Journey Through the Past
The decade is of course an arbitrary concept--history doesn't just execute a neat turn toward the future every 10 years. But like a lot of arbitrary concepts (money, say), the category does take on a reality of its own once people figure out how to put it to work. "The '60s are over," a slogan one only began to hear in 1972 or so, mobilized all those eager to believe that idealism had become passÚ, and once they were mobilized, it had. In popular music, embracing the '70s meant both an elitist withdrawal from the messy concert and counterculture scene and a profiteering pursuit of the lowest common denominator in FM radio and album rock. But soon after this process began, the idea of the (previous) decade was being invoked to rather different ends. Nascent punks reviled the '60s because they had spawned the '70s, blaming the excesses and dishonesty of hippiedom for everything soft-headed, long-haired, and piggy in a rock industry grown flatulent beyond its greediest fantasies. If the '60s were over in 1972, the '70s were on their way out by 1977.
Don't get me wrong--the current decade isn't about to disappear altogether. Not, even on January 1. The Eagles and Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac and Foreigner, to read down a recent album chart, will be with us for quite a while yet; good or bad they're careerists, they jog two miles a day, and they'll probably all outlast the Ramones. But you don't get the sense that the quintessential '70s bands conceive themselves as '70s bands; if they mock their youthful delusions, it's because they're now committed to professionalism rather than history. This has not been a decade with a sense of destiny.
Musically, how could it be? Rock may be a multibillion-dollar industry, it may have doubled its market since 1969, but it's suffered a loss of cultural prestige that not even a trade magazine could twist with statistics; maybe the Bee Gees are more popular than the Beatles ever were, but they're not more popular than Jesus. Insofar as the music retains any mythic power, the myth is self-referential--there are lots of songs about the rock and roll life but very few about how rock can change the world (except, of course, as a new brand of pain killer). Jerry Brown and Jimmy Carter--Jimmy Carter!--exploit the music to raise funds and youthen up their images, not to affect opinion; even the antinukers, a real hope, seem to regard themselves more as bait than as inspiration.
Nor has it seemed to qualify as hot shit aesthetically. Even though the '70s have been a lousy time for movies, film's critical rep has pulled away from rock's. And by most people's standards, a rough matchup of '60s and '70s artists--Smokey Robinson vs. Gamble & Huff, Bob Dylan vs. Neil Young, the Beatles vs. Rod Stewart or Stevie Wonder or Elton John or Linda Ronstadt or Fleetwood Mac (or some combination of the five), the Stones vs. Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Otis Redding vs. Al Green, James Brown vs. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix vs. God, Sly Stone vs. George Clinton, Lou Reed vs. Johnny Rotten--seems to pit genius against talent again and again.
All of the above is true; all of it, in fact, has been depressing me in theory for the bulk of the decade. Yet unlike a lot of my generational and even critical colleagues, I've never been tempted to let my turntable go to/seed or to keep it in trim wearing out copies of Dictionary of Soul and The Who Sell Out. Which suggests that maybe the contests aren't as one-sided as rock mythopoeiacs automatically assume. Maybe there are even other standards of comparison.
To start I should mention the chronological anomalies. Not only did almost all of my '70s superstars do less super work in the '60s (score one for artistic maturity), but at least six of my '60s heroes--Dylan, the Stones, Aretha, Hendrix, Sly, and Uncle Lou, plus John Lennon if he counts--have done some of their greatest work in this decade. For the most part, of course, this happened in the early '70s. But at the very least you've got to give a bad decade credit for having the modesty to begin its spiritual life two or three years late. And even the staunchest neoreactionary will perhaps grant that the utopian/millenarian vision of the '60s, outgoing and vigorous though it was, has been deepened in certain instances by the weary savvy of this decade, self-pitying and cynical though it may be. Imagine, There's a Riot Goin' On, Exile on Main Street, and Blood on the Tracks are all '70s albums in the best possible way--their distance from the action permits them a reflective complexity beyond the reach of rock and rollers in the '60s, though quite a few went for it.
Granted, it took more than an inspired synthesis of artistic sagacity and spiritual fatigue to create these records--they exploit an acumen about how to make albums that barely existed before the mid-'60s but has jes grew ever since. This in turn would seem to speak well for studio sophistication, the most widely touted "artistic" benefit of the decade's rampaging pop professionalism. But I don't hear it that way. For in fact Exile and Riot defy standards of punch and aural clarity that the Stones and Sly were instrumental in laying down, while Imagine was produced by mono maniac Phil Spector, not exactly a '70s fella. And Blood on the Tracks, like almost all of Dylan's albums, was recorded fast, to get a spontaneous feel; when some tracks didn't come out so good he re-recorded them with session men from Minneapolis, in retrospect a hilarious slap at the N.Y.-L.A. studio establishment. In short, the acumen these records exploited was the kind of conceptual audacity that began with, you know, Sgt. Pepper (Rubber Soul, actually, or maybe Bringing It All Back Home) and has if anything been subverted by mealy-mouthed pop professionals who talk art while turning out product. Not that all four records--especially Exile, that apotheosis of murk--didn't capitalize on engineering expertise. But where such good-to-great albums as Heart Like a Wheel, Aja, and Rumours celebrate technology, these albums all challenge its hegemony. Which may be one reason their particular kind of mastery hits home.
