I have a lot of fun writing this weekly blog, but it can be a real challenge sometimes. Part of what makes it challenging are the rules and guidelines I set for myself when I think of what to write next. For one, I don’t repeat an artist if I have already written about them. This really makes it harder to write about the artists I love most because when I publish that post, that’s it. I wrote a post that felt timely or relevant based on recent cultural or personal events only to realize a few months later that I would’ve rather written about a different song because that one will become relevant at that time. This is why there are artists I absolutely love that I’ve been hesitant to include such as the Police or the Clash.
The other challenge is to not feel forced when writing about a song that week. I enjoy the discipline of keeping this up as a hobby on a weekly basis. However, there are times when I don’t really have a song in mind to write about. There are plenty of times when an artist or song sticks with me for the week and it results in a well-written and thought out post. It is because that song made an impact on me that week because it related to some milestone or an event. But, sometimes, I just have nothing going on and I churn out something just to do it. I don’t like to do that, but I want to be consistent.
The Beatles are an example of a band that I adore that I hesitated for a long time to discuss. I am a fan. I enjoy their music and it had a significant influence on me during my adolescent years. While I didn’t listen much during college or my subsequent adulthood years because I’ve been exploring and discovering other types of music, they had always been a part of me.
That is why planning this post for me was difficult. I didn’t want to just write about any Beatles song because it would be a missed opportunity to write something meaningful. So much of their catalogue is important to me and requires inspiration. Then again, what can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before? So much has been written that praises the Beatles as the greatest band ever. So, what can I say that would be any different than pure adulation.
It is during those struggles that I rely on cultural milestones. And even then, I still hesitate because I just don’t want to be one of many yelling into the noise. However, sometimes it is necessary to call out those milestones and contribute a perspective. Even if it may be an unpopular one. These were the things I had considered over the last few weeks when countless media outlets were buzzing about the 50th anniversary release of the Beatles’ 1967 studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I had to ask myself: do I jump on this bandwagon and what should I say?
So, let’s cut to the chase. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is just simply not a good album.
I got that off my chest.
Are we all ok?
Alright, let’s move on.
In 1966, the Beach Boys released their masterpiece record Pet Sounds and the music world was turned upside down. Everyone everywhere had to make their own Pet Sounds. You couldn’t just do rock and roll anymore. You had to have more personal and poetic songwriting, compose lush orchestrations, and include abstract noises to add depth, complexity, and mystery to a record. You couldn’t just make music anymore. You had to make art.
A year later, the Beatles released their own version of Pet Sounds. The biggest credit that gets attributed to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is that it legitimized the album as a complete work of heart. The music industry, prior to 1967, was a singles market. You had to put out a hit if you were going to get anywhere. And that had been the standard since the beginning. Prior to the mid-1960s, rock and pop albums were just collections of previously released singles. When the Beatles confirmed they would quit touring and just focus on studio music, this album was the result of that.
I have a lot of issues with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Until the remixed 50th anniversary release, I always felt this was a poorly mixed record. Some of the songwriting is unimaginative. There is needless nostalgia throughout though this record was released during one of the most culturally exciting and volatile times of the 20th century. And the concept of the fake band isn’t enough for me to be convinced that this album wasn’t merely a record made by a band that was becoming increasingly out of touch.
However, the biggest flaw with the record is with the songs on the record. Song for song, this is a terrible record. And the Beatles were capable of releasing records full of great songs. I maintain that Rubber Soul and Revolver continue to be the best Beatles records. However, the faux band concept somehow earns Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the credit of being a better work of art because it is more complete and should be experienced as a whole. Even then, to make that happen, you must have good songs.
I help organize an album discussion group and a few months ago, we discussed Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was our most well attended discussion to date and it was spirited. A lot was said about this record. Most of it praise, but there was some acknowledgement that the album is flawed.
One thing we did during that discussion that we hadn’t really done before was poll everyone regarding the songs they liked and disliked the most. You only needed to pick one. As we went around the table, the songs that people liked were fairly similar. Most of the table said a “A Day in the Life” or “With A Little Help from My Friends” with one person chiming in with “Getting Better.” And, frankly, those are not bad choices. But what it does tell you is that there are really only two songs that are enjoyable on the record to both casual listeners are critics.
This became more apparent when discussing the songs we hated the most. Almost every song was mentioned as we went around the table. There was not a clear choice when it came to the weakest point on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “Lovely Rita,” Good Morning,” and the other tracks closing side one and opening side two were all mentioned as being just filler or just simply not good songs. And that begs the question: how can this album be celebrated to the point of being considered the greatest album of all time in many circles but still be filled with bad songs?
In the latest episode of WBEZ’s Sound Opinions, the hosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis revisited the album. Both were very critical of the album and even suggested that people who say they love this album hadn’t listened to it in a long time. I know I hadn’t. Prior to that album discussion group, I hadn’t listened to the album in its entirety since my freshman year of college. There was one quote that was the most striking from the conservation. Kot stated “I don’t really have a reason to listen to this record other than this one song.” And the song he was referring to was “A Day in the Life.”
“A Day in the Life” is the only really good song on the record. Coming in at a distant second is “With a Little Help from My Friends,” but the Joe Cocker cover is much better. However, the closing track is a near perfect song that does exemplify the genius of the Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would’ve been a much better album if the other songs had tapped into what made “A Day in the Life” one of the Beatles’ masterpieces. Incredibly complex and dynamic, the orchestral glissandos, the avant-garde production, and the poignant lyrics make a real statement that pop music can be considered high art.
1967 was a fantastic year for music. A lot of great albums were released that year. While Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been dominating all of the music journalism sites and blogs, it doesn’t negate the quality of records that receive less than fair celebration. The Beatles sell. People love nostalgia. It is as simple as that. And if you are going to spend some time with the Beatles, explore their albums and not be sold by the hype of the most overrated album of all time.