Book Reviews: Steve Peregrin Took, A Year in the Country, Prog Rock, Jerry Nolan, Frenchy and Flicknife

 

By Dave Thompson

A Trip Through Ladbroke Grove: The Life and Times of Underground Hero Steve Peregrin Took

by Fee Warner

(Mercury Moon, ISBN 978-1788081689)

Steve Took, for those who may not know (there’s probably one or two) was the original other half of Tyrannosaurus Rex, the band that hauled Marc Bolan towards the superstardom of the seventies – and who, according to what and where you read your histories, has been effectively whitewashed from the story.

Integral to the duo’s first three albums, he was out before the fourth, and while his former cohort rode the white swan to glory, Took sank into the kind of legend that made his very existence seem somehow apocryphal.  How could someone have been so cool, so talented, so poised on the edge of greatness, and then vanish with such finality?

Well, you could ask his friend Syd Barrett about that, and it’s diverting to wonder what the two sat and talked about, as their old playmates played frisbee with platinum discs, while their lives were choked by grapevine and speculation.

Barrett’s story has long since been cleared of such clutter. There are probably more books about him on the shelves today than he gave interviews in his prime.  Took, however, has remained deep in the shadows – one reason, perhaps, why this particular book has been germinating for seemingly years.

Author Warner has spent much of the last twenty years researching the story – gathering information, speaking with any and everyone who might have an insight into the truth, and patiently correcting the misapprehensions that have littered Took’s life for so long.  She doesn’t intend stopping, either, but this gloriously illustrated and so-affectionately written book at least serves as a “story so far,” and a companion to a planned “sister book” focusing on his music alone.  The 400 pages here are simply the life.

A cast of almost thousands add their voices to Warner’s – not quite an “oral history,” the book is nevertheless built around the observations of the people who were actually there, in Took’s company, as events unfolded.

Death, sadly, removed many of the key players before Warner could speak with them – Took, of course; Bolan, Barrett, Tony Secunda, Mick Wayne and more.  But from producer Tony Visconti to friend Nik Turner, sometime collaborators Larry Wallis and Twink, and onto the son who never knew him (who provides a fascinating, moving, introduction), A Trip Through Ladbroke Grove lives up to its title with technicolour flare.

The Grove, after all, is where Took lived much of his life, and Warner vividly paints the subterranean multi-verse of streets and basements, hang outs and hang-ups through which Took and a host of fellow underground adventurers paraded. Dandies and drop-outs, freaks and friends, for whom making music was simply one component within the web of fascinations and convictions that sustained them.

More than any other book on the time-and-place (there are several) Warner captures that mindset, but more importantly than that, she depicts a world in which the actual rewards of fame – and that includes the backdated royalties that Took eventually received from his Tyrannosaurus Rex days – were secondary to simply living.  And Took, until he was taken in October 1980, lived.

 

A Year in the Country. Walking Through Spectral Fields: Journeys in Otherly Pastoralism, the Further Reaches of Folk and the Parallel Worlds of Hauntology

by Stephen Prince

(A Year in the Country – ISBN 978-0-9574007-2-6)

The past few years have seen a veritable plethora of books emerge, primarily from the UK, dedicated to a topic which, even were you to ask its practitioners and creators, possesses only the loosest of definitions.

Its ingredients are fairly rigid.  That clutch of folk-and-thereabouts albums, mainly dating from the early 1970s, that in some way conjure a mood of uneasiness… let’s play Comus’s “Song to Comus” while we contemplate that.

A gathering of old TV shows, extending deeper into that same decade, that grasp at the island’s pagan past and how its echoes resound in the modern world.  We’ll watch Children of the Stones this evening.

A handful of movies crowned by The Wicker Man (join me in the big field later); and a nightmarish assemblage of public information films that didn’t simply warn children of the consequences of playing on railroad lines, messing with matches, jumping into lakes and flying like Superman, they also showed the messy consequences of doing so.

All of which are relevant to the theme.  But it’s not what they were that is under discussion; it’s how their memory makes you feel today, once it’s been filtered through the intervening decades’ worth of mis-remembrance, distortion and doubt that preceded their re-emergence (again across the last few years) on CD and DVD.  And, with equal importance, the multitude of other, less tangible, glimmers that haunt the back of the mind.

