Archive for June, 2011

Two Years of Musoscribe: Essays

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

To celebrate the two-year anniversary of this blog, I’m taking the opportunity to look back over some of the more than five hundred blog entries I’ve posted. I’ve conducted interviews, written essays and reviewed new albums, reissues and DVDs. Every now and then I take a break from interviews and reviews, instead penning various-degrees-of-idiosyncratic little essays. Here are some of my favorites.

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Two Years of Musoscribe: The Beatles

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

To celebrate the two-year anniversary of this blog, I’m taking the opportunity to look back over some of the more than five hundred blog entries I’ve posted. I’ve conducted interviews, written essays and reviewed new albums, reissues and DVDs. Like many people of my generation, The Beatles are my favorite group. Here’s a collection of Beatles-related writing I’ve done over the last couple of years.

  • The book The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones revives that age-old rivalry with wit and style.
  • John Borack’s wonderful book Life is What Happens looks at John Lennon from the points of view of music and memorabilia.
  • I saw Paul McCartney in concert in 2010. Here’s a concert review.
  • The box set Collaborations compiled the work that George Harrison and Ravi Shankar did together.
  • After George passed away, his friends put together the amazing, moving, entertaining Concert for George.
  • John Lennon Rare and Unseen is a cut above most DVD projects of its ilk.
  • I worked with Ken Brown on an unpublished manuscript covering his time with proto-Beatles group The Quarrymen. Here’s the lowdown on that unreleased project.
  • Modern instro-soul/funk group Soulive released their take on the Beatles on an album called Rubber Soulive.
  • But Booker T & the MGs did it first (and best) on McLemore Avenue.
  • Lots more Beatles-related stuff. Here’s nine more.

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Two Years of Musoscribe: Steven Wilson

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

To celebrate the two-year anniversary of this blog, I’m taking the opportunity to look back over some of the more than five hundred blog entries I’ve posted. I’ve conducted interviews, written essays and reviewed new albums, reissues and DVDs. I’ve written a great deal about Steven Wilson and his myriad projects, and I’ve been fortunate enough to interview him multiple times.

  • Here’s a review of the DVD Insurgentes, a sort of career-spanning video essay/meditation from Wilson.
  • One of Wilson’s longest-running projects is no-man; here’s a review of their Mixtaped DVD.
  • Another important SW project is Blackfield. The duo – fronted by Wilson and Israeli pop star Aviv Geffen released Live in NYC on DVD and CD.
  • In 2011 Blackfield released their third (and best) studio album Welcome to My DNA.
  • Wilson has been working on some fascinating remix/reissues of the King Crimson catalog; I discussed that with him in this interview.
  • Porcupine Tree does not allow audience recordings of their concerts. I asked Wilson to explain why, and his reply was interesting.
  • Porcupine Tree’s second official concert DVD Anesthetize documents their Fear of a Blank Planet tour.
  • Other Porcupine Tree material remains out of print; I discussed that topic with Wilson in this 2010 interview.
  • My first conversation (in-person!) with Wilson was during the PT Fear of a Blank Planet tour. Here’s that story.
  • I spoke with Wilson most recently during the tour to promote Porcupine Tree’s The Incident. Here’s that feature.

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Two Years of Musoscribe: Modern Prog

Monday, June 27th, 2011

To celebrate the two-year anniversary of this blog, I’m taking the opportunity to look back over some of the more than five hundred blog entries I’ve posted. I’ve conducted interviews, written essays and reviewed new albums, reissues and DVDs. Here’s a look at some modern progressive rock that has caught my attention.

