Friday, 26 November 2010

Dr. Z: A Vertigo Profile

Because it's so expensive in its original incarnation, the sole LP by Dr. Z has acquired a disproportionately bad reputation. I don't think it's great, but it's not bad, and has a very nifty sleeve. Here's what Vertigo had to say about the band and their album in September 1971:

I have found two reviews of the album, both of which can be found in my Galactic Ramble book (alongside an original press ad and a new review). The first appeared in Melody Maker on December 4th 1971, and has an especially prescient closing sentence: 'We see a couple of new Vertigo bands a month, gracing the already confused record shelves and vanishing as unnoticed as they arrived. Who picks em? Well, here’s another, a three-piece that’s roughly two years old and might really be two days… There are some interesting ideas drifting about, but that doesn’t merit a reason to make an album, put it out and expect people to buy it. I cannot imagine this selling at all.’ The other one appeared two weeks later in Record Mirror, and was a little kinder: ‘Nice concept here, and the packaging is original and well done. The only fault lies in the performance, and even then there’s nothing really wrong – it’s just that when you set your sights as philosophically high as this, you need the music to be right on. This just misses, but an extra shade of performing awareness should give Dr. Z a fantastic second LP.’ Needless to say, that never happened.

Fairfield Parlour: A Vertigo Profile

Life has been busy lately, so here's a couple of swift posts – both press releases from Vertigo for sought-after LPs. First up is the June 1970 handout that accompanied review copies of Fairfield Parlour’s sole effort. As I’m sure you know, this was an attempt by UK psych faves Kaleidoscope to break with the past and win chart glory, but it didn’t work. It’s notable that the profile makes no reference whatsoever to their former incarnation (and gets drummer Dan Bridgman's name wrong throughout).

I’ve only encountered two reviews of From Home To Home, by the way. On June 27th Melody Maker, evidently unaware of their history, called them ‘yet another band who emerge from nowhere with an album full of memorable songs, beautifully conceived and executed’, adding that it’s ‘a gentle, lyrical, happy-sad album, and very English, with fine harmonies floating above solid and unflashy playing.’ Disc & Music Echo was a tad less enthusiastic on August 8th, describing it as ‘lyrical music, gently and thoughtfully presented, with wild if somewhat pretentious lyrics. The lads are multi-instrumentalists and could be accused of trying to out-Moody the Moodies. However, a very pleasant album.’

Friday, 12 November 2010

Great lost pop papers #1: Top Pops

It’s hard to believe nowadays, but in the heyday of the British music press several newspapers appeared weekly. Most music fans have heard of Melody Maker, Record Mirror and the NME, and some have heard of Disc and Sounds – but Top Pops is the one that got away. Even the British Library doesn’t hold copies in its press archive. Published by Woodrow (later Lord) Wyatt as part of his short-lived attempt to become a print mogul, it first appeared in May 1967, and ran fortnightly until November 1967, when it became weekly. 


Colin Bostock-Smith was appointed editor in the summer of 1967, and used the paper to build a bridge between light pop coverage and the more serious approach that was emerging as albums overtook singles in popularity . Last week I asked him a few questions about his time at Top Pops, and he kindly answered them as follows:

Were you always a pop enthusiast?
Yes! Some would say an over-enthusiast… I was born in 1942, so I was exactly the right age for rock and roll when it all happened. I went to boarding school, so hearing music on Radio Luxembourg was a big thing. I was especially fond of Little Richard – still am.

How did you get into pop writing?
After leaving school I became a journalist on various local papers, and was soon running the pop pages, as well as managing various semi-professional groups. Eventually I became a features sub on the London Evening Standard, and was working there when I heard that Top Pops was looking for a new editor. This would have been in the summer of 1967, a few weeks after it started.

What did the job involve?
The owner, Woodrow Wyatt (of all people), had started Top Pops in the hope of cashing in on the pop scene, but by 1967 the era of screaming girls had largely ended, and music was being taken much more seriously. He therefore wanted the paper to become less girly and more journalistic, in the hope that it would attract advertising from record companies (which was how such publications made money, rather than from sales). Needless to say, he had no interest in pop music himself. I decided what went in, and wrote quite a lot of it with my colleague Gordon Coxhill, who was a lovely chap. Editorial was basically a two-man effort, and my main memories of Top Pops are of us frantically getting each new edition together. I lost touch with Gordon years ago, and have tried to find him on Google, but nothing much comes up. It would be terrific to be back in touch with him.

How did you decide on what to write about?
To fill the paper each week we had to cover as much as we possibly could. There was a lot of ducking and diving – part of the appeal of the pop scene for me was how dodgy it was; you never quite knew where you were with anybody. A lot of the content was dependent on who an artist’s publicist was, and if I had a good relationship with him or her. If you were friendly with the publicist, you would get invited to a gig or a launch party, and then write about the artist. Derek Taylor would slip me Beatles stories. I remember we attacked John Peel one week in April 1968. It was only mischief, but we got a lot of flak for it. But my overall memory is of sitting in the Top Pops office, drawing up layouts and desperately trying to get the thing out on time!

