Monday, November 27, 2023

Titanic #2 (Ray Lowry versus Ian Penman) (1981)


Ray Lowry

Titanic Refloated

New Musical Express, June 20 1981

Ian Penman

Titanic Resunk 

a.k.a. Political Conscience Every Now and Then. Pub Every Night. NME Every Week.

New Musical Express, June 17 1981

Unusually clearcut for the Punman then -  and a piece that did some rewiring of my ideas in those formative days, so deftly did it demolish the quaint 'n' clunky idea of  politics + pop that the Lowry tirade wished to restore, with such clumsy yearning (stick to the cartooning, boy, you're ruff at that).

I believe this is the last of the Titanic-themed pieces that NME did. 

Missing from the sequence: the proto-Titanic piece that Mick Farren wrote at the very start of 1976, a sort of warming up to the theme of "things have gone adrift". I feel that I have at some point read that proto-piece, but where it would be and how to get my hands on it, I'm not sure....  

Unabashed by being thrashed, in October 1981 Lowry continues to demand generational voices of angry sanity from within the ranks of rock. 

"I promise I'll be funny again soon - when the economy looks up"

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Titanic #1 (Mick Farren versus Max Bell) (1976)

Mick Farren

The Titanic Sails at Dawn

New Musical Express, June 19 1976

As you can all quite well-imagine, the letters that get themselves printed in Gasbag (or Dogbag or Ratbag or Scumbag or whatever jiveass name we've dredged out of our collective misery that particular week) are only the tip of an iceberg.

The iceberg in this case seems to be one of a particularly threatening nature. In fact it is an iceberg that is drifting uncomfortably close to the dazzlingly lit, wonderfully appointed Titanic that is big-time, rock-pop, tax exile, jet-set show business.

Unless someone aboard is prepared to leave the party and go up on the bridge and do something about it, at least a slight change of course, the whole chromium metalflake Leviathan could go down with all hands.

Currently about the only figure who seems to have the least interest in the social progress of rock and roll is the skinny, crypto Ubermensch figure of David Bowie. Everyone else is waltzing around the grand ballroom, or playing musical chairs at the captain's table.


I guess it's the absorption of rock and roll into the turgid masterstream of traditional establishment showbiz. For Zsa Zsa Gabor read Mick Jagger, for Lew Grade read Harvey Goldsmith. Only the names have been changed, blah, blah.

If that's the way of the world then keep your head down, make like William Hickey and drink yourself to death.


That's right, he did. And short of picking up some change by doing it all over again and hoping no one will notice, it would be something of a redundant exercise.

Except that something seems to be happening that wasn't happening back in January. The aforementioned iceberg cometh. And that iceberg, dear reader is you.

Dig? I'm talkin' 'bout you.

Where once the letters that were dumped in the tray marked Gasbag contained smart-ass one liners, demands for album tokens, obscene ideas for the uses of Max Bell, or diatribes against Smith, Springsteen or Salewicz, now the tone has changed.

Stewart Tray of Manchester wouldn't go down and see the Stones if he was pulled there by Keith Richard.

Mart of Oldham doesn't want to see five middle-aged millionaires poncing around to pseudo soul funk/rock.

Letter after letter repeats the same thing. You all seem to have had it with the Who, and Liz Taylor, Rod and the Queen, Jagger and Princess Margaret, paying three quid to be bent, mutilated, crushed or seated behind a pillar or a PA stack, all in the name of modern seventies-style super rock.

The roar from the stage of "I shout, I scream, I kill the king, I rail at all his servants" has been muted, mutated and diluted "I smile, I fawn, I kiss ass and get my photo took…"

It was all too easy to accept that change until you out there pulled the whole thing up short.

"We're not going to take it" wasn't coming from the stage with any conviction. Instead it was coming from the audience. Could it be that once more there's music in the cafés at night and revolution in the air?

It's hard to tell. Like it or not, NME is a part of the rock industry and, to an extent, suffers from the same isolation that is endemic to the whole business.

Certainly the massive rock gala of the last month has produced some kind of backlash. People have become tired of the godawful conditions at places like Charlton. They're sick of having their booze confiscated and being ordered to stop dancing.

Maybe they're also sick of seeing the vibrant, iconoclastic music whose changes did, at least, shake the walls of the city a little, being turned round, sold out, castrated and co-opted.

