31 May 2017

Sgt Pepper’s: does it deserve its reputation?

From Featured Audio, 11:01 am on 31 May 2017

As a boy obsessed with the 1960s - during the rather less groovy early 1980s – my copy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was close to sacred.

I bought it second hand, it was pristine and still had its cardboard cut-outs of the Fabs in full military regalia.

I pored over its lysergic Peter Blake cover. I listened to it endlessly, fantasising that I was young in the sun-drenched ‘summer of love ‘67’ instead of the seemingly permanent winter of Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.

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The Beatles rocking the garish military look in 1967.  Photo: Wikicommons

As the second wave of mod hit the UK, I became a bit of 1960s obsessive. Hunting out mod clobber at High Street Kensington market , and fossicking for obscure ‘60s rare cuts -   the Beatles became a bit Radio 2, a bit mainstream, for this second-wave mod snob.

And so I haven’t listened to SPLHCB for probably 30 years. Its songs are burned into my memory though – a few of them still get played on the radio. But most have lain dormant at the back of the mind.

I had long since come to the feeling that SPLHCB wasn’t actually THAT good. Quite good, yes, but not this ‘best album ever’ popular culture sacred cow it’s become.

So I gave it another spin (I didn’t, I listened to some dodgy mono recording online). I lent it my ears, if you will, after a three-decade gap.

And I realised that it’s not only NOT the best album of all time, it’s not The Beatles' best album (maybe their fourth). It’s not even the best album released in 1967.

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Klauss Voorman's 1966 cover art for Revolver. Photo: Wikicommons

The year before The Beatles released an actual masterpiece. Revolver is a near perfect record in a year when near-perfect albums – Pet Sounds, Blonde on Blonde – and very, very good albums were coming thick and fast.    

Revolver has all the things for which Sgt Pepper's is feted, but few of its flaws. Artwork cover? Tick. Sonically inventive? Tick. Socially aware? Tick. Modish drug references? Tick. 

What Revolver doesn’t have is a half-assed ‘concept’ (who was Billy Spears and where did he go after song 2?) nor is it padded with Beatles offcuts. ‘Yellow Submarine’ is admittedly (the ‘give Ringo one song’ policy spoilt a few Beatles albums) naff - the rest of Revolver is pop perfection.  

Sgt Pepper’s has perhaps two great Beatles songs: ‘A Day in the Life’ and ‘Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’ and three good ones: ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and ‘Lovely Rita’. 

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover

Peter Blake's famous cover art added to the Sgt Pepper's legend.  Photo: wikicommons

The rest? A very mixed bag by the Fab’s standards. ‘Within You Without You’ and ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ are cringe-worthy. The former a pretentious dirge, the latter Macca at his cutesy worst.

‘Getting Better, ‘Fixing a Hole’, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite’ and ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ would make very few top 50 Beatles song lists.

Early in the sessions for SPLHCB, The Beatles recorded the sublime ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ but tossed them away as a double A side single release in February 1967. They weren’t included on the album.

Add those two and drop two of Pepper’s half a dozen clangers and it would have been a much, much better album – maybe in The Beatles’ top three - as it is Revolver, Rubber Soul, Help! and even Abbey Road are better.

And The Velvet Underground & Nico by The Velvet Underground and Are You Experienced? by The Jimi Hendrix Experience were both better, and I would argue more influential, 1967 releases.

So it was fifty years ago today; more than enough time for some perspective then on an album very much of its time that hasn’t aged terribly well.

Listen to Graham Smith discuss Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with Jesse Mulligan