Pardon the obvious start, but it can’t be helped: It was 40 years ago today Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. And ever since, as even a high-schooler with a cursory knowledge of cultural history could tell you, popular music has never been the same.
Nor has any credible list of the best albums ever failed to place the Beatles’ oft-perceived crowning achievement Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at or near the top.
Revolver, that wildly diverse Pepper primer, tends to beat it out these days—and with good reason, I’d add, for it has held up as a clearer portrait of the melding of these four iconic, creative minds. Plus, it’s the crucial turning point in the group’s run of original albums, the rock-revolutionizing break (presaged by the folksier and funkier twists of Rubber Soul) away from cheery Fab Four pop and toward something then altogether new—richer songs wrapped in ornately detailed, mind-expanding sonic collage.
That progressivism lasted pretty much until the end, with only the Let It Be sessions and parts of the fractious White Album restoring the Beatles to raw fundamentals. Arguably Abbey Road deepens what they set forth with Sgt. Pepper (released June 1 in England, June 2 in the U.S.), and plenty of people prefer the White Album over everything else. I also have a case to make for Magical Mystery Tour being the near-equivalent of Pepper.
Still, I don’t recall ever seeing a survey, popularly or critically assessed, that didn’t at least have it in the Top 10.
That’s merited: Its groundbreaking technical advances alone—most evident during “A Day in the Life” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”—remain pre-digital marvels that warrant exalting the album for eternity. Add the album’s trendsetting conceptual ambition, Peter Blake’s spot-the-legend cover, and the fact that the Album of the Year Grammy winner for 1967 more or less ushered in the Summer of Love, and you’ve got a historical document of incalculable importance—the Mona Lisa of rock.
Yet just like Da Vinci’s masterpiece—now viewed from behind a cave of glass—Sgt. Pepper has become an artifact more admired than enjoyed. Guaranteed to raise a smile or not, it’s been going out of style for years.
And its current influence is seemingly nonexistent. One could look at the latest rash of concept albums and personae adoption—chiefly My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade and, before it, Green Day’s American Idiot—and assume the power of Pepper is as prevalent as ever. Surely My Chem reintroducing itself as an outfit called the Black Parade owes everything to the Fabs posing as Billy Shears’ backing band, right?
Actually, Sgt. Pepper‘s influence is at best secondhand. My Chem, for example, has drawn more inspiration from Queen, David Bowie, T. Rex, Pink Floyd—peers and progeny whose outsized conceptual strides were learned from the Beatles. Green Day, on the other hand, owes much more to that other titan of over-the-top rock, The Who.
For as much as the Beatles remain timeless, there are ever-widening generational divides regarding their impact, with the more mannered parts of Pepper making it seem almost moldy.
I’m reminded of comments Michael Stipe made in a Rolling Stone interview around the time R.E.M. put out Out of Time—I’m paraphrasing, but it was something to the effect of “the Beatles meant less to me growing up than `Yummy, Yummy, Yummy,’” the Ohio Express novelty whose title hook added “I’ve got love in my tummy.” Sadly, there’s still a portion of my generation whose knowledge of Sgt. Pepper came from that abominable film starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees.
These days, I think most casual or younger fans—and perhaps even a segment of longtime Beatlemaniacs—listen to the Beatles not via their original albums but through repackaged titles: 1, for one, or Love, whether the disc or the Vegas revue. With luck, some teenagers taken to that Cirque du Soleil dazzler will emerge eager to hear the source material. But it’s more likely most of them will pick up the mashed-up soundtrack to the show and leave it at that.
I can’t help but feel like yet another opportunity to reintroduce Sgt. Pepper and the rest of the Beatles’ wondrous work has been wasted. There was talk at the start of the year—this may still come to pass, who knows?—that a remastering campaign was afoot, something that would preserve the integrity of the original recordings but bring them up to modern-technology standards. The first issue of Beatles CDs—of the same quality still sold in stores today—were released in dribs and drabs leading up to the 20th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper in 1987.
I pulled out both my vinyl copy and that first-printing CD to prep for this piece, and found the vinyl superior in a lot of ways—for starters, it had warmth and presence, whereas the CD sounds brittle and deprived of bass. Anniversaries may be obvious pegs to hang re-evaluations upon, but imagine what sort of discovery might be happening right now if “Pepper” had just arrived in a radically upgraded edition?
Even if Sgt. Pepper were being given the royal treatment at the moment, I’d still contend that its songs don’t measure up to its stature. This being the period of Beatles music where fanciful characterization sometimes took precedence over meaningful lyrics, each side is saddled with numbers whose pleasures are fleeting or altogether too cutesy.
“Lovely Rita” and “Fixing a Hole” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” are fine McCartney-led compositions—but ultimately they’re little more than bits of wistful mood, whereas the heartbreakingly gorgeous “She’s Leaving Home” is a story song (like, in a way, “A Day in the Life”) whose emotion is steeped in a reality the rest of the album refuses.
Frankly, I’m far more intrigued by the sonic advances Sir Paul is making these days. Memory Almost Full, his next album and first for the new Starbucks label, arrives Tuesday, and while it’s not quite as insightful into his guarded psyche as one might hope in the wake of his acrimonious split from Heather Mills, it’s nonetheless another example of the 64-year-old keeping pace with the times, using deftly wielded studio effects to say what his words often don’t.
Sgt. Pepper has a touch of that pattern as well, obviously, though in its best moments the lyrics express everything. I’m still particularly fond of the buck-up sentiments of “Getting Better” and, even more so, the daily grind of “Good Morning Good Morning.” And though I recognize the structural wonder that is “A Day in the Life,” if I had to select a favorite cut it would be Harrison’s sitar fantasia “Within You Without You,” without hesitation. Once so strange and even sinister to me, I now get lost in its swooping passages, and find its life-flows-on message curiously calming.
Whereas I now find the acid-dipped surrealism of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” to be all too quaint, and I’d much rather hear Joe Cocker howl through “With a Little Help From My Friends” than listen to Ringo tap his way through it.
As a cohesive work, I grant that Sgt. Pepper is superior to, say, the oft-maligned Magical Mystery Tour, a piecemeal project whose American version rounded up “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” (both “Pepper” stage-setters) and the global-event hit “All You Need Is Love,” then set them alongside equally adventurous works like “I Am the Walrus” and “Blue Jay Way” and a superior Paul cut, “Fool on the Hill.”
Song for song, I’ll take it over its predecessor any day. It’s the one I take off the shelf most lately, while Sgt. Pepper just sits there, looking like a timepiece, gathering dust.
Maybe I should put it behind glass. Isn’t that where certain masterpieces belong?