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Book Reviews: Ann Savoy, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Nico, Jefferson Airplane, Genesis

by Dave Thompson

Book Reviews

1

Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People (Includes Creole and Zydeco) Volume Two

Compiled and edited by Ann Allen Savoy

(Bluebird Press)
It was back in 1984 that Ann Savoy published volume one of Cajun Music, a book that she always intended following up with a second volume, but which took just a little longer than she expected - “three children and an intense music touring schedule” saw to that.

The collection of boxes to which her work-in-progress had been confined was finally reopened eight years ago; as Savoy’s intro explains, “a new wave of young Cajun music enthusiasts appeared on the scene and vehemently encouraged me to finish Volume II, offering their help! They transcribed interviews off of cassettes, worked on discography details, typed, learned design programs, transcribed the music, everything I needed to finish this massive project.”

And, intensely frustrating though the wait has been, a mere thirty-seven years later, the monster makes its way to the bookshelf and you will probably spend as long simply staring at a thing of such beauty as you will reading, looking and (provided you are of a musical bent) playing and singing its pages.

As before, Volume is effectively a scrapbook, its contents neatly organised into overall categories (the instruments, dances, early music, etc) but broken down further in the form of biographies of/interviews with key players from across the years, a welter of truly fabulous photographs, words and music to their greatest songs. Yet even that description is only the tip of the iceberg, as opening the book to almost any page unlocks another secret or heralds another joy.

It’s hard to say, in fact, whether one even needs to “know” cajun music in order to enjoy (nay, adore) this book. For music, after all, is simply the hook that reels you into a work that is part social history, part ethnographical study, and part a window into a world that few of us have ever caught more than a glimpse of.

Spin Cycle picked up volume one in the mid-1980s sometime, and it has remained among the most browsed books on the shelf ever since. Volume two is going to be challenging for that same title, beginning now.

2

The Rolling Stones

Unzipped

(Thames & Hudson)

There are books about the Stones, there are books by the Stones… and there are books that, frankly, are the Stones. Or, at least, there are now. Across 286 hardbacked coffee table pages, Unzipped may not be as weighty a tome as some past offerings, but in terms of content, colour, production and presence, it truly is the visual equivalent of putting on your favurite clutch of Stonesian albums, and just losing yourself for a day or so.

Anthony deCurtis’s introduction describes Unzipped as “a complex thematic exploration of [the band’s] creative life” and, essentially that’s what is is. Photos, memories, memorabilia, history, instruments, artwork, stage sets, costumes, logos, across page after page after page, the Stones experience comes to life in vivid color, to the point where it almost becomes exhausting leafing through it. Not because it’s at all boring; no, but for the same reason as you need a break between breakfast and lunch.

There’s no strict chronology at play here. Photographs do flow in order within sections, so the pages dedicated to the band’s instruments, for example, will always put a 1963 guitar before a 1970s one.

But the book’s primary duty is to the Stones’ own deployment of their toys, and nowhere so much as the pages that illustrate their stagewear - on page left, say, Mick in such-and-such an outfit, and on page right, the outfit hanging loose, or on a dressmaker’s dummy. Every time, it’s the action shot that wins the day.

The section on album art is equally illuminating; the making of the Goat’s Head Soup and Tattoo You sleeves; the Ebony magazine advertisement that inspired the cover of Some Girls, the original untouched artwork for Undercover.

We see the ground plans for stage designs going back to the mid-1970s, preliminary sketches for posters and logos, and almost all of them reproduced large enough that the detail is just as crucial as the impact.

Too often, a band’s artistry is seen as simply a by-product of their music. Unzipped deliberately and triumphantly reverses that equation completely, to emerge a book about anything but the music. If you want to hear the songs, that’s why you’re playing the records. But if you want to see them, you need to unzip.

3

On Track… Eric Clapton Solo: Every Album, Every Song

By Andrew Wild

(SonicBond Publishing)

This may or may not be a good time to publish an Eric Clapton, depending upon whether or not one agrees with old Slowhand’s much publicised take on vaccinations… or maybe it’s a good time after all. Semi-viral on social media recently was a record store’s offer of 50% off any Clapton album for customers showing proof of two Covid jabs, in which case a copy of this book would be invaluable.

