Album Review: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — The Beatles (1967)

As of when this album review was published, it has been just around 50 years since the legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in North America (it was released a week earlier in the UK), and I’m going to avoid the easy “It was 50 years ago today…” H1 headline because that sort of thing is entirely gauche and played out, and besides I already dropped that line on Facebook about a week ago, and it was lame then too.

But ZOWIE! Let’s let that sink in for a spell: a half-century has elapsed since the album that changed all albums unleashed itself upon the pop music landscape, forever changing everything in its path. Certainly it wasn’t the first LP to stand as a cohesive musical/thematic concept of sorts, but it stood head and shoulders above everything that came before it, and dramatically altered the perception of how music could be conceived, recorded, and presented to a ravenous audience who were expecting something wholly and entirely other.

Sgt. Pepper’s was many things new and exciting, but it was not the meticulous symphonic bombast of Pet Sounds, nor the swirling compositional sophistication of Odessey and Oracle, nor the insufferable hippie wankfest of Forever Changes, nor the space-rock avant-garde proclivities of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, nor the poetic pastoral brilliance of The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, notable albums that came out both before and after Sgt. Pepper’s, but inextricably linked to each other due to association with all the Psychedelic Rock/Summer of Love/1967 nonsense. All of them fantastic records (maybe not Forever Changes), no question, but Sgt. Pepper’s was entirely removed from that garden.

This record’s uniqueness, to this reviewer, stems from the fact that The Beatles here are playing dress-up. It’s pretend time, musical Halloween, a masquerade party, a dreamer’s ball… to dramatically superb results. By the end of 1966, The Beatles were pretty sick and tired of being THE BEATLES of 1963 – 1966. Traditional “Beatlemania” perhaps was starting to run its course, certainly not helped by the brouhaha surrounding John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, but three years of shrieking fans, world tours, movies, television appearances, merchandise, and incessant media attention had ground the group’s enthusiasm down to a nub; the enthusiasm for being “The Beatles” as a pop culture phenomenon was diminished, but certainly not that for writing, composing, and recording music that pushed their experimental boundaries.

By late 1966, The Beatles had agreed to stop touring, to spend more time not only on their own but also together in the studio. Their previous album, 1966’s landmark Revolver, took three months to record, the longest they had ever spent in the studio up to that time, and the results were euphorically brilliant. It was time to take that studio and creative freedom and push it even further, utilizing four-track recording equipment, new sounds, instruments, and full orchestrations, even musical styles and genres that would have been perhaps out-of-place on previous Beatles records.

But this was not The Beatles. It was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. An entirely fictional construct, la grande illusion, this album represents The Beatles shedding their skins, assuming new personas, becoming an entirely NEW band, and performing an entire show for YOU — the wide-eyed listener — where therein the whole easily outmatched the sum of its parts. Sgt. Pepper’s was the first Beatles album, maybe the first pop record eve, that not only warranted but demanded an entire album listen for every facet of its charms and rewards to reveal themselves.

I mean, they had mustaches… and SIDEBURNS! This was uncharted territory.

Nothing The Beatles had released prior to 1967 could have prepared fans for Sgt. Pepper’s. Certainly Revolver demonstrated impressive growth, sophistication, and experimentation from Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, but the more significant hint of what was to come was the breathtaking double A-side single, “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”. Both songs were recorded during the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions, and were rushed into release so that EMI would have Beatles product to promote during the early part of the year (George Martin would later come to regret this, as he felt both songs deserved to be on the album). Both singles were extremely successful: “Strawberry” hit #2 in the UK and #8 in the US, and “Penny Lane” was #1 in the US and #2 in the UK. A success by any measure, this double-single whetted the public appetite for what was to come, but I’m sure nobody was expecting the ambition and inventiveness The Beatles brought to the table that summer.

I could go on and on about how revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was (and still is), but it’s been done to death by better writers, blogger, music historians, and bigger fans than me. So instead I’ll just talk about my personal reaction to this record, how I came to know it, love it, resent it, ignore it, and love it all over again.

