Rock, Rot & Rule: The Ultimate Argument Settler
Ronald Thomas Clontle
Penguin Publishing, 1997
Hardcover, $25 (not available in paperback)
Unlike an encyclopedia, which seeks to provide the definitive answers to our most relevant queries, a literary examination of music should force us to revisit what we consider the “truth”. When evaluating a book about music, I look for a tome’s ability to inspire conversation, specifically argument(s) with other aficionados. While there is little consensus within the works, few writers would disagree that a spirited debate arising from their work is a positive thing. In 1997, a 33-year old former movie-extra (he’s prominently featured behind home plate in the Alan Alda/Brendan Fraser flop President Baseball) from the college town of Lawrence decided to challenge this consensus, seeking to create “the ultimate argument settler”. Ronald Thomas Clontle was confused at how his closest friends could all disagree about the quality of the music that MTV piped into their communal flat. “Some of us thought, for example, Nirvana, rocked; others would say they sucked; and there were some who thought they ruled”, he says. Set to finally resolve this conundrum, Clontle spend several hours compiling the thoughts of his friends, in addition to the customers and fellow employees at that famous Kansas post-hangover fail-safe, Java the Hutt Coffee Lounge. For basically every band that ever fell within the universe of MTV, 1980s AOR radio, RollingStone, and automated Clear Channel oldies stations, Clontle has compiled the views of his immediate surroundings on whether they believe the artist rocks, sucks or rules. Hence, Rock, Rot and Rule. Understanding that his book is already going to be the target of a “firestorm”, he decided to change “sucks” to “rots” to maintain the focus on the content rather than the perceived name-calling. While this was released over a decade ago, last week I was fortunate enough to find a copy at an abandoned B. Dalton. To give you a brief taste of what basically serves as a sub-100 page list (with an index!) of bands, with either of the three titular terms after their name, here’s a sampling of whom his buddies (or Clontle himself) would say, Rock:
Triumph, Offspring, the Beatles, “Punkadelic”, April Wine
KISS, Led Zeppelin, Who, Aerosmith, Madness, Everclear, King Missile, Madonna, Yes
311, Hanson, Frank Zappa, Supertramp, No Doubt, Neil Young, Jewel, Leann Rimes
Magazine, Television, Superchunk (and Jon Wurster’s Philly Boy Roy side project), The New Pornographers, most punk bands that aren’t found on Urban Outfitters t-shirts (specifically the Newbridge, NJ scene like Mother 13, who deserves credit for attempting to rock on Mt. Everest)
As Michelangelo Matos referenced in his review for CityPages in 1999, “Ronald Thomas Clontle doesn’t bother trying to persuade you that his opinions aren’t wrong–he doesn’t even try to convince you he knows what he’s talking about.” Far from serving as the Jacqueline Susann of rock criticism, Clontle describes himself not as a critic, but “a compiler of opinions”, although at a slim 98 pages, this $25 (!) glorified pamphlet seems to reflect as much of his own views as the public at large. Due to my wife’s past residence in the land of Rock Chalk Jayhawk, we’ve made a few trips to the Hutt, and I’ll admit that said milieu is fairly knowledgeable about music, although their recent addition of a refill charge makes me question the “bottomless” part of the Bottomless Wookiee (props to the Hutt for carrying most of the Hippy Johnny line of organic cauldron scrubbers, though).
Prior to the book’s release, the author attempted to defend the rock, rot and rule categorization to a largely-unsympathetic collective of public via a radio interview. When challenged on some of his more sacrilegious findings, such as why Neil Young rots, but Madonna rules, he replied:
“According to the people, Madonna had more overall quality in her body of work than Neil Young. Old Ways? Trans? Landing on Water? The one he did with Crosby, Stills and Nash – American Dream? I hated that record!”
Host Tom Scharpling implores how he could base his assessment on Young without hearing his entire catalogue. This becomes a theme amongst what caused a Spike in the number of quality callers, specifically those that take issue with Clontle’s assertion that Madness rules because “they started ska”. Scharpling, known for directing videos and keeping the flame of rock n’ roll burning through the late hours on WFMU’s The Best Show, honorably allows Clontle ample space to answer his critics. When called on the questionable judgment to title such a work of controversy “the Ultimate Argument Settler”, the following exchange occurs:
Caller: You call this ‘The Ultimate Argument Settler’, well I think it causes arguments.
Clontle: (Emphatically) Well I disagree…100%!
Rock, Rot and Rule’s significance will grow, due to its status as one of the final “from on high” publications before the internet allowed listeners to find and assess virtually any song ever written. This snapshot of a pre-Napster, pre-WinMX era served as a buying guide for parents seeking a CD for their emotionally-distant child (although Clontle was more of a cassette guy). While there is little in the way of written narrative, Rock, Rot & Rule includes at least eight photos, a brief introduction, and an acknowledgement of the forgotten-but-awesome movie Roadie, featuring Meat Loaf, Blondie, Roy Orbison and Alice Cooper (serving to reinforce my theory that any film from the late 1970’s-early 1980s featuring a hand-drawn caricature on the poster will never disappoint). I’d say that this book rules.