Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau Consumer Guide:
A Guide to 1967 (1967?)

This was supposed to be a natural. So often I play a record I once knew well and hear it snap into place--suddenly, I feel that I've never really comprehended it before. Perhaps I find myself liberated from assumptions that seem absurdly limited or shortsighted in retrospect, or finally grasp the assumptions some prescient artist arrived at years ago--something that happens frequently with black music, where my understanding lags chronically because my familiarity with the culture it is part of is so secondhand. There are auteur effects, too: An artist's subsequent career can make his or her early work seem newly expressive, for better or for worse. The test of time, it's called, and while its ultimate truth value is dubious, we're all mortal creatures who have to live with it. So it seemed not only easy but appropriate to go back to 1967, the watershed year for what was once called rock culture, and find out how all those supposedly epochal Works of Art had fared over what will soon be a decade.

It wasn't as easy as I thought. I've played most of the records below only rarely if at all over the past two or three (or five or six) years, and I was displeased to discover that most of them did not snap immediately into place. A few--Forever Changes, for instance, or Moby Grape--seemed so odd that I had to learn to listen all over again; others--Sgt. Pepper is the obvious example, but I also had my problems with The Doors and Buffalo Springfield Again--were so permanently familiar that getting any kind of fresh bead on them was all but impossible. Several artists--Jimi Hendrix, an old nemesis, and the Grateful Dead, old buddies--resisted my project altogether.

But eventually I got a groove going, and found it feasible to think about these records in terms of critical standards they had originally inspired--although I only began to codify those standards, even in my own mind, two or three years later. What the test of time means for me is that I'm surer of myself. No longer can I be bullied into suspending my suspicions about Country Joe's "Porpoise Mouth" or the Airplane's "Comin' Back to Me"; no longer must I wonder whether those Hollies songs that no one but me seems to remember are really worth remembering. I'm pleased to report that the year does itself fairly proud, although the music which had the greatest cultural importance at the time doesn't necessarily hold up best aesthetically.

But after 10 days of concentrated listening, I don't agree with the resentful nostalgiacs who would insist that 1967 was a year of such golden quality in pop music that we can never expect to hear its like. To say that the music survives is not to say that it triumphs over the past or the future. Aesthetic idealists and absolutists to the contrary, all works of art tend to deteriorate, and in popular culture, which is designed to be consumed and often acts to renew and replace (and repeat) itself, this tendency is more pronounced. Since it was not hippie communalism so much as technical craft, often confused with "art" or "self-expression," that fired the pop music explosion of 1967, these records are often a little delicate. The music has dated in the sense that it speaks with unusually specific eloquence of a single point in history--it may well be true that Sgt. Pepper is more bound to a moment than in a lot of the Beatles' earlier music. The postadolescent philosophizing and premusicianly jamming of some of this music sounds silly now. But if the energy of early rock and roll is bound up in the realization of personal autonomy, this music is about beginning to discover that autonomy carries with it identifiable powers and--these sometimes take a while to come to the surface--responsibilities. Often it's quite delighted with its incipient maturity. And that doesn't sound silly at all.

THE BEACH BOYS: Wild Honey (Capitol) It feels weird to call this a great record--it's so slight. But it's perfect and full of pleasure; it does what it sets out to do almost without a bad second (except for "Let the Wind Blow," each of the 11 tunes--total time: 23:54--ends before you wish it would). And what does it set out to do? To convey the troubled innocence of the Beach Boys through a time of attractive but perilous psychedelic sturm und drang. Its method is whimsy, candor, and carefully modulated amateurishness, all of which comes through as humor. Tell me, what other pop seer was inspired enough to cover a Stevie Wonder song in 1967? A+

THE BEATLES: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol) A dozen good songs and true. Perhaps they're too precisely performed, but I'm not going to complain. A

BUFFALO SPRINGFIELD: Buffalo Springfield Again (Atco) In terms of influence and concentrated talent, this is clearly the most important white group to come out of California in the '60s, but the '70s haunt them. Jim portends Loggins, Richie portends Poco, Stevie portends Manassas, and Neil portends both genius and portentousness--ain't hindsight grand? This is a seminal record, the original studio-hopping sessionman El Lay elpee, and except for Neil's "Broken Arrow"--which portends Harvest--represents some of the best singing, playing, and songwriting any of the principals ever did. But only Neil's "Mr. Soul" entirely transcends the professional care of the production. A-

THE BYRDS: Younger Than Yesterday (Columbia) The Byrds' Greatest Hits, a profit-taking retrospective from later in the year, sounds like a triumph of produced and programmed rock and roll, while The Notorious Byrd Brothers and Sweetheart of the Rodeo, which followed it in '68, are two of the most convincing arguments for artistic freedom ever to come out of American rock. But this April '67 failure suffers from two related '67 maladies: pretentiousness and self-expression. David Crosby's "Mind Garden" is a completely unlistenable acid meander, while four (three too many) innocuous folk-rock cum countryrock tunes by Chris Hillman are a familiar-sounding example of how an uninteresting self does its number. Never before did concept-master Roger (né Jim) McGuinn efface himself so disastrously on a Byrds album--and never after, either. B-

