Saturday, February 21, 2015

Simon Reynolds - Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 (2005)

[The UK cover.]

Title: Rip It Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984
Author: Simon Reynolds
Publisher: Faber and Faber (UK), Penguin (US)
Year: 2005 (UK), 2006 (US)

The Post-Punk Universe

When I first heard about Rip It Up and Start Again in 2006, I knew this was a book for people like me. I'd been interested in post-punk bands for a few years by that point, mostly by virtue of alternative-oriented family members and friends. Bands like The Cure, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Joy Division, Echo & the Bunnymen, Depeche Mode, and Bauhaus existed in some sort of hidden substratum of my suburban, Midwestern environment, where these once-popular British bands had become obscure and mysterious, yet on the verge of revitalization and reissue campaigns. The book came at just the right moment as a wave of nostalgia for this kind of music was cresting.

Oddly, though, the book barely spends any time at all on most of the aforementioned bands. In fact, if you really study the author, it becomes apparent that he doesn't even really like The Cure or the Banshees, and I'm not sure about Depeche Mode and Bauhaus, either. So what exactly is covered by the book?

The answer to that question partially depends on what edition of the book you have, or better stated, if it was printed in the UK or the US. For some reason, the US edition is substantially shorter. Three chapters are completely removed, at least two others are substantially trimmed, the illustrations are missing, and the timeline, appendix, and bibliography are cut. If that's not enough, the cover was changed (for the worse) and the chapter sequence was reordered. The only thing that the US version has over the UK version is that the Mutant Disco chapter was rewritten from an oral history into an actual narrative – although the rewritten version has since been included in Reynolds' follow-up book, Totally Wired.

I originally read the US version, and only afterwards realized I'd missed the complete story. In 2006, the days before widespread digital streaming, I had no choice but to take notes and scour record stores to find the music described. Recently, I finally took the time to read the original, complete UK version. It ended up being a very different experience, primarily because I had the benefit of Spotify and YouTube to listen to the wide array of music covered by the book. Now my curiosity is peaked again about many bands I'd overlooked the first time or never got around to – or that weren't covered in the US edition. (Seriously, among others, Subway Sect, Magazine, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, and The Teardrop Explodes were all absent!)

[The US cover.]

Additional Material

The other thing I did differently this time was that I also read the online footnotes and discographies. They are welcome addenda and actually serve as excellent reading on their own. Both are less well edited and sometimes lack a degree of clarity or finesse, but they also provide a less structured place for additional details and elements that weren't given space in the primary text. Many artists and songs are only mentioned in these extra sections, and while there might not be many gems there, there is plenty for specialists to get excited about. In particular, the Postpunk Esoterica includes small but important sections about the diverse international post-punk scene.

The final subheading of the Esoterica is particularly interesting, an issue that perhaps should not be left to the very, very end to introduce: "Post-Punk or not Post-Punk". This is where Reynolds tries to distinguish New Wave from New Pop and post-punk. He does admit that the lines are blurred and there is room to argue. He even (finally!) gives space to several "borderline cases": XTC, Elvis Costello, The Police, Blondie, and The Psychedelic Furs, among others. I would argue some of these, but his stance is that those bands are too straight-pop or straight-rock and not actually notably influenced by punk. Since most of the book encourages the notion that post-punk is more about a set of ideas and ideals than any specific sound, it is notable that the author ultimately provides some (relatively) strict delineation in this section.

Post-Punk Heroes and Villains

One of Rip It Up's biggest selling points is just how many bands are featured. Reynolds does a great job of grouping artists together and discussing movements that might not have even been clearly defined as they happened. This also provides space for a few words about many smaller, easily overlooked bands. However, if one band steals the show, it's Public Image Limited. What better poster child for post-punk could there be than the biggest poster child of punk? John Lydon's post-Pistols band are given the entirety of two chapters, whereas no other band have the honor of even one complete chapter in their name. PiL's rise from punk's ashes, their opening of the floodgates, their brave new world of sound – they represent the ascent of post-punk like no other story. The band's disintegration and the wearing down of their spirit after just a few albums similarly echoes post-punk's fall from grace.

[Public Image Limited's "Flowers of Romance" (1981).]

If two bands take the spotlight of the book, the second is Scritti Politti. Most listeners would probably think of them as an icon of new wave blandness, and until the release of the Early compilation in 2005, there was nothing in print to dispel the notion. Their earliest singles and EPs are the work of a lo-fi, independent, punk band trying to break out of any preconceived boxes – all the while spreading the holy word of Marxism. After years of squatted housing and grueling tours, central figure Green Gartside fell ill and later emerged with the idea of making newfangled pop music with subversive undertones. While he certainly succeeded in some sense, he also made music that sounds rather terrible unless you only focus on the words. But Scritti's bold change of direction is a bellwether for a larger movement, carefully documented in Rip It Up, of the conversion from independent and non-commercial post-punk into slicker, mainstream-oriented, major-label New Pop – or what is now broadly called New Wave. (See also Orange Juice, whom I briefly discussed in a recent, related post.)

[Scritti Politti's 4 A Sides EP (1979).]

Throughout the book, Reynolds rarely directly criticizes bands. It makes for a great read, because the book reads like a documentary, and the author comes across as very equitable but also very excited about every artist he mentions. Nonetheless, Reynolds does occasionally critique musicians when they deserve it (Gang of Four's occasionally contradictory masculinity, Siouxsie & the Banshees' questionable antics in their early days, et cetera). Furthermore, in related materials (such as the footnotes and discographies), the author is much more open about his honest opinions. For example, he appears to have a confusing distaste for goth bands in general, and he oddly downplays Au Pairs in favor of Gang of Four and Delta 5. While these opinions might be frustrating for a fan like me, it doesn't really tarnish the primary text.

If there is one band that gets consistently maligned throughout the book and the accompanying texts, it's The Clash. Tom Robinson Band come in second, and perhaps Crass would be third. This seems to be in part because these bands overtly espoused political ideology in their music and image. Reynolds believes that this constitutes preaching, and apparently many bands of the time preferred to be more subtle. (The Pop Group would be a rather extreme exception.) I still don't understand why such deliberate politicism constitutes a fault, especially when U2's brand of preaching is not criticized at all.

[The back of The Clash's "The Call Up" b/w "Stop the World".]

In fact, the Clash are something of a specter paralleling the post-punk timeline. They haunt the book from start to finish – PiL's guitarist, Keith Levene, was an early member of The Clash, and the rest of the band consistently incorporated many of the same elements that post-punk absorbed, particularly with the adoption of dub and reggae influences. It would seem that The Clash's only substantial crime was a pseudo-macho guitar hero aesthetic, which, with hindsight, just seems like a gimmick or charade. In the narrative of the book, the Clash are the representative "other", always doing whatever post-punks wanted to avoid, despite that in truth they had more in common than in opposition.

[The Clash's "Hitsville UK" (1981), featuring prominent indie labels. I think I see "In the Beginning There Was Rhythm" on Y Records, but with The Slits' name crossed out!]

Conclusion

I think I have Rip It Up and Start Again to blame for my affection for bands like Pere Ubu and Magazine, The Slits and The Pop Group, Wire and PiL, The Fall and Gang of Four, Young Marble Giants and The Raincoats. The scope of the book is perfect – it is broad, yet just detailed enough that the reader gets some reference points and recommendations of good songs and albums. So many bands are covered that the reader is almost certain to find something new and compelling.

