Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Album of the Year

The smart people who make rock share a point of reference with the smart people who write about it: they understand, by intuition or conscious analysis, the importance of concept. Execution and process are necessary, most of the time, but secondary. What makes a record sell is the same thing that makes it interesting artistically, the idea which it embodies or suggests; on a larger scale a similar analysis applies to the star performer and his "image." This is not to deny that successful rock performance usually requires the old gut-grab physicality. On the contrary, the musical gimmick that does the grabbing--the riff or bass line or rhythm or vocal catch--is a primitive kind of concept. But on another level the grab is a given, just like the pleasing formal interrelations of a good painting, and as in painting that given can be abrogated to achieve a transcendent (or perverse) (or both) conceptual effect. This process is captured succinctly by the manager who says to his client, "I think maybe for the next single we better try a ballad."

Concept-catcher Paul Williams was the first to write about one classic example of good concept, the Rolling Stones' Flowers, in which concept-masters Lou Adler and Andrew Loog Oldham combined to release an acceptable Stones album one month after Sergeant Pepper. They did it by rendering their product invisible. With its dumb cover art (as bad as the Mainstream Big Brother jacket, only bad on purpose), its cheap song selection (half repeated from previous albums), and its incongruous use of the already meaningless "flower music" idea (although it did sound at first as if nasty Mick had given up "hard rock," now didn't it?) the tendency was to half-dismiss it as another London Records exploitation. Only later did we realize how strong and unflowery the new songs were, and only now do we suspect that perhaps Flowers can be construed as a potshot at Sergeant Pepper itself, as if to say, "Come off this bullshit, boys. You're only in it for the money."

Let me insist that I really believe all of this. It's as true as two short paragraphs of critical fiat can be. In other words, I not only think that I dig concept, I think everyone does, even those who yawp loudest about musicianship, which I regard as just one more concept, highly commercial and easy to misuse. In its more compelling guises, concept does assume a certain level of audience awareness. It implies a context, a framework of known facts and images that are apparently extrinsic to the music; (someone who picks Flowers out of a Sam Goody bin next week is unlikely to appreciate its subtle timing). This means that both the record and its so-called hype contribute to the artistic effect, which thus becomes a truly communal effort, extending beyond group producer-engineer down to advertising and publicity people and even disc jockeys and, ahem, journalists. In the plastic arts, concept has become so rarefied that a work such as Walter de Maria's desert excavations can be said to make itself felt almost solely through critical/journalistic media--through the fact that the excavations actually exist (at least according to the photographs, which may be fakes) does make the commentary more interesting to read.

Since the more sophisticated kinds of concept tend to arise from heavy quasi-critical analysis, it is only fitting that the critic should play such a crucial role in disseminating them. Rock has lagged behind the so-called plastic arts in this important area. Over the past year two critics, Jann Wenner and Jon Landau, have produced albums for Atlantic, but that's a compromise at best. Fortunately, one of my favorite critics, Greil Marcus, has proven himself more resolute--instead of stooping to such mundane experiments he has caused an album to happen with one godlike act of unsullied critical will, and he has done it with a concept that epitomizes Rock '69. There is no other choice. The Masked Marauders is album of the year--or, as Julie Baumgold of New York magazine phrased it early in the game, "this year's album."

Marcus, the review editor of Rolling Stone, inspired by Blind Faith (lower case as well as upper, I suppose), a fatigue high, and record reviewer Bruce Miroff, assumed the pseudonym T. M. Christian to review a bootleg, double album on the Deity label, produced by Al Kooper in Hudson Bay, Canada, that featured Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and an unnamed drummer rumored to be Nicky Hopkins. The album opened with an 18-minute version of "Season of the Witch," moved through many oldies and various fantastic combinations (John singing "Prisoner of Love" for 12 minutes, Mick and Paul together at last for an a cappella "Masters of War," George and Bob combining for an acoustic instrumental "Kick Out the Jams"), and closed with a stirring group finale, "Oh Happy Day."

