We’ve All Gone Solo #3 (Nicky Hopkins)

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Sitting on a bench in London’s Hyde Park “on holiday” in Sept. 1994, I chanced upon a lengthy and admiring obituary of pianist Nicky Hopkins in The Guardian. Hopkins, one of rock’s great session players, had died at age 50, far away from the city where he had first rose to prominence in the Sixties, playing keyboards on classic recordings by the Stones, the Who, Jeff Beck, the Kinks and many others. Instead, he passed away in Nashville which seems oddly appropriate, giving his calling. Hopkins struggled with Crohn’s Disease throughout his life, making a career as a studio hired gun more agreeable than that of a touring musician.

The Guardian obit talked about Hopkins’ uncanny instinct to play just what was needed on any number of great rock records—even the partial list in his Wikipedia entry is mighty impressive—he was an expert in both technique and feel. About halfway thru the article it was suggested that as a natural accompanist the result of his time taken in the spotlight was bound to be underwhelming. Still, “The Tin Man was a Dreamer” (his second and best known solo LP) is a good listen. I especially like the song below, with its sly wink to an occupational situation I’m sure he faced on more than one occasion.

By the late Sixties, Hopkins had made a move to America’s West Coast, recording with Steve Miller, the Jefferson Airplane (with whom he played at Woodstock), Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jerry Garcia, among others. After Nick’s health problems caught up with him in 1994, Kinks frontman Ray Davies spoke appreciatively about the pianist’s great ability “to turn an ordinary track into a gem.” Of course, it was Davies who had, way back in ’66, wrote the tongue-in-cheek song “Session Man” partly with Hopkins in mind. But N.H. was a far cry from the song’s clock-punching player, as one listen to the tune’s distinctive harpsichord intro will indicate.

The Two Sides of 1967 by Joe S. Harrington

(After nearly two years in exsistence, Reel and Rock has its first guest-written post! Joe S. Harrington is the author of “Sonic Cool: The Life and Death of Rock ‘n’ Roll” [previously recommended in my “Books That Rock Pt. One” post] and was editor of the former Kapital Ink magazine. When I wrote a column on rock documentaries for KI, I was in the habit of sending edit-defying articles of a few thousand words each and now Joe has returned the favor. Visuals and captions by “Ed.” Enjoy!–Rick Ouellette)

beatles & VU

What more could possibly be said about the Beatles? And for that matter, the Velvet Underground? The Beatles are like the “learner’s manual” of rock n’ roll—they covered every discernible style, and did it all first. The Velvets, on the other hand, represent the dark underbelly of rock, from whence emerged a Cause and a Way of Life. It’s just proof of something that’s been said a million times about the VU: their influence didn’t really take hold until years later. So even though they were contemporaries of the Beatles, what they were doing was so far ahead of its time that the influence of it wouldn’t be felt or years, or even decades. So while the Beatles were totally of the ‘60s, the Velvets transcended it, making them the “better” group, right? But maybe that’s because the influence of the Beatles is so profound and well-engrained that it doesn’t even need to be clarified—which is what I’ve been forced to reconsider, having read Ian McDonald’s epic Revolution in the Head, and hence actually listened to the Beatles, album-by-album, for the first time in decades.

This aural re-evaluation ultimately led me to “lend my ears” to that most sacred of sacred cows, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which has suffered so much overkill that genuine proponents like Rolling Stone, in their ultimate anti-hip measure, only rated it FOUR stars in the first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, published in 1978. The point being, what was once considered “the greatest rock n’ roll album” of all time, in just a decade had come to be seen as sadly dated, a curio of a bygone era, and somehow quaint in its timeliness. At the same time, to demonstrate how much the critical consensus had changed since the ‘60s, in the same volume, The Velvet Underground & Nico pulled five stars. With the rise of punk—viewed by critics as the Velvets’ progeny—esteem for the VU had only risen and they were seen as innovators, whereas the Beatles, as adventurous as their mid-sixties music had been, now had their lot lumped with the bastions of “classic rock,” beloved by FM rock listeners, but considered passe by hipsters.

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J & P, moments after learning the results of a Hipster Popularity Contest, where they went up against Alex Chilton and Chris Bell

In the ‘80s, as the post-modern mentality crept in, the Beatles, given their universal mainstream appeal, were short-changed in favor of not only the Beach Boys but far lesser groups like Big Star. But these things are cyclical—first Yoko Ono was acknowledged as kind of a godmother figure to both new wave and Riot Grrl, and then it was the Scorsese documentary about George Harrison, but eventually the Beatles came back into favor…but they’ve been “going in and out of style,” as they themselves said on Sgt. Pepper, for so long that, at this point, all such arguments are moot, because as the years go by the whole ERA gets more compressed—hence the Beatles have much more in common, in the long run, with, say, the Ramones or even Metallica than any of them have with Taylor Swift. At a certain point there came a time, especially as a barometer of the Zeitgeist, when music just didn’t matter anymore. But it can be argued that the Beatles—along with Dylan, the Stones and all the rest—ultimately represent the moment when music did begin to matter, and that’s why, ultimately, the Beatles and Velvet Underground have a lot more in common than critics and fans may have surmised back in rock’s golden age.

