Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Secular Music (2)

Soul is selling. Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records, who began selling rhythm and blues (La Vern, Joe Turner, The Drifters) to a limited white audience in the mid-Fifties, now find their organization (which includes Atco and the distribution of Stax, Volt, and Dial) leading the Top 100 charts. The previous champion was the Motown group of Berry Gordy, whose Detroit Sound is also Negro, hence soulful, but much slicker--dance music. The endless succession of artists in the Atlantic stable (Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Sam & Dave, and on and on) are rawer, grittier, more bluesy, three adjectives that suggest what soul is without getting down to it.

There is a difference between the soulful performer--nearly any Negro, an occasional white--and soul music, which more or less began with Ray Charles a dozen years ago. Charles added gospel elements (typical progressions, an amenohyeah chorus) to the blues (which had the same roots as gospel anyway), retained his funky jazz piano (same roots) and brought it all together with a frantic stage style, more histrionic than the straightforward presentation of blues-men like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. Soul music is a combination of surface elements. It is less subtle and poetic than older blues forms, more complex than the R&B of the Fifties, more meaningful lyrically than the Motown stuff. It is remarkably close to the blues, but both races buy it.

Defining soul itself is more difficult and presumptuous. The concept is guarded jealously by the members, who, like the faithful everywhere, prefer to regard it as beyond verbalization. In truth, "soulful" is a lot closer to "black" than anyone wants to admit, especially as understood by black people, who after all should know, and one approach to the subject is through the few white singers who get play on soul stations. What sets them apart? The Righteous Brothers, two white Southern Californians, made the first breakthrough with their near-perfect rendition of gospel-rock counterpoint. More recently, the Young Rascals have done exceptionally well in Negro markets, and other American singers--Mitch Ryder, even Johnny Rivers--have made some inroads. In addition, those great, hoarse old pros, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, are usually admitted into the canon by performers if not radio stations. (As a curiosity, all these latter are Italian-American. Of course, so was Frankie Avalon. And so is Al Martino.)

But although all the English singers found their major inspiration in one form or another of American Negro music, only Tom Jones and Stevie Winwood (of the Spencer Davis Group and Traffic) make it. WWRL, Soul Radio in New York, was swamped with complaints when it tried to broaden programming with The Rolling Stones. A white jazz critic has called Eric Burdon and The Animals "a blackface act," which seems an unexceptional opinion. The Beatles? Forget it.

Why? First, many English groups are rooted in blues that predate soul, and are therefore considered unhip. Second, the English sound is dominated by loud guitars, while soul emphasizes the emotive solo voice. But there has always been something missing in addition, and I think it was precisely what was missing that made the English groups click in the first place. The Frankie Avalons always did their music straight--"sincere" was Ricky Nelson's favorite word--but, for the usual anthroposociosexual reasons, their sincerity was gutless. In one way or another, the English groups injected a sense of self-consciousness into their music deliberately--as parody or self-parody or just plain fun. Even The Stones have a sardonic edge: "I am an Englishman singing this black music."

Soul music can be happy, but it can't be fun. It has two essential ingredients--wildness, controlled (Anthony and the Imperials) or indulged (James Brown), and faith in itself, a religious virtue after all. It can be horribly mawkish--Danny Boy, with that great high note, is a favorite on Amateur Night at the Apollo--but it always projects honest emotional effort. The Beatles and The Stones are never that sincere. Even if they were, though, they probably wouldn't get soul-station play--a lot of soulful white music is ignored now--because the soul market is still a race market and demands fervid imitation. (Similarly, the Country-Westner market remains all-white.) The very few Negro groups who sound white--most notably The 5th Dimension (on the Soul City label), which crosses The Mama's and the Papa's with the Swingle Singers--get no play either.

And the old racism is still with us. Although such frankly black music has never before been so popular with whites, their range of response is limited. When a Harlem teen-ager (or housewife--soul is not teen music among Negroes) buys a record by Otis Redding, she most likely wants a surrogate for the show that left her screaming at the Apollo or the Brevoort. Redding's white fans may like to dance to him or listen to him, but they aren't conscious of him as a sexual object. Yet the popularity of singers like Redding and Brown has made possible (and perhaps necessary) a new kind of sexual candor amount white performers. Among these, I think Mitch Ryder is special.

