The Beatles’ eccentric conceptual masterpiece influenced albums across all genres for decades after its release.
No music fan or critic ever needs to say or write a sentence like this one: “The legacy of The Beatles is unparalleled in popular music.” The omnipresence of The Beatles, like the need for a cold beer at the ballpark, is one of those things that everybody knows. Yet with every band member’s birthday and every album anniversary, there arises a new batch of reflection on The Beatles, their place in pop music, and how artists from all over the world continue to enshrine the group’s legacy. 2017 marks an especially significant anniversary for John, Paul, George, and Ringo: one of the oddest Beatle creations, 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, turns 50 years old. At the time, Sgt. Pepper’s constituted an odd turn of events for the Fab Four, who, for an album, reimagined themselves as the eccentric titular band. The LP’s immense cultural, critical and financial success – capped off by a Grammy win for Best Album, the first rock album to take that title – signaled that Sgt. Pepper’s was not going to be just a flight of fancy.
In the 50 interceding years between 2017 and 1967, a common set of arguments has formed about Sgt. Pepper’s. Many deem it one of the first proper pop albums, rather than simply a collection of songs — the latter being what makes up much of The Beatles’ early catalog. The Beatles’ producer George Martin famously quipped that the shift toward album-centered songwriting was informed by another ’60s pop album masterpiece, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds: “Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper’s never would have happened.” Because of its loose concept and elaborate packaging (the vinyl edition included paper costume cut-outs, including mustaches), Sgt. Pepper’s regularly features on lists of early concept albums. The critical orthodoxy regarding the record helped cement it, and indeed the Beatles overall, as a case of pop as high art. The Beatles are undeniable masters of the radio pop song, and with Sgt. Pepper’s — to say nothing of many of the other great late albums of theirs – they proved that their imagination could extend across a whole album as a sonic canvas.
Tracing the influence of Sgt. Pepper’s can most easily be done when thinking about the big-picture elements of the record. Place the LP in the concept album family tree, and it’s not hard to see how it branches out into progressive rock and art rock. Sgt. Pepper’s’s frequent moments of psychedelia, including the famously unsubtle drug allusion “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, can be counted as a prominent instance of psychedelic culture and aesthetics in the late ’60s. Sgt. Pepper’s even facilitated a brief musical cottage industry in the immediate years after its release, with bands like Paper Garden and The Family Tree taking after the record rather strongly. As with everything Beatles, one doesn’t have to look far to find people talking about what exactly the record means, for the band and pop music on the whole.
Studies of influence can be tenuous projects. With bands like The Beatles, one is afforded some ease: the unassailable cultural presence of the group has resulted in numerous parodies, allusions, and homages. It requires no difficulty to say that the black marching band uniforms sported by My Chemical Romance in the music video for “Welcome to the Black Parade” do a little more than wink at Sgt. Pepper’s. But The Beatles are not solely responsible for the existence of the concept album, nor were they the only band toying with psychedelic sounds, certainly not in the late 1960s. In emphasizing Sgt. Pepper’s’ contributions to the styles and genres it exemplifies, it can be easy to forget that for all their rightly earned stature, The Beatles are not and were not an island. Influence need not come from the most obvious sources.
The 10 albums in the list below can be traced back to Sgt. Pepper’s, even if these connections are sometimes not as strong as an obvious cause-effect relationship. These records draw from other influences and musical traditions; Sgt. Pepper’s, fine a work as it is, cannot entirely explain them. But whether it’s for an odd concept, or for an atypical approach to pop, these albums are difficult to imagine existing without Sgt Pepper’s. Whether directly informing a record entirely or hovering in the background like a ghost, the band you’ve known all these years is always around. In 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, Tom Moon curtly describes the “next stop” for the listener after hearing Sgt. Pepper’s: “There is none.” This list shows at least 10 reasons why Moon is wrong.
