talking with ken barnes on his career as a rock journalist

Es­ti­mated reading time is 13 min­utes.

A FEW WEEKS AGO, I re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion from a young mu­si­cian in Eng­land to make a con­nec­tion on the LinkedIn site, the “world’s largest pro­fes­sional net­work.” Re­luc­tantly I ac­cepted it, de­spite the fact that I have yet to meet anyone who has ac­tu­ally ben­e­fited pro­fes­sion­ally from any of their LinkedIn con­nec­tions. Nonethe­less, I cer­tainly don’t know everyone on that net­work, so maybe I was missing something.

I cor­re­sponded briefly with this Eng­lishman through LinkedIn be­fore we ac­tu­ally con­nected in a more mean­ingful manner (read about it here). The meeting of him and me in­spired me to re­turn to LinkedIn, where I re­viewed hun­dreds of op­tions for con­necting with others with a sim­ilar pro­fes­sional back­ground. I se­lected a number of in­di­vid­uals with pro­fes­sions con­nected to music or records and sent them in­vi­ta­tions for “linking.” Sev­eral re­sponded, in­cluding Ken Barnes.

I im­me­di­ately emailed him and said that if he was who I thought he was then I re­member reading his stuff in the early ’70s. I in­cluded a link to my Rather Rare Records site and an in­vi­ta­tion to do an in­ter­view via email for that site. He ac­cepted and this is what we came up with, me talking with Ken Barnes:



The Beach Boys: A Bi­og­raphy In Words & Pic­tures by Ken Barnes was one of the first rock bi­ogra­phies and a book that we fans cher­ished at the time as it rec­og­nized the group’s status at a dif­fi­cult time—the “Brian is back” cam­paign that would prove a dis­aster within the year.

KB: I rec­og­nized your name from Gold­mine mag­a­zine, which I have oc­ca­sion­ally glanced at—probably not as often as I should have—in the past.

NU: The shame of Gold­mine is that they can’t figure out how to do in a country of 316,000,000 what Record Col­lector and Mojo (among others) have done in a country of 53,000,000. The US should be sup­porting sev­eral mag­a­zines of quality writing and re­search about rock & roll and re­lated music of our past and the col­lecting of every type of record! I’m not holding my breath waiting for that day.

KB: I agree whole­heart­edly about the shameful state of music mag­a­zines in the US, but many have tried and no one seems to have the right com­bi­na­tion to pro­duce an Amer­ican Mojo or Q or NME. Very sad.

I took a look at your Rather Rare Records site and grav­i­tated im­me­di­ately to the Byrds. Read a couple of pieces, which I found ab­sorbing. They have al­ways been one of my core bands—in fact, I think we agree on sev­eral core artists. But the Byrds hold a spe­cial place for me—first record I ever bought was the MR. TAMBOURINE MAN album (wasn’t yet hip to 45s, or much of any­thing, for that matter).

First con­cert I ever went to was the (five orig­inal) Byrds in Sierra Madre, CA, and so forth. I was just holding forth on them in an in­ter­esting ex­change with Sid Griffin, one of the world’s true Byrds scholars.

NU: I was raised on ’50s rock & roll and as much as I dug the British In­va­sion, it was Mr. Tam­bourine Man the single that woke me up to the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the form. That said, when­ever I am lis­tening to Turn! Turn! Turn! I feel that it is the single finest ‘pop art’ record ever made.

I be­lieve that Sid and I have in­ter­acted in the past when I was selling records out of my house in Cal­i­fornia in the early ’80s, but nei­ther of us is ex­actly sure.


The Byrds hold a spe­cial place for me—the first record I ever bought was the MR. TAMBOURINE MAN album.


KB: If you sold records in the ‘80s out of your house in L.A.—presuming it was L.A., since that’s where and when I met Sid (in ad­di­tion to music, we played soft­ball to­gether a lot)—it’s odd that I never ran into you. Or maybe we did and didn’t know it.

NU: I lived in the other Cal­i­fornia: my ex and I rented a re­ally old house in the middle of some re­ally old vine­yards in St. He­lena. I ran full-page ads in Gold­mine as Pet Sounds Records and I be­lieve that Sid con­tacted me looking for some Byrds records!

KB: I had family con­nec­tions (by mar­riage) in Sonoma for a while, so I vis­ited the area fre­quently. You must know Barry Wickham over in Petaluma.

