You love at least one album. It is a perfect album that makes your toe tap and your heart sing (your head, too). How can something sound so right from beginning to end? So made just for you? In that melding of melody and verve is an album you feel, literally, be it by
33 1/3 is a simple series: Each thin paperback covers one album, and one album only. Close to 2,500 proposals have been submitted to the London-based publisher, Continuum. Eighty-six have become books.
The 33 1/3 series launched in September 2003 with six books across a relatively narrow spectrum, mostly white rock artists and their albums released between 1969 and 1985: Dusty Springfield, Love,
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday
With this summer's publication of "Fear of Music," by Jonathan Lethem, 33 1/3 has released arguably its most notable work from its highest-profile writer. The best-selling author of "Motherless
"It's definitely given the series a huge profile boost in the last few months," said David Barker, who edits the series for Continuum. "We're getting a lot more literary agents contacting us saying, 'I have someone who might want to write one of these things.' Would I like to do more of that? Sure, it would be fun. But does it work financially? I'm not so sure of that."
Muck like rock and roll itself, money can hardly be a motivating factor among those vying to be a 33 1/3 author. Payment is 10 percent of royalties. Period. Early on, authors were given advances of $3,000, which was reduced to $2,000 before being reduced to zero. As evidenced by the 471 proposals in the most recent round of submissions (they happen every 18 months or so; the most recent closed in April), money isn't an issue. When it comes to how people feel about music — why a record matters and what it did to their lives — they just want to be spread the gospel (literally, should a gospel title ever be accepted).
What makes the 33 1/3 series work are the little things: The design (uniform and clean, like an album cover). The size (they're small enough to fit into most pockets — what's more rock and roll than that?). The brevity (152 pages on
Should you think Wire's "Pink Flag" is a seminal moment in rock history, as many critical tastes do, where else are you going to find a book-length text dedicated to its raw brilliance? If not, well, maybe you want to read about "
He's constantly thinking about what can be the next "Aeroplane," selling upward of 3,000 copies per year with no signs of slowing, but he hasn't quite found the equation. It's somewhere along the lines of a popular subject with a fresh take from the author and a ready audience. ABBA, for instance, has plenty of fans, but Barker asked, "Is that a terribly literate, book-buying fan base?"
"No," he said, "and it didn't sell very well. Your
33 1/3 being (mostly) rock and roll, the books are rarely straight-ahead tomes. They veer often into the personal, the passionate and the fire that led an author to find 30,000 words on, say, "Spiderland" by Slint (and in fact, many people vied to write about that record). Right there in the first paragraph of the first book in the series, "Dusty in Memphis," Warren Zanes writes, "This book is about an experience with a record more than it is about a record." And so it often goes in 33 1/3.
Colin Meloy's take on The Replacements' "Let It Be" is as much about himself as the record (as front man for a successful rock band —
What does this have to do with Fleetwood Mac? Nothing. But for anyone obsessed with mid-era Fleetwood Mac (guilty), that's the sacrifice for a book-length discussion on "Tusk."
Others split the difference. Amanda Petrusich's "Pink Moon" is, after a slightly self-obsessed first chapter, a poetic tale about 28 of the best minutes ever put to tape, while many have no "I" factor whatsoever. With 33 1/3 you're rarely just getting a critical analysis of an album. But sometimes you are. Which was Barker's intention.
"The people I initially wanted to write, I thought I'd never get them to write to a rigid format," he said. "I thought it might be more fun to see how they wanted to go about it."
Though an early champion of first person-heavy narratives, Barker sees the series pulling away from that trend: "As I grow older and the series grows older, I want slightly different things from it. I'd be reluctant to put out one of these books now without a bit more documentation and history."
Though no two books in the series are quite alike, they're all, if nothing else, fun to read while listening to the album that was its inspiration. It's probably no accident that one of the most-lauded is particularly light on navel gazing. Carl Wilson's "Let's Talk About Love." (yes, about the
"That's one where every bone in your body says don't do it," Barker said. "But the proposal was a work of genius. The fascinating thing to me is that he didn't write it, and we didn't publish it, as an academic book, but it's used in courses."
Even if 33 1/3 hasn't quite found the formula for a constant run of best sellers (more bondage and vampires?), it isn't going anywhere. Bloomsbury Publishing, which acquired Continuum last year, has affirmed its commitment to the series in its academic wing, and 18 more titles have been slated for release in 2013 and 2014, from
The endurance summons a classic line about the Velvet Underground's first record, "The Velvet Underground & Nico" (it's number 11 in the 33 1/3 series), along the lines of, "It sold just 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought one started a band."
"I don't know that we've sold that many books," Barker said. "But everyone wants to write one of these things."
Josh Noel writes about travel and beer for
David Barker, editor of the 33 1/3 series, recommends five books for those unfamiliar with the series.
James Brown: Live at the Apollo, by Douglas Wolk. "A thrilling, evocative account of the recording of this live album. Wolk is brilliant on JB's showmanship, and the whole book is heightened by the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis."
The Band: Music from Big Pink, by John Niven. "A work of fiction, told from the perspective of a friend/hanger-on/drug dealer who was close to the Dylan/Band crowd at the time. It's sad, funny, moving and perceptive — and the only book in the series to which we've sold the movie rights so far."
Public Enemy: It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, by Christopher Weingarten. "A remarkable, sustained piece of hip-hop writing, in which Weingarten dismantles the album sample by sample."
Television: Marquee Moon, by Bryan Waterman. "Social and cultural history mixed with lyrical and musical analysis. The New York punk scene is well-trodden ground, but Waterman does a wonderful job of bringing this particular story to life."