500 Greatest Albums of All Time

1

The Beatles, 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'

Capitol, 1967

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. From the title song's regal blasts of brass and fuzz guitar to the orchestral seizure and long, dying piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life," the 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles' eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.

Issued in Britain on June 1st, 1967, and a day later in America, Sgt. Pepper is also rock's ultimate declaration of change. For the Beatles, it was a decisive goodbye to matching suits, world tours and assembly-line record-making. "We were fed up with being Beatles," McCartney said decades later, in Many Years From Now, Barry Miles' McCartney biography. "We were not boys, we were men... artists rather than performers.

At the same time, Sgt. Pepper formally ushered in an unforgettable season of hope, upheaval and achievement: the late 1960s and, in particular, 1967's Summer of Love. In its iridescent instrumentation, lyric fantasias and eye-popping packaging, Sgt. Pepper defined the opulent revolutionary optimism of psychedelia and instantly spread the gospel of love, acid, Eastern spirituality and electric guitars around the globe. No other pop record of that era, or since, has had such an immediate, titanic impact. This music documents the world's biggest rock band at the very height of its influence and ambition.

"It was a peak," Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, describing both the album and his collaborative relationship with McCartney. "Paul and I were definitely working together," Lennon said, and Sgt. Pepper is rich with proof: McCartney's burst of hot piano and school-days memoir ("Woke up, fell out of bed...") in Lennon's "A Day in the Life," a reverie on mortality and infinity; Lennon's impish rejoinder to McCartney's chorus in "Getting Better" ("It can't get no worse").

"Sgt. Pepper was our grandest endeavor," Starr said, looking back, in the band's 2000 autobiography, The Beatles Anthology. "The greatest thing about the band was that whoever had the best idea – it didn't matter who – that was the one we'd use." It was Neil Aspinall, the Beatles' longtime assistant, who suggested they reprise the title track, just before the finale of "A Day in the Life," to complete Sgt. Pepper's theatrical conceit: an imaginary concert by a fictional band, played by the Beatles.

The first notes went to tape on December 6th, 1966: two takes of McCartney's music-hall confection "When I'm Sixty-Four." (Lennon's lysergic reflection on his Liverpool childhood, "Strawberry Fields Forever," was started two weeks earlier but issued in February 1967 as a stand-alone single.) But Sgt. Pepper's real birthday is August 29th, 1966, when the Beatles played their last live concert, in San Francisco. Until then, they had made history in the studio between punishing tours. Off the road for good, the Beatles were free to be a band away from the hysteria of Beatlemania.

McCartney went a step further. On a plane to London in November '66, as he returned from a vacation in Kenya, he came up with the idea of an album by the Beatles in disguise, an alter-ego group that he subsequently dubbed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "We'd pretend to be someone else," McCartney explained in Anthology. "It liberated you – you could do anything when you got to the mic or on your guitar, because it wasn't you."

Only two songs on the final LP, both McCartney's, had anything to do with the Pepper characters: the title track and Starr's jaunty vocal showcase, "With a Little Help From My Friends," introduced as a number by Sgt. Pepper's star crooner, Billy Shears. "Every other song could have been on any other album," Lennon insisted later. Yet it is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for the Victorian jollity of Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (inspired by an 1843 circus poster) or the sumptuous melancholy of McCartney's "Fixing a Hole," with its blend of antique shadows (a harpsichord played by the Beatles' producer, George Martin) and modern sunshine (double-tracked lead guitar executed with ringing precision by Harrison). The Pepper premise was a license to thrill.

It also underscored the real-life cohesion of the music and the group that made it. Of the 700 hours the Beatles spent making Sgt. Pepper from the end of 1966 until April 1967, the group needed only three days' worth to complete Lennon's lavish daydream "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." "A Day in the Life," the most complex song on the album, was done in just five days. (The oceanic piano chord was three pianos hit simultaneously by 10 hands belonging to Lennon, McCartney, Starr, Martin and Beatles roadie Mal Evans.) No other Beatles appear with Harrison on his sitar-perfumed sermon on materialism and fidelity, "Within You Without You," but the band wisely placed the track at the halfway point of the original vinyl LP, at the beginning of Side Two: a vital meditation break in the middle of the jubilant indulgence.