Did we ever expect to see the Rolling Stones on News at Ten just like they were at the Badminton Horse Trials or the Chelsea Flower Show?

It's not clear just how deep this resistance goes. There's no way of knowing whether the mail we've getting is simply another version of "Dear Esther Rantzen, I just found sewer rat in my Diet Pepsi".

The only thing I know for sure is the effect the whole thing had on me. I woke up guilty and angry. Has rock and roll become another mindless consumer product that plays footsie with jet set and royalty and while the kids who make up its roots and energy queue up in the rain to watch it from two hundred yards away?

The Who, the Stones, Bowie, are, after all, my own generation. We all grew up together. I saw them in small sweaty clubs, cinemas and finally giant rock festivals. At the same time as everyone else they embraced politics, mysticism, acid. Together we ran through the trends, fads, psychoses and few precious moments of clear honesty that made up the tangle of the sixties.


Yeah, maybe so. There does, however, come a point when a cynical sold-out front has to drop for long enough to shout "Hold it!" Did we really come through the fantasy, fear and psychic mess of the last decade to make rock and roll safe for the Queen, Princess Margaret or Liz Taylor? Was the bold rhetoric and even the deaths and imprisonments simply to enable the heroes and idols of the period to retreat into a gaudy, vulgar jet-set that differs from the Taylor/Burton menace or the Sinatra rat pack only in small variations of style.

It's not so much the lifestyle of stars that is important. They can guzzle champagne till it runs from their ears, and become facile to the point of dumbness. They will only undermine their own credibility.

The real danger lies in what seems sometimes to be a determined effort on the part of some artists, promoters and sections of the media to turn rock into a safe, establishment form of entertainment.

It's okay if some stars want to make the switch from punk to Liberace so long as they don't take rock and roll with them.

If rock becomes safe, it's all over. It's a vibrant, vital music that from its very roots has always been a burst of colour and excitement against a background of dullness, hardship or frustration. From the blues onwards, the essential core of the music has been the rough side of humanity. It's a core of rebellion, sexuality, assertion and even violence. All the things that have always been unacceptable to a ruling establishment.

Once that vigorous, horny-handed core is extracted from rock and roll, you're left with little more than muzak. No matter how tastefully played or artfully constructed, if the soul's gone then it still, in the end comes down to muzak.


"Well," he said, avoiding everyone's eyes, "solutions aren't quite so easy."

The one thing that isn't a solution is to look back at the sixties and reproduce something from the past. This is, in fact, one of the problems we're suffering from today. The methods of presenting the biggest of today's superstars were conceived in the sixties when the crowds were smaller and logistics a whole lot easier.

When the Stones play at Earl's Court, or Bowie at Wembley Pool, we're seeing the old Bill Graham Fillmore. The difference is that the crowd is five or ten times the size and the problems of controlling it are multiplied by the same extent.

The promoter's solution is to remove the dancing, freaking-about and general looseness of the old Fillmore days. Instead the audience is expected to sit still in their numbered, regimented seats, under the watchful ear of the security muscle.

The same situation exists when the Who play at Charlton or any other football ground. The stadium rock show is basically the open-air festival penned up inside the walls of a sports arena. Again, from the promoter's point of view, it makes everything very much easier. There's no more trouble with ticket-taking or the collection of money. Security is simplified, and all the problems of overnight camping are avoided. Unfortunately it's the audience that now takes all the chances. They're the ones who take the risk of being crushed, cramped, bottled, soaked, stuck behind a pillar or a PA Stack, manhandled by security, ripped off by hot dog men or generally dumped on.

It's got to the point where the only celebration at today's superstar concert is taking place on stage. The only role for the audience is that of uncomfortable observers.

There are more ways of taking the soul out of rock and roll than just changing the music.

We're six years into the nineteen seventies, and already the sixties are beginning to sound like some golden age.


Of course they weren't. If we could be miraculously transported back there, we'd probably be appalled at some of the dumbness and naivete that went down.

There were wrong moves, screw-ups, disasters and even straightforward robberies. The two things that did exist that don't seem to be prominent today were, first, a phenomenal burst of creativity that wasn't merely confined to the stage but extended into the presentation, the audience and even right through to the press and poster art.

