|Reading about rock isn’t quite the same as listening to rock, but the recently released Thirty Three and a Third series of books published by Continuum is pretty damn close. Each volume in the series features in-depth background and insights on the music of a single highly praised and influential album. The more than two dozen current and planned titles of the 331/3 Series cut a broad path across rock’s mine field of sub-genres. So while you’ll find the obvious like The Beatle’s Let It Be or Neal Young’s Harvest, you’ll also come across the unexpected like Love’s Forever Changes or James Brown’s Live at the Apollo. Each book is written by a musician or music-writer that has a unique personal attachment to the “classic” he’s writing about – so you’re getting a fan’s perspective, albeit one who knows what he’s talking about. It makes for pleasurable, up-tempo reading rather than a dry, factual listing of names, places and dates. These paperbacks are compact and light-weight so you can readily imagine them as portable companion pieces to the albums themselves. They seem perfect for a subway take-along read while you’re plugged into your personal listening device.
One of the more entertaining books in the series is the Joe Harvard authored The Velvet Underground and Nico. There’s hardly a band on the current indie scene who doesn’t list the Velvet Underground as an influence either directly or by osmosis. And if they don’t, you can bet that some publicist or reviewer has used that now almost reverential name in comparison. With volatile and divergent personalities like Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico and Andy Warhol in the mix, the Velvet Underground was indeed an exploding inevitable. Harvard has unearthed a virtual mother lode of interesting facts and anecdotes in the telling of how it all came together to produce a recording that even almost forty years after the fact still seems groundbreaking. Harvard is obviously excited about his subject and you can almost feel the heat of the Lower East Side streets wafting up as Cale and Reed bang out the demos in their Ludlow Street apartment for what would become their classic recording. A number of both well known and obscure sources are used for material along with new interviews with the album’s co-producer Norman Dolph and the seemingly unlikely source of the author’s long time friend Jonathan Richmond (Modern Lovers). Unlikely, until it’s revealed that as a teenaged VU fanatic, Richmond made the trek from Natick, Massachusetts to The Factory on 54th Street and managed to get himself into Warhol’s inner circle. Some of his comments are the most insightful.
Joe Harvard dug up a wealth of material in piecing together the Velvet Underground book so it shouldn’t be totally surprising that he holds a degree in Archeology from – where else – Harvard. But he’s probably best known in music circles as the co-founder of the legendary Fort Apache Studios where he was a player, engineer and producer for a number of Boston’s prominent early punk/new wave groups. He is also the webmaster of The Boston Rock Storybook (www.rockinboston.com), a comprehensive insider’s look at all things connected with that scene.
Chris Ott’s Unknown Pleasures chronicles Joy Division’s transition from a second wave Brit punk outfit, with a naďve fixation on Nazi imagery and themes, to the legendary genre-breaking group they would become. It’s a harrowing tale with the central plot being the doomed Ian Curtis’ tragic downward spiral (sped up by both his epilepsy and treatment medications) that ended with his suicide at the age of twenty-three. This just as the band was about to embark for the USA where they seemed destined to attain the commercial success that their evolution into New Order would eventually claim. The pace bogs down a bit with agonizingly detailed (and sometimes extraneous) studio, philosophical and medical factoids which hard core followers of the band will probably be delighted with.