Guest Post: Rob Sheffield
A Consumer's Guide to the Consumer Guide
In honor of Robert Christgau, on his 80th birthday: a consumer’s guide to the Consumer Guide. It’s been his column since the ‘60s, under that or some other name. This is a brief tour through a few of my personal picks for the Consumer Guide’s greatest hits over the years, just a mix tape from the countless lines on the A-shelves of my mind.
I’ve been hooked on Christgau’s Consumer Guide since eighth grade. I was reading Creem magazine, the December 1981 issue with Ray Davies, Van Halen, Pat Benatar, Springsteen, and the Stones on the cover. I didn’t buy it; the mag came from an older hockey player in study hall, flipping through it few desks ahead of me, who left it behind. (Thanks, J.S.—we never met but you changed my life.) Right there on page 11, right under a random photo of Jim Morrison’s grave: the headline “Christgau Consumer Guide,” with no intro or explanation. The rave review: Funkadelic.
This was like opening my study-hall desk and finding the surface of Mars.
Look at this mix of music: Funkadelic, the Ramones, Muddy Waters, the Psychedelic Furs, the Go-Gos, Ray Parker Jr., Lucinda Williams, Robert Fripp, Au Pairs, the English Beat. These were not artists you heard on the same radio station. (Or ANY station in most towns.) But this guy Christgau was saying they were all rock & roll. I loved Funkadelic, from fun AM-radio hits like “Aquaboogie” and “Once Nation Under a Groove”—but I had no idea there were adults (writers, even) taking them seriously as artists, hailing George Clinton as a visionary. This was allowed?
Obviously, I’d never heard most of this music. But it was Christgau’s voice that nailed me. Lean and mean and epigrammatic and dense and blunt and snide and not the least bit pandering to a kid like me. It was his beat.
This weird column didn’t fit in with the rest of the magazine. I mean, it was 1981. On the other side of the page: a Q&A with Billy Squier, plus an ad for the new John Entwistle solo album.
But I never missed a CG after that. I had no idea who or where this guy was, but I could not believe there was an adult out there who took the time to appreciate much-mocked teen-pop New Wave groups like A Flock of Seagulls or ABC or Aztec Camera. Even when he hated my beloved pop poseurs, he took them seriously enough to trash them on their own terms. And because albums were crazy expensive, he wasn’t one bit coy about despising his Musts to Avoid. This voice hit me like hearing Dylan or Lennon for the first time.
I don’t know the story of how Creem got into reprinting his Village Voice CG columns. But unlike the Voice, Creem had nationwide circulation, on the mag racks of the 7-11s and WaWas in any podunk town, which gave the CG a far bigger stage. The Consumer Guide might’ve been aimed at Voice readers, but it was perfectly suited to be furtively read by broke teens in suburban drugstores or candy shops or gas stations. In college, in the ‘80s, I’d peruse the Voice at the Store 24 near my dorm after midnight, when I got off work. After graduation, when I got a library job, I’d use my work ID to hit the microfilm and read Consumer Guides from years ago. (He was comparing KC and the Sunshine Band to the Ramones in 1979? Yes, he was. Ahead of his time, to say the damn least.)
You can find these reviews on his website or in his books, grouped by artist—there’s drama in reading them that way, as album-by-album narratives. As Greil Marcus said, they “read like tiny novels.” But like so many readers, I fell in love with the pace and punch of the Consumer Guide, designed to flow like a DJ’s set. One-liners mix with in-depthers; succinct critical polemics mix with sucker punches. He still paces his columns like this on Substack, even though he’s no longer pressured to make it all fit on one printed page. But I guess he does it this way for the same reason George Clinton keeps giving up the funk. So here it is, one fan’s playlist of Pick Hits:
Best review of a band name: The Outlaws, a Southern rock band of the 1970s, about whom I know nothing except the first line of their CG review: “Outlaws my ass—I bet they’d punch a time clock if it’d make the tour go smoother.”
Best review of a bad live album: Steel Pulse, Tear It Up—Live, 1982. “Here in Babylon, we call this kind of thing a scam.”
Best 9-word kicker to a review of a .38 Special album that nobody else on earth played twice: “Tour de Force [A&M, 1983] The function of the catchy nothing-but-love-songs on this skillful but otherwise derivative slice of boogie is to enable Don Barnes to show the would-be hellions in his audience, all of whom have to betray their rowdy principles if they’re to keep their jobs and get on with their lives, just exactly how a good old boy acts sincere. Gauge its potential usefulness in your own life accordingly. C+”
Best tossed-off 11-word epigram in the middle of a rave review of a ‘90s SoCal punk album I wouldn’t have dreamed of listening to: “NOFX, Punk in Drublic [Epitaph, 1994]. In which these pranksters proceed to prove absolutely that a sense of humor provides useful training in broader human feelings.”
That line never leaves my brain. I never go a week without quoting it to myself. Wise words—I wish I read them when I was a kid. But I’ve still never listened to that NOFX album.
