Book Reviews

Thro’ My Eyes: A Memoir | Iain Matthews with Ian Clayton | Route | 01.01.19

I picked up Iain Matthews’ autobiography during the break between two sets at an intimate Matthews’ Southern Comfort gig in an unassuming Pontefract pub, having just witnessed a rather fine opening set from the vantage point of a front row seat. I don’t think I had any intention of buying this book or any book for that matter, having far too many piled up on the arm of my sofa at home awaiting attention, yet there was something that drew me to this book. Perhaps it was due to the fact that both Iain Matthews and his ghost writer/helper Ian Clayton were present at the pub on this particular night; it could have had something to do with the sudden realisation half way through the band’s opening set that I knew little about its subject, other than the fact that he was in an early incarnation of Fairport Convention, that his was the first voice to be heard on the band’s torchlight song “Meet on the Ledge”, that his next band had a smash hit with Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, that his other band Plainsong appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test one evening just as I was preparing books for school the next morning. Added to these hazy recollections was the memory of seeing a later incarnation of Matthews’ Southern Comfort more recently at a winter festival in Skeggy of all places and that I actually got to speak to him backstage for a good half hour. What else did I need to know? Well lots apparently.  The title of Thro’ My Eyes is taken from an early song on Iain’s debut solo record If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes, the LP with the swirling Vertigo label that’s currently on the player as I write, and suggests the book’s intention from the start, to explore a life very much lived from the author’s personal perspective. It’s pretty much a warts and all memoir, which takes us on a journey from an early Northern childhood in both Scunthorpe and Barton-upon-Humber, through to the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street in the ‘Swinging Sixties’, and on through his earliest involvement in music, to his middle years in the States and more recently that of mainland Europe. One or two loose ends are neatly tied up for us, such as the question of the McDonald/Matthews, Ian/Iain confusion, which is all explained here and is notably far less pretentious than initially imagined.  Though the story takes us from one exciting episode to another, where we see evidence of Iain’s brushes with a veritable list of high profile musicians (Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Richard Thompson, Eric Taylor), there’s also an inherent sadness that looms in the shadows, occasionally present on the songwriter’s furrowed brow in some of the pictures included and sometimes in the words of his songs. Songs are an important part of Iain Matthews’ story and each chapter here is prefaced by lyrics from his prolific back catalogue. If like me, you have the rare ability to multi-task and are not particularly fazed by listening to music as you read, having a handful of Iain’s records by the player can be useful.  Iain can be candid in his revelations and refuses to shy away from his own insecurities, his open confessions of possible family neglect whilst in search of his own muse, his disappointments, his distrust in others, his episodic relationships and his mistakes and miscalculations along the way. This is an honourable quality throughout the book although occasionally you want to shake him. Through the decades though, we see a singular artistic bent and a desire to make good music and write great songs, both alone and in the company of others, a pursuit that continues to this day and that will no doubt go on until mortality becomes a tangible issue.

Nothing is Real | David Hepworth | Penguin | 01.01.19

When David Hepworth ventured into the world of books after years of writing insightful articles and essays on all aspects of popular music, I wonder if he realised just what he was getting into? Barely a couple of years into this relatively new enterprise and we see Hepworth’s instantly identifiable bright orange dust jackets standing proud on the shelves in every good book shop; three already published and one more on its way in 2019.  There’s a very good reason for this and it has nothing to do with the fact that orange is the new anything in particular, but it’s because Hepworth knows his stuff and therefore we trust him. Let’s face it, he’s had plenty of practice writing about music, establishing and then editing magazines, broadcasting on both TV and radio and more recently through podcasts, whilst backing up his musical knowledge with at least 20,000 records at his disposal. He’s keen to listen and more importantly he’s keen to observe first hand some of the great moments in pop’s wild history, whilst you and I watch from the comfort of our armchairs. Possibly the most memorable of Hepworth’s countless encounters was with Bob Geldof at Wembley Stadium on a hot midsummer’s day in the middle of the Eighties, just as he dropped the f word mid-afternoon on live national TV, during which Live Aid was making history.  If 1971 Never a Dull Moment talks about Hepworth’s own personal annus mirabilis, a notion enjoyed all the more if you happen to be at least half way on his side – just one glimpse at my own long player archive soon reveals that we very much share this notion – and Uncommon People discusses the finite era of the Rock Star from Little Richard to Kurt Cobain, then Nothing is Real, the third orange-covered Hepworth offering, addresses our misconceptions and misunderstanding of such things as the function of pop managers, the importance of good drummers, the ridiculously over populated world of pop genres and subgenres (and dare I say, sub subgenres) to what we should play at funerals, the woeful demise of the record as an object and the record shop as an institution, each subject leaving this reader nodding in approval at the end of each chapter.  Not quite as exhaustive as either 1971 or Uncommon People, yet equally enjoyable, which you could possibly get through in one sitting if you have the time to spare. Collected in this slim volume, Hepworth’s short essays are largely informative, to the point and with no apparent sniff of sycophantic hero worship, yet none of his views come across as highly critical either. Rather, he’s an observer who likes to simply point out some of the things pop and rock fans may have overlooked along the way and as would be expected, there’s no shortage of lists, the music buff’s essential ingredient.  Although The Beatles figure large at the beginning of this book, the title in fact borrowed from one of the band’s many masterpieces, the content has a much broader canvas. However, Hepworth’s insights reflected in earlier essays do point towards little patience for those who undervalue the band’s importance in the popular music arena. The bold and sweeping statement printed on the cover, that the Fabs were indeed underrated, is a good place to start – what follows are notions delivered with equal authority.

