Book Reviews: TV Smith, David Bowie, Electronics, Disco, Japan and the Blues

1TV Smith

Alternative Top 50

(Foruli Codex – isbn 978-1-905792-68-9)

The safety pins have rusted now, the headlines have all yellowed, and the T-shirts aren’t even fit for purpose, let alone fitting your frame.  But still the fortieth anniversary of punk rock is upon us, and while the publishing houses of the world will doubtless weigh down every bookshelf with vicarious memories and vivacious photo books, along comes one book that truly tells the story…not of punk, but of what it became.

As frontman with the Adverts, truly the most exciting of all the first generation punk bands, TV Smith was barely out of his teens when he was anointed the movement’s own poet laureate, a status which his intriguing literate songwriting was not about to contradict.  Neither did his talents decline when punk itself faded, nor even when his own commercial stock sank through the 1980s; rather, he just kept on writing some of the most alluring lyrics of the age and, when the nineties brought him back into focus (nine new albums over the past twenty years, a tenth coming in to land next year), the pen was as sharp as ever.

Sharp enough that one’s first move upon picking up Alternative Top 50, his (incredibly) first volume of collected lyrics, is to check which songs didn’t make the list – and there’s a lot of them.  No complaints whatsoever about what is included, once you’ve hopped past TV’s brief introduction and long-time fan Henry Rollins’ lengthier preamble… fifty lyrics that, were you to compile the songs themselves onto an album… would likely provide the greatest record you’ve ever heard.

Instead, they become the greatest one you’ve ever read.  Digging back to the Adverts (“Gary Gilmore’s Eyes,” “New Church,” “Bored Teenagers,” “Television’s Over”… you know them all), through brief looks at TV Smith’s Explorers (“Tomahawk Cruise) and Cheap (“Silicon Valley Holiday,” “New Ways Are Best”) and on into the solo years, you may not agree with every absentee (wherefore “Trojan Horse”? “Burning rain”? “Token Of My Love”? “The Beautiful Bomb”?), but it’s hard to argue with the inclusions.

Eye-catchingly designed, exquisitely typographed, every page offers something to look at without any more illustrations than the lyrics themselves. And though its 100+ pages make it feel like a thin book, it really isn’t.  Forty years ago, Smith began writing one of the key manifestos of what we called punk rock.  Today, he is still hard at work.  Think of this as a work-in-progress.

bowie-lps-price-guideDavid Bowie: Rare Records Price Guide (Volume Two – Albums 1967-2017)

by Tamsin Darke

(CreateSpace – ISBN 978-1540759467)

The successor (obviously) to Darke’s acclaimed guide to Bowie’s UK and US singles output, Rare Records Price Guide (Volume Two – Albums 1967-2017 delivers precisely what it says on the tin, a discography so exhaustive that it transforms what could have been a simple list of thirty or so LPs into almost seventy pages of label variations, matrix numbers, reissues, remasters, repackagings and more.  And every one of them noted with its current (presumably Near Mint) value.

And that’s just the beginning.  Add surveys of compilations, promos, cassettes, 8-Tracks, reel tapes and promos, and this has to be one of the most comprehensive discographies available for any artist outside of the Beatles/Stones/Elvis axis.  Which, of course, is a lofty status that Bowie himself has long since enjoyed, but seeing his career laid out in such matter-of-fact terms alerts us to another fact: that collecting Bowie on vinyl and tape also tells the story of the music industry itself.

We follow the decline of vinyl, from the myriad different versions of his 1970s output (forty-plus listings for Hunky Dory) through to the pitiful lone pressings for Oy Vey, Baby and Black Tie White Noise, and then the unthinkable – a solitary Brazilian pressing for Buddha of Suburbia; an excerpts-only single disc for Outside; and nothing at all for Reality.  And then, the gradual reawakening of the format over the past few years.

We see 8-Tracks fade out in the mid-1980s (a record club cartridge for Tonight), cassettes give up the ghost a little over a decade later; DCCs and Mini Discs flail briefly in the early 1990s… if you care about such things, it’s a fascinating ride.

Darke’s introduction admits that the listings are not complete – while she endeavors to include every variety of every album, that presumably means there’s a few insignificant ones still lying unlisted; while the compilation and tape sections are deliberately kept to “select” releases only – first pressings and key reissues only.

Still, like it’s predecessor, it’s a book that every serious Bowie collector will be clamoring for, and rightfully so.  Well illustrated with record labels and a few pieces of memorabilia, it’s either living confirmation of the value of your collection, or the introduction to collecting that you’ve always hoped to find.

3Tape Leaders 

by Ian Helliwell

(Sound On Sound Publishing – ISBN 978-0995495807)

Put simply, Tape Leaders is an encyclopedic effort from musician and author Ian Helliwell whose subtitle says it all – “a compendium of early British electronic music composers”.  And, if you have any interest in this field, it is indispensable.

