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DEMOTING ‘SGT. PEPPER’ : Beyond the Nostalgia, Lots of Mediocre Songs

It was 20 years ago today,

Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

They’ve been going in and out of style

But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile

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So may I introduce to you

The act you’ve known for all these years,

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. . . .

1967 by Northern Songs Ltd.

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Richard Goldstein, one of the first rock critics in the U.S. to gain a national forum, has spent much of the last 20 years apologizing for his original judgment about “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Writing two decades ago in the New York Times, Goldstein branded the album that would become the most celebrated in rock history an “undistinguished collection of work.”

Imagine how many times those words have been used to show how wrong a critic can be.

In the current Rolling Stone, Goldstein repents once more for his sins. He says flatly, “I was wrong.”

But--you know what? I think he was right the first time.

“Sgt. Pepper” was a monumental moment in pop culture, the zenith of a generation’s absorption with the realigning of the social order. As such, it remains a landmark work that is an essential part of any rock library. On a strictly musical level, however, most of the songs in “Sgt. Pepper” are just what Goldstein said: “undistinguished.”

Still, popular opinion has certainly been on the side of “Sgt. Pepper.”

When 100 critics and broadcasters were asked recently by English pop journalist Paul Gambaccini to name the best rock album ever made, the result was almost a foregone conclusion. “Sgt. Pepper” was the winner in a landslide.

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Similarly, a readers’ poll in The Times last month resulted in the same verdict: “Sgt. Pepper” defeated its nearest rival by nearly two to one.

Why do so many people swear by the LP?

My guess is they haven’t listened to it in a long, long, l-o-n-g time.

It was 20 years ago tomorrow--June 1, 1967--that the world first heard “Sgt. Pepper,” and there is no way to overstate the album’s cultural impact at the time.

The world was different in 1967 in ways you probably can’t understand unless you were part of a generation that was feeling a heady exuberance as it washed away the hypocrisy and decay of its parents’ world.

Rock ‘n’ roll, the outlaw coalition of country, blues and gospel that was under attack by adults as soon as it surfaced in the ‘50s, was the chosen language of the youthful movement. Records chronicled the steps in what truly seemed to be a magical mystery tour. The rock community didn’t just play new records, they studied them and marveled at them.

The messages weren’t found just in the lyrics, but also in the exotic, psychedelic musical touches and even in the cover art work. It was as if everything were a code, one that could only be broken by the members of this exclusive young society.

By 1967, the Beatles had long since moved from the teeny-bop innocence of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and were the creative centerpiece of the age. Bob Dylan was regarded by the intelligentsia as its philosopher king, but the Beatles were the popular heroes, the high priests, if you will.

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After the artful invention and glorious variety of moods in the Fab Four’s “Revolver” and “Rubber Soul” albums, the rock community awaited the new album the way Catholics around the world anticipate a papal visit.

And they weren’t disappointed.

Everything about it seemed special.

The exploration began with the cover, a fascinating photo collage (designed by artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth) that featured the Beatles, in colorful old-time marching-band outfits, standing in front of a crowd of famous and obscure personalities. The faces in the photographs were mostly taken from lists of people submitted by the Beatles.

Contemporary culture heroes like Marlon Brando and Lenny Bruce were easy to spot, but fans spent hours, even days, trying to figure out the identity of Dr. David Livingstone (the British missionary and explorer) and Albert Stubbins (a Liverpool footballer).

And the photos weren’t the only items of interest in the art work. Wasn’t that a bed of marijuana plants on the ground in front of the Beatles? And why did Paul McCartney have his back turned in the photo on the back of the album? (The photo would later play a key role in the Paul Is Dead rumors). And the words of the songs were printed on the back cover, a bold declaration that rock ‘n’ roll lyrics were important.

The music itself seemed, in the language of the day, mind blowing. The album only ran 39 minutes, but on those first listenings it seemed to last for hours as you marveled at the ambition of the band. The album cost $75,000--unprecedented for a rock album--and the result was a studio wizardry that was truly thrilling. (Engineer Geoff Emerick recalls the sessions in an interview on Page 57).

Mostly, there was the suggestion of a concept --another breakthrough for rock. Rather than having the usual breaks between songs, the music ran together in a continuous stream, even reprising the opening tune near the end. This wasn’t just a collection of singles, but a unified piece of work.

