Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the
is a grievously flawed, but still worthwhile, selection
of rock criticism dedicated to demolishing the rock-'n'-roll "canon":
those lists of classic albums (inevitably dominated by '60s bands)
considered beyond criticism. If the graying hipsters at Rolling Stone
are the gatekeepers, the Gen-X critics collected here are the barbarians
storming the gates. The back cover snarls: "Despite what Rolling Stone
VH1, and other peddlers of conventional critical wisdom would have you
Editor Jim DeRogatis, himself a rock critic for the Chicago Sun
Times, has set up the laudable goal of freeing rock music from the
glass-case prison of "Best 500 Album" lists, allowing fans to reconsider
the classics through the keen ears of the 34 young and youngish rock
critics he's marshaled together for Kill Your Idols. Of course,
young critics aren't necessarily any less pretentious or self-assured than
older ones just in thrall to somewhat newer prejudices.
It's a great idea that seems obvious in retrospect: Who doesn't enjoy
defying conventional wisdom, or reading something that does? (As long as
your own sacred cows aren't burned, that is.)
But such a project is prone to falling into sneering, unenlightening
petulance, and Kill Your Idols often does. Review quality varies
wildly, from the insightful (the Stones and Patti Smith reviews) to a
critique of the
fourth Led Zeppelin album that's almost as self-indulgent as, well,
the fourth Led Zeppelin album (i.e., "Untitled," i.e., "ZoSo," i.e., "The
Runes Album," i.e., "Four Symbols"). In hindsight, perhaps the punk ethos
of DYI do-it-yourself shouldn't apply to editing.
Some entries also benefit, or suffer, by artificially elevating the
reputation of the disc in question.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is certainly a classic
ripe for rebuttal, and DeRogatis handles it well. But what is
Ram doing in a book skewering the classics? It's hard to find
anyone who even likes Paul McCartney's second solo album. Those daft old
traditionalists at Rolling Stone certainly didn't: Jon Landau
opened his 1971 RS review by writing, "Ram represents the
nadir in the decomposition of Sixties rock thus far." Too bad, because Tom
Phalen's review is one of the book's sharpest pieces but it's
irrelevant, the expert dissection of a straw man. The absurdly
Band on the Run, by McCartney's post-Beatle group Wings, would
have been a much juicier target.
The straw-man problem also factors in to a lesser extent in the reviews
of Neil Young's
Harvest and the Eagles'
Desperado. Several Young albums have garnered more esteem than
Harvest has, while the Eagles never were and probably never will be
the critics' darling.
It's far more fun to write a scathing review than to pile on dutiful
praise, as this book and the pleasure I got writing that last paragraph
demonstrate. And some of these pieces get by on sheer spleen.
The critical assaults come from a variety of angles. The takedown of
Exodus faults the reggae legend for ignoring the Jamaican political
intrigue at the time, while DeRogatis's review of Sgt. Pepper damns
it as a product of the '60s that holds little interest today.
One of my favorite essays is Keith Moerer's respectful yet regretful
dissection of the Rolling Stones' 1972 double album
Exile on Main Street, which puts the famous double LP in
context, outlining the strained psychological (and pharmacological) state
of the Stones at the time of the recording holed up in a Nellcote villa
dodging British tax agents and French gendarmes.
But though I find U2's glumly righteous
Joshua Tree as tiresome as Eric Waggoner and Bob Mehr do, it's
malpractice to tear the lyrics from a song and judge it based on those
exposed bare words (hardly any rocker besides lyricist Bob Dylan could
survive that sort of extreme operation).
Jim Testa provides a valuable revisionist take on the Sex Pistols,
digging into the group's alleged classic, their first and only
Never Mind the Bollocks...Here's the Sex Pistols. He concludes:
"They were a media creation...remembered far more for their haircuts and
clothing and repugnant personal habits than for their music. In that
respect, they're a lot like disco, another manifestation of that decade's
flair for extravagant bad taste."
But Leanne Potts's harsh assessment of Lynyrd Skynyrd tells us more
than we need to know about her own self-congratulatory liberal politics. I
Freebird diss, but it's kind of odd to excoriate a boogie band
for ignoring civil-rights issues.
Then again, I like Lynyrd Skynyrd and can't stand the Sex Pistols, so
you may come to a completely opposite conclusion. Indeed, it's hard to
separate the incisive critiques from those that merely conform to your
personal prejudices. More than most books, what you get out of Kill
Your Idols depends on what you bring to it.
In my case, it compelled me to drag out my classic (or "classic") LPs
for another spin on a turntable, no less. That alone made the book
worthwhile for me. It shakes up one's critical preconceptions, which is
always good, and every page has something to either get infuriated over or
nod your head along with. In the self-effacing foreword, editor DeRogatis
says of his fellow critics, "I myself think that no fewer than sixteen of
them are just dead wrong. And all of this is as it should be."
Kill Your Idols is often bad, sometimes even disturbing, and
never dull. Kind of like rock-'n'-roll, after all.
Clay Waters is director of "Times
Watch," a project of the Media