You Say You Want A Resolution; 50 Years On, Is It ‘Pepper’ or ‘Revolver’?
They’ve Been Going In and Out of Style…
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is now fifty! In the half century since its release, more words have been devoted to this classic album than perhaps any musical creation in history. It arrived, fifty years ago, almost predestined for its iconic stature. Music had changed strikingly in a brief period of time prior to the album’s release. Newcomers such as Cream, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, The Doors, etc. had already blown the doors off 1967, the greatest year of rock music, ever. But, the Beatles were needed. Who else but they could have encapsulated the whole spirt of the era — with its Summer of Love, its psychedelia, its generation gap, etc. — and in such an epic, yet lighthearted, way? Coming out when it did, as it did, it marched its way into widespread acclimation as the greatest rock album of all time.
Over time, however, Revolver, the album that preceded it, has gained in stature while Sgt. Pepper seems to have aged less well. Numerous polls confirm what many fans feel; Revolver is the superior album and the one which holds up better, sounding fresher fifty years on than Pepper.
So, I decided to line the two albums up, track for track, and come to my own conclusions about which is the better album. There was one slight hitch, in that Revolver contains 14 songs and Sgt. Pepper only 13, but taking one simple liberty (which you will see below), I smoothed that over. The two albums are of similar length, so going song for song (roughly), we can line them up and see which one yields greater listening enjoyment. No need to discuss legacies or cultural influence, just a musical dust-up of two albums filled with great songs.
The First Few Seconds…
Revolver starts off by placing you in a studio with the maestros themselves. Somebody coughs, you hear a guitar being tuned. It’s very immediate, and not really what you’d expect to hear at the start of the smash new album! by the world’s most famous pop quartet in 1966. It has an intimacy that makes it seem almost cozy, and yet it’s unexpected, making it a bit unsettling at the same time.
Sergeant Pepper also begins with the tuning of instruments. This time it’s the very familiar sound (to concert-goers) of an orchestra tuning up before a performance. We are no longer in the studio with the band, but have now taken our seats as audience members. An atmosphere of anticipation has been created.
Advantage: None. Both intros are original and ear-catching. Both create a brewing, inchoate atmosphere before kicking into the songs themselves. As for the songs themselves…
‘Taxman’ is all heavy beat and a grungy, somewhat sinister sound. Harrison’s voice, too — it’s droning, more like talking than singing. The song’s challenging, somewhat pugilistic sound perfectly matches the sarcastic, angry tone of the lyrics. ’Taxman’ actually becomes downright scary toward the end with its bit about ‘my advice for those who die’ (being to declare the pennies on their eyes). This edgy proto-punk gripe kicks off the album with a clear statement that ‘we’re not gonna be your Fab Four anymore; piss off!’ Meanwhile….
Paul is in full carnival barker mode for Sgt. Pepper’s opener, gleefully catching us up on a band ‘we’ve known for all these years’ who we’d actually not known existed until just that moment. When we are told that it was ‘twenty years ago today’, we’re left scratching our heads thinking has it really been that long? (in fact it had been less than ten) as our brain tries to dis-conflate the imaginary Pepper boys from the Beatles. Paul was no doubt having a jolly old time picturing listeners working through their confusion and trying to figure out just who the heck Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was. It’s a great joke by a band that seemed to never tire of them.
Advantage: ‘Taxman’ for its sheer gutsiness in showing the band ready to strike out into new territory.
No contest here. ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is a masterpiece that should make you cry the first time you hear it, at least, if you’re human. Personally, I think I had to listen to it a dozen or so times before my tear ducts finally dried up.
‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ merely continues the joke of Sgt. Pepper’s opener. That is NOT ‘Billy Shears’; that is Ringo Starr, and we all know it. What the heck are you guys on about? It’s catchy, and contains a tinge of pathos and humanity, but it certainly isn’t going to make anyone cry, or even take it all that seriously.
Advantage: Eleanor Rigby, and her face that she kept in a jar by the door, before… whoops, got me again! Pass the tissue box, please.
Third Song: Why, hello there, John!
Both albums’ third offerings provide a natural comparison point, as each is the first John Lennon song to appear, and each presents John at his trippiest/dreamiest (and they’re about the same length too).
‘I’m Only Sleeping’ gets points for being the first time this trippy/dreamy persona of John’s would announce itself on vinyl. The closest fans had come to hearing anything like this from him was ‘Rain’, but that was more appetizer than full serving.
Interesting and mesmerizing as it is, ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ has to lay down (pun intended) before ‘Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds’. Although listeners would have by then been well acquainted with Lennon’s acid-tinged songwriting (thanks to Revolver and ’Strawberry Fields Forever’), LITSWD was Lennon’s first song (and maybe THE first song) that actually took us along on the trip, providing freakish scenery to blow our minds as we are led from a boat on a river to a bridge past a fountain, onwards to a train in a station, never to look at the world in the same way again.
