It was 50 years ago today that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” hit the shelves of British record stores, giving the Summer of Love an explosively colorful beginning. And what a 50 years it’s been: One of the 15-or-so best-selling albums in music history, it has been hailed as the greatest album ever, parodied by great artists and imitated by greater ones, and endlessly covered and re-imagined.
But in the greatest-rock-album-ever debate, or even the great-album-or-overrated-schlock debate, “Pepper” seems vulnerable to reappraisal—at least at first glance. It lacks the seriousness of a “Dark Side of the Moon” or “OK Computer,” and a cursory review of its track list against those of later Beatles efforts like “Magical Mystery Tour” or “Abbey Road,” each packed with fan favorites, might give the impression of a consistent and entertaining album, but a quirky collection of novelty tunes. Can “Pepper” be the all-topping summit even for the Beatles, let alone for modern music, when only its finale “A Day in the Life” really stands as a greatest-Beatlesong candidate?
Rock mythologists have certainly exaggerated the revolutionary status of “Sgt. Pepper.” It did not first prove that rock could be “serious”; it did not introduce the orchestra to rock; it did not attempt never-before-seen song structures. The previous two Beatles albums, “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” as well as the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Bob Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home,” had already done much of that work. It was not the first concept (or halfway-concept) album, either. That idea dates at least back to Frank Sinatra’s “In the Wee Small Hours,” which he released 12 years earlier.
What “Pepper” did, though, was put those innovations to their fullest, most imaginative use. If enjoyed through headphones or halfway-decent speakers, the perfection of arrangement and engineering alone make “Pepper” an immensely rewarding listen (and re-re-re-…-re-listen). Harpsichords, guitars, mellotrons, pianos, and percussion mix so delicately on brilliant songs like “Fixing a Hole” that one might have trouble parsing them—they just blend into an unmatched sound, equally nostalgic and futuristic, chipper and contemplative. As usual, Ringo Starr plays the role of the unsung hero (except, of course, on his vocal spotlight “With a Little Help from My Friends”). His typically understated, thoughtful, and precise drumming helps make the album sound like none of its contemporaries, especially on “A Day in the Life,” probably his finest hour.
But the real sonic highlight is Paul McCartney’s bass. Having decided in mid-1966 to give up touring, the band found itself freed from worrying about live arrangements: Early takes, included in the deluxe edition released last week, reveal that the band would lay down basic tracks with McCartney on a studio piano, not bass. McCartney apparently then overlaid basslines with the famously full-voiced Rickenbacker he favored during the band’s psychedelic period. The result is stunning. On “Friends” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” for instance, the bass weaves in and out of the melody, chord roots, and harmonies, expertly gliding to each note up and down the fretboard.
McCartney was the driving force behind the halfway-concept album, gamely taking up roadie Mal Evans’s idea of an alter ego band. The album begins with his joyous and funny title track and nearly ends with a reprise, an effective and non-intrusive method of uniting an album to which he would return in his excellent solo albums “Ram,” “Band on the Run,” and “Venus and Mars.” But the idea that “Pepper” abandons its concept after Ringo’s last note as fictional bandleader Billy Shears in “Friends” is a common error. “Pepper” is not at all about the fictional band. Rather, it centers on the meeting point of the extraordinary, the spiritual, the psychedelic, and Western daily life, finding bits of the celestial everywhere it looks. The profoundly compassionate songwriting on “Pepper” explores the inner life of characters like Mr. Kite’s promoter, the parents of She who is Leaving Home, Rita’s admirer, and the various townspeople of “Good Morning Good Morning.” They each seem to exist outside time, consciously sketched as ideal types and tropes but given endearing humanity. (George Harrison’s sole contribution, the Indian-inspired “Within You Without You,” stands a bit outside this discourse, but it similarly invites at least the Western audience to take a new perspective, to re-examine their daily life through a new philosophical lens.)
In this concept, the famously gimmick-averse John Lennon is equally committed. Before “Pepper,” Lennon’s songwriting generally dominated; afterward, as Lennon’s songs grew more bizarre, McCartney took the lead. “Pepper” represents a delicate balance between the two outsize creators, with each claiming a share of highlights. Like McCartney’s unjustly overlooked “Fixing a Hole,” Lennon’s pure-imagination trip “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” captivates with both lyrical imagery and sonic brilliance. Each pack their songs with ingenuity: Understated sound effects, sprinkled instrumental ornaments, and lyrical turns of phrase abound at every turn. But the band’s ultimate strength in this peak period of 1966 to 1967 lies in the juxtaposition of their sensibilities. Lennon’s classically acerbic counterpoint “Can’t get no worse!” punctuates the McCartney’s irresistible “Getting Better.” He follows Paul’s fabulous romantic excursions “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Lovely Rita” with the relatively cynical but life-affirming “Good Morning Good Morning.”
The album’s dialectics—between John and Paul, rock and classical, reality and dissociation, cosmic and quotidian—spectacularly collide and synthesize in the album closer, “A Day in the Life,” an absolute masterpiece of songwriting, arranging, and production. Lennon’s through-the-ether vocals and weary melody give his three verses about simple experiences a deeply existentialist meaning. The simple touch of his sighed “oh, boy” signals a discontent with face-value experience and a longing for transcendence. The title track’s reprise has signaled the end of the vaudeville show. These aren’t characters; they’re John and Paul speaking straight to us. The crescendo into McCartney’s bridge, as well as its insistent piano beat, adds renewed urgency as the song builds to the album’s climax: “Went upstairs and had a smoke / Somebody spoke and I went into a dream,” sings McCartney, and then the skies open into an utterly sublime, wordless bridge. (Try to listen to it at high volume without getting goosebumps.) The instruments unite for a five-note crash back to reality, but not for long—another crescendo brings us to the album’s legendary ending, a world-shattering E-major played on three pianos at once, in which the sprawling content of the album seems to collapse into a singularity. “I went into a dream” indeed: “Pepper” argues and proves that dreams and the imagination—and, ultimately, music and art itself—are that missing link between our inescapable everyday lives and the divine.
Of course, the album doesn’t really end with that: A ridiculous two-second collage of laughter and cut-up chatter loops infinitely on the innermost record groove. Always up for a laugh, these guys.
—Trevor J. Levin can be reached at email@example.com. This article is one of two commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Read Jonathan P. Trang’s more critical take here.
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