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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – released May 26, 1967
The album that rocked pop culture. The psychedelic haze that was once surrounded it has mostly faded, but the superlative music still stands. Paul McCartney once said that the idea of the album was: Rather than having to tour everywhere to perform concerts, The Beatles decided to record their concept of a concert and pass it on to everyone. If so, it’s an epic concert that couldn’t possibly have performed on stage in 1967, as its studio experimentation abounds. And just when you think they’ve finished the concert, they provide an encore that is not to be believed.
(FYI – I have previously written a blog entry about the 50th-anniversary edition of this album. Click here to read it.)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: As the opening salvo of The Beatles’ masterwork, this number is about as unassuming and flawless as you could ask for, echoing the sense of a modest group at a bandstand on a Sunday afternoon. But watch out for those condiments!
With a Little Help from My Friends: It’s easy to dismiss Ringo’s only vocal contribution to this album, but it fits him like a velvet glove. His nonchalant delivery on an otherwise ornate album makes a nice contrast. (Compare it to Peter Frampton’s smirking version in the infamous Sgt. Pepper film.) And Ringo has said that the song’s final note was a killer for him, but as with his expert drumming, he delivers.
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds: When John Lennon let his “free-association” lyrics get too get carried away, it could be embarrassing (Happiness Is a Warm Gun); here, as in his great Strawberry Fields Forever, it served only to evoke an entire otherworld — in this case, based on a simple drawing his son Julian brought home from school one day. (For my money, the visualization of this song in the Yellow Submarine movie is about as perfect as you could ask for.) For stark contrast, check out the early version of this song on Anthology 2, where John takes his priceless surreal imagery and rattles it off unemotionally, as though he was a railroad porter announcing stops.
It’s Getting Better: Upbeat, yet matter-of-factly so. Nice counterpoint between Paul’s cheery “It’s getting better all the time” and John’s sardonic “It can’t get no worse.” And for once, John sings about his past misogyny while actually admitting to it rather than trying to make it sound romantic.
Fixing a Hole: Paul playing around. It’s an acceptable bit of whimsy, though John did the whole thing better as a solo artist in Watching the Wheels. And one can’t help but think that the song’s lyrical shallowness is what led George Burns (!!) to attempt it as a vaudeville soft-shoe in the ghastly movie version of the Sgt. Pepper album.
She’s Leaving Home: It isn’t quite as successful as Eleanor Rigby at evoking its sense of social problems, but it’s still more tolerable than many later Paul McCartney dips into the tub of bathos. Though I could live without that opening mandolin.
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!: “I want to smell the sawdust,” John Lennon supposedly told George Martin upon production of this song. From such modest hopes do great songs grow. From its foggy vocals to its backward calliope yells, this song’s seeming effortlessness lovingly evokes a carnival atmosphere. Even the song’s humble origins on Anthology 2 promise wonderful things
Within You Without You: IMHO, the most dated and dispensable track on the entire album. Like George’s Love You To on Revolver (and more than twice as long as that song), this is George in his sermon-on-the-Indian-mount phase. (It was to get far worse in his early-’70s solo albums, culminating in the downright painful Dark Horse.) The sound byte of harrumphing laughter at song’s end is probably George’s attempt to lighten the load, but it’s about five minutes too late.
(If you must listen to the song, I prefer its slightly spiffed-up version on the later LOVE album.)
When I’m Sixty-Four: Many people have taken Paul McCartney to task for his neo-vaudeville patter songs, but they’re minor gems compared to some of his solo output. This one still manages to charm, maybe in part because Paul himself has actually passed 64. Yes, we still need you.
Lovely Rita: Probably the most underrated number on Sgt. Pepper, Paul’s tale of his ongoing flirtation with a meter maid is still quite charming. It’s Paul at his crowd-pleasing best, helped along by Ringo’s drum stomp and John’s irreverent moans at the end.
Good Morning Good Morning: The Sgt. Pepper album version of this song has been criticized for its ornateness (and justly so — what’s with that bucolic kazoo?). If you want to get the sense of a hurried day followed by feet poised on an ottoman, you might try the unadorned version on Anthology 2.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise):Nice rave-up of the initial version of the song, especially when one knows what’s to come after it.
A Day in the Life: If you want a sense of John Lennon taking random images and forming them into a vision of apocalypse, I believe this is the song for you. And that is a compliment. Hold on to something and listen.
Sgt. Pepper Inner Groove: For those not in the know, if you let your album of Sgt. Pepper play to the very end, you’ll eventually hear a few seconds of laughter and garbled sound. No, that’s not the sound of Capitol Records executives laughing about their exploitation of Beatles product. The Fabs just stuck it on at the end as a little “extra” for their fans. (Very little.) The smarter approach: Listen to A Day in the Life all the way through, give it time to sink in, and then remove it from your CD player before this self-effacing sound ruins the effect.
What do you think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and/or any of its songs? Share your thoughts in the “Comments” section below. Next up: Magical Mystery Tour.