Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Short and Happy History of Rock

Amid the mawkishness, banality, and self-indulgence there is still much good music to listen to

Early in 1967, Leonard Bernstein, Sgt. Pepper, the Monterey Pop Festival, and (especially) all those whatchamacallits--hippies, I mean--combined in a sudden rush to turn pop music into the hottest item since the Lindbergh kidnapping, and ever after it has been easy riding and I-told-you-so for all us mid-twentyish fans who always loved the music. But this too shall pass. The canonization of rock is no longer news; in fact, it is getting to be something of a drag, and the communications media, in their collective capacity as Indian giver, may well decanonize it in a year or two. Meanwhile, a lot of good music goes along with the hype, and there seems to be at least a good chance that it will be worth listening to after the hype has subsided. That, roughly, is the rationale of this rock "library."

Since the history of rock--and of its more primitive forerunner, rock-and-roll--stretches all the way back to 1953, it obviously must be approached with a reverent sense of the past. Admittedly, this is obvious to me because I'm prejudiced: I was there. In fact, at my most detached, I suspect that it is only with the aid of such a perspective that the irresistible attractiveness of much early rock-and-roll can be understood at all. It is much easier to dig Bill Haley or Fats Domino after listening to fifteen minutes of the Ames Brothers. The success of rock-and-roll was as much a rejection of contemporary popular music as it was an affirmation of the inherent values of the blues and the country-and-western music in which rock is rooted. Too much is made of these roots. The vitality of rock-and-roll, and of rock, was the vitality of an oppressed subculture, all right-not that of urban blacks or hillbillies, but of the young, particularly the white young.

This is not to gainsay the close interrelation of rock and black popular music-over half this library is black, and rightly so. But a direct, primary appeal to the young is rock's sole unifying factor. This appeal is so strong that I am forced to wonder whether some of the records on this list are accessible to the average white middle-class listener at all. This is a sensitive issue, I know, but it is impossible to dig rock secondhand. It requires a priori commitment. In this regard, rock is closer to country-and-western than to blues or jazz, because, like country-and-western, much of it is bad music--not just chi-chi, like bad jazz, or rough, like bad blues, but downright vulgar awful. This was truer in the Fifties, but it continues to hold today, and there is no question that older listeners--and a distressing number of younger ones, too-tend to gloss over the mawkishness, banality, and all-around self-indulgence that characterize even good rock, or (worse still) dismiss the music whole when they perceive such flaws.

The other problem with secondhand appreciation is its dependence on the phonograph record, for until recently rock was designed specifically to be heard on AM radio, its aesthetic geared to the yawping "Top 40" format. That is why this collection includes five hit samplers. There is no reason, however, to dismiss the Five Satins, say, because they produced-or had their name on-only eight minutes of decent music in their career. On the contrary, pre-Beatles rock-and-roll was dozens of performers like the Five Satins, and a selection of them affords a variety that is more pleasurable than the fuller persona of a not -quite -first-rate stylist.


18 King-Size Rhythm and Blues Hits. Columbia Ⓢ CS 9467, Ⓜ CL 2667.

Rock-and-roll was essentially a commercialization and bowdlerization of the "race music" of the late Forties. Under founder Sydney Nathan, King Records of Cin- cinnati-now owned by the late Nathan's greatest discovery, James Brown-recorded a remarkably pure and broad range of Negro popular music, a portion of which is collected on this Columbia album. Very few of these selections succeeded in white markets--the Platters' Only You. featuring the gospel-pop tenor of Tony Williams, and Bill Doggett's classic rock-and-roll instrumental Honky Tank were the biggest hits--but they do suggest where rock-and-roll came from: the easy-going ballads of Lonnie Johnson and Bullmoose Jackson, the frantic soul-shouting of Otis Redding (on a marvelous early recording called Shorn Barnalama), and Brown himself. This collection also includes the original version of the first rock standard, Little Willie John's Fever), and two underground best-sellers (Hank Ballard's Work with Me, Annie and Billy Ward's Sixty Minute Man) which were banned on many radio stations because of their suggestive lyrics.

History of Rhythm and Blues, Volume 3: Rock & Roll 1956-57. Atlantic Ⓢ SD 8163; tape F 8164, 3 ips.

Perhaps the King Records music remained relatively pure because it was produced away from the center of the rock-and-roll industry, New York. In that city Atlantic Records, under the Ertegun brothers and Jerry Wexler, dominated. This record, which does not include a mediocre song, contains several excellent examples of the simplified blues that were the basis of rock-and-roll. It also features three of the most durable rhythm-and-blues groups, the Drifters, the Clovers, and the Coasters, the latter the creatures of the greatest Ray Charles Elvis Presley songwriting-producing team of the Fifties, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Contents include Searchin' (The Coasters), C. C. Rider (Chuck Willis), Jim Dandy (La Vern Baker), Devil or Angel (The Clovers), and others.

