Friday, April 20, 2018

Review: 'FAB GEAR: The British Beat Explosion and It’s Aftershocks: 1963-1967'

It’s no obscure morsel of trivia that British pop was the palest, flimsiest imitation of its American equivalent before The Beatles. When the Fabs turned the ignition switch on the sixties, a flood of new moppy popsters got signed. The best of them—The Kinks, the Stones, The Hollies, you know the rest— would have long and rich careers, but most weren’t fit to pass out cups of water in that league. The worst were throwbacks like Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, Ray Singer, Bobby Rio and the Revelles, Migil 5, The Wackers, and The Chapters, who make Billy J. Kramer sound like Mick Jagger. Some of the ones that actually knew Chuck Berry existed were at least capable of making a nice noise: Carter-Lewis & The Southerners, Le Group 5, The Bo Street Runners, The Wild Oats, The Epics, The Clique, Grant Tracy, etc. (ironically, however, The Rockin’ Berries apparently never actually listened to the rocker they named themselves after). Artists who might have competed with the major names had the breaks been easier are pretty rare, The Action being one such group.

An expansion of Pye’s Beat, Beat, Beat compilation series, Cherry Red’s FAB GEAR: The British Beat Explosion and It’s Aftershocks: 1963-1967 is a hefty six-disc set that collects some of the bad, some of the great, and a whole lot of the in-between. This makes for an inconsistent and rarely revelatory listen, but fans of this tuneful era will find the mass of it great fun, and on occasion, educational. There are pre-stardom tracks from David Bowie (though, at this point, even this stuff is getting pretty familiar), Arthur Brown, The Moody Blues, Klaus Voorman, members of Deep Purple, The Move’s Carl Wayne, Mike D’Abo, Steve Howe, and Lemmy. A small smattering of familiar songs by The Kinks (a silhouette of whom adorns the cover), Chad and Jeremy, The Searchers, and Marmalade are like buoys that keep the listener oriented in a sea of obscurities, as do covers of several beloved Beatles, Kinks, and Chuck Berry songs, though titles such as “Hurdy Gurdy Man”, “I Go to Sleep”, “Where Have All the Good Times Gone”, and “Think It Over” are not covers of the classics you think they are.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Review: 'The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968'

The Who were essentially an unknown quantity in America until they distinguished themselves in 1967with stateside performances at Murray the K’s concert series on the East Coast and the Monterey Pop Festival on the West Coast. When word of their autodestructive act got out, The Who rapidly developed a reputation as the ultimate Rock & Roll circus act. To capitalize on that deserved status, the planned follow up to The Who Sell Out would be a devastating live album recorded at New York’s Fillmore East in April 1968.

Unlike basically every live Rock album before it, the resulting recordings were powerful, well balanced, and mostly well captured. They were also loaded with gaffs as Pete Townshend stumbles on his guitar strings close to the beginning of the very first song and “Shakin’ All Over”; vocal harmonies miss their marks widely on “Fortune Teller”, “Little Billy”, and “Tattoo”; Keith Moon’s drums are so buried in the background on “My Way” that they seem to disappear at times; and Roger Daltrey sings the wrong words over John Entwistle in the first verse of “Boris the Spider”. Such errors are supposedly the reason an actual live album never materialized in 1968, and Decca settled for cheating new fans with the deceptively titled Magic Bus—The Who on Tour. Of course, quality control matters little to bootleggers, who embraced the unreleased tapes as their own for decades.

