Frank Zappa once supposedly claimed that writing about music was “like dancing about architecture”. For many, though, writing about music has become an important part of pop culture. From the listening notes on the backs of old jazz albums from the 1950s and the great Rolling Stone essays during rock’s 70s boom, to the punk fanzines and the many essays filling the twenty-first century’s super deluxe box sets, writing about music has taken many forms, which sometimes can enrich a listening experience. A good music review can inspire a new purchase or even make a listener seek out forgotten treasures. Maybe Frank didn’t understand. Maybe Frank didn’t want to understand (and depending on whom you believe, he borrowed the phrase from any one of about five people, including actor Martin Mull). Whatever, the importance of music scribes hasn’t escaped music fan Fraser Marshall.
In an age where we now have access to more music than ever and the rise of the internet has meant there are now more budding scribes out there, Fraser hit upon a plan… A plan not only to highlight some of the best independent music websites, but to also sit down with prolific reviewers and find out what makes them tick.
Not all good ideas come to full fruition, as Fraser explains below. For the first time, you can now read the full interview Lee Realgone gave Fraser back in June ’16. Our many thanks to Fraser for not only being interested in what we had to say, but also for allowing us to publish the interview at Real Gone.
Maybe one day Reviewing the Reviewer will become a reality but, in the meantime, it’s over to Fraser…
Reviewing the Reviewer
I had an idle thought. I wondered whether there was any mileage in interviewing music reviewers.
There’s a great podcast I listen to called Comedian’s Comedian, by a comic called Stuart Goldsmith. He interviews stand ups about the process of writing and performing comedy.
Having written short music reviews for a local newspaper for a few years, and having spent many a year writing articles and conducting interviews for the fan club magazine of a fairly well-known British rock band, being an active member of a number of online music forums and blogs and knowing a few people that write for well-respected music sites and publications, I thought there could be an opportunity to learn from others doing the same.
Could that approach reveal anything insightful about the art of reviewing music? Could it give some insight into why people review, what their process is, whether they think there’s any merit in star systems or marks, what do they feel the purpose of reviews are, what’s the review that they feel they got wrong, that kind of thing.
I conducted a couple of reviews while putting out feelers to see if there was any wider interest. I had one more potential interviewee, but after that ran into a brick wall. I emailed quite a few people. Some writing for well-known musical publications, some more niche, online review sites. None of the speculative approaches I made got any interest, and so I’ve mothballed the idea.
However, the two interviews I did complete were, I think, an interesting insight into the art of music reviewing, and when Lee from Real Gone asked if I would let him put his review on his site, I was more than happy to agree.
I feel that the interview with Lee shows quite how much thought goes into writing and curating a site like his. A few months ago, Lee found himself on the wrong end of a fanbase seemingly enraged by his observation that their band wasn’t entirely original, but missing his wider appreciation and enjoyment of the record. I would love it if those people could read this piece and understand what it is Lee attempts – and very, very largely succeeds – to do with his website.
My considerable thanks to Lee for giving his time to be interviewed, and my apologies that the idea didn’t have quite the legs I had hoped.
Lee Realgone – Real Gone (Interview conducted May 2016)
Lee Realgone does pretty much everything at www.realgonerocks.com.
The site badges itself with the strapline “Pop. Rock. Metal. Punk. Opinionations. Other Junk.” and it turns out to be a pretty accurate summary of what you might find.
Recent reviews have included death metal band Golohor‘s In Saeculis Obscuris EP, dream poppers Manon Meurt‘s eponymous EP, proggers Nine Stones Close‘s Leave and AOR legends Drive She Said‘s Pedal to the Metal.
Lee describes the process of being interviewed as a bit weird. “I’m usually the one asking the questions – I’ve never really been on the receiving end before!”
Why the pseudonym, Lee?
Why not? So many of my heroes have used them, y’know? Joey Ramone, Elton John, Fish… I think the thing here is, the name isn’t that important. My name barely appears on the site – it’s all about the words and the depth of those words, the love of the music.
What’s the focus of Real Gone?
