Just a little more Pepper, please….
Yep, it’s the most famous rock album of all time.
But what’s the big deal? Why? Why so much Pepper?
Well, It is the peak of the Beatles’ experimentation, the peak of their psychedelic period, and possibly the peak of their songwriting skills. It’s not rock music really, it’s a blend of all possible styles. It’s not that there are no guitars: it’s just that they are completely overshadowed by strings, symphonic orchestras, mellotrones and lots of stuff that was so new and original then and is so common and boring now. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not the music they did then that is common, it’s the music that others do now that is so.
Okay, the plot. Once upon a time it occurred to Paul McCartney (and not John Lennon, as a lot of people think) that it would be nice to quit the Beatles and get himself a new wacky jazzy band named in the honor of a Sergeant Pepper who probably was Paul’s long-lost great-grandfather. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find anybody to join, so he just dubbed his colleague Beatles ‘Peppermen’, dressed them in uniforms and made play such groundbreaking and unimaginable music that the world didn’t stop talking about it for years.
Okay. Not totally true, but Paul did come up with the idea (with some help from roadie Mal Evans of all people) to free The Beatles from the constraints of their own huge fame by “becoming” another band.
This is deemed a ‘conceptual’ album, but John hated the term, and I really agree with him. There’s even less concept here than on Pet Sounds: while all of the latter’s songs dealt with Brian Wilson’s spiritual search for universal love, the only organizing matter that is present on ‘Pepper’ is the title track and its reprise near the end of the album, which in a certain sense transform the album in a quasi-live performance played through by the band. But the songs themselves stray so far away from each other that the only “unity” is the lack of it. Here they are, track by track.
The introductory song leads us into the world of “Pepperland” with a cool guitar solo and the trombone-led ‘band anthem’, after which the actual ‘program’ starts. We have the bouncy ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ sung by Ringo, then the fabulous ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ sung by John (which everybody knew was about drugs, but it was named from a drawing by his son Julian), ‘Getting Better’ is an optimistic and uptight Paul rocker, ‘Fixing A Hole’ is a great introspective song featuring a great melody, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ may be Paul’s most gorgeous ballad ever, and ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ is just an advertising poster of a circus show translated by John into poetry.
Side B opens with George’s Indian music-inspired ‘Within You Without You’, which many people seem to dislike, but they are just wrong. It’s absolutely fantastic: somehow he manages to fit into the Indian pattern and make a catchy melody at the same time. ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ is a nice McCartney ditty (actually written when he was around 16 years old), ‘Lovely Rita’ is Paul singing about a policewoman, ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ is the only real rock song here, with some cooking guitar solos and lots of wailing animals in the end, then we have the title track reprised, and then – ‘A Day In The Life’, with the famous line ‘I’d like to turn you on’ and the ‘musical orgasm’ of the whole orchestra building up a terrific crescendo.
There’s a lot of new and original things about the album, too. It is the first album with lyrics printed on the back cover; the first album to feature lots of important people on the front cover; and there’s a good deal of other innovations I can’t remember at the present moment or even don’t know about.
So? What’s the big deal? Well quite simply, it’s still THE album of all times.
And that’s not because it’s experimental. There were lots of experimental albums that faded away completely. It’s just because it has a bunch of the greatest melodies of all time written by the greatest composers of the 20th century who were pushing the envelope. Period. In fact, that’s what pushes away some of the few unexposed and younger generation after they’ve listened to the album. Thoughtless critics go and tell them that this is the most experimental, the most groundbreaking album ever produced by rock, after which inspired listeners go and put on Freak Out! or The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn or, well, even The Velvet Underground & Nico and say: ‘THAT was experimentation? C’mon, that was just a bunch of pretty pop songs! Now ‘Interstellar Overdrive’ or ‘The Return Of The Son Of The Monster Magnet’, – that is experimentation!’
They’re all right, of course. Sgt Pepper was certainly not the most experimental album of all time, if you put a sign of equality between the words ‘experimentation’ and ‘noisemaking’. What is really so crucial about Sgt Pepper is that it was this album, and not any other, that led serious music lovers, many ‘classical snobs’ included, to finally recognize rock music as a serious, independent trend in modern art. And The Beatles pushed just far enough. While Frank Zappa was too ‘crazy’ to be considered ‘worthy’, the Beach Boys spoiled all the fun with their Hollywood arrangements, and Bob Dylan was still primarily a lyricist, the Beatles did it exactly the right way, and nobody can get away from the fact:
Sgt Pepper lives on!