Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Out-of-Town Critics
At the Rat: The "new wave" looks backward

In the '70s, when it has become customary to measure rock groups against hockey teams, three bands of arena caliber have come out of the Boston area: J Geils, Aerosmith, and Boston. Even by the standards of a second-hand decade, only Boston, the worst of them, can be said to have synthesized a new formula (Eagles meet Yes and say maybe). J. Geils merely modernized the hard blues of Paul Butterfield, the Animals, Canned Heat, and so forth, while Aerosmith consummated the American Led Zeppelin of Grand Funk Railroad. I intend no put-down--Ladies Invited (Atlantic) and Rocks (Columbia) are more listenable and more aesthetically suggestive than any album Eric Burdon or Grand Funk ever made. But it strikes me as appropriate that a city whose (inescapably collegiate) youth culture has nurtured so much (good) folk music--music designed to revitalize the values of the past--should produce rock acts of such candid unoriginality. The only big New York rock act of the '70s--so far--may well be hopelessly mechanical, but no one will ever call Blue Oyster Cult copycats.

This history might be expected to have deadly consequences for anything resembling a "new wave" in Boston rock 'n' roll, native crazy Jonathan Richman and the long-resident Velvet Underground notwithstanding. It's not just there's a tradition of commercial success in the city, but that this tradition goes beyond formularizing the past; it seems to demand actual respect. After all, rock 'n' roll is supposed to be, well, rebellious. But rampaging mainstreamism and something uncomfortably akin to reverence do in fact mar Live at the Rat (Rat), the two-record, 19-cut set that showcases ten of Boston's "underground" rock bands.

The most unattractive offenders are the three bands that have achieved a certain individual polish--a quality essential if the energy of music that by definition is primitive is to communicate on record. The preening macho melodrama of both Susan and Thundertrain signal hard bands ready to go heavy if some-body'll buy them the amps, with Susan's "Right Away" presaging the slow throwaway on Bad Company's sixth album and Thundertrain favoring Aerosmith's more high-speed approach, complete with complaints about AM radio (cf. the Dead Boys: "I'm sick of the FM/I don't play my stereo too "). Such music has to be very, very good in order to be any good at all, and while it is possible to imagine either of these bands denting ye olde concert circuit, one trusts that history will catch up with them before they graduate into headliners. These are the rock professionals the Sex Pistols have warned us about.

A more problematic case is long-suffering Willie Alexander, who, until MCA signed him last month, had hung on for 12 years with nothing to show except star billing in "Cellars by Starlight" and a near-fatal case of elephantiasis of the uvula. Really, Alexander does seem to believe that singing as if you just swallowed your gum puts you in the great Negrophile line of Peter Wolf, James Montgomery and Duke Driver. His literary acumen is epitomized by this refrain: "Oh Kerouac/You're on the top of my shelf/Oh Kerouac/Up there with nobody else." The verse of this song is as lugubrious as its chorus, not to mention its hero, who you'll recall as the fellow who once wrote about "feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night." This confluence seems ominous to me because similar sentiments have made for so much embarrassing rock 'n' roll over the years, and the one time I saw Alexander (in New York) embarrassment was just what his beatnik/minstrel posturing inspired. Admittedly, "Pup Tune"--which features a demented raunch lyric over non-blooze garage riffs--indicates that with firm but sympathetic direction Alexander could turn out to be a fairly likable eccentric. Given his uvular afflictions, though, I'm betting he'd be an unlistenable eccentric as well.

What Alexander shares with Susan and Thundertrain, in many respects his opposites, is a sentimental fallacy. All three attempt to convince the world that their music expresses their feelings--feelings in the Morris Albert sense of remorse, tenderness, desire; sincere feelings. Even when they're angry, as good heavy-metal kids like Susan and Thundertrain of course must be, they're sincerely angry. This is too bad, because if they weren't so self-conscious about it they might get away with the pose; rough, let-it-out anger is usually credible in rock 'n roll because it is so closely allied with pure energy. Unlike feeling, energy is something you can actually summon up, and I'm happy to report that most of the other bands on this set have the knack. But at least on this evidence, two of them--the Boize and Sass--lack the conceptual clarity and songwriting magic that can make an energetic bar band worth hearing twice, and three of the others show only a smidgen or two of just one of these gifts. Both the Infliktors and Jonathan Richman epigone Marc Thor seem to have interesting ideas (the Infliktors' "Da Da Dali" is one of those songs with a hook and nothing else, making it more interesting to hum to yourself than to play) while Third Rail has contributed the set's most memorable composition--"Bad Ass Bruce," a novelty put-down of a rock professional who steals ideas and music from innocent bar bands. That's the spirit, boize.

The musicians most of these bands seem to look up to are the relatively wholesome and accompiished English pop groups of the mid- 60', rather than new-wave paterfamilias Lou Reed or original punks like the Count Five. Unfortunately, these exemplars are beyond their technical ability--Dwight Twilley can canonize late Zombies and early Small Faces like the Weavers singing Woody Guthrie; Sass cannot. For four songs on this collection, however, my soured dreams do turn temporarily into hopes, perhaps because they're by bands willing to be more raw than cute (and therefore slick). The Real Kids recall the rockin' days of '64 and '65 and get away with it; ordinarily, the nostalgia of "it just might happen again" is almost as bad for new wave as respect itself, but on both this song and the Stonesish "Who Needs You," the Real Kids muster enough hooks and sustain enough energy to make "it" sound exciting as well as fun. And what can I say about the two-minute ravers by DMZ, "Boy From Nowhere" and "Ball Me Out"? I mean, they're good enough to be covered by the Radiators from Space.

Live compilation albums are for the collection rather than for the turntable; stage sound and arrangements can only exacerbate the impression of stylistic sloppiness created by artists following one another in rapid succession. When nobody plays Woodstock or The Concert for Bangladesh out of anything but nostalgia anymore, it's not terribly meaningful to observe that Live at the Rat is more listenable than Max's Kansas City 1976 and less listenable than Live at CBGB's, or that none of them comes close to Beserkley Chartbusters or A Bunch of Stiff Records. But it does matter that none of the Rat bands seem unique or fully formed enough to promise an interesting studio album the way Tuff Darts and, to a lesser extent, Mink DeVille and the Miamis did on the CBGB's record. On the other hand DMZ's two songs would make a great punk single, a little packet of energy for $1.40 with a picture sleeve, and the Real Kid's material a pretty good one; what's more, I admit that I find the Infliktors intriguing. And maybe Mink DeVille's promise became more apparent once the interesting album actually appeared. All of which is to remind myself that no matter how far away from fruition this music may be, it does represent a gratifying creative furor. In every city of this nation, let a hundred rock bands boom, and let every one of them make a record. You never know where the next genius is going to turn up.

The Boston Phoenix, Sept. 20, 1977