Oldies but Goodies in Hi-Fi, Volume 1. (Original Sound Ⓢ OSR-LPS 8850; tape 4T 8850, 3 ips.

For every solid rock-and-roll label (Atlantic, King, Chess, Roulette) there were ten fly-by-night "indies," now long gone except for a few masters. Collected albums of these masters used to contain as many as twenty songs-the first volume of Roulette's "20 Original Winners" series is the best-but now the number seems to have dropped to twelve. My choice among the items included in this Original Sound collection includes the Penguins' Earth Angel, the first record to travel from Harlem jukes to proms in Iowa; Shirley & Lee's Let the Good Times Roll, the most widely disseminated sex song of the decade; and Eddie My Love, a featureless song by an anonymous girl group (the Teen Queens) aimed directly at white high-schoolers, as perfect of its kind as a Campbell soup can. Note the basic formula: slightly interesting voice, lugubrious theme, a gimmick or two, and The Beat, slow for the Fish, fast for the Lindy. In other words, two minutes of dynamite. (A good source for Oldies albums, by the way, is the House of Oldies, 147 Bleecker Street, New York, which stocks many out-of-print items and sells by mail.)

ELVIS PRESLEY: Elvis' Golden Records, Volume 1. Heartbreak Hotel; Don't Be Cruel; Loring You; All Shook Up; others. RCA VICTOR &circledS LSP 1707.

It is ironic that Elvis, who served as an easy symbol of the debasement of popular culture for social critics of the Fifties, had in fact arrived at a brilliant and important stylistic synthesis, uniting hillbilly and blues music to become the first sexually admissable (read Caucasian) rock-and-roll superstar. This album contains the songs that made him famous, including great rockers like Leiber-Stoller's Hound Dog and the pablum-like Love Me Tender. Both are important. Elvis was a natural, and not as feckless as everyone liked to think. But his genius was "packaged," the perfect symbol of it being the echo with which his strong blues voice was characteristically obscured. Remember, though, that packaging can broaden impact. Who knows, without that echo chamber, he might never have changed the lives of two boys in Liverpool named John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

RAY CHARLES: The Ray Charles Story, Volume 2. Atlantic Ⓢ SD 8063, Ⓜ 8063. Rockhouse; Let the Good Times Roll; Yes Indeed; Swanee River Rock; others.

Ray Charles demonstrated conclusively that jazz was not the only great and adult black popular music. He made his name by hitting with kids, then worked to expand his audience. The final songs on his record, especially Come Rain or Come Shine and Movin' On, document his success. Their vocal stylization proceeded logically from the emotive possibilities of early rhythm and blues, and of course from gospel as well. Before attempting standards, Charles had learned how to graft gospel progressions and chorus effects onto hard rock produce such hits as Yes Indeed and What'd I Say? Taken all together, this is called soul music. Charles invented it.

A Package of 16 Original Big Hits. You Beat Me to the Punch (Mary Wells); You've Really Got a Hold on Me (The Miracles); Beachwood 4-5789 (The Marvelettes); Money (Barrett Strong); Do You Love Me (The Contours); others. Motown Ⓢ 614.

A Collection of 16 Original Big Hits, Volume 5. Where Did Our Love Go (The Supremes); It's Growing (The Temptations); I'll Be Doggone (Marvin Gaye); When I'm Gone (Brenda Holloway); Shot Gun (Jr. Walker and the All -Stars); others. Motown Ⓢ 651, 7 ips tape MTC 651.

Berry Gordy of Motown Records rivaled Phil Spector as an r-&-b innovator. Around the turn of this decade, when r-&-b was foundering and schlock music (both black and white) appeared to be taking over, Gordy was a bastion of taste, insisting on simple arrangements and a strong, danceable beat. He also had a great ear for talent, discovering the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team. The Beatles later recorded three of the songs on the first LP listed above. It is instructive to compare the earlier record with "Volume 5" to hear how Gordy and his staff gradually learned to weave in extra instrumentation and uncover distinctive styles for the Supremes and Marvin Gaye-in each case a half-step away from true r-&-b and toward the white market. Yet, despite the decrease in grit, the style is definitely black, not so much a sell-out as a measure of the assimilation into (or aspiration toward) mainstream America by one sort of Negro.

THE SHIRELLES: Greatest Hits. Tonight's the Night; A Thing of the Past; Mama Said; Will You Love Me Tomorrow; others. Scepter Ⓢ S 507, Ⓜ 507; tape X 507, 3 ips.

DIONNE WARWICK: Golden Hits, Volume 1. Don't Make Me Over; Walk On By; Reach Out for Me; Anyone Who Had a Heart; others. Scepter Ⓢ 565, Ⓜ 565; tape X 565, 3 ips.