NU: Bar­ry’s name sounds re­ally fa­miliar, but I haven’t lived in Cal­i­fornia since 1981! Been up in the Pa­cific North­west for more than a quarter of a cen­tury. Moved here in the ’80s when I re­al­ized that the times they were a-changing for the world’s cli­mate, and that water could be­come a pre­cious com­modity. The only place in the US where that should not be a problem for the fore­see­able fu­ture is right here.

KB: Not sure how long he’s been up in Petaluma, but Barry Wickham is one of the world’s leading ’60s col­lec­tors (and be­yond and be­fore) and dealers and coau­thor of the in­valu­able Garage Records Price And Ref­er­ence Guide. You might have heard of him in Gold­mine cir­cles. 1



The late Phono­graph Record Mag­a­zine during the brief heyday of rock music pub­li­ca­tions, es­sen­tially the early ’70s. As a com­petitor to Rolling Stone, Creem, and Craw­daddy, it was edited by founder Marty Cerf, Greg Shaw, and Ken Barnes during its run (1970-78). Con­trib­u­tors in­cluded such lu­mi­naries as Lester Bangs, Mitchell Cohen, John Mendel­sohn, Mike Saun­ders, and Bud Scoppa.

Barnes on Barnes

Be­fore we go any fur­ther, I asked Ken to send me a few words on him­self for readers un­fa­miliar with his name or work. Find here the skimp­iest (and most modest) of out­lines of a ca­reer that started in 1971, even be­fore the events in the movie Al­most Fa­mous took place (the almost-true story of an even younger rock jour­nalist in the ’70s):

Life­long music and radio fan.

In short-lived garage band that only emerged once from the garage.

In 1971, fi­nally man­aged to turn ob­ses­sion into pro­fes­sion when early rock mags Phono­graph Record and Fu­sion ac­cepted un­so­licited re­views that I sent them.

Later in ’71, I helped col­late an issue of the Who Put the Bomp fanzine and struck up a strong re­la­tion­ship with ed­itor Greg Shaw.

In 1973, be­came co-editor of Bomp and also started writing for Rolling Stone and went on staff as as­sis­tant ed­itor at Phono­graph Record that year.

In 1975, joined trade pub­li­ca­tion Radio & Records, even­tu­ally rose to Se­nior VP and Ed­itor, free­lancing spo­rad­i­cally all the while (no­tably New York Rocker and CREEM sin­gles columns).

In 1976, pub­lished The Beach Boys: A Bi­og­raphy in Words & Pic­tures, a 54-page book with over­sized pages that cost $4.95 and was re­ally just an overblown ca­reer re­view. It was pub­lished by Sire-Chappell, a short-lived branch of the music pub­lishing com­pany Chap­pell, as part of se­ries of six books, which may not have all been published.

In 1994, worked at ICE as editor.

In 1995, worked at Microsoft’s Music Cen­tral web­site as editor.

In 1998, be­came USA Today’s music editor.

Quasi-retired since 2008.



I think that I was briefly a sub­scriber to WPTB; if so, the issue above from the summer of ’71 was the first issue that I re­ceived. If I re­member cor­rectly (ho ho ho), there was a piece on the un­re­leased Kinks album Four More Re­spected Gen­tlemen. And the ed­itor was gaga about some­thing he called ‘power pop’ and Eric Carmen’s group the Raspberries.

And Norman Spinrad!

After editing the back-and-forth be­tween us, I sent the re­sults to Ken with a re­quest to alter some of his text (for styl­istic con­ti­nu­ity’s sake) and for him to re­turn my draft with more con­ver­sa­tion of his choosing. During our emailing we dis­cov­ered that we were neigh­bors (we live less than an hour apart) and we were both avid readers. Need­less to say, books and au­thors came up:

NU: One of my fa­vorite writers is Norman Spinrad and as awe­some as his ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with the psychedelically-inspired, stream-of-altered-consciousness nar­ra­tion was in the ’60s, it’s sort of dis­tracting when I read it now.

KB: Big Norman Spinrad fan my­self, prob­ably starting with Bug Jack Barron, and con­tin­uing through the wishful-thinking classic Russian Spring and many more. But yeah, anybody’s “psy­che­del­i­cally in­spired, stream-of-altered-consciousness” ex­per­i­ments wear quickly on the reader these days.

NU: I bought Bug Jack Barron off the spin-rack in ’69 where I worked (first job outta high school) and have been a BIG fan since. If you haven’t been reading him since Russian Spring (the first Spinrad book that I sug­gest people read who have never read Spinrad), there have been some gems! The latest being He Walked Among Us. A per­sonal fave is Passing Through The Flame!

