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’…)

Vanity in a Tin Can

Lately, I’ve been divulging incidents that occurred when I was young and stupid. Like, when I hurled rotten apples at moving vehicles, or harassed the night watchman at boarding school.

Here’s another slice of my biography that a few might find interesting or unusual. If no one finds it interesting or unusual – which is entirely possible – I give permission for this essay to be burned on the bonfire of my vanities.

***

After college, I worked for a couple years at an AM radio station called WNOP, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you’re an older American, you may remember the 1970s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although I have no proof, I’m convinced WNOP was the model for WKRP.

Like its television counterpart, WNOP was no ordinary radio station. The walls were curved. There was no bathroom. To reach our “office,” we had to tread across a long wooden pier. Also, we never saw the station owner, we only heard about him. He was like the Easter Bunny.

And every time a barge passed by, we bobbed up, down, and sideways.

Take a soup can, peel off the label, then place it in bathtub water so it rests vertically. That was our place of work. It was a gigantic steel cylinder that floated on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just across from downtown Cincinnati. I’m guessing the location choice was related to airwave reception or something. Let me explain:

WNOP was owned by a wealthy local beer distributor, who loved jazz music. He seemed to run the station more as a hobby than a business. I worked there in 1984-85, when arena rock and new wave music were all over the radio. Therefore, because we played jazz – America’s homegrown music – nobody listened to us. So, we didn’t make enough money to afford a proper radio tower. So, the waters of the Ohio River carried our signal.

I was hired as a broadcasting intern by the station manager, a well-known former rock deejay named Geoff. He was a fat guy with glasses who had an excellent radio presence, and he was really nice. I had no radio experience, but I liked jazz music, and was eager to learn, and I’m guessing that’s why he hired me. Also – because I was an intern – he didn’t have to pay me.

Directly under Geoff was Programming Director Chris. Unlike the owner, Chris treated the station as a business instead of a hobby, and he wanted WNOP to be real successful. And whereas Geoff liked me, I don’t think Chris did. You’ll find out why a little later.

Despite being an AM station at the left end of the dial that played jazz, we had a lot of talent at “The Jazz Ark.” The morning host was Kristi. Kristi was a very attractive and outgoing blonde who (surprise, surprise) did a lot of public relations for the station. The two daytime hosts were Ray and Val. Ray was semi-retired, and a radio veteran. Warm radio voice, knowledgeable, and he personally knew many of the famous jazz musicians that occasionally swung through town.

Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) as “Lester the Nightfly,” from his solo album, “The Nightfly”

Val had a great voice, too. He was about 35 and had worked all over the country. Val was black, but he sounded white. Maybe that’s why, at one time in his career, he was a country-and-western disc jockey. This factoid always fascinated me. But I guess if you’re a good enough jock, you can do any type of music. Val was the epitome of cool, and most of us younger guys tried to model ourselves after him.

The younger crew consisted of me, Glenn, Brendan, John, Rod, Chuka, and a few others I can’t recall. Like me, Glenn also appreciated jazz, but unlike me, he was very smooth in front of a microphone. Brendan was a real affable, slightly conservative guy-next-door. John was a short fellow whose dad owned a chain of shoe stores in town. John idolized Val. If you talked with John for any length of time, eventually he’d bring up Val. And Chuka was from Africa and broadcast news only.

I was closest to Rod “Downtown” Lowndes, who previously worked as a riverboat bartender. We were both into dirty rock ‘n’ roll and blues. We also occasionally “indulged” in things.

I remember my trepidation the first time I stepped in front of the microphone. I had a fear of public speaking that dated to a bad incident in childhood, so I had a legitimate concern about hyperventilating while on the air. But the guy who mentored me that first night seemed to think I’d be ok.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Nobody’s listening anyway.”

That calmed me a little, but I still felt like Barney Fife appearing before the Mayberry Municipal Court. As time went on, it got easier. I discovered that talking with the music at a low volume was very helpful.

Symphony Sid Tolan, the dean of jazz disc jockeys

My best memories of WNOP were the early days. Many deejays adopt catchy on-air pseudonyms or nicknames, and I thought about doing the same, similar to real-life Symphony Sid Tolan, or fictional “Lester the Nightfly.” I asked Geoff if maybe I should become Pete ‘Midnight’ White, or something equally ridiculous.

“No, I think you have a good name already. It’s very German-sounding, which will appeal to all the German listeners in Cincinnati. What do you think, Chris?”

“Sure, keep your name,” mumbled Chris. So I kept my name.

And speaking of vanity, it was also fun to drop, in conversation, that I was a deejay. I got a lot of “Really?!” responses. Also, this was before I met my wife, so mentioning I was a disc jockey was a great icebreaker with women. Their eyes always got a little bigger. Previously, it was a struggle for me to even get a second look from an attractive female. But once they learned that I worked in front of a microphone, they seemed to push their breasts a little closer.

I was very careful not to spill that I was merely an unpaid, untalented intern working the graveyard shift at a cable station that nobody listened to.

(Please check back soon for the conclusion of “Vanity in a Tin Can”)

(Illustration of WNOP by Robert Freeson and “Cincinnati Magazine”)