Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide (4)

Jon Landau has suggested that my rule about album times is silly. To downgrade an album because it is less than 30 minutes long, he argues, is to encourage just the sort of flatulence we both oppose critically--the whole let's-stick-that-in way of doing things. Early albums by the Stones and Beatles, for instance, invariably run short, and so do perfectly respectable 12-song soul albums. Now, I have on occasion complained because an album was too long (Phil Ochs' Pleasures of the Harbor runs more than 50 minutes) and am on record against the "super session" idea, which usually boils down to everyone getting together for a week and making a few grand. But I am offended when a company scrimps because it is obvious that no one is in a position to complain, or tries thin material.

Landau, who is producing the MC5 for Atlantic, says economic considerations have nothing to do with it, because studio costs are meager compared to other parts of the investment, especially distribution. It seems to me though that businessman always try to save money, large or small, right down to the pencils in the supply room. Anyway, that's not what I was told by a now-departed Columbia producer, which is why I am especially suspicious of Columbia's practice of not listing times. (That's not a hard rule, by the way; Lou Adler's CBS-distributed Ode label always provides them.) The first Three Dog Night album, on Dunhill, contained 11 carefully produced songs and ran about 31 minutes. The second contained ten--including one throwaway instrumental--and ran about 28. What happened, I suspect, is that the group was over-committed and didn't have time to do that last track. Dunhill knew it had a sure seller and didn't worry about it. Mainstream released Big Brother & the Holding Company, on the other hand, because it knew it would never get anything but that 22 minutes out of the group. But why is Mel Brown's Blues for We, on Impulse, only 27 minutes? I don't know. But if I were a Mel Brown fan who had to pay for records, I think I'd feel cheated.

Of course, to charge a notch automatically is to penalize the artist for the sins of his label. Those early Stones and Beatles records were longer in their British versions. Until Sgt. Pepper, London and Capitol insisted on cutting them down, collecting unused tracks on extra albums which made them lots of money. (Actually, I wonder whether the groups themselves, in those halcyon days when music was money instead of art, really complained much.) I suppose this is unfair, although I do feel it's the responsibility of a popular artist to manipulate the social machinery--whether by hiring a good agent or ripping off CBS--to reach his audience. In a sense, this is part of the artistic endeavor, just like buying paint that doesn't fade or making a carbon of your manuscript--as far as I'm concerned, Malcolm Lowry never wrote that novel that burned up. Also, I don't regard an album as the expression of a unified creative force. Like all mass art, it represents a confluence of forces. If one doesn't pull its weight, the whole product suffers. After the Blind Faith fiasco, I might hesitate to recommend a Rolling Stones concert if it was scheduled for Madison Square Garden and its revolving stage.

On the other hand, I know very well I'd go to that concert myself. The businessmen have us so firmly by the balls that everyone feels helpless. The same applies to packaging. Everyone complains about Unipak (there are continual reports of its demise, none of which seem true) but if there's a super album in Unipak, you buy it, right? What can you do? What can you do about the new Elektra jackets, which fall apart without benefit of double-fold? Nothing, or almost nothing. And that's really the reason for charging an automatic notch for these various shady business practices. Maybe it'll get under their skins. On the other hand, because flexibility is a virtue, I may occasionally let a short album pass. If so, I'll say so, and try to say why. What do you think? Do packaging and short-changing matter to you? Or should I just forget about it?

On to CG4. As usual, 20 albums, some suggested by you good folks out there, some revealed to me in a dream. B plus or better is a pretty damned good record. My prejudices once more--should I keep doing this?--are antiwhiteblues, prosoulandAM. Here goes.

