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Book Reviews: Peter Gabriel, Tom Petty, the Damned, the Sweet, the Doors, Roy Harper, Incredible String Band, Elvis Costello

by Dave Thompson
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Of all the rock music publishers to embark upon what can only be described as a dream mission, SonicBond Publishers have probably come closer to fulfilling it than most. You’ve probably already seen a few of their titles on the shelves (or whatever online booksellers use), and have maybe even picked up a few already. Spin Cycle itself has reviewed a handful over the course of this year, and one day might track back to pick on a few older catalogue items.

Suffice to say, across all the series that SonicBond oversee, there must be close to fifty titles in the On Track series; a handful more under the Decades umbrella, the promise of a new line dedicated to live shows, and a clutch more titles that stand alone… at the moment.

And among these, you will find titles devoted to (deep breath) Jon Anderson, Asia, Barclay James Harvest, the Beatles (individually and collectively), Blue Oyster Cult, Marc Bolan, Tommy Bolin, Kate Bush, Caravan, the Clash, Alice Cooper, Crosby Stills & Nash, Curved Air, Deep Purple, Dire Straits, Dream Theatre, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Fairport Convention, Focus, Fleetwood Mac, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Gong, Steve Hackett, Hawkwind, Iron Maiden, Iggy & the Stooges Jethro Tull, Elton John, Judas Priest, Kansas, Man, Aimee Mann, Marillion, Joni Mitchell, the Moody Blues, Mike Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Queen, Rainbow, Renaissance, the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, Derek Taylor, 10cc, Thin Lizzy, Toto, U2, UFO, Uriah Heep, the Who, Roy Wood and the Move,  Van der Graaf Generator, Yes, Frank Zappa… and we’re probably forgetting a few as well. Matt Karpe’s A Definitive Guide to Nu-Metal, for example. And a clutch of movie titles, too.

And now here’s some more.

The Decades series moves slowly, but it might be the most rewarding of SonicBond’s output, in that publisher Stephen Lambe has hit on the perfect solution to what is, historically, the longer-lived band biog’s weakest point. The fact that the group just keeps going and going and going, until it becomes impossible to remember whether you care nor not.

“In 2013, they released their seventy fifth album (‘our best yet,” raved Herbie) and toured the world. Two years later, buoyed by the success of their last two downloads, and a tabloid exclusive photoshoot around Norman’s Balham penthouse, they released their seventy-sixth album and toured the world. Herbie described it as their best yet.”

Decades concentrates on one decade alone - the one that the majority of fans care about. Yes, there will always be the contrary sausages who swear that Def Leppard didn’t truly hit their peak until the 1990s, and that Paul McCartney’s last three albums have been his best of all time. But the rest… or, at least, the bulk… of us would disagree wholeheartedly and play Wildlife twice more to prove it.

Under the microscope in this instance is the Sweet, arch bubble-glam metal merchants whose dominance of the first half of the British 1970s has rendered them the darlings of every journalist who wants to reminisce about glitter. Certainly this is not the first Sweet biography to appear in recent years, but it’s sharp, it’s concise, and it doesn’t spend half its time moping around the not-happened-yet sixties and the oh-dear-are-they-still-going beyond.

Well, not much. We skip the first ten pages, covering the “early years,” and the last ten detailing “what happened next.” Don’t care. But there’s close to a hundred pages between those bookends that are just non-stop blockbusting, hell raising, teenage rampaging little willying, with every album and single spotlighted for special examination, key quotes highlighted and individual song titles telling their own stories, too.

Throughout, author Darrell Johnson captures the excitement of the great records; can usually find something nice to say about the less great ones, and doesn’t try to kid us that Cut Up Above the Rest was even remotely well-titled. It’s a book for fans, then, but one for the curious, too. Nicely done.

The On Track series is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Decades. It doesn’t care how long a band goes on for; it doesn’t worry if they break up a hundred times, so long as they reform for another record afterwards; gosh! it doesn’t even mind if the entire line-up runs off to join the circus, so long as the band name rolls on.

