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

Thursday, April 27, 2006

EMP, Magnetic Fields, and more

Rather short notice, but this evening at the EMP Pop Conference in Seattle, you'll find a wonderful convergence of 33 1/3 authors. LD is writing the book about 69 Love Songs, Drew is writing about Throbbing Gristle, and Ann is writing about Kate Bush.

More details about the entire conference can be found here.

2006 Pop Conference Panels

Opening Reception

Venue: Level 3
7:00 - 8:30

Love in the Shadows: A Conversation with Stephin Merritt

Fellow Magnetic Fields member LD Beghtol and Drew Daniel of Matmos talk with the man behind 69 Love Songs and other beautiful subversions about queering the pop song and bubblegumming the art song. Moderated by Ann Powers.

Feed Me With Your (manuscript)

Extraordinary news for long-time followers of the series: almost four years after we first signed up a book about My Bloody Valentine, the manuscript for Mike McGonigal's homage to Loveless has finally arrived. (Mike wasn't the original author, so it hasn't taken him quite that long to write...)

We'll shoot for a pub date of September in the US and October in the UK. I really didn't believe this day would ever come.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia

Following on from last week's entry on Dave Stewart, here is the entry on Leonard Cohen from Michael Gray's forthcoming Bob Dylan Encyclopedia. I'll try to post one of these every week between now and the book's release. (As always, do get in touch if you're in a position to help spread the word about this book.)


Cohen, Leonard [1934 - ]

Few people named Leonard Norman (or Cohen) are as cool as the poet, novelist and singer-songwriter born in Montreal, Quebec, on September 21, 1934. He learnt guitar as a teenager, co-founded a countryish folk group, attended McGill University, began his 50-year career by publishing his first poetry book in 1956 (Let Us Compare Mythologies), followed this in 1961 with The Spice-Box of Earth, moved to a Greek island, published his first novel The Favorite Game in 1963, the poetry volume Flowers for Hitler in 1964 and the novel Beautiful Losers in 1966. In 1967 he was signed to Columbia Records (Dylan’s label) by JOHN HAMMOND (the man who’d signed Dylan) and made a debut album whose influence seemed inversely proportionate to its commercial success.

Songs like ‘Suzanne’ and ‘Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ conquered at once the world of bedsit suicide music, reshaping it with a lugubrious sang-froid that was easy to parody but hard to shut out. He changed the rules of noir with his almost expressionless monotone, remorselessly plinkety serenading guitar and eerily cheerful female vocal chorus, and divided people into those who adored, and those reduced to suffocating rage by, this music’s handsome and intellectual creator. The Songs of Leonard Cohen (JUDY COLLINS had a hit with ‘Suzanne’ that managed to put it on the soundtrack of the summer of love) was followed by Songs from a Room (1969), which featured ‘Bird on a Wire’, and then Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and after Live Songs (1973) came New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974).

Always more popular in Europe and Canada than the US, Cohen’s career as a singer-songwriter was not helped by the 1977 album Death of a Ladies’ Man, produced by a deranged, gun-toting PHIL SPECTOR, on which Bob Dylan and ALLEN GINSBERG were back-up vocalists on ‘Don’t Go Home with Your Hard-On’, a song as uninteresting as its title is contrived. A volume of poetry the year after was titled Death of a Lady’s Man. (Precious, moi?)

The 1984–85 album Various Positions included the song ‘Hallelujah’, which has proved compelling to many other artists, most notably Jeff Buckley (and least notably BONO). Dylan performed it with mixed success in concert (its 1988 debut in Montreal was well wrought, its second and final outing of the year, in Hollywood, not so), and the two chatted about it in a cafe in Paris’ 14th Arondissement some time afterwards. (The song had two endings; Dylan preferred the less bleak one: ‘And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah!’ This was too cheerful for Jeff Buckley; the doomier ending is on his multi-million-selling album Grace.)

