Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (6)

As you know, we rock critics delight in using our unwonted power irresponsibly. The Consumer Guide is a good example. Since I conceived this arbitrary exercise six scant months ago, my name (which had previously been familiar only to handful of reprobate literati) has become notorious throughout the record industry. Every Wednesday, sideburns in tower suites all over midtown turn a more distinguished gray as the new Voice, carefully folded to page 30-whatever, is brought in on the luncheon tray alongside the crabmeat salad and the Panama red. Downtown, huddled longhairs in aging furs, their precious fingers gloved against the cold, curse as they sneak a look at "In the Voice This Week" and learn that I have had the effrontery to express my musical opinions once again. And they are right. It is almost impossible to describe the pleasure I take in bringing down yet another dynasty at MGM because I happened to have a headache the night I listened to Euphoria and A.J. Marshall. And what a satisfaction it is to ruin the careers of four or five young musicians with a tap of the D key. Criticism is a thankless profession, after all, and I have a right to my kicks just like anyone else. What's more?

Oh, what the hell. I can't go on with this masquerade any longer. I am sure the more discerning of you have long since detected the insecurity behind my bravado. Especially at night I am tortured by self-doubt, asking what right a parasite like myself has to sit in judgment on creative people, especially the young and disinherited, getting rich on checks from The Voice while artists starve. And so in this Consumer Guide I will attempt to shore up my sagging self-respect. That's right, it's "Consumer Guide Meets the Heavies," in which the world's most destructive super-consumer enters a fair fight, applying the letters A to E with all the accompanying pluses and minuses to some of the greatest names in rock music. Needless to say, he loses.

All the artists rated this week have headlined at the Fillmore or committed some equivalent act, and most have at least two albums behind them. The more sharp-eyed will note the unusual proportion of As this week (nine, whereas the previous four CGs have netted a total of five) and an even more unusual proportion of Ds and Es (none). This is the best evidence yet that I'm a slave of the Establishment, but allow me to rationalize my servitude a little. By my standards, it is almost impossible for a rock artist with a large audience and a couple of records behind him to produce an incompetent (D) or contemptible (E) recording, because it is only rarely that the rock audience will support music that is truly incompetent or contemptible. That's why there are no low grades. As for the others, well, as I've said before, my tastes are common. I tend to like what's popular and successful because popularity and success--in rock, at least--go with worth. Also, of course, I'm chickenshit.

The selection this time is even less current than usual. I've never claimed to be on top of the news, but I'd like to do better than this. I can only plead the hardship of my general untogetherness over the past few months. Some of these ratings were written in Los Angeles as long ago as the beginning of October. Others were composed as I typed up my final draft. Never mind. Just sit there and hate me, or enjoy, or both.

JEFF BECK: Beck-Ola (Epic) In which Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart induce Nicky Hopkins to be pretentious. C MINUS

JERRY BUTLER: Ice on Ice (Mercury) Unnoticed by all the contemporary music freaks, Butler rolls on, hit after hit, always beautiful, and now his albums are getting good. This is thanks in part to his new producers, Gamble and Huff of Philadelphia, who have previously done wonders for Archie Bell and the Drells. Mellow soul with a slight nightclub tinge, and fucking solid. A MINUS

THE BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND: Keep On Moving (Elektra) People who liked Butter long ago usually don't like what he's become. I've only dug him over the past two years and I think he just gets better and better. This record, vocally oriented and produced by Jerry Ragavoy, is his best yet, hard-driving and very tight. Listen to "Love Disease," "Walking By Myself," "Buddy's Advice." A

THE BYRDS: Ballad of Easy Rider (Columbia) I'm sorry to report that this is the poorest Byrds album. It improves with listening, especially at high volume, but Roger McGuinn does seem to be returning to his roots, which unfortunately lie deep in commercial folk music. All the rock dynamics are fading, and what replaces them is thoughtful but not compelling. B PLUS

RAY CHARLES: Doing His Thing (Tangerine) It's so easy to forget what a genius he still is. No balladeering here, no Beatle-mongering, nothing but hard-bopping Ray Charles soul. Yeah. A

JOE COCKER: Joe Cocker! (A&M) Anyone who isn't hip to the world's greatest spastic should get hip--the best rock interpreter, a performer who defies credibility. With Leon Russell aiding Denny Cordell on production, this is even better than the first lp, not as contrived. A

DONOVAN: Barabajagal (Epic) Like Paul Mauriat, Donovan is good at what he does and pleasant in three-minute doses on the radio, but he had a head full of nothing. Praise him for putting the worst cuts on one side and recommend this to all the gentle people, while they die of the droops. C PLUS

THE DOORS: The Soft Parade (Elektra) No one even thinks about the Doors any more--such is fame--but this is an acceptable record, with predictable pretensions and two or three first-rate songs ("Touch Me," "Wild Child"). Nothing to get excited about, either way. B MINUS

THE GRATEFUL DEAD: Live/Dead (Warner Bros.) An admitted fanatic raves to all the other admitted fanatics. Side two of this four-sided set contains the finest rock improvisation ever recorded, and the rest is gently transcendent as usual. Beautifully recorded, too. A PLUS

