Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may not be the greatest album ever, but neither is any other, of course. Having celebrated its 50th birthday in June, the classic Beatles album illustrates how consensus bounces up and down throughout history. By the time Pepper came out in 1967, ten months after 1966’s Revolver in what was then considered an unreasonably long gap between projects, the band had stopped touring in order to work exclusively in the studio. This produced a giddy anticipation cycle that inspired instant coronation upon release. Even when it first came out — especially when it first came out — the coverage framed it in world-historical terms, terms like “great art” and “magnum opus” and such; in 2003, it topped Rolling Stone’s roundup of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which merely confirmed an attitude several decades old among the rock press.
But the imposition of received taste rankles, and a subsequent generation of critics spurned the album’s myth, attributing its acclaim less to actual merits than to good timing and the culmination of what Greil Marcus in 1979 called a “pop explosion.” Pepper’s 50th anniversary has rekindled much debate: note Jon Pareles in The New York Times nailing the album’s “impulsiveness, its lighthearted daring, its willingness to try the odd sound and the unexpected idea”; note also Amanda Marcotte in Salon complaining that Pepper is “music for men” over “girl music,” which reveals nothing about the album and everything about the author’s unwitting failure to reject gender norms. Fifty years on, we’re still arguing about the Beatles; they’ve got us in their clutches, and we can’t get free.
According to the original Pepper myth, the Beatles, in retreating to the studio and taking the time to realize their every ambition, poured heart, soul, and insane creative vision into an aural artifact whose conceptual framework, total coherence, and self-conscious artistry proved that rock & roll was as serious a genre as any, elevated it to the level of painting, literature, and classical music, utterly transformed the world, and baptized the entire human race in the warmth of the Beatles’ glow. While perhaps not the first Great Album, a very important category for people who think this way, it was supposedly the first Concept Album, the culmination of an impossible creative streak whereby every new Beatles album was viewed as obviously better and more innovative than the last. Mikal Gilmore’s review of the new 50th anniversary edition in Rolling Stone sums up this position with a knowing self-awareness. The contrary position holds that Pepper was a surrender to artifice, a fancifully precious compendium of ostensibly clever but ultimately curdling studio effects that obscured the songs underneath, hiding their weaknesses, piling on the strings and the harps and the clarinets and the tape hisses and the jinglejangle and the otiose noises until the end result stiffly topples over. Even assessments that aren’t so harsh frequently deny the supposedly unprecedented break with what came before; it’s now standard to prefer Rubber Soul or Revolver or some earlier gem to Pepper. See Richard Goldstein’s original 1967 New York Times review, at the time the only major voice of dissent, for a summary of this attitude. In short, the first attitude deals in false categories, while the second rejects the music, erroneously, instead of the false categories. Let’s not affirm hyperbolic notions of great art and the Great Album, nor pretend that albums only began working as artistic entities in 1967, nor subscribe to a blinkered view of rock history that assumes the ‘60s as central, original, and superior to every other period. Let’s also not punish a terrific album for methodological errors committed in its defense.
The rockist position carries a kernel of truth insofar as Pepper does cohere as a singular entity. It wasn’t the first album to do so by any means, as the Beatles themselves had already recorded several, but it may have been the first such album to click within a uniquely recognizable aesthetic eccentric enough, and different enough from anything a live band could have played at the time, that people noticed. Disregard the explicit concept — beyond the opening title theme and its reprise at the end, none of these songs suggests a fictional band distinct from the Beatles, McCartney’s interviews to the contrary.
Thematic specificity unifies the album less than a vivid musical template. While Revolver’s studio innovations were scattershot, Pepper strings together an opulent suite of nominal rock songs augmented by a variety of Western classical instruments, especially harpsichord, strings, and woodwinds, plus Indian classical instruments and spliced-together tape shards and looped sound effects, forming a bright, consistent shape in the mind’s ear. That all the songs sounded as if they belonged on the same album in the given particular sequence wasn’t unique to Pepper; it was its formal weirdness that prompted fans, critics, and believers in great art to notice a level of craft overlooked and/or taken for granted with more familiar popular styles. That this music could only have been produced in the studio contributed further to the album’s novelty. Before the Beatles stopped touring, they were already refusing to play songs from Revolver live, and performing Pepper on stage would have been unthinkable — a four-piece band accustomed to playing guitar, bass, and drums could hardly replicate, say, the tablas, dilrubas, tanpura, and swarmandal on “Within You Without You.” The narrative of the Beatles holing up in the studio for months on end, tinkering obsessively with tones and effects, trying out every outrageous idea that popped into their heads, and generally realizing that they could do whatever the hell they wanted — is borne out in this idea-cluttered music. Behold, then, a consistent, united, self-contained, self-conscious aesthetic object.
As for the contrary position, well! Charges that Pepper is too superficial and too mannered, implying a standard of authenticity for rock, barely deserve public redress. Charges that Pepper is too self-important, on the other hand, are simply wrong. Thankfully, the album eschews symphonic grandeur, solemnity, and the other qualities that befuddle earnest rock seekers. Such criticisms should be directed, instead, at late-’60s psychedelic culture, which produced many failed stabs at what Robert Christgau, describing Jimi Hendrix, called “a sense of world-historical sweep that’s almost nineteenth-century in its magnificence.” Revolver, a much darker and scarier album, suits this mood more closely, which is one reason why its acclaim has grown over time.
