I had a friend named Bruce Rosenblum who hosted a number of parties when I was in high school in the early ’70s. It was his ritual to begin the evening by playing The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, entire album, both sides.
He believed, and often stated, that it was the greatest album of all time. Most there agreed. At least no one disagreed.
Except me. I was the rare naysayer when it came to Sgt. Pepper’s. Not only was it not the greatest album of all time, it was not even the greatest album by The Beatles (that would be Rubber Soul). I found Sgt. Pepper’s stilted and overproduced, with the exception of “A Day in the Life,” which I thought was brilliant. It certainly was not rock ‘n’ roll to my ears. So I would wait patiently for the album to end (after all, I knew it was important to him and it was his house) and then I would request some “real” rock ‘n’ roll by The Rolling Stones, The Who (whom Bruce and I saw together as our first rock concert), Leon Russell or perhaps J. Geils Band’s Full House.
Mine was clearly the minority opinion in regard to Sgt. Pepper’s. It was released to near* universal acclaim and has topped numerous “best rock albums” lists since. Yet when I would occasionally hear some or all of Sgt. Pepper’s over the years, never putting it on myself, I became more and more convinced that the album’s high estimation is built largely on nostalgic remembrance of things past.
In case you missed it, although I cannot conceive of how any music fan might have given the many commemorative articles and huge build up to the deluxe reissues, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released 50 years ago today (well, in the U.S.; a week earlier in the U.K.). So I decided to listen to the entire album for the first time in decades to see if my opinion might have changed. I was a bit surprised that I still know every word to every song. It also evoked fond memories of Bruce’s and others’ parties from long ago, further reinforcing my belief that the album operates as a Proustian madeleine, a time machine that transports listeners to mythic earlier days. or daze, whether real or, for its younger fans, imagined.
Most of the album still does not sound like rock ‘n’ roll to me, but that is no longer quite the stumbling block it once was, as my listening has since expanded far beyond pure rock ‘n’ roll (was rock ‘n’ roll ever “pure”?). So I am more familiar with, even enjoy some of the other traditions The Beatles drew on for this album, from British Music Hall to Indian raga. But Sgt. Pepper’s still sounds stilted and overproduced to me, except for “A Day in the Life,” which I still think is brilliant.
Many praise Sgt. Pepper’s for its artistic pretension and the attendant respect it gained for lowly rock music, elevating it from the realm of disposable commerce into the firmament of true art, but I damn it for the very same reason. For me, the pretension quickly became pretentious. Born out of teenage rebellion. rock ‘n’ roll has always been at its best when it was most disrespectful (and yes, I realize that I am engaging in my own, alternative strain of nostalgia here).
My complaint was/is not so much that the album brought seriousness to rock — I’ve always taken even the trashiest rock ‘n’ roll seriously — but that it brought solemnity. Sgt. Pepper’s ushered in the age of “head music,” both as the label was then used — “you’d appreciate it if you were high!” — and in the sense that it turned rock albums into turgid museum pieces meant to be appreciated from a distance instead of directly enjoyed (not that the two things are mutually exclusive). I know it is not fair to blame bands or their works for the way others built on them, but I still cannot completely forgive Sgt. Pepper for launching a thousand overwrought concept albums by later baroque, pomp and prog rockers. And it literally drove Brian Wilson crazy trying to compete with The Beatles’ album (which was the Fab Four’s attempt to better Pet Sounds; fail!) by recording Smile.
Rock was no longer fun. It became a music that appealed to the brain alone, something to be quietly contemplated and debated, and left the body behind. You could not dance to Sgt. Pepper’s (not that the self-conscious teenager I was ever danced anywhere but alone in my room). Even The Beatles eventually recognized the corner they painted themselves into and attempted to “Get Back” to rock’s roots in a last ditch attempt to save the band.
I could not wait for punk to come along and reset the clock around the rock. Not that punk ever came close to doing so, but it was a noble effort.
(By the way, I listened to Rubber Soul just after Sgt. Pepper’s and it still holds up for me.)
* The New York Times review by Village Voice music critic Richard Goldstein quickly became notorious for panning what everyone else hailed as a masterpiece. Walter Price has posted Goldstein’s initial review along with his later defense, “I Blew My Cool through the New York Times,” on his blog. Reading it now, I am amazed how closely Goldstein’s opinions mirror my own.
The Washington Post recently asked Goldstein to listen to the album again, especially since Goldstein later realized one of his speakers was blown when he initially listened to the album (of course, that would not have mattered if his review copy was the mono version). Like me, Goldstein is largely unrepentant.