The second thing was that from musicians to managers to promoters to audience, the whole rock scene was in the hands of one generation. It was by no means perfect, but at least the energy levels were higher, and the gap between star and fan wasn't the yawning chasm that it has become today.

From sweaty, shoestring cellar clubs through the multi media extravaganzas like the Avalon in San Francisco, the Grande Ballroom in Detroit or the Technicolour Dream and UFO in London, clear through Glastonbury Fayre and even Woodstock, it was one generation taking care of its own music.

The scene was sufficiently solid to ease out the old farts from the fifties who thought promoting rock was a matter of giving the "kids" the kind of safe product, the kind of thing that was good for them.


No such thing. Even if I wanted to, that simply wouldn't be possible. The whole of the sixties underground , the free concerts and festivals, Oz, IT, the crazed fringe bands and street theatre would be largely impossible today. They survived financially in a tiny margin of a still affluent society that doesn't exist today.

The seventies are without doubt an era of compromise. Even to get this piece into print it is necessary to use the resources of a giant corporation, and adapt one's approach accordingly.

The real question of this decade is not whether to compromise or not, but how much and in what way.

One major lesson can be learned from the sixties, however, and that is that the best, most healthy kind of rock and roll is produced by and for the same generation.

There can be no question that a lot of today's rock is isolated from the broad mass of its audience. From the superstars with champagne and coke parties all the way down to your humble servant spending more time with his friends, his writing and his cat than he does cruising the street, all are cut off.

If rock is not being currently presented in an acceptable manner, and from the letters we've been getting at NME, this would seem to be the case, it is time for the seventies generation to start producing their own ideas, and ease out the old farts who are still pushing tired ideas left over from the sixties.

The time seems to be right for original thinking and new inventive concepts, not only in the music but in the way that it is staged and promoted.

It may be difficult in the current economic climate, and it may be a question of taking rock back to street level and starting all over again.

This is the only way out, if we are not going to look forward to an endless series of Charlton and Earl's Court style gigs, and constant reruns of things from the past, be they Glenn Miller revivals or Bowie's stabs at neo-fascism.

Putting the Beatles back together isn't going to be the salvation of rock and roll. Four kids playing to their contemporaries in a dirty cellar club might.

And that, gentle reader, is where you come in.



Max Bell

America: The Titanic Might Be Sinking, But There Are Plenty Of Lifeboats Left

New Musical Express, July 3 1976

Back in this very spot, Mick Farren pulled out his critical cudgels and delivered a sorely needed attack on the current state of rock'n'roll.

With his critical scalpel sharpened and levelled like a cut throat, he gave us a grisly reminder of the appallingly mundane levels the whole sick joke has reached.

His principal analogy, the sinking ship, was to the point – everyone is too busy drinking in the luxury bar or snarfing up large volumes of exotic white powders to notice the omens of death on the horizon.

In no way is this article intended to be an answer to, an affirmation or rebuttal of the matters raised therein. Nor can I suggest a way out of the whirlpool, or offer watertight reasons for the demise of rock, it's just that for some time this year I've felt much the same way as Farren on certain issues and disagree violently with him on others.

Judging by the response to the article, most of you were in agreement with the aforementioned paragraphs. I was myself, but stop a second and recall the facts.

For starters all the guilty names Mick brought up were British; The Stones, The Who, Rod Stewart – I could add a few names myself. Most of the really big names in 'The Biz', the bona fide superstars and debased rich kids crying all the way into the tax exile, are British. These people are so complacent and self-satisfied that they can afford to patronise the mugs who made them the over-fed, sleek, fauned and flattered cybernetics they invariably turn out to be.

Hard workers they ain't. Instead we're all supposed to feel grateful when Rod, Mick, Roger or Percy, wheel out the inflatable dildoes, Star Trek lasers, rocket propelled toy missiles, Spitfires etc. and lay on a 'show' for the punters. The encroachment of cheap theatre into rock music is one sure fire way of stifling its initial purpose.

Another is that the result is wasteful and counter productive. Groups take months producing grossly substandard records, lapping up hour on hour of expensive studio time – and then you wonder why your concerts are so expensive, why your albums so long in preparation. When they do play live it's merely a condescension.

