Retired from touring in 1966 and given the freedom to explore other avenues of creativity, The Beatles regrouped and went into full-on experimental mode, crafting a vaguely conceptual album about a fictitious band with which they could embrace new technologies and make music unfettered (to a point) and untethered (to a point) from the musical zeitgeist their previous work created. Thus was born Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the only album to ever inspire a film starring Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees. If that’s not a legacy, I don’t know what is.
It’s hard to listen to the album now without all the baggage of the accolades and write-ups and the the way the songs have been woven into popular (not to mention counter) culture. I can’t look at the album cover and not think of Zappa’s We’re Only in it For the Money, or the use of “When I’m Sixty-Four” in The Word According to Garp, or how many times I’ve heard “With A Little Help From My Friends” sung by drunk college kids in a bar, not to mention its presence as the theme music for The Wonder Hears.
Despite owning Sgt. Pepper in many iterations – I have an original US Capitol mono release from 1967 and an Apple Records UK stereo reissue from 1973, not to mention the 2009 remaster on CD – it took the brand new 50th Anniversary edition remixed and remastered by Giles Martin (George Martin’s son) to find my back to the album as a listener. And there’s a reason the accolades are there, a reason why this was the first “rock” album to win the Grammy for Album of Year. Forgetting the bookends of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” which although setting the stage are probably the most inessential parts of the album, the excitement and exuberance of making music after the band’s extended break comes through in every song. “With A Little Help From My Friends” is the signature Ringo song, a fantastic showcase that feels fully like an integral part of the album as opposed to a quick draft to give him a vocal spot. It’s been nice to see the turnaround on Ringo as a musician in recent years: it’s incredibly hard to have a sound so identifiable that you can pick a drummer out of the lineup, and his choices help make the Beatles, well…The Beatles.
I’m still kind of lukewarm on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” but the guitar tone that kicks off “Getting Better” immediately afterward makes it all okay. Although Harrison is relegated to a single song, “Within You, Without You” continues the trend of meditative, Eastern influenced tracks that point to passions he would pursue more fully down the line. The forlorn classical arrangement of “She’s Leaving Home” is a personal favorite, and in later years I’ve really come to like “Lovely Rita.” It’s always great to hear the Beatles strive for simple popular tunes, only to (fortunately) cave into their curiosity and tendency for piling on idea after idea with Martin until it resembles something only the Beatles could have pulled off. Listen to the way the end of “Lovely Rita” kind of decomposes into this weird, slightly ominous piano riff with breathing…who else would have done that?
And then there’s “A Day In The Life” which may be the best Beatles song ever written (if if it’s not my favorite Beatles song). Going from Lennon’s despondent reading of the dismal news to the orchestral explosion leading into McCartney’s “dream sequence” right back to the apocalyptic ending…the whole song is strung together as a massive encapsulation of life, right up to the piano explosion capper. Which of course isn’t the capper because unless you’ve forgotten, the band loves to take the piss out of things, so it’s only appropriate that their best song ends with a running groove snippet of Lennon and McCartney joking about being high.
Although Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is an album I love, I’ll admit even now having re-listened for the project it’s not the Beatles album I turn to when I want some Beatles. But I can’t deny the feeling of nostalgia it brings, hearing echos of my youth while finding new subtitles with the ears of someone bringing and additional 30+ years of listening to, learning, and creating music of my own.