Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books, etc.: Passions of My Youth

Two "forgotten" books:

Alex McNeil: Total Television (Penguin; 4th Edition, 1996)
Len Lyons: 101 Best Jazz Albums (Morrow; 1980)

Alex McNeil's Total Television was one of the two major guides to US television programming offered by the large commercial publishers in the 1980s and '90s...the other is The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, put together by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh. The Brooks/Marsh is better for specific dates for regularly-scheduled programming, but rather foolishly completely ignores PBS and other public-broadcasting programming, even while trying to include as much commercial syndication programming as possible (and in later editions, cable shows). The McNeil, while often providing shorter entries and certainly less cast information per most series (it'a nearly a toss-up, however, on soap operas), not only includes the public broadcasting series but also does its best to cover other "dayparts" and the national programming made available in them. It's also better-written and slightly less bumptious. The name of the PBS dramatic anthology series Visions evaded my attempts at recalling it for years before I came across its entry here...and it's a real pity that while the competitor has continued to roll out, it's been more than a decade since McNeil's book has been updated.

Len Lyon's 101 was a book I was already arguing with as soon as I picked it up, as part of the my introductory quartet for the Quality Paperback Club (rip, I believe). Lyons, a jazz critic of some reknown but not quite as widely-hailed as, say, Nat Hentoff or Leonard Feather, did not shy awawy from expressing his opinions, as befits putting together a Best-Of guide, but also seemed to be arguing with himself to remarkable degree, including fusion albums despite not seeming to respect fusion all that much (particularly when he got to his Chuck Mangione selection), and seeming to resent the need to include anything at all by the Brubeck Quarter or, to a lesser extent, the Modern Jazz Quartet, when more space could be devoted to the Miles Davis catalog. (He doesn't rank the albums, but Kind of Blue is clearly given pride of place...along with the Gil Evans Orchestra album Porgy and Bess and Bitches Brew, among others.) Given that he also wishes to highlight the Jazz at Massey Hall concert album (often dubbed the "greatest jazz concert ever" with only a moderate amount of stretching, given the performance by the much-plagued quintet of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell) and other milestones from people ranging from Scott Joplin to Return to Forever, with unsurprising major bowing to the Ellington Orchestra, it's a wonder he doesn't step on himself even more in his attempts to be both comprehensive and true to his own taste (and also to try, as best he could, to restrict himself to only those LPs, in this 1980 book, still in print, or back in print). The book introduced me to Toahiko Akiyoshi and Betty Carter, and that might be enough to allow me to forgive the lack of respct for Messrs. Brubeck and Lewis.


Fairport Convention: Fairport Convention (Polydor 1968)
The Zombies: Zombie Heaven (Big Beat; recorded 1964-69)

So, I was a young jazz fan, and classical and blues and folk fan, keeping my ears open while going through my folks' rather diverse set of records and what I could find at the libraries I frequented, only occasionally going so far as to buy a cheap record (first single: the Brownsville Station's intentionally goofy, proto-pop-punk "Smokin' in the Boys' Room"/"Barefootin'"; first album might just've been the Pickwick Beach Boys anthology, like most Pickwick's cheaply assembled and pressed on barely-stiffened garbage bags, Surfer Girl--other candidates included cutouts of the Count Basie Orchestra's Chairman of the Board and an Audio-Fidelity recording of a no-name orchestra's reading of Pictures at an Exhibition, the Ravel orchestration of course, with a couple of short pieces by Mussourgsky appended without citation [the mark of an attentive label!]).

But I was most passionate about the jazz...even when finally returning to rock by the end of the 1970s, after mostly just hearing what everyone heard in an ambient way, I was drawn both to rawness of the punkish edge and to what I saw as the best employment of jazz influences (along with the vocal harmonies and minor keys of folk-rock). The Byrds satisfied in nearly every way, not least in the jazzy improvisation of much of the Fifth Dimension album ("Eight Miles High," "I See You," and all); the Animals, driven initially by Alan Price's piano and organ work, could thrillingly dig in; and then there were these two slightly geekish bands from Britain, one dead before its time (and having it's biggest hit two years after dissolving), the other producing one of its best albums before losing half the band in the first set of tragedies to befall it, and continuing in some form even today...though it never recovered enough from the loss of Richard Thompson to his brilliant duo/solo career.