It’s kind of found its feet a little way away from the original plan. That original plan was to uncover those great albums that lived in bargain bins – the buried treasure, hence ‘Real Gone’. …Although, that name also came from a fascination with Tom Waits. After a while, a couple of record labels got interested and then a couple of PR guys sent me some proper underground stuff, so I started to mix that in. …And then there’s the AOR. It might be bloody unfashionable, but it’s always been important to me. Back in the 90s, I wrote pieces for AOR fanzines… and then in the early noughties, I joined a website promoting AOR and melodic rock. I soon realised I had to move on from there as I felt stifled by the obsessive narrow-mindedness of it all. The AOR scene is a bit like that; there are too many guys out there who barely listen to anything else and seem to think if nobody writes a bad review, the scene will somehow survive on goodwill. I got to the point where that really irked me. I thought it would be good if somebody actually reviewed that stuff somewhere less specialist – and with perhaps a more honest, less biased point of view. I’d say Real Gone was born of necessity. After some time out, I wanted to write again, but I had to do it on my own terms – write about what I wanted without any editorial or in-house politics getting in the way. It was clear the only way I’d get that was to go it alone.
Back in 2009, when Real Gone started properly, there wasn’t somewhere you could go and read opinions on Journey and Survivor, or whatever, alongside pieces on punk, death metal and jazz. As far as I know, there still isn’t. It’s about variety. Not becoming stuck with just one thing. That’s what I do now…and that’s what I’ll keep doing. There’s a cult audience out there and there are people who want to read stuff with genuine detail.
What qualifies you to review music?
That’s very formally put. [laughs]… It’s my love of music that keeps me ticking and I wanted to share that with whomever would be interested. I’ve always been good with words. I don’t play or sing myself, but I like to think I can at least help spread the word when it comes to hearing stuff that’s worth hearing…especially now that sites like Bandcamp have helped so many DIY musicians to get their work out there. Yeah, I know Frank Zappa said that, “most rock journalism is people who can’t write interviewing people who can’t talk for people who can’t read”, or whatever, but he also said “don’t read your press, weigh it”, so I’m here trying to help some bands with the weight of their press. There are some superb bands out there whose press coverage thus far is positively anaemic.
As an aside to my not playing or singing, I’d like to add, that means my reviews are more about gut feelings and emotions – the reaction the music brings out… and the bands seem to really like that. They like that I can get across how their music makes me feel without getting too bogged down with the muso technicalities. It mightn’t always work out, but the plan is for readers to have half an idea of how something sounds just through the descriptors, y’know? I try not to overthink stuff too much. If you do that, it’s too easy to remind yourself that what you’re essentially doing is attempting to describe a selection of noises. That becomes a stupidly obtuse concept if you overthink it.
That makes sense! But, I think there are two different ways it can be done; it could be as you describe above – and I think most music reviewing falls into that category – but equally, it is possible to use the technical terminology to convey a different set of information as long as it’s to an audience that’s au fait with that argot. Not if you’re just throwing in musicology terms to show off. It’s probably more niche though!
Do you have to solicit material?
Not any more. There are thirty or so review requests coming in on a weekly basis and to do everything to the standard I feel Real Gone‘s readers are now used to (and deserve) there’s only time to cover six or seven. I did solicit a couple of labels back in the very early days, though. After putting together all those pieces I’d created Real Gone specifically to write, I looked towards the AOR interests I mentioned earlier. One label was surprisingly forthcoming… others weren’t. I later found out that one of the labels that ignored my emails has no promotions or PR department to speak of; they do everything via word of mouth and goodwill knowing they have an audience. With that audience now approaching sixty, it’ll be interesting to see what happens when they need to secure a new audience. It might not work out.
I do have a process of sorts where I decide what gets reviewed and when, though. You’ve gotta have that, otherwise it’s just chaos. If a band comes to me on their own without the aid of a label or without a PR company as intermediary, I’ll pretty much always give their work priority, since they’ve so obviously heard about Real Gone via friends or wherever, checked it out and liked it. The fact that they’ve actively sought me out and then want an opinion – knowing they’ll get the full bangs and whistles when it comes to detail – that’s so flattering. I’ll also give a bit of priority to stuff I know will get shared. Like everyone, I get a kick when things I’ve written get to their target audience and gain a reaction. If I know a PR company has previous of not sharing, they’ll get pushed down the list. I once had a guy from a PR company tell me that reviews weren’t worth sharing, as only the band’s friends read them. The same guy also told me that social media was a waste of time when it came to band PR. Really? Most people would disagree, sunshine. There’s a lesson here for bands to choose their representation wisely. If a PR company has years and years’ worth of experience pre-dating the internet boom, before signing up, you’ve gotta make sure they know how the internet works and that they’re not just jaded after too many years slogging away.
