[JPL] Great music innovators dismissed early in their careers
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Great music innovators dismissed early in their careers
CanWest News Service
Sunday, February 03, 2008
No musical genre or style or star has been immune from the slings and arrows
of critics' outrageous statements -- not even the king himself, Elvis
"Wrong is right." - Thelonious Monk
"I don't know anything about music. In my line you don't have to." - Elvis
If the last century is celebrated for all things daringly modern in music,
someone forgot to tell the experts - the critics, academics, psychologists,
not to mention other artists - at the time of the great revolutions. From
the Rite of Spring to Hound Dog, bebop to hip-hop, great music that's passed
the test of time was once dismissed as a descent into barbarism, perversion,
godlessness and the like.
No musical genre or style has been immune from the slings and arrows of
critics' outrageous statements. As we shall see, originals as disparate
stylistically as the Beatles, Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Bob Dylan,
George Gershwin and Miles Davis have been dismissed with astonishing degrees
of certitude. In fact, they've been rapped for the very characteristics that
have proven them to be great artists.
Great pans in music go back to Beethoven's time, according to Nicolas
Slonimsky's wild and woolly Lexicon of Musical Invective, which begins by
quoting Samuel Butler: "The only things we really hate are unfamiliar
The critics, wrote Slonimsky (one of music's greatest encyclopedists),
"confuse their ingrained listening habits with the unalterable ideal of
beauty and perfection." If non- acceptance of the unfamiliar is a pathology,
as he suggests, it has governed conventional wisdom.
Fifty years ago Frank Sinatra echoed college professors in disparaging rock
'n' roll as "the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it
has been my misfortune to hear."
Yet, a few years later, Ol' Blue Eyes held his nose to welcome back Elvis
Presley from his stint in the army to gain high ratings for his first TV
Yet Sinatra's characterization of rock as a "rancid aphrodisiac" was
small-fry compared to the vitriol spewed at two titans of classical music,
Richard Strauss and Richard Wagner, who both bridged the romantic era and
With "all its abnormal and hideously grotesque proportions," Strauss's Till
Eulenspiegel was a tone-picture "of a heavy, dull and witless Teuton,"
according to a Boston reviewer in 1896. "The orchestration of the work is
sound and fury, signifying nothing, and the instruments are made to indulge
in a shrieking, piercing, noisy breakdown most of the time."
Why, he could've been talking about punk rock!
These were years when music criticism burned personal. Max Reger replied to
a Munich critic: "I am sitting in the smallest room of my house (the
bathroom). I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me."
This was a time when the very soul of mankind was seen to be at stake in
musical endeavor, when audiences were keenly involved in important debuts,
on edge, to the point of riot. The most notorious was the 1913 Paris
premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, which erupted into
fistfights. The music, according to the critic from London's Musical Times,
"baffles verbal description. To say that much of it is hideous as sound is a
mild description. ... Practically it has no relation to music at all as most
of us understand the word." Today hints of this evergreen and urgent work
can be found in innumerable soundtracks for movie thrillers.
If the carnal rhythmic force of Sacre got sophisticates in a lather, then
jazz, with its hot rhythms, was a moral freak-out. "Does Jazz Put the Sin in
Syncopation?" the Ladies Home Journal asked in 1921. "We have all been
taught to believe that 'music soothes the savage breast,' but we have never
stopped to consider that an entirely different type of music might invoke
And when George Gershwin "made a lady out of jazz," as some charitably
described Rhapsody in Blue, there was Lawrence Gilman, chief music critic of
the New York Herald-Tribune, to "weep over the lifelessness of its melody
and harmony, so derivative, so stale, so inexpressive," not to mention
"trite and feeble" and "sentimental and vapid."
Other critics carped about jazz losing its primitive roots. Influential
producer and critic John Hammond, the man who committed Bessie Smith, Billie
Holiday and Bob Dylan to disc, famously castigated Duke Ellington for his
1935 recording Reminiscing in Tempo, a beguiling and then-unheard-of
12-minute work in memory of his mother.
Hammond charged that "the real trouble with Duke's music is the fact that he
has purposely kept himself from any contact with the troubles of his people
or mankind in general. Ellington's music has become vapid and without the
slightest semblance of guts."
With the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in the 1930s, music criticism
became a function of the state. Negro jazz was officially considered
"degenerate music" under Hitler, as were the works of Mendelsshon,
Schoenberg, Mahler and other Jewish composers. The poster for the 1937
Entertete ("degenerate") Musik exhibition depicts a monkey in a tuxedo
playing a saxophone with the Jewish star on his lapel.
In 1940's paranoid postwar America - when musicians and other so-called
social deviants were suspected commies - the dizzyingly fast, highly
improvisational "bebop" style, which became the lingua franca of all jazz,
riled the avatars of good taste.
Time magazine pronounced (in 1946): "What bebop amounts to: hot jazz
overheated with overdone lyrics full of bawdiness, references to narcotics
Thelonious Monk, an architect of bop and arguably jazz's greatest composer,
mused that "talking about jazz is like dancing about architecture."
That didn't stop Downbeat from dismissing 'Round About Midnight, maybe the
music's most famous composition, as "for the super hip alone - his
abstractions on these sides are just too too - and I played them early in
the morning and late at night."
