Critical Thoughts on Music Critics

REVIEW: ‘Kick Out the Jams: Jibes, Barbs, Tributes & Rallying Cries From 25 Years of Music Writing’ by Dave Marsh

November 5, 2023

If you were a teenager in 1980s London, you had a world of music on your doorstep. The triple detonations of rock ‘n’ roll, the ’60s boom, and punk had seeded the city with dozens of small venues, from crumbling dancehalls like the Hammersmith Palais to basement clubs and the backrooms of Victorian pubs. For little more than the price of a pint or a packet of fags, you could hear just about any style of music you wanted to hear. Age restrictions were printed on the tickets, but not once was I asked for my age.

Our guide to this embarrassment of deafening riches was the trinity of weekly music papers. The New Musical Express was left-wing, prone to fits of critical theory, enraptured by cack-handed indie bands, and hence highly popular with students. It was an NME cover that announced the most influential shift in my generation’s taste: In late 1982, Paul Weller broke up The Jam at the height of their success. Returning to his Mod roots, Weller declared for American soul music, posed in French cafés, and launched The Style Council. Weller expressed this shift on the NME’s cover not by dressing with his customary Mod punctiliousness, but by taking off all his clothes, daubing his spindly white torso with body paint, and hiding his shortcomings behind a well-placed shrub. Only a graduate of the Frankfurt School of Rock would have thought this a good idea.

Sounds was suspicious of all ideas, in the English tradition. It was the paper of no-nonsense rock, including the heavy metal bands that still emerged from the ex-industrial cities of the provinces like dinosaurs that had dodged the meteor strike. Its politics were as solidly traditional as its taste, and at one point caused it to sponsor a sort of musical Clockwork Orange called Oi!, a racist puddle of white identity politics into which the proletarian end of punk eventually pooled. As you can imagine, Sounds and the NME hated each other.

The third paper was Melody Maker. The other two papers distrusted Melody Maker because it seemed to have no politics at all. It kept an indecently commercial eye on the charts. It was printed on better quality paper. It declared a cynical neutrality in the shadow class war between the NME, where music criticism aspired to, and Sounds, whose writers suggested they would be just as happy if you used their paper as a rag to clean the engine oil from your fingers. For Melody Maker, music was about making melody. This is why its writers were susceptible to black dance music. Incredibly, the other two papers ridiculed this openness as a lack of seriousness.

We didn’t realize it at the time, but Melody Maker was the future. My generation were Thatcher’s Children. The shadow of the war was receding. The shabby, straightened world of our childhoods was being reshaped by the middle-class revolt of the 1979 elections. The old working class had broken down; Thatcher’s war on the miners’ unions was its Waterloo. By the end of the 1980s, Britain had completed a painful transit from an industrial and imperial economy to a post-imperial service economy. A majority of its people owned their own homes, for the first time in its history.

Apart from the losers in the Oi! demographic, we were delighted. The endless recession of the ’70s and early ’80s had taught us how to have a good time on a short budget. We made the most of these life lessons in the credit and consumption boom that ensued, and which, with occasional interruptions from fiscal reality, kept ensuing until the crash of 2008. We were hedonists, and it was fantastic. We had grown up with political and class conflict as we had grown up with bland food and bad weather. Now that the Old England really was dying, a teenager with a part-time job could take cheap holidays in the Med and drink real espresso.

We absorbed Paul Weller’s style counsel. Music was part of our escape into the consumer future. "Life is a drink and you get drunk when you’re young," Weller had told us, and we imbibed it all. We really didn’t care if it was made by blacks or whites. There had been no shortage of racism in 1950s’ Britain, and there was plenty of it in 1980s’ Britain too, but the radio and the charts had always been interracial. We loved American music as the sound of freedom. It was all foreign to us, and the sound and the songs mattered more than the color of their performers. But we despised the American division of the Hot 100 from the R&B chart for what it was: the Jim Crow of the airwaves. Jimi Hendrix had to make it in London before the free-your-mind white hippies of California would deign to listen to him.

