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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful and insightful collection of academic writing about the most famous album ever, 3 April 2010
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lexo1941 (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today (Ashgate Popular and Folk Music Series) (Paperback)
Sgt. Pepper is probably the most famous album ever, and it's interesting that (as its title song predicts) it comes into and goes out of fashion as the Beatles' best work. Right now it would appear that either Revolver or the White Album have the edge in popularity, at least with most fans; Sgt. Pepper's combination of careful artifice and holistic optimism is not what people seem to want. I doubt that this collection of essays will be read by a wide audience, if only because it's pretty expensive and it's written by professional academics, but it does go some way towards providing a reading (or, rather, a 'listening') of Sgt. Pepper as the pinnacle of the Beatles' artistic achievement.

This is not the first time somebody has claimed that this album is the greatest thing the band ever did. Ian Macdonald made a similar case in his very influential book Revolution in the Head, although many serious critics seem to be unwilling to agree. Tim Riley, in his pre-Macdonald book-length commentary Tell Me Why, dismisses the album as dated fluff, whereas Devin McKinney in his book Magic Circles provocatively claims that the White Album is the best Beatles album. However, the essays presented here bely the idea that academic writing has to be irrelevant or jargon-laden. They are for the most part strongly argued, powerfully written and well-researched. (Tim Riley had the misfortune to write his book before much important work was done in the late 80s and 90s on analysing the Beatles' session tapes, and so he made many basic errors on the level of knowing who played what on what song.) Terence O'Grady wrote an entire book on the Beatles' music using the US albums as evidence of how they developed artistically, and while his essay in this book pays proper attention to the UK albums, he still gives an inordinate amount of time to the US ones when it is common knowledge that the Beatles were not involved at all in the sequencing of their US albums up until the release of Pepper itself.

John Kimsey's essay on authenticity and interference with special reference to Pepper is one of the best counter-arguments to one of the founding myths of US rock criticism that I've ever read. Harrison's 'Within You Without You' is often dismissed as a tedious blot on an otherwise good album, but Russell Reising and Jim LeBlanc's essay places it in its proper location, at the very heart of the whole project. I especially enjoyed Naphtali Wagner's essay, which applies traditional Schenkerian analysis to two Pepper songs and points out in passing that there is no critical consensus whatever about what key 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is actually in. Sheila Whiteley's piece on what the album as a whole might be said to be about strikes me as very important.

There are other fine essays in this collection but I can't mention them all. This is a fine summation of the challenges posed and rewards offered by a recording that we sometimes we know all too well. The contributors to this book do what the best academic writing always tries to do - they show complexities and nuances where perhaps we had no longer believed they could be found.
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