The Beatles Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album has been universally acclaimed by critics and fans alike as one of the best albums ever made, if not THE best album ever made. Rolling Stone magazine gave the record top honors on their list of best albums of all time. Clearly the album was a breakthrough at the time it was released, due to the Beatles' use of major advancements in recording technology. But was it really the best album of all time?
|Front cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "probably the most famous album cover in popular musical history"Ashplant Smyth 2001, p. 185. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
1) Overproduced: The stereo effects are way too exaggerated, with vocals or other sounds panned all the way to the left or right, indicating a wild overuse of the Beatles newfound opportunity to mix a record in multitrack stereo. Albums since then, even Beatles albums subsequently produced, do not make use of such gimmicky stereo panning unless the effect is designed to be extreme. In the case of some of the tunes on Sgt Pepper, the extreme panning serves as a distraction instead of an enhancement.
2) Underwritten: Since Sgt Pepper has some of the Beatles best work, in the form of "With a Little Help From My Friends", "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds", and the magical wonder of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite", it is often overlooked that these remarkable tunes sit right next to some of the Beatles' most mediocre songwriting. Compare the songs on Sgt Pepper to other Beatles records that came before (Revolver, Rubber Soul) or after (the White Album, Abbey Road), and you'll notice that there are several tracks that don't appear as polished as the Beatles' best work.
Take "She's Leaving Home", for example, which paints a melancholy portrait of a girl's troubled life, using a string section in the background to emphasize the drama. It is reasonably effective, but compare it to "Eleanor Rigby", the standout track from Revolver, which accomplished a very similar theme with far superior results, both melodically and lyrically, and in the memorable quality of the string arrangements. If a recording of that caliber had been on Sgt Pepper in place of "She's Leaving Home", it would have improved the album immeasurably.
Next, take a look at "Lovely Rita", "Getting Better", and "Good Morning, Good Morning", the last of which John Lennon himself even dismissed as forgettable filler years later when distancing himself from the idea that Sgt Pepper was a "concept album". These tunes are rarely cited by fans as favorites, are not considered hits or classic Beatles songs, and frankly are a bit silly and lacking in prestige compared to the Beatles best work. There is nothing wrong with having them on a Beatles album, but their presence detracts from the idea that Sgt Pepper is a musical masterpiece.
3) Paul ruined "A Day in the Life": This dreamy album finale, whose primary structure was composed by John Lennon, has an unfortunate middle section written apparently too quickly by Paul McCartney. An honest listener will cringe just slightly when Paul stumbles through the awkward phrasing of the line "went upstairs and had a smoke, then somebody spoke and I went into a dream", which has too many syllables for the melody and lacks the usual careful semantics of Paul's typical songwriting. It's clear that the idea was to present a contrasting "day in the life" to the hazy meanderings of John's verses, but it just doesn't hold up, and sits as a wart on the record - a decent idea poorly executed.
4) They left out the two best songs: As many fans know, the recording sessions that spawned Sgt Pepper were actually started with the recording of two of the Beatles' undeniably finest tracks, "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever", which were released months before Sgt Pepper as a double A-sided single. Sir George Martin has said since that one of his biggest regrets was not holding onto those songs to include them on Sgt Pepper, where they almost certainly would have displaced weaker material like "Lovely Rita" or "She's Leaving Home". If they had been included, both tunes would have also bolstered the "concept" album theme, which is supposed to include childhood memories, explored within a circus atmosphere, as performed by a fictitious band. As it stands, this theme is not served at all by the weaker tunes, and the album does not hold up in hindsight as any kind of a concept album, especially when compared to later rock masterpieces like The Who's Tommy, which maintains, expands, and nurtures its theme all the way through.
As a hardcore Beatles fanatic, I love Sgt Pepper, as I love every Beatles album, but I think it is an accurate statement to say that the album is overrated when it is hailed as the Beatles finest work. Another record like Revolver, Abbey Road, or even Rubber Soul holds up much better on a song-by-song basis, and deserves that honor.
The new remastered albums came out this year (2010 !) , and have received rave reviews, so Beatles fans can now appreciate the music in an improved format vs anything that has been previously released. In fact, the Beatles recently released the stereo box set in the form of a Beatles USB apple, and the reviews of that product include the fact that it has an audio format called 24-bit FLAC which is superior to CDs, so fans and real audiophiles can revisit all the albums in a higher quality audio format, and have the whole Beatles collection on one USB drive.