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April 13, 2006

Book Notes - Dan LeRoy ("The Beastie Boys: Paul's Boutique")

Thanks to Dan LeRoy, I recently listened to the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique album for the first time. His 33 1/3 book on the album arrived in the mail, so I picked up a used copy of the CD and spun the album in its entirety, and was amazed at the depth of the disc's wonderful sampling. I had heard several of the individual tracks previously, but taken together, I can see why this disc is considered a masterpiece. After my first listen, I hit "repeat" on my CD player and read LeRoy's book in one sitting. The book chronicles the band fighting both their current (Capitol) and previous (Def Jam) record companies in order to see their musical vision accomplished. Most interesting to me was the chapter that examined the samples (and their influence on the Beasties) used in every song.

In his own words, here is Dan LeRoy's "book notes" submission for his book, The Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique:

When I write, a lot of times I don’t listen to anything but my fingers feebly hunting and pecking at the keyboard. I like to think that’s because I’m a terrible typist and not because I’m just too lazy some nights to even point and click my music player, yet I concede the latter possibility.

But if that had always been the case while I was writing this book, this would be a pretty short Book Notes. And by God, you’re not getting off that easily…

The Go! Team Thunder Lightning Strike

Paul’s Boutique has suffered plenty of inappropriate comparisons over the years; I’ve probably made a couple myself. But it’s funny that the album I consider to be the closest match yet would appear just as I was finishing off the manuscript for this book.

Certain people will undoubtedly take issue with the idea that Thunder Lightning Strike is the logical successor to one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. Certain people have already tried to deny that TLS is a hip-hop album at all. Of course, isn’t that what they said about Paul’s Boutique back in 1989? It is indeed; even Matt Dike himself, who produced PB with the Dust Brothers, doesn’t really consider it a hip-hop album, at least not in the strict sense of the term.

There are obvious parallels between the two discs. The Go! Team used lots of samples on TLS, although I can’t identify most of the sources. (And after months of double-checking sample after sample from Paul’s Boutique, I don’t wanna know.) There’s the same sort of stylistic bouillabaisse, and even more importantly, while some of the material used has a potentially high cheese quotient, the Go! Team treats its melodramatic TV themes with as much care as Dike and the Dust Brothers did the disco obscurities they recycled. In other words, the irony level on both records is low enough not to register.

Which brings me to what I believe to be the strongest similarity between these albums: they are two of the most joyful recordings ever made, full of an exuberance that would keep you coming back even if the audio complexities didn’t. And I know we have to have music dark enough to see us through our dark nights of the soul, simply by reminding us that someone else has been there first and re-emerged. But at the end of the day, isn’t this sort of simple uplift what most of us want from music, and too seldom receive?

You almost never find it in mainstream hip-hop these days, that’s for certain. And there’s precious little of it in the underground, where the influence of Paul’s Boutique continues to resonate – minus, too often, the fun. Perhaps hip-hop simply has too many serious items on its agenda these days – from consciousness-raising to world domination -- to play in the sandbox these discs inhabit.

It’s hard not to notice, however: that both these albums were made by “outsiders” – a group of (mostly) transplanted white, Jewish, New Yorkers on the one hand, and (mostly) a white indie kid from Brighton on the other – who didn’t consider this music their birthright, who didn’t feel bound by self-imposed stylistic limitations, and who didn’t take for granted the simple pleasures of beats and rhymes.

What does it all mean? I’m not a sociologist, though I’m playing one on this blog. Someone will surely offer that it’s easier to make joyful music if you’re young, white and (theoretically) privileged. Maybe, but then why is so much music made by young, white and (theoretically) privileged artists so unremittingly miserable?

Anyway, sermon over. But if you love Paul’s Boutique and haven’t got this album yet, do yourself a favor and buy it now.

Paul Weller “Come On/Let’s Go,” “Savages”

In another strange coincidence, I had the chance to interview the Modfather shortly before finishing this book, and thus was able to ask him about the Beastie Boys’ (probably, Adam Horovitz’s) admiration for his work – something that was reflected in the use of a sample from “Start!” on “And What You Give Is What You Get,” a remix of the Paul’s Boutique song “Shadrach.”

The occasion of the interview was Weller’s most recent album, As Is Now. And as redemption for all those Jam and Style Council fans who have been hopefully calling every Weller outing from the last decade his best in ages (or at least since Wild Wood; here again, I plead guilty), it was a delight to hear that this time, the statement was true beyond the shadow of a doubt. These songs are two of the many reasons; hearing Weller once again adopt his old clipped, pugilistic vocal style on “Come On/Let’s Go” would quicken the pulse of any Jam fan. “Savages,” meanwhile, is just as remarkable. Imagine, a tune berating Muslim terrorists that never bothers to mention “root causes” or the war in Iraq or how the U.S. is ultimately to blame for all terrorist activity. Just the truth: “You have no gods/they have all disowned you.” Wow. If I didn’t love Pee Wee before, I would’ve after that.

