Friday, November 25, 2011

Are these The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time?

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from internet: note that this blog is Vevo-free

The Worst Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time: A fan’s guide to the stuff you love to hate!
By Jimmy Guterman and Owen O’Donnell
A Citadel Press Book (US) / Musson Book Company (CAN), 1991
252 pages, $14.95 (purchased as used for $6.99)

While, yeah, books of lists like this are considered fluff by many, it still takes a lot of work and research to get these puppies out. This particular one is now 20 years old, and has been in my collection for at least half that long. It was fun reading the first time around, and again as I write the following.

Having aged a bit with white around the trimmings, I have become acquainted with theories like General Semantics, coming to realize that the use of “worst” and “best” are what Neil Postman describes as Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk due to the high level of subjectivity. According to Sturgeon's Law, “90 percent of anything is crap.” Taking it a step further (my own theory), which 10 percent is not crap will vary from person to person, so by adding those 10 percents together, you still end up with it all (100 percent).

So, lists like this are fun to go through, and give a reader the chance to cherry-pick, disagree, and perhaps add others. This is what this blog is actually about: I will comment on some of what Guterman and O’Donnell posit (but not all, as there are 50 singles and 50 albums listed, 100 in total), and run a commentary on specific listings.

The Fifty Worst Rock-and-Roll Singles of All Time

No. 50: John Cougar, “Jack and Diane”
No argument there. The only record of Cougar (Melloncamp) I have ever liked was a four-song EP called Kicks, which he did for indie label Gulcher Records (who also released all the Gizmos tracks:, just after he left MainMan. A poor man’s Springsteen, Melloncamp sounded a bit watered down, much as the Boss himself did at times during his own “Dancing in the Dark” period.
Cougar's "Jack and Diane"

No. 48: The Everly Brothers, “Ebony Eyes”
While I adore much of the EB canon, this is certainly not one of my faves. It’s clearly a bandwagon jumper to other “she’s dead, so O! whoa is me” songs that were popular at the time (e.g., Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her”). The authors explain why a duo who was known for such quality songs (I can still listen to “I’m On My Way Home Again” and get perked up) released something so blatantly boring in four words: “They changed record companies.”
"Ebony Eyes"
"I'm On My Way Home Again"

No. 45: Bryan Adams, “Summer of ‘69”
I probably shouldn’t confess this, living in Canada and all, but I don’t know if this is a “worst” or not because Adams has never meant anything to me at all. Wouldn’t know one of his songs if I fell over it. His material all sounds like the same level of whatever to me.
"Summer of '69"

No. 40: Mick Jagger and David Bowie, “Dancing in the Street”
I still have a very vivid memory of the first time I saw this jaw-droppingly bad song and video during the seemingly endless “Live Aid” broadcast, where under-rehearsed acts like CSNY were held up to pander to an audience. Guterman and O’Donnell explain that the song and video were both recorded and shot in the same day. Could have been within the same hour, it’s so pathetically weak in both sound and image. Wish Mick and Dave would have forgotten the Motor City; they should have both been put in the penalty box for this (jeez, I guess I really am living in Canada, eh?)
Jagger and Bowie "Dancing in the Street"

No. 39: Simon and Garfunkel, “Dangling Conversation”
Here is the first of the choices of which I firmly disagree. I am totally willing to confess that while others were listening to rock in its variable forms during the ‘60s, I was up in my garret (okay, my bedroom) listening to the likes of S&G. Certainly I understand what the authors are trying to say, that the song is trying overly hard to sound deep and sincere, but in its timeframe, it’s quite fitting, as the folk movement was morphing into the singer-songwriter genre. However, there are some S&G songs that I would willingly replace this with as being, well, not great material, such as “Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” or the Dylanesque “A Simple Desultory Philippic (or How I Was Robert McNamara’d Into Submission)”, which I’m still not sure if its an homage or slam.
"Dangling Conversation"
"A Simple Desultory Philippic"

