Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

The Beatles

Apple / Capitol Records, 1967

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Of all the reviews that have ever run on the Daily Vault, few have caused more coffee to be spit in the general direction of computer screens than our esteemed Founder Christopher Thelen’s C+ review of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (And yes, the “F” he gave Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans was right up there, spit-take-wise, but let’s try to stay focused here.)

For five years since Chris’s review of Sgt. Pepper’s ran, we have received a steady trickle of complaints and demands for some sort of counterpoint. I suppose the amusing part is that the counterpoint finally comes from me, the guy who inherited the site from Chris and who for years got by with only the Red (1962-1966) and Blue (1967-1970) albums to my name.

But Chris… dude. Sgt. Pepper’s is an A. Not just any old “A,” but pretty much the “A” standard by which every album that’s been issued since must be judged, given that a huge proportion of them never would have existed if not for this album. Without Sgt. Pepper’s, there could be no Pink Floyd, no New York Dolls, no Ziggy Stardust, no Close To The Edge, no Ramones, no Sex Pistols.

Would there have been a Jimi Hendrix, a Cream, a Jefferson Airplane? Yes, but their impact -- and likely, their imagination -- would have been blunted considerably if the Beatles had not paved the way ahead of them. They might well have languished in obscurity, freaks who had somehow, somewhere gotten the misguided idea that free-form creativity infused with socio-political awareness -- dare we say it, art -- had a place in popular music. Just as it could only have been Nixon who went to China, it could only have been the Beatles – those poppy, foppy, lovable, globally popular icons – who dragged the mainstream kicking and screaming toward the idea that popular music and art were not an either-or proposition. You could solve that equation in a way that included both a wide audience and innovative, challenging artistic product.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The Beatles had been driving towards an achievement like Sgt. Pepper’s through their previous two albums, taking a few tentative exploratory steps on Rubber Soul before racing forward with the highly experimental Revolver. Sgt. Pepper’s -- the first album recorded after the band formally ceased touring to concentrate on studio work -- was where they first attempted to use their new-found freedom to make an artistic statement.

The conceit around which the album was built is telling. Paul McCartney’s vision of the Beatles as a psychedelic-uniformed bar band was both parody and rejection of their clean-cut, identical-suit-and-tied formative years. The self-mocking title tune complements the visuals perfectly, a brilliantly disorienting sound collage of cocktail-party crowd noise, thumping guitar riffs, stately horns, fat gang vocals and one of Paul’s best blues shouter lead vocals.

The rest of the disc fills out the vision of a reinvented band playing reinvented music. The smartly-arranged harmonies on “With A Little Help From My Friends” might be old Beatles, but John’s emotionally rich counter-culture lyric and Ringo’s brilliantly understated lead vocal are miles ahead. From there things range farther and farther afield, from the starry-eyed psychedelia of Lennon’s “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” to the earthbound sentimentalism of McCartney’s “When I’m Sixty-Four’; from the poignant story-telling of Paul’s “She’s Leaving Home” to the otherwordly spiritualism of Harrison’s strictly subcontinental “Within You Without You.” Before it’s over you get a barnyard symphony (“Good Morning Good Morning”), a harpsichord-and-electric-guitar duet (“Fixing A Hole”), and enough big, echoey background vocals to make Brian Wilson blush (“Lovely Rita”). Not to mention quite possibly the most daring Lennon-McCartney collaboration ever in the haunting, surreal, multi-part closer “A Day In The Life.”

Almost as remarkable as the range of music to be found on Sgt. Pepper’s is the fluidity of the structure, tracks flowing into one another without so much as a cleansing breath in between. This soundtrack-to-an-uninterrupted-dream technique has been imitated many times since -- notably on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon -- but has rarely stitched together this diverse a group of songs this effectively.

With Sgt. Pepper’s, as perhaps with no other album in history, context is everything. No song illustrates this better than the oft-maligned Lennon number “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite.” Taken on its own, “Kite” is a weird little circus-freak of a tune, full of odd instrumentation and even odder lyrics, all of which ends up feeling like an inside joke gone horribly wrong. At least, taken in isolation. Taken in the context of Sgt. Pepper’s – not to mention the broader artistic revolution that it helped to fuel -- “Kite” serves the album’s virtual topic sentence, i.e. “There are no boundaries to popular music any more; we have erased them. See?”

Viewed in context, the whole of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is in fact considerably greater than the sum of its parts. “Mr. Kite” might not make the Top 25 on your iPod, but that doesn’t change the fact that the album whose creative spirit it personifies is arguably the most influential musical work of the 20th century.

Rating: A

User Rating: A-



© 2006 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Apple / Capitol Records, and is used for informational purposes only.