Somebody like Marshall Crenshaw

The No. 1 album in the country the past few weeks, for those of you lucky enough to not obsess over such nonsense, isn’t by Britney, the Backstreet Boys, or Blink-182. And yet, it is. NOW That’s What I Call Music 4 is a compilation, all big hits and nothing else.

I have nothing against compilation albums in general. (I’m not talking about “tribute” albums, where alternative country-types fete Sondheim’s Follies or the K Records roster interprets ditties from Zoom, but discs featuring previously released tracks by multiple artists, packaged together on one album.) In the ’80s, compilations from UK indies Cherry Red and 4AD introduced me to new artists like Everything But the Girl and Wolfgang Press; small American labels do the same today.

But NOW 4—the first comp to go No. 1 in over 50 years—isn’t about introducing people to new music. It’s just the entertainment industry trying to make a buck in a market where youngsters keep abreast of the latest tunes by watching Total Request Live and downloading them via Napster, not by listening to full-length CDs. NOW 4 is just like those K-Tel collections sold on television in the ’70s, except that it’s on Universal, a major label.

Hard to believe that before soda pop magnates controlled the music biz, major labels had distinct characters. Compilations were inexpensive tools to show the public what made a record company unique. It was just such a platter that turned me on to Marshall Crenshaw in 1983. I picked up Warner Bros.’ Revenge of the Killer B’s collection of flip sides because I wanted the Depeche Mode rarity, but it was Crenshaw’s “Somebody Like You” (from the reverse of “Cynical Girl”) that caught my ear.

But as Crenshaw, who just issued the career retrospective This Is Easy: The Best of Marshall Crenshaw (Rhino), will testify, those were different times. “When I was on Warner Bros., the label itself had an image,” he concurs over the phone.

That was part of why he signed with Warner Bros. “When I was in my teens I used to order these ‘Loss Leader’/Sampler records that [Warner Bros.] put out and always dug the diversity and the integrity of the music on the label,” he admits in the liner notes for the reissue of his 1982 debut Marshall Crenshaw (also on Rhino). “And I liked the way the company sold itself and its artists with an intelligent sense of fun.”

“It’s impossible to imagine identifying with a big record label now,” says Crenshaw, who hasn’t put out a major label album since 1991. “They change hands every year and a half. It just seems like a lot of greedy corporations.”

Although singles and radio exposure were important in Crenshaw’s heyday, too, he had the luxury of concentrating on albums as complete entities. “If you listen to my records it’s obvious, but it was never strictly about the words,” he says of his aesthetic back then. “It was about the entire effect of the record.”

“In my late teens, psychedelic drugs became popular, and I got really into those for a while,” he continues. “Those experiences influenced the way I heard music and thought about records.”

“Someday, Someway” and “Whenever You’re on My Mind” remain great slices of power pop, but Crenshaw aimed to craft albums that were deceptively deep. “I would always apply a sense of detail to the arrangements and sounds, because I’d gotten to love listening to records and concentrating on them. I wanted the records to have that otherworldly quality . . . something larger than life, some kind of transcendent experience in sound.”

Hearing “Somebody Like You” the first time wasn’t necessarily a transcendent experience, but its kiss-off lyric tapped into my frustration over a boy who’d burned me. Regardless of my powerful response, Crenshaw says the song (a bonus track on the Marshall Crenshaw reissue) wasn’t born from emotional turmoil.

He was in Boston, finishing up his run as John Lennon in the bus-and-truck production of Beatlemania. “Every night, after the show, I’d stop at a deli and get two coffees and a chocolate brownie. I’d go to my [hotel] room and drink the coffee and eat the brownie. I’d decided I was going to leave the show, and I was going to write a lot of songs before I got home. So I’d ingest all this caffeine, write a song in about 20 minutes, and then I’d be awake all night. ‘Somebody Like You’ was just one of those songs.”

Regardless, the song’s inclusion on that Warner Bros. compilation led me to a new artist. Which is more than I can say for NOW 4. But maybe it’s best if labels don’t issue collections like Killer B’s any more; a collection of leftovers by Eiffel 65, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez is too scary to even consider.