However, I also think I can blame the book for why it took me so long to ever appreciate The Clash. I guess every story is supposed to have a villain, but that might be the only major thing that bothered me about the book. For a work that is so inclusive at face value, it is odd to have such notable exclusions and enemies. I suppose the line had to be drawn somewhere, so this doesn't amount to any great criticism – and if that's the only thing I can think of that I didn't like about the book, then I have to admit that Reynolds achieved just about everything he could have wanted to.

Scores:
UK edition: A
US edition: B

References and Further Reading:
AllMusic's review of Scritti Politti's Early, further explaining their divided history
Forgotten Moments from Post-Punk History, a related post inspired by Rip It Up

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

The Chameleons - John Peel Sessions reissue (1990/2014)

In my last review of a Chameleons reissue, I lamented that the John Peel Sessions had not been given the remaster/reissue treatment. For years, my only copy was on cassette! Well, my dreams have been answered and that band are now selling a new version of the album on their official web store. I will discuss two issues in this review: first, the relative merits of the album in general, and second, the relative quality of the new reissue.

Artist: The Chameleons
Album: John Peel Sessions
Release Date: November 1990 (original), December 2014 (reissue)
Label: Strange Fruit (original), Blue Apple (reissue)
Producer: Tony Wilson (tracks 1-4), Barry Andrews (tracks 5-8), Dale Griffin (tracks 9-12)

Tracklisting:
01. The Fan and the Bellows
02. Here Today
03. Looking Inwardly
04. Things I Wish I'd Said
05. Don't Fall
06. Nostalgia
07. Second Skin
08. Perfumed Garden
09. Dust to Dust (Return of the Roughnecks)
10. One Flesh
11. Intrigue in Tangiers
12. P.S. Goodbye

[The original cover.]

The Original Album

Peel sessions have quite the revered status in the alternative music canon. While these radio sessions are not actually live, they are usually much closer to the sound of a band playing on stage than standard studio albums, and they benefit from the exquisite quality bestowed by the BBC studios. This means that any given band's sound will be a bit rawer, a bit more direct, and yet captured such that the fidelity is far beyond your average live recording. Many bands have claimed that their studio albums failed to accurate represent the power of their live performances, but their Peel sessions often got much closer. One could certainly make such an argument for the Chameleons.

Although the Chameleons' earliest demos and studio recordings show a rock-oriented, riff-heavy approach, hints of their later ethereality and spaciousness were present as early as their December 1981 session with Steve Lillywhite, particularly in the recording of "Nostalgia". Their debut album, Script of the Bridge (1983) was fairly split between the two sounds, but by the time of What Does Anything Mean? Basically (1985), they had clearly declared a preference for shimmering guitars, endless delay effects, and beauteous walls of sound instead of a direct guitar onslaught.

The John Peel Sessions recordings show the band covering much of the same ground as these two albums, but leaning in the direction of a more "live" sound, with fewer overdubs and less complex effects. This is not to say these versions have no subtlety or depth; rather, the complicated guitar interplay is shown off all the more clearly when the two main interlocking parts of Reg Smithies and Dave Fielding are highlighted without many adornments. These takes manage an excellent middle ground between the rough, unsophisticated live albums and the ornately arranged studio albums, and to top it off, the audio quality is practically unmatched.

The other selling point of this album is that many of these takes were recorded one or two years before the "final" studio versions, and as such contain many differences from those versions. The most obvious is that the first session, comprising the first four tracks, was recorded with original drummer Brian Schofield, and his style is noticeably different than later drummer John Lever's. Furthermore, several songs ("Perfumed Garden", "Return of the Roughnecks", "Intrigue in Tangiers", "P.S. Goodbye") feature almost entirely different sets of lyrics (and in the first two cases, even variations in the titles). Almost all of the songs feature some variation in the lyrics; in "Looking Inwardly", Mark Burgess shouts, "I don't need these lyrics!", and in "Nostalgia", it sounds like he sings, "Absorbing your worst".

Some tracks are presented in alternate arrangements: "Nostalgia" is quite different, resembling the 7" edit but lacking even the third verse (and the piano part); "Second Skin" is noticeably faster and shorter than other versions; "Intrigue in Tangiers" is shorter and less developed in the final sections; and "P.S. Goodbye" is notably half the song it would later become, with a simpler arrangement and without the third verse and extended coda. Other tracks have more subtle differences; "The Fan and the Bellows" has fewer guitar overdubs and "Don't Fall" has fewer vocal overdubs, but "One Flesh" features more prominent, reverberant drums.

[The reissue cover.]

The Reissue

The new version of the album features no additional tracks (when will the radio sessions from Here Today... Gone Tomorrow get reissued?), but it is nonetheless worthwhile to have the album in print again. The most obvious change is perhaps the artwork (see above), which has been retooled by Reg Smithies. Much as was the case with Script of the Bridge and What Does Anything Mean? Basically, the changes are not vast but manage to be a slight downgrade. Why change a good thing?

The next most obvious change might be the liner notes – they are revised from the original, in particular excising any mention of Alistair Lewthwaite, who provided keyboards on the second session (tracks 5-8). They also cut the original essay by Mark Hodkinson and the inner sleeve photograph (both still available on the official website), although the lack of the essay is probably fine, what with the annoying opinions ("Nostalgia" was "never a personal favorite") and inaccuracies (Yoko Ono was indeed at her husband's side when he died). In place of these items is a collage of photographs of the band in their heyday, supplied by Dave Fielding. It is pleasant but unremarkable.

Of course, the primary reason for the reissue is that it was remastered. Well, much like with the Why Call It Anything reissue, the remastering is fairly insignificant. It seems to simply be moderate compression and amplification. It is not egregious or disruptive, but it also adds nothing to the original, and in fact might even lose something in terms of dynamic range. Most listeners will probably not be able to discern a difference if they were to merely increase the volume on the original just a touch.

Conclusion

I've always found the John Peel Sessions to be a nearly essential part of the Chameleons canon, rising above most of the various live albums and outtake/demo compilations. I might prefer the band at their more ethereal and reverberant, but I think these versions tell a fascinating alternate history. The quality is superb and this collection is a generally more interesting listen than most of the actually live recordings. The alteration of the cover and liner notes might be annoying, but represents no great loss. Similarly, the remastering may be unspectacular, but it is also unobtrusive. It's still a great album and worth a listen.

Scores:
Original album: A
2014 reissue: A-

P.S. See discogs for more details of the packaging and liner notes.

P.P.S. No, I haven't bought the 2014 Abbey Road remastering of Script of the Bridge. I'm still happy with my 2008 reissue with the bonus disc.

P.P.P.S. I still haven't seen a reappearance of the rare early version of "Here Today" released on the Your Secret's Safe with Us compilation in 1982. The audio quality is noticeably inferior to both the earlier Peel session version as well as the later Script of the Bridge version, but the drums are different than both versions. (Perhaps it was recorded with interim drummer Martin Jackson?) Otherwise it isn't particularly notable.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Forgotten Moments from Post-Punk History

I recently re-read Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds (see full review here) and along the way I stumbled across a few songs that I would like to call out for their special qualities.

First off is the first single by Pete Shelley, "Homosapien", released in 1981 shortly after the breakup of Buzzcocks. With Martin Rushent continuing his role as producer, the two developed a sound not unlike what Rushent would help create with the Human League on their massively successful Dare immediately thereafter. Coming from such a prominent punk band, I imagine that the synthetic sound that Shelley presented with "Homosapien" was a bit of a shock – but the single was nonetheless a modest hit. In addition to the retro-futuristic video, Shelley's lyrics and delivery reveal an unabashed gayness previously left subdued. Naturally, the BBC banned it. Watch the video here or below:




I think Buzzcocks are fine, but I generally find original singer Howard Devoto's second band, Magazine, far more interesting. Buzzcocks experienced their own degree of growth, but the trappings of punk restrained them whereas Magazine expanded tremendously. When I first heard "Homosapien", I was impressed that Shelley too had grown tired with punk's limitations.

Second is "The Devil Lives in My Husband's Body" by Pulsallama, which is probably a prime example of what some might call a "novelty single". The band consisted or a large coterie of women favoring voices, percussion, and a counterprofessional style. The song is apparently one of only two singles ever produced by the band. While the song itself is already a treasure, the video takes it to the next level. It concerns a woman who becomes increasingly worried about her husband's behavior, which appears to be related to Tourette syndrome. Watch it here or below:




Third up is a delightful slice of New Pop from Orange Juice. "Rip It Up" saw the band moving from their earliest incarnation as a slightly awkward but well-intentioned indie band on Postcard Records to a better produced, more commercial, major-label project with a revamped lineup. While much of their material still comes off as quaint, their biggest single (and the namesake of Reynolds' book) is still a charmer. However, the band proved that they entirely abandoned their indie/post-punk leanings when they appeared on Top of the Pops in 1983 to mime to the song. First of all, Jim Thirlwell of Foetus suddenly shows up to pretend to play the sax solo, but then singer Edwyn Collins just starts colliding with him! Also, don't forget the song's unsubtle references to Buzzcock's "Boredom" – and what is with the dancing women tearing up bits of paper!? See it all here or below:




Lastly, I give you an early example of sampling, featuring none other than a real sound bite of then-president Ronald Reagan (up for re-election at the time) saying, "We begin bombing in five minutes", referring to Russia. It was a joke that was not broadcast and only recorded incidentally, but when it leaked, many considered it to be in poor taste. Among the disenchanted, Jerry Harrison (of Talking Heads) and Bootsy Collins (of Parliament-Funkadelic) hooked up with producer Daniel Lazerus to create "Five Minutes" as a form of protest. To get the song out before election day, they had to rush-release it on an independent label, and for some reason they used the one-off name of Bonzo Goes to Washington for their partnership. Listen here or below:




And as a final bonus, check out this awesome flyer for the first Human League concert in 1978:


(Originally seen here on Simon Reynolds' Rip It Up and Start Again footnotes blog.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Mark Johnson - An Ideal for Living (1984)

Title: An Ideal for Living: An History of Joy Division
Author: Mark Johnson
Publisher: Proteus Books (original), Bobcat Books (reprinting)
Year: 1984


I stumbled onto this book at a local bookstore and quickly realized I'd found something special. An Ideal for Living is an obsessively detailed book about Joy Division and early New Order. It's been long out of print and copies on eBay go for dozens of euros. The book chronologically documents the bands from their earliest beginnings in 1976 until the end of 1983. While we may have the internet today to compulsively research and document every studio session and live performance of a beloved band, in the post-punk heyday this task was left up to the most hardcore of fans. This is a testament to that sort of dedication. Apparently, Mark Johnson was both loved and hated for his work: the band members were annoyed with his persistence and plentiful errors, but fans can only marvel at the amount of information in the book.

Most of the content of An Ideal for Living takes the form of a combined gigography, sessionography, and discography. Although the bands and some related parties were interviewed, the text primarily describes notable aspects of the live performances and recording details. Very few concerts are left without some sort of note, and every show for which a bootleg was available at the time is marked with an asterisk. (The introduction humorously states that to obtain these bootlegs, just ask around at the next New Order concert. Times have changed!) Accompanying these notes, there are also over a hundred reproduced photographs, most of which I'd never seen before.

There is one confusing aspect to this: it is unclear where the most of the information actually comes from. Sources are scarcely listed for anything except the direct quotes from the band members, their associates, and the local press. It would appear that the author attended many of the gigs in question, and has heard bootlegs where available, but one can only assume the rest of his information simply came from the fan community.

In addition to the comprehensive primary text, the other source of content is a series of pseudo-philosophical essays that also go largely uncredited. With only a few exceptions, they are only vaguely related to the bands in question. Most of these essays are nonsensical and an utter waste of space. They don't even do a good job of constructing mystique around the music, which might have been welcome considering how deconstructive the rest of the material is. Paul Morley is listed as contributing "Faces and Masks", and he is likely the author of some of these essays, especially considering his penchant for abstract, irrelevant prose. I generally like Morley, and he seems to like the same bands as me, but his writing often wanders too far off course. At any rate, the authorship is never fully clarified.

While the book is fun to peruse just to ponder the history, the author made no attempt to maintain a consistent narrative. Information is simply presented chronologically as it is available, and the book sort of awkwardly trails off at the end as the material had to be wrapped up for publication. There is also no attempt whatsoever to describe the musicians' personal lives; unlike Deborah Curtis' Touching from a Distance, family members and mental health are largely ignored. In the few words that are used to describe Ian Curtis, his suicide is considered a complete surprise, his depression is left unmentioned, and his epilepsy is downplayed. This may have been the general trend of the time, but with the benefit of hindsight, it's hard not to feel like warning signs were certainly present.

While reading the book, I tried to consider if this book is still relevant. It's a great resource, but apart from being out of date (new audience recordings have appeared since publication, and of course New Order is still active today!), most of this information is now well-documented online, on multiple websites, with additional details. The sessionography and discography are also available in the booklet accompanying the Heart and Soul box set. However, hardcore fans may still appreciate having all of the material in print, especially considering the photographs and the unique nature of many of the incidental details of the various concerts. Considering the limitations of the work and the difficulty in procuring a copy, I can only recommend it to the hardcore, which is presumably for whom the book was written anyway. It's a cool collection of information, but not essential.

Score: B

References and Further Reading:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Jimmy McDonough - Shakey: Neil Young's Biography (2002)

Title: Shakey: Neil Young's Biography
Author: Jimmy McDonough
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2002


A couple months ago, I was thinking about reading Graham Nash's new book, Wild Tales, but I was sufficiently warded off by advice that it would make me dislike the primary figures portrayed in the book. However, my interest in Nash and his scene had been piqued by the release of CSNY 1974, and I'd also just discovered that Neil Young's Archives Vol. 1 is on Spotify. (This seems utterly bizarre considering his well-known hatred of low-quality digital audio formats). Thus, when I found a copy of Shakey on my parents' bookshelves, I decided to give that a try instead, and so I asked to borrow it.

Shakey had a tumultuous history, and remains somewhat contentious in the hagiography of Neil Young. I don't want to retread water that's been well documented elsewhere, and that includes most of the actual history of the artist in question, but there is still the matter of the quality of the book itself. What I am most concerned about here is the ability of the author of the biography, Jimmy McDonough, to transmit the many-faceted life and music of his subject to the reader.

