10 October 2020

Lennon: The New York Years (aka LENNONYC) now available on BBC iplayer


For UK readers, Michael Epstein's 2010 documentary LENNONYC, known over here as Lennon: The New York Years, has just been repeated on BBC 4 and will be available to watch on BBC iplayer until November 8th. It's well worth watching if you didn't happen to catch it last night.

Even if you did see it you may not be aware of the documentary equivalent of bonus tracks available on the PBS website: the raw audio for ten interviews in which director Michael Epstein can be heard gently prompting - and occasionally prodding - interviewees to talk about matters which, in some cases, they haven't discussed publicly before.

These were originally available as downloadable podcasts, which no longer seems to be the case, but you can still listen to them on the PBS website here and they can be recommended very highly indeed. They were posted one at a time and it's only a pity that the promised Yoko Ono raw interview material was never added - wonder why?

It certainly seems like everyone else of relevance to his New York years makes an appearance, and there is even an interview with Colin Hall, curator of Lennon's boyhood home Mendips. That un-American aspect of Lennon's life could not, in the end, be made to fit into the documentary but the audio provides fascinating background anyway, helping to explain the precise reasons for that gulf between Mimi's generation and John's evident in the early years biopic Nowhere Boy - a film praised by the critic Philip French more for its evocation of the drabness of fifties Britain than any Beatle associations.

The Colin Hall interview is paired with a conversation with Colin Hanton of the Quarrymen. Below is the comment I posted to the PBS page when the recordings were first made public:
So glad they’ve been made available even if they are beyond the scope of the documentary. I found the Colin Hall one particularly illuminating for its explanation of the appeal of rock’n'roll to youngsters like Lennon and the way it would have seemed purely “frivolous” to many of Mimi’s generation who had experienced the wartime bombing of Liverpool, not to mention “subversive” in a Britain which was still class-ridden, “challenging the established order of life in the United Kingdom.” And good to see he correctly links rock’n'roll to John’s earlier love of BBC radio programme The Goon Show, with its mockery of authority figures. Like many of the probable audience for this podcast, I already know much of this story well, but it’s told here with particular clarity and vividness.

 You can find a transcription of  part of the Colin Hall interview here and my review of Nowhere Boy here.

When there seemed no prospect of the documentary being screened in the UK I bought the US-only DVD release because I was so excited by the podcasts and didn't want to gamble on the BBC screening it within my lifetime.

In the event I was slightly disappointed, even though the assembly of information is undoubtedly done pretty well. Why? The answer is simple, and no reflection on Mr Epstein's filmmaking abilities. Beguiled by the intimacy of those raw interviews and their wealth of detail I had been expecting more, failing to appreciate that the material had to compressed, and editorial decisions made, in order to tell a coherent story in the running time of the documentary. Nor was I in the best frame of mind to extend indulgence, having paid the full whack, wack, for the DVD - sans extras, I may add, including the podcast audio. That said, it's fun to see such devices as the graphics used to accompany the Rock'n'Roll recording sessions, including what appears to be Phil Spector's head exploding. 

To conclude, here's a review I wrote of the documentary at the time:

I have just obtained the DVD of LENNONYC, the PBS documentary whose podcasts can be downloaded from the PBS American Masters site. If you are in America, you can watch it online for free, but not so in the UK, so the big question for UK readers is: is it worth splashing out for a copy of the Region 1 DVD?

I think it is, although I want to qualify that a little.

If, like me, you have downloaded and enjoyed the podcasts of raw interview audio, you will be aware, watching the documentary, that the ten-odd hours' worth of podcast material gave you a richness of experience which, inevitably, cannot be duplicated in the film.

If all the interviews were on camera, it's a pity that further highlights, at the very least, weren't included as extras on the DVD, although perhaps a podcast is the better medium, listening to these conversations via earphones, experiencing a real sense of intimacy without the distraction of visuals to remind you that you are not, after all, in the same room as those two people.

So you lose a lot of the details. But the story of Lennon's time in America is told cogently - and for the first time I really understood why he was perceived as a threat by the authorities. The quality of live footage is excellent, and I've read that the sound is top notch, although I was listening on equipment which isn't exactly state of the art so can't judge for myself.

