Book Reviews: Sarah Records, London Free Music, Chicago Blues and David Bowie

1Mary Finnigan

Psychedelic Suburbia: David Bowie and the Beckenham Arts Lab

(Jorvik Press, ISBN 978-0-986-37702-0)

Amid the squidillion words written, re-written, repeated and recycled in the aftermath of David Bowie’s death, it’s astonishing that the majority of them were indeed rewritten, repeated and recycled.  Often for the umpteenth time.

Hoary old hacks whose last meaningful word on the subject was penned when dinosaurs ruled the earth have been dusted off to recall the DB I Knew, while one British newspaper went so far as to serialize the most “sensational” sections of one particular Bowie biography, without even glancing towards its very own website, where the same book is soundly criticized for bringing nothing new to the party whatsoever.

Strange, then, that this little (176 pages) tome should have been ignored so roundly.  Published on the Friday before Bowie’s passing, it is destined to become one of the key testaments of the formative Bowie biography, a first person document to stand alongside such earlier works as Ken Pitt’s The Pitt Report, Angie Bowie’s Free Spirit and John Hutchinson’s Bowie and Hutch – and, chronologically, to dovetail with them too.

Finnigan was, for about a year leading up to the success of “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s landlady, lover and co-conspirator in what remains one of his most legendary pre-stardom ventures, the Beckenham Arts Lab – a folk club-come-bohemian hang-out whose brief existence culminated in the open air concert that Bowie eulogized in the song “Memory of a Free Festival.”

She co-organized the lab, she handled a lot of the bookings and background, she ran the lights and she hosted the arts lab’s after hours spill-overs, back at the house where Bowie rented a room.

She put up with him moving all his musicianly gear into the house; she sat through his interminable strumming and humming as he pieced another song together; she was an eyewitness to his courtship of the future Angie Bowie (yes, that was an awkward moment, even if she and Angie did become good friends); again, like Pitt and Hutch,she tells a story that so many of Bowie’s biographers have attempted to relate, only she gets it right because it’s her story too.

Finnigan herself comes across as extraordinarily likable, but naive and easily led.  Of course Bowie played her like a musical instrument, taking what he needed for as long as he needed it, then more or less putting her to one side when he was done – she acknowledges this, and accepts it too; she was not his first victim in that regard and she would scarcely be his last, either.

Theirs’ was never a great love affair, after all, just a close friendship that lingered through a particularly pertinent period, with Finnigan the facilitator who brought some specific dreams to fruition – dreams that she has helped perpetuate through her continued efforts to ensure that the arts lab and the festival themselves are never forgotten, as a member of the Friends of Croydon Road Recreation Ground, the none-too-inspiringly named venue of the festival itself.  Annually since 2013, the festival has been recreated there and, while Bowie himself never designed to reappear, other names associated with the original event have.

She points out, too, for this has also been forgotten, that their time together coincided with a period of intense experimentation and artistry, both from Bowie and from the people around him, and it’s fascinating to read of this through the eyes of a participant, rather than – again – the interpretations of writers who merely parrot what they have read or heard elsewhere.

A longer book could have been written about all this, and maybe one day it will be.  In the meantime, Psychedelic Suburbia stands proud as perhaps the single most important Bowie book published in the last few years – and, if we judge by the schedule of upcoming Bowie publications that a visit to Amazon unveils, the most important of the next few as well.

 

 

2Alan Harper

Waiting for Buddy Guy – Chicago Blues at the Crossroads

(University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-08157-6)

With all the hilarity that traditionally accompanies the question of whether or not white men can sing the blues, little attention has been paid to the equally pressing dilemma of whether white men can write about them, either.

Part of that, of course, is down to the fact that most of the better-known writers to set the music to prose have been white, and there is probably a most illuminating (not to mention controversial) volume to be written, examining quite why that should be the case.  Add to that the fact that a lot of the writers seem also to be English, and suddenly we are heading into waters so murky that there’s a whole new anthropological discipline to be drawn from within them.

No matter.  Alan Harper is the latest to plunge himself into those seas, with a book that is part memoir, part history and part itself a bluesological lament for a time and place that we will never see again.  Yet this is no misty-eyed exploration of the blues at their most basic.  A teen when he first visited Chicago in the late seventies, and not much older when he returned there in the eighties, Harper is simply a blues fan who wanted to touch not what was left of the source, but what it had since become.   The Chicago blues of Elvin Bishop and Paul Butterfield, of Junior Walker and Howling Wolf. of Eric Clapton and John Mayall.  So he went there and did so.

He makes no bones about the fact that he discovered the music through the white Anglo rockers; nor that, in many instances, he found the homegrown take on a lot of the songs a lot easier to listen to than the original material.  But he persevered and, on both trips to Chicago, he accumulated a mass of original research with the intention of writing a book.  Thirty-odd years later, he wrote it.

