Back in 1994 Stuart Coupe sent me a C-90 cassette dub which contained a rare interview with Lester Bangs. It was conducted by his friend Sue Mathews on 13th of May 1980 as part of ABC Radio Series on Music Writers. I transcribed side one of the tape, and published it in my fanzine ‘Loser Friendly’ (Vol 2 1995). Years later I placed the transcript on-line, later adding the audio. Since then, it has been downloaded thousands of times and linked up on several sites/blogs. In 2009, Sue Mathews contacted me and informed me the cassette copy I had was the only surviving copy. In recalling the interview, Mathews mentioned: “Lester was a great person to meet, by the way, just as you’d imagine from his writing. A very generous and thoughtful interviewee, with no ego at all. I ran into him in the post office in Chelsea (NY) a year or so later, and we had a coffee nearby – he was that kind of guy”.
Sue Mathews : Maybe if we start with the economical side of it, what do you see as the major changes in the music industry, say in the last ten years?
Lester: No money. It’s the major changes in the other industries, it’s the change in the economy- it’s obviously got to effect our whole culture. I mean if you think about one way of looking at it is to say only an economy as in much of a boom stage as it was in the 60’s could have supported something like Velvet Underground or Iggy and The Stooges you know only an economy in that state and that kinda of eruption, cause those are obviously marginal items you know, they weren’t really promoted, they didn’t sell, you know and then later, ten years later, then there’s these big cults they influenced all around the world I mean, those groups wouldn’t get signed today and say something like South Side Johnny, I know they had an LP on, I guess it was Epic, it sold one hundred thousand copies and they were dropped, cause that’s not considered good enough. I mean Iggy and The Stooges first couple of albums I think sold twenty five thousand between the two of them you know and so to talk in terms of an underground I mean you have to go really to the independent labels and things like that. Cause the big labels, the majors, unless they think it’s just going to be huge they don’t want to know from it. Then on the other hand it seem like it’s inevitable also that sales will drop off from a lot of these sorta ‘Boston, Kansas, Foreigner’ type groups you know, say like ‘Black Sabbath, Uriah Heap’ for instance were selling about 100,000 copies less with each album through the 70’s. And there’s always that uncertainly factor but when there’s not that much money to go around. At CBS they let at least one person in each department go recently. Like last year when there was the big shake up and they fired just an enormous number of people. I know one man at RCA who was very high up on the West Coast in RCA and he was like 55 years old and he had been at RCA for over 15 years, and all of a sudden they’re cleaning house and ‘Out he went!’. I mean this is a man who has family, children he’s sending to college and all that, where is he going to get a job? I mean go to Casablanca? Ha ha that’s a joke too.
Sue Mathews : So you don’t think the music industry recession was a myth?
Lester: No I don’t think it was a myth at all, anymore than what the recession that the whole country was experiencing was a myth, which obviously seems like it’s going to get worse and worse. I mean the interesting thing I think would be if something happened like, what happened in England where all these kids that all of a sudden can’t afford the ticket prices. Which had become totally outrageous, to go see groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer Lester tells himself they’re on the way down anyway. But, like The New Barbarians charge $12. 50 a ticket for a show that Ron Wood came out and had a music stand in front of him while he was playing. That’s how under rehearsed they were. When kids can’t afford to see it anymore maybe we’ll have a whole resurgence of garage bands all over America and this New Wave thing will start to mean something on a grass roots level.
Sue Mathews : You don’t see it as meaning very much at the moment?
Lester: No, I see it as meaning very little at the moment because none of the groups are about anything. If you think about it really the original groups that came out of CBGB’s around 1975/6, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Ramones, Talking Heads, they meant something. They had something to say, they all had something unique to say and a unique way of saying it. And the original groups in England The Sex Pistols and The Clash and that and really I don’t see hardly anything happening now. I mean a group that call themselves ‘Robin Lane and the Chartbusters? I don’t care how good their music is why don’t they call themselves ‘We Want Money’. Their just saying we want to sell records we want to be rock stars. I mean, where is this so different to anything that happened before. So the songs are short they don’t have 90 min guitar solos, so what? All I see is a lot of groups that are recycling a lot of 60’s stuff that has been recycled once too often anyway.
Sue Mathews : What do you see as being what those early American New Wave artists were saying?
Lester: Well each of them had a different thing to say that was something of their own. I mean Richard Hell was very defeatist sorta Nihilism. Talking Heads, were a sorta collegian kinda art school, I’m trying not to make them sound so bad cause I really love em. The Ramones were sort of playing with the concept of being dumb but not dumb, and being all American but yet alien mutant, you know feeling different, an outsider and yet yearning for that all Americancars, girls surfing and all that when you couldn’t even drive. Television like Richard Hell was into all that French symbolism poetry sorta stuff. And so each of them, there were other groups of course like Patti Smith. The thing is that, they all had real strong personalities and real distinct identities, and I don’t find most of the groups that are coming out now really do. Like they all sorta like blend together, you know both in the sound of the music, and the strongest personality you could probably come up with would be somebody like Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders and the other guys in the group don’t have any personality she’s the only one that has any personality. And really if you look at her as a friend said the other day “Well it’s just another girl with kohl around her eyes and the black hair and a black leather jacket . . . ” you know and on and on it goes. I wish that there was more going on right now, but I think as it stands, it’s a kinda of a set up because, I mean up until of December of last year (1979) everybody was sorta saying “ Well, New Wave is dead and Disco is in”. Newsweek magazine a little less then a year ago ran a cover article that was titled ‘ Disco takes Over!’ and now all of a sudden Disco’s dead right, and New Wave is what’s happening. I can’t buy that the change can come by that quickly. Well people say “Well the B-52’s sold records’ All right so the B-52’s sold records, that’s one group! you know they say “Well The Clash may now be played on the radio”, The Clash had an LP out a year before that could have been played on the radio! I mean ‘Stay Free’ is as pop as anything on this new album they could have played that. And the fact is they didn’t! The fact is it looks too much like a set up to me that, exactly as we’re gong into a new decade, I’d just like to know who decides these things? I really would because I don’t who it is but obviously somebody, somewhere has decided all of a sudden the word comes down, ‘Disco out-New Wave is cool’. New wave no longer means Sid Vicious and needles and safety pins through your face it’s the really the latest Hep thing. And every magazine is filled with it and everything everywhere is full of it. And I just can’t buy it that this is an organic grass roots populous thing on part of the people. It’s too much of a overnight about face. Especially since as I said before, most of the groups that are being marketed in this, and believe me they really are being marketed and packaged and moulded and shaped and all that stuff that New Wave was supposed to be against, don’t particularly have anything challenging or even individual to say.
Sue Mathews : Do you see the original CBGB’s New Wave acts had much in common with the British thing that was happening at that time?
Lester: Yeah!, very much so, I think the original idea was that, you can start from ground zero and reinvent yourself and thereby society (mumbles something about Anarchy etc. )And doing so you can recreate yourself and you can also come up with something that is not only original and creative and artistic, but also maybe even decent, or moral if I can use words like that, or something that’s like basically good.
Sue Mathews : Do you think Richard Hell was interested in that?
