Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Valley of the New York Dolls

The first time I laid eyes on the New York Dolls, they were drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers. David Johansen had lost the high heel from one of his shoes. He said, “I not only accept loss forever, I am made of loss,” while inside the club, the group’s managerial brain trust planned the conquest of blue dawns over racetracks and kids from sweet Ioway. The rest of the band — Johnny Thunders, Syvain Sylvain, Jerry Nolan, Arthur Harold Kane — talked happily about early days spent practicing in a bicycle shop near Central Park. And me? I’m a fool. My heart went out to the hopeful sounds. We all thought the group would achieve success through the purity of their rock ‘n’ roll art.

[related_posts post_id_1=”715299″ /]

None of the above is true, of course — my apologies to Chandler and Kerouac — but some of it is, or could be. There was always a sense of American mythology about the Dolls, and those of us who spent three years of our lives working with them had to believe they were more than just another rock ‘n’ roll group, albeit the most misunderstood of recent times. We learned to measure our nights by Dolls concerts, spent even our holidays going to and from, and Mick Taylor’s cryptic putdown — “They’re the worst high school band I ever saw” — only further convinced us how right we were. Johansen shot back: “No — we ‘re the best high school band you ever saw! The kids will love us!” and the point seemed settled. For, after all, the New York Dolls tried to hit the longest home run in American rock ‘n’ roll: they tried to impose themselves upon a nation’s musical and cultural consciousness in much the same manner as had the Rolling Stones 10 years earlier.

***

Johansen: “In the beginning, we weren’t very good musically. That’s why we put up with each other. We were all fabulous people … We’re a lot faster than the Stones” … Laughter. “At least, younger.”

***

For all their claim to being a band of and for kids, the Dolls rarely listened to Top 40 music — like them or not, no one could accuse them of creating that music industry euphemism for art, “product” — and their notions of technique mirrored more the tough sparseness or Hammett, the avant-garde fragmentation of Burroughs, and the cruel inward-eye of Nathanael West than the easy flow of media favorites. The fact that AM radio reacted to their songs as if they had dropped from some alien sky was not, in the long run, surprising. Johansen-Thunders did not have the breadth of Jagger-Richards. While the Stones could have written “Bad Girl,” the Dolls could never have brought about “Moonlight Mile”: they lacked the smoke and duski­ness, and their nocturnal sojourn through the desert took them far too close to a deli for the tastes of most of Middle America. Whereas the work of the Stones could encompass the broad human comedy of a Breughel or a Bosch, the Dolls proved to be subgenre miniaturists. They were unquestionably brilliant, but finally too spare, too restricted, to reach the hidden places in suburban, small­-town hearts. In the end, they rode on real rather than symbolic subway trains to specific rather than univer­sal places, played for an audience of intellectuals or kids even farther out than they were; and, when they eventually met the youth of the country, that youth seemed more confused than captivated by them, and could no more imagine itself a New York Doll than it could some exotic palm tree growing in Brook­lyn. The Dolls appealed to an audience which had seen the end of the world, had in fact bought tickets for it but probably didn’t attend because lhere was something even funnier on television that night.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716846″ /]

Dave Marsh, who loved the group, put it best when he wrote: “The New York Dolls are the dead end of the ’60s approach. They presume a closed community of rock fans, a limited field with common interests closely held. The new kind of rock singers are different. They know how much greater the stakes are, for a rock star who wants to count, but they also know there isn’t any way to focus upon them, to make the meaning of having the whole world up for grabs come home.”

***

Nolan: “I suppose everyone will be like the Dolls in a few years. Like a fad. The public and people in general always pick up things from leaders, rock groups especially.”

***

To be the neo-Rolling Stones of the 1970s was to be a not-to-be, and, after two albums and much notoriety, the Dolls broke up in the final weeks of April; the legendary desserts having forever eluded them. If truth be known, the news of their death hardly produced a ripple throughout the nation they sought to win. Their demise was taken as inevitable. The dreams of rock ‘n’ roll’s Dead End Kids burned out like a green light bulb on someone else’s marquee, and nobody particularly noticed any loss of illumination. That must have been hard for the band to take, but per­haps no harder than some of the dates they had been forced to accept to remain even nominally solvent in the later stages of their existence. Somehow, everything had gone monstrously wrong, and, like characters in some tragicomic version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” everyone closely involved was innocent, everyone guilty. The only solution, finally, was to walk away from it, but none of us — musicians, man­agers (Marty Thau, Steve Leber, David Krebs), myself (the A&R man who signed the group to Mercury Records) — really could,

***

August 7. 1972: I see Dolls at Mercer Art Center, want to sign them to wary Mercury.

Late August: Dolls ask Merc for $250,000 deal. Merc blanches, sends in more scouts.

September 24: Merc VP Charlie Fach sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on three hours late. Fach stays 15 minutes, says no. I persist.

October 1: Merc VP Lou Simon flies in from Chicago main office, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on two hours late. Simon loves them, says nothing until he checks the current political climate in Chi, then says no. I persist.

[related_posts post_id_1=”714781″ /]

October 8: Merc A&R man Robin McBride flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Mercer. Dolls go on one hour late. Thunders, wearing platform basket­ball shoes, kicks a hole in stage. Kane’s bass comes unplugged: he plays last four songs wlthout making a sound. McBride says no. I per­sist.

Late October: Dolls turned down by every major label, go to Europe. Merc President I. H. Steinberg and Fach see them in London, say no. I persist. Steinberg becomes enraged, calls Dolls worst band he has ever seen, says I must be crazy. Dolls original drummer Billy dies in England in what is usually ref erred to as a drug-related incident. Nolan re­places him.

Late 1972: I keep trying to con­vince very leery Merc.

***

The Dolls first performance had been in July at the Diplomat Hotel in the seedy Times Square area (“You all know Times Square,” Johansen used to chide his audience. “It’s where we all met.”), but it was at the Mercer they gained their reputation in a series of concerts which built in momentum until the nights one spent there with 600 similarly delirious people simply were not sane. Those vivacious evenings were like a be­nign “Clockwork Orange” filmed in a packed-to-the-rafters Hollywood Mutant High wired for massive sound. There was something mar­velous about the band’s all-out as­sault, fashioned as it was from wit, homage, honesty, self-parody, urban cunning, and the virtuosity of crude­ness.

The Dolls and their early following were those kids who used to sneak into the Fillmore East every Satur­day night; years later, when their musical time came, they couldn’t wait to build their own homemade rocket ship and send it flying toward the moon on a return trip to innocence. If the fuel was more amateur energy than professional talent — well, one had to make do with what was at hand, surely the primary law of the streetwise. And it was a wondrous thing to see the group play rock ‘n’ roll with the enthusiasm of five people who felt and acted as if they had just invented it, hadn’t quite worked out the kinks yet, but what matter? — it was raw flash, honest fun, erotically direct, and seemed to define them to, and make them inseparable from, their own kind. While they invented nothing, they did present a peculiar vision — lost youths roaming the nighttime city “looking for a kiss, not a fix,” cosmic jet boys “flying around New York City so high,” the teenager as group Frankenstein — and carried the music back to simpler times: there were almost no solos, and everybody played and sang as hard as they could until they got tired. Which wasn’t often. Although some found their world dangerous and offensive — and not at all the dark side of sentimentality — it never seemed threatening to me. It must have been like this in London when people first heard the Stones, I kept thinking, secretly ruing the day when the Dolls would become stars and go public.

[related_posts post_id_1=”720617″ /]

But when the Dolls left their milieu in New York City (the Mercer Art Center, Kenny’s Castaways, et al.) something was lost. The many times I saw them in big halls in front of crowds of several thousand, the essence of their particular insular magic somehow became diluted. Even at the Felt Forum, in their first “legitimate” concert before 5000 “normal” people (most of whom came to see Mott the Hoople), the band appeared nervous, ineffectual, and — how can one say it? — some­what lost and harmless. Defanged. They never quite succeeded in find­ing a way to convey their intimacy and personal charm to a larger audience which ofttimes regarded them as technically inept, emotionally silly freaks — or worse. If there were ever to be a meeting between performer and potential fan, work needed to be done. The Dolls were something special. They required specific, sensitive handling and firm control. Unfortunately, they did not always get it.

***

January 30, 1973: Merc head of publicity Mike Gormley flies in from Chi, sees Dolls at Kenny’s Cast­aways because he wants to, says yes. I am shocked. Gormley’s memo reopens Dolls case.

March 20: Dolls and Merc agree to a deal.

Late June: Dolls finish first album with Todd Rundgren producing. Mixing takes less than six hours. Johansen calls Rundgren “an expert on second-rate rock ‘n’ roll.”

July: Johansen falls asleep in Chi in front of Merc brass at special meeting to discuss Dolls. Steinberg isn’t sure whether or not to wake him.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718291″ /]

September: Dolls play Whiskey and Los Angeles for first time. Five hundred kids line up each night. Thunders falls in love with groupie queen Sable Starr; they become rock ‘n’ roll punkdom’s Romeo and Juliet. Sylvain stays in biggest suite in hotel for week. How? I ask. “It was the room right next to mine,” he says, “and it was empty so I just stayed there.”

September 23: Johansen arrested in Memphis for stopping Dolls music while cops beat up a kid. He asks cops what they’d do if he were Elvis. “We’d love to get him!” cops reply.

Late 1973: Dolls named by Creem readers as Best New Group and Worst Group of Year. Despite Rundgren, the first album, “New York Dolls,” sells 100,000 copies.

***

“The Dolls are a vicious kick in the face to all that’s careful, passive and polished about today’s popular music. The record companies, most of which have a great investment in exactly the kind of music the Dolls are rallying against, have naturally been turned off …” (Bud Scoppa, Penthouse)

Kane, the shiest of the band, after having seen me for at least eight months: “Hi. I’m Arthur.”

***

If the Dolls were difficult to work with at times, it was because they understood nothing of the music business and recording, seemed naive or unable to learn about either, and were rarely encouraged to ex­hibit any kind or self-control regard­ing the bankbook or the clock. To say that their record company thought them a mere critics’ hype, did not understand them, and eventually grew to hate them would be an understatement; but, at the begin­ning, Mercury provided handsomely for the group’s every whim. Management started well, too: Thau, the band’s Napoleon, and Leber, their legal adviser and financial wizard, showed obvious devotion. As the months passed, trouble set in. The problems with Mercury rarely involved the Dolls personally, but had to do rather with mutual contempt among the men at the top on both sides, opposite viewpoints, management’s apparent disdain for necessary budgets and deadlines, the record company’s inability to get the group much AM or FM airplay, and — last but not least — money.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692472″ /]

The clash between the Dolls and Mercury was finally a classic confrontation between two immov­able objects: a company reluctant to spend any more money and a band that did not know how to stop spend­ing it. Thau and Leber’s penchant for potentiality required huge sums for bad-boy image-building and Stones­-style high living, while Steinberg preferred to drop anchor until the bottom line told him when to raise it. A hot war was being waged. Further, Thau and Leber had begun to quar­rel, a situation which proved very damaging at a time, when the band needed all the outer stability they could get. The bills were pilling up, and the hands at the controls had suddenly become fists.

One can learn much about the trouble among musicians, manage­ment and record company in these excerpts from a confidential report written by Patrick Taton, a Mercury employee in Paris, concerning the group’s 1973 French tour:

“November 28: Arrival at Orly. While camera went into action, Thunders got sick right on the airport floor and had to leave the scene for a minute to pull himself together and make a decent come­back. We spent the afternoon taking pictures at the hotel. The Dolls gave us a hint as to their drinking capacities, which we had to discover at out own expense. In the afternoon, Thunders got sick again and had to be replaced by one of the road managers for photo purposes.

“November 29: Press interviews began with the group, their ‘friends,’ and managers gulping down cham­pagne and cognac at an incredible speed, while we from Mercury were seated in the other corner of the bar. I was surprised when a not-so-sober Thau came up to us to remark that we weren’t really interested in the Dolls because we weren’t taking part in the interviews. When the interviews were over, I picked up the bill, which was incredibly high for so short a time. When I told Thau about it, he replied with utmost contempt, ‘Peanuts for a band like that!’ and continued with some of the most insulting remarks I’ve ever heard about a record company and its executives.

“Next was a live concert at Radio Luxembourg. Although they had been requested for rehearsals at 17:30, the group were not ready before 19:00 and went to the studio in a frightening state of drunkenness­ — one of the most nerve-shattering experiences of my ‘business’ life.

“December 2: Olympia concert. Surprisingly enough, by the time we went to pick them up at their hotel, the Dolls had already set up their gear and rehearsed. The hall was nearly sold out, and the evening ended in a triumph with two encores. The band were then taken to a top restaurant. They invited their friends — over 50 people altogether — all of them lavishly drinking cham­pagne and cognac, making an in­credible show of themselves, engaging patrons, and leaving us with a very nice bill.

[related_posts post_id_1=”724994” /]

“December 3: The day started with the news that Thau and Leber had gone back to America. The group were penniless and urgently requested an advance before they would fulfill their commitments: pure blackmail. The Dolls had to go to a TV studio for a very important show. Believe it or not, it took us over three hours to get them out of their rooms while a frantic and irate producer was calling the hotel every five minutes, threatening to cancel the program and never again work with Mercury. Also, the band’s equipment was set up five hours behind schedule. Finally, after a few minor incidents, the show was taped.­ It was a success from the first minute. The audience reacted very strongly to the storm of noise pro­duced by the group. There was even a fight, a thing that pleased the Dolls very much, although they found French kids not so tough as those from New York.

“December 4: The band were ready to leave, but they had no money with which to pay their bill (rooms, drinks, numerous overseas telephone calls): over $3500. Stuck again. If I may offer a personal opinion, the New York Dolls are one of the worst examples of untogether­ness I have ever seen. Johansen is a very intelligent guy. Sylvain is really clever and nice, the others are quite kind in their own way; but put them together, add their managers (each of them doing his own thing), mix with alcohol, and shake, and you’ve got a careless, selfish, vicious, and totally disorganized gang of New York hooligans — and I’m really sorry to say so.

“Despite all this. I believe we have managed to do good business.”

***

Sylvain: “I want a Cadillac car. Or a Rolls. I don’t care. I’m just dying for a car. I’ve had three cars, no license. I guess I’m a lucky person.”

Johansen: “I used to be lucky. What happened? I grew up. It changed everything.”

 ***

In 1974, the Dolls released a second LP, “Too Much, Too Soon,” pro­duced by Shadow Morton. It sold about 55,000 copies, and, like the first record, made the charts and appeared on almost every major crit­ic’s best-of-the-year list. Not bad for a new band, under the most convivial of circumstances; but the Dolls, un­fortunately, were mired in the worst. Thau and Leber split, the group not talking much to either party; and Steinberg, all ire and ice, demanded the repayment or certain loans and a third album, to be made only when management and monetary problems were rectified. They never were, of course. The band had no money, and their destructiveness and unpunctuality had alienated many promoters who no longer wanted to book them. Leber valiantly put together a lucrative tour of Europe and Japan. Krebs persuaded Jack Douglas to produce the third album, but the Dolls themselves­ — disillusioned and no longer trusting anyone — didn’t take the offers seriously, and everything eventually fell apart. Legally, the group couldn’t break free from any of their contracts. There was not much left to do but to go home and die.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721404″ /]

The Dolls did make one small comeback, a series of concerts at the Little Hippodrome earlier this year, but even these did little but add to the misconceptions which had always surrounded the band. In the early days, they were constantly referred to as a glitter group, a fag band, five transvestites who played inexpedi­ent rock ‘n’ roll and who were very offensive onstage. Needless to say, all of these “charges” were false. None of the group is homosexual, nor did the band ever dress as women. The infamous cover for their first LP was conceived as a deliberate eye­ catcher — the ultimate satirical statement on makeup and glitter (the group appeared as they natu­rally look on the back of the jacket — ­but somehow all too many people again failed to recognize the Dolls’ nihilistic riff raff sense of humor. At the Little Hippodrome, the band tailored their comeback around the comic conceit of what it would be like to see a rock ‘n’ roll concert in Red China, and, true to form, were quickly branded as Communists by many in the audience. With that maximum absurdity, perhaps it was indeed time to quit.

***

The dreams of so many good people died with the New York Dolls. I can still remember the night we finished the first album. Thau and I raced over to Mercury to have two acetates cut, and later we listened, the ghostly sounds of more than a year’s worth of the  group’s concerts ringing in our ears. I put the dub on the turntable, sheer terror in my heart. Thau, who had discovered the band and had cared enough to spend the very best of himself and all of his money on the project, felt the same. It meant so much to us then. I think both of us suddenly realized that everything had, to some degree, passed out of our hands and into the hands of those kids from sweet Ioway whose legion ultimately said no! in thunder to the hopes of the New York Dolls. As Jean Renoir remarked: “You see, in this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”

***

I think those kids from sweet Ioway were wrong, or rather per­haps that they never really had a chance to encounter the group on any significant level: on the radio or as part of a major tour. Instead, the band’s philosophy or instant stardom and limited, headliner-only bookings proved to be the stuff of dreams. Even a cult favorite must eventually face the nation as a whole, but the Dolls never played by the rules of the game. Neither did the Velvet Under­ground, and their contributions will last. At times, when I am feeling particularly perverse, I can’t blame either of them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718856″ /]

The New York Dolls sang and played terrific rock ‘n’ roll — their own and other people’s — and, in a better world, “Personality Crisis,” “Trash,” and “Stranded in the Jun­gle” would have been AM hits. (Perhaps two new songs, “Teenage News” and “Girls,” will correct the deficit on some future Johansen LP. ) Individually, each of the group will be heard from again — Thunders and Nolan have already formed a band called the Heartbreakers, Johansen and Sylvain have several plans, Kane is supposedly in California­ — but no matter. “Live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse,” someone once said. The Dolls went out with their high-heeled boots on.

