The recent 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was much heralded in the press. Without a doubt, the album proved to be a major cultural achievement that helped define 1967's Summer of Love, which was perhaps the high point of the 'sixties idealism. However, despite the near universal acclaim for the album, the festivities have sparked a intense debate within Beatle fandom. Was Pepper indeed the Beatles' best album? Many critics and fans contend that their previous album, 1966's Revolver, was the high water mark of the Beatles' storied career. To answer that question, my wife Deborah and I decided to compare the two albums during a long drive from Baltimore to Ohio.
Initial Prejudices (Sean):
I grew up a Beatles fan. The first album I ever bought was the VeeJay album Introducing The Beatles, an Americanized version of their first British album Please Please Me. However, my main gateway into their music remained the Red and Blue compilation albums and what I heard played on the radio. I did not systematically begin purchasing all of the individual albums until I was much older.
I first heard Pepper around 1974. I went to a friend's house, and he played the album on his stereo while he changed after a baseball game. We only stayed long enough to hear about four songs, but I was utterly amazed. This was the first time I remember being completely mesmerized by an album. Still, it would be many years before I bought the record myself. I finally did so after already buying Abbey Road and The White Album, and I ultimately found Pepper wanting in comparison.
I believe Revolver was the last Beatles albums I purchased and I frankly didn't like it. Like all of their early releases, the American and British versions of the differed substantially. The first three completed tracks, all featuring John Lennon, I'm Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing and Doctor Robert, were taken by Capitol and added to their Yesterday and Today hodgepodge. As a result, I found the American version of Revolver far too McCartney-centric and soft for my taste. It wasn't until the release of the CD that I really heard Revolver as the Beatles intended. (That said, I think I prefer the American version of Rubber Soul to the official British version. It has a more consistent folk rock feel.)
Initial Prejudices (Deborah):
Deborah is a Beatle fan, but she never dove very deeply into the individual albums. This test would prove to be the first time she heard some of the songs on Pepper, and most of the songs on Revolver. She had very fresh ears.
We listened to the fourteen song Revolver CD first. Taxman started us off strong with a biting rocker which showed George Harrison very much living in the material world at the time. The string-laden Eleanor Rigby followed. Although I consider this song top-tier McCartney, I always found the original stereo mix off-putting. The awkward way the voices shifted around in the mix always pulled me out of the song. Fortunately, the remixed version on the new Yellow Submarine Soundtrack album rectifies the problem. Unfortunately, this CD had the old mix. I'm Only Sleeping, an enjoyable, mid-tier Lennon track enhanced by some backwards guitar, follows. Harrison's first real foray into Indian music, Love You To, was next. While listening to it, I tried to put myself into the mindset of listeners of the time. I'm sure many people grooved to it, but I'm sure just as many of their early fans thought WTF? Personally, I find it the weakest of Harrison's Indian numbers. Deborah and I both considered it the weakest song on the album.
Here, There And Everywhere put the album back on track. I always felt this was one of Paul's best ballads. I believe this was Deborah's favorite song on the album. It is also one of my favorites. The novelty, Yellow Submarine, followed with an endearing vocal from Ringo. What's not to like? Criticizing it would be the equivalent of kicking a puppy. The first side of the album ended with the acid trip inspired She Said She Said. This is my favorite Lennon song on the album. It inspired a pause as Deborah asked me the backstory on the song.
Side two begins with Good Day Sunshine. Another excellent McCartney track. I must confess, that although I found the American version too McCartney-centric for me, Paul doesn't contribute a single weak track. On an individual song-by-song basis, this might be his strongest album. The songs might not be as innovative as John's numbers, but they all stand the test of time. The rocking And Your Bird Can Sing follows. Initially, I was somewhat dismissive of this Lennon track, but the more deeply I got into playing the guitar, the more I came to appreciate it. I still can't play it, though. Another top-tier McCartney ballad, For No One, follows. Paul was really on fire during these sessions. Lennon's mid-tempo rocker, Doctor Robert, a homage to a real life doctor who supplied his clients with illicit pharmaceuticals, came next. Not a classic track, but definitely needed in the context of the album. Without Lennon's more band-driven, rocking material, Revolver, as a whole, softens considerably.
