by Lester Bangs
– Phonograph Record Magazine, March, 1978.
Records, God, didja ever stop to think the world is filled with
billions of ‘em? No, you didn’t — chances are, if you read this magazine in the first place, you’re more or less like the author of this article, whose most memorable childhood fantasy was growing up to have a mansion with catacombs underneath containing –alphabetized in endless winding dimly-lit musty rows — every album ever released. I can tell you what a psychoanalyst would make of that: he’d say I had some kind of anal fixation. And he’d be right. I like shit!
In my own defense I gotta say I wasn’t always this way. The first
record I ever bought was TV Action Jazz by Muncell Lowe & His All-Stars, as pristine a masterpiece as ever immortalized by RCA Camden. But from there one could only ascend so far into the heavens until one possessed all the celestial milestones of recorded art and there was nowhere to go but into the trackless depths of anomalies, absurdities and dogshit. When you’ve got three copies of White Light/White Heat, eight copies of Raw Power, and everything ever cut by Miles Davis, the next step is obvious: choo choo trains on location and the complete works of Gary Lewis & the Playboys.
Besides which deep in my soul I’m not kidding myself at all: I know that when I started my record buying career back in 1958, I was already perverse enough that when I bought David Seville & the Chipmunks’ singles I was really into the Ross Bagdasarian instrumental novelty B-sides, whose titles spoke for themselves: “Mediocre,” “Almost Good,” “Flip Side.”
This same perverse streak obviously runs through the record industry
itself: knowing that they have dedicated their lives to hyping product 90% of which is essentially worthless now and will be dead in a few weeks or months, they like to compound their guilt by from time to time releasing records so patently ridiculous that you’d think the game was up, were it not for the fact that occasionally one of these monstrosities will hit. For which I am eternally grateful as a connoisseur of all this stuff, because it only takes one such hit to justify ten tons more vinyl miscreants on the
familiar “who knows what those crazy kids will go for next” rationale.
Since the Seventies seem destined to go down in history as our most
ridiculous decade, it only stands to reason that ridiculous records should become the norm instead of anomalies. Lissen buddy, today quality is anomalous, but that’s okay with me, because I’ve already got all the best records ever made anyway, and personally am glad that the industry has seen fit to begin catering to those of my…shall we say rarified tastes?
But, when that long road from preproduction brainstorm to bargain bin is finally run, certain albums will stand above all competitors,
distinguishing themselves either by being so far off the beaten quagmires that what they represent could never be familiarized and resold to the masses, or, conversely by being the most flagrantly excessive examples of their particular formula ever eructated on the public.
Here, then, in no particular order of importance for obvious reasons
and because each stands by itself, are my Top Ten Abominations of the Decade (in other words, given above mentioned prevailing currents, the best records of our time):
1. HAVING FUN WITH ELVIS ON STAGE (RCA)
Proof positive that the King loved his fans with such blinding
intensity that he never gave them less than the very best he was capable of: this entire album consists of his between song patter, a la “Hey, I think I’m gettin’ my scarf caught in my mouth.”
There are certain fanatics who feel that Blue Hawaii was a better album than this ultimate gift of gab, but then there are also people who feel that The Don Ho Show deserved to be cancelled.
Yes, this is what America thought of women in the unliberated Fifties: the cover features two atmospheric black and white snapshots of a dumpy aproned drudge at basin and board. Liner notes: “The therapeutic value of certain music has been known for a long, long time.”
This music is for washing and ironing tightened technologically to
produce a society of optimum production and consumption…Muzak ‘nother words. “With this album you can actually experience the concept of stimulus progression. Move the needle of your record player from one selection to the other. Listen a few seconds to each. Feel the change in mood as the stimulation increases from the first selection to the other. Far more than a name, Muzak has spearheaded the unique usage of the music called functional music…”
3. SONGS OF THE HUMPBACK WHALE (Capitol)
Language and Music of the Wolves (Columbia) and Songs of the Humpback Whale and it’s sequel Deep Voices — both on Capitol, appeared ca. 1970-71 — obviously a good time to be a sentient nonhuman if you were looking for a recording contract. The Wolves record features one side of various solo and group howls by wolves of all ages, and one side of Robert Redford telling us all about “The Wolf You Never Knew.” I still don’t know him, because I never played that side, but the flip has provided both me and my canine cohabitants with many hours of pleasure over the years. As for the
whales, prospective purchasers should note that the first album is more starkly minimalist, being mainly comprised of the big fellas making like Miles Davis on a bad night though, while Deep Voices offers more variety in such atmospheric numbers as “Surrounded by Snoring” and “Deep Breathing.”
4. THE BEST OF MARCEL MARCEAU (MGM)
Many feel this to be the ultimate concept album, while many others feel that it does not exist. But I ask ye unbelieving: would I, have I, ever lied to you? And if a record like this was possible, would MGM think twice about putting it out? Although the liner also mysteriously bears the imprint
“Gone-If Records,” as well as the word “Imagine!” in giant black letters.
Conceived and produced by Michael Viner, a chops-buster if there ever was one. Label copy for each one: “1. Silence — 19:00 2. Applause — 1:00.”
Marcel and his audiences are equally precise in their respective arts. Okay, so that joke stinks. Today is the first time I have pulled “The Best of Marcel Marceau” out of its sleeve in five years, and it still smells good, not mouldy at all. Then again, this is one of those rare records that never dates. In fact it doesn’t even fool around.
