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Readers As Critics: Beatles Still Fab


After just one day of listening to U2's new "The Joshua Tree," Robert Kinsler of Huntington Beach felt confident enough to declare it one of the 10 best rock albums ever made.

"Who cares if this album only came out yesterday?" Kinsler said in responding to a Calendar invitation for readers to name the greatest rock LPs of all time. "I never knew rock could sound this beautiful."

Most of the 291 readers who mailed in Top 10 lists, however, felt that albums need to stand more of a test of time. Only four albums from the '80s--two of them by Bruce Springsteen--made the readers' final Top 20, and only 12 post-1976 collections finished in the Top 40.

The landslide winner: the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

In naming the 1967 release his first choice, reader Ed Wolfman of Manhattan Beach wrote, "(It's) the Mona Lisa of rock. Rock's greatest band at its creative peak. Every listening underscores what a remarkable achievement this album is. No one else could have pulled it off."

By giving "Pepper's" almost twice as many points as its closest rival, the Rolling Stones' 1972 "Exile on Main Street," readers seconded the decision of 100 critics and broadcasters who were questioned by British journalist Paul Gambaccini in connection with his recent book, "The 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums" (Harmony paperback).

About "Pepper's," Bob Jameson of Sepulveda wrote, "This album proved that rock/pop was not a fad. It also established recording standards. The definitive sound that is as fresh and exciting today as it was 20 years ago."

The Beatles also registered more albums than any other act on the list of the 40 LPs getting the most reader votes: five. The Stones again were runners-up with four albums on the list. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and the Who each placed three LPs on the list.

Analyzing the winners' list: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Exile on Main Street" could hardly be more dissimilar. "Pepper's" wasn't the Beatles' most intimate or endearing album (try "Rubber Soul"), but it is prized because of its almost intoxicating ambition. More important than the actual music, the loosely knit concept LP stands as a symbol of the social/cultural youth explosion of the '60s.

Indeed, "Pepper's"--with its psychedelic overtones in both the music and album packaging--was a virtual declaration of independence--the bold assertion by a new generation that it wanted to be taken seriously. Almost singlehandedly, the LP confirmed rock's arrival as an art form. The musical tone--mostly supplied by Paul McCartney--was generally upbeat and hopeful.

"Exile," by contrast, was an almost equally ambitious double album that rejected the tidiness and studio sophistication of "Pepper's"--and the whole often pretentious art-rock movement that the Beatles' album inspired. In "Exile," the Stones moved in two directions at once. The album started out, in songs like "Rocks Off" and the exquisite "Tumbling Dice," celebrating the energy and excitement of the rock 'n' roll experience.

But the album eventually centered on an exploration of the corrupting, hedonistic excesses surrounding that life style. The implications came across as so frightening that even the Stones themselves seemed unsettled--and have never again approached their music with such fearless passion. The group's subsequent flirtations with the wild side ("Dancing with Mr. D") seemed merely cartoonish by comparison.

Listening to the albums again, it's hard to imagine that five years separated them. Where "Pepper's" celebrated the birth of a new age, "Exile" was all but an epitaph. On balance, the albums showcase the optimism and darkness of life--and "Exile," in its brutal power, turned out ironically to be as much a confirmation of rock as a legitimate art form as "Pepper's."

Critics versus Fans: There was far more agreement between Calendar readers and Gambaccini's critics than might be expected, given the periodic charges that critics tend to be too esoteric, too much into the "significance" of music as opposed to simply the enjoyment of music.

Four of the Top 10 albums in the Times poll also finished in the Top 10 in Gambaccini's critics' survey. Besides "Sgt. Pepper's," they were "Sun Sessions" (No. 6 in Gambaccini), Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" (No. 3) and Springsteen's "Born to Run" (No. 2).

Looking at the lists more broadly, 15 of the albums that made the readers' Top 20 finished among the first 40 in the Gambaccini critics/broadcasters poll.

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