Book Reviews: Krautrock, Fleetwood Mac, Marc Bolan, Uriah Heep, Curved Air, Caravan, the Electric Muse, Andy Bracken

Dave Thompson rounds up a clutch of recent books - including Krautrock, Fleetwood Mac, Marc Bolan, Uriah Heep, Curved Air, Caravan, the Electric Muse and Andy Bracken
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Time & Sounds: Germany’s Journey from Jazz and Pop to Krautrock and Beyond

By Jan Reetze

(Halvmall Publishing - halvmall.com)

One of the most exhilarating music books of the past few years was Tim Mohr’s Burning Down the Haus, a full-blooded examination of punk rock in East Germany during the late 1970s and 1980s. Embracing a scene that few, if any, western ears were even aware of (let alone had heard), it left a lot of readers hungry for more of the same - either, a complete history of the old DDR’s underground rock scene, or a similar examination of its West German counterpart’s equivalent.

Well, this comes close, and while punk consumes only a few pages of Jan Reetze’s mammoth (500+) page saga of West German rock, there can be no regrets as to the scope of the rest of the book. And that includes his deliberate omission of the East, in the belief that “their story should be told by somebody who lived [there] and can talk about the… conditions they had to work under.”

Well said.

Reetze is a great writer, with a terrific sense of humor. He writes as someone who is well aware that, to the majority of western rock fans, German rock is effectively summed up by Krautrock (however narrowly or broadly an individual listener pegs that), with the likes of the Rattles, Nena and the Scorpions as curious, atypical outliers.

Of course that’s wrong, like assuming all American rock sounds like the Eagles, or that the Bay City Rollers are the sum of all Scottish ambitions. So one can certainly forgive Reetze for his occasional shifts away from the music itself, to discuss non-German attitudes towards German music.

Forget the insulting connotations of the very term Krautrock (imagine calling British music “Limeyrock”); zero instead upon the UK music press’s need to continually referencing World War Two when discussing new Can albums. Or Frank Sinatra’s stubborn refusal to publicly acknowledge that two of his biggest hits were written by a German. Or the Swedish magazine review that described Kraftwerk as “the rhythmic trap of boots in the latest synthetic packaging.”

And so on. Even at the time, attitudes such as this were problematic. Today they appear positively obscene. And if Time & Sounds was devoted wholly to exploding cliches, it would already be an impressive book.

It is, however, so much more, a hefty hardback, well illustrated, and sufficiently encyclopedic that it negates more or less everything else you’ve read on the subject. Which probably isn’t much because, again, once past the exploits of a handful of early-mid 1970s experimental/electronic acts, German rock, pop, jazz and folk are a closed book to the Anglophone media, while German disco and metal - the two areas where the country’s musical contributions are noted - are generally just lumped in to the overall genre. Do you know your Boney M from your Baccara?

The scene is followed from pre-rock days in early chapters that fascinate simply for the amount of new-to-us material they hold. Key figures in its later development, most prominently James Last and Bert Kaempfert (author of the aforementioned Sinatra hits, “Strangers in the Night” and “The World We Knew”), are detailed for what they brought to German music, and not their reputations in the UK and US. We see Hamburg through eyes that are not infested with Beatles; and there are diversions into local television and radio, and the impact that they had, both as a showcase for visiting foreign acts, and for homegrown talent.

The Krautrock scene is detailed in depth, of course, with fresh interviews but, more importantly, fresh insights into both the musicians and their inspirations and intentions. There’s good coverage, too, of the eighties industrial sound of DAF, Einsturzende Neubauten et al).

Beyond that, however, we encounter local superstars whose names are scarcely whispered in the English language - Udo Lindenberg, whose fifty year career is responsible for some of the finest albums of the seventies and eighties whatever country you’re in; Atlantis (best remembered here for a couple of albums on the Vertigo swirl label); and vocalist Inga Rumpf’s earlier Frumpy.

