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It Was 50 Years Ago Today...

A critic remembers Sgt. Pepper as the album that changed rock for better and for worse

By Peter Gerstenzang

It was 50 years ago today that The Beatles released the explosive and innovative album known as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And, despite its long-lasting appeal, it has had the same effect on its particular landscape as most explosions. For better and worse, the terrain of rock and roll was blown apart, remade, forever-altered on June 1, 1967.

A Pivotal Moment for Rock Fans and Their Beloved Band

Whether you love the disc for shattering all the rules and boundaries governing rock, so that the very idea of what an album could be was redefined, or you despise it for making this once raw, rampaging art into something so sophisticated it became unrecognizable, this anniversary is a good one to discuss Pepper’s stature, appeal and occasional divisiveness among critics that still dogs it half a century later.

The Beatles record Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967.  |  Credit: Courtesy of © Apple Corps Ltd.

In the year that preceded the creation of Sgt. Pepper, a number of urgent catalysts, events, influences and ideas came into the life of the world’s biggest, most beloved and arguably, best band. One of these catalysts was that The Beatles decided they would no longer tour. Although considered a music business necessity in order to sell records, The Fab Four felt touring was no longer an artistic act. Commenting on the nonsensical screamfests their concerts had become, John Lennon was quoted at the time as saying the group could “send out four waxworks … and that would satisfy the crowds.”

Additionally, in 1966, the group had been stunned, scared and inspired by the release of The Beach Boys’ beautifully baroque song cycle, Pet Sounds. This record featured a haunting storyline of love-turned-disillusion and was sonically dense and full of chord voicings so sophisticated that listeners had to look them up in books. The record dared The Beatles to keep up. Beatles producer George Martin later said, “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened.”

In our current recording industry, where some artists take years to put out a new record, it’s hard to believe that in ‘67 the British press took The Beatles to task for spending five whole months (!) on Sgt. Pepper. The "lull" before its release  caused many journalists to say the band was burnt out creatively and had nothing more to add. Paul McCartney is quoted as saying he read the premature obituaries of his band with mirth and excitement. “I remember the great glee seeing in one of the papers how The Beatles have dried up,” he said. “….and I was sitting rubbing my hands, saying ‘You just wait.’”

Controversial Judgments in a Critic’s Re-listening of 'Sgt. Pepper'

So, was Sgt. Pepper worth that wait?

In the first heady days of June 1967, those weed-whacked, acid-washed days, when  almost any song lasting over five minutes and featuring an orchestra, a sitar and strange lyrics was considered important, I would say yes, it was worth it.

Do I still feel that way a (gulp) half-century later? I am divided.

For pure excitement, it would be hard to top the rush of early singles like I Wanna Hold Your Hand. For conceptual unity, it would be hard to top the previous year’s Revolver. For just plain fun, it would be hard to top Meet The Beatles. Still, Pepper is their Big Statement. So, let us deal with that.

Things begin promisingly. The title track is a pulverizing piece of hard rock, featuring a glitzy guitar riff by George Harrison that spits out sparks like a loose, dancing wire. Add a feral vocal by McCartney, a nod to the mythical title group and as vague a concept as it all is, the killer music and tantalizing lyrics leave us hungry to hear more about it.

But we never do.

Except for a brief reprise at the album’s end, the Sgt. Pepper/alter ego conceit is dropped immediately by the next song. With A Little Help from My From Friends gets by with the lovably hangdog vocal and crisp, unfussy drumming we’d come to expect from Ringo Starr. Despite some striking images (dig the “plasticine porters”!) and a strong chorus, Lennon’s Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, not only sounds hopelessly rooted in the 1960s; worse, it gives hallucinogens a bad name — as does the ridiculously rococo Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!, which has none of the trippy tenderness of his Nowhere Man. Lennon’s confessional Getting Better still rocks nicely after all these years, producer Martin getting a great bright sound out of Harrison’s guitar, while the wildly-varying tempo changes from verse to chorus are still striking.

