Kill Your Idols
by Jim DeRogatis and Carmel Carrillo

Any serious fan of rock music can reel off a list of so-called classic albums or sainted artists that do nothing for him (or her, as the case may be). For example, I've never been able to get into Patti Smith – she may have seemed to be an edgy punk in her day, but I have always found her music to be just as pretentious as the prog rock that punk, to an extent, was trying to eradicate.

It's always healthy to question the orthodoxy. It's in this spirit that Jim DeRogatis and his wife, Carmel Carrillo, put together Kill Your Idols (barricadebooks.com). A cross-section of contemporary rock critics contributed essays, explaining why they dislike an album that is generally considered a classic. The book is at turns entertaining and annoying, enlightening and dull. That is to say, it is the book equivalent of most compilation albums – hit and miss. Still, any true rock geek will want to pick it up.

DeRogatis's foreword is a sharp take on the need to challenge aesthetic assumptions about rock. DeRogatis opines that since rock is about immediacy, wonder and discovery, that the notion of a rock ‘canon' is pretty much oxymoronic. As The Clash once said about punk rock, there are no rules.

DeRogatis picks the right album to start off with – The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In his essay, DeRogatis certainly makes some good points. Yet he immerses them in such hyperbole, that what may have been either an attempt to emulate his idol Lester Bangs or simply to be funny, comes off as fairly lame. The nadir of his piece is his take on "With a Little Help from My Friends", which he sees as exposing Ringo Starr:

"[The song] is something of a slap in the face to the guy, implying that he certainly can't get by on his own – not with his looks, his drumming chops, or, Lord knows, his singing voice – so he needs the assistance of his much cooler pals to accomplish anything. He sounds rather pathetic as he plays the Everyman pleading for someone to love, and his bandmates are condescending as they add their two cents via the backing vocals. (They have no problem getting laid, ha ha)."

Gosh, Jim, and Ringo's such a fool that he went ahead and sang this song anyway! The rube! I'd like to believe that he is being extra facetious here – hence, I'm inclined to call this drivel unfunny and childish. However, based on the overall tone of essay, it is quite likely that this portion is malicious, ill-informed and childish.

This isn't the only time a writer runs off the rails. Adrian Brijbassi takes on Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album. Nearly half of its ten pages are devoted to, in painful detail, his story of dancing with his dream girl at a high school dance to "Stairway to Heaven". Brijbassi describes how they slow danced during the acoustic portion, and as the song moved into the rock portion, he clung tightly to his girl-woman, engaging in high speed frottage, hoping the song would come to an end, with dance concluding, tragically, in his orgasm. If the story is true, it's pathetic, and if he made it up, it's three times as pathetic. And five fucking pages of it?

Then there's the tag team desecration of U2's Joshua Tree by Eric Waggoner and Bob Mehr. While there are a few valid points strewn throughout their essay, they are overwhelmed by the constant digs at Bono and lots of disingenuous criticism. They think it quite clever to quote lyrical phrase that are repeated (for example, Bono repeating "and you give yourself away" from "With or Without You") to show that U2's lyrics are poor. Rather than fairly engage the flaws in the album, they take the low road, critically speaking. And there are a few similar examples on some other essays.

This is balanced by some excellent writing. Keith Moerer may deserve the gold medal for his persuasive evisceration of The Rolling Stones's Exile on Main Street. He does a great job of discussing the context in which the album was made, the personnel used and the music itself, in making his point that it isn't a great album. Jason Gross's piece on Trout Mask Replicaby Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band is nearly as good, and there are also top notch pieces by Rick Reger (Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness), Fred Mills (Neil Young – Harvest) and Dawn Eden (The Beach Boys – Smile), among others.

One thing that crops up over the course of so many essays is that they tend to rely on the observation that: 1) the album doesn't hold up to better albums by the same artist, or, 2) the album doesn't hold up to better albums by contemporary artists. Fair enough. Other essays seem to have one specific beef – Antonio Orteza can't forgive Public Enemy for questionable racial lyrics on It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Jim Testa takes great issue with the fact that many of The Sex Pistols songs sound similar on Never Mind The Bollocks, and he feels they stole the due that should of gone to Ramones (whose songs were the apex of variety, right?), and the aforementioned Brijbassi notes that Led Zeppelin stole more than Ronnie Biggs.

Oh, and then there's that old saw – they don't rock, or something related to the rebellion that short sighted rock crits believe is the essence of rock. The second essay in the book is Jeff Nordstedt's rant against The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds. Beyond such trenchant criticisms such as the fact that Tony Asher had written lyrics for commercial jingles and that some of the music is happy even though the lyrics aren't, Nordstedt is also upset because "[a] great rock album should scare your parents." Yep, that's what rock is all about. By that standard, I suppose The Mentors and W.A.S.P. rank amongst the best rock bands ever.

Anyway, in reading these essays, it comes through loud and clear that there seems to be a limited number of ways to approach writing about an album, great or otherwise. This becomes more apparent in a few essays, where the writers seem to have difficulty specifically dealing with the music itself. Now context is important to explain why an album is overrated, but some writers can't seem to get beyond context.

One other thing I concluded by the end of the book is that it doesn't really effectively challenge the so-called rock canon DeRogatis wrote about in his forward. DeRogatis notes that many of the albums that are targeted in the individual essays turn up on the all-time top 10 lists of the contributors, which are featured at the end of the book. This may be a sign that this book is not quite the best format with which to address the ideas DeRogatis writes about in the foreword. Targeting individual albums may not provide the right perspective for figuring out how this canon developed and the flaws in the canon. Further, the varying perspectives on display further blur the notions that DeRogatis may ostensibly want to achieve with this book.

Moreover, I'm not sure there even is a rock canon. While all of the albums here may be considered standard bearers, that's not quite the same thing as a set of rules that should be adhered to. Indeed, if you took a bunch of reviews from any of these writers you'd probably find them riddled with aesthetic inconsistencies. One review extols the primal simplicity of The Cramps while another praises Radiohead for their mind expanding complexity. It's not that these two positions can't be reconciled -- it's that usually no writer ever tries (or has the forum) to do so. This is exemplified by the Doors piece by DeRogatis and Lorraine Ali, where they take swings at Mr. Mojo Rising and company for their lounge band tendencies. Yet, I bet you'd never hear them say the same thing about Love, even though Forever Changes has a lounge/soft-pop thang going on. And I'd agree with them that Love was quite superior to The Doors. It just didn't have anything to do with The Doors's choice of instrumentation.

It's clearly difficult to really challenge any purported canon of rock on an album by album basis, because each album only represents a small part of the whole. Maybe a good follow up book would be to try to take on larger aesthetic judgments about rock music and go after them. Challenge the assumptions that have been made about punk or prog or soft pop, etc.

That's another book. In the meantime, someone (DeRogatis? The publisher?) should set up a website and allow the various writers of these essays to respond to their colleagues. I think the interchange between these writers might be more illuminating than the book itself. Which isn't a knock on the book -- for all of its flaws, it will make you think twice about purported masterpieces. So some idols are, at the very least, wounded.