The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Charles Fairchild

FairchildPhotoOver the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.

Next up: Charles Fairchild. A Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Sydney, Australia, he is the author of Music, Radio and the Public Sphere (2012) and Pop Idols and Pirates (2008).  He has published in such journals as Popular Music, Television and New Media, Media, Culture and Society and Popular Music and Society. For 33 1/3, Fairchild is tackling DJ Danger Mouse’s 2004 The Grey Album, a mash up of Jay-Z’s Black Album and the Beatles’ The While Album that stirred up considerable controversy upon its release.

“Unlike a lot of my academic peers in popular music studies, I’m not a musician, I don’t have a band, and I’m not secretly a DJ,” Fairchild says. “I don’t even dabble. I teach and I write about music; that’s it.” Well, that’s almost it: ” I did play percussion from age 10 to age 23 or so,” he adds, “but then got supremely caught up in studying music and writing about it anthropologically. That was the merciful end of my music-making career. The one thing I got out of my formative study of the drums is a lifelong care and attention to bass lines and rhythm sections. This has come in pretty handy for this book.”

Grey Album
The Grey Album, in the flesh

What made you want to write a book about The Grey Album?
CF: I started teaching popular music at the University of Sydney in 2004 exactly at the time that The Grey Album was released. I was in the midst of frantically designing university-level classes, which I had never done before, and the “Grey Tuesday” protests popped up. It was perfect timing. When you are trying to teach something as ubiquitous and yet vaguely-defined as “popular music” you really need to go beyond the immediate. The controversy over this album did that for me. Most students already know a lot about music and can easily find out more so you really have to make the learning experience distinct. So I thought I’d “teach the controversy” as they say.

When I downloaded the album and listened to it, it was immediately evocative of a lot of different, sometimes contradictory things. It struck me how it had a general aural and conceptual resemblance to some of the 20th Century avant garde music I had buried myself in when I was a student at the University of Illinois in the 80s. To my mind it had hints of Dadaism, musiqué concrete, or early tape experiments, and the way it was made held some suggestion of the philosophical tenets of Situationism. But when I went to write my lecture about it, none of that seemed to matter anymore. I found that the multitude of thematic and aesthetic commonalities between The Black Album and The White Album that Danger Mouse seemed to be highlighting gave me a great topic for the final lecture of the semester. I could look backwards and forwards at the same time.

In my lecture I linked The Grey Album to what my students and I had been talking about throughout the semester with themes and musical tropes found in the blues, early country music, punk, hip hop and rock which are clearly present in either Jay-Z or The Beatles or both. I ditched the links to the avant garde, which were completely tenuous anyway, and used The Grey Album to both sum up and push past what we had learned that semester. After that, I just kept digging and reading and found that I had a lot to say on the subject.

How did your proposal come together?
CF: I wrote the first version of my proposal in 2008 after I had met the very dynamic Dr Toni Johnson-Woods of the University of Queensland at a popular music conference. We were on a panel about the “Idol Phenomenon” together. She had written a book for Continuum on South Park called Blame Canada and she was going to meet David Barker at another conference later that year. She suggested that I send her a proposal for the 33 1/3 series which she generously offered to deliver for me. They weren’t accepting proposals back then, but when the call went out again in 2010, I jumped on it. By then I had put a lot more thought into writing and teaching about how the music industry was changing, but in many ways staying very much the same. I had already written a book about the music industry called Pop Idols and Pirates by then so I thought I at least had a decent shot at getting my proposal looked at pretty closely.

What do you want to explore about The Grey Album that you feel hasn’t been adequately covered elsewhere in music criticism or academic writing?
CF: To put it bluntly, the music. Aside from some perceptive album reviews written at the time, the literature on this album has been almost completely focused on politics and the law. Obviously those things are important, but with no one talking about the music too much, there is a pretty big piece of the puzzle missing.

A lot of the writing about The Grey Album seems to want to make it into some kind of revolutionary tract for the digital age as if Danger Mouse planned it that way. Also, on the rare occasions when people do write about the music, a lot of writers talk about it as if the thing just popped up out of nowhere. The tradition of sample-based and electronic music of which it is a very interesting extension usually gets taken for granted or completely ignored.