  • Knight Area – A Dutch band, these guys lean in a very melodic direction; their album Realm of Shadows has gotten countless plays here.
  • Jakko M. Jakszyk – This guitarist/vocalist was a member of the 21st Century Schizoid Band, and on his solo album The Bruised Romantic Glee Club he corrals some Very Heavy Friends into helping him out. I’ll have an interview with him later this summer.
  • The Pär Lindh Project album Time Mirror is some seriously over-the-top symphonic prog, but it’s a helluva lot of fun. Enjoy the strong melodies, the high-flying virtuosity and have fun trying to count how many damn keyboards the guy uses. Wow.
  • Mars Hollow makes a convincing argument that not all worthwhile progressive rock comes from outside the USA. Their self-titled album mines a Rush-like vein. Their newest is out very soon, and I’m looking forward to checking it out as well.
  • Wobbler are a tradition-minded lot; their album Rites at Dawn sounds a bit like what Yes might have done in that quiet period between Relayer and Going for the One. Dig.
  • The Pineapple Thief is a UK-based group that is sadly not well known in the USA. They combine the best elements of groups like Radiohead and Porcupine Tree, to name two, all the while crafting a sound that’s their own. I spoke at some length with band leader Bruce Soord.
  • I discovered Polish progressive band Riverside through Pandora, and really dig a lot of their stuff. When they lean toward metal, I am a bit less interested. Leader Mariusz Duda released a fine, connected pair of concept albums under the Lunatic Soul moniker that are more atmospheric than his band’s work. Here’s our conversation.
  • For me, the hands-down best progressive rock album of the last few years is X from Spock’s Beard.

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EP Review: Riverside – Memories in My Head

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Having come of age in the vinyl era, some of my media/format definitions don’t quite match up with their modern usage. An LP was a “long player” and usually ran somewhere between 28 and 38 minutes, divided between two sides. An EP (extended play) was a single with a couple of extra tracks. And – this may confuse younger readers – a “single” had two songs, one on each side.

Unless you were Todd Rundgren, you didn’t feel the need or inclination to pack an album full of more than those thirty-eight minutes or so. In fact there was a down-side to doing so: more music meant the grooves were packed closer together, reducing the record’s volume. Hence Todd’s liner notes exhortations to turn it up.

That all changed with the advent of CDs. I recall Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms LP (I was working for a record store in those days). The album was issued in three formats: vinyl, cassette and CD. As a means of enticing consumers to the glorious new digital format, the CD version included longer versions of some of the songs. Longer, yes. Better? Not so much.

My point, finally – and it’s a crushingly obvious one — is that more is not necessarily better. Quality wins over quantity every time. A good reminder of this axiom is the new, er, EP from Riverside, Memories in My Head. Made up of three tracks extending across some thirty-three minutes, the disc is nominally an EP. But in terms of quality, it’s an album.

These days, the Polish quartet Riverside is often thought of as prog-metal; of late their music has leaned toward Fear of a Blank Planet era Porcupine Tree, with atmospheric keyboards, kinetic drumming and metallic guitar riffage. But it was not always so: the group’s earlier efforts placed more emphasis on a flowing midtempo melodicism, taking a page from pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd.

And it is to that aesthetic that Riverside returns on Memories in My Head. Recorded and released to commemorate the band’s ten-year anniversary, the EP intentionally revives their earlier sound. That’s clear even before removing the shrinkwrap: the title connects to the group’s 2005 EP Voices in My Head.

The trip backwards isn’t so surprising in light of recent history. Mariusz Duda (leader/bassist/vocalist/lyricist) has been moving in a more melodic, atmospheric direction on his pair of Lunatic Soul albums.

The chugging, pulsating opening of “Goodbye Sweet Innocence” calls to mind Pink Floyd’s “Welcome to the Machine.” But where (on the band’s recent albums) the tune might have exploded into a frenzy after the extended intro, here it unfolds into a dreamy throb, full of Alan Parsons Project-styled synth arpeggios courtesy of Michal Lapaj. When the guitar and vocal come in, Duda sings in a quiet, plaintive manner. Piotr Grudzinski’s soaring guitar lines owe more to David Gilmour than any more modern metallurgists. Piotr Kozieradzki’s drum work adds a modern spin to the music, sounds as it does influenced by the work of Gavin Harrison.

