Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

What we have here is the first and probably last new wave Consumer Guide. First because never before have 20 new wave albums (much less the 40 or so I've chosen from) been current at one time, and last because the concept promises to become more or less meaningless in short order. Not that new wave is Taking Over--just that it's Established Itself, as a commercially viable idea in an ailing industry. As a result, the hypes that are now so transparent (see the Bottles) will soon make for amalgams which defy classification altogether.

After restricting myself to newish artists (no forebears like Lou or Iggy), I kept my criteria pretty vague. A few of these artists--CBGB's Shirts, 1977's Only Ones--qualify mostly by historical association. More important, a lot of them are simply pop bands trailing after the Knack. Needless to say, many consider such music hopelessly venal, overlooking the sad fact that two years ago the power pop style was unsignable, pursued by dogged formalists who shared with the punks both vanguard venues and a compulsion to play short, fast songs which required no fancy stuff in the studio. That power pop is limited goes without saying; that the freshness and intensity it encourages is what most of us have always loved about rock and roll bears repeating.

The secret of short fast songs, be they pop or punk or in between, is good short fast songs. One surprise of this survey is how many bands provide them. Another is that in no less than three cases the songs are undermined by the singing. Bands are straining for a distinctive vocal stance because they're aware of a troublesome commercial and artistic necessity--the need to make clear that one is living in 1979, rather than pining for the British Invasion like some nouveau folkie. Most of these bands aren't as innocent as they'd like to be, and how much mileage you can get out of the secondhand innocence of stylistic conviction remains to be seen. Not much is my guess.

I ought to mention that my Pick Hit and Must to Avoid imply no ideological preference for the pop of Pete Shelley's Buzzcocks over the ambition of ex-Buzzcock Howard Devoto's Magazine. History does teach that rock's inspired primitives make appalling gaffes when they determine to expand their artistic horizons. But it's from groups like those below that much of the best rock and roll of the '80s will emanate, and I have no doubt that some of it will be ambitious indeed. I also have no doubt that plenty of good rock and roll will spring up elsewhere. After weeks of white male voices speeding by (three titles with exclamation points, a new CG record), I'm looking forward to Fleetwood Mac and Ashford & Simpson. And who knows what else.


THE BEAT (Columbia) In which the Ramones clean up their act and/or the Knack stop smirking. Very nice boys, very intense, twelve songs in half an hour, never stop, drive all over the place, aren't coming home tonight, wanna find a rock and roll girl, don't fit in (but will). B PLUS [Later: B]

BLONDIE: Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis) This makes it in the end, but not by much--a tour de force like Parallel Lines it ain't. The soft focus of the lyrics remains more evasive than profound or mysterious, and a lot of what replaces the diminished popcraft either wanders ("Sound-A-Sleep") or repeats experiments we've heard before ("Victor"). Then again, "Sound-A-Sleep" probably ought to wander, since it's about insomnia and the pushy organ hysterics of "Victor" are a gutsy move for a group that's supposed to have gone AOR. I don't like the overarching fatalism--me, I hope to die old and get ugly--but I do like the way the lyrics depart from pop bohemia to speak directly to the mass audience they're reaching. And Debbie just keeps getting better. A MINUS

THE BOTTLES (MCA) All that's new wave (much less punk) about this aspiring El Lay songwriting duo is their name and their promo. Now they need a hit single so they can be remembered as a flash in the pan. C MINUS

THE BUZZCOCKS: Singles Going Steady (I.R.S.) The title is the perfect conceit for this collection of eight relentless British 45s--arranged chronologically, the A sides on the A side and the B sides on the B--about love and lust among the unmarrieds. The Buzzcocks' knack for the title hook and the catchy backup chorus, along with their apparently asocial lyrics, tempts tastemakers in jaded olde England to dismiss them as mere pop, but over here their high-speed, high-register attack sounds powerful indeed. The best song on the record, "Orgasm Addict," is the most cynical; the second-best, "Everybody's Happy Nowadays," is the palmiest. Good sign. A MINUS [Later]

