Thursday Review’s Stuart Boggess examines the pop performance stylings of Bruno Mars; music that is both classic and timeless, as well as appealing to new audiences; Music Page article: If You Don’t Believe Me, Just Watch; Thursday Review; February 23, 2015.
By Kevin Robbie Thursday Review contributor
(Originally published Saturday, February 8, 2014):
Sunday, February 9th, 2014, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance on the iconic Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. The event will be commemorated by CBS on Sunday (February 9, 2014) with “The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles.” The program will air in the same time slot, 8:00 p.m., as the band’s first appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show. The salute will feature performances by Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.
As a child, I can remember sitting in front of our black-and-white television on Sunday evenings watching programs such as Lassie, Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. Perhaps the most popular Sunday evening program was the Ed Sullivan Show, the most highly-rated variety show in the history of television. “Ed Sullivan,” as the show was typically referred to, first aired in June, 1948 and ran on CBS until 1971. The show aired on CBS for its entire run in the era before cable television, and in an age when only three networks existed.
American culture in the early 1960’s was already coalescing around the family TV set. There were no electronic devices such as i-Pads, cell phones or video games to provide distractions. TV dinners were becoming more prevalent and families would often eat their evening meals sitting in front of the television set, only getting up to adjust the antenna, or “rabbit ears,” to improve reception. The kids might argue about whose turn it was to get up and change the channel because TV remotes weren’t in common use then, either.
Our culture was also more insular in the early 1960’s. The internet didn’t exist, international television wasn’t common and even trans-oceanic airplane travel was not as routine as it is today. There were fewer means for connecting people on a global basis. Other parts of the world were regarded as faraway, exotic or mysterious. In a sense, technology constrained our cultural horizons.
By early 1964, John Kennedy had been assassinated and Elvis had finished filming his fourteenth movie, “Kissin’ Cousins,” set for release in March. The death of President Kennedy and the transformation of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll into a singer of cheesy movie soundtracks disillusioned many American youth who began searching for new outlets for their energy and idealism.
On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, in the United Kingdom, British youth had found a new outlet for their expression in the form of four musicians from Liverpool. Calling themselves “The Beatles,” the band had recently exploded onto the musical and cultural scene in Britain, a society still emerging from the shadows of World War II. Rationing had been abolished only as recently as 1954 and there was a pervasive sense of national economic decline. Britain was trying to find its way in a post-colonial, Cold War world.
The Beatles’ rise from obscurity gave Britain a new relevance and ignited the latent energy of British youth.
1963 saw the rise of “Beatlemania” in the United Kingdom, sparked by an appearance on the BBC program “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” The groups’ first record, “Love Me Do’” barely dented the Top 20 in late 1962. However, over the next few months, the Beatles became sensations with “Please, Please Me,” “From Me to You,” “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The last three songs were consecutive number one hits. The Beatles represented a fresh, positive sound and they wrote most of their own material, which was unprecedented in pop music. Their music was inspired by numerous influences from rockabilly to doo-wop to Elvis and Little Richard. They were inventive and eager in the recording studio and very charismatic as live performers. As for interviews, the group was quick-witted, funny and refreshingly down-to-earth, making them an instant hit with reporters.
During a dinner meeting in New York, in November, 1963, Ed Sullivan first met Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. The meeting was arranged at the urging of Peter Prichard, an English theatrical agent who was also employed by Sullivan as a talent evaluator. The impresario and the manager agreed that the Beatles would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th and again on February 16th, in a segment to be taped in Miami.
The appearance on February 9th was highly anticipated in light of the media blitz that surrounded it. The Beatles and Epstein arrived on Pan Am flight 101, which left London’s Heathrow Airport in a scene of pandemonium, complete with screaming girls straining against police barricades. At JFK Airport, the anxious crowd was estimated at approximately 5,000, not including 200 or so members of the media. Incidentally, the actual airplane which carried the Beatles, “Clipper Defiance’” was scrapped by the airline in 1977 in Long Beach, California.
After an airport press conference the Beatles were taken to the12th floor of the Plaza Hotel. They were greeted by another mob scene and indulged more journalists at another press conference in the hotel’s Baroque Room. Members of the group were thrilled to learn that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was now #1 in America.
At 1:30 p.m. the Beatles were whisked by limousine to CBS Studio 50 on Broadway to rehearse for the appearance that evening. Mounted police were in place along the route to keep frenzied fans away from the limos. George Harrison was not present for this rehearsal due to a fever and strep throat. His sister Louise, living in Illinois at the time, had been flown to New York to tend to her ailing brother. Beatles road manager Neil Aspinall stood in for George at the studio when the camera operators needed to test for angles and lighting. However, George was onstage with his band mates when the time came for the actual broadcast that evening.
When the episode aired at 8:00 Sunday evening, 60% of the television sets in the United States were tuned in to the Ed Sullivan Show, a figure representing an estimated 73 million people. As the show’s headliners, The Beatles took the stage in front of a studio audience of 700. Sullivan introduced the group as “these youngsters from Liverpool…” They opened their first set with “All My Loving” and closed it with “She Loves You.” In a briefer second set, the Beatles performed “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
The youngsters from Liverpool had arrived in America and conquered it. Their success paved the way for the “British Invasion,” the wave of British bands whose popularity was ignited by the Beatles. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was a seminal moment in the Beatles’ legacy as the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band, and forever linked the narrative of Ed Sullivan to the history of The Beatles.
It is a legacy that will endure as long as people listen to music.
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By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor
Tuesday, October 8, 2013: A couple of weeks ago in Dubai, at an elaborate eight-day festival event called the Dubai Music Week, Quincy Jones, now 80 years old, sat alongside Rod Templeton and Bruce Swedien at a conference called “The Michael Jackson Dream Team.” The festival drew over 24,000 visitors from all over the globe, most of them attending musical events and expositions located in the skyscraper-rich downtown area and in the Dubai World Trade Center. The “Dream Team” conference drew hundreds to a standing room only Q&A. The topic for two hours: the creative forces which brought together music engineer Swedien, songwriter and producer Templeton, and the legendary production and arranging talents of Quincy Jones, a man whose wide path through the world of contemporary music stretches from the glory days of Lionel Hampton, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra, all the way into this century.
His collaboration with Michael Jackson—alongside Swedien, Templeton and many others—catapulted Thriller to the top of the charts and made it one of the biggest selling albums of all time (second only, in the 20th Century, to The Eagles Greatest Hits). When his record sales spiked again in the aftermath of his sudden death in 2009, Jackson’s Thriller nudged its way past The Eagles, making it the biggest selling recording…of all time…and the first to serious challenge and topple the previous record-holders of Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Bernie Leaden, Joe Walsh and company.
There are a lot of firsts in Quincy Jones’ life.