Tomorrow’s Gift, one of the highlights of the 1970 Hamburg Pop & Blues Festival, are here, and a myriad more. Yet there are some surprising omissions; no mention for the excellent Sphinx Tush, whose demise was Frumpy’s good fortune, and none for Die Toten Hosen, the Dusseldorf punk band that launched in 1983 and are still going strong today.

Such complaints are churlish, however. No book beyond a telephone directory could name every band that operated in West Germany between 1945 and 1990, but this names enough to render it as good as complete.

It’s utter non-reliance on page-filling, crowd-pleasing Krautrock, meanwhile, is exemplified by the space given over to both the sixties and the eighties, and Reetze’s decision to end the book with German reunification at the end of that decade almost comes as a relief - not because the book’s too long, but because you’ll have run out of space on your “must-hear” list.

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Marc Bolan On Track… Tyrannosaurus Rex and T Rex, Every Album, Every Song

By Peter Gallagher

Caravan… On Track. Every album, every song.

By Andy Boot

Marc Bolan’s status among the most significant British (and elsewhere) rock stars of the 1970s is seldom cast into serious doubt, and there’s a raft of books on the shelves today that bear witness to his import.

The first superstar of the seventies, the brace of albums that Bolan masterminded at the peak of his appeal (1971’s Electric Warrior, 1972’s The Slider) not only left their contemporaries in the shade at the time, they continue to do so. Arguably, across the two years that divided “Ride A White Swan” from “Children of the Revolution,” everyone else was playing catch-up - and a lot of them remained in second place thereafter.

Quite frankly, Bolan remains the only true rock star you could ever require.

This book, on the other hand…

In and of itself, it’s fine. If you’ve never read another Bolan book; if you’ve never delved into the depths of the discography to discover that great swathes of his output never saw release during his lifetime; if you’ve never spent an evening trying to decide which of the fourteen readily circulating versions of “Sailors of the Highway” should be considered the definitive take… then, On Track captures all the Marc-ish magic you could hope for.

Author Gallagher’s research is strong, his writing is tight, his opinions are generally agreeable… generally, because it would be pleasant to finally find a critic who doesn’t cast aspersions upon Bolan’s mid-70s output, either overtly or via a slackening of earlier excitement. Not, one hastens to add, that Bolan himself made that task at all easy, but if you close your eyes and try really hard….

And besides, by the time of 1977’s Dandy in the Underworld, Bolan was clearly in the ascendant again, so you really cannot believe all that you read.

Of course, as is always the case with this series, the clash of personal opinions is one of the things that make this book such fun. Plus, the author’s biog ranks the Sensational Alex Harvey Band among his other favorite bands, so can we hope he’s at work on their book right now?

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And so to Caravan, which is about as far from the Bolanic Bop as it was possible to go back then. But the book’s timing is excellent, with a super-sprawling box set of everything-and-then-some rocketing down the highway, and an entire new generation of listeners bracing themselves to hear Caravan doing it all over again all over whoever.

The box’s book will doubtless tell the story from the band’s point of view; now here it is from a fan’s perspective, and while author Boot is a lot more forgiving (or should that be “understanding”) than some veteran admirers, his thoughts are well worth hearing.

Again, every album is reviewed, every song is discussed (some a lot more thoroughly than others), CD bonus tracks get a place at the table, and the only real difficulty arises when the band takes a decade or so off in mid-discography, and then tries to pick up where they left off. Good luck with that, boys.

In fact, Caravan pulled it off a lot better than many bands, with Boot both enthusiastically, and analytically discussing the pressures (or lack thereof) that confronted the band upon its mid-1990s return. No, the studio albums have not been as gripping as that early run; no, the live performances aren’t so artfully bizarre. But Caravan remain Caravan and besides, where else are you going to read a review of The Unauthorized Breakfast Item?

The appendices here are equally entertaining, tackling compilations, live albums and BBC sessions with a lot more attention than many other books in this series muster, while the photo spread (as always with this publisher) is glorious.

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The Electric Muse Revisited: The Story of Folk into Rock and Beyond

By Robert Shelton, Dave Laing, Karl Dallas and Robin Denselow; updated with new chapters by Robin Denselow.

