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You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul Of The Beatles
You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul Of The Beatles
by Peter Doggett
Edition: Hardcover

15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Very good (if incredibly depressing), 7 April 2010
There seems to be no end to the world's appetite for books about the Beatles. Especially biographies, which is odd when you consider that the Beatles have been mostly badly treated by their biographers. Philip Norman's 'Shout!' is sour, impatient and spoiled by Norman's evident contempt for McCartney; Ray Coleman's 'Lennon', although full of original research, is wrecked by Coleman's hero-worship of his subject; Chris Salewicz's McCartney biog is perceptive and well-written, but spends most of its length on the first 20 years of McCartney's life and practically skips over the Beatle period; Chris Sandford's McCartney book is gossipy and rather light; Albert Goldman's attempted demolition of Lennon has sunk back into obscurity; Bob Spitz's group biography is, by all accounts, wearyingly long and boring; and Geoffrey Giuliano's 'Revolver' is, so far as anyone can tell, pure fiction. I haven't read Philip Norman's 'John Lennon', although based on Norman's earlier performance I'm not sure I want to, and while Beatle fans everywhere are looking forward to Mark Lewisohn's giant three-volume biography, I don't think that the more literate of us expect that it's going to have the same level of critical insight as Richard Ellmann's 'James Joyce' or the rich wit of George Painter's 'Marcel Proust'. So far, Jonathan Gould's 'Can't Buy Me Love' is the only biography of the Beatles in which the quality of the writing is worthy of the subject. But Peter Doggett's book about the Beatles' collapse and afterlife (or afterlives) is a fascinating read, if not a book that exactly inspires you about the resourcefulness and resilience of the human spirit.

The trouble with books about the Beatles is that as long as the book focuses on the music it's liable to be inspiring, but the Beatles' actual lives are - like most people's - pretty sad. Doggett's book is especially so, because of the way it focuses on the splits and disagreements within and around the band. Nobody comes out of it very well: Lennon, especially in the last two years of the band, behaved with culpable fecklessness, jetting off around the world with Yoko and releasing albums of bad free improvisation when he should have been taking back his own responsibility as self-styled bandleader; McCartney, forced into the unwelcome position of boss, handled his own power clumsily, lashing out at Apple staff and alienating his bandmates; when Harrison wasn't being self-righteously pious he was having hissy fits about how Lennon and McCartney didn't take his songs seriously enough, even though he seldom bothered to present them properly to the band; and Starkey just waited glumly for the whole sorry drama to play itself out. The Allen Klein debacle saw the band rip itself apart, and then it was all lawsuits and sniping at each other in interviews until Lennon and McCartney managed to patch up their friendship in the mid-70s.

Even after Lennon's death, which helped bring the remaining bandmates closer together for a while, the legal problems persisted. A suitably symbolic end to the story is the fight for the Apple brand: decades ago, the mighty Apple Corps sued a tiny computer company and made them promise never to dabble in music, but thirty years later Apple Computer have bought the name and the trademark off the much-humbled Apple Corps, and lease it back to them. Apple Ltd. now pays Apple Computer for the right to use its own name.

The last ten years of the Beatles' afterlife have not, on the whole, been tremendously happy. Harrison's too-early death is yet another premature Beatle fatality. Not even the most nihilistic goth bands have been so death-haunted as the supposedly sunny Beatles: Lennon & McCartney each lost their mothers while still in their teens; Stuart Sutcliffe, brain haemorrhage; Brian Epstein, overdose; Mal Evans, shot by LA police; Lennon himself, shot by a nutcase; Harrison, dying of cancer only a couple of years after being stabbed multiple times by another nutcase; Linda McCartney, dead at 56; Maureen Tigrett, Ringo's first wife, the cheering 'Mo' from Let It Be, dead at 48. (One might add Neil Aspinall, dead from cancer at the relatively young age of 66.) Violence and premature death swirl around the Beatles in a way that makes G.G. Allin look like a wannabe.

