It was 50 years ago today that “Sgt. Pepper” taught a new way to listen to music.
Released this week in 1967 and setting the scene for the Summer of Love, The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is seen as a turning point in popular culture, called the greatest and most influential rock album of all time by several critics and commentators.
As a Beatles fan, I’m celebrating to an extent. Is it the most influential album? Possibly. Does it have the greatest cover? Sure. Is it unique? Yes.
But is it the best album ever? To me it’s not even the best Beatles album.
Why? I’d love to turn you on: “Sgt. Pepper” is overrated.
Something has to be good to be overrated, and it’s good, no question. Just not the best. It doesn’t matter what it came in (“White Album” was plain white) or who it influenced, it comes down to the overall quality of the songs.
“Pepper” is bookended with great songs. The title song sets the atmosphere, and Ringo Starr continues the good vibe “With a Little Help From my Friends.” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is a perfect song for the psychedelic era.
Then the eight-song slide starts. When was the last time you heard somebody request “Getting Better”? Ever heard a Beatles’ tribute band perform “Within You, Without You?” Ever get “Fixing a Hole” stuck in your head?
See what I mean?
Paul McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” seems merely another variation of “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby.”
George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” also recalls his previous song “Love You To” without improving on it. Sadly, this is Harrison’s only song on the album, as he was really coming into his own as a writer having three on the previous LP, “Revolver.”
“Mr. Kite” is supposedly written by John Lennon, but the lyrics come straight from a circus poster he owned and musically it sounds an awful lot like “Fixing a Hole.” Similarly, Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning” is based off a commercial and lacks the catchy wordplay and wit of his songs “I Am the Walrus” or “Happiness Is a Warm Gun,” instead relying on animal sound effects for creativity.
McCartney’s “When I’m 64” and “Lovely Rita” are certainly catchy. But how does “64,” a tribute to his dad’s preferred style of music, fit into the most influential album of all time? I don’t recall Cream or The Rolling Stones attempting songs like that.
But this is still the Beatles, and they save the best for last. Following the “Pepper” reprise, “A Day in the Life” showcases Lennon and McCartney at their peak, with their adjoining sections meeting perfectly and the orchestra building a fever pitch in what almost amounts to an apocalyptic climax, and that final piano note that lingers.
Then comes the weird nonsense banter on the runout groove as a classic final touch.
What would make “Pepper” better? Add “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” which were already released as singles. Although written just after Pepper’s release, “All You Need is Love,” a No. 1 hit in the Summer of Love, would have been a perfect complement.
But the legend was set with the stories behind the making of the album and all the studio tricks that went into it and how revolutionary it was. Now “Pepper” is one of those things we’re told is good for us and we should respect, like broccoli or “Citizen Kane.”
I’ll take the consistency of “Revolver,” “Abbey Road” or “White Album.” That’s what I consider fixing a hole.
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