Legends I Just Don’t Get


I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).

It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…

1. Bob Dylan

According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).

2.  Bruce Springsteen

To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!

3. Tool

Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.

4. The Police

Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.

5. David Bowie

I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.

6. Deep Purple/Rainbow

My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.

How about you?


5 thoughts on “Legends I Just Don’t Get

  1. Crikey, Mike, you got busy on here again all of a sudden. Sorry I haven’t had time to look in for the past week or two. It seems I’ve got a lot to catch up on!

    I’m sort of with you on most of these. People used to try and tell me how musically clever The Police were, especially in the drumming – adapting a reggae beat and all that. Went a bit over my head, I’m afraid. I didn’t like Sting’s voice. And most of the songs seemed blandly poppy, and very samey. The Synchronicity album is great – with Synchronicity II being my favourite of their songs, much angrier than anything else of theirs I can think of. The rest… meh.

    I like Deep Purple and Rainbow, but…. do people really put them on a level with Led Zep? I remember them having a tremendous following for a while in the early ’70s; my brother was a huge fan. But that seemed to fade away: they retained a niche following amongst heavy rock fans, but I don’t think they really crossed over to general acclaim in the way that Zeppelin did. Richie Blackmore is a very talented guitarist, but…. give me Jimmy Page any day. (I saw the revived Purple playing at the Workers Gymnasium six or seven years ago. Slightly surreal moment: 15,000 Chinese teenagers trying to sing along lustily with Smoke On The Water, even though most of them only knew the first two lines of the chorus, and couldn’t even pronounce that much very well. It was a bit like a choir of zombies intoning, “Brains, brains, brains, brains!”)

    Springsteen is a very energetic live performer with a handful – OK, maybe more than a handful – of very powerful songs. But again he seems to me to be very, very samey. He obviously strikes a chord with his home audience, but in the UK we’ve always tended to shrug and say ‘So what?’, haven’t we? Only the Born In The USA album was really a big hit for us. And that was one of those weird mid-80s phenomena where it came out of nowhere and soon started pissing you off with its ubiquity. I really can’t see what Springsteen’s got over John Mellencamp or Bryan Adams. In fact, I prefer…. oops, inviting death threats there!

    Tool I’ve never even heard of.

    I missed out on Bowie. My early exposure to rock music came almost entirely through my older brother, and he didn’t seem to like Bowie. Mott The Hoople, yes – but no Bowie. The only album of his I ever bought was his 1983 ‘comeback’ Let’s Dance – and that only for the few tracks that had Stevie Ray Vaughan’s guitar on them, like Putting Out Fire. I’ve very much enjoyed the various ‘greatest hits’ collections, but never felt impelled to buy one of the original albums – never even heard one of them, as far as I can remember. But I think I’ll come out against you on this one. If we’re looking not just at artists who don’t quite chime with our personal tastes but at artists who are excessively talked up, generally “overrated” – well, I think Bowie has probably earned his status. His influence and impact is not measured by the consistent quality of any one album but by the length of his career and diversity of output, his willingness to experiment, his innovations in onstage theatricality/gender-bending/adlopting elaborate performance personae – even perhaps by his innovations on the business side (the first chap to think of selling futures in his song catalogue, I believe). He is a dauntingly intelligent bloke who’s produced a lot of really interesting lyrics and – in his heyday, at least – a lot of incredibly catchy tunes and killer riffs. I suspect your personal dissatisfaction with him – and a lot of other people’s – stems from the fact that he was a pure pop-machine, his focus always unashamedly commercial. The acts that get the deepest hooks into our heart tend to be the more angst-ridden and self-exposing ones: I can’t think of any Bowie songs – none of his better-known ones, I guess – that are clearly about the travails of his own life… in the way that so many of the best Beatles songs are. But you really appreciate the quality of his songwriting afresh when you hear how bloody good his stuff sounds when played on an acoustic guitar and sung in Portuguese by that bloke in Steve Zissou and The Life Aquatic.

    Dylan – yes, I see the cultural importance he had in the ’60s. Yes, I like a lot of his songs. I agree that Nashville Skyline is one of the most completely satisfying of his albums. But he is not the Messiah his more rabid fans believe him to be. He is not a great ‘poet’ – his lyrics do not stand up without the music at all. In fact, most of the time, I’m not even convinced that he is a great lyricist. He is wildly inconsistent, and a lot of his stuff is just dross, drivel, stream-of-consciousness burble. If you’re that prolific, you’re going to come up with a lot of ‘happy accidents’. But I just don’t see the consistent quality in his output. And his performance abilities have always been somewhat limited: his voice wasn’t all that easy to listen to for any extended period even back in the days when he was attempting to sing properly. For the last 20 or 30 years, he seems to have been mostly just mumbling and croaking through his live performances. Why do people put up with that shit? (Amongst people I know who saw him in Beijing last year, the ardent fans mostly say, “Well, yes, it was a bit crap, but we felt like we were in the presence of GOD.” Everybody else just says, “It was CRAP!”)

    • Tool are probably the most critically esteemed heavy metal band of the late 90s/00s – see http://www.allmusic.com/artist/tool-p23076/biography. People who I respect rate them highly, but – I dunno, I don’t have the energy for such heaviness these days.

