In Terminated for Reasons of Taste, I want to show how the world of pop music is bigger, more multi-dimensional, endlessly compelling in more directions, than readers ever imagined; I want to demonstrate how, in pop music, history repeats itself, recurring again and again in strange, intriguing, disturbing, revealing, often hilarious ways. In the more than three decades during which I wrote these pieces, popular music itself, music criticism, the music industry, communication media, and America have all changed immeasurably. But this book tracks all of those changes as they occurred, and then some.
I started writing professionally, if you can call it that, in early 1984, and the book divides itself into five chronological sections, revolving around music from the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s and – in the first one, facetiously titled “B.C.” – all of history Before I was a Critic. Under each of those umbrellas, I tried to organize pieces like a playlist or mixtape or good radio set, to transition logically into each other – to set each other up, answer each other’s questions, carry on an internal conversation or debate. Here are some excerpts, with visual aids to make things more fun.
A living fossil in the age of rock’roll, Cowboy Copas had a career that dated back to ‘20s string bands, then had a top five country hit in 1946. “Alabam,” which topped the country chart and got to #63 pop in Billboard when he was 47 in 1960, partook in a rhythm unmistakably echoing those bygone eras. And it wasn’t even the last of its kind – Guy Drake (1970’s race-baiting “Welfare Cadillac”), Jerry Reed, obese Hee Haw sideshow Junior Samples, and “Convoy” trucker-rapper C.W. McCall all made music at times harking back, somehow, to the white talking country blues of the Great Depression, long after most anybody remembered what was being harked back to. “Alabam” itself consists primarily of warmly recited couplets that, for all we know, could’ve survived on stages or in barn dances since Reconstruction days – about people down the street eating like wild geese, tramps in the cornfield, Sal with worn-down shoes tied onto her feet. Who knows anymore whether it was heard as a novelty, or whether its sound had simply retained backwoods currency over the decades?
Sleazy 1971 wet-dream song “Chick-A-Boom (Don’t Ya Jes’ Love It),” maybe the aesthetic spawn of both War’s “Spill The Wine” and Pipkins’ “Gimme Dat Ding” from the year before, kinda creeped me out as a 10-year-old, since it concerned hippie girls with missing bikini tops and bottoms. Yet I’ve always remembered it as Saturday morning cartoon rock — and yep, sure enough, it was done for a cartoon called Sabrina and the Groovie Ghoulies, and Daddy Dewdrop was actually a Cleveland songwriter named Dick Monda. Rest of the album was clearly tossed off overnight, and nobody bought it because 10-year-olds back then only bought 45s not LPs, but it’s pretty wacked out — songs about “fox huntin'” and “diggin on Mrs. Jones,” but the weirdest titles are probably “March Of The White Corpuscles” and “Migraine Headaches,” the latter of which goes from Huey Smith to “You’re Sixteen” to some nutty vaudeville-rock prototype for Disco Tex and his Sex-O-Lettes.
Probably either as “rock” a disco album or as “disco” a rock album as ever existed — And yeah, as the muscular male camaraderie on the front and back cover indicate, Leather Nun-level leather-bar gay (seems the Skatt Bros were marketed as the “metal” Village People or thereabouts.) Best song, “Walk The Night,” sounds basically how Wax Trax fascist industrial fetish metal disco (KMFDM or whoever) should have sounded, almost a decade early. Most over-the-top hook: “I got a ROD beneath my coat/It’s gonna RAM right down your throat/Hooo-ahh!!!” Almost as good: “Life At The Outpost” (“give your love to a cowboy man/He’s gonna love ya hard as he can, can” – plus spaghetti western guitar parts) and “Midnight Companion” (ballad, country in mood if not mode, about disguising one’s self as a trucker to meet bikers to prevent lonely nights – best song ever to mention a Rand McNally map).
Funky Four Plus One’s 1981 “That’s The Joint” – quite possibly the most exhilarating record in the history of the human race, with five 17-year-olds thrusting the beat by swerving the beat and passing off lines behind backs like Globetrotters while lady plus-one Sha Rock rock-shocks the whole darn place — makes their 1980 “Rapping And Rocking The House” sound in comparison like the merely mindblowing rough draft it was.
