Fixing a Hole


Reader George Colombo sends along this link to a story about Rolling Stone's latest list of the greatest albums of all time.

Topping the list is the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's. Writes Colombo: " I thought you might be interested in the critical fate of an album you once referred to as "unlistenable." I certainly respect your right to swim against the tide of mainstream critical thought. In this instance, however, I have to tell you that you could not be more wrong."


NEXT: Additional Elven Fu

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  1. Jeff Patterson wrote: “This whole trend of applying rigid hierarchical standards and rankings to aesthetics (or, worse, entertainment) makes my list of Top Ten Most Ignorant Tropes of Pop Culture.”

    People who complain about critics’ lists make my list of boring people. While we’re undoubtedly swamped with such lists these days, many of them do perform a useful service: codifying the prevailing opinion. Maybe you don’t find that insightful, but I do.

    It’s useless and goofy to argue with these lists as if their creators presume to be laying down some kind of unassailable judgment. I don’t think Rolling Stone or anybody else believes they’re expressing a fact when they say, “These are the best albums of all time.” To contest them as if that was their mindset is kind of ridiculous.

    Such lists are really just an extension of criticism’s basic role, which is to place art in its proper cultural and historical context. I find it quite interesting to see what the conventional wisdom of critics was in 2003, 1993, 1983, 1973, or whatever. Just because I myself don’t think “Sgt. Pepper” is the best album of all time doesn’t mean there’s no value in knowing that a body of critics does.

  2. I think all art criticism is basically a game. Like a game, you have to take it seriously for it to be fun, even though you know (or at least SHOULD know) at some level that it’s essentially silly and stupid to take it so seriously.

  3. To those who say the Beatles are overrated, I say, considering how highly they’re rated, they almost couldn’t not be!

  4. “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”
    — attrib. Mark Twain (or Bill Nye)

  5. I was going to say what Julian said until I saw that he said it. So let me say that there is an argument for arguing about the arts. Suppose I get pleasure from listening to a certain kind of music. What could explain my pleasure? Two main hypotheses: (1) I’m weird; (2) I’m basically like everyone else, and the music is so constituted that it causes pleasure in norally built people, given proper attention. I think USUALLY (2) is the case. So if I like something and you don’t, then probably there is something in it that you’re not paying attention to. Maybe you just can’t tune into that aspect of the music. Well, then, OK, you’re weird. Or maybe it turns out that I’m the only one who likes it. So maybe I’m weird (or the only sane person in an insane world!) But you can’t figure this out unless we argue about what we take to be the merits and demerits of the music, how its similar and different from things we agree are good or bad, etc. I find these kinds of disputes really useful. Sometimes I find out that I really was was plain wrong, and that I hadn’t been patient enough to learn how to listen to something that really is very very good. Indeed, insofar as aesthetic pleasure contributes to overall well-being, it is our DUTY to argue with our friends about art. It’s just wrong to let people you care about miss out on significant pleasures when, if they just got their shit together and PAID ATTENTION, they’d really get something out of something they now fail to enjoy. Friends don’t let friends like stuff that sucks.

  6. Everyone needs to go buy some Raymond Scott right now. That man was a genius. He did some fantastic jazz in the 1940s, and in the 1960s he made the first true electronic music, more than a decade before Brian Eno’s coining of the term “ambient.”

  7. I know it is all the rage to say otherwise, but I don’t think aesthetic merit and/or criticism is ALL BS that comes down to “I like it.”

    The level of enjoyment I get from X is not necessarily the same as the significance of X, which is also not the same as the depth (philosophical and structural) of X.

    IMHO, a bright line can be drawn between works with depth and works without depth. There is simply more to enjoy in some cases. This can be measured by the quality of the re-read, the discussion of the texture of a musical piece, and so on. In a discussion of the various qualities of both tic-tac-toe and chess, we may come upon simplicity as something I enjoy, but that is not to say that chess doesn’t have more to offer in very nearly every other measurable category.

  8. Joe M,

    Russian artist were making electronic music in the 30s, although it was more of an experiment than real music.

  9. James Ligon,

    But what exactly is your point about chess vs. tic-tac-toe? Of course, chess is more complex and involved, we can say that objectively. But unless you are saying that greater complexity equals greater quality (or even “depth,” in your parlance), then for quality purposes, the level of complication is irrelevant. And when it comes to art, some people find great depth in things that are structurally very simple. So while sure, we can objectively say that Beethoven’s Ninth is more complex than Bird Dog, on what basis can we objectively say that it is better?

