The Wire Primers: A Guide to Modern Music (Verso)
For the past 14 years, the London-based music mag The Wire has run a bi-monthly series of “Primers” that serve as quick-study guides to the artists and genres that are generally considered essential in the non-mainstream universe that is the magazine’s home turf. The features include biographical information, historical context, and, most important, lists of “core” recordings for neophytes in the respective areas to start with. (Disclosure: I’m a regular contributor to The Wire, though I’ve never done a Primer. I’m prepared to cover the subject of early-’80s Belgian jazz-rock as soon as I get the call.) As the magazine has already published, by editor-at-large Rob Young’s reckoning, more than 60 Primers, repackaging the best of them as a book seems like a logical thing to do at this point. The most important ones also deserve much more than the one-month shelf-life that comes with being a magazine feature, and, collected in book form, fill a yawning gap in the published literature on modern music. There may be no shortage of discographical reference books out there already, but those (unlike the Primers) tend to aim for breadth rather than depth.
The 22 Primers included in this collection seem like the obvious first choices given the subjects’ enduring importance and acknowledged influence on later generations of musicians. Among the artists covered are Captain Beefheart, the Fall, Sonic Youth, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra, and Karlheinz Stockhausen; the musical genres and movements with entries of their own include No Wave, Fire Music, Noise, Turntablism, and Musique Concrète. (According to Young, The Wire’s editors avoided certain seemingly natural choices, like John Coltrane, where those artists’ work had already been exhaustively documented elsewhere.) Illustrations, as in the magazine, are by the great Savage Pencil (a k a Edwin Pouncey), who also contributed the Frank Zappa and the Mothers piece included in the book. While most of the Primers in the collection originally appeared in the pages of The Wire, quite a few of those have been revised or updated since their original publication; a handful of others are published here for the first time.
The accuracy of the pieces in The Primers (in the areas where I’m enough of an expert to judge) is unimpeachable; the writing is refreshingly readable and happily unpedantic, especially given the often “difficult” subject matter. The main editorializing lies in the historical periods selected or recordings recommended. In the case of the Zappa entry, for example, some fans might take issue with the fact that Pouncey pretty much limits himself to FZ’s pre-1970 Mothers of Invention work. (I would have set the cutoff to 1972 to include Zappa’s big-band albums, but that’s just me.) On the other hand, no one could argue for the inclusion of the entire Sun Ra oeuvre, which would be silly even it weren’t physically impossible; the representative selection covered in the entry by John Szwed (who is, incidentally, the author of the standard biography on Ra) seems eminently reasonable. Then there’s David Keenan’s Primer on Fire Music, which includes not only the nominal founders of the movement—60s free-jazzers Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Archie Shepp, and Frank Wright—but much later enlistees like Charles Gayle, William Parker, and David S. Ware. While potentially troubling for purists, this decision has the advantage of making explicit the living connection between Ayler et al. and New York’s present-day avant-jazz scene.
The Primers’ entries are surprisingly detailed and comprehensive given their relatively short length, and the fact that entire books could easily be written (or in fact have been) on any of the subjects. Alan Licht’s Primer on No Wave, filling a mere six-and-a-half of the collection’s squat pages, packs in a tremendous amount of history and, in its discography, includes a number of important recordings that even aficionados might not be aware of. It also goes into some detail on the No Wavers’ close relationship with the Downtown underground film scene of the time, and their influence on the Riot Grrrl movement of a decade or so later. Art Lange’s entry on Musique Concrète and Early Electronic Music, only slightly longer than Licht’s, covers Pierre Schaeffer, Luc Ferrari, Pierre Henry, Rune Lindblad, Morton Subotnick, and several others, and also gives pointers to some of the genre’s essential compilations.
With the ever-proliferating number of contemporary music styles and scenes in the world, it’s simply impossible to have a handle on all of it. (In my case, I confess that my knowledge of dubstep was spotty before reading Derek Walmsley’s Primer on the subject.) There’s no shame in falling back on a cheat sheet or two to fill in the bits of history you’ve missed, especially when the information is as solid and well-presented as it is here. This compact but indispensible reference deserves a place on the bookshelf of every lover of modern music. Volume Two, please?