The revisions of new generations have gradually lessened the album’s place at the top of the canon, elevating the likes of Revolver and Abbey Road to the top of the heap.
Long viewed as the consensus pick for best Beatles LP, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band certainly did represent the apotheosis of the band’s ambitions, a leap forward in their already pioneering command of studio wizardry and such a keen interest in conceptual frameworks and even graphic design that the album’s innovations cross into multimedia. Over the years, however, the revisions of new generations have gradually lessened the album’s place at the top of the canon, elevating the likes of Revolver and Abbey Road to the top of the heap.
Heard today, the album’s obsessively crafted perfectionism still shines, but it may be the most dated of the band’s records, the one most frozen in the exact moment in which it was recorded and released. The vestigial concept of the band-within-the-band is odd in its unfinished state, and the group’s more serious-minded efforts to expand their sonic palette sometimes miss the greatest thrill of later-day Beatles in their ability to wed truly form-breaking experimentation into digestible pop. This resequence embraces what Greil Marcus described as “the Day-Glo tombstone of its time,” focusing on the band’s most expressive pop moments over the album as an almost instantly-dated parade marshal for the Summer of Love.
1. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
2. With a Little Help from My Friends
3. Penny Lane
4. Fixing a Hole
5. Only a Northern Song
6. Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
7. She’s Leaving Home
8. Getting Better
9. Good Morning Good Morning
10. Lovely Rita
11. When I’m Sixty-Four
12. Strawberry Fields Forever
13. A Day in the Life
Added tracks: “Penny Lane,” “Only a Northern Song,” “Strawberry Fields Forever”
Omitted tracks: “Within You Without You,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
1. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
The fake band conceit of the album may be the Beatles’ most bafflingly half-baked idea ever released for public consumption, but there’s no denying the one-two punch that opens the LP. McCartney’s jubilant, barking vocals, its canned live atmosphere (presenting a world in which the Beatles could play live and actually be heard), and even odd curios like laughter over unseen clownery paint an image that the album frustratingly failed to develop further.
2. “With a Little Help from My Friends”
Impossible to separate from the previous track, “With a Little Help from My Friends” rides high on Ringo’s humble performance, a more refined, less comically self-deprecating version of his sad sack routine on “Act Naturally.” Ringo’s limited range and oddly convincing twang is a portal into a world where the Beatles actually did follow through on the album’s concept, and the sweet tone of the lyrics have made what could have just been accompaniment to the boisterous opener into one of the band’s signature songs.
3. “Penny Lane”
The Sgt. Pepper recording sessions famously took so long that both EMI and band manager Brian Epstein began to get paranoid about the Beatles slipping from the public consciousness. Their solution was to rush two of the Beatles’ all-time best songs to market as a single, omitting them from the album. The widescreen sunshine pop of “Penny Lane” picks up perfectly from the bright charm of the opening, and its placement early in the set would provide a shiny bedrock with which the album’s more somber songs could later provide a complicating counterbalance, instead of their original placement hot on the heels of the start.
4. “Fixing a Hole”
That counterpart could then slide in immediately with “Fixing a Hole,” which gives an inkling into the immense stress of the band as they retreated from touring and searched for new ways to express themselves. The brittle harpsichord provides a transitional element of brightness for the complications of the lyrics, while Harrison’s terse guitar cuts through the cod-orchestral tweeness to further hint at dissatisfaction. Sgt. Pepper’s only meaningful commentary has always lied in what it revealed about the band’s own impending burnout, and it’s arguably here, and not the framing device opening, that the album’s true concept is introduced.
5. “Only a Northern Song”
Unceremoniously dumped on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, this George track that the band knocked around during recording sessions for this album is simultaneously more psychedelic and more pointed than the Harrison track that actually made this LP. Shimmering keyboards are punctured by tape loops and vicious blurts of trumpet as Harrison calls out his exploitative contract with the band’s original publishing company. A spiritual successor to “Taxman,” its venting of unequal distribution of profits from art deepens the internal unease of “Fixing a Hole.”
6. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
Momentarily we leave the doldrums of artistic self-pity to float into a candy realm of unreal color and the smell of sugar. Regardless of what the lyrics were really about, this is perhaps the greatest drug song in the Beatles catalog, a kaleidoscopic number that forgets all troubles for the bliss of the mind’s eye.