Hits home here, I guess I should say--tastes do vary, don't they? Although most of the records I consider the finest of the decade have made money, only a few have gone platinum, now the standard of public acceptance among rock professionals. And if the antimainstreamism of critical taste is by now a general assumption, it must also be admitted that not every instant musicologist would lean quite so precipitously toward such crudities as the collected works of the New York Dolls. Not quite. But though specific tastes do vary, my predilection for the nasty, brutish, and short only intensifies a common rockcrit tendency in which lyrical and conceptual sophistication is applauded but musical sophistication--jazz chops or classical design or avant-garde innovation--is left to the specialists. This isn't merely because we're suckers for snappy melodies with a strong beat, but because we find upon reflection that we value crudeness actively, as a means to some sort of vitality. We also crave something new of course. But when rock pros define musical sophistication as an overlay of polish and/or flair on the same old snappy melodies and strong beat, they only encourage our atavism--such standards not only have nothing to do with artistic advance but spell an end to any sense of spontaneity, innocence, or discovery. We believe that what really tones up our beloved basics is conviction, the kind of conviction that can impel change from the inside--even jazz chops or classical design or avant-garde innovation, if one (or all) should fit. And don't bullshit us about "accessibility."
Antimainstreamism is the crux of the decade. It's a truism now; for some it's been a truism longer than it's been true; I've been thinking about it myself since 1970, when circumstances forced me to coin the phrase "semi-popular music." (Definition: "music that is appreciated--I use the term advisedly--for having all the earmarks of popular music except one: popularity. Just as semi-classical music is a systematic dilution of highbrow preferences, semi-popular music is a crossbred concentration of fashionable modes.") But there's no way to proceed without laying it out one more time, so here we go. In the '60s, the best rock and roll had cultural life. The audience wasn't as massive as some acolytes believed, but the music was broadly popular nonetheless, supported by a consensus that made it resonate in ways so-called high art could not. But in the '70s the best rock and roll has had what might be called subcultural life; it is the domain of a new kind of elite, a pop elite. Even when it achieves multi-platinum, there's rarely any reason to feel that its millions respond to more than a fraction of what makes it as good as it is. It is no longer enriched by consensus--it has to justify itself formally, as art.
2. Semi-Popular Music
For someone whose critical instincts are populist--and basically, mine still are--this seemed like a revolting development at first. But it turned out pretty well. I'm more respectful of other genres' exalted claims than I used to be, but I still get my druthers from rock and roll, and not in the throes of nostalgia or self-deception or ignorance, either. It's a relief to feel sure that the music is unique, that it does justify itself formally, as art. Not surprisingly, though, its stimulations still have a lot to do with its popular status--or rather, its semi-popular status: the connection is to a mode of communication rather than an audience. After all, in a world where all kinds of self-described avant gardists believe the web of mass media is a key to the Zeitgeist, it's only fair that a few formal advantages should accrue to artists who actually command the usages of a mass medium.
Sometimes these are simply thematic. The New York Dolls can say more about the Alienation of Modern Youth than A Clockwork Orange not just because they enact it from the inside, and not just because David Johansen is smarter (and more of a humanist) than Anthony Burgess, but because rock and roll was conceived as an outlet for adolescent yearnings, giving Johansen access to expressive material Burgess couldn't imagine. To make rock and roll is also an ideal way to explore intersections of sex, love, violence, and fun, to broadcast the delights and limitations of the regional, and to deal with the depredations and benefits of mass culture itself.
But beyond raw content there are resonances again, in this decade confined mostly to the head (whereas those of the '60s were felt in what can only be called the spirit). Given their pop context, Steely Dan's bebop usages and Brian Eno's avant-gardey moves and the Ramones' pseudo-know-nothing minimalism and for that matter George Clinton's mocking mystagogic sci-fi lingo are attractive not only for themselves but for the crisscrossing recontextualizations they achieve. It's more than that, too. Ordinary rock and rollers are prisoners of their form, though since the form is part ordinary by heritage the jailhouse often seems as comfortable as home. But the great ones give off an aura of democratic grace; they make you feel they've chosen a colloquial voice, out of irresistible good-heartedness (or in the case of the nastier ones, an instinctive contempt for snobbery). And at their very best they can take you to that primordial, preverbal place where all human beings really are equal--without ever giving in to its dark power.
