Geeking out

Richie Unterberger
Miller Freeman Books

That many of the best rock ’n’ roll bands of the 1960s never got the recognition they deserved is a source of both frustration and opportunity for Richie Unterberger. The former Option editor’s new book, Urban Spacemen and Wayfaring Strangers, attempts to shine a light on artists who he says have been “written out of the standard rock history.” It’s also a good excuse for him to meet some of his favorite “overlooked innovators and eccentric visionaries of ’60s rock.”Unterberger is an author of at least one of these standard rock histories (The Rough Guide to Music USA); while that is not addressed here, it would be interesting to know if taking part in molding the pop music canon had helped motivate both this book and his last one, Unknown Legends of Rock ’n’ Roll. Like Unknown Legends, the new book consists of short bios of a number of semi-to-very obscure artists, this time exclusively from the 1960s. These include “rock satirists” the Fugs, producer Shel Talmy, “two shot wonders” the Beau Brummels, and British bands that failed to invade the United States, such as the Pretty Things.

Despite the similar-sounding title, Urban Spacemen is not an attempt to copy the style of Lester Bangs’s classic collection of essays from Creem Magazine, Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. The title is more of a nod to Bangs than an attempt to cover him. Where Bangs was literary and impressionistic, fast and loose, Unterberger is slow and methodical, a journalist and historian in the exactingly precise, excruciatingly sober sense. For each piece he makes it a point to conduct multiple interviews with either members of the bands or people who worked closely with them, and concentrates primarily on music, rather than myth. Reading this book you get the feeling that the author’s boundless arsenal of obscure facts was gathered over years spent voraciously reading every piece of music writing he could get his hands on. Sources quoted in the book range from ex-Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres to uber-groupie Pamela Des Barres.

The best part about reading this book is the unabashed geeking out you get to take part in with the author. A sampling of the fun facts offered here: The Electric Prunes got their name from an answer to the riddle, “What’s purple and goes buzz?” Paul Raven, the future Gary Glitter, produced (and botched) the Poets’ second single, “Baby Don’t You Do It.” Arthur Brown, once a pre-Alice Cooper “god of hellfire,” is now a licensed shrink.

Like Unknown Legends, the book includes a CD sampler, which is good but way too short. With only six songs I was left wondering why they decided to include the Electric Prunes’ I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night instead of something not as easily found in one’s boyfriend’s record collection.

The author’s motives are clearly pure, but his attempts to heap credibility on semi-to-very obscure artists often backfire. In trying to provide context for the bands he describes, his enthusiasm gets the best of him and he goes over the top, abusing superlatives to the point where they lose all meaning. For example, he calls Vincent Crane, Arthur Brown’s organ player, “one of the most underrated keyboardists of the 1960s.” Two pages later (in case you forgot), he reminds you that Crane was “possibly the most overlooked 1960s rock organist.” And so on. More annoyingly, there are also instances in which he uses music-biz jargon seemingly without irony, referring to records as “product” or “units” to be “moved.” And most unfortunately, he not once but twice (pages 70 and 148) refers to guitars as “axes.”

And yet, despite all this—the book is what it sets out to be: a belated valentine to some overlooked ’60s rockers with plenty of Where Are They Now interest. What it lacks in style it makes up in reference value, delivering pleasingly snack-sized and easily digestible stories to music-addicted cases like me.