Despite having made records with more substantial subject matter, eastern textures, and experimental production on their previous two records “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” the Beatles were still largely seen solely as the divinely charming pop-performers of the English world. They carried the images of uninhibited fun, youthful energy, cheap-sentiment, and teenage love.
These images along with their compelling personalities were limiting them artistically and these images are why the Beatles’ fans prior to “Rubber Soul” listened. Their fans for a large part wanted to be entertained; they didn’t want to have to critically interpret a work of art. In June 1967, the world’s most powerful POP group would deliver a record devoid of any pop sensibilities altogether; they would deliver a work of art, and art solely.
Sgt. Pepper’s is the culmination of Dylan-influenced satire, acid flavored tone colors, classical aspirations, eastern philosophy, diverse instrumentation, a harmonically/rhythmically open palette, and studio experimentation.
1. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”
The record opens with a moment where you hear a pit orchestra warming up amidst the noise of a crowd about to attend a concert. Immediately the listener has the impression that this could be a live performance.
After a searing guitar intro the narrator introduces a band, taught by Sgt. Pepper, and fronted by a character named Billy Shears. The Beatles devised this fictitious group to ‘play the songs’ so that they could justify their musical explorations to come. Musicologist Kenneth Womack says of the lyricism: “(the lyrics) exemplify the mindless rhetoric of rock concert banter while mocking the very notion of a pop album’s capacity for engendering authentic interconnection between artist and audience.”
This theme is only highlighted in the song’s bridge where a classical brass ensemble plays side by side distorted electric guitars of the 1967 sound. Harmonically, its verses relies on an uncommon Lydian progression that works into a blues-rock chorus progression.
The whole piece completely mocks the Beatle’s stereotyped image to their mainstream audience while simultaneously setting the stage for their maturation into their new identity.
2. “With a Little Help from My Friends”
Following the end of the title track, the listener hears things quiet down. Over the audience noise McCartney introduces ‘Billy Shears’ (Starr) to sing the next track. “Sgt. Pepper’s” immediately segues into “With a Little Help from My Friends”.
As the song transitions there is an immediate change in delivery. Womack calls Starr’s baritone vocals, in comparison to McCartney’s on the previous track, “charmingly sincere” and credits them with creating an earnestness in sharp contrast with the ironic distance of the title track.”
This song in particular deals with themes of the human need to be in community. Other unusual aspects given the time and context of the record include the use of a major key double-plagal cadence and the questioning/answering relationship between the lead and backing vocals.
3. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”
Aesthetically inspired by Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” Lucy’s lyrical content drips with lysergic imagery. What immediately grabs the listener and pulls them into Lennon’s imaginative world is the way he used imperatives throughout the song to invite them deeper into his fantasy. The song commands: “Picture yourself on a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.”
He goes on to talk about compellingly visual, bizarre scenes. He mentions things in his environment like “rocking horse people” “newspaper taxis” “kaleidoscope eyes;” all that sounds like nonsense but they all evoke very unusual images for different listeners.
What really makes the track is the marriage of McCartney’s odd, jumpy, ‘trippy’ Lowrey organ arpeggiations up against Lennon’s nearly single-note vocal melody. Together in its imperative presence, speaking as if the song itself is the listener’s subconscious, and its stable melody, it mesmerizes, leaving one entranced with the narrator’s next direction.
Musicologist Tim Riley says about the track: “(in the song) the material world is completely clouded in the mythical by both text and musical atmosphere.” Many note the track to explicitly recreate the psychedelic experience.
4. “Getting Better”
“Getting Better,” following “Lucy” proves to be sobering and favoring a “driving rock sound” as opposed to the largely psychedelic atmosphere of the record. The first thing the listener hears is two staccato electric guitars (one panned to the left and one to the right) playing the dominant and subdominant of an F major 9 chord that resolves to the tonic, a C major, as the verse starts. For most of the song the dominant acts as a drone being played as bass octaves and on the piano. McCartney also accents non-root notes on his bassline on the downbeat.
