Scribes Sounding Off: Rock And Roll Cage Match

by Chris Estey

This is a new book review column meant to alert KEXP listeners-slash-website readers to the latest in books about music, books by musicians, and books musicians might like. I hope to do some short interviews with authors (and writerly-performers) the way Spike did with his amazing “33 1/3 Odyssey,” but in the meantime I will simply plug some of the really good pop and rock biographies, consumer guides, and uniquely thematic music-cultural texts currently available at most independent booksellers (in Seattle, I recommend almost all of them to find these at). Most of these will be from a fan’s POV, and I will admit that I am more of a reviewer than a critic.

The first book I would recommend, due to its casual reader-friendly topical thrust and the fact that many of its writers will be familiar to you (even if not as writers usually) is Rock And Roll Cage Match (Three Rivers Press, US, $13.95). This is an anthologized response to the mimetic paroxysm of “Band Vs. Band” content all over the Internet a few years ago. Editor Sean Manning taps the original planting of Dan Kois’ “R.E.M. vs. U2″ from the November 9, 2006, article posted on Slate, in reference to “Who Was The Best Rock Band of the 80s” and allows the author to develop it further as the first contention in Cage Match. It was the battle that “launched a thousand blog comments” as Manning describes the article, with sites such as Rolling Stone’s Rock & Roll Daily and USA Today‘s Pop Candy blogs becoming consumed with this fight amongst many others.

Being a film executive and literary agent, Kois has one of many interesting viewpoints to be read in this book, and though he’s not exactly a “civilian” (he is a music critic) what he has to say seems more down-to-earth and less academic or rockcrit-insular than essays found in some other tomes with dinner-conversation concepts behind them. If his particular choice for a “vs.” seems a bit banal, remember this was the first one of its type, and I have to give him credit for making a super-strong case against the band he opposes (and for being right about R.E.M., ahem).

From there, the knock-down-drag-outs get wilder and weirder, as from the viewpoint in Spin/New York Times/etc. writer Marc Spitz’s zine-level personal honesty in “The Smiths vs. The Cure” (which could actually use a whole book of different viewpoints in itself, but Spitz does a very balanced job of why The Smiths are insufferably and absolutely more important and The Cure are merely mordantly and occasionally more enjoyable) to the very idea of “Band Aid vs. USA For Africa” (only a hell of a writer like Dan LeRoy can away with this).

The second selection in the book is probably the best battle most perfectly weighed: Michaelangelo Matos’ awesome “Phil Spector vs. Timbaland,” which is reasonably argued and really funny and convincing in Matos’s endorsement of Timbaland’s topdog status (save for the eternal Spector Christmas album, which you can’t deny). But Matos is a kingly pop critic, and it’s nice to see his more mainstream comrades here flexing a bit, for example in the flippant and joyfully obnoxious energy of Whitney Pastorek’s “Whitney vs. Mariah” (you can guess one of the big reasons she believes Whitney is better — that’s right, perseverance in being fucked up. What else, maybe?). Richard Hell’s “The Rolling Stones vs. The Velvet Underground” seems needlessly contrarian in its primary assertion, but Hell obviously knows his shit all about the rock fight more than most anyone ever will, so his ramble is golden. To round out the more expectable matches, noted daily columnist and psychedelic rock-expert/author Jim DeRogatis’s “Blur vs. Oasis” raises some interesting questions about class and aesthetics that aren’t as predictable as his choice of topical examples, though I’m still not picking up any album with “Morning Glory” in the title (not that he recommends it either). I was also thinking that editor Manning is all kinds of wrong about Phil Collins being better than Sting due to Synchronicity needing a critical re-assessment at this time, but then I realized how potentially damaging any sort of reassessment might be.

What’s cool about this book, besides it being a breezy but usually very well informed and written read, and the fact that it has a terrific comic by Daphne Carr and Scott Gursky (on music formats; more rock books need comics dammit; most other anthologies have been printing them alongside the prose texts) and selections by comedians like Stella’s Michael Showalter (“Hall & Oates” vs. “Simon & Garfunkle” which is, yes, totally fucking hilarious but also pretty damned accurate) and punk icon Vivien Goldman on two eternal Bobs (I’ll let you find out who) and The Harvard Lampoon eviscerating quite deliciously “Elton John vs. Billy Joel” (and in fresher ways than most rock critics would), is — *pant, pant* — how much I have just been inspired to engage with it, as will you be.

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