A decade later there was the great debate between "free-jazz" (or New Thing)
and, well, everything else - starting in 1959 with Ornette Coleman's
infamous residency at the Five Spot Café in Manhattan. "Man that cat is
nuts!" said Monk, of all people.
Miles Davis's reaction: "Hell, just listen to what he writes and how he
plays. If you're talking psychologically, the man's all screwed up inside."
Soon British critic Philip Larkin called John Coltrane's music "ugly on
Meanwhile the young were hooked on a crude new form: rock 'n' roll. One
thing everybody agreed on: rock 'n' roll was anti-sophistication. Its first
superstar, Elvis Presley, caught critical barbs from eggheads and racists
who railed against a white man playing black music.
Academics were horrified, equating rock 'n' roll with savage delinquency.
Jack Gould, the New York Times music critic, reviewed his debut on Ed
Sullivan's show: "Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability. His one
specialty is an accentuated movement of the body that heretofore has been
previously identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the
Rock 'n' roll, Sinatra sniffed, "smells phony and false. It is sung, played
and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons. And, by means of its
almost imbecilic reiteration, and sly, lewd and in plain fact, dirty lyrics
... it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on
the face of the Earth."
The Beatles may have changed the world on their first Sullivan show
appearance in February 1964, but not the critics. Gould in the New York
Times dissed them as a "fad." The Herald Tribune, in a review titled Beatles
Bomb on TV, called it "a magic act that owed less to Britain than to Barnum
- 75 per cent publicity, 20 per cent haircut, and five per cent lilting
Newsweek went farther, in an unwitting definition of the word clueless:
"Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums shamming out a
merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody.
Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah!') are a
catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments."
Their manager Brian Epstein fumed over the coverage, but John Lennon played
it cool: "It doesn't give any edge to it if everybody just falls flat on
their face saying, 'You're great.' " The arrival later that year of A Hard
Day's Night ("the Citizen Kane of jukebox movies," raved Andrew Sarris) gave
rise to the thought that the Fab Four might be around a while. When they
unfurled their well-hyped Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967,
fans, critics and academics alike - hep to the fact that rock was now
considered a bona fide art form -were ready to proclaim it rock's first
Thus arrived Irwin Silber's incredibly condescending Open Letter to Bob
Dylan in Sing-Out, the magazine that heavily supported Dylan at the start.
Sing-Out editor Silber wrote: "I realize that, all of a sudden, you have
become a phenom, a VIP, a celebrity. You travel with an entourage now - with
good buddies who are going to laugh when you need laughing and drink wine
with you and ensure your privacy - and never challenge you to face everyone
else's reality again. Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed now,
inner-probing, self-conscious - maybe even a little maudlin or a little
cruel on occasion. And it's happening on stage, too. You seem to be relating
to a handful of cronies behind the scenes now - rather than to the rest of
us out front."
In the biography No Director Home, Robert Shelton reports that the screed
inspired Dylan to write Positively Fourth Street, the follow-up to his huge
hit Like a Rolling Stone: "You got a lotta nerve to say you are my friend /
You just want to be on the side that's winning!"
As rock criticism evolved in the mass market, certain sacred cows arose,
particularly among the recently departed. Thus the struggle to sanctify the
young art form's first geniuses. Albert Goldman, who wrote sympathetically
about the new sound in the mainstream press (Saturday Evening Post), was at
least a decade older than the new generation of rock critics and had
academic baggage. When Goldman wrote the first major biography of Elvis
Presley in 1980, Greil Marcus accused Goldman of "cultural genocide" in a
piece titled The Myth Behind the Truth Behind the Legend.
Goldman's crime was not just painting Elvis as a hick easily manipulated by
his manager Colonel Tom Parker, but his apparent glee in doing so. No other
rock biography has attracted such venom, Garry Mulholland wrote in The
Observer (London). "But I love this dirty book. And I love it for one simple
reason: It made me love Elvis again. It's the only rock biography that feels
like a long walk through a minefield. I've just read it again, and I'm as
disturbed, exhilarated and relieved to reach the end in one piece as I was
over 20 years ago."
As always there are critics who see the end of the civilized world in a
certain performer or style. For pugnacious jazz critic Stanley Crouch, the
two converged on funk and hip-hop in his famous 1989 essay On the Corner:
The Sell-Out of Miles.
Crouch didn't mince words when it came to Miles Davis going electric,
claiming he "deserves the description that Nietzsche gave of Wagner, 'the
greatest example of self-violation in the history of art'."
Davis "turned butt to the beautiful in order to genuflect before the
commercial." His "droning wallpaper" sound was "so decadent that it can no
longer disguise the shriveling of its maker's soul." He was "the most
remarkable licker of moneyed boots in the music business, willing now to
pimp himself as he once pimped when he was a drug addict."
Well, guess what? Davis's then-maligned funk music - inspired by James
Brown's and Sly Stone's - have been recently released in a six-CD box (The
Complete On the Corner Sessions) that is getting raves.
And off-the-mark criticism continues today. Take rap, for instance.
Sniping over success is a big part of the rap game, as it was in the
classical era (when Wagner really was a "licker of moneyed boots").
And thus spoke Ice Cube, in All the Critics in New York: "F-k all the
critics in the N-Y-C / And your articles tryin' to rate my LP / F-k your
backpacks and your wack ass raps / Sayin' we ain't real because we make
Not to mention snap judgments.
© Canwest News Service 2008
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Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.
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