It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

Different Class by Pulp was released twenty years ago today, on October 30, 1995. I first heard some of the music on it a few months earlier.

Summer 1995 was in many respects the point at which I developed my own taste in music, rather than having only a subset of my parents’. I was sixteen years old, and out of school (going to sixth form college from September, which felt far more grown up). I’d been to a couple of gigs, and was buying all the music magazines I could — I’d buy NME, Mojo, and Q regularly, Melody Maker, Vox, and Select when they had a tape on the cover. That was the summer I discovered Pet Sounds, and the song that spoke so much to my lonely adolescent self that my life became shaped around the Beach Boys — I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.

But there was *new* music, too, that spoke to me almost as much, and I remember exactly where I was when I heard it for the first time.

My dad took me to Glastonbury that year, partly as a reward for me doing well on my GCSEs, but mostly so he’d have an excuse to go himself. There were a lot of great moments that festival, things I knew were special — Page & Plant’s first UK gig since Led Zeppelin broke up — and things I didn’t — Jeff Buckley’s last ever UK gig. There were the first stirrings of Britpop around — and Oasis headlined (and I lost the enthusiasm I’d had for them from their records after seeing their utterly awful live set) — but this was right before it became massive, and a lot of the bill was stuff that a few months later would seem of another era. The Black Crowes, Sinead O’Connor, the Cure, Soul Asylum, Tanita Tikaram…

I absorbed it all, more or less uncritically. I’d been to three proper gigs in my life to that point. The Boo Radleys or the Bootleg Beatles, it didn’t matter to me. I wanted to see it all.

And on the Saturday, I spent a big chunk of the day in the cabaret tent, mostly to see Mark Thomas, who I’d loved in his spots on Jonathan Ross’ Saturday Zoo, and I was mooching back to my tent at the end of the night.

I knew that the Stone Roses had been meant to headline, and that they’d pulled out the week before (as I recall, Mani had broken his arm in a bike crash or something). They’d been replaced as headliners by Pulp, who I’d seen on Naked City on the TV a few times, and who I’d dismissed as ironic electropop pasticheurs. But then the Stone Roses were one of those bands that the bullies at my school liked, so it was much of a muchness to me. I’d somehow managed not to hear Pulp’s new single, their first really big hit…

And so I walked towards the Pyramid Stage not thinking of much except getting an early night, and then my jaw dropped and I saw this:

That gig made Q Magazine’s “100 Greatest Gigs of the Century” list a few years later, and I can believe it. I got there maybe two songs in — the first one I definitely remember is Underwear, but I may have heard one song before that — and while the video is great, what it doesn’t show you, what it *can’t* show you, is the sheer charisma of Jarvis Cocker that night. I have never seen anything like it before or since. I’ve seen better bands in terms of musicianship, or the setlist, or whatever, but the sheer *presence* of the man was something that no-one could duplicate, not even Cocker himself. I’ve seen him or Pulp live three more times since, and every show was well worth seeing, but nothing approached that one, the precise moment that Pulp went from perennial indie second-stringers to one of the biggest bands in Britain — and the best.

Much of the set was from their previous album, His & Hers, but the new songs they played… Underwear, sounding like Gene Pitney as a voyeur; Disco 2000, with its ubiquitous childhood memory attached to a T-Rex crunch; Sorted For Es And Wizz, with the crowd roaring at “I seem to have left an important part of my brain, somewhere in a field in Wiltshire”; and the one that spoke to me more than any others, Mis-Shapes, the one about not fitting in, and being bullied, but how the misfits are the clever ones. It can sound like geek exceptionalism now, like the sort of thing a Redditor or 4chan denizen might say, but for a 16-year-old fat kid with Asperger’s, someone who was regularly queerbashed in his home town because having long hair was too much gender ambiguity for the bullies (who all looked like the kind of people I’d see hanging round the Village in Manchester a couple of years later, all cropped hair and singlets), it was an absolute lifeline. “We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of, that’s our minds.” Yeah.

