Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Mortimer Rhind-Tutt, Music Technology from Scratch

Music Technology From Scratch is well named because the title tells you exactly what the book is about.  It is also well designed and well written.  As long as you understand that this is a book written for someone who knows virtually nothing about how music is produced, you should not be disappointed.

Music Technology From Scratch is designed as a primer that covers a basic introduction to an extraordinarily broad range of topics having to do with music production.  The coverage is really remarkable given that it’s only a 140 page book.

The book is divided into two parts based roughly on theory and practice.  “Theory” isn’t such a great title for the first section of the book because it is more about a basic introduction to equipment and how it works than to what people might imagine when they think about “theory” in regard to music.  Chapters in the first section are devoted to topics such as the basics of sound (including things like how sound waves are transduced to electricty and then back to sound waves, analog and digital, sound amplification etc.), how gear is hooked together and the types of wires that are used, different kinds of microphones and how they work, basic pieces of equipment like mixers, EQ, and compressors, MIDI, and how to set up a computer-based studio at home or wherever.  The second part on practice covers recording, mixing and mastering, sequencing, and composing and arranging.

All of these topics are dealt with at an introductory level.  If you already know about all of this stuff and know your way around a home or professional recording or production studio, you won’t find much of interest here.  If you don’t know about any of this stuff or are good with some of it but still not sure about some aspects of the music production process, Music Technology From Scratch can be very useful.

Music Technology From Scratch is designed to be a teaching aid and from this standpoint it is very well done.  Descriptions and explanations are very clearly written and do not assume the reader has the jargon of music production down pat.  (If they did, they wouldn’t need this book.)  Virtually everything discussed is illustrated with clear, well labeled and easy to understand graphics.  This is especially useful in illustrating things like the signal path through a basic mixer or what a patch bay is and how it works.  Every chapter is color coded and references to material from another chapter are coded with the color that identifies the chapter where you can find the basic info.  As a learning tool it’s exceptionally well done.

At one point Rhind-Tutt’s use of terminology seems a bit odd.  The term “digital audio workstation” or DAW is commonly used to refer to a much enhanced software sequencer like Ableton’s Live, Pro-Tools, Cubase, Reason, Sonar or Logic to name a few.  However Rhind-Tutt’s discussion of DAWs focuses on the computer and the digital audio interface.  He discusses software DAWs in his section on sequencers.

Music Technology From Scratch is a book that is targeted at a very specific audience.  If you read articles about music production or reviews of software and gear in magazines or websites like Computer Music, Music Tech, Future Music or Electronic Musician and don’t know what they’re talking about some of the time, or if you have a good understanding of the software end of things but are not so clear about the hardware (or vise versa), Music Technology From Scratch may be very useful to you.  It won’t be a book you’ll return to again and again over the years because once you’ve mastered the basics you’ll have gone beyond what Music Technology From Scratch has to offer.  Until then, however, Music Technology From Scratch can be a great help moving away from the place where you’re not quite sure what all of this is about.

05/15/2010 Posted by | book reviews, music, Music production, Music technology | , | Leave a comment

Review: The Doors with Ben Fong-Torres, The Doors

Recently I decided to dig deep into the music of the Doors by purchasing and giving serious listening time to the Perception box set.  I then thought I’d enrich the experience by reading a book about the band while I was listening to their six albums.  I ended up with The Doors because it is compiled from interviews with the band members and several people who knew them well with framing and text by Ben Fong-Torres.  I thought a book about the band that was primarily written by the members of the band would be the best way to supplement Perception and immerse myself in their music.  Perception was worth the time, worth the money and is a collection I expect to return to often.  The Doors was a waste of time, a waste of money and will gather dust until it gets stuck in a box to make room on the bookshelves.

The Doors is a large-format coffee table book that appears to be modeled along the lines of U2 by U2.  It’s loaded with photographs and serious fans of the band may find the pictures alone worth the price of the book.  There are Forwards recounting how The Doors meant so much to them by Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Perry Farrell (Jane’s Addiction) and Chester Bennington (Linkin Park) which I didn’t read.  There is also a Selected Bibliography and a Discography which is incomplete but is not indicated as such.

There are a lot of books about The Doors.  Most of them seem to fall into either one of two camps.  They are either written by worshipful fanboys who think Jim Morrison was some kind of minor deity or by tabloid sleaze mongers who seek to detail every lurid event in Morrison’s descent into drunken dissolution.  This split is reflected within the band by keyboard player Ray Manzarak who appears to view Morrison as a brilliant and talented poet and shaman for his generation, and drummer John Densmore who seems to see Morrison as a brilliant and talented alcoholic degenerate .

Ben Fong-Torres, who is a rock journalist and former editor at Rolling Stone Magazine, tries to take the middle ground by illustrating both aspects of Jim Morrison without committing to one or the other.  This was a good idea.  Previous books about the Doors have tended to be mostly about Jim Morrison and Fong-Torres attempts to widen his coverage by including more information about Manzarak, Densmore and guitarist Robby Krieger.  This was another good idea.

So what went wrong?  Fong-Torres may have intended to put together a book about the band but the result was still a book that is mostly about Morrison.  We get interviews with Morrison’s, father, Morrison’s brother, Morrison’s sister, Morrison’s girlfriend’s mother (the girlfriend died of a heroin overdose).  We don’t get any interviews with any members of Krieger’s, Densmore’s or Manzarak’s families.  For every picture of anyone else in the band it seems like there are five pointlessly similar pictures of Morrison.  Most of the text is about Morrison.

The heavy emphasis on Jim Morrison at the expense of the other members of the band will probably not be seen as a problem by many readers and fans who are more interested in Morrison than they are in either the band or their music.  It was a problem for me because I think The Doors were first and last a great band made of of four equally important members who, for a brief period of time, made great music.  I’m interested in their music and in examining the band’s music The Doors is almost a complete failure.

I haven’t read Fong-Torres’ rock journalism so I don’t know if his interest is in the celebrity of rock, or the social and cultural world of rock, or something else.  On the evidence provided by The Doors, he appears to have little or no interest in or knowledge of the music as music.  Manzarek, Krieger and Densmore are very talented musicians and Fong-Torres interviewed all of them for the book.  Apparently he never thought to ask them very much if anything about the music in and of itself.  It may have been the case that none of the former Doors wanted to talk about the music but I’ve never known a musician who wasn’t interested in talking about music at the nuts and bolts level.  Talk about the music is often limited to naming the location where an album was recorded, somebody saying “We jammed till we found something and then looked in Jim’s poetry books for lyrics” (and anyone who has ever written original music knows there is more to it than that), and quoting people about how difficult it was to get Morrison interested or sober enough to make the album.  We get interviews with girlfriend’s mothers and nothing from Bruce Botnick who was the recording engineer on all of The Doors albums.  It’s like Fong-Torres decided to put together a book about some of the things that happened “When the Music’s Over.”

The end result is a book that reads like an extended press biography.  The Doors is a book with heavyweight production values and lightweight content.

04/25/2010 Posted by | book reviews, music | , , , | 2 Comments

Review: Randall D. Wixen, The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing

I recently found myself in the position of having written and performed a song which is being streamed from various websites such as Myspace, Facebook and right here on Tuned In To Music as well as being offered for sale at sites like iTunes, Zune, Rhapsody and lala.  This circumstance immediately raises questions about copyright, ownership and publishing of the song.  I knew nothing about any of this and turned to Wixen’s The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing for help.  It was a good and lucky move on my part.

