Apr 262009

Last night I attended one of those silent-auction-school-fundraiser things. You know, one of those things where you can bid on a basket of scented shit while eating a Costco cookie all the while bemoaning the fact that you’re missing Ramon Troncoso pitch four shutout innings in what is the first glimpse of light this season in the Dodger’s bullpen.

In the past we’ve come home with some decent deals on summer camps for the boys, baskets of scented shit and “principal for a day” certificates. But last night I hit the relative jackpot. I was the only bidder on a “digital library” called Rolling Stone: Cover to Cover. It comes with a proprietary browsing/reading program and three discs of content that feature every page of every issue of Rolling Stone magazine from launch thru May 2007. I picked this beauty up for $20.

Chock full o’ stuff like:

The sneak preview of The Magical Mystery Tour tele-movie. If successful “…we’ll use the same techniques to make the Beatles’ next cinema film-and more television shows”, says Paul.

A report that The Beatles faces can be seen in the cover of Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. Did you know that? I didn’t. I did a quick search and found a few references and supposed “proof” in this enlarged section of the image:

We report. You…

And “Musicians Free Classified” ads from always-awake, antiwar bass players like Gary Westhoff-

The first search I did was “Syd Barrett” and came up with some qualified praise for Piper but not so much for Barrett’s solo efforts. According to the October ’74 record review section, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett were not released in the US until 1974, some 3-4 years after the fact and were only available as a double album.

I realize hindsight is 20-20 and taste is subjective and so on but I was really taken aback by the level of disdain reviewer Ken Emerson had for these albums. I know that I’m defensive about these personally treasured recordings but still:

Fans of Pink Floyd should be warned that The Madcap Laughs/Barrett may not be their cup of tea. In fact, this double album may be non one’s.

The first record in particular is almost unlistenable. Unprofessional with a vengeance, Madcap is slovenly ineptitude pretending to be weird and far out. Its only value may be as an object lesson in the detrimental effects of too much dope.

His opinion of Barrett is only slightly higher:

Although more pleasant…Barrett is still pretty small beer. If you’ve been dying to learn whatever happened to Syd Barrett, these records will fill you in. But you’ll probably find you didn’t really want to know.

This review, given the time and place, raises a myriad of questions, not the least of which is “What is small beer?”.

Given the huge popularity of the post Dark Side Floyd, and the belated “after thought” release of the Barrett albums I can see how someone would have such disdain for them. But is there something else going on here?

My gut tells me that Barrett’s popularity didn’t hit a critical mass until the early 80s after which time he took on a mythical status. Name-checked and imitated to this day by hipster musicians and ironically peaking perhaps with Rolling Stone‘s own loving and effervescing eulogy by David Fricke in the August ’06 issue.

I’m not looking for a critique of Barrett here, though feel free of course. Rather I’m wondering, was Ken Emmerson simply a comfortably numb Barrett hata’? Did the release of these albums on the heels of Dark Side force an unfair comparison? Or did something happen to the rockscape in the late 70s to allow for something like this to be appreciated? Did the whole sloppy DIY thing allow acceptance of something imperfectly beautiful and fragile?

What says you?


  21 Responses to “Rolling Stone, 10/10/1974-
“Barrett is…small beer.””

  1. Mr. Moderator

    What a pick up! I don’t recall Ken Emerson, but I got a little pissed reading the excerpts of those reivews. Those albums are really cool and special to me. I’ll take them over any Floyd album, even Piper.

  2. dbuskirk

    I can see that within the context of the times they could have seemed like an incompetent end of the singer-songwriter phenomenon, which was already pretty critically derided to begin with.

  3. There are definitely little faces hidden in the cover of John Wesley Harding. The one in the shot you’ve got posted here is sort of a face of God or Old Man Wind, bearded and hairy and blowing. The tiny one on the cover actually has much better resolution. The detail gets lost as it’s blown up. I also remember so Beatles faces on there.

  4. Pretending to be far out. The nerve!

  5. This is a great find and deal, sammy! Congrats…

    RS is notorious for its wishy washy views when it comes to music.