To ADRIAN DEEVOY Cohen reported the cafe conversation with Dylan as being ‘a real good writers’ shop talk. We really went into the stuff very technically. You couldn’t meet two people who work more differently. He said, ‘‘I like this song you wrote called ‘Hallelujah’.’’ He said, ‘‘How long did that take you to write?’’ And I said, ‘‘Oh, the best part of two years.’’ He said, ‘‘Two years?’’ Kinda shocked. And then we started talking about a song of his called ‘‘I and I’’ from Infidels. I said, ‘‘How long did you take to write that?’’ He said, ‘‘Oh, 15 minutes.’’ I almost fell off my chair. Bob just laughed.’

This is, apart from anything else, illustrative of how much more willing Cohen is than Dylan to discuss the processes of his work straightforwardly — to give good ‘shop talk’ — in public. He does so with a lovely lucidity for German television in 1997, saying, among much else: ‘I wish it didn’t take so long to finish a song and to make a record . . . it seems to be a long process . . . it’s trying to discover how I really feel about something. To move a song from a slogan to an authentic expression is really what the enterprise is about . . . discarding the lines that come too easy. . . waiting until something else bubbles up that is a little truer . . .’

He moves on, after elaborating on the writing stage, to the other stages: ‘There’s the writing of the song, which can be laborious and difficult; there’s the recording of the song in the studio, which also takes a tremendous concentration . . .to materialize the songs. And then the third part of the process is singing the songs in front of other people.’

The monotone of the singing voice deepened as the years went by. The 1988 album I’m Your Man captured Cohen’s ‘new sound’ perfectly: he still had the female chorus high in the mix, the same horribly catchy melody lines and the same showing off about their simplicity, but the voice now came as from the bottom of a well, the production values were higher, the synthesisers calmer, and as well as the title track and the near self-parody of ‘Everybody Knows’, there was the song Phil ‘Wall of Sound’ Spector could have wished he had produced, ‘First We Take Manhattan’. The darker album The Future followed in 1992 and won him a Juno award for Best Male Vocalist. (He began his acceptance speech by saying: ‘Only in Canada could somebody with a voice like mine win ‘‘Vocalist of the Year’’.’)

Leonard Cohen once told ROBERT SHELTON that it was Dylan who had inspired him to sing his own poems. ‘Dylan is not just a great poet, he’s a great man,’ Cohen added.

An early critical essay on similarities and differences between the two was Frank Davey’s ‘Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan: Poetry and the Popular Song’, published in 1969. Exactly 35 years later came the small book Dylan & Cohen: Poets of Rock and Roll, by an academic from Wales, David Boucher, whose Introduction manages to mistitle Cohen’s 1977 album as Death of a Lady’s Man; not a promising start. Cohen’s poetry and prose is examined more attractively in STEPHEN SCOBIE’s 1978 book Leonard Cohen.

Cohen said in 1997: ‘The beautiful losers are still around, and I’m still with them.’ In 2003 he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada, his country’s highest civilian honour.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Update on the Under-21 Writing Competition

Just a reminder that you still have about 10 weeks to submit an entry for our writing contest - if you're under 21 years of age. The winning essay will appear in our forthcoming book 33 1/3 Greatest Hits, Volume 1, to appear this autumn.

The rules:

1. You must be under 21, as of June 30th this year.
2. You can write up to 2000 words about any album, apart from the 20 albums featured in the book. (See list in a prior post.)
3. You can write these 2000 (or less) words in any way you want to - straight essay, lurid prose, verse, humour, fiction, screenplay: I don't mind.
4. Your entry does not need to refer to the 33 1/3 series in any way: it should be a stand-alone piece of writing, that we'll publish as the 21st chapter of this book.
5. You should send it to me, via email, as a Word file, by June 30th. We'll pick a winner by the end of July.

Airbus gets creative

From today's New York Times (except the photo):

The airlines have come up with a new answer to an old question: How many passengers can be squeezed into economy class?

A lot more, it turns out, especially if an idea still in the early stage should catch on: standing-room-only "seats."