Two things smack you in the face within the first few pages of the book: the massive ego of the author and the incredible amount of time and energy that went into the project. The lowest points of the book are when McDonough's language gets so ridiculous that you can't take him seriously and you start to question his motives. His opinions are strong and they are scattered all over the book. Avoiding them is impossible. A less-informed reader would come away thinking that Crosby, Stills and Nash are three of the absolute worst humans to have tread this planet (okay, maybe not Crosby), Pearl Jam isn't much better, Crazy Horse is God, Bob Dylan is Jesus, every band from the late 70s through the present is absolute garbage, and Neil Young must be the Second Coming or the Holy Spirit or whatever makes sense out of these awful clichés.

Many people get away with hating contemporary music or new wave or whatever their favorite scapegoat is, but McDonough's virulence is irresponsible. He's allowed to have his opinions, and it wouldn't even bother me if they were presented in a measured fashion, but because he paints in such broad, black-and-white strokes, it's hard not to get distracted. Crazy Horse very well might be his best creative partner, but to pretend that Neil's other collaborators are meritless is unreasonable. For example, CSNY in the early 70s were on fire, even if they never again truly recaptured it; and Neil's album with Pearl Jam (Mirror Ball, 1995) is one of his best and most consistent.

[Mirror Ball.]

Similarly, he tries to portray Young as apolitical, or merely subject to the whims of his time. He successfully makes a point that Neil has appeared out of touch at times, and that he has made his fair share of stupid or ridiculous comments, but he also ignores Neil's long history of political themes. Neil may have become more overt with his subject matter in recent times, but even if you write off the obvious "Ohio", "Southern Man", and "Rockin' in the Free World", what else can one make of songs like "After the Gold Rush", "War Song", "Campaigner", "Homegrown", "Pocahontas", "Powderfinger", "Shots", "Mideast Vacation", "Long Walk Home", "Mother Earth (Natural Anthem)", "Song X", "Act of Love", and so on?

In keeping with his love of Crazy Horse and producer David Brigg's anti-overdub policy, McDonough overlooks that Neil has a perfectionist side that has produced an equal portion of his best work, starting with his Buffalo Springfield masterpieces "Expecting to Fly" and "Broken Arrow", and continuing throughout his career, including some of his best albums, such as Harvest (1972), Comes a Time (1978), Trans (1982), and Freedom (1989). The author tries to portray any carefully crafted album as lacking spirit or soul, but almost all of his albums are a balance of first-take gut instinct and mechanical perfectionism. Young's catalog defies simple categorization. Some of the lopsidedly overproduced albums, like Harvest Moon (1992) are dull and predictable, while some of the more underproduced albums, like Broken Arrow (1996), are lumbering and slipshod.

[Trans.]

Worst of all is his portrayal of CSN, and in particular Graham Nash. While largely excusing Crosby for his regularly awful behavior, and merely writing off Stills as a drugged-out failure, he spares nothing from Nash. The author paints Nash as overly sentimental and unartistically populist, yet fails to appreciate that he brings an element of balance and precision to their collaborations. McDonough cleverly overlooks that Nash and Young have a lot in common, including political interests and personal assistants (i.e. archivist/photographer Joel Bernstein). In fact, he never mentions the joint Nash-Young single "War Song" from 1973 at all, nor Nash's Wurlitzer contribution to "On the Beach". His role in the Time Fades Away tour and album and his many vocal contributions to Neil's songs performed with CSNY are also downplayed. Despite the author's negativity, the very photo on the cover of the book was taken by Nash!

Another strange element, perhaps fitting into the author's overwhelming prejudices, is that he refused to interview several important people, including erstwhile record company owner David Geffen and latter-day collaborators Pearl Jam and Booker T & the MGs. Considering the number of subjects interviewed, these exclusions are obviously deliberate, and the author even calls them out specifically in the endnotes. The reasoning is apparently left as an exercise for the reader. Several subjects are also mentioned as ignoring or refusing interviews, including Bob Dylan and Stephen Stills. (Also, bizarrely, Beck.) While perhaps disappointing, their voices are hardly missed, and this is presumably no fault of the author's.

Instead, several sections of the book focus on otherwise unknown, hyper-obsessive fans that the reader is given no reason to care about. Two of these figures, Ken Viola and Dave McFarlin, are repeatedly quoted and interviewed. Neither seems to offer a particularly sophisticated or unique perspective, yet both are treated as sage voices of the truth. Why their opinions are relevant is left unclear.

A more complex subject is the author's treatment of Neil Young's family. First wife Susan Acevedo apparently declined to be interviewed, but she is still discussed. Young's next long-term partner, Carrie Snodgrass, and their child together, Zeke, are both interviewed and discussed, but when the narrative reaches the point of Neil's marriage to Pegi, the author states that he decided not to enter that space. Hence, Pegi is hardly mentioned at all, and it is unclear if she was even interviewed. Their two children together are also minimally discussed, except for son Ben's struggles with cerebral palsy.

I don't think McDonough's decision is necessarily a bad one, but since Neil's personal life from that point largely becomes a transparent void, the narrative loses a lot of its force and weight. Up to that point, his life is analyzed and processed just as much as his musical endeavors, but after the mid-70s, Neil is presented as a purely musical entity. I understand the desire to respect the privacy of his children, but we lose a lot of perspective on what drives and defines Neil. Halfway through the book, the narrative has just reached February 1971, only a few years into Young's career. Much of his music-making career, throughout the 80s up until the manuscript was completed in 1998, is given a rushed, at best precursory treatment.

To make it worse, as the narrative carries on, the author begins to insert himself into the narrative. His ego is large enough that he describes telling Neil that some of his material was terrible and shouldn't be released. Apparently, he didn't know what else to say about Neil's career in the 90s, so he just writes about hanging out in Neil's tour bus and model train barn. These might be interesting or unusual parts of Neil's life, but no one cares about how the author fits into them.

[Homegrown (unreleased, but recorded in 1974).]

McDonough's text makes for a frustrating read. He gets so much right – he digs deep into Neil's circle, he doesn't shy away from Neil's eccentricity, he researches all the obscure unreleased material, he describes all the best concerts and tours that you'd never know happened in Santa Cruz or New Zealand or wherever, and he doesn't always paint Neil in the best light. Shakey convinced me to immediately start seeking out a bunch of bootlegs I didn't heretofore know existed and to give some of his weirder, less popular albums another listen. That right there is indicative of a successful rock biography.

But on the other hand, the author's arbitrarily harsh opinions too often get in the way of the story. His over-the-top style of trying to come off as some sort of streetwise hustler only makes him seem immature and less credible. His blatant preference for the seedy, grainy side of everything tarnishes his perspective on anything fashioned in any other manner. And while the thoroughness of the book is hardly a fault, the length is a little excessive when you consider how much of the material relating to himself or to irrelevant fans could be trimmed. I wanted to read a book about Neil Young, not a book about Jimmy McDonough and his fanboy preoccupations.

Score: B

References and Further Reading:

Friday, November 7, 2014

Peter Hook & the Light - Live 2014.11.04

I've been very skeptical of the recent trend of concerts consisting of full album performances. It seems like a blatant nostalgia trip, at risk of providing neither room for the creativity of designing a good setlist nor the freedom of rearranging songs to take advantage of the live setting. This type of show has become very popular among some of my favorite post-punk/new wave bands, and I'm not sure how to feel about it. It clearly is an attempt to give fans what they want, which apparently is just a rehashing of the past, but I see both good and bad in it.

