dave marsh, fathead

Posted on September 4th, 2008 by Scraps.
Categories: Badness, Music, Music Criticism.

Tom Nawrocki over at One Poor Correspondent yesterday wrote about Dave Marsh's bizarre assessment of Television's Marquee Moon in the 1979 edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide, a review that was still present in the 1983 edition he's quoting from. This provoked me to find the piece I wrote several years ago about the awfulness of the 1979 edition, and discovered that apparently I never reprinted the piece over here. So:

I've always found Dave Marsh's rock criticism dislikable, but revisiting the Rolling Stone Record Guide has deepened that dislike into contempt. It's an old edition, 1979, edited by Marsh and John Swenson; a blurb on the back advertises it as "witty, opinionated, and, above all, knowledgeable," and while a 33% truth score on a blurb isn't bad, anyone can have opinions and most people do; witty (and, above all, knowledgeable) would have been better.

Marsh has the most entries, naturally, and he seems to have taken particular delight in reserving to himself entries on famous or critically lauded artists whom he disdains. Many of the albums he puts down have since become widely accepted classics, which has the effect of making him look either brave or out of step with rock and roll, depending on how generous you feel. Any slack I might have granted him is vitiated by the needless bile of his putdowns, and the clunky predictability of his language; Pere Ubu's Dub Housing is labeled pompous, pretentious, and irrelevant, the last of which has been proven manifestly untrue; he also calls it "anti-rock for anti-rockers," whatever that means, though I gather if I like it I don't like rock, or something. Of Television Marsh writes that they were "somewhat mysteriously" "the most widely touted band to emerge from the New York New Wave"; Tom Verlaine was "an interesting Jerry Garcia-influenced guitarist who lacked melodic ideas or any emotional sensibility." Even his positive opinions frequently bewilder: Steely Dan, says Marsh, were "Not the greatest American rock band . . . but [they] remain unquestionably the weirdest." In 1979? Weirder than Talking Heads, Tin Huey, Pere Ubu, the Residents?

How about this judgment of Squeeze, then still U.K. Squeeze: "Not to be confused with U.K., this group produces anonymous, pedestrian hard rock of the same vintage as the other's. By the end of 1978, this band was so defeated it changed its name to the simpler Squeeze." You may recall that immediately after this ignominy Squeeze turned out "Pulling Mussels from the Shell" and "Another Nail in My Heart," two of the great modern pop songs. As U.K. Squeeze they had recorded "Cool for Cats," "Up the Junction," and "Goodbye Girl." Regardless of his idiotic assessment of their worth, though, his description is factually inaccurate: Squeeze are not a hard rock band by any definition and never were, and they sounded nothing like U.K., an art-rock band led by Eddie Jobson and Bill Bruford. Who is spelled Buford by this above-all-knowledgeable reference book.

Let's touch on that for a paragraph before returning to the invective. Rock and roll reference books are supposed to be opinionated, though by my yardstick the Rolling Stone Guide goes about four feet too far. While the Spin and the Trouser Press record guides certainly pursue agendas -- the Trouser Press guide less so -- the trade is supposed to be accurate information. A book that neither gives you a reasonably objective view of bands' relative importance nor accurate information is worthless. Basic errors abound in the Rolling Stone Guide, from editorial errors such as listing Pere Ubu under U, to discographical errors such as describing Richard Thompson's Live (More or Less) as including his first solo album (it doesn't; it includes Richard & Linda Thompson's I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, which is neither solo nor his first album after leaving Fairport Convention). The book is also fundamentally flawed by only including albums that were in print at the time the book was published, leaving gaping holes in many artists' discographies; inexplicably, everyone's albums are listed in alphabetical rather than chronological order.

But the saddest thing about the book is Marsh's pathetic invective. When putting down his betters he embarrasses himself, but he doesn't even redeem himself with his dismissals of true stinkers; he just isn't very clever or original or vivid, rarely rising above high-school newspaper level. A few examples of insult on automatic: "Laid-back drivel from the former Eagle. [Randy Meisner in this case.] Makes John David Souther sound like Led Zeppelin." "Great title for a hot delta blues band. Too bad this isn't it -- or much of anything else, for that matter." "Hard rock at its most wrongheaded and overweening, and without either rhythm or emotion." "Your usual mid-seventies rock: dull and conservative." "Dreary seventies funk." Each of these is an entire band summary, by the way. The string of insults hurled -- well, lobbed -- at various incarnations of the Osmonds achieves a kind of wretched somnambulance: "Well-crafted garbage -- trash is too elevated a description," "Wretched excess, accent on the wretched," "All of them deserve to be melted," "Epitomizes stupidity."

Then there are the ones that are outright clumsy, windbaggy, and smarmy: "Talking about half of the Righteous Brothers is like talking about one Siamese twin, and listening to one is little improvement." "Dabbles in Caribbean rhythm, with essential purposelessness." "Yes, [Stella Parton is] Dolly's sister. No, they don't have anything in common, musically or (ahem) physically."