Lester: I’d like to think so, I think that he only carried it half way. That a certain point you have to ask “Is life worth living? / What’s the point of all this? / why are we even here? ” and so you write a song with a title like ‘Who Sez It’s Good to be Alive? ’. The poor trouble is that, he didn’t carry it through after that. You know, it just stopped, so no it’s not, lets go die. But unfortunately for him he didn’t end up like Sid so he can’t be a legend now. So he has to go do what ever he’s going to do. The great thing about The Clash of course is that they keep searching for answers beyond that. And that’s aside from the pure musical values to the stuff interested me in the first place is that I guess you could call it existential. Here we are in the 70’s when everything really is horrible and it really stinks. The mass media, everything on television everything everywhere is just rotten. You know it’s just really boring and really evil, ugly and worse. And that this was a challenge to all this. Where as now it’s much more like appeasement, you know, and so everything it seems like has turned out to be exactly the opposite of what it originally set out to be. Which is only sorta what happened also to the Beatniks and the Hippies before that, so it’s kinda predictable I guess.
Sue Mathews : Do you see it as being sort of continuous with the changes in popular music generally?
Lester: I don’t see that there are any particular changes in popular music. I mean, just because it’s The Pretenders instead of Foreigner, I mean is this a vast change? What is so vastly original and new and different about The Pretenders? You know, she sounds like Sandie Shaw circa 1964, the band sounds like a million bands, so what. Even The Clash for that matter, I mean the stuff on the ‘London Calling’ album it’s like they’re trying to go back to their roots and they’re really like trying to. And that’s good, it’s good that they’re listening to all these old blues singers this and that and the other thing and absorbing all this stuff. But it’s really, they’re not creating anything really radically new. I think the first album was much more radical, and I speaking purely in music sense then ‘London Calling’. I mean the only group that I can think that’s doing anything radically different is P. I. L.
Sue Mathews : I supposed what I meant was rather then being continuous with any major single change, like in a series of cycles of changes
Lester: OH!, yeah, I see what you mean, yes I do believe there are cyclical changes and it’s funny because people last year were saying “Rock is dead” and all that. Nothing ever quite dies, it just comes back in a different form. I know that in the late 60’s people were saying “Jazz is dead” that rock had completely wiped out Jazz O. K. , meanwhile now here we are like 15 years later Stanley Clark and all these people are selling tons of records. I hate Stanley Clark, but I have to admit he’s playing Jazz whether I like it or not. Or like in the early 70’s when we had the reaction against acid rock and all the fuzz tone, and feedback, and the noise. And you had James Taylor and everyone went acoustic and that. Things do go in cycles so I never believe rock was really dead it was really finished or had it, it just comes back in a different form. But as far as this stuff being really new, really different that’s something else again. Even the Sex Pistols were playing old Chuck Berry licks.
Sue Mathews : Can you see any sort of threads in the changes that have taken place since the late 60’s, can you see any consistency in what’s happened to rock music over the decade?
Lester: Yeah!, a pervasive sense of defeat I’d had to say, when you think the albums that were sort of most characteristic of the 70’s mood you think of something like ‘Young Americans’ by Bowie, ‘There’s a Riot Going On’ by Sly and the Family Stone, ‘Tonight’s the Night’ by Neil Young, ‘Take Your Pick’ by Lou Reed. Most of them are pretty down records, pretty unhappy, pretty confused. Which only reflects how people in general were feeling, I mean really the sense that you get is society running down. Specifically in terms of popular music I know like, when I walk around and go into stores, deli’s, or this little yoghurt place across the street these days. Like last year, like last three years, everywhere all you ever heard was disco everywhere was Donna Summer and that THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP. Now I go in there and all I hear is rock oldies, (well if you can even call it rock) when I was in the deli yesterday was ‘You Got a Friend’ by James Taylor, and when I went to the yoghurt store there was this song playing I kept saying “Is this America, who is this? ” and it was ‘Year of the Cat’, you know or things like Grease, there’s a huge nostalgia culture that has been built up because, very little that anyone is coming up with is genially new. And I’m sorry I just really have to question a lot of theseNew Wave people that say what they’re doing is so radically new and so different. Cause I really don’t see it. Something like a lot of these synthesiser groups the whole Gary ‘Numanoid’ sort of movement, like Kraftwerk did it a lot better half a decade ago. So.
Sue Mathews : What was your view of the musicians and people who felt that the music that was being made in the late 60’s was part of an alternative culture and political movement?
Lester: mmmm, dubious at best because, see I always felt that the ‘so called’ counter culture would be absorbed into the mainstream American capitalist, I mean it never really ventured that far outside of it certainly not in the music business. I mean Jefferson Airplane were working totally from a capitalist point of view, I know that say in the case of the MC5 and the White Panther party that Rob Tyner used to sing in the MC5 (he’s a friend of mine) and he told me about all the money that the band brought in, that was ripped off from them. So as far I could ever see that’s all it ever amounted to was that people you didn’t know could be making long distance phone calls on money that you made, by playing gigs. As far as a truly radical conscience, you have to take it as part of a larger thing, that it was sort of historical inevitability that with the coming of a leaguer society people would start to use drugs a lot more then they had before. So you can’t say “oh, the revolutionary act of smoking marijuana” because everybody else, secretaries, the boss’ everybody smokes dope now, it doesn’t mean anything. In fact I think now we’ve reached a point now, where the powers that be really have sort of vested interest in all of us being stoned out as much as possible all the time so we don’t know what’s going on, and we don’t care.
Sue Mathews : Well there was more to the 60’s then smoking dope. . . .
Sue Mathews : There was the anti-war movement for instance, there was a sense that the music that was coming out at that time was part of the political movement. And was sort of paralleling it, were you aware of it at the time?
Lester: Except that, I thought that it was a marriage of convenience at best, I never thought that when The Rolling Stones recorded ‘Street Fighting Man’. It like when Jerry Rubin who said “The Rolling Stones were a model of the revolution”, well as we all have seen since The Rolling Stones were some of the biggest pigs that ever lived. Taken by strictly in terms of the revolutionary principle of ‘How they conduct their lives’ (if the revolutionaries agree on those principles in the first place). I think that’s what’s happening now with somebody like The Clash, it’s a lot more sensible and realistic. I mean, they don’t align themselves (even though they are on the left) with any particular movement, they don’t want to get co-opted. I find it really refreshing to read interviews with The Clash / Joe Strummer or somebody like John Lydon, as opposed to the interviews you used to see in Rolling Stone, with people like David Crosby where it’s all like “Well like dig it man! Nix is trying to lay this heavy trip on our heads. . ”. They don’t talk like that they talk straight to you, they say what they mean, make sense, it’s not particularly pretentious, well, sometimes. I think that’s really refreshing, and I’d tend to trust them a lot more than who ever so called radical leaders in the international pop star community that developed out of the 60’s, I mean Graham Nash?
Sue Mathews : So you don’t see the connection between music and politics much more then good marketing?
