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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1980 Pazz & Jop: The Year of the Lollapalooza

As we know, many voters found 1980 a confusing year. When Pazz & Jop gossip began a few months ago, various critics complained about their top 10s — after three or four inescapable lollapaloozas, 20 or 30 possibilities came to mind. Although different critics naturally heard different lollapaloozas, the poll did end up with three clear leaders, each more than 100 points (274 more in one case) ahead of its nearest rival: Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Bruce Springsteen’s The River, and — easily the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history — The Clash’s London Calling. Then there’s a cluster of four, then a cluster of two by artists who almost certainly would have done better if they weren’t black, and then the pack. The top three are the lollapaloozas, the next six inspired also-rans, and the rest varying amalgams of excellence and special interest.

Insofar as my personal take on 1980 is confusing, it’s because I spent the first nine months of the year trying to get a fix on the previous decade for a book-length Consumer Guide. As a result, I was only dimly aware of current music — after London Calling and Crawfish Fiesta in early January, no record really imprinted itself until October, although Public Image, the Brains, Gang of Four, the Pretenders, and Hassell & Eno all made dents. So I’ve spent the last three or four months force-feeding, which isn’t the method I prefer — popular music is meant to be lived with. This may have distorted some of my findings — I’m committed to a top 10 prepared two weeks ago for the balloting, and already I’d probably drop the Jacksons a few places and give five of the Clash’s points to Talking Heads and Prince. Still, I had my lollapaloozas, too — two from the collective top three and a third from the next six. But the more I listened the fonder I became of the top 10 also-rans as well, and in the end I found more than 40 A-quality records all-told. My force-fed conclusion: for quality, a good year, much like 1978 and 1979.

As our 201 1980 respondents learned late in December, the Board of Poobahs broadened eligibility this year. In the past we’ve limited the poll strictly to U.S.-manufactured (“released,” as we say) albums from the year in question. But this year both imports and “late-breaking” 1979 LPs were eligible, a change that had worked well when we introduced singles balloting in the previous poll. As a result, Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall appears in our top 40 for the second time, Pink Floyd’s The Wall sneaks in for the first, and two imports — Joy Division’s Closer and Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth — also make the list. My own top 40 also reflects these changes:

1. The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 25 2. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 15 3. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.) 12 4. Tom Robinson: Sector 27 (I.R.S.) 12 5. Wanna Buy a Bridge? (Rough Trade) 9 6. Jon Hassell/Brian Eno: Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics (Editions E.G.) 7 7. John Lennon/Yoko Ono: Double Fantasy (Geffen) 5 8. Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 5 9. Professor Longhair: Crawfish Fiesta (Alligator) 5 10. The Jacksons: Triumph (Epic) 5.

11. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 12. Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 13. Alberta Hunter: Amtrak Blues (Columbia) 14. Neil Young: Hawks and Doves (Reprise) 15. Chic: Real People (Atlantic) 16. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 17. The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 18. Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 19. Poly Styrene: Translucence (United Artists import) 20. Si Kahn: Home (Flying Fish ’79).

21. The Psychedelic Furs (Columbia) 22. Pretenders (Sire ’79) 23. LPJE: Live at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1980 (Latin Percussion Ventures, Inc.) 24. The English Beat: I Just Can’t Stop It (Sire) 25. Pere Ubu: The Art of Walking (Rough Trade) 26. Pere Ubu: New Picnic Time (Chrysalis import) 27. John Prine: Storm Windows (Asylum) 28. Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 29. Rockpile: Seconds of Pleasure (Columbia) 30. Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns (Stiff import). 31. X: Los Angeles (Slash) 32. Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson: 1980 (Arista) 33. Steel Pulse: Reggae Fever (Mango) 34. Michael Hurley: Snockgrass (Rounder) 35. The Undertones: Hypnotised (Sire) 36. The Suburbs: In Combo (Twin/Tone) 37. The Clash: Black Market Clash (Epic Nu-Disk) 38. Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 39. T-Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma) 40. Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (ZE).

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No Room in the In: the Brains, Junie. Wait Till Last Year: XTC (Drums and Wires), the Brides of Funkenstein (Never Buy Texas from a Cowboy), Smokey Robinson (Where There’s Smoke…). Alternative disciplines: Arthur Blythe (Illusions), Steve Reich, Dollar Brand (African Marketplace), Big Youth (Progress), Henry Cow, Michael Mantler. Judgment reserved: Joy Division, Al Green, Bunny Wailer, Pylon, Sandinista!

My album choices are somewhat eccentric — four of my top 10 finished toward the bottom of the Pazz & Jop top 100, and 13 of my top 40 didn’t make the top 100 at all. But this is the kind of thing that happens to hermits — my singles list is positively weird. I didn’t get to go out dancing much in 1980, and listened to the radio only on vacation. (When I could stand it, that is — commercial broadcasting has really regressed. I’m hanging a red ribbon out my window till PIX comes back.) I’ve always believed that singles transcended consensus and objective judgment — there are so many that those you love aren’t just good, but enter your life. Here are 10 that affected mine:

1. Pylon: “Cool” (Caution) 2. The Beat: “Twist and Crawl” (Go-Feet 12-inch import) 3. Diana Ross: “Upside Down” (Motown) 4. John Anderson: “She Just Started Liking Cheatin’ Songs” (Warner Bros.) 5. Joy Division: “She [sic] Lost Control” (Factory 12-inch) 6. Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” (Tamla) 7. Pretenders: “Brass in Pocket” (Sire) 8. The Slits: “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” (Antilles) 9. Lenny Kaye: “Child Bride” (Mer) 10. Suzanne Fellini: “Love on the Phone” (Casablanca).

The top of the singles poll is pretty weird, too, in its way — and exciting. When “Rapper’s Delight” tied for 22nd last year, who would have figured that a rap record would take it all 12 months later. I like other rap records even more than “The Breaks,” but there can be no doubt that it was Kurtis Blow (later for Deborah Harry) who took a genuine (New York!) street form to all of the people some of the time. Almost as remarkable (later for Deborah Harry) is the passionate support of Joy Division, who — unlike the Pretenders, last year’s import champs — did it with little radio. As for Deborah Harry, I figured “Call Me” for a shoo-in — she’s even got a Spanish-language disco disc out on Salsoul. But after that I think the singles list gets boring — commuters enjoying favorite album cuts outnumber the voters who live for all the one-shots that make 45-rpm so speedy these days. Other noteworthies include this year’s domestic-indie champs, the Bush Tetras of Gotham’s own 99 Records; John and Yoko; destined-to-be-mythic one-offs from the Vapors (the exotically slanted “Turning Japanese”), Lipps, Inc. (the tract-disco “Funkytown”), and Martha and the Muffins (the post-surf “Echo Beach”); imports from the Jam and the Pretenders (again); indies from Pylon and the Dead Kennedys; is-it-an-indie-or-import from Joy Division; and almosts by Richard Hell, Suicide, Delta 5, the English Beat, and, er, Queen.

