Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
By 1967, the Beatles were tired of being the Beatles. They had given up touring to work full-time in the studio, where they were undertaking an arms race with Brian Wilson to surpass the Beach Boys’ auditory advances. (Wilson, for his part, had also moved on from the teeny-bopping hits of yore; while the other Beach Boys toured, he stayed home to record.) With their next project, the Fab Four would aim to trump Wilson’s defining achievement Pet Sounds with an even more impressive marvel of composition and production. What’s more; they’d do it in the guise of another band entirely.
On Rubber Soul and Revolver, the Beatles inched toward establishing the LP as rock’s preeminent format. As opposed to the legions of mere pop stars with their singles and filler, serious musicians looking to make an artistic statement in the rock genre would do it by presenting a set of songs to be consumed and considered as a unified whole. But if any album entrenched this precedent once and for all, it was Sgt. Pepper, widely considered rock’s definitive concept album. (Never mind that John swore he never paid any mind to the concept.) Paul had already written a song called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” about a fictional ensemble led by one Billy Shears when the idea struck him: If the Beatles adopted a different identity, they could do away with rules and expectations associated with being the Beatles. They could set themselves free. So he pitched the idea to his bandmates and producer George Martin, and they ran with it.
Rather than send the Beatles sprawling into their least coherent collection, though, the assumed identity streamlined the band in a way they never achieved otherwise in their longhaired, free-range period. Like any latter-day Beatles album, there are many different kinds of songs on Sgt. Pepper: finger-snapping rockers, acid trips, trad-pop romps, future-pop delights, an Indian mantra, a tearjerking ballad for the ages, and an awe-inspiring grand finale that masterfully stitches two disparate songs into arguably the most stunning composition in pop music history — Paul’s feet on the ground, John’s head in the clouds. As with any truly great work of art, each component part is an achievement unto itself; to revisit this record is to be continually surprised and inspired, to find your face paralyzed in a wide-eyed smile. But no matter how many ingredients they threw in the mix, everything sounds of a piece on Sgt. Pepper; the songs all bear a faint red glow, each of them gliding along in the same lucid dream state. Upon its release, Time called this album “a historic departure in the progress of music — any music,” and 46 years later its genius is only magnified. I’ve got to admit it’s getting better; it’s getting better all the time.