Keith Richards Called Sgt. Pepper’s “a Mishmash of Rubbish” — He Was Right

By Paul Thomas Zenki

Sgt. Pepper’s is still iconic, but Keith has a point …


Perhaps it was the North Carolina summer heat that loosened him up. It certainly wasn’t the marijuana.

June 30th, 2015, was a real paint-peeler in Durham, NC. Thermometers pegged out at 91° (33°C) and the humidity outside was an equally oppressive 91% as Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards settled into one of the high-backed leather chairs of the plush Sanford Boardroom at the Washington & Duke Inn and lit a cigarette.

Esquire’s Scott Raab had been polite enough to bring along a joint, but Richards demurred. Maybe if they took a break.

After some talk about the rigors of touring at age 71 and reflections on the Rolling Stones’ early years, Raab mentioned that he listened to the Stones a lot more often than to the Beatles. To which Richards replied:

“No, I understand — the Beatles sounded great when they were the Beatles. But there’s not a lot of roots in that music. I think they got carried away. Why not? If you’re the Beatles in the ’60s, you just get carried away — you forget what it is you wanted to do. You’re starting to do Sgt. Pepper. Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish….”

Wait, what? This is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band we’re talking about —  an LP that spent more than 3 months at the top of the US charts and over 6 months at #1 in the UK, the first rock album to take Album of the Year at the Grammys, and a record that remains among the top 20 best-selling albums of all time more than half a century after its release. Rubbish? Really? Aw, you’re killing me here, Keith!

But Richards doesn’t spare his own band either, also skewering Their Satanic Majesties Request — the Stones’ overt knock-off of Pepper, with its psychedelic excess and technicolor silk costumes on the cover — as “a load of shit.” For what it’s worth, Stones vocalist Mick Jagger isn’t arguing, telling Rolling Stone magazine in 1995 that “there’s two good songs on it [and] the rest of them are nonsense” while concurring with Richards that they “were just getting carried away, just thinking anything [we] did was fun and everyone should listen to it.”

But everybody agrees Satanic Majesties is no Sgt. Pepper’s. Raab’s own comparison was instead “to Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street,” four albums released between 1968 and 1972 which constitute quite possibly the finest run of rock LPs ever produced by a single band. (And I say this coming from the perspective that the Beatles were primarily a pop band who did not produce “rock records,” although they began their career playing a lot of true rock and roll like “Roll Over, Beethoven,” “Hippy Hippy Shake,” and “Twist and Shout,” and peppered their later records with songs we would now classify as “rock” like “Come Together,” “Get Back,” and “Back in the USSR.”)

What Richards is criticizing here in particular is a brief period in both bands’ careers exemplified by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s and the Rolling Stones’ Satanic Majesties Request, both released in ’67, when in his opinion — and he is not alone in this view (LA Times, The Guardian, Irish Times) — they became distracted by a combination of LSD and the newly available studio tricks and frills that didn’t always make the music any better, and at times detracted from it. The four albums Raab mentions came on the heels of Satanic Majesties and were an intentional return to the Stones’ original focus on American blues while also incorporating a great deal of American country influence and what, by then, had become the Stones’ own original sound.

Here’s more of Richards from that same interview regarding the role of the blues in the Rolling Stones’ sound:

“I was having a conversation with Buddy Guy just a few days ago where he was very generously saying, ‘Thank God for you guys, because you really did save the blues in America. You brought it all back to life.’ It was a great thing, because when we were just starting out in London, the idea was to bring Chicago blues to London. We were a bit idealistic at the time — you know what kids are like — but no matter how bizarre it might sound, as a living or as an aim, that was it. We kind of did that in England, and then suddenly we found within a year or two that it was translating over to America — taking coal to Newcastle…. [But] we realized when we got here that white kids only listened to [one] end of the dial, and up the other end was all of this incredible stuff…. There’s something incredibly powerful about the blues — the raw blues. But then, there isn’t a piece of popular music probably that you’ve heard that hasn’t in some weird way been influenced by the blues.”

So when Richards says Sgt. Pepper’s was “a mishmash of rubbish” and Satanic Majesties was “a load of shit,” that both albums had come unmoored from the “roots,” one has to keep in mind that he has a rare perspective as a guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for one of the greatest rock bands in the history of the genre. It’s a bit like if Michael Phelps won a bronze medal in the Olympics and chalked it up to a “bad swim” when for most anybody else it would be a highlight of their life.

So while I wouldn’t call Pepper “a mishmash of rubbish,” I understand what Richards means when he says it, and frankly I think he’s right in that sense. For me, the Beatles’ three weakest records are With the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s, and Magical Mystery Tour. Good as they are, as albums they simply don’t stack up to the rest of the band’s work, and I rarely listen to them as albums even though I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was a boy and surely will be until I die. All the Stones’ records Raab mentions are a helluva lot better, taken as a whole, than any of those LPs.

From my perspective, some of Sgt. Pepper’s is excellent, most notably the irrepressible “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the truly astonishing “A Day in the Life” which may well be the best song of the band’s career. Some of it is pretty darn good, for example the leading title track, its follow-up “With a Little Help from My Friends,” and the psychedelic romp “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Much of it is middling Beatles, tracks like “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole,” and “Good Morning Good Morning” which would be considered “deep cuts” on the radio today. And chunks of it, quite frankly, land like bricks — specifically the meandering “Within You Without You,” and “She’s Leaving Home” which manages to be both frivolous and pretentious at the same time. In fact, on my digital copy of the album I replaced those last two tracks with “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” which were left off the album and released as singles instead, and I believe it makes a much stronger record.

So at the end of the day, I have to side with Keith on this one, keeping in mind where he’s coming from. Nothing can ever dim Sgt. Pepper’s iconic status and monumental influence in the history of rock music, or Western music in general. But when you strip away all the ancillary stuff  — the idea of a “concept album,” the studio wizardry, the mainstreaming of psychedelia, the elevation of jacket graphics to visual art and the inclusion of engagement elements in the packaging — and you just sit down with the music alone, I don’t believe it holds up as well as, say, Rubber Soul or Revolver. Heck, I listen to Let It Be more than I listen to Pepper.

So no worries, Keith. John and George weren’t that enamored with it either, as it turns out.

Oh and hey, I hope y’all did get to take that break.


Header image: Keith Richards, London, May 2018 (photo by Raph_PH)

Paul Thomas Zenki is an essayist, ghostwriter, copywriter, marketer, songwriter, and consultant living in Athens, GA.