The Ultimate A To Z Of Album Reviews By Gary Steel – How It Works

GARY STEEL – who has been flinging his controversial critiques at a disgruntled public for more than 40 years – gives the background to his new A To Z Of Album Reviews.

Does Gary Steel hate Frank Zappa? Read his reviews to find out…

Here it is, folks, all of my dirty linen over the last 40-something years hung out to dry and getting crusty and smelly in the inclement weather.

Roll-up, roll-up! This is your chance to laugh until you explode at my naive attempts to write about that which resists explanation, the phenomenon we like to call THE ALBUM. It’s where – in pre-streaming music days – people went to get their music fix.

Anyway, for the benefit of the tiny (and dwindling) niche audience who might be interested, here it all is.

For nearly half a century I’ve written album reviews for whichever august publication (and some very shitty publications) would have me. I haven’t been particularly choosy. I’ve done it for the love, and I’ve done it for the peanuts. (And the mountains of free records, most of which have subsequently gone to second-hand shops to be traded for albums I really want).

“I’ve done it for the love, and I’ve done it for the peanuts”

I’ve mostly tried to be objective, although I have friends (and sworn enemies, most of them musicians) who maintain that objectivity in music criticism is a lie. It’s certainly true that every individual has a perspective that’s uniquely their own, and that could be called a lack of true objectivity.

But unlike most (and I think one of the things that made me suitable for record reviewing), a lot of the time I’m capable of looking at an album’s strengths and weaknesses without letting my personal prejudices come into play. This ability isn’t absolutely watertight or failsafe, but I’ve often given a 5-star review to an act that I don’t actually like very much simply because it’s a really good record.

I’ve handed out loads of favourable reviews to bands and artists I don’t like because I think that a lot of the time simply by attentive listening I can prise out the music’s qualities and hopefully explain them. Being able to recognise an excellent piece of music doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s your cup of tea, in other words. And the same is true in reverse. There are many songs, albums and artists I love to death who I don’t hold in very high regard; the musical equivalent of the 1950s horror flicks that are dear to my heart.

Vinyl that’s somehow survived being lugged to many flats

I must be some kind of masochist because I even enjoy listening to music that I don’t like that much.

The albums I’ve kept over the years have sometimes been genuinely great. Sometimes I just liked them a lot. But most of those years I had a stern policy to keep my vinyl collection down to 1000 pieces (although I have to admit that during the “compact disc revolution” I eventually broke my hard-and-fast rule). That policy was partly to do with the fact that I moved flats a lot. During my 10 years in Wellington I lived in more than 20 abodes, most of them mouldering hovels. When I loaded up my yellow Ford Escort and headed for Auckland in 1988, not knowing what the future was going to hold, I had a major cleanout.

“During my 10 years in Wellington I lived in more than 20 abodes, most of them mouldering hovels”

The secondary reason, however, was that I love music, not collecting. Like most avid fans of the consumer product/cultural item/art fetish object that is the record album, I’ve gone through periods of collector mania. This was somewhat egged on by my late American friend Ron Kane, who reputedly had more than 30,000 albums, and which necessitated the repiling of his house. Every time I visited Ron we’d do the rounds of the record stores and his enthusiasm and knowledge would inspire in me a kind of record feeding frenzy.

Back at home, however, my enthusiasm for owning every single pressing (with significant minor differences) of a favourite album would wane. I really just wanted to listen to the music, which I simply never got tired of, from the rock and roll I heard as a prepubescent to the psychedelic rock that completely revolutionised my perception of music to the progressive rock that followed and on through punk, post-punk, synth-pop, and so on.

More elderly vinyl that’s clearly owned by a boomer

One thing the few die-hards and dweebs who read these reviews will notice is that I’m not much of a roots or indie guy. I like to think that I enjoy a wide range of music, but although I enjoy some soul and hip-hop, these reviews might look a bit white to many contemporary music fans. Similarly, I’m not big on listening to some guy do an early Dylan groaning out his words to the strumming of an acoustic guitar and the occasional toot of a harmonica. Although I enjoy a good rhythm guitarist, I’d rather hear someone improvising (or even soloing) than merely jangling.

“I’d rather hear someone improvising (or even soloing) than merely jangling.”

I’m a huge fan of music for music’s sake, and music for me is sounds organised by humans in any way, shape or form they see fit. I don’t think that only “performed” music is any good (computer music can rock too!) although I adore instrumental virtuosity when it’s not at the expense of the music.

While music can be hugely emotive I think it can express itself in ways that are infinitely emotionally subtle, and that too much music comes with a sugar-overload of sentiment.

I don’t care how music is made as long as it adeptly articulates what the composer and/or performers want it to. Some of my favourite music is made by people who can’t read musical notation and probably wouldn’t even know what key they’re in. And some of my favourite music is determined largely by performers reading the dots on paper that the composer intended to be played.

The inevitable mausoleum-like boxes of ‘mature’ collecting

So anyway. This is a work in progress. For each letter of the alphabet, I’m going to slowly keep adding album reviews, so you’ll see an album I reviewed in 1979 right next to one I reviewed in 2019. They’ll come from very different publications, and some of them will be poorly written and thought-out and the conclusions I reached will be plain wrong. To this end, when I’ve reassessed a record and feel that I was unjustly unkind or way too kind, I’ll add a note to the review. Some of the older reviews will be so poorly written – or be in a format that’s incompatible with this one – that I’ll make mild adaptations.

A short list of the publications these reviews come from (there are quite a few I can’t remember) includes: my own magazines In Touch and TOM, Rip It Up, The Evening Post, The Times, The Sunday Star-Times, City Magazine, RTR Countdown, The NZ Listener, Real Groove and Metro.

Shortly, then, you’ll find the beginnings of this A to Z compendium of reviews in the appropriate section on the front page of Witchdoctor. Keep on checking in to see reviews added to each of the letters of the alphabet.

Welcome back my friends to the show that seemingly never ends…

  • Gary Steel is sponsored by, um… no one.

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