I suppose the problem is that, especially if you have already listened to the podcasts, there isn't much in the way of further revelation, and what you have is a story already well known to people like me. But it's an excellent telling of that story and I must say that the death is handled very movingly. I know from an interview with the director that there was a conscious decision not to allow Lennon's killer any further oxygen, so we cut from Lennon's last hours to the aftermath of the murder in a very effective manner which I won't spoil.

As the podcasts came out in the weeks leading up to the film's first broadcast on American television, the makers promised, or at least seemed to imply, that one of the podcasts would be of an interview with Yoko Ono, but that hasn't been made available. The suggestion was that her contributions would be a revelation, but I can't say that this was really the case from what was used in the film - there was perhaps the odd suggestion of a harsher attitude towards her husband, but nothing which hadn't already been signalled by some of the interviewees in the podcasts, most notably when those who were trying to control his drinking were told "He's your problem now."

Reviews I've read suggest that May Pang is given short shrift  (she features, but only briefly, and the sexual part of her relationship with Lennon, and Yoko's role in it goes unexamined) and that the film may be compromised by Yoko's involvement.

I suppose the answer to that is that you would be unlikely to get any kind of a film without that cooperation. Accepting that, then it is certainly possible to say that the decision to focus on a specific period of Lennon's life allows for a degree of detail not possible in the John Lennon: Imagine film. But I would like to hear the raw audio of Yoko's interviews. Did she withhold permission for them to be used? It also sounds like there may have been on camera interviews and audio-only interviews: some snippets accompanied by images onscreen have a different acoustic.

Maybe there are extra revelations, or less guarded comments, from Yoko which the film makers are privy to, or maybe there aren't. But one example of the difference between the podcasts and the finished product is when one musician is talking of when Lennon was wildly drunk and had to be held down in a car, during the Lost Weekend. In the documentary, we're told he would scream out Yoko's name; in the podcast, the interviewee adds he would also scream out the name of his other "mother": Mimi.


This has been a revised version of an earlier post.

See Lennon: The New York Years on BBC iplayer, here, until November 8th.

Audio for ten raw interviews on the PBS website here  

22 September 2020

It is required you do awake your Dono-faith one more once

Dono-fans will be pleased to learn that the concert at London's Cadogan Hall which had to be cancelled in April has now been rescheduled for Monday, 12th October. He will be playing two shows that day, to allow for social distancing, and both will be livestreamed.

All being well, I hope to attend the earlier show, but I suspect I won't be the only person wending his way to Sloane Square with mixed feelings on that Monday. Restrictions mean Donovan will no longer be playing with a band, and because of this it seems there will be fewer numbers from his new/old album Eco-Song, which features some lesser-known recordings from his extensive back catalogue with an ecological link.

In other words, probably not much different from a typical Donovan concert - and I'd stopped going to those, for reasons outlined in earlier posts.

But maybe, in these times, a typical Donovan concert is what we need. And I'm aware, as with going to see Ben E King, that there's a ceremonial aspect: we come to give thanks, to acknowledge what our hero has been to us, not to complain that time hasn't stood still.

It's almost fifty years since I saw Donovan headlining a benefit concert for Upper Clyde Shipbuilders at Green's Playhouse in Glasgow, and it must be longer than that since I first placed a copy of Fairytale (the Marble Arch version) on a turntable, thus beginning many happy (or wasted) years of record collecting. I may or may not go to see him again after this but I owe him a debt of gratitude. 

But this is not like submitting to nasty medicine for some kind of anticipated moral cleansing. In a piece quoted earlier in this blog Tom Sutcliffe took issue with a critic who described Paul Simon's voice in a 2012 concert as "faultless": 

He's 70 years old now and it isn't what it was ... but that hardly mattered. Its frailties were integrally part of the emotional content of the show.

I hope I'll be able to feel the same as I wend my way home on October 12th.


Selected Dono-posts - click on titles:

6 August 2020

Tony Randall

I was sorry to learn yesterday of the death of Tony Randall. I had emailed him a couple of days ago to let him know about the Billy Shelton piece (previous post), which I thought might be of interest; the email bounced back then I saw today on the Louie Report website that he had died in June of last year.