“Living in the Past” (no, not the Jethro Tull classic) is an example of what Duda calls “spacious, soundtrackish, nostalgic” music. Again, it’s extremely melodic stuff, free from modern metal influence. In fact in places it sounds more like Kansas or King Crimson. It too is long, moving through different movements (a bit like some of the suites on Porcupine Tree’s The Incident, but the music never meanders, never fails to compel.

The third and final track on Memories in My Head continues the record’s theme of passing time. “Forgotten Land” is built initially around a bass riff and Duda’s vocal. The two initially seem to have little do with one another, but the other instruments come in and tie everything together nicely. The song stays just this side of melodrama in its arrangement, eventually drifting off into some chorus vocals (shades of 10cc?) and gurgling mid-70s synth.

With mainstream progressive music this good, there’s simply no good reason to put any more of it on an album than Riverside serves up on Memories in My Head.

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DISCLOSURE OF MATERIAL CONNECTION:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review  copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in  preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item  after my review.

 

Album Review: Alternative TV – Black and White Live

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

I like bootlegs. There’s something about the raw, unvarnished immediacy of a live recording that often captures the essence of a performance. Now, I understand that – for a wide variety of reasons (with varying degrees of merit) – some artists oppose the practice of bootlegging. And that is their right.

Some artists, however, embrace the warts-and-all aesthetic. They say, in effect: here it is, and you may take it or leave it. Mark Perry of Alternative TV is one of these characters. The album Black and White: Live is essentially an authorized bootleg compilation. As Perry explains in the CD’s liner notes, nearly all of the twenty-one tracks were recorded by “minidisk or the good old cassette walkman. No mixes, no overdubs, no mucking about.”

The results are impressive. Decidedly lo-fi, the tracks nonetheless convey the power of a live Alternative TV set. Stripped of artifice and polish, they present the songs in a manner that’s – when you get right down to it – close to what would have entered your ears had you been there. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that a more polished recording would have a lower energy level.

With his thick working-class British accent, Perry leads his band through what are essentially a bunch of sneering pop songs. Blasting out of the gate with the anthemic “Viva La Rock N Roll,” the band takes no prisoners. They’re not up on that stage to impress, perhaps, but rather to simply do their thing. You can take it or leave it.

The sturdy pop songs are delivered without calling much attention to any hooks they might have; instead buzzing, distorted guitar chords plow through the verses and choruses. The effect is something halfway between, say, the Sex Pistols and the Mekons. If that strikes you as a bit abrasive, best look elsewhere for your entertainment.

Those who stick around will be rewarded with a tasty assortment of ATV originals and some off-the-beaten-path covers. How else to characterize “Why Don’t You Do Me Right,” a Frank Zappa song so obscure it didn’t appear on an album until appended to the CD version of The MothersAbsolutely Free? (They also cover “Plastic People” from that LP). Ditto for The Ramones’ “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue,” presented in a version that answers the question, “What would the Sex Pistols sound like covering the Ramones?” (Well, the Pistols if they could’ve played a bit better.)

There’s plenty of sonic variation on the disc, however; it’s not all distorted guitars. “Nasty Little Lonely” features what sounds like some spooky flute work, staking out a vibe not altogether unlike Legendary Pink Dots crossed with Black Sabbath.

Black and White: Live is a speedy trip through the history of Alternative TV; Perry sums it up as well as anyone in the liners when he writes, “Viva La Rock ‘n’ Roll – as raw as you can make it.”

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Disclosure of Material Connection:
I have a material connection because I received a sample or review copy, or an item of nominal value that I can keep for consideration in preparing to write this content. I was/am expected to return this item after my review.

