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From The Beatles to David Bowie: The worst takes in music history

If you are a young musician seeking reassurance following a bad review, then you have come to the right place. While the world of reviewing might not be as arbitrary or multifaceted as some people might say, it is still possible to get it wildly wrong sometimes.

Whether it’s Richard Ashcroft quipping: “I have never had a bad review off a good-looking person”, or Barbara Streisand who said, “I wish could be like Shaw who once read a bad review of one of his plays, called the critic and said: ‘I have your review in front of me and soon it will be behind me’,” artists have often thrown out the float for fellow creators, but that doesn’t stop the nettle from stinging. 

Thus, on the day that Robbie Williams was declared the greatest live performer of all time, we have, by pure coincidence, decided to collect musical takes so wide of the mark that the suspects in question ought to offer themselves for a frontal lobotomy so that their brains can be checked from misdemeanours against good taste.

Ten of the worse music takes in history:

David Bowie

When it comes to David Bowie, words such as spaceman, alien, androgynous, hero, legend, demigod, herculean lord of art and culture, are all synonymous — bar the last few where I perhaps got carried away. This makes it truly, almost mind achingly inexplicable, that a BBC Talent Scout – someone who was actually paid to assess talent no less – back in 1965 hosted an audition for a little-known local London act called David Bowie and the Lower Third and remarked, “The singer is devoid of any personality.” 

The letter goes on to state, “I don’t think the group will get better with more rehearsal,” and “No entertainment in anything they do, an inoffensive pleasant nothing,” before concluding that they were “unrecommendable”.

It is one thing to say that group perhaps aren’t ready for the BBC yet or to say that they need time to mature and develop, but to have a sui generis creative force embodied by a striking young man with two different coloured eyes strut into your studio and dub them with a figurative zero stars is beyond berserk: it’s almost a criminal act and those involved should’ve been trialled for trying to rob the world.

Daft Punk’s Discovery

Robert Christgau forged out such a name for himself as a music critic that if you Google an album of note and check its Wikipedia entry, you will almost certainly find his name there somewhere. However, notoriety does not always equal safe hands and when it comes to Daft Punk’s Discovery, the album that made disco cool again and for better or for worse had a huge hand in shaping the current musical landscape, he proved that point ineffably.

“These guys are so French I want to force-feed them and cut out their livers,” he wrote, almost xenophobically. “Young moderns who’ve made the Detroit-Berlin adjustment may find their squelchy synth sounds humanistic; young moderns whose asses sport parallel ports may dance till they crash. But Yank fun is much less spirituel [sic], so that God bless America, ‘One More Time’ is merely an annoying novelty stateside. The way our butts plug in, there are better beats on the damn Jadakiss CD.”

All this from the man with the golden moniker of the ‘Dean of American Rock Critics’, and not one single unironic reported usage outside of his own publication. 

Elvis Presley

The New York Times is not far from the dictionary definition of a reputable source, but in the depths of their archives are a few misfires so wide of the mark that they make you question reality and scour around the web to see whether there was another Mr. Presley on the go during the era.

Like him or loath him, you have to acknowledge that Elvis was, at the very least, a commendable singer. However, in 1956, The NYT took a swing at not only Elvis, but the rock ‘n’ roll movement in general, stating: “Mr Presley has no discernible singing ability. His specialty is rhythm songs which he renders in an undistinguished whine; his phrasing, if it can be called that, consists of the stereotyped variations that go with a beginner’s aria in a bathroom. For the ear, he is an unutterable bore.”

Kate Bush

1978 was a year still experiencing the tailwind of punk, which made Kate Bush stand out like an erroneous sausage amid the beans and to critics, this was viewed more like a fly in the ointment than a benevolent gift to the music scene. 

The young starlet was bashed from pillar to post by every hack in town, with The Guardian saying she had an “odd combo of artiness and artlessness,” and dismissed her as a “middlebrow soft option.” And NME followed up the barrage with the following: “[Kate Bush] all the unpleasant aspects of David Bowie in the Mainman era…. [Bowie manager] Tony DeFries would’ve loved you seven years ago, Kate, and seven years ago maybe I would’ve too. But these days I’m past the stage of admiring people desperate to dazzle and bemuse, and I wish you were past the stage of trying those tricks yourself.”

