Monday, February 11, 2013

A Few More Words About Richard Thompson's "Electric" (And Fandom, In General)

After spending a week with the new Richard Thompson, I've come to the conclusion that "Electric" is a solid record with masterful production by Buddy Miller, some of RT's finest guitar-playing and some truly brilliant songs. This is a record that will probably end up a favorite of the year, the three or four songs I find unpleasant, notwithstanding. But something else has been on my mind, and though "Electric" is not the best example, since it is an excellent piece of work, the sentiment behind some of the comments posted is. And the best example of what's been on my mind would be the positive comments regarding Prince's latest third-rate single "Screwdriver."

Here's something my ex-business partner and I had written for the NYCD blog back in 2007, that will hopefully set the stage.

About 1972, people began to realize that the Beatles, who made some of the greatest music of all time when together, also had the ability to make some of the worst records since the invention of the cylinder as solo artists. So for every Band On The Run or All Things Must Pass, we got stuck with a Wild Life or Dark Horse. We dealt with it -- tried to ignore the lesser records, loved the good ones, and hoped against hope that they'd come to their senses and get back together.

Beginning in the early '80s, when we all found out the hard way that Beatles can get older and even die, and that a reunion was no longer possible, there arose a curious breed of music fan called Beatle Apologists. Their job was to find the minutes of brilliance or even competence amidst the forty minutes of dreck that made up most Beatle solo albums, and use them to justify the whole sorry mess.

It seems like a large percentage of Beatle apologists have become record reviewers over the years. That's why records like Off The Ground, Gone Troppo, and Stop And Smell The Roses (by Paul, George and Ringo, respectively) received respectful, even mildly encouraging reviews upon their release. The bar was set so low that all a Beatle had to do was put any sort of garbage on a piece of plastic to prove he hadn't joined John Lennon in the great beyond, and by golly, that was good enough for the apologists.

Along with Beatle apologists emerged a somewhat more cynical group, the Beatle realists. They loved the Beatles too, and dutifully bought all the solo records out of some strange sense of loyalty. The difference between the realists and the apologists was that the realists were able to hear just how bad most of these records were. Conversations between realists and apologists usually go something like this:

APOLOGIST: You know, there are a couple of really good songs on this new Ringo Starr CD.
REALIST: No. There aren't.

One of the worst cases of fanaticism has to be the subsect of people who find pleasure and beauty in even the most unlistenable moments in an artists career. I've experienced this unpleasantness for 40 years as a Todd Rundgren fan, an artist who, as you all must have gleaned by now, is a favorite of mine, and yet an artist who continues to baffle and disappoint me with certain decisions and performances. Personally, I wouldn't have it any other way. How can you respect what's good if you won't recognize what isn't?

Yet, there is that subsect of fans who will sing high-praise regardless of what the man does. I have heard it all and it is not all good. I have seen the man perform more times than I've visited my mother, and trust me, it is not always a happy ride...unless of course, you are part of that fanatical subsect who thinks it's "cute" to forget lyrics, sing off key, forget chords and fuck up piano parts in concert.

When I slammed that Prince single, I received defensive comments that read something like "Better than the other crap on the radio" and "It's fun and simple. Hardly his best, but it's okay."  Talk about damning with faint praise. Are we afraid to hurt Prince's feelings? Is saying "Damn, you've been putting out shit for 15 years," going to get us knocked off the guest list? We can still listen and anticipate with high hopes even if we admit that the music has gone from brilliant to awful. I don't believe it is being "too critical" to dismiss music from a long time favorite artist if said artist has lost his mojo. Why is it so difficult for so many to just say it? I can't be the only one who feels it.

As I said earlier, the new Richard Thompson is not a good example. This is an exceptional piece of work. But I don't think a criticism such as "writing from a template" is a terrible thing. I'm also of the mind that one artist shouldn't be compared to the other, as in, "You like Foreigner, but you don't like the new Richard Thompson?" Well, I do like Foreigner, and if I didn't like the new Richard Thompson, my answer would be "Yes, that's right."


oldkdawg said...

