Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Note for British Readers

This book assumes a consensus that whenever it was in the mid-sixties, the Beatles crystallized "rock culture" and that whenever it was in the late seventies, the Sex Pistols shattered it. During that period, for better or worse, a multinational corporate hegemony serviced the American market with every saleable rock LP made. Since commercial potential was thought by the more enlightened powers-that-were to connect at times to art, very few good rock albums went unreleased in the USA. Two exceptions that deserve mention are music not in English (by Italy's Lucio Dalla, say, or Nigerians like Fela and Sunny Ade, or any of the Brazilian rhythm masters who might qualify as rock by my catholic definition) and reggae, in which freelance capitalism has always made discography chancey anyway. But I can't say I regret having all but ignored British imports before 1977. Sure I missed a few gems (the first Matching Mole, for instance), but I suspect they wouldn't have compensated for the collected works of Curved Air.

In the late seventies, though, the hegemony broke down as the established companies, their courage and profits in disarray, withdrew from music that smaller and more passionate entrepreneurs could still make money on. The resurgence of independent labels actually began in the USA, where they'd always persisted in country and r&b, and where by 1975 the likes of Alligator and Rounder had taken up the blues and folk artists the majors found they had no more time for. But the UK success of first Virgin, then Stiff and Rough Trade, all of whom combated industrial conservatism in rock itself, was the real breakthrough. By 1980 things had changed so much on both sides of the Atlantic that fifteen of my forty-nine A and A− albums had no major-label distribution, excluding titles on Takoma (Chrysalis-affiliated), I.R.S. (A&M-affiliated), and Sugarhill (an old-style r&b company). In 1970 I'd found only two such records, plus two James Browns on King. Furthermore, it had been a while since all the interesting British rock was sure to be released here; my rules permitting, I'd add three imports to my 1980 list (Poly Styrene's Translucence, Pere Ubu's New Picnic Time, and Oi!--The Album), with no confidence that I haven't missed others. And it was no longer true that the best new rock was automatically put on album--singles and EPs had replaced concept albums as conveyors of significance.

All of which begins to suggest what British readers, always the most diligent students of rock and roll, can and cannot expect from this book. I'm a critic, not a librarian, and I beg you to blame my foolish stab at consistency on the era--seventies rock seemed to generate comprehensive projects spontaneously. Even within the bounds of my taste I've tolerated gaps (failed to locate three other 1970 James Browns, for instance). But by sticking mainly to records available in America I've managed to achieve relative completeness while holding my task to what might reasonably be expected of one compulsive maniac who loves his wife and takes in the occasional movie. Unfortunately, this means that a few of the records I've written about are available in Britain on different labels, or were never released here at all; in a very few cases, the same titles have come out in different form, or the same records at different times or under different titles.

With music from Britain, I've tried to note radical discrepancies of date (more than a year), or programming (more than a cut), in the text; since such inconsistencies were rare during the consensus years, however, I feel them more keenly on my sixties list, where I've named American Beatles and Stones albums that are superior (longer and better pressed), in their UK versions. About what happens to music originating Stateside I'm more spottily informed. British compilations of early rock and roll often put their US counterparts to shame, but a lot of later American music has never crossed the Atlantic. If we're talking Southwind or even Grand Funk Railroad, this doesn't mean much, but in r&b and country music Britain's loss is real, and I hope this book inspires you to investigate. Howard Tate and Tom T. Hall are worth searching for.

You may disagree, of course--there's no disputing that. And I'd worry about such disputes if my book continued past 1979, for in the eighties the British indie boom has expressed not only localism, which is good, but chauvinism, which isn't. This is an aftereffect of punk. In Britain, the Sex Pistols shook rock to its roots; in the USA, they were an epiphenomenon, enormously influential among the kind of fan who reads (and writes), rock criticism, but no more meaningful in terms of sales than the Ramones or Television. Resentful if not disgusted, the brightest British rock fans (as well as a rock press we'll call polemical rather than trendy), responded by getting really bored with the USA--its black music and its fringe rock and roll as well as its pop heroes both worthy (Springsteen, Blondie), and dubious (fill in the blank). I consider this myopic, just as I consider the anglophilia of America's new wave audience far-sighted.

Not that I have any use for anglophobia either--for the boogieing jingoists and black-music faithful who wish they could just forget about the Beatles and the Stones. Though their effect on black musicians was often peripheral (Otis Redding), or nonexistent (James Brown), these were rock's two greatest bands. Even if you're lukewarm to the way they sound (there really are unfortunates who suffer from this tragic lapse of taste), you have to acknowledge that they expanded the music's depth and scope irrevocably. And from Zeppelin to Bowie to the Sex Pistols, lots of other Englishmen created ground-breaking rock and roll in their wake. But unlike many Britons (to whom British music speaks most persuasively), and quite a few Americans (unwitting victims of their nation's colonial inferiority complex and of the cooler-than-thou snobbery that seems to be a permanent rite of adolescence), I don't find that Great Britain's consistent flair for rock and roll is tantamount to artistic pre-eminence. Exact counts are futile in a time of tax exile and mid-Atlantic fusion. But though about a quarter of the records I've reviewed are British, the percentage among those rated A− or higher is only fifteen to twenty, roughly proportional to population.

Call this parochialism if you will; I don't. No one escapes parochialism entirely, of course, and no one should--it's too easily confused with roots--but it is possible to guard against it. That's why I put Steeleye Span and John Martyn and Kevin Ayers in the Subjects for Further Research section. I have no doubt I'd respond more enthusiastically to folk-derived music from the British Isles if I'd grown up closer to the source, and to a lesser extent the same might be true of who knows what progressive and pop and heavy metal (and new wave), albums from the UK. But the rock and roll that made most of these records possible is still American music. Great Britain--with its compacted population, labyrinthine youth culture, ingrained class consciousness, and proximity to the great European elitist tradition (and with the creative spark only perspective affords)--has changed that music definitively and for the good. But the USA--with its regional spread, overarching teencult, ingrained biracialism, and hostility to the great European elitist tradition (and with the creative spark only identity affords)--is its natural home. The rampaging complacency of current American pop reflects the same material security that made rock's democratic utopianism possible in the first place. And that's not all that's there. In pop itself it's still possible to hear the humour, sincerity and (especially among black artists), honest praise of the good life that made the rock and roll of the fifties such a revelation. And on its underside there are still lots of artists slipping in the knife when no one's looking, or shouting their nays so loudly that their denials have an optimistic force of their own.

Enough--all I wanted to do when I started was disclaim any pretence to universal authority. General relevance is more what I'm after. Like any critic, I write as who I am; among other things an American (and a New Yorker, as Californians, Southerners, Middle Westerners, and Londoners often remind me). I hear music my way--not the American way, but an American's way. And since this is still rock and roll, that's certainly one good way to hear it.

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