Why is “Sgt. Pepper” so overhyped?

The Beatles' magnum opus came out 40 years ago this week. Salon's David Marchese huddled with Gina Arnold to examine it anew.

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June 1 marked 40 years since the release of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” In the time since the album’s debut, “Sgt. Pepper” has become one of rock’s most sacred objects, winning almost universal plaudits as a generation-defining and influential work of brilliance. But does it deserve it the hype?

Having not listened to the album in years, I thought I’d give it a spin and see if “Sgt. Pepper” holds up as an indisputable masterpiece or, just maybe, is benefiting from some nostalgic groupthink. To help with my reexamination, I enlisted the witty, insightful Gina Arnold, whose books, “Route 666: On the Road to Nirvana” and “Kiss This: Punk in the Present Tense,” traced the history of the alternative-rock movement of the ’80s and early ’90s. I asked Arnold if she’d also listen to the album and then confab with me about our respective experiences. Hearing “Sgt. Pepper” with a fresh set of ears is almost impossible, but we tried. This is what we had to say:

Hey, Gina, so what struck me most in listening “Sgt. Pepper’s” was its formal, rather than emotional, qualities — how the songs are put together, the production values. Aside from “A Day in the Life,” it left me cold.

“A Day in the Life” is the song that goes somewhere new; the other songs are detached. I was listening to [the Beach Boys' 1966 album] “Pet Sounds” the other day, and that felt like such an emotional album. “Sgt. Pepper” is so not like that. The Beatles weren’t talking about their feelings; the album’s not about any specific person. It’s about Lovely Rita the meter maid and the girl who’s leaving home.

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If you were to play the album for someone who knew nothing about the ’60s and told them that “Sgt. Pepper” was somehow representative of that time, it’s hard to imagine what conclusions they would draw.

I don’t buy it as a generation-defining album. I think that’s been put on it in retrospect. “Sgt. Pepper” is completely missing the generational strife of the time; there are no political overtones. It may be representative of how many people experienced that period — “I like that dress! Paisley is cool!” — but it doesn’t seem like a defining album for the generation of Mario Savio or Huey Newton.

Musically speaking, “Sgt. Pepper” sounds much less contemporary than other albums from 1967 by people like Jimi Hendrix, the Doors or the Velvet Underground. It doesn’t sound fresh the way those other albums do.

Kurt Cobain claimed the Beatles were his touchstone, but you don’t hear it in his music. There’s a number of current bands that you can say, “These guys like ‘Sgt. Pepper,’” but they’re oddballs, like the Polyphonic Spree.

Right, sort of marginal.

And if you think of the Beatles/Rolling Stones debate, the Stones won that in every possible way — in terms of long life and record sales and influence — and yet, they’re impossible to like. I think the greatest proof there is no God is that most of the Ramones are dead and most of the Rolling Stones aren’t. It’s just so wrong. The same could be said for the Beatles. Why are half the Beatles dead and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards still alive? Are you there, God?

The Beatles were definitely likable. And the way they play with their image on the album is interesting. They’re wearing costumes on the cover; they’re giving themselves a different name. I don’t think there’s a band today that even has enough of a distinct persona to be able to play with it in the way the Beatles did.

What our whole discussion is bringing out is how much of our appreciation of rock is really about criticism, like the way literary critics go back and pore over “The Brothers Karamazov.” We interpret and reinterpret and tell everybody what these things meant and how things were done, but actually getting to the primal moment of listening is very difficult.

I wonder if the reason “Sgt. Pepper” attracts such a conspicuous amount of critical praise is that the songs actually don’t hold up as examples of the band’s best work. Justifying “Sgt. Pepper’s” status requires a lot of bluster.

I can’t really explain calling it the greatest album of all time. One of my gripes about rock critics is listmania. What does it say that “Sgt. Pepper” is rated so highly? It just seems so obvious that “Abbey Road” is a better album, that “Revolver” is a better album.

So what does it say that “Sgt. Pepper” is thought of so highly?

You know, there’ve been a lot of books written about 1968 and 1969 — those are really the seminal ’60s years — but maybe “Sgt. Pepper” exudes something about 1967, an innocence and an optimism that existed before the RFK and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations and Altamont. We just can’t pinpoint it in any one song.

— David Marchese

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