Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover


April, 1969: kiddie music, singles and albums, middle-class soul, Biff Rose, miscellaneous, Stones and Beatles

The old complaint that mass culture is designed for eleven-year-olds is, of course, a shameful canard. The key age has traditionally been more like fourteen. This makes sense for the entertainment industry--the fourteen-year-old is almost a full consumer, and because he no longer thinks of himself as a child, it is possible to treat him, willy-nilly, as an adult--and I suppose it is deplorable, but it behooves me, as Esquire's token youth cultist, to explain why. The trouble with mass cult is not that it must appeal to high-school sophomores but that it must also appeal their parents. Better one or the other. Left to themselves, the fourteens are as worthy a target as the thirty-fours--sometimes worthier--and in the end it is less pernicious to cater (as comic books do) than to level (as does television).

Less pernicious, perhaps, but also less respectable. The people who program television are generally regarded with relative charity by those who regard such things--just fools who provide other fools with what they deserve. In contrast, those who make it their business to furnish diversion for the young( excluding professional educators, of course) have commonly been classed with white slavers and other seducers of the innocent.

Until recently, this stereotype was applied with special gusto to denizens of the Brill Building, the record barons who conspire to foist their mindless caterwaul on the unsuspecting hope of America. In actuality, the conspiracy always invovled more guesswork than calculation. The small-label operatives who made rock and roll possible were no better at manipulating teen-agers than any other representative group of parents. Even when they dealt in payola they were only insuring (or trying to insure) that a specific release would hit; its unsubsidized alternative probably wouldn't have sounded much different. And it is significant that Brian Epstein, who perpetrated the greatest hype of them all, turned out to be promoting genius. There was exploitation of a sort, of course; in the classic pattern an alliance of producer, songwriter, and businessman would parley hunches about what the little bastards wanted into hit singles, and when the hunch happened to be embodied by a performer, he could be counted on to obey orders.

But times have changed: The fourteen-year-olds are richer (they buy albums) and more demanding (they buy art). Today the performers have their hunches, which they call their style or thing and invest with an almost lugubrious intensity of belief. Such faith is necessary, for the adolescent fan will accept only what he senses the performers believe in. With a few exceptions--such as the Bosstown sound, the commercial and artistic disaster that resulted when MGM Records signed four or five groups from Boston and tried to pass them off as the avatars of an East Coast rock underground--the businessmen can work only with what they're given. But they are not without consolation, for the old pattern has reappeared, aimed at a newly discovered audience, the microboppers. The eleven-year-olds and their young admirers have become the staunchest bloc of singles-buyers, and the record industry is paying heed.

The money-music potential of subteens became apparent with the Beatles, whose androgynous sweetness, unlike the automatic sexuality of most earlier pop idols, inspired fierce devotion among the very young. Peter Noone, of Herman's Hermits, simulated this quality, and so did the Monkees, who also drew core support from grade-schoolers, and who are--or were--the most conspicuous industry-related success of the post-Beatles era. Crucial to that success was weekly television exposure. When N.B.C. dropped the show last spring, the hits (finally) stopped coming. Those of us who still listen to AM radio were appalled, then, to learn that Don Kirshner, the song-publishing tycoon who invented the Monkees, planned to do it all over again with a group called the Archies. Since the Monkees were real human beings who ended up making a lot of trouble for their creator, this group would include an additional safety feature: It would not exist.

That's right, there are no Archies, just disposable studio voices. The group members are characters from the Archie comic books who now populate an animated cartoon series--wholesome, two-dimensional teen-agers who in their up-to-date way form the rock band of the record industry's fantasy, their demeanor controlled by one group of technicians, their music by another, all parts guaranteed replaceable. With the two-to-elevens as a surefire base, Kirshner figured he could build a Monkee-sized audience for danceable tunes by Jeff Barry, who has been turning them out for almost a decade. I listened dutifully to the resulting album, and though it revealed a certain mechanical bias--the Monkees without soul--I had to agree that the songs were catchy and skillful; after repeated listenings, like you get on the radio, I was humming one or two. The only problem was that the single "Bang-Shang-a-Lang" flopped inexplicably. Oh, with a massive push from RCA Victor it sold six hundred thousand, not bad at all, but Billboard never even ranked it top ten. Early indications are that the whole scheme has somehow backfired. The second single didn't even make top forty.

