Friend Stephen Kroninger sent me this list of the Beatles best albums today; not surprisingly, Revolver edged out Sgt. Pepper (with Abbey Road at #2!). This led to some interesting thoughts regarding Sgt Pepper versus Revolver, which I wanted to share.
For the record (ha), I definitely prefer Pepper; I listen to it more frequently, think it’s more interesting, and feel it is—decisively—a greater artistic achievement. I also think the songs on Revolver are mostly better. But an LP isn’t simply a collection of songs, or doesn’t have to be, and Pepper was really the first album to attempt to harness all aspects of the listener experience—the music, and the cover, and the lyrics, the packaging, even the “story” surrounding the performers—to get something very specific across, to create a specific experience for the listener. Revolver did some of this—the music and the cover are “in tune” with each other (as was Rubber Soul). But Pepper takes it much, much further.
Pepper is routinely slagged because “it’s a concept album with no concept.” This is, frankly, bullshit. When Pepper was released, millions of people across the West immediately got the concept, and what they got was an artistically coherent, incredibly visceral experience that was more or less what the Beatles intended them to get. What more could a concept album possibly do? In fact, I’d argue that narrowly defined concept albums (like, say, Zappa’s Freak Out or Nilsson’s The Point) are not capacious enough to be truly successful in an artistic sense. They certainly aren’t capacious enough to accommodate John, Paul, George and Ringo in full flood; Pepper goes down a bunch of blind alleys because John and Paul were at their apogee in late ’66 and ’67. They were hitting it so hard, they could leave “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” off the album…and we’re still having this chat.
So what was the “concept” behind Pepper? Was it Paul’s idea of The Beatles as a fictional band? Nah. That was a concept, fully fleshed out in the movie Yellow Submarine, but it was just the circumstantial seed from which Pepper was grown.
To find the concept behind Pepper—which I don’t think the Beatles defined, or could define—let’s start with Langdon Winner’s famous paragraph from 1968: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
Lest you think Pepper was simply a countercultural happening, upon the record’s release The Washington Post called it “a musical infinity” and intoned, “Music may never be the same again.” An ocean away, Kenneth Tynan was calling Pepper “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.” I won’t add more; you can Google it.
Revolver, as great as it was, simply didn’t have anything like that kind of impact. In fact, it seems to have been released to a general sense of “ho-hum, another great Beatles record.” (Ray Davies hated it, but with all due respect, fuck him.) Yes, it made a huge impact on Brian Wilson, but that’s basically Don Drysdale admiring Koufax’s fastball. There aren’t even any stories of Mick and Keith hearing acetates of Revolver and throwing up in their mouths. (More’s the pity.)
And for the first 13 years after Pepper‘s release it, not Revolver, was considered to be the Fabs’ masterwork. The two battled throughout the 80s. Now, Revolver is regularly put in the top spot. There are a couple of reasons for this, one maybe you’ve thought of, and one maybe you haven’t.
Ringo and George never rated Pepper highly, because they didn’t have much to do, and were not shy about saying so. But it was John Lennon who regularly slagged psychedelia-era Beatles in general, and Pepper in particular, first in the Rolling Stone interview, and then in the interviews he did in support of Double Fantasy. He did this to downgrade Paul.
Psychedelia as a style of music required a heavy dose of studio magic, and that was Paul and George Martin’s thing, not John’s, and Lennon circa 1970-71 had a positive mania for reducing, and if at all possible removing, the contribution of those two guys in particular. If, say, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” relied on people other than John to sound awesome, and sprang from a source other than John’s own genius (read: trauma), then it couldn’t be good.
Therefore, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, being Paul’s thing, couldn’t be the Beatles’ height—if it were, the whole story being told to Jann Wenner and sold to the rest of us, would fall to pieces. And in the Double Fantasy interviews, admitting Pepper‘s pre-eminence would call the question that nobody wanted asked except for millions upon millions of Beatles fans: why aren’t you working with Paul McCartney, you dimwit?
