Rock reviewing, or the art of bending the envelope
Reflexivity about popular music is a massive industry, from the blogosphere to here, plain old print to print outs. There are still fanzines, or online equivalents, devoted to obscure, below the radar and/or just plain unfashionable tastes. There are also the hipster publications, which, like the NME of the ‘80s, give a platform for free, creative writing on their obsessions to a pretty large audience—the taste-makers who partly shape their readers listening habits in the now because they seem to be on the cusp of the next big ‘whatever’.
Oddly, this seems to be around the same time that people I know are increasingly less inclined to read reviews, just as the proliferation has reached a kind of critical mass (pun me a river), expressing a feeling that the whole enterprise is a bit pointless. “Why read reviews when you can just listen online for free?” is the general vibe, and very understandable. Along with this, there is another strand of music writing, which contains what I would call the approach—relistening and reanalysing classic albums (and it has a reverence towards the album form), and doing the same with more recent albums thought of in the same ilk. This would be where 33 and 1/3 series of pocket books comes in.
Continuum’s venture specialises in pocket books on albums of influence and classic albums, and has brought out scores of material (and a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation) on this mutable concept since a mini-missive on Dusty in Memphis was published in 2003. Some play on personal narratives of an album—Colin Meloy’s adolescent encounter with the Replacements’ Let It Be was a good example of this, giving an autobiography of his first encounter with the band as a 15-year-old to having them soundtrack much of his subsequent teen angst. I really enjoyed it, and it got a Decemberists obsessed American friend of mine into the ‘Mats after I lent it to her. Joe Pernice’s Meat Is Murder-inspired book is a short story about similar coming of age, it comes across as real enough; seems like short fiction or fictionalised memoir is a good way of approaching the way music inspires and affects.
Another way of dealing with the album form is Kim Cooper’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, where track-by-track music analysis is secondary to an illuminating cultural history of both Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 collective as a whole. It’s great, especially so given the cultish nature of the band. The Velvet Underground & Nico was, in contrast, a bit boring given its canonisation.
The breadth of genres covered is pretty vast. Throbbing Gristle’s industrial sadism 20 Jazz Funk Greats is in the annals—yet so’s Jeff Buckley’s heart-on-sleeve songwriter-inspiring Grace. It is in the quirks and idiosyncratic, less critically pored over and lionised albums where the 33 and 1/3 series succeeds, such as in Wilson Neate’s text on Pink Flag.
The volume intersperses interviews with all the original members and mini-biogs of each. After a foreword by Robin Rimbaud, author Neate sets out with character sketches of (in order) Bruce Gilbert, Robert Grey, Graham Lewis, and Colin Newman. Gilbert and Lewis particularly talk about their love of capturing and listening to sounds versus songs growing up, abstract self-expression, and exploring tinkering with noise being the goal of Gilbert’s early experiments with tape recorders. The latter was into Dada, Surrealism, and Canterbury scene prog-rock. Grey (aka Robert Gotobed, his name by birth), interested in self-expression over refined technique, got interested in music through the likes of the Portsmouth Sinfonia, an ensemble of untutored people playing classical compositions, and earned some basic drumming chops in the pub rock scene that existed right before punk. Colin Newman is the only one who claims to have really wanted to be a songwriter in a band, and used his art school education to conceptualise his songwriting, rather than songs entering into his concepts. And while Brian Eno, sonic manipulator (and self-proclaimed non-musician) in Roxy Music, worked as a visiting lecturer at Watford (where Newman and Gilbert studied), Newman claims that the “art school spawning great work” story is a myth all the same.
The pre-history of the band is well researched, and the tension of rock versus artistic detachment is evident in the story of George Gill, the initial frontman of Wire. A guy “who looked like he was about to break into a fight with himself” according to Gilbert, a cliched punk rocker who shouted and fell apart as key components of his stage show, his departure heralded the post punk of their debut, Pink Flag. But the book doesn’t stop there, and accounts for the recording style of the record, reflections on its structure track by track, and the artistic motives of the group to consistently question and reimagine their work. This included having idiosyncratic experimental audio and visual collages as support to their band shows in the early days, and, latterly, getting a band named the Ex-Lion Tamers (along with “Mannequin”, the poppiest tune on Pink Flag) to play their debut in its entirety as a warm-up on their 1987 US tour.
Throughout, there are ample quotes from alternative culture mainstays and big Wire fans like Steve Albini, Robert Pollard, and Ian MacKaye, and quirkier modern indie musicians like Graham Coxon. These are all characters that are significantly influenced by the ideas of post-punk music, all interested to varying extents in tinkering with song structure, exploring different sounds for the sake of sounds and attempting to go against rock and roll convention.
The obsessiveness and the amount of stuff to say about this record (in my view, inferior to their next two—Chairs Missing‘s more ambitious pop and 154‘s extension of song structures) highlights what’s good about ventures such as this. It encourages a discourse on LPs which could be lost but which stubbornly survives, a discourse where the vinyl jostles with mp3s for (real and virtual) space in certain hipsters’ record collections, where sleeve design matters (33 and a 1/3’s certainly do, minimal, uniform, and stylish) as well as individual songs, their sequencing, and the stories about them.
For Wire fans, and general students of the album.