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Punk ’77: Danny Fields Is a Number-One Fan

We are sitting in the lower Manhattan loft of Danny Fields, friend of Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, former editor of 16 Magazine, and manager of America’s premier punk band, the Ramones. Danny’s loft is raw. It has 12-foot ceilings, magnificent views of the Hudson through un­washed windows, a nude portrait of Iggy Pop, and a pair of handcuffs dangling from the pull-cord on the kitchen light. We are discussing violence, which Danny finds intriguing as an idea.

“But I can’t take violence seriously as an issue in punk rock,” Danny is saying in his flat, nasal sing-song. “I’ve never seen it in my life, except for Wayne County hitting Dick Manitoba over the head with his mikestand that night at CBGB — but that was such an isolated instance. And then you hear all this thing about that girl in England who lost an eye at a punk concert.” Danny’s features assume a look of acute exasperation. “I mean big deal, you know — one girl, one eye, one concert. That’s the worst thing that’s ever happened in the U.K.? Sports fans are much more violent than that. They do terrible things. They destroy the grass and all those things like that. They should go after sports if they’re really worried about violence.”

Even as Danny speaks, a frantic effort is underway to find Dee Dee Ramone, the bassist of the group, who was last seen two days ago. This evening Danny will even resort to phoning Dee Dee’s mother, but that will only make things worse. When Dee Dee finally does turn up — that night, at his apartment — he will tell Danny he was walking down the street when these guys beat him up and then the cops took him away and wouldn’t let him make a phone call. He doesn’t know his assailants. “I think they were folkies or something,” Danny will say, deadpan.

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“It’s so ridiculous,” Danny says. “If they wanted to fight, they’d be in the army.” Danny was at Altamont. He called friends in New York from a phone booth to tell them about it. He’s been in weird scenes with everybody from Jim Morrison to the Bay City Rollers. He doesn’t need the Ramones for violence. Besides, his hobby is death.

“Death is one of the only things that can still make you wonder,” he says. “It’s good show business. It’s the longest-running show of all time. It has a very high audience participation rate. And it’s happened to so many people who were friends of mine. I guess when that happens it has to have a hold on you. People live fast and die young, and a lot of beautiful corpses are left lying around. There was a time when people I knew were dying at the rate of one a month. They took too many drugs or whatever. But that doesn’t make them any less fabulous… Anyway, most of my favorite people are dead. Martha Mitchell… Carmen Miranda… James Dean.… I mean, think about it. Almost everyone fabulous is dead.”

Death and violence are naturals in the world of Danny Fields. Since 1966, Danny — everybody always calls him “Danny,” the same way they call Andy “Andy” — has been involved with some of rock’s most historic fringe. He is a catalyst. Without him, important events — signposts for the current new wave — might never have happened: the Velvet Underground performing at Max’s in 1970, or Iggy and the Stooges being allowed into a recording studio. Danny likes music that is sexy and scary. For this, you have to expect a little death and violence.

Never mind. Mickey Ruskin, the man who presided over Max’s Kansas City when it was the acme of hip, considers Danny “one of the most important people in the world.” More than anyone else, Danny was responsible for the collision of rock and art that began at Max’s in 1966 and continues today on the stages of CBGB and Mickey’s new place, the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club. By exposing people like Jim Morrison, the Cream, Brian Epstein, Lillian Roxon, Janis Joplin, the Buffalo Springfield, and the Stooges to artists, art dealers, and the Warhol menagerie, he has assisted in what Mickey calls the translation of art to music — which is to say, channeling art into a mass medium. But in order to fully explain Danny’s significance, Mickey has to find an art world counterpart. “There are one or two art dealers who I would say are artists. Leo Castelli is close to that. That’s Danny, too. He’s an artist in his own right, and what he does, he does out of a sense of integrity to his art.”

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As with any dealer, Danny’s greatest asset is his taste. Danny’s taste is a fine instrument. Years of judicious exercise have honed it to a razor edge that can discrim­inate swiftly and surely, signaling his choice with the subtlest of gestures — a barely raised eyebrow, or the merest suggestion of sarcasm. “I think it’s magnificent taste,” Danny says proudly. “It’s just superb taste. But then, what else have I got?”

One thing about Danny’s taste: It is broad. He likes heavy romanticism — Van Gogh, Miklos Rozsa film scores, Joan Baez’s voice on “Farewell Angelina.” He’s very big on fantasy and the macabre — underground comics, the 1940 Thief of Baghdad (“the greatest work of art of the 20th century”). And he is fascinated by “primitive-evolved art” — ancient Egyptian pottery, the early films of Andy Warhol, the music of the Ramones. Especially the music of the Ramones.

Danny’s taste has focused on one particular form of primitive-evolved art: hard rock music. What does he like about hard rock music? “That it’s hard — like a Bach fugue is hard. There are no loose ends. It’s a charge — like taking off in a plane. It’s a thrill, and the longer and harder it is the more of a thrill you get. Sometimes I cry… I think it’s so beautiful that I cry.

“When I first saw the Ramones I said, ‘This is the best band in the world.’ You know, I’m their biggest fan, I guess in the world. I think—” Danny’s face, normally poker­-straight, is stricken by concern. Only with great effort does he subdue the notion that somewhere in the world a bigger fan may lurk. “I guess every real fan wants to feel he’s the number-one fan in the world. Well, that’s the way I feel about the Ramones.”

Broad as it is, however, Danny’s taste does know limits. “Do you want to know what I hate? I hate blues and jazz. Those are about the only two things in the world I hate. That’s like people who can’t write melodies who do blues and jazz. It’s just noise to me.”

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***

“Danny is one of funniest, smartest, most creative people I ever met,” says Susan Blond, the rock publicist and Warhol actress (she threw the baby out the window in Bad) who starred with Danny in Anton Perich’s X-rated cablecasts back in 1973. “He’s a great talker, and it’s always fun to do anything with him. He has a great sense of what’s going to happen before it happens. He’s always believed in certain acts that, even if they didn’t become successful commercially, were real important to the history of rock & roll. And he’s very powerful. He has power with important people. But to explain how great he really is — I mean, to capture the greatness that is Danny Fields…”

The greatness that is Danny Fields began to take shape in the early 1960s, when a precocious 20-year-old Danny dropped out of Harvard Law School and started hanging out with one of Cambridge’s bohemian crowds. Born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens, educated in the New York public schools, Danny graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Pennsylvania with a major in English lit and a minor, as he puts it, in Brooks Brothers. The arbiter of his Cambridge scene was Ed Hood, the intellectual son of a Mississippi cotton planter, a man who has nested in the twilight groves of academe. Hood’s friends — Edie Sedg­wick, Donald Lyons, Paul Morrisey — were people so dazzling, so extreme, and so unique they would soon be added to Andy’s personal collection at the Factory.

Danny was one of the first to arrive in New York — he came to study literature at New York University — so his Chelsea loft became the local crash pad for visiting Harvard hipsters. He began to frequent the Factory, too; there he met Nico and Lou Reed and Andy himself. “My favorite people hung out there,” he says, “and everything they did was my favorite thing.” NYU was dropped; in its place came a series of jobs — production manager at Liquor Store magazine, staff writer at an outfit that packaged crib books (he managed to sneak Carmen Miranda into The Dictionary of Biography). In 1966 he entered the world of rock & roll as an editor at Datebook magazine, a now-defunct service publication for teenage girls.

Danny didn’t fare too well at Datebook: He wanted the Beatles and the Stones; the publisher wanted the Beatles and Paul Revere & the Raiders. But it didn’t matter. He went to L.A. when he got fired, sat at the feet of superstar press agent Derek Taylor, met the manager of the Doors. On his return he appeared at the doorstep of Elektra Records to volunteer as the Doors’ press agent. The New York rock press consisted of only about five people, but then Danny wasn’t getting paid, either.

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Other gigs came his way. Robert Stigwood and Brian Epstein hired him to do publicity for the Cream on their first American tour. He worked with Murray the K on his disastrous 1967 Easter show — disastrous because nobody bought tickets, despite a line-up that included Wilson Pickett, Simon & Garfunkel, the Cream, and the Who. He became a part-time D.J. at WFMU, and made it the first station in the country to play Pink Floyd. Then Elektra offered him a salary as publicity director. When he moved in that spring, Danny became one of the record industry’s first company freaks.

There were strains from the beginning, and not just with the company. Danny didn’t get along too well with Jim Morrison either. Morrison was extremely smart, Danny recalls, but he used to do “pricky things,” like going out to dinner and refusing to speak. Janis Joplin used to refer to Morrison as “that asshole.” “But I know why he hated me,” Danny says. “It’s because I kidnapped him once.”

It wasn’t kidnapping exactly; it was more like protective custody. Danny got a call from Nico and Edie Sedgwick, who were staying in this decaying mansion in the Hol­lywood Hills. They wanted Danny to keep them company, and Danny suggested that Morrison come along. (The Lizard King meets the Moon Goddess — it would be interesting.) Morrison consumed so much acid and vodka that Danny got nervous about giving him the car keys. So he hid the keys and went to sleep in a spare bedroom — only to be awakened by Nico as she flung herself across the bed and shook him furiously while the Lizard King perched naked on the window ledge. Danny went back to sleep. When he woke up, the two of them were standing in the courtyard: He was pulling her hair, she was was screaming.

In 1968, Danny started going to Michigan to see the MC5. The MC5 were the high-energy house band of John Sinclair’s White Panther Party. They lived in Ann Arbor with Sinclair, a “minister of defense” who carried a rifle everywhere, some tie-dyed rank-and-file, and women who cooked and cleaned. “Butch America,” Danny calls it; he went to charge up his batteries. Before long he talked­ Elektra into signing not only the MC5 but also some of their friends — a less political but equally aggressive outfit called Iggy and the Stooges. If the MC5 were high-voltage broadsides for the Revolution, Iggy was likewise for suicide.

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The vice-presidents at Elektra were put off by these bands, with their talk of offing the pigs and their compulsion to smoke dope in the office; but that was nothing compared to David Peel and the Lower East Side. Peel had been discovered chanting revolutionary nonsense syllables in Washington Square Park. Danny persuaded Elektra to call his album Have a Marijuana. “I knew it would sell,” he says. “I knew that if you put a title big on the cover, every kid in America would want to bring it home and give his parents a heart attack.”

On January 20, 1969, the day Nixon was inaugurated and Danny’s parents were hijacked to Cuba, Danny was fired. Elektra dropped the MC5 forthwith, but by summer Danny had gotten them signed to Atlantic. He got himself a publicity job there soon afterward. Unfortunately, the only acts he liked were Loudon Wainwright, the Allman Brothers, and the Velvet Underground, who broke up just as their Loaded album was released. “Atlantic wanted me to take Emerson Lake & Palmer records around and play them for my influential friends,” he says, incredulity creeping into his voice. “I wouldn’t do that. I mean you can’t pay me to do that! So naturally, I got fired.”

The last straw came when Danny decided that Atlantic had to have a hospitality suite in Washington for the 1971 May Day action. Working on the premise that Aretha Franklin might perform (she didn’t, but she might have), he took a room in the Howard Johnson’s across from Watergate; which was famous then as the residence of John and Martha Mitchell. Danny returned to New York before anything actually started — he’d heard there would be mass arrests and he had no desire to end up in a concentration camp — but he left the room with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman, signing the bill in advance. When the tab arrived at Atlantic, it boasted phone calls to Hanoi and a balance of thousands.

After that Danny did publicity for the Cockettes, San Francisco’s theatrical transvestites, and tried briefly to manage the Modern Lovers. He also tried managing Iggy and the Stooges, but the strain of keeping that band alive — “literally alive,” says a friend — was too great. When they drove a 14-foot truck onto a bridge with a 12-foot clearance, drawing three lawsuits as a result, Danny, decided to bail out.

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Before long he had a job helping his friend Gloria Stavers edit 16. Although it was only temporary, he stayed five years. Danny may seem like an unlikely purveyor of bubblegum, but he did have an undeniable flair. He kept notebooks filled with hard-sell coverlines: “Donny Osmond — The Story of His Feet!”, stuff like that. If there was any conflict between his role in the underground rock world and his job spinning teen dreams, he didn’t detect it. “I was just channeling something towards who it was supposed to go to,” he says. “And besides, the Bay City Rollers are much better than ELP.”

In 1974, Danny started a gossip column that turned the Soho Weekly News into an instant must-read in the music industry. That’s how he got involved with the Ramones. They pestered him for months to come down to CBGB to catch their set. He admired their persistence, but not enough to reward it. “I wasn’t sure what they did,” he says. “And the name… I thought they were a cha-cha band or something.”

The Ramones are four guys from Forest Hills who more or less invented the state of being we now know as punk. They were wearing ripped jeans, dirty T-shirts, and black leather jackets more than three summers ago — before Danny ever saw them, before CBGB became a shrine, before any of the bands that played there had record contracts, before the Sex Pistols had been formed in London, before the term “new wave” was ever applied to rock & roll, before safety pin first pricked adolescent skin. Nobody else was acting punk then except Patti Smith, and she was doing it different from the way the Ramones did it. She did it poet-like, and the Ramones did it rock & roll.

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When Danny did see them, it was at the insistence of Lisa Robinson, a close friend who edits Hit Parader and writes a syndicated column called Rock Talk. Lisa went to see them because Lenny Kaye, Patti’s guitarist, had told her they had more energy than any band he’d seen since the Stooges. The next morning she placed a frantic call to Danny, informing him that not only were they incredible but that he of all people would love them. She was right. “My whole theory is that it takes me five seconds to know if I’m going to really love something,” Danny says. “The Ramones were just ripping hard, you know — machine — RRRRCHCHCHCHTTTT!” Danny vi­brates. “I went up to them after the set and — ‘You guys are great! You guys are great!’ That’s all I could say.”

Still, Danny had no desire to manage them. He had no desire to manage anyone, ever. He did advise them, however, and in the process he began to realize that this band was different. The Ramones were not merely brilliant, they were professional. They understood not only what their antecedents had been doing but why they had failed: the disorganization and lack of discipline of the Stooges; the political overkill of the MC5; the unfortunate transvestism of the New York Dolls. Lisa says Danny came to think of the Ramones as “just like the Stooges, only without the curse that was Iggy.” He calls them “the vindication of everything I’ve ever done.”

This summer, Danny finally quit 16 and assumed full managerial responsibilities. These include providing lo­gistical support for the band’s day-to-day activities and coordinating the efforts of accountants, lawyers, travel agents, road crew, booking agent, and various depart­ments in two record companies. “I free them from all these things,” he explains. “I take all this tangential stuff off their hands. I mean, what if they had to book their own hotel rooms?”

Sounds like a big job. “Oh, it is. It’s certainly the most grown-up thing I’ve ever done — the most responsible thing. It’s… well… I don’t know. It’s better than working at a record company, I suppose… But I’m proud of them! When a record they make is great or a show they put on is great, or when a look on a kid’s face who’s just seen them is great, I just feel proud to be part of this thing that’s so terrific.

“…Parental? I was thinking that, too, that I really sound like a proud parent. We’ll… yeah, I guess. I guess that’s one way it could be perceived. I don’t particularly like that image. I like to think of it as more like a coach — or like someone who owns a race horse. Of course, I don’t own them and they’re not a horse, but… that’s really perfect. You’re not its parent. I mean… there’s no question that you’re not its parent…”

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***

Linda Stein is Danny’s business partner and a dedicated proponent of punk rock: “It’s so hip to be punk,” she declares, pointing out excitedly that punks have been turning up at all the gallery openings and fancy parties in New York, London, and Paris. Every 57th Street opening has punks in attendance, and wherever the lords and ladies of England go, punks go with them. Why, punks even attended the wedding party Yves St. Laurent threw for Lulu de la Falaise in Paris. There were French punks on hand, and some very important English punks. “Even central casting has a punk department now,” she de­clares. “They’re all over the place.”

“Oh, that’s just a joke,” Danny says tiredly. “It’s an attractive style for young people who are sexy.”

“But it’s the style,” Linda asserts. “It’s everywhere.”

“It’s sexy,” Danny says, sounding very final.

Linda is married to Seymour Stein, general manager of Sire Records, the Ramones’ label. Danny describes Linda and Seymour as “the first couple of the new wave.” Linda, 32, is a longtime friend of Elton John and has performed various jobs for Sire since meeting Seymour seven and a half years ago. Seymour, 35, formed Sire in 1966 after several years with Sid Nathan’s King label in Cincinnati. His aim then was to imitate the approach of the independent record men of the early the ’50s — people like Sid Nathan, Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, Jac Holzman at Elektra — who couldn’t compete with Decca, Columbia, Capitol, and Victor for the big pop acts but could record rhythm & blues and country & western and jazz because nobody else was interested. “What the big companies didn’t realize,” says Seymour, “is that the esoteric music of today is the pop music of to­morrow.”

Although it is largely built on the success of Focus, a Dutch group that sounds remarkably like ELP, and although its two biggest-selling acts right now are Renaissance and the Climax Blues Band, Sire has moved into esoterica in a big way with the new wave. So far, Seymour has signed an Australian punk band called the Saints and four CBGB acts: the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, and the Dead Boys. All but the Ramones have just released their first albums; the Ramones’ third, Rocket to Russia, is due out shortly.

Unfortunately, radio remains resistant to the charms of the new wave. Programming directors complain that the music is too violent. Linda Stein says the Ramones’ second single, “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” failed to crack the airwaves because it had the word “punk ” in the title. The suspicion at Sire is that most stations won’t play anything by anyone who wasn’t on the scene in 1969. “I think within the next nine months this will all be behind us,” Seymour says. “But right now we need people in radio who are willing to take chances. What Alan Freed was to the ’50s, what Tom Donahue and Scott Muni were to the ’60s — that’s what we need today.”

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So far, no one like that has appeared. Jerry Wexler agrees with Stein’s nine-month prognosis for a radio breakthrough — and he hates punk rock. The form is calculatedly offensive to adult sensibilities, and radio people do tend to be monotonously adult. Hence Danny’s attempts to downplay the violence. Danny thinks punks are sexy. Unfortunately, he thinks violence is sexy, too: “You know, like Philip Marlowe slapping someone up — that’s always sexy. As long as no one gets hurt.…”

When the Ramones finished their set during the Ramones/Iggy Pop double bill earlier this month, Blanche Boyd, the novelist whose latest book tells of insanity, lesbian incest, and death by wasp sting, turned to me and said, “I feel like I finally understand the meaning of assault.” All around us the audience was in uproar: Shocked, confused, and tingling, it gasped and begged for more. The Ramones had withdrawn after a mind-numbing performance that ended with the audience chanting, “GABBA GABBA HEY!” in high frenzy while Joey Ramone held aloft a six-foot placard bearing the message and Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee all vibrated with the rhythm of the pneumatic pelvis.

