Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (1)

Unless you are very rich and very freaky, your relationship to rock is nothing like mine. By profession, I am surfeited with records and live music. Virtually every rock LP produced in this country is mailed to me automatically, and I'm asked to go to more concerts than I can bear. I own about 90 percent of the worthwhile rock albums released since the start of the Beatles era, and occasionally I play every one of them, although I haven't heard half the LP's in my collection in six months. All this has a double-edged effect. On the one hand, I am impatient with music that is derivative and see through cheap gimmicks easily. On the other, I can afford to revel in marginal differentiation, delighting in odd and minor talents that might not be worth the money of someone who has to pay for his music.

Rock writers in general are so sick of the mediocrity and the bad hype that they simply don't listen to most of the records they receive. I try to, but my methods are necessarily somewhat mechanical. Even if I spent sixteen hours a day listening to music--I would estimate the actual figure, by the way, at around eight--I couldn't give each group the time each group believes its record deserves. So I tend to make a lot of snap judgments, sometimes based on decidedly extramusical criteria (like what label it's on, or what the group looks like), and since I believe that rock is supposed to grab you, I demand that groups I haven't heard of--and most of those that I have--do just that.

I divide my life between two apartments. One is equipped with an excellent stereo system, the other with a pretty good portable. In the first I store records I really like--the permanent collection. In the other I store records I kind of like or think I kind of like or think I should hold on to--the reference collection. After I lug the day's haul home from the post office, I divide it immediately into three categories: Maybe, Conceivable, and Forget It. Maybes are placed near the good sound system; the rest are transported to the second apartment and placed in either a sell pile or a listen pile. Maybes I have usually been hyped on somehow (some of them are really Certains) or else look interesting. Records from the relatively dependable labels--Warner Bros., Atlantic, Columbia, Stax--are usually Maybes. The Forget It category includes movie soundtracks, third-rate country artists, most straight pop and soul jazz. Conceivables are everything in between. I play every rock record I receive at least once.

That does not mean that I try to get into every one. Except with records I have been actively anticipating, I work chronologically and with dispatch, sometimes piling records on the changer ten at a time as I read, write, make phone calls, or fart around. If the record makes me want to listen more carefully, good. Usually it doesn't. Sometimes I can tell a record is a Forget It after one cut or one side. More often, it will play through and then find itself in one of the second-listen piles. Eventually, at least half of the rock records I receive are discarded altogether. Others are kept but never really apprehended, just singled out as having some good quality and forgotten. Others, of course, become part of my life. That's what it's all for.

Even though music is my greatest pleasure, the pleasure is often casual. I rarely listen carefully to 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, less constantly to Otis Redding, and less constantly than that to everything else. Newer acquisitions, naturally, get disproportionate attention.) I suspect that many rock fans would say (though I'm not sure I agree) that they dig the music more than I do because every record they buy has its day or week or glory. Nevertheless, I feel a certain obligation to pass along my findings. Some people, I know, actually buy records because they like the group's name or admire the jacket. This is a bad practice. I can't think of three records in the permanent collection that didn't involve some sort of tip-off: news in the trades, other reviews, advice from friends, hype from one of the few industry people I trust, or familiarity with personnel. So I have devised a rating system and will occasionally run one of these Consumer Guides--the rating plus whatever information seems pertinent. Results are not guaranteed--I change my mind a lot, and I've missed good things in my time. I will make no attempt to be systematic or current--records have a way of getting lost in the second-listen piles.

Although any rating system is absurd--always based on short-term judgments and incapable of implying ambivalence, although the comments can mitigate that--there is no reasonable alternative. Look, it's fairly simple. A means I like it a lot, B means I like it some or admire it a lot, C means I like it a little or admire it some, D means I don't like it or admire it a little, and E means shit. What more can I say? I don plan to charge notches (B minus to C plus, etc.) for various derelictions. I believe that record jackets should not fall apart. This means that when an album is packed Unipak, that chintzy half double-fold with the badly glued opening, I will note it and charge a notch. And I believe that long-playing records should play for a long time. I take that to mean thirty minutes--twelve songs at two and a half minutes per--so I will charge records that run shorter a notch. CBS is the only label impolite enough to omit times. Since CBS is the pioneer of the eleven- and ten-cut album (arty cousin of the eleven-ounce beer can), I think this is deplorably sneaky, but I can't quite bring myself to charge a notch for it. Why don't you all write and complain? And if you have a record you want rated or any other suggestions, write me. This is your column. Keep it clean.

