It's certainly a thrill, but is Sgt. Pepper the best?

Reexamining a classic album's reputation after 40 years.

I'm not one of those idiots who stands around at parties telling anyone who'll listen that Herman's Hermits were better than the Beatles.

Of course John, Paul, George and Ringo add up to the best pop group of all time, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which turned 40 years old yesterday, is their most artful creation, a landmark of ambitious music-making whose seismic impact is incontestable.

album
The classic album cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But does Sgt. Pepper really live up to its reputation as the greatest rock album of all time, as it was named in 2003 by Rolling Stone, an unsurprising coronation that's now being echoed ad nauseam in a fever pitch of anniversary journalism?

Not on my iPod it doesn't. Oh, it's certainly a thrill. A splendid time is guaranteed for all. But judged for merit, not reputation, Sgt. Pepper is not only not the best album ever, it's not even the best Beatles album ever. That would be Rubber Soul, with Revolver coming in a close second.

And while we're sacred cow-tipping, let's take it a step further. Is Sgt. Pepper even the best album of 1967? Better than Love's Forever Changes? Jimi Hendrix's Are You Experienced? Aretha Franklin's I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You? Something Else, by the Kinks? The Velvet Underground & Nico?

A tough call, involving lots of apples and oranges, plus, in the Velvets case, a big yellow banana. But in a pinch, if I had to reach for one CD from the year of The Graduate and the Six Day War it would be one of those five. Just as if I was allowed one Fab Four desert-island disc, I'd go for either of my aforementioned picks, followed by the White Album, Help! or Abbey Road.

So what's the problem with Pepper? Part of it, I'll admit, is that it's so overplayed. After four decades of enshrinement as a cultural artifact of the utmost importance - and hundreds of spins on my own turntable - it simply can't surprise me the way it must have at the dawn of the Summer of Love. Back then, its orchestral flair, music-hall whimsy and psychedelic sophistication sealed the deal. Pop music was much more than disposable bubblegum for ever-hairier teenagers. It was Art.

An argument that, in Pepper's case, I'd agree with. Though I'd say the same thing about Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)." Not to mention everything Bob Dylan did between 1962 and 1966, including Blonde on Blonde, another album that along with the Beach Boys' 1966 Pet Sounds I'd put above Sgt. Pepper on my all-time list.

I'm not going to contend with the greatness of a handful of Pepper's individual songs. "A Day in the Life" is a deservedly celebrated masterpiece, a genius Lennon composition paired perfectly with a brilliant McCartney bridge. "With a Little Help From My Friends" is as charming as Ringo gets, and the brass section and animal noises ingeniously juice the wake-up call of "Good Morning Good Morning." And I've always loved the way Lennon sneaks his "It can't get much worse" cynicism into McCartney's "Getting Better."

But Sgt. Pepper is exalted more for its high-art aspirations and daring production than the quality of its songs. If you're looking for the flowering of George Harrison as a songwriter, do you go to Pepper's difficult Indian music experiment "Within You Without You," or to the White Album for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or Abbey Road for "Here Comes the Sun"?

And which has the stronger batch of Lennon/McCartney tunes? Sgt. Pepper, with the dated psychedelic kaleidoscope "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the carnival frivolity of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," and the chipper, slight "Lovely Rita"?

Or Rubber Soul, with its non-stop parade of taut classics, from the trippy "Norwegian Wood" to the sneering "Nowhere Man" and intoxicating "Girl" - all of which matched the crackling immediacy of the band's beginning with a wondrous sense of lyrical and musical experimentation?

What most gets my goat about Sgt. Pepper, though, is that its exalted status stems largely from its aspirations to high art. Until the snarly guitars come out on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)," the album never actually rocks very hard at all. But because a 41-piece orchestra played on "A Day in the Life," it's seen as conferring legitimacy and respectability on rock-and-roll.

One Sgt. Pepper trope is that its bold experimentation changed pop music forever, and blew the walls of expression wide open for every one that followed.

True enough. Unfortunately, that sense of creative expansiveness led, in the immediate aftermath, to psychedlic car wrecks like the Rolling Stones Satanic Majesty's Request. And it also indirectly pointed ahead to the wanky faux-classical indulgences of '70s prog rock ninnies like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes.

Among my non-Pepper 1967 faves, there's one album that was every bit as influential. That's The Velvet Undergound & Nico. On the Andy Warhol-produced platter, Lou Reed and John Cale did some parameter expanding of their own, eschewing the candy colored psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper for something far more dark, disturbing and deliciously twisted.

In so doing, they prefigured the punk rock explosion to come, which would find its highest artistic watermark with my pick for the greatest rock album of all time: The Clash's London Calling. But that's another story.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@philly news.com. Read his blog, In the Mix, at http://go.philly.com/inthemix.