Friday, September 8, 2017

Still Here...

Just a quick update for everyone who reads this blog...I'm still here! I've been so busy with work, life, settling in to a new home, and family life that I haven't had much time to post anything on here. I still have lots of ideas and I've got a lot of writing on different things in progress, but it's been difficult to find the time to finish anything and publish it. Bear with me and be patient and I hope it'll be worth the wait!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Traffic

Traffic: (left to right) Jim Capaldi, Chris Wood, Steve Winwood (bottom) Dave Mason (ca. 1968)

It's been a while since I've done a band profile, so I thought it was time to write on about one of my favorite bands of the late 1960s/early 1970s: Traffic. Known mainly as the band that brought Steve Winwood to prominence, Traffic were one of the best and most influential bands to emerge in the latter half of the 1960s. Blending British psychedelic rock with folk, jazz, R&B, and blues music, the first half of their career from 1967-1969 saw them release three excellent albums and several hit singles with their original line-up. After a short break-up, they regrouped in 1970 to embark on the second phase of their career which saw them evolve into a jazzier, free-form style, going through several line-up changes until a final split in 1974. What they left behind was a legacy of great music that influenced many of their contemporaries, as well as future musicians.



Traffic formed in 1967, emerging from the Birmingham rock scene. Steve Winwood (guitar, bass, piano, organ, keyboards, vocals) was the eighteen year old prodigy who had fronted the Spencer Davis Group (whose hits included "Gimme Some Lovin'" and "I'm a Man"). Through sessions at The Elbow Room in Birmingham, he jammed with Jim Capaldi (drums, vocals), Chris Wood (flute, saxophone, keyboards), and Dave Mason (guitar, sitar, vocals). They decided to form a band, named it Traffic, and were signed by Island Records. Decamping to a Berkshire cottage for several weeks, they wrote the songs that would become their debut singles "Paper Sun" and "Hole in My Shoe." Both were hits in the UK and were a harbinger of things to come in terms of their composition: Winwood and Capaldi (and often, Wood) wrote together and developed the songs in a band setting, while Mason wrote alone and presented finished songs to the others, dictating how he wanted them to play. Additionally, Mason was fond of more traditional British pop song structures, while the other three tended to be more experimental and drew from wider influences. The blend worked musically, although the personality clashes between Mason and the others made things difficult. Their debut album Mr. Fantasy was released in 1967 and included the rock radio staple "Dear Mr. Fantasy" in addition to several other very strong tracks ("Heaven is in Your Mind," "Coloured Rain," "No Face, No Name, No Number"). Even on this first album, one can hear the jarring dichotomy between Mason's songs and those by Winwood/Capaldi/Wood. After the album was released, Mason left the band for a short time before returning to record their second, self-titled album. Released in 1968, Traffic was another strong album that actually featured a fair amount of collaboration between Mason and the others. The biggest song from that record was Mason's "Feelin' Alright," which would go on to be covered by numerous other artists (most notably Joe Cocker). The record had less psychedelia and featured a more stripped-down rock feel as was common in 1968 (see, for instance, the Beatles' 1968 self-titled album as another example). Other standout tracks included "Pearly Queen," "40,000 Headmen," and "Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?" At this point, though, the conflicts between Mason and the others came to a head and he left the band for good. Traffic decided to split up shortly thereafter, most notably due to Winwood joining forces with Eric Clapton (of the recently split Cream) to form Blind Faith. A final album, Last Exit, was released in 1969. While it was clearly a record-company cash-in "farewell album," it contained several strong non-album singles and B-sides such as "Medicated Goo," "Withering Tree," and "Shanghai Noodle Factory." It also had two live cuts featuring the three-man Mason-less band that were quite interesting. During the late 1960s, the band members were also in demand to play on sessions with their friends and peers, most notably Jimi Hendrix, whose 1968 masterpiece Electric Ladyland featured contributions from Winwood, Wood, and Mason. This now brings us to phase two of the Traffic story...



