Bill Wyman has been a music critic and arts editor for over 30 years but his ranking stories for New York Magazine’s “Vulture” section has recently raised his profile. In these epic pieces, which list every track from worst to best of some of the most important rock acts—the Beatles, Pink Floyd, the Clash and Led Zeppelin—Wyman justifies his rankings, while telling the band’s story. His most recent article of this kind, ranking the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, is more ambitious still, and becomes almost a history of the rock genre itself, and an argument for its cultural value. Theses stories are a mix of the high-minded, the fantastic, and the silly—in other words, smart and entertaining.
Wyman initially made his name as a music writer at the Chicago Reader in the mid-nineties and then worked as an arts editor at the SF Weekly, Salon, and NPR. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Columbia Journalism Review. For more of his story and his writing visit his website Hitsville.net
Normally my interviews are accompanied by a portrait that I’ve taken of the subject, as my primary vocation is photography, but on this occasion that was not possible as we spoke on the phone.
– Chris Buck
Chris Buck: I tend to do interviews in person, I think it makes a big difference, but what’s your experience?
Bill Wyman The trouble is that there’s a difference between talking to someone who doesn’t get interviewed that much, or where you’re digging deep, and then someone who’s on the PR trail. Maybe in person you can really penetrate in a little better.
I really wanted to talk to this one pop artist and it just turned out to be a miserable interview and then I just didn’t write [the piece]. The publicist got really mad at me and I just said, “I have nothing to say about this and if I did it would be all about how I couldn’t penetrate.” It would be a story about journalism.
CB: I wonder if your subjects had read through some of your pieces if it would make a difference. At its best it shows a thoughtfulness and an intelligence around music and music journalism that you don’t commonly see.
BW: Well, thank you for saying that. Sometimes the publicists read your work and they go, “Oh, my God, that’s the guy who said…” I’m the type of writer who will say, “That song sucks, and that song sucks, but the rest of the album is really good,” and they focus on the negative. A lot of reviewers, and people in today’s world, are too over-positive and a little more bendable.
CB: I find most highly achieved people to be pretty open. My theory is that they’re risk takers and they respect and appreciate other risk takers. They want to go there too. Like you say, if you can get past the publicists, the subjects will often do really great stuff because they want it to be interesting, because they know that’s where the good stuff is.
As a photographer who has also conducted a fair number of interviews in the last several years, I’d add that doing a photograph is different than doing an interview because it’s literal—in the sense that when you say something and it’s quoted back in print it’s a lot harder to talk that back. If you do something in a photograph it might suggest something but isn’t saying it overtly.
BW: Paradoxically, with the photography, even though it’s supposed to literally be reality the subject can say, “I was just standing there.”
CB: The thing that prompted me to interview you was your ranking on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the recent inductees. There are so many layers of meaning and interest in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame article.
For me, one of the most controversial things in the piece was your ranking of Queen. It stood out to me partially because I was a big Queen fan when I was a kid and I saw them live a few times. You lowered them by 30 points because the tribute concert after Freddie Mercury died didn’t mention his having AIDS, and being gay. Thirty points is a lot of points! There are plenty of other artists that you seemed to have given a pass to. Chuck Berry is number one in the rankings, and I do think actually that he belongs there, but he’s got a lot of problems in his personal story that could get him ranked lower, and that’s not even mentioned.
It’s your list and you’re allowed to have subjective rules, but how do you justify lowering Queen by 30 points, and no other artists—like Chuck Berry or Ike Turner, who have also had personal indiscretions—have similar marks against them?
BW: There are several answers. One, just to be clear, it’s kind of fun that you want things in there that are unexpected, that people don’t know. Two, I’m actually a big crusader about how so many entertainers are written about. I wrote one of the early big stories about Bill Cosby, even before the Hannibal Buress thing happened. Mark Whitaker’s book Cosby had come out and it didn’t even mention the four women that had already been on the record accusing him of drugging and raping them.
