An inquiry into how critics stumble
Having only lived in a time when the Beatles were considered untouchable sacred cows, the bad review were kinda refreshing, even fun to read. I mean...
"Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair"
Great essay! Love the Beatles, and I really credit them with blowing the doors down for other creative acts to follow. My theory is that the Beatles were such a black swan event that the suits gave up trying to predict the next big thing and just gave a chance to everyone with a guitar and potential songwriting skills, giving us an incredible renaissance in popular music in the late 60s/early 70s that has not been matched since. Gradually, though, the businessmen and their formulas took back over, slowly squeezing out the creativity and artistry and leaving the mainstream record industry as it is today, dominated by formulaic hacks relying on hi-tech gimmicks rather than a real passion for music.
I dunno, I might be in the minority, but I see many kernels of truth here. "Come Together" actually was pinched from Chuck Berry; Sgt. Peppers is needlessly fussy in many spots; and the White Album is kind of a mess. As a whole, the lyrics (with some exceptions) are mostly only okay, and not nearly as rich as many of their contemporaries. They might have been wrong about the Beatles overall, but let's also keep our eyes open to the ways in which they might have been right.
"Sgt. Peppers" is so good a 6-year old could get it. That 6-year old was me! My brother, 16 at the time, bought that album. I didn't have any preconceived notions about what an album should or shouldn't be, but that album caught my attention. I would put it on myself and would sit on the sofa with the folded album open staring at the giant photo of the fab four in their uniforms, and I pondered what it might be all about. I had no idea, but I sure loved milling it over as I listened and stared.
I covered a couple of those songs just last night playing piano at the church community dinner. I still marvel at the harmony of "She's Leaving in Home" and how beautiful and sad the song is. I think it's in the mode with the flatted seventh. I can never keep their names straight.
Another good example of this I've found in my research is John Coltrane. He got raked over the coals regularly by jazz critics in the late 50s and early 60s for not being satisfied with his sound and continually pushing the envelope.
For the 50th anniversary of 'Sgt. Pepper,' there was a video in which Goldstein revisited his infamous review and blamed it partly on his own personal issues related to his sexuality and more concretely, when reviewing it in 1967, that he was doing so on a stereo system in which only one of his two speakers wasn't working, and heard only one half of the stereo mix. There are still some who slag 'Sgt. Pepper' just to be contrarian - I feel it's a cry for help.
Timely. Earlier this morning I read a Substack from Greil Marcus where he pondered why the NYT felt Jeff Beck deserved a full page obit. And an incident where two Swedish girls asked him for his guitar after a Yardbirds show in London, bizarre anecdote, ending with him instead smashing said guitar to bits. Mr. Marcus wrote that he enjoyed that as much as any of Jeff Beck's solos. Mind you, he didn't write that back then, when maybe JB would have been too far in front for many to appreciate. But now, in his unique position as a VIP for RS and Creem and others, unable to appreciate JB's towering influence over the decades?
I never read his famous book, I know think he's a clueless moron who's annoyed me for too long. In contrast, I ALWAYS learn something interesting from Ted Gioia's musings.
Although I disagree with the take on Miles Davis, he completely changed jazz several times, in more profound ways than the Beatles shifting gears with their albums. Lot of phenomenally talented musicians in the world of jazz, nobody else came close to doing what he did.
Do you have a take on reviews to the effect “this work represents a revolution in music that will take its place in music history as the finest example of innovation in our lifetime. It will go on to become a classic.” for music now all but forgotten?
Although they faltered some I'm their (still current) later days, I would argue the Rolling Stones were, creatively, equally innovative; especially in the period from 1967 to 1973. Satanic Majesties, lambasted by critics and the band alike, it has withstood the test of time and serves as a pleasant reminder of the psychedelic era. From there consider Beggars Banquet, Get your YaYa's Out, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, and, yes, Goats Head Soup...and don't get me started on the Kinks; equals in every way to both The Beatles and The Stones.
