I like the ‘33 1/3’ books, the series in which each volume focuses on a ‘classic’ album. You can read them in about a couple of hours, they generally have some interesting facts or observations about their chosen album, and each one is written in quite a different style.
cases the authors are perhaps a little too over-the-top in their praise of the
album and/or band, and sometimes they draw some very long bows in their
interpretations. Still, if the authors weren’t such fans of their subjects
perhaps the series wouldn’t be as interesting.
a great deal of consensus about which the best books in the series are, which
may be a bad or a good thing to a reader, depending on your point of view. (A
Pitchfork writer recently picked these titles.) Here are some thoughts I
have on the books I’ve read to date.
Celine Dion’s ‘Let’s Talk About Love’
is the most acclaimed book in the series, and rightly so. For the type of
author that typically writes for the ’33 1/3’ series, Celine’s album would be a
long way from being considered a ‘classic’ album. And yet it sold more copies
than most of the so-called ‘classic’ albums that have been covered in the
series. Why? I’m not sure the book ever really gets to the answer, but it’s a
strong reminder that, for most people, pop and rock history doesn’t revolve
around those cult albums that sold less than a million copies.
Big Star’s ‘Radio City’ (Bruce Eaton) has interviews with
most of the Big Star band members and associated personnel, which makes it
about as close to a definitive history of the making of that album as you can
get. Band leader Alex Chilton in particular is interviewed at length. Critics
and fans often bemoan that Chilton and Big Star never hit the big time, but the
second half of this book reveals that there was perhaps an element of what may
be considered self-sabotage contributing to Chilton’s lack of success.
Oasis’ ‘Definitely Maybe’ (Alex Niven) is a bit wrong-headed
to me, though I enjoyed reading it nonetheless. The author tries to argue that
Oasis’ lyrics should be seen as political, or more specifically as insights
into the lives and struggles of the working class. I’m happy to accept that
Oasis’ working-class lives at that point did fill out some of the detail in the
lyrics, but I doubt that Noel Gallagher had many political motives when he
wrote this album – more likely he was just putting words together that sounded
Neutral Milk Hotel’s ‘In The
Aeroplane Over The Sea’ (Kim Cooper) has been one of the more popular books in the series. It
isn’t as remarkable as the sales made me thought, but it is certainly quite
readable, and its lack of remarkability is actually interesting in itself.
Neutral Milk Hotel is one of those bands that a fair amount of mystique has
gathered around over the years, but this book brings their story back down to
earth by depicting them as essentially just a band, albeit one with some
excellent material, like hundreds of other bands littered across the United
Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’ (Daphne Brooks) is good, though it possibly
suffers a little bit from hero-worship. I did like the fact that it was written
by an African-American woman given my first inclination is to think that every
book in this series is written by a forty-something white male typing next to
his shelves of vinyl. This also plays into nicely into what I think is one of
the better points in this book, which is that Buckley, in his cover versions,
placed as much if not more emphasis on the works of female vocalists as the
male guitar rock ‘canon’.
R.E.M.’s ‘Murmur’ (J. Niimi) is quite good. I didn’t
realise drummer Bill Berry was such an important contributor to the early
R.E.M. sound – portrayed here as at least an equal partner in the band’s
decisions, if not more so. At the end of the book the author tries to
transcribe what he thinks Michael Stipe’s often inscrutable lyrics may be.
Talking Heads’ ‘Fear Of Music’ is by Jonathan Lethem, who is the
biggest name so far to write a book for the 33 1/3 series. That made me curious
to read this, even though I didn’t know much about the album. For much of the
book Lethem goes through the album track-by-track, and I listened to each
track, often for the first time, as I came up to the relevant section. For me
Lethem’s book did not stand out above the rest in terms of its quality or
insight – Lethem is a novelist, not a music critic after all – but this still
remains to me one of the most memorable books in the series. Passages like
Lethem’s phonetic transcription of ‘I Zimbra’, and how the titles of ‘Life
During Wartime’ and ‘Memories Can’t Wait’ stick out on the album track list
remain ensconced in my mind. In this book Lethem recalls his experiences of
when he first heard the ‘Fear Of Music’ album as a teenager, but mixes these in
with his perspective of the album as an adult, though given that Lethem was
probably a precocious kid it is sometimes difficult to tell which perspective is
Television’s ‘Marquee Moon’ (Bryan Waterman) is the longest
title in the series to date, clocking it at over 200 pages. Not as much about
the album ‘Marquee Moon’ (though it does go through the album track-by-track
near the end) as about the whole history of the band, and a fair chunk of the
New York punk scene as well, its scope leads to its relative lengthy page count
yet it almost never dragged for me. One thing I kind of learned is that,
despite not being overly successful, Television were, if this book is to be
believed, basically the central band in the New York punk scene of the
mid-‘70s. Another thing: they were pretty guys, basically the ‘70s equivalent
of those mid-‘00s pretty indie boy bands that kind of irked me, which come to
think of it were probably taking both their sound and look from Television.
Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless’ (Mike McGonigal) had for me two interesting
points about the making of this album. One, there is not as many guitars on the
album as you may think (and a lot more vocals). Two, there is not as many band
members on the album as you may think either.