Thirty or so rock critics from the US are asked to write a half dozen pages about an album they think has been overrated by either critics or the audience. Being rock critics they each pick a sacred cow and begin to barbeque.
This book is not so much a collection of rock criticism as much a collection of extended pet hates. It has many moments of humorous writing but none of those moments emerge from generosity. There is spleen venting and some cringingly cruel remarks about recordings as much loved as hated.
The critics themselves aren’t big names, they are scribes from metropolitan dailies throughout the US, mostly young up and comers. There is then a distinct generation X and Y thing happening in Kill Your Idols, as if the age of the music is the first thing that needs objecting to. In consequence the slant of Kill Your Idols is well against the sixties and seventies.
This is no bad thing: Rolling Stone, Mojo, and NME et al. all have an institutional bias toward saying that the sixties and 65-72 were the greatest years for rock and pop and everything has been pretty tame since then, with lip service to the Pistols and Nirvana. This is largely because the owners and writers for Rolling Stone et al. got their start and capital in the years 65-72 and young love is unreserved and does not fade like enthusiasms of middle age and even older follies.
There is a canon in rock music and it is largely determined in the review pages of the large periodicals. This canon is in the sights of Kill Your Idols.
It starts firing at Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and ends by kicking the shit out of OK Computer.
The sixties take most of the heat; Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, Stones, Neil Young, The Who, Gram Parsons, Byrds, Dylan, Doors, MC5, Led Zep, Beefheart. All of them overrated, under written, boring and not approaching anything like masterpiece status, especially anything with a hint of country flavour.
The sixties for these writers were boring and a decade of music making inflated by the irredeemable self importance of those who simply happened to be around. The seventies are similarly dealt with, signified not by the inflation of self importance but the over inflation of rock as art, and the resulting confusion of the two.
Pink Floyd and Dark Side of the Moon come in for a particular hammering, as does Patti Smith’s Horses. Most of the seventies hatred is aimed at Bruce Springsteen and his attempt to put every single instrument in the western world on his sixteen track overdub extravaganza Born To Run. Springsteen also faces another barrage for his patriotic overstatements on Born In The USA, and deservedly so.
Other artists also cop it: Fleetwood Mac are in the firing line for Rumours; Bob Marley for Exodus; and Dead Kennedys for Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables. The eighties and nineties account for only one quarter of the targets. The Joshua Tree is boring; Imperial Bedroom is too clever by half; Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is, well, just too sad; OK Computer is an appalling reincarnation of art-rock; It Takes a Nation of Millions…is anti-semitic and bombastic; Nevermind is immature, teenage angst without humour.
It is not that these critics do not love music, they write about the music they hate with such passion in can only emerge from a spurned lover. Nor is the hate they write without acknowledgement of the achievements of those who made these hated objects but the difficulty of Kill Your Idols is that it has no balance.
On a case by case basis much of the criticism that it levels is due. Sgt Pepper is overrated and a failure as a concept album; Layla does reveal that Clapton did not quite manage the transformation from British blues imitator to British blues creator, the truly great guitar work being down to Duane Allman; Never Mind the Bollocks…is only a couple of singles and eight tracks off being a great album; Tommy is full of shit; and Harvest is half assed patchwork of imitative songs that makes Neil Young look pretty cheap. Some of the targets are very easy. No one really believes the Double Fantasy is a masterpiece, and Ram is not a deeply loved piece of work, and GP/Grevious Angel should never be mistaken for a work of genius, it is simply the saddest of farewells. Poor old Brian Wilson need not be criticised anymore, the broken man he is reflects very clearly on how he and the Beach Boys fucked up.
Much of the criticism in this book is justified and not hard to take, even when the album in question is deeply loved by the reader, but as a whole it seems such a cruel exercise. Let’s find all the things people love and tell them what is wrong with their love. Precious little kindness in that.
At the end of the book the contributors list their ten favourite albums, and many of those given the treatment in Kill Your Idols appear in the lists of those writing Kill Your Idols, revealing the contradictions that mean that this book is not what it might have hoped to be.
Instead of deconstructing the canon it ensures that the canon, which we might say is those artists and albums listened to and discussed in a serious manner, lives on absolutely unchanged. We are still listening and discussing the same material, perhaps revealing that to simply kill idols does not represent anything even slightly revolutionary, it is just a banal kind of sport.
Interestingly the lists in “About The Contributors” the albums that are listed more than any others are Revolver and Rubber Soul. The Beatles are as canonical as rock music gets, along with Elvis and Dylan. So there should be no surprise that on a series of favourite album lists The Beatles list high.
It was something of a shock to me that nowhere on the lists was any mention of Abbey Road or the White Album, my own personal favourites so obviously amongst the younger set of US critics it is the gentle balances of these two albums which are remembered most fondly.
Putting Revolver aside for another day, Rubber Soul was the last gasp of the Beatles as touring band. It shows their capacity to play together, and play is the word. The Beatles are not loved as much as they are because they were no fun. You can’t get more fun than ‘Drive My Car,’ with its cute witticisms and funky little bass line.