A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Friday, April 29, 2005


The last in our triptych of new releases this week (damn, I wish we could publish three of these every week!) is J. Niimi's book about Murmur. Like Daphne and Franklin before him, J. stubbornly refused to adhere to the word limit in his contract. And I stubbornly refused to make any cuts to his manuscript. So instead, we reduced the text size a bit and managed to cram the whole thing into 160 pages. And fascinating stuff it is, too - including fresh quotes from Don Dixon and Mitch Easter, and revealing commentary on Walker Percy's essay "Metaphor as Mistake" in relation to Michael Stipe's lyrics.

Like the books on Grace and Armed Forces, this one should be on sale in the normal places about two weeks from now. Here's an extract:

I don’t know if I saw the “Radio Free Europe” video on MTV first, or if I just saw the Murmur cassette sitting in the racks where I had also bought the Police’s Regatta de Blanc. In any case, it was at a shabby fluorescent-lit store with a full-sized cardboard display of the Journey scarab-UFO in the entrance and rubber bracelets and yellow plastic 45 inserts at the counter and shrink-wrapped Van Halen jerseys folded in black squares in the record bins. One wall of the store was lined top-to-bottom, front-to-back with horizontally placed cassettes, a library sideways.

The cassette was still a relatively new thing. Record companies hadn’t yet figured out how to market or package it. Its puny rectangular face was too small to reproduce LP cover art with any modicum of point-of-purchase attractiveness. The logic of retail space concerns (mall record stores in the early '80s were basically bazaar stalls where a twelve-inch LP cover equaled a square foot of real estate) and the fragility of the plastic cases dictated that they be stacked along a wall, their sides too small to project any greater degree of content than the spine of an LP. As a tape-buying consumer, you had to know what you were looking for.

R.E.M.’s label at the time, I.R.S, was manufactured and distributed by A&M, a major label, the better to reach us suburban mall rats. The retail-visible side of the R.E.M. tape looked exactly like that of all the other A&M bands. A cassette of an album by the Police looked the same as one by R.E.M. – artist and album title in unremarkable bold white typeface against a black background. The "cover" of the cassette was a miniature of the LP art (slightly larger than the one depicted on the cover of this book) with a black space-filling void beneath it, the same info reproduced within in the same plain white lettering.

Chalk it up to the fact that cassettes were still an uneasy experiment in the industry, a presumed short-term phenomenon that record companies intended to capitalize on until the consumer tape recorder market went away (with the aid of the "Home Taping is Killing Music" campaign and its admittedly dope logo, the crossbones behind a white cassette-skull). Record companies didn’t invest too much in the cassette-as-product, because they hoped it was a short-lived fad. Commercial cassettes from this era projected an air of Okay, tape-boy, that’ll be $7.98, come again. Store-bought tapes even looked a bit like illicit product in their austerity. The tape swiveled back from its clear cradle into a small black box, a graphic abyss that seems even more mysterious now in an age when even the carriages of subway cars are conceived of as viable commercial ad surface.

This lack of cover art, of information, was part of my initial experience of Murmur and of R.E.M.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Armed Forces

Another of the new books that should be on sale in the next couple of weeks is Franklin Bruno's take on Costello's Armed Forces. This one is written as an A-Z, with entries including the Agora Ballroom, Winston Churchill, Al Jolson, Rock Against Racism, and Two-Tone Records. It's a great strategy for one of these books, and throws up all manner of interesting threads and juxtapositions. The extract that follows is from the entry on "Oliver's Army"...

Ultimately, though, the song is less concerned to put forward a starry-eyed pacifism than the notion that the realities - and purposes - of war are rarely, if ever, as advertised; and that the might of the modern state depends on limiting the economic options of some of its able-bodied citizens. The recruiter's appeal is not to honor or duty, but only to a job opportunity. As Costello says in the Rhino notes, "They always get a working class boy to do the killing." There, he traces the song to a visit to Belfast, where he encountered "mere boys walking around in battle dress with automatic weapons," though where they might have been deployed in 1978 is not stated. Knowing this adds a note of specificity to "white nigger" (see below), and a further twist to the title, given Cromwell's later campaigns against Irish Catholics. But the song's sympathies lie more broadly with all those who, "out of luck or out of work," find themselves shouldering the guns.

Or the guitars. Like "Goon Squad," the song also comments on Costello's own adventures as a working musician. The notion of a "professional career" is no small matter; anyone who has spent time with the Rhino reissues wil have noticed how often Costello divides his life into "pre-professional" and "professional" periods, the latter marked by his quitting his day job at Elizabeth Arden and adopting his stage name. That he has never looked back is a point of pride, but doubts about making his art his livelihood are often present as well, most sharply during his closest approach to commercial dominance. As much as he would like to believe that he is a free agent, the recognition that "Elvis Costello" performs at the pleasure of the entertainment-industrial complex is never far away.