The tune that I find most affecting on the album’s first side is She’s Leaving Home. From the heartbreaking glissandos of its harp to one of Paul McCartney’s most vulnerable vocals, this tune strikes me as one of the very best depictions of the so-called “generation gap.” Both parents and kids get their say about the conflicting needs for conventional family life versus (one of the big themes of the decade) dropping out, taking off and hitting the road, without maps or to-do lists. This song is so melodically and lyrical right, no wonder it’s a favorite of rockers as disparate as Brian Wilson and Iggy Pop.

For these ears, Side Two of the album pretty much just starts and ends, never really recovering from Harrison’s unbearable Within You Without You. Like a bad trip, Within You drones on seemingly forever, it isn’t fun and you don’t learn anything from it. Even McCartney’s slight Side Two songs, like Lovely Rita and When I’m Sixty-Four, are preferable to me. The album ends with the unquestionably powerful A Day in the Life. Lyrically at least, it’s a typical Lennon song: offhandedly brilliant, playful, tantalizingly strange. But musically, it typifies the Pepper approach: it’s ponderous. Even McCartney’s portion, a bouncy keyboard-driven fragment, can’t really save it.

In fact, it seems to sum up so much of what the album is, or is trying to be, and why Sgt. Pepper has dated so badly.


Is it Actually Dated 'Rubbish'?

Why? Well, like several of their contemporaries, once The Beatles were complimented by Leonard Bernstein, in some ways it was all over for the band — and maybe rock and roll. Such music was at its best when it scandalized and infuriated grown-ups and intellectuals. You certainly never heard any eggheads praising Chuck Berry’s brilliance in 1957, even if he was a better poet than half those who got published.

And The Beatles’ closest competitors, The Rolling Stones, never got a pat on the head by the intelligentsia, although they embodied the true spirit of rock and roll, long after The Beatles abandoned it. In fact, Keith Richards, who was perhaps excessively cruel about the disc, had some harsh, not entirely inappropriate words about Pepper. “Some people think it’s a genius album,” Richards once reportedly said, “but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish…”

“Rubbish” it may not be. With McCartney's high-end bass playing and so many lovely songs, you simply can't dismiss Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band outright. Still, I can’t help but feel that it was outpaced during its time by other, lesser-known albums (Love’s Forever Changes, The Velvet Underground & Nico, A Whole New Thing by Sly and the Family Stone and The Who Sell Out, for example). Even The Beatles’ previous two albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver, contained more potent songs, more rock(et) fuel and fewer overt attempts to make something that music teachers would applaud.

The Beatles found their mojo again the following year with The White Album, where they conjured up their natural playfulness and gave us a more loose-limbed approach to the music. They recovered. But I’m not sure rock and roll ever did.

Sgt. Pepper, which sold well and was critically acclaimed, ushered in a new era of bands who also decided that their forefathers weren’t Presley and Berry, but Beethoven and Strauss. Soon, we were swamped with the likes of Yes, King Crimson and Rush. Songs stopped being fast and funny and instead added tricky time signatures and highbrow concepts. (A decade later, punk tried nobly to save us. It was probably too late.)

Here's to The Fab Four (But Not Sgt. Pepper)

But here’s to The Fab Four anyway: Unquestionably great, melodically unmatched, a group that turned the entire world upside down. No small thing. But, as with so many of us, they did their best work when they weren’t trying so hard. And here’s to all the critics and classical composers, musicians and media figures, thoughtful hippies and well-intentioned parents endlessly touting Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band  as a milestone in rock and The Beatles as the greatest group of all time for creating it . As far as this musical mind is concerned? Right band. Wrong album.

Editor's note: PBS will air the premiere of "Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution," a documentary looking back on the creation and ongoing influence of the revolutionary album by The Beatles, Saturday, June 3, 2017, at 8 pm ET/7 pm CT. Check your local listings for other air times. 

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Peter Gerstenzang is a humorist, video director and journalist. Read More
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