Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tomorrow Never Knows

As a form of literacy, lists are undoubtedly provocative. Rolling Stone’s list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” posted on the web November 2003, is nearing six years old, but is still capable of eliciting a response. At the top of the heap is that old workhorse, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 42 years ago this summer. Modern critics never tire of compiling lists of favorites, a practice that was once a Victorian parlor game, a way to pass the idle hours. Apparently nothing recorded during the past forty years has managed to dislodge Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band from the revered #1 spot; in fact, the Beatles have four albums in the RS top ten (I’ve reproduced RS’s top twenty below). Of course, such lists are historically volatile and no doubt will change tomorrow, figuratively speaking.

It is remarkable—meaning it deserves to be remarked upon—that nine of the top ten greatest albums were recorded during the period 1965 – 1972 (the sole exception is the Clash’s London Calling, released in 1979, thus making the deck not appear too stacked). Four albums in the second group of ten (spots 11 through 20) also happen to be recorded during the same period, meaning thirteen of the twenty best were recorded 1965-72—65%. The sole Generation X album in the top twenty, Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991), is also the only surprise of the lot. Released late September 1991, the album sold six million copies during the first six months of its release (that is, through April 1992), but has sold only around two million copies in all the years since, thus proving that grunge, like bubblegum, has had its fifteen minutes of fame. Nevermind’s inclusion is a surprise because no rock critic who takes himself seriously would ever think of including an album of bubblegum music on any list of the greatest rock albums (except maybe Lester Bangs), given that bubblegum is considered the tawdriest form of commercialized pop music. As a form of symbolic cultural capital, apparently flannel is considered more authentic than polyester.

Fifteen years ago (summer 1994), my friend Michael Jarrett interviewed several renowned producers of jazz recordings, asking them about the influence of Sgt. Pepper’s. The answers were surprising. The specific question he asked was: “Did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band affect jazz production?”

TEO MACERO: It didn’t influence me. I always thought we were far ahead of the Beatles. We did experimental things back in the fifties. With Miles Davis, we used to use two or three different microphones, and when we came to the age of eight-tracks and so forth, we had a chance to pick up different sounds. We used to use all kinds of filters and reverb machines to give him the right amount of echo. If the echo didn’t please me, we would put it through another monaural machine, play it back at half the speed. We used to do all kinds of experimental things in the studios that nobody was doing.

HAL WILLNER: For me, some other things are more influential: records that inspired Sgt. Pepper. Absolutely Free meant a little more to me, and as an adult, I probably followed the Velvet Underground more and how that stuff came out of Varèse and out of A Love Supreme and Sketches of Spain. Those are amazing concept records.

MICHAEL CUSCUNA: It made me take more drugs for a little while. For some reason I was quite taken by the White Album, but Sgt. Pepper’s—the idea of album as a concept—didn’t seem to me that revolutionary. Surrealistic Pillow, which was the first album that really made me think of rock ‘n’ roll as not a top-40 situation, it had that effect on me. (Sound Tracks, pp. 92-93)

The significance and importance of Sgt. Pepper’s has no doubt been over-estimated, but that’s not my primary point. The reason two-thirds of the twenty greatest records in rock history were released 1965-1972 is because that is the period in which the majority of the first generation of rock critics—those who became rock critics, that is—came of age, during which rock music captured their imaginations. The key point is, in order to establish itself an institution, rock criticism necessarily had to establish a canon, a core group of essential and influential works that demonstrated rock music was a legitimate form of art. It is thus no coincidence that the “greatest” records were released during the formative years of the critics who would eventually champion them. Here’s a short representative list of what I would call the “first generation” of rock critics, all of whom (with the exception of Robert Christgau) graduated high school during the years 1963-68. All of them (with the exception of Lester Bangs, who was also the least academic in tone) were college educated, or attended college for awhile. All of them, I suspect, are deep admirers of the Beatles and Bob Dylan, key figures who enabled the establishment of rock music as art.

Robert Christgau (“Dean of American Rock Critics,” meaning the oldest) (b. April 18, 1942) – Began writing on rock ‘n’ roll for Esquire in 1967 (age 25), moved to The Village Voice in 1969.
Greil Marcus (b. 1945) – Began writing for Rolling Stone beginning in his early 20s, later Creem, The Village Voice, and other magazines.
Richard Meltzer (b. May 11, 1945) – Began writing for Crawdaddy! in 1967; authored an important early work of rock criticism, The Aesthetics of Rock (1970).
Jann Wenner (b. January 7, 1946) – Co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone magazine, the first issue of which was published November 9, 1967.
Paul Williams (b. May 19, 1948) – Started the first magazine of rock music criticism in America, Crawdaddy!, January, 1966 (age 17).
Lester Bangs (December 13, 1948 – April 30, 1982) – Wrote for Creem (first issue of which was published March 1969)
Nick Tosches (b. 1949) – Began writing rock criticism for Creem.
Dave Marsh (b. March 1, 1950) – Began writing rock criticism for Creem.

The Top 20 Of The RS 500 Greatest:
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles
2. Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys
3. Revolver, The Beatles
4. Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan
5. Rubber Soul, The Beatles
6. What's Going On, Marvin Gaye
7. Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones
8. London Calling, The Clash
9. Blonde on Blonde, Bob Dylan
10. The Beatles (“The White Album”), The Beatles
11. The Sun Sessions, Elvis Presley
12. Kind of Blue, Miles Davis
13. Velvet Underground and Nico, The Velvet Underground
14. Abbey Road, The Beatles
15. Are You Experienced?, The Jimi Hendrix Experience
16. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan
17. Nevermind, Nirvana
18. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen
19. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison
20. Thriller, Michael Jackson

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