Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-70s Book Cover

The Guide

When I became Esquire's "secular music" columnist in early 1967, I didn't know I'd found a vocation--I was just staking my journalistic claim to a subject I'd been passionately analytic about since Alan Freed hit New York in 1954. I could imagine myself in 1977 (at thirty-five, God) doing a record review column for Cosmopolitan or somewhere: rock and roll would be a professional base, something to fall back on, not a career, or an obsession. Hadn't I rejected criticism as a way of life when I decided to skip graduate school? Apparently not. When the column dried up two years later, I quickly hustled down to The Village Voice, where I was allotted one 2500-word piece per month, a deal that quartered my rock-related income as it tripled my workload. And still I craved more.

By then there were lots of rock critics--we gossiped at concerts, mooched meals at press parties, palled around. I even lived with one. We'd all fallen for a hype or two. We'd all learned to separate achievement from intention, real thing from phony, art from product, and maybe even to tell when those distinctions were meaningless. In short, we were all more or less skeptical. Yet for some reason I was less skeptical than most, as my unusual work habits proved--I tried to listen to everything the record companies sent me, a task so time- and soul-consuming that my rockcrit cohab, Ellen Willis, would banish me and my dreck to a backup apartment whenever the drone began to get to her.

It was strange that I felt compelled to do this. According to my theory of pop, in which rock and roll's broad appeal was intrinsic to its aesthetic value, record-bizzers and radio programmers comprised an unwittingly beneficient distribution system: given the inevitable exceptions and time lags, the way to find good music in 1969 was the same as in 1954 and 1964--by turning on the radio and watching the charts. Admittedly, there was a polemical contrariness in this idea, a reaction against the elitist left sentimentalism in which The People are thwarted in their progress toward Good Music by a conspiracy of Establishment Reactionaries. But in 1969 I still believed it sincerely, and in 1969 it was still true. Not all of the most popular rock was good, but most of the good rock seemed to be popular. Of course, the meaning of popular was changing--it wasn't just top forty any more. While I continued to love AM and paid special attention to albums by the soul and tennybopper singles artists the counterculture ignored, I was aware that FM's free-form progressivism (har har) had proven essential to the pop process. But the new radio was only another example of the quirkish vitality of a new mass culture (call it youth, call it pop) that seemed destined to defy the status quo. Or so I argued.

Yet at the same time I felt it was somehow my duty to listen to the small mountain of LPs I was mailed each week. This was partly incipient workaholism, partly recompense for all those freebies. But it was also a way to join the distribution system. I didn't realize this at first because I knew that radio and personal appearances, not print, sold records; even the press coverage that did have discernible commercial clout (the MC5's Kick Out the Jams went to number thirty in the wake of a publicity blitz, for instance) began with corporate hype. Nevertheless, there I was with one piece a month and dozens of records bouncing around in my head--The Original Delaney & Bonnie, Fairport Convention, the Grateful Dead's Aoxomoxoa, and (I admit it) Procol Harum's A Salty Dog, all of which I loved, and Sea Train, Cat Mother & the All-Night Newsboys, Country Joe's Here We Are Again, and (I admit it) Skip Spence's Oar, all of which I thought grossly overrated. I had heard whole albums that most rock fans knew only by cuts on the radio or even covers in the record store, and others--Mavis Staples's Mavis, say, or Cleanliness & Goodliness Skiffle Band's Greatest Hits--to which they probably had no access at all. I felt obliged to share my findings even if only a few dozen or a few hundred buyers would do something as a result.

And so the Consumer Guide was born. The first one, which appeared July 10th, 1969, reviewed and rated sixteen records (including the ten named above) I knew well enough to comment on in a brief, first-draft sentence. Only occasionally did I go beyond such acute analysis as "unexceptional white blues, much below their excellent first album" (Linn County's Fever Shot, a D). Nevertheless, the feature was a hit--countless cards and letters begged for more. Soon my listening became more systematic, my grades more rational, my comments more thoughtful and detailed. Five months later I was still protesting: "This is business, folks, not criticism. You have a limited amount of money to spend on records and a limited quantity of data on which to base your allotments. The Consumer Guide is more data." But in fact I conceived the CG as complementing my monthly essay. It was criticism with an immediate, undeniable practical function--criticism in a pop form, compact and digestible.

The most essential component of this form was also the most controversial--the grades. It was 1969, remember; I was soon to spend two years teaching in college programs that didn't even permit the grading of coursework. And in fact I never suggested that grades were anything more than an imperfect shorthand. Granted, I was getting my polemical jollies--it was a pleasure to remind the minions of rock-is-art that if art could be quantified in a pricing system, it could damn well be quantified in a grading system as well. It was distressing to learn, however, how bare of nuance grades could be. In theory, mine stretched from A to E, and early on I would seek out horrible examples that merited inclusion at D or below. But since the main point was to find good music for people, and since ascertaining exact degrees of worthlessness was a depressing occupation, most of my ratings clustered up in the listenable range, B minus and above. I soon figured out that unless a record got a B plus or better, it was unlikely that I'd ever play it voluntarily again, and when the B plusses came in six and seven at a time, I even took to listing them top to bottom in an introduction.

