mainstream media response to punk, typified by the infamous Bill Grundy TV interview. Ironically he probably did far more than Malcolm McLaren in furthering the cause of punk, garnering untold free publicity for the Pistols and instantly providing a focus for anyone curious about the scene. The tabloids suddenly had a new target for moral indignation and salacious stories and before we knew it the punk wars had begun.
With only seven of the 32 gigs actually played the tour struggled on through December, dogged by rumours and inaccurate gig info (I’m still waiting for that Roundhouse gig our mate Jackie knew about “for sure”!) and state repression. The participating groups neatly summed up the state of play then - McLaren’s past in the form of New York’s Heartbreakers, already hardened rock’n’roll veterans from the New York Dolls days, Manchester’s Buzzcocks showed that punk wasn’t just a London thing and where it might go next, while the Damned represented the black leather/MC5-wannabe side of pub-rock for Stiff Records - until their sacking from the tour by McLaren. Meanwhile the Pistols and Clash circled each other like wary dogs, antagonism gradually giving way to grudging respect.
The text is enhanced by plenty of colour and b/w photos, which look really good in the book’s large paperback format. The story has been skilfully assembled and edited by Mick O’Shea, and given the time passed since that tour, he takes the opportunity to re-assess a lot of what went on then and how its been reported, mythologised or misrepresented since, particularly since McLaren’s death. Indeed, it’s a sad and sobering experience seeing just how many of the carefree hopefuls of those ‘77 days aren’t around now.
Al Fingers: Clarks in Jamaica
A while back a young mate, new to London, was waiting for the late bus in Brixton, where he’d bought a stack of 12”’s earlier on. After a while he notices two serious dreads looking his way and whispering. Fearing the worst, he sees them approach - turns out they just wanted to compliment him on his choice of shoes. You or I might associate the name Clark’s with sensible sandals, but on the Jamaican DJ/MC scene, Clarks shoes are a serious thing, best summed up by DJ Trinity, “Every man - rude boys, bad boys, the gun boys, they usually love Clarks. Rebel shoes, you know?”
A couple of years ago I went overboard reviewing Beth Lesser’s fabulous “Dancehall” book, one of the best-produced I’d seen in ages, bursting with great photos and Jamaican locations. It took a deep and affectionate look at the 70’s DJ and sound crew scene, celebrating the trademark massive homemade speakers alongside the sharp clothes and cool locks sported by the DJ’s, MC’s and their entourages. It was a loving take on essentially a micro-scene - now that’s taken even further in another remarkable book - “Clark’s” by Al Fingers.
The book’s beautifully laid out, with superbly atmospheric shots, mostly taken by Mark Read (and Beth Lesser again). Apart from the cool styles on display, they capture the fantastic contrasts between the natural beauty of the island, with its forests, mountains and beaches, as opposed to the poverty-stricken shabbiness of the urban scenes. The inventive response to these challenges is captured perfectly in the sound-crew photos, and the individuals defiantly strutting their stuff here. The JA chapters are interspersed with the story of the UK end of the Clarks set-up in Somerset, now the choice destination for many a JA DJ and entrepreneur, intent on sending a lucrative shipment back home. I can see that this book’s a real eccentric niche market thing, or niche of a niche even, but for anyone with love or interest in the wider aspects of the reggae music scene and culture, it’s a rewarding read and also a knock-down “get out of jail” card if you’re looking for an unusual present. Looks beautiful too!.
Pat Long: History of the NME - High Times and Low Lives at the World’s Most Famous Music Magazine
And finally, this month’s bedtime Kindle read …I reckon it’d be a total banker of a bet to say that anyone reading Mudkiss will have bought or read their share of NME’s at some time or other. I was an avid reader from the mid 60’s till the day we parted company some time in the mid 90’s when I tired of reading about groups I’d never see making music I’d never hear. Pat Long’s very enjoyable account of the paper’s history is the perfect antidote to such a jaded view. I hadn’t realised the paper’s origins went back as far as the 1930’s, when it was mainly an extension of the sheet-music trade and musicians’ forum. Thus from an early date the paper has always reflected the changing currents in the musical, magazine and publishing scenes.
Competition with “Melody Maker” jolted the paper out of a cosy 50’s showbiz snooze, and by the time the British music scene went into its 60’s overdrive, there was a vibrant market for musical info and criticism, selling quantities that publishers can only dream of now. Soon papers like “Record Mirror” and “Sounds” were competing too. With the growing influence of the Underground press and the New Journalism movement in the US, the paper moved into its legendary 70‘s heyday. That period is generally evoked now as the era of Nick Kent, Julie Burchill, Tony Parsons and Charles Shaar Murray. It was great to be reminded not just how many other really good writers there were then - Mick Farren, Tony Tyler, Roy Carr, Max Bell to name a few - but also how the paper developed a really high standard of photography through the work of people like Joe Stevens, Kevin Cummins and Jill Furmanovsky. Meanwhile there were other delights like the Lone Groover cartoons, some great cover discs or the legendary NME cassette series.
