Category Archives: Music — 1970s-80s

A Special Report, Part 2: The Holy Bee Does NOT Recommend — The Rolling Stones in the ’80s

October 1982…The Rolling Stones owed Atlantic Records one more album on the deal they inked way back in ‘71. The sooner they knocked it out, the sooner they could cash in on a new deal with another label that had deeper pockets. To facilitate the process, for the first time Mick and Keith demoed a complete, all-new batch of songs ahead of time, instead of slowly building up the compositions during the sessions themselves.

The following month, the Stones picked up the tools of their trade again in what they’ve considered their home base studio since 1977 — EMI’s Pathe-Marconi, Paris. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards would be self-producing under the moniker “the Glimmer Twins” as they had been for several years, aided by engineer Chris Kimsey. Kimsey would now be officially elevated to the status of co-producer. A new face in the studio was Chuck Leavell, a virtuoso keyboard player from Georgia and former member of the Allman Brothers Band. Leavell became a fixture at every Stones session and concert tour from that point until this very day. Unfortunately, Leavell’s timing in joining the Stones family was not the best. The autumn French weather wasn’t the only thing that was frigid. The negative atmosphere of the Emotional Rescue sessions intensified — the band was stressed-out, ill-tempered, and uncommunicative. Bill was rumored to be quitting the band.

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Mick and Chuck Leavell

Still, the show must go on. Millions of dollars hung in the balance. Mick was at the height of his club-hopping and trend-chasing, latching on to whatever was newest and shiniest in the music scene, to the disgust of traditionalist Keith. Keith’s disinterest in the developing style of the new album led to minimal input on his part, resulting in it being totally dominated by Jagger’s vision.

The basic tracks were wrapped up in Paris by December 16 — a new speed record for the normally lackadaisical group (likely because they couldn’t stand being in the same room together for long). Then habit re-established itself as things slowed down and the Stones studio-hopped for the next several months…overdubs at Compass Point in the Bahamas over the spring of ‘83, then final touches and mixing at the Hit Factory in New York through August. As usual, a clutch of guest musicians was invited to contribute, most notably the Jamaican rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, and a veritable parade of percussionists (including Dunbar, Martin Ditcham, and Moustapha Ciesse & Brahms Coundoul of the Afro-jazz group Xalam).

Undercover was released in November 1983, with a titillating sleeve featuring a vintage nude model, her “bikini area” strategically covered with what appear to be stickers. (On first edition pressings they really were stickers, and you can bet those things are worth a fortune now, peeled or unpeeled.)

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Undercover, 1983

The first song face-plants right out of the gate. “Undercover (of the Night)” tells a semi-coherent tale of political violence in South America. The vocals are more of a narration, and have no flow. The aggressive beat is over-populated with a cacophony of percussive noisemakers, including Sly Dunbar on Simmons electric drum pads, which ought to be a capital offense on a Stones song. Charlie gamely does what he can on his traditional drum kit, but he’s swamped. Kimsey opens up the Pandora’s box of synthesized, antiseptic ’80s production, with none of the grit that signifies a good Stones song. It’s a problem that will dog the whole album.

The second track, a Chuck Berry-inspired rocker called “She Was Hot,” is for the most part very enjoyable…but there’s a whiff of over-calculation. The individual elements are solid — the lyrics, the vocals, the guitars, and especially the drums (Charlie’s on fire) all do their jobs at the service of a light-hearted ‘50s-style throwback. But as a whole it feels like it was assembled from instructions. A color-by-numbers “My First Rock & Roll Song” kit. Up next is “Tie You Up (The Pain of Love),” which may be the one Undercover song I can enjoy without reservation. A saucy blast of thumping, sexed-up funk, the kinky BDSM theme may not be everyone’s cup of lube, but it’s the one moment on the album where the band breaks out and sounds loose. Keith’s turn on lead vocals follows with “Wanna Hold You.” Coming after “She Was Hot” and “Tie You Up,” this concludes the album’s brief segment of listenability. Although it’s a treat — who doesn’t love Keef? — it’s merely a spirited retread of Tattoo You’s raunch-rock masterpiece “Little T&A.” 

“Feel On Baby” is Undercover’s reggae song. Emotional Rescue’s “Send it to Me” sounds like The Best of Bob Marley compared to this big heap of nothing that drags on for over five soul-killing minutes. The clattering, echoey percussion introduced on “Undercover (of the Night)” and slathered over everything is really starting to wear out its welcome.

Punctuated by a cheesy horn section that would make Lionel Richie retch, “Too Much220px-Too_Much_Blood_cover Blood” is the last gasp of the Stones’ side job of creating at least one dance track per album for the discos, a tradition that began with Black and Blue’s “Hot Stuff.” This one goes a little thematically darker than the usual club anthem, but the genuine menace once exuded by the Stones is reduced to a carnival haunted house, Alice Cooper-style. The interminable spoken word segments from Mick, rambling in his put-on Cockney accent about Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the true-crime cannibalism case of Issei Sagawa, are bad icing on a worse cake. (“Too Much Blood” did indeed get its extended 12-inch dance mix, which doubled the song’s already agonizing six-minute running time. I can only imagine the dance club’s patrons using it as an opportunity to go do blow in the restroom.)

“Pretty Beat Up” lacks substance, melody, or a point. This bit of filler that barely qualifies as a song once had the very appropriate working title of “Dog Shit.” A guest spot by saxman David Sanborn can’t polish this turd. By the time the second half staggers into “Too Tough,” I have usually given up trying to listen to Undercover. “Too Tough” (To Listen To?) is another number that’s just too generic for words. Unmemorable, off-the-shelf guitar riffs make this sound like a knockoff bar band imitation of the Stones rather than the real deal. “All the Way Down” tries to conjure a little of the old “Shattered” spirit with its rapid-fire vocals and tale of decadence, but it can’t rise above its phoned-in music.

The best thing about “It Must Be Hell” is the knowledge that it is the last song, and puts a welcome bullet in the head of the whole project. Another unsuccessful attempt at social commentary like the title song, “It Must Be Hell” lays down yet another plastic prefab backing track as Mick decries the suffering and plight of…someone, somewhere. It’s never really clear. Maybe it’s about Soviet communism? I dunno.

The Rolling Stones

4/5ths of the Stones, 1983. Where’s Bill?

Undercover has no there there. It seems to be occupying a theoretical space where a Stones album should be, but it disappears when you poke past its shiny surface. A used-up Chris Kimsey told the difficult band he was opting out of whatever their next project was.