Airbus has been quietly pitching the standing-room-only option to Asian carriers, though none have agreed to it yet. Passengers in the standing section would be propped against a padded backboard, held in place with a harness, according to experts who have seen a proposal.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Butcher Boy

A new band from Glasgow to enjoy: Butcher Boy. There are two songs on their myspace page so far - one fast, one slow. They're both wonderful.

(Thanks to Basil for the tip-off)

Here's their band bio:

Butcher Boy likes a world where evenings unfold from blue to pink to black to grey. Where cranes tug horizons. Where solemnity is a virtue. Where the height of civilization is resting your head in a loved one's lap.

Butcher Boy likes the precision of a scalpel and a metal rule. Butcher Boy finds October overrated, but concedes that it is definitely preferable to January. Butcher Boy would trade almost anything at any time to be standing by the flagpole in Queens Park as the light changes. Butcher Boy finds that nothing brings greater joy than dancing to favourite records. These records become part of Butcher Boy's world.

Butcher Boy welcomes growing old! Butcher Boy welcomes the quietness that it brings.

Butcher Boy likes dust.

Butcher Boy is very aware that voicing these things may be taken the wrong way. But Butcher Boy is fearful of the cool contempt of irony. And Butcher Boy digs the cafe culture.

There are situations you can engineer and better places to start. People framed in doorways. Silent Saturday evenings when the sun setting makes it seem as if the house is on fire. Closing your eyes and listening to the first Smiths record.

These are things that knock us to our knees.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Jim Fusilli, Pet Sounds, in L.A.

Next weekend, April 29-30, Jim Fusilli, author of our Pet Sounds book, will be appearing at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books.

Details as follows:

Next Saturday, April 29, at 10 a.m. at the Fowler Museum/Lenart
Auditorium on the UCLA campus, Jim is appearing on a panel entitled
"Finding the Groove: Stories from the Music Biz" with Nic Harcourt, the
host of KCRW's Morning Becomes Eclectic; Holly George-Warren, author
and producer; and Jen Trynin, musician and author of Everything I'm
Cracked Up to Be
. Jim will also be signing Pet Sounds at various tents
throughout the two-day festival.

Hope some of you can make it to this!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Pixies Event - Brooklyn, April 27th

There will be a pretty cool event in Williamsburg on Thursday, to celebrate the publication of Ben Sisario's Doolittle book.

Details as follows:

In a collaboration with Todd P., author Ben Sisario will host NIGHT OF A THOUSAND PIXIES, a reading and concert event on THURSDAY, APRIL 27 at UNION POOL in Williamsburg that will feature more than 20 bands, each playing one Pixies song of their choice. The evening will be a combination of smart rock criticism and lots of loud, wonderful music celebrating one of the most beloved bands in alternative rock.

Sisario's book, Doolittle, is a probing look at the band's knotty masterpiece from 1989, revealing its inner workings and discussing it in depth with members of the Pixies in exclusive interviews.

READ... how a young Charles Thompson (now known as Frank Black)
found inspiration in a 1929 Surrealist film and cultivated his "sex
and death vibrations"!
LEARN... Joey Santiago's favorite chord, borrowed from an unlikely
guitar god!
SIT... in Frank Black's canary-yellow Cadillac as he cruises the
Oregon countryside discussing his songs in depth, and checks out some

NIGHT OF A THOUSAND PIXIES will have two parts: first, at 7 p.m.,
Sisario reads from Doolittle, answers questions, and signs books.
This part of the evening is free. Next, at 9 p.m., the music begins.
(This part is not free.) The acts are still being confirmed, though
it will feature of diverse lineup that already includes some local
rock luminaries and a 60s-style soul revue. "There'll be dozens of
bands," Todd says, "real ones, made-up pick-up ones, famous ones --
and everybody will get drunk as hell."


author of Doolittle, a new book in the 33 1/3 series, and
lots and lots of bands each playing songs by the Pixies. Produced by
Todd P. Reading and signing at 7 p.m., free. Bands at 9 p.m., cheap
($TBA). At Union Pool, 484 Union Ave., at Meeker Ave., Williamsburg.
Bar: 718-609-0484. Info: www.toddpnyc.com.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia

It's a momentous day here at Continuum HQ, as we're hours away from sending The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia off to the printers. To celebrate, here's the entry on one of England's true musical legends, Dave Stewart.


