|Back in 1994 I
received a C-90 cassette which contained a rare interview with Lester
Bangs a friend of his did with Lester in 1980. I transcribed side one
of the tape & published it a fanzine I used to publish called Loser Friendly (Vol 2 1995) The interview was
conducted on the 13th of May 1980 by then 3RRR staffer
a year and a half before Bangs' death in 1982. As far as I am aware, Part 2
has never been published. When I saw 'Almost Famous' I was in awe of
Phillip Seymour Hoffman for nailing the part of Lester Bangs. He
sounded just like that that C-90 interview tape I owned. Not many
interviews exist with Lester & not many used open ended questions that
Lester was able to elaborate about the music biz. For historical
relevance I have included this here, please quote and use often.
The Audio is now available in two parts from Interviews Archive
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. Itís the major changes in the other industries, itís the change in the economy- itís 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 60ís 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 werenít really promoted, they didnít sell, you know and then later, ten years later, then thereís these big cults they influenced all around the world I mean, those groups wouldnít 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 thatís 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 itís just going to be huge they donít want to know from it. Then on the other hand it seem like itís inevitable also that sales will drop off from a lot of these sorta ĎBoston, Kansas, Foreignerí type groups you know, say like ĎBlack Sabbath, Uriah Heapí for instance were selling about 100,000 copies less with each album through the 70ís. And thereís always that uncertainly factor but when thereís 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 theyíre cleaning house and ĎOut he went!í. I mean this is a man who has family, children heís sending to college and all that, where is he going to get a job? I mean go to Casablanca? Ha ha thatís a joke too.
Sue Mathews : So you donít think the music industry recession was a myth?
Lester: No I donít 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 itís 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 canít afford the ticket prices. Which had become totally outrageous, to go see groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer Lester tells himself theyíre 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. Thatís how under rehearsed they were. When kids canít afford to see it anymore maybe weíll 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 donít 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 CBGBís 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 donít see hardly anything happening now. I mean a group that call themselves ĎRobin Lane and the Chartbusters? I donít care how good their music is why donít they call themselves ĎWe Want Moneyí. 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 donít have 90 min guitar solos, so what? All I see is a lot of groups that are recycling a lot of 60ís 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, Iím 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 couldnít 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 donít 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 donít 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 ďWell itís just another girl with kohl around her eyes and the black hair and a black leather jacket . . . Ē you know and on and on it goes. I wish that there was more going on right now, but I think as it stands, itís a kinda of a set up because, I mean up until of December of last year (1979) everybody was sorta saying ď Well, New Wave is dead and Disco is inĒ. Newsweek magazine a little less then a year ago ran a cover article that was titled Ď Disco takes Over!í and now all of a sudden Discoís dead right, and New Wave is whatís happening. I canít buy that the change can come by that quickly. Well people say ďWell the B-52ís sold recordsí All right so the B-52ís sold records, thatís one group! you know they say ďWell The Clash may now be played on the radioĒ, The Clash had an LP out a year before that could have been played on the radio! I mean ĎStay Freeí is as pop as anything on this new album they could have played that. And the fact is they didnít! The fact is it looks too much like a set up to me that, exactly as weíre gong into a new decade, Iíd just like to know who decides these things? I really would because I donít who it is but obviously somebody, somewhere has decided all of a sudden the word comes down, ĎDisco out-New Wave is coolí. New wave no longer means Sid Vicious and needles and safety pins through your face itís the really the latest Hep thing. And every magazine is filled with it and everything everywhere is full of it. And I just canít buy it that this is an organic grass roots populous thing on part of the people. Itís 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, donít particularly have anything challenging or even individual to say.
Sue Mathews : Do you see the original CBGBís 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 thatís like basically good.
Sue Mathews : Do you think Richard Hell was interested in that?
Lester: Iíd like to think so, I think that he only carried it half way. That a certain point you have to ask ďIs life worth living? / Whatís the point of all this? / why are we even here? Ē and so you write a song with a title like ĎWho Sez Itís Good to be Alive? í. The poor trouble is that, he didnít carry it through after that. You know, it just stopped, so no itís not, lets go die. But unfortunately for him he didnít end up like Sid so he canít be a legend now. So he has to go do what ever heís going to do. The great thing about The Clash of course is that they keep searching for answers beyond that. And thatís 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 70ís when everything really is horrible and it really stinks. The mass media, everything on television everything everywhere is just rotten. You know itís just really boring and really evil, ugly and worse. And that this was a challenge to all this. Where as now itís 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 itís kinda predictable I guess.
