The "profession" of rock criticism was still in its tender adolescence in 1969. Daily newspapers were beginning to hire writers to cover pop, rock and what was sometimes described as "youth culture." Alternative weeklies like the Village Voice became trusted early warning systems for new bands. And Rolling Stone magazine, which began in San Francisco in 1967, had by 1969 become the rock and roll "paper of record."
Concurrently, the industry around rock ramped up into a more sophisticated, professional operation, launching scores of new acts every month alongside a steady stream of new works from established veterans.
It took time for the print media's coverage of those releases to evolve. The rock scribes might have started out offering basic consumer-guide appraisals, but pretty soon a number of them were developing approaches towards serious criticism, creating an art form of their own in the coverage of an art form that many did not yet take seriously. The rock critics of 1969 were working with very few guideposts or templates; some were cheerleaders, some gravitated toward literary-criticism approaches, others tried to position themselves as "insiders" with an understanding of the intersection between the creative work and the business of selling it.
Some tried to do all of that at once. In a chatty piece about Neil Young that ran in Good Times (the weekly originally known as the San Francisco Express Times), Greil Marcus — who'd become one of the all-time most eloquent writers on music — declared that he could not review Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. "Most of it somehow has no drawing power, and just never gets to my rock-shriveled hearing." Then, in the next paragraph, he proclaims "This is not a record review anyway; it's a piece of writing about music, a suggestion about a thing to listen to at someone's house, in a record store, on the radio, whatever."
Many writers found themselves in similarly conflicted straits, having to explain the type of writing they were doing, or struggling to explicitly pin down an opinion. This must have been particularly challenging in 1969, a year distinguished by wildcat creativity in the world of letters — it was the year of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and early gonzo journalism stories from Hunter S. Thompson began to appear — and genuinely fresh thinking about the sonic and storytelling possibilities of rock and roll.
Looking back there were, inevitably, some errant judgment calls – to the point where, starting in the '90s, Rolling Stone began appending reviews written from the benefit of hindsight next to the original reviews on its website. This revisionism has muddied the historical record in a way: It's much easier to find reviews of records released in 1969 that were written years later. But they can't all hide — here, some classic albums from 1969 that the working critics at the time somehow missed.
Santana, Santana (Columbia)
There was rampant methamphetamine panic in the ranks of rock critics in 1969, and Santana – the blazing, rhythmically nuanced debut from the Bay Area sextet led by guitarist Carlos Santana – was, evidently, a trigger for it.
Writing in Rolling Stone in October, Langdon Winner described the album as "a speed freak's delight – fast, pounding, frantic music with no real content." In a C- review in the Village Voice, Robert Christgau located Santana as part of the "methedrine [another term for methamphetamine] school of American music" before dismissing the album as "A lot of noise."
Avoiding drug references, Lenny Kaye, the guitarist and critic, described Santana as "a drum band, plain and simple" in the pages of Boston's influential Fusion magazine. He added that this record "proves they are one of the better." Then, in a rare musicological miss, he explains that the music's roots are "African tribal, with shades of Latin."
Fifty years later, methedrine has receded as a scourge, and Santana's debut looms as one of 1969's most important statements – not only ground zero for the Santana-led revolution of Latin rock, but a key template for jam bands. It was also a platform for one of the most engaging, lyrical improvisers in the history of the electric guitar. As the surging curtain-raiser "Waiting" shows, Santana is a master of drama, a soloist whose elegantly speared phrases start out modestly and climb to rousing, lacerating peaks. No less an authority than Prince once said he listened to more Santana music than Jimi Hendrix because "Santana played prettier."
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (Reprise)
Given how many totemic albums Neil Young created in the early years of his career, it's possible to look at Everybody Knows This is Nowhere as something of a warmup. It was, after all, just his second solo effort and first recorded collaboration with Crazy Horse; revisionist historians sometimes talk about it as a roadmap to future greatness.
