Is Sgt Pepper’s Rubbish? No, but…

Keith RichardsIn 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.

13 thoughts on “Is Sgt Pepper’s Rubbish? No, but…

  1. No argument on most of this. I’d also throw in the second side of “Magical Mystery Tour” — I love “Penny Lane” and “Baby You’re A Rich Man.” And the “White Album” is fine. It’s too bad David Milch didn’t work a joke involving a young boy named Rocky Raccoon into “Deadwood.”

    But “Let It Bleed” is tops. And I can listen to “Exile On Main Street” more than “White Album.” “Beggar’s Banquet” is great, too.

    Aimee Mann did a fun memory piece on hearing “Sgt. Pepper” as a kid:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/03/opinion/03mann.html

    She’s right; you can listen to Beatles records as a kid and they sound fantastic. I think I knew all the lyrics to “Norwegian Wood” by the time I was six. My parents frowned on rock generally, but allowed the Beatles & Dylan (???)

    There was so much ground-breaking going on with music at the time, I don’t blame any artists for pursuing the studio technology side of it. But it’s really the songwriting and performances that hold up now. I like the Kinks more than the Who, Hendrix/Joplin more than the Beach Boys (although “Sloop John B” is great.

    Boy, I could go on. What did you mention about Internet dogs? A tendency to get pedantic? Yep, that’s me. So, in short: nice post.

    • Part of it is just that I’ve listened to way too much of The Beatles. The white album has some great stuff on it but it’s a mess. And Beggar’s Banquet is great. I’ll have to check out the Mann article later. I’m kind of on vacation and don’t have much time right now.

  2. I’m not really a Beatles fan. I like their hits well enough. And My older brother bought their albums. Which is why I had to go re listen to She’s Leaving Home to confirm my instinct that you are wrong about it. She’s Leaving Home probably fails as a pop song. It’s sad and you can’t dance to it. It is probably less feminist than I would take it for. It focuses on the sadness of the parents who feel betrayed and bewildered. Yet there is the repeated “she’s leaving home after being alone for so many years”. I would like to claim this song as an anthem for how shitty children are treated in Anglo culture, like property. But I’m not sure it is more than a heartstring pull about how Mom &Dad feel betrayed that their brainwashing project failed.

    • “Fun is the one thing that money can’t buy” sounds to me like straight pandering to the groovy generation — after all, on the Beatles’ early albums, hits like “Eight Days A Week” were jokingly referred to by Lennon/McCarthy as “swimming pool” songs. As in, “let’s write a hit that will buy us another swimming pool.” (They were that good, they could churn out big sellers on cue.) I’m sure none of the Beatles regarded money as a curse!

      It’s a weird thing. These songs in isolation are pretty cool. Compared to most of what the Beatles did post-“Help,” they’re weak. So I like ’em a lot and have grr-arrgh issues with ’em. Because the Beatles were amazing and did much stuff better than this. Except “Day In The Life,” with its Lennon gloom and terrific Paul interruption.

      If we could ever get a good poster thread trend going on here, what would be peoples’ favorite Beatles songs? There’s so many, and the styles are so different, it’s hard to choose. Everyone knows “Gimme Shelter” is a better song than “Satisfaction.” With the Beatles, there are times I love “Hello Goodbye,” times I love “Lady Madonna,” just a lot of different directions to choose from. The Stones focused on one direction and did it brilliantly.

      • That’s it exactly with “She’s Leaving Home.” As for best Beatles’ songs. Well, I think “Yesterday” is one of the greatest pop songs ever written. Others: “Get Back,” “Strawberry Fields,” and “Penny Lane.” There’s a tremendous amount of great material in the later years. The problem is that the albums didn’t tend to work. “I Want You” is another great one. It’s really hard to pick. Oh, and I love “Michelle.”

        • “Michelle”‘s terrific. I suspect David Byrne likes it, too, qu’est que ce.

          There’s little more nonsensical than the “Yoko broke up the band” gibberish — clearly, Lennon and McCartney were very different in very many ways, and wouldn’t be able to have “we grew up in the same town” keep them together forever.

          What an amazing period in music! TheoLib mentions Cream. There’s Joplin, Hendrix, Love, the VU, so much more.