Brilliant post. In the early to mid 80's I was working in a local record store and worked for an apologist. He had friends of the same type. Got to the point where it was funnier to be the realist and try to point out how bad things really were. They hated when I would refer to George's album as "Gone Floppo". It is nice to finally have terms that explains their state of mind (and or mine).

buzzbabyjesus said...

A brilliant post to be sure.
I thought I was going to have to apologize, but was relieved to find out I'm a realist and not just an asshole.

wardo said...

The Beatle apologist thing is something I've tried to be realistic about with my blog. There's a reason why there's only one post dedicated to Ringo's solo work. I think it's wonderful that Paul keeps making records, but if he comes up with something lousy, I'll say so. Thankfully, his output seems to be with the idea that "if this is my last album, I better make it good."

It's one thing to like a performer; but if I'm going to buy their albums, I like to be able to have a reason to replay them.

Ken D said...

I definitely see your point, but doesn't it work in reverse as well: a realist's disappointment with a mediocre (or worse) work by favorite artist amps up the response from a deserved "not good..." to an overstated "it's just awful." Not accusing you of this, but it happens, no?

And if we're voting, I don't like Foreigner...

Sal Nunziato said...

@ Ken. We weren't voting. ;)

buzzbabyjesus said...

Do we really care about the difference between "not good" and "it's just awful"? They're both "bad".

Anonymous said...

i was one of the people saying the new Prince song is not that bad, but even I thought it was funny last night at the Grammies when Gotye couldn't believe that he was on the same stage as Prince. Prince's reaction had just a hint of "holy shit, i really am getting old."

A walk in the woods said...

I get it and I dig it; but I have to point out, "Wild Life" has my a song that's in my Top 5 McCartney solo tunes, and that's sayin' something: "Some People Never Know" - not apologizing, it's realistic!

steve simels said...

I don't know if I was ever an apologist, but I think I stopped caring around the time Paul released "London Town."

steve simels said...

On the other hand, the live version of "The Mess" -- b-side of "My Love"? -- really cooks.

buzzbabyjesus said...

I never heard "Some People Never Know" until just now. It is a gem.
All I knew from "Wildlife" was "Bip Bop".

Sal Nunziato said...

Let me just say, Steve and anyone else reading, if you stopped listening after "London Town," you are missing out on alot. Not everything, of course, but alot.

steve simels said...


There is no way I'm gonna revisit "Biker Like an Icon."

I'm sorry, but you can't make me.

steve simels said...

On the other hand, this one is really good, I think.

Sal Nunziato said...

"Biker Like An Icon" is the single worst 5 minutes in recorded history.

But I do think you owe it to yourself to listen to all of "Flowers In The Dirt," "Flaming Pie" and "Chaos & Creation."

Sal Nunziato said...

And "Run Devil Run," is one damm fine rock and roll record.

Gyro1966 said...

Good post, Sal. I'm not going to get into the ex- Beatles albums. but I will say that the new Richard Thompson has grown on me to the point where I sought out and grabbed a few of Richards' albums that I missed out on from "Mock Tudor" on up. It's always fun to give things a new listen that you might have ignored back in the day.

steve simels said...

Sal -- I quite enjoyed "Flaming Pie" back in the day.

Haven't heard it since, but I suspect I'd still enjoy it.

steve simels said...

You wanna talk apologists?

Try Stones apologists.

I actually gave "Black and Blue" a good review.

Sal Nunziato said...

Uh oh, here we go. I LOVE "Black & Blue."

steve simels said...

Oh, I like it too.

But I vastly overrated it at the time.

charlie c. said...

Big difference between a fan and a reviewer/blogger, or there should be. Otherwise the whole thing starts to sound like a slow sports day on wfan. The Beatles vs the individual members is a togh call. I think I ventured into apologistics because I wanted so much for the magic to continue, when it didn't, I took it personal and apologized - couldn't be a realist, and so what? Beatles were a synthesis infinitely greater than the parts. If Ram wasn't by an ex-Beatle would I like it, hate it, trash it? Even care?

Willard said...

