Confessions of a box-set sucker

A music collector thanks Rhino for repackaging his awful adolescence


Eric Alterman
June 22, 1998 4:34PM (UTC)

The Rhino Records '70s pop culture box, entitled "Have a Nice Decade," positively
luxuriates in slothful decadence as it simultaneously dares you to take it
seriously. Six CDs, 156 songs, green and yellow smiley faces carved out of
indoor-outdoor carpeting on the cover, and dozens and dozens of songs that
appear explicitly designed to turn nice suburban children into crazed serial
killers. You think I'm kidding? This is not the Allman Brothers/Band/Dead/Clapton '70s stuff that survived quite nicely on its own. This is the land of Tony Orlando and Dawn. Try repeated listenings of Hamilton, Joe, Frank & Reynolds' "Don't Pull Your Love," followed by Lobo's "Me and You and a Dog Named Boo," with Cat Stevens and Three Dog Night bringing
up the rear, and see if MSNBC isn't broadcasting from your lawn within 48 hours.

Still, I love the thing. It's the soundtrack to my entire, awful adolescence.
There was a time when, chemically aided, I really wondered what it would be
like to be a horse with no name. I pondered the injustice of ghetto life upon
learning that "Freddie" was dead. I imagined doing things I could yet imagine
to Maria Muldaur as the clock struck midnight at the oasis, and we sent our
camels to bed. Rhino has taken yuppie America's twin obsessions with nostalgia
and commodification and given us an excuse to drop $100 under the guise of
cultural preservation. ("I have a baby daughter. She will want to know
what music her parents grew up listening to.")

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Of course, I can come up with a reason to buy just about any box set, but Rhino's
are almost always the most fun. It's as if the guys who worked there all
stepped out of Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity," grasping instinctively the
psychic load that pop music carries in the lives of not entirely grown-up men.
Take "Bar-b-que Soul-A-Bration," a two-CD collection of semi-obscure soul
songs about food. It comes in a three-ring binder, complete with recipes for
Cowboy Church Sunday School Ribs and buttermilk cornbread. There's enough
cholesterol in one meal to clog the arteries of the entire NBA. But the
mood is just right. The package is actually a cookbook for a great party,
complete with dance-step instructions and a hip invitation you can fill out and send to your friends. But you don't need to send the invites and cook up
the cornbread to enjoy the fantasy of it -- in fact, at 38, I'd be
embarrassed even to show up at such a party. But in the privacy of your living
room, you can still reminisce about the innocence of the days when this music
was recorded and you might consider playing "Catfish Net" (rules included), a
game that seems designed to give you license to grope your better-looking
guests as you play the net to their catfish. And at this imaginary party, no
doubt some geek would have grabbed the lyrics to "Soul Man" and the dance
instructions to the funky chicken (both are thoughtfully provided) and tried
to get everyone to "join in." Yech! This is what Rhino understands about this
music -- it was a simpler time in our nostalgic minds, when we designed party
games for maximum body contact and sang blatantly sexist lyrics with -- ahem -- soulful sincerity, and ate "righteous coleslaw" and "juke shop banana
cake" without a thought for our waistlines. Or wished we did. Or wish we
had.

Even better is last year's Grammy-winning six-CD "Beg, Scream & Shout:
The Big Ol' Box of '60s Soul." The music itself hardly required justification
beyond the exquisite sensitivity and inspired inventiveness of its choices --
mostly one-hit wonders or songs you've never heard by people you have. Still,
the packaging -- the part that makes these things irresistible even if you have
most of the songs already or hated a lot of them in the first place -- proved an
endless toy. Created to resemble a lunch-box carrying case of old 45s with
baseball cards identifying the singers and the songs, the box is itself a
recipe for wasting hours and hours amassing completely useless trivia. (Did
you know that Billy Stewart, aka Fat Boy, recorded his two biggest hits,
"I Do Love You" and "Sitting in the Park," on the same day in December 1964,
both with future Earth, Wind and Fire founder Maurice White on drums?) Those
were the days when we thought we could get somewhere with chicks by knowing
all the lyrics to "Dock of the Bay."

Rhino has captured something essential about the goofy lightheartedness of
unpretentious rock 'n' roll. I would never have bought this stuff on late-night
TV, where it used to live and had loser written all over it. Somehow, crappy
music can be ennobled by innovative and intelligent packaging, the way second-rate literature can be improved by creating a new critical context. Remember
the stuff that Stiff Records put out in the late '70s ("If It Ain't
Stiff, It Ain't Worth a Fuck")? Some of it was pretty good -- the Nick Lowe, early
Elvis Costello and Graham Parker, and the now forgotten "Any Trouble" -- but most of it
was worthless. Put it all together in a fancy box, however, and you
learn something about working-class English maleness that cannot be gleaned
from any other medium.

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Of course, box sets are hardly limited to music of questionable lasting value.
The phenomenon has done as much to elevate the status of jazz as any
university program or foundation grant during the past decade. By going back
to the original tapes, cleaning them up and putting them out in chronological
form, jazz archivists have been able to demonstrate -- rather than argue -- the
progression of jazz as an increasingly complex art form that builds on the
advances of its elders, while remaining true to certain essential elements.
The companies have proven surprisingly generous in their willingness to serve
the collector whose goal is completeness, rather than just the stuff that will
sell.

When the music needs no apology, the packaging doesn't matter so much. The big
fight among aficionados is just how the rediscovered and remastered music
should be sequenced. For instance, Rhino's seven-CD "The Heavyweight Champion:
The Complete Atlantic Recordings" hews pretty closely to the original order of the albums, with only a few
alternate takes repeated immediately, thereby almost freeing the listener from
the tyranny of whatever the rehearsal
schedule might have been, and demonstrating respect for the artistic
intentions of whoever produced the album in the first place. Mike Lang, who is
in charge of the rerelease of archival material for Verve, however, believes
that box sets should "hew to a chronological line because a box set collector
is savvy enough to program the CD player" to re-create the original order. I
disagree, but it's hard to argue with the man who put together what is widely
recognized as the ne plus ultra of jazz box sets -- the 10-CD Verve Billie
Holiday box. Lang also feels strongly that labels need to agree to release
their box sets before they release the remastered original CDs individually.
Otherwise, the two or three new cuts that have been discovered in the vault
during the interim can end up costing the completist collector hundreds of
bucks, since he likely has been buying up each rerelease as it becomes
available, only to find that he is missing two tracks once the box comes out.
Of course, he gets all the cool packaging too ...


Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman last piece for Salon was "Confessions of a box-set sucker."

MORE FROM Eric Alterman


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