  10. Will Wilkerson and Julian Sanchez,

    I don’t think anyone would dispute that it’s often a good thing to tell someone else that they’re missing something that you see in a particular piece of art. (Or conversely, I suppose, that they’re overrating something for some reason, though I’d say there’s less overtly clear value in convincing someone NOT to like something.) But I’d say there’s a huge, albeit subtle, difference between that and telling someone they’re simply WRONG in their assessment of a particular artwork.


  11. If you’re Bobby Fisher, you probably prefer chess. If you’re a carnival chicken, you probably prefer tic-tac-toe. If you can’t decide whether it would be worse to be Bobby Fisher or a carnival chicken, you’re well on your way to understanding the ultimately subjective nature of aesthetic judgments.

  12. I think it must depend to a large extent on how we define ‘great’. If we mean ‘has lots of tunes I like’, then my list has “Bridge of Sighs” by Robin Trower and “Who’s Next” on it. If we mean something along the lines of ‘having a profound impact on popular culture and strong influence on contemporary and future musicians’, then SPLHCB has to be at or near the top of the list, though it’s not one of my favorites. If we mean ‘comprised of masterful performances of classic works by virtuoso musicians’, then I have a CD with some of Mozart’s greatest performed by the London Symphony that just blows me away.

    So, how are we defining great?

  13. If you’re Bobby Fisher, you probably prefer chess. If you’re a carnival chicken, you probably prefer tic-tac-toe. If you can’t decide whether it would be worse to be Bobby Fisher or a carnival chicken, you’re well on your way to understanding the ultimately subjective nature of aesthetic judgments.

  14. Odd, there seems to be an echo in here…

  15. Ha-ha, good one D.A.! I thought you were going somewhere else with that at first!

    But I wanna amend my previous comment that all art criticism is a game. It’s making absolute judgments that I can’t take seriously, although I admit that people who do sometimes have fun and interesting things to say. But then, y’see, it’s this backup of their judgments that I find interesting, whereas the judgments themselves are by themselves useless. So this fits nicely into Will and Julian’s explanation for the value of criticism while also reinforcing what D.A. is saying!

    I also think that making connections between what influenced what, while ultimately subjectively, also has some basis in reality compared to saying that one thing is good and one thing isn’t. Of course, this becomes almost as much historical analysis as criticism per se. After all, one may point out that The Beatles were a huge influence (and I think anyone who says they were Everly Bros ripoffs is daft), but that doesn’t mean it was a GOOD influence! Again, there’s no way to prove that….

  16. Odd, there seems to be an echo in here…

  17. What, no disco?

  18. fyodor:

    Not that I take offense, but James is a relative of mine. 😉

    I would simply argue that your level of enjoyment isn’t a measure of quality. Enjoyment of great works requires comprehension to some degree. The plot of a book is something that happens to you. Reading a piece of literature is something you are engaged in. You have to engage the work actively. If you try this with a Mack Bolan novel, you will find nothing to engage.

    I am often in the mood for junk fiction, but I don’t mistake it for literature or pretend that they are of equal merit.

    A work may be produced for any number of reasons, and I suppose you could argue that if a bit of light fiction is written for an unread audience to be amused for a few moments, its quality may be judged by its success at that role. By the same token, Ulysses was written to provide insight in to the human condition by appealing to modern and ancient myth, symbols, and the like – and it is fairly successful as well. My nit to pick would be when you take the next step and say, “The light fiction is just as good as Ulysses.”

  19. Uh, sorry ’bout that Jason!

    I wouldn’t say, “The light fiction is just as good as Ulysses.” But I *would* say there’s no objective basis on which to claim that it’s not as good. You state that one’s level of enjoyment of a work is not a measure of its quality. Then you go on to (rightly) explain how the quality of a work is manifested in how it is experienced. But that’s just the problem in making absolutist judgments, we all experience works of art differently. Since the quality of a work cannot exist independently of the subjective human experience derived from it, how can the “quality” be anything but subjective?

    I’ll grant you this. If it were somehow possible to take some sort of representative group of people (which it isn’t, because people change between different cultures and different times, making the human condition way too fluid to devise any sort of representative sample), and if we could somehow measure the experiences of this group to various works (such that powerful reactions were given more weight than brief amusement), we’d have a very good measure of…something. It would be very interesting, but it would still not contradict what I’m saying, and it’s not possible anyway.

    No one is denying your right to say Ulysses has more provided more insight into the human condition than pulp fiction. We’re just saying it doesn’t make sense to jump from that to saying it is a fact that it is better. After all, there may be nonfiction works that have provided yet more insight, that doesn’t make them literature of any sort, much less literature of merit. And since we started out talking about music, such attempts to quantify would have even less significance in that realm. But ultimately all art is music, it’s all a dance with the abstract.