More than with any of their subsequent albums, jazz informs the playing on Fairport Convention, even when covering Dylan ("Jack of Diamonds") or evoking him and the San Francisco scene (the brilliant "Don't Worry Ma, It's Only Witchcraft"); covering two Joni Mitchell songs (before she released her own versions, apparently) did nothing to discourage that, as well as showcasing the vocals of the underrated Judy Dyble (Sandy Denny, the doomed vocalist of the next iteration of Fairport, is often rated much more kindly...but she has a rather different approach, Denny's voice more a Spanish guitar to Dyble's autoharp, one of the instruments Dyble plays here).

While the Zombies also did nearly everything you could ask of them, and had a odd name to boot. Private (or, in the UK, public) school kids who never made any pretense of any sort of deprivation, not that they rubbed it in either, the quintet grew up in public with impressive choral chops and another brilliant keyboardist in Rod Argent, and in the three years and change that they recorded only had three big international hits, one of them released against their better (and correct) judgment ("Tell Her No" is one of their weakest recordings). That they packed it in before they were barely in their twenties is reflected in certain qualities of many of their lyrics, some from the perspective of the wounded adolescent ("She's Not There"), others still youngish but given over to bonhomie ("Friends of Mine"). They might have overreached in trying to cover Aretha Franklin (though "Soulville" is game) or Little Richard ("Rip It Up" also fun to hear), but when in their wheelhouse, as with "Remember You" or "This Will Be Our Year" or their recording of "Summertime"...devastating. "Beechwood Park" and "Smokey Day" are two of the most beautiful rock songs yet recorded, "I'll Call You Mine" and "She's Coming Home" among the most exuberant. And they can be damned funny, as well, as when they repurposed "Just Out of Reach" for a commercial for the film Bunny Lake is Missing, entitled in this version "Come on Time" (for the film), among others. "She's Not There" and "Time of the Season" deserve every sale they've made over the decades...a real pity that the band Argent, and such other later projects as the quasi-reunion tours, haven't ever able to touch the work they did in the mid-'60s.


I've just started watching/listening to's offer of the tv adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth, but so far, so good...(more about youthful passion than a youthful passion of mine, of course). And I like the utterly unforgotten, brand new Community, NBC's sitcom with a fine cast and some solid promise.

As always, check Patti Abbott's blog for more "Forgotten Books" for this week.


Richard Robinson said...

Nice to see something on jazz. You say "with unsurprising major bowing to the Ellington Orchestra", and I think there need not ever be any apology for Ellington, either as composer or bandleader. Sometimes I am convinced "Ellington at Newport" is the best jazz small big-band album ever, it's certainly one I can listen to over and over. But then I hear "Time Out" or "Everybody Digs Bill Evans" or "Sonny Side Up" and I'm in a different place, and for a while the Ellington is forgotten.

Todd Mason said...

No, indeed. The space devoted to the Ellington Orchestra is far more understanable, and rather too delimited, when compared to the space in the Lyons book devoted to Davis. And certainly when compared to the pages grudgingly devoted to Mangione, or even the Crusaders.

I'm also amused by the space devoted to Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor, with no mention of the support provided to those men by those nasty old fakers Brubeck and Lewis, and the attempts to stymie their careers, at least, from Davis.

K. A. Laity said...

Fun to see a slightly different take on Forgotten Books. I like to read about people's early experiences with music, because I think it gets harder to have those experiences as you get older. Not just an issue of being "jaded" so much as it's harder to surprise. Though I've had that nigh-on-adolescent fixation on both Dylan's Modern Times and Robyn Hitchcock's Goodnight Oslo, perhaps the finest recording either has done -- which is saying something extraordinary in both cases, but no less true for me.

