I’ve been blogging about some books on rock music I’ve been reading and how I went off on a tangent of reading rock books and essays by women. The exception to this rule has been Lester Bangs. I’ve been reading his anthology as well. There’s something I really enjoy about Lester Bangs. Although he is the snob in the record store, he’s very much also the anti-snob in the record store too, advocating for and labeling the whole punk scene. He describes his tastes as "shrieking anomic noise."
On a whim, I googled “Lester Bangs Cher” to see if he had ever mentioned her in his lifetime, sure to find a similar hatchet job to the kind Chris Hodenfield did in the 1973 profile of Sonny & Cher. But I was also cautiously curious about what he would say. And bing! I came up with a hit. He reviewed Sonny & Cher’s 1972 All I Ever Need is You album. So I went looking for that and found out another iconoclast critic John Mendlesson, also wrote about their Live Album in 1971. These reviews don’t exist online so I went out on eBay to find them. Boy was I shocked to get my mail last week.
You should know I had to buy this naked issue of David Cassidy to get one of the reviews but I did it for you, dear reader. (Don't miss the Samantha Fox story.) I also braved carpel tunnel relapses transcribing these verbose reviews (Lester says they got paid by the word). You're welcome.
Sonny & Cher Live, Rolling Stone, February 3, 1972
We'll start with the John Mendelsohn review. He wrote such scathing reviews Rolling Stone once commented he would have even given God a bad review. He was a fan of the Kinks and David Bowie and he hated Led Zeppelin.
Like the recently departed Orson Bean (who was once blacklisted as a Communist but later became a right-wing extremist...he influenced and his daughter married Andrew Breitbart) and similarly (although less extremely) Sonny Bono, Mendelsohn went from being a liberal kid to embracing extreme conservatism late in life.
Singling Sonny out for losing his hippie cred as a Republican seems unfair in this context.
"I’m sure I’ll never understand why it’s become so fashionable to belittle Sonny & Cher, to blame everything from the dissolution of the Beatles to the scarcity of high-quality dope on the duo’s outgrowing its hippie image.
Granted that they’ve gone through some heavy changes since they practically single-handedly insinuated folk-rock into the American musical consciousness, that social-commentary material no longer accounts for the vast predominance of their repertoire, that they’ve discarded the floral bellbottoms and bobcat vests of yesteryear for mod formal attire, and that one is as likely to catch them in some swank hotel as in It’s Boss or a similar tween watering hole—granted all of this, they’re still essentially the same old Sonny & Cher, tight, topical, and together, for vivid evidence of which one need search no farther than their new “live” disc.
Not only are all their greatest protest numbers—“The Beat Goes On,” Laugh At Me,” “I Got You Babe,” and “What Now My Love”—all present, but at least a couple of them are accorded treatments nearly ten minutes long, over which duration the duo seek out and elucidate every tiniest emotional implication present in the words and music. So much for the preposterous allegation that Sonny & Cher have turned their backs on the counter-culture.
Such allegations are usually based on the consideration that the duo are rather more heavily into standards than your average folk-rock team. But what Sonny & Cher’s detractors always fail to mention is that the couple have matured into such sensitive interpreters that they can transform even the most over familiar material into searingly soulful expressions, as witness Cher’s fiery treatment of “Danny Boy.” Truly Cher has developed into one of our most inspiring ladies of song, capable of evoking emotions that not even a Nancy Sinatra or Marcia Strassman can deal with without some evidence of strain. Sonny, although he too has matured greatly, is content for the most part of remain in the background vocally, although only a fool could suspect that Cher wouldn’t miss the clear, precise harmonies he contributes, or or that the show wouldn’t suffer from the absence of his few solo moments. Perhaps this would be clearer had his truly breathtaking version of Sinatra’s “My Way” been included in this album.
It would be impossible to lavish excessive praise on the Bonos’ seven-piece rhythm section, who together own a vast profusion of torrid chops, licks and the like and whose rock-flavored beat never falters. On this disc they are effectively complemented by Al Pellegrini’s orchestra, which can really swing, when it chooses to.
It should be noted in passing that some of the hilarious between-song patter on this record (Cher has some absolutely hysterical lines about her mother-in-law’s physical resemblance to a whale, of all things) is unabashedly risqué, so those readers with youngsters are advised not to spin the disc while they’re still awake.
Sonny & Cher may no longer be the king and queen of folk-rock, but the bag they’re into now has plenty to offer the rock buff who’s resisted becoming prejudiced by the couple’s shoddy treatment by the underground press. Miss their Live album at your own risk."
Sonny sang "My Way?" Here it is. Whatdoyaknow?