KB: Did you know that one of the finest early rock critics grew up in St. He­lena? Gene Scu­latti, who first wrote for Mojo Nav­i­gator (the mid-’60s mimeo­graphed sheet that Greg Shaw got his start on), and later wrote for count­less pub­li­ca­tions, not to men­tion a lengthy Bill­board ca­reer, was born and raised there.

NU: I am fa­miliar with Gene’s name—was it in Rolling Stone? He had a couple of pic­ture books out on the San Fran­cisco music scene way back when, yes?

KB: Gene never wrote for Rolling Stone, to my knowl­edge, but did write for nearly every other mag. He has a book on the SF scene out, and also edited two per­cep­tive and hi­lar­ious an­tholo­gies, The Cat­alog Of Cool and Two Cool, plus an on­going Lux­uria In­ternet Radio show called Atomic Cocktail.

NU: Re­member how teenybop mag­a­zines 16 and Tiger Beat used to mix up the se­rious with the inane in their in­ter­views with pop stars?

KB: Not nearly enough of the se­rious. Hit Pa­rader though—which I be­lieved at the time was a cheesy ve­hicle to print lyrics—turns out to have been prob­ably the first se­rious rock mag, from at least 1965 (and prob­ably ear­lier) on. Wish I’d fol­lowed it more closely.


The pas­sion with which some people pursue their col­lec­tions can seem like re­li­gious fervor.


NU: Even Hit Pa­rader asked things like a rock star’s fa­vorite color, what he liked in a girl, etc. Try this: what in­flu­ence do you think your records have on young listeners?

KB: My records gen­er­ally stay on their shelves, and thus have little op­por­tu­nity to in­flu­ence im­pres­sion­able young lis­teners. Or have I mis­un­der­stood this question?

NU: Sort of—I am just asking the teenybop ques­tions of you. So, Ken, what singer in­flu­enced you the most?

KB: In terms of pure voice, prob­ably Sam Cooke.

NU: What in­stru­ments do you play?

KB: Rudi­men­tary guitar.

NU: How old are you?

KB: Quite. (You can prob­ably de­duce from some of the above chronology.)

NU: Enough of that. I agree that Hit Pa­rader was ahead of its time, es­pe­cially their cap­sule record re­views. They gave SMILEY SMILE a rave re­view! That’s an album I hated (like everyone else in ’67) but it be­came one an all-time fave when I first heard it trip­ping. They also praised the Ras­cals’ won­derful and ap­par­ently for­gotten GROOVIN’ album.

So, Mr. Barnes, do you ac­tively col­lect records versus simply ac­cu­mu­lating them?

KB: Not sure what that means, pre­cisely, since you gen­er­ally have to ac­tively ac­quire records in order to ac­cu­mu­late them. (Un­less you have some sort of vinyl magnet that draws them in ef­fort­lessly.) If you mean is there a de­sign in­volved in the records I ac­quire, well, sort of.

My col­lecting in­ter­ests are broad enough now that a pretty wide time span and va­riety of styles will rate a pur­chase if the price is right. Ac­tu­ally, in some of my pre­vious gigs, I did tend to ac­cu­mu­late records without ef­fort, re­ceiving pro­mo­tional copies of a large number of re­leases from the early ‘70s into the 2000s. I miss that. 2

NU: Your second para­graph is a good enough de­f­i­n­i­tion. As someone who caters to the in­ter­ests and needs of “se­rious” record col­lec­tors, I dif­fer­en­tiate col­lec­tors and mere ac­cu­mu­la­tors. The former al­most al­ways have a “design”—which im­plies a goal—and once caught up in it, spend time, en­ergy, and money re­al­izing it.

These are the people who spend years searching for a copy of The Long And Winding Road pic­ture sleeve without any record in­den­ta­tion and then glee­fully tell their friends that they paid twice book value and gloat when their friends admit that they have never seen a copy of that sleeve in that con­di­tion before!

Ac­cu­mu­la­tors are those folk—and I want to say “guys” be­cause it is mostly guys but there seem to be more and more younger fe­males in­volved, which is great—who find every garage sale, thrift shop, and flea market within dri­ving range of their house or apart­ment and buy what­ever seems like a great buy—usually paying a buck or less.

