Scott Miller MUSIC: What Happened?

MUSIC: What Happened? by Scott Miller (125 Books, US; 2010; 240 pages)
by Jon Kanis

Book review [on page 26] for issue #32 [Fall/Winter 2011] of Ugly Things magazine [filed on July 21, 2011]

In 1989 I subscribed to a quarterly newsletter entitled True Gamesters (the official mouthpiece for ‘80s alternative rock & roll group Game Theory). My motivation was simple: I had become fascinated with this conglomerate from the Bay Area after hearing their 1987 masterpiece Lolita Nation and I wanted to find out more about its songwriter and chief ringleader Scott Miller (also responsible for ‘90s ensemble The Loud Family).

By the time that True Gamesters starting hitting my mail slot I discovered that not only had Miller written several LPs worth of intelligent and catchy classic rock/power pop, but that he was also capable of some of the most conversational and downright knowledgeable musings on the world of rock and roll (and music in general) that I had ever laid eyes on. I consider him to be a sort of fourth-generation rock and roll renaissance man capable of making the printed page jump and sing as deftly as the complex conversations that his Les Paul conducts with a Marshall stack.

This brings us to the recently published MUSIC: What Happened?, Miller’s meditations on his favorite songs from the past 53 years [1957-2009]. Very much in the spirit of the list-making freaks that populate the world of High Fidelity, his self-selected guidelines for this exercise allowed that no artist would be represented by more than one song per year (although he occasionally bends that rule) and that each year’s selections would have to fit onto a single compilation CD.

Miller’s unique POV of the experience of music is expressed with succinct observations and jokey one-liners (I’m thinking rim shots here) that has me howling from the recognition of a shared cultural zeitgeist. His chapter on 1981 begins with “the first salvos of eighties annoyance. The most deadly was the ‘New Romantic’ movement, where the romance was with drum machines, thin, washy synthesizers, grandiose, brayed vocals, bad hair and bad clothes.” He concludes his commentary on Black Flag’s “TV Party” by suggesting that “the lesson of Henry Rollins is probably that with a sufficiently engaging personality, the issue of technical merit will eventually take care of itself.”

Miller’s writing demonstrates a level of skill, intelligence, sensitivity, and wit that I’m nearly jealous of, he pulls it off so well. This isn’t the type of book you have to read straight from cover to cover, skip around, be non-linear. Check out 1977 when punk was heating up or 1993 when Exile In Guyville was the order of the day. It is obvious that Miller loves the Beatles, Big Star, Led Zeppelin and Chris Stamey, but he also has the good taste to applaud the work of XTC, The Posies, The Negro Problem, Mike Keneally, and scores of other artists who are a breath of fresh air awaiting your ears.

MUSIC: What Happened? is an inspiration to dig that much deeper into my own collection with relish and to seek out some new favorites with a fresh perspective.