A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe

In A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe (2021), Joe Yanosik reviews and grades every known PPU record on the planet (including side projects and mutations, not to mention books and DVDs), all the while — through a series of “historical interludes” — telling the band’s remarkable story, from their post-Beatles/Velvets-obsessed roots in Prague to their critical (if somewhat unwitting) role in bringing down a repressive Soviet-backed regime. I mean, the MC5 were cool and all, but… Continue reading “A Consumer Guide to the Plastic People of the Universe”

“The destruction of the Village Voice” (Artforum)

Artforum gathers obits from Christgau, Greg Tate, Molly Haskell, J. Hoberman et al. The photo by Sylvia Plachy of Alexander Cockburn leading an editorial meeting is terrific; it provides the sort of romantic anti-romantic vision of what it must have been like to work at the Voice, at least in the minds of every writer who dreamt of doing such a thing. (I was lucky, under the editorship of Chuck Eddy, to pen maybe 8 or 10 record reviews for them, ca. 2000/2001, but it was never the right venue for me; I tried too hard to hew to what I thought was the Voice voice, as it were, and I laid the humour and the puns — not saying my reviews were actually funny — on way too thick. But hey, I have clippings I can one day share with my grandkids, so what the hell.)

Regarding the Plachy photo: anyone know who these people are? I can identify Cockburn, and Nat Hentoff to his left, but the other faces are unfamiliar. (I feel like I’ve seen another photo somewhere of the woman to Hentoff’s left, but I could be wrong.)

“The Voice and Its Village”

“When I think about my two stints at the now-shuttered Village Voice—for which I freelanced regularly from the late seventies to the late eighties, returning as a staff writer from 1994-1999—one unexpected but apt word that keeps popping to mind is ‘fecund.’ My recollection that I worked for two or possibly three different papers all hawked under the same name doesn’t seem remarkable, because the Voice never stopped mutating. Interludes of smugness weren’t unknown, but ossification was never in the cards.”
– Tom Carson in The Baffler on the for-real-final-this-time demise of the Village Voice

David Bowie and Pazz & Jop

Yesterday David Bowie died at the age of 69; today, the Village Voice published its annual Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, though they no longer cite (at least that I can see online) what edition it is—the 43rd or 44th, I think (unless it’s the 44th or 45th). I haven’t yet listened much to Blackstar, the album Bowie released just a couple days before his death, but it was touching to note that 21 critics thought highly enough of their advance copy of the title track to have placed it in the poll’s Top 40 (it came in at #23). (Another song—a better song, I’m thinking after one full listen—called “Lazarus” garnered two votes as well.)

As someone who has always believed that American critics mostly undervalued Bowie during his prime (which somewhat belies his early reputation as a “critical darling”), I started wondering specifically about how, in fact, he fared historically in Pazz & Jop, the best (certainly the most comprehensive) marker we’ve got of the American critical response. Not the only marker, though: you could also pore through original reviews of his records in Rolling Stone (many are available online), Creem (which I may try to do in the weeks ahead, just to get a gauge), Circus, the Voice, etc. Not every American critic who reviewed or praised a Bowie album in the ’70s necessarily voted in Pazz & Jop. More important, such a survey should probably come with an over-sized asterisk that notes the distinction between “critical raves” and “critical interest,” for it is also my long held belief that while American critics didn’t always “put out” for Bowie with rave reviews, he did command their attention throughout the decade in a big way. And with few contemporary rivals: Neil Young almost certainly jettisoned him in this regard, and possibly Springsteen (who didn’t truly arrive until the midpoint of the decade), and maybe (big maybe) Steely Dan or Stevie Wonder or Joni Mitchell, but… anyone else? My speculation is that American critics en masse were extremely interested in Bowie, wrestled with his many shifts and personas, and enjoyed writing about him, but that they just were not, in the end, blown away by the results of his work. (It is also my sense that the American critical reception of Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry was very much in parallel with that. A comparable survey of Bowie/Roxy in the UK press—compared to the American press, I mean—would show markedly—nay, radically—different results.)

So, here’s Bowie’s P&J scorecard, from Hunky Dory through Let’s Dance. With Christgau’s rankings added just for good measure.

