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Sunday, January 28, 2007

BOOK: Kill Your Idols

I'm only adding this banner because I hate to read about Mark Evanier crying.

Anyway, some guy, pretty much out of the blue, sent me a copy of the book Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics, edited by Jim DeRogatis and Carmel Carillo. (Thank you.) I ended up reading it over two or three days on the road to Charlotte aand back.

I don't think I'll be reviewing the book per se, except to say that the essays by some three dozen writers are wildly different. A few discuss how they became critics; I don't care. But some are pretty much on point.

Here's a list of the chapters.

Forward: Canon? We Don't Need No Steekin' Canon by Jim DeRogatis. The premise is lovely: "each writer addresses an allegedly 'great' album that he or she despises." He manages to dis baby boomers as being "prone to safeguarding works whose values they adopted as articles of faith in their youth, even though said youth is now several decades behind them. The writer challenges the inconsistency of the "best album: lists, notoriously generated by Rolling Stone magazine. It's a good start.

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Capitol, 1967, by Jim DeRogatis.
The writer's point: that the album is an archive of the '60, a "bloated and baroque failed concept albums that takes a generation...back to the best shindig of their lives," old-fashioned. He eviscerates most of the songs individually, with the notable exception of "A Day In the Life."
My take: I think the writer is too harsh about With a Little Help, Lucy, and especially Getting Better, but largely agree with his disdain for Within You Without You and especially She's Leaving Home, which IS "saccharine, strings-drenched melodrama." DeRogatis' point that some of these songs are lesser efforts than the songs on songs from earlier albums, especially Revolver, is arguably true.
Sidebar: Gordon asked, a while ago: Here's a tough question:
Which Beatle album, in your opinion, is stronger and has held up over the course of time: Revolver or Sgt. Pepper?
Easy question, actually: Revolver, by quite a bit. Taxman rocks more than anything on Pepper, Love You To is less annoying (and much shorter) than Within You, For No One is gorgeous, Got To Get You Into My Life IS rubber soul, and the Tomorrow Never Knows is so strong that the backing track works to make the interminable Within You more palatable on the new LOVE album. (A group called the Fab Four, a Beatles cover band, used the Tomorrow Never Knows music to great effect as backing for Jingle Bells. Really. And I like it.)

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds. Capitol, 1966 by Jeff Nordstedt.
The writer's point: Aside from the "unassailable" hits, Wouldn't It Be Nice and God Only Knows, there is an "emotional gap between the [happy] music...and the [depressing] lyrics". Overproduced, and your parents won't hate it. And that overproduction "was partially responsible for the invention of the synthesizers", which lead to the "evil development" of disco.
My take: Maybe it's not a "rock 'n' roll" album, but so what? It's one of my favorites. The disco argument is just silly; if there was no Pet Sounds, some other album would have inspired synthesizers. And not all "disco sucks".

The Beach Boys: Smile. Unreleased, 1967, by Dawn Eden.
The writer's point: It's mostly inaccessible, and will never be as good as the hype, Good Vibrations and Heroes and Villains notwithstanding.
My take: Nothing can ever match the hype. The Brian Wilson album SMiLE, released after the essay, is an intriguing piece of music, but may or may not have changed the course of music 37 years earlier.

The Who: Tommy. MCA, 1969. By Steve Knopper.
The writer's point: It suffers from "glaring conceptual weaknesses, tin-can production, and timeless inability to rock." Bland, repetitive; the filler songs are terrible. Only Pinball Wizard, I'm Free, Cousin Kevin, and Fiddle About are any good, and the latter is tainted by Pete Townsend's arrest, even though the charges were dropped. But the greatest sin is that they (especially Townsend) couldn't leave it alone but had it done again and again.
My take: The filler songs and repeated musical themes never bothered me - Townsend's working in a largely unfamiliar medium of "rock opera". Not only did I like the songs cited by Knopper, but also Christmas and Underture. But those other versions with the London Symphony Orchestra, and the movie soundtrack, are NOT improvements.

The MC5: Kick Out the Jams. Elektra, 1969. By Andy Wang
The writer's point: full of john Sinclair's nonsensical White Panther Party rubbish, and not very good.
My take: Don't own; haven't heard in too long to comment.

The Byrds: Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Columbia, 1968. By Steven Stolder.
The writer's point: It was no more the pioneer country-rock album than the Beau Brummel's Bradley's Barn. The "notion of country rock as defined by the Byrds...seems unnecessary.
My take: Doing a comparison with an album I've never heard of, let alone heard, makes it difficult to comment. On the other hand, country rock always seemed like an artifice to me.

Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band: Trout Mask Replica. Straight, 1969. By Jason Gross.
The writer's point: Gives him a throbbing headache.
My take: Never heard.

Led Zeppelin: (Untitled, IV, Runes, or Zoso), Atlantic, 1971. By Adrian Brijbassi.
The writer's point: Seems to be largely about his sex life, though he does also talk about Zeppelin musical theft on this and other albums.
My take: I like it well enough, though I've ODed on Stairway to Heaven decades ago.

Neil Young: Harvest, Reprise, 1972. By Fred Mills.
The writer's point: "The music world is overrun by simpering singer-songwriters obsessed with the D chord and first-person pronouns", thanks to its success.
My take: Well, maybe so. Actually, while I like the songs - though Alabama IS a lesser version of Southern Man from the previous album - I never fully bought it as musically coherent statement. I'll be curious to hear the next Neil album, which the late producer David Briggs tried to convince Neil should have been the logical successor to After the Goldrush.

Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street, Rolling Stones, 1972. By Keith Moerer.
The writer's point: Lots of great songs, with an "awful lot of genre filler (and worse)..." Not a fan of Sweet Black Angel.
My point: I agree.

The Eagles: Desperado, Asylum, 1973. By Bobby Reed.
The writer's point: Not the cohesive story it feigns to be. (Spends too much time telling about himself.)
My take: Though I probably own this album, somewhere, I must have got it so late in the vinyl game that I don't really know what it sounds like well enough to judge.
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Pronounced Len-nerd Skin-nerd, MCA, 1973. By Leanne Potts.
The writer's point: Southern-fried hokum.
My point: Don't have, though I've never been a particular fan of Freebird or Sweet Home Alabama.

Graham Parsons: GP/Grievous Angel, Warner Brothers, 1990. (Original releases 1973, 1974). By Chrissie Dickinson.
The writer's point: a "critically-correct cult god" who couldn't sing.
My point: Don't have. Makes me want to check it out.

The Doors: Best of the Doors, Elektra, 1985. By Lorraine Ali (with Jim DeRogatis).
The writer's point: Lyrically pretentious, musically lame.
My point: I have another greatest hits, but I have to agree that "Light My Fire" is pretty lame; the single's much more tolerable than the album cut, because it doesn't have that cheesy organ solo. But I always live for the "stronger than dirt" part of the creepy "Touch Me".

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon, Capitol/EMI, 1973. By Burl Gilyard.
The writer's point: It's "moody, ponderous, torpid and humorless."
My point: Well, maybe it is, but I like it atmospherically anyway.

Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks, Columbia, 1975. By Chris Martiniano.
The writer's point: It's a "cliched, dull, and at times, a tragically sloppy album."
My point: Given that this is one of my favorite Dylan albums, I'm not feeling this complaint.

Well, THAT was fun. But time consuming. I'll do it again for the rest of the book. Later, probably next month, when I'm stuck for a topic. I can't wait, because I used to know one of the upcoming reviewers.


Johnny B said...

Boy, THAT'S depressing. I respect DeRogatis, who used to write for Creem, but most newish critics are consumed with two things: recycling Bangs, Altman, Christgau (guilty here) and others' opinions, and showing how hip and cool they are by defying conventional wisdom and poking holes in the balloons of established "classic" albums.

Ad I don't want to sound like one of those "safeguarders" that DeRogatis mentions- I readily admit that all these albums have their flaws. But this sounds like an exercise in calling out the naked emperor just to bring attention to one's own ego, and gives me a headache.

That said, there are some good points- one writer is correct about the Beau Brummels' Bradley's Barn being just as responsible for "country-rock" as the Byrds' Sweetheart...but I'd put Mike Nesmith and yes, the Beatles (what got heard more by more people- "What Goes On" and "Act Naturally", or "The Christian Life" and "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere"?). And I've never been able to warm to Trout Mask Replica either- I much prefer the somewhat more accessible Clear Spot and Spotlight Kid.

However, some of these statements stagger in their idiocy, especially Norstedt on Pet Sounds, Reed's dismissal of a minor album (intended as a theme concept, rather than a literal, interrelated songs concept album), and, well, Martiniano is just flat out wrong.

But y'know, the old saw about opinions and what they're like always holds true, so getting worked up about this sort of thing is pointless and futile.

Two other things: sure, "She's Leaving Home" is "saccharine, strings-drenched melodrama." It's SUPPOSED to be! It was always intended to be so! To criticize it for that is to criticize a dog for barking. And c'mon, Roger, don't you like the orchestration in the middle of "Within You Without You", with its elegant George Martin string section rubbing up against the unconventional time signature and the sitar?

Oh, and Revolver is my favorite too- it's their peak as far as I'm converned.

Uthaclena said...

With absolutely NO self-reflectivity as to why, "Sgt. Pepper's" always was, and remains, in toto, one of my all-time favourites. Your review makes me think about the first time I ever remember cursing in public, in ninth grade art class, when the teacher was very earnestly explaining the valuable role of critics. I protested that another person's opinions should not outweigh one's personal response to an artwork, and he rather effetely responded that critics are "professionals." And I blurted out, " "The hell with the critics!!"

I remain of the same opinion.

Gordon said...

First, DeRogatis...he annoys me. I used to respect him, but the fact that he would embrace such acts as Smashing Pumpkins (who were everything that good music should not be, in my opinion), plus his hipper-than-thou attitude...just leaves me cold.