And then, at the end of the set, Com. Mon. Peo. Ple.

The greatest political single of my lifetime, greater even than Ghost Town by the Specials. Maybe the greatest political record ever. The combination of the unbelievably catchy chorus with Cocker’s voice — one of the most underrated in popular music, half way between Scott Walker and Jake Thackray — but the sheer, visceral, anger and contempt in the lyrics. “You will never understand what it means to live your life with no meaning or control, and with nowhere left to go. You are amazed that they exist, and they burn so bright while you can only wonder why”.

I’d been to private school, on a scholarship. My dad used to drive me there in a Reliant Robin with holes in the floor, which had cost him sixty pounds. You can bet that that one resonated. It still does.

By the time Different Class, the album itself, came out, it could almost have been an anticlimax. I’d watched the VHS of Channel Four’s coverage of Glastonbury to death, I’d bought the CD single of Misfits and Sorted for Es and Wizz (with the live Common People from Glastonbury as one of the B-sides), and I’d gone through what was at the time the hottest summer in history listening to them, along with Blur, and Supergrass, and Dodgy, and all the other big Britpop bands, but with almost no connection to the culture that was producing these things — I had literally no friends in my home town, and my school friends lived thirty miles away. But by the time Different Class came out, I’d made a new group of friends at sixth form college. I was a different person. It should have been a let-down.

But it wasn’t. The songs I *hadn’t* already heard on the album were just as good. The glorious Spectropop of Something Changed (possibly a little too raised-eyebrow for its own good, but what a beautiful song nonetheless), I Spy, which still sends shivers down my spine with its viciousness (it is in many ways the flip side of Misfits, its 4channish id made explicit), the gorgeous but heartbreaking Live Bed Show… Different Class is one of the very, very small number of albums that have no truly bad tracks. Even the weakest things on it, Monday Morning and Bar Italia, are better than the best things on the contemporaneous albums by Blur and Oasis that sold so much better at the time.

It wouldn’t last, of course. Within two years Britpop was dead, replaced by “anthemic” indie music that replicated the worst of the dull bands before it. Pulp’s follow-up album, This Is Hardcore, was a great album, but didn’t capture the imagination the same way. The hope that something might change, that New Labour might be better than the 18 years of awful Tory government that preceded it, was dashed as well.

How much of the greatness I see in Different Class is the greatness of being sixteen, and free to define my own identity for the first time, and discovering the tiny overlap between “things I like” and “things that are currently popular”? How much of what I see as the decline in indie music since then is based on my own less-than-wonderful adult life and the fact that I completely failed to live up to my potential? Some, no doubt. Maybe even most of it.

But that’s true for everyone. 1995 also saw the Beatles’ reunion, and Free As A Bird being propelled up the charts, one place higher than Common People was, based on no qualities in the record itself, but people nostalgic for their own youth a quarter of a century earlier. That doesn’t take anything away from Revolver and Rubber Soul — they really *are* that great. And no matter what Different Class means to me, now that I’m the age that Paul Weller was when those magazines I was reading were mocking him for daring to still make new music (and, indeed, the age my dad was when he took me to Glastonbury), I defy anyone to listen to the best stuff off it, especially Common People, and not respond.

NB: Please do not read the lyrics whilst listening to the recordings

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A thought, on countries and country

Listening to Johnny Cash at the moment, I’m reminded of a thought I’ve had a few times, which is that one of the odd differences between Britain and America is that for all British people like to think of themselves as nature-lovers (“England’s green and pleasant land” and all that), and think of America in terms of its big cities, the rural is almost completely missing from our music in a way it isn’t in the US.

Oh, we have lots of songs *about* the country — you’ll only find Cliff Richard out in the country, the Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, and so on — but all those songs are about the country as a place to escape from the city, and they’re as idealised as the California of the Beach Boys.

