Excerpted from Chapter 1: Predicting the Future, from Rock and Roll Always Forgets: A Quarter Century of Music Criticism by © Chuck Eddy, published October 2011. Copyright © Duke University Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission of Duke University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Predicting the Future
If you’ve written as much as I have, for as long as I have, you’re bound to get some things right by chance alone. But rock criticism is not a particularly predictive genre, and trying to guess where music will go five or 10 or 20 years down the line is generally a fool’s game. Robert Christgau used to do pretty well now and then in his Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll essays— predicting “New Wave disco” at the end of the 1978 one and then watching M’s “Pop Muzik” and Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” battle it out for top single in the poll a year later, for instance—but just as often he seemed to be foretelling a devastating collapse of Western culture that never quite showed up, not entirely anyway. My own crystal ball work has generally proven even less successful than his. But I’ve had my moments.
Author: Chuck Eddy
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication Date: 2011-10
Length: 368 pages
Affiliate: http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=20147&viewby=author&lastname=Eddy&firstname=Chuck&middlename=&sort=newest (Duke University Press)
Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/r/reprint-rockforgets-cvr.jpgIn early 1986, in perhaps the shortest review ever to lead off the Voice music section up to that point, I reviewed Aerosmith’s Done With Mirrors—a very good album pretty much everybody else ignored, since at that point they’d been considered drugged-out toppling-off-the-stage has-beens plying an extinct musical style for years—and I talked about growing up surrounded by the band’s music in the ’70s, and about how songs like “Walk This Way” and “Lord Of The Thighs” were sort of rap music before rap music existed, and maybe an enterprising DJ should segue one of them into the (not yet famous) Beastie Boys’ “She’s On It” single sometime. Doug Simmons, a Boston boy like Steve Tyler and Joe Perry himself and the Voice’s music editor at the time, thought I was just being provocative and messing with readers’ heads, and told me so. Which maybe I was, but he was clearly short on copy to fill his pages that week, so the lines stayed in, and apparently future Beastie producer and Columbia Records exec Rick Rubin read them—or at least writers bound for greater news-magazine glory such as John Leland later reported that Rubin did. But either way, a couple weeks later, press releases were definitely issued saying Rubin’s charges Run-D.M.C. would cover “Walk This Way” on their next album. The song became a Top 5 hit and a bigger video, with Tyler and Perry symbolically busting through a wall to lend the rappers a hand. Which both set in motion a couple decades’ worth of rap-metal (yep— all my fault!) and relaunched the now-sober Aerosmith’s career; starting with their next album, Permanent Vacation in 1987, they wound up bigger-selling (albeit smaller-rocking) stars than they’d ever been in their initial ’70s heyday. They still owe me, and so do Liv Tyler and Alicia Silverstone.
And here’s a story I didn’t piece together until 20 years after the fact, over beers in Austin with critic Kevin John Bozelka in early 2009. Writing about Sonic Youth’s album Sister in the Voice in 1987, I smart-assedly called it “Afterburner to Evol’s Eliminator”—which is to say, a half-hearted Xerox of their previous album. I’m pretty sure nobody had ever compared Sonic Youth to ZZ Top before that. Over the years, as it turned out, Sister wound up being by far my favorite Sonic Youth album—just a lot of concise catchy songs that didn’t drag, I guess. But what I somehow never noticed until Bozelka mentioned it to me decades later is that, in 1988, Sonic Youth wound up ending their next LP—Daydream Nation, Bozelka’s favorite album of all time and probably the critic-consensus SY choice but one that I never fully connected with and that precipitated me never caring about another note of their subsequent music—with a song called “Eliminator Jr.” Coincidence? Your call. (For what it’s worth, Thurston Moore also put out a fanzine called Killer in the ’80s in which he called me “Fuck Eddy.” And he and Kim named their 1994-born daughter Coco not long after I’d written about my own 1989-born daughter Coco in the Voice. Not that I’m actually taking credit for the latter.)
Anyway, neither the Aerosmith nor Sonic Youth reviews show up in this book—while perhaps prescient, they just really don’t read all that good. But I am including my 1983 Top 10 album list printed with the Pazz & Jop poll, in which I was probably the first critic ever to vote for a Sonic Youth album (namely Confusion Is Sex), and unquestionably the first one whose ballot-containing-Sonic-Youth was ever actually published. Though I’d previously voted in the poll in 1981 (“That’s The Joint”!) and 1982 (um, Pere Ubu’s Song Of The Bailing Man I think—actually, I never kept copies of those ballots), I’m pretty sure Christgau had no idea who I was. But in 1983, I augmented my ballot with an 11-page manifesto complaining about the state of rock criticism, declaring that everything interesting in music was already over, and mourning my having missed the whole boat. He printed a big chunk of it (the “Over and Out” piece that follows this intro) and quoted me in the opening paragraph of his own essay (“Chuck Eddy, the West Bloomfield, Michigan freelancer”—actually I was a U.S. Army officer in West Germany by then, but I little-white-lied on my ballot to circumvent potential anti-military bigotry; technically, since I wasn’t actually reviewing records anymore like I had been in college, I wasn’t even eligible to vote). Christgau also mentioned that my ballot had inspired him to “share [his] essay with the voters”; though Pazz & Jop dated back to 1974 (or 1971—it’s complicated), he’d never done that before. But from then on, for the next 23 years until he and I were fired from the Voice, he included voter comments in the Pazz & Jop section. He also asked me to start writing for the paper; the first review I got paid for, of Bad Religion’s Into The Unknown, ran a month or so later and shows up in this book’s alternative rock section. The rest is history, or a sorry excuse for it.