Sue Mathews : Do you see it as being sort of continuous with the changes in popular music generally?
Lester: I donít see that there are any particular changes in popular music. I mean, just because itís 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 ĎLondon Callingí album itís like theyíre trying to go back to their roots and theyíre really like trying to. And thatís good, itís good that theyíre listening to all these old blues singers this and that and the other thing and absorbing all this stuff. But itís really, theyíre not creating anything really radically new. I think the first album was much more radical, and I speaking purely in music sense then ĎLondon Callingí. I mean the only group that I can think thatís 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 itís funny because people last year were saying ďRock is deadĒ and all that. Nothing ever quite dies, it just comes back in a different form. I know that in the late 60ís people were saying ďJazz is deadĒ 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 heís playing Jazz whether I like it or not. Or like in the early 70ís 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 thatís 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 60ís, can you see any consistency in whatís happened to rock music over the decade?
Lester: Yeah!, a pervasive sense of defeat Iíd had to say, when you think the albums that were sort of most characteristic of the 70ís mood you think of something like ĎYoung Americansí by Bowie, ĎThereís a Riot Going Oní by Sly and the Family Stone, ĎTonightís the Nightí by Neil Young, ĎTake Your Pickí 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, deliís, 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 ĎYou Got a Friendí by James Taylor, and when I went to the yoghurt store there was this song playing I kept saying ďIs this America, who is this? Ē and it was ĎYear of the Catí, you know or things like Grease, thereís a huge nostalgia culture that has been built up because, very little that anyone is coming up with is genially new. And Iím sorry I just really have to question a lot of these New Wave people that say what theyíre doing is so radically new and so different. Cause I really donít see it. Something like a lot of these synthesiser groups the whole Gary ĎNumanoidí 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 60ís was part of an alternative culture and political movement?
Lester: mmmm, dubious at best because, see I always felt that the Ďso calledí 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 (heís 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 thatís all it ever amounted to was that people you didnít 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 canít say ďoh, the revolutionary act of smoking marijuanaĒ because everybody else, secretaries, the bossí everybody smokes dope now, it doesnít mean anything. In fact I think now weíve 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 donít know whatís going on, and we donít care.
Sue Mathews : Well there was more to the 60ís 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 ĎStreet Fighting Maní. It like when Jerry Rubin who said ďThe Rolling Stones were a model of the revolutionĒ, 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 ĎHow they conduct their livesí (if the revolutionaries agree on those principles in the first place). I think thatís whatís happening now with somebody like The Clash, itís a lot more sensible and realistic. I mean, they donít align themselves (even though they are on the left) with any particular movement, they donít 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 itís all like ďWell like dig it man! Nix is trying to lay this heavy trip on our heads. . Ē. They donít talk like that they talk straight to you, they say what they mean, make sense, itís not particularly pretentious, well, sometimes. I think thatís really refreshing, and Iíd 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 60ís, I mean Graham Nash?
Sue Mathews : So you donít see the connection between music and politics much more then good marketing?
Lester: Basically no, I mean I think that itís 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 whatís behind it, and what it really means. Itís 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 itís easier to be in a demonstration if itís a trip thatís one of the reasons why the whole thing fell apart in 1971, because it wasnít 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 werenít because it died very shortly after.
Sue Mathews : Thereís 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 rockíníroll music. Do you subscribe to that view?
Lester: Iím really schizophrenic about that, because on the one hand I would say, yes there is, thereís something inherently, even violent about it, itís wild and raw and all this. On the other hand, the fact is that ĎSugar Sugarí is great RockíníRoll, and thereís nothing rebellious about that at all. I mean thatís right from the belly and heart of capitalism. Or that the Byrds on their first album they didnít except for McGuinn, they didnít even play on it, it was done by LA session men. Itís kinda hard to believe in a rebellion formatted by a bunch of session men? I would like to believe that RockíníRoll 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. Thatís one reason why itís pretty worthless, I canít totally buy it, if you think about it, itís things like the Phil Spector records. On one level they were rebellion, on another level they were keeping the teenager in his place. Itís an adjunct of consumerism, and itís certainly an adjunct of sexism. RockíníRoll has never done very much as far as. . ĎWomenís Liberationí, so as far as itís potential as a radicalising / agent in society I really wonder. I have to see it much more as fundamentally capitalism, I certainly donít see any RockíníRoll 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, itís 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 ď 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 didnít they.
