Rock Opera Buffa

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New at Reason: Nick Gillespie has been bitter about Blood on the Tracks ever since Pete Hamill beat him out on the liner notes writing gig. Today, he gets his revenge, with a celebration of the demise of The Album as the basic unit of rock.

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  1. “She’s Leaving Home” is great. Gillespie’s an idiot. Cancel my subscription.

  2. I seriously doubt kids are spending all that much time previewing songs over the internet.

    How in the world would you ever know? I constantly sample tracks I download on Kazaa from groups I’ve never heard of or songs I’ve never heard on albums I know about. Sometimes I even buy the album.

  3. > “She’s Leaving Home” is great. Gillespie’s an
    > idiot. Cancel my subscription.

    Yes, yes, and not quite yet. Gillespie embodies the nasty, smug, self-satisfied snarkiness that gives libertarians a bad name, and he misses no opportunity to state his opinion as a fact that should be obvious to everyone. There’s still a lot of good writing in Reason, but it rarely has his name on it. Bring back Virginia Postrel!

  4. For a great examination of the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll singles, I recommend Dave Marsh’s “The Heart Of Rock And Soul.” If you can put up with Marsh’s silly leftist polemics (as when he explains how Madonna’s “Holiday” represents the capitalist excesses of early Eighties New York) the book is stimulating and a hell of a lot of fun.

  5. You can take my copy of “Pet Sounds” when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands. All Killer, No Filler.

  6. i wonder if Amazon will ever start selling books by the chapter? so many books are full of fluff and i just want the highlights.

    one other thing…is this the death of album art?

  7. is there music criticism that doesn’t feature opinions stated as “fact?”

    for what it’s worth, i can’t understand why anyone got all googly over the beatles at all. they were the payless soundtrack to shoe shopping when i was a wee one.

  8. Are you kidding me? I hate just having singles (except hip-hop 12″s and punk 7″s but thats different) which is why I never jumped on the Napster bandwagon. I love LPs, why would you want to listen to a song out of context?

  9. Well, everyone’s got an opinion, but that’s just what it is, an opinion. At least Gillespie owns up to such with his parenthetical “for me” when discuss Dylan, though he doesn’t bother with such qualifiers for his Sgt Pepper bit. But then, maybe it would be boring to say “in my opinion” in front of everything we say?

    The larger issue is that changes in technology will inevitably change our culture for better or worse. Whether the change will be complete or only partial will depend on what the mass market wants. If enough people prefer the completeness and depth one might get from an album length release, whether or not each and every song ranks as a fave, perhaps albums will survive. If not, then not.

  10. > is there music criticism that doesn’t feature
    > opinions stated as “fact?”

    If there is, I’d like to know about it — it might actually be worth reading.

  11. they already have it, it’s called a “kit list” and “album credits”

    i mean, c’mon folks.

  12. Ugh. Bad, bad, bad column. Me no likey.

    And I like “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” too.

    There, I’ve got my initial reaction out of the way.

    If file sharing or selling singles online means we have to buy fewer shitty albums just to get the one or two good songs, then that will be wonderful. But it would be a damn shame if online music crowds the album out entirely.

    Welch, I know you’re with me on this one. Somebody already mentioned “Pet Sounds,” but it’s worth mentioning again. I’m glad the Beach Boys made that album instead of trying to replicate “Surfin’ USA” in another dozen singles.

    And the Stones — without albums, would we have “You Got the Silver”? “Factory Girl”?

    I guess one man’s “filler” is another man’s hidden treasure. Lose the album and you lose both. In the case of Dylan or the Stones or various other artists I really like, I’ll take the good with the bad.

  13. Downloads?
    Dean’s a metrosexual?

    Is the whole media world now revolving around south park episodes?

  14. And the Stones — without albums, would we have “You Got the Silver”? “Factory Girl”?

    Why the assumption that if you download only the songs you like, they’re going to be the hits? When I listen to Sticky Fingers, the song I almost always skip is “Brown Sugar.” Someone else, I’m sure, bought the album for “Brown Sugar” alone. Nick’s point is that with Napster and a CD burner, we’re both happy — it’s easier for each of us to assemble the “album” that we want to hear, not the one passed down to you by the artist/producer/company.

    Sounds good to me. And I say this as a guy who loves “Lily, Rosemary, and the Queen of Hearts.”

  15. I mean Jack. Not Queen. Though that would be an interesting song too.

  16. Which returns me to my original observation. In the pre-CD days of LP albums, it was a bother to skip songs. Some of those songs deserve(d) skipping, no doubt, but a distinct advantage of the inconvenience was listening to and coming to really like some stuff that I wouldn’t have bothered with as the technology made skipping it that much easier. This will be even more the case with single song downloading.

    That doesn’t mean I object to the new technology, only that we *do* give something up in return for its advantages.