They did it their way and got carried out dead, but with their pride intact. True, they did not grow old with the country, but that’s probably the country’s loss, not theirs. Corporation rock ‘n’ roll, wherein musicians like Bachman-Turner Overdrive are more gray-flanneled than the businessmen who kowtow to them, is so formularized, homogen­ized, and impersonal it must surely cause the death of anything that is at all out of bounds, mythopoeic, and rebellious. The Dolls were alive.­ Perhaps it killed them not to become stars, darkened their personalities, drove some of them into private worlds; but at least they had the courage to become figments of their own imaginations —and those creations were not altogether devoid of nobility. I will cherish always the friendship of each of them. Their last words on record were: “I’m a human being.”

***

”Listen, bucko, these are the New York Dolls, the sweethearts of Babylon themselves, the band you’re gonna love whether you like it or not …” (New Musical Express)

***

I do not claim they were the best, but the New York Dolls are still my favorite rock ‘n’ roll group, although I will understand if you do not like them. I will understand, but deep down I will not want to know you. ♦

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

1975 Village Voice story on David Johansen and the New York Dolls

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Rolling Stones Cruise on Eighth Street

I was talking to a friend of mine one night a couple of years ago, after ten thousand varyingly voluntary rehearings of Some Girls had convinced us it wasn’t so bad after all, that in fact we really actually liked it: “Do you think the Stones should break up now while they’re tem­porarily ahead,” I asked, “or play it out to the very end?”

“Oh, no!” he fairly cackled. “l think they should stay together till they all drop dead, a little more pathetic and decrepit each time, out there grinding away at the same Chuck Berry licks when they’re 60 years old!”

Go ahead and laugh, but they’re proba­bly going to do exactly that, and after panning just about everything they re­leased in the ’70s I’ve had a change of heart. You tell me whether it has something to do with turning 30 and all that, but what I said to another friend the other night in a similar conversation was, “Shit, yeah, let’s all grow old with the Rolling Stories, I can think of worse things.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”689528″ /]

Every time they released an album last decade we went through the same process: expectation, the exhilaration of hyping ourselves up, mainlining hope, then the crashing, crushing disappointment when we first heard each of the damn things, followed by the weeks or months in which we accommodated ourselves to and sooner or later usually fell in love with them. In that very process there was an existential drama being played out, for them and for us, that made them in a way far more interesting and even crucial than they’d been in their ’60s prime. And just how great were a lot of those ’60s albums any­way? Putting aside Satanic Majesties, which I always loved myself, people tend to forget that Aftermath was almost all the same song in a way, and that if you clipped off the framing anthems and the first cut on side two of each, Beggars Banquet (a bit cut and dried to my taste from the beginning) and Let It Bleed were effectively the same album, in terms cf sequencing, song styles, subject matter, etc. I think “100 Years Ago” from the dreaded Goat’s Head Soup (a severely underrated album whose love songs and general lushness made it the logical black­-and-white successor to Exile) is a far more interesting tune both musically and thematically than (take your pick) “Cool, Calm, Collected,” “Who’s Been Sleeping Here?” or “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.”

As individual peaks the magnitude of, say, “Let’s Spend the Night Together” grew fewer and farther between, the peril both we and the Stones believed them to be in rendered them more the auteurs than ever. Where once they’d been so good in a field of many great groups and most of their songs were about fucking and 1001 Ways to Snub a Broad, now they clung onto the insistence that they still were The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band, and more and more of their songs were about the difficulty of remaining that while growing up/old, maybe even the point­lessness of rock ‘n’ roll itself in the 1001 new contexts of dread the ’70s offered us. So in a way, in their decline, they mattered more than ever, especially since ev­erything else seemed to be declining with them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716155″ /]

Now, I’m not sure exactly when this stopped being true — whether it was Black and Blue, Some Girls or Emotional Rescue that was their first Long Awaited Major Release that was also just a piece of good old-fashioned product, but I do know that with this new album it’s come all the way home for me. I just couldn’t get that worked up in anticipation of it. Probably because of that, I found myself liking it almost iminediately. With the exception of Keith’s song, “All About You,” it has absolutely no Existential Significance, is in fact a real nice fun summer album, kinda light and fluffy and playful. The Stones don’t matter any more, at least in the way rock critics are always talking about how this or that artist “matters,” and if they feel this themselves — and I think, whenever they started to, they do now — then it’s probably that both the Stones and that portion of their audience who even -bother to think about these things are breathing one huge sigh of re­lief.

See, because they really have got this stuff down to a science, yet they’re still having fun with it, they haven’t gone em­barrassingly cold and dead like, say, the Post-Whos Next Who. Before I ever heard it, people were talking to me about Emo­tional Rescue in terms of “Well, the first song’s ‘Miss You,’ they got a ‘Respectable’ right after that, there’s a ‘Beast of Burden’ in there somewhere too … ” But that’s missing the point. Which is that, like Chuck Berry, the Stones may have stopped progressing, but in a way what that means is that they can always be counted on for a good solid ride or at least a little fun. Unlike Chuck, they still write decent songs even if they’re not about anything special. Hell, the Stones were never all that progressive to begin with. And all of this is why l believe now that they still will be not only around but making good records (the stage, well … ) for plenty more years yet. They’re cruising.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716833″ /]

The fact that they’ve become old reliables makes it easy to pick out the weak points on any new Stones album, but not that easy to find anything particularly new or significant to say about some of the best songs they’re corning up with now, things like ”Summer Romance,” “Let Me Go”, and “She’s So Cold.” It’s all stuff you’ve heard a million times before but it still feels good and that’s all there is to it. Shit, the best songs on the album are “Dance” and “Down in the Hole,” respec­tively a near-jam with almost no lyrics and a standard blues. Nobody looking for any kind of “relevance” is gonna settle for things like “Indian Girl’s” reference to Angola, and really tile only bit of the old gritty, “real” Stones on the album is Keith’s song, which is genuinely nasty — he even throws you a curve ball at the end (“How come I’m still in love with you?”), like Jagger’s beautiful cascade “liar liar liar”s at the end of Goat’s Head Soup’s “Winter.” Some people think there are more gay references than usual on this album, and “Where the Boys Go” is in­teresting (if that’s what it’s really about) in that the flipside or the really down and dirty stuff like “Cocksucker Blues,” “Memo From Turner” and “When the Whip Comes Down” in the Stones’ con­cept of homosexuality was this kind of smarmy leering· ,offhandedness which basically reminded you of that guy in Tropic of Cancer who said he’d given up women because it was “less annoying” to masturbate.

The glaringly weak spots are, as usual, Jagger’s attempts at (non-blues) ethnici­ty, and there are more of them here than ever. The Stones should give up trying to do reggae forever, though once you get used to the fact that it’s absolutely nothing, “Send It to Me” is an inoffensive little number that doesn’t hold up the flow of the side particularly (and I suppose “alien” refers to the movie, oh well). Just like the compassion in “Indian Girl” comes off fake as Mick’s accent at first, but you force yourself not to notice how fake it is and pretty soon the song sounds fine and you’re not even embarrassed by the way he sings “Mr. Gringo” or that he says it at all. As for the title cut, most say Bee Gees but I say let him have Curtis Mayfield even though he sounds sorta ridiculous. Can there be anybody in the world who actual­ly thinks that rap about “I’ll be your knight in shining armor … on a fine Arab charger” is sexy? I mean it doesn’t matter, it’s okay that it isn’t, I’m just wondering if anybody’s fooled. And does Mick care, or is it just a goof for him too? Because if it is, then he’s healthier than we thought, healthy as he and all of them sound, and if you think the idea of the Rolling Stones being nothing more than a goof is depress­ing you oughta consider the relative-hide­ousness of possible alternative scenarios, like say Bob Dylan. Me, I’m looking for­ward to all the Stones· future albums for the same reason a friend of mine dug “Everything’s Turning to Gold!”: “I like it because it’s just really garbagey.” ■

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

The Rolling Stones’ Soul Picnic

riffs: STONE SOUL SHOW
December 4, 1969

If you are American it is enough, and if you are also black it is much more — to make you reluctant to fall under the ironic spell of British skill in American black-roots music. But say “rock ‘n’ roll” in free association, and the people fire back “Beatles and Rolling Stones,” then and only then in diminuendo procession you may hear “Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Elvis, Hendrix, Joplin,” etc.… Time and again over the last four or five years we’ve heard on these shores the Beatles and Stones knocked as recording studio bands who don’t really play or sing so well, as walking financial empires, as potential break-up groups and as opportunists who don’t pay dues. You hear that their compositional talents are running out — the Beatles just before “Hey Jude” and the Stones after “Their Satanic Majesties.” You don’t hear rebuttal from the Beatles-Stones complex for most of a year, and then usually around Christmas they each appear suddenly, lay an lp full of rock classics on you, and consequently wipe out all but the top competition. If the albums are — like Abbey Road and Let It Bleed — not a couple of juggernauts, you have to admit that they’re at least something you get intense pleasure from. And though you — and they — may know that Aretha, Ray, Chuck, Dylan, Elvis, Jimi, Janis and company are not to be outsung or outrocked by any Stone or Beatle it becomes clear yearly that the Stones and the Beatles have their own individual sonic worlds fused from scores of influences wherein they rule as monarchs, kingdoms which have as much extra-financial richness and lasting beauty as any in popular music history. It is clear, also — teenyboppers aside — that these two bands stay on top by basic dint of sheer musical gift. On Thanksgiving at the Garden it was wipe-out time again — this time live after a three-year absence — at the hands of the Rolling Stones.

Until the Stones arrived last Thursday with amplifiers adjusted perfectly and the crowd reduced for near-perfect listening, I was about to mount a crusade to close the Garden to everybody but the Knicks and the Rangers. James Brown, Blind Faith, and troops of big names had been through there with their performances piped poorly from revolving stages, and I frankly didn’t want to go up there any more. But it is now a truth that the Garden is playable. The simple matter of Stones acoustic acuity (not one of their strengths in the past) made much of the difference. The audience, too, was cool. Though there was a charge to the stage by hundreds mid-way in the concert, never was there 1964-style screaming and sobbing to drown out the music. I think that the spirit of Woodstock and 1969’s relative musical sophistication have made American youth appreciate that music drifts in through the ears and that Stones are only human beings with a message coded basically in notes, words, and in this instance dance, since Jagger’s the man.

[related_posts post_id_1=”689528″ /]

It was a beautiful evening, graded out in a crescendo pattern from Terry Reid’s disappointing low-key, nature-intimate songs, through B.B. King’s guitar wizardry and audience participation warmth, through the outrageous sex machinery of Ike and Tina, to the revival gospel show of the boys from London. The moment of orgasm was reached perfectly in Jack Flash Jagger’ s crowd-participation ejaculations of “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women,” as the full lights of the Garden came on, to reveal 12,000 extremely non-Nazi groovers doing together what rock and roll and its progenitor gospel music are supposed to make you do — namely, come together.

You heard Mick Jagger, in powerful, full voice all through the set, and a band that was tight and powerful, giving out unashamedly with a lick from this c&w cat and a growl from that soul man. Even Mick’s own “Satisfaction” was filled out by himself to include some of Otis Redding’s recorded interjections (“I’ve got to have satisfaction”). But the results were pure, elemental Jagger-Stones alloy.

The results also represented the kind of path to authentic music power that many American and suburban white singers who love blues and country might adopt. Rule one: don’t be bashful. Rule two: imitate and steal from everywhere for a year or so, then let your subconscious mix it into your own thing — do not go back to copying once you’re in phase B. Rule three: happen to be born angry with cause for anger. Rule four: happen to be a bitch of a composer-musician. Good luck. America needs you. Or at least music needs you.

—Carman Moore

AS THEY SAY, Mick Jagger is quite a performer — unfortunately and perhaps sadly too, because that’s about all he is, a performer, an actor, and even then you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Off stage he may be something more, and in fact did seem to be at the press conference last Wednesday afternoon at the Rainbow Room. But some part of him didn’t make the trip from atop Rockefeller Center to the stage in Madison Square Garden. Maybe he has a stand-in. Who then is the real Mick Jagger: the cool and elegant young man of the press conference, unflappably answering each question as politely as possible under zoo-like conditions, or the skinny kid in the Marvel Conics get-up, mincing his precious way through an act as contrived and programmed as anything presented by Lawrence Welk?

But still — isn’t that the point, aren’t the flitting and the flouncing and the mugging intended to create an effect? Aren’t the Stones striving to create an aura of outrageousness. Isn’t that what they are all about, their evil, their badness (God knows the hype sure says so)? Well, no doubt that’s the thrust of Jagger’s act, to be ominous, to be a threat to the virtue of sons as well as of daughters. Maybe unisex will solve man’s most pressing problem in a future when all the world is the caricature that Jagger presents. But it’s banal. Its hard to feel any sort of threat from Jagger toward anyone.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719802″ /]

The truth is, if you’re a feeling person, there ain’t much of anything to feel from the Stones. There’s no soul, there’s no heart, there’s only the body. Big deal. Of course, they did do that — they and others — get the body into white music. But by now that’s an old movie, a re-run, circa 1966 at the latest, and solidly in the category of camp.

Like Bogart, who said he came to Casablanca for the waters, I felt misinformed at the Garden last week. I had swallowed the hype. For instance, I had been told Jagger was a great dancer. Absolute tripe! You can’t be a great dancer unless every fiber in you is in the movements. And I had been told there’s no one like Jagger for getting an audience together. Aaagh! When an audience really gets together, the stage is merely a focal point, not a pedestal. Yes, true, he did have the whole damn gymnasium writhing in Sheer Orgiastic Abandon, but that was merely part of the program. It wasn’t spontaneous, it wasn’t real.

Sorry about all this — and I wouldn’t be quite so terse if room permitted — but it seems to me the Rolling Stones are just another sacred cow, and a pink one at that.

—Brian Keating

AND NOW FOR a word from the back of the house: Two on the aisle, and far down front, is the usual privilege of the critic, and though I’ve often thought of writing of the lot of the 99 per cent who pay, I’ve never been willing to do the research involved. I’ve never sat out a concert in the second balcony of the Fillmore East. I wonder how many rock writers have. I’ve never even been up there. Clubs and concert halls, all offer the writer optimum sight and sound.

It is not always easy to convince Broadway press agent types that one paper really needs tickets for six or eight writers, as well as a photographer’s pass, to cover one concert. The way it went down was we got one photographer’s pass plus three press tickets, one of them for a writer who is not a music reviewer. Carman and Brian paid for their tickets which it turned out were for very good seats, in the front rows. My press tickets placed me with a lot of the rest of the press in a section on the floor of the Garden farthest from the stage, about the third row from the back, a long way from home. Which gives me the unsolicited opportunity to write about what it’s like to be just another listener sitting almost anywhere (there were many worse seats).

Previous concerts I’ve heard at the Garden — Blind Faith, the Doors, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — had convinced me that from any position in the house the Garden is absolutely not viable for the presentation of music. Not so. As far back as we were, the sound was acceptable. Not great, but more acceptable than, say, the mixes on the U.S. version of the Stones’ albums. The sight line, as long as the audience sat down, was infinitely preferable to the profferings of the revolving or non-revolving center stage. It would have been better with binoculars — which I’m told were on sale in the lobby.

On the other hand, the distractions of being so far from the action made the concert just another one by a good rock group. The audience was up, it was down. Which meant we were standing on our seats, weaving cobra heads over it all, or we were sitting civilized. Civilized? For the Stones? The Stones they were, magic they weren’t. From back there Mick Jagger was a little stick figure with tiny featureless face, singing well enough but wasting energy in meaningless posturings all about the stage. Tina Turner cut him all to hell as a dancer. Jim Morrison, who had seemed downright boring with his calculated schtick at the Garden a few weeks before the Miami fiasco, was in memory a better — because more disciplined — showman. But, you see, I watched Morrison from the third row. The Stones were tight instrumentally, but none of it came together as Stones-exciting till “Live With Me,” maybe three-quarters through the set. There had never been reason till then, from where we were, for the audience to be on its feet. From that point on there was reason, and it may have been because much of what the Stones did thereafter was fresh to them, from the new album, Let it Bleed. Or maybe it just takes them that long to warm up — I’ve never seen them live before.

[related_posts post_id_1=”716761″ /]

My friend the rock musician would like to grade audiences — which ones applaud the right solo, etc., all the nuances of response. I’d say any Madison Square Garden audience has to be a C audience by definition, but the one on Thursday rated as high-achiever C. The Stones deserve a standing ovation all around just for seeing to it that there was more to the show than a high gate. Too many other big names have settled for just that. I think the audience’s mostly exemplary behavior was largely a result of their getting a fair shake, insofar as that’s possible at the Garden. Good production, good show. Definitely not great.

And while I’m throwing roses to the Stones, that’s what they came up smelling like after a riotous press conference on Wednesday. Riotous press, that is. The affair was composed of unlikely opposites which, made one, did not become art. The site was the indisputably glorious Rainbow Room, high above etc. Any organization stopped there. From the moment the Stones appeared, the event was a melee of tv cameramen vs. still cameramen and underground press vs. overground and “I’M here getting a story, so why aren’t you taking notes and who do you represent?” “How does it feel to fill a dead man’s shoes?” Mick Taylor was asked. “You don’t have to answer that,” Brian Keating yelled, and Taylor didn’t. The Stones, through it all, tried to give reasoned answers. In the din, besides the shouts of “Communist!” by one tv cameraman, just about the only thing I heard after the first quarter was that the Stones, in case you don’t already know, are doing a free concert in San Francisco this Saturday. Why not New York? Jagger answered, “It’ too cold.”

Only the Stones came off as sane, and that crossed my mind Thursday night as the low-achiever Cs rushed stage after the only encore the Stones had offered so far on the current tour. “Shall we wait for the riot or leave?” says I to the cowboy. We had seen the heads busted after the Blind Faith concert, so we went home to listen to Let It Bleed. There was no riot, I hear.

