[26 September 2007]
In the interest of placing the very existence of Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs in context, a bit of back-story might be required. In the late ‘70s, Greil Marcus, author of Mystery Train and the first record-reviews editor at Rolling Stone, was commissioned to edit a book in which 20 rock critics wrote about the one rock ‘n’ roll record they’d want to have on a desert island.
That book turned out to be Stranded: Rock and Roll for a Desert Island, published in 1979 and including the work of many of the elite writers of the day: (in order of appearance) Nick Tosches, Simon Frith, Jim Miller, Langdon Winner, Ellen Willis, Janet Maslin, Paul Nelson, Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Ed Ward. In 20 essays of varying length, plus Marcus’ contribution—an annotated discography called “Treasure Island”—Stranded at turns upheld and annihilated the canonical framework of much of rock criticism and rock listening. Nearly 30 years later, it holds up as an artifact, as a primer, and most importantly as good reading.
Marooned, edited by Phil Freeman, is not merely a sequel to Stranded: It’s a document of the massive change pop music has undergone in the last 30 years. If Marcus et al had a commendably inclusive view (for 1979) of what “rock ‘n’ roll” might be, the passage of time and the publication of Marooned may seem to render the vision of Stranded narrow and unadventurous.
R&B, gospel, and pre-Beatles pop records—all of which get their day in Stranded—might have been a stretch for some people, but their distance from rock music was nothing compared to the distance between almost anything covered in Marooned and the music discussed in Stranded. But Stranded, perhaps due to its narrower scope, reads very, very well. The variety, both in terms of the music and in terms of the contributors’ style, keeps things interesting, but it also provides a certain amount of comfort for readers (and listeners) for whom “pop music” or “rock ‘n’ roll” have very specific and traditional characteristics.
Marooned certainly takes a much broader approach—it doesn’t bill itself as a book about rock ‘n’ roll records, but one about records in general. This is made explicit on the back cover of the book, as the desert island question is asked as “What album would you bring to a desert island, and why?” No mention of genre whatsoever.
When I got my copy of Marooned, my first reaction was, “Yikes, I don’t really know any of these albums. I don’t even know of most of them.” It’s likely that this will be many people’s reaction, and it’s partly a result of the very broadness of the desert island question as presented to the contributors: there’s nothing about rock ‘m’ roll or even pop. But there are only three non-pop records here—assuming that any definition of pop music in 2007 must include hip-hop and electronic music, and assuming that what I think is pop is what you’ll think is pop, which is almost assuredly a silly assumption to make—and those three are all jazz albums (whatever that means).
This lack of familiarity might be interpreted as being a result of the compartmentalization of pop music, which has become much more prominent since the publication of Stranded. It’s not a stretch to think of a Van Morrison fan listening to (or being reasonably interested in) someone like Little Willie John, or someone who loves the Ramones reaching back to the music of the Ronettes, or, for that matter, to find a Ramones fan also digging Van Morrison. But is the Elton John fan likely to care much about Motorhead? What does Stephen Stills have to do with the rave scene discussed by Michaelangelo Matos in his essay on History of Our World Part 1? And is anyone in the world as excited about late-period Dionne Warwick as John Darnielle is? (This is why the “Rock/Pop” section is the most labyrinthine and deceptive place in any record store, a sort of catch-all for the stuff no one wants to categorize or which resists easy categorization by being a hybrid. The “R&B” section comes in at a close second.)
Whether the essays in Marooned will move you as pieces of writing seems very much tied to your appreciation of the music in question, in a way that the writing in Stranded does not. I, for one, can’t really be bothered to listen to metal albums (and there are a fair number of those written about here), but Ian Christe’s closing piece on Iron Maiden’s Killers is one of the wittiest and most thoughtful essays in Marooned, and the perfect one to wrap up the book.
I also don’t have any particular affection for jazz music, but Derek Taylor’s essay on Sonny Rollins’ A Night at the Village Vanguard made me want to run out and buy the record. (I do wish the essay on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, by Greg Tate, had been a bit longer.) The essays in Stranded, however, reasonably depict the interconnectedness of all the music discussed, such that even the pieces on artists I don’t especially know or love (Huey “Piano” Smith, the Kinks, Linda Ronstandt) do a fine job of communicating where those folks fit into the larger scheme of pop music.
It’s safe to say the intended audience of Marooned will be less familiar, percentage-wise, with the albums written about in this book than the intended audience of Stranded was/ is/ will be with the albums discussed in that one. This is why the broad appeal of Stranded cannot reasonably be achieved by Marooned. It’s not a book most people will want to read all the way through—most anthologies are meant to be dipped into rather than read front-to-back, anyway—but for those who take the plunge, Marooned is an enlightening glimpse into 20 of the infinite nooks and crannies of (mostly) contemporary music.
What’s more, it gives some idea of the writers as people to be identified with, engaged in conversation or argument with, etc., and at a time when personality has been banished from record reviews at most publications, this is often a good thing. (Marcus has made the observation that he finds the personal nature of the pieces in Marooned striking, implying that the writers of Stranded didn’t take such an approach. I disagree. Read Bangs on Astral Weeks, Nelson on Jackson Browne’s The Pretender, or practically any other piece in that book and you’ll get plenty of autobiography.)
The final section of the book is, of course, “Return to Treasure Island”, Freeman’s continuation of Marcus’ original discography, which is just about as great a primer on the first 25-years of rock ‘n’ roll as you’re likely to find. “Return”, like the rest of Marooned, betrays a bit of a metal bias, and it’s suggested more than once that this is to atone for Marcus’ apparent failure to include Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, etc., in his discography. It’s not that the emphasis on metal is entirely inappropriate—it’s been a successful, influential, and popular genre for years—but it’s hard not to wonder whether Scandinavian black metal gets a bit too much acreage on Freeman’s island.
Of course, this is also the section of the book that most invites readers to quibble over what’s there and what’s not, and besides, it’s the work of one critic, and any time you get the opinion of one critic, you invite biases and quirks to rear their heads. Plus, due to the massive growth of the industry, the sheer volume of music Freeman had to choose from was far greater than that which Marcus had at his disposal, and it’s not like you or I could really have done a “better” job.
Another interesting thing about a book like Marooned is getting some idea of the criteria the contributors used to make their picks. Simon Reynolds eventually arrives at John Martyn’s Solid Air, but only after considering the following: “Something with a very particular bundle of attributes would be required, a tricky-to-find combination of consoling familiarity and resilient strangeness. You’d need a record that could retain the capacity to surprise and stimulate, to keep on revealing new details and depths despite endless repetition. But it couldn’t be too out-there, too much of an avant-challenge, because solace would after all be its primary purpose. Which in turn would mean that the selection would have to feature the human voice, as a source of comfort and surrogate company.” But next up in the book are two of the jazz records, and thus one of Reynolds’ criteria is vetoed by both Geeta Dayal and Greg Tate. (Reading the book cover-to-cover does yield some revelations that might otherwise be missed.)
Even if Marooned will only appeal to a certain segment of the pop music audience—and certainly, as a whole, to an even smaller number of readers—its subcultural functionality is hard to dispute. Just like Stranded is very much a piece of its time—an era in which the rock press was smaller and the music industry was less compartmentalized (although it surely didn’t seem that way at the time)—Marooned is an accurate representation of both the people who write about music and the varied glut of product from which they can choose.
Even if critics can’t be tastemakers as easily as they once could, people can still be moved by records. In Marooned, as in Stranded, the objective critic is replaced by the passionate fan, and a tiny part of the world is better for it.