After the fact, these links were strengthened by the iconography of the tour and press campaign. But they are first forged in the song itself: "The boys from the Mersey and the Thames and the Tyne" are inductees from Liverpool, London, and Newcastle, but in giving pride of place to the first, Costello calls forth the Merseybeats, Gerry & the Pacemakers, The Swinging Blue Jeans, and many less remembered - the "beat groups" whose lessons in soul and R&B will, to him, never feel second-hand. But most of all, he invokes The Beatles, the benchmark British Invaders, whose conquest of America he aims to repeat, even if it means becoming cannon fodder for another kind of corporate empire.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005


A cool little piece about the series in the current issue of Vice magazine:

These are for the insane collectors out there who appreciate fantastic design, well-executed thinking, and things that make your house look cool. Each volume in this series takes a seminal album and breaks it down in startling minutiae. We love these. We are huge nerds.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Lover, you should've come over

Daphne A. Brooks' book about Jeff Buckley is a wonderful mix of research, insight, and passion - pretty much a blueprint of what I'd hoped these books might be. I'm not sure if the book demonstrates "a passion so intense it'll make you blanche" (as the Philadelphia Weekly said, of a draft chapter of the book); but you can certainly tell that Daphne enjoys the album. Here's a passage from it...

"Lover, You Should've Come Over" turns on the body of its young, tortured hero, yearning and burning and craving for lost love. Lyrics from Buckley's earlier drafts of the song were even more explicity tethered to cataloging the physical ache of this loss - from "broken bones" to a body of which "every inch" is in pain. This ache manifests itself fully in the signature lyric from the song: "too young to hold on, too old to just break free and run." It's a line that's set against a crushing upsurge in the song, the upsweep of a Beatle-esque "I want you so bad / she's so heavy" guitar drive that supports the escalating rise in Buckley's vocals as he rises into death defying head voice and soaring choir-boy falsetto.

In the end, "Lover" is most brilliant because of its endless combination of voices, mixing together in this pseudo sanctified love eulogy. At the heart of the track is its artful arrangement of gorgeously dubbed backing vocals. Listen closely in the late stanzas of this six-minute, forty-three second odyssey and one hears the rising hum of background choir harmonies (sounding almost as if they are humming "her, her, her") that hold a tinge of doo-wop rhythm. Gently, these voices wrap themselves around the epic verses in which the singer extols his willingness to give up his "kingdom for a kiss upon her shoulder," all his "riches for her smiles," all his "blood for the sweetness of her laughter." Yet as quick and quirky as a Prince falsetto flourish, the background vocals bend upward into a sharp, rapid high note, curling around "sweetness" and making way for the final release, the final exultation, the admission, the confession, and the redemption in "Lover's" finale.

Amidst Buckley's exhortatory affirmations that "yes, yes, yes" he's been, until now, "too deaf, dumb, and blind to see the damage" he's done, "Lover, You Should've Come Over" performs the ultimate southern Afro-Baptist church act. The song clears a space for Buckley to "get the spirit", to turn grief and mourning, abjection and agony into the revelatory redemption that is love itself. The fact that he can, in this final version of the song, claim with certainty that "it's never over" unveils the mighty transformation in the song. To be sure, this is no "Cortez the Killer" where Neil Young in his American pastoralist guise mourns the loss of Edenic paradise once and for all. For on Grace, Love has not been put to rest but finally resurrected and understood to be endless, plentiful, eternally blooming - even at the moment when one appears to lose it. Its seeds are planted in the kingdom of song that this lover has razed and built all over again for his listeners.

Friday, April 22, 2005

And then there were 23...

We've taken delivery from the printers this week of the three latest books in the series - J. Niimi's book about Murmur, Daphne Brooks' book on Grace (my god, that one took a long time coming!) and Franklin Bruno's on Armed Forces. For some reason, I can't stop staring at the blue on the spine of the R.E.M. book.

Depending on how quickly our lovely warehouse people in Harrisburg can turn these around, I'm guessing these three books should be on sale at Amazon and the usual bookstores and record stores by the middle of May at the latest. And if any of you are waiting for review copies, those should be sent out by the end of next week.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Knees of James Brown

Yesterday our London office sent me a mini-review of Douglas Wolk's James Brown book, which apparently appeared in the March issue of Mojo. Not sure how that one escaped my notice, but anyway, it's good:

Wolk's exemplary analysis of James Brown's legendary LP contextualises his performance within his own career, the political events unfolding that week of recording in October 1962 (the Cuban Missile Crisis) and its place in the history of black American music, illustrating how Brown utilised often uncredited elements from the 1920s onwards. Brown's oft cited ruthlessness reaches a nadir with the dismissal of singer and pregnant-with-Brown's-child Yvonne Fair after the shows. Most astonishing, however, is Wolk's conjecture that to avoid recording distortion, the riotous album captured, "James Brown holding back."

