Along with having been the most talked about band of their time, The Beatles continue to attract attention in the modern day. Most recently, the late-October re-release of the band’s 1966 album Revolver had reignited debates surrounding the work of England’s most well known musical exports.
As a person who has spent over half their life conducting analysis on the work of The Beatles’ in some capacity, I myself have inevitably formed some strong opinions over time regarding the band and their seven years of recorded output.
The band itself requires little in the way of introduction, as during the mere decade of their existence as an active group – only seven years of which they were a recording act – John, Paul, George, and Ringo created some of the most innovative and revolutionary pop music ever recorded.
One album in particular, however, has attracted a separate degree of attention over the ensuing decades since its release. That album is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released in 1967.
Its release coinciding with a growing acceptance of rock and pop music as legitimate means of artistic expression, Sgt. Pepper was lauded by critics upon release, rapidly consumed and subsequently extolled by musicians and fans alike, and ushered in as a mainstay on “Greatest Albums of All Time Lists” by the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who venerated it at the time of release.
Time is a harsh mistress however, and the ever-changing musical and cultural landscapes inevitably affect our perception of work, even that created in the midst of entirely different times altogether.
But seeing as how The Beatles were no ordinary band, much of their material holds up remarkably well today over half a century after the fact – Sgt. Pepper included.
But with respect to the creatively progressive, sonically lush, and monumentally influential piece of work that the record clearly is, I am inclined to assert one of the aforementioned strongly held opinions:
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not the Beatles’ best album.
Perhaps that’s a stance you’ve heard before, one which you may even share yourself. By now it’s not exactly considered heresy to posit that the Fab Four may have surpassed even one of the greatest achievements in the history of recorded music.
The thing is, not only should Sgt. Pepper not be considered The Beatles’ greatest album, it likely wouldn’t even crack the top 3 of their discography as a band from a strictly musical standpoint.
This is said, not to be subversive and not of any underlying, subjective contempt harbored toward the record. On the contrary, the album contains many exceptional tunes, one of which happens to be a personal all-time favorite for this writer, as well as the closing track of this album.
But to truly entertain the notion that Sgt. Pepper is The Beatles’ greatest album, from a musical standpoint, would be an absurdity. While yes, personal tastes are bound to vary, in no rational, objective universe should that be the general consensus.
Revolutionary on a musical, cultural, and socio-economic scale? Absolutely. One of the greatest albums of all time? Beyond the shadow of a doubt. But better than Revolver? Abbey Road? or even The White Album? Not in this lifetime.
One might call it their most musically progressive or inventive record, and there’s certainly an argument to be made there. But what is it for which The Beatles remain most enthusiastically lauded today? Their songs were, in the eyes of many, the greatest ever written.
While flashes of such brilliance are apparent throughout Sgt. Pepper’s 40 minute runtime, one could reasonably surmise that this distinction wasn’t earned through the timeless, impeccable strength of the song craft demonstrated with “She’s Leaving Home.”
Consider the big picture: Is this really a tighter batch of songs than that found on Revolver? Abbey Road? Sure, The White Album boasts significantly more lows in the form of gratuitous, experimental, exercises in self-indulgence throughout, but the highs are some of the highest to ever be attained by the foursome.
There’s even an argument to be made that the scatelogical madness and chaotic apathy of the self-titled LP have, over time, made for a more organically cohesive, and perhaps even bafflingly unified piece of work than that of its predecessor – a project manifested by a similarly disconnected and generally apathetic group of musicians.
As part of the aforementioned big picture, consider where The Beatles were as a band during the creation of Sgt. Pepper. They had recently announced their intention to cease touring, a notion believed by many to have been preposterous.
George Harrison was embarking upon deeper explorations of Indian music, attempting to push the aesthetic of the album in more experimental directions. McCartney, the original source of the album’s loose concept, would dominate the proceedings creatively.
The sessions were rife with use of drugs – particularly psychedelics such as LSD which were en vogue within the counterculture during that time – and the ambitious scale of the album made for extensive sessions of overdubbing and recording session players.
Drummer Ringo Starr has been particularly critical of the sessions having remarked, “The biggest memory I have of Sgt. Pepper… is I learned to play chess.”
Perhaps the most significant incongruence during this time, however, was the state of principal songwriter John Lennon, who in later years revealed he had been depressed during the period.
The singer’s increased use of LSD began to affect his demeanor according to those around him, and just a year prior he had faced immense backlash following remarks that The Beatles had become “bigger than Jesus” in terms of popularity.
Lennon has since been highly critical of much of the work comprising Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, referring to one of his best known songs “Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds” as “abysmal.”
Additionally, he referred to “Good Morning Good Morning” as “a throwaway piece of garbage,” and said of McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “I would never dream of writing a song like that. There’s some things I never think about, and that’s one of them.”
Lennon’s distaste for much of his own early material is well documented, but the songwriter’s disdain for the more mundane proclivities of his writing partner’s approach to the craft have been delineated time and time again.
“He makes them up like a novelist,” Lennon once said of his former bandmate with regard to Sgt. Pepper cut “Lovely Rita.” “These stories about boring people doing boring things – being postmen and secretaries and writing home. I’m not interested in writing third-party songs. I like to write about me.”
It’s faults notwithstanding, however, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still stands head and shoulders above a good 95% of music which has ever seen release.
The carnival-out-of-thin-air manifestation of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” was a sonic and conceptual anomaly at the time to say the least, and the abstract half-narrative baked into Lennon’s “Good Morning Good Morning” complete with hierarchical representation from several groups of the animal kingdom is as essential to the musical interest of the tune as is Ringo’s understated drop-of-a-dime shifts in time signature which drive the number relentlessly to its finish.
The concept itself; McCartney’s meticulous and discerning instinct for melody and arrangement; the psychedelic and Indian influences; Lennon’s sharp cynicism; the technological innovations; these are only some of the elements which coalesced to produce one of the most iconic and musically astonishing statements in the history of music.
And all this is failing to even consider the closing track on the album and the high point in the band’s already extraordinary catalog – “A Day in the Life” – the definitive meeting of the minds between two of the greatest songwriters to ever live: John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
Notably, two highlights in the Lennon/McCartney songbook – “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” – were also recorded during this time. However, the band opted to release the cuts as a double A-side single rather than include them as part of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Music itself, as an abstract form of artistic expression, can be difficult to quantify. But this writer can say with the utmost certainty that had “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” been included as part of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, that the record would have qualified unequivocally as the greatest piece of work to which the Liverpudlian foursome had ever inscribed their names.
This unfortunately was not the case, leaving the album an immersive, revolutionary masterwork lacking the shelf-life to maintain top billing among its contemporaries through the eons.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is undoubtedly an essential work, and a pillar upon which the iconic career of The Beatles continues to rest, at least in part. But would I recommend one start with Sgt. Pepper? Not necessarily.
This writer is but one of billions of listeners, but upon request of a recommendation, I would posit that one begin with Abbey Road and work Revolver in as well before taking the psychedelic plunge into Pepperland.
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