For all that, it's a wonder that the Beatles aren't more miserable. McCartney finally got rid of that pesky, moany second wife in a way that gave him a mild flaying in the tabloids; the increasingly grumpy Ringo seems to be bored of being fab. Doggett's book is valuable for its honest look at the short-sighted squabbling that has accompanied the last forty years of Beatledom, but you'll want to go back to the music after you've finished, because if this book is anything to go by, there is nothing very enviable about being a Beatle.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 15, 2011 5:58 PM BST

Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series)
Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series)
by Olivier Julien
Edition: Paperback
Price: £21.00

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and insightful collection of academic writing about the most famous album ever, 3 April 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Sgt. Pepper is probably the most famous album ever, and it's interesting that (as its title song predicts) it comes into and goes out of fashion as the Beatles' best work. Right now it would appear that either Revolver or the White Album have the edge in popularity, at least with most fans; Sgt. Pepper's combination of careful artifice and holistic optimism is not what people seem to want. I doubt that this collection of essays will be read by a wide audience, if only because it's pretty expensive and it's written by professional academics, but it does go some way towards providing a reading (or, rather, a 'listening') of Sgt. Pepper as the pinnacle of the Beatles' artistic achievement.

This is not the first time somebody has claimed that this album is the greatest thing the band ever did. Ian Macdonald made a similar case in his very influential book Revolution in the Head, although many serious critics seem to be unwilling to agree. Tim Riley, in his pre-Macdonald book-length commentary Tell Me Why, dismisses the album as dated fluff, whereas Devin McKinney in his book Magic Circles provocatively claims that the White Album is the best Beatles album. However, the essays presented here bely the idea that academic writing has to be irrelevant or jargon-laden. They are for the most part strongly argued, powerfully written and well-researched. (Tim Riley had the misfortune to write his book before much important work was done in the late 80s and 90s on analysing the Beatles' session tapes, and so he made many basic errors on the level of knowing who played what on what song.) Terence O'Grady wrote an entire book on the Beatles' music using the US albums as evidence of how they developed artistically, and while his essay in this book pays proper attention to the UK albums, he still gives an inordinate amount of time to the US ones when it is common knowledge that the Beatles were not involved at all in the sequencing of their US albums up until the release of Pepper itself.

John Kimsey's essay on authenticity and interference with special reference to Pepper is one of the best counter-arguments to one of the founding myths of US rock criticism that I've ever read. Harrison's 'Within You Without You' is often dismissed as a tedious blot on an otherwise good album, but Russell Reising and Jim LeBlanc's essay places it in its proper location, at the very heart of the whole project. I especially enjoyed Naphtali Wagner's essay, which applies traditional Schenkerian analysis to two Pepper songs and points out in passing that there is no critical consensus whatever about what key 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is actually in. Sheila Whiteley's piece on what the album as a whole might be said to be about strikes me as very important.

There are other fine essays in this collection but I can't mention them all. This is a fine summation of the challenges posed and rewards offered by a recording that we sometimes we know all too well. The contributors to this book do what the best academic writing always tries to do - they show complexities and nuances where perhaps we had no longer believed they could be found.

Get Back: The Beatles Let It Be Disaster
Get Back: The Beatles Let It Be Disaster
by Doug Sulpy
Edition: Paperback

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A crucial book for serious Beatle scholars, 30 Mar. 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the reissue of a book originally published as 'Drugs, Divorce and a Slipping Image'; whoever advised the authors to retitle it was clearly a smart person, because the original title is less than helpful.

Throughout January 1969, the Beatles attempted to go back to basics and record an album's worth of new songs without overdubs. Or maybe they were thinking of having a concert full of new material. The evidence of this book is that they never really decided what they wanted to do. What this book shows is that the Beatles' collective failure of will almost tore them apart. Sulpy & Schweighardt have gone to the available audio tapes of these sessions - which have been heavily bootlegged, and which anyone can find if they're willing to look hard enough, although I should point out that it's illegal to distribute them - and they have basically paraphrased the content, so that we don't have to listen to the many, many hours of bad performances and inconsequential chat ourselves.

Anyone who has heard outtakes from the 'Get Back' sessions (and indeed anyone who's listened to 'Let It Be', which preserves in most cases the finest takes of all the songs therefrom) is aware that at this point in their career, the Beatles were playing really badly. Lennon and Harrison were no longer interested in being Beatles, McCartney was increasingly angry with the others for putting him in the awkward and unwelcome position of bandleader to a bunch of listless and impatient rock stars who felt like they had little left to prove, and Starkey was just bored of having nothing to do. Sulpy and Schweighardt's book is an essential roadmap to the 'Get Back' sessions. They give a precis of each take and summarise the content of the spoken dialogue, Apple's lawyers having forbidden them from quoting anything directly. This is a very useful book for anyone who wants to take a close look at the Beatles' decline, although the hardcore scholars will still want to go back to the tapes.

