Project X By The Book

Michaelangelo Matos | November 14, 2008 10:00 am

I admit it: I have a bias against literary novelists who write about music. It has to do with my appetite for immediacy. That’s what I like about pop, and pop writing, and it’s not a tendency always shared by literary fiction writers. So I see detailed explanations of milieu that I take for granted and I grow impatient. Obviously, this is my fault, but sometimes it’s the writers’ too. Once I showed a friend a piece a long music essay, by a well-known author, that seemed to spend its first page clearing its own throat. My friend summed up my response with hers: “Trying. Too. Hard.”

So it’s nice to have this bias knocked over, as happened with Hang the DJ: An Alternative Book of Music Lists (Faber & Faber), edited by Angus Cargill. I hadn’t known about the book before Simon Reynolds, who contributed two lists (“Deserving But Denied: Thirty-three No. 2s That Should Have Been No.1” and “The Dirty Dozen: Twelve Great Artists Who Are Terrible Influences”), mentioned the book’s blog on his own. I hadn’t looked beyond a couple of names before my copy arrived; I wanted to be surprised.

I was and wasn’t. Cargill’s jacket bio says that he “lives in London and works in publishing,” and between that and the relatively subdued cover art, with a design and color scheme that give the book the look of the cousin of Paste magazine’s front-of-book, I figured I was in for a very literary time even before I began perusing the bios. By “literary,” I mean lots of indie rock, singer-songwriters, and folk, the styles litfic-folk seem to gravitate toward. Especially since Cargill’s crew is mostly English: judging from an average issue of Uncut, Brits are more in love with Americana than actual Americans, except maybe the ones who handed over their hard-earned to help establish No Depression as a bookazine. A quick thumb-through confirmed that I would be reading quite a bit about the creepy, gruesome, lonesome majesty of Mr. Tom Waits. Whether I’d actually learn anything was iffier. Because that’s how these books are, no matter who writes them: often, lists are where people go to stop thinking so damn hard.

What’s gratifying about Hang the DJ is how seriously its participants took the assignment. Not everything’s a gem–there probably isn’t a newly compiled anthology where that’s the case–but I enjoyed about two-thirds of the book with few reservations, and that counts for a lot. And of course, my reverse-snobbery is rendered pretty much moot. Not all of it, as when Rick Moody tells us that “Martin Rev’s synthesisers were creepier and more industrial in the analogue prehistory of electronic music than what came later when there were racks and racks of keyboards all wired together–in Skinny Puppy or Ministry or Nine Inch Nails or Daft Punk.”

Despite that, I enjoyed Moody’s list, on a great topic: “Get Rhythm: Ten Great Bands without Full-time Drummers.” A lot of the topics were similarly just-left-field-enough to throw new light on things–not (har har) Miriam Toews’ “How Not to Get Laid: The Ten Saddest Tom Waits Songs,” so much as Jack Murphy’s “Jane’s Affliction: Ten Ailments/Accidents That Changed Pop Music History” (Gene Vincent’s bad leg forcing him to adopt a confrontational stage stance, Tony Iommi’s work accident prompting him to tune way down), or Hari Kunzru’s “Yodo-Go a Go-Go! Ten Musical Moments in Revolution,” which sounds boilerplate until you read it: Paul McCartney’s “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” and Cornelius Cardew’s “show-stopping chorus [of], ‘There is the lie of imperialism and reaction/And there is the truth of Marxist-Leninism . . . ’” are both dispatched with a handful of swift, precise strokes.

Both Murphy’s and Kunzru’s lists are numbered 10 to one and are clearly written as countdowns. But most of the lists are counted down as well, even when it isn’t appropriate: Simon Reynolds’ bad-influence list goes 12 to 1 even though they write-ups are arranged chronologically. (He doesn’t seem to think the Byrds’ impact has been any less pernicious than Radiohead’s–the opposite, if anything, since their records have been around longer.) Other things are confusing too. I’ll allow that it’s my Yank provincialism that rendered these my complete notes on the Irish writer Patrick McCabe’s “Not in My Radio Booth: Ten Tunes for Captain Butty”: “?????” As for Snow Patrol frontman Gary Lightbody–great, he wants to write prose like Bono, too. Other singer-songwriters fare better, in particular Tom McCabe, who, writing about female singer-songwriters, is the funniest, most deadpan writer of the bunch. On Feist’s “Mushaboom”: “Feist’s voice and the production of her records are great, but really it’s the dancing in the videos that makes it all irresistible. I’ve never had dancers in my videos. Just rain.”

A few of these lists will probably prompt me to assemble playlists: Jonathan Lethem on the dirty Dylan (on “Cry a While,” from “Love and Theft”: “Included just for ‘late-night booty-call.’ Who does he think he is, Snoop Dogg?”); Andrew Benbow’s Flying Nun roll call; Peter Patnaik’s gruesome rundown of “Female Murder Ballads in the Pre-war Era,” which makes the music sound like the soundtrack to a complete run of Shock SuspenStories. But two stand out, for intrigue in both writing and selection. One is John Williams’ “Sheepshearing: Ten Classics from the British and Irish Folk Revival.” Williams writes so evocatively and with such abundant affection for this stuff that I was disarmed, particularly when he prefaces it by noting, “If you know this stuff, you’ll see it’s pretty much a Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds kind of list”—I don’t know it, and I’m curious to now. (Top 3: Anne Briggs, Dick Gaughan’s Handful of Earth, the Watersons’ For Pence and Spicy Ale.)

But there’s nowhere else I could conscionably end this than with John Kelly’s “The Pecking Order: Ten Songs About Chickens.” Anyone who “collect[s] songs about chickens,” as Kelly professes in his intro, is gunning for hero status on my particular island; anyone who adds, “Sad, dark or nihilistic chicken songs simply do not exist,” has my vote sealed and locked in permanent storage. Below is the list itself. The ones I know (1, 2, 4, 6, 8), I adore; the rest, I fully expect to.

1. Rufus Thomas, “The Funky Chicken” 2. Slim Gaillard, “Chicken Rhythm” 3. Samamidon, “Falsehearted Chicken” 4. Dr. Alimantado, “Best Dressed Chicken in Town” 5. Andre Williams, “The Greasy Chicken” 6. The Meters, “Chicken Strut” 7. Dan Penn, “Memphis, Women and Chicken” 8. Cab Calloway, “A Chicken Ain’t Nothing But a Bird” 9. Billy Ward and the Dominoes, “Chicken Blues” 10. Mississippi John Hurt, “C-H-I-C-K-E-N”

Hang The DJ [Official blog]