All of which suggests why those rough matchups I set up aren't as one-sided as they seem. Sure something's changed. The aura I'm talking about thrives in contact with a vital audience, or rather, both thrive amid favorable cultural conditions--conditions that still pertained in 1970, which is one reason, I expect, that four of what I consider the--10 greatest albums of the decade came out that year. Among late-'70s bands, only the Clash has captured such an audience--good-sized but not incomprehensibly massive, self-aware but not cliquish, humane, willing to change--and as a consequence only the Clash (sorry, Elvis) has exerted a comparable cultural presence. But the loss of the audience can't be blamed on the artists. Most rock and roll stars succumbed knavishly to the pressures and temptations of the middle '70s, but even the few remarkable ones who had the guts to go against the grain--George Clinton, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Bob Marley, Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith among the newcomers, Neil Young and Al Green among the already successful--failed to go all the way saleswise. Artists must move their culture, but it's too much to expect them to create it all by themselves.
For what must be remembered is that the punks are right--among other things, many of them fairly wonderful, the '60s were full of shit. It's true that the era of good feeling bred some great popular music, but it's also true that the good feelings was rooted in self-deception, especially regarding the malleability of power. And in the '70s the powerful took over, as rock industrialists capitalized on the national mood to reduce a potent music to an often reactionary species of entertainment. In effect, what the best artists did in response, whether they played guts ball against the new hegemony, or--like Steely Dan, Randy Newman, Brian Eno, Joni Mitchell, Allen Toussaint, and many others--merely circumvented it, was to act semi-popular even when they were in fact much bigger. Think of Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and David Bowie refusing to repeat obvious successes, or of Steely Dan's apparently premature withdrawal from live performance, or of George Clinton's whitey-baiting, or of Al Green's religious fantasies, or of Eno and Toussaint using rock projects to bankroll more esoteric, ventures.
At first the populist in me was suspicious of this elitism, but in retrospect Steely Dan alone seems elitist in the pejorative sense. The others were merely autonomous or trying to be, reacting defensively to a change we can only pin down in retrospect--the transmutation of rock's popular base from audience to market. At various times during the first half of the decade, for various good if hard-to-explain reasons, they all came to feel that they could no longer say what they had to say to an audience that was really listening. And so, with expansion through outreach cut off, they put their energies and their agape into expansion through form. More charitable choices were still possible, but by 1974 or 1975 the mainstream was in bad shape. Among superduperstars, only Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan (not for long), Pink Floyd (maybe), and Elton John (so prolific his misses don't count) did consistently good work in the heart of the '70s, while mortals like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Millie Jackson, and Bonnie Raitt (if they had any likes) were all but buried amid the garbage.
Furthermore, what made most of these mainstream artists special wasn't how eloquently they spoke for their fans, which was the way it was supposed to work in the '60s, but, how honestly--or at least intensely or extravagantly, at least something that challenged expectations--they spoke to them. No matter how eager to zonk or mellow out the audience seemed to be, this music demanded alertness, conscious perception, sometimes even growth. Except that demanded is too strong a term--requested, or maybe permitted, is more like it. Nevertheless, even the worthwhile mainstream artists, were apostles of the semi-popular--it's just that in their case the populace never figured it out.
Perhaps most important of all, the semi-popular permeated two crucial interrelated areas: failures and movements. Beautiful losers are a rock tradition that goes all the way back, as countless unjustly forgotten blues, rockabilly, doowop, and garage-band 45s attest. But heroic failed album artists--artists with half an hour in them rather than three minutes--are a legacy of the days of expanded consciousness that flourished in the era of corporate rock, with its habitual faith in venture capital. If anything, the worthwhile LP that neither portends the ripening of a long and honorable career nor sells diddleysquat is more a feature of this decade than of the last. Much of the best disco has continued the fine old rock and roll tradition of the one-shot, and without unprofitable but seminal albums by the Stooges and the New York Dolls, punk might have never happened. Most plentiful, however, have been spinoffs of the '70s' dominant movement. Admittedly, it's a conceit to refer to it as a movement, since it never announced or probably even saw itself as one, but that only serves this rabidly anticollectivist decade right. Torpedo a phrase of Harold Rosenberg's and call it the herd of independent voices--all the solo vocalist--composers fending for themselves on the fringes of the industry. These included substantial artists like John Prine and Loudon Wainwright and Leonard Cohen, fatuous pros like Paul Williams and John David Sother and Don McLean, and all manner of sports and oddballs: Thomas Jefferson Kaye, Andy Fairweather Low, James Talley, Terry Garthwaite, John Cale, Paul Pena, Randall Bramblett, Garland Jeffreys, Mary McCaslin, Kevin Coyne, and on and on. The whole mainstream aesthetic, with its cult of the studio and its revanchist individualism, was designed for such folks, and they came up with an enormous store of obscure but, significant albums.