BONZO DOG BAND: Urban Spaceman (Imperial) Over a year ago these people, who then called themselves Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, released their first album, Gorilla. It was weird and annoying and I sold it. Since then they have put in a guest appearance in Magical Mystery Tour and hit small with the title song of this LP. They are still weird and annoying but I'm beginning to believe--sort of an English equivalent of the Mothers, eccentric rather than freaky, without Zappa's musical ambition or (hence) his pretensions and much superior to the other English-eccentric groups (the Deviants, the Scaffold). Not good rock, God knows. But good something. B

BREAD (Elektra) For years it has been my fond belief that a great rock band could be concocted of studio musicians. Professionals, you dig? Trained to communicate, with no hangups or pretensions. I was wrong because this is that group. It is super competent and super vapid, harmonizing tastefully on one well-executed "love song" after another. With a good beat, of course. If Crosby, etc. are the Limeliters of rock--and they are--then these guys are the Lettermen. C MINUS

THE BROTHERS AND SISTERS: Dylan's Gospel (Ode) I am no expert on gospel music, but I have noticed two basic types: small group, which is like rock and roll, and chorale, which is like Hugo Winterhalter. Despite some nice instrumentation, this is in the second category. The unimaginative selection of songs is sung with a lot of soul, natch'ly, but with no discernible conviction. C MINUS

LARRY CORYELL: Lady Coryell (Vanguard Apostolic) Larry Coryell is the greatest thing to happen to the guitar since stretched gut. The permanent evidence of this has been sparse, however--a bad record with the Free Spirits, timid ones with Gary Burton, a somewhat over-avant performance on the Jazz Composer's Orchestra set, and an inspired chorus here or there with jazz-rock leaders like Steve Marcus and Don Sebesky. This is far more satisfying but still crabbed and uneven. It includes some wonderfully funny wah-wah work alongside apparent homages to Wes Montgomery, near-parody singing alongside a couple of tracks (one composed by Coryell and featuring Elvin Jones, one composed by Junior Walker) that approach the soaring pyrotechnics Coryell can produce when he is good live. Recommended. B PLUS

FUSION (Atco) Intelligent incorporation of pure blues into a hard-rock framework, beautifully played and arranged, with a forgivable touch of pseudo-spade in the singing. Reminiscent of Steppenwolf, but more flexible (two vocalists). Worth a chance. B PLUS

HARPERS BIZARRE (Warner Bros.) If I liked soft stuff, I would rate this record very high, because (with production help from Lenny Waronker, a goodun) HB is about the best of the soft groups, good-humored and well-conceived. For your parents' anniversary. C PLUS

ISAAC HAYES: Hot Buttered Soul (Enterprise) This album is a smash, and it may be so overstated that it has its own validity--a baroque, luscious production job over the non-singing of one half of Sam & Dave's production-songwriting team. C

THE HOLLIES: Words and Music by Bob Dylan (Epic) Graham Nash left the Hollies in principled opposition to this record. I fail to understand his fuss, unless he was worried about writing royalties. A good selection of Dylan songs done in a totally unexceptionable style. Anyone who likes the group will like this record. B MINUS

J.B. HUTTO AND HIS HAWKS: Hawk Squat! (Delmark) Hutto is not an original guitarist, but he is incisive enough, and his singing is harsh and authoritative. Captures a lot of the spirit of Chicago blues, and it really moves. A MINUS

IT'S A BEAUTIFUL DAY (Columbia) This is on the charts. Get it off. D

LEE MICHAELS (A&M) Michaels, a talented singer-organist from California, has been trying for years and is beginning to develop a name on sheer persistence. His previous two albums have been somewhat over produced, but solid, even though he has never proved he can do it all by himself, which is his ambition. This one was cut, as the ads tell us, in seven hours. That may be okay for the Beatles but doesn't make it here. Drummer Bartholomew Smith-Frost stretches things out with two drum breaks and Michaels' organ is often inflated. The final track, "Heighty Ho," now released in a half-length version as a single, is marvelously catchy and ebullient, but doesn't justify the rest. C

THE MOODY BLUES: On the Threshold of a Dream (Deram) Rod McKuen out of Ray Conniff with assists by Hugo Montenegro and Bob Crewe. Ugh. D MINUS

THE NEW YORK ROCK & ROLL ENSEMBLE: Faithful Friends (Atco) In case anyone is still wondering, this is one of the most useless groups in memory. They ought to be forced to play "A Whiter Shade of Pale" at a book party on Central Park South until they choke on their own hair, and Leonard Bernstein should be forced to embalm them. D