Ryder's recent album, Sock It to Me!, is dreadful. I usually find his versions of past hits more than passable and the two-song medleys that are his trademark better than that. Unfortunately, eight of the songs on this album were written by his producer and discoverer, Bob Crewe. Crewe is one of the geniuses of the record business, but his kind of "soul music" has a way of accentuating the strain and stridency that tend to mar all of Ryder's vocals. In addition, the record contains a "Walk On By" that verges on sacrilege to anyone who reveres the Dionne Warwick version the way I do.

But soul is more than what goes on a record. It has grown out of the revival meeting and the blues show. The major soul performers travel from city to city with their own bands, costumes, and choreography, refurbishing personal contacts in shows that may well end with the singer prostrate on the floor, screaming incantatory syllables into the microphone as he reaches to touch the (mostly female) hands extended over the footlights.

Unlike any other white performer, Ryder follows the same pattern. He travels with his own ten-piece orchestra, choreography by Jaime Rodgers, and costumes ($1,000 apiece--of lamé, organdy, translucent silk) by Charles Lisenby: a spectacular show and Ryder makes it go. He is the genuine article. Born in a Detroit suburb, he grew up singing R&B with many of the Negro artists now with Motown. He is intelligent, with slightly hoody good looks, and his stage presence is extraordinary--he seems to swell with an infusion of the Host as he begins each song. When Ryder feels in touch with his audience, he can plan just when is going to collapse off the stage, and count on getting the same response in a college auditorium that James Brown does at the Apollo. The myth of the soul performer is one of identification rather than entertainment. It is to Ryder's credit that he can make it work in a new context.

Ryder is considered a phony by many soul devotees because he calculates his effects--and also, I suspect, because he is cashing in on a Negro act. But you can be sure James Brown calculates his effects too, and, like Ryder, Negro stars seem fond of money. Soul is an act, a deliberate manifestation of a special emotional set. Its mystique is often silly. But--for a white person, and in person, Ryder does soul as well as it can be done. Maybe someday the Negro performers will be able to do it themselves. I hope so.

One singer you'll never hear on soul radio is Jeannie Seely. She sings Country-Western, which is the last untouched reserve of popular music--in fact, it sometimes seems that a record which appeals to the youth-oriented pop market cannot be C&W by definition. Frankly, I don't know as much as I'd like to about the music because I find it fascinating but unlistenable. It is very insular, appealing mostly to the white, lower-middle-class adults, especially those in the South and West and away from the urban centers. The lyrics, which are much more inventive than the music, reflect this appeal; booze and sexual temptation are favorite subjects. Aside from Roger Miller, who defies the categories anyway, no C&W performer has broken into the pop of this decade for more than a freak hit, although in the Fifties C&W was almost as important as R&B. This is an index of the increasing withdrawal of the audience. Rock borrows constantly from country music, with good effect; when C&W borrows, and it does so more and more, it borrows from the corny accouterments of easy listening and outdated pop. Most of the songs are lugubrious, ridiculous, or both. But taken as a whole they form a fascinating folk music, and some even stand by themselves.

I love Jeannie Seely's first big record, Don't Touch Me. The song was nothing special--a variation on "I fear my own passions" but Miss Seely made it shine. She sounded country, but a woman, one who knew sex was more than something that descended to engulf you on your sixteenth birthday, and who didn't tease. Despite her sound, Miss Seely is no hick. She writes songs, is a competent businesswoman, and her voice is very sophisticated, threatening to break about once a bar. Every time it does I shiver a little. I think she has soul.

After the buildup I am sorry to say that her second album, Thanks Hank!, a tribute to Hank Cochran, is a disappointment. Cochran wrote "Don't Touch Me," for which I bless him, but he also wrote "A Little Bitty Tear Let Me Down," which almost cancels it out. I'm afraid his affinity for the cliché isn't even campy. "I Lie A Lot" is the only song on the album I really like.

If you want to give Jeannie a try, through, try The Seely Style, which contains "Don't Touch Me" and three or four other fine cuts. When C&W singers break out of the bag, they show an unfortunate tendency to move into "easy listening"--the tuneful, soulless slop from which the music borrows. I would certainly hope for better things from Miss Seely, though I can't imagine what.