I used to think movements and their less ideological cousins, genres, were bad for rock and roll; they went with declining cultural prestige, living proof that the expansion of the audience entailed disastrous fragmentation. But I don't anymore. Fragmentation too is a '70s phenomenon. It goes back to whenever arty types began to find "the best" rock worthy of attention in the '60s, but in the '60s tolerance was the rule; it was easier to name rough substyles--say British invasion, folk-rock, soul (broken down into Motown, Stax-Volt, pop, and protofunk), and psychedelic--than to analyze their separate audiences. Not until 1968 or 1969, when it became a hippie commonplace to dismiss soul as "commercial" and when bubblegum and "white blues" developed into clear categories, did the breakdown really begin. And only in the '70s did genres start asserting themselves: singer-songwriter and interpreter, art-rock and heavy metal and country-rock and boogie, fusion and funk and disco and black MOR, and finally punk and new wave. Barren, a lot of these styles, might seem to committed rock and rollers like me. But every one of them has produced great music.
A complication here is that semi-popular music was invented by black people long before rock or for that matter bebop; every time Louis Armstrong sent up a pop tune he achieved recontextualizations the likes of which have rarely been heard since. So in the '70s, as in the '60s and '50s, there has been a whole body of semi-popular music that has had just about nothing to do with rock and roll. What made the '70s even more confusing was that one jazz player, Miles Davis, proclaimed himself a rock (as well as funk) pioneer by inventing one of the genres named above. Fortunately for the categorizer in me, if not the music lover, the style has so far come to very little (although I'm more taken than Gary Giddins with Davis's own contributions to it). But I'm not counting fusion out yet, not with Ornette Coleman and Blood Ulmer still working variations and a whole generation of young jazz (not fusion) players rediscovering the joys of blues and the four-four, and when I think about the decade's music I think about all the new jazz I've enjoyed and all I haven't had time or ears for. I also think about the persistence of Chicago blues, which has probably been better recorded in the '70s than the '60s, thanks especially to Bruce Iglauer of Alligator Records, the folkie Leonard Chess.
In sum, I've probably enjoyed this decade's music as much as or more than the last, with movements and genres the key to my pleasure. Which means that it is now time once again to refer to my theoretical '60s-'70s matchups. First of all, I cheated. Bob Dylan vs. Neil Young wasn't a fair statement of the alternatives, because formally this has been a decade of Dylans. I mentioned only Young because I regard the solo artists who've achieved major popularity--Jackson Browne, John Denver, and so forth--as lightweights, though I might have tipped my hand by bringing in Joni Mitchell, who had a disappointing second half. But once you accept the notion that the decade's best music has been semi-popular, the floodgates open and the mainstream is inundated. Start with Van Morrison; I don't think he's quite Dylan's equal myself, but there are sensible people who believe he's better than anybody. Then go to the brilliant Randy Newman (though he too flagged somewhat in the second half), and then to Prine (flagging badly) and Wainwright (lightweight in a consistently good way) and Cohen (narrow but hanging in), and then stick Richard Thompson and Arlo Guthrie in somewhere. Are the '70s looking better? Note that I cheated in other ways, too. There's no '60s equivalent to Steely Dan or Brian Eno or John McLaughlin (or Miles Davis), so I left them out. There's no '60s equivalent to reggae, which most Americans, myself included, know very sketchily. So I left that out too.
But beyond the innocent chicanery, my matchups were deceitful in a more basic way, because the whole idea, the very terms of the comparison, favored the '60s. Genius vs. talent indeed. For all its putative egalitarianism, what the previous decade seems to have bestowed on rock and roll is a shitload of Greatness. Now, I think that's great--Let It Bleed and Smokey's Greatest Hits Volume II still speak to me with startling fullness and authority. Maybe eventually time will cover some of my faves with a patina of transcendent reliability, but right now that's not the point; I can't be certain how much of it will "hold up," but I have no doubt that the new wave idea and style--starting with punk and running through the current pop, reggae, funk, and avant-garde offshoots--has occasioned a staggering quantity of interesting rock and roll. Not only hasn't this movement (or genre) been bad for the music, it's been, well, great. And when you think about it, the herd of independent voices put out a lot of good music too. All of which places my matchups in a new perspective. About audiences I'm something of a '60s holdout--despite their na´vetÚ and their tendency to fudge the tough ones, I still prefer the quasihippies to the new wavers, at least in the abstract. But if music-makers themselves are compared collectively instead of individually, something all '60s holdouts should be more than willing to do, this decade doesn't come out so bad at all.
Oh yea, one more thing. We should make no mistake as to the ultimate source, culturally and economically, of the decade's bounty. It's the music industry, without whose megalomania all of this subterranean activity would never have been documented or maybe even taken place. The hated industry. Unwitting patron of the semi-popular arts.
3. The Rise and Fall of the City of Monotony
In June, 1971, I attended a historic concert at Town Hall. The featured artists--Mother Earth, which after failing to take off on Mercury had switched to Warners, and an overrated new Warners group called the Doobie Brothers--weren't the historic part; history was provided by Warners itself, then as now the hippest of the major labels, which was underwriting the whole "Mothers and Brothers" tour. Although Grand Funk Railroad had just spent two years proving that continual roadwork was a very effective way to sell records, this qualified at the time as visionary promotion, and I was happy for Mother Earth's Tracy Nelson, who I thought deserved to be a star. But that wasn't how it worked out. Nelson soon turned into the Bobo Newsom of rock, bouncing from Warners to Columbia to Atlantic to MCA, although the tour helped her build the base of loyal fans every journeywoman depends on. The Doobie Brothers, on the other hand, did quite well for themselves.
