Music in Book Form

Recently I read my first two volumes in Continuum Publishing’s 33 1/3 series.  Each volume deals with an important album in popular music written by a variety of authors.  I’d given a couple books from the series to people as gifts and had gotten positive reviews.  So, I picked out two volumes that I thought I would enjoy and got to reading.

I chose books about two artists I’ve been huge fans of beginning in middle school and keep coming back to over the years.  First, I read Dan LeRoy’s take on the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique.  This was a really great read, chronicling the making of the followup to their wildly successful Licensed to Ill.  Leaving the confines of their home in NYC and the rock/rap fusion genius of producer Rick Rubin for the foreign soil of Los Angeles and an unknown production team (that would become known as the Dust Brothers) was a big gamble.  Add in the fact that they had left Def Jam for Capitol, there was a lot riding on this record for the Beasties’ career.

The book has a very personal feel, as a lot of the people on the inside of the record’s creation were interviewed, including the Beastie’s themselves.  Those interviews capture the tension that present due to the factors mentioned above.  They also show how the laid back, funky beats the Dust Brothers were creating, but didn’t have a place to put them, were just what the Beastie’s were looking for.  Through happenstance, they met, and the rest is, as they say, history.

The book’s first half chronicles that meeting, the recording process, and the release of the record to middling reviews and paltry sales (compared to Ill).  The second looks track by track at the album and some of the myriad samples used on the tracks.  The short epilogue recognizes the lasting legacy of the album and its now vaunted stature in the history of hip-hop.  Having really worn this album out, especially during college, this was a very satisfying and comprehensive history lesson to give context to a classic.  A must-read for fans of this album.

The second book I read was John Cavanagh’s look at the making of Pink Floyd’s first album, Piper At the Gates of Dawn.  This book had much more of an academic feel to it.  None of the band members were interviewed by the author, with the first-hand anecdotes coming from a mix of engineering folks involved and various hangers-on to the “scene” that evolved around Pink Floyd and psychedelic music in London.  Much of the attention in the book is focused on Syd Barrett, who was the major creative force behind the album, and his greatest musical legacy, as he faded into self-imposed obscurity soon after Piper.  While this makes sense, at times the writing seemed to fall into hero-worship, as Cavanagh makes clear that Barrett is a hero of his.

The book does explore each track in great detail, though he flips back and forth between the tracks and the more general history of the Floyd and their rise from bar blues band to the top of the psychedelic music pyramid.  I liked the more linear structure of the Beasties book.

The author’s focus on Barrett is illuminating in places.  One of the things that drew me to this album was the wide scope of the music on it.  Wide-ranging opuses about the abyss of space butt up against the whimsy of songs about gnomes.  Barrett’s fascination with space and also with the more simple earthly pleasure of nature (trees, rivers) partially explains the variety on this album.  Also, as an avid follower of folklore, mythology and likeminded literary works, those influences are readily apparent in the lyrics of Barrett.

Overall, I was a little disappointed in the Floyd book, but it was still a pleasant and quick read.  It may be more of a reflection on the fact I read it immediately after reading the Beastie’s book, which I thought was so good and structured the way I guess I prefer to read.

Anyways, if you have a favorite album or two, check out Continuum and see if they’ve written a volume about it.  I think you’ll enjoy what you read, and even gain some new insights into said album.

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