I've also been very skeptical of the antics of Peter Hook as of late. It was only a few months ago that I acquired his first book, The Haçienda, and my review was mildly unfavorable. Hooky has long since seemed like the odd member out of New Order, and there is quite a bit of content available to the public of the feuds between him and the rest of the band. For that matter, there's a fair bit of history of feuds between him and others (cf. Freebass). In fact, he comes off as a bit of a loudmouthed jerk. However, it's hard to really know the truth or to actually establish fault.

At any rate, when I heard that Peter Hook and the Light were coming to town to perform New Order's Low-Life (1985) and Brotherhood (1986), I did not jump at the opportunity. It wasn't until just a few days before, after deciding that I wouldn't be going to the Fun Fun Fun Fest this year, that I realized that $21 was pretty cheap for an aging veteran of two of my favorite bands. Even though the forecast was heavy thunderstorms, the venue claimed to have tents, and I figured it was still worth a shot.

Artist: Peter Hook & the Light
Venue: Mohawk
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 4 November 2014

First set (Joy Division):
01. Atmosphere
02. ICB
03. Passover
04. No Love Lost
05. Something Must Break
06. These Days
07. Shadowplay

Second set (Brotherhood):
08. Let's Go (instrumental)
09. Lonesome Tonight
10. Thieves Like Us
11. Paradise
12. Weirdo
13. As It Is When It Was
14. Broken Promise
15. Way of Life
16. Bizarre Love Triangle (extended)
17. All Day Long
18. Angel Dust
19. Every Little Counts

Third set (Low-Life):
20. Love Vigilantes
21. The Perfect Kiss (extended)
22. This Time of Night
23. Sunrise
24. Elegia
25. Sooner Than You Think
26. Subculture
27. Face Up

Encore (non-album singles):
28. Confusion
29. State of the Nation
30. True Faith
31. Temptation
32. Love Will Tear Us Apart

[Peter Hook & the Light.]

Review:
Of course, it did indeed rain during most of the concert, and the best spots were not actually under tents. So I stood in the rain and even took my usual notes, although I now know that was pointless since Hooky posted the setlists online the next morning. This was actually the opening night of the new US tour of these albums, following prior tours featuring the original Joy Division albums and then the first two New Order albums. It was also announced that the band would be their own opener, playing an assortment of Joy Division songs.

Currently, the line-up of the Light features Hooky's son, Jack Bates, on "rhythm" bass, along with three of Hooky's former bandmates from Monaco: guitarist David Potts, drummer Paul Kehoe, and keyboardist Andy Poole. Hooky himself sings and plays "lead" bass. The dual-bassist situation might strike some as odd, but since Peter's last band initially featured three bassists, this is not so extraordinary. Furthermore, considering the prominent role that his bass played in Joy Division and New Order, it's no surprise that many of the songs put both musicians to full use. Of course, in most songs, Hooky let his son handle the basic parts, while he would just occasionally double the parts, play an octave higher, or break for the solos.

Nonetheless, Hooky is still a solid performer, and when he did play, it was with honed precision and skill. On "Love Vigilantes", he even played the melodica riff, and in the bridges of a few songs, he would turn to a drum pad and beat out some extra rhythm parts. And naturally, he took the lead vocals – except on "Sooner Than You Think", where he let Potts take the lead on the verses. Potts also took the co-lead part of the chorus to "Paradise", and sang backing vocals in many songs. The similarity of his voice to that of Bernard Sumner's threw me off, but I'm glad it wasn't relied upon too much. Meanwhile, Hooky can actually do a decent job of approximating Ian Curtis, but these days he sounds quite different than Sumner.

The Joy Division set was a great way to start things off, especially since it started with their best song ("Atmosphere") and continued along with a motley selection of songs scattered throughout their brief career. Most of these songs were played with a punky, energetic vibe befitting the original band's live sound. The real surprise was "ICB", a conspicuous anomaly in that it is a New Order song from their debut album, Movement (1981). It fit right in, but one can only wonder why that song. After all, Hooky did sing lead on two songs from that album – but not that one!

I had assumed that after a brief break, the band would jump right into Low-Life. Instead, the Light (without Peter) came out and played an instrumental version of the rare "Let's Go". Hooky then came out and played both sides of the great 1984 single "Thieves Like Us" / "Lonesome Tonight". I figured that worked as a good chronological prelude to Low-Life, but the band surprised me again by starting into Brotherhood.

I've always slightly preferred Low-Life, and I'm left to assume that by reversing the chronology and playing it last, Hooky shares my feelings, or he figured his audience would. I felt wronged for a second until I realized that it didn't matter at all. Even if I do have an established preference when it comes to the recorded versions, I'd be hard-pressed to say which one was better live. I think the band handled the Brotherhood songs better than I would have expected, but part of it might just be that the album is less sequencer-based and thus translates to the live rock band format more readily.

The band brought a great energy to the show, and I thought the band's familiarity with each other contributed to a certain tightness. The sequencer-heavy songs (i.e. most of the singles and "Elegia") were less dynamic and exciting, but the music was still good. It's just a bit awkward to watch the musicians stand around on stage, waiting for their brief part or even just the next song. Otherwise, it was great to see some of these lesser-known songs played live for the first time since 1987 or thereabout. I also appreciated that several songs were played in their extended forms, closer to the versions found on the original 12" singles. "Bizarre Love Triangle" was definitely longer than the album version; "Subculture" featured a few elements from the 12" mix (although that's a rare case where I prefer the album mix); and "The Perfect Kiss" featured the third verse and extended instrumental section found only on the 12" version, although it probably still wasn't the full nine minutes of the unedited original. (The frog solo was sorely missed, for example.)

[Hooky on a stool with his six-string bass for "Elegia".]

Hooky's vocals were the one thing that were sometimes a weak point. While he appeared natural trying to convey Curtis's words, he was clearly less comfortable singing some of Sumner's vocals from the New Order set. The main problem was just range: Hooky's voice is much closer to Ian's, so he didn't really have to stretch to sing the Joy Division songs, but Bernard's voice is just a bit higher and softer than what Hooky could reasonably manage. He ended up singing many parts an octave lower, which sometimes worked and sometimes just didn't sound right. There were a few parts that he didn't drop but still couldn't do justice to. Otherwise, while his voice might not be extraordinary, I thought he did a good job with the vocals, and the mix was such that I could understand most of the lyrics quite well.

The encore included several singles from the era (loosely speaking), which naturally received great audience response. "True Faith" and "Temptation" really got the crowd excited, while "State of the Nation" was a bit of a surprise, even to me. (I always thought that one and "Shellshock" were of a lesser quality musically, even if the lyrics to "Nation" have reasonable merit.) The final number was a precursory take of "Love Will Tear Us Apart", which was satisfying despite the predictability.

I'll admit, Peter Hook more than surpassed my expectations. He might not have challenged his audience or provided any new insights, but the entire purpose of his project with The Light has been to bring alive songs of his past, and he certainly does it well. I give him major bonus points for the Joy Division set and especially all the extra singles and rarities. The show rocked, the sound was superb, and he treated his audience quite well, so what else could you want?

