Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover


June, 1967: Statement of policy, rock and roll, the Monkees, California, Sam & Dave

I ought to warn that I am one of the barbarians--I love rock and roll. Secular music, hell. I have been proselytized by Chuck Berry and Alan Freed, tempted by the Weavers and Thelonious Monk, regenerated by Phil Spector and the Shirelles, and transfigured by the Beatles and Dionne Warwick. I feel--and not with total justice, I'll admit--that rock and roll is popular music. Miles Davis and Cecil Taylor are fine. I like Ella Fitzgerald; I even like Barbra Streisand. But I love rock and roll.

Yet what I used to like and what I like now are, almost, two different things. The original pastiche, ushered into ascendancy by greedy broadcasters who wanted to break the hold of the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers on radio profits, was fairly simple: varying portions of rhythm-and-blues and country-western, augmented by some primitive electronics and infused with enough pap, especially in the lyrics, to make it palatable to white urban teen-agers. The resulting big beat was ersatz, repetitious, sometimes imbecilic; it was also danceable and sexual and at its best had a vitality the ASCAP pros couldn't even approximate. Inevitably, the music became more complex--orchestration was added, gimmicks invented, and audio and recording techniques refined. And then the Beatles came along.

Until 1964, rock and roll was divided along clear racial lines; only a few of the top performers, like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, came near to bridging the gap. The Beatles, and a few other English groups, did the impossible--sang black music their own way and made it work as something original. Maybe this was genius, maybe just freedom from sociological hang-ups. Anyway, they were a revelation in America, inspiring hundreds of groups that were neither grease (Connie Francis, Fabian, et al.) nor soul (black). Many of the new rock performers are fringe bohemians; they regard their music as self-expression first, vocation second. What jazz was to the beats, rock is to the hippies. In a way, that is good. In a way, it is very bad.

Rock and roll has exfoliated so luxuriously that it is frequently unrecognizable. Try to dance to the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." Name a more "serious" song than Lennon-McCartney's "Strawberry Fields Forever" or P.F. Sloan's "Eve of Destruction." Not only has rock milked every tradition in American popular music--gospel, folk-pretty, folk-protest, big band, thirties' camp, and jazz, plus the previous phases of rock itself--but it has hooked itself with classical melodies, string quartets, counterpoint, atonality, raga, and all kinds of electronic trickery.

The problem is that as poetry, musical complexity, and psychedelic basso-profundity come into the music, its original values--simplicity, directness, charm--are often obscured or returned to the black performers, who tend to embrace them so self-consciously that they smother. So as always, there is a lot of good in rock and quite a bit of bad, and I am simply hooked. I listen to whatever the WMCA Good Guys want me to hear. My tastes are eclectic, my interest as much sociological as artistic, and if I do this long enough, I may find space for a word in favor of Miles Davis. He's pretty good.

Out of curiosity and nostalgia, I have been listening to greatest hits albums by three of the best rock performers of the fifties: Chuck Berry, the Coasters, and Little Richard. All are black, a good indication of what I remember most fondly from the period. I wondered how they would sound now, after my ear had become accustomed to all those intelligent lyrics and complicated arrangements. They sound just fine.

Berry has lasted best. Many of his songs, like "Maybellene" and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," now have the feel of folk poetry in a previously unexplored idiom, and even the more obviously commercial teen things are, at worst, excellent musically and, at best, successful evocations of a world he could have known only from a distance. "Roll Over Beethoven" has to be the best defense-of-our-music song ever written. The driving facility of Berry's guitar is still unduplicated, the clever clarity of his voice still a wonder. He is a classic.

So are the Coasters, but on a smaller scale. The Coasters were the creatures of the great composing-producing team Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who wrote their songs, taught them their arrangements, produced their records, and maybe even tucked them into bed. Leiber and Stoller picked their medium well, for the Coasters had dramatic as well as musical ability, and the novelties they sang demanded dramatics. "Along Came Jones" (with that guttural "eh-eh" at the turn of each verse) and "Yakety Yak" wear well. But even the best novelty songs--"Searchin'" may be the best--can go a trace thin, and the thinness is too perceptible in a song like "That Is Rock & Roll" or in the cutie-pie arrangement of an ASCAP oldie like "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Little Richard was the one our parents hated. If we could enjoy that semiarticulate animal ("Tutti-frutti, all rooty" repeated five times, followed by "a-womp-bom-a-loo-mom, ba-lom-bam-boo"), next thing we'd be French kissing. Little Richard achieved frenzy with no apparent strain. The voices of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett today have the same rough quality, undoubtedly the result of too much shouting, but when they let loose, there is a sense of striving. None of that for Little Richard. Our parents were right about one thing, though--he is so harsh and loud it's sometimes difficult to listen to six cuts in a row.

The Monkees are four young men who star in an adolescent TV comedy of the same name and make records that rise to the top of the charts like jellyfish. They were chosen (from a hirsute field of 437) not for musical ability but for exuberance and irreverence, qualities salient in the chaps who were in those very successful Richard Lester movies. You remember.

