Rock of Pages

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Joan Jett

Posted By on Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 2:00 PM

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The story of Joan Jett, as presented in the book Joan Jett by Todd Oldham, is the perfect example of how an "official" biography should go.

Yes, technically, this is probably an autobiography. Oldham took interviews with Jett from 1981 to the present, and mixed them up with an interview he did with the rock star, and that is the text of the book. Aside from the introduction from Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna and the bit where her manager Kenny Laguna talks about his relationship with Jett for the entirety of her solo career, the whole book is in the artist's words.

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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Iain Ellis to examine Brit Wits

Posted By on Thu, Mar 25, 2010 at 2:00 PM

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University of Kansas lecturer in English, and author of Rebels Wit Attitude: Subversive Rock Humor, Iain Ellis, is working on the follow-up to his debut book. Entitled Brit Wits, it is a continuation of Rebels Wit Attitude's contention that "have been the truth-tellers of the culture, mirroring and commenting upon the ideological tensions and oscillations of society" (from Ellis' proposal for the new book).

Brit Wits looks to focus on artists as diverse as Lonnie Donegan (king of skiffle) and Splodgenessabounds (this writer's personal favorite), and examine as to how their humor was predicated on more than just a cheap joke, occasionally presaging social change. Brit Wits is almost finished, but is awaiting a publisher.

In addition, Ellis is shopping a book tentatively entitled Manchester, So Much to Answer For, "tracing the history of Manchester music in its local cultural context." The proposal for the book is fascinating, as Ellis grew up in the British town, and the first show he attended was the Buzzcocks. We here at the Pitch loved Ellis' first book, and can't wait for the new one(s).

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Rock of Pages: A Heartbeat And A Guitar

Posted By on Thu, Mar 25, 2010 at 8:30 AM

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In Antonino D'Ambrosio's book, A Heartbeat And A Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, the author weaves three stories together to create one grand tale. Taking Johnny Cash's interest in Native peoples, the story of singer-songwriter Peter La Farge, and (perhaps most importantly) the battle for Native rights, D'Ambrosio combines three histories to place Bitter Tears in a greater context.

It's a good thing, too, as the three stories presented here wouldn't make much of a book. The biographical data on La Farge is necessary to place him within the folk movement of the '60s, as well as assert his importance in the songwriting process of Bitter Tears, but there's a lot of information present that really has little to nothing to do with the making of the album.

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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rock of Pages: Hear No Evil

Posted By on Thu, Mar 18, 2010 at 8:30 AM

The cover to Matthew Paul Turner's Hear No Evil: My Story of Innocence, Music, and the Holy Ghost is slightly deceptive. First of all, the young man on the cover looks like Rivers Cuomo, and is holing up a vinyl record. The bit about the holy ghost is in small type, and fairly much overshadowed by the Away We Go/Juno/500 Days of Summer/Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist font used for the title. By all accounts, this is a hipster book.

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Not a chance. While Turner is a very hip person, he's hip in terms of Christian music, which is decidedly unhip. The book is a story of Turner's life in Christian music, and those artists who had great impact upon him. Some of them you've heard of: Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant, on one hand, with the others, like Sandi Patty, most of you've probably never heard of.

The book dwells on faith, with a semi-mocking tone given to Turner's hearing the voice of God speak to him throughout his life, in a sort of head-shaking, "Can you believe this?" gosh-golly tone, yet at no point ever treating it as anything other than what factually happened. Religious fundamentalism is given a bit of mockery, such as when two lunch ladies are discussing hearing Sandi Patty's "flith" on the local Christian radio station:

"Oh, I had to leave a message with the receptionist. But I told the girl to write down that I was fuming mad about this, and that I was very serious about never listening again if they played her. She told me she would."

However, Turner plays equally with the situation regarding his turning to Calvinism as a way of rebelling against his parents. Only someone raised Baptist could "rebel" with Calvinism.

However, it's Turner's movements within the world of Christian music that make for the most fascinating and intriguing stories. Unfortunately, his personal experiences, such as his tenure with CCM, the bible of the Christian music industry (well, not the Bible, but you know what I mean) is reduced to one major incident. Granted, the story behind his interview with Amy Grant is fascinating, but he could've written an entire book about the behind-the-scenes details of running the biggest Christian music publication.