Viral Verses | Art in Exceptional Times | Borthwick Press | 03.10.20

With a dedication to the late Edward Tudor ‘Ted’ Crum, a victim of COVID 19 and a friend to some of the contributors to this collection of poems and illustrations, Viral Verses is a gathering of empathetic writers and illustrators, each with a shared vision of navigating through an unprecedented period in our lives.  Edited by Nicholas Linstead and Stephen Linstead, this collection has been published in aid of NHS Charities Together and to highlight a true sense of togetherness.  With an introduction by Margaret Drabble, who eloquently reminds us of the power, beauty and importance of poetry, Viral Verses captures human empathy at a time when such things are needed most.  Being locked down and locked up behind closed doors with only our thoughts, our music and time on our hands to catch up on all those neglected books we’ve been meaning to read, a vital ingredient is missing, that of social contact with friends, relations, neighbours and potential new acquaintances, all of which we take for granted in less uncertain times.  Viral Verses endeavours to make up for this by demonstrating unity in both words and pictures, with a real sense of a combined effort.  With so many diverse voices, of differing angles, thought waves and viewpoints between each writer, this book brings a sense of variety both in its individual styles and its execution.  Mike Harding’s contributions are accompanied by exquisite drawings by Jed Grimes, whilst Jessie Summerhayes elects to accompany hers with her own minimalist illustrations.  These illustrations range from simple cartoons, the odd pair of slippers for instance, or a needle and thread, together with a few monochrome photographs, to Alan Andrews’ vivid poster art and Bryan Ledgard’s Manga-inspired ‘bone-handled knife’, artworks that offer a broad spectrum and all of which serve to bring vivid images to these carefully constructed words.  Ray Hearne begins a short poem by staring at a painting on his wall by his friend John Law, while John in turn reminds Ray (and the rest of us) of some of the things that made us what we are today, from the games we played on the streets to such school day treats as Jubblies, Kali and Arrowroot Rock, while watching Captain Pugwash, the Flowerpotmen and Watch with Mother on the box; things we like to recall, especially in these bleak times.  Heath Common describes Powis Square in the early hours of the morning as the Swinging Sixties reaches its conclusion, bumping into a Performance-era Mick Jagger, while meditating on the outgoing Brian Jones and the Pink Fairies, with Marc Bolan “living down the street”, illustrated in contemporary style by Bryan Ledgard’s hand.  Evocative stuff indeed.  If times like these force us to look back with a sense of nostalgia and longing, then they also make us sit up and take note.  The pandemic is addressed head on throughout, in such poems as “Pandemic Low Tide in Holderness” by Stephen Linstead, “Evenings in Isolation” by Violet Hatch, “Love in Lockdown” by Gareth Griffith, “Oh Land! World Pandemic” by Adekunle Ridwan and “Lockdown” by David Driver, an optimistic and funny take on the predicament we find ourselves in.  Joe Solo’s title alone, “This is Our Blitz” speaks volumes in just four words, accompanied by Alan Andrews’ bleak and doomed illustration.  Then there’s the NHS, our heroes in this drama, who are revered in verse.  Ralph McTell, no stranger to verse, reminds us of the “Masks and Gowns”, while Paul Thwaites spells it out clearly, that the letters N H S stand for much more than National Health Service, poignantly illustrated with an angel, courtesy of the hand of Graham Ibbeson.  Singling out such poems hopefully does no disservice to the others.  We often hear the words “we’re all in this together” as if we’re all living through the same common experience, which of course we’re not.  I’m sure a government minister, a school teacher, a nurse, a labourer or a retired grandparent are all experiencing completely different things, not to mention the homeless man on the street or those stranded far from home.  All these poems and accompanying illustrations are equally relevant, in that they express singular and individual experiences, yet there’s a good chance that the reader will empathise with many of them.  When things begin to improve and we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, quite possibly marked ‘new normal’, Viral Verses will still be just as relevant and important and therefore will make a valuable addition to your bookshelf.

