Robert Fraser /EMI Records LTD
On its 50th anniversary, is it finally time to stop expecting a silly, catchy album to be an unassailable cultural totem?
Tomorrow sees the release of a deluxe reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, almost exactly 50 years since it first hit record shelves. It’s a major anniversary of the greatest album ever made. If that claim makes you roll your eyes, don’t blame me: It’s what the culture decided a long time ago. The record that featured the Beatles on the cover dressed up as a fictional band, Sgt. Pepper has been considered a masterpiece for as long as it’s existed.
Case in point: In the December 1967 issue of Esquire, music critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Partly because the 10-month gap between Revolver and Sgt. Pepper was so unprecedented, the album was awaited in much the same spirit as installments of Dickens must have been a century ago. Everyone was a little edgy: Could they do it again?” Although Christgau loved the record, he pushed against the ecstatic, blanket hosannas that greeted its release. “Sgt. Pepper is not the world’s most perfect work of art,” he declared. “But that is what the Beatles’ fans have come to assume their idols must produce.”
In the 50 years since, Sgt. Pepper has only remained an unassailable musical totem. In 2003, Rolling Stone polled journalists, critics, musicians and others to put together a special issue commemorating the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Sgt. Pepper topped the list. Nine years later, when the magazine revised the list, Sgt. Pepper was still number one. Summarizing the record, the staff wrote,is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. … [T]he 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.”
With that kind of description — and with that kind of imposing history behind it — how could anyone approach Sgt. Pepper in 2017 with anything other than skepticism? As much as people like discovering new music, we tend to resist when it’s being shoved down our throats. It’s very hard to love something — to really embrace it as ours — when everybody else has already laid claim to it.No wonder that when NME made its own list of the greatest albums in 2013, Sgt. Pepper landed all the way down at number 87, the snotty write-up noting, “Considered the ultimate achievement of recorded music at the time, the gleam has dulled on Pepper’s medals over time, its psychedelic visuals and flower power sentiments turned corny at the edges.”
I’m not here to argue over whether Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album ever, or even the greatest Beatles album ever. (For what it’s worth, I don’t — and, not that it matters, but I probably prefer The Beatles.) But I would like to suggest that evaluating something based on other people’s belief that it’s the Greatest Thing Ever is a really bad idea. There’s no such thing as the Greatest Thing Ever. Such talk does a disservice to new listeners. And, more importantly, it does a disservice to the Thing in question.
Here’s what I mean: Pretend I told you that some mystery album I was going to play you, which you’d never heard, was the greatest album ever made. Before you heard a single note, what would you be thinking? Your expectations would be pretty high, right? Would you maybe start imagining what the greatest album ever would sound like? Maybe you’d begin constructing in your mind a list of sonic criteria that would be necessary for a record to justify to such a lofty buildup. You’d think about your own favorite albums — the ones that have meant the most to you and have been touchstones for the most important and meaningful moments in your life. Then you’d think, “Okay, what I’m about ready to hear has to surpass all of those albums. After all, this is the greatest album ever made.” Now imagine that, if you’re not totally sold on the record after one spin, that you’re going to be badgered by people telling you that it really is the greatest album ever made and that you just don’t get it.
I don’t care how open-minded a person you are: There’s very little chance you’re going to love that album. The deck is stacked against you. It’s a problem all cultural totems have: Once we decide as a consensus what the greatest movie/book/album/sitcom is, it gets encased in amber, its merits frozen in time. The piece of work is no longer breathing and open to exploration and discovery — it’s now an unimpeachable art object. And who can love something described as an “unimpeachable art object”?…