cs: Maybe if we start with the economical side of it, what do you see as
the major changes in the music
industry, say in the last ten years?
Lester: No money. Itís the major changes in the other industries, itís
the change in the economy- itís obviously got
to effect our whole culture. I mean if you think about one way of looking
at it is to say only an economy as in
much of a boom stage as it was in the 60ís could have supported something
like Velvet Underground or Iggy and
The Stooges you know only an economy in that state and that kinda of eruption,
cause those are obviously
marginal items you know, they werenít really promoted, they didnít sell,
you know and then later, ten years later,
then thereís these big cults they influenced all around the world I mean,
those groups wouldnít get signed today
and say something like South Side Johnny, I know they had an LP on, I guess
it was Epic, it sold one hundred
thousand copies and they were dropped, cause thatís not considered good
enough. I mean Iggy and The Stooges
first couple of albums I think sold twenty five thousand between the two
of them you know and so to talk in terms of
an underground I mean you have to go really to the independent labels and
things like that. Cause the big labels,
the majors, unless they think itís just going to be huge they donít want
to know from it. Then on the other hand it
seem like itís inevitable also that sales will drop off from a lot of these
sorta ĎBoston, Kansas, Foreignerí type
groups you know, say like ĎBlack Sabbath, Uriah Heapí for instance were
selling about 100,000 copies less with
each album through the 70ís. And thereís always that uncertainly factor
but when thereís not that much money to
go around. At CBS they let at least one person in each department
go recently. Like last year when there was the
big shake up and they fired just an enormous number of people. I know one
man at RCA who was very high up on
the West Coast in RCA and he was like 55 years old and he had been at RCA
for over 15 years, and all of a
sudden theyíre cleaning house and ĎOut he went!í. I mean this is a man
who has family, children heís sending to
college and all that, where is he going to get a job? I mean go to Casablanca?
Ha ha thatís a joke too.
cs: So you donít think the music industry recession was a myth?
Lester: No I donít think it was a myth at all, anymore than what the recession
that the whole country was
experiencing was a myth, which obviously seems like itís going to get worse
and worse. I mean the interesting
thing I think would be if something happened like, what happened in England
where all these kids that all of a
sudden canít afford the ticket prices. Which had become totally outrageous,
to go see groups like Yes and
Emerson, Lake and Palmer Lester tells himself theyíre on the way
down anyway. But, like The New Barbarians
charge $12. 50 a ticket for a show that Ron Wood came out and had a music
stand in front of him while he was
playing. Thatís how under rehearsed they were. When kids canít afford to
see it anymore maybe weíll have a
whole resurgence of garage bands all over America and this New Wave thing
will start to mean something on a
grass roots level.
cs: You donít see it as meaning very much at the moment?
Lester: No, I see it as meaning very little at the moment because none
of the groups are about anything. If you
think about it really the original groups that came out of CBGBís around
1975/6, Television, Richard Hell and the
Voidoids, The Ramones, Talking Heads, they meant something. They had something
to say, they all had
something unique to say and a unique way of saying it. And the original
groups in England The Sex Pistols and
The Clash and that and really I donít see hardly anything happening now.
I mean a group that call themselves
ĎRobin Lane and the Chartbusters? I donít care how good their music is
why donít they call themselves ĎWe Want
Moneyí. Their just saying we want to sell records we want to be rock stars.
I mean, where is this so different to
anything that happened before. So the songs are short they donít have 90
min guitar solos, so what? All I see is a
lot of groups that are recycling a lot of 60ís stuff that has been recycled
once too often anyway.
cs: What do you see as being what those early American New Wave artists
Lester: Well each of them had a different thing to say that was something
of their own. I mean Richard Hell was
very defeatist sorta Nihilism. Talking Heads, were a sorta collegian kinda
art school, Iím trying not to make them
sound so bad cause I really love em. The Ramones were sort of playing with
the concept of being dumb but not
dumb, and being all American but yet alien mutant, you know feeling different,
an outsider and yet yearning for
that all Americancars, girls surfing and all that when you couldnít even
drive. Television like Richard Hell was into
all that French symbolism poetry sorta stuff. And so each of them, there
were other groups of course like Patti
Smith. The thing is that, they all had real strong personalities and real
distinct identities, and I donít find most of
the groups that are coming out now really do. Like they all sorta
like blend together, you know both in the sound
of the music, and the strongest personality you could probably come up
with would be somebody like Chrissie
Hynde from The Pretenders and the other guys in the group donít have any
personality she's the only one that has
any personality. And really if you look at her as a friend said the other
day ďWell itís just another girl with kohl
around her eyes and the black hair and a black leather jacket . . . Ē you
know and on and on it goes. I wish that
there was more going on right now, but I think as it stands, itís a kinda
of a set up because, I mean up until of
December of last year (1979) everybody was sorta saying ď Well, New Wave
is dead and Disco is inĒ. Newsweek
magazine a little less then a year ago ran a cover article that was titled
Ď Disco takes Over!í and now all of a
sudden Discoís dead right, and New Wave is whatís happening. I canít buy
that the change can come by that
quickly. Well people say ďWell the B-52ís sold recordsí All right so the
B-52ís sold records, thatís one group! you
know they say ďWell The Clash may now be played on the radioĒ, The Clash
had an LP out a year before that
could have been played on the radio! I mean ĎStay Freeí is as pop as anything
on this new album they could have
played that. And the fact is they didnít! The fact is it looks too much
like a set up to me that, exactly as weíre gong
into a new decade, Iíd just like to know who decides these things?
I really would because I donít who it is but
obviously somebody, somewhere has decided all of a sudden the word comes
down, ĎDisco out-New Wave is coolí.
New wave no longer means Sid Vicious and needles and safety pins through
your face itís the really the latest Hep
thing. And every magazine is filled with it and everything everywhere is
full of it. And I just canít buy it that this is
an organic grass roots populous thing on part of the people. Itís too much
of a overnight about face. Especially
since as I said before, most of the groups that are being marketed in this,
and believe me they really are being
marketed and packaged and moulded and shaped and all that stuff that New
Wave was supposed to be against,
donít particularly have anything challenging or even individual to say.
cs: Do you see the original CBGBís New Wave acts had much in common with
the British thing that was
happening at that time?
Lester: Yeah!, very much so, I think the original idea was that, you can
start from ground zero and reinvent yourself
and thereby society (mumbles something about Anarchy etc. )And doing so
you can recreate yourself and you can
also come up with something that is not only original and creative and
artistic, but also maybe even decent, or
moral if I can use words like that, or something thatís like basically
cs: Do you think Richard Hell was interested in that?
Lester: Iíd like to think so, I think that he only carried it half way.
That a certain point you have to ask ďIs life worth
living? / Whatís the point of all this? / why are we even here?