"There's no money playing in England man, everyone knows that, we only do it as a concession for the fans so they can watch us getting staid and fat."

Well personally I don't give a damn about Black and Blue or Presence or The Who By Numbers or Earls Court, Wembley and Charlton. Y'see it's quite possible to ignore all the ghastly charades being played out over here at present and still listen to the largest number of superb albums ever available to general Joe Public, still see most of the best bands in the world, and still feel part of the "core of rebellion, sexuality, assertion and even violence" that Mick so eloquently cited as prime data for maintaining an interest in the trip.

Only you won't find it by pinning your life savings on British rock.


Face it and square up; in the States the situation is altogether different, far more healthy. You don't find American bands playing once every twenty four months in selected cities, they'd be out of a job if they dared to pull the standard English number of "no bread and unsuitable venues," on their audiences. Everyone is on the road. The Americans are phenominally well off for new releases too; as usual the majority of great albums this year will emanate from the USA.

I can find no justification for continually sticking one's head in the sand and refusing to recognise that, on both the East and West Coasts, bands of a calibre to surpass those heady days of the sixties do abound.

Moreover I refuse to accept that the originators of the psychedelic underground, accidental or not, are necessarily clapped-out old farts, just because it's ten years or more since their first flash on infinity. For Chrissakes, in no other cultural or artistic form (Mick was right, the language of idealism has been cold-bloodedly destroyed, reducto ad absurdum), would you meet with the kind of pigheaded attitude that dictates because 'A' was OK in '67, he must by definition be close to the knacker's yard a decade later. If an artist (and the most intelligent rockers are artists) had something to say way back when, the chances are – unless his brain is permanently damaged by the wrecking processes of countless hard drug cocktails and acid jock work-outs – that he'll have something equally valid to contribute a few years on.

The West Coast, and here I'm getting to the meat of my own viewpoint, has long been considered a haven for faded, washed-up old hippies who made a couple of good albums under the influence when Owsley, Casady, the Blue Bus Company and Haight Ashbury community relations officers were dishing out funny little pills like Saturday morning sweeties. Bullshit.

I couldn't care less whether it's infra dig to admire the supposedly past-it ancients and their recent work, but most second generation American name acts are producing artefacts which easily out-strip the initial, enthusiastic meanderings of their youth. You can mature and retain your ideals too. You can also betray your erstwhile champions for no other reasons than their stubborn myopia.

If we persist in bewailing the lack of youth culture in which to channel the life force of rock'n'roll, we stand perilously close to missing out on the fact that it is still there – we're too damn busy moaning to get it on in '76.

And what have we got instead? We've ended up in Britain with the future of rock manifested in one, or two, exciting new bands. What little rush of adrenalin there is left repines in bands utilising every degree of unpleasant, fascist, violent, artificial pseudo punk image imaginable. The best we can produce is bands intent on revibing the mid-sixties R&B, as we stick our collective noses in the mud to watch the after effects.

On the other hand, what does America have to offer? Well put your money where your mouth is Bell – and I'll tell you. They got the Little Feat's, the Todd Rundgren's, the Lofgren's, the Smith's, the Walsh's, the Kingfish's, Steely Dan's, Cult's, J. Geils'. J. J. Cale's...the list is endless and at the risk of being boring these are all bands who've surfaced entirely in the seventies. Got that? The seventies. NOW.

I could even stick in a few of my personal faves but without getting down to the Big Star's, Pavlov's Dog's, Elvin Bishop's, Berserkely or Sons Of Champlin, let's keep this as unesoteric as possible; those other names are generally reckoned to be exceptional, even by the people who will religiously tell you things aren't what they used to be.


What happened to enthusiasm anyway? Maybe it was replaced by critical apathy, and we've been duped into thinking the entire operation is extinct. If I genuinely felt there was nothing going down at all I couldn't bring myself to write about rock anymore.

But when it comes to uncovering the root reasons for the debacle, maybe we're all guilty. Experience proves that record reviewers are having their work cut out to provide informed synopsis of what is currently worthwhile. Not enough time is spent actually finding new material; instead we're trapped in the cul-de-sac of establishment top brass, whose work must be reviewed regardless of merit. So, far superior groups fall by the wayside, or are often not covered at all.

