Sale of a Century

Sgt. Pepper knew my father: John Philip Sousa with the 12th Coast Artillery Band.Photo: Bettman/Corbis

Surveying a dozen of this year’s obligatory end-of-century histories in The New York Review of Books, columnist and critic Garry Wills complained, “What hope can we have of imposing a shape on all the events of a century?”

It’s far easier to put the millennial marketing stamp on a collection of recorded music – a phenomenon that spans the twentieth century almost exactly. By the late 1890s, Edison-cylinder jukeboxes were common enough that America’s three biggest recording companies had combined annual sales of 500,000. But it wasn’t until 1904 – when cheaper, sturdier 78rpm discs began to replace the fragile, bulky cylinders – that popular music got a popular medium. Of course, that still leaves the problem of scale: It’s been a busy hundred years. How does one fit it all in?

For at least one multinational corporation, the answer was: Spend two years compiling Sony Music 100 Years: Soundtrack for a Century, an ambitious box set of immense proportions – 26 CDs! 500 songs! 48 hours of music! – that breaks the material down into ten cutely titled categories, including “R&B: From Doo-Wop to Hip-Hop” and “Rock: The Train Kept A Rollin’.” There’s certainly no shortage of material: The Columbia Graphophone Company was founded in 1889 (see disc one, track one – a rendition of “The Washington Post March” conducted by John Philip Sousa himself) and went on to record everyone from Blind Willie McTell to Wham! “If in 5, or 10, or 300 years, somebody asks, ‘What was twentieth-century music and how did they make it?’ ” says executive producer Steve Berkowitz, “this will be the best single place to look.”

Sure – if the class of 2300 turns out to be more influenced by Journey and Korn than by Elvis Presley or the Beatles. Every cut on Soundtrack for a Century was originally recorded for Columbia, Epic, or one of the other subsidiary labels to which Sony owns the rights. It also means no Rolling Stones, James Brown, or anyone else who recorded for key labels like RCA, Atlantic, or Sun. And major artists like Marvin Gaye who spent only part of their careers on Sony labels are represented by whatever material the company happens to own the rights to (in Gaye’s case, that means the late-period hit “Sexual Healing”). For similar reasons, Soundtrack for a Century focuses almost exclusively on American acts, venturing abroad only occasionally for the likes of Elvis Costello (“Pump It Up”) and Jeff Beck (“I Ain’t Superstitious”).

Similarly, the jazz discs offer plenty of fine cuts by worthies like Gillespie, Mingus, Monk, Ellington, and Armstrong, but Sony can’t honestly call a jazz collection “definitive” if it doesn’t include a single riff by Charlie Parker. And because free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman released most of his groundbreaking work on Atlantic, he’s represented only by an outtake from his sole Columbia album, Skies of America.

Nor did Sony necessarily do a great job with what it did have. John Williams’s Star Wars overture found its way into “classical” rather than one of the movie-music discs. The Bacharach-David classic “I Say a Little Prayer” is filed under “film” – but in a lame Diana King version culled from the Columbia soundtrack to My Best Friend’s Wedding. Nitpicky? Perhaps. But after paying $329, one can’t help feeling entitled to the definitive performance of a given song – not whatever take on it happened to be recorded by a Sony signee.

Which raises a key question: Who exactly is supposed to buy this? Just about anyone interested enough in music to fork over three Benjamins probably already has a copy of “I Want to Take You Higher” somewhere around the house. But anyone who did miss the entire century might be a few dollars short at the cash register. (The collection’s parts are also being sold as separate two-CD packages – alleviating problems of cost if not of content.) In fact, Soundtrack for a Century may have more to do with good-old-fashioned twentieth-century corporate hubris. Since its effect on Sony’s bottom line will be negligible compared to that of Mariah Carey, the lavishly packaged, well-annotated set feels more like an exercise in brand-building – a chance for a Japanese multinational to claim roots in Mississippi Delta blues – than a serious musical endeavor.

While Sony fails with humorless ambition, Rhino Records fails with a wink and a smile on 20 Centuries of Hits (mercifully, a single disc), which purports to offer popular songs going back all the way to ancient Greek invocations. The problem is that until this century, “popular” usually meant “religious,” and until the 1600s, “religious” usually meant “in Latin.” So three-quarters of the supposed chart-toppers are dirgey Gregorian chants re-created by somber early-music enthusiasts like the Monks of Ampleforth Abbey. The nineteenth century fares best with “Swanee River” and “Amazing Grace,” sung by Paul Robeson and Aretha Franklin, respectively. The twentieth gets Bing Crosby’s “Star Dust” and the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” – arbitrary but arguably more representative than Journey and Korn.

Buddha Records’ Twentieth Century Time Capsule includes only ten songs – one per decade, from “Over There” to “Macarena” – and a barrage of newscast excerpts, from Cassius Clay taunting Sonny Liston to Bill Clinton encouraging his fellow citizens to build a bridge to the twenty-first century. The disc is a triumph of the sound bite – and it captures the spirit of our channel-surfing age far better than Soundtrack for a Century’s hopelessly eighteenth-century aspirations to encyclopedism.

And as Christmas approaches, Bill Clinton’s not the only one trying to build a bridge to the twenty-first century: Rhino and Columbia are already racing to bring you tomorrow’s hits today with, respectively, Wired Magazine Presents: Music Futurists and Y2K: Beat the Clock. The former is a history of futurism in music during an obsessively forward-looking era: Juan Garcia Esquivel’s “Granada” presents a hopeful, horn-rimmed 1950s vision of tomorrow; an excerpt from Brian Eno’s 1978 Music for Airports is both more soothing and more skeptical; Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” is a pre-grunge blast of dystopia. Y2K – which features pumping big-beat tracks by electronica acts like Fatboy Slim and Crystal Method – advances a vision of the future that sounds dated already, and its pre-millennial tension-evoking title seems like nothing more than a crass cash-in on a short-lived trend. But what’s more nineties than that?

Sale of a Century