Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-70s Book Cover

The Criteria

When I became a critic, I believed in the magic that could free my soul--through the modern miracles of mass production and marginal differentiation, rock and roll seemed capable of giving me pleasure for the rest of my life. And it probably will. But if late-'70s power pop proved anything, it's that the best melodies and snappiest beats don't in themselves guarantee spontaneity, innocence, discovery, conviction, youthful lyricism, youthful anger, or democratic aura. The best artists have nurtured rock and roll's connection to all these things by opening up their music and their audience--myself included.

It's not enough for me simply to identify my musical preoccupations as beat, electricity, and song--rock and rollers keep revealing new possibilities in apparently transparent forms. But it's a good start. In 1967 I was addicted to the r&b backbeat, sometimes whitened and/or mechanized, sometimes softened with a Caribbean fillip. Now I listen for, and am turned on by, rhythm (especially polyrhythm, in funk and the great world outside), repetition (rock as electronic trance music and vice versa), and tempo (faster, faster). That's what I mean by beat. Electricity comprises perfectionism (studiomania in the manner of Steely Dan or the great L.A. producers at their young best), power (as orchestrated by the few worthwhile heavy metal bands as well as many raving punks), and galvanic noise (investigated most fruitfully by guitarists, although explorers from other fields like Gram Parsons, Philip Glass, and Miles Davis have taught us a lot. Song is most of what's left. Alec Wilder, that renowned connoisseur of "American popular song," claims that it pretty much died around 1950, so I guess I'm attracted to something else. Maybe it's streetsong, or electric folksong, or (forgive me) songpoetry, or just American semipopular song, a neat term that unfortunately sounds too arty. For if the '70s taught me to respect the idea of songpoetry, they also taught me to treasure the common wisdom of the pop lyric.

Even in the '50s I appreciated a well-turned lyric, and in retrospect the heightened vernacular of Leiber & Stoller and my man Chuck Berry seems a clear precedent for both the colloquial specificity and the associative flights of writers as diverse as Randy Newman, John Prine, and August Darnell. But I was a big fan of nonsense syllables, too, and I liked the sincerely dumb stuff. In the late '60s I retained those affections, but not without condescension--for a while it got harder to hear Smokey Robinson for the wordmaster he was and is. I was never taken in by the image-laden versifying so many young composers served up as poetry--despite such literary lights as Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, and Tom Verlaine. I've always believed the basic evocative task of the words was to enrich the music's passionately conversational, often rough-hewn vocal stance. But only in the '70s did I realize that I'd never developed the habit of expecting philosophical or political apercus from a song. This isn't to say I never got them--thanks Clash, thanks Sly. But they were always lyrical rather than analytic--these were songs, after all. And usually, the song that made me say aha merely reminded me of something that had slipped my mind. One way I've gotten into country music is as the domain of the truest singer-songwriters (and interpreters)--there are a hundred cheatin' songs with more truth in them than any but five or so of Jackson Browne's. Banal, maybe, but remember that cliche about cliches--they only get that way by saying something real.

Music comes first: the songs I love include instrumental compositions/performances from Hendrix to Eno to Hound Dog Taylor. And music is more than beat and electricity--in addition to the wonderful melodies (rock and rollers have uncovered a lot of sweet, simple ones as well) there is the little matter of how those melodies are sung. Improvisation is also a major factor, though to these jazz-fledged ears rock's improvisatory integrity inheres more in choruses, riffs, licks, and sheer spirit than in the long solos that so few of its players have the chops or imagination to sustain. But lyrics do something for music--they bestow (or clarify) (or complicate) meaning. And thus they can make a context for music that by pop standards is quiet or spare or dry or lifeless or forbidding, so that in the end the most hyperactive ass-shake ideologue can learn to enjoy semipopular rock-by-historical association--acoustic guitar meditations or synthesizer fantasias or rhythmic leaps or idealized raveups, sometimes even without drums. I know, because it's happened to me--with Taj Mahal, Pere Ubu, the Meters, John McLaughlin.

Just as a semipopular orientation has heightened my pleasure, it's also defined my displeasure--my aversion for all attempts to elevate the music into something "better" or reduce it to the lowest common denominator so beloved of marketing sharpies and mass culture theorists. Devotees of American culture have been battling the forces of the genteel since Melville, and though I can enjoy such art-lovers as Judy Collins and Jon Anderson once in a very great while, the bulk of their music has been fatuous and the entirety of their influence pernicious. Less annoying but even more dangerous are the exploiters who, instead of illuminating the unique vantage of kids (and others) untrammeled by education and big ideas, cater to everything lazy, cowardly, and brutal in the rock audience. For all its grandiose symphonic tendencies, heavy metal is a real rock and roll style, but with very few exceptions its content is egoistic at best and nihilistic at worst. And the cheap compassion and covert self-love of legions of nostalgia mongers and pop-rock hitmakers have turned AM radio into the refuge from intelligence that fools have always believed it to be.

