Delicate Balance

The Rolling Stone Record Guide (First Edition)

To be underrated is to be damned by the actions of another. The very notion of being “underrated” implicitly assumes that the artist has created something valuable, something profound, something worthy of notice, but it has been passed over by the unheeding world. Thus the artist, having created this “underrated” object, surely suffers doubt and, depending on temperament, could quit or labor on in solitude. Perhaps the artist could have expected the indifference of the market, but the blithe disregard of the critical establishment is the final nail in the coffin. After all, the mass market must be spoon-fed everything, but the critic is supposed to be more discerning. The critic is supposed to be able to effortlessly separate wheat from chaff while the whole world watches, and at the same to pluck diamonds from obscurity. The critic believes (must believe) that the best of the profession have acquired the expertise and judgment to tap into a Platonic aesthetic: the cruel, ideal perfection of cosmic scales.

You may be surprised to learn that there is not a rigorous screening process for critics. But that’s not the point of this essay.

No, the point is to examine the concept of “underrating” by looking at historical evidence — in the form of the 1979 first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, compared to subsequent “Best Albums” lists in RS and AllMusic’s current ranking. (Okay, and maybe cast a little aspersion on the injustice done to the underrated.)

The original Rolling Stone Record Guide was edited by Dave Marsh (“with’ John Swenson, whatever that means) and features a manifestoish introduction penned by Mr. Marsh himself. “In rock’s twenty-five-year existence,” the book begins (which, to my 33-year-old self, seems an astounding opening):

... hundreds of books have attempted to define or at least circumscribe the music or some part of the experience of hearing it. But until now rock has lacked a basic reference work keyed to the central unit of consumption: the LP. The oldies guides list singles, and their ratings tend to reflect market value (that is, price) rather than aesthetics, scarcity rather than intrinsic worth. But whether it’s on a blue Chess label or a more recent orange one, Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” has a worth that transcends its cost. In that sense, the best creations of rock artists are genuinely priceless, and the worst genuinely worthless. This book tries to sort them out, ignoring neither the guilty nor the innocent but standing them side by side, as they coexist on record shelves everywhere.
That’s pretty heady. Marsh has clearly outlined his aim — one that would be the model for any and just about all record guides in the future: he and his merry crew will ignore sales to pass judgment and right wrongs from a purely aesthetic argument, preferably in a paragraph or two. He goes on to tell us that they are not attempting to define the genre nor buck conventional wisdom. They do intend to laud the underappreciated and “deflate” (his word, not mine) the overrated.

Marsh founded Creem magazine, the highly influential Detroit-based music rag that launched a gazillion first-wave rock critics’ careers, including the whiz-bang racket of one Lester Bangs. In Jim DeRogitas’s biography of Bangs, Marsh appears as a malevolent, harried dwarf, a Salieri to Bangs’ Mozart — all of which is perhaps a bit unfair, but who knows? The only one who can settle the question is dead. Marsh went on to write books about Bruce Springsteen, “Louie Louie,” censorship, and Michael Jackson before creating Rock & Roll Confidential (later Rock & Rap Confidential), which pokes probingly at the eyes of power. He is, in short, as decent an authority about rock music as one could find in 1976, when this project began — but, as we shall see, he’s likewise as guilty of shortsightedness as any person can be.

He tells us other things in the introduction, too. He defends the decision to stick with LPs (by which he means, conceptually, albums) over singles; he states that the limited aim is rock music (or music that’s influenced rock), with a few digressions; he laments the state of in-print albums in the late 70s, singling out Chess and Stax as particularly egregious examples of unavailable greatness. Despite his earlier catholic attitude towards rock, he betrays a definite opinion about the Four Corners of Rock, citing the Bee Gees and Billy Joel as non-rock artists who are included. He notes that the final date for inclusion was mid-1978 (although they made exceptions for notable releases thereafter, such the Cars’ debut). Finally, he tells us that the precedents for the book were Leonard Maltin’s well-known movie guide (from which they took the 5 star ratings system) and Robert Christgau’s “Consumer Guide” column in the Village Voice (which taught them “the concept of the consumer guide as the most pungent, pithy (and acerbic) form of criticism”).

All of which is well and good. Lofty goals, an aim to show good taste despite one’s preconceptions, all open mind and ear. A recipe for an interesting read.

Let’s turn then, shall we, to the section titled “Rock, Soul, Country, and Pop”? Quite a broad spectrum there, to begin with.