The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing is exactly what the title says it is; a brief, straightforward introduction to the world of music publishing, ownership and copyright.  It’s written for a musician or songwriter who has no legal background.  Rather than take the condescending tone of someone speaking to a five year old that specialists sometimes adopt when talking to someone outside their field of expertise, Wixen  assumed his readers are intelligent adults and writes to them in plain English.  Legal jargon is necessary, of course, but when he introduces it, Wixen clearly and simply explains what the term means.  The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing is well written and easy to understand.

The book begins with the basic distinction between a songwriter and a music publisher (which is not exactly what I thought it was) and moves on to explain the basic types of income that can be derived from music for both songwriters and publishers.  The three main categories Wixen presents are mechanical licenses (income derived from physically  reproducing copies of your song on a CD, for example), performance licenses (income derived from playing your song on the radio, over the internet, as background music in a restaurant or club and so on), and synchronization licenses (income derived from your song being used in a film or TV show).  He also includes an additional chapter on other types of use that can produce income such as having your song used in a commercial, in a video game or as a ringtone.

For each type of income Wixen explains where the money comes from, how it gets to you, and how it is divided up between the songwriter and the publisher.  He also introduces some of the many different types and variants of license contracts that can be offered under each of the main categories of income.

One of the things that becomes clear as you read the book is that the music industry not only has at their disposal a bewildering array of possible ways to rip off and fuck over musicians, but they are constantly coming up with new and insidious ways to not pay you for your music.  Although he points out common ways the music industry rips people off, Wixen does not present a rant against the notoriously rapacious music business.  However, it doesn’t take much thought to see ways in which musicians who aren’t aware of even the basics of music ownership and publishing (which is a fairly large proportion of musicians who are interested in the music, not the legalities) can and almost always do get cold-bloodedly ripped off.

It is fairly common for people who illegally download music to point to the unmitigated greed of the big music companies that has resulted in decades of customers being charged ludicrous amounts for legal music formats (e.g., CDs).  “The record companies have been ripping us off for years and turnaround is only fair play.” They have a point.  However, illegal downloading not only rips off the record companies, it rips off the musicians who make the music in the first place.  Reading The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing may open people’s eyes to the fact that the musicians are getting screwed from both sides; they get it from the music companies who are paying them a fraction of what they’re supposed to and from the fans who aren’t paying them anything at all.  When the musicians are multimillionaires like Jay-Z or Bruce Springsteen the income lost from illegal downloading is inconsequential.  When the musicians aren’t famous and are trying to make it on their own, the lost income can mean the difference between having a career in music and having a career at McDonalds.

I read The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing from the point of view of a songwriter who has no expectations to ever make any money from music and had no knowledge whatsoever about copyright, ownership and publishing.  I found the book to be tremendously helpful.  It pretty much answered every question I had.  How do I secure the copyright for my song? (I had it as soon as I put the song up on the web), do I have to make application to the US Copyright Office? (not necessary but a good idea anyway), am I a songwriter or a music publisher? (both if I want to receive all of the income my music generates, if it generates any at all), should I join ASCAP or BMI? (yes, choose one, I chose ASCAP).  More advanced topics that would be of interest to established musicians are also discussed in the book but they are of no relevance to me at this point and I can’t comment on whether they would be valuable to musicians operating at a more advanced professional level.

If you are a musician with little or no knowledge about the money part of the music business, The Plain and Simple Guide to Music Publishing is a clear, fast and easy way to get an introduction.  The knowledge that can be gained here can save you a lot of heartache and frustration later.

04/09/2010 Posted by | book reviews, music, music business | , , , | 1 Comment

Review: Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler

Queens Reigns Supreme: Fat Cat, 50 Cent, and the Rise of the Hip-Hop Hustler (QRS) explores the relationship between the violent and often out-of-control drug scene of the 1980s and the increasingly Queens reigns Supreme . . .popular and influential hip-hop scene of the 1990s in southeast Queens.  The book is based extensively on court and government documents and interviews with many people involved in the story including most of the major players and Brown comes to conclusions that are largely at odds with the urban-heroic mythology promoted in the hip-hop world.

Brown begins his analysis with a brief description of the socio-economic differences among the neighborhoods in southeast Queens in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Around this time a fractured drug scene mainly made up of independent, small time hustlers began to coalesce into several large scale, more-or-less-organized drug gangs.  Among the major players in these gangs were Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols and his lieutenant Howard “Pappy” Mason, Kenneth “Supreme” or “‘Preme”, McGriff and his nephew Gerald “Prince” Miller and Thomas “Tony Montana” Mickens.  Through the 1980s, and more so after the introduction of crack in mid decade, the gangs became increasingly violent, ostentatious and arrogant culminating in the assassination of NYC policeman Edward Byrne who was sitting in a patrol car as part of NYPD’s round the clock surveillance of the home of a local resident whose house had been unsuccessfully fire bombed by drug hustlers unhappy with his frequent complaints to police about his block having become an open air crack market.

The killing attracted national attention, the police cracked down, and both the leaders and many of the low-level hustlers in the large drug organizations ended up dead or in jail.  While all of this was going on a number of kids who were either too young, too smart, too soft or too fearful to live the deadly life of the street were growing up and idolizing the drug hustlers who dominated their neighborhoods.  Some of these kids got into hip-hop which, at the time, was more about kids dancing and having a good time than it was about making money and selling image.  As the ’80s moved into the ’90s, the hip-hop players who desperately wanted the street cred that their lives had not earned found common cause with the hustlers who had the cred and who were retreating from a street life which had become too costly to pursue because of the increased likelihood of arrest and conviction, or of becoming the victim of random, senseless violence.  Association with hustlers who ruled the streets back in the day gave the hip-hoppers what they pretended was real street cred while the hustlers found a new and safer way to make money.

Some of the hip-hop people that Brown brings into the story are Def Jam impressario Russell Simmons, RUN-DMC’s Joseph “Run” Simmons, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels and Jason “Jam Master Jay” Mizell, Murder Inc.’s Irv Lorenzo and his brother Chris, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur and 50 Cent.  Virtually all of these people had little or no real life experience as the gangsta hustlers they portray in their public roles in the music world.  Those few who did, such as 50 Cent, are much too young to have been important participants in the ’80s drug-lord world that is celebrated in their music.  These guys are seen as image mongers nostalgic for a world they were never part of and trying to gain credibility by associating with the street hustlers who were. 

Brown tells a convincing story in part because his narrative is so well documented and in part because he does not take sides and has no interest in judging the hustlers, the rappers or the police.  So much writing about hip-hop is drenched with the kind of bombastic self-mythologizing that characterizes a large part of the music that it is both a pleasure and a relief to read an author who clearly enjoys the music but who also takes a clear-eyed view of the business.

The hustlers revered by the rappers killed people for money and control of the lucrative drug trade.  The people in the music business shoot each other over juvenile spats of the kind you’re likely to find on junior high Facebook pages in an attempt to enhance their image as tough guys.  It’s hard to read about this without thinking that many of the icons of the hip-hop world are almost as sad, small and pathetic as the suburban kids who idolize them and make them rich.  If you’re a hip-hop fanboy who thinks Tupac Shakur is a cultural hero, you’re probably not going to enjoy QRS.  However, if you like hip-hop and are interested more in the way it is than in the way they like to pretend it is, QRS is likely to be an enjoyable and informative read.

