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July 10, 1969, Vol. XIV, No. 39
Consumer Guide I
by Robert Christgau
Unless you are very rich and very freaky, your relationship to rock is nothing like mine. By profession, I am surfeited with records and live music. Virtually every rock lp produced in this country is mailed to me automatically, and I am asked to go to more concerts and clubs than I can bear. I own about 90 per cent of the worthwhile rock albums released since the start of the Beatles era, and occasionally I play every one of them. Nevertheless, I haven’t heard half the lps in my collection in six months. All this has a double-edged effect. On the one hand, I am impatient with music that is derivative and see through cheap gimmicks easily. On the other, I can afford to revel in marginal differentiation, delighting in odd and minor talents that might not be worth the money of someone who has to pay for his music.
Rock writers in general are so sick of the mediocrity and the bad hype that they simply don’t listen to most of the records they receive. I try to, but my methods are necessarily somewhat mechanical. Even if I spent 16 hours a day listening to music — I would estimate the actual figure, by the way, at around eight — I couldn’t give each group the time each group believes its record deserves. So I tend to make a lot of snap judgments, sometimes based on decidedly extra-musical criteria (like what label it’s on, or what the group looks like), and since I believe that rock is supposed to grab you by the balls anyway, I demand that groups I haven’t heard of — and most of those I have — do just that.
I have two apartments. One is equipped with an excellent stereo system, the other with a pretty good portable. In the first I store records I really like — the permanent collection. In the other I store records I kind of like or think I should hold on to — the reference collection. After I lug the day’s haul home from the post office, I divide it immediately into three categories: Maybe, Conceivable, and Forget It. Maybes are placed near the good sound system; the rest are transported to the second apartment and placed in either a sell pile or a listen pile. Maybes I have usually been hyped on somehow (some of them are really Certains) or else look interesting. Records from relatively dependable labels — Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Columbia, Stax — are usually Maybes. The Forget It category includes movie soundtracks, third-rate country artists, most straight pop and soul jazz. Conceivables are everything in between. I play every rock record I receive at least once.
This does not mean that I try to get into every one. Except with records I have been actively anticipating, I work chronologically and with dispatch, sometimes piling records on the changer 10 at a time as I read, write, make phone calls or fart around. If the record makes me want to listen more carefully, good. Usually it doesn’t. Sometimes I can tell a record is a Forget It after one cut or one side. More often, I will play through and then find itself in one of the second-listen piles. Eventually, at least half the rock records I receive are discarded altogether. Others are kept but never really apprehended, just singled out as having some good quality and forgotten. Others, of course, become part of my life. That’s what it’s all for.
Even though music is my greatest pleasure, the pleasure is often casual. I rarely listen carefully to lyrics or follow a solo note for note unless I’m reviewing something at length or I’m stoned. When I’m stoned, I rarely play records I don’t already love. (Stoned or unstoned I listen constantly to the Stones, less constantly to Otis Redding, and less constantly than that to everything else. Newer acquisitions, naturally, get disproportionate attention.) I suspect that many rock fans would say (thought I’m not sure I agree) that they dig the music more because every record they buy has its day or week of glory. Nevertheless, I feel a certain obligation to pass along my findings. Some people, I know, actually buy records on the name and the jacket. This is bad practice. I can’t think of three records in the permanent collection that didn’t involve some sort of tipoff — news in the trades, other reviews, advice from friends, hype from one of the few industry people I trust, or familiarity with personnel. So I have devised a rating system and will occasionally run one of these Consumer Guides — the rating plus whatever information seems pertinent. Results are not guaranteed — I change my mind a lot, and I’ve missed good things in my time. I will make no attempt to be systematic or current — records have a way of getting lost in the second-listen piles. Nor will I exercise my customary rapier wit. Consumer Guides will be designed solely for the prospective buyer. Those who seek entertainment will have to repair to Walter Troy Spencer for the week.
The rating system will be A down to E with all the plusses and minuses, based on the question: If I was going away and could only take 100 records along, what are the chances this would be among them? (Don’t laugh — last vacation I took about 75 and favored the newer stuff.) As are certain. Bs are Maybe. Cs are Conceivable. Ds are Have Some Minimal Merit But Who Cares. Es are Shit. Remember my prejudices, now — I am indifferent to most rock improvisation, dislike white blues, love black blues but can do without many of the second-raters riding the current crest, and am very anti-pretension. Let’s move it.
Procol Harum: “A Salty Dog” (A&M). A plus. A new discovery; haven’t stopped playing it since seeing them at the Fillmore.
“Cat Mother & the All-Night Newsboys” (Polydor). C plus. On about three tries, a great bringdown from their live performance.
“Sea Train” (A&M). C minus. Group includes Andy Kulberg and Roy Blumenfeld of the old Blues Project, though I hear Blumenfeld has left; softer than the Project, and artier; talent unrealized.
The Grateful Dead: “Aoxomoxoa” (Warner Brothers). A. One experimental cut which hasn’t made it for me yet, otherwise fantastic.
Country Joe & the Fish: “Here We Are Again” (Vanguard). D plus. A sad ego trip.
Phil Ochs: “Rehearsals for Retirement” (A&M). B. The arrangements, which Phil is no longer allowed to do, are excellent and work for his voice; contains some predictable bummers but two great flashes, “The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns” and “Another Age.”
“Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band’s Greatest Hits” (Vanguard). D. Unexceptional white blues, much below their excellent first album
“The Original Delaney & Bonnie” (Elektra). A plus.
“The Velvet Underground” (Verve/Forecast). A. Contains another bummer experiment, some stereo mystery, but otherwise their best — melodic, literate, compellingly sung; Paul Williams loves it.
“The Charlatans” (Philips). B minus. Excellent competent rock; Sandy Pearlman likes it.
Alexander Spence: “Oar” (Columbia). C minus. Strangest record of the year, slow and lugubrious, completely lacking the explosive energy Spence used to bring to Moby Grape when he called himself Skip and swung axes at people; by anyone else it would disappear immediately.
Poco: “Pickin’ Up the Pieces” (Epic). B. Nice and happy, but considering the personnel a disappointment; Richie Furay and Jim Messina should do better than this; may be reevaluated.
Mavis Staples: “Mavis” (Stax). B plus. In the absence of Janis and Aretha, Mavis may end up the female singer of the year; unique range and power with a touch too much showbiz.
“Boy Meets Girl” (Stax). B plus. All the Stax singers duoing; like most two-record sets has some waste cuts but they don’t really matter.
“The Fairport Convention” (A&M). A minus. Most interesting unknown group I’ve heard in a while, in control from Pentangle-style ballads to straight rock and a good version of an obscure Dylan song called “I’ll Keep It with Mine”; should be worth re-evaluating.
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