You'd better, because the Monkees, conceived as a haircut on A Hard Day's Night and Help!, find themselves sole inheritors of the great Beatle tradition. The originals have abdicated, withdrawing from teeny idolatry into their music, which is popular but personal and exotic. Young fans, confused, miss those nice floppy Englishmen they fell for three years ago, and the Monkees provide a wholesome American substitute (with an Englishman added for remembrance). They're not too handsome, not too pretentious, and every week they do silly things for thirty minutes, not counting commercials. At the moment the kids seem to love them.

For similar reasons, serious rock fans hate them. They know the Monkees are together by happenstance, that they are not too irreverent, too precocious, too sexual--too anything. They know they are lousy singers and can hardly play their instruments. They note that Mickey Dolenz was once "Circus Boy" and forget that Mike Nesmith has had a respectably bumpy folk-rock career. And they conclude that the music stinks.

It doesn't. It's not great, but it is good, better than much of what makes top ten--an important test if rock is truly a popular art. The group's second album, More of the Monkees, is hard to criticize objectively. Do I hear that dishonest edge in a funny, raucous song like "Your Auntie Grizelda" because it's there or because I expect it to be? Who can tell? With a couple of horrible exceptions, the songs sound OK, testimony to the truth that good rock is largely a matter of production and publicity. "Mary, Mary," which Nesmith wrote and produced, is very successful. He is their clearest talent and a bit of a real rebel. One would hope that he and not Dolenz will dominate the group. Something may come of this yet.

But whatever it is, it won't be the Beatles.

San Francisco is touted as America's Liverpool. Reports of groups with wondrous names like the Loading Zone, the San Andreas Fault Finders, and (most prominently) the Grateful Dead keep filtering back east, but aside from the Sopwith Camel, which has (who have?) turned out entertaining but uninspired camp-rock, and Jefferson Airplane, they release no records. And if the Airplane is what makes Frisco Liverpool, the Beatles must be from London.

The Airplane makes competent, original folk-rock, and perhaps it's unfair to put it down. But the music is unexciting. At its worst it sounds like amplified Peter, Paul & Mary. Arrangements are very tight, sweet harmonies prevail, and none of the four singers has the strident kind of voice that is best for rock. The Airplane's second album, Surrealistic Pillow, just doesn't make it. The rhythms are skillful but rarely compelling, the melodies pretty but rarely memorable, the lyrics literate but rarely sharp. The Airplane is to, say, the Mamas & the Papas as Sonny Stitt to Charlie Parker--great craft, but that's all.

My choice for our very own Liverpool is Los Angeles. L.A. has the best rock radio in the country, and Sunset Strip nurtures a breed of hippie more affluent, more into the material effluvia at the heart of pop, than the happy freaks of Haight-Ashbury. Out of L.A. have come promising groups like the Seeds, the Buffalo Springfield, the Mothers of Invention--and the Doors, and Love.

Love is an interracial septet that is trying lots of new things. One side of its second album, Da Capo, is a nineteen-minute piece, mostly instrumental, called "Revelation." It includes excellent guitar and harmonica work and great screaming by a lead singer (I don't know his name; the new style in record jackets is to reveal nothing) whose voice is more often too sweet for his material. It also includes some mediocre alto sax and (I shudder) a protracted drum solo. A brave stab at a target somewhere between rock and jazz, I think it fails, but it may prove prophetic. Despite a perfect rocker, "7 and 7 Is," the other side sounds cluttered and lacks sock, which may be the singer's fault.

As if presenting their credentials, the Doors open their first album with a great hard-rock original, "Break On Through," then do more esoteric stuff: a Willie Dixon blues, Weill-Brecht's "Alabama Song," and witty songs of their own like "Twentieth Century Fox." They also do a long, obscure dirge called "The End," which ought to be. Ugh. Vocalist Jim Morrison is flexible, though sometimes faint, and Ray Manzarek's big-band organ works in the four-man group.

I recommend the Doors, but I would do so less reservedly, and throw in Love and the Airplane, if I thought any of those talented, serious young men were playing rock that was pop. Rock has always come to its audience and led it--the Beatles, as always, are the perfect example, but so is Dylan and even Berry. Most hippie rock and roll musicians exhibit the same in-group pretentiousness that characterized the folk and jazz purists who were their predecessors. I often like the music, but the attitude bugs me. I still remember when rock and roll was mostly fun.

Lest some suspect I am a fifties fogey, let me also give my imprimatur to the new album by Sam & Dave, Double Dynamite. Although one of their songs, "Hold On, I'm Comin'," made the 1966 Cash Box top hundred, the soul duo (what else do you call them?) remains virtually unknown in white markets. A pity. Their sound is crisp but not slick, and it rocks. Great stage performers, too.

Esquire, June 1967
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Anatomy of a Love Festival Columns: Dec. 1967