Tag Archives: Sunset Strip

A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records

All Things Must Pass posterOn a visit to London as a teenager I remember heading into a record store on Piccadilly Circus with distinctive red and yellow signs, Tower Records. In my naivety I assumed this was a one-off store as it didn’t feel like part of a major chain like the HMV and Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street did.

Of course I now know better and, in his Kickstarter funded documentary All Things Must Pass, Colin Hanks recounts the story of Tower Records from its inception in Sacramento in 1960 to its demise in 2006 and beyond.

The man behind Tower was Russ Solomon and here he is the linchpin of the story, as it seems he was of the company, appearing in a series of interviews tracing the company’s history and coming across as a kind of spiritual guru of the record retail business.

Other members of staff who joined the company in this early years as it grew from Sacramento to San Francisco and the Los Angeles are also interviewed building up this image of Solomon. In a lot of cases this kind of reverence for, essentially, a businessman would feel somewhat contrived but here I was left with the sense that actually Solomon was all he comes across as, including some dubious financial decisions during the companies rapid expansion in the 1980s and 90s.

Russ Solomon, circa 1970s

Russ Solomon, circa 1970s

The story that Solomon began is portrayed here as a kind if last hurrah for the American Dream and again this comes across with a refreshing lack of cynicism, giving the feeling that Tower really was the a local music store on an international scale.

A collection of archive photos and videos of the store’s various early locations, particularly its original location in Sacramento and the San Francisco ‘superstore’ at Columbus and Bay (now somewhat depressingly a Wallgreen’s chain pharmacy), really help build this image of ‘classic America’.

These shots of the old stores are a fascinating view back into the heyday of the record store with vinyl stacked floor to ceiling and flying off the shelves.

The original Tower Records

The original Tower Records

In its telling the film is relatively run of the mill with a collection of talking heads telling the story with the help of some well-chosen archive footage and some celebrity extras (here including former staff member Dave Grohl, they let him keep his hair style, and the self-proclaimed man who spent more than anyone else at Tower Records, Elton John, who seems genuinely emotional about his memories of buying seemingly every album ever).

What elevates it though is the sense of genuine feeling that comes through, particularly when the companies first 30 years are being discussed by the staff, who tell stories of all night parties and just how the gap between customers and staff was all but non-existent as the stores acted as meeting places and community centres for music lovers in their respective towns and cities.

As the film continues into the 90s Tower Records appears to act as a microcosm of the problems facing the record industry with cultural changes around music listening habits being poorly handled, though it’s refreshing to see many of the original Tower team embracing new ways of listening while the issues these caused and poor handling is levelled at the ‘industry’ not Tower or its guru who, well into his 70s here, seems just as positive and enthusiastic as when the store first opened.

Tower Records on Sunset Strip

Tower Records on Sunset Strip

This sense of positivity and enthusiasm pervades the film until the credits role, despite the collapse and closure of Tower Records in 2006, making what could be a nostalgic but ultimately melancholy story become something uplifting and celebratory of what may be a largely lost era but one that still means a lot to many.

And it’s always good to remember the slogan adopted from their expansion in Japan… No Music, No Life.

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Los Angeles – October/November 2015 – Part 3

Downtown LA from Griffith Park

Downtown LA from Griffith Park

After a packed couple of days my weekend in Los Angeles was set to be a comparatively relaxed one, though still with some interesting things to do.

After a more relaxed Saturday morning we headed toward Chinatown for lunch. Located adjacent to Downtown what I saw of LA’s Chinatown looked far smaller and less ingrained than its counterpart in San Francisco, with a couple of shopping centres, markets and restaurants (and I assume some housing too).

For lunch we headed into a bustling, and in many ways baffling, dim sum restaurant. Upon arrival we were whisked to a table by one of the seemingly hundreds of waiting staff and almost before we’d sat down we were set upon by a few with a selection of dishes. Rather than ordering specific items waiters constantly circulated through the tables offering whatever it was they had, while a little disconcerting at first this did mean we had the chance to try a huge range of food I’d not really had before. From dumplings and meat dishes to fish and deserts it seemed, if you wanted it, the food was never-ending.