What we don’t have, and what a lot of American music has always had, is music where the rural life is taken for granted as a background for the songs, so in Busted Johnny Cash or Ray Charles can sing “I got a cow that’s gone dry and a hen that won’t lay/And a big stack of bills getting bigger each day”, or in Movie Magg Carl Perkins will offer to take his date to the cinema on horseback. And this is the background for almost all blues and country music right through the 60s (not quite all — there’s an urbanised strain of blues that comes along in the 50s, but a *lot* of blues still assumes knowledge of the rural lifestyle as a background). And this is still true today for a lot of it — listen to Steve Earle and a lot of the songs are about things like trying to cope when the farm is repossessed, and the same goes for a lot of the music I hear on the radio when I visit my in-laws in Minnesota.

I know Britain is far more urbanised than the US, but it’s surprising that I can’t think of *any* British songs taking rural life as an everyday background assumption, rather than as a subject of the song. The closest I can think of is Love On A Farmboy’s Wages by XTC, and even that is clearly set in a DH Lawrence past (“shilling for the fellow who brings the sheep in” twelve years after British currency went decimal). Other than that… well, there’s “I Got A Brand New Combine Harvester” by the Wurzels…

I wonder why this is?

The Solid Silver 60s Show

One thing I do occasionally, but rarely write about, is attend package shows of old 60s pop stars. These shows have a bad reputation, and not without reason, but at the same time they do provide a service. Very occasionally you’ll get someone on there who could hold down a full show by themselves — I saw the Zombies on a package tour last year, for example — but there are a lot of musicians who had one or two big hits, but who you wouldn’t particularly want to see do a full show. But put five or six of them on the same bill, and there’s no chance of getting bored.

They’re also a useful source of money for these older performers. Almost all the performers who end up doing these tours are non-writing performers, doing material written by others — and songwriting is where the long-term royalties are in music.

This is a review of last Monday’s Solid Silver Sixties Show at the Palace Theatre, but really it could double for any of them. While this show ended up almost accidentally organised by genre — Immediate Records pop-soul followed by Merseybeat — all these shows really have a hierarchy based on number of recognisable hits and, crucially, original members — with original members, it’s not just number that counts, though. A drummer counts least, the lead singer most. Non-original members who played keyboards with the band for two weeks in 1965 and rejoined in 2004 get half points.

All these shows start with the band with fewest original members, first doing their own set and then acting as backing band for the solo performers who aren’t big enough to have their own band. For this show, that was The New Amen Corner, who can be distinguished from Amen Corner by their not having any members of Amen Corner (the programme suggests that their sole connection to the original band is that their saxophone player is a friend of the original band’s sax player). They did, however, do a competent medley of Amen Corner’s hits, or at least the first verse and chorus of each of them, and they all looked very smart in their blazers.

Then on came P.P. Arnold, the main reason I came to this show, and she was utterly breathtaking. Her performance was slightly let down by The New Amen Corner’s drummer (who’s fine on the ballads, but on anything above mid-tempo just thrashes the hi-hat frantically, trying to keep on the beat). But her performance of Angel Of The Morning in particular (her opening song) sent literal shivers down my spine. She sounds as good as she did fifty years ago, and on If You Think You’re Groovy and The First Cut Is The Deepest she was almost indistinguishable from the records. I was in actual tears at points, and she was worth the ticket price on her own.

She rounded out her set with covers of the Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder, and River Deep Mountain High (the record she was promoting as an Ikette when she first came to Britain) before introducing Chris Farlowe.

I’d seen Farlowe before, about fifteen years ago, supporting Van Morrison, and remembered him as being a bit rubbish, but I really like a couple of his singles from the 60s, and I’d thought maybe I’d misremembered or had been a bit harsh. It turns out I *had* misremembered, in that he isn’t just a bit rubbish, he actually has magical anti-music powers.

Farlowe has a fantastic voice, even now, and Out Of Time and Handbags And Gladrags are great singles. Adding in a Small Faces cover, a version of Stand By Me, and a couple of other crowd-pleasers should mean that he’d be able to put on a great show.