Another bright spot around 1960 was Shirley Alston of the Shirelles, the first of the sexy black chicks Mary Wells, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin-who have since enhanced the music. Discovered in high school, Shirley's basic charm was simplicity-she was, well, a little dumb, unable to quite control her emotions or her hormones, yet proud enough to resist being pushed around. Her miss on the high note of "This is the moment" in A Thing of the Past is the most sublime single stroke in rock-and-roll. In contrast, Dionne Warwick's gospel-trained voice, like the shifting rhythms and skewed harmonies of the songs Burt Bacharach composed for it, was too idiosyncratic to win immediate acceptance in the world of straight pop, though this is where both the voice and the songs really belonged. The result: a legacy of big -beat musical sophistication that preceded the Beatles, rock songs for a miraculous alloy of a voice, one with the warmth of old silver and the tensile strength of steel.

THE BEATLES: Second Album. She Loves You; I Call Your Name; Roll Over Beethoven; You've Really Got a Hold on Me; others. Capitol Ⓢ ST 2080, $circledM; T 2080; tape Y2T 2467, 3 ips.

THE BEATLES: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. With a Little Help from My Friends; Fixing a Hole; Lovely Rita; A Day in the Life; others. Capitol Ⓢ SMAS 2653, Ⓜ MAS 2653; tape Y1T 2653, 3 ips.

I have chosen two Beatles albums to correct a major flaw in Beatles scholarship, especially on the part of those Nouveau Rocks who have turned on to the music in the past couple of years; namely, that at about the time of "Rubber Soul" or "Revolver" the Beatles turned from their sins and began to write good songs, or (a less pernicious corollary) that the Beatles' immense success is owing mostly to their ability in melodic composition. Unh-unh. The Beatles were always wonderful. It was their ebullience as performers-as a musical group and as actors on the stage of the world-that turned them into demigods. Their copies of black rock-and-roll songs were touched with soul (compare their Money to the Beach Boys' Barbara Ann) but avoided the sodden seriousness of other white imitators. For the envy of the direct competitor they substituted the loving admiration of the fan. Let me add, though, that listing two albums encourages another fallacy: that the Beatles are twice as good as anyone else in rock. Not true, musically. But as evangelists they are triple-supreme.

BOB DYLAN: Highway 61 Revisited. Like a Rolling Stone; Highway 61 Revisited; Desolation Row; Ballad of a Thin Man; Tombstone Blues; others. Columbia Ⓢ SC 9189, Ⓜ CL 2389.

One of the Beatles' converts was the de facto leader of the American folk movement, Bob Dylan, who visited England in 1964, then recorded an album of half -rock, half -folk called "Bringing It All Back Home." "Highway 61," all rock, followed. Despite Dylan's ear for good musicians-Mike Bloomfield, Al Kooper, Charlie McCoy--his rock had a loose feel, almost tacked on, in contrast to the tight arrangements which had become typical. Nevertheless, like his lyrics, the music was great in spite of its defects; and, also like his lyrics, it would have been healthy regardless. When Dylan started writing "poetic" songs in the early Sixties, he inspired a lot of awful verbalizing, but he also inspired a songwriting revival that still flourishes. When he sang rock, he legitimized it in the folk community. The skilled guitarists and demanding fans of that community inevitably raised the quality--if also the pretensions--of the music.

THE BYRDS: The Notorious Byrd Brothers. Artificial Energy; Goin' Back; Draft Morning; Get to You; others. Columbia Ⓢ CS 9575, Ⓜ CL 2775; tape CQ 980, 7 ips.

THE MAMAS AND THE PAPAS: If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears. Monday, Monday; California Dreamin'; Straight Shooter; I Call Your Name; others. Dunhill Ⓢ S 50006, Ⓜ 50006; tape X 5006, 3 ips.

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: Surrealistic Pillow. Somebody to Love; White Rabbit; My Best Friend; She Has Funny Cars; others. RCA VICTOR Ⓢ LSP 3766; tape TP 3-502, 3 ips.

Each of these "folk-rock" groups was into rock before Dylan gave it his imprimatur, yet none of them would have been heard had not Dylan--and of course the Beatles prepared the way. The Byrds, from Los Angeles, first hit with a song Dylan gave them, Mr. Tambourine Man. For four years they have produced the most consistent white American rock. "Notorious," released as their popularity began to wane, is an unquestionable triumph of taste, stamped with their old sound hut hinting of the country feeling that was to follow. John Phillips of the now-defunct Mamas and Papas was a regular on the New York folk circuit before he conceived this "good-time" group early in 1965. The production, by Lou Adler, is as intricate as a Busby Berkeley dance number, and may seem just as campy in twenty more years. Meanwhile, the force of the vocals--especially those of Cass Elliott-and the general spirit of fun that informs the arrangements overbalances such quibbles, and Phillips' songs show a feel for pop truth that is almost fey. The Airplane was the commercial avatar of "head" music and the San Francisco sound, which isn't so much a sound as a feeling. The Byrds and the Mamas and the Papas were essentially studio groups; the Airplane and the Grateful Dead got it together for years at dances around the Bay Area. The emphasis on controlled spontaneity has been a hallmark of San Francisco rock ever since.