The sardonic lyrics of the verses suggest a petty dissatisfaction with school, temper, and women while the choruses contradict that with an optimistic admission that everything is “Getting Better all the time.” The theme it seems to outwardly mock is the duality of the human conscience. McCartney’s vocal delivery comes of cheery and positive, creating a profound sense of irony when put in the context of the entirety of “Sgt. Pepper’s”.
5. “Fixing a Hole”
For McCartney, the track for a moment abandons his smooth, precedented songwriting design to allow for something more preoccupied. “Fixing a Hole” bleeds introversion and detachment.
Womack interprets the lyrical content as “the speaker’s search for an identity among the crowd.” and the “quests for consciousness and connection.” The tone of voice is rather lonely and with Harrison’s bewildering guitar solo; they only enhance and provide imagery for the overall theme.
It acts a conversation with the self that expresses the desire to let the narrator’s imagination wander freely without the weight of worldly insecurities.
6. “She’s Leaving Home”
The track is narrated by a pair of “selfish, but well meaning” parents who wake up to find that their lonely daughter had left a note and run away from home. Outwardly, it comes across as an intimate, disheartening story, inwardly it addresses the issues of the disagreement between peoples distanced by the generation gap.
McCartney’s tone of voice proves ironic. He mourns the runaway of his daughter but he sings as if he was oblivious of any way he might have parented her the wrong way. He’s showing that he cares more about his own wellbeing than his daughter’s and this is maybe why she left.
What is different about this track instrumentally is that there is no guitar or drums at all. It features a string nonet with a harp that in some ways reminisces on “Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby”.
7. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”
Lennon’s lyrics were directly adapted from an 1843 poster for Pablo Fanque’s circus. Nearly every word in the song was also printed on the poster labeled “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Lennon’s words, if read on paper, describe the excitement of a circus show to take place that night; however his delivery of these words contrasts from this, as he sounds very bored and unamused by the idea of the circus.
He stirs up irony to reflect the unstable opinions of his audience. It has been called “a spontaneous expression of its author’s playful hedonism” and has been said to link back to the title track due to its similar imagery.
Lennon stated when he heard the song he wanted to literally smell the sawdust of the fair. To achieve this the track features a background sound collage of different, random recordings of harmoniums, harmonicas, and calliopes.
1. “Within You Without You”
This track provides a wider sense of diversity for the record as Harrison composed it very much influenced by the Hindustani classical music he had been studying. Critics have described it as an “ambitious essay in cross-cultural fusion and meditative philosophy.”
The sitar-featured track relies vastly more on melody than it does harmony. Many critics have varied opinions of the track. Some believe it is too far a departure from the Beatle standard while others revere it as a remarkable achievement and as the “conscience of the LP.”
Its essence is built on the eastern Khamaj scale and includes ideas never before heard on a Beatles record such as tempo rubato. What makes this contrast with other tracks is the fact that rather than being based and layered around a metaphor, the lyrics explicitly describe Harrison’s philosophy to the audience. It ends with laughter of the audience and the listener might think that the audience is mocking that number in Sgt. Pepper’s show.
Within the confines of the concept, Harrison openly allows his personal feelings to come to the forefront without care of the possibility of the listeners’ inability to empathize with him.
2. “When I’m Sixty-Four”
Following “Within You Without You,” this track is a splash of water to the face. McCartney’s charming style of vaudeville comes to the forefront, borrowing ideas from the likes of Formby-esque music hall numbers and Joplin-esque ragtime. It has been said to have been “aimed chiefly at parents” and does give that impression.
McCartney appeals to the older generation in his smooth, youthfully innocent vocal delivery as well as the instrumentation. He gives prominence to classically arranged clarinets and Starr’s brushes. In comparison to the record’s psychedelic material, this track provides a standout down-to-earth sense.
The track for a large part is considered a culmination of pop and ragtime sensibilities. The harmonic progression features the use of chromaticism, traceable back to the pianowork of Scott Joplin or the waltzes of Johann Strauss.
The lyrics spoken by a young narrator depict his naivety and obliviousness to an adult life as he asks his mother if she would still take care of him when he is sixty-four. It is said the track, after completion, was raised a semitone using varispeeding to intentionally make McCartney sound younger. The song comes off as so overtly formal and innocent that the listener might wonder if the track itself is another work of satire.
