Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome

Because jazz criticism is one of the many things I know too little about, Otis Ferguson was only a name to me when The Otis Ferguson Reader came my way this fall, and I hope his admirers will accept the compliment I intended when I claim him (for symbolic purposes, at least) as the first rock critic. Remembered mostly for his movie reviews, Ferguson also wrote extensively about the music of the swing era, and there's something about his attitude that strikes a chord. The man was a born democrat: having worked his way through college, he refused to take on airs when the job was done. Actively hostile to any hint of sham or dilettantism, he tried to describe complex aesthetic interactions so that yeomen could understand them. But he refused to compromise in the other direction either. Unlike the run of fans and/or hacks who always dominate music journalism, he loved language for its own sake, written and spoken both, which means he was committed to taking colloquial risks in a honed style--he went for contemporaneity and a feisty edge without worrying about whether he'd sound dated stilted later. He valued music's soul and inspiration no more and no less than its shape and meaning.

Like any sensible person, Ferguson knew you couldn't write about American music without writing about Afro-American music--he was calling blues "America's single biggest contribution to the form of music" quite early in the life of that cliché. But he also knew that "people who talk too glibly about racial differences always get left out on a limb, sooner or later," and added: "When it comes to the musicians, the matter of race is a tossup as far as I'm concerned." Ferguson was adamant if not defensive on this point--he once took John Hammond to task for "saying 'white musician' the way you'd use the term 'greaseball'"--partly in reaction against '20s Afrophilia, which was often not just dilettantism but elitist European. But when it came to the best musicians he got unlikely results from his tossup, devoting 13 pages (in the Reader, $10 from December Press, 3093 Dato, Highland Park, Illinois, 60035) to Bix Beiderbecke against Louis Armstrong's one, 24 pages to Benny Goodman against Duke Ellington's six, four pages to Red Nichols against Sidney Bechet's two bemused mentions.

People who talk glibly about racial differences might get judgmental about these statistics, but I respect Ferguson too much for that. Anyway, he did better than many of his colleagues, and even the worst of them had alibis. White musicians were more accessible, white musicians drew more readers, white musicians had (to quote Ferguson) "melodic discipline" and "more definite organization," white musicians "did more to spread the fame of jazz." All of this is credible, useful, and perhaps even true; as a naif who regards jazz as an essentially black idiom, I was inspired by Ferguson to test the spritz of MCA's delightful recent Red Nichols reissue, and I'm glad I did. But when I turned to Sidney Bechet's RCA twofer from the same period ("his soprano saxophone can still be heard today"), and let me tell you--Bechet blew Nichols away.

People who talk glibly about historical parallels always get left out on a limb sooner or later, so I hope I don't push my analogy further than it wants to go. But I kept thinking about Otis Ferguson's Negro problem as the ballots for the ninth or 10th annual Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll rolled in. If Elvis Costello's victory wasn't exactly hot news, his margin was respectable--he got a much bigger vote than the Clash in 1981, and did better proportionally than a comparable consensus choice, Graham Parker in 1979. But no matter how big a piece the winner cut off, most voters seemed weary of how stale, flat and unprofitable the pie had become; the dejected Britcrits at Trouser Press, for instance, declined to name a number one album this year, placing Imperial Bedroom, which topped their in-house poll, at a symbolic number two. And if I once again failed to share all this dolor, it wasn't in the hundred-flowers bloom spirit that inspired me to list my 60 top albums a year ago; though I did find another 60 gooduns, down-the-middle sales and borderline creativity both sagged ominously enough to put a crimp in my natural rock and roll optimism. Starting in early November, however, seven of my favorite 1982 albums, every one a variation on a theme, restored a lot of my fire. And if they weren't likely to lift the mood at Trouser Press, a journal white supremacist enough to make Rolling Stone look like a hotbed of affirmative action, George Clinton's Computer Games, Marvin Gaye's Midnight Love, Prince's 1999, Grandmaster Flash's The Message, Chic's Tongue in Chic, Material's One Down, and Michael Jackson's Thriller made it a pretty damn good year after all.

Except in re poor Tongue in Chic, which got shut out, the critics shared my enthusiasm to a moderately unprecedented degree. Prince, Gaye, and Jackson finished 6, 8, and 15, while in 1980 Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Jackson finished 8, 9, and 13--with no Sunny Adé or Ornette Coleman to siphon off tokenism votes. And Adé's showing was very impressive in itself--unknown to American critics a year ago, the African rhythm king finished fourth, higher than any black artist in the history of the poll except Wonder (who won in 1976). And while Ornette's 13th-place finish doesn't sound all that much more commanding than Dancing in Your Head's 15th in 1977, 1982's sampling of 216 respondents, 67 of them from cities other than New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and San Francisco, should have been much harder to crack than 1977's 68-critic in-group. It wasn't, and for good reason: just as established critics were converted and new ones created by punk/new wave in the late '70s, so now many young critics young and old are gradually learning to hear music that falls under the rubric of funk.

And the albums weren't even the big story. Like "new wave," the term "funk" exploits a serviceable vagueness; it'll fit all the black records I've named if you stretch it around Sunny Adé a little. But funk in its purest form was the first cause of the pop event of the year, perched securely atop the singles list. Never in Pazz & Jop history has any record occasioned such blanket ecstasy as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message." About 75 percent of the voters put it in their top 10s, usually at number 1 or 2; the best percentage any album has earned was This Year's Model's 60 in 1978, and in three previous years of singles balloting no title has made even a third of the lists. Nor was this New York chauvinism; "The Message" did even better in the boonies (as I jocularly refer to cities off the NY-LA-Boston-Frisco axis) and the 'burbs (my pet name for LA-Boston-Frisco) than in its hometown, where it was subjected to a small gay boycott (though at least three gay voters ignored the "fag" references and named it anyway) as well as NY's all too predictible antitrendie backlash. In any other year, the 104 votes for Marvin Gaye's polymorphous vocal-percussive tapestry "Sexual Healing" would have been a definitive pop event all by itself. In any other year, the eighth-place finish of 1982's most influential dance record, Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force's "Planet Rock," would have tempted me to praise of Kraftwerk and other universalist indiscretions. In 1982, however, the sinuous synthesized skeleton against which Melle Mel and company pitted Duke Bootee's street-surreal rhymes combined the best of Gaye's body rock and of Bambaataa's futuristic world-spirit--and it had a message, too.

Nor did the funk stop there. Last year "rock" by Laurie Anderson, the Rolling Stones, Kim Carnes, and Yoko Ono surrounded Flash's "Wheels of Steel" in the top five; this year, except for the rejuvenated Pretenders, all of the five white artists in the top 10--led by the Clash, who gained inner-city credibility while at the same time proving so middle American that more than half their 18th-place album support came from the boonies--scored with black dance records of one sort or another. In fact, this was a year in which good black radio proved more open to good white music than any white radio did to any black music: black supremacist Ron Wynn, who attributed 1982's "vibrant, exciting music" to "the growing rift in black and white pop tastes" (with that vague word "pop" leaving room for agreement), deplored the way "white junk like Toni Basil" (pop tastes do differ) crowded out such worthies as Jerry Butler. White supremacists, on the other hand, will probably view the entire singles list as a huge liberal miscegenation plot.

If in my mongrelizing depravity I seem to be prophesying interracial rockcrit hegemony, however, remember Otis Ferguson. Like rescued L.A. bluesman Ted Hawkins (heir to this year's Longhair-Nevilles traditionalist vote) and former Blood Ulmer drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson (who finished 13 places ahead of his old boss), Adé and Coleman qualify as critics' faves, like Aretha Franklin (in her first P&J charting ever), Prince, Gaye, and Jackson are black popsters who "cross over," and while Gaye's outreach is a simple little matter of genius rather than of conscious stylistic modulation, crossovers do by definition accommodate white journalists along with white everybody elses. I want, need, and love both pop and esoterica, but I'd be more encouraged if the voters shared my passion for the in-betweeners--if George Clinton (on whom word-of-mouth started late) had bested Richard Hell or even Lou Reed, also crazed old-timers recently arisen from the slough of despond, or if Grandmaster Flash's LP (which would have made top 40 if only Tom Smucker, supposedly one of my best friends, hadn't flued out on his franchise) had finished with Mission of Burma's Vs. or the Dream Syndicate's Days of Wine and Roses or the Fleshtones' Roman Gods or even X's Under the Big Black Sun, also groove albums of dubious verbal acuity. I'd be more encouraged if the black artists in the top 15 had finished even higher--in December I thought an Adé or Gaye victory conceivable. And I'd be most encouraged of all if I thought the flowering of funk was dispelling the gloom of white rock critics as irresistibly as it ought to be.

