Reconsider, Baby

From the introduction to Lost in the Grooves: Scram’s Capricious Guide to the Music You Missed, by Kim Cooper and David Smay

Reconsider, baby.

Scram is a magazine that for a dozen years has been tweaking the critical consensus with sly reappraisals of artists deemed insignificant, unimportant or just residing far outside the hipster ghetto. We’re the ones who shouted there was more to bubblegum than the obvious epithet. We raved about Radio Birdman when few north of Sydney cared, unearthed a great folk-rock disc tucked between Dion’s heroin and homegrown eras, and celebrated the earthy brilliance of Jackie DeShannon’s forgotten recording career.

Now we’ve called upon scores of Scram writers and folks who share our iconoclastic passions to bring you Lost in the Grooves, a collection of miniature love letters to albums (and a few singles and EPs) that at least one person considers iconic.

We see ourselves as part of a long tradition of buttonholers, evangelizers spreading the good word about our faves with an unshakeable faith that your physical and spiritual well-being depends on it. (See "Mimeos and Cut-Out Bins" for more on the early zine history, and the vintage reprints spread throughout the book.) Thing is, we’re worried about you. You’re listless, your skin is sallow, you’re sprouting unsightly blemishes and developing a funk in your trunk–and we think this probably has something to do with the absence of the Potatomen in your record collection. You’re teetering on the edge of an abyss, and the only thing that might possibly save you is John Cale’s Paris 1919. We’re sure of it. Perhaps you somehow missed Michael Mantler’s Edward Gorey tribute. Or maybe you don’t have any Swamp Dogg. It’s almost unimaginable, but some people don’t own any Swamp Dogg at all.

Dozens of factors have conspired to prevent you from finding your favorite record. You’re an inadvertent victim of narrowly focused marketing strategies. History, geography, even the limits of your own taste have thwarted you. What you need is an enthusiastic record geek friend to lead you through the bins. You need somebody to pull you away from your beloved indie rock 45s, drag you grudgingly into the country section and thrust a David Allen Coe record into your mitts. What you have in your mitts right now is your own portable geek.

We want crate-diggers to read about Tony Joe White, Schoolly-D fans to hear about Pentangle, Mekons fans to check out Kylie Minogue. No, really, we insist. Because somewhere in the cut-out bin of a record store in Tulsa is your favorite record and you’ve never even heard of it. Or it’s hiding in plain sight, overshadowed by that same musician’s acknowledged masterpieces. Maybe it’s the one great record in an otherwise mediocre career. Or it’s in this very book, in an essay you’re going to skip. So many random events conspiring to prevent the two of you from finding each other.

At the same time, we want Lost in the Grooves to be a record guide, subject to dog-ears and Post-It noting. David spent years tracking down Hackamore Brick and Savage Rose after Greil Marcus wrote about them in Stranded, Breakfast Without Meat magazine’s intelligent adoration of Jimmy Webb made Kim re-think her aversion to that artist, and we were both bubblegumized by exposure to Lester Bangs.

This book exists to nudge the canon so lost records tumble out. We want to highlight sub-genres that produced great music but have fallen out of critical favor, assuming they were ever in it. One thing we didn’t want was a record collector smackdown, vying for pack status with the obscurity of their treasures. Nor did we want to focus on works solely for their freakish novelty. So bad it’s good? Nah, just so good it’s gotta be heard. Not every record here is a masterpiece, but each is distinctive, original and fascinating.

But the standards for which records are unsung, forgotten or undervalued are incredibly slippery. There are plenty of records famous for being obscure, a counter-canon of influential cult classics. So now we don’t really need to write about Gilded Palace of Sin or Radio City or One Nation Under A Groove. They have graduated beyond the scope of this book. Now they’re a part of the canon.

We analyzed the small geographies between cult and canon, charting the ever-shifting border and reviewing case histories to get a feel for the terrain. Inevitably, our criteria for inclusion was both subjective–we asked the contributors to pitch their favorites, filtering the list for cohesion and breadth–and a snapshot of how we see the canon right now. It was impossible to ignore how often reputations rise or fall on completely extra-musical terms. Consider, for example, the unexpected impact of one car commercial.

Nick Drake’s star rose precipitously in 2000 when Volkswagen appropriated “Pink Moon.” Pink Moon sold a reported 74,000 copies that year (up from 6,000), as Drake’s doomed romanticism found a crop of receptive ears dwarfing his longtime cult. His winsome looks and tragic fate rendered Drake the perfect Shelleyan poster boy for the Belle & Sebastian generation, though many new fans made uncomfortable noises about coming to his music through the “dirty” scrim of commerce. But with the artist long dead and unable to approve such marketing plans, Drake retained his creative dignity, and his music still seems primally, perfectly pure.  

Others nurture a cult in the shadows of mainstream success. Scott Walker began as one of the Walker Brothers, British girlhood’s very own golden California fantasy. In 1967, Scott commenced a series of outré louche pop albums steeped in Brelian archetype and an ever-rising pool of sap. Late sixties Walkersong could be exquisitely heartfelt, or schlock city; hits came even as he veered into easy listening territory. But by his masterpiece Scott 4 (1969), the fans had tuned out. It remained for Julian Cope to restore his reputation with a 1981 compilation subtitled Godlike Genius. Scott returned with Climate of Hunter, an extension of the powerful electronic material he’d slotted into the Walker Brothers’ reunion disc Nite Flights, to little notice by critics then plotzing over Bowie’s similar experiments with Eno. Recently honored with a five-disc box set, Scott canonical status is assured.