Hunky Dory
Critics: #10
Christgau: #19

Bowie’s first P&J entry is also his highest; he never grazed the Top 10 again (repeat: he never grazed the Top 10 again). Six critics who listed it (there were others, presumably, as their vote counts don’t total the 88 points it garnered overall): Brian Cullman, Lenny Kaye, Patricia Kennely (who awarded it 30 points, the highest supporter among the bunch), Greil Marcus, Jeff Mesin, Tom Smucker. Note also Mike Saunders’s lone (and late) vote here for The Man Who Sold the World. And Christgau’s poll note, in which he suggests that HD “ought to make him a star, eventually.”

1972/73: Ziggy/Aladdin Sane/Pin Ups
Sadly, no Pazz & Jop in ’72 or ’73. Hard to imagine Ziggy not placing fairly high, just as it’s hard to imagine Aladdin Sane doing well at all, though this is mere speculation. (FWIW, Christgau himself gave both LPs a B+, though called AS “more interesting thematically than Ziggy Stardust, and… better rock and roll.”)

1974: Diamond Dogs
Critics: Didn’t place
Christgau: Didn’t place

This is hardly surprising; the album was poorly received. Had there been a P&J singles poll this early on, my guess is that “Rebel Rebel” would’ve found its way in. Christgau does note in his essay, “And only one [vote] for: each of David Bowie’s LPs (both from Robert Hilburn, a diehard).” By which I assume he means DD and Pin Ups, the latter of which was released late in ’73.

1975: Young Americans
Critics: Didn’t place
Christgau: Didn’t place

Ditto the above; not initially well received, “Fame” and/or the title track might have fared okay. It made Bangs’s ballot, garnering 5 points (tied with Born to Run and Metal Machine Music).

1976: Station to Station
Critics: #13
Christgau: #4

STS, along with Changesonebowie, was the Bowie disc Xgau favoured most. Bangs’s rave of the album (orig. from Creem) is in Psychotic Reactions.

1977: Low
Critics: Didn’t place
Christgau: #26

I seem to recall the reception to this was not (as per Diamond Dogs) anything like hostile, but probably closer to lukewarm. I would assume in a poll conducted today among U.S. critics, this might see the biggest jump in stature. Even many side 2 agnostics acknowledge the complete (and still startling) brilliance of side one. Charley Walters, whose 1977 fairly resembled my 1977 (with its mix of prog and punk), did rank it, awarding it five points. (As a side note, neither of the Bowie-produced Iggy albums placed in the poll, though the Dean places each in his Top 30, and Tom Hull has Lust for Life in his Top 10.)

1977: “Heroes”
Critics: #21
Christgau: Didn’t place

Critically, the mirror image of Low: no Christgau love, minor across-the-board critical support.

1979: Lodger
Critics: #31
Christgau: Didn’t place

Two voters shown here to place it: Jon Pareles and Tom Carson. Carson ranks it #1. In his great Rolling Stone Illustrated History essay about Bowie, he calls Lodger the fulfillment of the Berlin Trilogy. Some very good thoughts on that essay—and about the critical response to Bowie during the ’70s—in the interview Steven Ward and I conducted with Carson in 2002.

1980: Scary Monsters
Critics: #19
Christgau: Didn’t place

Interestingly, of the two ballots shown, Pareles and Carson again.

1983: Let’s Dance
Critics: #19
Christgau: Didn’t place

Critics also ranked “Let’s Dance” (the single) #14 and “Modern Love” #24. Christgau ranked the “Let’s Dance” video #7. (That one surprises me somewhat… the video? David Bowie made videos??)

Pet Shop Boys, Critically (10)

Snippets from Chuck Eddy’s Village Voice review of Introspective (“18 Shopping Days Left,” December 13, 1988), which I’ll hopefully comment on later (feel free to jump in yourself). My only general comment is that the review is not as over-the-top about PSB as I half-remembered it being. In fact, it skews somewhat in the other direction: Chuck seems unconvinced by (and skeptical of) PSB overall — they pale next to his beloved Exposé, who are cited three or four times here — though in the end he can’t resist the “confusedly jubilant” pleasures of what he admits is “the best Pet Shop album.”

