A veteran English music writer, Kris Needs lived in New York City in the late ’80s (he spent two years behind the counter at Bleecker Bob’s). It was part of a longstanding fascination with the city that—lucky us—now culminates in Watch the Closing Doors: A History of New York’s Musical Melting Pot, Vol. 1—1945-59 (Year Zero), a sparkling, eminently replayable double-CD valentine to the Big Apple. I spoke to Needs for this week’s feature on the comp; here is a longer version of our Q&A session.
What prompts someone to try their hand at doing serious reissues in 2011?
This is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. In Future Noise [which owns the Year Zero label] I got a good reputation for compilations, and they had me doing some liner notes for another series. Then, they asked me to do a roots-of-punk series, Dirty Water, which I’ve done two volumes of. That’s been very well received. So I told them my New York idea, and they went for it.
Which compilations inspired this one? Were there any anthologies that triggered it, or mixes that friends had made or that you’d made?
I started deejaying in the ’70s, but particularly in the ’90s, and you inevitably make mixtapes and CD sets. I did a radio show. The only existing New York compilations taught me what not to do, which was restrict it to one particular area of music. Every time you get one, it’ll be a disco compilation, or a hip-hop compilation, or even a compilation of Spanish Harlem ballads. I haven’t seen one that’s got on the same CD Pete Seeger and Louis Armstrong. August Darnell, whom I speak to now and again, told me if you walked down a street in the Bronx you could hear different sorts of music coming out of different doorways. It’s a bit like that.
Another adviser for the series is Martin Rev, who was a member of Suicide. He grew up with bebop; got his training from Lennie Tristano, a bebop pianist. The music he makes—Suicide’s confrontational kind of punk—Martin’s attitude was… again, that’s the nice thing about putting this together. People all threw in their suggestions and it became something of a monster. I keep running into people who add their expertise or knowledge or suggestions. The latest one is Craig Leon, who produced the first Ramones and Blondie albums. We’re taking it where it goes, kind of like how the music was created in the first place.
Have you re-read any books, or read new ones, to prepare this project?
I read everything I can. I’ve been fascinated with New York since the mid-’60s, and any biography about New York, I would read. There’s a book by Tony Fletcher called All Hopped Up and Ready to Go, which is a kind of musical history of New York, up until the mid-’70s. It’s pretty good. And again, he sort of ignores experimental music—John Cage—and he ignores jazz, because jazz is such a huge massive thing on its own. He doesn’t touch it really. Did you see the [CD] book? I didn’t mean to write that much. [laughs—the booklet is 68 pages] It then became as important as the music, because it explained why the Paragons are next to Thelonious Monk. It had to be explained; otherwise, it would just look like a nice old compilation.
The comp plays like an imaginary soundtrack for many books about New York from that period. Did you test-drive the track sequencing a lot? How many iterations did that track list go through, just in terms of the songs you ended up using?
I’m really pleased you picked up on that. I spent probably about three weeks fine-tuning it. One thing about this record company, they don’t do what a lot of companies do, which is just take a track simply because it’s [in the] public domain. They insist on clearing and licensing and paying royalties on all the tracks. Some things that are over 50 years old, you can just take it, but we didn’t do that. So I had to work with a set list which didn’t have Charlie Parker, who is someone I would have loved to have had. And I just found out there was a company that’s got some Charlie Parker that I could have had! [laughs] Too late.
But I sorted over [the track list]; I tried to create a running order which, first of all, flowed. If I’d segregated all the tracks by style, then I’d be defeating my own purpose, which was to present all this music as great music, rather than great jazz or great folk, all produced in New York. That’s where it’s all linked—sometimes tenuously. But I feel like New York music is special, creative—I don’t know about now. [laughs] We are going to get up to the 21st century. But a lot of people want to document these periods in New York because it’s vanishing. I lived there in the ’80s and I was there a lot in the ’90s. David Johansen from the New York Dolls says it’s like Disneyland now.
I’m trying to not be definitive, because that can never be done. That’s why it’s A Musical History. There could never be The musical history. This is A Musical History to the best of my ability to present these eras in New York’s musical history as they happened. Who knows what Manhattan’s going to be like [in the future]?