The first page gives us reviews of albums by Aalon (who?), Abba, AC/DC, Ace (Aalon’s partners in oblivion), Johnny Ace, Ace Spectrum, and David Ackles. The high-scoring album on the page is The Johnny Ace Memorial Album (at 4 stars), while the low-scorers are the three AC/DC albums High Voltage, Let There Be Rock, and Powerage, all of which get a “box” (not even a single star!), meaning:

“Worthless: records that need never (or should never) have been created. Reserved for the most bathetic bathwater.”

Damn, that’s harsh. Sure, High Voltage is no conceptual disco set in a futurist urban landscape, like the 2-star-rated Cream City by Aalon, but it’s the AC/DC of the Bon Scott era, the source of some surprisingly heartfelt lyrics and arguably Angus Young’s most bluesy-nutso stage, that the RS Guide has just blithely dismissed as offending “anyone within sight or earshot.” By comparison, the AllMusic Guide (AMG hereafter, representing current conventional critical wisdom unless I disagree with them) gives the AC/DC albums 4½, 4½, and 3½ stars, respectively.

There’s still three pages to go until we get to the first 5-star review of the tome: The Allman Brothers Band At Fillmore East (a rating of which I heartily approve). The second 5-star review (on page 14!) is for the Atlanta Rhythm Section’s A Rock and Roll Alternative, obviously a decision for the ages. (Okay, to be fair, AMG gives it 4½ stars; it’s hard to judge since the only song I’ve heard from the album sounds like bland Southern boogie).

In the pages to come, examples of underrating include the 1 or 2 stars afforded every single Black Sabbath album, including the pitch-perfect Paranoid (2 stars) and Master of Reality (1 star). AMG gives both 5 stars. What did Marsh & Co. have against metal? Whatever it was, it extended to bluegrass, as almost immediately after this unconscionable shortchanging of Sabbath, bluegrass god Norman Blake gets 1 star for his stunning Live at McCabe’s, apparently based on the reviewer’s dislike of Blake’s singing voice. Later, the text compares John Cale’s Helen of Troy to Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night (favorably), then sinks it with 2 stars (AMG rating: 4½). Gene Clark’s epic White Light also gets a mere 2 stars (AMG: 4½). Two of my favorite underratings are for the Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! (a prime slice of intentionally dumb and incredibly funny proto-punk that influenced, well, everyone) and Richard Hell and the Voidoid’s Blank Generation (the album that introduced the critical establishment to the words “smart and angular” as tools of description. Dave Marsh himself gives Go Girl Crazy! the same “delete box” it gave AC/DC (AMG score: 4½), calling it “witlessly performed.” This is on the same page as a picture of the Doors’ five-star rated L.A. Woman. Oh, the irony! Marsh tops himself with his review of Blank Generation, saying so juicily that I quote: “In the first place, Jack Kerouac said everything here first, and far better. In the second place, Hell is about as whining as Verlaine [he'll later give Marquee Moon 3 stars] is pretentious.” Blank Generation gets a mere 2 stars (AMG score ... wait for it: 4½ stars).

Less than ten years later, in 1987, Rolling Stone published its first “100 Greatest Albums Ever” list, of which 20 albums weren’t available to be reviewed in the 1979 Guide because they were out of print or had not yet been released. Of the remaining eighty, 45 were given five stars in the 1979 Guide and 26 got four. But we’re not concerned with what Rolling Stone rated correctly (or semi-correctly), and this isn’t an essay about some of the obviously overrated albums on this list, either. Our concern is the other albums, those that they initially decided were mediocre-to-bad, only to reverse themselves a mere 8 years later.

Those albums are:

  • Television’s Marquee Moon (1979 rating: 3 stars; AMG rating: 5)
  • The New York Dolls (1979: 3 stars; AMG: 5)
  • The Talking Heads’ More Songs About Buildings and Food (1979: 3; AMG: 5)
  • John Lennon's Imagine (1979: 3; AMG: 5 — personally: I think 3 stars was about right)
  • Crosby, Stills, and Nash (1979: 2; AMG: 5 — 2 stars was too many)
  • Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates of Dawn (1979: 2; AMG: 5)
  • Led Zeppelin II (1979: 3; AMG: 5)
  • Steely Dan’s Katy Lied (1979: 3; AMG: 5)
  • T. Rex’s Electric Warrior (1979: 3; AMG: 5)

Quite a list! Of course, none of these acts gave up after their negative review in the 1979 Guide. However, with the exception of the Lennon and CSN albums, Marsh & Co. were quite off from the perfect Platonic rating. A testament to the folly of ratings? Or just to Dave Marsh’s eternal lack of relevance? Maybe another 25 years will tell ...