Book Review: Neil Young, Lou Reed, the Buoys and Rick Ramrod

1The Music of Neil Young

by Chris Wade

(Wisdom Twins Books)

With the second volume of Neil Young’s Archive anthology still hanging fire somewhere betwixt here and who-knows-where, but Young’s own current release schedule still raining down albums like it’s 1965, it’s a bold author indeed who would attempt to catalog the man’s entire long-playing output.  Five minutes too early, and you’ve missed his last album; five minutes too late, and you’ve skipped the follow-up.

Chris Wade was fortunate, then.  Not only did he catch the release of the still-hot-off-the-presses Earth live set, he also opens the book with a live review, penned just days before the book’s publication (Leeds, UK, in June 2016).  And, in between times, he barrels through the full Young canon, all the way back to the pre-Springfield days and has a lot more fun, in a lot more places, than many people would dream feasible.

This is not in question through the seventies, and even into the early eighties – nobody doubts the brilliance of the former, and there’s an awful lot to love about both Re-Ac-Tor and Trans as well – a point which Wade acknowledges gleefully, describing the former’s “Shots” as “a bona fide classic… one of Neil’s finest end chapters,” which it is; and the latter, in its entirety, as, simply, “a very important album.”  Which it also is.

He also does his best to find something to enjoy about the oft-overlooked Hawks and Doves, while reappraisals of the mid-80s lull of Landing on Water and Life at least make you check to ensure you have copies.  You still might not want to play them, but they’re there if you ever need to.

The comparative patchiness of Young’s eighties, of course, set the stage for the decades that followed, with new albums too often giving the impression that he awoke one morning, had an idea, and then taped it and shipped it before he forgot. And some of them should have been forgotten.

True, Wade does dismiss the annoy-the-neighbors glory of Arc a little too quickly, and contrarily plays up Mirror Ball more than it maybe merits.  But most of the time he’s spot on, confirming that Broken Arrow is “brilliant,” Sleeps with Angels is “beautiful” and Silver and Gold is “a pleasant listen.”  (Hey, steady on now.)

He acknowledges the faults with Fork in the Road and, equally agreeably, declares Le Noise to be a classic.  He rains praise on Psychedelic Pill for all the right reasons… “it’s sprawling, heavy and ultimately as mad as a box of frogs”…. and doesn’t even lose patience with Storytone.

In other words, it’s a Neil Young book for people who love Neil Young, and want to just sit down and chat about their favorite records.  Occasionally, you’ll disagree but, more likely, you won’t, and you finish the book thrilled to know there’s at least one person out there who feels the same way as you do about Everybody’s Rocking.

 

2Sheppton: The Myth, Miracle & Music

by Maxim W Furek

(Createspace – ISBN 978-1519145987)

Unless the Shangri-Las are in the room, songs about death are usually depressing.  Songs about death and cannibalism, on the other hand, are something that many people can’t get enough of.  Or, at least, they weren’t when the Buoys’ “Timothy” emerged, with its tale of a real-life mining disaster, and the ends the survivors went to in order to get out alive.

Yum yum.

Sheppton, PA, was the scene of that disaster, and cannibalism was not, apparently, on the menu.  But a lot of other things were, monsters and Pope John XXIII among them.  So, straight away you sense that this is not a straightforward music book.  In fact, it’s not a music book at all, despite the Buoys’ best efforts.

Rather, it’s a very enjoyable slab of local historical research that bleeds in so many other directions that you’re not sure where to file it.  It’s certainly among the most intriguing fortean books of recent years, digging fearlessly into one of the (on the face of it) craziest stories ever to emerge from this, or any, corner of the world; but it’s also an epic of heroism too, as it documents the frenzied attempts to rescue the three men who were trapped down there.

Of whom (cue the intro) only two returned.

Hallucinations or Hollow Earth?  Oxygen starvation or miraculous experience?  Sensibly, Furek leaves those conclusions open.  But can you?

 

3The Music of Lou Reed

by Chris Wade

(Wisdom Twins Books)

A tricky one, this.  With the late Lou’s own vision of how his old albums ought to sound set to make a bumper box set sized dent in your wallet this fall, in the form of the 17 disc RCA/Arista Album Collection of painstaking remasters, there’s going to be an awful lot of people with an awful lot of opinions bartering for your reading lamp over the next few months.

Few major artists, after all, have enjoyed so deliberately divisive a career as Lou Reed – and that includes Neil Young, who at least always sounded like he was having fun, and always sounded like Neil Young as well.

Lou, on the other hand, often went out of his way not to sound like Lou, which is why there’s no way on earth that the guy who made White Light White Heat could have turned round two years later and cut Loaded; why he followed the so-buoyant-it-needs-burping Transformer with the maggoty rancor of Berlin; and why the guy who thought Metal Machine Music was a good idea would simply have taken hold of that little red joystick and rammed it where Sally can’t dance.  So the first album we turn to in Wade’s album by album guide to the many moods of Lou is the execrable Rock and Roll Heart, and we learn it is “Enjoyable.”  With “good tunes.”  Excuse me, I think there’s a typo here.

Wade, however, is spot on.  Listening through the albums one by one, you do follow threads, you do espy the linkage… you might even discover that Sally Can’t Dance isn’t half as bad as its cover insists, that Nils Lofgren really was a great partner for Lou, and that Rock and Roll Heart was… no.  It’s still horrid.

As with his Neil Young book (above), and the Zappa tomes reviewed here recently, Wade looks for the good in every album – which is something that even Lou didn’t do.  You could always tell when he felt he was misfiring, because that’s when his interviews turned ornery.  Catch him on the topic of a favorite, though, and he wouldn’t shut up.