After one hugely successful album and US tour, Blind Faith split in late 1969. Winwood decided to write and record a solo album and asked Capaldi and Wood to contribute. One thing led to another and it instead ended up becoming the next album from a reunited Traffic. John Barleycorn Must Die was released in 1970 and was one of Traffic's biggest and most acclaimed albums, with many people to this day claiming it as their best. The album saw Winwood handling all of the guitars, bass, keyboards, and vocals while Capaldi would drum on a Traffic album for the final time until 1974. The opening salvo of "Glad/Freedom Rider" became a radio mainstay and one of their most well-known songs, and the rest of the album didn't contain any weak tracks. "Empty Pages" and the title track are stunning while the remaining songs are excellent and cover a variety of styles. Shortly after the album's release, Traffic once more expanded to a four-piece configuration by bringing in former Family and Blind Faith bassist Ric Grech. Later on in 1971, the band further expanded by adding drummer Jim Gordon (formerly of Derek and the Dominos), percussionist Rebop, and Dave Mason (for a third and final stint in the band). This line-up played six concerts in the UK which resulted in the live album Welcome to the Canteen. While this album divides many Traffic fans, in my opinion it's a solid and enjoyable document that showcases some of Mason's strongest solo material and Traffic's more extended jamming. However, Winwood made it very clear to Mason that he was only back in the band for these six shows, after which he left; the remaining line-up then went on to record The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. Released in late 1971, this album is, depending on who you ask, either Traffic's best or second-best album. The eleven minute title track was (and still is) a regular presence on FM radio, but the tracks bookending the album ("Hidden Treasure," "Many a Mile to Freedom," and "Rainmaker") showcase the best of the band's writing and musical interplay with their perfect blend of guitars, keyboards, and woodwinds. The line-up continued to turn over, however, with Gordon and Grech being dismissed from the band after the tour supporting the album due to their drug habits, while the Muscle Shoals rhythm section of David Hood (bass) and Roger Hawkins (drums) were brought in to replace them.  This incarnation of the band toured in 1972 and recorded 1973's Shootout at the Fantasy Factory, an album that has always felt like a sequel of sorts to Low Sparks. Much of this is down to the similar album art, as well as the overall feel of the songs. The writing and performances are a bit more understated (apart from the aggressive title track) and overall the album is a bit overlooked, although "Roll Right Stones," "(Sometimes I Feel So) Uninspired," and "Evening Blue" stand alongside anything else they recorded. It was during this period that Steve Winwood was suffering from complications due to peritonitis, while Chris Wood was sinking deeper into alcoholism and drug addiction.  A European tour followed in 1973, for which the band was augmented by Hawkins and Hood's Muscle Shoals bandmate Barry Beckett on keyboards. The resulting document from this tour was the 1973 album On the Road, showcasing material from the previous three studio albums in extended versions.  By the end of the tour, Steve's health was poor and Wood's addictions were becoming a liability, so Winwood dismissed the Muscle Shoals guys and brought Rosko Gee in on bass for the final Traffic line-up. This version of the band recorded 1974's When the Eagle Flies, which would prove to be the last album for the band. The songs were more somber and moody, most notably "Dream Gerrard" and "Graveyard People," while "Walking in the Wind" and the title track sounded more upbeat but had fairly bleak lyrics. In the midst of a UK tour in 1974, the band quietly split up.





After the 1974 split, the four original members of Traffic embarked on solo careers of varying success. Mason had success throughout the 1970s and continues to be in demand as a session player. Winwood started his solo career in the late 1970s and found megastardom in the 1980s and early 1990s with a series of hit singles and albums. Wood recorded solo albums although his addictions continued unabated, tragically leading to his death from pneumonia in 1983. Capaldi released some successful albums and continued his songwriting with and apart from Winwood. The two even recorded a final "Traffic" album, 1994's Far From Home. Capaldi eventually succumbed to stomach cancer and passed away in 2005. Musically, however, their legacy as Traffic remains intact and influential. In Winwood, the band had one of the most talented singers and instrumentalists of his generation. While he is rightfully highly regarded as a singer, piano/keyboard player, and songwriter, his talents on bass, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar are equally exceptional. His writing partner, Capadli, wrote many great lyrics for their songs and while he abandoned drumming from '71-'73, his talents behind the kit were excellent and augmented their songs. Chris Wood may be the most overlooked of the three core members, but his contributions should absolutely be appreciated for what they were. He was a great saxophone and flute player who always played to the song and functioned almost in the same way as a rhythm guitarist, supporting the song and emerging to the spotlight when it was his turn. The various members who drifted in and out of the band over their career (including founding member Mason) all brought something positive to their sound, but the core three of Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood were what gave Traffic its soul.