Particularly enjoyable were some eggy, doughy dumplings contained some kind of unspecified meaty stuff, along a with steamed prawn variety, but in general it was all very nice once I got into the swing of things and I got the impression was actually fairly legitimately Chinese judging by the clientele.

Amoeba Music on Sunset

Amoeba Music on Sunset

After a look around some of the nearby shops, mostly featuring the same kind of stuff as those on Grant Avenue in San Francisco, we headed over to the Hollywood section of Sunset Boulevard.

Here we parked up behind the spectacular looking Cinerama Dome Arclight Cinema (if I’m back here again I must make a point to try to see a movie there), and headed to the third Amoeba Records store of my trip.

Even when compared to the San Francisco branch this is a huge store with countless CD, vinyl and tapes spanning all genres I could think of along with books, souvenirs, novelties and, upstairs, a huge range of DVD and Blu-ray. Much like the other branches there was a lot could have come away with but limited myself to a few selections including an album by one of the bands we’d seen the previous night, James Intveld.

It might sound odd to talk so much and in such positive ways about a shop, but in a place that feels like a mecca of commercialism Amoeba Records does something impressive in having a genuinely great atmosphere reminiscent of smaller local record shops just expanded to a huge scale with enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff and a great, varied selection of offer. If retailers want people back in their shops and not shopping online there are far worse models to follow than this.

1953 Telecaster

1953 Telecaster

From Amoeba we headed along Sunset to Guitar Centre. This huge store is much like the record shop but selling instruments. As the name suggests the majority of the store is taken up with a huge range of guitars but it also sells drums, keyboards and studio recording equipment.

The range of instruments is frankly bewildering though most are actually fairly standard fare until you head down through the acoustic rooms and into an area at the very back of the building housing a range of rare and collectible instruments and amps.

Amongst these were some frankly amazing vintage Gretsch guitars from the 1950s, Fender amps from the same era and, most notably, an original 1953 Fender Telecaster with a price tag well exceeding $30,000!

Compared to the UK, the USA does a lot more to celebrate Halloween and throughout my trip there had been plenty of signs it was coming up, but, on the day itself the City of West Hollywood goes all out and stages a huge street party, second only in scale to their annual Pride event. We arrived in West Hollywood early so as to be able to find a place to park and headed past the rainbow crosswalks to the mile long stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard that had been closed for the event.

With stages set up at either end and a few others in between we wandered down the wide street, some of the first to arrive, and it was clear everyone in the area was getting in on the celebrations from packed bars and restaurants to those starting to arrive in a range of costumes.

WeHo Halloween Festival

WeHo Halloween Festival

There were already some dancing in the streets early on but as the sun began to set things really began to fill up and the costumes became more elaborate. These ranged from more conventional horror movie related fare (including a particularly elaborate Ringu one that allowed the wearer, as Sadako, to appear as if she were crawling from a TV) to many other things.

Some were a bit on the risqué side too, including a pair of skimpily clad Mario Brothers and a young man wearing little more than a pair of black angel wings, while others were simply impressive for various reasons including a Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner lookalike, Patsy from Absolutely Fabulous (it could have been Joanna Lumley!) and a full size dinosaur skeleton puppet outfit.

WeHo Halloween Festival

Dinosaur puppet costume

After having a look around for a few hours and getting some food we headed home for the day and I think were all slightly disappointed the next morning when we found out the surprise special guest at the end of the night had been Boy George!

We didn’t let that effect things too much as, after another relaxing start to the day we headed down to Manhattan Beach for a bit of a walk on the pier.

The beaches that stretch from Malibu in the north to Palos Verdes in the south are hugely impressive and strongly remind me of bigger, sunnier, versions of Vazon in Guernsey, but with towns and cities backing right up to their promenades and oil tankers moored offshore filling themselves up from the offshore oil rigs dotted just beyond the horizon.

