Sacred Cows: an occasional series in which NME writers re-appraise classic albums
Everyone knows how important The Beatles are. Anyone who doesn’t recognise it is just being contrary. With that, everyone knows about the gigantic cultural impact of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
It turned music upside down. Rock musicians looked at it and thought, ‘Wow! There’s life beyond trad rock instruments! We can look beyond the blues as a blueprint!’ It ushered in a new way of thinking for bands – for the first time, they didn’t have to worry about recreating things live. The studio was an adventure playground to be explored. The world was the songwriter’s oyster.
However, that all taken in, how many people actually sit down with ‘Sgt. Pepper’ for prolonged listens? ‘Revolver’, ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Abbey Road’ seem to be the LPs that people actually listen to, with ‘Revolver’ being the most tidy, focused and accomplished of the Fabs work. However, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is sprawling, indulgent and rather laborious.
Of course, when people talk about the gigantic impact of ‘…Pepper’, they talk about it as a signpost for where The Beatles were at, at the time of recording. ‘Strawberry Fields (Forever)’, released around the same time, along with ‘Penny Lane’, is one of the most impressive double a-sides ever released. However, in those two songs, there is more to get excited about than almost all of ‘…Pepper’.
Looking at the tracklisting, ‘A Day In The Life’ springs out as a tour-de-force and ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ is a fun slice of noodling, cartoonish psychedelia. However, the rest of the LP is pretty squibbish and pedestrian. Naturally, in 2012, we’ll never know how futuristic it all sounded in ’67 because Music Changed Forever Etc on its release. However, that shouldn’t concern the listener in the present day.
Rock music has become beatified, especially that of the ‘60s. However, that’s what classical music fans do. They like music for the tools and nerdery behind it. ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is a great leap, for its time, making it an important museum piece for the spikes in human creativity. But, as a whole, it just isn’t a very fun record to listen to. Just like every album ever made by The Who.
‘Within You, Without You’ is a pretty beige wall-of-Eastern-sound, while ‘Getting Better’ and ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’ would’ve been largely ignored if they were released by any other band. The title track itself is iconic and all, but really, it’s a plodding, sloppy effort that is superseded by its own reprise which, as dumb as it is, is something you can at least dance to.
‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ is a piece of borrowed nostalgia which is so saccharine, so twee, that the children you haven’t even had yet will find their teeth rotting every time you listen to it. In ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’, you’ll find a song that is only really enjoyed by wannabe producers and tape-geeks who love the mechanics behind it, rather than the song itself (these people invariably enjoy the work of Squarepusher too, for exactly the same reason). Have you noticed that every time someone plays it, they point out the section with the chopped-up organ tapes, rather than enthusing about great melodies?
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Therein lies the problem with ‘Sgt Pepper’. It’s an album for failed sound-engineers.
So yeah, we all know it’s impossible to ignore its seismic impact and yes, no-one should deny it a place in the pantheon of important albums. However, that doesn’t stop it being pretty boring to listen to. It doesn’t fill a listener with vitality and never really gets going. As such, when it inevitably appears at the top of some Best Albums Ever list, you’re reminded of what a chore it is to sit through and, as such, it stops you being rational about any worth it has.
As an observer, you start hating not only the album, but The Beatles as a whole. Sure, it is an inventive and culturally relevant album, but that’s won’t ever stop people feeling like it has been forced down their necks. ‘…Pepper’’s legacy is confined to the studio and perhaps the beginnings of music fans feeling like they’re being harangued into an opinion by music critics. The whole world seems to weep with reverential joy at the mere mention of its name, leaving those that don’t ‘get it’ going from ambivalence about an album to out-and-out hatred of the The Beatles as an entire franchise.
As such, it’s now in a position where it cannot ever be truly loved as an album. It’s been misappropriated by critics and used as a weapon of conformity and technical appreciation. It signalled the beginning of music taking itself far too seriously, and that is something pop may never quite recover from.