Idle worship, or revisiting the classics


July 4, 2004


Twenty-five years ago, Greil Marcus rounded up 20 members of the pioneering first generation of rock critics -- the folks having all of that fun in "Almost Famous" --and each weighed in for a book called Stranded with an essay praising the one album they'd choose for company if marooned on a desert island.

Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Rock Writers Reconsiders the Classics (Barricade Books, $16) is a new anthology that I co-edited with Carmel Carrillo that is essentially the carbon copy/evil flip side/sarcastic Generation X response. It collects 34 essays by some of the best of the current generation of rock writers, with each of them addressing an allegedly "great" album that he or she despises: "Tommy" by the Who, " Led Zeppelin IV," "Exile on Main Street" by the Rolling Stones," "The Dark Side of the Moon" by Pink Floyd, and so on.

If we want to be high-minded about it, we can call it a spirited assault on a pantheon that has been foisted upon us, or a defiant rejection of the hegemonic view of rock history espoused by the critics who preceded us. If we want to use the vernacular, we can say it's a loud, angry but hopefully amusing "f--- you" to the ubiquitous forces of nostalgia: the schmaltzy Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the tawdry VH1 "Behind the Music Specials" and the endless Rolling Stone magazine lists of the 500 Greatest Albums in Rock History (which never, ever seem to get it right).


When: 8 p.m. July 16

Where: Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North

Phone: (773) 342-0910

The point of the book isn't to make readers change their minds about works they hold near and dear; I agree with only about a third of the essays myself. It's to make them think about what they value in these allegedly great albums; about why, exactly, these works have been included in the canon, and about whether an art form as loud, rude and unruly as rock 'n' roll should even have a canon in the first place.

The following is a slightly edited version of the essay I contributed to the book. Some of the book's other Chicago-based contributors will join me in reading from their essays July 16 at Quimby's Bookstore, 1854 W. North. They include Allison Augstyn, Pioneer Press, Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot"; Carmel Carillo, various artists, "The Greatest Exes"; Dave Chamberlain, New City, Bob Marley's "Exodus"; Chrissie Dickinson, Chicago Tribune, Graham Parsons' "Grievous Angel"; Bob Mehr, Chicago Reader, U2's "The Joshua Tree"; Bobby Reed, Sun-Times, the Eagles' "Desperado", and Anders Smith Lindall, Sun-Times, Nirvana's "Nevermind."


The Beatles, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (Capitol, 1967)

For nigh on 39 years now, I have been hearing about that crazy-quilt mosaic of social, political and cultural upheaval called the '60s, which, as we all know from history class, our parents and VH1, was the time of Beatlemania, Bob Dylan, long hair, LSD, Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, Ho Chi Minh, free love, riots in the streets, hell, no (we won't go), tune in, turn on, freak out and by the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong.

Sounds like a hell of a party, but I wasn't there, and what's more, I refuse to feel sorry about missing it, because I have here the album generally considered the Numero Uno soundtrack of the time -- yep, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" -- and you know what? It sucks dogs royally.

We all know that music is a mighty strong signifier; in fact, there's nothing better than the sound of a particular song to send you rushing back in time to the point when you first heard it. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" takes a generation of Baby Boomers back to the best shindig of their lives -- a time when they were young and free and full of possibilities, yadda yadda yadda, you just had to be there. But all of that has little or nothing to do with the actual sounds on the album.

When the album was released, there was very little "serious" rock criticism in the mainstream press -- it's illuminating to note that the most famous examination of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" in its day was a brutal evisceration by pioneering rock crit Richard Goldstein in the New York Times. ("Like an overattended child, this album is spoiled. It reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises, and a 41-piece orchestra"). But the many, many chin-strokers who weighed in on it during the years that followed cheerfully played right into the grand con.

Writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Langdon Winner declared that, "The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week 'Sgt. Pepper's' was released" (and I've always wondered how on earth he could claim to know that). In A Day in the Life, rabid Beatleologist Mark Hertsgaard contends that "with its seemingly effortless articulation of the Flower Power ethos of freedom, fun and creative possibility," "Sgt. Pepper's" is virtually the '60s incarnate.