Sue Mathews : Do you see RockíníRoll 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, RockíníRoll 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 thatís hip. I mean Iíve had parties in this very apartment where Iíve put on an Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin record cut in 1967, and the people from the CBGB scene would say ďOh Lester! why are you playing that nigger disco stuff for? Why donít you just get it off. ĒTheyíre just totally ignorant, donít wanna be any other way and really are not open to other forms of music. Of course RockíníRoll is part of a whole tradition of American music that goes back. Really what I think it is the tradition of miscegenation. Itís that tradition of black and white, getting together to create this thing that reached itís 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 ĎPolice and Thievesí a Reggae song originally done by Junior Marvin I think? And itís 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 itís funny cause it doesnít work the other round. Music can be all black, and I still enjoy listening to it but when itís all white if thereís 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 thatís made ?
Lester: Well, I think that itís not so much the capitalist industry itís more that down to things like demographics. These polls are taken, and thereís 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 itís starting to be now. Everything everywhere the radio certainly is become like network TV. Itís 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 thatís 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. Theyíre nonentity like a Travolta, Blonde or really most of the bigger stars now really have no personality, and especially thatís certainly everyone on TV, and I think thatís 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 donít 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 ĎThe Persuasionsí an a Capella group from Brooklyn who sell 2000 copies. Thereís 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 donít understand why something like the Persuasions couldnít be treated in that light and supported. Or there could be some mini socialism so that things that donít sell that much, if the industry is that huge there could be a niche for them. But it seems that itís all going in the other direction.
Sue Mathews: Do you think thatís 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 40ís, certainly albums had been released since the 50ís. 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 itís so effective the bigger it gets the less attention there will be to these kinda of details. I know thereís 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 itís a Robert Johnson album if Robert Johnson albums are even still listed,Iím sure he must be cause heís 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 itís 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 Somebodyís 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 thatís 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 itís getting less and less all the time. I know a lot of people my age Iím 31 still not married and donít 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, Iím 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 itís pathetic admittedly, I mean everybodyís 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 isnít as defeatist in itís 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 canít predict what it will be. I mean I have my own ideas, of things Iíd like to hear but that would be something truly different, something truly new.
Sue Mathews: Do you see RockíníRoll as being young peoples music?
Lester: I donít know, I mean everybody seems to think so Iíve always wondered about that because. For instance The Velvet Underground, I keep harping on them cause theyíre about my favourite group ever. I mean those are really adult songs, about adult things and I think thatís really great.
Sue Mathews: Can you just expand on that?
Lester: Sure, a song like ĎPale Blue Eyesí is a song about adultery, itís about somebody, it doesnít say what sex or any of that but itís about somebody having an affair with someone elseís 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 Morrisonís work and. I donít know, on one hand. . . . . see I guess one thing I donít buy is that in your life thereĎs 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 Iíve grown older Iíve 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 60ís?
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 wasnít. 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 Iíve never been quite able to refute. She said ďthe only reason RockíníRoll came into being in the first place was because of the creation of this new economicsĒ. It was purely a function of capitalism in an economic market that all of a sudden there was this thing called ĎThe Teenagerí. Never before in history did anybody have such a concept of ĎThe Teenagerí all of a sudden thereís this concept thatís was created, so you got all these people with all this money. They have to call them something, they call them this and so ďOh lets see, theyíve got money in their pockets, what can we come up with that can appeal to themí. Admittedly thatís a pretty cynical viewpoint, but Iím sure thereís some truth in it, and still is.
Sue Mathews: It doesnít have to be a conspiracy sort of theory. .
Sue Mathews: All you need to do is see something selling, recognise thereís an untapped market and go for it. It still has some integrity, it can still come from ground up or something.
Lester: Yeah, thatís interesting because I was just looking at this old Fabian album the other day and itís really hilarious the liner notes on it. Itís written by his producers and his managers and itís just stuff like ďHe is a nice, well behaved boy, heís never gonna make any trouble for anybodyĒ . . . and I mean itís like the kind of thing I showed a friend of mine that was in Richard Hell and the Voidoids Robert Cline. And I said ďLook at this, imagine if this was on the back of your album? Ē . You know, Bing Crosby saying ďThis boy is a credit to AmericaĒ you know. Jeez. . . .
