Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: 40 Years Later

The Beatles at the Sgt. Pepper release party...It was forty years ago today that The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and changed the face of popular music. In the time since then, the album has faced a tremendous amount of examination and its place in history has come under increased scrutiny and debate.

There are a growing number of music fans and critics that challenge Sgt. Pepper’s rank as not only the definitive statement of the Beatles, but the notion that the album is ground zero for conceptual pop/rock music; the building block of anything that strives to be more important than perhaps the original intent of the genre allowed it to be.

I wholeheartedly agree that there are indeed better albums to be found among The Beatles’ catalog, but I am not ready to distance myself from the fact that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains not only as the first album new fab four converts should acquire after discovering them, but it’s also…and still…the greatest rock and roll album of all time.

And that smug little part of your brain that made you want to automatically argue with me is, in fact, the direct result of Sgt. Pepper itself.

There is some truth that the album doesn’t contain some of the band’s best individual contributions. Sgt. Pepper is obviously Paul’s baby: out of the twelve tracks, over half are McCartney’s and it’s been well documented that he’s responsible for the overall “concept” of Sgt. Pepper. It is, admittedly, a very loose concept that doesn’t go much beyond the title track, the bookending reprise, and the alter ego cover art depictions. Don’t go trying to find additional threads to tie things together; consider what happened to Robert Stigwood when he tried to make a screenplay out the Sgt. Pepper theme in 1978.

It’s also true that some of the material from Sgt. Pepper isn’t on par with the band’s more acknowledged classics. I mean, “When I’m Sixty Four” ain’t no “Hey Jude.” (Hell, Paul wrote the thing when he was fucking sixteen!) Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” isn’t on par with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and even “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” was completely ripped from a turn of the century circus poster.

At the same time, “A Day In The Life,” “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and “Within Without You” are perhaps three of the greatest Beatle songs ever, with the lyrics effortlessly matching the wide-eyed production strategies.

But then again, Sgt. Pepper isn’t about the lyrics, is it? It’s about how the trainwreck-on-paper of sequencing “When I’m Sixty Four” after “Within Without You” somehow works, how the strings of “She’s Leaving Home” manage to turn a sappy tale of a teenage runaway into high drama, and how 24 measures of orchestral crescendo ended up becoming the greatest album closer ever.

The attention is in details like this, and it’s obvious that the band spent a lot of time with George Martin working on those details between December 6, 1966 and April 1, 1967. With the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds clearly used as a reference point and Pink Floyd’s The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn its schizophrenic doppelganger (that was, literally, down the halls from them while they were recording), Sgt. Pepper surpasses both in terms of scope, passion and relevance.

It’s not my place to debate what I feel is the best Beatles album (if you want to, I’m choosing Rubber Soul), but I do feel the need to support the album that is, like it or not, the clear pinnacle of the band’s achievement. Meet The Beatles (or With The Beatles for you picky Anglophiles) may have matched Sgt. Pepper in terms of popularity and influence, but it didn’t change the perception that (for better or worse) rock music was actually a legitimate form of art. Until that point, there was always a certain amount of pomposity towards rock and roll. Sgt. Pepper touched on so many different genres, and did so quite effortlessly, that it forced the arrogant to reconsider rock’s place and consider it as more than just fodder for uncultured teenagers.

All of this, it seems, has been thrown out fairly recently, in favor of some tired 13th generation “kill your idols” bullshit that seems to attribute Sgt Pepper’s continued praise with some Baby Boomer conspiracy theory.

One of the leading proponents of this movement is Jim DeRogatis, who compiled a book a few years ago that attempted to “reconsider the classics.” The book lobbied a long deserved rebuttal against the tired old rock critics that continually cite the same old classic albums that seemed to appear every time an obligatory list of the greatest records of all time was created.

DeRogatis contributed to the festivities by focusing his ire on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Jim, who’s three years older than me, uses Boomer nostalgia as a main focal point of his argument. I could give two shits about how Boomers perceive themselves, their generation, and the albums that they communally namecheck. Whatever they want to deem as their generational soundtrack is up to them. All I know is that on June 1, 1967, the greatest rock and roll band in history released the greatest album ever recorded.

DeRogatis goes on to take a couple of shots at the lyrics (a deficiency that I’ve mentioned), but then goes a step further by suggesting that the underlying theme of Sgt Pepper, essentially, is to “embrace the past” and to “celebrate the values of your parents.” Never mind the fact that most people start to do this even without the help of The Beatles, the key that Jim misses is that the theme is four young men acknowledging the myriad of influences they encountered growing up. The impressive thing is how they attempted to reproduce these references as honestly as they could within the confines of a forty minute long player.

