‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: The Flaws and Misunderstood Genius of The Beatles’ Most Iconic Album

‘Sgt. Pepper,’ released 50 years ago June 2, is full of songs exceedingly substandard for The Beatles. That, writes Colin Fleming, is largely why it works.

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One of the great perks of being a Beatles buff is that the band left plenty of unalloyed masterpieces, and a couple of dark horses, that make for a lot of fun arguments you can have in your head, changing course when need be and reversing field like your last series of thoughts existed for the sole purpose of creating totally oppositional ones. That’s a pretty Beatle-y conceit, as if you’ve passed through that Sea of Holes in Yellow Submarine, with your previously held opinions shape-shifting in the process.

It’s not the case now, but as we mark the 50th anniversary of the June 2, 1967 release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it’s worth noting that from the time of that release until, say, the mid-1990s, this was the album you were told was, far and away, the best album that had ever been released. To question this was to go against a veritable rock and roll Commandment in which it was writ: The Band Leader Hereforth Known as Sgt. Pepper Presides Over the Greatest Musical Platter There Ever Shall Be.

As a kid, I spent an ungodly amount of time ranking The Beatles’ albums in my head. I never had Pepper first, but I always had a qualifier for my argument, which we shall come to. I started getting into the band hardcore in the early 1990s, so I was there to watch this shift away from Pepper and toward Revolver and Rubber Soul, the two albums that preceded it. A lot of that shift seemed to come from the UK, with magazines like the solid Q and the stolid MOJO really stumping for those earlier albums.

It took longer in America. If there was a poll of the best ever albums, it seemed a fait accompli that Pepper would top it. It was just a given. This was the rock record that went beyond rock records, whose import had as much—or more—to do with its timing, what it meant in the fabric of 1960s culture, what it suggested about possibilities in terms of audacious music-making. It was the “be free man” album more than any other, salt that was poured over a slippery hippie road for better traction.

But there was a big problem, and grant me a second while I don some protective headwear, because when you say anything negative about The Beatles, Beatles people flip the hell out. All the same: the songs on Sgt. Pepper were exceedingly substandard for the band.

I’ve spent enough of my life thinking about Pepper that I’m comfortable touching on where The Beatles went wrong, and where going wrong helped them go right, ultimately. Yes, Revolver and Rubber Soul are certainly better records, so far as the songs themselves go. I’d say that Abbey Road would be next, followed by the White Album, then A Hard Day’s Night—which is The Beatles’ one perfect album statement, free of any faults—with Pepper, from a certain point of view, coming in sixth.

Yes, I know: alert the hot take police, right? But sit tight a moment. The critics of Sgt. Pepper like to cite how the concept—this idea of The Beatles pretending to be another band—falls apart before we’re even three songs in. There’s a title song introducing this shit-hot military beat combo (with a flair for music hall, rather than stadium rock) that has been around for years, then a star-turn piece for one of its members, Billy Shears, who of course is Ringo Starr.

After that comes Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and the concept album idea is jettisoned until there’s a reprise of the title track, which doubles as a farewell to what is ostensibly supposed to be a concert by these guys, with the very unlikely encore of “A Day in the Life.” A song that could be an encore for the end of the world. Safe journey home, etc.

Concept albums rarely carry their concept all the way through. Just like rock operas are hardly operas. It doesn’t matter—they are a sonic framing device. Ultimately, cool as the concept is, what you’re staying for, with a rock album, is the sound. The right sound, the right songs, overrides any framing concept.

The Beatles, prior to Pepper, had gone at an insane pace. For most of their career, there had been two full albums every year, three singles with songs not on the albums, plus the live performances, the films, and scores of BBC sessions that perhaps say more about the band and who the band wanted to be and how the band evolved and how Lennon and McCartney grew as writers than anything else they formally put on tape.

But why do you think the alter-ego idea held so much appeal for the band? Beatles get spent, man—just like anyone else. You write that much for that long, and that well, and it can be hard to restock the larder.