Lester: Basically no, I mean I think that it’s very easy to like I say, smoke a joint or even to wear a Chairman Mao button, or do a lot of these things with out knowing what’s behind it, and what it really means. It’s much easier to wear a Chairman Mao button and shake your fists in the air and all that, then to actually read the Communist manifesto and things like that and actually become involved in politics. I mean it’s easier to be in a demonstration if it’s a trip that’s one of the reasons why the whole thing fell apart in 1971, because it wasn’t a trip any longer. It got really ugly, it really became hard work and it was left to those who were truly dedicated to carry it through. And apparently most weren’t because it died very shortly after.
Sue Mathews : There’s a sort of argument of Greil Marcus in his book Mystery Train’ that uses as an example the notion that there is something inherently rebellious about rock’n’roll music. Do you subscribe to that view?
Lester: I’m really schizophrenic about that, because on the one hand I would say, yes there is, there’s something inherently, even violent about it, it’s wild and raw and all this. On the other hand, the fact is that ‘Sugar Sugar’ is great Rock’n’Roll, and there’s nothing rebellious about that at all. I mean that’s right from the belly and heart of capitalism. Or that the Byrds on their first album they didn’t except for McGuinn, they didn’t even play on it, it was done by LA session men. It’s kinda hard to believe in a rebellion formatted by a bunch of session men? I would like to believe that Rock’n’Roll was inherently that way. And I think that most of the stuff that is being palmed off as rock these days is so obviously way off in the other extreme. That’s one reason why it’s pretty worthless, I can’t totally buy it, if you think about it, it’s things like the Phil Spector records. On one level they were rebellion, on another level they were keeping the teenager in his place. It’s an adjunct of consumerism, and it’s certainly an adjunct of sexism. Rock’n’Roll has never done very much as far as. . ‘Women’s Liberation’, so as far as it’s potential as a radicalising / agent in society I really wonder. I have to see it much more as fundamentally capitalism, I certainly don’t see any Rock’n’Roll coming out of Vietnam or China or Russia. In fact it would be interesting now that the Stones supposedly are going to play China, what if they went over there and bombed? What if nobody liked them, it’s perfectly possible that could happen. I felt that was interesting was when I saw The Clash in England. In some ways there is almost parable with like when I saw Slade over there in 1972. I mean with Slade it was like “ OK! Lets all do these football cheers and Yeah Yeah! . . . (mumbles) you know. . . The fact that The Sex Pistols really did manage to scare that country as badly as they did I think is wonderful. But, in the end they proved to be a paper tiger didn’t they.
Sue Mathews : Do you see Rock’n’Roll as being part of a much larger tradition of American popular music as being the popular music of the present day?
Lester: Oh yeah of course, Rock’n’Roll comes out of a tradition of black American music, the blues and soul music. I mean in a way as much as I disliked most disco, one thing I do find distressing in the new wave scene is the racism that just absolutely refuses to recognise any black music besides (ha ha) Reggae, you know cause that’s hip. I mean I’ve had parties in this very apartment where I’ve put on an Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin record cut in 1967, and the people from the CBGB scene would say “Oh Lester! why are you playing that nigger disco stuff for? Why don’t you just get it off. ”They’re just totally ignorant, don’t wanna be any other way and really are not open to other forms of music. Of course Rock’n’Roll is part of a whole tradition of American music that goes back. Really what I think it is the tradition of miscegenation. It’s that tradition of black and white, getting together to create this thing that reached it’s ultimate fruition with beginning with Elvis. Well it carried on when Mick Jagger came out and sang all these Muddy Waters blues songs. And I guess it even carries on today when The Clash do ‘Police and Thieves’ a Reggae song originally done by Junior Marvin I think? And it’s a conditional tradition of miscegenation of black and white music coming together to form something new. . That is really vital and healthy and I think when that element goes out of it. When it just becomes all white, then it loses something for me. I mean I really think that, cause it’s funny cause it doesn’t work the other round. Music can be all black, and I still enjoy listening to it but when it’s all white if there’s none of the blues influence I think it really loses something it loses the thing that fused it, that made it vital in the first place.
Sue Mathews: How much do you think that the highly organised and integrated capitalist structure of the industry affects the music that’s made ?
Lester: Well, I think that it’s not so much the capitalist industry it’s more that down to things like demographics. These polls are taken, and there’s various scientific methods that have been determined about what is the lowest common denominator, what will get the most number of people to tune into the radio. You know, what is the least offensive or least threatening image for something to have and therefore what is the most marketable. And so you end up with everything turned into a formula which is what we have been experiencing everywhere. Essentially what it boils down to is that all the music industry as well as the magazine industry and the book industry as it’s starting to be now. Everything everywhere the radio certainly is become like network TV. It’s just the lowest level of that is bland enough to appeal to the largest, widest number of people. And I think also that the public shares complicity in this because people, they feel very threatened now and very frightened, they want something that’s not every challenging. Really what they want I think is blank screen, a nonentity that they can project what ever when they want onto which is what our big stars now are. They’re nonentity like a Travolta, Blonde or really most of the bigger stars now really have no personality, and especially that’s certainly everyone on TV, and I think that’s what people want. So in that sense you could even say the industry is catering to the needs of the public rather then dictating to them.
Sue Mathews: Do you think that the search for the lowest common denominator and mass sales being maximised as much as possible, is it an inedible sort of a function of an industry that has been growing over the past 20 years?
Lester: I don’t know, I mean it would be nice to think that an industry that has been growing that much for that long, could have grown to support more marginal types of acts like say ‘The Persuasions’ an a Capella group from Brooklyn who sell 2000 copies. There’s been so many groups their whole careers amounted to nothing more then a tax write off for CBS or Warner Bros or what ever. I still don’t understand why something like the Persuasions couldn’t be treated in that light and supported. Or there could be some mini socialism so that things that don’t sell that much, if the industry is that huge there could be a niche for them. But it seems that it’s all going in the other direction.
Sue Mathews: Do you think that’s got to do with the process whereby the bigger companies have absorbed more and more of the smaller companies?
Lester: Yeah I do because I know that when WEA had all merged, Warner Bros, Atlantic and Elektra / Asylumall merged. The Atlantic catalogue was a tremendously vital catalogue of blues and R&B and Jazz that went back all the way into the late 40’s, certainly albums had been released since the 50’s. And there was this huge catalogue of stuff like Charlie Mingus, Ray Charles and John Coltrane, there a whole lot of stuff that just went out of the catalogue immediately when they merged like that. I guess it’s so effective the bigger it gets the less attention there will be to these kinda of details. I know there’s a lot of stuff in the Columbia catalogue that when John Hammond dies will disappear, like traditional American music. That has like an enormous amount of value whether it’s a Robert Johnson album if Robert Johnson albums are even still listed,I’m sure he must be cause he’s kept all these (titles) like the Gospel sound, the story of the blues, all these kinds of things that are tremendously valuable to anybody who really wants to get into American Music and where it all comes from and the roots of all this stuff, essentially I think what it’s coming too is more and more of the whole concept of just disposable. You know that something is popular for a little while and then you just chuck it, and you just keep churning out more and more, and the public will keep buying it. And then on the other hand you have the nostalgia thing but that kind of narrows down too. Because, what it narrows down to is actually a reprocessed repackaged version of the original.
Sue Mathews: Like Somebody’s Greatest Hits?
