My Five Worst Record Albums: By Lester Bangs


One of my favorite parts of this job -- albeit a part that I have a lot less time for than I did 20 years ago -- is dumpster-diving through the distant archives of the Phoenix and its long-ago predecessors, Boston After Dark and the Real Paper. We've got a full bound set right here in the Phoenix offices, including a one-year run of the short-lived Miami Phoenix, which is another story for another day. Cracking open a leather binding from the 1970s will torpedo the rest of your work day -- if the ads don't stop you dead in your tracks (tasteful douche ads on page four; on page 44, an ad for Buckminster Fuller at the Orpheum), the writing will. For instance: the October 24, 1973 issue of the Real Paper includes a loooong interview with Bonnie Raitt, an absurdly complete month-by-month Rolling Stones discography, and Jon Landau on Jackson Browne's For Everyman ("a shocking revelation of the depth of talent of one of the best popular artists working in any genre). That's for starters. 

It also included what was, to me (and might not be to people who were around then) a revelation: an early version of a Lester Bangs piece that many Lester Bangs nuts now know more or less by heart -- not least because Bangs creepily foreshadows his own early death. We're re-publishing the Real Paper version of the piece in this week's Phoenix, and below we're unveiling another nugget -- from the same issue -- that probably hasn't been seen since it was published 40 years ago. 

It's not a secret that Bangs wrote for the Real Paper and the early Phoenix. In spelunking through the archives over the years, I've encountered his byline probably a dozen times. In the late '60s and early '70s, Boston was arguably the epicenter of rock criticism, with Rolling Stone across the river and many of the same names showing up in underground weeklies where hi-fi and record-album ads paid a significant chunk of the bills.

This particular Bangs piece didn't appear in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung -- the classic survey of Bangs' oeurve -- though it will be familiar to anyone who read Jim DeRogatis's biography Let It Blurt. It appeared, under the title "How To Be A Rock Critic," as an appendix to that volume. At that point the piece had never been anthologized, and its original publication was credited to a Buffalo college rag called Shakin' Street Gazette, which published the piece in October 1974.

But a year earlier, Bangs evidently published a big chunk of the piece -- including its Mad Libs component, offering a paint-by-numbers guide to writing gonzo rock reviews -- in the Real Paper, under the heading "Famous Rock Critics School: Test Your Talent."

That's not a scandal, although it makes for interesting side-by-side reading. What we know about Bangs' creative process is that he often wrote massively long versions of pieces that he (and others) edited, sometimes drastically, before publication. So the Real Paper piece could have been a first take at something that he expanded later -- or the version that Shakin' Street published could've been, in fact, the original length of a piece that the Real Paper had heavily edited a year earlier. 

If I had to take a wild guess, I'd lean towards the Real Paper piece being a rough draft -- but only the following flimsy basis. It contained a fair number of typos that seem to have been cleaned up in later versions -- and frankly, that may well be more indicative of the Real Paper in 1973 than it does of Bangs's copy. 

In the same pages of that Real Paper issue was a series of squibs by several of the Real Paper's most prominent contributors -- including future Bomp! Records founder Greg Shaw; Lenny Kaye (who'd just started performing with Patti Smith); and Janet Maslin, who was then the film editor of the Phoenix -- on their picks for the five worst albums of all time. 

Bangs's list is a toss-off, but it's a very Bangs-ian tossoff. Given an assignment, he first ridicules the concept, pauses briefly to ridicule himself, then names five records seemingly off the top of his head which seem too ridiculous to have actually existed -- except of course they did, and on further reflection Bangs finds enough to like about all of them to moot the entire exercise. One of Bangs's keynotes was fluidity of opinion -- he didn't just change his mind about records from year to year, he could change his mind from sentence to sentence. And that fluidity called into question the entire notion that rock criticism was about something so callous as whether an album was good or not -- or could be. If the point of "Famous Rock Critics School" was that rock criticism in 1973 had become kabuki, here was the flipside: even the worst albums were an excuse to celebrate the too-weird-to-make-it-up exuberance of rock and roll. Or, as he put it, "When you try to find the bottom, it's never there." 


