Exclusive Excerpt: Steven Hyden’s ‘Twilight of the Gods’

Exclusive Excerpt: Steven Hyden’s ‘Twilight of the Gods’

Music journalist Steven Hyden is out with Twilight of the Gods: A Journey to the End of Classic Rock today (May 8), but you can get a sneak for free right here on TIDAL. Hyden, who also wrote the punchy Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, merges memoir and criticism in this new examination of classic rock. Check out an excerpt below, along with a playlist Hyden made especially for TIDAL users.

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TWILIGHT OF THE GODS. Chapter 11. “So Bad”

When I was a writer for the AV Club, I attempted to explain a concept I called a good “bad” record, which is a record that you talk yourself into loving after you’ve grown tired of all the acknowledged masterpieces and respected second-tier releases in a legendary artist ’s discography.

Every hard-core record-head does this. It’s the only way to discover “new” music if you’re into classic rock — you must dig into the albums that people tell you that you won’t like, and you must listen to them many, many times until you find a way to like them. Because you will inevitably tire of Pet Sounds, and when that happens you will come around to Love You and marvel over the daffy synth sounds in “Johnny Carson,” and speculate over whether Brian Wilson’s state of mind makes this song an intentional classic or an act of unintentional “outsider art” brilliance. Over time, you might even convince yourself that Love You is better than Pet Sounds — but, really, it’s just that liking Love You is more interesting, because music critics haven’t told you how to feel about it for fifty years. Love You doesn’t contain better music than Pet Sounds, but it does offer more in the way of discovery and surprises.

Here’s how I defined a good “bad” record for the AV Club:

It’s a record where the creators are clearly not fully engaged with the project, which is reflected in the degraded quality of the songwriting and musicianship and an overall feeling of boredom, detachment, or extremely undisciplined self-indulgence that’s palpable in the music. That makes it “bad.” But instead of making the record less enjoyable, this “badness” actually makes the album more fascinating — so long as the artist in question is a genius —because it provides insight into what makes the artist’s “great” records great, and demonstrates how functional he or she is even when operating on a lower level of artistry/sobriety.

The idea for good “bad” records stemmed from my love of the Rolling Stones album Black and Blue, which came out in 1976, between 1974’s It’s Only Rock and Roll (respected second-tier release) and 1978’s Some Girls (acknowledged masterpiece). If you apply the standards normally associated with good music — cogent songwriting, competent musicianship, actively giving a shit about what you’re doing — then Black and Blue can’t be considered a good album. The Stones had just lost the most technically skilled guitarist they would ever have, Mick Taylor, and were about to hire the friendliest guitarist in Stones history, Ron Wood, to replace him. Between Taylor’s departure and Wood’s entrance, the Stones held cattle calls for a new guitarist, and they incorporated recordings from those auditions into Black and Blue. Only half of the songs on the album feature Wood — two other guys, Harvey Mandel and Wayne Perkins, play on the other half, which includes what are arguably the strongest tracks: “Hand of Fate” (the most underrated “great” song in the Stones’ catalog), “Memory Motel” (which is slightly overrated but still good), and “Hot Stuff” (which is kind of great and kind of garbage).

The Stones themselves didn’t even bother pretending that Black and Blue was something greater than it was. (“Rehearsing guitar players, that’s what that one was about,” Keith Richards confirmed later.) I knew this when I bought Black and Blue, but I didn’t care, because after plowing through Exile on Main St. and Sticky Fingers and Beggars Banquet, I really wanted a new (old) Stones record.

This is the first phase of the good “bad” album experience: completism.

At first, I hated Black and Blue. Even now, I’d argue that the album’s best-known song, “Fool to Cry,” is the dullest track the Stones ever recorded. There’s an old story — I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve chosen to believe it’s true — about how Keith Richards literally fell asleep onstage in Germany while playing “Fool to Cry” on the Stones’ ’76 tour. Perhaps you could blame that on heroin, but I prefer to credit Jagger’s smarmy falsetto.

Over time, however, I realized that everything that made the text of Black and Blue subpar —Mick’s boredom, Keith’s addictions, the lack of fire and inspiration in the playing and songwriting — made the subtext of the record fascinating to me. Whereas Sticky Fingers presented everything I loved about the Stones in a sexy, indestructible package, Black and Blue illuminated the Stones’ greatness by offering a contrasting example of this band I love at their worst. I liked how you could hear the Stones trying to find inspiration in the jammy, funk-drenched grooves and not finding it. In lieu of discovering greatness, they just kept plugging away, propelled forward by the perpetual motion of their past and whatever chemicals were within easy reach.

This is the second phase of the good “bad” album experience: grudging appreciation.

What’s strange is that I can no longer relate to having a grudging appreciation of Black and Blue, because now I just straight-up love that record. The funk grooves are tasty. The ballads are wrenching. I’ll even sit through “Fool to Cry.” If the Stones put out a record like Black and Blue now, I would probably end up wildly overrating it and putting it in my top five favorite Stones albums ever. I don’t know if Black and Blue was secretly great all along, or if it was a matter of my successfully talking myself into liking it. Either way, “Hand of Fate” slays.

I’ve repeated this process with virtually every major classic-rock artist and band that I love. I am now fully versed in the post-sixties work of the Kinks, even the double-album rock operas that go on for forty-two hours. I enjoy at least one Doors album, An American Prayer, that was completed and released seven years after Jim Morrison died. I will defend not only both Page & Plant albums, but also the Page & Coverdale record. I own albums by every iteration of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and will argue that Crosby & Nash is in fact better than CSNY (though not CSN). I’m still not crazy about nineties Springsteen, but I will listen to Human Touch and Lucky Town when I don’t feel like playing Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River for the ten thousandth time. Come to think of it, Lucky Town is in fact much better than most people (even myself) give it credit for.

Herein lies the third phase of the good “bad” album experience: brainwashing.

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