Another pet peeve of mine is Terrence Howard, star of Empire, who’s punched at least four women in the face. I think it’s totally fine to say Empire’s a really great show, and that “Terrance Howard, who has, four or five times, punched women in the face in public settings, is great in the role.” I mean, that’s all I care about.
CB: So you’re not saying they should be blacklisted. You’re saying there should be acknowledgment of their record.
BW: I’m agreeing with your point and I should have said that [about Queen]. Because it was a long piece—the idea was let’s get through the easy ones with a sentence or two. Let’s get through Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Dylan and James Brown. But I guess I should have mentioned that.
But to get to the Queen rankings specifically. I do things with the lists where I “up” things a few notches or lower them a few notches. The idea is that these are extra-musical things. Like in the Led Zeppelin one. “Dazed and Confused” is one of the greatest rock performances of all time, but in my list it was only in the top five because they stole the song from another person. Jimmy Page recorded the song with The Yardbirds and credited it to the writer and then he re-did the same song with Led Zeppelin and didn’t credit the original artist.
Here are the details on the concert for Freddie Mercury, the memorial concert. It was on MTV (this is back when there was no YouTube or anything) and there were hardly any mentions of AIDS at all. I mean I believe that there was no mention of AIDS on this program, period. It could be that George Michael mentioned it in passing but this wasn’t a memorial concert where people said, “Hey kids, this is about AIDS, and use a condom, and there’s nothing wrong with [people who have] AIDS, and you’ve got to help people.” There was no talk about that and there was no talk about homosexuality and this is like a four or five hour broadcast.
Again, [this is] back in the pre-YouTube era when things like Live Aid or this were huge. They were huge events and everyone watched them because there wasn’t streaming, there wasn’t on-demand or anything like this. This was your one chance.
So, you have people dying in the street all over America. You have people being cast out of their families, fired from their jobs, and here you have this famous guy who was gay, and died of AIDS, and they put on this memorial concert where every big star in the world is there, including Elton John, David Bowie, George Michael, Def Leppard, all these other bozos, and they didn’t even talk about it.
CB: Why is that Queen’s fault, and not the organizers of the event? Why is Queen’s ranking being knocked down?
BW: The answer to your question, two words: “Hitler’s Pope.” There was a pope named Pius VII. He was the Pope during the Third Reich and there’s always been a specter over him because he supposedly collaborated with Hitler, some say to protect Catholics. The defenders of him say he had to deal with Hitler somehow and he had to do some collaborations with the Nazis to save the church.
Life is really good when you’re the Pope. It’s so great, you can’t even imagine. There’s a lot of bureaucracy but it’s like being President, like being a rock star—life is pretty good. The only downside to being Pope is that if Hitler comes along you’ve got to stand up to him.
So with Queen, you can’t even imagine the money, the luxury, the first class travel, the sex, the food, the houses that these guys get, and the only downside is, is that when there’s this international tragedy where people are dying in the streets and your lead singer happens to die of that disease, you have to stand up publicly and talk about it.
So that’s my answer. They had a moral responsibility to stand up and let people know about this.
CB: I don’t necessarily think that’s an unfair assessment but it’s not like the other 213 artists on the list are being held to a similar standard.
BW: I agree with your point. You don’t want to be so negative all the time though, and I think people knew about [the others]. For example, a couple years ago, I did a huge piece on Chuck Berry where I spent literally 1,500 words just detailing all of his sexual problems in great detail.
CB: With Queen, some of the songs are silly and some of them are beautiful but I guess that part of the rock and roll thing is that there is going to be work in there that is inspired and there’s going to be lots of work that is just fun—and not so deep, just to put a more positive spin on it.
BW: Queen doesn’t have to worry about me. A lot of people say they’re great, they got to be on American Idol, their life is good.
One of the things I believe about criticism is that there’s a multiplicity of voices. I get a little suspicious when everyone’s saying the same thing. It doesn’t have to be contrary, but it’s good to have opinions out there. I don’t believe in being an asshole but I think strong opinions creatively argued are good for everyone and get people thinking.
In the Beatles rankings, the first entry, which is the worst Beatles song ever, was “Good Day Sunshine.” To this day, people said I was just trolling about saying “Good Day Sunshine” was the worst Beatles song.
At first, I was completely mystified because everyone agrees this is the worst Beatles song ever, right? But I also could go back to a piece I wrote in 1989 when Paul McCartney got touring again and in it I said that “Good Day Sunshine” was one of the worst Beatles songs ever.
CB: When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was formed in 1986 I was 22. I was at the height of my music listening and going-to-shows period. The idea of a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame went against what popular music is and was at that time. It just seemed like a shame, a waste, and just pathetic and really annoying. To create a canon around rock and roll seemed like a very bad idea. But now, it’s 32 years later and I’m in my mid-50s and in reading your piece it made me realize that my take on this is different now. It now kind of seems like a good idea.
My reasoning is that rock and roll is either dead or dying as a popular form. We need a little more time to really know but I think that rock and roll is maybe now what jazz was by the late sixties. It’s still around, and sometimes will chart, but it’s not really the main, popular form of entertainment anymore. So perhaps now the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame makes sense. It’s cataloging, documenting this dying art form. I still think that they started it too early, but now that it’s here it may actually have value.
Anyway, I’m throwing a lot at you… Do you think that rock is dead?
BW: It’s so funny because I thought about this for a long time. My thinking always goes, “It sure seems like rock is dead,” but then something always happens. All that’s needed for rock to get spurred back into existence again is a lot of 50-something critics like me and you all going around saying, “Rock is dead.” That’s what people said in the late-eighties before Nirvana, and then—is hip-hop part of rock (which I think you could make the argument for one way or the other)? So, I think that it’s possible, but I don’t want to be the guy to say it because I’m sure the next Kurt Cobain is sitting in his parents’ basement somewhere.
I honestly don’t know the answer to that question.
CB: I deal with a lot of young people, like my photo interns, and I don’t think they’re that interested in music. I ask them what they’re listening to and they’ll be like “I love Led Zeppelin,” or “I listen to Joni Mitchell.” I’m like, “Are you listening to contemporary music at all?” I feel like their interest is more in wearing a t-shirt of a fashion brand, like Supreme. Strangely, there is a resurgence of rock t-shirts but all they’re all for Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, they’re not for contemporary groups.
When we were young and in high school and there’s people who are into music and there’s other people who are interested in sports or whatever, but for the people who are into music their whole identity was defined by what band or what genre they were into. I know that exists for young people today but not like it did then.
BW: It’s almost like a thriving scale of where the pop culture exists in relation to the dominant culture. Part of the original thing about rock was that we were into it and our parents didn’t like it, and the TV networks didn’t like it. Or in my era with punk rock the radio stations wouldn’t play it.
Even in the eighties you had great bands like R.E.M. and The Replacements, and the radio wouldn’t play them. So you always have this “We’re in our little team and people don’t like it,” and it’s a secret. You were secure in that knowledge. It wasn’t just, “I really like Fear and everyone hates it because it’s so disgusting.” It’s like, wait a minute, how can you listen to Murmur and not be swept up into this extraordinary, aesthetic world and why isn’t this getting recognition?
So that’s what’s really missing. What do kids hear today? It’s not like YouTube isn’t putting stuff on.
People don’t realize that Bob Dylan was on television in the seventies only two times. There were no VCRs and there were no repeats. To this day, these are incredibly rare. I mean his performance on PBS’s The World of John Hammond, and they actually did an hour-long special on ABC called Hard Rain.
I’ll bet you for a week I would say to my parents, “Bob Dylan’s going to be on next Wednesday at 8 o’clock.” You had to say that because your Dad was going to change the channel or they were going to make you go out to dinner or something. Seeing that was one of the great moments of my life. That’s the kind of feeling that people don’t have today. I think that’s extra-aesthetic. I don’t think that means it’s good or anything but that it was part of the tribalism.
