Out There #9

June 21, 2021 at 14:55

‘we fought for toilet rolls,’ says Iggy‘did anyone invent rock’n’roll’ says Louis Menand‘The Last Note’, 1976 by Michael ZagarisGlastonbury according to AA Gill Bob Dylan’s 10 Best Film PerformancesCasting Martin Scorsese’s Ramones film

Iggy Pop on the beach

Getting to Dylan

June 20, 2021 at 15:08

D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back (1966) – which I write about in my forthcoming book, Rock-N-Roll Plays Itself (to be published in early 2022) – might have once been seen simply asa film about a popular singer on tour told through the medium of a new kind of fly-on-the-wall kind of documentary film.

But with so much time having elapsed since it was first released and began to seep into popular culture more broadly the film’s portrait of the star confronting a rapacious media – although this media is admittedly quite tame by today’s standards – whose members are given the kind of close-up and intimate access to an artist at the peak of his early powers that would be hard to imagine being repeated today.

Dylan’s legend would only – and forever – be enhanced by the scenes of wit and cunning and the cat and mouse games with the interrogators we see in Don’t Look Now. The final scene of the film shows a triumphant Dylan after a performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall being carried away in a car with manager Albert Grossman and his sidekick and road manager, Bob Neuwirth, as they make one final jab at the press who had dogged him throughout the tour. ‘Anarchist,’ Neuwirth says. ‘That’s what they are calling you, because you are not protesting correctly.’ ‘Really. Am I an anarchist?’ Dylan laughs. ‘Maybe I am … Hey, give the anarchist a cigarette!’

It is a key element in the Dylan mythology.

Yet when it comes to the movies, Dylan was also shown to be merely mortal, a presence who perhaps suffered from not being the centre of attention, as in his role in the determinedly un-rock’n’roll western, Pat Garret and Billy the Kid. More mystifying is his decision to take a prominent role as some anonymous rock star in 1986’s Hearts on Fire, a straight-to-video nasty, in which he played opposite Rupert Everett and a little known Canadian singer and actress called Fiona Flanagan. The film is even more odd given that Dylan as Dylan – and partly because of the work that Don’t Look Back did in establishing an image of rock stardom – became the source of one of the most powerful of all rock star archetypes: the romantic outsider who channels reality through a collision of visionary images with a new kind of rock’n’roll sound.

1987’s Hearts of Fire

The question, then, is how can such a figure – such a man-as-myth – end up ‘playing’ some half-sketched stand in for the real thing?

But then again was Hearts of Fire as odd of choice as it seemed on its release? When viewed within the context of Dylan’s apparently faltering powers in the eighties (and later revelations of his need to earn money), it might just have been his way of trying to reassert the inscrutable public persona that Don’t Look Back had established. Along with the tours he undertook with the Grateful Dead and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in this era, and then collaborations that produced the Traveling Wilburys, the man who ‘wasn’t there’ was perhaps finding himself again by becoming … more enigmatic and elusive.

A BBC documentary titled ‘Getting to Dylan’ made around the time when Hearts of Fire was being filmed is one of the best films about how Dylan played the media for his own ends and even features amusing footage of the singer talking to some young teenagers who are hanging around outside his trailer. ‘Oh, you like Ozzy?’ he says to the kids. ‘How about Ratt …?’ Back inside the trailer, as filmmaker Christopher Sykes tries to probe for some meaning to the whole Dylan enigma, attempting to get Dylan to pin himself down, it seems that the discussion is not really going to go anywhere.

As an opener, Sykes raises the interesting thought that Dylan’s songs are actually very ‘film-like’, an interpretation that Dylan is keen not to allow anyone to think is what he thinks. ‘All Along the Watchtower, for example … it’s like very tight visual imagery, like it has been written at enormous length and then had things stripped out of it, leaving only these kind of key images and then suggestions of sound and stuff in it’, Sykes says. ‘I suppose what I want to know is that when you write a song, am I right about you doing it like that? …’

Dylan: ‘No’

Sykes: ‘How do you do it then?’