Adds Ian MacDonald in his otherwise clear-eyed Revolution in the Head: "Anyone unlucky enough not to have been aged between 14 and 30 during 1966-67 will never know the excitement of those years in popular culture."

I was 3 years old in 1967, so I can't say for sure, but I'll grant these boys the fact that everybody was listening to this album. Big deal, so what: What were they hearing? The boilerplate analysis holds that it is a great technical accomplishment and a testament to the power of multitrack recording, as well as the first flowering of rock 'n' roll as Art, and a work that perfectly captures the spirit of a generation throwing open the doors of perception and breaking on through to the other side in a frenzy of exploration -- psychedelic, political, sexual, you name it.

Well, that first bit is easily dismissed: The Beach Boys had already pulled off a more impressive technical feat in the studio in 1966 with "Pet Sounds," and the Beatles themselves had shown their mastery of the tape machine (with a little help from their friend George Martin) that same year with singles such as "Rain" and "Paperback Writer," as well as the masterful "Revolver." And it's only the muso gearheads who care about that sort of thing, anyway.

It's the other two claims -- the rock-as-Art and the spirit-of-a-generation raps -- that still resonate in the popular imagination, and those are what keep "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" in the spotlight decades later. To get to the bottom of these charges, we need to go to the audiotape. So let's listen, shall we?

The conceptual conceit is laid out on Pop artist Peter Blake's famous funereal cover and in the album's opening track. The Beatles are portraying an old-time Salvation Army-type band of the sort that their grandparents heard in the gazebos on Sunday afternoons. (No doors to the future opening here.)

It's been said that the Fabs adopted the role of a different group to free themselves from the expectations of making "Beatles music," but why they chose such a sentimental, old-fashioned, out-of-date ensemble remains a mystery. It certainly wasn't to parody Sgt. Pepper's combo, because the title track is a warm and loving homage in the form of a plodding rocker completely lacking in subtlety.

The crowd greets the group enthusiastically -- they can be heard cheering and laughing at what's presumably some onstage shtick during the trumpet solo -- and the emcee (Paul McCartney) and bandleader (Lennon) kiss the listeners' butts, fawning over them and telling them they're that "such a lovely audience" before introducing the sing-er, the one and only Billy Shears.

The opening theme seamlessly segues into "With a Little Help from My Friends" as the album takes the unique approach of getting the now-obligatory Ringo Starr showcase out of the way early on. Similar efforts such as the cover of "Matchbox" or the children's sing-along "Yellow Submarine" at least allowed Ringo to display a certain winsome charm, but "With a Little Help from My Friends" is something of a slap in the face to the guy, implying that he certainly can't get by on his own -- not with his looks, his drumming chops or Lord knows, his singing voice -- so he needs the assistance of his much cooler pals to accomplish anything. He sounds rather pathetic as he plays the Everyman pleading for someone to love, and his bandmates are condescending as they add their two cents via the backing vocals.

All in all, it's a judgmental little tune that makes fun of the fool on the hill rather than celebrating him, which is rather un-peace-and-love-like. On top of all that, the dah-dah-dah, dah-dah-dah melody and mid-tempo groove are banal and boring.

A frilly and dainty mock-celeste ushers in "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," a catchy but slight piece of psychedelic escapism. Lennon had already done this sort of thing better three months earlier on the single "Strawberry Fields Forever," in which he painted a stylized picture of returning to a scene from his youth. (McCartney offered his variation on this theme with "Penny Lane," which is also better than most of the tunes on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and Martin has said that the biggest mistake of his career was keeping those two tracks off the album.)

Though Lennon contended that it was purely coincidence that the initials of the song spell "L-S-D," you know that's what inspired his vision of tangerine trees and marmalade skies, and he drives the point home with the terrible pun about flowers that "grow so in-cred-i-bly high." It must not have been a great trip, because the music is definitely earthbound, tripping on the clunky three-beat transitions between verses and choruses, and mired in the weird, metallic, springy sound of the mix, which suggests that somebody was overdosing not on hallucinogens, but on Abbey Road's plate reverb.