From the outset, Keith did not care for the material put together for Undercover. Especially nowadays, people tend to elevate the super-cool outlaw rebel Keith Richards at the expense of campy, prancing frontman Mick Jagger. But when the Undercover situation was reversed, and the opportunity came to dominate the creative process of making a Rolling Stones album…Keith proved quite capable of producing total crap as well. 

How did this happen? It all started a couple of months before the release of Undercover. On August 25, 1983, the Rolling Stones announced they had signed a $28 million deal with CBS Records. All well and good. But piggybacked onto deal was an entirely separate fat payday for Mick — for his new solo career. This was kept secret from the rest of the band for as long as possible.

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Walter Yetnikoff

In fact, it was widely believed that CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff wanted Mick Jagger as a solo artist more than he wanted the Rolling Stones. Mick’s status as a celebrity and media personality seemed unaffected by the artistic ups and downs of the band in the last few years. By the early ’80s, in some people’s eyes the Rolling Stones were merely Mick Jagger’s backing band. (A shot of the Sun Devils Stadium marquee reading “Tonight: Mick Jagger & The Rolling Stones” on their ‘81 tour was discreetly edited out of the concert film.) It certainly appeared that Yetnikoff believed people would buy Jagger’s stuff in the same numbers as they bought the Stones. (He would be proven wrong, of course. Jagger’s whole persona, down to his voice itself, can be jarring when removed from the familiar context of the Stones.) And kingmaker Yetnikoff would get the credit for shepherding Mick away from sharing the spotlight with four other guys and into a lucrative new era. There was every expectation that Mick could be the next Michael Jackson, the Stones being the Jackson Five in this analogy.

When Yetnikoff actually pushed for Mick to do his own album before the next Rolling Stones album (and pushed hard — Walter was a pushy guy), the cat came screeching out of the bag. Mick announced in April 1984 there would be no work with the Stones that year as he concentrated on his first solo album. Keith was predictably livid, but could do nothing but wait. After a series of fractious band meetings, it was agreed to start recording the new Stones album in January 1985. 

When the momentous occasion finally arrived, Mick — just as Keith predicted — arrived 220px-Shesthebossat Pathe-Marconi with an empty tank. No songs, no ideas for songs, no lyrics, no scraps. He had used it all up on his own album, She’s the Boss, due out in a few weeks. He would soon be jetting off for press, promotion, videos, and all the distractions selling an album requires. (She’s the Boss did not fly off the shelves, but made it to #13 on the U.S. charts. Not a failure, but Yetnikoff’s predictions of having the next Michael Jackson in his stable were not panning out.)

Recording began in earnest in April, and it frequently proceeded without Mick. And even more frequently without a fed-up Bill, who was rumored to be quitting the band. And often without the band’s anchor/compass, Charlie, who was depressed, drinking heavily and, unknown to everyone until after this period was over, using heroin. So Keith stepped up to the plate and began cranking out songs, assisted by Woody, who was just out of rehab (not for the last time.) Keith desperately wanted to tour with this album, so the songs he created were designed to be concert-friendly — big riffs, high energy. He felt all the band’s problems could be worked out if they just hit the damn road. It was not to be. Maybe it was for the best — the songs formulated to be concert warhorses were uniformly second-rate. Continue reading

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A Special Report, Part 1: The Holy Bee Does NOT Recommend — The Rolling Stones in the ’80s

…with one exception. 

When asked who’s the greatest band the world’s ever seen, I automatically answer “the Beatles.” When asked the slightly different question of who is my favorite band, I would tend to say the same thing. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that deep in my heart, my favorite band is the Rolling Stones. 

And the reason I hesitate to admit that is due almost entirely to the damage they did to their reputation because of the quality of material they released (or let escape) in the 1980s. The Beatles broke up before they had to contend with the ’80s.

The Rolling Stones, 1980

Before the ’80s as a decade had receded far enough to gain historical perspective, rock fans always pointed to the trio of albums after 1972’s epic Exile On Main St as the band’s artistic nadir. But in an entry a while back, the Holy Bee mounted a spirited defense of Goats Head Soup (1973), It’s Only Rock and Roll (1974), and Black and Blue (1976) as artistically valid and quite worthy entries in the Stones discography, if not really at the level of their true classics. Far worse was to come after Black and Blue…

…but not just yet. 1978’s Some Girls was immediately lifted to the Rolling Stones Top Shelf to nest alongside Sticky Fingers and the like, and has managed to stay there. 1980’s Emotional Rescue was a swing and a miss (maybe more of a foul tip), hopefully just an aberration. They righted the ship with 1981’s Tattoo You. Its monster single “Start Me Up” dominated the radio that fall, and the album as a whole is generally considered a “near-classic.” In many people’s eyes, it is the last truly good Rolling Stones album. (There may be a secret reason to its success. Read on.)

Then came Undercover (1983). And Dirty Work (1986), and suddenly the decade was a bust.  People who continue to pick on poor old Goats Head Soup out of habit probably haven’t even heard these things. They’ve been swept under the rug and forgotten. They are totally soulless, full of empty ’80s flash, and were the product of a band on the verge of falling apart. 

No one liked those albums much even at the time (though they initially sold well), but 1989’s Steel Wheels? It was hailed as a masterful artistic comeback. Rolling Stone magazine gave it a slobbering four-and-a-half star review. (Not really a surprise there, given the magazine’s unfortunate habit of fellating dinosaurs. Still, I won’t cancel the subscription I’ve had since 1991.) Unfortunately, Steel Wheels’ uber-trendy, late-80s production has stood the test of time about as well as parachute pants. When everyone got over their euphoria that the band survived its near-breakup, Steel Wheels plummeted in prestige, and it’s now settled pretty firmly near the bottom of the canon.

So the Stones’ 1980s output consisted of two mediocre albums that aged poorly, two total disasters…and Tattoo You, which everyone liked. The possible secret to its success? It wasn’t widely known at the time, but Tattoo You was entirely pieced together from 1970s outtakes, when inspiration was running a little higher.

At work in the Pathe-Marconi Studios, c. 1977

In earlier recording sessions, the Stones did rack up their share of outtakes and unreleased material here and there. But engineer Chris Kimsey, with whom the Stones began working in 1977, always kept the tapes rolling. Any musical performance in the studio, be it a false start, a tentative run-though, or an almost-ready final draft, was recorded and meticulously stored away. The band and Kimsey labored for months at the rambling old EMI Pathe-Marconi Studios in suburban Paris (the actual location was Boulogne-Billancourt), compiling the material that would comprise Some Girls, and leaving lots of stuff unused in varying states of completion. 1979’s Emotional Rescue sessions also produced a backlog of songs for the vault. This practice would come in handy a few years down the line.

