Though the glowing harmonies of “Hammond Song” softened me up, and though the album was obviously lovingly made and bravely minimalist–full of irony, wit, invention, flights of vocal fancy–I grew to detest The Roches. Hidden within the undeniable charms of Maggie (the oldest, with the lowest voice), Terre (short hair, likes to wear a Yankees uniform) and Suzzy (youngest, tallest, center of the action) was an equally undeniable fingernails-on-the-blackboard quality; ultimately, it seemed like nothing more than smugness.
Take “Mr. Sellack,” a please-can-I-have-my-job-back tune sung in the voice of a wayward ex-waitress. The song is put together with imagination and great flair: It’s at once conversational and a vocal-group tour de force. “Mr. Sellack” is utterly striking on first listening; a few more spins, and it mostly sounds as if it were simply meant to be striking, which is somewhat different. The singers–supposedly asking for another chance at steady if unsatisfying work, after a spell of uncertain freedom–are altogether too pleased with themselves; even if this song came out of “personal experience,” even if it’s “true,” it comes off as a morality play staged to celebrate the supplicant, which isn’t true at all. When Suzzy sings, “When the customers send their burgers back/I’ll smile and say/`Thank you,'” you don’t believe her for a moment–the smirk is audible.
In the same way, the most notable lines in “Mr. Sellack”–“Give me a broom/And I’ll sweep my way to heaven”–seem less a plea to Mr. Sellack than a plea for praise from the listener. Though Maggie Roche sings in a tone so flat and self-effacing she almost saves the lyric from its insistent terrificness, the sweet ironies turn to lead. The real challenge in a song of this type–first-person narrative addressed to a specific second person–is to make the second person come to life; Mr. Sellack is just made to play the fool while the Roches bask in their cleverness. You know they’re too good for waitressing.
Though there seems to be little authentic feeling, little passion, behind the Roches’ compositions, they can be a lot better than “Mr. Sellack” (“Quitting Time,” “Hammond Song”), and I was eager to see what difference a live show would make. A good crowd at San Francisco’s Boarding House on June 15 almost had its wild enthusiasm justified; the same problems were there, but you didn’t have to notice them.
The Roches are fun to watch; they wear get-ups, not outfits, and Suzzy Roche, born to mug, carries the performance. Her singing is less studied than that of her older sisters, and she has far more physical presence. The concert was not a triumph: Terre Roche, as Ms. Interlocutor, talked and talked and talked; the group made much of its lack of mainstream appeal while playing to the audience as neatly as Randy Newman at his most cultish; the crowd reserved its biggest cheers for the worst material–such as a send-up of the “Hallelujah Chorus.” But with unusual and interesting women to pay attention to, set pieces like “The Married Men” seemed vital; “Mr. Sellack” could be enjoyed for the pure chance-taking of its singing.
On the encores, the Roches showed both wonderful taste and a certain refusal to trust what I hope are their best instincts. The first was Bob Dylan’s “Clothesline Saga,” a hilarious tune from the Basement Tapes. It’s one of Dylan’s oddest, most dissociated songs, and Suzzy Roche understood every word of it. She followed with “He Is the Boy,” the monumentally obscure flip side of Little Eva’s “Loco-motion”; the performance worked as girl-group rock and as a parody of girl-group rock. The song done, Suzzy sunk it with what seemed like five minutes of high-school chatter, as if to say, “Don’t be fooled–I’m much smarter than someone who’d sing a tune like this without realizing how dumb it is.”
The conundrum remains as to why this questionable act has amassed such an extraordinary file of clippings from the eastern press, and I don’t think it’s hard to solve. In the Greenwich Village milieu in which the Roches developed their music, they’re a local band. Obviously, it’s been a delight for writers to watch the Roches’ music take shape, to follow it, to want to help, to identify easily and strongly with women who are intelligent, novel, adventurous. As it happens, though, the press of this country is unnaturally concentrated in New York City. When you combine that fact with the hysterical hometown patriotism that has afflicted New Yorkers at least since Ford told their city to drop dead, you have a situation in which opinion-makers assume the nation itself has a need, even a duty, to participate in the culture of their city (the Yankees no less than the Roches). It doesn’t matter how peculiar to that city’s life and times said culture may be, or how provincial–it’s taken for granted that New York cannot be provincial.
Every city and town has its local bands. If they’re any good at all, they have their own followings–people who show up, as a casual matter, at gig after gig, eager to hear an arrangement change or a new tune tried out. The problem with the Roches is that, perhaps because of the celebration accorded them by local fans who are also critics with access to national readership, they record and perform as if Greenwich Village were, or should be, America–as if popular culture were a matter of insularity rather than of crossing borders, as if getting the joke were more important than getting satisfaction.
The boys in The Knack like to call themselves “L.A.’s Hottest Rookies,” and they may well be: Their debut album, Get the Knack (Capitol), has leaped onto the radio with all of the ubiquity–and all of the warmth–of a new set of Coke commercials. The back cover of the LP shows the foursome churning out their cynical, snotty, early-Beatles remakes not before a crowd, but in a TV station, and that’s just where they belong. In the best of all possible worlds, they’d be the house band for KABC’s Happy News.
Real Life Rock Top Ten
- Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Rust Never Sleeps (Reprise)
- Iron City Houserockers, Love’s So Tough (MCA)
- Rachel Sweet, Fool Around (Stiff/CBS)
- The Clash, “The Cost of Living E.P.” (CBS import)
- Robert Fripp, Exposure (Polydor)
- Ian Dury & the Blockheads, Do It Yourself (Stiff/CBS)
- Lester Bangs, “Let It Blurt” (Spy)
- Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, “The Boy Looked at Johnny”: The Obituary of Rock and Roll (Pluto Press, London)
- The Humans, “I Live in the City” (Beat)
- Ron Hawkins Quartet, “Bo Diddley” (Ozark import reissue)
New West, July 30, 1979