I was born in 1971 and my parents exposed me to a lot of music, but none of it Beatles-related (except for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album, since the family used to watch that on TV every time it was broadcast). My first real exposure to the whole “Sgt. Pepper” concept was that colonic irrigation of the soul, the 1978 cinematic abortion starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees. Yeah, the one with George Burns strapping on a Les Paul and singing “Fixing A Hole” and Billy Preston jumping and prancing about in a gold lamé jumpsuit while belting out “Get Back” and resurrecting the dead. My innards heave at the very thought of this, but let us continue our travails… I didn’t see the movie at the time, but I remember several songs from the soundtrack all over Top-40 radio. My very first exposure to this music was refracted through a perverse audiophonic prism. Ye gods.

My next (and perhaps most significant) exposure to Sgt. Peppers was maybe three years later. I was over at a friend’s house playing video games or Dungeons & Dragons or some such early 80s geekboy funtime, and he played the record in the background. I was infinitely more into the music being played than the video gaming or Gamma World campaign or whatever was up that day. We listened to that entire album twice and I was enraptured by the entire experience.

When I was 11 my Dad bought me a copy of the record. The first time I unwrapped it, I soaked in the entire Technicolor glory of the packaging, the compositionally busy but iconic imagery of the cover, the silliness of the cut-outs on the album insert, the wondrous group shot included gate fold interior cover, and of course the song lyrics (a first time for any album) printed on the back cover, superimposed over another photo of the band (with Paul facing backwards). “A splendid time is guaranteed for all” was promised as part of the liner notes.

I put the needle on the outer groove, sat back, and let The Beatles whisk me away for a 40-minute private performance, courtesy of their Sgt. Pepper personas. I only moved to flip the album over. I even made my younger sister listen to the album with me. I wanted this experience to be utterly communal, something to be shared and enjoyed with others as much as possible.

Sgt. Pepper’s became my favorite Beatles album for a long time… until I began to notice I spent more time listening to Help, Rubber Soul, Revolver, and The Beatles (“White Album”). I found myself gravitating to those records for a variety of reasons, be it for pop perfection, acoustic introspection, angry eclecticism, or just a simple change of pace. Rubber Soul and Revolver became my new favorites, and I listened to Sgt. Pepper’s less and less as time went by. I began to resent the way, at least in my mind, its historical importance trumped the quality of its music, how it topped every “Best Album of All Time” list and poll (when I used to care about lists and polls) when I felt other Beatles records were more deserving.

I never, ever disliked Sgt. Pepper’s, but it dropped out of my Top 5 Beatles Albums pretty quickly. I challenged the quality of the album’s lesser tracks, like “Fixing A Hole”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “Good Morning”, even “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”. I even dropped the dread twin over-ies: “over-rated” and “over-praised”. I proudly declared it the “least timeless” Beatles album, stuck in 1967, stuck in The Summer Of Love, more of a dated relic than the rest of their catalog, and would scream this from the gallery (with Rose and Valerie) any chance I could. I think I made the strong declaration that I enjoyed listening to Beatles For Sale a whole heck of a lot more than I did with Sgt. Pepper’s, me being the woefully transparent iconoclast I was.

My how the worm begins to turn…

Maybe it was about five years ago, but I started to listen to Sgt. Pepper’s with fresh ears again. Somewhere along the line Revolver had topped Sgt. Pepper’s in the collective pop consciousness as The Beatles’s crowning achievement, so a huge portion of what I felt was “ill-deserved hype” had dissipated. Plus I stopped being such a reactionary git about such matters. This time, I started to really appreciate the album’s inventiveness, its charms, simple pleasures, and exquisite beauty. Yes it is still every bit a 40-minute performance by The Beatles wearing brightly colored costumes, slipping into another skin for a spell. And yes, I think the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts.

But oh what majestic parts.

The crowd murmurs and orchestral warm-up noises underscore the “live performance” feel of the record, just as the album explodes into the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” opener (the unseen joke that brings about audience laughter during the French Horn bridge is a master stroke). By the time Billy Shears is introduced and sings “With A Little Help From My Friends” (one of two perfect album segues), you’ve bought every last bit of pretense and artifice. This is easily The Beatles, still, but it’s also something else entirely. To borrow a conceit from George Harrison’s album composition, this record stands within and without The Beatles. It’s all of their talents held in high relief, creating wonderment in the name and spirit of something metawordly to their usual tableau.

