50 years ago popular music reached its absolute apex when Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the most perfect musical statement in the history of the eardrum was released. It instantly made every album released prior to May 1967 sound utterly juvenile, and every album released after it has been a shockingly poor attempt to emulate its greatness. It is, in short, the only album ever recorded that matters, and the received wisdom is that nothing that anyone else, including The Beatles themselves, has ever recorded, matters.
Okay, let’s stop the silliness here. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, despite its heavyweight reputation, is a deeply flawed album. Sure, it opens with one of The Beatles greatest riffs, and the opening title track is the highlight of one of the most iconic albums ever released, and from here on in the only way is down…
As an album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is messy, over produced, self indulgent, and overall one of The Beatles’ lesser album-length statements. It’s not just me that thinks that either, as one of the Fab Four’s few genuine cultural peers of the 20th Century, Bob Dylan, also opined that “I didn’t think all that production was necessary, ’cause The Beatles had never done that before”. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is certainly not an awful album, but it definitely does not deserve the amount stomach-churning sycophantic praise which has been regularly vomited over it in the fifty years since its release.
In fairness, the album starts out well, with a great title track, then “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, which although obviously indulgent, is still a fine tune and one of the highlights of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. While the album itself opens and closes in a ridiculously strong fashion, the quintet of songs in the middle of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, “Getting Better”, “Fixing A Hole”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” and “When I’m Sixty Four”, make for a significant mid-album slump and collectively they represent the nadir of Lennon and McCartney tweeness, although admittedly the narcolepsy-inducing George Harrison contribution doesn’t do the album many favours either. Sadly there’s nothing of any real interest from the end of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” until “Lovely Rita”, which although is certainly a song which could have accusations of twee directed towards it, is still stronger than any of the preceding half a dozen tracks.
By the time “Good Morning Good Morning” reveals itself to be one of The Beatles great unappreciated numbers, you can’t help feeling that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is more George Martin’s triumph, than The Beatles’ and maybe, just maybe, they were now getting too culturally omnipresent for their own good, and no one was prepared to bring up the thorny subject of quality control to them. This seemingly left George Martin to make Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band an album where the brilliance was found in his studio efforts rather than the songwriting. Just listen to the way that “Good Morning Good Morning” lurches into a reprise of the title track, it’s a work of genius, but it’s something that must have been born in the studio. In fact the whole shaky ‘concept’ of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is pretty much thrown out after “With a Little Help From My Friends” in favour of psychedelic whimsy, and isn’t picked up again until that segue from “Good Morning Good Morning” to “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”, which really only reminds you of the level of frustration you have that at least half of the album you are listening to simply doesn’t come within spitting distance of the high standards that The Beatles had previously set themselves. Of course “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” is followed by one of The Beatles most frantically over-analysed numbers and one of their defining moments. “A Day In The Life”, starts with bucketloads of promise and potential, before the now familiar production overload takes over and the self-indulgence spoils it.
In short, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not the greatest album ever released, it’s not even The Beatles best album. It was a product of a band indulging themselves and gorging on creative freedom, sadly as a result of this it ends up bloated and unwieldy. Although I agree that it is one of the key albums in the history of popular music, I personally couldn’t care less if I never heard half a dozen of these songs ever again.
I will say this, when it was released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the most shocking assault on the ears heard to date by The Beatles, however times have moved on in the last half a century, and to modern ears much of this landmark release does seem to be little more than an exercise in twee, stoned picnic on the lawn trying to recreate the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party psychedelia. That’s not to take away from its reputation as one of the most historically influential albums of all time, but the impact that it had on contemporary ears at the time of its release could never be recreated on subsequent generations, regardless of the amount of sycophantic praise that has been lavished on it since. Indeed, when I compare Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the full American album version of the Magical Mystery Tour Soundtrack, the material for which was effectively recorded consecutively with Sgt Pepper, things do become a little more cut and dry. Simply put, they got them the wrong way around, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the statement which should have originally been the EP, featuring the first three and last four songs that would make up the album. As a collection of songs the album length Magical Mystery Tour Soundtrack is a far more consistent and pleasing listen, simply because it’s a collection of great songs, rather than a somewhat forced attempt to sound as cutting-edge as possible.
So yes, please do celebrate the anniversary of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but remember it’s not the best album ever. It’s not even the best Beatles album. Hell, it’s not even the best Beatles album released in 1967.