Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Growing Up Grim With Mott the Hoople

Mott the Hoople is an English rock band that cohered in July, 1969, around a singer from the industrial Midlands named Ian Hunter. Hunter had one freakish specialty--an imitation of the world-weary middle-period Dylan that cut Sonny Bono all the way to 4th Street. As if to prove himself the champeen Dylanizer, Hunter did Sonny's "Laugh at Me" on the group's first album. The invitation was difficult to resist. With its revival of a teen tearjerker balanced against its jacket by the kitsch surrealist M.C. Escher, the album was like the two that followed--distinguished only by what it covered and by what covered it. The music itself was a lot of highly undistinguished heavy riffing.

But the fourth LP, Brain Capers, opened the door on the arch, arty sensibility that had obviously been closeted--holding its ears and jumping up and down with perverse glee--somewhere behind that wall of sound. Like so much English hard rock, Brain Capers was rather morbid thematically--it opened with a little something called "Death May Be Your Santa Claus" and followed with new versions of old songs about heroin and the power of darkness. But where Ozzy Osbourne, of Black Sabbath, and David Byron, of Uriah Heep, declaimed their doom shows like demented evangelists, Hunter's vocals provided a mad note of urban detachment--he didn't imitate Dylan any more, but he achieved a little of what Dylan had. And while the band pounded away with that denial of sensual nuance so common among the English superheavies, there was something in the rave-ups that cleansed while it scarified, some undertone of jazzy atonality. The result was a record that neither surrendered to nor tried to escape from the rebellious pessimism that had come to pervade English hard rock. Instead, it confronted that pessimism, positing a possible survival against the likely obliteration.

These intimations of apocalypse may sound strange here in the land of let's-boogie, but I am talking about England, where there is definitely weird stuff going on in rock and roll. I take it as a combination of the grim English adolescence--most kids there go to work at fifteen--and the distance between English pop and its American roots. For the English, rock and roll has never involved doing what comes naturally. No matter how well off the prospective American rock musician may be, it seems that he is closer to down-home funk than his (often working-class) English counterpart, and (due largely to the inspiration of the Beatles, of course) he is no longer embarrassed about showing it. Occasionally, England will produce some mad blues avatar like Eric Burdon or Joe Cocker, but for the most part the English work out their built-in detachment aesthetically. Invariably, their music redefines that old catchall: art-rock.

I don't want to overgeneralize--Ten Years After and Savoy Brown aren't art-rock, and neither is John Mayall. But the two biggest second-generation English bands--in America, that is--Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, dissimilar as they are, can be coaxed into the category, because each relates to rock and roll not organically but intellectually. Each idealizes the amplified beat. For Tull (as for all the upper-middle-classicals: Yes; the Moody Blues; Emerson, Lake & Palmer) it is a simple, compelling structure into which Good Music can be inserted. For Led Zep (as for Mott the Hoople and Black Sabbath and Slade) it is an end in itself, a kind of formal challenge.

What is most striking about all art-rock is that it isn't very sexy. Bands like Tull make head music, using the physical compulsion of beat and volume to involve the mind. Bands like Led Zep, on the other hand, make body music of an oddly cerebral cast, arousing aggression rather than sexuality. This means that the second kind of English hard rock--Led Zep's and Mott's--has a strange potential double audience. It can attract intellectuals, and it can attract working-class kids.

Only two American bands of any consequence have made such music, and they split this audience down the middle. The Velvet Underground, nurtured by Andy Warhol before nestling down in Boston's academic ghetto, was America's first and greatest critics' band. And Alice Cooper, after an early flirtation with the Zappaphiles, has become the focus of the entire downer generation. It's curious that the only American "English hard-rock" bands are also the only American bands with an explicit connection to homosexuality--Alice Cooper through Alice's since-abandoned transvestitism, not to mention his assumed name, and the Velvets through the Warhol superstars.

In England such connections are commonplace, from Mick Jagger's androgynousness and Ray Davies's camping all the way to David Bowie, who in case you haven't heard is a singer-composer-producer who is also a transvestite and a bisexual and a trained mime who is currently trying to ride a massive hype into superstardom. Bowie's manager is Tony De Fries. De Fries also manages Mott the Hoople, Lou Reed, of the Velvets, and Iggy, whose band, the Stooges, doesn't rank with the Velvets or Alice Cooper because it never developed a real following. For the record, the Stooges weren't into homosexuality. Iggy liked to make himself bleed on stage, though.

Like everyone else, De Fries and his stable want to reach a new rock audience that barely remembers the Beatles. In England this audience has far-out tastes, going for the fey fantasies of T. Rex and the crude generational hostility of Slade where the Americans go for the Osmonds and Grand Funk. But the fact that English tastes once took over America doesn't mean they will again--in a sense, the Beatles were a one shot. Artistically, the English groups are superior, but as phenomena they are no more real. By the time of Brain Capers Mott the Hoople had a substantial English following. In America, however, they had a Velvet Underground reputation when they would have preferred an Alice Cooper market. When their U.S. record company dropped them, they were so disheartened they were ready to disband. But De Fries and Bowie persuaded them to give it one more try.

The reason is "All the Young Dudes," a song Bowie wrote and produced for Mott the Hoople. A big hit in England, it made only top fifty here, which, since Mott's new label was pushing hard, doesn't mean a thing. No matter. "All the Young Dudes" is the most exciting piece of white rock and roll released all year. It recalls the Stones at their peak, when all that ironic density still pertained to us as well as them. Like "I'm Eighteen," the hit single that transformed Alice Cooper from the group that slaughtered chickens to the group that destroyed stadiums, "All the Young Dudes" is an attempt by an over-twenty-five to get under the skins of the new rock audience. But where the American produced a defiant cry of joyful alienation, the English art-rocker tried to suggest paradoxes of power and frustration, solidarity and isolation.