And here's one of my favourite passages from the book:

James Brown does not, as a matter of routine, perform without begging, repeatedly. Not being one for half measures, he does not beg without falling to his knees. He falls to his knees half a dozen or so times in every show: on soft wooden floors like the Apollo's, on hard concrete stages, on carpet, on stone, on metal, on earth. Four or five shows a day, three hundred days a year, in the early years. A hundred or more shows a year, even now that he's in his seventies. Fifty years in show business. Imagine James Brown falling to his knees for his audience tens of thousands of times, probably hundreds of thousands of times. Imagine the scar tissue, inches thick, on the knees of James Brown.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Popes and Punks

It's mayhem here today at Continuum HQ, as we scramble to reprint the only existing biography of the new Pope, formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger. I'm sure Ratzinger has always been a big fan of the Ramones, so perhaps he'll be interested in Nicholas Rombes' new book in the series, about their debut album. It combines a good history of the early days of punk with some more detailed writing about the making of the album itself. This extract is from near the start of the book...

One of the best discussions of the punk ethos appeared in the very first issue of Punk in January 1976 in the essay “Marlon Brando: The Original Punk.” Suggesting that punk is above all a sensibility, a way of carrying yourself in the world, the piece suggests that Brando’s films Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, and On the Waterfront “provided media recognition for an inarticulate, rebellious character type, til then ignored by the popular media. . . Brando was cool without oppressing the audience with too much sharpness. He was powerful without having to be invulnerable. . . Vulnerability in a leather jacket. Brando prowled, not as a predator, but as a formidable victim.”

The Ramones, especially, embodied this cool style that reversed the governing codes of 1970s macho rock embodied in the figure of the swaggering lead singer. Joey Ramone was the punk underdog, the impossibly skinny guy who hid beneath his hair and behind his sunglasses. In that same issue of Punk, in her two-page spread on the Ramones, Mary Harron was hesitant to use the word punk to describe the band (preferring instead “punk-type”), and when she did use it, she did so to describe a visual style and attitude, not a sound: “OK,” Harron asked, “why do you affect leather jackets and kind of a punk-type attitude on stage?” Tommy replied: “It keeps us warm, y’know? And the black leather absorbs more heat.”

In fact, groups like Alice Cooper, Kiss, and even AC/DC were written about as part of the mix of the punk and new wave scene. If today not many people would associate AC/DC as an element of the new wave that included art bands like Talking Heads, in the early-to-mid 1970s the categories of punk, new wave, hard rock, heavy metal, and pop were still blurred. As we’ll see later, this was due in part to the fact that record companies, promoters, and radio stations—which depended upon the fairly strict maintenance of generic classifications—had not yet absorbed the “new wave” into a commodity form. Writing about AC/DC in the New York Rocker, which was devoted almost exclusively to covering the punk and new wave scene, Howie Klein noted that “AC/DC doesn’t use safety pins, never went to art school, and they sure don’t limit themselves to 2 or 3 chords, but if new wave is a reaffirmation of rock ‘n’ roll’s traditional values, this band is an important part of it.” The Ramones themselves, although cautious of labels like “punk,” were variously touted as punk, new wave, hard rock, pop, pop-punk, and others. In a full-page 1977 ad in New York Rocker from their record company Sire, the Ramones were described as the “world’s foremost exponents of pure punk-rock and New York’s pioneer New Wave band.”

The Ramones, as was true of most bands of that moment, preferred to demonstrate the premise of their music rather than talk about it. When asked in 1977 about their feelings regarding the punk label, Johnny responded: “Whaddya gonna do? We don’t care if they wanna call us dat. It doesn’t matter one way or the other.” But very often the bands and their fans either rejected or simply ignored the label “punk.” In the documentary Punking Out, one fan at CBGBs in 1977 answers, when asked about punk, “[If] you want to talk about punk and underground it’s bullshit. You call ’em punk because you got nothing else to say about ’em, no other way to link ’em. But it’s like the heartbeat that links ’em.” In an interview with Mary Harron in Punk, when asked if he had a name to describe the music, Johnny Rotten said that “Punk rock’s a silly thing to call it” and “it means, like—American sixties rip-off bands.” And asked about whether he and the Ramones thought of the album that they were recording in 1976 as punk, Craig Leon, who produced Ramones, responded that “[I]f my memory serves me well, we never used this term at all. Seymour Stein nicked the term ‘New Wave’ from the 50s French film guys to describe the music but no one used ‘punk’ other than the title of John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil’s magazine of lower NY at that time.”

