When I saw a blog post over at Powells.com about this series of books featuring in-depth uberfan-written examinations of key music albums in history, well, it was hook meet fish. The idea of book-length essays discussing key moments in musical history from the 60s, 70s, 80′s (and to a lesser extent the 90s) exactly like what I feel is missing from middle grade and YA non-fiction.
Parents and grandparents can pass down the personal predilections, but the music itself is an artifact out of place; it’s one thing to appreciate the early Bob Dylan but without context how can you explain what a break from style and tradition the 1965 album Bringing It All Back Home was without discussing the Dylan-goes-electric controversy. Not to take away from the work of more contemporary artists, but “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is clearly an early forerunner to rap and hip-hop (complete with video). My guess is there aren’t many adults who can share that with kids who might be interested in Bob’s music.
Here now we have a small press that is filling a gap so wide I’m surprised o one else has really seen it. The idea was to let fans give a personal, in-depth analysis of a specific album in an artists oeuvre and give it a place, a purpose, a meaning, a reason for what makes it exemplary. What’s more interesting are the album choices. Some are obvious pinnacles in an artist’s or group’s career — The Pixies Doolittle, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, The Beach Boys Pet Sounds — while others make their case for more difficult, less commercial, or just plain unique presentation — Prince’s Sign o’ the Times, Springsteen’s Born in the USA, Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces.
Curious, and prodded by a buy-two-get-one-free offer at Powells, I took the bait and called up three titles whose albums I knew like the back of my hand (musically at least) so I could get a sense on where the series was coming from: The Beatles Let It Be, David Bowie’s Low, and Steely Dan’s Aja.
Steely Dan’s Aja by Don Breithaupt
It was a good thing I bought three and didn’t get just this one, because if I had I might have made the mistake that they were all like this volume and I wouldn’t have written about this series at all. You have to understand, this might be the best technically written examination of any Steely Dan product in the known universe, but it was written by a music geek for music geeks who understand composition, music theory, and the nuts and bolts of jazz right down to its modal chord progressions. Even for fans, the Dan have always been morbidly obtuse, but the music can be appreciated without a degree in music from Berklee or a PhD in cultural anthropology.
It can be difficult when you bring along your personal baggage to someone else’s party, and for me with Aja that baggage is heavy. The summer that Aja was released my closest friend Pete and I hung out at my girlfriend Laura’s house listening to that album endlessly while planning films we would and would not get around to making. The way Mozart can have an effect on the learning and retention of information for young children, Aja was like a creative elixir that seemed to be feeding something inside our 16 year old brains. It could have been the heady mix of accessible jazz and raging hormones that made us write a 25 minute silent slapstick comedy adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, shoot another couple weekends worth of cut-out animation a la Monty Python, and send prank letters to our “mortal enemy” who was off leading a Boy Scout camp that summer. We would listen to that album in silence sometimes before finally flipping the sides, starting over and getting down to business. In fact, on the rare occasions when Laura was home (and where was she anyway?) she kept a daily diary of our film-to-be and only one entry was noted simply as “did NOT listen to Aja today.”
From that perspective it would be easy for me to fill a book that would delve into the essence of the Dan on the teenage psyche, when our taste for bland pop wasn’t easily or comfortably sated by the emerging punk and new wave music but by a pair of articulate throwbacks to another era. While the other outsider kids were eating up the beat generation we had the Dan teaching us hipster sex slang and leading us to Charlie Parker. There was a kid named Larry who, at the end of that school year, joked about how we’d all be totally into rock and roll until we got married or turned 30, whichever came first, and then we’d mellow out to jazz. “Except for you Steely Dan fans, who are going to be the ones telling us what we should be listening to because you’ll have been there all along.”
While it is true that the jazz runs deep and thick throughout the later efforts of Steely Dan it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on without being schooled. In that sense it falls into the “you-know-it-when-you hear-it” category, as Breithaupt’s book very quickly points out because without that schooling you’ll never really get what he lays down. Song after song, track after track, chords and chord progressions are striped-searched to the point where it might as well be a textbook of modern math. Nine years of playing the viola didn’t come close to preparing me for what I was reading and so I found myself skimming over whole sections looking for the nuggets that would feed me what I wanted.
What I wanted, what I think many Dan fans want, is the impossible; clear, concise answers to the lyrical and musical inspirations of the Dan core, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Cryptic and elusive, Becker and Fagen have made a life’s game out of shutting the doors and throwing misinformation out the windows to the fans. It isn’t necessarily a hatred of fandom and fame — though it sometimes can come off as arrogance — but an operational ethic that basically says “We do what we do, you either like it or you don’t.” What I wanted was a book that could never be written.
To that end I give Breithaupt high marks for writing the book that could be written, that lays down the law and breaks it. I’m willing to guess no other album in this series of equal or greater popularity could have withstood the mechanical scrutiny of Breithaupt’s analysis. Cold, yet informed, he marks every segment of the album’s DNA and shows you how it was constructed.
But even all that science can’t explain why I wore through two copies during the summer of 1978.
David Bowie’s Low by Hugo Wilcken
I’m feeling it here, as Wilcken examines the first in Bowie’s mythical “Berlin trilogy” of albums (Low, Heroes, Lodger). Stepping back he sets the scene by showing us a coked-out Bowie in LA working his Station To Station mojo and running down the significance of that particular time in Bowie’s life. It’s here that he hooks up with his buddy Jim Osterberg (Iggy Pop to the rest of us) and they dash off to tour the world before hunkering down in France to begin work almost simultaneously on Bowie’s Low and Iggy’s solo album The Idiot.
