Happy Birthday Sgt. Pepper


I feel the need to throw my penny into the pot and publicly celebrate the 40th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the seminal album by the Beatles that was released 40 years ago today. So much has been written about this album, but here are some of my own personal highlights of a cultural landmark:

1. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Superb rock guitar; that sharpened 9th on top of the dominant 7th chord is just fantastically ‘crunchy’.

2. With a Little Help From My Friends
Somehow joyous and sad at the same time. I love the line ‘What do you see when you turn out the light? I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.’ Adding the major chord on the flattened 6th degree in the coda (the C-D-E chord sequence that ends the song) is pure poetry – and was later ripped off note-for-note by Oasis on She’s Electric.

3. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
Three key changes, two changes of time signature, multiple layers of instrumentation – they don’t write songs like this any more.

4. Getting Better
I love the way Paul’s optimistic ‘It’s getting better all the time’ is countered by John’s wryly cynical ‘It can’t get no worse’ – the fundamental difference between the two of them is captured right there.

5. Fixing A Hole
One of Paul’s most underrated songs – you can hear his mind wandering in those breezy chord changes.

6. She’s Leaving Home
A beautiful song that magically captures the heartbreak of a girl leaving home for the first time. The plagal cadence at the end is perfect – it’s an amen, a devastating goodbye, a beatiful finale to a hymn on growing up. This is my second favourite song on the album.

7. Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite
Great arrangement – you can smell the sawdust.

8. Within You Without You
The best of George Harrison’s Indian-influenced songs. I love the funky 5/4 instrumental section in the middle, and the way the tablas bring the sung section back in so deftly.

9. When I’m Sixty-Four
Always makes me smile. Especially the line: ‘Grandchildren on yer knee, Vera, Chuck and Dave.’

10. Lovely Rita
The weakest song on Sgt. Peppers. Good bassline though. In fact the bass playing throughout the album is some of Paul McCartney’s best work.

11. Good Morning Good Morning
John Lennon had a natural flair for changing time signatures, which he seems to do instinctively. This song is a great example of his effortless shifts, with (depending on how you count) sections in 2/4, 3/4, 5/4, 6/4 and 6/8. It all adds to the sense of everyday life being thrown out of whack – a theme expanded on brilliantly in the final song on the album, A Day in the Life. Also, nice the way the final chicken cluck turns into the guitar break at the start of the next song.

12. Sg. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
Great the way the reprise starts in F major and works its way back to the G major key of the first track on the album. Clever stuff.

13. A Day In The Life
The crowning glory of the album, and probably the best Beatles song of all. It’s the indefinable ‘otherness’ of the performance that gets me every time. I’ve seen this song analysed by so many people, but nobody has explained to me how Lennon captures that bizarre tone of estrangement, the floating disengagement of emotion that makes his musings on life, death, war and the riddles of existence all the more poignant. And that final piano chord is like the sound of the universe going on forever.

6 responses to “Happy Birthday Sgt. Pepper”

  1. Some very insightful musical analysis. I thought that the Beatles had finally finished off the vaults and there wouldn’t be much left to unearth – then I saw a TV documentary about the making of “Love” which George Martin and his son Giles remixed.

    If you haven’t heard it, it is breathtaking – Giles Martin is simply amazing.

  2. This is funny in that I’ve just been arguing with a friend on-line about SPLHCB. It’s in his Top 40 Albums Of All-Time and I was arguing it was one Sacred Cow I felt sure he’d hate.

    He argues that it’s a great place to be which is really important for an album now – with ipods, it’s not enough just to be a great set of songs, there has to be more to an album to keep you going back.

    My argument was that SPLHCB wasn’t a great set of songs, let alone a wonderful place to go. It’s the only concept album where the band forget the concept but beyond that I just think there is so much weak material on there.

    ‘A Day In The Life’ is pure art in Lennon’s hands but even then McCartney’s bit sabotages it. Or almost does. I still think it is a monumental song. But it could have been perfect if John had kept Paul off it…

    I was so disappointed by ‘Love’. It made musak of so much great material. Great clarity on the remastered stuff that worked though.