(By the way, I prefer Revolver as well - there's a growing school amongst Beatles fans putting the two albums against each other).

Although I haven't heard every album listed, here are my thoughts on those which I have:

Sgt. Pepper - a little bit of a mish-mosh, and slightly hit-or-miss (mostly hit), but you know what? It's a good collection of songs that must have sounded pretty radical back in the day.

Pet Sounds - anyone who does not like this album should be asked to leave the country. I first heard this in grad school, and quite frankly, it blew my mind because it sounded so beautiful

Tommy - I always preferred Sell Out to this album - Tommy seems more disjointed, and a little too pretentious, in my opinion.

Kick Out the Jams - ten minutes of the album is Sinclair stuff. The other 35 minutes is flat-out rocking.

Led Zeppelin: (Untitled, IV, Runes, or Zoso): Heard it way too many times for me to enjoy it.

Exile on Main Street Some good songs, but you can tell that there was great...pharmacological use when this was being made.

Best of the Doors - To be honest, I thought that the Doors were a good dark pop band, but never deserved the cultish adulation it does. Some good songs, but quite frankly...not my cup of tea.

(And check out Bruce McCullough's Shame Based Man for a killer track about the Doors)

The Dark Side of the Moon -
I have to admit, I in some interesting activity while listening to this album. Hearing it in two different mind's pretty good. But for moodiness, give me Joy Division any time.

Fred said...


I enjoyed your newspaper quote!

Regarding the albums, Revolver gets my nod over Sgt. Pepper as well, no contest (though my heart belongs to the Amercian version of Rubber Soul). When I was younger, I often started side two by dropping the needle on When I'm Sixty-Four, so I sympathize with you on Within You, Without You, even if I HAVE grown to appreciate it more in recent years.
She's Leaving Home was never a big favorite either, but who knows--the
Pepper tracks that were spruced up o Love sounded so fresh, maybe a
similar makeover of the whole disc will make Paul's little story song
more appealing. Could happen.

However, I need to inform you that Light My Fire is actually one of the greatest tunes of the sixties--ESPECIALLY the long version! I love me a good organ solo, and that's a keeper! I'm not denying that the Doors could be pretentiously lame--check out the Soft Parade LP, particularly
the title cut (the whole seminary school rap) as well as the song where Jim bemoans "poor Otis, dead and gone" and then offers to step up and take his place--riiiiight--but I've always enjoyed their music despite the obvious excesses (and I'm with you on the Touch Me climax!). But c'mon--mire, pyre, fire! Who ELSE would dare try to rhyme those three words? Genius! Demented, maybe, but genius!

Exile IS overrated, way overrated. Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed,
Sticky Fingers are all way better--heck, I even dig Their Satanic
Majesty's Request more! But it IS better than Goat's Head Soup and most everything that followed...

There should be no speaking ill of Tommy, EVER! I love it, I love it, I love it! I love the orchestrated version, the Broadway version, the Ken Russell movie (which Julie and I watched this past summer, long after my first viewing of it when it first came out. Afterwards she said, "So THIS is what taking drugs feels like!", even though none were consumed!), I love the half dozen live versions I have, but most especially, I love the original! True, there's not much of a coherent story there (which is WAY glaring on film), but there's so much good stuff, I feel you can just make up your own story to match the words!
And the last few verses of the last track ALWAYS bring a lump to my throat! Hey, Pete didn't do anything wrong--he was just kinda naively stupid. A recent Q mag had a quick interview with him ( and lotsa other stars) and they asked him what his biggest regret was, and he said "trying to police the internet". The man got a bad rap, and I was so annoyed at Jay Leno for mocking him night after night back when it happened, THAT was the straw that broke the camel's back and I haven't watched Jay since (I also didn't like that he was always using Gilmore Girls as an example of something that men would want no part of). Conan
NEVER made a joke at Pete's expense, and that's one reason I continue to watch! But did I make it clear that I love, love, love Tommy? I do, I really, really do.

Desperado isn't all that cohesive a concept album, true, but it IS a
very good record. I prefer early, modestly successful Eagles to the
later mega-stars--tho some of that stuff's good, too.

I've never listened to any Captain Beefheart, and the only MC5 I have is a Best Of. I wasn't all that impressed by the latter, and I'm guessing that the former really isn't for me. I dig a melody--or at least a convincing atmosphere like the Floyd serve up--which why I could never get all that excited about the Sex Pistols and their ilk. Guess I was too old for punk when it came along.

the said...

Glad the book has stirred discussion. Part of the point of the book is that Rock and Roll shouldn't be up on a shelf in a glass case. So cannonizing stuff and making it something that must be revered and not really lived is doing the music a disservice.

Also, nothing makes you appreciate a record more than defending it against someone criticizing it totally subjectively.

In that sense, I personally have inspired many people to appreciate Pet Sounds more than ever.

That essay upset a lot of people, but I still think it's a pretty loopy album.

Anyway, enjoy the debates. That's why we did it!

-Jeff Nordstedt