Book Review: Crazy Train – The High Life and Tragic Death of Randy Rhoads

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I was late to the party: I had amassed a collection of several thousand albums (vinyl and CD) before I even gave a serious listen to Black Sabbath. An acquaintance who knew of my musical likes and dislikes had wondered aloud why I didn’t listen to the band. He lent me an LP or two, and I dutifully played them. And I quickly experienced an “aha” moment; why hadn’t I listened before? In short order I had run down copies of all of their Ozzy Osbourne era albums (up through Never Say Die; I did not dig the Dio era) on both formats.

Against that backdrop it’s needless to say that — even though it was on the radio quite a bit when I was in high school and college — I gave absolutely no attention to Ozzy’s post-Sabbath recordings. Sure, I heard “Crazy Train” on the radio now and then, and knew that it was somehow different from, say, “Iron Man,” but it didn’t pique my interest.

As a result, I was completely unaware of the name – let alone the work of – Randy Rhoads. I didn’t know anything about his guitar prowess, and honestly don’t recall hearing of his tragic death in 1982. To quote Darth Vader Dick Cheney, I guess I had “other priorities.”

That situation has been partially corrected now, thanks to a read through Joel McIver’s Crazy Train: The High Life and Tragic Death of Randy Rhoads. Across two hundred-plus pages McIver recounts Rhoads’ life, with specific attention given to his electric guitar playing era. First with an early lineup of Quiet Riot, then with Blizzard of Ozz (aka Ozzy Osbourne and other guys), Rhoads made quite a name for himself with his classically-based shredding guitar style. His playing influenced a long line of guitarists, many of whom I’ll admit I have either no interest in (Dave Mustaine of Megadeth) or an active dislike of (Yngwie Malmsteen; I mean…c’mon). But as is so often the case, the artist doing the influencing is better than those being influenced. McIver makes the point that Rhoads’ style was equal parts speedy technical brilliance and melody.

The book is a pretty quick read, and as the first comprehensive look at the guitarist’s life and work, it is to be commended. There are some weak points, however: chief among these is the author’s predilection for reproducing interview quotes in (presumably) unedited form. Now, when we speak, we often circle back on ourselves, saying the same thing more than once: “He was a great guy, I tell ya. Blah blah blah [a couple hundred words]…he was a great guy.” Most authors would hack that down, break it up, contextualize it a bit. McIver chooses to drop the whole thing in. And he does this repeatedly throughout the book.

As a result, Crazy Train comes off more as a string of quotes (admittedly, they’re quotes from people who knew Rhoads, not from a parade of so-called experts) with the barest of writing to tie them together. It’s clear that McIver knows his stuff, but Crazy Train often fails to follow the “show, don’t tell” rule of journalism. That said, there’s plenty here in the way of interesting information.

Yet the reader has to wade through some dross to find it. Because of McIver’s no-editing style, at the tail end of a reasonably enlightening quote about Rhoads from Zakk Wylde, we are treated to this gratuitous quote from the axeman: “Talking of which, I gotta go. I’m gonna get a cold beer and stick my tongue up my wife’s ass.” Now, I’m not easily offended, and the quote is (almost) a little funny, but its inclusion in Crazy Train adds nothing of value, and interrupts the flow of the story. It, shall we say, leaves a bad taste in the reader’s mouth.

Moreover, early on in the book’s pages, McIver goes to some length to warn the reader he is not setting out to paint Rhoads as a saintly figure. With that caveat out of the way, he does just that, highlighting Rhoads’ love of family, fascination with model trains, disinterest in the drug scene, etc. (Randy probably liked kittens, too, one supposes.) Then, when wrapping things up, McIver tells the reader (in so many words) “See? I told you I wouldn’t make him out to be a saint.” It’s kinda like that.

Those flaws cannot help but detract from an otherwise thorough and clearly well-researched book. The flaws may well be of less notice to non-writers, to those who come to the book to learn more about a musician cut down in the prime of his life and career. (Rhoads’ death has more in common with the fates that met Buddy Holly, Otis Redding and Stevie Ray Vaughn than, say, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or any number of Spinal Tap drummers.) And it is for those fans that Crazy Train has been written.

