If you grew up listening to music before the digital age made packaging obsoelete, you’ve probably seen the name Glyn Johns on the back of some of your favorite records. He’s recorded, mixed or produced music from just about all the big names in rock like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and The Eagles, to name a few from his 50 year career behind the boards. Based on his accomplishments and the characters he’s crossed paths with, Johns’ autobiography should be an indispensable treasure trove of great stories and anecdotes from rock’s most vital period. Instead I find it kind of dull. Yes he was there, and yes, he played an important role in shaping the sound of classic rock. But his retelling of events is so dry and emotionless that all of the vitality gets sucked out of them. Johns wrote Sound Man – the title is perhaps a play on words, given his “normalcy” in a field dominated by insane characters – by himself, which was probably a mistake. It probably won’t take readers long to see he’s clearly not a professional writer and using a co-writer could have added some crucial spice to an otherwise bland read. They also could have suggested a normal-sized font instead of the small squint-inducing font we’re left with. Johns also errs by only focusing on his most popular musical activities, condensing the last 35 years of his career down to just 40 pages. True, his output during that time is weak compared to the albums he worked on in the ’60s and ’70s, but this is supposed to be a biography and not a selective ‘greatest hits’. It might have been interesting to hear what it was like for him emotionally, given his extraordinary resume, to be working on albums by forgotten C-level bands like Summerhill, Jackopierce and The Warm Jets. Unfortunately he doesn’t let us in on that…or much else.
Capturing a unique and multi-dimensional personality like Brian Jones in a definitive biography isn’t an easy task, and a look through Amazon tells me that many authors have tried.However Paul Trynka is definitely the right guy for the job, having already penned great biographies of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, two similarly larger-than-life figures from the world of music. I can’t say I’ve read any previous Jones bios, but Trynka claims to have unearthed some new important details in Jones’ life story, which makes the book unique. Plus he avoid getting caught up in the cheap “was he murdered?” sensationalism that previous books have leaned heavily on – in fact he doesn’t think Jones was murdered at all and even debunks some of the more popular theories on Jones death in 1969. Trynka also paints a tremendously vivid portrait of Jones’ life leading up to the Stones’ including his fractured relationship with his parents, his pre-Stones musical activities (which included years of performing live), and the circumstances which gave him four children with four different women – three before he was even famous! There’s also a tremendous amount of insight into life in the Rolling Stones camp during The Rolling Stones’ formative years, when Jones was their leader – the guy who had the creativity, the musical experience and the life experience to drive the rest of the band (who were relative amateurs) forward. He paints a pretty ugly picture of the band’s interpersonal relationships with one another, with sexual one-upmanship, constant jockeying for position in the press and a myriad of petty barbs all a part of daily life. He even suggests that Mick and Keith’s eventual dislike for Brian may have stemmed from him making a measly 5 pounds more per week than the rest of the band during their early days. Lastly, he illustrates quite well how that ugly side of the band caused Mick and Keith to push Brian to the sidelines once they became more confident in their own abilities, and how they treated him rather cruelly, a practice which continues to this very day as they regularly minimize his considerable contributions with a series of misremembered facts and outright lies. It’s an interesting and often revelatory read.
Seemingly mandatory rock-bio fact-checking oversight: Trynka mentions that in 1967 Jones recorded a soundtrack to German director Volker Schlondorff’s Mord un Totschlag, which he calls Schlondorff’s follow-up to The Tin Drum. The Tin Drum wasn’t filmed until almost a decade after Brian Jones died.
If your favorite Jesus and Mary Chain album is Darklands. If your favorite Velvet Underground album is their self-titled third. If your favorite Creation Records band is Teenage Fanclub. These are some of the potential reasons why you might love The Proper Ornaments and their debut album Wooden Head. The band are actually a duo of Max Claps and James Hoare (the latter also plays in Veronica Falls) handling the singing, songwriting and guitars, with bass and drums rounding out the sound. To be honest their songs are good, but nothing special. You won’t turn to them for jaw-dropping walls of sound or aching vocals to pull at your heartstrings. You will however look to them for unpretentious mid-tempo fuzz pop with good melodic sensibilities and ’60s-styled harmony singing that you don’t hear enough of these days. The band also throw the listener a few musical curveballs to keep things fresh over the course of 14 tracks, like “Ruby” and “Tire Me Out” which are both heavily steeped in the melancholic sound of New Zealand indie acts like The Bats and The Clean. My favorite song on Wooden Head is also the one the rips the hardest, “Step Into The Cold”, which may not be much more than an amped up version of The Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” with added vocal harmonies, but is that such a bad thing? I don’t think so.
