I seem to have lived through several fashion cycles of Which Is Considered The Greatest Beatles Album. When I was a teenager, it was generally thought to be Sgt Pepper. Then Abbey Road came to the fore. Then The White Album was the cognoscenti's choice. Currently Revolver seems to be the one. I think Rubber Soul had its moment in the sun a while ago. As is the way with the strange zero-sum games around the Beatles (to like Lennon you must denigrate McCartney), to think that Revolver is supreme sometimes involves picking holes in other records. And I've read a number of people dismissing Sgt Pepper for its whimsy, the supposed weakness of the songs, the paucity of its claim to be a concept album, its lack of rock'n'roll muscle, and no doubt other things I have forgotten.
But Sgt Pepper is my favourite Beatles album. In fact it may be my favourite album; I certainly can't think of another record that gives me such complete and pure joy from beginning to end. It's a funny, uplifting, moving, beautiful record, just so full of wit and invention and originality and generosity and love. It is remarkable how the opening song ('Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band'), while being essentially a fairly throwaway song, is funny (the moment when the audience laugh at something we can't see is perfect), it really fucking rocks (it's McCartney doing those fiercely electric guitar stings as the song opens and Ringo's drums are thunderous), it creates the sense of this strange imaginary band with great economy (electric guitar and a wind band), and even has time for a little hinted melancholy ('Sgt Pepper's lonely / Sgt Pepper's lonely'). And then the way it clears the way for 'Billy Shears' to sing 'With a Little Help From My Friends' is glorious and that song is sweet, cryptic, subversive, life-affirming and joyful.
I realised recently that my sense of the different Beatles albums is very much led by the covers. Even though I think Rubber Soul and Revolver are sonically quite similar, I always hear the first as warm and colourful while the latter is monochrome and 'electric'. I hear a restrained adult sheen on Abbey Road that is in part because of the foursquare photograph, while there's a dark tension in Let It Be that comes from the cover, not from - actually - a band working rather well together. And Sgt Pepper, well, I cannot help just see this as all the colours of the rainbow. The music, especially on side 1, just feels like the palette has been exploded. The songs are bursts of primary colour.
It may be true that there are better songs on other albums (except 'A Day in the Life' which may be their supreme moment), and, sure, if you take 'Fixing a Hole' in isolation, maybe it doesn't seem like The Beatles at their most profound. But that's the point: you don't take these songs in isolation. They work together so well. It's a brilliantly sequenced album. On CD or MP3, we miss the great theatrical device of the interval as we turn the LP over and go from the carnivalesque first-half closer of 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite' (which throws everything at us, dazzlingly) to the mysterious second-half opener of 'Within You Without You', which deepens the mystery of the record, complicates the identity of the band, and then, just when we might be adjusting to it, we get the slightly mocking laughter and then the glorious pisstaking pastiche of 'When I'm Sixty Four'. It's a record that moves too fast for us.
It's all context. No it's not a concept album like The Wall or Tommy (thank goodness), but it's a concept album in creating a 'fictional narrator' (the fictional band of the title) and creates the conceit that this is a single show and does so with a consistency and exuberance of style that allows for dramatic stylistic shifts (not just 'Within You Without You' to 'When I'm Sixty Four' but what about 'She's Leaving Home' to 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite', which is a cruelly brilliant transition). It's a record that completely hangs together, that is more pleasurable to listen to all the way through that to pick out individual songs.
But I think that way about the Beatles too. The thing that is so extraordinary about them is that journey. From 'Love Me Do' to 'The Long and Winding Road'... in seven years. I'm not sure I know a more extraordinary artistic journey than that of The Beatles. Who else was so productive, so restlessly challenging of themselves, managed to keep a vast popular audience while absolutely transforming the music they made and taking everyone else with them? They rarely put a foot wrong - their 'mistakes' (Magical Mystery Tour, the Yellow Submarine LP, Twickenham Studios) are a bit overblown and contain moments of genius. And what I love about Sgt Pepper is that it is The Beatles at their most ferociously experimental and their most popular. It is The Beatles in their imperial phase, hitting that sweet spot where everything they tried, however weird, turned out to be everything we wanted. Yes, maybe there are better individual songs elsewhere, but there's no better album.
I'm thinking of it again because of the astonishing new box set that gathers together a new remastering of the original album by Giles Martin (George's son) and a wealth of studio sessions. Sometimes these things can be a little mediocre but for this record these versions are fascinating and gorgeous. If you get a chance, listen to the way 'Strawberry Fields Forever' developed in the studio from the sweetly psychedelic folk of the first studio version to the bizarre, sweet, menacing, jagged thrill of the final version. These outtakes give a fascinating insight into the differences between Lennon's and McCartney's work. For McCartney, the song seems to be almost fully formed in his head and his relentless experimentation in the studio is about perfecting that, crafting the song, adding and riches upon riches; for McCartney, the studio is an endlessly thrilling resource for layering and building a song (you can hear 'Penny Lane' being built up in this way on the set). But with 'Strawberry Fields', Lennon does something quite different. The song structure is chopped around and reordered. Each take (on this collection anyway) is entirely different, with Lennon wholly reinventing the song each time. Take 7 is otherworldly and pastoral while Take 26 is bombastic and brassy. And then, famously, Lennon decided he liked the beginning of 7 and the end of 26, despite them being in different keys, leading to one half being slowed down and the other speeded up, just deepening the psychedelic challenge of this extraordinary song.
Alexis Petridis's perceptive review of the new record notes that in amongst the exuberant multicoloured joy of the record are some sharp notes of anomie and disquiet, from Lennon's sardonic observations of suburbia in 'Good Morning, Good Morning' to the casual domestic violence in 'Getting Better'. And this is true, in part, I think, because unlike most other Beatles records, this populates a vivid and complete world. There are the 'characters' of the record (the guy who blew his mind out in a car, Lucy in the Sky, Henry the Horse, Lovely Rita, and so on) but also a huge range of attitudes and moods. 'She's Leaving Home' is probably the most heartfelt and moving song they recorded ('Daddy, our baby's gone'), 'Mr Kite' is one of the funniest, and 'A Day in the Life' is just one of the strangest and grandest and most astonishingly confident moment in British cultural history.
Giles Martin's new mix of the album is great and worth buying on its own. The Beatles remasters in 2009 were and are a glorious revelation. The great discovery for me was the fluidity and invention of Paul McCartney's bass playing; in dozens of the songs it was now easy to focus on what his bass is doing and there were whole countermelodies going on, absurdly brilliant little curlicues going right up the fret, entirely counterintuitive dips and slides that turned melodically quite ordinary songs into things rich and strange. On this remix, I'd say it's Ringo's turn to shine. Yes, this is the album he learned to play chess, but his drums just seem thunderous on 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band'. He drives us peremptorily into the chorus of 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds'. There's a wit to the staccato and cymbals in 'Getting Better' and some glorious fairground pastiche in 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite'. And, clearer than ever before, his wildly inventive and yet completely sympathetic percussion on 'A Day in the Life' both propel the song forward and up into the ether.
If you've not listened to Sgt Pepper for a long time or if - is this even possible? - you've never listened to it all the way through, now is the time. It will seem as fresh to you now as it felt fifty years ago today, when Sgt Pepper taught the band to play.