Dylan: ‘Many ways …’

Sykes: ‘They’re stories with visual images …’

Dylan: ‘Uh-uh, I don’t know whether they are [that] … they are whatever they are to whoever is listening to them. No, I don’t do those things, I don’t have those plans, I don’t have any set way of writing songs …’

Having slipped free of this attempt to pin him as a ‘cinematic’ songwriter, we see Dylan – who has been scribbling away the entire time on a sheet of paper from Sykes’ production notes – hand Sykes the finished product: a drawing of his interrogator. ‘That’s very flattering,’ a baffled Sykes says.

‘Getting to Dylan’, Omnibus, BBC One, first broadcast 18 September 1987. It can be viewed in four parts at Youtube.

Being Bad

May 1, 2020 at 13:01

A short extract from the opening chapter of John Scanlan, Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine (2016). This is from Chapter 1, ‘I’ll Be So Bad’, which is about Malcolm McLaren in the 1960s.

It was October 1964. Malcolm McLaren, then a few months shy of his nineteenth birthday and going by the name of Malcolm Edwards, found himself looking on in surprise as the Rolling Stones, laughing and puffing away on cigarettes, appeared in front of him. He was perched on Chelsea Bridge with an etching pad, looking over at Battersea Power Station, its four iconic chimneys pumping white smoke, and outlining its imposing presence on the south bank of the Thames.

He knew who the Rolling Stones were, of course; but it was only here that he was struck, seeing them out on the street, in the daylight, by the way they looked and how unlike pop stars – how un-rock’n’roll – they actually were. The way they dressed, they could have been Beat writers, or young French existentialist poets and philosophers.

Bill Wyman, the least star-like of the group, was dressed in a knee-length black leather mac, and standing in front of a wooden hut selling tea and hot dogs that was plonked on the Battersea side of the bridge. He spoke to Charlie Watts, as Keith Richards and Brian Jones ordered cups of tea. Mick Jagger was prancing around, posing for some photographers. Together, with their long hair and slightly unkempt appearance, they looked bad – they looked mean, dirty, and possibly dangerous. It was an interesting look.

But all that – pop music – was something that belonged in the past. He once had time for the Rolling Stones, and others like the Pretty Things, but in the year or so since he had first started taking art classes at St Martin’s School of Art, he had more or less lost interest in it all. When the Beatles and the rest of the upbeat pop music that swept through the sixties took over, something had been lost. The action was to be found elsewhere – possibly in art, and living the life of an artist.

Why bother being some kind of spectator of this popular culture, he thought, when you could – as an artist – reshape the future by your own actions.

* * *

The 1960s were a time of upheaval in Britain’s art schools and colleges, shaped both by events in the world outside and by the structures and relationships that then existed within the institutions, and which seemed to act as obstacles to the kind of freedom that young artists wanted. By 1966 Malcolm Edwards had made the first of many attempts to instigate events and situations that might ruffle the feathers of the authority figures he so despised. In July that year he appeared in the headlines of a national newspaper for the first time, when The Times reported that he and a friend named Henry Adler had been found guilty at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court in London of ‘insulting behaviour contrary to the Public Order Act’.

Adler, a few years older and more woven into the life of the counterculture, would be the ‘conduit’ that linked the then Malcolm Edwards to radical politics, and to King Mob, a London Situationist group that he was later loosely associated with. The twenty-year-old Edwards – described by The Times as ‘a sculptor’ – was caught with 23-year old Adler trying to set light to the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy, in a ‘symbolic act against American policy in Vietnam’. They were both fined and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months, as the magistrate explained, to ensure that there would be no more such incidents.[1]

Grosvenor Square 1969

There would be no more headline-grabbing incidents in those twelve months, although the one-time sculptor later wrote that in 1968 – the year when a revolutionary fervour gripped students across Europe – he could be found scrambling through the South African embassy as all around him Molotov cocktails flew into the air. And he remembered spilling bags of marbles on the ground at a charge from the oncoming mounted police at Grosvenor Square, scene of the most famous confrontations with the police in 1968:

