Critiquing the Critics

The Wall Street Journal not only honored Jack Kerouac’s 100th birthday (see my last post), but the same issue had an article entitled “Why Millennials Want Their Parents’ Vinyl Records.” The sub-title was “Sales of LPs soared during the pandemic as younger listeners discovered their nostalgic and sensory appeal.”

For years I’ve tried to get my millennial son to understand this. Maybe it’s finally kicking in.

On that note, when I was even younger than Nick is now, I made the discovery of music appreciation books, guides, and encyclopedias. They assisted me when, as a teenager, I began compiling my (now massive) record collection that I hope to one day bestow on Nick.  They helped me peel back layers to reveal all sorts of juicy musical fruit under the outer skin.

Paul Gambaccini

Just recently I revisited an old book that I’d once pored over while wasting time in Walden Books at the local mall.  It’s called Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums. It was compiled way back in 1978 during the Pleistocene Age, when the publication of rock music books began catching up with magazines like New Musical Express, Melody Maker, Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, and Creem. The compiler was a venerable BBC presenter named Paul Gambaccini (an interesting man, in more ways than one).

Rock critics you say?  Someone once called them frustrated rock musicians.  Musician Lou Reed was more succinct.  He called them “scum.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but as with everything, there are good ones and bad ones.  In their defense, rock critics provide potential purchasers with insights into music that circumvent “record company advertising (and) the squeals of the loudest fans.”  It’s nice to have a temperate and unbiased guide before one contributes one’s hard-earned cash to Artie Fufkin of Polymer Records. 

Most rock fans, especially in the U.S., get their music from the radio or television.  But deejays and “veejays” have always been at the mercy of their employer, or corporate wankers like Fufkin.

Rock critics cut through the hype (sometimes) and were helpful when I became a serious listener in the 1970s. Rock Critics’ Choice in particular introduced me to artists I might otherwise never have heard.  The other book so beneficial to me over the years has been The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, compiled by Nick Logan and Bob Woffinden of New Musical Express.

(Last month, during one of my late-night vinyl appreciation sessions, I joyously re-listened to Edgar Broughton Band’s album Oora, which Illustrated Encyclopedia had led me to.  Talk about a great unknown record.)

Anyway, back to Rock Critics’ Choice…compiler Gambaccini queried about 50 of his print and radio colleagues, asking them to list what they consider the ten greatest rock albums, in order of greatness.  He defined “greatness” as whatever criteria the particular critic wanted to use.  He permitted “Best Of” and “Greatest Hits” collections. (Not sure I’d allow that.)  For fair and diverse representation, he consulted critics who were male, female, young, old, white, black, American, British, Canadian, French, Jamaican, and Eskimo.

He then tallied the results and assigned points to each album.  (I assume an album in the first position got 10 points, and tenth position got one point.)

Unlike those ubiquitous Rolling Stone lists, quoted everywhere and which are heavy on mainstream rock and dripping with set-in-stone conceit, Gambaccini’s book is looser and more democratic. It permits diversity (both critic and music) and honors both rock establishment (i.e. classic rock) as well as cult artists.

I found his ultimate Top 200 list predictable in some ways, but surprising in others.

Predictably, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones dominated the top positions.  Also predictably, older critics leaned toward early rock ‘n’ roll (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the like).  There were a lot of soul records, ala Otis Redding, the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, etc.  Some choices teetered over the boundaries of rock (Huey “Piano” Smith, B.B. King, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew).

The book also had some truly oddball choices.  For example, a minor South African actress named Genevieve Waїte (note deliberate umlaut over the “i”) made one and only one album in 1975 called Romance Is On The Rise.  It made two critics’ lists, clocking in overall at number 98.  It’s actually more of a John Phillips (Mamas and Papas) album with his then-wife doing the singing.  She sounds like a disco version of Cyndi Lauper trying to imitate Billie Holiday.  I concluded Genevieve must have been a flavor of the moment.

Michael Nesmith, who got off to a dubious musical start with the Monkees, actually had talent. One critic, however—as his number one greatest album of all time—selected Nesmith’s solo country-rock effort And The Hits Just Keep On Comin‘.  Though I’ve yet to hear it, this offbeat choice also raised my incredulous eyebrow.