Make no mistake, the Beatles were not a boy-band, or a pop artifice—they had some of that in their music, but by the time they recorded, in 1962 (not counting a few odd recordings a year or so before as a backing band), they were a seasoned performing unit in a way that few groups who followed them could match, simply because the Beatles opened the floodgates for those groups. The Beatles not only had to prove themselves, they had to prove the worth and merits of the whole style of music—rock n’ roll—because their embrace of such was simply unprecedented. Therefore, by the time the other great groups of the ‘60s emerged—the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, the Velvets, the Byrds, the Doors, the Airplane, the Who, Zappa, etc.—they didn’t need to toil away playing the dingy bars of Hamburg (or its equivalents) for more than six months whereas the Beatles had been doing it for six years. Sure, there are arguments that those bands, given their relative youth and inexperience, caught up—and even surpassed—the Beatles in record time.

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The Velvet Underground during their open enrollment period

That included the Velvets—but don’t think they weren’t hip to the Beatles: Lou Reed played a hollow-bodied Gretsch guitar like George Harrison and on the flexi disc that came with Index magazine in 1967, which featured a conversation recorded at Andy Warhol’s Factory just after the Velvets’ first album came out—and, consequently, Sgt. Pepper as well—one hears Nico mimicking “Good Morning, Good Morning”…not sarcastically either, but just because that’s what everybody was doing in the Summer of ’67, because the album was ever-present. In other words, even though the Velvets, who could loosely be considered “rivals” with the Beatles, had just put out their own LP, they couldn’t get out from under the shadows of Sgt. Pepper. After all, it was Number One for fifteen weeks—virtually the entire summer of ’67—and, other than Michael Jackson’s Thriller, how many other albums can you say that about?

Even as late as 1970, the Velvets’ Sterling Morrison gave an interview to Fusion magazine where he actually venerated Sgt. Pepper in favor of Frank Zappa’s parody of it, We’re Only In It for the Money: “Let me see him come out with something as good as Sgt. Pepper. What Zappa saw in Sgt. Pepper was something good which showed real perception and talent, and lacking these attributes himself, he decided to do something else, and make fun of it. Is there anything on We’re Only in It for the Money that even remotely compares to the original?” Given this evidence, it’s clear that it wasn’t the Beatles whom the Velvets considered rivals, but the California groups like the Mothers and Grateful Dead.

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I’m more of a “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” guy, anyway.

In fact, as rock rolls on, it becomes clearer that perhaps the two most enduring bands of the entire rock n’ roll era are the Beatles and the Velvets. Don’t believe me? Just ask Robert Christgau, who proclaimed the VU “the number three band of the sixties” after, of course, the Beatles and James Brown & His Famous Flames. Now JB is sacrosanct, irrefutable…where would Gospel, Soul, Funk, Disco, Hip Hop and Rap be without the Godfather of Soul? But it’s not rock, it’s R&B, and therefore in a separate category. The Velvets, on the other hand, format-wise, are the same as the Beatles—guitar/bass/drums—but both groups dabbled with non-rock motifs: the Beatles with symphony orchestras and the Velvets with electric viola. And both had high-art aspirations, not the least of which was they employed actual artists to design their album covers, instead of leaving it to the record company. Therefore you could have the infamous Andy Warhol banana on the cover of The Velvet Underground & Nico, and Klaus Voorman’s black-and-white collage adorning the Beatles’ Revolver, the album that predated Sgt. Pepper. By the time of Pepper, standards were being raised even higher by Michael Cooper’s elaborate cover design, and the fact the Beatles actually printed the lyrics on the back to assert that Lennon and McCartney warranted serious consideration as “composers.” And although almost no-one knew it at the time, and the Velvets didn’t print the lyrics on their album, a future generation of critics would assert much the same thing about Lou Reed.

Add to that the fact that both Sgt. Pepper and the Velvets’ first album were among the first rock LPs to be issued with a gatefold, extremely rare for rock albums at the time—the thought being the Powers That Be at the record companies didn’t want to waste the cardboard on mindless fodder. But the Beatles being the Beatles, and the Velvets with the Warhol connection, obviously warranted a higher standard from their respective labels (only Frank Zappa, who recorded for the same label as the Velvets—Verve, who’d previously specialized in jazz—was accorded the same dignity).

velvet inner gatefold

There were precedents for this kind of maturation in rock—not only Zappa but the Beach Boys of Pet Sounds (both cited by the Beatles as influences on Sgt. Pepper). But compared to the breakthroughs established by both the Beatles and Velvet Underground in 1967—even though they were worlds apart—such early innovators can be seen as merely stepping stones. And the Stones, although their early R&B-based work and even proto-psychedelic stuff can be seen as superb, didn’t really surpass the Beatles until the great string of albums beginning with Beggar’s Banquet and culminating with Exile on Main Street—by which time both the Beatles and Velvet Underground were no more.

Released within three months of one another in 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s and the Banana album represented the two social and sonic spheres of the sixties—the Beatles were light, optimistic, effervescent; the Velvets were dark, foreboding, luminescent. It’s hard to say which one had the most influence, but it’s obvious the Beatles’ influence was more immediate and the Velvets’ was more latent. What’s obvious, though, is that, taken together, they are the two most influential groups of their time—and hence any time, because, despite punk, it’s doubtful, at this point, in terms of rock music, the ‘60s is ever going to be surpassed.

1967 was the apex of that renaissance. Surely there will never be another year in which the possibilities of rock music seemed so limitless, before it became clouded by irony and pretention. Both the Velvets and the Beatles epitomized rock’s giant breakthrough as an art-form, and Sgt. Pepper and The Velvet Underground & Nico were both high water marks of the revolution—but whereas the Beatles used a more ornate style to reflect rock’s increasing maturity, the Velvets, in stark contrast, produced an almost primitive sound. Despite the stylistic differences, however, both groups shared similar concerns (which admittedly were in the air at the time). Themes of alienation, for instance, are reflected in both Pepper’s “She’s Leaving Home” and the Banana Album’s “All Tomorrow Parties.” Both albums are heavily drug-influenced, and while something like John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is nowhere near as blatant as Lou Reed’s “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” it probably turned more people onto acid than any similar song of the era (and John would have his own junk-song a couple years later in the form of “Cold Turkey’). That’s one of the things McDonald makes clear in his book—the Beatles greatest importance was as the Uber-messengers of not just rock, and psychedelia, but the avant-garde. And the Velvets of course benefited from this, being an “art band” and all.