I like the new Prince song. Fact is, I generally like him... even when he's not up to par. But, I wouldn't call it being an apologist. I just enjoy his style and sound. It appeals to the non-critic in me.

wardo said...

I like Biker Like An Icon. So there.

A walk in the woods said...

I like "Black And Blue" too... I really do!

I think the opposite of apologizing for fave artists happens, actually - I think we can be harsher on fave artists b/c we expect so much. Like when you said "Biker Like A Icon" is the worst 5 minutes ever; it is. But I think you are MORE likely to say that is you're a real Paul fan than not.

Buzz, I think many people missed out on "Some People Never Know" b/c it's on side two - not many bothered to turn it over after the execrable title song at the end of side 1!!

Willard, although I don't really dig the new Prince song, I'm with you - there are some artists I give a pass to b/c they're fascinating over a whole career. There's not many, but Prince is one.

William Repsher said...

I just wrote a similar post about Elton John's Blue Moves, although that was more about being too young to understand an album, and then when I was old enough, understanding that it still sucked:

Yet, the album still has some odd emotional pull for me! I think a lot of it is self identification with a given band or artist, or maybe some larger generational identification fans feel. To recognize the artist as flagging creatively would be to acknowledge the same sort of diminished returns within yourself ... so you find the positives in what is more likely a mediocre album (than flat out bad), rather than declare war on it.

I've been hoodwinked by the glowing reviews one too many times, not just for the "classic artist putting out mediocre album" syndrome, but also the "indie band who sounds like a half-assed group of Human League roadies monkeying around with a Casio and getting five-star reviews" syndrome, too. But I do have to wonder why a critic would knowingly give a legendary artist with a mediocre album a four- or five-star review -- I've been seeing this for decades now. It's certainly not for hipness quotient.

Would a scathing critique, or even a solid, fair take-down of an album by a legendary artist really make a difference? Chances are they've been so raked over by critics during their prime, the business itself, managers, concert promoters, fake friends ... that they're strapped in and, er, not going to start selling used cars if this rock and roll thing doesn't work out.

But I take it your emphasis is more on the fan than the artist here. Most fans ... who in the hell do you think is buying all those shitty American Songbook albums? Non-Rod Stewart fans? Those folks aren't even thinking about apologizing.

Gene Oberto said...

And now for something completely different...

I give all my heroes a fighting chance and my reviews go from got to get it to nothing's changed to this guy/band needs an intervention.

Due to the blessing of this blog and its savvy commenters, my thrill after many years of listening is going back to something I thought was dreck at the time of its release and finding out how wrong I was. Thus, gaining new heroes and amazing tunes/albums.

My best example would be bop jazz, something I never understood until one day I got it. Now it always a pleasure when it comes up on the shuffle.

I imagine I do what most of you do. I hear it and like it or not. No apologies, it's like food. Sometimes, no matter that I love ice cream, I just pass on it.

bglobe313 said...

Just a fantastic post. I don't have the time right now to read the comments and add more, and I don't know if I really could add more to the original post. I will add that this apologist vs. realist also applies in other artistic fields (I'm thinking mostly of books, but I suppose film directors and to a lesser extent actors would apply to).

Great, great post. Thank you.

Ace K.

Christine said...

Amazing post my dear friend! Loved reading the comments too. You will say I'm "missing the point," ;) but I can't stop laughing at "apologistics."

ASH On The Beat said...

All makes sense Sal.

I'd add a couple of things. For me, the rot set in before London Town, there's a lot to be said about Macca albums after Band On The Run.

As you say there is the odd gem that surprises you, certainly Flaming Pie, but the point is we keep buying because he is an ex Beatle.

Harrison wise there was never too much after All Things Must Pass, maybe Cloud Nine.

Be honest, most of Lennon's solo stuff after Imagine was pants.

There's also been a real attempt to justify many Ringo albums away from 4 or 5 decent at best songs.

We keep buying because they are Beatles, that is all.

I don't like Biker Like An Icon, Hope Of Deliverance is just as irritating by the way.

The Beatles aren't the only ones though.

