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A CRITIQUE OF THE CRITICAL

Michael_Jackson_-_Thriller

I shudder to think what’s on his mind

I once saw a horribly negative album review of Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ by a music writer with a forgettable name.  I can still recall that the reviewer was incredibly disappointed by what he felt was a lack of innovation and imagination from an artist with such great potential.  I remember the words “Predictable” and “Cliched” being thrown about and an expressed hope that Michael Jackson would return to the style of his previous LP ‘Off the Wall’.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dig out this particular article anywhere on the internet (I’m almost certain its author did a hi-tech, CIA-style wipe to remove all traces of his shocking misjudgment of the world’s biggest selling record) but during my search, I found some other doozies that got me thinking about the role of critics…

“Spoiled”, “Fraudulent”, “Surprising shoddiness of composition” and “Undistinguished collection of work” are words and phrases one might expect to be used in describing a disposable mainstream release from a shallow and predictable Pop-star mascaraing as an artist (picture whomever you will).  Instead, this terminology was employed by ‘New York Times’ critic Richard Goldstein in 1967 to characterize The Beatle’s ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, arguably the most artistically accomplished album in the history of popular music.  While it is certainly forgivable if some music enthusiasts feel this album is unnecessarily grandiose or melodramatic and even argue that ‘Pepper’ has been a bit over-rated, it was then and is now silly to call the LP “Bad”.

SgtPepper

That palm on the right must be the most famous trees ever

Richard Goldstein’s slash-and-burn treatment regarded ‘Within You and Without You’ as George Harrison’s “Latest excursion into curry and karma”. he labelled ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ “an engaging curio, but nothing more”.  Paul McCartney’s ballad ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is viewed as an “Uninspired narrative” with “Emaciated framework”.  Surprisingly, Goldstein’s piece neglected to mention ‘Pepper’s’ classic, opening theme tune or the now iconic ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ but he did opine that ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ was proof that John “Lennon’s raunchiness has become mere caprice”, whatever that means.  Despite this contrary review, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ was an immediate favorite of fans and the entertainment press so two weeks after his initial Molotov cocktail, Goldstein wrote a new column where he significantly softened his blows and lamented that “If being a critic were the same as being a listener, i could just enjoy this album”; from his mouth to God’s ears.

led zep 1

The Hindenburg got better reviews than Led Zeppelin

In 1968, Led Zeppelin’s self-titled debut album showcased four rock virtuosos (John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Bonham) almost literally exploding out of a speaker.  The first track ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ features Bonham’s imaginatively intricate double-kick-pedal rhythms, a funky bass solo from Jones, Plant’s powerful, rangy vocals and the scorching guitar work of Page but with all this evidence in the air, ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine’s John Mendelsohn skewered ‘The Zep’ and labelled them a “Two-(or more accurately, one-and-a-half) man show”.  Mendelsohn went on to mock the group’s production which, considering this particular album’s many technical innovations, truly reveals how out of his depth this writer was.  Mendelsohn summed it all up by lamenting that ‘Led Zeppelin’ was “Wasting their considerable talent on unworthy material”.  He might has well have mocked the US Armed Forces for going light on Hiroshima.

Black_Sabbath_debut_album

I don’t think she gardens

Lester Bangs, a writer from the same publication, did a comparatively ridiculous hatchet-job on Black Sabbath’s first record in 1970 calling the material “Shuck” from “Musicians (learning) out of a book”.  This review, along with the ‘Zeppelin’ example, simply tells me that, at the time, Rolling Stone writers were not really into heavy blues bands, maybe they favored more artsy groups like ‘The Velvet Underground’ or a protest act a la ‘Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’.  Whatever the case, Mendelsohn and Bangs were the wrong men for the job and their awful and misdiagnosed reviews only demonstrate the shortcomings of two critics rather than the music they skewered.  It’s also worth mentioning that once ‘Zeppelin’ and ‘Sabbath’ were established rock juggernauts, Rolling Stone was more than happy to grant these bands cover stories which some might see as a purely commercial interest.