Alas megabuck magazine moguls IPC never quite understood this particular jewel in their crown, shunting the paper from its Tin Pan Alley home to a desolate Vauxhall office block, and then inflicting a series of office-politics editorial changes. Already weakened, NME was unable to fight back when challenged head-on in the 80’s marketplace, first by “Smash Hits” for its readers and then by the likes of “The Face” for its writers and artists. A recurring theme develops around the journalistic cliché that you can usually get new readers, but you can never get old readers back once they’ve moved on. NME was now chasing the market, changing its graphics and layout for a bit, then going very political, before going into its intellectual Penman/Morley phase. In the end, the paper’s endless frantic quest to discover the “New Punk“, combined with issues like its failure to understand the importance of the Rave scene in the late 80’s, made it into a standing joke as a series of “Next Big Things” rapidly bit the dust (S*M*A*S*H* or These Animal Men, anyone?). I still buy it now and then for the cover discs - but there just doesn’t seem much to read there any more.
Somewhere in the backroom I’ve got a stack of stained and faded early 80’s NME’s that crumble on contact. I know they should go, but then I start reading… here we are, November 1980, Captain Beef heart interview, Revillos, Teardrops live - that’ll do, see you next time!
All reviews above by Den Browne
Mike Ainscoe straddles three new book releases, diving headlong into a tale about young punk love, a story untold for 30 + years, not just any old punk but the notorious Sid Vicious, hhhmmmmm another book on Sid you might think, read on.... From punk to hard rockers Thin Lizzy, oh yes, those boys are back in town, culminating in a bit of R.E.M, with an update/ revised biography, what does Mike make of it all, well find out below:
Teddie Dahlin - A Vicious Love Story
Being an impressionable teenager in the mid seventies with your musical tastes in a formative stage and set amidst peer pressure and raging hormones, it wasn’t always an easy time. Speaking from experience as one who was there, on the one hand I found myself drawn to the ‘was he wasn’t he?’ debate about Bowie’s sexuality whilst being equally drawn to the albums being carried underarm by the Sixth formers in my school, with their expansive Roger Dean landscapes and similarly expansive, music contained within. Yes, we’re talking the much ridiculed, yet at the time highly fashionable prog rock; a genre totally at odds with the rapidly emerging punk scene. As the likes of my new beaus, Genesis, Yes and (deep breath) Emerson, Lake & Palmer were at their most indulgent and decadent with touring orchestras and revolving mirrors in their stage shows and double albums of tracks which lasted a whole side, punk rock hit Stand Grammar School for boys like a slap in the face. It was of course, 1976 and 1977 when it became suddenly cool to be part of the social reaction against the Silver Jubilee and blatant disregard for any sort of authority which was at the heart of the punk ethos, although admittedly it was quite a test to toe the punk line in a traditional school environment. Hell, even old John Peel was on the change; his tracks of the year suddenly switching from the likes of Pink Floyd’s epic opus ‘Echoes’ to including The Clash, The Buzzcocks and of course The Sex Pistols.
For Teddie Dahlin, it was far from the music or the fashion or even the values of punk which drew her to the Sex Pistols. The much more mundane reason was her ability to speak both Norwegian and English (from her early years being raised in a Yorkshire village) which was a useful skill to have when an infamous and soon to be notorious English punk band turned up in Norway for a date in her local town and her father was a friend of the promoter.
As a Norwegian teenager thrust into the maelstrom which was the Sex Pistols on the road it was something of a culture shock. They say opposites attract and there could be no greater contrast between a disco loving teenage girl from a comfortable and conservative background in a major Norwegian city and the earthy urban attitude of a notorious and controversial English punk band. Her story, which develops over a few days of her 16 year old life brings not only a fascinating dimension to the Sex Pistols story, but is also a tale to which virtually all teenagers can relate as she tries to deal with the adolescent emotions brought on by a first love.You almost feel like it’s a case of fate almost from her first encounter, with Teddie spotting Sid asleep on a red sofa in the hotel lobby as she goes along as assistant to friend and promoter Tore to meet the band. As she tells of those first few hours of getting to know the band and Sid in particular, it feels like you’re intruding or even spying on a teenage couple experiencing their first feelings of emotional attachment. Teddie had boy friends but not a boyfriend and you can feel her awkwardness and embarrassed blushes as she makes eye contact, trades tentative words of introduction and shares a coke with Sid who seems almost as shy as she does. Heck – he even offers her the last sip from the bottle! They self consciously flirt and try to cope with the feelings of young lovers as they trade off compliments with each other, the relationship seeming to develop at a rate which can’t be controlled. There are the broad smiles of recognition, the nervous glances to see if each other is looking, the playful nudges and Sid’s boyish, even childlike demeanour which seems totally incongruous with the public image he confesses he feels obliged to play out. Within a few hours of meeting it seems Teddie has fallen for the most unlikely source and she even doubts herself considering how their lives are so different – the squats and gigs, fights, spitting and swearing are a thousand miles from her upbringing and her world of normality.