Los Shakers — La conferencia secreta del Toto’s Bar (1968)
Key Facts: Critics and music historians usually treat Los Shakers as a historical footnote, using a common name for the band: “the Uruguayan Beatles.” A cursory glance at the results of a simple image search of the band easily explains why Los Shakers are inextricably linked with the Fab Four. With their mop-tops, smart suits, and boyish faces, the four members of Los Shakers are unavoidably Beatlesque. The band played a central role in bringing the sounds of British and American popular music to South America, a fascinating phenomenon some call “The Uruguayan Invasion.” After gaining traction in Uruguay for their savvy grasp of The Beatles’ sound, Los Shakers attempted to match the ambition of Sgt. Pepper’s with their 1968 LP, La conferencia secreta del Toto’s Bar (The Secret Conference in Toto’s Bar). The album would be the last with Los Shakers’ original lineup; the band dissolved along with the ’60s.
A Little Help from Its Friends: La conferencia secreta del Toto’s Bar joins a small crop of albums that took inspiration from Sgt. Pepper’s shortly after its release. Considering that Los Shakers explicitly formed under the auspices of bringing the music of The Beatles and their ilk to South America, it’s easy to shrug them off as nothing more than a tribute band of aspiring students rather than musicians in their own right. But for all of the Beatleisms of La conferencia, there are plenty of instances where Los Shakers innovate The Beatles’ formula by incorporating the music of their native Uruguay, which can be heard on tracks like “Señor carretera el encantado” (which features some excellent bass playing by Roberto Capobianco) and especially the accordion-led “Candombe”. The obviousness of a key influence does not inherently mitigate any originality, and La conferencia does justice to both The Beatles and to the rising 1960s Uruguayan music scene. Sgt. Pepper’s broadened rock’s horizons in England; Los Shakers did the same by treating Latin American music genres in conversation with the British Invasion.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? The Beatles loom over the history of pop music, such that any band that drew inspiration from them in any obvious way will forever be understood as a secondary act to their main show. Los Shakers actively invited Beatles comparisons in their looks and sound, so their status as “the Uruguayan Beatles” is in part self-inflicted. Yet there’s plenty on La conferencia that, if taken on its own terms, holds up as appealing pop, with staying power outside of the band’s connection to The Beatles. The harmonies on “Oh, mi amigo,” the eminently danceable percussion of “Candombe” — these are things that merit giving Los Shakers your time.
The Mothers of Invention — We’re Only in It for the Money (1968)
Key Facts: On the heels of their masterful debut, 1967’s Freak Out!, The Mothers of Invention had a busy year in 1968, releasing We’re Only in It for the Money and Cruising with Ruben & the Jets. Money, the third Mothers LP, features characteristically pointed criticism by frontman Frank Zappa of the then-growing left-wing protest movements, especially student protests. Zappa’s don’t-give-a-shit approach to criticism is evident right from the cheekily titled “Who Needs the Peace Corps?”, where he has a fictionalized hippie sing, “I’m hippy and I’m trippy/ I’m a gypsy on my own/ I’ll stay a week and get the crabs/ And take a bus back home/ I’m really just a phony/ But forgive me/ ‘Cause I’m stoned.”
A Little Help from Its Friends: Chief among Zappa’s targets is Sgt. Pepper’s, which was released just a year before Money. This is most apparent in the gatefold sleeve art for the record, which features a parodic rendition of the Sgt. Pepper’s cover, with dozens of faces surrounding the members of the Mothers like letters on a ransom note, their eyes obscured with black bars. Musically, The Mothers crib from The Beatles’ playbook in numerous ways, including vocal harmony (“Concentration Moon”) and guitar tone (“What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?”). But Money’s main use of Sgt. Pepper’s is that of a critical punching bag; the title of the record comes from Zappa’s belief that The Beatles were “only in it for the money” and that the link between their music and protest counterculture was entirely fabricated. Zappa takes issue not with protest in the abstract – he himself would speak loudly against numerous issues over the course of his career – but rather what he saw as a co-option of protest by corporate interests being met by a wave of protestors only interested in the aesthetics of the movement rather than its ideological content. For him, Sgt. Pepper’s’ relationship with counterculture is representative of this corporatized protest.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? Of the many immediate responses to Sgt. Pepper’s, Money easily ranks as the most acerbic take on the album. It showcases Zappa’s eccentric humor, with “What’s the Ugliest Part of Your Body?” containing one of his best quips: “What’s the ugliest part of your body?/ Some say your nose/ Some say your toes/ (I think it’s your mind)/ But I think it’s YOUR MIND”. Like many of Zappa’s late 1960’s albums, Cruising with Ruben & the Jets especially, Money is broken up by interstitial bits of humor and noise. As such, if one isn’t drawn to Zappa’s style generally, Money won’t be much of a draw, though there’s plenty to love for those who gel with his idiosyncrasies. On the matter of Sgt. Pepper’s, however, Zappa oddly chooses to focus on a symptom rather than a cause of the problem he identifies. Sgt. Pepper’s espouses no radical politics, nor does it even feign them. The album’s unmistakable visuals and The Beatles’ global popularity make the album an easy target, but Money’s criticism is far less rigorous and nuanced than other critiques by Zappa, particularly his strong stance against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in the late 1980s.
