The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' at 50: Why It's Still Worth Celebrating

The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios, 1967 ALAMY/Shutterstock

The summer of love began on Thursday, June 1, 1967, a day that now lies closer to World War I than to our time. As London sweltered and swung, two LPs landed in the record stores—one each from the two acts now rated the greatest in the history of British pop music.

The first was the debut album by David Bowie, which was a resounding flop: "I didn't know," Bowie said later, "whether to be Max Miller or Elvis Presley." (Miller was a British music hall comedian of the 1930s, known as the Cheeky Chappie.) If you'd asked for Bowie's record that day in 1967, the shop assistant might have scratched her head. And you would have had to fight your way through the throng trying to buy the other new release. Bowie, later celebrated for his sense of theater, had chosen a terrible moment to make an entrance.

That other album was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band by the Beatles, which had aroused feverish expectations and lived up to all of them. For 50 years now, it has been more than a record. It is the high-water mark of hippiedom and a landmark in the history of music. It was the first rock record to capture album of the year at the Grammys, a bastion long held by the forces of easy listening. Its engineer, Geoff Emerick—the sixth Beatle—won a Grammy too. Its producer, George Martin—the fifth—ended up with a knighthood, as did its driving force, Paul McCartney. (It's not clear what the band's drummer and other surviving member has to do to arise to Sir Ringo.)

Sgt. Pepper runs on superlatives. It's the best-selling studio album by the best-selling band of all, with sales estimated at 32 million. In Britain it's the best-selling studio album by anyone (trailing only two compilations, Queen's Greatest Hits and Abba Gold) and has gone platinum 17 times over, which is eight more than the Beatles' other studio albums have managed between them. It last re-entered the British album chart as recently as April 7, at No. 62. It is the last album standing, and the global best-seller, from pop's greatest era—the deep-purple patch when Bob Dylan and Smokey Robinson, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin, Simon and Garfunkel and the Velvet Underground were all making records that were both immediate and indestructible.

A little help from our friends: Scenes from Beatlemania, including (far left) Ringo with engineer Geoff Emerick, who won a Grammy for Sgt. Pepper; (top right) The Beatles in 1967. ALAMY; shutterstock

As well as bests, Pepper collected firsts: the first so-called concept album, the first LP recorded on eight-track, the first cover to include the lyrics. It vies with The Velvet Underground & Nico, released three months earlier, for the title of the most influential album made by anybody. In 2012, Rolling Stone magazine, also born in 1967, declared it the winner: "Sgt. 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."

George Harrison once paid tribute to a band he loved by saying, "No Shadows, no Beatles." When Sgt. Pepper was complete, one of the first people invited to Abbey Road Studios to hear it was Pete Townshend of the Who, who went on to write the world's first rock opera. No Pepper, no Tommy. Among the visitors during the recording were some earnest young wannabes who called themselves Pink Floyd. No Pepper, no The Dark Side of the Moon. When Bowie finally made the grade in 1972, it was by slipping into an alter ego, as the Beatles had in 1967. No Pepper, no Ziggy Stardust. When Freddie Mercury was an art student in London in 1968 and 1969, his friend Chris Smith said they used to "write little bits of songs which we linked together, like 'A Day in the Life.'" No Pepper, no "Bohemian Rhapsody."

Celebrating Pepper at 50

The golden jubilee will unfold as if the sergeant were a monarch. Liverpool, where all the Beatles grew up, is staging an arts festival, Sgt. Pepper at 50, featuring 13 new pieces (one for each track) in various art forms, from names as big as American choreographer Mark Morris and Turner Prize-winning British artist Jeremy Deller. In cinemas, there will be a feature-length documentary, It Was Fifty Years Ago Today, which, unlike last year's Eight Days a Week, is unofficial, so it may be Hamlet without the soliloquies. At the Royal Albert Hall in London and on tour, the Bootleg Beatles, the world's best-known Beatles tribute band, will play Sgt. Pepper in full, backed by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. They may be Bootlegs, but they are used to playing the Pepper songs live, something the real Beatles never did.