Suddenly it looked like these horses were on an ice skating rink, and then, like Agincourt, we ducked down and people behind us had catapults and started firing gobstopper marbles at the windows of the American embassy.[2]

Since 1966 Edwards had lived with Vivienne Westwood, sister of his best friend Gordon Swire. Gordon was connected to the capital’s music scene, and had been booking bands on the burgeoning London rhythm and blues (R&B) scene in the early days of The Rolling Stones, when Malcolm would sometimes follow him around the circuit, often with more interest in the beer than the music – unless The Pretty Things or The Rolling Stones were playing. He was impressed that the Stones would get on-stage wearing dirty collars and cuffs, and – like many others at the time – loved the whiff of danger that these small details communicated. 

Sex Pistols, Poison in the Machine

John Scanlan, Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine (Reaktion Books, 2016).

Published by Reaktion Books, September, 2015 (UK) 
+ via University of Chicago Press, October 2015 (USA)

ISBN 9781780235295

240 pages
45 illustrations
216 x 138 mm

Out There #8

March 18, 2020 at 14:50

Downtown ’81D.A. Pennebaker on Bob Dylan, John Lennon, cinema vérité and Mary Poppins ‘Sublime and Sombre’, Stockholm’s ABBA museumDebbie Harry, quite possibly the most iconic woman in musicSeven great Nic Roeg momentsThe Persistence of Prog Rock

Debbie Harry makes a surprise appearance, ‘Downtown ‘81’

Bowie Bonds

January 13, 2020 at 22:16

In the early 1990s David Bowie began to detach himself from the weight of his own musical legacy, and in doing so – which involved disappearing from the hit parade – he nonetheless ended up as one of the richest rock stars in the world. And while it is true that reinvention was more or less the norm for Bowie, what he began in the nineties was nonetheless a novel attempt at finding a way to move forward in a creative sense; one that seemed, indeed, to separate him from many of his peers.

Unlikely as it may have seemed at the time he was recording the records that made him in the seventies and eighties, this was on the cusp of an era – the late nineties into the new century – when it would not be uncommon to see ageing rockers, some associated with its most decadent excesses, being feted by world leaders, or awarded medals of honour and suchlike.

Recently, Bob Dylan accepted a Nobel Prize. But before that the American Presidents Obama and Clinton handed out awards to the likes of Dylan, as well as Led Zeppelin and The Who, while at the same time the list of British rockers enjoying use of the title of ‘Sir’ seemed to grow each year, with Paul McCartney and Elton John joined recently by Sir Ray Davies of the Kinks, Sir Van Morrison, Sir Rod Stewart and Sir Ringo Starr.

Only one of the rock icons of the same generation as those mentioned managed to avoid this symbolic embrace of the establishment, refusing all offers of state-bestowed honours: David Bowie.

Unsurprisingly, given the lengths he went to throughout his career to move past exhausted ideas or forms of presentation, Bowie was very aware of the need to keep himself within the artistic sphere at this particular time, and to resist the lure of nostalgia that accompanied the music industry’s resurgent interest in its own past. This was first as a result of the CD era and then the emerging digital era, which together promised new and unforeseen income streams for recordings that often seemed doomed to enjoy the limited lifespan of chart popularity to keep them in stores, and thus available to be listened to by new audiences.

But once the dawn of the CD made it possible for the industry to see a means to sell once again old music, now repackaged in the new format, and because the CD revolution also freed up physical space in stores, there was just so much more room for a lot of music that had been forgotten about.

The danger in this for artists living through it, if they submitted to revivals based on former glories, was that their careers could easily end up revolving around a demand that they keep revisiting that past, as their audience grew with both old fans rediscovering their music, and new audiences discovering for the first time the hits of a golden era.

At around the same time as he was plotting a new way of working the catalogue that might result in freeing him from the claim of the past, Bowie’s odd cameo in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – as an FBI agent who had disappeared years before and suddenly, out of the blue, appears in the most mysterious circumstances – seemed quite in tune Bowie’s (music) career at that time: now you see him, now you don’t.

You see, Bowie ‘retired’ his greatest hits (not himself, as rock stars had previously done) after some final performances at the turn of the new decade. I witnessed one of these last shows at which he was going to play the hits from the golden years – the ‘Sound + Vision’ tour, in 1990 – before he temporarily tried to vanish within pseudo-metal / hard rock band, Tin Machine, a number of film roles, but also the world of the visual arts (he had a one man show of his art in London in 1995, and wrote for the magazine Modern Painters during the decade).

Tin Machine (1989)

Some surmised that Tin Machine was just another of Bowie’s disguises: an attempt to disappear himself. It was reported that he introduced himself onstage as David ‘Jones’, and on the cover of the first Tin Machine album cover what we see seems to be a shrunken Bowie, as if he was the least significant figure of the four band members.

When Bowie pops up as Agent Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, it is entirely unexpected, and not prefigured in any way in what the viewer had seen up to that point. As such, it disrupted whatever the story unfolding on screen. Was it ‘a flash-forward,’ Sean Redmond asks in a recent article, ‘a fragment or figment from Agent Cooper’s dream(ing), or a ghost walking in plain sight?’[1]

Whatever the answer might be, the sense of dislocation that the moment of his appearance represents within the film seemed to produce an oddly typical Bowie moment. It’s like he disappeared in real life and appeared out of nowhere as this fictional character – as if the two events had more than a coincidental continuity. And wasn’t it true that whatever disguise Bowie adopted, we always knew that it was David Bowie anyway?

Bowie as Agent Phillip Jeffries in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me

But that was hardly the most significant event in Bowie’s life at this time.

Distancing himself from his past was a process that gained momentum when he acquired the rights to the valuable master recordings of his back catalogue in 1997 (although it seems to have stemmed from an impulse that actually dates back to that 1990 tour, when he first decided that this was the end of the line for the old hits).

What was significant about 1997 was the the emerging realisation that digital file-sharing presented a real problem for artists who relied on income from record and CD sales. These fears were most notably aired when Metallica sued the main pre-iTunes platform, Napster, for theft of copyright by allowing the sharing of music files via its peer-to-peer platform: a seemingly logical outgrowth of the old counterculture wisdom that drove Silicon Valley tech geeks to innovate, the idea that information wants to be free and could not be contained. Well, it was true: in the digital age, music became information – a collection of zeroes and ones. Files that once copied, could be copied endlessly with little or no time or effort.

Bowie’s own back catalogue, which he was no longer interested in promoting in performance, he realised, could quickly end up worthless in an era of declining sales and rampant file-sharing. So, rather than using the circumstance of obtaining his masters back from RCA Records to become the curator of his own legacy – as others would do – Bowie and his manager tried to devise a way to put this catalogue to use while it still had a present value, in order to finance his continued artistic experiments. It was to be a different way of using a past to sustain future development. And so, Bowie and his business manager Bill Zysblat invented, along with a stock market analyst named David Pullman, what came to be known as ‘Bowie Bonds’. 

Billboard, 15 February 1997

A calculation was made of the likely cash flows from royalties due on Bowie’s recorded back catalogue up to 1990, which he now owned outright. As the Financial Times reported at the time of his death in 2016, ‘Bowie struck a licensing deal with EMI for his back catalogue’ giving the record company limited-term rights to all of his albums – 25 in total – released between 1969 and 1990. They could re-release, repackage and do whatever they wanted with the catalogue, and in return Bowie would receive substantial funds.

Financial Times, 12 January 2016

‘Those rights were then securitised, turned into $55m of Bowie Bonds, offering a 7.9 per cent annual coupon. The bonds were “self-liquidating”, meaning the principal declined each year, and the rating agency Moody’s blessed the deal with an investment grade credit rating.'[2]

The bonds would mature over a ten-year period, between 1997 and 2007, after which the royalties from this pre-1990 music would once again start to flow back to Bowie himself. Bonds were issued to the value of $55m and sold to investors who might otherwise have put their funds into real estate or more traditional investment ventures.