And the rest of this section should be self-explanatory. But in case you’re wondering: Rap music did turn into something more than a passing fad. Rock music from Seattle did indeed get really big on MTV and elsewhere for a few years there, after Skin Yard founding member Jack Endino produced early records by bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden and the Screaming Trees, though for some dumb reason people decided to call the sound he helped invent “grunge” (a genre name I and any number of other critics had been applying to loud dirty rock for years) rather than “bigfoot-rock.” The Flaming Lips, whom I’m pretty sure I was the first writer ever to profile for a national publication, got more and more famous as they got more and more boring. Radiohead became the universally acclaimed Most Important Rock Band On The Planet for reasons that never made much sense to me. Acid house and techno irrevocably changed music around the Western world, except in the United States, yet dropped off my radar after I chronicled them in January 1989. The interweb altered how artists promoted themselves and how kids learned about new bands and so on. New Kids On The Block broke up. And if you want to get technical, as of this writing, World War III still hasn’t happened yet.
Over and Out
Chuck Eddy: X More Fun In The New World (Elektra) 22; Blasters Non Fiction (Slash/Warner Bros.) 19; Was (Not Was) Born To Laugh At Tornadoes (Geffen) 11; Richard Thompson Hand Of Kindness (Hannibal) 9; Sonic Youth Confusion Is Sex (Neutral) 8; Al Green I’ll Rise Again (Myrrh) 8; Nile Rodgers Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove (Mirage) 7; Rolling Stones Undercover (Rolling Stones) 6; Divinyls Desperate (Chrysalis) 5; ESG Come Away (99) 5.
How the fuck can you revolutionize an industry which has accepted Pere Ubu and Essential Logic and the Angry Samoans and Teenage Jesus and the Birthday Party? You can’t. Nothing scares anybody anymore, nothing surprises anybody anymore, there’s no such thing as a real mindfuck because people’s minds have already been fucked with over and over and over again. I never realized it until now, but the Sex Pistols were the worst thing that ever happened to rock’n’roll—they demanded anarchy, and they got it. Anarchy means you can do whatever you want, and that’s what everybody since the Sex Pistols has done. This has given us a surplus of interesting music, but it’s also given us a situation in which you can’t tell the artists from the poseurs. Sly Stone and the Dolls were able to make revolutionary music because, back then, there were dictated limits on what you could or couldn’t do, and they did what they “couldn’t.” Now there are no such limits—what if Sly and the Dolls had waited until 1983, and everything else (the Ramones, the Pistols, PiL, Prince, and all) between 1970 and now had happened without them? Would Greil Marcus still be able to write that “there is no vocal music in rock to match” Riot, or that “nothing short of the Sex Pistols’ singles has touched it”? I doubt it.
And yet, the rock critics of the world are going to spend their time voting on which 1983 videos were the most fun to watch. And we’re going to accept Prince, or Grandmaster Flash, or King Sunny Adé, or Flipper, or Big Country, or Bob Fucking Dylan, or (see my Top 10) X, and we’re gonna push whatever we like as the bearer of the future of rock’n’roll, as if there is such a thing. I think this is kind of what Lester Bangs meant by the “be the first one on your block” attitude; unfortunately, he died before he could offer any kind of solution or alternative, except that we should listen to old John Lee Hooker records. I wish I had a solution, and God and Lester know I need one more than the Christgaus and Marcuses of this world do—I just turned 23 a month or so ago, and I only started to listen to music “seriously” in 1979, and I haven’t seen a real rock’n’roll revolution yet, and I want a There’s A Riot Goin’ On or a New York Dolls or a Johnny Rotten so bad I could shit. But I’m not going to get one.
What I’ll probably get is World War III, and then we’ll start all over again, and if I’m lucky and if I cut down on my salt intake I might live to see Prehistoric Ring Shouts II when I’m an old old man. And ring shouts will lead to spirituals and field hollers, and the Delta Blues and Appalachian banjo music and Western Swing will happen in there somewhere, and then yet another Elvis, and maybe I’ll be able to see the next New York Dolls or Sly Stone when I’m in heaven. Great hope for the future of rock’n’roll, right? I mean, I might not even make it to heaven. Fuck you, Johnny Rotten.
– Village Voice, 28 February 1984
Rhymed Funk Hits Area
Jerry Hand isn’t modest. Sometimes in midsentence, he’ll begin tinkling the piano keys in front of him and break into a song about himself.
“I’m not Sugarman or Discotron, and this I’m sure you know…” chants the Columbia College music and business major who performs as rap disc jockey DJ Romancer. “But I’m DJ Romancer and I always steal the show/I’ve got the super action, dynamite attraction/Coming straight to you/Yes, I’m number one and I’m having fun/No, baby, not number two/ You just open up your mind, and you check me out, and I’m sure, you’ll all agree/That I’m the baddest dee-jay there ever was, and the baddest there’ll ever be.”
