33 1/3 series: What works, what doesn't?
August 22, 2014 5:42 PM   Subscribe

The 33 1/3 series is a formidable list of little books about influential records, written by music writers, musicians, writers and fans. It seems to vary significantly in tone and in the writer's approach. For those of you who have read some of these books, which ones (or particular sections) stuck with you? Which didn't work so well? I would love to write one of these, and I'm trying to calibrate my angle as I hone my pitch.
posted by umbĂș to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, they do indeed vary significantly in tone, don't they?!

Worst 33 1/3 I've ever read? The one for Sonic Youth's "Daydream Nation". It sounded like a precocious 14 year old's blog rant about whyyyyyyy don't people just this music, argh?! I'm so pissed about why people don't get Sonic Youth! ARGH!

Neil Young's "Harvest" was a beautiful example of how to do a 33 1/3 book in a rewarding, if conventional, manner. It visited the making of the album on a personal level for Neil, how the album was perceived at the time and even now in the greater context of classic records/the music industry at large, and also included a song-by-song breakdown. I felt like it touched on everything while balancing the album's emotional impact with that of its historical.

I also love the creativity of John Darnielle's 33 1/3 for Black Sabbath's "Master of Reality." He took a risk (by writing fiction) and it worked.

So I would say: avoid whiny editorialism and focus on the record's history and sociocultural impact. More importantly, is the album you're writing about one that is intensely personal to you? This is good for ensuring that you're passionate about your topic, but you also want to make sure you can distance yourself from it enough to stay objective and avoid navel gazing. I think this is where interviews and conversations with other people who've heard the album (bring your tape recorder) become useful.

Good luck! I've always wanted to write one, too, and your question inspired me to think about it again.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:07 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also hated the Daydream Nation book so much that I posted here asking if they were all that crappy. I was annoyed by the pretense of the piece, which was that Daydream Nation (a beautiful and melodic pop record) was some slab of hell music that rightly scared the shit out of anyone who heard it.
posted by OmieWise at 6:10 PM on August 22, 2014

Carl Wilson's Celine Dion's Let's Talk About Love transcends the subject matter...and now I'm going to go find my copy and read it again.
posted by gnomeloaf at 6:13 PM on August 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

I came to recommend the Celine Dion one, as well.
posted by synecdoche at 6:22 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is my previous question, which includes other people talking about what they like in the series.
posted by OmieWise at 6:32 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I found the one for the Beatles "Let It Be" to be really dull, because it was simply a production diary ("on the third day they concluded the piano work for 'Lady Madonna'. Ringo used a Yamaha cymbal primarily except in the third take, when...")

By contrast, the one for "Achtung Baby" and "Swordfishtrombones" were phenomenal - "Achtung Baby" delved into literary critique of the songs themselves, and ended up weaving a whole Miltonian tale out of the album, while "Swordfishtrombones" was a sort of biography of Tom Waits as much as it was a story of the album - but with the author managing to channel Tom Waits' own VOICE to an extent, which is fantastic.

So, no to the straightforward production notes, yes to different takes on the work.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Douglas Wolk does a great job with James Brown's "Live at the Apollo" -- a really impressive bit of micro-history.
posted by neroli at 6:55 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Personally, I like the idea of people writing about why the record is important to them, but in practice, I don't find those as interesting to read. I disliked Jonathan Lethem's on Fear of Music for this reason.

In general, when I read these, I usually want more concrete information about the record, how was made, and its context (unlike EmpressCallipygos, maybe). I liked the one about Double Nickels on the Dime for this reason.

Other pitfalls? I remember the Aeroplane Over the Sea one speculating way too much about the record's Anne Frank symbolism, and going more in the (not very well executed) literary criticism direction. To me, that's just not what's interesting about that record, but I guess the trouble is, people vary so widely in the reasons why they like a given record, and thus, in what they want to know about it.

Ideally, I think that if you're writing about music that was important to you, that should shine through without your liking the music becoming the focus of the book.

Like nightrecordings, I also loved the Masters of Reality one, since I'm a big fan of John Darnielle's writing and music, but I think that'd definitely be a difficult feat to reproduce.
posted by ITheCosmos at 7:46 PM on August 22, 2014

I have and read Another Green World by Geeta Dayal (about Brian Eno's AGW), and Low by Hugo Wilcken (about Bowie's Low).

I was very skeptical about the Low book, but ended up pleasantly surprised. And therein lies a lesson: whom are you writing for? I came to both books as a long time fan of both artists, and I was already very knowledgeable about both artists and the albums. And indeed, I was already familiar with about 95% of the material. However, this is what redeemed the book:

1)The author gives a good background to the album by placing it within its era and musical environment.

