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Sgt. Pepper at 50

As most everyone with any interest in popular culture knows, this month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the most influential recording (not just rock album) of all time, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Listening to Sgt. Pepper for the first time in years late at night with headphones reminded of how exotic it must have sounded back during the summer of love. I still remember a couple of my older friends rushing home with a copy they'd chipped in to buy, plopping it on the turntable, and then playing it over and over again for hours. They talked about little else for the next several days, not just about the strange music with all of the bizarre sound effects, but also who all those people on the cover were.

Sgt. Pepper was, of course, as much of a cultural as musical event, in the words of Slate's Jack Hamilton, "a musical masterpiece that doubled as a masterpiece of timing." It changed not just the way popular music was made, but also how it was perceived, listened to, and even talked about.

But it is a testimony to the quality of the Beatles' music that Pepper, as wondrous as it is, probably isn't anywhere near their best album.

It begins ("Sgt. Pepper," "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "Lucy in the Sky") and ends (the "Sgt. Pepper reprise" and of course "A Day in the Life") perhaps more strongly than any other, but undeniably sags a bit in between, at least by exalted Beatles standards--there probably aren't two weaker songs found on the same side of a Beatles album as George's lumbering "Within You, Without You" and the noisy to the point of irritation "Good Morning, Good Morning" on side two.

A Hard Day's Night has more "classic songs" on it, and Rubber Soul is of more consistent quality. Robert Rodriguez, author of Revolver: How the Beatles Reimagined Rock 'n' Roll, makes a strong case for Pepper's immediate predecessor as both the peak of the Beatles' creativity and their last truly collaborative album. One could also make a reasonable argument that the second side of Abbey Road surpasses Pepper in any discussion of the most impressive music the Beatles made.

Kyle Smith, writing in National Review, goes as far as to claim that Sgt. Pepper wasn't even the best album the Beatles released in 1967, that if you forget that Magical Mystery Tour was a collection of EP (extended play) material, hit singles and "b-sides" rather than a "real" album, and simply listen to it from beginning to end, it sounds like it could have been recorded in the same sessions with Pepper (part of it was), and perhaps even paired with it as a double album. For Smith this leaves Sgt. Pepper as "the second-greatest rock album ever recorded."

Other important bands tried to top Pepper in that remarkable period of musical one-upmanship of the late-1960s but failed dismally--The Rolling Stones' transparently imitative foray into psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesties Request, was the biggest flop of their career. The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, whose Pet Sounds did so much to inspire Pepper, would allegedly crumble psychologically under the pressure of trying to surpass it;, according to one account crying when he heard it because he knew the Beatles had won.

The Stones, marinated as they were in Delta/Chicago blues, would quickly realize their mistake and follow up Satanic Majesties with Beggars Banquet, a return to blues, folk, and country that kicked off a period of remarkable creativity that lasted through Exile on Main Street (1972). And even the Beatles themselves would eventually recoil from the pomposity of Pepper and try to simplify things with the misbegotten Get Back sessions that would become Let it Be (better as Let it Be ... Naked, minus the Phil Spector strings).

In the end, Pepper would propel the idea of rock music as "studio art" rather than simply dance music to be played live, and a host of "progressive" rock bands (Jethro Tull; Yes; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; et al.) with much less talent than John, Paul, George, and Ringo would, to generally unfortunate effect, help drive rock music away from its blues roots toward "classical" pretensions.

As Martha Bayles puts it in her indispensable Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, "The sheer scale of their [The Beatles] success inspired grandiose, if not megalomaniac fantasies on the part of others" to the point where, rather than "art rock," "'art damage' remains an apt description of its [Pepper's] musical impact."

But to blame the Beatles for inspiring the less-talented to turn out some pretentious dreck seems a tad bit unfair, akin to blaming Babe Ruth for encouraging baseball players to swing for the fences or Michael Jordan for encouraging basketball players to neglect their jump shots in order to dunk.

These days, many top pop groups go four or five years between albums; the Beatles went from "She Loves You (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)" to "Tomorrow Never Knows" and thereby transformed the entire medium in just two.

And the best part: It sounds better than ever.

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Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 06/19/2017

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