In the meantime, this book provides a most valuable service in illuminating the drift, apathy and passive-aggression that, for the most part, were the dominant features of this part of the Beatles' career. It's to all their credit that they realised just how badly they had screwed up on the 'Get Back' project, and that they pulled it together so remarkably well to deliver 'Abbey Road'. What's even more impressive is that 'Get Back' yielded a scant handful of tracks that are among the Beatles' finest moments: the title song, Don't Let Me Down, Let It Be and McCartney's heartbreakingly sad The Long and Winding Road are undeniable high points in the Beatles' discography, and few fans would want to be without the quirky Dig A Pony, the soulful I've Got A Feeling, the fugitively lovely Across the Universe and and the touching Two of Us. (I personally can do without For You Blue, Maggie Mae, The One After 909, I Me Mine and Dig It.)

So it's an essential Beatles book for the serious Beatle scholar, and emphatically not a book I would recommend to any Beatles newbie who wants a guide to the music; for that purpose, Ian Macdonald's 'Revolution in the Head' and Tim Riley's 'Tell Me Why', for all their faults, are still the best books.

Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation
Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation
by Philip Norman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars How could a biography of the Beatles be so dull?, 29 Mar. 2010
Philip Norman is an intelligent journalist with a crisp, workmanlike prose style. He first published this biography of the Beatles in the early 1980s, and has been revising it and reissuing it ever since. It has acquired a status in some quarters as the 'definitive' biography of the band, which I for one don't think it has earned.

Let me make myself clear: I do not think that every book about the Beatles has to be a hymn of praise. The best critical books about the Beatles are the ones that are willing to take the band to task about something or other; Ian Macdonald's classic 'Revolution in the Head' is impatient with the band's drug-induced willingness to fool about; Devin McKinney's brilliant 'Magic Circles' has little time for 'Sgt Pepper' and argues that the White Album is the best Beatles album, precisely because it's such a mess; Jonathan Gould's 'Can't Buy Me Love' has a robust independence of judgement that seems to fit no particular pattern. But these are part of what make those books great. Macdonald, McKinney and Gould are all writing about what they regard as the best and most important band ever, which makes it all the more important that they register when the Beatles have screwed up.

However, Philip Norman's 'Shout!' has two major flaws. One, which is a fairly common one and which has been pointed out before, is Norman's lazy acceptance of the myth of McCartney-as-conservative/commercial-charmer as against Lennon-as-radical/avant-garde-innovator. This narrative about the Beatles, which was brewing when they were still an active band and which was subsequently fostered by Lennon in interviews he gave during the immediate post-breakup period and given support by the evidence of McCartney's rather glib and garrulous solo work, is given its most detailed and complete form in this book. It's pretty obvious that Norman basically despises McCartney and regards Lennon as the point of the band. This is not a very helpful or fruitful way to approach the Beatles, because it blinds the reader to the real conditions of the way the band operated and it hinders an understanding of the much more complex tensions within the band. It ignores the fact that McCartney was experimenting with tape loops, improvisation and randomness long before Lennon ever was and it also denies the extent to which they still collaborated as musicians long after they had stopped writing songs as full-time co-writers.

The second, and much more serious flaw of 'Shout!', is the fact that Norman doesn't seem to think that the Beatles were anything other than a rather successful pop group. This is a critical mistake when writing about the Beatles, and it's common to much of the earlier commentary about them. The truth, like it or not, is that after a certain point in their career, the Beatles were much more than just a big pop group. Beatlemania was not like previous kinds of fan enthusiasm, as many people (the Beatles included) realised fairly early on; Lennon himself commented to US journalist Michael Braun (in Braun's exceptionally canny book 'Love Me Do!') that what surrounded the Beatles as early as 1964 was 'beyond showbiz'. If you don't think that this is true, if you think that the Beatles were - again, in Lennon's own (albeit much later and rather disingenuous) words - 'just a band that made it very, very big', consider how many other bands of that era have inspired such a level of mania, and such a quantity of dreams, fantasies, literature, academic commentary and nostalgia. The Beatles are, among many other things, the only major rock band in which one of the band has been assassinated and another one has been the victim of a murderous assault which arguably hastened his own death; Mick Jagger may be a big star but nobody has ever tried to off him, and while Pantera's Dimebag Darrell was also murdered by a deranged fan, Pantera were just unlucky; they have never inspired the same kind of mass craziness as the Beatles. That alone is evidence of the Beatles' strangeness.