2)There is a fairly detailed discussion of the actual album.

3)There is actually some information that's not easily gathered from well-known and already well-trod sources - a big plus.

Therefore, the book worked, because it provided any relative newbie great and valid info, but at the same time it gave a bit of new stuff for the knowledgeable fan.

The AGW book was less successful. Mostly because it focused excessively on the author and her travails in writing this slim volume, and the information given was the same endlessly recycled info that we can easily get from wikipedia and the most mundane sources. Further, she was big on the background - not saying much if anything new - while saying relatively little about the album itself.

But even saying that, I didn't find it a complete waste in that at least the info given was accurate, which is saying something. It would however be of greater value to someone just being introduced to BE and not to a dedicated and knowledgeable fan.
posted by VikingSword at 8:46 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd like to add, that like ITheCosmos, I too like production detail, but within context. For example for both Low and Another Green World production is an absolutely integral part of the overall effect of those albums and indeed Eno is perhaps the most innovative and prominent producer of the last half century. But I can understand EmpressCallipygos, if the production is merely a part of the process but has no impact beyond the most superficial, at that point I might not care that this brand of tape was used and about the minutia of each take.
posted by VikingSword at 8:59 PM on August 22, 2014

The Kinks Village Green Preservation Society book is one of the best in the 33 1/3 series, but not for reasons you're likely to repeat.

Village Green is an odd duck of a record in the band's discography, deeply unpopular at the time but the most influential over the long musical term, and author Andy Miller does a good job of showing off its merits. What really puts the book into the top rank, though, is that it's also a work of original research -- Miller tracks down '60s zine interviews and unreleased studio notes, cross-references dates in biographies, in order to prove that it was actually intended as a Ray Davies solo album after he planned to break up the Kinks. The full implications of that fact are pretty significant and open up a new way to hear a 45-year-old LP.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:00 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

I liked the one on unknown Pleasures a lot - I believe it's an extended version if a series if newsgroup posts, and you can kind if tell, but it remains hugely interesting.
posted by Artw at 10:31 PM on August 22, 2014

ITheCosmos, I get that you didn't like the lyrical interpretations in my Neutral Milk Hotel book, but I think your negative memory has inflated what is really a tiny part of the whole (9 pages out of 104). The book is primarily an oral history of the Elephant 6 collective and the technical aspects behind the making of both NMH albums.
posted by Scram at 10:33 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also disliked the Daydream Nation one. Which is a shame because it's a beautiful record. It's got interesting tidbits but even Thurston Moore called out the incorrect lyrics to Silver Rocket.

It's got an interesting foreword by Lee Ranaldo though.
posted by morning_television at 11:58 PM on August 22, 2014

I like the Sign O The Times one and the If You're Feeling Sinister one. (And that blog I liked to is neat as well).
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:10 AM on August 23, 2014

Great responses. Thank you. I decided not to mark a best answer because I was marking all of them.

I'm a huge fan of the Celine Dion book and how it turns the series format inside out (not that that can be done twice). I just received the new version with all the other essays attached.
posted by umbĂș at 2:33 AM on August 23, 2014

I have only read the one about In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, and I really liked it. But I agree with the author's comment (!) that it is mostly an oral history of Elephant 6 with fascinating sections to me on how the album was crafted.
posted by Corduroy at 6:22 AM on August 23, 2014

I found the one for the Beatles "Let It Be" to be really dull, because it was simply a production diary

I have only read the one about In The Aeroplane Over the Sea, and I really liked it. But I agree with the author's comment (!) that it is mostly an oral history of Elephant 6 with fascinating sections to me on how the album was crafted.

I've read both of these, and completely agree with the comments here. Aeroplane was the first one I read, and it actually set the bar pretty high for me in reading other ones later on. I really enjoyed it - at the time I was reading it, there weren't too many books in the series, so I was OK with it being an Elephant 6 history of sorts because I didn't really think there'd be documentation of other bands in the collective (maybe the Apples in Stereo would get one or something). The production notes are actually interesting and tell a story, unlike Let it Be (Beatles version) which is almost completely soulless.

I found Exile on Main Street to be mostly like Aeroplane in terms of format, just not quite as good.

The two divergent (i.e. not "story of the making of the album") ones that I've read are Let it Be (The Replacements) and 69 Love Songs. Let it Be is basically a memoir by Colin Meloy (the guy from the Decemberists) about his cool cousin introducing him to an album and may only be interesting to people who really like Colin Meloy. There's almost nothing about the actual album in it. 69 Love Songs was written by one of the performers on it, and is much more successful - it's pretty funny and has comments by a bunch of the group members on all the songs but is largely written as an almanac.
posted by LionIndex at 9:09 AM on August 23, 2014

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