Paul McCartney in studio with George Martin

Thanks, George, we’ll take it from here.

Noise was another integral element of the new, freer music, in both jazz and rock, and perhaps the first aspect of the Velvets to be fully grasped by future generations was this atonal quality. The Velvets were the first band, save perhaps the Who, to embrace the concept, even calling an early track “Noise.” And while the Beatles are more universally remembered for their melodic qualities, by 1968, when the whole world seemed to be in a state of chaotic dissonance, even the Beatles were pushing the sonic envelope with what could loosely be called “noise experiments”—including of course the infamous “Revolution 9” on the White Album, 8 minutes of audio mélange that, as McDonald acknowledged, became the most widely-disseminated “avant garde” document, in any art form, ever. As so often happened with the Beatles, they may not have come up with the idea, but their enormous popularity guaranteed that such concepts—ones first promulgated by the actual bastions of the avant-garde like Warhol and John Cage (and, for that matter, Yoko Ono)—would reach a much wider audience.

Speaking of noise, certainly John Lennon’s embrace of atonality in the later stages of the Beatles—from audio pastiches like “Revolution 9” and Two Virgins to the raunchy and dissonant guitar playing on tracks like “Cambridge 1969” on Life with the Lions and the live version of “Don’t Worry Kyoko” on Live Peace in Toronto—owe a lot more to the Velvets’ type of pure-noise exorcisms than the more sculpted textures of the Who and Jimi Hendrix.

While everyone was aware of the Beatles, there’s a good chance the Beatles were aware of the Velvet Underground as well. Mick and Keith already copped to the influence of the VU on “Stray Cat Blues,” and it’s a known fact that, in those days, Paul McCartney was an avid champion of the underground (sometimes even in the philanthropic sense, such as his support for the International Times or the Monterey Pop Festival). In the spring of ’67, when Andy Warhol was trying to bring Chelsea Girls to Europe, he and his entourage actually visited Paul McCartney at his home in London right around the time of Sgt. Pepper. There’s a video on YouTube, dating from ’67 or so, where Paul Morrissey, Warhol’s director, talks about how, at the time, Paul McCartney, like just about everyone else in those days, was experimenting with underground movies (which Morrissey refers to as “psychedelic”). There’s even the possibility that, right before he died, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, was thinking about managing the Velvets!


Says “factory interview” but took place in England–Ed.

According to Danny Fields in the book Uptight (pg 84): “I had given Brian the banana album and one night I was with Lou at Max’s and Brian came in briefly. He said he was on his way uptown. I went outside to his limousine with him and then I said, ‘wait a minute I have an idea.’ And ran back in and said to Lou, ‘This is your big chance to talk to Brian Epstein.’ He got in the car but there was like total silence because they were both too proud to say anything to each other. Finally Brian leaned over and said ‘Danny recommended this album to me and I took it to Mexico with my lover. It was the only album we had there. We rented a phonograph, but we couldn’t get any more albums, so we listened to it day and night on the beach in Acapulco. Consequently my memory of the whole week in paradise was your album.’”

Of course if Brian Epstein was listening to the Velvets’ first album there’s a pretty good chance the Beatles themselves had caught wind of it. Ironically, it was Brian’s death in 1967, just a couple months after Sgt. Pepper was released, that finally liberated the Beatles from their former teen-pop image…which is just another way of saying, with rock’s increasing maturity, the Beatles were no longer necessarily “leading” the movement, but increasingly were just one more hue in its ever-expanding palette. And it can be argued that, once that happened, it was inevitable that the Beatles—and hence the whole movement—would fragment. Which is why, in the ensuing years, the Velvets, who’d symbolized this individualistic, non-unifying quality from the beginning—cynicism, if you will—would be increasingly looked upon as being as important, if not more so, than the Beatles (a premise that would’ve seemed unthinkable in 1967). It should be noted also that Richard Hamilton, the artist who designed the blank cover for the White Album—undoubtedly the Beatles’ most experimental and musically-varied opus—actually appeared in Warhol’s film, Kiss, in 1964. In the ‘60s, the worlds of art, music, media and graphic design were all converging. The Beatles were at the forefront of it, but the point is, so was the Velvet Underground

And not everybody at the time favored the Beatles either—critic Richard Goldstein, who’s somewhat praise-worthy article in the Village Voice about the Velvets actually made the press blurbs reprinted on the sleeve of the banana album, famously panned Sgt. Pepper when it was released (making him, admittedly, the lone dissenter at the time). It’s clear that, in 1967, both Pepper and the VU & Nico were pointing the way towards the future; but there was no shortage of groundbreaking albums released that year, from the first albums by Cream, Pink Floyd, the Bee Gees, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Traffic and the Doors to the Mothers’ Absolutely Free, Love’s Forever Changes, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, After Bathing at Baxter’s by the Jefferson Airplane, the debuts of Moby Grape and the Grateful Dead, the 13th Floor Elevators’ Easter Everywhere, the Incredible String Band’s Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, the Who Sell Out, There Are But Four Small Faces, Younger than Yesterday by the Byrds, Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk and Nico’s own Chelsea Girls to name but a few. Changes were in the air—yes, of the “forever” variety—and while it’s tough to say whether ’67 was the “best” year that rock will ever know, it’s clear that it was the turning point. And if this is true, two albums clearly stand out as definitive: Sgt. Pepper and the Velvets’ first.