The Beatles' exploitation of multitracking transformed the very act of studio recording (the orchestral overdubs on "A Day in the Life" marked the debut of eight-track recording in Britain: two four-track machines used in sync). And Sgt. Pepper's visual extravagance officially elevated the album cover to a work of art. Michael Cooper's photo of the Beat­les in satin marching-band outfits, in front of a cardboard-cutout audience of historical figures, created by artist Peter Blake, is the most enduring image of the psychedelic era. Sgt. Pepper was also the first rock album to incorporate complete lyrics to the songs in its design.

Yet Sgt. Pepper is the Number One album of the RS 500 not just because of its firsts – it is simply the best of everything the Beatles ever did as musicians, pioneers and pop stars, all in one place. A 1967 British print ad for the album declared, "Remember, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Is the Beatles." As McCartney put it, the album was "just us doing a good show."

The show goes on forever.

Voters: Bill Adler (Biographer, Run-DMC), Lou Adler (Producer), Vince Aletti (Writer), Art Alexakis (Everclear), Pelle Almqvist (The Hives), Billy Altman (Writer), Jeff Ament (Pearl Jam), Roger Ames (Former chairman and CEO, Warner Music Group), Billie Joe Armstrong (Green Day), Nicholaus Arson (The Hives), Dick Asher (Former CEO, Polygram Records), James Austin (Former A&R, Rhino Records), Michael Azerrad (Writer), Irving Azoff (Executive chairman, Live Nation), Martin Bandier (Chairman and CEO, Sony/ATV), Devendra Banhart, Peter Barakan (Radio host), Johnny Barbis (Chairman, Rocket Music), Ken Barnes (Writer), Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal), Frank Barsalona (Former consultant, William Morris Agency), Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), David Bauder (Writer), Beck, Jules Belkin (Former president, Belkin Productions),Andy Bell (Erasure), Bill Belmont (Former VP, international operations, Fantasy Records), Bill Bentley (Director, A&R, Vanguard Records), Steve Berkowitz (Senior VP, A&R,  Legacy Recordings), James Bernard (Co-founder, The Source and XXL magazines), Cathy Bernardy Jones (Former editor, Goldmine magazine), Guy Berryman (Coldplay), Jim Bessman (Writer), Les Bider (Former chairman and CEO, Warner/Chappell Music), Scott Billington (VP, A&R, Rounder Records), Mark Binelli (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Rodney Bingenheimer (Radio personality), David Bither (Senior VP, Nonesuch Records), Hal Blaine (Drummer), Jerry Blavat (Radio and TV personality), Mary J. Blige, Nathan Brackett (Deputy managing editor, Rolling Stone), Laurent Brancowitz (Phoenix), Harriett Brand (Former senior VP, Universal Music Group), Jon Bream (Writer), Isaac Brock (Modest Mouse), Harold Bronson (Co-founder, Rhino Records), David Browne (Contributing editor,  Rolling Stone), Duncan Browne (COO, Newbury Comics), Jackson Browne, Jonny Buckland (Coldplay), Bebe Buell, Solomon Burke (1940-2010), Cliff Burnstein (Co-founder, Q Prime), James Burton (Guitarist), Geezer Butler (Black Sabbath), Jerry Butler (R&B singer), Joe Butler (The Lovin' Spoonful), Tom Calderone (President, VH1), Mike Carabello (Santana), Jon Caramanica (Pop critic, The New York Times), Patrick Carney (The Black Keys), Rosemary Carroll (Entertainment lawyer), Will Champion (Coldplay), Brian Chase (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Marshall Chess (Producer), Deborah Chessler (Songwriter), Robert Christgau (Writer), Lauren Christy (Producer), Jarvis Cocker (Pulp), Mitchell Cohen (VP, A&R, Verve Records), Chris Connelly (Correspondent, ESPN), Tom Constanten (Pianist-composer), Tré Cool (Green Day), Gerard Cosloy (Co-owner, Matador Records), Tommy Couch (Sr.  