    When I was in college, the library had a copy of the original RS Album Guide. I poured over this volume for several hours. Apparently, in the 70s, it was hip and cool to downplay the importance of such albums as Sgt. Pepper as it only recieved 3 or 4 stars (something about how “it’s not as great as it thinks it is”). The second volume of the same guide printed in the early 90s gave it glowing remarks. I picked up a hardcover of the latest edition from 2004 and the reviews are again different (and more annoying). Too many puns and just bad writing.

    As I recall, the fine folks at RS didn’t exactly bowl over for Led Zep in their early days, only later to bow at the alter of Page.

    **I’m not trying to open a discussion on the importance of Pepper’s which may end up agreeing that it’s NOT as great as it thinks it is (that’s a whole other topic), only to point out the inconsistenciesof the reviewers who write/wrote for RS.


  6. Mr. Moderator

    I had no idea there were hidden faces on John Wesley Harding. I’ll have to take a close look at the cover. That face Sammy blew up looks like Lennon (the eyes) to me.

  7. Mr. Moderator

    By the way, apropos of nothing, I feel this is a good time to share the fact that Lily Tomlin may top my list of Probable Lesbians Who Are Not That Great Looking Yet Whom I Have Always Had a Little Crush On.

  8. What a find. I get a kick out of reading an old rolling stone (for the record club ads and expensive cassette decks alone) and for the article stuck in time (the Compact Disc player arrives in the US next year, The home computer, what will it do {answer, open your garage door and start your “hi-fi”)…and Michael Jackson will release his follow up to Off The Wall!

    I started subscribing in 1985 ( Michael J Fox on the cover for the “Hot List” and my folks had to read it before they would let a 14 year old kid start my subscription (in case it was still the druggie rag from 1969)

    Every music purchase from 1985-1990 was influenced by Rolling Stone (although I would buy a poorly reviewed record if I liked what they hated about it)

    Rolling Stone pisses me off mostly now, but I still read it in Borders or online (I could not subscribe once they started backing Kerry / Edwards)

  9. 2000 Man

    That would be a fun thing to read. It’s cool to see those old Pioneer and Sansui ads for those massive receivers. I think when I was in Junior High I liked RS more (mid 70’s). I didn’t like the way they covered a lot of the music I loved, and I thought they fawned over a lot of stuff that didn’t need any promotion and they seemed like they wanted to take credit for being trendsetters, but they were actually always the last to know.

    I can see the use for a review of Syd Barrett’s solo albums. I gotta say, I agree with the folks at RS, though (blech). I remember when my friend picked them up and we both just kind of sat there and fidgeted while they were playing. In Emerson’s defense, I don’t know that it was common knowledge that Barrett was as far gone as he was back then.

    The thing that I found worthless about them is that they reviewed albums that were ubiquitous. Who needs reviews of the top 20 selling albums in the country? Everyone knows what they’re all about. Reviewing Syd’s stuff makes more sense than reviewing anything Floyd did after Dark Side of the Moon. In this digital age, I think I’d consider a low cost subscription type plan that would let me look at all the old RS magazines and the review books. I’d be interested to see what people think of the big sellers as time goes by, but for some reason I just never care when they’re new.

  10. Mr. Moderator

    I’m still chewing on this “small beer” phrase. I’m reminded of a Belgian restaurant/bar in DC I was at with some work friends last year. We were seated at the bar, snacking on appetizers and – for my friends – fancy Belgian beers. I don’t drink and stopped drinking long before anyone I knew of was drinking fancy beers. A $4 case of Valley Forge 16-oz returnables was good enough for us. St. Paulie’s Girl was exotic. Anyhow, as I’m seated at the bar, watching my friends drink fancy Belgian beers, watching the bartender pour fancy beers for other patrons, and reading through the descriptions of the fancy beers in the beer menu, I remarked aloud over thinking I had to try some ridiculous pink beer that I saw the bartender pouring some other patron. It was totally girlie – with raspberries and honeysuckle, or something like that. The bartender overheard my remark and, seconds later, brought me a mini-mug of this pink beer – ON THE HOUSE! The mug was precious, holding maybe 3 oz of pink, frothy, girlie Belgian beer. I had to taste it, and man did it taste good! If that’s a small beer, then I’m buying a round for the house! I don’t plan on resuming drinking, but if I ever did, I’d consider drinking nothing but small, pink, frothy Belgian beers.