Lester: Well like say Grease as a classic example or Happy Days or Sha Na Na and people find that more acceptable then the originals which might be a little too raw or this or that.
Sue Mathews: How much do you think that the composition of the audience has changed that attention to demographics and so on have revealed something I supposed?
Lester: Well, one thing that it did reveal is that the audience is getting older and that’s one reason why the music has been getting softer. I guess with ZPG and this had been pointed out as long as two years ago. That the baby boom was one thing and then it sort of stopped and it’s getting less and less all the time. I know a lot of people my age I’m 31 still not married and don’t have any kids, it looks like I may never have any kids. And, if as seems to be the trend, the population gets older and older, I guess more and more people and I include myself in this totally, are going to be old people in old houses puttering around with old things, I’m talking you know in 20 – 30 years from now. I can actually see myself 20 years from now puttering around with my beat up old copies of Velvet Underground and Iggy and the Stooges records I mean it’s pathetic admittedly, I mean everybody’s going to be doing it so you might as well admit it. And it will be the same with the Sex Pistols, just hopefully the only alternative hopefully is somebody actually does come up with something new. Some kind of rebellion that isn’t as defeatist in it’s essence as the punk thing turned out to be, and that can carry on through. And also some kind of new sense to the music, I can’t predict what it will be. I mean I have my own ideas, of things I’d like to hear but that would be something truly different, something truly new.
Sue Mathews: Do you see Rock’n’Roll as being young peoples music?
Lester: I don’t know, I mean everybody seems to think so I’ve always wondered about that because. For instance The Velvet Underground, I keep harping on them cause they’re about my favourite group ever. I mean those are really adult songs, about adult things and I think that’s really great.
Sue Mathews: Can you just expand on that?
Lester: Sure, a song like ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ is a song about adultery, it’s about somebody, it doesn’t say what sex or any of that but it’s about somebody having an affair with someone else’s wife or husband. Which is not quite the same as wanting to take your girlfriend parking, and seeing how far you can go. And there have been a few other things in rock n roll that has been as adult, some of Van Morrison’s work and. I don’t know, on one hand. . . . . see I guess one thing I don’t buy is that in your life there‘s this one adolescence surge of rebellion and then everybody calcifies and drops dead, I just never believed that. I know that speaking in terms of my own life that as I’ve grown older I’ve actually felt better, more in touch with myself and the world, and less confused.
Sue Mathews: How much do you think that it was the adolescence of the baby boom that had to do with what was happening in the late 60’s?
Lester: Well a huge amount, because it was like a youth culture it totally was. Well everything was centred around this to the extent that we become so narcissistic that we thought that the universe and the world was really like that and the fact is it wasn’t. The reason why everything was centred around us was because we had a huge amount of economic clout. Now a friend of mine had an interesting theory back in 1972 which I’ve never been quite able to refute. She said “the only reason Rock’n’Roll came into being in the first place was because of the creation of this new economics”. It was purely a function of capitalism in an economic market that all of a sudden there was this thing called ‘The Teenager’. Never before in history did anybody have such a concept of ‘The Teenager’ all of a sudden there’s this concept that’s was created, so you got all these people with all this money. They have to call them something, they call them this and so “Oh lets see, they’ve got money in their pockets, what can we come up with that can appeal to them’. Admittedly that’s a pretty cynical viewpoint, but I’m sure there’s some truth in it, and still is.
Sue Mathews: It doesn’t have to be a conspiracy sort of theory. .
Sue Mathews: All you need to do is see something selling, recognise there’s an untapped market and go for it. It still has some integrity, it can still come from ground up or something.
Lester: Yeah, that’s interesting because I was just looking at this old Fabian album the other day and it’s really hilarious the liner notes on it. It’s written by his producers and his managers and it’s just stuff like “He is a nice, well behaved boy, he’s never gonna make any trouble for anybody” . . . and I mean it’s like the kind of thing I showed a friend of mine that was in Richard Hell and the Voidoids Robert Cline. And I said “Look at this, imagine if this was on the back of your album? ” . You know, Bing Crosby saying “This boy is a credit to America” you know. Jeez. . . .
Sue Mathews: How much relevance do you think Rock’n’Roll can have to an ageing population?
Lester: Well, It’s like a friend of mine said when I asked him “ Do you think The Rolling Stones should break up now that they’ve put out ‘Some Girls’ and quit while they’re ahead or should they keep going? ”. And he said “Oh no, absolutely, they should keep going until they’re totally senile, and a little bit more creepy and pathetic and creaky each time playing the same old Chuck Berry riffs until they’re 60 years old”. And I agree that’s exactly what they should do, and I think Rock’n’Roll as it goes along gets more creaky. The whole culture will get more creaky and why not. I mean I’d rather listen to the Stones than Tony Bennett or something like that. I guess what you’re asking is if the youth is a minority, and then Rock’n’Roll as being. . . . . well. . . Lets look at it this way, lets compare it to say Jazz or to Blues, music where some of the greatest work was done. When the artist Charlie Parker or Mingus or who ever, who were in their 30’s and 40’s. I mean I thinks it’s a total myth that only someone who is an adolescence can create good Rock’n’Roll. Patti Smith didn’t start till she was in her 30’s and she’s created some excellent Rock’n’Roll, some of it even great. Lenny Kaye is in his 30’s, in fact to tell the truth this whole punk rock thing, half of the people in it are in their 30’s. When you get right down to it, nobody admits their age, very few of them are 21 years old I guarantee you. I mean the people that make it are like Bob Seger, Ted Nugent what ever you may think of them, they’ve been slogging around for 10 years. Most of the people that make it have been slogging around for ten years. Debbie Harry, that whole group, it’s just simple arithmetic that these people could not be teenagers if they’ve been trying for that long. It usually takes about that long in fact or it quite often does. So it stands to reason that you know it’s not this myth that this person drops out of high school and grabs a guitar and the next week is the biggest thing in the country, I mean yes this happens, but in general it’s not that way at all.
Sue Mathews: That’s a change isn’t it, from say ten years ago?
Lester: Um. Yeah, I guess it is, like going back to Fabian and people like that. Also those were artists that were picked up, and I mean they were just a kid on the street corner they were just picked and totally moulded and shaped and groomed and sculpted and told what to do and everything. I mean there are exceptions I mean I guess The Clash they are as young as they report to be. Um, but, yeah it’s a change I’m just wondering why and how it’s a change. Well no, I mean even The Stones, when they came out Charlie and Bill had both been playing around in Jazz and Skiffle and R&B groups for a long time.
Sue Mathews: Do you think that the organization of the industry in terms of the control the people have of their careers has changed?
Lester: Well actually that’s interesting because to a large extent the people that are coming up now don’t have control of their careers. I mean what make The Clash or even more radically PIL, a departure is that they absolutely demand control of what comes out about them, of like the advertising and everything from the word go. Most of the groups that are coming out of New Wave, the ‘so called’ New Wave groups are very obviously as I said before, packaged and slicked up and etc etc. . . You know a group like Cheap Trick say is totally the product of packaging, they’re like Kiss on another level really, it’s just a cartoon. Hopefully what can happen to change that will be the effects of people like The Clash and PIL that will resist that and say ‘ No, this is me, take it or leave it’. And one would hope to see more groups like that instead we seem to be seeing a million clones of Cheap Trick and now all these Elvis Costellos all over the map, it’s really funny, or a million Bob Dylans. . . . . What can you say.
