And that’s really, something!
—Roxy Music, “Street Life,” 1973
This book is likely far more expensive than the $17 or so you may pay for it. If you don’t know the records celebrated here, you’ll want to. If you do know them, you’ll hear them in new ways, under different skies. For that matter, you may find yourself driven to the record store or its ether equivalent in search of albums you discarded long ago—only to find you still can’t hear a fraction of what Daphne Carr hears in Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space by Spiritualized or what Michaelangelo Matos hears in History of Our World Part 1: Breakbeat and Jungle Ultramix by DJ DB. And you may nevertheless be convinced that what they hear is there for you to hear—if you hold your breath, care enough, live that long.
Again and again, the albums taken up by Douglas Wolk (Stereolab’s Transient Random Noise Bursts With Announcements—Amoeba Records in Berkeley had a dozen Stereolab discs, but not this one; the manuscript of this book must have had other readers before me), Simon Reynolds (John Martyn’s Solid Air—bought it again, again found a swamp), Ned Raggett (My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless—his piece is a treasure map to a treasure that may have never been buried), and a dozen others are liberated from cliché. Particular records are liberated from the clichés that have surrounded them since they first appeared, and pop music as such is liberated from the clichés of pop writing, even—or especially—when those clichés are wheeled onstage and faced head-on. “Art stands alone and free of the breath that expels it,” says Scott Seward of Divine Styler’s Spiral Walls Containing Autumns Of Light. The idea may be trite. But there’s a desperation in the words Seward chooses—from the airy “alone and free” to “expels it,” which is brutal by comparison—that opens doors into a world where nothing is trite. Seward is in fact talking about the tenth track on the album, “The Next,” or rather a single couplet from the song—“as if it explained everything,” he explains. “It doesn’t. It couldn’t. It never will. Art stands alone and free of the breath that expels it. All music and words belong to the universe once released from our mortal grasp. Many people who hear that line don’t even speak English. To them it is simply a disembodied voice’s assertion of existence.”
As I read Seward, he is saying that the challenge is to hear lines from an English-language pop composition as if they are not in English—to hear them as the desperate attempt to communicate, to hear the desperate attempt to connect (“I wanted to know everything that Rakim knew,” he says), and, in that abstraction, to begin again, from the beginning.
Whatever pop music might be between the covers of this book, it isn’t lingua franca. In the fifties, young people woke up to find that, somehow, they’d been born knowing the pop language that was taking shape all around them. How was it that, for a white, teenage girl on a farm in Iowa no less than for an eight-year-old African-American boy in Tulsa, Little Richard needed no translator? That was the pop world; it isn’t any longer. Over the last twenty years some of the most interesting and many of the most radical pop artists have worked as if to erect barriers between themselves and any version of a so-conceived mass audience, if only to ensure that whoever made it to the other side really wanted to be there. Again and again, writers here find themselves speaking not of how a record or a musician or a singer changed their lives, or the world, or the-face-of-pop—but rather “invented a language,” or tried to. The metaphor of the desert island—where there may be no one to talk to, where, after a time, even your own words, as you talk to yourself or your imaginary friends and enemies, begin to sound foreign, empty, backwards—moves through the pages like a bug, buzzing here, disappearing there, but getting bigger and bigger as the story collages itself together, the bug changing colors, until, with Ian Christe on Iron Maiden’s Killers, the themes of reinventing language and the desert island turn into a single all-consuming image, with Christe, stranded on an ice floe, certain “The Western world could rebuild itself pretty well on the blueprint of Iron Maiden’s second album. Sure, you could say there’s too great an emphasis on killing, but what’s so unusual about that?”
I like the way, again and again, people find themselves fetishizing their records—describing labels, lettering, coloring, pictures hidden in sleeve art. I like the way, again and again, the writers here blindside the reader, if not themselves. “The flyer implied a subculture,” Matos writes of a rave throwaway, “—not the only one, but one that drew me in, suburban in nature but without the studied casualness that typified indie rock, an indifference I couldn’t have faked at that point if you’d force-fed me ‘ludes and strapped me to a chair at a Warhol retrospective.” “This is all textbook stuff,” Seward says. “I have no idea which textbook, but one of them.” The cover of Force It, “the most successful album” by UFO, Dave Queen notes, “depicts couple—rumored to be Genesis P. Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti of Throbbing Gristle of ‘Zyklon B Zombie’ fame—‘forcing it’ while surrounded by faucets. This was around the time Farrah Fawcett…”
Not present in the present, overboard with limited future
And I’m standing alone still getting a thrill
—Wire, “Marooned,” 1978
There may be a more delicate sense of how people listen to music, and of how music crosses borders—borders of its own composition, or those the world sets between forms, styles, eras, and people—here than in any other book on pop music. “This year, Dionne Warwick is hosting the American Music Awards,” John Darnielle writes in his piece on Warwick’s Legends; he’s back in 1977. “That’s all I remember; I don’t know whether this was the first time I heard her sing or not. I just remember seeing her, feeling both confused by and attracted to her languor, her sense of self-assurance, her easy manner. Something in her approach suggested to me that there was a separate reality somewhere, one in which emotions were much subtler and less raw than they were in my reality.” As Lou Reed said when he inducted Dion into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, speaking of the lingua franca of “I Wonder Why,” “it was the sound of another life,” or as Darnielle puts it, “The connection between moments; all we can really ask of pop music.”
