Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics 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 believe….”
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 over-praised 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 Bob Marley’s 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 regular-release album, 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 loved the 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.