You tread on hallowed ground when talking about the Beatles and to diss them is certainly nothing short of blasphemy but I ask this simple question: Does anybody actually still listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?
As we approach the 40th anniversary of the legendary recording on June 1st, the paeans to this classic are pouring in but it is ironically an actual Beatle, Ringo Starr himself that is pouring some cold water on all the platitudes. “It served its purpose. But as a musician I preferred Revolver and I preferred The White Album because we were back being musicians. It was like everybody got their madness out in Sergeant Pepper.” Now I am not denying the historical significance of the record. It ushered in a number of firsts (if these are things that really matter in rock and roll): first gatefold sleeve, first time lyrics were printed on an album, arguably the first “concept” album (there is a huge argument to be had here since there is no real unifying theme to the songs other than the opening track and reprise at the end and both the 13th Floor Elevators and the Beach Boys had similar “concept” albums in the can) and certainly it was the album that broke the back of the 2:30 minute pop single.
But honestly, who has recently slapped Peppers on their CD player? Admit that you only listen to “A Day in the Life” and maybe “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and when you do it is most probably off of the Blue album. I have always felt that, as innovative an album that it is, Sergeant Peppers has suffered from a disease I called criticalitis in which when you have enough critics saying it is the greatest, people will tend to believe it without actually pondering whether they actually even listen to the damn thing or not.
The irony is that what was really so innovative of Peppers is not the songs so much as how they were created and recorded. The techniques devised to put this album together laid down the framework for every major recording technique outside of computer-based recording that we have today. And the ideas behind the pacing of the album and the way the songs are linked definitely set the stage for those monstrous prog-rock concept album of the ’70s despite the fact that, like I said Peppers was a concept in the mind primarily of Paul McCartney but not in the actual aural output of its 13 songs.
I am not here to tear down the mythology of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I think John Lennon and Ringo Starr have done enough of that. While I do enjoy the album, it is frustrating to me that so many people seem to blindly accept its place as the pinnacle of rock and roll as high art. Whenever I hear somebody expounding on the virtues of this record, I always ask the same question: “When was the last time you listened to it?” The response is more often than not a fumbling for words and the infamous rhetorical quip “That’s not the point.” If the point of rock and roll records is for people to play them then I ask you, as great as Peppers is supposed to be, when was the last time that you listened to it?
I thought so.