How did Top Pops differ from the other pop weeklies?
Woodrow Wyatt owned his own printing press, in Banbury, so we had access to good quality technology, which meant we could add colour pages, which set us apart a bit. In fact, the only copy I still have is from December 1967, and has various colour stills from Magical Mystery Tour in the centre pages, which still look great. But in general I was so absorbed with just getting the thing out in time that I didn’t pause to analyse our place in the market. We were hopefully somewhere in between girls who wanted pin-ups and something more substantial for serious music fans. Another difference between us and the competition was that we were based in Banbury to start with, but I soon persuaded Wyatt to move us to Fleet Street, where things were much livelier – and for a short time it was terrific fun.

Do you recall any particular interviews or encounters with musicians?
I saw Cream playing in a dive in South London shortly after they formed in the autumn of 1966, and remember thinking that they were a sensation waiting to happen. I remember a very tricky interview with Long John Baldry, who treated everything I said sarcastically. I don’t blame him – he was obviously bored of being a pop star, and had probably already been asked the same questions hundreds of times. Sadly Jimi Hendrix didn’t turn up to our interview (though Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell did), so I never met him. I remember Janis Joplin living up to her reputation, with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of Southern Comfort in the other. And I remember the launch of Mary Hopkin’s Postcard album in the revolving restaurant at the top of the Post Office Tower in February 1969 – one notoriously unstable member of the music press managed to put the controls onto high speed! I didn’t go into recording studios much, but I do remember visiting Roy Wood when he was recording the single Brontosaurus. I asked him what 'Brontosaurus' meant, and he said it was far too rude to tell me. Since then I’ve worked it out for myself, but it's far too rude to tell you. He’s a splendid man, is Mr. Wood.

What was the circulation of Top Pops?
I have no idea. At one point I remember claiming on the masthead that it was 78,000, but that sounds very unlikely! There was also a German edition for a while – Wyatt brought some poor linguist in to translate each edition, before it was sent over there for printing. God knows how many that sold.

German edition, August 19th 1968

How did record reviewing work?
You’d tear open the latest package of LPs from a record company, stick an album on and start writing! We couldn’t be too high-minded about it, as we needed their advertising. It was usually done in an hour and-a-half on a Sunday afternoon, as I recall. Tony Macaulay, who was a terrifically successful songwriter at the time, reviewed the singles for us each week. I have no idea what was in it for him, but he obviously liked doing it. Unfortunately I got rid of all of my records at a car boot fair in about 1980.

Rare info about CBS signings The Fox, 4/68
How did your association with Top Pops come to an end?
It was actually quite funny. Wyatt was the sort of person who behaved like an eccentric aristocrat, though he wasn’t one, and because he was self-important, people began to treat him as if he was important. We’d been striving to move away from the old-fashioned style of pop writing, but sometime in the summer of 1968 he ordered me to give Russ Conway a weekly column. I ignored him, and as he wasn’t used to being ignored, he fired me in September for ‘not conforming to the Chairman’s suggestions’! But I had my revenge by giving the story to Private Eye.

The flimsy Top Pops annual, autumn 1969
Nifty Led Zep piece from the above
What came next for you?
I became editor of Rave magazine, which was fun. While working there I asked John and Yoko to design a peace poster as the prize for some competition or other. Instead of just knocking something off, they actually made a real effort to produce something impressive. If it still exists, someone somewhere is sitting on a fortune! I went along to meet them with all the anti-Yoko prejudices that you’d expect, but she was so charming that I was completely won over. Anyway, after Rave I worked on some women’s magazines, then moved into TV writing, thank goodness. There was a time when I could have recited the whole top 20 and the names of all the musicians in each band, but by the end of the 1960s my interests were changing – and there’s nothing sadder than an elderly pop journalist.

Colin Bostock-Smith
Colin went on to become one of Britain’s leading TV comedy writers. An interview about his subsequent career can be found hereAs for Top Pops, Colin was replaced as editor by Jeff Tarry, then John Halsall. In September 1969 it changed its name to Top Pops & Music Now, and in March 1970 it became plain Music Now, before going out of business in May 1971. Top Pops and Music Now are treasure troves of arcane information about British pop, but both are pretty scarce these days. If you have any copies, please get in touch!

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Karen Dalton: strong pain plucks at my heart

Though she wasn't a songwriter, Karen Dalton was a personal favourite of Bob Dylan, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin, and has joined the exalted company of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs in the ecstatically rediscovered artists sweepstakes. Unlike them, however, relatively little is known of her. Even those who knew her well (she died of an AIDS-related illness in 1993)  have commented on her inscrutability. "Karen had a very queenly quality about her,” her friend Peter Stampfel (of the Holy Modal Rounders) told me for a piece I wrote about her in Mojo a few years back. “She could intimidate anyone." Here are some odds and ends that I have accumulated, which fill in a few gaps about this enigmatic singer.

