The Beatles – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Released June 2nd, 1967 on Capitol Records (May 26th on Parlophone Records in the UK)
Listen, I’m not as much of a fan of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as you are.
People – critics and fans – have often talked about it as being the best album ever made. It’s Boomer nonsense. It’s a good album, to be sure, but it’s not even the best Beatles album. It’s not even in the top five. The official Beatles Power Ranking is: The Beatles, Revolver, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be, Please Please Me, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Help!, A Hard Day’s Night, With The Beatles, and finally the rather leaden Beatles For Sale rounding everything out. So without any further ado, let’s discuss The Beatles’ 8th best album.
Many consider it the first Album – rock as art. It’s a very early version of a concept album (although I think The Who and A Quick One beats it) and it was the first album to include the lyrics, which got under a lot of people’s skin at the time as it made music purists think that these upstart mop-top boy-banders were trying to be something more than they were. Even though I’m not a superfan of this record, it’s obvious from historical and technical context that those purists were wrong. By 1967 The Beatles had long since ceased performing live; their last performance, at Candlestick Park in August of 1966, capped off a hellish final tour that found them chased, prodded, manhandled, and, in the American South, shot at and threatened with death. Revolver had been released in the midst of that tour, and during it’s recording process the band discovered that the studio was far more fun than getting shot at by American white nationalists. As a result, they abandoned performing for screaming teenagers in venues where they couldn’t even hear themselves play and fell full-on into making technical magic with “fifth Beatle” producer George Martin.
Technically, for the time, Sgt Pepper’s is a masterpiece. Recorded using 4-track machines even though 8-tracks were available at the time, Martin and the band forged new ground in creative use of 4-track recording to get the sounds that you hear on the record. A lot of tracks were mixed down onto a single track and then used to record more tracks, to create a huge array of overdubbed tracks that form the backbone of the dense sounds that can be heard throughout. Many of the techniques that I and a myriad of other producers, amateur and professional, use today have their birth during the Sgt. Pepper’s sessions: dynamic range compression, double-tracking, signal limiters, varispeed recording, and of course the term “flanger”, which came out of a joke made by Martin about Lennon’s double-tracked vocals. In terms of physical recording techniques, the use of close-miking on Ringo Starr’s drums on the title track also became standard practice, and the use of crossfading between tracks instead of the usual hard-stop was pioneered here and became a regular occurrence on popular albums from 1967 onward.
Musically, the album is less of a success. The title track (and it’s reprise late in the album) is a stellar bit of rock ‘n’ roll songcraft, and “With A Little Help From My Friends” is good fun (although the Joe Cocker cover is much better). “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” has become a standby anthem for the drug counterculture but it seems in retrospect lightweight, a forced spray of psychedelia that seems more like a copycat gesture than it does a genuine integration into what the band’s contemporaries were doing. “Getting Better” suffers from the same problem as many McCartney compositions of the era: it’s too jaunty by half, as though the man were swaying back and forth at his piano, pounding the keys while the rest of the band plays in the background, bored stiff. It’s also a distressingly bourgeois song: who has to admit it’s getting better, Paul? The poor, who were still struggling to provide in the middle of the so-called Summer Of Love? The young Americans, who were being sent off to die in droves in the jungle? George Harrison, who was getting ignored by the barreling Lennon-McCartney machine and was thinking of just heading back to India and staying there? The jury is still out.
“Fixing A Hole” suffers a similar fate, in that it’s a McCartney song that feels a little too knowing; there’s a good song in there, but the decision to play it in a sort of stiff half-time renders it more wooden than it should be. The production is top-notch, but the structure itself is lacking. “She’s Leaving Home” manages to right the ship, with a classic Lennon/McCartney combo melody that takes “Eleanor Rigby” to a new level. Unfortunately, Side One doesn’t end there; it ends instead with Lennon’s second fey kaleidoscope-psychedelia composition, “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”, which revels in Edwardian pomp without saying much of anything (see David Bowie’s first album for more like this). Side Two doesn’t start off much better. Harrison’s sole contribution, “Within You Without You”, is a faux-raga obsessed with India that substitutes foreign exotica for psychedelic trippiness. It’s a decent enough attempt at trying to break the mold (especially for a class act songwriter who was growing bored with Beatles-as-usual) but it’s woefully out of place on the record, and it seems like an unnecessary expansion on something they’d already perfected (“Tomorrow Never Knows”). “When I’m Sixty Four” is the nadir of the album, the worst of McCartney’s Vaudeville-inspired jaunty bullshit; it was reportedly written in McCartney’s teen years, when the band was still pumping out amphetamine-fueled rock ‘n’ roll in Germany, and it probably should have been buried there. “Lovely Rita” is better, but still has that same goddamn bourgeois bounce that features Paul trying to out-jolly everyone in England with a vengeance. “Good Morning Good Morning” is the return of the slightly more sober John Lennon, and although it’s a bit hamfisted it’s also a righteous bit of rock ‘n’ roll. The “Sgt. Pepper’s” reprise is top-notch, and “A Day In The Life” is of course one of the band’s all-time great songs.
In a sense, Sgt. Pepper’s was a rough draft for what the band would go on to do with Magical Mystery Tour and The Beatles. As an alleged concept album it’s mostly a failure. The “military band” idea that spurred the recordings only shows up twice, and the rest of it bears no resemblance to the concept whatsoever. Instead, it’s a collection of bold experiments by a band that knew they wouldn’t have to perform these songs live. It builds on the studio techniques they started playing with on Revolver, but the songs on Revolver are much stronger. It’s an interesting junction point in the band’s career, but not for the usual Rolling Stone cover-story reasons; it represents the moment that their ambition outstripped their actual abilities, a problem that would be quickly rectified over the following three years. 1968’s The Beatles would be the perfection of what they tried to work out here, although Sgt. Pepper’s would be the key album of the Summer Of Love, such as it was, so in terms of eventual influence they’re equal. In the end, though, regardless of any of the problems or artistic over-steppings that occurs on the album, “A Day In The Life” is one of the best songs ever written and is worth the price of admission all on it’s own.