Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Sgt. Pepper and the diverging
aesthetics of Lennon and McCartney

Terence O’Grady

Early 1967 represented a turning point in the evolution of the Beatles’ music. It was neither the first nor the last for the quartet, whose coming-of-age conquests had already included the production of the Rubber Soul album in 1965 and the Revolver album in 1966. Both had been monumental achievements, the first every bit as original as the second, if less spectacularly so. But as remarkable as the music from these two innovative records had been, the degree to which Lennon and McCartney, the two prime movers behind the creative juggernaut, had shown compatibility was even more remarkable. While it is easy now, 40 years later, to bemoan the fact that the songwriting ‘team’ (such as it was) of John and Paul faltered all too soon, the fact is that their artistic relationship was exceptionally resilient for a long time under terrible pressures. While it is all well and good to suggest that productive relationships can be expected to flourish in prosperous times, the histories of other late-1960s groups make it clear that substantial commercial success doesn’t necessarily make for smooth sailing in creative terms.

And yet, the Beatles had remained not only overwhelmingly successful, both in commercial and critical terms, into 1967, but also surprisingly compatible in their artistic perspectives. Interviews given by the ex-Beatles in the 1970s and 1980s called this into question from time to time, for example, George Harrison’s resentment about having his songs accorded little respect within the group’s repertoire, but it is likely that this sort of discontent was sharper and more focused in retrospect than it was at the time. While petty quarrels certainly surfaced from time to time in the early and mid-1960s, the Beatles’ history up to the time of Sgt. Pepper was remarkably free of sharp artistic differences.

There were certainly challenges along the way that might easily be seen as requiring a leap of faith by George and Ringo, as well as by John and Paul. While conventional wisdom has long held that the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album (released in December 1965) represented no risk of any sort to the group’s enormous popularity, it was not so clear at the time that releasing a ‘theme’ album (if not a concept album per se) almost completely devoid of music respecting the dance-oriented conventions of mid-1960s rock would not at the very least slow down the Beatles’ remarkable momentum. Whereas Lennon and McCartney had always been capable of going their own ways stylistically, there was also clear evidence of a songwriting empathy between them that was so strong that each could effortlessly step into the other’s shoes and echo the stylistic tendencies of their partner. By the time of Rubber Soul, the songwriting differences between Lennon and McCartney were beginning to be

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