CLEAR LIGHT (Elektra) You want godawful, these guys'll give you godawful. I mean, they can do it all--self-pitying wimp harmonies, blooze-based bombast, stupid poetry, complaints that the organ-grinder's monkey has strangled on his chain, and a keyboard player who will eventually back James Taylor. Low point: six minutes plus of Tom Paxton's "Mr. Blue," alternately declaimed over funereal drums and speeded up to your basic Doors tempo. Oh wow. D-

COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH (Vanguard) There is only one first-rate song here--"Flying High," the far-out tale of a lucky hitchhiker--and while it is possible to become permanently accustomed to the slow instrumentals and songpoems that are this band's psychedelic signature, their rhythms and melodies are as unfocused as a bad light show. All this is salvaged, theoretically, by the politics, but the cocky, petulant, yet strangely attractive vocals never quite succeed in making callow belligerence seem an unmitigated virtue. C

THE DOORS (Elektra) I admit that some of the tunes retain considerable nostalgic appeal, but there's no way I can get around it--Jim Morrison sounds like an asshole. B-

ARETHA FRANKLIN: I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You (Atlantic) Aretha's glory and her failing is that she never does anything perfectly, but here she comes as close as is good for her--a healthy mix of rocking soul, dreamy pop, and reflective testifying. Not all of the tracks sound inspired, but on a collection that includes the title cut, "Respect," "Dr. Feelgood," "Do Right Woman," and (whew) "Don't Let Me Lose That Dream," that doesn't really matter much, does it? A

ARLO GUTHRIE: Alice's Restaurant (Reprise) The only sin of the title tale is kindness, but even in that, Arlo presents a fetching argument for hippie unsentimentality--for he's also funny, sly, intensely moral, and quite unmoralistic. The six tunes on the other side aren't bad as tunes, but they were recorded before Arlo learned how to sing. One-sided masterpiece. B-

THE HOLLIES: Evolution (Epic) Sweets for the sweet--they knew what they were doing when they closed with a ditty called "Ye Olde Toffee Shop." This is quintessential pop fluff; its ebulliently gimmicky production style complements its precise, effervescent harmonies perfectly. Graham Nash has never made more sense--the only mystery about this record is why it was good for only one hit single. A-

JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: Surrealistic Pillow (RCA Victor) I dismissed this as "amplified Peter, Paul & Mary" in the first piece of rock criticism I ever wrote; later, under the influence of "Somebody to Love," a few powerful Jorma Kaukonen riffs, my ex-folkie girlfriend, and the prevalent cultural vibes, I recanted--in print, yet. Now I think I was closer the first time. There's good stuff here, but Spencer Dryden plays the drums as if trying out for the Riders of the Purple Sage, the sarcasm is as vapid as the optimism, and the folk-pretty melodies simply do not carry lyrics like "When I see a girl like that/It brightens up my day." B+

LOVE: Forever Changes (Elektra) "Art-rock," sneers my wife, who's never heard it before. "Movie music," Greil Marcus recalls fondly. "I just played it this week," R. Meltzer tells me--and then places its release in early 1968 because it came out the day before a well-remembered abortion. All wrong. It came out November 1967, and neither art-rock nor movie music, no matter how fondly recalled, will permit a song that begins with an elegantly enunciated "Oh, the snot has caked against my pants/It has turned into crystal." Arthur Lee was always too oblique for his own good. Here he counterposes a background-music feel and a delightful panoply of studio effects against his own winning skepticism and the incipient Jaggerishness of his pseudo-Johnny Mathis vocals. Perhaps because it retains so much humor, his battle cry--"We're all normal and we want our freedom"--hasn't dated, the melodies really hang in there, and only Steely Dan has ever attempted a record so simultaneously MOR and anti-MOR. A-

MOBY GRAPE (Columbia) The country-rock harbingers, especially on side two, are depressing at first, but you realize soon enough that this stands as a classic pop rock and roll record, recalling a time when "pop" was a concept conducive to the kind of raving intensity three guitars and five voices tuned all the way up are (or were) good for. A-

THE MOTHERS OF INVENTION: Absolutely Free (Verve) This well-paced, well-pastiched "oratorio" might be of compelling interest to the sort of avant-garde composer whose work incorporates pop usages; after all, here we have genuine pop musicians doing the obverse. But as rock and roll it's a moderately amusing novelty record, much too obvious in its satire, with harmonies and time changes that presage Yes and Jethro Tull rather than ELP and the Moody Blues. Best cut: "Call Any Vegetable." B-