Monday, April 18, 2005

Pet Sounds

When the series first started, I really didn't want to commission books on some of the more obvious albums. But when Jim Fusilli got in touch and explained why he wanted to write a short book about Pet Sounds, I warmed so much to the honesty of his approach that it was hard to say no. I'll let others be the judge of whether Jim's approach is successful or not, but we've already had one glowing review from Bret Wheadon, who runs the unofficial fan site, BeachBoys.com. Here's what Bret wrote about Jim's book:

"When I heard that another book about Pet Sounds was coming out, I have to admit that I gave a small inward groan. After all, we already have two fine books covering the same ground, and there have been literally hundreds of smaller essays and articles written; what could another add to the mountain of published literature? Thankfully, author Jim Fusilli is no slouch. Music reporter for the Wall Street Journal and continuing contributer to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," Fusilli is a keen observer and eloquent writer, bringing a fresh perspective to this seminal album with wit and pathos. He starts by talking about the forces that shaped his own childhood, notably Walt Disney - from watching Walt host his weekly show on TV, and from viewing endless films and TV shows, Mr. Fusilli had a utopian vision of California imprinted on his mind. I laughed out loud when I read a description of Annette Funicello as "an Italian sparkplug." But this autobiographical introduction to the book works perfectly, humanizing the author to his audience, and letting us know exactly where he's coming from. And despite the slimness of the book, Fusilli doesn't simply dive into analyzing the album, (he doesn't really dig in until page 41) he unfolds, in a very gentle way, the history of the Beach Boys in both professional and a deeply intimate portrait. Mr. Fusilli knows of what he writes as well, infusing his song-by-song examinations with his clear, intuitive understanding of the what makes each song tick. He's even lightly critical of several numbers, which I frankly admire, having read several like-minded articles that place Pet Sounds on an unattainable pedestal. I felt as I was reading this that I at last understood how Pet Sounds came about; the shadowy psyche of Brian Wilson became a little clearer, reflected in the dark mirror of his art and here illuminated for my eyes. The songs are examined one by one, with pertinent quotes from most of the major players, from Marilyn Wilson to Brian himself, with several small facts thrown in that I hadn't recalled reading anywhere else. This book, part of a series of acclaimed books about individual albums, is published by Continuum Books, and is a fine addition to your Beach Boys library. I unreservedly recommend it."

And if you're into mystery fiction, you should pick up one of Jim's novels about Terry Orr and his daughter Bella.

Jim will be reading from his Pet Sounds book at the Barnes & Noble in Greenwich Village on the evening of Thursday May 12th, at 7.30.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Blender ♥ Erik

There's a 4-star review of Erik Davis' Zeppelin book in the May issue of Blender, by Steve Kandell.

"While the books in Continuum's long-running 33 1/3 series generally cast classic albums in a personal, anecdotal light, this volume deconstructs cock-rock's most inscrutable magnum opus as a collision of music and magick. Though Jimmy Page's Aleister Crowley fixation has been well-documented, Davis makes the case that every aspect of the record, from the lyrics to the packaging, is rooted in Satanic mysticism. A helpful reminder to haters who dismiss the record as Dungeons and Dragons pabulum that worshipping the devil is pretty cool."

The same issue also carries a nice guide to the Joy Division / New Order catalogue, by Live at the Apollo author Douglas Wolk. I would have given Low-Life four stars rather than Douglas' three, but otherwise no quibbles.

Friday, April 15, 2005

This has nothing to do with the series, pt 1

I'm reading Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon. It's a novel consisting of one hundred anecdotes, each around a page long. For reasons that I don't fully understand, this has only been published in the UK so far, by Granta. (Thanks to Frances Cook for sending me the book from England!) I hope this book comes out in the States soon. It's very good. Here is one of the pieces:

Underlined Passages

While visiting a used bookstore, a man who had suffered a run of bad luck bought a paperbound work of philosophy, hoping that a new paradigm for looking at the world would help him turn his life around. He brought the book home and studied it carefully, underlining key passages with a ball-point pen. The new ideas were indeed helpful, and he grew happier in both his marriage and his work, rediscovering skills he had forgotten he possessed and generally changing his outlook for the better.
One evening, while gathering old items for a yard sale, he discovered in a dusty cardboard box a stack of books he had read years before, when he was a student. Among them was another copy of the very work of philosophy he had recently bought and that had changed his life. When he opened the older book, which he had no recollection of ever having read before, he realized that he had underlined exactly the same passages that he had in his new copy. It occurred to him that if he had absorbed these ideas in the past, and they eventually gave way to the miserable period that had preceded reading them the second time, then it was inevitable that he would enter another, similar, period of ill fortune and despair, and in fact at that moment he began to sink into a depression that would only widen and deepen in the months to come.
Eventually he and his wife grew apart and they filed for divorce. Over several wordless days they separated the possessions they had shared for so many years, and soon he moved into an apartment.
Shortly before the divorce was to be finalized, the man discovered that he had somehow retained both copies of the fateful book, and in the process of throwing them out noticed that the older copy bore his wife's name on the inside cover. He realized that the dusty box had not contained his books from college, but his wife's, and that he could not recall reading the book the first time because, in fact, he hadn't.
He quickly phoned his wife and they agreed to call off the divorce. They are now in counseling, working to understand their new circumstances.

