Review Summary: Simultaneously the Beatles' most underrated and overrated album, Sgt. Pepper's stature as possibly the most acclaimed album of all time ever-so-slightly overshadows the fact that this album contains some of the most interesting pop music ever made.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most backwards album ever associated with a countercultural movement. It's an album whose (possibly) best song, “She's Leaving Home,” will make you feel like complete *** if you've ever done anything to upset your parents. Imagine how many kids, freshly departed from home to do acid and grow their hair out in some hippie mecca, had their highs brutally slaughtered by Paul McCartney and his string quartet. “***, man I'd enjoy this song about a Victorian circus a lot more if I wasn't thinking about my parents right now... they must really miss me. I should put out this joint and head on home and join the army like Dad wanted me to.”
Like Brian Wilson, whose unreleased epic Smile made cutting-edge pop music out of the uncool-to-despisable concept of Manifest Destiny, Paul McCartney made revolutionary music by severely screwing with the uncool and making it even more radical than what might have considered “cool” at the time. He politely invites a meter maid to have tea with him, but by the end of the song they're banging in a psychedelic haze; his daily routine, the last we hear from him on the album, is incredibly mundane until he gets high and trips out. Even “When I'm Sixty-Four,” the ultimate sappy Paul song, has more than a few moments that toy with your head.
Not to diss John (or George), but Paul is unequivocally the reason Sgt. Pepper is the success it is. Perhaps no songwriter has such fluid grasp of the way songs move; on nearly every one of his songs, he adds an extra hook, an extra bridge, or some other stylistic twist that surprises but inevitably resolves. Just listening to them develop is a journey by itself. “Getting Better”'s sitar-triggered drop into weightlessness, “Fixing A Hole”'s crescendoing chorus, “Lovely Rita”'s dreamy descent into lush vocal soundscapes, even those homey yet slightly off-putting bell clangs on “When I'm Sixty-Four”--all are perfectly placed splashes of psychedelia that mess with your brain just enough to put you in a temporary state of awe but never enough to straight-up blow your mind. If they did, they would give the game away; subtlety is the key to Paul's genius, which explains why he buries these moments in so much deliberately outdated Edwardian parochialism.
None of John's songs are bad, but there are few moments of true genius among them (“A Day In The Life” is the obvious exception, though guess whose idea that brilliant, nightmarish orchestral crescendo was). “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” relies on a pedestrian song structure and packs none of the fascinating curveballs that define the other songs on the album, despite an unnerving vocal take from John that slips in and out of an eerie, childlike timbre. “Good Morning Good Morning” fares better, but its best moment--that gloriously showy guitar solo--was played by Paul. His greatest contribution to the album is “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite,” certainly one of the most musically impressive songs on the album and possibly the shortest of any of the great rock epics. It's tied with “Fixing A Hole” as the album's shortest non-titular song, but only “A Day In The Life” feels like more of a journey; the “Henry the Horse” section at the heart of the song remains one of the most interesting songform experiments in rock history.
George contributes “Within You Without You,” the famous Indian-classical epic. It's the album's black sheep in that it's the only one that doesn't follow Western pop structure; though this is obviously because it's not a Western pop song, it also provides a sort of free-flowing space for the Beatles' most introverted genius to show off his chops and his capacity for experimentalism. It's no coincidence that it's the album's longest song (“A Day In The Life” is technically longer, but the final chord is struck only about four and a half minutes into the song). It's George's time, and he takes advantage of it by crafting something bold and unique that nobody else could even dream of creating.
Ringo doesn't have any songs, but he lends his voice to the gorgeous Lennon-McCartney composition “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Ringo's voice is the Beatles' most underexploited resource, a wistful, flawed instrument that imbues its material with more humanity, if less aesthetic beauty, than any of the other Beatles could give their songs. I wouldn't go so far as to say nobody else could have sung that song--it's easy to imagine John or Paul taking the lead, perhaps not George. But the fact that they brought out the Beatles' least-used voice is one of the many narrative tricks the band pulls on Sgt. Pepper. He's taking on the role of Billy Shears, a fictional singer for the album's titular band; Ringo's performance becomes even more powerful in the context of that performance. Here, he's some fictional dude with a rough voice and little backstory aside from his role as lead singer; he's putting on a great show for the audience, liberated from the context of being a member of the greatest rock band in history and slipping wholeheartedly into the music and the emotions behind it. Nowhere does the false-band concept and its pursuit of freedom from the Beatles legacy work better than on “With A Little Help From My Friends.”
Though Sgt. Pepper is sometimes criticized for jettisoning its concept after two songs, the idea of a fictional, non-Beatles band from a bygone era makes complete sense in the context of the record. It essentially gives them stylistic carte blanche; how else do we explain the canned laughter at the end of “Within You Without You"” It's also the most obvious explanation for the album's sentimentality, which certainly borders on sappiness at times (pretty much whenever tea is mentioned, which is frequently) but is never insufferable. It's so twee it doesn't hurt; it just tingles nicely, the same pain-in-guilty-pleasure musical fans crave whenever somebody bursts into song.
The Beatles inhabit two worlds on Sgt. Pepper, namely the world of the Edwardian music-hall in which the Club Band performs and the mostly implied outside world. The latter is represented through the vignettes of British life in the song's lyrics, the anguish behind Billy Shears' vocal performance--in other words, the humanity behind the music. After the “show” climaxes with the gargantuan solo on “Good Morning” and a short reprise of the intro, we're left alone in that outside world. The haunting opening chords of “A Day In The Life” are like the cold air that greets one when they step outside a venue after a show; you're suddenly thrust back into the real world, free of the scheduled and orchestrated escapism of entertainment and back to a place where you make your own decisions and create your own amusement.
And then the song. My God, what a song. The sense of paranoia and dread in John's voice is jarring--note how increasingly agitated his voice becomes during the line “he didn't notice that the lights had changed.” Though a first-time listener might not know how, there's definitely a feeling--albeit a subtle one--that all hell is about to break loose. And it does, in the form of a clamorous orchestral crescendo that remains one of the most utterly terrifying moments in pop history. Even rock's most uncompromising purveyors of sonic horror--Swans, Throbbing Gristle, Current 93--have never matched it to my knowledge. First some ominous strings start. Then the beat suddenly drops out under you, like a submersible cable snapping, and a clamorous orchestra crescendos to fever pitch so gradually and so intensely it's impossible to predict when it'll stop. The rest--Paul's description of his daily routine, his “smoke”-induced descent into a “Lovely Rita”-like voicescape, and of course that titanic final chord--is, as they say, all history. We're even introduced to a third, possibly extraterrestrial Beatles-world in the form of the album's concluding moment of looped cacophony--it's one of pop's most inexplicable moments, and I hope it remains a mystery.
Sgt. Pepper may or may not be the greatest Beatles album--I still haven't made up my mind--but it's certainly the strongest contender for the title of greatest psychedelic album of all time. It accomplishes this feat not through sensory overload or druggy chill-out vibes, but rather by taking everything that was established about pop music and messing with it in ways that could be whimsical, sensual, trippy, or flat-out terrifying--often in the same song, and often at the same time. It's simultaneously the Beatles' most underrated and overrated album, its music ever-so-slightly shadowed by its massive legacy and making it ever-so-slightly harder to believe that it's the pinnacle of what the rock genre could accomplish. But taken as a piece of music, it's an unequivocal success and indubitably one of the most fascinating works of music ever conceived in any genre.