Scribes Sounding Off: Synthesizers

The Beastie Boys may have released the first number one hip-hop album on the Billboard charts (License To Ill, 1986), but to most of those reading the KEXP Blog, Beastiemania probably has more to do with a unified field of creative miscegenation.

Made up primarily of Michael Diamond (Mike D), Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, the Beastie Boys are three collaborators and other conspirators who intuitively coalesced to forge several underground cultures they happened to be digging in their NYC-base in the early 80s: First wave hardcore, indie cassette trading, twelve inch EPs, white kids gone reggae fanzines, eclectic crate-digging and bargain bin LP hunting, and of course sex-drugs-rock-and-roll. They were able through hard work and vision to bring these elements into the pop world through the anthemic storytelling of then somewhat-wide-open commercial rap. That they took their thrash-punk roots into a cerebral, sinewy, and sonically fluid world of alternative rock and avant-soul, took on the adoration of fraternity brothers everywhere and had their integrity survive it, is a testament to one of the most important bands ever.

Jonathan Zwickel’s hardback Beastie Boys is the first in a handsome hardback series of musician biographies published by Greenwood meant for anyone from teenagers to scholars to be able to dive in and dig out the ideas and events of their favorite artists in chronological order. Beastie Boys superbly stacks the relationships, events, dichotomies, assimilations, and controversies involving the three MCs/multi-instrumentalists, and vividly and describes their “fucking with” fellow evolutionary legends Rick Rubin, Kathleen Hanna, Matt Dike, Chuck D and Public Enemy, and many others. It isn’t afraid to deal with jittery subjects such as the band’s dip into misogyny and homophobia during the boom years with Rubin (which alienated original drummer Kate Schellenbach, though she would later come back to be on their label Grand Royal with her band Luscious Jackson). Or MCA’s recent abrupt dealing with a tumor on the side of his neck, which led to a lot of plans for a post-’00s being delayed.

Beasties comrade Biz Markie is rumored to have begun the phrase “Grand Royal” as an explanation of skills “guaranteed every time,” and whether it was putting out dually chart-topping and senses-torquing records, glossy magazines filled with Hanna “grilling the band on their original chauvinism,” or giving the autonomy of making a documentary of their tour to their fans, at least they could never be faulted for ambition. Whether it’s the discovery of Tibetan Buddhism to the men, or the developing definition of what funk means to them, Beastie Boys puts the book in a very synesthetic flow of artistic inspiration and collective happenings. Perhaps due in part to the uniquely prioritized pacing of these planned tomes, Zwickel expertly puts together a career-spanning book with the kind of details that surpass a smaller 33 1/3 focusing on one record, but without the flab of an “insider” biography.

The first book for this prolific Seattle-based freelancer and now editor of City Arts Magazine who’s also written for high quality music and literary magazines such as Down Beat and The Believer, Zwickel shows the same skills for condensing impressive amounts of humor, wisdom, and movement into scribing as the Beasties do up on beats.

Richie Unterberger is a shoe-leather detective of the deep music story, and his contributions to helping to change the standard of the usual rock biographies have included his enormously enjoyable and absolutely massive Velvet Underground (minute by minute chronicled!) book White Light/White Heat.

His new book about Pete Townshend and The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again, is more about a very special period in the long life of a mainstream rock band. Like his scribing comrade Gillian Gaar’s awesome analysis of the 1968 comeback period for Elvis Presley (Return Of The King, also published by Jawbone), it focuses on an exuberantly successful period, when many sacrifices were made and critical and commercial acceptance entwined. For The Who and its primary singer/songwriter/dynamo guitarist-keyboardist, it was in attempting a resurrection of the rock opera after they dominated with the world-changing Tommy.

Unfortunately, in Townsend’s case, it was also about a near total dark night of the soul, when his band was pulling against all his instincts, and he tried to grapple with new technologies to tell a story as spiritual as the messianic original 60s triumph, but so intimate that it crashed his nerves. Won’t Get Fooled Again goes over and over with friends, foes, and fans of the band the various scenes in which they found humongous success with singles scrapped from sessions meant for more conceptual work than Who’s Next (1971) implied; yet not ignoring the creative dominance of that album on rock musicians and fans to this day.

So in focusing on this forged-by-fire period of 1970 and 1974, we get another intricately-researched and documented book bigger than one grasping to create the scenes behind a one album masterpiece or cultural bellwether. It’s an ambitious approach, creating instead a psychobiography of a period involving anxious religious conversion and relational chaos, which caused incessant drain of energies on those with suddenly huge cultural influence. Who’s Next brought the rock world songs like “Behind Blue Eyes” and “Baba O’Reily,” which were harbingers of everything from throat-clenching folk-punk to sizzling new wave to the start of rock-based electronia. After this, this fecund half-decade of instrumental growth and lyrical depth-plunging would also find the band writing their own great novel and work of collective autobiography, Quadrophrenia.

Unterberger is a ubiquitously by-lined contributor to markets like Mojo, Record Collector, and All Music, and has written liner notes for probably half the best reissues in your album collection. (His recent article on Tim Buckley in Record Collector would be exhausting if it wasn’t so inspirational in its revelations about the singer-songwriter’s garage band days.) This is a happily welcomed addition to his place on a prized shelf in my library, also featuring his Unknown Legends of Rock’n’Roll, Eight Miles High and Turn! Turn! Turn!, and several others, all of which will hook you up with the best your local record store has to offer in the racks. This saga of The Who’s apex is recommended for all from their early mod years to the early 80s; those four were a peak Unterberger expertly pinpointed to bring into the most bracing examination. Don’t miss this.

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