May 23, 2017, 07:02AM

Revisionism Aside, Sgt. Pepper’s Still a Pop Cultural Landmark

Fifty years later, most of the record holds up.

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Later this week, Capitol will release a number of 50th anniversary re-issues of The Beatles’ most famous record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and I’m not embarrassed to say I’ll buy it (the two-disc version, not the cash-grab six-disc option). It’s not my favorite Beatles’ record—that would be Revolver, which oddly didn’t receive re-package treatment last year—but as someone who vividly remembers the day I first heard Pepper’s in early June, 1967 it’s an automatic purchase. Really, who doesn’t want to hear outtakes of “Penny Lane,” “Strawberry Fields Forever” (not included on the original record), “Fixing a Hole,” and “A Day in the Life”? In truth, I suppose this is mostly a matter of demographics: Sgt. Pepper’s has been derided for decades, often by critics and fans who weren’t born when it came out. Fine by me, rock ‘n’ roll debates are almost always fun.

Making the rounds on Twitter this past week is a two-year-old quote from Keith Richards (from an Esquire interview), in which he says: “Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish, kind of like Their Satanic Majesties… If you can make a load of shit, so can we.” Now, that’s revisionism from a high-up source! Actually, Satanic Majesties, released in December of ’67, was given middling reviews in comparison to the almost-unanimous praise for Sgt. Pepper’s, and at the time, like many others, I thought it was a so-so monkey-see-monkey-do record—even though “Sing This All Together,” “On With the Show,” “In Another Land,” and “2000 Light Years From Home,” still hold interest. In retrospect, it was lazy for the Stones, an entirely different band, to ape the Beatles after the Summer of Love had come and gone.

Ten years ago, I wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal, “It Was 40 Years Ago Today” (not available online), about Sgt. Pepper’s, and until I dug up the clip the other day, I didn’t really recall what I’d said. As it turned out, it was favorable, not just for the music—excepting duds like “When I’m Sixty-Four” (yet another preview of Paul McCartney’s later career of silly love songs), “She’s Leaving Home,” and the still-irksome “With a Little Help From My Friends” (why the obligatory Ringo vocal was the second track on side one still mystifies me)—but as an event that transcended pop.

I wrote: “When ‘Sgt. Pepper’ arrived, it was as if a massive block party had appeared outside your window… The presentation was a triumph of packaging, and included for the first time the printing of lyrics on the back cover. That the group had reached this point a mere three years after the first rush of ‘Beatlemania’ in America was astonishing, and the songs simply ratcheted up the sense of momentousness provided by the record sleeve… The release of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ marked the shift of power in the music industry—not all that dissimilar to the advent of free agency in Major League Baseball—from the ‘suits’ to the stars.”

It’s true that the lengthy (for the time) four-month recording of Sgt. Pepper’s did start an orgy of excess from rock stars less talented than The Beatles, but that wasn’t their fault. And it was a whirlwind year for the band: the double-sided single “Strawberry Fields/”Penny Lane” came out in February; Sgt. Pepper’s in June; the worldwide broadcast (with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards joining in) of the sappy “All You Need is Love” late in June; manager Brian Epstein’s death in August; and another #1 single, “Hello, Goodbye” released in November. Throw in the Maharishi (or throw him out) and the four Beatles were busier than ever, despite giving up touring in 1966.

I can already anticipate the sneers from my sons about this upbeat view of Sgt. Pepper’s, so while I’ll refrain from an unfair “You had to be there” defense, let’s just say no defense is really necessary. 

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1955

  • "Kind of like Their Satanic Majesties." Ho ho! The Stones are still living down the shame of that album.

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  • That "shame" pales next to Black & Blue.

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  • "excepting duds like When I'm 64". Kindly fuck off.

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  • It's true what you say about 'their satanic majesties.' maybe it's a parody? but i think keef's right about sgt pepper's too.

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  • For me, a 22 year old, listening to Sgt. Pepper's is like witnessing a party from afar: i can appreciate that it's fun for the participants (boomers), but it all looks a bit silly to me, a bit too performative. I think I've only listened to it front-to-back maybe 5 times. That said, it's loaded with classics: "Fixing a Hole" and "A Day in the Life," as you mention, but also "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and... well, "Mr. Kite" is good, but not a classic. So maybe not "loaded," per se, but at the very least a fascinating historical artifact.

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  • I am not a boomer" nor are many who get it, and I do hope you are not suggesting there are no "performative" artists since then, lol. Also if you are only 22 but a keen music listener, there is still time for you to eventually get it too, so maybe holster the holiness just yet.

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  • I wasn't going to mention it, but now that you're being a patronizing dick, I feel comfortable saying that Sgt. Pepper's is easily one of the weakest Beatles albums. What is there to "get," exactly? The title track and its reprise are novelty songs, "She's Leaving Home" is a weepy precursor to the gooey schmaltz that Paul would later replicate ad nauseam, "Within You Without You" is classic George fetishization, and "When I'm 64" sounds like the theme song to a children's show. Love the Beatles, just not this particular album. White Album, Magical Mystery Tour, Revolver, Rubber Soul, just to name a few, blow it away.

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  • Funny how you didn't see your initial post as patronizing itself. Here's how there is something to 'get': it's been 50 years, and depending on where people are in life, they can easily change their minds about what they are hearing. I first heard the album at 19 in a shitty stereo version (I forget which one of the many mixes it was). The sound was overbearding and distracting and didn't like it. Ten years later, I heard the much better mono mix, was more willing to listen, and it clicked. Also, some people eventually get to the point in life where they realize music is just music, that "rock" isn't badass and that Broadway or dance hall or whatever isn't "gay" or schmaltzy" and that they no longer feel the need to assert machismo by deriding Paul's love for many different genres as anything other that just music. Just as an example and all that. So, it might yet just happen, and it's not patronizing to say that.

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  • i love "When I'm 64" which I know will make you wince, which is why I'm commenting.. but then again I love "Silly Love Songs," which I know will make you hurl (see above.)

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  • I like those two, always did.

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  • Thanks for the backup :)

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