Reviews 2007



by Patti Dahlstrom

"He who could wholly understand this sacrifice (music)
could rule the world as though it were spinning in his hand" - Confucius

London is calling! On the first day of Spring I answered, and, as I walked through Hyde Park, all the history and promise of that incredible city filled my heart. I don't know what it is about England and the English people, but I have loved them and been drawn by them all my life. Travelling alone, I had contacted two dear friends, Artie Wayne and Shel Talmy, for recommendations of people to contact. Mick Patrick and James Bellini were men definitely worth meeting, and they were two men who graciously answered my call. I received this intriguing email from Mick a week before I left:

Actually, a few pals and I will be attending an unusual event on the evening of March 21st. It's a music-related thing at a bar in north(ish) London. Interested? If so, I'll tell you more.

What red-blooded American girl could resist such an invitation? So the gracious Mick Patrick with his Spectropop pal, Phil Chapman, met me at my hotel on Hyde Park and escorted me to the Boogaloo Club! It was a charming venue, wood and glass and lots of lager. Not long after our arrival the performance began.

Mick Brown read excerpts from his amazing new book, "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector". The charm of Mr. Brown's performance was peppered with the playing of some of Phil Spector's greatest hits. I was in England; I was in Texas in the '60s driving in my car singing to the radio. A bit of jet lag and lager contributed a sense of surrealistic space to the event. Transported by Mr. Brown's reading of this tragic tale and listening to the music of my youth, I was in Heaven in London.

After the reading I bought some copies of the book, which Mr. Brown graciously signed to various recipients and Mr. Patrick graciously offered to mail home to me. If you want to find Mick Brown at an event of this nature, simply look for the bevy of beautiful young girls, he will be in the middle. Seeming slightly perplexed by the attention being showered, Mr. Brown looked over to our table. I grabbed my camera and intervened offering to take photos of the women with him. As I jotted down their emails, the circle was broken and we had a chance to talk. Both the Micks and Phil caught up, and I continued my photography!

Two weeks in England, travelling in the Southwest, renting a car and driving on the left (frightening all others on the road), seeing and walking among breathtaking landscapes and historic places, sleeping in haunted inns 500 years old, and meeting all ages of wonderful people brought me back to London for my last three nights. The brave Mick Patrick and Phil Chapman have once again offered an evening's entertainment on my last night. Off we went to Indian food with two other friends, great fans of Jobete writers, of which I was one. Beer, tales of times gone by, chutneys and many laughs made for a memorable last evening of a place and people I do not want to leave.

Once home I wistfully wished I were still there, and then the books arrived! Mick Brown's book on Phil Spector is an amazing tapestry of a time and a man and an industry in the making. He weaves the history of America's music industry through the life of a young Spector in the late '50s through the early '70s pulling him under its influence. As with any large tapestry, the thread of Spector soon begins to weave his influence into the scene of that music. The subtle shifts and changes of both are well documented with interviews and research bringing in a final thread of world events unfolding that time into full expression.

To me the mark of a really good writer, regardless of genre, is that one is taken in; one doesn't realize they are reading, they are simply transported by the tale. You will forget you are reading "Tearing Down the Wall of Sound", as it will carry you along engrossed and then stop you in your tracks to wonder. It is one of those "I can't put it down" books. For those who grew up during this time or were old enough to remember the music, it will haunt you; it will remind you of so many things in your own life and how this all played out from your point of view. Then it will sadden when you realize the genius and the lack of joy it brought to the creator of that music.

Dysfunctional is a term that doesn't begin to describe the home Phil Spector grew up in. Surrounded by suicide, mental illness, and a lack of the basic human skills of love, trust and forgiveness, it is a wonder he could accomplish as much as he did. Not being given these, how could he give them? How could he recognize them when given to him? And yet, there are stories throughout that he was kind and generous, even if he could not sustain this in his character. The fight to survive his home and family continued in his relationships in the world at large. Self-indulgence and a lack of repercussion for his actions led inevitably, through a trail of his own mental problems, to his destination today, a courtroom trial for murder.

Leonard Cohen in 1977 said the scene around Spector was inundated with weapons, "You were slipping over bullets, and you were biting into revolvers in hamburgers. There were guns everywhere."

