Album sleeve notes don’t have to be boring: Just look at those written by Thomas Pynchon, Hunter S Thompson and other literary greats

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The Independent Culture

With so many complaints about the replacement of physical music with digital formats, little space has been left to mourn the loss of a tradition  almost as old as the album itself – the sleeve notes essay. Though just as vinyl is making a comeback among hardcore audiophiles, so there might be a place for comprehensive liner notes that sell  albums and at their best enrich our understanding. The fightback has been supported by an array of literary heavyweights, the latest of which is American novelist Richard Ford, author of Canada and The Sportswriter, adding his thoughts to Mark Knopfler’s solo album, Tracker.

Liner notes have been integral to pop since the album came to prominence in the mid-Sixties. The 12-inch record sleeve provided a shop window to promote its contents, an opportunity taken up by publicists, enthusiastic journalists or even, as with Bob Dylan, the artist himself. Such writers could take the chance to set music and artists in context, perhaps by name-dropping high-brow cultural references, as when rock scribe Keith Altham quotes John Keats on the back of Scott Walker’s debut solo album, Scott.

By extending the invitation to literary figures, musicians are continuing an established practice, as when John Niven provided sleeve notes for the Manic Street Preachers’ 2009 album, Journal for Plague Lovers. The former A&R man and author of the scabrous music biz satire Kill Your Friends was already a drinking buddy of Manics frontman James Dean Bradfield. He was thus charged with unpacking the more elliptical lyrics of missing band member Richey Edwards, or in his own introductory words, “So – military funerals, sacrifices and fallen warriors, Kennedy, Vietnam, geo-politics. All from five words of the chorus of the opening track.”

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Literary sleeve notes had begun to appear a decade before then, when record companies sought to add gravitas to their ever-expanding catalogue of reissues and compilations from established acts. Gonzo writer Hunter S Thompson contributed a letter to the accompanying booklet for I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, a 1996 compendium of works by his old mate, cult US artist Warren Zevon. “When my mother called me to say she didn’t watch THE NEWS because she’d rather listen to yr CRUEL HEART-BREAKING SONGS,” he complains. “I flipped out and abandoned all hope.” Before that, the publicity-shy Inherent Vice author Thomas Pynchon had reached back further to provide exhaustive notes for 1994’s Spiked!, a compilation dedicated to American comedian/bandleader Spike Jones, a star in the forties with his irreverent “Der Fuehrer’s Face” and “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”.

Pynchon praised Jones’s brilliant musicianship and the whip-smart timing that underpinned his spoofs of contemporary pop hits, while gently excusing a penchant for racial and ethnic stereotyping (“Pay-Yat-Chee”, a spoof on Pagliacci, sticks it to both country hicks and Italian crooners). You can certainly imagine Jones soundtracking the more roustabout scenes in Pynchon’s own V. Where authors have really come into their  own, though, is in providing immediacy to a  luminous past when teenage pin-ups were in their pomp and the writers themselves still full of youthful vitality.

Scottish novelist Alan Warner adds some eye-opening anecdotes to his liner notes for Stars and Topsoil, the 2000 compendium of tunes by Eighties indie darlings Cocteau Twins. Instead of following his peers to a rave, the author of Morvern Callar would “take a little something” and head to the zoo, where the ethereal creations of the 4AD-signed trio made a perfect soundtrack to a tour of the flamingos and butterfly house.

Sometimes, connections between the  literary and music worlds arose in more random fashion. Saint Etienne’s Bob Stanley has  explained that Canadian novelist Douglas Coupland came to write sleeve notes for his group’s 1998 album, Good Humor, after bandmates Pete Wiggs and Sarah Cracknell visited his house while on tour in the US. Coupland nailed the threesome’s optimistic retro-modernism – “a world where nostalgia is beside the point because all of us live inside a bright and glorious present”.

 

Likewise, understated late-Nineties US indie rockers Lotion had two claims to fame: they appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the liner notes for their second album, Nobody’s Cool, came from none other than Thomas Pynchon, again taking another stab at this specialist form of essay. At the time, the New York-formed outfit claimed the author had approached them at a gig in Cincinnati. The more prosaic truth was that the shadowy writer’s accountant happened to be the mother of Lotion’s drummer. She gave Pynchon an advance copy of Nobody’s Cool and he offered to add his thoughts. Likening the album to a cruise, Pynchon wrote: “It sure runs through peculiar waters, full of undetonated mines from the cultural disputes that began in the Sixties, unexplained lights now and then from just over the horizon, stowaways who sneak past security and meddle with the amps causing them to emit strange Rays, unannounced calls at ports that seem almost like cities we have been to, though not quite, cityscapes that all converge to New York in some form…”

Certainly, authors seem happy to come out  in support of relative underdogs. Zevon has also benefited from the patronage of Will Self, who contributed liner notes to a more recent compilation of the “Werewolves of London” composer’s oeuvre, 2002’s Genius: The Best of Warren Zevon. Self took a tangential direction in explaining the artist’s appeal, spinning a yarn that involved travelling to Swindon to assume an identity that allowed him to conduct an affair with a transsexual prostitute, based on a shared devotion to Zevon (they met in the Soho Chinese restaurant quoted in “Werewolves...”). The idea seemed to be that while Self went for the artist’s hedonistic rockers, “Laurie” fell for more romantic numbers – for “like many whores, Laurie remains surprisingly romantic about relations between the sexes”.

Meanwhile, Richard Ford’s sleeve notes appear on an album that features a track, “Beryl”, written about novelist Beryl Bainbridge, cementing links between two disparate art forms, one long-form and one founded on the popularity of three-and-a-half minute songs. Knopfler sees Bainbridge as an underdog figure under-appreciated by a mainly Oxbridge-educated elite (and thus never awarded a Booker during her lifetime). You can already sense the attraction to Ford, his own works populated – just like the Geordie-raised songwriter – with characters that never quite get the breaks. Another example of novelists and songwriters remaining fascinated by each other.

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