Musical Notes June 2021 - recent reads
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Here are some recent reads in music, some very good and some very bad ...
Bob Dylan, All The Songs, The Story Behind Every Track - Phillipe Margotin & Jean-Michel Guesdon
Who can remember the phrase "quality not quantity" bring drilled into us at secondary school ? To be fair though it may not have been prevalent in France where the authors of this enormous and weighty book reside. Phillipe Margotin and Jean-Michel Gudeson are no strangers to this style of writing and book publication having also written similar volumes with the Stones, Beatles, Led Zeppelin and more recently Bruce Springsteen.
At 700 pages it is certainly a coffee table book that would threaten the very foundations of your coffee table. It endeavors to outline every Bob Dylan track recorded from 1962 - 2015 including recording details, musicians and backstory of the song in question, even speculating as to what instruments were used (from the great Infidels album sessions " It is difficult to know which guitar Dylan played on Infidels but one can assume he used his Fender Stratocaster. As for Mick Taylor he probably played his Gibson Les Paul". )The problem with this is that Dylan, probably has had more books written about him than any other music figure in history with the exception of The Beatles . There are now university courses along with many academics and fanatics who seem to queue up to forensically examine all things Mr Robert Zimmerman. I have, for example, ex pat New Zealander Professor Richard Thomas "Why Dylan Matters" and Sean Wilentz "Dylan in America" on my book shelf , both are recommended having written with great insight and analysis and more importantly both with a fresh take on the equal measure legend and enigma that is Bob Dylan. So if this task is to be taken on something different or new needs to be brought to the reader . Which does not happen here , the analysis and critique is at times sloppy "The song ends with a fast fade out suggesting a small recording problem (The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest) or on the great Mozambique "It may be noted that at 0.22 (violinist Scarlett Rivera) starts late , unless the sound engineer accidentally deleted the first two notes (!)".
Yes the book seems equal measure too light for Dylan freaks (like me) and way too much for those curious about Bob and wanting to know where they should start. Perhaps this is a translation thing as clearly much resource in terms of time and effort has been put into this publication. The saving grace are the photographs and chronology rather than the content which for those unfamiliar with Dylan's legacy. My recommendation is your coffee table is safer without this.
Recommendation: Too big to contemplate - read anything by Clinton Heylon, Greil Marcus, Robert Shelton or even Dylan's own "Chronicles Vol 1" for more insight behind the myth
The Birth of Loud - Ian Port
Fender, Bigsby, Les Paul, Gibson, Randall, Rickenbacker - these are some of the guitar based brand names that come alive in "The Birth of Loud". First time writer Ian Port has done a masterful job in bringing to life the personalities of predominately both Leo Fender and Les Paul, two completely different characters but who were intrinsic to the development of electronic instruments, amplification and recording techniques post World War II. The shadow of the war looms large initially as technology developments with multi tracking became adopted by Les Paul in particular. Fender meanwhile emerges as a radio engineering nut, overly shy but clearly gifted . You get the sense that Port is enthralled by Leo Fender in particular - health issues never far away, including losing hearing in one ear when troubleshooting Fender amplifiers for surf punk Dick Dale in the early '60s (conjures mental images of Spinal Tap "turn it up to 11 etc").
The America in the 50's emerges as the cultural colossus and the ingenuity of both Fender and Les Paul in the development of the electric guitar is intertwined . Fender is somewhat of a magpie with his innovation ideas and the book does not shy away from controversy with the adoption of certain features of the Fender Stratocaster in particular. As for Les Paul , his path was somewhat different , aligning a lucrative deal for the use of Gibson Les Paul branding alongside a performing career with his wife Mary Ford and inventing multi track recording along the way. Ironically the popularity of the iconic Gibson Les Paul did not truly take off onto well after production was scaled back in the late 50's (google how much a '59 Les Paul can fetch and be prepared to fall off your chair).
The book intersperses "case studies" involving adoption of the electric guitar by the likes of Buddy Holly (Stratocaster) , Muddy Waters (Telecaster), Brian Wilson (Fender Bass) Eric Clapton (Les Paul) Jimi Hendrix (Stratocaster) chronologically alternating chapters with the progression of both the Fender & Gibson companies . Chapters regarding the guitar manufacture supply chain and associated quality control aspects of producing at scale are fascinating along with the commercials regarding the sale of Fender the CBS Corporation in 1965 and the resultant dip in quality control.
Quite simply this is one of the best non-fiction books I have ever read and does not require you to be a guitar geek or music train spotter to enjoy it, just someone curious about cultural history and the might that USA used to pull when it really was great post WW II.
Recommendation: Guitar geeks will love it, for others seek it out and approach with an open mind , this is a great book.
Utopia Avenue - David Mitchell
I admit I have never heard of David Mitchell , a critically acclaimed author with a body of work including some note (shortlist Booker Prize!) but became aware of some critical notices regarding his latest effort . With this kind of hype I was expecting a Nick Hornby (see High Fidelity) type music effort based on tragic humour with associated cleverness, but none of that can be found here.
Instead the book details a fictional band in late 60's London but immersed in "real" characters of the time. The basic premise - that of the "supergroup" brought together by Canadian manager is where it immediately starts to fall flat. Quite simply the personalities, influences and stated prowess of the individual band members defies belief. We have a Dutch, troubled guitar hero on a par with Jimi Hendrix, a female singer songwriter with an Australian folkie boyfriend, a stereotypical Welsh drummer and an arrogant English bass player . The most interesting part of the enormous story is laughing at the interaction and circumstances of meeting "real" characters along the way , look there's David Bowie yet to break through passing one of the band on the stairs leading to the Manager offices , Brian Jones at numerous bars and parties complaining about his lot with the Rolling Stones , the Byrds great Gene Clark at an airport in Amsterdam (huh?, he had a fear of flying and left the Byrds because of it circa 1965 !) , Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen at the Chelsea Hotel in New York.