For the second year, voters were also asked to list three local bands, defined as groups without major-label affiliation that gig regularly in their hometown areas (which need not be the voter’s — Token Uptown Poobah Dave Marsh threatened to vote for Fela Ransome-Kuti, and that would have been fine with me). Here I indulged my own subjectivity once again by honoring my fondest club memories of 1980 with no attempt at balanced long-term assessment: thank you to Material (at CBGB in February and the late lamented Tier 3 in July), DNA (at Irving Plaza in January and CBGB in November), and the Babylon Dance Band (at Trax in December).

Since about half the Pazz & Joppers live in New York, the local band category favors this locality, especially given its mushrooming (if clouded) club scene. Last year, though, Austin’s Joe “King” Carrasco (whose debut album placed 70th in 1980) finished a surprising second, and this year Los Angeles’s X (also a favorite last year) was the overwhelming winner — 26 votes to 10 for New York’s Kid Creole and the Coconuts and Boston’s Human Sexual Response. Working Poobah Debra Rae Cohen (who voted for X herself) thinks New York is too factionalized to champion one act, although Poobah in Absentia Tom Carson’s theory that the action is now elsewhere also has its merits. In any case, only four other New York bands — the Bush Tetras and the Nitecaps with eight votes, the db’s [sic] with six, and the Dance with four — made much of a showing. Other names to remember include Los Angeles’s Blasters (eight), Wall of Voodoo (four), Go-Go’s (four), and Falcons (four); Boston’s Mission of Burma (eight), Peter Dayton Band (five), and Stompers (four); Minneapolis’s Wallets (five) and Curtiss A (four); Kent, Ohio’s Human Switchboard (five); San Francisco’s Romeo Void (four); and Lawrence, Kansas’s Thumbs (four).

But what’s most interesting about the local band competition brings me back around to the crux of the poll, the LP ballot. Not only did X’s album — on Slash, outgrowth of an L.A. punkzine — come in 16th, but the two runners-up also had minor-label albums, Kid Creole on Antilles (77th) and Human Sexual Response on PVC, a domestic arm of import biggie Jem. Other locals with Indie LPs include the Blasters, the Human Switchboard, Curtiss A, and Thumbs. And while three indie albums made our top 40 in 1979, this year two imports brought the total to six. The indies finished higher, too. In short, as the big corporations opt out of marginal music, small entrepreneurs figure out how to make money off it (X’s Los Angeles is up to around 50 thou with Jem distributing, and the band tours a lot), and journalists spread the news. In short short, to reprise an old theme: avant-garde pop.

This is the time, then, when I should begin analyzing the two critical camps into which our increasingly enormous electorate is divided — the avant-gardists versus the traditionalists, the radicals versus the conservatives. With myself, of course, firmly on the side of the former, a/k/a The Good. But while I was certainly an avant-garde radical type five years ago, before there was a punk/new wave and a ditto press, I’ve since been outflanked by youngsters who wouldn’t think of putting old farts like the Clash and Talking Heads on their lists. Anyway, my tastes aren’t always even on the respectable left — The River and Double Fantasy aren’t my chart-toppers, but I prefer them to Entertainment! and Crazy Rhythms and The Art of Walking, enjoyably significant though I think those pop experiments are. And just exactly how does one categorize Triumph? Or for that matter Crawfish Fiesta and Amtrak Blues?

I mean, there are other ways to run it down. How about formalists versus expressionists, for instance? Now which side are you on? For, in general, those of us who were championing the Ramones (81st!) in 1976 have recently found ourselves aligned with “progressives” who, until the post-punk expansion, were amusing themselves with old Soft Machine records. Granted that their tastes have improved and ours broadened (or vice versa, if you prefer), I’m not entirely comfortable with this alliance. I don’t sympathize with the blues-and-country limitations of those who delve no further into “new wave” than Rockpile and the Pretenders, who seize upon every reworking by the Stones and the Who and Van Morrison as manna from rock ‘n’ roll heaven. But I also dissent from the affectlessness, the mannered despair and/or passion of so many rock vanguardists.

If these generalizations seem a mite broad, take them as hints and consider Triumph and Crawfish Fiesta again. One indication of how rich and basic black popular music is, how essential it ought to be to anyone who claims to like rock and roll, is the way black performers confound our already contradiction-ridden categories. Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson are committed formalists — they revel in music-for-its-own-sake above all. But without second-guessing themselves they also employ form to express (or simulate, doesn’t matter) the most elementary (which doesn’t mean simple) human emotions. To dismiss such artists as “corny” or “commercial” — the usual racist commonplace — is to misapprehend their context, tradition, and aesthetic aims. And what kind of vanguardism might that be?

One way of making sense of this mess might be to refer (gingerly, I hope) to auteur theory. Say Smokey and Stevie and maybe Van Morrison and John Lennon and Ray Davies are the equivalent of Ford and Siegel and Hawks — intentional artists, sure, but unselfconscious even when they’re pretentious. Ambitious craftsmen who think about their place in history — Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Marley — are more like Preston Sturges (when they’re good) or John Huston (who offers more than meets the eye but can still be a real jerk). All the new guys, meanwhile, are like, how about that, Godard and de Broca and Bourguignon. La nouvelle vague, they used to call it.

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To extend the metaphor, you could say that each of the two latter groups has produced its Allens and De Palmas, too, and while away the tween-sets trying to figure who’s who. The question then becomes — where’s Francis Ford Coppola? I think 1980 was when various contestants made their bids. No more tightly controlled genre pieces for these boys; they were going for grand, sweeping — perhaps even popular! — statements. The rhythmic expansiveness of what just two years ago was a resolutely stiff-necked music — John Lydon’s reggae immersions, Talking Heads’ Africanisms, the Clash’s excavations in every rock and roll style — is one sure sign. Even more convincing that three of the top five LPs were doubles: London CallingThe River, and Second Edition. Not counting last year’s 10th-ranked Bad Girls, you have to go back to the ’76 and ’75 winners — Songs in the Key of Life and The Basement Tapes — to find another two-album set in the Pazz & Jop top 20. Clearly, a new generation of artists has achieved enough commercial stability and artistic scope to think big. It’s like 1968 or 1969 all over again, with the hubris of the new hierarchy kept in check, I hope, by their less than hegemonic control of the marketplace. And if the Clash and PIL and Talking Heads are (very roughly speaking) our Beatles and Stones and Byrds, can Van Morrison and Randy Newman be far behind? Presumably, they’re not far behind at all — which is as good a reason as any for me to devote the rest of this annual wrap-up to a rundown of the albums the critics chose as the best of 1980.

