Critics Bloody Critics (Part 2)

Let’s be fair. Sometimes critics just don’t fully understand what they are dealing with. Sometimes a band is so far ahead of their time, or so different from what came before, that a fair critical evaluation is difficult, if not impossible. And what do critics always do with something that they don’t understand? They hate it, of course. What do critics do with something that becomes hugely popular, despite their protestations? They try to kill it.

With Black Sabbath, they failed… although it would take decades before Sabbath were fully accepted by the mainstream. The Rolling Stone Record Guide tells an interesting story: In the 1979 edition of this venerable reference book, the review of Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ album received a lowly One Star. Ditto in the 1983 edition. In the 1992 edition, RS upgraded ‘Paranoid’ to 3.5 Stars. 2004: Five Stars. So it took RS 34 years to fully understand what we all knew in 1970.

Rolling Stone was the most widely-read and well-respected rock mags of the 70s. And they got Black Sabbath wrong four times on a row, trashing each Sabbath album from ‘Black Sabbath’ right through ‘Vol 4’. Robert Christgau, writer for The Village Voice, and self-proclaimed ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’, was another important journalist of the era who disparaged or dismissed Sabbath at every opportunity. The legendary Lester Bangs, whose work appeared in Rolling Stone and also in Creem, was also responsible for the first trashing of Sabbath in the American press: a scathing review of Sabbath’s debut. Journalists in the UK were no less abusive. So the biggest writers and publications in 70s music journalism all stepped up to disparage the Black Sabbath phenomenon. Of course, the widespread critical disdain of Black Sabbath did not destroy them; in fact, as we saw in Part I, it only made them stronger.

Now: A word about Grand Funk:

Before the mainstream the rock cognoscenti decided that Black Sabbath Must Be Destroyed, Grand Funk Railroad was their favorite whipping boy. GFR’s first 6 albums were all universally panned by critics; 8 of their first 9 went Top Ten in the U.S. The band also scored four Top Ten singles during 1973/74. Despite their enormous popularity, critics consistently dismissed the band and their music, attributing their success to ‘hype’, constantly referring to their music as ‘phony’, and generally unleashing the same level of vitriol and spite that they would visit upon Black Sabbath. In fact, writers often referenced GFR while beating up Sabbath, as we’ll see below, while we look back at how Sabbath’s first four albums were assessed by the more notable writers of the early 1970s…

BLACK SABBATH

black-sabbath-evil-woman-wicked-world-572084Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone: “Over across the tracks in the industrial side of Cream country lie unskilled laborers like Black Sabbath, which was hyped as a rockin’ ritual celebration of the Satanic mass or some such claptrap… The whole album is a shuck—despite the murky songtitles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley… —just like Cream! But worse.”

Robert Christgau, The Village Voice: “The worst of the counterculture on a plastic platter–bullshit necromancy, drug-impaired reaction time, long solos, everything… I’ve been worried something like this was going to happen since the first time I saw a numerology column in an underground newspaper. C-“

556544ddc0e22_110247bPARANOID

Robert Christgau: “They do take heavy to undreamt-of extremes, and I suppose I could enjoy them as camp, like a horror movie–the title cut is definitely screamworthy. After all, their audience can’t take that Lucifer bit seriously, right? C-“

Nick Tosches, Rolling Stone, April, 1971: Tosches, a highly-respected writer, wrote a 1,500 word ‘review’ that mentions neither the band’s name nor the name of the record, or any of the songs on it, blatantly dismissing both the band and the album. If there’s a point to his critique, I suppose it can be found in his use of the term ‘bubblegum satanism’.

MASTER OF REALITY

Richard Green, New Musical Express, August 1971: “At last here it is, but don’t expect this one to win any awards. It is quite possible to play tracks at random and, with one or two exceptions, not be able to tell much difference… Sorry, lads, not this time.”

Mike Saunders, The Rag, September 1971: “Grand Funk has been the most important band in the land for the last year, which you’re probably aware of anyway. Grand Funk in concert are as big an attraction as the Beatles were in their heyday, and the truth is this: Grand Funk are the first SUPERGROUP, popularity-wise, America has ever had. Black Sabbath have been creeping up on Grand Funk, though… Well, what should one make of all this? Is it all just another sign of the decadence that seems to be everywhere these days?”

