Tackling “The Greatest Album of All Time”

This review has been a long time coming. Ever since my first edition of Headphones On (which not-so-coincidentally was a review of my personal favorite Beatles record, Revolver), I’ve known that eventually I would review an album that has arguably made more waves in the music industry than any other work in the last century. That album is, of course, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. You know it. You might love it. Odds are, you at least like it. Pepper has been lauded as the greatest album of all time by not a few publications.  I’ll give it to them, there are some really excellent reasons for this. It’s a record that did more than change the game: it elevated it. Some works shift the direction of music, such as Dark Side of the Moon with its electronic influence, or perhaps Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire in the early 20th century for its introduction of wholly atonal harmonic language. It isn’t a stretch to say that Pepper changed the direction of music; it was the first real concept album, and that certainly opened new doors for creative expression. But that is not its greatest achievement.

What we really must associate with Pepper is that it took the musical language of its time and, by its own excellence in songwriting, musicianship, creativity, and storytelling, challenged the rest of the musical world to do better. Pepper featured the advent of lush string and horn arrangements in pop music; it pushed the recording studio beyond just a space to create music but formed it into an instrument itself; it said, in the words of Sir Paul McCartney, that “[the Beatles] were not boys, [they] were men… artists rather than performers.” This paradigm shift in the identity of the musician changed the Beatles, and music at large, in a teleological sense. The point of the record was no longer just to create good or even great music as a band; suddenly, the record was a means of encounter with enduring art—which is what we’re going to do right now.

You can’t talk about Pepper without mentioning its bookends— “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” and the “Reprise” of the same. Imagine putting the needle down on your new Beatles LP expecting to hear an explosive guitar riff from George or drum fill from Ringo and instead hearing the curious sound of crowd noise. You’d be more than a little surprised. The use of sound effect tapes stashed around Abbey Road was a bold decision. It placed storytelling ahead of convention, and did so without feeling contrived. The inclusion of the “Reprise” reminds the listener that this album is a complete work. It is meant to be understood as one continuous piece, and less as a selection of individual songs; a radical concept for pop music.

Of course, the “Reprise” isn’t the actual end of the album. “A Day In The Life,” arguably the greatest song on the greatest album from the greatest band that ever lived, is the fittingly introspective closer to what is a sneakily introspective album. The brashness of Pepper masks its reflective nature; a concept album about a small time band dressed in absurdly psychedelic regalia produced by a group who’s worldwide stardom made its name on matching suits and pop hits speaks volumes about how the Beatles viewed themselves and their art. “A Day In The Life” is Pepper taking off the mask— the seamless melt from the end of the “Reprise” into the haunting piano and guitar that opens up the final track presents it as continuous with the rest of the album, no afterthought but a coda that changes the listener’s understanding of what precedes it. You can’t interpret Pepper as a campy artistic romp if you listen through its final song. The arguably disturbing string build halfway through the piece makes manifest the power of the grotesque; the pain that hides under the surface of the mundane, similar to the artistic pain and feelings of limitation that grew under the Beatles’ collective skin in the time period leading up to Sgt. Pepper, is clear. The final piano chord is the only fitting way to end this record. It’s expansive— recorded specifically to sound larger than life using a variety of microphone techniques— but also strikingly simple when compared with the rest of the album. It’s a sort of palate cleanser. But the Fab Four wouldn’t be satisified with a purely happy ending. The tape-manipulated, repeating postlude is unsettling. It forces the listener to question the record’s real intentions and because it refuses to answer that question, it adds meaningful mystery to the album.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a tour-de-force by a group at the pinnacle of their creative career. It is daring; it is exciting; it is authentic. It does not condescend, but it doesn’t allow itself to be accessible. It retains an air of mystique despite the status of its form as something meant to be consumed. Pepper teaches us that easy isn’t necessarily the right way. It is good to let art be inaccessible — to ask that the listener puts in some effort to grasp its depth. In this, tastes certainly become more refined; but even more so, we engage in a dialogue with the work in a way that engages us beyond the mundane. Pepper, with all its accolades, has certainly maintained this dialogue. It has been a pleasure the continue that it here today.

Zach Pearson is a junior in the Program of Liberal Studies with a second major in Music. He is a proud resident of South Jersey, and enjoys clarifying that the term Taylor Ham is contrary to the natural law. He can be reached at zpearson@nd.edu.