Ē and so you write a song with a title like ĎWho Sez
Itís Good to be Alive? í. The poor trouble is that, he didnít carry it
through after that. You know, it just stopped, so
no itís not, lets go die. But unfortunately for him he didnít end up like
Sid so he canít be a legend now. So he has
to go do what ever heís going to do. The great thing about The Clash
of course is that they keep searching for
answers beyond that. And thatís aside from the pure musical values to the
stuff interested me in the first place is
that I guess you could call it existential. Here we are in the 70ís when
everything really is horrible and it really
stinks. The mass media, everything on television everything everywhere
is just rotten. You know itís just really
boring and really evil, ugly and worse. And that this was a challenge to
all this. Where as now itís much more like
appeasement, you know, and so everything it seems like has turned out to
be exactly the opposite of what it
originally set out to be. Which is only sorta what happened also to the
Beatniks and the Hippies before that, so itís
kinda predictable I guess.
cs: Do you see it as being sort of continuous with the changes in popular
Lester: I donít see that there are any particular changes in popular music.
I mean, just because itís The Pretenders
instead of Foreigner, I mean is this a vast change? What is so vastly original
and new and different about The
Pretenders? You know, she sounds like Sandie Shaw circa 1964, the
band sounds like a million bands, so what.
Even The Clash for that matter, I mean the stuff on the ĎLondon Callingí
album itís like theyíre trying to go back to
their roots and theyíre really like trying to. And thatís good, itís good
that theyíre listening to all these old blues
singers this and that and the other thing and absorbing all this stuff.
But itís really, theyíre not creating anything
really radically new. I think the first album was much more radical, and
I speaking purely in music sense then
ĎLondon Callingí. I mean the only group that I can think thatís doing anything
radically different is P. I. L.
cs: I supposed what I meant was rather then being continuous with any major
single change, like in a series
of cycles of changes
Lester: OH!, yeah, I see what you mean, yes I do believe there are cyclical
changes and itís funny because people
last year were saying ďRock is deadĒ and all that. Nothing ever quite dies,
it just comes back in a different form. I
know that in the late 60ís people were saying ďJazz is deadĒ that rock
had completely wiped out Jazz O. K. ,
meanwhile now here we are like 15 years later Stanley Clark and all these
people are selling tons of records. I
hate Stanley Clark, but I have to admit heís playing Jazz whether I like
it or not. Or like in the early 70ís when we
had the reaction against acid rock and all the fuzz tone, and feedback,
and the noise. And you had James Taylor
and everyone went acoustic and that. Things do go in cycles so I
never believe rock was really dead it was really
finished or had it, it just comes back in a different form. But as far
as this stuff being really new, really different
thatís something else again. Even the Sex Pistols were playing old Chuck
cs: Can you see any sort of threads in the changes that have taken place
since the late 60ís, can you see any
consistency in whatís happened to rock music over the decade?
Lester: Yeah!, a pervasive sense of defeat Iíd had to say, when you think
the albums that were sort of most
characteristic of the 70ís mood you think of something like ĎYoung Americansí
by Bowie, ĎThereís a Riot Going Oní
by Sly and the Family Stone, ĎTonightís the Nightí by Neil Young, ĎTake
Your Pickí by Lou Reed. Most of them are
pretty down records, pretty unhappy, pretty confused. Which only reflects
how people in general were feeling, I
mean really the sense that you get is society running down. Specifically
in terms of popular music I know like,
when I walk around and go into stores, deliís, or this little yoghurt place
across the street these days. Like last year,
like last three years, everywhere all you ever heard was disco everywhere
was Donna Summer and that THUMP
THUMP THUMP THUMP.Now I go in there and all I hear is rock oldies, (well
if you can even call it rock)
when I was in the deli yesterday was ĎYou Got a Friendí by James Taylor,
and when I went to the yoghurt store
there was this song playing I kept saying ďIs this America, who is this?
Ē and it was ĎYear of the Catí, you know or
things like Grease, thereís a huge nostalgia culture that has been built
up because, very little that anyone is
coming up with is genially new. And Iím sorry I just really have to question
a lot of these New Wave people that
say what theyíre doing is so radically new and so different. Cause I really
donít see it. Something like a lot of these
synthesiser groups the whole Gary ĎNumanoidí sort of movement, like Kraftwerk
did it a lot better half a decade
cs: What was your view of the musicians and people who felt that the music
that was being made in the late
60ís was part of an alternative culture and political movement?
Lester: mmmm, dubious at best because, see I always felt that the Ďso calledí
counter culture would be absorbed
into the mainstream American capitalist, I mean it never really ventured
that far outside of it certainly not in the
music business. I mean Jefferson Airplane were working totally from a capitalist
point of view, I know that say in
the case of the MC5 and the White Panther party that Rob Tyner used to
sing in the MC5 (heís a friend of mine)
and he told me about all the money that the band brought in, that was ripped
off from them. So as far I could
ever see thatís all it ever amounted to was that people you didnít know
could be making long distance phone calls
on money that you made, by playing gigs. As far as a truly radical conscience,
you have to take it as part of a
larger thing, that it was sort of historical inevitability that with the
coming of a leaguer society people would start
to use drugs a lot more then they had before. So you canít say ďoh, the
revolutionary act of smoking marijuanaĒ
because everybody else, secretaries, the bossí everybody smokes dope now,
it doesnít mean anything. In fact I
think now weíve reached a point now, where the powers that be really have
sort of vested interest in all of us being
stoned out as much as possible all the time so we donít know whatís going
on, and we donít care.
cs: Well there was more to the 60ís then smoking dope. . . .
cs: There was the anti-war movement for instance, there was a sense that
the music that was coming out at
that time was part of the political movement. And was sort of paralleling
it, were you aware of it at the time?
Lester: Except that, I thought that it was a marriage of convenience at
best, I never thought that when The Rolling
Stones recorded ĎStreet Fighting Maní. It like when Jerry Rubin who said
ďThe Rolling Stones were a model of the
revolutionĒ, well as we all have seen since The Rolling Stones were some
of the biggest pigs that ever lived.
Taken by strictly in terms of the revolutionary principle of ĎHow they
conduct their livesí (if the revolutionaries
agree on those principles in the first place). I think thatís whatís happening
now with somebody like The Clash, itís
a lot more sensible and realistic. I mean, they donít align themselves
(even though they are on the left) with any
particular movement, they donít want to get co-opted. I find it really
refreshing to read interviews with The Clash /
Joe Strummer or somebody like John Lydon, as opposed to the interviews
you used to see in Rolling Stone, with
people like David Crosby where itís all like ďWell like dig it man! Nix
is trying to lay this heavy trip on our heads. . Ē.
They donít talk like that they talk straight to you, they say what they
mean, make sense, itís not particularly
pretentious, well, sometimes. I think thatís really refreshing, and Iíd
tend to trust them a lot more than who ever so
called radical leaders in the international pop star community that developed
out of the 60ís, I mean Graham
cs: So you donít see the connection between music and politics much more
then good marketing?
Lester: Basically no, I mean I think that itís very easy to like I say,
smoke a joint or even to wear a Chairman Mao
button, or do a lot of these things with out knowing whatís behind it,
and what it really means. Itís much easier to
wear a Chairman Mao button and shake your fists in the air and all that,
then to actually read the Communist
manifesto and things like that and actually become involved in politics.
I mean itís easier to be in a demonstration
if itís a trip thatís one of the reasons why the whole thing fell apart
in 1971, because it wasnít a trip any longer. It
got really ugly, it really became hard work and it was left to those who
were truly dedicated to carry it through. And
apparently most werenít because it died very shortly after.
cs: Thereís a sort of argument of Greil Marcus in his book Mystery Train'
that uses as an example the notion
that there is something inherently rebellious about rockíníroll music.
