by Len Lear
Lots of Baby Boomers (and others, both older and younger) are fans of classic rock music, but Stephen Tow, a musician and walking encyclopedia of classic rock, puts them all to shame. Tow, 57, a history professor at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, will be releasing his newest book nationwide on Feb. 15, “London, Reign Over Me: How England’s Capital Built Classic Rock” (Rowman & Littlefield), as well as embarking on a Philly area book tour that will include stops on Saturday, Feb. 22, 1 p.m., at Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove and Saturday, March 7, 1 p.m., at Mainstream Music in Manayunk.
Tow, who also authored “The Strangest Tribe: How a Group of Seattle Rock Bands Invented Grunge” (Sasquatch Books, 2011), grew up in Levittown and now lives in Abington. Why would a professor and accountant (“That’s what pays the bills”) with an accounting degree from Penn State (1985) and master’s degree in history from West Chester U. (2006) spend years researching and chasing down more than 90 old British rock stars to write this book?
“I wrote it because I’m an enormous fan of music,” Tow told us last week. “The Beatles broke up when I was 7, so I always felt I missed out on that great era of music. By the time I came of age, that would be high school in the late ’70s, mainstream music had gotten pretty stale. I could probably name 20 artists who had vital records in the late ’60s or early ’70s and released ‘eh’ albums in the late ’70s. I mean, compare ‘Who Are You?’ to ‘Who’s Next?’ or ‘In Through the Outdoor’ to ‘Led Zeppelin II’…
“I found the music itself boring, so that’s when I discovered the earlier era. One of my roommates’ girlfriends gave me a copy of ‘Quadrophenia,’ and I was like, ‘Wowwww! This is so much better than what’s popular today.’ So I spent the ’80s discovering music that was popular two decades prior — the Stones, Who, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Jethro Tull,
Yes … All of it sounded much better to my ears than the contemporary mainstream music. Later on, when Nirvana and Seattle toppled the 1980s, that became my ’60s. I loved it. Finally, bands were back. The music was back. So that became the subject of my first book, ‘The Strangest Tribe,’ where I explored how and why grunge came to Seattle.”
For “London, Reign Over Me,” how difficult was it to get interviews with all of those British rock stars from the ‘60s? “It wasn’t easy. I don’t come from the typical music writer pipeline. I didn’t write for Rolling Stone. I didn’t have lunch with Elton John the other day. So it was sheer persistence, literally years of waiting it out. Eventually I was able to score some pretty high-profile interviews with people like Ian Anderson and Martin Barre of Jethro Tull, Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman and Jon Anderson of Yes, Dave Davies of the Kinks, Peter Frampton, John Mayall, Dave Mason, Peter Noone, Paul Rodgers and many others.”
Because most of Tow’s interviewees live in the UK and the author lives here, most of the interviews were conducted over the phone. Tow did do some in person in England when he was over there for research. A few people preferred written interviews, and those were done by email.
Who were Tow’s favorite interview subjects and why? “Greg Lake of King Crimson, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer was such a warm interview. We talked for about an hour. His passion and love for the music went beyond the standard ‘professional’ interview. Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits and Stan Webb of Chicken Shack (if you don’t know Chicken Shack, they were a late ’60s blues band that featured Christine Perfect, later Christine McVie) went way off script on their interviews. I don’t think I actually asked them any questions. What resulted was some great stories about just living and experiencing the craziness that was that era.
“Brian Auger was like that, too. Brian, an organ and piano player, is not a household name, but he has played with everyone from Judy Garland to Jimmy Page. He recounted a story of how he was kind of duped into playing a harpsichord on the Yardbirds’ ‘For Your Love.’ That’s all in the book. Geno Washington also had fantastic stories. He’s an African American gentleman who was stationed in the UK with the U.S. Air Force in the early ’60s. After he got out of the service, he started a band, and yeah, he has stories, some of which show up in the book. Peter Frampton was also great. We talked a lot about his early bands, notably the Herd and Humble Pie.”
What were a couple of the most interesting or compelling anecdotes Tow was told? “Stories about the Who always amused me, especially Keith Moon. In one instance, and this is in the book, Moon, who was a little guy, was drinking in a pub when a large American approached him and challenged him to a drink-off. The American basically told Moon that Brits can’t drink. So Moon ordered a bottle of brandy for himself and for the American. “The American drank two shots and proceeded to vomit and pass out. Moon drank the entire bottle of brandy and then ordered a lager. In another instance, a
young journalist named Keith Altham was supposed to interview Moon after an early Who gig in London. Moon ran out of the dressing room, telling Altham he couldn’t stay for the interview because Roger Daltrey had threatened to kill him. ‘Why has he threatened to kill you, Keith?’ Altham asked. ‘Because,’ Moon replied, ‘I told him he can’t sing for sh*t.’”
For more information about “London, Reign Over Me” or the book tour, visit stephentow.com or connect with Tow on Twitter, @StephenTow.