Washington Post, November 26, 1977

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Style's the thing in rock as art


Tom Zito

"Philosophy teaches us to speak with the appearance of truth on all things, and causes us to be admired by the less learned." — Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method

Let's drop the bomb right off: Elvis Costello is a lot more important than the Rolling Stones, at least for now.

Both of them have new records out and together they point up a real dichotomy: the unknown working man — not the much ballyhooed punks — has something interesting and fresh to say; while some of the old trusted celebrity rockers are resting on their vinyl.

Costello's album, My Aim Is True (Columbia JC 35037) is real roller-coaster-crazy, juvenile-delinquentesque, hot-guitar, maniac-lyric rock 'n' roll. It will probably be heralded (unfairly) as a part of British punk rock — the pseudo music of unemployment kids who disguise their musical inabilities with garish leather outfits and safety pins through their ears all in the name of escaping puberty.

A 22-year-old British computer operator-turned-Buddy Holly look-alike, Costello shows his working-class background in the simple, direct style of his guitar-based music — although it is more classy than three-chord punk riffs. It's his lyrical sensibility that really sets him apart. How many kids — British, American or French, for that matter — could read Shakespeare and get a take like this?

"Romeo was restless, he was ready to kill
He jumped out the window 'cause he couldn't sit still
Juliet was waitin' with the safety net
She said, "Don't bury me 'cause I'm not dead yet.
Why don't you tell me 'bout the Mystery Dance."

Right there in the middle, Costello rips out a Chuck Berry-like solo. And in one minute and 35 seconds, three things have happened:

1) The British have demonstrated to Americans what rock 'n' roll is all about, just as the Beatles did 13 years ago;

2) Shakespeare has been rewritten for the '70s, and

3) Costello has penned the latest euphemism for rock 'n' roll — the word dance, which means a lot more than that.

Granted, Costello does none of this with the kind of pretentious wantonness that so many observers would like to read into rock 'n' roll. If he's making points, he's doing it in spite of himself — as when he shouts, typical-white-boy-emulating-the-blues style, "Oh, Lord," and then tags on: "I sincerely hope you're comin' / Cause you really started somethin'."

This is certainly not the case on the Rolling Stones' Love You Live (Rolling Stones Records COC2-9001). There's a half-truth in Mick Jagger's panting "It's only rock 'n' roll / But I like it" — the second version of the song on the Stones third live alum in 10 years. Then they head for Tracks, a trendy New York rock 'n' roll nightclub, to press-party the record into popularity. Obviously it's not only rock 'n' roll for the Stones anymore. The record was two years in the making. It's not the playing that matter — it's the talking about it. Don't judge us as product; judge us as process. So much rock 'n' roll has turned into roar 'n' rave. Beatle George Harrison flies around the country in a private jet to host dinners and show a film about his music rather than play. Earth, Wind & Fire takes over an entire Hollywood sound stage to play their new record — through their new concert PA system — for eager critics.

It's all part of the encroaching intellectualization of rock 'n' roll, music that sprang more from Elvis' pelvis than from the mind. At the height of the '60s counterculture, rock 'n' roll was a catalyst of a youth revolution, a revolt that spawned a style. Now the style is the thing; the form has become the content. It's appropriate that Rolling Stone magazine celebrates its 10th anniversary with a television special that cost CBS 1 million dollars and has Donny Osmond playing the guru of revolutionary culture, editor Jann Wenner. Bob Dylan and Frank Sinatra now have the same manager and rock impressario Bill Graham is promoting plant shows. Rolling Stone, Bob Dylan, Bill Graham and rock 'n' roll are related to whatever once was a counter culture only as historical facts.

Rock 'n' roll has become a touchstone for daily living. For kids, Top-40 radio is entertainment; for adults, it has long ceased being a symbol and is background music on the car radio. No more Jefferson Airplane singing, "Up against the wall." No more Rolling Stones shouting. "This time is right for fighting in the streets." The December issue of Crawdaddy magazine pointedly notes the radical change:

"Now music is a given. Rock 'n' roll is mainstream culture; toddlers growing up are serenaded by James Taylor and Kiss, and their parents have concerns far beyond the latest record releases. Crawdaddy recognizes the change and is looking for more. We figure there is a thread which ties Randy Newman to the recipe for Big Mac Special Sauce, and unites a street-wise film with the latest in classic comics."