The book is great because it slowly reveals this picture with the history of a time, the story of a man and the beauty of his music and how all that came about. If you have never been in a recording studio, you will feel as if you have when you read it. If you have never tried to get a song published, or make a record, or have a hit, you will feel as if you have done those things too. The slow road to his madness through his genius will leave you sure of certain human values:


Worth is an inner product
Love can only be felt when it's given
Creativity flows through not from us
Gratitude makes room for more
Forgiveness is freedom
Love is all there is that lasts

It's a cautionary tale, a fascinating and haunting one. And it displays a portrait of the human condition without judgment on the author's part. Still I can't help but wonder what if: if only Spector had forgiven his father; if only he'd valued others' needs as much as his own, if only. Money can cushion us from the lessons of living … for a while. But perhaps we wouldn't have had the music if he hadn't had the demons to fight. Makes me wonder, as any good writing will do. Thanks, Mr. Brown.

A decade after the majority of Spector's LA sessions, I was blessed to work with a number of these same musicians on my albums. They were all great talents and good men. The most notable and kindest among these, who helped me tremendously, was Larry Knechtel.

Still the thing I'm wondering most about these days is how to get back to London. How does an American get to work and live there? To Mick and Phil and James, thank you all so much for wonderful and unforgettable nights in a city and country I love. Ready for more?

Mick Brown (Bloomsbury, UK / Knopf, US)

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by Frank M. Young

More than half a century after Buddy Holly first recorded with Norman Petty, the enigmatic producer-composer-manager remains controversial. Some argue that he was responsible for Holly's tragic, gruesome death in 1959. Some of his former groups and artists have (you'll pardon the pun) Petty complaints. They report that they were manipulated, misled, or unpaid - denied royalty monies and composer credits for the pioneering rock and pop they brought to Petty's Clovis, New Mexico studio.

Norman Petty was America's equivalent to the infamous UK producer Joe Meek. Like Meek, Petty was a loner whose unusual techniques sired a unique, unmistakable sound. As well, Petty claimed credit for music he did not compose, and shared a "my way, or the highway" attitude, especially towards the acts he managed. Unlike Meek, Petty did not have a genuine fondness for this emerging teenage music. The deeply religious producer nursed a certain contempt for rock 'n' roll, and considered its performers sinful, mindless young fools. He withheld royalty monies from his acts, explaining that it was for their own good. They'd only squander it; they were too young to handle big money.

Yet, Petty did connect with the energy and excitement of this new sound. He consciously created a studio atmosphere that fostered innovation. Petty charged by the song, not by the hour. If it took six hours to get a tune right, so be it. Petty invested skill and patience in these young performers. The results, at their best, are magnificently fresh and alive. From the delicate, haunting strains of Holly's "Well, All Right" to the majestic guitars of the Fireballs' "Peg Leg", Petty's greatest achievements are truly timeless pieces of music and production artistry.

It is difficult to reconcile Petty, the person, with Petty, the producer. This disc showcases all of his strengths as a creative rock-pop auteur. Its liner notes reveal unavoidable truths about Petty's actions as a person. Petty could never hope to tame a Buddy Holly - or any performer stubborn enough to assert their own will. After his relationship with Holly came to a bitter end - Philip Norman's Rave On details that story in riveting, heartbreaking detail - Petty chose groups and performers who would not defy him, or demand too much from him.

A decade-long association with the Fireballs reaped a large, handsome catalogue of innovative, dynamic guitar instrumentals and Jimmy Gilmer's pop vocals - including the 1963 chart-topper "Sugar Shack". This song appears in its earliest form on this fascinating, charming CD. That song was written by Keith McCormack, who is the hero of this CD. The String-a-Longs were marketed as an instrumental group. Their shuffling, quaint sound, on such hits as "Wheels", "Brass Buttons" and "Should I", suggests a delicate wind-up musical toy. Notes tinkle, tumble and dovetail with a gentle precision. Their prior CD, Wheels, collects the majority of their Petty-produced instrumentals. Five tracks from that disc are reprised here, plus three other new-to-CD guitar pieces. It is the 18 vocal selections, many of them unissued or terribly obscure, that distinguishes this follow-up disc.

This music is tremendously good and compelling. That it has been consigned to oblivion until now is a testament to the deathlock of control Petty held over his performers. This quintet of Texas teens first recorded as the Rock 'n' Rollers in 1958, for the tiny Ven label, before hooking up with Petty. Both sides of that single are included: "For You" c/w the lumbering beat-ballad, "'Boy!' I Think It's Really Love". Both eerily recall Buddy Holly's early recordings.