The Beatles’ Abbey Road

Abbey Road is perhaps the most iconic album of all time, so much so that even the Zebra crossing in the album artwork has taken up more column inches than many an album could wish for. In short, it seems in retrospect to be the culmination of an era. 

Some critics, however, had edged themselves a little too far ahead of the curve and jumped the gun on calling quits on the sixties. “The great drawback is the words,” Nick Cohn of The New York Times wrote. “There was a time when the Beatles’ lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On Abbey Road, you get only marshmallow.”

Then, Cohn goes in for the kill: “That’s all changed now. On Abbey Road, the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art.” 

Not forgetting the final blow, of course: “Still, I shouldn’t grouse. Lyrics and all, the Abbey Road medley remains a triumph. Having said that I must also say that the rest of this album is an unmitigated disaster.”

Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Leonard Cohen

If you want to pick fault with Leonard Cohen, then there are very few things you can target. If it wasn’t your thing, for you lacked a soul, then you could perhaps have a go at the vocals, but his songs as an entity are impregnable to criticism. This is particularly true on the Songs of Leonard Cohen, an album which many of his contemporaries had envious heralded as a masterpiece. 

But not Arthur Schmidt of the Rolling Stone, who wrote: “The record as a whole is another matter – I don’t think I could ever tolerate all of it. There are three brilliant songs, one good one, three qualified bummers, and three are the flaming shits.”

Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water

I shall quote but one line from Gregg Mitchell’s Rolling Stone review of Bridge Over Troubled Water, a much-loved global sensation that still features in top 100 album sales every year – “…nearly all of [the] songs [are] hopelessly mediocre.”

It is difficult to add anything to that. It is a take that seems simply inexplicable as though there was an admin mix up in the office that day and he was erroneously handed a copy Now 42! from a time machine. Fortunately for the funny little duo’s sake, many of those songs have transcended mediocrity and established themselves amid the all-time greats.

Sex Pistols’ ‘Pretty Vacant’

In fairness to Charley Walters at Rolling Stone, punk caught a lot of people off guard. It snarled up from the sewers and plonked itself in the centre of the music scene. And like a blob of dark matter that slinks up from the gutter onto a physicists desk only to be swept straight into the bin to allow the physicist to continue studying, Walters completely missed the point of the movement that was bubbling under his nose. 

“The music is overly simplistic and rudimentary,” he correctly wrote in the same way a spade review might say that it is only good for digging. Before adding for good measure, “It’s also not very good.” Certainly, ‘Pretty Vacant’ is not for everyone, however, the unique thing about this review is that it unironically defines the point of punk with the criticism that it bestows.

The many bad takes of Joe Meek

Robert George ‘Joe’ Meek was an English record producer, musician, sound engineer and songwriter, he pioneered the space-age sound distinct and prevalent amidst early pop culture, and he near enough invented experimental pop music.

In his troubled life, he also struggled to spot the talent that was often performing in his own front room. His journey into the world of sound became so insular and personal that even The Beatles couldn’t make an impression on him. When Brian Epstein asked for his opinion on the young lads from Liverpool, he told him not to bother signing them and, similarly, gave advice on another occasion to sign a band only on the condition that they drop their lead singer, who turned out to be a 16-year-old Rod Stewart.

Amongst his tea chest of unpublished demo’s following the murder-suicide of himself and his landlady, were discarded works with David Bowie, Richie Blackmore and around 1,850 more. 

Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew

It is also worth noting that some critics ardently stick by their against the grain reviews, which is more than fine, after all, we all don’t have to have the same opinion. There is no finer example of gun-sticking than the acerbic jazz critic Stanley Crouch, whose passionate views on music once caused him to actually through someone out of a window of the Village Voice HQ, for which he was understandably fired. 

Whilst many jazz critics panned Miles Davis’ pioneering venture into jazz-rock, most softened to it over the years. Crouch, on the other hand, said in 1991 that was “formless” and described it as “the most brilliant sellout in the history of jazz”.

And Lastly: An honourable mention to our very own Tyler Golsen who recently mindlessly discredited Billy Joel’s masterful ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire‘, all in all, mistakes are easily made.

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