Score: A-

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young - CSNY 1974

As a bootleg collector and a fan of CSNY, I've been well acquainted with their fabled 1974 tour. I've heard complete audience recordings of three or four of the performances and parts of at least a dozen more. Underneath the hiss and audience chatter that pervade every bootleg recording of a stadium concert from that era, it was clear to me that the band was in better form than most rock historians would tell you. While every concert was far from flawless, they were still probably about on par with their shows from the original days of the band in 1969 and 1970. Even 4 Way Street, their official live album from 1971, supposedly showcasing their best concerts in 1970, suffers from missed notes, off-key harmonies, and flubbed lyrics. In the 1974 bootleg recordings, as with the 1971 album, the flaws aren't enough to truly dampen the magic. The ability of four clashing rock monsters to yield any amount of impressive results is something to marvel at, and the fact that more often than not they are right on the mark is amazing. Plus, in concerts from both 1970 and 1974, alternate arrangements and rare or otherwise unreleased songs are offered all over the place.

I was happy enough with my bootlegs, and knowing how slow and reluctant certain members of the band are to retrace their history, I never expected to hear an official release of recordings from the tour. Even when I heard that the project was in the works, I just assumed it would never actually come out. So, after numerous delays, when it finally did, I couldn't resist purchasing it. I had to hear it. And now that I've heard it, I want to share some insight from the perspective of someone that has heard the raw, untampered bootlegs. A word of warning, though: this review is long and detailed, which may be tedious for the casual reader, but hopefully will be of particular interest to the dedicated fan. Because of the length, I have used section headers and boldface to make the article easier to scan and search.

[CSNY 1974.]

Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Album: CSNY 1974
Release Date: 8 July 2014
Label: Rhino Records
Producer: Graham Nash and Joel Bernstein with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Lists and Numbers

Below, I provide the complete tracklist annotated with first album appearance, authorship, and additional contributing members to the original version. I have not listed cowriters outside of the four core CSNY members. Tracks in bold had not been released at the time of the tour. Note that Young's On the Beach was released during the tour (July 16, 1974). For the DVD, I have listed only the songwriter, since all of the tracks already appeared in the CD tracklists with full details.

Disc 1:
01. Love the One You're With (Stephen Stills, 1970, by Stills, with Crosby and Nash)
02. Wooden Ships (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby and Stills, with Nash)
03. Immigration Man (Graham Nash David Crosby, 1972, by Nash, with Crosby)
04. Helpless (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
05. Carry Me (Wind on the Water, 1975, by Crosby, with Nash)
06. Johnny's Garden (Manassas, 1972, by Stills)
07. Traces (unreleased, by Young)
08. Grave Concern (Wild Tales, 1973, by Nash)
09. On the Beach (On the Beach, 1974, by Young, with Nash)
10. Black Queen (Stephen Stills, 1970, by Stills)
11. Almost Cut My Hair (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Crosby, with Stills, Nash, and Young)

Disc 2:
01. Change Partners (Stephen Stills 2, 1971, by Stills, with Crosby)
02. The Lee Shore (4 Way Street, 1971, by Crosby, with Nash)
03. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (After the Gold Rush, 1970, by Young)
04. Our House (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
05. Fieldworker (Wind on the Water, 1975, by Nash, with Crosby)
06. Guinevere (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby, with Nash)
07. Time After Time (Whistling Down the Wire, 1976, by Crosby, with Nash)
08. Prison Song (Wild Tales, 1973, by Nash, with Crosby)
09. Long May You Run (Long May You Run, 1976, by Young, with Stills; alternate version from Decade (1977) also features Crosby and Nash)
10. Goodbye Dick (unreleased, by Young)
11. Mellow My Mind (Tonight's the Night, 1975, by Young)
12. Old Man (Harvest, 1972, by Young)
13. Word Game (Stephen Stills 2, 1971, by Stills)
14. Myth of Sisyphus (Stills, 1975, by Stills)
15. Blackbird (Allies, 1983, written by Lennon/McCartney, performed by Crosby, Stills, and Nash live since first concerts in 1969)
16. Love/Art Blues (unreleased, by Young)
17. Hawaiian Sunrise (unreleased, by Young)
18. Teach Your Children (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
19. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Stills, with Crosby and Nash)

Disc 3:
01. Déjà Vu (Déjà Vu, 1970, by Crosby, with Stills and Nash)
02. My Angel (Stills, 1975, by Stills)
03. Pre-Road Downs (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Nash, with Crosby and Stills)
04. Don't Be Denied (Time Fades Away, 1973, by Young)
05. Revolution Blues (On the Beach, 1974, by Young, with Crosby)
06. Military Madness (Songs for Beginners, 1971, by Nash)
07. Long Time Gone (Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969, by Crosby, with Stills and Nash)
08. Pushed It Over the End (Heritage box set, 1981, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)
09. Chicago (4 Way Street, 1971 / Songs for Beginners, 1971, by Nash)
10. Ohio (Single, by Young, with Crosby, Stills, and Nash)

DVD:
01. Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Young)
02. Almost Cut My Hair (Crosby)
03. Grave Concern (Nash)
04. Old Man (Young)
05. Johnny's Garden (Stills)
06. Our House (Nash)
07. Déjà Vu (Crosby)
08. Pushed It Over the End (Young)

There are many reasons for me to provide the tracklist with these annotations. It's worth noting how the songs get divided up. For example, I have tabulated of some of the above information below. The first number is the number of songs written by the member; the second number is how many songs they performed on; third is how many of the original released versions they performed on; and last is how many of the songs on the DVD were written by that member.

Crosby: 8.5 / 34 / 14* / 2
Stills: 8.5 / 35 / 11 / 1
Nash: 9 / 35 / 15* / 2
Young: 14 / 34 / 1 / 3

Notice any trends? I should make a couple notes. First, the asterisk represents the fact that "Long May You Run" originally featured Crosby and Nash, but the first official release did not, so if you want to count that, just add one. Second, the fractions represent "Wooden Ships", the only true collaboration that appears here. Third, many of these songs had been performed by the group live in 1969 and 1970, so even if the first released version didn't include other members' contributions, they may have already performed the songs live together before this tour. This discrepancy is not accounted for in my tabulation. Fourth, "Pushed It Over the End" was previously only released on an obscure Italian box set, and in fact was a recording from one of the Chicago dates of this very tour. It is a different recording than the one that appears here, and the sound quality is significantly inferior. Many ignore that release and considered the song essentially unreleased until now.

At any rate, the incongruity is obvious: Neil contributed the most songs (and especially the most then-unreleased songs), yet he appeared the least on other member's released recordings. However, the total live performance appearances (the second column) are almost even. As might be expected, the members were more collaborative when they shared a stage than they were when recording in the studio.

Songs and Songwriters

At first glance, the setlist/tracklist is undeniably impressive. It balances the original two CSN(Y) studio albums, various solo (and band) efforts, and a slew of newly written material. Neil offers a bunch of otherwise unavailable (or exceptionally rare) songs, which is an obvious treat, but also of special interest are the many rearrangements of previously-available material. One might complain that the box set doesn't include every single then-unreleased or rare song that was performed on the tour, but what is there is notable nonetheless. To discuss the specifics of what songs and performances are noteworthy (or forgettable), as well as what's missing, I will break the setlist down by bandmember.

I'll start with Graham Nash. As always, Nash tends to be the most consistent and stable. His voice is in good form, and while his songs never falter, they also rarely grow and change. Similarly, his musicianship is never showy but also never exceptional. Nash appears on many songs just on vocals, but he can be found on rhythm guitar or keyboards on plenty others.

