Sgt. Pepper on Trial

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A key line from the title cut of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band reads, "It was twenty years ago today/Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play" -- but you'd never know it from the Denver dailies. Both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post have published articles commemorating the fortieth anniversary of the Beatles' most famous album, which was released on June 1, 1967. The Rocky's piece ran on May 28, while the Post's take actually dominated the front page of the June 1 edition. Luckily, there was nothing else going on in the world...

In the main, both of these offerings are predictably worshipful; neither bother to reconsider the album's merits or examine its impact in a critical light. Then again, Westword already did that fifteen years ago in "No Time For Sergeants: Is the Beatles' Greatest Hit as Great as Its Reputation?" Published on June 10, 1992, the piece predates the paper's Internet archives -- but it's reproduced below in its original form. Consider it a snotty, snarky but carefully considered alternative to all the ballyhoo:

No Time For Sergeants: Is the Beatles' Greatest Hit as Great As Its Reputation?
By Michael Roberts
June 10-16, 1992

Twenty-five years ago this month, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play – and we’ve been suffering the aftereffects ever since.

Even after a quarter-century, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains the most famous rock album ever made, in part because of the impact it had upon its release. For months prior to its appearance in early June 1967, excited rumors circulated about the platter. Word of mouth pegged it as the ultimate mindblower from John Lennon, Paul McCartney (who turns fifty June 18), George Harrison and Ringo Starr, the most popular, most highly acclaimed pop combo on the planet. The double-A-sided single “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever,” issued in February of that year, merely whetted fans’ appetites; those who heard “A Day in the Life” leaked early to a few radio stations were even more ready to declare the upcoming record rock’s first masterpiece.

And declare it they did: Sgt. Pepper was hailed by pop reviewers as the genre’s greatest accomplishment. It immediately became such a societal phenomenon that figures from a wide cross-section of the media – classical-music critics, editorial-page writers, essayists – were forced to address it. In certain parts of cities such as San Francisco, the unofficial headquarters of 1967’s Summer of Love, the music blasted into the streets from almost every window. Since rock and roll had not yet splintered into the dozens of subsets that now dilute the power of every potential musical juggernaut, the Beatles were able to unite the youth of the Western world under a single paisley umbrella.

More surprising, the album lived up to its hype – at least if you believe most mainstream pundits. A Rolling Stone critics poll conducted in the 1980s named the album the best ever made in the pop field, and similar surveys of both reviewers and fans have consistently produced the same result. At this point, its primacy is simply accepted wisdom. Best president? Abraham Lincoln. Best car? Rolls-Royce. Best rock album? Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

There’s only one thing wrong with this judgment, however. When examined today, far removed from the hoopla it engendered, the fact remains: This is not a great record. Maybe not even a good one.

Sure, the disc contained some great, as well as some good, songs. While many tunes from this era are so drenched in then-trendy psychedelic effects that they now come across as unintended, if lively, camp, “A Day in the Life” transcends the period – it’s marred only by the McCartney-penned music-hall segment – and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” remains enjoyable, even if the passage of time has made its lyrics seem more quaint than evocative.

Other numbers are less intriguing. “When I’m Sixty-four” doesn’t add up to much; “She’s Leaving Home” is a recapitulation of “Eleanor Rigby,” among the group’s most overrated tunes; “With a Little Help From My Friends” sounds better crooned by puppets on Sesame Street than it does in its original version; and the title track is essentially a curio. And that’s not to mention the real stinkers. “Within You, Without You” would have long ago disappeared into the pop-music sinkhole had it not been done by the Beatles. “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is all swirling chords, superficial dope references and nonsense, and “Fixing a Hole” is filler, pure and simple.

Undeniably, the records was an important one, but mainly from a technical standpoint. Producer George Martin made breathrough after breakthrough while rolling the 700 hours of tape that ultimately resulted in the finished product, and his skill at recording and overdubbing made the outcome sound better than virtually any disc made up to that time. Early Beatles albums were primitive – voices came out of one speaker, music out of the other – but no more so than music made by other groups. By contrast, Sgt. Pepper was a miracle of clarity: It became the first real headphone album, inspiring countless listeners to smoke pot, take acid and follow the notes from one side of their head to the other.

But praising a record for its production is like praising a movie for its art direction: If that’s all that impresses you, then obviously something is very, very wrong. Beatles albums such as Rubber Soul and Revolver may have been less proficient from an engineering standpoint, but they had better songs than Sgt. Pepper. Hell, both Magical Mystery Tour and Abbey Road, released after the group’s magnum opus, are built from more solid musical material.

So why is Sgt. Pepper still regarded so highly? In part because critics who should be immune to nostalgia are commonly held in thrall by it. Remembering how happy they were when the album came out and how wonderful it was to listen to while on drugs they no longer use, they perform critical back-flips to explain why it’s a fabulous work of art. They also praise it for the great influence it had on other performers, who quickly took it as a blueprint for their own music. But a closer look reveals that the sounds made by those most captivated by this album were among the worst to be foisted upon any generation of listeners.

Sgt. Pepper was seen as a concept album, the first rock recording to pull together musical threads from pop, classical music and opera into a single thematic statement. While there was no story line (as should be obvious to anyone who was unfortunate enough to see the 1978 movie version of the record, starring the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and yes, George Burns), the album gave the impression of being less a collection of unrelated tracks than a single composition whose whole was greater than the sum of its parts.

Whether this was true or not, other artists took Sgt. Pepper as a challenge to create recordings that could hold their own with the most highly regarded offerings from more respected musical fields. Hence the emergence of so-called art rock, as practiced by groups such as the Moody Blues. That band, which once upon a time was capable of producing enjoyable pop singles such as “Go Now,” recorded Days of Future Passed in 1968 with the London Festival Orchestra. “Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon” and “Nights in White Satin” became huge hits and convinced lowbrow rock fans that they were consuming something that was good for them. It was laughable as classical music, lousy as pop, but sold to impressionable dolts as both.

In short order, the floodgates opened to dozens of other groups with art-rock aspirations: Yes. Rick Wakeman, former and – probably – future Yes keyboardist. The Nice. Renaissance. Gentle Giant. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, (whose new reunion album, Black Moon, is just as miserable as all their old ones). An avalanche of crap, this, and made even more putrid by the pretense in which it was packaged.

Some artists enamored of this style managed to make decent music. Genesis was all but unlistenable during its early, arty years, but Peter Gabriel escaped to make strong musical contributions; Robert Fripp’s early versions of King Crimson are still overrated, but a later incarnation featuring Adrian Belew earned its stripes; and throughout his career, Brian Eno had made music whose high-art aspirations were justified by creative innovations and infused by his personal warmth. Most, however, made schlock that would have made Beethoven roll over (exhibit A: Styx) or composed so-called rock operas that seldom justified the snootiness with which they were presented. The Who’s Tommy and Quadrophrenia largely overcame the bloat of their concepts with songs that could stand on their own, but even groups as good as the Kinks nearly sank under the weight of tepid tomes such as Preservation, Acts I and II.

This is the real legacy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And while there’s no denying that the album, good or bad, is a cultural landmark, its evil spawn sometimes makes you wish the Sergeant had kept his teachings to himself.

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