Thursday, February 7, 2008

Pop Books

  • Simon Napier-Bell. You Don't Have To Say You Love Me. London: Ebury Press, 2005 [1983, 1998].
  • Trevor Dann. Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake. London: Portrait, 2007 [2006].
  • Joe Boyd. White Bicycles: Making Music in the 1960s. London: Serpent's Tail, 2006.
  • Ron Jones. The Beatles' Liverpool: The Complete Guide. Liverpool: Ron Jones Associates Limited, 2006 [1991].

I read pop books like candy. Which is certainly the best way to approach Simon Napier-Bell's book, first published in expurgated form in 1983, when he was managing Wham! It's what you call a breezy romp through a quarter-century of pop music in Britain, beginning with his early efforts to play jazz trumpet, through his 60s heyday managing The Yardbirds and writing songs for Dusty Springfield, and dwelling mostly not on the records and stars but on the debauchery. Bisexual (more like omnisexual), hoovering up drugs and glugging Champagne, he partied his way through the Swinging Sixties, pausing only briefly to steal another 20 percent from his stable of artistes.

He's dismissive of the workload of pop management: "It took all of a minute a day, and suddenly there was so much money coming in that I had to take up eating lunch as well as dinner". Napier-Bell was one of the gay mafia that ran the London pop business -- Brian Epstein with The Beatles, Kit Lambert with The Who, Robert Stigwood with a variety of acts culminating in The Bee Gees, Larry Parnes, Lionel Bart. If kinky sex is your thing, there's plenty of orgy and bordello action here; if music is more interesting to you, then you'll be fascinated by the episodes with Burt Bacharach, Marc Bolan, Jimmy Page, and so on.

It's also a good look into the sprightly sleaze of the music business; one enchanting chapter tells how he traveled around all the record companies in America, selling them the rights to dozens of made-up groups that didn't even exist, solely on the basis of his reputation, without so much as a demo tape in hand, and walking out with large checks. Later, he'd find some random group playing in a club somewhere and have them supply the (terrible) music for the worthless record he'd sold.

He was right at home in the early eighties with pop confection Wham! George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley barely appear in the book. This is fluff, but lively fluff, which captures some of the attitude of the Sixties in hangouts like The Scotch of St. James, where the fellow on acid crawling under your table might be John Lennon.

Another fellow who remembers the Sixties is Joe Boyd. Boyd's not the storyteller that Napier-Bell is, but his career has involved a lot more interesting music. Getting his start putting on shows in the folkie revival scene in Harvard Square and later Greenwich Village, he was the mastermind behind the famous Newport Folk Festival where Bob Dylan plugged in and burned the eardrums of the Pete Seegers of this world. Later, he went to London, and ran UFO, the club night at the locus of the British psychedelic scene, where Syd's Pink Floyd came to prominence.

He produced Pink Floyd's first single, "Arnold Layne", but when they went on to bigger things he found himself leading a new folk revival, the one centering around Fairport Convention. He produced their earliest and best records, through the Sandy Denny and Ashley Hutchings period. He also did records for the Incredible String Band and, famously, depressive song genius Nick Drake.

I was most interested in the Fairport and Nick Drake sections, and I wasn't disappointed. The Drake story is well-known by now, and Boyd doesn't add much, except some nice and nuanced personal reminiscences -- and a great photo of Nick sitting in a chair reading the hilarious Richard Thompson liner notes for Fairport's Full House. The Fairport stuff is new to me, and great, particularly the contrast between the rather meek, polite boys in the band and the blowsy, loud, sweary, clumsy, emotional singer he got them to replace the less-gifted Judy Dyble: Sandy Denny, one of the great voices in the history of pop.

He also ties together some threads for me: the British folk guitar greats. I've heard John Martyn's records before, and of course Drake's; but I don't know much about Bert Jansch, or John Renbourn, or Robin Williamson, or the mysterious Davey Graham, who "combined blues and hillbilly techniques, jazz chords and traditional melodies", which sounds pretty interesting.

One of the best sections in the book describes the black blues-jazz-folk tours he led across Europe, starting with the unlikely mix of Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Reverend Gary Davis, and Brownie Terry and Sonny McGee. Terry and McGee were used to playing in front of white audiences in the folk clubs; Tharpe was America's greatest gospel singer, who also had a long career in the big band milieu, very unlike the Reverend's rough-edged swamp gospel; while Muddy Waters was of course the king of amped-up Chicago blues. Wary at first, if not downright disgusted -- in one scene the sophisticated Miss Tharpe watched in horror as the blind Reverend Davis picked up a fried egg with his fingers and dripped it into his mouth and down his shirt -- they ended up bonding together as musicians, and created some genuinely new synergy in front of gobsmacked Brit audiences. Later tours took jazz icons like Coleman Hawkins, Sweets Edison, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Kenny Clarke around Europe, with picturesque results.

Continuing in the same theme, Boyd's protégé Nick Drake gets an impressionistic look in Darker Than the Deepest Sea. Trevor Dunn can't compete with Patrick Humphries' book in biographical detail, but he's interviewed everyone, with great sensitivity, and tells the story fairly. Drake was not, of course, a one-dimensional emo poet; he was a guitarist of tremendous invention and strength, a lyricist unusually grounded in the English poetic tradition, and a soulful but subtle singer who gets into the listener's heart like few others. He was also a pathologically shy solipsist, an helplessly dependent smoker of marijuana, a petulant egomaniac, and a spoiled toff.

The first thing everybody wants to know, of course, is "did he commit suicide?" It's the nature of us to want to rubberneck tragedy. The answer is, I don't know; I don't think I care. He was obviously, painfully mentally ill; he was taking too many meds; and he'd apparently tried to hang himself sometime before his death. Suicide? Yes, no; that kind is too fuzzy for hard forensic answers. I really don't think that dwelling on the precise details of his last days is conducive to understanding his work, which is what matters; I'm especially creeped out by the tales of his legions of fans, who visited the family home, were invited inside to see his room, given dubs of his home recordings, and so on. It's ghoulish. I don't think the family can be blamed; they didn't understand what was happening for decades afterward.

Joe Boyd mentions in his book how many dreadful demo tapes he's had to listen to that were "inspired by" Drake; few of them have grasped anything beyond sad brainless acoustic guitar strums, and the few that show any kind of musical promise don't have anything like the literary reach. I can see why he doesn't listen to "White People Singing in English" anymore, even if I'm still interested.

Finally, The Beatles' Liverpool is a classic Liverpool production: sloppy, poorly edited, a bit pathetic. The cover is another in the apparently endless parade of terrible, terrible Beatles art that fills the city, which is, typically, only recognizable as them by their haircuts (sometimes you can only tell it's them by the suits, or the boots). But it's a labor of love, or a cash-in -- are they really so different? Roy Jones knows his stuff, and covers it all. As a work of Beatles scholarship, it is slight; but as a way of seeing this tragic light and lovely city, it's got some real personality. If you know Liverpool, it ties it together in a new way, and even if you don't, it's a useful way to see how geography illuminates the Fab's early life.


old paradigm said...

Why do you take so long between posts?

Fnarf said...

Because I am very, very lazy.