Another critic chose as his list topper a collection by the R&B group The “5” Royales (note deliberate quotation marks around the numeral). I appreciate certain fifties music from a historical perspective, but this elicited more head scratching. My guess is that the Royales’ song “Dedicated to the One I Love” might have been playing in this particular critic’s Buick Roadmaster the first time he got laid.

One cheeky rebel without a cause listed a bootleg album, by Bob Dylan and the Band.

The book’s lone Canadian critic, for both his number one and number three picks, listed Supertramp albums.  Yes, you heard right. Respectfully, sir, I have to take issue with your thinking.

Another critic, the late Robert Shelton, had no less than three Bob Dylan albums in his top ten.  But considering Shelton virtually launched Dylan’s career in 1961 with his New York Times review of a performance at Gerdes Folk City—and considering it’s Bob Dylan, not Supertramp—I can forgive Shelton’s zeal.

Rock Critics’ Choice is an enjoyable little book—great bathroom reading—and like I said, when it came out in 1978 it prodded me to explore music I wouldn’t otherwise have explored.  The book’s only negative is its vintage.  Although punk bands like the Clash and Ramones are represented, it was published before new wave, alternative, indie, thrash, grunge, rap, hip-hop, and other assorted popular flavors of rock.

But if you’re a baby boomer like me whose era was the late fifties through the mid-seventies, this book provides pleasurable non-think entertainment, and spurs one to make one’s own list.  My own top 10 “greatest” list had five albums that made the top 20 of Rock Critics’ Choice: Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan (ranked number 3 in RCC), Rubber Soul by The Beatles (number 5), Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys (number 12), The Velvet Underground And Nico by the Velvet Underground (number 14), and Forever Changes by Love (number 16).

My champion pick, The Velvet Underground And Nico, was listed by many of Gambaccini’s cohorts and made number 14, but only one picked it to top her list: New York critic Lisa Robinson.  Lou Reed and I like her.

Of course, the term “greatest” is entirely subjective (excepting Muhammad Ali, who truly was The Greatest). But if you have a pre-1979 rock album or albums you consider deserving of this descriptor, and wish to share them here, leave a comment and I’ll see where they rank in Rock Critics’ Choice.

(And the vinyl just keeps on spinnin’…)

Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

50 yearsthe-doors

There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

botnick-rothchild-morrison

Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

holzman

Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

doors_66

Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Part Two

2013 004 

Despite all the computations
You could dance to a rock ‘n’ roll station,
And it was alright

               (Lou Reed, from the Velvet Underground song “Rock and Roll”)

Last month I inducted five bands into the longitudes Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and promised there would be five more.  These, then, will wrap up the Top 10 artists I feel should have already been inducted, but so far been shunned by that other Hall.  You know, the one whose museum is in Cleveland but whose VIP induction ceremonies are usually shifted to the Waldorf Astoria in New York.

Sorry about the sarcasm.  I should try to keep things upbeat, especially when it comes to music.  Anyway, this induction is a time to celebrate!  A time to be happy! 🙂  And one of the best things about this ceremony is the total absence of self-congratulatory music biz backslapping, cronyism, and sloppy post-induction onstage “jamming” by bloated, bag-eyed, half-drunk, over-the-hill millionaire rock stars wearing ill-fitting dinner jackets.

Well, I tried.

The next five acts being inducted are… (Paul Shaffer, please leave the building):

New York Dolls: how can longitudes induct a band that made only one great record, and one very good follow-up?  Well, the Sex Pistols made only one great record, and there would be no Sex Pistols – and therefore nobody to label the RnRHoF a “piss stain” – had it not been for these proto-punk nasty boys.  Led by Mick Jagger look-a-like David Johansen (aka “Buster Poindexter”), the Dolls’ music was often ramshackle, but it was delivered with in-your-face panache. dolls Songs like “Personality Crisis,” “Subway Train,” “Frankenstein,” “Trash,” and “(There’s Gonna Be a) Showdown” are stripped-down rock & roll before the fall, straight out of a Staten Island garage or Bowery basement.  Classic New York City hard rock, with exaggerated androgyny just for humorous effect.  Iggy and the Stooges made it to the RnRHoF, as well as the cartoonish Alice Cooper, so why not these guys, three of whom are already dead??  I’d ask record exec and RnRHoF guru Ahmet Ertegun, but he’s in rock & roll heaven too.

