The 1967 album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles is generally thought to be the best album of all time. And when I write “generally thought,” I’m referring to the vaunted “music critics” that are deferred to on these matters. But is the album really the best ever?
Increasingly we live in a world where the media is controlled by Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – who are more inclined to favor the music of their youth over the music of someone else’s youth. This has led to the situation we have now. When naming Sgt. Pepper the “Greatest Album of All-Time,” Rolling Stone proclaimed that it was “the most important rock & roll album ever made . . . by the greatest rock & roll group of all time.”
Does the “most important” album made by rock’s “greatest” band automatically equal the greatest album of all time?
No, it doesn’t. But it also doesn’t mean that Sgt. Pepper is a bad album.
It does have its flaws. Sgt. Pepper is an album with a “concept” that only involves three of the album’s thirteen tracks; the concept being that the album is being performed by the fictional Sgt. Pepper ‘s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It’s an album whose best two songs – “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” – were left off in favor of releasing them as singles (these songs are the perfect balance of pop with the band’s psychedelic experimentation). It’s an album occasionally weighed-down by its favoring of experimentation over a more thoughtful presentation of songcraft (see “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”; without the “production” Elton John’s cover would no longer be the superior version).
But while the album is sometimes flawed, it is also stunningly brilliant. “She’s Leaving Home” looks at growing up, and perhaps has more pure emotion than any other song by the Beatles. “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is psychedelia seen through a carnival filter and – with the exception of the future release “I Am the Walrus” – is the band’s most poignant and pure psychedelic statement. “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning” are reminiscent of the bright pop previously perfected on Revolver.
And then there’s “A Day in the Life.” Here, Lennon and McCartney eschew altogether the pop songwriting they had perfected in favor of a disturbing collage of words and sounds combining in a dangerous crescendo and, finally, a great bang. Lennon sings of car crashes, potholes filling halls, and the people staring at it all. After the orchestra does its mighty buildup, McCartney wakes up from his slumber only once again to fall into a dream, apparently choosing to leave behind whatever remains of ordinary life. “A Day in the Life” – even today, nearly fifty years later – is not modern music. It is more modern than modern, if that’s even possible. Nothing before it or after it did or does what it did and continues to do with every listen.
What does all this mean about Sgt. Pepper? It is a great album, without a doubt. Is it the most important album, being the album that set off a cultural firestorm during 1967’s Summer of Love? Very likely, yes. It could be the album with the greatest cultural impact. But this does not make it the greatest album of all time.
Rating: 5 stars out of 5
Author: Ryan King
Ryan King began covering music in 2004 for the Arrow, the student newspaper at Southeast Missouri State University, eventually becoming Managing Editor at that publication. He is also the former Music Editor for OFF! Magazine, an alternative publication published by the Southeast Missourian. Ryan began writing for The Music Universe when launched, but has stepped away to focus on law. He may appear from time to time for reviews.