107: Sgt. Pepper at 50 – A Conversation

June 2, 2017

Podcast, Podcasting

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In what’s likely to be the first of a series of Sgt. Pepper discussions, Robert and Richard attempt to sort out their feelings toward a most complicated and singular Beatles release; one that stirs powerful emotions within those who were there at the time – and more than a few that weren’t.
(Be sure to listen for the bonus observations by a fan who was there in ’67.)
Songs include “Good Morning, Good Morning” and “A Day in the Life.
Find Richard’s books here.
 
Find Robert’s books here.
 
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    30 Responses to “107: Sgt. Pepper at 50 – A Conversation”

    1. Matt Kindelmann Says:

      I used to talk about the ’60s with Mrs. Davidson the school librarian when I was in seventh grade. She was a first generation Beatles fan and when she said she’d lend me some of her old records, I asked her if she had Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “That’s the one with all of the flowers on the cover, right?” she asked with a crinkle of her nose. True to her word, she had Sgt Pepper waiting for me behind the library’s front desk the next day and it was like Christmas. The album sleeve’s corners were nicked and it smelt of age, but I carried it to and from my classes that day like an archeologist holding a freshly unearthed artifact.
      There are better songs in their catalog and I know with George’s heart still in India, Ringo learning to play chess during the sessions, John’s acid intake at its zenith, and Paul becoming the creative force of the band at this point, that the distribution of effort was unequal, but Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was still my favorite Beatles’ record during my teens. It’s an album of its time and encapsulated a brief, yet important moment in pop culture that I only read about and could only experience when that album was turning on my record player. Interestingly, for an album that became the soundtrack to the Summer of Love, there is not one song that could be categorized as a love song. It showed the world that the Beatles had outgrown their image and were much more interested having their music listened to, instead of screamed at. Between the orchestra warming up before the title track to the thundering chord that closes the album after A Day in the Life, there are plenty of moments that I never tire of. I love the crunchy saxophones of Good Morning, Good Morning, the almost hip-hop feel of Ringo’s drums on the reprise, and whimsical ambiance of Lovely Rita. I love John’s pessimistic “it couldn’t get much worse” response to Paul’s optimism on It’s Getting Better. I love the poignant harp on She’s Leaving Home. I love Ringo’s charm on With a Little Help from my Friends and the meditative vibe George creates on Within You, Without You.

      Reply

    2. James Says:

      I suspect much of the continued hype around Pepper stems from its symbolic significance for the baby boomer generation. Despite the hype, it isn’t held aloft in the same way by later generations. I know quite a lot of hardcore Beatles fans and I don’t think Pepper is even in anyone’s top three Beatles albums. Revolver and Rubber Soul, and of course The Beatles (White Album) always vie for the top spot with nearly everyone with whom I talk Beatles. The Pepper concept is weak and, song for song, it doesn’t win out over at least half of their other albums. I’m in full accord with Robert on this one: “Highest ratio of songs to skip than any other Beatles album.” In addition to the other three albums I mentioned, I’d take With the Beatles any day over Pepper—more grit, less gloss.

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      • Mark Astaire Says:

        Robert is on a crusade to justify his view that Revolver is a better album. Maybe the songs are, song for song, higher in the Beatles canon but that missses the point. Unlike any other Beatles album the whole of Pepper transcends the individual parts. Its impact was greater on contemporaries than any other album except for perhaps Please Please Me, because of its ambition and scope. It pointed to possibilities that few other albums have been able to match. Justin Hayward was recently quoted in Mojo about hearing Pepper for the first time. “It was the most incredible thing l’d ever heard. The sheer glorious indulgence of it. It seemed to encompass everything with a sense of humour and irony that hadn’t been heard in pop records before….After Pepper it was easier to push at the boundaries of pop.”

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        • Mark Astaire Says:

          Last comment from me. DO YOU GUYS KNOW WHAT ” SHE’S LEAVING HOME” IS ABOUT? It is interesting that not once in your slagging of the song do you actually discuss that it is about the pain of your child leaving home andthe parental fear that they are about to make a dreadful mistake. In the first case for McCartney at only 24 to write about this with such empathy and understanding is in itself remarkable. That it is a beautiful song so beautifully rendered makes it one of McCartney’s finest compositions. As for Robert’s comments that he has not changed his opinion about the song since he was a kid is strange. It would surprise me if a child would understand the complexity and universality of the emotions of a parent. What gets me is that you don’t understand it now. Yes it has a kitchen sink drama feeling to it but this is the 1960’s of “Poor Cow”, “Billy Liar”, “L-Shaped Room”, and “Cathy Come Home”. It is a song of its time but as with so much of the finest Beatles work it is also timeless.

