As sacred cows go none moo quite as loudly and with such untouchable gravitas as The Beatles’ eighth studio album. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band marked the moment pop music made the quantum leap from being frivolous fluff to serious artistic endeavour. Alongside their long-time mentor and producer George Martin, the Beatles were not just allowed, but encouraged to let their intuitive compositional genius run riot, and applying cutting-edge techniques made a record that’s still regularly lauded as the greatest of all time.
So why are we here? To rubbish a record that’s sleeve boasts more artistic merit than 90% of recording artists’ entire careers? Not at all. The emperor is fully clothed; the cow remains sacred. It’s just not all prime fillet steak. Some of it’s rump. Tasty rump, but rump all the same. So settle back and let the butchery begin.
13. Good Morning Good Morning
John Lennon’s disgruntled vocal is tempered by a perky, horns-heavy setting - recalling McCartney’s significantly sunnier Good Day Sunshine - and the overall effect is jarringly schizophrenic. Reflecting the spikiness of John’s splenetic rant against inane TV babble (repetitious cornflake ads, mundane sitcoms), Paul delivers a particularly stinging guitar solo, but GM² (its protest more proto-One Foot In The Grave than proto-punk) can prove as irritating as its subject matter. Even Lennon called it: ‘a throwaway… piece of garbage’.
12. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
While not bad for a bumper (the opening title track’s reprise was knocked off at the end of recording merely as an up-beat baffle between GM²’s closing cock-crow and A Day In The Life self-conscious brilliance), Pepper’s stop-gap signature tune reprise can’t realistically compete with the fine-tuned company it’s keeping. A fair enough palate cleanser, but more snippet than credible contender.
11. Fixing A Hole
Where we find a lightly toasted McCartney contemplating his navel, as THC fingers fumble for a coherent bass-line. George Martin’s accompanying harpsichord is pleasant enough, though you can’t help feeling that the only reason they’re deploying a harpsichord here is because they can. Not terrible, but rather more ‘Brian Wilson’s sandpit’ than is healthy.
10. Lovely Rita
Destined to split opinion, even among The Beatles themselves, because while it virtually oompahs along in its archaic music hall manner with McCartney giving it full-beam puppy eyes over an urban nursery rhyme lyric that veritably oozes fondue fromage, it irrefutably employs a bloody good tune while doing it. However much issue the contemporary listener might take with Paul’s instinctive Tin Pan Alley-isms, whether underground press-favouring blues rock radical, hypothetical milkman-on-his-round or John Lennon himself, they simply couldn’t avoid unconsciously whistling them. Which only made them hate them even more.
9. Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!
Intrinsically steampunk in concept, …Mr Kite! found its lyrical genesis in a Victorian circus poster Lennon discovered in a junk shop. Scoping about for ideas as Pepper’s recording schedule stretched on Lennon eyes fell upon the poster, now hanging on his home studio wall, and basically asset-stripped it for inspiration. Rising to a Lennon challenge to provide ‘fairground’ accompaniment, George Martin went to town with a kitchen-sink tape collage of calliopes, steam organs, harmoniums and comb-and-paper kazoo-ing that, while clever, lacks warmth. It’s twee, certainly, but not winningly McCartney twee. In Lennon’s cynically self-critical hands, twee becomes decidedly dark. His dry, nasal delivery doesn’t so much wink at the camera as sneer at it.
8. Getting Better
While not the greatest of their compositions, Getting Better is a textbook example of what Lennon brought to McCartney and McCartney brought to Lennon in order to turn a pair of great songwriters into a songwriting team that was truly exceptional. Pared to the bone, a single couplet nails their magic: ‘It’s getting better, a little better, all the time’ sings thumbs-aloft Paul, while John’s instinctive riposte is a characteristically withering: ‘It couldn’t get no worse’. It’s chalk and cheese, light and dark, fish ‘n’ chips, Morecambe and Wise. It’s The Beatles and it’s genius. Casual, unforced, spontaneous genius. And, appropriately enough, there’s even better to come.
7. With A Little Help From My Friends
An instant standard, …Friends again utilized both sides of the Beatles’ compositional coin. McCartney’s music hall obviousness drives the song, an honest plonking beat, a refrain that was impossible to resist, inclusive in every regard (that Ringo brays it out manfully is intrinsic to its everyman appeal; a lesson learned from Yellow Submarine’s ubiquity), but subtle Lennon nuances haunt the lyric, almost covertly, hiding in plain sight: ‘What do you see when you turn out the light, I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine’. Someone here’s been on something a little stronger than Woodbines. Latterly gutsied up by Joe Cocker it hit UK number one and was adopted as a countercultural anthem for the Woodstock generation. But like Submarine on Revolver, theoretically great as it is, there’s not a court in the land that would convict you for hitting the ‘skip’ button.
