All Due Respect, SGT. PEPPER, Sir, but in 1967, it's the BASEMENT TAPES for Me

One Man's Opinion on the Rock & Roll Canon: Rolling Stone's Top 500 Albums-#1

 In 1967, through Sgt. Pepper's and The Basement Tapes, we see popular music going two distinct directions. The Beatles explored the unknown and Dylan and the Band kept it down home to see what they could turn up buried in their now-famed seclusion where they spent their time with American folklore and some moldy hymn books. The latter recordings still take us back to the gnarled and delightfully contradictory heart of roots music--the beautiful confusion of the secular and the sacred that we see in Americana at its best.
Not too big of a surprise that the Rolling Stone ranked Sgt. Pepper's number one. It's awesome whether your seventeen or seventy-two. No, I don’t think it would top my list, but I don't think I would be the able to make a list like that. Like Bob Dylan said, there's too many great recordings to have a favorite record, and it's more a matter of what's on top of the stack.* All lists and distinctions are ways of whittling away the time. I don’t really intend to critique the Rolling Stone's list. They’ve been catching a lot of shit anyway, and American music owes them more than they admit.

Listening to all 500 of those albums isn't really going to prove anything; its more like an absurd calling. I want to hit the most referenced albums by the most recognized publication in music writing. This isn’t a sprint by any means. It’s going to be a long drawn out marathon, but I’m going to finish that list—barring any unforeseen tragedies or a sudden case of spontaneous complete loss of hearing. I’m not necessarily going to comment on every album in a separate post, but I’m going to relisten to a lot of good music and hear a lot of things that fell through the cracks of my music catalog.
I just listened to Sgt. Pepper's: an album I’ve always loved, and still do. But this time I kept thinking of Elijah Wald’s (well-written, but misleadingly titled) How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n Roll, where Wald notes the genius composition of Sgt. Pepper’s and other late albums, but holds up early Beatles' recordings as emblematic of rock and roll.** He claims that Meet the Beatles more aptly captures the energy of rock and roll, grounded in that rhythm rather than experimental orchestrated and melodic flights into strangeness. The rock and roll Wald delineates had its roots in blues and therefore ultimately African rhythms. He points particularly to Sgt. Pepper’s as emblematic of a rock and roll band taking its course away from its rhythm and blues roots to focus on melody and orchestration, prevalent trends in the history of Western music. He cites Elvis as taking an analogous course through his career. Wald gives his due to Sgt. Pepper’s as a masterpiece of an album, but sees it as pivotal movement from the wild fun of rhythmic music that makes you want to dance. in all it's parental-shocking glory, to heavily orchestrated melody-centric rock compositions.
I've never disliked Sgt. Pepper’s, but I have grown aesthetically distant from it recently. Wald’s reading of it crystallized my sense that listening to this album once a year is almost enough for me. It’s not like many albums which I can’t seem to make it through a week without hearing. I follow Wald's argument that this album was emblematic of this switch from rhythm to melody and classical-type orchestration.
Un-cropped photo from the shoot for the 1975 release of the official Basement Tapes:
To return to Sgt. Pepper's, the breakthrough studio work is undeniable. Not only was the whole circus meets travelling band theme revolutionary, it was the concept album that solidified our contemporary sensibilities of that very word: album. As attached as I am to some of those arrangements—“A Day in the Life” is brilliant, and I have yet to ever skip past “Lovely Rita”—and despite many other moments of unarguable brilliance, sometimes I still feel like I’m being lured into a song because it’s experimental. Sgt. Pepper's has that cerebral aesthetic appeal like Dalí and their earlier recordings more instinctual like Rothko--not that you can ever really have one with out the other.

For me Sgt. Pepper's creates the effect of curiosity that's stimulating initially. Let me clarify that I had a love affair with the album that lasted a good while. It never really ended, and we still get together every once in a while. But right now, I'm more interested in music that shows us our strange roots. This preference, makes Sgt. Pepper's though interesting, but not something I return to on a regular basis.
It’s quite the opposite effect of The Basement Tapes (note: I refer here to the original bootlegs from 1967—NOT the ’75 reissue put together by Robbie Robertson, which is still a good collection but something quite different). The five-volume bootlegs recordings from Big Pink are not good despite of the insufficient and scratchy presses we’ve inherited, but because of this unstable quality. We get a strange distorted vision of American history through their rendition of folk songs and Dylan’s improvisational rural crooning.

Although perhaps not aesthetically groundbreaking in the same way as Sgt. Pepper's—at least for mainstream culture--Dylan and the Band’s recordings are more durable ones, and not just because there are more of them. I’ll take a random 10 songs off the Basement Tapes for a desert exile over Sgt. Pepper’s. And here's why. It’s not that I don’t like Sgt. Pepper's. It's great. It's about new possibilities and you can't beat the arrangements. The Basement Tapes are about the past. I’m listening to them as I write this, and I feel underneath the impromptu recordings and studio imperfections and radiance of one of the best bands to ever play together live, underneath all that, we find a unique and vivid portrait of the American folk songs, directed by one of the tradition’s most learned and widely studied experts. And the Basement Tapes sound wildly fun at times--pretty close to the spirit of Elvis's Sun Sessions and downright sad and lonesome at other times. Dylan rebelliously, as usual, demanded to make his music his way, and chose not to take it further than he did on Blonde on Blonde. How could he take it further than that? He decided to go back, and the sessions emit the spirit of irresponsibility and the thrill of spending endless hours producing great art.