Let’s start our examination of the Stones’ decade-long tumble from greatness by looking at the heights from which they fell. Some Girls (May 1978) shot to #1 in the Billboard charts, and sold in the neighborhood of seven million copies. Kicked off by the disco jam “Miss You,” highlights included “Shattered,” a multi-layered, serpentine proto-rap about urban decay, my favorite Stones power ballad “Beast of Burden,” and one of guitarist and band co-leader Keith Richards’ best outlaw anthems, “Before They Make Me Run.” There’s also a trio of diamond-hard, speed demon rockers (“When the Whip Comes Down,” “Lies,” and “Respectable”) that veer into punk territory, offset by a gorgeously lazy, swinging take on the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination.” The slow, bluesy trance-rock of the title track and the country pastiche “Far Away Eyes,” with frontman Mick Jagger putting on an exaggerated Southern drawl, are kind of an acquired taste. Guest musicians and sidemen (always a Stones crutch) are kept to a minimum. Outsiders are limited to a few appearances by Faces keyboardist Ian MacLagan, King Crimson’s Mel Collins adding saxophone to “Miss You,” and the amazing blues harp of Sugar Blue on “Miss You” and the title track. Keith, going through the lengthy process of kicking a heroin habit, did not lead the guitar attack, and was mostly content to lay back and put down rhythmic color, his battered Telecaster usually fed through an MXR reverb-echo pedal, which became the signature sound of the ‘78-’81 Stones. The real six-string pyrotechnics were provided by “new guy” Ron “Woody” Wood, making his first appearance on record as a full-time Stone, following Brian Jones (’62-’69) and Mick Taylor (’69-’74) in the second guitar slot.

After riding the Some Girls wave, the band traveled to Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas to begin recording the follow-up in January of 1979. But despite the laid-back Caribbean atmosphere, inspiration did not strike. Perhaps they just weren’t ready, perhaps the tension growing between Jagger and Richards was affecting their work, but Emotional Rescue, intended to be a worthy sequel and companion piece to Some Girls, paled in comparison to its powerful predecessor.

They started work by looking over promising leftovers from the previous sessions. The rockabilly shuffle “Claudine,” which everyone in the band loved and which by all rights should have been a minor classic, was disqualified (again) for fear of legal action by its subject, French actress Claudine Longet (who was let off with a slap on the wrist for fatally shooting her boyfriend.) Ultimately, “Summer Romance” and “Where the Boys Go” were plucked off the shelf, at the expense of several arguably stronger tracks. (“Start Me Up” was right there, just waiting to be picked up.) 

It seemed a promising start — two songs for the new album already in the can! The Stones got down to work on the remainder of the album, following their usual pattern: three or four separate batches of recording sessions, separated by long breaks and switching studios at least once, and a final round of overdubbing and mixing at yet another studio. They tended to write and arrange once sessions were underway, allowing the songs to develop organically and spontaneously, catching the vibe of the room and each other, for better or worse. 

The Compass Point sessions in January and February yielded little usable material. This was not unusual, as the first session was almost always a kind of shakedown rehearsal. The Stones reconvened months later at the site of their earlier recording triumph, the Pathe-Marconi Studios in Paris. There they spent the summer and early fall grinding away at below-average songs in a tense and moody atmosphere. Although he was finally off heroin, Keith was not averse to any other controlled substance, and like many former heroin addicts, he substituted liquor. Copious amounts of cocaine were still on the menu as well. He was usually eagerly joined by Woody. Keith veered between being a boozy, unproductive zombie and a coked-up, manic taskmaster, staying up for four days running. As he forced the band through take after uninspired take, he would growl his frequent refrain “Nobody sleeps while I’m awake!” The more even-keeled and professional Mick was annoyed to no end. Bassist Bill Wyman was rumored to be quitting the band.

By the time of the last sessions at New York City’s Electric Lady Studios in November and December 1979, Mick and Keith were at each other’s throats over every minor detail of the final mix. Keith has speculated that Mick had gotten used to running the Stones’ affairs on his own while Keith was incapacitated by opiates in the mid-70s. When he finally got clean (or his version of clean), Mick was disinclined to share the power again. 

The album hit shelves in June 1980, with a distinctive cover featuring photos taken by a thermo camera. The heat generated by the Stones’ faces on the sleeve was not always matched by the contents within. Despite some justified grumbling from music critics, the record-buying public gave the Stones another #1. 

Emotional Rescue, 1980

Side one, track one is “Dance (Pt. 1).” Originally devised as a mostly-instrumental groove piece, the main riff was cooked up by Woody, who receives a rare co-writing credit. The lyrics are minimal (although Keith complained there were still too many.) Having successfully pulled off a very nimble semi-rap on “Shattered,” Mick continues to experiment with spoken-word segments, to varying degrees of success. On “Dance (Pt. 1),” it mostly comes out as a clumsy babble that opens the song, and immediately lowers expectations. But the track recovers, becoming one of Emotional Rescue’s high points — it does indeed have a great dance beat, its minimal chorus is catchy (aided by the backing vocals of reggae artist Max Romeo), the percussion by Santana drummer Michael Shrieve creates a hypnotic rhythm, and one of the Stone’s greatest sidemen, Bobby Keys, returns on sax after a multi-year absence. 

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #20B: The Byrds (Mark II) Discography

Prologue: West Saugerties, NY. Summer 1967

The instruments and recording equipment are set up in the basement of the big pink rental house on a rural woodsy road, just as they had been for several weeks. The intention is to make demo tapes, and the recording rig is simple — a Nagra tape recorder, an Ampex mixer, and three microphones (although many decades later this set-up will be hotly disputed by audiophiles on internet forums.) One by one, the band wanders in. Garth Hudson settles in behind his Lowrey organ, Richard Manuel parks himself on the piano bench, or maybe the drum stool. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson strap on a bass and electric guitar, respectively. At the center of the group of informally arranged musicians, with a short haircut and a 12-string acoustic, is Bob Dylan. Dylan has not recorded or toured since the previous spring. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, and the enigmatic songwriter decided to use his injuries (the extent of which is shrouded in mystery) as an excuse to go off the grid for awhile. Now he’s ready to dip his foot in the water again, but he’s going to do it his way. Not with a new tour, or album, but with a batch of original songs…intended to be given away to other artists.