  20. I think the clear prize for overrated Beatles albums which are in fact unlistenable has to go to the White album. “Honey Pie?” Come on! Who would listen to that on purpose? The closest Sgt. Pepper gets to that is that Ravi Shankar travesty.

    Anyone who regularly listens to any Beatles records besides Abbey Road is just aesthetically backwards and psychically stunted.

  21. JDM,

    Don’t like Honey Pie? Sheesh, I bet you don’t like Tiny Tim either!

  22. Yes, yes, the Beatles are overrated. Knock their rating down a view notches, and they’re still the #1 band ever.

    Mr. Vallandigham needs to study music history. The Everly Brothers as the Beatles primary influence. Please!

    And I agree that those who claim Sgt. Pepper is lame are doing so purely to be contraian, not to express any musical opinion based on thought or musical intelligence.

  23. Oh, the three greatest bands ever — the Beatles, Led Zep and U2.

    Pet Sounds — now there’s an overrated album.

  24. I’m a big enough Beatles fan to have A) attended two Beatlefests, B) started a cover-band in high school called “The Ladds”; C) performed at several Lennon Day memorial fests in Prague; and D) written a long and incoherent obituary for an L.A. deejay who was the host of a weekly four-hour all-Beatles show.

    So obviously, my opinion about the Beatles is the most important one here.

    Sgt. Pepper? Worst proper Beatles record from Rubber Soul on (Yellow Submarine doesn’t count), with the possible exception of Let it Be. The case against:

    * Not only is Within You Without You a mash of Indian/hippy nonsense, it commits the further sins of being intemperately long and virtually hook-free. Worst Harrison Beatles song ever.

    * Fixing a Hole … nice, I suppose, but utterly forgettable. Name one song this mediocre off Revolver or Rubber Soul. I dare you.

    * She’s Leaving Home … even those who believe, if temporarily, that this is the most heart-tugging demonstration of the cruel 1960s generation divide, probably can see how others can find it unforgivably sentimental pap. There’s a reason.

    * It’s Getting Better … the best of these four songs, with an interesting veer into domestic violence, but we’re talking about the Beatles standard for melody, harmony and emotion here; this one doesn’t register much of a blip. Love Me Do and Please Please Me kick it square in the baubles, let alone the fancier numbers of the late era.

    There, I’ve proved it.

  25. Howard — The only reason you don’t like Pet Sounds is because you are crazy in the head.

  26. liking U2 shows something even more “than crazy in the head”… friggin ompa loompa nerf herder band. quixolnofic reprobates… grrrrr.


  27. Matt, as for my mental state … you know better than any one here.

    As for Sgt. Pepper — one thing I was discussing with a friend, is something that many people forget is how groundbreaking the album was, and in discussing the importance of albums and rating them, that SHOULD be a factor — before Sgt. Pepper albums almost never (maybe never before) included printed lyrics, concept albums were unheard of, the way the theme was woven both into the artwork and the ambiance of the album has rarely ever been successfully duplicated. Sgt. Pepper was also masterful in weaving POP songcraft with rock sensibilities. Sgt. Pepper was a revolutionary rock and roll album. It was a revolutionary POP album.

    Matt, you’re wrong about the songs on every point, but then who am I … certainly not a Corvid. But I am a fan of great pop songcraft.

    About the “rip off of the Everly Brothers” point above … OK, fine … but the Everly Brothers ripped off the Blue Sky Boys, who ripped off the Monroe Brothers, who ripped off God knows who in the hills of Kentucky. That’s music, buddy. Robert Johnson ripped off Charlie Patton. What of it? And anybody who knows the history of the Beatles would never list the Everlys high in influence. The Beatles harmonies came from Motown girl groups, which the Beatles shamelessly and consciously tried to imitate; musically, they are a mishmash of American pop-folk (the use of minor and minor 7th chords being particular folk-influenced and while common in early in rock and roll, not quite the same as the folk voicings), American rockabilly (Carl Perkins, Elvis, Buddy Holly (the Crickets and the Beatles??) and of course Chuck Berry) and British musical hall pop.

  28. what about Johnny Hartman?

  29. you’re right: “unlistenable” was way, way too weak to describe that album. but the lemmings have spoken: sgt cucumber it is.


