Sgt. Pepper – Beatles Masterpiece or Sacred Cow?

Sgt. Pepper – Beatles Masterpiece or Sacred Cow?

Daily Mail 27.5.17

You can hardly fail to have noticed that a rather special anniversary is to be celebrated next Thursday. With a festival in Liverpool, a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, several new documentary films on television, and, on the radio, a blizzard of nationwide reverence, earnest discussion and music it will be like…well, 1967 all over again.

The occasion is, of course, the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the Beatles eighth album, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Regularly voted in music polls the best and most influential rock album ever made, with global sales now well over 32 million copies and awards galore for many of those involved in its creation, Sgt. Pepper has, for half a century, been a harvester of superlatives.

And in many ways, it’s probably deserved most of the bouquets thrown in its way. Recorded at the then terrifying cost of £25,000 (about £425,0000 in today’s money), the album captured the heady mood of the late Sixties, as producer George Martin took the Beatles’ songs and musically dressed them for a sound extravaganza.

On first hearing those songs, fans were dazzled and bewildered. And, like a great many people of my age, I have complete recall of the excitement of the moment. But, to be honest, I also remember feeling a little bit disappointed, too.

Because, as thrilling and perplexing as the record was, it seemed to me that a wonderful opportunity had been missed, and, despite half a century of almost universal praise, and a lot more this week, Sgt Pepper still isn’t my favourite Beatles album… But more of that later.

I was 26 when Sgt Pepper was released. At that point I’d never met any of the Beatles, and my wife, Plum, and I were in our car on a marathon tour of London looking for our first house. A pirate station, Radio London, had been telling us all day to stay tuned for the album’s first momentous airing, so, at the appointed hour, we parked in a leafy lane in Carshalton and listened to the whole album.

When we moved off again, it was into the extraordinary hippy, Indian summer that everyone still identifies with 1967, a half-daft, half-dopey, wholly optimistic time of bells and beads and flowers-in-your-hair, energised by, for some, large amounts of hallucinogenic substances, and now accompanied for everyone by Sergeant Pepper and his mates.

I can’t remember another time like it. It really seemed as though an army of Beautiful People (their own description) with their psychedelia, happenings and simplistic cure-all philosophies of love and life, had been waiting for a signal only the Beatles as magicians could give.

And then on June 1, 1967, there it was in the shops, encased inside a shiny red, gatefold album, its cover designed by pop artist Peter Blake and his then wife Jann Howarth – for which they were paid a flat £100 each.

Filled with a multiplicity of visual clues, it showed the Beatles in pantomime military costumes standing in front of a collage of famous faces from Laurel and Hardy to Dylan Thomas and Marlon Brando. And in front of them, what else but a row of marijuana plants and the words “Beatles” written in flowers. 1967 was, after all, the year of flower-power as well as being the summer of love.

Actually, the album’s sleeve was almost an event in itself. But no-one had ever heard anything vaguely like the music that was inside that sleeve. There the Beatles had seemingly subsumed their identities into a Victorian English end-of-pier brass band that was simultaneously in permanent collision with the psychedelic nineteen sixties.

It was all very odd, but how clever of Paul McCartney to turn a humble modern parking meter attendant into a star with Lovely Rita (Meter Maid). And how curious of John Lennon to trip back into Alice In Wonderland territory when he sang Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, where there was a ‘girl with kaleidoscope eyes’ and ‘rocking horse people’ eating ‘marshmallow pies’.

There was much chatter at the time that the initials in the nouns of that song title were a sly reference to the drug LSD. The Beatles denied the connection, but no one believed them. So, a few years later, I asked John about it again, expecting him to own up. He didn’t deny taking LSD, he’d done lots of that. But he insisted that the title had indeed been a coincidence when his little boy Julian had come from school with a painting of a classmate called Lucy whom he’d drawn in the sky with diamonds around her.

I believed him, but I could understand the rumours because, back in 1967, this was more than an unusual album. Was it a musical invitation to take LSD? I didn’t think so, but that was what its detractors thought, especially when John Lennon sang ‘I’d love to turn you on,’ in A Day In the Life.

Personally, I was more interested in the songs than any druggy messages. And there were hits, naturally, this being the Beatles, from Ringo Starr singing With a Little Help From My Friends to Paul McCartney giving a tune he’d written in his teens some new lyrics for When I’m Sixty Four.

Everywhere you listened, there were clever little touches, and for months, Sgt Pepper was everywhere you went. Every hairdressing salon had it on, its songs leaked from the open doors of every boutique you passed, while all the parties you were invited to played little else.

It became the moment. Everyone said they loved it. And, as most other rock groups of the time tried to copy its style and scope, some with lamentable, laughable results, for anyone to dissent from its mass worship was almost rock heresy.

Most albums lose their excitement after a time, but the opposite happened with Sgt. Pepper. Year by year, its reputation grew, as new generations discovered it, until, in the end it became something of a sacred cow.

How could you not love it, I would be asked in almost disbelief, whenever my opinion on it was sought and found wanting.
My answers were threefold. As much as I thought Paul McCartney’s She’s Leaving Home was one of the best songs of my lifetime, and Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! more than clever in the way John Lennon used the names of the acts listed on a Victorian music hall poster he’d discovered to supply the lyrics, at least three of the other songs just weren’t that good.