What seems important to me about this album is that it didn’t just emerge from the mind of some transcendent “genius producer.” It is drawn from the long, rich history of the musical manipulation of recorded sound in hip-hop and a multitude of different forms of electronic dance music. This is a musical tradition that has been practiced for decades through the use of recorded sound as the grist for the seemingly endless configuration, amalgamation and juxtaposition of snippets of familiar and unfamiliar music.

In fact, what is so fascinating about studying this musical tradition is that you can find out very quickly how the techniques for the manipulation of sound recordings were are so familiar with now were widely practiced before the technologies that we now associate with them even existed. So DJs were “sampling” or “slip-cueing” or “beat matching” first, then the good people at Technics or Yamaha or wherever, stuck their noses in to make things easier and more efficient. You could argue the same is true of mash ups with the various “mashing” techniques in use in the 90s that were only incorporated into increasingly efficient tools later on. When you think about this music this way, it is easier to analyze it as music.

What 33 1/3s have you read? Which are your favorites? Why?
CF: Oddly, my favourite 33 1/3s are often the books about albums I don’t own or even know that much about. What I really value in my top five is how each one is declarative without being didactic, personal without being self-absorbed, and introspective without being alienating. In no particular order:

1) Abba Gold by Elisabeth Vincentelli. Elisabeth Vincentelli’s recounting of ABBA’s near-disappearance and seemingly inevitable rebirth makes it clear that the phenomenon was about far more than the songs bringing the band back to prominence. There was the sheer will of fans unwilling to abandon them, the clever calculations of a record label trying to bring back the past in a saleable form, and the album itself with its contested liner notes and odd song choices. Vincentelli keenly links the world of 1992, dominated by U2 and Nirvana, to the sudden reemergence of a beloved collection of gloriously cheesy disco hits from the 70s.

2) Aqualung by Allan Moore. Allan Moore manages to ease terms like “idiolect” and some fairly precise musical analysis into what is a very readable book. He does so to support his claim that prog rock was revolutionary not only because “it played with the expectations of rock,” but it broke what he calls the ‘umbilical link’ between a style of music and the idiosyncratic way in which performers embodied that style, allowing musicians to move between styles freely and often unexpectedly. That is a remarkable argument and an important one regardless of what you may think of prog rock. Moore’s somewhat academic argument might seem a bit arid at times, but his knowledge and ability to express complicated ideas with the utmost clarity animates his book.

3) Led Zeppelin IV by Erik Davis. Erik Davis’ perceptive and sometimes almost delicate book on the Led Zeppelin is a treat. Davis manages to take one of the most “subjectified” albums of all time and transform it into the kind of collective expression of diverse experiences that seem threatened in this age of the demographic niche. He does it with a humor that is both grimly resigned (“Somewhere a Clear Channel robot is probably broadcasting it as your read these words”) and somehow hopeful (“All of us know songs that resonate, songs that stick”).

4) Sign O’ the Times by Michaelangelo Matos. In tracing the historical contours of Sign O’ the Times, Matos seamlessly incorporates his own interpretations of the music, the critical reception of the album, and the comings and goings of Prince’s band, painting a subtly elaborate likeness in miniature of the events that led to the finished album. As with the other titles I really like, Matos offers a way into the music beyond the obvious that is equal parts narrative, analysis and reflection.

5) The Velvet Underground and Nico by Joe Harvard. Joe Harvard, similarly, manages to place the Velvet Underground’s work in the context of the mid-1960s music industry through his description of how the production team of Norman Dolph and Tom Wilson dealt with a cranky, arrogant band with the spectral Andy Warhol always lurking in the background. He slices through the continuing mythology of the album to express its collision with the world through the seemingly incompatibility of the main players who made it.

Honourable Mention. Like a lot of people I enjoyed reading Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion, but I can’t really put it in my top five because it is such a weirdly self-lacerating book. I mean, why does he feel so guilty over a pop star, especially this one? I mean, Carl, really, it’s okay. You don’t have to like it.