Firstly, here's the press folder that Capitol sent out with promo copies of her snappily-titled debut , It's So Hard To Tell Who's Going To Love You The Best, in September 1969. It's interesting to note that, contrary to received wisdom, she was in fact eager to record the album, and enjoyed the process:  

Front cover
Back cover

I'll also add here a section of the back cover of the album, as it's the only place I've ever seen any original writing by Dalton, and also includes her signature, as well as giving full credit to Fred Neil for alerting the world to her talent:

The album sold poorly, but Dalton's unconventional voice and awkward personality can only account for part of its failure. In all the many old US magazines I combed while researching my new book, Endless Trip, I found precisely no references to it - no release announcement, no adverts, no reviews, not even a mention in Billboard's thorough monthly round-up of forthcoming titles. The only review I have ever seen appeared in the March 1970 issue of Poppin, a short-lived Canadian underground magazine:

The only foreign territory the album appeared in was - bizarrely enough - New Zealand (and if anyone has a Kiwi copy to sell, please let me know). Like a number of other artists whose LPs appeared on Capitol in the second half of 1969 (The Common People, Euphoria, Food, Gandalf etc), the label seems to have been contented to let her album simply vanish. 

Unsurprisingly, her association with Capitol didn't outlast that of producer Nik Venet, and by mid-1971 she'd moved out of NYC and set up home in Woodstock. where a sympathetic community of musicians (including Dylan and members of The Band) happily included her in their music-making. Michael Lang, one of the organisers of the Woodstock festival, was in the throes of establishing a record label, Just Sunshine (distributed via Paramount), and signed her up for a second solo album. In My Own Time appeared in May 1971. Here's a poor scan of a letter he sent out to interested parties at the time:

The section about Dalton reads: 'Karen's album is very layed (sic) back. You may notice some similarity to Billie Holliday in her voice. She's 33 and has been around for quite awhile (sic). She and Fred Neil and Tim Hardin sort of started out together in the Village about 11 years ago. She's quite well-known among artists and performers, but not yet to most people. We hope you dig it because people like Karen are what music is all about.'

And here's the press release that was sent out with promo copies this time around:

Reviews for the album were mixed. Billboard, as ever, was first out of the traps, publishing the following in their May 22nd 1971 issue:

On July 22nd, Rolling Stone wrote that 'Karen Dalton is a folk legend whose name is spoken with reverence on MacDougal St., in Woodstock, in Texas, or anyplace else where she has performed', adding that 'at her best her sound is hauntingly beautiful, addictive. Her mood is always melancholy, the songs all complex and three-dimensional.' The review also commented (accurately, in my view) that 'some tracks (‘How Sweet It Is’, for example) are overproduced. In general the occasional horns don’t add to her singing and the album works best where the arrangements are simplest', before concluding that 'there’s magic on this record, and it’s worth getting into. The Karen Dalton legend can only grow with the release of In My Own Time.’ 

At around the same time Dalton gave what I believe was her only ever interview, to Circus magazine, who ran it in their July 1971 issue. It's intriguing that the article states that 'she has recorded once before, on a small label in the mid 60s'. This is of course wrong - but might just be a reference to Walt Conley's Passin' Through album, which came out on the tiny Premiere label (operating out of Denver) in 1961, and has vocals from Dalton on one track, 'Red Apple Juice'.

In October, Stereo Review offered their assessment of the record. 'Dal­ton sounds not so much like the early 60s as the early 50s, when jazz was at its peak', it began. 'Her voice, her phrasing, and even her hesitant rasp might be unique if there had never been a Billie Holiday… Karen Dalton, unhappily, seems to be caught in a time lag where appreciation for what she does well – good, solid jazz singing, done with intelligence and taste – has very lit­tle of its original audience left, and has yet to develop any appreciable nostalgia cult among young people. She proves that she is indeed able to sing them the way that they used to. But who’s listening?’ Unfortunately, the answer was, once again, hardly anyone.

Nonetheless, the disc was issued on Paramount in France, Holland and the UK (where the back cover prudishly omitted Neil's famous statement that 'she sure can sing the shit out of the blues'). A 45 also appeared in France, in a picture sleeve:

Dalton apparently did little to promote the album, though (surreally) she toured Europe as the opening act for Santana in the summer of 1971. Before long, In My Own Time had disappeared almost as completely as its predecessor. "She disliked performing almost as much as she loved music, and once told me that in a perfect world she wouldn't ever have to be onstage,” Stampfel told me. Intriguingly, Dalton shared this attitude with Nick Drake and Mike Taylor (about both of whom I have also posted). Nonetheless, she did play occasional gigs, and Billboard reviewed one brief appearance she made in New York, in their November 13th 1971 issue:

Despite the tantalising promise in the Just Sunshine press release that 'her next album will include several she's written herself', Dalton's recording career came to a standstill at around this time. Long-term drug addiction apparently made her difficult to rely upon, and though she made a cameo appearance on The Holy Modal Rounders' 1975 Alleged In Their Own Time LP (she can be heard in the background on two songs, 'Low Down Dog' and 'Rocky Road'), thereafter she contented herself with home recordings. She is known to have made many of these, accompanied by local musicians in Bearsville, and it's a great shame that they haven't been unearthed and reissued. As Stampfel told me: "Her open tuning 12-string guitar version of The Walker Brothers' 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore' is one of the greatest things I've ever heard – and lost forever, it looks like."