7. “She’s Leaving Home”
Depending on your point of view, this is either proof of McCartney’s eventual slide into saccharine unbearability or proof that he was the truly wise one of the Lennon-McCartney duo. The haters will have to stay mad; it remains truly remarkable that at the pinnacle of an unprecedented generational split that the band who served as the flashpoint of Baby Boomer rebellion spared a thought for the parents watching helplessly as their children abandoned them in droves. The strings may be a bit much, but this is one of the great works of rock empathy, a clear-eyed assessment that not everyone who is rebelled against deserves it.
8. “Getting Better”
After moving “She’s Leaving Home” to the end of side one, “Getting Better,” with its half-ironic optimism, makes a palette-cleansing start to the second side. Sufficiently witty to avoid accusations of dewy sentiment, the bouncing guitar riff and warm bassline nonetheless epitomizes the album’s sunny attitude toward changing times.
9. “Good Morning Good Morning”
By this stage it was obvious that Lennon was getting tired of being a pop songwriter as it was then understood, and the absolute cacophony of this track completely washes out what it otherwise a simple throwaway number. Compared to some of the other sound collage maelstroms on the album, this has a level of focus granted by its straightforward foundation that is lacking elsewhere.
10. “Lovely Rita”
The psychedelic expansiveness of a fundamentally simple framework continues on “Lovely Rita,” which finds Paul doing the same thing John did and piling on elements until a bubbly number that could have slipped on any of the first four LPs becomes complicated with drones and goofy instrumentation. On an earlier record, the band would have hit the jubilant chorus like a bombing run, but here it is merely a tether back to reality as the song drifts into ever more fragmented realms.
11. “When I’m Sixty-Four”
The jaunty flipside to the solemnity of “She’s Leaving Home,” McCartney once again imagines things in elder age, though in this case he wonders about his own mortality. Time has been kind to McCartney, not just financially but in the slow re-evaluation of his work from earlier dismissals, and his ability to wring giddy future nostalgia for his own imagined golden years is a testament to his skills for hiding depth in the shallow end of pop.
12. “Strawberry Fields Forever”
The other great cut song from the album sessions, “Strawberry Fields Forever” is all slurred reverie, the feeling of being in that liminal state between wake and sleep. The brassy orchestration, which can feel gimmicky elsewhere on the album, here adds to the sense of taking place entirely outside time. The way that the band stretches everything from vocals to instrumentation generates a mood as tense as it is loose and unmoored.
13. “A Day in the Life”
Just as the album opened perfectly, so too can its finale not be improved upon. Lennon’s solo work would often make the most laughably simple social commentary, but here he sketches in loose word pictures that evoke rather than lecture. George Martin’s collapsing sound collages and pioneering suite structure only enhance the epic, symphonic grandeur of Lennon’s ambition, and never again would the artist come closer to grasping the heights for which he reached.
“Within You Without You”
In recent years, the Beatles’ flirtations with Indian culture and music have come under intense scrutiny over questions of appropriation. Such debates are necessary and provocative, and they force one to think about the ways in which music’s natural state as an evolving artform that builds on past sounds can be viewed within ethical frameworks. But none of this is why “Within You Without You” stands out on Sgt. Pepper. Vastly inferior to Harrison’s previous experiment with sitars and Indian musical structures, “Love You To,” the track also points to a recurring theme in the Beatles’ group and solo work of some of the richest musicians of all time idly speculating about a life without materialism. That Harrison wrote it not even a year after bitching about his tax returns makes the track’s droning pretension all the more hollow.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
Given how fast the album’s concept collapses into just another Beatles LP, the late-stage reprise feels less like a means of bringing things full circle than an awkward reminder of a conceit long ago forgotten by the time you reach the penultimate track.
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
The likes of “Good Morning Good Morning” may be caterwauling exercises in noise, but they have a strong firmament to support the boyish experimentation. No such luck for this exasperating number, maybe the single-most skipped track on a canonical single-LP album. Sounding more like a collection of sound effects than a real song, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” has the dubious distinction of being the loudest, most chaotic work of filler ever produced.
You can listen to Jake’s version of the album here: