For decades, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has topped most lists of the best albums. Should it?
Some fans don’t even think it’s the best Beatles album, with Revolver, Rubber Soul and Abbey Road mentioned the most (articles on those three are also on this site). But, let’s take a close look at why Sgt. Pepper has been so highly thought of through the years.
The Sgt. Pepper recording sessions started on November 24th, 1966. By then, The Beatles had stopped touring, and they’d barely seen each other for about two months. John Lennon said that after acting in a film, How I Won The War, he was especially happy to get back with his friends. Earlier that year, The Beatles had recorded the extremely innovative Revolver album in which they had cleverly utilized the recording studio in many new ways. So, what was the next step?
The first song to be recorded was John Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”. It’s now considered one of his best songs, but at the time, it seemed strange. The song started with a Mellotron (an early synthesizer) , which was a new sound. It also had a varied-speed vocal that sounded a bit weird, and psychedelic elements (backwards cymbals, a swarmandal [Indian harp]) that were definitely foreign to listeners. “Strawberry Fields Forever” deserves a full article, but we’ll move on to the next major song, “Penny Lane”.
With John referencing a place he played during his childhood (the garden of a Salvation Army children’s home), it triggered memories for Paul McCartney about another place they knew, Penny Lane. The song turned into an energetic description of the sights and sounds in that area of Liverpool. “Penny Lane” has a great feel, and an excellent arrangement using a wide variety of instruments, including a piccolo trumpet in a classical music style.
The Beatles kept recording more songs, but EMI and Capitol thought it had been too long since The Beatles had released anything, so they pushed the band for a single. The Beatles agreed to release “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” as a double A-side single (February, 1967). It’s one of the best 45-rpm releases by The Beatles. “Penny Lane” hit #1 in Billboard, with “Strawberry Fields” #8. Producer George Martin said one of his biggest disappointments was that they didn’t hold the two songs for the Sgt. Pepper album. Today, most people probably add the songs to their Sgt. Pepper playlists.
The title for the album came from Paul’s idea that calling themselves Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would allow them to approach music from a different perspective. Paul wrote the title song that rocks the opening of the album, and then introduces us to Billy Shears (played by Ringo Starr). He sings “With A Little Help From My Friends”, which is probably Starr’s best vocal performance.
Although Sgt. Pepper could be thought of as a concept album, it really was more of a theme. Some of the songs obviously fit…”Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!”, “When I’m Sixty-Four”…but it was mainly that The Beatles really did open their minds (with a little help from their LSD) to extremely inventive musical arrangements with thoughtful lyrics…”She’s Leaving Home”, “Within You Without You”, “A Day In The Life”…and psychedelic visions…”Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, “Fixing A Hole”.
The album was released on June 1st of 1967. Dropping the needle on it was a memorable experience! If you were musically aware at that time, you knew that nothing like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had ever been made. It also seems impossible that an album with such complicated and intricate arrangements could have been created using a 4-track recording console!
The most complex song on the album is “A Day In The Life”. The main part is John Lennon’s “I read the news today, oh boy” lyrics that creatively lay out stories as they were found in a newspaper. Then there’s Paul McCartney’s middle-eight with the “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” part of an everyday life. Although John normally gets most of the credit for the song, it’s actually a great example of The Beatles and George Martin working together.
Paul came up with the line “I’d love to turn you on”, as well as the sweeping orchestral crescendo that connects the song’s pieces and provides the big ending. Of course George Martin turned the orchestral idea into reality, with a 40-piece orchestra overdubbed to sound like 160. Ringo developed his own creative drumming and percussion that add so much to the underlying feel of the piece. Some critics think “A Day In The Life” is The Beatles’ finest work.
Capitol Records certainly thought Sgt. Pepper was “The Greatest Ever!”…as you can see in the above promotional ad. Let’s take another look at the song list:
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
- A Little Help From My Friends
- Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
- Getting Better
- Fixing A Hole
- She’s Leaving Home
- Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
- Within You Without You
- When I’m Sixty-Four
- Lovely Rita
- Good Morning Good Morning
- Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
- A Day In The Life
There can’t be any other album that contains no singles, yet has so many songs that are well known. The imagination of the songs and the complicated arrangements stunned other musicians, because there had been nothing like it. Many artists said it opened the door to greater musical possibilities and the full use of the recording studio.
Let’s imagine The Beatles did release singles from the album.
If the combination track “Sgt. Pepper/With A Little Help From My Friends” had been released on the same day as the album it wouldn’t have been a question of whether it would hit #1, the question would be for how many weeks. The flip side could have been “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite”. The next single might have been “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” backed with “When I’m Sixty-Four”. The final fantasy single would be “A Day In The Life” backed with “She’s Leaving Home”.
Stranger Things: After this article was complete, I discovered I actually have a couple of singles with songs from Sgt. Pepper. They were among some colored vinyl records we bought in 1987 that were meant for use in jukeboxes. We had a jukebox, but never actually played these…they were just collectibles…and I forgot which songs were on them.
The “Sgt. Pepper/With A Little Help” single has “A Day In The Life” on the flip side. The other one is just like the second single I proposed…”Lucy In The Sky” backed with “When I’m 64”. They’d have been big hits in 1967!
St. Pepper was the first Beatles album to be released in exactly the same form in Britain and America. Revolver and Rubber Soul were both missing songs in the U.S. Now that they’re viewed in their complete forms, they’ve grown in stature.
So, is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the best album ever? If you look at the impact it had on the culture and the advancement it made in the recording industry, the answer is…yes. Beatles fans have their personal favorites. Solid arguments can certainly be made for Revolver and Rubber Soul, and it seems the later generations of Beatle fans often choose Abbey Road. Of course people who are not Beatles fans will make other choices for best album.
Still, the quote at the very bottom of the back cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band probably sums up most people’s reaction to the album…”A splendid time is guaranteed for all”.
Update (Aug, 2023): There was a myth that the photo on the back of the album wasn’t McCartney, because his back was turned. A recently uncovered photo shows it was indeed Sir Paul.
Update: About 50 years at the top was enough. Rolling Stone did a new Top 500 albums list in 2020. Sgt. Pepper (which had been #1) didn’t even make the Top 20! The top Beatles albums were: Abbey Road #5 (was #14), Revolver #11 (was #3), Sgt. Pepper #24 (was #1), The White Album #29 (was #10), Rubber Soul #35 (was #5). Instead of 4 Beatles albums in the Top 10, there’s now 1. The magazine‘s staff writers, and all the people they surveyed, have changed over the years. All we can do is turn the world over to the perceptions (misperceptions?) of new generations. The people who know The Beatles the best are no longer the audience for the magazine. The list is meant to appeal to a younger base.
Here’s a link to my article about the crazy new 500 Greatest Albums list: https://ontherecords.net/2020/09/greatest-albums-list/