Pepper cover outtake

Whether it’s Indian music, whimsical psychedelia, classical music, theatrical pieces, whatever; The Beatles seemed content with coming up with a final product that’s both commercial, challenging, and stunningly original.

The nostalgia argument is even funnier coming from DeRogatis, an admitted Wilco and Flaming Lips fans, two bands that are completely devoted to nostalgia. Seriously: Wayne Coyne owes his entire career to the record collection of his older brother and I’m willing to bet DeRogatis gets a boner for the majority of the titles that the “cutting edge” writers in Kill Your Idols attempt to deflate.

Like I said before, it was Sgt. Pepper that actually provided people with the idea that there was a market for rock and roll criticism to begin with. Looking for a publication solely devoted to rock music before Pepper? Good luck; they didn’t exist. [Crawdaddy! actually debuted in February 1966, but it was pretty obscure… – ed.] But look at the periodical landscape after Sgt. Pepper and you’ll notice a hell of a lot of magazines devoted to the coverage and criticism of rock music. It appears that a lot of people enjoyed talking about how awesome Sgt. Pepper was and decided to continue to do it with other albums and artists.

So how ironic is it that the very format spawned by the Beatles’ eighth album later turned to hungrily cannibalize it. And for what? Essentially because a few record geeks, cooler than you and I, collectively displayed their bitterness that Sgt. Pepper again ranked higher than their beloved Odessey And Oracle?

At the risk of sounding like that clichéd “there’s a reason why they call it classic rock” line there’s a reason why Sgt. Peppercontinues to place high on those “greatest albums of all times” lists:

Because it fucking rules.

It’s easy to forget this, and with each passing year the argument to keep the album in high regard gets even more difficult. We’re seeing new generations without any idea who The Beatles were, let alone their contributions. Yet we continue to hear their influence every time some unsigned band takes advantage of ProTools’ unlimited recording tracks or whenever a band considers a string quartet for their own magnum opus.

There will always be a little piece of that Lonely Hearts Club band, but time, technology and cynicism are doing their part at trying to dismantle the album’s relevance.

But listen to it again, closely, within context, and you’ll hear it’s true: Sgt. Pepper not only taught the band to play, he taught them to consider music beyond their own abilities. And he taught us to listen.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today (1987 documentary)

The Making of Sgt. Pepper (1992 documentary)

Wanna see a ridiculous photo of GLONO’s founders as teenagers at Beatlefest? Click here.

15 thoughts on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: 40 Years Later”

  1. I can distinctly remember back in 1987 when the whole “20 years ago today” thing came around. And I remember thinking how ancient that seemed, so long ago.

    And it blows my mind that kids today must feel that way about 1987. Or maybe not. With the constant barrage of “We Love the 80s” bullshit on VH1, maybe kids don’t feel as distanced… The 80s were far more documented than the 60s…

    But back to Pepper, it is safe to say that Glorious Noise would not exist today without the hype around that 20th anniversary back in 1987. DP and I bonded over our obsession with the Beatles and that time period provided lots of fuel (CD releases, documentaries, new books, etc.) for the fire.

    So I wonder if this latest round of hype will inspire another generation to check out the Beatles and get inspired by the sheer ambition of it all…

    But I can’t help but think that 40 fucking years is a long-ass time. Back in 1987, forty years would’ve been 1947, and there was no way that as a teenager I was ready to get into Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller, Louis Jordan, Louis Prima, et al.

    Forty years is your grandparents’ music! And there’s nothing cool about that. Nostalgic or “retro” or ironic, perhaps. But not cool. Not to a teenager anyway.

  2. No, not to a teenager, but how long after did we discover Sinatra and Louis Jordan? The early 20s for hipster music fans is when they race to the influences of their influences. As Wilco and the Lips continue to set the art-rock standard (with Bright Eyes seemingly on their tails), I think Pepper will see a resurgence of critical support.

    To think that 1987 was 20 years ago and THAT was 20 years from 1967 is astonishing.

    That said, what will be the landmark albums from our youth? The Stone Roses debut is coming up on a 20 year birthday. NWA and Public Enemy have some notable birthdays on the horizon as well.

  3. Check this out. I found a 5,000-word cover story from the Sep. 22, 1967 issue of Time Magazine that pretty much confirms everything Todd is saying: The Messengers (no byline). Less than 4 months after the album was released, and it was already canonized! Already quoting musicologists comparing it to Schubert and Schumann…

    And to prove that everyone was on drugs in 1967, look at the trippy cover illustration! My face is melting!!!

  4. My Beatles phase (and, not coincidentally, my entire musical journey) started with the Beatles Anthology TV documentary, and so the Anthology CDs were the first I bought and the first I knew.