          Recently I watched the old Bond film “Goldfinger” and Bond complained about something, “that’s like listening to the Beatles without earmuffs.” Way to be square, daddy-o.

          • They broke up because they were too full of themselves and everyone told them they were gods. It’s part of something I’ve talked a lot about: how over-compensation makes people lazy. If they had been modestly successful, they probably would have worked together their whole lives.

    • That’s just it. It shows both sides, but it is completely biased toward the daughter. The daughter’s complaint seems very much like that of 13-year-olds everywhere. I just think it is juvenile but claiming to be profound.

  3. As a long-time Beatles fan (used to collect bootleg LPs in anonymous white covers back in the 1970s), what you say about Sgt. Pepper is pretty mainstream. I’ve never met or read anyone who thinks Sgt. Pepper is the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I’ve met and read a lot of people who adore Rubber Soul and Revolver (generally the former more than the latter). I’m an Abbey Road and Let It Be person myself.

    I’m also a long-time Rolling Stones fan, at least up through Goats Head Soup, and focused mostly on the Beggars Banquet through Goats Head Soup era. I don’t get the idea of Satanic Majesties as a *parody* of Sgt. Pepper. As John Lennon supposedly said, everything the Beatles did, the Stones did two weeks later. Jagger was trying to “evolve” with the rest of the music world, just as the Stones did later with disco in the 1970s. Noticeably to me, every group that tried to do Sgt. Pepper-type music inevitably came out sounding like something off Satanic Majesties!

    I personally wouldn’t compare albums between the two groups. Overall as songwriters and musicians, though, the Beatles were superior to the Stones, with all due respect to Keith Richards and–I love him–Mick Taylor. Vocals: Jagger versus McCartney, Lennon, and, to a lesser extent, Harrison. Guitars: more of a mixed bag, but Richards and Taylor versus McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison. Bass: Wyman versus McCartney. Drums: I don’t think I paid that much attention to the drums of either group; I saved that for Ginger Baker’s solos on the live Cream records! Horns: the late Bobby Keys, yes, but what about Hopkins versus Preston (and McCartney and Lennon) on keyboards?

    With respect to songwriting, I’m reminded of the possibly apocryphal story about Dylan saying to Jagger, “I could have written ‘Honky Tonk Women’.” To which Jagger responded, “Yeah, but you couldn’t sing it!”, I think in the sense of Jagger having lived it!

    I’ve noticed on the Internet Archive’s Live Music Archive that there are a tremendous number of Rolling Stones covers, particularly of songs off Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street. However, there are a ton more Beatles covers from *throughout* their career.

    • “Beggars Banquet” through “Goats Head Soup” coincides nicely with Jimmy Miller working with the band. I dunno what he did, but clearly it was helpful; those are some terrific records.

    • I didn’t really mean to compare the bands. However, I think the Stones did a much better job of staying a band than The Beatles. As far as raw songwriting talent, I’ve long thought that McCartney was one of the greatest songwriters ever. Lennon had his moments, but McCartney was the master. Richards and Jagger also had their moments. And they were far more consistent than Lennon. But it does come as a surprise to me that Beatles fans don’t hold Sgt Pepper’s in high regard. If I had known that, I wouldn’t have written this. I know it must be important historically, because it really doesn’t hold up that well to modern listeners.

  4. Both “Sgt. Pepper” and “Satanic Majesties” helped to change my view of albums. They demonstrated that LPs could be more than just a collection of songs; they could tell a story. Another good example is the Starship’s “Blows Against the Empire.”

    On the other hand, the Stones’ songs always spoke more to me on a personal level. My twin sister might have bought into “All You Need Is Love” and “Michelle,” but I was “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Street-Fighting Man.” Ah, but I was so much older then…I’m younger than that now.

    • I can see that. But it was in the air. Before this was The Who’s A Quick One, where they started that.

      I had to go back and read the article. Interesting. I often disagree with things I’ve written before. But that is about what I think. It’s not a bad album by any means, but it certainly isn’t as good as people claim. I suspect I could make an argument that Magical Mystery Tour is better. It certainly has better base material.

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