Is The Beatles’ much-celebrated 1967 album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band an overrated piece of junk?
For those of us who were un/lucky enough to – through the simple fact of our age – straddle the barriers between the psychedelic revolution and the punk revolution, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album has always been a bit of a problem.
There’s no argument that it changed the way we viewed ‘popular’ music, but it was by the bleedin’ Beatles! ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ this was not. The Mothers Of Invention may have released a much more genuinely revolutionary subversion of rock the year before with Freak Out! But who even knew about that at the time, except for Paul McCartney, who was a huge Zappa fan?
The critical consensus about Sgt Pepper in the rock press of the early to mid-‘70s was that this was undeniably the best album of all time. But like I said, those of us who were old enough to have witnessed the birth of psychedelia yet young enough to still be in our teens when punk broke in ’76 pretty much accepted the verdict of a new generation of rock writers that the album was hugely overrated, and unlike some of The Beatles’ other work, lacked the direct rock energy required to be ‘authentic’.
Until now I’ve stayed silent on this topic, because the amount of press generated around the 50th anniversary reissue of this iconic album is already overwhelming, and tends to put in the shadow all the other amazing albums that came out that same year: 1967.
The view perpetrated by traditionalist rock media as represented by Rolling Stone magazine reinstates the record as one of – if not the – greatest albums of all time. On the other side of the fence are relative youngsters like Amanda Marcotte (born 1977) of Salon.com. In a poorly argued opinion piece she reckons that Sgt Pepper (and therefore the generations that came after) was a record only men could like; that it lacked the imperative of great popular music to get asses wiggling, and that of course, only women know the secret to good music because they like dancing. Marcotte’s piece is barely worth engaging with, so weak is her articulation of a fundamentally ridiculous proposition: that the only great music is dance music.
Her view however, that Sgt Pepper not only sucks, but is to blame for rock music getting altogether too pompous and male-oriented, echoes the rhetoric of much better writers (and minds) like that of former punk press priestess Julie Burchill. It’s easy to see why someone of Burchill’s generation would have thought the album irrelevant, and for about five years at the height of punk mania, I probably would have agreed. Punk was so full of energy and anger that it was the perfect fuel for a hormonal teen or early 20-something.
But here’s the thing: The Beatles weren’t teens when they made Sgt Pepper. Paul McCartney was practically an old man of 25! Of course they didn’t want to keep writing and performing songs like ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. By the pop standards of the day, The Beatles had already been together for an eternity, and it’s easy to forget that it was extremely rare in the ‘60s for a group to sustain a career for any length of time.
It’s the context that’s completely lacking from many of the arguments against Sgt Pepper. Someone born in ’77 who has probably cocked half an ear to the album on YouTube or some low-bit streaming service isn’t going to get that this was the generation that sat down, turned on and really listened. Not that people didn’t party to Sgt Pepper, because they did. After all, it was the soundtrack of 1967.
Even for a writer like Marquette who wasn’t lucky enough to experience the psychedelic revolution, it’s fairly easy to see through the rampant hagiography to the core topic. If you read any autobiography by a rock musician (or anyone on the fringes of rock music) that covers 1967, Sgt Pepper is described as a landmark: one of the few albums that you remember the precise moment you first heard it, and what a ‘wow’ moment that was.
Even 50 years hence, a more than cursory listen to the album explains why. These guys – with the help of George Martin – were painting music in the studio. It was only partly performative, it was also about sound itself, and using music as a rainbow of colours. Listening to the first generation of intense studio-made album creations (and Sgt Pepper kicked all that off, pretty much) could be a synesthetic experience.
Although with the technology available in 2017, this music could easily be performed on stage, that simply wasn’t the case in 1967, and besides which, it would be easy to discuss every song in detail and describe how even the less obviously great songs were landmarks in their own way.
But to get back to where we began, is Sgt Pepper a piece of junk? Of course not. Is it overrated? Of course!
