The Year of Rock in Review - Part 1

An outrageous article which dumps on known greats, hints Paul McCartney's a fag, but still gives a good perspective on the collapsing state of rock

Four different versions of Donovan's great song of 1966, Season of the Witch, were released last year. One was excellent (that of Julie Driscoll and the Brian Auger Trinity), two so-so (Terry Reid's and Kooper and Stills' on Super Session--if Al could only sing as well as Steve plays the guitar on that cut!--), and one, by the Vanilla Fudge, execrable. If they accomplished nothing else, these various renditions at least left indelibly in listeners' minds the prophetic line, "Beatniks out to make it rich." The Fudge, while smothering the song with mushy pretentiousness, even replaced "beatniks" with "hippies," thus aiding the more dull-witted of their fans (i.e., the bulk of them) in updating Donovan's now archaic reference.

In 1968 a lot of hippies made it rich. Amble into Krackerjacks and eye a few price tags if you doubt me. Did you know that Country Joe and the Fish are slated to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show? And how can a rock magazine, Fusion, be distributed absolutely gratis? A lot of record companies are willing to spend a lo tof money to get back a lot more. Led Zeppelin, a new British group, was signed by Atlantic Records less than three months after forming, and their advance was reported as being $200,000.00. An album is soon to come. If 1967, the year of Sergeant Pepper and After Bathing at Baxter's, was the year when Time and The Partisan Review discovered that rock was Art; 1968 was the year Clive Davis of Columbia Records realized that rock was Business.

Viewed in one light, the plight of all these balding executives is amusing. Here they have a billion dollar business on their hands, yet they don't understand the first thing about it. Last May Capitol simlutaneously released debut albums of two well-known San Francisco groups. The Steve Miller Band was recorded at considerable expense in London and given a fancy fold-out album cover and a lavish promotional campaign. Quicksilver Messenger Service was rather cheaply recorded in California; their album cover was inconspicuous, and about the group little was said. Yet Q.M.S. decisively outsold Steve Miller. Or take Don Kirshner, the man who assembled the Monkees. After a spat he pulled out and tried to duplicate his past triumph. You know those Archie comic books? Well, last fall Kirshner went and bought himself a group, taught Archie to play the guitar and his girlfriend Veronica to shingaling, put a cartoon show featuring them on television, and made a record. The title of the disc was Bang-Shang-a-Lang, and the fact that you've never heard of it should give you an idea of Kirshner's success.

Credit for the most humiliating failure of 1968 must be given to MGM and its Boston Sound. Phluph, Ultimate Spinach, the Beacon Street Union, and Orpheus were signed, millions of dollars were squandered on them, and as a result, while all the other major record companies reported massive profits for the year, MGM staggered through 1968 in the red, their biggest money-earners the Cowsills. The tragedy of the Boston bust is that, although MGM's groups richly deserved the lack of attention they received, two much better Boston groups, signed by different companies, were lumped together with the others by buyers and likewise disregarded.

All of this is not to say that promotion never get results. The Monkees can vouch for its power in 1966 as can Big Brother and the Holding Company in 1968. Before the release of their Columbia album articles on their now-departed lead singer, Janis Joplin, appeared in Life, Time, Vogue, EYE, and The Post. Sippin' Southern Comfort, Janis was everywhere, and it paid off in spades. Their album, Cheap Thrills, soared to the top of the charts on the wings of one of the most impressive promotional campaigns rock has yet seen. Ironically, when the same company tried to do the same thing in 1967 with Moby Grape, although more money was spent promoting the Grape than had ever been spent on a group before (excepting the Monkees), they couldn't dent the charts. That the record companies are totally ignorant of what they are merchandising is undeniable.

Much has been made of the "hip young men" whom the executives have recruited to alleviate this situation. The media have given them -- Paul Rothchild, Tom Wilson, Felix Pappalardi, et al. -- considerable publicity. These producers, however, have proven to be hardly any more perceptive than their employers. Ars Nova and Clear Light (produced by Rothchild), the Bagatelle and the Fraternity of Man (produced by Wilson), and the Kensington Market (produced by Pappalardi) all bombed in 1968. Holland, Dozier, and Holland, responsible for recording the Supremes and the Four Tops, are being sued by Motown Records for failing to equal their past successes. It is clear that no one understands what this thing called rock is all about, and it would be hilarious to watch the executives scurrying confusedly about, were it not for the deleterious effects which the economics of rock have had on the music itself. 1968 made these deleterious effects, not wholly perceived in 1967, painfully evident.