Hudson hits “record” on the tape recorder, and Dylan begins tentatively strumming. The musicians, who were Dylan’s backing band on his last tour, try to anticipate where this brand-new composition is going. The bass and organ start fumbling along. Dylan doesn’t seem too sure, either. He leans into the microphone, and lets loose a stream of nonsense…

“Now look here, dear soup, you’d best feed the cats/The cats need feeding and you’re the one to do it/Get your hat, feed the cat/You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

The real lyrics are soon filled in and the song eventually comes together, as do several others…Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman strategically “leaks” the final tape of fourteen finished demos (out of dozens recorded) to various artists and producers that autumn, and gets his adding machine ready to tally the song publishing windfall that’s sure to come.

The backing musicians (with the addition of drummer Levon Helm) become known as The Band and are soon signed to Capitol Records.

A copy of the tape ends up in the possession of one Chris Hillman…

The first song from these “basement tapes” to be made public is “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” recorded by the British group Manfred Mann and released on January 12, 1968. It goes to #10.

Dylan, in the vanguard as usual, sends up the signal flare that is the first indication of a sea change in popular music. Psychedelic excess would soon be old hat, and the traditional sounds of American pre-rock roots music from the first half of the 20th century would be the guiding inspiration for many well-known acts in 1968, and into 1969 and the 70s. Dylan finally breaks his public silence by putting out an album, with no publicity, in the final days of 1967 — a modest collection of archaic-sounding original folk and country songs called John Wesley Harding that sounds nothing like the speed-freak rock of his previous few albums. None of the tracks were from that summer’s basement tapes.

The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers drops a mere two weeks later… still steeped in trippy experimentation and sonic fripperies, and if Roger McGuinn has his way, more of the same is to come…a precocious Georgia millionaire’s son and Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons would change all that…

The Byrds had changed management in the autumn of 1967. Jim Dickson was out, Larry Spector (no relation to the gun-happy record producer) was in. Larry Spector also managed a band called the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons. The visionary Parsons was a walking music encyclopedia (especially country), and had a dream of creating the perfect blend of old-school country and gospel-inflected soul/R&B. He called it, somewhat loftily, “Cosmic American Music.” The ISB recorded an album that was currently sitting in the vaults of LHI Records, waiting for release. The ever restless Parsons, like David Crosby the indulged son of an immensely wealthy family, ran out of patience and bailed on the band, looking for his next big opportunity.

Roger McGuinn had an ambitious vision, too. He wanted to explore the more experimental path indicated by some of the material on the last few albums. His interest in modern jazz was joined by a fascination with the possibilities of the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. If McGuinn followed his muse to its full fruition, the Byrds would be pioneers of a new genre — a spacy, science fiction-influenced blend of electronic music and jazz. But fate had other plans.

McGuinn knew the recently reduced Byrds couldn’t pull off his new ideas as a trio. He wanted to add a keyboard player, and asked manager Larry Spector if he knew of any. Gram Parsons, wasn’t a keyboard player per se, but he could handle almost any instrument passably, and Spector felt he would be a good fit for the band. Parsons joined the Byrds in February 1968. McGuinn wasted no time in explaining his ambitious plans for the next recording project — a massive double album, two dozen songs, following a musical chronology. The first few tracks would be the old-time string band music of 1920s Appalachia, then the material would gradually morph into modern folk and country, and the album would close with a sequence speculating on the future, featuring space-age electronica.

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L.A. Cowboys on Sunset, early ’68: Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

Gram Parsons didn’t care a fig for McGuinn’s electric space jazz, and instead raised the idea of a start-to-finish traditional country album. He managed to keep a straight face while convincing McGuinn that country audiences were incredibly loyal, and would provide a hardcore fan base for years to come. McGuinn, blasted by the full force of Parson’s enthusiasm (which could be formidable while it lasted), swallowed the whopping mistruth and agreed to put his concept album on hold for the time being. The Byrds would turn totally country. Hillman, the old bluegrass hand, gave the idea his full support. The 12-string Rickenbacker was put aside, Parsons mostly ditched his planned role on keyboards and joined McGuinn on acoustic guitar, and the group booked time in a Nashville studio to commence recording almost immediately. The only issue: McGuinn and Hillman had not written any new songs since Notorious, certainly none in their recently-chosen genre. No problem! Parsons had a couple of stellar originals in his back pocket. Traditional country and bluegrass covers could also fill the some of the space. And they had a secret weapon: the tape of Dylan demos, all of which could be easily adapted to the new style. 

Over the course of six days in early March, in the sterile confines of a usually regimented, disciplined song-factory studio in the heart of the country music capital, the Byrds burned their previous incarnation to the ground, and built a new one. With the sometimes-puzzled help of a few crew-cutted Nashville session pros (they didn’t know what to make of these shaggy, mystic West Coasters who seemed to take forever to pin down a take), the core of their new album came together. The session players went from bemusement to admiration, and all of them recall it as a happy experience. They remember the stodgy, fluorescent-lit Nashville studio growing hazy with pot smoke, red wine being passed around, and everyone having a grand time. In a surprise move, the Byrds capped off the week with a live appearance on none other but the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast on WSM from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. (You have to say “hallowed” before you mention the Ryman. It’s a rule of music writing, like using “jangly” for the Byrds, “enigmatic” for Dylan, and it’s always “the great” Hal Blaine.)

Before the appearance, the group had to grit their teeth through a hostile radio interview with WSM DJ Ralph Emery, who made clear his distaste for “hippies” and the counterculture movement, and was the mouthpiece for all the conservative Southerners who resented this long-haired rock group for invading their territory. He refused to play the just-recorded “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on the air. The song is done in a solid country arrangement, but because it was penned by left-wing hero Bob Dylan (who applied his usual lyrical surrealism) and performed by a group of freaks, Emery received it with condescending disdain. “What’s the song about?” demanded Emery. McGuinn was honest: “I don’t know.” The Byrds could not leave the radio station fast enough. McGuinn and Parsons took their revenge by writing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery, holding him up as the epitome of every piss-ignorant racist redneck stereotype they could devise. (The song wouldn’t make it onto the new album, but it didn’t go away.)