(Omnibus Press)

First published back in 1975, when even the suggestion of a new book about music was a major event, the original Electric Muse was a true multi-media event. The paperback appeared alongside a lookalike 4 LP box set; taken together, they gave us our first serious and in-depth look at the peculiar process that transformed medieval folk song into amplified rock.

The near half-century since then could have rendered both redundant. On both the book shelves and record racks, a slew of similarly intentioned titles have appeared. Some are good, some not so much; Rob Chapman’s Electric Eden book is probably the best in terms of readables; a mid-1990s CD attempt to first expand and then build upon the original vinyl (New Electric Muse volumes one and two) the most disappointing.

Through it all, though, the original book held its head high, and now there’s a new edition. Taller, wider, chunkier, better bound, it spreads the entire original book across the first 200 pages, and then updates the tale for 100 more. And, if you think that latter stat may be a little scant for the amount of time it covers, you’d be right.

Overall, the story of folk rock is a ragged saga, told through everything from the blues to skiffle, music hall and jazz, and even once a solid scene has coalesced, it continued to churn. That is what gives the original text its power; the sense of wonder that the four contributing authors evince as things morph before their eyes.

We all know the story of Dylan going electric, and the seismic currents that sent through the watching folk world. But he was working largely with his own material. Now consider Fairport taking songs that were written before electricity had even been invented, and sending a few hundred volts through them.

Neither songs nor listeners knew what had hit them, and the shock waves continued to reverberate out across the next few years - we reach the publication date of the original book, and things are still up in the air. Steeleye Span had just taken a 16th century Latin language Christmas carol into the UK Top 20. Whatever next?

That excitement permeates the pages, no matter how thoughtfully the authors pen their text - Robert Sheldon taking us through pre-rock America, Dave Laing investigating the early 60s folk revival; Karl Dallas outlining British folk’s 20th century re-beginnings; Robin Denselow picking up with the sixties folk clubs that bred the electric explosion.

Dipping in and out of their chapters, investigating the recommended listening suggestions, the original book was indispensable, and the eight new chapters continue in a similar vein.

Effectively, each one settles upon three or four performers apiece, to portray them as the leaders of a new strand - the chapter in which Billy Bragg, the Pogues and the Oysterband wed folk with punk is especially dynamic, reminding us just how much the two musics had in common to begin with.

Subsequent chapters on “the New Folk Rock,” “Global Folk,” “Folk Big Bands” and “The Return of the Electric Guitar” are less focussed, but they remain informative, and though you could disagree with some of the acts singled out for attention, others would disagree with your selections, so it’s a moot point. (Still, the Owl Service and the Unthanks should have been among them.)

Where Denselow does founder is in his total disregard for what we now call Wyrd Folk, when that is the area in which the most action has taken place over the last decade or so. Maybe he doesn’t like it, and that’s fair enough. But it would be good to know, because it’s also possible that he’s never even heard of it, in which case… well, imagine writing about American rock in the early 1990s, without any awareness of the Pacific Northwest.

It is a rare lapse in a book that otherwise leaves few cans unkicked, and the modern acts that are singled out for their experimental instincts are certainly sound. So forgive the omission and just leap on in. A teenaged Spin Cycle bought this book when it first came out, and it’s probably been read and reread more than any other title on the shelf. This new edition deserves to be equally revered by the readers of today.

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Uriah Heep in the 1970s

By Steve Pilkington

Curved Air in the 1970s

By Laura Shenton

Fleetwood Mac In The 1970s

By Andrew Wild

(All Sonicbond Publishing)

“When I was only seventeen, I fell in love with a smoke machine.”

Like many of the bands included in Sonicbond’s In the Seventies series, Uriah Heep were tailor-made for such segregation. In fact, if you really want to rile a Heepite (go on, it’s fun), you could make a great case for this book to have ended in 1973, following the release of Live. Everything after that… well, it’s okay. But would you really have picked up Wonderworld if you weren’t still in love with Demons and Wizards?