Cheap Trick could be accused of the same, real fandom album after album, but after All Shook Up what is left, the self titled 1997 album and the last one if the truth be known.

Foreigner wise - a Greatest Hits is dandy enough but I couldn't eat a whole one.

Anything else you want to know? I'm here all week.

bada bing crosby said...

Couldn't a Beatles Realist also say "There ARE some good songs on the new Ringo album?' Realists don't necessarily have to be extremists.

Sal Nunziato said...

I think the subject is getting away from us.

The reason I posted the Beatles "Realist/Apologist" piece was to somewhat illustrate fandom and not to necessarily point out good or bad songs off Beatles solo albums. Though, I do love the activity.

To Bada Bing Crosby--of course a realist could also like 4-5 songs off a Ringo album.

I'm more interested in fans who just accept anything from an artist without a challenge. I don't care how much you may love Lou Reed or the Velvets or "Transformer" or Berlin." Those records don't make "Growing Up In Public" or "The Raven" listenable. And saying they are better than Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber is not really an answer.

Have you heard Todd Rundgren rap? It's painful. There's two albums worth, and some of the material on those two records is pretty good, but most is not. Or about his electronic dance remakes of songs he produced? Feel like hearing a techno trip hop version of Badfinger's "Take It All?" I sure don't. But the Todd fanatics praise this shit. It's creepy.

Sal Nunziato said...

And to William Repsher

Nice piece on "Blue Moves." I had a very similar experience. It felt as if Elton reappeared as a completely different artist..16 different times on one album. I felt abandoned as a fan, but as time went on, I grew to appreciate that record. Partly because of the strength of so many of the songs and partly because it was the last EJ record that really sounded like an EJ record.

"A Single Man" came next, I think. New band, new producer, and worst of all, Elton's voice changed.

Willard said...

Even the true apologists often hit the skip button on certain songs and albums. Stands to reason that the "true" fans (or at least, those who listen a lot) will be the most judgemental. Talk shit about it in public, though, and it's like talkin' about someone's mother. Their backs rear up. Coincidently, Thompson is another name that gets all access with me, as both Prince and Thompson are in my top 5. I think it might come down more to a select group of people who just aren't critical (like some of us are). Had a girlfriend like that once. If she liked something, she listened to it. If she didn't, it just never entered her mind again. I guess there's an argument for that philosophy. As for the Todd fanatics... you know how people form their little groups, using rare tapes and bad albums as litmus tests for the others. Happens with a lot of cult bands. Lester Bangs wannabes.

Duncanmusic said...

I like the new Richard Thompson record. I routinely get his stuff, as I have almost anyone or thing from Fairport Convention since I first discovered them in college in 1969. I was from a town called Fairport in New York State and it was an instant and impulsive buy i've never regretted. Richard's output since then has been on the top of my to get lists without fail and any boots I can find. I've seen the original Fairport(once)and Richard many times. the entity that is Fairport Convention now holds little interest for me but Richard continues to amaze and astound, if for nothing more than his incendiary guitar work. I have come to realize over the years that many artists 're-write' their catalog over and over again. Ray Davies is a prime example. Why is this a surprise? Music (or writing)that comes from one man(or woman)'s life experienced is naturally shifted through their primary filters and is indelibly stamped with their influences whether they be spiritual, economic, intellectual, personal etc. That it comes out characteristically sounding (or reading) just like them again and again is why we trust them as viable destination points for our entertainment and enlightenment. I DO enjoy artists like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Elvis Costello and a few others ( I can't name at this moment) who willfully seek new framing for their artistic visions and recreate themselves from time to time (McCartney has my grudging respect for that willingness, too). Not everyone is as adventurous as they are or willing to brave the rare air or just NOT care what anyone thinks. In the end, I have amassed a list of artists who I will follow to their end (or mine) and accept anything they do as valid. Will I listen to all of it again and again? Only time will tell.

simonthecat said...

After a certain point you have to become a realist or you just drown in quantity. I love Richard Thompson too, but I know that if I grab You Me Us? or Front Parlour Ballads, I'm going to be skipping a good third of the album.