Todd Rundgren: the “Runt” seems like a 180-degree turn from the Dolls.  And like the Moody Blues from last month’s induction, he polarizes opinion: you either love him or hate him.  But Rundgren actually produced the Dolls’ classic debut album, as well as successful albums by Badfinger, Patti Smith, XTC, the Tubes, the Band, Hall & Oates, Grand Funk Railroad, Meat Loaf, Psychedelic Furs, and many more.  He’s also famous for his groundbreaking work in media technology.  But his induction rests on his own solo records, including his masterpiece, Something/Anything?, a double album filled with golden pop nuggets all written and sung by Rundgren and where he played almost all the instruments (long before the artist formerly or presently known or not known as Prince ).  Bravely changing direction, Rundgren followed with the kaleidoscopic A Wizard, A True Starrunt2Like many prodigies, Rundgren was erratic, and his philosophic excursions with his band Utopia didn’t help his case with RnRHoF.  But he’s one of the pop renaissance men, along with Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, and Stevie Wonder.  And even more than the others, he was unafraid to risk failure or ridicule.  Songs like “We Gotta Get You a Woman,”  “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” “A Dream Lives on Forever,” “Can We Still Be Friends,”  “Time Heals,” “Bang the Drum All Day,” and others only scratch the surface of his significant contributions to rock.

Fairport Convention: similar to Love (see first induction), Fairport Convention is unknown to many rock fans.  They’re more familiar in England than America, where many hail them as Great Britain’s greatest folk-rock band.  Like the Byrds in America, Fairport covered a lot of Bob Dylan songs when they started, but they soon found their own muse, plundering English folklorist Cecil Sharp’s archives to create their own British Isles brand of psychedelic folk-rock.fairport  Singer Sandy Denny is regarded as having one of the best voices in rock or folk, sort of a cross between Bonnie Raitt and Judy Collins (her beautiful song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by Collins).  Fairport also included critically respected guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson.  If you haven’t heard this band, I encourage you to check out the albums What We Did on Our Holidays, Unhalfbricking, and Liege and Lief, which form the core of their catalog and earn them a spot in longitudes’ Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Procol Harum: yet another English progressive rock band.  What doesn’t RnRHoF like about these groups?  Are they too Caucasian, or European, or musically proficient?? (I’m convinced Genesis was inducted due to their Phil Collins-era pop molasses, not Peter Gabriel’s earlier, more intriguing influence).  But even critics of progressive rock are fond of Procol Harum.  Their lyricist, Keith Reid, didn’t play an instrument, but wrote clever gothic poems with references to rusted sword scabbards and haunted ships.  He had the perfect partners in pianist/arranger Gary Brooker and organist Matthew Fisher.procol  This axis was ably assisted by Hendrix-styled guitarist Robin Trower and thunderous drummer B.J. Wilson.  All of them gave Procol a sound like no other group, one that veered between crunching blues and soaring symphonic rock.  Last year they were nominated by RnRHoF but missed induction (“Sorry boys, maybe next time”).  A slap in the face to a great band that did “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “Conquistador,” and made some very cool albums.  Longitudes hereby corrects the injustice.

King Crimson: here is a British band that wrote long, complex songs with flute, violin, saxophone, and keyboards.  And the keyboards included a Mellotron, a modified tape replay keyboard, no less. Oh my God, what heresy!  What would Elvis say!  Delta bluesman Robert Johnson is rolling in his grave (wherever his grave is located).  Despite RnRHoF’s misgivings, longitudes recognizes Crimson’s importance in stretching the boundaries of rock, with their bold explorations into free jazz, classical chamber music, and dissonance.  Led by erudite guitarist Robert Fripp, the only permanent member, King Crimson in the beginning included talented vocalist Greg Lake, later crimsonone-third of the supergroup, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and multi-instrumentalist and tunesmith Ian MacDonald (who later went for the bread and formed Foreigner).  Pete Townshend of the Who called Crimson’s debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, “an uncanny masterpiece.”  King Crimson influenced a lot of musicians, from Genesis to Rush to Nirvana.  More than just a band, they were a forward-thinking musical aesthetic.  But RnRHoF evidently prefers the group Heart.  ‘Nuff said.

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians

Frank Zappa, pondering the idea of a Hall of Fame for rock musicians