Rock Critic Confidential And The Rise And Fall Of Music Journalism

The self-importance – and actual importance – of the rock critic, and why collections of old rock star interviews still have value.

Rock critics are often very much of a sort. There’s something about the critic, in general, that is often immediately recognisable and directly related to the field in which they ply their trade – literary critics often write reviews as if they are writing a novel, drowning their critiques in a swamp of flowery pretension, while film critics (who we shall discuss in more detail soon) love to throw in moviespeak as they labour over mise en scene and assorted filmmaker terminology that they kinda understand. Rock critics, similarly, reflect the world that they write about – there’s a swagger and pretension, a certain arrogant self-belief and the not-so-veiled suggestion to the reader that the writer is every bit as important (perhaps even more important) than the band that they are interviewing. In the safety of their bedroom, the rock critic becomes a mighty wit and arbiter of taste, locking horns with rock gods and putting them in their place… and definitely not a stammering, twitchy and socially inept figure who has giggled his or her way through a stilted conversation with a band who will be forgotten almost as soon as the interview hits the presses.

The music press – particularly in its traditional form – often exists as a catalogue of emptiness. For monthly – or worse, weekly – titles with anything up to eighty pages to fill, content is king and there is always the desperate need to have your finger on the pulse. If you looked through twelve months worth of music magazines from, say, a decade or two ago, you’ll find endless interviews and cover shoots with bands who are essentially forgotten – and who, truth be told, were barely known even at the time. Magazines need content and can never be sure who might actually make it big, and so you’ll see endless features and front cover blurbs about crappy bands who clearly think that they are staggeringly original talents about to become superstars but who would come and go within a couple of albums.

Music journalists for the trend-chasing magazines are, by the nature of the job, surrounded by a false cool that can’t help but rub off on them. How that affects them probably depends on just who they write for – and when. I’m old enough to remember the British music weeklies of the 1980s when the NME was staffed by a collection of dickheads who considered themselves to be profound intellects, somewhat above the very thing that paid their wages but still desperate to hang with the cool kids while they prepared to move on to lucrative jobs writing reactionary bullshit for the Daily Express. These were the very worst examples of music journalism – sneering, smug and inherently rather stupid, caught up in their own belief that what they wrote meant something; that they were writing articles for the ages rather than laughably pretentious crap about the unrivalled genius of Haircut One Hundred.

Debbie Harry – photograph by Jeffrey Morgan

Of course, this isn’t a fish-slap to all music journalists. There are great books by music journalists, iconic articles and penetrating interviews. I really love the best rock writing – though what I might consider the best and what the sort of BBC documentary researcher still in thrall to the empty careerist witterings of Julie Burchill might are possibly very different things. I think that once people get past the need to be continually on-trend and down with the kids, their work improves immensely – the magazines and websites that focus on retrospectives, older acts and historical deep dives have the sort of writing that the yoof-based magazines could only dream of, and by and large, the bands they cover have also moved on from the desperate need to seem edgy or aloof. Hell, we all behave like dicks when we’re young, right? And in contradiction to everything that I’ve just said, there is a certain fascination in looking back at old music magazines. Sometimes, it’s just the perverse satisfaction that comes from seeing them getting things so spectacularly wrong in terms of who they praise and who they dismiss; but other times, the vintage interviews with artists who stood the test of time are curious time capsules that tell us a lot about not just the artist in question, but the culture of the time.

This all brings me, finally, to Rock Critic Confidential, which might’ve been the ideal title for a searing expose of the foibles and failings of the people who have lorded it over everyone else for years but is, in fact, the title of an impressive new coffee table collection of writing by Creem scribe Jeffrey Morgan, a man whose work here goes back to the early 1970s. Morgan feels like the better end of rock ‘n’ roll journalism – bitingly cynical and mocking, but at least coming from a place of love. He still feels like a fan, which is something – admittedly, a fan of Ted Nugent (who is the subject of a brilliantly appalling interview that reveals all manner of horrors about rock’s most unsavoury provocateur) but still.

Creem was America’s only proper music magazine (leaving aside brilliant fanzines like Bomp!) – while Rolling Stone became increasing embarrassed about the fact that it was a music magazine – clearly wanting to be much more important – Creem came from a place of love for rock ‘n’ roll; a jaded, cynical love, perhaps, but still. Some music magazines, the NME of the 1980s in particular, seemed to positively dislike music, but Creem built a reputation because of an obvious love for the thing it existed to cover. Sometimes, it’s a love-hate scenario, of course – but even when rock stars are humourless dicks or wasted poseurs, you can still love the music. And even when most of the music is terrible, you can still have a passion for the stuff that moves and inspires you.

This collection of Morgan’s work also includes a lengthy, rambling interview with Lou Reed that veers from the insightful to the incoherent, a short nonsensical chat with Kiss, a great piece with Rick Wakeman (perhaps the epitome of the older, more down-to-earth rock star), some amusing waffle with Sparks and a chat with the hilariously self-important Amanda Lear who talks a remarkable amount of bollocks throughout. These are interesting, not only for some fascinating revelations and laughably egotistical moments from the artists being interviewed, but also the attitudes casually displayed. While I imagine that Nugent has no shame, I wonder how some socially conscious readers might react to beloved, cooler-than-cool stars throwing around racial epithets with gleeful abandon? These interviews are of their time in many ways – though even at the time, this might have been eyebrow-raising stuff.

There are bitingly savage record reviews and a fair amount of rock star mockery, which of course I’m all in favour of – whoever would’ve thought that Pete Townsend didn’t have a sense of humour? Colour me shocked. Morgan’s writing sometimes slips into the self-indulgent – just fucking review the record, will you, rather than write not-very-witty movie-script scenarios – but most of it remains sharp, witty where it needs to be and – most importantly in terms of the interviews – he (mostly) just allows the subject to talk, in straight-ahead Q&A pieces. Music journalists have the habit of making everything about them, but no one outside other writers and wannabes ever gave a toss.

Rock journalism should be about fandom and a love of music. Not all music, and not unconditionally of course, but the music should be at the centre of it all. Creem knew that, and so did Morgan. His book collection – complete with the photos he took of the likes of Alice Cooper and Blondie – is an interesting record of his work, if not quite a snapshot of an era (it stretches through the decades a bit too much for that) and those with an interest in music writing might want to check this out.

The art of music journalism does feel like a bit of a dying art – while the number of music websites has hugely increased, the writers seem more anonymous, not self-promoting iconic figures worshipped by wrong-headed teens who think they have all the smarts. The glamour of music journalism has probably diminished in a world where bands can promote themselves and jobbing hacks will happily follow the party line fed to them by record labels. The humiliating decline of the NME is perhaps symbolic of how the all-powerful music press has collapsed, replaced by specialist magazines that offer quality content without the attitude. The new era is blander, admittedly – but the acerbic and snarky weeklies and monthlies now feel as much an anachronism as most of the other legacy aspects of the music industry. There is still room for incisive music writing – but it no longer has to pretend to be more important than the music it covers, and that is a good thing.



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