IAN DURY & THE BLOCKHEADS: Do It Yourself (Stiff/Epic) Dury's idiomatic literacy is a continuing pleasure, but only on "Quiet" (to his kids) and maybe "This Is What We Find" (commedic-philosophical) is it enough, because the music tries too bleeding hard to be ingratiating. The man is supposed to be too English for us colonials, but I feel a lot more at home with the music-hall rock of New Boots and Panties!! than with the fusoid pop internationalism of Chaz Jankel's arrangements here--jazz per Ramsey Lewis, reggae per Byron Lee, disco per Arthur Murray. B

THE HEARTBREAKERS: Live at Max's Kansas City (Max's Kansas City) Of the five titles not on L.A.M.F., only the scabrous answer song "London" is even in a league with "Born Too Loose" and "It's Not Enough," both among the missing, and (believe it or not) replacement drummer Ty Stix is less subtle than Jerry Nolan. But the sound is brighter here, and the Heartbreakers' "final shows" at Max's are an institution that has earned the permanence of plastic. This captures the boys in all their rowdy, rabble-rousing abandon, and I know that when I feel like hearing them I'll be pulling it off the shelf. A MINUS

MAGAZINE: Secondhand Daylight (Virgin International) If it weren't for the two great singles--"Shot by Both Sides" (available on Real Life, now also released domestically) and "I Love You You Big Dummy" (a B-side Beefheart cover)--I'd be certain this was the most overrated band in new-wave Britain. And given the grandiose arrangements, ululating vocals, and published-poet lyrics, I'm pretty sure anyway. Back in the good old days we had a word for this kind of thing--pretentious. C

THE MEMBERS: At the Chelsea Nightclub (Virgin International) The inheritors of English punk haven't turned to power pop; they're putting their energies into reggae. Britain's own indigenous black music, with the r&b syntheses of the Stones rather than the blues imitations of the Savoy Browns serving as precedent. The crude feel and committed socioeconomic awareness of this album recall 1977, but the rhythms and tempos leave room for a slyer kind of humor, as when their rebellious-suburban-lad-escaped-to-the-city gives forth with this Inspirational Verse on the title track: "I just came here lookin' for mates/I didn't realize you could drink so late." B PLUS [Later]

THE ONLY ONES: Special View (Epic) Dry, witty, and unassumingly polysyllabic, his sentiment sheathed in irony, Peter Perrett is a bemused/distressed/displaced romantic with an uncanny command of conventional hard rock--like a nice Lou Reed, or Ray Davies gone to college. Which means he's a new waver mostly by historical association. This selection from his first two British albums (plus one single) is an ideal introduction to an artist who may be major if he sticks at it. A MINUS

PERMANENT WAVE: A COLLECTION OF TOMORROW'S FAVORITES BY TODAY'S BANDS ON YESTERDAY'S VINYL (Epic) "Television Generation" and "Just Another Teenage Anthem" never really got me as singles, and neither the Kursaal Flyers nor New Hearts proved deep enough to make good albums, but on this pop punk compilation they sound absolutely ace. Masterswitch's "Action Replay," the Cortinas' "Heartache," and the Vibrators' "Judy Says" also fit in. The Diodes' "Red Rubber Ball" is as useless as every other piece of Toronto punk I've heard. Since they also lead off the group's new collection on domestic Epic, the two nice cuts by the Only Ones are redundant. The teaser by the Spikes is good enough to make me hope they record an album. And the teaser by After the Fall is so good that I won't mind owning it twice when their album comes out. Quite snazzy, recommended to dabblers and discophiles alike. B PLUS

THE POP: Go! (Arista) Amid the sludge of Yew Ess Ay 1977, the chiming, slightly tinny British Invasion tributes of these pioneering L.A. power poppers were as daring formally as their self-distributed album was politically. Two years later everybody's doing it and their synthesis has become correspondingly fuller and more intricate, incorporating Anglophile moves that range from Roxy Music automation to Clashy football-cheer backup vocals. Still missing are depth of vision (these are power poppers, after all) and killer hooks (aren't they?). B PLUS

