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."