Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Christgau's Consumer Guide

Except maybe for January, August is the thinnest month--if you don't believe it, take a look at what the Pazz & Joppers have been reduced to on this go-round. Me, I've just spent too much of my sweet time going back through my shelves trying to distinguish the B minuses from the C pluses. Talk about your endless summer--getting wiped out has gotta be more fun than this.


BOSTON: Don't Look Back (Epic) Debut pomposities having been excised, a pure exploration of corporate rock remains. Pretty streamlined. Not only are the guitars perfectly received, but the lyrical clichés seem specially selected to make the band as credible in the arena as they are in the studio, and Brad Delp's tenor, too thin for nasty cock-rock distractions, leaves us free to contemplate unsullied form. The only thing that makes me wonder is that sometimes I catch myself enjoying it, which means some corruption is still at work here. True formalists, from Mallarme to bluegrass, leave me absolutely cold. B MINUS

THE CARS (Elektra) Ric Ocasek writes catchy, hardheaded-to-coldhearted songs eased by wryly rhapsodic touches, the playing is tight and tough, and it all sounds wonderful on the radio. But though on a cut-by-cut basis Roy Thomas Baker's production adds as much as it distracts, here's hoping the records get rawer. That accentuated detachment may feel like a Roxy Music move in the first flush of studio infatuation, but schlock it up a little and this band really could turn into an American Queen. B PLUS

MARSHALL CHAPMAN: Jaded Virgin (Epic) Chapman's voice is even sexier than her looks, she boasts the uncompromising macho ambition of the fanatic rock and roller, and her album is graced with the subtle touches that make fanatic rock and roll come alive. Yet oddly enough it lacks momentum--which I blame not only on producer Al Kooper but on a workaday band and on Chapman's own lingering role confusion. Not one cut sustains. The Bob Seger cover never rocks out, the Hank Williams tribute gets echoed to death, "I Walk the Line" is an elegant false start, and the I-was-born-to-rock-and-roll soliloquy is one of the slow songs--as are too many of the others. C PLUS

COMMODORES: Natural High (Motown) One thing you can figure about a funk band that goes number one with a sappy ballad: they ain't as funky as they used to be. C MINUS

PAUL DAVIS: Singer of Songs--Teller of Tales (Bang) Local labels surely do a worthy work in this era of conglomerate rock. If it weren't for Atlanta-based Bang, Atlanta-based Davis might never have discovered that there's a modestly profitable audience for humorless singer-songwriters all across this land of ours. D PLUS

DEAD BOYS: We Have Come for Your Children (Sire) Because they're lovable little scumbags deep down, and sincere to boot, Hilly's punk purists have dropped the heavy misogyny and recorded five cuts that laid end to end would make a listenable side. But not even the rousing "3rd Generation Nation" has the power of sexist spew like "I Need Lunch" and "Caught With the Meat in Your Mouth." Makes you wonder what 3rd generation nihilists believe deep down. B MINUS

THE DICTATORS: Bloodbrothers (Asylum) Because they're nice Jewish boys deep down, and sincere to boot, they offer good-humored satiric putdowns of kinky sex and teenage alienation, encouragement for R. Meltzer, and a patriotic anthem that might be scary if they were capable of sustaining the mood without cracking up. All of which is grounded, unfortunately, not in the great common store of stoopid-rock readymades but in the grade-C Blue Oyster Cult moves that their gradual accumulation of instrumental competence has earned them. B MINUS

PETER GABRIEL (Atlantic) One of those records that is diminished by the printed lyrics that are its reason for being. Musically, Gabriel combines with producer Robert Fripp for alert art-rock that gets down around atonality rather than jumping into the astral-noodle soup, with Roy Bittan's romantic flourishes on piano. But even though this is the kind of stuff that makes you sit up when it comes on the radio, it's basically program music, designed to support words as elitist (and programmatic) as the social commentary Gabriel used to essay in his Genesis days. Remember the immortal words of Chuck Berry: Beware of middlebrows bearing electric guitars. B MINUS [Later]