This cheerful news bears out one of my most cherished suspicions--that no one in this society, right down to the six-year-olds, can be manipulated quite as baldly as the would-be manipulators and their well-meaning critics believe. People have real needs, needs that change, and idiot guidelines about perky melodies don't in themselves do justice to those needs. By some combination of alchemy and analysis, Kirshner and Barry psyched out one sub-sub-generation, and they did come up with some good music. Now they seem to have lost the touch.

But the game does go on. The current champions are Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz, who have invented something called bubble-gum music. The name comes from the 1910 Fruitgum Co., which recorded the model bubble-gum record, "Simon Says," a nonsense song based on the game. It was very popular with eight-year-olds. Teen agers who consider themselves hip are apparently upset about bubble-gum music, which is trivial and commercial and gives rock a bad name. Perhaps I can admit to enjoying a lot of it myself because my heart isn't quite so close to the action, and neither is my age.

The basic Kasenetz-Katz sound extrapolates from Herman's Hermits and the Monkees. The lead singer of the 1910 Fruitgum Co. actually approximates a whine, an intonation that excites understandable sympathy among eight-year-olds but can be expected to grate on the rest of us, and does--the group is the most unbearable in recent memory. This is not true, however, of Kasenetz-Katz's Ohio Express; I know because I have discovered others with the same secret vice. The Ohio Express has the Silly Putty malleability of the old-style "produced" groups. Its first hit, "Beg, Borrow and Steal," was loud rock in the dumbest "Louie Louie" tradition. But the lead voice on the second hit, "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy," can best be described as a parody of a simper, as far from "Louie Louie" as Shirley Temple is from Big Maybelle. It was so insipid that someone had to be kidding. In fact, someone was, and I think that's why the little kids bought it.

Children delight in foolishness. If Jefferson Airplane sounds like a poetic name to your older sister, it can still sound silly to you--and the 1910 Fruitgum Co., God knows, sounds even sillier. It is quite possible, for one properly attuned, to devise a whole aesthetic of silliness, and by the standards of such an aesthetic Kasenetz-Katz can be said to have steadily advanced their vision. They have fielded a group called the Rock & Roll Dubble Bubble Trading Co. of Philadelphia 19141 and assembled all their groups for a concert--at Carnegie Hall. Their writers seem to treasure innuendo: "1, 2, 3 Red Light" concerns that great old teen subject, Going Too Far, while "Chewy Chewy," about a gum-loving sweetie, lends itself to all kinds of oral interpretation. At least two of their bubble-gum creations--"Chewy Chewy" and "Quick Joey Small"--are camp masterpieces, nothing less.

It should go without saying that the albums that contain kiddie hits are worthless. This is a singles aesthetic, compact and artificial, nowhere near rich enough to spread over an album. In a time of FM stations that play only LP cuts, it is unfashionable to dig singles, but if anything can convince me of the continuing health of the music, it is the sudden burst of great ones, some by name album artists (Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," Jimi Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower," Canned Heat's "Going Up the Country"), others by faceless groups you could miss altogether without a car radio (Friend and Lover's "Reach Out of the Darkness," the Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men," the Equals' "Baby Come Back"). I always listen to albums by such groups in the forlorn hope that one of them will have more than one good trick ready for me, but none of them ever seems to.

The only exception has been John Fred and His Playboy Band, whose third album--John has been around down South for a while--I have been hyping for the past year. Now there is a fourth, Permanently Stated, which I also love. It is one of those rare albums that lives up to its affectations; even when he is gauche, John Fred is gauche with a kind of ebullience more sophisticated performers work years to duplicate. I don't expect anyone to actually buy the record or anything, but at least I've said my piece.