Of course, received wisdom does win out, because in Reed’s career’s case, it’s generally correct.  True, it did take the world a little longer to catch up with Metal Machine than it ought to have… play it on headphones when you have a spare hour, and marvel at all the little melodies that Lou snuck into the background. Especially on side four – which isn’t, as sundry sour pusses grumbled, simply side two played backwards.  Clearly, they didn’t listen to it properly.

And Take No Prisoners is a joy as well, starting out with the funniest “Sweet Jane” of all time (particularly if you discovered the song via the incendiary eighteen-guitars-from-hell version on Rock’n’Roll Animal), peaking with the loveliest “Berlin” of all, and then hitting transcendence with “Street Hassle.”

But Wade picks his poisons well.  He acknowledges the classics for what they are, sticks up for the albums that deserve to be loved, and then quietly muses over the few hot spots on the ones that probably don’t need to be played too often – particularly the triptych that devoured Lou’s mid-eighties, and which apparently left him so speechless that it was three years before he dared make another one.

From thereon in, though, he was more or less unstoppable.  New York is as fine an album as he ever recorded, up there with Transformer, Berlin and Coney Island Baby.  Songs for Drella and Magic and Loss should almost be played side-by-side, and if the former’s finest track happens to be John Cale’s “A Dream,” then so be it.

Wade is maybe too forgiving of the travesty that was the Velvets reformation – forgetting, perhaps, that a bunch of people getting back up onstage for the first time in twenty-plus years is a reunion only in personal terms.   Musically, it’s a covers band.

But he sees the humor in Set the Twilight Reeling, and the brain-charring perfection of Ecstasy, enjoys The Raven for all its faults, and compares Hudson River Meditations to Metal Machine, while pointing out that it’s quieter.  He even admits to liking Lulu, which few people have ever done in print, and that should tell you all you need to know.  Most people keep their copy of Lou Reed’s collaboration with Metallica safely hidden behind their REM collection, and play it after dark.  On headphones.  While Metal Machine Music rages outside, and deadens the sound of this guiltiest pleasure.

Again, you’re going to be reading a lot about Lou as the RCA/Arista Album Collection grows closer, and the two CD sampler that is already around packs a sound quality that makes you want to hear more.  The moaners are already on the case, of course, whining about the lack of bonus tracks, the absence of unreleased material, and “why didn’t they include the unreleased acetate that I downloaded from the internet, cos that’s what Berlin was supposed to sound like?”  (I don’t know why – do you think maybe the title holds up a clue?)  But remastering these albums was Lou’s last gig before he passed, and that probably means there’s a few surprises in store for even the most faithful fan.

Whether that also means that Wade will need to sit down and add fresh reappraisals of the bulk of this book is a matter for him to decide.  But if you want to know what those records sound like now, and how they’ve sounded since their day of release, this is the tome that will tell you.

 

4Astoundin’ Erotica: Ten Torrid Tales of Space-Age Sex, Steaming Steampunk and Other-Worldly Erotica

by Chrissie Bentley

(Createspace – ISBN 978-1523331901)

Returning to realms where rock rarely roams, it would be remiss of us to ignore what is surely a unique contribution to the annals of music writing, in the form of a chunk of rock music fiction that is actually worth reading.

Provided you don’t mind your windows steaming up.

It’s more than forty years since Van Der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill, in his Killers, Angels and Refugees collection, pointed out what was already painfully obvious, even in those distant days.  That the term “believable rock fiction” is an oxymoron before you even open the book.

It remains so.  The best you can say for most efforts is that the covers are too far apart.  The worst is best left for the potty mouths among us.

Which brings us to “Rick Ramrod and the Electric Hard-ons.”

Chrissie Bentley is already well known in the world of erotic writing, with a slew of such tomes behind her, and this collection of short stories will not disappoint anyone who has followed her previous output.

It’s the tale of Rick Ramrod that catches the eye, though – the story (and yes, it’s a familiar one) of the wide-eyed fan who finds herself with the ultimate dreamiest of dream jobs, personal assistant to her teenybop idol.  Who himself would probably be comparable to Prince, assuming Prince (a) had no talent, and (b) had no filters.

The titles of this mythical rock god’s hit songs are delightfully unrepeatable here, but learning that one of them knocked Coldplay off the top of the charts is almost as delicious as discovering another made Dylan consider abandoning songwriting.  It was, if we can get the asterixes in the right place, called ““You **** My ***** **** Like The Saints Just ****** The Colts.”  He wrote it following Superbowl 44, apparently.

The story is funny.  It’s rude and it abounds with language that one might term Not Suitable For Work.  Or Church.  Or Mother’s Day.  Or a lot of other places.  But Bentley is a genuinely humorous author, one whose refusal to take even the steamiest sex scenes too seriously might be lost on the genre’s more… shall we say “fervent”?… devotees, but it’s that which takes her stories to a whole new plain of believability.  So much so that, long before the story ends, you’ll be wondering why you don’t remember Rick Ramrod.

He enjoyed, after all, “Five number ones, three number twos and the top selling album of the 21st century.  There was one month in 2010 when he had the top twenty-three downloads on every chart you could name.  Twenty-three.  Add streams, piracy, airplay and Youtube hits, and one of the papers reckoned there was at least one Rick Ramrod song in eighty-four percent of homes in America.”

Today, he’s completely forgotten.  And you want to know why?

You’ll have to read the story to find that out.

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