Hoyt Axton: My Griffin Is Gone (Columbia). Hoyt Axton, who can't sing, has written two good songs, "The Pusher" and "On the Natural." The latter is on this record, produced by Alex Hassilev, who can't produce. D plus.

Blind Faith (Atco). Perhaps because I expected such miracles from the beginning, I was never turned around by Cream or Traffic, but neither group ever put out a record that didn't contain a track or two I loved--"I Feel Free" or "Paper Sun" or "Politician" or "Feelin' Alright." There is nothing here that makes me feel that way: I'm almost sure that when I'm through writing this, I'll put the album away and only play it for guests. Unless I want to hear Clapton--he is at his best here because he is kept in check by the excesses of Winwood, who is rapidly turning into the greatest wasted talent in the music. There, I said it, and I'm glad. B.

Mel Brown: Blues for We (Impulse). Bad album by an excellent guitarist. Instead of dealing up obvious goop in the manner of Shorty Rogers and Harvey Mandel it almost functions as a parody of eclecticism: black soul, white soul, Lennon-McCartney, bubble gum, trad jazz, blues, avant-garde jazz. Time: 27:08. D plus.

Canned Heat: Hallelujah (Liberty). The best Canned Heat album solely because four of its eleven cuts are by Alan Wilson, a great freak voice who writes songs to match. As usual, it is dominated by Bob "Rastus" Hite, who must have been responsible for Rolling Stone's suggestion that the next Canned Heat album be called Yassuh Boss. He is most offensive on one of those "introducing the band" jams ("Henry shoah does have the feelin', yeah") and on another exercise in solipsism called "Canned Heat." Still, Wilson's talent is too peculiar to fill an album. I wonder what should be done with him. B minus.

Crosby, Stills & Nash (Atlantic). This album is perfect, but that is not necessarily a compliment. Only Crosby's vocal on "Long Time Gone" saves it from a special castrati award. Pray for Neil Young. B plus.

Sweet Linda Divine (Columbia). Linda Tillery is a somewhat excessive black girl with a razor in her larynx who did a pretty good record with the Loading Zone. Now Al Kooper, wearing his producer suit, has gotten hold of her and indulged her excesses as if they were his own. It was five years between Highway 61 Revisited and "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Was it really worth the wait? D plus.

Wild Man Fischer: An Evening with Wild Man Fischer (Bizarre). I want to concur with all the good reviews: a fascinating document. But remember--it's a document, not music, recommended only to those with a serious interest in the rock subculture. Great term-paper subject. Frank Zappa provides two object lessons in the relationship of production to original material. B.

Kim Fowley: Outrageous (Imperial). Fowley is such a gargantuan shuck that he ought to be preserved in a time capsule. This is a follow-up to his flower record of a couple of years ago, complete with revolutionary liner notes ("Guerrilla warfare has begun. The streets belong to the people. Let's tune in to find out what went wrong today.") that for some reason--they'd see a few, no?--are concealed within the double fold. E.

Lotti Golden: Motor-Cycle (Atlantic). I don't like this myself, but I also don't like Laura Nyro. If you do, you might glance at the lyrics on the jacket and find out if you're interested. D plus.

The Guess Who: Wheatfield Soul (RCA Victor). This Winnipeg group has hit big with a white-soul ballad, "These Eyes," that most of you probably hate. I love it. Nothing else on the LP is up to its standard, but except for one bummer cut (which, of course, runs over ten minutes on the "These Eyes" side) it is well played, well sung, well arranged, and personal without being pushy. Not to be confused with . . . . B minus.

The Guess Who (MGM). This compilation of old cuts is recommended only to Guess Who scholars. They sure have come a ways. An original, "Stop Teasing Me," distinguishes itself as the most perfect early-Beatles copy this side of "Lies" by the Knickerbockers. D.