King Crimson — In the Court of the Crimson King (1969)
Key Facts: Fans of progressive rock have undoubtedly visited the court of the crimson king many times. For those uninitiated, In the Court of the Crimson King is a rare debut. Widely considered King Crimson’s masterpiece, the LP also helped usher in a new wave of progressive rock, a genre where dazzling, complex instrumentation and arrangement informed by classical music meets the free-form experimentation of jazz. Then, of course, there’s the matter of rock, which In the Court of the Crimson King certainly does. The rollicking “21st Century Schizoid Man” is a rock standard, inspiring covers by numerous rock bands (including this memorable rendition by the Norwegian “blackjazz” band Shining). Then there’s the unmistakable cover art by Barry Godber, one of the godfather artworks in the progressive rock community, which no doubt influenced later works by great album artists like Storm Thorgerson.
A Little Help from Its Friends: Taken one way, In the Court of the Crimson King can be seen as one possible continuation of the orchestral grandeur that concludes “A Day in the Life”, Sgt. Pepper’s’ majestic closing number. Describing some of the influences that led to the creation of the album, guitarist Robert Fripp recalls hearing “A Day in the Life” on the radio: “It was terrifying; I had no idea what it was … Then it kept going. Then, there was this enormous whine note of strings. Then there was this a colossal piano chord. I discovered later that I’d come in half-way through Sgt. Pepper’s… My life was never the same again.” Following Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles ventured further into avant-pop with The Beatles (aka The White Album), but the path laid out by Sgt. Pepper’s made numerous avenues of exploration available for musicians, and King Crimson took a narrow but exciting trail. Of the many descriptions pinned to Sgt. Pepper’s, one of the truest is that it expanded what the rock album was capable of, a mantle taken up by In the Court of the Crimson King.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All?: In the Court of the Crimson King can be thought of as “prog rock’s Sgt. Pepper’s“, and for that reason it’s no wonder that the album’s staying power can be felt even to this day. Fripp’s expert and idiosyncratic guitar playing influenced contemporary prog giants like Steven Wilson. Although much contemporary progressive rock is guilty of descending into masturbatory excess, the instrumental free play King Crimson exhibits here still provides rich source material for any artist wanting to wring the most out of the format of rock music. The late ’60s proved to be a seismic shift for rock music’s experimental capabilities, a shift caused in no small part by the Crimson King and his friend Sgt. Pepper’s before him.
XTC — Skylarking (1986)
Key Facts: One of the key bands in the post-punk genre, the Swindon band XTC doesn’t dominate classic rock radio in the way many of their peers from the 1980s do, but in the interceding time between their dissolution in 2000 and the present, the band’s star has brightened substantially. XTC’s music brushes against the edge of numerous 1980s genres – new wave and post-punk most prominently – which made them difficult to categorize during their heyday. Now, however, the band’s capaciousness with genre is precisely one of the reasons why it has become so revered. Of XTC’s many achievements, 1987’s Skylarking stands out above the rest. Vocalist and guitarist Andy Partridge describes the concept of Skylarking as “a cycle of something: a day or a year, with the seasons, or a life. It’s a cycle of starting, aging, dying and starting again.” Predictably, this makes for a loose concept, even looser than the framework of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But the broad concept of Skylarking in no way diminishes the excellence of its lush, psychedelic rock. The influence of psychedelic music would further blossom for XTC in its offshoot band The Dukes of Stratosphear, which resulted in two LPs.
