[Attentive readers will perhaps recall that I have from time to time, since NYMary first gave me the metaphorical spare set of keys to this here blog, reprinted various pieces I originally wrote for the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review. If truth be told, however, I've done it less often than I originally anticipated, mostly because a lot of my old stuff -- especially from the '70s -- kind of creeps me out for various reasons (god, I could be an annoyingly opinionated blowhard back then -- as opposed to now, hah!) but also because to a large degree the pieces are simply dated. Also, I really hate transcribing the damn things.
That said, I chanced across this column...from the February 1977 issue...
...and upon re-reading it I decided it wasn't totally embarrassing and decided to share. I've done a little rewriting to eliminate a couple of really egregious dumb pronouncements, but by and large this is how it appeared back in the day. I should add that the photo of Graham Parker is the very same one that ran with the essay originally; god bless the intertubes for the picture's easy accessibility. I should also add that I do not stand by my assessment of the George Harrison song in question, although in my defense, I was prematurely correct about George's ultimate artistic renaissance. In any event, enjoy if possible. -- S.S.]
It's a strange time right now for pop music. Oh, sure lots of interesting things have been going on -- the remarkable return of Brian Wilson, the Led Zeppelin film, the second (and I hope the last) Rock Awards TV show, and punk-rock festivals in (where else?) France -- but it's a hard to get a fix on what it all means. A new sensibility seems to be emerging out of the ashes of the slowly sickening Seventies, but there's a vagueness about it, a tentative slippery kind of feeling that resists analysis. For myself, I find that most of the records I'm listening to now are retrospectives of one kind or another -- the Faces Snakes and Ladders, a lovely memorial to a band that never really got it together the way the could have; Leo Kottke's 1971-1976; even the latest reissue of Phil Spector's sublime Christmas album -- and that's got me muddled even more. So rather than try to make sense of all of this, I'm cribbing an idea from Simon Frith, who cribbed it from Charlie Gillet, who cribbed it from god-knows-who. Here is this month's Big Six.
1. Patti Smith Group: Radio Ethiopia
Before Patti's new album came out, I was fortunate enough to stumble across an excellent live bootleg featuring some of her new songs, as well as to catch an unannounced low-profile gig she did at a bar in SoHo, and I think I've finally figured out why she gets to me: As knowingly as she comes on, she really is an innocent. It doesn't matter that most of the criticisms that have been leveled at here are true. Sure, her singing is fairly limited, her band isn't virtuoso, her poetry is at times laughably overripe -- but she's still open enough to fit Smokey Robinson and Dolly Parton in there among the fever dreams. Radio Ethiopia, different as it is from Horses, has just as many problems, but she's getting closer to whatever it is she's chasing, and for the moment at least the ride she's taking us on is the most exhilirating one in rock.
2. George Harrison: "This Song" (from 33&1/3)
That little old cringe-maker is back, but with a difference. Not only has he shaved his beard and started eating meat again, he seems to have regained both his sense of humor and his songwriting chops. I have not yet heard the whole album, so I will have to restrain my enthusiasm, but on the basis of the single -- inspired by his recent loss in court, it's his first rocker in ages and works both as a novelty tune and a love song -- George may finally be able to demonstrate that his work with the Beatles was not the fluke the intervening years have indicated it might be.
3. Graham Parker and the Rumour: Heat Treatment
R&B lives! No sooner had I speculated that Southside Johnny's passion for Sixties Soul might be contagious than Mr. Parker and a fine group of refugees from the London pub-rock scene show that the English might have caught it too. The Rumour isn't quite as flashy as the Asbury Jukes, nor is it as purist, but the groove is similar and Heat Treatment might just be the best original soul revivalist album since, oh, let's say the Beach Boys Wild Honey.
4, Elton John: Blue Moves
Gosh, but it must be lonely at the top! It seems that it isn't enough for poor Elton that his records sell by the zillions, that he's adored by both the fans and other pop stars -- those nasty old rock critics just keep picking on him, and its ruining his breakfast. Insensitive bastards. The odd thing is that although Blue Moves is, if anything, more numbingly turgid than anything he's done previously, it's also, in a peculiar sort of way, the most honest; it's full of the peeved petulance he demonstrated when, in a recent radio interview, he vented his spleen at a poor New York Times reviewer who had confessed to being only moderately enthused over his last concert. The Rock Star Self Pity Syndrome claims its least likely candidate; can Peter Frampton be far behind?
5. Boston: "More Than a Feeling"
This song, of course, has been the left-field smash of the year, coming seemingly out of nowhere from a first album by an unknown group of musicians who have only just quit their day jobs. It really is good; a soaring riff out of Lou Reed by way of Joe Walsh, stunning playing and production, and the best job of adapting the George Martin/Beatles approach to heavy metal that anyone has come up with in ages; Todd Rundgren, not to mention Eric Carmen, must be reaching for the razor blade every time they hear it. But, like most left-field smashes, it's a one shot. There isn't another song remotely as memorable anywhere on the rest of the album, and, unsurprisingly, the group's singing is as faceless as all the rest of the metal bands. Still, in a period when imaginative rock-and-roll hit singles are getting harder to find than practicing Druids, it's nice they're around. File with "The Boys Are Back in Town."
6. Bruce Springsteen: "Rendezvous"
It's been over a year since Born to Run put the Bard of Asbury Park on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and Springsteen, embroiled in a lawsuit with his old manager that prevents him from recording anything new, must be wondering if rock stardom is all it's cracked up to be. He doesn't act like it, thought, or at least he didn't during a recent six-night stint in New York City. Instead, he put on the most sweeping, ambitious and deceptively spontaneous shows I have ever attended, including one that reduced several extremely skeptical friends of mine to actual tears. Two of the new songs he introduced are obviously still being worked on, but the third -- a hypnotically compelling teenage lament called "Rendezvous" (that is also the most English-sounding thing he's ever done) -- is clearly a Bruce Springsteen Song for the Ages. Incidentally, he dedicated a tune at each performance to Patti Smith, and actually pulled her onstage during one version of "Rosalita." If Springsteen is the New Dylan, does that make Patti the Baez of the Seventies? Well, why not? -- though I admit to being a little uncomfortable with the idea of Revelations taking place in New Jersey.
UPDATE: The video for the Harrison track.
Amusing enough, I suppose, but as for the song itself -- all I can say is "what was I thinking?"