But it remains more than that, judging from years of subsequent Crazy Horse setlists. Or far less, according to Rolling Stone's review from August 1969. Comparing the work – which opens with "Cinnamon Girl" and includes the classic murder confession "Down By the River" as well as "Cowgirl in the Sand" – to Young's first album, reviewer Bruce Miroff found the new material "a little disappointing." He canonizes "If I Could Have Her Tonight" from the debut as a model of "aching beauty," and laments that the lyricism of Young's guitar playing, so evident previously, can "only be found in faint traces here."
In a piece for Good Times, Greil Marcus offset his derision for the album with praise for one song. "There is a song on this album called 'Cowgirl in the Sand' and if you never hear it you are missing something important." He went on: "This will most likely be Young's last burst of real musical freedom, at least until Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young break up."
The only appropriate rejoinder to that is to turn up the volume on "Down By the River," because literally every note of guitar on it is a marvel – the rhythm chording accomplished with a visceral, claw-fisted intensity, the barbed-wire solo lines that are at once primitive and gracefully melodic and also timeless. Now we know: "Down By The River," which has been reworked in countless ways over many years, is a classic, towering over pretty much everything on Young's debut.
Grand Funk Railroad, Grand Funk (Capitol)
Even as it was ascending in 1969, Flint Michigan's Grand Funk Railroad was already a punchline. The quartet approached hard rock with a lunchbucket mentality, and what it lacked in finesse it more than made up in raw power and volume. This album, recorded quickly between tours in October 1969 and released in December, lacks the chart hits of later Grand Funk Railroad but provides a sonic roadmap for the success that followed. The band notched seven top 10 albums and toured successfully for years while inspiring headlines like the one from a 1971 Rolling Stone piece that asks: "Is This Band Terrible?"
The critics didn't have much use for the music, that's for sure. In a C-grade Consumer Guide review for the Village Voice, Christgau compared the record to a Grand Funk Railroad show he caught that year in Detroit: "I enjoyed them for 15 minutes, tolerated them for five, and hated them for 40. This LP, their second, isn't as good as that performance."
Other critics didn't even waste space addressing Grand Funk in concert. Reviewing a December 1969 Humble Pie date at the Whiskey a Go Go with GFR as the opening act, LA Times critic John Mendelssohn closed with this postscript: "Also scheduled was Grand Funk Railroad, a loud and generally talentless power trio that boasts the volume of Cream and the finesse of Blue Cheer and is my nomination for most repellent group of the year."
The critics might have been correct on the substance of the music here – it's pretty standard blues-inflected riff-rock. But they missed its enduring trait: That boot-footed and bloodthirsty visceral whomp. There's something satisfyingly neanderthal about Grand Funk – it's music built from a truly massive low end (what Homer Simpson immortalized in one episode of The Simpsons as "bong-rattling bass") and notable for a grind-it-out rhythmic heaviness that lives on in the work of bands like Gov't Mule, Kings of Leon and others.
Led Zeppelin, I & II (Atlantic)
Reaction to the first two albums by Led Zeppelin offer a case study in how quickly press sentiment can change around an act. In March 1969, John Mendelsohn of Rolling Stone derisively called the band a twin of the Jeff Beck Group and said that the album "offers little that ... [Beck's group] didn't say as well or better three months ago."
By December, when Led Zeppelin II was released with a cheeky ad campaign ("Led Zeppelin – The Only Way to Fly"), Mendelsohn had recalibrated his appraisal. "Hey, man, I take it all back!" begins his mostly enthusiastic review of an album that's now regarded among the most cohesive and thrilling statements in rock history.
What changed? Writing in the Village Voice in 1970, Robert Christgau implied that his ears had adjusted to the sounds – specifically, "Jimmy Page's repeated low-register fuzz riffs...[and] the untiring freak intensity of Robert Plant's vocal." Observing that the group had evolved considerably from its debut, Christgau added "This trademark has only emerged clearly on the second album, and more and more I am coming to understand it as an artistic triumph."