No. 35: Rod Stewart, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy”
From the first time I heard “Maggie Mae,” I knew I was not a Stewart fan. But when this song came out, it was like going from bad to worse. The only version of this ditty I’ve heard that I’ve liked was Tiny Tim’s, which was done as broadly as the song actually needs to be. Rod tries to be sexy, and comes out as a macho egoist. Besides rocker + disco = cash-grab.
Rod Stewart's version
Tiny Tim's cover

No. 34: Grand Funk Railroad, “The Loco-Motion”
Yes, I agree that this is not a great version of the Little Eva song (written by Goffin & King – or, as I like to think of it, King & Goffin), but it is far from the worst. Kylie Minogue? No, that honor would probably have to go to the band Christopher Milk. That being said, the CM version is also among my warped favorites, perhaps because it is so bad, right up there with the exquisite Gloria Balsam’s “Fluffy” and the Residents’ atonal “Satisfaction.”
Grand Funk Railroad
Kylie Minogue

Nos. 32-33: Melanie, “Ruby Tuesday"; ”Brand New Key”
My first concert was Melanie (Safka) at Carnegie Hall (which was released as an album). I loved her vibrato voice, which Guterman and O’Donnell refer to it as gargling. As for her Rolling Stone cover of “Ruby Tuesday,” which they call a “baroque melodrama,” I’m fine with it. Yes, it’s bombastic, but she had the vocal power to take it up. If it were me, I would replace “Ruby Tuesday” with the overly long “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” On the other hand, I’m in total agreement with “Brand New Key,” a gawdawful song right up there with “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy.” She was so much better than that in general, as songs like “Leftover Wine” prove.
"Ruby Tuesday"
"Brand New Key"
"Look What They've Done To My Song, Ma"
"Leftover Wine"

No. 24: Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”
While yes, this is a Debbie Downer of a song, it’s a powerful statement of its time. It is the yin to the yang of Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Beret” (also referenced in this book). But the authors have it backwards: it is McGuire’s gravel voice that actually makes this work because it is a harsh song. The Turtles were an amazing group, but their rendition of this song was way too soft (and edited). If you ever saw the clip of Barry singing this on Shin-Dig, he gives an incredibly emotionally raw and earnest go at it, reminiscent to me of Buffy Ste.-Marie’s powerful turn at her “University Soldier” on David Steinberg’s show, Music Scene.
Barry McGuire
The Turtles
Barry Sadler
Buffy Ste-Marie

No. 22: Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip to Be Square”
Actually, they could have just stopped at the name of the band, and just left the song title to be filled in by any of their releases.
“Hip to Be Square”

No. 21: Eric Carmen, “All By Myself”
While I really didn’t like this song, I would have no problem replacing it with the much worse yet similarly themed Gilbert O’Sullivan song, “Alone Again Naturally” (I just with the song’s protagonist would have offed himself before the song and spared us all), which for some reason did not make this list. I had tickets to see Eric Carmen twice in the ‘70s, once when he was in the Raspberries and once solo, and both fell through (he was replaced in the latter by the far superior Deadly Nightshade).
Eric Carmen
Gilbert OSullivan
Deadly Nightshade

No. 19: Herman’s Hermits, “I’m Henry VIII, I Am”
Really? I mean, yes, it’s a ridiculous song that has no point really except to exist as far as content goes, but really? Worst? It was good enough to inspire a Ramones classic. It also changed the face of U.K. music in America, being the first to actually sound British, opening up the possibilities to the likes of Small Faces’ “Lazy Sunday Afternoon.” Now, instead, I would have put the HH’s too-bouncy and flippant cover of “Silhouettes.”.
Small Faces

Nos. 12 -13: Harry Chapin, “Taxi”; “Cat’s In the Cradle”
Being a huge Harry Chapin fan, I naturally disagree with “Taxi,” a touching story which is, at points, overly orchestrated (though Harry used the same group for all his songs) at points, but it has a catchy melody and a sad-yet-sweetness to it. How about replacing the silly “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” in its stead? As for “Cat’s In the Cradle,” I have to concede this one. Much like the above mentioned “Brand New Key” by Melanie and Paul Simon’s “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Cats…” was a huge hit but always felt pandering to me and unfairly misrepresentative of the artist’s body of work.
"Cats In the Cradle"
"30,000 Pounds of Bananas"

