When Rock 'n' Roll Forgets

S.F.'s Richie Unterberger writes about the greatest musicians you've never heard of

"My philosophy is to really emphasize the music," says Unterberger. "In the 'Mad Geniuses' chapter I did bring in the personal difficulties of Syd Barrett and Skip Spence. It is unfortunate that mental problems do have to be discussed." Indeed, several times throughout our interview Unterberger brings up illustrative details about his subjects -- one had a drug problem; another wanted to be paid for an interview -- but then he holds back names. See, Unterberger is a fan. And as a fan, his allegiance as a writer is to his source, not his reader. It's a problem.

Unterberger wants to talk with, to get close to, his subjects. "I didn't think it would serve anyone's purpose to interview people whose music didn't personally interest me, or worse, whose music I actively disliked," Unterberger writes in the introduction. "There is not a single artist covered in the book that I was not eager to talk with and write about."

As a fan, Unterberger writes as if the musicians always know best. The close focus is admirable, but the results are often as succulent as a saltine cracker. When the interviews are good, when the performers understand the music they made and can articulate their music's goal, meaning, and lasting import -- often with the corrective vision of hindsight -- the essay succeeds. For example, Martin Newell, a failed early '80s popster who claims he started the lo-fi cassette underground with his group Cleaners From Venus, explains a link between artistic freedom and creativity. But when the interviews are not revealing, Unterberger fails to help the performers along. Meanwhile, actual criticism gets upstaged by innocuous explanations, meaningless -- often unsupported -- pronouncements, and trivial "firsts": The Music Machine's "scream/duck call in the instrumental break is one of the eeriest vocal sounds to be heard on any rock record." Savage Rose is "perhaps the most ambitious and eclectic band to ever emerge from Continental Europe." Unterberger also breathily notes that Duffy Power, a heartthrob British blueskid who recorded "I Saw Her Standing There," was the second person to ever record a cover of a Lennon-McCartney tune.

Unterberger is a decent writer, and his workaday prose carries most sections. What he needed was an editor. A good one can save a writer from himself, flagging cliches, untangling metaphors, and burnishing lazy prose. Upon examining the raw text, Unterberger's apparently dropped the blue pencil. The cliches: A U.S. tour "proved to be the straw that broke the back of the original Deviants"; on an X-Ray Spex song the band "kicks in with all the immediacy of a custard pie in the face."

The rock criticism cliches are even more nefarious not just because every writer who has xeroxed together a fanzine has used them, but because Unterberger uses them like flash pots along an already humdrum stage. Lee Hazlewood is "a man who sounds like Johnny Cash might after gargling with razor blades"; Judy Henske's voice "took Billie Holiday into purgatory"; a Love song sounds like "the Tijuana Brass on acid." (The "-- on acid" construction alone is grounds for a ball-peen hammer manicure.) Some of the other rock cliches are only half-assed controlling statements. The Raincoats' "music eludes easy classification"; the work of three "post-punk hybrids" "defies easy imitation"; Germany's F.S.K. is "impossible to classify."

The flubs are sad. Good writing -- good criticism -- tells us stories, interprets mystery, makes context, and extrapolates connections. Good rock criticism does all of those things too, but -- by necessity -- it must do something more: It's got to make us want to hear. Or, if we've already heard, it's got to make us feel like we're hearing something entirely new. At the end of every chapter in Unknown Legends, Unterberger guides novice listeners through subpar reissues and useless bootlegs, recommending each artist's best work. It's a vital service for both his readers and the artists. But shouldn't a book like this do a bit more? Isn't there something poignant about these lost would-be, never-were stars? Or isn't there something magical about them, and the sheer, random effervescence of stardom and anonymity?

These are the things Unterberger doesn't include. The worth of past pop music constantly changes as the canon evolves and revolves. As French pop star Francoise Hardy edges back into fashion over the next couple of years, as some garage band happens upon the Mystic Tide, Unterberger's book will come in handy. Its readers will have the career outline, a few details, some musical suggestions. Thing is, they'll need more. They'll need prose that makes those dusty, forgotten bands sing, or crunch, again.

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