“Sgt Pepper is one of the most important steps in our career. It had to be just right. We tried, and I think succeeded in achieving what we set out to do. If we hadn’t, then it wouldn’t be out now.” — John Lennon
If there was one album that signified the breadth of talent The Beatles had at their disposal, it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Released in 1967 as part of the band’s new move away from being the Fab Four or, as McCartney later put it: “We were fed up with being Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men.” Like men, they decided to play make-believe and produce a concept album for the ages.
Heading towards a more conceptualised piece, the album is widely, and quite rightly, seen as Paul McCartney’s best work. Macca became the artistic drive of the band during this time as Lennon became distracted by fame and the band’s manager Brian Epstein sadly passed away. With the new impetus to create, Macca constructed one of the most resolute pieces of art the band ever composed.
It seems as though, over time, that concept has hampered its viewing. Nowadays, the album’s uniqueness and idiosyncrasies are chalked off as indulgent, but that hasn’t stopped it still being McCartney’s favourite. “I’d pick Sgt. Pepper’s, meself, because I had a lot to do with it,” he responded when asked about his favourite album the Fab Four had produced. Conversely, it is also the album that Harrison and Lennon liked least, largely because of McCartney’s control over proceedings.
However, nobody can deny the voluminous impact it had on culture as well as the music scene. Though the band certainly weren’t the first to bring acid into rock and roll, they were certainly the ones to popularise it. This album, therefore, ranks as one of the band’s best and arguably one of the most important of their entire career. Below, we’re taking a closer look at each song and ranking them in order of greatness.
Sgt. Pepper songs ranked worst to best:
13. ‘When I’m Sixty Four’
If there’s one song that was bound to find itself on the bottom of our pile, it had to be McCartney’s own ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, written, in part, for Frank Sinatra, Lennon would famously label this song (and a few others) as Paul’s “granny shit”.
That’s not to say this is a particularly bad song, it certainly has a jaunty value to it, but inc comparison to some of the other triumphant pieces on the LP, it falls a bit short. For McCartney, this song was a part of the concept that saw The Beatles get away from their previous incarnations, and it had come from a sincere place — his past.
“When I wrote ‘When I’m Sixty Four’ I thought I was writing a song for Sinatra,” he said. “I wrote [that] when I was sixteen — it was rather tongue-in-cheek — and I never forgot it.”
12. ‘She’s Leaving Home’
One of the many intriguing facets of The Beatles’ first concept records was their new reliance on narratives to embolden their songwriting. McCartney said of ‘She’s Leaving Home’: “John and I wrote ‘She’s Leaving Home’ together. It was my inspiration. We’d seen a story in the newspaper about a young girl who’d left home and not been found, there were a lot of those at the time, and that was enough to give us a storyline.”
The track is a gentle ballad that works perfectly within the story’s framework; with McCartney guiding the listener with his delicate singing voice, the song could feel at home in an early animation from Disney. Of course, Lennon’s refrain does a great job to balance the narrative — as he so often did.
A calming piece but not necessarily the best.
11. ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’
It’s about as close as bands got to remixes in the sixties, and the classic “Reprise” has featured on some of the decade’s best songs. On this reimagining of the titular track not only provides the perfect bounce to the album when it needs it most, but it also provides the perfect entry point to the album’s closer.
For that reason alone, it deserves its spot above the bottom. But, outside of that, it’s hard not to enjoy the song as a flash of enjoyment rather than a fully-fledged track.
10. ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’
Sometimes inspiration can strike you at any point and though Lennon would later call this track “a bit of gobbledygook” there are some joyous moments in ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’. Allegedly inspired by an advert for Kellogg’s Cornflakes, the track even features a cockerel crowing for good measure. “That was our first major use of sound effects, I think,” recalled McCartney. “We had horses and chickens and dogs and all sorts running through it.”
Aside from that novelty, the song is still pumping with all the great bits of the album. Mad at points and simply sublime at others, the song, like the LP, has a habit of putting a smile on your face without even knowing it.
9. ‘Fixing A Hole’
Another song that could have easily felt the wrath of John Lennon is ‘Fixing A Hole’. Certainly imbued with the same music hall sensibilities that infiltrated much of McCartney’s work, ‘Fixing A Hole’ seems to skirt such a kicking because of its smokey intake.