For more information on the author, visit http://www.jrobertlennon.com/

Or to hear him read this story on the radio, go here: http://weekendamerica.publicradio.org/programs/index_20040925.html

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

No defeat, baby...

At Christmas a few months ago, my Dad cheerfully announced that one of the songs we'll be listening to at his funeral - he's 83 next month, but in good health - is "No Surrender" from Born in the USA. That should be fun, then. I've no idea what any of the other songs will be. (And since you ask, if you ever come to my funeral, you'll certainly hear "Lazy Calm" by the Cocteau Twins.)
Anyhow, my Dad is a massive fan of Springsteen and - like 33 1/3 author Geoffrey Himes - he's of the unusual opinion that Born in the USA is Bruce's best album. Himes makes a pretty convincing case in his book (publishing this fall) that Springsteen's finest work blends comedy and tragedy, and cuts back a little on the earnestness. The book is also a remarkable testament to just how prolific Springsteen was, as a writer, during the early 80s. Here's a short extract:

Springsteen had long been frustrated by his inability to connect with a black audience. After all, many of his crucial musical models had been African-American: Bonds, Berry, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Curtis Mayfield, Wilson Pickett, Eddie Floyd and the Isley Brothers; he performed their songs on stage and modeled his own songwriting on theirs. And his bands had always been interracial; Clarence Clemons was Springsteen’s favorite on-stage foil, and for most of 1974 the E Street Band (the version that Landau first saw) was half African-American.
But the joke had always been that there were more black people on stage at Springsteen’s shows than in the audience. It wasn’t that bad, of course, but the crowds were overwhelmingly white, even compared to audiences for such Springsteen heroes as the Righteous Brothers, the Beatles, Mitch Ryder and Elvis Presley. What was missing?
The Pointer Sisters had scored a #2 single with a Springsteen song, “Fire," in 1978. Bonds had hits with two Springsteen songs, the #11 “This Little Girl” in 1981 and the #21 “Out of Work” in 1982. Natalie Cole would have a #5 hit with Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” in 1988. Clearly, black artists could connect to black audiences with Springsteen’s material, so why couldn’t the songwriter himself?
There were several answers. Springsteen’s lyrics in the 70s had been so self-consciously poetic and his vocals so unabashedly earnest that they struck skeptical African-American audiences as corny. Smokey Robinson's songs had many of the same qualities, but they were so wrapped up in sex that the poetry and earnestness were forgiven for their obvious ulterior motives. Sex, however, was notably absent from Springsteen’s early work.
Not coincidentally, so was syncopation. Springsteen’s natural instinct was to stomp the beat rather than swing it, and while this had honorable precedents in everyone from Roy Orbison through the Who to the Ramones, it was not an approach that resonated with black listeners. As the 80s began, though, Springsteen was trimming back the verbiage in his songs for a leaner vernacular and he was trimming back on the romanticism to accommodate a more skeptical realism. And through his work for Bonds and Summer, he was working hard to bring more African-American syncopation into his music.
For the Summer assignment, he took a line from "Born in the U.S.A.," "You spend half your life just covering up," and expanded the idea into a whole song, a plea to a woman to cover him up, to protect him from all the kicks and punches the world is aiming his way. He wants her to hold him in her arms, to provide a hidden romantic refuge, in Dylan's words, a "shelter from the storm," from "the rain, the driving snow … the wild wind blowing."
The original version of this new song was called "Drop on Down and Cover Me." The theme was the same, but the lyrics were slightly different and the music was dramatically different. The demo cut with the E Street Band opened with a blaring R&B sax solo, shifted into rumbling drums right out of Buddy Holly's "Peggy Sue," and then into a vocal duet between Springsteen and Van Zandt that sounded like Sam & Dave or James & Bobby Purify. In other words, it was a retro-soul number, the kind of song Springsteen had often written in the past and would write several times again in the early 80s ("Stand on It," "Lion's Den," "Cynthia" and others).
This vintage R&B approach was quite appropriate for a 60s figure like Gary U.S. Bonds, but not for a contemporary singer like Summer. If the whole point of the exercise was to write a modern R&B song, this wasn’t going to work. So Springsteen jettisoned the original (actually superior) melody and concentrated on getting a disco or funk groove going on his guitar. The figure he came up with was so compelling that Landau was convinced the song was a surefire hit. In fact, Landau was so convinced that he argued against giving the song away to Summer; they should keep it for themselves. It wasn’t the first time the manager had rescued a hit from the singer's giveaway program; Springsteen had been ready to hand "Hungry Heart" over to the Ramones before Landau intervened.
Instead they gave Summer "Protection," a song Springsteen had written during the River sessions. When the E Street Band demoed it over the summer of 1982, it sounded like a brassy girl-group song (pleading for protection from one's own obsessive love) that might have been belted out over stabbing keyboard chords by the Ronettes in the 60s or by the Pointer Sisters in the 70s. It was introduced by a sax solo and climaxed by a guitar solo, a solo that Springsteen reprised personally for Summer's version, which appeared on her 1982 album, Donna Summer.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Exile on Union St.

