Introducing Canon Fodder: Idolator’s Look At The Ever-Revolving Music-Dork Dogmas

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Ed. note: Every two weeks, it seems, some magazine, TV network or blog releases its “Top 100 So-and-so music things of all time” list. Often, these rankings simply recycle the same set-in-stone music-geek beliefs that were established years ago–Pet Sounds rules, as does London Calling, etc.–but because there are often shifts in the critical canon, we’ve asked alarmingly frequent Idolator commenter (and occasional guest editor) Chris “dennisobell” Molanphy to start keeping track of them for a new column we’re calling “Canon Fodder.” In this debut column, he reacts to this weekend’s interminable glut of “It was 40 years ago today…” navel-gazing, and it’s the last thing you’ll ever want to read about Sgt. Pepper.

In 1977 and again in 1987, British radio and TV personality Paul Gambaccini surveyed an array of U.S. and European broadcasters and rock critics to determine the “Top Rock ‘n’ Roll Albums of All Time.” To no one’s surprise, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped both polls handily–in ’87*, by what Gambaccini called “a bigger margin than ever.”

You’d think that, just by polling people exactly 10 and 20 years after Sgt. Pepper, Gambaccini was tipping off the panel to honor the Class of ’67’s most revered album. But actually, few of Gambaccini’s pollees placed Pepper at No. 1–Pepper‘s win was the result of its ubiquitous, obligatory placement somewhere in most of the media personalities’ top tens. In his 1987 book presenting the latest poll results, Gambaccini was openly disappointed that his own No. 1 album, the Beatles’ 1966 masterwork Revolver, didn’t even come close to the top tier:

This poll is obviously not fixed: the favourite album of the author of this volume has dropped a few places [since 1977 –from #4 to #17]. May he point out just a few highlights of this awe-inspiring long-player? … [W]hat platter contains on a single side a work of sublime art that will live for centuries, “Eleanor Rigby,” a good-time singalong like “Yellow Submarine,” a standard such as “Here There and Everywhere,” and bitter social commentary in the vein of “Taxman”? … Anyone for a recount?

It’s too bad Gambaccini didn’t conduct a third poll in 1997, because he might’ve turned up results he’d like better.

In 1998, the publishing arm of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire released the results of what it called “the most comprehensive sampling of musical tastes ever conducted.” With some 200,000 U.S. and U.K. voters participating, Revolver trumped Pepper for No. 1, for the first time in any major music poll. That may have looked like a fluke, but an update to the Virgin poll after the turn of the millennium showed no challenge to Revolver at the top despite lots of change on the list’s lower rungs. Then, in 2001, VH-1 polled hundreds of musicians, executives and journalists for a TV special, 100 Greatest Albums, and it produced a similar result: Revolver at No. 1, Pepper way down at No. 10.

One year after that, Rolling Stone polled its readers–for once, talking to the college kids it covets in addition to the Boomers it worships–and Revolver eked out a win over the No. 3-ranked Pepper (and No. 2-ranked Nevermind). These days, only Rolling Stone‘s critics and industry pals are propping up Pepper–it topped the magazine’s much-hyped 2003 “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list. But otherwise, in any poll of people not directly influenced by Jann Wenner, Revolver beats Pepper regularly. Even Rolling Stone is starting to quietly acknowledge this–its latest Album Guide (2005) features a Beatles essay by Rob Sheffield that confesses, “Revolver has steadily climbed in public estimation. These days, Revolver has earned its reputation as the best album the Beatles ever made, which means the best album by anybody.”

This should be massive news among rock geeks and keepers of the Boomer canon. So why isn’t it? In movie circles, there’s been some low-boil debate recently over whether the more populist The Godfather will someday surpass the critic-worshipped Citizen Kane as filmdom’s undisputed Greatest Movie; it hasn’t happened yet, but if Godfather ever tops a major poll, you can bet there’ll be headlines trumpeting it. But what’s happening in the rock canon is like Orson Welles’s Kane getting beaten by Welles’s own Magnificent Ambersons; no one’s making much of the changing of the guard, because the Fab Four are defeating themselves.

