In a year when a few albums took up residence in the top ten and never left, when enormously popular rock movies overshadowed signs of an authentic rock ‘n’ roll cinema, it’s worth remembering film critic Manny Farber’s distinction between white elephant art and termite art. White elephant art, most easily promoted, accepted and enshrined, is usually anything but trash; as “an expensive hulk of well-regulated area,” often as not it gleams with the shine of a masterpiece. Thus, in 1978, Boston’s Don’t Look Back, the songs of Billy Joel, Linda Ronstadt’s Living in the U.S.A., The Last Waltz, or a Bruce Springsteen track like “Streets of Fire”—work that’s impressive and fundamentally impersonal, aimed just over your head.
Termite art, on the other hand, needs some darkness. It appears “where the spotlight of culture is nowhere in evidence, so that the craftsman can be ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” Farber goes on: “The most inclusive description of the art is that, termitelike, it feels its way through walls of particularization, with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement.” Thus, in 1978, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, a Bruce Springsteen track like “Racing in the Street,” or Bryan Ferry.
The prize for termite of the year, though, must go to Nick Lowe, gadfly of the English New Wave, producer of Graham Parker and Costello, and auteur of his own Pure Pop for Now People, otherwise known as Chuck Berry for Perverts. Pitching his songs in the cracks between chart entries scored by everyone else, no doubt as amused and appalled by the ambitions of Saturday Night Fever as by those of Patti Smith, he refined the subversive spirit of almost-forgotten jivebombers like Huey “Piano” Smith while couching every odd sally (a ditty about the castration of Castro, the wondrous “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass,” a lovely tribute to the Bay City Rollers) in disconcertingly reassuring and pleasurable melodies.Perhaps noting that most of today’s white elephants arise on this side of the water, he’s continued the process with a new single: “American Squirm,” at the moment available only as an import on the Radar label. “I made an American squirm,” Lowe moons in the voice of a happy lover, “and it felt so right.”
His triumph, however, was surely “Marie Provost,” from Pure Pop. Set in a dumpy apartment on Cahuenga Boulevard in 1937, inspired by Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, this was the story of a silent movie queen (Marie Prevost, actually), broken by the talkies, whose decomposing body wasn’t discovered until her pet dachshund had had his fill of it. Using a nicely melodramatic version of his all-accepting Beach Boys voice, Lowe pushed on to the bitter end, nailing down the year’s brightest couplet—“The cops came in and they looked around/Throwing up everywhere over what they found”—and then, accompanied by a gently soaring little pop choir, threw away a chorus that deserves to be piped into Forest Lawn, or maybe cut into the next Oscar cast. “She was a winner/Who became a doggie’s dinner,” Lowe sang with real heart. “She never meant that much to me…”
As for the rest of the year, what follows is the Real Life Rock Top Ten for 1978—with a few opposite numbers.
1. American Hot Wax, directed by Floyd Mutrux and written by John Kaye (Paramount)
A week in the life of founding rock ‘n’ roll disc jockey Alan Freed, about to fall to the payola scandals of 1959—and, in a time dominated by Saturday Night Fever, Grease, FM, The Last Waltz, and Robert Stigwood’s Sgt. Pepper, the ultimate termite. Slipping bits and pieces of more than 50 classics, mostly doo-wop, onto the soundtrack, reaching always for delight and absurdity, the film may have jumbled the facts, but it’s the most emotionally accurate movie about rock ‘n’ roll ever made: Moment to moment, it caught what early rock felt like, made you understand how and why it changed so many lives. With fine work by Laraine Newman as a teenage songwriter, the Chesterfields as Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, Chuck Berry as Chuck Berry, seventies Hollywood record producer Richard Perry as a fifties New York record producer, and a brooding, beautifully underplayed performance by Tim McIntire as Freed, this was the finest movie of any kind I saw this year. As for The Buddy Holly Story, a special Night of the Living Dead Award to Gary Busey.