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Onstage at the Ryman, Parsons front and center

They nervously took the stage at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, joined by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green. Kevin Kelley was denied the use of his full drum kit as per Opry tradition, and had to make do with a pair of brushes and a single snare. As they were introduced to a smattering of applause, there were some boos, jeers, and catcalls (“Tweet, tweet!” “Get a haircut!”). They launched into their first number, and actually won a large portion of the audience over with their sincere performance and clear affection for their newly-adopted genre. They had agreed ahead of time to cover Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” as their encore, and the MC announced that number to the live audience and over the airwaves. But then, in a Crosby-like display of hubris, Gram Parsons stepped to microphone and announced a change of plans — they would close with the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” The Opry brass were furious, and the group destroyed whatever goodwill they had earned with the rest of their performance. They were banned from future performances.

The newly-recorded album was also facing a crisis. Evidently, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. There was a possibility that the tracks on which he sang lead might have to be re-recorded by McGuinn. The process to do just that began, then the legal disputes were suddenly settled. McGuinn cannily decided to trim Parson’s lead vocal appearances anyway. The newest Byrd originally sang lead on six of the eleven tracks, and McGuinn reduced it to three. The Byrds would not become the Gram Parsons Show on McGuinn’s watch. Despite being granted freedom to dictate the creative direction for a short while, the upstart had been schooled as to whose band it really was.

There was good news, though, as the new Byrds left Nashville and hit the road all that spring and early summer. They had finally stabilized as a live act, and turned in solid sets night after night. After ignoring their early hits during the last year with David Crosby, they reintroduced material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” as highlights of the first half of their concerts. Their country material, augmented by touring musicians Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and Doug Dillard on banjo, would be featured in the later portion. Parsons, so recently the dominant force in the recording studio, seemed to now accept his secondary status on stage, bouncing between electric piano and acoustic guitar, happily harmonizing on all the stuff that predated his time with the band, and only taking two or three lead vocals for himself. Perhaps he already had his eye on the door…

On a short U.K. trip that July, the Byrds socialized frequently with the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons developed something of a man-crush on Keith Richards, trailing after him like an over-eager puppy and babbling non-stop about the virtues and sub-genres of country music. When word reached the Stones that the next stop on the Byrds’ touring itinerary was South Africa, Mick and Keith explained to the somewhat naive Parsons that playing to segregated audiences in an apartheid country was not cool. McGuinn, who had at various times worked closely with South African musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, was encouraged by them to see the situation firsthand, and ignored the Stones’ judgement. When the plane left London for Johannesburg on July 9, 1968, Gram Parsons was not on it. He quit after having been a Byrd for less than five months.

But what a legacy he left them! The album he willed into existence through sheer force of personality came out on August 30. Sweetheart of the Rodeo not only signaled the birth of the second phase of the Byrds, it became the founding document of the country rock of the 70s and the alt-country movement of the 90s.

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #17: The Rolling Stones’ Post-Exile Trilogy

There is a blindly-accepted mythology that began as soon as the 70s ended. The myth goes like this: The Rolling Stones were a scrappy London R&B band that rode the first wave of the British Invasion, had some monster singles, did a classic mid-60s album (Aftermath), stumbled briefly with a psychedelic Beatles knock-off (Their Satanic Majesties Request), then righted themselves, found an excellent producer in Jimmy Miller, and made the Holy Quadrilogy — Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile On Main Street — each an irrefutable cornerstone of their massive legacy and four of the greatest rock albums ever made.

And after that — Some Girls aside — it all went to shit.

The “Ultimate Classic Rock” website, the internet’s click-bait custodian of lazy rock factoids, perpetuates the well-trodden path, describing the first post-Exile album, Goats Head Soup as “the end of the Stones’ classic era, with two more increasingly careless albums following until the band got back on track five years later with Some Girls.” This sentiment has been robotically repeated ad nauseam for almost forty years now.

The Stones themselves even bought into the narrative, self-deprecatingly naming a compilation of their post-Exile material Sucking In The Seventies.

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Supposedly, the three albums between the mighty Exile and the fluke disco/New Wave-era smash of Some Girls represented a trough of mediocrity, but I’m here to tell you that those three albums — the aforementioned Goats Head Soup, along with It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll, and Black And Blue  — are totally underrated. Classics? Maybe I’d stop just shy of that. But they have an adventurous spirit and willingness to mess with the Stones’ formula a little, and an air of breezily coked-up, rock-god Dionysian decadence impossible to replicate in any other era. Every track, even the weak ones, has something at least interesting about it, which is more than I can say for some of their 80s albums (the true trough of mediocrity, in my opinion –buy me a drink and raise the topic of Dirty Work.

And for two of these three albums, the Stones still had the services of “second” guitarist Mick Taylor, a Clapton-esque blues virtuoso, whose jazz-tinged soloing lifted many of these songs to a new level. For the first time since the Brian Jones era, Keith Richards’ slashing, open-tuned riffage wasn’t the dominant sound. Although Keith always claimed his 70s heroin habit did not slow him down much, the instrumental line-ups on these songs frequently tell a different tale. He’s just not there on about a sixth of them, and on several more he’s just croaking out backing vocals, or strumming a single sloppy rhythm guitar buried in the mix, or plunking on the bass (the Stones’ actual bassist, Bill Wyman, was somewhat minimalized on these albums, his role frequently usurped by Richards or Taylor).

NPG P851; Mick Jagger by Laurie LewisFor better and worse (see below), this era was Jagger’s version of the Rolling Stones. His lyrics were some of the best he ever concocted, and the empty space left by Keith was filled by his own guitar work, which grew more confident with every album. Sadly, these albums are tainted in a lot of people’s mind by Jagger’s increasing buffoonery. The whirling dervish of the ‘69 concert stage was now a glam-rock self-parody (this reached its nadir with the “Dancing In The Streets” video of ‘85 before he finally dialed it back for the Stones’ more recent tours.) So…try to hear these albums without picturing Jagger’s eye-shadow and spangly onesies with the necklines that plunged to the pubes, or the band as a whole’s incredibly dated visual aspect during this period (despite the images I’ve gone ahead and inexplicably included.)

Goats Head Soup is often described as the “hangover” after the wild party of Exile On Main Street, and according to the myth, the drop-off between the two is steep. But at the time, Exile was considered something of a sprawling disappointment, and the hazy, bleary sounds of Goats felt much more of a piece with its predecessor. Jimmy Miller was still producing (for the last time), and some of the songs pre-date the Exile sessions.