3. “Lovely Rita”
Kenneth Womack regards the track as “full tilt psychedelia” and says it displays McCartney’s artful abilities to “create imagistic music portraitures.” Many critics claim this may be the weakest track because though charming, it does not embellish the overall theme of the record as well as its sister tracks of advancing towards a more expansive human consciousness.
Harmonically, it has a strong sense of direction.
The lyrics concern a very romanticized perspective of a man who watches a meter maid, ‘Lovely Rita,’ giving a ticket at a parking meter. He thinks she looks like a “military man,” but asks her out anyway. They go out to dinner and Rita pays the bill.
It has been called a satire on authority; with the narrator to represent the masses and Rita to represent that masses’ authority in general. McCartney uses powerful romanticism (“Lovely Rita meter maid, Where would I be without you?”) to reflect how silly everyday submission and trust in authority can be in his eyes.
4. “Good Morning Good Morning”
Lennon was inspired to write this track after watching a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial. He adapted the jingle he heard on television to be the song’s refrain. Critics and other Beatles alike see this track as Lennon’s protest against complacency and the domestic life.
To express that point thoroughly John composes in the bluesy mixolydian mode as well as implementing 3/4, 4/4, and 5/4 time signatures. The climax of the track appears to be McCartney’s searing, pseudo-Indian guitar solo.
John writes this piece with intent to devalue the complacency of a domestic existence by destroying any complacency within the standard musician’s songwriting process. The lyrics in very vague terms attempt to describe that existence. John delivers as if he is quite bored, which adds to his message.
The track ends with sounds of a succession of animal noises. Each animal you hear is large enough to devour the preceding animal. Lennon described the track as “a throwaway piece of garbage.”
5. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”
After the animal noises, the listener hears a guitar tuning, and then they hear a fast drumbeat filling the silence. When the lyrics are heard the listener realizes that this is the original title track, but at a quicker tempo and with a much grander excitement.
It abandons anything classically influenced the first track had by grasping a purely rock (rock for that time period) sound. Drums, bass, fierce electric guitars, and their beloved vocal harmonies. It serves as an end to the record and evokes reminiscent rock and roll joy before the finale to come.
6. “A Day in the Life”
As the reprise dies down it is interrupted by a lonely acoustic guitar strumming offbeat. The band’s tasteful restraint as compared to the euphoric bombast of the reprise proves icy. The listener is quickly sobered up from the previous track by Lennon’s quiet, yet prominent, soul-chilled voice.
He sings softly of reading the papers, seeing a film, hearing about a car accident and how the English had won the war. He says “Oh boy!” with such a quietly ironic sense of dread that the listener thinks they might be listening to some ghost that secretly knows a grim future for the world. After the third verse Lennon utters “I’d love to turn you on,” a phrase completely out of the context of the previous lyrics, and his voice fades out but is filled by a rising orchestra.
The entire London Philharmonic starts on the lowest E note and for 24 bars every instrument randomly rises in pitch and volume to a climax. Lennon stated he wanted this buildup to sound like “nothing up to something absolutely like the end of the world.”
Critics call it the “sound of pure apocalypse.” It seems like it will continue to rise to infinity but with immediacy it cuts off and you hear a solitary, happy piano.
McCartney’s lively vocals glide over the simple piano chords as he sings about waking up in the morning ready to start his day. He presents himself as authentically positive and unaware of the previous verses by Lennon. He sings that he had been late so he quickly caught a bus. He made it to where he was going, smoked something, and went into a dream. Suddenly Lennon’s voice permeates again. He wails through a “trippy, adventurous” bridge (possibly to represent McCartney’s character falling into his dream) and into a final verse.
Now Lennon uses bizarre imagery; he maintains the structure of his previous verses but abandons all logical sense lyrically. He sings about 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire that he had to count. He says “now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.” His voice fades out again and the orchestra begins its orgastic crescendo yet again.
With terror it soars even higher than the last to finally land on a massive E major chord played by three seperate pinaos. In all its finality it rings out an entire minute after the song ended. The last thing heard on the record is the repeating sounds of gibberish. Lennon can be heard saying “been so high” and McCartney, “never could be any other way.”