You see what Danny means when he calls the Ramones “a great construction that works.” Unlike other bands he has worked with, the Ramones are in total control. They understand that in order to discipline others, they must bear the mark of discipline. Not for them the Day-Glo anarchy of the MC5 or the carnal gluttony of Jim Morrison. The Ramones are ready.

It’s easy, too, to understand Danny’s desire to be their number-one fan. “I say I work for the Ramones,” he says. “The word ‘manager’ makes me shudder. It sounds like a puppet-master or something.” Danny’s position must be secure; his wish to serve is so much stronger than the average fan’s. It comes with the promise to bend his power to their purpose.

That power can be considerable. Lisa Robinson says Danny’s influence with Lillian Roxon — now dead, like so many others — was so great that she once rose from her sickbed to see a guy who jumped out of a frying pan dressed like an egg because Danny had told her he was the wave of the future. “I think he did it to be perverse,” Lisa adds. But Lisa also points out that Danny only now is being accepted in the record industry as the legitimate manager of a legitimate band that’s with a legitimate label and a legitimate booking agent (Premier Talent, the heaviest in the business). This is apparently due less to any shortcom­ings as a businessman than to his willingness to explore territory other people are afraid to consider. But perhaps this could be his time. In 1966, when the Velvet Underground introduced S&M to rock & roll, people were more eager to wrestle the boot than to know it. Everything seems so different now.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground

A Conservative Impulse in the New Rock Underground
August 18, 1975

Arabian swelter, and with the air-conditioning broken, CBGB resembled some abattoir of a kitchen in which a bucket of ice is placed in front of a fan to cool the room off. To no avail of course, and the heat had perspiration glissading down the curve of one’s back, yeah, and the cruel heat also burned away any sense of glamour. After all, CBGB’s Bowery and Bleecker location is not the garden spot of lower Manhattan, and the bar itself is an uneasy oasis. On the left, where the couples are, tables; on the right, where the stragglers, drinkers, and the love-seekers are, a long bar; between the two, a high double-backed ladder, which, when the room is really crowded, offers the best view. If your bladder sends a distress signal, write home to mother, for you must make a perilous journey down the aisle between seating area and bar, not knock over any mike stands as you slide by the tiny stage, squeeze through the piles of amplifiers, duck the elbow thrust of a pool player leaning over to make a shot… and then you end up in an illustrated bathroom which looks like a page that didn’t make “The Faith of Graffiti.”

Now consider the assembly-line presentation of bands with resonant names like Movies, Tuff Darts, Blondie, Stagger Lee, the Heartbreakers, Mike de Ville, Dancer, the Shirts, Bananas, Talking Heads, Johnny’s Dance Band, and Television; consider that some nights as many as six bands perform, and it isn’t hard to comprehend someone declining to sit through a long evening. When the air gets thick with noise and smoke, even the most committed of us long to slake our thirst in front of a Johnny Carson monologue, the quintessential experience of bourgeois cool.

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So those who stayed away are not to be chastised, except for a lack of adventurousness. And yet they missed perhaps the most important event in New York rock since the Velvet Underground played the Balloon Farm: CBGB’s three-week festival of the best underground (i.e., unrecorded) bands. The very unpretentiousness of the bands’ style of musical attack represented a counterthrust to the prevailing baroque theatricality of rock. In opposition to that theatricality, this was a music which suggested a resurgence of communal faith.

So this was an event of importance but not of flash. Hardly any groupies or bopperettes showed up, nor did platoons of rock writers with their sensibilities tuned into Radio Free Zeitgeist brave the near satanic humidity. When the room was packed, as it often was, it was packed with musicians and their girlfriends, couples on dates, friends and relatives of band members, and CBGB regulars, all dressed in denims and loose-fitting shirts — sartorial-style courtesy of Canal Jeans. The scenemakers and chic-obsessed were elsewhere. Where? “At Ashley’s,” sneered one band member.

Understandable. Rock simple isn’t the brightest light in the pleasure dome any longer (my guess is that dance is), and Don Kirschner’s “Rock Awards” only verifies the obvious: rock is getting as arthritic, or at least as phlegmatic, as a rich old whore. It isn’t only that the enthusiasm over the Stones tour seems strained and synthetic, or that the Beach Boys can’t seem able to release new material until Brian Wilson conquers his weight problem, or that the album of the year is a collection of basement tapes made in 1967. “The real truth as I see it,” said the Who’s Peter Townshend recently, “is that rock music as it was is not really contemporary to these times. It’s really the music of yesteryear.”

He’s right and yet wrong. What’s changed is the nature of the impulse to create rock. No longer is the impulse revolutionary — i.e., the transformation of oneself and society — but conservative: to carry on the rock tradition. To borrow from Eliot, a rocker now needs a historical sense; he performs “not merely with his own generation in his bones” but with the knowledge that all of pop culture forms a “simultaneous order.” The landscape is no longer virginal — markers and tracks have been left by, among others, Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and the Beatles — and it exists not to be transformed but cultivated.

No, I’m not saying that everyone down at CBGB’s is a farmer. Must you take me so literally? But there is original vision there, and what the place itself is doing is quite extraordinary: putting on bands as if the stage were a cable television station. Public access rock. Of course, not every band which auditions gets to play, but the proprietor, Hilly, must have a wide latitude of taste since the variety and quality of talent ranges from the great to the God-condemned. As with cable TV, what you get is not high-gloss professionalism but talent still working at the basics; the excitement (which borders on comedy) is watching a band with a unique approach try to articulate its vision and still remember the chords.

Television was once such a band: the first time I saw them everything was wrong — the vocals were too raw, the guitar work was relentlessly bad, the drummer wouldn’t leave his cymbals alone. They were lousy all right but their lousiness had a forceful dissonance reminiscent of the Stones’ “Exile on Main Street,” and clearly Tom Verlaine was a presence to be reckoned with.

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He has frequently been compared to Lou Reed in the Velvet days, but he most reminds me of Keith Richard. The blood-drained bone-weary Keith on stage at Madison Square Garden is the perfect symbol of Rock ’75, not playing at his best, sometimes not even playing competently, but rocking swaying back and forth as if the night might be his last and it’s better to stand than fall. Though Jagger is dangerously close to becoming Maria Callas, Keith, with his lanky grace and obsidian-eyed menace, is the perpetual outsider. I don’t know any rock lover who doesn’t love Keith; he’s the star who’s always at the edge and yet occupies the center.

Tom Verlaine occupies the same dreamy realm, like Keith, he’s pale and aloof. He seems lost in a forest of silence and he says about performing that “if I’m thinking up there, I’m not having a good night.” Only recently has the band’s technique been up to Verlaine’s reveries and their set at the CBGB festival was the best I’ve ever seen: dramatic, tense, tender (“Hard on Love”), athletic (“Kingdom Come”), with Verlaine in solid voice and the band playing as a band and not as four individuals with instruments. Verlaine once told me that one of the best things about the Beatles was the way they could shout out harmonies and make them sound intimate, and that’s what Television had that night: loud intimacy.

When Tom graduated from high school back in Delaware he was voted “most unknown” by his senior class. As if in revenge, he chose the name Verlaine, much as Patti Smith often invokes the name Rimbaud. He came to New York, spent seven years writing fiction, formed a group called Neon Boys, then Television. The name suggests an aesthetic of accessibility and choice. It also suggests Tom’s adapted initials: T.V.

“I left Delaware because no one wanted to form a band there,” he says. “Then I came to New York and no one wanted to form a band here either.” Verlaine came to New York for the same reason every street-smart artist comes to New York — because it’s the big league — even though he realizes “New York is not a great rock and roll town.”

Still, they continue to arrive: Martina Weymouth, bassist, born in California; Chris Frantz, drummer, in Kentucky; David Byrne, singer and guitarist, Scotland. All attended the Rhode Island School of Design, and according to their bio, “now launching career in New York” — a sonorous announcement, yes?

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These people call themselves Talking Heads. Seeing them for the first time is transfixing: Frantz is so far back on drums that it sounds as if he’s playing in the next room; Weymouth, who could pass as Suzy Quatro’s sorority sister, stands rooted to the floor, her head doing an oscillating-fan swivel; the object of her swivel is David Byrne, who has a little-boy-lost-at-the-zoo voice and the demeanor of someone who’s spent the last half hour whirling around in a spin dryer. When his eyes start Ping-Ponging in his head, he looks like a cartoon of a chipmunk from Mars. The song titles aren’t tethered to conventionality either: “Psycho Killer” (which goes “Psycho Killer, qu’est-ce c’est? Fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa-fa”), “The Girls Want to Be With the Girls,” “Love is Like a Building on Fire,” plus a cover version of that schlock classic by ? and the Mysterians, “96 Tears.”

Love at first sight it isn’t.

But repeated viewing (precise word) reveal Talking Heads to be one of the most intriguingly off-the-wall bands in New York. Musically, they’re minimalists: Byrne’s guitar playing is like a charcoal pencil scratching a scene on a note pad. The songs are spined by Weymouth’s bass playing which, in contrast to the glottal buzz of most rock bass work, is hard and articulate — the bass lines provide hook as well as bottom. Visually, the band is perfect for the table-TV format at CBGB; they present a clean, flat image, devoid of fine shading and color. They are consciously antimythic in stance. A line from their bio: “The image we present along with our songs is what we are really like.”

Talking to them, it becomes apparent that though they deny antecedents — “We would rather achieve a ‘new’ sound rather than be compared to bands of the past” — they are children of the communal rock ethic. They live together, melting the distinction between art and life, and went into rock because as art it is more “accessible.” They have an astute sense of aesthetic consumerism, yet they’re not entirely under the Warholian sway for as one of them told me, “We don’t want to be famous for the sake of being famous.” Of all the groups I’ve seen at CBGB, Talking Heads is the closest to a neo-Velvet band, and they represent a dis­tillation of that sensibility, what John Cale once called “controlled distortion.” When the Velvets made their reputation at the Balloon Farm they were navigating through a storm of multimedia effects: mirrors, blinking lights, strobes, projected film images. Talking Heads works without paraphernalia in a cavernous room projecting light like a television located at the end of a long dark hall. The difference between the Velvets and Talking Heads is the difference between phosphorescence and cold gray TV light. These people understand that an entire generation has grown up on the nourishment of television’s accessible banality. What they’re doing is presenting a banal facade under which run ripples of violence and squalls of frustration — the id of the vid.

David Byrne sings tonelessly but its effect is all the more ominous. This uneasy alliance between composure and breakdown — be­tween outward acceptance and inward com­ing-apart — is what makes Talking Heads such a central ’70s band. A quote from ex-Velvet John Cale: “What we try to get here (at the Balloon Farm) is a sense of total involvement.” Nineteen sixty-six. But what bands like Television and Talking Heads are doing is ameliorating the post-’60s hangover by giving us a sense of detachment. We’ve passed through the Dionysian storm and now it’s time to nurse private wounds. Says Tina Weymouth, quite simply: “Rock isn’t a noble cause.”

***

More than 30 bands played at the CBGB festival. There seemed to be a lot of women in these groups, and none of them were backup singers. I asked Tina (who once introduced herself as a “bassperson”) whether it was difficult to work with men in a band, and she gave me a look which said, “Don’t you have any better questions to ask?” Albeit, here are some additional notes on the musicianpersons I saw performing during the three weeks:

The Shirts. Annie Golden, lead singer of this Park Slope septet, is a self-proclaimed “street punk.” Her hard-skiing voice is the chief attraction in this technically proficient and equipment-abundant group (on stage they refer to themselves as the Average Cramped Band). They share an artistic commune in Brooklyn and the salient virtue of the band is that the sense of compan­ionship comes through in the texture of the music. The very chords seem bonds of friendship.

The Heartbreakers. Totally different problem here. This band has rockers who have made names for themselves — Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders formerly of the New York Dolls, Richard Hell formerly of Television — and the place was crowded with other band members curious about how they would/wouldn’t resemble the Dolls. By the third song, when it was clear they weren’t the Dolls redux, people began streaming out. Actually, they weren’t that bad, certainly better than the advance reports. They’ve managed to give their don’t-give-a-fuck crumminess a certain coherence, and they know how to draw the groupies (no small consideration for a beginning outfit). In rock, talent is only half of it. Sometimes not even that much.

Ruby and the Rednecks. Ruby threw out an oversized teddy bear, shrieked, stomped on the bear, kicked it, clawed at the audi­ence, while her claque (from Interview Magazine I was told) roared back their delight. Meanwhile, Michael Goldstein, of the Soho Weekly News, was telling Tina Weymouth, Trixie A. Balm, and myself that Ruby was going to make it big because she has what it takes. To quote Chico Marx, she can keep it.

Bananas. They’re very melodic, I said. That’s because they’re British, said a corre­spondent from Melody Maker. Actually, they’re Irish. Which doesn’t make them any less good.

Blondie. Someone ought to tell the gui­tarist that the way to sing harmony is to sing into the microphone.

The Ramones. The Ramones recently opened at a Johnny Winter concert and had to dodge flying bottles. During one of their CBGB sets, they had equipment screw-ups and Dee Dee Ramone stopped singing and gripped his head as if he were going to explode and Tommy Ramone smashed the cymbal shouting, “What the FUCK’s wrong? ” They went offstage steaming, then came back and ripped into “Judy Is a Punk.” A killer band.

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***

“Playing with a band is the greatest way of feeling alive,” says Tom Verlaine. But the pressures in New York against such an effort — few places to play, media indif­ference, the compulsively upward pace of city life — are awesome. Moreover, the tra­vails of a rock band are rooted in a deeper problem: the difficulty of collaborative art. Rock bands flourished in the ’60s when there was a genuine faith in the efficacious beauty of communal activity, when the belief was that togetherness meant strength. It was more than a matter of “belonging”: it meant that one could create art with friends. Play­ing with a band meant art with sacrifice, but without suffering; Romantic intensity with­out Romantic solitude.

What CBGB is trying to do is nothing less than to restore that spirit as a force in rock and roll. One is left speculating about success: Will any of the bands who play there ever amount to anything more than a cheap evening of rock and roll? Is public access merely an attitude to be discarded once stardom seems possible, or will it sustain itself beyond the first recording contract? I don’t know, and in the deepest sense, don’t care. These bands don’t have to be the vanguard in order to satisfy. In a cheering Velvets song, Lou Reed sings: “A little wine in the morning, and some breakfast at night/Well, I’m beginning to see the light.” And that’s what rock gives: small unconven­tional pleasures which lead to moments of perception.

Flashes like: the way Johnny Ramone slouches behind his guitar, Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye singing “Don’t Fuck With Love,” on the sidewalk in front of CBGB’s, the Shirts shouting in unison in their finale number, Tina Weymouth’s tough sliding bass on “Tentative Decisions,” the way Tom Verlaine says “just the facts” in “Prove It.” One’s affection goes out to Lou Reed, for such moments are like wine in the morning. Shared wine.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1985 Pazz & Jop: Virtue Rewarded

Nineteen eighty-five sure was busy-busy-busy for Chuck and Elvis’s love child. You’d think it’d have its hands full just perverting the nation and feeding the world, but those were epiphenomena. Now more than ever, “rock music” is first and foremost an engine of the culture industry, whence all the rest of its inescapable visibility flows. It didn’t set quite as many dollars in motion as in 1984, when the phony recovery of 1983 came true, but the dip wasn’t panic-worthy, maybe 5 per cent off a record year. Having caved in to the Clean Lyrics League, the companies half believe Congress is going to give them their stupid home-taping tax, and if it isn’t clear where the Next Springsteen will come from now that ZZ Top has flunked the first audition, there’s product due from Michael Jackson himself. So nobody’s complaining, yet. Nobody except us complainers.

I refer, of course, to the 238 pros, fans, hacks, and illuminati who participated in the 12th or 13th Annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, and really, what else did you expect? As anybody who’s got more important things to worry about knows without thinking, critics are malcontents as a matter of life commitment, and though rock critics value enthusiasm more than their less callow colleagues, often that just means they holler nay at the top of their lungs rather than acting civilized about it. Having fallen in love with rock and roll when it delivered them from the goody-goody bullshit that’s shoved down teenaged throats with a trowel, they like dirty lyrics, though they can live without the baddy-baddy bullshit of W.A.S.P. and maybe Prince too. They don’t think good will can feed the world, though some of them give Michael and Lionel and Bob Geldof credit for trying. And they don’t have much use for the biz’s blockbuster recovery, especially if they prescribed quality-not-quantity three years ago, when record execs were whining about their own imminent demise.

Not that the boom looked so bad in 1984, when most of the blockbusters — Bruce and Prince, Tina and Cyndi, Van Halen and ZZ — were deemed hot enough artistically to make our poll. But the big blockbuster of 1985 was a blockbuster of 1984 — Born in the U.S.A. sold six million copies or so after topping last year’s poll (with no causal relationship implied, I assure you) — and when it came to the little blockbusters the voters pushed reject. Despite some sharp antibacklash from Barry Walters and Dave Marsh, Madonna’s sextuple-platinum Like a Virgin wasn’t hot enough artistically (or whatever, Mrs. Gore) to rise higher than 85th, while Phil Collins’s quadruple-platinum No Jacket Required finished 108th and Wham!’s quadruple-platinum Make It Big (the best of these three albums by me) got one mention. The only multiple-platinum in the top 40 is John Cougar Mellencamp’s honorably overwrought populist symbol, Scarecrow, and the Mark Knopfler Band’s contemptibly contemptuous aural microwave, Brothers in Arms, although three double-platinum items did make significant showings out of the money. Whitney Houston’s 48th-ranked diva debut vied with Sting at 21 and the Smiths at (a gratifyingly tepid) 46 for the coveted All Things Must Pass Overrated Trophy. Significant in another way were Stevie Wonder’s 61st, easily his lowest finish ever not counting the Woman in Red soundtrack, and Prince’s tie for 51st, the most precipitous flop in Pazz & Jop history. “Majors See Black Music Boom,” says Billboard. “Critics See Major Crossover Sellout,” sez I.