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          • Us Says:

            Mark, My opinion is about the arrangement, not the content of the composition. Yes, it would still prefer it stripped down; the arrangement as much as ever comes off to me as maudlin and manipulative.

            ~RR

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            • Mark Astaire Says:

              Thanks for responding. All I would say is that maudlin is not what I hear but that is pretty subjective. What is more objective is that no other 24 year old pop star was dealing with the emotional conflicts of parents and children in this way. Paul is often being accused of lacking depth but who else in popular music at that time was dealing with these universal issues in pop music. What is also noteworthy is that he deals with both sides of the generational split. No youthful cry of protest from this extraordinary musician nor just a simple love song but something far more profound.

            • Cajun Queen Says:

              Would luv to hear a version stripped down

      • Us Says:

        I think we may be getting closer to the point of the division over adulation of this album – a generational one. If you were there at the time, it will always hold a special place in your soul, more so than for those who came upon it years later (though there still seem to be plenty of younger people who revere it).

        I have put down some thoughts about this for the next issue of Beatlefan magazine, but I will likely elaborate further in an upcoming show. The bottom line is I am not a hater of Pepper per se, but I do hit back hard at the over-hype. If it were all that, why does it need the overkill? We’re really speaking about two different things: Pepper as Beatles album and Pepper as media event and 1967 focal point.

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        • James Says:

          Well put. You might add to that Paul’s particular interest in promoting Pepper more than other Beatles albums and in preserving the Pepper myth; I suspect that to a large degree he considers the album his. It also marks a point in the band, no doubt dear to Paul, when he emerged at last as their leader–John and George increasingly disinterested. Aspects of The White Album are exceptions to that general trend from Pepper onward.

          Reply

      • Cajun Queen Says:

        James, I probably agree with pretty much every word of that. Good job.

        Reply

    3. Mark Astaire Says:

      So the commonality of Revolver is its lack of commonality – that does not stand up to much scrutiny! There is as always many interesting things discussed on the pod but it seems that Robert starts from the premise that Revolver is a the better album and much of the conversation is an attempt to justify this. So what distinguishes Pepper? In the first instance it is the ambition to create a studio album now that they had stopped touring so inevitably there is something manufactured about it but the ambition ultimately was rewarded with an extraordinarily successful and cogent work. In addition for me, apart from the quality of the songwriting, it is again the Englishness of the record. You had to have been born in England to write many of the songs, and this particular element of the writing started with Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane at the start of the year. At the start of the pod you referenced the lack of productivity from the Beatles “rivals” . However you misssed out the Kinks the only other British band who communicated an English sensibility with the skill of the Beatles, though Ray Davies coming from the south rather than the north is a fascinating counterpoint. When one considers that the Kinks released Waterloo Sunset, one of the greatest pop singles ever and then the album Something Else in September, the comparison wit the Beatles is strong and the suggestion that no one else in England was doing great work is clearly wrong. Waterloo Sunset and Penny Lane have similar ambitions and Two Sisters on the album has a similar and brilliantly evocative domestic theme to She’s Leaving Home. Pepper would have been a very different album if it had been recorded and written in LA than in NW8. For all the universality of the Beatles they were a very English band.

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      • Cajun Queen Says:

        “but it seems that Robert starts from the premise that Revolver is a the better album and much of the conversation is an attempt to justify…”

        Well I’ll just add that it’s not just RR starting from that premise. I know a pretty large number of Beatles nuts, and I personnally don’t know *anyone* that thinks SP better than REV. I certainly don’t.

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    4. Angelica Says:

      Interesting that Richard defends Pepper but Robert defends Ram. Both are actually spectacular and Paul’s babies. It’s a great album, not my favorite but really good. I’m actually team Abbey Road and Revolver at this point, and Revolver desperately needs a remix like this Pepper one. It would be so amazing! Still, No sense in being resentful toward and trying to poke holes in a Beatles album because it is revered in the catalog as a cultural landmark.