    I remember hearing, randomly, on some oldies or classic rock radio station the “Sgt. Pepper’s Reprise” and “A Day In The Life” and being blown away. After that I started picking up the Beatles’ real studio albums, and Sgt. Pepper’s was the first and most influential, regardless of whether it was the best.

    “A Day In The Life” is still one of my favorite Beatles tunes. Chock full of stuff yet goes down like greased butter.

  5. Wow, I can’t imagine my first foray into the Beatles starting with Anthology. What an odd way to be intoroduced to their music. It’s all demos and outtakes and alternate takes. When you got to the offically released albums, what was your impression of them in relation to what you knew?

  6. The Beatles are still cool, and always will be cool to a certain kind of kid. Twenty years from NOW, I’m willing to bet that you’ll find at least a few kids wearing Beatles shirts and talking about how awesome Sgt. Pepper is. It’s pretty timeless.

    And I wasn’t even born yet in 1987.

  7. i’ve always enjoyed pepper, but find myself running to it as my favorite. of course, the way i came about the beatles was by three albums within a one month period. though, two aren’t proper albums at all… sgt. peppers, beatles reel music (canadian compilation of the beatles music in film – hard day’s night, help, yellow submarine, magical mystery tour), and early beatles (which is exactly what you would think). a pretty decent smattering of beatles up to the white album to be sure (minus rubber soul and revolver, the two albums that define the beatles to me personally).

    still, i remember working in a record store the year sgt peppers hit 20. tons of hoopla. i remember eagerly watching every tv special i could find on it. it was a fun time to be a young beatles fan. it was a chance to have some sort of tie in to something that happened decades before. made me feel close to being there somehow.

    anyway, i’m continuously fascinated with timelines in music. just last night i was watching sid and nancy. i remember as a teen in the 80’s how distant the sex pistols seemed to me then – and that was less than a decade. it’s been the same distance in time today when nirvana hit, to when nirvana hit to when the sex pistols exploded. the original punk scene was always referenced during the high point of grunge. it was hard to escape it’s cultural influence on that scene.

    and so it still is with the beatles. i still hear their influence in albums from this year in bands like apples in stereo and the bicycles… if not in spirit in panda bears’ amazing album person pitch.

    not to mention, mccartney’s remaining relevant and has put out a new album. haven’t heard it in total yet, but the first single i heard on the radio is absolutely great.

  8. The really weird thing is that music from 20, 30 or 40 years ago hasn’t died out yet. Kids today still listen to the Beatles, Stones, Zepplin, Ramones, etc.

    That never happened through most of the 20th century – a decade was enough to kill off the popularity of popular music styles. The pop music of the 20’s was vastly different from the pop music of the 40’s (as much as the 60’s was different to them).

    I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

  9. As a recovering Beatle freak I will say right up front that I’m pretty burned out on anything “Beatle”, especially Sgt. Pepper. While I certainly recognize the impact this album has had, it has never been my favorite Beatle album and, in my opinion, holds up poorly compared to other Beatle LPs and even other LP’s of that era.

    And Todd points out the reason Sgt. Pepper is flawed: Paul McCartney. As he has demonstrated time and time again in his solo career, McCartney, for all of his formidable gifts and abilities, is basically a song-and-dance man. While Lennon wasted away in a drug-induced fog and Harrison still a year or so away from demanding respect as a songwriter, McCartney was free to indulge himself and the end result is really not much different than a typical McCartney solo outing. Only Lennon’s scant but brilliant contributions gave this album any real weight.

    McCartney’s fingerprints are all over this record: the vaudevillian “When I’m 64”, the melodramatic, soap-opera-ish “She’s Leaving Home”, and of course we’re introduced to another McCartney character with “Lovely Rita”. About the only thing missing is the mushy love ballad.

    It’s not a bad album, but it is a relic of its era. It was the collective circumstances of the mid-1960’s that made it possible, hell even inevitable, that this record was going to have a short-lived, galvanizing impact on a generation of people looking for any excuse to “turn on” and “drop out”. Under those conditions even “Press to Play” might have sounded groovy, man.

  10. Plain and simple…

    When you have guests over, none of them is Ever going to request you play this album

  11. “Plain and simple…

    When you have guests over, none of them is Ever going to request you play this album”

    There you go: 40 years of debate settled with one very broad stroke.

  12. By the way, I like Sgt. Pepper’s, but it comes down to this:

    Pet Sounds is to Sgt. Pepper’s as Pinkerton is to Maladroit. I will not even debate this.

  13. Yes, but dont forget that ‘strawberry fields’ and ‘penny lane’ were supposed to be on the album. so that said there is more of a ghostly concept that was not intiated by the Capitol brass to include those songs on Pepper.

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