More on the Rolling Stone Record Guide

It might have been relevant in the previous post — the Eddy interview — to link to Randall Roberts’ lengthy analysis of The New Rolling Stone Record Guide (the second — or blue — edition) from a paper he presented at EMP a few years ago. I still need to fully re-read the thing myself, but my impression is that what he says about the guide is (somewhat? perhaps?) in contradiction to what Chuck says — but, as I said, I haven’t yet re-read it .

Anyway, I’ll put it out there for anyone interested (and would be curious to know what other people think of those early editions of the RS Guide). Here’s Roberts’s piece, The Rolling Stone Record Guide and the Creation of the Canon.


17 thoughts on “More on the Rolling Stone Record Guide

  1. I love that they were crazy enough to try to cover (however perfunctorily) every album that was in print back then. That would be impossible to do now. There’s probably hundreds of corporate-rock acts, disco performers and mellow singer-songwriters whose existence would have gone completely undocumented were it not for those first 2 RS guides. The 2nd one has a list of the performers from the 1st one who were subsequently dropped from the book as their entire catalog fell out of print, and that’s a fascinating read of its own. Just going through the D’s, you have Dick Dale (did he put out music in the 70s?), James Dean (?), Manu Dibango, Disco Tex, Dolenz-Jones-Boyce-Hart (Monkees spin-off?), Lamont Dozier, Nick Drake, Julie Driscoll…

    The focus on albums that were in print does shortchange 50s and 60s artists, though. So maybe The Heart of Rock & Soul was over-compensation?

  2. I found it interesting how in the Blue guide the Replacements were handily dismissed and Motorhead decried as nearly unlistenable metal before both bands would become major cult artists. Also, the way Dave Marsh rags on X and Lou Reed. Maybe Uncle Lou stiffed him for an interview?

  3. I had a conversation with someone who had an involvement with both the red and blue guides and I had noticed at the time that both the Doors and Lou Reed among others had been seriously overhauled by Marsh in the second “blue” edition and the point was made that if you were someone looking to posit that Bruce Springsteen was the most important American rocker since Elvis, you would have to denigrate the competition to do so…made sense to me.

  4. I dunno, Bob, in regards to your Springsteen-Doors theory, it seems to me that if you were looking to “denigrate the competition” you’d first of all choose another artist who was actually around to denigrate; also, you might want to choose someone whose music had at least vaguely similar characteristics and played to the same general audience, no? (The “competition” Marsh should’ve been denigrating was Bob Seger, Graham Parker, Tom Petty, and John Cougar — plus lots of “new Dylan” hacks, I suppose.) Also, Doors-hating is a rampant sport among lots of critics, no? (Not that all those jerking knees don’t bug me; I’ve never understood the hate-on for the Doors; I like them lots.)

  5. Yeah, I gotta say (re Doors and Lou both), I’ve never understood “Conspiracy Theory Explanations of Why Such-and-Such Critic Doesn’t Like Some Band That I Like.” Maybe the critic just, uh, doesn’t like the band as much as you? That would seem to be the most conceivable explanation, usually. (I like/dislike Morrison, Reed, and Springsteen about equally myself, probably. At least off the top of my head. Though it’s possible if I did the actual math I’d determine that one of them had a higher crap-to-greatness ratio than the other two.)

  6. I don’t think of it as a conspiracy but as something a bit odd. I just pulled down my “Red” edition to check and I see that both the Doors and Lou Reed entries were written by Billy Altman, so maybe it was more of a Marsh revising Altman attempt. (Too time-consuming, but it would be interesting to see if any other B.A. entries got revised in the “Blue Edition” to D.M.)

    It’s fair to say that Marsh basically disagreed with Altman’s assessments. And maybe it is just unjustified “conspiracy” paranoia. But I don’t see anything wrong with Altman’s essays that they needed to be removed from the record. But I do remember reading Marsh’s Springsteen bios years ago and coming across Marsh’s idea that BS was the first important White American Rock Star since Elvis and thinking “Boy, is he leaving out a lot of the competition…)…

    Marsh saw Springsteen as someone opening the door for a veteran like Seger to transform himself and then making it easier for fellow rockers like Cougar and Petty (Parker’s British so he doesn’t get his Stars and Stripes)to land on the radio.