Lester Bangs, Rolling Stone, November, 1971: “The real question is whether Black Sabbath can grow and evolve, as a band like the MC5 has, so that there is a bit more variation in their sound from album to album. And that’s a question this group hasn’t answered yet.”

Black_Sabbath-_Children_of_the_GraveRobert Christgau: “As an increasingly regretful spearhead of the great Grand Funk switch, in which critics redefined GFR as a 1971 good old-fashioned rock and roll band even though I’ve never met a critic (myself included) who actually played the records, I feel entitled to put this in its place. Grand Funk is like an American white blues band of three years ago–dull. Black Sabbath is English–dull and decadent. I don’t care how many rebels and incipient groovies are buying. I don’t even care if the band members believe in their own Christian/satanist/liberal murk. This is a dim-witted, amoral exploitation. C-“

VOL 4

Lester Bangs emerged in June of 1972 as a full-fledged convert, vehemently supporting Sabbath’s music as well as their message. His extensive 2-part piece in CREEM is not only an intelligent and passionate analysis of the Sabbath phenom (Master of Reality was then at #8 in the US, pulling the two previous LPs back into the Hot 100 with it), but also one of the finest pieces of rock writing you or I will ever read.

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Bangs peeks behind the curtain of negative hype and busts several myths surrounding Sabbath. The legendary scribe even goes so far as to compare the lyrics in ‘War Pigs’ to those in Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’, in a bid to legitimize Sabbath’s oft-misunderstood lyrical stance. To stand tall among your peers and compare one of the most respected songwriters in all of rock music to one of the most hated and reviled bands ever took massive balls. Cheers to you, Lester Bangs. For the rest of Sabbath’s critics, however, it was still business as usual…

Tomorrow'sdreamTom Clark, Rolling Stone, December, 1972: “As the Sabs poured into ‘Wheels of Confusion’ like giant gobs of wet cement gushing from the heavens in the never-ending sameness of a taffy-pull performed by mutants…”

The rest of Clark’s review is jammed with more of this bizarre language and exaggerated hippie-speak, rendering the review impossible to comprehend or take seriously:

Ten-ton dogs snarled in the mouth of the volcano. Storms of liquid metal blasted their way into the soap factory. Soaring zoos, etc.”

Billboard Magazine, hardly able to hide their sarcasm, wrote: “The red kings of demon rock have gotten it together and gifted their adoring public with a long awaited fourth album. They have not disinterred any new musical pathways here, their sounds are, as always, immediately recognizable. Some nice titles include ‘Wheels of Confusion’, ‘St Vitus Dance’, and ‘Cornucopia’.”

Max Bell, Let It Rock, December 1972: “Despite Black Sabbath’s protestations that they have spent both a great deal of time and money on their latest album (earthshatteringly entitled Volume 4) the end product still manages to be a monumental bore. In the past, say the Sabbath, their discs have suffered from a lack of the above essentials and, as a result, they have failed to do themselves justice on record. I am inclined to think that even with unlimited resources they would be hard put to make a really good album. They just don’t have sufficient talent or musical direction.”

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

51b5997502db1_110247nBy 1973 and Sabbath’s fifth album, the shift in critical appraisal that Lester Bangs began the previous year had begun to take hold. It didn’t hurt that ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ displays a healthy level of maturity and subtlety, and the band was rewarded with their first positive mainstream reviews. Their detractors were still out there, but the tide was starting to turn…

Gordon Fletcher, Rolling Stone, February, 1974: “This record transcends third-generation rock in that it possesses a degree of internal intricacy that belies popular conceptions of heavy-metal… An extraordinarily gripping affair… Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath is nothing less than a complete success.”

SABOTAGE

Billy Altman, Rolling Stone, September, 1975: “Sabotage is not only Black Sabbath’s best record since Paranoid, it might be their best ever… Even with the usual themes of death, destruction and mental illness running throughout this album, the unleashed frenzy and raw energy they’ve returned to here comes like a breath of fresh air.”