  17. I’ll weigh in for “Lily,” too. I happen to think the line about the drunk hanging judge is funny.

    And as for albums, why should single-downloads kill it? The motiviation for producing a complete album–like the Stone’s “Some Girls”–was Jagger et al.’s aesthetic temperment; likewise for Brian Wilson and “Pet Sounds,” or Dylan and “Blonde on Blonde.”

    If an artist has a vision, he produces it, whatever its scope. Just because the New Yorker runs a Paul Muldoon poem one-off doesn’t mean he’ll never publish another book. Some people read the one-off, others buy the book.

  18. I meant “would those songs have been recorded?” not “would people be buying them today?” In the case of the Stones, probably yes, because they’re successful enough to record what they want. But I imagine there are plenty of bands making great Albums that don’t have that much power. And if albums becomes obsolete (not that I really think they will), it will be pretty tough for even rich rock starts to get them released.

    You could say, it’s useless to argue whether albums becoming obsolete would be good or bad. It’s gonna happen if the market wants it to happen. But the market reflects our preferences, so if you care about Albums, keep buying ’em!

    I’m quite the old crank on this topic, maybe because I don’t have the high-speed Internet at home. I would much rather go to a record store than download a song. I don’t even mind paying, as long as its not much more than $15 an album. The handy packaging, better quality, etc, are worth it, plus tt keeps my CD collection at a manageable 150 or so. If I downloaded music and burned CDs, I wouldn’t have room in my house for food.

  19. I don’t think albums will go away, Tony. For musicians who want to create them, they’re easier & cheaper to produce than ever before. And there’s plenty of us who will still shell out for them. (Despite my comments above, I buy maybe 2 CDs a month. If downloads drive down the price of albums, as some argue that they’re already doing, that number might go up.) The people who will fall away from making albums (or the long-form equivalent) are those who are naturally singles artists already.

    Besides: While we’re singing the praises of the neglected album track, let’s not forget its cousin, the forgotten B-side. Did the Beatles ever record a song better than “You Know My Name, Look Up My Number”? What crazed outtakes, previously never released in any form, will soon be available to us as downloads only?

  20. D.A.,

    What’s this “bother” shit about skipping a song in the pre-CD days? You lift the arm up and set it down on the song you want. Push a button to change songs? Goddamn lazy kids.

    Of course, I’m sure some other old fogey once opined, “What’s this ‘bother’ shit about starting a fire? You rub two sticks together…”

  21. Tom, my AR turntable didn’t have a cue lift so picking up the tonearm and finding the space between cuts was bad for the records. (Which reminds me of an ad for a phono cartridge back in the dark ages touting two stylii — “Elliptical for *your* records, conical for your *friends* records!”)

  22. and that, for that matter, Sinatra was doing it years earlier,

    Like George Washington’s cherry tree and the pronunciation of “February,” the idea that Sinatra invented the concept album has been repeated so many times that it’s now true even if it’s not. I am unpersuaded that it was an inevitable or even logical step from A Swingin’ Affair to Tommy and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Sinatra’s fans love to make Herculean claims about The Chairman, but this one I think is pretty bogus. Sinatra’s real concept album was Watertown, my appreciation of which should be read by all Americans at least once a day. Pride in having invented the concept album seems suspiciously like pride in being the first lemming off the cliff. Sinatra can be blamed for many things, but the concept album isn’t one of them.

    For a great examination of the history of Rock ‘n’ Roll singles, I recommend Dave Marsh’s “The Heart Of Rock And Soul.”

    Dave Marsh is a stone jackass, but his One Big Idea-that singles and one-hit wonders make up the real history of rock-is great and he does a tremendous job of promoting it. I just wish he’d stick to that and stop embarrassing himself (or, worse really, everybody except himself) with flaming encomiums to The Boss.

  23. Jeez, all this is bringing back high school memories of how what stylus you had on your turntable was just as important as whose boobs you felt up the previous Saturday night.

    Being Air Force brats, most of us had Pioneer, Akai or Toshiba systems then largely unavailable in the states. You were hot shit if you had a strobe on your turntable. And the best joke to play on someone was to fuck with the counterweight on his tonearm while he left to get some more papers from his big brother’s room.

  24. Well, gosh, Tim, I only said it was a defensible point of view that Sinatra got there first. I happen to be a Sinatra fan, but I don’t give a rodent’s hindquarters whether his was the first ‘concept’ albums or not. (Come to think of it, wouldn’t recordings of operas – and I *don’t mean “Tommy”, count? “Cosi Fan Tutti” was, after all, popular music in its day.)

  25. Didn’t Gilbert and Sullivan make the first concept album?

  26. It was Jesus who made the first concept album. Victor Garber played him in the movie version.

  27. That would have been an immaculate concept album?

  28. I agree with D.A. Ridgley

    It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. But Nick, while his facts are spot on, his opinions are so wrong. To wit;

    A: Lilly holds it’s own on BOTT

    And B: “Even when they weren’t full-blown concept albums or (god forbid) rock operas, post-Pepper’s LPs demanded to be experienced in full; to skip tracks or to listen to them out of order was like screwing with Shakespeare. There was shame not just in being a “singles band” but in being a “singles fan.”

