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.
The expectations were high, not just among the members of the band, but also for their producer George Martin and Engineer Geoff Emerick, as well as their fervent audience who expected them to reemerge in 1967 with something truly stupendous, something that would totally change the game forever. Anything less would’ve been a letdown. Paul McCartney, in particular, heard what Brian Wilson achieved with the last Beach Boys’ album, a self-proclaimed “pocket symphony,” titled Pet Sounds, and wouldn’t allow the Beatles to be outdone.
They got to work quickly that winter on a new song written by John Lennon titled “Strawberry Fields Forever.” It set the tone for everything that would follow in the coming months. What started out as a relatively simple guitar ballad eventually expanded into a kaleidoscopic psychedelic mind-trip of incredible proportions. The band spent 30 hours total working on just this one song.
“We were after perfection,” Emerick remembered in his autobiography Here, There, And Everywhere. “It wasn’t a question of being 99 percent happy with something; we all had to be 100 percent happy with it. That’s why everything on the album that would come to be called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is so pristine and precise.”
Not to be out done by his esteemed writing partner, Paul brought in another stellar song named “Penny Lane.” They worked on that number for the next three weeks. Remarkably, rather than attach either song to their next record, the Beatles packaged up both numbers as a double A-side single and sent them off. They had spent more than a month in the studio and it was back to the drawing board.
Before they got going however, Paul stumbled a novel idea while on a Transatlantic flight back from America. He was traveling with the band’s roadie Mal Evans and while they were eating, he misheard his request for “salt and pepper,” as “sergeant pepper.” As he explained in the introduction to the new Pepper box set that the phrase, “Set me off on a train of thought that ended up in me writing a song for a fictitious band, who would be called Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and would be the alter ego of the Beatles. When I got back, I suggested this idea to the other guys. This would free us from our normal Beatles thinking and allow us to be more adventurous in our approach to our next recording.”
Sgt Pepper is widely hailed as being the first “concept album,” meaning, the first album where the songs all serve a common idea or theme. That’s probably overstating it. More specifically, the record pioneered the idea of the concept album, while only barely coming together as one itself. Lennon, was quick to point this out in an interview with David Sheff. “Sgt Pepper is called the first concept album but it doesn’t go anywhere,” he said. “All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with the idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it works, because we said it worked…It was not put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears, and the so-called reprise.”
No idea was too foolhardy to attempt during the Sgt. Pepper sessions. Every song received a level of care and attention that the Beatles could only dream about on their earlier projects. The band spent months in the studio chasing after sounds, and coming up with eyebrow-raising experiments that pushed the admittedly rudimentary technology at EMI Studios to its absolute limits. The results were stunning, especially when heard in the new, cleared up recordings.
The opening track “Sgt. Pepper” begins with the sound of an orchestra tuning up before the Beatles come screaming in to hit you right in the mouth with that blistering guitar intro. Paul asserts his dominance right away with that caustic opening line, “It was twenty years ago today…” The song expands and shifts with each passing measure. New elements and voices filter in and out, from a harrumphing horn section to a laughing crowd before culminating with the introduction of Billy Shears and the next Ringo-led number “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
Things only get stranger and grander from there. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” John’s unintended send-up to LSD is as mind-expanding as the drug itself. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” sounds both whimsical and loaded with danger. George’s song “Within You Without You,” brings together exotic Eastern flavors and superb Western pop proclivities. “She’s Leaving Home” is a lovely and tender harp-informed ballad, that manages to get sentimental without becoming overly treacle.
Then of course, there’s the Beatles’ crowning achievement, “A Day In The Life.” In terms of grandeur, I don’t think there’s even a comparison to be made. I love it more than any other Beatles composition because it so beautifully captures the best sensibilities of both Paul McCartney and John Lennon. There’s John’s understated, yet emotion-racked opening verse — just a guy reading a newspaper. Then you have the bright and cheery Paul bolting out of bed, dragging his comb across his head. My favorite moment isn’t the immense orchestral build-up to the final piano crash, though it is fascinating to listen to Paul coaching everyone through that iconic chord in the new outtakes, but, rather, the handoff from Paul to John when the latter completes his final lineL “And somebody spoke and I went into a dream.” Then, John swoops in with that incredible, wordless, “Ahhhhhh, ahhhh ahhhh ahhhh.” I get goosebumps just thinking about it.
When it was finally released, Sgt. Pepper landed with the force of an explosion. Sales were beyond brusque as fans and pop music lovers scrambled to get their hands on the Beatles’ latest masterpiece. The record came to define 1967, that fateful “Summer Of Love” for all-time. It also helped established the album’s dominance over the single for the next several decades. The Rolling Stones flailed trying to copy the aesthetic on Their Satanic Majesty’s Request. Brian Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown trying to top it with his next project Smile. No one it seemed, not even the Beatles could outdo what they had done on Sgt. Pepper. In a sense, they didn’t even try. Their next project was the campy weekend getaway Magical Mystery Tour followed by the starkly presented White Album.