3 August 2020

Billy Shelton: Spaniel Forever

Billy Shelton has described himself in interviews as "a prehistoric Spaniel". He wasn't with the celebrated doo wop group during their hitmaking days on Vee-Jay Records in the 1950s but he taught their leader, James "Pookie" Hudson, how to sing during their time together at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana, forming a vocal trio called the Three Bees with Pookie and another schoolfriend, Calvin Fossett.

Billy left school before Pookie, who was eventually prevailed upon by other schoolmates to join the group which became the Spaniels. A few years into their professional career Billy received several invitations to join them but resisted; he didn't become a member until the late 1980s.

This was the second lineup of Spaniels, to be heard on later Vee-Jay sides such as Everyone's Laughing. A year or so after that, however, the original group, who sang on Vee-Jay's debut release Baby It's You and the classic Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite, reformed and Billy took the place of Ernest Warren, who had become a minister.

Now Billy Shelton is the last man standing from those Roosevelt High days – and still leading a group of Spaniels. They can be seen in Episode One of the BBC documentary series Rock'n'Roll America, with Billy intoning those immortal bass notes of Gerald Gregory's which usher in Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite.

About a year after the first broadcast of that programme I was contacted by Billy, who had read a piece of mine about the Spaniels' personnel. He felt that he had never received the credit for his part in the group's history and was keen to talk “before I'm gone”.

The story which follows is not restricted to the Spaniels. Some key events in the decades between schooldays with Pookie and Billy's finally becoming a member of the group have also been sketched in. That's because there is no real dividing line: one way or another, music has always been central to the life of Billy Shelton, right from the start.

23 June 2020

Episode One of Rock'n'Roll America back on iplayer ... but hurry!

For readers in the UK the first episode of the 2015 BBC documentary series is temporarily available once more on BBC iplayer - but only until Monday 3 July, so hurry.

I couldn't say whether it's particularly innovative but it tells the story well and clearly, and has a poignancy not present in some earlier series by virtue of the fact that those involved are considerably older than in Tony Palmer's groundbreaking seventies series All You Need Is Love or even series of more recent vintage like Dancing in the Street.

Before providing a link to my original review of the episode allow me to draw your attention to a section around thirteen minutes in, featuring the Spaniels singing an acapella version of Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight and a rather too brief interview with their bass singer and current leader Billy Shelton.

Billy has described himself in an interview as "a prehistoric Spaniel" because he taught Pookie Hudson and another schoolmate how to sing during their schooldays in Gary, Indiana and formed a trio with them called the Three Bees. Much later - as in forty years - Billy took the place of Spaniel Ernest Warren, then a minister, when the original group reformed; some UK readers may remember seeing this group in London or Liverpool in the early nineties. I do, anyway - their appearance was the highlight of a 1992 Alan Freed-style rock'n'roll package show at Wembley Conference Centre.

Billy will be the subject of a forthcoming piece of writing which may appear in this blog or as an ebook. I can't give a precise date as yet but I'm close to finishing a second draft. Which prompts me to observe that whoever said "writing is rewriting" couldn't have been more wrong: in my experience it's rearranging - physically, I mean, all nasty and fiddly. Good job I'm not allergic to Pritt Stick.

It looks like all three episodes of Rock'n'Roll America are going to be taken off iplayer at the same time, early morning of Monday 29th June, so if you are in the UK and can access them, don't hang about is my tip.


16 June 2020

Coming soon ...

I don't normally give any advance indication of when I'll be posting next but I've decided to make an exception in this rare case.

This is to say that in the space of a few weeks at most I hope to post an extended piece based upon a series of interviews with a veteran doo wop singer.

Because it's longer than normal, and aims to give a broad picture of his whole life, ordering the information has been trickier than usual. As when I was working with the comedian Freddie Davies on his autobiography, I'm discovering there's a limit to how effectively a longer narrative can be structured onscreen, so it's back to what I used to think of as The Pritt Stick Chronicles: printed sheets of the rough draft cut up into pieces and reassembled.

The process of writing has changed somewhat in recent months. In an earlier post, readable here,  I described a pleasing morning routine which is now impossible. But I shall push on and hope that you, and my subject, will see the results soon.