On one level the fact that it doesn't makes perfect sense. Because most of the critics are white (though part of the story is how many good new ones aren't), they find it easier to identify with white musicians, especially after five years of minor miracles from various punks and new wavers. But this isn't as natural as it may seem; it's a heritage of the old "progressive" sensibility and the radio it helped spawn. One reason I enjoy black music so readily is that as a child of the '50s I grew up enjoying it--more than white music, and damn right I was aware of the distinction. Not that I came by funk spontaneously. Beguiled by progressivism myself--and therefore trained to get off on stuff that many young critics can barely hear at all (Donald Fagen, say, or Warren Zevon)--I had to retool my ears (at the urging of colleagues like Joe McEwen, Ed Ward, and especially Pablo Guzman) to understand how the new black music means; I had to learn George Clinton's and James Brown's language. After five or six years, I'm still working at it, and I suspect I won't succeed to my full satisfaction without a lot more help from the likes of Barry Michael Cooper and Gregory Ironman Tate, who've breathed it all their conscious lives. But I can tell you that this language renders a lot of progressive standards not invalid (they still work for Zevon and Fagen) but irrelevant. If history is any guide, funk usages will eventually be taken for granted by everyone who listens to popular music; complaints about meaningless lyrics and indistinguishable rhythms will someday seem as off the mark as Otis Ferguson's appeals to "melodic discipline" and "more definite organization."

Unfortunately, this doesn't do anybody much good right now, because the pop future has to begin with your own pleasure in your own time. Unlike fan Tim Sommer, who berates "ethnic patronization" at least partly because funk is stealing hardcore's thunder, or hack Blair Jackson, who signs off with cheery threats of "death to critics who think Grandmaster Flash is 'important'" (somebody fly out to San Francisco and mug that biz-sucking hippie!), I think it's healthy for young critics to force-funk themselves, as some do. Those African rhythms are famous for their je ne sais quoi, after all, and with Britishers like the Clash and Gang of Four and ABC (my conscience interjects: and the Human League and Joe Jackson?) outracing their attenuated U.S. art-funk rivals (I don't mean you, Devo and Talking Heads) to black radio, many cool folk have decided that perhaps it's time to look beyond the latest smart garage band. In New York this is unavoidable anyway--funk is literally in the air of one of the few American cities with a genuinely integrated street life. But the aging new wavers who are the principal funk converts still suffer from Ferguson's Syndrome--their new pleasure doesn't provide that essential existential satisfaction, because the language is still a foreign one.

I wonder how Ferguson, who died in World War II, would have adjusted to bebop. Would he have continued to turn out tersely emotional appreciations of the surviving swing giants, or would he have come to terms with those forbidding rhythmic changes the way Budd Johnson and Coleman Hawkins and Woody Herman did? The question matters because funk may well be changing rock and roll as fundamentally as bebop changed jazz. I'm aware that I made a similar claim for the punk forcebeat just four years ago, but one doesn't cancel out the other. On the contrary, funk is stage two, providing the undeniable popular base that punk (and bebop) never achieved in this country--though it did in Great Britain, probably one reason the top British postpunk funkers make better pop than their American counterparts, wholehearted but never simple-minded.

What rock and roll has always held out--more than any theme or even sound--is the pop edge, the promise that there's a future out there for remarkable ordinary people to make. Sure it's possible to say something new from a well-explored place--in a sense, not only Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon but George Clinton himself did just that in 1982. But because pop seizes the moment so decisively, it can be used to fixate on the past as well as ride into the future--it can serve nostalgia as well as progress. In my view, that's just what Tom Petty (57th) and Graham Parker (50th) and Joni Mitchell (39th) and maybe even Fleetwood Mac (36th) are up to these days. And it's my commitment to the future that makes my favorite albums of 1982 shake out more or less as follows.

