Sgt Pepper At 50: Is It The Best Beatles Album?

It was fifty years ago today (well, okay, give or take a few days) that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It’s been hailed as one of the greatest albums ever made, one that completely changed the face of music, and half a century on it’s still widely considered to be The Beatles’ masterpiece.

It’s difficult to say whether Sgt Pepper is indeed the best Beatles album; as with everything, it’s a matter of personal taste. If I had to name my own favourite album, it would probably be Rubber Soul. It’s a great collection of songs which marked a musical and lyrical shift into more ‘grown up’ territory, if you like. However, I can certainly see why Sgt Pepper is so revered.

When The Beatles decided to stop touring in 1966, many believed it meant the end for the band. In reality, it gave them a new lease of life. Without the pressures of trekking around the world, performing to screaming audiences and struggling to hear themselves play, they now had the freedom to be as creative as they wanted in the studio — and they didn’t have to worry about being able to reproduce complex musical arrangements on stage.

Paul McCartney suggested making an album which would be based around the idea of a fictional band, allowing The Beatles to adopt alter egos. He felt it would be liberating to try a different approach to making music. The result was Sgt Pepper.

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In the end, the fictional band concept only really applied to three of the songs. The title track (and album opener) introduces the idea of Sgt Pepper’s band in concert. Paul then introduces Billy Shears, portrayed by Ringo, as the song segues into ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’. After this, there is no further mention of the band until the title track’s reprise towards the end. John Lennon commented on how his own songwriting didn’t quite fit in with the idea:

“All my contributions have nothing to do with this idea of Sgt Pepper and his band. But it works, because we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared.”

It may not be a concept album in the sense of each song being linked by subject matter, but if you allow yourself to imagine that it’s all being performed by this fictional group, it does indeed work.

In terms of musical styles, Sgt Pepper was incredibly varied. There was psychedelia (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’), rock (‘Getting Better’), music hall (‘When I’m Sixty-Four’) and even Indian music (‘Within You, Without You’). The instrumentation and sound effects were also incredible; from George Harrison’s innovative use of the sitar to the beautiful string arrangement of ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and the collage of circus sounds on ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’

The Beatles’ lyrics had been steadily maturing over the last couple of albums, and Sgt Pepper featured some of their best yet. The imagery in ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is particularly evocative, with phrases like “tangerine trees and marmalade skies”, “cellophane flowers of yellow and green”, “rocking horse people”, “newspaper taxis” and “plasticine porters with looking glass ties.” It’s little wonder people believed it to be about LSD, though John always insisted the song’s title had been inspired by a picture his young son Julian had drawn. Either way, it’s a perfect example of John’s wonderful way with words.

Of course, probably the most famous Sgt Pepper track of all is the closer, ‘A Day in the Life’. It is basically two songs in one. The verses, written by John, were inspired by two stories he’d read in the paper; the death of Guinness heir Tara Browne in a car crash, and the presence of four thousand potholes in Blackburn, Lancashire. The middle section, by Paul, told the simple story of a morning routine, from getting out of bed to catching the bus. It was a completely separate song idea which had been left unfinished, and it combined effortlessly with John’s pieces.

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Everything about the song is just magical; the piano that glues everything together, Ringo’s excellent drum fills, and of course the orchestral build-up leading to that thunderous final chord which seems to go on forever. I can still remember the first time I heard it as a little girl. It was utterly mind-blowing — and this was almost thirty years after its release.

Back in 1967, not everyone liked it. For some, the radical change in both The Beatles’ music and image was too much to take. Gone were the moptops and suits, to be replaced by moustaches and psychedelic clothing. Had they gone mad?

Most fans stuck with them, however, as proven by the album’s chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. Sgt Pepper spent 27 weeks at number one in the UK and 15 in the US. Critics also gave it rave reviews.

Whether or not you think there are better Beatles albums than Sgt Pepper, its impact on popular music can’t be denied. It was by far their most experimental work to date, and it inspired countless artists to push the boundaries in their own music. At the time of its release, nothing quite like it had been heard before, which is often easy to forget from the vantage point of the 21st century.

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