In 1968, at the age of 35, he and songwriting partner Bob Russell became the first African-Americans to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song for their songwriting work on the film Banning. Jones was also the first black man to be nominated for an Oscar twice in the same year, and the first African-American to have won over 50 Grammy Award nominations. He currently holds the world record for most Grammy nominations won be any person, regardless of color, with a total of 79 awards and nominations.
Taken alongside his hundreds of other top awards and achievements, that makes Jones one of the most recognized and awarded musicians of the 20th Century…and, this century, in which he still wins honors. Jones has been inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame and the Jazz Hall of Fame, and, earlier this year, at the tender age of 80, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Some of his distinctive firsts are obscure though significant. In 1985 Jones was commissioned to compose the soundtrack to the Color Purple, making Jones the only other person other than John Williams to have scored a film for Spielberg in that director’s long moviemaking career.* And Jones is also the producer of what has been the single biggest selling record album of all time, Michael Jackson’s aforementioned Thriller, which, alongside a few of the Beatles’ biggest records and The Eagles Greatest Hits, holds nearly every major sales record for the 20th Century.
But perhaps most telling is this first: Jones, who at an early age discovered that the most painful truth about the music “industry” is that there is a critical distinction between music and the music business, scrabbled his way into an understanding of the business side of a creative world known for its wide disparity between artists and management. After a difficult stint in the early 1960s performing nightclubs and small venues in Europe, during which time he and he fellow jazz musicians hovered only barely above poverty, Jones returned to New York and set his sights on learning every aspect of the music industry. His relentlessly thorough, nearly obsessive interest in the details of managing and promoting music eventually paid off for him when Mercury Records’ Irving Green gave him a top job, and within a year promoted Jones to Vice-President A&R (VP for Artists & Repertoire), making Jones in 1964 the highest-ranking African-American in a major corporation not owned by African-Americans, and the first to reach executive VP status in a major company.
And Jones was hardly a hands-off corporate officer. His total immersion in the business of music as well as his passion for the creative process made him one of the most integral movers-and-shakers in the recording industry for decades, insuring that his musical voiceprint would be found in thousands of places in our collective memories of jazz, R&B, rock and roll, television scores and motion picture soundtracks.
Quincy Delight Jones was born in 1933 in Chicago, Illinois. By the time he was in elementary school he had already developed a love of music that was deep and comprehensive. Jones himself fondly recalls sitting in darkened movie theaters, listening in rapt attention to the musical scores to divine the identity and thumbprint of each composer, and carefully considering the effect of each musical theme on each scene in the film.
His father, a highly skilled carpenter and mechanic who doubled as a minor league baseball player, landed a job—when jobs were scarce—at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, and, like thousands of other underemployed Midwesterners and Easterners, moved to Seattle. As a student in middle school and at Garfield High School, Jones’ musical talents quickly elevated him to the informal status of class musical composer and arranger, and by some accounts, he put together his first formally organized band when he was only 12, writing songs, and playing alongside a young Charles Taylor, already a legend with the saxophone.
It was in Seattle, when Quincy Jones was perhaps 13 or 14, that he met Ray Charles, a couple of years older than Jones, and himself transplanted to Seattle by way of Florida. Charles—who had overcome the limitations of his blindness by making music and sound his tool for success—immediately detected something remarkable in Jones and became his mentor, and they developed a friendship which kept them connected for decades.
Jones’ musical abilities—some self-taught, some natural—were so profound that he was able to win a scholarship to the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jones took a full load of classes, sometimes as many as ten per semester, immersing himself in all things music and working nights and weekends—as time permitted—in small nightclubs and strip cubs. Though he was by then a prodigy of nearly unparalleled ability, he would eventually drop out of college to pursue performing and arranging full time, working with jazz and R&B greats like Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Dinah Washington, Billy Taylor and Count Basie. At first he played horns alongside other soon-to-be-great names like Art Farmer and Clifford Brown. His musical skills were so comprehensive that Jones eventually became the conductor, horn player and manager of Lionel Hampton’s band in the 1950s, and travelled with the ensemble on a variety of tours of Europe and the United States.
While in France, the young Quincy also studied more music under the tutelage of some of the greats of the European jazz scene, which, in those days, attracted many of the best jazz and early R&B stars from the United States. But among his European mentors was Nadia Boulanger, a legendary French music instructor with teaching credentials at Juilliard, Longy, the Royal Academy of Music and the Yehudi Menuhim School, and the first woman to have conducted the BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. By the time Jones crossed her path, Boulanger had already taught Aaron Copland, Phillip Glass and John Eliot Gardiner. Under Boulanger’s guidance, the naturally gifted Jones gained a comprehensive formal knowledge of the craft of musical composition and arrangement.
Jones continued to perform and tour with Hampton and his orchestra, playing alongside trumpeters Eddie Jones and Reunald Jones, and continued to ramp up his knowledge and understanding of the larger world of music. And it was during this period of his life, often during severe economic hardship, that he began his transition into the business side of music. He took a brief stint as the director of Barclay Disques, the French component of Mercury Records, the first in a series of jobs in which he began to fine-tune his management skills with musicians.
Jones composed and arranged music for an increasingly diverse roster of entertainers and performers, working alongside Peggy Lee, Little Richard, Frank Sinatra, Dizzy Gillespie, Leslie Gore, Ella Fitzgerald, his old friend Ray Charles, Count Basie and dozens of others. Jones composed the Grammy-winning song “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which became a Count Basie smash hit, and also wrote “Fly Me to the Moon,” which would become one of Sinatra’s biggest hits. Sinatra was impressed enough to ask Jones to become the conductor and arranger of his orchestra, which elevated Jones to—what was then, more-or-less—the top of the pyramid in terms of entertainment prestige and clout, and putting him on the fastest of the fast tracks to what would be his business success. In the mid-1960s Jones worked frequently with Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr and others among what was often called the Rat Pack. The culmination of this association came in 1966 when he was commissioned to arrange and conduct the Count Basie Orchestra for Sinatra’s album, Sinatra at the Sands, one of the most memorable of Sinatra’s various live recordings.
Not long after he was promoted to his new role as vice-president at Mercury Records in 1964, Quincy Jones began to expand his interest in entertainment even further, parlaying that childhood love of film soundtracks into an even grander and more complex form of musical expression. During the early stages of principal shooting of the movie The Pawnbroker (which starred Rod Steiger) director Sidney Lumet sought out Jones’ formidable talents to compose and arrange the score for the film. Jones accepted, and began work on the compositions. The success of that evocative soundtrack—alongside the success of the movie itself—projected Jones directly into the world of filmmaking.
