Once I'd decided to write a column about the Reader's 40 years of music criticism, my first move was obviously to consult our archives—I mean, I'm not even 40 years old. The paper's online archives only extend back to somewhere in 1986, and they're spotty in patches even where they do exist. This meant that music editor Philip Montoro and I had to get started by facing down the Reader's shelves upon shelves of hardbound back issues, which begin with the very first paper in October 1971.
Since we didn't know what we were looking for, we figured it'd be best to target volumes that spanned certain key periods in the past four decades of pop music: punk and disco's concurrent runs at the mainstream, the rise of hip-hop culture, the emergence of house music as a genre unto itself. If you consider the number of quality critics who've passed through our doors over the years, it shouldn't surprise you that we found a lot of writing that captured these phenomena eloquently and entertainingly as they were happening.
For instance the issue of October 31, 1986, contains what looks to be the first discussion of house music in the Reader's pages. David Jackson, writing for Hot Type (you might recognize that as the name Michael Miner's media column used for many years, but back then it was a general local-interest roundup), briefly profiles Farley Keith, who'd yet to settle on the stage name Farley "Jackmaster" Funk. He also attempts to explain, to an audience that had never heard it before, a sound that challenged the popular conception of what constituted music:
"A tune might start with a bare rhythm track—a cowbell, say, or lisping snare—just enough to hook you," he writes. "Then the 'foot' drops in: the bass drum, putting down the beat. Then sound effects are layered in—a grunting hog, a spooky organ line, a housewife screaming 'Oh my God!'—all synthesized and sequenced through a Roland TR-808 drum machine. The result is a constantly shifting mosaic of electronic funk, hard-edged and hypnotic. The music gives you little breathing room: you either have to dance or leave." The bit about the TR-808 misstates the machine's capabilities (it can't sample), and there's good reason to disbelieve Keith's claim, quoted later in the piece, that he invented the term "house music." But otherwise Jackson is on the money.
Five years prior, in the issue of September 4, 1981, Kevin Johnson tackled the similarly daunting task of describing breakdancing (he calls it "electric boogie") to readers who had probably just had their first exposure to hip-hop. In a long and fascinating profile of a group of lamé-clad proto-B boys called Venus Electronics, he writes, "It is difficult to describe what Venus's electric boogie looks like. . . . You see fluid yet disconnected head, arm, and leg movements; robotlike poses; jellylike jiggling and wobbling body parts. . . . Most of the moves have to be seen to be believed."
When Bill Wyman wrote about Guns n' Roses' Use Your Illusion I and II—on September 27, 1991, the same week Nirvana's Nevermind came out—most of his audience was already familiar with the material, which left him free to go after Axl Rose. In the brilliantly titled "Days of Rose's whining," he gives Axl and the record a beatdown. "In just a few years," he writes, "Rose has established himself as the all-time biggest complainer in rock 'n' roll." He goes on to catalogue some of Axl's high-profile bitchfests, including racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic lyrics on Illusion, but wraps up with some surprisingly kind words for the set's second volume, especially the track "Estranged." "You've finally done it, Axl—it's a better song than 'Dream On.' Now will you please shut up?"
Two weeks later, on October 11, 1991, Wyman wrote a Critic's Choice previewing Nirvana's show at the Metro. Within a few months the band's explosion in popularity would make Lose Your Illusion seem like hair metal's epic death rattle, and Axl would more or less shut up for a decade or so. "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Wyman writes, "is a potent, almost mythopoeic rendering of the modern rock 'n' roll condition." The song and the group are "shattering," "ferocious," "heavier, in their own way, than almost anything else around right now." "And you keep coming back to 'Smells Like Teen Spirit': the way it sounds like the Pixies doing Blue Oyster Cult; the way the chorus picks up steam right when you think it's going to falter; the sneer in Cobain's voice at the beginning and the utter loss of it in the end."
If Wyman's one-two there looks prescient, then John Milward's think piece on the state of punk—published on February 16, 1979, two weeks after Sid Vicious died—might be even be more so. "You never hear anybody talk about punk anymore, so I guess it's dead," he writes in "Suicides and survivors: in the wake of the New Wave," prefiguring a thousand subsequent requiems for the genre. Even though Milward's postmortem was rendered premature by punk's repeated resurrections—can we really blame him for failing to foresee the Hot Topic era?—it's so passionate and thoughtful that it ranks among my favorite archival finds. About the Sex Pistols' music he says, "It dared to define itself, to thrash out a world view with the self-righteous vengeance of a knife fight, and by that involvement it forced its audience to take a stand. You either saw the aggressive, surprisingly attractive black hole of oblivion in the Pistols' music, or you saw one troubling headache. The Pistols proved, of course, that these were the same thing."
Later in Milward's essay, when he dissected the cause of what he saw as punk's early demise, I felt a shock of recognition. It came as he summed up the theory of record executive and Pere Ubu manager Cliff Burnstein, who blamed overeager critics for ruining punk's chances to follow disco in a steep ascent from the underground to the mainstream. "[Disco] was big business," Milward writes. "By contrast, punk was almost immediately put under a microscope, allowing the media to pick over the bones before they were fully developed." Swap out the genre names from something more au courant—chillwave, witch house, swag rap—and that's a sentiment you could find almost word for word in a review next week.