A record I do hope you'll buy is Super Hits, by the Box Tops, who epitomize everything that is best about produced groups and single records. The group's only asset is lead singer Alex Chilton, but with that one asset, producers Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham have achieved the highest kind of rock and roll, a music of such immediate appeal that I regard it as a litmus elimination for phony "rock" fans. Each new instrument, each pause, works to build tension and qualify meaning, yet final control seems to fall not to critical intelligence but to some crazy kind of rapacious commercial instinct, an instinct that might seem pretentious if it weren't so busy being delighted with itself--Phil Spector with economy, sort of. If I sound delirious, it's because I have just listened to Super Hits after two weeks of Stones and Beatles, and it still knocks me out. Don't yawp to me about art, anybody--this is what it's all for.

One reason the idea of soul has been embraced so readily by white people is that they can imagine themselves partaking of it. The same cannot be said, after all, of black power. According to experts, it really is possible for a white person to have soul. The trouble with thinking so is that the next step is to assume it comes naturally. It is because they make it look easy that Diana Ross & the Supremes, as they are now billed, are permitted to sing Rodgers & Hart at the Copacabana. It doesn't matter that their versions are vapid. Maybe it even helps support the illusion.

Diana Ross, for her part, has good reasons for singing Rodgers & Hart, as long as folks buy. She prefers the relatively big money and easy hours of the white clubs to any version of the soul-circuit grind. Despite the rhetoric, almost every soul performer covets a similar security, and in order to get it they seem perfectly willing to don whiteface and sing standards. That the chance of success is slim, especially for men, only renders the result more pathetic. A perfect example is Jackie Wilson, a soul star for more than a decade who has been making albums like his current I Get the Sweetest Feeling for almost as long. One side is first-rate natural-flow soul, the rocking shouters that are Wilson's specialty. The other side features songs like "Who Can I Turn To?" and "People." Even if Wilson showed some intelligence as an interpreter, his sweet tenor, combined with string-and-tinkle arrangements, would probably make his renditions sound treacly. As it is, they are treacly.

An instructive contrast is James Brown Sings Out of Sight, which collects the best of what Brown recorded for Smash Records. The selection is excellent, combining old hits, ancient r&b classics, and an imaginative choice of standards, including "Nature Boy," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and--incredibly--"I Love You, Porgy" ("Love," not "Loves," you notice). Strings are present in such quantity that they somehow move beyond syrup into hubris, which after all is Brown's calling. His rough, almost tuneless intensity literally reincarnates these songs, which is what singers are supposed to do, isn't it?

As instructive as this record, however, is the fact that Brown no longer trafficks in such material. He has entered an assertively black stage. His biggest recent hit was entitled "Say It Loud--I'm Black and I'm Proud." For Hank Ballard, the old finger-popper, he wrote a hit record with the refrain "How you gonna get respect if you haven't cut your process yet?" Since Brown is a millionaire, he can afford to be uppity. Anyway, far from abandoning the white race, he is actively pursuing it. As an instance, he entertained the honkies at Richard Nixon's inaugural.

I was watching Johnny Carson one night when up stepped Biff Rose, whose album, The Thorn in Mrs. Rose's Side, I had listened to with mixed amusement and confusion. Rose, who is essentially a comedian, can write some pretty fatuous lyrics, but it's hard to tell whether he takes them seriously. Anyway, he did his number and ambled over to the catbird seat, where he waved to his mother, rapped, and made mincemeat out of Johnny Cool. The nicest part was when Carson read from his album notes: "I'm bound and determined to be cliché free"--a little paradox, get it? Rose explained, and when Carson finally got it, he sat there for fifteen blessed seconds without a word or a moue: a triumph of hip aplomb for Rose. Hurray for longhairs.

While I'm dispensing kudos, a few more Better New Groups of the Month: Linn County, Mother Earth, Rhinoceros, the Pentangle. Superfailure of the Month: Revelation: Revolution '69 by the Lovin' Spoonful, which now consists of Joe Butler and some guys who might just as well march to a different drummer. Fat Superfailure of the Month: Buddy Miles. Pearl among Swine: "Country Woman," on P.F. Sloan's Measure of Pleasure. Resuscitation of the Month: "Endless Sleep," on the Blues Project's Planned Obsolescence.

I think the new Stones album is unflawed and lacking something. I think the new Beatles album is flawed and great anyway.

Esquire, Apr. 1969
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973

Columns: Nov. 1968 Consumer Guide (1)