There will never be consensus as to whether or not Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hear’s Club Band was the greatest album release from the Beatles, let alone the greatest album of all time. Released on 1 June 1967, weeks before the official start of what would be known as The Summer of Love, it was the first release from a band which up to that point was writing, touring, writing, and touring again. In the five years since their debut, with the fairly basic song, “Love Me Do”, the Beatles were a slickly packaged, creative and vital boy band. Equal parts the product of the works of Chuck Berry, Motown, and Buck Owens, the Beatles knew how to write the best love songs (“And I Love Her”), star in the greatest rock ‘n’ roll movies (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964), but they were also smart enough to put themselves under the care of packaging geniuses Brian Epstein (manager) and George Martin (producer.) For the bulk of their career as a group, then, the Beatles understood that they were a product, and eventually, all variations of how to sell the cute one, the smart one, the quiet one, and the funny one (Paul, John, George, and Ringo) would disappear.
Ron Howard’s thorough 2016 documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years did a thorough job examining the formative development of the band as an entity. The touring ended in 1966, at which point the comfortable mythmaking arbiters of historical truth set forth this premise: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was and is the greatest album of all time. The complicated cover, where the former mop tops, now all in fashionable Carnaby Street Swinging London facial hair, was a smash. Each of them seemed to have assumed a persona, wearing brightly colored quasi-military velvet uniforms. There they stood, before an assembled motley collection of their heroes (including Bob Dylan, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mae West) announcing that this was going to be something different.
Who was this Lonely Hearts Club Band? Who was Sgt. Pepper? The only hint we get is at the end of the title number that opens the song as they introduce Billy Shears (Ringo) singing “With a Little Help From My Friends”, a song that would remain in his repertoire forever.
In retrospect, not every number from this ten-track, 40-minute album is a masterpiece. In Paul McCartney’s “Getting Better” features the line “I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her away from the things that she loved” he claims life is getting better for him, but we wonder if he’s still with that woman. He claims to have changed, but can we trust him? Lennon’s response “It can’t get no worse” after the chorus “It’s getting better all the time” is interesting, but not enough to remove the queasy feelings.
John Lennon’s “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is an overproduced carnival tribute inspired by a poster, and “Good Morning, Good Morning”, apparently based on a TV commercial, seems overstuffed and dependent on sound effects. George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” is a museum relic, a good example of his experiments with the Indian sitar that would have been better suited in a different environment with more room to breathe. None of these songs ruin the overall greatness of the album. They simply stand as proof that even a solid masterpiece has blemishes that can’t be erased with the forgiveness of time.
With the recent news that the Beatles are prepping a 50th anniversary expanded release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (including, among many different versions of the core tracks, finally putting “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the album where they should have been released), much has been discussed about the way the songs developed. Less has been discussed, however, about how some of the greatest cover versions of these songs conclusively prove that the Beatles had staying power. (For obvious reasons we will steer clear of the 1978 film version, featuring none of the Beatles but all of the Bee Gees, Peter Frampton, and some of the most woefully misguided desecrations of songs from that album and others in the Beatles catalog.)
In no particular order, here are those standout covers:
Jimi Hendrix, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, 4 June 1967
The Beatles had released the album on the 1st of June. Three days later, at the end of their residency in London’s Saville Theater, Jimi Hendrix and the Experience pulled off this performance apparently after just listening to it a few times. There’s grainy footage of the performance, but it was more nicely realized as a scene in the 2013 film Jimi: All Is By My Side, with Andre Benjamin doing an interesting take on the guitar god on the cusp of superstardom.
Syreeta, “She’s Leaving Home”, 1972
The remarkable element about this performance is how multi-instrumentalist / producer Stevie Wonder stripped it down and re-dressed it as a soul ballad. Syreeta’s vocals soar and she sounds as if she’s testifying to personal experience, which makes McCartney’s original more of an acting job. This is nothing against the original, the glissando of the harp and the precise control of the vocals. It’s just that this cover is more emotional, more yearning, more exhausting.
Joe Cocker, “With a Little Help From My Friends” Woodstock, 1969
Many will remember this from John Belushi’s spastic rendition on Saturday Night Live, especially when the good-natured Cocker joined in on the fun. Others will remember it as the song played over the title credits of the 1988-1993 ABC-TV show The Wonder Years. The original was unlike anything ever heard in a Beatles song. Cocker and his band took Ringo’s playful singalong and stretched it into an urgent plea for companionship. We’re probably not doubting that Ringo will get what he needs. As for Joe Cocker, we know he gets by, and we sense he gets high, but we can’t be guaranteed he’ll close the deal.
Neil Young, “A Day In The Life”, Glastonbury, England, 2009
The greatest thing about this cover is that Young and his band are so urgent, so focused to build up the steam as he breaks into the mid-section (“woke up / got out of bed / dragged a comb across my head”) and goes back to the final section and the most famous coda in music history. “A Day In the Life” was a strange hybrid song on the record, Lennon’s echo-laden vocals mix with McCartney’s frantic middle-eighth and the entire five minutes feature a frantic string section going up and coming down. In essence, that part makes it a punk song, and Young knows it here, in a cover with his band and a duet with McCartney, recreating his original performance.
The Mona Lisa Twins, “When I’m Sixty-Four”, 2014
This pair of 20-something Liverpool natives does gorgeous covers of Beatles songs, among others, with Everly Brothers-type harmonies and a sweetness that transcends how this might be perceived. In less musical hands, this might be too precious, too coy, a couple of manic pixie dream girls wandering through their grandparent’s record collection. Instead, they really capture McCartney’s Tin Pan Alley / Broadway flirtations and it makes everything timeless. They’re a wonderful discovery while wandering down a random YouTube rabbit hole.
The temptation to wax nostalgic and try to capture something that never existed in the first place usually infects appreciations on their 50th anniversary. The Beatles were a rough club band from approximately 1960-1962, a polished touring and stadium act for the next five years, and something altogether different in their final three years as a quartet.
What we know about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will always be under layers of passing years, and none of the histories to be discovered will likely add more to our understanding. Completists will automatically flock to purchase the 2017 enhanced, limited edition 4CD/DVD release, even at a price of over $100. No matter the amount of original Beatles variations we can add to our collections, or the “Making Of” documentaries we can watch on an endless loop, the greatness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will grow most effectively when yet another musician picks out the melody on guitar or piano and makes the songs their own.