  11. saturnismine

    according to the dictionary widget on my mac, “beer” has an alternative meaning in British parlance: enjoyment.

    perhaps that sheds some light on the phrase, which also seems weird to me.

    two things had to happen for syd to gain the form of appreciation he has now:

    – the pre-punk notion that rock was “improving” as it became smoother and more polished had to fall by the wayside.

    – the 80s psyche revival, spearheaded by bands like TV personalities, plasticland, rain parade, etc., meant that a few psyche nerds in isolated places put out records that got more people interested in this kind of stuff. that barrett was one of their sources is something they wore on their sleeves.

    ultimately, the latter event resulted in the release of some of the previously unlreleased Syd stuff (Opal), and an album of syd covers by hip indie bands.

    i’m painting with a broad brush and these are incomplete thoughts, but i can’t think of more crucial events for the development of syd’s critical appreciation.

  12. hrrundivbakshi

    I always understood “small beer” to mean “non- or only slightly alcoholic.” You can see how such a comparison would suggest that Syd’s work was not nearly as good as “the real thing,” i.e., Floyd.

    Having said that, I’m not on the Syd Barrett bandwagon — but then, you know how sensitive I am to artists I’m supposed to appreciate more because they’re bat-shit crazy — sorry, “fragile.” I love crazy people — but they don’t make inherently more compelling music because of their disease.

  13. trolleyvox

    Saturn wrote:
    i’m painting with a broad brush and these are incomplete thoughts, but i can’t think of more crucial events for the development of syd’s critical appreciation.

    Indeed. I’m sensing a vast untapped area of rock analysis here. Would we call it Comparative Rock Studies? Archaeology of Rock Interpretation? Sociological Development of Rock Analysis? History and Sociology of Rock? Perhaps this warrants a conference.

  14. I think you can read most of the original Rolling Stone reviews for free on their website. If there was a reissue review it might be there instead

  15. sammymaudlin

    Thank you saturnismine for a direct response to my query. The “rock is improving” point is especially well taken given the original RS review I just read of The Stooges first release:

    “Iggie (sic): A blatantly poor imitation of early Jagger”

    “loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish.”

  16. BigSteve

    The critical reputation of the Stooges has evolved only slightly over the years. Now it can be summed up as “loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative, childish — and AWESOME!”

  17. dbuskirk

    “- the 80s psyche revival, spearheaded by bands like TV personalities, plasticland, rain parade, etc., meant that a few psyche nerds in isolated places put out records that got more people interested in this kind of stuff. that barrett was one of their sources is something they wore on their sleeves.”

    I thought Robyn Hitchcock was the number one Barrett cheerleader. I’m surprised he hasn’t gathered the rest of Floyd around him to do a Door-minus-Jimbo styled show of the first album….

  18. Hitchcock actually did do two shows on Dec 16 & 17, 2006 in London as benefits for Doctors Without Borders in which he played the entire Piper album as well as assorted other Syd songs. Didn’t have any of Floyd with him though.

    He’s done several other benefit shows at the same venue (Three Kings Pub). He’s played the entire Beatles White Album, Sgt. Pepper and something that he called Naff Hits of the ’70s (playing, among others, stuff like You Are So Beautiful, Funky Town, Golden Years, Dancing Queen, All The Young Dudes, Stuck In The Middle With You, Vicious, Rebel Rebel, & Kung Fu Fighting)

  19. I think Lilly Tomlin is Bisexual, and i crush on her too. Not now though, more like Incredible Shrinking Woman/9 to 5 Lilly.
    I like Syd Barret too, but not sexually.
    I also began subscribing to Rolling Stone in the Hot 100 Michael J. Fox era(they must have been running a special) My dad had a pile of 70’s issues as well. I like the old ads and the interviews, but as far as record reviews go, I think they’re all worthless. I would never read Pitchfork or anything like that. It’s just annoying to me.

  20. jeangray

    I think the introduction of the CD has a lot to do with Syd’s current reputation. Before CD’s it wasn’t like either of those albums were widely available to the buying public.

    I started noticing the hip/indie kids in my area raving about Syd in the mid-late 80’s. That would coincide with people in my social group getting their first CD players. This was also around the first time that I heard “Lo-Fi” Rock.

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