Stewart, Dave [1952 - ]

David Allen Stewart was born in Sunderland, Tyne & Wear, in the northeast of England, on September 9, 1952. Diverted by injury from football to music and the guitar, his early band Longdancer signed to ELTON JOHN’s Rocket label but broke up in 1977 when Stewart met Annie Lennox, forming the Catch with her and a Peet Coombes. After the single ‘Borderline’ the Catch mutated into the Tourists (1978–80), a new waveish group that enjoyed two UK top 10 hits, ‘I Only Want to Be With You’ and ‘So Good to Be Back Home Again.’ In mid-tour in Bangkok the Tourists disbanded, to be superceded by Lennox and Stewart’s new group the Eurythmics. They rose slowly but inexorably, their first hit 1983’s plaintive and catchy ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)’, to become the most successful male-female duo in pop history (it says here).

It was clear that Annie Lennox was a gifted singer, though with an irritating inability to vary her phrasing, as for instance on the title line of their hit ‘There Must Be an Angel’, which she sings identically over and over again as if she were a tape-loop or a singing parrot; but it was never clear what Dave Stewart’s talent was. The PR aura surrounding them attempted to portray him as a musical genius and inspired Svengali, though to most reasonable people he looked like a self-regarding and affected twit with a gift for wide-ranging mediocrity.

The Eurythmics split in 1990, Lennox to a successful solo career and Stewart not, though he produced other people’s albums, worked with Alison Moyet, MICK JAGGER, Shakespear’s Sister, BOB GELDOF and others. His own band the Spiritual Cowboys (well, quite) released two indifferently received albums and in 1993 he joined Terry Hall of the Specials to form a new group, Vegas, releasing one album ahead of Stewart’s 1994 solo album Greetings from the Gutter. Diddums. He has also worked in film, his biggest project being Honest, a very badly reviewed film directed and co-written by him and starring some of the group All Saints. As a session multi-instrumentalist he has played on albums by Aretha Franklin (1985) and Daryl Hall (1986) and as a guitarist on albums by Hall and Oates (1990 and 1997), Steve Hillage (1991), Carly Simon (1994), Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros (1999), Sinead O’Connor (2000), Bryan Ferry and Marianne Faithfull (both 2002), Jimmy Cliff (2004) and many others.

The number of professional connections Dave Stewart has managed to make with Bob Dylan is absurdly large (and even one or two might seem excessive). On August 22, 1985, in the gymnasium of the First Methodist Church in Hollywood, Stewart directs the hopeless videos for Dylan’s ‘When the Night Comes Falling from the Sky’ and ‘Emotionally Yours’ — and while he’s at it records himself singing ‘I Shall Be Released’. Three months later to the day, in his own London studio, he’s on guitar (with three other musicians) backing Dylan on two instrumental rambles televised on The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC-2 that November 26, and on a backing track for the song ‘Under Your Spell’, co-written by Dylan and CAROLE BAYER SAGER, onto which Dylan later dubs vocals; with backing vocals also added, this becomes the last track on the 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded.

From this visit to Stewart’s London home turf of Crouch End comes the delightful story of Dylan being directed to Dave’s house, knocking on the door and having it answered by a young woman who doesn’t recognise her visitor. ‘Is Dave in?’ Bob asks. ‘No, but he shouldn’t be long: come in and wait,’ comes the reply. Bob spends an hour or more at the kitchen table before the householder, a plumber called Dave, duly returns to find Bob Dylan in his house.