The saddest symptom, cynicism, becomes more understandable when the critic – after all only a fan in the position of considerable privilege and responsibility – is faced with the prospect of reviewing the same formulae over and over again. There is also supposedly a duty to cover what is popular, a practice which ought to be squashed pretty fast.

The charts reflect an appalling lack of new talent in circulation. Someone with the I.Q. of a retarded baboon could see that the charts are an absolute farce. At least eighty per cent of them (take a look) are comprised of strictly MOR lightweights or re-cycled greatest hits – an optimistic euphemism for old singles that sold more than five copies first time round. The American charts, though occasionally bland, have far greater class quotient. It's hardly feasible that Stateside record buyers would fall for so many utterly despicable records, so obviously lacking in both taste and style, as their English counterparts.

Without attempting to carry down the tablets, let's be a bit more objective and look at the role of the record company in one specific instance. Two of the finest albums of the past ten months. Spirit Of '76 and Son Of Spirit, have been completely snubbed by our moguls, although Randy California's immense talents patently deserve far greater exposure.

Spirit Of '76, a double album released last year, was a classic to compare with anything ever produced on the West Coast. It received grade 'A' reviews all over, including one from myself that on reflection wasn't as sympathetic or perceptive as it should have been. Whatever, the follow-up album, incredibly, is unavailable over here, unless you can afford to dish out the exhorbitant sum for an import copy. Why so? A call to the company a few weeks back elicited the response "Because someone (Christ knows who) didn't think if was good enough to release." Mmm...

In fact California is patently one of those heroes we've been pretending don't exist anymore – an expert guitarist with the originality, beauty and power of Hendrix, plus a sense of melodic invention that is frequently astonishing. Aside from his own startlingly unusual compositions his versions of 'Yesterday', 'Like A Rolling Stone' or even, at the risk of divine thunderbolts, 'Hey Joe' are better than the sacred originals.

One of the biggest mistakes made by the 'sixties was best' movement (I used to be a fully paid up member myself) is that Dylan, Hendrix. The Beatles, Stones etc, etc. are irreplaceable. Not so, there have been probably thirty albums released so far this year that bear very favourable comparison with any psychedelic blue print you care to mention. Many of them, Seastones (Phil Lesh's experimental disc of classic heavy proportions). Keith and Donna Godchuax, Tower of Power's Live And In Living Color, The Crusaders' Chain Reaction, Lydia Pense and Cold Blood and of course Kingfish have either never been released here or gone unnoticed except by the hard core of devotees who buy such records.

How many top British acts have a track record to compare with the West Coast greats? More to the point, how many British acts are likely to play benifits or free gigs as Grace Slick, Bonnie Raitt, Merl Saunders, Jackson Browne and the Jefferson Starship regularly do at Winterland and less prestigious halls in California and the mid west?


Although rock music is obviously the most ardently supported popular cultural activity in the world, we can count the number of purpose-built venues on the fingers of an amputated hand.

The sundry Odeons, aircraft hangars, football stadiums, roller skating rinks and exhibition halls which house our large concerts weren't designed with musical acoustics in mind. What possible enjoyment can be obtained in paying over three quid to sit behind a granite pillar, or two hundred yards from the stage or even behind it, unable either to see or hear? Some band's idea of putting on a 'show' is my idea of contempt for the paying public. And once you've got that far, try to show the natural exuberance that rock'n'roll is bound to promote – i.e. standing up, dancing around, generally having fun – and see what happens; a squadron of security men descend on the victims and forcibly pinion them to their seats.

The customer at a rock concert is invariably wrong and treated like dirt as a result.

Contrasting with the distinctly unpleasant vibe at most concerts now is the polar opposite, British apathy and selfish corollary of a favoured coterie indulging in an orgy of consumption and tedious social whirling. Viz. the on-off Rod and Britt saga (yawn) gets almost daily coverage in the press, the 'marriage' or the 'engagement' are as much a fixture now as the weather report, perhaps, more boring.

The music press, NME included, is partially responsible for propagating the whole dismal tomfoolery, and the results are far reaching. For every column of verbiage on society rock news, the low down scam on genuinely interesting artists is sacrificed. If the public is unaware of what is going down now in the States, they remain oblivious of what new albums they might listen to.