Getting personal now, Traffic were one of those bands that not too many people I grew up with in the 1980s and 1990s knew about, but I sure did. As far back as I can remember, my dad (who had been a Traffic fan since the 1960s) played their records. I grew up hearing songs from Mr. Fantasy, John Barleycorn Must Die, and The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys on a regular basis, as well as a lot of the earlier tracks on the compilation LP Heavy Traffic. I also recall being a bit confused/surprised that the Steve Winwood who was all over the radio and MTV with these slick AOR songs in the 80s was the same long-haired "muso" on all of those Traffic records from the 60s and early 70s. What drew me to them, besides Winwood's soulful and powerful vocals, was the instrumentation. I was used to listening to guitar-driven rock music, so to hear a band where the main driving force was piano/keyboard and where even the guitar-based songs weren't as in your face as other bands...this was something quite interesting to me. I was also really intrigued by the prominence of woodwinds as one of the main instruments in the band, and in a different manner than, say, Jethro Tull. Ultimately, what drew me in beyond all of this were the great songs and the juxtaposition of tight instrumental arrangements coupled with loose groovy improvisation (especially on their live stuff). Simply put, Traffic had a wholly unique and identifiable sound that captivated me the way it had captivated my dad and countless others in the 1960s. The fact that their music is still enjoyed and influential is a testament to their impact. If you haven't ever heard their music, I encourage you to check it out...as you can see, I think it's fantastic and I don't think you'll be disappointed. They continue to be one of my favorite bands of all time and I constantly find new things of interest and enjoyment in their songs, which I don't suspect will ever change.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: LENNONOLOGY: Strange Days Indeed (A Scrapbook of Madness)



With all of the words that have been written about the Beatles, both collectively and individually, I usually find myself asking if there's really a need for yet another book about them. While there have been many excellent well researched and well written books on them, those are vastly outnumbered by others that are little more than cash-in hack jobs. However, from the minute I heard about Lennonology several years ago, I knew it would be in the former category. For years, Chip Madinger and Mark Easter's book Eight Arms to Hold You has been an indispensable volume in my Beatles library, so when I heard that Chip was working on a new book, it was at the top of my list for  books worth checking out. As you'll gather from the following review, the book was more than worth the wait.


In a similar vein to excellent books like Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Chronicle (which I will be reviewing at a later date), Doug Hinman's All Day and All of the Night, or Glenn Povey's Echoes, Lennonology is a day-by-day diary. However, for this book the authors have focused on John Lennon's life from the moment he met Yoko Ono in late 1966 until his murder in 1980. With their meticulous research, the authors have detailed just about every day in their lives during this fourteen year period. The entries for each day contain not only the big events that were happening in the lives of John and Yoko, but contemporary press accounts, media appearances, record releases, recording sessions, and even documents (notes, letters, memos, etc.) that they wrote, mailed, and published. There are even entries where the authors have determined the dates that John or Yoko wrote postcards, notes, and other scribbles. Through all of these entries, the evolution of John from latter-day Beatle to wannabe avant garde artist, solo musician, and political activist can be traced in real time as it happened.



This book took me a long to get through for the simple fact that there is so much information contained within that I read it very carefuly, going through it with a fine-toothed comb so as to not miss anything. At more than 500 pages, Lennonology is a staggering work of reference and information on John and Yoko's life and career. Going through the book, what struck me was the difference in contemporary public and media perception of John and Yoko versus how those events have been portrayed since his death.  While the conventional wisdom since 1980 has been that John and Yoko's exploits were hugely influential and covered enthusiastically by a press that waited with bated breath for their every move, the contemporary information presented by the authors shows that after the initial confusion, interest, and ridicule their relationship garnered, by late 1969 most of the press and fans grew weary of their constant need for attention. Furthermore, their somewhat egotistical chronicling of the minutiae of every aspect of their life, whether via record, film, or interview seemed to wear thin fairly quickly. Even John's status as a Beatle couldn't shield him from the press and fellow figures in the music business taking swipes at him (most strikingly DJ John Peel, who rightly sneered at John and Yoko's call for peace and activism while they rode in limos, flew on private jets, and lived in an enormous mansion). Indeed, by the time the Beatles officially split up in 1970, the press (and many fans) were quite tired of John and Yoko's media oversaturation.



