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Marshall Crenshaw

Prime Crenshaw

Unlike many artists once labeled "new wave," Marshall Crenshaw has been able to sustain a career in music, creating vital, enjoyable music to this day. But the signs that Crenshaw would last were there from the start, or at least from the period following his stint as part of the cast of Beatlemania. In a field where the lucky created one or two memorable singles, Crenshaw's self-titled 1982 debut sounds like a greatest-hits collection, each track a piece of near-perfect pop music. After following it up with the similarly inspired Field Day (1983) and four other major-label albums, Crenshaw joined the independent Razor & Tie label in 1994. Pairing a self-styled rock 'n' roll historian with a label best known for its offbeat compilations turned out to be a nice fit. Also in 1994, Crenshaw edited and contributed to a now-out-of-print book on rock 'n' roll movies titled Hollywood Rock; his thoughts on the subject can currently be found at VH1's web site. Crenshaw's latest is #447, another winning collection that incorporates some of his score for the PBS documentary Yogi Berra: Déjà Vu All Over Again. Crenshaw recently spoke to The Onion from his home in Brooklyn.

The Onion: What made you settle on that generic title?

Marshall Crenshaw: I couldn't think of anything in the way of an album title right away, I wasn't getting inspired, and then I thought, "Well, how about just a number, like, which album is this anyway?" And then I couldn't immediately think of how many albums I'd made, so I thought, "How about #448?" You know, I'm an old guy, I made a bunch of records, so this is my 448th album. I thought that sounded good, so I went to a meeting a few days later at the record company and I told one of the guys who runs the label. I said, "I'm thinking of calling it #448, like ha ha ha, this is my 448th album." And he said, "How about #447? It's a prime number that can't be divided by any other number." And I said, "Yeah, whatever." You know, I'll let him name the album. So we called it #447. Then I found out that 447 could be divided by 3.

O: So it's not a prime number.

MC: It's not a prime number. But anyway, that's kinda the story. That's the long version.

O: You stopped making records for a while in the early '90s. Was there a reason for that, or were you just kind of fed up with it?

MC: Let me see... Did I? Yeah, I did. I guess I did... Uh, I don't know. I don't know if it was deliberate or not. I made a record for MCA, and that was just kind of a draining experience. But at that time, I started to think about how nice it would be if I could sort of have a cottage-industry approach to making records. I thought that before I started making records for major labels, I had sort of an interesting thing going with my home recordings, and I really enjoyed doing that. So I thought, well, maybe I could just sort of pick up where I left off with that. And that's kind of what I'm doing now.

O: You've said you stopped listening to radio in the early '70s. Did you ever pick it up again?

MC: You know what? That's kind of inaccurate. I might have said that, but what I really meant was I stopped listening to FM rock radio in the early '70s. I went back to Top 40 radio because there was this great Top 40 station in Detroit called CKLW. The thing about FM rock radio was that I started listening to it when I was about 13. I remember this kid in my algebra class telling me about this station called WAVX in Detroit, which was one of the first FM rock stations, and I was really riveted to it from then on, for years afterwards, and all my friends were, too. The cool thing about it was that the guys who were playing the music were actually knowledgeable about music. A lot of them were beatniks in the '50s, and they sort of became hippies in the '60s. And they played all the sort of rock stuff that was around then, like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and stuff, but they'd also play a lot of other stuff that would really open up your imagination, like Chicago blues and a lot of jazz. I just really loved that. Then gradually, FM rock radio, as it sort of got to have mass popularity, seemed to really dumb itself down. I hate to say this, but it also kind of went through ethnic cleansing, too.

O: I know. You listen to classic rock, and there's, like, one black artist: They only play Jimi Hendrix.

MC: Yeah, I mean, I'm just saying this as a fan. I always thought it was cool, knowing what I do about the history of rock 'n' roll, that it was a biracial thing in the beginning. There were black artists and there were white artists, but it was all kind of thrown into the same pot, and that's what I grew up on. That's the way, to me, it's supposed to be. It's just cooler that way. I know I went around for a long time saying I hated all music during the '70s, but I guess I wasn't choosing my words that carefully when I said that. I sort of became a disenfranchised rock fan in the early '70s. I was still always checking it out, trying to keep abreast or just sort of... I always had at least a passing interest in whatever was going on. And a lot of '70s stuff sounds good to me now, but the context in which it was presented would just... I couldn't get with FM rock radio then, because it just turned to drivel. And then, by the early '80s when I was starting to make records myself, there was this philosophical divide in rock music. It was a divide between what they were calling mainstream rock and new wave. [Laughs.] So I definitely got really interested in the stuff they called new wave in the early '80s; I thought it was really cool. I sort of wanted to be part of that back then. That's what really got me motivated to say, "Okay, yeah, maybe I can find a way into this." I was really liking a lot of the music anyway: I really liked the first album by The Specials, The Pretenders' first album, and a lot of stuff that was around then, a lot of club music. I was going to a lot of clubs in New York, and the DJs were really adventurous. I just thought something really great was going on.

O: Looking back, "new wave" is kind of a vague term. What did it mean for you then?

MC: What did it mean then? Well, I can name specific artists from back then who sort of had that... who were under that banner or whatever.

O: But as a genre, it seems kind of nebulous.

MC: Yeah, I guess I never really understood that. But what does it mean? It started off meaning... When it was sort of first coined, it had one definition, and then gradually it came to mean like, The Cars, I guess. Stuff with that eighth-note kind of base and... I don't know. I don't remember anymore.

O: It sounds like it was kind of a fresh perspective on older styles of music.

MC: Yeah, yeah, that's right. I really connected with that, that's for sure. It was singles-oriented, too. At that time, I was really going back and listening to a lot of mid-'60s stuff. I'm like 45 and a lifelong rock-music fan, so I think probably my own favorite time period of rock music is from about '65 or '66. And I know that has everything to do with the age I am. But I don't think it got any better than that. By about mid-'67, I think it really just was as good as it ever got. Of course, there's lots of good stuff always, you know?