Even while maintaining his busy schedule of writing songs, guiding the musical progress of other performers, and producing music at Mercury Records, Jones worked continuously on motion picture scoring. He would go on to compose and arrange soundtracks for innumerable movies and television shows, including the films Banning, Cactus Flower, McKenna’s Gold, In Cold Blood, The Slender Thread, The Getaway, and of course The Color Purple, based on the book by Alice Walker. Lumet also commissioned Jones to compose and arrange the soundtrack for In the Heat of the Night, which starred Steiger and Sidney Poitier, and later, The Anderson Tapes, based on the novel by Lawrence Sanders and starring Sean Connery. Lumet’s Anderson Tapes—like his later Network—is considered by many film critics to be prescient, especially for its view of a world in which electronic surveillance is routine, and Jones’ score is evocative for its musical interpretation of such an era.
Jones’ deep association with motion picture scoring led him, perhaps naturally, toward television as well, and he left his thumbprint across decades of TV, including the famously infectious theme song to Sanford & Son. He also composed the theme songs to scores of other television programs, including Ironside and The Bill Cosby Show.
There was hardly any musical genre which did not ultimately draw his interest or his talent, and Jones managed to collaborate on a larger, wider, more diverse scale than perhaps any composer, conductor or arranger of the 20th Century, save for perhaps Alfred Newman and George Gershwin (and one can easily question whether those legendary composers truly exceeded Jones in diversity).
For the Baby Boom generation of any skin color, Quincy Jones’ headiest days began in the late 1960s, and early and middle 1970s, when his output of jazz, rock and R&B fusions hit their full stride. By that time his skill as a producer was unparalleled, which made collaborations with him solid gold—in some cases literally. Jones had one standing work ethic, which he posted, in writing, in the studio for all to see: check your ego at the door. This dictum was meant for performers, engineers, mixers and producers alike. His long training—formally or informally—as a member of various bands and orchestras, sometimes in adverse conditions, had taught him the extended value of musical collaboration. His compositions from that era attest to his skill, and include “Walking in Space,” “Summer in the City,” “Killer Joe,” “Body Heat,” and “Midnight Soul Patrol.” One of his greatest recordings was the collection Quincy Jones, I Heard That!!, a double album of 16 songs which exemplified his skill as both songwriter and master collaborator.
On his compositions ranging from roughly 1973 to 1976, Jones worked alongside some of rock and R&Bs greatest names, including percussionists Billy Cobham and Harvey Mason, keyboardists Dave Grusin, George Duke, Billy Preston, Herbie Hancock and Bobby Scott, guitarists George Johnson, Louis Johnson and Eric Gale, bassists Ray Brown, Stanley Clarke, Chuck Rainey and Richard Davis, and vocalists ranging from Al Jarreau to Minnie Riperton, from Aretha Franklin to Marilyn Jackson. Jones also worked with nearly every A-list horn player, trumpeter and sax player on the music scene in those days, including Freddie Hubbard, Snookie Young, Buddy Childers, J.J. Johnson, Frank Rosolino, Dick Hixon, Wayne Andre, Phil Woods and Hubert Laws. The sprawling album Quincy Jones, I Heard That!!, the credits of which read like a Who’s Who of the jazz and R&B community, represented the high-water mark of his large group collaborative efforts, and opened up the path to the end of the 1970s and his next big phase.
Jones was commissioned to compose and arrange the soundtrack for the movie The Wiz, Sydney Lumet’s stylized retelling of The Wizard of Oz, complete with an all-African American cast and set against a New Yorkish urban backdrop. At the top of the star billing were Dianna Ross and Michael Jackson. During principal shooting, Jackson asked Jones for advice on who he should secure to produce his next album, and after much discussion—during which Jones gave Jackson the names of several producers he deemed compatible with Michael—they decided that Quincy Jones himself would make the right producer to handle what Jackson hoped would be the next major musical phase of his career. The result of that collaboration was Off the Wall, which was then, and remains now, one of the biggest sellers of all time. Off The Wall famously projected Jackson into the next phase of his dazzling musical career (Thursday Review lists it among the 12 must-have recordings from the 1980s) and some of its best songs, “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock With You” put Jackson on top of the world.
A few years later, Jones would again enter the studio with Michael Jackson to produce Thriller. Though the production at Westlake Studios in Los Angeles was expensive (the original budget was set at $750,000) and the recording painstaking, the dazzling collaboration between Jackson and Jones, each at the top of their game, would make music history. Released in November of 1982, Thriller included the instant hits “Billie Jean,” “Beat It,” and the title cut, along with several other potent singles, and its sales soared quickly skyward. At the music awards in 1984, Thriller made history by winning an unprecedented eight Grammy’s (another first for Jones, as producer), and by the end of the 1990s it had managed to break nearly every recording industry sales record. By this point, Quincy Delight Jones had become arguably one of the most powerful and influential music producers of all time, and by the beginning of the 1990s his thumbprint could be found in virtually every venue of musical entertainment—rock and roll, R&B, jazz, music video, theme songs for television and major motion picture scoring.
But for Jones it is never about power, nor is it only about the money and the influence, or even the legacy per se. As far back as the 1960s Jones sought mechanisms to harness his success and channel his energies to social causes which caught his attention, including raising money to develop cultural centers and libraries to reflect African-American artistic influence. His interest in philanthropic ventures and global projects persists to this day, and perhaps nothing exemplifies that interest than what may have been his most elaborate and complex collaboration of all. In the middle 1980s, as drought and famine swept some parts of Africa, hitting most especially wide swaths of Ethiopia in 1985, Jones used his substantial clout to bring together scores of musical heavyweights for the creation of a single music video and song titled “We Are the World,” the profits from which were used to provide huge food relief projects for the stricken areas.
There were complaints—in the press, among many in the music communities, among political groups both left and right and in the U.S. and other countries: the song’s lyrics were largely self-aggrandizing, self-conscious and an elaborate celebration of Me Generation pathologies. Some media and political voices complained that the song itself—while well-intentioned—had little to do with anything other than its own glorification, and made little attempt to address hunger or the complex forces behind Africa’s famine. And in the end, there were all the predictable questions about whether the song’s financial success—or that of the eventual album—had any significant impact on the victims of famine in Africa.
Still, Jones, the master collaborator and producer, felt great satisfaction from the finished product, which may have been the most complex multi-talent endeavor ever attempted in the recording studio.
The song and the video, which had started as the brainchild of Harry Belafonte (and morphed quickly into an organization called USA for Africa), included appearances and vocals from Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Daryl Hall, Al Jarreau, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Kenny Loggins, Bette Midler, Smokey Robinson, Dionne Warwick, Huey Lewis, Bob Geldof and dozens of others. Within only three days of its release, the single had sold nearly 800,000 copies. It would eventually go on to become the biggest selling single of all time, giving Quincy Jones another first.
The mere fact that it was recorded at all, considering the substantial combined talent and the fragile, mercurial egos packed into the same room at the same time, is regarded by some to be miraculous. But, again, as each of those many famous musical faces entered the studio that day, they saw that familiar sign taped to the entrance: check your ego at the door.