Of course, what people hate about grades, even more than their arbitrariness, is their appearance of objectivity, of absolute authority. In a music of parricides I thought it prudent as well as accurate to emphasize that authority was not my goal--the grades summed up a private aesthetic response. Always big on relativism, I assumed that many kinds of rock fan utilized the service I provided, and that we were all equal. "I admit my prejudices--I dislike most rock improvisation, and am suspicious of even the most innocent pretensions, while I am perhaps unnaturally disposed in favor of soul music and anything that reveals a trace of wit," I explained, and went on: "There are records as low as C minus that may be worth owning if your tastes are very different from mine. But if you like many Ds and Es you might as well stop reading me altogether--we have nothing in common, intelligence included."

Well, there had to be a punchline, and basically, my humility was genuine. One prejudice I didn't even bother to mention was that I thought popular music should be popular--the Stooges' Fun House and Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica ("Just Too Weird") were rated B plus on grounds of inaccessibility, as it's called. I realize now that my populist bias dulled my take on those two records (as well as others), although no more than a rock-is-art bias led "progressives" to kid themselves about experiments that didn't come off. My populism worked in the other direction as well--although aware of its unevenness, I named Tommy best album of 1969 in tribute to its pop impact. But I recognized that something else was going on--the distribution system appeared to be faltering, FM and all. After all, the Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace of Sin, which climbed all the way to 164 in Billboard, and The Velvet Underground, which never cracked 200, were also in my top ten. By the following summer, enamored of two more records that never made the charts--Randy Newman's 12 Songs and A Rainbow in Curved Air, by the avant-garde minimalist Farfisa mystic Terry Riley--as well as many near misses, I was inspired to coin a new term for all this wonderful but commercially unsuccessful stuff. "Just as semiclassical music is a systematic dilution of highbrow preferences," I wrote, "semipopular music is a cross-bred concentration of fashionable modes." Semipopular music, that was the key, and as the decade wore on I became less snotty about it.

I'd always warned that critics, predisposed toward novelty by overexposure, perceived music differently from ordinary fans. But it gradually became clear that our readers weren't ordinary fans--they did read, after all. Like us, or at least not unlike us, they wanted provocation and formal acuteness from rock and roll. What's more, so did many of the most gifted musicians, although because the magic of the music was tied into a youthful lyricism (and anger) that couldn't be willed, wanting it wasn't enough. In any case, semipopular music--not the genteel if gratifying artiness of the late '60s, but arcane stuff with limited mass potential--had the power to pull people together. Not to inspire a mass movement, a disappointment for a comsymp like me, but to gather a sort of electronic bohemia, a conceptual community in which rock journalism played a crucial role. And over the years the Consumer Guide evolved into my report on and to that community.

Early in 1972, Long Island's Newsday hired me as music critic. The CG, conceived since its second installment as twenty alphabetically arranged reviews, wasn't suited to the daily's format; instead, I tied two "record capsules" thematically to my Sunday column and contributed 500-word batches of caps to the review section. This material was compiled by Dave Marsh at the Detroit-based rockmag Creem into a monthly feature. The Creem slot was one reason I lugged my portable phonograph on a long cross-country vacation in 1973 and wrote caps for the remainder of a six-month leave. And when I became music editor of The Voice in 1974, Creem decided to reprint the CG.

Writing for Newsday used up a lot of energy, but as an editor I had more to say than time to say it, and the Consumer Guide became my outlet. As a result, it took a quantum leap. Induced by my writers to make contact with music that didn't come naturally, I learned to like a lot of it, a lucky thing in a time when the mainstream had already turned to slush and Patti Smith didn't belong to ASCAP yet. I got into the habit of condensing one or two fairly complex ideas into most entries, which expanded to an average of eighty words. My one-liners became sharper, less willful. And while my evaluations still sprang from personal pleasure, I was no longer content merely to react and pass judgment--the first person singular became an option rather than a matter of principle. None of which meant the Consumer Guide was turning respectable--not if I could help it. I'd always believed that rock criticism should piss people off, and every improvement made my gibes harder to sneeze at.

And who (besides publicists and other bizzers) would be doing the sneezing? It was all very well to posit a community, and I believed that I had at least one reader in every segment of it, from upwardly mobiles on the streets of Harlem to Oregon radicalesbians. But I tried not to idealize my audience, even positing a rather unromantic typical consumer. Most likely he didn't exist, not down to the last detail. But he served as a useful paradigm. Just like me when I subscribed to The Voice at Dartmouth fifteen years before, he was a bright, white, college-age male. He listened to New York's free-form WNEW-FM with more reservations about its heavy metal than its singer-songwriters--not because he wasn't a rock and roll fan, but because his first commitment was to his own brain. He knew very little about top forty. Even though he liked a good beat he paid small attention to black rock, and he never listened to real country music even though he liked good songs. His basic sympathies were with the popular end of semipopular music, whatever form it might take. It was my mission to open him up.

