Like many people, I was a Beatles obsessive in my youth. Unlike many people (or, I suspect, any people), I took my obsession to a whole new level of nerdiness: I asked the Director of Music at Ampleforth to let me write my 5,000 word O’Level music project on the music of the Beatles. He countered with, “If you like songs, why not study Schubert?” I pointed out that we were already studying his string quartet in A minor. It was still a no. He eventually relented after I presented him with an analysis of “Yesterday” and a working title: The Styles and Forms of the Beatles Melodic Lines. (What was wrong with Melodies? ‘Melodic Lines’? Pffft. What a waffler.) It remains the only piece of academic work I wrote which had any originality or insight, and which I am proud of.
Thirty-three years after my Magnum Opus, I find myself in Sgt. Pepperland, being regaled by “It was 50 years ago today…” nostalgia. It’s a decadal event (it was twenty years ago… now thirty years ago… now forty years ago…), which is fitting, I suppose, given that ‘Sgt, Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band’ is an album which you only need to listen to every ten years – to remind yourself that, yes, most of the songs are a disappointment.
This is a common criticism, and there are two counter-arguments which are put forward in mitigation: (i) the sonic innovations were revolutionary; and (ii) the album was a 'cultural event' enjoyed many millions of people.
In answer to point (i): Revolutionary sonic innovations are startling at the time, but there’s only so many times one can be impressed by a flange on the lead vocal; and what was once an innovation eventually becomes either old-hat or dated – because if you innovate a studio effect which everyone else can copy, then they will. The thing with revolutions is that everyone else wants to join in. The Beatles spent nine months in the studio on the sound of the songs, rather than on the songs themselves. A great deal of icing for a small amount of cake. You may disagree. I’ll always find ‘When I’m 64’ embarrassing; think of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ as the second photocopy of ‘Yesterday’ (‘Eleanor Rigby’ being the first photocopy); fast forward ‘Within You, Without You’; cringe at the lyrical tweeness of ‘Lovely Rita’; take a pass on the cloying sweetness of ‘With a Little Help…’. Elsewhere, the problem with the songs is an imbalance in the Lennon/McCartney partnership very heavily in favour of McCartney. Personal preference also plays a big part in my disliking of this album: I don’t like big production.
As for point (ii), I’m put in mind of Seneca’s letter to Lucilius ‘On Crowds’: ‘Lay these words to heart, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority… have you any reason to be pleased with yourself if you are a person whom the many can understand?’