*Regarding the issue of Jones’ compositional work for Spielberg on The Color Purple, some point out that technically Jones shares this distinction with Jerry Goldsmith, who scored one of the sequences in Twilight Zone: The Movie. Meaning there are two exceptions to the rule of Spielberg collaborating only with John Williams.
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By Earl Perkins, Thursday Review Contributing Editor
September 9, 2013: They were known for songs like “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird,” but it all started back at Robert E. Lee Senior High School in Jacksonville, Florida. In the 1960’s, Coach Leonard Skinner told the boys they needed to cut their hair to meet school regulations, and instructed them to show up for gym class on a regular basis.
We all know that dog wouldn’t hunt. They got tired of the same old message from the coach and other teachers, and one day they cut down what kids at the school dubbed “the alley,” a narrow utility path adjacent to the school’s parking lot which ran behind a few small retail stores. They kept going, and soon walked into history.
Ronnie Van Zant. Allen Collins. Gary Rossington. The names just roll off your tongue, but nobody knew them back in the summer of 1964. The same year Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater, they formed a rock group called The Noble Five, changing the name to The Backyard the following year with the addition of Larry Junstrom and Bob Burns. It was another reference to their school. The football field behind Lee High was known as The Backyard, because the football team had lost only a scant few home games since the school was built in 1927. The band kept playing and practicing. The boys won a battle of the bands contest in 1968, along with the opening slot on the southern leg of a tour with the California psychedelic rock band Strawberry Alarm Clock.
Around 1970 they began billing themselves as Leonard Skinnerd, as a kind of mocking, irreverent tribute to their nemesis, the former high school coach. Ronnie and the band juggled a few players through the years until 1972, when the line-up settled into the familiar team of Van Zant, Collins, Rossington and Burns, along with Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell. That was when the group was discovered by musician-songwriter-producer Al Kooper of Blood, Sweat & Tears fame. Kooper, who had worked with greats Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan and B.B. King, was at a nightclub called Funnochio’s in Atlanta when he saw them perform, and he quickly signed them to his MCA Records-backed Sounds of the South label. Shortly after that, they officially changed the spelling of their name to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and with that they were poised for their upward trajectory.
Their career exploded from 1973 to 1977. Their debut album, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, included four especially potent songs, “Free Bird,” “Gimme Three Steps,” “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Simple Man,” a particularly strong set of tunes for any debut record. Indeed, many rock music fans regard Pronounced as one the greatest debut albums of all time, ranking it closely behind Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut, and on a par with (or better than) Boston’s namesake first release and The Eagles’ debut record. Then came their next album, Second Helping, which included “Call Me the Breeze,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” and “The Ballad of Curtis Lowe,” songs which solidified their base of followers. Other albums followed, including Nuthin’ Fancy, Gimme Back My Bullets and Street Survivors.
The group had their share of good fortune in the early days. In 1973, not long after their debut had already begun its upward climb, Lynyrd Skynyrd was selected to be the opening act for The Who on their Quadrophenia tour of the United States, and Skynyrd’s appearances alongside Pete Townshend and company garnered rave reviews, helping to spark constant radio air-play far outside their native Deep South and exposing them to rock music lovers across the country.
The year after The Who tour came that follow-up, Second Helping, which was a break-out success. Like their debut, it contained no musical duds, but it featured what would become their biggest song, “Sweet Home Alabama.” The catchy, infectious “Sweet Home Alabama” was a direct response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” a song in which Young had called to task the notion of a clear conscience for The New South. Skynyrd’s own response was a cultural and political retort, and an open challenge to Neil Young to face the fact that hypocrisy existed in places like California and New York, and that unresolved issues of race were not limited to the South.
King, Collins and Rossington collaborated on the songwriting for the album. Burns left the band in early ’75, and was replaced by Kentucky native Artimus Pyle. In ’75 and ’76 the band released the albums Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets, respectively, with fair results. In the meantime their live shows were becoming legendary, and “Free Bird” had already become their signature crowd-pleaser, arguably the greatest anthem in rock history.
But the modest success of Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets sparked a desire to jumpstart their portfolio, and they decided a third guitar player was needed to give performances and recordings a stronger sound. Backup singer Cassie Gaines told the others that her brother was fronting for a group called The Crawdads and could really play guitar. He was invited onstage and auditioned at a Kansas City show in May 1976. He immediately got the job and it looked as though he would be a large part of the band’s future. Van Zant told his band mates Collins and Rossington—no slouches on the guitar themselves—that someday they’d all be playing in Gaines’ shadow, because he was that good.
Street Survivors, released in 1977, was his showcase. The mix of the three guitar players worked well, and Gaines’ powerful style meshed easily with the other guitar sounds. An oddity about this album is that it was recorded twice from start-to-finish, the first time in Florida with producer Tom Dowd, then again in Atlanta with the band members’ own hands on the studio controls. A few songs were dropped, a few were added. Gaines infused their sound with bulk and power, just as they had hoped, and the band made a conscious effort to polish the otherwise raw sound, adding horns, additional keyboards and layered vocals. The result was an album which looked to transform their trajectory yet again. The songs “What’s Your Name?” and “That Smell” became instant hits. The band was on top of the world and tickets for the upcoming tour were selling fast. And then came the plane crash.
There is nothing like death to take you from being a great band to one of mythical status. It was October 27, 1977, a date that all Southern Rock fans will remember forever. Late that night, following a show at the Greenville, South Carolina Memorial Auditorium, their chartered airplane crashed en route to the band’s next tour date at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. The Convair CV-300 ran out of fuel and went down in a swampy pine forest near Gillsburg, Mississippi, about 60 miles west of Hattiesburg and a scant 40 miles from their destination. The pilot and co-pilot had apparently attempted to divert to a small rural airfield for an emergency landing, but had fallen short after the plane’s fuel was exhausted.
It was three days after the release of the Street Survivors album and only five days into what was shaping up to be their most successful tour to date. Among the dead were Van Zant, along with Steve and Cassie Gaines, the two pilots and the band’s assistant road manager. Collins, Rossington, Wilkeson, Powell, Pyle, backup singer Leslie Hawkins and tour manager Ron Eckerman were all badly injured. Pyle was the only band member able to walk from the crash site, though he had sustained multiple broken ribs and severe lacerations.
The band was scheduled to headline New York City’s Madison Square Garden in November. It was Van Zant’s lifelong dream, and the one which was never to come to fruition.
Between the plane crash, too much partying and numerous well-publicized personal problems (Van Zant could take credit for almost as much damage to hotel rooms as Joe Walsh and Keith Moon combined), things would never be the same. They were one of the greatest bands of all time, but the music world and outside influences kept them from their rightful place in history for decades. They were nominated seven times for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the voters would not let them in. Folks just weren’t ready to glorify the sort of unrepentant party animals who were proud to play in front of the Confederate battle flag.