—Annie Fisher

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

The Magnificent Rolling Stones

“Oh, the dazzle of it all”

The Stones were magnificent. Everybody thought so. Thank Christ. Report on the Stones ploughing through their own multi-multi-million dollar Suez Canal of rock ‘n’ roll, high life garbage, and Life covers across the flatlands to New York City, USA: tired but alive, still superbly capably of thrashing out the best music currently available. “Nice t0 be back in Noo York, Noo York,” says Mick with a quick and casual stroke of the mike. “They always do best here,” says Peter Rudge, tour manager on his way to bed down the staircase of the Four Seasons restaurant where we of the press had just been treated to a party to end them all. Naturally enough, everybody was there, all the way from Richard Meltzer who got thrown out to Truman Capote who didn’t, but then Truman wasn’t dancing on the tables. He’d already had his fun right there onstage with the Rolling Stones, squatting on an amplifier case in fedora and sunglasses with the fabled Super Trouper light ensemble dug in like an anti-aircraft battery behind him. Oh, the dazzle of it all. But you know all that already, of course. How could you possible avoid it? Ever since Altamont, the Stones are A-1 cover material.

Why have all the Stones stories from Life to Rolling Stone been practically interchangeable? Is it the God of Journalism speaking in tongues and conferring many uniform visions? I think not; a better reason might be that big blue loose-leaf folder they give out with the press tickets.

The first Stones concert in New York since “Ya-Yas” made that heady blast sound dull by comparison. The horns helped of course but mainly it was Mick Taylor who played a lead guitar which burned your ears off.

Production and Security have been emphasized. Production was brilliant, security unobtrusive, vibes so nice you’d almost be tempted to forget all nasty feelings about rock’s only surviving juggernaut. Long live Chip Monck and the Positive Philosophy of rock presentation. A feeling of great well-being surged through 20,000 fans, bouncing them all in perfect time to the rhythm of Charlie’s bass drum.

“Love in Vain,” their seventh number, got them fully in the groove. Until then, it had been messy. “Exile on Main Street” has partially obscured the fact that Mick can sing; the little Dervish in the white jumpsuit has one hell of a voice. He plays harp too, and dances. He whips the stage with a leather thong during “Midnight Rambler”; “Have you heard about the Boston — WHACK!!” Chip’s lights bathe him in blood red, but when the band slams into the final chorus, all the lights go on and everybody comes together. It’s called balance.

Keith is all spikes from head to toe. For some, he is the most interesting Stone; he retains a sense of mystery while Mick is but a brilliant showman, Charlie a drummer, Taylor a guitarist, and Bill a bass-playing lump.

Stevie Wonder’s set was, frankly, boring for the first half hour. He hardly sang at all and his big band sounded like an amplified milk churn despite all the technical wizardry you must have heard about. But he warmed up, got it on, and won more than a few hearts. After “Street Fighting Man,” Mick led him back onstage and the two of them — Mick in clinging white, Stevie in clinging black — bounced together through “Satisfaction.” Mick was all set to leave, but Stevie rallied the assembled company; he was delirious with the roar of the crowd, and he didn’t want to leave. Mick washed the front row with rose petals, but when he got to the water, a cop ran for cover smiling.

The Rolling Stones have gone. It’s all over.

— Patrick Carr

[related_posts post_id_1=”713739″ /]

THE ROLLING STONES make it all work. Opening a four performance stay at Madison Square Garden Monday night, they proved even for those of us who had not participated in the ritual pack in 1969 (or before) that the magic is real, that they’re not just playing games. Sure they had a beautifully elaborate lighting system — using mirrors and spot­lights operated from behind the stage — and a sound system which made even the mammoth Garden seem like a reasonable place to hold a concert. But the Stones themselves held it all together.

The crowds which had been dreaded, and which prompted even publicity material to proudly announce the tightest security measures in the history of rock concerts, never appeared in very large numbers. Inside, there was little of the screaming which had become so famous on the Stones’ previous tours. Aisle-crowding, yes, but not of a violent nature. The Garden is big, and people do want to be able to see.

Stevie Wonder and his group Wonderlove opened things, with Wonder coming on as though this was his only chance. If a lack of advance publicity did anything to Wonder, it was to make him come on that much stronger. No time was wasted in getting down to business. By the time he got to singing “Lean on Me” through a modulator which was controlled at the keyboard, everyone had joined in.

The Stones came on after inter­mission — Jagger in a silver jump suit with black shirt and red scarf, lights following him like a magnet as he went through his repertoire of dances and contor­tions. The exaggerated pan­tomimist’s movements provided what under other circumstances would have been simple facial expressions. All for playing to a mass audience — an audience of literally millions, for Jagger is not just performing for those within the confines of a particular limited situation. The whole group, in fact, gives the impres­sion that it is playing for everyone individually, with the stress on the everyone.

What makes it all work, from “Satisfaction” to “Midnight Rambler” to “Jumping Jack Flash” to “Tumbling Dice” is as much a mystery as ever. The Garden, however, is an appropri­ate enough house for this popular mass art form — one which may well take the title away from another (faltering) Garden at­traction, the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. Yes, the Rolling Stones just may be the Greatest Show on Earth.

— Ira Mayer

[related_posts post_id_1=”607227″ /]

The Stones: Long view from the viscera

As I sit down to write, the Rolling Stones are staggering toward the end of their most suc­cessful American tour. Thousands upon thousands of fans have turned out in cities across the country to sit mesmerized, stomp and shout, or struggle to touch the personification of their fantasies. Thousands more had to be turned away. A riot in Vancouver. Busted in Boston and the concert delayed until Mayor Kevin White intercedes in their behalf. Wild nights in Hugh Hefner’s mansion. An entourage of swaggering dandies, stylish ladies, tarts, bodyguards and international ce­lebrities waiting patiently outside dressing rooms to tell them they’re marvelous. Truman Ca­pote covering the tour for Rolling Stone! Terry Southern on assign­ment for the Saturday Review! Mick on the cover of Life. Don Heckman, in the Sunday Times Magazine, reports that Mick’s “genitalia are pushed up and out… as aggressively protuberant as a ’50s teen-age girl in a pointy bra.”

“Is Mick Jagger a transves­tite?” the woman downstairs asks me. She can’t quite understand her son’s devotion to Their Sa­tanic Majesties. “I don’t believe so,” I reply off-handedly, “but that’s a logical question.” I clomp on down the hall, a bit self-cons­cious now in my stacked-heel boots, feeling a twinge of guilt about not being able to explain to her what the Stones are all about. Where would I start? With a defense of existential creativity? A rap on art reflecting reality? A Jungian analysis of societal sym­bolism and its relationship to primordial images? Or should I use the Stones’ current trade­mark, a bright red tongue lolling out of a wicked mouth, to suggest that it probably signifies the inev­itable solution to the population crisis, as well as a reminder that cunnilingus can be a quite effec­tive alternative to abstinence in cases where straight intercourse is not desirable in the absence of a birth control device. Or that it’s a perfect way for heterosexual couples to both enjoy the quite natu­ral desire to have a turn at being sex objects without the need for having traditional masculine-­feminine, passive-aggressive roles to play. Or that these thoughts can be inspired by a mere symbol, proving the effectiveness of pop art as a facile medium of vital and sometimes complex information for survival.

In a society where cosmetics, clothes and automobiles are extravagantly expensive objectifications for states of mind we could reach at no cost at all; where hypocrisy has become a social necessity and adulthood requires surrender to a suicidal technological routine where work becomes a spirit-crushing mind-fucking trap, it shouldn’t be hard to understand the Stones have remained popular for nearly 10 years by dwelling on themes of sexual exploitations, mental disintegration, drugs, violent politics, and the fragility of male-female relationships. In short, they are hip to the horror show and can articulate it in words and music. Thorough fantasizing, and intuition based on personal experience, they often reveal the reality of a complex set of circumstances.

But 10 years is a long time. Has their rage really been assimilated into the mass consciousness? Do the feelings they evoke linger, and provide a positive impetus for thought and action? Or has the effect of the Stones’ music been like that of a safety-valve on the feelings of their followers, a symbolic alternative to action? Has it all been a mind-dulling, technological film-flam, a “revolt into style” a diversionary tactic?

Jagger keeps hinting that he’s tired of doing the same primal rock ‘n’ roll melodies, although they still manage to sell a lot of records. He has expressed the desire on several occasions to experiment with other styles than the basic, blues-inspired material the Stones have built their career on. He speaks highly of Their Satanic Majesties Request, the sole departure from the group’s visceral brand of rock ‘n’ roll.

For that reason, and a growing belief that perpetual adolescence is going out of vogue as a life-style (as upcoming generations get hip to what’s real and what’s fantasy at an earlier age), I think that the Stones, next time around, might be singing a slightly different tune.

I also believe that the Stones, sooner or later if they continue working together as a band, will be forced to adapt, or be naturally and artistically inclined in favor of the changing attitudes of their over-all audience.

I think rock ‘n’ roll will continue to serve as a catalyst for the release of youthful frustration; that groups like the Stones, Alice Cooper, and Black Sabbath must continue to provide theatrical expression for fantasies and hard-edged reality, and create understanding among an audience which often has no medium other than popular music to find answers or share feelings.

Leonard Cohen once said: “Do I listen to the Stones? Incessantly.” Sometimes I do, too. I listen to other music also, Indian music, blue-grass, Satie, Beethoven, Wagner, Mahler, acoustic guitar players, and the chanting of Tibetan monks. It eases my mind or provides an aesthetic stimulation you don’t often get in rock ‘n’ roll. But when I feel the need for a little get-down-to-it, primitive expression, or an urge to do some howling or midnight creeping, I put on the Stones and either wind up staying home and letting them do it, or I absorb sufficient energy to swagger out myself for some boogieing, and beating the blues.

One more thing: In the Times Magazine article, Heckman criticizes the Stones for withdrawing into “protective isolation” after “having stirred the cauldron of violent, antisocial attitudes.” So what? Politicians do it all the time, and they have a clear-cut responsibility to their constituencies far beyond rhetorical display and public appearances. The Stones are artists, first and foremost, and their work is the only thing that we can legitimately criticize. Their private lives and how they spend their money are not our concern, unless they infringe on our lives.

They should at least perform some benefits, though, and invest some of their bread in social change. And they could also patronize and encourage other artists.

— Richard Nusser

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

When The Angels – and 400,000 others – said Goodbye to Brian Jones

His was the driving sitar on “Paint It, Black,” the syncopated marimba on “Under My Thumb.”

Brian Jones, progenitor of the Rolling Stones, died 50 years ago today, drowned in his swimming pool not long after frontman Mick Jagger and rhythm guitarist Keith Richards invited him to leave the soon to be self-described — and generally critically accepted — “greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.”

The bad news from England arrived too late to make it into the July 3rd or 10th issues of the Village Voice, but other Stones tidbits could be found in those editions. It would not be until the issue of the 17th that downtown newspaper readers would get a report from London’s Hyde Park, site of the Stones’ tribute concert for the departed multi-instrumentalist, where they introduced Jones’s replacement — the 20-year-old prodigiously talented lead guitarist Mick Taylor — to the 400,000 fans crowding England’s green and pleasant land.

In the July 3rd issue, that cross-section of Voice readers who were also Stones fans were treated to a portrait of an androgynous Jagger (on the set of the then-unreleased movie Performance) by Cecil Beaton, aristo photographer of the fashionable and trendy.

A week later, in the July 10th issue, there was still no mention of the deceased bluesman (the folios of the paper designated the end of its weekly run, so that issue had probably been printed on July 2nd), but music critic Robert Christgau had something to say about the Stones in general in his “rock & roll &” column: “Even though music is my greatest pleasure, the pleasure is often casual. I rarely listen carefully to the lyrics or follow a solo note for note unless I’m reviewing something at length or I’m stoned. When I’m stoned, I rarely play records I don’t already love. (Stoned or unstoned I listen constantly to the Stones…)” Perhaps the self-described Dean of American Rock Critics was paying homage to some biting lines found in Leonard Cohen’s poetic 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers:

Do I listen to the Rolling Stones? Ceaselessly.
Am I hurt enough?

That same Village Voice also included an ad for The Third Eye® Inc, a poster shop that captured the aesthetic spirit of the times.

Come the 17th and Voice readers get a report — drenched in local atmosphere — from the Hyde Park tribute concert, written by Geoffrey Cannon, rock critic for London’s Guardian newspaper: “Hyde Park was soaked with travesties, reversals, clashes, of normality — like the Stone’s own music.” And, in an aside that would have ominous consequences at the end of that jagged year, Cannon noted, “The marshals were Hell’s Angels. Now, English Hell’s Angels are not professionals, true, but they’re no flower children, either.” As it turns out, the American Angels who provided violent and ultimately fatal “security” at the Stones’ last show that year, in December at Altamont Speedway in California, were certainly “professionals” — though on a whole other plane of existence.

Studded through the jumps of Cannon’s story were ads for other bands, other music. Even those exemplars of Gotham grit, the Velvet Underground, were getting down with the Carnaby Street look exemplified by Jagger’s flouncy Swinging London stage outfit.

Not to be outdone, London Records let the world know that although Brian Jones had gone on to his reward the Stones were still bringing it — in this case, with a cowbell (clonged by producer Jimmy Miller) and guitar overdubs from Taylor on “Honky Tonk Women.”  —R.C. Baker

The World Turned Upside Down

By Geoffrey Cannon
July 17, 1969

LONDON — It’s raining, in London. I walk down the street under an umbrella. I’m singing Joni Mitchell’s “I Don’t Know Where I Stand” to myself. “Telephone, even the sound of your voice is still new; all alone in California and talking to you.” And London is back to normal again, and I’m being a normal Londoner: hunched up, hurrying through the streets from one small room to another, dreaming of scenes utterly distant, making my own California in a space three feet in diameter and six foot six deep: under my umbrella, my little cylinder.

Now, one day and 12 hours of rain later, the Rolling Stones’ concert seems a dream, too. It has all the sharpness and disassociation of the stories told in sleep. It wasn’t a bit like the Blind Faith concert. And I think I can tell why, too.

Looking over my notes. Mick Jagger sang 13 songs. Thirteen, at Brian Jones’ wake. Counting them, knowing the total would come to 13, I felt a breath of black power chill me. Mick Jagger can make the world turn upside down. He ended the concert with “Sympathy for the Devil.” And here is what happened.

A barrel-chested, very black African leaps on stage. He’s naked, except for swathings of dust-colored hair, apparently glued round his torso. His face is streaked white, and his arms and legs. He postures and limbos with a red spear. He feels like Jack Palance as the chief of the gladiators in “Barabbas”: I’m expecting a roar of evil from him. He sits at a great drum, and is joined by 12 other tribesmen, dressed ethnically, who pound their percussion. And all the time Jagger sings “Sympathy for the Devil.” Suddenly, I see flecks of black ash on the back of my hand. And I’m sure there are lightning flashes behind the stage. (I still can’t explain this last.) Maybe I am at Pompeii. What if the earth should shake now, under me and the other 400,000 people? Then I see the ash is caused by flares, lit at the left of the stage; and I’m coward enough to be grateful for this connection with the familiar world. As Jagger ends, and vanishes, a little girl behind me (who must have been in the park all night, to get where she was — collapses into spasms of hysteria. A familiar enough scene, at teenybopper concerts; but this time I understand. She’s in a dream, midway between Bosch and Breughel, and she can’t wake up.

Hyde Park was soaked with travesties, reversals, clashes, of normality — like the Stones’ own music. The marshals were Hell’s Angels. Now, English Hell’s Angels are not professionals, true, but they’re no flower children, either. The angel with “Wild Child” studded on his back was old, mean, knobbly, and alienated enough to wear a knife and use it, too. And at the end of the concert, two Angels got into a huddle behind my back. “If yer gotta shiv, throw it. We’re being searched at the entrance.”

Such words, from policemen! From the Angels succeeded in making a travesty equation with the absent police. Only the Angels wear a uniform which identified them as having a function as well as a style. And any sting they might have had as audience was brilliantly drawn by putting them in charge. There was an Angel with a papier-mache Nazi helmet and an orange-streaked face plus black targets on his cheeks, saying to a photographer: “Excuse me, could you please clear a path?” And the MC announces: “The Hell’s Angels are dealing with all sorts of problems caused by people being uncool.” Wow: what a culture-clash!

[related_posts post_id_1=”689528″ /]

Audience, performers, and press and television people: they were all interchangeable. Television cameramen wore light-meters as if they were medallions, with a purpose. A girl beside me takes photographs wearing a bra and panties, bikini-style. She’s using a Pentax, so the pictures are more likely to be for the Chicago Sun-Times, or the Sydsvenska Dagbladet, or Rock and Folk, than her bedroom wall.

Halfway through the after­noon, Family do the best set I’ve yet seen from them, transcending their show three days before at the Albert Hall. Rog Chapman is successfully beside himself. He shudders into “The Weaver’s Answer”: and I sense thrills passing through me into the crowd, and I turn round. Everyone is sitting down, their heads making a floor. Then: up, up, up: dancing starts. A very black boy, thin, around five foot four, flickers his arms. He’s wearing jeans, and a yellow and white headband: the Negro as Red Indian. Hendrix’s influence. Beside him, an English girl with a long multi-colored dress waves and sighs with her body. The hippie as Dutch gypsy. The influence of clothes made by The Fool. Behind, a boy wearing a yellow T-shirt with blue lettering: USA, in great Egyptian cap lettering. Surfing safari.