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Of course there were exceptions — there always are. Rick Rubin’s metal-rap powered Run-D.M.C.’s sophomore gold to a generous 32nd (and L.L. Cool J’s freshman vinyl to a hopeful 37th). Luther Vandross’s platinum return to form scored consistently enough with black music loyalists to come in 30th, and Aretha Franklin’s best album in 15 years soared in at an underrated ninth and may yet get what it deserves in the marketplace, though as of now it’s “only” gold. Sade’s platinum Diamond Life — by an African-turned-English model-turned-singer whose mood music broke in the dance market, which ought to be crossover enough to satisfy Lee Abrams himself — lulled the electorate so seductively it came in 14th (with the late-’85 follow-up Promise 56th so far). There were platinum finishes as well from old man down the road John Fogerty, former boy Don Henley, and aspiring middlebrow Sting. That brings our precious metal total up to around normal at nine, and I left the first for last: Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.

David Byrne wasn’t being modest when he predicted in 1977 that his debuting young band would “fluctuate between a large cult audience and a possible fluke mass success,” because he’s anything but modest — gracious, putatively self-effacing, but so proud that groveling for gold was inconceivable to him. He’d just work for it. With a big push from the press — Talking Heads ’77 finished seventh, and since then every one of his band’s studio albums has been in the Pazz & Jop top five — he’s had his large cult audience since album one. And now, on the crest of years of intelligent media manipulation (visionary videos that predate MTV, high-art cachet from Tharp and Rauschenberg and Wilson, greatest concert movie ever) he has his not especially flukish mass success: Little Creatures is Talking Heads’ first platinum album as well as their first Pazz & Jop number one. This result is jake with me even though I was rooting mildly for the runner-up Replacements — it’s gratifying to see virtue rewarded, especially when there’s no mistaking it for goody-goody bullshit. But I’m obliged to report that the Heads’ victory looks slightly tainted nevertheless.

Early handicapping slotted Little Creatures at number one for the worst of reasons — there just wasn’t any competition. Hailed in some quarters as a return to basics after five years of funk, its short songs for augmented quartet evince none of the fear of music that jammed up Byrne’s short songs for minimalist quartet in the ’70s. They’re warm and supple and at peace with the world, reflecting his long encounter with black music (and also, I get the feeling, a remarkable woman), even if they decline the deeply nervous grooves of Remain in Light and its progeny. That is, they comprise the safest music he’s ever made. I’m not one who regards safe as a damning insult when it insures this level of accomplishment, but in rock and roll it’s never praise, and my initial delight faded noticeably: Little Creatures barely squeezed into my weakest top 10 in memory, and might well have been surpassed by the Pogues or Thomas Mapfumo if I’d had another week to listen. Nor was anybody else talking up the Heads. When Assigning Poobah Doug Simmons opened the ballots, he detected a surge for Scarecrow. Tim was no Let It Be and took the L.A. Times’s in-house poll anyway. Sun City was turning into the rock critics’ Live Aid. I even began to have nightmares of R.E.M.

But when the count began, a pattern asserted itself immediately and seemed a foregone conclusion by the time we finished the first folder. This New York band has gone national. Little Creatures garnered disproportionate support outside the volatile coastal corridors — not as much as Fogerty, but more than such midwestern heroes as Mellencamp and especially the Replacements. But with platinum acceptability contributing to the impression that it was a major album, it was the only consensus possible in an unprecedentedly flat year — a year so unimpressed with itself that three of its top 20 albums (Cooke, Velvets, Dylan) were recorded in the ’60s and a fourth (Lost in the Stars) was composed in the ’20s and ’30s, a year so flat artistically that it diminishes the Heads’ achievement and perhaps “rock music”’s vaunted visibility as well.

I know, I know, you read the same shit in this space all the time. Every year various turks and curmudgeons explain how rock and roll just died right in front of your eyes and you were too stupid or complacent to notice. And every year I step in wearing my voice-of-reason costume and explain how it’s not as bad as all that. Unlike many rock and roll adepts — some inspired and almost all foolish — I’ve never been of a utopian/apocalyptic turn of mind, and no matter how grim things look in a given year I know that history progresses in cycles and years can be misleadingly arbitrary units of measurement. Still, 1985 does look pretty grim. And though it’s been a long while since I’ve had such trouble getting the Dean’s List up to 50 A LPs, this isn’t a personal complaint. It’s right there in the results.

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I mean, consensus doesn’t necessarily equal enthusiasm. At 4.5 points per respondent, Little Creatures is only the third winner ever to dip below 5.0, and two of those were instructively unmomentous precedents that came damn close anyway: Squeezing Out Sparks at 4.9 in 1979 and Imperial Boredom at 4.9 in 1982. Prorated, the Heads could have won our poll with 1979’s Fear of Music or 1980’s Remain in Light and come in a hair behind the Replacements with 1983’s Speaking in Tongues. And 1981, when the top record got even softer support, had it all over 1985 in other ways. Sandinista! may have averaged just 4.3 points per respondent, but at least it was a risky mess instead of a neat retreat, and its runner-up was X’s Wild Gift, which not only outdrew Tim (4.0 to 3.5) despite indie distribution but stands as a landmark where Tim and Little Creatures and even Sandinista! are more like points on a flow chart.

And in addition 1981 had a brave future. Some of its 12 debut-album artists proved as inconsequential as the Au Pairs and Romeo Void, or failed to fulfill expectations like Was (Not Was) and the Go-Go’s and the MIA Human Switchboard, but in their own ways Joan Jett and Luther Vandross and U2 and (I hope) the Blasters have prospered mightily. I expect something comparable from Sade and the Jesus and Mary Chain, but not from 1985’s other debuts, all five of them. I’ll admit that Marti Jones isn’t a major artist if you’ll admit that Suzanne Vega isn’t a major artist, which God knows also holds for longtime Brit eccentric Robyn Hitchcock (whose Gotta Let This Hen Out! finished close behind Fegmania at 45). Jason and the Scorchers may never again recapture their old Fervor, and L. L. Cool J has the look of the (94th in ’84) Dream Syndicate or the (81st in ’85) Del Fuegos, who also snuck their B-plus-at-best intros into the top 40 on local and/or stylistic loyalty. Granted, this foreshortened debut list doesn’t include dead singers, dead composers, dead groups, or John Fogerty, all of whom made unprecedented showings that were in most cases deserved — and who between them don’t promise any more than Biograph.

Nor am I much encouraged by the continued Pazz & Jop success of the rock indies — independently owned and distributed labels like SST or Profile rather than semi-subsidiaries like Slash or Def Jam or I.R.S. Since most indies are owned by obsessive entrepreneurs with less than no penchant for collective action, I’ve never seen them as bulwarks against capitalism — just little outposts of unpredictable aesthetic principle, pockets of structural resistance in the struggle for fun. But aesthetic principle is never any sharper than the art it applies to, which despite the supposed (or real, damned if I can tell) American rock renaissance doesn’t look like any cutting edge to me — after searching every which-a-way, I’ve put only three new Amerindie bands on my A list, down from eight in 1983 and six in 1984. (Because they don’t compete so directly in the youthbuck market, the folk and blues labels — which provide four African, four reggae, and one blues album on my own list, making Shanachie my favorite corporation this side of Warner Bros. — have better luck.) And structurally, the rock indies have had it — the majors now regard them as farm teams, swooping down and snaring likely looking bands or sometimes whole labels, most recently Hüsker Dü and Tommy Boy. Not that this is necessarily so bad for band or label — unlike some resentful souls, I don’t blame the slight shortfall of Tim on Sire’s Seymour Stein, a former indie owner who’s used his signing privileges at Warners to oversee more good music than any other a&r scout of the past 10 years. Nor can I get all teary-eyed about the “commercialization” of DB’s Guadalcanal Diary or Christian Burial’s 10,000 Maniacs, picked up by Elektra for 58th- and 68th-place finishes, or of DB’s 53rd-ranked Zeitgeist or Rational’s 76th-ranked Game Theory, probably due for similar treatment. The sheer productivity of the indies, with their low overhead and lower profit margin, is welcome and healthy. But I wish I could still dream that pockets of resistance might someday connect and generate their own counter-establishment. Sponsoring enjoyable-to-important music while hanging on by their fingernails in a state of perpetual marginality, the indies have become hegemonic in spite of themselves.

Indies did manage to dominate the EP chart we devised for them five years ago, but that just illustrates my point. With ’70s cult hero Alex Chilton leading the pack and ’60s cult hero Roky Erickson bringing up the rear and album artists the Minutemen, UB40, and U2 finishing two, three, and five, the list looks almost as inauspicious as last year’s, which as predicted gave us Jason & the Scorchers, period. Full Time Men are a one-shot, Fishbone and the Butthole Surfers substitute attitude for songs, and Big Black subsumes songs in attitude — Racer-X is a powerful abrasive, but not what you’d call generous of spirit. Which leaves country purist Dwight Yoakam, probably good for a better album than the Judds, and political popsters Lifeboat, probably good for a better album than Tommy Keene, to continue in the EP-launched tradition of Los Lobos, the Minutemen, the Bangles, and near misses Hüsker Dü and the Replacements.

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The other lists were at least as depressing. Of course I applaud the winning single and the strength of women on the chart (six of the top 15 compared to six of the top 40 LPs), and it’s a pleasure to see the Ramones place so high after the intrepid Seymour Stein refused to release their most overt political act. But I’m distressed at the paucity of dance records, and suspect my colleagues are becoming disenchanted with rap as it abandons the last vestiges of noble savagery for the inevitable formalist phase signaled by the year’s two most remarkable records: Doug E. Fresh’s “The Show” and Double Dee & Steinski’s promo-only three-cut 12-inch (call it The Lesson), both of which take the kitchen-sink pop-for-the-people philosophy of hip hop into the realm of full-scale information seizure. (One reads that the current owner of Lennon-McCartney’s “Michelle,” a guy named Michael Jackson, has threatened to sue Doug E. Fresh in England, where “The Show” has now sold more copies than “Rapper’s Delight.”) I mean, there are nice songs on our list, but for once I didn’t get a lot of letters about how they were the vanguard. If 1984 was the year of the CHR single, 1985 was the year AOR horned back in. Except maybe for John Waite’s “Missing You,” which I prefer to regard as a magnificent fluke like “Hot Blooded” or “You’re So Vain,” there’s never been a Pazz & Jop equivalent to “The Boys of Summer” or “Money for Nothing” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More.” Each in its way an expression of the male rock star’s endemic and crippling cynicism, these phenomenally self-conscious pieces of popcraft were flukish only in the irresistibility of their hooks, and they bode ill — not least because each came with a high-charting video attached.

We have no intention of chucking the video category, as diehards continue to demand. But I must admit that after liking almost every title the voters picked in ’83 and ’84 I find many of the latest winners appalling. Although 1985 was the year I got cable, it was also the year I gave up nightclubs for morning feedings, and since I rarely remembered to turn MTV on with the sound off like some of my canny co-workers, I saw fewer videos than ever last year. So I missed both Heads clips and barely remember the Petty or Eurythmics. But except for “Sun City” and the perhaps overvisual minimalist tour de force “Cry,” it seems to me that the main thing the others have in common is money — for nothing, just as the diehards claim. The idea of the video list is to lay a little rock and roll anti-bullshit — the low-budget spirit and simple pop smarts you see in some current documentary montage, for instance — on a medium designed to dazzle and overwhelm the unwary sensorium. But in this vote I detect instead the exact mood of luxurious passivity that those who finance these promos hope to induce in potential consumers.

Yet there is one bright spot among both singles and videos — the top one. I don’t want to make too much of “Sun City,” a not quite superb single that generated a strong but flawed album and a corny, courageous, gut-wrenching, educational, and rather beautiful video, but it’s significant that amid all this year’s corrosive commentary only one critic (besides Chuck Eddy, whom see) was moved to put the thing down — Don Waller, who complained that except for the hook it didn’t jam. In a year paved with good intentions, “Sun City” was hard not to respect, and for many critics it fulfilled a long-cherished fantasy of really serious fun. Had it limited its attack on apartheid to South Africa it might have been dismissed as an elaborate radical pose, but “Sun City” brought its critique home, not only in its lyric but in its musical form, and perhaps even more important, it jammed sufficiently to dent those other charts, the ones in Billboard. It’s not just crippling cynicism that induces some to suspect that the song’s album votes exemplify what J. D. Considine (who made the single his number one) calls the “tendency to value ‘significance’ over listening pleasure.” Virtue rewarded once again. But Howard Litwak’s comment is just as apropos: “Maybe not the best album musically, but the best album emotionally, which is what counts in this poll.” Litwak doesn’t bother to mention that good emotionally presupposes pretty good or better musically, or that in this case (but maybe not the next) great politically plus good musically equals great emotionally. And no matter what Hilton Kramer wants you to believe, these are all aesthetic responses. That’s what I love about rock critics.

Pazz & Joppers do a lot of dishing — the one-upmanship can get pretty vicious. I’ve formed negative impressions of my own over the years — some of these people I’ve never met strike me as thoughtless or conventional or complacent or naive, narrow-minded or status-conscious or overly earnest or pigheadedly one-dimensional, a little pretentious or a little dumb or just plain out of it. But others strike me as so smart they can fool themselves about just how superior their smarts make them. If more democracy is one thing we’re in this for, then it had better extend to ourselves. Within certain broad limits I accept and respect the critics’ tastes, which means I believe just about every one of the 535 albums they placed in their cumulative top 10 has some genuine pleasure in it. A few of the more dubious pleasures may actively contribute to our general benightedness, but most occasion sins of critical oversight at worst, and some approach a kind of creative misreading — who knows, maybe “I Want To Know What Love Is” is a great piece of music after all. And except within very narrow limits it’s an idealist fallacy (a cynic’s idealist fallacy) to blame the malfeasances of the culture industry on the venality of critics, a venality that when it’s not completely imaginary — Pazz & Joppers may conceivably concoct their ballots to impress the Poobahs, but not to impress the record companies, who’ll never see one per cent of them — is often pretty much inevitable. A world in which critics preferred Fear and Whiskey to Little Creatures and Centerfield probably wouldn’t be a world in which the Mekons felt compelled to make Fear and Whiskey.

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In a once-removed version of Chuck Eddy’s Marsh-versus-Albini dichotomy (which see), disaffected critics explain why their mainstream colleagues like what they like with two less than harmonious theories: the same poor daily peon or free-lance moonlighter can be castigated as an arty, trend-hopping elitist from one side and a craven, trend-hopping shill from the other. As Eddy points out, the worst thing about the Marsh position is that it has a chilling effect on musical movement — without a few elitists there’d never have been an X or Pere Ubu, which to his shame would suit Marsh fine, or a PIL or Talking Heads, which wouldn’t. Yet though I too suspect that many voters could afford to stretch their tastes some, it’s willful to dismiss the music they like as reactionary. You don’t have to be a fan of our top five albums, all but Tim by artists who’ve always worked for major labels, to admit that rather than proving the biz an inhuman monolith they’re evidence of genuine and not necessarily riskless pluralism — within certain frustrating parameters, of course. The basic issue is one’s tolerance for repressive tolerance. Is it ever (where have we seen this word before?) safe, not to mention fun, to allow oneself to be “manipulated” by the pleasure merchants? Is the compulsion to great refusals a virtue, a neurosis, a mark of oppression, or some combination of the three?

If I’m defending the critics after castigating them myself in the past, it’s because in this depressing year I feel bonds with them. Especially when it comes to those pushing and past 30, rock and roll itself is one bond — and as far as I’m concerned, great refuser Richard Gehr of Spin betrays his bad faith when he complains that “we’re getting too old for this crap.” But there’s also a bond of politics. The Pazz & Jop sample is skewed — presumably, some critics who find the Voice distastefully goody-goody don’t participate. But I can’t imagine a comparably representative panel of movie or book reviewers displaying the same antiestablishment instincts — film critics are too embroiled in the culture industry’s megabuck economy, book critics too embroiled in literary “standards.” I use the dated term “antiestablishment” deliberately, because these instincts are a legacy of the ’60s vision of rock as counter-culture, a vision the music of the ’60s never bore out all that specifically. That’s changed. Needless to say, specificity still isn’t a hallmark of these politics. On the music side it probably never will be, though two of 1985’s losses suggest other possibilities: Linton Kwesi Johnson, who quit performing after releasing a definitive live album that tied for 85th despite late availability, and D. Boon, who died — damn right tragically — around the post-Christmas release of 3-Way Tie for Last, which squeezed in at 40 this year and will certainly be on the chart again in 1986. No goody-goodies, these guys. The way both combined inquiring, tough-minded politics with inquiring, tough-minded music would have been inconceivable back when we were making do with Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald, and I hope we can expect more of the same, though I note regretfully that the leading candidates — Rubén Blades, perhaps Thomas Mapfumo — don’t sing in English. Even so, more than half this year’s Pazz & Jop albums are by artists who regard social commentary as a natural part of what they do. Not always for the best, either — Richard Thompson’s and John Fogerty’s politics are bathetic, Sting’s and Mark Knopfler’s smugly ironic. But the neoprimitivist orthodoxy in which the proper study of rock and roll is sex and drugs and rock and roll doesn’t cut it any more. Just as star-eyed bizzers were attracted to rock and roll’s potential as pure entertainment, left-wing rock critics were attracted to its democratic thrust, and now both tendencies have assumed trajectories of their own. Sometimes they rocket off in completely divergent directions, but sometimes they interweave again, as in sub-Springsteen Mellencamp, or Sade, whose high-gloss music hasn’t yet rubbed off on her socialist sympathies, or Blades with his unvanquishable crossover dreams.