Six years later Stewart arrives onstage in the middle of Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour set at the festival at Antibes (July 12, 1992) to play guitar on a thrash through ‘Highway 61 Revisited’, and does exactly the same thing again near the end of two of the London dates in early 1993 (February 9 and 13). Four more years and there he is with Dylan in Japan — February 10 and 11, 1997 in Tokyo — filming him from onstage the first night and playing guitar the second night, this time on the almost unavoidable encore number ‘Rainy Day Women # 12 & 35’. A teasing fragment of his film of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was later made available from Stewart’s website.

Before these last two sightings, Stewart had been occupied more usefully on Dylan’s behalf behind the camera (the preferable placement, you might think), filming another video, this time for ‘Blood in my Eyes’ from Dylan’s World Gone Wrong album. This was filmed in Camden Town, London, on July 21, 1993 (see the entry the Mississippi Sheiks) and is Dave Stewart’s only valuable contribution.


If you're in a position to review this book when it comes out, get in touch. (david at continuum-books.com) We have a limited number of review copies to send out, but we'd love to see this book get the widespread coverage it truly deserves.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

The New Yorker

At least two wonderful pieces in this week's New Yorker. The first is Anthony Lane's article "High and Low", about the proliferation (and success) of low-budget airlines in Europe:

British Airways stopped laughing when EasyJet ran a flight from London to Glasgow for twenty-nine pounds. It was not only cheaper than flying with B.A.; it was, unless you were a monk with a place to stay, cheaper than remaining in London for the weekend. More than a decade later, that is still the case, but the opportunities to extend the principle have multiplied and swarmed. You can fly to Scotland for less than the price of a tin of shortbread, but why pass from one shower of flesh-puckering rain to another when, for not much more, you can be bronzing in Nice by lunchtime? The paradox is both delectable and damning: the best thing to happen to Great Britain in the past decade is the increasing profusion of ways to get the hell out of the place.

And the second is "Planet Kirsan" by Michael Specter - an article about the bizarre, alien-loving ruler of Kalmykia, a chess-obsessed but almost uninhabitable republic of Russia.

Kirsan Ilyumzhinov called his autobiography, published in 1998, The President's Crown of Thorns. (Chapter titles include "Without Me the People Are Incomplete," "I Become a Millionaire," and "It Only Takes Two Weeks to Have a Man Killed.")

If Johnny Marr ever wants a new lyricist, I think we've found our man.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Mojo photo

Peter Maranzano kindly writes from New Jersey to point out that in the May issue of Mojo magazine, there's a short feature "In the Studio" with Sonic Youth, talking about their upcoming album. And there in the studio with them is a fine-looking copy of Don McLeese's excellent MC5 book, Kick Out the Jams.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Dusty in Memphis

Something about being down in Atlanta for the Pop Culture Association Conference makes me think of Warren Zanes' book about Dusty in Memphis - book no.1 in the series. It was three years ago, at this same conference (in New Orleans on that occasion) that I was editing Warren's manuscript, and discovering for the first time how much potential the 33 1/3 series had for rambling happily off the beaten track.

Here's an extract from Warren's book.


It was no surprise to me that several people, Stanley [Booth] included, responded to news of my little book about Dusty in Memphis by saying "It would be great if you could talk to Jerry Wexler." I agreed entirely, of course. Of all the parties involved in that album's creation, if anyone stood "at the helm" with Dusty it was Jerry. But a few significant issues stood in my way. First, I wasn't entirely sure that Jerry Wexler was still alive. And for one writing a book about Dusty in Memphis, it was shameful to come right out and say that I didn't know this rather crucial piece of information. Any sense of authority that I might be hoping to project would diminish significantly if I was caught speaking of Jerry as someone I planned to call with a few questions when, in truth, "It would be great if you could talk to Jerry" meant that it would be great but not possible. My lack of assurance regarding Jerry's status was based on the simple fact that I couldn't believe someone with his deep history could still be around to comment on it. Jerry Wexler is, after all, the man who changed the Billboard category of "Race" records to the new heading of "Rhythm and Blues."