Bill Janovitz will be reading from his brand new book about Exile on Main St. on Thursday April 21st, at 7.30pm. After the reading, Bill's band Crown Victoria will perform. The whole event is being put together by Newtonville Books in Newton, MA but the event itself is taking place in the Attic Bar at the Union Street Restaurant. There's a $5 cover charge. Enjoy!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Crepuscular Zep, indeed...

One of the brand new books in the series that some of you might enjoy is Erik Davis' wonderful commentary on Led Zeppelin's fourth album. The manuscript came in too long, but it just would have been wrong to make any cuts. Plus, the sigils look really cool... Here's a clip:

In fairness, it must be said that many rock bards name Black Sabbath rather than Zeppelin as the true font of heavy metal. After all, Sabbath pack an unparalleled eldritch punch, and in many ways represent a purer source of bane: the riffs more consistently morbid, the stance more prole, and the whole shtick more out-of-nowhere and hence more monstrous, more contrary to nature. But Zeppelin had a vaster palette, a more richly perfumed darkness; perhaps most importantly, they sold way more records. Like all origin stories, this one depends on your frame of reference, your own lineages, your taste. It’s very much like the question of who deserves blame for the genre of heroic fantasy, whose multi-volume sagas of dwarf-lords and magic blades continue to clog the SF sections of bookstores. Hardcore sword-and-sorcery buffs will rightly name the pulp peregrinations of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, while more literary types will nominate, with equal justification, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Sabbath is Conan; Zeppelin is Lord of the Rings.

But Zeppelin is a special sort of Lord of the Rings, one where you get to root for both sides. Whatever its biographical basis, Page’s apparent diabolism is counterbalanced with the bucolic hippie paganism concentrated in the lyrics, persona and hairstyles of Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin derives much of their mythic power from this seductive but disturbing ambiguity. Who do Zeppelin swear fealty to? The devil or the sun? Mordor or Middle-earth? Is Faery really just a theme park of Hell? The polarity between Page and Plant is even reflected in their very names. The plant is the pure green spunk of earth, whereas the page is a work of man, a skeletal void upon which we inscribe our plots and spells.

A similar polarity underlies Page’s persona, and helps to explain the aura of magical power that characterizes his mystique. Susan Fast cites one fan survey focused on the guitarist: "He is the sage. He knows how to take chances and make it work. He is the producer and ultimate architect of the goods."
On the surface, Page’s live performances present typical rockist values of spontaneity, virtuosity, and sweaty abandon. But Page adds a novel element to the figure of the guitar hero, an element that Steve Waksman has identified as mystery. So even as Page bares his cock rock before tens of thousands of fans, the Zoso doodle emblazoned on his clothes and amp remind us that he knows something that we don’t. There is a gap between the hero whose performance we consume and the sage behind the curtain, who remains concealed, literally occult. This mystique makes Page far creepier than Ozzy, who is hiding nothing, except maybe his debt to The Munsters. Though rooted in Page’s personal reserve and esoteric interests, the guitarist’s mystique is also structurally reflected in his musical practice. Page’s live virtuosity was leavened by the fact that he was notoriously sloppy, constantly picking up and discarding ideas with an air of carelessness, even distraction. In the heat of performance, it often seemed like a part of him was somewhere else, at a wise or possibly addled remove. Yet this sloppiness suggested that he had even mastered chance, and could “make it work.” This element of hidden mastery is the key, for behind the scenes, Page was an architect of control: a hands-on producer, a sometimes martinet in the studio, and a tight-fisted investor who, along with Peter Grant, helped wrest unprecedented financial and artistic control away from his record company. This air of cunning underlies his mystique. Onstage, he would occasionally direct the other members like a conductor, a performance that Jones has insisted was largely for show.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Some series-friendly stores

It's not always easy to find these books, so I'm trying to compile a list of stores that definitely stock the series, and that have been very supportive over the last few months. If you know of any other stores that I've omitted from this list, could you let me know? Thanks!

(In no particular order:)

Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge MA
Music Millennium, Portland OR
Millennium Music, Charleston SC
Duttons Bookstore, Los Angeles CA
Powells Bookstore, Portland OR
Shakespeare and Co, New York NY
Tattered Cover Bookstore, Denver CO
Shaman Drum, Ann Arbor MI
Sonic Boom Records, Seattle WA
Waterloo Records, Austin TX (a big shout out to Edmund)
St. Marks Bookshop, New York NY
Skylight Books, Los Angeles CA
Coliseum Books, New York NY
Codys Books, Berkeley CA
Carmichaels Bookstore, Louisville KY
Penn Book Center, Philadelphia PA
AC Vroman, Pasadena CA