05/17/2008 Posted by | book reviews, music | , , , | 2 Comments

Review: U2 By U2

“U2 by U2” is a biography of the band as told through segments taken from lengthy interviews with vocalist Bono, guitar player Edge, bass player Adam Clayton, drummer u2 by u2Larry Mullen Jr., and manager Paul McGuinness.  It’s a large format coffee-table size book that combines hundreds of pictures with extensive text.  The large format makes the book a pain in the ass to read, but that’s a minor quibble.  There’s a lot here for fans of the band.

Love ’em or hate ’em, it’s pretty hard to deny that U2 are unlike any other rock band.  From the time they first got together in 1976 through their most recent album “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb” they have have never rested on their laurels but have always tried to produce new music.  During the 1980s culminating with ’87’s “The Joshua Tree” they produced some of the most moving and uplifting music ever to come out of the rock genre.  Through the 1990s they changed it up by adding dance and electronica elements to their sound and in the process lost a significant portion of their fanbase.  With the turn of the new century they engineered something of a return to their earlier form and their popularity began to grow again.  They have stood as proud symbols of personal and public responsibility in a field noted for self-absorption and excess, have then succumbed to the self-absorption and excess of the rock-star life, and, in the person of Bono, have become deeply involved in the day-in, day-out struggle to bring aid to people who desperately need it in Africa.  Other celebrities talk the talk but U2 has walked the walk.  There is no other group in the world like them.  I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the recently released deluxe edition of “The Joshua Tree” and was absolutely thrilled by “U23D“.  With that recent history I really wanted to like “U2 By U2”.  But then I read it.

The book has several strengths.  Each of the four band members comes through as a distinct individual; by the time you finish, you have a pretty good idea who’s talking simply by reading what they have to say – you don’t need the name attached to the quote anymore.  Clayton sounds like an easy going and pleasant man who feels like he is along for the ride and is delighted to be so.  Mullen comes across as deeply pragmatic, rooted, and distrustful of new things.  He’s the guy who often shines the cold light of rationality on Bono’s extravagant flights of fancy.  Edge is mostly about the music.  U2 has sounded the different ways they have because the Edge has become interested in different kinds of music over the years and worked tirelessly to develop the effects he gets from his guitars and keyboards.  Bono comes through as something of a self-obsessed drama queen.  For him, everything is epic, nothing is ordinary, everything is symbolic, and it’s almost always all about Bono.  He’s also a great storyteller.  They all sound thoughtful and you often wish you could pursue the conversation further with each of them.

“U2 by U2” is especially strong in its discussion of the music.  When they talk about their earliest years it’s striking how much they sound like any one of a million other groups of kids who got together to play music with the dream of becoming a band.  They started where all of us started.  For people who are interested in this sort of thing the most interesting part of the book is their discussion of how most of their recorded songs were created.  They rarely make music by either Edge or Bono coming in with a song that the others modify.  Instead much of their music seems to slowly come into form as bits and pieces from many sources aggregate, intermesh, break apart and recombine.  It comes across almost like an undirected organic process in which everyone contributes.  Much of this is fascinating.

So why did I end up being dissatisfied with the book?  U2 has marketed itself as a band that cuts through the bullshit and tells it like it is and “U2 by U2” appears to have this quality.  However as I read more and more of the book it semed like I was getting less and less of a real sense of who these guys are and what this band is like.

A number of examples could be brought forth but one will do the job.  In the 1980s Bono visited El Salvador and reacted with outrage and righteous indignation over US involvement in supporting the terrorist regime that was running rampant in the country.  The result was songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared”.  In the 2000s the same Bono was prominently photographed palling around with US President George W. Bush who headed a US government conducting a disasterous war in Iraq and renditions of political prisoners to secret prisons in countries that do not abide by the Geneva Conventions for the purpose of torturing them for “information”.  The contrast is striking and one can’t help but wonder how Bono got from one place to the other.  As you read “U2 By U2” it becomes clear that Bono is a thoughful man who is rarely content with accepting the easy answer to difficult or complex questions.  You would really like to hear what he has to say about the stark contrast between his actions in the 1980s and 2000s, not to defend or condemn, but simply to understand where he’s coming from.

The intersection of Bono, Bush, El Salvador and Iraq is addressed in “U2 By U2” but not by Bono.  Other band members say that Bono’s activities raised some issues but that they trust Bono in political matters.  This is all well and good but it is hardly satisfying if you’re interested in what Bono thinks about all this.  Bono’s contribution to the topic is to report that Bush is a really funny guy who cracks good jokes and is “very personable in person”.  Other than to note that he and Bush have different opinions about Iraq, that’s it.  From a guy who can and does go on at length about how he feels about the smallest thing and how he is affected by anything going on in the world around him, this feels like a major cop out.  By having band members address the issue in a superficial manner while Bono remains silent, “U2 By U2” gives the impression of forthrightness without the substance.

As I read more and more of “U2 By U2” and felt the disconnect between the book and I growing ever wider I wondered what had happened.  What did I miss?  Where did I go wrong?  And then Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, said something that provided the key that unlocked the book for me.  He was discussing the choice of tracks that would go on U2’s career retrospective album “Best Of 1990-2000” when he said

The mythological aspects of a great band are something we’ve always been aware of, as I think The Beatles were and the Rolling Stones are.  I don’t think it’s surprising that U2 are protective of the way people regard them.

Reading “protective of the way people regard them” was like a light going on in a dark place.  Well, duh.  “U2 By U2” is a very sophisticated exercise in impression management.  It’s a marketing ploy.  The book is a vastly more sophisticated 21st century variant of the “Mickey is a Taurus and his favorite color is blue” marketing fluff that filled liner notes for bubble-gum pop bands in the 1960s.  I suppose it was very naive of me to think a band like U2 would really lay it out in a book they wrote about themselves and so my disappointment that they didn’t should probably not be taken very seriously as a criticism of “U2 By U2”.  Still, it’s hard not to think that the band of 1987 would have stepped up and dealt with the heart of the matter rather than polishing their image.

“U2 By U2” is filled with great stories, great pictures and a whole lot of interesting information about how most of the band’s songs were created.  Readers interested in what the band thinks about some of the political and musical aspects of their career that have proven to be controversial will have to look elsewhere.  If you like U2 and can accept the book as a marketing tool designed to protect their self-perceived status as a mythological band, you’ll probably enjoy “U2 By U2” a great deal.  Bono has often been quoted as describing “Achtung Baby” as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree”.  Some people responded that it sounded more like four men running away from The Joshua Tree.  On the evidence provided by “U2 By U2”, they’re still running.

03/31/2008 Posted by | book reviews, music | , , , | 1 Comment

Review: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (5th Concise Edition), Colin Larkin, ed.

It has over 3000 entries, 1600 pages, weighs a little under 6 pounds and is priced at $39.95.  And this is the concise edition.  The full blown version of “The Encyclopedia of epmPopular Music”, currently in its 4th edition, is 10 volumes with over 2700 entries, almost 9000 pages and is priced at just under $1300.  The concise edition is a rich and useful source of information which makes it a shame that the complete edition is priced for libraries and not for individuals who don’t have very deep pockets.  The complete edition is also made available online for a fee.  I have taken out a monthly subscription and will offer a review after I’ve had sufficient time to work with it.  The comments that follow refer to the concise edition only.