Sue Mathews: What do you think about the incredible increase in the last 10 years in the involvement of Lawyers and Accountants, an elaboration in that side of the industry?
Lester: Well that’s inevitable when it gets that big isn’t it, you know. I mean, if I was as big as the Rolling Stones I’d want to have Allen Klein handling my business for me. Because he might be a shark but, so is everybody else. Basically what I’ve observed over the years in terms of managers of rock bands is that it seems like your caught that either your manager is shark in which case, he’s gonna rip you off probably as much as everyone else. Or, he’s a fan which in case he’s going to be inept and your not going to end up with any money either way. So it’s sorta ‘damned if you do, and damned if you don’t’.
Sue Mathews: What do you think have been the effects of the vertical integration of the industry as the record companies have begun to control marketing, distribution, retailing and often concert promotion as well? Do you see that as having brought any changes?
Lester: Well, I think the record companies in getting so big they really are out of touch with anything that’s happening or could be happening. I know that somebody at CBS told me about a year ago that everybody at there thinks Elvis Costello was a real far out of avant garde artists. The perception now is that everyone wants to be a star, everyone wants to make it, and everybody is willing to play ball to do so to get there. And if thatmeans compromising to absolutely anything or everything about themselves, whether it’s putting on bat wings and black and white make-up, or this or that with the songs, they’ll do it. As long as the artist or the bands take that kind of position of appeasement, which is obvious that most of them are, all you have to do is look at any random bunch of product that comes out. Then really I just think that’s it’s really good that’s there’s all these little independent labels, not that a lot of the stuff on it isn’t garbage as too, well most of everything everywhere is garbage. But at least anything alternative or anything different has a chance of getting through and occasionally does in the industry itself.
Sue Mathews: How important do you think the star system is in Rock’n’Roll?
Lester: Well I hate Rock’n’Roll stars, I have for a long time, I really have been against it. I really think the star system was good in the 60’s I guess. You know, with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and that, and even then it was probably pretty sick. But really the end of the star system of Rock’n’Roll I think you could see from about the late 60’s & early 70’s. When you then have people who didn’t have personality that were set up like stars like say Joe Cocker or Eric Clapton, Cream and that, or Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin. I mean, these aren’t tremendously strong personalities like John Lennon or Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. They just aren’t. And since then it’s just been getting worse and worse, I mean for every Bruce Springsteen or Patti Smith who really does deserve to be called a star, you’ve got a dozen Styx’s, I mean who are those guys? Who knows who cares? They’re totally faceless, so I don’t see how you can call people stars that are either clones of Mick Jagger like that guy in Aerosmith or clones of Bob Dylan or clones of this or that, or so completely faceless that you can’t even tell who they’re a clone of. I really think they should leave the stars to Hollywood and just make music. And I thought this was also again what New Wave was suppose to be about, and that’s one reason to really like a group like Talking Heads is that they don’t come on like rock stars, they come on like regular people. That to me is part of a whole democratic aspect of rock’n’roll is that you should have that feeling always. That a kid could just walk about the audience pick up a guitar and start doing it, I mean that’s what’s so exciting about it. But when you have that elitism that’s it’s being handed down from the Mount Olympus, and every new LP being released by one of these superstar groups was like or any concert appearance is dolled out with utter contempt. I mean anybody that’s been to a Led Zeppelin concert in the last half decade has to know what I’m talking about, to be treated like such utter morons, and just so contemptuously.
Sue Mathews: Well I haven’t been to a Led Zeppelin concert in the last 10 years so..
Lester: Well the last time I saw them they just sort of stood up there with this attitude, they barely moved, I mean any of them, the expression on their faces, the whole way the carried themselves was like ‘You people are so lucky to even get to look at us, so why should we do anything’. They didn’t play that well, they were just very indifferent and they just didn’t give to their audience as opposed to The Clash that just give and give and give, and give some more and are really concerned about their audience. I was amazed when I was on tour with The Clash to do a story on them, the thing that they would actually do at the end of each show, go out into the audience and meet the kids in these towns and say “Hi, what’s this town like?”. And then they would take some of the kids they really enjoyed talking to back to the hotel with them and sit up through the night talking to them. It wasn’t a groupie scene, you know, they were really actually interested in these kids and what they were up to , and what they were like. And that kind of openness and accessibly I think is much more exciting and everything then all this elitism. I’ve seen such sick scenes in dressing rooms sometimes when you go in there, and these ‘Stars’ or ‘the Star’ is trying to control the vibes of everybody in the room, with a million hatchet men, it’s just sick.
Sue Mathews: Do you see the Rock’n’Roll star system as being part of the great American show biz tradition?
Lester: Yeah, and it also fits in with the whole Andy Warhol thing. People magazine of the cult of celebrity hood when you’re famous for being famous, rather than anything you’ve actually done. Which the end result of that is that somebody who does actually create something good and really works at it is equitably famous to somebody who has done absolutely nothing to merit their fame at all. So which ends up with nobody having no reason to try to do anything at all, except being famous.
Sue Mathews: Do you see the Rock’n’Roll world and the Hollywood world similar?
Lester: They’ve been merging yeah. I think that the most vital Rock’n’Roll will always be created as far, not just geographically, but as far from the Hollywood milieu as possible. Because Hollywood is much more a closed shop. Well. . . . OK, lets put it like this. That once you decide you have an image that is fixed, and then this image becomes marketed. Then you are in a position where you are going to start living up to that image and acting like that image and then really you’re sunk, you’re dead. Coz, how can you grow and change as a person or as an artist if you are locked into this image? And I think really this whole thing of images, the cult of images is what as much as anything has served to destroy the music. Because people end up being self-parodies, and this is just as true of non Rock’n’Roll people like Hunter. S Thompson as it is of the musicians. And it’s really sad when people get so locked into that they can’t grow and change. I think the whole thing that John Lydon did when he went from Johnny Rotten back to his real name, and went directly out of the records from Sex Pistols into a group that was called Public Image Limited. I mean, I understood totally the reason why he called the group that, and why he would want to do that. Because he got a complete overload and overdose of all this People magazine garbage when he was in the Sex Pistols, and saw what it can do anybody’s creativity as an artist. I know that Brian Eno now he barely does interviews anymore, because he wants to deflect attention away from himself and onto the music, and I think that totally admirable.
Sue Mathews: How do you think that the concerns of Rock music has changed over the last ten years. Do you see any patterns in it?