I never even owned a copy until The Beatles’ remastered catalogue hit the shops back in 2009, and the two times I’ve played it since then have been somewhat desultory experiences. Yes, there are a few really great songs (‘A Day In The Life’ being, of course, the pinnacle), along with others that are notable for other reasons: ‘She’s Leaving Home’ being an early example of how pop musicians work with intimate string sections, ‘Within You Without You’ being an early example of Indian influence on Western pop, etc.
And yet, it’s an album that’s impossible to hear with totally fresh ears. In the same way that great classical works have been tarnished by use on ads, all the innovations of Sgt Pepper have been taken by later bands and sometimes, even done better. And if it wasn’t for Sgt Pepper, I don’t believe The Beatles would have been able to squeeze out works of genius like The Beatles (the ‘white album’) or Abbey Road: albums that have lasted the distance and still sound remarkably contemporary and fresh. Sometimes, innovation isn’t the endpoint, but simply part of the journey.
And had Sgt Pepper not existed, I wonder whether classic art rock albums like Kate Bush’s Hounds Of Love or Talk Talk’s Spirit Of Eden or Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom (and many others) could ever have been created.
Having said that, I do take issue with anyone who holds up one example of something and declares it the greatest of its kind. If history is the story of the victors, the same is true of music, and success doesn’t always (or even most of the time) have that much bearing on greatness. (There’s a parallel universe for music, and the ‘best album of all time’ is always going to be subjective.)
There were many great rock albums from 1967, and many I would rather listen to any day than Sgt Pepper. These include The Doors (their great debut), Pink Floyd’s Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced, Love’s Forever Changes, Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing At Baxter’s, the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile, Buffalo Springfield’s Again, Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk, and the Mothers Of Invention’s incredible Absolutely Free. (The same year was also seething with great soul and rhythm and blues and jazz, but that’s outside the remit of this column.)
Ultimately, what really pisses me off about the perpetual attitude of some critics to Sgt Pepper is that because it features some novelty moments it’s therefore inauthentic. This question of authenticity in music is worth discussing, and I’ll do so in more depth on another occasion, but what exactly is inauthentic about a song like ‘When I’m 64’? This criticism does really come from rock snobbery, and forgets that vaudeville and music hall are at the heart of much of the pop music that came out of Britain over the 20th century. The Beatles (just as bands like The Byrds did with old-fashioned country music) were just naturally acknowledging their roots, and what’s so bad about that? The typical ‘cred’ rock writer might say ‘everything’; that what inspired The Beatles in the first place was dirty blues and rock and roll and the energy of Spector girl groups. But as I hinted at earlier, by ’67 both McCartney and Lennon were adults, so it’s not surprising that elements of their parents’ music tastes (and their parents’ music tastes) started creeping through. I’m not a big fan of music hall either, but to deny it is silly, and to view it as inauthentic is pathetic. In fact, I would go so far as to say that music hall is etched deeply in nearly all the English psychedelic acts, including The Kinks and The Move.
This idea that Sgt Pepper isn’t ‘rock’ enough is oppositional in a flawed way: it’s a 14-year-old’s perspective that rock was meant to be against what your parents stood for and oh… it was going to change the world, too.
The single most annoying thing though is that so many people still can’t seem to get past the idea that rock must be one thing, and one thing only. The fact that The Beatles worked up an innovative album that rocked the world and helped to create a new type of music (and music listening) doesn’t mean it felt itself superior, or that its fans rejected pop music. I would say quite the opposite. My record collection is full of idiosyncrasy, and I still like a good blast of punk or some dirty blues or some sweet soul, but I also like the virtuosity of some progressive rock or jazz fusion, a bit of ‘modern classical’ and quite a bit of music that doesn’t originate from the UK and America.
One of the great things about Sgt Pepper is that it is musically diverse, even though it’s nominally thematic, and all the while retaining its quintessential Englishness. I reckon that’s to be celebrated, even if it isn’t the greatest album ever.