Waiting for Buddy Guy is a time capsule for a time that most people, even fans of the music, would not really have considered worth encapsulating.  The blues scene in general was undergoing one of its periodic lulls in both quality and appeal, with even the heroes of the most recent yesteryear… the generation that arose in the sixties, Luther Allison, Magic Sam, Buddy Guy, the cast of Vanguard’s Chicago – the Blues – Today, the heroes of early Alligator Records, the names that dropped in on Fleetwood Mac’s Blues Jam… seemingly locked into that darkness that hangs between the first flush of youthful excitement, and the later acceptance of oneself as a veteran.  Sunnyland Slim, Luther Allison, Lefty Dizz, Sugar Blue, Junior Wells, Carey Bell, Fenton Robinson, Son Seals, Hip Linkchain.

They’re history now.  But they file through these pages not as the ghosts that a conventional study might conjure, but as living beings, trying to make a living.

Some talk of the past, others fear the future.  Most dislike the present, watching as the scene folds in on itself, and even the healthiest players wind up eating themselves.  Harper visits the handful of clubs that were still clinging on, while meeting people who remember those that have already passed away.  He discusses racism with its victims, but hears how its opponents can often, in some ways, be just as bad – European promoters who won’t allow a blues act to play unless they can be assured there’s no white men in the band, because they wouldn’t be “authentic.”  Yet who was it who decreed what was authentic in the first place?  How odd.  White people.  Yeah, now you see the conundrum.

Harper doesn’t really discuss why it took him so long to write this book.  Nor does he even try and describe the changes that have been wrought since these interviews and adventures took place.  Chicago has changed, the clubs have vanished, the musicians have (in many cases) died.

Again, this is a time capsule, and Harper allows us to unwrap it without any commentary, not even an epilogue of afterthoughts.   Like the music that he documents (and makes you want to run out and hear), like the clubs he describes (and ditto to visit), Waiting for Buddy Guy just is.

And it’s all the better for it.

 

3Trevor Barre

Beyond Jazz – Plink, Plonk & Scratch: The Golden Age of Free Music in London 1966-1972

Compass Publishing, ISBN 978-1-907-30884-0

It’s not an easy subject, not to write about, not to listen to, not even to define.  “Free Music” catches, and has caught, so many different directions over the decades that no three aficionados could be placed in one room and be expected to agree upon where its parameters lie.  From Yoko Ono to Charlotte Moorman, from Cornelius Cardew to the Portsmouth Sinfonia – see? You’re disagreeing already, and the sentence has not even finished.

Author Barre narrows the focus somewhat; a specific time frame, a single location.  There’s still room for squabbling, but we can probably agree on AMM.  The Spontaneous Music Esemble.  Evan Parker.  The Little Theatre Club.  The Incus label.  The Howard Riley Trio.   So that’s where Barre sticks.

Not exclusively.  One could go further, and he does, but it’s an indication of his personal vision that there’s no more than a glancing mention, for example, of the ICES Festival, staged in the capital in 1972, and effectively dry-running the concept of the modern Meltdown Festivals, twenty years before the first one.  It was Free Music, it was in London.  Beyond references to the live CD that AMM recorded during its run, however, it is absent from his ruminations.  Three aficionados in a room….

What he does cover, he covers well, interviewing the key protagonists, recording their ideas and their ideals as well, and doing as good a job of describing the music as anyone who actually agrees that it’s music could do.  Hard as it is to define, after all, Free Music is so many different things to so comparatively few people that perhaps the most telling description in the entire volume arrives very early in, when Barre’s wife comes across him listening to some choice piece of work.  “Another toe-tapper, eh, Trevor?” she asks – to which he replies, “you can, actually, if you try.”

If you try.   A term to remember.

It’s a fascinating read, though.  This is, after all, a musical field that has been very poorly served by music journalism in general, and rock writing in particular – partly, of course, because it’s not rock, but think again.  AMM were regulars on bills with Pink Floyd during the early years of psychedelia, and a signal influence on the young Syd Barrett.

Gavin Bryars, who did so much to mentor the unknown Brian Eno, was bassist with the Joseph Holbrooke Trio, and Eno fed from notions that drew their own impetus directly from the Free Music scene.

Author Barre himself is first cousins with Jethro Tull’s Martin Barre, and was turned onto free music by a copy of the triple album Born Free: The 12th Jazz Festival in Frankfurt Am Main, a gift from the Tull man’s dad.

Shall we begin to boogie now?

Names like Stockhausen, Cage and Coleman are regularly dropped in rock circles, yet were you to play their creations to the unsuspecting reader, there would be little common ground for them to cling to.   So it’s not the music that deems someone worthy of inclusion in the “rock” consciousness, it’s having their name dropped by the right people, and so we plunge back into this brilliantly titled book in the sudden awareness that… there but for the grace of God, any one of these faces could be a household name, and in certain households they already are.