Well, it’s full marks to author Pilkington, because he makes it pretty clear that he wouldn’t. He’s not exactly glowing about its successor Return to Fantasy, either, and horror of horrors, there’s still another four albums to go before the decade finally disintegrates.

Fly back to the beginning, though, to the era-defining Very ‘Eavy, Very ‘Umble, the leviathan that was Salisbury and the gloriously over-reaching Look at Yourself. Heep haven’t even started to contemplate hobbits and halibut, but they’re poised so close to thunderous greatness that you can almost smell it.

And if you can’t, Pilkington spells it out for you. Buoyed by a clutch of personal interviews with Heepsters past and present, he unequivocally confirms that early Heep were the most consistent of all Britain’s heavy mob of the day… Purple were too flighty, Sabbath were growing inconsistent, Zeppelin were too demanding.

Heep, on the other hand, were a non-stop party. Who knows if we were supposed to take the lyrics to “Gypsy” seriously? They were a darned sight more relatable than Plant wittering on about his hedgerow, and the sheer racket that went on around them, the steamroller riff and the manic organ, kicked everything else out of your head.

And as for prog, the last five minutes of “July Morning” are worth more than any sidelong peregrination from Emeryes, Gen & Crimble, or whatever they were called. Follow the fingers of a visiting Manfred Mann, and they’re funnier, too.

Personally, I was never a Uriah Heep fan. But listening to those first few albums, I wish I had been. And reading this book makes you want to play them. ‘Eavy, ‘umble, loud and absurd.

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Curved Air, too, were a band that started so strongly that it was inevitable they’d slack off once they’d got the initial mad excitement out of their system. Author Shenton is spot on when she describes the band, in her introduction, as “one of the most accomplished bands to come out of Britain during the explosion of progressive rock.” In fact, one could go further and say they were one of the most accomplished bands to come out of Britain, full stop.

But be careful how deep you delve. The first three albums deserve all the plaudits and more. The rest… hmmm. Less so. Whatever. But if the recent passing of drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa didn’t send you running back to that initial triptych, that can only be because you were already there, courtesy Esoteric’s recent reissue campaign.

Across Air Conditioning, Second Album and Phantasmagoria, Curved Air were relentlessly brilliant, striking as much gold with the more conventional songs (“Melinda More or Less,” “Marie Antoinette,” “Back Street Luv”) as with the vast, baroque propositions with which Francis Monkman peopled the albums. And Shenton’s book does a marvelous job of recreating the excitement that we all should have felt when those albums came out.

Effectively this is the biography that Curved Air already deserved, with successive album releases forming the chapters, and a wealth of period interview material to tell the actual story. This approach does hamper things a little - there is little about either the split of the original lone-up, or the dissolution of the Air Cut band, that was not printed in the papers fifty years ago,

The “reunion” tour that spawned the band’s first live album is likewise glossed over, and there was surely more that could have been said about the two albums that a whole new line-up then produced. But this is what the band said at the time, and really, they should know.

Lacking, too, is any solid reference to the wealth of bonus material included on the Esoteric reissues, or the archival masses that have emerged from elsewhere. But again, hindsight is a lovely thing, and by working almost wholly from period press, Shenton effectively allows events to unspool in real time. Appendices logging singles, line-ups and tour dates complete the book.

So, both Heep and Curved Air were bands of two halves. Fleetwood Mac, on the other hand, were a band of two completely different directions.

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For a little over half of Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s, author Wild leads us merrily through the half dozen albums that Fleetwood Mac released to ever decreasing attention and glory between 1970-1974. Then, for a little under half the book, he leads us equally merrily through the three albums that Fleetwood Mac released to ever-increasing hysteria and gossip between 1975-1979.

But how many of us truly care, in equal proportions, for both halves?

That is one of the things that renders this book so entertaining. In effectively both beheading and de-tailing the full Mac story (no blues at the beginning, no chaff at the end), and opting to ignore all the spoilers in the prelude, we dive headlong instead into Then Play On, an album that demands attention in any best of Mac poll.