A Little Help from Its Friends: Skylarking is an album where Sgt. Pepper’s is used as an analogy: for many, Skylarking is “XTC’s Sgt. Pepper’s“. It’s not hard to tell why: both LPs were released in the mid-to-late stage of each group’s career, are concept albums, and feature psychedelic textures throughout. Not coincidentally, the psychedelic elements of Skylarking can in part be explained by the album’s placement in the XTC chronology, as it comes right in the middle of the two Dukes of Stratosphear records, 25 O’Clock (1985) and Psonic Psunspot (1987). The 1960s proved a key component of XTC’s mid-1980s creativity, with Skylarking representing the fusion of the band’s core sound with its psychedelic side-project. In hearing the complex arrangements and high production value of Skylarking, one can’t help but imagine that Sgt. Pepper’s received several listens in the recording studio.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? Plenty has been said about Skylarking’s excellence, and it’s a rare album that genuinely lives up to its status as a classic. From the incredible strings on “1000 Umbrellas” to the catchy piano pop of “The Man Who Sailed Around his Soul”, the record captivates from beginning to end. Skylarking is not just “XTC’s Sgt. Pepper’s,” but also the sound of that Beatles LP being given a new life in the 1980s.
Prefab Sprout — Jordan: The Comeback (1990)
Key Facts: For the latter half of the 1980s, Prefab Sprout purveyed in some of the most clever and infectious pop, especially evident on the 1985 masterpiece Steve McQueen. (For legal reasons, the album is known as Two Wheels Good in the United States.) Lead singer and songwriter Paddy McAloon’s idiosyncratic lyrics and astounding, jazz-inflected chord progressions – see “The King of Rock N’ Roll” and “Nightingales”, respectively, from 1987’s From Langley Park to Memphis — have helped establish his reputation as one of the 1980’s most underrated songwriters. Jordan: The Comeback, released at the cusp of the 1990s, anchors its hour-long musical pseudo-narrative on “Love, Elvis, God, and Death”. Jesse James ought to be mentioned as well, given his starring role on two tracks.
A Little Help from Its Friends: The path taken by Jordan was undeniably paved in large part by Sgt Pepper’s. Prefab Sprout occupies a unique place in the pop music pantheon; even when one can detect traces of the Fab Four in McAloon’s songwriting (“The Wedding March”), the unmistakable Prefab Sprout-ness of the music dominates. Jordan is “Prefab Sprout’s Sgt. Pepper’s” thematically and conceptually, not stylistically. Hearing this 19-track, hour-long LP, one can easily see how it represents a unique expansion of Prefab Sprout much in the same way Sgt. Pepper’s brought new things out of The Beatles. Sgt. Pepper’s and Jordan evince the value of a pop band broadening its horizons by adopting an album-oriented conceptual approach to its music.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? Jordan is clearly about something, though that something is a moving target: Celebrity! Fame! Cults of personality! Religion! If one disabuses herself of the desire for a coherent concept, he or she will find Jordan an eclectic pop record of the first order. McAloon’s inimitable way with chord progressions finds a stellar showcase on the gentle opening passage of “Carnival 2000”, and the one-two punch of “Looking for Atlantis” and “Wild Horses” marks one of Prefab Sprout’s strongest opening salvos. In a more just world, Prefab Sprout would have sold millions of records and filled stadiums, but there’s also something to be said for their status as one of the leading cult pop bands. Jordan examines fame; it does not seek it.