Lester: Oh the basic concerns haven’t changed that much at all, that gets back to what I was talking about before, is ‘How much is rock actually potentially anything other than an instrument of capitalist/corporate consumerism’. Really the average kid, he wants to get to drunk, he wants to get high, he wants to get laid, he wants a car you know. ‘Cars, Girls, Surfing, Beer Nothing Else Matters Here’ like The Dictators said. Since Chuck Berry up to the present I don’t think that’s changed very much at all. . . OK lets say The Clash, I seriously doubt that most of their fans understand what their lyrics are about or care, cause I think they get off on the music. In fact I doubt that most people anywhere care about any lyrics, they just like the way something sounds, they don’t listen to the lyrics. Now it’s great if you can have something that can work on both levels as The Clash obviously do. But, for the majority of the rock audience it’s just something else to consume, it’s really become less of an obsession I think. A lot of the same kids I’ve noticed at Madison Square Gardens go every week, it doesn’t matter if Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills & Nash or who is playing, they just go as a social event. They talk through the show, they walk around, they see their friends, they get high and shoot off fire crackers, they don’t care, it’s something to do, some place to go.
Sue Mathews: I suppose what I was trying to say was have you found any dominate form in the music over the years?
Lester: It’s hard to say, because, when you talk about the dominate form of the music, we must recognises that as much as we in the press would like to think otherwise. A lot of the times the things we were writing about are not is what is most popular, in fact quite often they’re not. If it was true, then ‘Raw Power’ by Iggy & The Stooges probably would be the best selling record of all time. Just because we were writing about it glitter didn’t make the New York Dolls one tenth as popular as Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Just because we had been writing about New Wave doesn’t make the Sex Pistols as popular as Yes or Styx is the most popular group in America, I mean would the Sex Pistols been as popular as Styx in America?
Sue Mathews: Still David Bowie, Roxy Music…
Lester: Well, look at what David Bowie did, I mean David Bowie essentially did, he’s always reminded me of a Chicago, because in both cases what you have is style collectors. Like he takes a little bit from here, a lot from Lou Reed, a lot from Anthony Newy, a little bit from Iggy, stuff from Kraftwerk and he mixes it all together and a form, that is more mass market palatable. And a little bit more thinned out, and a little bit less threatening then the real thing. I mean certainly, Lou Reed is certainly closer to the real thing than David Bowie, which is one reason why Lou Reed can never be as popular as David Bowie. This is not an ironclad rule, but, most people I think what they want or is the most popular is not necessarily the most vital of any art form. When the Stones were at their peak, they were radically outsold in terms of number of records sold by people like Santana and Crosby, Stills & Nash. But like I say, I’d hate to make that an ironclad rule, because then the next thing after that is saying anything is only a quality in perfect proportion to it’s popularity. In other words the more popular it is the worse it is, vice versa, which is just as dumb.
Sue Mathews: What do you think has been the effect of the increase of sophistication in recording techniques?
Lester: Horrible. I hate it. I think that the best records are made on garbage equipment and played on garbage equipment. The utter surreality of the recording studios of today can only be matched with the utter surreality of the equipment that people have to play their records on. A friend of mine who editors the records review section of Rolling Stone, went out and spent a thousand dollars on a new stereo system and he says like he got rooked, he got created and threw his money away. Cause he said Jackson Browne sounds fantastic on it and the Ramones just get lost, they don’t make records players to play Rock’n’Roll on it anymore. The Dolby’s, the studios and the whole surreality of the thing, it just takes all the mud and the guts out of it. I mean the music is supposed to be distorted in the first place, and the clearer you make it, the more you rob it. Well, one extreme of this of course is with Phil Spector’s ‘Back to Mono’, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. But I do believe to make Rock’n’Roll I think you’re better off with primitive equipment on any level. Even in guitars, if you talk to guitarists, well it depends on who you talk to, you know guitar and amps and things, it’s reached a point where you can’t get that old gusty sound. I’ve got an old Ike Turner album here that was made in the early 50’s that I was talking to Robert Cline the other night when we were listening to it he said “ You just couldn’t get that sound anymore”. Because they don’t make guitars like that anymore or amps or recording studios, it’s really that gutsy sound. Like the sounds that Sam Phillips got nobody hardly any place could get one, that’s really a shame.
Sue Mathews: This might be a bit of a conspiracy theory kind of question but… as a way of increasing the control of the record companies because as it becomes more sophisticated it becomes so much more expensive to record therefore you need the backing of a major record contract to record?
Lester: I don’t see it as a conspiracy, I think everybody went technology crazy. I mean for a while it was good but, I have a point where I draw the line, I like Fuzztone I didn’t like Wah-Wah. And other people would probably draw the line further down the line. There was a tremendous explosion of technologically in the 60’s that allowed things like The Byrds to happen that was just phenomenal and allowed everyone to experiment and do all these magnificent things. But the creativity actually of the music itself in the 70’s has not kept pace with the technology, and the technology has gotten totally out of hand as it has gotten more and more overwhelming. The musicians have gotten more and more passive with it, so now you have things that are almost all technology and there’s no feeling in the music anymore. But then you wonder if there would anyway given with the feeling that’s in anybody these days really. I think it reflects probably the desire on the part of the public not to be presented with something with a whole lot of feeling in it because that’s threatening.
Sue Mathews: How important do you see the rock press as being?
Lester: Um, well I always tended to downplay the actual power that people like me/I had. Because I could say the new Rolling Stones album stunk, till I was blue in the face, and if I had read that I’d still go out and buy the album, it’s not going to stop anyone from buying the album. People have told me “No, that affects them. . ”, all right, if it does it does in terms of ego and that. I know that the MC5 review I did of ‘Kick Out The Jams’ that time (ED: in Rolling Stone) did affect them getting kicked off Elektra. But that was in the 60’s when Jack Holzman who was the president of Elektra at the time, paid a lot of attention to the press. The press it not as nearly as significant as radio, obviously for the simple fact that someone telling you something and actually getting to hear it for yourself are two different universes. Especially in the case of New Wave, a music extensively without rules, where a lot of it is amateurs it’s very hilarious to read all these reviews all these different critics, none of them can seem to agree on which New Wave groups are good and which are horrible. I mean I certainly don’t agree with any of my colleagues.
Sue Mathews: Everybody loves The Clash, every single person.
Lester: Alright that’s one case but that’s the exception to the rule, everybody doesn’t love The Ramones, everybody doesn’t love PIL. There you go.
Sue Mathews: Everybody I’ve talked to does, I’ve been really surprised by the uniformity.
Lester: Yeah actually there has been more, the review in the current issue of Rolling Stone is mixed on PIL everybody didn’t like their first album I know that for sure, I did. But everybody didn’t like Richard Hell & The Void-Oids I know that cause I was one of the few that did like them.
Sue Mathews: What do you think has been the effect of the music press dependence of record companies advertising?
