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Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll: Psychedelic Unknowns, Mad Geniuses, Punk Pioneers, Lo-Fi Mavericks & More Paperback – 31 Jul 1998
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Top Customer Reviews
Chapters include 'Overlooked originators', Garage Bands, 'Mad geniuses & eccentric recluses', Krautrock, Folk, Punk, Post-punk, Lo-Fi and a few more.
Artists mentioned range from Syd Barrett (early Pink Floyd), Love, Can, X-Ray Spex and Nick Drake to The Great Society, The Hampton Grease Band, The Plastic People of the Universe and Swamp Dogg. So not all are necessarily "unknown"s, but the majority will not be known to the average music listener.
Despite Richie's clear knowledge of practically everything related to rock (senior editor of 'All music's guide to rock' and appears in documentaries about people like Jandek), some of the parts to the book do leave you thinking he should have written a bit more about it, especially if you have some kind of prior knowledge of the artist/band. For example, the Krautrock section does supply you with a nice nugget of information, but it barely scratches the surface or the scene.
However, his intention for the book seems to be more angled as an introduction to the music and that the onus is then on you to go and find more if you like what's been said, and then after every part recommended albums and reading are listed.
It's a well written book with lots of interview quotes and a wealth of knowledge behind it, but don't buy this book thinking it's going to give you full blown accounts into the life and times of the musicians, it sets the scene and acts as more of a taster.
"Unknown Legends" is a rare pleasure to read. I would argue about the choice of the names, but that's the writer's choice, and not mine.
What is totally unacceptable and sub-standard (when compared to the rest of knowledgeable and well research work) is the sub-chapter on the music from behind the Iron Curtain.
The roots of the weird and ugly situation behind the Iron Curtain grew really deep and complicated: there was a state policy (and a Ministry of Culture) in the USSR, and the same model was implemented in other countries of Warsaw bloc after WWII. Before the war the Soviet totalitarian regime shared same tastes (aesthetically) as Nazis Germany: the state patronized operas and folk (not hippie/acid rock, but "people's music" with fanny costumes, unpleasant voices and silly melodies).Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta) (May include reviews from Early Reviewer Rewards Program)
WARNING: THE BOOK IS DANGEROUS - it's much better than the music it is about.
BUT: sub-chapter "Rock Behind the Iron Curtain" is totally substandard and misrepresenting the situation behind the Iron Curtain, which was more complicated, weird and ugly than described in the book.
First, the Soviet Union was ruling the whole of the Warsaw bloc with iron first, and there was state culture policy (and a Ministry) in each satellite country, with minor differences when it came to music. Soviet Union (as totalitarian state) shared same aesthetics as Nazi Germany - patronizing operas and folk (not hippie/acid folk, but traditional - with fancy dresses and ancient instruments); the difference was that the Soviets sponsored jazz (as the music of political allies - minority opressed in capitalist society), while the Nazis banned it as degenerative art. After the death of Uncle Joe (Stalin), Krushev the reformer crashed jazz too - as part of ideologically hostile Western way of life.
So, in 60s-70s rock was simply forbidden in the USSR and tightly controlled in satellite states. Few bands which were allowed to perform, had to wear uniforms, there must be a brass section in the band, and the repertoire had to approved by the Ministry of Culture (songs by Western composers were 99% forbidden). The ignorance of Comrade Furtseva (then Minister of Culture)became trademark of Soviet regime (a risky joke of these days: the Soviet Amassador in Czechoslovakia is asking the Minister of Economy - Why on earth do you need the Ministry of the Navy? You don't even have an access to the sea? Reply: But you in the USSR do have the Ministry of Culture). The attitute of press in USSR toward pop/rock was outright hostile - not unlike in Britain or USA, with the difference that British or US critics proved that one doesn't need to understand what he was writing about, while the Soviets went even further - you didn't need to know the music to write the review.