  30. What’s wrong with playing tic-tac-toe against the carnival chicken?

  31. The Beatles rule.

  32. If there’s anything more amusing than liberals arguing against government spending or conservatives pushing massive entitlement programs, it’s libertarians arguing aesthetics as though there were some objective standard by which their tastes could be validated.

    Of course, even an emotivist or prescriptivist can legitimately express his preferences and, in the latter case, urge others to share them; but let’s not pretend the statements “X is a good album” and “X is a popular album” share any logical or epistemological space.

    If you like an album, great. If you don’t like it, that’s fine too. But please spare us the intellectual posturing. In matters of aesthetics at least, Bentham was right: “Prejudice apart, the game of push-pin is of equal value with the arts and sciences of music and poetry.”

  33. Well said, Mr. Ridgely. Surely no one can dispute that yours is a brilliant post, excellently argued. 😉

  34. Rolling Stone is an increasingly irrelevent periodical trying to stir up mock controversy by claiming they can quantify the greatness of a rock album. This whole trend of applying rigid hierarchical standards and rankings to aesthetics (or, worse, entertainment) makes my list of Top Ten Most Ignorant Tropes of Pop Culture.

  35. Since I’m feeling rather emotive (dare I say prescriptive?) I’ll venture that “Heartbreak” Ridgely may have been the guy in a bar last weekend who was attempting to argue with me that Beethoven has no more artistic value than Aerosmith.

    The Beatles are highly overrated: They ripped off the Everly Brothers early in their career and then did Sgt. Pepper’s as a reaction to The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP.

  36. If there’s anything more amusing than liberals arguing against government spending or conservatives pushing massive entitlement programs, it’s libertarians arguing aesthetics as though there were some objective standard by which their tastes could be validated.

    Gee. I thought the rap on Reason was that we thought anything was good as long as it was produced by the market.

  37. And, by extention, bad if its existence depended on subsidies?

  38. In the words of Jack Black’s character from “High Fidelity”:

    “Echo and the Bunnymen rule! I can’t believe you don’t own their album! It’s fucking insane!”

  39. What’s “the game of push-pins?” Sounds painful to me.

  40. Gear! Fab! Thankyou all. Although, I’m having a blinking hard time finding the whole list. Any help then Luv?

  41. De gustibus non est disputandum.

    I much prefer “Revolver.”

  42. The anti-Pepper movement, which started with the less-than-five-star slap in the face in the first Rolling Stone Record Guide, is just a tired reaction by bored aesthetes who imagine they’re being brave by not sharing prevailing opinion. They’ve already been consigned to history’s dustbin.

    Much more annoying is the overrating of Pet Sounds. It cannot stand. It will fall by the wayside, along with Forever Changes and most of Bruce Springsteen, as well as U2 and Radiohead (and lots of minor faves along the way like Randy Newman and Richard Thompson).

  43. The Beatles are highly overrated: They ripped off the Everly Brothers early in their career and then did Sgt. Pepper’s as a reaction to The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” LP.

    I’m guessing there is meant to be a connection between the first assertion and the two that follow, but I cannot discern it. It seems to have something to do with some underlying assumption that equates quality with originality. I have always found quality to have far more to do with execution and effectiveness.

    But then, what do I know? Clearly my aging boomer parents have colonized my youth. Whatever the hell that means.

  44. Zep rules! Certainly not however ITTOD or TSRTS. The obelisk one had two very good songs: Achilles’ Last Stand and Tea For One, but it wasn’t a classic album. I’d go for III or PG. Except for the fact that I can’t listen to Zep without cringing nowadays.

    Is the list online somewhere? Did one of the early Allman Brothers records make it? Strangely enough, a Brit mag did a 100 Top Guitarists list recently, and Duane Allman wasn’t on it. Where LFTFE placed would be a good barometer of the quality of this list.

    I hope The Smiths are on it too with TQID.

  45. I don’t think the fact that there’s no objective aesthetic order sewn into the fabric of the universe makes it pointless to argue about art. Usually, such arguments aren’t *really* of the form: “I have the One True set of aesthetic standards, which you ought to share,” but rather “We already do, in fact, have largely overlapping aesthetic standards (whether by dint of biology or shared culture or whatever), and you would yourself acknowledge that this is good if you listened to it with the proper ear or paid attention to certain aspects you’re neglecting now.” That is, after all, how friends or teachers often bring us to see the value of works we don’t initially like. I owe a lot of my current musical taste to an old friend who was a jazz musician and showed me how to listen to lots of things I didn’t appreciate right off the bat. The first time I heard “Bitches Brew,” I didn’t know what the hell was going on–now I love it.

    And at the risk of incurring Nick’s wrath, “Sgt. Pepper’s” is still on my top-20-albums list.