Hand’s ego is a valuable commodity among rap disc jockeys. But there’s more than mere self-confidence behind his boasts. The transplanted Queens, N.Y., native is the most accomplished rap singer in Columbia—he, of course, claims there’s none better west of the Mississippi.
He even fares well against the big competition in New York, the birthplace of rap and still the genre’s hotbed. Hand may not have won the “Great M.C. Showdown” in Harlem this past August, but he says he got the most applause.
That’s quite a claim, considering the contest featured such acts as Kurtis Blow, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Funky Four Plus One, and DJ Hollywood. They may not be household names in mid-Missouri music circles, but in the rap world they’re stars.
Most radio listeners are familiar with rap music, though few could define it. The rock group Blondie scored a major hit early this year with a rap song—but Hand is quick to point out that rap is much more than “Rapture.”
Walter Anderson, the KOPN disc jockey who calls himself “the Sugarman” and hosts Columbia’s only radio show featuring current soul music, explains that rap is merely rhymed couplets set to a syncopated funk rhythm. “It works almost like a cadence,” he says.
The form dates back 30 years to black New York radio DJs who boasted about their prowess against a backdrop of the day’s hits, Anderson says. At the same time, Jamaican disc jockeys developed a similar form called “toasting.” Their delivery was slow and the words didn’t always rhyme, but Hand says they set the pattern for today’s rap.
Anderson and Hand agree that it wasn’t until late 1979 that the majority of Americans—black, as well as white—even heard of rapping. In September of that year, a Harlem trio called the Sugarhill Gang released its first single, “Rapper’s Delight.”
“The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel,” which was given an almost unprecedented, five-star rating this fall in Rolling Stone, represents an apex of sorts in the rap technique known as “cut mixing,” Hand says. Cut mixing is a process in which bits and pieces of hits (“Good Times,” “Rapture,” Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”) are doctored, then spliced into one song.
Hand says “mixing” also refers to various ways rap disc jockeys alter the records they play. For example, a song might be phased out halfway through and another phased in. Or instrumental and vocal versions of the same song might be played concurrently, as the DJ alternates between two turntables. Or a single line from one record might be “injected” into another song.
When talking about his own mixes, Hand refers to qualities such as key and pitch and beats per minute. You can’t just mix anything with anything, he explains.
But that doesn’t mean a disc jockey can’t experiment with sound, even going so far as to push a needle across a record. “Sometimes a disturbance to the ear is preferable,” Hand says. “If you mix it right, you can get people dancing to just about anything.”
At a typical rap show, he says, the disc jockey stands on a platform above the crowd, while the rappers (called “emcees”) perform on a nightclub stage. When he works with his partner Bucky T., Hand is emcee. But he sometimes performs alone with a tape of his own mixes.
Some famous rappers sing their hits, but the best think up rhymes on the spot, says Hand. Impromptu rapping isn’t as difficult as it sounds, he adds. “After a while, you can rhyme just about anything.”
It can get a little monotonous after a while, Anderson admits. He says he has considered devoting an entire Saturday radio show to rap records. “But I couldn’t take three hours of thump-thump-thump,” he says.
The rap audience consists mainly of 13- to 18-year-old black “teenyboppers,” Hand says. Many older people like the music as well, but they’d hesitate to attend a concert including only rap songs.
But that doesn’t mean rap is a passing fad. “Everytime it looks like it’s going to die, somebody comes up with something new,” says Anderson.
When Hand first rapped in Columbia, way back in 1978, “Rapper’s Delight” hadn’t even hit yet, he says, and the rap sound wasn’t familiar to most Missouri ears. He remembers that dancers came up to him and said, “I don’t know what this is, but I like it.”
If Hand decides to perform in Columbia again, his audience will at least be familiar with the rap form. Though his own tastes run closer to classical music and jazz, he sees relevance in what he’s doing.
“You can tell rap is an art just by listening to it,” he says. “It’s so creative it’s a shame.”
– Missourian, 1981
Skin Yard: Skin Yard
Sometime in the not-so-distant future (after all the music in question has turned into manure, no doubt) you’re gonna switch on MTV and hear all this hype about how the not-so-distant future of hard rock lies in the Northwest. Last year, I purchased the debut album and follow-up single by the Seattle band Green River, along with this compilation called Deep Six that had Green River plus lots of fellow Seattlites (the Melvins, Malfunkshun, Skin Yard, Soundgarden, U-men), and what I found was a locale festering with an inexhaustible number of vulgar avant-garage guitar-groups. And the place had even developed an identifiable sound of sorts—an approximate description might be Sabbath/Stooges-style sludge sifted through the animalistic AOR of Aerosmith and Angel City. With significant others such as Metal Church and the Wipers and Rancid Vat calling this remote region home, what we’ve got here is the making of muck-megalopolis on the level of Michigan ’69. Not long ago, I figured Oregon and Washington housed only vegetarians and bearded women and Rajneesh-worshipers and neo-Nazi survivalist loonies, but it looks like bigfoot-rock has taken over.