Pepper, on the other hand, is dinky as hell — absurdly, triumphantly, infuriatingly dinky, easily their silliest album. The music produced by the Beatles’ synthesis of rock with the British music hall and extraneous non-rock noises is hardly grandiose; it lacks high-art aura. It’s comic, swooping and burbling with jaunty momentum, inhabiting a wryly amused feel somewhere between Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, and Dr. Seuss. Musical details like the chimes and chirpy clarinet punctuating “When I’m Sixty-Four”; the spliced-together calliope and fairground organ plus neon circus keyboards illuminating “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”; the canned audience cheers punctuating “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”; the chintzy harpsichord and sharp guitar solo that anchor “Fixing a Hole”; the distorted tanpura drone cutting through the bridge of “Getting Better” after several verses of clean guitar-pop bounce; the soaring strings and honking horns that gurgle throughout; and McCartney’s high, sweet, courtly voice in fine form, with Lennon’s achingly nasal one matching his partner’s, — by now readers are presumably familiar with these. The playfully vaudevillian tone is what startles. This is better than a merely great rock album — it’s a glorious exemplar of goofy fluffery.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” typifies the wacky spectacle. Groaning tanpura, plucked bass, radiant keyboard chords, and a fabulously bright, chiming, distorted electric guitar hook interlock to produce shiny musical fireworks with lurid color patterns while Lennon, sprawled out in a boat, drifts lazily down a river, describing the surreal scenery. Every now and then he glances up at the sky, whereupon the tempo swerves abruptly faster, the keyboards grow bolder and sharper, and a sweaty jolt inspires him to shout out the song’s title. Lennon always denied the song was about drugs, insisting the title acronym was accidental, which I believe. Rather than literal hallucinogenic description, random images like “tangerine trees and marmalade skies,” the “flowers that grow so incredibly high,” and the subliminally creepy shock return of the “girl with kaleidoscope eyes” at the final verse’s end mimic the queasy swirl of music itself. Pepper moves whimsically from one weirdly precise quasi-random sound to another, much the same way that image follows image in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”; one dreamlike progression comments on the other. Sound and image blur throughout the song, tumbling into each other, leaving in their wake pixie dust that traces those dizzy kaleidoscope eyes unfolding in a spiral. Each chorus cleanses the slate, allowing this wobbly associative process to start over. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” whose absurdist description of a traveling circus could also apply to the circus that is Pepper, works similarly. For some reason both songs make me giggle uncontrollably.
There’s something marvelously suburban and parochial about “She’s Leaving Home,” a song whose inappropriate cheer deflates orchestral gravitas. Plucked and arpeggiated harp, aching violin, and a syrupy string section pack into a concise pop structure and burst at the seams, yearning to expand beyond the limits of McCartney’s melody line yet kept from gooping over the edges of the song’s airtight space. The consequent jumpiness avoids ordinary kitsch for something more knowingly droll. Sung primly and properly by McCartney, the verses weave their way around before gliding into the chorus, where Lennon’s wryly enunciated backup vocals entwine neatly around McCartney’s swooned high note. Soaring mock grandiosity produces a hazy, sweeping, nostalgic feel, as if everything is taking place in a children’s book befitting McCartney’s narrative, at once cutesy and agonizing. First the daughter sneaks out the back, then the parents discover the daughter’s betrayal and the mother bursts hysterically into tears, while in between the parents, as voiced by Lennon, muse over their failures (“What did we do that was wrong / we didn’t know it was wrong”). The song devastates for its repeated, ambiguous pronoun use (“she goes down” as daughter, later “she breaks down” as mother). It’s unclear which character holds our sympathy, and by the song’s end they might be the same, one woman at different stages in her life; mother and daughter merge, staring at the other as if into a mirror. The mirror shatters, along with the song’s glassy surface, upon Lennon’s final, drawn-out, parodically childish “Bye, bye.”
Then there’s the sublimely cool “Fixing a Hole,” the tragicomic “A Day in the Life” — everyone already knows all these songs, so I won’t continue. Perhaps it’s daft to write about Pepper at all; the album’s grooves have been probed and poked through and memorized and analyzed to death. Even if you’re familiar with it, though, play the album! It might still surprise you. Pepper delights for what was at the time a novel conception of the studio as an unrestrained zone without rules, a space where everything is possible technologically and metaphysically, where outrageous fantasies come alive and dreams come true. The wild, messy, utopian ideal of creative freedom that resulted got mistaken in retrospect for the lost dream of the ‘60s by fans, critics, and aging cultural conservatives in hippie clothing, in whose political and generational interest it was to make people think the dream of the ‘60s was real. Don’t buy that nonsense — Pepper is a much better, weirder, and more specific achievement. Fifty years on, it remains a jolly, wacky, tacky, luminous, ludicrous, garish, colorful, lighthearted, lovable joy.
If a canon’s good for anything it should inspire lively disagreement over and perpetual reevaluation of core texts. Pepper the Dinky Comedy Album is just my personal revisionist take. I challenge readers to formulate their own.