‘Sgt. Pepper’ critic stands behind ‘67 review despite bad speaker

Updated May 11, 2017 - 4:33 pm

That day in the summer of 1967, Richard Goldstein walked into the New York Times offices in midtown Manhattan wearing a purple cape. He was 22, a hippie and a freelancer. And he was about to deliver a scathing review of the most important album of the year, perhaps the most important album in rock history.

Goldstein had been thrilled when Sy Peck, a veteran Times editor who wore a tie, handed him the Beatles’ new record, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Growing up in the gritty Bronx, Goldstein identified with the lads from working-class Liverpool. Those red-hot early Beatles sides were a natural link to the driving rock of the 1950s. And the Fab Four were true artists. Approaching “Pepper,” they had branched out into the baroque pop of “Eleanor Rigby” and psychedelic tape loops of “Tomorrow Never Knows.” They had quit touring so they could concentrate on the studio. “Sgt. Pepper” would be their masterpiece.

Goldstein rushed home to the Upper West Side apartment he shared with his wife, Judith. He slipped the vinyl onto his turntable. He took his customary listening position, head back on the rug with a floor speaker aimed on each ear. He turned up the volume as the chugging guitar of the album’s opener kicked in. That’s when the trouble started.

Goldstein hated “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

“Busy, hip and cluttered,” he called the record in a review that ran in the Times on June 18, 1967.

He blasted the Beatles for “a surprising shoddiness in composition” and declared the album, ultimately, “fraudulent.”

“Sgt. Pepper” was an immediate hit, No. 1 on the Billboard charts for months. It also was critically acclaimed, eventually topping Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. This month, the Beatles’ eighth studio album will get the anniversary treatment with a six-disc box set that includes dozens of demos and alternative mixes of songs now considered part of the pop canon, including “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the group’s greatest pocket symphony, “A Day in the Life.”

But at least one person still remembers Goldstein’s slashing review: Paul McCartney.

A few months ago, McCartney, in an interview with The Washington Post, was asked about dealing with criticism during his post-Beatles career. In answering, he referenced Goldstein’s take.

“What I do with that, as distressing as it is, I try to rationalize what’s going on,” McCartney said of being panned in the 1980s. “Well, wait a minute, the music critic of the New York Times hated ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ And we had to sit through that.”

You may not have heard of Richard Goldstein, but at one time, he was almost famous. He interviewed a paranoid Brian Wilson in the Beach Boys leader’s smoke-filled living room, sadly watched Jim Morrison slur through an aborted recording session and shared an awkward kiss with Janis Joplin.

He was the original rock critic as misfit. Actually, he was the original rock critic.

Back in 1966, when Goldstein began writing for the Village Voice, there was no Rolling Stone, no Spin, no full-time music critic at the Times.

So it made perfect sense for Peck to assign “Sgt. Pepper” to this 22-year-old freelancer.

“Richard Goldstein invented rock criticism,” says Robert Christgau, the Village Voice writer who became friendly with him in those days. “He was the first rock critic. I mean, it turns out Paul Williams was publishing his zine (Crawdaddy) and there were other things happening, but without question, he was the most visible.”

He may have looked confident enough to let his freak flag fly, but Goldstein was also driven by a deep sense that he didn’t quite fit in.

As an overweight kid growing up in the projects, he would walk down the streets of the Bronx with a transistor to his ear, blasting Little Richard. Later, he had his cape to codify his outsider status. He was a hippie in Straightville, a kid from the projects in uptown Manhattan. In photos from that time, he looks happy-go-lucky. He was anything but.

“One of the most deeply tortured people I knew,” remembers Judith Hibbard-Mipaas, who married Goldstein in 1967 and, despite their eventual split, remains friends with him. “He has a very Eastern European, Slavic face, and it’s very round, and very, very dark eyes. Plus, he was short and people would yell at him. And this is even in Manhattan. On the one hand, you were forced to flaunt this long hair and hippie clothes and satin lace. But on the other hand, he was being challenged: ‘You don’t look like a guy. You don’t look macho.’”

Goldstein agrees. “You know, I just saw ‘The Hairy Ape’ by Eugene O’Neill, and the line that keeps recurring in this lumpenproletariat protagonist in the play is ‘I don’t belong,’” he says. “When he goes to Fifth Avenue, he keeps saying, ‘I don’t belong here.’ That’s what I felt like in Manhattan.”

There was one place where, even if he still didn’t feel at ease, Goldstein could at least rub elbows with other angst-ridden eccentrics. The music world was filled with brash, talented, insecure, confused and doomed figures. He felt duty-bound to define what they did as art. His approach was both egalitarian and egomaniacal. He believed his reviews were speaking directly to his musical heroes, offering them direction, but he also wanted to be viewed as less an authority, more a fan.

“America’s single greatest contribution to the world has been her Pop (music, cinema, painting, even merchandising),” he wrote in the forward to his 1969 anthology, “The Poetry of Rock.” “It is with this sense of America, as clown-guru to the world, that I offer the premise of rock poetry. I am aware that certain aspects of pop walk a delicate line between camp and revelation. But I set out to edit this book as a participant, not an authority. So, I welcome your derision – and your heads.”

By “Sgt. Pepper,” things were changing, and no more so than in the Beatles camp.

The days of the mischievous mop tops slapsticking their way through the streets were over. Screaming girls weren’t just a drag – they kept the Beatles from hearing their instruments at gigs. So on Aug. 29, 1966, the Beatles played their final concert, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. In November, they headed back into the studio.

