Monday, February 27, 2017

All the Criticism That's Fit to Print: Revisiting The Rolling Stone Record Review and The Rolling Stone Record Review II

Led Zeppelin (courtesy of Getty Images).

In March 1969, writer John Mendelsohn was given the assignment for Rolling Stone to review the debut album of Led Zeppelin, a high-octane blues-rock outfit that had just emerged out of the ashes of The Yardbirds – a popular British Invasion band with a string of hits behind them including "Heart Full of Soul" and "For Your Love." Although there were no great expectations that this new ensemble would make history, Mendelsohn's words came to suggest that they might just become history. Chalking up their sound to formula, Mendelsohn remarked that Zeppelin "offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn't say as well or better..." Robert Plant's "howled vocals" were described as "prissy" on their cover of Joan Baez's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," and Mendelsohn went on to add that "[Plant] may be as foppish as Rod Stewart, but he's nowhere near so exciting." Jimmy Page gets complimented as an "extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist," but he's also singled out as "a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs." Criticizing them as wasting their talent on "unworthy material," Mendelsohn saw little from that first record that suggested that Led Zeppelin would be talked about fifty years later. "It would seem that, if they're there to fill the void created by the demise of Cream," he wrote, "they will have to find a producer (and editor) and some material worthy of their collective attention."

Now whether you believe that John Mendelsohn was right or wrong in his assessment of the record (and history has certainly proved him wrong on the band's longevity) is hardly the point. What his review of Led Zeppelin did, two years into the life of the counter-culture magazine, was make a claim for a subjective critical voice in reviewing rock music. While the visual arts, literature, film and theatre were already well into their established critical traditions, rock music had no such custom in the late sixties. Rolling Stone – and later Creem and Crawdaddy! – would launch over time a number of writers who would become part of a critical pantheon, including Lester Bangs, Jon Landau, Greil Marcus, Jim Miller, Ed Ward and John Mendelsohn. You'd be hard pressed in the music press today to see someone challenge Led Zeppelin as anything other than a classic rock album (even in the current Rolling Stone). But reading Mendelsohn's review years later, where it's included in the out-of-print paperback The Rolling Stone Record Review (Pocket Books, 1971), you're reminded of just how little remains of true critical writing in pop music criticism. What is more common today (especially in magazines like Mojo and Uncut) is consumer reporting, an objective style of criticism that eliminates the sensibility of the critic from the review. While the writing itself is technically clean and precise, as well as knowledgeable about the artist and their work, the critics aren't required to provide any subjective insights into the music except to reinforce what the artist intended on the record. In a reverse of D.H. Lawrence's famous quote from Studies in Classic American Literature, they never trust the tale, they trust the artist. The Rolling Stone Record Review collection – which gathers Rolling Stone pieces from 1967 to 1970 – chases the tale and holds the artist accountable for it. Often sloppy, sometimes blind to what makes the work a success or failure, the voices in this anthology are nonetheless trying to find their way into the grooves of every record they review.

Rolling Stone was co-founded in San Francisco in 1967 by Berkeley drop-out Jann Wenner and music critic Ralph J. Gleason, who both sought to provide compelling commentary on an emerging counter-culture. The Rolling Stone Record Review brings together early artifacts from that quest and the results are definitely entertaining and sometimes quite bracing. You can smile with the benefit of hindsight reading Arthur Schmidt's review of The Songs of Leonard Cohen when he quotes a friend who told him after reading Cohen's novel, The Favorite Game, that he didn't understand why people in the novel kept asking the protagonist to sing when the author clearly had a horrible voice. But often you get prescient perceptions – even from Jann Wenner himself. On The Beatles' White Album, Wenner sees clues that anticipate their later break-up when he spots how the music on the record actually splinters the familiar group identity. "[T]here is almost no attempt in this new set to be anything but what the Beatles actually are," he writes. "Four different people, each with songs and styles and abilities. They are no longer Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it is possible that they are no longer the Beatles." Today a Beatles record, like Abbey Road, might be greeted with lit incense sticks. What Ed Ward heard instead was overproduced sterility: "The Beatles create a sound that could not possibly exist outside a studio. Electronically altered voices go la la la in chorus, huge orchestras lay down lush textures, and the actual instruments played by the Beatles themselves are all but swallowed up in the process." As a result, according to Ward, George Harrison's "Something," which became his biggest hit as a Beatle, is "vapid" and "oozing like saccharine mashed potatoes." Ward is also prophetic when he claims that "Something" will "be covered by eight or ten artists in the next month and will rate with 'Yesterday' and 'Michelle' as one of the fab four's top money makers." In comparing Abbey Road to the group's single "Get Back/Don't Let Me Down," he concludes, "It is ironic that the Beatles should have put out a single with that advice, as well as an admonition not to let them down, followed that advice quite well with the follow up record [Let it Be], and then released an album like this." Would someone dare write those words about Abbey Road today? Greil Marcus opened his review of Bob Dylan's desultory Self Portrait with the famous question, "What is this shit?" and then proceeded to tell us what made it shit by writing an anti-auteurist piece that trusted the tale rather than the artist who told it. 

