Was it really 50 years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play? More or less: The Beatles eighth studio album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” hit British record stores on May 26, 1967, and came out in the United States seven days later, on June 2. Anniversary tributes are busting out like holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, including a six-disc megillah with rehearsal tracks, alternate takes, videos, and the entire album in both stereo and mono. (Hipster alert: A lot of cognoscenti think the mono version’s better.)
Is this the greatest album ever released? Of course not. Is it the best Beatles album? Opinions vary; see below. But does it stand as the single greatest record launch of all time? It’s hard to argue otherwise.
The pot had been boiling for months. By 1967, even your grandparents had to acknowledge that the Beatles were the best and most influential music act of its generation. The band retired from live performance in August 1966, exhausted and unable to hear themselves over the din of fans. That same month, they released their most radical LP to date, “Revolver,” a work that veered from the classicism of “Eleanor Rigby” — the first Beatles song on which the group itself didn’t play — to the mountaintop mind-muckery of the album’s closer, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Then they retreated into the studio for nearly a year, desperate to take advantage of recent breakthroughs in recording technology.
During that absence, only two songs emerged to hint at what was going on behind the high walls of Abbey Road Studios: “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” released as a double A-side single in February of 1967. These stood as the sharpest evidence yet of what constituted a “Paul song” (winsome charm, sing-along nostalgia) as opposed to a “John song” (swirling surrealism, weary regret), and they further whetted the public appetite for whatever it was they were creating with producer George Martin.
Meanwhile, the world and pop culture were charging ahead, propelled by a youth movement that seemed to tear everything up and start over every three months. Even before “Revolver” came out, Dylan had released “Blonde on Blonde,” his two-disc masterpiece. The Beach Boys had released Brian Wilson’s sonic summit, “Pet Sounds,” an album that Paul McCartney listened to obsessively in the months leading up to the “Sgt. Pepper’s” sessions. The Rolling Stones were at a ferocious early peak with “Aftermath,” “Between the Buttons,” and a raft of top-charting singles. Those who dismiss the Beatles’ competitive streak do so at their peril.
So the new album had to be the Best Thing Ever, and it was greeted as such. British critic Kenneth Tynan called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation” — take that, Mick and Keith — and radio stations played the album from beginning to end, over and over. (There were no singles released from the album — a notable first; you took it all or not at all.) Jimi Hendrix, riding the contrails of his just-released debut “Are You Experienced,” opened a London show with the album’s title cut; McCartney was there and called it “the ultimate compliment.”
Art rock was upon us, and nostalgia retooled as an arch arrow of hipness, and a lot of pharmaceutical-induced psychedelia. (George Martin to McCartney, years later: “Do you know what caused ‘Pepper’ ”? McCartney: “In one word, George, drugs. Pot.”) “Revolver” had begun the process of moving away from lyrics celebrating romantic joy and heartbreak, and the only love songs on “Sgt. Pepper’s” are “Lovely Rita” and “When I’m Sixty-Four,” both rollicking McCartney story tunes.
In fact, the whole album feels more McCartney than Lennon, more Superego than Id. The idea of creating an “alternate band” was largely Paul’s, a way to flee fame — to flee being “the Beatles” — by becoming someone else. For a record that was accepted by everyone in 1967 as the future of pop music, “Sgt. Pepper's" is focused almost completely on the past, through old-timey song pastiches and rococo instrumentation, the rogues gallery of celebrities on the cover, the Edwardian peacock costumes on the band members. The group was running away from modernity, too, and, in a real sense, from rock ’n’ roll.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was exquisitely of its time in being thought of as ahead of its time; perhaps that’s why it sounds dated now. The self-indulgence that licked around the corners of the album almost consumed the follow-up, “Magical Mystery Tour,” released late in 1967 and the group’s single weakest LP. (The Beatles did self-indulgence right — or at least much better — by retreating to their separate corners for 1968’s “The Beatles,” a.k.a. “The White Album.”)
By the mid-1970s, mere years after the 1970 break-up, it was already becoming a critical article of faith that “Sgt. Pepper’s” was an important album but maybe not a great one. The vaudeville stylings had palled; “She’s Leaving Home” seemed maudlin next to songs like the Kinks’ “Polly,” which has less sympathy for the runaway daughter than for her mother; the 1978 “Sgt. Pepper’s” movie, an all-star disco-era abomination, may have been the final nail in the coffin. Psychedelia was dead; punk — short, sharp, and shocking — was in.
After a while it came to seem that there were only two undisputed classics on the album, both largely Lennon’s: “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life,” the latter a work that stands majestically outside the parenthesis of the album’s concept and exists in a parallel universe of its own.
Making claims about which is “the best Beatles album” — as opposed to “your favorite Beatles album” — is always a dicey prospect. Still, by the turn of the millennium, “Revolver” stood at the top of many critics’ lists, followed closely by the earlier “Rubber Soul.” Two albums that captured a protean group at the moment they were transforming from being merely a great pop band into something mightier and more meaningful and that balance at the fulcrum of craft and experimentation. (“Revolver” remains my personal favorite, but it’s all good. Not long ago, I held an informal Twitter poll asking people to pick one — just one — Beatles song to take to the desert island. I got dozens of responses and no repeat titles. That’s how strong the body of work is.)
This is one of those choices, though, that says more about one’s generation and individual tastes than about what you’re choosing. A few years back, when one of my kids was going through a high school-era Fab Four jag, she reported that she and those friends who were into the Beatles — many of her peers weren’t; it had a lot to do with which decade their various parents had come of age in — agreed that “The White Album” was the toppermost of the poppermost. The most varied, the hardest rocking. Perhaps it’s just the Beatles album that makes the most sense to a young listener navigating the fractured pop landscape of today.
And just this morning, thinking about the column I was writing, I asked my other grown child what, in her opinion, was the best Beatles album. “Sgt. Pepper’s,” she said, without missing a beat. I was a little shocked, but maybe I shouldn’t have been. Maybe I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, a little better all the time.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.