    That is all true, but the thing is, IT IS ALL TRUE. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, is a perfect example. Time and Money got plenty of air play but the album as a whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts, the experience one comes away with really is more profound. And the “god forbid” crack regarding Rock Opera is likewise unwarranted. Sure there was plenty of pretentious crap released in that genre, but that always the case when truly great art is created. Finally, growing up in the 70’s I learned quickly that a bands best stuff was never played on the radio. In my musical world commercial=crap.

    I personally believe that the technology will create it’s own genius and give us new and more profound musical experiences than we’ve known before (as has always been the case). But that’s not Nick’s thesis. He seems to be saying “We’ll be better off listening to nothing but the one hit wonders and simple dance tunes.” That’s just crazy talk.

  29. “Well something’s lost and something’s gained in living every day…” la-la-la

  30. The assumption always seems to be that moving music off an ablum/cd oan putting it online would reduce the number of songs availabble. compare the cost of what it takes to load a track onto an existing download service to what it costs to put that track on a fixed media and distribute it.

    You would have to sell fewer $.99 downlaods to cover the cost of a track. There would be no need to wait until you had a cd’s worth of material. An artist could record and release music as fast as they wanted providing fans and the curious with a steady stream of new material.

  31. Sorry about the horriffic typing and lack of proofreading above.

  32. Htat’s okey.

  33. Maybe this is the death of the album, but I kind of doubt we’re going to see a rebirth of the sort of singles culture that went on in the late 50s to early 60s. For one thing, there’s hardly any dj’s anymore that you can pay off to give you some airplay. Another, there doesn’t really seem to be any audience of kids all listening to the same local dj for whatever excitement he could manage to stir up.

    So it goes…

  34. I prefer the concept single myself.

  35. Dave Marsh recognized it, but I think it was punk and dance music that brought back the idea of the song being the significant unit. Also there was home taping, which created mixed taped preferable to albums. Cd’s also hurt the conceptual idea since they were longer than vinyl and required more lengthy (bad) filler.

    “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” is easily the highlight of Blood On The Tracks. Nick’s writing sounds like he’s indulging in too much “Pictures Of Lily.”

  36. If singles become the primary way of selling music then not only will muscians release songs more often but the recoding industry will force radio stations to promote more than just a couple of songs from each band.

  37. Perhaps a better way to evaluate the situation is to talk to a musician and ask him if this would influence whether or not he would continue to release albums. Ask him whether he sees artistic value in compiling multiple songs into a singular piece of work.

    Or perhaps a label regarding how they predict this new distribution medium will influence selling music.

    We could bs about it all we want, but we aren’t the ones making and selling music.

  38. Ignoring the defensible argument that “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” were also ‘theme’ albums and that, for that matter, Sinatra was doing it years earlier, one of the things that is lost in this greater freedom is the opportunity to learn to appreciate songs the non-hit songs in an album. Yes, BOTT and Sgt. Pepper both had a few lame cuts, but the entire albums would never have gotten radio air time and I seriously doubt kids are spending all that much time previewing songs over the internet. Many of my favorite Dylan or Beetles (or whatever) songs from days gone by are the ones that never made the charts and I never would have heard at all, let alone heard more than once, if I hadn’t bought the album on the strength of a song or two that got air time.

  39. I like “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts,” proving D.A. Ridgely’s point. So sue me.

  40. You’ll be receiving paperwork from my lawyers next week.

  41. Having bought a couple of albums recently after hearing a song or two on MTV I am now all for Napster and iTunes. What a load of crap I got for my money! If the music labels want to sell a hard-copy then DVD singles with the high quality videos included are vastly better as the video is part of the art now – they are the future IMO.

    Napster 1 served it’s function as radio on demand and indeed introduced me to my two favourite bands of the moment, of which I have bought several albums (not quite delisted yet). Napster 2 will be great for buying the odd song, but I won’t go near an album anymore unless I’ve heard it all first. Unfortunately the best way to try the album first is Kazaa.

  42. Warren:

    “Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, is a perfect example. Time and Money got plenty of air play but the album as a whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts”

    I cannot agree more. Every time I hear a “rock block” on classic rock radio they almost always play “Money” and “Another Brick in the Wall part 2”. Even as a kid, I got sick of these songs and didn’t truly discover the genius of Floyd until I listened to their whole albums.

    Along the same lines, I think Pink Floyd’s “Animals” is the best buried treasure of music. It’s the stuff you DON’T hear that allows for new discovery.

  43. Maybe we can start downloading only the movements we like from symphonies and do away with all that filler material! I really like the second movement from the Ninth Symphony, but the rest — what was Ludwig thinking?! 🙂

    Also, I was going to say something like “For all you Stones and Floyd fans out there, two words: Led Zeppelin”. Then I realized that they only did one truly bad song, and were therefore considerably more than one cut above the rest! 🙂

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  46. i want to cancel from napster as i have received nil since it started 2week,s ago maybe a problem with my computer . please acknowledge.

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