25 May 2020

Raw footage of Ben E King interview

As mentioned in the previous post, Brent Wilson contacted Ben E King for the doo wop documentary Streetlight Harmonies but the singer died before an interview could be set up.

It's a great pity, in more than one sense. Wilson seems to have taken considerable pains to gain the trust of the artists who took part, and even though contributions were heavily edited in the final version the raw footage must have been quite extensive if the case of Vito Picone of the Elegants is anything to go by. According to a virtual Q&A Picone was "in the chair" for a straight six hours before someone realised it might be time to break for a meal.

22 May 2020

New doo wop documentary (Streetlight Harmonies)


I have just watched Streetlight Harmonies, Brent Wilson's new documentary about doo wop, and it's well worth your attention whether you are an aficionado or merely, as it were, doo wop-curious. A little over eighty minutes, it provides a very clear overview of the era as well as some discussion about the genre's lasting influence. It may not be the first film dedicated to the subject but where it excels is in the deft editing of the testimony of a large number of interviewees, allowing the story of this music to be told almost entirely through the artists' own words. Charlie Horner, credited as historical consultant, makes an occasional appearance when context is needed and DJ Jerry Blavat ("The Geator with the Heater"), songwriter Jeff Barry and some others appear, although the vast majority of interviewees are group members (including some representatives of girl groups).

5 May 2020

DO press that button: The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp

Another story-in-song which made an impression on me as a child was The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp, written by Dallas Frazier. Like Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, the song had been a hit for Johnny Darrell on the US country charts in 1967, but I became aware of it via O.C. Smith's soulful interpretation, a greater success in Britain than America, the following year.

Listening to the opening chorus now, I'm aware of how quickly and efficiently the story is set up with a few telling details, preparing us for the fuller account to follow in the verses:

3 May 2020

Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town or The Angel Went

Having written about Honey in the previous post I'm now going to look at Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition (above). 

There are some connections between the two numbers. Both are stories-in-song, much possessed by death, and whatever the pop/rock elements in their respective arrangements they are essentially country ballads, tales of woe.

25 April 2020

Wild About Honey

Like all right-thinking people I follow Alwyn Turner's online series Revive 45 on the Lion and Unicorn website, and I urge the more malleable reader to go forth and do likewise. Once a month Mr Turner casts his eye over the top ten from forty five years ago, and the resulting mix of insight, original research (he's interviewed quite a few of the artists) and unashamed enthusiasm for hits long condemned as "uncool" by others has frequently been an ear-opener for me - and he knows how to turn the odd pleasing phrase too. The most recent post considers the charts from April 1975, including Bobby Goldsboro's oft-disparaged Honey (above).

Reading the piece has prompted me to listen to Goldsboro's record again and to look at the lyrics more closely. But before I get onto a more detailed examination I need to bring a certain hangup of mine into the open. The notional "coolnesss" or otherwise of certain records has often proven a hurdle to my fullhearted enjoyment of them, so I rather envy Mr Turner's lack of shame in that respect. I suppose it all goes back to my childhood ... childhood .... childhood ....

14 April 2020

New book about doo wop now available (Could This Be Magic? by Spencer Leigh)

Update: Spencer Leigh's Could This Be Magic? has now been been published as an e-book and is available worldwide from UK amazon here and US amazon here.

 This is to let readers know that the DJ and author Spencer Leigh has written a book about doo wop which will be published this Friday, 17th April.

The current crisis means that it will be issued initially in e-book form, although it's hoped a hard copy will be available later. I recently read an advance copy of the book, which is entitled Could It Be Magic?, and chatted to Spencer Leigh about it.

21 March 2020

When the Eyes of the World Were on the Clyde (radio documentary about Upper Clyde Shipbuilders)

Those who have read an earlier post about Donovan's 1972 concert to raise funds for Upper Clyde Shipbuilders may be interested in a radio documentary which fills in more of the background to that event.

Entitled When the Eyes of the World Were on the Clyde, the programme was originally broadcast in 2011, not long after the death of Jimmy Reid, one of the prime movers in the story. He was the shop steward who, before the "work-in", famously said:

12 March 2020

Grimful Glee Club (radio play about Thomas Hardy)

I have just heard Adam Thorpe's 2003 radio play Nought Happens Thus Twice, about Thomas Hardy's second marriage, to Florence Dugdale.

