Nick Triani delves into the world of The Beatles' Sgt.Pepper at 50 and wonders why pop music no longer seems to capture our imagination as it once did.
Writings on the streaming wall
As if by silent stealth, the tide is irreparably changing, the corporate entities are about to win. Yes, we are not living in 2009 but actually, the year of our Lord is 2017 and Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem and War On Drugs will all be releasing new records – the crucial difference being they’ll be coming out on major labels. “Why are they bothering to sell their soul to the man?” someone may ask. Of course these bands headline festivals, have regular Top 10 albums and have devoted fan bases, what could they benefit from signing to a major that they don’t already achieve via your beloved Indie label? In two words: streaming revenue. Major labels get a larger share of the streaming pie (and therefore so do their artists). For all the constant talk of a vinyl renaissance, streaming is where the big business resides and whilst smaller indie bands scramble to find someone to press their music, the bigger indie acts are jumping ship to get bigger digital revenue. As if it wasn’t hard enough being an indie label already… Even Taylor Swift has finally relented and allowed her music to stream. The dominance of these ‘figures’ has reduced music to a mathematical ear sore – a dull level of achievement. Of course, it’s always been about the money and the revenues to some extend, but trying to get excited by the level of your streaming figures is surely as appetising and as exciting as that unflushed turd in the toilet bowl. Pop is becoming as fulfilling as a trip to the accountants (hey kids – its no fun). In a world where monetary value is now seen as much more rewarding than artistic expression, this is faintly depressing.
To confound the indie label’s misery, the goal posts have most certainly shifted as regards having entitlement to the best reviewed albums or even the most credible artists with the most cutting edge sounds. This domain is now inhabited by pop artists and mega superstars. For about the last five years pop has ruled the critical roost (to go with its constant hold of the commercial crown). And here’s where my biggest disappointment lies. Pop, however, has struggled. As Michael Hann recently wrote for The Quietus, “With every pop release hailed like the coming of a prophet – have the big names of the mainstream sucked up too much critical oxygen?” Over this period, pop has failed to leave us something memorable or significantly worthwhile, something to build its own mythology as the leading creative pulse in music.
For about the last five years pop has ruled the critical roost (to go with its constant hold of the commercial crown). And here’s where my biggest disappointment lies. Pop, however, has struggled.
Can you name me 10 classic pop albums from this recent pop domination? Lemonade for sure (although it’s definitely more than a pop album). Any others? Is there a pop record of recent times that’s all killer and no filler (and don’t take the piss out of me by suggesting recent efforts from Harry Styles or Ed Sheeran)? I discount hip-hop from this discussion (certainly American hip-hop has carried some of the baton for creative endeavour over these lean times). Name a recent record that blared out of every car stereo, radio, set of headphones, laptop speaker and home with a unifying and undying love and acceptance from everybody that “this is great” – a further advance in the art form known as popular music, and yes, popular too. Pop’s influence in fact has been lean. Personalities, yes. Great records – very few. Of course, many pop bands release great singles and I certainly believe in the enduring power of the 45 as a potent musical muscle. But it does feel strange how in recent times very few pop acts can straddle both releasing great singles and great albums. The prestige of the album certainly hasn’t diminished as regards representing in some people’s mind the critical worth of any given artist. Yes, the music world is old and odd. But one band had straddled the single/album divide and continues to cast its own shadow on the Western experience of pop music.
Roll out the band
There probably is no example of a pop record since or before The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that chimed with its times and seemed so chained to the social and political aspirations of the youth of its day. In Pepper’s case, this reach was mostly afforded to a white Western audience. It could be argued Sgt.Pepper was the last time pop music took a significant sonic jump (everything since has been in some sense a refinement of this ideal – especially as regards ‘rock’ music). Was it a good sonic jump? Or more specifically was it a good way for The Beatles to go? Was Sgt.Pepper a serious case of sonic proficiency for the sake of feeling and songwriting? Certainly most Beatles music post-Pepper didn’t pay this much attention to detail, with a looser approach that saw the band at times displace its focus and discipline.
There probably is no example of a pop record since or before The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that chimed with its times and seemed so chained to the social and political aspirations of the youth of its day
Fab is our listening furniture
Our household has been listening to The Beatles with extra intensity throughout most of 2017. This can be ascribed to my son’s complete obsession with the band – he mostly identifies with John Lennon right now – after initial preference of Ringo. The Help movie cemented a certain image of the band in his view, but he’s slowly come round to identifying certain songs and albums and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is clearly his favourite right now. The colorful costumes the band sport on the sleeve help, but he’s particularly fond of the title track and ‘A Day In The Life’. He’s only five.
