With characteristic swagger, the Beatles warned us ahead of time it was going to be the greatest album ever made. We believed them, and they didn’t disappoint.
Fifty years ago today, on May 26, 1967, we began to listen to it; half an hour later, we began the endless debate over whether it had surpassed the Fab Four’s previous greatest album ever made, Revolver.
It isn’t that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has aged well; it’s that it hasn’t aged at all. It’s a fixed point in time, a constant in musical history. So since there’s no argument about its greatness, and the Revolver v. Sgt Pepper debate will never be settled, what is left to determine?
Answer: ranking the tracks on the album from worst to best. We’ve done that here, and invite you to fight us. Ground rules: the title track and its reprise count as one, and no one is ever allowed to dispute the fact that “A Day in the Life” is the best without getting laughed off the face of the planet.
But that still leaves 11 tracks to judge. Let’s go.
12. Fixing a Hole
In which Paul McCartney humblebrags about the farmhouse in Scotland he just bought, how much renovation it needs, and how it keeps his mind from wandering where it will go (wink). Dude, we get it: you’re a functional stoner who really likes DIY.
Worse, this is clearly Paul’s response to John Lennon’s solipsistic genius on “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the most recent single — but whereas John was heartbreakingly unsure of himself (“er, yes, but it’s all wrong”), Paul is just annoyingly cocky: “and it really doesn’t matter if I’m wrong, I’m right.”
If this song were a guest at your dinner party, you’d be yawning and looking at your watch. But this song will never be a guest at your dinner party, because you disagree and never win, and won’t get past its door. Sad!
11. She’s Leaving Home
A beautiful song famously ruined by the fact that producer George Martin took a day off and Paul had to call up a random guy to arrange the orchestration.
The story (ripped from the headlines) of a spoiled, miserable young girl dumping her parents to hook up with “a man from the motor trade” would be thoroughly affecting if stripped to its basics. But that overactive harp and cello just add way too much syrup, and by the end you’re yelling at “daddy” and “his wife” to just get over it and enjoy their empty nest already.
10. Within You Without You
In which George Harrison invents a new genre, Beatlesplaining. And to be honest, he’s the only man on the planet who could get away with looking down from his well-appointed mansion at our focus on material wealth and our lack of spiritual integrity. “Are you one of them?” Why yes, maybe I am, Mr. Harrison! Thanks for pointing it out!
Other than the sitar break in “Getting Better,” this is George’s only serious contribution to the album. I wish I could rank it higher, but even he poured scorn on his own effort by inserting that laughter at the end. He would later rewrite this song, basically, in the far superior “The Inner Light,” while John would take a few more years to drop the mic on the whole Beatlesplaining genre by writing “Imagine.”
9. Getting Better
In 1967, Paul and John were both reassessing the angry young unreconstructed Liverpool lads they once were, and this song is their therapy session.
But it’s also their excuse to brush off some of their excesses a little too lightly: Woah, you beat your woman? That’s a little beyond “mean,” my friends. It requires a little more penance than “changing my scene” and “doing the best that I can.”
8. Good Morning Good Morning
I love me some angry, scowling John, with all his confusion laid bare. In this track he doesn’t know whether to attack the brutality of the world (hence the animals at the end, each of which is the predator of the previous) or attack himself for being inarticulate and smug in the face of it (“I’ve got nothing to say, but it’s okay.”)
In real life he was stuck in bed most days, in an unhappy marriage, stoned out of his mind; here he can’t get through an ordinary day at work without smoking a joint (that’s what “time for tea” means, kids) or flirting with a random “skirt.”
There’s a better song here somewhere, but John left it all on the field when he wrote “Day in the Life.”
7. When I’m Sixty Four
For all its lightweight reputation, this song is a surprisingly deep meditation on aging from a twentysomething.
Critics like to dismiss it because it’s one of the earliest tunes Paul ever wrote — yup, he dug deep into his back catalog for the Pepper album — and because he arranged it like a cheeky 1920s music hall number. But listen through all that and you hear the heartfelt yearning: Please don’t let me grow old alone. I’ll be good! I’ll be useful!
Plus no one who’s ever seen Yellow Submarine will ever forget that 64 years is 33,661,440 minutes, or that one minute is a long time. Use them well.
6. Lovely Rita
There’s just so much to love about this relentlessly peppy tale of dating a “meter maid” (that’s “parking attendant” to you, Mr. McCartney.)
First of all, Ringo Starr’s beat is one of his toe-tapping best. Secondly, the lyrics celebrate strong working women — note that Paul is actually turned on by the fact that she “looks much older … like a military man.”
But he wouldn’t be Paul if he didn’t also happily inform us that he got frisky back at her place “sitting on the sofa with a sister or two.” You sly Scouse dog! No wonder John and Paul keep vocalizing at each other at the end, the musical equivalent of “eh?” “eh?” “eh?”
5. Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!
Good artists copy. Great artists steal. Genius artists like John take the words on a Victorian poster they just bought and stick them in a song, pretty much verbatim. Add an insanely catchy circus tune, then sit back and watch as the world over-analyzes Every. Damn. Thing. In. The. Song.
No, “Henry the Horse” isn’t supposed to be heroin, as many drug-addled contemporaries claimed — but the way John sings it, it’s like a ringmaster winking at the audience, daring them to find their own interpretation. Henry the horse is waltzing! That’s got to mean something, right?
4. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band/Reprise
The well-to-do audience is assembled, expecting an evening’s light entertainment. The curtain pulls back, revealing four lads in bright Edwardian outfits. Before they can even applaud, the audience is hit with a rocking, stomping riff that shocks them out of their comfortable seats and just happens to change the world at the same time.
Or does it? After all, this self-deprecating group has been around for two decades, and the only thing they’re guaranteed to do is “raise a smile.” They brought a brass band with them, and they do something that makes the audience laugh with relief. (The laugh was actually taken from a production of “Beyond the Fringe,” wherein the young Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Alan Bennett introduced theater-goers to somewhat savage student satire in a safe setting.)
Here we have the essential contradiction of the Beatles in one song (and a reprise in case you missed it). They wanted to make you get out of your seat, to blow the doors off, to change the world. At the same time, they couldn’t help being the adorable mop tops who wanted to hold you tight (tonight, tonight). They didn’t really want to stop the show; they just thought you might like to know.
3. A Little Help From My Friends
Oh Billy Shears, you one-hit wonder.
This may not be the best version of the famous song — that prize will always go to Joe Cocker. But it is the perfect showcase for Ringo’s fragile voice, with the other three proving his central thesis by providing warm, laughing, loving backup vocals like wingmen on a night out.
Furthermore, this is the song where the Fab Four proved once and for all they could get away with anything. There really wasn’t much interpretation necessary with the line “Mmm, get high with a little help from my friends,” and yet we still think of this song as a kids’ number because Ringo sang it with that sad puppy voice. He just wants somebody to love!
That line, by the way, recalls the fact that Bob Dylan accidentally introduced the Beatles to marijuana in 1964 because he thought they were singing “I get high” instead of “I can’t hide” in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” They’d been blazing it ever since.
2. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
Anyone who thought this song was about LSD — and decided to drop acid because of it — was no doubt disappointed by the lack of “tangerine trees” and “cellophane flowers” on a drug that is more about personal revelations than pleasant hallucinations.
Sure, John was a major acid head at the time, but he was always a bigger fan of Lewis Carrol than anything else. He would never have simply taken the acronym of his new favorite drug and found new words for each letter; that’s just too lazy a piece of wordplay. Besides, Julian’s picture that inspired the title has been documented; his classmate Lucy wrote an autobiography. Case closed.
So what is the song about? That hazy sensation of the unattainable other; a new infatuation so fragile, you turn around and she’s gone. Was she even real? Were you looking at her properly? John had briefly met Yoko at this point, but he was a shy soul underneath all that bluster and he hadn’t really seen her yet.
1. A Day in the Life
Given that Paul was the driving force behind Sgt. Pepper, it was John’s sweet and unintentional revenge to have the best songs on the album — and to write what is easily a contender for best song of all time. (Though Paul wrote the bridge, lest he ever let us forget.)
What else is there to say about “Day in the Life”? All the existential angst of human life is here: our “just had to laugh” in the face of death; our fascination with depictions of war (especially if we read the book); our preoccupation with dumb trivia that actually reveals more about society than we’d care to admit (the Albert Hall, an upper-class haven, is the yardstick for the number of holes in working-class Blackburn, Lancashire).
“We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded by a sleep,” wrote Shakespeare. The Beatles said much the same thing, except they decided to show not tell: a dream is rudely interrupted by an alarm clock, a cup of whatever, a run for the bus, a smoke, and then you fall into a dream again.
Oh yes — and more than “Lucy,” more than “Little Help,” this was the Beatles’ definitive statement on drugs, and they really went for it (listen to how Paul sings “smoke” — that’s no cigarette.)
Why would they love to turn you on? Because then maybe, just for a moment, you’ll peek behind the veil of our mundane preoccupations. And because ultimately it doesn’t matter: the big orchestral “sound like the end of the world” is coming for us anyway, reaching E major in 24 bars’ time.
No matter how each instrument gets there, we’re all heading for the same destination. BOOM. Mic drop. Fade out. And here’s a trippy bit of nonsense for you to listen to while the record skips.