But time allows for reassessment, and some 50 years on from its release, we’re afforded a much wider screen perspective on just where Sgt Pepper might sit, and it’s probably fair to say the subsequent couple of decades have seen the album somewhat downgraded from its original untouchable status.
There is no question that the album is a work of art – musically, conceptually, and within the overall context of its time. I don’t think it’s always fully appreciated how much The Beatles improved as a band after making the decision to stop touring and performing live in 1966. The Sgt Pepper album in many respects captures that new found sense of creativity and freedom, unburdened as the band undoubtedly was from the more immediate and intense pressure of performing before an adoring public on a regular basis.
Not having to worry about how the music would translate on stage or in a live environment threw up a raft of new sonic possibilities for the band. Musical ideas that an equally adventurous (producer) George Martin was also keen to explore further. In a way, the shackles had been released, and the music of The Beatles was evolving way beyond the short sharp three-minute bursts of pop perfection it had relied so heavily on in the past.
Yet, curiously, it’s rarely an album I can play in its entirety without resorting to skipping the odd track. Despite the presence of some real gems, it feels a little patchy, or almost as though there’s actually too much going on in places. A side effect, a downside, or a problematic consequence of that level of experimentation, perhaps. I remain a fan of the album, and I’m not denying it showcases a remarkable amount of sheer genius, but I’m also pretty sure that it’s not even the best Beatles album out there (see Revolver), let alone the greatest of all-time.
Many tracks have endured to become classic rock standards: ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ and the masterful ‘A Day In The Life’ (clip below), in particular. But generally the album is fleshed out with quirky novelty cuts – I’ll stop short of calling it “filler” because this is The Beatles after all – with the likes of ‘Lovely Rita’, ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, and ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ all unlikely to have made much sense beyond the context of this album.
I also think Sgt Pepper could have been improved by the inclusion of ‘Strawberry Fields’, the superb single of the same year, a song that embraced the flower power counter-culture ethos of 1967 quite unlike any other, one that wound up on the less celebrated Magical Mystery Tour release.
Nonetheless it remains an excellent album, a collectable, and a genuine timepiece … even if it’s not quite the unsurpassed piece of work it was once considered to be.