      And to provide some contrasting anecdotal evidence from a prior commenter’s, one of my friends who is in her 20s claims Pepper as her favorite Beatles album. Don’t try to assert that it only means something to the people who were alive at the time. Categorically false.

      Y’all all seem a little jaded from having studied the Beatles for so long. Just remove yourself from all the postulations and the hype as Richard suggests and enjoy the album for what it is. Great music :)

      Also I have to say I disagree that it doesn’t sound like Beatles. Anything the Beatles did sounded like them. They made every genre their own.

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    5. riddell Thomas Says:

      Robert there may be better Beatles albums but that is subjective and really down to individual taste. Sgt peppers is like the beatles themselves. Individually they did some good things, but as a unit they did works of genius . Pepper just works as a whole. As smells like teen spirit spoke to its generation and beyond so does pepper. Some albums just have a magically quality and pepper is one of those albums. Another great album plain and simple. Watch Howard Goodhall bbc iplayer

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    6. riddell Thomas Says:

      I’m getting more and more annoyed. Why do you protest so much Robert. Your saying what if what if,what if they had have split up after they had stopped touring, what if paul and john had never met!! John used to say avant-garde was French for bull shit. Would you not say paul was one of the people who turned john on to avant-garde? So when he met yoko he was primed and ready to jump in.. as john said he was a rocker really. Within without you vocal is ment to be that way for that song for a reason, why compare it to another George song, it doesn’t make sense. Plus it’s part of an indian scale. Pepper is a world you enter l, and I don’t feel that any other Beatle album ever did this. Yes other albums had better songs on it but they never had world feeling as pepper to me. So Robert switch of your mind relax and float down stream.. No album is the best album of all time.

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    7. Andy F. Says:

      Hey my two cents on why Pepper got so much attention:

      1. The concept. Every Beatles fan knows John rubbished this, but when your album starts with a song saying “Hey we’re Sgt Pepper’s Band, enjoy the show” and penultimately ends with a song saying “Bye, hoped you liked the show!”, it makes the listeners think of the songs as being exactly that: a show; all the songs together, an ‘album’.

      2. First Beatles album not screwed up in America. The running order is as is, no additions no deletions; again 1st time you could even divine a flow for Beatles album that was not concocted (ie Rubber Soul = Folk).

      3. No single. Album stood alone. Unlike Revolver. And Rubber Soul,because that had Paperback/Rain released at the same time. Again, just the album; all attention on the album as a whole.

      4. Goodbye love songs! This album is about stuff. Here are the songs:
      1. A fictional band 2. Your friends 3. LSD/Trippy Childhood memories 4. Getting better (self-improvement) 5. Fixing a hole (more self improvement 6. Runaway child 7. A circus 8. The meaning of life 9. When I’m 64 (Hey an actual love song! Even if tongue cheek) 10. Lovely Rita (another love song!) 11. Good Morning (the real day in life of John Lennon, banality of life) 12. Fictional band says goodbye 13. Another song about the meaning of life or non-meaning.
      There are no serious love songs on this whole album, only 2 jokey ones. This is a huge departure.

      Anyway, Sgt Pepper is the Citizen Kane of albums. It’s the first time everyone went “Wow! You can do that?”. And just like “Citizen Kane” you wil get picked to death and toppled by a “Magnificent Ambersons” or “Vertigo” or etc. But you were the first one where the collective world went “That’s the best!”.

      Love the show as ever.

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    8. Dave Says:

      There was a comment in the podcast that ’67 was the least productive year for Lennon..number of songs, OK…but he came to the table that year with Lucy, Day in the Life, Walrus, Strawberry Fields, All You Need is Love..I like the insight and research…. but c’mon.. disappointing

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    9. WingsFan2012 Says:

      As a second generation and big solo fan as well, simply put it is not my favorite album of all time but it is “Sgt Pepper” given a new life and jolt by Giles Martin in 2017. The impressive sales figures for the new release show a big appetite for this album 50 years later. It is “the” cultural iconic album of all time….case closed!

      Reply

    10. James Says:

      Sure, “case closed” if you buy hype over content.