Nothing is successfully influencing this concert. London is the richest city on earth and this afternoon it’s saying so — at last. The sun is really hot. And, with Family, a couple of the supporting bands become inspired. King Crimson blare and jam into a space trip, and I’m reminded of the Chicago Transit Authority; but only reminded: King Crimson are good, at their loudest, too. Again, the singer of Screw looks like Arthur Lee, but he’s a London boy. “Take a look at your mind, you might not like what you find” he sang, and let himself go, with a tightened-up athleticism not seen since — well, since Mick Jagger. King Crimson and Screw. Two new good English bands.

So, before the Stones came on, the air was packed with sounds and sensations, buzzing, enriched, disassociating one’s mind from anything outside the colossal circle of the crowd.

And, every moment of the afternoon: the thought of Brian Jones. There were two huge color blow-ups of him, taken from the “Beggar’s Banquet” inside sleeve, by the side of the stage. A dog fawns on him. He’s sitting, arms raised above and behind his head, smiling, but seemingly looking into himself. His hair is silver. And he is lost.

Images. His body floating at the bottom of his swimming pool, like the sequence in “Sunset Boulevard,” only this time I care. Him in the dock, scared and white and alone, knowing the band can’t help him. For who can tell how much he needed the band? How much his psyche, his identity, proved to be borne up and mingled into that of the band? Who can gauge the magnetism of the Rolling Stones, formed so many years ago, and the most powerful band in the world? I think only Brian could tell, in the few days between his leaving and his dying, Perhaps he had felt dead already. The sadness of his death is violent, almost malevolent. It will cling to the Rolling Stones, always. I feared that many people might feel that the Hyde Park concert had killed Brian inside, before he died, and that its atmosphere would prove intolerably macabre.

Mick Jagger had to say goodbye to Brian in front of 400,000 people. I wasn’t interested in the power implied by his being able to do this: I just hoped he could. Mick opened a book, looking well thumbed and marked. My eyes pricked. “I really don’t know how to do this sort of thing, but I’m going to try,” Mick shouted, violently, feeling anger, and fear, too, I guess. Then he quoted Shelley. “He has awakened from the dreams of life.” And Mick was right, partly because there was no attempt at self-justification, partly because the concert was already a dream within Shelley’s dream, partly because Mick didn’t know the meaning of what had happened, and refused to try to work it out: and that was right.

[related_posts post_id_1=”607227″ /]

ALL RIGHT! Mick yelled. He was wearing a flounced-out trouser-suit, white, with a frock jacket. Underneath, a mauve shirt, and a studded belt. Keith Richards came on wearing silver shades. He took them off. Underneath, his eyes were heavily made up, black. He’s thin and violently strange. All of him is in a world I have no perception of whatsoever. Beside him, Jagger looks well-fed, content, usual. But he isn’t.

“Jumping Jack Flash.” Is this the first time they’ve performed the number outside a recording studio? At first, their physical presence seems banal: it doesn’t let enough legend in. Then, after an ordinary version of “Mercy, Mercy,” Mick does “Stray Cat Blues.” Now, when he used to sing “I just wanna make love to you,” sounding both mean and meaningful, shaking his body at the front row in old concerts,  that seemed strong enough. But singing “bet your momma don’t know you can bite like that, I bet she never saw you scratch my back” in front of, say, 50,000 groupies and potential groupies: the reverberations between the story and the actuality whizz and whirr back and forward until they are lost in themselves.

The middle part of the concert subsided somewhat. “No Expectations” “I’m Free,” “Down Home Girl,” and a Robert Johnson number, “Love in Vain,” were all performed. Mick Taylor’s guitar playing has no tension in it that I could detect. He sounded positively Hawaiian, in “No Expectations”; and there were signs that the band was interested in jamming, which would be a total disaster for the Stones.

Then “Give Me a Little Drink,” “Honky Tonk Woman,” and “Midnight Rambler,” from the coming album. I can’t tell what new songs sound like, when they’re played in concert. Mick did a modified tease during the last number, taking his belt off and on, and easing the top of his trousers. These quiet and new numbers were becoming a springboard. Everybody in the audience, everybody, knew exactly what was to come. Ready, ready:

“Satisfaction.” The best rock number ever, period. I had to stop writing notes at this point. No one can be other than a fan of Jagger when he does this number. All the experiences, thoughts, sensations I’ve just described melted, fused. If anyone doubts that the Stones are world No. 1 band, they weren’t at Hyde Park. Then “Street Fighting Man,” making the scene panted, focused. Then: I’ve told about “Sympathy for the Devil” already.

The Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park was the biggest most vital, most moving rock concert ever.

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

When Bob Dylan Called on Patti Smith

Tarantula Meets Mustang

A copy of “Witt” was slid across the table to Patti Smith. “Would you sign this for me, please?” “Sure,” said Patti, “what’s your first name?” He told her. “Like in New Jersey?” Patti asked, and he said no: with a z. “Well, I’ll draw you a map of Jersey,” and so on the inside page Patti scratched its intestinal boundaries, in the middle labeled it Neo Jersey, signed her name, and passed the copy of “Witt” back to Jerzy Kosinski.

The night before, after the second set at the Other End, the greenroom door opened and the remark hanging in the air was Bob Dylan asking a member of Patti’s band, “You’ve never been to New Jersey?” So, all hail Jersey. And in honor of Dylan’s own flair for geographical salutation (“So long New York, hello East Orange”), all hail the Rock and Roll Republic of New York. With the Rolling Stones holding out at Madison Square Garden, Patti Smith and her band at the Other End, and Bob Dylan making visitations to both events, New York was once again the world’s Rock and Roll Republic.

Patti Smith had a special Rimbaud-emblematized statement printed up in honor of Stones week, and when her band went into its version of “Time Is on My Side” (yes it is), she unbuttoned her blouse to reveal a Keith Richard T-shirt beneath. On the opening night she was tearing into each song and even those somewhat used to her galloping id were puzzled by lines like “You gotta a lotta nerve sayin’ you won’t be my parking meter.” Unknown to many in the audience, parked in the back of the room, his meter running a little quick, was the legendary Bobby D. himself. Dylan, despite his wary, quintessential cool, was giving the already highly charged room an extra layer of electricity and Patti, intoxicated by the atmosphere, rocked with stallion abandon. She was positively playing to Dylan, like Keith Carradine played to Lily Tomlin in the club scene from Nashville. But Dylan is an expert in gamesman­ship, and he sat there, crossing and uncrossing his legs, playing back.

[related_posts post_id_1=”403078″ /]

Afterwards, Dylan went backstage to introduce himself to Patti. He looked healthy, modestly relaxed (though his eyes never stopped burning with cool-blue fire), of un­imposing physicality, yet the corporeal Dylan can never be separated from the mythic Dylan, and it’s that other Dylan — the brooding, volatile, poet-star of “Don’t Look Back” — who heightens or destroys the mood of a room with the tiniest of gestures. So despite Dylan’s casual gracious­ness, everyone was excitedly unsettled.

And there was a sexual excitation in the room as well. Bob Dylan, the verdict was unanimous, is an intensely sexu­ally provocateur — “he really got me below the belt,” one of the women in the room said later. Understand, Dylan wasn’t egregiously coming on — he didn’t have to. For the sharp-pencil, slightly petulant vocals on “Blood on the Tracks” hardly prepared one for the warm, soft-bed tone of his speaking voice: the message driven home with that Dylan offhand is still Dylan compelling. So with just small talk he had us all subdued, even Patti, though when the photographers’ popping flashbulbs began, she laughing­ly pushed him aside, saying, “Fuck you, then take my picture, boys.” Dylan smiled and swayed away.

The party soon broke up — Dylan had given his encouragement to Patti, the rest of us had a glimpse from some future version of “Don’t Look Back” (but with a different star) — and the speculation about Dylan’s visit commenced. What did his casual benediction signify?

[related_posts post_id_1=”415552″ /]

Probably nothing, was the reasonable answer. But such sensible explanations are unsatisfying, not only because it’s a waste of Dylan’s mystique to interpret his movies on the most prosaic level, but because the four-day engagement at the Other End convincingly demonstrated that Patti and the band are no small-time cult phenomenon. Not only was Patti in good voice, but the band is extending itself confidently. Jay Doherty, the newly acquired drummer (he played with Lance Loud’s group and lived to tell the tale), provides rhythmic heat, and Lenny Kaye has improved markedly on guitar — his solo on “Time Is on My Side” for example moves Keith Richard riffing to Verlaine slashing. The band’s technical improvement has helped revivify the repertoire: “Break It Up” is now more sharply focused, “Piss Factory” is dramatically jazzy, and their anthem, “Gloria,” ends the evening crashingly. Missing were “Free Money,” and “Land” — the Peckinpahesque cinematic ver­sion of “Land of 1000 Dances” — which is being saved for the forthcoming album.

Something is definitely going on here and I think I know what it is. During one of her sets Patti made the seemingly disconnected remark, “Don’t give up on Arnie Palmer.” But when the laughter subsided, she added, “The greats are still the greatest.” Yes, of course! All her life Patti Smith has had rock and roll in her blood — she has been, like the rest of us, a fan; this is part of her connection with her audience — and now she’s returning what rock has given her with the full force of her love. Perhaps Dylan perceives that this passion is a planet wave of no small sweep. Yet what I cherished most about Patti’s engagement was not the pounding rock-and-roll intensity but a throwaway gesture of camaraderie. When Lenny Kaye was having difficulty setting up his guitar between numbers, Patti paced around, joked around, scratched her stomach, scratched her hair­ — still Kaye was not quite ready. “I don’t really mind,” she told the audience. “I mean, Mick would wait all night for Keith.”

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Rolling Stones/Guns N’ Roses: Stoned in L.A.

Los Angeles

Last week’s four concerts at Memorial Coliseum started as a battle of the bands, the old stones versus the young guns. As one dude-ette said to another on a toilet line, “Some people think this is a Rolling Stones concert. They’re so wrong.” She was among the hordes of nuevo L.A. hard-rockers hoping that the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band title might be passed to Guns N’ Roses, the nasty white boys with two albums out that have sold 12 million copies. They joined the Stones tour only for these gigs, a bill that had fans on other stops envi­ous. Forget about it. If you have tickets for this week’s four shows at Shea Stadi­um, count yourself lucky. You’re being spared, not cheated.

Shortly after sunset last Wednesday, a tidal wave of cheers arose and thousands of Bics flicked when Guns N’ Roses took the stage for their first hometown concert since they opened for Aerosmith in Sep­tember ’88. Singer W. Axl Rose started the show by demanding that we “calm the fuck down for a minute!” He had something to say.

“I’m getting fuckin’ sick and tired of all this publicity about our song ‘One in a Million.’ ” That, of course, is the notori­ous niggers-faggots-immigrants tune that was labeled a vile idiocy in the Voice and elsewhere shortly after the December re­lease of the album GN’R Lies. Months after it climbed the charts, The New York Times took umbrage, inspiring loads of op-eds on rock ’n’ roll bigotry and an Entertainment Tonight segment that gave yet more airtime to Tipper Gore.

“When I use the word nigger,” Axl ex­plained to 72,000 people at the first L.A. show, “I don’t necessarily mean a black person. I don’t give a crap what color you are as long as you ain’t some crack-smok­ing piece of shit…

“I don’t care who you have sex with. I just don’t want some faggot raping me…

“And I know there are a lot of immi­grants in America. All I ask is that they fuckin’ act like it…”

[related_posts post_id_1=”713650″ /]

Axl was on a roll. Wearing a backwards baseball cap and T-shirt, he was a greasy, long-haired redneck, spoiling the gig be­fore it got started. His remarks were hardly met with unanimous approval. While still substantial, the volume greet­ing each line was perhaps half as loud as the initial ovation. Axl finally concluded, “All you people calling me a racist, shove your head up your fuckin’ ass.”

This was winning the argument by in­timidation. It was only the first of a se­ries of disasters. Sounding more ragged than they looked, the five members ran through half of their songbook, though not “One in a Million” or the far catchier “Used to Love Her [but I had to kill her].” He had been storming around the set, keeping his distance from the band. Then Axl threw another grenade: “Unless certain people in this band get their shit together, these will be the last Guns N’ Roses shows you’ll ever see.” They stum­bled into “Mr. Brownstone,” a heroin-­laced adventure (“I used to do a little, but a little got more and more”). After sneer­ing and throwing the mike stand about, Axl fell off the front of the stage.

You might have thought he was under the influence, and he was, under the in­fluence of one of his infamous rages. (“He has a natural psychosis, a humongous temper,” an acquaintance of his told me the next morning. Another insider, also an admirer, echoed, “Axl’s a psychopath.”) His anger only escalated. None of the other band members spoke a word, and Slash, looking like Cousin It on gui­tar, didn’t show his face through his hair. At one point, Axl said, “Certain members of this organization were dancing with Mr. Brownstone,” i.e., shooting dope. That, it turned out, was why he was so furious.

The audience, subdued and confused, came alive only at the band’s break­through hit, “Sweet Child O’Mine.” The noise led to an encore, “Paradise City.” Before singing it, Axl announced, “This is my last gig with Guns N’ Roses.”

Well into the Stones’ 23-song, two-­hour-plus show, which sets a new standard for stadium concerts, Mick Jagger paused. “I think Axl did a good show,” he said, sneering the words, “but I wish he’d just shut up and play.” He then kicked into “Mixed Emotions,” the first single off Steel Wheels. He put an extra flip on the opening line, “Button your lip, bay-bee.”

The next night, Thursday, the tour­ openers Living Colour played in the waning daylight before a sparse au­dience. Singer Corey Glover wore a STOP RACISM T-shirt, and he and the band seemed particularly motivated. Living Colour’s very presence undermined at least some of Axl’s racism, especially this night. Two covers — the Talking Heads’ “Memories Can Wait” and the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” — sucked in the inattentive crowd, which had grown to maybe 20,000 people. As the half-hour set approached its finish, gui­tarist Vernon Reid stepped up to his microphone:

“Yesterday some things were said on stage that the band has a problem with. A certain person was trying to explain him­self.” As a founder of the Black Rock Coalition, Reid was duty-bound to speak, and he chose his words carefully. “Look, if you don’t have a problem with gay people, then don’t call them faggots. If you don’t have a problem with black peo­ple, then don’t call them niggers. I never met a nigger in my life. Peace.” The 98 per cent white audience roared. Living Colour careened into “Cult of Personality.”

Guns N’ Roses came on next, without Axl. Wearing a T-shirt that said BETTY FORD CLINIC, Slash came forward and asked for quiet. Now he had something to say:

“Over the years rock ’n’ roll has lost a lot of great ones.” He named Elvis, Janis, John Bonham, and rambled on. “Rock ’n’ roll and excess have become synonymous. There has been a lot written about this band and drugs. A lot of it is bullshit. A lot of it is true. Last night you almost saw the last Guns N’ Roses gig. I remember coming here as a kid to see Aerosmith and Van Halen and the Stones, dreaming of being up here. Last night I was up here and I didn’t even know it. Smack and all that crap ain’t what it’s about, and Guns N’ Roses isn’t going to be one of those bands who break up over it.”

Then Axl swaggered from behind the drum riser, to tremendous applause. To­night he looked ready to play. His hair was washed, even his tattoos seemed to gleam. “I wanna thank Slash for that intro, and I want to apologize for my comments and actions last night. It’s just that I don’t want to see my friends slip away.”

The band was in somewhat better form. Here was the singer’s nice side, the charming, sexy misfit with a stage presence that rivals Robert Plant’s. Axl has this menacing sashay, a signature move, that allows his body to sway below the shoulders while his mouth hugs the mike. He has a screeching falsetto any number of L.A. rooster-tails would die for, and an earthy midrange that carries a big heart, which he poured into the ballad “Pa­tience.” On the rat-bag rockers, though, he would scrunch his eyes, open his throat, and nearly throw his arms off his torso. His mean side still erupted, “I’m gonna dedicate this to some psycho-bitches,” he said by way of introducing “Out Ta Get Me.”

In this song he complains of having his rights “raped,” a favorite word. The sta­dium’s three big screens zoomed in on Slash’s guitar neck during the solo, your standard arena-rock squeal. The doctor, an internist, sitting next to me noted, “He’s not that bad yet. U can still see some veins on his arms. If he’s an addict, he’s only a babe.” When the camera panned back to Axl for the conclusion, he struck one of his stock poses, the cruci­fied rocker. On some nights that might be convincing, but not this one.

[related_posts post_id_1=”607227″ /]

The Stones were fabulous. Their show is tightly formatted, with intricate lighting and video cues and justly celebrated staging, which could’ve come out of Blade Runner. It’s taken a beating since the tour’s August 31 debut in Philadelphia, and the wear only enhances it.

What’s surprising is how much room the Stones have left for screwing around, as seeing back-to-back concerts con­firmed. Mostly this comes in Keith Ri­chards’s and Ron Wood’s guitar dueling, though even Jagger took many liberties with phrasing and ad libs. One night he crooned the lyrics to “Paint It Black,” the next he barked them. (Let’s also sa­lute drummer Charlie Watts, who read The Art Pepper Story and ate sushi while driving the band to Memphis and back in three minutes.) Richards completely messed up the opening chords of “Satis­faction,” a seemingly deliberate prank he also pulled at the second Shea show earli­er this month. Despite nearly identical set lists and shticks — Richards sang two songs instead of only “Happy,” “Angie” replaced “Play With Fire” — nearly every performance had a different high.

On the first night, however, I was root­ing for Guns N’ Roses. Here was an op­portunity for Axl to back away from his ugly interview in Rolling Stone. I actually worried that the Stones might have been making a mistake by inviting one of the planet’s biggest bands to open for them on home turf. I was also worried that the Stones might suck. (Their tour eight years ago was nothing special.)

Yet from the explosion before “Start Me Up” to the “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” fire­works at the end, the concert was a grand spectacle. It yielded a lot of laughs, a lot of funk, and the three new songs almost held their own. The most jaded bizzers and crits shook their tail feathers, and the paying customers were ecstatic. I fell in love with them again.