Now it's McCartney's turn for a more-or-less solo bow. Mr. Optimism declares that he's perfectly content with his life -- he must have been the only person in the '60s who was -- and while he used to be mad at his school (wotta rebel!), it's "Getting Better" all the time because, oh, boy, he's in l-u-v. Hold on, though, there's something creepy going on just below the placid facade of romantic middle-class contentment.

Lennon's backing vocals are singing, "It can't get no worse," and now McCartney is telling us he used to be mean to his woman, he beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. This guy's a freaking misogynist, and I don't buy for a minute that he's "changing his scene." Like Travis Bickle, he's just waiting for an excuse to explode. That insistent piano is like a nervous facial tick, the waltz-like tempo is barely keeping him restrained, and it's time to run and lock the door when the tune dissolves into a psychedelic breakdown with droning sitar and echoed tabla. Hey, the Hell's Angels took LSD, but they didn't automatically start loving everyone. Remember Altamont?

Scary stuff, and perhaps I'd best stop free-associating. What a coincidence: Paul suggests the same thing on the very next tune. "I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in / And stops my mind from wandering / Where it will go." Wait a minute: I thought free-ranging intellectual exploration was the psychedelic ideal? Why is Macca trying to plug the leak and shut it down? The tune -- another lame, mid-tempo ballad with heavy overtones of vaudeville and the music hall -- gives us the answer: "It really doesn't matter / If I'm wrong I'm right / Where I belong I'm right."

This is the very definition of Baby Boomer myopia: "I'm the center of the universe, bub. I'm in charge now, and even when I'm wrong, I'm right!"

Lest the Beatles be accused of showing too much spine, the next number bears a conciliatory gesture to their parents' generation in the form of the saccharine, strings-drenched melodrama, "She's Leaving Home." It's an interminable step-by-step account of a chick leaving the nest in search of -- what great '60s Holy Grail? Political and social justice? Sexual equality? Spiritual enlightenment? -- nope, it's "fun, the one thing that money can't buy."

Oh, well, at least she's finally setting out on her own. But get this: The Beatles ally themselves with the girl's folks, handing them a tissue, consoling them and patting them on the back as they wring their hands and wonder what they did to drive her away. Some rock 'n' roll spirit there, guys! The Rolling Stones gave us the impression that they'd spit in mom and dad's faces to trumpet their little girl's deflowering. Now that's rock 'n' roll!

As Beat survivor-turned-hippie guru Allen Ginsberg noted, the Beatles were interested in closing the generation gap, not exploiting it for purposes of spurring on the Cultural Revolution. At least that's the net effect of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," where Lennon is pretty much curled up into himself instead of raging at the world (my favorite of his several modes), and his bandmates are all present with their worst traits at the forefront.

Ringo is maudlin and self-pitying, McCartney is bourgeois and nostalgic, Harrison is hippie-dippy. You could argue that John is sneering at the circus that the Beatles have become in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!," the song that ends Side 1 of the vinyl version of the LP, and that would be sort of admirable. But I think he's really just coasting, offering us more easy nostalgia -- the lyrics are lifted directly from an old poster that he found in a cafe -- set against a cheesy fairground melody and an elaborate but ultimately hollow production that takes the theme way too literally, injecting spliced-and-diced tape loops of circus calliopes.

Yawn, and yawn again for the opener on Side 2, Harrison's Indian trifle, "Within You Without You," which you probably can't recall, even though you've heard it a million times. This is with good reason. It has no melody -- no rhythm, either -- and the lyrics are stupid stoner babble: "When you've seen beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there." Wake me when ya figure it all out, George.