But there is a revolution and fittingly, it is more style than it is music: punk rock. The punkers are denying that which is no longer present in or important to rock 'n' roll — their parents have already homogenized it. So the punkers have made style more important than music, form more important than content.

The current reigning lords of punk rock are a New York group called Talking Heads, a quartet of mid-20s musicians who met at art school. They don't look like punks and, while their music is basic at best, they sing pretentious lyrics:

Now that I can release my tension
Let me make clear my best intentions
Girls ask: Can I define decision?
Boys ask: Can I describe their function?

Not exactly what Elvis might have done on his next tour. Or the Beatles on theirs, or Randy Newman or anybody. And yet this is the stuff that is being touted as the future of rock and roll. Critics at Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, Crawdaddy and dozens of other journals have talked their heads off over this band. No less than the symbolic intellectual czar of rock 'n' roll sophisticates, The New York Times' John Rockwell, wrote of "Talking Heads: '77" (Sire SR 6036):

"To this ear, there is a pervasive orientalism to the sound — sometimes overt, as in pentatonic melodies, but more generally in terms of a spare, abrupt textural quality, a precise sharpness of formal structure and a kind of quirkily herky-jerky sense of flow." In short, "one of the most amusing and serious rock albums ever, and as provocative a focal point for any discussion of rock as art as any that can be found."

There's the rub: rock as art. That's a tough one to swallow. It's doubtful that Chuck Berry ever viewed himself as an artist. It's more doubtful that British punk groups like The Jam and the Sex Pistols consider themselves artists; ever more doubtful that their music can sustain that kind of analysis. For them it is economic survival through synthetic nostalgia, and synthetic nostalgia rarely has much to do with art.

Of course, there's still a big element of Hollywood remakes in rock 'n' roll. This week's top-10 chart contains two old songs redone by Linda Ronstadt and an incredible amalgam of borrowed ideas. Chicago's "Baby What A Big Surprise" from Chicago XI (Columbia JC 34860) sounds familiar when it comes pouring out of the radio because the weeping guitar and the plaintive trumpet are: THE BEATLES! It's "Penny Lane" and "I Want You" rolled into one allegedly new song, and all of a sudden it hits you like an eight-foot stack of 45s.

There are ways around it. The Animals, on their reunion LP Before We Were So Rudely Interrupted (Jet JT-LA 790-H), demonstrate that you can take an easygoing approach to music and make old songs like Ray Charles' "Lonely Avenue" and Roy Head's "Just a Little Bit" sound fresh. Conversely, you can have fun with the way old records used to sound, and go into the studio and reduplicate the audio style of a legendary producer like Phil Spector ("Uptown," "Da Do Ron Ron," "To Know Him Is To Love Him") as was done on Bionic Gold (Big Sound BS-LP 001).

What saves both these records is that neither is pretentious. They don't sound like they're trying to prove that rock 'n' roll is still vital, and at the same time they're not trying to disguise their roots, making themselves into something they're obviously not.

The best rock 'n' roll remains visceral. Rod Stewart's Foot Loose and Fancy Free (Warner Bros. BSK 3052) is just that. He's not concerned about every note being in place, but in enthusiasm of his singing careers a way Jagger strains to match. 'Steve Gibbons' Caught In The Act (MC-2305) is hot, rollerball guitar music that sings the speakers effortlessly. The Rumor's Max (Mercury SRM-11174) is hotdog British rock 'n' roll with many ties to Costello, although not nearly so sharp lyrically. Paula Lockheart with Peter Ecklund (and other friends) (Flying Fish FF 045) demonstrates the streamroller style of New Orleans piano playing that injects bounce into the musical style. All of them are having fun singing and playing and rocking 'n' rolling. They've got the kind of humor that lets Costello pull off lines like: "I said 'I'm so happy I could die.' She said 'Drop dead,' then left with another guy."

The last thing in the world they need is to be analyzed.

Or, as Elvis Costello sings on "Alison:"

Sometimes I wish I could stop you from talking
When I hear all the silly things you say.

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The Washington Post, November 26, 1977


Tom Zito reviews My Aim Is True and other recent releases.


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