Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Aesthetics of Rolling Stone Magazine, part I

A few days ago I was looking at the "greatest" lists compiled by Rolling Stone Magazine. These include the 500 greatest albums, 500 greatest songs and the 100 greatest Beatles songs. Let's have a look and see if we can 'reverse-engineer' what aesthetic criteria they might be using. It certainly isn't sales, which is refreshing. According to Wikipedia, the biggest selling album of all time is Thriller by Michael Jackson followed by AC/DC, Pink Floyd, Whitney Huston and others of the usual suspects. But Rolling Stone's 'greatest' list, which presumably means musically greatest, has the Beatles at numbers one, three, five and ten; the most spots, followed by Bob Dylan with two slots, four and nine. Here is the list:

  1. The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
  2. The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)
  3. The Beatles: Revolver (1966)
  4. Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (1965)
  5. The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)
  6. Marvin Gaye: What's Going On (1971)
  7. The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (1972)
  8. The Clash: London Calling (1980)
  9. Bob Dylan: Blond on Blond  (1966)
  10. The Beatles: The Beatles, universally known as The White Album (1968)
One interesting thing about this list is that all the albums date from between 1965 and 1980 with seven out of ten from 1965 to 1969. That's a pretty significant period for popular music. Coincidentally that is also the moment in time when I became captured by music--first popular music as represented by The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and by early 1969, classical music by J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Dvorak. I purchased Sgt. Pepper's, Revolver, Blond on Blond and The White Album when they first came out on vinyl. Alas, I lost those originals years ago!

Now let's look at what Rolling Stone says about their choices:
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. From the title song's regal blasts of brass and fuzz guitar to the orchestral seizure and long, dying piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life," the thirteen tracks on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles' eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.
 The concept of adopting a different persona was Paul's and the others just went along. It really doesn't tie together much of the album, only the two title tracks and maybe "With a Little Help from my Friends". Two tracks that should have been on the album, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were instead issued as a single and later found their way on to Magical Mystery Tour. As for sound, the album was another step in the enormous technical advances that the Beatles were making in realizing their visions in sound. The cover art was very cool and the idea of the whole package being significant was also an advance. This was the first album to include all the lyrics to the songs. But none of this really captures what makes this the "most important" rock and roll album, does it? Or does it? I suspect that greatness is all in the details. Beethoven struggled with themes for months or even years before they reached their final form. The simplicity of the theme to the 4th movement of his 9th Symphony belies its long genesis. Similarly, the wonderful achievement of Sgt. Pepper's is the product of a thousand small details. Leaving aside the album art, there is the songwriting. Masterpieces like "A Day in the Life" or "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" or "She's Leaving Home" or unique originals like "Within You Without You" are utterly remarkable as songs. But equally important was the execution. All of the technical prowess accumulated over the course of their preceding albums and more was put to work here. Things like the huge piano chord that ends "A Day in the Life" were carefully crafted to the extent that when the first attempt was unsatisfactory they assembled three pianos, one harmonium and five players to hit the massive E major chord. Then the long sustain was extended by upping the recording sensitivity at the mixing board. Oh, and one interesting thing, the song begins in G major, not E major...

This is already long enough for one post so let's end this part with:


Anonymous said...

"Pet Sounds" 2nd best album of all time! Is this a joke or just a desperate effort to include a US band in the list?

A larger question is, what is rock n roll? For RS magazine it is, "whatever white teenagers listened to in the period 1965-1995." But that's a sociological, not a musical, definition. Musically, this list is an embarrassment. Why not have a list entitled "Our favorite Beatles and Dylan albums along with a few pale imitations." But throwing in Marvin Gaye is insulting? Insulting to Marvin Gaye. Why is he there? Because his anti-Vietnam album "What's going on" resonated among white kids. He's not there for his music. Because if he were, then so would James Brown, a man who towers over everyone in that list and the only one to whom the label "genius" fits. And then BB King would be there, Ray Charles, not to mention Little Richards, all of whom had greater musical influence than the Stones or the Beatles (the latter's influence being in fact surprisingly thin).

So this list seems a bit like a top-10 "Greatest Organ Works by Bavarian Catholic Hog Farmers."

Bryan Townsend said...

As I said, I'm going to try to "reverse engineer" the aesthetic behind this list. I think your comments will help. There is obviously a large sociological component here that I will note and then probably ignore! Yes, James Brown and B. B. King are huge figures. Not to mention Ray Charles and Little Richard, the latter of whom was a big influence on the Beatles. But I really don't see anything wrong with the Beatles and Dylan albums being included here. The reason why the Beatles' influence was less than it might have been is an interesting one, that will try and delve into later on... Another question is why isn't there an Elvis Presley album included?

Anonymous said...

Of course sometimes I try to be provocative by going a little over the top... :-)

Dylan and the Beatles should be at the top of any list of best-white-pop acts. I have absolutely no problem with that. (I am also enormously fond of Leonard Cohen, but to call that rock n roll would be a stretch, I guess.)

Bryan Townsend said...

I'm sure with you on Leonard Cohen! I'm not actually trying to come up with my own top ten greatest pop albums, I'm just trying to get an idea of what Rolling Stone's criteria were.

RG said...

I seem to recall you did your own Top Ten a few months ago.

Bryan Townsend said...

That was this post: http://themusicsalon.blogspot.com/2011/07/classical-music-top-ten-hits.html

Yes, I actually did. I had forgotten. But that was a top ten 'classical' which, since it was me, included two Beatle albums...