At the same time pop and rock were a part of Soviet economy - there were many record plants (at least one in each of 15 Socialist republics), all of them owned by state label - "Melodia". Pop (and soft rock) tracks were bootlegged on a regular basis and issued on compliations (the Soviet LPs at least had the names of songwriters, in Democratic Germany it was "Music for youth, Collection Nr 7"). At the same time, nation-wide chain of recording studios (also state-owned, under the same ministry which was running laundromates, repairs, tailors etc) were offering large selection of latest albums - you were placing an order for some Soviet crap, paying, and getting an open reel tape with "Deep Purple in Rock". Of course, no royalties had been ever paid to the musicians. After perestroika the same trend reached higher proportions - the Soviets built (with assistance of BASF) the first CD factory in Ekaterinburg, while Bulgaria had army-controlled CD pressing plant in Stara Zagora (although at that time the ex-commies had no currency for licences and royalties). I presume one should be well acquainted with the results: nice and cheap "made in EEC/EU)" CDs.
British and US charts had been translated into Russian, reworked, and neutered version was made available - "Little Child" became "Golden Sunrise", "Yellow River" - "Fat Karlsson" (cartoon character), while more serious stuff (Frank Zappa) was cannibalised to produce early rock-musicals of the Lenin Komsomol Theatre.
The West had rudimental knowledge of the music from behind the Iron Curtain - first of all, the musicians should be from capital cities - Moscow, St.Petersburg, Warsaw or Sofia - because few Western journalist could make a 2000 miles trip to, let's say, Arckhangelsk. Then, the musicians should be able to comminicate in English. As a result many hopeless hacks posing as dissidents gathered some limited popularity as "ambassadors of underground music".
However, at the end of the 60s-70s some serious acts were allowed (mainly sunshine pop/surf/soft rock) - Bielorussian "Pesnyary" ("Singers") had cult status before David Toukhmanov, and possessed stunning voices and vocal harmonies - far better than iconoclastic "Beach Boys". "Pesnyary" were allowed to represent Soviet culture in the USA (one of the top brass in Communist Party had enough brains to understand that brontosaur-like "mastodonnas" of Soviet folk song couldn't make it into Billboard charts). Poland had its own icons (allowed in the USSDR) - "Skaldowie", skiffle-band "No To Co", talented "Czerwone Gitary". Democratic Germany (apart from Nina Hagen who fortunately for her chose freedom) had its own combos - "Puhdys" and "Karat", for the starters.
If someone managed to get imprisoned for playing rock (that was quite common practice in Soviet Union - to start with Aleksey Romanov of "Voskresenye"= "Resurrection", and then it won't be enough space to mention all martyrs), or defected to the West, it didn't make him/them outstanding musicians - "Blue Effect" of Vaclav Nektar and Vladimir Misik is far more impressive musically than "Plastic People" (they might be important for the people and the country, but because of other reasons). Hungary blossomed with talents - although I am talking about later days, but Locomotiv GT, Omega, Scorpio are a must for serious music fan.
The ignorance of Soviet critics, as I said before, was au par with the ignorance of their British or US colleagues. Even to mention whatever Tsfasman (and not Tsafsman) - born in 1909 - said or composed is a disgrace. Iconoclastic Alexey Kozlov (of jazz-rock "Arsenal") had talent and decency, why to pick up some louse from the strings?
Come later days and "perestroika", when collapsing regime started flirting with "freedom of speech" etc. Boris ("Bob") Grebenschikov and mellow acid-folkies "Aquarium" were picked up from gutter and granted the place which they didn't deserve - yes, the band had cult status in Russia, but it was far from being the most important one (I remember him jumping on the background with unplugged guitar - it was "Live Aid" or something else). Uncompromising rebels "DDT" (no analogues in the West), hard-pop "Kino" ("Cinema"), Societ response to Billy Idol/Iggy pop - Konstantin Kinchev and "Alica", decadent "Nautilus Pompilius". There were far too many who would be considered as radical in the USA, and not in Eastern Europe (Serguei Kuriokhin, conducting the orchestra with his foot...) First comes Aleksandre Gradsky - singer, composer, songwriter, multi-instumentalist with operatic voice - several times he sang in the Bolshoi in Rimsky-Korsakov "Golden Cockerel" - sorry, but I don't know any of Western rock stars who could do it.