First, consider the Beatles. What does it mean when 3,301,275 copies of their new album are sold within four days? In those four days The Beatles surpassed by half as many copies again the total sales of the second biggest selling record of 1968, The Graduate, even though it retailed at over twice the price of the second record. The state of affairs is unreal. It cannot help but be unsettling of the Beatles to realize that they could release three minutes and fifteen seconds of belches and read in Time that they had made "a cheekily irreverent yet brutally incisive commenatry on the deterioration of traditional values of Western man." Although since their decision to discontinue touring they have escaped the teenies too busy shrieking to listen, today the Beatles are still unable to communicate because you and I and Richard Goldstein of the Times can only say "Wow!" The Beatles are too intelligent not to apprehend that they are being worshipped, not heard.

In as much as no one listens, why should they continue to try to speak to us? So we have The Beatles, a brilliant album -- all Beatles albums are -- but one which says nothing. The Beatles would be the first to admit that The Beatles is a put-on, mocking all of rock, from blues to psychedelia to scholck, all of us, and themselves. Like Picasso, whose joking sketches on napkins, dashed off when the service at a restaurant is slow, are solemnly auctioned at Parke-Bernet, the Beatles are geniuses who are faced with no other alternative save that of laughing at us.

Decadence may be defined as an excessive attention to style at the expense of content, to the medium at the expense of the message. Although I may be branded hopelessly antediluvian for saying this, the Beatles are, in this sense, the epitome of decadence on their latest album, flitting from one style to another, from the ska-beat of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da to the pseudo-Donovan of Blackbird to the neo-Twenties sound of Honey Pie. Each song is executed flawlessly, and each song is vacuous.

The argument can be made that rock is by its very nature eclectic, and that The Beatles is therefore the definitive rock album, but more essential to the folk music we call rock is communication, now labelled soul. Roy Orbison had it and Ricky Nelson didn't. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas have it and the Supremes don't. The Stones, yes; the Dave Clark Five, no. When Otis Redding in the middle of A Waste of Time stops singing and says, "I like love to be from the heart," he is speaking to us. Ditto the Jefferson Airplane when they cry,

"Tell me why if you think you know Why people love when there's no tomorrow

And still not cry when it's time to go."

Communication, soul, must be grounded in a reality shared by artist and audience, but unreality so envelops the Beatles that they cannot touch us. The result is decadence, the puton. Here are the Beatles pretending to be a blues band (Yer Blues) here are the Beatles singing Good Night and pretending to be the BeeGees (who have always pretended to be the Beatles), here are the Beatles singing Why don't we do it in the road? and pretending to be Moby Grape singing Can I walk down the street naked if I want to?

Julia, addressed by John Lennon to his dead mother, is a painful attempt at communication ("Half of what I say is meaningless/ But I say it just to reach you, Julia.") and probably the most moving song on the album. Unfortunately, half of its power is vitiated by the trite McCartney composition, I Will, which precedes it and which features Paul pretending to be his old choir boy self, even if he does have a five o'clock shadow. It's a vicious and self-defeating cycle: the put-on is a reaction to the inability to communicate, yet that put-on in turn makes communication all the more impossible.

In all fairness to The Beatles, it is by no means a bad album. The intent of this criticism has been merely to show that it is not great. Lennon's songs, especially Dear Prudence, Happiness is a Warm Gun, Julia, and Sexy Sadie, bold up, as do George Harrison's Savoy Truffle and While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Most of the album's weaknesses may be laid at the door of Paul McCartney. One of his songs, Mother Nature's Son, begins exactly like his Michelle, and it is interesting to go back to that song, which so wowed the easy listeners in 1966 when it was voted song of the year (Harper Vailey P.T.A. won in 1968). "These are the words that go together well," he sang then, and so he sings today, his words always cute, his melodies always catchy. But his songs are almost invariably devoid of imagination (Lennon's forte) and of sincerity (Harrison's thing). The limp, saccharine tone is so all-pervasive that one easily understands the origins of the rumors that Paul's "girlfriends" are paid to accompany him so as not to alienate the fans. Back in the U.S.S.R. is the only genuinely vital McCartney number on the album.