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B-sides, Undercurrents and Overtones: Peripheries to Popular Music, 1960 to the Present

by George Plasketes
(Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2009)
Reviewer: Peter Edwards, University of Oslo

George Plasketes begins his book with the tale of a lucky escape, a minor shoplifting misdemeanour involving a 45 r.p.m. single (with a good B-side eagerly coveted by an adolescent boy), and a forgiving security guard. Like the author George Plasketes, I too have a story or two of B-side discovery, though perhaps slightly less dramatic. I expect those who grew up listening to singles also have something to tell of memories framed by tracks from the underbelly of popular music. It is therefore with great expectation that I read B-Sides, Undercurrents and Overtones: Peripheries to Popular Music, 1960 to the Present, excited by the prospect that this study might elucidate personal experiences that have been accompanied by soundtracks from below the radar; experiences that often remain lodged in the recesses of fond memories. In the commercially driven popular music industry, underrated undercurrents inevitably go often unnoticed. Studies such as this one are relatively few and far between, so expectations are fuelled by the kinds of cultural and sociological perspectives that might be revealed.

The book is a rich weave of contextual information, approaching the ‘B-side’ concept from a great many perspectives. Plasketes says that his examples are his subjective choices, and with such a wide scope for investigation and ability to tie the threads together we are easily enticed into his diverse B-existence. The motivic ‘B’ is quite literally dressed up in the process of undressing: The offspring of ‘A-side’ parents emerge as ‘B-side’ artists; a B-side TV show sows the seeds of musical narration in successive A-side onscreen successes; and the lowly videotape editor climbs the ranks to become an artistic voice of defining proportions. This is the story of the exposure of the ‘flip side’ (p.11) and the wide-ranging field of influence that lingers in the background and all too often goes unchecked. 

The opening chapter measures the temperature of the undercurrents of the mid- to late- 1960’s by way of unsung producer, son of Doris Day, and alleged target of Charles Manson, Terry Melcher. His low key career, ‘bracketed by ‘B’s’ (p.8), falls into the shadows of the Beach Boys and the British Invasion, but reaches a climax with A-listed hits such as the Byrds’ ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’. Plasketes says that Melcher was perhaps not a genius, but even so is still a ‘bright B-side’ (p.23) and an important contributor to the 45 r.p.m. commercial singles revolution.

Expanding further on the rise of the single, Chapter 2 transports us to Chicago and the 6 years from 1966-71, in which seven bands in the area produced nearly 40 chart hits. This ‘pop-rock pocket’ (p.31) moment featured bands such as The Buckinghams and the Cryan’ Shames and was seemingly disparate, each with their own characteristic blend of pop, rock and folk. Even the use of common elements such as the horn section (a precursor to the pop horn section) often featuring the same hired hands did not result in the sound having any uniform identity. As the discography listed by Plasketes suggests, theirs is an influential contribution in the annals of pop. Chapter 2 documents the intermingling of this group of B-siders as they operated in the suburbs of pop.

Chapter 3 goes on to tell the unlikely tale of a music teacher and the discovery of a twenty-year-old compilation of 1960’s and 1970’s cover songs sung by schoolchildren (the most natural of outsiders) in a gymnasium near Vancouver. Recorded in 1976, the Langley Schools Music Project was intended for friends and family but landed on the radio and following release in 2001 became part of the commercial cover song market. The role of the outsider and the ‘passage from the peripheral to the popular’ (p.48) is underscored and becomes a frequently revisited defining theme for many of the B-side examples in the book. 

The fragile balance between the survival of the artist and artistic integrity is the theme of Chapter 4. Plasketes discusses the developments that resulted in the artist needing a record company ‘…more than the organization needs the artist’ (p.55). In a market driven economy it is indeed paradoxical that one of the primary marketing tools of a record company is the individuality and autonomy of the artist, when in reality the artist is largely indebted to the label for their success. In this context, Plasketes discusses the suing of Neil Young by record label Geffen for producing ‘non-commercial’ (p.58) records, a series of recordings by the new signing in which he explores his artistic licence. This was not particularly to the liking of his new employer, critics and fans alike, who were still hooked on the Neil Young of 1970’s commercial success. The intricate balance of power and creativity is explored with delicate attention by Plasketes. He then moves on to an artist who seemingly has always had an aversion to the limelight and who describes himself as ‘an involved outsider’ (p.69), Ry Cooder.