We got the new dance music from Detroit and Chicago at once. House was the latest in the succession of black American sounds, from jazz and blues to R&B and soul to funk (which we called Rare Groove), disco, and rap. We heard all of this on the radio, often at odd hours on local BBC stations. A network of independent record shops sold reissues and imports on vinyl. We were heirs to decades of what was then called "youth culture." The grooves of black America were as much a part of that heritage as the banging and crashing of our indie bands. We knew little of the social realities of America, but we spent hours studying Sly’s "There’s a Riot Goin’ On" and Funkadelic’s "America Eats Its Young."

It was natural to see Primal Scream and all the other Velvet Underground impersonators on Saturday night, then buy Rare Groove and reggae compilations on cassette at Sunday street market in Camden Town. It was natural that the Sunday session at the Dingwalls club in Camden was where the latest British reworking of American influence happened. The label "Acid Jazz" was an inspired attempt to cash in on the tabloid outrage about the Acid House raves which would occupy so many of our weekends in the coming years. Really, it was Rare Groove played by British amateurs, or black music played by white people.

Something similar was happening in Manchester at the Hacienda club. Again, it was natural that, incited by a new drug called Ecstasy, House music, and James Brown’s "Funky Drummer" break would cross-pollinate with Manchester’s indie rock tradition. We heard the first rumble of the revolution in rock music in 1987: the first Happy Mondays’ album, Squirrel and G-Man Twenty Four Hour Party People Plastic, a lowlife art-funk collage produced by John Cale.

By 1989, the division between British rock music and dance music had simply collapsed, and Sounds and the NME had joined Melody Maker on the dance floor. At the end of that year, another Manchester band, the Stone Roses, released "Fool’s Gold," a shimmering 10-minute groove mixing the House four-on-the-floor with the ghosting of the "Funky Drummer" snare, wah-wah funk, and, thankfully buried in the reverb sludge, indie crooning. The three-minute single was dead to us. I spent much of the ’90s playing one-finger guitar and pumping a wah-wah pedal.

We had started as bedroom guitarists. We became studio technicians, learning how to combine the new technology of synths and samplers with real instruments. We didn’t realize it, but my generation was returning the rock rhythm section to its roots in black music. The British Invasion bands had imitated that feel, but it had leached out by degrees until nothing was left and rock was the white man’s sepulcher.

None of this crossed over into America, except on college radio and in college towns. As punk didn’t break through in America until Nirvana, so the "breakbeat" (as we called the "Funky Drummer" break and its derivatives) wouldn’t break through for nearly two decades. When I toured the United States in 1997 with the James Taylor Quartet, an Acid Jazz group playing Hammond organ funk, the color bar in taste was blatant. The white student audiences in Portland, Oregon, and Burlington, Vermont, thought we were being ironic, and came in fancy dress as Huggy Bear and other pimps. In Atlanta, we played to an almost entirely black crowd, most of them dressed in expensive leisure wear, and members of the audience thanked us afterwards for honoring their music when so many young black musicians didn’t care. Today, the same sound burbles away in malls and on Netflix soundtracks.

We really didn’t bother with new American white music. Instructed by the music papers, we had had our teenage ears blown out at early club shows by Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., The Pixies, and Nirvana. The noise and speed were fun, but we had grown up with Motörhead on the radio: louder-faster alone was not enough. Nirvana in particular sounded grim and inept, a sort of Pixies tribute act gone sour.

It was clear that something had gone wrong in American rock. Their mainstream bands were disgracefully trapped in the ’70s, a mixture of clapped-out cokeheads like Aerosmith and the juggernaut of mediocrity that was Bon Jovi. Their indie bands prided themselves on a mumbling passive resistance. If they couldn’t be bothered, why should we buy their records? Their refusal to even attempt syncopation suggested that they, whether they knew it or not, were performing a cliché of whiteness as surely as Public Enemy were performing a cliché of blackness.

