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Before Being Criticized, They Were Music Critics

chrissie hynde

As long as the human race has created art, there have been other humans around to criticize it, believing they can do better than the artist. Some ink-stained wretches made a much better noise on record than the racket they made as music critics, the most successful being Chrissie Hynde.

Before she fronted the Pretenders, Chrissie’s name was a byline in England’s New Musical Express (NME). Hynde was helped — then hindered — by her fellow scribe and love interest, Nick Kent. The sassy attitude that permeates Pretenders’ classics like “Precious” and “Brass in Pocket” was loud and clear in Chrissie’s April 27th, 1974 review of The Velvet Underground: 1969 Live albums: “I mean here you are, some cheerleader with your jock boyfriend, straying into some ‘daring’ night club behind your parents’ backs, and this guy’s (Lou Reed’s) singing ‘When the blood shoots up the dropper’s neck and I’m closing in on death,’ and you’re staring into your Cherry Coke thinking ‘Omigod!’”

But Chrissie found she wasn’t made for the writing life or a life with the volatile Nick Kent, who noted of his NME time,I was in the right place at the right time, on the wrong drugs.” Hynde stated in Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming book that a crazed and jealous Kent burst into Chrissie’s later workplace, the boutique owned by Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, and walloped her with his belt. Kent then started his own group, the Subterraneans, and even gave himself credit for inspiring Chrissie to form the Pretenders, perhaps thinking he would then review her records and put her down in print.

Other critics who have put down their pens and picked up a guitar include Julian Cope of The Teardrop Explodes and Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group. But only one critic wrote a song that lodged itself in the Top 20 two different times by two different groups. That would be Brownsville Station whose “Smokin’ In The Boys Room” went to #3 for them in 1973 and #16 in 1989 for  Mötley Crüe.

Yes, “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room” seems low-brow for high-brow critics but as Bill Kirchen (Commander Cody guitarist) succinctly said: “’ Smokin’ in the Boys Room’ [written by Brownsville’s Cub Koda and Michael Lutz] is a great rock ‘n’ roll song. There would be a lot more ‘Satisfactions’ if it were easy. I mean, come on. You’re three-quarters of the way home with a title like that.”

But before his Brownsville days, Koda wrote his “Vinyl Junkie” column for Goldmine magazine. His love for rock n’ roll had started when his family moved from Detroit to the rural village of Manchester, MI.  Koda (real name: Michael Uszniewicz) recalled, “I walked into my first day in 7th grade at Manchester Junior High with pants pegged to 14 inches at the knee, thin necktie, dress shirt and vest, rat tail comb sticking out of my back pocket and a half jar of grease sculpted into my head. Staring across the room from me was a sea of crew cuts and pink scalps, Future Farmers of America jackets and those kind of dungarees that have a side pocket for holding your screwdriver. I thought I had died and gone to hell.”

He found a few kindred spirits, forming with his friend, Rusty Creech, the “Del-Tino’s,” a name Koda created “for no other reason than [Del-Tinos] sounded cool and greasy to us.” The short-lived group got some airplay when their single “Nightlife,” was used in HBO’s Vinyl, the 2016 series created by Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese.

After toiling for little pay in DJ jobs, Koda and the Brownsville boys hit some paydirt with a rockin’ version of Jimmy Cliff’s reggae song, “Let Your Yeah Be Yeah” which reached #60 on the charts in 1973.

After “Smokin’…”, Brownsville never placed another song in the Top 100, perhaps because Koda was too busy placing records in Goodwill bins in one of the coolest pranks ever pulled on an unsuspecting record-buying public.

To explain: whenever Brownsville was on the road, Koda would check out local Goodwills and Salvation Armies in search of bizarre 45s. He and a cast of rock ‘n’ roll characters, including Brownsville’s members and the band’s roadies, would record purposely out-of-tune, non-commercial songs like “Yukkum-Yukkum” and “Wild Little Willie, under the name “King Uszniewicz and His Uszniewicztones.” Several hundred 45s of the “King’s” efforts were slyly planted into Goodwill/Salvation Army bins across the nation where they were picked up and played.

Koda then planted a tale that Ernie “King” Uszniewicz (his father) formed this band in Detroit and Koda had discovered the records as they played in a bowling alley.

After Norton Records released the King’s Teenage Dance Party LP in 1989, the All Music Guide, aware of the prank, gave the record a four and one-half stars review (out of five). After Koda’s death in 2000, the hoax was fully revealed by guitarist/writer Dan Forte. Forte had contributed the liner notes to the compilation album Cub Koda – Welcome To My Job – The Cub Koda Collection 1963 – 1993.

Koda loudly wore his love for rock on his sleeve—and on his gravestone, shaped like a granite Fender speaker with the inscription: “Musician * Entertainer * Songwriter * Rocker * Bluesman * Journalist * Disc Jockey * Music Historian * Author * Actor * Musical Eclectic Extraordinaire.”

-Mark Daponte

Photo: Chrissie Hynde (Getty Images)

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2 comments on “Before Being Criticized, They Were Music Critics

  1. Cub Koda was a great music journalist. Los of his blues reviews are on All Music Guide and are just some examples of how talented a writer he was.

  2. Mark Hudson

    Prior to forming The Smiths, Morrissey wrote for Record Mirror, and essayed several short books including ones about The New York Dolls and James Dean.

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