40. Pink Floyd’s The Wall: Nothing like a big single to attract belated attention to a struggling young band — “Another Brick in the Wall” got four votes and catalyzed enough album points to push this late-1979 release into the bottom slot. I take the song so seriously myself that I may go for my doctorate in social psychology.

39. Diana Ross’ Diana: Chic album of the year on the strength of “I’m Coming Out,” an all-purpose sell-the-gays hit that received four votes in the singles competition, and the tenth-ranked “Upside Down,” a good time for sure. Not since Lady Sings the Blues has Ms. R. been forced into such a becoming straitjacket. But I still prefer Chic’s own Real People, where Rodgers & Edwards get to, well, express themselves.

38. Joan Armatrading’s Me Myself I: The perennially unclassifiable London-based West Indian singer-songwriter meets Instant Records honcho Barry Gottehrer (Blondie, the Strangeloves) for her hardest music ever. The title tune is to narcissism as “Brown Sugar” is to racism, which serves somebody right.

37. John Lennon & Yoko Ono’s Double Fantasy: The only rockcrit-estab Voice-Phoenix-Stone types to vote for this besides co-fantasts R. Christgau and C. Dibbell were John Swenson and Martha Hume (cohabiting, though not with each other). The single finished high, however, so maybe more tastemakers will catch on after “Beautiful Boy” and “Watching the Wheels” top the charts.

36. Graham Parker’s The Up Escalator: By most accounts, the latest from last year’s victor-by-consensus is the downer of the year, following up on everything pinched in his singing and mean-spirited in his vision. But it’s hooky — “the hummable Graham Parker,” Tom Carson called it — and for some that’s apparently enough.

35. Carlene Carter’s Musical Shapes: Mother Maybelle’s most famous granddaughter and Nick Lowe’s most famous wife has been touted as the next Marshall Chapman since she surfaced in 1978, and here she comes up with the nasty, compassionate songs to justify it. Producer Lowe puts the likes of “Cry,” “I’m So Cool,” and “To Drunk (Too Remember) [sic]” into musical shape.

34. Arthur Blythe’s Illusions: Due more to demographics than to narrowing tastes — this is a rock critics’ poll, despite its silly but immutable name — jazz fared worse in this year’s P&J than in 1979, when the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Nice Guys placed an unprecedented 29th and LPs by Mingus, Ulmer, Davis, Blythe, Coleman & Haden, Old and New Dreams, and Monk also finished in the top 100. In 1980 the Art Ensemble’s Full Force came in 91st and Jack DeJohnette’s Special Edition 54th, and unless you count Weather Report (82nd) or, no kidding, George Benson (62nd), that was it — except for the more avant-garde of Blythe’s two 1980 offerings (his In the Tradition also got two mentions). In 1979 I voted for Blythe’s Lenox Avenue Breakdown, which had a lot of witty, almost danceable things to say about body rhythms. Illusions didn’t make my list, mainly because it hit me as a “pure” jazz statement — the best I heard all year, a bracingly concise all-hands-in-top-form synthesis. Special plaudits to cellist Abdul Wadud, bassist Fred Hopkins, and guitarist Blood Ulmer. P.S.: Ulmer’s Are You Glad To Be in America? came out as a rather thin-sounding Rough Trade import in 1980; I eagerly await Artists House’s American mix.

33. Neil Young’s Hawks and Doves: This met with scorn from skeptics but was welcomed affectionately by Young’s admirers — only Neil would make a deliberately minor record about war and peace after four successive masterworks about himself. Not all of his admirers voted for it, though — me, for instance. And those who did gave it about 10 points per ballot — last year’s second-ranked Rust Never Sleeps averaged 13.

32. The Specials: Ska is/was a reactionary fad in England — white kids turning on to the black music of a time safely past. In America it’s just another Anglophile exoticism, and not a bad one — integrated bands are always an up. The Specials are on the catchy, jokey end of the continuum, their beat rapid and insistent but light, their politics liberal. The follow-up, More Specials, steepened their pop proclivities and was hailed for its brazen irony by some, but only two voters mentioned it.

31. Professor Longhair’s Crawfish Fiesta: The first blues album to make the poll was cut shortly before the death of the man who passed New Orleans piano from Jelly Roll Morton to Allen Toussaint. Part-time producer and full-time entrepreneur Bruce Iglauer deserves double thanks — it’s the best music ’Fess ever recorded, and it’s earned him the esteem he’s always deserved. The secret of the album isn’t so much standout tracks like “Big Chief” and Fats Domino’s “Whole Lotta Loving” but its jaunty, bow-legged gait, which ’Fess didn’t develop sailing the seven seas.

30. The Iron City Houserockers’ Have a Good Time (but Get Out Alive): Springsteen has always had imitators — take a bow and pose for the trades, Johnny Cougar. Joe Grushecky is more like a slightly self-conscious soul brother, shorter on talent but close to the roots. It’s poetic justice that the critics prefer him to Blondie (“Now they’re playing your song in all those places/They won’t let me and Angela in”), but I still prefer Autoamerican (three mentions).

29. Lydia Lunch’s Queen of Siam: I’ve walked out on three different bands led by this dame, but she’s come up with a funny, sexy little record, exaggerating her flat Cleveland accent into a hickish, dumb-and-dirty come-on and playing her foolish nihilist poetry for laughs. Pat Irwin’s big-band atonalisms are interesting in themselves and suit Lydia’s city-of-night shtick perfectly. And “Spooky” is the cover of the year.

28. The Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta: Not to be confused with 1979’s 35th-place Reggatta de Blanc, except perhaps by yours truly. Jon Pareles said it all in his January 14 Riff, including my main point: De do do do, de da da da.

27. Van Morrison’s Common One: As somebody who considers Moondance an apotheosis and has never gotten Astral Weeks, I think this is his worst since Hard Nose the Highway — sententious, torpid, abandoned by God. I know lots of Astral Weeks fans who agree. But Morrison has a direct line to certain souls, and they still hear him talkin’.

26. T-Bone Burnett’s Truth Decay: Having put the omega on Alpha Bandmate Steve Soles (Soles does show up in the credits, but — unlike the ever-adroit David Mansfield — not as a band member), the Christer who’s reputed to have pointed out the Way to Bob Dylan turns his attention to benighted rationalists like me and I hope you. On John Fahey’s Buddhist blues label. Since no Alpha Band record ever did much in this poll, grand Burnett is succes d’estime and pray that he’ll take on the Moral Majority next time — he’s got the guts. P.S. Dylan’s Saved didn’t make a single ballot.

25. Young Marble Giants’ Colossal Youth: I’d call this modern romance — two brothers, a girl, and a rhythm machine — the cult music of the year, only it doesn’t have the requisite high points-to-voter ratio (cf. Closer, Queen of Siam). Maybe that’s because its cult likes not getting excited about something. Call it cult Muzak of the year — quiet, tuneful, passing weird. Me, I prefer Hassell & Eno.

