“What they really want,” my colleague Dave Marsh once said of the men who run the music business, “is a world in which there are no variables. You know what that would mean? Every year, each person buys one record. And it’s the same record.”
Today, Marsh’s nightmare has come closer to real life than in any time in the twenty-odd-year history of rock ‘n’ roll, and not just because the record business now fits comfortably within the classic definition of oligopoly capitalism. That is important: Centralization of resources always carries with it a definite imperative of homogeneity, since it’s more efficient to sell a million copies of one album than 100,000 copies each of ten albums. But that doesn’t come close to accounting for what people do want—and what people seem to want right now is what they perceive everyone else wants.
The sequence of the nearly unprecedented sale of more than 10 million copies of Frampton Comes Alive! or of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, to the absolutely unprecedented sale of more than 20 million copies of the double-LP soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever, to the across-the-board success of Grease, the omnipresence of the Bee Gees and the books-records-movie juggernaut of Robert Stigwood’s version of Sgt. Pepper, signifies more than anything else a deep need to touch the same cultural object. The impulse spans age and class: Little children who cannot attend the R-rated Fever on their own beg their parents to take them; Fever is about working-class culture, but the middle class has followed it into the discos.
One could say that all this represents is a positive desire for wholeness and unity in a society based in ethnic diversity and racial conflict. Perhaps if everyone liked the same thing, it would indicate everyone was ready to like everyone else? But I think it represents an urge to pare popular culture down, to reduce its cacophony of claims on one’s attention, to escape its demands—demands that are based in ethnic diversity and racial conflict. The result is a sort of unity, all right, but it’s a false, deceptive, even repressive unity. The fact is that when, in this country, popular culture speaks with one voice, it silences all others. This isn’t really happening yet; there are still a lot of people trying to be heard. But to a great degree, the audience is listening to only one voice.
What this means, among other things, is that the day of the rock ‘n’ roll surprise—the uncapitalized record by the unknown singer that shoots to Number One or just dents the local charts—has, for the moment at least, all but disappeared. No one comes out of the blue the way the Monotones did in 1958 with “Book of Love”; should anyone be lucky enough to do so, he, she, or they would never be allowed to return instantly whence he, she, or they came, as the Monotones also did. Part of the fun of rock ‘n’ roll—of any kind of popular culture in which the aesthetics but not necessarily the objects are generally shared—is in its buried treasures, its secrets. If everyone hears the same thing, what in the world will there be to talk about?
Which brings me to my favorite album of the month: Spitballs (Beserkley/ GRT), a set of mostly obscure or half-forgotten rock ‘n’ roll songs performed by indecipherable combinations of Beserkley’s groups, all of them as yet hitless in America—Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, Earth Quake, the Rubinoos, and the Greg Kihn Band. The material comes from the corners of sixties rock, and the basic style is pure garage-band punk. The sound is joyous, teenage, grungy, straightforward and silly.
You hear a lot of uncontrived delight in Spitballs—delight that comes from an insistence on the pleasures of rock archaeology. This isn’t just another oldies album in which the persona of the artist is superimposed on a dozen over-familiar classics: Spitballs is magnificently anonymous, almost out of reach, as if it were the creation of an all-night DJ smashing the limits of his playlist with one great burst of personal obsession. Who remembers “Life’s Too Short” by the Lafayettes? Well, almost no one, unless they were living in Baltimore in 1962. “Just Like Me” was a hit for Paul Revere and the Raiders back in 1965, but it’s been nearly as much of a lost record as Gino Washington’s incredible “Gino Is a Coward,” which was heard in the San Francisco Bay Area—and, I think, nowhere else—in 1964. And so on through the album—to Them’s “I Can Only Give You Everything,” the Dave Clark Five’s “Over and Over,” Bobby Fuller’s “Let Her Dance,” the Miracles’ “Way Over There”—each played as if it’s about to vanish into the collective unconscious.
I never expected to meet up with “Gino Is a Coward” again. This hilarious, Coasters-style 45 appeared out of nowhere in that first Beatle year; no one knew who Gino Washington was, and no one cared. But the audacity of writing a flatly ridiculous song about yourself, and calling yourself a coward to boot!—that’s what you caught, and that’s what you just barely remembered. Sung in a crazed wail by Larry Lynch, drummer for the Greg Kihn Band, driven by perfect doo-wops, flashy drumming and even flashier nyah-nyah-nyah guitar solos, “Gino” is unquestionably the masterpiece of Spitballs, if only because it so completely speaks for its point of view. Without capriciousness, unpredictability, and meaningless one-shot wonders, rock ‘n’ roll can only be a cost-efficient imitation of itself.
What Spitballs offers, mixing “Gino” and the Lafayettes with old Top Ten smashes like “Bad Moon Rising” and “Telstar,” making them all sound equally unlikely and equally necessary, is a merging of official, chart-certified rock ‘n’ roll history with the invisible history that has always gone right along with it. The claim of the album is that the invisible emerges over time to take over, to subvert and vitalize our picture of our own past. Probably Spitballs will be no more commercially successful than the invisible tunes it celebrates—and that is altogether fitting. The Bee Gees will not make room on the charts for it. But then, there are those who feel that the charts no longer make room for them.
The most satisfying show I’ve seen this year was Bruce Springsteen’s concert at the Berkeley Community Theater last July 1. The man has no guile: He meets the audience solely as a member of it. As always, his performance outstripped itself during the encores, which banged to a close with an endless charge into U.S. Bonds’s “Quarter to Three.” Springsteen went after the tune three times, heading off-stage between each shot, only to drag himself back as if he had only a minute of life left in his body: a minute he was ready to sacrifice to the song, of course. Finally, as the crowd stood, stomped, yelled, and cheered for more, Springsteen grabbed the mike stand, slumped, grimaced and feigned amazement. “You’re not serious?” he said to the audience—which roared back that it was. “Well,” Springsteen said, “then I guess it’s time to get really serious.” And so he slipped on a pair of dark glasses, struck a grinning pose and played “Quarter to Three” all over again.
Real Life Rock Top Ten
- The Complete Buddy Holly Story (Coral import/9 LPs)
- Bruce Springsteen, Darkness on the Edge of Town (CBS)
- The Dominoes Featuring Clyde McPhatter (King)
- Otis Day & the Knights, “Shout,” as performed in National Lampoon’s Animal House (Universal Pictures)
- Charlie Feathers, “One Hand Loose,” from King-Federal Rockabillys (King)
- Joe Walsh, But Seriously, Folks (Asylum)
- David Johansen, “Donna,” from David Johansen (Blue Sky)
- Mark Shipper, Paperback Writer, The Life and Times of the Beatles: The Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion (a novel, published by Sunridge Press/Grosset & Dunlap)
- Wire, “Dot-Dash” (Harvest import)
- Wings, “Name and Address” from London Town (Capitol)
New West, August 28, 1978