Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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This was originally published as free content, in Robert Christgau's And It Don't Stop newsletter. You can have Christgau's posts delivered to your mailbox if you subscribe.

The Big Lookback: Little Records With Big Holes

The Big Lookback: A 1971 piece on singles from Tommy James, Jean Knight and Freda Payne, the joys of AM radio and the dark forces of shlock-rock.

This piece, published half a century ago as a Rock & Roll & column in the August 5, 1971, Village Voice, documents both my long-term fondness for AM-radio pop and hippie-era hopes for "progressive" FM that I was soon to half disown in the June, 1972, Newsday piece "All My Friends Call Me a Fool." I've edited it very slightly for clarity and felicity without misrepresenting the meaning I intended at the time. I considered including it in my 1974 Any Old Way You Choose It collection--there are faint penciled comments from editor Harris Dienstfrey on the Voice version I clipped and filed--but was omitted, at least in part because it wouldn't have fit conceptually with the structure we came up with, although "All My Friends Call Me a Fool" sure did. Further explanatory footnotes below.

Like the skyline rising over the Jersey flats or the hard plastic seats on the RR train, WABC is something familiar and apparently permanent that lends shape to my life. Speeding home from some rural retreat, trying to pick an unmuddled signal out of the night and feeling the swell of disappointment as the Rolling Stones of Baltimore joust inconclusively with Chicago of Rochester, I punch the second button and there he is, Cousin Brucie, as shrill and loathsome as ever.

Yes, WABC is awful, despite its necessarily heavy quota of black music (there are still stations between Chicago and California that play virtually none) and the gradual expansion of its playlist over the past few years. And yes, WABC is hurting. Already, WOR-FM is challenging its ratings the way WINS and WMCA never did, and the Hackensack country station, WJRZ, has given up the good fight and its call letters to become WWDJ, with Dan Daniel and Dean Anthony and an as yet vague host of shouters rocking it out, not only against WABC but against the superior wattage of WINS, fallen from the best AM station in New York AM history to the spearhead of the all-talk reaction. Perhaps even more significant are the new call letters of WABC-FM, WPLJ, which as you probably know stand for either Peace Love Justice or White Port Lemon Juice. WABC-FM was always the best music station in the city for people like you and me, but it never overcame its alphabetical stigma. A new regime, headed by alternate media honcho Larry Yurden, made some good changes and went on to purer pastures. The station is still very good--it sponsors concerts, employs the martyred Alex Bennett, and plays a lot of nice music, much of which is rock and roll. I listen to WPLJ at home, and would probably do the same in my car if my car were FM-equipped. That's why it isn't.

I think the American Broadcasting Company's investment in the new format is significant, and although the demise of my beloved ugly radio is obviously far off, WPLJ represents the future more than WABC does. Going over the Billboard Hot 100, I find many reasons to listen to WPLJ. These boil down to two categories. The first results from a trend of the past couple of years, in which an LP gets FM support and begins to sell, inspiring AM programmers to play the single, transforming the album from a moderate success into a monster. Sometimes an artist's FM following is so intense that big AM sales seem inevitable (Elton John, Carole King, or James Taylor, currently the number-one singles artist); in other cases, one exceptional cut (like Carly Simon's "That's the Way I Always Thought It Should Be" or Delaney & Bonnie's "Never Ending Song of Love," a delightful left-field hit) can make an album.

But although this pattern has made AM more various and pleasurable, even for a sorehead who usually can't stand Taylor or Simon, it has made it less necessary, because the same music is available on FM anyway. The other trend I have in mind simply makes AM less bearable, and I'm sorry to report that it's definitely a rock and roll trend rather than some easy-listening inroad: the crystallization of schlock-rock as a form. Time was when I really liked almost anything on the radio as long as it had a beat, but no more. The rock and roll our parents thought they heard--the stuff that all sounded alike--has arrived, with the Grass Roots (current hit: "Sooner or Later") in its vanguard. More often than not, this music is dominated by deindividualized vocal ensembles that avoid both harmonic tension and the quirks that always humanize a single voice. As in White Plains' definitive "My Baby Loves Lovin'," lyrics and melody tend repetitious to a point that can only be called sing-song. The beat is obligatory rather than compelling, all the histrionics of heavy rock are carefully avoided, and if any fun goes into the production I don't get the joke. My old AM head is turned off. Caught between music that is self-consciously good and music that is self-consciously bad, I listen to WPLJ at home. But something is missing--I begin to get this dull headache that comes from not getting off.