How much choice do you get about which releases or concerts you review?
I get absolutely free range with regard to what I choose to review…or not. There’s only me. I don’t get paid for this and I don’t have to answer to anyone. I like it that way. With so many of the reviews covering bands just starting out, I go into a lot of stuff blind with few to no expectations. It’s always gratifying to hear something great…something that I’m helping to bring to a bigger audience.
You mention that you don’t get paid. The site is ad-supported; does that cover costs, or are you really doing this for the love of it?
Aside from the Google one – which if I were hoping to get money from, I’d have a very, very long wait – the ads are just there for decoration, filling a bit of white space. I don’t do this for money, it really is for the love of the music. I knew someone who started a site round about the same time and they pulled the plug after a year because it hadn’t made them any money. Did they really expect it to? Really? Real Gone is seven years old this year and sometimes I still feel like it’s a fight to get noticed among the noise.
Does it cover any costs at all?
The advertising? No. The website costs me a fair amount to run every year… And it’s not it’s cheap either. The hosting costs are astronomical in contrast to the returns. In terms of revenue, I get about four pence per week for the Google ad. …And on top of the hosting, there’s the URL renewal. I’ve ploughed a lot of money into the site just to keep it alive. I’ve actually had a few bands comment on the site’s level of dedication, since they’ve also noticed that so many small sites that were active five years back have fallen by the wayside, but Real Gone‘s still there…and updated regularly.
Does it matter if a review is uncomplimentary?
I don’t think it matters. People deserve to hear both sides of an argument. I know there are bands and labels out there who actively sweep all their bad press under the carpet instead of sharing…and who knows, maybe if I were them I’d do the same, but from my current perspective, I don’t necessarily trust my instincts when I see that an album has had only glowing praise across the board. Few things are that perfect.
Negative reviews can be fun in their own way. It’s not that I’m mean or actually enjoy sticking the knife in [laughs] …it’s more that a negative review allows me to use words or phrases I might not have used in a positive one, if that makes sense. Turning words into amusing sentences can be entertaining, though not always for those on the receiving end. I feel duty bound to mention at this point that the amount of truly negative press at Real Gone is minimal. [laughs] There are reviews that have negative bits in them, that’s a different story – those have praise too. We always aim to be constructive.
Have you had hate mail or threats for a review?
I haven’t had any serious threats for my work, no, but one guy did visit the website and give me a dressing down for something I wrote. The irony there was that he embarked on a huge rant, reinforced with bad language and still criticised my lack of vocabulary!
Conversely, have you been offered inducements to give a good review?
[laughs] Never! Do bands do that?
Well, maybe for the bigger players!
Going back to what I said earlier about bands contacting me directly and that being flattering… If I’ve said something useful, sometimes I’ll get contacted by that band’s friends and they’ll hit me up for a review of their band… That’s when Real Gone is at its most gratifying, when it hits that snowball effect. Back at the beginning of 2015, purely by accident, I discovered the debut EP by Italian punk band The Nuts. I loved it so much, I just had to give it a review, even though nobody had approached me to do so. That led to me reviewing a bunch of other Italian punks for weeks, since their friends liked what I did and that in turn prompted a couple of DIY labels to get in touch.
Right now, there’s a similar effect with some death and black metal releases. At the end of last year, I reviewed a release from a small label based in Russia. A few days later, the label boss dropped me an email asking if I’d give coverage to more of his releases. He subsequently sent me nineteen items for potential review. The link with him is ongoing…and the best thing of all is that the original review wasn’t even that complimentary in places. It’s obvious he looked at the depth and detail and realised I did a good job, so, good or bad, he wanted more opinions. More labels should be like that… it really does all go back to Zappa’s theory about weighing press. People are talking about your product; that’s the most important thing here.
What is the purpose of a review?