THE ROLLING STONES: Aftermath. Paint It Black; Flight 505; Goin' HomeUnder My Thumb; others. London Ⓢ 476; tape LPX 70114, 3 ips.

The Beatles arc a collective entity. The Rolling Stones are one person--Mick Jagger, a singer whose power, subtlety, and wit are unparalleled in contemporary popular music, who is also (with fellow Stone Keith Richard) the second-best rock composer in the world. Rock aficionados class the Stones with the Beatles, but perhaps they haven't impressed a wider audience because their devotion to the music is pure: the Hollyridge Strings will never record an album of Jagger-Richard melodies. But for anyone willing to discard his preconceptions, "Aftermath" is a great experience, a distillation of everything that rock and blues are about. I think it is the best album of its kind ever made.

OTIS REDDING: Live in Europe. Respect; Can't Turn You Loose; Day Tripper; Try a Little Tenderness; others. Volt Ⓢ 416, Ⓜ 416; tape 10-416, 3 ips.

Meanwhile, back where it all started, black music was becoming self-consciously black, returning to blues and gospel, and the late Otis Redding was king. Despite the limitations of in-concert recording, this album is his best because Redding's stage presence was integral to his popularity, and because it contains most of his best songs. Remember that the audience is white. No other black performer has ever been able to bridge the racial barrier so completely while remaining so true to himself and his skin. That's vhy we miss him so much.

BIG BROTHER AND THE HOLDING CO.: Cheap Thrills. Ball and Chain; Piece of My Heart; Turtle Blues; others. Columbia Ⓢ KCS 9700; tape CQ 1040, 7 ips.

ARETHA FRANKLIN: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. I Never Loved a Man; Respect; Dr. Feelgood; Soul Serenade; others. Atlantic Ⓢ S 8139, Ⓜ 8139; tape X 8139, 3 ips.

In place of King Otis now reign two queens. In the consummation we have all devoutly wished for, one is black, one white. Janis Joplin is simply the best white blues singer ever. A Texas girl with a strong dose of country in her voice, she is also the most incredible live performer in the music, a screaming, stomping dervish who seems destined to expire on stage out of sheer intensity. She has left Big Brother to form her own band. This album lacks cachet among rock critics because of its crude musicianship-producer John Simon wouldn't even put his name on it--but I go along with the guy in Detroit, home town of band member Jim Gurley, who told me: "Gurley is the best bad guitarist in the world." Aretha Franklin comes to rock out of gospel and jazz; she languished in the land of the chic (Columbia Records) for years before Jerry Wexler and Atlantic induced her to go with some electric bass and straightahead drumming. I favor this album because it is her funkiest, especially since she seems to be returning to jazz again.

THE JIMI HENDRIX EXPERIENCE: Electric Ladyland. Crosstown Traffic; Voodoo Chile; Little Strange; All Along the Watchtower; others. Reprise Ⓢ 6307 (two discs); tape C6307-1, C6307-2, 7 ips.

The most important recent innovation in rock has been the "heavy" guitar sound, revved up with fuzztone and other artificial stimulants. I mistrusted the technique at first, but there's no question that this two-record set is pure plutonium, an integrated work-in-itself in more ways than one (Hendrix is the modern version of the white Negro). The production (by Hendrix) is especially superb, the best job of stereo for its own sake I know, and even the lyrics are good. In addition, the improvisations, especially on Voodoo Chile, are among the few in rock worthy of the name. Most rock guitarists seem so intoxicated with the idea that you can improvise that they just go ahead and . . . do their thing. But Hendrix achieves unique effects, effects you'll never get from Kenny Burrell.

Stereo Review, March, 1969

Postscript Notes:

Christgau wrote a letter to Stereo Review, published May, 1969:

I am very disturbed at the deletions in my March article, "A Short and Happy History of Rock." The five albums you deleted from my basic library of twenty-five are not the five I would have chosen, and make it seem--as does your subtitle--that I like rock less than I actually do and the kind of pop-rock represented by Dionne Warwick and the Mamas and the Papas more. For the record, let me list the five albums: Greatest Hits, Chuck Berry, Chess; 17 Original Golden Hits, Little Richard, Specialty; The Best of the Beach Boys, Volume 2, Capitol; Happy Jack, The Who, Decca; and Moby Grape, Columbia. In addition, let me insist that I do not consider the Rolling Stones' Aftermath the best album of its kind," as your editor would have it. I consider it quite simply the best."