Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-70s Book Cover

The Decade

The decade is of course an arbitrary schema itself--time doesn't just execute a neat turn toward the future every ten years. But like a lot of artificial concepts--money, say--the category does take on a reality of its own once people figure out how to put it to work. "The '60s are over," a slogan one only began to hear in 1972 or so, mobilized all those eager to believe that idealism had become passe, and once they were mobilized, it had. In popular music, embracing the '70s meant both an elitist withdrawal from the messy concert and counterculture scene and a profiteering pursuit of the lowest common denominator in FM radio and album rock. But soon after this process began, the spectre of the previous decade was invoked to rather different ends. Nascent punks reviled the '60s because they had spawned the '70s, blaming the excesses and dishonesty of hippiedom for everything softheaded, long-haired, and piggy in rock industry grown flatulent beyond its greediest fantasies. If the '60s were over in 1972, the '70s were in trouble by 1977. Don't get me wrong--the Eagles and Foreigner and Earth, Wind & Fire are, er, survivors. Good or bad they're careerists, they jog two miles a day, and they're all destined to outlast the Ramones. But you don't get the sense that these quintessential '70s bands conceive themselves as '70s bands. After all, what kind of a distinction is that?

Rock may have turned into a multibillion-dollar industry in the '70s, it may have doubled its market in ten years, but at the same time it suffered a loss of cultural prestige that not even a trade magazine could twist with statistics. Maybe the Bee Gees became more popular than the Beatles, but they were never more popular than Jesus. Insofar as the music retained any mythic power, the myth was self-referential -- there were lots of songs about the rock and roll life but very few about how rock could change the world, except as a new brand of painkiller. Jerry Brown and Jimmy Carter--Jimmy Carter!--exploited the music to youthen up their images, not to affect opinion; even the antinukers acted more like bait than inspiration. And by most people's standards, a rough matchup of '60s and '70s artists--Smokey Robinson vs. Gamble & Huff, Bob Dylan vs. Neil Young, the Beatles vs. Rod Stewart or Stevie Wonder or Elton John or Linda Ronstadt or Fleetwood Mac (or some combination of the five), the Stones vs. Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Otis Redding vs. Al Green, James Brown vs. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix vs. God, Sly Stone vs. George Clinton, Lou Reed vs. Johnny Rotten--pits genius against talent again and again.

Yet, somehow, unlike a lot of my generational and even critical colleagues, I've never been tempted to let my turntable go to seed or to keep it in trim wearing out copies of Dictionary of Soul and The Who Sell Out. Ever the incomplete skeptic, I remained unconvinced that such contests were as one-sided as rock mythmongers assumed. Not only did almost all my '70s superstars do decidedly less super work in the '60s (score one for artistic maturity) but at least six of my '60s heroes--Dylan, the Stones, Aretha, Hendrix, Sly, and Uncle Lou, plus John Lennon, if he counts--did some of their greatest work after their supposed time was over. For the most part, this was in the early '70s, but maybe a bad decade deserves credit for having the modesty to begin its spiritual life two or three years late. And even the staunchest neoreactionary will perhaps grant that the utopian/millenarian spirit of the '60s, outgoing and visionary though it was, was deepened in certain instances by the weary savvy that followed, self-pitying and cynical though it was. Imagine, There's a Riot Goin' On, Exile on Main St., and Blood on the Tracks are all '70s albums in the best possible way--their distance from the action permits them a reflective complexity beyond the reach of rock and rollers in the '60s, though quite a few went for it.

