Sgt Pepper’s: when The Beatles got high on pomposity
Who knows when Sgt Pepper by The Beatles was first declared the greatest LP of all time? It’s not even their best
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: a bad thing. Photograph: PA/PA Wire
George Harrison, Ringo Starr and John Lennon during the recordings of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Photograph: Henry Grossman/Govinda Gallery/Washington Post
There are less than two months to go before we reach the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The race is on to pen the opening evisceration of that exhaustingly lauded Beatles LP. Which will be first hot take to earn the headline “Being for the benefit of Mr Sh*te”? Not this column. Not quite.
I do think that, on balance, the record is a bad thing. Its influence on popular music is to be regretted. But the sounds it makes are not all terrible. It’s not The Beatles’ worst LP. It’s not even the most egregious example of the boys allowing their egos to over-run their judgment (more of that in a moment). Even if I did think these things, I would not be the first person to think them.
Everyone knows the myth. By 1967, The Beatles’ fame had become so vast and dense that aircraft would fall from the sky if they dared go on stage. Young women would drop dead of celebrity-related syndromes upon hearing the opening, yelled syllable of Help! They were that well-known.
With few other options before them, they decided to retreat to the studio and make noises that no musician could reproduce on stage. In the space of five years they had gone from a cracking beat band to the defining creative force of their generation. No wonder they lost the run of themselves.
“When you get to the top, there is nowhere to go but down,” Philip Larkin wrote. “But the Beatles could not get down.” Stuck up in the stratosphere, the group produced a record that confirmed suspicions – hitherto easy to dispel – that these supposedly blokeish Liverpudlians were as much at home to pomposity as any Bloomsbury poet.
It’s hard to say anything more damning of Sgt Pepper than it became the first rock LP to win record of the year at the Grammys. Belatedly accommodated to the postwar era, those awards went on to become a festival of drab, institutionalised conformity that made the Oscars seem like a drug-soaked warehouse party. Such dangerous, edgy LPs as Phil Collins’s No Jacket Required, Eric Clapton’s Unplugged and Toto’s Toto IV followed in its wake. (Space prohibits a comprehensive demolition of John Lennon’s mawkish Double Fantasy, which triumphed in the months after the singer’s death.)
Who knows when Sgt Pepper was first declared the greatest LP of all time? But Rolling Stone, a publication that revealed reactionary tendencies from its inception, has perennially put it at the top of such polls. In 2003 it secured the title just ahead of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds.
Yet there has been resistance. In 1985, the New Musical Express – then the most influential pop paper east of Manhattan – published its own 99 all-time best LPs. Revolver, placed at 11, was the highest-scoring Beatles record. There were mentions lower down for Hard Days Night, Rubber Soul and the White Album. But Sgt Pepper was nowhere on the list.
To put this in perspective, it was beaten by such records as The Abyssinians’ Forward into Zion, The Gang of Four’s Entertainment and Magazine’s The Correct Use of Soap. “Take that, Rolling Stone,” the NME writers almost certainly said.
The snub was to a purpose.
Rejection of rock’n’roll
The problem is not really the songs. Paul McCartney has written few more moving ballads than She’s Leaving Home. Since Lennon is dead and can’t sue, I will state that I have never believed that the title of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – allegedly derived from a painting by his young son – did not reference LSD. Either way, it’s got a cracking chorus and an insidious verse. A Day in the Life is at least three great tracks.
The issue is the rejection of rock’n’roll’s raw aesthetics and the embrace of a pretentious grandiosity that led inexorably to sickening concept albums by Pink Floyd. The NME staff, still recovering from the post-punk fightback, could be forgiven for deciding that allowing The Wall to happen was reason enough to shut Sgt Pepper out of the party. Henceforth rock musicians would seek something no rock musician should tolerate: respectability. Pete Townshend became an acquisitions editor for Faber & Faber. Jethro Tull have their tunes reimagined by string quartets. Damon Albarn writes bleeding operas for the blasted ENO. Oh, that Chuck Berry lived to see such indulgence.
The celebrations for Revolver last year were justified. That LP corralled ambition within firm song-writing disciplines. It was a great record and a good thing. Sgt Pepper was a decent record and a bad thing. Fans had, however, to wait for the disorganised, arrogant, ill-spirited, meandering The White Album to endure a terrible record that was also a bad thing. Gird loins for its half centenary in November 2018.