Crosby, Stills and Nash (minus Young) in 1983. Photo: Getty
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The long shadow of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

Bob Stanley takes a look at long-overdue rereleases for Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

Given that they could only stay in the same studio long enough to record one album as a quartet, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s shadow is remarkably long. They split in 1970 after releasing Déjà vu, but managed to keep their egos locked down for a 1974 reunion tour that saw them playing 31 concerts in 24 cities over two months, with sets lasting from three to four hours each night. It was the first ever outdoor stadium tour and, at the time, the highest grossing tour ever. Drugs were taken in industrial quantities; Joni Mitchell recalls various band members backstage suffering from nosebleeds due to excessive cocaine abuse. Like the tour, Rhino’s beautifully packaged CSNY 1974 – three CDs and a DVD, with a 188-page booklet – turns out to be an exhaustive (and, finally, exhausting) set.

The crowd sounds pumped as they kick off with Stills’ “Love the One You’re With”, light and breezy. On the first two discs, there’s not much wrong with the harmonies, especially on the Neil Young-fronted songs. “Old Man” is spacious and warm, while “Mellow My Mind” (unreleased at the time) borders on barbershop. Of the Young rarities, “Goodbye Dick” is a throwaway song about Nixon that they played on 14 August in Nassau, just five days after the president had resigned, while “Love Art Blues” is gently self-mocking (“I went and played too hard”). The pick is the daffily touching “Hawaiian Sunrise” (part holiday postcard, part mope about his ex, Carrie Snodgrass), scheduled for release on Young’s 1975 album Homegrown before he pulled it in favour of the heavy downer “Tonight’s The Night”.

Without Young upfront, things can sag badly. On Nash’s “Teach Your Children” you get the impression this was the first time they’d ever sung the thing together, rather than the five hundredth – Stills, in particular, puts as much effort into it as he would if he was singing in the shower. His mumbled soul stylings are generally the weak link throughout the set. Another Young obscurity, “Pushed It Over The End”, features clean near-funk guitar work, but really suffers from dragging, half-asleep harmonies; given that their harmonies are CSNY’s major selling point, this really is problematic. But it’s hardly surprising – by the time they finish the song, their set is nearly four hours in. Even the milk-fed Osmonds would have been audibly tiring by this point. Listen to CSNY 1974 in one sitting and the trip is pretty enjoyable, but everyone will be feeling slightly weary by the end.

CSNY 1974 has clearly been put together with great care by Rhino. The same label are responsible for a box set by another multi-million selling act, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The Classic Albums Box contains all of the group’s studio albums with the exception of a 1962 Christmas album and 1972’s Chameleon. You don’t get a 188-page booklet. In fact, you don’t get a booklet at all. Why the lack of special treatment for such a major group?

In spite of Jersey Boys being a huge stage success, the Four Seasons still lack the critical gravitas of CSNY. They are largely thought of as a singles group, though this box goes some considerable way to altering that perspective. However, taken in its entirety – sixteen albums from 1962 to 1992 – this box can make the group’s catalogue look pretty patchy. Alongside a strange live album (Live On Stage, a bunch of Copacabana numbers with dubbed-on squealing adolescents) we get not one but two odd forays into folk, and an album of covers, which is half Burt Bacharach and half Bob Dylan – what lunatic dreamt that up?

Nevertheless, in the studio the songwriting Season Bob Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe determined to make them a thoroughly modern and thrilling proposition. Cut the cash-ins, and there’s a more than presentable bunch of albums in this set. Rag Doll from 1964 was their first essential long player, its dozen songs all penned by Crewe, Gaudio and Brill Building buddy Sandy Linzer: the sound here is as big as Spector but harder edged, percussion hissing like steam, or pounding like drills on a New York pavement. There’s never any doubt as to which coast the Four Seasons hail from. Crewe wrote the sleevenotes for Rag Doll and bullishly described the title song as “probably the best record of this, or any other year.” “Working My Way Back To You” (1966) and New Gold Hits (1967) both added blue-eyed soul to the mix, before the group came up with a super-ambitious, though hit-free concept album, called Genuine Imitation Life Gazette in 1969, a suite of songs that sat somewhere between Jimmy Webb’s work with Richard Harris and Frank Sinatra’s Watertown album. Ornate, and suitably cynical about the prevailing hippie ethos (they weren’t kids, after all), it remains a remarkable album that deserves stand-alone deluxe treatment.

