(If you read this whole article, I love you. Mwah)
A Legendary Critic
I’ve just finished reading Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, a collection of music criticism, scattered notes and other pieces of writing by Lester Bangs. For anyone who hasn’t heard of him, Lester Bangs was an American rock critic from Detroit who basically wrote the idea of punk rock into existence. He was an alcoholic, nihilistic, typewriter-trashing madman who was touting the Stooges and the Velvet Underground as a revolution in music while everyone else in the sixties was busy writing them off as too silly, too amateur, and too gay (they soon came around). Bangs was the kind of guy who saw through the bullshit mythology of rock music and could tear it down in an instant, but likewise was talented enough to write whole new mythologies that glorified noise, energy, and not giving a fuck about anything at all.
He was completely unique, and his writing style seems to me almost shocking in how it dares to approach music criticism with actual personality and, you know, a sense of humour. In retrospect it makes so much of today’s music writing look codified and predictable: too cool, and trying too hard. A typical Lester Bangs piece would begin as a straight out review or interview or whatever his poor editor had tried to wrangle him into. But it would quickly devolve into a digression from the tangent of a digression: ten pages in you’d find yourself reading an elaborate fantasy in which Bangs imagined himself eating Elvis Presley’s corpse and transforming himself into Elvis, then segwaying into a psychedelic essay on the power of celebrity, taking a detour through the history of jazz music from the perspective of Jack Kerouac, and then ending with a flourish by returning to the album in question: “Oh yeah, it’s pretty good. You should go buy it.”
Lester Bangs was not afraid to embarrass himself, which is just about everything he stood for in music, too. Sometimes his rants and detours go so far off the rails that its a wonder they were ever published (and a fairly extensive ‘unpublishable’ section in this book shows just how much wasnt). But this is what makes his writing style so electric and alive even forty odd years after the fact: nobody else could jump so carelessly from anecdote to fantasy to wild opinion with no care for structure or pacing. His whole life is like an unclosed parenthesis. And half the time Bangs seems so buzzed off his nuts on drugs and cheap wine that he probably couldn’t even remember the last page he wrote, let alone edit it for quality. He writes with pure, uncensored and unedited passion, the kind that makes you want to listen to every single record he reviews.
There are some absolute gems in this collection. Firstly there’s the review of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks where Bangs approaches the album with all the reverence of a Sacred Text shining into his life like a vision, ending by comparing the lyrics to the title track with a Fernando Garcia Lorca poem in a manner as casual as it is revelatory. Then there’s the review of the Stooges’ Fun House which grows into a ‘program for mass psychic liberation’ over the course of 22 incredible pages. There’s the hilarious story ‘John Coltrane Lives‘ in which Bangs recounts a particularly strung out acid trip where he stole a friend’s saxophone, then chased his terrified landlord around her apartment blaring out bum notes before being arrested by local police. There’s the brilliant Kratwerk interview where Bangs asks them about groupies and drugs, and they respond by explaining behavioural modification through technology and the morality of experimental music. And then there’s the lengthy piece where Bangs goes on tour with The Clash and reports on the British punk scene from the inside out, which is a fascinating historical and personal document.
In between these moments of brilliance there are inevitably some passages where Bangs’ unedited, rambling style gets the better of him. One in particular finds him reviewing some shitty TV-guide B-movie called Teenagers From Outer Space, devolving into a fifteen page rant about…something that is borderline incomprehensible. But that’s part of the appeal of Lester Bangs in the end: the sense of having no filter and absolutely no restraint. It’s both his superpower and his kryptonite.
A Whirlwind Tour Through the World of Contemporary Music Journalism
Where else today can you find anything even close to this in the world of music journalism? If you asked me to, I couldn’t name a single critic working today with a style as unique, exciting or interesting as Lester Bangs. There’s Pitchfork, whose writing is actually of a pretty high quality but is hidden behind so much trendy agenda-pushing bullshit that half the time it’s not worth the effort. I mean lets be honest, a Best New Music isn’t really a distinction of quality as it is a distinction of popularity, one which lost all meaning when they started being handed out to Future and Young Thug and whoever else. And the Pitchfork news section is no more than a second-by-second update on Kanye West/Father John Misty’s respective Twitter accounts, with some social justice controversy thrown in for good measure.