Taking into consideration the criticisms and warnings herein, Crazy Train: The High Life and Tragic Death of Randy Rhoads still receives a qualified recommendation. It’s primarily for fans of the guitarist and the metal genre, but – thanks in part to its relative brevity – is a worthwhile read for casual music fans.

 

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Once More Into the Catalog, with Concord Music Group (part 2)

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Continued from Part One

Sometimes the Concord Music Group reissue team does have to resort to baking the tapes. This is a process that is exactly what it sounds like: the magnetic tapes start to flake, to separate from themselves. The music literally falls off of the tape. So the reels are placed in a low-heat oven for several hours, causing the material to re-adhere. The result is a tape that can again be played…once. “With the technology that’s around now,” Chris Clough (Concord’s Manager of Catalog Development) says, “once you’ve baked a tape, then you can do a super-high resolution archive, and then you can work from that. Once it’s digitized and you’ve got that good transfer, you can go back to that, rather than the original tape.”

Concord has cultivated very good relationships with the Ray Charles Foundation and Frank Sinatra Enterprises, co-stewards of these reissue projects. The list of titles that have come out in the last few years on Concord has been a nice mix of expanded reissues, thematic compilations, and occasional rarities (such as the Ray Charles set Rare Genius: The Undiscovered Masters). A number of interesting projects are in development, or at least under review. “We’re hoping to put together a Ray Charles Complete ABC Singles box set,” Clough reveals. “It would include a lot of savory b-sides that not a lot of people know about. Even a-sides that didn’t make it as hits, that didn’t make it on albums.”

Some of those songs are great, and haven’t shown up before owing to lack of space. “When we did Genius: The Ultimate Ray Charles Collection, we had to have X number of songs that people expect. There are probably ten songs that, if they weren’t on there, we’d be crucified,” Clough chuckles. “So there’s a lot of really great stuff that most people just haven’t heard.”

Clough describes this potential Complete ABC Singles set as a major undertaking, with challenges related to “sourcing the material” and putting it all together. Likely to be five or six discs worth of material, the project “requires a lot of work before you can really start. And we’re in the process of doing that now,” Clough says.

Concord has also embarked on a jazz reissue series under the umbrella title The Original Jazz Classics Remasters. In the last year or so alone, archival releases have included albums of historical import from a staggering list of greats: Ella Fitzgerald, Ornette Coleman, Cannonball Addereley, Thelonious Monk, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Wes Montgomery, Cal Tjader, Stan Getz, Vince Guaraldi and others. In addition to the appending of relevant bonus tracks when available, these high sonic quality discs add value by including new contemporary liner notes that help provide context for the music.

“The average jazz fan,” says Clough – whose job it is to know these things – “is the sort of person who buys a physical CD. They want to read the liner notes. They want to know who originally engineered it, who remastered it. And we hire high-quality writers who really understand these records and can give them context. They can bring things full circle,” he points out. “When the original liner notes writer wrote about it, no one knew that John Coltrane was Coltrane.”

On some level, some of the Concord reissues are a clearly labor of love. Some titles are important but unlikely to shift in units necessary – if viewed individually – to justify their release from a cost/benefit analysis point of view. “It’s always a balancing act,” Clough admits. “We run everything through a P&L process before it gets greenlit.”

“A lot of it hinges on the mechanical fees,” Clough explains, referring to the royalties due to the publisher/owner of the recording (as opposed to the actual composer or performer), a rate calculated based on the length of a song. “Jazz is tough, because songs are really long. And anything over five minutes gets exponentially more expensive the longer it goes. There is a threshold, and we do take that into account,” he says.

“The market is shrinking,” Clough admits. “But sometimes you can tuck something in: maybe if you’re releasing five titles, you can include one that isn’t as commercially viable but that is an important title. If you feel strongly about it, you try to roll it into that group. But that gets harder and harder to do.”