Of all the memories that stick — Keith’s voice sounding like shit and no one car­ing, the guitars roiling under the Uptown Horns in “Tumblin’ Dice,” my wife decid­ing Jagger’s not such a pratt after all­ — the one that’ll probably hang the hardest is Eric Clapton’s cameo during “Little Red Rooster.” Here’s an ex-addict joining a band that has had many narcotic diffi­culties of its own. Here’s a guy who once babbled from a London stage about how his green and pleasant England was being ruined by Pakistani immigration, now sitting in with a band that had to shake the dog of its own sexism-racism (“Black girls just wanna get fucked all night”). Here he was elegantly stinging a solo while Wood and Richards laid down grungy country-blues picking behind him.

Just look at all the records, all the con­certs and cops and divorces and child­-support payments behind these geezers. Compare them to the lives and maybe four first-rate songs of the bucks in Guns N’ Roses. It’s like putting a Honda scoot­er on a highway with a Harley. Has Keith Richards ever apologized? Has he ever got up in front of 72,000 people and blub­bered about how he’s messed his life up on drugs? More than any other shows on this Stones tour, which seems to be peaking right now, the concerts in L.A. put things in perspective. It was a battle of the bands, and Guns N’ Roses got blown off the stage. ■

[related_posts post_id_1=”689528″ /]

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

1989 Pazz & Jop: New Kids on the Block

Somewhere nearby you’ll find 1989’s cash crop, the list of 40 albums that has long been the leading export of the Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll. Give it the once-over — you’ll be glad you did. Judiciously employed, the critics’ top 40 will serve as a dandy consumer guide, and not only that, it’s got a hook. The obvious-in-hindsight winner and the unprecedented top 10 tell a story about shifting tastes in American popular music, a story that’s just beginning even though it’s been brewing for a decade. It’s the story of a new beat, a new sound, a new aesthetic. It’s the story of racial nightmares and crossover dreams — of dysfunctional prejudice, resurgent Afrocentrism, cultural desegregation. And it’s also the story of rock and roll eating itself and then rising from its own leavings like some mutant bottom-feeding carp, a giant goldfish with a yen for the sun.

I’ll tell the story as best I can, but I’ll tell it more briefly than has been my custom. No, I’m not written out after the decade opus I recently dropped hereabouts; in fact, having plowed through the voter comments, which are excerpted in chunks and snippets throughout the supplement, I feel compelled to clarify my views on the album, which this poll still honors among rock concepts and artifacts. But for some years a related story has also been emerging from Pazz & Jop — about consensus, or fragmentation, or pluralism. It’s become increasingly obvious that no one voice can sum up the poll with the kind of authority that was plausible a decade ago, and thus I’ve invited three additional essayists to usurp my space. Voice columnist Nelson George is the most prominent African-American rock/pop critic (and critic of African-American rock/pop); Arion Berger edited the LA Weekly music section for most of 1989; and chronic nonparticipant Tom Ward joins a great rock critic tradition by denying that he’s any such thing.

Given my space limitations, I’ll dispense with the details posthaste. The 16th or 17th poll was our biggest ever: 255 critics nationwide made our deadline. The P&J affirmative action program showed moderate progress among African-American voters (19 to 29, near as we can tell) and none, taking into account the increase in voters, among women (39 to 45). But there was a major generational leap: spurred in part by 25-year-old Poobah (and Voice music editor) Joe Levy, we got ballots from well over 30 professional/semiprofessional critics aged 25 or younger. What’s more, 12 of the kids’ top 15 acts were 25 or younger themselves. But even without the youth vote, the five under-25 artists in the top 10 would still have finished top 11, and this is news. Only once before has the poll been so top-heavy with whippersnappers — Prince–Replacements–R.E.M.–Run-D.M.C. in 1984 — and somehow De La Soul–Neneh Cherry–N.W.A.–Soul II Soul–Pixies has a fresher look. It’s not just their haircuts, either — it’s their professional experience, or lack of it. Run-D.M.C were 1984’s only newcomers, to the racks or the poll. This year young artists put four debut albums in the top 10. With an indie EP and album behind them, the Pixies are veterans by comparison.

Oddly enough, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising isn’t the first debut album ever to finish on top — nor, strictly speaking, the first teenaged winner. It shares both distinctions with 1977’s No. 1, identified with its 21-year-old front man but also showcasing a memorable young bass player: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. Amerindie loyalists please note, however, that it is the first winner not distributed by a major label. Whether these are significant parallels, cheap ironies, some strange amalgam of the two, or none of the above remains to be determined, with generational disagreements at least as intense as racial ones. Without the black vote, De La Soul still would have won; without the youth vote, they would have finished behind old farts Neil Young and Lou Reed. And when I toted up a minipoll of the 26 over-40s I could identify, I was surprised to find De La Soul down in eighth place, substantially behind not just Reed and Young but gangsta-minded bad boys N.W.A.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692586″ /]

Then I thought again and realized that I’d handicapped De La Soul to win myself — until I played the record a couple more times and decided it was just too slight to go all the way, knocking it out of my own top 10 in the process. I wonder how many of my fellow graybeards went through something similar. Very much like the Neville Brothers’ fourth-place Yellow Moon, which topped the 40-plus tally while finishing 17th among the 25-and-unders, 3 Feet High and Rising is so smart, so warm, so musical that only a pigfucker and/or stick-in-the-mud could dislike it. These three suburban kids rapped without swagger or inferrable threat; their dumb humor and original sound were out there for all to hear. But though they won handily, they did so with the weakest general support (the lowest points-divided-by-total-voters quotient) of any winner in P&J history, because they were also arch and obscure. Three- to four-minute song lengths looked like pop moves and sounded like deconstruction, the title evoked the music’s childlike growing pains but turned into a dick joke, the beat didn’t go on, and oldsters who don’t tumesce at the drop of a sample found themselves enjoying the group at a distance. I mean, Yellow Moon has a groove, Jack. Let po’-boy purists complain that the production’s cold not cool — this is essence of second-line, the rhythm of the spheres. True, I wasn’t sure it belonged on my list after it barely left my cassette case all summer. But faced with a lousy year, I remembered the Wild Tchoupitoulas and gave it the nod.

The big Pazz & Jop story is clearly black artists — only three times have blacks placed even three albums in the top 10, and this year suddenly they jump to five, adding the six top singles for good measure. But there’s more, because those darn Negroes have more than one groove, and these grooves don’t all mean the same thing. If once, to adapt a notion from Pablo Guzman, the punk groove jolted pop to its roots, by the late ’80s white rock settled for stasis as it raced through its forcebeats (or marched through its power chords or slogged through its grunge or tiptoed through its funk lite or trotted through its jingle-jangle-jingle or rocked through its rock and roll). At the same time, Prince and various Jacksons and Yo! MTV Raps were reminding forgetful bizzers that white Americans love it when colored people sing and dance. And slowly, painfully, a lot of rock criticism’s left-leaning ex-/quasi-bohemians learned to think on their feet — with them, even. But they didn’t all think to the same beat, or agree on how much a beat could mean. In the ’60s we called this different strokes for different folks.

De La Soul’s rhythms were the most dissociated in the top 10, the Nevilles’ the steadiest. And so voters raised on TV quick-cuts found truth in De La Soul, which won with the weakest general support (the lowest total-voters-to-points quotient) in P&J history, while baby boomers anchored to the big beat since childhood held fast to the Nevilles’ line. Accustomed to rhythmic signification, black voters came on strong for the easy, house-inflected world-funk of Soul II Soul’s Keep On Movin’, which except maybe for The Raw and the Cooked was the most meaning-free album in the top 40, adding just a patina of Afro-universalism to an affirmative groove believed to speak for itself. Cross-demographic fave Neneh Cherry put varied rhythms in the service of varied messages, and cause célèbre N.W.A. was juiced by both mastermixer Dr. Dre and the Federal Bureau of Investigation — and came in second with the oldest voters as well as the youngest, a lesson in who cares about rebel attitude around here. In the short run, rock criticism is a fun gig; as lifework, it favors hardasses.

Not that all critics have rewired their sensoriums for future shock, or abandoned literary concerns; not that the straight four-four has suddenly lost all force or appeal. Granted, the poetic women who loomed large in 1988’s music headlines took a tumble this year, from Tracy Chapman (third to 37th, though she was fifth among black voters) to Michelle Shocked (sixth to 64th) to 10,000 Maniacs (29th in ’87 to four mentions) to the Sugarcubes (35th to one mention). And even if the Chapman and Shocked followups were objectively disappointing, as one might say, I smell the fickle media in this shortfall: although it was like Kate Bush never went away, at 92nd Laurie Anderson gets my most-underrated nomination, and the last time the tied-for-90th Roches made such a good album it finished 11th. Instead journalists got their literary four-four from the folks who took out the original copyright — for sheer news value, old white guys (with one woman allowed in the club) rivaled young black ones. Last January you could have gotten 100-1 on a hall-of-fame exacta of Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones, and upped the odds astronomically by throwing in a secondary legend like Bonnie Raitt, Aerosmith, Don Henley, or 23-year-old P&J debut band NRBQ.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692583″ /]

None of these records is as automatic as jam addicts complain, but half of them are as boring as John Cougar Mellencamp’s or Graham Parker’s, neither of which made top 100. So I’m proud that my fellow 40-and-overs put only the two best in their top 15: Young’s Freedom, as masterful a total album as he’s ever made, and Reed’s New York, praised for its clunky politics as it gets over on its cannily tossed-off music. Like Tom Petty, who turned in the most undeniable record of his life by accident, they proved that rhythms don’t become extinct and grace isn’t always something you strive for. And like the ever craftier Mekons, plus maybe the ever tamer Replacements and conceivably the ever more lapidary Elvis Costello (just not, please, the terribly tortured Bob Mould or the fatally fussy XTC), they also demonstrated that the old rockcrit ideal of the good song, with a tune you can hum and a lyric you can put your mind to, will still sustain the occasional long-playing phonogram. But rock and roll future they ain’t. Rap is.

Critically speaking, hiphop is the new punk, nothing less. Not merely because it put six homies plus dabblers Neneh Cherry and Quincy Jones on the album chart and three others among the top six singles artists, but because the youngest writers — and I don’t just mean specialists like those at The Source, the national hiphop mag founded by Harvard undergrad Jon Shecter — are behind it so passionately. For sure a general rhythmic reorientation has been crucial to its upsurge, but that’s only the root: as has long seemed inevitable to anyone with a sense of how pop forms evolve, rappers are finally positioned to pick up where the Clash left off (and Bruce remains). Stressing the verbal while taking care of music more diligently than their punk counterparts, so competitive that artistic one-upsmanship is an obsession, sharing rock’s immemorial boys-into-men egoism, and committed to the kind of conceptual in-your-face that Nelson George thinks is overrated and most rockcrits live for, rap has gotten serious about its fun. Arion Berger may be right to consider its world-shaking pretensions delusory, but not many in her critical generation are inclined to give up on the dream.

A peculiar aspect of rap’s new status is that it implies spectatorship rather than participation. Though many of the new rap-oriented critics are African-American, more of them are white. And though the Beastie Boys and now 3rd Bass (who finished 50th, just ahead of Ice-T, and were preceded from 41st by Soundgarden, Rickie Lee Jones, Beleza Tropical, the Bats, the B-52’s, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and late-’88 holdovers Guy, Bobby Brown, and Lucinda Williams) won’t be the last white rappers of distinction, the genre is no more likely to be taken over by Caucasians, as we’re sometimes called, than bebop. Formulating an Afrocentric ideology certainly won’t be any worse for young whites than slipping into a Eurocentric one; probably it’ll be better. But until cultural desegregation is in full effect (sometime after the revolution, that is), I foresee a bifurcated music subculture, unwieldy no matter how essential. A similar audience structure didn’t do bebop much harm. But bebop never had a broad-based black audience; it was boho music, critics’ music, rarely even hinting at any politics beyond the black self-determination of its creative practice. In contrast, rap is activist and street-directed, and it’s already won over as many white fans in this country as punk (or bebop) ever did. This could get very interesting.

In fact, it’s plenty interesting already. Boys-into-men is putting it mildly — not counting metal (and I still don’t see why I should), rap is the most sexist and homophobic subgenre in the history of a music that’s always fed off male chauvinism. This excites critical concern, as it damn well should — N.W.A. can play at fucking tha police all they want, but Eazy-E has the symptoms of one sick case of short man’s disease, and if there were any justice Roxanne Shanté would add his jimmy to her pickle jar and start a collection. Rap’s friends as well as foes attacked its sexism plenty in this year’s poll — almost as often as they went after Public Enemy’s much better publicized anti-Semitism. Both topics — often counterbalanced by potshots at the even viler ideology of former crit heroes Guns N’ Roses — are aired in the “Public Enemies” section, but given bifurcation, I’m struck by the virtual absence of complaints about rap’s more sweeping racial chauvinism. When in “Black to the Future,” to choose just one example, Def Jet tells an audience he assumes is black, “But the enemy is not your brother/It’s that other motherfucker,” he’s articulating a healthy solidarity while leaving the “other” dangerously vague — the context disses racist whites going back to the slavers without specifying whether there’s any other kind. Such complexities often get lost in full-fledged political discourse and must be nearly impossible to pin down in a few lines of rhyme. Hiphop critics have their work cut out for them.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692580″ /]

I assume it’s the hope of avoiding this work, and the useless guilt and whiteskin arrogance it will surely entail, that steers critics to role models like Queen Latifah and Boogie Down’s KRS-One, whose standing I take as a mixed omen. Chuck Eddy is always too reluctant to believe that consciousness comes naturally to human beings, but he has reason to mock rap’s “plethora of literate, well-meaning, eclectic, professional, ambitiously conceptual albums-as-artworks” — if there were any justice, 67th-place Shanté would have topped Latifah (and I didn’t think so at first myself). As usual, Eddy is overstating. Rappers are pretentious in a fairly rude way when they’re pretentious at all, which Tone-Loc and Young M.C. and even N.W.A. aren’t; in rap, artistic advance is as likely to mean house effects (a specialty of both Latifah and Shanté) as Malcolm X or Langston Hughes or Sun Ra (83rd, by the way). But now that it’s attained both commercial and critical respectability — meaning acceptance in a white world that can’t be trusted to care for the music’s long-term cultural vitality — you have to wonder when it’ll get eaten up. Just because it’s stayed healthy longer than any rock subgenre ever doesn’t mean it’s discovered the gift of everlasting life.

One of the failed white rap groups to come down the pike in 1989 (three mentions) has a name for this dilemma: Pop Will Eat Itself, a classic middlebrow-deconstructionist misprision of the sampling that underpins rap’s historical intonations and seemingly indefatigable vitality. For art-student types like PWEI, this extreme dependence on the past, however irresistible, portends the music’s ultimate doom. And indeed, it’s certain that the professional musician’s eternal complaint — “What will they have left to sample after they’ve put us all out of work with their thievery?” — will find a correlative in rappers who adjudge it cool to work with a band. It’s also conceivable that sometime in the intermediate future sampling will just wear out — that for reasons we can’t yet fathom, listeners will get sick of it the way many are now sick of the straight four-four. But assuming (and praying) that the soundbite method isn’t stymied by legalisms, I’d guess that there’s enough material out there to keep rap going past the intermediate future — whereupon the world may be ready for another round of James Brown rips. To be honest, I’m not bored by them yet. Of course, the right four-four still rings my chimes too.

Rap’s “naïve” (Berger’s word, in a more limited context) assumption that it will overcome — affirmed rhythmically and vocally even when the words are as hyperreal as N.W.A.’s or Public Enemy’s — has got to light up critics whose subcultural representatives are as dolorous as the Cure or the Jesus and Mary Chain or even Galaxie 500, the closest Amerindie got to an up-and-comer in 1989. For rock and rollers who came up with the Sex Pistols, postpunk/garage crunch/chime constitutes a groove with the same compelling personal resonance that the Nevilles’ smooth syncopations or Charlie Watts’s rock and roll essence has for their elders, and many young critics voted for more guitar bands than rappers. But beyond the Pixies, who except for Sonic Youth are the only Amerindie band to rise in the poll (much less enter the top 10) since the Replacements and Hüsker Dü, these preferences tended to be local and/or personal. At this point, postpunk is so vast, so various, and so devoid of focus or leadership that fastening on a guitar band is like picking a world-beat album — a lot of them sound pretty good, with more precise decisions up to happenstance. And if not everyone in the lineup of college-radio-type 51-to-100 finishers — Jayhawks, Camper Van, Voivod, Faith No More, Syd Straw, Indigo Girls, Exene Cervenka, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, Frogs, Masters of Reality, Yo La Tengo, Walkabouts, Young Fresh Fellows, Mudhoney, Smithereens, Pogues — is altogether bummed out or defeated, none could be called confident; the good humor that’s their version of positive rarely lasts more than a song or two. No wonder their contemporaries spectate elsewhere.