In relation to handling my conundrum, Andy Paley came to mind. Andy is a fine resource for information of all kinds. When my wife and I couldn't get rid of the smell of cat urine in the back hallway of our house, Andy introduced us to Nature's Miracle, an effective, natural product that has served us well since that time. My wife, often quicker to move toward solutions than I am myself, suggested I call Andy to find out if Jerry Wexler was available for interview. Having seen, from a number of angles, the massive cogs of the music business turn, Andy was indeed the man for the job. And as it turned out, and to no one's surprise, Andy had information. He knew Jerry from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee on which both men sit. Immediately launching into story, Andy described one committee meeting at which he and Jerry Wexler had shared the view that Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band was perhaps a premature candidate for induction in the band category when New Orleans' Meters had not yet been discussed as a possibility. Which is to say, I quickly found out that Jerry Wexler was indeed alive and well and, gloriously so, had a few opinions on it all.

Through a gentleman in the UK, responsible for the reissue of some great Eddie Hinton recordings, I got Jerry's two addresses, one on Long Island and the other in Florida. Perhaps my mind is that of the fan, but I'd seen Jerry Wexler's name on too many great records to think he lived in a world resembling my own. Where could a Jerry Wexler live? Whoever made up the name Ahmet Ertegun likely contrived Wexler's, too. I imagined wonderful places for them both, nothing along the lines of Long Island. But the two addresses were promptly emailed to me. So I sent letters, obsequious letters of the kind that young PhDs facing a grim job market write on a fairly regular basis. And was I wrong, or did I actually get a call back from Jerry Wexler three hours after I put those letters in the mailbox? This is a man whose books are in order. If I had thought Jerry Wexler would be the most difficult person to contact, because he was such a looming figure in my mind, I was wrong.


Friday, April 07, 2006

A Complicated Kindness

I don't read enough Canadian fiction. But A Complicated Kindness, lent to me by Ms. Alex Kaminska here at Continuum, is a wonderful novel about Nomi, a teenage Mennonite, who really really wants to be living a different kind of life. Preferably in the East Village. Although she doesn't say pre- or post-hipsterisation. Here's an extract.


I once had a conversation with my typing teacher about eternal life. He wanted me to define specifically what it was about the world that I wanted to experience. Smoking, drinking, writhing on a dance floor to the Rolling Stones? Not exactly, I told him, although I did think highly of Exile on Main Street. Then what, he kept asking me. Crime, drugs, promiscuity? No, I said, that wasn't it either. I couldn't put my finger on it. I ended up saying stupid stuff like I just want to be myself, I just want to do things without wondering if they're a sin or not. I want to be free. I want to know what it's like to be forgiven by another human being (I was stoned, obviously) and not have to wait around all my life anxiously wondering if I'm an okay person or not and having to die to find out. I wanted to experience goodness and humanity outside of any religious framework. I remember making finger quotations in the air when I said religious framework. God, I'm an asshole. I told him that if I heard one more person say it wasn't up to him or her to judge, it was up to God, while, at the same time, they were judging their freakin' heads off every minute of every day (I mean basically they had judged that the entire world was evil), I would put a sawed-off .22 in my mouth and pull the trigger. I told him I didn't know what the big deal was about eternal life anyway. It seemed creepy to want to live forever. And that's when he threw me out. I'm not saying he was wrong or anything, I just couldn't ever figure out what was going on. It seemed like we were in some kind of absurd avant-garde theatre, the way our conversations sometimes went.
I once suggested that it was a really risky gamble to bet everything we had in this world on the possibility of another world, and in five seconds he was leading the entire class in prayer.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

New Book No.4: Beastie Boys

The fourth and final book we'll be publishing this spring (it could have been more, but some authors are running a little late...) is Dan LeRoy's wonderfully comprehensive history of the Beastie Boys during their Paul's Boutique era. (Apologies for the cover image not being up yet on Amazon.com - it's not like we haven't sent it to them a zillion times.) It features interviews with a huge range of people, and three very fetching and rare Ricky Powell photos at the front of the book, too.