Peter Green’s departure is covered smartly, and without so much of the drama that other authors bring to bear, and then we’re into what history insists on calling the fallow years… but which, guided by Wild’s own enthusiasm, will be demanding a listen before you’ve even left Kiln House.

The story is told sharply but exhaustively. Key concerts, odd singles, even the occasional blues-era reissue finds its way in, with the latter most tellingly represented by the 1973 reissue of “Albatross” - a UK number two hit even as the band’s latest 45, “Did You Ever Love Me,” went nowhere.

Attention, too, is given to debunking the notion that Mac made a complete clean break once Buckingham-Nicks were installed. The duo’s first tour with the band saw a healthy dollop of older material still taking precedence in the set, including the show-opening ”Station Man,” Bare Trees’ “Spare Me a Little Of Your Love” and a truly show-stopping “Hypnotised.”

Box sets, bonus tracks and reissues have somewhat diluted the thrill of hearing them today, but had Mac released a live album from the 1975 tour, they’d probably have out-Framptoned Frampton. And then imagine how enormous Rumours would have been.

On the book marches, through the burgeoning success of the new line-up, and into the sessions for the ambitious (some say overly so) Tusk. And that’s it. There’s a page and a half of epilogue, but even that is more interested in how the Dutch single of “Not That Funny” fared, than in discussing the albums, and fractures, that have followed over the past forty years.

And that’s how it should be. Little that Fleetwood Mac have recorded in the decades since Tusk could truly be said to match their past… maybe you could design a half-decent compilation from the likes of MirageMirage, Tango in the Night and Behind the Mask, but you really wouldn’t want to read a book about it.

Fleetwood Mac in the 1970s, on the other hand, is worth anybody’s time.

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A Different Mix

Andy Bracken

(Morning Brake)

Fiction and rock’n’roll have never mixed well. With a rare handful of exceptions, even the most confident practitioners usually wind up sounding either too trite or too overblown for their tales to carry even a whiff of realism.

Fiction and record collecting, on the other hand, were made for one another.

Author Bracken is well placed to make the connection. Himself a collector, he was also co-founder of the Fruits de Mer label, a glowing beacon for like-minded souls.

Which means he understands that, for many collectors (and others besides), the actual artifact is only a part of the appeal. It’s also the look and the feel, but most of all, it’s the sound itself, the way it can transport the mind back in time or elsewhere; the manner in which the opening bars of a certain record can be more effective than a time machine.

That’s what A Different Mix, Bracken’s lucky thirteenth novel, is about. The power of music to transport. Yes it has a story, a main character (Nick Cherry is a disc jokey - how perfect), and a plot. But all three are driven by the effects that music has on his mind and memory, and how - whether he knows it or not - that’s effectively what keeps him going.

He’s certainly not searching for the next big thrill… he’s pushing sixty, single and sad, confined to the graveyard shift on his local radio station, wandering through life like the hero of an especially downbeat JP Donleavy book. He probably wouldn’t know what to do with the next big thrill, even if he found it.

No, he’s searching for the last thrill, and the one before that and the one before that, through a succession of dream sequences that lead him back through key moments of his life, to take a different course to the one he chose.

Many of these involve having sex with women he didn’t; or, in one instance, not having sex with a woman he did. Several end moments before his dreamland death, or at least grisly public disgrace. There are moments when you start to wonder whether he’ll even survive till the end of the book.

These sequences all have one thing in common; they are hallmarked, or even haunted, by music. Including, T Rex’s “Metal Guru,” Eddie Cochran’s “Somethin’ Else” Selecter’s “On My Radio,” and, most eerily of all, an uncredited white label single that Cherry pulled from the cheap bin of a local record store, and bought because he wanted to know what it was.

He played it and he doesn’t have a clue, but he keeps playing it regardless, leaning into its anonymity almost as a parallel to his own. When he started in the DJ trade, he dreamed of going national, just like whoever cut that white label probably dreamed of fame and fortune. Now they’re both effectively forgotten, and if A Different Mix has one flaw, it’s that Nick ultimately finds resolution and, in that, he finds himself. The record, on the other hand….