Three pioneering rock critics reveal all

Goldstein is often cited as the first serious rock critic, but he panned Sgt Pepper. Picture: Contributed
Goldstein is often cited as the first serious rock critic, but he panned Sgt Pepper. Picture: Contributed
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WHAT do we want from the access-all-areas pop memoir?

“Absolutely Bo Diddley,” some might say. One such would be Frank Zappa, given that the old goat came up with this definition of rock journalism: “People who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read.” But Frank has zapped off this mortal coil, so no one will ever be that cruel again. After all, what’s Morrissey going to say that could possibly hurt?

Nevertheless the scene had been pretty quiet, until last year around this time when Mark Ellen produced his back pages. They made for a spiffing read, but when were the pioneers of the craft going to tell their stories?

Robert Christgau is the self-proclaimed Dean of American Rock Critics, famous for originating the wham-bam review, quick and sometimes damning – and notorious for angering Lou Reed and Sonic Youth so much they wrote nasty songs about him, while Billy Joel tore up one of his lousy crits onstage. Richard Goldstein began his “Pop Eye” column in New York’s Village Voice in 1966 and is often cited as the first serious rock critic. Three years before that, Norman Jopling was the journo who rushed hotfoot from 
the Station Hotel, Richmond – on his Vespa – to the offices of New Record Mirror to give the first national exposure to the Rolling Stones. These three will surely do.

None of them ever asked a musician “What’s your favourite colour?” and certainly not those cerebral Americans. But “Who’s you’re favourite Beatle”, I’ve always thought, was a perfectly respectable inquiry. Where were these guys when Sgt Pepper was released? Jopling was putting his mag “to bed” and so couldn’t attend the album’s launch at Brian Epstein’s Belgravia pad, a rare miss for this scootering hipster whose book is a dense delight, as egalitarian as an edition of Brian Matthew’s Radio 2 hardy annual, Sounds Of The 60s, and if Jopling has omitted the name of even a stand-in bassist from some long-forgotten combo who went psychedelic for one weekend then I’ll eat my plastic moptop wig.

Goldstein says Sgt Pepper was “the moment when intellectuals fully realised that rock was an art form”. Nevertheless, he panned it: “Reeking of special effects … dazzling but fraudulent.” Excoriated, condemned as a fascist, he makes a confession: planting his head between speakers – the prevailing reviewer technique – he didn’t realise that one was blown, denying him the Fab Four’s full stereo wondrousness.

So, the first listens for two of our pioneers were not what they could have been. Christgau? He says that after Sgt Pepper “everything changed” but that’s just about all he says; it’s a diary entry. Woodstock gets little more than a paragraph. Bands are a background murmur in this book, a faint accompaniment to the author talking, eating, having sex. There’s a lot of sex, and intimate descriptions of lovers’ bodies which will make you gasp. Christgau took over from Goldstein at the Village Voice and they flit around each other’s books, such as when Bobby Kennedy was shot. Goldstein recalls how he turned off the TV, only for Christgau to call, telling him to switch it back on. “I saw the ballroom erupt in screams,” he writes. Then, unfortunately, he adds: “For several weeks [afterwards] I was unable to get an erection… ” Aagh!

Goldstein met musicians and was often underwhelmed. Christgau avoided them to remain a pure critic and he’s still managed to write a fine book about New York. I admire his balls, though didn’t anticipate seeing so much of them on display.