After the very best
biographies -- with Nick Tosches' Hellfire, the Jerry Lee
Lewis story, and Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the
Rolling Stones perched atop my list of all-time greats -- the
rock books that have given me the greatest pleasure as a reader and
the most insight as a music fan are the ones that delve deepest into
the nuts and bolts of how a particular album actually was made, from
the inspiration and the songwriting to the recording and the
The ultimate model here is The Beatles Recording Sessions by
Mark Lewisohn, first published in the early '90s, and virtually an
hour-by-hour chronicle of every day the Fab Four spent recording at
London's Abbey Road Studios. But plenty of other timeless discs are
worthy of the same sort of critical and journalistic examination --
not to mention the uber-fan/music geek's obsessive devotion -- and
these are the goals behind Continuum Books' 33-1/3 series,
which now numbers 35 entries covering albums ranging from "Pet
Sounds" by the Beach Boys and "Paul's Boutique" by the Beastie Boys
to "Daydream Nation" by Sonic Youth and "The Velvet Underground and
As the New York
Times noted, "It was only a matter of time before a clever publisher
realized that there is an audience from whom 'Exile on Main Street'
or 'Electric Ladyland' are as a significant and worthy of study as
The Catcher in the Rye or Middlemarch" -- though this
statement hints at a scholarly, Cliffs-Notes dryness that the best
33-1/3 tomes avoid (with the one on Radiohead's "OK
Computer," written by Oxford musicologist Dai Griffiths, standing as
a notable exception). These are, after all, celebrations of our
loudest and most immediate musical art form, and the series'
standouts capture the tone and energy of the discs they're
Known for its
academic catalog, Continuum was publishing a series by different
critics examining classic novels in 2003 when it occurred to editor
David Barker that "it might be fun to apply that model to individual
albums but to let the writers have a lot more freedom," as he told
the Web zine Popmatters.com.
Barker has let the writers stray a bit too far from their subjects:
Some fans of Bob Dylan and the Band disliked John Niven's fanciful
rumination on "Music From Big Pink," which took the form of a
"factional novella," though I found that one entertaining and was
actually less satisfied with Michaelangelo Matos' self-indulgent
look at Prince's "Sign o' the Times," which spent entirely too much
time dwelling on how the author discovered the disc as a teenager in
the Minneapolis suburbs.
photos, averaging 120 pages and printed as pocket-sized,
61/2-inch-by-4}-inch paperbacks -- handy for filing next to your
favorite CDs, but a bit rough on the readers' eyes -- the books tend
to be exceedingly brief in recapping the subjects' life and work
before and after the album referenced in the title, keeping the
focus squarely on the masterpiece in question.
It must be said
that Barker has discerning taste; some might question the inclusion
of "Abba Gold," but I cheered that one and only booed the series for
examining "Born in the U.S.A." rather than any of Bruce
Springsteen's better albums (which include pretty much all of them
before that one).
I can't claim to
have digested every word on every page of all the 33-1/3
books, but I've scanned most and tackled many in their entirety. The
ones that sucked me through to the last page weren't necessarily
those that tackled my favorite albums but the ones that paired
strong writers and interesting recordings, including former
Sun-Times rock critic Don McLeese on the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams,"
Chicago freelancer J. Niimi on R.E.M.'s "Murmur" and Bronx native
turned Paris-based author Miles Marshall Lewis on Sly Stone's
"There's a Riot Goin' On."
McLeese, now a journalism professor at the University of Iowa, uses
the first person with good reason, recalling the MC5's trip to
Chicago for an ill-fated performance timed to the Democratic
National Convention in 1968, when he was 18. And when Lewis writes,
"The prevalent sounds of 'Riot' include the swampy texture of the
production throughout the album's 11 tracks and the rhythm box Sly
used in place of excited drummer Greg Errico," he not only gives us
the perfect adjective for Sly's dense epic ("swampy," indeed) but
the nugget that this was a pioneering use of the beat box. (Who
knew? I didn't.)
Finally, one of
the best aspects of the 33-1/3 books may be that they don't
intend to be the final word on these albums, only the ultimate
conversation-starters. In many cases, the debate continues on
numerous blogs, including one sponsored by Continuum (www.33third.blogspot.com).
publishers plan to add more than two dozen titles before the end of
2007, including promising looks at Nirvana's "In Utero" by Gillian
Gaar, My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" by Mike McGonigal, PJ
Harvey's "Rid of Me" by Kate Schatz and Lucinda Williams'
self-titled debut by Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall.
For more info,