But sadly, where on the record Farlowe sings, say “what’s become of you my love, when they have finally stripped you of, the handbags and the gladrags that your granddad had to sweat for you to buy?”, in performance he sings something like:

“Wha-a-a-a-at, I say what, what what what, I say what Manchester becomes, I say what becomes, what becom-om-om-om-omes oh yeah oh yeah, I say what becomes of you mamamamamamama ma luhhhhrve oh yeah what becomes of you Manchester, when they I say they lord oh lord when they have I say when they have I say what becomes of you Manchester when they have…”

On top of this he jumps between registers completely at random, going from a growl to a falsetto shriek to his normal voice with no thought whatsoever to musicality or the needs of the song. It was painfully, shockingly bad, the worst performance I’ve ever heard from a professional singer. Oddly, he went down quite well with the audience, but it was godawful.

Next up were The Merseybeats, closing the first half of the show in the pseudo-headliner spot always given to a band who still have their lead singer. In the case of the Merseybeats, they actually have both guitarist/vocalists, who’ve been performing together for nearly sixty years, and while neither has an exceptional voice, they harmonise beautifully together, in a very Everly Brothers manner. Their set included very strong versions of their major hits (including a FANTASTIC version of Sorrow, one of the best singles of the 60s), and cover versions of songs they would have played at the Cavern in the early days (Hey Baby, Let It Be Me). They’re not a band I’d want to see do a full show, but a half-hour set of hits left a big smile on my face.

For the second half, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Amen Corner came back on, this time in collarless Beatle suits, to back Mike Pender, former lead singer of The Searchers. A friend tweeted to me earlier that day calling Pender the epitome of chicken-in-a-basket performers, and there was certainly an element of that about him (in fact, his scouse banter and white quiff combined to remind me more than a little of Tom O’Connor), but there’s no doubt that some of the Searchers’ hits are among the best records of the early 60s, and he performed them competently enough. The best moment, though, came when he performed Four Strong Winds, a song he had apparently been encouraged to add to his normally-fixed repertoire on the recent US British Invasion package tour (I suspect Andrew Sandoval, who produced that tour, suggested it). At that point, the slick professionalism gave way entirely to a much more subtle performance — I suspect because he’d not played the song ten thousand times before.

The final act was Billy J Kramer, backed by his own band. Kramer (who was also on that package tour with Pender) is in many ways the anti-Farlowe. Kramer is well known for having had no singing voice or ability whatsoever, and for only being signed because Brian Epstein fancied him. His vocals on his hits were only barely competent, and that because George Martin got him to multitrack them to smooth out the errors, and then added a harpsichord line to show people where the melody was.

But over the last fifty years Kramer has clearly worked on his vocals a LOT. He’s someone with no natural ability who has managed through sheer effort to get a resonant voice, great projection, and good musical sensibilities. He’s still not a *great* singer, but he’s more than competent, and he’s managed to give himself a really quite impressive voice.

Unfortunately, the impressive voice he’s given himself is his chest voice, which is a resonant baritone somewhere in the general vicinity of Scott Walker or Johnny Cash, while his records were all sung in his head voice, a rather breathy tenor. He now sounds nothing like he did on his hit records, and his attempts to sing them in his new style clearly disappointed a LOT of people — a substantial chunk of the audience walked out. However, when he performed Jealous Guy and The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, he was genuinely impressive. It’s sad that by becoming a much better singer, Kramer disappoints so much of his audience.

The show then finished, as these things always do, with a full-cast singalong, this time to Glad All Over.

Overall, these shows are generally more interesting anthropologically than as a musical entertainment — a lot of the interest is seeing the old showbiz patterns of fifty years ago, things that have become cliches and signifiers of schlockiness, preserved almost as in amber and still managing to appeal to crowds as much as they ever did. For someone who grew up in a time when there was a huge distinction between serious music and showbiz, seeing Mike Pender say “Oh, you don’t want to hear Sweets For My Sweet or When You Walk In The Room or any of that old stuff, do you?” and the crowd eating it up is quite bizarre but fascinating — this is a show for people who have a totally different set of expectations than any other musical performance I’ll attend this year.

