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The Beatles 1967 album Sgt Pepper is often cited as the most influential and important album of all time. In what I consider to be a reactionary backlash to this praise Sgt Pepper is also often cited as one of the most over rated albums of all time.
This year this monumental album turns 40 years old. So where does it stand now? In 2003 Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as the #1 album of all time. It doesn’t fair quite as well on the popular music rating website Rate Your Music where it ranks #27 of all time which is behind four other Beatles classic albums Revolver (#1), Abbey Road (#2), The White Album (#10), and Rubber Soul (#21).
Personally while it’s not my favorite Beatles album (that honor has to go to The White Album) I do believe it is the most important and most influential album of all time and I do rank it above Revolver, Abbey Road, and Rubber Soul.
I’ve heard some people say it doesn’t hold up well with time but I disagree entirely. I think this album is absolutely timeless. I don’t think the songs sound like they are from the 1960s necessarily. They sound like they are from the future and the past simultaneously.
I believe all 13 songs from this album to be absolutely essential to the album and this is a very rare thing. What set this album apart from most of the albums that came before it is that it truly plays like an album. While definitely somewhat in debt to The Beach Boys classic Pet Sounds, Sgt Pepper takes things a big leap forward. In many ways I still feel that Sgt Pepper is the perfect cohesive album. It doesn’t take the “concept” and wear it thin but it also holds together as one work very well despite, and maybe because, the fact that the songs are of such varying styles.
Song by Song Breakdown:
#1 Sgt Pepper
The album starts off with the crowd noise which goes into the first song which shares the same name as the album: “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” This is a great song and also sets up the rest of the album as part of this loose concept of watching a band perform. This is all made to come together even more by the later inclusion of the Reprise of this song! Paul McCartney came up with the idea of the Beatles pretending to be this different band. The idea being that they could really branch out into all sorts of different styles with no limitations. They could also break free of their image. There’s quite a few layers to the idea but it’s also a very simple idea that isn’t overbearing unlike some later prog rock attempts at “concept albums.”
#2 With A Little Help From My Friends
This track was written by lead songwriters and singers Paul McCartney and John Lennon specifically for the drummer Ringo Starr to sing. This adds another layer to the lyric “I get by with a little help from my friends.” This song was a hit for Joe Cocker (his cover version was used on television program The Wonder Years.) It also contains a reference to marijuana with the line “I get high with a little help from my friends.”
#3 Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
This song is inspired by LSD in my opinion although Lennon denied this and said it was merely inspired by his son’s painting. Many years later McCartney admitted the influence of LSD on this track. This song is often cited as a prime example of 1960s psychedelic music. Besides the other worldly fantastical lyrics the song has a dreamy quality to both the music and the vocals. This song uses a flange effect on the drums and the bass is very prominent in the mix.
#4 Getting Better
There’s so many great things about this track I have a hard time deciding what to talk about first. One thing that really does stand out for me though is use of sitar in this track. It’s subtle and yet very effective. A great example of the sort of unique tracks on this album that don’t really have any direct comparison to anything else in rock music, even to this day. I think the sharp down stroke style used on the guitars in this track has been extremely influential in rock to this day.
#5 Fixing A Hole
This is another amazingly unique song that has so many layers and so much to discover. I’m still hearing new things in it now and I must have listened to it over 1000 times. The harmony vocals are absolutely incredible (listen to the right side)
#6 She’s Leaving Home
This song features McCartney and Lennon on vocals but no Beatles play in the instrumentation. The song was scored for classical musicians. The twists and turns in this album are startling but they somehow all make sense. So much variety. All beautifully and masterly done.
#7 Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite
Lennon got all of the lyrics off of an old circus poster he had. A great example of the avante garde attitude of the Beatles at the time. I like to picture this as the wild place she goes after she leaves home. I don’t hear 60s when I listen to this track. I hear another time, another place. A warped distorted but still very relevant version of our own reality. This song is absolute psychedelic weirdness. It’s overflowing with ideas and imagination. The instrumental breakdown after “Henry the Horse Dances the Waltz” and at the end of the track includes bits of real circus sounds which were all cut up and taped back together randomly. This type of thing you could do quite easily today with Pro Tools but in 1967 it was a very inventive and creative technique. The way it was done also lends to it a timeless quality that isn’t connected to any particular recording technique or trick. This sort of experimentation has been very influential on countless artists.
#8 Within You Without You
This is probably the least popular song on the album amongst your average rock fan because unfortunately too many people have a hard time opening their minds towards other types of music. This song, just like “She’s Leaving Home”, features no Beatles on the instrumentation. The music is all recorded by Indian musicians under the direction of George Harrison. Harrison sings and wrote the music. This song to me is absolute essential to the album. “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” should have opened your mind a little bit but this one should really blow your mind right out of your head. You are now in a completely different world. This is an album that deftly takes you all over the world with an incredible journey through the middle of your mind. I really don’t think I’m overstating this or exaggerating. I simply feel if you don’t hear this, then you haven’t really listened to this album and fully experienced it. I think in some ways this is the most psychedelic song on the album. It’s a true journey and it’s very beautiful. I believe the laughing at the end of the album symbolizes your average person who laughs at things that are different or thoughtful.
#9 When I’m 64
As of this writing Paul McCartney is actually 64. As far as out as the last track takes you, this one places you right back somewhere else entirely. Such a strange trip, isn’t it? This is another song of many on this album that is not guitar based. The Beatles really were experimenting with instrumentation a lot on this album. This instrumental experimentation has been extremely influential on many bands
#10 Lovely Rita
This is just an excellent fun song. The lyrics are fantastic. There are so many just out of this world sounds going on, really listen to everything going on in the mix. And for God’s sake, listen to the reverb on those backing vocals. Awesome. I also just absolutely love the way this song ends with all of the weird vocalizations with the delay. They’re just having a great time making this track that enjoyment directly leads right into my ears.
#11 Good Morning Good Morning
This is probably my least favorite track on the album if I have to choose one. That being said it’s still a great song. I’m a big fan of the time changes and of Paul McCartney’s searing Hendrix like guitar solo.
#12 Sgt Pepper (Reprise)
The sound of a rooster leads directly into a guitar squeal. One of the coolest segues ever. This version of Sgt Pepper is like the first except it rocks a lot harder. This is a great way to tie together the album and lead into the grand finale.
#13 A Day In The Life
This may be the greatest song ever written. In my opinion it is just that. Certainly a fantastic way to end an album. The orchestral buildups are genius and perfectly capture the feelings that could never be put into words. The song itself is can sometimes sound deceptively simple but there’s so much nuance. So much you can hear even on the 1000th listen.