Congrats, you’re old: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is now 50. The Beatles’ arguable finest 40 minutes was released on June 2, 1967 in America, though it had already hit shelves in the U.K. a week before. (Maybe the delay was payback for the Revolutionary War.) Since then, “Sgt. Pepper” has been one of those albums we treat like that old Stephen Colbert routine: Is it a great album, or the greatest album?
It’s long been cool to go with “just” great, and we do that, too. It’s not our favorite Beatles record. (Some days we go with “The Beatles,” aka “The White Album.” Others, “Revolver.” And what about “Rubber Soul”?) But only a fool would call it overrated, much less bad. Each song is a masterpiece of ambition, with The Beatles and their superproducer George Martin making like kids in a sandbox, trying with each track to find different future paths for pop music.
“Sgt. Pepper” was designed as a suite, all the songs flowing into each other. But let’s try to think of each one individually. And to do that, we’re going to arbitrarily rank them from best to least best:
1. “A Day in the Life”
The Beatles’ previous album, “Revolver,” closed with the weirdest song, and on a record that found them giddily pushing away from pop-rock traditions. It was “Tomorrow Never Knows,” an experimental, tambura-backed freak-out that sounds like a druggie having a bad trip. The Beatles doubled down on “Sgt. Pepper.”
Arriving as the album seemed to be winding down with the revved-up reprise of the title song, “A Day in the Life” pumped more gas in the car, surprising listeners with a shape-shifter featuring two deafening orchestral crescendos and an unexpected detour where Paul briefly takes over from John. The lyrics are cryptic; something about a man who “blew his mind out in the car” and “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.”
We may not know what it all means, but we don’t have to. It’s the kind of song that makes you cry for reasons you couldn’t possibly understand and could never put into words. And then there’s that 20-second noisy madness that abruptly appears after the final crescendo has slowly, slowly faded out.
2. “Within You Without You”
It’s the album’s second longest song, and unlike “A Day in the Life,” it’s really just one thing: George Harrison gently warbling Buddhist wisdom over a thicket of Indian instruments for five full minutes. But it’s epic. Harrison had already dropped sitars and tablas into “Revolver’s” “Love You To.” But that was just a warmup — a dry run for the album that would let him really stretch his legs. It’s the biggest band in the world trancing you out — but trance too hard and you may miss Harrison’s beautiful lyrics, both cosmic and heartbreaking.
3. “With a Little Help from My Friends”
Ringo gets a bad rap, and we never understood why. You should find his slightly off-key singing endearing, not laughable. And Ringo’s perfect for a song like “With a Little Help from My Friends,” the album’s second track. The title song that precedes it is all build-up — a shredding rocker that’s like a hype man introducing the main act. And after all that, we get … Ringo Starr, singing a little ditty about how his only emotional support is the pals around him. When you realize that Ringo took the band’s breakup the hardest — how he really relied on the other three, and feel into substance abuse and rehab — it adds another melancholic layer to a song that’s already cute-but-sad.
4. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
If “With a Little Help from My Friends” found them slyly promoting drug use (go ahead, try to argue “I get high with a little help from my friends” means they cheer him up), they removed all doubt about their habits with the song that immediately followed it. But take it from us, people who probably missed the opportunity to take acid or shrooms in this lifetime: You don’t need drugs to enjoy songs that feel like drugs. And it would be a great song even without all the sonic psychedelics.
5. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
George Martin liked to brag about how he created the trippy parts of this three-ring circus of a song: He took the tape, cut it up into sections, threw those fragments on the floor, then stitched them together at random. Still, we admit to having trouble listening to it after the deplorable version Eddie Izzard sang in the worst movie ever made, Julie Taymour’s Beatles jukebox movie “Across the Universe.”
6. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
Remove all the fanfare, the overture, the pasted-on sounds of crowds, and you have one of the tightest rock songs they ever wrote. But it’s great with that stuff on it, too.
7. “Good Morning Good Morning”
It’s the most underrated track on the album: another straight-ahead rocker that sounds like their early stuff, only more focused, more fierce. If you listen to the alternate version on “Anthology 2,” which strips all the horns and other assorted sounds — the one that’s just a guitar, drums and John’s anxious vocals — you’d wonder why it wasn’t talked about more often.
8. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
It’s meant to be a throwaway track — a little fake-closing song, running only a minute and 19, before “A Day in the Life” creeps in and ends the album properly. But hoo boy, is it electric. And there’s real artistry underneath. When The Beastie Boys sampled its drums on their all-Beatles-samples song “The Sounds of Science,” marrying it to the guitars from “Abbey Road’s” “The End,” they weren’t just being cool. They were showing how brilliant The Beatles were even when doing a mere “reprise.”
9. “Lovely Rita”
Here’s Paul being cute, with a nice love song about a guy in love with a meter maid. But Paul was never merely cute. The lyrics can be plenty moony (“Give us a wink and make me think of you”), but there’s some curious business about sexual confusion, with Paul talking about how “in her cap she looked much older,” and how his beloved even “looked a little like a military man.” Don’t write Paul off as the square of the four.
10. “She’s Leaving Home”
We just noticed that the bottom of our list is all Paul. We feel bad. We’re advocates of his solo and Wings work — we’re the ones who love the dreaded “Wonderful Christmastime” — and even if we find his contributions to “Sgt. Pepper” lesser than that of John and George, this is a beautiful attempt at something almost as grand as “Within You Without You.” There are no guitars — just strings and Paul and John mixing harmonies better than they ever had. It’s one of those quietly excellent songs you underrate because of the even better company it keeps.
11. “Fixing a Hole”
Another Paul song we undervalue at our peril, this is probably the most “filler” track of the album. But as with everything on the record, it’s so meticulously produced that it goes next level. And, you know, it’s a really, really good song.
12. “Getting Better”
If nothing else, those guitars are sharp as heck. It’s a Paul song, but it’s most interesting when it clearly becomes about John. When John jumps onto the vocals on the bridge, we hear him singing, “I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loves.” Then he confesses he’s changed and, you know, things are getting better. Well, John really was a woman-beater. Only two albums ago, on “Rubber Soul,” he was bragging about beating up his girlfriend on “Run for Your Life.” It wouldn’t be much longer after “Pepper” that the very troubled John tried out “scream therapy.”
13. “When I’m Sixty-Four”
The “worst” song on “Pepper” is by no means evil. It’s good. You know what? Screw it. It’s a great song, objectively speaking. Subjectively speaking, we confess we’re not always in the mood for it. It’s one of those Paul tunes that John would decry as “granny songs” — most egregiously “Honey Pie” off of “The White Album” — and he wasn’t wrong. Still, there’s something badass about a “granny song,” with its tooting clarinets, coming immediately after something so huge and ambitious as George’s “Within You Without You.” Among “Pepper’s” many other attributes, it’s a masterpiece of knowing which song goes where.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge