It was always 20 years ago today, whether it was actually a day, or a decade, or, as it is today, 50 years. That belted first line about the “act you’ve known for all these years” is an irresistible invitation that writers have been accepting ever since. The album we are most nostalgic about, by the band we are most nostalgic about, is itself almost entirely about nostalgia.
The military band theme. The harpsichords and Victorian circus folk. The creeping revulsion regarding adulthood (“going to work, don’t wanna go, feeling low down”). It’s incredibly suburban and grounded in its concerns. It’s lyrics are almost completely apolitical, cosy and in places fairly conservative. When it indulges in its few flights of fantasy, they come from Lewis Carroll and far east mysticism. The defining album of 1967 is constantly looking backward.
Sgt Pepper kicks off The Beatles’ third and final phase (orgasmic young pop — Please Please Me to Beatles for Sale — and darkening hipster cool — Help to Revolver — being the first two): the detached, fracturing superstars. It’s their first album after they quit touring and (although the backwards guitars and tripped-out sound collages of Revolver started this trend) their first to be more or less impossible to replicate outside the studio. This swelling ambition also made it the first album to really be considered through the spectrum of art, rather that “mere” pop music — or at the very least, it’s the first album to treat that distinction as meaningless. Bob Dylan’s lyrics provoked a lot of chin stroking among cultural critics, but Sgt Pepper is the first full album to be judged as a cultural event in and of itself.
This is the main reason there will never be another Sgt Pepper — as pop culture consumption splinters and fragments into specialised, targeted formats like Spotify, we will never have the same kind of agreement about anything. This fragmentation hasn’t just affected music consumption, but how we write and talk about it. In the years after Sgt Pepper taste-making rock critics (Robert Christgau, Lester Bangs and Greil Marcus were all first published between 1967 and 1969) emerged, writers around the same age as The Beatles themselves, who un-self-consciously wrote about pop music as political and personal and important. The idea of being a critic with that kind of clout is dead, and the publications that allowed that kind of writing to flourish are all facing the same decline. But as Langdon Winner, quoted in Rolling Stone’s review of the inevitable anniversary remix and reissue, puts it: “For a brief while, the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
That kind of hyperbole is now pretty much reserved for the likes Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West and Beyoncé. Hip hop and R&B are the only genres that retain the kind of pop culture currency that used to be thrown at white boys with guitars with abandon — the last of whom, Radiohead, more or less gave up on guitars a few albums in. And none of those acts garner anything like what Langdon describes.
People who love to romanticise what pop tunes can mean (and there are many of us) would dearly love a Sgt Pepper of their own. You can hear the yearning in the breathless coverage we’ve been getting in the lead up to the anniversary. “Why Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a decisive moment for Western civilisation” climaxes the ABC, echoing The Times critic Kenneth Tynan, while The Guardian positively quivers: “Imagine there’s no Sgt Pepper. It’s all too easy in the era of Trump and May“.
It is groaning under that weight that every re-listen of Sgt Pepper climbs out of our speakers. How does it hold up?
Songwriting wise, it’s the thinnest of all their efforts after 1965 — it contains more genuine filler (Lovely Rita, Good Morning Good Morning, Getting Better) than anything they released apart from the cover-heavy Beatles for Sale. The much-vaunted “concept” lasts two whole songs before bubbling up briefly again at the end. It’s clogged with lyrical and musical McCartney-isms, which veer, depending on your tastes, from winsome to unbearably twee. It’s completely overrated. It couldn’t be otherwise. It’s also magnificent.
Ringo (poor Ringo, doomed to be simultaneously the most ripped off and underrated drummer of all time) produces not only his best ever vocal performance (his sensitive take on With a Little Help From My Friends) but casually gives us a breakbeat so perfect for hip hop the Beastie Boys risked court two decades later to steal it for Paul’s Boutique. George is oddly peripheral (he later said his heart was still in India, and he wasn’t particularly into Sgt Pepper), producing the beguiling Hindustani drone Within You Without You and hardly a memorable solo elsewhere. John delivers two stone-cold classics (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, and the majority of A Day in the Life) and his voice was never frailer or more lovely, but this is the Pauliest of all The Beatles’ albums — he provides not only the majority of the songs, but the whole Edwardian music hall tone (hitting a peak on When I’m 64), and as gorgeous a song as pop can claim, the immaculate She’s Leaving Home. As the final almighty chord of A Day in the Life rings out, you feel you’ve been taken somewhere.
Its cultural reach is undeniable, but the direct musical influence isn’t as clear. We hear countless guitar bands pilfering from Revolver, all manner of art rock moodiness purloined from The White Album. We hear touches of Pepper in the chamber pop excursions of R.E.M and Elvis Costello. But entire movements came from most of their other records, and Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite doesn’t echo through subsequent pop in nearly the same way.
I don’t mean any of this as a criticism. Quite the opposite. Part of the reason its musical influence is comparatively limited is that you can’t really mimic it — this bright, kaleidoscopic jumble is too singular, odd and beautiful. You can only rip it off (say, The Rolling Stones’ mostly lacklustre Their Satanic Majesties Request) or absorb something of its broad ambition. A decade from now, and another, and another, we will do all this again. And Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, as much as any album could, will hold up.