So, the question remains, is Sgt. Pepper the greatest album of all-time? Setting aside some of my own personal preferences — this is about what is greatest, not what is my favorite — there are a multitude of factors that need to be considered. Commercial appeal for one. Overall quality is another. How it affected the larger culture. And finally, did it push the envelope?
As I consider these four elements, multiple albums come to mind as viable contenders. Thriller by Michael Jackson. Rumours by Fleetwood Mac. Led Zeppelin IV by Led Zeppelin. Horses by Patti Smith. The Chronic by Dr. Dre. The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd. Purple Rain by Prince. Born To Run by Bruce Springsteen. What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. Blue by Joni Mitchell. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West. Highway 61 Revisited by Bob Dylan. Exile On Main St. by The Rolling Stones. And on and on and on.
I do think that the greatest album of all-time shouldn’t contain any tracks that are “skippable.” I also think that the experience of listening to said work should feel cohesive or at least at one with itself. The more I think I about, I also think if you’re going to name something the greatest ever, probably should also come from the greatest artistic entity that the music industry has ever known. That means it probably should be a Beatles album. But then, which Beatles album?
The White Album is probably the most interesting work that the Fab Four ever recorded; a grand, bloated achievement that finds each member -– minus Ringo -– trying to outdo all the others to create the best songs on the record. George largely succeeds in this respect, with John coming in second, and an “Ob La D-ing” Paul bringing up the rear. Then again, The White Album also contains more than a few songs that I happily skip through whenever I play it, not the least is the unlistenable sonic mélange “Revolution 9.”
Of course, Revolver and Rubber Soul must be considered. Either one could lay claim to being the tightest, most cohesive projects that the band put out. Each is filled with stunning songs of grace and beauty — “Eleanor Rigby” on the former, “In My Life” on the latter — as well as incredible examples of the band taking their sound into directions no one could have ever expected: “Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I’m Only Sleeping,” and “Norwegian Wood.” Yet, neither seems to be able to surpass the quality of the other in a definitive sense, which to my mind at least, disqualifies them both.
My favorite Beatles album is, and remains, Abbey Road. As a complete listening experience, the band never did better. From the foreboding opening song “Come Together,” the elegant harmonies of “Because,” George’s greatest achievement as a songwriter “Something, and the disorienting “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” it’s chock full of some of the highest highs that The Beatles ever committed to tape.
Then of course you have the incredible medley of songs that fill out the album’s second side, starting with “You Never Give Me Your Money.” The way the band stacked these short passages of music together makes for a nearly unparalleled sonic adventure. And having it all culminate so appropriately in “The End,” a song that ultimately served as the Beatles’ grandiose farewell to the world, is almost too much for me to wrap my head around.
A part of me would like to remain contrarian and give it to Abbey Road. I’m fighting back an even more contrarian impulse to give the prize to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album, but I just can’t do it. As I poured over all thirteen tracks off Sgt. Pepper once again over the last week, picking them apart, analyzing them from every which way, going over these songs in their embryonic states, I’m struck once again by the magnitude of what the Beatles pulled off. They accomplished more in that simple E chord piano crash at the end of “A Day In The Life” than many bands can hope to achieve in a lifetime. Every time I hear that incredible wall of sound fade away into the distance, I can’t help but think, “Godd*mit, they did it!” Sgt. Pepper isn’t my favorite album, but I simply can’t dismiss its quality, it’s legacy or its historic impact. It is indeed, the greatest album of all-time.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is one of the most important steps in our career,” Lennon once said. “It had to be just right. We tried and I think succeeded in achieving what we set out to do.” In his imitable fashion, Ringo echoed John’s thoughts in the Anthology series saying, “Sgt. Pepper was a special album…it was love and peace; it was a fabulous period, for me and the world.” And so it remains.
The Bootleg Bin
Since it figures so much into the tale of the creation of Sgt. Pepper, it’s only fair that you get to hear the Beatle’s last ever-performance in front of a paying audience at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. The first thing you’ll notice when you listen to this recording is the screaming. It’s actually the first thing you notice when you listen to pretty much any Beatles live bootleg; even the recently cleaned up and officially released Live At The Hollywood Bowl compilation. I actually have an uncle who went to this show and taped it. One day, while I was a still a teenager, he busted out the old cassette for me to listen to. My eyes grew wide as he opened the case, took out the tape and put it into an old stereo only for a tidal wave of teenage ululation crash through the speakers in our living room. In the faint distance you could just barely make out what sounded like a rock band thrashing away. I was disappointed to say the least.
Even if the quality of the recording below isn’t stellar, the band’s performance is pretty great, especially the final song, “Long Tall Sally”…or what remains of it anyway. Tony Barrow, the Beatles press agent who was recording the show ran out of tape as the band played and neglected to flip it over to capture the finale. C’est la vie. This final gig goes a long way to helping understand why they were so desperate to finally put their careers as a touring group behind them.