XVI. In Defense Of Sgt. Pepper.

I just read an opinion piece by singer-songwriter Aimee Mann about The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in commemoration of its fortieth anniversary this June. She first heard it at eight years old, and it seems from the article it is her favorite all time record, but Ms. Mann felt obliged to offer some critical remarks about the album, most notably the “under-developed nature of some of John Lennon’s melodies and the plastic cheeriness of Paul McCartney’s songs, masking a real sadness underneath.” Ms. Mann went on to say that as an adult songwriter, she is far more interested in and moved by the work of artists like Elliot Smith and Fiona Apple. Two fine ones, to be sure. And Aimee Mann is pretty good too, no doubt about it. Now I’ve been listening to The Beatles’ definitive moment from the Summer of Love for over thirty years now myself, and I have heard and read many a criticism of Sgt. Pepper: It’s too lightweight, the most overrated album in history, whimsical to a fault, only regarded so highly because of the brilliance of its moment and packaging, would not even be considered if it weren’t The Beatles, not nearly as good as their other masterworks, Paul McCartney’s folly, etc. On and on and on. And now Aimee Mann thinks the melodies are either underdeveloped or fake in their mood.

This is like telling God you like a rainbow, but you wish the colors had been arranged differently. Or maybe there are too many colors in a rainbow. Sorry, God, but a rainbow just ain’t that great a thing. I like a piece of concrete or a cigarette better. Rainbows are nice, but I like mud or sludge. Talk about folly. Breathing air is nice, God, but it’s a little “underdeveloped.”

When Sgt. Pepper was released in June of 1967, its moment changed the course of popular music forever and influenced many things like nothing had before. Rock, or popular music, became “Art” for the first time. An artist was not only encouraged, but expected to be as creative and daring as possible. An audience was proven to be not only able to accept radical, outrageous concepts and music, but hungry for these things. The story of Sgt. Pepper and the unprecedented reaction that followed its release is well-documented and one of the most overly discussed topics in the history of pop music. No need to rehash the hype and the glory of it. But in the four decades that have followed, it is just this hype and glory that seems to stick in the minds of those who can’t accept the fact that this is not only a good album that benefited from such enormous hype and reaction, but one of the greatest albums ever made, a record that sounds as fresh and radical and exciting right now as it did in the summer of ‘67, or ‘77 or ‘87 for that matter. I remember hearing the CD for the first time. It did not disappoint. It was a living, breathing, magical thing crackling life out of those speakers in the summer of '87, and it still is today. And it always will be. Time has no mark on art of this quality and purpose. And while Aimee Mann, Elliot Smith and Fiona Apple are all very good at what they do, none of them will ever transcend time the way Sgt. Pepper has.

This is an album of rainbows, of strange sounds, of sonic pictures moving in and out of focus, floating through the mind of the listener, a surreal wonderland inhabited by four or five of the most creative people in history. And to say that the melodies of songs like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” or “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” or “Good Morning Good Morning” are “underdeveloped” in nature is baffling. There are fewer more perfect melodies than that of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” a song so huge and yet so simple in its composition, any child can sing it back to you within seconds of hearing it. And if the melody and feeling of songs like “Getting Better” and “Fixing A Hole” and “Lovely Rita” seem plastic to you in nature, you, my friend, have become sadly jaded in your advancing age. This music is so elemental, so close to the air we breathe, so near to God, so well-intentioned for the world at large, to dismiss it in any of these petty ways is insulting. How does one hear Ringo Starr as Billy Shears on “With A Little Help From My Friends” and not be aware of the pure positivity running through this wonderful show, something to be depended upon, the act we’ve known and leaned on for all these years. I have never listened to Sgt. Pepper and not smiled. I have never heard “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” no matter how old I am, and not been brought completely in touch with myself as a child, as a teenager, as an old man. The touch of eternity is bright upon this work, the work of four young men and their slightly older overseer, set free in the studio, free from the road, free in the hallucinogenic rush of their moment to create as they saw fit, to be without boundaries, without expectations, without anything to hold them back. The Beatles still The Beatles, still a unit, before the death of their manager, before the splintering of The White Album, before the winter of ‘69 and the coming of Allen Klein to splinter them further. This is the last time The Beatles were The Beatles, the last time they all looked the same and moved as one, a force like no other in the history of pop music.

The songs have been discussed and dissected forever and will be forevermore. You either love them or not. Is the album a little too Paul-heavy? Is it not as physical as it could be, as Pete Townshend once complained? Is George’s “Within You Without You” a bit over-reaching, didactic? These are subjective issues. Again, you either feel that way or you don’t. I happen to think "Within You Without You" is a piece of unexpainable beauty and daring wisdom. Is Sgt. Pepper The Beatles’ greatest achievement? The greatest album of all time, as all those critics’ lists have claimed, especially through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s? Personally, I feel Revolver is the best Beatles album, followed closely by Abbey Road. And no, I don’t believe Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album of all time. Like Jimi Hendrix is to electric guitarists, it’s just the easiest one to pick for such a list. And I say, better it than most others. For not many things are as all-encompassing, as universal, as easy going down as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I love Sgt. Pepper. I always have, as long as I have been conscious. In it, I hear Big Life, bright and beautiful; creativity at its peak, a model for everything that came after it. I would say to Aimee Mann, why criticize the very thing that has enabled you to make music in the first place? Why nitpick something that has created the very world in which you have been allowed to work, to create as you see fit? There is no Pink Floyd without Sgt. Pepper. There is no Led Zeppelin. There is no Radiohead, no Outkast. There is no Joni Mitchell or Prince or Genesis or Rush or U2 or R.E.M. or Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life, or anything else of any ambition and scope in popular music, for that matter, without Sgt. Pepper. There would be no license to create whatever you can dream without it. And in another hundred years, OK Computer will sit somewhere near the top of the list, maybe. Maybe not. You can be sure Sgt. Pepper has a better shot of standing the test.

The way the sunlight looked when you were a child. The way the air courses in and out of your lungs on a cool spring day, perhaps without you even knowing it. The way voices are supposed to sound alone and in harmony with each other. The way sound is supposed to make you feel alive, in wonder of it all. The way music is supposed to stave off the sadness and weight of this world. Every artist should be so lucky as to have a “folly” like this. The world is in desperate need of more “folly” like this. Climb in the back with your head in the clouds and you’re gone.

June ‘07

It's getting better all the time (it couldn't get much worse).