Britain’s tax laws forced the band to spend a large part of the year outside the country, and the Exile sessions (in the French Riviera and L.A.) began the tradition of recording on foreign shores as much as possible. In November 1972, the Rolling Stones and pianist Nicky Hopkins set up camp at Dynamic Sound Studios in Jamaica. Their chief road manager, “sixth Stone” Ian Stewart, also served as occasional pianist, and he was there too, of course, but he only played on songs he liked. He did not dig most of the Goats Head material. With a major narcotics case against Richards still pending, Jamaica was the only suitably cool country that would give them an extended work visa. 

Although they were all reggae fans (especially Keith), they admitted they were not ready to pull off any real reggae tracks in the same studio where so many of the genre’s classics were made, including the Harder They Come soundtrack and the early Bob Marley records. (Some would say, based on the mixed reception their later reggae-based tracks received, that they never achieved that state of readiness.) Nicky Hopkins departed at the beginning of December, and Billy Preston was flown in to spice things up with his gospel organ and clavinet.

The sessions continued in May and June 1973 at Olympic Studios and Island Studios in London, where they added elements such as brass, strings, the congas and shakers of noted Ghanaian percussionist “Rebop” Kwaku Baah, and additional percussion by mysterious and eccentric electronic music pioneer Nik Pascal.

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Goats Head Soup, 1973

The album, released in late August 1973, opens with “Dancing With Mr. D,” invariably described by naysayers as a tepid, silly sequel to “Sympathy For The Devil.” But apart from name-checking the Horned One himself, the two songs aren’t really similar. The frenzied samba of “Sympathy” is in no way referenced by the grinding party funk of “Mr. D,” and while Jagger doesn’t come close to his “Sympathy” lyrics, lines like “Down in the graveyard where we have our tryst/The air smells sweet, the air smells sick/He never smiles, his mouth merely twists/The breath in my lungs feels clingy and thick” have a certain eerie flow and Halloween-y charm.

This is followed by what may be my favorite song on all three albums — “100 Years Ago.” “Went out walking through the wood the other day/And the world was a carpet laid before me/The buds were bursting and the air smelled sweet and strange/It seemed about one hundred years ago…don’t you think it’s sometimes wise not to grow up…” A mid-tempo quasi-ballad about the power of memory that breaks down almost to a full stop (“Call me lazybones…”) then upshifts into a furious instrumental outro, with Mick Taylor leading the charge. This is right up there with “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” for me.

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Nicky Hopkins

“Coming Down Again,” a slow-burner sung by Keith at a snail’s pace over a watery bed of phased guitar and Nicky Hopkins’ moody piano, perfectly captures the feeling of waking up with the dry heaves, alone, confused, and regretful. The mood is quickly shattered by the unfortunately-titled “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” with its urgent traffic-jam horn section and spine-chilling urban jungle lyrics about “accidental” police shootings and poverty-stricken children OD’ing in the gutter. “Angie” was the big radio hit from the album, and despite the inclusion of lots of down-tempo stuff, this is the only song that could be classified as a traditional ballad. Nicky Hopkins once again shows why he was the most in-demand session pianist of the era, providing tasteful accents to the gently dueling acoustic guitars of Richards and Taylor.

“Angie” closes side one, and side two kicks off with “Silver Train,” the one song on the album that sounds the most like a typical Rolling Stones riff-rocker. It was originally recorded two years before the other songs, and was handed off to Johnny Winter, who recorded a blistering version that spurred the Stones to re-record theirs at the end of the sessions in London and put it on the album. “Hide Your Love” dates from the same late-stage London sessions. The simple, hypnotic number is based around Jagger’s echo-heavy piano vamping, and is built up into a primal Delta blues pastiche, Robert Johnson-style. “Winter” is another one of those tracks that critics of this period in the Stones career have to admit is a beauty. Similar in tone to Sticky Fingers’ “Moonlight Mile,” you can almost feel the chill and see your breath as the song glides along on a stream of orchestral strings.

As much as I like them, each of these albums has a total misfire buried in its track listing. “Can You Hear The Music” is a plodding, discordant mess that uses some world-music/psychedelic flourishes to cover up its lack of direction. The album closes with “Star Star,” a Chuck Berry-inspired, old-fashioned bit of rock & roll that sounds like something the ‘64 Stones would have played (except for the lyrics.) Ian Stewart finally lets loose on the ivories in his trademark boogie-woogie style.

One web reviewer calls the Goats Head Soup “the album that set the Stones on a course of mediocrity from which they have yet to return…” Then goes on to say: “It’s not that Goats Head Soup is bad, in itself…” Well, then, what the hell? “[It] set no musical agenda…did nothing new.” Which is totally incorrect. The Stones were never AM radio balladeers before. “Angie” changed that, whatever you think of the song itself. (I love it.) They were beginning to explore the funk genre, aided by sideman Billy Preston’s churning clavinet and Taylor’s wah-wah guitar (“Dancing With Mr. D,” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo”). And they crossed the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be stated in a rock lyric with the gleefully sleazy (and brutally explicit) “Star Star” (original title: “Starfucker.”)
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I’m Using “1989” In A Blog, Where Do I Send The Check? (Part 2)

track-500x339“I Wish You Would” (this particular song has pretty much nothing to do with what follows, but it’s the only track off 1989 that I couldn’t stretch to fit my narrative.)

As should be clear by now, I was a movie fan, which meant I would check out whatever was new that week at the multiplex, with no real discernment. If one movie was sold out, I just went to the next one down the list. (I became a pickier, snobbier “cinephile” a few years later after having my world rocked by Reservoir Dogs.)

1989 was the first year of many years in which I picked up a copy of Leonard49f88b938e217bb593378795367434f414f4141-1 Maltin’s TV Movies & Video Guide. This tome was the size of a small brick, and was “the essential reference for home video rental, featuring…18,000 films!” It was the Internet before the Internet.

So I had been marking life milestones by what movie I had seen most recently. (The start of summer vacation was not only Tienanmen Sqaure, but also Weekend At Bernie’s.) One of the many changes wrought by 1989 was that my personal events began being marked more and more by music. The big summer albums, as I recall, were the B-52s’ Cosmic Thing and the Tom Petty solo album Full Moon Fever. The strains of “Love Shack” and “Free Fallin’” saturated the hot, dry Northern California air. One celebratory, one regretful and elegiac. It was kind of the sound of the 80s dying, though no one thought of them that way then.

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For a little bit longer, though, movies were still my markers, and the last movie I saw before high school was The Abyss. It was the night before Locker Day. Locker Day was the first big event before school actually started, and, as the name suggests, it’s when you get your locker assignment in the high school hallways. It’s also when you get your list of classes. Nick made the trek up from Robbins to see the movie, sleep over, and get his locker with me the next morning. But something had irrevocably changed.

