Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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CG-70s Book Cover

Subjects for Further Research

Kevin Ayers: With his bananas and borrowed pataphysics, Ayers has always been an oddball's oddball, and his best-regarded work has never been released here. At the proper time, whateverhesingsillreview.

David Bromberg: He's certainly overrated by his cult--what cult artist isn't?--but I think rock and rollers are too hard on him. You have to give some credit to a Jewish boy with glasses who makes his living doing Blind Willie McTell imitations and then begins a song: "When I got up this morning I had Someone Else's Blues."

Can: Next to Henry Cow, this durable (and variable) German contingent is art-rock's most genuinely avant-garde band, adapting Stockhausen and Coleman to rock rhythms and sonorities in a way that is usually interesting if rarely (in my experience) compelling. All this and their own studio in Cologne without touching the American market or gaining any reliable American distribution. The almighty Deutschmark.

Bruce Cockburn: This born-again Episcopalian (he's the type who appreciates oxymorons) is genuinely literate as well as genuinely musical. But I've been boycotting poetic types who admire the Church of England ever since escaping John Crowe Ransom as an undergraduate.

Nick Drake: I'm not inclined to revere suicides. But Drake's jazzy folk-pop is admired by a lot of people who have no use for Kenny Rankin, and I prefer to leave open the possibility that he's yet another English mystic (romantic?) I'm too set in my ways to hear.

John Fahey: Fahey is immersed in country blues, from which he derives his own unique guitar music--eerie, funny, stately, and incredibly calm. The best tranquilizing music I know, because instead of palming off a fantasy of sodden deliverance it seems to speak of real reserves of self-control inside the American psyche. That said, I'll add that tranquilizing music has never been a priority of mine. The only one of the albums on his own Takoma label I listen to is the first, The Legend of Blind Joe Death. My real favorites are Of Rivers and Religion and After the Ball--both orchestrated, both long out of print on Reprise. Avoid the Vanguard stuff, which tends to wander--and boy, can we wander.

Fatback Band: I once blindfolded-tested Fatback along with a dozen other members of the State Department's Committee on Jazz, Folk and Popular Music. Every one of us got the funk. When I returned home, however, I could never find that groove again.

Rory Gallagher: After a decade-plus on the road he's earned his blue dues card. A real rock and roller, too--he's avoided the lassitude of John Mayall, the boogie boredom of Savoy Brown, the power madness of Foghat. I often notice a good song or two when I play his records, too. Just never remember what they are.

John Hammond: It's not true that Hammond never developed his own style--his distinctive slur is very much a function of his unique vocal embouchure (he has a slight speech impediment). It offended rock critics--including me--not just because it seemed like a condescending mouldy-fig romanticization of the broken-down bluesman but because it wasn't forceful enough for rock and roll, as if he'd turned Junior Wells into John Hurt. I've never kept many of his records and suspect they still suffer from interpreter's disease--it's almost impossible to make every song new. But I wouldn't be altogether astonished if in twenty years he sounded almost as good as Junior Wells.

Donny Hathaway: "Bourgeoisification at its genteel worst," I once called the Atlantic best-of, and while I'm no longer comfortable with that judgment it suggests why most white rock critics find him so impenetrable. Hathaway was a synthesizer of limitless cultural aspiration--he could never have contented himself with the classbound pop fantasies of Ashford & Simpson, whom I much prefer, and unlike, say, Nancy Wilson, whom I really can't stand, he conveyed a sense of roots. Perhaps the idealistic credulousness of a project that incorporated pop, jazz, a little blues, lots of gospel, and the conservatory into an all-over black style is linked to the floridity that mars much of his work.

John Lee Hooker: Greil Marcus's comment on the Hook's Detroit Special says it all: "Hooker has put out scores of albums in his thirty-year career; all I've heard are good, because all I've heard feature his crawling kingsnake guitar, his pounding foot, his stoic, doomy rage." My own favorites are on ABC/Bluesday, especially 1969's Simply the Truth, which leads with "I Don't Go to Vietnam," and 1972's Never Get Out of These Blues Alive, which has Van Morrison, Luther Tucker, Mel Brown, Elvin Bishop, and "T.B. Sheets." I can also say I've never gotten into The Cream, his 1978 live double on Tomato. But I wouldn't think of arguing my case on the merits.

Keith Jarrett: Not a rock musician. Sometimes I'm not so sure he's a jazz musician either.

Waylon Jennings: "Waylon lets you know he has balls by singing as though someone is twisting them," I wrote about the self-serving "Ladies Love Outlaws" in 1972, and although I've softened some--actually enjoy him when Willie's there to cut the grease--his macho melodrama will always rub me the wrong way. Allow me this prejudice. His admirers speak fondly of 1975's introspective, Jack Clement-produced Dreamin' My Dreams, cut before his stance became a marketing procedure.

Albert King: I've always found myself unmoved by Albert's broad-beamed variation on B.B.'s blues, but I've never been convinced that this was Albert's fault. It's generally believed, though, that the man's best stuff was cut for Stax in the '60s: he spent most of the '70s trying to go pop, with predictable results. For an eloquent defense, see Robert Palmer's notes on Albert King Live (Utopia '77).

Kool & the Gang: Amelodic hitmakers, jazzbos who couldn't improvise, these primal funkers were too funking primal for me in the early '70s, their artistic heyday. Listening to their various best-ofs now, I can hear that it was arcane rhythms and silly novelty hooks that got them onto (black) radio. But the dance floor is obviously where to figure such music out, and though I like individual cuts--"Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging" especially--I doubt I'll make sense of it until some DJ takes me by surprise.