Jethro Tull: This Was (Reprise). Ringleader Ian Anderson has come up with a unique concept that combines the worst of Roland Kirk, Arthur Brown, and your local high-school blues band. I find his success very depressing. C minus.

The Knowbody Else (Hip). A classic white Southern rock band. Despite the terrible group name and the terrible label name (Stax subsidiary) and the terrible cover art, they really make it. Lead singer James K Mangrum is a cross between Dr. John and Captain Beefheart; the arrangements are spare and evocative, the songs simple but never banal. Very nice. B.

Joni Mitchell: Clouds (Reprise). Without David Crosby's production--this is basically a voice-and-acoustic record--Joni's voice sounds malnourished, which it is. Three excellent songs, but two of them, "Both Sides Now" and "Chelsea Morning," have been done better elsewhere. The other one is called "Roses Blue." C.

NRBQ (Columbia). Ever since Mike Jahn called this group the best since the Beatles (something like that) it has been the victim of antihype. Four or five cuts here are really compelling, and although the rest is marred by a kind of cute funkiness, it is original, and it grows on you. Dig their version of Sun Ra's "Rocket Number 9." A minus.

Otis Redding: Love Man (Atco). Although the tender passages aren't quite up to his best, this is Redding's best LP since Immortal. Dig especially the scatting on "I'm a Changed Man." A.

The Rock and Roll Revival: The Greatest Oldies Done Hear and Now (Dunhill). Sha-na-nyeh. E.

George Stavis: Labyrinths (Vanguard). I don't know much about Oriental-influenced banjo music, but I know what I like. B plus.

The Stooges (Elektra). Stupid-rock at its best--the side of the Velvet Underground that never developed. John Cale produced. B plus.

Zager & Evans: 2525 (Exordium and Terminus) (RCA Victor). Zager & Evans make Simon & Garfunkel sound like Marx & Engels. The only reason this is not an E is that the title song sold a million copies. That means they have to be doing something right. D minus.

Additional Consumer News

The folks at Buddah, the baddies who gave us bubble-gum music (hiss! boo!), have bought most of the precious Vee-Jay catalog (not including the Four Seasons, sadly enough) and are reissuing hit selections by the likes of Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker, and Jerry Butler (hooray! yay!). The Reed is a gem; all of his best stuff has been unavailable for years. . . . The pendulum has swung back. At an hour or two a day, WMCA once again offers the best music in New York City, despite Henry Mancini and the Winstons. The station has changed program directors and is expanding back toward its old sixty-five play-list. Frankie Crocker really is an incredible deejay, too. Beautiful singles on the air from the Stones (the flip, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," is my choice for political song of the year; when Jagger did it on TV, I thought I caught a verse about demonstrations that isn't on the record), the Box Tops ("Soul Deep"--album expected), Donovan (with Jeff Beck--shit plus shit equals fertilizer), Creedence Clearwater (two-sided hit--"Commotion" and "Green River"), Sonny Charles & the Checkmates ("Black Pearl," one of the all-time Phil Spector extravaganzas), and the Plastic Ono Band ("Give Peace a Chance" is a much different sentiment on the radio than in the pages of Rolling Stone, where folks should know better). Even WMCA's bad stuff isn't that bad, and if you listen long enough, you may get to hear the Happenings singing "Hare Krishna." If that isn't a trip. . . . Reader Dana Dolan informs me that The TAMI Show, the great 1965 rock and roll movie, has not disappeared or disintegrated but could in fact be found on a double feature with Monterey Pop in San Francisco not long ago. They always get there first. Why doesn't someone in New York try that bill? . . . One stanza of Frank Sinatra's version of "Mrs. Robinson" (on the aptly titled My Way album) goes like this: "The PTA, Mrs. Robinson, won't OK the way you do your thing/ Ding ding ding/ And you'll get yours, Mrs. Robinson, foolin' with the young stuff like you do/ Boo hoo hoo."

The Village Voice, 1969
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Columns: Apr. 1969 Consumer Guide (16)