What even is a review?
It’s 1971, and here’s Nick Tosches reviewing Black Sabbath’s Paranoid in Rolling Stone. A friend linked it on Facebook, alongside the cheerful question Is this the worst review of all time? Almost all of the 500 words are mood-conjuring the look and hideous feel of an occult orgy, little to nothing is said about the LP in question, or any other, and in fact the piece ends by misidentifying the singer as Kip Treavor, misspelled frontman of Sabbath’s rival satanic-themed rock band Black Widow (it’s actually Kip Trevor): “The boy whips out a 10" personal vibrator, adorned in waterproof acrylics with the image of the Nazarene. He intones the words nuk Khensu tenten nebu and approaches her intendant fundament... impletion... across the room the fresh corpse of an illegitimate hippie baby is dis-impaled from the ceremonial sword of Baphomet. The myrrh is extinguished with the collected saliva of priests listening to tales of carnal abuse in warm, dark confessionals. The Shadaic numinae are chalked over with the mirrored sign of Ariael, the 11 rubies returned to the vessel of Dione.”

But all the same I’m going to say, no, there are many many MANY worse reviews, and here’s why. 

Richard Meltzer, Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches: when James Wolcott dubbed them the Noiseboys, he did everyone (as so often) a disservice, including them, by collapsing them into just one wild-style jerk-store project and mislabelling it to match. They were friends in mischief, to be sure, but they were none of them particularly like one another in style or even tactic. What they did in fact share was a perverse attitude towards deep cultural knowledge, a feel for how to write and how to play and what was out there besides just rock [footnote 1]. Elsewhere rockwrite was already sleepwalking uneasily — so they felt — towards a narrow pedantry, autodidact learning as a mode of borrowed bad authority. One escape route: knowledge as all-purpose bust-it-wide toolkit, as weaponry on behalf of the militant mutant grotesque that was rockthink’s earliest best contribution. 

Let’s unpack this a bit. By slightly winding route, the word “grotesque” has the same root as “grotto”: it referred to the old Roman paintings rediscovered during the Renaissance in Italian ruins, and in particular to the unnatural beasts and plant-life found in Neronian pleasure caves, part stag, part shark, part writhing snake, or whatever. Fabulous decoration as objective correlative of perversity, the joy of this and the darkness [2]. The meaning drifted, as meanings do — it often ends up closer to merely absurd-with-an-unpleasant-aftertaste — but as a strategy, a pressure, the Grotesque has always renewed itself. And in its earliest days rockwrite absolutely became a species of the Grotesque, an alt-space symbolic bestiary that recognised (or pled for) the marriage of the trash aesthetic with utopian social transformation. Meanwhile flying music fragment A bred with fleeing music fragment B in the tavern boudoir-dungeons of music survivor C… this was what rock was, in those first days, a militantly irresponsible mongrelism, and also space for this hybridity.  

So: could such a gleeful fusion of inflows be wrangled towards a wider readership? These were smart kids more or less trained to the mandarin manner, after all. With additional aesthetic tics adapted from jazz — music as speculation, music as intensification. How to maintain and cultivate and send these wide? One solution was a species of shitposting, quick-witted and unpindown-able, social and culturally if not descriptively thick [3]: throw open the portals of a lovecraftian quilt-form hell-garden writhing with chimeras. A glitchcore, as my friend Tom Wootton described it, bent on defying (among other things) all the journalistic category shorthands and shortcuts. And it’s catching: I’m at it now, beckoning the giant Wicker Man forward and calling for the torches to be lit…  

Back to my friend’s FB thread: the phrase “creative writing” is deployed (hi Sundar!) as explanation with vaguely negative implication: as if to say “It’s not a review really, it’s more an exercise in creative writing.” Now it’s certainly true that the vast bulk of consumer reviews at all times have been the very epitome of uncreative writing: a cliché description, a genre-location, a borrowed evocative indication, a mark out of 3 or 5 or 10. From a very narrow descriptive palette, functionally repetitive compare-and-contrast work that presumes to identify a reader’s pre-existing taste zones and to toss the item in question into same, or else bin it. 

Back in the bold dawn of rock culture, people had higher aspirations. We were remaking the world. A description fashioned merely to the interests of commercial exchange was as far as could be from the spirit of the moment. And not just the spirit: as Frank Kogan wrote of Meltzer nearly 20 years ago, “Yes, spirit is nice (rah-rah), but Meltzer also—once—aspired to the mind of rock’n’roll, chose rock’n’roll as his intellectual activity—chose to do rock’n’roll on the page, since what rock’n’roll did was to mix up, flummox, challenge, test everyone’s sense of what was relevant or irrelevant in the world; to create a space where just anything could be pertinent. (Isn’t this what real thinking is: to test what’s pertinent? To question what matters? To act out your questions? To flummox, test, reinvent social relations? And if you’re a thinker, isn’t testing your own ideas what rocks you?)” 

And that acting out, that testing could be (should be?) prankish or weird or fuck-you, or (now and then) a full-on shamanic journey as quest for what a song does to you, enhanced or otherwise — and where you might meet be when you arrived, and who you might by then be too. 

And a lot of this writing was bad, of course: a lot of all writing is bad. Even strong ideas can suffer inadequate execution when they’re seen to be popular: hacks will gather in abundance. And bad habits are already in abundance, and the mechanics of magazine production — pressure of speed, consumer-directed conventions and separations pre-established everywhere, with intended and unintended consequences — are a spawning ground for more of the same, and for worse. All the same, “This is a bad review” is an ambiguous sentence. It might mean “The reviewer did the job of writing a review badly” and it might mean “The reviewer disliked a record everyone now knows is great” and it might just mean “This is bad writing whatever the intention”. Those invested in the excellence of the record under review are likely (and often happy) to confuse these meanings. Evidently someone who fails to share their tastes will be an incompetent in every other human dimension: lol this rock hack twerp who didn’t recognise greatness in real time, we so much know better now… 

Of course nothing will have ambushed the likely prank here [4] more than the turn in Sabbath’s critical fortunes. And it’s sadly true that few US rock-writers took the Sabs particularly seriously at first — and that that’s what this squib is about, intentionally and also inadvertently. It’s a description of what a Black Hippie Sabbath might entail. By taking seriously the idea of “taking the idea seriously” it ramps up the absurdity: it gets the gap between [band name] and [pretentious rape-murder drugs party] down on the page. 

So is this done well? If (here 50-odd years later) we don’t feel fully clued in to this move, is this his failing or ours? Does “us” include the many readers at the time also shut out of the possibility of satire? Well, even Flaubert’s Salambbô sometimes seems to need to have the word “parody” slapped on it, to ensure it doesn’t just get folded in with every other excess-ridden orientalist historical romance, and ditto Eyes Wide Shut for the ways it gets maybe (justly?) misread — and no one even tries with Gérome, who this probably reminds me of most, at least till the moment when Tosches slides out of the perfectly held pose into the final-para reveal.[5]

Another way bad works is as implied transferred epithet: “This is a nasty piece of writing — making the writer a bad man.” As Appalled of Upper Park Slope avers, “For moral reasons, this kind of scene should not be depicted” (“depicted in this context”; “depicted anywhere ever”). So yes, Tosches is calling Black Sabbath’s bluff, and Black Widow’s too, and the bluff of anyone casually or cheaply invoking satanist ideas and imagery, not that many months after Manson. But the grotesque is as much aesthetic tactic as moral spasm: a movement towards the things in the world that go unseen, because we so busily (not least per journalistic conventions and separations) avoid looking, including juxtapositions always right there in front of us. Like “creative writing”, “satire” is often a get-out clause — a loaded and anxiously dweeby act of attempted redemption and content-gutting — and the only thing that stops the “Grotesque” being the same is maybe the embedded admission that it remains, in fact, grotesque. It combines and deliberately confuses “This is what a Sabbat orgy actually is — and you who flirt with it should take ownership” with (at the opposite pole, morally speaking ) “In the cultural space we share, this is where we could be taking these dreams — why are yours so meagre?” [6

The task of the review is a path-determined set of constraints: some writers will use these creatively, and some will consciously push out beyond them, and a few will now and then be able to act as if they don’t exist. It’s also — by definition — border territory. As an editor, I absolutely want reviews that find and activate the imaginative spaces the music took the writer into, or pushed them away from — even (or especially) when these are fragmented or contradictory or short-lived. Even in pure consumer guide terms it’s a ton more useful than a million “nimble basslines” and “angular guitars” and “heavy riffage” and (obviously worst of all) “influenced by”. In terms of the read experience, more imagination is just so much better than less, and if it risks occluding the record under review — however great that record — well, better yet. 