Sue Mathews: How much relevance do you think RockíníRoll can have to an ageing population?
Well, Itís like a friend of mine said when I asked him ď Do you think
The Rolling Stones should break up now that theyíve put out ĎSome Girlsí
and quit while theyíre ahead or should they keep going? Ē. And he said ďOh no, absolutely, they should keep going until theyíre
totally senile, and a little bit more creepy and pathetic and creaky each time
playing the same old Chuck Berry riffs until theyíre 60 years oldĒ. And I agree thatís exactly what they should do, and I think
RockíníRoll as it goes along gets more creaky. The whole culture will get more creaky and why
not. I mean Iíd rather listen to the Stones
than Tony Bennett or something like that. I guess what youíre asking
is if the youth is a minority, and then RockíníRoll 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 30ís and
40ís. I mean I thinks itís a
total myth that only someone who is an adolescence can create good
RockíníRoll. Patti Smith
didnít start till she was in her 30ís and sheís created some excellent RockíníRoll,
some of it even great. Lenny Hayes
is in his 30ís, in fact to tell the truth this whole punk rock thing, half of
the people in it are in their 30ís. 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, theyíve 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, itís just simple arithmetic that these
people could not be teenagers if theyíve 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 itís 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
itís not that way at all.
Sue Mathews: Thatís a change isnít 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 itís a change Iím just wondering why and how itís 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 thatís interesting because to a large extent the people that are coming up now donít 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 Ďso calledí 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, theyíre like Kiss on another level really, itís 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 Ď No, this is me, take it or leave ití. 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, itís 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 thatís inevitable when it gets that big isnít it, you know. I mean, if I was as big as the Rolling Stones Iíd want to have Allen Klein handling my business for me. Because he might be a shark but, so is everybody else. Basically what Iíve 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, heís gonna rip you off probably as much as everyone else. Or, heís a fan which in case heís going to be inept and your not going to end up with any money either way. So itís sorta Ďdamned if you do, and damned if you donítí.
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 thatís 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 that means compromising to absolutely anything or everything about themselves, whether itís putting on bat wings and black and white make-up, or this or that with the songs, theyíll 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 thatís itís really good thatís thereís all these little independent labels, not that a lot of the stuff on it isnít 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 RockíníRoll?
Lester: Well I hate RockíníRoll stars, I have for a long time, I really have been against it. I really think the star system was good in the 60ís 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 RockíníRoll I think you could see from about the late 60ís & early 70ís. When you then have people who didnít 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 arenít tremendously strong personalities like John Lennon or Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. They just arenít. And since then itís just been getting worse and worse, I mean for every Bruce Springsteen or Patti Smith who really does deserve to be called a star, youíve got a dozen Styxís, I mean who are those guys? Who knows who cares? Theyíre totally faceless, so I donít 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 canít even tell who theyíre 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 thatís one reason to really like a group like Talking Heads is that they donít come on like rock stars, they come on like regular people. That to me is part of a whole democratic aspect of rockíníroll 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 thatís whatís so exciting about it. But when you have that elitism thatís itís 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 thatís been to a Led Zeppelin concert in the last half decade has to know what Iím talking about, to be treated like such utter morons, and just so contemptuously.
Sue Mathews: Well I havenít 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 ĎYou people are so lucky to even get to look at us, so why should we do anythingí. They didnít play that well, they were just very indifferent and they just didnít 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 ďHi, whatís this town like?Ē. 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 wasnít 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. Iíve seen such sick scenes in dressing rooms sometimes when you go in there, and these ĎStarsí or Ďthe Starí is trying to control the vibes of everybody in the room, with a million hatchet men, itís just sick.
Sue Mathews: Do you see the RockíníRoll 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 youíre famous for being famous, rather than anything youíve 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 RockíníRoll world and the Hollywood world similar?