The same thing happens with his time at a Christian coffee house, booking bands. While the story of a woman who just can't sing, and is far too into her faith and hope of fame is a funny and eventually touching one, it's the only story. While Turner tells fascinating stories, you just get snatches of what happened at various points in his life, without a chance to really latch onto any particular point. There's no chance to get to know anyone other than Turner, and maybe his parents.

It's a shame, as Hear No Evil is a great book, and I read it through in two sittings. It's difficult to put down, and you'll find yourself drawn into his world. Even if you're not fascinated with the strange world of Christian music as I am, it's still a well-told story of kid growing into his own, and how a childhood dreamed eventually shaped an adult man. I just wish there was more of it.

You can read the first chapter of Hear No Evil at this link.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Rock of Pages: Devolution magazine

Posted By on Thu, Mar 11, 2010 at 2:00 PM

As with Bubblegum Slut, a publication we reviewed last month, Devolution is a UK magazine devoted to a subculture with which I'm not all that familiar.

However, while Bubblegum Slut is a photocopied and stapled affair devoted to sleaze rock, with which I'm slightly familiar, Devolution is a slick and glossy magazine devoted to goth, industrial, and punk. Now, when I say "punk" in this case, it's more punk as an aesthetic and style, rather than a musical genre.

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Style is a strong element of Devolution. Editor Nickie has created a magazine with a definite look that ties in with the material being covered. Despite the fact that I was completely unfamiliar with most of the artists -- musical, performance, fashion, and otherwise -- within the pages of the magazine's sixth anniversary issue, everything was made abundantly clear. Each interview, be it with burlesque dancer Amber Sweet or body artist John Davis, the work of the person being interviewed is explained in a way that makes one completely familiar by the end.

Of special interest is the commentary "Goth: A Popular Subversion?" In this editorial, Zoe Enstone asks whether or not goth, like punk before it, can survive the current mainstream acceptance of the various facets of its subculture:

According to some social theorists, subcultures such as punk are gradually absorbed by the mainstream, via the process of commercialisation to such an extent that their initially subversive sybolism becomes neutralised and loses power and meaning.

Heady words, and a well-reasoned editorial that demonstrates that despite the initial, seemingly superficial nature of goth, it has a lot more to offer. Devolution is going to run you about £3.00 an issue, but if you're looking for features on bands and arts not even glossed over in the United States, you need look no further. And this issue comes with a CD that will definitely make you the envy of all your friends.

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Thursday, March 4, 2010

Rock of Pages: How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll

Posted By on Thu, Mar 4, 2010 at 2:00 PM

In the field of rock histories, Elijah Wald's How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Music is a breath of fresh air. Rather than retreading familiar material and taking it out for another run around the track, Wald takes a look at those left behind when critics write the history of music.

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Case in point: while jazz heads might focus on Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk, it's Guy Lombardo and Paul Whiteman who ruled the scene for decades. Essentially, Wald makes two points: First: history, being primarily written by men -- and men who sit at home and listen to records at that -- ignores all the music that was popular. The second follows from that point, in that popular music is ignored because it is popular.

Now, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll isn't a criticism. It's a history, and the point of the book isn't that popular music is any better or any worse. The thrust of Wald's history is to provide the story of those artists who entertained thousands, yet are ignored in favor of the cool and critically acclaimed.

It's sound rationale: I remember reading an interview with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco in which he recalled his days with Uncle Tupelo. In it, Tweedy talked about the fact that he heard BTO's "Takin' Care of Business" just as much as he heard stuff like the Carter Family at family gatherings as a kid. The same goes for pretty much every artist in the market today: when you're a kid, you like music that you like, and that music is usually what everyone else is listening to. This blogger might like his punk and indie rock now, but there are Def Leppard and Technotronic cassettes in his history.