Ugh, I can't go on. As a critic, Marsh is a blowhard, and he's entitled to be one (and I to ignore him). But as a reference book editor he's an irresponsible, offhand fathead. A snide dismissive review is only an act of contempt for one band, but a shoddy reference book is an act of contempt for everyone who bought the book trusting the Rolling Stone name. Rolling Stone should be ashamed. (Edited to add: To be fair, later editions of the Record Guide are far more responsible and useful.)

14 comments.

Jordan R.

Comment on September 4th, 2008.

Additionally sad, I think, is the wasted opportunity represented by something like this. Portraying the common consensus on groups and albums is the baseline goal of a consumer guide, but why wouldn't a critic seize the chance to boost his favorite lesser-known releases instead of spending time on poorly-crafted putdowns?

And, "Dub Housing" pompous and pretentious? wow.

Randy Byers

Comment on September 4th, 2008.

That take on Tom Verlaine is utterly awesome! "Jerry Garcia-influenced." Wow. You've gotta give him props for original thinking!

ethan

Comment on September 5th, 2008.

This all reminds me of Rollng Stone's original review of Loveless, which I believe said something along the lines of "My Bloody Valentine have nothing to be embarrassed about, but they shouldn't be proud." I don't know who wrote it.

Calling Steely Dan the strangest American band is the most laughably ridiculous thing I've ever heard (this side of calling Squeeze "hard rock" and their early work "anonymous" and "pedestrian", that is). There is nothing strange about Steely Dan, except for the fact that a lot of otherwise sensible people like them.

Sly Jones

Comment on September 6th, 2008.

I remember being a teenage Yes fan, and being surprised to learn from that record guide that Chris Squire had a second solo album.
Took me a while to learn that it was actually a Billy Squier album listed there by mistake.

Scraps

Comment on September 6th, 2008.

Yeeow.

James L. Neibaur

Comment on September 6th, 2008.

I remember when the original record guide came out back in 1979. I agreed with few of the reviews (except for obvious ones like Elvis Sun Sessions or Blonde on Blonde), but I found it amusing reading. The capsule comments of Marsh were hardly insightful criticism. They were, as you say, shallow invective making the Guide more a humor book than anything else. Subsequent guides are no better. The one a few years later has Marsh changing the high ratings of the Doors albums from the first guide, to low ratings in the second. And was it the first or second version that mistook Kenny Loggins for Dan Fogelberg in the latter's album with Tim Weisberg? The latest one (which Marsh has nothing to do with) may actually be the weakest with its excluding everyone from George Harrison to Teddy Pendergrass to Chubby Checker in order to make room for a defense of Hanson. The essay on the Beatles is written someone at the level of Marsh's immaturity by frequently commenting how "Helter Skelter still sucks."
I would really like to read a critical music guide that contained insightful comments to help turn me on to some contemporary performers whose work I would likely enjoy (I know the old timers pretty well, but it is easier for us old guys to get a little lost with the new stuff, including those of us who believe music can still be exciting and relevant).

Kevin J. Maroney

Comment on September 14th, 2008.

Excellent encapsulation of what, exactly, is wrong with Marsh. All critics face the temptation of mistaking their personal idiosyncracies for perfect aesthetic judgments, but Marsh believes they are immutable laws of the universe.

DB Schwartz

Comment on November 14th, 2008.

The guys a 'tard - if nothing more than for his slams of Queen. History has proven that Queen was one of the greatest rock bands of all time - and this idiot critic is a loser for slamming them. Rolling Stone is a parody of itself - and this dude is the poster boy for it...

al

Comment on December 10th, 2008.

Who's a critic you guys would suggest reading instead?

Bob

Comment on November 5th, 2009.

I had to lookup this loser after I read what he said about Journey's Escape album. What a fathead indeed. No wonder Rolling Stone magazine always has ridiculously clueless reviews.

Christopher K

Comment on June 26th, 2010.

Dave Marsh -- let us not forget -- was the critic who breathtakingly proclaimed "Do They Know It's Christmas" a "novelty record.". Tin ears. Tin heart. Tin journalism.

Dave Marsh Basher

Comment on October 11th, 2011.

So, Queen, Kiss, Journey and Bon Jovi are among Marsh's most hated bands. Basically, if you have sex appeal, talent, and are popular, Marshy goes into an obese tailspin of follically-challenged insecurity. Was this little guy bullied at school or something?

Mr. Bubble

Comment on May 13th, 2013.

Wow, I'm reading DM's book 1001 best singles and googled Dave Marsh sucks and it brought me here. 1001 is a lot of records, and he pretty much phoned it in. Even the suckiness was sub-standard. Excellent rock album reviews can be found (if you can find them) in old issues of Stereo Review. College libraries are a good place to look.

Charlie

Comment on September 8th, 2013.

He should have been fired after the comment on Journey/Escape Album. What an idiot!!! Definitely does not know what good music is. Just mu humble opinion.

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