Power pylons striding like giants across an ancient landscape.  Imponderable messages on shortwave radio, collectible cards from Brooke Bond tea.  Derelict sheds on abandoned allotments.  Wartime defenses assaulted by nature. The murmuring of a murmuration.  A forgotten candy wrapper, the price of a packet of cigarettes.  Civil Defense.  Pan’s People.  They were once the most popular dance act on British TV, but pause to think about their name for a moment.

It’s a conversation that the A Year in the Country website has been leading since its inception in 2014, via a welter of blog postings and, with increasing regularity, a series of musical offerings that themselves draw in many of the field’s modern practitioners – artists like United Bible Studies, the Hare and the Moon, Rowan Amber Mill, Sproatly Smith and more.

Now, author Prince has pulled together a mass of material culled not only from the website and its associated albums, but also a great deal more that was written specifically for the book. And the result is spellbinding.

Fifty-two chapters – one for every week in the year, although you’ll read it much faster than that – wander (Prince’s word) through this landscape, and the overall impression really does fall somewhere between a leisurely walk through the countryside, and a scavenger wild hunt through recent culture.  Pausing to pick up an interesting artifact, or passing by deliberately, to muse upon it later.

It reflects upon the attempts by other artists – authors, musicians, documentarians – to set some kind of boundary to the field, and celebrates the gaps they leave in the fence.  Some chapters take the form of record or book reviews; others bottle lightning and then shake it up a little.

Definitions are delivered and dismantled, and while the book can be read from cover to cover, better to browse from chapter to chapter, following the topography of your own fascinations.  Just as the label’s CDs are best heard on shuffle, or even on the iPod, crammed together in a single file and then you hit the random button, the theme is not linear, and neither is its study.

 

Flicknife Records and Other Adventures

by Marco “Frenchy” Gloder with Greg Healey

(Newhaven Publishing – ISBN 978-1-910705-42-1)

History is written by the winners, but the truth is often told by the bit players… the names that don’t drip off the tongue when the awards are handed out, and whose greatest achievements are rendered all the greater by the fact that the only people who know them are the people who care.

Flicknife Records was one of the maverick successes of the 1980s, a tireless indy whose raison d’etre might have been the Hawkwind family tree, but which also brought a lot of other great music to the table.  The first new Nico record of the decade, the still immortal “Saeta,” was a Flicknife release; so was the one-and-only album by the so-effervescent Band of Outsiders. Erazerhead, Alien Sex Fiend, the Saints.  Again, names that don’t drip, but which were glorious regardless.

And Frenchie was the man behind the label, telling his story now in a book which, if nothing else, serves as a much-needed antidote to all those slick, self-serving coke-with-kings-and-sex-with-CEOs autobiographies that, again, the winners come up with.  For goodness’ sake, you’ve read one major label exec snorting fish paste off the fetlocks of a derby-winning nag, you’ve read them all.  Whereas Frenchie….

He never intended becoming a label head. In fact, for a lot of his youth, you get the impression that he never expected to wake up the following morning.  From the pocket-sized state of San Marino to the ghettos of Grenoble, to Paris, to London, it’s the story, simply, of a guy growing up with music as the backdrop to the tougher process of staying alive.  Starting a label was simply one more thing to do, just a step-or-two up from selling bootleg cassettes at a street market.

He does, once the label is up and running, play up the “outsider” credentials a little too much.  The indy world’s naturally touch-and-go relationship with the UK music press translates, in his eyes, into the constant mantra that everyone hated Flicknife, to the extent of utterly ignoring those writers who did support the label during its mid-1980s heyday.

It’s a shame because the story doesn’t need scapegoats.  Not the critics, not the (admittedly now universally-discredited) “weighting system” that helped dictate the UK charts of the age, none of the foes that Frenchie drags across the coals.  By any of the standards upon which we judge an eighties-era independent, Flicknife was a success – just as its founder’s autobiography is a success.

It’s fascinating to read of his involvement in such cultural watersheds as the 1984 Stonehenge festival and the work of the Travellers Aid Trust.  He lays bare his long-time relationship, and dealings with, Hawkwind frontman Dave Brock and the panoply of players who weave in and around that band; and theres so much more besides: his encounters with Nico, Nick Cave, Lemmy, Glen Matlock, Nik Fiend; nights at the Batcave, Billy’s and Alice….

Great swathes of eighties subculture spill from the pages, and the sub-sub-cultures that swirled within them as well.  It’s a world that has long needed documenting, and woven in and around the events of Frenchie’s own life, it’s one that comes to vivid life here.