Following the crash, Skynyrd broke up for 10 years, although they kept performing and touring individually and in various pairings. The band reunited officially in 1987, but there was plenty of animosity and a legion of lawyers involved. Accusations of broken promises and exploiting the group’s name were at the top of the litigation list. Legal documents were signed and agreements made, and the group performs and tours to this day despite the high attrition rate among the 1970s members. Rossington is the only original member, although several of the other musicians have performed with the band on and off for decades. Rickey Medlocke has been with the band off and on since 1970, and today you can hear him on vocals, drums and mandolin.
In the wake of their huge success in the 70s, the sub-genre of Southern Rock reached maximum output. Bands like .38 Special, Blackfoot, The Outlaws and Molly Hatchet followed the wide path blazed by Skynyrd.
Lynyrd Skynyrd finally joined the Hall of Fame at the 25th annual induction ceremony in March 2006, along with Black Sabbath, Blondie, Miles Davis and the Sex Pistols. What a lineup. But, of course, there was certainly controversy again. The inductees included Ronnie Van Zant, Rossington, Collins, King, Steve Gaines, Wilkeson, Pyle and Burns. The post-crash members and the Honkettes (the backup singers) were excluded. The new Skynyrd, along with King, Pyle, Burns, Hawkins and former Honkette JoJo Billingsley performed “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Free Bird.” Judy Van Zant Jenness (Ronnie’s widow) and her two daughters, Teresa Gaines Rapp and her daughter, Collins’ daughters, along with Wilkeson’s mother and son, were in attendance at the event.
Recent album releases include God and Guns (2009) and Last of a Dyin’ Breed (2012). The group recently announced it’s headed to New Zealand for a summer concert tour in February, along with Starship and 10cc. Stops include Taupo, North Auckland, and Queenstown. Meanwhile, if you can’t get enough, you can always hit up Skynyrd on its Twitter account, “High on the Hog.”
And when you hear “Free Bird,” just keep your cigarette lighter aloft.
See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/LynyrdSkynyrd.html
Book review: Who I Am; Pete Townshend; Harper-Collins Books
Review by R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review Editor
August 1, 2013: The rock and roll documentary has raised its game of late and moved seemingly into its golden age. Massive, sprawling documentaries have appeared within the last 24 months covering a variety of iconic groups and musical phases of pop and rock: The Rolling Stones (Brett Morgen’s The Rolling Stones: Crossfire Hurricane), George Harrison (Martin Scorcese’s Living in the Material World), The Eagles (History of the Eagles, Part 1 & 2), Sound City Recording Studio (Dave Grohl’s Sound City), Bruce Springsteen (Thom Zimmy’s The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town), Ginger Baker (Jay Bulger’s Beware Mr. Baker), fatherhood among rockers (Andrea Blaugrund Nevins’ The Other F Word), U2 (Davis Guggenheim’s U2: From the Sky Down), and Led Zeppelin (Sonia Anderson’s Dazed & Confused). Many others preceded these in the middle aught years, including Paul Rachman’s American Hardcore: The History of Punk Rock 1980-1986, Davis Guggenheim’s It Might Get Loud, and Michael Gramaglia’s End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones.
The caliber of these documentaries has been extraordinarily high, save for the sometimes fair complaint that these films—like the decades of musical offerings of their iconic subjects—occasionally wallow in self-indulgence and over-the-topsmanship. But this is rock and roll, after all. Give the devil his due. Besides, no one has ever accused Martin Scorcese of being a stern and stringent editor of his own stuff, and few could suggest that rock legends Mick Jagger or Glenn Frey should suddenly rein themselves in for the sake of a film crew. Rock and roll is an excessive business; therefore the cinematic telling of its checkered history must excel to excess.
Books are a different matter entirely. Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace and Rod Stewart’s Rod: The Autobiography indicate to us that when the guitars finally rust, iconography—or at least the marketability of the inside story of rock—is portable. Aging rockers can set the record straight, as long as their memories serve them (and we salute them if their detoxified, threadbare recollections are intact as they enter their senior years), and they can along the way offer apologies, candor, condolences, and contrition, in addition to the heavy name-dropping and amusing party anecdotes. Readers love excess perhaps more than even fans of the rockumentary.
Still, the partying anecdotes can wear thin: I found a copy of Christopher Andersen’s Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Mick Jagger (2012) on a sale rack at a bookstore recently, and bought it without hesitation. After only two days I was not merely disappointed, I was exhausted from the excess. It was a twofold problem: Andersen’s book is fraught with hazards, not the least of which is endless name-dropping (I think by now we get the point that Mick moved among the circles of other famous people). Secondly, who cares? Andersen spent scant few lines of any given chapter actually discussing rock music—its creative processes, the art and craft of recording, or its performance—exchanging the “rock and roll” part of the biography for parties, alcohol, drugs and sex.
This is why it was instantly refreshing as I began my research for this essay to discover (again), that of all the Beatles’ peers, and among those bands who survived well past the end of the Beatles’ era, the group which seemed the most prone to a love of the creative process and musical development was The Who. And this, it can be easily argued, was the work of one man, Pete Townshend, whose recent autobiography, Who I Am, seems to stand apart from the other literary attempts to explain the deconstructionist milieu that is rock and roll.
Townshend was arguably the first of the hard rockers to demonstrate to the larger musical literati that rock music could truly exist in the same venue with innovation and technical prowess. Certainly the Beatles had blazed a wide path, bringing into the studio every form of experimentation and textural layering available at the time: the tabla, the sitar and other eastern instruments; all manner of classical stings and horns and entire symphony orchestras; contextual elements and sound effects from all over the map. In this sense, the Beatles had no contemporary rivals, save perhaps for Jimi Hendrix, and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. In 1969 The Who would complete Tommy, which became then—and remains now—the definitive grand-scale melding of thematic rock and operatic storytelling. But it was Townsend, with The Who’s release in August 1971 of Who’s Next (42 years ago next week), that proved that the edgiest of hard rock could share the studio and the stage with the Moog synthesizer and other electronic instruments and not look or sound pretentious.
Who’s Next was a landmark moment for rock and roll, and arguably The Who’s crowning achievement. The album was as innovative as anything seen at the edges of hard rock, and it became one of The Who’s biggest sellers worldwide. It also established The Who, for all time, as a member of the most elite club one could imagine in the early 1970s—the Global Supergroup, with peers among only The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and the recently fragmented Beatles. Who’s Next was preceded by a few weeks by the release of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” a dazzling, gut-wrenching song showcasing the complex dynamism of Keith’s Moon’s percussion, the raw power of John Entwistle’s bass line, the full range and intensity of Roger Daltrey’s vocals, and breathtaking guitar work by Townshend, the end result being one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Most of the cuts on Who’s Next became classics of hard rock and album-oriented radio, and several of the songs became iconic anthems: “Behind Blue Eyes,” “Going Mobile,” “Bargain,” and of course “Baba O’Riley,” (aka Teenage Wasteland to many rock fans), music durable and fresh even now, over 40 years later.