STEVE GIBBONS BAND: Down in the Bunker (Polydor) Transvestite to Mickey: "What's it really take to turn you on?" Mickey: "It takes all sorts. . . ." Well now, I've been hearing tales of Gibbons's plainspoken working-class wit for years, but that's the first time he ever zinged me good. And not the last. This postpub retrenchment is strewn with colloquial turns--the words knowing and compassionate, the instrumentation rock and roll understood as a mature language. Of course, the problem with colloquialism is that when inspiration flags even slightly it sounds ordinary, and that happens here, but on the whole this is an extraordinarily inventive step forward. A MINUS

KRAFTWERK: The Man-Machine (Capitol) Only a curmudgeon could reject a group that synthesizes the innovations of Environments and David Seville & the Chipmunks, not to mention that it's better make-out music. B PLUS [Later]

L.T.D.: Togetherness (A&M) One thing you can figure about a funk band that gets me jiggling up and down to a song called "It's Time to Be Real": They must be real funky. Another thing you can figure is that their slow ones are unlikely to bring a tear to the eye or a chuckle to the lips. B MINUS

MICHAEL MANTLER: Movies (Watt) The title is exactly right. This is the ultimate soundtrack demo, utilizing the chops and sound of Larry Coryell, Tony Williams, Steve Swallow, and Carla Bley on bracing (if rather detached) compositions that unite the conventions of jazz group writing with those of 20th-century European music. Sticks to the ribs. A MINUS [Later]

DAVID MURRAY: Live at the Lower Manhattan Ocean Club, Volume 1 (India Navigation) Rarely do I find much use for jazz that not only abandons theme but disdains melodic development, as both "Obe" (which runs 18 minutes) and (more modestly) "Nevada's Theme" do here. But Murray's saxophone and Lester Bowie's trumpet speak polymorphically enough to sustain simple interest, and to make up for the futuristic abstractions there's "Bechet's Bounce," a gently satiric, fiercely infectious Dixieland romp. A MINUS

NATIONAL LAMPOON: That's Not Funny, That's Sick! (Label 21) Wisely, this takes off on specifically aural phenomena: radio above all, but also telephone tapes, other comedy records, and confession. If it were a little looser it would qualify as a '70s update of Firesign's Dear Friends. Highlights: Bill Murray seeks alms for WBAI, Les Skanx don't come, and the 2015-Year-Old Man throws in the toga. B

THE ORIGINAL TEXAS PLAYBOYS: Live and Kickin' (Capitol) This is a lot more than nostalgia, granted. But it just doesn't kick. B

TOM PETTY AND THE HEARTBREAKERS: You're Gonna Get It! (ABC/Shelter) ". . . might sound strange/Might seem dumb," Tom warns at the outset, and unfortunately he only gets it right the second time: despite his Southern roots and '60s pop-rock proclivities, he comes on like a real made-in-L.A. jerk. Onstage, he acts like he wants to be Ted Nugent when he grows up, pulling out the cornball arena-rock moves as if they had something to do with the kind of music he makes; after all, one thing that made the Byrds and their contemporaries great was that they just got up there and played. Thank God you don't have to look at a record, or read its interviews. Tuneful, straight-ahead rock and roll dominates the disc, and "I Need to Know," which kicks off side two, is as peachy-tough as power pop gets. There are even times when Tom's drawl has the impact of a soulful moan rather than a brainless whine. But you need a lot of hooks to get away with being full of shit, and Tom doesn't come up with them. B

SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (RSO) At first I felt relatively positive about this project. I'm not a religious man, I liked the Aerosmith and Earth, Wind & Fire cuts on the radio, and I figured the Bee Gees qualified as ersatz Beatles if anyone did. Well, let's hope clones aren't like this. From the song selection, you wouldn't even know the originals were once a rock and roll band. Most of the arrangements are lifted whole without benefit of vocal presence (maybe Maurice should try hormones) or rhythmic integrity ("Can't we get a little of that disco feel in there, George?") And what reinterpretations there are are unworthy of Mike Douglas. George Burns I can forgive, even Peter Frampton--but not Diane Steinberg, Sandy Farina, Frankie Howerd. I never thought Alice Cooper would stoop to a Paul Williams imitation. I never thought Steve Martin would do a Nerd imitation. Get back, all of you. Back I say. D PLUS

U.K. SQUEEZE (A&M) Musically, the instrumental is the only boring cut on the whole first side, but the record as a whole is a case study in excitingly adequate hard rock craftsmanship spoiled by trashy literature. When a band obviously influenced by Queen, Rock Scene, muscle mags, and boarding-school porn finishes off by advising their postpunk admirers to "get smart," it sounds like they want 'em to stop reading Hustler and start reading Chic. B [Later]

JOE WALSH: But Seriously Folks (Asylum) Walsh has a gift for tuneful guitar schlock, and I suspect there are more hits lurking here. But even the likable "Second Hand Store" falls far short of the irreverent shuck-and-jive of "Life's Been Good," my nomination for Summer Song '78, and a lot more telling in its 4:35 single version than at its long-playing 8:04. C PLUS [Later]

JESSE WINCHESTER: A Touch on the Rainy Side (Bearsville) Winchester has made a couple of pretty good albums (the first and the fifth), three uneven ones (two, three, and four) and a real stinkeroo (say hello to number six). The only thing that might make the lyrics more annoying would be for the music to induce you to notice them, and the best song on the record was done a lot better eight years ago by Tony Orlando. C MINUS

Additional Consumer News

The new music that's been giving me the most pleasure over the past month was recorded 20 years ago by a modestly successful r&b group called the Five Royales, now available on their own King reissue (distributed by Record People). Not quite in the Drifters or Moonglows category, but the "jump side" is tempting me to learn the lindy hop even though my senior prom is gone forever. Plus the original "Dedicated to the One I Love." . . .

In the same series is King-Federal Rockabillys, an unusually consistent collection in a notoriously patchy genre that includes Bob & Lucille's "Eeny Meeny Miny Mo"--nice to hear a woman in the style, King also offers reissues on the Five Keys and Otis Williams and the Charms, but I much prefer The Best of the Spinners, an idea whose time was long overdue. . . .

New Wave single action from your favorite hotshots include the Clash's "White Man at Hammersmith Palais," a must, and X-Ray Spex's "The Day the World Turned Day-Glo," which doesn't quite match "Oh Bondage Up Yours." Wire's "Dot Dash" is a catchy novelty in their spare, ominous vein, and even the flip, "Options R," is as good as almost anything on Pink Flag, an album which (I'm hinting--it's a '78 fave around my house) had sold some 300 copies in NYC before they hit CBGB in July. Unlike most of my colleagues, I'm also quite taken with the Sex Pistols/Sid Vicious rendition of "My Way," which begins as a horrendously off-key mid-Atlantic ballad and builds into a cockney power-punk tour de farce. But the most irresistible of the bunch is "Rock Lobster"/"B-52 Girls," by the B-52s boys and girls, offering these pearls of surrealistic-surfer wisdom: "Here comes the sting ray/There goes the Man Ray/Here comes the dogfish/Chased by the catfish." I'm proud to be an American. . . .

Finally, one reader reminds me that "Dirt" appeared first on Funhouse, not on the Ig's TV Eye, as erroneously reported in this space last month. How could I forget? But the reader who opines that Foreigner's "Hot Blooded" was stolen from Free rather than Bad Company doesn't seem to know where Bad Company was stolen from. I don't give Foreigner credit for roots.

Village Voice, Sept. 4, 1978


July 31, 1978 Sept. 25, 1978