Saturday, December 19, 2009

Christmas on Earth Continued: December 22, 1967

To mark the Christmas season here in Wonderland, we are commemorating the last gasp of the British underground scene in 1967, the Christmas on Earth Continued festival, held on December 22nd at the Olympia in London. Billed as an "All Night Christmas Dream Party," the festival boasted an impressive line-up of some of England's best musical acts. Where else could one witness The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Tomorrow, The Move, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Soft Machine, Pink Floyd and Graham Bond all on the same bill? Unfortunately, lack of publicity and a bitter winter freeze hampered attendance. The Who didn't show up, and the Grateful Dead, hoping to make their UK debut at the festival, were barred due to permit problems. Already, the festival appeared doomed.

The Olympia was a massive hall, as indicated in the rare photo of the Christmas on Earth stage posted above. Liquid slides and underground movies were projected onto every surface by three scaffolding towers. DJ Jeff Dexter recalls, "It was cold, although that summer seemed to go through to December. People were walking around in hippie clothes thinking it was still July." Steve Howe of Tomorrow (and later of Yes) remembers the event as momentous as well. "It was undoubtedly a major event," Howe notes. "After that, everything seemed like a bit of a hangover." "We got up on stage, played our set and hung out the whole evening. It was magnificent," relates Tomorrow's lead singer Keith West. "Later we watched some of the footage. The film looked absolutely brilliant."

The promoters had planned on releasing a film of the proceedings, but to this day the only footage to surface is that which is posted above: The Jimi Hendrix Experience performing "Sgt. Pepper," "Foxey Lady," and "Wild Thing." The film failed to emerge apparently because the filmmakers used cheap film stock which resulted in poor picture quality, and later, the film itself mysteriously disappeared. A distorted but interesting audio recording of Tomorrow's set was released in 1998 on the RPM label.

Sadly, the Christmas on Earth festival also marked Syd Barrett's last major show with Pink Floyd. By the time of the concert, Barrett had suffered a significant mental breakdown due to stress and excessive drug use, allegedly exacerbating symptoms of schizophrenia, though Barrett's sister denies this diagnosis. At the concert, Barrett was observed to just stand on stage with his guitar, his arms hanging limp at his side, while Roger Waters played the same bass line over and over again. After he left Pink Floyd, Syd went on to record two solo albums and numerous demos. Barrett was a sensitive, brilliant, beautiful man with immense intelligence and talent. Without him, Pink Floyd would have never existed, and to some of us, they never surpassed the works they created with Barrett at the helm (although those albums are indeed excellent).

The top picture in this post is of the fantastic psychedelic outfit, Tomorrow, followed by the Christmas on Earth stage, a promo poster, Pink Floyd celebrating Christmas with a traditional British Christmas Cake, another ad for the concert, and a rare photo of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Soft Machine taken the night of the festival.

So to conclude our Christmas in Wonderland, I would like to wish you all a Happy Crimble and a very Gear New Year!

Jon Newey's liner notes for the RPM release Tomorrow - 50 Minute Technicolor Dream
Watkinson and Anderson - Crazy Diamond: Syd Barrett and the Dawn of Pink Floyd

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Instrumental Break

Presented here are some scans from the UK's premiere music magazine of the 1960s and '70s, Beat Instrumental. Geared toward musicians, Beat Instrumental featured articles and columns that focused on how the British bands created their sound and style. The magazine was published by Sean O'Mahony, who also published the official Beatles fan magazine, The Beatles Book, under the pseudonym of Johnny Dean.

I find the ads for various music shops in London, Glasgow, and other UK cities, as well as the ads for instruments and gear featuring popular musicians, to be very interesting historical artifacts that make the time period come alive. These classic ads for Rickenbacker, Vox, and Premier, companies that were integral to the British Invasion sound, reinforced the idea that their products were what every teenage boy needed to be a pop star. (I have to chant "Premier drums" from The Who Sell Out every time I see anything about them!)