velvet crayon
Those were the days

Despite other similarities between the two groups—such as the fact they were both managed by prominent older gay men and they both sacked their original drummers—the worlds of the Velvet Underground and the Beatles were still universes apart in 1967. And although, in post-modern terms, there’s a tendency to view the Velvets’ album as having even greater impact than Sgt. Pepper, in critics’ polls conducted over the years, both albums are almost always in the Top 20. For example, in the VH1 poll conducted in 2001, Pepper comes in at Number Nine, and the VU & Nico at Number Nineteen. In 2003, Rolling Stone placed Pepper at Number One of all time, with the Banana Album at Number Thirteen. The NME, on the other hand, in a more recent Top 500—in which the Smiths’ The Queen is Dead pulled number one—the Velvets’ debut was at Number Five and Sgt. Pepper’s was relegated to the 87th spot (although Revolver was Number Two). But that’s just another example of post-modern revisionism (which the Brits are champs at). For another more Anglo-centric view there was Paul Gambacinni’s groundbreaking 1977 Top 200 Albums, where Sgt. Pepper copped the Numero Uno spot, and the Velvets’ first album placed at Number 14. Ten years later, in the book’s revised edition, although Pepper still sat firmly at the top spot, the Velvets had risen to Number Seven.

More telling is a more recent poll by Rolling Stone supposedly entailing the 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time where they proclaim the first Velvets album “the most prophetic album ever made.” Which is somewhat closer to the truth—and goes back to Ian McDonald’s original premise that the Beatles were so much a product of their time—while at the same time DEFINING it–that it became almost impossible for them to transcend it (and not be judged totally within the context of it). Sgt. Pepper was such a cataclysmic event when it was released in the Summer of Love that it honestly had nowhere to go but down in terms of esteem in the ensuing decades. The Velvets, on the other hand, were so underground in their time that it took 25 years for their full impact to be assimilated. If the Beatles were the most influential band of the ‘60s, the VU were clearly the most influential band of the ‘80s—and that influence continued to grow up until a few years ago, with the Strokes being yet another band who took their cue from the Velvets, following in the tradition of the Modern Lovers, Feelies, Dream Syndicate, Sonic Youth, Gang of Four, Jesus & Mary Chain, you name it.

It really doesn’t have to be decided which one is “better” because ultimately it can’t be. But one thing remains clear—in the minds of music fans, 1967 will live forever, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Velvet Underground & Nico are two big reasons why.


This 4-minute clip is from the Beatles official YouTube channel, so the over/under as to when it will be taken down is 36 hours based on past Reel and Rock history.

2015 Oscar-nominated Documentary Shorts in review

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In a brief pause between two snowstorms here in the half-buried Boston area, I managed to make it out to a theater that was screening the five Oscar-nominated documentary shorts. It is gratifying to see that more moviehouses (esp. in big cities or college towns) are showing nominee packages in the Academy’s three short-film categories, the others being for Animation and Live Action. Seeing them up on the big screen for full impact fives filmgoers a chance to experience (and maybe develop a rooting interest for) the work of dedicated and talented artists whose Oscar night notoriety is fleeting and too often forgotten.

Joanna—Directed by Aneta Kopacz
This looked like the front-runner to me. Joanna Salyga was a thirtysomething mother of a young son who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when this poignant parting-note of a film was made. Joanna (the woman and the film) is stoical and philosophical, avoiding the two extremes of resignation and 10K-walk bravado. It is beautifully photographed with a feature-film quality to it. The contemplative tone, completely free of any pretension, will be familiar to anyone who followed Salyga’s blog posts.

Also from Poland, and with a similar scenario, is “Our Curse” (directed by Tmasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki) except this time it’s an infant son with a rare breathing disorder, and the overwhelmed parents trying to make sense of it. As you can see, the documentary field is often a tough road to hoe.

Aside from “Joanna” the next most likely winner in this category is probably the HBO-produced “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1″ (directed by Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry). Saying “we support our veterans” or “thank you for your service” is the easy part when it comes to those Americans who were embroiled in the far-flung wars of recent decades. The hard part is following up on returning combat veterans when so many have been traumatized by their experience. This 46-second trailer will give you a pretty good idea of the noble work done by those manning a suicide-prevention hotline in upstate New York. First-rate stuff.

“White Earth”-Directed by J. Christian Jensen
The shortest of these films at a quick 20 minutes, the often-heartless economic system of 21st century America is more-or-less examined via the transient (and bleak) “boomtown” of the title, an oil-drilling hamlet in North Dakota. But seeing that only the workers’ kids (and one spouse) are interviewed you feel this could have dug a little deeper, no pun intended.

“The Reaper” (La Parka)-directed by Gabriel Serra Arguello

Vegetarians should steer clear of this stark profile of a Mexican slaughterhouse. Many meat-eaters will likely avert their eyes as well, but I found the medieval-level machinery rather fascinating (and artfully photographed). The quiet and thoughtful worker who’s given the sinister nickname of the title is a good family man who nevertheless seems a little spooked when he gets home from work. An admirable piece, though I doubt I would watch it again.

I fully expect all the above filmmakers to be respectfully interviewed on the red carpet come the Big Night. Yeah, right.