24. Squeeze’s Argybargy: Poppophiles Glen [sic] Tilbrook and Chris Difford don’t settle for have-fun fall-in-love fear-girls. They pen short stories worthy of early Rupert Holmes, and with a beat. Next title: Herkyjerky.

23. Smokey Robinson’s Warm Thoughts: To me, this was the biggest surprise of the poll, not because I don’t agree that he’s come back, but because I thought the turnaround was 1979’s Where There’s Smoke…, which received zero votes last year. My guess is that a groundswell began with “Cruising [sic],” the late-breaking single off that album and his biggest since “Tears of a Clown.” The follow-up LP is, well, slower — make-out rather than dance music, a more songful version of 1975’s unmoored A Quiet Storm.

22. Joy Division’s Closer: A controversial band, due mostly to the mysterioso torments of singer-lyricist Ian Curtis, who committed suicide from the apex of a love triangle last spring. I only began to hear the band when I ignored Curtis and concentrated on the other musicians’ dark, roiling, off-center rhythms. And now Curtis sounds pretty good to me.

21. The English Beat’s I Just Can’t Stop It: Known simply as the Beat in England, and rightly so — their ska is deep and driven. The bassline on “Twist and Crawl” (10 votes b/w “Hands Off She’s Mine”) moved more feet than anything Bernard Edwards came up with in 1980. Electoral-politics song of the year: “Stand Down Margaret.”

20. The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue: You can tell this is an ordinary Stones album because it finished so far out of the money. World’s greatest rock and roll band, y’know.

19. David Bowie’s Scary Monsters: Bowie’s best-received LP since Station to Station is also his hardest-rocking since Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane, and the first time I’ve been fully convinced that his fascination with fascism is a species of repulsion. Wish I could say I liked the thing — he’s always tried to sing like a mime, ornate and overstated, and after a decade he’s really learned how.

18. Dire Straits’ Making Movies: If any rock and roller aspires to auteur status it’s Mark Knopfler, and among those with a taste for his rather corny plots this establishes his claim. Me, I’d rather hear him work on somebody else’s stories — his guitar has emerged from Eric Clapton’s shadow into a jazzy rock that muscles right past Larry Carlton and ilk. Steely Straits, anyone? Or would that be Dire Dan?

17. The Feelies’ Crazy Rhythms: Out-of-towners provided nine of the 19 mentions but only 72 of the 219 points for this New York cult band, and as a longtime cultist I go along with them: I can see listing this, but only near the bottom of a top 10. The band’s minimalist raveups have a body that doesn’t come fully alive on record — at least not this record, which is exciting in a disturbingly abstract way. Of course, that’s probably how these so-straight-they’re-cool weirdos want it.

16. X’s Los Angeles: Combining raw tempos and abrasive lyrics with sawed-off Chuck Berry guitar lines, the punkest album of the year almost justified the desperate stupidity of the rest of the band’s ingrown scene. But I was taken with this comment from L.A. critic Jay Mitchell: “Their death and gloom aura is closer to the Eagles, which is to say it is all Hollywood.”

15. Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure: Solo LPs by Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe finished 13th and 14th in 1979. In 1980 the ace revivalists joined forces and dropped a place. Hmm. To me, this one proves Lowe’s conceptualist bravado, not his voice, is what stamps his albums. Another collection of good rock n’ roll songs in Edmunds’ neoclassicist manner, neither as slack as its detractors claim nor as meaningful as rock n’ roll loyalists wish.

14. Peter Townshend’s Empty Glass: Townshend has said the only reason this isn’t a Who record is that it wasn’t time for a Who record, which may be his way of apologizing for not being able to sing like Roger Daltrey. On his earlier solo ventures, the reflective, lyrical mood suited his light timbre. Here he tries to voice urgency and anger, with results that nonbelievers find whiny. Who fans, rock’s oldest and most steadfast critical fraternity, find the gap between aspiration and achievement touching and apt.

13. Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall: Nothing like four big singles to attract belated attention to a struggling young man — why else did eight new voters regard this 18th-place 1979 finisher as a 1980 album? I hope that when “Heartbreak Hotel” and two or three others make their mark, the Jacksons’ Triumph (83rd this year) will repeat the trick.

12. Steely Dan’s Gaucho: Another painstaking step toward the cocktail rock they’ve sought for almost a decade — after half a dozen hearings, their most arcane harmonies and unlikely hooks sound comforting, like one of those electro-massagers that relax the muscles with a low-voltage shock. Craftsmen this obsessive don’t want to rule the world — they just want to make sure it doesn’t get them.

11. Peter Gabriel’s Peter Gabriel: The first man of Genesis came back even stronger than Mark Knopfler after hitting a sophomore jinx with Peter Gabriel, on Atlantic. His post-progressive art-rock minidramas won support from formalists and expressionists both, fulfilling the debut promise of Peter Gabriel, on Atco. Personal fave: “Biko,” a different kind of Africanism.

10. Gang of Four’s Entertainment!: This suffers a bit from Feelies syndrome — the tense, zigzag rhythms sound thinner than they do from a stage, where the Gang also get to make their chanted non-melodies visible. But the band’s progressive atavism is a real formal accomplishment — by taking punk’s amateur ethos up a notch or three without destroying its spirit, they pull off the kind of trick that’s been eluding avant-garde primitives since the dawn of romanticism. And if you want to complain that their leftism is received, the same goes for your common sense.

9. Prince’s Dirty Mind: Although the vocals are love-man falsetto, the metallic textures and simple drum pattern are as much Rolling Stones as Funkadelic. And where the typical love man plays the lead in “He’s So Shy,” Prince is aggressively, audaciously erotic. I’m talking about your basic fuckbook fantasies — the kid sleeps with his sister and digs it, sleeps with his girlfriend’s boyfriend and doesn’t, and stops a wedding by gamahuching the bride on her way to church. I mean, Mick can just fold up his penis and go home.

8. Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July: “Side two is the perfect example of an artist doing his job and doing it well. With fun and grace at that,” saith the surprisingly quotable Jay Mitchell (never heard of him myself), who didn’t vote for it. I didn’t vote for it either, but I just played side one and found it only a little less of the same. Except for the all-embracingly pan-Afro-American “Master Blaster,” there’s no great Stevie on this album, but between his free-floating melodicism and his rolling overdrive, his hope and his cynicism, he seems more and more like the best thing the ’60s ever happened to. Sure outlasted Jerry Garcia, didn’t he?

7. Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!: When this Stax-based 20-song loss leader failed to take either critically or commercially, I thought Costello had blown it — no shock to me, but obviously a major disappointment to Mr. Costello, his many believers, and the Columbia Broadcasting System. But while Get Happy!! fared somewhat worse than any of his other albums in Pazz & Jop, it received such strong and varied support that I’m now convinced of the opposite — that Costello’s craft and commitment bespeak the kind of staying power that keeps some critical faves in the running till they finally break through on sheer persistence.

6. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band’s Doc at the Radar Station: Beefheart is a genius and an utter original, but that doesn’t make him the greatest artist ever to rock down the pike — his unreconstructed eco-freak eccentricity impairs his aesthetic as well as his commercial outreach. But never before have his nerve-wracking harmonies and sainted-spastic rhythms been captured in such brutal living color — if only he’d had saved some melodic secrets for side two, this might be the undeniable masterpiece he’s always deserved.

5. Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition: In which former three-chord savage John Lydon reveals himself as yet another arty primitivist — a sharp, sophisticated one. PIL reorganizes the punk basics — ineluctable pulse, attack guitar — into a full-bodied, superaware white dub with disorienting European echoes, an ideal counterpart to the civilized bestiality of Lydon’s vocal drama. Much of this music is difficult, and some of it fails, but just about all of it makes me stop and listen. And “Poptones” could have been my single of the year.

4. Pretenders: It’s dumb to put them down as pop — pop hasn’t come this far yet and I’m not sure it ever will. They get on the radio, sure, but their structures are too open-ended (compare the anal-compulsive neatness of Squeeze or Elvis C.) and their passions too out-front. And no matter where they get their hooks, they have their own melodic style. Admittedly, though, Chrissie Hynde is a little thin in the soul — even her nastiness doesn’t sound as if there’s much behind it.

3. Talking Heads’ Remain in Light: In which David Byrne conquers his fear of music in a visionary cross-cultural synthesis, clear-eyed and rather detached yet almost mystically optimistic. One song celebrates a young terrorist, another recalls John Cale at his spookiest, a third turns failure into a religious experience. Yet when Byrne shouts out that “the world moves on a woman’s hips” — not exactly a new idea in rock and roll — it sounds as if he’s just discovered the secret of life for himself. Which he probably has.

2. Bruce Springsteen’s The River: All the standard objections apply — his beat is still clunky, his singing overwrought, his sense of significance shot through with Mazola Oil. But his writing is at a peak, and he’s grown into a bitter empathy. These are the wages of young romantic love among those who get paid by the hour. Maybe he’s giving forth with so many short fast ones because those circles of frustration and escape seem even more desperate now.

1. The Clash’s London Calling: Oh yeah, and then there was the Clash. If this was the Year of the Lollapalooza, the Clash was the Lollapalooza of the Lollapaloozas. Their triple-LP, Sandanista!, finished 55th as an import and is sure to come in a lot higher next year, and they also put out a 10-inch “EP” that had 34 minutes of music on it. But this was the biggest one, supported by all but the bared-teeth brigade and the shameless sticks-in-the-mud. It generated an urgency and vitality and ambition (that Elvis P. cover!) which overwhelmed the pessimism of its leftist world-view. And it was good for an actual hit single. I mean, what else is there?

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

Selected Ballots

BILLY ALTMAN: Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 15; T-Bone Burnett: Truth Decay (Takoma) 15; The Cars: Panorama (Elektra) 15; Public Image, Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 10; Creedence Clearwater Revival: The Royal Albert Hall Concert (Fantasy) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 10; Joan Jett (Blackheart) 10; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5; Squeeze: Argybargy (A&M) 5.

LESTER BANGS: Public Image Ltd.: The Metal Box/Second Edition (Virgin import/Island) 30; Otis Rush: Groaning the Blues (Flyright import) 30; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5; The Sex Pistols: The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (Virgin import) 5; The Clash: Black Market Clash (Epic Nu-Disk) 5; The Rolling Stones: Emotional Rescue (Rolling Stones) 5; Captain Beefheart and His [sic] Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 5; Ramones: End of the Century (Sire) 5; Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (Ze) 5; Sid Vicious: Sid Sings (Virgin import) 5.

LESTER BANGS: Au Pairs: “Diet”/”It’s Obvious” (021 import); Teenage Jesus & the Jerks (Migraine EP); Mars (Lust Unlust EP); The Mekons: “Snow” (Red Rhino); The Clash: “Bankrobber” (CBS import); Lipps, Inc.: “Funkytown” (Casablanca); Ramones: “I Wanna Be Sedated” (RSO); Was (Not Was): “Wheel Me Out” (ZE/Antilles); Public Image Ltd.: “Memories”/”Another” (Virgin import); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99).

TOM CARSON: The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 20; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 20; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 12; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 9; Peter Townshend: Empty Glass (Atco) 9; The Brains (Mercury) 9; David Bowie: Scary Monsters (RCA) 6; Ramones: End of the Century (Sire) 5; Iron City Houserockers: Have a Good Time (but Get Out Alive) (MCA) 5; The Rossington Collins Band (MCA) 5.

BRIAN CHIN (all 12-inch disco discs): S.O.S. Band: “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” (Tabu); Queen: “Another One Bites the Dust” (Elektra); George Benson: “Give Me the Night” (Warner Bros.); Rod: “Shake It Up (Do the Boogaloo)” (Prelude); Cameron: “Get It Off” (Salsoul); Gayle Adams: “Your Love Is a Life Saver” (Prelude); Gene Chandler: “Does She Have a Friend?” (20th Century); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury); Teena Marie: “Behind the Groove” (Gordy); The Brothers Johnson: “Stomp!” (A&M).

DEBRA RAE COHEN: Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 14; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 14; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 14; Joy Division: Unknown Pleasures (Factory import) 12; Arthur Blythe: Illusions (Columbia) 10; The Brains (Mercury) 7; Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA) 8; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 8; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 7; The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 5.

DEBRA RAE COHEN: Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Joy Division: “She’s Lost Control”/”Atmosphere” (Factory 12-inch); Delta 5: “You” (Rough Trade import); Robert Wyatt: “At Last I Am Free” (Rough Trade import); Pylon: “Cool”/”Dub” (Caution); Suicide: “Dream Baby Dream” (Red Star); The Rolling Stones: “Emotional Rescue” (Rolling Stones); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury); NRBQ: “Me and the Boys” (Red Rooster); The Jam: “Going Underground” (Polydor import).

BARRY MICHAEL COOPER: Junie: Bread Alone (Columbia) 15; Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 15; Devo: Freedom of Choice (Warner Bros.) 12; Herbie Hancock: Mr. Hands (Columbia) 12; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 8; Al Green: The Lord Will Make a Way (Myrrh) 8; Cameo: Feel Me (Casablanca) 5; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 5.

