I’m starting another little side project today. I love lists. (I’ve got a few over in my sidebar if you want to take a look.) There’s something about the “organization” of lists that just suits me perfectly. I like order, organization, everything in it’s place. I have lists of things to do each day, lists of things to do tomorrow, lists of albums I need to buy, lists of albums I need to sell, lists of albums I love and like, lists of artists I need to make iTunes playlists (more lists!) for. I don’t think I’m quite as carried away as the guys from the movie High Fidelity are, but my wife and some of my friends might disagree. In 1978 I found a book titled Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums compiled by Paul Gambaccini. I loved going through the book and comparing my favorite albums with the ones chosen by a group of nearly four dozen journalists and critics. It was a small, simple book and most of the entries were simple listings with label info, release dates and tracks. Some of the albums featured a short blurb by a writer who had chosen it as his number one favorite. The second half of the book was even more fascinating, as each of the contributors was asked to list their Top Ten albums of all time. Gambaccini updated the book ten years later in 1987, cutting it to 100 albums but including an essay about each album and enlarging it into a “coffee book” size tome. In 2005 Rolling Stone went far deeper and released a The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time (based on an issue of the magazine from December 2003). Using what they called a “blue-ribbon panel of experts and true fans” (hey, what about me, I’m a true fan!) they published the “definitive” list for every rock and roll collector. 273 voters (singers, songwriters, musicians, producers, managers, critics, label executives and more) cast ballots. To their credit they cast a wide net: Britney Spears got a vote, as did Pete Seeger. There were no restrictions on albums, any album was eligible for a vote. They did, however, use a “weighted point system developed by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young under the supervision of the editors of Rolling Stone.” I’m not sure exactly what that means or how the “weighed” the votes, but apparently there was some “massaging” of the results. Regardless, it’s a fascinating book. Of course the first thing I did was look through it and wonder in amazement at how some of my favorite albums were not even included; how some of my least favorite albums placed so high; and at how many of my favorite albums seemed to place in just about the same general area as they would on my Top 500 list.
So, I’ve decided to begin my trek through the book, listening and writing about each of the 500 albums listed therein. I’ll probably only cover one every week or two, so it may take five or ten years for me to get through the entire book, but what the hell. It’s the journey that counts, right? I currently have about 300 of the 500 CDs in my collection, so it also means I’ll have to spring for the rest as the process unfolds. I’ll make a note in the title of each blog entry that is related to this side project so it’s readily apparent the post is about one of the Rolling Stone albums. First up, their Number One album of all-time: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles.
Rolling Stone calls it “the most important rock & roll album ever made” and yeah, it’s pretty hard to argue with that. Just consider the fact that it placed number one in all three of the books I mentioned above, covering a 30 year time span. However, even though I agree with that statement it doesn’t mean it’s my favorite rock & roll album of all-time. Far from it. It’s quite possible to agree that an album is “important,” “historical,” “ground-breaking” and even “great” without actually “liking” it (however, don’t get me wrong, I do like this album a lot). I’d even go so far as to say that I might consider some albums “better” than others that I actually prefer to listen to more often. My list of “favorite” albums might not be exactly the same as my list of “the greatest” albums. Emotion, sentimentality and lots of other intangible factors play a huge part in what I “like,” what I listen to and what I consider a favorite. Eddie Rabbit’s first album may not be anywhere near as good an album as Beggar’s Banquet by The Rolling Stones, but I probably listen to it more often. I like The Beatles. I have enormous respect for The Beatles. But, I’m not a Beatles fanatic. Through the years I’ve certainly listened to St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a lot, but it probably wouldn’t place in my list of Top 100 favorite albums. It’s a classic, of course, I won’t argue with that, but I just don’t listen to it that much. On the other hand, John Lennon’s first solo album, Plastic Ono Band, is in my Top Ten. You figure it out.
Lots better writers than I have written books worth of material on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with far more insight and wisdom that I could ever aspire to. I can only tell you what it does for me. I was eleven years old when the album was released. I was far too young at the time to truly appreciate the innovation and creativity the band brought to this particular release. Looking back now it’s easy to see, but only if taken in the context of the times. Most of the techniques, ideas and approaches to making music that they pioneered on this are second nature now. It’s probably pretty hard for anyone who didn’t grow up in the sixties to begin to understand how monumental this music was at the time, what a real listening experience it must have been when dropped upon the unsuspecting public. And keep in mind that all this fantastic sounding music with all its layers and instruments and vocals and sound effects was done with four-track tape machines! George Martin’s part in all of this cannot be overestimated.
My favorite songs from this album have always been “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” “Getting Better” and “Good Morning Good Morning.” I don’t care what John Lennon says, the psychedelic lyrics and sound of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” can’t be anything other than a salute to LSD. It would have to be the biggest coincidence in the history of mankind for him to have not written the song reflecting on his experiences with the drug with that title. I love the majestic construction of “She’s Leaving Home.” It’s truly breathtaking. “With A Little Help From My Friends” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” are always fun. Truth is almost every song on this album is part of my musical DNA, either through the radio, the album itself or just American culture in general. The only song that really doesn’t do much for me is “Within You Without You.” It’s one of the only songs on the album that feels “inauthentic” to me, as if the eccentric production exists mainly for it’s own sake. It’s my understanding that Harrison is the only Beatle playing on this, that the rest of the musicians are Indian. And I’m all for experimentation of this sort, I just don’t think it works on this song. I’d love to hear a version done in a more typical Harrison arrangement. And then, of course, there is “A Day In The Life,” probably the single biggest, grandest, most sumptuous “grand finale” ever recorded on a modern day album. It’s also, from what I’ve read, one of the few true collaborations between Lennon and McCartney at this point in time, being composed of two song fragments that were worked into this final piece.
You can’t mention Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band without also noting the groundbreaking cover artwork which marked the beginning of albums being considered true visual art as well. It’s also, apparently, the first album of the rock era to contain complete lyrics to songs, something that would become almost mandatory in later years. And one last thing to consider: no singles were taken from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band. It was a number one album around the world and yet no singles were pulled from it in a time when AM radio and 45RMP singles drove the record business. Truly amazing and a testament to the power of this album.
#1 Rolling Stone: The 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time (2003)
#1 Critics’ Choice: The Top 100 Rock ‘n’ Roll Albums Of All Time (1987)
#1 Rock Critics’ Choice: The Top 200 Albums (1978)
Somewhere between #100 and #200 on my list of all-time favorite albums