Oh, and check out the book's Myspace page, if you like.


The Sounds of Science

Perhaps the best gauge of the difference between Licensed to Ill and Paul's Boutique is provided by the first half of this track. In the infamous video that accompanied "Fight for Your Right (To Party)," the Beasties pushed around bespectacled nerds. On "The Sounds of Science," they have become - for a few lines, at least - those nerds instead. "In high school, we all had to wear science-class glasses and work with the Bunsen burners, so it's kinda like second nature to us," Mike D would explain. "Somebody like N.W.A. might be talkin' about 'science,' but they never bust out in science-class glasses."

In typical Beastie fashion, something serious was lurking beneath that nonsense. Discounting the novelty rap records that proliferated in the eighties, hip-hop had never been this deliberately square. Yet with its British music-hall bounce and lyrics that name-checked Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin, the initial half of "The Sounds of Science" was a groundbreaking moment, one that lived up to the boast that the Beasties were expanding the genre's boundaries. It offered proof that there was room for geeks - albeit lyrically acute ones - in hip-hip's big tent, and opened the gates for a flood of defiantly nerdy rappers who would pour into the underground a decade later. The song also momentarily drops the gangsta facade the Beasties had toyed with since their inception, and reveals them all in their middle-class whiteness - a rather brave thing to do for a group hoping to maintain its hard-won street cred and its place in a predominantly black style.

It hadn't started out that way. When the Beasties had given Matt Dike and the Dust Brothers carte blanche to sample anything their hearts desired, Dike first indulged by lifting Ringo Starr's drums from the reprise of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and coupled them with the two-chord guitar riff of "The End," scratched in by Mike Simpson. This pair of Beatles samples made for a straightforwardly catchy backing track, one that Simpson was sure had hit potential. "If you didn't get all the other wacky stuff we were doing," he says, "you might get this one."

The Dust Brothers, Simpson admits, were not Beatles fans. "It was more that they had these amazing breaks on their records," he says. And once one Beatles sample was in the mix, "it was like, 'Shit, there's so much great stuff to take from them. Why stop here?'" Thus, "The Sounds of Science" would gain a new, and stranger, life, as the Paul McCartney ditty "When I'm 64" was slowed down considerably by Simpson and King and became the tune's opening; the two sections were linked with the orchestral tuning heard at the beginning of Sgt. Pepper's. *

Lyrically, "The Sounds of Science" is perhaps the most far ranging of any song on Paul's Boutique, beginning high-mindedly in the lab before MCA, out of the blue, compares himself to the crucified Christ. This would one day become standard practice for the MC persecuted by "haters" or the police, who often affronted the hip-hop community by arresting its stars for actual crimes. Yauch's reference, however, suggests the aftereffects of the media scrutiny the Beasties had endured during the Licensed to Ill era. Even more likely, it was simply an attempt to rile folks up, a habit Yauch and his bandmates had not yet abandoned.

In the same vein are the verses that begin the second section of the song, as puerile a description of a sexual encounter as any mentioned on the first album. And Ad-Rock throws another curve by alleging police were behind the crack epidemic then raging in urban communities. Reinforced in "Car Thief," where the Beasties brag about scoring weed from the local cop, this theory was coming to the fore in hip-hop, most prominently in Boogie Down Productions' 1988 song "Illegal Business."

"The Sounds of Science" would later lend its name to the Beasties' anthology (which did not, however, include the title song). Part of the band's live set for a few years, the tune has been on mothballs since the second Tibetan Freedom Concert in 1997.

* The barnyard noises on the track have been commonly assumed to be a cow-(or sheep)-in-a-can - a toy that approximates the sound of a farm animal when turned upside down. Not so, according to Mike Simpson. "I don't wanna say where it's from, but it's basically a famous person's voice, that I tweaked in such a way that you would never know what the original source is. But it does sound exactly like a cow-in-a-can."