Old-timers have probably already noted what’s doubly cool about this phenomenon, namely that the Pacific Northwest is kinda sorta where hard rock was forged in the first place, initially with raw late ’50s instrumental ensembles like the Wailers (of “Tall Cool One” fame), and later with mid-’60s protopunk jumbos such as the Kingsmen and the Sonics and Paul Revere & The Raiders, the last of whom wore funny suits on stage. Don’t know if it’s a reference to the old days, but on the back cover of Skin Yard’s first album (the best record I’ve heard so far from the new Northwest explosion), the singer is on stage wearing what appears to be a funny mask! Skin Yard doesn’t sound anything like Paul Revere’s combo, though— they’re a bit more arty, to say the least.
Which ain’t to say these four gents don’t flaunt their pretensions here and there. Ben McMillan (who also honks a mean skronk-jazz saxophone) is one of those unnatural ultra-proper vocalmen who phrase every single syllable just right (like maybe Peter Hammill or John Cale or Bono Vox, though I’m not sure those are the best examples). He’s got a phony aristoBrit accent, and his morose monologues are mannered enough to gag a maggot-farm: “Somewhere, a son is sitting in a room alone, and his father comes in and gives him a gun and a book of rules entitled This Is The Real World.” And Skin Yard’s fracas can get a little dirgey or a little shapeless or a little indirect sometimes, too. But mostly it jolts in a big way; I can put up with baloney about slaying dragons when the headbang is as severe and as heterogeneous as it is here. I can’t wait to hear Skin Yard’s version of “Louie Louie,” though.
– Creem Metal, 1986
Drug Crazed Teens: Flaming Lips
The Flaming Lips would probably not be the best spokesmen for our president’s War on Drugs. This trio of Okies plays the trippiest bron-y-aur stomp yet to emerge from the lava-lamp pits of post-p-rock muck: 99th-floor-thick fuzz riffs, dead-sea-scroll basslines, cans slapped like a bustle in your hedgerow, all truckin’ through static time ’n’ space amidst recited yin-yang, such as: “When I walk with you, I feel weird/When I talk with you, I feel weird… All I know/Is my mind is blown/When I’m with you.”
“It wasn’t so much that we wanted to be psychedelic,” says singer/guitarist Wayne Coyne. “We just wanted to play Led Zep–type stuff and then play echo and play weird.” Countering the massive lysergic onslaught of last year’s self-released debut Flaming Lips EP, the threesome deliberately downplays its six-oh reference points on its new Hear It Is album. Nowadays, Coyne denies the “psychedelic” tag entirely. “We’re more what you would call acid rock. It’s like biting your teeth together and going ‘Shit!’ That’s drug music. Plasticland is like clothes music.”
Coyne can’t quantify to what extent hallucinogens actually shape the Flaming Lips sound. He’s more or less a teetotaller when it comes to that stuff, he says, and though drumboy Richard English and bassboy Mike Ivins have been known to indulge, they avoid heavy dope use during band work. Coyne does admit, though, that his tastes were largely molded by his “totally-wigged-out-on-drugs” older brothers’ record collections. The Flaming Lips do a 20-minute Tommy medley live. They also cover Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown” back-to-back with Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69.”
In fact, Hear It Is seems to bear a fairly striking Sonic Youth structured-nihilist-clamor influence, especially in songs like: “She Is Death,” “Jesus Shooting Heroin,” and “Charlie Manson Blues.” But Wayne says any resemblance is merely coincidental; he discusses “Jesus Shooting Heroin” as a study in good and evil and says the Manson tune is about how “everybody could be capable of wanting to thrash somebody just to see what it was like, which seemed like a real cool thing to examine.” Besides, he says, Sonic Youth are “real wimps who can’t get away from doing things that they know people are gonna like.” He also says Henry Rollins “is getting fat,” Pussy Galore “is, like, the worst band,” and that the guy from Dr. Hook who wears the patch over his eye (who the Lips saw shooting pool in Nashville) “was drunk off his ass, and he’s stupid.”
Speaking of billiards, Coyne admits the light-socket-haired Flaming Lips aren’t the best pink-sinkers, “but we play so we can look tough, and we don’t let the balls go in the holes, and we scratch a lot, because that makes the game last longer. You get more for your quarter that way.” If you don’t yearn for mind-burnt meaning-of-life declamations from somebody with that kind of flawless logic, I’d venture you just ain’t an inquiring mind.
– Spin, December 1986
Music that Passes the Acid Test
In England, the strident squall of acid house has united a bevy of fickle fandom factions, taken charts and tabloids by storm, and become a hallucinogenic experience identified by a what-me-worry smiley face. Yet this is no cabaret, old chum. These impatient pulsations and unnerving combustions are an antisocial irritant, a negation, a soundtrack for falling through Western society’s cracks at a time when the fall’s easier than ever. At its nastiest, acid house is Staggerlee 1989, and its apparent pop potential only makes the venom more intriguing.
