Rock by the book

June 4, 2006


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 release.

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 Nico."

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 exploring.

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

On occasion, 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.

Devoid of 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."

Unlike Matos, 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 (

And the 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.

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