Footnotes

1: Meltzer, free jazz nut, fresh from the Fluxus-mindfuck 60s New York conceptual art world, Allen Kaprow his mentor, had his roots in Yale philosophy, absorbing it all before he pushed against it. Tosches the future novelist is a scholar in deep early R&B and country cuts. Even Bangs had his vast secret librarians’ dream: that cellar full of all archived riot, plus every other record ever made. 

2: It’s worth reading in full, so definitely click thru, but here’s a taster: “And it was through Rome that a Dionysian grotesque became incorporated — based on the dynamic Nodier introduced to the theatre — into Hugo’s aesthetic of modernity.  The story behind its appearance depends not on writers, artists, or philosophers, but Roman boys at play on the Esquiline hill where the earth opened beneath them and one fell into a cave, a grotta, realm of Plouton, that is, Dionysus. The boy, rescued, brought back news that the cavern walls were covered with strange signs.  The cavern turned out to be Nero’s pleasure palace, the Domus Aurea, hastily buried along with all memories of the despised tyrant.  The fantastic decorative elements unseen in 1500 years attracted subterranean visits by Raphael, Michelangelo, and other Florentine artists working in high-Renaissance Rome, initiating a fashion for the grotesque.  The grotesque established several expressions, one concerned bands of playful graphic elements, arabesques, often organised by cartouche-delineated nodes, linking fantastic forms, vegetable, animal, human, and divine, through orgiastic swirling tendrils that seem possessed of sexual energy.  Another concerned surfaces that were encrusted with lumps and bumps, pumice and sea shells, called spunga and scali.  A passion for spunga-covered artificial caves consumed the high and mighty.  Both tracks of grotesqueries became essential parts of the Neoclassical counterpoint to the Romantic and Gothic, and continue to thrive.  Both effects are notably Dionysian and emerge from a classical pagan, not a Gothic, imagination.”

3: “In the fields of anthropology, sociology, religious studies, human-centred design and organisational development, a thick description of a human behaviour is one that explains not just the behavior, but its context as well, such that the behaviour becomes meaningful to an outsider." Except what I’m getting at here is probably very unlike the texts this extract has in mind. Mine assume (and fleetingly indicate) relevant behaviours and contexts, surface details and potential responses — that is, they are aware of them — without actually ever getting bogged down in setting out the connections publicly, or doing more than cheekily gesturing in mid-flight at the doors you’d have to go through to understand more. 

4: Yes, it’s certainly a prank. The Masked Marauders episode is a slightly laboured example of the RS reviews section under Greil Marcus in the late 60s. In the early 70s (can’t lay my hand on my copy of The Rolling Stone Story, so I’m not sure exactly when), Marcus handed over to Jon Landau, certainly a more sober-minded chronicler of rock’s dadrockish essence (he became Springsteen’s manager) — but both were entirely committed to critical professionalism and factual accuracy on the page. Right down to the deliberate misspelling of Trevor’s name, these aren’t errors.  

5: All of which is a roundabout way of acknowledging that where this review doesn’t work — where it fails to engage with Iommi et al’s strengths — is that it’s kind of an élite joke, pasting the ethos of a film like I guess Performance (with all its in-set hints and Bowlesian-Borgeisan depths) over the junk-heap Hammer Horrors and Dennis Wheatleys that Sabbath and its then UK audience shared as unquiet tonal reference. So yes, in the end Tosches does trip over his own knowledge a bit, because he just walks serenely away from what it is that Ozzy and chums know that he doesn’t, about not-so-well-read midlands UK life during cultural wartime. 

6: I guess my judgment here is that the shared imaginative space in which musicians, listeners and critics lived — actual and potential, unified and fracturing, always evolving, always contested — was potentially much wider open and less constrained in the late 60s and early 70s than it is today. Routinely you see the fans of challenging music so-called becoming hotly offended when the necessary non-rule-breaking layers don’t conform to their consumer rules. Fan-logic: [A] “Most Rolling Stone writers didn’t get Sabbath” hence [B] “Rolling Stone didn’t get Sabbath” hence [C] “This Rolling Stone writer didn’t get Sabbath”. But Tosches was a standout writer in the context of Rolling Stone exactly because he spotted what other writers were doing and, hugely bored with its demands. pushed in other directions. He really didn’t approach the task of writing about music the same way many others did. Even if this perhaps no longer achieves what it aimed for, and maybe never did, the extent to which it’s seen as a “very bad review” is really just the extent to the open possibilities narrowed and congealed.  


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