Ancient Album Review Columns #3: Pity the critic

May 21, 2022
5 mins read

GARY STEEL suffers a complete breakdown while attempting to review all the shit that came out in December 1987.


The Rock Critic is a tragic subspecies of the common or garden variety pop music fan.

They usually are found locked in darkened rooms, scratching for pointless meaning in the grooves of records destined for the second-hand record shop 50 cent bin.


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While the real men play the green and fertile fields of this fabulous superphosphate nation, building physiques and eradicating brain cells, the wimp Rock Critic hunches arthritically over his almost unworkable art deco typewriter, drinking doubles and eradicating brain cells.

The wan, pale, spinal-curvature disaster zone shakes with expectation as he takes delivery of the latest pile of record company gifts. Wow! Three more boxes, 11 more albums. Yesterday, he got two big boxes, nine albums and three long-play singles, not to mention a free Mick Jagger t-shirt. Uh-oh, the postie has started bringing them to the door, bet she thinks the runt has records to spare. It must be Christmas.

The reality of the situation cannot match the pathetic Rock Critic’s euphoria. Inside his dank hutch, hundreds of unplayed albums splay over the moth-eaten carpet. Like the true moralist he is, the creature has been gamely attempting to listen to EVERY SINGLE HORRID RECORD that arrives at his door! He hasn’t left the flat in a week.

Back in the days of record industry prosperity – when one record company even felt compelled to invite the Rock Critic to its annual Magical Mystery Tour, complete with mind-boggling artificial stimulants – there was a regular flow of product released throughout the calendar year.

In 1987, the fans get scraps for the most part, and the cream gets whipped and served to the public during the three months preceding Christmas. How the consumer copes we cannot begin to comprehend. And pity the poor Rock Critic? Firstly, he’s drip-fed for nine months, then he’s swamped.

The three-month cycle consists of three types of product: 1) Major league artists, 2) novelty items and 3) useless and talented no-hopers. People will purchase product in the first category because the industry tells them it’s big league, the second category because it’s Christmas, and the third category with Christmas cheer and charity, if not clarity.

This year it all proved too much for the Rock Critic, who was last seen debuting his avant-garde, nude performance of U2’s ‘With Or Without You’ in the rubble of a prominent Wellington demolition site. Rumour has it his manic ghost can be heard howling the anthem in the corridors of a new building that seemed to appear overnight. We think that the following extracts from his last, coffee-stained notes are poignant and revealing, and they are published for the very first time in this hallowed journal:

“HARD ROCK! YEAH! I can feel Steven Tyler’s silicon Jagger-lips all over Aerosmith’s post comeback, Permanent Vacation (Geffen). Slur-whumph! Slobber on the microphone, boy! However way you look at it, though, ‘70s prime hard rockers are today’s slime hackrockers, and it ain’t even got the swing of the Run DMC thing! Just as hack and twice as slack in the punch-sack is Dio’s Dream Evin (Vertigo), which trades on the fear of noise but never gets its keys in the ignition coz it’s too busy with its wet as a whistle sword and sorcery silliness. Severely underpowered. The name Noiseworks sounds like the breeding ground for Heavy Metal merchants, but their CBS debut is so strung out on U2 that it doesn’t even know how to be funny, let alone hammer anything home with conviction.

“Psychedelic goth-rockers the Lime Spiders make heaps of noise for boys on The Cave Comes Alive (Virgin), but you wait around too long for the really heady bits, which turn out to be their takes on old Electric Prunes and Cream screams, anyway. Unlike The Hooters, who get plenty wattage from Springclean’s macho musclepower factory floor on One Way Home (CBS), and get the rest of their mileage from trendy Celtic instrumentation and lyrics that pull at the heartstrings of history.

“Pulling at the haemorrhoids of history is Roger Daltrey, whose Can’t Wait To See The Movie (10 Records) simply confirms the theory often advanced by leading ear specialists that the man has a bad case of wax. At least he’s legless, not armless, as in the sad case of Def Leppard’s drummer on Hysteria (Polygram), which is, to my knowledge, only the second record in the history of the universe to boast as such! Unlike Moulty, the tragic tale of The Barbarians’ one-armed drummer, Hysteria runs for an extremely dedious – albeit economical – 63 minutes.

“The prize clunkers in the present deluge belong to TNT, and Then Jerico, along with The Kane Gang. Head and eel tails below the others is TNT’s Tell No Tales (Mercury), which is as irritatingly appalling as England’s Queen and as outrageously stupid as Holland’s Focus (anyone remember ‘Hocus Pocus’?) Then Jerico’s First (The Sound Of Music) (London) is the absolute nadir of jellybrained U2 bandwagonjumping, and The Kane Gang must think it a Miracle (London) that anyone would release their mouthwash muzak. Welcome back, Curiosity Killed The Cat, all is forgiven.

“Jaded from the world of plunder, the perfect refreshment is Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s Inala (Serengeti), which is far superior to the somewhat stilted, Paul Simon-produced Shaka Zulu. From a capella South Africans to the rhythms of Jamaica, for the most part poorly represented by the current releases. Black Uhuru’s first album, Black Sounds Of Freedom (Serengeti) is historically important but strictly dated and bereft of the electronic percussion that was to bring to-ranking rhythm section Sly and Robbie to the world’s attention. The pair crop up again on Bunny Wailer’s pleasant but unexceptional Rootsman Skanking (Serengeti) but Sly & Robbie’s latest whizzo studio album Rhythm Killers (Island), within which the reggae is difficult to find, is the real winner.

Amazulu’s self-styled album (Island) struggles hard for a jaunty, happy crossover sound, but achieves it on only three tracks, which is better than being lost in the platitudes of songwriters Gamble and Huff, who are in control of Third World’s unchallenging Hold On To Love (CBS). Even the lovely Judy Mowatt reachs some low moments – courtesy Dexter Wansell and his machinery – on Love Is Overdue (Serengeti).

“The label that brought reggae to the world’s attention, Island Records, has released a double compilation of some of the best (and a few of the worst) from their first 25 years, The Island Story. My favourites are Millie Small’s profound ‘My Boy Lollipop, and that great, great, fantastic band of the ‘80s, U2, with that timeless classic, With Or Without You, which opens the album. With or without You-ooh-ooh…”

And that’s where the Rock Critic’s sad tract ended, apart from some unprintable rambling inanities.

A lesson to you all: it’s safer taking the falls working at the stock exchange than being a fool working as a Rock Critic.

  • Originally published in The Evening Post, Wellington, December 1987

Steel has been penning his pungent prose for 40 years for publications too numerous to mention, most of them consigned to the annals of history. He is Witchdoctor's Editor-In-Chief/Music and Film Editor. He has strong opinions and remains unrepentant. Steel's full bio can be found here

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