Speaking of which, George’s track seemed to get a lot of ill-will from many listeners, but I’ve always loved “Within You Without You”, its exotic beauty, the majestic drone of the sitar and the percussive melody of the tabla. By the time the dilruba is embellishing the melody of the verses, I’m hooked by this song’s enchantment. Almost in complete contrast, the bouncy joy of “When I’m Sixty-Four” is Paul at his dance-hall best, cloying maybe but effortlessly charming, whereas “Lovely Rita” seems like a lesser track, but once I hear that George Martin piano solo (as Paul shouts “Rita!”), I’m totally won over.

I’ve grown both hot and cold on “Being for the Benefit of Mister Kite!” over the years, depending on my mood. If you ask me right now, I’d tell you I love every second of it. I’ve yet to hear any song evoke a carnival-like atmosphere so perfectly. That Hammond organ and Harmonium (featuring the talents of both John Lennon and George Martin) hits that sweet childlike spot every time. “Good Morning”, while still not a favorite of mine, has its undeniable charms amidst the time signature changes, thunderous horn section, animal noises, piercing guitar solo and reverberated vocals.

The thumping rhythm of “Getting Better” makes this rocker one of my favorite album tracks. Paul is utilizing his Rickenbacker bass to infectious results. The effectiveness of John’s and George’s background and harmony vocals cannot be understated. But “Fixing A Hole”… oy. Maybe George Burns ruined this song for me, but of all the album songs this is the least of the bunch. There’s nothing about this song that stands out to me, nothing that impresses or generates any kind of reaction other than a shrug. I think Paul has some fine lyrics here; he’s always been the one Beatle whose lyrics seemed to always take a backseat to his melodies, but here I think it’s the opposite. Not enough to save the song from anything more than “meh”, but a good try nonetheless.

“She’s Leaving Home” is another “hot or cold” album cut. Yes, it is excessively maudlin, a melodramatic piece of treacle, cloying and petty and perhaps a thin slice of piffle. But it’s also so elegant in its construction, lush and beautiful and ridiculously melodic. The interplay between John and Paul’s vocals lend the song a sense of dour perspective; Paul as the omnipresent narrator, John voicing the weeping parents as the bemoan their loss while realizing their inevitable conclusion.

“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is an exquisite piece of psychedelia, John’s descriptive trip through a Lewis Carroll-infused landscape, centered around the girl with kaleidoscope eyes. I don’t know if she’s guiding us on our journey, or is the object of our desire, or perhaps the Grail we are seeking inside this universe, but the beauty and commanding majesty of this tune is undeniable. Between its multiple key changes, interplay between guitar and keyboard, and swirling melodic orchestrations like clouds lifting and transporting the listener, this is an amazing track. Paul’s opening keyboards on the Lowrey organ is one of the most wonderfully evocative musical riffs ever produced on a Beatles record.

And then we have the moving, pulsing, electrified delivery of the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”, an uptempo return to the opening track, thanking us for our attendance, hoping we enjoyed every second of it, and letting us know that it was all coming to an end… but not for the crowning achievement of this album, the encore of “A Day In The Life”. Magnificent. People have called this song THE perfect fusion of the songwriting talents John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and who could argue that statement? Well I mean, I might; on the right day, I’d argue that “We Can Work It Out” holds that title, but we’re splitting hairs here. If this album consisted of little more than 9 tracks of Ringo reading his grade school poetry and “A Day In The Life”, it’d probably still be a classic. Of sorts.

You’ll notice that I sort of went through the entire album somewhat out of sequence. I started at the beginning and finished at the finale, but everything in between was a bit muddled up. That was all by design, as it forced me to evaluate the songs individually instead of part of the an “album experience”. And for the most part, almost all of them “hold up”. But when you sit down and listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from opening murmur to final run-out groove, it becomes a wonder all unto itself, one of rock’s most celebrated musical visions. The Beatles would go on to have great successes and artistic triumphs after this record, but they would never be quite this playfully innovative and groundbreaking ever again. But for one moment in their career, they were here, in 1967 and for all time, not wholly themselves but entirely charting their own trajectory into pop culture legend.

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