The fact is, no matter how heavily indebted to the pioneering electronic musicians the last few decades have been, there remains a vast hole where knowledge ought to lie.  Yes, we all know the easy names – Brian Eno, Ron Geesin, John Tavener and Delia Derbyshire (creator of the Doctor Who theme, as influential in this field as Chuck Berry and the Beatles are in others), but what of Barry Anderson, John Baker, Don Banks, Janet Beat?  And we’ve not even got into the Bs properly.

Tape Leaders fills this void with a series of colorful, informative and, most of all, affectionate entries for over one hundred names, all of them active in the electronics field prior to around 1970 – the era before their specialty truly found its way into the rock and pop mainstream, even as it impacted hard on films, radio and TV.  And shook those worlds as it did so.  Again to pick an easy example, Delia Derbyshire’s assault on Ron Grainer’s theme for Doctor Who is now one of the most famous TV themes of all time.  But can you even imagine what it sounded like when it first materialized in 1963?

Deliciously illustrated and deftly designed, the book supplements its survey of the pioneering “who’s” with a similarly informative summary of the “why’s” and “wherefore’s”; and even adds a CD comprising 15 pieces of music, to emerge not only a master class in, but also a glorious tribute to, the men and women who bleeped, squeaked and burped their way into the consciousness of twentieth century culture, and whose impact is still being felt today.

4To Disco With Love

by David Hamsley

(Flatiron Books – ISBN 978-1-250-06845-3)

Another genre that has been sorely overlooked in terms of serious analysis, combining scholarship with a sense of fun, is disco – a fate that some readers, no doubt, believe it deserves, but which nevertheless screams out for remedy.  For thoughtful analysis, as opposed to cliched pouting.

Almost two decades have elapsed since Vince Aletti published The Disco Files 1973-78, a week-by-week survey of new releases and DJ favorites, drawn from his weekly columns in Record World magazine; since then, and before that too, the best we could hope for was another “gee it was the 70s and we had joy, we had fun”-style guide to kitsch and fashion (on the occasions that those two things ever separated).

Now, however, comes To Disco With Love, an exquisitely illustrated hardbound trawl through “the records that defined an era.”  It is not a reference book per se; rather, it’s focus is on the album art, in which guise the subtitle is thoroughly justified, to the point where the text offers little more than captions for anyone who doesn’t remember who the performers might have been, and what their greatest hits were.

Artists and designers receive occasional name checks (although not as many as you’d wish for, without wearily turning to the credits at the back of the book), and there is maybe a little too much scene setting hyperbole – “for some, the disco was a place to bathe in steamy heat, the wetter the better.”  But the lay out is glorious, and the choice of sleeves, some 250 of the things, could not be bettered.

Disco still awaits a serious analysis that combines scholarship with a sense of fun.  But at least it now has the photo section it deserves.

5Record Series of Japan 

by Shawn Chambers 

(ISBN 978-0-692-50043-9)

Artwork also dominates Record Series of Japan, a 500 page guide to “the series and sales campaigns of rock and pop Japanese pressings from 1965-2000,” which in turn translates to full, and profusely illustrated discographies of some 160 of the best-known series of reissues and repackagings that have characterized the Japanese record market.

The emphasis is on Anglo-American releases – Phonogram’s Attention! series, with its contents ranging fro the Platters and Nana Mouskouri to the Nice and Black Sabbath; EMI’s “Best Album Library” (1981), featuring Cliff Richard, the Beach Boys, Blondie and Frank Sinatra; Sony’s Gift Pack 71 series, with Dylan, Chicago and the Percy Faith Orchestra… and more.

Every series is fully detailed, with full discographies, label art, sleeve and obi examples and so forth, together with representative promotional material, press ads and so forth; and while it is limited in that it concentrates only on reissues (imagine a book dedicated to, for example, EMI’s 1970s “Masters of Rock,” Island’s 1980s “Island Masters” and BYG’s “Rock Generation” series), still it is remarkable to find an American-made discography of hard-to-find imports so beautifully presented and informed.

A labor of love from beginning to end, you may never need to refer to its contents once.  But you will likewise never tire of browsing its pages.

6An Encyclopedia of South Carolina Jazz & Blues Musicians 

by Benjamin Franklin V 

(University of South Carolina Press, ISBN 9-781611-176216)

Specialization is also key here, as its title suggests! Just shy of 300 densely packed hardbound pages, well-illustrated and profusely detailed, it’s the story of the almost 150 years worth of the state’s jazz, blues, soul and R&B musicians.  One helluva story.

It’s arranged alphabetically, as one would expect, but appends each entry with discographies, key compositions, hometowns and further reading references, on top of the usual biographical data.  In fact the only thing it doesn’t do is hold you down and play you the records – but it certainly points you in the direction of an awful lot of the things.

Equally fascinating is Franklin’s decisions to allow that data to speak for itself – his concern was in pinning down the personal details of every musician – parents, family, education, career, even the cemetery where he or she now lies.

It’s a staggering piece of work, with Franklin’s own detective work traceable through references to censuses, military service, birth, marriage and death records, and so forth.  But it’s also eminently readable – particularly among the older musicians, these fragments are themselves fascinating, recalling a world that was lost years ago, and again leaving you hungry to learn more.  And this one covers just one state.  Imagine a series that rounded up all the others!

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