Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll  by Peter Guralnick (2015)

This is the finest biography I have ever read on anyone, and Sam Phillips, its subject, may be the most interesting figure that could fill a volume of this magnitude. This includes such luminaries as founding father, John Adams, the madman Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, the man who saved America’s pastime, Babe Ruth, and most of the things I’ve read about Jim Morrison. The layers and tragedies and triumphs and immense legacy of Sam Phillips on the evolution and eventual global dominance and influence of American music (and its ensuing latter 20th century culture boom) are all covered in page-turning ecstasy in Peter Guralnick’s The Man Who Invented Rock and Roll.

Phillips’ story is that of the American maverick who overcomes childhood trauma, mental illness, financial hardships, and personal foibles to conquer an industry filled with kooks and vipers. We know about his discovering and recording of Elvis Presley’s incredible early catalog (replete with his inventing the reverb-soaked slap-back sound that changed the sonic landscape of early rock and roll), but there is also Phillips’ enduring love and discovery of inimitable blues masters Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, the parade of country/rock stalwarts, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and pop icon Roy Orbison. But what about his championing for the Black, poor, mostly ignored titans that provided the framework for rock and roll and recording what is arguably the world’s first rock and roll record, “Rocket 88,” or his founding of the world’s first women’s radio station (WHER), and a union of America’s independent studio owners, all of it in the Jim Crow American South?

Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘N’ Roll is a masterful biography worthy of its immense subject and his enduring legacy.

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The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music by Tom Breihan (2022)

Tom Breihan is a nut. This is precisely why I love him. Fellow music journalist and columnist for Stereogum began penning a daily – and eventually, due to agonizing combination of madness and exhaustion, bi-daily – review of every No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts since its inception in 1958 to the present. By the time of this writing Breihan is in the early aughts, and in the interim had a fantastic idea to turn this passion into a book by adding more in-depth historical perspectives on the most seminal of popular songs to our musical culture at large. The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal the History of Pop Music is a tour de force of Breihan at his most nerdy, intricate, and enjoyable.

With these things, there will always be complaints and counterarguments… which makes it all the more fun. And as I was ready pounce on what may be a song added or missed in his 20 hits, I was pleasantly surprised that I agreed with them all. These include the primacy of the dance craze spark of Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” the female teenage coming out party of songwriting team Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s masterpiece, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” the genre obliterating “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Billie Jean” by the two dominate chart figures of the 20th century, the Beatles and Michael Jackson, and a grand nod to Mariah Carey, duly covered here as her spate of chart toppers (19) which only bows to the Beatles (20) thus far.

No one parses the stories or puts the popular songs that have defined generations into perspective better than Breihan, who has delivered on the promise of his crazy column idea.  

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Top of the Mountain: The Beatles at Shea Stadium 1965 by Laurie Jacobson (2022)

Full disclosure: I met the author at the annual Fest for Beatles Fans in Chicago this past summer and found her delightful, funny, and wholly passionate about her subject. Laurie Jacobsen, who boasts a long bibliography of writing about her time in and around Hollywood over many years, has laser-focused her unique comprehension of the entertainment business with a genuine love and fascination with the Beatles. All of this comes through on every page of her wonderful new book, Top of the Mountain: The Beatles at Shea Stadium 1965.

We had a running joke between us – I wrote a book about one Beatles song, Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” and she wrote one about one concert. What Jacobsen has done is provide the reader with a scrapbook of Beatlemania at its absolute height (hence, the title taken from John Lennon’s observation of the event) and a blow-by-blow history of its origins, planning, execution, and legacy. 

Those who were there will appreciate her attention to the details of the times – memorabilia, ads, ticket stubs, contracts – and those who were not can be taken back in time to a magical first foray into the massive business of rock and roll, including tours, sponsors, management, marketing, and hyperbole, also providing a glimpse of the singular phenomenon that was the Beatles. 