President, Malaco Music Group), Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips), Bill Crandall (Head of content, Rolling Stone Online), Cameron Crowe (Writer-director), Will Dana (Managing editor, Rolling Stone) Britt Daniel (Spoon), Clive Davis (Chief creative officer,  Sony Music Worldwide), Anthony DeCurtis )Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Ron Delsener  (Chairman, Live Nation – New York), John Densmore (The Doors), Don DeVito (Producer (1939-2011)), Rob Dickins (Founder, Instant Karma Records), Bruce Dickinson (Iron Maiden), Dion DiMucci, Dr. John, Jon Dolan (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Antoine "Fats" Domino, Jancee Dunn (Writer), The Edge (U2), Ben Edmonds (Writer), Gavin Edwards (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Graham Edwards (Songwriter and producer), Jenny Eliscu (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Missy Elliott, Michael Endelman (Former senior editor, Rolling Stone), Thomas Erdelyi (Ramones), Melissa Etheridge, Suzan Evans (Former executive director, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Phil Everly (Everly Brothers), Bob Ezrin (Producer), Art Fein (Author, TV talk-show host), Danny Fields (Writer, former Stooges and Ramones manager), Jason Fine (Editor at large, Rolling Stone), Jim Fishel (Producer), Bill Flanagan (Editorial director, VH1), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Chet Flippo (Editorial director, Country Music Television), Jason Flom (President, Lava Records), Caleb Followill (Kings of Leon), Jared Followill (Kings of Leon), Matthew Followill (Kings of Leon), Nathan Followill (Kings of Leon), Ben Fong-Torres (Writer, broadcaster), Richard Foos Founder, (Shout! Factory), Pete Frame (Rock genealogist), Chris Frantz (Talking Heads), Nicole Frehsée (Former assistant editor, Rolling Stone), David Fricke (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), John Frusciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield), Elysa Gardner (Writer), Art Garfunkel, Rob Garza(Thievery Corporation), David Geffen (Co-founder, DreamWorks), Gregg Geller (Producer), Gary Gersh (Founder, Strummer Recordings), Andy Gershon (Executive VP, Epic Records), Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Charlie Gillett (Radio broadcaster, BBC (1942- 2010)), Mikal Gilmore (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Daniel Glass (Founder, Glassnote Records), Gerry Goffin (Songwriter, producer), Jeff Gold (Owner, recordmecca.com), Michael Goldberg (Editor in chief, neumu.net), Gary Graff (Writer), Andy Greene (Associate editor,  Rolling Stone Online), Ellie Greenwich (Songwriter (1940-2009)), Peter Guralnick (Writer), Brett Gurewitz (Founder, Epitaph Records), Kirk Hammett (Metallica), Albert Hammond Jr. (The Strokes), Davey Havok (AFI), Jim Henke (VP of exhibitions and curatorial affairs,  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Will Hermes (Senior critic, Rolling Stone), Raoul Hernandez (Music editor/senior editor, Austin Chronicle), James Hetfield (Metallica), Brian Hiatt (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), Robert Hilburn (Former pop-music critic, Los Angeles Times), Michael Hill (Writer, TV-music consultant), Chris Hillman (The Byrds), David Hinckley (TV critic, New York Daily News), Christian Hoard (Senior editor, Rolling Stone), Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles), Mark