CB: I still marvel that I’ll be in an ordinary shopping experience, like buying groceries, and they’ll be playing music that I grew up on. I guess that when I was a kid the music they’d play in ShopRite would be music from my parents’ generation, or the Muzak version. So it makes sense that they’re playing the music from my childhood when I go shopping, but it’s just weird when they’re playing Black Sabbath in the airport.
Young people today listening to Led Zeppelin is like when I got turned on to Frank Sinatra in my early twenties. I started buying his albums and then reading about him, and learning the catalog and his biography. So this is, for kids, like me listening to Sinatra, or learning about Billie Holiday. That’s them learning about Pink Floyd.
BW: I totally agree with you. I grew up here in Phoenix and I came back a few years ago because of some family things. I had the exact same experience being at a grocery store I was in when I was a teenager and hearing Led Zeppelin and thinking, “What the fuck is going on?”
Also, when you listen to radio out here it’s still Bob Seger, The Eagles, Tom Petty, so there is a way in which that era, the sixties and seventies, has been incredibly frozen. You’ll still hear Culture Club or whatever every once in a while but for some reason that classic rock era is just staying. We’re just going to have to see whether in 20 years it’s still happening or whether all of us will have finally died out and people forget about it. On the other hand, there were some extraordinary artists.
CB: When you hear someone who is our age say, “The seventies was the best era, that’s just when the best rock music was made, it’s obvious,” as a music critic do you think, maybe they’re right?
BW: I actually have always thought that, though I’m suspicious of it too because everyone likes the music that they heard when they were 15. The seventies were synonymous with blandness for a long time. The seventies were considered the dog decade after the sixties, when the music got bad and the movies got bad. That’s just crazy to me because you have Bowie and Lou Reed and Roxy Music. Even before punk you have Bruce Springsteen, you have Al Green, and Bob Marley.
CB: Don’t forget Queen.
BW: Queen and all those other good ones. People were doing really amazing things, but I don’t have anything invested in it. If I were going to write about that I would say in the context of the seventies being degraded I would point out that there was a lot of interesting stuff.
CB: I do think the timing of your Rock and Roll Hall of Fame article was meaningful because rock is not the center of youth culture in the way it was 30, 40 years ago. So in a way, having a gentle look back, maybe that time has arrived.
BW: I can agree with you. I think two things about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. One is that I think it has been given a pass by a lot of people. You know who Jim DeRogatis is, right? He’s a critic in Chicago and he and I started this radio show called “Sound Opinions,” which was kind of like a Siskel and Ebert radio show about music. That show is still going on with him and Greg Kot. It’s a big deal public radio show now.
We always used to say every year that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame should not exist, which always felt like it was something nobody was saying because all the big papers, Rolling Stone, of course, but even Spin and The New York Times, always took its existence for granted.
The other thing about it is that it’s also one of those institutions, like the Grammys, that is rarely examined just for what it is.
You know, in all modesty I don’t think there’s any article that’s ever been published on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that actually has interviewed as many people about it [as I have] and just answered all the questions, because you just can’t find it anywhere on the internet.
CB: One of the things that prompted me to interview you in the first place was that you responded to so many commenters in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame piece, either when they were trying to give corrections or clarifications or even just defending the bands that they love. You don’t see that in music criticism, or any kind of criticism, that much. To have the original writer of the piece step in and say, “That’s a fair point,” or, “I’m glad you like the piece.”
There were some people who were really angry in their original comment, but then after you responded they came back more measured, with a, “Hey, I appreciate you taking the time to acknowledge me” tone.
BW: I feel very strongly about that. Jimmy and I on “Sound Opinions” always tried to explain that I have my opinion, I think I’m right. I write what I want and then I totally want to hear what people think. Anything that catches me off guard or makes me double think, I’m not threatened by it, I’m deeply appreciative.
For many years, I worked at the Chicago Reader, which was a very austere, sort of weird alternative paper in Chicago. The Reader’s policy was that the writers wrote and then readers could write in and the writers didn’t get to respond because the writers had had their say and it was really important that the readers say it without the writer having the last word.
