Debating Sgt. Pepper: Is it the best, worst, whatever?

Depending on who's talking, Sgt. Pepper is either the best or worst album of all time, the most influential or the most overrated.

Much of the time, those offering these judgments don't provide much in support, pro or con. There's little discussion about why they feel a particular way. They either like Pepper or they don't.

But all the blanket statements made about the album this summer, which marks the 50th anniversary of its release, got me thinking: What are people really saying when they say this stuff?

I thought I'd examine some of the statements I've seen the most.

Sgt. Pepper is the best album ever.

I don't get how people can say this. Best on what basis? The quality of songs? The fidelity of the sound? The experimentation on display? Is it better than Revolver or Rubber Soul or Aftermath or Exile on Main Street or Pet Sounds or Blonde on Blonde or London Calling? Is it better than Kind of Blue or Giant Steps? Is it better than Glenn Gould or Pablo Cassal's Bach recordings? Better than Inner Visions or What's Going On? Or Hank Williams' greatest hits?

There are lots of great albums in all genres. There are lots of I haven't even managed to hear, yet, and I'm sure I'm not alone in this. So, how can you simply say Pepper is the best?

It's overrated.

Is Pepper praised or discussed more than warranted? Your opinion depends on how much you like or dislike the album.

The truth is, no matter how much we love or hate it, Pepper gets talked about for a reason: It's influential. What other album on its 50th anniversary (or 20th, 30th or 40th anniversary) gets the amount of media coverage we've seen this summer?

Maybe other albums are more deserving, or maybe we've talked about Pepper enough. But those arguments won't prevent people from writing and talking about it.

The album is viewed rightly/wrongly as the Beatles' artistic high water mark. The recording techniques used in its creation and the songs it contained influenced many other artists. It's sold lots of copies. It came out during a pivotal point of the 1960s.

There are lots of reasons people talk about Pepper and they aren't likely to stop talking about it any time soon. In 50 years perhaps there will be articles saying "remember when everyone used to talk about Sgt. Pepper? Here are the reasons why."

It's the most dated Beatles album.

Could be. But, again, on what basis? One reason why people say this, I think, is due to the LP's association with the "Summer of Love."

But if you think about the songs on the album, none of them are overtly hippie. There's no use of period slang, apart from "I'd love to turn you on." Nobody's wearing fringe or beads on the front cover. The Beatles' hair isn't even that long. "All You Need is Love" came out afterward. Apart from "Within You, Without You," none of the songs delve into messages about how to be or what to think.

The Indian instruments, phasing and some of the other sounds featured on the album do scream "Sixties." There's a point to be made there.

But Revolver, which many fans say holds up better, also includes Indian instruments and lots of studio tricks. Pepper, like Revolver, is heavily inspired by the Beatles' LSD intake. The acid-inspired whimsy of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" may "date" the album for that reason.

All of these associations can drag Pepper down and make it hard to hear in an objective, fresh way. But if you can put aside LSD and hippies for a moment and pretend you're simply listening to a great pop album, which you are, you can hopefully hear it in a fresh way.

It's not the Beatles best album.

Again, how do you judge? It's not the Beatles album I enjoy most. I'd choose A Hard Day's Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver or the "White Album" over it as something I want to put on and hear. But what makes Pepper inferior to these?

In my opinion, some of those other LPs are more consistent in the quality of songs they contain. But Pepper includes "A Day in the Life," which is viewed by many listeners, including me, as one of the Beatles' best songs. "Mr. Kite," "Lucy," "She's Leaving Home" and "Within You, Without You" are other pieces I think stand apart as well-crafted, enjoyable songs - among the best in the Beatles' catalog.

In fact, I'd say there are more great songs on Pepper than on Abbey Road. In my opinion, the strongest tunes on Abbey Road are George's "Something" and "Here Comes the Sun." John's "Come Together" also stands quite well on its own. The rest of the LP, in terms of individual songs, though, isn't nearly as strong as Pepper, despite great production and performances. But, for some fans, Abbey Road is the best thing the Beatles ever did.

Back to Pepper, the problem, again, I think, is one of "association." Sgt. Pepper is the hardest Beatles album to really "hear" due to its release date and all the things people have been written and said about it.

It's Paul's album.

It's well-documented that Paul wrote the LP's title tune and came up with the idea of the Beatles pretending they were a different group - Sgt. Pepper's band - to help them take a fresh approach to writing and performing the album.

Paul, at this time, also assumed a role as creative and musical director of the band, although the group remained very collaborative during this period.

Paul's production and arrangement ideas and his playing are on display throughout the album and he made significant contributions to John's tracks, such as the middle section and piano part to "A Day in the Life."