Do you subscribe to that view?
Lester: Iím really schizophrenic about that, because on the one hand I
would say, yes there is, thereís something
inherently, even violent about it, itís wild and raw and all this.
On the other hand, the fact is that ĎSugar Sugarí is
great RockíníRoll, and thereís nothing rebellious about that at all. I
mean thatís right from the belly and heart of
capitalism. Or that the Byrds on their first album they didnít except for
McGuinn, they didnít even play on it, it was
done by LA session men. Itís kinda hard to believe in a rebellion formatted
by a bunch of session men? I would
like to believe that RockíníRoll was inherently that way. And I think
that most of the stuff that is being palmed off
as rock these days is so obviously way off in the other extreme. Thatís
one reason why itís pretty worthless, I canít
totally buy it, if you think about it, itís things like the Phil Spector
records. On one level they were rebellion, on
another level they were keeping the teenager in his place. Itís an adjunct
of consumerism, and itís certainly an
adjunct of sexism. RockíníRoll has never done very much as far as.
ĎWomenís Liberationí, so as far as itís potential
as a radicalising / agent in society I really wonder. I have to see it
much more as fundamentally capitalism, I
certainly donít see any RockíníRoll coming out of Vietnam or China or Russia.
In fact it would be interesting now
that the Stones supposedly are going to play China, what if they went over
there and bombed? What if nobody
liked them, itís perfectly possible that could happen. I felt that
was interesting was when I saw The Clash in
England. In some ways there is almost parable with like when I saw Slade
over there in 1972. I mean with Slade it
was like ď OK! Lets all do these football cheers and Yeah Yeah! . . .
(mumbles) you know. . The fact that The Sex
Pistols really did manage to scare that country as badly as they did I
think is wonderful. But, in the end they
proved to be a paper tiger didnít they.
cs: Do you see RockíníRoll as being part of a much larger tradition of
American popular music as being the
popular music of the present day?
Lester: Oh yeah of course, RockíníRoll comes out of a tradition of black
American music, the blues and soul music.
I mean in a way as much as I disliked most disco, one thing I do find distressing
in the new wave scene is the
racism that just absolutely refuses to recognise any black music besides
(ha ha) Reggae, you know cause thatís hip.
I mean Iíve had parties in this very apartment where Iíve put on an Otis
Redding or Aretha Franklin record cut in
1967, and the people from the CBGB scene would say ďOh Lester! why are
you playing that nigger disco stuff for?
Why donít you just get it off. ĒTheyíre just totally ignorant, donít wanna
be any other way and really are not open
to other forms of music. Of course RockíníRoll is part of a whole tradition
of American music that goes back. Really
what I think it is the tradition of miscegenation. Itís that tradition
of black and white, getting together to create this
thing that reached itís ultimate fruition with beginning with Elvis. Well
it carried on when Mick Jagger came out
and sang all these Muddy Waters blues songs. And I guess it even carries
on today when The Clash do ĎPolice and
Thievesí a Reggae song originally done by Junior Marvin I think? And itís
a conditional tradition of miscegenation
of black and white music coming together to form something new. . That
is really vital and healthy and I think
when that element goes out of it. When it just becomes all white,
then it loses something for me. I mean I really
think that, cause itís funny cause it doesnít work the other round. Music
can be all black, and I still enjoy listening
to it but when itís all white if thereís none of the blues influence I
think it really loses something it loses the thing
that fused it, that made it vital in the first place.
cs: How much do you think that the highly organised and integrated capitalist
structure of the industry affects
the music thatís made ?
Lester: Well, I think that itís not so much the capitalist industry itís
more that down to things like demographics.
These polls are taken, and thereís various scientific methods that have
been determined about what is the lowest
common denominator, what will get the most number of people to tune into
the radio. You know, what is the least
offensive or least threatening image for something to have and therefore
what is the most marketable. And so you
end up with everything turned into a formula which is what we have been
experiencing everywhere. Essentially
what it boils down to is that all the music industry as well as the magazine
industry and the book industry as itís
starting to be now. Everything everywhere the radio certainly is become
like network TV. Itís just the lowest level of
that is bland enough to appeal to the largest, widest number of people.
And I think also that the public shares
complicity in this because people, they feel very threatened now and very
frightened, they want something thatís
not every challenging. Really what they want I think is blank screen, a
nonentity that they can project what ever
when they want onto which is what our big stars now are. Theyíre nonentity
like a Travolta, Blonde or really most
of the bigger stars now really have no personality, and especially thatís
certainly everyone on TV, and I think thatís
what people want. So in that sense you could even say the industry is catering
to the needs of the public rather
then dictating to them.
cs: Do you think that the search for the lowest common denominator and
mass sales being maximised as
much as possible, is it an inedible sort of a function of an industry that
has been growing over the past 20
Lester: I donít know, I mean it would be nice to think that an industry
that has been growing that much for that
long, could have grown to support more marginal types of acts like say
ĎThe Persuasionsí an a Capella group from
Brooklyn who sell 2000 copies. Thereís been so many groups their whole
careers amounted to nothing more then
a tax write off for CBS or Warner Bros or what ever. I still donít understand
why something like the Persuasions
couldnít be treated in that light and supported. Or there could be some
mini socialism so that things that donít sell
that much, if the industry is that huge there could be a niche for them.
But it seems that itís all going in the other
cs: Do you think thatís got to do with the process whereby the bigger companies
have absorbed more and
more of the smaller companies?
Lester: Yeah I do because I know that when WEA had all merged, Warner Bros,
Atlantic and Elektra / Asylumall
merged. The Atlantic catalogue was a tremendously vital catalogue of blues
and R&B and Jazz that went back all
the way into the late 40ís, certainly albums had been released since the
50ís. And there was this huge catalogue
of stuff like Charlie Mingus, Ray Charles and John Coltrane, there a whole
lot of stuff that just went out of the
catalogue immediately when they merged like that. I guess itís so effective
the bigger it gets the less attention
there will be to these kinda of details. I know thereís a lot of stuff
in the Columbia catalogue that when John
Hammond dies will disappear, like traditional American music. That has
like an enormous amount of value
whether itís a Robert Johnson album if Robert Johnson albums are even still
listed,Iím sure he must be cause heís
kept all these (titles) like the Gospel sound, the story of the blues,
all these kinds of things that are tremendously
valuable to anybody who really wants to get into American Music and where
it all comes from and the roots of all
this stuff, essentially I think what itís coming too is more and more of
the whole concept of just disposable. You
know that something is popular for a little while and then you just chuck
it, and you just keep churning out more
and more, and the public will keep buying it. And then on the other hand
you have the nostalgia thing but that
kind of narrows down too. Because, what it narrows down to is actually
a reprocessed repackaged version of the
cs: Like Somebodyís Greatest Hits?
Lester: Well like say Grease as a classic example or Happy Days or Sha
Na Na and people find that more
acceptable then the originals which might be a little too raw or this or
cs: How much do you think that the composition of the audience has changed
that attention to demographics
and so on have revealed something I supposed?