Luca Chino Ferrari | Glen Sweeney’s Book of Alchemies | November Books | 25.02.21

More of a scrapbook than a rock biography and seemingly devoid of any serious editing, judging by the amount of missing or incorrectly spelled words and the occasional faux pas (weren’t the indecisive ‘vultures’ in The Jungle Book and not Dumbo as stated? but that’s me being far too picky for my own good).   This collection of writings, poems, lyrics and interviews, gathered together in one volume gives us an insight into the mind of Glen Sweeney, leader and driving force behind one of the most unusual and clearly out of step bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s.   Glen Sweeney’s Book of Alchemies looks at the Third Ear Band’s origins from the early ‘underground’ bands Giant Sun Trolley and Hydrogen Jukebox, through to the various revisits by subsequent combos in the band’s post heyday years.   Some of the bitterness that lurks behind each phase of the band’s existence creeps in through the interviews, conducted between 1996 and 2019 with various ex-members of the band, together with one or two of the key protagonists involved in the band’s colourful story.  We find evidence of this when reading between the lines as well as when reading the actual lines themselves, most prominently through the account of founder member, the late oboist Paul Minns, who makes his feelings known with little ambiguity, notably when he refers to his former band mate as both the ‘founder and the destroyer’ of the band and Al Stewart as bordering on the ‘saccharine’ and being ‘as musically interesting as cardboard’.  We get the feeling that the members of the Third Ear Band were at loggerheads with themselves, with the authorities and with their peers alike.  In one or two cases, you imagine that the author and one time manager of the band, is having to prize information out of his interviewees with a crowbar, Sweeney’s former muse Carolyn Looker for instance, whose almost monosyllabic responses reveal little.  With the author following a different set of principles that that of a regular band biographer, we find much repetition in the interviews and writings, therefore many of the band’s key moments are revisited time and again throughout the book, such as the band’s notable turning point, when they had their equipment nicked, which resulted in the band becoming a totally acoustic band.  There’s only so many times you can go over that incident, although later in the book there’s a suggestion that it might have been a deliberate ‘in-house’ job.  The book includes around fifty illustrations, including photographs of the band, posters, flyers and ads, together with a section on Glen Sweeney’s playful soundbites.  There’s also a detailed discography and an extensive day-by-day chronology, which provides a useful timeline of events, especially for serious students of the underground movement of the period.  The main bonus for Third Ear Band fans though, is the accompanying six-track CD, which features the pieces that would have made up The Dragon Wakes, the band’s legendary and previously unreleased third album which would have followed Alchemy, Air Earth Fire Water and the Third Ear Band’s Music From Macbeth, the soundtrack to Roman Polanski’s film version of the Scottish play, had the record company not dumped them.