“What seems important to me about this album is that it didn’t just emerge from the mind of some transcendent ‘genius producer.’ It is drawn from the long, rich history of the musical manipulation of recorded sound in hip-hop and a multitude of different forms of electronic dance music.”

What was your first concert?
CF: The first show I can remember seeing that I actually wanted to see was Beatlemania at the Warner Theatre in Washington D.C., which was a kind of theatrical tribute show. I was probably about eight or nine. Given that the Warner was where I saw some of the greatest shows of my life (The Smiths and Billy Bragg on the same bill!), I have very fond memories of it.

But it was genuinely strange. The Beatles were long gone before I started really listening to them. I remember putting the album Yesterday and Today on my portable turntable that I used to carry around the house. It wasn’t really an “album” in the traditional sense. It was just a compilation of early singles taken from Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Looking back it was odd hearing a classic pop song like “Day Tripper” near the woozy “I’m Only Sleeping” or the sleazy “Doctor Robert.” It gave me a fantastically skewed experience of their early career.

Obviously, the idea of seeing The Beatles live was never an issue for me, but seeing these four random musicians play dress up and impersonate The Beatles in the same chronologically compressed way that I has always heard their music made me feel for the first time that I was sharing my own personal experience of music with other people. It let me imagine what the Beatles might have been like in their glory.

How do you listen to your music at home: vinyl, CD, or MP3? Why?
CF: The short answer is yes; I use all of them, even cassettes or rare occasions. How could I abandon any of them? I have used and relied on just about every major format there is at some crucial juncture in my life. I feel very lucky to have grown up first with my sister’s 45s, then my brother’s LPs, then my own LPs, then cassettes and CDs and now song files and streaming. I made (and still have) dozens of cassette mixtapes in the 80s and 90s, and yes they are the real thing, not what passes for “mixtapes” today. They are actual cassettes cobbled together through the frustratingly long and strangely-exciting process of sitting on the floor in front of the stereo with a pile of albums trying to figure out what order the songs wanted to go in until I couldn’t feel my legs.

To have the whole world of music listening transform itself in a wildly short space of time has been fascinating. I have vivid memories of sitting at my desk at work when I lived in Baltimore in the 90s and just going from one free mp3 website to another gathering songs like cheap underwear at Kmart red light sale.

I can remember having to ride my bike over to a friend’s house just to watch MTV for the first time because my parents steadfastly refused to get cable (at least until I moved away from home; nice). Now I sit on the sofa and trawl the internet on my phone flipping back and forth between Safari, YouTube and Mixcloud finding artist after artist, then sending the web addresses of the ones that excite me to my email so I can really dig into them later. I’m not sure if my students really understand what it means to have experienced so many modes of consumption in what has been a comparatively short space of time, but god knows I will go on about it to them. Poor things.

Revisit a moment from The Grey Album that encapsulates your experience in hearing the album for the first time.
CF: The one moment from The Grey Album that really struck me on first listening was Danger Mouse’s linking of “Justify My Thug” and “Rocky Raccoon.” As I said, I was frantically trying to write a lot of lectures very quickly and I needed to make them relevant and interesting. Both of the original songs are almost cartoonish versions of well-used templates familiar in popular music history. “Rocky Raccoon” is clearly a play on the traditional “bad man ballad” while “Justify My Thug” is garden variety gangsta rap. But what is really interesting here is that “Rocky Raccoon” is drawn from an archaic song form found across both Anglo-American and African-American folk traditions since at least the late-19th century. It is a form that is a crucial part of the classic blues repertoire, the tradition from which gangsta rap eventually emerged. In each case, The Beatles and Jay Z are playing on familiar conventions of a song tradition they unwittingly share. Not only do the lyrics hold a number of fairly obvious themes in common, both songs are distinctly-stylized iterations of this tradition. Also, both the Beatles and Jay-Z are engaging in a kind of pantomime on these shared narrative themes infusing them with humour through wordplay and even eventually a kind of pathos in the ways in which each express some fairly mundane stock sentiments. Danger Mouse’s linking of the two is inspired and the way he used his loops made from The Beatles’ materials and synched them with Jay-Z’s vocals suits both source texts beautifully.
Stay tuned for more on the forthcoming 33 1/3 series titles in the weeks ahead.

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