It’s one job of the critic to figure out just what these inchoate messages mean. Since rock criticism often partakes of the same gawky naivete as the music, it’s easy to dismiss much of this analysis. You can even exploit a tack of Gehr’s and call it liberal, but despite the sentimental meliorism that pops up here and there that’s just name-calling. Liberalism is the quintessential goody-goody bullshit; the worst you could call most of our respondents is postliberal. They crave justice but don’t trust electoral politics and aren’t so sure about any other kind, which is why they like music that puts a higher premium on realism and spirit than it does on correctness. Speaking very generally, the pointed Sun City and the well-meaning if quite inchoate Scarecrow got a big push from Marsh’s Rock & Roll Confidential fans. The other albums in the top five kept their political distance. Especially on “Walk It Down,” Little Creatures puts Byrne’s willed optimism in a context of oppression and straitened opportunity; the Replacements’ project of liberation is still individualist in the time-honored youthcult tradition; Tom Waits has made identification with the downtrodden his signature and defines downtrodden more keenly all the time, but though he croaks out Brecht-Weill’s “What Keeps Mankind Alive?” with the bitterness of a longtime partisan, his own songwriting distinguishes him perhaps too sharply from Phil Ochs and Country Joe MacDonald.

Take all this for what it’s worth — in a flat year, it’s a mistake to attribute too much significance to the critics’ choices, or one’s own. Waits’s rise is partly a tribute to 1983’s Swordfishtrombones, and Kate Bush’s sudden prominence as women’s hero also has a cumulative look. Though I love the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Ramones-Pistols fusion and credit the Golden Palominos’ early-’70s revisionism, I don’t expect either to change the world, and even if they do I think this year’s historical consciousness — which also includes Hank Williams’s Just Me and My Guitar at 42nd — will be around for a while. And yes, England has definitely made a rock and roll comeback, even on my list. Then again, my list includes five country albums, a meaningless aberration — could well go right back down to zero next time. A more meaningful statistic is the five albums from 1984. Getting a bead on the simple present becomes more impossible all the time.

I would like to say something about my number one album, which at 26 also qualifies as cult record of the year. The Mekons are an inchoate bunch of political punks out of the same Leeds scene that produced those pathetic biz casualties the Gang of Four. People like Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus have been hyping them for years, but not until now have they made an album professional enough to suit my notoriously fussy standards. Cheaply recorded, immersed in American roots that sound wishful now when invoked over here, Fear and Whiskey reminds me of nothing so much as my favorite album of 1976, Have Moicy!, in which a loose alliance of old folkies headed by Michael Hurley and Jeffrey Fredericks demonstrated how aging bohemian rebels get by and have a good time. But where Have Moicy!’s old hippies live outside the law at worst, the Mekons are up against it: shot at, hunted down, interrogated. Needless to say, they don’t have as good a time as the Have Moicy! crowd, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. A difference that sums up a bad decade pretty suggestively, I think.

And if 1985 equals 1976, can 1977 be far behind? What do you take me for, some mystic? All I can say for sure is that it’s not as bad as all that.

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Top 10 Albums of 1985

1. Talking Heads: Little Creatures (Sire)

2. The Replacements: Tim (Sire)

3. John Cougar Mellencamp: Scarecrow (Riva)

4. Tom Waits: Rain Dogs (Island)

5. Artists United Against Apartheid: Sun City (Manhattan)

6. Hüsker Dü: Flip Your Wig (SST)

7. R.E.M.: Fables of the Reconstruction (I.R.S.)

8. Hüsker Dü: New Day Rising (SST)

9. Aretha Franklin: Who’s Zoomin’ Who? (Arista)

10. John Fogerty: Centerfield (Warner Bros.)

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Top 10 Singles of 1985

1. Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City” (Manhattan)

2. Aretha Franklin: “Freeway of Love” (Arista)

3. John Fogerty: “The Old Man Down the Road”/”Big Train (From Memphis)” (Warner Bros.)

4. Hüsker Dü: “Makes No Sense at All”/”Love Is All Around” (SST)

5. Ramones: “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg” (Beggars Banquet import)

6. Don Henley: “The Boys of Summer”/”A Month of Sundays” (Geffen)

7. Eurythmics: “Would I Lie to You?” (RCA Victor)

8. Lisa-Lisa and Cult Jam with Full Force: “I Wonder If I Take You Home” (Columbia)

9. Doug E. Fresh and the Get Fresh Crew: “The Show”/”La-Di-Da-Di” (Reality)

10. Kate Bush: “Running Up That Hill” (EMI America)

—From the February 18, 1986, 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.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1978 Pazz & Jop: New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question

Given my pure mania for what must now be called new wave — punk, I will never forget you — the fifth or sixth annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll ought to feel like a triumph, and in some ways it does. The 98 ballots received were almost half again as many as the previous high of 68, and a conscious attempt was made to avoid loading the panel with new wavers, with many freshpeople drawn from such citadels of tradition as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Circus, and Crawdaddy (which I will call Feature the day Johnny Rotten — or John Lydon, okay — makes the cover). To a lesser extent than expected, I got my conservative response from those critics. But it was overwhelmed by a post-punk sweep to which more than 80% of the voters contributed with at least one selection.

Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model is the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Except in 1974, when there were a mere 28 voters, only The Basement Tapes has ever made over half the ballots, and Costello’s point spread — huge over the runner-up Stones and absolutely staggering over everyone else — is unprecedented and then some. But what’s even more remarkable is the rest of the chart. Last year, eight of the 30 finishers were directly associated with new wave; this year — not counting Brian Eno, the Cars, or Cheap Trick — the figure is 16. And now consider the non-new wavers in the top 20, where the poll is most reliable statistically. Eno produced No New York and Talking Heads and is referred to in a recent issue of Punk as “God”; the Cars may share a producer with Queen, but they share a&r, not to mention key musical ideas, with Television and the Dictators. Bruce Springsteen was a punk before there were punks — a “real” punk, as they say. Singer-songwriter Neil Young encored at the Garden with a reprise of his paean to Johnny Rotten, and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon is an excitable boy who has done Neil one better by encoring with “God Save the Queen.” Hard rock perennials Stones and Who both responded more or less explicitly to the punk challenge with their toughest records in years. The best album since 1971 (if not 4004 B.C.) by the venerable rock vanguardist Captain Beefheart responds to nothing except the weather, but the Captain was his own kind of new waver before there was an ocean, or a flag. And finally there’s Willie Nelson, the great exception, described by ace ballot annotator Tom Smucker as follows: “Nelson takes the crossover spirit of 1978 Country Music and crosses over so far with it he misses the mainstream entirely and ends up with an album that takes risks and gains integrity.”

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In part these monolithic results reflect the inactivity of a few major artists. Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne all finished very high in 1977 and could probably have done so again this year. (Note, however, that Kate & Anna McGarrigle, number 13 in 1977, put the disappointing Pronto Monto on exactly one ballot. Though at least they got 10 points. Nicolette Larson, unaccountably named female vocalist of the year in Rolling Stone’s so-called critics awards, got only five from her supporter.) But even if Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had pitched in, there would still be no doubt that for rock critics 1978 was a year in which to rediscover rock and roll.

Despite the wing of the movement represented in the poll by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, who lead a band called Rockpile that played better than the Stones this year, I don’t buy the claim that new wavers merely revive the rock ’n’ roll verities. Still, in terms of spirit and structure the idea has its validity. The wit and the temper of Presley/Berry and Beatles/Stones, intensified by compact, catchy, rhythmically insistent music, abound on the best new wave records. What’s more, the same virtues are now being pursued with born-again fervor by the best of the non-new wave selections. For critics who have deplored rock’s increasing pomposity and blandness, this is a vindication. Rock and roll is our passion, and suddenly there’s more of the real stuff than at any time since rock criticism began.

As the ballots crossed my desk, though, I began to feel vaguely depressed. I’ve never thought it a critical virtue to nurture weirdness, yet for some reason I kept remembering the comment of convinced eccentric Tom Hull, whose 1977 votes for such cynosures as Blondie Chaplin, Kevin Ayers, Hirth Martinez, and Tony Wilson got lost in the consensus, but who this time placed nine of his 10 favorites in the top 30: “I haven’t heard as much odd stuff as in years before, and this list strikes me as pretty mainstream. Some mainstream, eh?” As fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Tom Carson and I computed the Rs through the Zs, my depression got worse. It so happens that there are a lot of orthodox new wavers toward the end of the alphabet, including three of Trouser Press’s Anglophiliac cabal, and suddenly artists like Dave Edmunds (as Brit-purist as r&r gets), Devo (whose marginal early showing had encouraged us to hope they wouldn’t place at all), and Generation X (accomplished but by no means original — or principled — power-pop punks) were vaulting upwards. This was turning into new wave hegemony, and I don’t like hegemony of any sort. Not even the sudden success of my own favorite record of the year, Wire’s Pink Flag, warmed my heart.

For although I remain a gleefully defiant rock and roll fan — I’m sure the Ramones are one reason I’ve escaped the cosmic cynicism that affects many of my contemporaries these days — I’ve lived too long to feel comfortable with monomania. Rock and roll has always been eclectic, not to say cannibalistic, and in the bleak mid-’70s all but its most dogged (dog-eared?) critical adherents learned to translate that eclecticism into an enjoyment of other kinds of music. In my own case, habitual attention to the byways of pop was augmented by a certain tolerant fondness for the best of folk, curiosity about the more accessible downtown avant-gardism, and renewed enthusiasm for jazz. This year, I elected to exclude the latter two genres from my personal Pazz & Jop top 30, though I’ve certainly gotten more pleasure from David Behrman’s On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing, Eric Dolphy’s Berlin Concerts, and several Sonny Rollins records than from many rock albums I’ve admired in 1978. My reasons were part formalism (rock still seems to me to connote songs and/or electric instruments), part humility (I don’t pretend to cover jazz or avant-garde music and am not entirely confident of my judgments), and part expediency (there were too many rock and roll records I wanted to list). But my decision didn’t stop me from rooting for Steve Reich’s (rather Muzaky) Music for 18 Musicians, which tied for 38th, or Carla Bley’s (loose but likable) European Tour 1977, which came in 54th.

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The major disappointments, though, were in black music. Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they’re always fuzzy), it’s a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O’Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop from Linda Hopkins to Ashford & Simpson, Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears). All these genres share formal and cultural presuppositions with white rock. As in white rock, their virtues have been diluted and puffed up, and they rarely sustain over an entire album. But turn on WWRL for half an hour and they’ll still be there.

All this is so obvious I feel dumb writing it. But it bears reiteration in the year of Saturday Night Fever and its pathetic, homophobic rebuttal, “Disco Sucks.” Whatever the real dangers and deficiencies of disco as a genre and a mentality, some disco records do more than just succeed on their own terms, as dance music — some of them are wonderful rock and roll. The Best of the Trammps (ineligible for the poll, like all best-ofs) is rough, driving soul in the great tradition of Wilson Pickett; the Bee Gees’ side of Saturday Night Fever (which broke — broke the ice, broke records, broke the bank — in 1978 but is ineligible because it was released in 1977) is inspired silliness in the great tradition of “Carrie-Anne” and “Itchycoo Park.” But the disco-sucks crowd can’t hear that any more than they can hear a Charlie Parker solo or a Joni Mitchell song. These assholes are such fanatics that they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar — hell, the first lilt — as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has “gone disco,” though most often the discos could care less even when it’s true. They turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most monofunctional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music except perhaps reggae, and I bet they don’t listen much to Otis Redding either. One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation.

So although the sweep put my beloved Pink Flag in the running, it cost me Lee Dorsey’s Night People, which I’ve played as much as any album to appear this year, although under scrutiny it does come up slightly short on consistency and wit. Night People is a real fluke, a classic New Orleans r&b album a decade after the style peaked, a great rock and roll album by an artist who is now 54 years old. It finished 34th, one of four records by black artists that ended up between 31 and 35. Two of the others were P-Funk outings, Bootsy? Player of the Year and Parliament’s Motor-Booty Affair. Together with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, the year’s leading black album way up at 27, they would add up to 192 points and top-10 status for George Clinton if that were the way things were counted. Oh well. The two other most successful black albums, Al Green’s Truth n’ Time (30th) and Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta (32nd), were released late in the year on labels with sporadic (Green) or almost nonexistent (Coleman) distribution and press coverage, and might have done better with more time for word-of-mouth. But that wouldn’t have shattered the new wave hegemony either.

One thing [that] might eventually challenge it would be a shift in the critical population, but although I sought out writers specializing in black music, there aren’t very many. Only 12 of my 98 respondents, including two disco people, fit the category, and these followed a much less predictable line than the new wavers. This is partly because only the best new wave artists are getting recorded, while the term “black music” encompasses the multitude of genres I’ve already listed and probably a thousand albums a year. But it’s interesting to me that of the 12, only three named black albums exclusively. In contrast there were 39 critics who named not one black album — not only new wavers but a great many middle-of-the-road Joni-to-Brucie rock traditionalists, including several writers who I know love black rock and roll. If it weren’t for Lee Dorsey, I would have been among them myself. Which seems as good a place as any to enlighten you with my own painstakingly calibrated top 30, which you will read on newsprint only because Rupert won’t pay for granite:

1. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest) 13. 2. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 13. 3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13. 4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 11. 5. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 11. 6. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11. 7. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 7. 8. Lee Dorsey: Night People (ABC) 7. 9. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 7. 10. The Vibrators: Pure Mania (Columbia) 7.

11. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire). 12. Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA). 13. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis). 15. Television: Adventure (Elektra). 16. Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia). 17. Al Green: Truth n’ Time (Hi). 18. Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 19. Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff). 20. Shoes: Black Vinyl Shoes (PVC).

21. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum). 22. Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca). 23. Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song). 24. Willie Nelson: Face of a Fighter (Lone Star). 25. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Kaya (Island). 26. David Johansen (Blue Sky). 27. Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest). 28. Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt). 29. Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista). 30. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island).

And just because it was such a good year, allow me to append the makings of a top 40 for those with sentimental attachments to that concept: Raydio, Steve Gibbons Band, Ornette Coleman, Albert Collins, Loleatta Holloway, Teddy Pendergrass, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Tom Robinson Band, Tapper Zukie.

Measured by the sheer number of terrific new records, it has been a good year, too, despite my misgivings — more than satisfying in black music and the best ever in hard rock. That’s right, folks, I said the best ever in hard rock. Which is the less ominous reason for this year’s new wave hegemony. Because blacks have always been treated like a second-class market, a cost-cutting, singles-oriented, let’s-lay-down-a-party-track-and-split attitude continues to damage the overall effectiveness of black LPs — the Raydio album, for instance, knocks the Bee Gees out of the box until its last two songs. That’s one reason six of the 13 black artists I’ve named are clustered in the addendum at the bottom of my list. But the reason so many new wave records are clustered toward the top — nine out of 15 — is simply that they’re so damned good. In its first flush of studio assurance, the new wave mentality has set off a creative explosion, especially in songwriting, and I just don’t believe in upgrading an album on political grounds. Because my rankings are based solely on some intuitive balance of listenability and aesthetic intensity, I was forced to conclude that any five songs on the Vibrators or Ramones LPs were of broader usefulness than the wonderful 11-minute scatalogical rap that opens Funkadelic’s side two. Similar judgments were made by a devotee of the more standard r&b-rooted hard rock, Dave Marsh, who would have listed Saturday Night Fever and Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ’n All had they not been released in 1977, but who finally decided that Candi Staton and Teddy Pendergrass didn’t quite cut it.

I’m gratified that someone like Marsh, who’s a lot more skeptical about new wave than I am, should find so much good rock and roll of his sort this year, because it reinforces my suspicion that everybody’s rocking harder. True, most music bizzers are relieved that the Sex Pistols have vanished into infamy; they still find the Clash strident and the Ramones simplistic, declaring such bands unacceptable to the imaginary consumer who personifies their own complacency and cowardice. But because it’s the nature of complacent cowards to hedge all bets — and because they want to prove they’re not, you know, square — they reassert their own putative attachment to “good” rock and roll at the same time, thus easing the sales breakthrough of ‘twixt-wave-and-stream bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick. A similar snap-to by old fans (including radio people) who had previously been backsliding into resignation makes quick, surprising commercial successes of Dire Straits (42nd in Pazz & Jop despite late-year release) and George Thorogood and the Destroyers (51st despite a small press list), spearheading a minor white-r&b revival. The more conservative critics, eager to be open-minded, find the new Elvis irresistible and become instantly infatuated with Nick Lowe, whose genius for high pop was inaudible to all but a few pub-rock experts three years ago, while the new wavers move on to the likes of Pere Ubu and the Contortions and love Captain Beefheart better the second time around. Meanwhile, more and more musicians play lots and lots of rough, tough rock and roll.

It’s only fair to add that Marsh himself does not share my sanguine mood. He’s afraid it’s all a last gasp, and for his kind of rock and roll it sometimes seems that way. An interesting statistical sidelight of the poll is the high points-to-voters ratio of Who Are You and (hullo! what’s this doing here?) Street-Legal. When this happens with records below the top 15, it usually indicates preemptive ballot-stuffing, a cultish determination to push the Real Stuff up there, which in earlier polls helped hype Eno and Dr. Buzzard and Kraftwerk but these days seems to be the defense of the mainstream. (Some mainstream, eh?) On the other hand, the 10 records in the top 30 that have gone gold — Stones, Springsteen, Young, Cars, Zevon, Who, Dylan, Nelson, Cheap Trick, Funkadelic — are mostly to Marsh’s kind of taste, including four in his top 10, and he also voted for 36-ranked Bob Seger, who spent the year trading in his silver bullets on something more fashionable. So maybe what the traditionalists are really worried about is that, like me, he suspects Willie Nelson is more likely than Pete Townshend (or Bruce Springsteen) to make good music till he’s 60. Maybe they too detect in the eyes of the Cars and Cheap Trick the blank gleam that gives away artists who are turning to platinum from the soul out. Or maybe it’s just that he’s not comfortable with the shift to the left himself. Three years ago Bruce Springsteen was young blood, the bearer of rock-and-roll future. Now he’s a likable conservative — the vital center, your favorite uncle, like that.

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This would seem to be a swing year. The truism that success on the Pazz & Jop chart isn’t exactly synonymous with success on the one in Record World is borne out primarily by new wavers, who contributed most of this year’s dozen or so stiffs. Not even Patti Smith, who with help from Uncle Brucie finally bagged her hit single, achieved gold, which in the year of trentuple platinum (Saturday Night Fever has sold over 30 million units worldwide) is beginning to strike many bizzers as a rather negligible commercial goal. But for the more poppish artists the prognosis is favorable. Patti came close, and Talking Heads is over 200,000 with “Take Me to the River” still breaking as a single, so who knows where that will end? This Year’s Model has also done 200,000 or so and Costello looks unstoppable — he’s got a better shot at going platinum eventually than Jackson Browne appeared to five years ago. Lowe and Edmunds, who sold zilch, are just as talented as Elvis, but less passionate, less ambitious, and less young; still, if Rockpile is willing to slog it, they’ll do all right too. So will Blondie, already a major [band] in Europe and Australia; if Devo doesn’t go the way of the Tubes, they will too, which I’ll try to convince myself is a mixed blessing.

For the others, however, things look bleaker, with the U.S. sales prospects of the two greatest bands to come out of this thing, the Ramones and the Clash, especially depressing. So far, all that the Ramones’ hard touring and good music has netted them is more hard touring, more good music, and a nationwide cult large enough to keep their road operation out of the red; the Clash are stars in England but have shown as little interest in America as America has shown in them. David Johansen’s solo debut sold disappointingly, and although his sudden professionalism is awesome and his company support unusually single-minded, whether his hip, hoarse New York style can ever make a real dent in these United States is beginning to seem questionable. Solo Tom Verlaine, now minus Television, will tend to his own kind of professionalism, which will most assuredly have everything to do with music (and words) and almost nothing with becoming a star. Ian Dury is so English that he’ll always be a fringe benefit here. And Wire and Pere Ubu, both of whom enjoy modest success in the U.K. (even though Ubu is as loyal to Cleveland as the Clash is to its safe European home), are currently without U.S. labels.

Finally, though, I’m not convinced that all this crass pro and con retains importance. I’ve discussed sales annually in this wrap-up not only because they affect artistic strategy and define what kind of community the music and we its fans inhabit, but also, of course, because they determine what records get made and thus enter history. But it seems clear (knock on plastic) that we’re over that bottom line for a while. Maybe the Clash, embroiled and embittered, will bollocks Britain; maybe the Ramones and David Johansen will finally lose heart; maybe Tom Verlaine will do one solo album and disappear; maybe Wire will go back to art school; maybe Pere Ubu won’t even put out records in Cleveland any more. But though any of those things could happen and one or two of them probably will, all of them won’t. Nor will every one of the more salable new wavers turn to shit before our very ears. This new kind of rock and roll is going to be around for a while.

If someone had told me five years ago that I was destined for cultism, I would have scoffed, or cried. Rock and roll was pop music, that was my line — it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that cultural resonance. And in a critic like Marsh, the idea that good rock must move an expansive, broad-based audience remains as powerful as any inborn aesthetic conservatism. But I’ve changed my mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the enthusiasm for jazz that the bleak mid-’70s rekindled in me had a lot to do with it. For, looking around me, I am reminded of nothing so much as what I’ve read about the twilight of the swing era. Swing was vital popular music into the ’40s, and some of its proponents — not just Duke and Billie, either — did great work until much later, although not usually in a big-band format. But when Frank Sinatra shifted public attention from the bandleaders, who were swing’s artistic standard-bearers, onto the vocalists, most of whom had little of his talent and less of his integrity, swing began to evolve into the fatuous pop music of Mitch Miller and Doris Day, the music rock and roll revolted against.

Long before then, however, two different groups of black musicians had staged their own revolts. The Kansas City style that had been sophisticated into big-band swing was also simplified into rhythm-and-blues, which many blacks and slowly increasing numbers of whites preferred for dancing. Aimed point blank at the new teenage market (sometimes in combination with country music), r&b of course turned into rock and roll. Meanwhile, somewhere to the other side of the pop-swing mainstream, renegade big-band musicians sparked by Charlie Parker invented the apparently undanceable, virtuoso jazz style called bebop. Shortly after World War II, the style enjoyed a brief vogue symbolized in the picture magazines by Dizzy Gillespie and his zoot suit. Despite that flurry, though, bebop never became massively popular, and some of its key figures — such as Thelonious Monk — had trouble earning a living at it. Yet somehow, by the late ’50s, the harmonic and rhythmic ideas that originated with Parker pervaded jazz-based music.

There are no perfect historical analogies, and the equation of bebop with new wave doesn’t come close, not least because when bebop began there was no bebop — no popular-music-as-art-music — and now there is. As someone who has regarded Charlie Parker as the greatest 20th-century American artist even at the height of his infatuations with William Carlos Williams and Chuck Berry, I get nervous just putting the comparison on paper. But I’ve been making it in conversation for six months now, and I know of no better way to explain what I see happening. The rock that has become America’s popular music is rotten from Olivia Newton-John all the way to Kansas. Good art and/or worthy entertainment will continue to be created within its various genres, but as forms they’re moribund. Inevitably, the new wave ideas will infiltrate these genres and pop hybrids proliferate; since hybridization has always been a means to good rock and roll — eclecticism, remember? — some of them may be quite exciting and the real stuff will keep happening. I don’t believe any more than I ever have that new wave will turn into the next big thing. But I feel certain that it will survive and evolve as an entity — the musicians will be there, with a community of fans to support them. Some of them may even age more gracefully than most rock and rollers.

One reason this comparison makes me nervous is that in several ways new wave is bebop’s obverse: can a black music of unprecedented (for jazz) harmonic sophistication really parallel a white music of unprecedented (for just about anything) self-conscious primitivism? But though a lot of new wave may be technically unsophisticated, not all of it is — the English punk moment was an extreme — and in any case rock-and-roll so-called sophistication has always been conceptual, not technical. What’s more, rock and roll has been exploring self-conscious primitivism as a means of making black-derived forms authentic for white people ever since Elvis Presley; sometimes, as in Eric Burdon, the results are embarrassing, but other times, as in the best one-take-and-out Bob Dylan, they’re magnificent. And it’s interesting that in a couple of ways the parallel really comes alive — because, in addition to the hostile bohemian stance assumed by both new wavers and beboppers, a corresponding musical strategy has served to repel potential fans of each vanguard.

The great jazz critic Martin Williams argues that Charlie Parker’s most decisive innovation was not harmonic but rhythmic — that the difference between a Parker phrase and almost the same notes played by Ben Webster was that “Parker inflects, accents and pronounces that phrase so differently that one simply may not recognize it.” While I can’t follow bebop’s harmonic permutations closely enough to judge with any certainty, that’s always sounded right to this unschooled bebop fan. Similarly, John Piccarrella has asserted in these pages that the essence of new wave is what he calls “forced rhythm,” a term that evokes the frenzied effect achieved by many otherwise dissimilar bands. And once again, that sounds right to me. But here’s another obverse: Charlie Parker swung with a vengeance, whereas new wavers — unlike Guy Lombardo or Linda Ronstadt, who simply don’t swing — don’t swing with a vengeance. Oddly enough, though, turned-off listeners have complained about the “frantic” quality of both musics.

The main reason I’ve never bought that stuff about new wave reviving the rock-’n’-roll verities is that new wave doesn’t sound very much like (good ol’) rock ’n’ roll. It’s too “forced,” too “frantic.” It’s this — combined with its disquieting way of coming on both wild (hot) and detached (cool), rather than straightforwardly emotional and expressive, another effect it often shares with bebop — that limits its audience, and it’s this that makes it so inspiring aesthetically. This isn’t just (blues-based) white music — it’s White Music, or maybe even WHITE MUSIC. Which brings us back, strangely enough, to new wave hegemony.

I believe new wave’s aggressive whiteness is a strength; I like its extremism, its honesty, its self-knowledge. But like the English punks, who love reggae as much as their own music, I’d consider myself some kind of robot if that was where my desires ended. And though I’ve made a case for all the black subgenres already, let me close with a zinger. Maybe, just maybe, if new wave is bebop, then disco is rhythm-and-blues. Once again, the analogy may be, er, slightly flawed — disco is a worldwide pop music, whereas r&b took a decade just to get beyond the juke joints and the “race market.” But both hard funk to the left of pop disco and Eurodisco to its right resemble, in their patterns of production and consumption, other eccentric, largely self-referential styles (reggae, for instance) that have contributed so much to the general vitality of popular music. And this is not least because the relationship of both styles to their audiences is unmediated by detailed attention from the mass media or informed critical scrutiny.

In the ’50s, r&b coalesced with bebop ideas in styles called “hard bop” and “soul jazz.” What do you think new wave disco might sound like?

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Finally, my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few samples:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Vince Aletti, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Anonymous, Lester Bangs, Michael Barackman, Alan Betrock, Michael Bloom, Steve Bloom, Jon Bream, Tom Carson, Brian Chin, Georgia Christgau, Jay Cocks, J. D. Considine, Noel Coppage, Bruce Dancis, Michael Davis, Robert Duncan, Lita Eliscu, Susan Elliott, Todd Everett, Jim Farber, Carol Flake, Mike Freedberg, Dave Frechette, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Deborah Frost, Russell Gersten, Harold Goldberg, Toby Goldstein, Jim Green, Pablo Yoruba Guzman, Bob Hilburn, Geoffrey Hines, Richard Hogan, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Scott Isler, David Jackson, George Lane, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, The Masked Marvel, Janet Maslin, Perry Meisel, Joe McEwen, Daisann McLane, John Milward, Rick Mitz, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Richard Mortifoglio, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Fran Pelzman, John Piccarella, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Joe Sasty, Mitchell Schneider, Dave Schulps, Andy Schwartz, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Bob Sheridan, Don Shewey, Michael Shore, Steve Simels, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Chip Stern, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Sam Sutherland, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Roy Trakin, Roger Trilling, Ken Tucker, Gregg Turner, Mark von Lehmden, Richard C. Walls, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Paulette Weiss, James Wolcott, Jon Young.

VINCE ALETTI: USA-European Connection (Marlin) 10; Don Ray: Garden of Love (Polydor) 10; Musique: Keep On Jumpin’ (Prelude) 10; Voyage (Marlin) 10; Sylvester: Step II (Fantasy) 10; Alec Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: Romeo and Juliet (Casablanca) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; James Wells: True Love Is My Destiny (AVI) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 10; Cerrone: Cerrone IV: The Golden Touch (Cotillion) 10.

LESTER BANGS: The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 30; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 20; Joe Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 15; David Johansen (Blue Sky) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 5; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 5; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 5; No New York (Antilles) 5.

TOM CARSON: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 18; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 15; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 12; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 7; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 7; Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff) 6; Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista) 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca) 15; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Bootsy? Player of the Year (Warner Bros.) 15; Tito Puente: Homonajo a Beny (Tico) 10; Eddie Palmieri: Lucumi Macumba Voodoo (Epic) 10; Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson: Secrets (Arista) 10; Chick Corea: Secret Agent (Polydor) 10; Tipico Ideal: Out of This World (Coco) 5; Van Morrison: Wavelength (Warner Bros.) 5; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 5.

STEPHEN HOLDEN: Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (ECM) 19; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13; Nina Simone: Baltimore (CTI) 12; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 9; Daryl Hall & John Oates: Along the Red Ledge (RCA) 8; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 7; Gerry Rafferty: City to City (United Artists) 6; Wendy Waldman: Strange Company (Warner Bros.) 5.

TOM HULL: Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 15; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 15; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 14; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 12; Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis) 12; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 9; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song) 5; Silver Convention: Love in a Sleeper (Midsong International) 5; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 5.

DAVID JACKSON: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 30; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 10; D. J. Rogers: Love Brought Me Back (Columbia) 10; George Thorogood and the Destroyers: Move It On Over (Rounder) 9; Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano (Improvising Artists) 8; Joan Armatrading: To the Limit (A&M) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; 21st Century Singers: Sunday Night Fever (Creed) 5; Peabo Bryson: Reaching for the Sky (Capitol) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Bryan Ferry: The Bride Stripped Bare (Atlantic) 30; Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 20; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 15; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 5; Johnny Shines: Too Wet to Plow (Blue Labor) 5; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 5; Carlene Carter (Warner Bros.) 5; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 5; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5; Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 30; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 12; Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight (Epic) 12; Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes: Hearts of Stone (Epic) 11; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 10; Steve Gibbons Band: Down in the Bunker (Polydor) 5; The Cars (Elektra) 5; The Who: Who Are You (MCA) 5; John Prine: Bruised Orange (Asylum) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 17; Joe “King” Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 16; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Eric Dolphy: The Berlin Concerts (Inner City) 12; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)(Warner Bros.) 12; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 10; Raydio (Arista) 6; Jack Clement: All I Want To Do in Life (Elektra) 5; Delbert McClinton: Second Wind (Capricorn) 5; Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest) 5.

JON PARELES: Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Air: Open Air Suit (Arista Novus) 10; NRBQ: At Yankee Stadium (Mercury) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 10; Happy the Man: Crafty Hands (Arista) 10; Jules & the Polar Bears: Got No Breeding (Columbia) 10; Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia) 10; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 10; Carla Bley: European Tour 1977 (Watt) 10.

TOM SMUCKER: Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia) 17; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14; Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine (Capitol) 12; The Gospel Keynotes: Gospel Fire (Nashboro) 11; Bonnie Koloc: Wild and Recluse (Epic) 10; Alec R. Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Casablanca) 9; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 8; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 6; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5.

ROGER TRILLING: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 10; Conjunto Libre: Tiene Calidad (Salsoul) 10; Culture: Harder Than the Rest (Virgin Front Line import) 10; Miles Davis: Dark Magus (CBS/Sony import) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros) 10; Majestic Dub (Joe Gibbs import) 10; Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt) 10; Thelonious Monk: Monk at the Five Spot (Milestone) 10; Milton Nascimento: Milagre dos Peixas (Odeon import) 10; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10.

Top 10 Albums of 1978

1. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia)

2. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones)

3. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia)

4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic)

5. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness at the Edge of Town (Columbia)

7. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire)

8. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise)

9. The Cars: The Cars (Elektra)

10. David Johansen: David Johansen (Blue Sky)

— From the January 22, 1979, 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.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1977 Pazz & Jop: Pazz & Joppers Dig Pistols — What Else Is New?

A fellow member of the rock criticism establishment tells me that the poll which inspires my annual wrap-up might have a real shot at exposure in the newsweeklies — a chance to get some AM airplay and go pop — if it wasn’t saddled with such a ridiculous name. And I respond that the name is supposed to be ridiculous. Not that it’s actually meaningless, of course, but why go into that? I like the term Pazz & Jop because it once set Clay Felker to concocting alternate back-cover flags and is regarded by my current boss as virtually unpronounceable. It sounds dumb, and it gives me an out. Is this the most comprehensive year-end poll of rock critics conducted anywhere? You bet. Is it official? Of course not. How could it be?

Despite my feckless promises, selection procedures were shoddier than ever in 1977. Because I spent most of December puzzling over current trends in British youth culture, letters of invitation were mailed out in a last-minute flurry. Together with fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Ken Tucker, I resorted to last year’s list, eliminating obvious dropouts (like R. Meltzer, who claims to have given up criticism for the joys of performance) and adding a few new guys. This process was complicated by my loss of the 1976 addresses; several late entries claim to have received their ballots on due date minus one. So I admit to haphazard panel selection as well as the usual bias of rock critics toward rock and roll. I swear I’ve never met 25 of the 68 critics who were tallied this year, but since I favor Riffs contributors and rely on the advice of editors and publicists, a certain in-groupishness is also inevitable. About two-thirds of the voters are from New York, including several who weren’t in 1976 — they keep immigrating. And as usual, I regret the paucity of critics of black music (in the world as well as in this poll), although it was country music that really got the shaft this year, with only four artists mentioned more than once.

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If it ever came down to making this all fair and official, though, I’d be in a quandry, because there’s lots of people who write about records who don’t belong in this poll. At many dailies, the rock beat is less prestigious (and steady) than the obit page for good reason, while a lot of what passes for record and concert criticism at the weekly leisure-time handouts now running amok all over America is obviously nothing more than a means to freebies. I’m sure I’ve overlooked dozens of serious people who work not only at listening to music but at thinking about it, which is even rarer. But I’m sure too that I’ve excluded hundreds of dunderheads by means of my arbitrary haphazardness. I apologize to the workers, request the dunderheads to leave me alone, remind everyone that this is still the weird old Village Voice, and insist that the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll actually represents what the best rock critics think.

As you’ve probably gathered already, what they think is Sex Pistols. As you probably haven’t guessed, this both surprised and disappointed me. I was rooting for Fleetwood Mac. For one thing, as you can ascertain by perusing my personal top 30 below, I think Rumours is a (slightly) better record than Never Mind the Bollocks. But I also think it’s remarkable historically. As 1978 began, it had been number one in Record World for 32 weeks and seemed quite certain to become the best-selling album of all time, passing not only Frampton Comes Alive!, the Rumours of 1976, but all-time biggies like Bridge Over Troubled Water and Tapestry. More remarkable, Rumours is honest, courageous, even formula-defying music — so much so that when Greil Marcus reviewed it here he predicted that its toughness and passion would cost it millions of customers craving the sweetness of the group’s breakthrough LP, Fleetwood Mac. Most remarkable of all, it’s still possible to listen to it. Oh, a few sorehead radio addicts like Tom Smucker may add some comment like “docked a point for being sick of it,” but the fact remains that this seems to be the most durable pop music ever put on plastic. It’s not going to change anybody’s life, but rock and roll is supposed to be about pleasure as well as all the heavy stuff, and I’m glad that in this year of the punk Fleetwood Mac was here to remind us of that.

I must admit, though, that there was another reason to root for Rumours: credibility. If a popular favorite had won, it might have convinced a few skeptics that all this punk stuff is not, to use the popular expression, hype. What rock critics are supposed to gain from their hype has never been clear to me: Since death by boredom is not something the industry really believes can happen to itself, and since record sales are better than ever, publicists would much prefer we bury the troublemakers and throw our support to manageable hard-rock professionals like the Dingoes and the eponymous Eddie Money. In fact, punk might conceivably destroy the all-too-comfortable symbiosis between rock journalism and the rock industry. Not that it’s anywhere near as cozy as conspiracy theorists imagine — even in the best of times relations are marred by habitual disrespect on both sides. But critics are a source of some small status, a perquisite of the easy life that is treasured in this traditionally disreputable biz, and have helped to support and eventually break more than a few unusual but tasty acts, Fleetwood Mac among them. If punk should prove modestly profitable, as seems quite possible, then the symbiosis will continue undisturbed. But if it should prove unprofitable and yet refuse to roll over and play dead, and if critics should continue to support it — a scenario that also seems plausible — then I wouldn’t be surprised if some big companies began to take the same neglectful attitude toward low-rent journalistic recalcitrants as a label like Motown, which has been notoriously stingy with review copies and information for as long as I’ve been writing about rock and roll.