It may also be because the song’s inception is a strange one, as McCartney explains: “Yeah, I wrote that. I liked that one. Strange story, though. The night we went to record that, a guy turned up at my house who announced himself as Jesus. So I took him to the session. You know — couldn’t harm, I thought. Introduced Jesus to the guys. Quite reasonable about it. But that was it. Last we ever saw of Jesus.”
It’s another piece of the conceptual puzzle that feels perfectly measured.
8. ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite’
There’s no doubt that Sgt. Pepper is one of The Beatles most obviously strange albums, and ‘Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite’ is one song that simply leapt out of Lennon’s imagination via an old poster for a circus.
Ending side one of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the track is not only a good candidate for the accolade of Lennon’s strangest but also sees the distillation of Lennon’s responsive and reflective poetry brought to life. The album saw the band in a slightly odd time. Following on from their acid rock revolution on Revolver, and were persevering with Paul McCartney’s large conceptual piece, keeping the odd piece of LSD lint in their pockets as they went.
“I wrote that as a pure poetic job,” recalled Lennon when speaking to Jann Wenner in 1970, “To write a song sitting there. I had to write because it was time to write. And I had to write it quick because otherwise, I wouldn’t have been on the album. So I had to knock off a few songs. I knocked off ‘A Day In The Life’, or my section of it, and whatever we were talking about, ‘Mr Kite’, or something like that. I was very paranoid in those days, I could hardly move.”
7. ‘Lovely Rita’
It may not have been a song that encouraged Lennon, noting it as one of his least favourite from the Fab Four, but the wild composition of ‘Lovely Rita’ would go on to inspire Pink Floyd in their own pursuit of pop perfection. Away from inspiration, it’s hard to dislike a song Paul McCartney made up about a ticket inspector.
“There was a story in the paper about ‘Lovely Rita’, the meter maid,” recalled McCartney of the relatively new idea in 1967. “She’s just retired as a traffic warden. The phrase ‘meter maid’ was so American that it appealed, and to me a ‘maid’ was always a little sexy thing: ‘Meter maid. Hey, come and check my meter, baby.’ I saw a bit of that, and then I saw that she looked like a ‘military man’.”
Or did he? McCartney revealed the truth behind the song: “It wasn’t based on a real person but, as often happened, it was claimed by a girl called Rita [sic] who was a traffic warden who apparently did give me a ticket, so that made the newspapers. I think it was more a question of coincidence.”
6. ‘Getting Better’
One song saw Lennon confront his own abusive behaviour, all wrapped up within one of the most positive songs on the LP. “It is a diary form of writing. All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me,” recalled Lennon.
“I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically… any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself, and I hit. I fought men, and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence. I will have to be a lot older before I can face in public how I treated women as a youngster.”
Of course, the song extended beyond the meditations of John Lennon. McCartney was, in fact, the song’s main composer as he explained in 1994: “Wrote that at my house in St. John’s Wood. All I remember is that I said, ‘It’s getting better all the time,’ and John contributed the legendary line ‘It couldn’t get much worse.’ Which I thought was very good. Against the spirit of that song, which was all super-optimistic… then there’s that lovely little sardonic line. Typical John.”
5. ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamons’
Lennon was always resolute in his defence that he had no idea the song’s title spelt out LSD, stating: “I had no idea it spelt LSD. This is the truth: my son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around. I said, ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and I thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote a song about it.” That doesn’t discount the wild and wonderful lyrics that permeate it, however.
It’s a track that was largely written by Lennon but also sought advice and guidance from Paul McCartney, who remembered writing the song for The Beatles Anthology, saying: “I showed up at John’s house, and he had a drawing Julian had done at school with the title ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ above it. Then we went up to his music room and wrote the song, swapping psychedelic suggestions as we went.”
So while the song may not have been ‘about drugs’, it was certainly inspired by them, “I remember coming up with ‘cellophane flowers’ and ‘newspaper taxis’ and John answered with things like ‘kaleidoscope eyes’ and ‘looking glass ties’. We never noticed the LSD initial until it was pointed out later – by which point people didn’t believe us.” The song is a soaring masterpiece that has a habit of gathering up all your hope and anticipation and unleashing it within the spectral spectrum of a pop song — pure Beatles magic.
4. ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’
Arguably the song that started it all off. It was this track, inspired by the long band name of the sixties, that would set Paul McCartney off on his adventure to remove the Fab Four from The Beatles and place them into a new guise as a new band. “It was an idea I had, I think, when I was flying from L.A. to somewhere. I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place.”
McCartney elucidated ten years later in 1994 when he explicitly shared the reasoning behind the band’s decision to make a concept album: “We were fed up with being Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didn’t want anymore, plus, we’d now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers… then suddenly on the plane, I got this idea. I thought, ‘Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos so we’re not having to project an image which we know. It would be much more free.'”
Creating a concept album is always a risky venture; after all, you have to navigate your audience’s emotional and artistic intelligence from the very start. Luckily, for The Beatles, they had this number open the album that not only explains what’s about to unfold but why it was so needed in the first place.
A first-class tune, even if it is a little strange.
3. ‘Within You Without You’
For George Harrison, making this album wasn’t exactly the most pleasant of experiences: “Sgt Pepper was the one album where things were done slightly differently,” he said in Anthology. “A lot of the time…we weren’t allowed to play as a band so much. It became an assembly process — just little parts and then overdubbing.”
It was misaligned with Harrison’s newfound spiritualism, having just returned from six weeks in India, his songwriting style far removed from a costumed concept album. “After [the India trip], everything else seemed like hard work,” George said. “It was a job, like doing something I didn’t really want to do, and I was losing interest in being ‘fab’ at that point.”
That wouldn’t stop the guitarist from contributing one of the album’s finest moments in the beautiful ‘Within You Without You’. It is deeply ingrained with Harrison’s new Eastern identity and was an accurate reflection of where his music would eventually go without the band. To make the point clearer, George recorded the album in London, alone and without the band’s other members.
2. ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’
Something is unifying about The Beatles. Their presence in pop culture has become so ubiquitous that there is a good chance that, no matter where you set foot across the globe, you will be able to have a sing-along with the inhabitants. If there’s one track that you can be sure will be on most people’s songsheet, it is this one, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’.
The song, like many of The Beatles tracks, were, was actually composed to give Ringo Starr his own lead vocal on the album. McCartney remembered of the track in 1994: “This was written out at John’s house in Weybridge for Ringo… I think that was probably the best of our songs that we wrote for Ringo actually.”
Perhaps it is by accident or, perhaps Ringo just made them his own. Still, the drummer always had a habit of being on some of the group’s most anthemic songs, including ‘Yellow Submarine‘ and ‘Octopus’ Garden’. But this track is certainly far better than either of those, providing a moment for us all to grasp our friends by the shoulders and sing out as loud as we can. Though Joe Cocker’s may be the definitive version, this track is simply sublime.
1. ‘A Day in the Life’
One track that may not necessarily be entirely descended from an acid trip like some of the band’s songs but is certainly dripping with psychedelia is ‘A Day In The Life’. A track imbued with the same mysticism as the best of Beatles work, the song is a fragmented retelling of the day’s papers and sees Lennon at his magpie best, picking and choosing his inspirations on the fly. It also happens to be easily the finest song on the entire record.
It saw the group take the lessons they had already learned and enact a brand new sound on pop music. Lyrically it doesn’t necessarily imbue you with the sense of ‘what-the-fuckery’ as some of the band’s other pieces, but musically, the track is one of the band’s most expansive. Beginning as a simple acoustic guitar and piano piece, the sonics continue to move up and up before a swirling climax finally explodes.
It is rightly regarded as one of The Beatles’ finest moments on tape and is a perfect example of just how well the two principal songwriters of the group could patch their styles and motifs so effortlessly together. They took cuttings from the newspaper, from their own lives, from a world they had created and neatly sewed them together to create a seamless piece of impressive pop music.
The track swirls around these stories and musically crescendos in several points. Soon enough, we return to the “musical orgasm” via the 40 piece orchestra, after which there is one last nugget of genius left to find. The climbing notes of the orchestra were meant to finish with John, Paul, George, and Ringo providing a “cosmic hum” in E-major. The band, though thought this to be a little bit flimsy, so instead, John, Paul, George Martin and the best roadie the world has ever known, Mal Evans sat at their respective keys and brought an end to one of the best songs ever written on one of the best albums ever produced.