In preparation for the release of his first solo album in two decades, Keith Richards is saying controversial things. Rolling Stone reported, The Beatles’ “Sgt Pepper’s” Was “Rubbish.” The article is sadly lacking details. He did, however, say of the iconic album, “There’s not a lot of roots in that music. I think they got carried away.” He compares it to the Rolling Stones’ own Their Satanic Majesties Request. Obviously, the two albums are linked, and it isn’t at all hard to see Satanic Majesties as a parody of Sgt Pepper’s. But I think that Richards’ point is that neither album was really authentic.
I think that both albums are quite interesting with lots of good material. Satanic Majesties has the advantage of not being overplayed and mythologized. I’ve always found Sgt Pepper’s as being completely symbolized by the album cover: unnecessarily cluttered and often banal. Mostly, the album is filled with solid, but uninspired, McCartney tunes. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is a clever tune and I love the arrangement with that great clarinet. I’m not sure what it’s doing on the album, but it works. On the other hand, “She’s Leaving Home” makes me want to pull my hair out — it is the worst that McCartney does in terms of lyrics.
The Lennon material is equally mixed. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is a plodding tune with production that weighs it down even more: a waltz too stilted to dance to. “Good Morning Good Morning” is simply an affront to listeners. It’s mostly in 5/4 time, but it bounces around in a way that is unsettling but still uninteresting. And lyrically, it is even more trite than “She’s Leaving Home.” The two best songs on the album were probably actual collaborations between Lennon and McCartney. “A Day in the Life” is strong enough to overcome the production, and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is one of those great songs that just begged for the George Martin treatment.
“With a Little Help from My Friends” is also a fine song. But Ringo Starr really is hopeless. And George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is The Beatles at their most pretentious. And they would go on to refine that until they broke up, at which point they would do a pretty good job of it as solo acts. So overall, we aren’t talking about a great collection of songs. Certainly, we saw better before and after.
So why is Sgt Pepper’s considered such a great album. I suspect that it was the right album at the right time. And the production must have sounded very new at the time. Now it sounds dated — not that I expect many people to agree with me. But compare it to the production on Abbey Road — it isn’t even close. Better — and I think the high point of The Beatles — were the albums before: Rubber Soul and Revolver. None of this is to say that Sgt Pepper’s is a bad album. It works and it is historically important. But I would never use it to introduce someone to The Beatles.
But “rubbish”? I think Keith Richards is just being provocative. But he’s allowed. Because Let It Bleed was better than anything The Beatles ever did.