Richard Thompson with Scott Timberg | Beeswing | Faber | 01.06.21

In the closing few pages of Beeswing, Richard Thompson regales us with an outline of eight dreams, dreams as surreal as you might expect from the subconscious of an already creative mind.  Thompson’s dreams might take on a slightly obscure edge, yet they probably don’t compare at all with the musician’s real life adventures outlined in the previous pages; the rise of a celebrated rock guitarist, the beginnings of a soon to become highly prolific singer-songwriter and the role as co-architect of a brand new genre in popular music.  Coming in at around 250 pages, Beeswing covers Thompson’s early years as a young guitar slinger just starting out, his short stint as a founder member of Fairport Convention, his meeting with his future wife Linda, who would go on to help form one of the most memorable of musical partnerships in the history of British Folk Rock, to his conversion to Islam, which would in turn lead to the couple facing some of the big questions on faith and spirituality.  Candid and honest, Thompson covers some considerable ground over the fourteen chapters, each with such titles as To Jump Like Alice, Instead of Bleeding and Tuppenny Bangers and Damp Squibs, as Beeswing takes us on a journey through the annals of the sometimes swinging, often very much underground, London music scene of the late 1960s, where playing in a band was an essential pursuit and dressing as a human fly a short lived side-line.  Rubbing shoulders with the rock fraternity’s rich and famous would soon become the order of the day, although occasionally our folk hero might be struck with a sense of music snobbery, refusing to accept an invitation to Paul McCartney’s birthday party for instance, adhering to an ongoing disdain for anything that might be described as ‘pop’ music.  In just eight years Thompson made five albums with his band Fairport Convention, one poorly received solo effort and three acclaimed albums with his wife before taking a year away from music, whereupon he embarked on a bit of dodgy trading in antiques.  Throughout these pages Thompson speaks warmly of his family, albeit with some degree of paternal fear, his dad being a sort of Jack Regan of The Sweeney figure, a serving officer in the Met.  In contrast, he enjoyed the warmth of a kind and loving mother, who was always there for him, presumably on those occasions when his dad would grab him by the scruff of the neck while delivering the iconic phrase ‘you’re nicked sunshine’.  He speaks of a sister who not only played Elvis and Buddy Holly records, but a girl who ‘pitched her look’ somewhere between Julie Christie and Brigitte Bardot, even at the age of twelve.  If these less documented details of Thompson’s early life come as a revelation, it’s with the more familiar events such as the shows at the UFO club, the early incarnations of the bands he would help to form and the meeting with musicians who are now household names, that we find the benefits of Thompson’s vivid recollections.  His warm memories of both Sandy Denny and Martin Lamble and his working relationships with other band mates such as Ashley Hutchings and Dave Swarbrick add to the story we’ve all been fully absorbed with for some considerable time.  Fairport Convention had its fair share of tragedy, notably the devastating road crash that cost drummer Martin Lamble his life, together with Thompson’s American girlfriend Jeannie Franklyn, all of which left the rest of the band traumatised for some time afterwards, the effects of which are still felt half a century on.  Thompson handles the retelling with both humility and respect and fills in one or two gaps in a much told story.  Thompson puts his quill down somewhere in the hot summer of 1976, when living close to a Sufi community in rural Suffolk, before the Tour from Hell, a messy divorce and a fruitful solo career which continues to this day.  If ever we have the good fortune to come face to face with Richard Thompson, usually as an audience member at gigs and festivals up and down the country, we can detect a wry smirk on his face between songs, usually while delivering an engaging anecdote.  I can’t help but feel that Thompson wrote much of this memoir with that self same smirk.

Steve Spence | All Or Nothing: The Authorised Story of Steve Marriott | Omnibus Press | 15.06.21

There are evidently several Steve Marriotts, the one we remember attired in the most flamboyant of Carnaby Street suits in the midst of the so-called Swinging Sixties, whose garment bill well exceeded his earnings, then there’s the cockney Artful Dodger character, who we see being strangled by an elderly neighbour in the 1968 “Lazy Sunday Afternoon” promo film years ahead of the so called ‘pop video’.  Turning to soulful hard rock, there’s the diminutive rock n roller who tells a packed Fillmore East audience that during the band’s latest American tour that ‘we ain’t ‘arf had a gas this time.. it’s really been a gas’, before launching into a blistering “I Don’t Need No Doctor”. But what of the complete monster that went under the guise of ‘Melvin’, Marriott’s destructive drunken alter-ego, the man who would insult German audiences at a time when ‘don’t mention the war’ was the key to an otherwise harmonious European tour.  What of the drug-fuelled woman beater, the thief, the man who enjoyed hobnobbing with the infamous East End gangsters?  All or Nothing sets out to do what it says on the tin, to tell the full story, warts and all, a story so rich in the ups and the downs of one of the most fascinating, yet self-destructive characters in the story of rock and roll.  Steve Marriott was loved by some, hated by others and in some cases, both loved and hated at the same time.  Told through the testaments of those close to the singer, including immediate family members, ex-wives, friends, colleagues, fellow musicians, band mates and the heavies that he had the misfortune to become involved with, each linked by a running narrative by the author (in italics), who possibly overdoes it with the frequent reminders of what a certain monetary figure would be in ‘today’s money’, All or Nothing provides us with more than just a glimpse at the true nature of this tragic figure, whose short life matched his short frame and who was plagued by his own demons, which was ultimately matched by his own supreme talent; a fine musician, guitar player, song writer and the owner of one of the most alive and soulful voices in the history of popular music.