The EPM purports to cover all forms of popular music including jazz, folk, latin. etc.  While many of the major names in these fields have entries, coverage is heavily weighted in favor of rock and pop and all of their subdivisions.  The vast majority of entries are for musicians and bands although some producers (e.g., Phil Spector), industry executives (e.g., Ahmet Ertgun), and recording engineers (e.g., Tom Dowd) are also covered.  I’ve found no entries for record labels or genres of music and no lists of any kind (e.g., awards, “best albums” etc.).  Coverage is deep although somewhat idiosyncratic and there are some surprising omissions.  For example, Orson a pop/rock band out of California with one album to their name (they have recently released a second album in the UK) has an entry and Modest Mouse with five albums, four E.P.s and two compilation discs does not.  Coverage is also surprisingly up-to-date considering this is a print resource and the massive scope of the EPM’s subject matter.  For example there are entries for such recently popular bands as Arctic Monkeys and Arcade Fire.

Entries typically begin with biographical information on the artist or band members including birth and, if applicable death, dates and locations and birth names if different from the artist’s stage name.  Prior and/or subsequent band info is often given which can be very useful especially for band members who may not be as well known as the stars.  The artist’s career is summarized and their music is characterized in terms of genre and approach.  Information is often given on top-charting singles and albums for both US and UK charts.  Entries include seperate lists of albums and compilations and many entries also give references for further reading which I find particularly useful.  In addition, some entries also include lists of DVD/Videos and in some cases films.

Reference works for something like the world of popular music face a difficult problem when it comes to critically evaluating their subject matter.  On the one hand, an exhaustive list of credits and nothing else for each artist makes for inordinately boring reading.  The book may serve as an important resource but no one is going to spend any time reading it as opposed to looking things up in it.  On the other hand, a markedly opinionated survey loses all value as an encyclopedia and becomes more of a music review source than an information source.  The EPM seems to strike a very happy medium here.  Although the emphasis is clearly on providing information, most entries are mildly evaluative with a tendency toward saying something nice rather than expressing discontent.  It makes the entries readable and enjoyable without being overly contentious. 

Albums are also rated with a star system that reflects the editors’ view of the place of each album within the artist’s body of work.  In other words, the editors think “Sgt. Pepper’s” (5 stars) is a better album than “Magical Mystery Tour” (4 stars) but are not making any claims about the relative worth of the Beatles albums in comparison with James Brown’s “Live at the Apollo” (5 stars) and “Live at the Apollo Vol. 2” (4 stars).   Although many people seem to like them, I generally pay almost no attention to these sorts of things as I think opinions (including my own) of popular creative works like music are of little value to anyone other than the person who holds them unless you take the time and effort to calibrate your tastes to those of the person expressing the opinion.  The reasons why I (for example) like or dislike this or that artist or album may be useful information to someone interested in the same kind of music; that I simply like this or like it more than that is of no value to anyone but me.

Names that appear in an entry that also have entries of their own are formatted with a bold typeface that is very useful in saving you the time of looking up something you found interesting in one entry only to find it doesn’t have an entry of it’s own.  The book also includes an extensive index of both entries (again presented in bold) and names that appear in the text but do not have seperate entries.  Again, this is a very useful component of the book.

Finally, the EPM seems to me to have something of a mild UK slant in that slightly more attention is given to second-line bands and musicians that were more important in the UK than the US.  As a music listener in the US, I find this a strength because it provides a source of information about a world of music that is more difficult for me to get.  Listeners who have nationalistic prejudices about music may not find it so.

The EPM’s great strength is also it’s great weakness.  It’s coverage, at least of the rock and pop genres, is so good that it comes as an unpleasant surprise when something you want to follow up on isn’t there.  It’s especially annoying knowing that the information you want is probably in the complete edition which is so expensive it’s beyond consideration.  Shame that; I’d buy the complete edition in a heartbeat if it was more (a lot more) reasonably priced.  Maybe the online version will do, we’ll see.  In the meantime, if you’re the kind of person who likes looking something up in a well-written encyclopedia and then losing yourself for hours as one thing leads to another, the EPM is strongly recommended.

03/12/2008 Posted by | book reviews, music | Leave a comment

Review: Michael Ochs, 1000 Record Covers

“1000 Record Covers” is exactly what its title says it is – a collection of photos of 1000 record covers.  The covers are grouped more or less by decade in three sections covering 1000 coversthe 1960s, ’70s and 80s.  There are a few 90s covers in the last section and some 60s covers show up in the ’70s section for unexplained reasons.  The album sleeves are all from the rock and pop genres; no jazz, classical or country.  Each section is preceeded by a very brief two page essay in English, German and French that summarizes the (rock and pop) music of the decade.  The essays are pretty much empty fluff; this book is all about the pictures.

By and large the album covers are nicely reproduced with bright, sharp color reproduction.  Some of the album sleeves show wear but many of the older covers are in very nice condition.  The main problem with the pictures is that some are a bit too tiny.  Albums are usually presented either one or two to a page with the two-to-a-page format resulting in small pictures given that the book is midway between the mass-market and trade paperback sizes.  Some albums, such as the nude version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”, are given a two page spread which results in some of the album art or photo being lost in the gutter between pages. 

Other than an inaccurate chronology by decades, there seems to be little rhyme or reason to the overall presentation; sometimes albums are grouped by artist, sometimes they’re not; sometimes they’re grouped by sub-genre, sometimes they’re not.  Also, albums do not seem to be included based on the importance or quality of the music as the collection includes a hodgpodge of important and obscure musicians and groups while some influential musicians whose albums were known for their cover art (e.g., Cal Schenkel’s covers for many Frank Zappa albums) are absent.  The subsequent fame of the artists or the visual interest of the cover also does not seem to play a role in how the covers are presented as R. Crumb’s famous and detailed cover for Big Brother’s “Cheap Thrills” album gets a small half-page while the Bee Gee’s “Odessa” (name of band, album and record company stamped in gold on a flat red background) gets a whole page. 

“1000 Record Covers” looks like a random set of photos of the albums in someone’s personal record collection.  There are a lot of great album covers here and with very few exceptions they are well photographed and well reproduced.  If you like the music and the album sleeves of rock and pop from the period covered, this is a nice book to browse through.  If you want a collection of album photos that have been selected and organized based on the quality or importance of either visual art or musical performance, this isn’t it.

01/16/2008 Posted by | book reviews, music | 2 Comments

Review: Bill Graham Presents My Life Inside Rock and Out, Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield

People tend to expect their heroes to be all good and their villians to be all bad.  Curious since who among us is so simple?  This common desire may explain why opinion on rock promoter Bill bill graham bioGraham is so nakedly divergent with some thinking he was evil incarnate and others believing he embodied the very essence of the countercultural ideals of trust, love and caring for your fellow man.  Bill Graham appears to have been a complex man with great strengths and great weaknesses, a portrait that is vividly drawn by “Bill Graham Presents . . .”

Graham was the rock promotor who owned and operated The Fillmore, Fillmore West, and the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco and Fillmore East in New York.  He also promoted and managed many rock mega tours like the Rolling Stones US tour in 1981 and the “Conspiracy of Hope” Amnesty International world tour headlined by U2 in 1986.  Graham’s promotion, both in his venues and on tour, was known for his intense focus on both the experience of the customer at the show and the comfort and well-being of the musicians.  He believed wholeheartedly that if the musicians were made to feel welcome, comfortable and respected they would put on their best show for the customers.  And he was all about putting on the best possible show.  He was so successful that he played a central role in creating a monster that he came to hate.  Graham was instrumental in showing the music industry that rock and pop music could succeed in bigger and bigger venues.  As audiences got larger, the money made from individual shows skyrocketed, rock became a big money industry, and the behavior and attitudes of everyone involved got uglier and uglier.