There are many more encounters like the above and if anything it comes across as an unintentional parody even without the very unexpectant ending. This could have been trimmed by 200 pages and I found myself , unusually for me picking up another book to read at the same time to stave off the tedium of this. Recommendation: Approach with extreme caution and with time to kill - if not avoid altogether
Paul Kelly - The Man, The Music and the Life in Between - Stuart Coupe
With the Trans-Tasman bubble now here I can return to my occasional gig at OGB Bar in the central Christchurch city knowing there will undoubtedly be some Australian tourists present. Which means asking the following question "Are there any Australians here tonight ?" the answer being yes, I use the occasion to wax lyrical about how Paul Kelly is probably one of the greatest living Australians and should either be knighted or do a Peter Garrett and become a political force in Australian politics. Following this I take my pick from "From St Kilda to Kings Cross", "To Her Door ", "40 Miles to Saturday Night" or other iconic Paul Kelly tunes which seem to cut right into the Aussie psyche.
The above provides some context as to where Paul Kelly sits in my musical consciousness The only other songwriter who seems to provide the closest depiction of living in an "ordinary" citizens shoes would be Bruce Springsteen . In fact Steve Earle is quoted as saying such in this book by Sydney music journalist Stuart Coupe. I knew of Coupe when I was living in Sydney in the early 90's; he regularly contributed to the weekly music papers with album & gig reviews. What was a surprise what that Coupe also assumed the role of Kelly's Manager in the "peak" years of the early 80's to early 90's. With this proximity to Kelly I was expecting some great insight into his development as a songwriter/band leader and negotiating the (more often than not) unforgiving nature of the music business. Certainly on the latter note there is great insight into the dealings with Mushroom Records and the recently departed industry icon Michael Gudinski.
What is missing is an outline of how Kelly came to write such iconic Australian themed songs such as "Forty Miles to Saturday Night" , "Adelaide" and "Leaps and Bounds" .There are glimpses eg , Kelly living close to Randwick church in Sydney's East "Randwick bells are ringing must be Saturday" being the opening lines to "Randwick Bells" . However the seminal years are glossed over in a shopping list of song titles with little context. We are living in a time where anything can be forensically analyzed and what makes Kelly such a great songwriter remains unknown to the reader.
The character & personality of Kelly himself also leaves you guessing at times. Without doubt he was very determined to the point of jettisoning band members and indeed entire bands in the early days with little prompting. However the man himself is elusive particularly as Coupe has a tendency to just recite an events chronology. More time could have spent in the years when Kelly was an agreed creative force culminating in the major label production behind "So Much Water. So Close to Home".
Overall I'm left somewhat none the wiser which is what can happen when it is "unofficial" biography yet the subject in question allows to be interviewed in depth as part of the authors research. It screams presence of a control freak which is what I suspect defines Kelly perfectly.
Recommendation: For those curious about Paul Kelly but not for those wanting to go deeper.
Ashes to Ashes - Chris O'Leary
The benchmark for critical analysis in the field of popular music remains the late Ian McDonalds sublime "Revolution in the Head" released in 1993 with the Beatles catalogue of work the subject matter . MacDonald encapsulated the cultural events of the sixties along with a seemingly vast music theory & practical knowledge, all mapped to the Beatles & George Martin's personalities; giving insight into what must have been the most extraordinary creative tension at times between all involved .
"Ashes to Ashes" is the closest volume I've read that matches the bar that MacDonald set. Chris O'Leary came to prominence through a David Bowie Blog ("Pushing Ahead of the Dame") written in large part before Bowie's death in 2016. These blog entries have been taken as a basis for the book and updated accordingly. Similar to the Dylan book this is presented chronologically , in this case the volume stretches from "Station to Station" in 1976 thorough to "Blackstar" and Bowies death in 2016 (this is Volume 2 , Volume 1 is titled "Rebel,Rebel and covers the years 1964-1976).
Unlike the Beatles who had a relatively succinct career trajectory 1962-1970, Bowie had peaks and troughs through the arc of his latter career and O Dell does not shy away from highlighting these and examining where he suspects Bowie's thought processes were at the time, based on interviews with those there with him (Nile Rogers, Reeves Gabrels) and sourcing Bowie interviews along the way.
Common wisdom is that Bowie's creative muse left him once Scary Monsters was done in 1980 but O'Leary traces the point where Bowie "got what he wanted but lost what he had" to the Baal soundtrack for an obscure BBC production in 1981. From this point it seems Bowie was more interested in film projects throughout the 80's or as journalist Charles Sharr Murray memorably noted once the enormous Serious Moonlight tour was wrapped up, "poncing about like Prince Charles". It is also very apparent that Bowie needed a producer of substance who could ensure quality was maintained and that the "Bowie being bored" tendencies didn't kick in.
Regardless of the trajectory of the book coverage it is an extraordinary body of work and you are left with a real sense of nostalgia as the likes of a David Bowie we will never see again in the field of music - times have moved on (Changes indeed).
Recommendation: The Ultimate reference guide -not to be read in one sitting but very useful to have on hand.