The Doobie Brothers--wotta group. I've never managed to concentrate on two of their cuts in succession, but I know this much--they epitomize corporate rock as well as anybody, not least because they have their meager merits. Mothers and Brothers didn't break them, but late in 1972 a song off their second album got play on the "progressive" FM stations and quickly crossed over to AM. "Listen to the Music," it was called--lots of harmonies, easy-rolling rhythms, countrified arrangements, Byrdsy electronic effects, meticulous Ted Templeman production, and of course the smug music-is-the-answer message. It made my 10-worst list. It also signaled the intermittent presences of the Doobies on top 40 for years to come.
But hit singles weren't enough to propel the Doobies into multiplantinum. That took Warners' huge in-conglomerate distribution network and more of what is called "artist development," including a 1974 tour with five other Warners acts in the then underexploited European market. Eventually the band swallowed Skunk Baxter, who had played some memorably terse and witty guitar for Steely Dan; later, when Baxter's jazzy country stylings began to seem outdated, they ditched him and made a neat--in fact, quite likeable--adaptation to pop-funk-disco. Even their name, which implies both dope (doobie is Californian for spliff) and rock nostalgia (doobie-doo to you) has always been, as Warren Zevon might put it, perfect.
There are a hundred such stories in the City of Monotony--all unique, all archetypal, all boring. The Doobie Brothers can now be counted among the countless groups whose recording career had gone on longer than the Beatles'--from the Beach Boys through the Who and the Kinks and the Stones through the Grateful Dead and Fleetwood Mac and Jefferson Spacemobile through Led Zeppelin and Yes and Jethro Tull through the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Nazareth and America and Earth, Wind & Fire and Poco and Wings and REO Fucking Speedwagon. But their saga is no more meaningful than any other showbiz soap opera. In terms of what they have to say--and I don't just mean lyrics--the Doobie Brothers are Lainie Kazan, or maybe Perry Como, with a beat. They really do have their virtues; "What a Fool Believes" was a winning radio song with an impressive half-life. But one thing we've learned in this compulsively eclectic decade is that Lainie Kazan and Perry Como have their virtues too (Perry Como does, anyhow). In the absences of either cultural resonance or semi-popular moves, rock and roll--especially rock and roll as compromised as that of the Doobie Brothers (or Yes, or REO Speedwagon)--is hardly a guarantee of significance. Often it's just what the culturati have always believed it to be--a guarantee of rote, lifeless vapidity.
I've left one thing out, of course--record sales. Lainie Kazan has never sold records; Perry Como hasn't had a hit in America since 1970. But the Doobie Brothers, who put out their biggest album in 1978 and show no signs of letting up, are titans of industry. As individuals, of course, they don't exercise any more economic power than the next bunch of pretentious nouveaux-riches. So they can buy oil wells, or sponsor a "golf classic" for United Way? So what? It's as representatives--and tools--of an immensely powerful system, beneficiaries of every marketing advance known to biz, that they take on meaning. They've been hyped by artist development ploys--especially, as we've seen, the corporate tour, the sheer scattershot exposure of which is a sure plus for any moderately talented artist. They've profited immensely from the homogenizations of radio, patterning their career on the FM to AM movement of their first hit, with the FM side providing a vaguely arty ("good musicians") rep and (much more important) LP-habituated fans, while the AM assured a lowest-common-denominator spread. And like every other Warners act they're creatures of conglomerate clout in one more way, which in the end may be the big one, as it so often is in mass culture: distribution.
Rock and roll broke through on independent labels (Sun rockabilly, Chess and Atlantic r&b) and so, to a lesser extent, did '60s rock (Elektra and Vanguard, album-oriented folkie companies, were signing bands like the Doors and Country Joe before the majors caught on). In the late '60s, Warner-Reprise bought up the two best and biggest independents, Atlantic and Elektra. That didn't mean Warners immediately started giving orders, although both labels are now notorious schlock merchants, with Elektra's turn to Mike Curb, MOR country, and fustian fusion directed by former Warner Bros. prexy Joe Smith. (Warner Bros. itself continues to live up to its hip history; Jerry Wexler, once the soul of Atlantic, now works there.) But it did permit the company to hatch the hippest scheme of all. Where formerly each of the three labels had been distributed by its own informal--and by definition unreliable--tangle of independent distributors, now the best of these were enlisted in W-E-A, Warners-Elektra-Atlantic, which would handle only W-E-A records. By offering deals on hot product W-E-A records could induce rack jobbers and retail chains to stock the chancier stuff, a desirable circumstance: Experience has shown that in order to sell records you must first get them into the stores. As for W-E-A's rivals--well, stores have only so much space, and capital.