But it’s not all we do ask. “I wanted to know everything Rakim knew”: we ask pop music for everything. We ask it to inform our lives, shake them up, call them into question, save them, end them, and for that matter raise the dead. On The History of Our World Part 1, a sample from Touch’s 1971 “Once You Understand” has cops telling one Mr. Kirk that his son is dead from an overdose. But then an Isley Brothers sample “turned into chipmunk talk… exposes the opening sample’s pathos as a sick joke—on Mr. Kirk, on his foolish son, on the hopelessly square ‘Once You Understand,’ on the drug faddism and generation gaps that play out in more or less the same manner every few years, and on you the raver, who by hearing and ostensibly dancing to this new song, is implicated as a potential overdose.” In other words, you have no idea what you’re getting into when you listen. It may be, as Matos says, merely “weirdly inviting”: “If these guys can laugh at something that harrowing, maybe we can have some of what they are taking, or at least watch from a relatively safe distance while they skirt the edge.” But it may be much more than that.
Scott Seward’s chapter on Divine Styler is about a breakdown—a personal breakdown, an aesthetic end-of-the-world-out-of-which-a-new-world-may-be-born breakdown, and a social breakdown. It’s the early nineties; the writer has reached a dead end, a whole nation of dead ends, and time stops. He finds an American nowhere, one place as good as another, in this case, Philadelphia:
They said that cities were a lost cause. Blow them up and start over. Dirty, rotting husks filled with crime and insanity, which was kind of true at the time. A trip of a few blocks to the store could mean running a gauntlet of illness, need, and menace… I can’t help but feel that this country went through some sort of brutal senseless war during that period and that nobody wants to talk about it. It’s like it never happened. So many dead and lost and gone and locked up for life. Entire neighborhoods… poof! And yes, you guessed it, despite the neglect and misery there was vibrancy and life and the radio was rocking with yet another generation of craftsmen fashioning art out of the bare minimum.
It’s a manifesto by hindsight; at the time, Seward is working the graveyard shift in a supermarket. In his pages, time slows, until you are with him minute by minute, inch by inch. Everything becomes clear, as if there’s a fluorescent glare coming right through words. The music he’s trying to enshrine, to set free, to bring to you, establishes a different dimension of time; that’s its gift. And it redeems, or calls into question, the sense of time in which Seward is actually living his life—and the result is that meaninglessness becomes impossible. You are always hearing. You are always anticipating the next turn, the next surprise, the next note, the next confirmation that affirms what went before, the life already lived, gained, wasted, but is not quite the same.
That sense, shared by many of the writers brought together here, creates moments in which each reader of this book will find his or her epiphany, one that says, yes, this is how it is, this is what I’ve always felt—or that says, no, I didn’t know that, I never understood that, I may never understand it, but now I know it’s there, and maybe, when the time comes, in my own life, I’ll recognize this moment for what it is. For me it is the satisfaction Seward takes in blocking his store, going “through the aisles one by one stacking cans and jars and boxes until every shelf was a solid wall of products.” For you it might be Daphne Carr on the wrong end of a telephone call, or Ian Christe laying waste to the entire heritage of Western pop music until only one squawk is left. You may be stranded if you stick around, all alone but still getting a thrill, and, as the man said, handing you an ice-cream cone after squealing and jerking and otherwise turning words into hiccups, that’s really—just the barest pause—something: that you’re hearing not what anyone else is hearing, but nevertheless hearing in the same way, wanting everything, taking what you can get, knowing that there are times when you know you’ve gotten more than you deserve.
Foreword to Marooned: The Next Generation of Desert Island Discs, Da Capo, 2007 (edited by Phil Freeman)