A special chapter (better a book) should be dedicated to Czeslaw Niemen - in early 70s he recorded 3 English language albums (with Jan Hammer and Rick Laird from Mahavishnu) and was signed by "CBS"). One track from his "Katharsis" has more depth and tragedy than the whole album of "Pink Floyd". And Poland had "SBB", "Budka Suflera", "Breakout"...
All in all, this chapter must be re-worked at least - out of respect to the readers
British, American, German, Dutch and Iron Curtain artists from the 1950's through the 1990's are featured in this book. The psychedelic garage bands, British acts that didn't make the invasion of the 1960's and solo acts that possessed as much talent as writers and/or performers; that for lack of the "Big Break" or the machinations of the managers and/or record companies prevented the world at large from knowing of their existence.
Each performer is examined chapter by chapter; some with stories more heartbreaking than others. Unterberger made the effort to speak with as many of the performers as possible, getting them to reflect back on their struggles, accomplishments, and where it went wrong. If the performer was deceased or unavailable, he spoke with someone closely associated with the act. His prose is a first person account with extensive quotes from the artists and there are plenty of black and white photos that add to the telling. This book is very readable and informative. At the end of each chapter is "Recommended Recordings" where Unterberger lists available records and CDs for that artist.
Which leads to the BIG plus already with this book: it comes with a compact disc so you are able to hear what you are reading about! At the end of the book right before the index are 2 and half pages devoted to the disc. Some of the songs have previously been unavailable.
So this is a book that must be part of a rock music lover's library.
Over 400 pages, lots of photos, so many stories and personalities from the last 50 years... And a Compact Disc! This is a pleasurable reference book - a real keeper!
It is interesting to note that there are some acts from the 1950s and early 1960s who never made it commercially, though these never get the attention in the critical world that artists from the era after about 1966 do. However, the early part of the book is devoted to British Invasion bands such as The Creation and the garage bands who are now seen as pioneers of the "punk revolution" before the Velvets, Stooges and MC5 (all household names today and not included) emerged. The next part is focused on obscure psychedelic innovators of the late sixties such as the Great Society (which featured household-name singer Grace Slick), the Blossom Toes and The Deviants.
Following that is a number of fairly superfluous inclusions in Nick Drake and Love, both of whom are extremely familiar in most record guides, and Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett, who are similarly well-known in musical circles and among critics. The next part of the book deals with punk groups who didn't receive the critical slaving so typical of most commercially unsucessful punk groups of the 1970s and 1980s, though at least one (the Raincoats) is quite familiar today owing to Kurt Cobain's championing of them. There are also (fairly superfluous in parts) entries on Krautrock giant Can and on the rock bands of Stalinist Eastern Europe and the persecution they suffered.
The next part deals with the lo-fi bands of the 1980s and 1990s, with a major focus on New Zealand's Flying Nun label, well-known to certain sections of the US rock crit establishment. The second last part deals with artists who could only make one album, the troubles that making it caused and the significance of that sole release; and the final chapter deals with the exact opposite: long-lived artists such as the Red Krayola who have never attempted to confirm to commercial trends.
All in all, most of it is well done, and the introduction is most interesting with its illustration of how unique and strange "Forever Changes" sounded to someone raised on the ultra-conservative commercial radio of the late 1970s.
However, the book does lack the feeling of sheer wonderment and sense of having discovered something new: we are seeing things that are often found in the writings of eccentric critics such as Joe S. Harrington, whose Top 100 Albums on the webzine Blastitude should be read by all interested in music. Also, there is (as often with rock criticism) a shortage of female artists such as Essra Mohawk, Annette Peacock and Judee Sill, who could have formed another chapter by themselves but are probably disliked by Richie because eccentric women tend to be too much acquired tastes.
The focus in the late 1970s and beyond does tend to be too narrow - in part for the reasons mentioned above.
All in all, eminently worth reading, but scarcely some wonderful revelation.
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