CB: I’ve never seen someone write about The Beatles quite like—you’re challenging a lot of the orthodoxy. You’re criticizing a lot of the lyrics, some of the Paul McCartney songs you’re calling lazy. Sometimes you’re basically saying, “This is a half-shitty, lazy song.”
BW: Yeah, a throwaway song.
CB: When I read that I’m thinking he’s holding McCartney to the Paul McCartney standard. He considers the song at the top of the list to be a near perfect Rock and Roll compositions and therefore these other ones are lacking because they’re not in that same category.
I was shocked by some of the things you said, like “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” you’re pretty dismissive of that song, and I had always liked it. When it comes on now, I’m like, “Is this song really lazy and just a bad novelty song? Maybe Bill Wyman’s right.”
BW: I think on that one I docked it because he killed off Joan the pataphysical scientist who was really cool. As a writer you’re sort of having fun and you’re sort of joking but you’re really bringing up a serious point.
CB: My wife will say, “Don’t accept an Uber driver that is under a 4.5 rating.” I’ll say, “4.5 is nearly perfect,” because five is perfect and so 4.5 is super excellent. So, you don’t want excellent or good? She’s like, “Anything under 4.5 means they’re a dangerous driver.” I say, “Shouldn’t that be a two?” I think there’s a way in which we tend to over-rank everything.
I’m happy to listen to an album that’s a five out of ten. A five is a pass. That means it’s good. Five is good, six is very good, seven is excellent, eight is a super-great album. It’s a weird thing, in the culture it’s like five means it’s bad. I’m like, “Two means it’s bad.” Do we never rank anything between zero and five on a scale of ten?
BW: That’s a societal construct where we don’t have agreed-upon systems. And there are things like Uber where the basic ratings are from 4.5 to five. I’m talking about something different, the intellectual bankruptcy of much pop criticism today—that they’re always on the side of the artist. They don’t want to hurt Elvis Costello’s feelings, or Paul McCartney’s feelings, or Bruce’s or Metallica’s feelings. They do all this intellectual hoop jumping.
When Accelerate by R.E.M. came out Rolling Stone did this weird thing. “They’re back in top rock and roll form. It’s one of their best records. They haven’t sounded this good since the ’80s.” Then you go back to the previous one, Around the Sun and [Rolling Stone] say, “They’re back in classic form again. The last records haven’t been very good but here they are.” Then you go back to Reveal and it says, “All of their most recent records were terrible but on Reveal they’re back and it’s a renewal and a reconstruction.” So then you go back to the next one, which was Up, which was probably the worst R.E.M. record. It’s like all four of them. They’re all bad, right. So you go back to Up and Rolling Stone compared it to Sgt. Pepper.
I did the exact same story about The Rolling Stones back in the nineties. This is before the internet so I had to go to the library and look up Life Magazine and Time, the LA Times, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Musician and all these places. Every Rolling Stones record: “Their best record since Some Girls.” It was crazy.
Once the pop world started getting really big in the eighties—particularly when Spin and Rolling Stone really started making money, and The Times tried to start taking pop seriously—you had to write about Hootie & the Blowfish or all these other silly bands of the time. Jesus Jones, or whatever the name of the band is—there are all these crappy bands in every era. They want to get the big Rolling Stone cover story, which paid a lot of money back then, but Rolling Stone doesn’t want a “Hootie & the Blowfish Sucks” as the cover story.
So to create a sort of intellectual cover they’re like, “I’m just appreciating that if people like Hootie then they must be saying something about America,” or something like that. I think in a way it’s been a cover for people basically writing PR material for big pop bands to get big money paychecks from.
CB: Why wouldn’t Rolling Stone do their cover story on Hootie & the Blowfish because they’re blowing up, but then do the review and say the album is a three or whatever. Why can’t that duality exist?
BW: That’s the way it should exist and they actually did that in seventies. There was always controversy because Rolling Stone had the big interview with Bob Dylan but then Greil Marcus would write that Street Legal sucked, which would cause all this dissonance but I think that was an intellectually defensive thing. But of course, the record section soon followed. You’d never hear that Eric Clapton wasn’t putting out good records anymore. You’d never hear that Tom Petty wasn’t—so they’d prop up the careers of older people and then any kind of new flash in the pan you’d get that kind of treatment.