Repackage – re-issue
So, another decade passes, another re-appraisal of The Beatles most celebrated album arrives. We celebrated the 20th anniversary (yes, I remember it well), the 25th Anniversary (yes, I remember it well), the remastered album merely nine years ago. The Apple label heads have been working extra hard to bring us something new to celebrate this time round to acknowledge the big five-o. Well, we get a remix of the whole record (a more muscular sounding Pepper). And if you couldn’t get enough of that, there’s the ‘never released’ out-takes to occupy double cd heads – a very big six disc set is also available for completists – including another documentary about all things Pepperland.
But hold on? Do we need a new mix of Sgt.Pepper’s or a new re-release at all? I’ve always felt the band reached their peak with previous album Revolver, a record that managed to marry sonic advancement with brilliant tunes in a way Sgt.Pepper’s doesn’t even come close to. For every note of economical reinvention Revolver demonstrated, Sgt. Pepper’s reveals itself to be it’s rather bloated and pompous cousin. Why didn’t we get a celebration of Revolver’s true artistic achievement at 50? Probably because Pepper of course, represented more than an album (or so we’ve been told forever by most people who pretend they know anything). From Peter Blake’s quite messy gallery of heroes album cover, the ridiculous suits to the whole (rather thin) concept of the doppelganger Beatles band, Sgt. Pepper’s should represent more than it actually does. At such an important time in history for the counterculture The Beatles helped spawn and amidst 1967’s rich political turmoil, it still amazes me that the album actually doesn’t say much. Yes, Sgt.Pepper offers some glimpses into England’s provincial habits, but mostly dodges saying anything significant. Introspection reaches new levels of meaninglessness, and surely we can always blame the drugs for the truly turgid ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’ The political awareness was to follow with the almost hollow platitude of ‘All You Need Is Love’.
Yes, Sgt.Pepper offers some glimpses into England’s provincial habits, but mostly dodges saying anything significant.
I could also make a case that it was mostly downhill post-Pepper for The Beatles. I love The White Album, but as a cohesive unit and as that notion of The Beatles being a band, Pepper was the last of their peak period in this sense. The rest of the Beatles catalog, although often excellent, can also be attributed to the sound of a band growing up and drifting apart. The remnants of that world discovering and experimental bending band can still be found on the grooves of Pepper, which is one of the album’s saving graces. Everything that precedes ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’ is also mostly pop greatness. And ‘A Day In The Life’ does represent the best of the band.
But that positivity still doesn’t stop me thinking that Sgt Pepper’s is their most overrated achievement. Re-listening to Sgt.Pepper’s fifty years on reveals to me that The Beatles have much in common with their current day pop alter-egos; there is plenty of filler here. It’s not like The Beatles didn’t have enough great material knocking around at this time to make a great album. But The Beatles were also in love with the power of the single (too right!), and the pre-Pepper double whammy of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ is superior to most of the material found on the actual album. Interestingly, these two tracks dominate much of the bonus material included with this reissue. One can only wonder how good Sgt. Pepper could have been with some of the lesser tracks dropped, a pruning of album time (35 minutes would have been good) and the inclusion of Fields/Lane.
Sgt.Pepper’s was also the start of the rolling out of the album as an event as opposed to just a piece of music – a rolling out that is still very evident in how music is released today. Obviously, event albums these days don’t tend to be so enduring or have anywhere this kind of impact. Perhaps the reason we celebrate 50 years of Sgt. Pepper’s is not merely the strong pull of nostalgia – which separately has started to dominate how we view pop music – but it’s our longing for pop music now to deliver such a defining moment. Pop music is simply not as adept at forcing the discussion anymore, as meaning as much, as having as tangible a worth. In fact, by hogging all the highlights at the detriment of everything else, pop in 2017 has merely accelerated the disposable nature of modern, erm, pop. All sheen and no substance, no depth – this pool is shallow. Crucially, although Pepper retains its importance in the cannon (aided and abetted by an ageing critical demographic), the album ultimately triumphs because of its genuine earth shattering influence and impact. Much like the band’s standing in this commercial age, Sgt.Pepper’s still feels like a strange kind of outsider success story, a record that, let’s remember, can still pass for ‘art’. But despite all that though, I’m left to wonder is it really any good?
Perhaps the reason we celebrate 50 years of Sgt. Pepper’s is not merely the strong pull of nostalgia – which separately has started to dominate how we view pop music – but it’s our longing for pop music now to deliver such a defining moment.
My favourite The Beatles book is Ian MacDonald‘s rightly celebrated ‘Revolution In The Head’ which manages to put each Beatles song in it’s time specific conception.
‘The Beatles Anthology’ finds the band describing their history in their own words and in a pretty self-effacing and witty manner.
Jonathan Green‘s ‘Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground, 1961-71’ takes you right back to the roots of the 1960s counterculture movement with interviews from the scene’s key protagonists (including Paul McCartney).