But the rest of the Beatles are still very much present. As mentioned above, three of the songs that I'd rate among the album's best are primarily written by John: "Mr. Kite," "Lucy" and "A Day in the Life." George's "Within You, Without You," which I didn't care for as a youngster, I very much enjoy today, both for its thoughtful lyrics and innovative blending of Eastern and Western classical styles. Paul's strongest tune, I believe, is "She's Leaving Home," which has great lyrics, a lovely melody and an amazing lead vocal performance. And then there's Ringo, singing "With a Little Help from My Friends," written by John and Paul collaboratively.

So, I'd say, yes, Paul set the tone for Pepper, but it's a brilliant, classic album due to the contributions of all the Beatles.

It's not a concept album.

The Beatles never said it was. The only "concept" per se is that the LP is a performance by Sgt. Pepper's band, with the band's theme opening and closing the LP.

The album doesn't set out to tell a story. The songs don't comment on one another or feature repeated themes, ala the Who's Tommy and other albums of the time.

But because Pepper is such an album, such a unified package with no bands of silence between the tracks, it can be seen as a singular statement and maybe that's why people credit it with inspiring the true concept albums that followed.

It's not the first concept album.

Nope, it's not. People always talk about Frank Sinatra's themed string of albums for Capitol and how those expressed a concept. They did, although, like Pepper, they didn't tell a unified story through the songs.

Albums by easy listening arrangers such as Martin Denny in the 1950s also could be viewed as "concept" albums because they created a unique sound world and offered a listening experience via their dreamy, exotic tones.

The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds could also be considered a concept album, I think, because the arrangements to the songs are unified in style and unique to that LP. The album's lyrics tend to focus on similar themes, too: of alienation and growing up.

But does Pepper not being the first concept album, or not even a concept album at all, mean it's artificial or phony or not good? What's the point of just saying, "It wasn't the first?" So what?

It's pretentious.

Here's what the Guardian said 10 years ago, on Pepper's 40th annivesary:
The Beatles' name doesn't appear on the sleeve - a sign that the boys thought they'd reached that stage where a pop group feels overburdened/embarrassed by their public image, a visual metaphor for: "We think all our fans are idiots." 
Flip the bugger over and you get all the lyrics printed out - Pepper was one of the first albums to do this. This screams: "Take me seriously!" As if all that guff about "newspaper taxis" and "marmalade skies" was poetry. 
And the music? An excruciating lesson in orientalism, why music hall died out, why making records on drugs isn't always a good idea, and why you shouldn't let Ringo sing a number. Oh, and there's a "concept". But one that the Beatles got - understandably - bored with after the very first track. Never mind, they could always get George Martin to try and mask its mediocrity with an orchestra and a cacophony of sound effects. Oh hang on, they did... 
Hearing someone say Sgt Pepper is the greatest album ever made is like hearing someone say the Mona Lisa is the world's greatest painting.
No doubt, the Beatles were proud of Pepper and viewed it as an major accomplishment. Check out the pictures of the group at the album's launch party at Brian Eptein's home. This is a happy band, and not just because the members likely celebrated the occasion with a puff of relaxing herbs. The Beatles look thrilled to be releasing this album. There's a real sense of celebration and accomplishment in their faces and body language.

It's true, the Sgt. Pepper cover was lavish. It didn't include the Beatles' name on the front and it did include song lyrics on the back. It also include a sheet of cut-outs inside.

Viewed one way, this can seem smug and self-important, and no doubt the Beatles knew this album was something different and special. They'd upped their game and out-maneuvered the competition.

But I also believe that the Beatles genuinely wanted to surprise and treat their fans.This was the first Beatles album in some time. There were rumors that the group was breaking up. They'd spent a ton of time and money in the studio and, in their view, they'd come up with something different and special. Before being overruled by EMI, the group even wanted to include candy with the LP package, but it proved cost-prohibitive.

If you don't like the Beatles, or don't like Pepper, you can certainly make a case that the album is self-important and pretentious. But fans view(ed) it as a treat. If the Beatles were being boastful of their accomplishment, they were mild-mannered about it by today's standards. Can you imagine if Kanye West had made Sgt. Pepper? He acts as if he had with every album he puts out.

It gave rise to prog.

The Daily Review in Australia says:
Sgt. Pepper paved the way for the immense popularity of legendary bands such as Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Curved Air, The Moody Blues, ELP and Gentle Giant.
Depending on your opinion of prog, that's a lot to answer for. Yet, Pepper contains no side-long "suites" or extended, pyrotechnic jams. No songs about elves or dwarves or references to J.R.R. Tolkien. As mentioned above, it doesn't even have a concept. But it does have a gatefold sleeve.

What Pepper did do is secure the album as a format of expression for pop and rock music, rather than singles. The groups mentioned above took advantage of the longer playing time provided to stretch out and jam, tell stories, or both. But Pepper is basically a collection of pop songs and, if it has excesses, they are different from those associated with prog.

It's NOT the soundtrack of summer 1967.

Here's critic Jim Rogatis on Pepper back in 2004
For nigh on 39 years now, I have been hearing about that crazy-quilt mosaic of social, political and cultural upheaval called the '60s, which, as we all know from history class, our parents and VH1, was the time of Beatlemania, Bob Dylan, long hair, LSD, Tim Leary, Ken Kesey, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, Ho Chi Minh, free love, riots in the streets, hell, no (we won't go), tune in, turn on, freak out and by the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong. 
Sounds like a hell of a party, but I wasn't there, and what's more, I refuse to feel sorry about missing it, because I have here the album generally considered the Numero Uno soundtrack of the time -- yep, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" -- and you know what? It sucks dogs royally.

... The Beatles have just given us 39 minutes and 52 seconds of rather unremarkable, uninspired music with a central theme that's conservative, reactionary and retrogressive. To wit: Embrace the past (it wasn't so bad) and celebrate the values of your parents and grandparents. Contrast this with some of the truly great albums of the same period, works that offer a glimpse of a brave new world, and which still sound fresh and inviting today. 
"The Psychedelic Sounds of the Thirteenth Floor Elevators," "The Velvet Underground and Nico," "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn" by Pink Floyd, "Are You Experienced?" by Jimi Hendrix, "Pet Sounds," "Fifth Dimension" by the Byrds and "Forever Changes" by Love are all stronger, less contrived, more inventive and more moving albums than "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." They all rock harder, too. To say that they don't bring back the period the same way as the Beatles' alleged masterpiece is irrelevant.
Rogatis' very premise - that Sgt. Pepper is the soundtrack to the Summer of Love - prevents him from hearing the album in an objective way. It's the "association" issue I mentioned above.

I was 18 months old in June 1967, so I didn't live through the grooviness, either, and I likewise roll my eyes at mentions of Haight-Asbury, Woodstock and all the rest. But Pepper manages to touch on the themes of the Sixties without becoming trapped by them. This is because the Beatles, avoided topical references and obvious lyrics.

Consider "She's Leaving Home," the lyrics of which could be about any young hippie finding her interests and values in conflict with those of their parents, and running away as a result, leaving her clueless parents behind. Consider "Getting Better," about embracing a positive attitude and moving into a new era, leaving everything that's dull, negative and violent behind. Or "Good Morning, Good Morning" and "A Day in the Life," which examine the emptiness of daily, run-through-motions, consumer-culture life. "Within You, Without You," meanwhile, invites listeners to to question everything they know about consensus reality - the material world - and embrace what's really real, and what truly matters: "With our love, we could save the world."All these themes remain relevant today.

Unlike some of their peers, the Beatles were too sophisticated and too independent-minded to fall into adolescent cliches of reaction and rebellion, where volume and dissonance, attacks on the "older generation" and obvious lyrics about being angry and young are "cool" and somehow groundbreaking.

Yes, "When I'm Sixty-Four" is a throwback to pre-rock pop. But so what? All of the Beatles had affection for such music. John wrote songs inspired by Bing Crosby. George loved George Formy and Hoagy Carmichael. Ringo and Paul recorded standards collections. But when, by looking back, did the Beatles ever stop looking forward? Sgt. Pepper was a progression in terms of the sounds it contained. To simple-mindedly say it's not "cool" because it doesn't "rock" is childish.

I love all of the albums Rogatis mentions in his final paragraph, above. But all of them, to me, sound at least as dated as Sgt. Pepper, if not more so. They are cliche "albums of the Sixties," as obvious as the talking heads talking on PBS's TV specials about that decade . I like listening to them now, despite all their Sixties trappings.

It took my years to enjoy Jimi Hendrix because I so closely associated him with hippies and Woodstock. It's only after I was able to view him in a different light - as a John Coltrane of the electric guitar - and zero in on his blues, jazz and soul influences, that his music broke free of time for me. My failure to hear and appreciate the quality of his music was due to the associations I carried in my own head. I don't know that I'll ever be able to appreciate Janis Joplin

Which shows how much of this is down to personal association and taste. The Beatles bug some people as much as Janis bugs me, for all sorts of reasons that have little to do with the value of the music they performed.

Whether Rogatis' choices are more moving, stronger or less contrived that Sgt. Pepper is purely down to personal taste. Forever Changes and The Velvet Underground and Nico are favorites of mine, too. And I LOVE Hendrix. But are they really any better than Pepper? How do you say?

And when it comes to soundtracking the Sixties, why limit ourselves to the Beatles or any of these other choices? What about Motown, Coltrane, Dusty Springfield, the Monkees or the Tijuana Brass? I like my soundtracks varied and diverse, not just "rocking."

If the cheerful eclecticism of Sgt. Pepper has any message, it's to open our ears.