Dylan Jones (ed.), Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy! Classic Rock and Pop Writing from Elvis to Oasis (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1996), 435pp
This anthology claims to compile the best articles by music journalists on rock and pop. Music journalism usually takes one of two forms: either a pseudo-academic approach which snobbily addresses the socio-cultural context of a particular artist blah blah blah, or the ramblings of self-involved, often drug-addled, wannabe 'gonzo' journalists vomited onto the page. Neither approach has much to recommend it, and the Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy! anthology suffers by placing itself firmly within the second category.
Indeed, this is a conscious decision. As the book's editor Dylan Jones notes in his introduction, "The music business is an absurd, salacious, unwieldy monster, and the only way to do it justice is to treat it as such. The true spirit of rock has less to do with sociology and rather more to do with excess, indulgence and the gratification of intense, wanton desires." (pg. 3). Consequently, he provides pieces which highlight these excesses far beyond the popular image of 'sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll' to include Led Zeppelin's mud shark incident, Elvis Presley's drug-addled fall from grace, Chuck Berry's coprophilia and voyeurism and various anecdotes of underage groupies and general misogyny.
The problem is that this is not music journalism; it is muck-raking tales of excess committed by musicians who are often damaged and pitiable individuals. The intent of Jones and his cherry-picked authors seems to be to appeal to our basest curiosities, to foment a base thrill in observing orgiastic excess; indeed, Jones introduces the text by highlighting the stories which "fascinate and appall" (pg. 11). There is nothing presented in this book that speaks of music; no discussion of musicianship, the evolution of an artist's sound or the impact of certain albums. "Piss stains and pathos, fellatio and firearms - they're all here," Jones proudly announces on page 14, like a circus ringleader introducing a pathetic freak-show. And it is all here - all, that is, except the music.
Jones describes the selections as "telegrams from the front line of indulgence" (pg. 9), as if rock journalists were war correspondents nobly putting their lives on the line to bring readers the truth, rather than merely almost-degenerates leeching off the fame of others to indulge in their own excesses and self-importance. Indeed, the writers come across even worse than the musicians they demythologise. Many of the writings are petty, vindictive and jealous, arguing that their chosen targets (Elvis, Bowie, Ringo and Zappa in particular get it in the neck) are actually talentless hacks (perhaps mirroring the writers themselves?) or pathetic husks of their former glorious selves (of course, it is much easier and indeed rather cowardly to launch an assault on the overweight, depressed Elvis of the mid-1970s than the slim, confident Pelvis of the late 50s). They are also rather self-involved; many of the writers seem to feel that the reader is present to listen solely to them and bask in their grandeur, rather than wishing to read about their rock idols. There is no hint of objectivity, balance or fairness whatsoever. There is also a disturbing attitude towards a number of appalling incidents. Some of the contributors write of 14- and 15-year-old groupies as if it was the most normal thing in the world, and one female journalist brushes off an attempted rape by the members of Led Zeppelin with the words "... all they did was tear my clothes. They didn't hurt me, except for my feelings." (pg. 76). Well, I guess that's all right then.
One article is particularly vindictive and borders on character assassination. Tom Hibbert interviews Ringo Starr, who is gamely trying to promote his new album (in the 1990s). Instead, Hibbert only wants to talk about the Beatles and Ringo's alcoholism, whilst sniping and browbeating the likeable drummer. He asks an increasingly frustrated Ringo if he ever felt sorry for Pete Best, the Beatles' original drummer, asks why he was always given the "goony songs" to sing like 'Octopus's Garden' and 'Yellow Submarine', and pigheadedly states that Ringo's new album couldn't possibly top the Beatles' Abbey Road (well, of course it couldn't, but only a tosser would make the comparison anyway, let alone mention it to Ringo). Having fulfilled his obvious agenda to wind up Ringo, Hibbert then states with mock-innocence that the usually-amiable and kind-hearted drummer is "close to rage and I don't know quite why." (pg. 315). When Ringo understandably decides enough is enough, Hibbert concludes by bitchily informing the reader that "What this man needs, in my estimation, is a stiff drink," (pg. 316) which is appallingly insensitive given Ringo's struggles to overcome a ruinous alcohol addiction.
Overall, whilst there are some decent articles (Michael Braun's article on the Beatles, Tom Wolfe's on Phil Spector, Nick Kent's on Sid Vicious and Richard Ben Cramer's on Jerry Lee Lewis are all stand-outs), the anthology does leave a bad taste in the mouth. It gives the impression of music journalists as a bunch of contemptible leeches who are ignorant of the fact that they only exist because of the people they ungratefully disparage. Somewhat contrary to his intentions, Dylan Jones' selections do appal, but they do not fascinate.