Chris Gaines – In the Life of Chris Gaines (1999)
Key Facts: Following the megahit Sevens in 1997, country superstar Garth Brooks took on his own Sgt. Pepper’s-esque fictious persona with the character of Chris Gaines, an Australian rock musician whose rock bona fides are mostly limited to his goth bangs and short goatee. In addition to releasing a “greatest hits” album called In the Life of Chris Gaines, Brooks intended to have Gaines star in a film called The Lamb. However, the general public wasn’t too smitten with Gaines, and the movie was eventually scrapped. By most accounts, the Chris Gaines project failed, but Brooks’ massive popularity still allowed the album to be certified double platinum by the RIAA.
A Little Help from Its Friends: Though Chris Gaines and Sgt. Pepper are two different men in more ways than one, the former inherits a great deal from the latter’s free play of identity. Like The Beatles in 1967, Brooks in 1999 was a worldwide phenomenon. Both used the later stage of their careers as a means of questioning what their identities as artists were while not diving so down into the alter ego rabbit whole that they forgot who they were in the first place. The artifice of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Chris Gaines was always plain; Brooks would routinely give interviews, dressed as his normal self, talking about Gaines as if he were a separate person entirely.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? In the annals of music history, Chris Gaines will rarely be noted for its musical contribution to the world. The music rocks less hard than it thinks it does, mostly consisting of some eager acoustic pop/rock coming soon to a coffee shop near you. (Excepting, that is, for the regrettable semi-rap of “Right Now”.) For that reason, it fails to achieve what Sgt Pepper’s does. The Beatles managed to come up with an unforgettable cast of characters while also writing a crop of fantastic pop tunes. As one of country music’s oddest curios, however, Chris Gaines has some lasting value, even if only as a bit of potential pub quiz trivia knowledge.
The Smashing Pumpkins — Machina/The Machines of God (2000)
Key Facts: Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan described 1998’s Adore as “the sound of a band falling apart.” If that’s true, than the heady Machina/The Machines of God is the sound of a band trying to make sense of what was left after everything fell apart. At one hour and 13 minutes, Machina is a lengthy exercise, though the Smashing Pumpkins are of course no strangers to length — Adore clocks in about the same time, and Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness pushes the two-hour mark. With tensions having been high during the Adore sessions, Machina represented one last stab for the band, who intentionally recorded it as a farewell of sorts. (The group would later reform with 2007’s Zeitgeist.) Consisting of dark, heavy tunes, both Machina and its quickly-released sequel, Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music, form a gargantuan double concept album — Machina II goes on for nearly 20 minutes longer than its predecessor – about “a rock star gone mad.”
A Little Help from Its Friends: Like Jordan: The Comeback, Machina results from adopting Sgt. Pepper’s as a state of mind, not as a sonic source. The chugging guitars throughout the album are a far cry from the eclectic pop of The Beatles circa 1967, but in reading Corgan’s description of the idea behind the record, one can’t help but see the ghost of Sgt. Pepper’s. The elaborate concept imagined by Corgan involves The Smashing Pumpkins portraying alternate, “exaggerated” versions of themselves. In a 2010 interview, Corgan described the album as “like a play, almost like a theater-type thing,” based on the idea that The Smashing Pumpkins “had become such cartoon characters at that point in the way we were portrayed in the media, the idea was that we would sort of go out and pretend we were the cartoon characters.” This sentiment is not far off from the one expressed by McCartney regarding the making of Sgt. Pepper’s: “We were fed up with ‘being The Beatles.'” This fairly straightforward meta-reflection by Corgan gets a bit lost on the album, though its mythos lives on in websites that collect various bits of artwork and writing derived from the Machina/Machines of God concept. Much like the detailed album packaging of Sgt. Pepper’s, Machina’s packaging also features details and pictures of the fictionalized Smashing Pumpkins, which the band gradually expanded on the web. One can only imagine how The Beatles might have promoted Sgt. Pepper’s if they had the worldwide web at their disposal, but Machina/Machines of God offers a pretty convincing hint.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? Given the long shadow cast by the Smashing Pumpkins’ classic 1990s albums — Siamese Dream, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, and Adore — Machina will most likely take on the status of cult classic should it ever receive a second wind among critics and fans. Many of the grunge-inspired guitar tones on the record sounded dated in 2000, even more so now, and softer moments like “Try, Try, Try” fall flat. As a chapter in the ongoing story of The Smashing Pumpkins, both Machina/Machines of God and Machina II/The Friends & Enemies of Modern Music are fascinating asides that foreshadowed the much larger conceptual project Teargarden by Kaleidyscope, an “ongoing album cycle” that thus far consists of 2012’s Oceania and 2014’s Monuments to an Elegy. The fictional band concept of Sgt. Pepper’s allowed for The Smashing Pumpkins, who would break up shortly after Machina II, a chance for self-reflection about their unique identity as a band, not simply about being a band generally. Corgan has since acknowledged some weaknesses in the album, though credit is due to him and the band for trying something this daring.