1 February 2020

Happy Birthday Spencer Leigh

A couple of weeks ago, during an interview with Joe Brown, Spencer Leigh let slip that he would be 75 on the first of February, the date of Brown's gig at the Liverpool Phil - which Spencer will, of course, be attending.

15 January 2020

The Flamingos: A Complete History of the Doo-Wop Legends by Todd Baptista

The Flamingos are one of the greatest, and most enduring, doo wop groups of them all, so it's a pleasure to report that Todd Baptista's biography, the first full-length study of the group, doesn't disappoint: this is a meticulously researched and very well organised account of their fortunes and changing personnel. The Flamingos' many permutations may not quite be in the Drifters' league but I can't have been the only one who found them confusing before Mr Baptista laid them out in these pages with such admirable clarity.

I confess to having been a little apprehensive when first picking up the book. With all the original members now dead, might the story turn out to be weighted in favour of Terry Johnson, the musical force behind what one might call the Mark II group? Encouraged by George Goldner, he helped steer them in more of a pop direction during their time on Goldner's End Records, leading to the huge crossover success of I Only Have Eyes For You ... but that was six years after Golden Teardrops, regarded by many as the greatest doo wop record of all, had been recorded for Chance Records in Chicago some time before Johnson joined.

11 January 2020

A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs (new book and podcast)

This is to draw readers' attention to Andrew Hickey's podcast A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs and the accompanying book which covers his first fifty choices. 

New podcasts are coming out at the rate of one a week, and although he has not chosen all the songs yet Mr Hickey plans to take the story up to 1999. That's a decade or three outside my area of keenest interest but on the basis of the podcasts released so far - 64 to date in roughly chronological order, with Reet Petite the most recent - this ambitious endeavour can be recommended as a painless way of learning a great deal in the shortest possible space of time about the history and development of R&B and rock'n'roll. Mr Hickey has read the right books - and I'm pleased to note he gives Marv Goldberg's R&B Notebooks website the credit it so richly deserves - but, crucially, he does not assume any pre-existing knowledge on his listeners' part: you can start here if you know nothing about the history of this music.

5 January 2020

Interview with Henri Harrison (former member of the New Vaudeville Band)

[videocap from jazzandjazz]

A few months ago I made my way to the village of Lemsford, in Hertfordshire, to meet Henri Harrison, former drummer of the New Vaudeville Band, and see his current group, Henri's Hotshots, in action at Lemsford Jazz Club.

I particularly wanted to find out more about Alan Klein's time with the New Vaudeville Band, especially as Mark Blake's recent biography of their manager Peter Grant doesn't have much to say on the subject. But the ways in which performers adapt and survive when fame has ebbed away is an abiding fascination, so I was also looking forward to the opportunity of hearing the band's story from the one man who had been there from soup to nuts. Henri played on the recording of Winchester Cathedral alongside other session men when "The New Vaudeville Band" was just a thing in songwriter Geoff Stephens' dream, and was still behind the drumkit of the flesh-and-blood group, by then long mutated into a cabaret act, when they finally called it a day some twenty years later.

30 December 2019

Early Wiggle

Just before Christmas I visited a friend in Scotland who is also a doo wop and rock'n'roll fan. I brought a magazine with me which had an article about some new Carl Perkins finds - four roughly recorded sides predating his time on Sun - so was delighted to learn he already had the 10 inch Bear Family album (above) which contained these, along with some Sun alternate takes already issued on CD.

28 December 2019

14 Karat Soul one more time

Does anyone else actually know or remember this group? Sometimes it seems they were only a thing in my dream: an unattainable vision (and sound) of doo wop perfection, never seen by waking eyes or heard with unclogged ears (I'll explain later).

And yet there they are on youtube; CDs can be bought; they're mentioned in Jay Warner's Billboard book of vocal groups and there's still an official website online - even though to all intents and purposes they called it a day in 2003.