“Chicago/The streets are mean/This ain’t no joke/It’ll make you choke,” an enigmatic man named Mr. Lee shouts in “Pump Up Chicago,” reviving horn-section R&B as a grating computer groove space jam. He divides the urban desolation into sectors of fire, takes on London and NYC in alternate versions. You picture a six-foot ex-linebacker who claims he’s the parking-lot attendant, and you give him 10 bucks so he won’t heist your tapedeck.
Recurrent stutter-syncopation peers back at Run-D.M.C.’s “It’s like That,” Public Image’s “Poptones,” and Sly Stone’s “Thank You for Talkin’ to Me Africa,” summoning a stark, deadening stasis where evil’s always waiting to strike, to catch you off-guard just as the digital distortion detours. No quarter’s given to retro-notions of sophistication or class, even to the respectable just-say-no and don’t-drop-out niceties that castrate so much recent rap. The audience isn’t comforted; often, it gets what it doesn’t want.
“Art Of Acid,” Mr. Lee’s cut on Acid Trax Volume 2, runs a heart murmur from Art Of Noise’s ’83 crossover “Beat Box” through the salad shooter, and stomps on it. Bargain basement down to its plain white sleeve, the compilation is raw, unyielding outta-my-way music. Hula’s “Hot Hands” devours you with electronic loops, then turns swirls into peachfuzz, returning to its original motif just as your speakers start spitting. His “70th And King Drive” does more of the same, sneakier and more hesitant, with timbales for counter-rhythm. In “Box Energy,” DJ Pierre squeezes out a fingers-on chalkboard boom-chucka at some tortuous frequency that keeps climbing in pitch, setting tooth enamel on edge. I’m reminded of those new Black & Decker commercials in which you win a prize if you guess which power tool is making a particular kerrang.
In avant-garde rock, attempts at noise disruption are so old hat they no longer disrupt, but in dancing-in-the-streets genres, they’re a shock. R&B has relied on applied science, more on rhythm and less on blues, ever since soul became disco in early ’70s (if not since T-Bone Walker plugged in his six-string in the ’30s), but the barrage that emerged from Chicago in 1987 (initially with Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”) obliterated song and sense with machines: Lacking volcanic climaxes or overbearing divas, acid house was at first radically more knotted and desolate than house proper, but by now the forms have been blurred into a continuum. Brit DJs mixed in Mediterranean modulations for something they call “Balearic beat,” Prince and the Pet Shop Boys picked up the ball and ran the wrong way, art-schoolers reduced ingenuity into a self-important hoax. By the time the majors catch on, there might be nothing left.
Which is not at all true today. Phuture’s latest experiment, “We Are the Phuture”/”Slam!”/”Spank-Spank,” is background music that refuses to stay in the background, arrogant laser-zooms thickening into a dark, viscous gel as skeletal kickdrums push through wormholes that grind their conflicting gears against each other. (Think of Sun Ra’s cosmos-explorations, and William Burroughs’s assertion that you could kick off a riot with a couple tape recorders.) On the A-side, this monotonal roar vows to “own your body and soul”; on the busier B-side, gymnastic oildrum-like beats alley-oop between Phuture’s legs, around his back two times, through the hoop, into a conga line. No notes or melody, really, but if you’re expecting this to be “cold,” you might get burned.
Unless the singles are as proud as Phuture’s, which few are, it’s probably smartest to observe the evolving-idiom rule of thumb and investigate acid on anthologies. A pile of them have reached these shores (if only a few hundred at a time) through import channels. (Once again, limey ears-to-the-ground hear a new Yank sound and sell it back.)
In good acid house, slices of echo interlock like an elastic puzzle, and no matter how relentlessly the bass-drum four beat clashes with the blue-light boogie-woogie additives, they don’t dissolve into mere hissing hypnotics. The voices can flow disengaged from the rhythm, lag way behind, ascend with Sylvester-style intensity or descend through vocoders and octave multiplers, but mainly we’ve got to know these are breathing, yearning, loathing, midnight-rambling human beings, not Gobots or Transformers. It’s a tough trick, but the six acts on In The Key Of E (Desire, import), a dense dance hall of a collection comparable to Jamaica’s dreadest dub, pull it off.
Adonis’s three contributions are layered blocks of clutter that stay celestial, with ecstatic heaven-and-earth sighs rising above and eerie mullahs winding through, “hurting for the lack of love.” Fingers Inc. antagonizes green-world pastorality with an incessant bassline and a harsh but horny parson rasping Biblical quotes. Both Bam Bam and Count Bass-E conjure the surreal grits-and-grind feel of Westbound-era Funkadelic’s most indulgent throwdowns, sloppy suede singing opposing orchestral strings, disorienting stop-and-surge guitars, battalions of drum slaps, and sax work that harks back to the chitlin circuit. Bam Bam’s “Where’s Your Child” is scariest: Atop the slowest, sparest throb, gongs clank, babies scream, and this deep, electronically slowed vocal—half satyr, half Satan—groans “No one likes to be left alone/Especially when they don’t know right from wrong.” He starts laughing and cackling, but nothing’s funny.