Lennonology also gives some fascinating insight and context into the end of the Beatles. While much of the information has been known for a long time, here it's presented in chronological order to the exact day. Furthermore, there are a lot of little nuggets of information that were new to me, most surprising that John and Paul were still working on songs together and bouncing ideas off of each other as late as the spring of 1969. In addition to the Allen Klein problem, it's also shocking just how much the lack of effective communication between the four of them was to blame for the disintegration in relations. Even though John stunned the other three by declaring that he was leaving the band in late 1969, the door didn't seem to be completely closed until Paul issued his statement in April 1970. While it surprised George and Ringo, it infuriated John and ensured that any chance at further band discussions were remote, if not impossible. The naivete and silliness of much of John and Yoko's politics is also on full display through contemporary media coverage, especially in their early-to-mid 1970s period. John was well-known for finding a new craze or idea, jumping wholeheartedly into it with all-consuming enthusiasm, and then quickly losing interest and moving on to the next thing. His activism was no exception and as a reader, I felt embarrassed for him...no doubt he would be as well were he still alive to read Lennonology.  John's immigration battle to remain in the USA and gain permanent resident status was described in fine detail and sets the record straight on a lot of things regarding the motivations, political and otherwise, behind his nearly six year battle through the court system. As the 1970s progressed, it was interesting to track how John's life settled down after he spiralled out of control during his Lost Weekend of 1973-74. Once his son Sean was born in 1975, he took his hiatus from the music business, finally got his Green Card, and embraced getting older and being a father. However, it was also sad to read of the events in 1980, especially with how fulfilled and happy John seemed to be as he approached 40. Since we all know what happened on December 8th of that year, reading the events leading up to that moment have an almost fatalistic sense of doom that makes it very emotional and difficult to get through. The authors do a nice job of sticking to the facts and letting John and Yoko's words tell the story. The chronicle ends right as John steps out of his limo and onto the sidewalk outside the Dakota that evening, which is as tasteful (yet melancholy) a way to end the book as there could be. The final sections of the book consist of several appendices detailing John and Yoko's discographies as well as a plethora of information such as all of their residences, hotels, and the like during their time together. As an added bonus, there are more than 150 pages of electronic indices available at www.lennonology.com for further research and insight.



The long and short of it is that, if you're a serious fan of the Beatles and/or John Lennon, this is an essential and valuable book for studying their life and career together. The attention to detail is exceptional and while it's densely packed with information, it's very readable. In fact, I would recommend a thorough beginning-to-end reading of the book. Even though it can also be used as a reference book for looking up specific events and dates, the telling of their story and career predominantly in their own words is really enjoyable. There are many new tidbits of information throughout the book that, when read in their proper context, help certain events make more sense than they ever have. Simply put, this is an excellent book that no serious Lennon fan should be without. The true challenge is now waiting for volume two to be released in order to see what new information the authors have unearthed. Lennonology is an exceptional work on the life and career of one of music's true geniuses and his equally interesting (and misunderstood) partner.

LENNONOLOGY can be purchased at www.lennonology.com

MY RATING: 10/10


Saturday, April 29, 2017

Adulting is Hard

For those of you reading this who are adults (which I'm guessing is most of you), you almost certainly understand immediately what I mean by the title of this post. This isn't one of those whining and complaining posts, but rather just some wry and timely observations on the subject. In essence, it's going to be just one of those "life" posts that doesn't try to do anything other then let me get my thoughts out onto the paper, or rather screen...merely an exercise in letting these thoughts out of my brain and into the ether.