      Reply

      • WingsFan2012 Says:

        Content stands on its own and I don’t think the nearly 200k in world wide sales for its reissue in week one is only on hype. The deluxe box is magical and a joy that none of us could have predicted 6 months ago. Enjoy!

        Reply

    11. Andrew Says:

      Ordinarily I enjoy your podcasts….. I would have thought a podcast about the 50th Anniversary would be a celebratory fun discussion. Instead you have delivered an opinion driven subjective rant with mostly negative thoughts, ironically about what is fundamentally a positive piece of late 60s art. Why do that?? Opinion to self-validate opinion?? I had to stop the podcast. Just enjoy the album. It’s just music. It’s meant to be fun, people. As for the erosive and ultimately toxic relativism between albums……forget it, it’s pointless.

      Reply

    12. BW Says:

      I’m also of the mind that “Revolver” is the better album. Always have been. Having said that, “Help!” and “Rubber Soul” also hold special places above “Sgt. Pepper” for me. I just loved that whole period. That being said, the coolness and innovation of Pepper can’t be denied. Why does “Getting Better” never get any love? Great song and that, along with “Reprise” could’ve actually fit on “Revolver”. Those songs sounded “Revolver/Beatley” to me. The rest of Sgt Pepper is something different entirely. Still a great album and such a huge departure from 66.

      Reply

    13. Pablo Ramon Says:

      After listening to the show, I sat down to listen to Pepper end to end again (not the new edition which I haven’t gotten just yet but the old remaster…) I couldn’t do it without some serious skipping. “Fixing A Hole” does nothing for me. I find the arrangement of “She’s Leaving Home” manipulative (I related to Robert’s comment, I felt the same way as a kid.) “When I’m 64″ and “Lovely Rita” are trifling. Much of the rest suffers from overexposure. The moments that really stood out for me this time around were the drumming on “A Day In The Life” and the interplay between the sitars and the strings around the 3 minute mark of “Within You Without You.”

      It’s difficult for me to really appreciate the cultural context except in the abstract, having been born the year Pepper was released. I see it as a landmark in that it expanded the vocabulary of popular music and introduced the idea that a “pop” album could be a coherent work, a statement in itself. That definitely counts for something, but it doesn’t necessarily make for the best, richest listening.

      Reply

      • Mark Astaire Says:

        You wrote . “I find the arrangement of “She’s Leaving Home” manipulative (I related to Robert’s comment, I felt the same way as a kid.)”. As I commented earlier I find it difficult to believe that when you were a kid you found the song manipulative. I was 8 years old when the album came out and I just sang along with the help of the printed lyrics. The objective comment about this song is that this is a 24 year old songwriter dealing sensitively with the emotional moment when a child leaves home. I don’t believe any child would even understand the reference of a man from the motor trade. Paul is often accused of a lack of depth. This song deals with a universal truth with empathy and insight. You can sing along as well.

        Reply

        • Pablo Ramon Says:

          I was probably about 11 years old when I got my first copy of Pepper. What can I say? I was not a wide-eyed child. I was probably harder-nosed and more critical than I should have been at that age, but not everyone is allowed by life to have an innocent childhood, and not every mind works like yours. I was exposed to very challenging orchestral music at a very young age and was taught to think critically about music – composition, arrangement and performance.

          I have clear memories of finding the harp and strings in “She’s Leaving Home” cringe-worthy, even as a kid…and I felt the same way about “Michelle”…

          My comment was also about the arrangement, not the lyrics or the melody. I truly believe that with a George Martin arrangement it would almost certainly be a superior recording.

          As for the “lack of depth.” Well, yeah – Paul earns that criticism…but I don’t think it’s valid criticism of “She’s Leaving Home.” The lyrics have emotional resonance that the ham-handed arrangement, sadly, obliterates.

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    14. Paul Gase Says:

      Interesting discussion. This album may not be the best ever LP, or even the Beatles’ best – but it certainly drives passionate conversation.