Warners wasn't the first self-distributed company: its archrival CBS was there well before, as were Capitol and others. But W-E-A tipped the balance. By welding its 15 or 20 per cent of the market into a fist Warners accelerated its sales and as a result found it easier to sign up-and-coming independents--David Geffen's Asylum, Terry Ellis's (since-departed) Chrysalis, Seymour Stein's Sire, Manfred Eicher's ECM, Chris Blackwell's Island, and for a while Phil Walden's Capricorn, now in Chapter 11. Capricorn's crisis came this year when its new distributor, European-owned Polygram, called in $5 million worth of debts: Polygram also distributes Polydor (including the remnant of MGM) and Mercury, its own labels, as well as RSO and Casablanca, independents it owns 50 per cent of. In 1972 Universal melded faltering Kapp, Decca, and Uni into bad old MCA, which then purchased ABC, which had previously purchased Paramount, which owned Dot. Even the strongest and proudest independent, Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss's A&M, has gone in with RCA, which also distributes Buddah and 20th Century-Fox, Motown, Chrysalis, Fantasy, soulful little T.K., a few disco labels, and Arista--now part of another European giant, Ariola--keep the independent distributors in business these days, and with less than 15 per cent of the market they're not in business by much. Which hardly encourages new independent labels to arise, at least not along conventional lines.
For a long time everybody except the small entrepreneurs themselves thought this was simply good business. After all, business wasn't just good--it was great. Theoretically, maybe the giants were forcing the little guys out, but in practice there seemed to be room for everyone, because retail as a whole was booming. Tours and other promotions meshed with the rationalization of AOR ("album-oriented radio") programming to expose more music to more--and more passive--consumers, who sucked up the latest formulas at a rate that made the disaffection of '60s diehards irrelevant. International markets also expanded, and disco seemed to open up a whole new audience of spendthrifts. There was a slowdown around 1975, but then the upswing began again, symbolized by a series of almost unprecedented decaplatinum albums--Frampton Comes Alive!, Rumours, Hotel California, and the biggest of all, Saturday Night Fever and its little brother Grease. Who cared if production and touring costs and incidental expenses were going through the ceiling? Who cared if demographic doomsayers prattled on about the end of the baby boom? Who cared if record executives no longer felt the slightest affinity for the inarticulate-to-grungy teenagers who were still their base of support? The music industry was one of the chief wonders of capitalism in the late '70s.
That was until reports came in on the sales figures for Christmas, 1978; not only did the growth rate slow, which had happened before, but in some cases sales actually dipped. The biz has been panicking lavishly ever since--even a label as unscathed as Atlantic, having its biggest year ever, has indulged in ritual belt-tightening. This often looks suspiciously like sweating the troops: lots of firings (from low-level office and field spots, match) combined with often severe cutbacks in advertising, promotion, and perks. Disco, having failed to become the next big thing in its allotted six months, has been written off by many of the same companies that a year ago were glutting the market (and diluting the music) with quickie production deals. Reassuring if unspectacular sales performances by (where have we seen these names before?) the Eagles and Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac and Foreigner have inspired a certain return to complacency lately, but there's no company that doesn't mouth the new credo, which is basically that you can't let your costs go through the ceiling. Agonizing reappraisals are the order of the day.
If I sound more gleeful than politeness or self-interest would dictate--the belt-tightening costs The Voice ad lineage, after all--it's because I am. As someone who understands business only in retrospect I can't claim to have things sussed economically yet. Maybe the demographers were right (although the downturn shouldn't have begun so early), or maybe the fuel crises have put a permanent damper on all leisure spending (although economic disasters have never hurt the distraction industry before), or maybe (you hear this one a lot) Saturday Night Fever was a fluke that inspired unreasonably expensive artist acquisitions and monster pressings (although I bet the decaplatinum keeps on coming), or maybe (just possibly) people got sick of the shit. But like most rock critics I can claim to have issued endless jeremiads on the aesthetic and moral short-sightedness of biz's sybaritic, capital-intensive cynicism. And in this we were joined by many artists. Usually, you see, it didn't work like Mothers and Brothers. Most tour support, as well as all production costs, came out of royalties--not total receipts, but royalties, so that companies earned money on records long before artists did. Even composing royalties, long the singer-songwriter's secret friend, were often figured into the balance by way of in-house publishing companies. Artists had to sell 250,000 records just to break even. Making it became a businesslike grind that attracted a predictable complement of businesslike musicians. Freer spirits dropped out, or shriveled up.
That there were alternatives was proved by each of the decade's three major movements. The least pop-minded (and most counter-cultural) of the herd of independent voices--namely, convinced folkies--founded semi-idealistic labels with a respect for diddleysquat, among them Flying Fish, current home of Tracy Nelson. Disco producers bypassed the whole notion of artist development (not to mention radio) with records that had only aural identity, exploiting the seemingly endless store of church-trained black voices and often achieving surface luxury cheaply in the bargain. And the new wavers went after everything the biz held dear. They chutzpahed into the spotlight, jettisoned the stupid accoutrements of arena stagecraft, and battered AOR gentility with weird lyrics, breakneck tempos, and aggressive hooks. And though many of them, especially in America, proudly proclaimed their passion for pelf, they didn't suck up musically, and they proved again and again that a rock and roll album didn't have to be financed by Krupp. Ramones cost under seven thou.