Granted, it took more than an inspired synthesis of artistic sagacity and spiritual fatigue to create those records--they exploit an acumen about how to make albums that barely existed before the mid-'60s but has jes grew ever since. This in turn would seem to speak well for studio sophistication, the most widely touted "artistic" benefit of the decade's rampaging pop professionalism. But I don't hear it that way. For in fact Riot and Exile defy standards of punch and aural clarity that Sly and the Stones were instrumental in laying down, while Imagine was produced by mono maniac Phil Spector, not exactly a '70s fella. And Blood on the Tracks, like almost all of Dylan's albums, was recorded fast, to get a spontaneous feel; when some tracks didn't come out so good he rerecorded them with session men from Minneapolis, in retrospect a hilarious slap at the N.Y.-L.A. studio establishment. In short, the acumen these records exploited was the kind of conceptual audacity that began with, you know, Sgt. Pepper (Rubber Soul, actually, if not Bringing It All Back Home) and was later subverted by mealy-mouthed pros who talked art while rolling out product. Not that all four records--especially Exile, that apotheosis of murk--didn't capitalize on engineering expertise. But where such good-to-great albums as Heart Like a Wheel, Aja, and Rumours celebrate technology, these challenge its hegemony. Which may be one reason their particular mastery hits home.

Hits home here, I must emphasize once again. Tastes do vary, and mine are still with semipopular music. Although most of the records I consider the finest of the decade have made money, only a few have gone platinum, now the standard of public acceptance among rock professionals, and those by my very favorite bands, the New York Dolls and the Clash, haven't even made money (not in America, anyway). This fondness of mine for the nasty, brutish, and short intensifies a common semipopular tendency in which lyrical and conceptual sophistication are applauded while musical sophistication--jazz chops or classical design or avant-garde innovation--is left to the specialists. This isn't merely because we're suckers for snappy melodies with a strong beat, but because we find upon reflection that we value crudeness actively, as a means to some sort of vitality. And when rock pros define musical sophistication as an overlay of polish and/or flair on the same old snappy melodies and strong beat, they only encourage out atavism--such standards not only have nothing to do with artistic advance but spell an end to any sense of spontaneity, innocence, or discovery. We believe that what really tones up our beloved basics is the kind of conviction that can make change happen from inside--even jazz chops or classical design or avant-garde innovation, if one (or all) should fit.

The semipopular is the crux of a decade. It's a truism now; for some it's been a truism longer than it's been true. But there's no way to proceed without reprising. If in the '60s rock and roll had cultural life, then in the '70s it had subcultural life. Even when it achieves multiplatinum, there's rarely any reason to feel that its millions respond to more than a fraction of what makes it as good as it is. Its consensus is no longer enough--it has to justify itself formally, as art. Not surprisingly, though, its gratifications still have a lot to do with its popular status--or rather, its semipopular status: the connection is as much to a mode of communication as to an audience. After all, in a world where all kinds of self-described avant-gardists believe the web of mass media is a key to the zeitgeist, it's only fair that a few formal advantages should accrue to artists who actually command the usages of a mass medium.

Sometimes these are simply thematic. The New York Dolls can say more about the Alienation of Modern Youth than A Clockwork Orange not just because they enact it from the inside, or because David Johnsen is smarter (and more of a humanist) than Anthony Burgess, but because rock and roll was conceived as an outlet for adolescent yearnings, giving Johansen access to expressive material Burgess couldn't imagine. To make rock and roll is also an ideal way to explore intersections of sex, love, violence, and fun, to broadcast the delights and limitations of the regional, and to deal with the depradations and benefits of mass culture itself.

But beyond raw content there are resonances, in the '70s confined mostly to the head (whereas those of the '60s touched the spirit). Given their pop context, Steely Dan's bebop usages and Brian Eno's avant-gardey moves and the Ramones' pseudo-know-nothing minimalism and George Clinton's mocking mystagogic sci-fi lingo are attractive not only for themselves but for the criss-crossing recontextualizations they achieve. It's more than that, too. Ordinary rock and rollers are prisoners of their form, though since the form is part-ordinary by heritage they often make their jailhouse sound like home. But the great ones give off an aura of democratic grace; they make you feel they've chosen a colloquial voice, out of irresistible good-heartedness (or in the case of the nastier ones, an instinctive contempt for snobbery). And at their very best they can take you to that primordial, preverbal place where all human beings really are equal--without ever giving in to its dark power.