Nash's highlights are "Fieldworker", a moving, newly-written song played just once on the tour in a simple arrangement; "Grave Concern", whose strong live performance greatly improves upon his solo studio recording; and "Teach Your Children", which risks being a cliché today, but is presented here with a louder, clearer mix of the counterpoint vocals in the second verse, which might be the best part of the song. "Pre-Road Downs" is given a thoroughly rocking take, but the vocals suffer a bit and lose clarity. "Military Madness" is a little weak, but "Immigration Man" is great, and "Chicago" features some great lead guitar from Nash's bandmates. Nash's songs have the least low points and the least high points, and the only real complaint is that his song "It's All Right" (unreleased until Earth & Sky in 1980) didn't make the cut.

Both of David Crosby's new songs for the tour appear on the album: "Carry Me", which turned out surprisingly good; and "Time After Time", which didn't. Crosby consistently played rhythm guitar throughout the album, often on an electric 12-string, and his vocals grace almost as many songs as Nash's. However, Crosby was the only principal member not to offer any keyboard parts. While his vocals are generally very strong, they do sound just a notch less consistent than Nash's.

Crosby's "Déjà Vu" is one of the highlights of the entire collection, rearranged in an extended, powerful, electric style. It may drag on just barely too long, but it's a cool enough take that I can't complain. Conversely, "Long Time Gone" loses some of its strength compared to the superb studio version. Somewhere in between is the lethargic take on "Almost Cut My Hair", which certainly loses some energy, but gains some depth and moodiness. In general, Crosby fared well, although his rampant hard drug use and general poor decision-making contribute to the feeling that these performances perhaps marked the end of his prime.

Stephen Stills is the least-favorably represented of the group. His guitarwork is in great form, and he even plays some decent keyboard parts, but his vocals suffer substantially compared to performances even a couple years prior. His voice might not have been as bad as it was when I saw CSN this year in Austin, but it is probably comparable to or worse than when I saw CSN two years ago in Kentucky. This has clearly been a long-standing problem. His poor showing mars "Love the One You're With" and brings down the otherwise excellent "Johnny's Garden". The vocals on "Black Queen" are abhorrent, but thankfully the electric guitar arrangement makes for a cool jam, even if it is a little ostentatious and drawn out.

Somehow "Blackbird" was left unscarred, and it remains a showcase for the band's vocal prowess and harmonic arrangement skills. The bridge is particularly transcendent and the performance is clearly superior to the version on the mediocre Allies (1983). However, two centerpiece performances for the band, "Wooden Ships" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes", suffer just a touch from Stills' vocal inability. Otherwise, those two songs sound superb and stand as strong as ever. For better or worse, the band hadn't started the trend of letting Nash sing most of Stills' parts in "Judy". That song has long served as a guidepost to the quality of a live performance by any group featuring Stills, and the ability of the members to harmonize correctly on it varied widely throughout the band's early years and just as much through the 1974 tour. (During the brief Stills-Young Band tour of 1976, the two principals consistently utterly failed to nail it. No wonder Young jumped off that sinking ship.) The performance on this album may have been edited or "tuned", but I'll address that notion in greater detail below.

The one pleasant surprise for Stills is "Word Game", which borrows a rambling, affected, somewhat annoying style borrowed from "Black Queen" but takes it in a better direction. It's on the line of showiness, but since the lyrics are actually meaningful (almost preachy, in fact), it works. A point of confusion for me is that many bootlegs and setlists denote that the song was played as a medley with Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me". Neither this album nor any bootleg from this tour that I've heard appear to include that additional material, although the Stephen Stills Live album (recorded in 1974 before the CSNY tour, released in 1975) includes a medley of Robert Johnson's "Crossroads" with "You Can't Catch Me" as a separate track from "Word Game".

Less pleasant are Stills' new songs, "Myth of Sisyphus" and "My Angel", both later released on Stills (1975). Both are bad, but the latter is despondently terrible. I appreciate the attempt at offering new material, but when it's that worthless, it's hard to enjoy. Stills played three further songs on the tour that would later also appear on Stills: "My Favorite Changes", another bland song played just once on the opening night of the tour (and thus not recorded); "First Things First", which is just barely better than mediocre; and "As I Come of Age", which is actually pretty good, but which had been played live with CSNY since 1970. A big deal was made in the press about the lack of "Carry On", a traditional Stills showcase in the form of a hyperextended jam. I don't think the absence is much of a loss, but its inclusion may have helped bring up the average quality of Stills' material on the album.

The best showing was clearly given by Neil Young. I may be biased, but even the most precursory examination of this collection would bring most listeners to the conclusion that Young was the only member concerned with exceeding expectations. He brought the most songs, the biggest share of great songs, and the most proficient instrumental contributions.

His vocals are mostly in good form, and although they do stretch across a spectrum reaching from excellent to totally off (i.e. "Helpless"), his backing vocals are a welcome and distinctive addition to many of the other members' songs ("Love the One You're With", "Immigration Man", "Change Partners", "Prison Song", "Teach Your Children", et cetera). On bootlegs, his backing vocals were extremely hard to hear, if they were even in the mix at all. The presence of these additional vocals is one the best hidden treasures on this album.

Neil's guitarwork matches Stills', or perhaps even exceeds, in that Neil tends to be less flashy and more subtle and expressive. "On the Beach", "Don't Be Denied", "Revolution Blues", and "Chicago" all feature great improvisational work from the two guitarists, but sadly the number of truly shared or dueling guitar solos is fairly limited. The two clearly play off of each other and bring out interesting parts of each other, but even when left to their individual devices, Neil still never disappoints here. Young's keyboard work also graces many songs to good effect.

Some of Neil's most notable performances are the the fuller, harmony-drenched renditions of songs like "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", "Old Man", and "Mellow My Mind". The former two might be predictable, but the a capella chorus of "Only Love" is transcendent nonetheless, and this early live take on "Mellow My Mind" is better than the version on Tonight's the Night.

A couple of Neil's hitherto-unreleased songs are a bit lightweight, but they're still likable. "Goodbye Dick" is a brief, throwaway joke, and "Hawaiian Sunrise" is only saved by the great harmonies, but "Traces" (which appears on some bootlegged early acetate versions of Tonight's the Night) is good, and "Love/Art Blues", a song about finding balance in life, is even better. (It features the hilarious couplet, "my songs are so long / my words are all so sad".) "Pushed It Over the End" is the true lost treasure, an epic with both great guitar breaks and solid harmonies.

"Long May You Run" appears here performed as a duo with Stills, which is how the song would first see release two years later on the otherwise terrible Stills-Young Band album named after the song. Stills manages some great guitar runs, but he also misses the "Oh, Caroline, no" cue, and Neil even hits a wrong note on the harmonica. One longs for the full CSNY harmonies that grace the alternate mix heard on Decade.

Similarly, "On the Beach" and "Revolution Blues" do not feature any harmonies, but the brief dueling guitar solos from Stills and Young are a pleasure to hear. It's hard not to feel that an opportunity was missed, but the manic, paranoid intensity of both songs comes alive well here anyway. At least "Don't Be Denied" takes advantage of the full band: the harmonies in the third and fourth verses and the great guitar duels elevate the song to match or best the live version from Time Fades Away.