But at the same time there *is* plenty of genuine musical value there. P.P. Arnold singing Angel Of The Morning (and if she ever tours doing full shows on her own, I’ll be there — she’s incredible). The Merseybeats doing Sorrow. These are things I’m very glad to have seen and heard, and the fact that they’re presented in a less-than-sophisticated context makes the performances all the sweeter — that these people weren’t performing for an audience of music snobs *but still managed to be that good* is impressive.

These shows aren’t for everyone, but it’s an experience I’d recommend to anyone who has any affection for the music of the pre-psychedelic 60s. Wait until you see one of these tours (there are three or four of this type every year) that has at least one act you actually want to see, and buy a ticket. It’s a trip back to the past in more ways than one.

This Year’s Holiday Mix

I was going to call this a Christmas mix, but given that there are songs about New Year and Hanukkah, and several generic “winter” songs, this is The Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Generic Winterval Holiday Mix

I’m Walking Backwards For Christmas — The Goons
Happy New Year — Beverly
Back Door Santa — Clarence Carter
Blue Christmas (To Whom It May Concern) — Miles Davis
Snowflakes — The Honeys
We Three Kings Of Orient Are — The Beach Boys
Santa Claus Is Coming To Town — Little Richard
Rock & Roll Winter — Wizzard
New Year Carol/Residue — Waterson: Carthy
I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day — Frank Sidebottom
Wonderful Christmastime — Paul McCartney
White Christmas — Charlie Parker
Shake Hands With Santa Claus — Louis Prima
I’m Spending Hanukah In Santa Monica — Tom Lehrer
The Santa Claus Crave — Elzadie Robinson
Auld Lang Syne — The Beach Boys

The spoken linking passages are all taken from I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Christmas Carol!

Last year’s mix is here, and 2012’s is here

Lost Causes

Last night, I found myself in tears, and thinking to myself “despite everything, I still believe in Liberalism, and I still believe that the Lib Dems are the best vehicle for it. I’m going to have to fight harder for the party”.

Which is probably not the response Steve Earle was intending to provoke.

I’ve been having a tiny bit of a crisis regarding the party recently. It’s partly been to do with stuff that’s been in the news — not just the Rennard stuff (about which I agree with Jennie), but also Clegg’s speech about immigrants, which had me spitting blood. (And it was specifically the bits about *immigrants*, not about immigration, that annoyed me. People of good will can disagree about what level of immigration should be allowed, but taking rights and services away from people who are already here is just vile.) I try to be loyal in my public statements, to accept the realities of politics, and not just to be someone sniping from the sidelines, but that really pushed me to my limit.

But mostly because I’ve been fairly unwell myself for quite a while, and had a *LOT* of personal stuff to deal with (enough that when I’ve just listed some of the “highlights” of the last couple of months people have tended to laugh because the sheer number of things going wrong has been hilarious) and I’ve had difficulty keeping to my party commitments. I’m on my local party exec, and I try to do a good job, but there are some very simple things that I haven’t been able to do recently. I hope to be able to pull my weight again very soon.

These things have combined to create a sort of “what the fuck is the point of even bothering?” attitude in me. I’ve been using up more and more energy, but having less and less actual ability to do the things required of me, and all for what seem to be rapidly diminishing returns in terms of result. I’ve been seriously questioning why I bother.

Basically, in short, I’ve been turning into a whiner.

But yesterday I went to see Steve Earle, at the conference centre attached to the Echo Arena in Liverpool. I hadn’t meant to go to the gig, actually, but my friend Emily had a workmate who couldn’t go, and so I got their ticket. I love Earle’s work, but hadn’t seen him live since about 1998 — he always seems to play Manchester when there’s another gig on the same night that I already have a ticket for, or when I’m out of town.