At 32 minutes past two the morning of 16 January 1987, two Beastie Boys broke into my West Hollywood hotel room and dumped a wastebasket of extremely wet water on my head, my bed, the carpeting and my Converse All-Stars. (I’d stupidly left the chain-lock unsecured, and I suppose they bribed the night clerk into giving them a key.) Earlier that evening, after Pee-Wee Herman had visited their dressing room and before they appeared on Joan Rivers’ show, the Beasties were tossing parsley at me, dropping ice cubes in my hair, and “dissin’” (graffiti-artist lingo for “saying bad things about”) my brown socks and flannel shirt. I interpreted all of this to mean that they did not like me.
Nobody dared call it a German invasion, maybe because it would’ve been a really weird time for one, as the Cold War whittled down – hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops spread across West Germany (I was one of them, from 1982 to 1985); the Green Party breaking through nationally; the Red Army Faction exploding vehicles and soldiers near Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern and Frankfurt bases; 600,000 protesters showing up at a 1983 anti-nuke demonstration in West Berlin. But in 1984, a song sung in German, about nuclear annihilation, just happened to hit #2 on the American pop chart. English version on the flipside got airplay too: “This is what we’ve waited for, this is it boys, this is war. The president is on alert…super high-tech jet fighters…I’m standing pretty, in this dust that was a city.” The music was deliriously bouncy teenybop new wave; the video showed the singer, an adorably tom-boyish fraulein known as Nena, balancing on a log. Nena was her band’s name, too (more confusing than Blondie!), and her four West Berlin boy-pals were almost as cute as she was.
Boney M were influential deep into the third world in ways that have yet to be charted – Before M.I.A., for instance, they clearly inspired Midi, Maxi and Efti, three teenage-girl refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea who united in Sweden in 1992 to make a flawless bubble-dance album immersed in ragga and the savanna, with one song imagining a “Sisterhood Of Africa” that hid daily from machine gun bullets; Columbia put the CD out in the U.S., where the single “Bad Bad Boys” snuck into the basement of the Hot 100, but they never made another record.
“We Are Frank Chickens” (“about us – Chicken gangsters – living in garbage,” the liner notes explain, a couple years before “gangsta rap” existed), features clucking sounds that could be M.I.A.’s “Bird Flu” two decades before the fact; “We Are Ninja” has Kazuko Hohki and Kazumi Taguchi, two Japanese women living in London, chopping you in two and “hiding in the drains of Yokahama” where they beat up alligators then take a shower, all over a Mouse Trap game of poly-percussion and incidental sounds that culminates in a minefield detonating.
There may not be a darker, bluesier country hit in the post-Jimmy Carter era than this one – and certainly not one that crossed over to the upper reaches of the pop chart. Terri Gibbs was a blind pianist from suburban Augusta, Georgia who sang husky enough to pass for a man, or at least for Phoebe Snow; no doubt she’d listened to her share of Ray Charles as well. She started out gospel and eventually wound up back there again — “The wheel of life keeps turning as your carriage turns to rust,” as her other great hit, 1982’s extremely spare and spooky “Ashes To Ashes,” put it. “Somebody’s Knockin’” takes its pulse from Donna Summer’s proto-techno “I Feel Love,” and its haunted temptation from Robert Johnson: The blue-jeaned, blond-haired man at the door, asking Terri her place or his place, is the devil. “He must have known I was spending my nights alone/My body’s burning so he oughta feel right at home.” Even now, the song inspires quotable youtube comments: “Those blond cowboys are so hard to resist, even for a Presbyterian.” “Great song! Maybe somebody can do a metal or gothic-metal cover.”
