The Null Device

Against Sgt. Pepper's

Melbourne music critic Andy Hazel takes apart The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band:
Ah. "The best". According to most modern rock historians this is the greatest album ever released (give or take the odd Pet Sounds, Dark Side Of The Moon, or, if last year's BBC poll is to be believed, Oasis's Definitely Maybe). Genre-redefining, archetypal, seminal, analysed to death and hyped to maniacal lengths by fans and writers; anybody who wonders where modern rock begins is told to start here. Sgt. Peppers has been long-heralded as the last example of the band working like a team, as the pinnacle of The Beatles' musical talents, song-writing abilities and the last example of unclouded communication between the members. It's the supreme model of analogue recording by pioneering producer / genius / 5th member George Martin and an album still mined by bands claiming to be representative of today's youth - if you want to be a musical success, start studying here. This is it, the first and best 'concept album' and the greatest collection of songs ever committed to vinyl or etched into disc, end of story.
Bollocks.
This overblown testament to pomposity and slackly-edited grandiosity is a mockery of music and self-indulgence almost without exception. With George Martin at your side, a record label kowtowing to any whim, tens of millions of people agreeing with every grunt and suggestion you make and Abbey Road at your disposal, how could you blow it? Even The Beatles themselves realised how far up their own arses they had crawled by going back to basics for their following, untitled and infinitely superior album (later called The White Album). Take, for example, the ridiculously egotistical cover in which they place themselves amongst and ahead of Albert Einstein, Aldous Huxley, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Marlon Brando in some visual assessment of the 20th Century they had to be talked into doing (McCartney preferring an acid-drenched picture by Dutch art collective The Fool). It wasn't for nothing that one of their manager's last requests was "brown paper bags for Sergeant Peppers".
Hazel goes on and builds up a formidable list of charges against Sgt. Pepper's: from the hubris of the album's cover to the unenlightenedly misogynistic way women are objectified where they are actually visible, though coming back to the insubstantial, drug-addledly vacuous nature of the "innovation" on the album, and The Beatles' (and their label's) complicity in ushering in a leaden age of bloated, self-indulgent pomp that would only end almost a decade later, when the Sex Pistols poured petrol on the whole thing and, with a sneer, threw a lighted match:
While it's true the Beatles couldn't be blamed for who followed through the door they opened, they can be seen as the instigators of record companies handing over huge amounts of money to artists and (more often than not) managers using arguments along the lines of "well the Beatles needed 129 days and 10 times the usual budget to make a number one record, so do we." The nadir of 1970s self-indulgence was, in fact, a misguided reinterpretation of this album in film and soundtrack form featuring The Bee Gees, Peter Frampton and, mysteriously, George Martin a debacle that was deservedly, an unmitigated flop.

There are 7 comments on "Against Sgt. Pepper's":

Posted by: Peter Hollo http:/www.frogworth.com/utilityfog/ Fri Aug 21 00:52:26 2009

The article you link to from his post isn't "Why the Beatles weren't that great", it's "I don't like the Beatles". Good for him, but he's not making a case. Nor is Andy Hazel making a point, unless lingering on a jokey cover and making not-very-well-founded accusations of misogyny is making a point. Most Beatles fans don't think it's their best album anyway, but it's perfectly decent.

Posted by: Greg Fri Aug 21 12:50:21 2009

There are many problems one can draw attention to with the Beatles, this album in particular, and the adulation both received (I recommend the book 'The Love You Make' for chilling insights, and recall that Beatle-hating was more rife in the 60s than it is now), but this particular attempt is pretty lame. Almost every 'fact' cited is wrong, such as who sung which song, the story behind the Fool cover (and the reason for the 'paper bags'), it being a concept album (it began as one but the plan was quickly ditched), the misogyny (there simply isn't any on this album - see Lennon's early songs for that), the idea that they invented egotism among rock stars (please) and 'event performances' (they rarely played live after this album), and that 'the record industry was born with Apple' (it was a very troubled company). Others too but I'm out of space. The Beatles themselves were uncomfortable with the studio trickery and went back to basics for their very next album - as Hazel admits?! This is non-journalism.

Posted by: Donovan Fri Aug 21 17:20:08 2009

...but it is honest, and it is engaging, and funny. It validates the doubts that many people have had (and never voiced) about what sucks within this holiest-of-holies. Also, I don't think "This is non-journalism" counts as a criticism, considering what "is" journalism in most papers these days. Greg, don't attack this piece for daring to criticise the holy Beatles. You sound like a Muslim Cleric. You should just accept that this particular album DOES suck, and it's nice to have a vehement opposition every once in a while.

Posted by: Greg Fri Aug 21 22:36:19 2009

Well, no, it's not honest - it is full of mistakes that show that the guy is only pretending to know about the topic. And evidence that I am not attacking him for criticizing the Beatles is in my first sentence: I'm quite happy to criticize them myself, and have enjoyed a couple of books that do, one of which I've listed above (read it - it's amazing). I think the way the band and its management dealt with the media to create an incredible popularity not seen since is interesting and eminently worthy of criticism. But if you just pour shit on one media-exploiting celebrity, without bothering to think about how they did what they did, you merely empower the next one. Hazel's piece is a waste of time that doesn't contribute anything: he simply decided to write something "funny" to impress people, googled around for five minutes to find out some "facts", and failed to even copy them into his word processor correctly. It doesn't validate anything, but some good journalism might.

Posted by: Hazel Thu Sep 3 04:55:27 2009

Greg, Thanks for the comments. Let me set you straight on a couple of things. Firstly, I did research this and stand by my sources. I'm not sure which parts you claim are false. the 'brown paper bag for Sgt Peppers' quote I found in several places (here's one - http://www.beatlesagain.com/breflib/brian.html). Paul's comment about preferring the work of The Fool from here - (http://www.norwegianwood.org/beatles/english/albumcovers9.html), and the fact that it is a concept album and is referred to by Paul as such ("a complete thing that you could make what you liked of---just a little magical presentation,") and no one can deny it's based on a concept even if it doesn't read literally as a seamless narrative.

You could misinterpret one section of my article that I suggest Harrison wrote She's Leaving Home which I'm well aware he didn't, I was referring only to Within You And Without You.

Finally, I didn't decide to write something funny. I thought it was time for a little reassessment. Thanks again.

Posted by: Hazel Thu Sep 3 04:58:40 2009

Oh, and I actually think it's a wonderful album, just a little overplayed, thrust down the throats of every subsequent generation and a yardstick by which to belittle that which followed. Fabulous arrangements and alive with bravery and innovation. I think they went better on The Beatles, but then most seem to agree with that.

Posted by: Alexander http://www.therandomnumber.wordpress.com Sun Sep 6 00:43:10 2009

I like the Beatles and I think the album's overhyped crap too.

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