Hi Ted - long-time reader, first-time commenter here! Really interesting piece. Two things: 1. Sometimes a critic has a standpoint that should be taken into account when reading their opinions - there's a bit of "well of course he would say that" involved. A writer like Nick Cohn definitely had an agenda - he liked raw rock and roll, whether it was Little Richard or the My Generation-era Who, and early 60s Brill Building pop, and thought everything turned to crap with the arrival of psychedelia when rock started getting intellectual ideas above its station (a theory he expounds in his 1969 book Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, a hugely entertaining read even if you disagree with its central thesis, which I very much do). I suspect his Beatles review was born out of that over-arching idea. 2. I quite like the idea that now-revered artists got a hard time *at the time*, in so far as those reviews give us a fuller picture of what the era they were working in was like: nostalgia can be a form of curation, people (often inadvertently) cut out the bits of history they don't agree with or that don't sit with latterday opinions and come up with a version of the past where eg. every Beatles release was greeted with blanket praise and taken for the work of hugely influential genius it was subsequently proven to be. A wholehearted recommendation here for Jon Savage's book 1966: The Year The Decade Exploded, where he takes a year often thought of as a period of huge invention in rock and pop, goes back to the primary sources, and finds endless writers, fans *and even other musicians* carping and moaning and complaining that rock and pop music has become terrible, is on a dismal and apparently irreversible downward slide etc. etc. It's fascinating and eye-opening, even as you boggle at some of the opinions being expressed. Anyway, that's my two cents - keep up the excellent Honest Broker work!
Mr. Cohn and Mr. Goldstein were somewhat deaf. They were not part of the counter culture of the 60's nor did they want to be. If they had taken any drugs, the drugs were either mediocre or did nothing for the ears and minds of these critics. I would not want to break bread with them. They would probably bore me to death.
Take it away, Allan Sherman (sung to Pop Goes the Weasel)
"My daughter needs a new phonograph.
She wore out all the needles.
Besides, I broke the old one in half.
I hate the Beatles.
She says they have a Liverpool beat.
She says they used to play there.
Four nice kids from offa the street.
Why didn't they stay there?
What is all the screaming about?
Fainting and swooning.
Sounds to me like their guitars
Could use a little tuning.
The boys are from the British Empire.
The British think they're keen.
If that is what the British desire,
God Save The Queen.
No daughter of mine can push me around.
In my home I'm the master.
But when the British come to town,
Gad, what a disaster.
Little girls in sneakers and jeans.
Destroyed the territory.
'Twas like some of the gorier scenes
From The West Side Story.
Of course my daughter had to go there.
The tickets are cheap, she hollers.
I was able to pick up a pair
For forty-seven dollars.
When the Beatles come on stage,
They scream and shriek and cheer them.
Now I know why they're such a rage,
It's impossible to hear them.
Ringo is the one with the drum,
The others all play with him.
It shows you what a boy can become
Without a sense of rhythm.
There's Beatle book and T-shirts and rings,
And one thing and another.
To buy my daughter all of those things,
I had to sell her brother.
Back in 1776
We fought the British then, folks.
Parents of America,
It's time to do it again, folks.
When they come back, here's how we'll begin,
We'll throw 'em in Boston harbor.
But please, before we toss 'em all in,
Let's take 'em to a barber."
Great article Ted. My musical hero, Frank Zappa said he created music that he wanted to hear. If you got it, fine, if you didn't, fine. I have never let a music critic's words steer me away from listening to an artist. I always trust my ears. I have noticed that an early negative review (music or film) by a high profile critic, tends to produce more negative reviews. Monkey-See, Monkey-Do syndrome?
I've never been interested in anything other than "Populist Criticism" and barely at that.. I'd only check something if I wanted someone else's opinion because the piece of art was rare.. But I do enjoy the disparity between truth and .... whatever...
Rolling Stone would say how a band like Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin were garbage and wouldn't last 6 months, and when they triumphed, RS would hire new writers to say how great they were. It's a business. Quid pro quo. Richard probably didn't get an interview with them, and probably got one with The Doors (who I love). As for Pepper, I think it's not even close to the best Beatles album. I love reading things before history revises, but even George Martin thought songs like "Lovely Rita" and "Getting Better" were subpar throwaway songs. I love "A Day In The Life".
I especially appreciate this article because I lived through that time as a kid and very much remember how little love the Beatles got throughout their career from the industry. Only the fans got it, and got it right away. I think there was some resentment among the establishment about how this band just showed up without permission. They weren’t invited or wanted. They were rejected in England until a comedy and classical album producer took them on. They only thrived at first through word of mouth. Even when they took off in England, the US subsidiary label just sat on them for a year until some DJs took an interest on their own. They were like this garage band that never fit in and never did what the suits wanted them to. They didn’t win many awards and there was this odd reticence to acknowledge their brilliance. There was this really odd contrast between this cold shoulder from the establishment and their wild popularity among music listeners. I’m in my 60s now and still burned up about it lol.
Someone said: a new idea is an antigen.