And in the End

The Beatles: For 15 Minutes, Tremendous

Nice–Nik Cohn reviews Abbey Road in The New York Times, Oct. 1969. After praising the medley on side two (“there are maybe 15 tunes in as many minutes — all of them instantly hummable, all of them potential hits”), Cohn laces into the rest of the disc: “…the words are limp-wristed [er, ouch–Ed.], pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art.” Elsewhere: “The badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment. The blues, for instance, is horribly out of tune, and Ringo’s ditty is purest Mickey Mouse.”

cf. (if you can find it–I had no luck online) Richard Goldstein’s takedown of Sgt. Pepper, also published in the NYT just two years earlier. From what I recall, Goldstein’s response to SPLHCB was much more hedged, but then, Goldstein himself was a much more hedged critic than Cohn (who wasn’t?). Goldstein’s piece sparked a wave of controversy (apparently), but this is the first I’ve even heard of Cohn’s review. What a difference two years makes?

6 thoughts on “And in the End

  1. Google Mike Jahn’s review of the White Album in the Times. One of the great masterpieces of cluelessness in all of history.

  2. Thanks for the tip–I did find this at Rock’s Backpages, but not sure if it’s the entire review or just an excerpt:

    There is one real howler here, for sure:

    “Where the best American groups – Jefferson Airplane and Blood, Sweat and Tears [!] are two of them – produce substantial music that can be lived with, the Beatles tend to produce spectacular but thin music that is best saved for special occasions.”

    (Exclamation mark mine. To his credit, Jahn himself seems pretty embarrassed about it, judging by his introduction.)

  3. I find the last paragraph of Jahn’s review fascinating: “The Beatles, though they might not have intended it, have in essence produced hip Muzak, a soundtrack for head shops, parties and discotheques.”

    Never mind the cheap-shot Muzak reference, it really seems to capture just how the thinking about rock ‘n’ roll had changed so much by this time, indeed, it feels like the moment where it’s no longer “rock ‘n’ roll,” but ROCK, with the music now being thought of (not by everyone, of course, but by many) as something you sit and listen to and absorb and no longer anything so trivial as providing a mere “soundtrack” for parties. It’s sort of anti-everything-Aesthetics-of-Rock-is-about if you ask me. But interesting as an encapsulation of that.

  4. I know exactly what you mean, Devin. You needn’t subscribe to someone’s taste or ideology to be enraptured by their work. And as I mentioned somewhere in here, my first reading of Cohn’s pop tome was as thrilling an experience as I’ve ever had as a reader.

  5. Greil Marcus said in a blurb that “Rock from the Beginning” (the title under which I discovered it) was the best first book to read on the subject, and that hit the nail on the head. Even Cohn’s errors (of which, many) are imprinted on my mind–e.g., his inability to get the gerunds right (“John Wesley Hardin,” “California Dreaming”). Mostly I love that he’s an Irish kid raised in England, writing his book in isolation on the Scottish coast about music most of which came from a land he’d never seen. The book is a pure and sustained act of dreaming, feeling, imaginative visualization. Writing about the Beatles at a time when I’d never been to England, I took great strength from that!

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