Originally published in the October 24, 1973 edition of the Real Paper

Jesus, that's hard. There's so many, so many you don't have, so many you got rid of. Anyway, let's face it, the worst albums probably aren't the ones that distinguish themselves by their shittiness, they're the ones that you forget before you see them. (Jeezuz this is gonna be one of the five worst pieces of all time, reads like Nat Hentoff.) But anyway I went thru my collection and after weeding out a lotta fine discs like My Son the Surf Nut and Sam the Sham albums, this is what I came up with:

Mystic Astrologic Crystal Band, "Oatmeal Quicksand"

1. CLIP-OUT, PUT-ON BOOK, The Mystic Astrologic Crystal Band (Carole -- distributed by GNP Crescendo). Actually this is really good, but it was a helluva comedown disappointment after their great first album titled after the group. That was truly a masterpiece, with such never to be forgottables as "Geometry Alley," "Flowers Never Die," "Barnyard Philosophy," etc. etc. etc. This one starts out with an imitation of "Sgt. Pepper" called "The M.A.C.B. Theme" ("We're the Mystic Astrologic Crystal Band/We hope you will enjoy the show..."), and has lots other heffalumps like "Sunbeams & Rainbows," "I Think I'll Just Lie Here and Die") (which beat out the Goons' supposedly-epochal "I Think I'll Eat a Worm & Die" by at least 8 months), "Ah Ha Ha Ha," "Kyrstalyze," "Authors," and "Oatmeal Quicksand." Lyrics: "Till she's heard a dead baby cry/she will be no longer mine" ("Gabardine Square"). Produced by Clancy B. Grass III. Beefcake cutouts and paper dolls to clothe ‘em of all the boys in the band inside. Sez "Steve Hoffman wrote the words and music for every song sung here (wow)," so you know they knew. Also gotta picture of his dog Valentine on the back.

Ursa Major, "Back to the Land"

2. URSA MAJOR (RCA). Maybe this isn't bad enough but I sure dig it. Answered the question of what Dick Wagner did after the Frost broke up (before he rescued Alice Cooper albums that is.) Sounds like Black Sabbath at 16 RPM -- all the songs at this deadass tempos. Gawd, I haven't played this in a whole year and it sounds so wonderful! What sludge: Even if you don't like new sludge, well, is it only particular sludge nostalgia, or just that old sludge beats new? I dunno. But this is more monotonous than almost anything released today. I will say this: it's got the best song ever written called "Back to the Land" on it.

Octopus,"US Blues"

3. OCTOPUS (ESP-Disk). The WORST album ever released on ESP-Disk. Lyrics: "Harold knows better than you/Tho you live 40 years/ And he doesn't dig your tears/ Long live Harold." Actually this is not the worst album ever on ESP -- try Mij or Ed Askew or Todd whatsisfart. But it ranks. Why hell, Trevor Koehler (who is somebody) (Insect Trust?) actually plays a half decent Plas Johnson imitation baritone sax solo on "US Blues." Actually in fact this album is not only not the worst ever released on ESP, it's no worse than Linn County or Harvey Goldberg I mean Barry Mandel or any one of a million albums released and even sold copies on straight labels than ESP. ESP disks have a rare static charm. Hey I just listened to "US Blues" (which sounds like a cross between Butterfield's "East West" and maybe "Revelation" by Love) and THEY'RE REALLY GOOD. Just goes to show, when you try to find the bottom, it's never there.

Mary C. Brown & the Hollywood Sign, "Starlet Starlet on the Screen, Who Will Follow Norma Jean"

4. MARY C. BROWN & THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN, Dory Previn (UA). Last January I had the flu so I medicated with vitamin C and Romilar and Robitussin and terpin hydrate and Contac and Desoxyn and quaaludes and grass and listened to about 200 albums in two days. I liked everything a lot including Pass the Peas Please I Mean Gimme Some More by the JB's including Exodus soundtrack and the like (great stuff there), all except this. This bitch is a fuckin idiot and anybody that likes to listen to her songs should slash their wrists right now. On the other hand, as I'm listening to it now it reminds me more of Berlin than anything else. Hey, she ain't bad! How about these lyrics, from "Starlet Starlet on the Screen, Who Will Follow Norma Jean," a hoppin reggae croc: "Who do you have to fuck to get into this picture?/Who do you have to lay to make your way/ Hooray for Hollywood..." Exactly so I say, makes me lonesome for when I was just out there two weeks ago. What a great town, the best town, beats Boston by a mile.

Kim Fowley, Love Is Alive and Well

5. LOVE IS ALIVE AND WELL, Kim Fowley (Tower). Kim has made a whole lotta wonderful pieceashit albums. He can plug into any era. This one features kazoos and Donovan lyric weakiwoos. But he's still and always the coolest: "Love is alive and well ... makes a bulldog fly." And this ain't half as bad as his instrumental albums like Born To Be Wild where he works out on organ (what fucking else has he ever worked out on?), nor half as good as his next one which I believe is called Automatic and contains greater Lou Reed imitations than Transformer almost including a song that goes "Fabulous..." Also (this one) note-worthy because half the songs are under two minutes long. Beats reading Yukio Mishima novels, I can tell you. Song titles: "Flower City," "Flower Drum Drum," "This Planet Love," "See How the Other Half Love," "Flowers," "Super Flower," "Me." 

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