Album Review: The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

The album name Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is essentially synonymous with ‘masterpiece’ now. The Beatles’ eighth studio album has been credited with many things since its release fifty years ago, from elevating music to art status to creating the entire rock genre. Of course, with anything this acclaimed there’s a backlash. Many people have concluded that 1966’s Revolver is their true magnum opus. Others have entirely dismissed Sgt. Pepper’s, such as Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention with their 1968 parody album We’re Only in It for the Money or Bob Dylan, who accused it of being “indulgent”. It was even voted the 7th most overrated album in the world by a 2005 BBC listener poll.

So, is Sgt. Pepper’s a revolutionary masterpiece or an overrated vanity project? For me, it’s neither (I’d give the former title to Revolver and the latter to The White Album). It didn’t tangibly innovate music as far as is often claimed. Revolver was a much bigger leap, both for technology and the band’s own sound. Plus, other artists at the time had been making significant progress. Sgt. Pepper’s was heavily inspired by the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out! (a way more experimental record released a year earlier). However, it’s probably still the Beatles’ most important album. Even if it didn’t achieve everything it’s acclaimed for, everyone was still convinced it did. As a result, other musicians realised they could achieve the same. Music had been advancing for a while, but it was Sgt. Pepper’s that drew attention to this and paved the way for further advancement.

Regardless of its place in history, Sgt. Pepper’s is a fantastic album. The concept alone is a testament to the Beatles’ creativity, making the LP more than just an unconnected list of songs. Of course, there’s the iconic cover art, perfectly reflecting the vibrant music within. The opening title track is a characteristic blend of brass and hard rock (substantially emphasised by Giles Martin and Sam Okell’s new 50th anniversary mix), moving seamlessly into With a Little Help from My Friends. John Lennon’s organ driven Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds follows – delving into further psychedelic territories – then Paul McCartney’s less trippy but more introspective tracks Fixing a Hole and Getting Better. Both musicians tug mercilessly at the heartstrings on She’s Leaving Home, before Lennon concludes side one with the head spinning Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!

A Day in the Life took 34 hours to complete, over three times the time it took to record the Beatles’ entire debut album Please Please Me. It was worth every single second.

Side two’s beginning is slightly shaky. George Harrison’s Within You Without You is a sonically gorgeous exploration of Indian music, but his previous effort Love You To was just as exotic yet far less pretentious. McCartney brings it back down to earth on the admittedly cute When I’m Sixty-Four, but its music hall sound feels quite old fashioned on an otherwise devotedly forward-thinking record. Fortunately, Lovely Rita returns the album to its experimental heights, especially during the sound effect heavy outro. Lennon cleverly satirises the mundanities of everyday life on Good Morning Good Morning, bookended by animal sounds ingeniously arranged so that each is capable of eating its predecessor. Finally, the title track is reprised with a faster tempo to neatly end the album. Well, except for one song.

If there’s one thing Sgt. Pepper’s has over Revolver, it’s A Day in the Life. I could’ve spent this entire review just talking about it. Lennon’s verses and McCartney’s middle-eight juxtapose perfectly. The verses are cryptic and surreal, with a relaxed, psychedelic atmosphere, whilst the middle-eight is down to earth and mundane, with simple, bouncy instrumentation. Ringo Starr’s drumming is without a doubt the best of his career, precisely playing “the mood of the song” through a perceptive connection with Lennon’s lyrics. The transition from one section to the next is completed through two wildly experimental orchestral glissandos, which immerse the listener unsettlingly and beautifully into the avant-garde. Finally, there’s the legendary final chord, ringing for over forty seconds and sealing the song’s place in the history books. A Day in the Life took 34 hours to complete, over three times the time it took to record the Beatles’ entire debut album Please Please Me. It was worth every single second.

So, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band isn’t my favourite Beatles album. Frankly, I’m disappointed Revolver didn’t get the same sublime remix treatment for its 50th anniversary. However, it’s still one of their greatest accomplishments. It’s bursting with creativity and personality from start to finish, drawing eclectically on so many styles, themes and moods. Its status as one of the greatest albums of all time hasn’t endured for fifty years for no reason. Regardless of any backlash, the Beatles still achieved something remarkable. Anyway, see you in twenty-five years time for the inevitable 75th anniversary super deluxe 5.1 surround sound virtual reality experience edition.