“Where’s Your Child” could be an anthem in Detroit, where the crack a trade guns down black teens as a matter of course. But the seemingly war-torn town’s warehouses have already spawned their own, even more transistorized, acid branch; it’s called. “Detroit techno” in the disco biz, “Robocop pop” by me. Some, like Blake Baxter’s full-throttle pillow fight “When We Used to Play,” point toward Ted Riley’s melodic stable of chart-topping Nerf-funk new-jacks; such is the case with Inner City’s “Big Fun,” an upbeat-yet-disconcerting quasi-tribal shuffle with a flighty doo-wop whimper disappearing behind a curtain of steely bass and stately piano. “Big Fun” sold big in Britain and, thanks to its big-label support, could break out here.
But the inner-city blues that most make me wanna holler come from fellow Motowner Derrick May, a/k/a Rhythim is Rhythim, whose angri-fying Spanglish-percussed turntable symphony “Strings Of Life” jumbles brittle keys of ivory with hair-trigger agility and a deceptive logic that suggest the daunting note patterns of Cecil Taylor. If elegance this angular can make it in supposedly lowbrow clubland, just wait till May realizes his stated goal and starts scoring movies. You’ll see me waiting in line, nervous but smiling.
– Boston Phoenix, 20 January 1989
New Kids in the ’90s: A Decade in the Life
1990. March: Donnie Wahlberg is quoted in the New York Times as saying, “Every white person in America should read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” The FBI immediately initiates a highly controversial Wahlberg file. June: Columbia releases Step By Step, which includes a good Beatles pastiche, a good Stylistics imitation, and one good rap. September: A fifth album is released, untitled save for five pagan runes said to signify “the cute one” (Joey), “the smart one” (Donnie), “the banana-nosed one” (Danny), “the preppy one” (Jon), and “the preppy one’s brother who often catches the flu” (Jordan). Amid false rumors of black magic, shark-meat orgies, and a particularly vicious assertion that NKOTB actually stands for New Kids on the Throne of Beelzebub, NODOZ (as the album is often referred to by the press) quickly becomes the best-selling LP in the history of the record industry.
1991. January: NODOZ places 41st in Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll. Several well-meaning voters boycott because NKOTB once recorded “White Christmas.” July: Directed by Spike Lee and featuring an all-black cast except for the New Kids, the blaxploitation spoof Hard Day’s Nike opens to near-unanimous critical and popular acclaim. Though the movie receives no best picture nominations, Redd Foxx is awarded a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Donnie’s adopted grandfather.
1992. October: New Kids make what will be their final concert appearance. Donnie meets Naoko Yamano, who sings and plays guitar for the Japanese bubble-punk band Shonen Knife. December: Media Age of Afrocentrism, White Milk, and Safe Sex in the Streets begins.
1993. May: New Kids release Robert Mapplethorpe’s Lonely Art Schtup Banned, an agitprop kiddie-rap opera dedicated to the tax funding of dirty pictures. Comparisons to Bertolt Brecht abound, as do violins. “We are bigger than ‘Piss Christ,’” Joey declares. Nobody argues. August: Citing creative differences, NKOTB fires Maurice Starr and changes its name to the more adult People in Your Neighborhood. Sesame Street sues for copyright infringement, to no avail.
1994. May: Donnie weds Naoko, who seeks sixth New Kid status. June: People in Your Neighborhood records roots CD in order to regain fleeting esprit de corps; People In Your Neighborhood (The Black Album) is released instead but stalls at No. 78 on the charts. July: Donnie forms Plastic Bono Band with Naoko; releases include “Give Peas A Chance,” “Pride In The Name Of Lunch,” “Baby’s Heartbeat—It’s A Lovebeat,” and Like Two Virgins (produced by Madonna).
1995. February: Joey releases a self-indulgent solo LP of silly love songs; in the press kit, he calls Donnie a “pretentious creep.” April: Joey quits the band. May: The roots CD (now called Dorchester Calling) is released. June: Joey sues to dissolve PIYN.
1996. Greil Marcus publishes I Want You Back: Images of Situationist Struggle and Turn-of-the-Century Art Movements in Kiddie-Rap Music, likening “I’ll Be Loving You Forever” to select novels by Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Albert Goldman publishes One Bad Apple: How Donnie Wahlberg Spoiled the Whole Bunch. Dave Marsh publishes Hangin’ Tough, about the tribulations of growing up blue-collar in the Reagan years.
1996–2000. New Kids pursue solo careers: Joey gets the biggest hits; Donnie gets the best reviews. Danny buys the Red Sox and moves the team to Bangladesh. The Knights marry the Judds.
– Request, September 1990
Radiohead: The Bends
This is one of those follow-up albums (like the last Spin Doctors one and, I fear, the next Counting Crows, the Offspring, and Blur records) that I always hope will sound like ten imitations of the one or two great hits of the band’s not-so-great previous commercial-breakthrough LP, but instead just proves the band is afraid to be pigeonholed into the only style it’s very good at.
Radiohead’s breakthrough hit was “Creep,” which at first I dismissed as a wussy David Bowie cabaret ballad with corny Jesus and Mary Chain lawnmower guitar snags stuck in there. But eventually I fell in love because I’m a creep and a weirdo who wonders what the hell I’m doing here myself, plus the lawnmowers really did snag me, and the falsetto part was heaven. Radiohead singing “I want you to notice when I’m not around” was even better than creepy weirdo Michael Jackson singing “You won’t be laughing girl when I’m not around” in “Give In To Me” (my second-favorite song of 1993), and both lines felt like suicide.