The rot was most obvious in Rolling Stone magazine. We hardly ever looked at Rolling Stone on the newsstand, let alone bought it. We read Lester Bangs on ’60s garage bands and Detroit punk. We read Greil Marcus on the Sex Pistols and Situationism, and Peter Guralnick on soul music. We read Fred and Judy Vermorel on fandom, Charlie Gillett and George Melly on the rock business, and Richard Meltzer’s The Aesthetics of Rock on the Nietzschean drama of The Doors. We saw Rolling Stone for what it was: the critical equivalent of cancer of the ear.

We were precocious. We were pretentious. We were right. Rolling Stone had sold out our heritage for a mess of pottage and a little baggie of coke. It kept the white indie bands out, it kept the blacks down, and it kept printing stories about David Crosby and Jackson Browne. Its parasitic dependency on the major labels had created a third-rate professionalization which stifled American rock writing. Nothing paid better than writing for Rolling Stone. Nothing was worse than reading the results.

It is almost impossible now to understand how important Rolling Stone once seemed, not only in the estimation of the people who wrote for it, but also because it is increasingly hard to understand why rock music seemed to matter at all. The cult of Hunter S. Thompson, running Gertrude Stein a close second as the most overrated writer of the 20th century, suggests how Rolling Stone flattered the self-indulgence of the Boomers, and how empty their pose of rebellion really was. Any magazine of integrity would have refused to print the racist division of American music into the Hot 100 and the R&B charts. Any writer of integrity would have refused to perform the critical equivalent of playing at Sun City.

I must admit that Dave Marsh barely figured in our musicological investigations. We knew him as the author of Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story, a press release masquerading as a biography. An early editor of Creem magazine, Marsh became a regular at Rolling Stone in the ’70s. While I was receiving my heterodox musical education as a teenager in ’80s London, Marsh was writing a purist’s newsletter, Rock ’n’ Roll Confidential. More recently, Marsh, ever the gatekeeper, has served as one of the bouncers on the pearly gates of posterity, deciding who gets into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame. He has also written for a left-wing website called Counterpunch, which has an unseemly obsession with the Jews.

Marsh changed Rock ’n’ Roll Confidential to Rock ’n’ Rap Confidential after deciding that rap and hip-hop were "the most exciting, rebellious, hardest-rocking music of the early ’90s." That judgment confirms how out of synch Britain and America were by that point. We followed hip-hop. If, like me, you were working as a jazz musician, the rap-jazz crossover of A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr was briefly thrilling. We worked with rappers, who were mostly amiable but occasionally sinister comedians, but their fictive transgressions seemed petty compared with the mass illegality of the unlicensed raves we attended in our off hours, and the rappers’ unimaginative cycles of loops seemed equally limited compared with the vast electronic vistas that "dance music," as we called it, had opened. Again, it took 20 years for white America to accept House, dance music, and the digital revolution that underpinned both.

Dave Marsh and I come from different musical worlds, and not only because, on the evidence of Kick Out the Jams, he cannot play a note. So it is with some surprise that I find myself half-agreeing with the broad chronology of Kick Out the Jams. Like Lester Bangs, he saw at once that Led Zep and The Eagles were impostors. As early as 1991, Marsh saw that a "white-dominated music industry" was denying the audible reality of "the Death of Rock." He saw that the MP3 would destroy the economic foundations of the old music business, and twigged in 1999 that "the deejays who play the records are more important than the singers who make them." Having waited in vain for the social revolution, he recognized the radical implications of the technological revolution on the ’90s, and he recognized that the apparent absence of politics in the Melody Maker view of the world was really the onset of depoliticization. But his politics addled his musical perspective.

Marsh was exposed to the MC5 at an early age, but this was no excuse after about 1972. The history of popular music, black, white, and blue, proves that a business of fleeting fashions and raging capitalism cannot support radical change in anything other than hemlines or offshore accountancy. Marsh recognizes that music is "a capitalist system," but persists in thinking it can nevertheless precipitate a social revolution. He is understandably angry, because he is perpetually being let down by artists who never agreed to shoulder his ideological burden to begin with (see: Springsteen, B.). As it is written in the Book of Strummer: "The message on the tablets was Valium."