Lester: Well, one thing that it did reveal is that the audience is getting
older and thatís one reason why the music
has been getting softer. I guess with ZPG and this had been pointed out
as long as two years ago. That the baby
boom was one thing and then it sort of stopped and itís getting less and
less all the time. I know a lot of people my
age Iím 31 still not married and donít have any kids, it looks like I may
never have any kids. And, if as seems to be
the trend, the population gets older and older, I guess more and more people
and I include myself in this totally,
are going to be old people in old houses puttering around with old things,
Iím talking you know in 20 - 30 years
from now. I can actually see myself 20 years from now puttering around
with my beat up old copies of Velvet
Underground and Iggy and the Stooges records I mean itís pathetic admittedly,
I mean everybodyís going to be
doing it so you might as well admit it. And it will be the same with the
Sex Pistols, just hopefully the only
alternative hopefully is somebody actually does come up with something
new. Some kind of rebellion that isnít as
defeatist in itís essence as the punk thing turned out to be, and that
can carry on through. And also some kind of
new sense to the music, I canít predict what it will be. I mean I have
my own ideas, of things Iíd like to hear but
that would be something truly different, something truly new.
cs: Do you see RockíníRoll as being young peoples music?
Lester: I donít know, I mean everybody seems to think so Iíve always wondered
about that because. For instance
The Velvet Underground, I keep harping on them cause theyíre about my favourite
group ever. I mean those are
really adult songs, about adult things and I think thatís really great.
cs: Can you just expand on that?
Lester: Sure, a song like ĎPale Blue Eyesí is a song about adultery, itís
about somebody, it doesnít say what sex or
any of that but itís about somebody having an affair with someone elseís
wife or husband. Which is not quite the
same as wanting to take your girlfriend parking, and seeing how far you
can go. And there have been a few other
things in rock n roll that has been as adult, some of Van Morrisonís work
and. I donít know, on one hand. . . . . see I
guess one thing I donít buy is that in your life thereĎs this one adolescence
surge of rebellion and then everybody
calcifies and drops dead, I just never believed that. I know that speaking
in terms of my own life that as Iíve grown
older Iíve actually felt better, more in touch with myself and the world,
and less confused.
cs: How much do you think that it was the adolescence of the baby boom
that had to do with what was
happening in the late 60ís?
Lester: Well a huge amount, because it was like a youth culture it totally
was. Well everything was centred around
this to the extent that we become so narcissistic that we thought that
the universe and the world was really like that
and the fact is it wasnít. The reason why everything was centred around
us was because we had a huge amount of
economic clout. Now a friend of mine had an interesting theory back in
1972 which Iíve never been quite able to
refute. She said ďthe only reason RockíníRoll came into being in the first
place was because of the creation of this
new economicsĒ. It was purely a function of capitalism in an economic market
that all of a sudden there was this
thing called ĎThe Teenagerí. Never before in history did anybody have such
a concept of ĎThe Teenagerí all of a
sudden thereís this concept thatís was created, so you got all these people
with all this money. They have to call
them something, they call them this and so ďOh lets see, theyíve got money
in their pockets, what can we come up
with that can appeal to themí. Admittedly thatís a pretty cynical viewpoint,
but Iím sure thereís some truth in it, and
cs: It doesnít have to be a conspiracy sort of theory. .
cs: All you need to do is see something selling, recognise thereís an untapped
market and go for it. It still
has some integrity, it can still come from ground up or something.
Lester: Yeah, thatís interesting because I was just looking at this old
Fabian album the other day and itís really
hilarious the liner notes on it. Itís written by his producers and his
managers and itís just stuff like ďHe is a nice, well
behaved boy, heís never gonna make any trouble for anybodyĒ . . .
and I mean itís like the kind of thing I showed
a friend of mine that was in Richard Hell and the Voidoids Robert Cline.
And I said ďLook at this, imagine if this
was on the back of your album? Ē . You know, Bing Crosby saying ďThis boy
is a credit to AmericaĒ you know.
. . .
cs: How much relevance do you think RockíníRoll can have to an ageing population?
Lester: Well, Itís like a friend of mine said when I asked him ď Do you
think The Rolling Stones should break up
now that theyíve put out ĎSome Girlsí and quit while theyíre ahead or should
they keep going? Ē. And he said ďOh
no, absolutely, they should keep going until theyíre totally senile, and
a little bit more creepy and pathetic and
creaky each time playing the same old Chuck Berry riffs until theyíre 60
years oldĒ. And I agree thatís exactly what
they should do, and I think RockíníRoll as it goes along gets more creaky.
The whole culture will get more creaky
and why not. I mean Iíd rather listen to the Stones than Tony Bennett or
something like that. I guess what youíre
asking is if the youth is a minority, and then RockíníRoll as being. .
. . . well. . . Lets look at it this way, lets
compare it to say Jazz or to Blues, music where some of the greatest work
was done. When the artist Charlie Parker
or Mingus or who ever, who were in their 30ís and 40ís. I mean I thinks
itís a total myth that only someone who is
an adolescence can create good RockíníRoll. Patti Smith didnít start till
she was in her 30ís and sheís created some
excellent RockíníRoll, some of it even great. Lenny Hayes is in his 30ís,
in fact to tell the truth this whole punk rock
thing, half of the people in it are in their 30ís. When you get right down
to it, nobody admits their age, very few of
them are 21 years old I guarantee you. I mean the people that make it are
like Bob Seger, Ted Nugent what ever
you may think of them, theyíve been slogging around for 10 years. Most
of the people that make it have been
slogging around for ten years. Debbie Harry, that whole group, itís just
simple arithmetic that these people could
not be teenagers if theyíve been trying for that long. It usually takes
about that long in fact or it quite often does.
So it stands to reason that you know itís not this myth that this person
drops out of high school and grabs a guitar
and the next week is the biggest thing in the country, I mean yes this
happens, but in general itís not that way at
cs: Thatís a change isnít it, from say ten years ago?
Lester: Um. Yeah, I guess it is, like going back to Fabian and people like
that. Also those were artists that were
picked up, and I mean they were just a kid on the street corner they were
just picked and totally moulded and
shaped and groomed and sculpted and told what to do and everything. I mean
there are exceptions I mean I
guess The Clash they are as young as they report to be. Um, but, yeah itís
a change Iím just wondering why and
how itís a change. Well no, I mean even The Stones, when they came out
Charlie and Bill had both been playing
around in Jazz and Skiffle and R&B groups for a long time.
cs: Do you think that the organization of the industry in terms of the
control the people have of their careers
Lester: Well actually thatís interesting because to a large extent the
people that are coming up now donít have
control of their careers. I mean what make The Clash or even more radically
PIL, a departure is that they
absolutely demand control of what comes out about them, of like the advertising
and everything from the word go.
Most of the groups that are coming out of New Wave, the Ďso calledí New
Wave groups are very obviously as I said
before, packaged and slicked up and etc etc. . . You know a group like
Cheap Trick say is totally the product of
packaging, theyíre like Kiss on another level really, itís just a cartoon.
Hopefully what can happen to change that
will be the effects of people like The Clash and PIL that will resist that
and say Ď No, this is me, take it or leave ití.
And one would hope to see more groups like that instead we seem to be seeing
a million clones of Cheap Trick
and now all these Elvis Costellos all over the map, itís really funny,
or a million Bob Dylans. . . . . What can you
cs: What do you think about the incredible increase in the last 10 years
in the involvement of Lawyers and
Accountants, an elaboration in that side of the industry?