While you can always get a visceral kick out of someone taking a mad stab at debunking an album's greatness, it's even more satisfying when a writer uses the album to reach for a larger vision. Many critics writing here felt the darkness of the Seventies beginning to overshadow the music. This may be why Jon Landau talks about the faint despair lurking in the beauty of The Byrds' The Notorious Byrd Brothers (1968). "They sense the paranoia that is all around us but they do not give up on their search for innocence and natural harmony," he writes. "The Notorious Byrd Brothers is simply the latest rendition of 'Turn, Turn, Turn.' It's just that this time the turning isn't so self-assured or so automatic." Greil Marcus sees a troubling decade looming at the end of the Sixties on The Rolling Stones' masterpiece, Let it Bleed (1969): "[I]n Let it Bleed we can find every role the Stones have played for us – swaggering studs, evil demons, harem keepers and fast life riders – what the Stones meant in the Sixties, what they know very well they've meant to us. But at the beginning and the end you'll find an opening into the Seventies – harder to take, and stronger wine. [Their songs] no longer reach for mastery over other people, but for an uncertain mastery over the more desperate situations the coming years are about to enforce." For some music listeners, this kind of writing kills the pleasure they seek from an album. But I would argue that these critics actually deepen the satisfaction of the music because they are not only finding the means to articulate what it feels like to both enjoy and dislike a record, but they're also trying to show us that art doesn't emerge out of a vacuum. Langdon Winner reminds us of that fact in his review of The Jackson Five's debut album: "The Jackson Five stand in the tradition of super young rock singers that goes back to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and, more recently, Little Stevie Wonder. Ever since the day that Frankie Lymon lied about his age to producer George Goldner and earned the right to sing lead on 'Why Do Fools Fall in Love," there has been a prominent place in rock and roll for the very young, exceptional voice."

Some columns in The Rolling Stone Record Review feature writers whose opinions appear to be cured in chemical refreshment, but there are also some who try wild experiments like J.R. Young, who takes on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's Déjà vu by turning his review into a fictional short story. Musicians like Al Kooper try their hand at criticism and offer opinions on key records like The Band's Music from Big Pink (1968), where Kooper (who had played with various members of the group) hears The Beach Boys, Hank Williams, The Swan Silvertones and The Coasters as "a varied bunch of influences." But he also raises a definition more commonly used today: authenticity. "When you hear a dishonest record you feel you've been insulted or turned off in comparison. It's the difference between 'Dock of the Bay' and 'This Guy's In Love With You.' Both are excellent compositions, and both were number one. But you believe Otis [Redding] while you sort of question Herb Albert. You can believe every line in this album, and if you choose to, it can only elevate your listening pleasure immeasurably." What does become glaring, however, as you read through the book is the dearth of female critics. Janet Maslin didn't really arrive until The Rolling Stone Record Review, Volume II (Pocket Books, 1974), where she wrote about Linda Ronstadt's debut album on Capitol Records in 1972. "All of Linda's records have been solid and enjoyable, but no single one of them prepares you for the knockout she can be in live performance," Maslin explains. "Her full talent brings together so many powerful elements that it seems to be almost impossible for any recording to capture her as a whole." What Maslin seemed to be anticipating was producer Peter Asher, who would bring together Ronstadt's full talents on her 1974 Heart Like a Wheel album.