1. Ornette Coleman: Of Human Feelings (Antilles) 16; 2. King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 16; 3. Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 14; 4. George Clinton: Computer Games (Capitol) 13; 5. Flipper: Album/Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 9; 6. The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 8; 7. Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia) 7; 8. Kid Creole & the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 6; 9. Donald Fagen: The Nightfly (Warner Bros.) 6; 10. Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor) 5

11. Ian Dury & the Blockheads: Juke Box Dury (Stiff) 12. Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.) 13. James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia) 14. Professor Longhair: The Last Mardi Gras (Atlantic Deluxe) 15. Clint Eastwood & General Saint: Two Bad DJ (Greensleeves) 16. Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 17. Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 18. ABC: The Lexicon of Love (Mercury) 19. Ray Parker, Jr.: The Other Woman (Arista) 20. Itals: Brutal Out Deh (Nighthawk)

21. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 22. Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia) 23. James Booker: New Orleans Piano Wizard: Live! (Rounder) 24. Gang of Four: Songs of the Free (Warner Bros.) 25. B-52's: Mesopotamia (Warner Bros.) 26. Chic: Tongue in Chic (Atlantic) 27. Sweet Pea Atkinson: Don't Walk Away (Island/ZE) 28. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: Good Clean Fun (Slash) 29. Material: One Down (Elektra) 30. Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic)

31. The Roches: Keep on Doing (Warner Bros.) 32. Van Morrison: Beautiful Vision (Warner Bros.) 33. Orchestra Makassy: Agwaya (Virgin import) 34. Rank and File: Sundown (Slash) 35. Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 36. Tom Robinson: North by Northwest (I.R.S.) 37. CH3: Fear of Life (Posh Boy) 38. David Johansen: Live It Up (Blue Sky) 39. Sound d'Afrique II: Soukous (Mango) 40. Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (Sugarhill)

41. Devo: Oh No! It's Devo (Warner Bros.) 42. X: Under the Big Black Sun (Elektra) 43. Talking Heads: The Name of This Band is Talking Heads (Sire) 44. Bonnie Raitt: Green Light (Warner Bros.) 45. A Flock of Seagulls (Arista) 46. Soweto (Rough Trade import) 47. Ferron: Testimony (Philo) 48. Psychedelic Furs: Forever Now (Columbia) 50. Lee "Scratch" Perry and the Majestics: Mystic Miracle Star (Heartbeat)

51. Richard Hell and the Voidoids: Destiny Street (Red Star) 52. Jive Five featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 53. Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 54. Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 55. Speed Boys: That's What I Like (I Like Mike) 56. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 57. Alberta Hunter: The Glory of Alberta Hunter (Columbia) 58. "D" Train (Prelude) 59. Mighty Diamonds: Indestructible (Alligator) 60. Joe "King" Carrasco & the Crowns: Synapse Gap (Mundo Total) (MCA)

I ought to mention that this year's top 60 is less final than 1981's was. Not only are Roxy Music, Mission of Burma, two Bunny Wailer imports, and other stragglers awaiting judgment, but this turns out to have been a banner year for best-ofs. I like the Ray Parker, Jr. and the Billy Stewart even more than the Squeeze and the Stevie Wonder (which ran 1-3 around Chuck Berry's The Great Twenty-Eight in an informal compilation ballot we solicited), and would name John Lennon and the Bellamy Brothers and Ambient Sound's Everything Old Is New and perhaps Shalamar and even (can it be?) Abba (behind Okeh Western Swing and the Coasters and tied with the reissued Africa Dances in the balloting). I should also announce that with an extra week to think I'd switch Pazz & Jop points and places between George Clinton and Sunny Adé; unfortunately, my ballot was due February 1 like everybody else's. About singles I'll say only that my firm criterion--real pleasure imported by the record heard as a single--befuddled me into omitting Flipper's "Sex Bomb," which I stopped playing when I got Flipper's album. Criteria be damned, I'd now rank it number 4 anyway--a "Louie Louie" for our time:

