Saturday, June 02, 2007

It Was ... 40 Years Ago This Month

Lots of "Summer of Love" pieces coming up in the next few months. Included in that will surely be a spate of Sgt. Pepper pieces, all of which will have some variation of the lame title I gave this post. The iconic 60s album was released in June, 1967 and that 40 year anniversary has already got things rolling.

One end of the spectrum is represented by this fawning appraisal in the Tribune yesterday:
The artistic community occasionally flatters itself by telling the rest of us how art transforms society. Only isolated examples exist of this transformation. Pablo Picasso's 1937 painting "Guernica" mobilized much of the world against fascism. Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery tract "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the best-selling novel of the 19th Century, was an integral part of American history. When President Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Ms. Stowe after the outbreak of the Civil War, he remarked, "So this is the little lady who made this big war."
But instances of art transmogrifying society might only occur once in a lifetime. Since the Beatles' release of "Sgt. Pepper," nothing the artistic community has produced has had a comparable effect on society. The album changed the lives, in some way or another, of virtually every American who was alive then, and it continues to reverberate for the generations born since. It was that "once-in-a-lifetime" work of art.

Then on the other hand you've got this critical reappraisal from

If you were to play the album for someone who knew nothing about the '60s and told them that "Sgt. Pepper" was somehow representative of that time, it's hard to imagine what conclusions they would draw.

I don't buy it as a generation-defining album. I think that's been put on it in retrospect. "Sgt. Pepper" is completely missing the generational strife of the time; there are no political overtones. It may be representative of how many people experienced that period -- "I like that dress! Paisley is cool!" -- but it doesn't seem like a defining album for the generation of Mario Savio or Huey Newton.

I wonder if the reason "Sgt. Pepper" attracts such a conspicuous amount of critical praise is that the songs actually don't hold up as examples of the band's best work. Justifying "Sgt. Pepper's" status requires a lot of bluster.

I can't really explain calling it the greatest album of all time. One of my gripes about rock critics is listmania. What does it say that "Sgt. Pepper" is rated so highly? It just seems so obvious that "Abbey Road" is a better album, that "Revolver" is a better album.

For myself, I have to follow the salon line on this. Those who consider this the "greatest album of all time," or even the "greatest Beatle album ever," or even a "great" album, probably haven't listened to it for a while.

Good? Sure.

Great? Mmm, not so much.

Greatest of all time? Are you still high?

"A Day In The Life" is undeniably a great song, and yes it was truly groundbreaking for its time.

But too much of the album is tin-pan alley stuff, and I'm not only talking about the McCartney songs. Too many of John's songs are hokey hokum as well -- "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite"? What the hell is that?

Salon mentions Abbey Road and Revolver as better Beatle albums. I'd throw Rubber Soul and The White Album on that pile as well. It's unlikely that I'd put Sgt. Pepper's in the top half-dozen Beatle albums.

As far as the greatest or "most important" of all time goes, it's nowhere on the list.


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