The next track, Harrison's I Want To Tell You, has grown to become, if not my favorite song on the album, the one I listen to most frequently. In the process of writing the song, Harrison reportedly invented the E7b9 chord. McCartney follows with the upbeat, horn-driven Got To Get You Into My Life. It is another very strong track from Sir Paul. Then we end with Lennon's tape-loop-driven Tomorrow Never Knows. This is an innovative, highly-influential track that showed that rock music was only limited by the practitioner's imagination. Plus, it features one of Ringo's best performances. A great end to the album.
For Pepper, Deborah and I listened to the newly released remixed version on CD. The album starts strong with McCartney's rocking title track segueing into With A Little Help From My Friends. The song features Ringo's best performance as a vocalist on a Beatles album with great support from John and Paul (but where is George?) That said, the melodic bass line nearly steals the show. Next Lennon delivers one of his most memorable numbers Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. The song might have been inspired by his son Julian's drawing, and not LSD, but the Lewis Carroll inspired lyrics definitely give it a druggy feel. McCartney returns with Getting Better, which in my opinion doesn't live up to the standard of the previous numbers. I feel the same way about the following song, McCartney's Fixing A Hole. Both songs are pleasant enough, but simply not top-tier material. Those songs are followed by yet another McCartney number, the string-laden story song She's Leaving Home, which is considerably enhanced by some counterpoint singing by John. (Once again, where's George?) The first side of the album ends with Lennon's playful Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite, which was inspired by a 19th century circus poster. Once again, however, I think it is a song more memorable for the production than the lyrics.
Side two starts off with a distinct change of pace with Harrison's Indian-inspired Within You Without You. This is my favorite of George's Indian numbers. It does an excellent job of counterpointing Indian and Western musical sensibilities. It is followed by McCartney's When I'm Sixty-Four, a memorable piece of vaudeville highlighted by some more fine counter-point singing by John. It is followed by the enjoyable but forgettable Lovely Rita. McCartney gives way to John next on Good Morning, Good Morning, another song, in my opinion, that rests primarily on its production. Then, after a harder rocking reprise of the title song, we finish off the album with the brilliant A Day In The Life, which I consider to be the Beatles' masterpiece, and perhaps the highpoint of rock and roll music in general.
And The Winner Is....
|Beatle Judges Deb and Sean|
I assumed Deborah would pick Pepper, but she gave a quick nod to Revolver with its slew of excellent songs by Sir Paul. I was more conflicted.
On a song-by-song basis, Revolver is definitely the superior album. Too many of Paul's songs on Pepper feel like dressed-up filler in comparison. The same is true of John's material. I also don't hear enough of George on Pepper. I miss his harmony singing on this album, and his guitar-playing doesn't figure as heavily on the more symphonic album. Ringo, however, supplies some of his best and most distinctive drumming on both albums.
To me, the most frustrating thing about Pepper is the knowledge that Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were the first two tracks recorded for it. However, they were pulled from the album to be released as a single instead. Had those two tracks replaced two of the weaker songs on the album, say Lovely Rita and Good Morning, Good Morning, Pepper might have well been the best rock album ever. However, that was not to be the case.
Still, despite my quibbles with Pepper, I chose it as the better of the two albums. Why? Because of the production, the album itself held together better as a single listening experience. Although Revolver has the better songs, the album as a whole is constantly zig-zagging right and left and pulling me in different directions. It is strange that I hold that trait against the album when that is one of the things I enjoy most about The White Album. I think my prejudice against the original American version of Revolver is also a factor. Ultimately, however, Pepper wins because it ended with A Day In The Life. It's hard to beat that.
So what does it matter? Do we fans have to choose one album over the another? No, of course not. However, the perceived superiority of Pepper does have repercussions. On the 50th Anniversary of Pepper, Apple released a great box set featuring an amazing remix. (BTW, I have no problem with remixing the stereo versions of the early Beatles albums. All of the attention was focused on the mono mixes at the time. The original stereo mixes were an afterthought that the Beatles didn't even even attend themselves.) Where was the lavish 50th Anniversary box for Revolver? Or Rubber Soul, for that matter? I would love them to lavish the same amount of attention on that album. Hopefully, in the future, the record label will give all of their albums the attention they deserve.
Now here's a contest for you. Which version of my book do you like more? The paperback or the kindle version? Try them both!