14 Karat Soul were undoubtedly an accomplished act, slaying live audiences time after time, as I can testify, yet they never made it big in America or the UK, only attaining the scale of recognition they deserved in Japan. And that's why I want to do my bit to commemorate a group who deserve to be revered all round the world.

27 December 2019

John Shuttleworth podcast and tour

This is to draw the reader's attention to Richard Herring's recent podcast featuring Graham Fellows, otherwise hapless middle-aged musician and songwriter John Shuttleworth (above). It can be downloaded here.

The interview is leisurely, and fairly frank as well as funny, perhaps helped by the fact that Herring once gave Fellows a fiver in the nineties when the latter was having no joy at a cash machine. (Herring framed the cheque he received in return, making his act of kindness doubly kind.) But it's clear, as the conversation progresses, that they do have a certain amount in common, that act of charity aside: both have forged unusual paths in the business of comedy after an initial bout of fame.

13 December 2019

Teardrops of Burnished Gold

By way of commemorating ten (count 'em!) years of this blog I've uploaded the rare 1961 Vee-Jay release of the Flamingos' Golden Teardrops to youtube, as it doesn't seem to be available there or on spotify or anywhere else. You can find any number of transfers of the original 1953 Chance recording in variable sound quality - as well as a spurious "echo version" which would have turned Bill Putnam's stomach - but not the Vee-Jay pressing, which features an overdubbed guitar. Readers who have explored the earliest posts here will know how significant that recording was to me.

30 November 2019

New biography of Ken Dodd by Louis Barfe

A new biography of Ken Dodd, the first to be published since his death, has just come out, and it's a good 'un: streets, if not whole counties, ahead of the book by Steven Griffin published in Dodd's lifetime, cheekily entitled Ken Dodd: the Biography.

24 August 2019

New book about the Flamingos! (No, really this time ...)

I am delighted to share the news that there is finally to be a book-length study of that enduring doo wop group the Flamingos - and for sceptical readers calling to mind a similarly-titled post from a few months ago I swear that the above image is the real thing this time.

2 August 2019

Born Again Cockney: an interview with Pete West

A while ago I was contacted by Pete West, who played lead guitar in Alan Klein's group the Al Kline Five. Pete was in the lineup which auditioned for Butlins Skegness in 1960 although in the end he and another group member decided not to go. I recently spent the day with Pete and his wife Dierdre on the Isle of Wight to find out more: not just about his time with Alan but the larger story of how he got involved with music - and how, after a gap of many years, he eventually returned to it.

14 July 2019

Ridin' But Walkin'

Remember those far-off days when music was either good or bad? Well, here's a track which undoubtedly falls into the "good" category. I first came across it on a Jack Teagarden compilation (above) in my local library, and ever since then have assumed - without actually bothering to investigate to any great degree - that any RCA LP in their "vintage" series with the distinctive winerack cover must perforce contain any number of equivalent goodies.

13 July 2019

14 Karat Soul in 1980

Have just noticed that some videos of 14 Karat  Soul have been uploaded to youtube recently. I have written at length about the group here and elsewhere: seeing them in the mid-eighties at a week-long residency at Glasgow's Mitchell Theatre remains one of the most thrilling concert experiences I have ever had and I curse myself for not making a surreptitious recording during one of the several nights I attended. Whether there exists a high quality recording of their live act I know not; but there are odd bits and pieces on youtube: a BBC radio session here, a Channel 4 appearance there, and so on.

7 July 2019

G-Clefs biography

It has to be said at the outset that this is not, in the technical sense, a well written book: there are  grammatical errors and infelicities which meaning you occasionally have to rewrite a sentence in your head to make sense of it - and don't get me started on the apostrophes. Was there really no one to cast an incisive eye over musician Mike Devlin's MS before it was shared with the world?

30 June 2019

Antidote to Life's weary chase now available on youtube

I note with pleasure that Joe Venuti's recording of Tea for Two has finally made it to youtube - which is all the excuse I need to revisit an earlier piece about it - and embed the audio below, so that those immune to the lure of streaming services may also savour of its joys.

New book about cult 90s UK sitcom Nightingales

I don't often review books on this blog but this was placed into my hands by its author and it's an astonishing piece of work ... well, maybe not that, precisely, but it's certainly rather surprising, to say the least.