2. Some Girls, by the Rolling Stones (Rolling Stones Records)
The third (or was it the fourth? fifth?) great comeback of the Stones’ career, with New York City as the backdrop for the sleaziest sexual encounters and the most aching romantic fantasies. I haven’t a word to say against the devastating title tune, long since banned from the radio, but it’s the rough cover of the Temptations’ elegant “Just My Imagination”—blasted, broken, as soulful as anything by Al Green—that still brings me to tears. And if Some Girls was the best album of 1978, these were the worst: Time Passages by Al Stewart (Arista), Nicolette by Nicolette Larson (Warner Bros.), All This and Heaven Too by Andrew Gold (Asylum), Some Enchanted Evening by Blue Oyster Cult (CBS), and Double Fun by Robert Palmer (Island).
3. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, live at Berkeley Community Theater, July 1, and at the Roxy in Los Angeles, July 7
The Prisoner of Rock, pleading for a life sentence.
4. The Bride Stripped Bare, by Bryan Ferry (Atlantic)
Already a certified commercial stiff after only a couple of months in the racks, this stunningly personal album—comparable in its way to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Jesse Winchester, John Cale’s Vintage Violence or Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks—continues to deepen the Don-Juan-in-Hell persona this English eccentric has explored throughout the decade. Backed by American session men (notably guitarist Waddy Wachtel), Ferry acts out The Revenge of Lust, a tale that leaves all parties free to indulge their cruelest, most self-pitying instincts, and then pay for them. From “Can’t Let Go,” an extraordinarily dramatic account of a lover in exile, to “Hold On I’m Coming,” the latest in Ferry’s string of unlikely and successful covers, the record is glamorous, bitter, effete and passionate. As always, Ferry sings in the voice of Dracula risen from the grave—risen to tell us how much he cares.
5. “Running on Empty,” by Jackson Browne (Asylum)
After 10,783 listenings, all but one on the radio, I’m still not tired of it. Rosemary Butler wins the Most Valuable Player Award for the way she sings the word “blind” on the chorus. The next-best single was “You’re the One That I Want” by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John (RSO); the worst was “Lights” by Journey (CBS), a tribute to San Francisco so puerile it made me wish I hadn’t been born there.
6. This Year’s Model, by Elvis Costello & the Attractions (CBS)
Costello’s act is that he doesn’t give a damn what anybody thinks—but despite the publicity that attends his every move, it’s not an act. This record came off the tasteful if moody My Aim Is Tru of 1977; with his new little band heading straight into the wilderness of English punk, Costello’s pop sensibility heated up and produced a wit that recalled Randy Newman and a raging momentum that demanded comparison with Dylan in his glory days. This was an urban horror story, thuggish fury hiding an edge of compassion, and it all came to a head in “Radio, Radio,” wherein the misanthrope joined his audience—if only to tell its members they had nothing to lose but their chains.
7. Dead Man’s Curve, the story of Jan and Dean, directed by Richard Compton and written by Dalene Young (CBS)
Richard Hatch and Bruce Davidson made the most of the lead roles, but what put this TV movie across was the use of J&D’s actual music rather than a hoked-up soundtrack, and the assumption that the lives of two surf-and-hot-rod rock comedians had a claim on our attention, regardless of whether the adventures of two white, middle-class youths from L.A. provided a clue to the history of the sixties, generational identity or the sexual revolution: the termite’s assumption that a rock ‘n’ roll story was valid on its own terms. Almost as good was All You Need Is Cash, Eric Idle’s inspired Beatle parody, which died every time his “Pre-fab Four,” the Rutles, were called upon to sing.
8. Street Hassle, by Lou Reed (Arista)
Watchwords for our time: “Y’know some people got no choice and they can never find a voice to talk with that they can call their own/ And so the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be they follow it/You know, it’s called… bad luck.”
9. “Shot by Both Sides,” by Magazine (Virgin import)A searing, mysterious single from Howard Devoto, formerly mastermind of the Buzzcocks, an early English punk group formed after Devoto witnessed one of the Sex Pistols’ first gigs: a record that keeps every promise the Pistols never got a chance to make.
10. “Life’s Been Good,” by Joe Walsh (Asylum)
For the lines “I can’t complain/But sometimes I still do,” which made Walsh the Best Human Being of 1978. The worst, at least in the world to which this column restricts itself, was surely Mike Curb, who used excerpts from his label’s hits—“You Light Up My Life,” “Kiss You All Over” and various numbers by the Osmonds—to spark the commercials that helped make him our next lieutenant governor, thus proving that rock ‘n’ roll has room for everyone.
New West, January 15, 1979