Sunday 25 February 2024

Sound Man - Glyn Johns (2014)


Rating: Excellent

When Peter Jackson’s long-awaited re-fashioning of The Beatles Let It Be footage emerged in 2021, retitled Get Back, it was a revelation. The three-part documentary totally recontextualized the original film, featuring hours of unseen footage. Glyn Johns had worked on the sound recording part of the project and he remarks in Sound Man that when Allen Klein become The Beatles manager, he wanted only The Beatles to feature in the film, which Johns reflects was a pity, as it meant that he wouldn't feature. One of the highlights of Let It Be was seeing Johns working with the Beatles and parading around in sartorial splendour, out doing even The Beatles themselves for elegant cool. Sound Man details working with The Beatles during this era, and it is fascinating stuff, but it was only a small part of Johns career, which saw him working with some of the most significant artists of the 60s and 70s, such as The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces, The Faces, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles and The Who. Sound Man is both Johns story, beginning from his early years and how he managed to get into the cloistered world of English sound production in the early 60s, and a cultural history of one of the most amazing periods in musical history. It's worth reading for this fact alone. 

Johns at work, circa late 60s
Johns writing style is economical and to the point, but with a light touch that is highly readable. He is also honest about the lows of his career and certainly does not come across as an egotist. The book is chronological, yet also moves back and forth in time when needed, as Johns worked with many of the artists over a span of decades. There’s plenty of great stories among the making of many significant albums. One that comes to mind was when Johns suggests to Keith Moon that he gives up drinking so he can manage demanding drum parts and he fires back to Johns that he was just as bad, smoking cigarettes constantly. So Johns suggest that they both give up their vices, which Johns duly did, but, of course Moon did not and went on the cause more chaos with his drink fuelled capers, many of which Johns details in Sound Man. Engineers and producers like Johns don’t really exist in today’s world of digital and fragmented recording techniques. Johns recorded many of the bands playing together in a room, with overdubs later to correct or flesh out the songs. Johns does lament the passing of his type of recording and producing (as does the likes of Tony Visconti, who when asked what modern producers he admired a few years ago replied, “None”), however he does still work occasionally and as evidenced by this book, he will be remembered as part of musical history due to the sheer number of amazing albums he worked on. I recommend Sound Man to any reader interested in the great music of the 60s and 70s and musical history in general. Sound Man is a classy book, well written and is absolutely fascinating. Makes for good holiday reading, or for when you are recovering from Covid, as I was when I read the bulk of it. The book also made me want to listen to the albums in question again, many of which have been done to death, which can only be a good thing, as I really think that the 1970s was the greatest decade in modern musical history.

Sunday 4 February 2024

Bee Gees: Children of the World - Bob Stanley (2023)


Rating: Excellent

Many years ago I became a casual fan of the Bee Gees, specifically their 1969 album Odessa, a double album that is eccentric, over the top, fascinating and, as I concluded after a while, pure genius. Over the years I've bought quite a number of their albums second hand and have become a big appreciator of the Bee Gees unique musical world. Their albums are still cheap to buy, despite second-hand vinyl prices rising in general due to the demand generated by a new generation of collectors and vinyl lovers, because, well, the Bee Gees are still pretty uncool. They may be uncool, but the reality is that they were song-writing geniuses. Children of the World delves deeply into both the Bee Gees personal lives and their music, with the emphasis on their music. Somehow Bob Stanley has managed to give the reader a well rounded sense of the Bee Gees as people, whilst mostly being concerned about their music. Stanley notes that the three Gibb brothers, Maurice, Robin and Barry, were basically outsiders, despite their stellar commercial successes. They lived in their own hermetically sealed world, for example, he points out, that even their version of disco was very different to that of other acts disco; in one of Stanley's many great lines, he compares Bee Gees disco to a wafting summer night's breeze, as opposed other acts disco, which he describes as like stepping into the oversaturated perfume section of a department store. In telling the Bee Gees musical story, from the Isle of Mann, through to their decades of both slumps and global dominance, Stanley writes supremely well about music. To convey both the technical aspects of music and its intangible magic, is a very difficult thing to do without resorting to cliches, but Stanley manages it. Essentially Children of the World is perhaps the best music book I've ever had the pleasure of reading.

Odessa - eccentric brilliance

One of the things that Stanley does best is make you want to hear the music he's talking about, so be prepared to be listening to the Bee Gees a great deal whilst reading. It is double the pleasure basically. Stanley also begins each chapter with a rundown of either the US top ten chart, or the UK top ten chart, which gives the reader great context regarding the musical world the Bee Gee's were existing within. The thing that Stanley convey's really well is just how unique the Bee Gee's were, there is nothing else like them in the history of popular music really. It is best to read this book, as it is difficult to explain this adequately within a few words, however, to give it a go, the Bee Gees were kind of kooky, eccentric and unhindered by the kind of restraint that rendered many other commercial acts of their era banal. Actually to understand the Bee Gees unique appeal it is best to start listening to them properly, not just their many hits; albums like Idea(1968), Odessa (1969), Cucumber Castle (1970), To Whom it May Concern (1972), Trafalgar (1971) and Main Course (1975) would be good starts. The story of the Bee Gees is one of true graft, they worked really hard, sheer musical talent and also personal and family troubles and tragedies (no pun intended). Andy Gibb's story is also included, which is both inspiring and very sad. Like Brain Wilson, Barry Gibb has ended up being the last brother left in the family, with the premature deaths of Maurice and Robin. Stanley has been criticised for paying scant attention to their deaths in the book, but he deals with their deaths with taste, and besides, it's mostly all about their lives and their music. Another criticism is that there are no photos included, however this is barely noticed, as Stanley's writing is so good images are rendered unnecessary, besides, that's what the internet is for. Essentially Children of the World is a must for Bee Gees fans, and if you are a casual admirer of their music, reading the book will turn you into a big fan, which is one of the best things that could happen to you frankly, just make sure you don't care about being cool.

The Bee Gees in action, circa the late 1960's