Rickie Lee Jones | Last Chance Texaco | Grove Press | 01.07.21

When Rickie Lee Jones emerged from the shadows in the mid to late 1970s to take her rightful place in the spotlight, bringing to our attention such songs as “Chuck E.’s in Love”, “Easy Money”, “Coolsville” and “The Last Chance Texaco”, little was known of her troubled back story, her formative years of growing up beneath the ‘pink and yellow and blue’ skies of the California desert, her wonderfully colourful vaudevillian grandparents, the various orphanages that were home to her parents, her subsequent dysfunctional family life, through to her various teenage rebellions and family tragedy, all of which would later play an important part in her personal journey into adulthood, with all the usual drug-fueled shenanigans and ongoing alternative hippie lifestyle.  In Last Chance Texaco; Chronicles of a Troubadour, the title taken from the song of the same name but also the premise that the singer, songwriter, chanteuse and relentless beret wearer, spent most of her life in ‘cars, vans and buses’, proceeds to pour out her earlier memories with some force, in fact mention of her critically acclaimed eponymous debut LP of 1979 doesn’t get a whiff until chapter eighteen, more than three-quarters of the way through.  Within these pages, Jones is candid, honest and almost casual in her descriptions of growing up and her subsequent brushes with fame, her apparent disdain of being compared to the likes of Joni Mitchell, claiming the only similarity to be that the two are female blondes, together with her open proclamation of an almost obsessive love of The Beatles and West Side Story. Along the way, we are also allowed to eavesdrop on a series of intense romances, on/off relationships, one night stands and brief encounters with the likes of Tom Waits, Lowell George and Van Morrison among others.

Bernie Marsden | Where’s My Guitar | 4thestate | 15.07.21

Often rock memoirs give the impression that This is Spinal Tap is more of a factual documentary than a spoof comedy film and former Whitesnake guitarist Bernie Marsden offers nothing to dispel this notion.  Where’s My Guitar? subtitled ‘The Inside Story of British Rock and Roll’ spares us a lot of the mythology associated with the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle, of wrecking hotel rooms, the mafia-like associations with music mogul gangsters, the frequent drug-fuelled orgies and the life expectancy of a mere one score and seven, but instead gives us a glimpse into the life of one of the good ‘uns, a nice bloke with tales from the periphery.  Bernie might have resembled Rory Gallagher and shared a love of guitars with the best of them, occasionally rubbing shoulders with such rock and blues icons as BB King, Robert Plant and Elton John, but unlike some of his peers, Bernie always managed to escape the same household name credentials.  In these fifteen chapters, the Buckinghamshire-born guitarist tells his story in a simple, easy to follow narrative and is always gracious when talking about the people who he has worked with, often giving thanks to those unsung heroes who offered help along the way.  He speaks with reverence to some, such as former Deep purple luminaries and fellow musicians Ian Paice and Jon Lord, though occasionally you get the impression he’d really like to wipe the floor with them.  He speaks of his mum and George Harrison in the same sentence and makes no bones about sharing a swimming pool with the two ‘A’ in Abba.  It’s a fun read and we get to know a little about some of the rare humility that does actually exist in some corners of the rock and roll world.

David Hepworth | Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There | Bantam Press | 01.08.21