Graham was legendary for his temper and proclivity for conducting every interaction over everything at a screaming level of intensity.  Not surprisingly, people who were subjected to this treatment tended not to like him.  In “Bill Graham Presents” that intensity is presented as the result of his desire to insure that the audience had the best possible experience at the show combined with his insistence that he and only he knew how to bring that about.  Whether or not he was the only one who knew how to fulfill the audience’s expectation of having a wonderful and memorable experience at his shows, he was often the only one thinking about it, as the attitude of many others in the industry was “We got the money, what else matters?”  Throughout his career Graham put on great shows because he always cared about putting on great shows in a business where almost everyone else only cared about the money.  Graham’s attitude about money illustrates what a complex man he was.  On the one hand, he fought with everybody about every nickel and dime of the cost of putting on a show and had a maniacal attitude about not letting people into his venues for free, on the other hand, none of the Fillmore’s had a cash register.  Money from tickets, concessions, everything was thrown in a box and counted up at the end of the night.  The whole operation ran, and ran exceedingly well, on the honor system.

“Bill Graham Presents” is unlike any biography I’ve read in that almost all of it is presented in the words of the participants.  Through most of the book the story is told through extensive interviews with Graham and many others who were part of what was going on.  Very late in the book coauthor Greenfield injects his own voice as one of the participants to fill in narrative detail about the last few months of Grahams life.  This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do and Greenfield pulls it off brilliantly.  “Bill Graham Presents” is very compelling reading that almost never flags because the whole story is told with the immediacy of the people who were there.

In many biographies the obligatory tracing of family lineage and early years before the subject got going on the life that is of biographical interest is something of a slog.  “Bill Graham Presents” doesn’t get into the early San Francisco rock days until Part 2 beginning on page 135 and I approached the book steeled for a long and boring read before I got to the good stuff.  I couldn’t have been more mistaken.  Graham’s early family history told by his sisters is about Krystallnacht, Auschwitz and different ways of escaping, or trying to escape, Nazi Germany.  It’s riveting.  Graham was a highly talented story teller and his tales of his life as a young man in New York and the Catskills are, in many ways, the best part of the book.  His story about serving Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Eva Marie Saint roast duck and peche flambe when he was an unknown waiter in a LA restaurant had me laughing so hard I cried.  The accounts of the early years at The Fillmore are equally compelling but as the venues and the business gets bigger the stories become less enjoyable.  Part of this is because it’s hard to avoid the feeling that much of what was going on is being left out and part of it is because what is going on is so ugly.

Readers who have a rosy, warm, and fuzzy view of their favorite musicians might want to stay away from this book.  The venality, greed, dishonesty and blatently unethical and monumentally egotistic behavior of everyone involved in the music industry including agents, promotors, managers, publicists and the musicians themselves is a disgrace to everyone involved.  It’s all about the money all of the time and any behavior no matter how despicable that produces any increase in income no matter how small is avidly embraced.  Musicians making hundreds of thousands of dollars a show steal everything that isn’t nailed down and rip off restaurants for meals and waiters for tips, petulant stars refuse to perform at the last minute in juvenile attempts to demonstrate their power and assume control, musicians present themselves to the public as caring individuals who want to give their best for their fans while instructing their agents to go to extreme lengths and screw fans, promotors and everyone else to make sure that the musician gets every nickel and dime they possibly can while also seeing to it that their image isn’t sullied in any way.  It’s ugly, disgusting and unrelenting.

“Bill Graham Presents” is a fascinating and highly readable portrait of a complex man who was at the center of both the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene and the rise of rock and pop music to a multibillion dollar performance industry in the 1970s and 1980s.  He thought about things like like who he was, what he was doing and what was going on around him in ways that were very different from the way most people think about most things most of the time.  Talking about the early San Francisco days you read Grace Slick and others going on about how Graham was kind of out of it, “not like us”, kind of like their parents only, unlike their parents, they could talk to Graham, but he just wasn’t as advanced in his thinking as they were.  However, you’ve also read Graham talking about his life up to that point and you realize that he was so far out there in terms of the way he looked at and understood things that the counterculture kids couldn’t see him at all.  They were trying to understand Graham by looking back at what they knew which was the wrong direction entirely.  Bill Graham was a fascinating man and “Bill Graham Presents” lets us get to know him in as well as we possibly can now that he’s gone.  Highly recommended.

08/29/2007 Posted by | book reviews, music | | Leave a comment

Review: Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane, Jeff Tamarkin

I read “Got a Revolution!” in preparation for a future podcast on Jefferson Airplane and was reminded why I usually avoid this type of history-of-the-band book.  Although Tamarkind is airpplane booktoo young to have been a participant in the life that gave rise to Jefferson Airplane, he has known the band members for a very long time, is knowledgeable about the narrative details of the band and their later transformations into Jefferson Starship and, finally, just Starship, and he writes without the blatant band worship or hatred that too often characterizes books of this kind.  So, what’s not to like?  The music got left out.  Tamarkind gives very little attention to the kind of musical information that would be of interest to a reader who is more interested in the music than the band.  At heart, this is a book about the logistical details of tour itineraries and personnel changes, a catalog of important events in the life of the band, and gossip.

Tamarkind begins with brief and interesting background information on the families of each of the major players in the Jefferson Airplane story, progresses to the formation of the band, and then follows the group’s development through to the final dissolution of Starship in 1991.  Along the way, he pays a good deal of attention to Hot Tuna, the side project of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bass player Jack Casady that turned into an important group in its own right.  The bulk of attention is given to the “classic” Airplane configuration of Kaukonen, Casady, guitarist Paul Kantner, drummer Spencer Dryden and vocalists Marty Balin and Grace Slick.  Readers who are primarily interested in Jefferson Starship and especially Starship (are there any of those?) will likely be disappointed.  The book contains a final what-are-they-doing-now chapter written in 2002, an index, bibliography, list of websites, and a “discography” that simply lists album titles and years of release without any other discographic information.

As mentioned earlier, readers interested in the music won’t find much of interest in “Got a Revolution!”  Who wrote music and who wrote lyrics for song after song is assiduously listed but details of how the music was actually hammered out is not discussed.  Did the music come first?  the lyrics? Were both worked out in collaboration?  How did other members of the band contribute as the song developed over time both in live performance and the studio?  Did various members of the group compose on the guitar?  the piano?  Did it make a difference?  What was the actual musical, as opposed to personal, working life of this band like?  Tamarkind doesn’t talk about any of this.  The blurb on the back of the book says that Tamarkind has written liner notes for dozens of Airplane-related CDs and his discussion of the albums reads like liner notes.  “Spencer’s (insert glowing adjective here) drum intro is followed by a (insert glowing adjective here) vocal duet between Marty and Grace that leads into a (insert glowing adjective here) break by Jorma, Jack and Paul.”  That’s as sophisticated as the musical analysis gets.  Tamarkind is careful to list the producers and engineers for each album but he tells us nothing about how the music was created in the studio.  How was the band recorded?  Any special technical innovations or techniques involved in recording them?  Were they interested participants in the technical aspects of the recording? the mixing? Were they capable in the studio or did segments have to be taped again and again because the band had trouble getting it right?  Tamarkind isn’t interested in any of this.