For anybody unfamiliar with the On Track series, the format is precisely what it says on the cover, an in-depth analysis not only of Clapton’s two dozen solo albums, broken down song by song, plus briefer surveys of his live and compilation output. Well, we say two dozen, but it actually comes up one short, unless you want to count the thirty… that’s right, thirty… words expended on his eponymous solo debut, and with no real explanation why it receives such short shrift.

Certainly it’s a muddleheaded decision, even if one does lump Eric Clapton in with the Delaney, Bonnie and Dominoes period that percolated around it; a remarkable box set exploring that album in a variety of different facets has just hit the streets, and there’s an awful lot of love out there for the likes of “Slunky,” “Blues Power,” “After Midnight” and “Let It Rain.” So, not “every album, every song.” Just the ones the author wanted to write about.

That faux pas notwithstanding, the book then picks up with 461 Ocean Boulevard, and again the Clappo nut can find problems, as Wild sketches through the LP tracks and a handful of other contemporary recordings, but has little to say about the sheer creativity of the sessions themselves, partially reflected by the 74-75 box set, but legendary even if you’ve not heard the bootlegs.

There’s One in Every Crowd receives surprisingly short shrift too, and the book only hits its stride with No Reason to Cry, and doesn’t get really enthusiastic until Another Ticket. Thereafter, it’s plain sailing for author and reader alike, even as Clapton’s own music headed into some decidedly choppy waters; in fact, depending upon your personal viewpoint, there are points where it’s far more enjoyable reading Wild’s reviews than it is listening to the albums themselves.

The sections on live and compilation albums are brief but adequate, less a listener’s guide than an annotated checklist, and that’s it. It’s not the best book in this series, and Clapton fans might say their idol deserved better. But if that 50% offer is still valid, and you fancy taking a chance on God, this book won’t steer you wrong.

4

Decades: Genesis In the 1970s

By Bill Thomas

(SonicBond Publishing)

This is a tricky one. Recent years have seen the Genesis bookshelf positively overflow with new titles, including three band member autobiographies (four if you count Bill Bruford), a wonderful reminiscence from their roadie, and some solidly straightforward biographies, too. Do we really need another?

Probably. Genesis are one of those bands whose audience - particularly that which formed in the early 1970s - values personal experiences as much as the band’s own history, and author Thomas lays out his stall very early on: “Genesis are my Beatles.”

Interviews with successive guitarists Anthony Phillips and Steve Hackett bring the band’s eye into focus; Jerry Marotta talk about his time with Peter Gabriel. But it’s Thomas who sets out the agenda and he does it well.

Of course, Genesis are not the book’s sole focus. Gabriel, Hackett and Phillips’ solo records all get a fair shake; so does Phil Collins’ Brand X sideline; and while it’s true that there are no staggering revelations on board, or much in the way of new info either, Thomas does a great job of corralling so many disparate threads.

He’s also extremely understanding of those end of the seventies albums that saw Genesis trying to figure out what to do next… embarrassments like “All In A Mouse’s Night” and “Robbery, Assault & Battery” had proven that the Gabriel-era band’s penchant for sprawling story songs was not going to survive into the Collins era; “Pigeons” indicated that there was a great modern pop group itching to escape. …And Then There Were Three might, as some fans allege, be the sound of a great band’s final death throes, but others see it as the birth of an even more successful act, and Thomas falls firmly into that camp. As, indeed, he ought to.

The book ends with the decade that sent Genesis soaring; it was the following decade that sent them higher. That, however, is another story… but you can bet it won’t be as much fun as this one.

6

You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico

By Jennifer Otter Bickerdike

(Hachette Books)

What to do, what to say, what to write? On paper, this was one of the most anticipated books of the year, the first full length biography of Nico since Richard Witts back in 1993; and, at close to 500 pages, the longest she has, or is ever likely, to see.

The list of interviewees isn’t simply vast, it reaches back to the former Christa Päffgen’s childhood, tapping resources that no previous biographer has accessed, and forward in time, too. But the paucity of contributions from the Velvet Underground inner circle is unfortunate (if, thanks to so many passings, not entirely avoidable), with even John Cale - producer of all but two of her six studio LPs - mute beyond sundry second-hand observations.

Former paramour Iggy Pop makes a fine eye witness, of course, and other names will be familiar to fans… Nico’s son Ari, Velvets’ biographer Victor Bockris, Andrew Loog Oldham (who gave Nico her first record contract), New York scenester Danny Fields, seventies collaborator Lutz Graf-Ulbrich, latter day label head Aaron Six. Others, though not such public figures, nevertheless have stories to tell, and they’re good ones.