The hostilities are quieter these days as bizzers pay their respects to the "vitality" of the new wave's more ingratiating practitioners. Indeed, rebellious rock and roll rhetoricians, who had theorized vainly for years about teenage dance music, can now take credit for "dance-oriented rock" and punk-Eurodisco hybrids. And if the Knack and Joe Jackson are hardly the fulfillment of prophecy, Talking Heads and Elvis Costello will do for now. At the very least, the recent plethora of fresh young rock and rollers has been fun, which is still my bottom line artistically. Nevertheless, what's most important about the newpop surge, which hasn't overrun the charts in any case, is that it will inevitably help build commercial credibility--and even audience--for the great artists in its midst and the semi-semi-popular ones in its vanguard. And given the biz's New Parsimony, maybe what's most important about them commercially is that they don't cost much on the road or in the studio, thus easing the putative burdens on a putatively undercapitalized industry. Very vital. Or as an accountant might put it, very viable.
For all that, I don't figure the biz will give up on new wave the way it's started to on disco. Not only are expectations more modest, but the music is prouder. I respect disco as an alternative environment, but the new wave's anti-establishment impulses are solider, and the audience for the hard stuff is clearly growing, even inside the biz itself. Still, I can imagine better. In England, less sodden spiritually and more compact geographically, '70s independents like Virgin and Stiff are challenged from the left by the likes of Fast Product ("serious fun") and Rough Trade; in the U.S., the Residents' tiny (and theoretically antirock) Ralph label is the nearest thing to an established rock independent, while Stiff and Virgin, who farm out their most salable stuff to CBS and Atlantic, qualify as young turks (if not chinese) merely by setting up here. It all comes down to distribution, still almost completely controlled by the majors despite efforts by both the folkie labels and the big import house, Jem, to do things their way. "They can sell 50,000 in the Northeast and on the Coast," an artist-development expert at one major told me recently. "But if they want to go any further they have to come to us.
The nicest thing to be said about the City of Monotony right now is that for the first time in the decade its future defies prediction. The majors' hegemony still seems solid, but three years ago it seemed impregnable. In the ideal scenario, a whole army of independent labels--some local, some national, some English--would blow the conglomerates right into television or some similar hell. But even though a few of the majors seem to be in trouble, it's much more likely that the big companies will continue to peddle a lot of bad music along with some good, and that the most successful independents will continue to plug into their distribution. Unless the whole biz dries up, however, the local scenes are going to keep expanding, because transportation costs have made automatic touring an anachronism, leaving a vacuum that only the new subculture of unbusinesslike semiprofessional musicians can fill. In short, all kinds of records will continue to appear. Some of them will be local, and a lot of them will be hard to find in Alexander's. But every big city will have its specialty shops, mail order will grow, and those who want to hear the records will. The '60s optimist in me wants the best culture to be readily available everywhere. But the '70s realist has learned that when people value something enough to seek it out, they're liable to make more of it.
4. My My, Hey Hey
The Doobie Brothers' ability to sell records, which inspired all this commercial analysis, reaches past economics into cultural history: it means that their art, such as it is, is permanent and replicable. This has been true of music since the dawn of recording, of course, but the rise of the LP as a form--as an artistic entity, to use the cant phrase--has had a kind of exponential effect on how we perceive, or at least remember, what was once the most evanescent of the arts. The album may prove a '70s artifact; at decade's end singles and other configurations are making a big comeback, enlightened radio and disco deejays are refocusing attention on individual cuts, and a recrudescent localism is engendering new mythologies of magic after midnight in makeshift clubs and dancehalls. But for the time being the album remains the basic unit of judgment.
This is okay with me. I've found over the years that the long-playing record, with its 15-to-20 minute sides of four-to-six compatible (maybe even symbiotic) compositions, suits my habits of concentration perfectly. Whittling my '70s favorites down to a top 40 has been an extremely pleasurable task; each side of every album I've listed has given me consistent satisfaction since I first made my connection with it. But one wonderful album doesn't make you a wonderful artists; consistency, productivity, and aura count too. My faves by Manfred Mann and James Talley and Paul Simon, for example, are in effect magnificent flukes--I don't esteem those three names the way I do Bob Marley or Stevie Wonder or the Grateful Dead, none of whom placed any albums on my list. Talley and Mann have each made one other album I return to, which puts them ahead of Simon, and only Talley holds much charm for me as a live performer. Marley and Wonder and the Dead, on the other hand, have all made lots of albums I prize, and are all among my favorite live performers. In addition, they all have projected real cultural force, which even in the '70s means something.
