Sunday, 1 November 2009

Sounds of the Slush Pile

I would like to cast the clout of doubt upon books written about albums, namely the 33⅓ series from Continuum Books.

Before I begin, I would like to utter a statement of sweeping banality: music and literature has always had a strange relationship. There. That’s done. Phew. We can hop forwards.

Legions of novels have been inspired by songs or albums, and usually the novels themselves bear little resemblance (topic-wise) to the music. Or vice-versa in songs inspired by novels. There’s no reason the two art forms shouldn’t converge in interesting and creative ways, but I often wonder where music fits into the novel? It seems to me that the two should be kept separate, strumming the same planes of the human psyche, but tingling different receptors.

Writing about music can be dazzling and profound. Pioneering rock critics from the ‘60s and ‘70s such as
Greil Marcus or Lester Bangs wrote humble music reviews, but were literary visionaries in their own right. Music hacks in those days had their own artistic vision – to emulate the genius they heard in the music and to turn their own pieces into free-flowing experimental tapestries of progressive art. As opposed to complaining about the bassline in Under Pressure or laughing at the fifth drummer in AC/DC's middle name (I’m speaking to you, NME!) That art has been lost, sadly, and clear dividers exist these days between MUSICIAN and HACK.

So what about the novelist seeking to turn that golden album they adore into a work of transcendent fiction? It is this upon which I cast the clout of doubt. It’s irrelevant how well a writer describes the music in a novel, as no words can compare to hearing the music in situ. This is a Latin phrase meaning ‘on an ipod’.

And so, we have the 33⅓ series. Now, these books don’t attempt to turn the albums they discuss into brilliant tracts of original fiction. Ho-ho-no! They are books written by people involved in making classic records, insiders willing to shed light on the mythology behind an album, or by hacks eager to heap bursts of gratuitous praise upon their beloved choones.

I’ll admit that it’s interesting to hear how my favourite bands recorded such startling music, but in the case of several albums – these stories are well-documented. Do we need another book about the bizarre inception of Captain Beefheart’s
Trout Mask Replica? Plus, do we want the myths to be shattered? The power of myth cannot be underestimated in making an album a classic. Parts of Trout Mask Replica are inexcusably hideous to the ear, but because the record sits upon this impenetrable throne of monumental weirdness, it is somehow less arduous to sit through (in its own fishfaced way).

Likewise, some albums were recorded in unextraordinary circumstances, leaving the anecdotal fodder somewhat thin. Some records are far too incredible to even merit 200 pages of blah-chat. Magnetic Fields’
69 Love Songs is a whopping pop classic – it was designed, executed and written as such by Stephin Merritt – and the incredible range of music on the record needs no real discussion. The songs are direct, memorable and smashing. Listen to them! Also, they were written by a craftsman from a cosseted New York background. Ergo, no drugs or madness or sex or kicking drummers into swimming pools.

Even worse, some of the books involve writers detailing their own profound experiences with the music, i.e. indulgent rambling that belongs on a blog or in a newspaper. This is true in the book about Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘religious’ acid-indie smash
In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (which I’ve read sections from – eep!) The surreal acid-inspired dream-lyrics of singer Jeff Magnum opens up the pretentious gate for all manner of Barthesian meta-analyses – the sons of the Dylan critics finding their own latter-day Bob to enshrine.

What I do admire about this series are the albums. A huge number of these books are about albums I
love and play constantly! Hurrah! Somehow though, I feel reading about some other bastard loving the record I adore, or having the minutiae of its creation explained to me in ENDLESS detail, would ruin the sheer pleasure of listening to the album. So, although I respect rock criticism when it took itself seriously as a proper literary force, these days I’m inclined to avoid books about music entirely. I leave this stuff to the obsessives, megafans and general rock-celeb snoops.

Forget who made the music, or how it was made. Just enjoy it as the artist intended. After all, the artists themselves won’t be reading this stuff. Spin that old 45 again and get boogieing! Or, em... use an ipod.


  1. Back in the early 70's you couldn't spend five minutes at the Jersey shore without running into someone claiming they knew Springsteen. The rock press and spin-off markets have always hit me that way: people riding the coat-tails of fame. More so than any other media, including Hollywood and politics, we all wish we were rock stars. I don’t doubt there have been some serious attempts to document and provide perspective, but like you, I’d rather just listen. Besides, no one could ever match my own imagination scored by those albums. Not nobody, not no how.

  2. Agreed, D. Let the sounds commingle in our minds as we melt into an aural paradise. Or something.

    It's not easy commenting back, sometimes.