The story is told in such detail with conversations between the main protagonists played out verbatim, that it’s difficult to appreciate that the whole whirlwind series of events took place over just a couple of days in which Teddie goes from meeting the band, attending the gig and the after show party and all the while being slowly encompassed by the all embracing, and mutually acknowledged, feelings for Sid. By the time the day off has passed and the band are ready to move onto Sweden, both Teddie and Sid have hit it off big style. From the off, there is a clear distinction between the public and private face of Sid. His media fuelled legacy tells us of the less salubrious side of his existence, which after all is much more interesting and saleable. The public side which was required, some may say manipulated, and all added to the mystique and the infamy with which the Pistols existed. The way Teddie portrays her relationship with Sid shows a side of him which depicts him as a very young, inexperienced and lonely figure; a rather unsophisticated young man pitched into a role he felt obliged to play. Just before the Trondheim gig, Teddie walks in on a self-conscious Sid in the backstage area, practising his stage moves in front of a mirror – most young boys have been there, all that’s missing is a tennis racket.
But they say a leopard can’t change its spots. The darker side of Sid as it raises its ugly head, as she catches him injecting, amidst some chaotic and boisterous behaviours at the after gig party. Things go comically wrong when, in a fit of rock and roll style behaviours, a TV throwing incident is foiled when the TV is too big to throw out of the window. To add to the bizarre scene, Teddie’s sensibilities are appalled at the disregard as beer bottles fly out of the hotel window instead of the TV all whilst the sound of Abba blasts from a cassette player. Hindsight is such a wonderful thing as Teddie describes herself as “ behaving like a small child” in her attempts to get permission to follow the tour (and Sid) onto Sweden, recognising a 16 year old in turmoil as even back then she begins to harbour doubts about trusting Sid. It becomes an exploration of growing up and growing pains rather than a rock and roll relationship story and one which has ‘doomed’ tagged all over it but try telling that to a besotted 16 year old and her equally idealistic lover. Of course, it’s never meant to be and the parting of the ways is like a fairytale of “a fond memory of love lost” with the subsequent implosion of the band and Sid in New York making a name for himself, following his destiny to its tragic conclusion.
In the aftermath, the latter days of Sid’s life and Teddie’s thoughts are told through a series of quotes from those who knew Sid and Nancy during this time but the devastation with which Sid’s death hit Teddie serves up a whole host of regrets and what if’s amongst the grief ridden feelings of loss, frustration and anger.
As we all know from the start, it was never going to be a happy ending, and to say things were destined never to be from the beginning might be a case of casting the first stone. How things may have turned out had Teddie taken the plunge and travelled onto Sweden instead of saying goodbye to Sid with a plan and a promise – well, we can never know and for Teddie herself that’s one of the ‘now we’ll never know’ frustrations of her story. It would be easy to be cynical and view the Pistols as a band who took advantage of their celebrity and see Teddie as a hapless victim of a fleeting romance but that’s not the type of sensational story told here. She certainly fell big style and again it would be equally easy to blame her age and naivety for the course of actions which followed. Possibly it would be oversimplifying to say it’s a classic ‘boy meets girl’ story, but hey, I’ve just gone and done it, and it’s the type of story to which many of us can relate; just that it involves one of the most notorious rock and rollers of modern times, yet after all, she still looks on him as “a really great guy called John.”