He was on the high school football team.

220px-TheAbyssHe was still the amiable, slightly goofy guy prone to malapropisms (he once said “douche” instead of “tush” when someone drew a girl’s backside in a family game of Pictionary — my mom laughs about that to this day.) But practices had already started, and he no sooner set foot in my new Yuba City place than he had to dash off and put on the pads and helmet for the whole afternoon. He barely made it back in time to get changed for the movie. I have to admit, I felt a little jilted.

It got worse. After we got our lockers the next morning, we met up with his new friends — the football team — to walk to Carl’s Jr. for breakfast. Carl’s Jr. wasn’t exactly adjacent to the high school, and over the course of the kind-of long walk, I felt more and more out of place and uncomfortable. By the walk back, I was trailing behind by half-a-block. No one noticed, as they playfully shoved each other and made rude-jock jokes. Nick had found his tribe, almost immediately, and never looked back. As George Gobel once said, “Did you ever get the feeling that the world was a tuxedo, and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

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I have my 1989-90 yearbook and a scanner, so you get a genuine look at Locker Day

“Blank Space”

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Freshman class pic, Sept. ’89. The amount of hairspray seen here may be solely responsible for the hole in the ozone layer

I didn’t dwell on it, though. I was far too excited about the prospect of starting high school. A clean slate, a chance to reinvent myself. I may not have been on the football team, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t peddle my own brand of awesomeness. I never lacked for self-confidence (at least, not yet), but I really was just a puppy tripping over his own paws. I received my class list and locator card that Locker Day, and saw that I had English C, Intro to Physical Science (IPS), Geography C, P.E., Computer Literacy, and Integrated Math. I was in the college-prep C-level humanities classes, but math was my Achilles heel, and “Integrated Math” just meant “pre-algebra.” To my horror, I discovered that “Computer Literacy” was basically a keyboarding class. It didn’t take. I’m typing this right now with two fingers and a thumb. And damn fast, too.

In English class one of our first assignments was an autobiographical essay about a meaningful event in our lives. I wrote about the trip I took to Washington D.C. the previous year. I had always been interested in writing, but I mostly wrote fiction. This wasn’t the first autobiographical essay I had written for a class, but it was the first one I tried to make entertaining and resonant, to inject with some of the passion I used for my made-up stories. “This is really good…” the teacher scrawled at the bottom when the paper was returned. The Holy Bee of Ephesus may just have been hatched at that moment.

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Our brand new sign. We really won the mascot jackpot.

I desperately wanted to begin my dating life. After all, here was a guy who already made out with a girl (albeit in a clinical, pre-arranged ritual that could be qualified as “bizarre” — see previous entry — but it counts!) My entire notion of dating consisted of asking someone to the movies. Or possibly bowling. I couldn’t wait to get started. How hard could it be? The second or third day of school I spotted a likely prospect in my Geography C class.

She was incredibly cute. (I didn’t yet grasp the fact that “boxing above your weight class” could be metaphorical and applied outside the sport of boxing.) She was quirky and unconventional. She carried around a clarinet. She wore loud green-and-purple checkered pants that looked like something out of the Joker’s closet. She sometimes wore a beret. The pop-culture term had not yet been coined, but she looked like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl.

On some pretense, I began a conversation with her. Then I clumsily popped the clutch and lurched into asking her to the movies. I don’t remember her exact response, I just know we did not go to the movies, then or ever. And she did not conceal her disdain in prognosticating, in no uncertain terms, that the possibility of any interaction with her at any point in the future was a highly unlikely proposition. I felt like a dog swatted on the nose with a newspaper. Not really hurt, just chagrined and embarrassed. Manic Pixie Dream Girls aren’t supposed to be mean.

I vowed to do better with the next girl that came along. Maybe lay a little groundwork before proffering the date within five minutes of speaking to her for the first time. I already had a few in my sights, including one I would I would doggedly and ineptly pursue, Wile E. Coyote-style, off and on for the next two years. (Check out This Used To Be My Playground Part 4: Kryptonite and Stomach-Aches for a flash-forward into the early 90s to see how that adventure turned out. She may just as well have painted a tunnel on the side of a cliff.)

YC emblemOpportunities abounded, or at least I thought they did. Sometime in early September, one girl threw a night-time birthday party with a blanket invitation to the entire freshman class. It was at a park — a park one block away from my house! I eagerly trotted over as dusk settled in. It wasn’t exactly the entire freshman class, but it was quite a crowd. And I knew none of them. The ones I recognized from my classes were already talking to other people. I wandered around aimlessly, had a cup of punch, and went back home, wondering what I thought was supposed to happen, and how come it was so easy for everyone else? I realized it had a lot to do with middle school. Most of the freshman class already had pre-existing relationships with people they went to middle school with (a situation that will come up again later.) That made me feel better. I decided at the next high school social event, I needed a wingman that I knew from middle school, a Goose to my Maverick, a Wedge to my Luke. Nick was already skyrocketing to the top of the social strata and had no time to help out. That left my other Robbins friend, Dusty.

The first dance of the year was coming up – the “Beanie Ball,” hosted by the sophomores to welcome incoming freshmen. I convinced Dusty to make the trip up to Yuba City and go in with me, Butch & Sundance-style, guns blazing.

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A typical YCHS Dance, 1989. I don’t know if this was the Beanie Ball or not, but it certainly could’ve been.

The one potential stumbling block to my cunning plan was that neither one of us could dance. Or at least we couldn’t “fast dance,” so our all-out assault consisted of standing stock-still, drinking cup after cup of Pepsi, and going to the bathroom every fifteen minutes. We watched as our classmates did the Cabbage Patch and the Roger Rabbit all around us while “Bust A Move” by Young MC or “She Drives Me Crazy” by Fine Young Cannibals boomed from the speakers.

What we were doing was working up the nerve to ask a girl we sort of knew to let us put our arms clumsily around them and sway-and-rotate to a slow number. That was a dance move we could handle. But finding a partner was nerve-wracking. “Right Here Waiting” by Richard Marx came and went. “Lost In Your Eyes” by Debbie Gibson came and went.

Then something like “Chances” by Roxette would pop up and no one would know if it was supposed to be fast dance or slow dance song. We were running out time. Finally I spotted a pair of girls I recognized from a class, and had briefly exchanged a few words with. They were even guardedly friendly, unlike mean ol’ Joker-pants. Good enough. Dusty and I locked our s-foils into attack position and moved in.

