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.

Keith Richards: Sgt. Pepper Is a “Mishmash of Rubbish”

In a new Esquire interview, Keith Richards says:

Beatles sounded great when they were the Beatles. But there’s not a lot of roots in that music. I think they got carried away. Why not? If you’re the Beatles in the ’60s, you just get carried away—you forget what it is you wanted to do. You’re starting to do Sgt. Pepper. Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish, kind of like Satanic Majesties—’Oh, if you can make a load of shit, so can we.'”

Finally, someone is calling out the emperors’ old album.

I’ve been saying for years that Sgt. Pepper’s rep is based more on hazy nostalgia than musical quality. Though it often tops critics’ polls, Sgt. Pepper is not the “best rock album.” It is not even the Beatles’ best album (that would be Rubber Soul; I’d place several of their other albums over Sgt. Pepper, too).

Too many people tend to listen to Sgt. Pepper through rose-colored headphones. Yes, it was a landmark album in rock music’s pursuit to be taken seriously, but was that really such a good thing? Besides leading classical musicians and critics like Leonard Bernstein . . .

. . . and critics like Wilfrid Mellers to recognize the value of rock (often for all of the wrong reasons, highlighting complex melody over basic rhythm), it also led numerous stoned musicians to take themselves far too seriously, creating the oxymoronic fusion of classical (as opposed to classic) or symphonic rock.  Which is why I, along with so many others, welcomed punk’s (not so successful) attempt to be the comet that rendered this sort of dinosaur rock extinct.

And for all of the (not entirely misplaced) scorn heaped on The Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, I’d put its “2000 Light Years from Home” up against anything on Sgt. Pepper:

I’d Love to Turn You On

Sonic Youth used to joke about re-recording the entire Beatles’ White Album. Pussy Galore, which included ex-Sonic Youth drummer Bob Bert, took them at their word and released a limited edition cassette with a track-by-track remake of the Rolling Stones’ greatest album, Exile on Main St.; it can be downloaded here:

(Sonic Youth offshoot Ciccone Youth’s The Whitey Album is not their version of the Beatles’ album, though it does contain two covers of Madonna and one of Robert Palmer.)

Although multi-artist tribute compilations of classic albums are fairly common, single artist covers of entire albums are far less frequent, perhaps reaching their zenith with Janice Whaley‘s The Smiths Project, where she recorded the Smiths’ entire catalog, multi-tracking her voice to replicate not just vocals, but also the instrumental backing.

Flaming Lips have now covered two complete albums, first Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and now the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as With a Little Help from Our Fwends. One of those “fwends” is Miley Cyrus, with whom the Lips recently appeared on Conan:

Many cover artists are too respectful, sacrificing the potency of the original songs by focusing too much on capturing exactly how they sound. Others are too disrespectful, killing their idols by trashing their songs. Flaming Lips’ approach is juuuust right, finding the happy medium between the two. They clearly love the original album, but they don’t hesitate to remake it for a new time. Today I hear Sgt.Pepper‘s traditional British music hall roots far more than what was considered psychedelic when it was released in 1967. Flaming Lips’ version reminds us of just how trippy the album once was and can still be.

On a related note, am I the only one who thinks Wayne Coyne . . .

. . . is looking more and more like Roy Wood during his Wizzard period?