Porcupine Tree — Lightbulb Sun (2000)
Key Facts: Created between the late ’80s and early ’90s, Porcupine Tree began as a solo project for Steven Wilson and a joke project at that. The project’s 1991 debut, On the Sunday of Life, is stuffed with bizarre samples and psychedelic tongue-in-cheek – where The Beatles have “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” for an LSD tribute, Wilson has the cartoonish vocal manipulation of “Linton Samuel Dawson”. Following Porcupine Tree’s unlikely rise to prominence throughout the ’90s – which helped facilitate Wilson expanding it into a full-band affair – Wilson’s songwriting looked backward to 1960’s pop, especially The Beatles and The Beach Boys. Lightbulb Sun was quickly released after 1999’s Stupid Dream, and it continues the latter’s prog-inflected exploration of classic pop songwriting techniques.
A Little Help from Its Friends: The fingerprints of John, Paul, George, and Ringo can be seen all over Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun, but it’s the second of Porcupine Tree’s “pop albums” that most distinctly recalls the Fab Four. The quotidian waltz of “How Is Your Life Today?” could have been a Sgt. Pepper’s B-side with its circus-esque coda, courtesy of keyboardist Richard Barbieri. “Four Chords That Made a Million”, one of Wilson’s trademark critiques of the pop music industrial complex, employs similar hand percussion and the same vague kind of Eastern melody that “Within You Without You” exhibits, albeit to a more hard-rocking effect. “The Rest Will Flow”, afloat in a cloud of strings, mirrors the garden pop aesthetic of “She’s Leaving Home”.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? For all of the Beatleseque on Lightbulb Sun, fans of Porcupine Tree know the album primarily as marking a liminal time in the band’s career. The brief but significant hard rock and metal moments on tracks like “Hatesong” and “Russia on Ice” foreshadow the group’s turn towards heavy metal on In Absentia, a stylistic trait that would come to become a signature part of the Porcupine Tree sound in the 2000s. But in the brief window of its career when pop was at the forefront of Porcupine Tree’s songwriting, Lightbulb Sun stands out for its many sharp tunes, including those drawing from the well of The Beatles. On the nostalgic “Where We Would Be”, another Beatles-y moment, Wilson doesn’t come across as an apostle; instead, he’s adopted the techniques of those who came before him while speaking in his own voice.
Various Artists — Across the Universe OST (2007)
Key Facts: Julie Taymor’s 2007 film Across the Universe imagines The Beatles’ song catalog as telling a story, albeit a rather loose one. Taymor and screenwriters Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais fashion a fairly straightforward star-crossed lover’s tale set in the late 1960s – not long after Sgt. Pepper’s release – between a British immigrant to America unsurprisingly named Jude (Jim Sturgess, looking like a Beatle replica cloned in a factory) and a young woman called Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood) whose rambunctious brother, Max (Joe Anderson), gets drafted to fight in Vietnam. As the aqueous plot line unfolds, Jude and Lucy’s relationship becomes strained as Lucy leaps headfirst into the anti-war protests of the time. Throughout the story, the characters draw widely from The Beatles’ canon to sing their heart’s woes and excitements. When Jude and Max become fast friends, they give a rousing rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Lucy, realizing her feelings for Jude, sings “If I Fell” as a plaintive lament.
