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DEMOTING 'SGT. PEPPER' : Beyond the Nostalgia, Lots of Mediocre Songs

May 31, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

It was 20 years ago today,

Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

They've been going in and out of style

But they're guaranteed to raise a smile

So may I introduce to you

The act you've known for all these years,

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. . . .

1967 by Northern Songs Ltd.

Richard Goldstein, one of the first rock critics in the U.S. to gain a national forum, has spent much of the last 20 years apologizing for his original judgment about "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Writing two decades ago in the New York Times, Goldstein branded the album that would become the most celebrated in rock history an "undistinguished collection of work."

Imagine how many times those words have been used to show how wrong a critic can be.

In the current Rolling Stone, Goldstein repents once more for his sins. He says flatly, "I was wrong."

But--you know what? I think he was right the first time.

"Sgt. Pepper" was a monumental moment in pop culture, the zenith of a generation's absorption with the realigning of the social order. As such, it remains a landmark work that is an essential part of any rock library. On a strictly musical level, however, most of the songs in "Sgt. Pepper" are just what Goldstein said: "undistinguished."

Still, popular opinion has certainly been on the side of "Sgt. Pepper."

When 100 critics and broadcasters were asked recently by English pop journalist Paul Gambaccini to name the best rock album ever made, the result was almost a foregone conclusion. "Sgt. Pepper" was the winner in a landslide.

Similarly, a readers' poll in The Times last month resulted in the same verdict: "Sgt. Pepper" defeated its nearest rival by nearly two to one.

Why do so many people swear by the LP?

My guess is they haven't listened to it in a long, long, l-o-n-g time.

It was 20 years ago tomorrow--June 1, 1967--that the world first heard "Sgt. Pepper," and there is no way to overstate the album's cultural impact at the time.

The world was different in 1967 in ways you probably can't understand unless you were part of a generation that was feeling a heady exuberance as it washed away the hypocrisy and decay of its parents' world.

Rock 'n' roll, the outlaw coalition of country, blues and gospel that was under attack by adults as soon as it surfaced in the '50s, was the chosen language of the youthful movement. Records chronicled the steps in what truly seemed to be a magical mystery tour. The rock community didn't just play new records, they studied them and marveled at them.

The messages weren't found just in the lyrics, but also in the exotic, psychedelic musical touches and even in the cover art work. It was as if everything were a code, one that could only be broken by the members of this exclusive young society.

By 1967, the Beatles had long since moved from the teeny-bop innocence of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and were the creative centerpiece of the age. Bob Dylan was regarded by the intelligentsia as its philosopher king, but the Beatles were the popular heroes, the high priests, if you will.

After the artful invention and glorious variety of moods in the Fab Four's "Revolver" and "Rubber Soul" albums, the rock community awaited the new album the way Catholics around the world anticipate a papal visit.

And they weren't disappointed.

Everything about it seemed special.

The exploration began with the cover, a fascinating photo collage (designed by artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth) that featured the Beatles, in colorful old-time marching-band outfits, standing in front of a crowd of famous and obscure personalities. The faces in the photographs were mostly taken from lists of people submitted by the Beatles.

Contemporary culture heroes like Marlon Brando and Lenny Bruce were easy to spot, but fans spent hours, even days, trying to figure out the identity of Dr. David Livingstone (the British missionary and explorer) and Albert Stubbins (a Liverpool footballer).

And the photos weren't the only items of interest in the art work. Wasn't that a bed of marijuana plants on the ground in front of the Beatles? And why did Paul McCartney have his back turned in the photo on the back of the album? (The photo would later play a key role in the Paul Is Dead rumors). And the words of the songs were printed on the back cover, a bold declaration that rock 'n' roll lyrics were important.

The music itself seemed, in the language of the day, mind blowing. The album only ran 39 minutes, but on those first listenings it seemed to last for hours as you marveled at the ambition of the band. The album cost $75,000--unprecedented for a rock album--and the result was a studio wizardry that was truly thrilling. (Engineer Geoff Emerick recalls the sessions in an interview on Page 57).

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