The album itself will reappear on May 26 in several guises. The Beatles' company, Apple Corps, calls them "a suite of lavishly presented Sgt. Pepper Anniversary Edition packages," giving them all the allure of a time-share in Tampa. One package appears to consist entirely of statistics. It runs to six discs, rounds up 33 outtakes, contains a 144-page book and has a recommended price of £140 ($180). The most palatable version may be the plainest—a single-disc Sgt. Pepper, costing £10 in British supermarkets (record stores having largely died out). It's a fresh mix by Sam Okell, a young engineer, and Giles Martin, George's son and successor, as the pair of hired hands the surviving Beatles trust.

Emerick, still making records at 70, is no longer a member of the court, which allows him to speak his mind. "All that reissue stuff," he says, from his home in Los Angeles's Laurel Canyon, "it's just the record company, and the Beatles, trying to make money out of it. As far as I'm concerned, you just don't touch it—it's like the Sistine Chapel. Well, why would you? It can only be for the money."

To be fair, the Beatles' decision-makers—currently McCartney, Starr and their bandmates' widows, Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison—have often taken the road less lucrative. There has been only one compilation, the 30 million-selling 1, since 1973. They resisted the blandishments of iTunes for a decade. And Sgt. Pepper itself ran on the altruistic notion that including an existing single on an album would be unfair to the fans, because they'd be paying for the same song twice—which meant leaving out "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," two of the band's very greatest hits.

The new Pepper may be motivated less by money than by something else Emerick mentions: McCartney's perfectionism. "Paul was like the musician's musician," he says. "Whereas John would accept 95 percent and say, 'That'll do,' Paul would want 110 percent. There'd be one error somewhere, he'd hear it, and we'd do it again until we got it right."

The first stereo mix of Pepper was rushed, done in "maybe three days," Emerick once said, while the mono mix took three weeks. The case for the new mix is that it tries to correct that—fixing a whole host of tiny infidelities. "It's like archaeology," Giles Martin says.

Back to Abbey Road

At Abbey Road today, it's all about the Beatles. On the zebra crossing, a family of four tourists poses for the inevitable picture, led by a girl of about 10. In the front yard, the Beatles stand like a receiving line, life-size cutouts in their Pepper uniforms—a neat twist on pop artist Peter Blake's much-imitated cover shoot, at which every famous face was a cutout, except the four of them.

Inside, black-and-white photos line the walls, showing the stars that have shone here: Amy Winehouse, Queen, Kate Bush—but mostly the Beatles. In the canteen, they're on the wall again, in their suits and ties, having tea at two melamine tables pushed together—Ringo, George and Paul on the far side, with John at one end and George Martin at the other. The layout hints at "Leonardo: The Last Cuppa."

In 1967, the press launch was a buffet given by the Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein, at his house in Belgravia, the grandest part of London, with nobody suspecting that Epstein would be dead within three months. (Among the guests was an American photographer, Linda Eastman, who had just met McCartney at a nightclub called the Bag o' Nails. She later married him.) This time, the media are bidden to Studio Two, Abbey Road, where the Beatles made nearly all their music. Recording studios tend to be luxury bunkers, but this one is big and airy, a white cube with mustard stripes. There are a hundred chairs, and still it's standing room only.

The Beatles' talents always included a gift for PR, and it's a touch of class to present the revised Pepper in the room where the original was created. Giles Martin—modest, gentlemanly, youthful, yet six years older than his dad was in 1967—gives an interview, cueing up some curios on his laptop, among them "A Day in the Life" (take eight), when the ending was not an orchestral apocalypse but a group hum. And then it's time for Sgt. Pepper to play.

Everyone in the room knows it like the back of their phone, yet it's still an event. It booms out of two speakers built like bodyguards and strikes you afresh. The backing vocals, those Beatle harmonies, are a sorrowful joy. The drums are big and boxy (they "had to be better than Revolver," Emerick says). The basslines are brighter. Sgt. Pepper is almost funky, and formidably snappy—the title track is over in two minutes, the whole thing in 38. It took four months to make—no time at all by today's standards, but to Emerick it felt as if "we had the luxury of time." The Sistine Chapel stands restored, not traduced.