Hoppus (Blink-182), Bruce Hornsby, Robert Hull (Former executive producer, Time-Life Music), James Hunter (Writer), Scott Ian (Anthrax), Don Ienner (Former chairman and CEO, Sony Music0 U.S.), Bruce Iglauer (President, Alligator Records), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Bob Jamieson (Former chairman, RCA Music Group), Chris Jasper (Artist, president, Gold City Music), Nick Jonas (Jonas Brothers), Jeff Jones (CEO, Apple Corps), Craig Kallman (Chairman and CEO, Atlantic Records), John David Kalodner (Former A&R executive, Geffen Records), Tony Kanal (No Doubt), Peter Katsis (Manager-partner, Prospect Park), Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane), Lenny Kaye (Guitarist), Mark Kemp (Writer), Kid Cudi (Rapper), Carole King, Marc Kirkeby (Music archivist, writer), Howie Klein (Former president, 415 and Reprise Records), Ezra Koenig (Vampire Weekend), Greg Kot (Writer), Howard Kramer (Director of curatorial affairs, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), Bob Krasnow (Producer), Lenny Kravitz, Damian Kulash (OK Go), Miranda Lambert, Andrew Lauder (Music executive), David Leaf (TV writer, producer), Brenda Lee, David Lefkowitz (Composer), Adam Levine (Maroon 5), Arthur Levy (Writer), Joe Levy (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Alan Light (Writer), Lil Wayne, Amy Linden (Writer), Kurt Loder (Writer), Greg Loescher (Former editor and publisher, Goldmine magazine), Roy Lott (Former president, Virgin Records), Leigh Lust (Former VP of A&R, Atlantic Records), Stan Lynch (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers), Melissa Maerz (Former senior editor, Rolling Stone), Stephen Malkmus, Shirley Manson (Garbage), Ray Manzarek (The Doors), Thomas Mars (Phoenix), Chris Martin (Coldplay), Mac McCaughan (Co-founder, Merge Records), Joe McEwen (VP, A&R, Concord Music Group), Paul McGuinness (Manager, U2), Christine McVie (Fleetwood Mac), Brad Mehldau (Jazz pianist), Colin Meloy (The Decemberists), Peter Mensch (Co-owner, Q Prime), M.I.A., Milo Miles (Critic, NPR commentator), Kirk Miller (Former associate editor, Rolling Stone), David Mills (TV writer, The Wire(1952-2010)), Martin Mills (Founder, Beggars Banquet Records), Willie Mitchell (Musician-producer  (1928-2010)), Moby, Joseph Modeliste (The Meters), Tom Moon (Writer), Tom Morello (The Nightwatchman), Fabrizio Moretti (The Strokes), Bruce Morrow (Radio personality), Steve Morse (Writer), Alan Moulder (Producer-engineer), Jason Mraz, Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction), Tom Nawrocki (Former assistant managing editor, Rolling Stone), Ed Needham (Former managing editor, Rolling Stone), Ashley Newton (Executive VP, A&R, RCA Records), Claude Nobs (Founder-director, the Montreaux Jazz Festival), Yoko Ono, Mo Ostin (Chairman emeritus, Warner Brothers Records), Andy Paley (Musician-producer), John Parrish (Musician-producer), George Pelecanos (Writer), Michael Penn, Claudia Perry (Writer), Michelle Phillips (The Mamas and the Papas), Tony Pipitone (President, Warner Special Projects), Steve Pond (Writer), George Porter Jr. (The Meters), Robert Pruter (R&B editor, Goldmine magazine), Parke Puterbaugh (Writer), Questlove (The Roots), Steve Ralbovsky (Senior VP, A&R, RCA Records), Johnny Ramone (Ramones (1948-2004)), Marky Ramone (Ramones), Sylvia Rhone (Former chairman and CEO, Elektra Records), Jonathan Ringen (Assistant managing editor, Rolling Stone), Cory Robbins (President, Robbins Entertainment), Ira Robbins (Editorial director, MJI Programming, Premiere Radio Network), Robbie