So Black Sabbath survived all attempts to destroy them, and a gradual critical reappraisal had begun. You’d think that after all of this, by the time of Van Halen’s debut, the critics would have learned their lesson:

Richard Riegel, reviewing Van Halen’s debut, Creem 1978: “LET ME TELL you about dinosaurs. No, ‘dinosaurs’ may be too harsh a term, even if Van Halen-style rockers do find their evolutionary fulfillment in a quick extinction…. Van Halen. Big rock. Remember the names. Extinct is forever.”

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Diver Down, Listener Pissed

When I was a kid, there was an advertisement in almost every comic book I read for a mail order “monster”, 7 feet tall with glow-in-the-dark eyes. It only cost ONE DOLLAR (plus .25 for shipping and handling). I had to have it, and so I asked my mom to write out a check for a buck and sent away for it. After what seemed like several months, it finally arrived. The “monster” was a crappy rendering of the Frankenstein Monster, printed on cheap, garbage bag-like material. Oh, and there were two tiny phosphorescent stickers that you has to stick over his eyes for the “chilling” glow-in-the-dark effect mentioned in the ad. It was a huge let-down. Even as a little kid I thought, ‘all that waiting, all that excitement and anticipation, for this? What a rip-off’.

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 That, my friends, is exactly how I felt after hearing Van Halen’s fifth album, ‘Diver Down’.

 As the 70’s gave way to the ’80’s, Van Halen were the most dangerous band on earth. They had it all: monster chops, a badass image, a steamroller live show. Van Halen records were open invitations to an endless party. They effortlessly filled the void left by US hard rock dinosaurs like Kiss, Aerosmith, Nugent and Blue Oyster Cult, who had all seemingly gone extinct by the end of the decade. By 1982, they owned hard rock.

 So why is their 5th album such a joke? What the fuck happened? In June of ’82, Rolling Stone said that ‘Diver Down’ proved that Van Halen were ‘running out of ideas’. It sure looked that way on the surface, as the whole of DD is made up of 5 cover songs, 3 instrumentals and only 4 original songs, one of which was demo’d back in 1977 and recycled here with a new title and new lyrics. But didn’t 1984’s ‘1984’ prove RS wrong? So then, what is the story behind this shameless excuse for an ‘LP’? Who’s to blame? And why? It’s been thirty-two years and I still want to know who to see about getting my money back.

 Van Halen - Diver Down (1982)

In lieu of that refund, we’ve at least gotten an explanation: After the mammoth ‘Fair Warning’ tour, Van Halen needed a break. To feed the machine while taking a well-deserved rest, the band recorded a cover of Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman”, backed it with another cover, this time a rendition of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans’ closing TV theme song “Happy Trails” (another ‘song’ demo’d back in ’77), and filmed a music video for the single for MTv. While the single and video were intended to buy the band time to recuperate from the grueling ‘Fair Warning’ tour, it instead became a hit, prompting Warner Bros. to invoke their contractual option and demand an album. Immediately. The label wanted the record fast, in order to capitalize on the success of the single. It’s always about money.

 With no time to write any new material, VH was forced to enter the studio and somehow come up with enough material to make an album. This was not a band “running out of ideas”; rather, it was a band with no time to think; to create. So Van Halen, recorded one ‘song’ per day until they passed the thirty-minute mark, somehow pulling enough scraps of this & that together to hand in to their label, who weren’t the least bit interested in concepts like ‘quality’, or ‘value for money’. Who cares if the record sucks? The single is red-hot, so fans will buy the album. The WB execs were right: by 1998, ‘Diver Down’ had sold 4 million copies… twice as much as their previous effort, ‘Fair Warning’. Bastards.

 Slide

Is this the worst Quadruple-Platinum album ever? Maybe. It might also be the shortest. All of the albums from the Diamond Dave era are brief; only one VH album creeps past the 35 minute mark: their 1978 debut. And although ‘Diver Down’ might feel like the shortest listen in the VH catalog, ‘Fair Warning’ holds that title, at a mere 30 minutes, 58 seconds. But ‘Fair Warning’ is a proper album, a substantive, satisfying experience… ‘Diver Down’ is just filler padded with fluff. An record with the impressive track count of 12 songs that ultimately adds up to 31:24 is either the worst LP ever, or the greatest EP ever.