Clough reflects on the joy that he experiences when working on these catalog projects. “When I found Ray Charles’ live version of ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ [included on the 2011 expanded reissue of Ray Charles Live in Concert] I couldn’t believe it. It was a totally different arrangement; it just blew my mind. It was really stunning.”

He continues. “We just re-released The Staple Singers album Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.  There were a fistful of outtakes to choose from, and some of them, you could see why they didn’t make the cut. But the ones we included, I said, ‘I don’t understand why this wasn’t on the original record! It’s great!’ Some of these were dynamite songs that had been sitting in the vaults for ages. And we wanted the world to hear them.”

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Once More Into the Catalog, with Concord Music Group (part 1)

Monday, June 20th, 2011

Concord Music Group was founded in 2004, the combination of two labels: Concord and Fantasy. The group subsequently added to its stable Telarc International (jazz) and Stax (soul/r&b). Their catalog also includes a vast list of titles from smaller jazz labels including Riverside, Prestige and Stretch. The group quickly earned a well-deserved reputation for exercising care and thought in the repackaging and reissuing of catalog items: large chunks of the back catalogs of Paul McCartney and Frank Sinatra — two of the world’s greatest-selling artists – are now administered by Concord. I asked Chris Clough, Concord’s Manager of Catalog Development, if there is a guiding philosophy for reissue projects.

“Well, obviously we want it to be something of quality,” Clough says. “Something that’s probably not already been done. We’re always looking for titles that haven’t been reissued, or that maybe weren’t done as thoroughly as they could be.”

Concord recently acquired rights to a sizable portion of the Ray Charles catalog, and quickly set about a schedule of compilations and reissues. In most cases the label added bonus material. “I’ve been looking at it as, ‘What hasn’t been done?’” says Clough. “A lot of the Ray catalog has not even been on CD. We did a few things that had already been out; it’s kind of like, ‘Well, you’ve got to do Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music because that was a huge record.’”

“Then,” he continues, “after that, we started looking around. I was a big fan of the LP Ray Charles Live in Concert, and I figured since it was a live show, there might be some unreleased material. And sure enough, there was. So after digging around in the vault, we turned up seven bonus tracks. And some of them – most of them — were really good. I don’t think there’s one where I could say, ‘Well, I can understand why that wasn’t used.’”

Clough has his own theories as to why some tracks were originally left off. “I think Ray probably left ‘Georgia’ off because he didn’t want it to compete with the [studio] version.” But he believes that some of the decisions went beyond commercial considerations.

“I think,” Clough opines, “on a couple of the tracks, Ray might have thought he gave a little more than he wanted to. I’ve listened to a lot of Ray’s live recordings. [On this one] he didn’t know he was being recorded, and I think he gave a little more on these performances; more than he might have been comfortable sharing with the wider world.”

Another Ray Charles reissue of note was 2010’s version of the 1961 classic Genius + Soul = Jazz.  The Concord repackaging expanded the album to a 2CD set, with the thematic addition of three other Charles albums: 1970’s My Kind of Jazz, Jazz Number II (1972) and My Kind of Jazz Part 3 from 1975. The project connected the dots between four albums spread over a long span of time.

“A lot of people don’t know that side of Ray,” notes Clough. “He was an incredible player. He was a great songwriter, singer and performer, but he could really play, too.” Clough points out that on these albums, Charles “wanted to flex a little, and show the world he could [compete] with the best.”

When a label such as Concord approaches a reissue project, they are – almost without exception – dealing with old analog tapes. Sometimes they have access to multitrack masters, but more often they have only a “final mix” that has been in some sort of storage for half century.

For a title like Ray Charles Live in Concert, there never were multitrack masters. That live album was recorded by Wally Heider, a master of that kind of work. Clough believes that Heider “kept it simple, got his mix, and recorded it on the fly.”

When they do have the option of working with multiple tracks, Concord’s reissue team does carefully consider that an option. “Sometimes it does make sense,” Clough argues. “Sometimes you can go back in and clean up some things that happened when it was originally recorded.” He refers to occasional buzzes and hiss, pointing out that “Some things take away from a recording, so you want to minimize those.”