Fresh-Mode-cover

I just wanted to put one of our albums in the same article as MJ, The Beatles, Zep and Sabbath

As a member of the relatively non-notable band ‘Ugly Duckling’, my work has been subject to the mighty pens of the professionally critical and for the most part, reviews were fair-minded.  Occasionally, our work was attacked by people who obviously didn’t enjoy the type of music we did and, early on, we found this extremely frustrating.  In one case, a ‘Gangsta-Rap’ enthusiast called us “Soft” which, to be fair, would be an apt description of ‘U.D.’ for any person who prefers songs about mass-murder and human-trafficking.  But to fault someone for being, artistically, who they are is not really a method of critique but merely a subjective expression of the critic’s personal taste.  It would be like a punk rocker putting down a country singer for being “Twangy” or dismissing a symphony for lasting too long; that’s the whole point.

The other thing critics often do, albeit understandably, is liken an artist’s work to something else that’s not entirely dissimilar.  While comparison is useful in describing anything, it is often employed to dismiss or simplify things, particularly by those who don’t understand much of the nuance and subtly of recorded music.  Richard Goldstein summed up ‘Sgt. Pepper’ as “A touch of ‘Jefferson Airplane’, a dab of ‘Beach Boys’ vibrations and a generous pat of gymnastics from ‘The Who'”.  John Mendelsohn claimed that ‘Led Zeppelin’ was “Sadly reminiscent of Jeff Beck” while Lester Bangs felt ‘Black Sabbath’ was akin to ‘Vanilla Fudge’ “Paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley” and a “Stiff recitation of ‘Cream’ cliches”.

When using simple and obvious examples to point out one album’s similarities to another, critics attempt to give their subjective opinions an aura of expertise and power.  Let’s be honest, outside of fire, wheels and the book of Genesis, there has never been a single thing created that is not like something else.  If one stretches hard enough, he or she could link any two pieces of modern popular music: they’re almost all in 4/4 time, using chords, melodies and repeating phrases.  The important thing about real critique, in my view, is attempting to discover what, if anything, makes a work of art unique and substantial, how any singer, instrumentalist or group distinguishes themselves from their contemporaries and carves out a path to expression.  ‘Louie, Louie’, ‘More Than a Feeling’ and ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, all famous hit songs loved by various generations, have comparable chord structures and rhythms but what each track accomplishes artistically and culturally is totally different.

facebook-thumbs-down

In 2015, the role of elite, taste-making critics is a lot less significant then it was in the glory-days of 1960’s counter-culture.  Modern social media devices allow any of us to post and display our own points of view for the world (our friends) to read, I’m doing it right now.  While these technological vehicles often provide license for reckless and cruel nay-saying which, more often than not, seeks to provoke anger rather than analyze, I am glad for the openness and honesty.  As an artist, it’s valuable to get a feel for the way people see any particular work even if the reviews are not favorable; sometimes it’s good to know that you’re hated by the right people.  Whatever the sentiment, i enjoy the opinions of others and I don’t expect anyone else to have my tastes, one man’s Bach is another man’s Beck.  Going forward, I only hope that critics the world over take into account their subject’s intent and direction when evaluating the quality of their offerings.

Now, with all that down, I’d give this article 3 stars out of 5.  I’ll admit that I made some nice points but it’s all about stuff from 50 years ago.  Plus, the piece goes on far too long and nobody’s even going to get to this bit.

Posted on by andycooper in ANDY'S ANGLE, CLASSIC POP, THE UGLY (DUCKLING) TRUTH

2 Responses to A CRITIQUE OF THE CRITICAL

  1. Jamie souter

    Nice work. Enjoyed it! And after seeing the fresh mode cover was expecting you to expand. But you didn’t which is ok as it was just an aside really, but it got me thinking about that record and how when I listen to it it just feels so different to form of the current recordings which I think is great. Ramble ramble I have a point, tired and a few rums too many, will expand later. But I did write a diatribe about this very subject on your FB wall a few years ago!

    • andycooper

      glad you liked the free ep and feel free to ramble om anytime, i enjoy the convesation!

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