Last weekend saw an article on the series by Scott R. Garceau, on the Philstar website, a portal for the global Filipino community. Thanks to Steve Matteo for spotting this one!
THE X-PAT FILES By Scott R. Garceau
Sunday, July 01 2007 (www.philstar.com)
Maybe we all live life at too high a pitch, those of us who absorb emotional things all day. —Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
We are a strange breed, we who take music seriously. We have love-hate relationships with our precious CD collections, with our iPod Playlists, even with our album artwork, and sometimes we just want to rip out the earbuds and do away with all the music inside our heads — until we are forced to confront the music being peddled outside our sealed cocoon… then it’s back to the earbuds.
For people who can’t get enough of the music that permeates their MP3s players and fills their TV screens and comes pouring off the pages of their favorite music magazines, there is 33 1/3 books. Published by Continuum Books, this series of over 60 [not strictly true – yet] slim titles tackles the minutiae of studio recording — all the trials and tribulations that went into making classic and seminal albums, from Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” to Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures.”
“33 1/3” of course refers to the old desired playing speed for “long-playing” vinyl records. It’s in this spirit of nostalgia — even if the albums were recorded as recently as Magnetic Field’s “69 Love Songs” (1999) — that the books work. Each edition is written by a different author — some British, some American — and quality does vary, depending on what kind of fan you are. If you are fond of personal reminiscences by the author about how such-and-such an album changed he/she forever, usually during a late-night drive from Providence, Rhode Island to NYC, then you will enjoy the volume on Jeff Buckley’s “Grace” written by Daphne Brooks. Buckley’s story is told much more effectively in David Browne’s Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Tim and Jeff Buckley. But for some more buried nuggets, Brooks’ book does show us how Led Zeppelin was such a big early musical influence on the scion of ’60s folkie Tim Buckley. And it draws connections between Plant’s middle-eastern-style wails and Buckley’s other musical obsession, Qawwali singing. You can close the book thinking that maybe “Grace,” Buckley’s eponymous 1994 debut, should have been heard side-by-side with “Live at Sin-é” — a posthumous double-CD of his live solo performances at a small East Village club in the early ’90s — to give the public a more rounded view of the performer’s talents. There, he mixes live cover versions of Dylan, Van Morrison, Edith Piaf, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and, yes, even Zeppelin. If people had known his true range, the world might have been spared limp, limey rip-offs of Buckley’s “Grace” sound by Coldplay, for instance.
Another volume from 33 1/3 I read goes into obsessive detail on the recording of the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” While generally regarded as the Beatles’ nadir, studio-wise, author Steve Matteo shows that some great music was being tested out even during the death march that was being recorded by cameras as the Beatles self-destructed. We learn lots of nice trivia — like the fact that the piano used by Paul to record Hey Jude was the same one used by Queen on their epic track Bohemian Rhapsody half a decade later. I guess you can’t improve on a solid Bechstein Concert Grand.
As familiar as we are with the stories, and back-stories, that make up the painful album “Let It Be” and the accompanying film, there’s still lots to dig into here: the bickering between George and Paul; Ringo’s isolation from the band (after quitting in disgust, he arrived back to the studio a few days later to find his Ludwig drum kit bedecked with flowers); and John’s increasing cocooning with Yoko Ono, which must have put an extra strain on recording. We’ve heard the album, seen the movie, even purchased the “Naked…” version of “Let It Be” — yet Matteo shows there’s still a lot to learn about the fragile dynamics within this amazingly seminal band.
Most recently, I checked out Mike McGonigal’s book about My Bloody Valentine’s recording of “Loveless” — an album that probably was this shoegazing band’s “Let It Be,” in terms of band-member and studio strain. Recorded over two years in a dozen studios with over 30(!!) engineers claiming participation, the final album — released in 1992 — has to suffer from all those built-up expectations. It does; it now sounds a bit bleary and dated. But the story behind it is still fascinating, as leader Kevin Shields sought to create a follow-up to the already-seminal “Isn’t Anything” (1998) and nearly cracked up in the process. Comparisons to Brian Wilson’s “Smile” experience are trotted out, but it’s the details about how adversity led to innovation that make this one a good read. MBV drummer Colm O’Coisig was sick and homeless during recording, and lost partial use of his legs — definitely a setback for a rock drummer. So Shields and others had to “sample” his basic bass drum kicks, and carefully reconstruct his percussion sound to complete the album. Either that or, as some evidence suggests, Shields simply played all the drums, guitars and bass in the studio himself.
We learn that Shields, mentally, is one fuzzy character, one for whom the quest for studio perfection led to Ahab-like disasters. He prefers to record after skipping sleep for several days. He claims My Bloody Valentine never actually broke up, though efforts at a follow-up to “Loveless” fell apart and the Irish band has not released an album in 15 years. That’s a long time since changing musical history.
Best, perhaps, is the opening of McGonigal’s book, in which the author tries to uncover what really happened during a “noise” section of one of the band’s live sets — the band is playing the song You Made Me Realise, then starts issuing waves of distortion and feedback that stun the audience: the crowd can’t think, can’t hear, can’t move for a period of minutes, until the writer’s ears eventually discern a field of beautiful, melodic overtones and harmonics dancing on top of the sludge. He has his epiphany; we have ours. But getting Shields to admit to any musical mischief is another thing: “There was no melody! Every melody everyone had was in their head!” It’s a scary moment, realizing that musicians are not only seeking to fill our ears on the conscious level, but are messing around with our heads in other ways as well.
The 33 1/3 book series is available at Powerbooks branches.