Addition by Subtraction
Being a stereotypical music snob, I don’t buy music that I think I will enjoy; I buy stuff that I think has the most indie cred. The Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime, which often gets listed alongside The Smiths’ first album, as a classic of 80s indie rock, sounded like it fitted the bill. So, I thought I’d buy it and share my thoughts on it with you, dear reader. There’s only one problem: I’ve never been able to listen to it all the way through. It’s not that the music’s bad, it’s just that there’s too much of it. The album clocks in at over 73 minutes, which is long even for one that was originally a double-LP. I’m not against long albums, but the major problem here is that it’s 43 really short songs!
The Minutemen’s music is basically somewhere between indie rock, punk, jazz and beat poetry. It’s gimmicky, and not a gimmick that I think is clever enough to sustain a double album. Around song 12, I find myself drifting off, and I’m only roused from my aural slumber at track 19, “Corona”, as that was used as the theme tune to Jackass. After that, I mentally tune out again, before I finally turn it off completely.
The band were aware that there wasn’t really enough good material to fill a double album, as Side B of the second LP was labelled “Chaff”. They weren’t kidding; it’s less than thrilling stuff and even contains an amateurish cover of Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu”. I really don’t think anyone needed to hear that.
This reveals the limitations of the musical format at the time; every album had to be either a single or double LP. The band obviously felt they had too much material for a single album, but not enough for a double, and settled on a silly compromise. I think the same thing must have happened with Pink Floyd’s The Wall. There’s about a record and a bit’s worth of good songs, and I think they decided to pad out the rest by having Roger Waters scream: “Ooooh baaabbbbeeeee!!!!!” ad nauseam.
In the 1990s, artists didn’t have to make the choice between a single or a double album, as CDs can hold up to 80 minutes of audio. But with all that time to play with, many bands were tempted to use all of it. The worst offenders were hip hop artists, who often included unnecessary and sometimes offensive “skits”, which had virtually no replay value. Case in point: the end of The Fugees – “Beast”…
I think it’s always best to keep an album short (within reason), and get rid of any weaker tracks. I call it “Addition by Subtraction”. The old cliché is that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and I think that’s true with music. One bad track is enough to put me off a record. The Beatles’ Revolver is one of the truly great albums, but I can never quite get over the fact that it contains the insanely frivolous, “Yellow Submarine”. The extreme example of this is when people’s entire careers are judged on their worst song: “I hate David Bowie; all he ever gave us was The Laughing Gnome!”.
It all comes down to the editing process. After you’ve written something, you should go away and leave it for a while. Then when you revisit it, you’ll be less attached to the things you’ve written, and will find it easier to cut out the weaker stuff. That’s what I intend to do with this blog post. Well, I’d better not cut out all the bad parts, as it’ll be the length of a tweet by the time I’ve finished.