However, there is more to Top of the Mountain than mere visual memories. Jacobsen fills the pages with anecdotes from those who packed its capacity audience, like Meryl Streep, promising to wash dishes for four years to procure tickets from her parents, Whoopi Goldberg, who was surprised with tickets from her mom on the way to show, the Supremes’ Mary Wilson, as well as E Street’s Steven Van Zandt and more.

Mostly, Jacobson delivers a proper tribute to longtime promoter, Sid Bernstein, the man who brought the Beatles to America on instinct, grit, determination, and lots of finagling. Before anyone cared about them, Bernstein had the foresight to envision the Beatles as America’s sweethearts while also portending a world in which the rock event superseded the mere one-off shows prevalent in 1965 to another one that would launch a period of massive youth events (Monterey Pop, Woodstock, Live Aid, etc) and stadium sellouts for the rest of the genre’s long history. 

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The Band Has No Past – How Cheap Trick Became Cheap Trick by Brian J. Kramp (2022)

In May of 2017, I met Robin Zander and Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick at a Rock Nation event in NYC. In a crowded hallway awaiting the press, they bitched to me about no one having attempted to capture the incredible origins of their band. And although neither of them contributed directly to this incredibly comprehensive oral biography, I hope they see it as I do: an endearing capsule of a beloved American rock band.

Brian Kamp has compiled a nearly day-to-day, gig-to-gig overview of Cheap Trick’s rise to rock legend that all fans of any band would want to consume. From the mid-to-late 1960s up through the third-generation rock and roll era, and smack through punk, funk, and power-pop, Cheap Trick remained true to its mission to create off-kilter songs that unleash a bombastic, live, and visual assault from Sheboygan to a noisy hamlet near you. The Rockford, Illinois quartet overcame every music biz cliché in the book, and in this book in particular, more than any in recent memory. 

This Band Has No Past – a clever title based on the smarmy quasi-bio Cheap Trick included in its initial album release – lets the voices behind the scenes and beyond the band tell the tale, from artists who passed through their many lineups over the years to bands that shared bills with them, and, of course, managers, booking agents, groupies, roadies, toadies, and fans galore. This is a true coming of ‘stage’ story, one filled with incredible anecdotes and the type of rock music lore that keeps the pages turning. 

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Nightfly: The Life of Steely Dan‘s Donald Fagan by Peter Jones (2022)

Obsessive perfectionist, anti-social curmudgeon, musical pioneer – Donald Fagan, and to a great extent his musical partner, Walter Becker, co-founders of the inscrutable jazz/rock/pop combo Steely Dan, are all of those and more. Peter Jones’ Nighfly lifts the veil on the mysteries of the band that hid in plain sight while they challenged music industry norms and managed to simultaneously boast huge hits during the 1970s. The method, the madness, and the fallout of their partnership/kinship are duly covered and brought to light in what Jones describes as a “critical biography,” but reads as sonic psychoanalysis.

A painfully private subject is both a blessing and curse for biographers. Readers want to know it all, since so little has been offered by the subject – I am reminded of the recent ESPN series on legendary New York Yankees player Derek Jeter – but perhaps it is their public output that speaks volumes; hence “hiding in plain sight.” Fagan revealed so much of his psyche in his songs, anguish, lust, sarcasm, and a general hopelessness for humanity. The humor of his lyrics, the adoration of trad jazz and early rhythm and blues, comes through loud and clear. To that end, Jones succeeds in letting us into that world, providing more than a sneak-peak into Fagan’s past, his dreams, his fears, and his seemingly unwavering worldview, along with the incredible dedication to making music the way he and Becker heard it in their heads. Their silent, mystical bond is what intrigued me the most, and Nightfly gets to its core as well as any account I have read thus far.

Nightfly is indeed a “critical biography” in that hits all elements of an underrated commentator of his times that oddly never saw past the keys on his piano.   