Leo Kottke: Much as I admire John Fahey, I'm no aficionado of the school of solo guitar he inspired, and though I once complained that Kottke lacked Fahey's "courage and clarity" I think what I really meant was genius--and I have no idea what that means. If a guest were to request Kottke I'd play Capitol's The Best twofer, which I enjoy under duress--the sides he doesn't sing on, that is.

The Last Poets: The original rappers' first commitment was political, not rhythmic--an old story in protest music that fails to move its theoretical constituency. But they sure had a better beat than Pete Seeger.

John Martyn: John Piccarella: "The shameless romance of his singing is balanced by his own tough-minded guitar style, which explores the wide range of tonal possibilities inherent in an acoustic instrument amplified and modified by various electronic devices." But Piccarella also mentions Martyn looking "as if he were seeing more of God than Jerry Garcia ever had," and that's the rub.

Magma: An art-rock band with its own mythology--big deal. But these guys have also made up their own language. One night when I was painting my auxiliary record shelves I put on Attahk and started laughing out loud. I'm told Attahk is one of the fast ones, though.

Joe McDonald: The proud author of "Bring Back the Sixties Man" has dated worse than John Sebastian because he has no pop sense. I liked Paris Sessions a lot in 1973 and it still sounds OK, but it's hard to, er, relate to the self-righteous feminist songs of a man who's subsequently proved much more dedicated to self-righteousness than to feminism. Still, he has a knack for the topical, and with Phil Ochs dead we may learn to appreciate him once again.

Yoko Ono: She tried to go pop eventually, but only after a long layoff, on 1980's Double Fantasy, did she get it right. Before that came scads of avant-garde fiddle-faddle. Much of this--try "Fly"--is still unlistenable, some "interesting" in the wake of Eno-style ersatz ethnicity. But on parts of her Plastic Ono Band--"Why," featuring John and Ringo, more than "AOS," featuring Ornette--she anticipated punk jazz by a decade.

Shakti: They sure sounded better than late Mahavishnu. And some believe "India"--about a woman rather than a country, I'm pleased to report--suggests a new sensuousness in John McLaughlin, which I hope is true; he's always been something of a cold fish. But I feel about L. Shankar the way I do about Ravi, which is to say: ?.

Rosalie Sorrels: Though she recalls too many I-gotta-move-babe male precedents, Sorrels projects an idiosyncratic, independent female persona--sexual and ultimately even maternal, but no more a folkie earth mother than Joanne Dru in Red River. On record, however--for Sire, Paramount, Philo--she's been too quirky for her own good. And that country quaver does wear after a while.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes: I've never found that Johnny Lyons' flat, nasal voice was up to his ambitions--his albums are good for two or three cuts apiece, if that. But because I've always admired his dedication to r&b new and old--he's fun on stage, and remarkably open for a traditionalist--I don't have the heart to dismiss his records with a quip. At least that's what I tell myself. Maybe I don't have the stomach to dissect them one by one.

Candi Staton: Maybe she really is a victim of the very songs she sings--though not that one, or "Young Hearts Run Free." But her reputation for stiffing onstage makes me think there's something radically self-effacing about her--something the richest and sexiest voice can't quite make up for.

Steeleye Span: Anglophiles (and real English people, which is not the same thing at all) admire their respectful electric interpretations of traditional British music with an untoward passion. Maybe I will too someday. But at the moment the only cut of theirs I've ever noticed is the much-despised "To Know Him Is to Love Him."

Leon Thomas: In the early '70s, the only time the former Pharoah Sanders vocalist has had a solo recording career, I thought his yodeling vocal expansions turned scatting "into an atavistic call from the unconscious." But without rejecting his yodel I came to prefer his shout--his collaboration with Oliver Nelson on "Disillusion Blues" over the one with Sanders on "The Creator Has a Master Plan." Meanwhile, my reservations about his muddle-headedness became firmer. Only Legend and The Leon Thomas Album remain on my first-run shelves, though I wouldn't advise against any of the others.

Townes Van Zandt: Texas's resident singer-songwriter (I use the term generically) has always struck me as unreasonably doleful, but when I played his live album to ascertain just how unreasonable I noticed him cracking jokes and talking blues, including a side-splitter about fraternities (not fraternity). Made me take his melancholy more seriously. Unfortunately, I also caught him singing "Pancho and Lefty" as if it had no melody (a big mistake, just ask Emmylou) and uttering the phrase "harlequin mandolins harmonize helplessly."

Cris Williamson: The most gifted of the lesbian folk-rockers (let's call a spade a spade) who gravitated toward Olivia Records in the mid-'70s, she sang and arranged The Changer and the Changed with unmistakable grace. But the organically self-righteous aura of community she and her sisters gathered around themselves was meant to protect them from me and everyone else with a penis, and it worked.

Bobby Womack: Sam Cooke gave him a heritage and God gave him a voice. He had songwriting credentials ("It's All Over Now") and big ideas (Communication, Understanding, Facts of Life). He played guitar all over There's a Riot Goin' On. And from the sweet reason of "I Can Understand It" to the reggae remake of Chris Kenner's "Something You Got" he had plenty of moments. But I've never found an album of his I wanted to listen to--including the often disappointing Greatest Hits, which features his "Sweet Caroline" but not (there's still some justice) his "Close to You."

Charles Wright: Expressing himself solo or with his Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band, Wright had a talky vocal style that made him sound even more oddball than the other funk pioneers. I took him for a singles artist around his 1970 heyday, but recently I found an LP in a discount bin, and now I suspect I was wrong.

Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the '70s, 1980


Z Distinctions Not Cost Effective