Two contributors battle it outby John Harris, Victoria Segal / April 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Is Sgt Pepper still worth the hype?
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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.
Arguing Sgt Pepper 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…