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Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation by Stephen Hyden (2022)

There are love letters to a band and to a musical movement and then there is Steven Hyden’s Long Road: Pearl Jam and the Soundtrack of a Generation, one of the most entertaining summations of what a rock band can do to one’s soul whether we like to admit it or not. Hyden is a music journalist and author I have gotten to know from a distance since he kindly referenced my Accidentally Like a Martyr – The Tortured Art of Warren Zevon a few years back. Previously commenting poignantly with some humor in compendiums on the music of his times, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me (2016) and Twilight of the Gods (2018), and an in-depth analysis of Radio Head’s Kid A in This Isn’t Happening (2020), this time Hyden is fully immersed in his subject. 

Setting the arc and journey of Pearl Jam into seminal eras, which begins for Hyden at a June 1995 Red Rocks concert wherein the band rediscovers and reinvents itself, the book helps fans to understand how the inner workings of this collection of musicians have endured beyond the grunge movement. (The only one that has?) This includes the infamous battle with Ticketmaster that, in Hyden’s estimation, both underlined the integrity of the band while simultaneously derailing its ascent. For this reviewer, who had more or less left Pearl Jam’s evolution somewhere along 1998’s YieldLong Run, made it fun to discover gems from their later works while marveling at the band’s survival instincts to navigate several personal and professional travails most fans never see.

Hyden also uses a similar ‘songs as guideposts’ framework that I used in Accidentally to focus on where the band was in its steady – if not enigmatic – sonic pilgrimage, ending prophetically on “Yellow Leadbetter,” a reliable concert closer that is perhaps its fans most beloved song. In the final chapter, wherein he muses on the emotional connection a band’s run has on our fraying thread of memories, Hyden writes, “You see a band you have loved most of your life, and if they can still move you, then time manages to stand still. But only for a while. And only if they can still do this. Because one day, they won’t.”    

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JAMES PAUL MCCARTNEY TURNS 80

Aquarian Weekly
6/22/22
 
Reality Check
 

James Campion
 
 
JAMES PAUL MCCARTNEY TURNS 80
 
I feel obligated to acknowledge the eightieth birthday of James Paul McCartney the day after I am writing this – June 18, 2022. Beyond the fact that I have noted certain milestones for many of popular music’s giants here over the years and for a while became the de facto eulogist for too many more, there has been a weird connection I’ve had with Sir Paul for the past three years. Not the least of which having conceived a book project around his greatest song (in my humble opinion) “Hey Jude” titled Take a Sad Song – The Emotional Currency of “Hey Jude,” which was released just a few weeks ago, mere days before

One of the things I learned hanging in the shadow of Paul McCartney these past years, is the importance of staying alive. For the longest time, especially after the death of his songwriting partner, the iconic and sainted John Lennon in 1980, McCartney’s significance in this little four-piece rock and roll combo he founded, the Beatles (have you heard of this?) was greatly and woefully diminished. Living was a bad career move for Macca. At first. Now it turns out having several lives after you’ve peaked at 26 years-old is a good thing. And an argument can be made that now that Paul has managed to make eighty and has completed his tour triumphantly in front of eighty-thousand or so fans in a massive stadium here in N.J. last evening, it was a tremendous career move. Not to mention a good personal one, because, you know, otherwise…   

Makes sense that Paul McCartney is still with us. I mean, what sixteen year-old boy – music-obsessed, sex fiend, ego loon – takes the time to write “When I’m Sixty-Four?” Then, instead of forgetting he ever did such a thing put it on an album (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – have you heard of this?) that came out eight years later when he was just twenty-four. The man had a plan. And it has gone way past sixty-four. If my math is correct, sixteen years past. The age he was when…

“No one else is remotely in this stratosphere.”

Okay, so Paul has lived and has made a lot of music. And as I write in my book, people seem to like this music. Some stats for these songs that Paul’s come up with – composed with and without some notable collaborators like the aforementioned Lennon (wowza) and Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash and Kanye West to name a few – include thirty-two that have gone to #1 in the United States and/or in the United Kingdom. A staggering 129 of his songs have charted in the United Kingdom, ninety-one reaching the Top 10. He is the Guinness Book of World Records’ Most Successful Songwriter of All Time. “No one else.” I wrote, “is remotely in this stratosphere.”