Norman's pedestrian unwillingness to be impressed by the lunacy that the Beatles attracted to a greater degree than any other band in history is a major flaw in his book. It makes the whole story curiously depressing, because since Norman has no very deep appreciation of the Beatles' highs, he can't make you feel the tragedy of their all-too-visible lows. His book is an attempt to deal with the Beatles phenomenon as just another thing worth writing a book about, but the truth is that the times have changed and Norman's book has been lost in a flood of more interesting Beatles books. I don't think that most serious commentators on the Beatles expect Mark Lewisohn's forthcoming three-volume biography to be the Fabs' equivalent of Richard Ellmann's 'James Joyce', but it will at least contain more reliable information than Norman's book.

Hunter Davies' book is more fun to read, and Jonathan Gould's 'Can't Buy Me Love' is more sensitive, better-written and much more intelligent.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 7, 2011 4:20 PM GMT

No Title Available

2.0 out of 5 stars Not much point to a novelisation of a partly improvised musical comedy..., 23 Mar. 2010
I can see the financial sense in United Artists commissioning this novelisation of Alun Owen's script for The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night"(The Beatles - A Hard Day's Night [1964] [DVD]). By 1964, The Beatles were threatening to become biggest money-spinner in entertainment history and it was only reasonable that UA would want to squeeze every possible penny out of their deal. Nevertheless, this is by no means a great or even a good novel - worse, it's not even a great novelisation (not that there are many great novelisations out there). An intriguing read, to be sure; it fills you in on the backstories of the band's (fictional) manager Norm and his (equally fictional) assistant Shake, and among Burke's few imaginative touches are his variations on the name of the character of Paul's irascible and mischievous grandfather.

However, the main thing this book communicates is the extent to which novelisations are not adaptations of movies but adaptations of screenplays: they have to be, in order to hit the shelves at the same moment the movie hits the screens. The press conference sequence, for example, is present here but the quips the band give as answers to dumb journalistic questions are exceptionally lame and over-earnest, unlike the snappily enigmatic and deadpan responses they give in the movie. There is also an interesting sequence featuring Paul chatting up a girl, which isn't in the movie. Some bits from the film are here verbatim, but this suffers from the abiding and rather endearing flaw of the novelisation as a form; it over-explains and points out the very obvious. Recommended to Beatles completists and scholars only, this is an interesting document of the reach and scope of Beatlemania circa 1964 but it's nothing like as entertaining as the movie that it was created to promote.

Price: £9.90

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The only Flag album that absolutely everyone should hear, 26 Feb. 2010
This review is from: Damaged (Audio CD)
One of the previous reviewers suggested that if you like Black Flag then you must be in some way unable to appreciate music.

Let me see, what was the last music I paid for? Neville Marriner and the Academy of St Martins in the Fields doing Bach's 'Art of Fugue' and 'Musical Offering'. The original 1943 recording of Benjamin Britten's 'Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings'. Mendlessohn's Hebrides Overture. The waltz from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, because my two-year-old girl likes it. Strauss's Blue Danube, because it's such a great old chestnut. Kim Kashkashian playing Hindemith's viola sonatas. Some Israeli surf-punk from Boom Pam and vintage Greek surf guitar from Aris San. Kenny Rogers singing 'Just Dropped In'. Oh yeah, and also Mike Watt's 'Ball-Hog or Tugboat', some free improv guitar by Davey Williams and Maurizio Pollini playing the Diabelli Variations. I think it's fair to say that I have no problem liking various kinds of music. I also like Black Flag. A lot. I like them so much that my only tattoo is of their logo.

I first listened to the Flag in the mid-80s when I was a fairly dumb teenager. In those days I was listening to SST bands, Cream, Hendrix and bebop. Oddly enough, Cream, Hendrix and jazz are all part of the mix when it comes to later Flag (it's well-documented how Greg Ginn - or was it Chuck Dukowski? - turned Henry Rollins onto Charles Mingus while on tour). But this, the first proper Black Flag album, is not only one of the best Black Flag albums, it's also one of the best punk albums ever, and arguably transcends punk by virtue of being relatively complex musically: for every hilarious clapalong rant like 'TV Party' there's something as rhythmically sophisticated as 'What I See' or 'Damaged II'. Black Flag were always a band capable of great musical eloquence, and if they mostly wanted to express anger, alienation, paranoia and contempt, so what? Those are perfectly legitimate emotions to want to get across musically, and these lads really got them across. It's not hard to see why they were so unpopular on their first visit to the UK. British punk bands were always more about fashion and posturing than about playing convincing music, but Black Flag were always single-mindedly about playing whatever they wanted. Maybe that's why they appeal to the muso in me. I can't listen to the Sex Pistols anymore because their stuff doesn't stand up to repeated plays in the way that the Flag's recordings do (and so does the music of their peers - bands like the Minutemen and Husker Du, to name just two).

