Tuesday, 29 January 2019

The Byrds - Timeless Flight Revisited - The Sequel - Johnny Rogan

Timeless Flight Revisited is a highly detailed biography, published around 1997/1998, of one of the most influential of all rock groups. Rogan has written other books about The Byrds, both before and after this one. Much of the material in this one is based on interviews conducted by the author with group members.

Looking at the chapters which cover the formative stages of the band, it is striking how amateurish those early days were.  Some of the guys had musical experience, but in terms of rock n roll they were virtual beginners. In some respects there was almost a punk ethos about the project at that point.

I feel that the author very occasionally gets slightly carried away in extolling the group's greatness and its position in the grand scheme of things as regards music in the Sixties.  And I say that as a major admirer of the Byrds' music myself.  However, this is counterbalanced by honest and forthright appraisals of the chronic instability which plagued the band, and how this both helped and hindered creativity.  The deficiencies and setbacks are discussed with some directness.

Some of the strongest parts of the book are those which examine the personal and artistic dynamics within the Byrds, and the alliances which formed between individual members and producers, management and so forth. A lot of space is necessarily allocated to documenting how people coped with the mercurial David Crosby!  The book makes a valid point in comparing the creative core of the Californian combo with its equivalents in The Beatles (Lennon and McCartney) and The Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards).  The tensions and antagonisms within The Byrds frequently generated magic, but sometimes the outcome was less than healthy. Their structure was much more fluid and amorphous.

Each album is reviewed song-by-song, and the author demonstrates a shrewd musical ear in evaluating the merits, or otherwise, of the group's released  (and unreleased) output.  Whilst this book rightly celebrates the achievements of The Byrds, there is also a sense of what might have been, both artistically and commercially. The author shows an adroit feel for the real reasons for this deficit, looking at the (first) departure of Gene Clark as a crucial turning point.  The suggestion that Gene could somehow have been accommodated in a non-touring, "Brian Wilson" role is very intriguing.

Time is taken within the pages to bring out a full picture of the personalities and motivations of the key players in the drama.  I found these areas to be especially illuminating in the cases of Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn.  Hillman is traditionally painted as "the quiet one", but he was perhaps more assertive and outspoken than is sometimes imagined. As the book progressed I began to feel twinges of frustration at how the egos and agendas within the group could not be subjugated to the cause of making The Byrds more commercially successful and enduringly vibrant as a creative entity.

Commendably the author devotes considerable attention to the years of "decline", from 1969 to 1973, with often withering assessments of the era's mis-steps and absence of inspiration. The squandered opportunities, petty jealousies and wrangles are all part of what makes the Byrds' saga so compelling, I think.

There is ample coverage of Byrds-related activity subsequent to the dissolution of the original band, including the numerous side projects and offshoots, and the reunions and get-togethers of various combinations of personnel.  There are also excellent obituaries of both Gene Clark and Michael Clarke.

Altogether, this is a highly comprehensive account of the group's turbulent story.  A lengthy read, but ultimately rewarding in getting a full portrayal, warts and all, of an important part of rock music history.

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

Hotel California - Barney Hoskyns

The book Hotel California, by Barney Hoskyns, looks at the Southern Californian music scene in the 1960s and 1970s, from the folk-rock boom of the mid-Sixties, through the singer-songwriter movement, to the hedonistic mid-Seventies.

The early parts of the book examine the transition from the age of folk singers and professional songwriters to self-contained folk-rock and psychedelic bands, and what factors precipitated this process.  As well as acknowledging the role of Bob Dylan and The Beatles in these changes, the importance of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield becomes clear. These chapters also reveal how certain visionary figures on the music scene would help to shape how things developed going forward.

I really liked how Hoskyns told the story, with an enthusiastic but authoritative style.  He allows the tale to unfold naturally and seamlessly, eschewing the cliched version which so regularly appears in mainstream accounts of the time. This is another example to me of how reading credible and well-written books is more satisfying, enlightening and rewarding than absorbing the platitudes contained in superficial television documentaries.

A nuanced interpretation of how country rock emerged is one of the book's strongest features. The author gives credit and prominence to less heralded, more marginal acts who helped to encourage the growth of this particular sub-genre of music.

Hotel California is structured in such a way that the reader is able to follow the fortunes of the various artists and personalities in a linear fashion. This is achieved because the author wisely did not attempt to fully document everybody who was involved and everything which occurred.  Space is found, fortunately, to highlight the contributions of figures such as Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Tom Waits, Warren Zevon and Ry Cooder.