Lester: Oh well, I know that when I was at Cream Magazine our publisher used to come in from time to time and say “You gotta have a review of this particular album in the current issue cause they bought an ad blah blah blah. . ”, and I’d just ignore him. But I’m sure that it does have an effect, because the fact is they are dependent on the record companies for this advertising. I think really the truth is in the music press in America is just totally in the pocket of the industry. I mean look at Rolling Stone, the features in there are not objective features, most of them are not a little more than advertisements for the artists. There’s all sorts of incidents I could sight, like when Dylan did this thing about Hurricane Carter the guy that wrote the article. He just reported on the whole thing, and at the end he had this whole paragraph of one sentence that said “But what if he’s wrong”, they took that out. I think it’s much better what they have in Britain with the magazines there like NME where a sort of adversary relationship is expected. Partially because the press there has more power because there’s not as much radio there. It seems to me the healthier state is if you expect to get slagged off in the press when you put something out, rather then the case here. I’ve experienced it with Frank Zappa, he bought an ad on the back cover of Cream one time. In the same issue was a review of the current album called ‘One Size Fits All’ written by me. He called up his press office who called up the magazine screaming “How dare they! How dare you! We bought this ad and you run this review in the same issue panning this album. . . ”. So they said “Will you please write a letter to Frank explaining why you did this. . ”, and I said “Yes I will”. So I wrote a letter back to Frank that said “Dear Frank, I know what a multi-media genius you are. I can’t wait until you start your own magazine, because $1,150 is the best rates I’ve ever heard for record review in my life”. . . But that is the attitude, they really expect that just because, there’s always been that kind of contempt there. But I can remember when most rock critics held the record companies and that in contempt, and just went and wrote what they wanted. Where now it seems like it’s really the opposite, that most of the people writing about the music are pretty much in the pocket of the record companies. It’s not even a question of payola, you don’t have to give them payola, it’s really just a question of trendies, of like “Well, what am I expected to like this week and what’s the proper attitude about it etc etc. . . ”. Then it’s disgusting coz it’s just one more example of people not thinking for themselves, and these are the opinion makers not thinking for themselves!
Sue Mathews: It’s sort of ironic coz in the time that a lot of music magazines began they were much more relevant, even Rolling Stone identified itself as some sort of opposite culture.
Lester: Well yeah, that’s obviously not the same as it is today. Really I think the prototype for everything in magazines in the United States today is People. Which is just like I say is like Network TV, it’s totally bought out, it’s like. . . So and so makes a new movie, so and so makes a new album. So it’s the word is out all the press is to cover this like a big event, you know, it’s really a set up. There just isn’t enough adversary journalism, criticism and all the times you find that if you do write this kind of criticism that you don’t get as much work, or you get it thrown back in your face, because they don’t tow the party line. And it’s gotten worse and worse more and more disgustingly that way throughout the 70’s, I can testify cause I’ve been there writing about it the whole time.
Sue Mathews: In a sense, to condemn an album can be to take it more seriously than to write something like a bland piece or promo like piece
Lester: Well. . .
Sue Mathews: It means that you’re expecting something of it rather than just another piece of product.
Lester: Right, but at the same time when something comes out like say a Dylan album or a Stones album whether it’s good or bad the record company is going to amount this huge promotional campaign. Designed to convince you that this is the greatest record ever released and you absolutely can not live with out it. Now it seems to me that if this is not true, the job of a critic is to listen to it with an open mind, and if he or she determines that actually this is not the greatest thing since the invention of the photographic record, then to say so. And not that the public can’t think for themselves either, but it’s nice to have somebody to like confirm, say in yourself as a listener that maybe like you tend to get swamped by these things. And you feel like maybe they’re right, maybe I’m wrong, maybe this is great. . . I’ve experienced it on the other end as well, when Dylan put out that horrible ‘Hard Rain’ live album they (CBS) had a TV commercial for it that was run about every station break. . . I’d heard the album, I knew it was horrible and after seeing that commercial that many times, I was ready to go out and buy it and I’d already been sent a copy of the album in the mail for free that I’d sold. So, not to pat ourselves on the back too much to over say the importance of the critic. But just to say “No, this is the emperor new cloths” that’s just part of the function of being a good critic, and I think it’s also the function of a good audience to maybe disagree and say “No, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I mean I never mind it when people tell me that I contradict myself, I don’t know what I’m saying or that I’m totally wrong about this or that or the other thing, I think there should be that kind of dialogue.
Sue Mathews: Do you think there was a golden age of the music press when it did have more integrity?
Lester: Sure, I think the late 60’s and the early 70’s, obviously, it didn’t last that long.
Sue Mathews: Can you speculate about why it happened then?
Lester: Because it was a new thing, the idea of the music press as something as a serious thing was unheard of before it was just fan magazines. And that is not to denigrate things like 16 either because they’re really neat you know, and really fun. But when Rock started to grow up and take itself very seriously there was a press around it that was the same. I guess you could mark the decline of it and sort of the decline of the music, when the music started to become formalised, cynical and that the music press got the same way. I know that there was a certain point at which reviews in Rolling Stone for instance and this wasn’t very deep into the 70’s, it was around 72. The review editor of Rolling Stone at the time, actively looked for people who liked what ever album he was seeking to review at that particular point, he wanted all favourable reviews. If you look at something like Rolling Stone today, about all it is like one of the trades like Billboard or something. They have all this behind the scenes industry stuff that’s utterly boring, but what else is there to cover? Because lets face it, Dee Anthony is more interesting than Peter Frampton as a personality.
Sue Mathews: Was it ever really different?
Lester: Well yeah, this goes back to what you were talking about before. There was a certain, very brief period of time when the record industry actually did let itself be somewhat led by certain artists. When they actually decided that maybe the kids knew something they didn’t, and there’s always been a germ of that from at the beginning and always will be. And that’s one thing that’s wonderful about it, it’s like they really in some sense don’t know what’s going on, or don’t know what might turn out to be the next big thing. So every once in a while they’ll sign up a bunch of things like all these New Wave groups like Sire Records signed in 1975/6 and take a chance on something like that. But, in general few and fewer chances are being taken all the time.
Sue Mathews: When you look at the press though do you think Rolling Stone had a time when it was more genuine?
Lester: Oh sure, cause I followed it from the beginning and I started writing for it in 1969, I’d say the golden era for Rolling Stone would be 68/69 and the decline began in 70.
Sue Mathews: Well what were they doing then that they’re not doing now?
Lester: Now it’s like I said before . . . grabs the recent issue and evaluates it. . . Here we go, Bob Seger on the cover, he’s got an album out “Motor City Rockers Ride to the Top”, the new album might be lousy, might be great, but the fact is there’s a piece of product that has to be promoted there so that’s when Bob Seger’s on the cover or so and so is making a new movie. It’s just so keyed into that where as then, you would have things like the issue they did on Altamont, and obviously also it was a time when more was going on. And they would take chances they’ll put Miles Davis on the cover of one issue for instance they’ll put Sun Ra on another issue, things like that, things that would just never happen today. I mean there must be a lot other people who are as sick as I am of seeing every magazine that has nothing but Steve Martin and Linda Ronstadt on the cover issue after issue after issue.
Sue Mathews: Were you a fan of Rolling Stone before you started writing for it?
Lester: Yeah, like I say I used to live for it, my whole life was centred around every other Friday I’d run down to the news stand and there it would be the latest issue and I would just eat it up, it was my bible.
Sue Mathews: Can you imagine kids doing it these days?
Lester: No! Of course not nobody does that.
Sue Mathews: Not with Rolling Stone anyway.
Lester: Well what would they do it with these days? I mean you tell me what magazine these days is as vital as that was then or as Cream was a little bit later.
Sue Mathews: Yeah it’s a lot more happening in England.
Lester: Yeah I could see someone in England running down to pick up NME.
Sue Mathews: What about radio, has say FM radio followed a particular similar path?
