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Rethinking the Beatles’ ‘best’
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is the Beatles’ worst album.
But let me save you the outrage you may think I’m looking to foment. I’m not saying it’s a bad record; I’m merely pointing out that the most impactful rock band in history made better ones — some catchier, some weirder, some more energetic, all filled with songs I’d rather listen to today.
Yet it’s “Sgt. Pepper,” released 50 years ago next month and due for a lavish reissue on Friday, that’s consistently singled out as the Beatles’ crowning achievement. It’s the group’s only record in the National Recording Registry overseen by the Library of Congress, and Rolling Stone put it at No.1 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.
Why? The answer has as much to do with context as with content.
In June 1967, “Sgt. Pepper” embodied the hippie idealism of the Summer of Love, an era still regarded above all others by many of those in charge of establishing the Western cultural canon. The album also marked important moments in the evolution of psychedelic art and of progressive rock; indeed, it helped cement the very idea of the LP as music’s primary canvas.
“Sgt. Pepper” came too at a crucial point for the Beatles, just after they’d retired from the road and as they began to redefine the group as a uniquely ambitious recording project. With its adventurous studio trickery and its half-baked concept about the fictional Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album captures that shift — and there’s nothing history remembers more vividly than it does a pivot.
But those achievements belong to the past; the valuable work “Sgt. Pepper” did in reflecting its time and broadening rock’s scope has already been done (and roundly commended, to say the least). What we’re left to reckon with a half-century later is the music itself — what it has to offer listeners shaped by the album’s advances as well as by all those that followed.
And this is where I tell you that “Sgt. Pepper” simply doesn’t grab me the way the Beatles’ other records do, even (or especially) after hundreds of listens over dozens of years. Some of that is down to taste of course: You either find “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” painfully twee or you don’t; “Within You Without You” either feels three minutes too long or it doesn’t.
But for an album released only three years after the exhilarating “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Sgt. Pepper” can seem remarkably sluggish with the likes of “Fixing a Hole” and “Lovely Rita.” And given the truly radical stuff to come on 1968’s White Album, “A Day in the Life” sounds almost quaint now — a criticism only insofar as the song is regularly identified as an unparalleled head trip.
Other styles the Beatles took up on “Sgt. Pepper,” they took up more convincingly elsewhere, be it the scuzzy title track (“Yer Blues” rocks harder) or the dreamy balladry of “She’s Leaving Home” (“For No One” is prettier). “Getting Better” feels like a less intense version of “Got to Get You into My Life”; “Good Morning Good Morning” could be a dry run for “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.”
Sure, the synthesis the Beatles struck on “Sgt. Pepper” is easy to admire — it collects more textures and attitudes than most bands ever touch. By trying to do a little of everything, though, the Beatles for the first (and last) time sacrificed doing a lot of anything. And that’s a strange way to remember a group this powerful.