Black Flag morphed into various different shapes over the years and were frequently stymied and ultimately strangled by Greg Ginn's personality problems, but at his peak he was a fiendishly expressive guitarist. Their records usually sound pretty bad, because nobody in SST really knew how to produce a record so that the band sounded like a band, but the genius still shines through. This is probably the best album, although there are pockets of sheer brilliance scattered over the rest of their output - Loose Nut is perhaps the most metallic, In My Head the weirdest, and The First Four Years is a vital document of the early Flag when they were more of a regular (if very good) hardcore punk band.

Listen to Damaged. It has, as we say in academia, considerable extra-musical interest, being a crucial document of the LA punk subculture. But it's also a great rock album, one of the best ever.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 11, 2013 8:45 AM GMT

The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (Cambridge Companions to Music)
The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles (Cambridge Companions to Music)
by Kenneth Womack
Edition: Paperback
Price: £19.99

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Diverse and useful, 25 Feb. 2010
This was my first encounter with the long-established academic field of Beatle Studies. I'm a mature student with the Open University, going after a degree in Humanities with Music, but this is a book I would probably have ended up buying anyway because I'm also a lifelong Beatle fan and a musician who likes reading academic books.

This book is both a contribution to Beatle Studies and an overview of some aspects of them, and some of the people herein are, I know now, major players in the field of popular music studies: Dave Laing, Bruce Spizer, Sheila Whiteley. The editor, Kenneth Womack, is a Professor of English at Penn State University and there does seem to me to be a bias in the book towards literary and cultural studies, and away from music. The only significant purely musical contribution is Walter Everett's heavily music-theoretical essay about irregular rhythmic phrasing in Beatle songs, but since Everett is also the author of the mighty 'The Beatles as Musicians', in which he subjects the Fabs' entire output to musical analysis over the course of two chunky (and endlessly fascinating) volumes, we can hardly expect him to repeat the job here in a couple of dozen pages.

I have to admit that I didn't have very high hopes for this book, but was pleasantly surprised when it turned out to be fairly high on interesting insights and relatively low on obeisance to the gods of critical theory. For example, Dave Laing's interpretation of Lennon and McCartney's initial interest in each other during their celebrated meeting at the Woolton Fete is that McCartney was attracted by Lennon's 'transgression' (when Lennon didn't know the words of songs he made up new ones, which McCartney found inspiring) and Lennon was attracted by McCartney's musical skill (Lennon recognised that McCartney was a more naturally gifted musician than he himself was, which in turn inspired him to want to be better). This is so simply put and yet so obvious that it blows the tired old Lennon-as-rocker, McCartney-as-hack story out of the water. (It's noted elsewhere in the book that twenty years after Lennon's death, Jann Wenner was still peddling the absurd and self-aggrandising myth that Lennon was the heart and soul of the Beatles and McCartney just the sugar-coating.)

Elsewhere, what could have been fairly arid pieces of media studies boilerplate are lifted out of the mire by the authors' evident enthusiasm for whatever they happen to be writing about, plus a welcome sense of humour about the glory and absurdity of it all. Even Gary Burns' relatively dry essay on the Beatles as a brand is lifted by Burns's observation that while the Dave Clark Five and Herman's Hermits shifted roughly as many units as the Beatles did back in the day, we are not now witnessing academic conferences and volumes of scholarly musical analysis about the recorded oeuvre of the Dave Clark Five. We don't even see them about Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones - not as many as we see about the Beatles, anyway, and not as good, as Burns points out. The Beatles continue to fascinate, in a way that no other band manages to do.

Being a fact-checking nerd with some very recent training in good scholarly practice, it pains me a little to point out some errors of fact in this book. Dave Laing says that the Beatles were encouraged by their Hamburg booker to 'Mach schon', meaning (he says), 'make show', but Laing's German phrase actually means 'make already': the real phrase was in fact 'Mach schau!'. Jerry Zolten, in an otherwise fine essay on 'The Beatles as recording artists', describes the Mellotron as a 'keyboard programmed to imitate other instruments, a conceptual forerunner of the Moog synthesizer', but strangely enough he then immediately quotes Geoff Emerick's description of how a Mellotron actually works, with each key triggering a tape loop of real instruments - from which it is clear that a Mellotron isn't 'programmed to imitate' instruments at all. Mellotrons simply play back pre-recorded samples of real instruments at a given pitch, and so not only are they not programmed to do anything, they are also not conceptual forerunners of the Moog, which allows the player to produce artificially generated electronic tones by altering the amplitude and frequency of the waveform by means of a series of controls and filters. (If the Mellotron was a conceptual forerunner of anything, it was the digital sampler.) I would also take issue with James M. Decker's characterisation of 'Drive My Car' as a 'hard-charging rocker', when to these ears it's more influenced by Motown than by rock and roll.