The limits of the album as unit of judgment have always been most egregious in black music, where consumer economics, by which I mean poverty, have forced artists to concentrate on singles, and biz economics, by which I mean the same old exploitation (often wearing an upwardly mobile black face these days), has forced artists to rely on formulas and corporate songwriting stables when they make albums. That's been even truer in the '70s, when the most vital black styles, funk and disco might almost have been designed to encourage filler. I don't think the '70s have been as good a time for black musicians as the '60s, when they dominated artistically until 1964 and never let up on quality thereafter. (It could be argued, though not by me, that Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, James Brown, and Jimi Hendrix contributed more to rock and roll than the Beatles, the Stones, Bob Dylan , and Eric Clapton.) But even those whites who consciously resisted the racist habits of thought that began to infect rock criticism and "progressive" radio around 1969 missed what was really going on in black music in the early '70s--not soul but funk, as developed first by Sly and James Brown and then by Maurice White, the Isley Brothers, and especially George Clinton. Who knows how the balance will look when what they achieved is fully absorbed? And without coherent albums--just try extracting the good stuff from Earth, Wind & Fire or T-Neck Isleys or (if you can find any) early-'70s James Brown--how will it even be absorbed?
All around this general vicinity you will find what I have taken to calling the Dozens--lists of 12 artists grouped under various categories. Like the Consumer Guide, these lists are serious fun; they're also somewhat arbitrary, because music doesn't divide neatly into dozens any more than it does into grades, or decades. But three names are on top, unchallenged; three artists have clearly qualified, by my semi-popular standards, as the decade's most consistent, vital, committed, and inventive, issuing good album after good album and exerting indomitable cultural presence. I think it says something about the way American music always seems to shape up, especially given the difficulties black artists have with the LP form, that two of them are black.
George Clinton has never made a great album, and as a public presence he's committed at least one deplorable error--hooking up with the Process Church of the Final Judgment in the early '70s. But he's also been amazingly prolific--Parliament, Funkadelic, and Bootys's Rubber Band, all Clinton's concepts, have put out more than two dozen albums since 1970, albums flawed by experiment, not for formula. He's even made something of occultism--his antinomian visions are a lot more tough-minded than the babblings of the L. Ron Hubbard and Sri Chinmoy adepts. By husbanding James Brown rhythms and doowop harmonies into the future he's proven the most innovative popular musician of his time. He's maintained P-Funk as a collectivity that responds to the gifts of its shifting membership. And he's reached a huge audience of black teenager with a mythology that combines unmistakable humor with undeniable socioeconomic smarts. He's a heavy motherfucker.
From his first piece of soul bubblegum, Al Green's range, rhythmic and dynamic subtlety, and sheer vocal beauty marked him as a great singer. He also wrote wonderful songs, and unlike most soul interpreters showed real roots and imagination in what he chose to cover. Apparently trapped in the soul nexus of carnal, romantic, and divine love, he projected a savvy, diffident, mischievous style of sexual confidence that seemed eternal yet was new to pop and possibly the world. And when one of his girlfriends committed suicide in his house, he sought redemption in a religion devoid of self-righteousness or palaver. Like Jerry Lee Lewis, of all people, he felt suspended between heaven and hell, but unlike Jerry Lee Lewis he seemed to opt to heaven--on earth. And thus became the ultimate soul man.
And then there is Neil Young. A lot of people think he doth protest too much, or hate his voice. I think he's taken cracked timbre past the expressive limits marked out by Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, and his guitar playing reminds me of his singing. Despite his lack of interest in exotic chords, he's proven that most gifted melodist of the decade, and his lyrics have the offhand colloquial perspicuity of street conversation overheard while falling asleep. He's a great rock and roller who owes virtually nothing to black music and a great folkie who owes virtually nothing to anyone. At a time when all of El Lay was mellowing out he screamed bloody murder and set out to wreck the joint. The only performer ever to praise Johnny Rotten while wearing a flannel shirt, Young shows no sign of sloughing off. One more good album and he'll have outlasted Dylan.
Young is also one of a kind. Green is the last as well as the ultimate soul man. And while many approximate Clinton's rhythms, no one comes close to his acid fantasies. After all my talk of movements and genres and culture, is it not perhaps willful of me to go out with three such weirdos? Couldn't I have paid tribute to Stevie Wonder, Fleetwood Mac, even the Clash--somebody typical? Of course not. All of the decade's movements have been accomplished by stubborn eccentrics--these three have merely proven the most stubborn of all. And the most unpredictable. If anyone had told me in 1969 that George Clinton and Al Green would be two of my three favorite rock and rollers of the '70s my only response would have been "Who?" Which is why I'm not going to try and foretell the future now. I do hope and expect that many of the musicians who've nurtured me in this decade will stick around thorough much or all of the next. And I hope and expect that new wave will prove a permanently insurgent force in my--and our--musical life. But all I know for sure is that I'll be watching and listening. There's more to the picture than meets the eye.
Half a Loaf
Coulda Been Contenders
I Call It Pop
Whatever Happened To
The Future (I Hope)
Village Voice, Dec. 17, 1979