“John came into the control room and said, ‘You know, we’re never going to perform live again,’” recalls Geoff Emerick, the famed engineer who worked with producer George Martin on “Sgt. Pepper.” “‘We’re going to create something that’s never been heard before, a new kind of record with new sounds.’”

The record they delivered did that and more, from the tamboura opening on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and George Harrison’s Hindustani-inspired “Within You Without You” to the largely improvised, orchestral crescendo in “A Day in the Life.” It was a concept record, with the songs presented as the work of the mysterious, satin-uniformed Lonely Hearts Club Band. When “Pepper” came out, Time magazine declared it “a historic departure in the progress of music – any music,” while the London Times called the release “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.”

The critics also took on Goldstein. The Village Voice, his own paper, ran a retort from another critic. Pete Johnson, the rock critic at the Los Angeles Times, remembers also being annoyed.

“No question the guy could write, but I thought it was bad-tempered grandstanding,” he says today.

Emerick recently read the review again. He has a theory as to what led Goldstein to attack “Pepper.”

“There was nothing to compare it to,” Emerick says. “I know that was the feeling when we’d finished it. It was a piece of art, and he was challenged and he wanted to win.”

This may be as a good a time as any to offer Richard Goldstein’s confession. It isn’t anything he has tried to hide, and, in fact, he mentioned it briefly in his 2015 memoir, “Another Little Piece of My Heart.” But the revelation may be startling to Beatles fans, who have devoted their lives to interpreting every lyric, recording flourish and photograph presented by their band.

The stereo Goldstein used for his review was broken.

Repeat. The guy who slammed “Sgt. Pepper” in the New York Times had a busted speaker.

Christgau has never heard that.

“That’s f—-ed up,” he says. “You don’t review a record on a stereo that isn’t working, certainly not a record of that consequence.”

Giles Martin, son of producer George and the man overseeing the new “Pepper” reissue, first questions whether Goldstein was making that up as an excuse for his review. The original stereo mix of “Pepper” was quite lopsided.

“You’d know if your stereo was broken,” Martin says. ” ‘Lovely Rita’ has bass and vocals on one side, all the band’s on the left-hand speaker. On ‘A Little Help From My Friends,” you’d have no bass. And I think Ringo’s in the center but the band’s on one side, the backing vocals.”

Fair enough. This is where the critic speaks up. He’s not defensive. He doesn’t raise his voice. He just doesn’t agree.

“So, yeah, I f—-ed up, but these people who will now say, ‘Oh, you know why that guy gave a bad review in the New York Times? He didn’t have a left speaker.’ OK. That’s their problem, though. Because they’re wrong.”

He is 72, with a thin beard and easy laugh, and lives with his husband, Tony Ward, in a 14th-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. He stopped writing about music in the late ’60s, but he never left journalism. For decades, Goldstein covered the arts and gender identity issues at the Village Voice, where he eventually served as executive editor. These days, he teaches “Pepper” in a course on the ’60s at his alma mater, Hunter College. Now comfortable in his own skin, Goldstein can explain why he feels he rejected “Pepper” all those years ago. The broken stereo, he says, had nothing to do with it.

The rejection boils down to two reasons. He didn’t understand “Pepper” musically when it was released, and he found his turmoil over his sexuality — he wouldn’t come out until the 1970s — didn’t allow him to embrace the attitude of the record, which he says defied the aggressive, masculine approach of so much rock.

“I remember being sort of horrified by the album,” he says, “being determined with that sort of narcissistic frenzy that young men can have. To, you know, shake them up and force them to actually make rock ’n’ roll again. Like they would be listening. That the Times was all powerful and therefore they would say, ‘oh we’ve made a mistake, we’re going to go back to singing “Long Tall Sally” or “now I’ll never dance with another.”’ I wasn’t really interested in the prophetic aspect of ‘Sgt. Pepper.’ I was interested in the violation of the rules and I didn’t like it, and that’s what I look back on with a lot of reflection.”

On a recent weekday, Goldstein agreed to revisit his review in the most direct terms.

He would listen to the record with the speakers adjusted to provide the full mix, and also with the left channel turned off to try to re-create what he experienced on his broken system.

Goldstein doesn’t have a turntable anymore, so The Post had a Crosley turntable sent to his apartment. We provided the 2009 reissue of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on vinyl.

The listening session began with “Getting Better” because it’s one of the most rock-driven on “Sgt. Pepper” and also a song ignored in Goldstein’s review. With the left speaker disconnected, the jagged guitar can be heard but McCartney’s bass — which drives the song — is gone.

“True, it’s different,” Goldstein says. “This is not a song I would have paid a lot of attention to, and maybe this is why.”

Other moments lead to confusion. “When I’m Sixty-Four,” with one speaker out, completely loses McCartney’s lead vocal and becomes an instrumental. But Goldstein clearly knew the vocal when he wrote his review, which makes him wonder whether the speaker on his system wasn’t completely blown, just damaged.

He listens to “Within You Without You.” Back then, he dismissed Harrison’s lyrics as “dismal and dull.” Today, he considers the song one of his favorites on “Sgt. Pepper.”

When it’s over, Goldstein agrees that the broken stereo changed his listening experience. But he’s not sorry. He says that even the best system wouldn’t have changed his review back in 1967.

Goldstein laughs and relates another take from the ’60s:

“I was the first critic to review the Doors’ first album. And I gave it a rave review. I said great album. One bad cut on this album — ‘Light My Fire.’ What can I say? If you’re not embarrassed by your youth, what good are you?”

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