OTIS REDDING & CARLA THOMAS: King & Queen (Stax) I used to think Live in Europe, also a 1967 release, was Otis's finest; now I think it's among his worst, and for the same reason--too many concessions to an English audience that wanted fast rock and roll songs. My own personal favorite--probably among my five most-played LPs--is The Immortal Otis Redding, which showcases the unduplicated warmth, tenderness, and humor of his ballad singing. By contrast, this one--cut basically as a novelty, with the two singers in the studio, according to the story, on separate days--is pretty ephemeral. Vintage Otis, that's all; Carla Thomas was never anything special, but with Redding counterposing his rhythms, she sounds like she could scat with Satch himself (well, almost). Enormously vivacious, catchier and funnier that most soul music, and I know several people who would kill me if I didn't include it. A-

THE ROLLING STONES: Their Satanic Majesties Request (London) Back in '67 men were men and rock groups were rock groups: the Beatles "long-awaited" Sgt. Pepper appeared only nine months after Revolver and was followed by Christmas's Magical Mystery Tour, and the Stones released three albums. I don't propose to determine whether Between the Buttons and Flowers are A's or A pluses, but this one's a challenge--probably the most controversial LP they ever made, it features two communal jams of a most un-Stoneslike looseness, a (mock-?) psychedelic jacket, and a very subdued Mick Jagger. Really, Mick doesn't sing here, not expressively, he simply projects lead vocals through a filter which is one metaphorical equivalent for the sense of distance that is the album's obsession. A lot of people consider Satanic Majesties a, how you say it, bummer, but I'm fond of it; without a doubt it contains several great songs ("Citadel," "2000 Man," "2000 Light Years from Home," and Bill Wyman's "In Another Land"). I must admit, however, that the jams are for aficionados only. B+

HOWARD TATE (Verve) Collect a series of singles (including several not on the original 1967 configuration, Get It While You Can, which I can't locate) that never quite broke pop and you have a concept album in reverse. It nevertheless (or therefore) qualifies as the underground soul LP, offering quality songwriting, welcome dollops of humor, and a solid, danceable groove. Tate shouts and keens in a slightly sweeter version of the hoarse gospel style bequeathed by Julius Cheeks to James Brown and Wilson Pickett, and producer Jerry Ragavoy avoids his characteristic melodrama while grafting on instrumental voicings from B.B. King as well as Stax-Volt, an obvious otherwise unexploited combination. A-

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO (Verve) This was hard to suss out at the time, which is probably why people are still learning from it. It sounds intermittently crude, thin, and pretentious at first, but it never stops getting better; even "Venus in Furs," Lou Reed's first recorded sadie-maisie exploitation, is held in place by the narcotic drone that identifies and unifies the LP musically. Nico's contained chantoozy sexuality works against the dispassionate abandon of Reed's chant singing for a vocal variety the band will never duplicate, although their ever-increasing mastery of electric noise and throwaway wordplay will more than make up for it. How about that--they're gonna be famous more than 15 minutes. A

STEVIE WONDER: I Was Made to Love Her (Tamla) By favoring the ecstatic rocker over Stevie's rather immature teen balladeer, this LP became a sure shot. The usual Motown filler gets in the way, and "Send Me Some Lovin'" is quite lame, but I'll take it in trade for "I Pity the Fool" and "Please, Please, Please." A-

Additional Consumer News

I figured it would be hard for those whose memories or curiosities were piqued by this retrospective to go out and buy the records, but that doesn't turn out to be a big problem. With two exceptions, every artist who has survived (professionally if not artistically) has his or her '67 entry in Schwann: the Beach Boys (now on a Brother/Reprise twofer with the more dubious 20/20), Aretha Franklin (although I am pained and outraged to report that Atlantic has cut out her other '67 album, Aretha Arrives), Arlo Guthrie, Jefferson Airplane a/k/a Starship, the Mothers, and the Stones. More remarkably, most of the brokenup groups are also still in Schwann: not only the Beatles, but Buffalo Springfield, Country Joe & the Fish, the Doors, the Byrds and Moby Grape (both remarketed at $4.98 list by Columbia), and--here's some real news--the Velvet Underground (whose first LP, reviewed above, is a good seller at Happy Tunes) and Love (much harder to find, but Elektra reports that 1200 discs and an additional 8000 jackets are still waiting in its West Coast warehouse). That leaves the unlamented Clear Light, the Hollies' Evolution, and (here's a curious statistic) three of the four black artists reviewed: Otis Redding (Stax is out of business, although two of his finest Atco LPs--Immortal and Best of--are still in Schwann), Howard Tate (last reported driving a cab in Philadelphia), and--disgracefully--Stevie Wonder (Motown protects its own). Retailers like Colony (which doesn't discount), Sam Goody and King Karol uptown and Happy Tunes in the Village all say they stock most of those records above listed in Schwann and will order what they don't have. The oldies stores (House of Oldies at 147 Bleecker, which ain't cheap, was most encouraging) are good bets if you're persistent for the Hollies, Stevie Wonder, and Otis & Carla. Stevie and Otis can also be found occasionally in discount cut-out bins. Finally, some morbid historian may be interested to learn that Rare Impressions at 123 Greenwich Avenue currently has an unopened copy of Clear Light for $4.

Creem, Mar. 1977