MIKE FREEDBERG: Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.) 15; Change: The Glow of Love (Warner Bros.) 15; Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 15; Geraldine Hunt: No Way (Prism) 10; Diana Ross: Diana (Motown) 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: Faces (Columbia) 10; George Benson: Give Me the Night (Warner Bros.) 10; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 5; Teena Marie: Irons in the Fire (Gordy) 5; Cameo: Feel Me (Casablanca) 5.

VAN GOSSE: Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Generation X: “Dancing with Myself” (Chrysalis 12-inch import); Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury 12-inch); The Tamlins: “Baltimore” (Taxi 12-inch import); Pylon: “Cool”/”Dub” (Caution); Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Christine” (Polydor import); Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Dub)” (Motown 12-inch import); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99); Split Enz: “I Got You” (A&M); Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Israel” (Polydor import).

JOHN PICCARELLA: The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 15; Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 12; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 12; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 10; Art Ensemble of Chicago: Full Force (ECM) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 9; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 8; Neil Young: Hawks and Doves (Reprise) 8; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 8; The Psychedelic Furs (Columbia) 8.

GREIL MARCUS: Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 15; Image Publique S.A.: Paris Au Printemps (Virgin import) 15; Iron City Houserockers: Have a Good Time (But Get Out Alive) (MCA) 15; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 15; Carlene Carter: Musical Shapes (Warner Bros.) 15; X: Los Angeles (Slash) 5; Roxy Music: Flesh + Blood (Atco) 5; Black Uhuru: Sensimilla (Mango) 5; Robin Lane & the Chartbusters (Warner Bros.) 5; Dire Straits: Making Movies 5.

GREIL MARCUS: The Beat: “Twist & Crawl” (Go-Feet import 12-inch); J. Geils Band: “Love Stinks” (EMI America); Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Refugee” (Backstreet); Blondie: “Call Me” (Polydor 12-inch); The Clash: “Train in Vain” (Epic); Red Crayola: “Born in Flames” (Rough Trade import); The Beat: “Stand Down Margaret (Dub)” (Go-Feet import 12-inch); Delta 5: “You” (Rough Trade import); Tommy James: “Three Times In Love” (Millenium); Anemic Boyfriends: “Guys Are Not Proud” (Red Sweater).

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia) 30; Donna Summer: The Wanderer (Geffen) 17; Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla) 12; Smokey Robinson: Warm Thoughts (Tamla) 10; Van Morrison: Common One (Warner Bros.) 8; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 8; J. Geils Band: Love Stinks (EMI America) 5; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 5; The Clash: London Calling (Epic) 5; Peter Townshend: Empty Glass (Atco) 5.

JON PARELES: Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (ZE) 20; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 10; Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire) 10; Steve Reich: Octet/Music for a Large Ensemble/Violin Phase (ESM) 10; David Bowie: Scary Monsters (RCA) 10; Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.) 10; The Cars: Panorama (Elektra) 10; Laraaji: Ambient #3 Day of Radiance (Editions EG) 10; Bootsy: Ultra Wave (Warner Bros.) 5; Peter Gabriel (Mercury) 5.

JON PARELES: Siouxsie & the Banshees: “Happy House” (Polydor import); Glenn Branca: “Lesson No. 1” (99); NRBQ: “Me and the Boys” (Red Rooster); The Dance: “Dance for Your Dinner” (ON import EP); Bush Tetras: “Too Many Creeps” (99); Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import); Rod Stewart: “Passion” (Warner Bros.); Paul Simon: “Late in the Evening” (Warner Bros.); The Method Actors: “This Is It” (Armageddon import EP); Colin Newman: “B”/”Classic Remains”/”Alone on Piano” (Beggars Banquet).

ANDY SCHWARTZ: The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (Stiff) 22; X: Los Angeles (Slash) 13; Joan Jett (Blackheart) 13; The Decline of Western Civilization (Slash) 12; Lydia Lunch: Queen of Siam (Ze) 10; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin) 8; Echo & the Bunnymen: Crocodiles (Sire) 7; Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition (Island) 5; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia) 5; Jack DeJohnette: Special Edition (ECM) 5.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1980

1. The Clash: London Calling (Epic)

2. Bruce Springsteen: The River (Columbia)

3. Talking Heads: Remain in Light (Sire)

4. Pretenders: Pretenders (Sire)

5. Public Image, Ltd.: Second Edition (Island)

6. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Doc at the Radar Station (Virgin)

7. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Get Happy!! (Columbia)

8. Stevie Wonder: Hotter Than July (Tamla)

9. Prince: Dirty Mind (Warner Bros.)

10. Gang of Four: Entertainment! (Warner Bros.)

 

Top 10 Singles of 1980

1. Kurtis Blow: “The Breaks” (Mercury)

2. Joy Division: “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Factory import)

3. Blondie: “Call Me” (Chrysalis)

4. (Tie) The Clash: “Train in Vain”/”London Calling” (Epic)
Pretenders: “Brass in Pocket” (Sire)

6. Stevie Wonder: “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” (Tamla)

7. John Lennon: “(Just Like) Starting Over”/Yoko Ono: “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (Geffen)

8. The Vapors: “Turning Japanese” (United Artists)

9. Lipps, Inc.: “Funkytown” (Casablanca)

10 (Tie) Diana Ross: “Upside Down” (Motown)
Bruce Springsteen: “Hungry Heart” (Columbia)

— From the February 9, 1981, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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In 1968, 16 Magazine Went on a ‘Dream Day With Jim Morrison’ Plus: Win Davy Jones’s Puppy!

Your Crap Archivist brings you the finest in forgotten and bewildering crap culled from basements, thrift stores, estate sales, and flea markets.

16 Magazine

Date: May 1968
The Cover Promises: That “Davy” is enough to tip off any reasonable person that you mean Davy Jones

Representative Quotes:

  • “Your heart beats a mile a minute and you can’t help feeling absolutely super. Of all the vast multitude of Monkees fans, you are the chosen one who is about to spend untold heavenly hours in the presence of the four most wonderful guys in the world — Davy, Peter, Micky and Mike!”
  • “Just by the way Jim [Morrison] looks at things, you know he is ‘feeling’ them with his eyes.”

Dreamsville! It’s 1968, and you — lucky-ducky you! — write for 16 magazine.

That means you’ve sipped Cokes with the Cowsills and Pepsis with Peter Noone! You hated watching those Beatles grow aloof, but in a Monkee profile you were privileged to write, “You have ascended from Monkee-land to Monkee-heaven. After all, it isn’t every day that a girl has two of the world’s top teen idols quarreling over which one she will lunch with!”

You understand that second-person address allows you to make readers feel as special as you do!

But what in your experience can prepare you for this next assignment, “My Dream Day With Jim Morrison”?