The whole of the book can be summed up at the beginning of chapter 7:

It is often said that history is written by the victors, but in the case of pop music that is rarely true. The victors tend to be out dancing, while the historians sit at their desks, assiduously chronicling music they cannot hear on mainstream radio. [...] One example of this is that virtually all popular music history and criticism up to the 1980s -- and the vast majority of it today -- has been written by men, though most of the main pop trends have been driven by women.

Wald's book is a bracing read, providing a story that's at once familiar and refreshingly new. Surprisingly, it's when the book reaches the titular rock era that it seems a little rushed. It's unfortunate that a book with the title How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll actually focuses more on dance bands and "light" music for its majority, while devoting only the last chapters to the Beatles and rock 'n' roll. While this is still a book which everyone, regardless of their musical preference, should read, it does suggest a title driven more by marketing than by accuracy.

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Rock of Pages: The Two Tone Story

Posted By on Thu, Feb 25, 2010 at 2:42 PM

This is the one and only time I will ever suggest you go out and spend $40 on a book. However, George Marshall's definitive history of the Two Tone ska label, the Two Tone Story, is one of those books that's essential to any music library.

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If you want to be able to understand the UK punk scene, you have to understand that when the shows at the Roxy in London first started, there were no punk singles to play before and in between bands. So, when Don Letts would spin records, he'd play a lot of Jamaican ska and reggae. That means that right from the start, punk and reggae were intertwined.

While the Clash mixed reggae and punk on tunes like "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais" and "Rudie Can't Fail," no bands would ever so effortlessly fuse ska and punk as well as the bands on Two Tone. The bands on the label released a series of singles that to this very day can get folks up and dancing: the Specials' "Little Bitch." The Selector's "On My Radio." The Bodysnatchers' "Easy Life." Madness' "The Prince."

I could go on and on, but Two Tone was this bright little flame that made ska that was at once a tribute to the music of the '60s (with every band on the first Two Tone tour covering Prince Buster's "Madness" every single night), as well as addressing the politics of the Thatcher era in ways that were plain-spoken:

Too Much Too Young was as socially aware as any record that has topped the charts. It hit out at all the unwanted teenage pregnancies and in that sense was pro-abortion and pro-contraception.

The label sadly only lasted about five years. The first release, the Specials' "Gangsters" hit in 1979, and the last relevant release was the Special A.K.A.'s In the Studio in 1984, although most of the records which meant much of anything were released between 1979 and 1981.

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Marshall's book takes the reader from the days of the Coventry Automatics in 1977 all the way up to the release of The Compact Two Tone Story four disc CD set in 1993. It's got all the infighting, politics, and assorted other esoterica one would expect from a niche label history. The Two Tone Story is even more relevant today, considering the Specials have reformed (still lacking Jerry Dammers, however) and are playing a few select U.S. dates prior to their appearance at Coachella.

It'll cost you an arm and a leg to buy George Marshall's book, and even though the idea of spending $40 for a book the size of two seven inches stacked on top of one another might seem a tad exorbitant, you get the most complete history, discography, and collection of rare pictures any fan of '80s music could ever hope for.

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rock of Pages: Flavorpak zine

Posted By on Thu, Feb 18, 2010 at 9:00 AM

It's a damn shame that the Internet pretty much killed zines. While it's cheaper to put together a blog -- in other words, "free" -- than to print up and distribute a zine, the layout options were so much more fantastic. You had folks who would make works of art using the cut-and-paste punk rock aesthetic, kids doing what they could with their school's version of Pagemaker, and other people who approached each issue of their publication with a vision. Really, there's only so much you can do with HTML in terms of layout.

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One of the best Kansas City zines in terms of layout, vision, and content was Flavorpak, which documented the area's hip hop scene. In retrospect, I had no idea what these cats were doing back in the mid-90s. Flipping through the back issues, there's art from Jim Mahfood, an interview with Tech N9ne, and documentation of the area's tagger scene. The covers were grabbing, with a gritty shot that instantly snagged your attention.