Another impressive aspect of the book is the way in which Hoskyns places the various changes in musical trends and tastes into some kind of socio-political context. At the same time, this is not done in a heavy-handed manner, but assertions are made in a measured way. These portions of the book help to illustrate how the Los Angeles music scene did not always necessarily shift in the "obvious" direction for the wider times and the "zeitgeist".

Parts of the story are quite sobering and poignant, even if some of the stories of outsized egos and hedonistic excesses are quite amusing. There is a wistful feel to those passages which assess how much of the original idealism and sense of community became submerged by personal ambition and avarice. Open-minded creativity was compromised by factors which at least contributed to the scene's decay and demise, and these are covered here. These sentiments are counterbalanced to some extent, however, by the realisation of just how much great and significant music emanated from Southern California during those times.

There is lots of insight into career progressions, and the motivations behind songs and albums which emerged from the Los Angeles sphere. 

I found Hotel California to be very enjoyable and rather engrossing.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Rock and Roll Doctor - Mark Brend

Little Feat became one of my favourite bands once I had taken the time and trouble to properly listen to their music, in my mid-twenties. However, until recently I had not closely studied the group's history or the stories behind the music. This gap has been remedied to some degree by reading Mark Brend's book Rock and Roll Doctor, which looks primarily at the life of Little Feat's guitarist, vocalist and songwriter Lowell George.

The appeal of Little Feat for me, over and above their infectious quirkiness, was their sheer musicality. There is an intangible and elusive quality which is difficult to pin down, and I have often thought to myself that once somebody has heard Little Feat's music in favourable circumstances, that person is a fan for life.  And much of the pull and allure of Feat was, and is, down to the talent, personality and humour of Lowell George.

Brend's book is perhaps not a definitive biography of either George or the group, but I found it enlightening. Time is taken to document George's musical education, and how some of the things which characterized his conduct during the Little Feat era stemmed in part from those early days.  What emerges for me is a picture of one of the more cerebral, unusual and restless talents in the history of rock music.

The author makes some mild criticisms of the group's eponymous debut LP, and I am in accord with those views, up to a point. Yes, the sound of the album does not have the depth or richness of later efforts, and by some measures Feat remained very much a work in progress at that juncture, looking for a niche and that "sweet spot" which later came to encapsulate the band's unique vitality. However, taken on its own terms that first record exudes a charm and relative innocence which makes it highly enjoyable and affecting.

Throughout the work, Brend displays a good way with words, especially when evaluating the individual albums and their constituent tracks. These commentaries are very well put together, and the dissection of the songs reminded me how the band's finest moments came when fairly conventional ingredients were mixed together to form a vibrant and distinctive product.

I would have liked a little more about Little Feat as a live act, since that was where they gained much of their reputation, especially in their "middle period".  Having said this, the book helped to deepen my understanding of Little Feat's methods and the dynamics within the band. There is some shrewd appraisal of the reason's for Feats difficulties, both in attaining major commercial success and in maintaining harmony and unity.  Brend also exhibits a sound understanding of the legacy of George and Feat.

This is a very readable and well-written exploration, a fine attempt to capture what made George and Feat so special and beloved by so many people, both the fans and journalists. In its portrayal of Lowell George, it paints a picture of a person who had his faults, but who equally was generous in his collaborations, and endlessly musically inquisitive and curious.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Bright Lights Dark Shadows - The Real Story Of Abba - Carl Magnus Palm

Bright Lights Dark Shadows is a biography of the Swedish pop group Abba, written by Carl Magnus Palm. The edition which I have was published in 2001.

After having browsed through it periodically, I recently worked my way through this book in its entirety. In conclusion, I would say that it is a highly readable, and illuminating effort.

A goodly portion of the book is given over to chronicling the period prior to the emergence of Abba, following the upbringing of the four group members and the development of their musical careers. This approach brought home to me how Abba was no overnight success, and that progress in those formative years was not uniformly smooth.

I think the book scores highly in its exploration of how the four people reacted to each milestone or setback in their careers, and how they viewed success and celebrity. The level of detail for me helped to convey how the real story is far more complex than the simplistic version often served up by the mainstream media. This is especially true where the characteristics and personality traits of the musicians are concerned.

Throughout the book there is extensive focus on the business and financial side of Abba's story, and in particular Stig Anderson's role.  We also get a sense of how the music business worked in those pre-internet days, and the struggle which Abba had in receiving "cultural" recognition, most of all in their native land.

