Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Record Industry Grovels as the Rock Press Pukes

The music industry kept waiting for rock to die, and it just wouldn’t. The payola scandals of the late 50s, Little Richard’s (re-)finding religion, Chuck Berry’s being incarcerated, and Elvis’s being drafted had had those who hated or didn’t understand the music on the edge of their seats, waiting to breathe a huge sigh of relief, but then The Beatles came along and made the return to dominance of smooth-voiced crooners with matching white plastic belts and loafers, long eyelashes, and Italianate surnames look less likely than ever.

By the end of the 1960s, the record companies had realized that it was uncouth drug fiends in undignified clothing who were paying their salaries, and began reluctantly to hire uncouth other drug fiends in undignified clothing in hope they might explain what it was about the original drug fiends' weird, unpleasant music that made kids want to spend their lawnmowing and babysitting money on it.

I think it may have been such a person who, feeling puckish or vengeful, sold the record companies on the idea that ostentation and profligacy were the way forward. The companies began erecting bigger and bigger billboards along Sunset Blvd. in the same way that tbeir top executives bought flashier and flashier sports cars. Essentially, of course, they were all trying to show that they had larger penises than the next guy. It was fairly unlikely, after all, that a consumer in Council Bluffs, say, or Poughkeepsie would be more inclined to take a chance on a new recording artist because of his or her big, oversized billboard on the Strip.

But the money squandered on the billboards was insignificant compared to that the record companies began spending on trying to butter up the rock press, which, in the days since people had stopped reading solely about Davy Jones’s favorite color, had come to consist of maybe half a dozen talented, or at least thoughtful, writers who modeled themselves after film critics, and countless thousands of nerdish little showoffs who’d heard they could get boxfuls of free albums every month if they dashed off a review of some bozo a record company mistakenly regarded as hot stuff.

Very early in my career, I attended a party at which The Rock Press was supposed to get chummy with an undistinguished duo from Nebraska called Zager & Evans, who’d had a fluke hit with a wad of apocalyptic drivel called “In the Year 2525,” all about how mankind was its own worst enemy. The Rock Press made no bones at all about their disdain. There, alone at the table where their record company’s publicist had installed them, were the two embarrassed-looking minstrels, and all around, scrupulously ignoring them while they chowed down and guzzled free cocktails, those who were supposed to help ensure their ongoing popularity. It was hilarious, and of course a little heartbreaking.

It got much worse. The more the industry groveled before it, the more overtly contemptuous The Rock Press became. By around 1972, it was very much par for the course for some unshaven, malodorous young cough syrup addict who made his living trading in reviewers’ copies of records to pee drunkenly in the punch bowl just as those in whose honor the party was being thrown were being awarded their platinum albums. One was to understand, though, that these weren’t acts of wanton brattishness, but blows against the empire.

Eventually, it seemed to dawn on the record companies that the rock critics who mattered weren’t the little nerds guzzling their alcohol and devouring their crab legs, but the nation’s radio program directors. One mid-level station adding a record to its playlist would do it more good than every little rock critic in the land rhapsodizing about it in print, and there would be no danger of some self-proclaimed gonzo journalist throwing up on the mistress of the label’s vice president of sales.  

It was fun while it lasted.
Speaking of smooth-voiced crooners with matching white plastic belts and loafers, long eyelashes, and Italianate surnames, I used to think that Bobby Rydell [nee Ridarelli], say, or Frankie Avalon, represented the nadir of 20th century Western popular music. But were the Frankiebobbies that Dick Clark gleefully unleashed after the payola scandal really any more flagrantly bogus than Motley Crue or Bon Jovi?

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