In the late 1970s, my hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, was a hotbed of pop music criticism.
The reason was two young reporters at the St. Joseph News-Press and Gazette, Conrad Bibens and Terry Jordan.
For a couple of years, I faithfully clipped their album and concert reviews from the paper's weekend Spotlight magazine, which published the television listings for the week, and other sections of the paper. I recently found the collection while cleaning out my dad's house.
Bibens' album reviews compose the largest part of the stash. Each review is a little gem, starting with background on the artist, including previous recordings if he or she had any, before launching into a thoughtful critique of the work itself.
For example, his review of Neil Young's Rust Never Sleeps opens with, "There've been times when Neil Young represented all that's good about rock 'n' roll," before summarizing Young's years with Buffalo Springfield, Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young, and his solo work. "His output was erratic and often sloppy, sounding like a man trying to work out his personal problems on vinyl," Bibens writes. (Which, of course, he was.)
Of that album's acoustic side, he states, "Young sounds as if he'd be at home at a folk festival," while cuts on the electric side "are fierce enough to blow any punk group right off the stage."
His closing claim that the album shows Young to be "a vital performer who seems ready for whatever changes the 80s will bring" didn't turn out to be quite accurate, as Young would flounder to find a style before returning to form at decade's end with Freedom and its early '90s follow-up Ragged Glory, but based on the promise of Rust Never Sleeps, it was a sound statement.
At the turn of the decade, Bibens wrote "A personal top ten of rock in the 70s." Some of his list is predictable–Led Zeppelin's fourth album ("Stairway to Heaven," etc.) is #1, followed by The Who's Who's Next–but there are surprises from a 35-plus years perspective: A Yes album? Eagles? Poco?
Jordan, at least based on what's in my collection, wrote more concert reviews. Kansas City was the place for concerts, and the headlines alone tell the story: "Boston gives smoking concert." "Concert overshadowed by bad location" (Ian Hunter). "Tarnished Legend" (Stephen Stills). "Styx wows 13,000 at Kemper."
When heavy rain came to Summerjam '79, the headline wrote itself: "REO rides the storm out." However, Jordan followed that bit of predictability up with a clear-eyed overview of the proceedings. REO, "a band from the Corn Belt that was eager to please," catered to its "predominantly high school crowd." Pat Travers' "Ted Nugent-inspired heavy metal was sluggish." Santana's "traditional favorites . . . were dispensed with rather perfunctorily." One-hit-wonder Jay Ferguson (remember "Thunder Island"?) was canceled.
Sometimes I fantasize that I'll be asked what the most influential book I ever read was, and I will say, without missing a beat, "The first edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide." Now I think I'd have to follow that up with, "Oh, and the pop music critics at the St. Joseph News-Press and Gazette."