After a support act which reinforced my desperate desire to get out and perform music again — their guitarist played exactly like I do, by which I don’t mean “badly”, but that he had exactly the same phrasing, to a degree that was frankly spooky — Earle came on and launched into You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and I remember realising that I have never yet seen an American act play Liverpool and *not* play a Beatles song. Blondie even did it in Delamere Forest, because that’s close enough…

For those who don’t know who Earle is (which I discovered when talking about the gig in the days leading up to it is far more people than I would have thought), he’s usually described as a country singer, but like all genre labels that’s something that can describe totally different forms of music. In Earle’s case, it seems to mean “man who has both a guitar and a Texas accent”, and not much more than that — Earle’s music definitely has a resemblance to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Michael Nesmith, or Townes Van Zandt, but no more so than its resemblance to Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits (in ballad mode), Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen, or Elvis Costello, none of whom normally get called country singers.

Earle did a two-hour set, which touched on most of the highlights of his career — I Ain’t Never Satisfied, My Old Friend The Blues, Devil’s Right Hand,Goodbye, Tom Ames’ Prayer, Copperhead Road, Guitar Town, and Galway Girl (which got a small number of people who had seemed rather disapproving of his swearing and songs about crime, and who had presumably only come because they knew that song from the cider advert, on his side), and the rest. He also talked a lot between songs — about the different types of song he writes (“I write those songs so that I get women in the audience, which stops my audience getting uglier and hairier, because when I look at the men it’s like looking in a mirror” — which made me laugh more than it should, because I’d been joking earlier that Earle’s current glasses/balding head/huge beard look is stealing my style, and because he said this right after Goodbye, my single favourite song of his, so it might not be having quite the effect he hopes), and about his own personal struggles (he’s currently going through his seventh divorce, though to his sixth wife — he married and divorced one of them twice).

The one area of his songwriting he didn’t go into much in the show was his political songwriting. While almost everything Earle does has an at least implicit political message, he left out most of the explicitly political stuff he did in the mid-2000s, songs like John Walker’s Blues or Amerika v6.0 (The Best We Can Do), at least until the encore.

But for the first song of the encore, he played Jerusalem, his song about the Middle East, and talked about the work he’s done there producing collaborations between Jewish and Palestinian musicians and working with anti-war Israeli activists. And he said “I don’t believe in lost causes, because I’m a recovering heroin addict, and for a long time everyone thought I was a lost cause, and I even thought so myself, and I turned my life around”, before talking about how Belfast had changed over the years, and how even the seemingly impossible can soon become normal in politics, and then singing:

I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good
And death machines were rumblin’ ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood
And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way
And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say

And I almost listened to him
Yeah, I almost lost my mind
Then I regained my senses again
And looked into my heart to find

That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem

And suddenly I understood how Earle could carry on his own political campaigning, which is mostly against the death penalty in the US, a cause that seems far more hopeless than any of the causes I’ve been involved in. And I thought about my own pathetic moaning that I haven’t yet got everything I want in politics, and that changing the world is quite hard and sometimes you have to do it even when you have a headache or are a bit tired, and I compared that to the people in the Middle East for whom political activity is literally a matter of life and death, and who just get on and do it, and realised just how comparatively easy my own political “struggles” really are.

So I’m more resolved than ever that I’m going to keep campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, and that I’m going to keep pushing within the party for it to be more like it is at its best and less like it is at its worst. I can’t promise that I’ll be any more use than I have been, given my health, or that the efforts I do make will be any more successful. But I’ll do what I can, when I can, to make the world a little bit better…

CD Reissues Of The Year

Andrew Sandoval just posted a link to “Ultimate Classic Rock”‘s list of the best reissues of the year, and it looked frankly dull for the most part — deluxe editions of ‘classic’ albums we’ve all heard a million times. Elvis, Beatles, Van Morrison, Nirvana. Yes, yes. All very nice, I suppose, but not really any use to anyone. You already know if you’re going to buy box set versions of Rumours or Tommy, and nothing I can say will persuade you not to if you plan to.

