Sunday, 8 September 2013

Zaireeka – Mark Richardson (2010)

As much as I love music I rarely read books on the subject, but when a good friend of mine lent me this book I knew that I’d have to read it. Both The Flaming Lips and the Zaireeka album are fascinating and compelling subjects. The Flaming Lips are perhaps the most rewarding underground band to have emerged in America in the last thirty years. Their career arc has been one of unbridled adventurousness, always following their muse without concern for commercial gain, whilst at the same time maintaining a high level of quality control.

Zaireeka was released in 1997 as a four CD set designed to be listened to simultaneously on four separate CD players. As an album Zaireeka also stands as one of the best The Flaming Lips have produced in their long and eccentric career. Richardson notes in the introduction that when he mentioned to friends that he was going to write about Zaireeka they would joke about him having to write four separate books meant to be read simultaneously. A good joke yes, but this inspired Richardson to structure the book in four separate parts that contain eight ‘tracks’ each, a format that serves the subject well.

If you are a fan of The Flaming Lips then Zaireeka is an essential read. Richardson examines Zaireeka as an idea, where it came from and how it then became a fully realized album. He also includes a condensed history of The Flaming Lips that answers the question of how an amateurish bunch of small town freaks inspired by both punk and the likes of Pink Floyd came to transform themselves into an innovative and accomplished band. Both the story of the band and the Zaireeka album are truly inspirational and Richardson does a fine job of articulating just how it all happened.

If you happen to not be a fan of the band then why would you want to read about a bunch of freaks that made an album that is inherently difficult to actually sit down and listen to?  Well believe it or not there is quite a bit of cultural significance attached to Zaireeka. The requirement of actually having to organize four stereos (that’s at least eight speakers!) means that there needs to be at least two or more people present, something that results in gatherings known as Zaireeka listening parties. The act of listening in groups, Richardson muses, is not all that common and when it does happen is fraught with psychological issues; a theory that is perhaps questionable, but also fascinating to consider.

In an age in which both convenience and speed are paramount Richardson argues that Zaireeka represents the music world’s equivalent to the concept of slow food and therefore by extension the slow living movement. I’ve taken part in two Zaireeka listening parties, one amazingly using the vinyl version, in which organisation, patience and sociability were all integral to the overall experience. Zaireeka, fortunately, is well worth the effort.

Zaireeka is number sixty-eight in the thirty-three and a third series of pocket books that focus on one important album. There are some significant albums on the list, including Bowie’s Low, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and Love’s Forever Changes, but no other album engages with the listener in Zaireeka’s unique way. Other albums are more culturally significant, but Zaireeka alone stands in opposition to the effects of the rapid cultural changes driven by technology in recent decades. I recommend to anyone who is interested in listening to the album that they read this book first, after all, you’ll only need one copy and it will make your Zaireeka experience a richer one.

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