Shaking up the rock establishment – archive, 12 July 1977

Nineteen seventy-seven is proving a great year for rock music, and the dreaded safety pin brigade is responsible for having shaken up what was becoming a complacent industry. So before looking at the long-awaited new albums by such established heavies as Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Yes, I’ll start with a plug for my personal favourites the month, which happen to be singles, and new wave singles at that.

Jonathan Richman’s Roadrunner (Beserkly BZZI) is a truly great song, as energetic, optimistic, and lyrically inventive as one the Chuck Berry classics. Against a simple, repetitive riff Richman bounds enthusiastically through a surreal anthem to the joys cruising around in a car at night, listening to the radio, and feeling in touch with the energies urban society – “I’m in love with the modern world, got the radio on.”

That may sound trite (particularly to those who have never had a chance to drive in America at night, listening to very good radio), but be assured that the results are magnificent. Also impressive – in a totally different, English, non-optimistic way – is the Sex Pistols’ Pretty Vacant (Virgin VS 184). Six months ago, I’d never have believed I’d be praising Mr John Rotten’s musical abilities, but there’s no denying that this is a single almost up to early Who standards. As the Pistols aren’t allowed to play anywhere at present, and indeed are in hiding after a series attacks on them, it’s impossible to tell if they could repeat this on stage, or just how much the experienced producer Chris Thomas was responsible for the sound. No matter, it’s sneering, slyly funny, and has a great chorus line.

As the music business suddenly realises that the new wave won’t go away, and everyone tries to leap on the punk bandwaggon, there’s also an awful lot bad new music emerging (Celia and the Mutations are all right, for instance, but I’m not keen on Venus and the Razorblades). One interesting sampler it all is The Roxy London WC2 (Harvest SHSP 4069), a compilation live sets from the Covent Garden club where it all started. There’s too much boring audience chat, but otherwise a fair mix the good and the terrible in the do-it-yourself song boom.

From New York’s new wave clubs, there’s an impressive band called Mink DeVille, who have apparently been around for years and were clearly steeped in rhythm and blues before adding a harsh new veneer. Their first album, Mink DeVille (Capitol EST 11631) sounds like the missing link between Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, and the Drifters. Willy DeVille hasn’t Springsteen’s intensity, but his material is excellent, sometimes echoing the Velvet Underground, sometimes the Philly bands, and sometimes sounding Spanish. Like Tom Petty and Bob Seger, DeVille knows his rock history, but he’s not just repeating.

Finally, time for the rock establishment, sounding a little tired after these disrespectful upstarts. Crosby, Stills and Nash (without Young this time) have got together again after eight years and the result is CSN (Atlantic K50369). The backing is simple and sparse – just piano or acoustic guitar at times – and the three-part harmonies are perfect and pleasant, though it’s a pity they are mostly wasted on songs that only hint back to the first album, or have such dumb lyrics as Nash’s Cathedral.

Far, far better is the latest from Neil Young, American Stars ‘N’ Bars (Reprise K54088). While his three former companions drift dolefully if lucratively away, Young has discovered a new energy. The first side, recorded this year, is a country set that is gritty, tough and melodic – everything Waylon Jennings ought to be. On the second side are tracks from up to three years back.

Then there’s Yes, the band all serious rock critics are supposed to go wild about. In Going For The One (Atlantic K60379) they are re-joined by Rick Wakeman, after a three-year absence, for an album that is overflowing with technique and good taste and impressive musicianship, but which I still only partially enjoyed.

All the layers embroidery are there – the swirling keyboards and fine guitar work, and the emaciated vocals Jon Anderson – but only on a couple songs are they used to advantage. There is a sturdy enthusiasm to the title track, and there is a rare blend majesty, emotion and experimentation in the final track, Awaken, which is one the finest and boldest pieces they have written.