Wednesday Reviews: Failure Is Not An Option by Gene Kranz; It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll by Geoffery Giuliano

Failure Is not an Option

Gene Kranz

The space program was a magnificent achievement not just of America but all humanity. Gene Kranz tells the story of how he, a former Air Force test pilot, was tossed feet first into the early days of Mission Control in the early days of the Mercury Program. His career as a flight controller began with a “four-inch flight,” a Redstone missile barely moving on the pad before shutting down, to landing the first humans on the moon to bringing home Apollo 13 after an explosion in space. It was an amazing time, and the astronauts gave their props to their Russian counterparts, taken the names of the fallen in the space race to the moon, including three cosmonauts who died in orbit mere weeks before one lunar mission.

Kranz relays the highest of highs – Glenn’s mission as the first American to orbit the Earth, Armstrong on the moon – to the lows – the loss of the Apollo 1 astronauts on the pad during a test, the premature end to the moon program. Through it all, we are shown a dedication to one purpose not seen again until the computer and Internet startups of the 1980’s and 1990’s.

It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll

Geoffery Giuliano

This is the second Giuliano bio I’ve done on audio. Unfortunately, it’s one of those rare books I couldn’t find an Amazon link for.

Giuliano looks at the Stones, giving their story from the beginning in 1962 to about 1989 or so, when they began touring for Steel Wheels. Unlike his bio of George Harrison, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, Giuliano is a lot more even-handed in reviewing the Stones’ history. He is most detailed about the band’s early days, and offers his own assertions on the death of founder Brian Jones. He comes right out and says Jones was murdered (though not by the Stones as some conspiracy theorists would have you believe) but stops short of naming names. Barely. He glosses over the seventies, stopping long enough for Ronnie Wood to join the band in 1976, then ends with the tumultuous late 1980’s, bringing the rift between Mick and Keith into sharp focus. His depiction pretty much echoes Keith Richards’ account of their tiff after Undercover and Mick’s abortive solo career.

Thursday Reviews: Life By Keith Richards


Keith Richards with James Fox

Keith Richards is certainly one of the most legendary figures in rock and roll. One half of the “Glimmer Twins” leading the Rolling Stones, Richards has become a larger-than-life figure in his playing, songwriting, and sheer hedonism. And he explains it all in Life, a surprisingly honest memoir from a rock star.

Richards grew up poor in Dartford, England, born in 1943. Early in the book, he tells tales of bombs falling in and around London, how one of the houses he lived in was destroyed in an air raid. His is also a familiar tale of many of the British Invasion’s musicians, whose earliest memories are of England having to rebuild after World War II.

It’s no surprise Richards gravitated toward music. His grandfather was a noted jazz musician, and Keith himself became something of a blues nerd in his late teens. When he and childhood friend Mick Jagger met up with Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones became inevitable. From there came the tale of how they lured in Charlie Watts to drum, of Andrew Loog Oldham’s flamboyant, sometimes gangster-like management of the Stones, and of their fights with the police in at least four countries. We get Richards’ take on Brian Jones’ death (He suggests it was a fight between a stoned Jones and a drunken workman fixing his house.), why Richards survived years of heroin addiction (Most people, he says, keep grabbing more and more junk and never try to get off the stuff), and the rift between himself and Jagger (whom, he says, suffers from LVS – Lead Vocalist Syndrome.)

In addition, there are loving tributes to his heroes like Scotty Moore, Chuck Berry, and Jimmy Reed. Richards admires them, and he loves Jagger like a brother, but he doesn’t spare them – or himself. Moreover, the book shines a light on how that unique sound of the Stones comes about. Richards confirms for me what I’ve always said, the bass player is much more important than most people think. While he says little about Bill Wyman, he does say that Darrell Jones amply fills Wyman’s shoes. And we now know how Richards gets that unusual sound out of the guitar best heard on “Start Me Up.” It’s the open tuning he one day learned all the early blues men used – five strings tuned to one open chord. But Richards doesn’t let the technical overwhelm the narrative. When he explains why he and Mick Taylor or Ronnie Wood or Wyman or Darrell Jones play the way they do, there’s a little background into where that came from.

I listened to this on audio. Johnny Depp and musician Joe Hurley read part of the book. Depp, when reading the periods of the late sixties and the 1970’s – when Richards and heroin had a good working relationship – sounds like Jack Sparrow on a three-day bender. Later parts simply sound like Keith Richards telling you his life story over a couple of pints. Richards himself reads the last chapters, which really brings the story home.

Now, to the subject of Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: They were co-conspirators in reinventing rock and roll. John and Paul zigged, turning it over to Mick and Keith to zag. They got you no matter which way you went.

And you can’t argue. This comes from one of the Glimmer Twins himself.

Favorite Bands: The Rolling Stones

If The Beatles reinvented rock and roll in the sixties, the Rolling Stones gave it its mojo. No disrespect to Messrs. Lewis, Presley, or Holly, but rock was in decline since The Day the Music Died.

Rolling Stones logo

I could rehash their history, but you already know it. And if you don’t, GO LOOK IT UP RIGHT NOW!

The Stones are, essentially, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards with Charlie Watts laying the beats. They didn’t replace Bill Wyman with a full-time bassist, and the second guitar slot never found stability until Ron Wood replaced Mick Taylor.