A Little Help from Its Friends: Of course, Across the Universe wouldn’t exist without The Beatles, let alone Sgt. Pepper’s. The so-thin-it’s-barely-there plot takes a backseat to the songs and Taymor’s resplendent visuals, making the film primarily a love letter to a classic band rather than a narrative. But it’s Sgt. Pepper’s that gives Across the Universe much of its shape and style. The film’s loose concept, psychedelic images, and late 1960’s setting find their roots in Sgt. Pepper’s. Of the nonstop allusions to Beatles songs and lyrics throughout the movie, Sgt. Pepper’s comes near the top: after all, one of the leads is named Lucy, and Taymor does her best to make the film gleam like a diamond throughout. Plus, in this critic’s opinion, Eddie Izzard steals the entire film in his brief turn as Mr. Kite, bringing to life a circus even greater than the one suggested by the song from which Mr. Kite gets his name.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? The crowd-pleasing expanse of Beatles tunes employed by Taymor, paired with the pretty, young faces of the lead actors, should have boded well for Across the Universe, but the film’s reception was far from exultant. The musical split critics right down the middle, earning a 53% on Rotten Tomatoes and an average score of 56 on Metacritic. Fans of the film were taken by its sumptuous visuals while detractors essentially likened it to a well-executed string of karaoke performances accented by high-budget computer screensavers. In my view, Across the Universe is an extremely enjoyable film, but not for its storytelling – it’s not Jude and Lucy I remember when the credits roll. Instead, I remember dutiful and often excellent renditions of Beatles tunes (for the latter, see Joe Anderson’s “Happiness Is a Warm Gun”) and, yes, Taymor’s documented way of getting stunning images out of a camera. And I challenge the haters to deny that Izzard playing Mr. Kite is the definition of a splendid time for all.
Panic! at the Disco — Pretty. Odd. (2008)
Key Facts: A few years after the big splash made by their debut, A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out, Panic! at the Disco (who dropped the exclamation point after Panic! following Fever) stepped up their ambitions for their sophomore LP, Pretty. Odd..While not entirely eschewing the emo pop of Fever, the record pendulum-swings the band’s style toward classic 1960s and ’70s pop, featuring shout-outs to Queen (“Nine in the Afternoon”), The Beach Boys (“Do You Know What I’m Seeing?”), and, of course, The Beatles (“The Piano Knows Something I Don’t Know”).
A Little Help from Its Friends: A good friend and colleague of mine aptly describes Pretty. Odd. as a “Sgt. Pepper’s dumbshow.” Like the numerous call-outs to Frank Sinatra on 2016’s excellent Death of a Bachelor, The Beatles influences on Pretty. Odd are anything but subtle, evident right from the opening track “We’re So Starving”. Where Sgt. Pepper’s greets its “lovely audience” by introducing them to “the act [they’ve] known for all these years,” Pretty. Odd. assures the cheering crowd recorded on the track, “You don’t have to worry/ ‘Cause we’re still the same.” The charming “I Have Friends in Holy Spaces” sounds like it could be an intermezzo in Mr. Kite’s trampoline show, and one would be forgiven for thinking “She Had the World” to be a long-lost Beatles co-write. Fever and its megahit single “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” resulted in Panic at the Disco being lumped in with the emo crowd, not entirely without reason, but frontman Brendan Urie has always fancied himself a kind of pop music auteur. If Pretty. Odd. didn’t happen in 2008, it was going to happen eventually. Sgt. Pepper’s was always going to be a mountain for Urie to scale.
A Splendid Time Guaranteed for All? At the time of its release, Pretty. Odd. received a lukewarm reception. Some fans outright hated it, seeing it as a rejection of the Fever You Can’t Sweat Out style. Yet, while a select few, including Rolling Stone, deemed the Beatles-esque experimentalism of Pretty. Odd. to be a bold career move, Panic! at the Disco would later go on to re-introduce the exclamation point into their name, and it didn’t take long for the band to bring back more of what made Fever such a smash. As such, Pretty. Odd. is less a defining career shift and more an earnest, if overly homework-like, homage to The Beatles and other ’60s pop, Sgt. Pepper’s chiefly among the tributes.