Why the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” Hasn’t Shown Signs of Aging

The Beatles’ illustrious eighth album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club
Band,” lends itself to anniversary celebrations. As heralded by the
grouchy guitars and geriatric tempo of its title track, the central
conceit of the album is that of a twentieth-anniversary concert by a
once famous musical group that has returned from the oblivion of pop
history to “raise a smile” on the faces of its aging, nostalgic fans. At
the time John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote that opening number,
twenty years must have seemed like an eternity to them: more than enough
time for a pop sensation like the Beatles, say, to fade from living
memory.

As the recent media blitz of tributes surrounding the fiftieth
anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper” illustrates, the Beatles and their alter
egos in the Pepper Band are still very much with us––not least because
“Sgt. Pepper,” more than any other single work, was responsible for
generating the aura of artistic legitimacy that would institutionalize
the presence of rock music in the mainstream of modern culture. The
album inspired an unprecedented outpouring of reviews, cover stories,
and sober cultural commentaries in newspapers, mass-circulation
magazines, and highbrow literary journals, many of which had never
covered rock as an artistic phenomenon before. “The Beatles are good
even though everyone already knows that they’re good,” the composer Ned
Rorem declared in The New York Review of Books, at the end of 1967,
slyly acknowledging the way the group had transcended the limits of both
condescension and connoisseurship. Rorem had already told Time magazine that “She’s Leaving Home,” the mock-Victorian parlor ballad on
the first side of “Sgt. Pepper,” was “equal to any song that Shubert
ever wrote.” Portentously titled “The Messengers,” Time’s cover story
went on to enlist a chorus of well-known conductors and composers, such
as Leonard Bernstein and Luciano Berio, in singing the praises of the
Beatles’ music. The New Yorker greeted “Sgt. Pepper” with a “Talk of
the Town” piece written by its editor, William Shawn, who posed as a
“professorial-looking” Times Square record-store patron named “Lawrence
LeFevre,” to extoll the album as “a musical event comparable to a
notable new opera or symphonic work.”

Predictably, the acclaim that was heaped on “Sgt. Pepper” in the summer
and fall of 1967 inspired a critical backlash. Richard Goldstein’s
tone-deaf dismissal of the record as “an album of special effects,
dazzling but ultimately fraudulent,” in the Times, inspired a
firestorm of angry letters to the editor, which the paper published for
weeks on end. But the most prescient criticism came from the British
critic Nik Cohn, who agreed that “Sgt. Pepper” “was genuinely a
breakthrough,” but complained that “it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t
fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous, or violent.” Cohn’s words
presaged the rise of punk, which emerged, a decade later, as a corrective
to the rock-as-art pretensions that “Sgt. Pepper” represented. “The
Beatles make good music, they really do,” Cohn concluded, “but since
when was pop anything to do with good music?”

It is now possible to see “Sgt. Pepper” as the hallmark of an era, which
reached from the mid-nineteen-sixties to the mid-nineteen-seventies,
when pop had a lot to do with good music––when some of the most
profound and provocative music being made was also some of the most
popular and commercially successful. This ten-year apotheosis of rock
and soul was the result of a unique convergence of culture, commerce,
and technology, in which the interplay of African-American and
Anglo-American talent that had shaped the sound of popular music in the
U.S. and Britain since the mid-nineteenth century was supercharged by
the advent of multitrack recording, which turned studios into
compositional laboratories and allowed musical artists to exert an
auteur-like sovereignty over their work. At the same time, the advent of
stereo records and FM broadcasting gave these artists the medium they
needed by turning long-playing albums, rather than three-minute singles,
into the commercial basis of pop.

Though “Sgt. Pepper” was hailed as a marvel of technical innovation upon
its release, multitrack recording was still in its infancy in 1967, and
the album was made using a jerry-rigged system of patched-together tape
decks that required each layer of instruments and voices to be premixed
and rerecorded in order to make room for additional overdubs. In the
process of these so-called “reduction mixes,” the presence and clarity
of the basic tracks were significantly compromised. Stereo records were
still an anomaly in Britain at the time—so much so that the Beatles
themselves did not bother to participate in the stereo mixes of the
album, which were done mainly for the American market. Minor
improvements were made when “Sgt. Pepper” was remastered by the Beatles’
producer George Martin in the nineteen-eighties, for release as a CD.
But, for the past half century, “the act you’ve known for all these
years” has come to us in a rather crude stereo format that placed the
voices and instruments on one side or the other with precious little in
between.

George Martin died in 2016, but his son Giles had worked with him for
the last decade of his career, during which he assimilated a great deal
of his father’s expertise, ingenuity, and impeccable musical taste. In
preparing the silver-anniversary edition of “Sgt. Pepper,” Giles, with
the full consent of the surviving Beatles, drew on the archives of EMI’s
Abbey Road Studios to exhume the original, unreduced tapes, which were
recorded during the marathon sessions that ran through the winter and
spring of 1967. He digitized these tracks, fed them through a modern
mixing board, and then, using the Beatles-approved mono mix as a guide,
recast the album in true stereo. For Beatles enthusiasts who can’t get
enough, the new reissue of “Sgt. Pepper” is also available in a deluxe
package that includes a generous selection of outtakes, which provides a
fascinating glimpse of the empirical process by which the Beatles went
about their work.

On the occasion of the album’s fiftieth anniversary, how does this
refurbished version of “Sgt. Pepper” hold up? The famous cover
photograph, staged by the Pop painter Peter Blake, now looks as dated as
the Edwardian-era portraiture it was meant to satirize. Yet, for all its
identification with Swinging London, the Haight-Ashbury, and the Summer
of Love, the album effortlessly transcends the bounds of its historical
moment. As Ned Rorem might have said, “Sgt. Pepper” is a masterpiece
even though everyone already knows that it’s a masterpiece. The giddy,
glad-handing promise of pop (“We’d love to take you home with us!”)
still exerts its seductive power over the popular imagination. And the
world is still full of girls like the ethereal “Lucy in the Sky” and the
earthy “Lovely Rita,” desperate daredevils like Mr. Kite, and cheerfully
reformed domestic tyrants like the one in “Getting Better.” The
experience of immersing oneself, as a listener, in the rich stylistic
swirl of satire, sentiment, and sensation of the Pepper Show, only to be
torn from it, at the very end, by the sublime majesty of “A Day in the
Life,” on which the Beatles abandon the gaudy self-assertion of their
Pepper Band personae to expose the deep well of alienation and
vulnerability that lies behind the mask of the crowd-pleasing
entertainer––none of this has lost its power to astonish, enlighten, and
delight.


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