No. 10: Richard Harris, “MacArthur Park”
Everything Guterman and O’Donnell say about this song is true, including the use of the word “pretentious,” but I like it. Perhaps it is because it has such a thick Spector-esque wall of sound? I even like that last, high pitched blast of “Oooooh, nooooooooo,” that has been mocked so many times. The Donna Summers cover shows how bad the song could actually be (I actually don’t mind Summers’ voice, just her usual material and how she was produced).
Richard Harris
Donna Summers

No. 9: Don McLean, “American Pie”
Again, this is a pretty damn ostentatious song sung by a pretty petty singer (For many years McLean refused to tell what anything meant, as if he were being insulted). However, it’s also catchy as all hell, and inspired a spoof version that is possibly equally brilliant: Weird Al Yankovic’s “The Saga Begins.” What the original song actually means? Well, I really don’t care, and enjoy singing along with it anyway! So there.
Don McLean
Weird Al Yankovic

No. 8: Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, “Sugar Shack”
Just an awful, saccharine mess. The vocals are bad, sung in a cutesy way that makes you dream of grabbing a 2x4; the guitar’s wip-wip-wip sound is chalkboard scratching, and well, you get the idea. Actually, when I think about it, everything I don’t like about this song is present in most of the dreck on the radio nowadays: pretend emoting for the sake of sales.
"Sugar Shack"

No. 6: Zager and Evans, “In the Year 2525 (Exordium and Terminus)”
I think the authors don’t get what is so special about this one-hit wonder (nearly universally used as the example for the single-hit phenomenon) is not its doomsaying, not it’s switching from XX25s to XX10s, nor facility; rather it is the driving beat, the up-change in scale after each set of years, and especially the level of campiness in what they’re saying. What ya have here is a fun song about the end of days.
"In the Year 2525" (or 6 to 4?)

No. 5: Peter, Paul and Mary, “I Dig Rock and Roll Music”
I agree that PPM were way out of touch by the time this slam on rock and folk rock came out. At first, I wasn’t sure if the lyrics were meant as complementary or not, but as the years have winged along, I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to be an insult to what was on the radio at the time. It’s ironic that it became a radio hit for the trio. As a kid, I was amused by their impersonations of Donovan and the Mamas and the Papas (with Mary Travers [RIP] filling in excellently as Mama Cass). While I like PPM, their music always seems kind of innocuous to me, and so I wouldn’t put their stuff in a “worst of” any more than a “best of.” I just like ‘em, and still play their stuff on occasions.
"I Dig Rock and Roll Music"

No. 1: Chuck Berry, “My Ding-a-Ling”
An example of how far the true king of rock and roll had fallen. It’s not the raunch that bothers me about the song. I mean, I heard a great live extended version of his “Reelin’ and Rockin’” and there was a lot of the extracurricular stuff Berry was known for in it, but “My Ding-a-Ling” was just wrong. As much as I think Chuck deserves the bucks, I kinda wish this one had not been a hit and disappeared quickly.
Chuck Chuck Bo-Buck...
"Reelin' and Rockin'" Live

The Fifty Worst Rock-and-Roll Albums of All Time

No. 50: U2, “The Unforgettable Fire”
I could never understand the appeal of whine and screech master Bono. And, if I may digress, don’t get me started on Sting, who for some reason doesn’t appear in this volume…

No. 43: Various Performers, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: The Original Soundtrack to the Motion Picture
This is kind of a no-brainer, innit? As the authors rightfully state: “It was doomed from the start.”
Hitch a ride on the film's trailer

No. 39: America, History: America’s Greatest Hits
No. 34: Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Turkus
No. 10: Yes, Tales from Topographic Oceans
I don’t necessarily think this music is bad, as much as boring. When the sounds were taken out of the hands of musicians and placed into those of technicians; no thank you because it’s gotta be rock and roll music if you wanna dance with me.