Marsh is a good writer by rock standards; which is to say, a solid second-rater by any other critical standards, and a definite third-rater by the standards of criticism which, like the criticism of literature or classical music, presumes basic technical or historical knowledge on the part of the critic. The absence of which makes his strongest opinions his least substantial.

Country music "markets racial antagonism," but there’s always room for whataboutery about Louis Farrakhan. Wynton Marsalis and his band are not classicists who preserved the glory of African-American music. They are "smirking prizewinners holding their brothers down." Neil Young is Marsh’s "enemy" because of his "meathead" endorsement of Ronald Reagan, but Pete Seeger, of all people, is "a prodigious talent," and his music is preserving the "golden thread" that is "weaving the garment of human survival." I am not making this up.

It is true that Elvis was not a deliberate "thief": He was a spontaneous practitioner of musical "integration." It is highly debatable that this happened because of the New Deal, as Marsh argues in the keynote selection, because the New Deal’s electrification gave even rural whites access to black sounds on the radio. It is demonstrable that "integration" under the aegis of the state is not always the sacred value that Marsh thinks it is. As the brilliant German historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch noted in Three New Deals (2006), the regimes in Germany and Russia were working on similar lines, and also sponsoring the arts.

The "musical and moral legacies" of Frank Zappa are extolled. Madonna’s Like a Prayer is "such an excellent album." Marvin Gaye is mentioned only in a drive-by shot about unspecified "pretensions." Frank Sinatra’s success came from joining "with a batch of liars who had in part made their living for decades off swiping Black styles to which the bulk of the American public was denied access." This is strange, given that Marsh also tells us that the New Deal gave even rural whites access to black sounds.

Marsh names gentle old Arthur Schwartz as a "lead fabricator" and, we presume, racist liar. If there’s any "swiping" of styles in Schwartz tunes like "I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan" and "Dancing In The Dark," they’re Viennese. It is musically illiterate and historically ignorant to suggest that the 32-bar standard was created by "swiping Black styles." Its incorporation of the blues is not structural: It was a telling adornment, like Dave Marsh's dunce’s hat.

Kick Out the Jams contains no serious consideration of Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Booker T & the MGs, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, The Meters, Curtis Mayfield, Parliament-Funkadelic, Lee Perry, the Michael Jackson industrial complex, or Prince. There is hardly anything here about reggae, jazz, Latin music of any kind, or African music, or indeed the rap about which Marsh professed to be confidential. There are, however, strained reflections on the political folk music of Ani Difranco and the second-tier underachiever Phil Ochs, as well as lots of irrelevant political ranting, which is the fool’s gold of music writing.

Dave Marsh is a Sounds man with NME principles in a Melody Maker world. He was a professional witness to the technological and musical changes which, among other things, wiped out the old music business, and the English music papers too. But his songs remain the same and he cannot find the words to describe the changes. His editors call him "a writer wrestling with the American empire," so I suppose he has his hands full already. But if a rock writer doesn’t get a grip on trivia like musical technicalities and historical details, all that remains is an enthusiasm that seems arbitrary because it cannot explain itself and a resentment that seems childish because its self-explanations are trapped in the aspic of teenage onanism.

This kind of nonsense does not pass for criticism when it comes to any other kind of music. Perhaps this shows rock music’s essential inconsequentiality. For only by fantasy and exclusion can rock music stand alone and supreme. The strange thing is, Dave Marsh’s obsession with third-rate white acts, and his inability to understand the nature of musical fusion, replicates the color bar he decries.

"I’m beginning to believe it’s impossible to be a competent music critic," Marsh wrote in 1994. By then, it was too late for both critic and music.

Kick Out the Jams: Jibes, Barbs, Tributes & Rallying Cries From 25 Years of Music Writing
by Dave Marsh
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., $28.99

Dominic Green is a Wall Street Journal contributor and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

Published under: Book reviews , Music