Friday, April 08, 2005


I'm a bit surprised that it's taken this long for a book in the series to consist mainly of an extended interview with the creator(s) of the album in question. Maybe it's because the musicians don't have much to say; or they don't want to lower themselves to the level of these books and their authors; or maybe it's because they're dead. Josh Davis, thankfully, fits into none of these categories, and Eliot Wilder's forthcoming book about Endtroducing is completely fascinating as a result. Here's an extract (the book itself should be out in September):

In the mid-‘80s, I started watching an independent TV station up in San Jose that would show videos for hip-hop records by Run-D.M.C., the World Famous Supreme Team and Grand Master Flash. I was able to see people scratching on video. Somehow hearing scratching and seeing what it looked like – it made sense to my experiences touching vinyl and making it do things. The whole technological thing came back 360 because it seemed like such an out-there concept. And it was very much a stamp of hip-hop. It was something only hip-hop embraced and only hip-hop seemed to do. And this is way before the idea of genre meshing.

So now it’s late ‘84, and that’s when I got my first turntable.

What was it?

What I asked for was a Sears combination turntable, radio tuner and dual cassette deck, so that I could dub all of Stan Green’s tapes, so I could dub my own records and so I could still listen to the radio and dub mixes off the radio. By now I knew all the DJs names on KSOL. And I had also, by this point, figured out when the main guy who plays rap on KDVS, when his show was. His name was Oras Washington. He was a black guy from Richmond, California, who went to school at U.C. Davis. His real interest was groups like the Time but I think he decided that one way he could make his mark was to play hip-hop and rap and make a show out of it.

By now I was able to take in a lot of stuff. I stopped buying comic books. I stopped buying video games. I stopped spending my money on all the other things that kids at that time spent money on and started saving my money for records. And that pretty much became my spending pattern until I was off to college. I’d save almost all the money I had, sell my comic books, sell whatever, [laughs] to be able to buy records. Stan and I worked out a thing where we’d go to a store, and he’d buy two singles, and I’d buy two singles, so that between us we had four new 12-inches to record off each other. With the Sears turntable, the first thing I did was try to see how it worked for scratching. And, of course, I didn’t understand that you needed to have a mixer, and that belt-drive turntables don’t quite work the same as direct-drive turntables do, and that has to do with the motor in the turntable. If you pull back on the turntable with a belt, the belt slips, and it doesn’t speed back up again very fast, so you have to push it along. What I did figure out is that, if I held the little selector knob in between “tape” and “phono,” I was able to dub a tape and scratch over the top of it. It was like a glitch in the way that the turntable operated. I had wanted my own stereo for so damn long that, when I got this thing, I absorbed it. It became part of my bloodstream. I touched every knob and fiddled with the thing endlessly and sat there at the radio.

Just out of curiosity, could you tell me what you think is the difference between turntablism and scratching?

Turntablism is the description of scratching that’s supposed to make people who don’t listen to hip-hop, sit up and go “Hmm, maybe it is real music.” Scratching, to me, is just what it is. Turntablism has this virtuosic aspect to it, and to me, that’s when things start to turn jazzy. And I’m not a huge fan of when things turn jazzy. Because when I think of jazzy, I think of Wynton Marsalis. He came to speak at my African-American Studies class at U.C. Davis when I was a freshman. I remember him just standing up there, and just dissing rap for 20 minutes straight, and just loving the response he was getting from the lily-white audience. As if they were so thrilled that finally a black guy was speaking out against rap. I remember just sitting there thinking, Oh this sucks. I was venting about it afterward in class. Ever since then I’ve had this thing against people who over-intellectualize everything and make it an in-crowd-only thing. So, any time anything starts getting jazzy – and you are going to have to say it [whispers] “jazzy” – I run in the other direction because “jazzy” to me isn’t where it’s at.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

It's still murder

I'm happy that people are still saying nice things about Joe Pernice's book, 18 months after it came out. This is a clip from a recent review in http://www.bookslut.com which sums it up pretty well. (And watch this space for the possible movie adaptation of Joe's book...)

Pernice’s novella touches on all the fundamentals of the coming-of-age tale: first (unrequited) love, religion, conflict with parents (including a mother who maddeningly, and touchingly, can never get her head around the idea that The Smiths are not, in fact, a clutch of siblings born to a Mr. and Mrs. Smith), battling to survive in school, charmless experiments with booze and fags and drugs, and falling short of your own arbitrary ideals (knowing that meat is murder doesn’t help the narrator with the fact that he “liked meat. A lot.”). But it all seems fresh, described with grimly funny clarity and precision.