The birth and growth of the London scene is detailed with a sharp eye for both minutia and significance; and the development of the music is documented even as we watch the outside world recoil from it – both Melody Maker and the BBC, champions of free music in the late 1960s, had more or less lost interest in it by the early 1970s.  Yet it grew and expanded, to the point where Barre’s cut-off date could equally be seen as a starting point for a whole new investigation… volume two, perhaps?

And with that in mind, treat this book not only as a much needed addition to the musical shelf, but also as the blueprint for your own future musical explorations.  Barre doesn’t explain what is so fascinating about free music, because that is for the reader to discover.  But the fact that he paints that fascination so vividly ensures it’s a difficult book to put down.

 

4Michael White

Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records

(Bloomsbury Academic, ISBN 978-1-6289-2218-9)

It’s almost a cliche to say that Sarah Records is a lot better known today than it ever was during its lifetime.  A tiny independent operating out of a small apartment in Bristol, England, pumping out an average of eighteen releases a year between 1987 and 1995, Sarah was probably best-liked by people who listened to John Peel, and most-disliked by those who believed the music papers, none of whom ever got behind Sarah’s policy of pursuing the last days of the UK’s mid-80s indie scene through its effects on those movements that followed.

Today, there are probably more people collecting Sarah than there were records pressed, as twenty years of word of mouth, and the sheer quality of (most of) the label’s releases conspire to place it among the highest echelons of UK “classic” labeldom – up there with Stiff and swirly Vertigo, Creation, Reaction, Track and Postcard, there’s an irresistible “collect me” aura to Sarah that owes nothing to current trends or twisted notions of hipness.  Just an awareness of quality and a sense of belonging that, once absorbed, is hard to escape.

Canadian Michael White’s book follows hard on the heels of two other recent label histories, Simon Reynolds’ 4AD study – which, like the label itself, starts out fascinating, but quickly grows dull; and Richard Balls’ Stiff, which remained quirky and lovable throughout.  And Popkiss falls firmly into that latter camp, meandering happily through the label’s history and output, spotlighting the artists who called Sarah home, highlighting the high points, acknowledging the low, and naming and shaming those contemporary journalists who just didn’t get what Sarah was offering.

Which was….

A roster of the label’s bands will probably mean nothing to most people.  The Sea Urchins debuted the label, the Orchids, Another Sunny Day, Fanzine and 14 Iced Bears ranked among the earliest releases.  Twenty-three albums (compilations notwithstanding) included such radio friendly unit shifters as the Harvest Ministers, the Field Mice, Blueboy and the Wake, and the battle for the best band name on the label must surely come down to a straight fight between Talulah Gosh, Northern Picture Library and the Sweetest Ache.

Pause while you run and Google them.

It’s the story of the late British eighties and early 1990s as they unfolded away from the spotlight, and far from the chart; underground music so deep beneath the radar that, even at the time, the average pop picker did not have a clue the label existed.

Yet it’s not the tale of the plucky underdog, because Sarah neither sought, nor even considered rising above the station in which it placed itself.  Rather, Popkiss is half historical document and half love letter to what, at the very end of Sarah’s existence, one review grudgingly acknowledged was “the secretly huggable label of the week” – a term which, as you read the book and haunt Youtube for the music, you quickly learn the wisdom of.

Born of the sometimes scratchy and generally low-fi meanderings that history now describes as the “C-86” boom (after a compilation of largely unsung bands pieced together by the New Musical Express in 1986); raised in shadows cast by bands as far apart as the Smiths, Aztec Camera and the Jesus and Mary Chain; but neither bound by, nor adhering to those tenets in the slightest, Sarah appeals as much for its sheer single-mindedness as for the quality of the music itself.  It took its rewards, but it took its blows too, and delightfully shrugged both away.  And White, himself a long time devotee of the label (he bought his first Sarah record from a local store in 1989), is happy to allow them to do so .

His fannishness shines through, of course, for this book is – as much as Sarah – a labor of love.  But he keeps his distance from even the spite and injustice, preferring to allow an army of interviewees, label staff and signings alike, to place events into their correct perspective.  Although that doesn’t explain why the discography is so scant.  No b-sides listed, no album tracks noted – it’s almost as if he expects his readers to already know these details off by heart.  Which, one wryly muses, they probably do.

Of course it’s no coincidence that John Peel receives almost as many mentions in the book as any of the bands.  As David Cavanagh noted in his recent survey of the late DJ’s shows, Good Night and Good Riddance, Peel supported Sarah through thin and thinner, and that support was certainly a key factor in the label’s longevity.  But all good things come to an end, and with their century of singles firmly in sight, label founders Clare Wadd and Matt Haynes shut up shop.  They had done what they intended to – which was, run a label, sign some bands, and release ninety-nine 45s.

That was it, and that, too, is an admirable accomplishment.  The fact that the vast majority of those ninety-nine (plus the 10-inch and album length sets that accompanied them) represent some of the best music from the era that you’ve probably never heard of was just the icing on the cake.

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