  46. Rubber Soul is pretty boss. And the White Album.

    Sgt. Pepper has its moments. Also has some groaners.

  47. Bitches Brew? Look up “unlistenable” in the dictionary and there’s a picture of Bitches Brew.

  48. I’ll take Abbey Road over any of em. But it’s really not a fair comparison; the universe Sgt. Pepper was released in was entirely different from what was around 2 or 4 years later. That makes it more significant.

  49. Julian,

    I largely agree, even though I remain incredulous at anyone who professes to enjoy “Bitches Brew.” (Smile) My argument is with those who either fail to recognize or fail to admit that the assertion “X is a good album (or movie, etc.)” asserts precious little, if anything, more than “I like X and you should too.”

    The later (lamentable) Miles Davis aside, I have a friend whom I failed miserably to ‘teach’ to appreciate jazz. Years later, he did come to enjoy it; but, as it turns out, we still like different things. (He the later Coltrane; me the earlier Trane, especially with the first great Miles Davis Quintet.) Sometimes you can get someone else to experience that “ahhh!” that you feel at some sorts of art (or other aesthetic experiences, e.g. different cuisines) and sometimes you can’t.

    But pointing out to someone what he may not have seen or heard or thought about is quite different from claiming or even implying that one’s tastes are intrensically, fundamentally or objectively superior.

    And given Nick’s tastes, his wrath deserves to be incurred. “Sgt. Pepper” is high on my list, too; although it was long ago displaced by “Kind Of Blue.”

  50. i have a genuine, deepfelt love for unlistenable wank – at least as described above. i try to pass this along in more bite-sized chunks. this comes back to bite you in the ass in weird ways.

    after loaning a friend my copy of godspeed you black emperor!’s first album, they said – and i quote – “it was kinda nice…you should listen to this” and handed me rusted root’s latest effort at the time.

    it’s not nice to mess with mother nature.

  51. “Of all noises, I think music is the least disagreeable.”
    — Samuel Johnson

  52. Any links for the entire list?

  53. Live/Evil is a pretty good bit of that Miles era too. A good mixture of funky and weird.

    Anybody else dig “the Black Saint and the Sinner Lady” by Mingus? Guess that’s not really rock though. It’s on my top 10.

  54. As an aside, I my brother used to tell me that Boston sucked until all the way into the mid-90’s when he was like “Hey, that first album is pretty damn good!”

    This is from someone who actually got fired from a volunteer radio station job for playing the Carpenters too much (I was pretty proud of him for this, though).

    If Boston’s self-titled picture disc is not on Rolling Stone’s list, thn they can kiss my lily-white ass, and I will quit buying that magazine (oh, wait, I never did … shoot). The guy’s a Masters-degreed mechanical engineer who rocks hard (Tom Scholtz, that is). There is no better way to live than that. It won’t be long before NASA engineers realize that Boston’s guitar-shaped space ships are the future of manned space flight, also.

  55. now I’ve got that song in my head

    I’m fixing a hole
    where the rain gets in
    and stops my mind from wandering
    where it will go. ..

  56. Lessee, David Blowie and Not So Sly and the Stoned Family with multiple albums on the 500 best? That alone calls into question the sanity of those who chose (and it illustrates that taste is subjective despite what our godmother told us in her extensive writings about the perfect rational being).

    As to the unlistenable qualities of Sgt Pepper, well, it ain’t that good of an album (and I happen to like a lot of what the Beatles did).

    Will Rogers Was Right Regards,

  57. D.A. Ridgely,

    What Julian said. Yeah, yeah, I know, “De gustibus” and all that. Just let us have our fun.

    Right up near the top of my list is Electric Ladyland–especially the sound-pictures in the “1983” sequence. “Catch a fire” by Bob Marley is also an album I’ve gone through several copies of.

  58. Every day I thank god that rock and roll is dead.

  59. Matt, your dis of the melody of “Getting Better” ignores the way it plays, like the openning track, “Day in the Life,” and even “Yellow Submarine,” with the forced-peppy, post-war, martial-themed British nostalgia culture of the day. It’s a freaking march!

  60. We were talking…about the space between Matt Welch’s ears…… 🙂 Personally I’d rate Fixing A Hole above Good Day Sunshine, which I find rather weak outside the chorus, as well as For No One, which I find rather insincere. At least Leaving Home had interesting subject matter and a dreamy lilt. But what does it matter, they were just ripping off Pet Sounds!! 🙂

    I do agree I’d take She Said She Said over most of Sgt P on most days!!!

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