If productivity alone conferred greatness, then flinty rock scribbler Dave Thompson would be the Trollope of pop-culture quick reads. I Hate New Music is the latest of over 100 titles this insta-book wizard has blinked into being. And dig the intro penned by the legendary Richard Meltzer, the Big Bang of exhibitionist gonzo rock criticism. The former Noise Boy delivers his usual caveman-crit jibber-jabber, while making creative use of the CAPS lock and asterisk keys on his steam-powered IBM Word-O-Matic. Let's begin by overlooking the fact that this hardcover edition reads like it was proofed by upside-down cave bats. Now then, what's defined here as "classic rock"? Any obvious mullet rock like "Freebird" to Wreckless Eric, apparently. What's "new" music? Arcade Fire? Pearl Jam? Devo? Answer: all of the above. When did it all go wrong? 1978. That year, evil corporations were convinced they could mold every album into the next Frampton Comes Alive!
Thompson seems to think that the late-'70s sonic marshmallow fluff of Toto, REO Speedwagon, ELO and Journey was cruelly force-fed to blank-slate suburban tweens. If the author had grown up in a middle-class American suburb, he'd have known how frighteningly easy it is for Zeppelin and Eagles fans to transition into Toto and Styx. And with Reagan came the scourge of synth bands and those damn "hip 80s kids." Thompson's beef is that when first-wave classic rockers like Rod Stewart and Elton John lost themselves in lite-FM pop and humanitarian causes, no one stepped up to adequately replace them.
OK, so classic rock was ruined by meddlesome knob-twiddlers out to make kajillion-selling, coke-habit-sustaining music. Then what about the back-to-basics punk bands of the 1970s? Thompson dismisses the punk ethos as a negatively retrogressive concept that merely aped the primitivism of early Who and Yardbirds. Here, Thompson goes beyond subjectivity into the realm of wrongness: The Clash, the Voidoids, Ramones and Talking Heads were Yardbirds knockoffs? WTF? Equally wrong is his claim that Radiohead is an ill-conceived mix of King Crimson and Pink Floyd: if that were true, Thom Yorke and Co. might actually sound good. And Floydheads, would you agree with Thompson that The Wall killed concept albums? Finally, read in pate-scratching wonderment at how classic rock is "not about dates or time frames or history..." but is somehow "a sonic record of a singular moment, firmly cemented in time and place." Paradox or contradiction? So don't always look to Thompson for crack reasoning skills, consistency or a laser-beam thesis that burns through paragraphs to illuminate a larger point. Often he'll meander like a Trey Anastasio guitar solo from one amusing but tenuously connected idea to the next: like the chapter where he begins by lamenting the death of concept albums but suddenly drifts to the subject of why bands no longer have the balls to dress like Nazis.
Then there's that pesky chapter that begins with theorizing on the Grateful Dead's authentic musical thievery and then somehow space-jams its way into a commentary on the death of grunge. Studying chapter titles for clues doesn't help, especially with Meltzer-influenced mind-benders such as "Can You Hear Me Cleveland, or Four Ants Cavorting on a Stage Seven Miles Away." Not surprisingly, there's no love here for the CD format and MP3 nothingness. But how seriously should we take Thompson's ultimate rock and roll listening experience: Paul McCartney's Venus and Mars on 8-track tape? (Everybody knows the ultimate listening experience is Ram on reel-to-reel, duh.) Cheap shock (or schlock) tactics aside, Thompson righteously laments "the continued refining of the means by which we buy our music without any regard for what the music actually sounds like."
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I Hate New Music would have been a stronger book if Thompson had concentrated on skewering the New Crap instead of getting teary-eyed nostalgic for Black Oak Arkansas, Van Der Graaf Generator, Wishbone Ash, Focus and Argent. But the goofball divisiveness of the whole project makes it a worthwhile read: the opinionated swagger, the free-associative ad hominem attacks on one-trick ponies like the Walkmen and White Stripes. Sure, Radiohead may be acceptable for modern rock, he says, but even the most switched-on hepcat wouldn't be foolish enough to insist that the over-hyped OK Computer has improved on the over-hyped Sgt. Pepper. And it's through similar invidious comparisons that Thompson finally stumbles his way onto firmer ground.
He even begins citing what sounds suspiciously like fact-based research: The UK's Classic Rock magazine recently surpassed NME in readership, proving that "Pink Floyd will always make more hearts race than Panic! at the Disco." Of course, it's doubtful Thompson's closed-minded rants will convert many unbelievers to his cause. Nevertheless, I Hate New Music is a much-needed middle finger to a thumbs-up era in which Grizzly Foot, Wolf Wookie, Coldplop, Feel Up Boy, and Emo McWhinypants are mindlessly celebrated by our quickly decomposing mainstream press corps(e). That said, if you're the sort of blown-brain Tommy Chong couch turnip who's still trying to decipher the runes of Zoso, then buy this book. And if you can't read it, smoke it. Conversely, if you're that annoying Sufjan Stevens acolyte who loves butterflies, Pitchfork and parental discretion, then may this book destroy you. Backbeat Books, 250 pp., $22.95.