Lester: Well thatís inevitable when it gets that big isnít it, you know.
I mean, if I was as big as the Rolling Stones Iíd
want to have Allen Klein handling my business for me. Because he might
be a shark but, so is everybody else.
Basically what Iíve observed over the years in terms of managers of rock
bands is that it seems like your caught that
either your manager is shark in which case, heís gonna rip you off probably
as much as everyone else. Or, heís a
fan which in case heís going to be inept and your not going to end up with
any money either way. So itís sorta
Ďdamned if you do, and damned if you donítí.
cs: What do you think have been the effects of the vertical integration
of the industry as the record
companies have begun to control marketing, distribution, retailing and
often concert promotion as well? Do
you see that as having brought any changes?
Lester: Well, I think the record companies in getting so big they really
are out of touch with anything thatís
happening or could be happening. I know that somebody at CBS told me about
a year ago that everybody at
there thinks Elvis Costello was a real far out of avant garde artists.
The perception now is that everyone wants to
be a star, everyone wants to make it, and everybody is willing to play
ball to do so to get there. And if that means
compromising to absolutely anything or everything about themselves, whether
itís putting on bat wings and black
and white make-up, or this or that with the songs, theyíll do it. As long
as the artist or the bands take that kind of
position of appeasement, which is obvious that most of them are, all you
have to do is look at any random bunch
of product that comes out. Then really I just think thatís itís really
good thatís thereís all these little independent
labels, not that a lot of the stuff on it isnít garbage as too, well most
of everything everywhere is garbage. But at
least anything alternative or anything different has a chance of getting
through and occasionally does in the
cs: How important do you think the star system is in RockíníRoll?
Lester: Well I hate RockíníRoll stars, I have for a long time, I really
have been against it. I really think the star
system was good in the 60ís I guess. You know, with The Beatles, The Rolling
Stones and that, and even then it
was probably pretty sick. But really the end of the star system of RockíníRoll
I think you could see from about the
late 60ís & early 70ís. When you then have people who didnít
have personality that were set up like stars like say
Joe Cocker or Eric Clapton, Cream and that, or Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin.
I mean, these arenít tremendously
strong personalities like John Lennon or Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. They
just arenít. And since then itís just been
getting worse and worse, I mean for every Bruce Springsteen or Patti Smith
who really does deserve to be called a
star, youíve got a dozen Styxís, I mean who are those guys? Who knows who
cares? Theyíre totally faceless, so I
donít see how you can call people stars that are either clones of Mick
Jagger like that guy in Aerosmith or clones
of Bob Dylan or clones of this or that, or so completely faceless that
you canít even tell who theyíre a clone of. I
really think they should leave the stars to Hollywood and just make music.
And I thought this was also again what
New Wave was suppose to be about, and thatís one reason to really like
a group like Talking Heads is that they
donít come on like rock stars, they come on like regular people. That to
me is part of a whole democratic aspect of
rockíníroll is that you should have that feeling always. That a kid
could just walk about the audience pick up a
guitar and start doing it, I mean thatís whatís so exciting about it. But
when you have that elitism thatís itís being
handed down from the Mount Olympus, and every new LP being released by
one of these superstar groups was
like or any concert appearance is dolled out with utter contempt. I mean
anybody thatís been to a Led Zeppelin
concert in the last half decade has to know what Iím talking about, to
be treated like such utter morons, and just so
cs: Well I havenít been to a Led Zeppelin concert in the last 10 years
Lester: Well the last time I saw them they just sort of stood up there
with this attitude, they barely moved, I mean
any of them, the expression on their faces, the whole way the carried themselves
was like ĎYou people are so lucky
to even get to look at us, so why should we do anythingí. They didnít play
that well, they were just very indifferent
and they just didnít give to their audience as opposed to The Clash that
just give and give and give, and give
some more and are really concerned about their audience. I was amazed when
I was on tour with The Clash to do
a story on them, the thing that they would actually do at the end of each
show, go out into the audience and
meet the kids in these towns and say ďHi, whatís this town like?Ē. And
then they would take some of the kids they
really enjoyed talking to back to the hotel with them and sit up through
the night talking to them. It wasnít a
groupie scene, you know, they were really actually interested in these
kids and what they were up to , and what
they were like. And that kind of openness and accessibly I think is much
more exciting and everything then all this
elitism. Iíve seen such sick scenes in dressing rooms sometimes when you
go in there, and these ĎStarsí or Ďthe Starí
is trying to control the vibes of everybody in the room, with a million
hatchet men, itís just sick.
cs: Do you see the RockíníRoll star system as being part of the great American
show biz tradition?
Lester: Yeah, and it also fits in with the whole Andy Warhol thing. People
magazine of the cult of celebrity hood
when youíre famous for being famous, rather than anything youíve actually
done. Which the end result of that is
that somebody who does actually create something good and really works
at it is equitably famous to somebody
who has done absolutely nothing to merit their fame at all. So which ends
up with nobody having no reason to try
to do anything at all, except being famous.
cs: Do you see the RockíníRoll world and the Hollywood world similar?
Lester: Theyíve been merging yeah. I think that the most vital RockíníRoll
will always be created as far, not just
geographically, but as far from the Hollywood milieu as possible. Because
Hollywood is much more a closed shop.
Well. . . . OK, lets put it like this. That once you decide you have an
image that is fixed, and then this image
becomes marketed. Then you are in a position where you are going to start
living up to that image and acting like
that image and then really youíre sunk, youíre dead. Coz, how can you grow
and change as a person or as an artist
if you are locked into this image? And I think really this whole thing
of images, the cult of images is what as much
as anything has served to destroy the music. Because people end up being
self-parodies, and this is just as true of
non RockíníRoll people like Hunter. S Thompson as it is of the musicians.
And itís really sad when people get so
locked into that they canít grow and change. I think the whole thing that
John Lydon did when he went from
Johnny Rotten back to his real name, and went directly out of the records
from Sex Pistols into a group that was
called Public Image Limited. I mean, I understood totally the reason why
he called the group that, and why he
would want to do that. Because he got a complete overload and overdose
of all this People magazine garbage
when he was in the Sex Pistols, and saw what it can do anybodyís creativity
as an artist. I know that Brian Eno now
he barely does interviews anymore, because he wants to deflect attention
away from himself and onto the music,
and I think that totally admirable.
cs: How do you think that the concerns of Rock music has changed over the
last ten years. Do you see any
patterns in it?
Lester: Oh the basic concerns havenít changed that much at all, that gets
back to what I was talking about before,
is ĎHow much is rock actually potentially anything other than an instrument
of capitalist/corporate consumerismí.
Really the average kid, he wants to get to drunk, he wants to get high,
he wants to get laid, he wants a car you
know. ĎCars, Girls, Surfing, Beer Nothing Else Matters Hereí like The Dictators
said. Since Chuck Berry up to the
present I donít think thatís changed very much at all. . . OK lets
say The Clash, I seriously doubt that most of their
fans understand what their lyrics are about or care, cause I think they
get off on the music. In fact I doubt that most
people anywhere care about any lyrics, they just like the way something
sounds, they donít listen to the lyrics. Now
itís great if you can have something that can work on both levels as The
Clash obviously do. But, for the majority
of the rock audience itís just something else to consume, itís really become
less of an obsession I think. A lot of the
same kids Iíve noticed at Madison Square Gardens go every week, it doesnít
matter if Black Sabbath, Bob Dylan,
Crosby, Stills & Nash or who is playing, they just go as a social event.