The confidence factor cuts both ways, however. The main reason some critics still don’t get rap is — well, call it rhythmic, or cultural. Hooked up to the straight four-four, they don’t understand rap as music — they have trouble thinking on their feet. But rap’s positivity puts another kind of cap on its critical consensus. Because we’re usually serious and often dour ourselves, critics aren’t as ready as the average culture consumer to buy rose-colored glasses or happy feet. Drunk on romance, a rock critic will still refuse a steady diet of love songs, preferring to savor one or two. Defiance is our meat — as extreme as we knew the Sex Pistols’ rage to be, few of us were inclined to deny its conviction and truth value. And today, ridiculous though most may find the gloom of gothic or industrial, a modest pessimism is regarded as seemly — in a world whose salvation is in doubt, musicians are allowed to mix just a few smallscale epiphanies into their existential confusion, nothing grander. Hence, most of rap’s boasts and calls to action bounce off critical skeptics, and silliness takes De La Soul only so far.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692572″ /]

But rap does at least retain “underclass” credentials — despite the middle-class heroes it’s generated, and unlike dance music, which rarely gets the same respect even though it’s quite popular among poor people. Together with goofy-to-organic reinterpretations of Public Enemy’s deep mix, house borrowings — standard keyb and piano hooks, diva soul, fuzzed-out bass, looser beats — dominated rap’s musical development in 1989. But while Janet Jackson and Quincy Jones and pomo poet Madonna all brush up against dance music good as any rapper, only Soul II Soul and, as it happened, Neneh Cherry came out of the club world. Even on the singles chart there’s a paucity of dance flukes — unless you count Digital Underground, the Oakland electrorap crew whose forthcoming album handicaps as a Pazz & Jop sureshot, they begin and end at Inner City’s 24th-place “Good Life,” which finished a crucial two places ahead of the undeniable current crossover “Pump Up the Jam” (hope it shows up in 1990). Instead, as if to put their imprimatur on rap’s seriousness, the critics sorted rap singles out from rap albums — of the seven in our top 25, only one appeared on a charting LP, or longform, or whatever the synonym is these days.

This is a major omission. Most house hits are irreducibly cultish, but I still put three of the poppier ones in my top 10, and given the chance might have gone higher (I didn’t find out what “This Is Acid” was till six months after it imprinted itself one hot Bronx Zoo Saturday, and I’ve yet to lay hands on a copy). There’s really no question that insofar as the new rock aesthetic is rhythmic and sonic it’s happening at least as much in the clubs as at the intersection of Mean Street and Yo! MTV Raps. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean J. D. Considine’s call for a new dance-music criticism will set off any stampedes — if rock critics mistrust rap’s positivity, they feel something approaching contempt for house’s. And while contempt generally demeans the beholder, it’s not as if the disdain is gratuitous. Hard-core dancers whose minds still function in the daytime infer a social vision from the communal ecstasy (and sore tootsies?) of the dance floor, and they’re not just jiving. But they are jiving a little. Because if on the one hand (foot?) utopian fantasies are always revolutionary, on the other they’re always escapes. And despite the pomo bromide that every little escape helps breach our invisible prison walls, this apparently unsavable world is currently offering plenty of contravening evidence.

The claims I’ve made for rap may sound old to nonbelievers — I’ve rooted hard for the stuff ever since making a Sugarhill best-of my top album of 1981. But as far as I’m concerned I’m just reading the tea leaves. Though as usual I’ve voted for plenty of rap this year, I gotta tell ya — between the trans-stoopid “Pump Up the Jam” and the mysterious “This Is Acid,” it’s the dance records that feel extraordinary on my singles list this year. Too much of the rap breaks down into sustaining pleasures (Tone-Loc and “Fight the Power”), forbidden sojourns (2 Live Crew and “Terrordome”), and album cuts without albums (Digital Underground and A Tribe Called Quest). What’s more, at the top of my album chart itself you’ll find something I never expected to put there again: three phonograms anchored to the straight four-four.

Since I’ve been misconstrued as proclaiming “the death of the album” or some such, I want to be very clear. It’s the “great album” I have my doubts about, and by that I do not mean a Consistently Realized Work of Art Demonstrating Revelatory Literary Depth and Sonic Imagination. Taking different strokes into account, those will continue to manifest themselves — for all I know, Spike qualifies. But as I once said about great artists, a great album demands a great audience, and in view of rock’s galloping fragmentation, the idea that any album can invoke much less create such an audience seems increasingly chimerical. It so happens that 1989 saw the release of two Consistently Realized Etc. albums tailor-made for the different folks in my generational and racial fragment, who cannot in themselves constitute a great audience. Never mind that Neil Young’s Freedom did better with the electorate at large than with Neil’s fellow 40-and-overs, who didn’t even find room for The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll in their top 15 — those two records summed up the traditional rock sensibility, in which the need for continuity equals the longing for a steady groove. Yes, it’s true that one merely rearticulates longstanding frustrations, confusions, and limitations while the other proclaims the imminent death not just of the great album but of the traditional rock sensibility. That still doesn’t mean there won’t be more.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692493″ /]

But it may suggest that, great or not, they won’t mean much, and here’s where this “death of the album” business starts making sense. Put it this way: even in popular music terms, albums are epiphenomena. What they’re really about is consistently realized careers — nothing less, but nothing more. I uncovered pretty much the usual number of gooduns in 1989, and those who find my tastes reliable can use this annual Dean’s List as still another consumer guide. Enjoy, because I did; I love my albums, don’t hear enough of them. But over the past decade I’ve stopped understanding rock history in their terms. Granted, they’re such tidy artifacts that it’s possible 100 years from now rock history will be written in their terms if it’s written at all. Like all great-man theories, though, that history will be a gross distortion. Anybody with a modicum of pop sense has always known this, but in the ’80s, multiplying media as well as galloping fragmentation have made it inescapable — even as the convenient annual construct generated by this poll, the album summary may well merit more disbelief than anyone should be asked to suspend. Right, at some level “hip-hop is the new punk” seems both statistically justifiable and poetically just. But even if you think albums mean more than I’m ready to claim, it was a lousy year. The numbers say so —  prorated, never have the leaders gathered fewer total points. And so does the poetry.

Initially, it was a sense of poetry that moved me to break precedent and list a commercially unavailable item as my No. 1. Pulnoc’s Live at P.S. 122 (the title handwritten on the inset card of this soundboard cassette) was in fact my leisure longform of choice in 1989, but that was no more my criterion this year than it ever has been — what made the difference was that not even Young or the Mekons sounded, well, great in quite the same way. And when Eastern Europe exploded in December I felt as if maybe the four-four had something to do with history after all. More phoenix than carp, Pulnoc are an amalgam of three of Prague’s Plastic People — who started a year after NRBQ and suffered lots more than the road for the rock and roll life — and four of that seminal Czech band’s 25-ish fans. They don’t seem any more explicitly political than Charlie Parker — I don’t understand Czech so I’m not certain. But they mesh trancelike vocals, hypnotic hooks, draggy drones, and guitar work not unreminiscent of Neil Young all into an ineluctable four-four that could make you believe in rock and roll future yet again. I trust that their cleverly orchestrated publicity blitz will win them an official U.S. release in 1990, and I’m betting that in their way, which is naïve in one respect and wiser than you’ll ever be in another, they believe in the great album. They are contravening evidence that walks and talks and plays the guitar. I have not the slightest doubt that sometimes they long for escape just like any other human beings. And achieve it too.

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. De La Soul: 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy)

2. Neil Young: Freedom (Reprise)

3. Lou Reed: New York (Sire)

4. The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (A&M)

5. Neneh Cherry: Raw Like Sushi (Virgin)

6. N.W.A.: Straight Outta Compton (Ruthless)

7. Elvis Costello: Spike (Warner Bros.)

8. The Mekons: The Mekons Rock ’n’ Roll (A&M)

9. Soul II Soul: Keep On Movin’ (Virgin)

10. Pixies: Doolittle (4AD/Elektra)

[related_posts post_id_1=”697296″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1989

1. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” (Motown)

2. Neneh Cherry: “Buffalo Stance” (Virgin)

3. Soul II Soul: “Keep On Movin’ ” (Virgin)

4. Fine Young Cannibals: “She Drives Me Crazy” (I.R.S.)

5. Tone-Loc: “Wild Thing” (Delicious Vinyl)

6. Young M.C.: “Bust a Move” (Delicious Vinyl)

7. Madonna: “Like a Prayer” (Sire)

8. The B-52s: “Love Shack” (Warner Bros.)

9. Tom Petty: “Free Fallin’ ” (MCA)

10. Rolling Stones: “Mixed Emotions” (Rolling Stones)

—From the February 27, 1990, 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

1981 Pazz & Jop: The Year the Rolling Stones Lost the Pennant

Early in November, as disconsolate as most of my colleagues about the run of rock and roll in 1981, I disclosed the results of the eighth or ninth Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll to anybody who happened by my desk. “Tattoo You in a landslide,” I announced, looking over the fatal piece of graph paper in my mind’s eye as I shook the writer’s cramp out of my mind’s hand. “No other consensus is possible. New wave, punk, whatever you want to call it, is in complete disarray. Sandinista!s a mess, Trust is underrated, nobody likes Flowers of Romance. The only record I’ve played a lot myself is Wild Gift —except for my rap records, I mean — but X will never go over at the dailies. Anyway, Tattoo You has hooks, not like Emotional Rescue or something. And this is the most reactionary year in the history of rock and roll. The Kinks, J. Geils, Rod Stewart, all those guys put out good product again. None of it means shit, of course, but at least they’re paying attention to craft, writing songs you can remember five minutes later. When the votes start coming in from the Midwest it’s gonna be old school tie — world’s greatest rock and roll band rakka-rakka-rakka. They can’t miss.”

This news occasioned considerable dismay at the Voice offices. Were we going to put them on the cover after resisting the greatest media blitz since Wendell Wilkie like the cool guys we are? No way. Space for the poll was cut and the awards gala canceled. When Poobah Tom Carson and I got around to mailing out the actual ballots, we were lackadaisical, making only token efforts to update addresses and find new names.

But soon things got strange. Reviewing the year’s albums, I found that my top 10 pool was expanding from a scant half dozen to the usual lucky 13 or so. Records I’d admired and then put away, like Red and Solid Gold, kept sounding better, as did former in-a-good-year-this-would-be-top-20 candidates like Wha’ppen? and Talk Talk Talk. David Byrne and Human Switchboard were just beginning to sink in, and it wasn’t until January that a late mailing from Englewood introduced me to a great 1981 album. I didn’t expect Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 to sweep past Rickie Lee Jones and U2 in the hearts of the electorate (well, maybe U2), but it sure made it less awkward for me to divide my points — 19 or 20 of them could now go in one place. At the same time my list of also-rans got longer and longer — counting five or six imports and a couple of cassettes, I’d have 60 A and A minus long players by poll time, a new record. Then, as the early ballots came in, a quick tally confirmed the strangest turn of all: Elvis Costello was leading the Stones two-to-one.

Well, whew — we hadn’t been scooped by People, Rolling Stone, and the Soho News after all. But once I’d chastised myself for selling my own poll short I began to wonder where my story was. How would I dispose of the contumely I’d been storing up for Paul Slansky, Jann Wenner, and Geraldo Rivera, or justify reprinting the wonderful Greil Marcus parody in which Mick denies that the Stones have “something new” planned for their 1981 tour (“We’re going to do the same thing we’ve always done. And then we’re going to do it again. Forever.”)? Instead I was stuck with good ole Elvis C., critics’ darling and hepster’s cherce. Trust was indeed the best E.C. since his poll-topping This Year’s Model in 1978, but how was this latest triumph of the new wave going to look? Pretty predictable, right?

[related_posts post_id_1=”692485″ /]

But not as predictable, I realize in irrefutable retrospect, as the actual winner: the Clash’s sprawling, flawed, reached-but-not-grasped three-record set Sandinista!, all but one point of its modest margin provided by the votes it received as an import in 1980, when the grand, fine-tuned, consolidated-if-not-synthesized two-record set London Calling proved the most overwhelming lollapalooza in P&J history. Somewhat more surprising was the runner-up: X’s Wild Gift, with votes from daily reviewers in En Why and El Lay and Boston and Dayton and Detroit and Minneapolis too, as well as from 50 or so of the counterculture pros, hobbyists, freelancers, and semiemployed lowlifes who dominate rock criticism as they always have. Trust finished a very close third, with more mentions than Sandinista! or Wild Gift (and precisely as many as last year’s fourth-ranked Pretenders). Although first-half ballots indicated that the Stones would trail Prince and Rick James (both of whom were on the world’s greatest etc.’s tween-set tape at the Garden and one of whom was beset with catcalls when he opened for the world’s etc. in Los Angeles), Tattoo You finished a firm fourth, followed by Rickie Lee Jones’s Pirates (which I’ll try not to mention again), East Side Story by Squeeze (a dubious band which came into its indubitable own), Dreamtime by Tom Verlaine (hipster’s choice), Controversy by Prince (who I bet got some votes people wish they’d given [1980]’s ninth-ranked Dirty Mind, which finished 43rd this year but didn’t qualify as “late-breaking” the way Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall did last time), Rick James’s Street Songs (grass-roots album of the year), and the Go-Go’s Beauty and the Beat (lightweight-and-proud album of the year).

Before I explain how I’ve always known Sandinista! would win, however, I must explore in some detail the common observation that, as Kristine McKenna of Los Angeles put it, “It was a LOUSY year for albums. I only felt strongly about two that came out this year. An amazing year for singles — easily came up with a list of 30 that totally killed me.” After several months of pondering this notion and its many equivalents, I’ve decided that I don’t agree. It was a great year for albums. But most critics who offered their comments said something similar, and this year’s general enthusiasm for the singles voting (initiated in 1979) proved that they meant it.

For the new poll we divided the singles category in two to reflect the proliferation of EPs — extended-play collections of three to eight songs that list at between $3 (for seven-inchers) and $6 (what the majors charge for 12-inch 15-to-20-minute “mini-albums”). I don’t trust EPs, especially as marketed by the bigs, who are not above duplicating/remixing forthcoming album cuts or played-out singles in their pursuit of the cute little new-wave buck; on a cost-per-minute basis, EPs don’t give value like a good LP. But they’re the ideal way for an undercapitalized company to get music out there, and most local bands don’t have an album’s worth of material anyhow. The winner was the Specials’ “Ghost Town,” an augury of Britain’s anti-police riots, which was all over the radio when Punjabis and 4 Skins inaugurated the hostilities last July; it came out here in an eerie remix that got 20 votes as a single, but since 24 voters liked the B-side (“Why?”/”Friday Night Saturday Morning”) enough to put the three-song disc on their EP lists, that’s how we slotted it.

The industry still classifies the Specials’ label as an independent, but I call Chrysalis a major. Running a surprisingly strong second, though, was Never Say Never, by 415 Records’ Romeo Void, a San Francisco band whose It’s a Condition finished 17th among the LPs. (I suspect people of voting strictly for the title cut, an outburst of metasexual venom that’s induced me to stand around the Ritz with my coat on, but I’ve never connected with the album, so what do I know?) And of the remaining nine finishers, only Lene Lovich and the Pretenders (whose follow-up album came in a dismal 87th) cracked an indie-dominated field. It’s no surprise to see three bands from New York — 99’s ESG, American Clave’s DNA (Ar-to! Ar-to!), Lust/Unlust’s Individuals — and three from Boston — Ace of Hearts’s Lyres and Mission of Burma, Shoo-Bop’s Peter Dayton — on the list. EPs speak to local loyalties, and Boston and New York are where the critics are. I just wonder what happened to L.A., source of three of my top 10, including the Descendents’ “Fat” E.P., which tied for 15th with seven votes, none of them from Los Angeles.

Which brings us to what’s supposed to be action central: the singles. In a way I do agree — I played my “street” (new code for black) 12-inches, especially my favorite rap records, more obsessively than anything to come my way since The Clash was an import. But not everybody sought the same action. Kristine McKenna was drawn to English dance music, Vince Aletti to some “street”-Brit synthesis. Despite the EP boom Ira Kaplan still got into lots of American independents; Tim Sommer concentrated on punk/oi/hardcore. Roger Glass listened mostly to black radio in Washington; Richard Riegel and the two daughters who helped him out on his list made do with AOR or A/C or AM or FM or whatever they’re calling unlistenable crap in Cincinnati these days, and with a little help from Laurie Anderson he got by.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692483″ /]

Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” one half of a dead heat for top single, was the pop event of the year — or rather, the other pop event of the year (what we counterculture pros call the alternative). Billed as an EP because its two sides run 8:12 and 5:55 (here at P&J we define as singles all discs comprising two songs, aural performances, or whatever), “O Superman” came out initially on One Ten, whose chief endeavor is an exhaustive new wave discography called Volume, and was already a phenomenon when John Peel and Rough Trade turned it into a British chart-smasher. After that Warners completed its pursuit of performance art’s pride and took the record over. A real new wave fairy tale, and stay tuned for the sequel. But novelty records either get you or they don’t, and though I’ll take Anderson’s paranoid whimsy over Napoleon XIV or Little Roger & the Goosebumps, it so happens that I prefer “Double Dutch Bus” and “Ode to Billie Joe.” In fact, I also prefer its other half. The Rolling Stones’ greatest anthem in over a decade, “Start Me Up” is truer and braver than the increasingly rhetorical “Jumping Jack Flash” or the increasingly self-serving “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll,” not to mention the increasingly racist “Brown Sugar.” But this is true not least because its central conceit — Mick as sex machine, complete with pushbutton — explains why the album it starts up never transcends hand-tooled excellence except when Sonny Rollins, uncredited, invades the Stones’ space. Though it’s as good in its way as “Street Fighting Man,” how much you care about it depends entirely on how much you care about the Stones’ technical difficulties. So I found myself rooting for “O Superman.” “Start Me Up” may have been the more compelling aural performance. But “O Superman” was the more compelling pop event of the year.

Needless to say, I started rooting only when convinced that “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” would be held to third (assuming it outlasted Kim Carnes’s pop event). “Wheels of Steel,” the skeptic’s (and aesthete’s) 12-inch, is a mix rather than a rap, segueing bits of Chic, Queen, Blondie, three Sugarhill productions, and what sounds like a Flash Gordon serial into an ur-novelty that struts rap’s will to reclaim and redefine popular culture. Though it finished 12 votes behind the leaders, it got four more votes than last year’s winner, “The Breaks,” a showing that typifies a year when more of the poll-topping singles could be heard on WBLS than WNEW, and in dance clubs than on the radio — a year when impecunious white journalists went out and bought Frankie Smith (tied for 12th) and the Funky Four Plus One (ninth) as if they imports, which in a sense I suppose they were.