Yes, France. At the same Château d’Hérouville the the rockin’ Elton John called home in the 70′s was where the first moody Bowie album was birthed. Wilcken opens the doors and lets us watch as Bowie makes his break from reworked American funk and pop and begins to embrace his inner European. Producer Tony Visconti is on hand, Brian Eno is called forth, and musicians are called in randomly as Bowie attempts to construct the soundtrack for The Man Who Fell To Earth. His ideas for a soundtrack, ambient and avant garde, were eschewed before he even got started but as Wilcken points out Bowie sends the final product along to the film’s director to let him know what he missed.
By the time it comes to mixing the album Bowie’s moved to Berlin where the divided city’s vibe seems to be feeding his soul. His fairly open marriage is in ruins and he’s hanging out with folks like Kraftwerk and noted transsexual Romy Haag. He’s about as out there as he can get and still be mainstream enough to get some radio play out of the barest snippets of songs. This was the overture of this particular suite of albums, a bold career-bending move that forced the pop arena to join him in exile rather than feel alienated.
It’s taken me most of these last 30 years to come around to Low (I was on board with Heroes from the start) and I think it might have taken a trip to Berlin and a personal career shift to get there. The aural landscapes and the disjointed lyrical imagery aren’t of time or place but of mindset; it’s not enough to hear or feel these songs, you have to be able to live them is some way to make them truly relevant. At least I did, and understanding what went on behind the scenes only confirms that Bowie’s mind was in transit to someplace else. This album, then, became his interior monologue.
Another fascinating element is how Bowie is working these two projects at the same time — Iggy’s and his — and in the end realizes he needs to release his first so as not to sound derivative. The irony is that by producing and writing much of Iggy’s album he’s worried about being perceived as borrowing from himself, but no matter. Image is kind and Bowie did his fair share of muddling his image up to that point.
Wilcken’s book is well-informed and well-rounded in its interpretations and readings. He places Bowie in context of Bowie, pop music of the time, various cultural influences, with just enough personal drama to give it flair without seeming gossipy. Writing about music should make you want to dig out that music and listen along; good writing about music will make you appreciate the music in ways that compliment and improve both the music and the listener. Wilcken succeeds.
The Beatles Let It Be by Steve Matteo
In some ways writing about this album is like shooting fish in a barrel. Anywhere you aim, you’ll hit something. I saved this for last because it was the album I felt closest to in terms of knowing cold, the album I knew the most background about going in, and was my least favorite album for many reasons.
When Let It Be first hit my ears I found it to be the sloppiest sounding album ever recorded. Granted, I was young and hadn’t had much to go by, but after all the previous Beatles albums even the raw energy of the early music had a kind of polish on it that this lacked. Only later when I learned that it was a deliberate attempt by the band to capture their early, pure roots did I understand the documentary nature of the exercise. Even so, I still wondered what these songs would have sounded like if they’d made them as “real” studio albums, or at least practiced a bit more.
Post The White Album The Beatles were in a state of dynamic entropy. They were as prolific as they had ever been yet couldn’t stand to work together for a variety of reasons. Yoko gets kicked a lot during this time for per perceived meddling, but there’s just as much kicking of George by John and Paul. What emerges in Matteo’s examination of this album is nothing short of a day-by-day diary of the rehearsals and filming that was to become part of a TV documentary. The end result was to be a concert but all that happened was the short live performance on the top of the Beatles Apple Headquarters. Recordings were made, and while it should have been placed before Abbey Road in the chronology complications caused the album to be released after the Beatles had already announced they had broken up. Much can be said of Let It Be standing as the Beatles last statement — moving to just let things be and move on — and in the end, as Paul and their producer George Martin cobbled together a final album from various bits and pieces the boys spat it, the black-rimmed album became the perfect tombstone for a band that had come to the end of its long and winding road.
For those unfamiliar with the sessions, or only mildly familiar with a strong desire to know more, Matteo’s book puts those sessions together in a way that connects the dots with everything going on at the time. If you are familiar with the songs, have seen the Let It Be video and the Get Back session on the roof, what you can read in Matteo’s recounting of the events will out it all neatly in place. That said, there is a lot of discussion about songs never officially released, unfamiliar oldies, and a general sense that the Let It Be album only represents the tip of an iceberg that has never been fully appreciated. Of all the songs practiced and worked on, why were these selected in the end? We may never know as many of the tapes and documentary recordings disappeared. Some of these recordings did show up in Amsterdam recently and perhaps there’s a chance we’ll have a better context for this album in the future, but for now all we have are the primary document and the subsequent attempts to put that document into perspective.
Interesting but unsatisfying ultimately, both the album and Matteo’s examination of it. Perhaps that’s all we can really hope for.
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Looking back I suppose it wasn’t fair to judge the series by titles I was familiar with; the sign of a good review would be the desire to hunt down the album being featured and want to listen to it. I like what Continuum has set out to do with this series and, if anything, would hope they have a long and fruitful run of titles. There’s so much music out there, and so little of it documented in this kind of detail, that I wonder sometimes what future generations will make of our era culturally. Bach didn’t invent classical music, nor did Beethoven, nor Stravinsky, but know what they did and how they achieved it in their time and what it’s meant since. Perhaps it’s too early to suggest that rock and roll albums of the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s have their relevant moments in history but it’s fun to study the possibilities.