1. The Fearless Four: "Rockin' It" (Enjoy) 2. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: "The Message" (Sugarhill) 3. Marvin Gaye: "Sexual Healing" (Columbia) 4. New Order: "Temptation" (Factory import) 5. Stacy Lattisaw: "Attack of the Name Game" (Cotillion) 6. Musical Youth: "Pass the Dutchie" (MCA) 7. The Pretenders: "My City Was Gone" (Sire) 8. The Weather Girls: "It's Raining Men" (Columbia) 9. Peech Boys: "Don't Make Me Wait" (West End) 10. Flipper: "Get Away"/"The Old Lady Who Swallowed the Fly!" (Subterranean)

11. P-Funk All-Stars: "Hydraulic Pump" (Hump) 12. Yazoo: "Situation" (Sire) 13. Captain Sensible: "Wot" (A&M import) 14. ABC: "The Look of Love" (Mercury) 15. Anti-Nowhere League: "So What" (WXYZ import) 16. Gang of Four: "I Love a Man in Uniform" (Warner Bros.) 17. Stripsearch: "Hey Kid"/Emily XYZ: "Who Shot Sadat?" (Vinyl Repellent) 18. Cheap Trick: "If You Want My Love" (Epic) 19. Prince: "How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore?" (Warner Bros.) 20. Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo: "Shelley's Boyfriend" (Slash)

21. Joe Piscopo: "I Love Rock n' Roll (Medley)" (Columbia) 22. A Flock of Seagulls: "I Ran" (Jive) 23. Gap Band: "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" (Total Experience) 24. Treacherous Three: "Yes We Can-Can" (Sugarhill) 25. Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: "Planet Rock" (Tommy Boy) 26. Dangerous Birds: "Smile on Your Face"/"Alpha Romeo" (Propeller) 27. Eddy Grant: "California Style" (Ice import) 28. Althia & the Donazz: "Virgin Style" (Circle import) 29. Anne Waldman: "Uh-Oh Plutonium!" (Hyacinth Girls) 30. Gary U.S. Bonds: "Out of Work" (EMI America)

I've had second thoughts about EPs, too. After scoffing all year I found myself smitten with loads of 'em--haven't even put my 1-2 in print till now. The EP is a confusing category, conceived by Poobah Tom Carson and me as a disc alternative to the now discontinued local band competition. And once again the winner wasn't even a local band, but rather a marginal mainstreamer who's already released five LPs and who with the help of his Lord Jesus Christ came up with what can only be called the most inspired California-rock of the year, wisely promoted by Warners in a budget format. And if T-Bone Burnett only converted me after I returned Trap Door to the active pile in 1983, well, the same goes for R.E.M., his drug-crazed opposite numbers from the Athens of the South:

1. Angry Samoans: Back from Samoa (Bad Trip) 2. The Waitresses: I Could Rule the World If I Could Only Get the Parts (Polydor) 3. R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.) 4. Oh OK: Wow Mini Album (DB) 5. Minor Threat: In My Eyes (Dischord) 6. T-Bone Burnett: Trap Door (Warner Bros.) 7. Pop-O-Pies: The White EP (415) 8. The Replacements: Stink (Twin/Tone) 9. Mofungo: "El Salvador"/"Just the Way"/"Gimme a Sarsaprailla" (Rough Trade import) 10. Steve Almaas: Beat Rodeo (Coyote)

Return now if you will to my album list and we'll ponder the future some more. First, count black LPs, not such a clear-cut task in this mongrel-eat-mongrel world. Disqualifying the English Beat and Material, I get 27, only two more than I named last year, but with a striking change in racial makeup on the cutting edge: five (as opposed to two) of my top 10 are black, as are 16 (as opposed to eight) of my top 30. Then try another parameter applicable to our theme: age. Three of the artists in my top 10 are over 40, just like me, and four more (giving Richard Thompson a break) over 35. Youth chauvinists should jeer at my old fartdom now, while they still can--it may indeed be that my chronic indifference to Elvis the C reflects my advancing years ant he complacent rationalism consequent thereupon. It so happens, however, that Marvin Gaye (b. 1939) also made the critics' top 10, and as we proceed down the two lists something strange happens. Only four more over-40s, including two superannuated (not to mention dead) New Orleans pianists whom I classify as rock and rollers just to be ornery, appear in my top 40; on the critics' list you'll find seven more. And where I list seven over-35s in all, the critics come up with a total of nine. Old farts abound.