SBPOT53 The Doors cover panel

As such, it’s probably the last place to go if you care deeply about the sanctity, say, of a certain line-up, and refuse to even acknowledge the existence of the zombie relic that the ex-roadie still hauls around the circuit. But, if you should ever wake up and say “what ho, I really need to know about every album released under the name of the Doors”… yes, including Other Voices and (please spare us) Full Circle, then Tony Thompson’s The Doors On Track is for you.

And if you feel the same way about the Incredible String Band and the Damned; or, if you want to know every fact about every song recorded by Roy Harper, Peter Gabriel, Elvis Costello and the Attractions (but only the Attractions… the other stuff can wait), and Tom Petty, then there’s a just-released On Track title for you.

The format is reasonably stable, but flexible too, most dependent upon how much attention the individual writers want to give to live albums, compilations, archive packages and the like. Opher Goodwin’s Roy Harper title, for example, follows the main run of releases with album-by-album appendices of live recordings and compilations, and then a song-by-song guide to guest appearances, rarities and one-offs. Some readers might prefer to have had these falling into the main album chronology, others will be happy where they are.

Tim Moon’s Incredible String Band study takes another approach, not only covering the band’s own albums, but also the Mike Heron and Robin Williamson solo albums that appeared during the main attraction’s life time. Then there’s a few pages about what happened next, and a less exhaustive (but as much as they deserve) look at the two “reformed” ISB live albums that appeared earlier this century. Here, the most painful absence is any kind of look at the vast corpus of officially unreleased, but readily circulating material that is out there, but that is a common failing (if that be the word) to most of the books in the series.

If those two titles are all-embracing, Georg Purvis’s Elvis Costello & the Attractions is perfect for the single-minded sometime fan. Bt it’s also weird because, while it’s easy to understand why the author made the decision to focus on Costello’s recordings with the Attractions alone, is it actually fair to the songwriter’s own development and momentum?

That’s for the die-hard fans to decide… and, of course, the story is coherent for most of its length. Here, however, the absence of attention paid to live recordings and archive material does rankle. Some of Costello/the Attractions’ most vivacious performances are from the concert stage, as official releases for the Nashville, Mocamba, Hollywood High and so forth shows prove. Plus all the padding in the Armed Forces box set. The result, then, is a book that’s fun while you’re reading what’s in it, but infuriating when you consider what ought to be. And poorly timed, too; Costello's latest Attractions album, the augmented oldies of Spanish Model, is due for release just as this book reaches stores.

Ad so do the Damned. True, Morgan Brown took on a thankless, not to mention borderline hopeless quest when he set out to chronicle the life and times of the Brit punk stalwarts. But again, the decision to focus only on the “official” LPs leaves more than half the story untold, and is of no assistance whatsoever to anyone who walks into the average CD emporium to contemplate their Damned selection.

Five pages from the end, an appendix is devoted to one line-or-so mentions of “collections, live albums and more,” but if you care enough about the Damned to buy a book about them, you care enough to want to know more about the rest of the discography.

Again, when you’re reading what’s here, it’s a zippy little number, illuminating and entertaining and it definitely makes you want to dig out that copy of Not of this Earth that you’ve not played in nigh on thirty years. But but but but…. Some bands’ recorded stories stretch far beyond their frontline output, and the Damned’s tale goes beyond even that. The Damned on Track is neat, neat, neat. But fans will feel the pain regardless.

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The most rewarding books in this particular batch, therefore, are Graeme Scarfe’s Peter Gabriel, and Richard JamesTom Petty. The latter because it appears very complete, despite the absence of the 1976 Official Bootleg that was a lot of peoples’ introduction to the band; and the former for the utter common sense of its table of contents.

The first four albums (plus Birdy) become part one; the post-So albums and soundtracks are part two. Then come individual chapters for Gabriel’s covers collections, live albums and compilations - the latter including a thorough examination of 2019’s download only Flotsam and Jetsam, with its own collectors eye for the contents of the darkest nooks and crannies.

Gabriel himself slipped off Spin Cycle’s radar the first time the instant irritation of “Sludgehammer” turned up on the radio. But nostalgia is a heady drug, and how nice to be reminded what a great track “Soft Dog” was. And “Across the River,” too.

Read Peter Gabriel for the songs you’ve forgotten, and we can pretend that the rest never happened.