(Semi-interesting sidenotes: 1. Below Chuck’s review is Vince Aletti’s “Single Life” column, a rundown mostly of the acid-house hits then storming the UK, but with a few choice — and very complimentary — words about Introspective also, i.e., “six songs that ransack dance idioms from Brooklyn to Chicago with affection and wit.” 2. The second review after Chuck’s is Frank Owen’s review of the Pop Tarts, cheekily headlined, “Shopping in America.” Who remembers the Pop Tarts? No one? Thought so. I recall them being a kind of similar-to-PSB critical big deal post-something-or-other at the time, but nothing I read about them actually convinced me to listen to them. To this day, I’ve still not heard a note of their music, I don’t think.)

Introspective‘s got the first two Pet Shop cover versions, both of which apparently make fun of the originals; Tennant recites most of ‘Always on My Mind’ as if Elvis/Willie’s longing and regret were impossible, reads Sterling Void’s ludicrous acid-protest ‘It’s Alright’ almost as blandly. After 15-plus post-Bowie years of music-about-musicmaking, contemptuous theatricality like this ain’t so much subversive as just too fuckin easy.
“But so’s this analysis. Unless you’re of Exposé’s ingenuous ilk to say in the post-Bruce age that you’re posing is only to say you make no conscious stab at the intentional-honesty lie. Soul-sincerity’s as phony as phoniness by now, and distance-from-material encompasses all suckup-to-rockcrit crud from Los Lobos to Mudhoney. British whiteboys singing like British whiteboys beat British whiteboys singing like black men; ditto for products admitting they’re products.”

“And nobody knows products like these consumers of oligopological output in the dead-end world where everything’s for sale and money talks and streets are gold, these un-Iggylike pet-shoppers who’d rather buy a dog than be one. We’re all prostitues, shopping for someone to pet, so romance equals commerce: ‘I love you/You pay my rent,’ ‘You always wanted a lover/I only wanted a job.’ Introspective argues we’re taught competition as babes, eventually left not to our own devices but choiceless. The denial of self-determination stupidly distorts reality, but then again when I first heard ‘West End Girls’ three years ago I was ‘sold’ right away ’cause (just like ‘All the Young Dudes’) the first two lines suggest young people should blow their brains out. The cashier took my money.”

“Theoretically, these Boys negate my entire worldview. Not because they’re wimps (I identify with their wimpdom — they could probably kick my ass, actually), but because their ironic distance adds nothing, ever. Tennant’s toasty tongue-texture and minimalist language are fine, but too often he’s content to let us know he’s performing — he walks too fast and talks too slow, too constricted and stylized and arid, ‘conversational’ only if people who read books while you’re talking to ’em over the phone don’t make you nervous.”

“When the Pet Shop Boys succeed, they succeed despite themselves. Tennant’s monotone usually communicates more when it’s singing than when it’s rapping; in parts of ‘It’s a Sin,’ ‘What Have I Done to Deserve This?’ (where at first he’s as passionate as his duet partner Dusty Springfield), and ‘Rent,’ something’s at stake. I was raised Catholic and I’m a househusband and Bee Gees fan, so lines hit me here and there. The masses take ‘Always on My Mind’ and ‘What Have I’ at face value (a la ‘Born in the U.S.A.,’ ‘Sweet Dreams Are Made of This’) because face value is the only way these songs could possibly matter.”

“If the Boys are still more ‘about disco’ than ‘are disco,’ well, Poison’s more ‘about rock’n’roll’ than ‘are rock’n’roll’ (‘Your Mama Don’t Dance’ might be a joke too, y’know), and Introspective‘s confusedly jubilant enough to earn the comparison. These sly devils are a (plastic) pop group, not some late-capitalist zeitgeist. But sometimes they’re even funnier than the real thing.”

“Yet I’m left breathless by the hog-stomping Baroque disco-grandeur (shades of Alec Constandino’s Hunchback of Notre Dame) that opens Introspective, a Shopping Channel sellout that’s the best Pet Shop album for the same reason ‘West End Girls’ is their best single: most gleeful hooks, most persistent throb, most flamin maneuvers, most evocatively dopey writing, least cynical bullshit. The groove’s more sensuous, finally closer to Exposé than Erasure.”