These, on the other hand, you might not even realise you wanted. But you do.

Harry Nilsson: The RCA Albums Collection
I reviewed this when it came out, and I stand by everything I said. A gorgeous 17-CD collection, this collects fourteen of Nilsson’s proper albums, along with mono versions of the first two albums and well over a hundred additional tracks (either as bonus tracks on the albums or as bonus discs). It’s *slightly* more Nilsson than you really need, but there’s a hundred and fifty or so tracks here that stand up to any music you’ll ever hear, and even the worst of it is interesting.

Captain Beefheart And His Magic Band: Safe As Milk
Beefheart’s first album doesn’t get much love from his fans, who see it as too poppy. That’s precisely why I *do* love it — this is Beefheart at a point where he and his band still seemed to see commercial success as a possibility, and they were making music aimed at a broad audience but without watering down the strangeness of the music. The result is, at times, incredibly close to the sound of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones, Ltd by the Monkees (which was recorded around the same time with the same engineer).
This CD reissue restores the original mono mix on CD for the first time, and while it’s not as vast a difference as with some 60s mono versions, it does cohere slightly better this way.

The Beach Boys: Made In California
A six-CD box set of *nearly* all the Beach Boys you need, this is a career-spanning set covering everything from Surfin’ in 1961 to Isn’t It Time in 2012. Roughly three CDs of it is material you’ve already got if you have the slightest interest in the band, but it sounds clearer than ever, while the other three CDs worth of material is made up of unreleased tracks, live versions and alternate mixes, including some truly spectacular unreleased songs like You’re Still A Mystery and Where Is She?

The Monkees Present: Deluxe Edition
The Monkees Present is one of the Monkees’ weaker albums, recorded when pretty much everyone had lost interest in the band, including the band themselves. But Andrew Sandoval and his colleagues at Rhino Handmade have made something of a silk purse from it with this 3CD set, collecting together all the sessions from that era, including in particular several great Nesmith and Dolenz songs which remained unreleased at the time for God knows what reason. Putting it all together in one place shows that there was a great album in there if anyone had been bothered to release one at the time.

Windy: A Ruthann Friedmann Songbook
Ruthann Friedmann is best known for writing Windy for the Association and Candy Apple Cotton Candy for Pat Shannon. This collection of unreleased recordings from the 60s, demos and recordings for a never-released solo album, features both those songs plus versions of High Coin and I Think It’s Going To Rain Today, and has Van Dyke Parks, Curt Boettcher and Randy Newman contributing as producers and musicians, along with Lee Mallory from the Millennium and several of the Wrecking Crew. Soft-pop folk loveliness.

The Family Tree: Miss Butters
This was actually reissued in November 2012, but I didn’t do one of these lists last year and I’m feeling generous. This is *very* much in the mould of Nilsson’s Aerial Ballet, having the same producer, arranger, cover designer and record label (and one song co-written by Nilsson), but also has something of the feel of Odessa or Genuine Imitation Life. It’s a concept album, possibly the first “rock opera” ever, and anyone who likes toytown pop music will love it — song titles like Melancholy Vaudeville Man and Mrs McPheeny (Has Flu In The Chest And Has Needed A Rest For So Long) give you some idea of what kind of thing it is.
The band, after a couple of lineup changes, went on to be moderately successful as The Wackers.

Michael Fennelly — Love Can Change Everything (Demos 1967-72)
Michael Fennelly was one of the most underrated songwriters of the 60s. He wrote and sang lead on Go Back by Crabby Appleton, but these days he’s probably best known for his contributions to The Millennium, including the gorgeous To Claudia On Thursday.
This collection of demos spans his pre-Millennium recordings, The Millennium, Crabby Appleton, and the recordings for his Chris White-produced solo album Lane Changer.