Robertson (The Band), Chris Robinson (The Black Crowes), Cynthia Robinson (Sly and the Family Stone), Bob Rock (Producer), Jody Rosen (Senior critic, Rolling Stone), Rick Rubin (Producer, co-founder,  Def Jam), Paul Samwell-Smith (Producer; the Yardbirds), Bob Santelli (Executive director, the Grammy Museum), Austin Scaggs (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Timothy B. Schmit (Eagles), Fred Schneider (The B-52's), Jordan Schur (President, Suretone Records), Andy Schwartz (Writer), Bud Scoppa (Writer), Gene Sculatti (Writer), John Sebastian (The Lovin' Spoonful), Pete Seeger, Joel Selvin (Music critic, San Francisco Chronicle), Matt Serletic (Producer), Evan Serpick (Former associate editor, Rolling Stone), Paul Shaffer (Musical director, Late Show With David Letterman), Ron Shapiro (Co-founder, Plan A Media), Rob Sheffield (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Mike Shinoda (Linkin Park), Tom Silverman (Founder and CEO, Tommy Boy Records), Barbara Skydel (Senior VP, William  Morris Agency (1940-2010)), Larry Sloven (Co-owner, executive producer, HighTone Records), Joe Smith (Chairman, Unison Productions), Britney Spears, Scott Spencer (Novelist), Scott Spock (Producer), Freddie Stewart (Sly and the Family Stone), Gary Stewart (Singer-songwriter (1945-2003)), Brian Stoltz (Funky Meters, the Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan), Neil Strauss (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Keith Strickland (The B-52's), Patrick Stump (Fall Out Boy), John Sykes (President, Clear Channel Entertainment Enterprises), Jeff Tamarkin (Writer), Corey Taylor (Slipknot), Al Teller (Former head, CBS, Columbia and RCA Records), Bruce Thomas (Elvis Costello and the Attractions), Touré (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Allen Toussaint (Producer-songwriter), Roy Trakin (Senior editor, Hits magazine), Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Nick Valensi (The Strokes), Hilton Valentine (The Animals), Andrew VanWyngarden (MGMT), Steven Van Zandt, Tom Vickers (A&R consultant), Butch Vig (Garbage, producer), Phil Walden (Former president,  Velocette Records (1940-2006)), Wale (Rapper), Barry Walters (Writer), Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), Gerard Way (My Chemical Romance), Harry Weinger (VP, A&R, Universal Music Enterprises), Eric Weisbard (Writer), Barry Weiss (CEO, Universal Republic, Island Def Jam Records), Hy Weiss (Founder, Old Town Records (1923-2007)), Steve Weitzman (President, SW Productions), Jann S. Wenner (Editor and publisher, Rolling Stone), Pete Wentz (Fall Out Boy), Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads), Joel Whitbur (President, Record Research), David Whitehead (Owner, Maine Road Management), David Wild (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Will.i.am, Lucinda Williams, Hal Willner (Music producer), Muff Winwood (Former president, Sony U.K. A&R), Douglas Wolk (Writer), Richard Wright (Pink Floyd (1943-2008)), Robert Wright, Howard Wuelfing (Howlin’ Wuelf Media), Adam Yauch (Beastie Boys)

Contributors: Pat Blashill, Nathan Brackett, David Browne, Anthony DeCurtis, Matt Diehl, Chuck Eddy, Ben Edmonds, Gavin Edwards, Jenny Eliscu, David Fricke, Elysa Gardner, Holly George-Warren, Andy Greene, Will Hermes, Mark Kemp, Greg Kot, Joe Levy, David McGee, Chris Molaphy, Tom Moon, Rob O'Connor, Parke Puterbaugh, Jody Rosen, Austin Scaggs, Karen Schoemer, Bud Scoppa, Rob Sheffield, David Thigpen, Simon Vozick-Levinson, Barry Walters, Jonah Weiner

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