They talk through the show, they walk
around, they see their friends, they get high and shoot off fire crackers,
they donít care, itís something to do, some
place to go.
cs: I suppose what I was trying to say was have you found any dominate
form in the music over the years?
Lester: Itís hard to say, because, when you talk about the dominate form
of the music, we must recognises that as
much as we in the press would like to think otherwise. A lot of the times
the things we were writing about are not is
what is most popular, in fact quite often they're not. If it was true,
then ĎRaw Powerí by Iggy & The Stooges
probably would be the best selling record of all time. Just because we
were writing about it glitter didnít make the
New York Dolls one tenth as popular as Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Just
because we had been writing about New
Wave doesnít make the Sex Pistols as popular as Yes or Styx is the most
popular group in America, I mean would
the Sex Pistols been as popular as Styx in America?
cs: Still David Bowie, Roxy Music...
Lester: Well, look at what David Bowie did, I mean David Bowie essentially
did, heís always reminded me of a
Chicago, because in both cases what you have is style collectors. Like
he takes a little bit from here, a lot from Lou
Reed, a lot from Anthony Newy, a little bit from Iggy, stuff from Kraftwerk
and he mixes it all together and a form,
that is more mass market palatable. And a little bit more thinned out,
and a little bit less threatening then the real
thing. I mean certainly, Lou Reed is certainly closer to the real thing
than David Bowie, which is one reason why
Lou Reed can never be as popular as David Bowie. This is not an ironclad
rule, but, most people I think what they
want or is the most popular is not necessarily the most vital of any art
form. When the Stones were at their peak,
they were radically outsold in terms of number of records sold by people
like Santana and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
But like I say, Iíd hate to make that an ironclad rule, because then the
next thing after that is saying anything is
only a quality in perfect proportion to itís popularity. In other words
the more popular it is the worse it is, vice versa,
which is just as dumb.
cs: What do you think has been the effect of the increase of sophistication
in recording techniques?
Lester: Horrible. I hate it. I think that the best records are made on
garbage equipment and played on garbage
equipment. The utter surreality of the recording studios of today can only
be matched with the utter surreality of
the equipment that people have to play their records on. A friend of mine
who editors the records review section
of Rolling Stone, went out and spent a thousand dollars on a new stereo
system and he says like he got rooked, he
got created and threw his money away. Cause he said Jackson Browne sounds
fantastic on it and the Ramones
just get lost, they donít make records players to play RockíníRoll on it
anymore. The Dolbyís, the studios and the
whole surreality of the thing, it just takes all the mud and the guts out
of it. I mean the music is supposed to be
distorted in the first place, and the clearer you make it, the more you
rob it. Well, one extreme of this of course is
with Phil Spector's ĎBack to Monoí, but I donít necessarily agree with
that. But I do believe to make RockíníRoll I
think youíre better off with primitive equipment on any level. Even in
guitars, if you talk to guitarists, well it
depends on who you talk to, you know guitar and amps and things, itís reached
a point where you canít get that
old gusty sound. Iíve got an old Ike Turner album here that was made in
the early 50ís that I was talking to Robert
Cline the other night when we were listening to it he said ď You just couldnít
get that sound anymoreĒ. Because
they donít make guitars like that anymore or amps or recording studios,
itís really that gutsy sound. Like the sounds
that Sam Phillips got nobody hardly any place could get one, thatís really
cs: This might be a bit of a conspiracy theory kind of question but...
as a way of increasing the control of the
record companies because as it becomes more sophisticated it becomes so
much more expensive to
record therefore you need the backing of a major record contract to record?
Lester: I donít see it as a conspiracy, I think everybody went technology
crazy. I mean for a while it was good but, I
have a point where I draw the line, I like Fuzztone I didnít like Wah-Wah.
And other people would probably draw
the line further down the line. There was a tremendous explosion of technologically
in the 60ís that allowed
things like The Byrds to happen that was just phenomenal and allowed everyone
to experiment and do all these
magnificent things. But the creativity actually of the music itself in
the 70ís has not kept pace with the technology,
and the technology has gotten totally out of hand as it has gotten more
and more overwhelming. The musicians
have gotten more and more passive with it, so now you have things that
are almost all technology and thereís no
feeling in the music anymore. But then you wonder if there would anyway
given with the feeling thatís in anybody
these days really. I think it reflects probably the desire on the part
of the public not to be presented with something
with a whole lot of feeling in it because thatís threatening.
cs: How important do you see the rock press as being?
Lester: Um, well I always tended to downplay the actual power that people
like me/I had. Because I could say the
new Rolling Stones album stunk, till I was blue in the face, and if I had
read that Iíd still go out and buy the
album, itís not going to stop anyone from buying the album. People have
told me ďNo, that affects them. . Ē, all
right, if it does it does in terms of ego and that. I know that the MC5
review I did of ĎKick Out The Jamsí that time
(ED: in Rolling Stone) did affect them getting kicked off Elektra. But
that was in the 60ís when Jack Holzman who
was the president of Elektra at the time, paid a lot of attention to the
press. The press it not as nearly as significant
as radio, obviously for the simple fact that someone telling you something
and actually getting to hear it for
yourself are two different universes. Especially in the case of New Wave,
a music extensively without rules, where
a lot of it is amateurs itís very hilarious to read all these reviews all
these different critics, none of them can seem
to agree on which New Wave groups are good and which are horrible. I mean
I certainly donít agree with any of
cs: Everybody loves The Clash, every single person.
Lester: Alright thatís one case but thatís the exception to the rule, everybody
doesnít love The Ramones,
everybody doesnít love PIL. There you go.
cs: Everybody Iíve talked to does, Iíve been really surprised by the uniformity.
Lester: Yeah actually there has been more, the review in the current issue
of Rolling Stone is mixed on PIL
everybody didnít like their first album I know that for sure, I did. But
everybody didnít like Richard Hell & The
Void-Oids I know that cause I was one of the few that did like them.
cs: What do you think has been the effect of the music press dependence
of record companies advertising?
Lester: Oh well, I know that when I was at Cream Magazine our publisher
used to come in from time to time and
say ďYou gotta have a review of this particular album in the current issue
cause they bought an ad blah blah blah.