Monday, April 03, 2006


The folks over at Popmatters are running a week of features about the series. It kicked off today with a good interview with Jim Fusilli, author of our Pet Sounds book.

Niimi Reigns Supreme

Several months back, we set a quiz: you had to predict where in the sales chart two books (those on Neutral Milk Hotel and the Band) would be, by the end of March. The more alert of you will have noticed that it is now April. The results:

Kim Cooper's NMH book is currently sitting at no.11 on the chart.
John Niven's Big Pink book is currently at no.23 - rising fast, but not fast enough for some.

Using the highly scientific method of awarding a point for every position the guesses were out by, on both books, the person with the lowest score is the winner. And the winner, by one point (having predicted no.16 for NMH and no.21 for the Band) is our very own J.Niimi, author of the Murmur book. (And honestly, this was not an inside job: J. had no extra data to work with!)

Honourable mentions go to Taylor and Ted, who both came close. Everybody else (including myself) was waaaaaay off.

J., your prize will be on its way to you this week:

Sunday, April 02, 2006

New Book No.3: The Pixies

The third of our quartet of new books for the spring is Doolittle, by Ben Sisario. Our good friends at Amazon.com are still saying that the book is "not yet released", but don't believe them - they're wrong. It's in the usual stores (the Barnes & Noble at Union Square in NYC has a big selection, for example), or if you wish to buy it from Amazon, and maybe make them realise that they have copies stacked up in their warehouse, you can do so here.


At some point Whore was dropped as the title. "It was too strong," Thompson says now. "It wasn't really where I was coming from." In a British music trade magazine at the time, he cited another consideration: "Vaughan [Oliver] changed the artwork idea and said he was going to use this monkey and halo, so I thought people were going to think I was some kind of anti-Catholic or that I'd been raised Catholic and was trying to get into this Catholic naughty-boy sort of stuff, like Ken Russell does in his movies. A monkey with a halo, calling it Whore - that would bring all kinds of shit that wouldn't be true. So I said I'd change the title."

His replacement was less blatantly antagonistic, but in the context of the album's intermingling themes of sex, religion, and depravity, it's not so nice either. Dr. John Dolittle, in the children's novels of Hugh Lofting, was a wise and jolly Victorial naturalist ("the greatest nacheralist in the world") who could speak the language of animals - a heroic achievement of man the enlightened scientist, the master of the earth. But in Thompson's songs, the name becomes symbolic of the abasement of man's place in the universe. "Pray for a man in the middle / One that talks like Doolittle," he sings in "Mr. Grieves," a song that pictures nuclear holocaust and the end of humanity. Man has screwed things up for himself; he will devolve, perhaps, and become but a beast, so he better start learning how to talk like one. A similar theme emerges in "Wave of Mutilation" and "Monkey Gone to Heaven" - man falls gurgling into an underwater grave, his human nature jumbled confusingly with that of god and critter like some fish-eyed semihuman monster out of H.P. Lovecraft.

Plus, of course, it must have appealed to Thompson to use a title that was on one dumb level just a corny slacker pun: do little. Get it? It's an album called Doolittle that's got a song on it where he goes, "Some marijuana if you got some!"

No long recording session is complete without some mind-rotting downtime, and for recreation the Pixies and their studio colleagues played Centipede in the back room and chowed at the Ethiopian restaurant across the street (Addis Red Sea - it's still there). One of the second assistant engineers on the album was Burt Price, a new employee of the studio; Doolittle was the first album he worked on. Now a top studio tech, and on the faculty of the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Price remembers one particular night when a couple of members of the band - Joey and David, he thinks, but this was many, many sessions ago - killed all the lights and bounced around the main room like the apes in 2001, making wild animal noises in the dark. Tape was rolling, Price says. Which means that somewhere, presumably in the 4AD vaults in London, lie professional 24-track master recordings of this romp, on expensive two-inch Ampex 256 tape. Were they conjuring the spirit of Dr. Dolittle or just smoking too much weed?