The Basement Tapes, which we were never really meant to hear, take us back somewhere. They're rooted in the past, and that’s what makes them live longer for me than even the truly brilliant composition of Sgt. Pepper’s. Its by being traditional the Basement Tapes recordings make a rebellious statement--seemingly unintentionally--against psychadelia and other mainstream trends in 60s rock and roll. It's roots-based rebellion that lays claim to the soul the music came out of and insists on exploring it further. Lucky for us, its all on tape.


Originally published at A MISSING AMERICA:

Matt Shedd is a Featured Contributor at No Depression, freelance writer, and Graduate Teaching Fellow at University of Oregon.  writing on A Missing America, Facebook, or Twitter.

Contact Matt:


*Dylan, Bob. Liner notes. Bob Artist's Choice : Bob Dylan: Music That Matters to Him [compact Disc]. , 2002. Sound recording.

**Wald, Elijah. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Print.

Views: 731

Tags: Bob Dylan, Elijah Wald,, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll, Sgt. Pepper's, The Basement Tapes, The Beatles

Comment by Jason Jack Miller on April 13, 2011 at 6:31am
I read somewhere that George Martin's biggest regret was not including Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields on SGT PEPPER'S.  Sometimes I wonder how the album would've been received with these 2 in place of Lovely Rita and When I'm 64?  Or even She's Leaving Home?
Comment by Terry Roland on April 13, 2011 at 2:44pm
Some really good thoughts and insights here. Well written..I like where you said that the Basement Tapes were good not inspite of the roughness but because of it.    I've grown less of a fan of Sgt Pepper over the years and sometimes believe Rubber Soul and Revolver are better albums overall.  In the end, in my opinion, ranking what is best kind of falls apart, especially considering the influence of both recordings...Sgt. Pepper went one direction and for me, at least, it's influence is narrow and short-lived. But, the Basement Tapes laid the foundation for the slow but steady growth of roots/Americana music...however you catagorize it(if indeed you can), we are still feeling the influence of Bob and The Band's days in the basement at Big Pink...thnx for your thoughtful and intelligent article!
Comment by TenLayers on April 13, 2011 at 3:13pm

By the way...Has anyone seen the "movie" Paul McCartney Really is Dead"?  A conspiracist's dream come true, based on tape "attributed" to George Harrison made while in the hospital after he was stabbed in his home.  The movie goes through the whole Paul Is Dead as told by George.

I made it halfway through before giving up on it.

Comment by Hal Bogerd on April 14, 2011 at 10:46am


I like the typo in the text  "How the Beatles Destoryed Rock 'n Roll"! It makes more sense to me than the actual title of the book. I have both discs and honestly wouldn't rate either in my personal Top 10.


Comment by Will James on April 14, 2011 at 12:19pm
Common knowledge that Sgt Pepper was a freakout reaction by Paul McCartney to Brian Wilson's masterpiece Pet Sounds. I like some songs on Pepper, but it doesn't make any of my best lists, even among the Beatles own albums. On the other hand, seems like comparing it to the bootleg basement tapes, which I grew up with and loved, is apples and oranges (think you have to include production etc.), but I would say that the BTs/Big Pink and Love's Forever Changes, both from the same general timeframe, join Pet Sounds among the greatest albums of all time.
Comment by Paul Wilner on April 14, 2011 at 3:32pm
I wish they'd have included this track (Banks of the Royal River) on the album.  Me, I liked "Rubber Soul'' and "Revolver'' better than Sgt. Pepper, and agree with Will that Big Pink was better than Basement Tapes. Maybe I just don't like double albums, but Big Pink seemed tighter, less ragged around the edges. If memory serves, I think Richard Goldstein was the first to say Sgt. Pepper killed rock n' roll (in the Village Voice). Great stuff on all, needless to say.
Comment by Rudyjeep on April 14, 2011 at 3:49pm

Sgt. Peppers gave academics and critics the opportunity to look hip.  It's still a Beatles record, but it isn't close to Revolver, Rubber Soul, The White Album....actually, just about everything else by the Beatles.   And I like "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite". 

It's funny the "Paul is Dead" story is back again.  I'll have to try and see if I can make it through the movie, Ten.  In the 80's, I debated a guy who wrote an article on the topic.  His last question to me was - "If the real Paul McCartney was alive today, do you think he would be doing duets with Michael Jackson?"   McCartney would sing with Lady Gaga if it contributes to his pile!  After all, Mad Magazine had a Beatles trivia contest and the question was "When did Paul McCartney write Silly Love Songs"?  Answer - 1962 to present. 
Comment by Will James on April 14, 2011 at 4:14pm
@Rudyjeep, Ha! I'm still laughing at that last one.
Comment by Terry Roland on April 14, 2011 at 5:06pm
I was thinking the same thing about the Big Pink/Basement Tapes comparison...Seems like Big Pink was the outcome of the Basement Tapes....Sort of the finished product. I always, in fact, think of the second album...The Band, as a natural extension of Big Pink.  At any rate, I don't think Sgt Pepper even stands up to Pet Sounds, Big Pink or The Band.....Sgt. Pepper, imo was about packaging and production.
Comment by BlueRick on April 15, 2011 at 4:23am

Sgt. Pepper was, and is, a landmark album. It was and is unique not only for it's excellent songwriting and performance but for the experimental nature of the presentation of the work which still stands as a unified whole.


You are really comparing apples and oranges here. The Band stands for roots music and does so admirably. And of course Dylan takes a back seat to no one . The combination of the two resulted in work of an incomparable nature...


So why compare two incomparable works of art and beauty?


You need to be a member of No Depression Americana and Roots Music to add comments!

Join No Depression Americana and Roots Music


If you enjoy this site please consider helping us with a small donation!

Don't like PayPal? Mail a check to: No Depression, 460 Bush St., San Francisco, CA 94108

When you shop at Amazon please enter through this search box and No Depression receives a referral fee



Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.