I worked hard listening to this record, trying to find reasons to like it. For a while I refused to accept that it was just plain bad; I must have been missing something. But try as I might, “Hang em High” and “The Full Bug” just weren’t enough for me. After the dark menace of ‘Fair Warning’, this half-assed lightweight was a real curveball. The idea of 3 instrumentals might sound exciting, but when one of them is a synthesizer/drum drone with lead guitar played with a beer can (I’m serious; look it up), then look elsewhere for EVH’s latest mind-blowing innovation. This from the greatest guitarist since Hendrix. It was pretty clear Eddie’s heart wasn’t in this.

I’m sure lots of kids were as bewildered as I was, but there were obviously four million fans who ate it up. There are hardcore DD defenders on the internet today, super-fans lacking any objectivity, in complete denial, and loyal to a fault. I respect that. The album still sucks. It’s an ugly zit on the face of the otherwise impeccable Dave-era Van Halen catalog.

As Johnny Rotten once asked, “”Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” I did. If only we’d known at the time that ‘Diver Down’ was a ‘contractual obligation album’; that our heroes were threatened with legal action to enter the studio under duress and with nothing and somehow deliver a commercially viable product to appease the suits. Viewed through that lens, the ‘Diver Down’ fiasco makes perfect sense.

diver-down

There were, however, right under our noses all along, significant clues to what was going on here… The band chose the title and cover art for good reason: flying the ‘diver down’ flag indicates a SCUBA diver is submerged somewhere in the area. David Lee Roth cryptically said at the time that the album cover was supposed to show that “there was something going on that’s not apparent to your eyes. You put up the red flag with the white slash. It means, it’s not immediately apparent to your eyes what is going on underneath the surface.” Genius. Record still sucks.

The critics had a field day with ‘Diver Down’. Here’s the last paragraph of Jeffrey Morgan’s review of DD from the August 1982 issue of Creem Magazine:

“Just when Van Halen needed to come back with a killer album to cement their status in the marketplace as the current rock ‘n’ roll kings, they had to go and pull a stunt like this. Diver Down is as bad a career move as I’ve ever seen so much so that if these guys are featured in this magazine in two year’s time, I’ll be surprised. And don’t laugh: if it happened to Aerosmith, it could happen to these bozos, too.”

Here’s the very next issue of Creem Magazine, dated September 1982:

CREEM-DAVID-LEE-ROTH-SEPT-1982

Not only were Van Halen featured, but they were on the front freakin’ cover. Thankfully, VH survived the debacle; the U.S.S. Van Halen was sturdy enough to withstand one stinker. Truly great bands can survive one bad album…even if it’s 7 feet tall and has eyes that glow in the dark.

 

1978

It’s 2013, the Chinese year of the snake. Year of the Black Water Snake, to be precise. Didn’t know they got that specific.

For me, 1978 will always be Year of the Metal, because it was a hugely-impactful year for me, music-wise.

Before 1978, I had been listening to bits of hard rock on the radio for a few years, as a lot of hard rock bands had big singles that were played on AM Top 40 Radio back in 1976 and ‘77. Anything on the radio that featured loud guitars caught my ear back then: Aerosmith, Nugent, Rick Derringer, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Foghat. Also my older sister had Zeppelin albums!! But the mighty Kiss reigned supreme in my music universe. Kiss had spent the last few years brainwashing me and kids all over the world into believing that they were, in total fact, “The Hottest Band In The Land”. (Gene Simmons probably just got paid because I typed all of those public domain words in that sequence.) And on February 2nd of 1978, I saw them live on the ‘Alive II’ tour at the Providence Civic Center (since renamed the ‘Dunkin Donuts Center’…wtf?) in Rhode Island. Yes, my head exploded; yes, NOW I was a super-fan for life! It sure would take one helluva band to knock Kiss off the throne. No one could ever tell me that Kiss were not actually the Hottest you-know-what in the you-know-where.

