During this experience, there are a limited number of albums I greatly anticipate and look forward to hearing again. There may not be another record through all of this that collectively reflects the influences that preceded it, as well as had as much of an influence on subsequent popular music as today’s selection, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Rated as the #1 album in their original rankings, today “Sgt. Pepper” is rated as album # 24 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
There are so many milestones to note on this album. First, this album took cover art, including an opening middle section, to a new level, with the four Beatles surrounded by dozens of oddly selected figures from history and pop culture, including their early selves as the “Fab Four”. Second, embracing the persona of this fictional band, the Beatles effectively built further on the concept album as a combined and integrated deliverable from beginning to end. And lastly, it is my opinion that this album clearly reflects Paul McCartney asserting full command and artistic control over the band, a condition that while fruitful musically, sowed the seeds of tension that only grew stronger through the end of the Beatles.
I believe this is one of those highly praised albums that actually deserves much of the praise it has yielded. Paul stated that he felt compelled after hearing “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys to deliver something bigger and better in response. Opening with the title track, the album flows smoothly into Ringo’s lead on “With a Little Help from My Friends”. Like many of the songs on this album, double-entendres of psychedelia and experimentation intertwine with an extremely catch melody and the Beatles’ signature rich harmony backing vocals. Continuing on, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, a Lennon lead, continues this highly colorful imagery with altered vocals and rich texture.
The album then shifts back to Paul for the next three songs, but at this point, while they are all lead McCartney songs, they don’t feel like Paul McCartney solo songs. They still feel like Beatles songs, a notable difference from the work that follows this album. All three songs have outstanding second lead vocal lines from John, especially the melancholy “She’s Leaving Home”, which follows “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole”. Side one ends with the carnival-carousel replication, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, sung by John.
Side two kicks off with George Harrison’s only track, the Indian-inspired “Within You Without You”. The song was performed with a collection of Indian musicians, and does not include any of the other Beatles. An odd turn for some, I think this song fits well in the exploratory times of the late 1960s, and allows George to shine in his authentic manner, just as Paul and John’s styles were becoming more pronounced. As if to completely reverse course, the simplest, and most Paul-like song immediately follows, “When I’m Sixty-Four”. When I first heard this warm ode to aging, I wondered what Paul would be like at 64. Now, I wonder myself as I’m a little closer to that number than I would care to acknowledge. Another McCartney song, “Lovely Rita” follows, succeeded by another Lennon song, “Good Morning, Good Morning” as the album frenetically races towards its conclusion. It also should be said, that this song, as well as many others on this album, include some of Ringo Starr’s best work on drums. He wasn’t as flashy or dramatic on the drums as many of his peers, but Ringo was and is a great drummer who was chosen for this band as an upgrade for a reason, and he added greatly to their music and their overall performance and presence.
The final act begins with the reprise of the title track, which blends and fades into the perfection of “A Day in the Life”. This song is one of the last great Lennon-McCartney collaborations. While John wrote and sang lead on most of the song, there is a perfectly-Paul bridge in the middle that adds balance and shifts direction for this remarkable ending, concluded with a final chord on the piano that echoes for almost a full minute.
1967 has already seen the debut of many hallmark artists as we near the “Summer of Love”, but this defining moment from the Beatles took rock albums to an entirely different level. Many of the albums that follow beyond this will reflect the musical and artistic influence of “Sgt. Pepper”, appropriately paying homage to a legendary band of four artists doing some of their very best and most transformative work ever.