For the first time, The Beatles were pretty hit and miss. Consider the chorus of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” just the title phrase, chanted in the fashion of a late-career Primal Scream song. There’s a degree of autopilot there.

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McCartney’s “Getting Better” is tuneful and well-produced, with clever counterpoint harmonies—a device also employed to rich narrative effect on his “She’s Leaving Home”—but it’s the bass playing that most marks the number, a case of tone over content. Sonic voice, if you will, over sonic story.

There’s a tendency now to praise all things George Harrison—he is very much a useful figure for this age—but “Within You Without You” is the song on the album that I bet many people skipped over for years. Lennon’s “Good Morning Good Morning” is a hard-charging rocker, but it doesn’t say a ton; this was a man trying to keep up with McCartney’s energy, annoyed by it in some regards, and filling out his portion of the songwriting quota.

It wouldn’t be until The Beatles went to India and got rejuvenated as writers that they’d be back in fighting-fit songwriting form. I’m going to call “A Day in the Life” the best rock song ever written by anyone, but there were more misses now, more gaps.

But there’s a funny thing about Sgt. Pepper and that’s its strange, strange alchemy: the record works in large part because of its songwriting inconsistencies. It’s not the concept that gets nudged forward, it’s this idea of something suite-like, a feeling, a vibe, an essence, a self-contained zeitgeist that is more about totality and enveloping you rather than focusing attention on individual points, which is to say individual songs.

The production by George Martin, with a huge assist by engineer Geoff Emerick, has a lot to do with this. It's like how a man of the sea will tell you that you can go to a patch of water and know where you are because it will stand out from other patches of water, even though we tend to think an ocean is an ocean is an ocean. You need only hear two seconds of Sgt. Pepper to know that you are listening to Sgt. Pepper, and that’s even if you’ve only ever heard it twice.

There’s no finer album for bass playing and bass sound than Pepper. Just as Keith Moon’s drums were the lead instrument in the Who, so it goes with McCartney’s bass here. It’s also the hardest-rocking Beatles album to date (especially in mono), and would be surpassed in this department only by chunks of the White Album and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy”) and the closing medley on Abbey Road.

McCartney’s “Fixing a Hole” is hardly top-drawer McCartney, but note that scabrous timbre, as exemplified in the serried guitar solo, which sounds like it could lacerate rock. These sonics cut very deep, deeper than rock music had before, with super high ends and low ends that felt like they might as well dip to the ceiling of hell on something like the long Lennon-voiced vibrato-of-death passage on “A Day in the Life” that sets up the final verse after McCartney’s remark about having fallen into a dream.

The album makes you feel like you’ve fallen into a dream decked out in sonic tapestries the likes of which you had never envisioned back in your waking, quotidian life, no matter how many wonderful records you listened to. So it really depends how you want to look at an album, whether it’s a song-by-song deal for you, or whether it’s something with what I think of as having a high degree of seep—that special ability to penetrate all parts of you, not just the cogitating ones, but those oriented around sensation and feeling.

A lot of people were oriented around sensation and feeling as the world, and The Beatles, headed into what became known as the Summer of Love. That helped give Sgt. Pepper legs. He became one tall fellow, Manute Bol for the rock and hippie set. And the legs grew such that they outpaced songwriting deficiencies, and eventually we had a record that was all legs, all about forever moving forward, from generation to generation, from one portion of your life to the next.

I’m still going to say that, by Beatles standards, there are some weak-ass songs here, and if they hadn’t had that whole alchemy thing working in their favor on this record, in a way it does on no other they did, we’d be talking about Pepper as the album equivalent of the Magical Mystery Tour EP padded out with another twenty minutes of music. But there are days I do think this could be the best record ever made, provided you pull a Sgt. Pepper yourself: dispense with what you know, and immerse yourself in the tapestries of a make-believe world that has cyclonic-pull in our actual one.

And good luck teaching someone else how to play that.