In a change from the weather so far mist and clouds were beginning to gather around the Santa Monica Mountains in the north but at Manhattan it was still hot and sunny so the ice cream and cookie sandwich from the Manhattan Beach Creamery really hit the spot.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach

From there we headed north, once more, towards Hollywood though this time, rather than the city our destination was the hills behind and the Griffith Park Observatory.

Parking just down the hill from the summit led to some great views over the trails and paths that wind their way up the hills as well as the iconic Hollywood sign on the opposite peak. As well as that the sight of the early 20th century, art deco styled observatory, perched on its hillside plateau were spectacular.

The Griffith Park Observatory is now much more a museum and tourist attraction than working observatory, unsurprising considering the amount of light pollution rising from the plain below, and features a great planetarium at its centre.

Griffith Observatory

Griffith Observatory

The show today focused on how water is crucial to the development of life and it took us from Los Angeles to the distant moons of the outer planets of the solar system exploring where there might be water, and where extraterrestrial life might exist, with stunning visuals projected onto the huge domed roof.

The rest of the complex is a museum focusing on astronomy with examples of space debris that has crashed into the Earth, a whole gallery dedicated to the differences between the planets and a section about the history of telescopes from Galileo to Hubble to the current vast arrays being built.

Tesla Coil

Tesla Coil

A highlight of all of this is a working Tesla Coil that we saw demonstrated with arcs of lightning flying from its domed top to the edges of the Faraday cage surrounding it and causing a neon sign to illuminate without the need of any power cables – genuinely a spectacular sight.

While inside the observatory was impressive the views it affords across a majority of the vast metropolis of Los Angeles are something else.

With the sun beginning to set and fog rolling in from the sea these views were even further enhanced as the city began to twinkle like a star field below us (even if its light knocked out any chance of seeing the actual stars above). Anyway its impossible to really describe the views of the city from here but you can see some in my photo gallery over on Facebook.

The Rainbow

The Rainbow

Famed as a hangout for LA’s rock star royalty our next stop was the Rainbow Bar & Grill on the Sunset Strip. While there were many likely rockers dotted about the bar, being an early Sunday evening meant the place was relatively quiet so we didn’t see its most famed regular, Motorhead’s Lemmy, but none the less were treated to a great meal.

While my steak was one of the best I’ve had (and very reasonably priced) and the pizzas looked amazing, the place really sold itself with its decor and atmosphere which were something like a less corporate, more legitimate feeling Hard Rock Café.

With its location near famous venues like the Troubadour, The Viper Room and The Whisky-A-Go-Go (basically listen to some Motley Crue and you’ll get a surprisingly good idea of the Strip) its obvious why this area is a mecca for rock ‘n’ roll bands from around the world and why the Rainbow is at its centre and it rounded off our day in fine fashion.

Read about the final part of my trip here

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American Adventure – Part Eight: Los Angeles – Day Two

Day two of the my time in LA kicked off with a drive down the beaches south of Playa Del Ray with Nick as tour guide, so we headed down the Vista Del Mar and took in Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach which have a feeling of little seaside towns caught up int he sprawl of Los Angeles but still managing to retain something of their own sense of self – along with some more very impressive beach front houses.

The beaches themselves look fantastic and I can imagine for those who like relaxing on the beach there is plenty of room as the sands are so huge, however I’m told on clear and sunny days they still get busy, particularly in these areas.

The Griffith Observatory

The Griffith Observatory

In the afternoon we headed out towards Hollywood and the hills overlooking the famed area which features Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and Melrose Avenue to the Griffith Observatory which is perched opposite the famous white letters and affords great views across the whole city as well as a fascinating museum of astronomy.

The observatory itself is a spectacular 1930s building that fits in with much of the classic architecture found around the city. Still featuring a pair of classic observatory style telescopes the complex is now more a tourist attraction than a genuine science facility with the central dome housing a large planetarium.

