Behind every great album is more often than not, an even greater story waiting to be told. The pursuit for higher understanding of artists and their most influential pieces of work and how the two came to pass has long been the ultimate goal of the ardent music fan who thrives on having every recorded nuance and historical detail mapped out like a combined atlas and encyclopedia of the human body.
One of the more indispensible and compelling series of music books published in the last few years that actually does, more or less, what is expected above, has been Continuum’s 33 1/3 series. Having started in 2005 with Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis, and then gone on to feature such canonical albums as Neil Young’s Harvest, Radiohead’s Ok Computer and The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street.
33 1/3 has worked as a conduit and a release for music journalists and authors, both music fans and famous musicians in their own right, including Bill Janovitz of Buffalo Tom, John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats and Colin Meloy of The Decemberists, who want to sing the praises of their favourite LP. After 65 albums covered, it’s a series that seems to be in no chance of slowing down. Having recently sent out a casting call for new album proposals earlier this year for a 2010/11 publishing schedule, they were inundated with 597 requests of which only 11 (including Television’s Marquee Moon and Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville) were eventually selected.
The list of still to be published books, including Nine Inch Nail’s Pretty Hate Machine and Kate Bush’s The Dreaming make for interesting and diverse reading, which even when carrying a basic appreciation for these artists is enough to warrant the 33 1/3 releases further investigation, especially for the fact hungry fans who long for fly on the wall information that comes from not only interviewing the artists, but the engineers, the producers, the girlfriends, the family members, the fans and so on, while drawing from the authors own personal insight and experience.
As the series has wound on, many of the certified classics have now been covered, leaving room for the under-rated and cult status records to find their way to the top. Two of the most recent publications in the series were Big Star’s top power pop trip Radio City and Elliott Smith’s watershed mainstream release XO (unfortunately Brian Eno’s Another Green World was to be included in this discussion but was pushed back). Both albums are unarguable high points in the respective artists’ careers, but ones that still bring out clashes of opinion as to which is their best. Given the open door policy with 33 1/3’s editors, if you want to write it yourself and can put forth a convincing argument, the chance is there.
Bruce Eaton’s thorough investigation into the history of rock music’s most influentially unrecognised acts of the ’70s, Memphis, Tennessee’s Big Star, and the recording of their second album Radio City, does much to clear up decades of misinformation and mythology, shedding light on session recordings, the artists present and how the album was pieced together. It’s that kind of detailed musical reporting that the 33 1/3 series is known for. Eaton’s own personal history of playing in a backing band with Alex Chilton (Big Star’s vocalist/songwriter) adds a neat spin and the interviews contained with the band members and album producer, all casting their thoughts back a good 30 years to reflect on a busy time for the band, are flawless. Exact dates are often muddied, but recreating the scene after the fractuous fall-out of the departure of original member Chris Bell and how they picked up the pieces to create Radio City is retold and relived, in studio and on-stage by the people who were there. It’s about as an authorative and informative an exposition as you could hope for.
Matthew Lemay’s attempt at getting to the heart of Elliott Smith’s XO reads like a college thesis, full of statements like “In the coming pages I attempt to” that straight away reveal his lack of confidence in the task ahead. XO is full of opinion and interpretation, and when trying to understand the complexities of an artist like Elliott Smith, authorative opinions are required and the vagaries of Smith’s lyrics were often best left (as Smith himself often maintained) to your own interpretation. To begin this book by the author stating he was 14 when he first heard “Miss Misery” is an awkward eye-rolling moment. It felt like there must be people better versed in Smith’s work and more suited to an undertaking like this, especially when the artist is no longer around to legitimise the author’s assumptions on a barely decade-old record, and not suddenly pricking up their ears in their pj’s on the couch when Smith’s most critical and definitive period was passing rapidly before them. While a determined attempt is made in both detailing the origins of the songs and deconstructing the meaning behind the lyrics, you still feel like an opportunity was missed.
Such is the trial and error with the 33 1/3 publications. They don’t always aspire to what you want them to be. Radio City expertly covered all bases. The author had the knowledge, the experience and the ability to talk to the artists intensively. With the sad passing of Smith, the author of XO had to rely on print and television interviews and to plumb the depths of Jackpot! Studio owner Larry Crane’s brain, which has been well tapped out since Elliott’s death. As a refreshing point of fact, not all 33 1/3 books fall into such strict deconstruction of the album and artist as those above, some of the more interesting releases don’t rely on studio knowledge or even the need to talk to the artists directly to sell the book.
Using the album as the starting point, both Joe Pernice’s fictional coming of age story used The Smiths Meat is Murder to structure its tale, and Colin Meloy of the Decemberists autobiographical retelling of falling in love with The Replacement’s Let It Be succeed by passion and talent as a storyteller, rather than the use of any technical wherewithall. Regardless of any criticism directed above (and music fans are rarely, if ever, happy), the 33 1/3 series are a fascinating and revealing collection of books. Written by music fans for music fans, this series will never grow old, never grow boring, and goes far into explaining the mysticism and appeal behind these priceless bodies of work, for your own personal pleasure or just in case you happen to know someone who just doesn’t understand.