The Bends is never “Creep”-like enough, but “My Iron Lung” (a late Beatles pastiche with surprise noise) and “Just” (which seems to swipe powerchords from “Smells Like Nirvana” by Weird Al Yankovic) come close. There’s more nice guitar gush (e.g. the sub-Tom-Scholz anthemic stairclimb of “Black Star”), but the rest of the album mostly reminds me of Suede trying to rock like Sparks but coming out like U2, or (more often) that hissy little pissant in Smashing Pumpkins passive-aggressively inspiring me to clobber him with my copy of The Grand Illusion by Styx. Too much nodded-out nonsense mumble, not enough concrete emotion.
– Spin, 1995
Walking Into Spiderwebs: The Ultimate Band List
Back in my word processor days, only a year ago, I assumed the whole computer thing was a pernicious divisive plot, significant mainly in how it separated folks who had modems from folks who didn’t. But now that I’m an e-mail and online junkie, I’m eating my prejudices. The Ultimate Band List at its best strikes me as a social tool, a cool new way to connect with other people. Locate the elaborate Web page dedicated to French disco chantoozy Mylene Farmer, and you get passionate stories of Internet pen pals from all over Europe convening to swap imports, attend a concert together, then catch a sad bus ride home: “The other passengers (normal tourists who don’t know nothing about Mylene) were talking about Versailles, Paris by night… and I increased the volume on my Walkman.”
Reduced to endlessly anal collector-geek cataloguing of B-side fetishes, such obsessiveness can feel neurotic. But it can also feel hilarious. A letter called, no kidding, “Camel Long May They Continue” has some nut detailing his Camel collection and how many times he’s seen said obscure ’70s prog group live, proving his loyal devotion to the ridiculous. If he were truly solipsistic, he wouldn’t be sharing his hobby with us. I get off on the surprise in fans’ voices upon learning that they’re not alone. “Wow, technology is great!” writes a Tiffany fan. But he’s still not quite satisfied: “Why doesn’t she email a little message to say ‘hello’? Maybe there are too many Tiffany stalkers out there (hint, hint… thanks a lot).”
Okay, maybe that one’s a little creepy. But stars are, by definition, objects of desire. “Feast your eyes on the glory that is Timothy B.!!! :).” (Schmit, that is; three delectable head shots.) An article entitled “why girls love Girls Against Boys” conducts a survey: “Scott has one of the most no-table necks in rock and roll… He looks like a slick Italian hood-kid and a prince.” Gina G, not unlike Atari Teenage Riot, had a Web page even before having an album to sell. The Gina G Experience lets you choose between “Samples: Forgotten what she sounds like?” and “Images: After all, she is very pretty.” Click the latter, you get the Gina G Picture Postcard Gallery: “Gina looking sultry,” “Gina looking cheesy,” “Gina showing a bit of body.” (Oooh, ahh, just a little bit, sad to say.)
The ultimate Ultimate Band List objective is to prove you’ve had actual contact with the band: “I met Local H TWICE!!!” Your handwritten note from Bananarama, even your dream where the Fall’s Mark E. Smith beats up his Tibetan drummer—anything’s fair game. Webpagers yearn to connect with their fantasy figures as real people, then impart inside info: “Ricky dresses the weirdest to me, and I’m weird so I love it… carries his arrows around in a fox pouch that hangs over his shoulder. How tits is that?” (From Black Oak Arkansas page, reprinted from Circus magazine in 1975—hey, I’m not saying the Internet invented this kind of fantalk. How tits would that be?) Almost everybody on Failure’s website brags about getting high with the band backstage: “Greg seemed very intelligent using words i had to look up when I got home.” (A shame Greg’s not in Bad Religion, whose site actually has its own dictionary: “Herein lies most of the big words found in the lyrics of every Bad Religion song.” Sounds like a parody, but it’s not: aberration, absolve, abstain, accolade…)
Slick press-releasey sites laid down by record companies are never as fun as fans’ own creations, which can be self-effacing about their amateurism (“I couldn’t figure out the lineup changes, and if I could, I probably couldn’t fit it in a decent sentence,” Martin Mathis confesses on his page on Australian hard rock gods Angel City) and shameless in their enthusiasm. Turn to the Pat Benatar Addict Support Page, and a box flashes before your screen: “WARNING: Dangerously low Benatar levels detected! Installing BenaWare for proper enjoyment. One moment.” Then you get to “name that Benatune”!
I love all the blatant editorial hyperbole. “This page is dedicated to perhaps the most prescient band ever… Well, did video kill the radio star, or what?” (which introduces the confusingly titled “Not Complete Discography of the Buggles,” full of cryptic compliments like “It’s used strange rhythm skilfully”). The Jane Child page consists of reams of e-notes, all swearing the Canadian singer was ahead of her time. “Do you find it slightly amusing that everyone has a nose ring, now?” one asks. Another: “It is so obvious that the success of Alanis Morissette, Joan Osborne, PJ Harvey, and Ruby is relevant to Jane Child’s alternative style.” Most rock critics would be scared to suggest such comparisons, or to devise, as somebody somehow found time to, a meticulously calibrated 10-point rating system dissecting every last tune poodle-metallers Britny Fox ever recorded: “Let’s face it ‘Stevie’ is a boy’s name, not a girl’s name. Even though the song could be awesome, I just can’t get over that name thing.” (Good thing he’s not reviewing Fleetwood Mac.)