To do this, I continued to monitor ninety percent of the albums that came my way--at least 1500 a year. My swag included all U.S.-release major label pop (except for some country) and a good portion of the minor-label output, with the gaps falling among regional country and r&b/soul/disco specialists and the really tiny folk companies as well as in jazz, where my coverage has been enthusiastic but inexpert and quite haphazard. I definitely did monitor rather than listen--once half the stuff reached my changer I knew it would never get there twice. But lots of records I had to hear two or three times before I could put them aside. Everything B plus and above made the column, and so did most of the Bs; for color, vitriol, and news value, I added major-artist disappointments, records enjoying inflated word-of-mouth or sales, and the occasional horrifying curiosity. Sometimes I couldn't think of anything interesting to say about an eligible LP, sometimes I couldn't make up my mind, and too often I just missed things. But I paid my way--deciding a record is a B minus by playing it a dozen times feels a whole lot like work.

Initially, I figured that transforming this work into a book would be a piece of cake--a month or two of revisions and additions and I'd be ready for history. I ended up putting in fourteen hours a day seven days a week between February and July of 1980, and that was only the big push. I'd known that the early CGs were in need of expansion, that I'd have to grade compilations and go back to records that had passed me by, and that some artists merited complete reevaluations. but I hadn't realized how much of the pre-'76 material was inadequate by my later standards. I hadn't realized how many good albums I'd skipped; I hadn't realized how many best-ofs there were. And I hadn't realized how many major musicians I'd misunderstood, shortchanged, or avoided. In short, I hadn't realized I'd have to write two-thirds of the book from scratch.

The sheer effort this new project required presented a formal problem. Ordinarily, I listened to a new LP over weeks or months, so that it becomes a companion rather than a critical object, and yet my responses retain the freshness of recent acquaintance. Forced labor seemed inimical to this ideal relationship. I did my best, however, to simulate real-life conditions. I began listening early to artists who'd always given me trouble, going through careers chronologically to minimize hindsight. If possible, I based my capsules on Consumer Guides and essays written when the records came out, and included the original grades of those I'd changed my mind about (unless the information disturbed the tone or flow of my comment--this is a reference book, not a confessional). I always wrote in the present tense, though I sometimes gave into the "at first I thought" construction toward which so many problematic albums gravitate, and located each record in time by means of a U.S. release date (since it's hard enough to get years accurate, I didn't bother with months). I hope the result comes across both considered and immediate, like good rock and roll.

The other big problem was where it would all end. Since my material only dated back to mid-'69, a basic shape suggested itself--this would be a book about the albums of the '70s. I'd follow my own rules faithfully by including every B plus rock LP I could get my ears on and passing over very few Bs. Down below would be record-by-record rundowns (ignoring especially useless live albums) and on all major artists (but what is art?) plus other matters of historical interest--which since this is rock and roll would mean giving the trivial, the venal, the ephemeral, and the absolutely forgettable their due. I didn't worry about what was in catalogue, partly because cut-out bins, used record shops, collectors' exchanges, imports, reissues, and simple time lag all work to make that distinction meaningless, partly because I wanted to honor art (but what is art?) over commerce. As there was no practical way to be comprehensive about imports, even English imports, I decided regretfully to omit the few I dote on (Big Youth's Screaming Target, Culture's Two Sevens Clash, the Plastic People's Egon Bondy's Lonely Hearts Club Banned, X-Ray Spex' Germ Free Adolescents, the Heartbreakers' L.A.M.F., Johnny Thunders's So Alone, the Beggars Banquet punk compilation Streets, and the original version of The Clash) and leave the discovery of others to a less harried time.

To some this schema may seem a little arbitrary, but that's the way it is with schemas. Within my guideline--worthwhile albums released in the U.S. in 197X--I've been as complete as possible. On the other hand, no record that missed the cutoff will be found here--not London Calling nor Crawfish Fiesta nor Live/Dead nor Blue Cheer, all of which came within weeks and all of which I've written perfectly reprintable tidbits about. I should emphasize that my completeness warranty applies only to "rock," which in my usage (and it's an outrage that I should even have to explain this) encompasses all black pop since r&b. And I should point out that since the grades do reflect my tastes, devotees of such woebegone '70s genres as country-rock, heavy metal, fusion, and boogie will find many of their favorites missing. Although I've covered hundreds of LPs in the roots genres of country and blues, including every good one I could find, completeness in those fields was beyond my means. I've also reviewed many singer-songwriters who would have been called folkies before the advent of James Taylor, a few avant-gardey electronic experiments, some African music, and other oddities. But while I've rated dozens of comedy albums over the years, not even the Firesign Theatre made the book. I've omitted jazz, which is a whole different world, although I did cover a few records that speak to what I think of as my rock sensibility (specifically including all of Miles Davis, father of fusion and numerous black-sheep sons). And I've omitted gospel and salsa.

I hope a useful--nay, essential--buyers' guide has emerged from all tis. Also a valuable reference work. And a great bathroom book. But I must admit that while I don't really expect anyone to sit down and read it from cover to cover, I nevertheless like to fantasize that I've also provided a kind of piecemeal critical history--the story of a much misunderstood musical decade, arranged alphabetically.

Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s, 1980

  The Decade