Those are indeed the correct images. My copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, whose artwork remains iconic forty-five years after its release, is covered in an old dust jacket, with the title pencilled in at the upper-right corner. That price tag is correct, too; I can only assume that, wherever I picked this copy up, the previous owners felt that the missing cover would drive away business.
In some ways, having a blanked-out copy of Sgt. Pepper’s has worked to my benefit. No band has saturated our imaginations more than the Beatles, and no album cover has wielded more influence than this one. It’s exceedingly difficult to actually hear the Beatles, and perhaps only slightly less difficult to see this cover. Both have lost much of their meaning through overuse. That image, that famous life-sized collage, heralds the music it covers in bright and even garish tones. Slipping this ridiculous white sleeve off of my shelf, and hearing Sgt. Pepper’s unburdened by even one of its many legacies, keeps the record fresh.
And yet, that dearth of context makes it difficult to understand the radical shift that took place in the Beatles and in the way that they were received from Revolver to this record, if only because Sgt. Pepper’s doesn’t sound all that different. Both records begin with a heavy, guitar-scratched opener; both roll around in the ground between rehashed Beatles forms and Indian drones, picking up debris from either territory as they move; both end with a statement that eclipses the entire record. Heard half a century later by overworked ears, Sgt. Pepper’s sounds like the next stage of a steady evolutionary cycle, not the revolutionary game-changer it’s often understood to be.
Which isn’t to take anything away from Sgt. Pepper’s. Or, not too much. Sgt. Pepper’s was one of the first CDs I ever owned, purchased with a birthday gift certificate from Sound Shop in the Acadiana Mall. I listened to it with my parents when we’d drive north to Shreveport to visit my grandparents, and I memorized the complete liner notes in the backseat. Long before I understood the history of pop music, maybe a full decade before anyone explained to me the importance of Sgt. Pepper’s in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, I knew it as a collection of awesome songs.
But things change. I didn’t stop reading about rock history after reading about Sgt. Pepper’s, because rock history didn’t end there. And while the album has enjoyed as wide an influence as any piece of art possibly can, it’s also been the victim of much backlash. It led to the excesses and artifice against which punk set its teeth on edge, and it’s still held up as a totem for its period’s reigning ideologies, both by its defenders and its detractors. I stopped listening to Sgt. Pepper’s years ago, though mostly because I’d moved on to the rest of the group’s catalogue. And while my ways of thinking about music are much more informed by punk and everything that came after it than they are by late-sixties cultural triumphalism, I still scoffed when Jim DeRogatis wrote his scathing reassessment of Sgt. Pepper’s in Kill Your Idols; iconoclasm for its own sake has always left a bad taste in my mouth.
So I approached Sgt. Pepper’s clean, neutral, having already made a mental note of the songs I like and the songs I dislike and the songs towards which I’m completely apathetic. This record’s reputation–and, let it be noted, its ambition–dares you to make something of it. It’s a record that commands opinions. Which is why it’s weird to say that it leaves me nonplussed. Maybe my system hasn’t been completely purged, but when I listen to Sgt. Pepper’s now, all I hear is the Beatles’ next step. I’m not dumbstruck by its accomplishment, but, importantly, I don’t think that the record’s extensive jewelry forces it to cave in. It’s simply (simply!) a very good record. I almost feel bad for saying it.
What I do notice now is that the songs I’d long ago written off are, not surprisingly, largely the ones I find the most interesting. The one-two rockers “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning Good Morning” are both far more substantial than I’d remembered. The latter in particular makes better use of “Got to Get You Into My Life”’s horn section, and the sampled animal noises that pan across the soundstage make a far better cap to the song than they rightfully should. And there’s some seriously heavy guitar-shuffling going on below the crowd sounds and regal horns in the title track; not for nothing would Hendrix be covering it a few days after its release. And while Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is the lyrical embodiment of the Summer of Love’s idealism, the playful exchanges between his sitar’s drone and the swells of the string section that appears throughout make a good show of that we-are-all-one vibe. (Harrison learned the sitar from Ravi Shankar, who passed away last night at the age of 92.) The baroque harpsichord plunking that girds “Fixing a Hole” seems stale after so many years in its attic box, but the way that guttural guitar solo groans all over it (and the little descending melody Lennon belts out just before the guitar gets loose) save it. And while “When I’m Sixty-Four”’s music-hall goodtimes are too cutesy for my taste, its placement in the wake of “Within You Without You”’s drone is perverse to the point of brilliance.
But there’s probably never been a moment of my life in which I didn’t like “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” It was my favorite song when I first figured out that favorite songs existed, and, though it’s often neck-and-neck with “A Day in the Life,” it’s still my favorite song on Sgt. Pepper’s. While it shares a certain, ahem, chemical makeup with “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Mr. Kite” uses its psychedelia to do something. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is far too tickled by its own existence, McCartney’s drawn out and double-tracked “hi-i-i-i-i-gh” in the last line of the verse the aural equivalent of staring at the back of one’s own hand. But where McCartney makes LSD into a nonsensical cloud dream, Lennon in “Mr. Kite” widens the experience. There’s a strange menace that lurks in the song, a mystery that never reveals itself, only stalks, and seems to be taken up in that final flourish of notes. Even in the midst of several concurrent tape loops, that lurching organ line is the song’s most terrifying component. Fun here commingles with, and is complicit in, terror. I’m far more scared of it now than I was when I was eight; I also like it more.
I don’t remember where I got this copy of Sgt. Pepper’s, but there are massive gouges on side one spanning entire songs. All I know about my physical copy of this album is that it was once played endlessly, incessantly, and that you can still hear the effects of that endless playback. At times, it’s an improvement–that thunk that happens every three or so seconds actually improves “With a Little Help From My Friends.” And at times it renders it nearly unlistenable. I don’t know what happened to the artwork, and I never play it now. I don’t know that I love Sgt. Pepper’s, but I appreciate it for not giving in. It would have been far too easy for it to have been a letdown, far too easy for it to have been perfect.