When the recorded output of the Beatles is discussed, the 1967 album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a touchy subject. Some rather lazily proclaim it as "the greatest album of all time", while others seek to distract attention from its (minor) shortcomings by emphasizing the record's cultural and social impact and importance.
I first heard "Sgt. Pepper" in its entirety about 25-30 years ago, when a member of my family purchased the vinyl version. I was somewhat underwhelmed, although admittedly my musical palate was woefully under-developed at that stage, and I had yet to appreciate the greatness of the Beatles in general. To my ears, it all seemed a little lacking in drama and "punch". In those days, anything which did not feature blazing guitar riffs and power chords I treated with a touch of disdain.
I re-appraised the album again in the mid-1990s, when the whole "Anthology" project re-ignited my interest in the Fab Four, and I explored their entire back catalogue. My assessment was more nuanced, and my by then more discerning ears were more receptive, but it still did not live up to the "the hype". In fairness, by that stage "the hype" was being counter-balanced by the surfeit of Beatles scholarship available, much of which placed "Sgt. Pepper" in its proper place, and tended to champion "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul" instead. One is tempted to wonder whether that line of thinking itself has now become tired and dated. Personally, these days I prefer "The White Album" and "Abbey Road", but that's another story!
One thing I would say is that "Sgt. Pepper" cleverly "tricks" people into thinking that it is better and more substantial than it really is. This is partially due to the lavish packaging, the "aura" of a concept and the astute sequencing of the tracks.
John Lennon was later dismissive of the notion that this was a concept album, pointing out that his own contributions were "autonomous" songs, not intended to nourish or realize any greater goal. Ringo Starr I think was nearer the mark in one of the "Anthology" videos when he implied that the group started out with the loose intention of making such a record, but then decided just to record songs. He did correctly observe, however, that the finished article retained some of the flavour of embracing some vague central theme. Lennon was accurate in his suggestion that people became convinced that there was some "concept" because the Beatles said so! The mesmeric power of the Beatles having its effect on public and press alike? Was major criticism of the Beatles still something of a taboo in 1967?
The album exudes a polish and a charm which mask the deficiencies. A very "clean" sound is evident, partially resulting from the lesser role allotted to electric guitars. Paul McCartney I think has remarked that around that time he was striving for such a sound, perhaps inspired by the achievement of Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds". The music-hall flavour of much of the music here helped to nurture the Sgt. Pepper "myth". Other artists had already been experimenting with such styles, but their adoption by the Beatles gave them mainstream acceptance and credibility.
The opening sequence of songs ("Sgt. Pepper", "With A Little Help From My Friends", "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds") generates momentum, even if on closer inspection the material is unexceptional and relatively shallow. The momentum is not maintained, as the album then goes off on various tangents.
Of course, with "Friends" and "Lucy" we come to one of the main talking points which surrounds the work. What are these songs really about? The Beatles were thought to take delight in teasing people by making songs open to certain interpretations, and may have enjoyed poking fun at those in the media and elsewhere who had a tendency to over-intellectualize rock music. One of the strengths of the Lennon-McCartney stable was its capacity to make the compositions work on more than one level.
Some of these numbers have acquired a reputation and popularity somewhat out of proportion to their artistic merit. They might not have merited much attention if they had been performed by Fred Bloggs. In the event, because they were "Beatle songs", minute scrutiny, and a plethora of cover versions, were sure to follow.
Many of the songs on this LP lack the incisiveness of other parts of the Beatles' discography, and I would also dispute the assertion that "Sgt. Pepper" represented the apotheosis of the Swinging Sixties. That accolade belongs, in Beatles terms anyway, to "Revolver". Did the 1967 record, together with the double A-side single "Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane", instead signify a watershed of sorts, before the Sixties went in another direction entirely?
The relative roles and contributions of the individual Beatles bear close examination. It is commonly regarded as a "McCartney album", and it's tempting to regard this as the point at which Paul, in tandem with George Martin, began to assume something of an ascendancy. Yes, he did come up with the "concept", and by some measurements contributes more than the others, but to say that he dominates the record is erroneous. The album's piece-de-resistance was largely the brainchild of his partner/rival. Lennon was mildly dismissive about "Sgt. Pepper" in later years, ironic indeed when one considers "A Day In The Life". Maybe he was resentful at how the project came to be perceived as a Paul vehicle, or perhaps his attitude reflected tensions which were just beginning to emerge within the group.
George Harrison is mostly a peripheral figure on this particular record, a blip in the steadily burgeoning influence which he had been enjoying within the Beatles. Even his song "Within You, Without You" is eclipsed by "Love You To" from the previous year. It has been hinted that George's blossoming interests outside the band contributed to this temporary plateau in his contribution.
"A Day In The Life" can be difficult to get one's teeth into unless the listener concentrates on what John Lennon is trying to say, and absorbs the symbolism of the arrangements. Once these things are accomplished, its glories become clear. Paul's middle section adds to the effect, and prevents the piece from becoming over-earnest, but as an example of Lennon/McCartney "syncretism" its importance has arguably been a touch exaggerated. One thing I would contend is that "A Day In The Life" is another example of how the Beatles (and their producer) possessed some intangible musical "sixth sense", which enabled them to determine what worked and what didn't.
"Sgt. Pepper" is pleasing and distinctive in its utilization of unconventional sounds, these primarily extracted from conventional instruments. Keyboards (and occasionally guitars) are made to emit sounds which do not outwardly resemble those traditionally associated with them. This quality the album shares with "Pet Sounds", and is also symptomatic of the time and care which the boys were able to lavish on their creation.
The songs forming the heart of the album ("Getting Better", "When I'm Sixty Four", "Lovely Rita" and "Good Morning Good Morning") are all beautifully crafted, and because of the band's humour and joie de vivre, immensely likeable. However, they fall short of genius in their own right as individual pieces. The album's supporters will point to the part these tracks play in making up the "Sgt. Pepper" mosaic, the big picture which makes it an "album" in the truest sense of that term.
"She's Leaving Home" appears to polarize opinion, amongst the critics at least. There is a fine line between capturing a mood perfectly and descending into over-sentimentality, and a few people have tentatively insinuated that the line was crossed by this number. I adopt a middle view, and tend to regard it as a cousin of "Eleanor Rigby". As a take on inter-generational tension and strife it is less overtly strident and subversive, but more affecting and poignant, than most of what was being written on the subject by others at the time.
So how do we judge "Sgt. Pepper", leaving aside personal tastes? It signalled a further intensification of rock's elevation to that of an art-form worthy of cerebral discussion, and cemented the Beatles' place in the vanguard of that process. The musical merits of the record will continue to be debated so long as there is air to breathe, but in pop-cultural terms it might be the single achievement for which they will be best remembered.