Monday, May 3, 2010

The Beatles 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' is an overrated album

Let me begin by writing that I believe The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is an excellent album. If I have a long drive facing me, I have no problem sticking it in the CD player as I hit the road. However, sometimes the legend of an album can overwhelm its actual quality.

This album is more important for its cultural impact than its alleged greatness. Released in the summer of 1967, it was the next step in the maturation of the band. The Beatles were striving to be artists that expanded what rock and roll could be. They were tired of being the objects of screams at concerts.

They had already abandoned tours because their 1966 concert tour was the last they ever did. Artistically, they were growing as the remarkable Revolver album showed that same year. If 'Tomorrow Never Knows' is not their greatest song, then it is definitely in the top five. It was the triumphant finale to Revolver.

After that, they entered the studio to begin recording what would become Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. However, they spent such a long time in the studio that there became a need to release a single to maintain their visibility. They released what could easily be considered the greatest two-sided single of all time. 'Penny Lane' backed with 'Strawberry Fields Forever' presented John Lennon and Paul McCartney at their absolute best. 'Penny Lane' was Paul's and it was shimmering. It's a wonderful example of what a pop single should be. John's 'Strawberry Fields Forever' seems like a logical extension of his 'Tomorrow Never Knows.' Dreamlike in its presentation, it succeeds more as an image than a typical pop song.

However, by choosing these two songs for the single, it cost them the opportunity to make their greatest album. Sgt. Pepper's... has some truly great songs: 'With a Little Help from My Friends,' 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,' 'A Day in the Life' and the title song are all top flight. The problem is that some of the deep album cuts are not quite up to snuff.

'She's Leaving Home' sounds like a remake of 'Eleanor Rigby' from the year before but less successful. 'For the Benefit of Mr. Kite' has lyrics literally taken from a carnival poster. 'Within You Without You' was one of George Harrison's less successful attempts to incorporate Indian music into The Beatles' sound. 'When I'm Sixty-four' is cute but inconsequential.

Drop two of those songs and replace them with 'Penny Lane' and 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and Sgt. Pepper's... becomes a monster. There would be no doubting that it deserved the mythic status it has received. The bottom line is that this album is revered because the album is the result of great timing. The so-called 'Summer of Love' was unfolding in 1967, and the people wanted something to rally around. Since The Beatles were not touring anymore, this album became the object of their desire.

In reviewing The Beatles body of work, I consider this their fourth best album. It ranks behind The Beatles (The White Album), Revolver, and Abbey Road. It's true. Each of these three albums is more diverse than Sgt. Pepper's..., and Harrison's blooming songwriting talents almost put him on equal status with Lennon and McCartney.

Like I wrote at the beginning, Sgt. Pepper's... is an excellent album. However, does it deserve to be ranked ahead of the other three albums I just listed? An objective mind would reply: 'No.'


Tenn Irish said...

Hard to disagree with any of that. My all time favorite may be the movie scene on the roof (Get Back). Guess the cut is in the Abbey Road album.

Mister Jimmy said...

I could disagree forever but it wouldn't change any opinions. To say "Sgt. Pepper" is overrated is like saying that "I'm tired of all this roasted beef tenderloin, gimme some fried chicken."
However, for a better idea of that period of the Beatles music, especially the production, see George Martin's "A Little Help From My Friends" (out of print but our library system has it) and Geoff Emerick's memoir, "Here, There And Everywhere."
Much of the material for "SP", "Magical Mystery Tour" had already been written, the biggest decision was what songs to put on what album. "Abbey Road" wouldn't exist if it weren't for Martin, who essentially took a lot of Beatle's musical bits and edited and arranged them into what is, arguably, one of the great recordings ever.

Mister Jimmy said...

BTW, "Get Back" is from "Let It Be" as I recall, which can be seen in the multi-volume DVD "The Beatles Anthology", not to be missed by any Beatles fan, much less any music fan.

Chris said...

Mr. Jimmy, keep in mind that I consider 'Sgt. Pepper' an excellent album. I just don't think it is as good as their greatest.

The 'Get Back' performance in question is excellent. I agree it is better presented in 'The Beatles Anthology.' However, I like watching it as part of the 'Let It Be' documentary. The whole 'Let It Be' documentary is fascinating to watch. Some say it is like watching a band break up before your eyes. I tend to agree with that.