Sunday Morning: The Sky Is Falling!!

A New York Times editor argues that the 'Big Album' is dead. Wrong.

Rock 'n' roll is not about nostalgia. And yet, over and over again, writers who ought to know better step into the same quicksand. They forget that rock 'n' roll is all about Carl Perkins and Elvis pissing all over the pop music that came before them. The Stones singing about "Mother's Little Helper" right there on Top 40 radio for all to hear. And, just to make sure we're all on the same page, I'm talking Prodigy kicking out the jams last year with "Breathe" and The Fat of the Land.

Rock 'n' roll is not about yearning for what turned you on as a kid; it's about right now. It's the Verve's Urban Hymns and Pearl Jam's Yield, Wu-Tang Forever and Junkie XL's Saturday Teenage Kick.

So when I looked at the cover of this morning's The New York Times Magazine and read the headline, "The Rock Album Is Over," I couldn't help but smile. I mean I don't know about you, but Greil Marcus and Neil Strauss aside, the Times is not exactly where I go for the latest word on what's going on in the world of music, popular or otherwise.

At a time when artists such as The Verve and Radiohead and Sleater-Kinney and Mono and Spiritualized and Primal Scream and Neutral Milk Hotel and plenty more have delivered awesome albums (not just collections of great songs), works that reward those who let them play from first song through the last, the Times delivering the word from on high that "The Rock Album Is Over" seemed, well, quite over-the-top. Or just plain ridiculous.

In this case, a gentleman named Gerald Marzorati, who is the articles editor for The New York Times Magazine, has decided that the Golden Age of Rock Albums is over. The good ol' days of putting on the headphones and listening all the way through to an album such as Dark Side of the Moon is history. "Kids these days -- they just don't listen," runs the Times' article's subhead.

Marzorati lets us know his credentials -- "someone who grew up with Dylan in the '60s"; he remembers the days when he would buy an album such as the Beatles' Revolver and play it "again and again..."

"...if you grew up with Dylan, you grew up with a certain understanding of how albums like the dozens he has made were to be approached," he writes, "an inclination imparted not simply by the instrumental and lyrical demands of the songs but also by album-listening's basic technological underpinnings -- a large vinyl disk placed gently on a turntable and left alone to spin."

Marzorati spends about 3000 words making his case. Finance, technology and radio programmers have conspired to undermine the "Big Album." Corporate-owned, bottom-line conscious record companies are out for the quick fix of albums that sell fast based on a hit single; the CD and it's ease of track-skipping make sitting through an entire album a rare occurrence; radio stations play single songs, not entire albums, etc., etc. Writes Marzorati: "The Big Album, the album that is the realization of an artist's or band's vision, is not so much suffering for lack of a musical trend as it is suffering under the weight of larger trends in the music industry."

His prime example is, ironically, Radiohead's OK Computer. "The 40th annual Grammy awards will be held at Radio City Music Hall Wednesday night, and among the nominees for Album of the Year is Radio's OK Computer, which you've probably never heard of, much less spent a lot of time listening to," begins the article. "Upon its release in July by Capitol Records, one of the country's biggest labels, it was hailed by popular-music critics -- whereupon it peaked at No. 21 on the Billboard 200 album chart and then sank like a stone. It's appearance on numerous year-end 'best of' lists had it climbing again last month, to No. 70." The point? That this great concept album, this Big Album, has been ignored, and that the kids simply are not relating to the Big Album these days.

Now while I agree that most people reading Marzorati's article likely haven't heard Radiohead, I'd argue that that is because most of the people who read the New York Times (and who I don't think are the kids who buy rock albums) simply don't listen to contemporary rock artists, and that Marzorati could have said the same about million selling albums by Puff Daddy, Prodigy or, for that matter, Nirvana (Nevermind) and Pearl Jam (Ten).

Up until now, Radiohead have had a single hit in the U. S., "Creep" off their debut album, 1993's Pablo Honey. That their third album entered the charts at #21 is not a big surprise, nor is the fact that it dropped down the charts. What Marzorati doesn't do in his article, however, is tell the rest of the story, I assume because he either doesn't know it, or it doesn't fit his theory. So I'll tell it to you.

Towards the end of 1997 -- almost six months after OK Computer was released, following a successful U. S. tour by the band -- a song on the Radiohead album titled "Karma Police" began getting airplay on Modern Rock stations. That song is currently one of the 20 most played songs on Modern Rock radio in America. It is likely the fact that active rock fans -- the kids who care about new music -- are hearing Radiohead that has caused the album to start moving back up the charts, not the fact that rock critics included it in their Top 10 lists, much as I wish that were the case. Finally, and I find it surprising that this is absent from the article, OK Computer has sold about half a million copies to date in the U. S.; since the group is returning to the U. S. for another tour, sales could well pass the million mark by the end of the summer.

Thus the centerpiece of Marzorati's theory, the concept album that no one listened to, is, already, quite a hit in America. Pearl Jam's Yield, another Big Album, has sold over half a million copies during its first two weeks of release. Urban Hymns has gone gold too, and should pass the million mark later this year.

Is the album dead? I hardly think so. But don't just take my word for it. Ask Phish and R.E.M. and Garbage and the Smashing Pumpkins and Sonic Youth. Talk to Neutral Milk Hotel and the Beastie Boys, Rakim and Portishead, Public Enemy and Tricky, Korn and Metallica... All of these artists make Big Albums, and many of them have a huge audience that buys those albums.

Make no mistake, the kids are listening. There's no doubt about that. [Sun., Feb. 22, 1998, 9 a.m. PST]