The Paley Brothers: The Complete Recordings
Before Andy Paley became known as a collaborator with the Beach Boys, Madonna, and Spongebob Squarepants, he and his brother Jonathan were playing CBGBs and making catchy skinny-tie pop-punk. This compilation, featuring collaborations with the Ramones, Brian Wilson, Phil Spector and Jonathan Richman among others, shows a very good but not quite great pop duo who even then had the knack of finding great people to work with and writing catchy pop hooks.

Harry Nilsson: Flash Harry
Nilsson’s voice was pretty much shot by the time he recorded this, but he still manages an interesting version of the Van Dyke Parks/Lowell George Latin song Cheek To Cheek, and a decent stab at his own Lennon collaboration Old Dirt Road. It’s hardly essential, but if you’re going to spend the fifty quid for all Nilsson’s other albums in the box set, you might as well add this — the only proper Nilsson album not included in the box — as well and get the complete set. This had never been released on CD before this year, and had been out of print for thirty years, so even though it’s not great it’s nice to have it available.
It’s also bookended by two Eric Idle songs — it begins with Idle singing a song he’d written about Nilsson, and ends with Nilsson’s cover of Bright Side Of Life (possibly the first cover of that song ever recorded) — an appropriate ending for Nilsson’s last ever album.

Where The Action Is

One of the most interesting phenomena in music is the idea of the ‘scene’ — the way that good music isn’t generally created by artists in a vacuum, but certain times and places seem to produce vastly more good music than they should, usually by musicians who know and work with each other. Collaboration and competition seems to spur people on to much greater heights, while great musicians with no scene tend to stagnate.

Possibly the greatest of all these scenes is that of mid-60s LA, which was almost unique in that there were at least four separate but overlapping groups of musicians — the Laurel Canyon folkies, the studio pop bands, the Sunset Strip rockers and the Zappa/Beefheart contingent.

Each of these groups of musicians tends to have its own following, and there is at first glance little to connect, say, the Mamas And The Papas to Captain Beefheart, or Tim Buckley to the Beach Boys. But the connections are there — I remember once talking to a friend who is very into the pop music from that period, who had just heard Safe As Milk by Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band for the first time. When I asked what he thought of it, he said “It sounds just like the Monkees”.

And while that’s not a connection I’d have made at the time, it does — and it’s not surprising. Both bands were recording in the same studios, with the same engineers, and knew each other socially. Ry Cooder worked with both bands around the same time. Electricity or Yellow Brick Road could easily fit on Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.

The whole LA scene — all the parts of it — is documented on the wonderful box set Where The Action Is! Los Angeles Nuggets 1965-68, released in 2009 (but which I only got round to picking up the other week). At 100 songs, it covers almost all the important musicians from this era (apart from Frank Zappa, whose estate have a bad relationship with Warners, the producers of the set), as well as many, many bands who released just one or two great singles.

As a Nuggets set, it is biased more heavily towards the garage rock Sunset Strip bands than I would personally have chosen, but it still does an extraordinary job of putting this music into a proper context. You get the demo of the Monkees’ hit Words, by songwriters Boyce & Hart, along with the Monkees themselves with their Moog-psych masterpiece Daily Nightly, but then you also get the Rising Sons (Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder’s mid-60s blues band) doing a riffy blues cover of the Monkees’ Take A Giant Step.

You get Dino Desi & Billy (who were a teenage band including the son of Desi Arnez and Lucille Ball, and Dean Martin’s son Dino), and Jan & Dean singing about perfume flavoured chewing gum, but also Captain Beefheart.

And there’s also the Byrds, the Mamas & The Papas, the Beach Boys, Van Dyke Parks, Randy Newman, Love, Buffalo Springfield, The Doors, Sagittarius, Tim Buckley, The Dillards, The Knickerbockers, The Turtles, The Electric Prunes, The Penny Arkade, The Association, The Standells…

The hundred tracks here lead smoothly from fuzz guitar and Rickenbacker jangle to the outer reaches of psychedelia via the most bubblegum of mainstream pop, and manage to do it in a way that makes the links between these different bands and styles apparent.

This set, particularly discs three and four, is absolutely essential to anyone with any interest in 60s pop and rock music.