Lester: Theyíve been merging yeah. I think that the most vital RockíníRoll 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 youíre sunk, youíre 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 RockíníRoll people like Hunter. S Thompson as it is of the musicians. And itís really sad when people get so locked into that they canít 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 anybodyís 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 havenít changed that much at all, that gets back to what I was talking about before, is ĎHow much is rock actually potentially anything other than an instrument of capitalist/corporate consumerismí. 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. ĎCars, Girls, Surfing, Beer Nothing Else Matters Hereí like The Dictators said. Since Chuck Berry up to the present I donít think thatís 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 donít listen to the lyrics. Now itís 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 itís just something else to consume, itís really become less of an obsession I think. A lot of the same kids Iíve noticed at Madison Square Gardens go every week, it doesnít 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 donít care, itís 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: Itís 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 ĎRaw Powerí by Iggy & The Stooges probably would be the best selling record of all time. Just because we were writing about it glitter didnít make the New York Dolls one tenth as popular as Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Just because we had been writing about New Wave doesnít 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, heís 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, Iíd 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 itís 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 donít make records players to play RockíníRoll on it anymore. The Dolbyís, 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 ĎBack to Monoí, but I donít necessarily agree with that. But I do believe to make RockíníRoll I think youíre 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, itís reached a point where you canít get that old gusty sound. Iíve got an old Ike Turner album here that was made in the early 50ís that I was talking to Robert Cline the other night when we were listening to it he said ď You just couldnít get that sound anymoreĒ. Because they donít make guitars like that anymore or amps or recording studios, itís really that gutsy sound. Like the sounds that Sam Phillips got nobody hardly any place could get one, thatís 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 donít 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 didnít like Wah-Wah. And other people would probably draw the line further down the line. There was a tremendous explosion of technologically in the 60ís 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 70ís 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 thereís no feeling in the music anymore. But then you wonder if there would anyway given with the feeling thatís 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 thatís 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 Iíd still go out and buy the album, itís not going to stop anyone from buying the album. People have told me ďNo, that affects them. . Ē, all right, if it does it does in terms of ego and that. I know that the MC5 review I did of ĎKick Out The Jamsí that time (ED: in Rolling Stone) did affect them getting kicked off Elektra. But that was in the 60ís 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 itís 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 donít agree with any of my colleagues.
Sue Mathews: Everybody loves The Clash, every single person.
Lester: Alright thatís one case but thatís the exception to the rule, everybody doesnít love The Ramones, everybody doesnít love PIL. There you go.
Sue Mathews: Everybody Iíve talked to does, Iíve 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 didnít like their first album I know that for sure, I did. But everybody didnít 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 ďYou gotta have a review of this particular album in the current issue cause they bought an ad blah blah blah. . Ē, and Iíd just ignore him. But Iím 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. Thereís 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 ďBut what if heís wrongĒ, they took that out. I think itís 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 thereís 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. Iíve 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 ĎOne Size Fits Allí written by me. He called up his press office who called up the magazine screaming ďHow dare they! How dare you! We bought this ad and you run this review in the same issue panning this album. . . Ē. So they said ďWill you please write a letter to Frank explaining why you did this. . Ē, and I said ďYes I willĒ. So I wrote a letter back to Frank that said ďDear Frank, I know what a multi-media genius you are. I canít wait until you start your own magazine, because $1,150 is the best rates Iíve ever heard for record review in my lifeĒ. . . But that is the attitude, they really expect that just because, thereís 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 itís really the opposite, that most of the people writing about the music are pretty much in the pocket of the record companies. Itís not even a question of payola, you donít have to give them payola, itís really just a question of trendies, of like ďWell, what am I expected to like this week and whatís the proper attitude about it etc etc. . . Ē. Then itís disgusting coz itís just one more example of people not thinking for themselves, and these are the opinion makers not thinking for themselves!
Sue Mathews: Itís 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, thatís 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, itís totally bought out, itís like. . . So and so makes a new movie, so and so makes a new album. So itís the word is out all the press is to cover this like a big event, you know, itís really a set up. There just isnít enough adversary journalism, criticism and all the times you find that if you do write this kind of criticism that you donít get as much work, or you get it thrown back in your face, because they donít tow the party line. And itís gotten worse and worse more and more disgustingly that way throughout the 70ís, I can testify cause Iíve 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 itís 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 canít think for themselves either, but itís 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 theyíre right, maybe Iím wrong, maybe this is great. . . Iíve experienced it on the other end as well, when Dylan put out that horrible ĎHard Rainí live album they (CBS) had a TV commercial for it that was run about every station break. . . Iíd 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 Iíd already been sent a copy of the album in the mail for free that Iíd sold. So, not to pat ourselves on the back too much to over say the importance of the critic. But just to say ďNo, this is the emperor new clothsĒ thatís just part of the function of being a good critic, and I think itís also the function of a good audience to maybe disagree and say ďNo, you donít know what youíre talking about. I mean I never mind it when people tell me that I contradict myself, I donít know what Iím saying or that Iím 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 60ís and the early 70ís, obviously, it didnít 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 theyíre 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 wasnít very deep into the 70ís, 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 thatís 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 didnít, and thereís always been a germ of that from at the beginning and always will be. And thatís one thing thatís wonderful about it, itís like they really in some sense donít know whatís going on, or donít know what might turn out to be the next big thing. So every once in a while theyíll 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, Iíd 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 theyíre not doing now?