Downtown LA from the observatory

Downtown LA from the observatory

The show we experienced in the planetarium took us through the history of the universe with a great live commentary as the stars, planets and the stories about our relationship to them swirled in the air above us in spectacular fashion – unfortunately I have to admit that the combination of a warm day, a dark room, a comfortable reclined seat and anti-allergy tablets led to me dozing off a couple of times during the show, but I guess I just have another reason to go back (as if I really needed one).

The rest of the museum featured various displays on the planets as well as some pieces of meteor recovered from the desert areas of Southern California and Nevada with some pieces having been dated as being older than the Earth and continuing the mind-boggling facts that still amaze me no matter how many times I hear them.

The Dolby Theatre

The Dolby Theatre

Heading down the hill we soon hit the junction of Hollywood and Highlands where the Dolby Theatre and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre mark the iconic centre of the movie industry in the midst of one of the most crass and touristy streets I have ever seen.

The Dolby Theatre itself (and its adjacent shopping mall) is impressive as it echoes the sets built in the 1910s for D.W. Griffith’s epic Intolerance and other Hollywood greats and theatres entrance hall lists all the Best Picture Academy Award winners with space for 50 more years of winners to come.

Grauman’s is even more impressive with its famed Chinese design and courtyard packed with hand and foot prints of stars ranging from Harold Lloyd and Cecil B. De Mille to the cast of the Harry Potter and Twilight movies. Despite the somewhat novelty approach of this seeing the indelible marks left by great movie stars over the years does demonstrate the lasting effect they’ve left on out culture and society, though as it was the likes of Potter and Twilight that seemed to be the most popular prints I wonder how long the old stars will really remain shining.

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

Grauman’s Chinese Theatre

Before heading down to Melrose Avenue for the Groundlings improv comedy show we stopped off at the Guitar Centre on Sunset which was an amazing yet overwhelming store for a guitar enthusiast with a selection of vintage guitars that was like nothing I’d ever seen, including a 25th Anniversary Gibson Les Paul Custom which falls firmly into my ‘dream guitar’ territory.

Also before The Groundlings we headed for dinner at Roscoe’s, where the speciality was the initially strange-sounding combination of chicken and waffles – well in for a penny in for a pound, as they say, I ordered the Scoe’s, and the mix of sweetness from the waffles and maple syrup worked excellently with the southern fried chicken, even if the whole thing had the distinct air of a heart attack on a plate, but I’d certainly recommend trying it out if you’re near a branch of Roscoe’s.

The Groundlings are a comedy troop who have been performing their brand of improvised comedy since the mid-1970s and have featured comedy stars such as Will Ferrell and Kirsten Wiig having been members. Tonight we got to see The Crazy Uncle Joe Show which, at first, seemed it might be a little too ‘zany’ for my tastes, but once the improvs were rolling it was a great show full of genuine laughs and certainly more hits than misses amongst the ‘on the fly’ skits which linked together to tell surreal stories.

The Groundlings theatre

The Groundlings theatre

Tonight’s show was packed, and this seems to be a common occurrence, so while I would recommend checking out a show if you are in the city, it seems booking is fairly essential.

After leaving the theatre we stumbled upon a small but perfectly formed comic book store, Melrose Music and Comics, which boasted a fine and broad selection of comics and associated ephemera as well as, on this night at least, an exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable member of staff who was also an Arsenal fan like Nick which I think helped lead to the discount I received, so I guess I found a use for football at last!

A visit to Amoeba Records and a drive down the Sunset Strip rounded off another packed day in Los Angeles that continued to demonstrate how astonishingly huge this city is as I still attempted to get to grips with it geography and gain a sense of it as a place.

Read about my first day in LA featuring Kubrick at LACMA and Venice Beach.

Day three in LA featured the Space Shuttle Endeavour and a double headline gig from Marilyn Manson and Alice Cooper.

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