I just have an issue with it because it’s intellectually dishonest. If you know that the band is terrible you shouldn’t be writing big stories around them. And, I think over the years it’s gotten worse.
CB: It’s fine to write stories about bands that are doing really well but don’t do that in the review section. Review the music that’s in front of you. To me, that’s the separation.
CB: I’m fascinated by how we get excited about songs as they become part of our life, and then you read an interview with the artist and they tell you where the song came from and it turns out to be something rather fleeting, or mundane. I think of “Hey Jude,” for example. The original idea was Paul McCartney looking to console Julian Lennon about his parents’ breakup, that became totally—it has nothing to do what that song is now. It’s just fascinating what can become an amazing classic song and then become totally separated from the original inspiration.
BW: It’s so true. We go back and forth—it does matter and it doesn’t matter. Sometimes you learn something about a song and you can’t ever take it seriously again. A great example is the NWA song, “Fuck Tha Police.” The story behind it is that Easy E and Dr. Dre were driving around with a paint gun shooting people at bus stops. So imagine you put your coat on, you don’t have a car or so you’ve got to get on a bus from Compton to Hollywood to work as a maid. Then these assholes shoot you with a red paint gun. Number one.
Secondly, two hoodlums just got arrested and then they write the song like they’re tough guys, like the police are harassing them. They’re being dishonest and turning it into this racial anthem about being oppressed. Outside of them just being bozos on some level, and it seems to me that completely undermines the substance of that song.
CB: In a number of places in the Pink Floyd rankings you say they were second-tier musicians. One of the commenters essentially asked, “If you think these guys are so bad why are you writing such a long piece about them?”
BW: I couldn’t do a ranking of all the U2 songs and I couldn’t do a ranking of all the R.E.M. songs. Well, I could but it wouldn’t be the same, and the reason is there’s not a great story there. What do you say about U2? These four guys met each other, they had a couple years sleeping on people’s couches and then they became famous and basically act in a fairly principled way for the last 35 years. Same with R.E.M. They have a few little glitches but there’s no real story. Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, you have these unbelievable, crazy stories and a lot of them people haven’t heard.
The Wall is so romanticized and people don’t realize that there would be no Wall if they hadn’t been stupid and gone bankrupt. They put out Dark Side of the Moon, it sells several million copies a year (when this was unusual). You just go out on tour, right? Nope, what they did is play Dark Side of the Moon before they did the album release and then they never toured on it. It’s just so crazy.
They literally recorded two of the largest selling records of all time and then Animals, and then they still don’t have any money. They want to fire Roger Waters but they can’t because he’s the only one with new songs. So he puts them through the hell that was doing The Wall (and then he gets all the money for himself anyway).
Most people don’t understand about songwriting royalties but Roger Waters probably got more money for songwriting in that one record than any person in history.
CB: One of the big things that crossed my mind in reading your Beatles rankings is that there’s almost a religious sanctity around certain songs that you kind of pull apart and criticize. I know you’re not necessarily doing that on purpose but at one point you said something about challenging the orthodoxy of rock criticism. The Beatles are so sanctified yet the first half of the ranking basically talks about why those songs failed. That’s huge. You take songs that are on some of their most important albums and giving them low ratings. Did it take a certain mental leap for you to do that?
BW: It’s kind of funny because that’s the trouble with these lists, if you start with the best you get all the fun stuff and then you’ve got the end of it slogging through the bad stuff, so I like to do it from worst to best because you try to dismiss the worst stuff and then start telling the story of the band.
Of course, with The Beatles, The Clash, or Led Zeppelin you have these amazing, crazy stories. One of the reasons people get so mad at these articles is that they start reading and it’s, “This song is bad, this song is bad.” The Clash did maybe 50 great songs and Pink Floyd did like 17. So it’s very difficult.