    Tim, not all my posts will be this negative. I just stumbled upon this post and it was a fresh discussion with a friend…

  3. No worries.

    I do think the McCartney bit adds to A Day in the Life, personally. There’s a dramatic contrast, in my view, between the ‘cosmically absurd’ insights of Lennon’s section and the everyday whimsy of McCartney’s, each transforming the other to provide something unique. It’s almost Mahlerian, if that’s not too pretentious a thing to say. Try imagining the song without it, and I think it would be diminished.

    I agree with your point about the concept behind the album falling short. But there are ‘organising principles’ throughout the album, musically, sonically and stylistically, and that’s what makes it cohere as a great work.

    And like all great artists, even when the Beatles aren’t on top form, they’re still a long way ahead of most other artists in their field.

    I don’t mind you posting negative comments – it all adds to the conversation!

  4. As I thought you would, you’ve taken the debate in different directions than my other friend. Everyone brings something new…

    My big thing about Sgt Pepper – or rather two big things – is/are that for decades it was kind of assumed by people of a certain age that it was the Greatest Album Of All-Time and topped all the lists – almost without question; and that it falls off so dramatically after the classic start.

    I think it’s fair to say that the only album that can match the start to all this is ‘Blonde On Blonde’. Maybe ‘Astral Weeks’ (thinking as I go along here…). But anyway, you reach a point where you’ve had the optimism of the opening track; the genius segue into ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ where your heart just leaps and anything from childhood seems possible; the wondrous complexity of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ which is so complex I hadn’t actually appreciated how complex it is till your comments – until then it just was (I listened to it again specifically in light of what you said…Well, I’ve been listening to the album a lot generally recently to see if my friend was right and I was wrong…); and ‘Getting Better’ which sounds like the world, everything, is already better. And then…

    er, ‘Fixing A Hole’ and for me it all begins to unravel. Up until the ‘reprise ‘from then on in every track disappoints me so much. ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’ probably more so because it’s Lennon and because it sticks to the concept of the album and…I don’t know, it just spoils what might have been a great place to be. ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ shouldn’t have been allowed and ‘Lovely Rita’ is worse.

    So far as ‘A Day In The Life’is concerned, can I imagine it without Paul’s middle eighth? Not now I’ve heard it but I think the song very easily could have been the finished article without any of Paul’s involvement. It would just have meant a little bit more work by John. Maybe he couldn’t be bothered, maybe he wanted to get on with Paul again…I still maintain that Paul’s bit is pedestrian and to me adds nothing to the final track. If anything, like I said before, it taints what might have been the greatest Beatles track. So I have to find others…

    The concept album thing doesn’t really matter either. I always stick that in because it’s true but it’s a red herring. If I loved the album, I would turn it round to argue that a ‘concept album’ that forgets the concept was actually a work of genius. Ahhhh…

    Yes, The Beatles on a bad day are better than most bands of all time. That’s fair enough. But this isn’t their finest moment by a long way and I will always argue it is massively overrated….Because it is.

    Cheers, Martin.

  5. A very interesting and intelligent discussion, chaps. Sgt Pepper was so connected with a precise period in the sixties that it does struggle to hold up in these far more cynical musical times (ironically brought about by John’s Plastic Ono Band album in 1970).

    All I know is that when it first came out, Side One of Pepper coupled with A Day In The Life was about as beautiful and fabulous a soundtrack to the year as it was possible to get. I remember coming back home with my father, when I was a twelve year old, from an evening out. Before calling it a night, my dad made a cup of tea and put the radio on. Over the airwaves came Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. I was absolutely blown away with the dreamy magic of what I was hearing. I realise now it was in mono and that, as Lennon was to declare, was the way to hear it and the whole album. It is so brilliantly sung and performed by guys in their mid-twenties!

    We really sometimes forget just how stunning was the creativity of this band . They produced something for every taste. If Pepper is not quite to one’s taste, just dive into the equally brilliant (I’m serious) A Hard Day’s night album or fall in love again with the autumnal Abbey Road.

    No? Well scream along with Twist and Shout as I do with the seven year olds at the school I work at. The kids love the abandon from the day’s discipline.

    Even Lennon didn’t like Pepper that much! That’s what’s so endearing about the Beatles…they are as critical as the public about themselves. How did planet Earth enjoy life before The Beatles?!

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