All of which suggests why those rough matchups I set up aren't as one-sided as they seem. Sure something's been lost--the democratic aura is healthiest when it's in contact with a vital audience. But the loss of the audience can't be blamed primarily on the artists. Most rock and roll stars succumbed knavishly to the pressures and temptations of the middle '70s, but even those few remarkable ones who had the guts to go against the grain--George Clinton, David Bowie, Bob Marley, Bryan Ferry, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith among the newcomers, Neil Young and Al Green among the already successful--failed to go all the way saleswise. And this was because the punks were right--among other things, the '60s were full of shit, generating good feelings (and good records) that were rooted in self-deception, especially about the malleability of power. In the '70s the powerful took over, as rock industrialists capitalized on the national mood to reduce potent music to an often reactionary species of entertainment--and to transmute rock's popular base from audience to market.

In effect, what the best artists did in response, whether they played guts ball against the new hegemony, or--like Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell, Allen Toussaint, and many others--merely circumvented it, was to act semipopular even when they were in fact much bigger. Think of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and David Bowie refusing to repeat obvious successes, or of Steely Dan's apparently premature withdrawal form live performance, or of George Clinton's whitey-baiting, or of Al Green's religious fantasies, or of Eno and Toussaint using rock projects to bankroll more esoteric ventures. And if this seems like elitism, consider that only the most popular of all these, Steely Dan, seems elitist in the pejorative sense. The others were merely autonomous or trying to be, reacting defensively to a change we can only pin down in retrospect; at various times during the first half of the decade they all came to feel that they could no longer say what they had to say to an audience that was really listening. And so, with the expansion through outreach cut off, they put their energies and their agape into expansion through form.

More charitable choices were still possible, but in 1974 or 1975 the mainstream was in bad shape. Among superduperstars, only Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan (not for long), Pink Floyd (maybe), and Elton John (so prolific his misses don't count) did consistently good work in the heart of the '70s, while mortals like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Millie Jackson, and Bonnie Raitt (if they had any likes) were all but buried amid the garbage. And what made most of these mainstream artists special wasn't how eloquently they spoke for their fans, which was the way it was supposed to work in the '60s, but how honestly--or at least intensely or extravagantly, at least something that challenged expectations--they spoke to them. No matter how eager to zonk or mellow out the audience seemed to be, the music demanded alertness, conscious perception, sometimes even growth. Except that demanded is too strong a term--requested, or maybe permitted, is more like it.

Perhaps most important of all, the semipopular permeated two crucial, interrelated areas: failures and movements. Beautiful losers are a rock tradition that goes all the way back, as countless unjustly forgotten blues, rockabilly, doowop, and garage-band forty-fives attest. But heroic failed album artists--artists with half an hour in them rather than three minutes--are a legacy of the days of expanded consciousness that flourished in the era of corporate rock, with its habitual faith in venture capital. The worthwhile LP that neither portends the ripening of a long and honorable career nor sells diddley squat is more a feature of the '70s than the '60s. Much of the best disco continued the fine old tradition of the one-shot, and without unprofitable but seminal albums by the Stooges and the Dolls, punk might never have happened. Most plentiful, however, have been spinoffs of the '70s' dominant movement. Admittedly, it's a conceit to refer to it as a movement, since it never announced or probably even saw itself as one, but that only serves a rabidly anticollectivist decade right. Torpedo a phrase of Harold Rosenberg's and call it the herd of independent voices--all the solo vocalist-composers fending for themselves on the fringes of the industry. These included substantial artists like John Prine and Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright, fatuous pros like Paul Williams and John David Souther and Don McLean, and all manner of sports and oddballs: Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Andy Fairweather Low, James Talley, Terry Garthwaite, John Cale, Paul Pena, Randall Bramblett, Garland Jeffreys, Mary McCaslin, Kevin Coyne, and on and on. The whole mainstream aesthetic, with its cult of the studio and its revanchist individualism, could have been designed for such folks, and they came up with an enormous store of obscure but significant albums.