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The weekend after I saw Kiss live, I accidentally recorded (on a blank 8-track!) a portion of WAAF’s ‘Friday Night Six Pack’ while playing around with my dad’s brand new stereo system. The ‘Six Pack’ played 6 complete albums during the overnight hours overnight every Friday, some of which were due to be released the following week. I woke up Saturday morning and saw that I had recorded something, and played it all back, and my world changed forever. I had captured most of Van Halen’s as yet unreleased debut album. I bought my copy at Music Machine the following Tuesday; $5.77 plus tax. That record knocked me flat on my ass every time I put it on. Suddenly Kiss seemed silly, tame, juvenile; even cheesy. I still loved Kiss (and still do, up through side four of ‘Alive II’ anyway), but I no longer felt that they were The Greatest Rock Band Of All Time. My mind sufficiently blown, I found that I was suddenly much more receptive to music made by bands that were not Kiss.

Powerage

The following month, March of ‘78, I heard AC/DC’s ‘Powerage’ in it’s entirety on the same radio show. I was hooked in the first 30 seconds and listened to the rest of it without moving a muscle, fearing I might lose the great reception I was lucky to be getting on my touch-and-go portable am/fm radio. ‘Powerage’ has been my favorite album of all time since March of 1978. Now, thirty-five years after it was released, I seriously doubt that I’m going to hear anything that’s going to change that.

There are a handful of other great records that came out that year and I worked hard to stay in the loop. It was hard being a fan back then… but if you put the work in, you were amply rewarded. There was no internet in 1978; all we had was WBCN & WAAF, late night TV and Circus, Hit Parader & Creem magazine. I had heard ‘Walk This Way’ 100 times before I had ever even seen a picture of Aerosmith. In those days, if you liked the single or the picture accompanying the article you just read (for free, while thumbing through a copy at the drug store; hardly ever buying) then you rolled the dice, saved your allowance and scrounged for change, and bought the album, hoping the rest of it was good.

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Late night TV was a goldmine. Of course, you had to sit through a lot of disco and R&B to see anyone holding a guitar. I saw Cheap Trick on the TV show ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ in March and bought their ‘in Color’ record the following week; ‘Heaven Tonight’ came out in May and bought it without hearing a note. UFO appeared on Kirshner’s show with a video of ‘Only You Can Rock Me’—one more copy of ‘Obsession’ sold. In October, Ted Nugent hosted an airing of ‘Midnight Special’ that featured AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith, Golden Earring, and of course, His Nugeness. That same month, AC/DC’s first live album, ‘If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It’ was a no-brainer. I remember riding my bike back from the mall in the rain with ‘If You Want Blood…’ in a plastic bag (an awkward thing to try to carry while riding a bike, let me tell you), afraid the I was going to drop it or wreck my bike… but more worried about the record.

It was a huge year for new discoveries. I snapped up Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’, Rush’s ‘Hemispheres’, Judas Priest’s ‘Stained Class’, all released in 1978.  So many excellent live records that year as well: Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush’s ‘Live’, Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, Scorpions’ ‘Tokyo Tapes’, Aerosmith’s ‘Live Bootleg’ and Thin Lizzy (who also had an extended live showing on ‘Kirshner’s’ in October) released their legendary ‘Live and Dangerous’. Even the newer generation of ‘second tier’ hard rockers like Angel and Starz put out strong albums (‘White Hot’ and ‘Coliseum Rock’, respectively). What a fucking year.

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Needless to say, my musical tastes were formed that year, and truth be told, they haven’t changed all that much. 1978 was the year I moved from slavish worship of a single band to an enduring fascination with an entire genre. Kiss validated my decision to move on by releasing 4 solo albums, which were 75% junk, and then by unleashing the complete disaster ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ TV debacle. But I suppose one could say that for many, Kiss served a valuable purpose: initiating those of us in a certain age group into the world of rock n’ roll. Kiss was like a ‘gateway drug’, first getting you hooked and then leading you to the harder stuff.