So, there’s stuff all over the place about the death of rock criticism — clearly, one of the things that has kept rock criticism alive in the 2000s is the endless discussion of its own death? — but scant little attention is ever paid to the real roots of the stuff — that is, its pre-Crawdaddy! roots. Is there such a thing?
Inquiring about rock ‘n’ roll criticism — as opposed to rock criticism — Tom Ewing at Freaky Trigger asks a good question and opens up a great conversation: How come rock’n’roll didn’t trigger the birth of rock criticism? Why was no one assigning A-minuses to Elvis is Back!, declaring Bobby Vinton “marked for death,” or writing polemics about the grain of Little Richard’s voice? Or were they and we just don’t know about it?
5 thoughts on “Wither “Rock ‘n’ Roll” Criticism?”
This is what I’m wondering. How would the Rock musicians of that era have responded to magazines that gave bad reviews to their records or shows? Could an early rock press have been influential in shaping how we view this era? Maybe some of the forgotten acts of the 50’s/early 60’s would be more known today.
A provocative thought, definitely. Would be fascinating to see what kinds of arguments might have erupted over the meaning or importance (or lack thereof) of genres like doo-wop and girl groups.
First off, let’s remember that rock criticism as we know it today is and has been an album-oriented concern, and in the early days of rock, albums were largely an afterthought. In 1955, when Billboard introduced its 100-position singles chart, its albums chart only went to 15, and ran every other week. It didn’t expand to 50 places until 1959. A “modern” rock critic in those days wouldn’t have had much grist for the mill.
That’s not to say no one wrote about the music, of course. But from what I can tell, most of the North American coverage was in trade papers like Billboard; there was some coverage of R&B, blues and such in Downbeat, but only as a sideline to the jazz fare that was the magazine’s bread and butter. There were also occasional concert reviews in some daily papers, but generally without there being any sort of staff specialist (much less someone considered a critic, Ralph Gleason being a major exception). Prior to Crawdaddy, what passed for rock and roll magazines were essentially fanzines, full of gossip and photos, not music talk. No polemics there, I’m afraid.
Things may well have been different in Britain, where New Musical Express began life as an alternative to the more trad-jazz oriented Melody Maker; I’ve never seen those back numbers, and don’t know.
As to why this was, my guess would be that it had to do with the fact that until the early ’60s, pop fandom was considered the province of hysterical, hormone-driven girls, a view that dated back to the swooning bobby-soxers of the ’40s. (Look at the way the old Warned Bros. cartoons portrayed girls melting as a pencil-thin Frank Sinatra crooned, and you’ll see that generation’s version of the screaming, crying Beatlemaniacs.) The music that was taken seriously by boys in the ’50s and early ’60s was jazz and, later, folk/blues — not coincidentally the arenas that produced nearly all of the serious popular music criticism of that era.
But JD, what intrigues me about the idea of 50s rock and roll criticism (and it’s clearly a hypothetical, given that there are so few if any solid examples to point to) isn’t what someone with the mindset of a “modern” rock critic would’ve said during that time, but what a person actually living in that time who happened to be a critic would’ve said about what was happening. It’s fascinating (to me anyway) to imagine serious critics at the time dealing with the stuff on its own terms — not as an album-oriented concern but as a genre that largely thrived on singles, one-shots, novelties. Maybe (and again, it’s entirely hypothetical) rock criticism wouldn’t have become such an “album-oriented concern” if someone with the brainpower of Pauline Kael were writing intelligent pieces on the Ventures or Bo Diddley or Nervous Norvus’s “Transfusion.” Or maybe the opposite would’ve happened: albums would’ve become the central concern much earlier.
I think Mr. Considine might be on to something there, with the idea that rock criticism rose and fell in synch with the reign of the true record album — i.e., the 33 1/3 rpm 12-inch vinyl longplayer still favored by those of us of a certain age. I’d been musing recently, in another context, that the music industry’s relentless drive to render obsolete whatever format of recording the consumer already owned (LPs replaced by cassettes replaced by CDs replaced by DVDs replaced by those-who-live-by-the-sword-etc. DOWNLOADING . . . ) has not only badly damaged the business itself, but has also destroyed the rockcritical canon.
When we started writing this stuff in the ’60s and early ’70s, there were certain landmark albums you had to know (Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, etc.), and in each case the celebrated album had a fixed LP format with a precise song list on it, so that anybody discussing that album was dealing with the same set of music. When Capitol began releasing UK versions of the Beatles’ albums here, suddenly we had not just more songs, but a whole different running order than we were used to in those classics. Then CDs added space for everybody to put out all sorts of outtakes and other extras. I thought I was reviewing the final & authoritative (CD) version of Love’s Forever Changes for the Voice in 2001, but Rhino managed to come up with a few more outtakes to pad it out in 2008. Sure, I’d get a charge out of hearing Love goof on “Wooly Bully” in the studio too, but that adds nothing to the classic Forever Changes itself, and probably only blurs the intense focus of the original.
Some classic albums have been through so many format changes and reissues by now that there may be twenty or more versions out there. Which is the actual classic? I dunno myself –but this blogger over at http://www.critaceousinsect.net sez that the 3rd track on the 1988 Malaysian cassette reissue of the Stones’ Beggars’ Banquet is just jake with him. Guess you could start there in the absence of a firmer canon.