Friday, July 19, 2013

When They Were Boys: The True Story of the Beatles' Rise to the Top by Larry Kane

ARC received from NetGalley.

Purchase the book from Amazon.com.

Some of you may be groaning to see yet another Beatles book reviewed on this blog. What can one possibly learn from a new title, and how can we be sure this is the true story of the Fab's early years? Having read so many books over the years, one would think I could recite the story by heart. So many Beatle "insiders" and witnesses to the early days of Hamburg and Liverpool - it's nice to know so many are still kicking after fifty-plus years - and it appears that journalist/writer Kane has attempted to include as many as possible in When They Were Boys. This book doesn't cover the whole of the Beatles' career, but concentrates on the beginnings of the Quarrymen through the mid-1960s at the stirrings of the takeover of America.

Beatle die-hards know Kane's name - he traveled with the Beatles as a reporter during their 64-65 American tours, and he's authored other books on the band. Personal encounters with the boys are represented here in conversations peppered throughout, but you won't find current cooperation from the surviving members. When They Were Boys instead calls on the memories of those present before the record deals, names already familiar to die-hards: Astrid Kircherr, Pete Best, John's sister Julia Baird, Bill Harry (who published Mersey Beat), and Horst Fascher (performer and club owner in Hamburg). Voices of the departed - Neil Aspinall, Mal Evans, Mona Best, etc. - are also present, as is input from Yoko Ono, speaking from memories of conversations with John.

With all of this participation, and the author's personal experience, one could argue this is a thorough account of early Beatles history. Some stories are familiar, others appear revealed as Kane charges that some biographers may have attempted to rewrite the story by omitting certain points. As much as I've read of Mona Best's involvement, I don't often hear of her reaction to her son's dismissal/resignation from the band, or of exactly how popular Pete was during these years. Kane also takes the time to point out how some biographers want to minimize May Pang or erase her entirely, but it's not something I've seen in Lennon biographies.

The narratives aren't the most compelling as compared to other Beatles biographies and histories, and some may bristle at mentions of Paul and Ringo's lack of cooperation/interest in the this project. To note that neither attended a funeral of an insider, for example, seemed almost chiding. Nonetheless, Boys is informative, and a book new students will appreciate.

Rating: B-

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.

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Monday, July 8, 2013

The Kennedy Chronicles: The Golden Age of MTV Through Rose-Colored Glasses by Kennedy

Buy this book at Amazon.com.

ARC received by the publisher via NetGalley.

I made it known on a message board I co-admin that I planned to read this book, despite having very little memory of Kennedy, as an MTV VJ or otherwise. I knew the name, knew she was somebody, but I honestly have no recollection of seeing her on the channel, or of watching MTV at all during her five-year tenure. The subtitle of her memoir defines the early-to-mid 1990s as the golden age of MTV, and some may debate that. Me, I saw it as the beginning of the end, the transition from grab-bag video roulette that scheduled Motley Crue to follow The B-52's to follow The Doors to more structured programming that parsed videos by sub-genre and gradually doled out time slots to irrelevant shows. The 1980s had music videos, the 90s had Beavis and Butthead and Jenny McCarthy. By the time Kennedy appeared on the scene I was a college graduate in Athens, Georgia spending more time outside.

Nonetheless, I wanted to read her book in tandem with VJ, the oral history of MTV's genesis as told by four of the surviving original VJs. I thought it interesting to see both books come out around the same time, thereby allowing us a personal view of the network's evolution. First response from my message board post: You're lucky you don't remember her. I do, and she fuckin' sucked.

I haven't asked for specifics, but the "fuckin' sucks" opinion is one Kennedy seems to acknowledge. You loved her or you wanted to poke her with sharp, fiery sticks. To make up for my neglect of MTV in the 90s, I researched clips on YouTube to find a hostess resembling a bespectacled Darlene Conner, only more interested in her environment. Not enough material to determine if she fuckin' sucked at her job, so I'll let more seasoned critics decide that. In The Kennedy Chronicles, the author recounts her time at MTV and within the music scene at the time, devoting entire chapters to specific encounters and/or relationships with the era's notables - among them Henry Rollins, Billy Corgan, and Dave Navarro. There's also talk of her colleagues - some mentioned merely in passing, others with a hint of bemusement (*cough* Kurt Loder), and a few she viewed with respect (Tabitha Soren, the one I do remember watching in this time).