The albums come in miniature replica sleeves, which are very attractive, but the credits are impossible to read without an accompanying booklet. This really is a strange oversight. It isn’t as if there isn’t a story to be told (we still await the CSNY Broadway smash Laurel Canyon Boys, after all) so possibly it’s to keep the price down – it retails at under £40, which is remarkable value for a 16-disc set. Unfortunately, the New Gold Hits disc features several incorrect tracks – and one of the missing songs is the delicious “I’m Gonna Change”, a monster hit that got away, so I’m miffed. Almost all of these albums have been deleted for the best part of two decades, though, so even with its faults I can’t quibble too much. The group’s repositioning as the East Coast’s answer to the Beach Boys happily continues.

Crosby Stills Nash and Young’s CSNY 1974 and Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons’ Classic Albums Box are both out now on Rhino

Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.

Picture: Bridgeman Images
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Herman Melville's mystery: was Billy Budd black?

A newly unearthed photograph identifies the African-American Trafalgar survivor who appears in Melville’s final novel. Could the book’s hero have been black, too?

The photograph below tells a remarkable tale. I discovered it in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle while researching my new book. The image, taken by John Havers, was acquired by Prince Albert in the 1850s and it portrays veterans of Trafalgar at the Royal Navy hospital in Greenwich in 1854. Sitting on a bench overlooking the Thames, these aged faces and bodies were a familiar sight in south London in their 18th-century-style frock coats and cocked hats, earning them the nickname “Greenwich geese”.

One figure in particular stands out. Using the hospital records, I identified the third man from the left as Richard Baker, an African American, born in Baltimore in 1770, who served at Trafalgar on HMS Leviathan; he entered the hospital in 1839. Seventeen men born in Africa fought for the British during the battle; 123 from the West Indies. There is a black man portrayed on the Westminster-facing bronze plaque on Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. But the records show only one Trafalgar veteran from Baltimore: Baker, who is likely to have been a freed or even escaped slave.
Richard Baker (third from the left, with a cane) with fellow veterans of the Battle of Trafalgar in Greenwich in 1854. Photo: Royal Collection Trust

This is a powerful story. But this man also has a special literary significance. On his visit to London in 1849, Herman Melville visited Greenwich and met “an old pensioner in a cocked hat” on the river terrace. It was a vivid encounter that he recalled more than 40 years later in his last and most evocative book, Billy Budd, Sailor. This “Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man” was almost certainly Richard Baker. He told Melville how many men had been taken from jail to serve in the navy.

Billy Budd is impressed from a merchant ship that is symbolically named the Rights-of-Man. Melville had written with empathy of people of colour in Moby-Dick, including a scene in which the tattooed Pacific Islander Queequeg and his white bed-mate, Ishmael, declare themselves man and wife. In the opening of Billy Budd, Melville introduces the idea of the “Handsome Sailor”, who, flanked by his fellow mariners, is a “superior figure of their own class, moving along with them like Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation”. One “remarkable instance” of this higher breed occurs to him – a black sailor he had seen in the Liverpool docks ten years earlier:

The two ends of a gay silk handkerchief thrown loose about the neck danced upon the displayed ebony of his chest; in his ears were big hoops of gold, and a Scotch Highland bonnet with a tartan band set off his shapely head. It was a hot noon in July; and his face, lustrous with perspiration, beamed with barbaric good humour. In jovial sallies right and left, his white teeth flashing into view, he rollicked along, the centre of a company of his shipmates.

Was Billy Budd, the Handsome Sailor at the heart of the book, black? Scholars such as John Bryant believe that there is internal evidence in the manuscript of the book – found in a bread tin after Melville’s death in 1891 and not published until 1924 – that the author had played with the idea of making his hero a man of African heritage. Billy is loved by all the crew and is described as blond and blue-eyed later in the story. Yet the sensuous descriptions of the Liverpool sailor and the Greenwich veteran elide to create a counterfactual version in which Billy becomes a black star at the centre of his constellation of shipmates.

Indeed, some critics – most notably, Cassandra Pybus at the University of Sydney – have suggested that another 19th-century anti-hero was a person of colour. In Wuthering Heights, published in 1847, two years before Melville’s visit, Heathcliff is described as a “regular black”, an orphan found in the Liverpool docks – an intriguing notion explored in Andrea Arnold’s brilliant 2011 film adaptation.