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But all that is the future. What we have now is a critics’ poll in which the top three albums feature not only newcomers but rank amateurs. Last year, when the Pazz & Jop top 30 included nine debut albums as opposed to six this year, the big winners were Graham Parker and Kate & Anna McGarrigle — new names, to be sure, but in each case backed by a reliable contingent of veterans. In contrast, no member of the Sex Pistols or Television has ever played on an LP before. The anonymous backup musicians on Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True may have, but only their producer knows for sure, and Costello’s tour band, the Attractions, has no professional credentials whatsoever. Neither do any of 1977’s other new bands: Talking Heads, the Jam, Mink DeVille. If you want to know why old rock and rollers hate punk so much, there it is — these know-nothings are pogoing right over them.

At least as far as the working press is concerned, and there is the next difference. The 1976 Pazz & Jop top 30 included 15 commercial blockbusters: Stevie Wonder, Jackson Browne, Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Rod Stewart, Blue Oyster Cult, David Bowie, Bob Seger (which hit in 1977), Dr. Buzzard (ditto), Boz Scaggs, Boston, Thin Lizzy, Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck, and Linda Ronstadt. This year, the critics rejected albums by Mitchell, Stewart, the Cult, Scaggs, Thin Lizzy, and Dylan while Bowie ceased to bust blocks, leaving only seven best-sellers: Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman (heavy sales among leprechauns), Jackson Browne, James Taylor, the Beatles, and Linda Ronstadt (who with the failure of Eno’s Discreet Music is now the only artist to have made the last four Pazz & Jop polls, usually in the bottom five). And barring a punk breakthrough of proportions much larger than I think likely — although every night I gaze at the image of Maureen Tucker over my bedroom door and pray that I’m wrong — the only potential 1978 biggie I spy lurking amid this year’s works of art is this year’s sleeper, Cheap Trick. More and more, rock critics see themselves as guardians of an aesthetic of insurrection, and fuck what people are going to buy.

This phenomenon bespeaks neither cliquishness nor desperation. It is positive. The Sex Pistols actually did better out of town than in New York, proportionally, and Television scored remarkably high among critics who could never have seen the band live; the New York cult artists turned out to be Talking Heads, supposedly CBGB’s easiest crossover, and Garland Jeffreys, who almost outdistanced a coasting Randy Newman as singer-songwriter of the year. And although only two more critics voted this year than last, the top albums had much stronger support. The four highest-ranking 1977 albums all earned more points and more mentions than last year’s winner, Songs in the Key of Life, which got 292 votes from 25 critics. On the other hand, the consensus on lesser albums this year was more quirkish and arbitrary than ever; where only 11 points separate 1977’s bottom 10 there was a 23-point difference in 1976.

Some oddities. Of last year’s nine debut acts, only one, the Ramones, came in higher this year; both Parker and the McGarrigles dipped, Dwight Twilley and Jonathan Richman finished out of the running, and four artists — the Wild Tchoupitoulas, Boston, Dr. Buzzard, and Warren Zevon — produced no follow-up. Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head — “cosmic as they come” (Richard Riegel), “funnier than Funkadelic” (Tom Smucker) — was the first album by a jazz artist ever to make the poll. The Eagles would have placed had not their Hotel California been released December 6, 1976. The surprise finisher was the Chicago hard rock band Cheap Trick, which released two albums in 1977; the debut got a few votes, and the follow-up, In Color, a brilliantly executed if rather content-free compendium of pre-punk Anglophile moves, finished third among out-of-town critics and enjoyed support from New Yorkers as well. Genesis’s Peter Gabriel, the Persuasions, James Taylor, the Beach Boys, and Kraftwerk (disco crossover of the year) are veteran artists who placed for the first time. So is Al Green (hooray! finally!). And so are the Beatles (welcome aboard, lads). Finally, the number 31, 32, and 33 records deserve recognition: Blank Generation, by Richard Hell and the Voidoids; Ahh…the Name Is Bootsy, Baby!, by Bootsy’s Rubber Band; and Hard Again, by Muddy Waters.

With a few exceptions — like Charley Walters, who acknowledges that maybe he doesn’t “truly like real rock ’n’ roll,” and Ira Mayer, whose deepest sympathies are with folk music — the mood among this year’s Pazz & Joppers was exultant. For once, we had trouble keeping records off our lists rather than coming up with ones it wasn’t embarrassing to include. I find myself strangely unmoved by Elvis Costello, often suspecting that he is “New Wave” for people with good taste (I prefer the term punk just because it is so hackneyed, inexact, and declasse). But last year Costello might have made my top 30 on sheer, calculable quality. Instead, I have to apologize to Elvin Bishop, Eno, Cachao, Townshend-Lane, and all the others who have given me intense pleasure in 1977 but couldn’t hold up against the competition. My biggest regret was the rule banning imports; I would have given about 24 points to The Clash, my favorite album of the year, and other Pazz & Joppers indicated similar enthusiasm. As it was I agonized forever over my top 10; I could have gone as far as number 18, Muddy Waters, without blushing, and settled on Al Green at 10 because The Belle Album is the finest record in years from the man who may turn out to be my favorite artist of this decade. Dancing in Your Head is great work, I know, but this is a year to celebrate rock and roll. Let’s hope the same is true 12 months from now.

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And so, me own top 30, with Pazz & Jop points appended where appropriate:

1. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra) 13. 2. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire) 13. 3. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees (Warner Bros.) 13. 4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.) 13. 5. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.) 12. 6. Andy Fairweather Low: Be Bop ’n Holla (A&M) 10. 7. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors (MCA) 8. 8. The Beach Boys: Love You (Brother/Reprise) 7. 9. Ramones Leave Home (Sire) 6. 10. Al Green: The Belle Album (Hi) 5.

11. Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head (Horizon). 12. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl (Capitol). 13. Philip Glass: North Star (Virgin). 14. Iggy Pop: Lust for Life (RCA). 15. Bizarros/Rubber City Rebels: From Akron (Clone). 16. Ray Charles: True to Life (Atlantic). 17. Talking Heads: 77 (Sire). 18. Muddy Waters: Hard Again (Blue Sky). 19. Asleep at the Wheel: The Wheel (Capitol). 20. George Jones: All-Time Greatest Hits Volume 1 (Epic).

21. The Jam: In the City (Polydor). 22. Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness (Warner Bros.). 23. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M). 24. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Stick to Me (Mercury). 25. Iggy Pop: The Idiot (RCA). 26. David Bowie: Low (RCA). 27. Bette Midler: Live at Last (Atlantic). 28. The Joy (Fantasy). 29. “Wanna’ Meet the Scruffs?” (Power Play). 30. James Talley: Ain’t It Somethin’ (Capitol).

And my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few sample ballots below:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Barnes, Michael Bloom, Jon Bream, Georgia Christgau, Richard Cromelin, Steve DeMorest, Robert Duncan, Ken Emerson, Joe Fernbacher, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Russell Gersten, Jim Girard, Jim Green, Pablo “Yoruba” Guzman, Peter Herbst, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Peter Knobler, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Jon Marlowe, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, Bruce Meyer, Jim Miller, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira A. Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Michael Rozek, Mitchell Schneider, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Russell Shaw, Don Shewey, Gary Smith, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark Von Lehmden, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Tim White, James Wolcott.

VINCE ALETTI: Cerrone: Love in C Minor 10; Love & Kisses 10; Donna Summer: “Once Upon a Time…” 10; The Emotions: Rejoice 10; Loleatta Hollaway: Loleatta 10; Teddy Pendergrass 10; C.J. & Co.: Devil’s Gun 10; Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 10; Jean Carn 10; Peter Brown: Fantasy Love Affair 10.

LESTER BANGS: Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Blank Generation 30; Peter Tosh: Equal Rights 15; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 10; Iggy and the Stooges: Metallic K.O. 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 5; Ramones Leave Home 5; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 5; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 5; The Saints: I’m Stranded 5; Suicide 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Ray Charles: True to Life 15; Johnny Pacheco: The Artist 15; George Duke: Reach for It 15; Caldera: Sky Islands 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All ’n All 10; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 10; Willie Colon: Angelitos Negros 10; Steely Dan: Aja 5; Willie Colon and Ruben Blades: Metiendo Mano 5; Nona Hendryx 5.

TOM HULL: Iggy Pop: Lust for Life 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! 14; Blondie Chaplin 12; Kevin Ayers: Yes, We Have No Mananas 12; Hirth Martinez: Big Bright Street 12; Bob Marley & the Wailers: Exodus 10; Ramones Leave Home 9; Tony Wilson: I Like Your Style 6; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 15; Lynyrd Skynyrd: Street Survivors 15; Al Green: The Belle Album 15; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers: Rock ’n’ Roll with the Modern Lovers 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 10; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 10; The Jam: This Is the Modern World 5; Bryan Ferry: In Your Mind 5; Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Dancer with Bruised Knees 5.

JOE MCEWEN: Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Ahh…The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! 20; Mink DeVille 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: All ’n All 10; The Manhattans: It Feels So Good 10; Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True 10; Al Green: The Belle Album 10; The Persuasions: Chirpin’ 10; The Heptones: Party Time 10; Ray Charles: True to Life 5; Parliament: Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome 5.

TOM SMUCKER: Kraftwerk: Trans-Europe Express 17; Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer 12; The Beach Boys: Love You 12; Fleetwood Mac: Rumours 12; Merle Haggard: A Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today 9; Al Green: The Belle Album 9; Ornette Coleman: Dancing in Your Head 8; Bonnie Raitt: Sweet Forgiveness 7; Mary McCaslin: Old Friends 7; Ramones: Rocket to Russia 7.

CHARLEY WALTERS: Yes: Going for the One 14; Genesis: Wind and Wuthering 12; Steely Dan: Aja 10; Dave Edmunds: Get It 10; David Bowie: Low 10; Gentle Giant: The Missing Piece 10; Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols 10; Tom Newman: Fine Old Tom 8; Steve Hillage: Motivation Radio 8; Talking Heads: 77 8.

Top 10 Albums of 1977

1. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (Warner Bros.)

2. Elvis Costello: My Aim Is True (Columbia)

3. Television: Marquee Moon (Elektra)

4. Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros.)

5. Steely Dan: Aja (ABC)

6. Ramones: Rocket to Russia (Sire)

7. Talking Heads: 77 (Sire)

8. Randy Newman: Little Criminals (Warner Bros.)

9. Garland Jeffreys: Ghost Writer (A&M)

10. Cheap Trick: In Color (Epic)

— From the January 23, 1978, 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.

   

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1976 Pazz & Jop: Critics Cheer Debut Albums

Like a second-grader who can’t wait to give his mother her potholder for Christmas, I will as usual proceed immediately to the most important order of business, a personal list of the 30 finest American-release LPs of 1976 (with Pazz & Jop points appended to the top 10). I made this list with my very own ears and brain; body and feet pitched in occasionally as well, and the hands typed.

1. Michael Hurley/The Unholy Modal Rounders/Jeffrey Fredericks & the Clamtones: Have Moicy! 15. 2. Eno: Another Green World 15. 3. The Wild Tchoupitoulas 12. 4. David Bowie: Station to Station 11. 5. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin Wind 11. 6. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life 10. 7. Kate & Anna McGarrigle 8. 8. Ramones 8. 9. The Modern Lovers 5. 10. Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Night Moves 5.

11. The Rolling Stones: Black and Blue. 12. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends. 13. Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees. 14. Hi Rhythm: On the Loose. 15. The Mighty Diamonds: Right Time. 16. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment. 17. Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopia. 18. Phoebe Snow: It Looks Like Snow. 19. Gasolin’. 20. Arlo Guthrie: Amigo.

21. George Jones: Alone Again. 22. Al Green: Full of Fire. 23. The Stills-Young Band: Long May You Run. 24. Billy Swan. 25. Al Green: Have a Good Time. 26. James Talley: Tryin’ Like the Devil. 27. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune. 28. Elvin Bishop: Struttin’ My Stuff. 29. Lynyrd Skynyrd: Gimme Back My Bullets. 30. Richard & Linda Thompson: Pour Down Like Silver.

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Industrially speaking, this is an odd list — six, maybe eight of these records made top 10 in the trades, while none of the first three even cracked top 200. But reference to the more prominently displayed list on this page indicates that maybe it’s not so odd. There you will find the 1976 edition of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, compiled (with the invaluable assistance of Stephen Holden) from the ballots of 66 rock critics nationwide. The point of bringing in so many opinions (there were 38 last year and 24 in 1974) was to mitigate the cliquishness that is inevitable in this sort of survey, and a broadening of taste did result: best-sellers like Jackson Browne, Blue Oyster Cult, Steely Dan, and Rod Stewart did especially well among new and out-of-town participants, while certain “critics’ records” — Warren Zevon, The Wild Tchoupitoulas, Kate & Anna McGarrigle — started to drop precipitously once the veterans had been tallied, as did Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, still a “New York record,” and watch out America. Nevertheless, I find that nine of my top 10 albums ended up in the Pazz & Jop top 15. Apparently, people who make it their business to think about the records they listen to are reaching comparable conclusions everywhere.

To my mind, those conclusions didn’t end up as pessimistic as has often seemed likely this past year. It’s clear that critical tastes and ideas have a tendency to spread and prevail — Blue Oyster Cult and Steely Dan, while always commercially self-sustaining, got valuable early support from well-known critics. It’s also encouraging that eight of the present top 30 are debut albums (there were five in 1975 and three in 1974). Critics’ faves may never dominate the charts — note, though: Average White Band finished 16th in 1974, before “Pick Up the Pieces” broke the group; Fleetwood Mac did the same in 1975, long before anyone imagined it would turn into the best-selling LP in Warners history; this year number 16 is the aforementioned Dr. Buzzard — but it seems clear that valuable extensions of what I like to call semi-popular music will continue to be available, however briefly.

Two artists dominated the poll this year, and two others deserve special mention. Songs in the Key of Life is flawed and excessive, hence controversial among critics, but the consensus is that Stevie Wonder has overwhelmed his own capacity for foolishness. His vote this year transcends tokenism; as Tom Smucker commented: “I never liked any of his other albums. I voted for this because it reminded me of Pet Sounds.” But if this was the year of Stevie Wonder it was also the year of Graham Parker. In 1975, Bob Dylan (whom see, limping in at 26) finished first and fourth; in 1976 Parker did almost as well, polling a total of 449 points (for two albums) to Wonder’s 292. Whether this critical juggernaut will translate into sales can’t be certain, but I’m taking bets. Because of rock’s pervasive sexual politics, the odds aren’t quite as impressive for Kate & Anna McGarrigle, whose debut album actually beat Wonder’s among veterans of 1975’s Critics’ Poll, and whose poor sales can be blamed at least partly on the birth of Kate’s second child, who canceled their promotional tour single-handed. Finally, this was the year Jackson Browne graduated from cult status — not only is his album a huge seller, it also placed third on 22 out of 66 votes, whereas Late for the Sky finished eighth on six out of 28 votes in 1974.

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With the possible exception of Linda Ronstadt and Jeff Beck fans, critics aren’t as easy on their perennial favorites as is sometimes suspected. In fact, only 11 of the 29 artists on this year’s list made previous ones; relatively familiar and well-respected names like Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Arlo Guthrie, and Blue Oyster Cult are new. But for me the most important function of this annual poll isn’t to reassure those hardy music professionals who manage to improve upon mediocre music, however essential they may be to the continuing health of the music, as to single out wonderful records that are all too likely to disappear. This year, three from the often courageous but lately disappointing Island label are especially noteworthy. The Wild Tchoupitoulas is a party record of primitive New Orleans rock and roll that rewards close listening, although it is recommended that you stand up while concentrating. I have never played it for anyone who hasn’t found it delightful, and it is still available at better retailers. Eno — who together with Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, and Steely Dan is the only artist to have made all three polls — is finally beginning to win across-the-board critical support, but he is not selling and he is no longer with Island as a solo artist. Another Green World is not rock and roll, but even though Tom Hull describes it as “the only music to date to qualify as furniture,” it’s not Muzak either. It is melodic, electronic, and modular, without many lyrics, and people who hate the very idea of “progressive rock” (like me) are addicted to it. Seek it out now. Finally, there is Richard & Linda Thompson’s Pour Down Like Silver, an uneven (in my opinion) but bracingly abrasive folk-rock album, sort of a hard version of the best Fairport Convention. If you long for a song as righteously nasty as “Positively 4th Street” — that would be “Hard Luck Stories” — rush out to the best record store you know right now, and good luck, for Island, unaccountably, has already cut it out, even though another Richard Thompson album is due for release shortly.

Now let me perform a similar service for a few of my own neglected favorites. Hank Williams, Jr. and Friends is genuine country-rock, a collaboration between the Nashville scion (always an excellent singer himself) and Southern rock musicians like Toy Caldwell, Charlie Daniels, Chuck Leavell, and Pete Carr that is much, much more than a studio jam exploitation. Hi Rhythm’s On the Loose is one of the wackiest soul records of all time, far more compelling and significant than either of the two predictably expert albums released by boss man Al Green this year, and I bet it’s soon impossible to find even in black neighborhoods or King Karol. Finally, there is my numero uno, Have Moicy!, which I’m told is available at Music Inn on West 4th Street and I know for a fact is hawked for four bucks by Peter Stampfel at the Unholy Modal Rounders’ weekly Tuesday night gig at Broadway Charly’s. This record includes 13 songs and I love every one of them; just when you worry that Peter’s gonna drive you up the ceiling, Hurley or Jeffrey Fredericks cools you out. It’s on a small folk label called Rounder, and although I would estimate that no more than 15 of the 66 critics polled have even heard it, it finished a tragic 31st in a 30-place poll. I promise this is the last time I mention it unless I can think of another excuse.

I doubt there’ll be space for any individual lists this year, but my thanks to all participants:

1974 veterans: Vince Aletti, Lester Bangs, Ken Emerson, Vernon Gibbs, Robert Hilburn, Stephen Holden, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Janet Maslin, Ira Mayer, John Morthland, Paul Nelson, Kit Rachlis, Wayne Robins, Frank Rose, Bud Scoppa, Geoffrey Stokes, Ed Ward, James Wolcott.