After Lennon was shot, fans and critics were extremely loathe to disagree with his memory and his widow. So Pepper‘s hold on the top spot began to loosen. But there’s a second reason that Pepper began falling during the Reagan years, and has been stuck at #2 (or now #3—Pepper-hating ASSHOLES!) ever since.
Upon its release, and certainly since, Pepper represented something a great deal bigger than The Beatles—and in 1967, there wasn’t a lot, culturally speaking, that was bigger than them. Pepper was, as it was intended to be, the most mature, most accessible, most durable and probably most important artistic expression of the utopian visions unleashed by all the psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD ingested in the US and UK since 1955 or so. That was Pepper‘s concept. Unlike Leary’s pronouncements, or Kesey’s Acid Tests, or the moveable feasts happening in the Haight or Notting Hill, Pepper immediately reached well outside the counterculture. You could say that perhaps the graphic art scene centered in San Francisco—the posters made by Rick Griffin and Victor Moscoco—were also a durable expression of this aesthetic, but they weren’t something your grandmother could appreciate. Unlike, say, “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
Pepper, from the moment it dropped, embodied the hopes and dreams of the hippies. And when the scene soured, and Pepper was the only Pepper that had been created (apologies to SMiLE and Jimi Hendrix and Disraeli Gears)—when the great Day-Glo Utopia was not declared, and 1967 was followed God help us by nineteen-sixty-fucking-eight—the reputation of Pepper could not help but suffer. At the very least, it could be seen as a promise not kept; and at most it could be seen as the product of a short-lived and ill-considered cultural misstep—high art perhaps, great art for sure, yet based on a gimmick, a fad.
But psychedelia didn’t come from nowhere, and didn’t really go anywhere, either. Governments cracked down on the substances that were driving the experiences, and those relatively benign chemicals were replaced by other, worse ones, but the people playing Pepper in June 1967 could not unsee what they had seen, or unfeel what they’d felt. The conceptual shift delivered by that concept album couldn’t be reversed.
People tried, for sure they did; the history of the West since Thatcher and Reagan could be summed up as an attempt to put all that cosmic toothpaste back in the tube. We are dealing with the consequences of that self-mutilation now, which is kinda why I’m writing this, too late on a Saturday night spent drinking Guinness with a cider float. In 1987, and since, dissing Pepper in favor of Revolver wasn’t just about judging one collection of songs against another; it was about admitting a mistake. It was a way to say, “All that florid, eye-watering psychedelic nonsense—all that ‘we’re going to remake the world’ stuff—was bullshit, and we were just too young and immature and high to realize that things are as they are, and will always be as they are.” And it was a way to say, “The Beatles at their artistically biggest and most ambitious and most colorful and inventive was also bullshit, because all they were was musicians, and all they made were songs, and that kind of thing doesn’t change the world half as much as, say, the repeal of Sarbanes-Oxley or the Peacekeeper missile or the IMF or the fact that Donald Trump’s parents didn’t love him enough.”
To which I reply: fuck that.
Revolver is a better collection of songs than Pepper; and I love it, too. But Pepper is, was, and will always be, a more distinct artistic experience; distinct in the Beatles’ catalog, and distinct as regards the other LPs of its time; and distinct even today. That counts. Pepper‘s historical prominence—and the calumnies committed against it as a result of that baggage—that also counts.
Pepper isn’t just a better LP than Revolver, it’s one of a handful of pieces of truly great popular art. Fifty-two years on, we can clearly see that Pepper is the primary mass-market artistic expression of a Utopian movement which continues on today; it is as close as your local store that sells incense and crystals. (Maybe that’s not as close for you as it is for me here in Santa Monica, but you get the pic.) That matters, has always mattered, and will always matter.
When people want to explain The Sixties, they play Pepper first—before all the other amazing and wonderful albums that were also created then. First. Before Revolver. Case closed.