Here’s an understatement for you: I am not the first person to weigh in on whether Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is truly the greatest album of all time—whether it’s overrated or underrated, whether it’s a Pet Sounds knockoff or the record that changed everything, or both. There’s no way of knowing exactly how many people have engaged in this debate before me, though I’d have to imagine it goes way beyond the roughy 32 million who have bought a copy in the 50 years since the Beatles released it in the U.S. on June 2, 1967. Where you stand on the issue depends on a lot of factors: how old you are, whether you’re a Paul person or a John person, if you’ve heard it in mono or stereo, how into the sitar you are…
Your answer is yours alone, and I’m not here to try to change it. But whether Sgt. Pepper actually is the Greatest of All Time is irrelevant; the fact that we’re still passionately having this debate half a century later points us to something indisputable: You’d be hard-pressed to find a record more monumental.
The real question: Is it even possible for a contemporary record or artist to have the same impact in the 21st century?
There will always be great albums, of course. There will be influential records and technical innovation and music that feels so important and fantastic when you first hear it that you find yourself making a mental note of your surroundings because you know you’ll want to always remember where you were for future conversation, music you’ll talk about entering your life the way some people talk about the moon landing.
Can another record ever achieve such mass appeal—both commercially and critically—and become such an undeniable part of the zeitgeist? Fifty years from now, will there be one singular album people can point to and say “that’s what the 2010s were about” the same way you can flip open the ‘60s chapter of any grade-school history book and almost certainly find a picture of the Sgt. Pepper cover?
Are we missing that giant leap for mankind, though? Will the album that moves you in that way be the same one that moves…everyone? Can another record ever achieve such mass appeal—both commercially and critically—and become such an undeniable part of the zeitgeist? Fifty years from now, will there be one singular album people can point to and say “that’s what the 2010s were about” the same way you can flip open the ‘60s chapter of any grade-school history book and almost certainly find a picture of the Sgt. Pepper cover?
We’re savvier now; thanks to the internet, we have the world at our fingertips. It has never been easier to hear music—whether it’s the Alan Lomax archive or some random high-school garage band on the opposite side of the globe with a SoundCloud page—and as such, we rarely find ourselves saying “holy shit, I’ve never heard anything like this before!”
Read our ranking of the 50 Best Beatles songs here.
That easy access leads to splintering; people can find what they like and stick to it. On the other hand, a generation raised with the iPod Shuffle can hop easily from genre to genre and dig through history as they please. Either way, we’ve come a long way from an entire nation gathered around the TV at the same time, tuned into one of three channels, stunned by the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Just a few years later with Sgt. Pepper, the Fab Four offered an unprecedented collection of sound, moving from influence to influence—Indian classical (George Harrison’s “Within You Without You”), tongue-in-cheek vaudeville (Paul McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty Four”), trippy tape loops and strange sound effects (John Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and “Good Morning Good Morning”)—seamlessly. It was a one-stop shop for innovation from around the globe, broadening its appeal in a way that may be impossible now.
The death of the monoculture means the closest we get to that shared experience these days is live-tweeting as Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty (two other relics from 1967, funnily enough) read the wrong name at the Oscars.
The music industry is so different than it was in 1967—changed by Sgt. Pepper (whose 50th anniversary edition was one of the best albums to come out in May), truly—but also subsequently (and perhaps irrevocably) altered by the internet. When the Beatles entered the studio to begin work on Sgt. Pepper, they were free to experiment in part because they knew they’d never have to play its songs live, having already retired from touring. Nowadays, most artists make the vast majority of their money from touring, and pouring £25,000—or approximately £428,000 after inflation—into a record you’re not even going to get out and perform would be downright foolish for even the biggest pop star. Even Beyoncé, with her groundbreaking experiments, surprise releases and visual albums, knew she’d have to hit the road behind Lemonade.
Photo by John Pratt/Getty Images
And while Lemonade is probably the closest an album has come in recent years to feeling like a Sgt. Pepper-type cultural moment—an “event” record, widely lauded, already iconic enough to be spoofed on shows like SNL and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt—it still finds itself getting robbed of the top prize at the Grammys. Sgt. Pepper shifted the world’s perceptions of high and low culture by proving that a pop album can be art; the same Boomers whose minds were blown by “A Day in the Life” can’t seem to get past the number of co-writers credited on “Hold Up” and grant it similar legitimacy.
We live in a fractured world, and though the era that produced Sgt. Pepper feels almost quaint now, in many ways, things feel eerily similar to the way they were in 1967. The Summer of Love is what gets celebrated, but don’t forget that ‘67 was as tumultuous a year as any, plagued by race riots and war, a powder keg waiting to bring a decade of unprecedented change to a violent end. Half a century later, it doesn’t feel as though we’ve come very far, whether we’re reading about unarmed black people killed by the police, a white supremacist murdering two good samaritans in Portland or an incompetent president so removed from reality that he won’t even admit to a typo in a tweet.
Find our 10 Best Forgotten Beatles songs here.
So maybe we’re ready for another Sgt. Pepper. The odds seem stacked against any new record matching its impact, but maybe we’re all aching for a massive, collective cultural experience to speak directly to this increasingly surreal moment in time—or hell, even to just distract us from it. Maybe this is the perfect moment for some mind-blowingly wonderful piece of art to swoop in and help usher in a new era, to fix the holes where the rain gets in or at least help us temporarily forget they’re there. Whether we’ll ever have another Sgt. Pepper remains to be seen, but we could use one now more than ever—and that’s something that can’t be overstated.