One of the things I find disappointing in some of the pop criticism is there’s a thing called rhetoric. It’s the art of persuasion when you’re writing. That doesn’t mean debating, it just means all the tricks that you use to get people to read what you’re writing and, in theory, come around to your way of thinking. You can be very mundane, dry, and legal, or you can debate and have fun. What I try to do is I try to alternate between outrageousness and charming, and self-deprecation and pompousness… not pompousness but just saying things from on high but then a couple lines later being kind of humble, or saying, “I used to think this but I was wrong.”
I mean, I’d almost like to do another Beatles list the next day and have it be a different order just to make the point that this is ridiculous. The point of it isn’t the ordering.
Sometimes when people criticize me I say, “The numbers don’t lie,” and that gets people even madder, but I’m just trying to make it clear that this is completely preposterous. It’s an exercise in writing, and hopefully interesting writing. It’s just to say interesting things to think about it.
I don’t care if someone thinks that “Strawberry Fields” isn’t a good song. I would like to read a list of songs where “Strawberry Fields” is the second worst Beatles song. I’d like to hear a spirited defense.
That’s the one thing that I wish people would think about criticism and I think would make the world a better place when it comes to journalism too. We hopefully want smart, quality writers who don’t have hidden agendas. I don’t like trolling. I believe in clear expository writing. I believe in the intelligent and curious but disinterested reader. That means someone who’s smart and someone who’s open minded but also disinterested, meaning if I’m not interesting enough he or she will just move on. If you think that people are smart and they’re open minded and they want to read something interesting then that’s what I try to do. That’s the mixture that motivates those.
Back to your question—we’re all smart, we understand The Beatles aren’t perfect, and they did some bad songs. Let’s move on. Let’s go through them. You can disagree. You can think that “Get Back” is a better song than I do. That’s great, so let’s hear your argument. Again, I would love to read the next person’s ranking of them.
CB: I want to ask you one last question. I think you’re a smart critic and have an interesting viewpoint but I am surprised that you are unselfconsciously writing about music of the past. It used to be the best critics were writing about contemporary music. It speaks to why I believe that rock and roll is dead or dying. We have people like you, among the smartest, most engaged critics writing about music of the past and not writing about the contemporary.
BW: I’ve always been an editor but I was Arts Editor of Salon starting in like ’96 or ’97 or somewhere in there and then you start having your own critics who are writing. I was at NPR during most of the aughts when I was Arts Editor there. So then there was a thing where I’d love going to South by Southwest but it was more important to send other writers there.
At a certain point you get out of that day-to-day thing. I wrote about music and I was in the Pazz & Jop poll but I remember being called about, “Where’s your ballot?” sometime in the 2000s. It’s probably been 10 or 12 years that I have voluntarily taken myself out because I just don’t have an outlet to write about new music regularly. People my age shouldn’t be writing about that anyway.
I just kind of fell into doing ranking stories. New York Magazine is really cool and they asked me to do these things and I fell into it in a weird way, but I find it fulfilling because nobody else does it. Like I said, one reason I like doing it is I love going back and reading all those Lou Reed books or Pink Floyd books.
CB: In a weird way, it’s such an uncool thing to do. Imagine if someone did this when you were 25. You’d be like, “I’m not reading some lame guy in his fifties writing about rock music from the past. I’m interested in what’s happening now.” There is nothing more “rock and roll” than the moment, and new things.
BW I try to remember that there are a lot of people who don’t know these things. Revolver came out three months after Pet Sounds but two months before this and that’s really important. We kind of have all this stuff in our bones so there is a way in which I like being informative and telling the story.
Other pieces by Bill Wyman:
– Liz Phair, Steve Albini & Me: The True Story of 1993, the Greatest Goddamn Year in Chicago Rock History
– Knock, Knock, Knockin’ on Nobel’s Door
– The Pale King: Michael Jackson’s ambiguous legacy
– Untransformed: For Better or Worse Lou Reed Was Always Lou Reed
More about Chris Buck at ChrisBuck.com