Moral: Sometimes it takes awhile for something new to sink in.
The Stooges, The Stooges (Epic)
MC5, Kick Out the Jams (Elektra)
Describing the Stooges' years-before-its-time debut, Rolling Stone critic Edmund O. Ward called it "loud, boring, tasteless, unimaginative and childish."
Which, to be fair, are only some of the reasons it's so important. Now regarded as an essential foundation of punk rock, the album flummoxed critics everywhere: The Boston magazine Fusion observed that "neither the singing nor musicianship on their album attains any memorable levels of competence."
Writing about a performance in the hometown Detroit Free Press, Mike Gormley observed that the other musicians stood still while Iggy Pop ran around, and stage-dived, and created his brand of havoc: "Iggy needs the whole stage, and many times the front section of the audience." Later in the same piece, Gormley lets Iggy Pop explain the band's feral sound: "Our music evolved this way," Iggy explains. "You see, when we started the band none of us were musicians."
Similar bafflement greeted MC5, another visionary group from Michigan. In his Rolling Stone review of the corroded, poorly recorded live album Kick Out the Jams, revered rock critic Lester Bangs noted that the hype surrounding the band had reached an absurd level before the music was released, with some comparing the band's guitarists to jazz pathfinders John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. "For my money they come on more like Blue Cheer than Trane and Sanders, but then my money has already gone for a copy of this ridiculous, overbearing, pretentious album."
In the LA Times, critic John Mendelssohn used other adjectives — "adolescent, repulsive, barely distinguishable" — to describe both bands. "Had I not had the unpleasant experience of hearing the MC5's Kick Out the Jams several months ago, I could say that The Stooges was the worst rock album of the year."
To be fair, the rock critics weren't the only ones underwhelmed by the brashness of these bands: The records were not hits at the time. It wasn't until punk rock exploded in the mid '70s that the early music of the Stooges and MC5 began to make sense.
King Crimson, In the Court of the Crimson King (Atlantic)
By 1969, rock critics had developed finely calibrated radar for industry marketing tactics, and evidently regarded calling out such tactics to be part of the job. In his D+ Consumer Guide review of this debut album, Robert Christgau issued a stern warning: "Beware the forthcoming hype – this is ersatz s***."
Not all scribes were so dismissive about "21st Century Schizoid Man," the highly technical blues-infused epic that is the album's centerpiece. Writing in Rolling Stone, John Morthland noted that the British band brought together elements of blues, classical music and jazz to create "a surreal work of force and originality."
History tells the rest of the story: In the Court of the Crimson King now looms as a cornerstone and kickstarter of progressive rock. Kanye West sampled the enduring "21st Century Schizoid Man" for his track "Power," and many others, including Ozzy Osbourne, have covered it. In a ranked list published in 2015, Rolling Stone named the album as the second greatest prog-rock album of all time, behind Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon.
Pink Floyd, Ummagumma (Harvest)
Here's a switch: An album that's generally regarded as significant – by both fans and critics – yet was subsequently disavowed (partially, at least) by the band itself.
The fourth Pink Floyd album (and second with guitarist David Gilmour) is a two-headed affair: Disc one features live recordings from spring 1969 that capture the grand atmospheres and vistas of "A Saucerful of Secrets" and other staples of the band's live show. This half was praised by critics as masterful, one of the great live albums of the rock era.
Disc two features solo pieces created by each of the musicians without input from the others; Gilmour described the process for his composition as "waffling about, tacking bits and pieces together." Nick Mason's piece includes a seven-minute drum solo.
This portion of Ummagumma is, needless to say, not part of the official Pink Floyd highlight reel. Years later, Gilmour described it as "horrible." Waters' review: "What a disaster!" In a BBC interview, Mason characterized it as a "failed experiment," adding that "the most significant thing is that we didn't do it again."