In some respects I wish I’d noticed the Anglo/American playlist at the end before setting about reading David Hepworth’s latest tome, which lists twenty-five albums that effectively form the soundtrack to this engaging story.  Those albums provide an insight into precisely what the former Old Grey Whistle Test presenter and music magazine editor is talking about throughout this highly entertaining book, a summary of the dominance that the British pop music industry had upon the unsuspecting United States of America and just how a small island could possibly have such an effect on a much larger one, thrilling a vast audience made up of people who would find some difficulty in locating the UK on a map.  Adding to the ever expanding splash of orange to one section of my bookshelf, Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There follows the most excellent 1971: Never a Dull Moment, Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars, Nothing is Real: The Beatles Were Underrated and Other Sweeping Statements About Pop and A Fabulous Creation: How the LP Saved Our Lives, which once again highlights the privilege of having been born in these times.  The book is peppered with Hepworth’s familiar wit, the writing is both informative and arresting and there’s always the sense of a keen eye for detail as we are taken back to the 1950s, then on through the rise of Beatlemania, to the hard rocking bands of the late Sixties and onward into the realms of Glam, Punk and the New Wave, before favour dwindles with the arrival of Britpop, when America could once again return to its own insular preferences.  Conquering America wasn’t an easy task, though many had tried, most of whom returned with their tails between their legs, their pride damaged and with no small measure of resentment, while others rose to unbelievable heights, prospering both in popularity and in financial rewards.  Hepworth sets the scene with an outline of the relationship between the two nations before and during the second world war, tells of the circumstances that allowed a band such as The Beatles to flourish in the wake of one of the country’s darkest moments and reveals how the British influence eventually faded as other factors entered the fray.  A thoroughly enjoyable and highly readable account by one of our most respected music writers.

Barney Hoskyns | God Is In The Radio | Omnibus Press | 15.08.21

There’s always something of the unbridled enthusiasm whenever I read anything by the music writer and journalist Barney Hoskyns, whether it be in respect to his invaluable tomes on Tom Waits or The Band, the sunny reflections of the Laurel Canyon scene or the small town talk of the upstate New York retreats, or indeed the abundance of articles that have appeared over the years in the music press, many of which have now been collected in the highly informative Rock’s Backpages archive.  Barney knows his stuff, that’s for sure and for God is in the Radio, the author gathers some of his best writing from the last forty years, covering a broad musical palette, from Bacharach to Bjork, Sinatra to Spiritualized and Wonder to Winehouse.  I don’t agree with everything Barney says though, in fact I quite enjoy having my mini battles when his opinion becomes a little on the cutting side, when he sings the praises of Judee Sill for instance, but only by comparing her voice favourably over ‘Joni’s warbling of Chelsea Mornings’.  I found these little put-downs more so in Waiting for the Sun, though some of those sun-dwelling rich kids do perhaps deserve a good dressing down.  I’ve learned how to read Barney though, perhaps in the same way that I’ve learned how to listen to his Rock’s Backpages cohort Mark Pringle, who on one memorable occasion drooled deliriously over a little known soul singer’s version of “Jealous Guy”, while making sure he spat out ‘it pisses all over Lennon’s version’ with theatrical venom.  The way forward is to agree to disagree.  God is in the Radio, the title borrowed from a Queens of the Stone Age song, is full of surprises, with warm notes on Sandy Denny and Gillian Welch, a memorable meet up with Robert Wyatt and his wife ‘caretaker, collaborator and muse’ Alfreda Benge at their Lincolnshire home, an insightful ten-page appraisal of Laura Nyro and so much more besides.  It has its touching moments, none more so touching than the inclusion of a sketch of the author by his own mother from around 1964, which I’m sure most of us would like at the beginning of our book. It’s a book that can be digested occasionally or fully feasted upon in one long sitting, with equally satisfying results and with no need of either hors d’oeuvres nor a dessert.

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike | You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone: The Biography of Nico | Faber | 01.09.21

The first thing you notice about Jennifer Otter Bickerdike when you hear her voice on any of the many podcasts available or see her on a random videocast or film documentary, or indeed if you meet her in real life, in all her three dimensional splendour,  is just how passionate she can be about the subject under discussion.  The subject could be Henry Rollins, Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis or even Britney Spears, then again it could be the importance of the vinyl record in our culture for instance, or any number of other pressing matters, either way, Jennifer seems to have no apparent ‘off switch’ when it comes to throwing in the odd whoop of delight or the occasional loud and theatrical ‘OMG’, she is enthusiasm personified.  Jennifer reminds me of a modern day Lilian Roxon, continuously updating entries in her famous Rock Encyclopaedia only in today’s language.  Turning her attention to Christa Päffgen, otherwise known as Nico, the one time model, actress and rock chanteuse, Jennifer tells the unique story of a troubled artist lost in a strange world of ultra-creative people in some key moments in mid-twentieth century history.  From her earliest days in Nazi Germany, through her burgeoning career as a model and movie star, we follow the sometimes grim path that Nico traversed in order to become one of the most familiar faces on the underground scene, inadvertently getting in the way of Lou Reed’s ego (while competing with his determination to be the sole front person of the Velvet Underground), and before that, being unceremoniously brushed under the carpet by the French actor Alain Delon, who appeared to have trouble facing up to his paternal responsibilities.  The story is told with sensitivity and empathy, backed up with factual evidence, while avoiding obvious sensationalism and unnecessary mythologizing.  Jennifer presents the story of one of rock’s true enigmas with responsibility and with a keen eye for detail.  You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone, the title taken from a lyric in Nico’s song “Afraid” from her 1970 Desertshore period, is never bogged down with clever intellectualism or fanciful language, but rather sticks to a true account in plain English that can be enjoyed by all.  I read this book quickly and to the soundtrack of Nico, from her iconic debut with the Velvet Underground, through each of her solo albums and with the occasional glimpse at online film footage, coming away with a much better understanding of this otherwise misunderstood icon. 