6. When I’m Sixty-Four
Wow. Where to begin… “Why is it so high?” I hear you groan, and yes, it is unbelievably twee. It’s slushy, sentimental, over-familiar from too many variety show rebores, and you probably want to kill yourself every time it’s mentioned. It defines everything that helped diminish McCartney’s legend, defining him as a counter-revolutionary, backward-looking, anti-rock totem. A Formby amongst Hendrixes. And as the BBC prepared to launch Radio One at the end of the summer, nothing sounded quite so Home Service in ‘67 as …64. But once again, what a tune. No matter how much you resist, you will recall these lyrics to your very death bed. The clarinet alone is genius. Not heard it for a while? Force yourself, I defy you not to smile. One things for certain though, 64-year olds ain’t what they used to be.
5. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Things had gone decidedly Edwardian in swinging London of late. I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet were knocking out vintage military tunics as fast as the Carnabytian army could squeeze out moustaches, Clara Bow was the IT girl and McCartney, always a man with a plan, decided to combine this à la mode nostalgia with cutting edge experimentation in the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band concept. Ostensibly, an alter ego for The Beatles to adopt while experimenting above and beyond audience preconceptions, Sgt. Pepper’s… ultimately proved to be a passing whim, but the fictional band’s signature piece perfectly combines period pastiche with psychedelicised contemporary proto-rock. It’s exuberant, exciting, bursting with raw potential and bodes extremely well for all that’s to follow.
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4. She’s Leaving Home
Prone to over-sentimentality he might be, but when he pitches it just right, McCartney is peerless. Beautifully observed in stark, unflinching, kitchen sink drama detail, despairing parents lost on the baffled side of a gaping generational divide, drip tears onto a letter left for them by a daughter who’s abandoned the life and home they’ve selflessly ‘struggled’ to provide for her to keep an appointment with ‘a man from the motor trade’. He’s probably married, wears a blue blazer, an untrustworthy moustache, and a leer like Terry-Thomas.
As Macca emotes, Lennon inserts apposite, doubtless familiar, Aunt Mimi-isms (’we never thought of ourselves’) and there’s just enough chalk for the cheese. Mike Leander’s string-heavy, harp-led arrangement is a heart-swelling, lush, end-to-end tear-jerk, and even at number four, there really is nothing wrong here.
3. Within You Without You
Other than Within You Without You, there’s not a lot of George Harrison on Sgt. Pepper. There’s was almost even less. Six months earlier, a disconsolate Harrison had threatened to split, and symptomatic of his disenchantment with his Beatle role, only offered up below-par, publishing deal-fulfilling Only A Northern Song for inclusion on Pepper. As it became clear it wouldn’t make the final cut, a reinvigorated George recorded Within You Without You on the last day of the album’s sessions. Nevertheless, of all Pepper’s tracks Within You Without You is the most evocative of ‘67’s Summer Of Love. It not only utilized Indian classical music, its lyrics (reflecting George’s absorption in the sub-continent’s devotional tradition) owed much to Hindu philosophy. George’s chiming sitars and ‘when you see beyond yourself’ lyrical mysticism define their era as effectively as paisley and incense.
2. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Its impact diminished only by familiarity, Lennon’s Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, inspired by a picture that young Julian was drawing rather than the LSD coincidentally encoded in its title, is psychedelic almost to the point of caricature. ‘Newspaper taxis’, ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’, ‘tangerine trees’, ‘marmalade skies’… We’re clearly not in Kansas anymore, Toto. The time-shift of the mood between lackadaisical verse and triumphal chorus jarred the listener from one state of euphoria to another, and offered a contemporary audience (most of whom had absolutely no possibility of ever actually sampling any of this so-called acid) a much-appreciated sonic approximation of the psychedelic experience. Lennon didn’t like it much, apparently.
There’s no accounting for taste.
1. A Day In The Life
Even in this company, A Day In The Life stands out. For a start, Ringo is great on here. Much-maligned down the years, no other drummer would have played A Day In The Life the way Ringo played it, but you literally couldn’t imagine anyone else playing it better. Other than that, well, it’s all in the construction, every facet of A Day In The Life was painstakingly planned and assiduously timed on stopwatches. The two main elements (Lennon’s “I read the news today, Oh boy”, McCartney’s “Woke up, got out of bed”) were never meant to co-exist in the same song, but despite their fundamental differences, George Martin saw to it that they tessellated perfectly. Much as he had with Lennon and McCartney themselves. What more to say? It’s trippy, topical, a joy to behold and, above all, progressive. A brave expansion of what pop could be. And, perhaps, still can be.