Obviously peppier than anything I expected to hear from the Butthole Surfers again in my lifetime, and probably peppier than anything I heard from them before in my lifetime; only competition is “Hey”, from way back on their first ep a century ago, back when you couldn’t write the word “Butthole” in a newspaper, much less say it on the radio. The mere fact that these performance-art mutants have a pop hit is so mind-boggling that, well, it boggles the mind. The chorus (the quasi-Arabic twang of which makes me think “Yardbirds”) is lovely—my only question is how come Gibby smells me in his clothes instead of his nose (which is where I always smell me when I sing along). Some 16-year-old girl filled out the “physical description” block on her subscriber profile in our local Internet service’s online registry by writing in “YoU nEveR kNoW jUsT hOw YoU lOoK tHrOuGh OtHeR pEoPlE’s EyEs” (that’s how she typed it!), and I wished I’d thought of it first. The rap verses (which make me think “88 Lines about 44 Women” by the Nails more than “People Who Died” by Jim Carroll more than “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed) are sensationalist horseshit, recited too monotonally. But that’s what initially bugged me about “Loser” by Beck, too, and it still kinda does, though more when I’m thinking about it than when I’m hearing it. So maybe it’s just nitpicking.
Back in Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” the way Robbins’s voice keens up on the high notes owes something to the fancy, super-emotional filigrees of boleros. It’s a technique which has weaved in and out of country music over the years; Roy Orbison was famous for it. But the country crooner who really made Latin music’s rococo vocal embellishments work was Mexican American. Raised in a family of migrant farm laborers, the man born Baldemar Huerta in Texas picked up his stage moniker Freddie Fender in the late ’50s, he says in the liner notes to his 1975 album Before the Next Teardrop Falls, as a way to sell his music to gringos, “but now I like the name.” And the title of his ornately quivering 1975 hit “Wasted Days and Wasted Nights” (first recorded as rockabilly in 1959) sums up the theme of the ’90s-to-’00s country-goes-to-Mexico wave as perfectly as “Margaritaville” does: Wasting days and wasting nights is the expressed mission of songs like “Beer in Mexico” by Kenny Chesney.
Rock’n’roll history is written by the winners. Which stinks, because the losers have always played a big role in keeping rock interesting. Sacha Gervasi’s Anvil!: The Story Of Anvil takes that as a given, and has a hilarious, heartbreaking time proving the point. Core Anvil members guitarist/singer Steve “Lips” Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner – now in their 50s, but joined at the metal hip since they were 14 – respectively earn their keep as a driver for a children’s catering company and as a sometime construction contractor, in hardscrabble neighborhoods on the outskirts of Toronto. One of metal’s attractions has always been as a voice of the white working class, and no movie has ever made that identification so explicit. But honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Kudlow trying to balance a cart loaded with three large vats of shepherd’s pie through the snow on the way to his van.
Perennially also-ran Motor City garage-revival outfit with nonetheless notably African American frontman resurrects archetypal 1981 Motor City proto-techno classic (theoretically inspired by Kano’s 1980 Italo-disco-metal “Holly Dolly,” though I’ve always heard Telex’s 1979 Belgian robo-electro “Moskow Diskow” at least as much) on Genuine Rock Instruments (usually a corny move at least in theory), makes a sonic rendezvous with Motor City muscle-car guitar-rock while retaining zee deceptive fake Continental Euro-accent that the previously nameless (until wgpr “Midnight Funk Association” dj Electrifying Mojo named them) A Number of Names had always preposterously used to chronicle their zeegarrrette-smoking and carrrcassette-blasting disco lounge-lizard cruising with his hot playmate in his Porsche 928 (significantly not a Detroit-made car) in the first place. Result: both the Sprocketiest U.S. quasi-Kraut-rock droned in decades, and a record that ties together seemingly unrelated cross-racial streams from America’s most musical city in ways even I had never imagined possible.
And I can hear Orleans’ innocuous 1975 soft-rock hit “Dance With Me” – a song I’ve never owned in any form or given a second’s thought – while shopping for zucchini at Fresh Plus, and I’m immediately flashed back through a mental wormhole to some sunny late afternoon early in tenth grade when I was both mortified and exhilarated by whatever limitless possibilities I associated with asking Shelly or maybe Barb to a high school dance (right, like it was the ‘50s or something), which I’m not sure I ever even got up the nerve to do. Old songs can do that.