Tiffany’s site has a file called “In the Trash” into which “people who really need to get a life” can submit “nasty, hostile or obscene comments.” The only comment posted so far on Nada Surf’s bulletin board snipes: “Is this the band with the idiotic cheerleaders and jocks in a video? Man, that was gay.” And now that their hit “Stuck On You” has been swallowed by the “braindead mainstream,” all the midnight tokers on Failure’s page are worried about “screeching girls” and “alternative sluts,” not to mention TV star Margaret Cho’s crush on the lead singer. If we’re lucky, it’ll explode into a full-blown culture war.
There’s a sense of involvement here, an excitement, a commitment to how people really talk. In the fleeting space of cyber, nobody cares much for punctuation or spelling. Grammatical errors and run-on phrases make UBL writing gyrate like some hyperactive new dance step. The Web being worldwide, there’s no lack of English-as-foreign-language twistedness about Boney M, say, or Einstürzende Neubauten—“Very first website in French about this sound makers out of Germany.” Anybody can be a critic here, and there’s something equally democratic in how the list itself reduces every musical act from local bar bands hyping homemade hackery to Johann Sebastian Bach to the same level, one line item each. Cypress Hill, for some reason, are filed under “W.” Maybe they picked their UBL spot the same day they ordered that classical orchestra for Homerpalooza.
– Village Voice, 25 March 1997
Talking World War III Blues
After squinting from my Park Slope rooftop as the smoke blew into Brooklyn last Tuesday, sneezing through the ashes dusting cars even that far south, staring choked-up and bleary-eyed at the atrocity exhibition on CNN for most of the afternoon and night, wondering if my family and friends back in the heartland would connect to all this more if it hadn’t happened in a city they mainly know from disaster movies, I found myself relieved again that the army no longer lists my onetime Signal Corps Captainhood on their reserve rolls. In the 24 hours following the destruction, a line about mushroom clouds from the grief-ridden song “Shattered Within” by ambient Finnish metal band Amorphis kept repeating inside my head, and the only music that made any sense when I put it on was other desolate enveloping doomsday metal like Neurosis and My Dying Bride, funereally moaned and codeine-tempoed and devoid of shape or reason—just blank nuclear-winter mood, no personality to get in the way since there was too much to think about already. And I didn’t play it loud.
Wednesday morning, the eerily paper-strewn and sparsely populated Armageddon blocks between the Prince Street subway stop and Astor Place reminded me for the first time ever of Detroit, in the wee hours after Devil’s Night maybe. In my e-mailbox: a long letter from Iranian-born former Voice intern Sanaz Mozafarian, about her hearing that Arab Americans were already being harassed in public, about cars near Wall Street with “Revenge Is the Only Answer” scrawled into the soot on their hoods, about how trying to reach the financial district’s ground zero from her midtown morning dance class after Tuesday’s explosions had reminded Sanaz of braving Seattle’s “no protest zone” in December of 1999. Spinning in the background was a newly arrived Best Of Randy Newman CD I put on just to drown out whatever, and the song that goes “They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise ’em, let’s drop the big one and pulverize ’em” gave me shivers.
Back in oddly sunny Brooklyn later that day, friends and I walked up to Methodist Hospital to offer blood donations, and on the way back stopped at a five-dollar rack, where we found a tank top with the twin towers on the front, surrounded by fireworks and the word “Celebrate!” (On Saturday, I walked by the same store, and “We Are The World” was blaring through its doors.) Wednesday night I had a beer with Blender fact checker Gabe Soria, who said he’d turned to Al Green’s I’m Still In Love With You the night before to reassure himself there was still something good and beautiful and unassailable in the world. I wished I had a taste for spiritual redemption myself.
And though once in a while as the week wore on my internal soundtrack would reach for “Rivers Of Babylon”—damn right we remember Zion—more often, especially while devouring the Times, I was hearing the Clash’s “Washington Bullets” (the only song I know featuring Afghan rebels), Breaking Circus’s “Knife In The Marathon” (the only song I know featuring Middle Eastern terrorists brandishing sharp objects), Baader Meinhof’s “Meet Me At The Airport” (“waste them without mercy”), Emily XYZ’s “Who Shot Sadat” (thanks to Osama bin Laden’s ties to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad), Brooks & Dunn’s “Only In America” (both the hardest-rocking and most blatantly flag-waving hit on any radio format this summer, now guaranteed to become a national anthem), the Butthole Surfers’ “Jet Fighter” (anti-war-against-Allah song of the year), and the Cure’s sadly inevitable “Killing An Arab” (which maybe Ted Nugent will finally cover). None of them explained a thing. But you never ask questions when God’s on your side.
– Village Voice, 18 September 2001