1975 additions: Georgia Christgau, Peter Herbst, Jerry Leichtling, Bruce Meyer, Lisa Robinson, John Rockwell, Tom Smucker, John Swenson, Ken Tucker, Mark von Lehmden, Charley Walters.

1976 freshpeople: Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Lauren Agnelli a/k/a Trixie A. Balm, Billy Altman, Anonymous, Michael Barackman, Ken Barnes, Jon Bream, Jean-Charles Costa, Walter Dawson, Steve Demorest, Joan Downs, David Fricke, Mikal Gilmore, Jim Girard, Patrick Goldstein, Tom Hull, Rick Johnson, Steven Levy, Bruce Malamut, Jon Marlowe, Joe McEwen, Perry Meisel, R. Meltzer, John Milward, Teri Morris, Kris Nicholson, Richard Riegel, Joe Roman, Michael Rozek, Susin Shapiro, Ariel Swartley, Timothy White.

Late ballots: Colman Andrews, Patrick Carr, Matt Damsker, Peter Knobler.

Top 10 Albums of 1976

1. Stevie Wonder: Songs in the Key of Life (Tamla)

2. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Heat Treatment (Mercury)

3. Jackson Browne: The Pretender (Asylum)

4. Graham Parker & the Rumour: Howlin’ Wind (Mercury)

5. Kate & Anna McGarrigle: Kate & Anna McGarrigle (Warner Bros.)

6. Steely Dan: The Royal Scam (ABC)

7. Joni Mitchell: Hejira (Asylum)

8. Ramones: Ramones (Sire)

9. Rod Stewart: A Night on the Town (Warner Bros.)

10. Blue Oyster Cult: Agents of Fortune (Columbia)

— From the January 31, 1977, 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 earlier this year.

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Wide Awake: Song of Summer

I was born the summer Nixon resigned. I know this because in my family it was always spoken of as if the two events were somehow related. My ex-hippie mother used to say, “Thatbastard Nixon” (he was always Thatbastard in our house, never Richard)… “Thatbastard Nixon got what was coming to him. And we got you.”

I always took a kind of pride in this. Not so much because I thought he resigned because of me, but because we were both the results of one long, hot summer when everything changed.

For Nixon, the summer of 1974 was an ending. For me, a beginning.

It was a heady time for music, a summer when new genres were just taking form and competing for national attention. In the cities, disco was rearing its head for the first time, at the same moment the Ramones were making their CBGB debut. Outside the cities, “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Annie’s Song” by John Denver dominated jukeboxes and car radios.

Classic rock, folk, disco, and punk were all facing endings and beginnings that summer.

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Ironically, the song that dominated the pop charts that year was the treacly Barbra Streisand ballad “The Way We Were.” No matter your opinions on Streisand, the song was huge and the movie of the same name — a love story about a Marxist Jew (Streisand) and her WASP-y writer boyfriend-then-husband (Robert Redford) attempting to find love in the face of idealism, betrayal, and McCarthyism — inspired one perfect line that applies as much to the summer of 2018 as to the summer of 1974, as we once again find ourselves caught in the brouhaha of presidential scandal:

Streisand: Wouldn’t it be lovely if we were old? We’d have survived all this. Everything would be easy and uncomplicated, the way it was when we were young.

Redford: Katie, it was never uncomplicated.

I like to imagine those words reverberating quietly behind the public longing for simpler times, an echo of past sins mocking the idea that a once-slave-owning country longs to be “Great Again.” It’s just the kind of willful ignorance at which America excels.

The song that was everywhere in the summer of 1989 had no such rheumy-eyed notions of the past. “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy was as angry, sweaty, and claustrophobic as the Spike Lee movie (Do the Right Thing) that made it famous.

I had just finished ninth grade at Westchester High School in Los Angeles, where I would hide out in my Morrissey T-shirts and twelve-hole Docs in hallways dominated by Bobby Brown (“My Prerogative”), De La Soul (“Me Myself and I”), and the few white kids belting out “Love Shack” by the B-52’s.

“Fight the Power” was a revelation, a glimpse into something forceful. With one righteously pissed-off line after another, the song inspired phrases that survive to this day in the modern lexicon of resistance. To wit: “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps.”

The heroes in question — Malcolm X, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver — found themselves brought by the song into the American mainstream 25 years after their heyday. Tragically, that same summer, Huey Newton was gunned down in cold blood, a victim of a drug crime as much as the white racism he spent a lifetime fighting. 

This was also the summer of the Bensonhurst riots in which Yusef Hawkins, a sixteen-year-old African-American boy was killed by a white mob because the mob (mistakenly) believed he was dating a local white girl. (The Public Enemy song “Welcome to the Terrordome” includes a dedication to Hawkins.) The race riot came just two months after the release of Do the Right Thing, which itself featured a race riot in Brooklyn in response to the killing of an innocent black man. 

So here’s Chuck D and Flava Flav broadcast into the bedrooms of the American suburb (in a video directed by Spike Lee), angrily pointing out the history of “nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check,” as the white kids raised their skinny white fists, timidly placing a toe into the raging waters of American racial anger while quoting Spike Lee’s powerful lines: “Hey, Sal, how come you got no brothers up on the wall here?”

It was a long, hot summer when everything changed. It was never uncomplicated.

In fact, had social media existed in the summer of 1989, there no doubt would have been a series of righteous hashtags (#myheroesdontappearonnostamps) followed by an inevitable backlash (#Elviswasntracist) followed by the backlash to the backlash (#FuckJohnWayne), in which we would organize ourselves into the neat camps of allies and adversaries that are the trademark of modern political discourse. 

When I posed this question to my Twitter feed, with just these ideas in mind: “What is the all-time best Song of the Summer?” I was surprised to find an inclination toward, well, sunnier songs.

People tended to view the question in one of three ways: Any song that has the word “summer” in the title; a song that dominated the charts and airplay for a summer; or a song that simply evokes the feeling of summer.

“Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince was the most popular answer, and it was probably because it checked all three boxes. As one commenter put it, the song puts the listener mentally and emotionally into “a perfect summer day.”

Other songs that fulfilled all three requirements: “Hot Fun in the Summertime” by Sly and the Family Stone and “Summer in the City” by the Lovin’ Spoonful. These songs share the idea of summertime as holiday — both literal and figurative — from the existential grind of the fall and winter.

“Cruel Summer,” the 1984 hit from the all-woman pop band Bananarama, was a popular choice, an angsty take on heartache amid the heat of summer. (For my money, the summer of 1984 belongs to “When Doves Cry” by Prince, when His Purpleness blessed us with the best bathtub vocal performance until “Stay” by Rihanna).

“Smooth” by Santana/Rob Thomas and “Summertime” by Janis Joplin seem to share a spiritual connection to “Fight the Power,” a kind of slinky, sweaty feeling about summer that eschews the explosiveness of explicit politics but embraces the anxiety of heat in close quarters.

It’s hard to talk about these songs outside the events, both personal and political, which surrounded them. There’s a necessary nostalgia to such things. Where were you when you first heard “Brown-Eyed Girl”? And who was the brown-eyed girl that loved you for loving it? Were you dancing at your cousin’s wedding to “Crazy in Love?” in the summer of 2003? Do you remember your date? The smell of the spilled champagne on your tux, the mud you noticed on the heel of your shoe from dancing in the grass because your brown-eyed girl was too shy to go to the dance floor?

Were you belting out “Free Fallin’” in the front seat of your best friend’s tattered old Plymouth as you made your way to another lazy summer day at the beach, the park, the river, the lake, the shore, the parking lot of the Dairy Queen one shoeless summer before Everything Changed?

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I like to think of the talk I would have with my past self if I could. I like to imagine just what I’d tell me about the future. “It’s totally different than you think it’s going to be. You turn out all right, man. But you don’t get jetpacks, and there are no flying cars.”

Instead we get this. We get social media and computer screens. We get a worldwide metaphor in which we pose these questions to each other, the ones we, as humans, really care about: Who am I and Who are you and What do I like and What do you like and Do you like me and Do I like you and Are we on the same team? Like the beak of a hummingbird, our adaptation to the world is this networked computer metaphor in which we’ve all agreed to participate, an extension of our freakish brains that we use to pose and solve the social questions we really care about.

So instead of flying cars, we got social media. Instead of jetpacks, streaming pornography. How disappointing.

But maybe there is hope in this because at least, perhaps finally, we see ourselves clearly for the cloying, needy, angry, imperfect things we are. Nixon resigned. He resigned because he broke the law and got caught and still people forgot, choosing instead to wrap themselves in American flags, to long for an American innocence that never existed. And despite the utter morass of immorality, the racist, thieving, lying shitshow that is the long, hot summer of 2018 — the disappointment with American promise, with American discourse, with American tribalism, with America — the effect of all this daily conflict is that we no longer have to carry the burden of a past innocence betrayed.

Perhaps this is why the song that best defines this particular fucked-up summer — the one we’ll remember forty years from now — is likely the viral phenomenon “This Is America” by Childish Gambino, which is as violent, tragic, contradictory, and angry as the country at which it takes aim.

Maybe it’s the summer we finally realize it was never uncomplicated. We were just young.

 

“Wide Awake” is a new column from Mikel Jollett, who you should be following on Twitter.

Categories
BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

What Do Madonna, Ice-T, and the Ramones Have in Common?

You can read a lot of record executives’ memoirs and, between the boasting and humblebragging and score settling, the usual courses through which the genre hops, you’ll have a hard time finding much that feels like real passion for music. Making hits, achieving success, counting awards, sure — but music itself, less so. Of course: The music industry hardens people. Even the likes of the late Warner Bros. PR genius Stan Cornyn (2003’s Exploding: The Highs, Hits, Hype, Heroes, and Hustlers of the Warner Music Group) or Nirvana manager turned Atlantic Records president Danny Goldberg (2009’s Bumping Into Geniuses: My Life Inside the Rock and Roll Business), two of the biz’s sharpest observers and most eager fans, couldn’t quite overcome the format’s limitations — both clearly loved music itself, but by each book’s end the spark had dissipated, whether via disappearing into minutiae, à la Cornyn, or blanding out some, à la Goldberg.

This happens as well with Siren Song: My Life in Music, the new memoir of Sire Records founder Seymour Stein, who signed the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Madonna to his label, as well as being a founding member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee. But it’s equally clear that Stein cares more about music than anything else. That’s a reason the book’s finale retreats to earth — he’s accounting for the costs of that fanaticism: not only a failed marriage to Linda Stein, who became the Ramones’ co-manager with Danny Fields (and was brutally murdered in October 2007 by an assistant who’d been skimming money from her), but also guilt over his admittedly absent fatherhood and the grief he felt at the death of his elder daughter, Samantha. Not to mention Stein’s own frequent hospital visits (heart problems exacerbated by his prodigious cocaine use) and his own lack of foresight to the costs of doing business with Warner Bros. — a great office overlooking Rockefeller Center, but a diminished stake in his own company, which would be folded into Elektra during Warners’ Nineties merger mania before being unfolded back into a freestanding label.

Seymour Stein (4th from right) with The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and his wife Linda Stein

If the downfall of most music-biz books is keeping the suits straight, Stein sidesteps that neatly; his portraits of his colleagues, in and out of Warner Bros., are indelible. His co-writer likely contributed as well: the Irish music journalist Gareth Murphy, author of 2014’s Cowboys and Indies, a lively if occasionally shaky record-biz history, whose broad strokes match well with Stein’s sure-footed historical grasp and crisp phrasing.

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Seymour Steinbigle grew up in postwar Brooklyn, a melting pot where, he notes, “Going to university was not what people did or expected of their children.” Like many city kids of the time, he became an ardent fan of R&B — which, even before Elvis, was a “fast-growing craze among white teenagers.” A rabid follower of the charts, teenaged Seymour finagled his way into the Billboard office, copying out charts by hand and eventually finding himself interning for Syd Nathan, the imperious founder of King Records — one of the greatest postwar indies, with equally important rosters of country (Moon Mullican, the Delmore Brothers, Hank Penny) and R&B (Wynonie Harris, the “5” Royales, Little Willie John) before signing James Brown — who insisted the kid lop off half his surname.

Stein also gives it up for David Geffen, whom he calls “the smartest record boss of us all,” singling him out for praise for having paid for the funerals of so many AIDS victims: “For this alone, I will not tolerate a bad word about David Geffen.” He’s a lot meaner, and funnier, about Clive Davis, who joins the table of Stein and his boss, Mo Ostin, one morning for breakfast at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Davis claims with a straight face that his label, Arista, won’t release a Barry Manilow best-of because, since he had chosen the singles, “it should really be called Clive Davis’s Greatest Hits.” In response, Stein reports that “a muscular spasm in my left leg kicked Mo under the table”; showing the subsequent bruise, Ostin admonished him, “Look what you just did to me!” after Davis went to take a phone call.

Stein was born April 18, 1942, and grew up “on Dahill Road, just off King’s Highway near a predominantly Syrian corner of Bensonhurst that was otherwise Brooklyn’s Little Italy,” he writes.  His parents had him at comparatively late ages for the era, she 36, he 41; the family was in the grocery business, with one great-uncle a successful olive oil importer. His father was Orthodox, but lenient; they left Seymour to his obsessions: “collecting stamps, bottle caps, and trading cards, anything interesting and flashy.”

Seymour Stein

Growing up, Stein knew he was gay but wasn’t entirely sure what to do about it; he knew, like so many of the people he’d come to know, that “the coolest thing about me was my record collection.” Though Stein is quite comfortable with his sexuality, he retains an unfashionable discreetness about it, with no qualms about having never come out to his parents: “Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t think we become more enlightened by kissing on subways or by talking the life out of our quirks and kinks.” In one of the book’s clear money stories, he’s not merely discomfited by the sexual advances of Dee Dee Ramone — who waltzed into Stein’s apartment after Linda had left and displayed himself, ready to go — but caustic about it: “For a prostitute, Dee Dee obviously hadn’t progressed very far up from public toilets.”

Stein founded Sire in 1966 with producer-writer (and occasional performer, as with the Strangeloves of “I Want Candy” fame) Richard Gottehrer, initially the company’s in-house producer and A&R man. Sire’s early releases were primarily imported British blues-rock; Stein scored his first major hit with Dutch prog-rockers Focus’s “Hocus Pocus,” which went top ten in 1973. Another early British signing, Climax Blues Band, went to number three (thanks in part to some grease, as Stein notes) with “Couldn’t Get It Right” in 1977. That success helped to finance Sire’s signing up many of the mid-Seventies bands playing downtown.

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It’s refreshing to read such a clear-eyed account of the CBGB’s era, even one written from a Midtown office. In the fall of 1977, Sire released debuts from Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, and Richard Hell and the Voidoids along with the third Ramones album, Rocket to Russia, through a new deal Stein had made with Warner Bros. Initially, Sire was looking for distribution; Mo Ostin instead suggested a partnership. For Warner Bros., Stein surmised, getting on the New York punk train was “a way to get hip and to do it pretty damn quickly.” Warned of Ostin’s Machiavellian ways, Stein nevertheless entered into what he’d later term as “about as joint a venture as a whale swallowing a fish” with Warner Bros., reveling for a few years in near-unlimited power to sign whatever he wanted.

Stein’s attitude was simple: Get there first or don’t bother. “I thought bidding wars were pointless,” he writes. “Why waste a pile of money on one act when half as much money could get three up and running?” That philosophy put Sire near the top of independent rock at the turn of the Eighties, as Seymour found gold in artists like Echo and the Bunnymen, the Smiths, and the Cult. It helped that Stein was nearly alone in going after these prime post-punk and alternative acts: “The weird thing about the early-to-mid-Eighties was how unadventurous nearly all the American majors had remained,” he writes. But Stein certainly noticed when Ostin stole the B-52’s right out from under him, the band’s manager mollifying Stein by insisting the Sire label go on the LP anyway.

Stein with David Byrne and Madonna at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1996

As any A&R person would, Stein spends an entire chapter detailing his biggest catch ever — “the record man’s equivalent of Florence Nightingale,” as he describes Madonna, walking into his hospital room shortly after his open-heart surgery. Stein’s initial interest was in her producer, Mark Kamins, a Danceteria DJ he admired: “He already had a sound.” Kamins brought Madonna the evening Stein heard the cassette: “I told her you were sick, but she really wants this,” he explains to Stein, who asks the nurse to “send me in a hairdresser as quickly as you can. … Of course, Madonna took one look at the tube stuck into my skin and squirmed.” Though he was impressed with her forthrightness, Stein writes, “there was no reason to believe I was looking at a female Elvis.” Indeed, Ostin refused to sign off on Madonna, figuring her music, Stein writes, as “a downtown dance experiment … pointless twelve-inch bullshit.” Stein quickly learned better: “Madonna was always the smartest person in the room, even when she wasn’t physically there.”

In Stein’s life, the highest moments invoke the true fellowship music can bring. He doesn’t puff up his signees’ talent, instead highlighting great moments like a fan: Writing about the Pretenders’ “Back on the Chain Gang,” he pinpoints its opening line, “I found a picture of you,” as its center: “Isn’t that how bereavement feels?” Stein takes pride in his place on the committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; with honorable candor, he dubs the latter “some kind of mausoleum for our own community.”

One of Siren Song‘s most indelible moments comes when Stein is trying to sign Ice-T to his label. Accompanied by his manager, the L.A. gangsta rap pioneer and actor sits in Stein’s office and asks the old record man straight out why Seymour wants him. Stein’s inspired answer is to play him the Mighty Sparrow’s calypso classic “Jean and Dinah,” about Trinidadian prostitutes left without work in the wake of the island’s U.S. military bases closing. A bawdy social satire, this song sounded absolutely nothing like the records Ice-T had already made or would make for Sire, but was totally on target as an assessment of the kind of public truth-telling role Stein saw in his gangsta rap. “I want to sign with you!” Ice-T exclaimed. Who wouldn’t?

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Talking to Danny Fields About the Ramones’ Gabba Gabba Heyday

Danny Fields is a punk legend’s punk legend. He’s not the most famous person to emerge from the creative petri dish of 1960s, ’70s, ’80s New York, nor the richest. He hasn’t been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, unlike many of the musicians he has worked with, including the Ramones, Iggy Pop, and the Velvet Underground. But if you are interested in this period in downtown Manhattan, when the city was bankrupt of money but teeming with talent — and many people are, as the phenomenon of Patti Smith’s 2010 memoir Just Kids confirmed — then Fields is your guy. Now 78, he has been a kind of Zelig, somehow involved with what seems like everyone who ever mattered in pre-MTV music.