Instead we get way too many sentences like “In (pick a month and year) the band played shows in (cities A, B and C), followed by dates in (cities E and F) ending up with two shows at (name a famous venue) in (city G).”  We get times, dates, places and circumstances in which Grace Slick slept with one band member or another.  We are told about innumerable small-fine and inconsequential dope busts for various members of the group.  Careful attention is paid to when one wife/husband/boyfriend/girlfriend is dumped and another is picked up.  Instance after instance of Slick’s embarrassing and usually alchohol-fueled behavior is dutifully described.  One of the odd aspects of the book is that constant reference is made to the polarizing effects of  the warring factions of Kaukonen-Casady on the one hand and Kantner-Slick on the other with Dryden and Balin alone and caught in the middle and yet I don’t remember any real discussion of what these two factions disagreed about.  We’re told that band members ridiculed Balin’s preference for pop oriented love songs and got on Dryden’s case for not being able to play loud enough or long enough to satisfy Kaukonen and Casady’s desire to engage in extended jams but Balin and Dryden are supposed to be the guys caught between the two warring poles in the band.  Strange.

Readers interested in narrative time-lines and gossip may enjoy this book.  If you’re mainly interested in the music, don’t waste your time or money.

08/12/2007 Posted by | book reviews, music | 2 Comments

Review: Kraftwerk: Man, Machine and Music, Pascal Bussy

When musicologists divide up the history of classical music they almost always describe the Romantic period (e.g., Liszt, Mendelssohn, Chopin and later, Tchaikovsky and Verdi) as kraftwerk bookfollowing after the Classical period (e.g., Mozart, Haydn and C.P.E. Bach).  The problem is what to do with Beethoven.  Some describe him as a classical musician, some as a Romantic, and some as a transitional figure, while others note that his talents were so immense and his music was so groundbreaking that Beethoven needs to be placed in a category all his own.  In other words, they recognize that Beethoven was what (another towering musical figure) Duke Ellington called “beyond category”.  Those who study current forms of popular music have the same type of categorization problem with Kraftwerk.  Their work was so visionary and so influential that many music analysts arrive at the Beethoven solution and place Kraftwerk beyond category.

If you tuned in to Kraftwerk at any time during the past 20 years or so, you might wonder why people think they’re such a big deal because they sound like lots of other groups.  Well, the sound similarities are there but it isn’t that they sound like others, it’s that others sound like them.  Check out the dates.  From 1974 to 1977  the best selling albums of the year according to Billboard were Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” (1974), and “Greatest Hits” (1975), Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive” (1976) and Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” (1977).  Over those same four years, Kraftwerk released the albums “Autobahn”, “Radioactivity” and the monumentally influential “Trans-Europe Express”.  With these three albums they laid the groundwork for large and important segments of Detroit techno, House, and early Hip-Hop (Afririka Bambaataa’s epochal track “Planet Rock” (1982) flat out ripped off the melody from the track “Trans-Europe Express”).  Before the major record companies had even discovered or figured out how to market disco (the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack wasn’t the year’s best selling album until 1978) Kraftwerk had laid the basis for the next several iterations of dance music beyond disco.  In a different musical vein, the synth-pop movement of bands like the Human League, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, and Simple Minds looked back to Kraftwerk as a fundamental influence.  Virtually every creator working in any of the myriad subspecies of electronica looks back to the same source.  Kraftwerk.

In 1981 Kraftwerk released Computer World (Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” coupled “Trans-Europe Express’s” melody with the drum line from “Numbers”, one of the tracks on “Computer World”.)  The press release for “Computer World” stated “The concept of the album is that this is the Computer World.  Every facet of our society is now influenced by computer technology and our language has become the language of computer software.”  Well, d’oh!  right?  Except this was 1981, the year the IBM PC and the DOS operating system where first unleashed on the world.  The PC had an 8088 processor running at 4.77 MHz, 16 or a “huge” 64 kilobytes of RAM, and no hard drive.  When people talked about word processors, they were talking about Wordstar (remember that?).  Apple’s Mac didn’t appear until 1984 and Microsoft’s Windows showed up in 1985.  Visionary?  You bet.

Given their importance, not much has been written about Kraftwerk.  There’s a good reason for that – not much is known about them.  They are extremely secretive about their lives and their work.  Kraftwerk is essentially Ralf Hutter (with an umlaud over the “u”) and Florian Schneider.  Independently wealthy they were never in it for the money and they built their own recording studio, the Kling Klang studio, in Dusseldorf very early on so they were never dependent on the record industry for either promotion or production facilities.  When they appear on stage, they all stand behind small keyboard-like interface devices and it is impossible to tell who is doing what or what is prerecorded and what is being manipulated live during the show.  They’ve never let it be known how they make their recorded sounds (much of their equipment is self-made or self-designed) or who does what on the records.  They don’t appear to do all this because they are trying to use “mysterious” as a marketing gimmick.  Hutter and Schneider are often quoted as saying things like, we play the machines and the machines play us.  Kraftwerk’s music is concept driven and a central element of their concept is captured by Bussy’s subtitle, Man, Machine and Music.  For Kraftwerk the humans, the machines, and the music are interacting parts of a single coherent entity.  If you think like this, focusing on the musicians is failing to understand what is going on.

So how do you write a book about a group that isn’t interested in self-promotion and won’t tell anybody anything about what they do?  Bussy takes the straightforward, time consuming, and difficult path of assiduously poring over every scrap of reliable info that the band, or those closely associated with the band, have given out and constructs a descriptive narrative about where they’ve been and what they’ve done.  He points out their obvious desire not to be known and is careful to differentiate when he is speculating from when he is reporting what is in the public record.  The book is sober, informative and eschews any kind of sensationalism.  With music as interesting and influential and a band as shrouded in mystery as Kraftwerk, Bussy’s book inevitably raises more questions than it answers but you also get the sense reading it that those answers will only become available if you can get Hutter or Schneider to talk to you about it.

If what you want is to be titillated by stories about blow jobs and coke orgies, this isn’t the book for you as it has virtually nothing to say about the sexual conquests, drug consumption or bad behavior that serves as the basis for so much “rock journalism”.  I enjoyed “Kraftwerk” because Bussy is a thoughtful writer and I like the group and learned things I didn’t know about them.  “Kraftwerk” also has an extensive discography in an appendix that is very useful.  Readers of this review should be aware, however, that Ralf Hutter and I share excessive interests in cycling, coffee and music, we both seem to consume all three in quantities that are probably not good for you, and this may have biased my view of the book.  I finished the book thinking I would love to ride in the Alps with him.  lol

07/27/2007 Posted by | book reviews, music | 1 Comment

Review: Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, The History of the Disc Jockey, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton

As the subtitle has it, this book purports to be a history of the DJ.  It starts off promisingly enough with introductory chapters on the early role of DJs in clubs and on the radio.  dj savedHowever, once Brewster & Broughton (B&B) enter into the meat of the book they quickly lose focus and what we get is a more or less random collection of anecdotes that sometimes are about DJs and sometimes are about other aspects of dance music or club culture. 

It is telling that the central section of “Last Night . .”, which is just under two thirds of the book, is organized around types of music rather than DJs, DJing practices or DJing techniques.  Often it seems B&B are more interested in different types of dance music than they are in DJs.  This is most apparent in the chapter on Techno where they point out that the key players in early Detroit techno, Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson, were not DJs and had almost nothing to do with DJs and then they go on to spend a whole chapter on anecdotes about them.  Northern Soul is given 34 pages during which the same few points are made again, and again, and again.  The writing in this chapter is so redundant I came very close to putting the book down as a waste of time.  While B&B are enthused with Northern Soul, they don’t make any kind of case that the scene was of more than marginal importance for anything having to do with the development of the DJ over the time period covered in the book.  It only seems to be given so much attention because B&B like it.  The following chapter is on Reggae and here we have a wealth of rich ores to mine in the history of the DJ.  B&B point out that remixing, stripping tracks down to bass and drums, extending breaks, “toasting” (later called rapping) over DJ played music, and more may well have originated in Jamaica.  If you were really interested in the history of the DJ you could spend an entire book tracing out how these techniques developed and were passed on to the DJs in New York and Miami.  B&B give reggae 16 pages (compared with Northern Soul’s 34!) and, other than saying “this started in Jamaica, that started in Jamaica” do almost nothing else with it.  The whole book is like this; they tell anecdote after anecdote about the kinds of music they like and skim along the surface of everything else.  Too often “Last Night . . ” is shallow in both thought and coverage. 