Michael Billington | Celestial Light | Epona Publishing | 2022

If you ask any Amazing Blondel fan when they first discovered the band, and this could be anytime between 1969 and the present day, they would probably tell you exactly where they were standing.  I was standing outside Ken’s Swap Shop, a junk shop along St Sepulchre Gate West in Doncaster, a short walk from the town centre one way, and a short walk from home the other, staring at the cover painting of the England LP, a very English street scene featuring the band, created by artist Colin Carr.  I was about fifteen, the band was about three and here we are, fifty years later with hardly a week having gone by without at least one Blondel song springing to mind if not to the turntable.  Michael Billington is a fellow fan, who went at least one step further, not only writing the first book on the band, but also joining a band of a similar nature, Rebec who played the same sort of music to that of Blondel.  The music of The Amazing Blondel, sometimes just Amazing Blondel and later shortened further to Blondel, is hard to describe, but simple to understand once you’ve heard it.  It’s not folk music exactly, though there are certainly elements of folk in there, nor is it the sort of singer songwriter material of the band’s contemporaries back in the early 1970s.  Early English Classical music is closer, though the musicians have each wandered in and out of the areas of Rock, Soul and Motown and even a more pop oriented music in later years.  Later, there was even a song that stretched the band further when they had a go at something you might associate with Benedictine Monks, delivered in Latin to boot.  Blondel are clearly not The Fall.   Maybe not, but like The Fall, they have a sort of cult following, where their music might be sneered at, yet to a fan, there’s nothing quite like them.  Bump into a Blondel fan and you’ll soon be comparing notes on chamber maids, chastity belts and Lincolnshire’s country lanes and green and verdant fields, or maybe how to blow into a crumhorn.  Michael Billington knows all this, even how to blow into a crumhorn, and captures the essence of the Amazing Blondel from their early days in bands such as The Dimples, Gospel Garden and Methuselah to the various incarnations of the later band.  The author spoke to the right people for the book, John Gladwin, Terry Wincott and Eddie Baird, the key players in the band’s history, Chris Blackwell, the man who signed them to his Island record label just as the 1960s morphed into the 1970s, and even the model who appeared on the cover of the first Blondel album, Erika Bergmann.  Celestial Light, named for the band’s most magnificent song, is no mighty tome, in fact you could possibly get through it in one sitting, just 159 pages tops, yet it’s main purpose I would imagine, is to serve as a digest, rather than a full blown epic involving what the band had for dinner, a succinct reference book to thumb through the next time you fancy another run through of the Fantasia Lindum suite.

