Tomorrow sees the release of a deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, almost exactly 50 years since it first hit record shelves. It’s a major anniversary of the greatest album ever made. If that claim makes you roll your eyes, don’t blame me: It’s what the culture decided a long time ago. The record that featured the Beatles on the cover dressed up as a fictional band, Sgt. Pepper has been considered a masterpiece for as long as it’s existed.
Case in point: In the December 1967 issue of Esquire, music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Partly because the 10-month gap between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper was so unprecedented, the album was awaited in much the same spirit as installments of Dickens must have been a century ago. Everyone was a little edgy: Could they do it again?” Although Christgau loved the record, he pushed against the ecstatic, blanket hosannas that greeted its release. “Sgt. Pepper is not the world’s most perfect work of art,” he declared. “But that is what the Beatles’ fans have come to assume their idols must produce.”
In the 50 years since, Sgt. Pepper has only remained an unassailable musical totem. In 2003, Rolling Stone polled journalists, critics, musicians and others to put together a special issue commemorating the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Sgt. Pepper topped the list. Nine years later, when the magazine revised the list, Sgt. Pepper was still number one. Summarizing the record, the staff wrote, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. … [T]he 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.”
With that kind of description — and with that kind of imposing history behind it — how could anyone approach Sgt. Pepper in 2017 with anything other than skepticism? As much as people like discovering new music, we tend to resist when it’s being shoved down our throats. It’s very hard to love something — to really embrace it as ours — when everybody else has already laid claim to it. No wonder that when NME made its own list of the greatest albums in 2013, Sgt. Pepper landed all the way down at number 87, the snotty write-up noting, “Considered the ultimate achievement of recorded music at the time, the gleam has dulled on Pepper’s medals over time, its psychedelic visuals and flower power sentiments turned corny at the edges.”
I’m not here to argue over whether Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album ever, or even the greatest Beatles album ever. (For what it’s worth, I don’t — and, not that it matters, but I probably prefer The Beatles.) But I would like to suggest that evaluating something based on other people’s belief that it’s the Greatest Thing Ever is a really bad idea. There’s no such thing as the Greatest Thing Ever. Such talk does a disservice to new listeners. And, more importantly, it does a disservice to the Thing in question.
Here’s what I mean: Pretend I told you that some mystery album I was going to play you, which you’d never heard, was the greatest album ever made. Before you heard a single note, what would you be thinking? Your expectations would be pretty high, right? Would you maybe start imagining what the greatest album ever would sound like? Maybe you’d begin constructing in your mind a list of sonic criteria that would be necessary for a record to justify to such a lofty buildup. You’d think about your own favorite albums — the ones that have meant the most to you and have been touchstones for the most important and meaningful moments in your life. Then you’d think, “Okay, what I’m about ready to hear has to surpass all of those albums. After all, this is the greatest album ever made.” Now imagine that, if you’re not totally sold on the record after one spin, that you’re going to be badgered by people telling you that it really is the greatest album ever made and that you just don’t get it.
I don’t care how open-minded a person you are: There’s very little chance you’re going to love that album. The deck is stacked against you. It’s a problem all cultural totems have: Once we decide as a consensus what the greatest movie/book/album/sitcom is, it gets encased in amber, its merits frozen in time. The piece of work is no longer breathing and open to exploration and discovery — it’s now an unimpeachable art object. And who can love something described as an “unimpeachable art object”?
These problems are all amplified by the kind of album Sgt. Pepper actually is. Conceived as a concept album of sorts — Paul McCartney thought it would be fun to have the group escape the idea of needing to live up to being the Beatles by creating a fake identity for themselves — the record rarely aspires to the idea of what we think of as a masterpiece. That word “masterpiece” is such an ominous, pretentious descriptor, suggesting towering, imposing, deeply serious works of art. Sgt. Pepper is so profoundly not that: It’s often a playful, silly record that captures the sound of four guys enjoying hanging out in the studio and being grateful to have the opportunity to stop the endless grind of touring so they can just make music. Masterpiece? Songs like “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Lovely Rita” are sweet, happy goofs. If anything, Sgt. Pepper is an active rejection of the lofty expectations their fans threw on them.
But Sgt. Pepper’s elevated place in our culture is also largely due to the timing of its release. Still the most heralded of musical decades, the 1960s remain a romanticized period — the age when Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and other groups created the idea of rock ‘n’ roll. Of course, such a history-book simplification of the era conveniently ignores the contribution of crucial black artists like Chuck Berry who came before. But it also takes as a given that, if the 1960s are truly the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, then everything that came in its wake is merely a lesser version of the real thing.
The band that owns the 1960s more than any other is the Beatles, so it makes sense that they’d be given the vaunted position of Greatest Album Ever Made — if they’re the best band from the best era, they must have made the best album of that time period, right? And more so than any other Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper has a great story around its creation, only adding to the record’s cultural cachet. Namely: Before Sgt. Pepper, albums were still widely considered an afterthought receptacle for a series of commercial singles that artists would release over a short span of time. Sgt. Pepper changed this way of thinking: Suddenly, a rock band was making songs that would all fit together as a coherent, album-length work. (Then again, even that breakdown of Sgt. Pepper’s historical importance ignores the fact that the Beatles conceived their record as a response to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, which was Brian Wilson’s fevered attempt to turn the album into a piece of art.)
In addition, Sgt. Pepper was considered, for its time, a huge leap forward in terms of sonic adventurousness. Long before ProTools and other technological toys allowed artists to experiment with multiple tracks and digitally fidget with their recordings, the Beatles and their producer George Martin incorporated relatively primitive four-track machines to create the kaleidoscopic sound of songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life.” This is the sort of historical detail that means nothing today to someone who’s grown up on the elaborate production of pop artists like Kanye West, but in its era Sgt. Pepper sounded like a whole new way of conceiving pop music.
Those sorts of anecdotes are precisely why it’s so hard now to hear Sgt. Pepper as the greatest album ever made. You’re not listening for fantastic music — you’re listening to understand why something was once a big deal. That’s also why it isn’t uncommon for people to rail against Sgt. Pepper with pissy rants. The Guardian’s Richard Smith did just that in 2007, pronouncing Sgt. Pepper “the most overrated album of all time” and dismissing its canonization as “a choice made not because of anything intrinsically great about the record, but because [critics] fetishized what it represented. Music for grown-ups. The birth of rock. The exact moment when pop started having pretensions to ‘art.’ Zzzz…”
Just like everything else around Sgt. Pepper, this backlash is a bit much. The same goes for the band’s ravenous fans, who looked for clues into the album’s lyrics assuming there was some master plan behind its production. In his book Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation, biographer Philip Norman quoted an exasperated Lennon, who denied that there were hidden messages in the album’s music. “I just shove a lot of sounds together, then shove some words on,” he said. “We know we’re conning people, because people want to be conned. They give us the freedom to con them.”
In a sense, the Beatles are still conning us. Whether or not Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album ever, it’s still treated that way. Fifty years later, we’re still debating its merits — and arguing what the idea of Greatest Album Ever even means. That debate should still rage — it gets to the heart of what matters to us about music. But don’t use Sgt. Pepper as the weapon for such an argument. It just happens to be a record a lot of people like. You may not be one of them. Or maybe you are. Either way is just fine.