The features on Dave Davies, Peter Quaife, Keith Moon and Bill Wyman (who wrote a column for the magazine) offer insight into their musical influences, personal thoughts about their instruments of choice, and the advice they would offer to fledgling musicians. When reading the final scan, the list of bands and their itineraries makes one wish it could be 1965 again.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rhino's Rock Explosion: The British Invasion in Photos 1962-1967

Herman's Hermits
The Pretty Things
The Creation
Marianne Faithful
Sandie Shaw
Peter and Gordon

The Who
The Yardbirds
The Zombies

In the late '80s, Rhino Records began releasing a series of 9 CDs that provided a comprehensive overview of the British Invasion (Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, The Beatles could only be represented by "Ain't She Sweet," while The Stones and Who are not represented at all). Mastered by Bill Inglot, the discs boasted some of the best-sounding sources and rare mono versions of the era's singles. Because of these factors, the discs are highly sought after by collectors and fans. Rhino also included bands that were lesser known on this side of the pond, including The Pretty Things, Tomorrow, The Action and The Creation.

All 9 discs were released in boxed set format, accompanied by a book entitled Rock Explosion: The British Invasion in Photos 1962 - 1967, from which these scans were created. Although the boxed set commands exorbitant prices, individual volumes can sometimes be found used for reasonable prices. If you don't have the set, I highly recommend seeking each volume out! The photos in the book are quite nice as well. (Thanks to Jeff for the book!)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Where the Action Is

The Action were one of the best truly Mod bands of the '60s - not a contrived image here. The soulful singing of Reg King propelled them to a level above mere Tamala-Motown copyists into a whole other league, perhaps equal to that of the Small Faces, but without the corresponding record sales, unfortunately. Although a great deal of their singles were covers, the Action added their own style and sound to the tracks - high energy, excellent musicianship and tight vocal harmonies as well. The term "underrated" is often overused; however, I find it very appropriate here.

Formed in the Kentish Town section of London in 1963, The Action were first known as The Boyfriends (and later The Boys), serving as a backing band for a female vocalist Sandra Barry. The line up consisted of Reg King (vocals), Alan "Bam" King (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Mike Evans (bass), Roger Powell (drums) and later Pete Watson (lead guitar). When Barry began a solo career, The Boys carried on, releasing one single on Pye records comprised of two Reg King originals, "It Ain't Fair/"I Want You."

In 1965, The Boys became The Action, a name very much in line with the pop art monikers of the time, such as The Who and The Creation. As their reputation began to grow, The Action began filling the Marquee and Scene Club, treating audiences to their dynamic stage show. Eventually they came to the attention of Beatles producer George Martin, who signed them to his AIR (London) Production company, which led to a Parlophone contract. Their first single contained Chris Kenner and Martha & the Vandella's covers - "The Land of 1000 Dances" and "In My Lonely Room." Their next A-Side, a brilliant interpretation of The Marvellettes' "I'll Keep Holding On," should have been a smashing success, as it is probably the best British blue-eyed soul cover of a Motown hit. Another of their best singles was their final one for Parlophone, "Shadows and Reflections," released in June of 1967. Around this time The Action began recording demos for album of original songs with a psychedelic edge, which was originally entitled Brain. The album did not see the light of day until 1999, retitled Rolled Gold. An amazing collection as it stands; one could only imagine how it would have been if the songs had been fully realized in the studio.

With the disappointment of Brain being shelved, Reg King departed for a solo career, and the other members (with additions of Ian Whiteman and Martin Stone) continued as Mighty Baby, recording two albums of West Coast influenced psychedelic jams, which were extremely spiritual in tone. All the members of Mighty Baby (save one) converted to the Sufi sect of Islam, and soon found playing "amid a sea of beer and dope," as Martin Stone put it, to be incongruous with their beliefs.

For an introduction to the Action, I recommend the compilation Action Packed! on Edsel. From there, pick up the lost album, Rolled Gold. For completists, Circle Records released a 2 CD set of BBC appearances and a reunion concert from 1998, entitled Uptight and Outasight (which includes the Action's audacious cover of John Coltrane's "India"- how could one not love a band that would cover Coltrane?). From there, you may want to check out Mighty Baby's eponymous debut and Reg King's solo album, with guests Mighty Baby, BB Blunder and Mick Taylor (of the Stones).

(References: NME Originals: MOD, The liner notes to Action Packed by Alan Robinson, and the Mojo Special Edition: Psychedelic!)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Number Nine, Number Nine...