I’d say to inform and hopefully entertain. Sometimes there’s joy in buying an album blind – especially in the case of bands you’ve loved for years – but sometimes it’s handy to be pre-warned if you’re about to spend hard earned cash on the equivalent of Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music. Obviously, with various sound clips flying about with the aid of the net, reviews aren’t necessarily held with the same kind of clout they were in the 70s and 80s…but there are a core of people who still enjoy reading about music. At Real Gone, I’m still mixing up reviews of things that are yet to come out, things that are out and bubbling in the underground and sometimes things that have been out for years, purely because I wanted to write. I couldn’t say I’m a gatekeeper for people of similar tastes, as nobody really knows what I’ll cover next. If there’s metal today, it could be folk tomorrow, or a review of XTC‘s English Settlement, y’know, just because I can. Although the coverage is broad, hopefully the eclectic approach connects with some like-minded music obsessives out there.
What’s your process for a review?
I work on the same or similar processes every time. I’ll make some skeleton notes on first listen and then add to them as I go – or change them completely – depending how subsequent listens pan out. In a lot of cases, reviews are mostly formed at a very early stage. Obviously, this means that years down the track my opinions of an album might be vastly different – for better or worse. That’s the nature of music, though, isn’t it? I think we can all say we own albums we love that we weren’t sure of – or even didn’t like – on first listen. The big difference from a reviewer’s perspective is that bands can’t necessarily wait for months – years, even – until you’re sure of how you feel.
Do you make a distinction between listening as a reviewer and listening as a music fan?
Yeah…it’s important to draw a line between listening as a reviewer and personal listening time as a fan. There’s always a danger of attempting to collate thoughts about whatever happens to be on the stereo at any given time. When that starts to happen, it’s time to step away for a few days and try to switch off. It’s really, really difficult. Also, with there not being any money involved, it’s important to draw a line and have weekends and evenings as time where the website can be put to one side. I always make an effort at weekends to pull out favourite albums for quality listening time, purely from a fan perspective.
Do you use a scoring or star system to mark reviews? Irrespective of whether you use them, what do you think of scored reviews?
I’ve never believed in giving straight out scores. There are lots of potentially interesting reviews for 3/5 albums that just would get passed over. Whether they realise it or not, people kind of instinctively gravitate towards really negative stuff or absolutely glowing praise. By not giving scores, I’m ever hopeful that people will actually stop and take in the details and work stuff out for themselves.
Are there too many reviewers around these days? How do you feel about the democratisation of reviewing that the internet and podcasting has enabled?
Is there such a thing as too many reviewers? Sure, the more out there means there’s more competition for Real Gone, but as I said before, so many seem to give up at the first hurdle. …And besides, thanks to sites like Bandcamp, we’ve now got access to more music than ever before, too, so it’s all swings and roundabouts, really.
What’s your favourite review?
That’s a tough question, but if you’re gonna put me on the spot, I’d go for Mojo‘s critical mauling of Keith Moon‘s Two Sides of the Moon when that was reissued circa 2006. Sadly, nobody seems to have reprinted it anywhere online. ..it was so funny; but of course, it was an easy target. That album was a car crash and even Moony knew it.
Other stuff that’s really inspired me is stuff from farther back – the great pieces Cameron Crowe wrote for Rolling Stone, or one of Lester Bangs‘s long, rambling pieces for Creem Magazine, which weren’t so much album reviews as thoughts collected on a page via a brilliantly wired mind. Bangs didn’t work in the same way as anyone else. If you didn’t like what he had to say – and he had a lot to say – in his eyes, you could just fuck off! If you can separate his asides from the meat of the material, there’s no question that he loved music. Luckily, some of his best work was collated as a book (Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung) and it’s well worth a read if you haven’t already.
When I asked that question, I meant your own review, but that’s really interesting! Do you have a favourite Real Gone review?
There are so many things I look back at now and think, “I wish I’d done that better” or, “that didn’t turn out quite how I’d hoped” but that’s given me a huge insight into how and why artists with long careers have albums they now hate, won’t talk about or perform. I’m really self-critical… However, there are a couple of things on site that I’ll stand by forever and the goodbye letter to Carter USM is one of them. It’s not a review in the strictest sense, but it gets a feeling across that I feel so many people can relate. It doesn’t matter if you like the band, it could be any band, it’s about letting go and realising that everything comes to an end.
What is the most important thing being a reviewer has taught you?
At this point, there are two important things I’ve learnt. One, to make a website work involves lots of time and dedication. So much dedication that not even Roy Castle would fathom it, and two: not everyone will understand or even share your work, even if it’s mostly positive and actually about them. It’s a funny old process.
Lee, thank you for your insight and your time. I’m much obliged!