At times the writing style is so hysterical and the statements claimed as truth or insight are so overwrought and poorly supported that a reader concerned with clear thinking and analysis rather than assertions of opinion is compelled to take even the author’s less extravagant claims skeptically.  For example, B&B write “And when his dance revolution swept all other pop before it, the DJ found himself at the center of momentous social change, as he dramatically altered the way people consumed their music and enjoyed their leisure.”  The “dance revolution that swept all other pop before it” seems to be the development of house in Chicago, techno in Detroit and possibly hip-hop in the Bronx although it’s really not very clear.  This grandiose nonsense is apparently based on the observation that some DJs developed successful careers as remixers and producers. 

One very useful aspect of the book is an appendix that contains “Club Charts” that list “Top” 50 or 100 tracks played at a number of the famous dance clubs mentioned in the text.  As sources for music you might want to listen to, these lists are terrific.  As a reliable index of what was played or what was popular in any of these clubs, their value is much less clear.  They are labeled “Top 50” or “Top 100” but how anyone arrived at these lists is unknown and unaddressed by the authors.  Some of the lists are compiled or partially compiled by the DJs who made the clubs famous.  Others are compiled by “The Committee”.  Who “The Committee” are, what grounds they have to claim expert knoweldge of what was played in any given club, what their criteria for the inclusion of a song on the list were is anyone’s guess. 

As a collection of anecdotes about different kinds of dance music, clubs, and DJs from roughly 1970 to the mid 1990s, “Last Night . . ” is an enjoyable read.  As a book that details the history of the DJ or provides information that one can trust as reliable it’s a failure.

07/08/2007 Posted by | book reviews, music | Leave a comment

Review: Tim Lawrence, Love Saves the Day

Most people interested in the explosion of dance-oriented music in the US in the 1970s would have written a book about disco.  Tim Lawrence hits a different groove.  He love saves the dayexplores disco but he presents it as the visible and industry-approved tip of the invisible and vastly more interesting underground dance scene.  His primary focus is on the DJs and venues where the dancers of nightworld brewed a steaming mix of music, movement, drugs, sweat and sensuality that had and continues to have profound effects on dance-oriented music around the world.

Love Saves the Day (LSD – no accident there) takes its name from David Mancuso’s Valentine’s Day loft party in 1970.  LSD (the book) is filled with interesting people and Mancuso may be the most interesting of them all.  A firm believer in many countercultural ideas about personal freedom, transcendence, peace and love, Mancuso was one of the very few who found ways to make these ideas work.  Lawrence looks to Mancuso’s invitation-only parties in what became known as the Loft as one of the foundations upon which the dance underground was built.  It seems a good choice.  Time and time again DJs who have become famous for their spinning and mixing talents and people who were instrumental in creating many of the best known dance clubs such as The Paradise Garage, The Gallery, Studio 54, and Chicago’s Warehouse refer to The Loft when explaining what they were trying to accomplish.  Mancuso and the Loft were instrumental in introducing or developing such things as the invitation-only system that kept the scene manageable and off the radar, free food combined with no alcohol sales to avoid New York’s restrictive cabaret laws, a sound system of exceptional quality to drown the dancers in sound, an unending party atmosphere (balloons were ever present), providing an environment where everyone was free to relax and be themselves without fear of judgement or condemnation (innumerable people are quoted describing the Loft as being like “going home”), but most of all, the music.  Mancuso was revered for introducing people to new and unheard music, for his extraordinary ability to sequence songs in ways that took his dancers to heights most had not experienced before, and for his exquisite relationship with the audience so that the musical experience became a shared interaction and a shared creation between the DJ and the dancers.  Other venues and other DJs took pieces of the Loft experience and built on them or developed them but in reading LSD it sounds like none of them put it all together the way Mancuso did. 

As fascinating as Mancuso and the the Loft are, they are only one thread among very many that Lawrence weaves in LSD.  In addition to the famous dance venues mentioned above he tracks the development of places like the Sanctuary, the Ice Palace, the Sandpiper, Le Jardin, the Continental Baths and the Flamingo.  He describes the careers of DJs like Francis Grasso, Nicky Siano, Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, Walter Gibbons and many more.  He discusses the roles played by many industry professionals including record company executives, sound engineers and recording engineers, most notably the superlative mixer Tom Moulton.  And, of course, the musicians and producers: Donna Summer & Giorgio Moroder, Gamble & Huff, Gloria Gaynor, James Brown, Loleatta Holloway, Barry White, the Love Unlimited Orchestra, the Bee Gees and so many more.

Although the focus of LSD is clearly on clubs and DJs, Lawrence attends to many factors that influenced or were characteristic of dance culture.  The result is a cornucopea of fascinating insights many of which contradict what is commonly believed about “disco”.  A very small sample includes things like:

– How the 12″ single was “discovered” by accident when Tom Moulton didn’t have any standard 7″ blanks at hand and needed to save a mix.  The increased size of the 12″ blank allowed for wider grooves in the record which produced a louder, richer sound which was perfect for the dancefloor and Mancuso’s state-of-the-art sound system. 

-The strong gay aspect of the underground dance scene appears to have been less an issue for the participants than for outsiders who looked on with revulsion or non comprehension.  For the dancers it was about the dance and although there was certainly a lot of sex of all kinds going on and even more sensuality, the dancers consistently report that sexuality at the favored venues just didn’t matter that much. 

– Much of the resistance to disco and dance music in general came from the established radio DJs because the devlopment of the club DJ had the effect of taking some of the power of making or breaking records out of the radio DJ’s hands.  When people go into record stores asking for records they heard the DJ play in the club last night, records that are getting no radio play, the radio DJ becomes markedly less important to the record companies who are all about moving product.

– The “Disco Sucks” phenomenon most notably exemplified by the riot at Comiskey Park in Chicago during the 7th inning stretch of a White Sox game when fans were invited to burn and blow up disco records had almost no effect whatsoever on the underground dance scene.  Many in the underground were uninterested in the sterile and glittertastic disco of Saturday Night Fever, the Bee Gees and Studio 54.  “Disco sucks” simply wasn’t about them and they viewed it with detached amusement.

There’s more, much, much more.  LSD has a good index, bibliography, notes and an extensive discography.  Of extraordinary value are numerous individual discographies scattered throughout the text which list what a particular DJ was playing at a particular venue at a particular time.  These playlists alone provide deep insight into the essential nature of dance culture and debunk many myths about disco and dance.  They are also an invaluable resource for turning on to some terrific music.