Pet Shop Boys, Critically (8)


As promised, a few snippets from Barry Walters’s Voice review of Please, dated June 3, 1986. There’s a lot of funny and interesting stuff in this review, and it’s tricky quoting bits from it sans context — much of the review is centered around the then-merely perceived notion of the Pet Shop Boys’s gayness — so I’ll limit my sampling to specific bits which hopefully won’t require too much additional cross-explanation.

“I don’t know if the Pet Shop Boys are gay. If not, they should be, judging from Please, a top 10 hit. They aren’t of the Boy George I’m-so-camp-I’m-sexless variety. Nor do they wear bondage gear like early Frankie or fishnet stockings over their faces like Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Their look is post-clone gay-next-door. The Boys could pass for straight, but their record collection gives them away. They used to be big fans of Bobby Orlando, who produced hits for Flirts, Waterfront Home, and Divine, as well as the original version of their own ‘West End Girls.’ Nowadays Pet Shop Boys are to hiphop what the Bee Gees were to disco, but with brains.”

{It’s remarkable, in a way, just how forgotten is the fact that “West End Girls” was a white UK version of — in 1986, apparently un-hyphenated — hiphop (though not the first; “Wham Rap,” anyone?), perhaps because the song’s obvious disco underpinnings muddied the waters a bit. (Tennant has said repeatedly that he had “The Message” and The Waste Land in mind.) The Bee Gees “but with brains” line is a triumph, and should’ve been cited in the Pets’ ad copy.}

“The songs on Please are about love, lust, making money, and watching civilization decay. Their music isn’t the Jesus and Mary Chain, but neither is it Howard Jones.”

{Which do you choose, the hard or soft option? The Jesus and Mary Chain reference is entirely apt, but it seems so bizarre to me now to think that Please and Psychocandy occupied the same universe at roughly the same time; one of these records feels to me like it was recorded yesterday, the other feels like it was recorded… well, 28 years ago. I still love parts of Psychocandy, actually, but it hasn’t felt like a part of the present since the year it was released.}

“Things can’t only get better, but to the Pet Shop Boys, sticking together helps. Songs like ‘Two Divided by Zero’ and ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money)’ are classic cases of boy bonding, and you can imagine vocalist, ex-Smash Hits writer Neil Tennant singing them to his buddy on keyboards, Chris Lowe. On the spoken verses, Tennant’s sinuously prissy diction suggests a private school lad gone bad. When he sings the choruses, his thin, vibratoless tenor resembles Al ‘Year of the Cat’ Stewart.”

{Tennant quickly established his vocal gifts — “vibratoless” is apt, and part of the appeal — so the Stewart comparison, frequent in ’86 and ’87, didn’t follow him around forever.}

“Viewed as a straight love song, ‘Why Don’t We Live Together?’ updates Al Green’s ‘Let’s Get Married.’ Heard as a plea of devotion from one man to another, the song’s domestic dream becomes daringly political, even revolutionary. Maybe I want the Pet Shop Boys to be something they’re not. Yet after countless tales of woe and sleaze from smalltown boys not glad to be gay but still selling a walk on the wild side, I can’t help but get excited by a man who wants to settle down and get down too.”

“…smalltown boys not glad to be gay but still selling a walk on the wild side…” Wonderful stuff! It’s interesting to compare Walters’ 1986 are-they-or-aren’t-they comments on this song with Alfred Soto’s insistence, in 2013 (from our first PSB podcast*) that “Live Together” seals the deal on the question of their gayness.

More Voice/PSB throwdowns to come.

* And BTW, there will be more PSB podcasts eventually. Alfred and I recorded a fourth, with a special guest, which we had to scrap because the audio quality was so bad. but we hope to re-do it again, and we have others in line also. The whole thing is held up right now by technical (and employment) issues, but hopefully we’ll be back with some chats in the not-too-distant future.

Open the Door, Richard

Pitchfork: The first column at The Voice to do this with music was Richard Goldstein’s “Pop Eye”. He wasn’t there for very long, but he developed a unique way to approach music intellectually and enthusiastically at the same time.