In terms of increasing the public knowledge of the “who” - “what” - “when” - “where” of Nico (the “why” remains stubbornly out of reach), this book is going to be a hard one to beat.

All that said, it’s not an easy read. The text is dry, the wording is sometimes awkward, and it’s also distracting to find latter day fans and admirers commenting upon events and situations of which they themselves have at best second-hand awareness, as opposed to people who were around at the time. The absence of an index is infuriating, and one cannot conceive how, in a book this voluminous, they only found thirteen photos of Nico herself with which to illustrate it (out of an already miserly total of just twenty four)?

Textually, too, it is challenging. Clearly Bickerdike is determined to wrest her subject’s reputation away from what has otherwise been an exclusively male point of view, at the same time as she avidly reinforces it with incessant references to Nico’s youthful beauty. Then, as she ages and her drug use increases (another topic that Bickerdike simply can’t let go of), the “loss” of that beauty becomes so constant a motif that we begin losing sight of Nico, too.

The most egregious faux pas, however, has to be Bickerdike’s decision to devote half a page to Ray Manzarek describing Nico’s oral sex technique. That’s the point where the text shifts from being occasionally voyeuristic to downright sleazy, and it takes a while for the reader to re-establish the respect that the book as a whole deserves. The fact that Manzarek himself never claimed to have experienced the act in question, and is merely repeating (presumably) what Jim Morrison told him adds a whole new dimension of tabloid-shaded disgust to the passage.

All of that notwithstanding, this is an important book, not only for Nico’s own followers, but for anybody wanting to zero in on one of the most crucial, yet misrepresented, artists of the sixties-through-eighties. It’s not always a flattering portrait, and it’s certainly not going to leave you with warm and fuzzy feelings about most of the characters who file through its pages. Neither does it send you rushing to the record shelf to play the records as they appear in the story; indeed, in many ways, the music is very secondary to its maker’s celebrity.

Indeed, of all the Nico books that are generally available (the others being Richard Witts’ The Life and Lies of an Icon career-length saga; James Young’s Songs They Never Play on the Radio/The End account of her 1980s; and Lutz Graf-Ulbrich’s seventies-centric In the Shadow of the Moon Goddess) Bickerdike’s tome is simultaneously the most fabulously detailed,, the most intensely researched and the most, ultimately, disappointing.

5

On Track: Jefferson Airplane: Every Album, Every Song

By Richard Butterworth

(SonicBond Publishing)

Depending upon your mood, on the weather, on whatever, Jefferson Airplane were either responsible for the most consistent run of albums by any of the psychedelic giants of the late 1960s… or, they could have cut out the weird stuff, stopped trying to be so far out man, and released half as many records that would have been twice as great.

Right now, Spin Cycle is into the real thing, so that’s Baxters on the cans, man, Pointed Head’s up next, and Richard Butterworth’s love letter to psychedelia at its most expansive, eclectic and occasionally unhinged has been pored over for days now. It’s been covered in scribbles as well, either agreeing wholeheartedly (Crown of Creation is their darkest album, Volunteers was their last great one), or grumbling off into the corner to seethe over one imagined slight or another. That’s the other great thing about the Airplane. They divide opinions even among people who like them.

There have been past Airplane books that tell the story more fully than this, but they take their time in doing so. On Tracks is tight, concise and it usually is on track - you cannot listen to Airplane in the same way as you do most other bands, with even the psych bucket a somewhat misleading place in which to pour them.

From “Martha” to “Lather” is one helluva journey to undertake in such a short time, and one has to crack a smile at the look on the faces of anyone who, having tapped their toes to “Somebody to Love,” went out and purchased Pointed Head - truly, one of the greatest, and most revelatory live albums of all time, but Top 40 Funtime it ain’t.

Thematically, On Track does what it’s supposed to, opening with Takes Off, closing with Long John Silver, dropping in on the band’s comps and live albums, and giving the latter the space they deserve, bearing in mind the sheer volume of the things that have appeared in recent decades. There’s even a more-than-fair examination of the 1989 reunion, but it’s tucked away at the very back, so as not to disturb the balance of the original years. Butterworth writes with passion, knowledge and excitement, and if you can get through a chapter without reaching for an album… well, obviously, you just need to remember where your copy is.

  

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