With an eerie ability to ride the zeitgeist, the Beach Boys have kept their summer on life support for nearly forty years. Regular revivals remarket the Boys as good time music for successive generations. Meanwhile, a passionate cult clung tight to their private version of the sub-chart Beach Boys: the Beach Boys of Manson covers, Sunflower, that terrifying board tape of Murray Wilson haranguing his sons. Underground scholars like Domenic Priore compiled essential field guides as bootleggers continued assembling endless jigsaw puzzle of Smiles that might have been. Eventually Capitol recognized the market for such effluvia and issued a Pet Sounds Sessions box. Brian returned to the stage backed by a band of pop freaks who encouraged the master to replicate Pet Sounds and Smile live. Ironically, as their more arcane music finally finds an audience, the classic early kar kulture tracks are being neglected. But we think there’s room on any discriminating shelf for both “Chug-a-lug” and "Cabinessence."

Some get lost despite continued strong work. The aviaphobic Byrd, Gene Clark left the band as their touring commitments intensified, slipping off to forge a distinctive brand of mournful, harmony-drenched country-rock through collaborations with the Gosdin Brothers and Doug Dillard. While respected, these recordings sold sparingly. The eighties Paisley Revival scene was the creative boost Clark needed. Bands like the Bangles and Three O’Clock worshipped at his jangled boots, and pulled Clark back into the spotlight. In the last years of his life, he recorded duets with Carla Olsen, their So Rebellious A Lover selling better than any previous Clark release. As the Byrds’ career has been subject to box sets and expanded reissues, the strength of Clark’s early contribution is undeniable. But his very accessible and pretty solo material has failed to find any real posthumous life. While Gram and the Burritos loft up into the firmament, Gene Clark remains incomprehensibly earthbound.

Some celebrated artists still need reconsideration because their narrative doesn’t scan neatly. Because Sly Stone remains inconveniently alive, the history of funk and rap has been grossly distorted. James Brown is a gigantor dust magnet accruing credit for every flicker in black music for the last four decades. While his rhythmic innovations brought a stinky new whipcrack funkiness to American music, James Brown did not invent funk. He’s sui generis–nobody sounds like him except by pastiche. Neither did George Clinton invent funk. Funk starts on the thumb-callous of Larry Graham on "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)"–and all things funky roll outward from that low, seismic tremor. But Sly crawled up a hole in his nostril thirty years ago, and George Clinton’s a cuddlier interview for VH-1. Also, the Family Stone’s epochal Woodstock performance date-stamps them as Hippie Rock in a way that muddles the clear line from There’s a Riot Goin On through every Dr. Dre production.

The late nineties saw a flurry of interest in the DIY Elephant 6 collective. While the Apples in Stereo and Olivia Tremor Control got more attention at the time, it’s the marching band psychedelia of Neutral Milk Hotel that’s proved the movement’s legacy. In The Aeroplane Over The Sea received warm notices on release, but no one could have predicted the record’s inexorable rise to the top of the postpunk indie canon. Although bandleader Jeff Mangum broke up the band after their 1998 tour, his weirdly beautiful love letter to Anne Frank went out and did its own promotion, passing from hand to hand in a truly underground, ever-expanding cult. When Magnet magazine listed the best releases of the last ten years, Aeroplane soared comfortably above the rest.

Deep catalogs that resist easy summary create their own problems. The book on Jonathan Richman says: proto-punk innovator with the Modern Lovers and faux-naïf kiddie songster thereafter. But that book’s wrong. The kid songs were only a brief transitional period to stake out a new sound and songwriting territory that had a huge influence on the nineties indie lo-fi scene. We review Modern Lovers 88 in this book, but could have just as easily highlighted Rock ‘N’ Roll With The Modern Lovers or Rockin’ and Romance or I, Jonathan, each stellar, distinct and scattered across his career. Curtis Mayfield’s seventies work similarly suffers from his very consistency. It doesn’t provide an easy hook for critics, and so the story stops after Superfly.

Box sets present key opportunities for revaluation: the Byrds, Zombies and Beach Boys all got significant boosts with their career summaries. But it doesn’t always work. Even as we go to press, the Talking Heads’ box set seems to be actively souring their reputation simply because the packaging is so pretentious. How else to account for Robert Christgau all but anointing them as the best rock band in the world in 1982, then dismissing the whole of their work with a dyspeptic C? The Jefferson Airplane’s box set couldn’t pry them loose from their era to be heard as music, and that’s an entirely different issue. Music at the core of specific scenes struggles to be heard for its merits, instead of as a lifestyle soundtrack. Goth is one obvious example, where Bauhaus drew from the same peculiar mix of dub, Krautrock, prog, punk and processed guitars as Joy Division and PiL, but can’t shake its subcultural associations long enough to be heard by anyone inexpert in liquid eyeliner.

So many factors play into a band’s rediscovery: the advocacy of a superstar fan (Kurt Cobain’s penchant for Pastels t-shirts and Verlaines covers), an emergent scene with obvious forebears (the White Stripes and the longstanding garage rock underground), fads in sonic recycling (analog synthesizers coming back into vogue causing an outbreak of Moog farts and blurps everywhere). Rap’s insatiable beat craving created a permanent market in yesterday’s sounds that slopped over into every sample-happy sub-genre.

It’s such a crapshoot, you need a tool to help even the odds. The subject’s far too large to be covered comprehensively, so we designed this book as more than a record guide. It’s a provocation, an outline, a dialogue, a shortcut, a rabbit hole. If you follow just a few of its paths, you’ll find whole unexplored continents of music. We’ve set you on shore; here’s a map into the interior.