I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge the forthcoming 09.09.09 extravaganza--something of great importance to British Invasion aficionados: The Beatles' 2009 remasters, both the stereo and mono mixes, will be officially released on CD. The mono mixes will only be sold in a boxed set format; the stereo counterparts will be available either individually or in a boxed set. (And then there's that Rock Band thing, too. We'll be getting the multitracks in that!)

Most exciting is the fact that the mono mixes of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) will appear on official CD for the first time ever. Personally, I prefer the mono Pepper, so I'm glad it will be more accessible for those who haven't heard it before. Based on reviews I've read so far, the digital transfers have remained virtually untouched on the mono CDs, whereas the stereo mastering has been tinkered with slightly. I have heard a few of the stereo remasters, and I have been impressed with the results. I must admit - I was afraid we'd have an abomination on our hands, but thankfully, that is not the case. That said, for the stereo mixes, I'll return to my vinyl for my favorite "Beatles in Stereo" experience.

Here is a selection of Fab Four Fotos for your viewing pleasure. Long Live The Beatles!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

"He's a Session Man"

Time to pay tribute to the man whom many deem the greatest session man in the history of rock'n'roll--pianist Nicky Hopkins (1944-1994). Virtually unknown to the many U.S. fans of British bands at the time, Hopkins brilliantly accented the works of the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Who, Dusty Springfield, the Move, Tom Jones, even the Beatles--and almost every major British act of the era. The Stones and the Who so valued his talent and input that both bands sought to add him to their ranks. Ray Davies of the Kinks composed the song "Session Man," on which Nicky also plays, in his honor.

Hopkins became interested in playing the piano at the age of six. His parents noticed his talent and asked him if he would like to take lessons, to which he agreed. When he was 12, Hopkins was accepted into the Royal Academy of Music and studied there until age sixteen. Although he was classically trained, Nicky was drawn more to the world of pop and rock'n'roll. He began his rock career performing with Screaming Lord Sutch, soon moving on to work with Cliff Bennett, and finally joining the Cyril Davis band. During this time, Hopkins had to be hospitalized for a year and half, subjected to 14 different stomach-related surgeries to treat Chron's disease. (Unfortunately, it would be complications from a similar surgery that would claim his life later at the age of 50.) Hopkins' health issues made it imperative for him to cease touring and focus on becoming a session performer.

Almost immediately, Hopkins' reputation garnered him an offer to participate in a fateful session where he met famed producer Glyn Johns. Johns introduced him to Shel Talmy, who in turn booked him to play for Kinks and Who sessions, including the My Generation album and "Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere" single. About 4 years later, he worked with the Who again on their classic Who's Next album, adding his emotive touches to the gorgeous "Song is Over" and also "Gettin' in Tune." Nicky's piano enhanced several of the Kinks' greatest works, including the Kink Kontroversy, Face to Face, and Village Green Preservation Society albums. It's also Nicky one hears on some of the Stones' most revered LPs: Between the Buttons, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St., Goats Head Soup, etc. In fact, the entire Their Satanic Majesty's Request album seems to center on Nicky's playing (and contrary to popular opinion, I find it to be one of their absolute best albums). Hopkins also toured with the Stones in 1971, the same year he also guested on John Lennon's Imagine album, adding electric piano to the "Imagine" title track and playing piano on "Jealous Guy" and many other tracks. Hopkins' Beatles association began when he played piano on "Revolution," the B-side to "Hey Jude" in 1968.

Hopkins joined the Jeff Beck Group with Beck, Rod Stewart, Ron Wood, and Tom Newman for a short time, and also later joined Quicksilver Messenger Service when he moved to California for health reasons.

It is almost impossible to list all the contributions that Nicky Hopkins made to popular music. Some of my favorite of his works are those that are not as popular, such as tracks he made with the Easybeats, the Tages, and the Bill Wyman-produced band the End, who managed to craft one of the era's psychedelic masterpieces with the Introspection album. If you are interested in discovering more of Nicky's work, please follow this link:

A trip to Alison's Wonderland would be incomplete without a nod to those often behind the scenes who made the magic happen. Thank you, Nicky--you are missed.

Special thank you to my friend Jeff for the wealth of information supplied!

(References: "Nicky Hopkins - 'Session Man'" by Paul Nelson. Rolling Stone, May 17, 1969; "Have Piano, Will Travel" by Michael Watts, "Sixth Stone" by Chris Charlesworth, Dec. 1971; Various clips and articles.)