5. CHICAGO AT CARNEGIE HALL (Columbia)
No list of greatest recorded accomplishments of any decade would be
complete without inclusion of at least one live album, and while it is true that both the animals and Environments records were on-the-spot recordings, I think it’s fitting that we should include one which is, after all, music. At least that’s what the fans of Chicago keep telling me. The double live LP by a major rock band was one of the most oft-repeated formulae in the decade and I believe that Chicago at Carnegie Hall (1971) represents the genre at apogee.
This Chicago album was a boxed four record set, including a book, a
poster, and a voter registration outline. It’s musical highlight was was
Walter Parazaider’s wildly eclectic flute solo in “It Better Be Soon —
Second Movement,” which started with “Morning Song” from Greig’s “Peer Gynt Suite,” shifted abruptly to “Dixie Land,” to cheers from the audience, and thence to “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” complete with martial drum rolls.
6. URI GELLER (Columbia)
This record, circa 1975 proved conclusively that Geller is a fake. Not
only did his poetry eat rat root, but we must face cosmic facts: if the cat
really had his act together, you wouldn’t have to get up and turn it over to
hear side two. Not that you’d want to, anyway. Come to think of it, if Uri
was what he claims to be, not only could he will or should I say weld
you into your chair until you had listened to every last second of this
piece of dogswill, but it would also have been the bestselling album of all
time, as hands in record shops around the world moved, propelled by strange
forces from out of the air to pick it up, pull out their wallets and…
7. THE WIND HARP (UA)
Somewhere on this hill up in New England somebody stuck up this giant harp. Breezes come by and fan the strings. That’s God’s music, buddy, and knowing what a flair for the hook God has shown over the years — not to mention being a consistent chart-topper — United Artists Records were more than happy to tape his act with the Wind Harp and even release it as a two-record set (I mean, hell, you gotta give God at least as much space as a live heavy metal band). Later his celestial musings on this by now probably somewhat rusty instrument were, as usual, appropriated by the Devil, turning up the soundtrack for The Exorcist.
8. DAWN AT NEW HOPE, PA. (Atlantic)
Atlantic Records and Syntonic Research, Inc.’s Environments series. I have nothing against these records in principle — a friend claims that playing the surf noises on the first record absorbs the traffic noises and crime-of-violence shrieks penetrating apartment walls in New York City, thus obviously reducing the tortures of the damned (meaning apartment dwellers, not crime victims). But I began to suspect they might be running short of inspiration, if not long on scam, when they followed Volume 2’s Dawn at New Hope, Pennsylvania with Volume 3’s Dusk at New Hope, Pennsylvania. Still, David Peel completests will want to pick up Volume 3, because he makes a cameo appearance on side one’s “Be-In (A Psychoacoustic Experience),” recorded at Sheep Meadow in Central Park April 6, 1969.
9. CALIFORNIA 99 (ABC)
Released late 1971 and subjected to an in-depth analysis by yours truly upon that occasion in the pages of this very magazine, this was truly the ultimate rock opera concept album. I know, I know, I hear you clamoring Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Camel’s Snow Goose or The Naked Carmen. But “California 99,” whose plot was far too complex toattempt to recap here, was the only science fiction concept rock opera in history to also include Jimmy Witherspoon singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” which makes it a document spanning over a century of American history even if you can’t find it in bargain bins anymore.
10. SENATOR SAM – Sam J. Ervin (Columbia)
This wasn’t the only record to come out of Watergate, of course — we much not overlook Orson Welles’ “The Begatting of the President” or the J.B.’s “You Can Have Watergate Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight.” But, as critic Billy Altman pointed out in his Creem magazine review when it came out (when do you think, bozo?), it comes from a hallowed tradition: Senator Everett Dirksen’s “Gallant Men,” Senator Bobby’s “Wild Thing,” and John Wayne’s “America, Why I Love Her,” featuring “The Hyphen,” about how all hyphenated Americans (Mexican-, Afro-, etc.) were right up there with white folks. But Senator Sam was a true national hero, and in many ways this was his Self Portrait, as he recited his covers of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “If I Had a Hammer” and “The First Amendment.” (Which also reminds me of another great celebrity record: Telly on MCA, where the chromedome cop recited songs like Bread’s “If,” — which in turn reminds me of Ted Knight’s “Hi Guys!,” which I have heard about and seen a picture of the cover but never actually heard so I don’t know whether he sings or recites or what label it’s on…) Sam was 77 years old when this record was cut, but when he got down to the serious business of reciting self-penned folk-funnies like “Zeke and the Snake” he didn’t sound a day over 78.
Honorable mention for also-rans: Les Crane’s Desiderata, Kreskin’s
World of ESP, Godfrey Daniel, Disco Duck (one of the only RSO albums
not to feature Eric Clapton — I think they had to bar him from the
sessions), Lou Reed’s Berlin, the Carpenters in outer space, Klaatu, the Orphic Egg series on London, the Golddiggers on RCA, Kim Fowley’s continuing efforts in behalf of mankind, Tangerine Dream and various solo spinoffs, the Get Off antidrug radio station albums, The Roto Rooter Goodtime Christmas Band, Magma who invented their own language, Steven Grossman who came out of the closet on Mercury for nothing because gays were supposed to play hard rock that year, Jonathan King’s Bubble Rock is Here to Stay, the Brady Bunch album featuring “American Pie,” Jobriath, The Sensuous Woman by J on Atlantic, and David Bromberg, beloved of his mother.