They own thou­sands of al­bums, all arranged by artist, but de­fined by no pa­ra­me­ters other than how little they paid for them. They usu­ally are the ones who brag about how they got such-and-such a record “that books for $300” for a dollar! That they don’t like the artist or the music is ir­rel­e­vant. That it doesn’t fill a hole in their col­lec­tion nor will they ever search for an­other record by that artist is meaningless.

Of course, al­most all col­lec­tors began as ac­cu­mu­la­tors; some evolved, some did not. And I am not picking on anyone for being an ac­cu­mu­lator; Grom­mett only knows that finding valu­able records for cents-on-the-dollar is a joyful ex­pe­ri­ence! I am just re­marking about the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two critters.

On the other hand, it is not dif­fi­cult to argue that se­rious col­lec­tors of anything/everything ex­hibit symp­toms some­what sim­ilar to OCD and other un­well­nesses and I have said in the past that for many col­lec­tors their pas­sion is more like an af­flic­tion than a hobby that is sup­posed to bring joy and re­lieve stress.

Those words are not in­tended to be con­de­scending: the pas­sion with which some people pursue their col­lec­tions re­sem­bles ob­ses­sion and can seem like any­thing from re­li­gious fervor to out­right lu­nacy to a non-collector. Any male record or comic book col­lector who has had a “normal” girl­friend and brought her to a con­ven­tion has had to ex­plain be­havior that some­times re­quires re­sorting to pop-psychology to ex­plain things that he has more or less taken for granted for decades.



This is the cover of Bug Jack Barron (first Avon pa­per­back edi­tion) that caught my at­ten­tion in the spinner at Leo Matus’s store where I worked in 1969. I was branching out from the tra­di­tional science-fiction that was avail­able from the Hoyt Li­brary and broad­ening my hori­zons after reading Harlan Ellison’s Dan­gerous Vi­sions anthology.


Too many years ago, I had a teacher who dis­cussed some of the habits that suc­cessful writers used to keep the ball rolling and avoid writer’s block. (Did I just use a sports metaphor?) One author—and I am re­mem­bering Hemingway—would end his writing mid-sentence, in a spot where he knew what was coming next. That way he could pick up the next day with the ball in play! (Did it again!)

So it is with this con­ver­sa­tion: I asked Ken a ques­tion about psy­che­delic music, he an­swered (“it’s one of my strongest areas of in­terest”), but we both agreed that it was a topic that re­quired more at­ten­tion. So we de­cided to cut off this part of the chat and leave that part for the next time.


AlmostFamous photo cast 1500

FEATURED IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is from the movie Al­most Fa­mous, the pseudo-autobiographical look at writer-director Cameron Crowe’s years as a teenage jour­nalist or Rolling Stone mag­a­zine. The movie stars Parick Fugit (second from left) as the fic­tional char­acter based on Crowe and Kate Win­ston (third from left) as the groupie who takes the young writer under her wing.



1   I con­tacted Mr. Wickham via Face­book and he as­sured me that we knew one an­other! And once I rec­og­nized the name, the face and en­joy­able per­son­ality that went with it re­turned. I had simply for­gotten the name be­cause it had been so long. So he and I re­newed our ac­quain­tance and all is well in the world for the time being.

2   Re­garding being a critic and re­ceiving all those free records: I re­member buying Robert Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Al­bums Of The Sev­en­ties in 1981 and had two huge re­sponses to it. The first was the bru­tality of his ini­tial passing/accepting of those al­bums he re­ceived and knew little about and the grading struc­ture that fol­lowed, and his dis­missal of so many ‘60s al­bums. I came to un­der­stand the former but never un­der­stood his pref­er­ence for ’70s and later rock over the ‘60s—especially given the fact that he was older than I was.




This is the first hard­bound edi­tion of Bug Jack Barron (Walker & Com­pany, 1969) that I or­dered at Mrs. Matus’s Book & Card Mart after being bowled over by reading the pa­per­back. I hunted down Spinrad’s other books and have re­mained a loyal reader ever since. I know that this has little to do with the gist of this con­ver­sa­tion but I enjoy plug­ging this author’s books when­ever possible.


In our con­ver­sa­tion above, I was con­fusing Gene Scu­latti with Gene An­thony and his two Summer Of Love books (1980 top and 1995 bottom).





A typ­ical gar­ishly col­orful cover of Hit Pa­rader, this is cover dated June 1967, which means it was prob­ably written and as­sem­bled in January-February. The fea­tured artists in­clude the Bea­tles, the Lovin’ Spoonful, the Hol­lies, Tom Jones, The Blues Ma­goos, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of In­ven­tion, the Ras­cals, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals.

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