There are other essays in the book which I simply disagree with, but that's part of the fun of it all. The back of the book says, somewhat deadeningly, 'the Companion is ideal for course usage' (yikes!) but goes on to add that it's 'also a must-read for all Beatles fans'. Well, maybe not all. Many if not most Beatles fans do not really want to think about the band much, they just want to wallow in Beatleiana, and this book does prod you into thinking about them. I am no exception to the general rule in that I sometimes like nothing better than to sit down and read a book about the Beatles that I've read many many times before, but I find that this book also compels me to think about them a bit, and to try to peel a few veils away from the tantalising secret of why so many of us find the Beatles so endlessly appealing, fascinating and rewarding. (And why the Beatles are sometimes just not enough.)

As time goes by, each book about the Beatles, even the best, settle into a certain status in our minds. For years I believed that Ian Macdonald's 'Revolution in the Head' was the best book ever written or ever likely to be written about them, but the more I think about Macdonald and his heavily pessimistic assessment of the state of the world since the Beatles' breakup, the more I place his book in context and am unable to accept his every judgment. And indeed, since that book came out, there have been other books as good about them if not better, including Everett's highly technical study (worth it if you have the analytical chops, probably impenetrable if you don't) and Jonathan Gould's superb 'Can't Buy Me Love'. The world now awaits Mark Lewisohn's supposedly definitive multi-volume biography. In the meantime, check out the academic literature from time to time; it's more fun than you might think.

A very fine book. If they clear up the minor errors in a second printing, I'd give it the fifth star.

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: The Complete Radio Series
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy: The Complete Radio Series
by Douglas Adams
Edition: Audio CD
Price: £52.00

242 of 247 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonishing, funny and kind of sad, 20 Feb. 2010
Douglas Adams's 'The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy' exists in so many different media by this stage that it can be hard for the newbie to know which version to tackle first. If you've only ever seen the movie you may think that it's all a bit overrated and you'd be right to do so, as although the film looked great and had some fine performances, the story was a mess. If you've only read the books, you're missing out. If you've only seen the TV series and you liked it, you're in for a treat. The original radio series is not only the best way to do Hitch-Hiker but certainly the best thing its author ever did.

The original radio series was written and broadcast in 1978, with a second series a couple of years later. These suffered, perhaps, from Adams's habits as a writer (he was a compulsive rewriter and could never finish things) and the BBC's habits as a producer. At the end of writing the first series, Adams wound it all up very conclusively because he assumed that a second series wouldn't be commissioned. However, a second series was commissioned, and he had to go through some incredibly tortuous writing to get the story going again. At the end of the second series, he left it deliberately open-ended because he assumed that the BBC would immediately commission a third series, but they didn't. So the original radio series has the effect of coming to a natural end halfway through, then grinding back into motion again and finishing in a rather unsatisfying way. For all that, the first two series are the real gold: brilliantly witty, astonishingly inventive and full of unforgettable moments. These are the reason why Hitch-Hiker fans tend to be obsessive. Adams's best jokes stick in your mind and change the way you see the world: a restaurant at the end of the universe; a starship powered by the fact that it's infinitely improbable that you could pass through every point in the universe simultaneously; a coffee machine that tries to second-guess what you really want to drink by reading your mind; lifts that know what floor to pick you up from before you've decided to go there; a permanently depressed robot...

The cast was great. Simon Jones, an old college friend of Adams, was endearingly bewildered as Arthur Dent, the Earthman who is whisked away from our planet seconds before it's demolished (one of the underlying and most elusive moods of Hitch-Hiker is a pervasive melancholy about the pointless destruction of things; the show starts with Arthur's house being demolished, then his whole planet is blown up, and by the end of the first series the final destruction of the universe has become something that people watch while they have dinner). Geoffrey McGivern is his manic alien friend Ford Prefect; Mark Wing-Davey is Ford's ever-so-cool cousin Zaphod Beeblebrox; the great British character actor Richard Vernon is wonderfully deadpan as a gloomy planet designer named Slartibartfast. One of the best performances is one of the least conspicuous; Peter Jones as the voice of The Book, or the Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy itself, providing useful bits of connecting narrative and helpful nuggets of information about the baffling variety of stuff in the galaxy. (One of my favourite jokes is a Book aside about a form of currency which consists mostly of giant triangular rubber coins several thousand miles along each side: you can't exchange them for any other currency because the banks refuse to deal in 'fiddling small change'.) The Book works as a character because he makes you think that somebody out there knows exactly what's going on, and Peter Jones's marvellously reassuring voice helps a lot in that respect, although the story goes that while Jones liked playing the Book he found the whole thing rather confusing, so it's part of the mystery of acting that he sounds so authoritative.