Little was known about this obscure Mexican artifact from 1970 until very recently, when an intrepid fan tracked down Ernan (real name Hernan Rocha) on the internet. Rocha’s music was inspired by the introspective songwriting of The Beatles and Neil Young, with perhaps a hint of Donovan. If you want a good reference point for the sound of this album, Rodriguez might be your best bet, though Ernan’s lyrics dealt more with the spiritual than the political. The reason any of this still matters in 2014, is that the album is pretty damn good. Album opener, “The Train” is Ernan and his backing band’s (a group called El Amor) greatest achievement – an “expression of existential angst”, to borrow a quote from the liner notes, that’s part “Down By The River”, part “Season Of The Witch”, and features some great fuzz guitar working in compliment with Ernan’s evocative singing style. None of the other tracks from this reissue reach the same high water mark as “The Train”, but they still make for some pretty good listening, shuffling between folky and more rock-driven styles. Interestingly, the whole album is sung in English and has no sonic indicators that it’s the work of Mexican musicians.
Whenever I review an album of obscure proto-metal I’m always hopeful that I’m on the verge of a discovery. I’m not foolish enough to think I’ll stumble onto something as good as Black Sabbath or Led Zeppelin – too lofty a goal – but maybe, just maybe, I’ll hear something that ranks alongside a Pentagram or Captain Beyond. Finnish band Charlies’ 1970 debut album doesn’t do it for me though. The six track album – actually the soundtrack of an underground film on anarchy – is largely influenced by Zeppelin, with heavy emphasis on showy musicianship and lengthy instrumental passages. Yes, Led Zeppelin spun that format into musical gold, but a lot has to go right in order to pull it off. Unfortunately this recording is so low budget, the guitarist’s tone so benign, and the rhythm section so all over the place (bass player Kari Lehtinen competes with the guitar for center stage too often) that there isn’t anything left for me to recommend. The original album is augmented by six bonus tracks from early singles and rehearsal room recordings. They meander less than the album tracks, but still don’t work well.
Some other fun facts about Musiikkia Elokuvasta Julisteiden Liimaajat:
The song “Sunshine Supergirl” is unfortunately not a Donovan mash-up and is almost nineteen minutes long (drum solo!)
The bonus tracks include a pair of blues covers (“Rock Me Baby” and “I’m So Glad”) as well as Jethro Tull’s “We Used To Know”
Mark Lanegan is a man of many projects, but I always like his solo work the best, where the songs and performances have an added element of intimacy that places him in the same discussion as performers like Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. He’s been sporadically releasing solo albums since 1990’s The Winding Sheet, and I love them all. Knowing that, I approached Phantom Radio with a bit of trepidation, brought on entirely by the pre-album press which discussed the influence of New Order (a band I’ve never liked much) and noted that the album began its life as a series of recordings on an app called Funk Box. Was Lanegan about to start following trends and go electro-pop?
Thankfully the answer is no. Sure, many of the songs on record are based around programmed beats and other electronica sounds, but Phantom Radio is nowhere close to being dance-floor fodder. If anything the music is based more the hypnotic proto-electronica of Kraftwerk than anyone else, which works great with Lanegan’s distinctively deep vocals and darkly introspective lyrics. In fact, this may be his best batch of songs in twenty years. The only place where I hear any echoes of New Order is on “Floor of the Ocean”, which has a bass-run that can only remind you of Peter Hook – but, unlike New Order, this song has a good singer and lyrics. “Torn Red Heart” is, for me, the album’s centerpiece, a heart-wrenching ballad with a heavenly trajectory that could very easily have come from a Spacemen 3 as from Mark Lanegan. It ends with the hard-driving “Death Trip to Tulsa” with a title referencing songs by the Stooges and Neil Young, which is a pretty great combo. Each of Phantom Radio’s ten songs are among Lanegan’s best and as of today (November 1st) this is my favorite album of 2014.
The promo cd also comes with the five song No Bells On Sunday EP, which you should get if you find it. Standout tracks include “Dry Iced”, a hypnotic number with traces of Suicide’s “Cheree”, and the ethereal title song which has a Joy Division funeral march vibe to it.