I would never think of doing an article like this. Because of the simple fact that this is, probably, impossible to quantify. Considering the vast divergences in music – genre, time period, technology, theory, goals, audience – it is extremely, extremely difficult (if not dangerous) to attempt to come up with an answer. So why don’t we narrow it down a bit? How about – the best ‘album’ of all time?
That’s more reasonable. This presumes a certain time period (i.e., 20th century) with a designated region, genre (arguably) and audience (i.e., America and Europe, rock & roll (arguably), and people therein). This is less unreasonable than before, although it is now much less dramatic. For all intents and purposes, we will be focusing on rock & roll music here – as it is demonstrably the largest, fastest developing, most reflexive music of the 20th century. If there is any kind of music that demonstrates the moral, social, political and economic development of the generations in the 20th century, what else could one choose but rock?
But from this standpoint – where can we go? What could possibly be the best of hundreds of thousands of albums produced in this time period and why? When Rolling Stone publishes an article saying that an album is ‘the most important rock & roll album ever made’ – you know they’re on to something. Love it or leave it, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may very well be the best album of all time. (As a disclaimer: this article isn’t a comparison between albums and makes no claims about what is ‘best’ outside of what Rolling Stone has claimed; rather this is meant to be an in-depth exploration of the album that is already widely considered to be the best, or one of the best, of all time in attempts to find out why).
You may be wondering – ‘What is to like?’ Well, many would respond… everything! Consider the many facets of an album – obviously the songwriting, sound, lyrics, instruments and musical expertise. But, this doesn’t take into account the concept of the album, the studio work, recording techniques, theoretical exploration, and originality in the time period. And for all of these purposes, it seems that Sgt. Pepper’s is an exceptionally outstanding case. What makes this album the best of all time? Let’s find out.
By 1967, the Beatles were an international phenomenon. Touring constantly since 1963, they were exhausted after four straight years of Beatlemania. Band members discuss in interviews how awful touring had become during this time, as they could hardly hear themselves playing. The audience (constantly, at every show) screamed whenever the Beatles were onstage, which meant that the band could hardly hear what they were playing. Musically, Ringo Starr recounted that the band was slumping musically, simply because they couldn’t play well together live anymore. Ringo recalled often having to read the movements and mouths of his bandmates to figure out where they were in a given song.
Thus, the album came out of this hectic and frustrating live atmosphere. After a short break from touring, the band was reconvening in 1966 to begin recording for Pepper. On a flight back from Kenya, Paul McCartney had the idea that they produce an album featuring a ‘different’ band (to escape the never-ending Beatlemania craze). This concept was quickly adopted by all members of the group, where for the album they would embody this new persona, demonstrated in the title track, reprise, and ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. This was a strange and revolutionary idea that would open up new doors for future bands to explore the idea of a ‘concept album’ (especially progressive rock). It was one of the first albums that coherently encapsulated a band’s history, ambitions for the present, and future goals and aims. It was a total break from their previous work, and a paradigm shift that was perfectly executed in songwriting and sound.
Pepper is a continuation of shifting away from their earlier pop songs. Although still incorporating many of the same techniques and song ideas, Pepper took their pop style and fused it with new genres – including Indian classical music, psychedelic music, European classical music, and even vaudeville carnival music. ‘Within You Without You’ is composed by George Harrison. His expertise in sitar and other Indian instruments offered revolutionary song ideas to the album. This song was written in Indian script so other Indian session musicians could play along, and afterwards it was arranged for a Western strings section and drums.
‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, written by Lennon, is a lyrical masterpiece. The imagery suggested in the song is impeccably psychedelic and vivid. Bright colours, imaginative scenes, and that ridiculously catchy chorus combine to stand as an icon for the psychedelic generation. ‘Fixing a Hole’, by McCartney, is much more of a pop song than the previous two, but its unique inclusion of a harpsichord makes it an off-the-wall classical pop style. Harpsichord, electric guitar, and classic early 60s Beatles backing vocals fronted by McCartney’s snappy lyrics create a truly individual piece of work. And of course, ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!’ is a stand-alone classic piece. The attempt to create a ‘carnival atmosphere’ was well executed with bizarre Victorian-era lyrics and strange combinations of fairgound organs and calliope music (using steam through large whistles) speak for themselves.
These songs alone aptly demonstrate the unusual and completely unique composition that Pepper had in terms of songwriting. Not to mention the title track and reprise as good ‘banging rockers,’ and of course ‘A Day in the Life’ as one of the best songs written in the 20th century. The crazy 24-bar orchestral sections and the banging final piano chord (with ten hands on three pianos, and a harmonium) provide an unbelievable ending to an unbelievably written album.
The Beatles recorded their first album, Please Please Me, in only ten hours. Pepper reportedly took 700 hours. The sheer amount of production involved in the album turns the great and groundbreaking ideas in songwriting and presents them in a gaping, orgiastic soundscape of epic fantasy. Crossing old genres, utilising new concepts, bridging cultures, exploring new and weird technologies, this album is more than just an album. It is a period piece that captures the eccentricities of the late 60s in flying colours. It is a piece of musical, cultural, and historical import. So, is this the best music of all time? Well… that’s always going to be up for debate. Is this the best album of all time? Arguably – under the conditions stated above – yes, it is.
Is it a great album that profoundly shaped modern music? Is it a great album that carried a revolutionary generation? Is it a great album that pushed technology and culture to its ends? Yes, yes, and yes. Its always fun to listen to music, but it is fascinating to consider music as a deep-running cultural force that has many real-world implications. Give it a listen. It might just ‘turn you on’…
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) (2009 Stereo Remaster)
Image credit – exquisitur