Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)

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Title: The band had quit performing live in August 1966, a move championed by John and George. Keen to prevent the group falling into any studio-bound lethargy, Paul came up with a series of gimmicks intended to gee his band mates along. The first was the idea they adopt another persona, one with a deliberately kooky name and who liked dressing up in colourful Edwardian military suits.

Cover: You may have seen it before. It’s quite famous.

Best song: I would need space significantly bigger than the internet to adequately articulate how good A Day in the Life is. Not only this album’s crowning glory, it’s the Beatles’ too. Fuck it, it’s *music’s* best achievement. By this point in their career, John and Paul were mostly writing separately. This, however, is a collaboration. Lennon wrote the verses (about, amongst other things, a friend of a friend who’d died in a car crash) while Paul provided the bouncy middle section about catching a bus. The orchestral linking sections were Paul’s idea, but arranged by George Martin. Whether the full lyric makes literal sense is to miss the point: it’s free association, all based on the idea of perception. Consider these lines: “I read the news today…”, “I saw the photograph…”, “He didn’t notice that the lights had changed…”, “A crowd of people stood and stared…”, “They’d seen his face before…”, “I saw a film today…”, “A crowd of people turned away, but I just had to look…”, “And looking up, I noticed I was late…”, and “Somebody spoke and I went into a dream…” The song is obsessed with what it means to subjectively experience reality. It’s existentialism as a pop song: how cool is that? The music, meanwhile, has detail and nuance in each and every aspect. Ringo proves what a superb drummer he was: never a virtuoso like Keith Moon or Ginger Baker, he instead *wrote* great drumming. Just listen how skillfully he answers John’s singing in the opening verses. Paul’s bassline dances around, giving rise and fall and texture to everything. And the orchestra… Holy shitballs, the orchestra. The two crescendos generate more energy in 30 seconds than entire power stations. The beat of silence between the end of the second example and the crashing piano chord that climaxes the album might be the single most thrilling moment in popular culture.

Honourable mentions:

* As its lyrics suggest, With a Little Help From My Friends was written by John and Paul expressly for Ringo to sing. None of the many cover versions we’ve had since have a fraction of Ringo’s everyman likeability.

* John’s dreamy, fairy-tale-ish Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds has Lewis Carroll-aping lyrics full of gorgeously anarchic references to newspaper taxis and cellophane flowers. Sadly the mix sounds a tad clumsy, with odd snatches of vocals where they shouldn’t be. (Lennon always denied that the title was a code for LSD.)

* Getting Better, by Paul, is an interesting little track. The sharp, severe guitar cuts juxtapose so well with the dynamic singing and swaggering bassline, while John and George’s backing vocals (“It can’t get more worse…”) add a lot.

* Another example of Paul McCartney’s world-beating form in the mid 1960s is the achingly stark She’s Leaving Home. The lyric is storytelling in widescreen: a kitchen-sink drama without a happy ending. It’s based on the real-life story of a runaway girl, Melanie Coe, who coincidentally had been photographed in the audience of a Beatles TV appearance a few years earlier. I always think of this song as a beautiful bit of black-and-white in this otherwise rainbow-streaked album.

* John’s Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite! is a triumphant combination of writing and production. The witty words are based on an 1843 circus poster he’d bought in a junkshop, while producer George Martin helped enormously to evoke the Victorian seaside vibe by using a harmonium and library recordings of calliopes.

* On this album, we’re hearing John, Paul, George and Ringo at the height of their (super)powers. However, by ‘George’ I mean George Martin. George Harrison is noticeably on the sidelines. His only significant contribution is Within You Without You, the second of his songs using the classical Indian idiom. It’s easily the best of them. When I was a kid, I always fast-forwarded past this track, but I now can’t imagine the album without it. The music is dark and mysterious, and the lyrics (paraphrase: “Don’t be selfish.”) twist round an elaborate melody. Just in case you think it’s taking itself too seriously, Harrison added a bit of embarrassed laughter on at the end.

* Paul’s singing on his gentle music-hall pastiche When I’m Sixty-Four was speeded up in the final mix to give his voice a boyish quality. (He was a whopping 24 years old at the time.) There are also bits of vocal business that help keep the track alive – the way Paul puts on an accent for the line ‘Grandchildren on your knee’ and the audible smirk near the end of the song.

* Another superb McCartney track is Lovely Rita, which he wrote after an encounter with a female traffic warden. There’s a stunningly uplifting honky-tonk piano solo played by George Martin (which stays only a fraction of the time you want it to!), while Paul, John and George add some funny comb-and-paper-kazoo sound effects. The whole song is made of joy.

Worst song: Nothing’s less than very good. Fixing a Hole is perhaps the least distinctive. It’s the kind of easy tune Paul could knock off with his hands tied behind his back at this point.

Notable outside contributions: Dozens of other musicians played on the title track, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You and A Day in the Life. A sax sextet called Sounds Incorporated appears on Good Morning, Good Morning. George Martin’s contribution – as producer, player, arranger, sounding board and ideas man – is *enormous*.

Review: When I was a child first getting into the Beatles (we’re talking the 1980s here), everyone seemed to consider Sgt. Pepper inarguably their best achievement. Its 20th anniversary in 1987 was maybe the reason. But in the 90s it went out of vogue for some reason, with Revolver and the White Album more popular. Therefore, whenever you hear Pepper, it’s shocking just how stupidly magnificent it is. It’s in a class with Citizen Kane and Fawlty Towers: praising it has become such a cliché because you can never praise it enough. It’s often called the first ‘concept album’, although beyond the title track cutely segueing into With a Little Help From My Friends and then being reprised near the end, it’s not a very rigourously applied concept. No, it’s in mood and feel – and now history and nostalgia – where the LP’s power comes from. The great Beatles critic Ian MacDonald argued that Pepper bettered Revolver not in form but in *spirit*, and that’s spot on. There are perhaps fewer individually great songs here, but the overall effect is stunning. It’s an escapist fantasy of an album and you never want to come home.

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, out of 10.

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