Books by musicians, like books by comedians, are usually unlovely things. Even Nick Cave’s grotesque and compelling And the Ass Saw the Angel was an example of what George Orwell called "good bad books." However, this short, unassuming novella of 102 small pages captures more of youth, with all its painful, mad obsessions and enthusiasms, and all its longueurs, than any number of much longer books. If you’ve ever been young and in love with a band, you have to read Meat is Murder.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Kicking out the Jams

Don McLeese sent me the manuscript for his book on the MC5 last week, and I love it. I remember my brother giving me tapes of MC5 albums when I was 15 or whatever, and it didn't sit too well with my janglepop fetish at the time. But of course, my brother was right all along. Anyhow, Don's book is coming out in the autumn, and here's an early extract from it:

Let me admit, brothers and sisters, that I can barely remember significant details of the day that I’ll never forget. Impressions dissolve in the haze of marijuana from that sunny summer afternoon in Chicago, while the subsequent passage of almost four decades has sacrificed more to the mists of memory. Yet the imprint remains indelible. Like a car crash or a blitzkrieg, it divides my existence into Before and After. For nothing was more important in my eighteen-year-old life than rock ‘n’ roll. And rock ‘n’ roll would never be the same for me after I saw—experienced? endured? survived?—the band that would change my life.
No, I’m not going to pull a Jon Landau. I won’t claim that I had a vision of rock’s future when I first withstood the aural assualt of the Motor City Five, whose sound and fury disrupted that idyllic Sunday in Lincoln Park. Contrary to common legend, the MC5 didn’t spark a riot with their free concert on the eve of the 1968 convention. They simply lit the fuse, escalating the tension, energizing the crowd to a fever pitch of musical militancy as the police encircled the park, with their riot gear and billy clubs, maintaining a stonefaced vigil.
I can still see the orb-like Afro of the lead singer as badgered the crowd, pointing his finger, thrusting his fist, working his feet like a speed-freak James Brown. I would later know him as Rob Tyner, but all I knew at the time was that he was crazy. But not as crazy as the two guitarists, the ones I would later know as Wayne Kramer and Fred “Sonic” Smith, both brandishing their instruments as if they were lethal weapons while swiveling their hips, arching their backs, flailing their arms, kicking their legs.
All this over a rhythm section that left no space unfilled in its relentless propulsion, a bassist and drummer—Michael Davis and Dennis “Machine Gun” Thompson, I would later learn--less concerned with staying within the pocket than obliterating that pocket. When a low-flying surveillance helicopter buzzed the band, the whoosh and whirr of its blades didn’t interrupt the music, but enhanced it. Even the occasional roar of a cop’s motorcycle seemed like part of the musical gestalt, amid a crowd that fully expected that musical chaos would lead to physical violence. This wasn’t a rock band; it was a street fight. This wasn’t a concert; it was a battle zone.
We had been waiting for something to happen, even desperate for something to happen. The MC5 were what happened. We hadn’t known what to expect, but none of us had expected the 5. Almost none of us had ever heard of the band, except those who had made the drive from their native Detroit. Though we thought we’d been ready for anything, the frenzied, ear-splitting performance left most of us shellshocked. It was a musical mugging so far beyond the realm of expectation that it would take years before punk or metal would provide some sort of frame of reference, though no punk or metal band would ever match the galvanizing force of the 5.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

And this is where the series is going...

Grace, by Daphne Brooks
Armed Forces, by Franklin Bruno
Murmur, by J. Niimi

(All due to publish in June 2005)

Loveless, by Mike McGonigal

(I genuinely don't know when this will be published. It's kind of up to Mike.)

Endtroducing..., by Eliot Wilder
Kick out the Jams, by Don McLeese
Born in the USA, by Geoffrey Himes
Low, by Hugo Wilcken

(All due to publish in September 2005, and all pretty much on schedule so far)

Music From Big Pink, by John Niven
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by Kim Cooper
London Calling, by David L. Ulin
The Notorious Byrd Brothers, by Ric Menck

(All due to publish in December 2005...too far away to be accurate right now)

And then there's maybe ten more for 2006? I'll post those up here shortly. I'll also post about some books in the series that were supposed to happen, but almost certainly never will...

Monday, April 04, 2005

This is where the series is

OK, this is where we are, as of today:

Dusty in Memphis, by Warren Zanes
Forever Changes, by Andrew Hultkrans
Harvest, by Sam Inglis
The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, by Andy Miller
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, by John Cavanagh
Meat is Murder, by Joe Pernice

(All published October 2003)

Electric Ladyland, by John Perry
Abba Gold, by Elisabeth Vincentelli
Sign O' the Times, by Michaelangelo Matos
Unknown Pleasures, by Chris Ott
The Velvet Underground and Nico, by Joe Harvard

(All published March 2004)

Let It Be, by Steve Matteo
Live at the Apollo, by Douglas Wolk
Aqualung, by Allan Moore
OK Computer, by Dai Griffiths
Let It Be, by Colin Meloy

(All published September 2004)

Exile on Main St., by Bill Janovitz
Pet Sounds, by Jim Fusilli
Led Zeppelin IV, by Erik Davis
Ramones, by Nicholas Rombes

(All published April 2005)

Grace, by Daphne Brooks
Armed Forces, by Franklin Bruno
Murmur, by J. Niimi

(All forthcoming, June 2005)

After that, things get a little more unpredictable, but that's for a future post...