Sergeant Pepper or Revolver? Revolver or Sergeant Pepper? It’s so tempting just to say “both”, but I’ve only allowed myself ten slots in the Desert Island Albums series, and it would seem unfair to give 20% of all the space to a single band. [Previously: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, Rainbow’s Rising and Blue Öyster Cult’s Fire of Unknown Origin.]
I’ve been vacillating between these to albums (with an occasional thought for Abbey Road) for some time. Now, with the death of George Martin, I’m pushed into actually writing this piece, and as it happens the dial is currently in the Pepper region. Oh, but what an album Revolver is! A while back our treadmill broke down, and I frittered away a lot of time trying to repair it before giving up, accepting the inevitable, and buying a new one. In the mean time, I had lost a lot of fitness, and couldn’t run more than 3 km. Then one morning, I happened to have Revolver playing as I was running, and I got so absorbed by its fourteen wildly different tracks that I’d completed my 5 km target before I ever realised it.
It’s partly the variety of Revolver that’s so engaging. I played a little game, pretending someone had approached me and said “I’ve never really listened to the Beatles; can you recommend half a dozen tracks that I could use to get a feel for their music?” Then, noting that they covered a huge stylistic range, and that six tracks will never be enough to do more than scratch the surface, I make my suggestions: Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, I’m Only Sleeping, Love to You, Here There and Everywhere, and Yellow Submarine. A selection of astonishing variety, encompassing everything from music hall via balladry, hard rock and Indian music, to touches of classicism.
That’s just the opening six tracks from Revolver.
Which is just one album.
What’s often not appreciated about the Beatles is just how much they did, in how short a time. Their first album, Please Please Me, was released on 22 March 1963; their last, Let It Be, barely seven years later on 8 May 1970. In a similar period of seven years, a band like Coldplay, who I admit to liking, released three albums (Parachutes, A Rush of Blood to the Head, X&Y), which all sound pretty similar. Adele is equally prolific with three albums in her first seven years (19, 21, and the somewhat unimaginatively named 25), again, all cut from very much the same cloth. But in their seven years, the Beatles released thirteen albums plus a shedload of iconic singles — easily enough to make two more albums. And after their first two albums, no two of them sounded alike. The Beatles were constantly reinventing, before it became fashionable. In the early 1990s, U2 (who I also like) were praised for reinventing themselves with Achtung Baby. Pfft. The Beatles reinvented themselves a dozen times, with every album from A Hard Day’s Night onwards. Every six months.
Who could possibly have foreseen it when they arrived at EMI to perform their audition? They were unremarkable — just one of hundreds of similar beat groups. Nothing about what they’d been doing to that point (covers of show-tunes, rock ‘n’ roll standards and girl-group songs, a few deriviative compositions of their own) so much as suggested the Cambrian explosion of creativity to come. And yet one man did foresee it — George Martin, the producer whose unique insight, openness and expertise opened the doors for the Beatles to become what they did. There are an astonishing number of candidates for the title “The Fifth Beatle” — Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Brian Epstein, Mal Evans, Neil Aspinall, Yoko Ono, Billy Preston — but there can be no real doubt that the title belongs to Martin, without whom none of it would have been possible.
So that’s the Beatles: fully deserving of their high critical reputation, and as their AllMusic biography so rightly says, “they were among the few artists of any discipline that were simultaneously the best at what they did and the most popular at what they did”. (Yes, I have quoted this before.)
So why is Sergeant Pepper the one to make it onto my desert island? Revolver is arguably a better collection of songs; Abbey Road hits higher highs (despite being rather uneven); Help! better conveys the joy and energy of youth (though it’s astonishing to realise that John, Paul, George and Ringo were only 26, 24, 23 and 27 when they recorded Pepper). But it’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that wins out — just — for its scope and ambition, for the conceptual unity that ties it all together, and for its role in originating progressive rock.
Revolver had come out in August 1966, the Beatles’ 7th album. The key observation is that of David Quantick, in his Q magazine piece in 2000: “the Beatles went on to do Sgt. Pepper’s because there was nowhere else to go but too far. With Revolver, they had mapped out the pop universe so perfectly that all they could do next was tear it up and start again.” The nine-month gap between the release of Revolver and Pepper was the Beatles’ longest up to that point, and some critics felt the Beatles had dried up. Instead, when the new album was released at the start of June 1967, it defined the Summer Of Love and redefined the parameters of popular music.
On the night of the release day, Paul McCartney went to see Jimi Hendrix’s live show, and was surprised to hear him play a cover of the Sergeant Pepper title track: Jimi had bought the album that day, and worked out the cover in the afternoon.
And as Langdon Winner wrote in Rolling Stone:
The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. In every city in Europe and America the radio stations played it and everyone listened. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified.