Transistor Heaven 2: February Made Me Shiver

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“A long long time ago, I can still remember how that music made me smile.” I know, right? What I have more trouble recalling is whether or not I had one of my several boyhood paper routes (as described in Part One) during that winter when Don McLean’s middlebrow magnum opus “American Pie” topped the charts. The pensive introduction to this 8-minte rock-history metaphor recalls his own days as a newspaper slinger, especially the heartbroken morning when the news told of the plane-crash deaths of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. “The Day the Music Died” was February 3rd, 1959, a day after my first birthday. Exactly thirteen years later on Feb. 4th, it was me side-arming the papers into snowbanks (presumably, anyway) and digging the tunes on my beloved WMEX in Boston. Thing is, like paper routes, classic pop music for me seemed to largely exist in some vaguely-defined eternal summer, with only a minority of favorite songs associated with cold weather. Even songs released in October or March became mentally backdated or fast-tracked into a heat wave. Or that is how it seems as I look back down the “foggy ruins of time” with apologies to the so-called Jester. Despite this meteorological-based selective memory, here were the songs counting down on the great 1510 on the 13th anniversary of that terrible crash in Clear Lake, Iowa.

“Without You” Harry Nilsson. This plainitive and despondent big ballad was catnip to those young ones carrying a classroom crush into 1972. Nilsson’s versatile vocal abilities were perfect for this Badfinger song featuring hushed verses and an anguished wail of a chorus. Unfortunately, the specter of untimely death looms over this as well. Badfinger co-writers Pete Ham and Tom Evans both committed suicide over the next decade and the hard-living Nilsson died in 1994 at age 52.


Speaking of 1994, that was the year Pariah Carey tried to ruin this song for everyone.

“Let’s Stay Together” Al Green. Some sweet soul cajoling by the Reverend and another one destined for a long shelf live on classic-hits radio. “Hurting Each Other” the Carpenters. Another hit arriving right on schedule for the brother-sister team with the honeyed contralto of future pop martyr Karen sounding particularly sad. “Heart of Gold” Neil Young. The only national #1 hit for Neil but Top 40 success seemed an ill-fit for the Laurel Canyon maverick and he was soon releasing the astringent concert LP “Time Fades Away” and recording material that would later end up on the junkie polemic “Tonight’s the Night.” “My World” the Bee Gees. Not to worry, guys. Disco is only a few years up the road. “Precious and Few” Climax. I LOVE this song. There, I said it. Sure it’s sappy and sounds like it was made five years before but it did the trick for those of us who didn’t want to quite give up their association with the Association, whose sound this recalls. “Everything I Own” Bread. And I’m doubling down on this one. Bread had a hit song about every three months from the summer of 1970 to early 1973, tapping the market for us young teens with budding romantic longings, though the tone struck by David Gates and Co. was always more adult-seeming than that. “Drowning in a Sea of Love” Joe Simon. Right behind Bread at #8 was a smoldering chunk of primo early 70s R&B that no one will feel shy about admitting to liking.

“Softly Whispering I Love You” English Congregation. Every so often, Transistor Heaven takes a side trip to hell. “Sweet Seasons” Carole King. Her mega-successful “Tapestry” album practically defined 1971 and was just cooling off when this first single off the follow-up took hold. It was an appealing, mid-tempo number that nudged listeners’ expectations towards springtime, not a bad mission for a winter hit. “Mother and Child Reunion” Paul Simon. Jumping up ten spots this week, the first of many Top 40 hits for Simon sans Garfunkel and definitely a winter song since the first time I heard it was driving thru the snow with my old man. “Clean up Woman” Betty Wright. Another in this era’s long line of great hits by lesser known woman soul singers, a list that would also include Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold”, Jean Knight’s “Mr. Big Stuff” and the Honey Cone’s “Want Ads.”

“I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” New Seekers. Come back, English Congregation, all is forgiven. This vacuous sub-kindergarten sing-along paved the way for corporate takeover of the peace-and-love ethos. At least the pie-in-the-sky lyrics were minutely tolerable in its original form, but when a diabetes-peddling company called Coca-Cola hired a gang of Stepford Youth to sing the revised words from an idyllic hilltop, you knew the Sixties were over for real. #13 in the charts and #666 in the boardroom. “Never Been to Spain” 3 Dog Night. The hits keep on coming for these Top 40 titans, with another quirky Hoyt Axton tune (“Joy to the World” was the first) and one notable for confusing Oklahoma with heaven. “The Witchqueen of New Orleans” Redbone. This danceable Cajun-influenced rocker from the Native American band was their first hit, followed two years later by the perennial “Come and Get Your Love” revived last year by its prominent place in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtrack. “Rock and Roll Lullaby” B.J. Thomas. Some would think that the terms “rock and roll” and “lullaby” are a bit on the mutually exclusive side, but it seems on YouTube many boomers love this now as parents. Who am I to hate on it?

“Lonesome Mary” Chiliwack. I remember a WMEX DJ quipping that this trio came from so far up in Canada that their drummer was a grizzly bear. Ba-boom. Actually this band was from relatively civilized Vancouver (hello there, Canuck fans!) and singer-guitarist Bill Henderson is still going strong. Chiliwack wouldn’t hit the U.S. Top 40 until their more New Wavey incarnation in the early 80s but I absolutely loved this early power-trio outing that hit at least as high as #10 in Boston.

