Continuumís 33 1/3 Series
Continuum Press, best known for spiritual and religious releases, has embarked on an ambitious series entitled 33 1/3 devoted to a reconsideration of some of the more important LP releases (generally occurring prior to the advent of the compact disc) of the past 40 years. Scanning the titles (presented without artist identification), any 30-, 40-, and 50-something will recognize what recordings are being considered. Harvest, Pipers at the Edge of Dawn, Dusty in Memphis, Let it Be all should stimulate a squirt of recognition juice in the old bean, reminding us of what that electric grind before "Black Dog was all about. Written by a disparate host of journalists, musicians, and academics, the 33 1/3 Series represents the Holy Grail of millions of late Baby Boomers who spent their adolescence pouring over the album sleeves of the newest releases by their favorite bands.
As a reader and critic of music journalism, this series offers a nostalgic trip through an ill-spent adolescence. That is an undeniable decadent temptation, and one that I will readily give into. It also offers me (us) the opportunity to reconsider these recordings in a more contemporary context, to face our biases and admit them (mine are Exile on Main Street, coupled with Sticky Fingers as the greatest rock albums recorded and Little Feat's Waiting for Columbus as the finest live rock album every recorded). There are all levels of writing here, from the hyper-academic (Led Zeppelin IV) to the highly personal (Dusty in Memphis. All are enjoyable, even if the gentle reader smells that familiar aroma on the shoes of the author.
What follows is not an exhaustive list of these published books. Rather it is a list of those books this writer deemed important to read. I do not value all of the music considered equally, therefore, I allowed my own biases to rule. Let the reader beware. However, I know there are more of you out there.
Features Editor of Sound on Sound, Sam Inglis turns in this learned essay on Neil Young's masterpiece, Harvest. Inglis gives by far the most straight-forward historic account of this album's origins and recording compared with the other subjects of this series. He discusses at length Young's relationship with Nashville and Country Music at a time when "hippies like Young were ostensibly antiestablishment. Young was of a more Southern California Temperament, like David Crosby, but unlike Crosby, Young possessed a more expansive musical horizon (not to mention more talent).
Inglis details how Young selected his band, The Stray Gators, from the best studio musicians Nashville had to offer and then had them restrict their individual virtuosity to the bare minimum. This afforded an artistic tension that resulted in a minimalist recording just music and voice. The recording took well over a year to make. Young chose recording circumstances intended to simulate spontaneous art, when in fact the whole recording, right down to the song writing, was just a slick bit of recording magic. At the same time, the author discusses the making of Time Fades Away and Tonight's the Night, two recordings that were, in contrast to Harvest, were raggedly prepared (in response to the drug deaths of two staff members).
This is the easiest, least academic essay in the series. It is work-a-day-historical exposé, well-researched and orderly-assembled. I cannot say that it is wholly memorable, but it was quite informative.
A musician (Del Fuegos) cum academic (PhD, Cultural Studies), Warren Zanes, penned Dusty in Memphis as a bit of an adolescent musical Bildungsroman. Zanes takes the iconic recording of Brit pop tart Dusty Springfield, frames it in his own musical experience, while taking a swing through the Memphis musical influence, as well as the Jerry Wexler-Arif Mardin-Tom Dowd recording axis. Zanes' ruminations are not some post-modern dismemberment of the recording but rather a solution of his personal recollection as filtered through his Southern experience, which he juxtaposes with the real South and the perceived South.
Zanes' love affair with the South is efficiently sewn together in this essay, touching on the history (the Civil War and Rights Movement), literature (Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner), and the high-low life of White Trash Culture, Kudzu, and the cross-roads of US Highways 61 and 49. Zanes' South is:
Sweating, carnal, obsessed with the past, violent, agrarian despite the times, natural, authentic, certainly unpredictable ... it sometimes seems that kudzu is simply the plant form of a mythology that has already covered the region.
Central to this discourse, as in all great Southern fiction, is a stranger, an interloper who insinuates herself into the American psyche. It is not Flem Snopes or Thomas Sutpen. It is Mary O'Brian, AKA Dusty Springfield, Britain's foremost female pop singer, the Madonna of her era (sans the sexual and gender liberation). She was a talent that transcended appearance, period and genre. She, perhaps should be considered the white Aretha Franklin, but that may be taking the comparisons too far. She was a beautiful, insecure, neurotic mess who spent hours with Jerry Wexler listening to demo tapes of songs to include on her recording to be made in Memphis. The final choices produced "Son of a Preacher Man and "Breakfast in Bed. Zanes illuminates this perfectly, while never becoming overly academic.