Advantage: ‘Lucy’…and Sgt. Pepper is finally starting to sound like the album that all the fuss is worth.
Fourth Song: George Gets Weird/Paul Gets Better
The natural comparison with George’s Indian song on Revolver is with his other Indian song on Sgt. Pepper, but I’m sticking with the program. Besides, they’re practically the same song, so what would be the point of comparing them?
George had become fascinated with sitarist Ravi Shankar and Indian philosophy, and was eager to share the news. His sitar work on ‘Norwegian Wood’ added an exotic flavor, but with ‘Love You Too’ he went full out. Fans at the time were likely more perplexed than enlightened, and the song should be considered more curiosity than masterpiece. It IS lovely, but how many people would think so if it wasn’t on a Beatles album?
‘Getting Better’ puts Paul back in the driver’s seat on Sgt. Pepper, where he would remain throughout most of the album. A decade or more before the ‘self help’ movement, here was a ‘self help song’, about working on oneself, trusting the process, etc. A former ‘angry young man’ is ‘fessing up and growing up. It’s nice!
Advantage: ‘Getting Better’, but neither song represents a high point on their respective albums.
Fifth Song: All Paul
This one’s not really fair, as ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ is one of the most widely acclaimed love songs by any group, creating too big a gap for ‘Fixing A Hole’ to fill.
H,T&E sounds like Paul’s riposte to Brian Wilson’s ‘God Only Knows’, which blew him away at the time (and which he continues to praise as one of his all-time favorite songs). It’s a lovely, sweet, pretty homage to romantic love, touching all the right heartstrings.
‘Fixing A Hole’ still finds Paul working on himself; it’s another self-help song. Something seems to have awakened within him at this time, that he would devote so much of his creativity to this subject. Perhaps it was merely the influence of Pet Sounds- and that album’s confessional quality — or perhaps it was something deeper. It’s a nice song, with great sound effects, but it’s really no contest here, is it?
Advantage: ‘Here, There and Everywhere’
Sixth Song: Childhood and Adolescence
On an album of firsts, ‘Yellow Submarine’ is the first Beatles’ song that seems intended, unabashedly, as a children’s song. But, man, what a knack these guys had for bringing out the kid in us all! Would the Stones, or Dylan, even considered putting something like this out to their listeners, risking mockery? That is one of the reasons why the word ‘fun’ will always be associated with this band. And that’s what they were having on this track, clearly.
Speaking of fun, we learn that it is ‘the one thing that money can’t buy’ on Sgt. Pepper’s 6th offering, ‘She’s Leaving Home’. The best comparison point for the two songs is life stages. ‘Yellow Submarine’ touches our inner child, whereas ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is a touching portrait of the strains and yearnings of adolescence. Part of the genius of SLH is how sincere and anguished (albeit clueless) its parents come off, making this the most insightful song about the generation gap ever written.
Advantage: ‘She’s Leaving Home’
Seventh Song: John just picks things up…
Rounding out Side One on both albums, we find John taking random things that come into his life and recycling them as found art. In the first case, the random blathering of Peter Fonda, and in the second case a vintage circus poster.
‘She Said She Said’ picks up where ‘Rain’ left off musically (same fuzzy, jangly guitar) but heads into trippier territory lyrically. The song definitely benefits from the gender change, as ‘He Said He Said’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. John seems quite comfortable taking on all the psychedelic duties on ‘Revolver’, leaving mush and tomfoolery to Paul, while George sort of goes here, there and everywhere.
From its title onward, ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ is an odd beast. In a way, it’s closer to ‘Yellow Submarine’ than anything else on Revolver, but BFTBOMK is decidedly not a children’s song. It’s more like a drug song about a circus poster. Hey, it’s the Beatles.
Advantage: ‘She Said She Said’. It’s a classic, while ‘Mr. Kite’ can’t really escape being a mere curiosity. We’re in a dead heat as both albums finish Side One.
Sgt. Pepper’s 8th vs. Revolver’s 8&9
Here’s where I get to take that liberty I mentioned earlier. ‘Within You and Without You’ is longer than Revolver’s next two, so it gets to take them both on. With both albums kicking off Side Two, there’s really only one standout among the three songs.
‘Within You Without You’ — Perhaps George wanted to ensure his fans that he really was serious about this whole Indian thing. It’s basically ‘Love You To’ with a longer instrumental section. Opening the stanzas with ‘we were talking’ serves to place us in an ashram-like setting, at the feet of a guru. It’s soooooo deep.
I just want to daintily skip past ‘Good Day Sunshine’ because I don’t want to burn my feet; besides which I consider it annoying fluff. I know others may differ, but I don’t really see the point, other than it being McCartney’s first foray into vaudevillian music, which he would return to throughout the remainder of the group’s career.