      I think The Beatles end of touring/traveling had a major influence on the making of Pepper and not entirely positive. It’s often noted that now the band “had time” to really focus their efforts. I dunno – I think that “time” introduced a bit of self consciousness to Pepper. Maybe they had too much time, and maybe thought too much. Part of RS and Revolvers’ brilliance came from a hard working band that had to fit in sessions between tours – deadlines loomed – they worked hard without overthinking. Two superb albums with little or no self conscious conceits. I don’t know that the Beatles ever sounded as creatively effortless again after Revolver (and maybe PL/SFF and Hey Jude/Revolution).

      RE: the mixes/remix: It took me a while to acquire, and then understand, but I am still very partial to the Mono mixes of Pepper, the 67 singles and MMT. There’s no question that the band were creating some very different sounds – much of it quite floral, almost visual. In the stereo mixes – the arrangements I find can be a bit bright and distracting. The 2017 remix is fun, but boy, there’s a lot going on!! If you listen to the mono mixes – the brightness is definitely tempered on the recordings – that must have been a desired result – to rein in the mixes and create some balance; there is a “center” if you will to the tracks that the stereo lacks. This is very much true of the MMT songs and the 67 singles as well. The 1967 Beatles in mono are ambitiously colorful; in stereo the color often gives way to gaudiness.

      Of course, I still love Pepper and play it straight through quite often. Wished it had more guitar!!

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    15. David M Says:

      Something you have mentioned a number of times is that George had more songs lying around and stated he should have got more on the albums, even an unfinished Isn’t it a Pity(?) around Revolver time. This doesn’t take into account the relative mediocrity of the songs George did put on Beatle releases e.g. I Want to Tell You, Blue Jay Way (just awful), Piggies, Savoy Truffle, I Me Mine, For You Blue etc. While George did have some great songs on later albums, maybe he was always thinking of putting some of the other ones out in another way i.e. solo.

      I agree that Pepper isn’t the greatest Beatles album, but also with the posters here who felt Robert went a bit far and came over as somewhat mean spirited and almost jealous of Pepper’s status. Fixing a Hole is wonderful! And, yes, John probably produced 2 or 3 of his greatest top 10 songs in 1967. Why judge by calendar years anyway?

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    16. BeatleDave Says:

      Pepper is a great album. ALL The Beatles albums are great albums. Over analysis starts to sound like musical snobbery; ‘this one is better than that one’ etc. They are all great songs. Enjoy them.
      And of course it was 70 years ago …

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    17. Robert Rosen Says:

      I would still give the nod to Pepper as their best work. Every song is just so tuneful and well produced. And even though they didn’t strictly stick with the “show” concept there is still an overall feeling of a visit to a magical place. To me the album is sort of akin to the Yellow Submarine animated feature where the Beatles travel to the Sea of Time, the Sea of Monsters, the Foothills of the Headlands, Pepperland, etc. I’m too young to have any Summer of Love connotations with Pepper but I was still a kid when I first heard it and so I suppose I responded to all of the “color” of the Pepper songs, literally represented by the cover whereas the black and white Revolver cover symbolizes the somewhat more foreboding songs on that album. Basically Pepper is the more inviting album. But while there are a few lyrically frivolous songs on Pepper, overall they can’t be characterized as fluff and then the Beatles brilliantly blow up the magical atmosphere they created with the A Day in the Life closer.

      As for Lennon’s lack of productivity and disengagement in 1967 due to his heavy LSD use, I would say this. If you asked somebody for a list of their five favorite Beatles songs and they said “Lucy, Day in the Life, Walrus, Strawberry Fields, All You Need is Love” (as listed by Dave above), that would in no way be a crazy list and in fact would compare quite favorably to any other artist’s career top five. Lennon may not have been as productive in ’67 as he was in ’65 or ’68, and it’s sad he was personally in such a bad place that year, but in terms of pure quality I think it was his (and the Beatles) peak year.

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    18. Cajun Queen Says:

      I get a big laugh, folks here critisizing RR for too much hostility against SP, too much praise for Revolver; basically offering too much “subjective opinion”; and then they proceed to pile on with *their* subjective opinions. hahaha.

      For my own part (MY subjective opinion), I agreed with every word of the podcast. SP certainly an important album, culturally significant, and also great, but not “THE” best album ever, and not even the Beatles’ best. (There are four better)
      And to my ear, I just can’t take those three consecutive McCart tracks on SideA, ending with the maudlin Leaving Home.
      But, do i luv SP? yeah.

      Reply

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