Of particular historical interest from Flavorpak's fourth issue is a Q&A with some of the artists involved with the then-recently released Kansas City Misery compilation (which we featured back in July). It showcases the magazine's sense of style, both in terms of coverage and layout. You can check out the scans after the jump.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rock of Pages: Just Kids

Posted By on Thu, Feb 11, 2010 at 2:00 PM

Patti Smith's Just Kids, a memoir of her days living with Robert Mapplethorpe, is one of the best books I've read in years. It manages to be a lyrical work of prose without sacrificing any historical importance.

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Smith's story of her time with Mapplethorpe is, truly, a story of when the two of them were "just kids." When they meet each other, neither of them are yet out of their teens. Just Kids takes the reader through the tumultuous years of the couple and -- with the exception of a coda when Smith visits Mapplethorpe on his deathbed -- ends with the release of Horses and its Mapplethorpe-shot cover.

The book avoids sentimentality, opting instead for a poetic sense of the real. Emotions aren't glossed over, nor is Mapplethorpe's sexuality. Both these things come to a head when Mapplethorpe learns that Smith knows of his homosexuality:

Later, alone with my thoughts, I had a delayed reaction. I felt heavyhearted, disappointed that he hadn't confided in me. He had told me I had nothing to worry about but in the end I did. Yet I understood why he couldn't tell me. I think having to define his impulses and confine his identity in terms of sexuality was foreign to him. His drives toward men were consuming but I never felt loved any less.

As Just Kids goes, it not only follows the developing relationship between the two artists, but also their developing art. Smith discovers Max's Kansas City and CBGB, and from there develops a voice as a poet, which develops further into her music. Mapplethorpe's picking up a Polaroid camera takes him from making necklaces from found objects and pieces of fishing lures.

The love the two feel for one another is palpable as you go through the book. Even if -- like myself -- you're only tangentally familiar with the work of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, this is a touching love story that will warm your heart.

In conjunction with this, I recommend picking up Ed Hamilton's Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, which has many more stories of the famous landmark where Smith, Mapplethorpe, and many other renowned writers, musicians, and artists stayed. Giving it a read will make sense of the seemingly random appearances of people like Salvador Dali and Jimi Hendrix.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Zine Review: Bubblegum Slut

Posted By on Tue, Feb 9, 2010 at 4:00 PM

The UK's Bubblegum Slut fanzine is the premiere publication dedicated to sleaze rock and its various glam offshoots. Editor Alison B. was cool enough to send a copy via Royal Airmail so we could take a look at it, and it's damn fine.

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Sleaze rock is the domain of folks in tight pants, big hair, and a strong yearning for the glory days of L.A.'s Sunset Strip. Appropriately, the cover of this 35th issues of Bubblegum Slut is adorned with the image of a heart-shaped lollipop, and a furry sticker is attached, making this the first tactile-friendly 'zine I've yet to see.

The interior is filled with pictures of men with hair that would drive Farrah Fawcett wild (were she still alive) crammed into pants that the very image of causes my genitals to ache, and more studs and makeup than I thought possible. It seems that every artist in this 'zine falls in line with something said by Jussi of the 69 Eyes:

"When I was a kid dark gothic rock meant Lords of the New Church and The Misfits," comments Jussi. "That's what you listen to when you get drunk and go out partying, but it's still very dark, and now that's my point of view when I look at us being a dark Gothic band."

Every interview is far more in-depth than what you'd expect from a fanzine. Really, aside from how this publication is put together (the photocopy, cut-and-paste, fold-and-staple aesthetic), the interviews with Buckcherry and the 69 Eyes are as well-researched and insightful as anything in a regular magazine like Rolling Stone, but on subjects your "regular" magazines won't touch. It also has the traditional book and CD reviews, as well as some clever and amusing features on tribute bands (I particularly like the scales used to rank them, such as "Chance of Offending") and Sunset Strip groupie Sable Starr.

Oh, and it comes with a free CD, filled with bands of whom I've never heard. It's currently stuck in my car's stereo, which sucks, because it means I can't tell you who does this fantastic cock-rock cover of Blondie's "Atomic." Really -- you might pay £4 shipped for every issue, but you've got a week's worth of entertainment.

If you have a zine you'd like featured, e-mail me at nick.spacek@pitch.com.

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