Get Your Beefheart for Nothing and Your Kinks for Free

rock geeks dissect their local public library's music collection

Authors’ note: a fellow rock scholar who happens to buy music for the Urbana Free Library asked us to write an article for their blog, to suggest music the library should purchase and to help patrons take advantage of their excellent collection. After beginning the article, we were informed that it was inappropriate for the library website. (shhhhh!) Here it is.

William: The Urbana Free Library (UFL) is a great resource for rock geeks. Especially us. Cristy’s iron discipline with regard to financial matters means she buys two albums a year. I try my best to help compensate by buying more than I can afford, even buying records I already own because I feel sorry for them, just sitting there in the bin, neglected, under-appreciated.

Cristy (rolls eyes): No kidding. Do we honestly need three torn copies of ABC’s Lexicon of Love?

W: But the library's surprising collection allows us to explore great music for free.

C: The volume of CDs filed under “Rock” is amazing. I think Urbanites already recognize the library as a comprehensive source for music, because it seems like a majority of the CDs are always checked out!

Each time I go through their collection, I feel overwhelmed before I even reach the “D”s. (Yes, I always start at the beginning of the alphabet.)

W: I've found it especially useful for unaffordable box sets I drool over in chain book superstores. UFL has great multi-disc collections of punk (No Thanks!), ’60s psychedelia (Nuggets), the Zombies, X, the Police and Richard Thompson, among others. As these collections come with booklets, they are suitably scholarly for a library. As the formerly transgressive punk and acid rock movements slide into the past, an interest in this anti-establishment music can be rebellious or nerdy. Or both.

C: They also carry CMJ (College Music Journal) and MOJO compilations (CDs pasted onto these music magazines). This is great if you don’t feel like driving over to Big-Box Land and shelling out $10 for a glossy mag just to hear a few rare tunes.

W: They do need to tell their web-database-interface guy (or gal) that there needs to be a way to search for "rock band" on the website because the "author" field is misleading. And also consider adding a checkbox for "kick-ass."

C: I’d also recommend developing a new category for local musicians. I stumbled across Elsinore in “Folk,” and Angie Heaton and the Beauty Shop in “Rock,” which seemed kind of scattered. It might be cool to have a “Local” category to demonstrate our community’s dedication to supporting the rich trove of area artists.

I was impressed with their abundance of Guided by Voices and Robert Pollard CDs, as well as lesser-known ’70s and ’80s power pop outfits like the Shoes and the Plimsouls. And the library doesn’t shy away from metal. I ran across Slayer, Dragonforce and a hefty selection of Iron Maiden. Rawk!

W: Other small bands well represented in the collection include Firehose and the Fiery Furnaces. Wire's Pink Flag is another groundbreaking British punk masterpiece available at the library. The Soft Boys section is almost impeccable. Kudos. Missing is Stiff Little Fingers' Inflammable Material, considered by some to be the first true independent punk album—and it's definitely the sort of thing that you would get in trouble for playing in the library. I also did not see the X-Ray Spex’s Germ-Free Adolescents.

The XTC collection is flawed. Even with UFL's excellent interlibrary XTC borrowing service that allows them to quickly get discs from Champaign's more robust XTC collection and hold them for you at the front desk, I still see their masterpiece missing: Apple Venus 1.

C: Dude. You already own it.

W: A search on XTC's lead songwriter Andy Partridge will bring up one XTC disc (why only one?) but none of his epic 8-disc demo series Fuzzy Warbles. For shame! If I were more principled, I would burn my library card on the front steps. Librarians, you need to have that on the shelf yesterday.

And only the savviest patrons will know to do a separate search for "Dukes of Stratosphear" to find XTC's most important (but by no means only) alter-ego. Hey database guy, you need some "see also" cross-reference stuff. Get on it. Seriously.

Finally, just to exhaust the subject of new wave or punk bands who released faux-’60s psychedelic albums pseudonymously, where is Naz Nomad and the Nightmares' Give Daddy the Knife, Cindy? (by the Damned)?

C: Too bad for you. As I was absent-mindedly flipping through the “P”s, I found Pond’s first album, which I’ve never been able to find in any record store (and I’ve looked for it everywhere). I nearly wept with joy!

The surprisingly extensive “New” section shows the library isn’t just devoted to acquiring recent releases; they revisit the old stuff, too. For example, AC/DC’s 1975 debut, High Voltage, sat next to Madonna’s latest, Hard Candy.

W: Captain Beefheart is another artist whose complete work ought to be represented in the library as part of its mission to preserve our cultural heritage against the tides of illiteracy, barbarism and Huey Lewis and the News.

C (muttering under breath): Oh boy. Here we go again with crazy-ass Captain Beefheart.

W: What?

C: Nothing. You’re on a roll.

W: Even conflating the Urbana and Champaign libraries, I still see some holes. Another weakness in the cataloging: a search on "Magic Band" brings up only two of the Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band albums.

C (sits, eyes glazed over, chin on hand)

W: Plainly missing is Back to the Front, an excellent album the Magic Band recorded without the Captain (and no, he is not missed—drummer John French sings his difficult parts perfectly). The Magic Band also recorded a live album without the Captain that is so obscure that you all need to send me an email as soon as you get it in. Please!

C: Beef’s the consummate, clichéd cult hero: inaccessible tunes, mysterious persona, a vault of infinite material, and a whiny following that complains about how underappreciated he is. Ahem.

W: No Cristy, that’s Frank Zappa. Totally different. (changes subject) Let's not forget about the great selection of rock books at the library. Thanks to their collection I have read Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life—a series of portraits of underground U.S. punk bands between 1981 and 1991, and One Train Later—Andy Summers' memoir about all the great, inspiring people and musicians he's worked with. And also about working with Sting. They have a bunch of books on Bob Dylan and books about great musicians as well.

C: I’m with you there. Industry gossip is to me what heroin was to Keith Richards circa 1972. But tabloid tidbits about Britney and Jessica are kid stuff. I’d rather peruse UFL’s music section (call number 781.66). You can count on juicy groupie memoirs, collections of critics’ writings (Lester Bangs, Jim DeRogatis and Frank Kogan, among others), album guides and profiles of bands who aren’t the Beatles, the Stones or Elvis. I saw books on Jonathan Richman, the Kinks and Gram Parsons.

W: They also stock Continuum’s 33 1/3 series of small monographs on classic albums.

C: UFL is a great way to be adventurous and discover new bands, revisit the ones you may have forgotten or sneak some private indulgences. Dying to hear Hard Candy but too mortified to be seen buying it? (Um, not that I’m speaking from personal experience…) Check it out from UFL. Nobody will know, except the librarians, and they keep quiet.

W: All in all, the Urbana Free library has a bad-ass rock collection. If you play these discs late at night they are guaranteed to make your grad student neighbors bang on the wall out of enthusiasm for your vigorous scholarship.

Keep on rocking in the free library!


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