Despite that last caveat, though, I must admit that most of the records I like work some variation on good-melodies-with-a-snappy-beat. This formula is one of the best substitutes for intelligence known to humankind, and I'll forgive a lot of banality and even some stupidity in anyone who can bring it off with an iota of spirit or originality--if a record can get me humming or bouncing around, it has earned at least a portion of my approval. But one luxury of being a critic--by which I mean getting your records free--is that you have to hum pretty loud and bounce pretty hard before fully suspending your disbelief. In the preceding paragraphs I've tried to suggest what makes me hum loud and bounce hard and what doesn't. Though some gentle souls may find my judgments unnecessarily severe, I'm really quite lenient. In fact, one point of the Consumer Guide is that it's possible to enjoy rock and roll without compromise. I've found well over 500 A records in the '70s alone, and though I listen to music all the time I don't hear enough of them.

Judgments were simpler in pop's early days partly because rock and roll was designed to be consumed in three-minute take-it-or-leave-it segments. The rise of the LP as a form--as an artistic entity, as they used to say--has complicated how we perceive and remember what was once the most evanescent of the arts. The album may prove a '70s totem--briefer configurations were making a comeback by decade's end. But for the '70s it will remain the basic musical unit, and that's OK with me. I've found over the years that the long-playing record, with its twenty-minute sides and four-to-six compositions/performances per side, suits my habits of concentration perfectly. Unlike many of my colleagues and even some consumers, I rarely sit at my turntable playing the same track over and over. In fact, my turntable is that bane of discophiles, a changer--to aid my work I even shuffle records before I stack them so I can be caught up short by some work of genius that I had mistaken for dogshit. When the Consumer Guide started, I often listened casually, letting a few key songs determine the overall impression conveyed by the grade. Now it's my practice to scrutinize each cut (or take note when I find it impossible to do so) after letting an album sink in for five or ten plays. Almost any LP will include failed music, but you really can stick to records on which even the ordinary material affords some modicum of pleasure when you tune in. Most of those I recommend with a B plus or better fall into that category.

Overall impression still counts, though--there really is such a thing as a concept album. Concept intensifies the impact (and improves the grade) of the Who's Quadrophenia and Mary McCaslin's Way Out West and Millie Jackson's Caught Up in more or less the way Sgt. Pepper intended. But the sheer historical audacity of Joni Mitchell's For the Roses or Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols has a comparable effect. It's also a species of concept that pushes a rhythmically unrelenting album like The Wild Magnolias or a vocally irresistible one like Shirley Brown's Woman to Woman, to a deeper level of significance. And while compilation albums by album artists (as opposed to stylistically unified singles specialists) are often useless, sometimes they present themselves as events: The Kink Kronikles or Changesonebowie or A 25th Anniversary in Show Business Salute to Ray Charles. Similarly, most live doubles are profit-taking recaps marred by sound and format inappropriate to phonographic reproduction (you can't put sights, smells, or fellowship on audio tape). But for Joe Cocker and Bette Midler and Bob-Dylan-in-the-arena, the form makes a compelling kind of sense.

I've tried to grade every '70s rock album worth owning and most of those worth considering. If it's rock and not included, my implicit advice is to forget it. A few artists I respect have been relegated to "Subjects for Further Research"; many I don't respect have been banished to "Distinctions Not Cost-Effective" and "Meltdown." I haven't always rated later releases by performers who've fallen victim to the familiar rock and roll pattern, the fate of lyric artists since the dawn of romanticism--early peak, long and depressing deterioration. I've occasionally skipped albums in the middle of a mediocre career. And I've rarely searched conscientiously for the best LPs by artists I have no use for--if Harry Chapin has come up with a C plus, I don't want to know about it. A lot of serendipity and personal eccentricity obviously informed my more marginal choices. the decade eligibility of previously unavailable music was determined more by date of release than of recording: best-ofs had to cover material from the '70s (or at least 1969) to qualify. I've specified catalogue numbers only in the few cases where two albums of very similar artist and title appear on the same label. When an album runs less than fifteen minutes per side, I've added up the cut lengths (according to the label, which admittedly isn't always accurate) and indicated total time.

Ultimately, each grade represents a synthesis of aesthetic judgment, which is relatively objective, and function analysis, which isn't. When a grade originally appears, part of its intent is predictive--it asserts that I will (or won't) find rewards in a given record six months or six years hence. And a good many times I've simply been wrong--for the most part, the changed grades reflect the actual use I've gotten out of an LP. This is obviously a very personal approach, and you'd probably be well-advised to adjust my grades according to our differences of taste. That's why I've tried to outline what my taste is.

But on the other hand, it's impossible to make a life out of rationalizing/explaining your own opinions without believing in some part of you that those opinions jibe with the zeitgeist. So if you find yourself valuing many of my C plusses and rejecting a lot of my As, maybe we'd better not have lunch.

Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s, 1980


The Decade The Grades