Always comforting to think that one's best work may indeed still lie ahead.

Todd Mason said...

Well, this anticipates another planned posting coming when I can get to it...about, essentially, how much I've enjoyed the reunion albums from the Go-Go's and the Bangles over the last several years...albeit they are essentially generational peers to me.

K. A. Laity said...

Are you calling me old?! LOL. Looking forward to the blog whenever it materialises (can anything on the web be said to "materialise"?).

Todd Mason said...

We ain't kids. Though I note that several of the all-women bands cited above are older than I thought, almost as old as Robyn Hitchcock, rather that sprightly fshghty-somethings like ourselves. (Nobody's as old as Bob the Zims.)

Blog posts insinuate and evanesce, or most often linger. And, yes, we had to let them linger.

Phillyradiogeek said...

I never really took a good look at Total Television when I was at TVG, which is a shame, as I'd likely have devoured it once I got my hands on it. There are many Web sites with such info, but not nearly as accurate or as extensive. A new guide would be a great gift to TV-viewing humanity.

George said...

If you want to hear an update to the Zombies' "Time of the Season" check out Melanie Fiona's "Give It to Me Right" at:

Chris said...

Hey Todd, nice post. You must know something about the Brubeck/Lewis - Taylor/Coleman thing that I don't. You mentioned it in a comment over on my blog awhile back. Something involving one supporting the other. I could use some background, actually. (:

Todd Mason said...

Basically, Dave Brubeck and Cecil Taylor were maverick enough to praise each other's work, when Brubeck was the asinine hipster's definition of sellout and Taylor the ah's definition of Anti-Jazz So Recondite That It Shouldn't Exist. Miles Davis, and certainly not he alone, made noises to those effects about both, and was even more vocal and hostile toward Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane's music after he quit Davis's quartet. Meanwhile, John Lewis was a great champion of Coleman and the other earliest free players, helping them get recorded by his label Atlantic (which issues Coleman's FREE JAZZ and THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME in part through Lewis's action on his behalf), and Brubeck was not only aware of his own commercial clout but his appeal to non-jazz audiences, particularly to 20th century classical fans, when talking up Taylor and some of the other free players, but also aware of his controversial status among some jazz insiders, and took that into account in those statements.

Miles Davis remains the biggest jackass in the history of jazz (between his serial spousal/companion abuse, attitudinal posing, and joy in his position as tastemaker among the clueless, among other things), and he had some competition to overcome. Did some brilliant work, and some deadly dull, and was the one person I'd least like to meet or to have met among the major players. My ex was feeling poorly, the one time I saw him performing (or, mostly, not performing) in concert, and so I didn't mind leaving midset (it was a Very dull fusion jam, circa 1988 at Wolf Trap). We were mostly there to see the Modern Jazz Quartet, who'd opened to lukewarm audience one woman sitting near us said after a piece or two, with some mild outrage, "They're Not Modern!" While every widely-spaced bleat from Davis during the first few pieces of his band's set got sycophantic applause.

I'd happened to catch the LAST CALL episode (the NBC late night show) featuring a long interview with Melaine Fiona promoting the release of this single, and I'd noted that she didn't feel any need to credit the Zombies at all.

Yeah, I'd picked up the first edition years before finding myself in Radnor, and it's always a pity when one or another of a long-running series of new editions gets the chopping block...particularly when the last edition of TOTAL TELEVISION came with a CD-Rom supplement/replication of the printed text, something I think Brand X has yet to do. Hell, I still miss the updates to Scheuer's MOVIES ON TV, the model Leonard Maltin sought to improve upon (and didn't completely succeed)...for more than a decade, Bantam kept offering new editions of the Scheuer even as Signet offered new Maltins (which I think Penguin/NAL nowadays publishes under the Plume inprint).