Melville witnessed great changes in the fortunes of black Americans. Moby-Dick is an allegory of the struggle against slavery in the run-up to the American Civil War; the Melville scholar Robert K Wallace believes that the writer heard the fugitive slave-turned-emancipationist Frederick Douglass speak in the 1840s and that they may have even met. Nor is it a coincidence that Captain Ahab goes in pursuit of a white whale. It is both the elusive other and the pallor that might appal: Melville suggests that whiteness does not necessarily represent the pure and the good. It’s also a fable that has since found resonance in George W Bush’s pursuit of Osama Bin Laden and the illusory weapons of mass destruction, and in Donald Trump’s crazed crusades.


Terence Stamp as Billy Budd in Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film. Photo: Alamy

Melville wrote vituperatively about the use of flogging in both the American and the British navies. Billy Budd’s back­story is the 1797 naval mutiny in the Thames Estuary, during which mutineers attempted to blockade London and set up a “Floating Republic”. All of these themes are played out in Melville’s parable. Billy, the Handsome Sailor, is beloved of all the ship’s crew, including the captain. But Claggart, the jealous master of arms, frames him as a potential mutineer. Faced with the charge, Billy instinctively hits out and accidentally kills the officer. The captain has no choice: the state demands the death of the “fated boy”. “Struck dead by an angel of God!” he says. “Yet the Angel must hang!”

Having served on whaling and navy ships, Melville knew intimately the hierarchies at sea and the way they echoed the abuse of imperial power. Many men were stolen twice over: as African slaves, then as impressed sailors. Living in Manhattan, he saw other casualties of a period of revolution and international disruption, the 1840s. In Redburn (1849) written as the Irish famine was creating a new trade in people, he records the impact of mass migration to the US. To those who ask whether “multitudes of foreign poor should be landed on our American shores”, he replies, “If they can get here, they have God’s right to come; though they bring all Ireland and her miseries with them. For the whole world is the patrimony of the whole world.”

Melville’s humanity shines across time and space. In 1953, when detained on Ellis Island in Upper New York Bay, the Trinidadian-born writer C L R James saw Ahab’s tyranny as a precursor of the modern cult of personality and an indictment of McCarthyite accusations. As Melville’s last, elegiac word on the subject – having exiled himself as a customs inspector in the same harbour – Billy Budd spoke out against injustice. In the image of Richard Baker, with his grey hair, cane and Trafalgar medal, we see that sensibility brought back to life. Isolated in the unfeeling city, Melville looked back to his lost past in his poem “John Marr”:

Ye float around me, form and feature;
Tattooings, ear-rings, love-locks curled;
Barbarians of man’s simpler nature,
Unworldly servers of the world.

He knew who the true barbarians were. And as his white whale resurfaced as an allegory for a nuclear age, so his Handsome Sailor became the embodiment of the alien, the beautiful and the wronged. His innocent body was hymned by E M Forster and Eric Crozier in their libretto for Britten’s Cold War opera in 1951. He was bleached blond for Peter Ustinov’s 1962 film starring Terence Stamp – a clip of which appears on the banks of TV screens watched by Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Budd’s sacrifice mirroring that of the character played by the flame-haired David Bowie. Newton, a refugee in time and space, falls to Earth like a comet to warn us of nuclear and environmental destruction – and is imprisoned for his sins. “This is modern America,” the authorities say, “and we’re going to keep it that way.”

If Moby-Dick acquired elements of science fiction (Andrew Delbanco, the author of Melville’s most recent major biography, describes Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyssey as a “very Melvillean film”), then Billy Budd’s ritual continually reinvents itself. In 1999, the French director Claire Denis reset the story in northern Africa in her film Beau Travail – a kind of eroticised ballet of bare male bodies set to Britten’s music (and played out on the same shores from which new refugees now set off for western Europe). Through all these incarnations, the Handsome Sailor persists: from black star and hanged man to alien and avatar.

And at the centre of it all is Richard Baker. His ship, HMS Leviathan, had long since been consigned to the mud of Portsmouth Harbour as a prison hulk for convicts about to be transported to Van Diemen’s Land, as Tasmania was then known. Baker, also stranded on a foreign shore, looks over the reflecting Thames as it reaches out to the sea – that same mutinous waterway that at the century’s end would lead to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. With his medal pinned proudly to his chest, he looks out of his past into our future, quietly aware of his power.

“RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR” by Philip Hoare is published by Fourth Estate

Philip Hoare’s books include Wilde’s Last Stand, England’s Lost Eden, and Spike IslandLeviathan or, The Whale won the Samuel Johnson Prize for 2009, and The Sea Inside was published in 2013. He is professor of creative writing at the University of Southampton, and co-curator of the Moby-Dick Big Read. His website is www.philiphoare.co.uk, and he is on Twitter @philipwhale.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder