Listen To This Eddie is a bi-weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
This Saturday, May 26, 2017, marks the 50th birthday of the most celebrated album ever recorded: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. To help mark that incredible milestone, the record has received the full reissue treatment, including a super deluxe, six-disc box set containing a totally remastered version of the record, outtakes, a documentary feature, and promo clips. As the world once again re-discovers Sgt Pepper, I find myself returning to a question that has dogged it from nearly the day it came out: Is Sgt Pepper the greatest album of all time?
Ask 100 people for their pick of the greatest album ever and you’ll probably get 100 different answers. A rap fan might say Nas’s Illmatic or Dr. Dre’s The Chronic. A rock fan might cite Led Zeppelin’s fourth album or Bruce Springsteen Born To Run. Ask an ‘80s pop connoisseur and they might say Prince’s Purple Rain or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. And so on. There’s no easy answer, because of course there isn’t. Music taste is so subjective as to render the entire exercise moot. Amongst most list-makers however, there does seem to be something of a consensus choice: Sgt Pepper.
When Rolling Stone came out with their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All-time in 2003, Pepper was No. 1. It was there again when the magazine re-examined the question in 2012. The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, describes it as “the most important and influential rock and roll album ever recorded.” In 1987, when EMI was reissuing the band’s catalog on CDs, they declared it, “the most important record ever issued on compact disc.” In many respects, it’s the Citizen Kane of pop music; its position at the top is almost beyond analysis.
To understand why the critical world holds Sgt Pepper in such tremendous esteem, it’s necessary to go back to the time when it was created. The sessions for this album began in November 1966, shortly after The Beatles retired from performing live, right after one last blowout gig at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. They were fed up with the arduous life on the road and tired of playing before crowds who turned out to see them with little regard for hearing them. They were also in the middle of one of the most incredibly fertile periods of sonic growth ever enjoyed by a rock band, and wished to get back into the studio where they could create music without any regard for having to duplicate it in a live setting.