Petty placed the group on Imperial Records as a vocal rock combo, the Leen Teens. The group's atmospheric, appealing "So Shy", heard here, was one of 1959's many fine discs that died unknown. We also hear its flipside, "Dream Around You", and the unreleased "Mary Mary", penned by Holly's buddy, Bob Montgomery. Petty then forced the String-a-Longs name on the group, against their will. Said group member Aubrey deCordova, "We didn't much like the name … but we didn't have any say." Petty had power of attorney over the group. They did as he said. He re-invented them as an instro combo. He even revived the group name, in 1969, for a one-off LP for Atco Records. None of the actual group, which had broken up by then, played on the record - it was taped by the Fireballs.

Dave Burke and Alan Taylor's dense booklet notes benefit from interviews with all group members. It fleshes out the Petty story while capturing the String-a-Longs' curious history. They reveal that Petty's "Wheels" was originally titled "Tell The World". At the pressing plant, the song names were confused. The band's moody, exciting "Wheels" became "Tell The World". All of which explains why the toddling, sedate "Wheels" sounds nothing like what its title suggests!

Keith McCormack's voice is one of the unheralded pleasures of the Norman Petty catalogue. While sharing the humility and warmth of Buddy Holly, his approach is fresh and original. His sincerity, soulfulness and intelligence shine through these tracks like a beacon. McCormack deserved a kinder fate. His voice was all but silenced on the String-a-Longs' releases. Confined to overlooked B-sides, or hidden behind assorted stage names, McCormack was best-known as a nearly anonymous guitarist in a faceless band. Small wonder these recordings have languished in obscurity.

McCormack's songwriting is strikingly good. Musically and lyrically innovative, it echoes Holly's skill and appeal without owing a debt, or revealing any blatant influences. His songs encompass an exciting range of styles and moods. Consider his "Mean Woman", released in 1962 under the alias Bryan Keith. The track instantly creates a slightly sinister mood that is riveting. Every sound, word and note of this recording is truly compelling. How can a record this good be so damned obscure?

The unissued, mis-titled "Sister Little Shoes" offers a clever, thoughtful approach to the well-trod ground of teen heartbreak. Compelling guitar work blends with McCormack's yearning, reflective vocal to create one of the most appealing songs I've heard in years. "Cute Little Frown", with its vocal chorus of thickly-accented Texas belles, is a swinging delight from 1963. It details the ups and downs of a teen relationship with surprising, witty detail. Its bubbling bass line, terrific drumming and rollicking guitar, all vibrantly recorded, showcase the Petty sound at its absolute best.

A 1965 single as Keith & Kay is quirky, haunting and maddeningly catchy. "Spring Has Sprung" offers a nonsensical vocal riff that suggests Roy Orbison's "Only The Lonely" on happy pills. Once heard, it does not easily exit the listener's head. Its flip, "Stumbling Stone", is an oddball beat-ballad. Here, Petty pulls out all his stops as a producer. The result is kooky but effective. Another nutty artefact from McCormack's chequered career is the novelty disc "The Bloomin' Bird", credited to the Bugmen. Fans of Rodd Keith's work (and song-poem music in general) will dig this off-kilter dance-craze ditty, with its odd chord changes, vaguely menacing feel, and tipsy-sounding McCormack vocal.

The listener also receives an intimate version of McCormack's best-known song. His brief, guitar-and-voice demo of "Sugar Shack" summons up a surprising poignancy. Petty's hit version, by Jimmy Gilmer & the Fireballs, featured the strident, synthetic sound of the Solovox organ. That piping, perky riff gave Petty his biggest success as a pop record producer. It also removed the charm and soul from a delightful little song. It's a treasure to hear McCormack's modest demo.

The group's tidy, polite instrumentals sit uncomfortably amidst their commanding, atmospheric vocals. Even a potentially dull cover version of Leiber and Stoller's done-to-death "Hound Dog" is tricked out in goofy, squeaky-toy dog SFX, and given a percolating, slinky arrangement that brings new life and charm to an obvious rock standard.

This disc - and its encyclopaedic booklet - tells the real story of the String-a-Longs, who have reunited in recent years to play the occasional live gig. It also shows that, for all his shortcomings as an individual, Norman Petty was one of the most gifted and innovative producers of the Spectropop era. It's encouraging to see such great music rescued from oblivion. Bursting with exuberance, innocence, wit, charm and style, Tex-Mex Teen Magic is a major rediscovery.


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