No. 31: Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Blood, Sweat, and Tears
No. 7: Chicago, Chicago Live at Carnegie Hall
I lumped these two together for one reason: misuse of a horn section. Both try to meld rock and roll to brass, and come out the poorer for it. With BS&T, sure vocalist David Clayton-Thomas has the rock-requisite gravel voice that sounded more lounge-like live, but the material itself was overwrought tended to sound like a game show theme. Yes, “Spinning Wheel” was one of the most covered songs of the year (even Frank Sinatra did it: “Those cats got to go round”), but it’s a pretty awful song. Okay, I concede I like “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” and likewise for a very short minute “And When I Die,” but the band really went over the top with each number. As for Chicago, even with different singers at various stages, they were always just bland, again, even though they were immensely popular. For me the question isn’t “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is,” but the follow-up line: “Does anybody really care?” By anybody, of course, I mean me.
Blood Sweat and Tears
A Jeannie cover

No. 39: Starship, Knee Deep in the Hoopla
No. 18: John Travolta, Travolta Fever
Too easy.

Nos. 16-17: The Shaggs, Philosophy of the World; Shaggs' Own Thing
The Shaggs are the kind of experience that you have to be cool to realize just how cool they are. Yes, they were off-key (both vocally and instrumentally), and their songs include titles like “My Pal Foot-Foot,” but there was something magical about their sound; perhaps it was the DIY thing, or just being willing to be out there, but what was released was beyond bad, enough to reach into a realm of greatness. I would rather listen to “My Pal Foot-Foot” than “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
"My Pal Foot Foot"

No. 11: Jethro Tull, Aqualung
Back in high school, this guy I knew really tried hard to get me into liking Tull, through both Aqualung and their equally boring Thick as a Brick. He laid back, joint in hand, grooving to the rambling sounds of the guitars and ice-pick-to-the-ears of the flute, and I also lay back and dreamed to taking that flute and jamming it into the strings of the same guitar. “Snot running down his nose” is the only line I ever walked away with from those two sets of disks.
Jethro Tull prove that you call it mucos, but it's snot

No. 8: The Doors, Alive, She Cried
I know Jimmy Guterman has a particular distaste for the Doors, but he is totally accurate in the first line of the review: “Jim Morrison is the most overrated performer in the history of rock and roll.” I’ve been saying that since, well, the ‘60s. Sure, I like some of the Doors material, most of which can fit on a greatest hits compilation so I don’t have to listen to “a potential icon [with] overwrought, overreaching lyrics and tormented, ‘I’m-such-a-rebel’ posturings.” Right on, Jimmy, right on.

No. 6: Milli Vanilli, The Remix Album
Wait, when did Milli Vanilli become rock and roll?

No. 2: Lou Reed, Metal Machine Music
Again, the section starts off with a flip but true statement: “Ladies and gentlemen, we present: The Most Unlistenable Album in the History of Pop Music (including by Kenny Rogers)!” And yet, if this is so, why is this noise collection that would actually help spawn the whole post-industrial genre (e.g., Einstürzende Neubauten) only No. 2? Anyone familiar with Reed’s infamous “fuck you” to his record label, ending his two-album obligation with one fell swoop, knows that this release is something special, and even if one doesn’t listen to it all the way, there is some kind of pleasure in just owning the set.
The first side of "Metal Machine Music"
Einstürzende Neubauten

There is much more out there that could have been added to the book, for want of more space.. For example, under the singles area, there’s the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral,” Mongo Jerry’s hyped-up “In the Summertime,” the Beach Boys’ “Louie, Louie” (based more on the original Richard Berry arrangement than the Kingsmen), Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ cover of “See You In September,” Nigel Harrison’s “The Windmills of Your Mind,” Terry Jacks’ “Seasons In the Sun,” or Dovovan’s “Mellow Yellow,” to name just a few. As for albums, there’s always Brian Eno’s Portsmouth Sinphonia, anything by “Wildman” Fischer (again, music I like, but still in this category), the KISS members’ four solo LPs, and sooooo many others. Shame they didn’t do a volume II. They did, however, release a follow-up of sorts with The Best Rock n’ Roll Records of All Time just a couple of years later.