Scott Gorham & Harry Doherty - Thin Lizzy: The Boys Are Back In Town
I must admit to having a bit of a soft spot and feel a little affinity with Thin Lizzy. Back in 1979, just after the furore over the release of the seminal Live & Dangerous, Lizzy were about to release the Black Rose album and play a series of dates including one at Manchester Apollo. It was to be my first concert experience, and after attending many concerts by many bands in many places over the past thirty odd years, you never forget your first. A few years later September 1985 to be precise - I was at Gary Moore’s gig at the self same Apollo and hanging around pre-show at the stage door when who should appear making his way through a small crowd to the stage door but a rather unwell looking Phil Lynott. He made an appearance in the encores that night; Moore having “a bit of a sore throat” so needing some assistance with Out In The Fields and Parisienne Walkways. Hard to believe a few months later Phil was dead and with Gary Moore’s death in 2011, it’s with some pride that I can claim to have been witness to their unmistakable talents both solo and with Thin Lizzy. To bring my personal story right up to date I don’t think there was much thinking time when a neighbour called me a couple of years ago to ask if I fancied going to the Thin Lizzy gig at the Apollo. Of course it wasn’t quite the same as 1979 but with the charge of the band members who paid faithful homage to the material, led by Lizzy stalwarts, drummer Brian Downey and guitarist Scott Gorham, it felt fitting that the legacy had been done justice.
The Boys Are Back In Town was something which I’d look forward to reading with relish. The fact that it’s penned by rock journalist Harry Doherty, a long standing follower of Thin Lizzy and whom Phil Lynott had personally asked about writing a biography of the band back in 1977, together with Scott Gorham himself, adds more than just a dash of authenticity to the text. In fact, it was Doherty’s proviso that he wanted to tell the ‘warts and all’ version but only with the approval of those involved, which means that although some of the less savoury aspects of the band’s story and of the rock and roll lifestyle in general, are presented, at least you have the guarantee that the facts have been approved and are not just wild conjecture or speculation.
Anyone expecting a real eye opener and tales of seedy and squalid revelations may well be slightly disappointed. From the formation of the band against the backdrop of the showband hotbed of Dublin up to it’s final farewell album and tour is told precisely and straight. The fact that Lynott and Gorham steadily became involved in increasing alcohol and then drug abuse is just included as a part of the bigger picture until the watershed of the 1979 Black Rose period when it became a much more significant part of their existence as the dependence took a hold. The revelations do become much more interesting from this point, not so much for the drug and excess angle but from the point of view of it showing how from that point the band found it hard to hold things together. The music, the albums and the tours became almost of secondary importance. The departure for a third and final time, of Gary Moore during an American Tour was an indication of how bad things had got for him to renege on his professional obligations for him to decide to quit midway through a tour – something he admits to feeling bad about but showing the strength of his feelings towards the way Lynott and Gorham were heading. From then on, it is a sad account which tells of the rather depressing demise of one of the world’s finest rock bands and is a sad indication of when you’re at the top, the only way is down. The revolving door is constantly on the go as more guitarists – some of whom even questioned why there were there - join and leave, and the music plays second fiddle to the overriding demands for the stimulants needed to maintain the lifestyle of the two main band members.
Of the occasions Doherty spent time on tour and in the studio with the band, he is able to add some more interesting and significant detail – for example the run of gigs he attended in North America in 1977 get a tad more than a perfunctory mention, but the narrative in general seems to be a lacking any great depth and analysis. Considering the highly publicised input of Scott Gorham – although there is reference to other band member’s thoughts and comments – the result could maybe be viewed, especially to hardcore fans as rather unsatisfying. Anyone expecting Gorham’s contribution to be more significant from an autobiographical point of view (as the lead author) might feel let down as his input seems to be limited to the occasional refection on the occasional album even though in the balance of band member contributions, his is the heaviest. The “told from the inside” claim is accurate enough in that the Lizzy story is told by two people, one of whom was at the heart of the band for the majority of its career and has been a prime mover in its legacy, yet their yield remains inopportunely superficial.
Across the 170 odd pages, Omnibus have gathered a varied selection of images which are liberally scattered throughout, with my personal pick being the book cover showing a classic Chalkie Davies image of the band taken in concert during the Moore/Gorham period in roughly 1978/9 with the view which Downey must have had from his drum stool; a packed audience and the impressive Sydney Opera House in the background. The rear cover shows the same view after the show with the audience departed a trail of not quite devastation but certainly a mass of debris – perhaps a parallel with the Lizzy story. There are other archetypal shots of the photogenic and iconic Lynott who certainly knew how to throw a shape or two and who was perfecting his raised fist pose from the early days.
Overall it’s an long overdue but widely anticipated work, and by Doherty’s admittance a product which has had a very long gestation period. It’s worth looking right to the end of the text for a summary which befits the no frills story of The Boys Are Back In Town, and to quote Phil Lynott when asked about how he’d like to be remembered, as he put it quite succinctly himself – “better than expected but not as well as hoped for.”