Townshend’s autobiography comes out the same year as the 40th anniversary of the release of Quadrophenia, an album meant by design to exceed even the power of Who’s Next and take rock music to the next new innovation in sound—“quadrophonic,” which had been intended as the eventual successor to stereo and high fidelity.
The notion of “quadrophonic” had its roots in the group Pink Floyd, whose members had experimented in the late 1960s with studio and live-performance technology which would direct sounds toward listeners from all directions—or at least from four directions. But, like the other infamous cul de sacs of technology, quadrophonic fell flat, plagued from the beginning with problems of industry standards, high costs, competing patents, and consumer disinterest. In his book, however, Townshend recalls that the first inkling for him came as he playfully sought to describe a teenager suffering from a four-sided personality disorder—schizophrenia becomes quadzrophenia, a term which later morphed into quadrophenia (without the “z”).
Like his efforts to forge grand-scale fusions of narrative rock, thematic storytelling, youth opera and even on-stage visuals—Who’s Next, like Tommy, had started out as an operatic package originally titled “Lifehouse”—Quadrophenia was also intended to be a multi-tiered epic, drawing in a variety of tools and technical gimmicks and visuals, but also taking the listener inside the head of Townshend’s ongoing central musical character, a disillusioned, confused, splintered but energetic British teenaged “mod,” the abbreviated term used to describe the young, beatnik-rooted modernist jazz, R&B and rock & roll fans of the London nightclub and music scene of the mid-1950s and 1960s. Mod was also a term used to describe those young people in London of working-class backgrounds who sought release and recreation through music and the late-night world of coffee houses and mild-to-moderate amphetamine drugs (then generally legal in Britain). The formation and self-identity of The Who had been largely built around the subculture and ethos of the mods, and other British bands also staked out their claim within mod circles, including The Kinks and Small Faces.
This fascination with the mindset of the mods had been Townshend’s cherished creative challenge almost from the beginning of his songwriting career, but during the era of Tommy, Who’s Next and Quadrophenia, it reached the level of obsession. Even casual musical fans of that era could see the theme shining brightly through all those iconic songs: “My Generation,” “Magic Bus,” “Substitute,” “Young Man Blues” and scores of other tunes offer an unvarnished look into the bewildered, restless and sometimes tormented mind of the typical teen and young adult of British urban life. Reading Townsend’s book, however, one can closely follow how his fixation on youth culture parallels his creativity and his love of musical expression. His autobiography reveals what we already knew: Townshend truly loved the creative process and the challenges of musical innovation.
Townshend traces The Who from its earliest incarnations, which included the musical inclinations of his own family: his mother had been a talented jazz singer in several big band combos; his father was a musician who dabbled in jazz, swing and big band sounds, and by his early teenaged years the young Pete was already schooled in various instruments, including the banjo and guitar. His childhood friend John Entwistle was equally talented on several instruments, including horns and brass. At about the time that Pete was considering art school, thinking it a clever way to meet girls and possibly persuade them to pose nude, Roger Daltrey had formed a party band called The Detours. Musical chameleons, The Detours played private parties and small venues using cheap amps and homemade guitars, belting out jazz, country & western, R&B, Dixieland, conga tunes, anything if the gig paid cash. The band included Doug Sandom and Colin Dawson. Eventually Daltrey let Townshend audition, and The Detours Jazz Band was set upon its trajectory, with Townshend on guitar and Daltrey on trombone.
Later Sandom and Dawson fell away, but once Keith Moon was added on drums, the band made its final progression toward rock and roll and its metamorphosis from party band to mod symbol was nearly complete. The combo drew heavily on the rich rhythm and blues sounds from America. “At the time,” he writes, “we were getting most of our inspiration from growling R&B songs by Bo Diddley and Howlin’ Wolf.” They had also discovered the value of a bit of chaos, and began their early experiments with feedback and distortion in the studio and on stage. Even in this early chapter of Townshend’s life he looks in earnest for musical innovation and achievement, realizing that the band will remain obscure and in the shadows without better equipment and a tighter sound, without the right speakers, the right amps, the right instruments, even the right ways to promote the band.
After renaming themselves The Who, their earliest manager, Peter Meaden (the person chiefly influential in guiding them toward the mod movement and subculture), insisted that they try the name The High Numbers, London insider lingo to designate anyone in close second-place proximity to “Faces,” those mods at the top of the trend-setting pyramid, but well above “Tickets,” which were simply the followers and groupies and young people who came to dance.
Live performances began to gather notice and larger crowds, and even their most controversial trademark tricks—fuzzy guitars, amplifier feedback, distortions, Townshend’s leaping and jumping, and especially Moon’s madman drumming—began to solidify the loyalty of their mod fans. Daltrey’s bellicose, powerful singing, which must have been a shock to many in the audiences not expecting such a potent, soulful sound to come from this cherub-faced, fair-skinned, blonde English boy, very nearly set their signature sound in place. The Who was on its way toward stardom, but still lacked a moment or two of good luck.
Then, by chance, band members met Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert, who were at the time searching for a subject for their proposed television documentary film project about a small British street band struggling to make it big. Chris Stamp was the brother of the actor Terrence Stamp. Lambert was the son of the music director of the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. Their love of art, music, opera, film and theater overlapped neatly with the shared visions of Townshend and his mates, and soon they replaced Meaden (for a buyout of £200) as the band’s managers. Lambert and Stamp quickly and happily suggested they change the band’s name back to The Who.
The Who played in the shadows of the heavyweights of the club and auditorium scene, opening for The Beatles, Dave Berry and The Kinks. They gleaned valuable information and lessons from the older musicians and the pros, improving their style and their sound along the way. Eventually, Lambert and Stamp got The Who an audience with Shel Talmy, producer for The Kinks and a major player within British music circles, and the group chose one of Townshend’s earliest original rock compositions, “I Can’t Explain” as their audition song. It was another big break—Talmy immediately booked them studio time to record the song. Unsure of Townshend’s guitar skills, Talmy had a young Jimmy Page play the guitar instead. Once recorded, the song languished for a few months while The Who continued their live shows.
In the meantime they picked up regular Tuesday gigs at The Marquee, a well-known jazz and blues club. It was here, among throngs of London’s hippest mods, that The Who gained real traction. The crowds grew, as did the group’s musical power, and Townshend and others began to expand the soon iconic use of Union Jacks as logos, military medallions, the fanciful tall-letter Who logos, and the RAF concentric circle designs on posters and handouts. The now famous Marquee poster, “Maximum R&B,” originated with a design for those very shows. And in the book Townshend says that it was at those game-changing shows at The Marquee when he realized, a bit nervously perhaps, “that Mod had become more than a look. It had become our voice, and The Who was its main outlet.”