Funniest 5-word punch line at the end of a C+ review, after an expertly paced 85-word set-up: “Metallica, Load [Elektra, 1996 ]. One of the nice things about being old is that I’m neither wired to like metal nor tempted to fake it. Just as I figured, these here-come-the-new-heroes-same-as-the-old-heroes could no more make a ‘grunge’ album than they could do double-entry bookkeeping. Grunge simply isn’t their metier. So no matter what riff neatniks think, for outsiders this is just a metal record with less solo room, which is good because it concentrates their chops, and more singing, which isn’t because they can’t. C+”
Favorite one-off category in “Additional Consumer News,” at the end of the column from 12/1/87: “I Don’t Remember a Thing.” He lists 15 albums that made zero impression on him (6 of which contain at least one song I love). He signs off with “The Consumer Guide Guarantee: I have listened to all of the above records twice. I never want to type their names again.”
Best review of a former student: Kiss, Destroyer, 1976: “Their least interesting record. C+.” I’m a lifelong fan of both Xgau and Kiss, but it was only from Going Into The City that I learned he taught a class in rock criticism at CCNY on Staten Island in 1970; one of his students was a Brooklyn kid named Gene Klein, who changed his name to Gene Simmons and started a group called Kiss, the most flamboyantly critic-proof band of the ‘70s. In so many ways, his career is the ultimate compliment to his teacher.
By the way, this mind-blowing revelation merits one whole subordinate clause in the book, since Bob’s commitment to eschewing name-dropping goes to the wonderfully absurdist extreme where he attends a festival, heads backstage “where we met Led Zeppelin,” and then moves on. I submit respectfully that nobody else in history ever met Led Zeppelin and then disposed of the anecdote in five words, let alone words as comically reluctant as these. (The book doesn’t mention how he graded Gene Simmons’s term paper, but I bet it’s higher than Gene got for writing “Calling Doctor Love.”)
Best advice to Van Morrison, which turned out to be the least of Van’s problems: “Irish Heartbeat [Mercury, 1988]. The secret to an honorable senescence is your own sense of rhythm.”
Most heroic commitment to meaningless distinctions: Joe Jackson. His first 9 albums get reviewed and graded, none earning more than a B. There’s something valiant about the long-running effort, year by year, to tell a B- JJ record from a C+, cultimating in Will Power from 1987: “An orchestral album? By Joe Jackson? Sounded like the quickest Must To Avoid in history, but I should have known better than to expect something so distinctive from this perpetually well-meaning guy. Not terrible by any means. C+”
Best thoughtful, complex, multifaceted review of a teen-scream band that no adult cared about enough to dissect in this detail: the Stray Cats’ second album in 1983, Rant n’ Rave With the Stray Cats. I loved the album as a kid and still do (much better than their debut! “How Long You Wanna Live Anyway” such a banger! “I Won’t Stand In Your Way” such a ballad!) but felt thrilled that Xgau was pondering the Stray Cats, if only to sum up the frontman thusly: “He’s no singer, no actor, no master of persona. And if he can write songs he didn’t bother. B-.”
Best 9-word footnote to a Sleater-Kinney review, years after the fact: It’s 2015, Sleater-Kinney are back together, their first NYC show in almost a decade. Bob and Carola are in Terminal 5, up on the top floor. The moment the band starts, they slip off to a corner and dance. They’re shaking ass for two hours straight, without sitting down or standing still. Nobody else exists except these two and the music. As soon as the band stops, Bob comes over and says, “Best band of the ‘90s. Not Pavement. Sorry, Rob.” And then they’re gone.
Best negative reviews of a band I loved: The Smiths. I was a sullen teenage Smiths fanatic, yet I loved Xgau’s dismissals more than any of their fawning reviews. This happens a lot when he loathes albums I enjoy: his hatred tells me things I didn’t know about the music. (Or about myself.)
Even from my fan perspective, I loved his attack on their debut, because it was not just funny but 100 per cent accurate: “If you’ll pardon my long memory, it’s the James Taylor effect all over again—hypersensitivity seen as a spiritual achievement rather than an affliction by young would-be idealists who have had it to here with the cold cruel world. B-.”
But I savored his agony over semi-liking their third album, The Queen Is Dead, which came out in June 1986. He didn’t write about it at first—I assumed he was skipping it. But a few months later, he came clean about how this record tormented him.
“After disliking their other albums instantly, I was confused enough by my instant attraction to table this one, especially since I had no stomach for the comparisons I knew an investigation would entail. And indeed, I still can’t stand the others. But here Morrissey wears his wit on his sleeve, dishing the queen like Johnny Rotten never did and kissing off a day-job boss who’s no Mr. Sellack. B+.”
This perfectly sums up the joy and pain of living with music over time, changing your mind, digging in deeper, trusting your ears even when they clash with your brain. In some ways, it sums up his life project in one paragraph. If I had to choose, this might be my off-the-dome pick for my favorite CG review ever. (Yet I still have no idea who Mr. Sellack is. Anyone know?)
Best critical theory debunked by Carola halfway through: When Robert Palmer (the singer, not the writer) released his greatest hits album in 1989, Xgau went off about what an airbrushed phony sex symbol he was. But then he added: “Honesty compels me to acknowledge, however, that my wife doesn’t think he’s a fraud—once spied him buying groceries just around the corner, and liked what she saw. In a world where male rock critics get Sheena Easton and Kim Gordon—who owns Palmer’s only great song, ‘Addicted to Love,’ the way Junior Tucker owns ‘Some Guys Get All the Luck’—she’s got a right. But I still give the grades around here. B-.”