The fact is, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at 40 is, as a piece of art, none the worse for wear. It hasn’t changed. We have.

For starters, Americans have only had 20 of the last 40 years to properly judge Revolver. EMI’s 1987 release of the Beatles catalog on compact disc standardized the group’s pre-Pepper albums in favor of their British versions, rectifying Capitol USA’s egregious mid-’60s chop-shop editions of the group’s first seven LPs. The last album to suffer at Capitol’s hand was Revolver, which lost three tracks in its original 1966 U.S. release – all songs by John Lennon (“I’m Only Sleeping,” “Doctor Robert,” “And Your Bird Can Sing”). As Sheffield points out in the Album Guide, the restoration of the Lennon songs was fundamentally important in Revolver‘s appraisal by the general public.

However, I’d argue that making Revolver 100% whole was helpful but not really essential. Ask a fan of Revolver to tell you what they love about it, and they won’t gas on, Pepper-style, about thematic unity and the spirit of the times, man. They’ll talk about the songs. Take another look at the Gambaccini quote above, in which he runs down that killer tracklist. Or watch VH-1’s segment on Revolver that closes its “Greatest Albums” special – it features the usual array of famous talking heads, and each of them has a favorite tune: Art Garfunkel extols “Here There and Everywhere”; Chuck D hypes “Got to Get You Into My Life.” Revolver earns props from its fans not as an album qua album, but as a supremely fortuitous collection of songs. In terms of breadth of songs, Revolver is almost as wide-ranging as The White Album, but on a single disc, in under 35 minutes.

In short, it’s the Beatles’ greatest mixtape. Which makes Revolver perfect for the mixtape era. And that other record, not so much.

Lost in all the hype you’re hearing this month about how Pepper made the album important is the business impact of that pop happening. Sgt. Pepper was, for the ’60s music biz, the killer app. It wasn’t the first album to read like an album (thank you, Frank Sinatra and Brian Wilson), it was just the most successful–just like Apple’s iPod wasn’t the first MP3 player, it was just the one that captured the public’s fancy.

Pepper made the album, not the single, the standard unit of measure for popular music. Once the industry saw, in 1967, that long-playing albums with no singles could sell as well as or better than 45s, the whole emphasis changed. Music was meant to be heard, enjoyed, judged and, most important, purchased at length. Labels built their economic foundation around people’s willingness to buy bundles of songs more often than they paid for individual ones.

That’s a pretty dubious legacy. The big fight between the music industry and its customers over the last decade–starting with the elimination of the single and exploding with the rise of Napster and file-sharing–can be laid at the feet of Sgt. Pepper, the album that made greedy label bosses think they could sell song bundles forever.

Pepper, as art, doesn’t really deserve this legacy: it has its strengths–a great sense of mood, if not coherence; the cover art; Ringo’s best-ever vocal performance; “A Day in the Life” –and it’s easy for post-Boomer critics to beat it up too much.

Still, the rise of the once-underrated Revolver is an understandable reaction to decades of Pepper-is-God propaganda; one day, Gen-Z kids might get sick enough of Nevermind hype to adopt another Nirvana album (it’s already starting with In Utero). More to the point, it’s understandable that modern rock fans, especially young ones, would feel closer to the Beatles album that feels less like an ornate arts-and-crafts project and more like a chopped-n-screwed iPod playlist.

Final note: Your guest Idolator still prefers Pepper to Revolver. What can I say? It was the first non-Sesame Street album I adopted as my own.

* The ’87 Gambaccini poll is an amusing ’80s time capsule. Among the poll’s anointed 100 discs were Huey Lewis & the News’s Sports, Don Henley’s Building the Perfect Beast, and one of U2’s most flaccid albums, The Unforgettable Fire. And all five original MTV VJ’s are on the panel; J.J. Jackson’s favorite record is Roxy Music’s Avalon–that old smoothie!