McCartney began the journey by welcoming us to a mythical concert by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The “concert” then began with Ringo Starr, in the role of Billy Shears, singing “A Little Help From My Friends,” then proceeded through a striking range of emotions.

Everything was heightened by the use of innovative instrumental arrangements and studio touches that made all earlier recording seem like black-and-white as opposed to “Pepper’s” Technicolor.

During the Summer of Love, the album seemed no less than a confirmation of everything the generation believed about its own special place in history. The LP sold 2.5 million records in its first three months--a staggering figure for the time--and stayed on the charts for 113 weeks. (The LP’s sales total is now past 15 million worldwide.)

But 1967 seems a long way away. Eventually, all those copies of “Sgt. Pepper” were put on the shelf . . . worn, scratched, tattered . . . just like a lot of dreams of the era.

By 1968, Nixon was in the White House and Reagan was already in power in California. Even the Beatles themselves were beginning to unravel.

It’s easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of the 1960s if you pick up your old copy of “Sgt. Pepper"--and there are lots of old copies around. Friends have moved across the country and around the world, discarding pets, favorite chairs and loyal old cars, but they’ve held on to that album. They don’t necessarily listen to it, but they find comfort in seeing the LP on the shelf . . . like a diary or school yearbook.

I too was entralled with “Sgt. Pepper” when it first came out, and have lovingly saved a copy in my library. I even nominated the album as the fourth best rock album ever when Paul Gambaccini phoned asking for a Top 10 list. But I hadn’t actually listened to the LP in years.

Unlike the original vinyl album, the compact disc of “Sgt. Pepper” seems part of the present rather than the past. The cover is the same, but it is enclosed neatly in a plastic jewel box so we can’t finger it the way we did the album. The photos are so small. But thesedifferences are really minor.

The main difference is that this is 1987. The CD--which Capitol is releasing on Monday to tie in with the album’s 20th anniversary--invites us to listen to the album fresh . . . on 1987 terms.

On that basis, “Sgt. Pepper” does not fare well. Where the album once seemed to define a culture, it now stands as a curio from a past age. Equally important, the innovation--which inspired hundreds of other bands to think in more artful terms (a mixed blessing indeed considering the pretentiousness of the early-'70s progressive rock movement)--no longer camouflages the weakness in material.

The opening track--McCartney’s “Sgt. Pepper” theme--still gets things off on an inviting note, and “Little Help” continues things in good style. John Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” remains one of the Beatles’ most effusive tracks. The latter two songs, incidentally, were later Top 10 hits for Joe Cocker and Elton John, respectively. After McCartney’s “Getting Better,” however, things get worse--in a hurry.

There’s a catchy vaudeville bounce to the arrangement on McCartney’s “When I’m 64,” but the the seven remaining songs (until the reprise of the theme) easily represent the longest stretch of mediocre material that the Beatles committed to vinyl. McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” is a hopelessly obvious and sentimental tale about the generation gap, an unsuccessful attempt to recapture the poignancy of the similarly structured “Eleanor Rigby.”

George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is almost no song at all, a clumsy series of philosophical insights along the lines of “We are talking about the space between us all / And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion . . . " Had enough?

Lennon’s “Good Morning, Good Morning"--the title was reportedly lifted from a box of breakfast cereal--is little more noteworthy, a song that includes the all-too-accurate line, “I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s OK.” In the supportive atmosphere of 1967, it was OK, but those times are gone.

Lennon and McCartney bounced back in the album’s closing song, “A Day in the Life,” one of their most graceful and engaging compositions: a moody, melancholy collage of images, many of them taken from a single day’s newspapers.

Still, “Sgt. Pepper,” for all its spectacle, sounds too artificial and forced, where the best of the Beatles’ brilliant earlier work had seemed so spontaneous and alive.

There is too little of Lennon’s irreverence to the music, too little of McCartney’s melodic flow. Except in the highlights cited, there’s too little sense of real people and real feelings, too much preoccupation with technique--which may explain why so much of the progressive rock movement that was influenced by this album was itself so sterile.

While perhaps no rock album better defined a culture, “Sgt. Pepper” largely died with that culture. If you think that assessment is too harsh, try this test if you haven’t heard the album in years: Play a cassette of the album on the way to school or work Monday--and see if you really want to listen to it again on the way home.


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