“Changes” David Bowie. My radio introduction to the wonderful world of rock’s great chameleon as the earlier “Space Oddity” only became a hit with its 1973 re-release. An awakening to adult concerns was no doubt part of this single’s appeal, reminding us that “pretty soon now you’re going to get older.” But what a trip it would be tracing time with Bowie thru the years starting now. “Bang a Gong” T. Rex. Marc Bolan’s group seemed to coming up thru the ranks right along with his friend David Bowie, though this radio staple would be their only big stateside hit before Bolan’s tragic death in a 1977 car crash. “Down By the Lazy River” the Osmonds. Pass.

“Handbags and Gladrags” Rod Stewart. This bittersweet ballad written by Mike d”Abo was first heard on Rod’s first solo LP released exactly two years previous, but it seems it was pressed into service as a single in the lull between his monster LP “Every Picture Tells a Story” and the follow-up to hit the stores in the upcoming summer. A definite winter song this one, as an old man casts a cold eye on the trendy ways of his school-skipping granddaughter.

“American Pie” Don McLean. After three months on the local survey, Donnie’s anthem slipped thirteen places, out of the Top Ten to #22. Its impact was still pervasive. (8th grade English teacher: “That part ’I met a girl who sang the blues and I asked her for some happy news,’ that’s about Janis Joplin.” Class: “We know that!!”) “Stay With Me” the Faces. Here’s Rod again, with his old mates and a raucous stomp about a lady of easy virtue, well loved by us boys in that 8th grade class. “Ring the Living Bell” Melanie. I had completely forgotten this one from the Woodstock poster girl and when I looked it up all I could find was 5-minute LP version, which was about three minutes too long for me. “We’ve Got to Get It on Again” Adrisi Brothers. The pride of Winthrop, Mass. (the flyover town next to Boston’s Logan Airport) and another Association association, as these guys wrote “Never My Love” once cited by BMI as the second most played songs ever, with over 7 million airings, just ahead of “Yesterday.” “That’s the Way I Feel About Cha” Bobby Womack. The classic slow-burner by the recently passed-on R&B legend. I loved when it was slow dance time on Soul Train.

“Two by Two” Steve Martin. A great but nearly forgotten single by the former Left Banke lead singer. “A Horse with No Name” America. According to Randy Newman, a song “about a kid who thinks he’s taken LSD”. More on the greatest of all folk-rock army brat trios in the third and final Transistor Heaven installment this summer. “Glory Bound” the Grassroots. The second-to-last national Top 40 hit for these guys, who were still mining their classic sound amid a sea change that was less favorable to pure pop bands and more so to singer-songwriters or heavier groups. “Vahevella” Loggins and Messina. At first you would think this is more a summer song, but a sailing tour of the Caribbean had just the right touch of February escapism.

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The pick of the litter for the hitbounds this week has to be “Caroline Goodbye” by former (and future) Zombies lead singer Colin Blunstone. As in Part One, the Top 15 albums show a pretty good smattering of classics. Interestingly, at #4 (and hot on the heels of the “American Pie” LP) was “Jamming With Edwards” (sic), the ramshackle jam album featuring Mick, Charlie and Bill from the Stones as well as Ry Cooder and Nicky Hopkins. Jagger has admitted the record was cobbled together one morning while waiting for Keith Richards to get out of bed. Elsewhere, there seems to be a Christmas season hangover, with double-album best-of offerings from both the Stones and Bob Dylan and the 3-LP “Bangla Desh” box set from George Harrison and friends. Not to be out done, Chicago upped the ante with a four-disc live set. Ah, but those were bigger times.

Now if you’ll excuse, I have another new snowfall to shovel, “bad news on the doorstep” of another kind.

We’ve All Gone Solo #2 (Rick Danko)

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In a scene from “The Last Waltz” film, the Band’s bassist-vocalist Rick Danko sits at a studio mixing board with director Martin Scorsese and plays back a track he’s been working on for his upcoming solo album. These interviews were filmed in 1977, after the original group’s guest-star-studded farewell concert on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. In response to the filmmaker’s question as to what’s next for him, Danko’s chipper reply of “just trying to keep busy” is tempered when he lowers his head while listening to the playback. Re-watching the film recently for a piece I’m writing, it all just seems so sad.

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Van Morrison, Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko at The Last Waltz

While drummer-singer Levon Helm made no secret his vehement disapproval of the idea of ending the Band as a touring unit (they were ostensibly supposed to continue as a recording unit but this lasted for only one album) he and the others went ahead and did their thing until reforming in the early Eighties without guitarist-songwriter (and “Last Waltz” producer) Robbie Robertson—accused by Helm of splitting up the Band to make a grandiose film statement about the end of rock’s classic era. Danko’s self-titled solo album was released in later 1977 and was a greatly appealing rootsy rock offering, with heart-aching ballads, cheeky roadhouse rumbles and a little social commentary sprinkled in for good measure. Danko as a songwriter didn’t have Robertson’s uncanny ability to tap a rich vein mythic Americana but then again neither did Robbie after ’77 and at least Rick was still in there mixing it up. His famously tender voice was especially well used on the ballads like “Sweet Romance.”

The thing is, once the Band was gone you had five potential solo artists instead of one beloved group and in the crowded rock marketplace that can be a tough sell. It was much easier to see the Rick Danko album as Band-lite and it was lightly regarded by the press, didn’t sell well, eventually went out of print and has had a patchy history at best on CD. Luckily, all tracks are available on YouTube if you want a listen.

Speaking of “The Last Waltz”, you can have your “I Shall Be Released” all-star sing-a-long but for my money the film’s theme-defining moment comes half-way through. In a remarkable vocal performance that is both fierce and vulnerable (and pushed along by Garth Hudson’s mad-scientist organ), Danko delivers “Stage Fright” as an all-encompassing cri de Coeur for all those star-crossed performers who “got caught in the spotlight” only to want to “start all over again” at the perceived finish line. Danko, both in re-formed versions of the Band and as a solo artist, carried on until his death by heart attack in 1999.