After meeting you at LAX in his red Mustang, the Doors dreamboat spirits you to a “groovy little tacos stand” off the Sunset Strip and then off to the Hollywood Hills to look at furniture, where things get spiritual:

Gently, he takes your hand and, with his hand over yours, you both touch the carvings and texture of the furniture. You’re amazed at this marvelous new experience and think how thrilling it is to be able to hear and talk without the use of words.

The result?

You feel very special!

After that, it’s barbecue, poolside, in Hollywood. Morrison strips down and treats you to his “super swimming style.” What happens next transcends even Monkee-heaven.

He lifts himself upon the edge of the pool and shakes his head — looking like a great, damp young lion.

Still shaken, you watch the sunset on a blanket and discuss the compatibility of your star signs. He doesn’t talk much, and you enjoy many “comfortable silences.” He takes you to a recording session, and you know the song’s a hit, and you wonder of the world, “They’ll know his songs, but can they ever know Jim?”

Sadly, you soon must part from this poet/lion/mental-feeler-of-furniture. After your return you to the terrestrial sphere, you take what you’ve discovered, and you share of it what you can.

You write this conclusion.

There’s a couple key disquieting facts you’ve almost certainly noticed about Jim Morrison on your day together, facts that might help the world to know Jim. But even if you divulged them, would the world truly understand? You opt not to mention them, but that’s OK. Nobody will ever know.

Fortunately for the writers at 16, by 1968 unruly teen idols were the exception. Unlike Morrison, the Monkees were knowable.

And they took letters.

And the “one and only, delightfully delicious Davy Jones” wants to give you a puppy.

Mostly, 16 sticks to housebroken stars like Sonny & Cher, who for reasons of hilarity are invited to share their wisdom in an advice column. 16 splits the page into separate “Dear Sonny” and “Dear Cher” sections. Can you guess which star got this question?

I have a problem. I am very tall and my boyfriend is quite short. When we go to dances together, I think we look funny. My boy friend doesn’t seem to mind at all, but it embarrasses me to the point of tears.

Speaking of surprises, writing a letter to 16‘s Dreamsville contest could win you one of the following:

Nimoy’s habit of giving “astral surprises” inspired the invention of those sunglasses that let you see behind you.

Beatlemania still lingered, but it’s only gentle-eyed Paul McCartney who gets a pinup. Otherwise, the less hunky Beatles ’68 only turn up in party photos like this one. How many failing relationships can you spot?

Shocking Detail: Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Archie Bell, and the Supremes each scored some of the top hits of 1968, but the Supremes are the only black performers mentioned in 16 at all.

And that’s just on the letters page.

Even there, the 16 editors get distracted by honky hotties.

This indignity is hardly the worst that white people have inflicted upon the Supremes.

Highlight: Recent ’68 records recommended by gossip columnist GeeGee:

  • Axis: Bold as Love, the Jimi Hendrix Experience
  • Something Else, the Kinks
  • The Best of Herman’s Hermits, Vol. III
  • Two Sides of Leonard Nimoy, Leonard Nimoy

Also, there’s this touching letter.

That’s the Sixties, right there. You are the chosen one. You can save Star Trek. You can stop the war. Black people were all right, just so long as they stood next to Paul McCartney. Souls like Jim Morrison’s groove untroubled on a plane of pure beauty and being.

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The Thunder Rolls

An L.A. kid whose dad played with Diana Ross and the Temptations and whose brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., drummed
with Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves,
and Suicidal Tendencies, Thundercat is a 27-year-old, Flying Lotus–affiliated bassist who has grown big enough to play with artists like Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu and listen to his own songs in Grand Theft Auto V. This spring, his grooves during Red Bull Music Academy’s “Night of Improvised Round Robin Duets” were a highlight during an otherwise lackluster event; tonight, his headlining set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg gives him more than an hour to play tracks off
his recent Apocalypse. At 8, Music Hall
of Williamsburg, 66 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, musichallofwilliamsburg.com, $15–$18

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THE THUNDER ROLLS

An L.A. kid whose dad played with Diana Ross and the Temptations and whose brother, Ronald Bruner Jr., drummed
with Wayne Shorter, Dianne Reeves, and Suicidal Tendencies, Thundercat is a 27-year-old, Flying Lotus–affiliated bassist who has grown big enough to play with artists like Snoop Dogg and Erykah Badu and listen to his own songs in Grand Theft Auto V. This spring, his grooves during Red Bull Music Academy’s “Night of Improvised Round Robin Duets” were a highlight during an otherwise lackluster event; tonight, his headlining set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg gives him more than an hour to play tracks off his
recent Apocalypse.

Mon., Nov. 25, 8 p.m., 2013

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Motown and The Rascals: Jukebox Mausoleum

Here’s a test you can take to help determine whether shelling out $150-plus for the Motown musical is for you. Head on over to YouTube, and find the Jackson Five singing “Who’s Loving You” on The Ed Sullivan Show. As he patters before the song kicks in, savor young Michael’s vest, hat, and innocent charisma. Then feel yourself go agog when he tears into the song, that voice free and impossible, bubbling out like champagne just uncorked yet still urgent with that longing that distinguishes great soul singing, a voice shaped by the church and the pop charts, by the hurt and the hope that stamps the black American experience.

And then, after just one verse, as your brain’s pleasure centers send off fireworks, find it within yourself to cut the song off. Hit pause, and imagine you’re now watching something only the producers of Motown could consider more important: a scene of Berry Gordy taking a phone call from his lawyer.

The big-ticket show of choice for people eager to enjoy elaborate re-creations of the performance of the late 20th century’s greatest pop hits, but only for a verse or so at a time, Motown is in the business of reminding audiences of what they already like about Motown—but never of pinning down what exactly made those records so great in the first place. We rarely get a specific, singular performance of any of these songs; instead, we get our most fleeting memories of them.

The chief dramatic interest is not, as seems intended, “Will Berry Gordy succeed in his dreams of becoming the Henry Ford of for-all-races hitmaking?” or “Will his desire to make Diana Ross a star conflict with his desire for Diana Ross?” Instead, it’s “Will this show ever find a shape and flight?” and maybe “Whose idea was it to have Berry Gordy sing more than Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Martha Reeves put together?” Brandon Victor Dixon as Gordy is marvelous, belting out Motown classics (and a couple of new showtunes) in his regular, non-performative life as he builds Hitsville, USA, from nothing in a rented Detroit home.

The real Gordy is credited with the book, and the show has a revisionist agenda that should enliven its workaday scenes of record-label management: redressing the accusations that Gordy overworked and cheated the performers he trained from Detroit kids into pop stars. But everything is so rushed there’s never any suggestion of what his hands-on approach was actually like. We don’t even see how the hit factory works. There are two scenes of him telling high-schooler Ross (Valisa LeKae) she’s too young to be signed; then, the next time we see her, the Supremes are decked out in their shimmery dresses on the Motown package tour. Toward the end, when the ’70s dawn and his artists are leaving for bigger deals at the major labels, there’s nothing to indicate whether Gordy has true cause to feel spurned. The character’s only traits are his noble ambitions for himself and his race, and his love for Ross.