Next, McCartney gives another big hug to grandma and grandpa -- what a good boy he is, and clean, too! -- with "When I'm Sixty-Four," doing a little of the ol' soft-shoe in the process. If we wanted this mock-music hall crap, we'd have played the New Vaudeville Band. Picturing himself as a pensioner, he asks his hip young lover if she'll stick by his side when he starts to break down and reach for the Depends and Viagra. We can only hope she comes to her senses and runs the other way, because in addition to the old coot being a drooling mess, he's one of those doddering geezers who insists on living in the past ("Let me tell you, in my day, sonny, I could be handy mending a fuse!"), and he was almost certainly as big a bore at 24 as he is at 64.

Similarly, it's hard to imagine a less cool topic for a rock song in the '60s or at any other time than professing your love for a cop. McCartney was no Ice-T or N.W.A, though, and he does exactly that in "Lovely Rita." The song's protagonist is attracted to traffic warden Rita because, in the cap and with the bag across her shoulder, she looks "a little like a military man." This song finally rocks a bit, but it's dragged down by the cheesy piano and mundane lyrics -- unless of course I'm missing the homoerotic subtext.

Meanwhile, am I the only one, or have you also lost the narrative thread in this alleged concept album? Actually, the Beatles got tired of that idea back with Billy Shears, and Ringo has admitted that the attempt to tell a coherent story "went out the window" early on. Lennon said his own songs "had absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it works 'cause we said it worked." (When I'm wrong, I'm right!)

Continuing to plow through Side 2, I've always heard "Good Morning, Good Morning" as Lennon's inferior sequel to McCartney's exuberant "Good Day Sunshine" from "Revolver." Harrison's lead guitar is a welcome burst of energy, but those damn horns ruin the tune, the barnyard animal sound effects are ripped off from "Pet Sounds," and there's more annoying nostalgia in the lyrics: "Then you decide to take a walk by the old school." These guys simply refuse to live in the present.

Next thing you know, they're rushing to put a lid on things, and we're into a reprise of the title track -- a more rocking version this time, maybe so you'll wake up, get your butt out of the chair and go home. As fawning and obsequious at the end of the show as they were at the beginning, the members of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band thank us once again and press a business card into our palm, making sure the transaction goes down swiftly so we don't linger to complain or ask for our money back. If you're happy, they're available for bar mitzvahs and weddings.

But wait, it's not over just yet: In blithe disregard for the concept -- the show being over and Sgt. Pepper's boys cleaning the spit from their horns before going home to slurp their porridge -- the Beatles tack on another tune. Surprise! It's the album's finest moment.

The sequencing of "A Day in the Life" mirrors the placement of the magnificent "Tomorrow Never Knows" at the end of "Revolver," and it suggests that Lennon and McCartney knew that the song was head and shoulders above the rest of the lot here. I say Lennon and McCartney, because "A Day in the Life" is a genuine collaboration, which was rare by this point, if the two ever really worked together at all.

Here, Martin grafts half a Lennon song onto half a McCartney song, then ties it all up and caps the album off with that big, impressive orchestral spiral and the slamming piano chord from hell that makes its point with all the subtlety of a nuclear detonation. The song is an effective evocation of an unexpected trip from the workaday to the cosmos, but holocaust ending or no, it's no "Tomorrow Never Knows," and it's not enough to make up for the rest of the album.

The Beatles have just given us 39 minutes and 52 seconds of rather unremarkable, uninspired music with a central theme that's conservative, reactionary and retrogressive. To wit: Embrace the past (it wasn't so bad) and celebrate the values of your parents and grandparents. Contrast this with some of the truly great albums of the same period, works that offer a glimpse of a brave new world, and which still sound fresh and inviting today.

"The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators," "The Velvet Underground and Nico," "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" by Pink Floyd, "Are You Experienced?" by Jimi Hendrix, "Pet Sounds," "Fifth Dimension" by the Byrds and "Forever Changes" by Love are all stronger, less contrived, more inventive and more moving albums than "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." They all rock harder, too. To say that they don't bring back the period the same way as the Beatles' alleged masterpiece is irrelevant.

Great art stands on its own even if it's removed from the specific context of when and how it was made. The good old days? Good riddance.