Back in 2003, when I was tabulating the votes for Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums of All Time, it looked for a while as if the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was going to come out on top. I thought this was a fantastic outcome, not just because Pet Sounds is a delight, which it is, but because it was nosing out the most obvious choice for the top honors, the Beatles' 1967 LP Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. For a while, it seemed as if everyone was listing Pet Sounds somewhere in their Top 50; I'm pretty sure James Hetfield, of all people, gave it some love.
But in the end, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely won out, and I'm sure music fans around the globe were astonished when they read "Rolling Stone names as the greatest rock & roll album ever made, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heartzzzzz....."
I was reminded of all this in reading Aimee Mann's rather lefthanded tribute to this record in yesterday's New York Times, in commemoration of the album's 40th birthday. Mrs. Michael Penn describes it as her favorite album when she was growing up, but allows as to how she never listens to it now. (If she did listen to it once in a while, maybe she wouldn't have blown the lyrics she quotes from "Getting Better": "I was cruel to my woman, I beat her," she cites, but it's really "I used to be cruel to my woman....") At the same time it's kind of refreshing to see someone take on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely from a measured distance, neither as a museum piece that was must be revered nor as something that should be spit on, as the likes of Jim DeRogatis would have it.
As I alluded to a little while ago, I recently listened to this LP all the way through for the first time in a while when I was dumping it into my iTunes, and I was struck by how, between the production honed to a fare-thee-well, the circuslike atmosphere and the wide-ranging instrumentation, this greatest of all rock & roll albums isn't very rock & roll. Nothing rocks out like the band's "Yer Blues" or "Got to Get You Into My Life" or "Day Tripper." "A Day in the Life," the consensus best song on the record, is pretty awesome in its own way, but nobody would ever compare it to Bee Thousand.
And I think because of that, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely has always remained kind of sui generis, and the attempts to imitate it have largely fallen flat, like the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties Request or the entire career of Jeff Lynne. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely is the road not taken for rock & roll, which is part of why it stands out so strongly from its peers. It certainly was groundbreaking at the time, although anyone who thinks the Fabs invented the concept album really needs to go listen to Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours; in fact, that's good advice for anyone, as Frank's always worth hearing, and that's his best LP.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely? It's really quite good, and a lot of fun to listen to if you take a bathroom break during "Within You, Without You." But somehow, I suspect that not many people, and here I am including Aimee Mann, are actually listening to it these days.