The Duel: Is Sgt Pepper still worth the hype?

Two contributors battle it out
April 10, 2017

Is Sgt Pepper still worth the hype? free polls

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On its release—on 1st June 1967—Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was hailed by the New York Review of Books as a work that “heralded a new golden age of song.” The critic Kenneth Tynan was so blown away that he reckoned its arrival was “a decisive moment in the history of western civilisation.” The New Musical Express, meanwhile, expressed its pleasure in more level-headed terms. “No one can deny that the Beatles have provided us with more musical entertainment which will both please the ear and get the brain working a bit too.”

All these verdicts were on to something, and 50 years on, the basic point needs restating: Sgt Pepper is a thrillingly brilliant, massively influential album that did indeed embody a watershed moment in the development of popular music, and the modern history of the west. In its most vivid moments, you can hear the end of the bowler-hatted, imperial, fusty England and the birth of the altogether more emancipated, self-expressive, chaotic modernity in which we still live. Sometimes, given the right mixture of accident and design, music captures changes like that.

Its historic importance probably also explains why a lot of people are now so sniffy about it. Since the 1980s, Sgt Pepper has been a byword for mistrust of the Baby Boomer generation, and resentment of what they achieved. I have no such hang-ups: from the musical sunshine of “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “Getting Better,” through the lysergic shimmer of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and on to the profundity of “A Day in the Life,” what the Beatles recorded in 1967 is testament not just to their genius, but the singular qualities of their generation. It’s great, and it’s time those of us who write about music were at ease with that.

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Arguing SgtPepper is “bad” would be stupid—the best songs achieve the magical expansion of mind and music claimed for them and the weaker ones are charming at worst. Yet much of its power comes from its status as a mythic artefact, a tangerine moment captured in marmalade aspic. It was less of a launchpad into a new future than a summation of a briefly optimistic mood, which dissipated quickly in the late 1960s. Even Paul McCartney said: “I didn’t really think that we thought we were going to change the world as much as you thought we were going to change the world.” With 1966’s Revolver, the Beatles were absolutely ahead of the game, but instead of tapping the ruptured subconscious of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” with Sgt Pepper they retreated from the radical and returned to music hall, light entertainment, state-of-the-art studio trickery.

For all the establishment voices rushing to validate the counter-culture, it wasn’t universally adored. The New York Times called it “busy, hip and cluttered” and “like an over-attended child”—which is how the band behaved during the sessions, psychedelic princelings angering the Abbey Road engineers with their demands. Meanwhile, John Lennon was creatively trapped, stuck in the stockbroker belt, watching television and lifting advertising phrases for “Good Morning Good Morning.” O brave new world.

There is a decadence to Sgt Pepper, a tangible sense that the Beatles could experiment wildly and whimsically because they had enormous resources of money and technology, and a willingness to indulge. Pink Floyd’s Piper at the Gates Of Dawn, released that August, was closer to the unpasteurised underground, while in the US, the street-level art-rock of The Velvet Underground & Nico had emerged in March. The latter is also wreathed in myth-making, but there are probably more echoes of “I’m Waiting for the Man” down the years than “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Sgt Pepper is fab, yes, but it’s just not that groovy.

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Sgt Pepper
is indeed a mythic artefact, but not because some accidental combination of forces elevated the music on to a pedestal it didn’t deserve. Quite the reverse: it captured so many people’s imagination because it was so good. And yes, that was partly thanks to a new way of working, whereby comparatively enormous amounts of time and money were expended on mere pop music, allowing for tape loops, sitars, orchestras, and all that stuff. Thank God: if they hadn’t been, we might have been stuck with the Dave Clark Five.

I don’t buy the idea of “music hall” and “light entertainment.” Some songs superficially seem to fit that description, but among the apparent whimsy, there’s always something deeper going on. Part of Sgt Pepper’s triumph is the way it fuses its cutting-edge aspects with the same affecting sense of English folk memory that had defined “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” recorded as part of the same project, and now set to be included on the 50th anniversary edition. The Beatles’ channelling of both present and past reached a peak on “A Day In The Life”—arguably their single greatest achievement, which isn’t bad for a song largely driven by someone who was “creatively trapped.” But you can hear the same thing in the more melancholic bits of “When I’m 64,” “She’s Leaving Home” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!”

Yes, the early Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground blazed very important trails. But Sgt Pepper was the first ostensible pop album to confidently stand as a huge creative statement, preparing the way for other musicians to follow suit. So, no Sgt Pepper would mean no The Dark Side of the Moon, OK Computer, London Calling, or Sign o’ the Times. It echoes down the years, loudly.

