Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Three Johns

  • Atom Drum Bop [Abstract, 1984] B+
  • Brainbox (He's a Brainbox) [Abstract EP, 1985] B+
  • The World By Storm [Abstract, 1986] A-
  • Live in Chicago [Last Time Round, 1986] B+
  • Crime Pays . . . Rock and Roll in the Demonocracy: The Singles '82-'86 [Abstract, 1986] B+
  • The Death of Everything [Caroline, 1988] B
  • Deathrocker Scrapbook [ROIR, 1988] C+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Atom Drum Bop [Abstract, 1984]
I know I have a weakness for demented three-chord rant, but so should you. Don't you wish you knew some Americans who could cop snatches of Jimmie Rodgers and the Golden Gate Singers and "Don't You Start Me Talking" and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes" without imitating any of them? These are guys who not only consider it their mission to keep rock and roll "The Devil's Music" for as long as the world goes to hell, but who also don't want the world to go to hell. They're my favorite new Brits in years. Their album was manufactured in France. B+

Brainbox (He's a Brainbox) [Abstract EP, 1985]
With its DOR beat and football-disco chorale, the title track of their sixth EP since 1983 is a deceptively catchy antiyuppie rallying cry, and all three tunes on the B--especially "Crazytown," the theme song of a hundred more forgettable bands--are worth hearing twice. This is more than can be said of the B fodder on EP number five, Death of the European, soon to be rendered altogether extraneous by the appearance of its title track on their second album. Anarchism in action? Something like that. B+

The World By Storm [Abstract, 1986]
Doomy politics, detached declamations, Leeds connection--they're the Gang of Three, obviously, and if they're not as smart, so be it. No funk crossovers for them--the drums are sure to pick up pattern and accent, but their genius is for basic (and unnostalgic) rock and roll of a purity rarely heard outside punk, if indeed that's where its located. This time the songs are there, even though the analysis isn't terribly smart either. (That ain't America, lads, it's Capital.) And, considering how much good smarts did the Go4, maybe we should be grateful it's rancor and sarcasm that make them go. A-

Live in Chicago [Last Time Round, 1986]
Indies cater to collectors, and collectors will buy any old shit. Yet this verbatim show isn't just specialist product. The impolite patter includes a clarion call for international socialism, and the cover versions are droll if a tad conceptual--T. Rex as the Eagles, "Like a Virgin." There's half a carload of new songs from a writing machine that's already filled two LPs and two EPs since 1985. And if the remakes aren't revelations, most of them are copped from album one, which is now third in line at the checkout counter. B+

Crime Pays . . . Rock and Roll in the Demonocracy: The Singles '82-'86 [Abstract, 1986]
The Johns' maiden release, 1982's "English White Boy Engineer," exports the U.K. equivalent of Timbuk 3's nuclear science major to South Africa, where he blames the bad stuff on the Afrikaners. Great. But in general this reminds us that a single is what a cult band puts out when it doesn't have enough songs for an album. Some of it is upstanding rant, like "AWOL." Some of it, wouldn't you know, is EP-tested, like "Brainbox" and (that again?) "Death of the European." And some of it is pure B-side, like the beatbox showcase "Two Minute Ape." B+

The Death of Everything [Caroline, 1988]
Descrying the "gothic" tattoo that ID's a cartoon Jon Langford on the inner sleeve, I was reminded, invidiously, of his fondness for the Sisters of Mercy. The Johns are political jokers, hence not gothic two ways. But there isn't a track here as high-powered (or funny, or politically efficient) as "This Corrosion," and from the sound Adrian Sherwood gets out of "Never and Always," I just know Langford wishes there was. As well he might. B

Deathrocker Scrapbook [ROIR, 1988]
Sloppy on principle, prolific to the point of automatism, they too have outtakes--and how. "Fun and games," maybe. "Some great fun and games," not bloody likely. C+