For me, rap was only the tip of the joint. If the audacity of the new black dance music and its alternative (note term) economy didn’t reach far enough to constitute a genuine pop event, it certainly resembled one. That a dance hook from Tina Weymouth & Co. (sixth) inspired two rap covers is no less heartening than that Rockpool chose to work Taana Gardner (tied for 12th). Of course, the end of the year saw a new surge of Brit dance-synth whizzes like Pete Shelley and Soft Cell (tied for seventh); the new funk’s alternative economy is even less idealistic than others that have come and gone; and all this tentative critical crossover occurred in a year when there were often only two or three black singles in the national top 20, a shocking retrogression to 1954 that’s as much the fault of “progressive” radio (and journalism) as of Ronald Reagan. Nevertheless, barriers seem to be falling.

But as long as I’ve waited for those barriers to come down, my deepest musical pleasure this past year was the simple if time-consuming process of not missing any gooduns. This wasn’t just a matter of establishing quick contact with late releases from Black Flag and Bohannon and Al Green, of finally landing copies of Z. Z. Hill and the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, of listening too long to David Lindley and Swamp Dogg. It also involved reevaluating a lot of records I’d adjudged just-fine-thanks and then cramming into my shelves. And while Johnny Copeland dropped down toward the bottom of my list and Aretha Franklin sounded more confused than her best album in a decade warranted, most of this music showed unexpected depth. The second side of Red gripped me almost as hard as the first, and without a “Youth of Eglington” to grab hold; the teeth Shoes have added to their charming formula nipped at my cerebellum; I remembered almost every song on Sly & Robbie Present Taxi; I winced with renewed amazement at 1981’s most powerful music, the four songs that begin side two of Season of Glass. Never before have I sat down at the end of January with so many albums from the previous year so firmly imprinted in my head.

And so, to the lists:

First the EPs. Voters got to name five; I’m listing 10:

1. Descendents: “Fat” E.P. (New Alliance) 2. Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.) 3. Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip) 4. DNA: A Taste of DNA (American Clave) 5. Propeller Product (Propeller) 6. Panics: “I Wanna Kill My Mom”/”Best Band”/”Tie Me Up, Baby!” (Gulcher) 7. Bebe Buell: Covers Girl (Rhino) 8. Specials: “Ghost Town”/”Why?”/”Friday Night Saturday Morning” (Chrysalis) 9. Peter Dayton: Love at 1st Sight (Shoo-Bop) 10. Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts).

Then singles. I enjoyed 40 or 50, but only 25 totally killed me, with R.E.M. pending:

1. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill) 2. Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End) 3. T. S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage) 4. “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill) 5. Killing Joke: “Change” (Editions E.G. import) 6. Afrika Bambaataa/Zulu Nation/Cosmic Force: “Zulu Nation Throw Down” (Paul Winley) 7. Bits & Pieces: “Don’t Stop the Music” (Mango) 8. Medium Medium: “Hungry So Angry” (Cachalot) 9. Liliput: “Eisiger Wind” (Rough Trade import) 10. Black Flag: “Louie Louie” (Posh Boy)

11. The Treacherous Three: “The Body Rock” (Enjoy) 12. Scritti Politti: “The ‘Sweetest’ Girl” (Rough Trade) 13. Yoko Ono: “Walking on Thin Ice”/”It Happened” (Geffen) 14. Teena Marie: “Square Biz” (Gordy) 15. Frankie Smith: “Double Dutch Bus” (WMOT) 16. Depeche Mode: “New Life” (Mute import) 17. Pete Shelley: “Homosapien” (Genetic import) 18. Kim Carnes: “Bette Davis Eyes” (EMI) 19. Trickeration: “Rap, Bounce, Rockskate”/”Western Gangster Town” (Sounds of New York) 20. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones) 21. Spoonie Gee: “Spoonie Is Back” (Sugarhill) 22. Chron Gen: “Reality” (Step-Forward import) 23. Brother D. & Collective Effort: “How You Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise” (Clappers) 24. Denroy Morgan: “I’ll Do Anything for You” (Becket) 15. Luther Vandross: “Never Too Much” (Epic).

[related_posts post_id_1=”692481″ /]

And finally, the albums, all 60 of the gooduns I’ve found so far because I want to make a point:

1. Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 (Sugarhill) 19; 2. X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; 3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 13; 4. Sunny Ade: The Message (Sunny Alade import) 12; 5. English Beat: Wha’ppen? (Sire) 9; 6. David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 9; 7. Gang of Four: Solid Gold (Warner Bros.) 6; 8. Psychedelic Furs: Talk Talk Talk (Columbia) 6; 9. Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 6; 10. Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 5.

11. Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 12. UB40: Present Arms (DEP International) 13. Robert Ashley: Perfect Lives (Private Parts): The Bar (Lovely) 14. Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15. The “King” Kong Compilation (Mango) 16. Yoko Ono: Season of Glass (Geffen) 17. Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.) 18. dB’s: Stands for Decibels (Albion import) 19. The Blasters (Slash) 20. Al Green: Higher Plane (Myrrh)

21. Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 22. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 23. Gregory Isaacs: Best of Gregory Isaacs Volume 2 (GG) 24. Sly & Robbie Present Taxi (Mango) 25. Meredith Monk: Dolmen Music (ECM) 26. Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: Bad Reputation (Boardwalk) 27. Shoes: Tongue Twister (Elektra) 28. Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire) 29. Let Them Eat Jelly-beans! (Virus import) 30. Penguin Cafe Orchestra (Editions E.G.)

31. Elvis Presley: This Is Elvis (RCA Victor) 32. Tom Tom Club (Sire) 33. Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 34. Shannon Jackson & the Decoding Society: Nasty (Moers Music import) 35. C81 (Rough Trade/NME import cassette) 36. Teena Marie: It Must Be Magic (Gordy) 37. Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (Sire/ZE) 38. Marvin Gaye: In Our Lifetime (Gordy) 39. James Blood Ulmer: Free Lancing (Columbia) 40. Lucinda: Happy Woman Blues (Folkways)

41. Aretha Franklin: Love All the Hurt Away (Arista) 42. Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 43. Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 44. Z. Z. Hill: Down Home (Malaco) 45. Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 46. Sir Douglas Quintet: Border Wave (Takoma) 47. Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M) 48. David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 49. Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia) 50. Bohannon: Alive (Phase II)

51. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 52. Warren Zevon: Stand in the Fire (Asylum) 53. Mofungo: End of the World (unlabeled cassette) 54. Garland Jeffreys: Escape Artist (Epic) 55. John Anderson: 2 (Warner Bros.) 56. Johnny Copeland: Copeland Special (Rounder) 57. Muddy Waters: King Bee (Blue Sky) 58. Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder) 59. Smokey Robinson: Being with You (Tamla) 60. Basement 5: 1965-1980 (Antilles).

Somewhere hereabouts you will find Lester Bangs’s ballot, a rather less sanguine document which I’ve reprinted in toto because I think it’s inspired, provocative, funny, and dead wrong. I dissent with special emphasis, of course, from “the lie that anybody else finds it vital” etc., even though the prevailing critical mood is more or less (less, but with Lester that’s a given) as he describes it. Kit Rachlis, editor of the wonderful Boston Phoenix music section and a critic I value as much as I do Bangs, took it more temperately and from a different historical angle: “[This] is not to say that there haven’t been any good records — I have no trouble naming 30 — only to say that there’s not a great record in the bunch, no record so fierce and reckless and nimble that it will affect listeners just as strongly in five or 10 years as it does now.” Lester says nothing gets him off now as much as the music of the past did (and does); Kit says nothing gets him off as much as it should now because it won’t get him off (as much as it should) in the future. Both assume what has always been the underlying aim of rock criticism even more than of rock and roll: to transform the thrill-seeking impulses of adolescence into a workable aesthetic if not philosophy if not way of life.

If it sounds like I’m making fun, then I’m making fun of myself (good policy for rock critics even more than rock musicians). I certainly fell for punk, new wave, whatever you want to call it, the basic appeal of which (at least for critics) was the gift of eternal life, or at least the ancient promise of Danny & the Juniors: “Rock and roll is here to stay.” And now new wave is here to stay. But it’s been five years since punk failed to conquer America (or Britain either, truth be told). There are in fact a whole new bunch of punks out there, and we’ll be hearing from them (though I can’t say I find much demographic significance in Tim Sommer’s fierce prediction that “within weeks” the fans of Heart Attack, a moderately nifty Great Neck hardcore band, will “far outnumber” the critics supporting Grandmaster Flash and Prince, who got 44 and 30 mentions respectively). Meanwhile, what’s going on for the rest of us is a consolidation, and if we’re lucky a reaching out. By definition this isn’t a thrill-packed project, and its disappointments and uncertainties can be daunting. So Lester, an ace critic because he takes everything hard, is bitterly disappointed because “almost all current music is fraudulent” and “worthless” (and also because his friend Richard Hell, never a model of fortitude, hasn’t thought up a title for his unreleased album). And Kit, an ace editor because he puts everything in context, is downcast because no record released in 1981 has (will have) the impact and staying power of 1980’s Dirty Mind or 1979’s Into the Music (by Van Morrison, in case you forgot, which would be too bad) or 1978’s Pure Mania (by the unjustly neglected Vibrators, though for impact and staying power I’ll take Parallel Lines myself).

It’s plain as the light on your stereo that the voters went for Sandinista! to fend off such uncertainty and disappointment. Most critics I know, Kit included, love a lot of it (my January recommendation is “Rebel Waltz”), but find it frustrating to approach even one side at a time, much less as a whole. With 199 ballots counted this year and 201 last, it got only two-thirds the points of London Calling, averaging under 13 where London Calling was over 15. Yet there are those, Lester included, who much prefer it, for the incontrovertible reason that it takes risks — a whole side of dub, Tymon Dogg, Mikey Dread, the very size of the thing, even the title. And sometimes it gets away with them — who would have thought that the Clash could come up with a “street” record like “Magnificent Dance,” a triumph that consolidates, reaches out, and thrills all at once?

But in the end I remain unconverted. For political art I’ll take Red Crayola, more sophisticated if less soulful, or Gang of Four, ditto but with a more significant groove, or the (English) Beat, apparently the opposite but don’t bet against their smarts, or for that matter Al Green, pushing the same message as the former Robert Zimmerman and supposed new wavers U2 and making me like it. And for risks and what Lester calls vitality I’ll take the folks at Sugarhill, both the profiteers who’ve put together the funkiest house band since Stax-Volt and the aural graffiti artists who come in boasting and jiving as if the American dream retains its magic only in places like the South Bronx, where it’s been ravaged altogether. Talk about significant grooves — the most possessed punks never had more spirit or imagination, and here’s hoping (not necessarily expecting) that the rappers will grow in wisdom eventually. Still, I’d be hard put to claim that Greatest Rap Hits Vol. 2 is on a par with London Calling or Dirty Mind (though I’d rank it with Into the Music and Parallel Lines). It really wasn’t a year for instant greatness — it was a year for consolidation and reaching out.

Consolidations take time to sink in. Moondance and Layla, as far removed from Aftermath and Rubber Soul as we are from The Clash and Marquee Moon, didn’t reveal themselves immediately as great albums. Real good, sure; great, who knew? It took years — and it could happen again. No less than three of the Pazz & Jop top 11 — four if you count Dreamtime — confront a theme native to r&b and country music. You can’t call it marriage because there’s no sign that the couples who carp and coo through Who’s Landing in My Hangar? or flay and fuck through Wild Gift want to make it legal or permanent. But they don’t want to just split, either, and their best advice might well be found on Trust, Elvis C.’s most mature, musical, and morally assured album. He’d probably warn them not to seek so many thrills, and they’d probably nod yes and go after a few more in spite of themselves, because that’s rock and roll. Trust certainly lacks the punchy immediacy of This Year’s Model, but no one can measure its lasting impact. Real good, sure; great, who knows?

And if real good is where Trust (and my other sleeper, Wha’ppen?) should end up, so be it — I’ll still reach out. Popular music seems as fragmented as in the dog days of 1975 — nothing is certain, good records are nowhere and everywhere. But things have changed utterly. While major-label cutbacks continue, more discs are produced by more companies than ever before. Some of these new labels are staffed by laid-off bizzers who actually like music, more by novices who succumbed back when punk was failing to conquer America. All work with acts that in flusher times the biz would have taken a flier on. Their costs (and expectations) are so low that CBS’s flop looks like Impoverished’s smasheroo (when an indie album sells 10,000 copies it is said to “go vinyl”). And it is these labels that make the difference between dog days and cool nites.

[related_posts post_id_1=”692479″ /]

It’s become almost redundant to point out how few of our critics’ top 40 go gold — 14 last year, seven this. Among white artists, only the Stones, the Police, and — ’scuse me — Rickie Lee Jones qualify, with Tom Tom Club on the way, though in black music, where aesthetics and economics are still in some kind of alignment, Rick James, Prince, and Luther Vandross all have major hits. But the failure of many conglomerates and established “independents” to even crack the list is something new. Polygram, MCA, RCA, Arista, and Chrysalis all placed in 1980 and were shut out in 1981, with WEA (which includes Sire, Island, Geffen, Rolling Stones, and Asylum as well as Warner-Reprise) up slightly and Columbia/Epic down one. Meanwhile, independents — some traditional (Boardwalk), some major-affiliated (Mango and I.R.S., which distributes Faulty), some in one-off deals (ZE and EG), and some completely autonomous (Slash and 415) — scored 10 times, a gain of four, with imports up from two to four (including two by the dB’s, whose domestically unsigned status is the shame of New York). My own list of 60 includes 21 indies and six imports (three of them once again by American artists).

The flood of marginal product makes the boundaries of criticism vaguer. In the ’70s I used to try and hear everything, and in my way I still do, but no longer with even the theoretical expectation of success. There are still domestic ’81s I haven’t acquired (U. Utah Phillips, Lockwood & Shines, T.S.O.L., Circle Jerks), imports are completely impossible (don’t own Repercussions or The Mekons yet), and that’s only albums. Moreover, I’m on most mailing lists, which even at the majors is an accomplishment — free-lancers now buy or trade for at least half the records they like, and I’ll bet that most of the voters haven’t heard half the albums on my list. That’s what’s so remarkable about Rick James’s showing. Motown is notoriously stingy with review copies, and James isn’t a safe fave from the ’60s like Stevie or Smokey or Marvin Gaye. He’s cheap and he’s flashy and critics heard his album the way everybody else did — after buying it because they liked the singles on the radio. Another pop event, and more power to all concerned (except Motown’s publicity department).

But marginal capitalism obviously works to disseminate as well as to soften the collective focus. In fact, with everybody making their own shoestring records and undertaking their own shoestring tours, the concept of the local band has become cloudy if not totally overcast in just three years. The Blasters, 30th on the album list, won our competition with 14 votes, while X — who swept the category last year, whose album almost won this year, and whose label status is identical to the Blasters’ (though one hears Elektra is on the case) — only got four, three more than Ernest Tubb, Clifton Chenier, and Steve & Eydie. For the record, Glenn Branca’s seven votes made him the surprise New York winner (his album came in 51st), with the dB’s second at six and the Bongos, the Raybeats, DNA, and Grandmaster Flash tied at five. Mission of Burma, Romeo Void, the Suburbs, R.E.M., and Rank & File (former Dils now located in Austin) also impressed, and I’d like to hear D.C.’s Trouble Funk. Los Angeles’s Hornets Attack Victor Mature won the newly established Poly Styrene Best Name Award, with Phil ’n’ the Blanks (Chicago), Little Bears from Bangkok (Seattle), the Better Beatles (Lincoln, Nebraska), and the Fibonaccis (L.A.) close behind. But though in the past high-ranking locals have often ended up making good records, and though new American bands took a leap among the critics (from four up to 11) even whilst the new wave mainstream sucked up N.M.E. blather, I’m not confident that the process will continue forever. Localism means just that — rock and roll dialects don’t always translate, and when they do what is said can seem derivative or limited.

But to say music is derivative is not to say it lacks “vitality” or “authenticity,” and to say its impact is limited is not to say that it goes nowhere. The original winners of the 1981 Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll have inspired a lot of loose talk this year about rock and roll as professional entertainment rather than insurrectionary culture. But almost no one asked why the soundtrack to this talk had so much more impact than comparable albums by such veteran professional entertainers as Muddy Waters and Doug Sahm — which was that the Rolling Stones used to pass themselves off as creators of insurrectionary culture, and very likely believed it, since it was true. Seekers after insurrectionary culture shouldn’t let professionalism get them down — it comes with the territory. At times when greatness fails to announce itself, they should hand up their John the Baptist costumes and get down to the job of figuring out which professionals have a bead on how to transform thrills into a way of life. It’s a problem that breaks into a hundred problems, and there are thousands of answers.

Selected Ballots

VINCE ALETTI (alphabetical): Laurie Anderson: “O Superman”/”Walk the Dog” (Warner Bros.); Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis import); Bo Kool: “(Money) No Love” (Tania import); Clash: “Magnificent Dance” (Epic); Coati Mundi: “Me No Pop Eye” (Antilles/ZE); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Taana Gardner: “Heartbeat” (West End); the Quick: “Zulu” (Pavilion); Strikers: “Body Music” (Prelude); Tom Tom Club: “Genius of Love” (Sire).

TOM CARSON: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 15; Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 15; Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 15; Stampfel & Weber: Going Nowhere Fast (Rounder) 15; Black Flag: Damaged (SST) 15; The Swimming Pool Q’s (DB) 5; David Johansen: Here Comes the Night (Blue Sky) 5; Suburbs: Credit in Heaven (Twin/Tone) 5; English Beat: Wha’ppen? (Sire) 5; Pretenders II (Sire) 5.

TOM CARSON: Yoko Ono: Walking on Thin Ice — For John (Geffen); Romeo Void: Never Say Never (415); Descendents: “Fat” E.P. (New Alliance); Propeller Product (Propeller); Angry Samoans: Inside My Brain (Bad Trip).