PROPAGANDA (A&M) A new wave (it avoids that term but that doesn't fool me) sampler on which the most exciting cut is Joe Jackson's live Chuck Berry remake (Chuck Berry?). Also commendable are two English singles from Charlie Gillett's Oval label, especially Bobby Henry's "Head Case." Negatives include a live exclusive from the Granati Brothers (who?), less-than-prime cuts from Squeeze and the Reds, and the second version of the Police's "Next to You" featured on an A&M new wave (see first parenthesis) sampler. C PLUS

THE REDS (A&M) My conscience says to dock this a notch for incipient pretensions and general meaninglessness, but my memory reminds me that despite indecipherable lyrics and a few overblown instrumental passages both sides have provided me with the basic hard rock rush again and again. Signature: high hook over frantic mid-range guitar. B PLUS

THE RUBINOOS: Back to the Drawing Board! (Beserkley) Live, this is a great '60s cover band--you should see how they choreograph "Walk Don't Run." Doing their own lame originals on record, though, they try so hard to sound fresh and appealing you get the feeling they're about to spit up on your shoulder. C PLUS

THE SHIRTS: Street Light Shine (Capitol) This is awful only on the big side-closers, and the occasional klutziness of the lyrics is redeemed not only by a winning sincerity but by improved (sometimes pretty) singing and composition--try "Starts With a Handshake" or "Love Is a Fiction." I might even want to play the end-of-the-world song for Chris Stein. Sincerity can be infectious. B MINUS

SHOES: Present Tense (Elektra) This band isn't for everyone, but it's certainly a formalist's delight. The three principals pursue their theme of Sad Love as obsessively as a cavalier writing sonnets to his lady. Their voices are interchangeably breathy, their tempos unflappably moderate, their guitar hooks unfailingly right. And when for a change of pace one of them sounds bitter the effect is as startling as a Johnny Ramone guitar solo. A MINUS [Later]

THE SINCEROS: The Sound of Sunbathing (Columbia) Wayne Robins clued me in on why I wasn't connecting with these sly, solid, snappy songs when he told me they reminded him of Freddie and the Dreamers. Right--it's Freddie evolved from teen lies to pop candor, effetely nasty rather than revoltingly cute, acknowledging his own little failings and hostilities in a mildly remorseless voice. And sly, solid, and snappy for all that. B MINUS

BRAM TCHAIKOVSKY: Strange Man, Changed Man (Polydor) Bram's multitracked, overechoed interpretations of old-wave profundities like "I'm the one that's leaving" and new wave bromides like "all these people suck" makes him sound like a power pop Crosby, Crosby & Crosby. One of these tunes is reputed to have been a hit, but damned if I can tell by listening which one it was. C PLUS [Later]

YACHTS (Polydor) You have to hand it to a group that can give itself such a ridiculous name and then come up with credible songs called "Yachting Type" and "Semaphore Love." Actually, most of these songs are pretty credible, even (or especially) the one structured around the word "tantamount." Funny boys, no doubt about it. But their biggest joke is a mock-snooty, mock-operatic rock crooning style that I'm not eager to hear again. B MINUS

YIPES! (Millennium) This Wisconsin band is nowhere near as yucky as name and packaging suggest--how can you hate someone who complains that Californians "got no ceilings on their cars"? Subjects of other cartoons--some simple-minded, some not--include class rivalry, being white, and the cold war. The problem is leader Pat McCurdy, who has one of those "good rock voices" that enable the artiste to shout in tune but don't permit much nuance. You can almost see him curling his lip and raising his eyebrows whenever a joke comes up. Oh well. B MINUS

Additional Consumer News

I must report meager pickings after searching desperately through nearly every unplayed and once played indie 45 to come my way since June, although I grant that I haven't besieged the shops or the deejay booths, which means there may be essential stuff out there. Right now I'll offer qualified support for the Adults' Critique of Pure Reason EP (Nesa), which in addition to its superb title and group name offers four solid rockers, clean but uncute, a promising original, a fine cover of the Honeycombs' "Have I the Right," and two rockabilly remakes of moderate (Ronnie Self) and extreme (sold 250 copies) obscurity.

Village Voice, Oct. 29, 1979


Oct. 8, 1979 Dec. 3, 1979