The book is not without flaws.  Lawrence’s habit of switching back and forth between clubs and referring to people by first name at some times and last name at others can lead to confusion about who is whom and where is where.  I  just put the book down and picked it up later with a fresh head.  LSD is subtitled “A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979”.  It would be better if American were replaced by Manhattan.  Lawrence gives substantial attention to Frankie Knuckles move to Chicago and his establishment at the Warehouse leading to the hugely influential Chicago House style but it is not nearly as closely considered as what was going on in Manhattan.  The boroughs also don’t get much interest and people who are essential to the full story of dance music in America in the ’70s and beyond like Grandmaster Flash, DJ Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa are only mentioned in passing.

 These are small quibbles, however.  LSD is a rich, detailed and much more often than not fascinating presentation of an underground culture in which, at its best and most exhilarating moments, music, people, venues and drugs combined to form an amalgam that transcended fashion, judgemental rejection and individual differences of all kinds in a communal and often tribal celebration of dance.  Love Saves the Day indeed.

06/10/2007 Posted by | book reviews, music | 4 Comments

Review: Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music, Hugh Barker & Yuval Taylor

Barker & Taylor’s Faking It is an essay-based examination of a number of the ways in which the idea of authenticity has affected popular music.  Rather than take a monolithic view of what “authenticity” means in the context of pop music the authors recognize that “authenticity” is faking ita multifaceted concept that has a broad range of implications for people who play and people who listen to music.  Barker & Taylor (B&T) are clear thinkers who recognize the limitations in their arguments and in their coverage of what authenticity may mean and how it may play out in various areas of pop music.  I think this is one of the great strengths of the book.  However, readers who prefer a straightforward argument to a simple conclusion may be frustrated.

B&T consider a broad range of ways in which concerns for authenticity affect pop music.  Their opening, and in many ways strongest, chapter examines how the marketing needs of the music industry, the biases and prejudices (both cultural and musical) of the consumer, and the personal and often political ideologies of pioneeering “field recorders” such as John and Alan Lomax, defined and shaped the familiar musical categories first of race and hillbilly or old-timey music and then blues, country and folk.  They argue persuasively that the authenticity commonly ascribed to these forms of so-called root music is, as often as not, artificial in that the distinctions drawn between these musical categories distort both the experience of the musicians who played the music and the history of the songs assigned to one category or another.  Fascinating stuff.

Other chapters include consideration of how the self-imposed demand for “keeping it real” can produce exercises in drunken, sloppy, mistake-laden recording (a discussion of Neil Young’s album “Tonight’s the Night”), a recognition that performances and public personae are by their very nature exercises in self-consciousness that are antithetical to the essential nature of authenticity (carried out in a discussion of punk and John Leydon), and how an insistence on not faking it can lead to the dilemma of achieving what you set out to achieve, becoming the person who you wanted to be and who the fans that rallied behind your keeping it real credo wanted you to be only to find you really don’t want to be that person anymore (in a discussion of Kurt Cobain).  They also look at how the demand on the part of the public that musicians authentically portray their lives in their music can straightjacket performers like Donna Summer, a woman with a marked talent for getting inside other people’s lives and portraying them in song, who was expected to forever be the mindles sex-object she portrayed in her world-wide monster hit “Love to Love You Baby”.  Other chapters discuss how considerations of authenticity distort the music and constrain the musicians in the world music genre (Ry Cooder, Paul Simon and the Buena Vista Social Club) and how authenticty plays out in genres that embrace artifice such as a bubblegum pop (The Monkees), dance/electronica (Kraftwerk) and early rock (Elvis Presley).  And there’s more.

B&T both think and write clearly without the overweening self-esteem that is typical of academic approaches to pop culture.  They are also careful thinkers who recognize and point out limitations in the claims and arguments they present.  The result is that reading Faking It is like having a conversation with thoughtful and non ego-obsessed people who have a deep and abiding knowledge of and interest in popular music.  It is unlikely that anyone will agree with everything they have to say but their clear presentation and lack of arrogance will leave you free to disagree without rancor.  Most importantly, it can lead you to listen to music with new ears so that you attend to the music itself rather than the category in which the music is typically placed.  I found Faking It to be an extremely thought provoking book that encourages discussion and consideration much more than polarization or argument and can highly recommend it to readers who prefer thoughtful consideration to ideological ranting.

05/19/2007 Posted by | book reviews, music | 1 Comment

Review: Geoff Emerick, Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Beatles

Another book on the Beatles?  Give me a break.  What is this?  Another one of those “I hung with John when he was fucked up and hung out with assholes . . . uhh . . . wait a minute” pieces of garbage?  Not hardly.  Here, There and Everywhere is about recording the Beatles albums from Revolver on and it is written by the only person alive qualified to tell this story in this way.

Geoff Emerick interviewed and got a job on the bottom rung of the engineering ladder at EMI’s Abbey Road recording studio when he was fifteen years old.  His second day on the job he was assigned to an overtime session, without pay, recording a band scheduled to make their first appearance in the studio.  The Beatles.  Three years later he was given the job of chief recording engineer for The Beatles two weeks before the sessions for Revolver began.  He stayed in that position for most of the rest of their career and was the person responsible for most of the recoding innovations associated with the Beatles that have become standard in the industry such as close miking, automatic double tracking, backwards sound, tape looping, preamp distortion and more.  He won Grammy Awards for Sergeant Pepper’s, Abbey Road, and McCartney’s album Band on the Run as well as a fourth Grammy for Lifetime Technical Achievement.  He is the guy behind the pristinely recorded master tapes that have made the recent Beatles mashup “Love” possible.  When it comes to recording the Beatles, he is the man.

  Here, There and Everywhere is all about the music and, as such, it may not be for everyone.  If you want to read gossip or anecdotes about The Beatles personal lives, analyses of their  cultural significance or stories about where this lyric or that came from, this is not the book for you.  If you are interested in technical details about how The Beatles were recorded, how a vocal track or drum part was miked, the problems involved in recording something as layered and complex as Strawberry Fields Forever or almost all of Sgt. Pepper’s on a four-track machine, or how the Beatles interacted in the recoding studio you will probably love this book.  Emerick keeps such a tight focus on the music and how it was recorded that when he ocassionally talks about something going on in his personal life outside the studio it can come across as flippant or disinterested.  This is especially jarring when he mentions that his wife of roughly five years succombed to cancer.  Reading further it seems that the only reason he mentions his wife’s death is to show that it became the basis for a tighter bond between he and McCartney after Linda McCartney passed away from the same disease.  Unlike so many who coauthor self-absorbed autobiographies, Emerick understands that his reading audience is not as interested in him as they are in the important things he did. 

Just as the book isn’t about Emerick, it isn’t about The Beatles per se.  While he has an enormous regard for the band members as musicians, he is not awestruck when considering them as people.  Where most people would be, like, “ZOMG, it’s RINGO!!!”, for Emerick Ringo is the guy who was the drummer in the band with a pronounced aversion to flashy drumming coupled with an intense interest in how his drums were recorded and who had little else to say or do during the recording of The Beatle’s music.  Although it seems clear that Emerick had a closer relationship with McCartney than any of the others (he was considered by some to be “Paul’s engineer” during the bitter Apple years) he provides generally balanced accounts of all four Beatles as musicians and participants in the recording process.  All four are praised and openly admired for their musical prowess and yet limitations each Beatle had either as a musician or as a contributer to the recording process are frankly discussed.  Emerick doesn’t appear to delight in telling unflattering stories nor does he bask in the reflected glory of The Beatles.  He simply tells the story of what it was like to work closely and extensively with four very talented musicians.

 Here, There and Everywhere is a book about how an exceptionally innovative and creative engineer recorded extraordinary music written without hype or adulation.  I loved it.

02/01/2007 Posted by | book reviews, music | Leave a comment