Fascinating figures, and I mean to have them both ways. On the one hand, they make hash of the ancient canard that rock and roll is strictly for the young--if not literal teenagers then at least untrammeled striplings. The reason outmoded "progressive" standards can rejuvenate pushing-40s like Richard Thompson and Lou Reed--who share 1982 comeback honors with Bryan Ferry (b. 1945) and George Clinton (b. 1940), and may they and others like them prosper for decades to come--as well as suiting such 35-niks as Donald Fagen and Warren Zevon is that they (artists and values both) still actually do (or anyway, can) progress. Richard and Linda's final album really is their loudest and clearest. Lou's most contented and apparently conventional album really is (with the aid of Robert Quine and black bassist Fernando Saunders) his supplest. And Avalon, which finished higher than any Roxy Music album since 1975's Country Life, combines the funk feel Ferry introduced on 1979's Manifesto with the English electrosheen of his own heirs' synth-pop for the most unabashedly romantic music this ironic romantic has ever made.

But as much as I admire many of the other oldster albums the critics selected--Morrison's and McCartney's and Fleetwood Mac's and (to be nice) Mitchell's--they do carry a rather nostalgic collective weight; they recapitulate the past and do what they can to ignore the future. Such encumbrances don't even touch Adé and Gaye and Coleman and Shannon Jackson, whose mean age must be 43 or 44, because these men are working a tradition--significantly, a specifically musical rather than cultural tradition--that's just begun to flower. And if I'm doubly partial to George Clinton, it's not because he's been in the vanguard of that tradition for so long that he could coast for five years and still be on the one. It's because he's also a master of such supposedly Caucasian specialties as stance and persona and pop mind-fuck--and because the humility and vulnerability of his comeback album, an album directly inspired by New York dance radio in general and his heirs Flash and Bambaataa in particular, are sharper, deeper, funnier, warmer, and more irreverent than Lou Reed's or Warren Zevon's.

I'm aware that Imperial Bedroom also has its formally progressive rep, but when the best line any of my normally loquacious correspondents can feed me on the album of the year is Roy Trakin's "tongue-twisting puns for the post-Porter generation," things are obviously desperate. I know, it's all about emotional fascism; I know, it's even got a lyric sheet. Try reading the damn thing--the words are almost as hard to follow on paper as in the air. I say it's Elvis at his fussiest and I say the hell with it. In fact, like the headline-scrounging old commie fart I am, I much prefer (and was rooting for) the album that handicapped as its chief rival: Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. A risky, eloquent, and successful pop mind-fuck, Nebraska cut Reagan to bits with a dignity that screamed no joke and broke AOR without a hook or a trap set. Only problem was, it was--and I use this term advisedly--boring. It was boring even if every one of its 800,000 owners played it obsessively for months on end, which I doubt. It was so monochromatic that even as it screamed no joke it whispered no exit--and maybe no future. It may have been a pop mind-fuck, but it wasn't quite a pop event, because the very terms of the mind-fuck impelled Springsteen to negate the rock and roll hope he's always traded in. Next time I hope he puts it all together.

But meanwhile we must take our quest for the future to the only place any sane rockcrit fan would expect it to end--ye olde new wave. As per tradition, numerous debut albums grace our list, and as per neo-orthodoxy, quite a few of them aren't from England, new wave's commercial center: New York's Marshall Crenshaw and Fleshtones (and Laurie Anderson?), San Francisco's Flipper, Austin's Rank and File, L.A.'s Dream Syndicate, Boston's Mission of Burma, and (on the EP chart) Athens's R.E.M. I like all of these artists, some a great deal. I find Marshall Crenshaw's pop touch surer and more graceful than that of such top-10 debut-LP predecessors as the Go-Go's (10th in 1981), the Pretenders (fourth in 1980), the Cars (ninth in 1978), and maybe even the B-52's (seventh in 1979), and I hope he gets another record into the poll someday, something none of the aforementioned have yet managed. I'm crazy about Flipper and on Rank and File's side, and I hope that over the next year they gain more in musicianship than they're certain to lose in conceptual panache. But I sense in every one of the others an insidious postgarage formalism in which hooks and a certain rough emotionality, even sloppiness, are pursued as ends and signify only themselves. That's why I call them groove bands--they're more interested in a sound than in what a sound can say. Granted, they do share an aesthetic project--they want to jolt the white rock and roll of the pre-arena era into self-conscious musciality. That's why I like them. But it's not exactly what I mean by a commitment to the future.