Okay, now dig this:
Zeppelin enjoyed acoustic music for its own sake, but the primary function, served on their records, was to deepen the elemental contrast of light and shade. Instead of the modern Promethean buzz of electrical djinn, acoustic guitars announce the more ancient powers of wood and bronze descriptions of Bron-Yr-Aur, for example, usually emphasize that it was without electricity. The musical polarity is, unsurprisingly, also generated. In contrast to electrical aggression, acoustic ballads allow the boys to cozy up and show their gentler, more intimate and sensitive sides. (Bron-Yr-Aur, it should also be mentioned, means, "golden breast. ) These softy moves complicate the cock-rock cartoon that dominated Zeppelin's gender profile. Acoustic music did not just help Zep craft great make-out soundtracks, thereby increasing the pleasure of boys and girls everywhere; it also let the band further "feminize themselves and their music. Such gender blur was important to Zeppelin, who enjoyed their New Orleans tranny bars and appeared in drag on the cover of Physical Graffiti three years before Some Girls. Sure Plant has his cock on display, but that's the point: he parades around the stage like a trophy wife. With "sensitive Jimmy Page at his side, the two frontmen for what one gay Zep fan described at "a more dangerous and more androgynous 'version' of Mick and Keith.
Is that not the biggest pile of pseudo-intellectual bullshit you have ever read? Maybe not compare this to the extended quotation from Bill Janowitz's Exile on Main Street, below. Cultural critic Erik Davis has certainly done his homework for Led Zeppelin IV, though I still cannot feel that the quartet's intentions were near that complicated. Davis accurately traces Page and Plant's fascination with heathen lore and pagan ritual ad nauseam. Regardless of Page and Plant's intellectual proclivities, I suspect the musicians wanted only to make good music, get high, and steer their merry way through a load of willing groupies. That is about as complicated an analysis as is required. Sorry, college boy, "Black Dog and "Rock and Roll remain the greatest one-two punch to open a vinyl LP and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Regardless, Mr. Davis's essay on the pinnacle of Led Zeppelin's art is the best writing of the series. Once he gets beyond the philosophical, Mr. Davis cuts a fine argument with a sharp edge. Take for instance, Davis waxing downright poetic on the Zep's albatross, "Stairway to Heaven :
Stairway to Heaven isn't the greatest rock song of the 1970s; it is the greatest spell of the 1970s. Think about it: we are all sick of the thing, but in some primordial way it is still number one... Stairway to Heaven is not just number one. It is the One, the quintessence, the closest AOR will ever get you to the absolute.
After much machinations about Satanism and the Lady of the song, Davis cleverly closes the "Stairway section with:
Moreover, these sonic simulacra are buried in a tune that, for a spell, ruled the world. I'm not just saying that supernatural forces are afoot. I'm just saying it makes you wonder.
Okay, now dig this (also):
If there was any doubt about the subject of Jagger's lyrics on some of the albums earlier tracks, it is crystal clear on "Shine a Light. At first glance, the song is ostensibly about a party girl, but upon deeper examination and within the context of the record, this seems to be the most overt of Mick's "worried about you Exile songs for Keith. As implied, these songs didn't start or end with Exile on Main Street: "Worried About You, "Waiting on a Friend, "Sway, "Live With Me there is a litany of songs that either make explicit or passing references to Keith and his relationship with Jagger.
The urban myth states that the only person Jagger ever loved was Keith and vice versa.
Janovitz's analysis of the gender and sexual duplicity of the Rolling Stones principals is more down to earth and better researched in the realpolitik than Davis' for Led Zeppelin IV and its principals. However, it still may be so much a masturbatory process to some readers, but I don't think so. The relationships between the songwriters of each band have long been considered. Jagger/Richards and Page/Plant certainly indicated cognizance of image making, and in the early 1970s a little lasciviousness went a long way and filled the image bank of both bands with loads of pixie dust.
Janovitz is about my age and encountered this album as I had, through a family member. He was shaken by the gospel influence, the blues already taken for granted. He appreciated all of the same songs the most "Loving Cup, "Rocks Off, "Shine a Light, "Torn and Frayed. He did everything but declare "Tumblin' Dice one of the greatest pop songs penned. Perhaps I am biased. Hell, of course I am. Janowitz details the whole picture at Nellcote, while the album was being recorded, under self-generated difficult conditions. It is the romance of the "Elegantly Wasted genius, the Oscar Wildes of Rock music that pull us in, pull any thinking person in.
Janowitz introduces his essay with:
The greatest rock & roll record of all time, okay? Don't sent me any letters, and hold your calls. I can almost see you holding up and waving your Beatles records, your Pet Sounds, dusty old LPs in faded jackets, worth contenders all, I am sure. Brilliant pop records, masterpieces even. But not the greatest, most soulful rock & roll record ever made.
Amen, Reverend Janowitz, amen. And now let us hear the origins of Sticky Fingers.