We’ve All Gone Solo #1 (Matthew Fisher)

(A series of occasional posts hearing out the solo excursions of rock history’s supporting players whose breakaway efforts never amounted to a high-profile solo career.)

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Founding Procol Harum member Matthew Fisher was one of the early masters of the Hammond organ, the cabinet-encased keyboard whose full-bodied sound could go toe-to-toe with rock music’s dominant electric guitars. Procol’s 1967 mega-hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was constructed around Fisher’s magisterial organ but the fact that he received no songwriting credit (and hence no royalties) was a stick in his craw—and later a lawsuit. Departing P.H. after three albums, Fisher’s first solo record was 1973’s “Journey’s End”, a worthy progressive-pop affair that was nonetheless filled with depressive lyrics that at times directed ill-will at his former musical colleagues, presumably the P.H. songwriting team of Gary Brooker and Keith Reid. These songs (“Going for a Song” and “Play the Game” especially) reveal a comprehensive bitterness at a divide-and-conquer music business that elevates talented and canny individuals and leaves by the side of the road other talented people less prepared to deal with its unsentimental ways. It’s not all gloom and doom, though, as Fisher’s deft melodic and instrumental skills serve as an uplifting counterweight and the would-be hit song “Suzanne” is a real winner.

Fisher would go on to make a few more solo albums and find work as a producer—he even joined up with the re-formed Procol Harum in the early 90s. But soon after he left again in 2004 he brought a suit for a share of future royalties on “Whiter Shade”, noting his undeniable contribution to its success. A fascinating case to be sure and one found in Fisher’s favor in a decision ratified by the House of Lords in 2009. For more on that see below.

Dubious Documentaries #10

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Unknown White Male
Directed by Rupert Murray—2005—88 minutes

(Unknown White Male? No, it’s not about my status as an indie author but the concluding entry in this series and one that shows that as the documentary field continues to expand and thrive, filmmakers need to be careful that the enhanced aesthetics employed in non-fiction movies don’t confuse people as to the ultimate veracity of your project. This review was adapted from my book “Documentary 101: A Viewer’s Guide to Non-Fiction Film.”)

From Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound” in 1945 to 2000’s “Memento”, the complications arising from comprehensive memory loss has proved a top-drawer cinematic plot device. More novel is the idea of a documentary in which a real amnesia victim is filmed during the tricky process of reacquainting himself with a past life of which he has no recollection. “Unknown White Male” would appear to be just such a film. British-born New York resident Doug Bruce got checked into a hospital in July 2003 after alighting from a subway train in Coney Island not knowing where or who he was. For the next year or so, Bruce’s lifelong friend Rupert Murray constructed this artful film of his rehabilitation. Since its release, many critics and viewers have doubted the reliability of what’s on offer here. With its seeming inconsistencies and claims of a rare retrograde amnesia that is hard to both establish and refute, these nagging reservations will likely persist.

It’s not so much that you don’t want to believe Doug Bruce and his story, it’s just that everything is a little too clean cut—-life goes on pretty well for him with a supportive family, new girlfriend etc. There is far too little expert witness material here, as if you were supposed to accept the amnesia at face value even though what type of trauma may have caused it is unclear. That way we can get right to the human-interest angle, which is admittedly interesting. Perhaps this all would have worked better as a based-on-a-true-story film, maybe fashion it into some sort of thriller… Oh, wait never mind.

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In some markets, this 2011 amnesia caper was also titled “Unknown White Male.” In other places it was known as “Taken 2.5”

Any readers out there have some Dubious Documentaries they’d like to share? Let us know!

Dubious Documentaries #9

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Paul Williams: Still Alive
Stephen Kessler—2011—86 minutes

In the Seventies, Paul Williams was a fabulously successful pop songwriter and, with his famously diminutive stature and impish sense of humor, was a staple of TV talk shows and guest sitcom appearances. His songs were recorded by 3 Dog Night (“Old Fashioned Love Song”, “Out in the Country), the Carpenters (“We’ve Only Just Begun”, “Rainy Days and Mondays”), David Bowie (“Fill Your Heart”) and many others, including the Oscar-winning prom buzzkill “Evergreen.” It is not Mr. Williams who is dubious. It’s just that, as with all but the shiniest stars in the celebrity firmament, he saw his time come and go. One glance at the title of Stephen Kessler’s film will let you in on the premise. The director’s first misstep is riding the I-thought-he-was-dead conceit for the first ten minutes of the movie instead of admitting to just checking Paul’s Wikipedia entry.

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“I was going to thank all the little people but then I remembered I am the little people.” Williams wins an Oscar, 1977

Kessler professes his great admiration for Williams and his work, yet stumbles over several different doc-making strategies and mostly calls attention to himself. First, he stalks the tunesmith, then makes dubious claims about how he was granted access (“Paul and I bonded over squid”), before getting to tag along to the autograph sessions and Vegas nightclub dates that keep things going for an icon of an aging demographic. Kessler’s method seems either clueless (When Williams is in the middle of an poignant boyhood anecdote about his troubled and heavy-drinking father, the director cuts in to ask him about his first talent show) or just tacky (“Paul gave me what I always wanted.. a sleepover”). Williams is a likeable enough subject, if a bit guarded, and he’s more astute than his filmic biographer—at one juncture he even explains Kessler the relative merits of either playing to the camera or keeping it cinema verite. Although Williams’ story does get out in the end, a less kitschy approach would have yielded far more interesting subtexts than a celebrity sleepover—like a look at how fans’ persistent adoration this far down the rock ‘n’ roll road is perhaps colored by their own looming mortality. Still worth a look for fans of Williams (natch) as well as for pop-culture trainspotters of a certain vintage.

