Making book on rock 'n' rool

By MARK MOSES  |  November 6, 2006

What ‘70s rock ‘n’ roll and Christgau’s Record Guide pivot around is the idea of semi-popular music. Music that manipulated popular forms while eluding popularity, stars with every quality but stardom – these contradictions found their way into what was essentially a popular music. If rock ‘n’ roll had a center in the ‘70s, it may well have been a semipopularity whose major premise was to deny the existence of a center. Rather than being a mass-cult impetus, as it was in the ‘60s, rock ‘n’ roll became a private pleasure. “The world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band” was an idle boast not just because the Rolling Stones’ ‘70s career was an often centerless idea, but because it wasn’t unambiguous. For somebody else it may well have referred to Alice Cooper. Or Earth Wind & Fire. Or ABBA. But the breakdown of the correlation between what was on rock ‘n’ roll charts and what was in rock ‘n’ roll hearts yielded a rewarding fragmentation. Listening preferences opened up: “Only in the ‘70s did genres start asserting themselves … every one of them produced good music.” So much so that Christgau is able to arrive at this revealing statistic, tempered by his own tastes: “Rock and roll’s first quarter-century produced well under a thousand excellent albums. Close to two-thirds of them appeared during its last and least romantic decade.”

This variety leaps out at you as you thumb through Christgau’s Record Guide. (And thumbing through is the correct way to approach this book.) Just the existence of these various styles under the banner “Rock Albums of the ‘70s” is as truly populist as any ‘60s totem. Although Christgau’s book caters only to the ‘70s, it rivals The Rolling Stone Record Guide, the book it clearly means to show up – and that book listed 34 contributors. Because only Christgau’s sensibility is behind each opinion, the grades are consistent rather than varying from critic to critic. Also, Christgau’s grading scale affords 15 different gradations compared to Rolling Stone’s one-to-five stars. And Christgau’s compulsiveness has also minimized errors, whereas the Rolling Stone book’s first edition was riddled with them. (Stick-in-the-mud that I am, though, I did spot a few chronology mistakes: the Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy is a 1975 release; and David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane was released before Pin Ups, as was Al Green’s Let’s Stay Together before I’m Still in Love with You.) Christgau’s rigorous listening applies not just to the number of records he hears, but to the attention he devotes to a single record, however brief his commentary. Since many ‘70s performers took the idea of semipopularity as a given in order to produce work that was difficult by ‘60s standards, “requires repeated listenings to kick in” became one of the rock-crit clichés of the decade. Christgau’s uncommon patience unearthed such unyielding records as For the Roses, Dub Housing, and Time Fades Away.

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