No, it’s Mick and Keith the band revolves around. From their first song, “Time Is on My Side” to the disturbing “Sympathy for the Devil” to “Start Me Up,” there’s a memory attached to every song. Three that stand out for me are “Satisfaction,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Miss You.” I’ll take the last one first. It’s the first song I remember when it was new. “Miss You” came out during disco’s waning days. It was disco, and yet it wasn’t. This was a time when The Beatles were twiddling their thumbs over reuniting or just continuing their solo careers. (McCartney’s efforts after about 1976 were a big snore fest, and Lennon was baking bread. Literally.) Arena rock was on an upswing, but the bands had trouble trying to figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up or Led Zeppelin got out of rehab. Leave it to Mick Jagger and Billy Preston to give rock its identity back. I was twelve at the time and went around singing the falsetto hook, “Who-oo-HOO-oo-Hoo-oo-oo! Who-oo-HOO-oo-Hoo-oo-oo!” at the top of my lungs. My brothers, who were 5 and 3 at the time, thought it was funny. Mom was not amused.

Nor was she amused by “Sympathy for the Devil.” Growing up in a religious household where the rumor about “Stairway” having backwards messages (It doesn’t. I’ll tell you how I found out for sure in another post.) was given credence, a song sung by Satan about all his achievements did not go over well. But then just listen to that bongo intro and Mick screaming “Yeeooow!!!”, you get a real taste of evil’s seductive power. It eventually helped in writing whenever I wanted to write about someone who is deliberately, whether they believe they are or not, evil.

And then finally, we come to “Satisfaction,” the Stones’ signature song. As a kid, I just thought it was a cool song. As a teen, I thought it was a really cool song. As an adult, I was fully aware of song’s raw sexuality. I suspect many people reading this (possibly even me) were conceived to “Satisfaction.” The song even gave a date a very happy ending one evening.


There was a time, the 1980’s, where I questioned whether the Stones should continue. Tattoo You is a classic Stones album, but then they came out with Undercover, which sounded like a misstep, followed by the weak Dirty Work. (I liked “One Hit to the Body,” which had a guest appearance by Jimmy Page.) And then Keith’s habits caught up with him and turned him into rock’s first zombie guitarist. It looked like they were done.

But then came Steel Wheels. It was closer to the classic Stones sound than the previous two albums. Still, Bill Wyman retired during the sessions. How did that affect them? Many bands have a member they simply can’t afford to lose even though he’s not in the spotlight or part of the creative core: Pink Floyd’s Rick Wright, Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones, Cliff Burton and Jason Newsted of Metallica.  For the Stones, it was Wyman. Darrell Jones stepped in nicely for the live shows, but in the studio throughout the nineties, there was clearly something missing from the Rolling Stones since Wyman’s departure.

Still, the Stones press on. I could see them doing something bluesey and acoustic along the lines of Johnny Cash’s American recordings. That would rock.

Which is what the Stones have always done.

Stones Over Beatles? No Way!

[Originally posted to Northcoast Exile on April 13, 2005.  This was the most popular post on the old blog that didn’t feature a naked soccer mom.  I wish I’d saved the comments, but something tells me this subject will generate reams of new ones. – Jim]

John Scalzi, in his Reader Request Week post for today, tackles his weightiest subject to date:

“Beatles or Rolling Stones?

Superman or Batman?

‘He or she’ or singular ‘they’?”

Let’s get the first two out of the way. Batman, because when Superman has to be Clark Kent, he’s a wimp. When Batman has to be Bruce Wayne, he’s still a bad ass and not to be screwed with.

They. Linguists and grammarians need to just get over it. English lacks a proper gender nonspecific pronoun. Sorry, but “it” doesn’t cut it. So if we can have a royal “we” and an all-purpose “you,” English can survive a generic “they” for gender non-specific third person.

Now to the heart of the matter: Beatles vs. Stones. Beatles. Hands down. They were all working class stiffs. Quite frankly, they reinvented rock. Poppy? Hell, yes, and so what? Without The White Album, Sgt. Pepper’s, and the criminally underrated Abbey Road, rock simply would not be rock. That’s not to say the Stones didn’t do their part. “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Satisfaction,” and “Gimme Shelter” anyone? But… Well, let Scalzi tell you:

“The Beatles had the stones (so to speak) to break up and stay broken up, meaning that their canon is undiluted from years of post-creative suckage.”

Scalzi cuts off the Stones productive years at Tattoo You. I say Steel Wheels had merit, but, like Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, it was designed to be an album you’d expect from the band. The only difference is that David Gilmour used that phrase as a title. Mick and Keith really did have a momentary lapse of reason. It’s the double whammy of musical crap called Dirty Work and Undercover, both the worst Stones albums I’ve ever heard. (And yes, I include the two post-Wyman yawn fests. “Anybody See My Baby” my ass!)

A lot of bands should have packed it in or at least shed deadweight. Much sooner. Led Zep probably needed to call it a career anyway when John Bonham died. Page just wanted to play guitar, and Plant had already developed his own sound. Pink Floyd did a Wall too far with the bloated Final Cut in 1983. One wonders if the follow up would have been stronger if Roger Waters had either quit sooner or let David Gilmour and Richard Wright have their way. Genesis… Invisible Touch? I’m still pissed off about the title track off that song. What was that? Phil Collins and Mike & the Mechanics rejects? (To be fair, We Can’t Dance was decent, but the post-Phil Calling All Stations was a huge mistake.)

Prog bands generally outlive their usefulness. Somebody tell me why Emerson, Lake, & Percussionist and Yes are still around? Have you heard their post-eighties work? Tragic. Have you heard their eighties work? The Asia albums that never were.

I’d call for Metallica’s demise, but I want to see them live. I’d also call for Guns & Roses demise, but then I like them again since they became Velvet Revolver.

The band that should be around, but can never be again, is Alice in Chains. Remember Alice? This is a rant about Alice. I miss the hell out of those guys.

UPDATE: I wrote this before A Bigger Bang came out. While not earth-shattering or by any means a classic, it is a decent album. If the Stones had gone from Tattoo You to Steel Wheels to A Bigger Bang, skipping everything in between, this post would have been very, very different.