    As per a Crap-to-Greatness ratio, the only problem I see is that sometimes their crap is what makes their greatness and I don’t know how you end up quantifying that? Should it get even more points for being Stellar Crap? Or should Greatness reign as the ultimate point scorer? I’d love to buy a calculator that could help with this. I’m sure I’d be surprised to learn where people would end up ranking…

  7. Thanks for clarifying, Bob. I see what you’re saying now (I’ve also glanced at both sets of reviews in both editions), and more or less agree re: Marsh revising what was already there. Marsh’s Doors and Reed reviews DO come off like a let’s-set-the-record-straight-on-these-guys sort of thing, which seems a bit suspect, especially given that he edited the thing (why the need to wrestle control of how they’re handled?). It’s also, I don’t mind saying, my least favourite type of writing by Marsh — the “Palin” thing writ way out of control. (Mind you, I also find Altman’s Doors roundup kind of weak. Still…)

  8. “‘Palin’ thing”?

    For some fun, try the dueling reviews of “Blank Generation.” In the red book “D.M.” shoots it down; if memory serves, Mr. Hell gets accused of serving up water-down Kerouac tea. For the blue book, “L.B.” enshrines that same record in fine-stroked poetry.

    I’m assuming everyone who got this far can figure out “D.M.” and “L.B.”…

    Thought: Why no consideration for the *third* Record Guide? Were we all old enough to fly without the canon by that point? A now-ex-friend of mine with the same initials as “J.D.C.” finally broke with Mr. Considine after championing him through the first two books. My now-ex-friend, you see, couldn’t abide any abrasions to his beloved Galaxie 500.

    Still wondering what Mr. Eddy thought about “Crayons”…


  9. Going back for a look I see the Grateful Dead gets wiped out as well in the blue book. Maybe not such a bad thing….

  10. I love this discussion, as well as Roberts’ analysis. Wouldn’t want to have had to crunch those numbers, but I’m glad someone did. How enlightening! For me, the red book was my bible and the blue book taught me that big-name critics weren’t always right. I got the red book when I was a teenager and felt righteously angry (but also somehow wrong) when I read a review I disagreed with. (I just pulled out my taped-up copies, and the blue book I have check marks next to entries of artists I needed to get for my growing collection, like Brian Eno, but in the red book there are tons of scrawled notes in the margins, like “doesn’t get it” beside the Bay City Rollers, which I had come to embrace after hearing Nick Lowe’s Pure Pop for Now People.) By the time the blue book came out I was in my early 20s and enjoying the book as entertainment rather than the last word on any particular artist or album. It didn’t matter whether the jazz-pop of Chase was good or bad — Dave Marsh’s one-word assessment of the group’s entire output is classic: “Flee.” And it didn’t matter whether or not Kate Bush’s voice had merit when Marsh was characterizing it so hilariously as “…the consequences of mating Patti Smith with a Hoover vacuum cleaner.” I guess J.D. Considine patented this pithy style in his Musician “short takes,” but I think Marsh pretty much invented it.

  11. Yeah, Marsh was very funny in many of the reviews of artists he can’t stand. Wishing the Osmond’s would learn to ski so they can meet up with Andy William’s ex-wife or, after mentioning that the Sgt pepper movie soundtrack sold in the millions, remarking that euthanasia has untapped possibilities. I also like the critic, not sure who it was (John Swenson?), who docked the band Triumph a notch for plotting world domination from Canada. Haha.

  12. the blue book is an interesting (and unintentional) snapshot of the musical mainstream at the turn of the 80s, when the major labels were literally throwing shit at the wall to see what stuck, if I remember correctly the sheer number of releases in those years hit an all-time high. so it’s a curio but only semi-reliable as a reference guide. it always felt hastily assembled to me, and let’s be honest glib negative reviews can be written without listening to the records. what’s actually funny is how anything vaguely Bruce-connected gets 4 stars. maybe that David Sancious album IS great? LOL.