On the other hand, ‘And You Bird Can Sing’ is an exhilarating ride. Lennon regarded it as a toss-off, but artists can’t always view their own work with the proper perspective. The guitar work is stellar ( you just wish the solo would go on more than, what, 10 seconds?) and the lines — sung so passionately — ‘don’t get me’, ‘can’t see me’, ‘can’t hear meeeeeee’ ( a theme The Who would write a whole rock opera about) reverberate achingly, like the voice of a generation. Which, after all, Lennon was.
Advantage: ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’
10 vs 9 Different Sides of Paul
‘For No One’ was penned by Paul on the odd chance that ‘Eleanor Rigby’ hadn’t already broken your heart. The song eloquently and insightfully encapsulates the dead end point of a relationship. The French horn solo is perfection. Mournful and filled with longing, it is the very sound of dashed hopes and unfulfilled expectations.
‘When I’m Sixty Four’ presents a more optimistic Paul. What if things don’t go sour? What if a couple breaks down together instead of breaking up? It’s fun and humorous, and probably the best of Paul’s vaudevillian numbers.
Advantage: ‘For No One’. Both are essential McCartney songs, showcasing his songwriting skill, but Revolver’s offering is more personal and authentic.
11 vs 10 Everyday People
Ah, the good doctor Robert and the lovely meter maid Rita! No contest here, really. Many people consider ‘Dr. Robert’ to be Revolver’s only throwaway. ‘Rita’ on the other hand, features one of the Beatles’ finest intros, a lush flourish of ascendant piano arpeggios and that glorious harmonized ‘aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh’. Afterwards, Paul’s wit takes over and we find ourselves in ‘Penny Lane’ territory.
Advantage: Not even close. ‘Lovely Rita Meter Maid’ wins hands down in the first eight seconds.
12 vs 11
‘I Want To Tell You’ is the last Harrison song on Revolver, and he has come back to earth. The slowly building intro is very cool. In fact, the whole song is cool. It’s simply a cool, funky mid-tempo rocker that is all business, no flash. And it works.
‘Good Morning Good Morning’ could actually be a pretty solid rocker too, but it seems determined to bury that under its many sound effects. It deliberately parodies Pet Sounds with its crowing rooster and barking dog at the end, but it is hard not to conclude that John would have been better off leaving off the silliness and just rocking us with those freaky guitar riffs.
Advantage: ‘I Want to Tell You’. Sometimes simple is best.
13 vs 12 We’re Getting Very Near the End
‘Got To Get You Into My Life’ is McCartney’s bow-out on Revolver, and it delivers. The horns are what make this one a classic. Paul cockily demonstrates that, if he wants to, he can beat Tom Jones and Englebert Humperdinck at their own game. Despite being about pot rather than the love song it sounds like it is, It’s a great pop tune, and it could not possibly have prepared listeners for what they were about to experience next.
Sgt. Pepper’s ‘Reprise’ is nothing more than segue. Lennon considered it the only thing that gave the album any kind of credibility as a ‘concept album’. It’s a little bit harder than the earlier version of ‘the Peppers’ and a lot shorter. It seems content to pop up and announce itself, and then make way for the life altering album closer.
Advantage: ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’
The Concluding Mind Blowers
We arrive at a point at which both albums can be easily compared. The final song on each album takes things a step further, with the intent to leave listeners in an altered state of consciousness; freaked out, mind blown, and convinced that The Beatles were not mere mortals.
‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ got its title from an offhand Ringo comment, but it seems apt for a song as ahead of its time as this one was. It doesn’t have a conventional structure or beat; rather it spins around dizzyingly, like a dervish. This time, all those weird sound effects are crucial, not mere embellishment. They add to the fever dream effect.
‘A Day In The Life’ manages to be even weirder than ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, as well as far more beautiful and haunting. “I just had to laugh” at a photograph of a man who ‘blew his mind out in a car’ — that was disturbing stuff in ’67, and is still so today. ADITL is The Beatles’ finest achievement. It is Freudian/Kafkaesque/Joycean all at once. It is Art.
Advantage: ‘A Day In the Life’
And there we are. We end up with 8 winners from Revolver, and only 5 from Sgt. Pepper. Does that mean that Revolver is the better album? In terms of enjoyability, I would say yes. It contains more gems, more breakthrough songs, and provides nicer melodies, riffs, more genuine emotional content, etc. On the other hand, where Sgt. Pepper does win, it tends to win big, particularly ‘A Day in the Life’. So, you can’t lose with either record. Two heavyweights, two all time greats, duked it out, note for note, for 13 1/2 rounds, and in the end it was a judge’s decision. May the arguing — and the listening — go on another half century.