‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50 or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hype

Album art for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles
Album art for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles.

No album comes with as much baggage as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” I feel confident making this assertion because with “Pepper,” the Beatles unwittingly invented the album as we know it, transforming a handy way to package and sell songs into a capital-A, capital-F Art Form. By extension, the concept of a proper “album review” wouldn’t exist without this thing, and I’d be out of a job. Aside from that terrible pressure, there’s the added anxiety of the intervening half-century, during which wonder has warped into distaste, distaste has given way to nostalgia, nostalgia has faded into fatigue and forgetfulness, etc. “Pepper” is 50. It seems at this point, any opinion you could have about it is played out, redundant. There will be old heads and old hacks out today, recycling the same old hat: “It’s the greatest album of all time!” Meanwhile, in an equally boring gesture, iconoclasts and contrarians will pooh-pooh the album for poo-poo’s sake: “It’s the most overrated album of all time!” Probably more people will ask, “Is there a reason we’re still talking about ‘Sgt. Pepper’?”

Surprisingly, there is. Don’t take that as a prescription, as though this album were an apple that wards off doctors. Indeed, the problem that has plagued “Pepper” since its release is what people try to make of it. “Pepper” seems uncomfortable being anything other than itself, uncomfortable performing any labor beyond that which produced the thirteen included tracks. For the piece of music that crystallized the idea of the “album,” it isn’t governed by any unifying tone or subject matter, often drifting into incoherence. For the album that inaugurated the radical Summer of Love, it hews closer to old-school values. And for the greatest album of all time, it has its irredeemably sloppy moments. The legacy of “Pepper” has made it a mess of contradictions, distorting the tricky, playful record it actually is. Yet its place in the culture has become as inextricable a component of the album as the songs themselves. We cannot divorce “Pepper” from its reputation. So we must acquaint ourselves with its history and observe how it pushes back on the fifty years’ worth of meaning imposed on it. Once we’ve done such preparatory work, we restore the album’s generous capacity to surprise and reward us.

In the summer of 1966, the Beatles incurred the wrath of Japanese traditionalists, the First Lady of the Philippines, and American conservatives as they completed what would be their final tour together. Drained by the frequency and magnitude of disasters, the band decided to quit performing and direct their energy to their studio work. Here, one might be tempted to construct a narrative around the “Pepper” sessions, to say that the Beatles were forced into innovation in order to justify this about-face, to prove that they could be something more serious than mere entertainers. At the same time, one could posit, they had to appease an audience that would never see them onstage again. The album itself seems to encourage this interpretation, opening with the noise of a concert hall—strings tuning, crowd chatter—to create what seems like the sort of live event which the Beatles would only participate in once more. Then a couple guitars chug along, and Paul McCartney belts a brief primer on a fictional band. And after he announces their entrance? A posh brass section starts up, to the laughter of the audience. The strings from the beginning, meanwhile, are dropped altogether. On the title track, the Beatles seem to cheekily make reference to their retirement from touring with the invention of another live act. Concurrently, the guise of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” allows them to both dive headlong into silly experimentation and toy with the audience’s expectations, making this cut a masterpiece of misdirection.

Yet, by all accounts, the album’s creation was disorganized and perfunctory. After all, the band could not sustain the “Pepper” conceit past the second song. As they wrote and recorded, John Lennon and Paul McCartney meandered from concept to concept: childhood memories of Liverpool, which resulted in “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” soon relegated to a single and left off the album; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, inspired by Paul’s encounters with such funkily-named bands as Quicksilver Messenger Service and Jefferson Airplane; and, finally, whatever they could churn out before the deadline. Meanwhile, George Harrison got his one allotted contribution, infusing it with the sounds and ideas he absorbed during his lengthy stay in India. And Ringo got a showcase. As Allan F. Moore notes in his critical study of the album, “There should have been nothing special about St. Pepper. Accounts of its genesis and architecture paint it as something of a mixed bag. It was not the ‘all-time killer album’ planned in meticulous detail from beginning to end.”

The scattered nature of the Beatles’ creative process becomes obvious when one assesses “Pepper” as a whole. The baffling sequencing alone reflects the project’s lack of cohesion. Why does “Fixing a Hole,” Paul’s baroque paean to distraction, follow “Getting Better,” his poppy account of a lout’s optimism? The frilly harpsichord intro of the former is absurd after the no-nonsense chords of the latter, like a red velvet cupcake after a day at the construction zone. And the unconscionably cutesy “When I’m Sixty Four” after “Within You Without You,” George’s spacey PSA about solipsism? In his book “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the Beatles’ producer George Martin explains that he had final say over the tracklist and reveals the flimsy reasoning behind this particular decision: Because of Harrison’s deflating laugh at the end of “Within You Without You,” Martin thought it apt to place the syrupiest of songs after it. Martin even admits that “when we were putting the album together at the end, it struck me that we had such a funny collection of songs, not really related to one another, all disparate numbers. Looking them over, I really did start to worry that we were being a bit pretentious, a bit clever-clever” (149-150). Indeed, to accept that such a random assemblage of songs served as the model for a new definition of the “album” requires more disbelief than most should be allowed to suspend.