From what I can discern the author has delivered a balanced and honest account of the Abba years. The negatives and the problems are analysed, the triumphs are celebrated.  I liked the author's style in discussing the merits of songs and albums, highlighting how the various tracks were born and developed. My own understanding of what made Abba tick artistically was considerably enhanced.

It is clear that, for differing reasons, the members of the group were not that keen on touring for much of the time. The documenting of the 1977 Australian tour, and the attendant hysteria, offers a convincing depiction of how touring was not always conducive to general wellbeing and harmonious personal lives. Indeed, a theme throughout Bright Lights Dark Shadows is how Abba dealt with the various pressures and expectations which encroached once fame and fortune arrived. I am sure it was occasionally fun!

There is some intriguing and thoughtful perspective on the Abba "revival" which commenced around the early 1990s.  The book offers some acute observations on the reasons for the resurgence in interest in Abba, and also some misgivings about certain aspects of the revival.

Overall, I really liked this book. It augmented my knowledge of and appreciation of Abba as artists, and offered a telling reminder that "stars" are also real people, with real feelings and emotions, and that all is not as idyllic, pleasurable or straightforward as the masses might like to imagine.

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Testimony - Robbie Robertson

Testimony is a memoir by Robbie Robertson, best known as guitarist and songwriter with The Band. It is not a full biography as such, as it only takes the story up to 1976 or thereabouts, but it is an entertaining and enlightening read.

The book chronicles Robertson's upbringing, and his musical apprenticeship, as he cut his teeth playing countless gigs in small venues, soaking up knowledge and expertise along the way. The tales of his time playing with Ronnie Hawkins are especially amusing and occasionally lurid! There is also some intriguing material regarding Robertson's family background and his ongoing links with relatives and his roots.

One of the things which strikes me most about Testimony is that it provides the reader with a ringside seat, so to speak, as the musical revolutions of the Sixties progressed, looking over the shoulder of someone who was a part of those upheavals and landmark events.  To me the journey feels real and organic, free of the cliches and platitudes which often characterize portrayals of that era. Above all, the love of music and self-expression permeates everything. The stories are told with genuine relish and enthusiasm.

The author is candid about the ebb and flow of his relationships with other musicians, particularly his band-mates. Also, I was fascinated by the chapters which cover his associations with Bob Dylan, such as for example the turbulent and momentous concert tours of 1965/66 and the recording sessions which gave rise to the so-called "Basement Tapes".

Robertson indulges in quite a bit of name-dropping, telling us how he used to hang out with the likes of Andy Warhol, Marlon Brando and Salvador Dali. This does, though, help to underscore the vibrancy of those times.

As an admirer of The Band's music, one of the most valuable functions of this work for me is the way that it offers some insight into how the group's acclaimed and important early albums took shape. We also gain an idea of what an impact those first two records in particular had on the music world, and on creative people generally.  Above all, that period just sounds like it was enormous fun!

The closing sections of the book are both interesting and poignant, as we learn how the rock n roll lifestyle began to sap the creativity and cohesion of The Band, culminating in their farewell concert (famously documented in Martin Scorsese's film The Last Waltz).

I found this book to be a riveting read.  It is well worth checking out for fans of rock music.

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

The Life of Senna - Tom Rubython

I know that Rubython's motor racing-related works have met with a mixed reception from enthusiasts, and I share some of the misgivings commonly expressed.  His biography of Ayrton Senna, entitled The Life Of Senna, originally published to roughly coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Brazilian's death, contains abundant detail, but also some flaws and "padding".

For me there is not sufficient nuance in the analysis of a very complex and intricate subject. Too much in the way of "black and white" thinking, and some careless and ill-advised choices of words to describe the merits of teams and drivers.

Another aspect of the book which stands out for me is the amount of repetition.  In addition, there are inconsistencies, contradictions even, in appraisals of events or people.  An occasional absence of cohesion and continuity which does not inspire confidence.

The above reservations notwithstanding, this book contains some interesting material concerning Senna's methods and motivations, and what made him unusual, although much of this is down to quotations from, and interviews with, associates and friends of the subject. One does get the sense of how Senna elevated his sport to another level in some respects.

I would say that the passages concerning the chronology of the Imola 1994 weekend itself are reasonably well done.and illuminating.

This book is good in places, not so good in others, and I suspect that the definitive English-language biography of Senna has yet to be written.