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Of course it captures the imagination: it offers a lovely vision of a perfect psychedelic summer where everyone gets along nicely, a seamless fusion of England past and present. Only “Getting Better” (“I used to be cruel to my woman”), and the untouchable “A Day in the Life” suggest true unease amid the complacent optimism. It makes sense that the properly unnerving psychological landscapes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” will be added to the anniversary edition—but you can’t engineer something hyped as the “best album ever” after the fact.

The idea that a pop album should be a “huge creative statement” is not necessarily a positive legacy. You could just as easily say that Sgt Pepper was the dawn of all pomposity in music (and that includes The Dark Side of the Moon and OK Computer.) Beautifully packaged with its Peter Blake cover and cut-out inserts, Sgt Pepper was a triumph of marketing, the first proper “event” album where the product was as vital as the contents and being seen as important was most important of all. It’s an aspirational record, a counter-cultural diffusion line from handsome millionaires, the Victoria Beckham perfume of its age. It promises to open the door on a world where everyone wears satin and hangs out with Robert Fraser. Within a year, even the Beatles realised it was time to strip away the trippy insulation and hit the emotional wires with The White Album.

The real problem, however, comes with hyping any album as “the best ever,” as if there could be a definitive answer. It becomes a flowery monolith plonked right on top of pop music forever, its encapsulation of one specific moment in time squashing any alternative realities flat. Far out.

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When I first heard Sgt Pepper, I knew nothing about Robert Fraser, psychedelia, the counterculture, or how the Beatles may or may not have behaved while they were making it. I was five years old: in order to shut me up, my babysitter plonked me in front of the stereo, gave me the sleeve to look at, and put the record on. My first musical memory centres on what happened about 20 minutes in: a sense of being completely immersed in George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” staring at the cover art, and knowing that herein lay something completely magical.

It turned out I was right. And 42 years later, I know why. Part of Sgt Pepper’s triumph is the fact that it’s much more than the sum of its parts, but what parts they are. Where is the pomposity? Paul McCartney’s bass playing on the gorgeous “With a Little Help from My Friends” is a light-footed, melodic tour de force in itself. The intro of “Lovely Rita” is among the most infectiously joyous bits of music I know. “Getting Better” numbers among the best pop songs the Beatles created, all the more because of its jarring sense of complexity; ditto “Fixing A Hole.” And “A Day in the Life” is just jaw-droppingly great art, from start to finish, with not one wasted note.

Sgt Pepper didn’t squash any alternative realities: it gave musicians licence to think big in whatever way they fancied, and thousands of flowers thereby bloomed. I don’t know if the hype of the “best album ever” is sensible, either. But I do know that Sgt Pepper was considered pre-eminent for 20 years after its creation, before the long slipstream of punk rock saw it toppled. Its good name ought to be restored, and its 50th anniversary is as good an excuse as any.

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Musicians and other counter-culturalists already had licence to do whatever they wanted before Sgt Pepper: they didn’t need it to operate as a kind of Ministry of Pop, dispensing permits for artistic experimentation. It was a glorious synthesis of ideas that were already in the air—“it was just as a group of people we were talking openly about new ideas and some of them filtered into society,” says McCartney. No wonder 20 years later people were tired of being told it was the well-spring of all creativity, the (very) high watermark, as if popular culture could only hope to imitate and worship from that moment on.

For whether you were five or 15 at first hearing, Sgt Pepper is all about nostalgia: it’s built into the record, in the menacing Victoriana of “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!” in the military costuming, in the “act you’ve known for all these years” conceit, in the Alice in Wonderland nursery visions of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” For people who bought it on release, it’s a time-capsule; for those who came to it decades later, it’s a time-machine, a portal to an exotic world long held up as a great golden age.

Its 50th anniversary only exacerbates its curious tendency to make people look backwards, back to the good times that happened all those years ago and—it’s always implied—could never happen again. It’s a compelling fantasy but it’s also an ossified one, demanding the listener stop all the clocks on 1st June 1967.

Sgt Pepper is wonderful in many ways. As it says, “a splendid time is guaranteed for all”—but it’s a promise that can sound a little bit like a threat, a demand that all comply with its enforced cosmic jollity and bossy communal optimism. It’s uncomfortable with uncertainty, and while that bulletproof confidence makes it feel like a natural candidate for “Best Album Ever,” it might not even be the best album by the Beatles.