My life is, overall, really good and I'm incredibly thankful for what I have. I've got a loving wife, children that bring utter joy into my life, a job I really enjoy, a roof over my head, food in the fridge, and good health. I've got tons of friends and family members who I care about and who care about me in return. I really don't have anything to complain about. However, as with anyone, there are from time to time stresses and problems that arise that make life a lot less enjoyable. It's usually during these times that I'll hear my kids saying things like "I can't wait to be a grown-up!" or "I wish I was an adult right now!" Every time I hear them say things like this, I gently remind them that they have the rest of their lives to be grown-ups, but only a very short period of time to be kids. I also let them know that I'd love to be able to go back and be a kid for a little bit, to which I usually get incredulous looks of disbelief. "But what about all of the stuff you can DO when you're an adult?" they usually ask. While they're right that as an adult, I can do pretty much anything I want to (within the confines of the law, or course), it's always difficult trying to explain to them that "adulting," as we'll call it, also comes with a ridiculous amount of responsibility and stress. Just over the last six months, I went through a job layoff, looking for (and securing) a new job, a plumbing disaster that necessitated a complete remodel of our finished basement, coordinating the sale of one house and the purchase of another, filing my yearly tax return...and that's all in addition to the regular everyday issues of raising four kids and supporting my family. Obviously, I didn't do all of these by myself; I had my wife right by my side and we tackled everything together. My point is, all of that "adulting" was above and beyond even what "normal" life throws at us, yet we got through it okay with a lot of hard work, blood, sweat, tears, and praying. It's times like those, however, that make me yearn for childhood again, if only for a day or two. To have time back where my biggest responsibilities were to keep my room clean, do my homework, and get to bed early! Still, it doesn't do to dwell on the past, especially as it can never be again. Rather, it's best to keep the memories of those days close while enjoying being able to "adult" (as a verb) and all of the fun that (usually) comes along with it, not least of which for me is being a husband and a father.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Spring Update

Regular readers here will have noticed that I haven't been posting nearly as frequently as I used to. There are many good reasons for that and despite my best efforts, there simply aren't enough hours in the day to rectify the situation. Between starting a new job, selling a house, buying a new house, and coordinating moving my entire family and all of our belongings to a new city and state, it's been a crazy month and looks to be that way until the end of the summer when the dust has finally settled. I'm also working on a mammoth book for my new review, so it's taking a lot of time for me to go through and read it (but it'll be worth it...it's a great book so far!). So for those of you who enjoy reading what I write, there will always be more on the way, but perhaps just not as frequently. As much as I love writing on this blog, it doesn't pay my bills and my professional scientist alter ago has to come first. Thanks for understanding and bearing with me...I hope you'll find the results to be worth it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Secondary Songwriters

I've had this theory for years and years, and it's one that I feel has mostly been proven true. It goes like this: just about every great band in rock history are ruled by dictatorships; that is, they all have primary songwriters who compose the bulk of their material and steer the group's artistic direction. This has largely been borne out when one looks at the titans of their respective eras: the Beatles (Lennon and McCartney), the Who (Townshend), the Kinks (Ray Davies), the Rolling Stones (Jagger and Richards), Blur (Albarn), Oasis (Noel Gallagher), Led Zeppelin (Page and Plant), the Smiths (Morrissey and Marr), Cream (Bruce), and CCR (John Fogerty), just to name several. There are also bands that have a very democratic split when it comes to songwriting, like R.E.M. (where all four members get credit regardless of who contributed what) or Rush (Lee and Lifeson write the music, Peart writes the lyrics), and bands where the writing dutiesweare split fairly even between two individuals such as Grant Hart and Bob Mould in Husker Du or Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding in XTC. And of course, there are bands with different situations that fit in between all of the ones I've listed above.

However, for the purposes of this article, I'm going to focus on that first batch of bands I mentioned which are ruled by creative dictatorships. Every so often, those running the band would let one of the other members have some of their own songs on the albums, and while the results weren't always as good as those of the main songwriters, sometimes they were. In many cases, the songs by these secondary songwriters, as I'm calling them, were the highlights of the albums they were on and actually every bit as good as anything written by the main writers. I thought it would be fun to write about some of my personal favorite secondary songwriters and highlight some of my favorite songs of theirs. Ready? Let's go!