Because Mott the Hoople is produced by David Bowie and opens the All the Young Dudes album with "Sweet Jane," a Velvet Underground song, it is generally assumed that the band is flirting with the trendy gayness now threatening red-blooded American boogie. Hmph, just listen to the very first stanza of "Sweet Jane": "Now Jack he's in his corset, and Jane she's in her vest." Only thing is, the crucial line in that song is the next one: "Me, I'm in a rock and roll band." In "One of the Boys," which opens side two, the same identification is reconfirmed: "I borrowed a gypsy Gibson just to show them/ And now I'm a rock and roll star I don't want to know them/ If they want a straight they better go out and grow one."

Lately, the old figure of the self-conscious rock and roll star has been turning into the even more traditional world-weary art hero, with all the effeteness that implies--Mick Jagger's coat is worn and frayed, and he wants to shout, but he can't hardly speak, while Bowie's own persona, Ziggy Stardust, is an androgynous alien trying to conjure some love out of a dying planet. But whereas Jagger really is a fagged-out ten-year music veteran, and Bowie really is an art-scene outsider trying to reach the masses through music, Ian Hunter is the lead singer of a genuine second-level touring band. He is familiar enough with the kinks of the pop world, but fame has not separated him--not totally, anyway--from his own class and generational origins. If he is part of a subculture in which love's sweet sentiment seems a thing of the past, as it does in "Sweet Jane," he can also remember how he grew his hair to scare the teacher as one of the boys: "I don't say much, but I make a big noise."

In "All the Young Dudes" the rock and roller who knows Jack and Jane and the rock and roller who is one of the boys combines to undermine the notion that Jack and Jane are merely weird or the boys merely ordinary. For this is a dying planet in the sense that economic pressures break down traditional roles faster than anyone can find comfortable new ones--Dad wears a secret tummy-flattener to the P.T.A., and Mom affects a suede jerkin around the office. Meanwhile, the kids cope. A generation because they are a market, they band together, fortified by details of style against their own fate: "Don't want to stay alive when you're twenty-five."

Singing against an unforgettable chorus, an inspiriting, somewhat brutal-sounding hymn to subgenerational solidarity--one line, "All the young dudes carry the news," repeated over and over--Hunter reveals the cruel limits of such solidarity. Whether the dudes are homosexuals, droogs, mods, rockers, or mockers--or just the boys--doesn't matter. Whoever they are, they are united by a style ("He dresses like a queen . . .") against time, and they're out on the street determined to face it down together (". . . but he can kick like a mule"). They're not "juvenile delinquent wrecks," they tell us: "We can love, we can really love." But in the end the love and the facedown are inextricable, for the only accessible adversaries are those contemporaries who don't conform to their style. As the chorus repeats to a fade, Hunter calls out: "Hey, you there. You with the glasses. I want you. I want you in the front. Now." Soon, he loves and faces down his victim, who I imagine as some hapless Emerson, Lake & Palmer fan. "How did it feel?" someone asks. Hunter's reply is barely audible, the last word of the song: "Sick."

Obviously, this is not exactly trendy gayness. The dudes love only in their apparently sexless camaraderie, and on the rest of side one, Hunter plays an unusually vindictive rock misogynist. As the harsh rhythms of English hard rock imply, both homosexual and heterosexual contact is likely to be understood in terms of the patterns of dominance and submission that accompany any struggle, including the struggle for identity. Side two is a little more hopeful. Organist Verden Allen sings of a woman who is his sexual equal, and guitarist Mick Ralphs declares that he is "ready for love" before Hunter closes with "Sea Diver," a somewhat ambiguous lament for the wasted chances of youth. "Oh Lord, I wish I could escape this iron veil," he moans, and then answers himself, apparently in another voice: "Write on, my son, write on, my son/ Write until you fail."

Especially in comparison to the raucous aggression of Brain Capers and the earlier albums, this is mature, reflective stuff. Its mood is reinforced by Bowie's well-pruned production and Hunter's almost tender reading of the final song. Under Bowie's direction Hunter has become a Dylan imitator on a new level--he wants his music to enlighten as well as entertain. In "All the Young Dudes" he comments: "We need TV but we got T. Rex." Even though he can't make it with the Beatles or the Stones--they're for his older brother, sitting at home--he knows there is something better than Slade's hostility and T. Rex's fantasy. And so Mott the Hoople enters the battle for the soul of English working-class adolescents, capturing their angry confusion but trying to point beyond it, too. That sort of transcendence is what art-rock really ought to be about.

Newsday, Dec. 1972

In what is always described as the "prestigious" Melody Maker poll, Emerson, Lake & Palmer came up with a total of five awards, the most interesting of which was for Best Composition. The winner was not "The Endless Enigma" but Pictures at an Exhibition. Funny, I always thought someone named Moussorgsky composed that one.

Jack Good, the British rock impresario who originated the television show Shindig in the heyday of Beatlemania, is hard at work on his dearest project, a rock version of Othello. In its original Los Angeles stage production, Good's Othello was a zany, ham-filled masterpiece starring William Marshall as Othello and Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago. The film version, produced by Metromedia and distributed by Cinema V, is reportedly more sedate. It will feature Season Hubley (Desdemona), Lance LeGault (Iago), and Susan Tyrrell (Emilia). Color will be provided by Richie Havens, who makes his acting debut in the title role. When last seen, Havens had just flubbed the same line for the fourteenth consecutive time.

Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

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