It wasn’t just the BBC but also ABC World News Tonight and hundreds of other news outlets that reminded the masses that the Beatles released a little album four decades ago. After a 1988 full-on cover of the whole thing by the likes of the Fall, Sonic Youth and XTC, there’s now news that some of the top UK acts are going to record their own version of it. How many albums are going to get toasted years after the fact like that? Very few, no doubt. It’s obvious that Sgt Pepper’s has its place in music history but how vaunted should it really be?
One obviously important factor that weighs in Pepper’s favor is timing. Coming out in the middle of the Summer of Love, it was truly zeitgeist. In many peoples’ minds, it also helped to not only transform the whole concept of what rock was (and how far it was evolving from Chuck Berry) but also to cement the idea that it was actually “art” and not just fodder for screaming teenage girls. Also, because the Fab Four had become studio hermits by that time and this was their first album that they weren’t touring to promote, it seemed that any release was their only communique with the outside world, making it a major event for the most popular musical act in the world at that time.
There are arguments to be made whether the actual album was a great piece of listening or just a distinct piece of history. With years of hindsight, it’s easier to look at the album more critically when removed from the time and place it sprang out of. Paul Kanter of Jefferson Airplane once remarked that when he heard it, he was comforted to see that the Fabs got “it” and were on their side (the San Francisco psych movement). The Airplane and the Grateful Dead were indeed already charting new territory in rock by then but maybe it was more effective in their shows than on record- as good as the early Dead and Airplane albums are (and were), Pepper’s is still a more eloquent statement.
I have to admit that for myself, I never (even when I was a young Beatles freak) thought it was their finest moment. I did admire all the work and care and effort that went into it but it just never moved me as a great record that I could fall in love with. I was only two when it came out but I had been a stoner at the time, I could see how something like that would be my soundtrack. Despite “Blue Jay Way,” I’ve always thought that Magical Mystery Tour was my favorite Beatles album anyway.
With time, contrarian arguments set in also. Since it’s such a prized album in many writers’ eyes, it’s also an easy target to knock down and say “it wasn’t THAT great.” Its flaws become more obvious and even Lennon admitted that the whole concept only worked ‘cause they said it did.
For me, the bigger problem isn’t whether it’s actually a great record to listen to or their best record but if it’s the greatest record of all time. Since it keeps topping polls that says it is indeed the champ, it’s kind of a route declaration to say that it rules supreme and just be left at that. We know that a bunch of mid 60’s Dylan albums and Born To Run and so on are going to keep making the all-time rock top 10 lists for years to come. The same thing happens with the likes of Citizen Kane- it keeps getting voted as the greatest film of all time so how can you really view it or consider it objectively after all these years? It’s very hard because it’s so ingrained in our minds as a “classic” that you look like a sad curmudgeon if you try to tear it down or even reconsider it.
That’s not fair to the work itself or its legacy. Pepper or Kane deserve ongoing scrutiny, not just to knock them off their pedestals but to also understand what makes them significant and why they’ve been so important in their respective fields. Blindly crowning them as the champs or blindly shooting spitballs at them are both useless wastes of time. They’re in the history books whether we like it or not and they deserve to be considered, examined, pocked and prodded if only so that we can not only learn more about these films or albums themselves but also what they mean (or don’t mean to us) and why we’re fascinated by them.