Friday, June 01, 2007

it was 40 years ago today

...I guarantee every blog posting alluding to what I'm about to allude to will use that same title, or some nearly identical variant thereof.

Because it was 40 years ago today that The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band was released in the UK (a day later in the USA for some reason). This isn't going to be an album review, but it's interesting to reflect on why this is without a doubt the most famous pop/rock album of all time. My view is that it's for reasons largely divorced from the musical content of the album.

  • 1967, the Summer Of Love, homosexuality and abortion de-criminalised, the Pill newly widely available, the Beatles, already the biggest band in the world, surfing the wave of this particular cultural Zeitgeist
  • the most famous, by a huge margin, album cover of all time
  • the shift of emphasis from singles to albums as the primary vehicle of expression for rock bands (SPLHCB having no singles released from it, the pre-album tasters Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane being omitted from the album)
  • an increased willingness by contemporary critics (Kenneth Tynan being an obvious example) to seriously consider popular music as Art with a capital A
The slight irony is that in the cold light of day this is by no means their best album, in fact I'd put it in the following position in my Top 5 Beatles Albums:
  1. Abbey Road
  2. Revolver
  3. The White Album
  4. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band
  5. Rubber Soul
Another strange thing about The Beatles is, despite their pre-eminent position as most famous and best-selling rock band of all time, their almost total failure to actually rock. It's a strange and nebulous concept, hard to define except by repeated examples. So here goes: bands of similar vintage who undoubtedly do rock: The Who, The Rolling Stones. Bands of similar vintage who equally undoubtedly don't: The Kinks, The Doors. None of which is intended as a criticism; there are things you can do other than rock, and these bands did them very well.

I think, personally, it's all down to the rhythm section: The Beatles were hampered by having Ringo on drums, and The Doors were hampered by not actually having a bass player. There's no way you can do something as sinuously cloven-hooved as Jumpin' Jack Flash when you're picking out the bassline with your left hand on a Fender Rhodes as Ray Manzarek was. Whereas the Stones had Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, and The Who had John Entwistle and Keith Moon, whom I respectfully submit as the best rhythm section in rock history. Any views?

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