      I agree with you about Bowie – I do like his stuff, and think Low and Hunky Dory are terrific, and his (and Mick Ronson’s) help on Transformer is exceptional. But… I just don’t come away feeling stunned or amazed, the way I do when I hear “Strawberry Fields Forever” or “She Loves You” or “Echoes” or even “Paradise City”. Well, maybe with “Jean Genie”, that wonderfully dumb riff. I admire the way he really introduced post-modernism into rock music (if I can say that without sounding like a wanker), but as you say, there’s not enough emotion, not enough of himself, in his music. Lou Reed’s solo work is very patchy but he knows how to involve the audiece; Bowie don’t.

      Police… yeah. Boring.

      I shudder to think what Deep Purp at the Worker’s Stadium was like. Big gigs these days anyway seem more about being present at a spectacle rather than enjoying and being absorbed by the moment. Quick, where’s my Guy Debord?

  2. I kind of feel Leonard Cohen is in a similar category to Dylan. I think his lyrics are generally better than Dylan’s, but they don’t rise to the level of poetry. The distinctive quality of his voice is his main selling point. A significant artist with a lot of interesting songs – but NOT deserving of the reverence his fans accord him.

    I’d nominate U2 as the great “overrated” band of the ’80s and after. Very, very samey, not particularly impressive on a technical level, and there’s a swaggering pomposity about them that alienates. And I can’t stand Bono’s husky vocals. I’ve found it impossible to take them seriously since Spitting Image did that spoof – And Nobody Knows What I’m On About.

    Amongst the classic bands who passed me by, I have to admit to missing the point of The Who. Again, my brother wasn’t interested in them, so I had virtually no exposure until I went to university in the ’80s. I borrowed a couple of Who albums from a friend for a while then, but they didn’t excite me. I make intermittent attempts to get into them now, but it just won’t quite happen. I appreciate the astonishing virtuosity of Entwhistle and Moon, and there are a few songs I really like – I Can See For Miles, Won’t Get Fooled Again. But I don’t think that much of Pete Townsend’s songwriting. Or Roger Daltrey’s voice.

  3. Despite my pension years, there is little I wish to return to from my misspent youth. Springsteen lost me in all his bombast and that god awful drumming style rah rah US blue collar crap.

    Police werent even a musical ripple in my musical universe, and Bono’s whiny vocals forced the cat to leave home…..pomp rock at its worst. Arse holes, if you will forgive my lack of a thesaurus.

    The Bobster. Who bloody cares today, despite the fact that I bought all his LPs on the day they became available.

    Leonard Cohen. My first acid trip when watching Mc Cabe and Mrs Miller. High end Owsley stuff which my partners in psychelic exploration still enjoy chuckling about. Cohen on my present vegetarian diet….forgetaboutit.

    Mr Bowie. Maybe one song…Moonage Daydreams and watch all the working class girls wet themselves…

    When it comes to heavy. Deep Purple. Was there, done that, and had a laugh when they got recycled for the Asian/Korean circuit after botox and their annual visit to the fat farm. Much prefer Robin Trower and that is not saying much.

    Go for Led Zeps BBC recordings. Totally brilliant and leaves all their studio output in the dust. Now, being a pensioner, I saw them play at Randwick Race Course in Sydney in 1972????? Totally brilliant and they played for close to four hours….last track was Its My Party by Leslie Gore. We got in for nothing as they simply opened the gates after one hour.

    Nirvana. Probably opt for Neil Young’s Year of the Horse maybe.

    The Who. Deeply flawed band with drums, guitar and bass being played as lead instruments. Looking back, they were the most interesting and I saw them in 68 on a bill with Sandy Shaw and the Small Faces. A concert I don’t rate for musical excellence, but god did we have the threads and hair cuts.

    Enough self puffery. So Brit, Mike and Froog. Where are The Band?
    I must be experiencing psychological problems since I now enjoy listening to vintage funk.

    Now only think in terms of songs. Bands and their ouvre don’t feature.

    Anyway, just before City became champions of the world last night, I caught Fela Kuti on BBC. Now there is someone who still captures my attention, probably due to my addiction to James Brown brass riffs.
    Thanks for the space, Mike.

    • Agree with most of your comments there, KT. Dylanmania just is a hollow phenomenon, there’s nothing there. He’s like the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a veil of lyrical mystique. The Who – it’s highly telling that their best album is Live At Leeds – yeah, I know everyone says Who’s Next or Tommy, but really, the only decent end-to-end album is Leeds. They’re essentially a good singles band, despite Townsend’s pretensions. Led Zep – well the thing here is, I’m not into heavy blues, which puts me off about a their of their output. I like their out and out rock and their folky stuff, but songs like “Since I’ve Been Loving You” and “You Shook Me” leave me cold. I’ve got the BBC records, and How The West Was Won – still think the best album is Physical Graffiti. Disc 1 is fucking phenomenal! “The Rover”… wow. My dad and uncles were all big on Deep Purple and Rainbow, but it all leaves me cold. Ritchy Blackmore is a wanky tosser.

      Have to disagree about Nirvana. While only Nevermind and Unplugged might be greats, their impact was phenomenal. They destroyed mainstream rock as it then was… but I’ve gone into this before!

      Cheers for the chat. Always a pleasure.

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