Now on its 50th anniversary, The Who’s April 1968 set is finally getting official release via UMe. The little flaws cease to matter as the strength of the overall performance booms through The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968. There are many virtues to this collection. It catches The Who at a brief juncture when they still performed such oddities as the scrapped anti-ciggie advert “Little Billy” and a lengthy jam on “Relax” from the recently released Sell Out. Songs that didn’t make some of the bootlegs, such as “I’m a Boy” and Eddie Cochran’s “C’mon Everybody” (there’s a semi-Cochran theme throughout a set that showcases three of the rocker’s classics), are restored to the set, as are chunks of “Relax”, A Quick One While He’s Away”, and an almost absurdly extended “My Generation”, which is long enough to get its own disc in this new set. In at least a couple of cases, errors are fixed with cagey mixing: Moon’s drums are pulled to the fore in “My Way” and Daltrey’s lyrical fumble in “Boris the Spider” is pulled back. * Unfortunately, such miraculous cures of modern technology also come with an all-too common downside: the sound is brick walled.  Attention remasterers: stop making your remasters so fucking loud! The Who sure don’t need any assistance in that department.

Despite the uncomfortable sound quality, The Who Live at the Fillmore East 1968 remains a quality live album and one of their worthiest archival releases. If anything, the occasional mistake only adds to the charm of a disc that captures The Who approaching the end of their most charming era.

*Update: It has come to my attention that despite the suggestion to the contrary in the press release, this new set is actually a mix of performances recorded on both nights of The Who's Fillmore stint in April 1968, so tracks weren't actually remixed to bury flaws but are totally different performances from the ones on the bootleg. Sorry about the sloppy assessing, folks.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: 'Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1944-1947 '

While thoughts of war were consuming his adopted home, Superman was intent on soothing America’s troubles with the whimsy that fits him like a red and blue unitard. Once he’s done hawking war bonds in the very first frame of the strips collected in Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1944-1947, Supes no longer has any such consequential matters in his spit-curled head. Instead, he’s contending with invisible imps called ogies (good luck not reading that as “orgies”) and the visible one known as Mr. Mxyztplk. He’s referring to his fellow fellows as “chaps” and Lois Lane is calling him “Supie.” He’s constantly on the verge of marrying Lois (though she never remembers their multitudinous engagements form story to story) and confounding Lex Luthor with his invulnerability (how is Luthor still confounded by this?). There’s a cliffhanger every third panel, little sense, and maximum fun.

That these storylines tend to wrap up in fewer than sixty strips further maximizes that fun by cutting out the repetitiousness and meandering subplots that always sink prolonged newspaper comic arcs. Despite their glorious silliness, I still found these stories irresistibly compelling. I was genuinely eager to find out whether or not Superman’s proposal to Lois in the “Engaged to Superman” was genuine or not. And I’m 44. Feel free to judge me all you like.

The only shade that falls on the sunny tone occurs in the final arc, in which Superman must deal with that new bugaboo hyperbolic fogies labeled “juvenile delinquency.” With its unpalatable preachiness and violence against kids, the subtly titled “Juvenile Delinquency” is a hint that Superman won’t be as swell in the fifties. But that’s really a concern for the next volume of this series. This one is almost completely on the beam.

Superman: The Golden Age Dailies: 1944-1947 is another collection from IDW and The Library of American Comics, so it goes without saying that these black and white strips are superbly packaged, printed on heavy stock pages wrapped in a full-color hardcover, and finished off with a ribbon bookmark (I love those). But the killer diller stories are what make this volume a must for Super fans.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Beware, Blue Meanies: 'Yellow Submarine' Is Coming Back!

To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the most pop-artful animated feature ever made, Apple Corp will be sailing Yellow Submarine back into theaters this summer. Ticket and theater info will be up on the official Yellow Sub site here.
The film has recently undergone a 4K restoration with each vibrant frame of the film spruced up by hand. The soundtrack has also been buffed up for a 5.1 presentation. No doubt a 4K home video release will follow later this year, which hopefully won't mean that some sort of fiftieth anniversary commemoration of "The White Album" a la last year's Sgt. Pepper's box set will be off the table. Stay tuned, Beatle people, and keep tip-toing through those Meanies.

In the meanie time, here's a trailer for this momentous re-release:

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review: 'The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain: The Blockbuster Impact and the Galaxy of Merchandise 1977-1983'

Star Wars is celebrated and castigated as the movie that totally changed Hollywood. However, aside from its American director, producer, composer, and three young leads, it was largely a British-made production. That fact was not lost in the UK, where the film made its own unique impact.

