Last week I read an article on The Guardian about the backlash that a reviewer had experienced over their career of opining on television shows and movies and I saved the link because I wanted to come back to it. That night the article occupied my thoughts and I remembered my very first experiences with reviews and how influential they were for me at the time and ever since. Reviewers, sometimes classed as critics, have taken huge amounts of flack and abuse when their musings have met with disfavour, with those they are writing about. But reviewers play a huge role in driving people toward records, plays, books, TV shows, and movies – whatever their evaluations may be.
When I was 15 in the middle years of the 1980s, my musical taste began to shift from the regular offerings of the charts or Ready To Roll and I found unsuspecting assistance in the reviews and opinions of two now iconic Kiwis – Chris Knox (of The Enemy, The Tall Dwarfs, and on his own as Chris Knox) and Karen Hay – the presenter of Radio With Pictures. Before I stumbled on their recommendations I thought the music on the radio or in the charts was the best there was and had achieved its lofty success on that basis alone. Knox and Hay unravelled a world of music I had no idea even existed and although some of the music I bought did not entirely register with me, the majority of it did.
Chris Knox wrote a regular column in The Listener, reviewing two records a week but his writing suggested much more that just what may be worth buying or not. He told stories of other artists I had not yet heard of, he talked about art, film, and politics and made his reviews sing with originality and purpose. For the first time in my life I took my milk round money to a record shop in town in Christchurch and bought a copy of The Fall’s “The Nation’s Saving Grace – all because a total stranger said it would be criminal not to.
Now, The Fall are still what would be classed as ‘alternative music’ and their audience has always been small but passionate. But from the first notes of the first track I was hooked. I did the same thing the next week and bought an album by The Birthday Party, and could not get into it at all. But I didn’t fall out with Chris Knox and his reviews – I figured that I wasn’t quite ready for what Nick Cave had to offer. Turns out I was right. So even though two glowing reviews had enticed me to purchase and resulted in a 50 percent success rate, I still read Knox’s reviews and I still bought records that he suggested I should.
Karen Hay was different but equally effective. After broadcasting a song by Echo and the Bunnymen, she waxed lyrical on the band, their current album and their whole back catalogue. It motivated me to bike to the record store after school and dutifully hand over my meagre savings. That record opened me up to new worlds that I could not have envisaged and I have been a life long fan.
So, two strangers, both offering their thoughts and evaluations of music. Both equally important to me as an early listener of music. How valuable is it that the opinions of people I had never met would set me on a course that has framed my musical taste? I’ve always appreciated critics and fully understand their role and their importance. While we may take those reviews differently and purchase, or not, the opinions of strangers have been hugely influential for many, many centuries. After all, we can’t all learn things solely on our own and it’s so beneficial to have occasional guides – so long as we do not call them ‘influencers’ as per the contemporary usage.