So much for Pepper‘s cultural impact. What about its personal impact on me? 1981 was not a particularly happy year for me. I’d been moved up a year in school, a procedure which isn’t well understood and routine in Britain as it is the USA. Worse, this was done part-way through the school year, so I was trying to break in on a peer-group that was already established in its friendships, as well as being made up of boys a year older then me. But one thing I did have in common with some of these kids was a love of the Beatles. New friends taped their Beatles albums for me, and I listened to them on the personal stereo that had been my main Christmas present. I loved all the albums I acquired that way — Help!, Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be — but the one that really burrowed into my subconscious was Sergeant Pepper. That album became the soundtrack to my life, and particularly to a school holiday that I went on over Easter. I can’t hear the opening horn salvo of Good Morning Good Morning without thinking of the Exmoor countryside, the youth hostel dormitory, and the basement with the Space Invaders machine.
What makes Sergeant Pepper work so well? Partly, its the conceit that ties the whole album together, giving it a sense of unity. It’s bookended by the title track and its reprise, which represent the introduction and conclusion to an evening’s cabaret-style entertainment. The band adopt the persona of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — a move that allows them to stop being The Beatles, and do things differently. As a result, the 13 songs are freed to explore a musical range even greater than that of Revolver, while still being tied loosely into an overarching narrative. Tracks 2-11, between the bookends, careen all over the map with a joyous prodigality, touching on every aspect of human experience — which makes it all the more powerful when the final song, A Day In The Life, emerges from the sonic wash after the Sergeant Pepper reprise, and summarises the whole album with a surprisingly wistful and introspective little epic. Structurally, this is perfect: the slight divergence from the simple bookend pattern gives it a twist that lets the whole album land with greater power.
What’s interesting is that critics mostly agree that the individual songs on Pepper are less even in quality than those on Revolver; but disagree on which are the weaker songs. Some consider McCartney’s Fixing a Hole slight, or Harrison’s Within You Without You pretentious; whereas I love both of those songs, and find Lennon’s much-loved Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds relatively uninspired.
What’s universally agreed is that the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team is at its strongest here. McCartney’s optimistic Getting Better is given a cynical twist by Lennon’s “It can’t get no worse” refrain; similarly, John’s doleful roleplay of the protagonist’s parents in She’s Leaving Home gives that song its kaleidoscopic quality of taking in multiple perspectives. McCartney contributes the down-to-earth middle section to Lennon’s otherwise ethereal and abstract A Day in the Life. In each song, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And that’s true of the album as a whole, too. The transition from McCartney’s cheerfully callous Lovely Rita into Lennon’s obsessive, constricted Good Morning Good Morning works to the advantage of both songs — as does the abrupt switch from George’s morose Indian mediation Within You Without You to Paul’s good-natured music-hall pastiche When I’m Sixty-Four.
George Martin is on top form here, too, most notably in the hallucinogenic melange of sounds that underpin and overlie Lennon’s Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!, but also in a hundred little touches throughout all the songs. By all accounts, recording Pepper was not a particularly harmonious process — Ringo says the main thing he remembers about it was learning to play chess — but you would never guess it from the result, where the whole band sounds completely integrated and united.
The album closer, A Day in the Life, is often considered the single finest song in the Beatles’ catalogue, and with good reason. It covers an enormous amount of musical and emotional ground, and closes the album perfectly. Its essential musicality is apparent in that even when stripped of all its complex production, and performed as a simple guitar-and-vocal song at a folk club, it works. (When I do this song I introduce it as “the best song from the best album by the best band in history”.) Yet the bizarre thing about Pepper is that two even better songs were left off it.
These songs are John’s Strawberry Fields Forever (the first song recorded for the Pepper sessions) and Paul’s Penny Lane. The former is arguably the most psychedelically evocative and harmonically complex song in the Beatles repertoire (putting the lie to the idea that psychedelia necessarily relies on extended one-chord jams), as well as featuring the richest production; the latter, while ostensibly a jaunty trip through McCartney’s old Liverpool haunts, is also haunted by hints of the surreal and sinister — and is topped off with a completely unexpected but absolutely perfect piccolo-trumpet solo.
Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane was released as a double-A-sided single four months before Sergeant Pepper (inexplicably failing to reach number one, and being ignominiously kept off the top spot by Englebert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me). Because the songs were already known, the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein persuaded George Martin to omit them from Sergeant Pepper — something that Martin subsequently described as “the biggest mistake of my professional life”.
We can only imagine what an astonishing album Pepper would have been with these two songs included — and speculate on where they might have fallen in the running order. On the other hand, maybe they would have been too much of a good thing: perhaps their inclusion might have compromised the fragile and inexplicable sense of unity that binds Pepper together. Maybe, then, their omission was just one more of the lucky breaks that cleared the path for the Beatles to be as very magical as they were.
At any rate, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is fully deserving of its iconic status, and it’s one of the ten albums that I’d take with me to a desert island — although I’d probably try to smuggle a copy of the Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane double-A-side along as well, slipped inside the Pepper gatefold.