Others following Bowie into the bond market included James Brown

With the income windfall, Bowie was now free from dependence on record companies, or the need to raise income through touring his greatest hits over and over to please the fans who preferred an earlier version of David Bowiet (as so many of the ageing artists of his generation had been forced to do in the face of declining record sales and resurgent back catalogue CD reissues). Remarkably, by the mid-1990s, it was reported that his personal wealth had been transformed beyond the amount raised by the bond issue, with Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper reporting in 1995 that he was ‘the richest man in British rock music’ – outstripping even Paul McCartney – and with a personal fortune of ‘more than half a billion pounds, thanks to canny overseas investments, a bond issue and rights to his back catalogue.'[3]

In 2002, more than ten years after this experiment in fund-raising, Bowie was still anticipating that things would go much further in the same direction for the music business as the internet promised to affect every facet of life. ‘I’m fully confident that copyright, for instance, will not exist in ten years. Authorship and intellectual property is in for such a bashing. Music itself is going to be like running water or electricity’, he said.[4] Yet, there was much that had not yet happened, including the arrival of iTunes to normalise the idea of paying for downloaded music.

In the last decades of his life – and hindered by serious illness in the early 2000s – Bowie kept working an artist who was living in his own present time, thinking about the future as opposed to the past. Following the Bowie Bonds were a series of eclectic albums, not always received with affection, from 1997’s Earthling to 2016’s Blackstar (completed weeks before he died) that demonstrated his unwillingness to let time and age erode his artistic impulses.

[1] Sean Redmond, ‘David Bowie: In Cameo,’ Cinema Journal, Vol. 57: 3 (Spring 2018), p. 152.
[2] Dan McCrum, ‘A Short History of the Bowie Bond,’ Financial Times, 11 Jan, 2016.
[3] Alison Boshoff, ‘Bowie Tops the Money Charts,’ Daily Telegraph, 29 Oct, 1997, p. 3.
[4] Jon Pareles, ‘David Bowie, 21st-Century Entrepreneur,’ New York Times, 09 June, 2002, p. 30.

Rock n Roll London

November 19, 2019 at 15:57

This short-ish film – 66 mins long – presented by the late and very affable Art Wood (d. 2006), brother of Ron, is recommended, especially for those interested in the early sixties London R&B scene that gave us the Stones. Very funny in parts, especially the scenes with a possibly inebriated Mick Avory (ex Kinks) filmed at and around the Clissom Arms in London – where the Kinks played regularly in the early days – as they share their regrets at not having the foresight to see that this rock music lark would last.

Art says that only if he had kept current day collectables (that pair of trousers, that album) he might have cashed in. ‘Back in them days,’ he says to Avory, ‘you never knew it would go on this long.’ This distracts Mick from a pint of lager long enough to reveal that his plan back then was, ‘to play for a few years, earn some money and buy a castle.’

Featuring fascinating tours of Eel Pie Island – and other contenders for the birthplace of the British R&B scene such as the Richmond Cricket Club – and other notable places, such as the Goldhawk pub (the home of ‘little mod people’) and London’s Tin Pan Alley.

Out There #7

August 30, 2019 at 14:18

The Day the Music BurnedHallucinating Woodstock at 50Catching up with the Woodstock nunDesigning a new 50th anniversary Woodstock recordings boxsetMichael Chiaken inside Dylan’s archiveghoulish escapades with the Cramps in the cellars of New York’s Bowery

Song Noir

June 5, 2019 at 07:30

I really became a character in my own story. I’d go out at night, get drunk, fall asleep underneath a car. Come home with leaves in my hair, grease on the side of my face, stumble into the kitchen, bang my head on the piano and somehow chronicle my own demise and the parade of horribles that lived next door.

Tom Waits

Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles

Song Noir by Alex Harvey will be an in-depth examination of the first, formative decade of Tom Waits’ career, when he lived in Los Angeles and mined an extraordinarily rich seam of the city’s low-life locations, characters and ‘noir’ associations.

Los Angeles fed and nurtured Waits’ dark imagination. In turn he created a body of work that contributed to the sense of the city as a deeply unsettling urban experience – a place of extremes; of dreams and violence, despair and yearning. The book will examine how this period represents the absolute high watermark of Waits’ Los Angeles legend, the time that he very deliberately set about living the life his songs described; it’s the moment when Waits’ creative inter-penetration of city and self-hood becomes complete. The book will also explore how, over time, Los Angeles became as much a trap as a means of escape for this artist. It wasn’t simply that his ‘lush life’ had turned into a kind of prison. His performing persona, one that drew on so many of city’s associations and influences, hardened into a mask that threatened to restrict his musical growth.

The book explores how, within the context of Los Angeles’ noir-like dreamscape, Waits was able to re-work the spoken idioms of Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and draw upon the legacy of jazz-blues rhythms to such powerful, hallucinatory effect.

But Song Noir will also chart how Waits’ stark portraits of Americana, with its diners and drunks, started to become repetitive and mannered. It was a kind of self-created trap, as the city of Los Angeles also came to embody the deeply personal demons bound up with Waits’ complex relationship with his unsettled, alcoholic father, Frank.

About the Author
Alex Harvey is a Los Angeles-based director and writer, who has made over 20 documentaries and dramas, working in both film and television. His most recent film is the feature documentary Enter the Jungle (2014). He has written essays for publications such as the London Review of Books, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Blur … do it again

April 14, 2019 at 15:33

‘I lead a very quiet life here,’ reports Blur’s Alex James in New World Towers, ‘then suddenly the phone’ll ring and it’s, like, oh you’re doing Hyde Park and its sold out … it’s like getting dragged off by an old girlfriend, and all mussed up and then spat back into my life again when it’s all over, going what was that!’ New World Towers is one of the increasingly common rock documentaries which are, in truth, films about how people age in an art form that has always seemed rooted in some idealistic vision of youth.

Getting old, or extending something beyond its natural life cycle in rock, can be – in the case of a group, which unlike an individual, has to negotiate the creative process – the source of acute problems. Differences in life goals; grievances or other interpersonal relationship issues; and, of course, the need to try and rediscover the ‘chemistry’ that made it all happen or work in the first place.

Alex James in ‘New World Towers’.

Blur’s New World Towers, a film about reconciliation and the process of writing and recording a new album under conditions that were not planned – which was released as 2016’s The Magic Whip – draws a great deal on the idea that they key conundrum in continuing to exist as a band is trying to figure out and deal with the forces that made it all work the first time, something that was not always subject to analysis at the time, and is not always welcomed in the present. Damon Albarn, Blur’s lead singer and the band member who ventured out in more directions after Blur originally split, is easily the least interested in making any kind of gesture that might pull him back into the more confined creative space of Blur.

As images of the strange location they now found themselves in – Hong Kong – float across the screen they are accompanied by glimpses of the four members of Blur, the sound of their voices expressing a wariness about the situation – once again thrust back into the dynamics of the teenage gang – they found themselves in. ‘I was trying to avoid being in Blur,’⁠ says Albarn. But what won out over the doubts was the recognition that the chance occurrence that saw everyone once again being stuck in the same place at the same time might just be the kind of circumstance that would allow them to recapture the unthinking spontaneity of what they did when they first formed.

Back in 2010, the Blur film No Distance Left to Run played out a repeat of the lessons that time and fame had thrown up for the Beatles some forty years earlier: namely that rock bands whose origins begin with some abstract idea of ‘making it’, gradually become derailed by the demands of adulthood. It’s a young person’s game. ‘It all starts out being like a gang,’ Alex James said, with everyone ‘trying to agree with each other as a sort of united front.’

When Blur reunited in 2010, they were all a good deal older than the Beatles had been when they broke up – all over forty (with the drummer Dave Rowntree the oldest at 46 years old). Reforming had the attraction of revisiting an idealised time in life, ‘like walking streets you haven’t visited for ages,’ as Alex James said.