If all of Neil's unreleased material, early versions, and rearrangements weren't enough, it is worth noting that there was even more done on the tour that doesn't appear on the album. Most importantly, several songs intended for the scrapped Homegrown album first appeared publicly on this tour. "Homefires" has never seen release in any form (although it has been sporadically played live since then); "Love Is a Rose" debuted here; one of two performances ever of "Pardon My Heart" was on this tour; and "Star of Bethlehem" and "The Old Homestead" were both performed three times on this tour and never again. "Human Highway" was performed in an excellent sparse arrangement with great harmonies, far superior to the overdone version that would later turn up on Comes a Time. "Roll Another Number" was a drunken tune from Tonight's the Night that was already recorded and done live but still hadn't seen release. Also notable were "Walk On" and "For the Turnstiles", both from the contemporaneously released On the Beach. The latter was treated well by the full CSNY arrangement, but I can't speak to the latter, as it was only performed once (and not played again until 1987!), and that show was neither officially recorded nor bootlegged.

[An acoustic number in Houston.]

History vs. Post-Production

Moving on from the specific songs and songwriters, there are a few bigger-picture issues to consider. My first question is how well this album represents what actually happened on the tour. I've covered the song choices in great detail, and I think it's fair to say the producers did a good job constructing a fairly accurate representation of the setlists. An equally important issue is how much the recordings were altered to create a more perfect version of the past. All four members and archivist/producer Joel Bernstein have frequently derided the quality of the performances in the past, so it is not without irony that this album sounds as good as it does. There are minor flaws, such as static (during "Love the One You're With" and "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes"), occasional bum notes, missed cues, and off-key vocals, but they aren't common enough to detract from the performance. In fact, they may even contribute to an air of authenticity. However, Nash mentions "tuning" the songs in interviews, and he also discusses editing together multiple takes, sometimes even flying in individual lines from other shows.

While this sort of post-production is certainly no crime, and I don't believe any overdubbing was involved, one does have to wonder how far they went. Nash has also stated that "Guinevere" is actually from a Crosby & Nash concert later that same year (judging by the liner notes, December 14 at a United Farmworkers Union and Project Jonah benefit in San Francisco), because Crosby demanded that it be included despite that none of the CSNY shows recorded featured it. Since neither Stills nor Young ever performed on the song, this may not be a big deal, but it does damage the reputation a little bit. If you listen for it, you can actually hear the audience and ambient sound conspicuously change at the end of the song during the transition to the next. And if they were willing to take recordings that weren't even done on the tour in question, what else might they have done that they aren't willing to publicly admit? Do we have any reason to trust their word?

Supposedly the final show of the tour at Wembley Stadium in London was a catastrophe, and the next day, the band couldn't even sit through a complete playback of the recorded performance. I've heard a bootleg, and while the awful sound quality doesn't help, the performance itself is indeed middling at best. However, Wembley is credited as one of the recording locations and the DVD includes four songs shot there. So did they manage to salvage a couple golden tracks from the mess, or was the whole thing better than everyone remembered?

Based on the bootlegs, most nights of the tour were a mixed bag, with some songs turning out great, some falling apart, and most ending up somewhere in the middle. I suspect if one were to make a compilation of the best performances from the bootlegs, you could probably find good enough versions of all the songs to make a convincing case that the tour was an unqualified success. Maybe that's what actually happened: everyone remembers all the lows, but when you put together all the highs, you get a pretty good package. It's hard to know for sure just how much additional tinkering was done in the studio, but at least the final results are believable.

It is a real joy to hear these recordings in soundboard quality, even if they do represent an idealized concert. The bootlegs all show their age. They were mostly recorded in the bleachers, far away from the stage and speakers, and the huge outdoor spaces translated sloppily on to the primitive bootlegging equipment of the day. The acoustic songs in particular suffered; they were usually mostly inaudible to start with, and the audience noise only compounded the problem. Even when the band was in top form, the low recording quality made it hard to enjoy the show or accurately evaluate the performance.

We know from 4 Way Street that even when CSNY was at their peak, they still made mistakes. Their first live album is surprisingly earnest in revealing the flaws of the performers. This time around, they couldn't help themselves from revisionism, but it does make for a more consistently enjoyable listening experience. The lack of most of the stage banter is also somewhat welcome, as the quartet had a well-established history of rambling and ranting, or just mumbling and grumbling. One of the only sections that did make the cut (at the end of "Traces", leading into "Grave Concern") was the hilarious Nixon spoof in which the band tries to convince each other that "I just don't recall", "I wasn't there", and so on. That was well worth keeping, especially considering the band's fascination with the Nixon proceedings at the time.

Locations

Another big question that I've alluded to is the matter of where the individual songs were recorded. Apparently, nine concerts at the end of the tour were recorded (in addition to the aforementioned benefit appearance by Crosby and Nash from which "Guinevere" was taken): two in Uniondale, New York; three in Landover, Maryland; three in Chicago; and the finale in London. However, to name a specific location to a specific song, there aren't many clues available. All I can find are a couple shouts from Graham Nash to the audience, mentioning Wembley in "Almost Cut My Hair" and Maryland in "Military Madness"; the stage announcements after "Ohio", which address Chicago; and the fact that a few songs were only performed a single time during the recorded part of the tour ("Goodbye Dick" and "Mellow My Mind" on August 14 in Uniondale and "Fieldworker" on August 20 in Landover). The rest is anyone's guess, and if the recordings really are composite edits, even comparing with the bootleg versions won't help. In the worst case, if the edits were extreme enough, it might not even be possible to name a single night as the source of a performance.

While we don't know the specific locations of the audio tracks, nor just how much editing really was done, we do know the locations and dates of the video: the first four are from Landover on August 20 and the last four are from London on September 14. One can speculate about how much audio editing was performed on the DVD tracks, and even wonder if the audio (or parts of it) originate from other shows. However, other than a brief moment in "Grave Concern", I failed to observe any conspicuous incongruities between sight and sound, so I believe that any such post-production was minimal. But the real question with the DVD is why there are only eight songs. Is it too much to ask for more? Were those really the only eight songs worth providing video for? The liner notes make a big deal of the fact the these kinds of video recordings were very new and not of very high quality, but certainly most fans interested in this album would understand and just want to see what's there.

The Mix

One last concern is the quality of the mix. This is an easy matter to address: the album sounds great. The instrument separation is about as good as one could get with four guitars, bass, and two percussionists. Crosby and Nash's guitars are sometimes hard to distinguish and low in the mix, but it is well recognized by everyone involved that most of the time they were just strumming along. Neil and Stephen's guitars are usually prominent, and can be distinguished in that Neil is usually in the right channel and Stephen in the left. The various keyboards are usually distinctive; the drums are present but not too loud; the bass is maybe a bit soft, but thankfully not buried, either. The vocals are always clear and usually everyone credited with singing can be heard distinctively.

The only odd thing about mix is that just a few songs have little oddities that can be heard most easily when listening on headphones. "Pre-Road Downs" has several points where there is a weird imbalance in the right channel, which might be bad edits or just an odd drum pattern. "Black Queen" has some similar effects halfway through, as well as some volume swelling in the first half, and "Don't Be Denied" also suffers from some of the same imbalance issues.

Conclusion

It's clear that a project like this had a huge scope and took a massive amount of effort. The results might actually manage to live up to the recent hype, and they absolutely paint a better picture than what history would have led you to believe. The bootlegs have always told a part of the hidden truth, i.e. that the performances were better than the band remembered, but the official release seals the deal. One will always wonder how much doctoring was done, but since little about it feels artificial or overdone, it's an easy album to enjoy. The songs are good, the performances are strong, and it sounds superb.

Score: A-

References and Further Reading:

P.S. Note that the discogs.com page erroneously lists Stills as performing vocals on "On the Beach". There may be other inaccuracies that I haven't noticed.