Sonny & Cher, All I Ever Need Is You, Rolling Stone, May 11, 1972
Lester Bangs liked Lou Reed, MC5, Iggy Pop/The Stooges and The Clash. He also defended Detroit's Bob Seger. He allegedly coined the term punk and could be blisteringly dismissive of Led Zeppelin, too, as well as James Taylor. I was not expecting this:
"John & Yoko. Grace & Paul. Paul & Linda. Sonny & Cher had the formula down years before any of those melodious romances hit the stage and were a hell of a lot more appealing too., although that may not be particularly significant—the same thing could be said for Louis Prima and Keely Smith. And let us not forget Paul and Paula.
The reason that Sonny & Cher are so much nicer to think about than the aforementioned crew of dilettantes, barterers and their wives is that Sonny & Cher don’t put on the same kind of airs. Their paisley bellbottom Sunset Strip days are long gone, they’ve made a spectacularly successful comeback by selling their love in much the same way the King Family sells household solidarity, garnished with a bit of that good old (what?) rock and roll and showbiz.
How you feel about them at this point pretty much depends on how you feel about showbiz in general. If you think that Johnny Carson is a honk and the Copa just a hangout for alcoholics, if you cannot abide the sigh of black ties and/or tiaras between you and your artist-heroes, then you probably don’t like Sonny & Cher; I have seen reviews of their recent albums by earnest 17-year old rock critics lambasting the devoted duo entirely in terms of “us” versus “them.” And at the recent MCA convention in Burbank, when Sonny & Cher played a long, slick supperclub set climaxing with their eight-minute histrionic orgy on “Hey Jude,” I observed people all around me set their faces in that grimace they never pulled out for bluejeaned mediocrities. And those that thought themselves too hip for this schmaltz would make remarks later about the “tastelessness” of it. Why? Because Cher tells Sonny she’s not gonna ball him after the show, and drops innuendos about the size of his dong?
Well, I’ll settle for Sonny & Cher being just blue enough for them poor old farts and fraus in the belly of the beast, because I like slick supperclub music, I like glittery Las Vegas-style entertainment without one iota of artistic aspiration. I’ll even put on a tie. Maybe I’m just getting old but I would rather see Sonny & Cher with a bourbon and water in front of me anytime than squat sweating in another concert hall while another rock group runs through amplified oatmeal highlights from the last big album it took them eight months of overdubs to produce.
On the other hand, there is the possibility that what works in the nightclub may not be so pleasurable on a wax disc spinning in your living room. In fact, Sonny & Cher have a problem that is the exact inverse of that faced by rockers who make good albums but can’t play live; which is to say that, like almost all of their recorded post-comeback work, this album is just about as pristinely vacuous as it can be. Nobody expects their basic “gee aren’t we lucky to have each other to keep out that bad old world” persona (“All I Ever Need is You,” “United We Stand”) to change at this point, but they’ve filled in, extrapolated on and repackaged it under increasing layers of linseed oil for so long, through so many dinners and prime-time hours, that there is almost nothing left but a posture that is getting as soporific in its saccharinity as Tina’s Turner’s bomb riff is in its monotonous exploitativeness.
Despite the fact of absolute predictability, some of the stuff here works in a marginal way, sounds like something you can actually listen to, and some doesn’t. “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done” is great, opening with a mysterious riff straight out of Emerson, Lake & Palmer (a famous menage-a-trois) and applying curiously successful quasi-Eastern riffs to the fine oater lyrics: “I used to jump my horse and ride/I had a six gun at my side/I was so handsome women cried/And I got shot but I never died.”
The title song may give your heart a flutter if you bear no aversion to reconstituted mush expertly laid out, and “More Today Than Yesterday” has a great arrangement jubilantly reminiscent of the horns on the Rascals’ “With a Girl Like You.” “Here Comes That Rainy Day Feeling Again,” a natural for the pair, suffers by a jerky carnivalish arrangement that makes the performance sound even more mechanical than it already is; “United We Stand” is recognizable but nothing really happens; “You Better Sit Down Kids,” a Sonny solo that’s a highlight of their club act, comes off just as melodramatic and phony here as it did there, and should have been left on the shelf to shine in peace as the classic that it was. The rest isn’t worth talking about.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those cranks who goes around maligning love, or even Love. In fact, part of the point of this is that I’m so fed up with the pretentious, unprofessional welters of self-consciousness typifying the contemporary rock concert that I will enthusiastically lap up absolute schmaltz and pap if the show is good and the sequins in technicolor. But I still remember “I Got You Babe” and “The Beat Goes On” and the original “You Better Sit Down Kids..” And I remember Johnny Cash and even flatulent old Tom Jones. And I wonder just what I have a right to expect."
Not a five-star but not bad. Both of these reviews actually literally made my jaw drop and I wondered for a moment if coronavirus had deposited me in another universe.
I'm still mulling this over but there might have been something about this idea that John, Lester and Sonny all liked good-ol'-1950s style rock music, a simple kind without pretensions to being high art, that made these famous iconoclasts predisposed to defending Sonny & Cher here.
Early theory...stay tuned.