Paul McCartney might be the most prolific and influential songwriter of popular music ever. He is Gershwin and Porter and Ellington and Berlin and all those other guys and then some. Paul, as I discovered also in my research, is song. He has been song, and he will forever be song. I think it is possible if you look up the word “song” in Webster’s it might have Paul’s smiling face next to it. There is no daylight between a hummable tune and James Paul McCartney.

Oh, I also found out during this book journey that apparently the Campion men over a century-plus were fellow Liverpudlians who married a lot of Irish women from across the water. This is thanx to my Little Brother, PJ, who is now the family archaist. Before this, I was merely another of these Irish/Italian types from the Bronx by way of a large boat of people. Turns out there was a large boat or two or three, there was just a Liverpudlian Campion on it. 

I was already here in 1964 when the Beatles arrived via an airplane and changed the planet forever. There are pop stars and icons and then there is the inexplicable sonic boom of the Beatles, who were four scrums from that British port town that no one gave a flying fart about until they invaded every cover of everything. People coming from nowhere to dominate is the stuff of legend. And for some weird reason Paul, this old soul with his songs about retirement written before he could shave, rode it like he knew it all along. And this is the same boyish charm that pervades today. You see his glee when he performs and gets those cheers. He loves those cheers. His little dance when he stands up from the piano after serenading us with “Maybe I’m Amazed” or “Let It Be” or the next masterpiece is pure unadulterated joy. Saw him for the second time in my nearly sixty years on the planet a few weeks ago in Syracuse, NY, where my wife is from and her amazing family that is my family and where I signed my books that afternoon with his visage on the cover, and all those the years between 1964 and 1968 and 1978 and 1989 (when I first saw him at MSG) and the rest melt away into one big Macca moment.

A musician friend of mine back in the mid-eighties once mused that it is strange that anyone can do an impression of almost any rock star from the 1950s onward, except McCarney. Paul doesn’t have a distinct sound (unless you listen to Badfinger or early Billy Joel or any boy band that has existed after the Beatles) but I kind of know what he meant. He meant that Paul could be a vocalist for any time and any occasion His songs demand that his voice run the gamut. It isn’t an affect he is doing; it is Paul being song, again and again, and, blessedly, again.

So, all those year ago, and the years in between and the ones to come, are right there for Paul, who is a time machine, an indelible mark on our sense memories in sound. He brings us there, time and again, with a melody for the ages. Because he has aged. 

So, fuck dying and leaving a good-looking corpse and all the bullshit about burning out and fading away. 

James Paul McCartney is eighty. 

Long may he be song.

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Paul Simon: The Life– Robert Hilburn (2018)

Robert Hilburn, respected music journalist from the L.A. Times for thirty-five years takes
on the life of the legendary Paul Simon, whose mercurial musical journey spans nearly
six decades in Paul Simon: The Life. Although at times the writing is as dry as a Bob
Woodward political exposé, the author provides new perspective on the life and times of
Simon by including the singer-songwriter’s commentary as late as 2017. And so, this is a
biography with a little memoir thrown in, which makes it unique. However, what makes
it a must read for fans of Simon and music history in general is it includes pages and
pages of how this genius of songcraft plies his trade. I need to point this out again,
because it is a glaring rarity in rock/pop bios; Hilburn writes, using copious Simon
quotes, how one of the great American songwriters of any generation does it. What a
concept! But don’t sleep on it, because this should be a template for every one of these
books going forward.