I can hear my more apolitical white readers snorting even now at the Dean's latest integration tract. But this isn't a moral plea--it's a prediction, not just about critics but about the shape of the popworld. Sure I've been an advocate of black pop approximately forever; I dreaded Ferguson's Syndrome before I ever heard of the man, and I've always fought it (in myself as well as others) on the general historical principle that, in the end, black music will out. But that never meant that I believed rock was essentially (as opposed to originally) a black idiom, and it never turned me off good new white rock and roll--it just prepared me to hear great new black albums (and singles, and more singles) as they arrived. In 1982 they arrived in profusion, as did an unprecedented array of successful white imitations and modulations, and while I wouldn't expect a precise repeat in 1983--Gaye and Michael Jackson will no doubt be silent, reggae is unlikely to be held to a novelty single--I do sense something seismic happening. In 1978 the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll announced a "triumph of the new wave" that seemed certain to crash against an immovable, monolithically profitable record biz; in 1982 the biz was in a panic and new wave looked like one of its only hopes. In 1982 the Pazz & Jop Critics' Poll suggests (somewhat more tentatively) a reintegration of American popular music in the teeth of the most racist pop marketplace since the early '50s, and I'm betting that by 1986 some kind of major commercial accomodation will have been achieved. If Sunny Adé can't be king of MTV, maybe Prince can be prince.

What remains for critics black and white isn't to praise every half-assed funk crossover black or white. I mean, Men at Work finished a very modest 66th and the Stray Cats got three mentions. But the white critics are going to have to give up a lot of their prejudices--against populism and chic and conspicuous consumption, against homiletics and sexual posturing, and perhaps (although of course this doesn't mean you) against black people themselves. Even harder, they must learn how to hear how lead basslines and quintuple rhythms and cartoon chants and harmolodic abrasions and party rhetoric can make meaning and reshape time. And hardest of all, they must feel the ways in which funk's pleasures really are their own--as human beings, as Americans, as rock and rollers. Meanwhile, the black critics, who will almost certainly multiply, have a lot of explaining to do. They'd better insist that the music they love really does make meaning, and get hip to how white music means as well--perhaps even get an inkling that rhythms natural and unnatural aren't the only way to a better life. In short, rock critics are going to have to stop settling for fandom and/or hackdom and turn into critics for real. And maybe those who didn't bargain for anything quite so heavy should get off the bus right now.

Oh lordy--it could be the end of us all.

Select Ballots

RAJ BAHADUR: Devo: Oh No! It's Devo (Warner Bros.) 19; Joe Jackson: Night and Day (A&M) 18; Paul McCartney: Tug of War (Columbia) 13; Marshall Crenshaw (Warner Bros.) 12; the Jam: Dig the New Breed (Polydor) 11; the Who: It's Hard (Warner Bros.) 7; the Jam: The Gift (Polydor) 5; the Chieftains: Cotton-Eyed Joe (Island) 5; Shoes: Boomerang (Elektra); Roxy Music: Avalon (Warner Bros.) 5.

DEBRA RAE COHEN: New Order: 1981-1982 (Factory); Gang of Four: Another Day/Another Dollar (Warner Bros.); Hi Sheriffs of Blue (Jimboco); R.E.M.: Chronic Town (I.R.S.); Konk: Konk Party (99)

CAROL COOPER: Explainer: "Lorraine" (Sunburst); Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: "The Message" (Sugarhill); Kurtis Blow: "Tough" (Mercury); Imagination: "Just an Illusion" (MCA); Marvin Gaye: "Sexual Healing" (Columbia); Vanity 6: "Nasty Girls" (Warner Bros.); Kid Creole & the Coconuts: "No Fish Today"/"Annie, I'm Not Your Daddy" (Sire/ZE); Sharon Redd: "Beat the Street" (Prelude); Isley Brothers: "The Real Deal" (T-Neck); Barry White: "Change" (Unlimited Gold).