There's more invention in each track here than in the collected works of Adele. Sgt. Pepper is the sound of four men, or six, who refused to know their place (the mantra of midcentury Britain) or stick to their genre (the norm in American music). The title track is a rocker, heavy enough for Jimi Hendrix to open his show with it, but also a lyrical piece for French horn. "When I'm Sixty-Four" is a music hall ditty but also a lament for the cozy retirement Paul's parents were denied when his mother, Mary, died in 1956. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is music hall but also Dada—the harmonium goes haywire because George Martin told Emerick to chop up the tape and reassemble it at random. The whole thing is "a drugs album," as Sir Paul later informed a rather peeved Sir George, but it encompasses mending a fuse, making the bus in seconds flat and sitting on the sofa with a sister or two. For a pharmaceutical experiment, it's phenomenally down-to-earth—but then the Beatles had been introduced to LSD by their dentist.

You can see Sgt. Pepper as "a mishmash of rubbish," as Keith Richards called it in 2015; a splendid time is never guaranteed for all. Or you can enjoy it as pop with a richer palette—tambura on "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," harpsichord on "Fixing a Hole," and finally, climatically, 41 classical instruments, crowning the desolate beauty of "A Day in the Life." Or you can enjoy it as social commentary and admire its inclusiveness. Mr. Kite's boss, the paternalistic Pablo Fanque, was Britain's first black circus proprietor. Harrison's "Within You Without You"—"a rather dreary song," George Martin felt—is a heartfelt plunge into Indian ideas and instruments. "She's Leaving Home" is a small miracle of empathy, both pinpointing the generation gap and bridging it.

Sgt. Pepper arose partly because the Beatles had just decided, bravely, to stop touring. By stepping off a treadmill, they freed their minds; by not having to worry about re-creating the songs onstage (which had already proved impossible with Revolver), they could be bolder in the studio. And yet the first thing they did, on starting anew as a studio band, was to find an alter ego as a bunch of touring performers. It's not really a concept album: As John Lennon caustically noted, only the title track and "With a Little Help From My Friends" stick to the plan. But it's a magnificent MacGuffin.

Is Sgt. Pepper the Beatles' best album?

When Sgt. Pepper was 25, I interviewed George Harrison—gentle, mustachioed, still in his 40s. The album, I told him, was back in the top 10. "Well, that's good," he said. "There's always room for something like that, something historical. I don't particularly think that Sgt. Pepper was the best Beatle record. Personally, I preferred Rubber Soul and Revolver and Abbey Road. But I liked the cover, and I did like a couple of the tracks." How much had he had to do with it? "I can't remember, really. I can't remember doing much. I was there, though, sitting in Abbey Road Studios for most of my life."

Interviewing Harrison was both a thrill and a disappointment, because half his answers ended up in the same place—the importance of meditation (he hadn't changed his tune and has now proved ahead of his time). But he packed a lot into that answer, drily combining ruefulness, resentment and auto-iconoclasm.

The eternal question is whether Sgt. Pepper is the Beatles' best album. The critics' polls, which once said yes, now say no—they agree with Harrison, it's Rubber Soul or Revolver. But it's time to question the question. The Beatles' supremacy, like Shakespeare's, lies in the whole oeuvre. Among their LPs, Pepper is not the most moving (only two tearjerkers) or the most consistent (at least two space-fillers). But it's the Beatles at their most popular, their most playful, their most liberated and their most album-ish. Where some of their gems can be hard to place, it's never hard to remember that a song is on Sgt. Pepper. It has character and charm and, at a time when television was still largely in black and white, blazing color. It may not be more influential than The Velvet Underground & Nico, but it's far more fun.

"It's about the music," Giles Martin tells the invited audience back at Abbey Road, "and how it makes you feel." Sgt. Pepper can make you feel your age. But it can also make you feel a teenager's isolation ("She's leaving home after living alone for so many years") and her parents' baffled pain. It can make you feel Lennon's angst as he sat in his gilded cage in Weybridge, still married to Cynthia, thinking of Yoko. It can make you feel two things at once: optimism and ennui in "Getting Better," solitude and solidarity in "With a Little Help From My Friends." That's not a mishmash; that's a masterpiece.

Some of the highest praise has come from beyond the walls of pop. Theater critic Kenneth Tynan called Sgt. Pepper "a decisive moment in Western civilization." Joe Orton, the playwright, so loved "A Day in the Life" that it was played at his funeral, only two months after its release. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut used to say in speeches that the artist's mission was "to make people appreciate being alive, at least a little bit." He would then wait to be asked which artists had achieved that. And he would reply, "The Beatles did."