It's the role of the music press, as I see it, not to keep you informed on the spending sprees and evening hang-outs of our degenerate superstars, but to suggest how your listening hours can be more profitably spent. Steely Dan's Becker and Fagen summate the entire seventies, white elephant syndrome, in one crushing couplet. Got it show-biz kids?

"While the poor people sleeping with shade on the light, while the poor people sleeping all the stars come out at night."

There are still plenty of characters, spokesmen and heroes around. It's not difficult to identify with Rundgren, Gene Clark, Alex Chilton, Lofgren, Buck Dharma, Randy California or Bob Weir. There's music to satisfy any taste from Joe Zawinul to Curtis Mayfield, East meets West now. Oakland fuses into Philadelphia, San Francisco, L.A. and New York. In America people like Felix Cavaliere, The Crusaders (they've been going for twenty years and they continue to be exciting), and Little Feat are logically building on foundations laid down ten years ago. They don't look back and neither should we.

If artists in '66 could overreach the '50s why can't we acknowledge the past and look towards the future? To hell with pessimism, if we can't see what's in front of us today we might as well knock rock on the head once and for all and take up knitting.


The truth is that there won't be any saviours, there is no ten year plan being cycled to save the world from hollow men. Springsteen, Bowie and Patti Smith aren't the sole answer. They're ingredients in the evolution. There is so much to appreciate apart from the bright hopes of the business doyens – almost too many brilliant albums to choose from. When more people realise this fundamental the greater the likelihood of rock's unspoken ideals reaching fruition.

Right I'll get off the ledge and make my point, loud and clear. Rock music she lives, alive and well and residing in the U.S. of A. in plentiful abundance. Not that everything over there is perfect, but it doesn't take much effort to locate the fertile patches. There's no need to map out the unseen future waiting for a nouveau youth culture to spring miraculously and lustily out of a million rat-infested cellars. Opening up the garage doors again might be one way of revealing the odd new find but there's a far more relevant continuation of the dream already staring you in the face.

Comes a time to loosen up naturally – this summer has practically been laid on for the maximum enjoyment like an act of God. As the man said, 'It's Too Late To Stop Now' – if you can't realise that then you're culpably and wilfully wrong. Sorry.


A kind of rockist poptimism, the Bell angle here - the supply is good and plentiful, "there's always good music if you are prepared to look for it". Be reasonable, satiate with the available...  

Mick Farren                                                                                    Max Bell

Thursday, November 16, 2023

RIP Bob Mack

Back in the early '90s - when I was first spending large chunks of time in New York, and getting a feel for the U.S. rockcrit scene - one of the larger voices around was a fellow called Bob Mack. Not sure if we ever met - if so, it was the briefest of encounters - but we did chat on the phone when I was doing a piece for iD on the Beastie Boys's burgeoning Grand Royal empire. They were pioneering that thing which is now endemic in hip hop on both the mainstream and the underground level, where what you are really selling is sensibility, a vibe that people want to plug into and wrap around themselves, something that can be done as much through a limited-edition T-shirt as a record. Bob Mack was the editor of Grand Royal the magazine,  another conduit between the Beasties and their fanbase. He'd first got friendly with them through annoying them, writing a piece in Spin that pegged them as past it: Mack described L.A., where they'd relocated, as "a rest home for retired rappers... the Beastie Boys". The Beasties counter-dissed with a couplet in the B-side "The Skills to Pay the Bills": "Workin' on my game cause it's time to tax /I'm on a crazy mission to wax Bob Mack".

One of Mack's best-known pieces of writing is "Confessions of A Rush Fan", an appreciation of the Canadian prog-metal power trio published in Spin in March 1992.  It was the beginning of that rock crit game where you shyly reveal the uncool passions of one's youth, back before you learned the rules of hip. In the process, creating a kind of inverted capital out of the earnest identifications of formative fandom - you became all the cooler for having once been so uncool.  

But Rush - that was a bold leap into the naffzone!

It caught my eye because - while never a Rush fan -  I'd always loved "The Spirit of Radio", a hit single in the U.K. Even now I still haven't got round to properly digesting their uuurv - a few attempts over the years resulted in a pretty quick strategic withdrawal. But I have gradually, through classic rock radio exposure rather than any exertion on my part, increased the number of Rush songs I like-love to three, maybe four: "The Spirit of Radio", "Tom Sawyer", "Limelight", and at a push "Subdivisions". The full-blown Rand-y epic-ness, I may never be ready for. 