Lester: Sure it’s all muzak, it’s all stuff for elevators and stuff like that, I mean what’s the difference between Johnny Mathis, The Roy Connis Singers and ‘Year of the Cat’ or any of the stuff really. Even ‘Train in Vain’ (The Clash) for that matter. .ha.
Sue Mathews: Was there a time when radio was different from that?
Lester: Well yeah there was, in the very late 60’s and the very early 70’s you had in certain places in the United States, what was called your ‘Free Form’ Underground rock radio. Which began I guess ‘68 in East Orange New Jersey with a show called ‘Kokaine Karma’ with Dennis Frawley and Bob Rudnick, and Danny Fields was also on the same station. They would play Sun Ra, MC5, John Coltrane, Bach, Chuck Berry, they just played everything, they played what they wanted to play. And I know that when I first moved to Detroit it was somewhat like that at a station there called WABX. And gradually, it’s only reasonable that as it was revealed or realised, that the ratings were not as great for stations that took this sorta experimental attack. As they were for others which viewed to more or less of a Top 40 format, all the stations came across. And now, I can remember when I first began to be aware of this was when I went to interview the programme director at a station in Detroit in ‘75. He said “ Look, the jock on the station is just like a guy down the line at the Ford factory screwing a bolt on”. That’s all he does he has no personality, he has no function other than to play what he’s told to play. Then he was telling me about how he decided all these things what could and what could not be played on the radio. And I said “Wait a second, you’re telling me that if I was a DJ here I could play the new Steve Stills album, but I couldn’t play no old Buffalo Springfield album” and he said “That’s right”. And I said “I could play ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ but I couldn’t play something off the 2nd Velvet Underground album” and he said ‘That’s right”. I mean this is the attitude, and I suppose it makes sense if more people will tune in if you play only what they are totally used to hearing. And to be totally safe and comfortable with, but on another level. It’s gotta be unhealthy in terms of music scene or a musical culture at large in general.
Sue Mathews: Are you aware of changes in the sorts of things look for as a critic or in the way you listen to music?
Lester: Mmmm, that’s a good question. Basically all I look for is passion and I don’t care what form it comes in. There are other things I look for, like I look for somebody who has something to say. I think all the greats in the history of Rock’n’Roll or at least since it became rock and more of an ‘Art form’ have had a vision. And the Doors had a vision, The Band had a vision, The Velvets and on down the line through Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, The Sex Pistols and The Clash, they all had a vision that they wanted to communicate.
Sue Mathews: When you talk about a vision can you tell….
Lester: I mean like an idea, a view of the world a point of view that was unique and individual, that they stood for something or they were about something. As opposed to just being love songs and looking cute and all that. I mean even Elvis Costello is about something, he has a peculiar slant on the roll, which basically boils down to spite, but it’s his spite and he’s welcome to it. But at least he stands out from the crowd because of that and so I look for that. But more then that even I just really look for passion it’s gone out of music and everything so much. And even if it hadn’t I’d still look for it, because that’s what it’s all about especially the music, and I think that’s what life is about, but that’s what music is about.
Sue Mathews: Are you aware of having shifted at all in the sorts of things that have interested you say ten years ago when you were writing?
Lester: Well, I think I can say that I’ve shifted to the extent of becoming a little more interested in reflective, and a little less interested in purely sensational. i.e.. that ten years ago all somebody had to do was get me all revved all it didn’t matter what was inside, what the lyrics were about or anything, as long as it was exciting. And now I like things that are exciting but back then I also liked things that were about something. Like I said a vision. But, I think I was much more willing then to settle for something that was just like. . Well like Heavy Metal, a lot of those bands like Deep Purple I mean what the hell were they about? Nothing really, but they were fun. And now I’m much more looking for people that are really three dimensional like, like them or hate them that have something to say and hopefully an original way of saying it. Really committed to something that is actually larger then just becoming a Rock’n’Roll star and making a million dollars.
Sue Mathews: How do you see Rock’n’Roll as a medium for saying things?
Lester: Well I think it’s a fantastic medium for it, but I think what has to be taken with a grain of salt is it’s power as a medium that is actually capable of affecting large scales of social changes, I really doubt that. I think that on a one to one level people can receive ideas from Rock’n’Roll. But another person will hear the same piece of music and just enjoy it purely as music
Sue Mathews: Do you see music as having any social change?
Lester: Well to some extent yeah, but like we say like we were talking about before like about the 60’s and that. There would have been an Anti-War movement if Rock had never existed, there would have been more people taking drugs if Rock’n’Roll had never existed. I mean, before Rock’n’Roll existed people were taking drugs and listening to Be-Bop and things like that. The Civil Rights movement happened pretty much independently of Rock’n’Roll, it was all tried up with Folk music. So I don’t really see Rock’n’Roll as entrenchedly linked to social change or necessity creating it, it’s nice if and when it can. But I think those occasions are relatively few and far between.
Sue Mathews: Do you think it’s possible to talk about social things, to see, to draw conclusions about the culture that music emerges from by looking at the music?
Lester: Yeah sure, a lot of us critics would be out of business if we didn’t think that. Yeah I think that anything reflects the culture that it comes out of whether it’s movies, magazines, best seller list or anything. When you look at what people are feeding on in terms of mass culture, then you know what their obsessions are and their fears, and their dreams I guess. I think actually what we are currently experiencing is a kind of situation where the bottom is dropping out of popular culture, it’s really going bad. So one effect of that is that more and more of everything is fragmenting, and there is less of one sort of monolithic mass audience so you have local scenes. Which I think you will see more and more of, that people are more and more into whatever is happening in their little community in Rock’n’Roll. Say in the local club, the local groups, and I think we’ll see a lot more of that in the future.
Sue Mathews: What are you listening to now?
Lester: ‘Queen of Siam’ by Lydia Lunch, Monster Movie by Can, Veedon Fleece by Van Morison, some old Blind Willie Johnson albums on Folkways, Yazoo or Takoma rather, ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ by The Sex Pistols, ‘Pangaea’ a Japanese live album by Miles Davis, an old Crown (Records) album called Ike Turner ‘Rocks the Blues’, ‘Tryin’ to Get to You’ from the first (RCA) Elvis album, ‘Oar’ by Alexander (Skip) Spence, ‘For Your Love’ the first Yardbirds album, Miles Davis ‘On The Corner’, the third Velvet Underground album, a classical piece called ‘The Winds Rise In The North’ by Harley Gaber on Composers Recordings Inc, Miles Davis’ ‘Get Up With It’, the Charles Manson album, ‘Broken English’ by Marianne Faithfull and ‘Nonaah’ by Roscoe Mitchell.
Sue Mathews: Do they all fit your criteria?
Lester: Oh, also everything by PIL, well yeah, they all sort of probably fit my sort of extremism.
Sue Mathews: What about in terms of the new groups? You mention PIL, The Sex Pistols they’re not so new. Who else do you like at the moment?
Lester: Nobody…(laughs), I like PIL. . . let me think, what else came out this year that I liked? I don’t like very much that has come out very recently. I really like the Ramones last album, but new groups like new groups that just came out in the last few months. Well I guess just PIL and The Gang of Four, well now that I saw them live I quite like the Gang of Fours record and I play it, but that’s about it really. Very little.