BLAIR JACKSON: I don't listen to singles--I think the artform sucks.

GREIL MARCUS: The English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 20; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia) 20; The Mekons Story (CNT import) 20; Bunny Wailer: Tribute (Solomonic import) 10; Jive Five featuring Eugene Pitt: Here We Are! (Ambient Sound) 5; Au Pairs: Sense and Sensuality (Kamera import) 5; Flipper: Album/Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 5; Jeff Todd Titon/Fellowship Independent Baptist Church of Stanley, Virginia: Powerhouse for God (University of North Carolina Press Records) 5; Warren Zevon: The Envoy (Asylum) 5; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia) 16; Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 15; Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 15; Steve Winwood: Talking Back to the Night (Island) 12; David Lasley: Missin' 20 Grand (EMI America) 7; Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul: Men Without Women (EMI America) 6; the English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 5; Bettye Lavette: Tell Me a Lie (Motown); Richard "Dimples" Fields: Mr. Look So Good (Boardwalk) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 15; Lou Reed: The Blue Mask (RCA Victor) 14; Flipper: Album/Generic Flipper (Subterranean) 13; Trouble Funk: Straight Up Funk Go in Style (JAMTU) 13; Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 11; King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 9; Laurie Anderson: Big Science (Warner Bros.) 8; Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Ice Cream for Crow (Epic) 7; Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society: Mandance (Antilles) 5; "Live" Convention "81" Bee-Bop's #1 Cut Creators (Disco-O-Wax) 5.

KIT RACHLIS: King Sunny Adé and His African Beats: Juju Music (Mango) 15; the English Beat: Special Beat Service (I.R.S.) 30; Marvin Gaye: Midnight Love (Columbia) 5; Fleetwood Mac: Mirage (Warner Bros.) 5; Ted Hawkins: Watch Your Step (Rounder) 5; David Lasley: Missin' 20 Grand (EMI America) 5; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 5; Bruce Springsteen: Nebraska (Columbia) 20; Richard & Linda Thompson: Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal) 5; Robert Wyatt: Nothing Can Stop Us (Rough Trade) 5.

GREGORY IRONMAN TATE: Michael Jackson: Thriller (Epic) 10; Prince: 1999 (Warner Bros.) 10; The Time: What Time Is It? (Warner Bros.) 10; Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: The Message (Sugarhill) 10; James Blood Ulmer: Black Rock (Columbia) 10; Trouble Funk: Drop the Bomb (10); Bad Brains (ROIR cassette) 10; David Byrne: The Catherine Wheel (Sire cassette) 10; Kid Creole & the Coconuts: Wise Guy (Sire/ZE) 10; Aswad: New Chapter in Dub (Mango) 10.

RON WYNN: Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: "The Message" (Sugarhill); Gap Band: "You Dropped a Bomb on Me" (Total Experience); Aretha Franklin: "Jump to It" (Arista); Zapp: "Dance Floor" (Warner Bros.); Afrika Bambaataa & the Soul Sonic Force: "Planet Rock" (Tommy Boy); The Weather Girls: "It's Raining Men" (Columbia); Gary U.S. Bonds: "Out of Work" (EMI America); Junior: "Mama Used to Say" (Mercury); Stevie Wonder: "Do I Do" (Tamla).

LESTER BANGS: 1. Robert Quine: I Heard Her Call My Name Symphony (Columbia) 2. DNA Live at Madison Square Garden (Prestige) 3. Richard Hell Sings the R. Dean Taylor Songbook (Tamla) 4. Emerson, Lake & Palmer: Heard Ya Missed Us, Well We're Back (Factory) 5. The Clash: Rappin' with Bert 'n' Big Bird (Guest Artist: Oscar the Grouch) (Sesame) 6. Ramones: 14,000,000 Records (Epic) 7. Sue Saad and the Next with Robert Fripp: Jiggle Themes from Prime Time (Verve) 8. Lichtensteiner Polka Band: Hamtramck Oi Gassers (WEA) 9. Brian Eno: 24 New Songs with Brides & Everything (Egregious 2-album set) 10. Miles Davis: Rated X (Alternate Take) (Columbia).

Village Voice, Feb. 22, 1983


1981 Critics Poll | Dean's List 1983