Soon, “I Can’t Explain” became a minor hit, and shortly afterward they recorded “My Generation,” the roots of which, Townshend explains, was found in his first wordplay doodling for “I Can’t Explain.” Thus, at the very start of their musical success, The Who had already found its inner voice and its thematic backbone—a linkage between the mixed emotions, displacements and angst of youth, and the need to sing about it through the energetic vehicle of rock and roll. By the time The Who gets around to recording “Magic Bus,” they are already making history, and their music is moving up the charts in the U.K.
The book offers a fascinating portrait of a band moving along the path from obscurity and subculture identity to the same band destined to produce the resonate, enduring and transcendent hard rock of “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Love Ain’t For Keeping,” and the epic, operatic songs like “Pinball Wizard,” and “We’re Not Gonna’ Take It” found in Tommy.
To be sure, Townshend offers plenty of clear-minded and unapologetic anecdotes about alcohol, drugs and sex, along with enough reckless driving and minor accidents that he would eventually lose his right to drive in the U.K. There are the stories of the fights—verbal and sometimes physical—in studios and on stage. There are the ongoing management and legal struggles, typical stuff in the business side of rock and roll when young adults, caught up in partying and girls and fast cars, sign complex agreements and contracts, and, as a result, there are the eventual constant tensions between Townshend, Entwistle, Daltrey and Moon, and their long-time managers, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp. For Townshend, there are self-doubts, there are evictions, there are appearances in courtrooms, and there are bitter arguments with girlfriends and wives. There is depression and there is fear that the band “will implode.” Later, by the mid-1970s, there is the issue of his hearing loss and tinnitus, which will lead some in the press to make him the poster boy for the dangers of loud music.
But what makes the book revealing is how he seeks throughout his life to find his way back toward his love of music. After several marriages and a number of mental breakdowns, his eventual sobriety can be seen as the final destination of a spiritual quest. He has near-death experiences from overdoses of LSD and from alcohol poisoning, not to mention the time he nearly killed himself by jumping from a hotel window into a swimming pool. As with many rock stars, the Grim Reaper seems to hover just off stage. The loss of so many of his peers—Brian Jones, John Bonham (he doesn’t mention Bonham specifically despite several references to Led Zeppelin), Jimi Hendrix, various producers and engineers, and his band mate Keith Moon—along with the near loss of Eric Clapton and others, amplify his own near death experience in 1981 when his alcohol abuse finally combines with his excessive cocaine consumption. He collapsed in a bathroom of a London nightclub, barely breathing and with his heart rate halted. He was rushed to a nearby hospital where he awoke only after doctors inserted an adrenaline needle into his heart.
Keith Moon’s death in September 1978 briefly shattered the cohesion of the band and shook the world of rock music. Moon died from an overdose of sleeping pills, muscle relaxers and sedatives, which he had washed down with a bottle of champagne. It was a devastating moment for Daltrey and Entwistle.
Where Tommy and Who’s Next had placed them on top, the death of Moon threatened the existence of the band forever. It had been Moon’s manic, madman’s energy which acted as a theatrical, spirited foil to the other signature performances on stage: Daltrey’s singular and soulful voice, Entwistle’s stoic but powerful bass line, and Townshend’s masterful guitar handling. But Townshend reveals that his mind went briefly in the opposite direction, immediately urging the others to join him on the road with more touring. “Without grief, in its usual manifestation, I had to find a different way to deal with my loss. You can say I was in denial. Keith had been a pain in the ass, but he had also been a constant joy. Once he’d gone, something irreplaceable was missing…all that was left was a sense of his ghost, playing the drums, laughing as he played ‘Who Are You’ with his earphones on fire.”
After Moon’s funeral, Phil Collins, then touring with Genesis, called and offered his services as drummer. Other percussionists offer their help as well, but Townshend had already made up his mind that Moon’s successor would be Kenny Jones. At about that same time Townshend meets Sex Pistol member Johnny Rotten, who is discussed for the lead role in the film version of Quadrophenia. Townshend reveals that shortly afterwards, tension is already brewing in the studio between Daltrey and newcomer Jones. Daltrey regarded Jones as talented and solid, but not made of the same energetic stuff as Moon. But for Townshend, Moon’s sudden and painful exit becomes a kind of liberation, and he sees the band as able finally to move on into its next chapter.
Along the way Townshend weaves the backstory of his love life, his marriages and his affairs into the musical progression of the band and his own creativity. Like many newly-mellowed rock icons of the era, he seeks neither to sugar-coat the facts nor justify his bad behavior, and he admits to being a selfish oaf and a bore on many occasions.
Though in the end, Quadrophenia was met with warm—but not overly enthusiastic reviews—it nevertheless marked the end of one era of The Who’s music, and the inevitable start, perhaps, of another. Musically, Quadrophenia strikes a rich chord, just as all previous Who albums had, but its production was plagued with technical problems from the start. Only in the 1990s would the whole Quadrophenia concept get repackaged and rebooted with some degree of success. (The Who recently concluded a summer 2013 European Quadrophenia tour built largely around an updated music and multi-media production as a celebration of the Quadrophenia era.)
Further, in the book Townshend explores his own growing concerns and recurring fears throughout the 1970s that The Who might grow old—too old, in fact—to remain connected effectively to the band’s roots in the subculture that was the youth movement of the 1960s. Even by the beginning of the 1970s young people were moving in a variety of directions—the American and European hippies, the expanding anti-Vietnam War movements, the more radical processes found in the Black Power and underground groups, and the bohemian and utopian movements. Then, to confound the experts who thought they understood “youth culture,” millions of American and British young adults became conservatives, or at least conformists, making much of the ethos embraced by bands like The Who seem irrelevant even as the songs continued to pay royalties.
Still, in the end, the music mattered most, and The Who did endure, even well into the aught years of this century. Like the biggest of the supergroups, The Who gets it moments of worldwide iconic durability and commercial nostalgia—Super Bowls, Olympic Games, hurricane relief concerts. As for those dozens of sprawling rock documentaries and pop music histories I mention at the beginning of this essay, The Who’s long shadow, and especially that of Townshend, stretches across some part of each of these retrospectives. To the very last, all of these rockers make at least some mention of Townshend’s deep and inescapable influence.
One phrase Thursday Review readers may tire of seeing me employ in reviews is “a fast read,” or, sometimes the word “readability.” Some books are dense, some books are slow—which is not to say they are bad, merely slower than others. I gave up on Andersen’s bio of Mick Jagger after only a couple of days. It was slow, and pointless, and had little to do with the music. Townshend’s book is a fast read. It was delivered to my door on Wednesday, and by Sunday morning at 11:45 I had completed nearly all 500 pages. And it had everything to do with the music.
