Book Reviews - Radio Stars, Cold Chillin' Records, Boston Counterculture

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Good Personality: The Ultimate Guide to Radio Stars

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by Steve Wright

(Steve Wright Books)

Of all the bands thrust upwards by the British punk movement, few were raised as unexpectedly as Radio Stars.

Punk, after all, was all about dashing young blades with teenaged zits and cheap geetars; Radio Stars frontman Andy Ellison had been a professional musician longer than the average punk had been alive.

Some punks grew up listening to Marc Bolan.Ellison had been in a band with him.Other punks had once been Sparks fans.Bassist Martin Gordon was once their bassist.And yet…. And yet, Radio Stars didn’t simply zap the zeitgeist of the late 1970s, they then drew things all over it, dressed it in ridiculous clothing, and realized that nothing was sacred if there was a chance of laughing about it.

Notorious rapists, dead Elvis Presleys, Presidential tongue-slips, obscene photographers, washed-up rock stars, Mormons in bondage, Greek restaurant menus… across six singles and two albums, Radio Stars were the glorious collision of Pythonesque wit and raptor-esque speed, a rock’n’roll ninja that only had to look at, say… Squeeze… to be singing a song about them.Or not them precisely but, if you remember the body beautiful that was spread across Squeeze’s first album cover, and compare it to the bunny beautiful on the sleeve of Radio Stars’ “From a Rabbit” 45, the resemblance was not coincidental.

And so to the story, a riotous scrapbook-meets-biography-meets gig/disc/everything-ography that won’t simply tell you all you could either want or need to know about Radio Stars… who they were, where they came from, what they did and why they did it… it will make you wish you’d been there doing it with them.In full color throughout.

Author Wright’s retelling of the story is as entertaining as the band deserves, and it’s packed with collector info too, alongside a mountain of unseen photographs, old cuttings, concert tickets, record labels… in fact, the only thing missing is the music itself, but there’s a 4CD box set, Thinking Inside the Box (Cherry Red), that fills that gap.So treat yourself to everything, and you’ll be up in your attic for ever.

Ben Merlis

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Goin’ Off: The Story of the Juice Crew & Cold Chillin’ Records

(BMG Books)

Smartly seven-inch square, Goin’ Off is - as the title tells you - the story of perhaps the most influential label of the early hip hop era, and the equally important clutch of performers who populated its release schedule.

It’s an oral history with a cast of characters that takes us back to the very birth of hip hop… Fly Ty, co-owner of Cold Chillin’, remembers producing the first ever hip hop radio show, The Disco Showcase, and having to pay the station (WHBI) $25 am hour to be broadcast.

MC Craig G recalls Roxanne Shanté, one of the first ever female rappers, and how at her first ever battle, she had to stand on a milk crate to be seen.The first prize was $50, and when Shanté asked her mother if she could say “bad words,” she was told “say what the fuck you got to to get that $50.”

And can you picture the young Biz Markie dressed in black shorts and a black and white striped shirt?Photographer George DuBose can.“He looked like a sports referee.”

It’s stories like these, some mere anecdotes, others extended epics, that drive this book along, and there are so many of them, not only centered around the early days, but as the label grew and its artists flew.The nature of the music business into which Cold Chillin’ found itself suddenly a part of… the conflicts and the censorship, the major label machinations; author Merlis and his interviewees shy away from nothing, and there are moments as the story unfolds where you can only marvel at the fortitude of everybody involved. And their staying power.An essential history.

Charles Giuliano

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Counterculture in Boston 1968-1980s

(berkshirefinearts.com)

Amid the multitude of books out there that investigate the so-called underground scenes that existed in New York, San Francisco, London and Paris during the late 1960s, there has always been a gaping hole for those cities that maybe made less of an impact on the headlines, but whose contribution to the overall “scene” was crucial, regardless.

Boston, of course, is numbered high among those - with a student population of some quarter of a million, how could it have done otherwise?Now art historian Giuliano plunges into that gap with an oral history that takes the story not only back to its roots, before the so-called summer of love, but forward too, to trace how the sentiments, politics and indeed the people adapted to the changing world around them, without ever losing their grip on the culture that they helped to birth.

It’s a fascinating tale. Few of the names Giuliano interviews are exactly household familiar, but their faces, names and voices were key to local radio, performance and print throughout the late sixties and seventies, and though the stories they tell could as easily be relayed about any other sizeable city in America, that only accentuates their importance.

A true cultural movement can only ever be one that takes place everywhere; otherwise, at best, it’s a local quirk.Counterculture in Boston, then, is as much a national microcosm as it is a regional history; and, as such, it’s absolutely engrossing.

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