My new book, Rock Docs: A 50-Year Cinematic Journey will be released later in 2015.

Reel and Rock Film of the Year: We Are the Best!

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(A year-end Top Ten list from me? Between my day job and writing schedule, my list would be more like what ten movies did I even manage to see. So I’ll stick to my area of expertise and pick my favorite music-related film of the year while waiting for all the good movies I missed in 2014 to filter down to HBO or DVD in 2015. Happy New Year!)

There’s nothing especially profound about this droll and sweetly rebellious indie crowd-pleaser from Swedish director Lukas Moodysson. But in its acute attention to the details of its adolescent outsiders reaching for their identity, “We are the Best” is a rock & roll coming-of-age fable of the first order. Two 13 year-old girls set out to prove that “punk is not dead” to the Olivia Newton-John wannabes in their Stockholm middle school, circa 1982. Best friends Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) find their days alternating between boredom and the casual indignities passed down to teenage non-conformists. On a whim, they start a group, if only to take away practice time from Iron Fist, the doofus metal band of condescending older boys at the local youth center. Despite their unfamiliarity with the drum set and bass guitar left in the corner of the practice space, they start to bash out a song called “Hate the Sport” that rails against two of mankind’s greatest evils: the threat of nuclear annihilation and gym class. Sample lyric: “People die and scream/But all you care about is your soccer team”.

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“The world is a morgue/But you’re too busy watching Bjorn Borg!!” Swedish punk comes of age.

Convinced of their impending greatness but aware of certain musical limitations, they shrewdly recruit Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) an ignored girl from a Christian family who is a talented classical guitarist. In exchange for music tips, Bobo and Klara assure her that she’ll never have two better friends. The three lead characters are pitch-perfect in their roles if not always in their music. Between their first meet-up and the culminating trip with Iron Fist and two youth-center staffers to a “Santa Rock” event in a redneck provincial town (in time-honored punk fashion, the girls’ performance starts a riot within a minute), their acting captures early teenhood’s dizzying mix of insecurity and tenacity.

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“We’re not a makeup band.” Bobo, Hedvig and Klara hold a practice-room confab.

Moodysson blends in all the elements without overselling a single one: the rigid delineation of musical tastes, the nervous phone calls to boys, the junk food binges, the early feeling-out of political principles. As the trailer suggests it is a film for 13 year-olds: past, present and future. That’s casting the net pretty wide but it is amazing how that age, which seems like such a trial at the time, always retains a romantic glow in retrospect. I saw it with my son Ryan (then 13 himself) during its brief U.S. theatrical run last summer. He gave it 4 out of 5 stars, despite noting that it’s no “Lord of the Rings.” Hopefully, this modest gem will find a much wider audience streaming and on DVD and take a deserved spot in the cannon of great fictional rock movies.

According to a self-imposed deadline, my next book “Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey” is due to be released in summer 2015.

Dubious Documentaries, Parts 1 and 2

(Somehow, the first two installments of my Dubious Documentaries series got lost in the shuffle, so I’m re-posting them here in shortened form so they’ll be archived. The last two installments coming in early January. Happy New Year!)

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“Chariots of the Gods” (1970)
The unvetted premise of Erich von Daniken’s 1968 bestseller “Chariots of the Gods?” is that alien astronauts visited earth in its antiquity, influencing advances in civilization and supplying the technology that allowed for the building of the Egyptian pyramids, the Easter Island statues and just about everything short of the Brooklyn Bridge. As in the book, the film’s free-associating conclusions range from intriguing-but-unlikely to plain preposterous and matters are not helped by the old school “authoritative” narrator. But we all like ancient mysteries and this movie is very entertaining in an eye-rolling sort of way. “Chariots of the Gods” was even nominated for a documentary Oscar, helped no doubt by Ernst Wild’s globetrotting cinematography and the beguiling musical score by the Peter Thomas Sound Orchestra.

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“Room 237” (2012)
If there were a quantifiable way of giving an award to the documentary with the most bats in the belfry, “Room 237” would be a strong contender.
This film is a coming-out party for the subculture of conspiracy geeks who think that Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 chiller “The Shining” is a whole lot more than just the master director’s entry in the horror genre. According to the six heard-but-not-seen interviewees featured here, “The Shining” is one or more of the following things:

A) The veiled confession of a man who feels remorse for helping fake the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969.
B) An encyclopedic film essay about sexual repression
C) A coded allegory of the Nazi holocaust
D) A connect-the-dots method of decrying the violent disenfranchisement of Native Americans

Not all of these theories are over the top. Aspects of “B” and “D” have been discussed by mainstream scholars and critics for years (Oedipal themes bob to the surface and the Overlook Hotel is clearly said to have been built over a tribal burial ground) and Kubrick spent years trying to produce a Holocaust-themed film. But it’s item “A” that’s bound to stick in the craw of those viewers like me who, while recognizing “Room 237” as an enjoyable evening out at the local arthouse, want to land back in the real world by the closing credits. To use “Where’s Waldo” methodology to claim that Kubrick was somehow recruited by NASA to film the moon landing on a soundstage is just silly—I don’t think Neil Armstrong will bother turning in his grave over this one. The five-minute excerpt below shows just how quickly fascination alternates with irritation while listening to theories that seem to say more about OCD than about the possible existence of clandestine reality.