The piece is below - for more on Bob Mack's life and career, and the circumstances of his death, check out this tribute by David Kamp at Airmail

Confessions Of A Rush Fan

Bob Mack Justifies His Love For Canada's Prog-Rock Pariahs

Spin, March 1992


Yes, Rush. Not the movie or the B.A.D. II song. Certainly not "Rush Rush" by Paula Abdul or "Rush Street" by Richard Marx. And not even Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush. Just plain ol' eternally unfashionable, the-guy-with-a-high-voice-singing-scary-songs Rush.

So what in God's name is it doing in SPIN, a publication nominally devoted to alternative music? Well, I could go on about how Rush really is an alternative for lots of suburban loners, at least in the context of classic-rock overkill. About how it is the ultimate punk band for people who thought punk was bogus. But basically the bottom line is this: Even though you may think Rush is uncool, it's influenced a lot of the bands and artists that you probably think are cool.

Not the old fogies like Randy Newman, Nick Lowe, and Billy Joel (who apologized to Geddy Lee for missing the band's L.A. shows a few years ago). And not the cheeseball metal dudes like Queensryche who, for example, now employ Rush's former producer, lighting director, and video director. We're talking about some of the more critically praised and commercially successful groups of our era.

It all started a couple of years ago at the same L.A. shows that Billy Joel missed. Vernon Reid of Living Colour told Neil Peart that Rush had shown him that "a band could make it the way they wanted to." Peart was profoundly flattered because, he recalls, "I was so worried five years ago that we wouldn't leave any mark, that it was all for nothing."

Pretty soon anybody who played smart hard rock was being compared to the Canadian power trio: Metallica, Voivod, King's X, Faith No More, Jane's Addiction, Fishbone, Primus (Rush's current opening act), and even Guns N' Roses. Hip cartoonists Los Bros Hernandez created a kid drummer in Love And Rockets who wore a NEIL PEART IS RAD T-shirt; alt-rock goddess Kim Deal of the Pixies often wears her Rush tour T-shirt on stage. Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers even got his start in a band called Anthym (probably taking its "y" from the first name of Ayn Rand, individualist author of Anthem, which became the title of a 1974 Rush song).

While it's almost understandable that fellow musicians have come to give drummer-lyricist Peart, bassist-vocalist-keyboardist Lee, and guitarist Alex Lifeson their due, it's nothing short of a miracle that the critics are starting to come around, too. When I wrote my first defense of Rush for Village Voice in 1985, I was responding to colleague Chuck Eddy's slurs on the band. By the decade's end, Eddy had come around, calling it "the secret rock critic influence of 1989-90" and adding Sinead O'Connor, Midnight Oil, and Megadeth to the list of disciples.

And yet, if 1991 was the year that Rush returned with an album, Roll The Bones, that entered the Billboard chart at No.3, tour dates that sold out during a depression, and an updated sound that included a rap that wasn't half as goofy as Michael Jackson's or Michael Stipe's, I still couldn't help feeling a bit ambivalent . . .

"Neil, I hope you realize that your face is dangerously close to a pair of Damn Yankees promotional panties," I say.

Neil Peart, who is sitting in my sparsely-furnished apartment, laughs and launches into a good-natured anecdote about the band. In addition to ambivalence, I feel guilty about how lucky I am to have the lanky drummer over to my pad. Rush fanatics would give their eyeteeth to me in my sitch, and there I was trying to play it cool. It is the night off between the band's two shows at Madison Square Garden last December. Nursing a cold, Peart is nonetheless in good humor, especially while imitating a typical girlfriend at a Rush show. "Sometimes, you see this [exaggeratedly feigns sleep]. Sometimes this [tugs on sleeve]. But the other day Geddy and I saw this one girl literally hitting this guy."

With this in mind, I take the cutest young intern I can find at our office to the next night's show. She enjoys but doesn't love it and is amazed at how "well-behaved" the audience is. She is, however, impressed by how "real" Peart is when we meet him backstage. The only celebs present are John McEnroe and Tatum O'Neil. O'Neil says, "I really liked your drum solo" to Peart, who smiles and mumbles some pleasantries while I whisper, "Excuse me, but I've got to go call the gossip columnist at the New York Post." He hits me.