INXS and Terence Trent D’Arby “Kick”

When I needed a break from the mental labyrinth of Paul’s Boutique, I sometimes played this track – a live recording from a 1999 Australian concert – and racked my brain trying to figure out how a marriage seemingly made in heaven didn’t come off. The one guy available with enough chops and charisma to follow Michael Hutchence…and we got J.D. Fortune instead?

Dick Curless “A Tombstone Every Mile”

This song was included on some K-Tel trucker music compilation advertised on TV when I was a kid, and the line “if they buried every trucker lost in them woods/there’d be a tombstone every mile” always haunted me. I couldn’t figure out what could have been in them woods – Bigfoot? A serial killer? A rest stop restroom that hadn’t been cleaned since the Forties? Last year, however, I tracked down a compilation of Curless’ greatest hits and finally heard the whole tune for the first time. I discovered he was really singing about bad weather on a stretch of road in Maine, which was a bit of a letdown. But I also learned that Curless was an amazing country singer too few people know about: great outlaw material, a voice deep as a coal mine, and an eyepatch to boot. Plus he used to perform regularly in my native state of West Virginia (at the Wheeling Jamboree), so he’s practically a homie.

Eric B. and Rakim Paid in Full

After spending hours dissecting the most complex hip-hop album in history, you should cleanse the palate with the most brilliant elemental hip-hop album (along with Run-DMC) ever recorded. I think of both records in the same way I consider AC-DC’s Back in Black: artists in both genres will continue stripping down to basics, and sometimes they’ll make great – even essential – albums. But you just can’t perfect perfection.

ABC “Between You and Me”

If I could’ve picked another album to do a 33 1/3 book about, it would have been either How To Be A…Zillionaire! or Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche ’85. I will still contend (at yawn-inducing length) that these are two of the most influential albums of the last two decades, because of the trailblazing way they incorporated hip-hop into mainstream pop music. They’re also both full of great, great songs, and this is one of the more underrated entries in the Martin Fry canon of heartstring-tuggers. Besides, it has the best synth-guitar solo ever recorded.

Rose Royce “6 O’Clock DJ (Let’s Rock)”

Part of the research for this book involved tracking down as many of the songs sampled on Paul’s Boutique as possible; there are lots of excellent websites (like Beastiemania and Paul's Boutique Samples and Reference List) that give minute documentation of what’s used where, but I still tried to hear it all myself. This tune alone was worth the effort; it’s a perfect illustration of the genius behind the album.

On the Car Wash soundtrack, it’s just an instrumental throwaway, a little over a minute long and notable only for the fatness of its Moog bassline. What Matt Dike and the Dust Brothers did with that sound on “Shake Your Rump,” however, is remarkable; they chopped it up, turned it inside out and made it groove in a completely new way. If you had to pick the most memorable audio component from Paul’s Boutique, this sample would probably be the winner – and it wasn’t just some great hook ripe for the plucking, either.

The Kinks “The Village Green Preservation Society”

Every fall I pull out my copy of The Kinks Kronikles, which is still my favorite Kinks album (heresy, yes, but this covers the band’s entire creative peak, and because there are two discs, there are more great songs on it than on Village Green Preservation Society). Hearing Ray Davies’ autumnal ode to china cups and virginity made me think about the nostalgia of Paul’s Boutique, which also seemed to pine for a bygone age even as it took music into a brave new world. (Andy Miller’s 33 1/3 book was the initial inspiration for this idea; it’s required reading for Kinks fans, and most other folks besides.)

Hank Williams Jr. “Mr. Lincoln”

Singing along to this one alleviates writing fatigue; I have to resist the urge to put my hand over my heart as well. Once I saw Bocephus do “Mr. Lincoln” acoustically in concert, and 12,000 fans were so quiet you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. The only person who was talking (loudly) was the guy I went with, who had unfortunately let Jim Beam get the better of him. Finally a fellow who couldn’t have been more than 6’6”, both tall and wide, stood up, turned around, and said, “I paid 50 bucks for these g****** tickets, and I’ll be g****** if I’m gonna let some g****** asshole ruin this g****** concert for me and my wife.”

He got a standing ovation from everyone in our section. I think I was standing and clapping too.

see also:

The book's MySpace page (including an excerpt)
Outtakes from the book at Beastiemania

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)