  13. I remember obsessing over the red guide at the local library back in 1980 while at school, including copying down all the five star albums in my notebook. When the blue book came out I was at uni. With great anticipation I went out and bought it, only to return it to the store the next day for a refund. Reason: I was furious with the poor ratings The Doors got from Marsh! I then ranked the Doors as one of the top six U.S. bands of the 60s (still do) and thought Marsh was just dissing them too much. But I ended up buying it again some time later, after I had calmed down. I also got Heartof R’n’Soul, and Marsh’s Rolling Stone Book of Rock Lists.

    I would rate Marsh as one of my all time fave critics, even though I disagree with his anti art bias (esp re Doors and the Dead) and his worship of Springsteen. The singles book was great risposte to the Record(read album) Guides, while the Book of Rock Lists ends up not only being entertaining, but also a history and critique of rock. However, I was extremely disappointed with the second edition (came out in the 90s), because Marsh – for whatever reasons – didn’t rank the top albums and singles for each year as he did in the original edition.

  14. Yeah, I had been meaning to say something about that Book of Rock Lists, but Mark beat me to it. Thing is, like Marcus’s Stranded, I never cared all that much about the book itself, it was the appendix in the back — where Marsh picked the 40 best albums and singles from every year going back who knows how far (but limiting himself to albums that had placed the Billboard Top 100? Or Top 40? Or something — which helped!) that I found truly enlightening (and no doubt influential on my own eventual aesthetic), in part because the populist tendencies of Marsh’s tastes let him list mainstream stuff (hard rock and disco, for instance) that other critics tended to turn up noses at. For a long time, after my copy of the book itself was long gone, I kept those appendix pages in some folder, but I have no idea if I even have that anymore.

  15. I’m glad to read I’m not the only obsessive rock fan in the world. I used to keep track of the 5 star albums too. I also became obsessed with the Christgau guides and made sure I had the best album of every year and tried to get all the A plus ones. Even Freedy Johnston and that awful Arto Lindsay one from the 90’s. The buck stopped though when he gave an A plus to Brian Wilson’s Smile from 2004. Like wow. Now I can enjoy the Luna and Archers of Loaf I got turned on to without being too worried about collecting everything. I guess ultimately that is what a record guide is about, finding your own tastes from someone who is really knowing about popular music.

  16. The Book of Rock Lists (both editions of it) is my all-time favorite rock book (along with The Accidental Evolution of Rock and Roll), but the fact that those best singles/albums lists at the end were limited to releases that had charted (top 40 for singles, top 100 for albums) really pissed me off, and Marsh’s rationale for that made no sense whatsoever – he basically said that leaving out Never Mind The Bollocks is trivial, since everyone’s already purchased it or made a decision not to – aren’t people more likely to have made a decision about Tapestry or Dark Side Of The Moon than about, say, Have Moicy, or Germ Free Adolescents? One thing I do like about them is the early 60s album lists – they’re full of stuff that’s never made it to CD, albums from people like Gene Pitney or Del Shannon who you always think of as singles artists.

    (also, as far as Christgau favorites, you can do waaaay worse than Arto Lindsay and Brian Wilson’s Smile – my pick for most overrated by Xgau is The Go-Betweens, easy. Not horrible by any means, but dull, dull, dull).

  17. Thanks for the link, and for including my analysis in the conversation. I keep meaning to finish the piece the way it should be done, though that’s just the editor in me speaking. Those two books were so formative in a lot of music writers’ early careers that something big on them was begging to be done. When I gave this presentation in Seattle a few years ago, I was a little nervous to discover that JD Considine was going to be presenting on the same panel as me, as I rib him a little bit in the piece. And it was a little nerve-wracking to do this presentation to the people who made the rankings — though, thankfully, Marsh wasn’t there. But they were good sports about it. I think it freaked them out more than anything that there was someone in the world who took their recommendations to heart so thoroughly. (I spoke with Marsh last year and asked him whether he’d seen my piece, and he said yes, though he quite dismissively said he thought it was some sort of joke.)

    I’m currently working on a new project that addresses BPMs, pop music and history. It’ll be better done than the RS piece, as I’m using a USC statistician (rather than a calculator and rudimentary math).

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