One of the elements of the book that really struck me is throughout an
uncompromising artistic career from chucking Simon & Garfunkel at the absolute height
of their earning and artistic powers, to working with eclectic musicians from all over the
globe across genres (Graceland – South African and Rhythm of the Saints – Brazilian),
and tackling film scores (One Trick Pony) and an ill-fated Broadway play (The
Capeman
), Simon, and thus Hilburn, are obsessed with winning awards, as each year’s
Grammy nominations arrive with Simon obsessively, almost to the point of shifting his
moods and future inspirations for a spate, tuning in. The bevy of awards that would come
Simon’s way meant so much to him it borders on the edge of creepy and self-serving, but
it also shows how in-tune the performer was with the shifting tides of music for sixty
years. Unlike many of his contempories, even Bob Dylan, who had a comeback in the
early aughts, Simon would return again and again as a seminal voice in the pop world.

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Life on Two Legs: Setting the Record Straight on Queen, The Beatles, Elton and Bowie
and the Ultimate Rock Studio, Trident – Norman J. Sheffield (2013)

There is a very convincing argument to made, and Norman Sheffield certainly makes it in
his page-turning Life on Two Legs, that his studio’s influence on the 1970s era of rock in
the UK and beyond has no peer. The founder and proprietor of the legendary Trident
Studios, tucked in a little alleyway in the Soho District of London, was the epicenter of
the rock/pop world, effectively launching the glam movement with the birth of Marc
Bolan and his T Rex, David Bowie, and Elton John, three massive British artists that
would dominate the charts and pop culture for years to come. And this is not even to
mention, which Sheffield does in great and gory detail, Trident’s discovering,
developing, and managing of Queen, a monster rock/pop outfit that would be an
international hit-making and touring phenomenon.

If Sheffield did nothing but discuss the history of Trident’s groundbreaking studio
period (the first of its kind in the UK to embrace what was going on in the U.S. in turning
the studio into a place of comfort to create like New York City’s Record Plant or L.A.’s
Sunset Sound) this would be required reading. But add Trident’s advent into 8-Track and
then 16-track recording, seducing the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and a host of other epic
acts, and what you have the living evolution of rock and roll in its second generation.

Sheffield also duly covers he and his colleagues, some of them the most important
producers/engineers of the period, Ken Scott and Roy Thomas Baker, to name just two,
expanding the brand to film, video production, tour scheduling and more. Trident was the
most groundbreaking enterprise in pop music and Queen’s massive success underlines
this.

But, alas, Sheffield also describes the terrible business side of his creative venture, not
the least of which “the Queenies,” as he affectionately calls them, as their naiveté, greed,
and overall dumbness that led to a terrible split. More than half the book is dedicated to
this stirring saga and for good reason. It is, like most of Trident’s triumphs and tragedies,
a cautionary tale. One that needed to be told by the man who made it and lived it.

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Why Patti Smith Matters – Caryn Rose (2022)

Author Caryn Rose begins her framing of the import of Patti Smith with a note about this
not being a biography, but indeed, it very much is, but with the added tone and
perspective the subject deserves. Part of a series from University of Texas Press Music
Matters
books that include similar treatises on Marianne Faithful, Solange, Karen
Carpenter among others, Why Patti Smith Matters is fast-paced ride through the artistic
journey of one of the most influential artists of the mid-to-late 1970s New York punk
movement.

Rose is a fan, and more than that, she eloquently depicts the pertinence of Smith’s
appearance on her debut album, the iconic Horses black-and-white photograph of Smith
leering apathetically, and her intense Saturday Night Live appearance in the autumn of
1976, one that also blew yours truly away. Much of the background material has been
covered by Smith herself in Just Kids (which I reviewed here in 2010, and her follow-up
M Train in 2015), but it was Rose’s concentration on the time period Smith and her then
husband Fred “Sonic” Smith of the MC5 married and decamped in a suburb of Detroit in
the 1980s that was special for me. We read how much it flummoxed the author as a fan
that Smith retreated from the public eye and essentially her art, but also how much the
author’s feminism and professional hindsight sees it as an afront to the (woman) artist’s
right to have a life outside of celebrity, something Patti Smith always claimed was not the
aim of her career, and how she might have been even more prolific because of it.

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