The condition of the master tapes varies widely. “They’re all different,” Clough says. “Sometimes they’re pretty ratty.” He makes the point that stewardship of these historic tapes has been under the control of various people over the years. Some exercised more care than others. “Some show signs of…less than optimal storage situations,” Clough says, taking pains to be diplomatic.

At the time many of these recordings were made – especially in the jazz genre – the idea that anyone would be interested in hearing them ten, twenty, fifty years down the line probably didn’t even receive serious consideration. “I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus,” says Clough, choosing his words carefully, “but Bob Weinstock at Prestige was notoriously thrifty. He would reuse tape, and as far as outtakes, his approach was, ‘Well, if it’s not going on the album, who cares about it?’” That may account for the dearth of unreleased material from that label, but Clough allows for another possibility: “Those guys were incredible players, so they maybe did it in one or two takes.”

Luckily, in many cases, someone along the way decided that many of these recordings were important, and made sure they were preserved. Clough mentions George Horn (Chief Mastering Engineer at Fantasy) making sure that the Creedence Clearwater Revival masters were preserved.

 In part two we’ll look at some of the challenges associated with releasing archival reissues: technological, aesthetic and financial. And we’ll also give a tantalizing preview of a possible future project from the people at Concord Music Group.

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(Everybody’s) Talkin’ About Harry Nilsson, Part 3

Friday, June 17th, 2011

In fall 2010 fall the film documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why is Everybody Talkin’ About Him)? premiered in selected cities. The film came out on DVD around the holidays, with a great deal of bonus material added. I got a chance to have a wide-ranging conversation with John Scheinfeld, the writer/director of the film. Continuing from Part Two, here’s the third and final part of that discussion.

John Scheinfeld: That’s very much the spirit that Harry Nilsson created. Even to the point that you see with his two record producers, Rick Gerard and Richard Perry. They loved the Harry that they knew back then. They are very proud of the work they did together. And they are both very unhappy with the way their working relationships ended. And it would have been very easy for them both to say, “John, I don’t want to do an interview.” To their credit, they came on camera, shared their memories, and we’re all better off for it.

You see the pain in both of them; Harry could be difficult. He could be impossible. He could do cruel things. But that was part of having a balanced portrait of this particular artist.

Bill Kopp: It’s a nuanced portrait. If it had been full of uncritical, effusive praise, I would have been bored. And it wouldn’t have rung true, because nobody’s perfect.

JS: With all of the interviews, you didn’t see anybody being all sweetness and light.  They would tell you what they admired about Harry, and then they’d tell you some story where Harry was crazy.

The thing about Harry, he didn’t do many interviews…

BK: He wouldn’t have been much help anyway!

JS: Right! I found interviews where he’d tell the same story four different ways. And you never could get at the truth. I think a lot of people are that way. Stories are spun or embellished, or you tell them in a way that makes you look better. And that is part of the challenge of being a documentary filmmaker: to get all of the voices together and then figure out where the truth is.

BK: That’s what’s good about your interviews. These stories aren’t calcified, aren’t blown out of proportion by having been told over and over again.

JS: Sometimes you catch them not-quite-prepared to answer a question. One case was with Jimmy Webb. We were talking about the Pussy Cats sessions, when Harry was talking about having blood on the microphone. He had lost his voice. Jimmy thought about it, and remembered his reaction at the time. And then he couldn’t talk about it anymore. Too emotional. That was a very human moment. 

And there was another one. I don’t think he would have anticipated the question, which was, “When was the last time you saw Harry?” And then he told this beautiful story about them being in the car. So it was all right there on the surface emotionally, because, as you say, they had not answered these questions ten times before. And they didn’t know what we were going to ask. Because I never submit questions in advance.

