For about 3 years, this publishing house has irregularly issued a series of mini-books each devoted to a single album and why the author-fan rates a particular album so highly – at least that was my expectation from the blurb on the back covers. Fortunately (now, less fortunately as I've ploughed into this series), I found about dozen of the series in a book sale in Blackwells, the local university bookshop, first at a pound each and then a week later 50p. The sales price tempted me to buy en masse, cf. the £6-99 or £7-99 original RRP, (which now with experience, I would suggest is a disincentive to purchase any one of these books). Clocking in at just over 100 pages, with page size about half that of a normal paperback, may have you thinking that each can be digested in a session; however,…:
To date I have read, or in two examples attempted and failed to read completely:
Jimi Hendrix & The Experience: Electric Ladyland
Pink Floyd: Piper At The Gates Of Dawn
The Kinks: The Kinks Are The Village Preservation Society
Beatles: Let It Be
Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures
Neil Young : Harvest
The Smiths: Meat Is Murder
Radiohead: Okay Computer
Dusty Springfield: Dusty In Memphis
(the following link to Amazon US will give details of others available
I have purchased both books about albums already in my collection (here, the first 5) and books of which I hoped, if the author's enthusiasm was infectious enough, might encourage me to buy the record. In the latter instances, the authors have not been good salespersons. For the first 6 books listed above, the authors have been pretty thorough in their research and knowledge, and been able to set down a coherent story of the making of the respective album, the background, and given reasonable to strong reasons for their enthusiasm and the compulsion to tell others. And now with belated hindsight, I realise these elements are pretty important to me in this type of book which is really a very long review.
I now turn to the last 3 listed in greater detail, to give some reasons of what is wrong with parts of this series). Here I found three different stylistic approaches, each of which in honesty frustrated me and then turned me off.
Meat Is Murder (the book) is a potted autobiography of the author growing up in a tough part of the New York City. I have to presume the album, Meat Is Murder was a soundtrack to that part of his life. But nowhere do I get a sense of what the album is about, its music, anything about the musicians (e.g. weren't Mar and Morrisey at loggerheads - or was that another Smiths album???). Why is an album with the very Englishness of the NW (Manchester to be more precise), relevant to a New Yorker? I'm none the wiser - and his autobiog is not appealing. Written (I think) by a pop singer, I guess he is trying to demonstrate he can write and be 'artistic' in a tangential way. (Hey man, the first volume of Bob Dylan's autobiography might be recommended as a tutorial to this type of approach!). I flicked through this book, dipping into odd pages, but alas never found a hook that made me sit and read this fully.
Dusty In Memphis. Early on we get the picture; the author is ex pop musician who has gained a PhD. Almost if it compulsory having an arts PhD, he adopts another obtuse story line: the nature of music that attracted musicians from out of city to record in Memphis. I think the fact that Dusty Springfield was British and being attracted to Memphis, is mentioned once and then almost instantly thrown away as irrelevant - in fact, Dusty Springfield nor her album are the main themes of this story. Like with Meat Is Murder, I have absolutely no sense what this album is about musically, and why this album is one of the author's favourites (or is it???).
If in these examples, the two albums only provide the illustrations to put on the front covers of the books, the academic approach adopted for Okay Computer is very different, but equally frustrating. In the end I found it impossible to read as a whole. The author is on the staff of the music dept.of Oxford Brooks University in the UK (for those offshore, not THE Oxford University), and right from the start we are made clear about the author's credentials for writing this book, the support given by colleagues, etc. - hey, I am an academic too, I can spot a long research paper originally aimed at some learned journal. So it is a pity somebody did not suggest some vigorous refereeing, to make this piece sympathetic to the intended reader. Unbelievably the first 49 pages (not that precise actually), is the history of electric and electronic recording i.e. nothing much to do with Radiohead – or is it?. I guess, the author is trying say something subtle in a very long-winded way, about the changes to recording methods and therefore possible changes to concepts to some of the music contained on those recordings. To summarise all those pages: from 1950 to 1985 some popular recordings could be related in form/style found on each side of an LP (i.e. around 20 minutes per side), but from ~1985 with the advent of mass sales of CDs, the opportunity was presented to have a continuous theme on a single long side of disc, often longer than the two sides of LP put together. Then at last, we are taken into the making of and structure of Okay Computer ; something about the music itself. I found the text here full in face and becoming increasingly indigestible. This author is a young (I guess) musicologist trying to impress with academic skills but managing at the same time, to blind due to the following:
a) use of a technical language predominantly used only by academic musicologists.
b) using 20 + words when one word would do - surely a trait that a good tutor should have whipped out of this lad before he got his degree......or an aforementioned referee? This is made worse by the author making sure you know he has read a few poets: I don’t need a brief and unnecessary reference to the poet and the full quote containing the famous phrase, (when that clichéd phrase would suffice).
c) seemingly - a word used since I abandoned this book half read - the persistent and eventual boring use of references to similar musical styles used previously. What do I mean? For example,: “in a few bars of song X at 1.14 to 1.18 you can hear music in xy time that Schubert use din a similar theme in.......". Such analyses, relating a few seconds of music to some snippets of a predecessor’s work, (here pop or classical), demonstrates to me an author try to be superior to the majority of his readers. Hey do you really want to go check out large numbers of earlier sources of music to hear if 3 seconds here or 4 second there are also found on Radiohead’s Okay Computer – I guarantee most of the cross-references cited here aren’t elsewhere in your record collection. So with this level of technical writing aimed at a less technical readership, I want to scream back: "its unimportant trivia, you've only got 60 pages to communicate something about the whole". So I abandoned this book, when layer upon layer of pretension deeply buried and obscured the truth of what this album is about and why the author would bother to write at length about it. This style of writing is not for the general audience.
In summary, from the evidence of what I've read so far: reader BEWARE of this series of books. I bought these books for some "education" as well as leisurely reading, especially hoping to discover what brought groups of musicians together to make superior(?) timeless (?) albums, and what sparked off the "specialness" of the records. 3 out of the 9 I’ve read missed my personal target completely. Therefore I feel compelled to suggest : don't buy any of these books without having first browsed them to get some clear idea what the complete read might involve. Unless another low priced sale happens this way, I will not be buying Forever Changes or any other title that once might have looked attractive.
Update at 19th July 2006: just discovered the same Blackwells have a couple more of the series on sale - Meat Is Murder and a book on an album I've never heard of. The present turn off is the sales price now is set at £2-99???
Edited by Dick Heath - July 20 2006 at 18:15