FEATURE: In Retrospect: Don’t Look Back in Anger



In Retrospect:


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IN THIS PHOTO: Beastie Boys


Don’t Look Back in Anger


THAT sub-title might not be the best song to mention…

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IN THIS PHOTO: Weezer in 1996

given this feature looks at retrospective acclaim. Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? was heralded upon its release and is considered one of the best albums ever. The 1995 masterpiece arrived at a time when Britpop was at its height: Oasis responded with something celebratory, confident and astonishing. It is, actual, appropriate mentioning Oasis because of their albums, 1997’s Be Here Now, was given huge build-up and was brilliantly reviewed by a lot of critics. Maybe it was the anticipation following (What’s the Story) Morning Glory? but critics were keen to heap praise on Be Here Now – without really listening to it, it seems. That album, in retrospect, is seen as overblown, filler-ridden and lacklustre. A ‘cocaine’ album that has plenty of fight and confidence with little cohesion and quality. Stand by Me is a notable highlight but, aside from that, there are not that many great tunes. That is the reverse of what I want to raise here: albums that have been applauded upon release but given more realistic reviews down the line. It is weird having things work out that way. It is going to be interesting whether albums that have been impassionately reviewed in the last couple of years start to lose their sheen as we progress through the years – I can’t think of any but it will be interesting. What I want to examine – and try to get to the bottom of – is albums that get bad reviews/press when they come out – only to find celebration and proper respect many years later. Two albums that provoked this piece are Beatie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique and Led Zeppelin. The latter, looking back, should have been seen as the foreshadowing of a Rock revolution. Maybe it is Rolling Stone that is guilty but, back in 1969, they were not overly-pleasant when Led Zeppelin’s debut arrived. Ending the 1960s with intention and bang – one of the most impressive opening salvos from any band, ever. Maybe the album does not brim with classic Zeppelin tunes but there are no weak moments.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Oasis’ Be Here Now

Those fearing a weak end to the decade would have been relieved to find a band like Led Zeppelin arrive. If Rolling Stone – John Mendelsohn felt Jimmy Page lacked great song and producing instinct – were myopic in 1969: in 2001, the site recognised the rawness and brilliance of the album – better Led Zeppelin albums followed but this was the start of things. Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, one would imagine, would get nothing but hysteria and awe in 1989. Again, another decade-ending wonder: critics were tired and unmoved by Paul’s Boutique first time around. Many felt it was a messy and over-ambitious effort from a group who were on borrowed time. Others saw the sampling as too wide-ranging and unfocused; the raps unfunny and the album too niche and ‘ahead of its time’. It may have taken a while but modern critics realise it is one of music’s finest and a kaleidoscopic collection of diverse sounds – weaved into a multifarious tapestry augmented by Beastie Boys confidence and the production brilliance of Dust Brothers. I wonder why both Led Zeppelin and Beastie Boys got such a rough ride considering they gave us two brilliant records?! I can see how Led Zeppelin might seem a little weak compared with something like Are You Experienced? (a Jimi Hendrix album that, again, didn’t get great reviews the first time) but could you call any of the songs ‘weak’?! I love Paul’s Boutique and wonder whether it arrived at a time when the world was not ready for sampling and the kind of things Beastie Boys were laying down. They received a much smoother ride in the 1990s – sample-heavy albums like Odelay (Beck) and (DJ Shadow’s) Entroducing….. both arrived in 1996. Was there, then, a premium time for something as particular and forward-thinking as Paul’s Boutique? Maybe it was strange and unexpected in the late-‘80s but, given the albums that followed it; many critics realised how inventive, inspiring and important it is. The same could be said of Led Zeppelin’s debut: we hear many of its sounds and ideas tried by contemporary bands.