I wish I didn't feel obliged to specify that Marcus intended The Masked Marauders as a parody of rock faddism, especially supergroups and supersessions. But I'd better, because when the review appeared, almost everyone believed it. Fans, retailers, and distributors flooded Rolling Stone with inquiries; so did Allen Klein and (more cautiously) Albert Grossman. Julie Baumgold and Circus magazine and the rock critic of the Beloit Daily News--savor that phrase, "rock critic of the Beloit Daily News"--all picked up the story. Finally, Marcus decided that things had gone so far they had to go much further. The owner of a Berkeley studio, Reg Parody--that's a real name--donated his facility so that the Berkeley-based Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band plus record reviewer and sometime pianist Langdon Winter could record the two originals Marcus had named in his piece, an instrumental called "Cow Pie" and a Mick Jagger special, "I Can't Get No Nookie." The former turned out somewhat nondescript, though pleasant enough, but "Nookie" was a masterful take-off on early-middle Stones. Its basic riff was stolen from "2121 Michigan Avenue," and the Mick voice ("I said baby, can you give me a little head, yeh?") was frighteningly accurate. The tapes (including a third cut, Nashville Dylan doing "Duke of Earl") were played on FM rock stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles; KRLA, LA's great AM station, also put them on. The various hoaxsters agreed that they would like to make some 45s to give to friends, but when it was learned that the price of extending the game that far would be $500 the scheme was abandoned. Then someone suggested calling Warner Brothers, known to be hip and rich, and asking them to finance it. Instead, Warner's offered $15,000 advance for an album. That was five time what the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band itself had been advanced for their excellent album on Vanguard.

But that was only a bid, for Warner's had competition. Vault and Blue Thumb each offered to pay for the joke, and Motown, spotting its chance to break the hip white market, offered to pay for the real thing. (Also from Detroit came an urgent query from Russ Gibb, one of the Paul-is-dead promoters, who believed T.M. Christian's review proved P. was d.) In terms of concept, however, Warner's was the clear choice because of its publicity and advertising departments. Unfortunately, like those excavations in the desert, most of their creativity was expended far from the human eye, deep in the trade magazines. The standard ad was headed: "This album is significant but not boring, heavy but not indigestible, honest but not simple, ambitious but not pretentious. It has roots and branches at the very same time." The Cash Box and Record World versions contained the wonderful phrase "thanks to a little help from Reprise Records," while the Billboard ad disavowed another Masked Marauders album that was rumored in the works from "a certain large record company, one with seven letters in its name, which begins with the third letter of the alphabet and ends with the twelfth letter of the alphabet." Record World also ran the entire Deity/Reprise press release in which Deity Records prexy Solomon Penthaus was quoted: "We settled with Warner Reprise after they guaranteed us complete artistic control and agreed to reissued our Sounds of Nature series."

Eventually, a 12-inch vinyl disc also came of all of this. It offers few of the delight Marcus promised. Although it does feature the world's worst drum solo (on "Book of Love") and the world's worst guitar solo (on "Season of the Witch"), as well as an unannounced original called "More or Less Hudson's Bay Again," the voices are frequently vague--there are no discernible Lennon cuts at all--and some of the execution is sloppy. Langdon Winner sounds more like Lennie Tristano than Paul McCartney. But then, that's probably as it should be, things in music being the slipshod way they are these days. For my money, as the saying goes, the only really first-rate cut is "I Can't Get No Nookie," which is also available as a single. Since none of you buys singles, however, I can only end by recommending the album. At last report, 90,000 had been sold. And since this is pop we're dealing in, that proves the concept if anything does.

CORRECTION: I hate to move back in history--I tried the last time I ran a column and someone cut it for space--but my diary column, "In Memory of the Dave Clark Five," was not only hideously mangled by some anonymous proofreader or typesetter (not only "beninngness" to "beingness" and "county" to "country" but "does" to "doesn't") but it was also cut for space in a crucial spot six inches below the navel. That is, somebody left out Detroit, where I got laid. Too bad--would have made it more of an up piece, don't you think?

Village Voice, Jan. 8, 1970