Monday, May 7, 2007

Rat Salad: Black Sabbath
The Classic Years 1969-1975
Written by Paul Wilkinson

I'm not a huge fan of books about rock stars or bands. They can be too slick and PR-driven, too focussed on the personalities (and really, how many rockers really break out of the regular pattern of growing their hair, jamming, making it big, embarking on careers of sex, drugs and rock n' roll and eventually ODing, cleaning up or becoming living dead?) or, as in the case of a memoir of Keith Moon I once read, written by his drum roadie, ultimately depressing in their relentless chronicling of mindless excess. (One of the few rock tomes I would recommend is Lemmy's autobiography, White Line Fever - it's just too funny and uninhibited, and clever to pass up). I don't really have a puritan attitude to the rock n' roll lifestyle - I've done my share of alcohol and a smattering of herbal accesorising in life - but I don't buy into the cult of personality that drives too much of the music machine. It's great to know that David Gilmour shares my spiritual allignment (or rather, lack thereof) or that the Manics continue to reflect my own increasingly cynical but still rather lefty political views, but that isn't really what it's about for me. I'm more interested in the music itself, in the notes being played and the words being sung, and only as much biographical knowledge as is absolutely needed to help illuminate those songs further.

This doesn't mean I don't care about the music I listen to - I do, and passionately, but I draw a very clear line between the singer and the song, so to speak. I may love one, but must reserve judgement on the other. So a book like Rat Salad is just the ticket for me.

Wilkinson isn't an outsider spinning marketing-approved praises, nor is he muckracking tell-all. Instead, he's just a fan like you, me, and that chap in the corner with the overbite. Admittedly, he's a pretty knowledgable fan, freely speaking about andantes, arpeggios, accelerandoes and other musical phenomena as manifested in the songs of Black Sabbath. He's pretty opinionated too - and all his preferences may not jibe with everyone else's. For that matter, he thinks that any music recorded after the death of punk is pretty much crap. Also, he likes talking about himself a lot, whether or not it is connected with his love for Sabbath. In other words, he's like the slightly older, knowledgable, funny but kinda eccentric music fan we all latched on to at some point, sitting through their anecdotes and jokes for more of the real stuff - the juice about great music, who made it and how, what amps and chords and influences went together into making it, what this sort of transition or that phrasing is all about, what it all means and why it works the way it does.

Of course, this book is strictly informative in a factual sense as well - Wilkinson does present a sort of potted biography of the band members in those heady years of the Ozzy era, stopping short after the release of Sabotage, arguably the original Sabbath's last definitive album. He also fleshes out a bit about the cultural and poltiical context in which each album was made but most importantly, he has cobbled together chapter-lenth analyses of each album. A mixture of lyrical, musicological and endearingly subjective stream-of-consciousness analysis, these are the sort of in depth discussions of beloved music that reviewing minnows like your very 'umble correspondent would love to write some day.

Ultimately this book won't please anyone. A lot of the digressions that seem witty, learned and illuminating to me might seem pointless, pompus and self-indulgent to others. As for the autobiographical intrusions, you'll either ignore them, hate them or realise that they are inevitable in a labour of love like this book is. Finally, you may disagree with every comment the author makes, and rail against the lack of orginal research here. While the last might be a fair critique, I don't think the book's aim is to dig up new intricacies about the band's history but to illuminate the making of some of the best, most enduring heavy metal music ever. I think the book succeeds in this - and makes me want to go back and listen to that music with new years. Which, ultimately, is what I look for in a book about music - greater understanding and therefore pleasure in the music itself. Well done, Mr. Wilkinson.


Prmod Bafna said...

A book that really could be an initiation into the band of sorts was "No one here gets out alive" the biography of Jim Morrison either that or it was probably the age i read it in, but i know it changed something!

Ray Van Horn, Jr. said...

That's good to know, and as I've been attempting to write a book on metal for 3 years, I know where you're coming from. I'm compelled to read rock bios because I love music, but I'm also studying style and technique and it does get me glued a lot. Fluff or no fluff? That's always the catch.

And No One Gets Out Alive is def. awesome. More authentic than Oliver Stone's rendition, even if I do love the movie despite its bullshit.

H R Venkatesh said...

broken music by sting, the beatles by bob spitz and light my fire by ray manzarek - these three books made me rediscover the police, the beatles and the doors. enjoyed reading them too!

Jeff said...

prmod, I think "No One Here Gets Out Alive" just may be the greatest book ever written about a band or artist. That book grabbed me unlike any other. It was fantastically written.