Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Is Sgt. Pepper overrated?

The Guardian had a really good feature over the weekend in which they asked 14 musicians to name the one supposedly great album that they thought didn't deserve the elevation.

Overrated lists of any kind tend to be a bit dodgy -- the selections often seem like they are slaps at third parties as much as they are an honest appraisal of the material at hand and the general consensus surrounding it. In fact, in the Guardian's list, a couple of the chosen selectors acknowledge their pick could be a reaction to so-and-so playing it one time too many.

But, overall, there are some pretty strong arguments. I'm loath to admit that a couple hundred words had such an influence on me, especially when I've listened to these albums dozens of times, but I've been forced to mentally downgrade Television's Marquee Moon and The Arcade Fire's Funeral as a result of the pithy take downs I just read.

The article is an reaction to the 40th birthday of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album which is never far from the overrated discussion, largely because it is considered by many to be the greatest of all time.

I've been listening to Sgt. Pepper a lot over the last couple weeks, pondering this very question.

There is no question that Sgt. Pepper has some timeless and unique moments: The melodic wail that opens Lovely Rita; the bouncy simplicity of Getting Better (now owned by Phillips); the trailblazing psychedelica of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds; the succinct sweetness of When I'm Sixty Four and of course, the album's epic encore A Day In The Life -- the song that has probably done more than any other Beatles' record to convince music fans born after the sixties that the Fab Four were a whole lot more than the jaunty two and half minute numbers we've been hearing since birth.

That being said, all of the Beatles' studio work between 1965 and 1969 is excellent. For my money, I'd rate Abbey Road well ahead of Sgt. Pepper -- if nothing else because George Harrison's two songs on Abbey Road are canonical, whereas Harrison's lone contribution to Sgt. Pepper breaks up the so-called concept album with pretentious sitar-picking and Eastern philosophical babble. I'd also rate the super-sized White Album above Sgt. Pepper -- well above, if I could shave it down to about 20 songs.

I could even make the argument the The Fab Four's other release of 1967, the lightly regarded (for a post '65 Beatles' album) Magical Mystery Tour -- which consists of Sgt. Pepper castaways and some songs from a failed movie -- is nearly as good as Sgt. Pepper.

But it was against the output of The Beatles' contemporaries that Sgt. Pepper gained its reputation. In 1967 The Rolling Stones, the Beatles' natural rivals, had an ever expanding list of hit songs, but had yet to put together a classic album. Partly because, until 1967, The Stones had different release schedules and album configurations for Britain and America. The Stones's attempt to answer Sgt. Pepper came later in the year with a concept album of their own. Unfortunately Their Satanic Majesties Request didn't live up to critical or commercial expectations and was, and has continued to be, deemed a failure.

Also working in Sgt. Pepper's favor was the mutual admiration club the Beatles had formed with principal Beach Boy songwriter Brian Wilson. Wilson acknowledged the Beatles' musicianship and songwriting pushed him to write 1966's Pet Sounds, while, in turn, Paul McCartney and perpetual Beatles' producer George Martin both cited Pet Sounds as a principal influence on Sgt. Pepper.

As the cult of Brian Wilson grew, so did Sgt. Pepper -- the album the food-laden, bed-ridden "genius" wasn't able to one-up, and may have driven himself crazy in trying to.

The problem with this narrative is that, aside from a couple songs, Pet Sounds isn't actually a very good album, and it doesn't even stand up to the stuff the Beatles were doing in the early sixties. Genius or not, Brian Wilson was simply never in Lennon or McCartney's class of pop composer. But because Pet Sounds is now incorrectly labeled as an all-time classic, Sgt. Pepper is, falsely, that much greater for it.

But there was, in fact, a band putting out albums that rivaled the Beatles' efforts around the period of Sgt. Pepper's birth: The Kinks.

Initially known for ruckus party anthems like All Day and All of The Night and You Really Got Me, a good chunk of the "invasion" was ripped from the Kinks's British Invasion status when, in 1965, a mysterious dispute with the American Federation of Musicians left them banned from reentering the United States.

Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, it was after the ban when Kinks' songwriter Ray Davies accelerated his move away from hard-rocking foot-stompers and towards the kind of lower-key, insular, often ironic vignettes that one first associates with the Beatles. If anything, the Kinks' tales of ominous taxmen and tea-drinking villagers out-quintessentially Englishes the Beatles' verisons of the same.

Davies' stylistic conversion triggered a four year burst of extreme creativity for the Kinks. The best of which is contained in 1968's The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, a true concept album, and a reactionary blast of nostalgia for the pastoral hamlet life that the modern world was quickly leaving in its dust and smoke.

Despite the Kinks' popularity at the time, upon release Village Green Preservation Society died a quick and inexplicable death -- but has been heaped with praise ever since. For good reason: It remains every bit the album Sgt. Pepper is. And still, despite the posthumous reevaluation, a large chunk of even moderately informed music fans have never heard of Village Green Preservation Society -- let alone heard it. (Here are the songs from the album I could find on YouTube.)

When Sgt Pepper was born to the world, on June 1, 1967, more than one prominent critic framed it not as a piece of vinyl which makes noises when scratched with a needle, but in terms of history and civilization. It has carried that air of import to its 41st year.

Yet, compared to The Beatles' other albums, and some of the work The Kinks were doing in the late 60s, this effusive praise was and is unwarranted. And Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band pulls off the neat trick of being both great and substantially overrated.

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