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Fields grew up in Queens, left for a while to go to school at the University of Pennsylvania and Harvard, and made it back to New York in 1960, settling in Greenwich Village, then the beating heart of counterculture in the city, if not the United States. He made friends with Andy Warhol and sort of lived with Edie Sedgwick, worked in and out as a music journalist, became for some time the publicist for Jim Morrison and the Doors, was the first person to give Iggy Pop cocaine, and helped Nico get a record deal with Elektra. “Danny’s a connector, he’s a fuel line, a place where things are liable to erupt,” Iggy Pop said in a 2015 documentary about Fields called Danny Says (named for a Ramones song they wrote about him). “I imagine that Danny’s legacy, aside from the brilliant way he’s chosen to live his life, is how he has enhanced the lives of others by being a connector.” Thankfully for history, Fields had a journalist’s eye, too, and either documented this world or at the very least kept a memory bank filled with stories about it, which he will gladly share if you happen to randomly meet him, as I did one afternoon some years ago. Though our interview a few weeks ago for this piece was by phone, on that day we sat in his living room surrounded by photos of him with the gods and he’d tell amazing tales about any of them if prompted.

This spring, Fields is re-releasing My Ramones, a book of photographs he took of the Ramones at the beginning of their career, originally published in 2016 as a limited edition. The more than 250 photos in the book were shot between 1975 and 1977, during, among other scattered and wild moments, the band’s first tour. Fields became the band’s manager after seeing them live at CBGB in 1975 and, bored while they were busy recording their debut album, picked up a camera and started shooting. Here, the punk behind the punks tells us what they were like.

Ramones on Park Lane, during a guided walking tour of early morning London.

Today, everybody documents everything, but how did you know it might be of value one day to document your life with the Ramones?

I didn’t. I just started doing it for a lack of something to do, because when you’re a manager, you’re sitting at the recording session and thinking, “I’m redundant here.” I did my job — got them the record deal. The engineers turned a lot of knobs and set up microphones and things, and there was nothing I could do. So I took out my camera. I took two rolls of film — 75 pictures — of the early recording sessions. And because I was their manager, I could take candid pictures. I had a Nikon F2 and I used a 35mm or an 85mm.

The Ramones really defined what it looked like to be a punk, partly because of these early photographs of them. Were they image conscious? Was it something that they had to think about or did it just come naturally to them?

Well, both. There’s nothing they didn’t think about. And what they thought about was what will project naturally. They were big fans of the New York Dolls. They would look at them and think, “Oh wow, they’re glam, should I be glam?” And they tried it out for a while. Joey was a fan of the New York Dolls, and I think he was very proud of a tight pink leather suit he had. Johnny, before I met them, wore silver lamé pants. It was a phase. They said, “You know what, we can’t be like the New York Dolls because these clothes are so elaborate, and you’d have to have a wardrobe person with you. What if we just do something that we never have to think about again, which is what we look like every day?” The leather jacket and Levi’s and Converse. It was classic, and they knew that. Simple and classic suited them. They only thing they’d change was their T-shirt and the socks.

Dee Dee, Johnny, and Tommy flicking through bins of vinyl at Free Being Records on Second Avenue.

Did you think they would be a huge success?

No. Yes. I mean, you hope. But I couldn’t have predicted. They were in trouble because of their tempo, radio-wise. Too fast or too loud, or too comical. “I Wanna Be Sedated” — are they serious? That’s a single? It’s a cute tune, but it’s a little weird for a lyric. And yet, though they were “punk,” they were [really] pop songs. And now all music sounds like that. That rolling fast rock. Green Day popularized it and now TV commercials sound like that. It turns out that musicians don’t want to have to learn a lot of complex fingering. They just want to let it rock and let it roll — make it hummable. And it got called punk.

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What was the first time you heard the word “punk”?

The first time I heard that combination of letters? 1930s movies, about a little gangster or someone like that. It’s been in the language for five hundred years, so I don’t know. And when it was applied to them you sort of go, “Okay, it’s a good word, it’s four letters, ends with a K.” Of course, wherever you went it meant something different. There was a style of mohawks and piercings and extraordinary hair, and that was punk. Requiring safety pins and all that. Those kids invented that look for themselves with a little help from Malcolm McLaren, who first saw a safety pin on Richard Hell in New York and went back to London with a fashion idea.

In England, the music had a more political aura. The Ramones were not at all political. In England there were some people saying, “You have some nerve calling yourselves punk, you’re not political, you’re fraudulent.” And what could we say? We didn’t call ourselves that! [Everyone else] called us that. It just became a word that means we don’t really have another better word for this, but it’s different so we’re gonna call it something easy to remember.

Joey on the steps of the Roundhouse in London in 1976.

Tell me about life on the road with them.

I don’t know. Again, unless there was a major market, there was no need for me to be on the road. I didn’t tune the guitars and I didn’t carry things. I was there but I wasn’t into slogging. I wasn’t into sitting in a van with them. The few times I did, I thought, “I’ve got to take the train next time.”

The first times in Europe, all they could do was hate the food. I didn’t want to be around that. It’s food. How can you bother to hate it? You eat it if you’re hungry and leave it alone if you’re not. But they would get into big things about it during their tour in England, because backstage [in England] food is generally Indian. They didn’t like it, and they always wanted hamburgers. Then it’s, Where’s the ketchup? Ketchup wasn’t a common staple in England then. That’s what life on the road was. Who needed that?

Compared to some of the other people you’ve worked with, were they easy to work with or were they divas?

No one is easy to work with who is worth working with.

Dee Dee and his spare Rickenbacker guitar

I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Dee Dee. There’s all these stories about him being a prostitute and nobody really knows for sure. What was he like?

He was more social than the other guys. He was more likely to make friends with people in other bands. Was he a prostitute? I don’t know. Every kid is a hustler at some point. Why starve if you’re good looking? You don’t have a lot of years to be good looking, and if you starve you won’t even get to live them out. So I don’t think he was majorly a hustler, but in times of emergency people do things. As long as they cause no harm, who cares?

Have you noticed how nostalgic people are for this era of New York? Why do you think that is?

There’s nostalgia for it everywhere. I think it was one of the last times when there were humans instead of the internet. Instead of Facebook. With people being really human, and having adventures that made you need to be alive, not to be on the other end of a monitor or keyboard.

Recording “Ramones,” the first album

People like Fran Lebowitz have said sometimes that New York now sucks in comparison to then.

We were all twenty years old or something, so of course the world was better. I think Fran once said something like this, too: Look in a mirror [when you’re young], you’re never gonna look better. Do I miss that, or would I trade with anyone [to get it back]? Of course. Who wouldn’t? But it’s not real, so why waste any time missing it.

You weren’t waking up every morning and saying, “It’s the Seventies! We’re lucky to be alive!” You’re going, “Am I gonna get laid? Am I gonna pay rent? What color socks should I wear?” You don’t think about it as a glorious era. People who claim they miss the Seventies  are the people who weren’t born yet. They’re the ones who say, “It must have been so great.” That only happens when things change and you look back on it.

Was there a moment that you realized that the Ramones had become bigger than just a band?

Maybe during the fortieth anniversary in 2016. As I said before, in the midst of a moment happening, you’re not thinking this is momentous. You’re thinking, Can we live through this? I was only with them for five years. [Later] when they would play a huge city, the neighborhood would have to be police-barricaded because there were so many fans, and they’d play in a stadium for 100,000 people. It must have had its own headaches. You’re sort of restricted now. Wherever you go there’s armed guards around you or keeping people away from you. It’s sort of the opposite of what you loved about what you were doing in the beginning. This is what you wanted, to be so famous that you needed police barricades outside your hotel? No. That’s the price of it, though.

Ramones perform at The Club in Cambridge, MA.

What did they want?

To make enough money to retire so they’d never have to work again. And at the end, when they started making a lot of money, they wanted to invest it well. I don’t know; they wanted to buy nice real estate. What does anyone want when they’re fifty years old?

Did your parents understand the kind of success you had?

No. I was a wretched rock and roll loser. “We thought we brought him up better!” But then my friend Linda Eastman married Paul McCartney, and my father would say, “My son is a friend of a Beatle!” Immense fame eclipses everything, doesn’t it?

Do you remember if John Lennon ever came down to see the Ramones?

I don’t know. You don’t keep track of that. Especially after you’ve stopped caring. Jack Nicholson was at the Whiskey to see Iggy — so what?

Ramones’ first video shoot at M.P.C.’s TV studio. The video contained eight songs in seventeen and a half minutes and has never been officially released.

The real fans matter more.

I’m a real fan — that’s the thing.

I once came to your apartment because I was writing a story about a friend of yours, and it’s like a New York yearbook come to life, filled with framed photos of you with every cool famous person ever.  What is it like to live with all these memories literally staring you in the face?

Recently the kitchen in my apartment was redone and I had to take out giant old appliances and bring in giant new appliances, and to do that I had to take down all the pictures.

No!

Yeah. I went to Madrid for two weeks in February; when I came back it had been done. They are all stored in a carton. So I’m living with empty walls now. And sometimes I miss them. I’ll say to someone, “Let me show you this,” and I start walking to where they used to be, and they’re not there. Just nails sticking out of the wall.

People tell me to put them back up, but I don’t know, it’s kind of mummified. I don’t want to think about [the past]. It’s gone, it’s over. I’m happy that people think I was fabulous, but at any given moment one doesn’t feel very fabulous, and you only sort of get that when people see those pictures and go, “Oh my god, these pictures are so great, can I take a picture of the pictures?” So I guess I should hang them up. People expect you to play the greatest hits.

Shooting pictures for Rock Scene Magazines in the alley behind CBGB, now named Extra Place.

My Ramones: Photographs by Danny Fields
By Danny Fields
Reel Art Press
176 pp.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

On Bruising Debut, Beechwood Nod to Their Heroes

Beechwood’s Gordon Lawrence, 24, looking not unlike a young Thurston Moore, hair covered by a plaid cap, sits with his bandmates in a back booth of stalwart East Village bar 2A. They’re directly above cool-kid underground venue Berlin, where, a few weeks prior, Beechwood held an album release for their debut LP, Songs From the Land of Nod (Alive/Naturalsound Records), a darkly shimmering rock ’n’ roll record of bruising timelessness.

Drummer/vocalist Isa Tineo, 25, a dark beanie obscuring his head/face tattoos, perches on a stool. His visual counterpoint is Beechwood’s newest, member Sid Simons, 21. The bassist’s blond shag is straight off a Sweet album cover, and his faint Australian accent and easy demeanor make him an effective foil for his more formidable-seeming Jersey-bred bandmates.

The allure of Beechwood’s powerful onstage rock star insouciance — which is only somewhat less pronounced offstage — can come across as slightly studied, an assertion the band contests, bolstering the denial with tales of their shambolic misspent youths. But at least they’re studying the right bands. Over two-for-one happy hour beers, the trio share teen tales of skateboarding over the George Washington Bridge to see bands in Manhattan; then, a few years later, being escorted out of Arlene’s Grocery during one of their own gigs (“We started rolling around, and things got knocked over, broken. We were just younger. Honest aggression. We’re more composed now”); and various other angst- and substance-fueled shenanigans.

While Beechwood exude an honest cool that can’t be bought, any hipster factor is shattered when Tineo leans into the tape recorder and shouts: “We’re going to take over the fucking world!”

If the heady, garage-y, spooky compositions on Songs From the Land of Nod are any indication, Tineo could be right. Of the provocative title (the song “Land of Nod” closes the record) Lawrence explains, “There are biblical, childhood, and drug references. There was a two-year period that led up to that album. I went through a lot of stuff, physically, emotionally.”

“I put myself through something that I’m through now. But at the time…the biblical reference, East of Eden…” he says haltingly. “I could see what Eden was and where I wanted to be, but I felt I was constantly outside the gate looking in. I felt that way, honestly, my whole life. Outside. Trying to get in and not knowing how. Eden was being happy. Being OK. Not waking up every morning and wanting to die. Or not waking up at all. Not being able to fall asleep.”

The lanky singer, polite and soft-spoken, declines to elaborate on his issues, but the hazy melancholy and changing tempos of “C/F” — referring to the guitar chords — was one written from the depths. (On the lighter side is a more jaunty entry, Beechwood’s most popular song on Spotify, the two-minute pop-dream “Heroin Honey,” written and sung by Tineo, which, he clarifies, is “about a girl, not drugs!”).

Beechwood seem to possess the rock ’n’ roll knowledge of their combined ages, which is 70. They easily cite Brian Eno, Jim Carroll, and other darkly creative underground icons. Names are not dropped, but leak out. Actor (Last Days, Boardwalk Empire)/musician Michael Pitt insisted on directing the band’s surf-guitar-ish rave-up “I Don’t Wanna Be the One You Love” video after catching a Beechwood soundcheck at a small Brooklyn club. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong met the group at Armstrong’s own party, and he asked to hear Beechwood music. “A lot of that shit finds you when you have good energy,” says Lawrence. “We’re just very intrigued. We resonate, on a certain level, with that stuff.” 

Beechwood began, as the best do: in the basement, and for all members, with a strong paternal influence. “My dad was a painter. He hung out, on the outskirts, with Steve Albini and Urge Overkill in Chicago,” begins Lawrence, who named the band after the street he grew up on. “We went to see Elliott Smith, the Stones, when I was a little kid. When I got a guitar, instead of lessons, he gave me the first Ramones record. From there, I found out about the Stooges and bands like that. He introduced me and took a step back and let me figure out shit. I was ten years old and going to see Gang of Four.”

Simons, who has been in the band about two years and was not on Songs From the Land of Nod, credits his dad (stage name Mike Lezbian), the singer for the Scavengers — “the first punk band from New Zealand” — for starting him off on the musical good foot.

Tineo’s father was an influence on his son — and countless others. “My dad (JuJu Gigante aka Jerry Tineo) played a really important part in music, in hip-hop. In the early ’90s he was a drummer in a famous group called Beatnuts. They were iconic. My dad started traveling with that group when he was 19, 20 and hasn’t stopped. He’s played every genre of music, I grew up with it all — there was no genres…”

Gordon jumps in… “It was ‘diggin’ in the crates.”

“I just knew what I liked and what I didn’t,” says Tineo. “But rock ’n’ roll specifically was the first genre of music that found me. I’m Dominican. Gordon grew up with rock, but rock found me. The shit hit me like a ten-ton truck. It fit my lifestyle, the way I wanted to live my life.” Tineo’s dad taught him beats, but the drum set “didn’t speak to me until rock. My dad also bought me a guitar, which I didn’t end up learning until years later.”

Beechwood’s founders “learned to play, more or less, with each other,” says Lawrence. “Isa and I met through mutual friends who all skated together. We’d all meet up at some local skatepark for the day and then hang out afterwards, try to find someone over 21 or with a fake ID to buy us some 40-ouncers from the bodega, and then go out looking for some party or whatever at night.” The pair’s first recorded endeavor, Trash Glamour (2014), was cut in Lawrence’s parent’s basement. “In my head, it was Exile on Main Street, but we were in a basement. It sounds awful,” Lawrence confesses.

Sartorially, musically, and interest-wise they’re from the Deuce/Vinyl era of NYC. However, they claim, vociferously, they were not born in the wrong era. “I’ll fucking answer for all of us,” Tineo jumps in. “Only because I have words of wisdom I want to pass down. It’s a great question for us, especially as far as what we like and our music. I’ll give you a little story. I stayed with [Ramones manager/punk author/publicist] Danny Fields for a little while. I posed that question to him, myself. I was a lot younger, I was 17, 18, a teenager, whatever.”

He notes my eyebrow raise.

“No, really, I lived with him. For real.”

“He likes having young little handsome boys around,”’ Lawrence adds, sotto voce. 

“I told him, ‘I have the Ramones tattooed across my stomach,’ ” Tineo says. “And this is Danny Fields. I told him I should have been born when the Ramones were around. And Beechwood — he’d never even seen us — I told him, ‘We’re the best!’ [Fields] said, to enlighten me: ‘You, know, you wouldn’t have been the Ramones, or you wouldn’t be as great as you are now, because there’s only you, only one of you, one of your band. Only you can do what you’re doing now.’ ”

Indeed, their septuagenarian fore-musicians are revered but not imitated. Live, Lawrence and Tineo switch instruments; they all write songs. Rife with prolific creativity, youth, and constant change, a next record, Inside the Flesh Hotel, is in the can and will be out this summer. It aurally showcases a happier headspace for the Lawrence, and marks Simons’s writing and recording debut.

As Tom Petty, Bad Company, and Joe Walsh play over 2A’s PA, Beechwood concur that “music is just as shitty today now as it was back then. There’s just as much need for a good band like as there was back then for the Ramones. The Ramones were listening to Styx on the radio, and I’m listening to…I don’t even know,” Lawrence laughs.

There’s one cover song on Songs From the Land of Nod, and it’s lyrically telling. The Kinks gem “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” resonates as much musically as it does lyrically for the band: “I don’t want to live my life like everybody else / And I won’t say that I feel fine like everybody else / ’Cause I’m not like everybody else.” Production on Land of Nod comes courtesy of Lawrence’s uncle in Chicago, who has a “Brian Jones/Brian Wilson vibe” that’s evident in the album’s intricate, creative layers, and the scary-beautiful intensity of dark, driving songs like “This Time Around.”

Reasonably apt comparisons to bands like Suicide and the Velvet Underground pepper Beechwood’s press kit. Those references, Lawrence points out, often come from older journalists. “When people listen to something, they want to put it in a certain context that makes sense to them. You experience through the filter of your past, a reference point,” he notes. “We’re not doing anything new, not starting some new genre. We’re just playing rock ’n’ roll music the best that we can. The guys writing these articles grew up going to the Ramones. When they listen to us, it’s a compliment, knowing that the same energy they felt as a kid going to see those bands is what they’re feeling when they see us.”

“I think we’re a really great band, and [comparisons are] OK for now. But you know what?” the irrepressible Tineo offers. “I think we’re going to make such a mark on music that other bands, any other great band, will be compared to us at some time.” 

 

Beechwood play Thursday, March 29, at the Kingsland, Brooklyn.