NILSSON: Harry (RCA Victor) Nilsson is an acquired taste which I have just acquired. In integrity of conception and skill of execution, this is an A album, but I can't completely forgive the whimsy at the heart of it. B PLUS

THE PURPLE GANG: The Purple Gang Strikes (Sire) For anyone who is into good-timey jug-band rock. Like most such groups, this one is literate, charming, and a trifle coy. Unlike most such groups, it is English. B MINUS

SPOOKY TOOTH: Spooky Two (A&M) At its best ("Waitin' for the Wind," "That Was Only Yesterday") this group is not significantly poorer than Blind Faith. At its worst ("Lost in My Dream," "I've Got Enough Heartaches") it is painfully overwrought. C PLUS

STEPPENWOLF: Early Steppenwolf (Dunhill) Despite the presence of some good and previously unreleased songs, this is an indulgence. It includes the 19-minute version of "The Pusher," which must have been a mind-blower in 1966 but ain't no more. John Kay and the Sparrow (Columbia CS 9758) features essentially the same personnel and is better. My copy was scratchy, by the way. C

JOHNNIE TAYLOR: Rare Stamps (Stax) I'm not normally a big Taylor fan, but this is a semi-greatest hits record that eliminates a lot of dross. B

JOE TEX: Buying a Book (Atlantic) Tex has been surviving on his rep for too long. This contains no surprises, except that the humor and the bedroom philosophy are getting very tiresome. C MINUS

LESLIE WEST: Mountain (Windfall) With Felix Pappalardi singing and playing bass regularly this could be New York's third supergroup. (The Rascals and the Spoonful got there first.) The visual possibilities alone--with West, the enormous ex-Vagrant guitarist, set against the hyperactive Pappalardi, are fantastic. West plays good guitar and is a good roarer, and Pappalardi is not only first-rate on several instruments but has a wonderful singing voice, sweet and mellow. Unfortunately, he hadn't decided to join the group when this was recorded, and so participates only as bassist and producer. West alone can't quite carry it. More like early Cream than Blind Faith. B

Additional Consumer News

Speaking of Rolling Stones concerts, a brief tour in late autumn now seems a virtual certainty. "Honky Tonk Women" has become their third million-selling single. I am very disappointed in the choice of songs on the new octagonal LP [Through the Past Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2)]. Some are repeated for a third time ("Ruby Tuesday," "Let's Spend the Night Together") while great B sides ("We Love You," "Who's Driving My Plane?," "Child of the Moon," and "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which exists in a nine-minute version) remain uncollected. And whose fault is that?

Jim Stoller informs me that Phil Spector produced a film called something like The Big TNT Show at around the same time of The TAMI Show. Why doesn't some impresario revive that stuff?

Just in case you don't believe that I love you, you ought to know that I have just listened to one side (or part of one side) of the following albums: Christopher Scott: Switched On Bacharach (Decca), Hugo Montenegro: Moog Power (RCA Victor), Tartaglia: Good Morning, Star Shine (Capitol), Perrey & Kingsley: Spotlight on the Moog: Kaleidoscopic Vibrations (Vanguard), Dick Hyman: The Age of Electronicus (Command), the Copper Plated Integrated Circuit: Plugged In Pop (Command), and Richard Hayman: Genuine Electric Latin Love Machine (Command). All feature a Moog synthesizer or something similar. Hyman, who has had the most commercial success with the Moog, deserves it. I am selling his record and all the others tomorrow.

It is my sad duty to report that the film version of "Alice's Restaurant" is less than amusing.

Radio station WLTH in Gary, Indiana has banned "We Got More Soul" by Dyke & the Blazers because it implies that the black race has more than the white race. I wonder how anybody could suspect such a thing.

Dig this rock lyric from a recent installment of Mary Worth: "Take my hand and talk with me/ To where as happy children once we played/ Then hold me close and talk to me/ Till I forget to be afraid!/ This is a world we never made, my love!/ Yet in it we must spend our days!" Right on, sister.

In CG5: Ten Years After, Smith, Pacific Gas & Electric, and many other goodies.

Village Voice, Sept. 18, 1969

Aug. 14, 1969 Dec. 11, 1969