 

The Prog Report: Essential Modern Progressive Rock Albums – Images and Words Behind Prog’s Most Celebrated Albums 1990-2016

by Roie Avin

(Royal Avenue Media – ISBN 978-0-692-96020-2)

Gorgeously illustrated, painstakingly designed, a blur of color on every page, this is the kind of book that will never see the inside of a bookshelf.

Instead, it lives on the coffee table, not only to impress the neighbors, but also as a constant reminder that, for all we like to lionize the prog of decades past, the music remains alive and well today. So much so that even a cursory glance through the fifty-plus albums that Avin spotlights will leave you adding a few more that he omitted.  And hastening off to check out the handful that you might disagree with.

You could say the usual suspects are here: Spock’s Beard, Porcupine Tree, Dream Theater, Marillion (Marbles… an interesting choice), the Flower Kings, Kings X, Steven Wilson, Neal Morse.  And some surprising inclusions, too – it’s a brave author who would open any book by extolling the virtues of Queensrÿche.

But Avin, whose credentials for the job are firmly rooted in his online The Prog Report project, argues the case for each of his entries with persuasive enthusiasm, offering backgrounds to the band on the occasions they’re required, reviews of the music, discussions of the artwork, the thoughts of the musicians and more.

Sleeve designs are illustrated with full-page (a nifty 8.5-inch square) color, photos fill the gaps between the text, track and recording details lurk in their own little boxes.  As much as the music, and the excitement that surrounds it, Essential Modern Progressive Albums is a triumph of design, a book that looks as good as any of the records it spotlights sounds.

 

Stranded in the Jungle. Jerry Nolan’s Wild Ride – A Tale of Drugs, Fashion, the New York Dolls and Punk Rock

by Curt Weiss

(Backbeat Books – ISBN 978-1-4950-5081-7)

Mention Jerry Nolan to most people, and the first thing they’ll recall will be the vivid pink drum kit upon which he plied his trade.  Dig a little deeper and his role in two of New York’s most crucial bands – the Dolls and the Heartbreakers – will prompt paroxysms of fond remembrance.

Dig deeper than that, though…..

For a player held in such high affection by so many fans (not to mention fellow musicians), Nolan’s life and career is shrouded more in rumor than reality.  He passed away in 1992, and was rarely interviewed in the years beforehand.  But with two of his former bandmates (the Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain and the Heartbreakers’ Walter Lure) preparing to drop their own memoirs on the world, Stranded in the Jungle could not have been better timed.

That those two bands dominate the story – 100 of the book’s 250 pages – is unavoidable; try writing about Mick Taylor without putting the Stones in center place.  But Weiss, himself a drummer (in fact, he replaced Nolan in the Rockats), handles them well, interviewing a small city’s phonebook full of friends, family, bandmates, observers and admirers as he pieces together the story, recalling bands like the Peepl and Maximillian as they steered Nolan through the psychedelic underground of the late 1960s, Art and Shaker, and a stint with Cradle, an otherwise all-girl band out of the Detroit, led by Suzi Quatro.  “He looked like a girl,” says Suzi, and with a recommendation like that, a berth in Dolls (he replaced the late Billy Murcia) was perhaps preordained.

That story, and the short life of the Heartbreakers, formed with fellow ex-Doll Johnny Thunders, flash by – sensibly, Curtis opts to focus more on Nolan’s personal life than simply recounting those bands’ day-to-day existence; but it is when the Heartbreakers are placed in the rear view mirror that the book truly comes to life.

Nolan’s eighties, after all, were little more than a blur of gossip, legend and half-truths, all underpinned by a sense of unease and foreboding.  Health issues, broken bands and a long term methadone habit all conspired against his attempts to settle into any kind of groove, and it’s sad that his only guaranteed paydays were those occasions when he reunited with Thunders.

There was a drug bust in London, his health continued to deteriorate… those who find romance from within rock’n’roll’s most potent tragedies still thrill to the knowledge that Nolan died just six months after Thunders.  But it wasn’t romantic.  It was sad and it was sordid, and Weiss is to be applauded for not pulling his punches as the tale reaches its end.  In fact, no matter how profound the author’s admiration for all that Nolan accomplished through his life, you can’t help feeling that even he believes there could, and should, have been more.

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