SO, you may have heard that a famous record from the ‘60s is marking an anniversary. If you’ve not heard more than you can stand about Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band — which the Beatles released 50 years ago today, in the States — let me offer the assessment of a longtime Fabs fan whose teenage years were in the ‘80s and whose most zealous listening years were probably in the 1990s. That is, I approach this record with zero Boomer nostalgia, a scourge I’ve worked to combat for a long time.
Part of what’s interesting about the album is how polarizing it is. For every statement about how it’s the greatest achievement of the greatest-ever rock band, there is something like Richard Goldstein’s New York Times Review, comparing the album to a spoiled child and calling it “busy, hip, and cluttered,” or a recent LA Times review which rehashes some of the old complaints. Similarly, the new remaster by Sir George Martin’s son Gilles, which I’ve not yet heard, has been hailed as a masterpiece beyond all masterpieces.
I expect I am not unique as a Gen X Beatles fan of having come of age with the weight of this album hanging over my entire record collection, not unlike the original Woodstock concert or, in another idiom, Eliot’s The Waste Lane and Joyce’s Ulysses. There’s no question that the album which sparked the Summer of Love and came out while the Fabs could still do no wrong created a great sense of generational occasion when it was released in June 1967 — who was it who said that not since the Congress of Vienna had The West been so wholly unified as it was that first week?
But for a generation that came across the album in their parents’ record collections (mine had it on reel-to-reel, oddly, alongside Magical Mystery Tour and some Herb Albert extavaganza) or in their babysitter’s cassette tapes, this was a very good, maybe great album that was not quite the match of the two that preceded it, Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966). This is of course setting the bar pretty high; those are two of the very finest albums of any kind ever.
I have reassessed the album a few times since those youthful discoveries. (Despite my tender age I have been listening closely to Sgt Pepper’s for over 40 years now.)
One of those times was at a hipster karaoke session in Portland (where else?) This was my first and only karaoke experience, hip or otherwise, and it was held among younger folks, mostly in their 30s. There were no silver pony-tails, Dead-inspired tie-dyes or other Boomer-iffic fashions. (For what it’s worth, this was a series with very good backing tracks; we could really hear the album.) In any case, flipping the context of the record — it was played in order, but in the company of screaming drunk people — made clear to me just how lively this was as a collection of individual songs. On that night I was particularly struck by how good Lovely Rita is — its melody, its playful lyric, but especially McCartney’s singing bassline. There are still moments like that that jump out at me about this record.
A year or so later, I was visiting a painter friend with who I had once played acoustic country and folk, who had relocated to Asheville, NC. In his studio one night we played some of our old rustic numbers, but a college friend who plays banjo and fiddle came by and steered us to a repertoire I never would have imagined playing. (I don’t just mean the intricacy of the multi-layered production but the music itself, given my own modest instrumental talents.) On guitar, mandolin, and fiddle the three or four tunes we played were all accessible and sounded pretty damn good. (At least, they were no worse than the Wilco and Gillian Welch numbers that bracketed them.)
My final personal riff is to note that my 10-year-old son, whose initial connection to the Fabs was with The Beatles for Sale, and who has very little sense of Sgt Pepper’s as being any more “important” or portentous than A Hard Day’s Night, recently chose to do Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds in his piano lessons.
This is all a long way of saying that the obsession with the album’s production — an obsession brought on by by the Fabs and Sir George himself — and its status as a groundbreaking deep-think concept album have distracted us, I think. The concept now sounds as solid and fleshed-out as those records made from broken projects like “Lifehouse” (some of which turned into The Who’s Who’s Next LP) or The Jam’s Setting Sons. You can hear a continuity to some of it, but the Billy Shears conceit tails off after a while, and it’s hardly essential to appreciate the thing.
At the very least, this nostalgic record — infused by music hall and circus instruments, with a mournful song about a girl leaving home, another about a very young man turning 64 — in the middle of future-obsessed psychedelic hippie-dom gives the whole thing plenty of ambiguity and resonance.
One thing I hear among my friends is that there are not enough good songs on Sgt. Pepper’s — that besides A Day in the Life there is nothing like the best stuff on the previous albums. But even the sainted Revolver has Good Day Sunshine and the Motown knock off Got To Get You Into My Life, neither of which I ever need to hear again.
Rather than pick up the new version, I recently found a vinyl copy — slightly scuffed — at a record store in Ventura, CA, and have revisited it through my not-terribly good stereo. Bottom line: If we can forget about the whole “not since…” business, the whole Boomer lost-youth frame, the expectations around the band at the time, etc, we have an album with Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Getting Better, and Fixing a Hole all in a row, as well as Rita, Good Morning, the title track with its wacked-out guitar, and, concluding it, what may be their finest ever number and an increasingly rare case of a real collaboration between John and Paul.
And all of this was done on a record that came in a hair under 40 minutes.
The Sgt-Peppers-is-trash argument seem to me attention-getting nonsense. Goldstein, an important figure in early rock criticism, has since admitted that his stereo was broken when he listened to it and that his review was largely shaped by a struggle over his own then-closeted sexuality.
The one major critique of the album I take seriously is what a friend calls a “wrong turn” in rock history. The Beatles were so influential they certainly had a role, post-Pepper, in moving the field toward unnecessary orchestras, “progressive” rock, and various kinds of arty excursions that sound hellish and pretentious today. And heavy psychedelia, with a few exceptions like the Zombies and Love, is one of the most dated of ’60s musical trends.
So as much as it pains me to say it, some of the ground-clearing that punk had to do in ’76 and ’77 can be put at the feet of the Beatles. While Rubber Soul and Revolver have inspired bands like Squeeze, the Jam, the Stone Roses, Ride, Velocity Girl, Nada Surf, Yo La Tengo, and many others.
But I must admit, I cannot be entirely dispassionate in my judgments about this album. When I was 7 and my parents split up, my father decided to christen his new apartment by taking us kids to a record store in Annapolis, MD, to get a really good copy of Sgt Pepper’s. (I remember a clerk trying to sell us a fancy Japanese pressing of the LP, the rage back then.) I think for my old man, an album that he loved and that had some cultural weight helped reassure him that this unpleasant transition would include some hope and beauty as well. It was a sort of cultural christening.
My dad was not exactly bringing a fresh Sgt Pepper’s into his new place for nostalgic reasons, either: He had loved the band deeply, and gradually helped stir some of my feelings for them and for music in general. But somewhere in the endless seeming stretch where the Beatles were disappearing into Abbey Road Studios to make the album, his Marine troop transport rolled over a Vietnamese explosive, and his life was changed forever. That tale has been told elsewhere, but let’s just say he experienced the Summer of Love mostly in Japanese hospitals.
And when I hear the record now, I hear a collection of mostly great songs by the most formidable and inventive rock band in history, and an album with a mystical meaning to a man — now gone — who was not really able to experience it the first time around.
Long may its freak flag wave.