Music magazines are basically all dead. Q is completely without personality and is just an echo chamber for a certain kind of old-school rock-ist circlejerking. NME is exactly the same except swap out classic rock for Britpop and just basically get Noel Gallagher’s opinion on fucking everything because he’s so naughty and cool. Fuck Noel Gallagher, fuck Damon Albarn and fuck every boring jangly Smithsy indie band that NME shoves down the throats of impressionable teenagers and hipsters who’ve never bothered to explore music further than the kinds of albums that appear on countdown TV shows of the Greatest 100 Albums of All Time where we all collectively bukkake on the corpse of John Lennon for an hour.
The only music magazine I can sometimes stand to read is Wire, which walks a delicate tightrope between being utterly pretentious and genuinely thought-provoking, usually while trying to convince me that an album of lo-fi sheep recordings is the best record of 2017. Once I was reading an issue of Wire, and the following actually real sentence appeared within an album review that was so perfectly pretentious and symbolic that I couldn’t stop laughing at it: ‘…But if you’ve come for the high conceptualism, you’ll stay for the beautifully rendered field recordings.’ I mean, that’s just perfect, isn’t it? You have to be so far up your own arse to write that sentence that it becomes strangely elegant in the end. But on the flipside, Wire have put me on to some incredible experimental artists like Richard Dawson and Julia Holter, who have made some of my favourite albums of recent years. So they’re not all bad.
Beyond the fleeting gales of print media there’s Anthony Fantano of theneedledrop, whose opinion I respect an awful lot. One thing Fantano is very good at that magazines like Wire completely miss, is explaining clearly and simply whether or not he thinks something is good. Choosing not to give an album a rating is fine, but if you make that decision, I think you have to be even clearer with qualitative judgments on a record. Some experimental music is just aimless wankery masquerading as intellectualism, and the critics job should be to sift out the shit. Fantano is as good as anyone as this, and has a sense of humour to boot. I think Youtube is probably the future of music journalism, just as it is the future of targeted advertising, music videos, dank memes and ASMR videos. Our generation are truly at the frontier of life.
You’ve already stopped reading this article, so it doesn’t matter what I write here. Just more proof that printed/written media is dying because nobody has any attention any more (myself included). Will it even be possible to have an individual style in the wordless future of criticism? Will everything just be reduced to snarky, 140-character opinions and clickbait? Should we all just make like Lester Bangs and shove valium up our butts and drink ourselves to death because nobody is even reading the 2000 word article we’ve just written ranting about obscure websites and magazines and books that nobody else even cares about?
No, no, no. The point of this (pointless) article is not by any means to glorify punk or nihilism or any of that leather-jacket Rock God machismo bullshit that accumulated throughout the 1960s and 70s. Rock music has been imploding further and further in on itself for about thirty years now, through post-punk to grunge to metal to today’s indie rock, which is so detached from its own sentience it might as well be a bearded brain in a jar.
The point of this article is simply to celebrate individuality and style and writing the way you think things OUGHT TO BE and not the way they currently are. To celebrate tearing down all forms of cultural mythology and idol worship before they inevitably build themselves back up again like silt collecting in a river bend. If Lester Bangs had lived past the age of thirty three, this is exactly what he would be preaching in 2017. He would be stripping trap rappers down to their underpants, declaring that Weird Al Yankovic was bigger than Katy Perry. It’s a tragedy that he never got to listen to Swans’ To Be Kind, or black metal, or Merzbow. But his writing and life should encourage everyone who encounters it to pursue passionately all the weird fucked up stuff they enjoy, just as he did. Ergo, this indulgent and impenetrable blog post that nobody cares about. Rest in peace, you brilliant piece of shit.