33 1/3 has been publishing some of the smartest and sparkiest music books for just shy of a decade. These slim volumes can be devoured in a single hit but the best of them roll around your mind for days. David Barker is series editor. We asked him to colour in the background behind the books
At Spike, we’re big fans of the 33 1/3 series of music books. You’ll be familiar with them if you’ve browsed a record or book shop over the last half-decade. Each of these pocket-sized editions focuses on a single album, drilling down to explore various elements of it. Each volume is different, some telling the story of the record, others analysing the songs themselves. It’s this flexibility that keeps the format invigorated. Furthermore, the slimness of each book is a definite advantage (each being roughly 130 pages long), forcing a salient brevity on the writers. Hugo Wilcken’s book on Low and Mike McGonigal on My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless are personal favourites. Both are genuinely informative and entertaining, packing a lot of insight into a small space. Both are also very good at demythologising some apocryphal tales. I’d also recommend Mark Polizzotti’s Highway 61 Revisited, but most of them a extremely readable. The latest instalment is Bryan Waterman’s volume on Television’s Marquee Moon, carefully researched with the aid of Richard Hell’s archives.
There’s something both classic and infinitely flexible about the series. Where did the idea come from?
The 33 1/3 series was my idea, way back in 2002. I’ve been working at Continuum since 1996, first in London, then in New York. Initially I drew up a list of 50 or so albums that I thought people would enjoy writing about, and then started contacting some writers, musicians and broadcasters to see if anybody actually wanted to do such a thing. It turned out that a lot of people were really into the idea so I pitched it to the board at Continuum and we were up and running pretty quickly.
How do you decide which titles to go with? It seems to be love rather than demographics?
When I was first putting the series together, there was a list of possible albums for people to write about–from Nation of Millions to Bat Out of Hell, from Murmur to Thriller, and from Piper at the Gates of Dawn to Exile on Main St. But very quickly it became apparent that most people I contacted were more interested in writing about an album that wasn’t on my original list, so it rather snowballed from there. You could certainly argue that the series started out with a larger focus on “classic rock”–Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Bowie, Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and Dylan were all in the first 20 titles–but as it became more established we felt more confident about publishing volumes in different genres and about artists who were perhaps less well-known. So we’ve ended up, I hope, with an interesting range that covers some obvious stuff but also people like Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, Celine Dion, Guided by Voices, Van Dyke Parks, and Slint. For info about the best-selling titles, best place to look is here.
I love too many of the books to be able to identify one as a personal favourite, but right now I’d say I have the fondest memories of the books about Dusty Springfield, James Brown, Led Zeppelin, The Band, Beastie Boys and The Pixies. If I was to write one of these? I’d probably go for Rattlesnakes by Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, but it wouldn’t sell!
There’s a good blog post from the last time we had an open call for proposals. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to read through that number of proposals, and have learned so much about music–and about writing–in the process. Although, honestly, sending out rejection letters to approximately 580 people is nobody’s idea of fun…
I know Geeta Dayal was approached by Brian Eno. Do you get much feedback from the artists themselves? Any angry faxes from Morrissey?
Somewhat inevitably, we’re more likely to hear from, or be in touch with, the less famous of the artists covered by the series. People like The Flaming Lips, Guided by Voices and Van Dyke Parks have all been extremely helpful. We never heard anything from Celine Dion, which was a shame. And I’d love to know if Dylan likes our Highway 61 book, as I’m sure it’s one of the very best of the many, many Dylan books published so far. Thurston Moore was kind enough to inform us, on the series blog, that our book about Daydream Nation had a couple of lyrics transcribed incorrectly. That was a little awkward. But it was really gratifying to learn that Eno was so fond of Geeta Dayal’s book about Another Green World.
Any plans to branch out into films or novels? Greil Marcus managed a whole book just on ‘Like a Rolling Stone’!
No plans to branch out, although I should point out that Soft Skull Press launched a great series of small books about films, which is often being compared to the 33 1/3 series.
In Rip It Up and Start Again, Simon Reynolds talks about a moment in the 80s when post-punk started looking back. Has pop reached its ‘classical’ phase where we endlessly debate the canon?
I believe the canon will keep evolving. And while it was never the intention of the series to claim these as the best albums ever made, I do hope that we’ve managed to open some new debates about what can be considered a great album and that we’ve managed to turn people on to some great music that they’ve perhaps not tried before. And perhaps most importantly of all (to my mind at least) that the series has explored and encouraged different ways of writing about music. There are so many stories still to be told, and so many ways of telling them.