I used to think movements and their less ideological cousins, genres, were bad for rock and roll; they went with declining cultural prestige, living proof that the expansion of the audience entailed disastrous fragmentation. Fragmentation too is a '70s phenomenon. It goes back to whenever arty types began to find "the best" rock worthy of attention in the '60s, but in the '60s tolerance was the rule; it was easier to name rough substyles--say British invasion, folk-rock, psychedelic, and soul--than to analyze their separate audiences (even racial distinctions were fuzzy). Not until 1968 or 1969, when it became a hippie commonplace to dismiss soul as "commercial" and when bubblegum and "white blues" developed into clear categories, did the breakdown really begin. And only in the '70s did genres start asserting themselves: singer-songwriter and interpreter, art-rock and heavy metal and country-rock and boogie, fusion and funk and disco and black MOR, punk and new wave, and somehow straddling them all (except for punk, God bless) the monolith of pop-rock. Barren, a lot of these styles might seem. But every one of them produced good music.

A complication here is that semipopular music was invented by black people long before rock or for that matter bebop; every time Louis Armstrong sent up a pop tune he achieved recontextualizations the likes of which have rarely been heard since. So in the '70s, as in the '60s and '50s, there was a whole body of semipopular music that had just about nothing to do with rock and roll. I don't count fusion out yet, not with Ornette Coleman and Blood Ulmer working variations and a whole generation of real jazz players rediscovering the joys of blues and the 4/4, but that's not even what I mean--when I think about the decade's music, I think about all the new jazz I enjoyed and all I didn't have time or ears for. I also think of the music's greatest professionals, singers who rock the blues rather than swinging them, who interpret a song rather than transform it; crafty geniuses like Ray Charles, B.B. King, and Esther Phillips may not have released one great album in the '70s, but they did record twice as many good cuts as, for instance, Paul Simon. And I think about the persistence of Chicago blues, which was probably better documented in the '70s than in the '60s, thanks especially to the folkie Leonard Chess, Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records.

In sum, I probably enjoyed the '70s' music as much as or more than the '60s', with movements and genres the key to my pleasure. Which means that it is now time once again to refer to my theoretical '60s-'70s matchups. First of all, I cheated. Bob Dylan vs. Neil Young wasn't a fair statement of the alternatives, because formally it was a decade of Dylans. I mentioned only Young because I regard the solo artists who've achieved major popularity--James Taylor, Jackson Browne, John Denver, and so forth--as lightweights, though I might have tipped my hand by bringing in Joni Mitchell. But once you accept the notion that the decade's best music has been semipopular, you can proceed immediately to Van Morrison, whom many sensible people (not me) prefer to Dylan. Then go to the brilliant Randy Newman, then to Prine, Wainwright, and Cohen, and then stick Richard Thompson and Arlo Guthrie in somewhere. Are the '70s looking better? Note that I cheated in other ways, too. There's no '60s equivalent to Steely Dan or Brian Eno or Miles Davis or Bonnie Raitt (keep your Joan Baez to yourself), so I left them out. The ska of the '60s had nothing on the reggae of the '70s, but since (like most Americans) I know Jamaican rock very sketchily, I left that out, too.

But beyond this innocent chicanery, my matchups were deceitful in a more fundamental way, because the whole idea, the very terms of the comparison, favored the '60s. Genius vs. talent indeed. For all its putative egalitarianism, what the previous decade seems to have bestowed on rock and roll is a shitload of Greatness. Now, I think that's great--Let It Bleed and Smokey's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 still speak to me with startling fullness and authority. But by the late '70s I didn't actually listen to them all that much, because I was too busy catching up with the latest--and maybe the greatest, too, but that wasn't what mattered--new wave. Starting with punk and running through its various pop, reggae, funk, and avant-garde offshoots, this was an idea--that is, a movement--that occasioned a startling quantity of good rock and roll. About audiences, I remain something of a '60s holdout. But if music makers themselves are compared collectively instead of individually, something all '60s holdouts should be more than willing to do, the '70s come out earning all the attention I've given them, and more. And if records, especially long-playing records, are how we remember the musical past--which they are--then the '70s are going to end up sounding very fine indeed. Rock and roll's first quarter century produced well under a thousand excellent albums. Close to two-thirds of them appeared during its last and least romantic decade.

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

The Guide The Criteria