. Ē, and Iíd just ignore him. But Iím sure that it does have an effect,
because the fact is they are dependent on the
record companies for this advertising. I think really the truth is in the
music press in America is just totally in the
pocket of the industry. I mean look at Rolling Stone, the features in there
are not objective features, most of them
are not a little more than advertisements for the artists. Thereís all
sorts of incidents I could sight, like when Dylan
did this thing about Hurricane Carter the guy that wrote the article. He
just reported on the whole thing, and at the
end he had this whole paragraph of one sentence that said ďBut what if
heís wrongĒ, they took that out. I think itís
much better what they have in Britain with the magazines there like NME
where a sort of adversary relationship is
expected. Partially because the press there has more power because thereís
not as much radio there. It seems to
me the healthier state is if you expect to get slagged off in the press
when you put something out, rather then the
case here. Iíve experienced it with Frank Zappa, he bought an ad on the
back cover of Cream one time. In the
same issue was a review of the current album called ĎOne Size Fits Allí
written by me. He called up his press office
who called up the magazine screaming ďHow dare they! How dare you! We bought
this ad and you run this review
in the same issue panning this album. . . Ē. So they said ďWill you please
write a letter to Frank explaining why you
did this. . Ē, and I said ďYes I willĒ. So I wrote a letter back to Frank
that said ďDear Frank, I know what a
genius you are. I canít wait until you start your own magazine, because
$1,150 is the best rates Iíve ever heard for
record review in my lifeĒ. . . But that is the attitude, they really expect
that just because, thereís always been that
kind of contempt there. But I can remember when most rock critics held
the record companies and that in
contempt, and just went and wrote what they wanted. Where now it seems
like itís really the opposite, that most of
the people writing about the music are pretty much in the pocket of the
record companies. Itís not even a question
of payola, you donít have to give them payola, itís really just a question
of trendies, of like ďWell, what am I
expected to like this week and whatís the proper attitude about it etc
etc. . . Ē. Then itís disgusting coz itís just one
more example of people not thinking for themselves, and these are the opinion
makers not thinking for
cs: Itís sort of ironic coz in the time that a lot of music magazines began
they were much more relevant,
even Rolling Stone identified itself as some sort of opposite culture.
Lester: Well yeah, thatís obviously not the same as it is today. Really
I think the prototype for everything in
magazines in the United States today is People. Which is just like I say
is like Network TV, itís totally bought out,
itís like. . . So and so makes a new movie, so and so makes a new
album. So itís the word is out all the press is to
cover this like a big event, you know, itís really a set up. There just
isnít enough adversary journalism, criticism and
all the times you find that if you do write this kind of criticism that
you donít get as much work, or you get it thrown
back in your face, because they donít tow the party line. And itís gotten
worse and worse more and more
disgustingly that way throughout the 70ís, I can testify cause Iíve been
there writing about it the whole time.
cs: In a sense, to condemn an album can be to take it more seriously than
to write something like a bland
piece or promo like piece
Lester: Well. . .
cs: It means that you're expecting something of it rather than just another
piece of product.
Lester: Right, but at the same time when something comes out like say a
Dylan album or a Stones album whether
itís good or bad the record company is going to amount this huge promotional
campaign. Designed to convince
you that this is the greatest record ever released and you absolutely can
not live with out it. Now it seems to me
that if this is not true, the job of a critic is to listen to it with an
open mind, and if he or she determines that
actually this is not the greatest thing since the invention of the photographic
record, then to say so. And not that
the public canít think for themselves either, but itís nice to have somebody
to like confirm, say in yourself as a
listener that maybe like you tend to get swamped by these things. And you
feel like maybe theyíre right, maybe
Iím wrong, maybe this is great. . . Iíve experienced it on the other
end as well, when Dylan put out that horrible
ĎHard Rainí live album they (CBS) had a TV commercial for it that was run
about every station break. . . Iíd heard
the album, I knew it was horrible and after seeing that commercial that
many times, I was ready to go out and buy
it and Iíd already been sent a copy of the album in the mail for free that
Iíd sold. So, not to pat ourselves on the
back too much to over say the importance of the critic. But just to say
ďNo, this is the emperor new clothsĒ thatís just
part of the function of being a good critic, and I think itís also the
function of a good audience to maybe disagree
and say ďNo, you donít know what youíre talking about. I mean I never mind
it when people tell me that I
contradict myself, I donít know what Iím saying or that Iím totally wrong
about this or that or the other thing, I think
there should be that kind of dialogue.
cs: Do you think there was a golden age of the music press when it did
have more integrity?
Lester: Sure, I think the late 60ís and the early 70ís, obviously, it didnít
last that long.
cs: Can you speculate about why it happened then?
Lester: Because it was a new thing, the idea of the music press as something
as a serious thing was unheard of
before it was just fan magazines. And that is not to denigrate things like
16 either because theyíre really neat you
know, and really fun. But when Rock started to grow up and take itself
very seriously there was a press around it
that was the same. I guess you could mark the decline of it and sort of
the decline of the music, when the music
started to become formalised, cynical and that the music press got the
same way. I know that there was a certain
point at which reviews in Rolling Stone for instance and this wasnít very
deep into the 70ís, it was around 72. The
review editor of Rolling Stone at the time, actively looked for people
who liked what ever album he was seeking to
review at that particular point, he wanted all favourable reviews. If you
look at something like Rolling Stone today,
about all it is like one of the trades like Billboard or something. They
have all this behind the scenes industry stuff
thatís utterly boring, but what else is there to cover? Because lets face
it, Dee Anthony is more interesting than
Peter Frampton as a personality.
cs: Was it ever really different?
Lester: Well yeah, this goes back to what you were talking about before.
There was a certain, very brief period of
time when the record industry actually did let itself be somewhat led by
certain artists. When they actually decided
that maybe the kids knew something they didnít, and thereís always been
a germ of that from at the beginning and
always will be. And thatís one thing thatís wonderful about it, itís like
they really in some sense donít know whatís
going on, or donít know what might turn out to be the next big thing. So
every once in a while theyíll sign up a
bunch of things like all these New Wave groups like Sire Records signed
in 1975/6 and take a chance on
something like that. But, in general few and fewer chances are being taken
all the time.
cs: When you look at the press though do you think Rolling Stone had a
time when it was more genuine?
Lester: Oh sure, cause I followed it from the beginning and I started writing
for it in 1969, Iíd say the golden era for
Rolling Stone would be 68/69 and the decline began in 70.
cs: Well what were they doing then that theyíre not doing now?
Lester: Now itís like I said before . . . grabs the recent issue
and evaluates it. . . Here we go, Bob Seger on the
cover, heís got an album out ďMotor City Rockers Ride to the TopĒ, the
new album might be lousy, might be great,
but the fact is thereís a piece of product that has to be promoted there
so thatís when Bob Segerís on the cover or
so and so is making a new movie. Itís just so keyed into that where as
then, you would have things like the issue
they did on Altamont, and obviously also it was a time when more was going
on. And they would take chances
theyíll put Miles Davis on the cover of one issue for instance theyíll
put Sun Ra on another issue, things like that,
things that would just never happen today. I mean there must be a lot other
people who are as sick as I am of
seeing every magazine that has nothing but Steve Martin and Linda Ronstadt
on the cover issue after issue after
cs: Were you a fan of Rolling Stone before you started writing for it?
Lester: Yeah, like I say I used to live for it, my whole life was centred
around every other Friday Iíd run down to the
news stand and there it would be the latest issue and I would just eat
it up, it was my bible.
cs: Can you imagine kids doing it these days?
Lester: No! Of course not nobody does that.
cs: Not with Rolling Stone anyway.
Lester: Well what would they do it with these days? I mean you tell me
what magazine these days is as vital as
that was then or as Cream was a little bit later.
cs: Yeah itís a lot more happening in England.
Lester: Yeah I could see someone in England running down to pick up NME.
cs: What about radio, has say FM radio followed a particular similar path?