After spending the entire day in his hotel room reading the Sunday Times, Peart orders two glasses of dry sherry, tells me how he's practicing to records recorded by a Brazillian drummer named Milton Banana these days, and puts on Maceo Parker's 11-minute instrumental version of "It's A Man's World", retitled "Children's World."

Peart is seen as the ogre of the group, and granted, Lifeson (his pastimes are golfing and Pearl Jam) and Lee (rotisserie baseball and Nat "King" Cole) are far less intense; but it's Peart who wanted to do the rap, and who is able to drop trendy names, like Massive Attack into the conversation. Even so, he's still Neil Peart, whose rugged individualism makes Metallica's James Hetfield seem like a Commie in comparison.

I had set out to really grill the guy, but from the outset he takes control of the conversation. First he lays down the premises: Peart believes in "standards of quality" and "progress, though not linear"; for the most part, "there are no failures of talent, only failures of character"; it's also true that "first we must acquire the virtues and then eliminate the vices." He then quotes Duke Ellington's dictum that "there are only two types of music -- good and bad."

Eventually, though, we get more specific. Talking about the situation in Eastern Europe, the man who wrote "Free Will" concedes, "If I had been born in Bulgaria, no matter how much free will I'd have wished to apply, it would've been worthless." It is this hopelessness, which Peart also finds in the AIDS situation, that fills him with enormous resentment. "My response is always anger. It's so gratuitous. There's no reason, no fault, no blame."

I wondered if this cosmic capriciousness frustrated his white, Western, male, middle-class, and middle-brow nature. "The basic questions I ask in Roll The Bones -- 'Why are we here?' 'Why does it happen?' -- are the wrong questions. It's 'What can we do about it?'"

The Maceo jam climaxes, and I tell Peart that when I saw the sax master recently in concert he said that funk was "happy music." In those terms, where does he see Rush's music fitting in?

"At it's best, it's inspiring. Who's that guy in Seattle that pitched a no-hitter? He'd played his drums that day and when he was out there pitching, he was thinking of Rush songs. When I was writing 'The Pass' [a 1989 song about teen suicide], some kids told me that people who are truly suicidal listen to Pink Floyd. Rush is seen as hopeful music."

For the many who see Rush's music as hopeless, the pyrotechnic sticksman has a surprising tolerance. "It's fine for people to say they hate us -- our music is too busy, too self-absorbed elevated. Or they hate Geddy's voice. Fine. That's a taste thing."

Actually, it's more than a taste thing. After all, as the Duke would ask, "Is it good or is it bad?" At this point, Peart stops backpedaling and defends his honor. "Rhythm is the basis of a lot of musical styles. To Rush, it's just an element. That's why we're accused of being too busy, too convoluted, too far-reaching. Yes, we're restless, and yes, our work is uneven -- but no one can ever question the sincerity of the attempt."

No one was questioning the sincerity of the attempt, at least not in this room. I just wanted to know if Rush's '70s-style eclecticism was still relevant. Back in high school, it certainly had been. With its mix of power pop, barroom piano, and mock reggae, "The Spirit Of Radio" had been the prefect antidote to the skinny-tie ska geeks and anemic new wavers. But is the funk, folk, and rap of "Roll The Bones" just as effective in 1992? Peart, unflappable as ever, is free of doubt.

"'The Spirit Of Radio' is a valid musical gumbo, even now. The concept was to combine styles in a radical way to represent what radio should be. I think we really nailed that with 'Roll The Bones' as well. And it's happening on the fringe of pop music -- like Faith No More. They're not afraid to head off in a strange direction within a song. But it's still unacceptable in the mainstream. There's this strange intolerance among music fans."

Valid musical gumbo? I'd still buy that for a dollar.


Talking about Rush... here's an enjoyable interview with Geddy Lee on the occasion of the publication of his memoir My Effin' Life. By Rob Tannenbaum, another of those rockcrits whose byline I clocked when I started to live half the year in NYC. 

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Pete Silverton - Malcolm McLaren + Bow Wow Wow - Sounds July 26 1980

Not so much for the writing - although it's ably enough done - as for the Malcolm element. 

Interview as artform.