You remember getting off, right? Well, turn on WABC or find WWDJ and maybe you'll get off again. My three nominees this week in history: "Draggin' the Line," by Tommy James, on Roulette; "Mr. Big Stuff," by Jean Knight, on Stax; "Bring the Boys Home," by Freda Payne, on Invictus. These records don't have much in common, but what they share is worth noting. All are on independent labels, although as is customary in these conglomerate days, two are tied to majors by distributions deals. All are by artists unlikely ever to record a good album. And although two of the artists are familiar names, each of these records is a surprise hit rather than a follow-up.

My reservations about albums does not apply to greatest hits collections. The Best of Tommy James and the Shondells1, on Roulette, is a very good album indeed. Tommy's problem is that at any one point in his career he can only concentrate on one small idea--he lacks artistic breadth, but he really does that one idea until it starts to moan. His first hit, "Hanky Panky," was dubbed "the all-time definitive piece of crap" by Derek Taylor2, the patron saint of hip publicists. Despite his critical flair, however, Taylor did not add that in five years "Hanky Panky" would sound a lot better than "Eleanor Rigby." But it does, and in the meantime James has been turning out more definitive crap. "I Think We're Alone Now" is the great Hempstead3-discovers-fucking song. And now "Draggin' the Line" is the great Hempstead-discovers-country-roads song. It is also James's first big hit since splitting with the Shondells over a year ago, and it continues in the technological tradition of his previous period, but with a tight studio-rock overlay, less pretentious than the Moody Blues and ballsier than Argent. It seems appropriate that a record about hugging trees should be synthesized to the consistency of butterscotch Cool 'n Creamy. Yum.

"Mr. Big Stuff" is a minor flash in the girl-group mode. Jean Knight has her own name, but she's no more individual than Bobb B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans. Her voice isn't strong, but it's perky, and the producer, someone named Wardell Quezergue4, has framed its distinctive quality with a nice little horn riff that hooks quite effectively right after the title. I am excited mostly about the record's theme, a rare one in black music: a woman rejects a man and sounds quite happy about it. Little Richard has suggested that Mr. Big Shot is a pimp, but didn't we always know Mr. R. had a dirty mind?

"Bring the Boys Home" on the other hand, seems to me a major achievement, by the same singer who had a hit about wedding-night impotence called "Band of Gold" just this spring. Although it sounds just like another skilled romantic tearjerker, this is in fact the most outspoken antiwar hit yet recorded by a soul artist, made all the more stirring, in a standard pop reversal, by the exploitation it involves. Holland-Dozier-Holland, who started Invictus after breaking with Motown, want to groom Payne into another black beauty of the nightclubs. That's one reason her albums are so lousy. As any student of Diana Ross or Dionne Warwick must learn, single hits are but a vital early link in the great chain of becoming, and it is crucial that they never offend. Yet everyone decided it was not only commercial but career-building for Freda Payne to sing and shout "Turn the ships around," a line which in full context can still bring tears to my eyes. Vietnam with violins! A black sister calling out for peace with her brother content to exhort from the background! Is this obscene or beautiful? Can WPLJ provide such melodrama? Not on your ass it can't.

I also really like the new Creedence single.

  1. I left The Best of Tommy James and the Shondells out of the '70s Consumer Guide book because it came out in 1969. I did, however, review James's invaluable autobiography in 2011 and collected that review in Book Reports.

  2. Derek Taylor, as I apparently assumed my readers would know, was the legendary publicist for the Beatles and later Apple. He was also chief publicist for the Monterey Pop Festival, where he treated Esquire's reporter, me, with his trademark wit, tolerance, and savoir-faire as well as hondeling me photos for another Esquire feature. I never forgot it.

  3. "Hempstead" was a Flushing-boy-turned-East-Villager's shorthand for "boring Nassau County suburbia." Six months later said East Villager would be traveling two or three times a week to the Hempstead hamlet of Uniondale, where Newsday was located. There I quickly dubbed myself the Dean of Long Island Rock Critics and found that Nassau County was considerably less boring than I'd believed.

  4. Wardell Quezergue, whose strange-looking name I originally misspelled off the tiny 45 label as Quezerque, turns out to have been the genius who also produced the Dixie Cups' immortal "Iko Iko" and "Chapel of Love" and King Floyd's eternal "Groove Me" as well as Dorothy Moore's merely well-remembered "Misty Blue" and most of the Neville Brothers' output.

And It Don't Stop, September 1, 2021