Lester: Now itís like I said before . . . grabs the recent issue and evaluates it. . . Here we go, Bob Seger on the cover, heís got an album out ďMotor City Rockers Ride to the TopĒ, the new album might be lousy, might be great, but the fact is thereís a piece of product that has to be promoted there so thatís when Bob Segerís on the cover or so and so is making a new movie. Itís 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 theyíll put Miles Davis on the cover of one issue for instance theyíll 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 Iíd 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 itís 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 itís all muzak, itís all stuff for elevators and stuff like that, I mean whatís the difference between Johnny Mathis, The Roy Connis Singers and ĎYear of the Catí or any of the stuff really. Even ĎTrain in Vainí (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 60ís and the very early 70ís you had in certain places in the United States, what was called your ĎFree Formí Underground rock radio. Which began I guess Ď68 in East Orange New Jersey with a show called ĎCocaine Karmaí with Bob Rudnic & Dennis Froley, 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, itís 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 Ď75. He said ď Look, the jock on the station is just like a guy down the line at the Ford factory screwing a bolt onĒ. Thatís all he does he has no personality, he has no function other than to play what heís 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 ďWait a second, youíre telling me that if I was a DJ here I could play the new Steve Stills album, but I couldnít play no old Buffalo Springfield albumĒ and he said ďThatís rightĒ. And I said ďI could play ĎWalk on the Wild Sideí but I couldnít play something off the 2nd Velvet Underground albumĒ and he said ĎThatís rightĒ. 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. Itís 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, thatís a good question. Basically all I look for is passion and I donít 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 RockíníRoll or at least since it became rock and more of an ĎArt formí 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 itís his spite and heís 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 itís gone out of music and everything so much. And even if it hadnít Iíd still look for it, because thatís what itís all about especially the music, and I think thatís what life is about, but thatís 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 Iíve 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 didnít 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 Iím 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 RockíníRoll star and making a million dollars.
Sue Mathews: How do you see RockíníRoll as a medium for saying things?
Lester: Well I think itís a fantastic medium for it, but I think what has to be taken with a grain of salt is itís 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 RockíníRoll. 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 60ís and that. There would have been an Anti-War movement if Rock had never existed, there would have been more people taking drugs if RockíníRoll had never existed. I mean, before RockíníRoll existed people were taking drugs and listening to Be-Bop and things like that. The Civil Rights movement happened pretty much independently of RockíníRoll, it was all tried up with Folk music. So I donít really see RockíníRoll as entrenchedly linked to social change or necessity creating it, itís nice if and when it can. But I think those occasions are relatively few and far between.
Sue Mathews: Do you think itís 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 didnít think that. Yeah I think that anything reflects the culture that it comes out of whether itís 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, itís 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 RockíníRoll. Say in the local club, the local groups, and I think weíll 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, Veen Fleece by Van Morison, some old Blind Lee Johnson albums on Folkways, The Great RockíníRoll Swindle by The Sex Pistols, Pangaia a Japanese live album by Miles Davis, an old Crown album called ĎIke Turner Rockís the Bluesí, ĎTrying to Get to Youí from the first Elvis album, Orr by Alexander Spence, ĎFor Your Loveí the first Yardbirds album, Miles Davis ĎOn The Cornerí, the 3rd Velvet Underground album, a classical piece called Ďthe winds rise in the northí by Harley Gabour, Miles Davisí ĎGet up with ití, the Charles Manson album, ĎBroken Englishí by Marianne Faithful and ĎNo Knobí by Rosco Midgit.
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 theyíre 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 donít 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 thatís about it really. Very little.
Thank you to Sue Mathews & Stuart Coupe