The greatest album of all time

>> Thursday, April 01, 2010

A lot of people will tell you the greatest album of all time is Sgt. Pepper's. I guess I understand why that impression persists--everybody loves The Beatles, after all, and Pepper's brought together an astounding array of talent, many of the performers being at an acme at the time, not only artistically but commercially. And it's probably unnecessary to even point out that the album's producer, Sir George Martin, had a golden ear. But one also suspects that a part of Pepper's critical acclaim is out of pity: while the varied performances on Pepper's are indubitably brilliant, is the praise lavished on the album a recognition of the performances (many of which, however excellent, aren't up to the muster of earlier or even subsequent efforts), or a posthumous recognition of the injustice that followed a year after the album's release, when the scene imploded and an unprecedented backlash against disco doomed so many of the artists involved with Pepper's to VH-1 Where Are They Now? status and jokey guest appearances on The Simpsons?

All well and good, but let's face the bitter fact that Pepper's is an ersatz Beatles record, parts of which have aged badly. It's almost a kind of "Greatest Hits" package, really, sampling songs from several albums released during The Beatles' declining years.

Adding injury to this insult is that critics who gush over Pepper's consistently overlook the fact that three of the Beatles--all of the original members except their erstwhile drummer, Pete Best (sometimes called "Ringo" because of his habit of calling up his bandmates at odd hours)--along with Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger as well as an unknown drummer recorded rock'n'roll's last great masterpiece in 1969, almost a full decade before Sgt. Pepper's was released. Produced by legendary Dylan sideman Al Kooper at a tiny recording studio near the location of the original Hudson Bay Colony in Canada (Lennon was decamped there while dealing with the American immigration issues that would plague him over the next decade; Jagger and Harrison were hiding from Inland Revenue and the notorious 95% tax bracket Harrison snarkily tore into in the song "Taxman"), this first supergroup gathered together to record some amazing rock classics like Donovan's "Season Of The Witch" and the blues-rock standard "I Can't Get No Nookie" while also performing ingenious and innovative originals like "Saturday Night At The Cow Palace."

Unfortunately, all of the participants were beholden to different record labels--Lennon, McCartney and Harrison to Apple, Jagger to Decca, Dylan to Columbia, and (if persistent rumors and the evidence of our own ears is to be believed) the drummer to Atlantic Records at the time. There was, quite simply, no way for the session recordings to be released--while any of the individual labels involved would obviously have swooned to release such a stupendous collaboration, none of the others would have permitted it unless given an unmanageable share of the proceeds. Atlantic seems to have been a particular stickler, possessing the weakest position at the table: while the "unknown drummer" would rise to preeminence as a sort of king among drummers,working with an ungodly number of legendary bands in and out of the U.K., at the time of the Hudson Bay sessions his regular band was still achieving the genesis of their first album and Atlantic couldn't reasonably expect to demand the consideration given to the other artists' labels and therefore refused to say Yes to the release of the recordings; indeed, to this date the drummer's identity cannot be positively confirmed and may only be hinted at through, say, consideration of certain words in a sentence on the subject, for fear of massive litigation by Atlantic.

And yet that wasn't the end of it: a small label, Deity Records, released the Jagger/Lennon/McCartney/Dylan/Harrison/"unknown drummer" recordings under a nom de guerre designed to hide the identities of the participants: "The Masked Marauders" eponymous first (and only) record was released in October of 1969. A flurry of attention ensued as Rolling Stone magazine ran a review of the project (a follow-up, actually, to a featurette by regular contributors T.M. Christian and Bruce Miroff written shortly after the original sessions) and the album briefly shot off the shelves until lawyers from Apple, Decca, Columbia, Atlantic, Capitol and London Records (the latter two being the American distributors for The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, respectively) descended upon record stores, writs and restraining orders in hand. By 1970, every copy of The Masked Marauders not already in private hands had been destroyed. (The labels even made a brief effort to seize those records that had already been sold, to little avail, though the labels' innovative argument that the possession of a vinyl record entailed only a "license" to listen to the music therein would return to greater effect in the digital age.)

Rhino briefly reissued the album along with some demos from the same session, but legal threats from the labels have all-but-buried the album again, another example of the record companies' move from innovation to litigation--a greater threat than piracy. The Masked Marauders now occupy a curious place in history: officially the act never existed and couldn't exist, yet the labels will rigorously enforce their various claims to the "non-product" that came out of the Hudson Bay sessions.

I'm lucky to have a vinyl copy myself, purchased at a library sale in the mid-'90s. Somebody, oblivious to the glorious history of the record and the milestones it represented, had foolishly priced the record at a buck--a dollar well spent and the LP occupies a privileged place in my collection. If you can get hold of a copy--CD or vinyl--it remains worth it. The Marauders were a special moment in rock history, and the eponymous record truly is the paradigm for what rock'n'roll is really all about.

Here, as a sample, is the classic Marauders instrumental, "Cow Pie". Note the delicate guitar work, crafty harmonica, and brilliantly-counted time on the drums. Close your eyes and enter the sublime.


Nathan Thursday, April 1, 2010 at 6:50:00 PM EDT  

I've been killing myself trying to come up with a clever response. Well played, sir?

Paul Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 12:23:00 PM EDT  

Eric, hate to burst your bubble, but the epic lineup of musicians on the album is a hoax.


Eric Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 1:14:00 PM EDT  

Thank you, Paul. I had no idea. I've gotta say, the revelation makes me feel like one of our primitive Eoanthropus dawsoni ancestors or something.

Paul Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 1:19:00 PM EDT  


I'm hip. I believed you, I really did! I just went to Wiki to see if there was any info on the mystery drummer (I didn't get the clues - John Bonham? Phil Collins? Alan White?).

Still, it's a great album with music well worth listening to.

Eric Sunday, April 4, 2010 at 1:24:00 PM EDT  

I figured I'd hint that the drummer was a legendary prog-rock drummer whose name rhymes with "Dill Druford." The Genesis bit is a bit obscure, but he toured with the band for a bit while Phil Collins became the frontman.

It's all good fun and totally copacetic, man. Now I just need to figure out what I can blog about in 362 more days.... :D

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