There’s a lot to enjoy in this book, meanwhile, including sections like “The Worst Rock and Rollers of All Time,” “The 33-1/3 Rules of Rock and Roll,” a section of bad Dylan covers, and songs about Elvis, etc.

And what could be added since this book was released? Well, when I have to compile a yearly Best of / Worst of list, usually for the latter I just say “Open up Billboard to the Top Ten list from any time during the year, and there you are.”

Feel free to leave a comment on what you consider to be the worst rock and roll record – single or album – of all time…

* Sturgeon's Law


  1. You didn't mention if this one was on the list of bad song's, and in my list it's #1:

    "Silly Love Songs" by Paul McCartney

  2. This was published in the UK and Australia by Virgin Publishing under the main title "Slipped Discs." There were a few (a few? - hah!) differences between the US and UK/Aussie versions, namely the latter eliminated any and all references to Phil Collins, Genesis, Peter Gabriel, and Mike + The Mechanics (whose "The Living Years" was picked at #15 in the US book), perhaps because all the above were signed in the UK to the Virgin Records label, and Richard Branson seemed rather sensitive to any slight at his good buddy Collins. Others:
    - You'd mentioned O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)." It ranked in the UK book at #26, put in place of...Collins' excruciating, pointless cover of The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love."
    - GFR's "The Loco-Motion" was also excised from the UK version of this book. In its place (at #34) was (drumroll, please) Lionel Richie's "Dancing On The Ceiling." Which clearly can't be confused with the Rodgers and Hart composition of the same title.
    - "Eve Of Destruction" also was missing from the UK book. Ranking #24 in that version was "Don't Worry, Be Happy" by Bobby McFerrin. But the McGuire tune was hardly the only one X'd out "across the pond." At #23 in the US book was the answer record "The Dawn Of Correction" by The Spokesmen; in the UK, it was Manfred Mann's "Blinded By The Light" (why, I don't know, as I've always loved the 45 edit of that one).
    - Two U.S.-centered records on the list were "This Time" by '80's fitness guru Richard Simmons (#29) and "Granny's Mini-Skirt" by Irene "Granny" Ryan of "The Beverly Hillbillies" (#49). In the UK book, they were replaced, respectively, by..."Kiss" by The Art Of Noise featuring Tom Jones, and "Medley: Baby I Love Your Way / Free Bird" by Will To Power.
    - "Sugar Shack" also didn't figure in the UK book; in its place at #8 was Cher's recording of "You Better Sit Down Kids."
    (To be continued in another post)

  3. (Continued from prior post)
    - Because of the Collins/Branson connection, the aforesaid Mike + The Mechanics' number was replaced in the UK by Helen Reddy's "feminist" anthem "I Am Woman." (Here was where her voice really did sound like the proverbial fingernails on a chalkboard.)
    - Bloodrock's boring, plodding "D.O.A." ranked #37 in the U.S. book; but presumably since people in the UK wouldn't know Bloodrock from Bloodstone (let alone BS&T), they filled up #37 in that country's version of this book with Rita Coolidge's G-d awful sleep-inducing rendition of the Jackie Wilson barn-stomper "Higher And Higher."
    - And I'd presume Canada's own Guess Who didn't have much of a following in Britain, since their #38 ranking of "American Woman" was replaced by Amii Stewart's unlistenable cover of "Knock On Wood."
    - The UK book had two "Freedoms" in their list: Wham!'s at #43, ex-frontman George Michael's wholly different song at #44. They were put in place of the following songs in the U.S. book: Robert Hazard's "Escalator Of Life" and the Hooters' "All You Zombies."
    - Even two LP's were substituted. The rankings were, by country, respectively: #27 - "Iron Butterfly Live" (US) / "Journey's Greatest Hits" (UK); #33 - "Joey Bishop Sings Country/Western" (US) / "Whenever You Love Somebody" by Rick Astley (UK).

    B.T.W., Donovan's "Mellow Yellow" wasn't in the singles list because it was on the "Donovan's Greatest Hits" LP which ranked #32 in the worst albums list. And they had a good deal to say about that one.