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In 1972, two monumental albums arrived: Neil Young’s Harvest and The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street. Again, Rolling Stone not too hot on them – Lenny Kaye felt Exile on Main Street stepped out of its comfort-zone – but, in the 1990s and ’00s, they changed opinions and woke up, as it were. John Mendelsohn – how did that guy get a job at Rolling Stone?! – felt Harvest lacked any depth and memorable songwriting. Neil Young sings pretty, as observed, but that was about it. Many see Harvest as one of the most important albums of the 1970s: it has inspired a generation of artists and shows what a genius songwriter Neil Young is. Is it down to personal tastes and rogue journalists that we have this situation?! Rolling Stone was noted, back in decades-past, for being a bit wary of great albums. We have seen how they treated stone-cold classics so is it limited to one source? It seems not, though. Paul’s Boutique got a lot of cold press and that is not the only example. John Landau predicted Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks would not be remembered. Nirvana’s Nevermind, in some people’s view, was the band at a crossroads – not ready to be taken seriously a bit too scrappy. I understand how some feel the need to be radical and fly in the face of public opinion but can you seriously be a music reviewer and find world-class albums inferior?! I wonder whether it is those particular writers not seeing the true potential; if the time the albums are released is wrong – some people not ready for them – or subsequent years create a compelling case. If one takes Nevermind; we know how that capitulated Nirvana to the forefront and pretty much put Grunge into the public consciousness. Maybe it was not the album Kurt Cobain wanted to be remembered for – preferring the rawer and less polished results of In Utero – but its brilliance and influence cannot be denied. The Stone Roses’ eponymous debut was seen, by many, as weak and a throwback – too trippy, lumpen and hazy to register serious intent and reaction. That has been, since then, overturned by critics who view it as a seminal Indie album – unlike the band’s less-than-awesome follow-up.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique

Not that it is on the same plain as the likes of Paul’s Boutique and Blood on the Tracks but I, as a freelance journalist, reviewed Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Billie Marten’s Writing of Blues and Yellows. I commended both albums but highlighted certain tracks as filler – feeling the albums were not perfect but had great moments. Since, both albums have cemented their brilliance and I feel I should write a retrospective correction. I guess reviewers have that small space of time to assess an album and give it their honest thoughts. We do not have the luxury of psychic prescience and the years ahead. Maybe, if I was reviewing Nevermind, I would not have realised what it would become. That is why it is interesting seeing current critics erase bad reviews and see albums in a new light. Consider the reaction (or lack of!) to Ramones’ debut album. It didn’t creep into the Billboard top-100 and reviews were tepid at best. Yet, following its release, it has been judged one of the best albums from all of music. The same can actually be said of Weezer’s Pinkerton which was, when released, criticised by fans and the band alike. Weezer’s much-derided work of wonder is one of the most startling turnarounds in music. In 1996, with so much great music around, critics felt Weezer’s effort was juvenile and poor. It gained such negative press; it was raised whether the band would make another album. Rivers Cuomo – responsible for every word you hear on the album – was embarrassed by the album’s confessional lyrics. That is seen as one of the hallmarks of the record and one that, all these years down the line, has seen Pinkerton gain cult status. Internet promotion and word-of-mouth has changed minds and many critics consider it one of the best of the 1990s. Maybe the Internet was the main catalyst for Pinkerton’s rally but wat about the other albums?! I suppose, back in the 1960s and ’70s; the lack of promotion – fewer sources around the world – meant negative reviews stood out more. We have a lot of great albums now that are not as appreciated as they should be.

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IN THIS PHOTO: Led Zeppelin’s debut album

There are not a lot of people calling for an investigation into the importance of time – giving great albums a chance to reveal themselves. I feel there are a lot of contemporary records that have gained negative reviews that, many years from now, will be seen as classics. Maybe the fact we have so many options for reviews and promotion is a bad thing. Perhaps changing political times will see other older albums gain legendary status. Maybe the reverse is true: some landmark records might see their fortunes change. I am intrigued why critics were so harsh towards the likes of Pinkerton, Paul’s Boutique and Led Zeppelin. If it was the case of a few bad apples – souring the cart and brainwashing the public – that would be forgivable but, in these cases, there were a lot of folks speaking out against these cherished records. It is a travesty to think those albums did not get appreciation in their time – I am glad people saw sense and those albums are celebrated. Even something like Tusk – Fleetwood Mac’s triumphant follow-up to Rumours – did not win everyone which makes me think whether ‘classic’ albums only truly gain that status a certain amount of years down the line. It is hard seeing all the angles and nuances of a record if you address it when it is released. Time, changing tastes and new generations discovering music is vital in a lot of cases. Imagine a music world where Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan and Beastie Boys have their finest (or near-finest) albums consigned to the scrap-heap and not given a proper listen! I shall leave it there but it opens up an interesting debate. In an age where we can discover and share music more readily than any other time: is that the reason so many great albums are being given the plaudits they deserve? How long could an artist survive if they created a mesmeric record – only to have it demolished by critics? I suggest it would not be long as that would be a tragic thing. Let’s hope we do not have to witness that but it has been interesting learning about those epic albums that, when they first found their way into the world, were given…

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RATHER harsh treatment.


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