ARLO GUTHRIE: Running Down the Road (Reprise) Easily his best and most musical album, thanks to production-of-the-year by Lenny Waronker and Van Dyke Parks. Contains two absolutely superb cuts: "Running Down the Road," which features a guitar freak-out by some studio musicians who ought to send 20 white blues bands scampering back to the tars of India, and "Coming into Los Angeles," which embodies almost perfectly what it means to be young, hip, and temporarily on top of it in 1970 Amerika. A

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: Volunteers (RCA Victor) A puzzler: I've listened many times and cannot make contact. Every time Grace lilts out "Up against the wall, motherfuckers" ( a phrase which has long since lost its currency and dubious usefulness) I want to laugh, and I don't find the instrumental cuts very inspired. Everybody else seems to dig it a lot, and of course it's far from bad, but everybody may be wrong. B

JANIS JOPLIN: I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (Columbia) Everyone who called Janis Joplin a great blues singer was wrong. She was, and is, a great rock singer. She needed Big Brother more than any of us knew, not just for image, but musically, and not as a complement but a parallel--their crudeness defined her own. Janis has been struggling to shake off that crudeness, and while this record doesn't quite do what she has in the past for most of us, it is a surprisingly strong try, with a lot of help from producer Gabriel Mekler. Anyone who has given up on Janis along the way ought to try again. She's coming on. A MINUS

B.B. KING: Completely Well (Bluesway) A year ago I thought B.B. was the best live act there was and treasured several of his lps, notably Live at the Regal. Since then he has been transformed by astute management into the major attraction he should have been 10 years ago, and I hope he makes two million, but his music is not improving. There's no reason why someone as sweet-voiced as B.B. shouldn't cut his blues with ballads, but his ballad-singing is just plain schmaltzy--the taste that serves him so exquisitely in blues betrays him when he tries to be tasty. This record is good enough, especially the first side. But Live at the Regal is so much better. B

THE KINKS: Arthur (Reprise) Their live tour was an immense disappointment, and this is not the best English record of the year. It's about fifth. Excellent music and production, but Ray Davies' lyrics get petulant and preachy at times. A MINUS

LED ZEPPELIN: Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic) The best of the wah-wah mannerist groups, so dirty they drool on demand. It's true that all the songs sound alike, but do we hold that against Little Richard? On the other hand, Robert Plant isn't Little Richard. B

MOBY GRAPE: Truly Fine Citizen (Columbia) In which what should have been America's greatest rock group gasps its last. Quite mediocre, despite a couple of lovely Peter Lewis songs. C PLUS

THE PLASTIC ONO BAND: Live Peace in Toronto 1969 (Apple) This is the famous Lennon/Clapton/Ono/Voorman/White (Voorman?/White?) concert. I happened to be there and it wasn't so hot live. It is worse recorded. The anti-Yoko reaction has long since passed beyond boorishness, but that doesn't mean I want to hear her keen for 20 minutes, and the rock side is raw and badly recorded, with Clapton's masterful lead obscured by Lennon's rhythm. Of value primarily as a document. C

ELVIS PRESLEY: From Memphis to Vegas/From Vegas to Memphis (RCA Victor) A double album, half of it recorded live in Vegas, which was a lot better in person. The studio disc is very strong, however, and the live part, containing the fantastic six-minute version of "Suspicious Minds," is good enough. B PLUS

THE RASCALS: See (Atlantic) Admittedly, the Rascals have severe limitations, but so does rock itself, and this album apprehends and utilizes those limitations, with all of the annoying pretensions absent and the pleasant ones retained. A MINUS

STEPPENWOLF: Monster (Dunhill) An excellent comeback from two bad albums, marred only by the lyrics. John Kay's lyrics have always been awkward and preachy, in a fairly endearing way, but he had the sense to keep them fuzzed behind, so that they had to be discovered. This time he is out front with the protest, and sometimes the result is very good protest music instead of something better. B PLUS

Additional Consumer News

There is a myth, perpetuated mostly by writers who haven't done books, that there are no good books about rock. This is nonsense. Of course it's not the same thing and doesn't capture the blah-blah-blah. Music is music; a book is a book. But if you like to read about rock I recommend three books. Each offers a distinct and uncompromising vision (I wish it were easier to substitute ear metaphors for eye metaphors) of the music. Each tends to contradict the others. Each is true. Greil Marcus's Rock and Roll Will Stand (paperback overpriced at $2.95) is a collection of post-academic essays by some of the better Bay area writers (Marcus, Darlington, Daly, Garson). Nik Cohn's Rock from the Beginning (no paperback yet) is a funny, moving account of rock by an Englishman who sees it all as a wonderful shuck. Paul Williams's Outlaw Blues (paperback) is a collection of his rambling essays from Crawdaddy! In addition, I like two reference books: Richard Goldstein's Poetry of Rock, a collection of lyrics garnished with epicurean epigraphs, and Lillian Roxon's Rock Encylopedia, which could be more accurate and complete, but in the meantime is the only one we got, and pretty useful and entertaining at that.

Reportedly, there is a beautifully recorded bootleg version of the Stones' Oakland concert circulating in the Bay area. Whether you support this criminal act in some way is completely up to you.

Luther Ingram's "My Honey and Me" is a big soul hit which is just beginning to break pop. Out-hip your friends and buy it now.

Village Voice, Jan. 15, 1970

Dec. 11, 1969 Jan. 29, 1970