Lester: Sure itís all muzak, itís all stuff for elevators and stuff like
that, I mean whatís the difference between
Johnny Mathis, The Roy Connis Singers and ĎYear of the Catí or any of the
stuff really. Even ĎTrain in Vainí (The
Clash) for that matter. .ha.
cs: Was there a time when radio was different from that?
Lester: Well yeah there was, in the very late 60ís and the very early 70ís
you had in certain places in the United
States, what was called your ĎFree Formí Underground rock radio. Which
began I guess Ď68 in East Orange New
Jersey with a show called ĎCocaine Karmaí with Bob Rudnic & Dennis
Froley, and Danny Fields was also on the
same station. They would play Sun Ra, MC5, John Coltrane, Bach, Chuck Berry,
they just played everything, they
played what they wanted to play. And I know that when I first moved to
Detroit it was somewhat like that at a
station there called WABX. And gradually, itís only reasonable that as
it was revealed or realised, that the ratings
were not as great for stations that took this sorta experimental attack.
As they were for others which viewed to more
or less of a Top 40 format, all the stations came across. And now, I can
remember when I first began to be aware
of this was when I went to interview the programme director at a station
in Detroit in Ď75. He said ď Look, the jock
on the station is just like a guy down the line at the Ford factory screwing
a bolt onĒ. Thatís all he does he has no
personality, he has no function other than to play what heís told to play.
Then he was telling me about how he
decided all these things what could and what could not be played on the
radio. And I said ďWait a second, youíre
telling me that if I was a DJ here I could play the new Steve Stills album,
but I couldnít play no old Buffalo
Springfield albumĒ and he said ďThatís rightĒ. And I said ďI could play
ĎWalk on the Wild Sideí but I couldnít play
something off the 2nd Velvet Underground albumĒ and he said ĎThatís rightĒ.
I mean this is the attitude, and I
suppose it makes sense if more people will tune in if you play only what
they are totally used to hearing. And to
be totally safe and comfortable with, but on another level. Itís gotta
be unhealthy in terms of music scene or a
musical culture at large in general.
cs: Are you aware of changes in the sorts of things look for as a critic
or in the way you listen to music?
Lester: Mmmm, thatís a good question. Basically all I look for is passion
and I donít care what form it comes in.
There are other things I look for, like I look for somebody who has something
to say. I think all the greats in the
history of RockíníRoll or at least since it became rock and more of an
ĎArt formí have had a vision. And the Doors
had a vision, The Band had a vision, The Velvets and on down the line through
Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen,
The Sex Pistols and The Clash, they all had a vision that they wanted to
cs: When you talk about a vision can you tell....
Lester: I mean like an idea, a view of the world a point of view that was
unique and individual, that they stood for
something or they were about something. As opposed to just being love songs
and looking cute and all that. I
mean even Elvis Costello is about something, he has a peculiar slant on
the roll, which basically boils down to
spite, but itís his spite and heís welcome to it. But at least he stands
out from the crowd because of that and so I
look for that. But more then that even I just really look for passion
itís gone out of music and everything so much.
And even if it hadnít Iíd still look for it, because thatís what itís all
about especially the music, and I think thatís
what life is about, but thatís what music is about.
cs: Are you aware of having shifted at all in the sorts of things that
have interested you say ten years ago
when you were writing?
Lester: Well, I think I can say that Iíve shifted to the extent of becoming
a little more interested in reflective, and a
little less interested in purely sensational. i.e.. that ten years ago
all somebody had to do was get me all revved
all it didnít matter what was inside, what the lyrics were about or anything,
as long as it was exciting. And now I
like things that are exciting but back then I also liked things that were
about something. Like I said a vision. But, I
think I was much more willing then to settle for something that was just
like. . Well like Heavy Metal, a lot of those
bands like Deep Purple I mean what the hell were they about? Nothing really,
but they were fun. And now Iím
much more looking for people that are really three dimensional like, like
them or hate them that have something
to say and hopefully an original way of saying it. Really committed to
something that is actually larger then just
becoming a RockíníRoll star and making a million dollars.
cs: How do you see RockíníRoll as a medium for saying things?
Lester: Well I think itís a fantastic medium for it, but I think what has
to be taken with a grain of salt is itís power as
a medium that is actually capable of affecting large scales of social changes,
I really doubt that. I think that on a
one to one level people can receive ideas from RockíníRoll. But another
person will hear the same piece of music
and just enjoy it purely as music
cs: Do you see music as having any social change?
Lester: Well to some extent yeah, but like we say like we were talking
about before like about the 60ís and that.
There would have been an Anti-War movement if Rock had never existed, there
would have been more people
taking drugs if RockíníRoll had never existed. I mean, before RockíníRoll
existed people were taking drugs and
listening to Be-Bop and things like that. The Civil Rights movement happened
pretty much independently of
RockíníRoll, it was all tried up with Folk music. So I donít really see
RockíníRoll as entrenchedly linked to social
change or necessity creating it, itís nice if and when it can. But I think
those occasions are relatively few and far
cs: Do you think itís possible to talk about social things, to see, to
draw conclusions about the culture that
music emerges from by looking at the music?
Lester: Yeah sure, a lot of us critics would be out of business if we didnít
think that. Yeah I think that anything
reflects the culture that it comes out of whether itís movies, magazines,
best seller list or anything. When you look
at what people are feeding on in terms of mass culture, then you know what
their obsessions are and their fears,
and their dreams I guess. I think actually what we are currently experiencing
is a kind of situation where the
bottom is dropping out of popular culture, itís really going bad. So one
effect of that is that more and more of
everything is fragmenting, and there is less of one sort of monolithic
mass audience so you have local scenes.
Which I think you will see more and more of, that people are more and more
into whatever is happening in their
little community in RockíníRoll. Say in the local club, the local
groups, and I think weíll see a lot more of that in
cs: What are you listening to now?
Lester: Queen of Siam by Lydia Lunch, Monster Movie by Can, Veen Fleece
by Van Morison, some old Blind Lee
Johnson albums on Folkways, The Great RockíníRoll Swindle by The Sex Pistols,
Pangaia a Japanese live album
by Miles Davis, an old Crown album called ĎIke Turner Rockís the Bluesí,
ĎTrying to Get to Youí from the first Elvis
album, Orr by Alexander Spence, ĎFor Your Loveí the first Yardbirds album,
Miles Davis ĎOn The Cornerí, the 3rd
Velvet Underground album, a classical piece called Ďthe winds rise in the
northí by Harley Gabour, Miles Davisí
ĎGet up with ití, the Charles Manson album, ĎBroken Englishí by Marianne
Faithful and ĎNo Knobí by Rosco Midgit.
cs: Do they all fit your criteria?
Lester: Oh, also everything by PIL, well yeah, they all sort of probably
fit my sort of extremism.
cs: What about in terms of the new groups? You mention PIL, The Sex Pistols
theyíre not so new. Who else
do you like at the moment?
Lester: Nobody...(laughs), I like PIL. . . let me think, what else
came out this year that I liked? I donít like very
much that has come out very recently. I really like the Ramones last album,
but new groups like new groups that
just came out in the last few months. Well I guess just PIL and The Gang
of Four, well now that I saw them live I
quite like the Gang of Fours record and I play it, but thatís about it
really. Very little.