Was it possible, would suggest, George Martin’s arrangements and technical wizardry had bewitched the world into hearing musical and lyrical brilliance where they might not be? Had his rich musical skills covered up some of the melodic shortcomings in some of the songs? In other words, was there sometimes less than met the ears on Sgt Pepper?

Years later John Lennon, when asked his opinion of his song Good Morning, Good Morning, simply dismissed it as ‘a throwaway piece of garbage’. Did he mean it? I don’t know. He was always a bit of an iconoclast. And he changed his mind all the time.

But all I hear, and still hear, were two bits of songs tied together and some terrific drumming. Ringo would say of certain Beatle songs, and surely this one: ‘I never knew what they (John and Paul) were on about half the time.’

And then there’s George Harrison Indian music contribution Within You Without You. I never got it. George wrote some wonderful, classic songs – think only of Something and Here Comes The Sun… Within You Without You wasn’t one of them.
My bet is that ninety-nine per cent of the people who bought the album won’t be able to hum that tune – even after fifty years. It may well have been brilliant. I’m told some musicians believe it is and that it is sometimes taught in music colleges. But for me it didn’t belong on a Beatles album.

Some years ago when I expressed this impious thought to George Martin he smiled and said enigmatically. ‘Why do you think I put it as the first track on the second side?’ And he mimed carefully choosing a track and putting a pick-up down on a record, as we had to do in those days; the implication being that you could play side two by starting on the second track.

All that, however, is nit picking. My really big complaint against Sgt. Pepper wasn’t in what was on it, but what wasn’t on it. When the recording sessions had begun at Abbey Road studios in the November of 1966, Lennon and McCartney had wanted to make a nostalgic album about their childhood in the Liverpool suburbs.

Accordingly, the first two songs recorded were Penny Lane, about a junction where the trams used to turn around when they’d been little boys. For me Penny Lane has to be one of the best songs Paul McCartney has ever written – and it’s a long and brilliant list.

Spurred on by this John Lennon had for his part come up with Strawberry Fields Forever, named after a mansion just around the corner from where he’d grown up. It had been turned into a children’s home and every summer he would go to see the band play at the annual garden fete –a band probably a bit like Sgt Pepper’s, but without the electric guitars. It was one of the songs of which he was most proud.

For an autobiographical album those two songs made a perfect start. Then disaster struck. Their greedy record company, Parlophone, wanted a new single. An as Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever were already available, they were rushed out as a double A sided 45.

It would still have been possible to have included them both in the forthcoming album. But the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein had by then the policy of not usually putting songs that had been singles on to LPs, as that would have meant that the fans would have been paying twice for them.

So the Beatles simply put them to one side as a single. And the notion of an album about the nostalgia of childhood was abandoned, as they got on with a collection of songs with no obvious link.

It was very honourable of the Beatles and their manager not to want to rip off the fans. But to me it’s always seemed crazy to make an album and then to purposely leave off it two of the best songs you’ve ever written.

It’s a bit like playing the final of the World Cup and leaving your best two players in the changing room.

Over the decade, fans have often requested that the two missing tracks should be reunited with the rest of Sgt Pepper, and the possibility came up again this year when Giles Martin, the son of George, was remixing the album for release next week with the super-duper high quality digital machines his father never had.

But, it seems, sacred cows can’t be tampered with, not even to improve them. It was agreed, it seems, that Sgt. Pepper couldn’t be changed. It wasn’t just a rock and album, it was a work of art.
Well, maybe. But for me, going back to the original intention before business got involved, would, I think. have made it a better work of art. And, I suspect that millions of other fans, many of whom will be buying the reissued album, now digitally improved, will agree.

I’m aware that a special version of the record which will include the two missing songs, along with some other bits and pieces, is also about to go on sale. But that isn’t the same.

So, there you have it, that’s why I don’t think Sgt Pepper is the best Beatles’ album ever, although if they’d included Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever it might well have been.

Without those two songs, my favourite is a dead heat between Rubber Soul, which included John Lennon’s Norwegian Wood, In My Life and Nowhere Man, and Revolver, which boasted Paul McCartney’s peerless Eleanor Rigby, Here, There and Everywhere and For No One.

But that’s just me. Sgt. Pepper was certainly massively influential. Without it would Pink Floyd ever have got much of a listen? Would Queen ever have recorded Bohemian Rhapsody? And what about David Bowie? Would Ground Control ever have got to call Major Tom in Space Oddity if Sgt. Pepper hadn’t expanded what rock music could be about?

Interestingly, the Beatles themselves never again attempted such an ambitious project, John Lennon preferring a stripped-down rock and roll band for most of his later solo efforts.

As for Sgt Pepper being the best rock album ever, I’m not even getting into that. Music isn’t a beauty contest. Fashions change in music as they do in everything else. Sgt Pepper was of its time, and that time was a bizarre summer fifty years ago when a group of creative musicians and technicians captured the moment, and opened a generation’s minds to the possibilities of rock music.

Footnote: It’s a sobering thought that, encouraged by a huge, worldwide marketing campaign, many of us will, over the next few days, be thinking about how dazzling things were fifty years ago in 1967.

I don’t believe that, back then, many of us, fired as we were by the glittering future we were entering, gave much of a thought to what had happened fifty years earlier in 1917 – when the blood of our grandfathers’ generation at Paschendaele during the First Word War seemed like ancient history.