What we hear of the songs is excellent. I especially relished Michael Arnold as Jackie Wilson, early on, and the Contours’ Billy Gordon. N’Kenge’s entrance as a stage-hogging Mary Wells is one of the show’s few moments of raw performance, as is Bryan Terrell Clark, as Marvin Gaye, offering a prayerful a capella “Mercy Mercy Me.” It’s also somewhat diverting to spot chorus-boy Temptations and Four Tops as Jacksons, Miracles, Contours, Commodores, and Pips.

Late in the show, the Jackson 5 return, this time singing “I Want You Back” for a verse and a chorus, then “ABC” for just as long, and then “The Love You Save,” which, really, nobody was asking for. The medley is all about how many songs can be crammed in rather than what these performers could do with any one of them. Raymond Luke, the Michael Jackson here, never gets the chance to capture the real Jackson’s thrilling late-in-the-song shouts and improvisations, which at some point in your life you’ve imitated into a hairbrush. Maybe he does the same backstage.


Just across the street at the Richard Rodgers another revisionist ’60s pop-music extravaganza has plumed up, this time a two-hour original-band concert performance from the Rascals, a clutch of nice-enough Garden State rock-and-rollers out to prove that they coulda/shoulda been ranked among the all-time greats. Their best songs are persuasive, especially that great soul cover you no-doubt could shout along with, “Good Lovin’.” Hearing Gene Cornish’s still-fleet guitarwork on that one, ranging from easy jangle to toothy power chords, is a joy beyond nostalgia—it’s a reminder of why we have guitar-rock covers of soul songs in the first place.

Still, this is a show for the fans, who haven’t had the chance to see these guys perform together since 1970. It’s polished up for Broadway, tricked out with the mating-jellyfish bio-swirls of a ’60s light show and video interludes of the band telling their story—lots of “And then I met [INSERT NAME OF RASCAL HERE].”

If you’re not already steeped in Rascalania, the now-sixtyish performers’ energy and chops might win you over, as might hits like “Groovin’” and “Beautiful Morning.” For me, the late, long psychedelic numbers ground on, leaving time to contemplate what exactly separated the British Invasion acts from our Jersey boys, these guys and Frankie Valli and his Four Seasons. Was it just better management? A taste for au courant abstraction fostered by London’s art schools? Being part of a swinging scene that was inspiring manias rather than a swooning nation that was succumbing to them? Whatever the problem was, Felix Cavaliere still kills as a soul singer, and Dino Danelli—well, goddamn, the drummer is undiminished.

Less certain is the show’s insistence that we need the Rascals, now more than ever. It’s one thing for nostalgia acts to remind us of their own better times; it’s another for them to argue that they might save our own.

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Grammatical Mistake In Classic Motown Song

With Motown The Musical in previews on Broadway, I’m reminded of one of my all-time favorite Supremes songs, “Reflections.”

Actually, it was the first song released under the new billing Diana Ross & the Supremes in 1967, and though troubled Supreme Florence Ballard was on the record, she was way gone by time they performed it on TV. (See below.)

The record came out when the trio was exploring not only their new identity, but darker territory and different sounds. The song’s tale of haunting sorrow is accompanied by a sad sounding tambourine at the outset and later some psychedelic synthesizer beeps that make the tune completely novel in an almost sci-fi way. And Diana’s vocals shimmer throughout with a gorgeous sense of regret.

But much as I adore songwriters Holland/Dozier/Holland, I’ve always had a problem with one of the lyrics:

]

“Just a handful of promises are all that’s left of loving you.”

Huh? I majored in English and have a nagging feel that since the object of the sentence is “handful,” not “promises,” it should end with “is all that’s left of loving you.”

But who cares? I don’t want to turn into one of those annoying grammar trolls, picking apart great work from the golden days. Besides, I love the quirks of Motown songs. One of my favorite lyrics is from the Supremes’ “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone”:

“But instead of tenderness, I found heartache instead.”

The repetition is so nutty I couldn’t imagine anything instead.

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Kate Nash

Back in 2007, Nash found fans outside of her native London with “Foundations,” a track whose punchy keys and attitude-drenched vocals invoked Amy Winehouse and preceded Florence & the Machines. With a second album that channels both Diana Ross and Kathleen Hannah, the singer has slowly but surely help create a niche that takes hints from both pop and punk, and gives the audience much to both hairbrush-sing and fist-pump about.

Tue., March 26, 9 p.m., 2013

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YouTube Treasure: Diana Ross’s Legendary African Dance Number

Motown legend Diana Ross delved into her roots in the 1968 TV special called TCB in which, after a few haunting bars of “Reflections,” she emerged in boldly patterned prints, with bushy hair and hoop earrings, looking skinner than someone from a Sally Struthers commercial.

]

And she proceeded to dance her African American ass off, writhing and shimmying and getting down with her fab self in unexpected ways.

Amazing stuff, preceded by a few strains of “Reflections of the way life used to be…”

The best costume is at the 2:02 mark.

Totally Cool, Babe.

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The Night I Met Diana Ross

It was a 1980s record-release party for the glittery superstar on the Intrepid (which they generously allowed me on, despite “don’t ask, don’t tell.”)

I was terrified to meet Miss Ross because she was my longtime idol, and, besides, I’d heard about what a weirdo she can be.

You know, “Don’t talk to her, don’t look at her, don’t call her Diana, don’t even breathe the same oxygen.”

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But as I sweatingly pondered how to get up the nerve to make an introduction, she came up to me!

“Hi, I’m Diana Ross!” she said, which probably shouldn’t have been that earthshaking since that indeed is her name.

But I nearly fell overboard.

I guess she can be very nice to press people at her own party.

We had a delightful chat, and the result was captured in the photo that appeared in the above invite for a party celebrating the launch of this column!

Also on the invite (in addition to strange pieces of tape): Me and Sylvia Miles; me and David Bowie; me and Nona Hendryx.

God, my life is dolce!

As a bonus, here’s an old club invite:

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‘Mr. Saturday Night’ w/ Mark E

When Birmingham interior designer Mark E moved into house music, he quickly made a name for himself by doing weird and wonderful things to samples from divas including Diana Ross, Mariah Carey, and, most memorably, Janet Jackson. He seems to have tired of edits, but the chopped-loop new tracks on his full-length debut, Stone Breaker (released not on his own Merc but on ever-dominant Spectral Sound), more than live up to the promise of his early work. With residents Justin Carter and Eamon Harkin.

Sat., Dec. 10, 10 p.m., 2011