Tony Fletcher - Perfect Circle: A biography of R.E.M
Tony Fletcher’s ‘Perfect Circle’ has grown into its existing incarnation after appearing in several guises prior to the current 2013 version. It was initially published as Remarks - an REM biography cum photobook aimed at mass market appeal back in 1989. The updated version
Remarks Remade was published in 2002 – more of what Fletcher terms a ‘Director’s Cut’ of a publication and one which reflected the ever growing status and rank of REM as a big player on the world stage. The current and definitive version literally brings matters full circle – indeed the Perfect Circle of one of their earliest recorded songs, the natural conclusion coinciding with the band’s decision to call it a day in 2011 and the perfect opportunity for Fletcher to bring closure to his efforts.
Remarks Remade was what he termed the ‘Director’s Cut’, then the 400 plus pages of Perfect Circle have exceeded even that and allowed him to really report in depth - the word count is indeed very impressive and the story he unravels very comprehensive. The text itself has been based on many interviews with friends, associates and goes beyond just the story of the group's rise through cult status into mega stardom and success, but also places their career within the wider context of the story of American culture and rock music. The one member of REM who allowed himself to act as spokesman for the band and be the ‘official’ link between band and author was guitarist Peter Buck. Himself a self confessed music junkie who used gaps in the REM schedule to indulge in some other music related activity be it sitting in with other bands or even going back to his old job in a record store (where he would be paid in vinyl).
The early days of the formation of the band in their hometown of Athens, Georgia and their first attempts at making music together are covered in detail with references from various friends who saw them through their formative days. It’s quite remarkable how they went from not much more than a very rough and ready garage band with no experience of live performance to becoming the toast of their Athens comrades in such a short spell during 1980. They were heavily bolstered by a healthy local music scene which was open to embracing the new wave of sounds together with a healthy student population and college radio network which was prepared to air their music. Of course their dues were paid and their act was honed by playing live and most of the 1980-1982 period was spent on the road. It was the college circuit (along with the other two ‘C’s – critics and concerts) which contributed most to the almost instant success of their debut album Murmur along with what Buck recognises as simply being in the right place at the right time: “in America you can be a great band for five years and no-one will look at you.” It could even be viewed as a case of hometown boys making good; their very organic approach to writing and recording and keeping a close circle of trusted friends and advisers and all being based round their home patch of Athens paid dividends. Supported by a sympathetic record label in IRS, they were lucky enough to have artistic license even from their early days and it was only when they veered from their Athens comfort zone and relocated to London to record their third album, Fables Of The Reconstruction, that they hit their first stumbling block.
It was the break from IRS (not an easy decision to make) and their deal with Warner Brothers which elevated REM into the big time and it could be viewed as the end of one era and the start of a new one – older fans maybe being a little more precious about the IRS albums and output whilst the early Warner recordings gained the mass appeal and critical acclaim yet still allowed REM to remain a band who worked under their own terms and agenda. It was the start of a Beatle-like hiatus from live work around 1991 and 1992 to focus on recording which resulted in similar critical acclaim, with the occasional forays into the unplugged market and cherry picking live performances, which continued to set a precedent for them making their own decisions about how best they would like their career path to progress.
It was the Monster album and tour of the mid 90’s which sent them into both mega stardom and also into turmoil with drummer Bill Berry’s aneurysm resulting in him taking stock and calling it quits just as REM had made it big. The band’s desperation and willingness to accommodate him within their work schedule and Stipe’s resulting anger could be seen as a turning point for the future of the band with one essential element being gone. However, the three remained both upbeat and determined. Despite a trend towards a minor shift in the balance of their popularity from the USA to Europe and the sight variation in sales of records right up to their final album, this was tempered by their still high popularity as a concert draw with arenas and stadia (particularly in Europe) being filled with satisfied punters .
Whilst the author is both an established and a long term fan, he hasn’t been afraid to pull any punches when criticism has to be made. The criticism doled out to the Around The Sun album, which is quite impartially viewed as the one dud in the REM catalogue, doesn’t get fudged or diluted, whilst their final album Collapse Into Now is viewed both as a simple extension (or more of the same) of the previously acclaimed Accelerate album whilst being very much a final curtain call and an attempt to conclude by covering all the REM musical bases whilst bidding farewell both lyrically and on the cover with Michael Stipe’s parting wave.
For a band which have always maintained an artistic and personal integrity and (in the main, Peter Buck’s air rage court case not withstanding) avoided controversy, Perfect Circle is a fitting and complete tribute to a what is essentially a group of friends who had always had the purpose and fortitude done things their way. Their place in the annals of popular music history and culture is secure and they can be satisfied that Tony Fletcher has done their musical legacy some justice in print.
Reviews by Mike Ainscoe