DP: Goldstein started writing at The Village Voice in 1966, after finishing his masters in journalism at Columbia. He wanted to write about pop with a capital P: It’s mass culture, it’s democratic, but at the same time, it can be cunning, smart, tongue-in-cheek. At this point, no one else was taking that approach. You can see a juxtaposition with Crawdaddy, which was Paul Williams’ publication. Where Williams really just wanted to be serious, Goldstein wanted to be meta. He was friends with Bob Christgau and Ellen Willis, and they’re starting to figure out, “How do we develop a new language for talking about music?”

Pitchfork: One of the fascinating and, in a way, tragic things about Goldstein’s story is the identity crisis that he developed in public through his writing. At first, he embraced pop. But he quickly started resenting its commercialization and valorizing the underground.

DP: The “underground” is an idea that Goldstein is key in developing. Not to say that there weren’t people covering things out of the limelight before, but he’s central to the use of the word “underground” and this idea that there is a submerged culture happening on its own terms. At first, Richard gets very fired up about the possibilities of pop to radically reinvent society. Remember, it’s the 1960s, so we’re talking about the beliefs of the counterculture for world change. All of this infuses him and his writing. Very quickly, though, he gets jaded, as I think many people in their late 20s can relate to. But also, when we think about rock in the 60s getting completely commercialized, we don’t realize that it happened in the span of 28 months, really. The big money started falling in, which has an ironic relationship to the music. It helps the music to spread but at the same time, especially for somebody who was on the ground observing it, it could be a very depressing change.

Eric Harvey interviews Devon Powers about Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism, which I just ordered this morning. I’m probably looking as forward to the telling of Goldstein’s place in all this as I am to Christgau’s, given that I really know only the most obvious, scant details about RG. (There’s also the recent news to consider that Christgau is releasing a memoir of his own.)

New Devon Powers book on history of rock criticism


Revisiting the work of early pop critics such as Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau, Powers shows how they stood at the front lines of the mass culture debates, challenging old assumptions and hierarchies and offering pioneering political and social critiques of the music. Part of a college-educated generation of journalists, Voice critics explored connections between rock and contemporary intellectual trends such as postmodernism, identity politics, and critical theory. In so doing, they became important forerunners of the academic study of popular culture that would emerge during the 1970s.

– Press release for Devon Powers’s upcoming tome, Writing the Record: The Village Voice and the Birth of Rock Criticism.

Consider me stoked. Or anyway, intrigued.


“I am of the belief that there are two distinct schools of rock journalists: (1) those for whom punk rock was the most important thing that ever happened, and, (2) everybody else (who, for lack of a better collective noun, I will call ‘shitheads’). Shitheads write about whatever is presented to them, non-judgmentally treating all styles of music as equals, distinguished from each other only by superficial stylistic elements. From the shithead school comes the deification of hip hop, AM radio floss, salsa, zydeco, blues and jazz artists, who ought really to be judged against either the entire spectrum of popular culture (against which their insignificance becomes obvious) or other practitioners of specific-genre music (against whom their minute differences might be measured).”
Steve Albini, Pazz & Jop, 1987

Carola Dibbell on Fiction and Music Writing

An interview with Carola Dibbell at Black Clock:

BLACK CLOCK: You wrote rock criticism on and off for thirty years and have spoken before about the leakage between fiction and music writing. Can you explain what you mean by that? What role has music played in your fiction?

CAROLA DIBBELL: In the early seventies, I was surprised and impressed by the rock writing in Dave Marsh’s and Lester Bangs’ Creem, and a little later in the Village Voice music section, edited by Robert Christgau, my husband. In this fledgling and disreputable form, you could be vulgar, personal, amateurish and formally ambitious all at once and actually be read. It gave me a chance to do things with the voice and tone and disorder I was already exploring in fiction that was not actually read. It took longer for me to bring those rock critic elements into my fiction except, I suppose, that writing about pop led me to contemplate genre fiction. Then, in the late nineties, when my fiction was going nowhere, I made a conscious decision to let the rock critic write the fiction, sort of, and the fiction changed a lot.