As everywhere seems to be reminding us, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles is 40 this weekend. Cue a barrage of nostalgic reverence and weepy eyed baby-boomer self-congratulation about “their” music and “their” era. It was the same ten years ago at the 30th anniversary and fifteen years ago at the 25th anniversary and twenty years ago at the… you get my point.
Let’s be clear: I love The Beatles, and it would be absurd to deny the relevance of Sgt. Pepper in the canon of popular music’s history. The iconic cover, the musical experimentation, the spirit of the age, the Summer of Love, flowers in your hair, make love not war, blah, blah, blah, etcetera, etcetera, yes, yes, yes. The fact is, for all the praise and significance heaped upon it, it really isn’t a very strong album, either by general standards or The Beatles’ own. They themselves bettered it before (Revolver) and after (The White Album, Abbey Road) and there have been hundreds of better albums made since, too, so I’ve never understood why Pepper continues to be showered with accolades and spoken about in such worshipful tones, much like that other incredibly over-rated album from the era, Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys.
To my mind, there is only one gold standard Beatles number on the album: A Day In The Life. And that only came about by fortunate accident, given that it was one unfinished Lennon piece intercut with an unfinished McCartney piece and spliced together by producer George Martin. What else do we have? The hideous music hall whimsy that is When I’m Sixty Four (McCartney at his most twee). The cod-Eastern sitar dirge of Within You Without You (light the joss sticks, maaaan). With A Little Help From My Friends: another relentlessly chirpy McCartney composition, thrown over to Ringo Starr much like one throws scraps of old meat to the family dog. Lovely Rita: Macca again with a another oompah-oompah music hall tune and a eulogy to a fucking traffic warden. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds sounds like Lennon knocked it out in about two minutes, ditto Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! – the lyrics to which were pinched from a Victorian-era carnival poster, as was the tune, which is largely circus music. Well, sorry, but circuses only make me think of one thing: gypsies.
Sgt. Pepper was The Beatles at their most indulgent. Yes, they were pushing boundaries for popular music by breaking away from the traditional guitar-drums-bass formula and yes, the production and recording techniques employed were revolutionary in their time. For this, Pepper deserves recognition. But the songs simply weren’t up to much in the first place; it really sounds like they were just going through the motions.
I’ll be celebrating the album’s 40th anniversary by listening to Abbey Road instead.