Expectations of commercial success are not equally as lofty when it comes to Cooder, the spectator and active bystander. His career is adeptly adumbrated by Plasketes, complete with annotated discography, providing the context for a more wide-ranging study of world music and ‘cross cultural convergences’ (p.85) in Chapter 6. Here we venture from Norway to the Ganges, to Cooder’s hugely successful Buena Vista Social Club recordings made in Cuba. The treasure hunt inclinations of Ry Cooder, Henry Kaiser and David Lindley are explored as these B-siders make significant contributions to the awareness of musical diversity on the A-side. Plasketes concludes, in opposition to some of the ‘carpetbagger’ criticism, that ‘the over arching intentions of the musical expeditions…are more intrinsically exploratory and expressive than they are exploitative’ (p.99).

In Chapter 7 Plasketes neatly makes the transition from the world music undercurrent in the American music market to John Fortenberry’s role as videotape editor for Paul Simon’s Graceland: The African Concert (1987). Simon is yet another A-side commercially successful artist who became an ambassador in the B-side genre of world music. Here we gain insight into the trials and tribulations of B-side-Fortenberry’s under-appreciated role as post-production videotape editor of the award winning rockumentary. The typically anonymous role of videotape editor is often considered inferior to that of the more artistic film editor, but, as Plasketes reveals, Fortenberry’s little acknowledged contribution and cooperation with the artists is ultimately artistic and integral to the production, as much as it is technical or mechanical.

Aspects of the audio-visual melting pot continue to be the focus of the following two chapters. Steven Bocho’s TV show Cop Rock, aired in 1990, was widely regarded as a failure, but in many ways foreshadowed the integration of music into TV comic and dramatic narrative. The actors sing their way through songs performed on set and written specifically for each episode. But, as Plasketes points out, ‘television audiences were not quite ready for crooning cops, suspect serenades, junkies jammin’ and judge and jury jingles from week to week in a dramatic series’ (p.119). Despite routinely being recognised as one of ‘the worst shows of all time’ (p.133), Plasketes reveals the impact it has had on the use of music in numerous other series, displaying the show as an ‘unsung underdog’. If perhaps the show is not good, it is a good example of the flip side of failure.

Chapter 9 looks at the sometimes awkward, sometimes funny and often peculiar trend of the rock star cameo. Plasketes journeys through the ups and downs of many memorable TV moments, from Bob Dylan’s appearance on Dharma and Greg to Yoko Ono’s appearance on Mad About You. The situation comedy offered a place for rock stars to take refuge and have fun, adrift of the mainstream. A select episode guide at the end of the chapter makes for novelty reading.

The sons and daughters of pop A-listers are the subject of Chapter 11. Various familial relationships are explored as the pop progeny cycle extends from the periphery to the mainstream. Rufus Wainwright and Joachim Cooder are among those burdened or blessed by their genealogy. This leads the reader into a new progression in pop progeny, the passing of the parents and the tribute. The book concludes with a chapter on the very public ‘deteriorata’ (p.173) of Warren Zevon (father of recording artist Jordan Zevon), bringing us full circle from the 1960’s and up to the present, and completing the journey through the life cycles of some of those who have contributed to the underrated undercurrents of popular culture.  Singer-songwriter Zevon was diagnosed with cancer and in the time he had left he performed a ‘unique self-elegy’ (p.180) with his last performance on the David Letterman’s Late Show in 2002. He also managed to complete a final Grammy winning album before his death in 2003, completing his transition from B-side life to A-side afterlife.

Because the impact of artists from the undercurrent of pop is generally underrated, this book provides an important documentation of the background of many artists and projects that too often go unrecognised. On occasion though the weight of the meticulously researched information can seem overbearing. However, Plasketes’ language is rich and dynamic and he moves between the examples featured by means of well thought out thematic threads that help to lighten the load. This book is packed with anecdotes and stories that make for entertaining reading, and pertinent insights are on the whole accentuated by a well-structured approach. It is a credit to the Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series that yet another revealing book should surface to cast light over key aspects of the sprawling jungle of popular culture.

In finishing on a personal note, I am reminded of one of my own B-side stories when reading about The Cryan’ Shames in Chapter 2. Isaac Guillory (a guitarist by trade) did a stint as bassist in the band and following his move to the UK made an impact on my life tutoring me as a teenager. Up until his death in 2001 he was widely regarded as one of the most underrated folk guitarists of his generation, known to most on the inside of the business as a virtuosic session player (recording with Mick Jagger and Al Stewart et al). To others he was known as an inspiring teacher, and endearing for his honest and heartfelt solo performances all over the UK in town halls and folk clubs. It is his Slow Down that I put on at the end of a long day – a true timeless gem of the B-side that remains at the top of my play list.