Setting aside the absence of connective tissue between tracks, several of the songs themselves are skeletal or stunted, either not fleshed out enough or underdeveloped from inception. The lumbering “With a Little Help from My Friends” has become a standard, yet it is impossible today to understand why it has endured for so long. Everyone on it sounds bored, and their voices lack the sincerity required to make the song uplifting, which appears to be its only goal. Meanwhile, the celebrated “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is top-shelf Lennon psychedelia, but the tedious chorus does a disservice to the gorgeous verses. I understand the need for something straightforward to counterbalance all that talk of “marmalade skies” and “cellophane flowers,” but each iteration of the words “Lucy in the sky with diamonds!” feels like John carving them in cursive on the inside of my skull with a screwdriver. (If you like pain and want more, check out Elton John’s cover. The man elevates the piece to typically epic heights, but halfway through, he flips the hook into a nauseating cod-reggae breakdown for no real reason. That half minute of sadism is what hell wants to be when it grows up.)

Yet other songs which seem half-baked or repulsive upon first listen conceal countless surprises. “When I’m Sixty Four,” for instance, is infinitely more irritating than the Beatles’ other widely despised jaunt, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Yet its message is strangely revolutionary: What other band admits the possibility of decrepitude, let alone unadventurous old age? In 1965, Roger Daltrey stuttered “I hope I die before I get old” when talkin’ ‘bout his generation. Written just a year later, “When I’m Sixty Four” scans as a rebuttal, with its hopeful forecasts of hair loss, “a cottage in the Isle of Wight,” and “grandchildren on your knee” named “Vera, Chuck, and Dave.” The better-than-you-remember deep cut “She’s Leaving Home” depicts a teenager running away from home with “a man from the motor trade.” Given the sociocultural context, one might expect an exuberant tale of freedom and independence. Instead, Paul tones down the aggressive mournfulness of “Eleanor Rigby” to linger on the distraught parents who “sacrificed most of [their] lives” for their daughter and “gave her everything money could buy”; make sure to catch his hilariously despairing delivery of the line, “She is having … FUUUN.” The flower children claimed “Pepper” as the defining statement of their generation, yet this seems to be willful misreading on the part of hippies overeager to hear their substance abuse affirmed (“Wow, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ = LSD!”). Aside from the diversity of styles on display, in which the vaguely open-minded participants in the Summer of Love saw their reflection, “Pepper” is demonstratively, unexpectedly old-fashioned.

The record repeatedly challenges the listener on a smaller scale as well. “Getting Better” always struck me as infectious but directionless: Where it should wind tighter, it uncoils. Meanwhile, the vile narrator admits that he “beat [his partner] and kept her apart from the things that she loved,” then shrugs it off as he trots down the road to self-improvement. Yet the song clarifies when one realizes that John’s “can’t get no worse” isn’t a wry contradiction of Paul’s “it’s getting better all the time,” but an explanation. Instead of building like one expects, the song strays into tanpura zone-outs as the narrator offers a laundry list of reasons for which he’s hit rock bottom. It’s getting better all the time because there’s nowhere to go but up. Meanwhile, I’ve always harbored an antipathy to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”: It seems gimmicky and insubstantial (Lennon culled the lyrics from a 19th-century circus poster, after all), and the plodding calliope makes me think of oompa loompas marching about. But as much as I try to resist it, I can’t ignore how effectively it conjures up a haunted fairground, nor can I deny how thrilling it is when “Henry the Horse dances the waltz” and the song dives dizzyingly into waltz time. It’s all a matter of parallax: The most off-putting songs demand a different line of sight. At the very least, they ask you to acknowledge the ways in which they subvert your expectations. Even the most glaring flaws seem to have specific functions. Why, for instance, does the title track seem so inert? So the reprise can knock you out.

And for all its hard-to-love details, “Pepper” still has dazzling moments to spare. Critics regard “Lovely Rita” as a throwaway, but it’s one of the most gleeful spots on the record, with its bursts of kazoo, honky-tonk piano solos, and goofy Lennon background noises (“Ah! Oh? Chukka-chukka-chukka-chukka”). And try sitting still during the cacophonous “Good Morning Good Morning,” as Ringo defies time signatures with pratfall-esque cymbal crashes and John celebrates mundane life so coolly, it almost reads as snide: “I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s OK.” If that track doesn’t affect you, the reprise to the title track will yank you by the collar to your feet with its dive-bombing guitars and proto-breakbeat. (Tellingly, the Beastie Boys rapped over it on “The Sounds of Silence.”) Then there’s the untouchable “A Day in the Life,” practically the Bible of pop music in terms of intensity of adoration and study. Who here can listen to those chaotic transitions and that final, thunderous piano chord without holding their breath? While “Pepper” has its uninspired bits, it matches each one with moments of energy and ambition that remain unrivaled fifty years on.

In the last interview of his lifetime, John told journalist David Sheff, “‘Sgt. Pepper’ is called the first concept album, but it doesn't go anywhere. All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band.… Every other song could have been on any other album.” The Beatles never intended “Pepper” to be anything unprecedented. They were just four preternaturally talented twenty-somethings attending to business as usual—though this time around, they took more risks, pursued some loopier ideas. Fifty years later, “Pepper” remains slippery, and the baggage it has amassed through the decades only further complicates it. Its genius lies in the impossibility of pigeonholing it, a genius suppressed by titles like “the greatest album of all time,” “the first ‘album’ album,” or “the album that defined the Summer of Love.” It’s the rare record that requires you to appreciate its history, then interrogate that history. It has its weak moments and its euphoric moments, but it consistently sets its own terms. It can still surprise you, if you let it.

—Jonathan P. Trang can be reached at jonathan.trang@thecrimson.com. This article is one of two commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Read Trevor J. Levin’s more favorable take here.

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