In 1992 the BBC talked to Adams about a third series based on the third Hitch-Hiker novel, but nothing came of it. He was too busy with other things and they weren't interested enough. After his tragically early death in 2001 the BBC finally pulled its corporate finger out and producer/writer Dirk Maggs was commissioned to adapt the last three Hitch-Hiker novels as three separate series. He managed to secure most of the original cast, although Peter Jones and Richard Vernon were among those who had passed away since the second series more than twenty years earlier. (Their replacements, respectively William Franklyn and Richard Griffiths, were exemplars of the established Hitch-Hiker tradition of hiring veteran character actors to play roles that need natural authority. One of Maggs's good jokes is the initial transition between Peter Jones's voice and William Franklyn's, which is done as if the Guide had a new voice system which is still in beta mode.)

It has to be said that series 3, 4 and 5 are not as great as the first two. They suffer from being based on Adams's later Hitch-Hiker novels which lack some of the sparkle of the earlier ones - although even Adams's lesser books are still better than a lot of other attempts at comedy science fiction. It doesn't help that Maggs is, I think, a bit over-reverential towards his source material, but then a lot of the most vocal Hitch-Hiker fans are very much of the don't-change-a-syllable school and they probably think he butchered the books. But some of Maggs's attempts to preserve Adams's writing are at the expense of characterisation: for example, at one point in the third book, it is mentioned in passing that Slartibartfast had planned to spend his retirement learning to play the 'Octaventral Heebiephone', but that this was a 'pleasantly futile task since he had the wrong number of mouths'. Maggs saves this joke but gives it to Slartibartfast himself, who remarks at one point in series 3 that 'I planned to learn to play the Octaventral Heebiephone, a pleasantly futile task since I have the wrong number of mouths'. In context this isn't as funny, not only because it seems to be an overly detached way for a character to talk about himself, but also because Slartibartfast makes this remark at a moment of great stress and high action, and the remark yanks you out of the moment.

One benefit of having the later books dramatised is that the performers got to stretch themselves a bit. In the original series, Simon Jones as Arthur spends most of his time (as Jones himself once put it) 'whingeing his way around the universe looking for a cup of tea', but in the later series Arthur has to go partly mad, learn to fly, fall in love, lose his love and discover all sorts of things about himself that weren't there the first time round, in the course of which we get to hear what a fine actor Simon Jones really is. Martin Freeman in the movie was a more 21st century Arthur, less Oxbridge and more normal bloke, and none the worse for that. But since there probably won't be another movie, Freeman may never get another chance, and in the meantime Simon Jones has made the character his own.

Some of the best jokes are in the later series, such as the sparkling aside about a spaceship powered by bad news (which I won't spoil because it gets funnier as it goes on). But Adams admitted that the last book, in particular, was written during a fairly bleak time in his life and it feels like it. Dirk Maggs comes into his own here, rewriting and restructuring things so that the radio series has a more open-ended and optimistic finale than the books, in accordance with Adams's own stated intention of writing another Hitch-Hiker book someday.

Nevertheless, it gets darker and more pessimistic as it goes on. In the beginning, Adams's targets - insofar as such a basically cheerful writer had any - were bureaucracy and computers. He changed his mind about computers after buying his first Apple Mac, but his distrust of bureaucracy, which he dramatised as the pathologically petty and cruel Vogons, grew into full-blown contempt by the end of the saga. Other writers who've had a go at the Hitch-Hiker universe haven't quite captured this: the Vogons in the radio series are an unstoppable force for evil, whereas in the movie they're bumbling idiots who clock off from doing bad things whenever it happens to be lunchtime. When Eoin Colfer was recently commissioned with the blessing of the Adams estate to write a new Hitch-Hiker novel, he did a generally fine job but he included a nice Vogon, which is arguably missing the point. On the other hand, it does suggest that Vogons, like every other species in the universe, evolve, which Adams (a great mate of Richard Dawkins) would probably have liked.

As one early reviewer noted, Adams is not great at plots. The most purely pleasurable bits of Hitch-Hiker are the digressions, the halts, the asides, and not so much the story. The story in series 3, adapted from the third novel 'Life, the Universe and Everything', is in fact an adaptation of an unproduced Doctor Who script that Adams had written years earlier, and it shows: if you look hard at Trillian during her encounter with the Krikkitmen, you can see the Doctor's attitude and verbal style showing through.