The Blur comeback show that was glimpsed in No Distance Left to Run took place at a railway museum in Colchester, Essex, a place they had first played twenty years earlier. We might wonder what it is about rock music that produces such powerful compulsions to reconnect with something that, in truth, is no longer there.

Is it because the urge to ‘do it again’ is a kind of repetition compulsion that is actually part of the DNA of rock’n’roll?

New World Towers was shown on the Sky Arts channel.

Back to mono

June 12, 2018 at 15:40

I have been thinking about time recently. Rock’n’roll and time and how integral the feeling of things accelerating were to how people must have experienced the music and its ability to constantly replenish itself, often working through formulaic patterns or variations on a theme. Consider Phil Spector who, as much as anyone in his prime, defined a point in time through the application of a vision and the creation of an unmistakable signature sound. What were his records called – two-minute teenage operas, or something similar.

It was perhaps odd then that Spector ended up producing what was, at the time, the longest slab or recorded rock music ever made in the form of George Harrison’s sprawling triple-album All Things Must Pass. But it wasn’t really enough to allow Spector to transition into the cultural milieu of seventies rock too easily. In fact he had found himself cut adrift amidst the easy-going excess of LA’s rock culture.

Spector was anything but easy-going. When he reluctantly ventured out into this new alien world in the mid-70s, doing the rounds of the Sunset Strip clubs in search of new blood, as he half-heartedly scouted the scene while sporting custom t-shirts and lapel-badges exclaiming the words of his own unwritten manifesto: ‘BACK TO MONO’.

An ad for Phil Spector’s Greatest Hits. Warner / Spector Records 25P9104 (1977)

It was a slogan that his record company had adopted to market a re-release double LP of his hits. Observers were not convinced that Spector’s old work – catapulted into an age before the concept of the re-release had even seriously been thought of – merited much attention, such was the ever-shifting clock of rock and roll fashions. ‘Time works against the concept,’ Billboard magazine declared, almost baffled that anyone would try and market their past in such a way. ‘Spector has been out of the limelight for some time, so it is hard to imagine masses of record buyers surging into stores to gulp this LP up.’

‘Back to Mono’ may have failed as a marketing slogan, but it was a sentiment that might have rung true for many in the mid-seventies had they noticed; an implicit rebuke to those who had abandoned the direct simplicity of rock’n’roll. The out-of-fashion Spector found himself working with John Lennon on an album of fifties cover songs, titled simply Rock’n’roll. If it seemed a little early for Lennon to be looking back nostalgically to the past – a mere dozen or so years after the Beatles had rose to global fame – it was perhaps an indication that he now found himself in uncharted territory, outlasting the expectation that he’d be done with rock’n’roll by the time he reached his thirties.

The two fell out after Spector brought one session to a halt by firing gunshots into the ceiling, later disappearing with the master tapes, which would not be recovered until over a year later. When the album finally saw the light of day, in late 1975, it showed Lennon on the cover in his pre-fame Hamburg days, harking back to the fifties and sporting black leather and greased-back hair.

But it was only when the Ramones were brought to Spector’s attention that the famed producer believed he had found a way to get back to his own kind of rock’n’roll. They had been pushed into his arms by the combination of a record company desperate for hits, and lead singer Joey Ramone’s vision of himself as the reincarnation of one of Spector’s girl-group singers on the album’s excellent version of The Ronettes’ ‘Baby, I Love You.’

But the prolonged recording process turned into a trial for the impatient Ramones. Spector thought that the resulting album, End of the Century (1979), would revive his fortunes. But it failed to deliver the chart success that both parties had expected, a situation not helped by the fact that the band’s leader, Johnny Ramone – claiming Spector had forced him to repeat the opening chord of ‘Rock’n’roll High School’ over 200 times – disowned the album, and used every opportunity he could to claim that Spector had all but taken the band hostage in the studio, forcing them to perform at gunpoint.