The Mothers of Invention pose the central question of contemporary art, namely: Are you putting me on? Everything about them is ugly. Presiding genius Frank Zappa seems to enjoy ugliness. His apparent motivation is distaste for everything except modern classical music and the alienation effect. "He's really weird," one graduate teenie-bopper confided to me. "He doesn't even turn on." Well, I guess that says it.

Visually, the Mothers are reminiscent of The Fugs, old enough so that all that hair looks more skanky than cute. Musically, they are The Fugs in reverse. The Fugs are poets who perceived the inherent sexuality of rock and decided it was an easy way to go bardic. The Mothers are musicians who learned during long hours in studios and crummy dance halls that rock was crude and often deracinated. They parody every popular music from Thirties-croon to The Supremes. (No Supremes fan could entirely survive the sight of these three hairy freaks prancing from mike to mike in a perfectly hideous and hilarious version of "Baby Love.") Their music is the antithesis of soul: wooden beat, trite riffs, inane lyrics. Vocalist Ray Collins can destroy any style, and the musicianship behind him is always precisely awful.

Because The Mothers are so good on stage (they have opened as an off-Broadway musical) their recordings are underrated. Both Freak Out!, a double record that is a great bargain at stereo price, and Absolutely Free, conceived as two short concerti, give the flavor of a Mothers performance. But they do not bear repeated listening. Musical parody can satisfy for just so long, and Zappa's tastes in social satire are less than subtle--the "plastic people" he is always sniping at are an unoriginal and rather stationary target. And when he moves into the aleatory-Varese-jazz-rock composition that seems his only true love he does not impress my admittedly untrained ear.

I don't mean to be captious, though. See The Mothers if you can. Zappa is very funny and reed man Bunk Gardner a great talent (much better than Archie Shepp, who Gardner professes to admire--along with Herman's Hermits). And if you can't see them, buy a record--the Zappa-designed jacket of Absolutely Free is almost worth the price. Absolutely Free is better integrated, Freak Out! has more music. Your choice.

The Who has been the third-best group in England since early 1965. Until Happy Jack, though, it never had a major hit in the States. The group's sound began as the hardest and most raucous in the business, defiantly lower-class, ugly. Leader Pete Townshend, probably the prime genius of the post-Beatle rock, had gone deep into feedback (especially one one great single entitled "Anyway Anyhow Anywhere") and invented the Antonioni auto-destruct (Pete Townshend cracks his guitar against the amplifiers, while Keith Moon breaks drumsticks, Roger Daltrey crashes his mike against the cymbals) before anyone here had heard of him. Perhaps because of this distance from American money, The Who has retained its original spirit. The lyrics, aberrant only in their occasional celebration of madness, deal with drink and sex and Mum and Dad, although their tenor had grown cooler and funnier (the group's best song, Substitute, was rerecorded for the U.S. with the line "I look all white but my dad was black" excised; Townshend hasn't written anything that strong in a while). Musically, the sound has become (relatively) quiet, with disturbances beneath the surface.

The Who has released two albums here. Happy Jack jumps off the single and represents the group's cool phase. A Quick One While He's Away (yes, that's what it's about) incorporates half a dozen melodies into one nine-minute work; it's the best such attempt I've heard. But if "Happy Jack" and "Pictures of Lily" (which should be a hit by the time this appears) sound attenuated to you, try to find the first album, My Generation. The hardest rock in history. And there's plenty of early stuff not yet on any album. For once, a premature Greatest Hits record would constitute a public service.

Letter writers: remember it is at least two months between the time I write this and the time you see it. That makes it very hard to be too hip . . . I want to register mea culpa on the Jefferson Airplane. After repeated forced hearings, it is clear my putdown was a bad mistake. The Airplane is one of the best--intense, original, yes, soulful. The success of "Somebody to Love" and of The Doors' "Light My Fire" is heartening. America, you are still out there . . . I will be disheartened if one of the five singles recently released by Moby Grape--"Omaha" and "Changes" are the best--does not become an enormous hit. The Grape now ranks with the Airplane and The Doors among the new California groups, and has the potential to be the best in the country . . . Camp triumph of the year is "Albert, Albert" by The Bugs ("Albert, Albert what the heck/You were just a pain in the neck"). The flip is "Strangler in the Night," by "Albert De Salvo." No, I will not tell you how to get it.

Esquire, Oct. 1967