TOM CARSON: R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” (Hib-Tone); “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Rick James: “Super Freak” (Gordy); Babylon Dance Band: “When I’m Home”/”Remains of the Beat” (Babylon Dance Band); Bob Dylan: “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (Columbia); Frankie Smith: “Double Dutch Bus” (WMOT); Go-Go’s: “Our Lips Are Sealed” (I.R.S.); Replacements: “I’m in Trouble”/”If Only You Were Lonely” (Twin/Tone); Billy Idol with Gen X: “Dancing with Myself” (Chrysalis).

DEBRA RAE COHEN: X: Wild Gift (Slash) 25; dB’s: Stands for Decibels (Albion import) 20; Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.) 15; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 10; Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones) 5; Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia) 5; Black Uhuru: Red (Mango) 5; Neville Brothers: Fiyo on the Bayou (A&M) 5; Human Switchboard: Who’s Landing in My Hangar? (Faulty Products) 5.

JOHN FOSTER: John Gavanti (Hyrax) 30; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 10; David Thomas & the Pedestrians: The Sound of the Sand and Other Songs of the Pedestrian (Rough Trade) 10; Killing Joke: …What’s This For? (Editions E.G.) 10; X: Wild Gift (Slash) 9; Dark Day: Exterminating Angel (Infidelity) 8; Zounds: Curse of Zounds (Rough Trade import) 8; Furors: Juke Box Album (Hit Man) 5; Eugene Chadbourne: There’ll Be No Tears Tonight (Parachute) 5; C. W. Vrtacek: Victory Through Grace (Leisure Time) 5.

NELSON GEORGE: Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy) 20; Slave: Show Time (Cotillion) 15; Fela Anikulapo Kuti: Black President (Arista import) 10; Chaka Khan: Whatcha’ Gonna Do for Me (Warner Bros.) 10; Ray Parker & Raydio: A Woman Needs Love (Arista) 10; Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly: Live in New Orleans (Capitol) 10; Earth, Wind & Fire: Raise! (Columbia/ARC) 10; Linx: Intuition (Chrysalis) 5; Steely Dan: Gaucho (MCA) 5; Curtis Mayfield: Love Is the Place (Boardwalk) 5.

ROGER GLASS: Quincy Jones: “Just Once” (A&M); Grover Washington, Jr.: “Just the Two of Us” (Elektra); Grace Jones: “Pull Up to the Bumper” (Island); Barbra Streisand: “Guilty” (Columbia); Smokey Robinson: “Being with You” (Tamla); Denroy Morgan: “I’ll Do Anything for You” (Becket); Mike and Brenda Sutton: “We’ll Make It” (Sam); Rita Marley: “Sin Sin” (Tuff Gong import); Skyy: “Call Me” (Salsoul); T.S. Monk: “Bon Bon Vie” (Mirage).

PABLO GUZMAN: Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.) 20; Gil Scott-Heron: Reflections (Arista) 20; Devo: New Traditionalists (Warner Bros.) 10; Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 10; David Byrne: Songs from the Broadway Production of “The Catherine Wheel” (Sire) 10; Jerry Harrison: The Red and the Black (Sire) 10; Eddie Palmieri (Barbaro) 5; Police: Ghost in the Machine (A&M) 5; Kid Creole and the Coconuts: Fresh Fruit in Foreign Places (Sire/ZE) 5; Was (Not Was) (Island/ZE) 5.

IRA KAPLAN (alphabetical): Cramps: “Goo Goo Muck”/”She Said” (I.R.S.); Cyclones: “You’re So Cool”/”RSVP” (Little Ricky); Fleetwood Mac: “Farmer’s Daughter” (Warner Bros.); Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill); Vic Godard and Subway Sect: “Stop That Girl” (Oddball import); Grace Jones: “Pull Up to the Bumper” (Island); Kinks: “Better Things” (Arista); R.E.M.: “Radio Free Europe”/”Sitting Still” (Hib-Tone); Skeletons: “Trans Am”/”Tell Her I’m Gone” (Borrowed); Voggue: “Dance the Night Away” (Atlantic).

GREIL MARCUS: Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.) 20; David Lindley: El Rayo-X (Asylum) 20; Red Crayola with Art & Language: Kangaroo? (Rough Trade) 15; Neil Young: Reactor (Reprise) 10; The Mekons (Red Rhino import) 10; Joy Division: Still (Factory import) 5; Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.) 5; The “King” Kong Compilation (Mango) 5; Au Pairs: Playing with a Different Sex (Human import) 5; Raincoats: Odyshape (Rough Trade) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Mekons: Die Mekons (Pure Freud import); Descendents: “Fats” [sic] E.P. (New Alliance); Vivien Goldman: Dirty Washing (99); Romeo Void: Never Say Never (415).

KRISTINE MCKENNA: James Brown: “Rapp Payback” (Polydor); Passions: “I’m in Love with a German Film Star” (Polydor import); Bob Dylan: “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar” (Columbia); Cure: “Primary” (Fiction import); Human League: “Hard Times” (Virgin import); Heaven 17: “Fascist Groove Thing” (B.E.F. import); Psychedelic Furs: “Dumb Waiters” (CBS import); Spandau Ballet: “Chant Number One” (Chrysalis); Foreigner: “Urgent” (Atlantic).

JON PARELES: (unweighted): David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel (Sire cassette); Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.); Ronald Shannon Jackson: Eye on You (About Time); Funkadelic: The Electric Spanking of War Babies (Warner Bros.); Glenn Branca: The Ascension (99); Congos: Heart of the Congos (Go Feet import); Was (Not Was) (ZE); Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.); King Crimson: Discipline (Warner Bros. EG); Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia).

RICHARD RIEGEL: Rick James: “Super Freak” (Gordy); J. Geils Band: “Centerfold” (EMI America); Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis); Talking Heads: “Once in a Lifetime” (Sire); Kinks: “Destroyer” (Arista); Yoko Ono: “Kiss Kiss Kiss” (Geffen); Rick Springfield: “Jessie’s Girl” (RCA Victor); David Johansen: “Here Comes the Night” (Blue Sky); Pat Benatar: “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” (Chrysalis).

DOUG SIMMONS: Lyres: AHS-1005 (Ace of Hearts); Minor Threat (Dischord); Mission of Burma: Signals, Calls, and Marches (Ace of Hearts); S.O.A.: No Policy (Dischord); Unknowns: Dream Sequence (Sire).

TIM SOMMER: Flipper: “Ha Ha Ha” (Subterranean); The Cure: “Primary” (Fiction import); Misfits: “London Dungeon” (Plan 9 import); Tenpole Tudor: “Swords of a Thousand Men” (Stiff); Black Flag: “Louie Louie” (Posh Boy); Exploited: “Dead Cities” (Secret import); the Gas: “Ignore Me” (Polydor import); Secret Affair: “Dance Master”/”Do You Know” (I Spy import); APB: “Chain Reaction” (Oily); Business: “Harry May”/”National Insurance Blacklist” (Secret import).

[related_posts post_id_1=”572924″ /]

LESTER BANG’S BALLOT

Because of the realities of the situation and a simple respect for music itself I am compelled to state in response to your poll that 1981 was in my view such a dismal year that I cannot in good conscience vote for more than two or three albums, much less 10. As you know, I always vote in these things strictly on the basis of how much I actually listen to the record, as opposed to how “significant” it might be. What I did this year was what almost everybody else, certainly including critics, did: listened to old music, when I listened at all. Because almost all current music is worthless. Very simply, it has no soul. It is fraudulent, and so are the mechanisms which perpetuate the lie that anybody else finds it vital enough to do more than consume and file or “collect” (be the first on your block). New Wave has terminated in thudding hollow xeroxes of poses that aren’t even annoying anymore. Rap is nothing, or not enough. Jazz does not exist as a musical form with anything new to say. And the rest of rock is recycling various formuli forever. I don’t know what I am going to write about — music is the only thing in the world I really care about — but I simply cannot pretend to find anything compelling in the choice between pap and mud. I haven’t made this decision without some soul-searching, but I feel that I can best serve the purposes for which I became a music critic in the first place by filing a protest ballot, with the following exceptions:

ALBUMS: 1. Jody Harris & Robert Quine: Escape (Infidelity) 30; 2. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: the album Richard recorded last spring and never got around to putting out. 20; 3. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic) 10; 4. Public Image Ltd: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros.) 5; 5. Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (Modern) 5.

SINGLES: 1. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); 2. Ramones: “We Want the Airwaves” (Sire); 3. Hank Williams Jr.: “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” (Elektra); 4. Roseanne Cash: “Seven Year Ache” (Columbia)

EPs: 1. A Taste of DNA (American Clave).

LOCAL BANDS: 1. DNA; 2. The Bloods; 3. Robert Quine.

P.S. Perhaps it will help to explain if I list the other albums that would have been in the running for my “Top 10”: Stones, Iggy’s Party, and Miles Davis, which in various ways manifested varying degrees of contempt for their audience so palpable they were ultimately unplayable; Ramones’ Pleasant Dreams and the Byrne-Eno album, which just didn’t work somehow; and John Lee Hooker’s Live Alone Volume 1, which is really all old stuff anyway.

and

Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll Ballot 1981

LESTER BANGS: ALBUMS: 1. Jody Harris/Robert Quine: Escape (Infidelity)30; 2. “Velvet Underground 1966” (bootleg) 20; 3. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: Richard Hell & the Voidoids Now (Richard recorded it last spring but never got around to releasing it) 15; 4. The Clash: Sandinista (Epic) 5; 5. Public Image Ltd: Flowers of Romance (Warner Bros.) 5; 6. The Mekons (Red Rhino import) 5; 7. Stevie Nicks: Bella Donna (Modern) 5; 8. John Lee Hooker: Live Alone Vol. 1 (Labor) 5; 9. Ramones: Pleasant Dreams (Sire) 5; 10. Iggy Pop: Party (Arista) 5.

SINGLES: 1. Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones); 2. Joy Division: “Atmosphere” (Factory 12-inch); 3. The Mekons: “Snow” (Red Rhino import); 4. Hank Williams Jr.: “All My Rowdy Friends (Have Settled Down)” (Elektra); 5. Roseanne Cash: “Seven Year Ache” (Columbia); 6. Ramones: “We Want the Airwaves” (Sire); 7. Blondie: “Rapture” (Chrysalis); 8. Afrika Bombaataa: “Zulu Nation Throwdown” (Paul Winley 12-inch); 9. That Charlie Daniels single that goes “blah blah water, she’s the devil’s daughter, she’s hard and she’s cold and she’s mean, blah blah blah, blah blah to wash away New Orleans”; 10. Richard Lloyd: “Get Off My Cloud” (Ice House).

EPS: 1. DNA: “A Taste of DNA” (American Clave); 2. The Angry Samoans: “Inside My Brain” (Bad Trip); 3. Dead Kennedys: “In God We Trust, Inc.” (Alternative Tentacles).

LOCAL BANDS: 1. DNA; 2. The Bloods; 3. The Angry Samoans.

and

FOLK AND ROCK
ALBUMS I LIKED THIS YEAR
By L. Bangs

1. Quine & Harris: Escape (Infidelity) 30; 2. The Clash: Sandinista (CBS) 10; 3. Public Image Ltd.: What the Hell’s the Name of that Fucker? (Warners) 5; 4. Beck Bogert & Appice (Epic) 5; 5. Beck Bogert & Appice Live (Japanese Epic) 5; 6. Grateful Dead: Dead Set (Artesia) 2; 7. Richard Hell & the Voidoids: Second Album Richard Never Got Around to Titling or Releasing 2; 8. Stevie Nix: Rat Poison (Chump Change) 2; 9. Rolling Stones: What’s in the Can, Charlie? (Mango) 2; 10. Muammar Qaddafi: Live on Hee Haw (Shelby Singleton) 2.

and

Just to save some time, here’s NEXT YEAR’S TOP 10

1. Robert Quine Orchestra: I Heard Her Call My Name Symphony (Columbia); 2. DNA Live at Madison Square Garden (Prestige); Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook (Tamla); 4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Heard Ya Missed Us, Well We’re Back (Factory); 5. The Clash: Rappin’ with Bert ’n’ Big Bird (Guest Artist: Oscar the Grouch) (Sesame); 6. Ramones: 14,000,000 Records (Epic); 7. Sue Saad and the Next with Robert Fripp: Jiggle Themes from Prime Time (Verve); 8. Lichtensteiner Polka Band: Hamtramck Oi Gassers (WEA); 9. Brian Eno: 24 New Songs with Bridges & Everything! (Egregious 2-album set); 10. Miles Davis: Rated X (Alternate Take) (Columbia).

[related_posts post_id_1=”607227″ /]

Top 10 Albums of 1981

1. The Clash: Sandinista! (Epic)

2. X: Wild Gift (Slash)

3. Elvis Costello and the Attractions: Trust (Columbia)

4. The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You (Rolling Stones)

5. Rickie Lee Jones: Pirates (Warner Bros.)

6. Squeeze: East Side Story (A&M)

7. Tom Verlaine: Dreamtime (Warner Bros.)

8. Prince: Controversy (Warner Bros.)

9. Rick James: Street Songs (Gordy)

10. Go-Go’s: Beauty and the Beat (I.R.S.)

 

Top 10 Singles of 1981

1. (Tie) Laurie Anderson: “O Superman”/”Walk the Dog” (One, Ten, Warner Bros.)
Rolling Stones: “Start Me Up” (Rolling Stones)

3. Grandmaster Flash: “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Sugarhill)

4. (Tie) Kim Carnes: “Bette Davis Eyes” (EMI America)
Yoko Ono: “Walking on Thin Ice” (Geffen)

6. Tom Tom Club: “Genius of Love” (Sire)

7. (Tie) Pete Shelley: “Homosapien” (Genetic import)
Soft Cell: “Tainted Love”/”Where Did Our Love Go?” (Sire)

9. Funky Four Plus One: “That’s the Joint” (Sugarhill)

10. Prince: “Controversy” (Warner Bros.)

— From the January 27–February 2, 1982, 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

Keith Richards Refuses to Die for Our Sins

If you were born any time after, say, 1965, when “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” hit the airwaves, you’ve been listening to Keith Richards all your life. In our age of fractured media and micro–attention spans, it’s hard to remember those days when one song was blaring from every car radio, jukebox, or plastic portable on the beach — so pervasive that even if you were in your mother’s womb you were getting hit with those top-of-the-charts vibrations. “The Summer Man,” an episode of Mad Men, captured the ubiquity of “Satisfaction” during the dog days of ’65 when slick adman Don Draper, questing after a healthier lifestyle, hears it on a transistor radio as he sits in a locker room. The song hits full volume as he lights a cigarette outside the New York Athletic Club, his gestures and attire in sync with the tune’s rollicking ennui:

When I’m watchin’ my TV and a man comes on and tells me
How white my shirts can be
But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke
The same cigarettes as me
I can’t get no
oh no no no hey hey hey
that’s what I say

To celebrate Richards’s 75th birthday today, we’ll relate his oft-told tale of how that monster hit came about. Richards was 22 years old when he fell asleep one night with a tape recorder by his bed and awoke the next morning to see that the tape had been run to the end. Then, as he related to an interviewer many years later, “I put it back on, and there’s this, maybe, 30 seconds of ‘Satisfaction,’ in a very drowsy sort of rendition. And then it suddenly — the guitar goes ‘CLANG,’ and then there’s, like, 45 minutes of snoring.”

In the studio Richards employed a newfangled fuzz box as a stand-in for the horn section he planned to add later, but the band ultimately decided to leave the distorted guitar licks in the grooves, and a fuck-all anthem for the ages was born. In fact, according to the performing rights organization BMI, “Satisfaction” is the 91st most performed song of the twentieth century. That gaudy stat can be added to the Stones seven other No. 1 hits, and 66.5 million (and counting) concert tickets sold.

[related_posts post_id_1=”607227″ /]

Writing one of the most popular songs of all time — in his sleep — seems S.O.P. for Richards, whose lifetime of consuming copious quantities of hard liquor and even harder drugs has left observers long wondering when Keef’s wiry little body would give up the ghost to join his Rolling Stone bandmate Brian Jones, and such other exemplars of the form as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Amy Winehouse, in Hell’s hottest rock band. But despite preacher Billy Graham’s warning that rock ’n’ roll was “ever working in the world for evil,” the devil’s music has been good to Richards. As he relates in the opening of the audio version of his 2010 autobiography, Life, he’s outlasted the doomsayers. “For many years, I slept, on average, twice a week, and this means that I’ve been conscious for at least three lifetimes.” He then adds, “I used up my nine lives long ago, but here I am, I’m still playing, and I’m still rockin’ and still rollin’.” Indeed, the Stones will be rolling into America next spring for their No Filter Tour.

To celebrate, we are resurfacing an up-close-and-personal feature story from Voice staffer Karen Durbin, from 1975, when the Stones were barnstorming America with a giant inflatable penis.

As in many articles about the Stones, you’ll get a healthy dose of Mick’s musings, but Durbin’s descriptions of Richards leave no doubt as to who is the brains and who is the soul of the band.

As for Keith blasting into rooms, well, he does. Offstage, Keith has the same intensity of presence as he does on, and so, of course, it stands out more. He’s amazing looking — all tatterdemalion satin jackets and flapping silk scarves, tight jeans, hollow cheeks, black artichoke hair, and huge iridescent eyes. He doesn’t look decadent; he looks vigorous and infernal, as if he just strode forth from the jaws of hell.

Happy birthday, Keith.

[related_posts post_id_1=”689528″ /]

And yes, it’s Keith’s birthday, but Jagger celebrated his 75th this past July — and when you’ve got a great Milton Glaser portrait on your front page, you gotta blow it up big. Happy Birthday to the Glimmer Twins.