Of course calling an album, a band, a book, a film or any single vestige of pop-culture overrated is largely absurd. Overrated is – as a term – overrated in and of itself. It holds no (real) weight anymore. It’s the sort of thing some schmuck says when they don’t (really) have an argument. Not one that stands up anyway.
All that said I’ll still go for calling Sgt. Pepper’s the most overrated album of all time.
We give it some giant conceptual weight when – as an album – it’s largely a mess; stitched together by some people who had largely turned their backs on their audience (probably quite justified, albeit) and were bigger than the game. No one was more convinced that The Beatles were bigger than the game than The Beatles. In fact they’d largely turned their backs on each other at this point, which is probably how Ringo kept getting near the microphone.
They kept letting Ringo sing. (What would you do if I sang out of tune? Probably still give you one song per record – dance monkey, dance). They dined out on the idea Sgt Pepper’s was some sort of concept album – when it is no such thing. Idiotic writers will tell you it’s one of the world’s first concept records. To which you have to say two things: 1) find me the concept. And 2) listen to Frank Sinatra’s records made over a decade earlier.
Sgt Pepper’s has some killer songs and I usually don’t mind when I see lists of top songs and top Beatles songs with A Day In The Life right at (or so very near) the top. That’s a pretty special piece. Top tune. And there are others on this album. I like George Harrison’s quasi mystical bullshit. I dig Lovely Rita. And sometimes I even get on with that misty-eyed string-clinging phoned-in emotional-overload that is She’s Leaving Home. Sometimes I hate it more than a nasty-ass hangover that renders you useless, couch-bound, watching guilty-pleasure TV in clothes that aren’t allowed past the letterbox.
There are some cloying turds attached to this album though. And I’ve always found that for all this talk of it as “an album” – it works better/best in excerpts. You can extract almost anything from Sgt Pepper’s and it sounds great on its own. But the album is guaranteed to bring on nausea – it’s excruciating at times, a musical hangover. You have a picture of this album just lolling on a coach somewhere, eating nachos, wearing trackpants, watching an Operation Repo marathon.
There’s an arrogance about Sgt Pepper’s as a thing – a loftiness. The band wearing its influences so proudly on their sleeve (literally, in the case of this record’s sleeve). And no name attached as such, instead laid out like a wreath. Memorialising themselves. The Beatles were now too big. No need to put their name there in the standard way. Oh, but hey they’ll happily reprint the lyrics even though most of them are rubbish.
John Lennon had pretty much checked out by this point. The energy and anger of his early work had just congealed into a lazy, bitter cynicism fringed with smugness. McCartney did the heavy lifting – but even when he does that (as he did from here on in with The Beatles) he don’t half like being twee now, does he? I mean When I’m 64 – what the fuck is that shit? We used to sing that at primary school. Awful. I mean we sung so many Beatles songs at primary school (including – oddly – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer) but When I’m 64. There’s a reason music-hall died. Because it was awful. McCartney, now older than 64 and sounding awful for the most part deserves the doom of outliving the age of that rubbish song. (His final world tour should be him soft-shoe-shuffling with a colostomy bag, singing When I’m 64 and Your Mother Should Know and Martha My Dear to a twisted polka beat).
All this talk of Sgt Pepper’s as some quintessential 60s album. Pah! I’d rather hear – in their entirety – Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, Freak Out, Odyssey and Oracle, Safe As Milk and – yes – Pet Sounds and SMiLE – and that’s just a small selection of great albums made around the time of Sgt Pepper’s, half of them made before Pepper’s even. And that’s just Small Faces, Frank and The Mothers, The Zombies and Captain Beefheart. What about all that great – great – work from The Kinks and then that Velvet Underground and Nico record. And fuck I’d even take Their Satanic Majesties Request over Sgt Pepper’s. And it was The Stones tagging along in near-enough to parody-land. They all hang together better as records, all those LPs I just named – and most of them hang together better as “concept” albums too. For what it’s worth.
I love The Beatles. Anyone who doesn’t think they’re the most important pop group of all time is a fucking idiot. You don’t have to like them – but go on, you might as well. And you should certainly acknowledge their worth. They not only inspired great music and created great music they also provided a high watermark, a cultural touchstone for a whole other subculture to rebel against and attempt to rebut.
But Sgt Pepper’s can’t be the best album of all time, nor the most important. It’s not even the best or most important album by the band that made it. The Beatles couldn’t have made Sgt Pepper’s if it weren’t for the success of everything leading up to it. And in Sgt Pepper’s they cobbled together an album that is as full of misery and failure as it is jubilation and triumph. An album that might have changed music – sure. But not always for the better. Sgt Pepper’s is an over-reacher – and one that still somehow underachieves. Rampant experimentalism has killed more than a few great pop songs. And has allowed turgid filler to creep in and mingle with the classics. And, well, it kinda started right here.
I’d always go for – and not exactly in this order – Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, Revolver and The White Album before Sgt Pepper’s. I’d go for Help and A Hard Day’s Night Too. (Actually, it probably would be in exactly that order).
So why, still, does Sgt Pepper’s get so much love? Oh, you had to be there. Oh fuck off. You did not. And most of the hacks wanking on about this great, great album and its “significance” weren’t there at the time anyway. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not total shit – obviously. But it’s nowhere near as great as a lot of people seem to think. It’s not. It’s become an obvious thing to say – to think of it as important. But who really listens to it, start to finish, these days? I mean why would you? You’re better off listening to Plastic Ono Band or Ram or All Things Must Pass. You’d build a better single-disc record from the best parts of those records. And it could be a concept-record too – the concept? Strong songs, well-written. Rather than some circus-joke with one or two killer tracks to get it over the line.