Robert Forster’s collected music writings 2005-09, The 10 rules of rock and roll has found its way here from Australia. The piece which gives the book its title is appropriately succinct, covering less than a page. My favourite of the ten are:
o The second-last song on every album is the weakest.
o Great bands tend to look alike.
o The guitarist who changes guitars on stage after every third number is showing you his guitar collection.
o The three-piece band is the purest form of rock and roll expression.
Reading this piece and the rest of Robert’s writings (together with having been at this game myself in some form or fashion for over twenty years) suggested the following 10 rules of rock and roll criticism.
1. Three facts and a gag.
My friend Mark Morris once told me that this was Steve Lamacq’s rule for reviewing an album or a gig. It’s a method that underpins Robert Forster’s criticism, only in a rather more refined and artful sense than you suspect Lammo was after from his NME freelancers. Robert takes his duties seriously, gives you the salient facts, and has the same dry humour in print as he does when crafting lyrics.
2. Tell the good from the bad.
Throughout this collection Robert demarcates between the good songs on a record and the fillers or missteps. He’s generous with his praise and sharp with his criticism.
3. Make the reader want to hear the music.
The obvious one. What is it that makes this a great or a great but flawed record? Put across its particularities and peculiarities; what it does both for you personally and what it might therefore do for anyone that goes out of their way to listen to it. There are at least half a dozen records I would never have sought out that I want to listen to as a result of reading Robert’s pieces about them: Sarah Blasko’s As day follows night, Espers’ II, Beth Orton’s Comfort of strangers, Paul Kelly’s Songs from the south, Neil Diamond’s 12 songs, and Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson’s Rattlin’ bones.
4. Don’t get so excited that you lose all sense of measure; equally don’t be so measured that you lose all sense of excitement.
It’s a difficult balance which Robert almost always gets tightrope-wire perfect. Bloggers are prone to the former; journalists the latter.
5. Bring the knowledge you have to bear.
In Robert’s case this means a thorough understanding of the value of production and the way songs are arranged and rendered; and what might be thought an old-fashioned – or a recording artist’s – concern for the balance of an album, its rightness as a set (Cat Power’s The greatest gets this wrong in Robert’s eyes, despite the great songs it contains). This gives his criticism a revealing edge. He is also honest about what he doesn’t know, a rare trait among critics.
6. Don’t be a snob (or a knob, for that matter).
Robert writes with openness and fondness for Australian rock and pop music, and in so doing gives the measure and depth of it on terms that I’d not previously encountered. There are many ways to be snobbish (or knobbish) about music; disdaining your own is one of them. As is pooh-poohing the efforts of allegedly less fertile pop musical cultures.
7. Don’t ignore the lyrics.
That means pointing out their infelicities as much as their wonders. As a lyricist himself, Robert treats the words with a seriousness that isn’t common among music critics.
8. Don’t give way to sentiment.
A great album doesn’t make the next great. A hero can develop feet of clay.
9. Don’t let yourself be bought, whatever the currency offered.
This is what damages music and music criticism most.
10. Surprise the reader, at least every now and again.
It’s the pieces about artists whose records you suspect the reviewer would not ordinarily have gone out of his or her way to listen to that are often most revealing, both about the critic and the artist. So, like Robert, challenge yourself, and your readership.