PP Arnold | Soul Survivor | Nine Eight Books | 2022

There’s a bit of footage of the Small Faces performing “Tin Soldier” on a French TV show back in 1967, which features a guest appearance by one Patricia Ann Cole, aka  PP Arnold, who looks for all intents and purposes like a female version of Jimi Hendrix, albeit without the guitar.  The outfit she wears could have been purchased from the very same London boutique on Carnaby Street regularly visited by the Seattle Rock God, yet her smile and her voice are very much her own.  It’s always difficult to take your eyes off Steve Marriott under any circumstances, except when PP Arnold steps into the frame, even if she is deliberately out of focus; she has that sort of mesmerising presence.  Best known perhaps for her reading of an early Cat Stevens number, “The First Cut is the Deepest”, which became her first hit in the UK, Pat began her career in music as an ‘Ikette’, one of the backing singers/dancers for Ike and Tina Turner’s live revue, which hit ‘swinging’ London in the middle of the decade.  She has a tale to tell, one that gives eager readers a glimpse into the lurid world of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, yet told from a relatively safe distance.  She was there, she loved, she lost, she witnessed and as the book title suggests, she survived to tell the tale.  Obviously there’s been the good times, as illustrated in that infectious smile captured on that French TV performance, but then there’s been tragedy, eloquently revealed within the pages of this memoir.  The first lady of Andrew Oldham’s Immediate label, Pat’s voice was soon singled out and given its rightful place in popular music, delivered in her very own distinctive style, evolved from her American Gospel roots, but augmented by a uniquely British modernist edge.  Her first album release on the label boldly made claim to her First Lady status, a reputation further emphasised by the time of her second and perhaps more explorative Kafunta album a year later, which featured a couple of Beatles songs and the Beach Boys’ timeless “God Only Knows”.  Even at this stage, there was already a story ready for the telling, but there was more to come.  Soul Survivor is a page turner, with pages that turn easily and with surprises around each corner, some revelations difficult to write.  During the Q&A session at the recent CAT Club presentation in Pontefract, the singer would dodge certain difficult questions by signposting the audience to the book.  ‘Go read the book’ she quipped, followed by her now familiar chuckle.  I imagine the Texas-born singer feels uncomfortable talking openly about some things in her past, but perhaps also feels a need to get this stuff down in writing.  During a second presentation and book signing the following afternoon at the nearby Pontefract Library, the singer once again focused her attention on the early days with Ike and Tina, at one point demonstrating the ‘Shag’, a move that would effectively close the shows as the band shuffled (or shagged) off stage.  Despite her age, let’s say the same number as a famous 60s address on Sunset Strip, Pat still looks youthful, still has a twinkle in her eye and still giggles often.  This is surprising once we learn of the turbulent a life she has lived, the abuse she’s suffered and the losses she’s had to bear.  I think in the end though, this comes down to the realisation that even after all these years, all these traumas, PP Arnold still has Soul and she has evidently survived to tell the tale.

Tex Austin | Rantings of the Loon Pant King | The Book Guild | 2023

There’s something of the Zelig figure to Tex Austin, or maybe even Forrest Gump perhaps.  He appears to have been there at some of the key points of the 20th century, not just moments relating to the world of rock and roll, but also his brushes with the rag trade during the so-called Swinging Sixties, the man who gave the world the infamous Loon Pant, those unfeasibly awkward fitting trousers that had plenty going on below the knee but hardly anything above (or was I wearing a size too small?)  Then there’s his brief venture into the soft drinks industry, vintage cars and further connections to rock royalty and perhaps even actual Royalty itself.  Tex, formerly Craig Austin, has a story to tell and tells it in an almost shambolic way, in fleeting reminiscences throughout the book, each chapter of his life squeezed into no more than four-pages at a time.  The language Tex uses and his own idiosyncratic phrasing, his frequent use of metaphors and clichés, nicknames and put downs, has the feel of being verbally relayed from the comfort of bar stool.  I’ve had late night conversations like this myself.  Having been a fan of the Amazing Blondel since the early 1970s, devouring each of the band’s albums along the way and as much information I could get my hands on, this memoir comes as a pleasant surprise and adds a little more meat to the band’s story.  Being a former band mate of Blondel’s John Gladwin and Terry Wincott during their formative years, playing in such bands as The Imps, Dimples and Gospel Garden, before turning up the volume for Methuselah, there was bound to be some juicy nuggets in here somewhere.  Discovering that Tex once shared a double bed with Wincott in a haunted house, was simply a hoot, which makes me see the crumhorn wielding minstrel in a completely different light.  By the author’s own admission, much of this account is flippant, irreverent, and tongue-in-cheek, yet it becomes more and more difficult to identify for sure where fact blurs into fiction or where real-life morphs into romanticism, but it all fits the pattern of what I imagine to be life on the road.  Candid in his descriptions of the seedier side of the rock and roll lifestyle, where brushes with the underbelly of society become commonplace, and for which Tex eagerly describes various scraps and punch ups along the way, there are one or two highly descriptive moments that could be considered too much information!   Illustrated with photographs, flyers and publicity shots, Rantings of the Loon Pant King is a fair roller coaster ride through the memory banks of one of rock and roll’s lesser known hellraisers.