Sgt. Pepper’s: Most Overrated Album of All Time?

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.

Lana of the Pack: Lana Del Rey, The Shangri-Las and Girl Groups

“Lust for Life” may quote The Angels‘ “My Boyfriend’s Back,” . . .

. . . but Lana Del Rey clarifies that it’s actually an homage to The Shangri-Las, the “good bad, but not evil” girl group:

But then I was feeling like it was missing a little bit of the Shangri-Las element, so I went back for a fourth time and layered it up with harmonies. Now I’m finally happy with it.

“Lust for Life” does open with the revving motorcycle sound effect from “Leader of the Pack”:

Del Rey was also thinking of The Shangri-Las when she released “Love” as the first single of her upcoming album:

I’m glad it’s the first thing out. It doesn’t sound that retro, but I was listening to a lot of Shangri-Las and wanted to go back to a bigger, more mid-tempo, single-y sound.

“Love” sounds a lot more like early Springsteen to me (whom Del Rey referred to as the King in an earlier song, “American”), but given the huge influence Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production had on the Boss, that just makes it the girl group sound once removed.

The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson is also a huge fan of Spector’s, declaring The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” “the greatest record ever produced. No one will ever top that one”:

Wilson still remembers the first time he heard it:

I was driving and I had to pull over to the side of the road — it blew my mind. It was a shock.

I started analyzing all the guitars, pianos, bass, drums and percussion. Once I got all those learned, I knew how to produce records.

I felt like I wanted to try to do something as good as that song and I never did. I’ve stopped trying.

His first attempt to match his idol was an answer song, “Don’t Worry Baby”:

As Ronnie Spector herself explains:

“Don’t Worry Baby” was supposed to be the follow-up to “Be My Baby.” I mean, Brian Wilson actually went home after hearing “Be My Baby” and wrote “Don’t Worry Baby” for me. And, of course, he didn’t get a chance to give it to me, because in those days Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich were writing my songs, and they didn’t want anything to do with other people. So that’s why I didn’t do it.

Thirty-five years later, Ronnie Spector finally did record the song, . . .

. . . which apparently came as a big surprise to Brian Wilson:

Guess he doesn’t keep up with the Kill Rock Stars label (where the EP is still available, ebay sellers’ claims of its being OOP to justify inflated prices aside).

Lana Del Rey quoted the title of “Don’t Worry Baby” in “Love.”

Of course, this is not her first foray into girl group songs. In the title song of Ultraviolence, . . .

. . . she notoriously referenced The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),”* . . .

. . . which was also covered by Hole, featuring Courtney Love, . . .

. . . who has toured with Lana Del Rey and recently engaged in a mutual admiration interview with her for Dazed magazine.

* It is often mentioned that Carole King wrote the song. True enough as far as it goes, but King mostly just wrote the music in her songwriting partnership with her then-husband Gerry Goffin, who wrote most of the lyrics of their many, many classic songs, including “(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman.”

Denis Johnson (1949-2017)

Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, a collection of interconnected stories about rural U.S. addicts and petty criminals, took its title from the Velvet Underground’s “Heroin”:

Johnson established his wide range of styles from the beginning, moving directly from the noir of his debut, Angels, to the speculative fiction of Fiskadoro, which was set in the post-apocalyptic culture that grew within the quarantine zone after Miami was nuked. Jesus’ Son was probably his masterpiece, but his novels are all well worth reading.