Ian Bourland just wrote published his new 33 1/3, Massive Attack’s Blue Lines, and now he’s back to tell us about the process of how it came to be. Is it all about the finished product, or the journey it takes to get there?
Writing Massive Attack: Blue Lines is the most fun writing assignment I’ve ever had, though it wasn’t really because of the subject matter. Sure, music journalism is about the apex of coolness in our industry, and certainly Massive Attack are synonymous with a certain cosmopolitan mystique. But since graduate school I’ve had it beaten in to me that for all of my Clerks-inspired childhood dreams about waxing intellectual on pop culture, to write history is serious work, and footnotes matter more than bon mots and lacerating hot takes.
Ultimately, I tried to find a middle course of rigor and readability for my 33 1/3 entry, and hopefully readers will enjoy learning about the turbulent cultural landscape in which Blue Lines was conceived (it was the 80s!). Much of the time spent on this book was basically a very interesting version of my day job—writing at my desk, which is rewarding but often lonely. Researching it on the other hand was special, and I’d gladly do it again. For one, I learned the hard way that if you don’t have something remunerative to offer, agents and managers are oddly very bad at returning phone calls. And that Tricky really is elusive. And famous musicians don’t like dwelling on the past. That’s part of the work, anyway, the endless follow-up calls, the getting transferred from one disinterested assistant at a faceless conglomerate to another.
That’s a bit glib. But in all seriousness, it was a treat to do the leg work for this project. It found me overseas for weeks at a time in sunny England, poring over archival material at the British Library. My phone has dozens of images taken from the pages of vintage Melody Makers, all making me wish I was a bit older, so that I could have seen PJ Harvey or Soul II Soul on the London club circuit, could have worn blousy striped shirts and baggy trousers with impunity, or hear Stereo MCs blasting over the sound system at every party. I might have even figured out who The Wonder Stuff was, or known a world untouched by the Gallagher Brothers of Oasis.
Better still was the incredible hospitality of the people I met while there, especially in western England. I met one of my favorite producers, who granted an extended interview, then put me on the guest list for a huge show the next day. The academic whom I grilled for information insisted on buying me the rounds of cider at a pub in Stokes Croft. And what was supposed to be a brief tour of a legendary studio turned into an all-day hang, and a home-cooked Sunday dinner with a group of new friends. I wandered through misty parks, spooky 18th century manors. At the end of one trip, I took myself to Wales and slept in a cottage in the Brecon Beacons park, spent an evening in the village learning that I can’t outdrink the local apple farmers, and that I know nothing of the intricacies of inter-UK soccer. The commonality throughout is that I went into this 33 1/3 with the stern seriousness of my profession, but my hosts wouldn’t have it—relentlessly thoughtful and friendly, they gave me the sense both that I was welcome in Bristol and that this couldn’t just be a book about a band, but rather a small entry into the chronicle of a place.
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