As satisfying a read as The Rolling Stone Record Review is, Volume II has more depth and the writing is much sharper. A period that included the deaths of Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin brought out the best in its critics. Lester Bangs talked about the loss of Joplin with an eye towards the impact it was having on both the culture and the music. "I don't know which is worse, the cannibalistic impulse of the public and the pop music industry which mutually encourages artists in disintegration because that's the flash and we really do think that someone else can live out our lives and deaths for us, or the sickly, not to say sickening, spate of 'Eulogies' and 'Memorials' and 'Remembrances' which sweep the rock press as soon as another star done gone. But perhaps they are the same thing," he wrote in his review of the posthumous Joplin in Concert (1972). With time to reflect on the golden age of Motown singles in the sixties, Vince Aletti writes with a passionate eloquence about their value. Describing the tunes as "jukebox spirituals, scripture to dance to, expressions of the emotional life black music has always been most concerned with," he goes on to define Motown's creator, Berry Gordy, as the perfect progenitor of the label. "Berry Gordy knew the psychology of the car radio and the transistor and the jukebox; his records slipped through these media and into people's heads and daily lives so quickly they were almost subliminal," he explains. "The Motown Sound had an insistence that went right past being irresistible." Musician Lenny Kaye, who would later be a valued member of the Patti Smith Group, turns out to be a pretty sharp critic when defining Jimi Hendrix's significance in his review of the 1971 posthumous release, The Cry of Love. "Hendrix was a master of special effects, a guitarist who used electricity in a way that was never as obvious as mere volume," he writes. "He took his bag of toys – the fuzz-tone, the wah-wah pedal, the stack of Marshalls – and used them as a series of stepping-stones to create wave upon wave of intense energy, proper settings for a scene of wrath and somehow healing destruction. It was rock and roll that was both quite in tune with and yet far ahead of its time, and in a way, I'm not sure we've ever really fully caught up."

The Rolling Stone Record Review, Volume II doesn't function as a consumer guide to pop music the way so many review pages in magazines do today. Often a writer here will nail a famous record by listening to what's on it rather than speak to the album's intention. For instance, Jack Shadolan sums up the calculated sanctimony of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar perfectly when he wrote that "in this re-working of a great agony, the agony seems to be misplaced . . . an ideal gift for Mom & Dad so they shouldn't call what you listen to degenerate anymore." Mike Saunders and Melissa Mills exalt the guitar work of the lesser-known Robin Trower in Procol Harum at the expense of taking a shot at Eric Clapton: "Trower [has] been among the best guitarists extant in rock; using a sparse yet incredibly intense technique, he had done on Shine on Brightly and A Salty Dog what Eric Clapton endlessly bullshitted about but never did – play with the emotional intensity of the blues in a rock framework." Both Record Review volumes also remind you that the pop music of the time was often a hybrid of genres. Ralph J. Gleason, for example, could see the fusion of jazz and funk in both Miles Davis's On the Corner and Santana's Caravanserai in his 1972 review. Long before he'd write the finest biographies of Elvis Presley (Last Train to Memphis, Careless Love), Peter Guralnick brought up the unsolvable contradictions in an artist who had a multitude of them in his 1971 review of Elvis Country. "You wonder sometimes just who is controlling Elvis's career," he ponders during what would be Presley's final decade of recording and performing. "In the middle of a typical movie soundtrack album, Spinout, you come across not only a raunchy 'Down in the Alley' but the interpretation by which Bob Dylan would most like to be known, 'Tomorrow is a Long Time.' In a bland follow-up to his dynamic Memphis album, Back in Memphis, you find a brilliant and impassioned treatment of the Percy Mayfield blues, 'Stranger in My Own Home Town.' And now at a time when it seemed as if his career must sink beneath the weight of saccharine ballads and those sad imitations of his own imitators, Elvis Presley has come out with a record which gives us some of the very finest and most affecting music since he first recorded for Sun almost 17 years ago." What comes across strongest in this piece is not whether you or I would embrace Elvis Country with the same enthusiasm as Guralnick does; it's how his sensibility as a critic opens up the enigma of Elvis while reviewing this album. I have distinct memories of the writers of many of these reviews included in both Rolling Stone volumes. But I can barely call up the names of writers I read last week in various magazines like Mojo because the person listening to the record has disappeared from the review. 

In the years that followed, Rolling Stone opted for the more consumer-friendly The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh and Nathan Brackett, which streamlines the artists and their albums in a more agreeable way so that Led Zeppelin gets a proper place in the classic rock pantheon. You have to search used bookstores high and wide to find the original two volumes of reviews. The Rolling Stone Record Review I & II brings back a time when the music critic wasn't beholden to record companies, or editors, who were afraid of opinions that might affect album sales. What marketing folks did very successfully over the years was seduce writers by offering them access to their artists (or depriving that access if they weren't happy with a publication's review). This style of behaviour played not only to the writers' egos, but also to their editors, who needed star quality in order to boost readership and keep their bosses happy. That dubious relationship set the model for reviewing that doesn't read much different from ad copy. In this climate, it's doubtful we'll ever see a review as funny – and as percipient – as Paul Gambaccini's very brief one on The Archies' Greatest Hits. "Contained within these grooves," he writes in The Rolling Stone Record Review, Volume II, "are twelve convincing arguments against the capitalist system."

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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