There’s a good example of going where the truth takes you. As a Beatles fan, I had grown up with the mythology that Yoko was the dragon lady that broke up the band. And that’s not true: John was really looking for a way out. But when we started out on The U.S. vs. John Lennon, I don’t think I knew the depth — the significance — of the love affair between the two of them. We were thinking we were going elsewhere with that story, but the more time we spent with Yoko and other people in their world, the more it became so clear that the love affair had to be an important part of that film.

BK: As far as Harry’s recordings go, I imagine you did some research there as well, and found some previously unearthed gems. The film from those Gordon Jenkins sessions…I didn’t even know that existed!

JS: It never aired in this country. And the BBC special In Concert aired once over there, and that was it. The superfans knew about this before; I didn’t. Because Nilsson Schmillson was so successful, when they went into the studio for the followup album –what came Son of Schmillson – RCA asked Richard Perry and Harry, “What can we do for you?” So they decided it would be fun to pay for a documentary crew to come in and shoot them making that album. And the irony is that it was somewhat like a Let it Be situation; instead of the making of an album, you got the deterioration of an artist and his relationship with his producer.

The cameras were there a lot during the making of the album. It was never finished; there was a rough cut made some time in the 70s. We learned that the rough footage was in a salt mine in Pennsylvania! Sony was quite helpful; we got about ten minutes of raw film that was transferred. So a lot of the studio stuff — with Harry and Richard and Ringo, and a young Peter Frampton, and Klaus Voormann and Ray Cooper – came from the film that was shot for this aborted documentary.

I’ll put this one to you: there’s one extraordinary photo in this film that speaks to Beatles fans. I found this photo and said, “This has to be in the movie.” Do you know the photo I’m talking about? It’s a Polaroid, shot at the beach house in Santa Monica…

BK: Yes! With Paul McCartney!

JS: Right. It’s a photo with Harry, Paul and John, and who is John talking to but Linda McCartney. And this, at a time when the prevailing knowledge was, “Oh, they’re not speaking.” So not only were they talking, they were hanging out with each other. And with Harry. He had the ability to bring all these people together.

BK: When I saw it, I wondered if it was from around the time when Paul showed up at the studio where John was, and Paul played drums. Stevie Wonder was there, Jesse Ed Davis

JS: That’s all around this same time. The bootleg of it was called A Toot and a Snore.

BK: I have it.

JS: And “snore” is appropriate. It’s not very good.

BK: You listen to it once, and then you put it on the shelf.

JS: The media has a tendency to want to tell stories in a very simple way, to make everything black and white. Life is just not like that. So just as Yoko wasn’t the dragon lady, so true is it that John and Paul did talk to each other.

And that is one of the things that I’m very proud of about Who is Harry Nilsson: we have really textured storytelling that gets to the truth, but in an entertaining way.

BK: Beyond a fond appreciation for Harry the man and the artist, what would you like the “takeaway” for the viewer to be?

JS: The takeaway should be this: Here’s a guy – kind of a hip artist – who’s been under the radar because his career wasn’t all that long in the scheme of things; he died young. He missed the internet age in which his work could have spread everywhere. This is an artist worth knowing. This is an artist who created an extraordinary body of work that ought to be known to more people.

I was doing a lecture on documentary filmmaking, at an east coast college. One of the questions was, “What are you working on now?” I told them about Who is Harry Nilsson. And I don’t know about you, but I’d never been in a room where a hundred people were staring at me as if to say, “What are you talking about?” The name meant nothing to them.

So I said, “He did the theme song to this wonderful movie, a song called ‘Everybody’s Talkin’.” And a few heads nodded. And then I said, “And he did this goofy little song that was a hit in the 70s called ‘Coconut.’” And more heads nodded. And I told them about this great animated film The Point. More nods. I mentioned a few more hits, and got a few more nods. And when I told them, “And he wrote ‘One is the Loneliest Number,’” almost everyone said they knew that.

And I said, “See? You know the music, but you don’t know the man.” And we hope to remedy that with the film Who is Harry Nilsson.

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