Craig Stevens’s The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain: The Blockbuster Impact and the Galaxy of Merchandise 1977-1983 takes a very deep look at how the original trilogy rocked British kids. Stevens provides a chronological history of the trilogy’s release in the UK, the reactions of the British press, special appearances by original cast members and the hired hands who made a few quid by dressing up in Vader gear, Palitoy’s spin on the Kenner toys, the UK version of Marvel’s comics, and pretty much anything else you might think of that would fit under his book’s lengthy banner. Fan recollections are generously sprinkled throughout to bring home these details with personal stories you don’t have to be British to grock. In fact, a good deal of this book—particularly the lengthy synopses and assessments of Marvels’ stories that take up a good deal of this book—are not particular to the UK at all.

Yet, the British did have a somewhat different Star Wars experience than we Americans did with the painfully delayed release of the original film, the somewhat different toys they received, and the television specials that only aired across the pond. So there is, indeed, a unique story here, and it is one that will delight fans regardless of what flag they wave because The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain really conveys the nostalgic sensation that Stevens was surely intent on transmitting. This is particularly palpable when fans recall their own Star Wars experiences in theaters, toy stores, and playgrounds. By including such material, which would become tiresome quickly on its own, Stevens achieves a perfect balance between the historical and the personal, which makes The Star Wars Phenomenon in Britain both informative and tremendous fun.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Review: Jimi Hendrix's 'Both Sides of the Sky'

Jimi Hendrix hadn’t been dead for six months before the archive raids began with The Cry of Love. Over the next near-five decades, compilations of unreleased Hendrix tracks would be downright notorious in their abundance. That’s not to say there wasn’t gold worth mining, and the best of this stuff is condensed on 1997’s First Rays of the New Rising Son.

After about a dozen major outtakes comps in total since Hendrix passed, a new one titled Both Sides of the Sky appears this year. As is to be expected at this point, you should not prepare yourself for the discovery of anything on the level of “Ezy Rider”, “Dolly Dagger”, “Freedom”, “Drifting”, or “Stepping Stone”, though there is an urgent version of the latter on this new double-LP. And performance, rather than songwriting, is certainly the focus of Both Sides of the Sky. Band of Gypsys are behind the most impressive ones, with fierce versions of Muddy’s “Mannish Boy” and Hendrix’s own “Lover Man”. “Hear My Train A Comin’” is the sole track with the Experience (though Mitch Mitchell does drum on three others) and it is probably the set’s best showcase for Hendrix’s sci-fi, six-string showmanship.

A few tracks are curious for their lack of that showmanship. A couple with Stephen Stills on vocals—Stills’s own minor-league “$20 Fine” and the future smash “Woodstock”— are historically notable, but Hendrix never asserts himself on the former and only contributes some gnarly bass to the latter. What these are doing on a Jimi Hendrix record is anyone’s guess. He dominates the instrumental blues jam “Jungle”, but only on rhythm guitar.

A few oddities are more than worth hearing, such as the sensual “Power of Soul”, the menacing powerhouse “Send My Love to Linda”, and “Cherokee Mist”, a groovy instrumental that provides the ultra-rare opportunity to hear the master on electric sitar. For the majority who don’t already have it in their collection, the previously issued version of Guitar Slim’s “The Things I Used to Do” featuring Johnny Winter is top shelf.

While few will rate Both Sides of the Sky among Hendrix’s most essential releases, the packaging is unquestionably nice. For the most part, the sound is excellent (some tracks, such as “Cherokee Mist”, are more on the noisy side), the 180 gram vinyl is stored in anti-static sleeves (why don’t more contemporary vinyl releases utilize these things?!?), and the gatefold contains an LP-size booklet with extensive track-by-track notes and a slew of terrific photos.
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