Thirty-Three and a Third Goes One Step Beyond

By Clive Young. For a few years now, Continuum Books has been publishing 33 1/3, a cool series of pint-sized paperbacks, each one dedicated to exploring a notable album of the last few decades. Weighing in at nearly 70 volumes now, the ongoing string of books blithely skips around between the usual rock critic faves (Prince, Velvet Underground, Ramones); meat n’ potatoes classic rock (Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin); Baby Boomer singer/songwriters (Neil Young, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell); and Brooklyn hipster touchstones (Neutral Milk Hotel, Sonic Youth, Pixies). [Full disclosure: I wrote a book for Continuum a while back, but not a 33 1/3; they won’t let me near 'em, actually.]
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By Clive Young.

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For a few years now, Continuum Books has been publishing 33 1/3, a cool series of pint-sized paperbacks, each one dedicated to exploring a notable album of the last few decades. Weighing in at nearly 70 volumes now, the ongoing string of books blithely skips around between the usual rock critic faves (Prince, Velvet Underground, Ramones); meat n’ potatoes classic rock (Beatles, Stones, Zeppelin); Baby Boomer singer/songwriters (Neil Young, Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell); and Brooklyn hipster touchstones (Neutral Milk Hotel, Sonic Youth, Pixies). [Full disclosure: I wrote a book for Continuum a while back, but not a 33 1/3; they won’t let me near 'em, actually.]

If you haven’t picked one up, you might expect they’re typical “behind the music”-type tomes--and a few are--but in truth, the series is pretty wide-ranging. Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love (subtitled A Journey to the End of Taste) is a meditation on why music can be so polarizing, while Joe Pernice’s take on the Smiths’ Meat Is Murder dispenses with reality altogether, instead following a fictional catholic school kid in the 1980s. Still, the series is usually at its best when it follows the traditional narrative path of ‘How They Made It,’ most noticeably with Dan Le Roy’s excellent history of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique.

The latest addition to the series (number 66 for those keeping score at home) takes that road, too, as it delves deep into the creation of One Step Beyond, the 1979 debut album by Madness. As playful as the LP it portrays, this speedy read sports a great provenance: author Terry Edwards interviewed all seven band members, legendary producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, label heads and others to get the full story of the album’s creation, plus he’s been part of the band’s horn section for years. It doesn’t get more ‘inside’ than this.

But who cares about Madness? Well, it depends where you live. Here in the US, the band was a one-hit wonder (“Our House”), but in the UK, Madness had a scorching 20 Top 20 singles off six albums between 1979 and 1986, spending a total of 214 weeks on the charts. Of all those LPs, One Step Beyond is probably the best known to US audiences since many of its videos were played to death on early MTV, especially the instrumental title track with its famed “Don’t watch dat! Watch dis!” spoken-word intro.

While the LP launched the band, however, it also did the same for the production team of Langer and Winstanley, as the pair went on to put a singular stamp on Eighties alt pop, producing the likes of Elvis Costello, Morrissey, Lloyd Cole, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Hothouse Flowers, They Might Be Giants and others. In Edwards’ book, they often take centerstage (usually Langer), unveiling the studio tricks and mishaps behind the album. Case in point: the instrumental title track, which the Stiff label decreed would be the band’s first single. The problem was that Madness had dashed it off with a running time of 75 seconds:

“When the decision had been made to edit the recording to turn it into a single, it was already gone midnight. There was a different mix set up on the desk (and this was before computerized desks with total recall), so Clive and Alan decided that the best plan of action was to make a demonstration tape of how the edits would work, give it to Robinson for approval, then redo it for real. As an indicator of how the sound could be doctored, the duplicated sections of the tape had been put through a harmonizer (an effect that artificially ‘thickens’ the sound by adding an extra frequency or ‘harmony’). It was all very rough and ready. Clive posted the demo through the letter-box at Stiff in the early hours of the morning on his way home and waited for the go-ahead. When he got to talk to Robinson later in the day, he was told that the record was already being manufactured from the tape he’d dropped in as they were speaking. Alan was mortified. “It was a quarter-inch tape running at 7 ½ ips (inches per second),” that is, it wasn’t industry standard quality. Too bad--it sounded great in Robbo’s opinion and that was that. The end result is a cozy two minutes and nineteen seconds, twenty-five seconds of which is taken up by Chas Smash’s introduction.”

The tiny tome is full of great studio tales like that, told with more than a few chuckles by those recounting them. I was going to close this out noting that the only downside to the book, truly, is that the album itself has been unavailable on CD or iTunes for a few years. As it turns out, however, One Step Beyond is getting the 30th Anniversary re-release treatment this fall, coming out in the UK with bonus tracks, videos, a John Peel session and liner notes by Irvine Welsh. The author of Trainspotting may be good, but he’ll be hard pressed to beat a labor of love like Edwards’ book.