The book illuminates Townshend’s restless energy through the decades, and we see that there is no artistic or creative impulse left behind—art, graphic design, theater, film and television, recording technology, books and publishing, classical and baroque music, opera, charity and philanthropy, political understanding and awareness, religion and spirituality. The central thread, however, is that great fusion that was rock and roll—swing, country, jazz, R&B—melded together as only he could envision it; energies and frustrations of youth, a bit of distortion, a touch of feedback, and a few hundred smashed guitars along the way.
In this sense Pete Townshend has few rivals from his generation.
*Other sources used for this article include Before I Get Old: The Story of The Who, Dave Marsh; St. Martin’s Press, 1983. The title of this article is an excerpt from a 1970 interview Townshend gave to Rolling Stone. The full quote, as cited in Who I Am, is as follows: “I believe that rock can do anything, it’s the ultimate vehicle for everything. It’s the ultimate vehicle for saying anything, for putting down anything, for building up anything, for killing and creating. It’s the absolute ultimate vehicle for self-destruction, which is the most incredible thing, because there’s nothing as effective as that, not in terms of art, or at least what we call art.”)
See more at: http://www.thursdayreview.com/TheWho.html
By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review Contributing Writer
(Originally posted April 11, 2013) In 1960, the Beatles traveled to Hamburg, Germany for a two-month engagement at the Indra Club. The group’s members were very excited as this work represented their first somewhat legitimate employment a band. Their part-time manager at the time, Allen Williams, had signed a contract with Bruno Koschmider, a German businessman who owned the Indra and other clubs. British bands were the rage in Hamburg and Koschmider had been anxious to secure another group from Britain.
However, Koschmider was also a gangster whose rackets included prostitution and drugs. His clubs were the among the seediest in Hamburg’s Reeperbahn district. The Reeperbahn was intersected by two main streets—the Grosse Freiheit (Great Freedom) and the Herbertstrasse. The area was packed with dive bars, clip joints, all-night partiers and loud music. There were also enough garish brothels and prowling girls to convince any young man he was in a sexual candy store. The Beatles, who had never been outside of Britain, were not immune to the temptations.
One of the most popular British performers in Hamburg was Tony Sheridan, who died in February at the age of 74. Born in Norwich in May, 1940, Sheridan was an accomplished musician, but the raucous German crowds—usually fueled with copious amounts of alcohol—were more impressed with Sheridan’s energy and stamina. He was also known for playing his music at an ear-busting volume. Nothing was considered over-the-top on the Reeperbahn. Sheridan’s loud, wild performances matched the raw intensity, bright neon and blaring sounds of the Reeperbahn. Over time, Sheridan developed a devoted cult following in Hamburg.
The Beatles were certainly aware of Sheridan’s prowess on the guitar and his popularity in Hamburg (his favorite guitar at the time was a Martin Dreadnought). After their own shows the Beatles would walk over to the Top Ten Club to take in Sheridan’s act. The Top Ten was owned by Peter Eckhorn, a rival of Bruno Koschmider. The Beatles approached Koschmider about paying them more money and providing them with better living accommodations. Since their arrival in Hamburg they had been living in two small, dank cubicles behind the screen of the Bambi Kino, a seedy theater owned by Koschmider. He rejected their requests out of hand.
However, the Beatles weren’t just sitting in the audience at Sheridan’s shows. Eventually, he invited them to participate as his backing band, an offer they eagerly accepted. Their contract with Koschmider forbade employment in any venues not owned by him. They were naïve enough to believe they could get away with it. Thus he turned down their pleas for increased pay and better rooms. On the other hand, the Beatles weren’t paid when they performed with Sheridan. They did it for the love of it.
Koshmider made the next move. Infuriated at the Beatles refusal to back down on their legitimate requests for better working conditions, he began using his connections to the police. Hamburg had a curfew requiring minors to be off the streets by 10:00 p.m. George Harrison was only seventeen and a minor under the law. The Beatles’ work schedule required him to be out long after the curfew deadline. He also had no work permit. The cops ordered George to be out of the country in 24 hours. Having no other choice, George complied. Within a few weeks, the rest of the group were back in Liverpool, exhausted and disillusioned.
After several weeks of moping, they gathered themselves together and began playing gigs in and around Liverpool again, performing in venues such as the Casbah, the Cavern and Litherland Town Hall. Audiences familiar with the Beatles realized they weren’t the same group as the one that left for Hamburg four months earlier. The music was tighter and they were much more confident onstage.
In March, 1961, the Beatles returned to Hamburg and contracted to play at Eckhorn’s Top Ten club for two months. But they had moved up in the world and were listed on playbills as co-stars with Tony Sheridan. The group also had a change in personnel as Stuart Sutcliffe, their erstwhile bassist, left the group in order to pursue his art studies in Hamburg and marry his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr. Paul McCartney then became the group’s bass player.
The Beatles pairing with Tony Sheridan proved to be a bonanza for Eckhorn. The Top Ten was packed with people and their shows were described as energy-charged extravaganzas. Sheridan enjoyed working with the Beatles as their vocal harmonies—and intensity—impressed him and complemented his act. He also respected their improving musicianship. But he was still far ahead of the Beatles in that regard and adding his guitar to their sets pushed their music into overdrive.
Before the Beatles left Germany to return to Liverpool, they were seen at the Top Ten by Bert Kaempfert, a German bandleader who was moving into talent representation. Kaempfert was intrigued by the Beatles but he was more impressed with Tony Sheridan. He signed Sheridan to a recording contract with the Beatles as his backing band. They were, of course, overjoyed by the news. A number of songs were recorded and “My Bonnie” was selected for release. On the label, the Beatles were listed as The Beat Brothers, the collective name used for all of Tony Sheridan’s backing bands in the early 1960s. They were paid 300 deutschmark, about $75.00 at the time. Eventually, the record sold 100,000 copies in Germany.
According to Beatle legend, Brian Epstein first heard of the group when a boy named Raymond Jones walked into Epstein’s NEMS record store in Liverpool and asked for a copy of “My Bonnie” featuring a local group called the Beatles. However, the story is almost certainly not true. The Beatles themselves frequented NEMS to listen to records. The stores’ salesgirls also knew the group. NEMS also had posters on the walls announcing Beatles’ appearances. And Mersey Beat, a local paper covering the Liverpool music scene, put news of the Beatles record contract on its front page. Mersey Beat was selling very well at NEMS and the paper’s founder Bill Harry, had been asked a question by Epstein–“What about this group the Beatles?” After making further inquiries regarding the group, Epstein decided to see them performing. He did so at the Cavern Club on November 9, 1961, and, of course, the rest is history.
It’s now been over fifty years since the Beatles raucous days in Hamburg and their collaboration with Tony Sheridan. By serving as an unofficial mentor for the group, Sheridan influenced the Beatles early sound and helped them hone their musicianship and stage presence. Against the backdrop of the “Great Freedom” and the Reeperbahn, the Beatles began to gel as a band.