Still, the technical achievement of all the teams that made the various series is amazing. The late Geoffrey Perkins produced the original radio series and he and his crew did an incredible job on a very tight budget, all without the benefit of things like digital audio which we now take for granted. Dirk Maggs has the same kind of loony inventiveness, and in a nice nod to his predecessor he gave Perkins a funny cameo as Arthur's boss in series 4. And Maggs gets some fabulous performances out of his own semi-regular rep company, such as Rupert Degas as a terminally cool galactic judge. Toby Longworth plays several roles but is drop-dead hilarious as Wowbagger, a bloody-minded immortal being who never wanted to be immortal and who takes his revenge on the universe by insulting every single living creature in alphabetical order.

There are many versions of Hitch-Hiker on audio. There are the original broadcasts. These were cut slightly on rebroadcasting, usually for legal reasons, and it's the cut versions that were released on BBC cassette in the 90s. There's the slightly abridged Original Records version, which was completely re-recorded with most of the same cast because in those days the BBC didn't sell audio of its own productions: this is long out of print and was never released on CD because the record company folded, but if you look very hard you might be able to find it on the internet in some format or another. The Original Records version has fans of its own, of whom I am one; apart from having different and arguably more subtle performances, it also has witty and beautiful incidental music by the late Tim Souster, yet another member of the H2G2 family who died too young.

I don't think you can say you like Hitch-Hiker if you've never listened to this. It may or may not be the most satisfying version of the whole story. Series 4 is probably an improvement on the rather skimpy novel it was adapted from. The finale of series 5 is definitely an improvement on Adams's original ending. The whole thing is one of the most remarkable radio productions ever made, a stunning widescreen movie for your ears and one of the funniest stories about loneliness ever written. Once you start listening, you may never be the same again.
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The Truth About Cats And Dogs [1996] [DVD]
The Truth About Cats And Dogs [1996] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Uma Thurman
Price: £3.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Implausible but fun, 16 Feb. 2010
As has been said before, the fundamental implausibility about this movie is the idea that the Uma Thurman character is more attractive than the Janeane Garofalo character. Thurman is skinnier and a blonde, but other than that her character is utterly uninteresting, and it's just not very plausible that Garofalo's character (who is smart, cute and reasonably confident) would pull a Cyrano and hide herself behind the Thurman character. Garofalo has gone on record claiming that the movie was a good script ruined by the studio, but for all that it's still entertaining, and revealing about mid-90s standards of beauty in Hollywood romcoms.

The Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Late Twentieth Century
The Oxford History of Western Music: Music in the Late Twentieth Century
by Richard Taruskin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £27.50

3 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly written and endlessly fascinating, but could use better fact-checking?, 5 Feb. 2010
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The final volume of Richard Taruskin's monumental 'Oxford History of Western Music' is as great a read as the rest of the series, and this review can only be a preliminary note until I've read all several thousand pages of the work, so that I can place this volume in proper context. I note in passing that Taruskin gives the Beatles the attention that their work deserves, although since the Beatles represent for him what supplanted the written tradition of music that the previous four volumes have traced so lovingly, you do wonder why he didn't pay more attention to jazz: he gives a few pages to W.C. Handy, but why so little on Duke Ellington, the most important composer in jazz, or Miles Davis, whose compositional achievements make him perhaps Ellington's only rival?

I have also noticed what must be a simple mistake, unless Taruskin is operating from different sources as everyone else. He says that Shostakovich's 8th Symphony was received with as much official 'fervor and praise' as his 7th, despite its grimness, whereas according to every account I have read, the opposite is true. The 8th was not universally condemned, but the majority opinion of the Stalin Prize Committee was that it was excessively individualistic and pessimistic, and elsewhere it was criticised for being too facile. This doesn't mean that Shostakovich's official critics were right, of course. Most of those who deprecated the 8th symphony were Communist Party hacks who were hardly qualified to pass judgment on the work of the greatest Soviet composer of his generation. But it does suggest that Taruskin misreports the official reception of the work.

Still, for such a huge project it's surprising that there aren't more minor flaws like this (unless there are, and I haven't noticed them yet). And Taruskin's point is not absolutely crucial to his argument (because Shostakovich received plenty of other official praise and state honour during his career). Nevertheless, picky readers like me might want to be alert for other moments where Taruskin's huge reading seems to have been incomplete.

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