From what I gathered in this collection of rambling vignettes (which are interspersed with chapters that serve as interviews with a number of these musicians), Kennedy was basically the 90s rock galpal, couch surfing at rock stars' homes and grimacing as everybody at MTV kissed Clinton's ass during a major youth vote campaign - apparently Kennedy was quite a unicorn at 1515 Broadway, perhaps the lone conservative among her peers. While many stories provide nice gossip, not all have happy endings. There's little affection spared for Courtney Love and Puck from The Real World, and you'll learn more about Jenny McCarthy's bowel habits than you'll care to know. I do wish I had more access to MTV archives to know if Kennedy's broadcast style matched her writing, regardless of the twenty-year gap. To me, the book rambles, and while fans may enjoy the "interview" chapters I thought them out of place, as though others encroached on Kennedy's time by sharing their memories.

Whatever you think or thought of Kennedy, her legacy is cemented in her short MTV tenure, and The Kennedy Chronicles serves as an interesting, albeit uneven, history of the time. Fans of the VJ and the musicians featured in her anecdotes will likely appreciate the book the most.

Rating: C

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.


Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin by Leslie Woodhead

Buy now from Amazon.

I will confess when it comes pop culture and music, I often take an American-centric point of view. If a band suddenly drops of the radar, I might assume they broke up or fell out of favor with their label, forever relegated to sixth-billing at state fairs. It may not occur to us that certain musical acts sell well in other countries. I know somebody who co-wrote a song that became a number one hit in South America. The US market is important, surely, but it's not the only game in town.

One can imagine what kids in the USSR did for entertainment, and if they even heard of The Beatles during the band's prime. As it turns out, the Fabs managed to breach the Communist bloc, serving as unofficial ambassadors of the West. Filmmaker Woodhead, responsible early in his career for one of the first clips of the Beatles in action (which you can view on the author's website), would discover the group's impact on Soviet youth as he filmed documentaries. His interactions with fans and stories of government-approved (and illegal) acts influenced by the Beatles are compiled in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.

If there's one appealing thing I found about this book, aside from the Russian perspective of The Beatles, is the author's honesty from the beginning - many Beatle books I've read are authored by fans...die-hards. Woodhead doesn't claim a high level of fanaticism, and I like that it lends an objective voice to this first-person narrative. Woodhead takes us through the Soviet Union, then later Gorbachev's post-glasnost Russia, to meet some of the more avid Beatlemaniacs of the East. Where my aunts could easily buy the Capitol-released albums at any store in South Florida, these comrades waited for contraband records to come in via various sources (sometimes first through port towns, though the children of the privileged class were able to get their hands on the music). Many learned English via the Beatles, and took up instruments in an attempt to keep the music alive behind the Iron Curtain. Then there's the guy with the Beatles shrine (the pictures included in the book likely don't do it justice) whose admiration of the band certainly rivals that of the most fervent comrade's devotion to the Party.

What you won't find in this book (aside from personal experiences relayed by the author) are stories of interactions with actual Beatles. McCartney's historic concert is covered, and serves as a bittersweet coda for those denied the opportunity to see the entire band and follow them as the rest of the world did. The true stars of Kremlin, however, are the fans who closely guarded their admiration for the Beatles in an unaccepting atmosphere. When I recall reading stories of "Beatle burnings" in certain American community in reaction to John Lennon's "more popular than Jesus" remark, I find it interesting how people in the Soviet Union probably would not have had the opportunity to choose to burn a record - the government would make that decision. Yet, despite an ever-present government and rules, the Beatles managed to sneak through, proving nothing short of immortal (or divine) is impenetrable.

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin is for the serious Beatles scholar, a fascinating history lesson about the power of music gradually chipping away at oppression. When you begin to read, you may get the impression you're in for some dry reading, but it is the enthusiasm of the Russian fans with whom Woodhead interacts that helps the book come alive. Fifty years after those four young men rocked the Cavern, they continue to rock the Kremlin, the British Isles, the States, the Internet...and that enthusiasm keeps the music alive. Sometimes, all you do need is love, and I know one place to find it.

An advanced review copy was provided by the publisher.

Rating: B

Kathryn Lively is the author of the Rock and Roll Mysteries featuring Lerxst Johnston: Rock Deadly and Rock Til You Drop, and of the collection of short stories, The Girl With the Monkee Tattoo.



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