twenty forty years ago today…
For anyone who missed the Summer of Love by virtue of not being born yet, trying to understand the enigma surrounding Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band poses a bit of a challenge. After all, from an objective distance there’s a good case to be made that Revolver, Abbey Road and maybe even Rubber Soul are all stronger albums, pound-for-pound and song-for-song. So why is it that the Paul McCartney-driven quasi-concept album that was released in North America 40 years ago today gets all the attention?
It’s all about timing. Release Sgt. Pepper too early and its sonic playfulness and experimentation would be completely ignored by an audience looking for the next “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Release it too late and dozens of other bands would have caught up and past it, rendering the album insignificant. But the summer of 1967, an entire generation radicalized by Vietnam into an explosive counterculture was waiting for its iconic heroes to speak to them.
The story of the Beatles is the story of the Baby Boom is the story of the 1960s. The three are completely inseparable and largely one and the same. They all began with teenage fanaticism, young and fun but still fitting within existing power structures and traditions. But very, very quickly things changed, the quest for identity in a haze of experimentation, idealism and drugs. All three reached their cultural high at the exact same moment – the summer of 1967 – but even then the cracks were beginning to show. None would survive the following 36 months intact.
Some might consider Sgt. Pepper the last album that the Beatles made together as a cohesive group. Others point to it as the moment when Paul’s vision of the band ascended and John’s interest in the whole “rock and roll” thing began to wane. But those tensions only reveal themselves in hindsight; at the time, Sgt. Pepper must have been a revelation. With innovative multi-track recording techniques that placed more instruments into the songs than most fans ever knew were necessary, to the sense of discovery in the album’s playful theme and design (perhaps the most famous album artwork ever), it’s no wonder that it was treated more like an event than simply an album. It also explains its place as one of the best and most important albums of all time, understood as such from the moment it was released (Times critic Kenneth Tynan hyperbolically described it at the time as “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization”).
And while much of its context is lost to my generation, and while I may hold other Beatles albums in slightly higher regard, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still holds countless treasures worth celebrating. In honour of its birthday, here’s my five favourite moments from the album:
In the sky
“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” – 1:00
Forget the whole question of whether or not the song is about drugs (I take John’s word that it’s not): the real question here is how Paul gets his VOICE so incredibly high. The band’s secret weapon was always how well John and Paul’s voices fit together, but here it’s where they split apart and Paul harmonizes that the song blows minds.
Our baby’s gone
“She’s Leaving Home” – 1:46
One of Paul’s most beautiful songs, the moment that gets me every time is the line “Our baby’s gone,” which is followed by this string flourish, the most perfect melodic representation of a heart’s collapse that I’ve ever heard. It’s sharp, painful and then falls down in tears.
Henry the Horse dances the waltz
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” – 1:00
Not only is the line about a horse dancing the waltz wonderfully kitsch, but what’s even better is that it’s followed by an actual waltz, complete with a cavalcade of circus sounds that sound as twisted as they do wondrous. One of the most surprising moments on a surprise-filled album.
Getting very near the end
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)” – 1:17
I can only imagine sitting down and listening to Sgt. Pepper for the first time, on vinyl without the track listing. I probably would have presumed that the reprise of the title track was the end of the album; what a wonderful shock, then, to find that there was still a coda to come. In an album full of great transitions between songs, for some reason this one is still my favourite, although maybe that’s because I know what’s about to come next.
Woke up, jumped out of bed
“A Day in the Life” – 2:15
I’ve heard people describe “A Day in the Life,” arguably the greatest of all great Beatles songs, as the moment where John upstages Paul’s silly concept album with something truly important and groundbreaking. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I do think that it’s Paul’s interlude that elevates the song to classic status. It adds a change of pace, a different voice to the song, and a sense of the dreamlike. And the moment where it cuts in is note perfect, right and the end of the building crescendo of noise that, to someone in 1967, must have sounded quite unlike anything they’d ever heard before. At its climax, just when the speakers can’t take any more of it, it gives out to a simple piano and the sound of an alarm clock. Perhaps my favourite single moment in the Beatles catalogue.