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This is the real deal, according to the yearbook caption. The Beanie Ball. Dusty & I were in that mass of swaying, sweaty humanity somewhere.

Yelling to make ourselves heard over the likes of “Rhythm Nation” and “Once Bitten, Twice Shy,” we made inane conversation with Brenda and Nikki for just long enough to get to the crucial awkward pause — where we had to ask them to dance, or move on, defeated. I turned off my targeting computer, used the Force, and pulled the trigger…successfully. We got our slow dance. It was “Eternal Flame” by The Bangles.

I spent the weekend swooning over Brenda. (Not her real name, BTW. I used her real name once in a blog a couple of years ago, never in a million years thinking she would ever actually read it, but somehow she did and let me know that the real-life, grown-up woman she became was more than a little embarrassed by the whole deal. Fair enough.) She was on the tall side, with shoulder-length dark hair and dark eyes. She admitted she wanted to be a model, and she just maybe could have pulled it off.

Hurricane Hugo hit a few days after the Beanie Ball, doing to the Carolina coast what Brenda was doing to my psyche.

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I literally cannot remember ever having any further interaction with poor Dusty at any time after that. He had served his purpose.

With thoughts of Brenda spinning in my head, I made another attempt to climb the high school social ladder, with predictable results… Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #12: Tom Doyle’s “Man On The Run: Paul McCartney in the 1970s”

It is said that no journalist gets close to Paul McCartney. His naturalman on the run guardedness and evasiveness have been compounded by fifty years of constantly dealing with prying, insensitive, and often clueless “reporters” trying to get a story out of one of the most well-known, wealthiest, and at times, oddest, musicians in the world.

He still gives tons of interviews. But, as Rolling Stone reporter Chet Flippo wrote in an old McCartney bio, when the reporter leaves the glow of being in the presence of a Beatle and actually reviews their tapes or notes, there is a cold realization that they have come away with nothing of any substance.

Does Tom Doyle break through that wall? For the most part, as even he admits, no. But he feels he has been lucky enough to get glimpses of the unguarded McCartney, mostly by virtue of being Scottish (a quality that McCartney seems to love), and the fact he is a long-time writer and editor for the classic rock-worshipping music mag Q, and not some Fleet Street hack looking for an angle on his messy divorce or re-hashing the same Beatles questions for the 10,000th time.

Perhaps to avoid over-familiar territory, Doyle has chosen to focus on the wings19721970s. Under the multi-platinum surface of Wings was a schizophrenic and frenetic decade for McCartney. Less resonant than the cultural upheaval that was the Beatles and the ballyhooed 1960s, but perhaps more interesting to someone who has had their fill of Beatles/60s mythologizing.

Doyle bookends his text with a Prologue and Epilogue from his numerous McCartney interviews of the 2010s. He notes that McCartney’s hair now seems professionally colored, rather than what he suspects were appalling home dye-jobs in the 1990s. (It’s this type of detail written in a clear, informal prose style that makes this book a particular pleasure.) Another reason I really like Doyle: He actually asks about Paul’s goofy, cheery, thumbs-up “Macca” persona of the last quarter century that has led to countless bad Dana Carvey-style impressions and a degradation of his standing among those who fancy themselves “serious” rock fans.

McCartney sighs, and says, “Have you seen me do it [the thumbs-up] in the last ten years?”

Doyle admits he hasn’t.

“I have been chastised by world opinion on that.”

The unguarded McCartney’s speaking voice, according to Doyle, is earthier and more “lovingly profane” than the cartoon Liverpudlian he puts on for most of the public. (Is this a thing? I’ve also heard from many sources that Michael Jackson’s spacey, high whisper was a total put-on, and he had a perfectly normal speaking voice in private.) The world’s third most-famous pot smoker (after Bob Marley and Willie Nelson) also admits he quit the stuff several years ago, citing age as a factor. He noted that friends told him recently “‘Wow, your choice of words has really gone up.’ Before, I’d go ‘It’s like…y’know…it’s like…y’know…good.” Continue reading

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The Best & Worst of the Solo Beatles, Part 4: Ringo Starr

Part 1: John Lennon

Part 2: Paul McCartney

Part 3: George Harrison

OK, this is the one I’ve been dreading. Most folks who lead normal lives are blissfully unaware that the former drummer for the Beatles has released sixteen solo albums. That is not a typo. But the experience of listening to all of them actually turned out not to be excruciating. Read on…

Starr may have been the Beatle who least matched his public persona, a persona created out of thin air by the early-’60s media (especially the American media, who initially had trouble telling them apart) and reinforced by his “Ringo” character in A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, and especially the ridiculous Beatles Saturday morning cartoon. He was the mascot, the goofy dimwit, condescended to and put upon by the others, but always childlike and cheery. Out of the spotlight, however, the real-life Richard Starkey could be just as cutting and sarcastic as Lennon, as moody as Harrison, and as savvy as McCartney.

He was the oldest Beatle, and the others have all reminisced about how much more cool and sophisticated Starr seemed before he signed on with them. In fact, “Richy” (his spelling) was considered something of a tough customer, rising up from the lowest of the Liverpool slums (a place called “The Dingle”) to become the powerhouse drummer for the hardest-rocking band on the local “beat” scene, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes. He drove a sporty car while his future bandmates still scrounged for bus fare, wore flashy jewelry (hence the stage name, which close friends never referred to him by), and cultivated a cool bohemian beard as early as 1960.

The fact that the proto-Fab Three had coveted him and his drums for years should certainly say something about how his skills were regarded at that time, and the fact that the great Ringo Starr ditched his sweet gig with the Hurricanes and deigned to join these upstarts should say something about Starr’s own musical judgment. [ADDENDUM: I’ve recently (Nov. 2013) read the first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s exhaustive three-volume Beatles biography, and it shed a lot of light on this era. Evidently, the Hurricanes were stagnating — Ringo had already quit them once — and the Beatles, far from being “upstarts,” had been top of the heap in Liverpool for some time, and were clearly poised for bigger things.]

Maybe his role as the “runt” stemmed from the fact that he joined the band at the last moment before they skyrocketed in late ’62. Maybe it was the fact that he was three inches shorter than the others, or wasn’t quite as handsome (that nose, y’know.) What seems clear is that the dismissiveness people sometimes projected onto Ringo as a personality began to spill over to his skill as a drummer, and that’s just plain unfair. Continue reading

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