It Was 50 Years Ago Today: ‘Sgt Pepper’ Taught the Band to Play

August 1, 1967
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles
#1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, July 1 – October 13, 1967

For all its scope and acclaim, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has never been one of my top Beatles albums. At the height of my Beatles obsession, it would have been Abbey Road, whose sidelong suite was just as ambitious as Sgt Pepper, but more focused, more rock ‘n’ roll.

Nowadays, I’d probably name Revolver as my favorite — innovative but less show-offy, which makes the bolt from the blue that is “Tomorrow Never Knows” all the more effective. But while I love many songs on Sgt Pepper, and I appreciate its influence and experimentation, it’s almost too intentionally monumental to register as something so personal as a favorite.

Then again, Sgt Pepper purposely distances itself from listeners. After all, its central conceit is that it’s not a Beatles album at all, but a performance by the eponymous small-time band, which renders all of its music within quotation marks.

This sense of remove is fine when there’s a straightforward song like the title track, which avoids the perils of the dread Concept Album Exposition Vehicle by passing as a plausible bit of stage banter (and by being a pretty effective rocker regardless).

Even if the band more or less drops the “concept album” concept approximately five seconds into track two, however, there’s still the sensibility throughout of chemists in a lab experimenting with new formulas, rather than musicians crafting emotionally resonant songs.

That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its charming moments. Ringo Starr was very much the heart of the Beatles, and his sincere reading of “With a Little Help from My Friends” adds a much-needed human touch. Even so, some of that sincerity is undercut by the fact that Starr is performing not as himself, but as “Billy Shears,” frontman of a fictional band of nobodies (i.e., the opposite of the Beatles).

On the other end of the spectrum, George Harrison’s sole contribution, “Within You Without You,” so commits to its Indian-inspired drone and philosophical lyrics that it feels more like a dry hymn than an engaging pop song. Likewise, John Lennon opts to focus on art rather than feelings, finding inspiration in a drawing by his son Julian (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”) and an antique circus poster (“Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!”).

Together, these three songs have the most original and distinctive production on the album — they are, respectively, a pseudo-raga, an aural acid trip, and an overwhelming carnival soundscape — but this self-conscious artiness and ambition also get in the way of emotional resonance. (Contrast with Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” originally intended for the album, which uses its distorted vocals and reverse instrumentation to evoke the past as a distorted world completely unreachable from our own.)

By all accounts, however, Lennon and Harrison were less invested in the Sgt Pepper concept than Paul McCartney, who came up with the idea. Fittingly, it’s McCartney’s songs that benefit the most from the expanded production. “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” could have been lightweight filler tracks, but little instrumental flourishes — the tamboura drone in the former, the semi-baroque harpsichord on the latter — add sonic texture that enriches the songs. Likewise, the soaring, echoey arrangement and Beach Boys-esque vocal harmonies transform the goofy “Lovely Rita” into an evocative depiction of dizzily falling in love.

The cutesiness of “When I’m Sixty-Four” may turn off some listeners, but McCartney’s oscillation between anticipation of his golden years and fear of aging (“Will you still need me? Will you still feed me?”) gives the song a poignant undercurrent beneath the stagy music-hall style.

In the rest of the album, it’s Lennon who adds these sort of counterpoints. On “Getting Better,” he undercuts McCartney’s optimism with a dry “can’t get no worse.” On “She’s Leaving Home,” McCartney’s sympathetic portrait of a young woman’s coming of age, Lennon comments on the action from her parents’ point of view, making her departure more bittersweet and heartbreaking. And on his own “Good Morning Good Morning,” the most straightforward rock song on the album, he scoffs at the idea of Sgt Pepper as a profound musical and cultural statement: “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay.”

Despite that blunt refrain, however, the album’s final track proves that Lennon, and the Beatles as a whole, did have something worth saying. “A Day in the Life” is a true Lennon-McCartney collaboration, cutting between the former dryly reciting observations from the external world (news he read, a film he saw) and the latter’s internal monologue of getting ready for an ordinary day.

The contrast between Lennon’s wordy, removed, and atmospheric verses and McCartney’s simple, bouncy, and personal section — bridged by an escalating orchestra on the verge of collapse — encapsulates why the two songwriters worked so well together. It also demonstrates how the Beatles’ (and producer George Martin’s) best experimental impulses could enrich the meaning of the song rather than just serving as avant-garde window dressing. “A Day in the Life” comes together so naturally, yet to such staggering effect, that it transcends the album’s gimmicky concept. It’s a moment of truth after 12 tracks of playing dress-up.

The Beatles knew they couldn’t top “A Day in the Life,” or outdo the over-the-top sound of Sgt Pepper. Wisely, they opted to switch tack the following year, stripping down their style on The Beatles (aka The White Album) and “Hey Jude.” The Beatles had needed Sgt Pepper to give them permission to experiment. Afterward, they were able to carry on expanding the boundaries of rock ‘n’ roll, but in a less showy, more holistic way — and as themselves.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.

About Sally O'Rourke 205 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.