John Entwistle

Known mainly for being the bass guitarist in The Who, John is widely considered to be one of the greatest rock bass players of all time. While in the Who, he played exquisite bass, sang backing vocals, and played all of the horn parts in the studio. However, he was also a pretty damn good songwriter in his own right. The problem is that with someone as prolific, brilliant, and strong a personality as Pete Townshend in the band, there wasn't much room for John's songs; he even named his first solo album Smash Your Head Against the Wall in reference to how it felt trying to get space on Who albums. With that being said, John had some truly great moments on Who records. While he's most famous for "Boris the Spider" and "My Wife," those aren't two of my favorites of his. Both are great songs but the former is a bit of a novelty song while the latter has been overplayed to death. Instead, I prefer these John songs:

"Whiskey Man"

Released on their second album, 1966's A Quick One, "Whiskey Man" tells the story of an alcoholic who hallucinates an imaginary friend, Whiskey Man, who only "comes out when I drink." Eventually, the narrator gets taken to a psychiatric hospital, still unable to understand why no one else can see his friend. The lyrics are pretty sophisticated and moving for a 22 year old to have written, and the music is quite evocative and quintessentially mid-1960s British.



"Someone's Coming"

A B-side, and one of the few John-penned song that is sung by Roger. This song tells the poignant and humorous tale of a young man who has to sneak out to see his girlfriend because her parents don't like him. With typical wry Entwistle humor and some nice horn work, this is a perfect little vignette from 1967 that sits alongside anything his bandmate Pete Townshend and Kinks songsmith Ray Davies wrote that year.



"Heaven and Hell"

The Who's high voltage live opener during their 1969-1970 period, this song has strange chord changes and lyrics that warn the listener to about where they may end up in the afterlife depending on how they live.  In concert, it was used to warm up the band for the long set that was to come, but the studio version is pretty damn good in its own right.



"When I Was a Boy"

Another B-side, this is a pretty down and bleak look at adult life and how it compares to childhood. More nice horn work from John, but the real highlight of this song is Keith Moon's as-always incredible drumming. It's actually one of my favorite Who songs, period, based on the music, the lyrics, and the band's performance.



"Postcard"

"Postcard' is a song from an aborted EP the Who recorded and tells of the sights, sounds, smells, and ordeals the band encountered during their ridiculously heavy touring years of 1967-1970. Besides the funny yet touching lyrics about homesickness and their various travails on the road, this song also has some humorous sound effects and nice horn, bass, and drum parts.



"Trick of the Light"

With a sound likened by Pete Townshend to a "musical Mack truck," John plays both his usual bass guitar as well as an 8-string bass during this song. Another rare John song sung by Roger (of which there are only three total), this one is about the singer's insecurity and uncertainty as to his, shall we say...performance with a lady of the night. Subtle humor even by John's standards, it's nonetheless a moody and brooding song with some nice guitar licks from Pete during the outro.


George Harrison

(due to copyright restrictions, Beatles songs aren't available on YouTube, hence no videos)

As one of the Beatles, George Harrison obviously needs no introduction. As the third songwriter in a band that happened to have Lennon and McCartney as its leaders, it was unfortunate yet inevitable that George would have a hard time getting his songs on albums. As he also pointed out in the Beatles Anthology documentary, John and Paul had been writing songs long before the Beatles started recording and had worked all of the bad songs out of their systems; George had to do his learning during the early part of their career. While this resulted in him contributing only a handful of songs in the early days (the quality of which was uneven), by the end of their career most of his songs were on par with anything John and Paul were writing.

"Taxman"

One of George's most well-known songs, this slashing and angry rocker has some of the sharpest and most incisive lyrics of any Beatles song. That the topic is the ludicrously high taxation on top earners in 1960s Britain, and that it came from the pen of the Beatle most concerned with money make it all the better. The absolute musical highlights of this song are Paul's bass playing and his jagged and angry guitar solo.
 

"Don't Bother Me"

Maybe you think this is a strange choice, but hear me out. This was the first song of George's to appear on an album (1963's With the Beatles) and as he said later on, was more of an exercise into seeing if he could actually write one. Composed while he was sick in bed on tour with the Beatles, it's a typically dour and sour George song, but the reasons I like it so much have to do with the interesting chord changes and the tremolo rhythm guitar part.

"Something"

Not much can be said by me about this song that hasn't been written elsewhere...it's simply one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. Besides George's exquisite guitar solo, Paul's bass playing and harmony vocals and George Martin's pretty orchestration are highlights here.

"While My Guitar Gently Weeps"

Probably my favorite George-penned Beatles song, this slow burning and beautiful song has fantastic performances from all four Beatles and stunning lead guitar playing from George's best friend Eric Clapton. Eric was the rare outside musician who was invited to play on a Beatles track, but he plays the perfect solo and fits right in with the band and the song. George's acoustic demo of the song has a different feel and is equally pretty, deserving consideration in its own right.

"Within You, Without You"

In my younger days I didn't think much of this song...in fact, I usually skipped over it when I listened to Sgt. Pepper. However, once I actually gave it a chance and really listened to it, I was struck by how beautiful it is both musically and lyrically. My favorite part of the entire song is the blending of the Indian musicians with George Martin's gorgeous orchestral score.

"If I Needed Someone"

The closest the Beatles ever came to sounding like the Byrds, George's chiming electric 12-string Rickenbacker powers this song. The soaring three-part vocal harmonies really make this one for me...it's just a nice, catchy song overall.

Dave Davies

Brothers are natural rivals with each other while growing up, and quite often this competition spills over into adulthood. Taking that natural competitiveness into consideration, it must have been even harder for Dave Davies to be in a band with an older brother as prolific and brilliant a songwriter as Ray Davies. However, Dave managed to contribute some excellent songs to the Kinks alongside his stellar lead guitar playing and harmony vocals.

"Death of a Clown"

Probably Dave's most famous song, this is a beautiful and haunting song about the drag and exhaustion of the endless touring the Kinks were doing at the time. The slightly out of tune upright piano, the melancholy lyrics, and the beautiful harmony vocals from Ray, Pete Quaife, and Ray's wife Rasa, make this is one of the great songs of the 1960s.



"Funny Face" & "Susannah's Still Alive"

Along with "Susannah's Still Alive," "Funny Face" is one of two songs written by Dave that deals with his heartbreak over the estrangement from his first girlfriend Sue. While "Susannah's Still Alive" is bouncier and catchier, "Funny Face" is my favorite of the two. It's haunting, somber, and quite melancholy. Both songs are from the same time period as "Death of a Clown" and are highlights of the Kinks' 1967 sound, fitting seamlessly into the sound of what Ray was writing at the time.





"Mindless Child of Motherhood"

I can't quite put my finger on it, but this is just a song I've always loved. I think what does it for me is the way the frantic and slightly darker sounding verses go into the brighter, jangly chorus that just sounds so...quintessentially Kinks. That it came from Dave and not Ray should end all debate over who was more important to the band's sound...they both were.



"Living on a Thin Line"

Widely considered to be one of Dave's finest songs, I'd have to agree. The music is beautiful and the lyrics are very incisive and appropriate, perhaps even more so today than they were in the early 1980s when this was written. I believe I've read that this was one of Ray's favorite songs that Dave wrote and it's not hard to see why.


I think that's a good place to stop for now. There are many other examples of secondary songwriters I'll write about, but for the time being I think this is a good showcase highlighting how just because someone isn't the dominant creative force in their band, it doesn't mean they never write songs as good as their leaders. Obviously these examples are from some of my favorite bands...those of you reading this may agree or disagree with the examples I've used, or you may have examples from other bands that you like. I'm almost certain that I'll write more articles on this topic in the future, but in the meantime let's discuss. If you have anything to add or comment on, let's talk in the comments below!


Sunday, March 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: John (John Lennon)


To the casual observer, John Lennon's wife was Yoko Ono. However, those who know more about the Beatles' history and background know that before Yoko, John was married to Cynthia (nee Powell) and in fact had spent a decade of his life with her before cheating with Ono an leaving her. Always one to shy from the limelight of Beatlemania during the 1960s and content to be a housewife raising their young son Julian, Cynthia had arguably the best perspective on John's life during the most famous period of his life. While she had written a book about her first marriage in the late 1970s called A Twist of Lennon, it wasn't until the late 2000s that a more comprehensive and thorough look at her time was published: the current book titled simply John. Even though I read it when it came out, I've given it a fresh re-reading for this review.


The book begins with an interesting, heartfelt, and candid introduction from Julian Lennon describing the father who "let me down in so many ways." It's rather heartbreaking to read of Julian's love for his father, while he fully understood from a young age that while his dad sang to the world about love and peace, he gave little-to-none of either to the wife and child he abandoned in 1968. From here, Cynthia begins the book with details about her birth and childhood in Liverpool during WWII. Born in 1939 as the youngest of three children, Cynthia, like John, suffered the unexpected death of a parent while she was a teenager. In her case, it was her father and she handled it, at least from an emotional standpoint, better than John did the death of his mother. It was while a student at art school in Liverpool that she first met John in 1958. After being initially wary of him, they ended up falling in love and even though John's jealousy, insecurity, and aggression meant that their relationship was a bit stormy (including an incident Cynthia recounts where John smacked her in the face, knocking her to the ground), there was genuine love and affection for her on John's part. I'm not going to recount the Beatles' history during this period as it's been written about to death elsewhere and Cynthia does a good job summarizing it in the book as it goes along. What does stand out are the countless anecdotes about John where he is boorish, insensitive, uncaring, and just downright nasty. While she does balance these out with stories of his kindness and generosity (especially with his money, which is well-known), as the Beatles' career progressed and his drug use (which she states was the #1 contributor to the demise of their marriage) increased, these became fewer and further between. She suspected that there was something going on with Yoko from the first time she met her in 1967, but was still stunned when she walked in on John and Yoko in 1968. Amazingly, John went back to Cynthia for a very short time and played it off as a one-off fling until leaving for good and abandoning her and their son. The divorce was nasty although, as she fully admits, Cynthia accepted a ridiculously low settlement offer when she could've gotten so much more. What was surprising was that even in light of this treatment at John's hands, she never stopped loving him and spent the next dozen years up to John's murder wishing for them to be friends again, both for Julian's sake and for hers. Sadly, it never happened.


From here, the book details her life bringing up Julian on her own and how his father's abandonment affected him. Some of the stories are heartbreakingly cruel and it's hard not to feel anger at John when reading some of the things he said and did to his young son. Over the next couple of decades, Cynthia had two more failed marriages and another long term relationship that ended before she finally found the right match with her fourth (and final) husband, Noel Charles, in 2002. To her credit, she's very self-aware and reflective throughout the book, realizing that was much too accommodating and deferential to John, and not assertive enough in standing up to him during their marriage. She also admits to rushing into her post-John relationships despite having reservations about all three men. Her stories of Yoko's manipulations and harsh treatment of Julian, especially after John's death, are equally upsetting. Although Cynthia never comes across as being mean-spirited or out to tell salacious tales, it's hard not to be disgusted with the way John and (especially) Yoko treated them. Still, I don't doubt as to the veracity of the stories as not only have they been corroborated elsewhere, but none of them are anything other than entirely believable and in keeping with John and Yoko's behavior. Likewise, her candidness when discussing John's Aunt Mimi is refreshing. Her portrait of Mimi as emotionally cold, distant, and jealous of anyone else who got close to John, as well as Mimi being incredibly class conscious and snobby jibes with much of what's been written about her elsewhere. This is despite Mimi's attempts to soften her own image in later years with the numerous interviews she gave. I realize that we all have preconceived biases when we read something and that I'm perhaps tipping my hand as to how mine lean, but I didn't find anything in this book that ran against what I already thought about the main players in John's life.


The biggest thing that comes through in the book is how caring and supportive in general Cynthia was as a person. She has an especially close and loving relationship with Julian and everything she did to support him and make sure he became a fine grown man are testament to what kind of person she was. The book ended with a somewhat chilling admission that, while she never regrets having her son, had she known in 1958 what falling for John Lennon would do to her life, she would go back, turn around, and walk away from him. This is one of those books that will make you see John in a much less flattering light, especially if you held him in high regard beforehand. I've always been someone who admired his music and much of his life, but also knew about his many flaws and how poorly he could treat people. For me, it didn't change my opinion of him as much as it simply confirmed how I felt about his failings and shortcomings. As Cynthia rightly pointed out, he was a brilliantly creative genius who was also incredibly complex and flawed.  The overall tone of the book is somewhat bleak and downcast, but given John's treatment of her and how much of a struggle her life was after their marriage broke up, it's quite understandable. If you hero-worship John Lennon, then this probably isn't the book for you, but if you've got a more balanced and realistic view of the man, this book (despite its few flaws) will give you a fairly accurate portrait of the man from the woman who was by his side for the most famous decade of his life.

MY RATING: 8.5/10