'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' at 50: Every Song Ranked

Beatles
'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' was released on May 26, 1967. Capitol/Parlophone

It was 50 years ago today.

On May 26, 1967, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to rapturous acclaim and an almost hysterical degree of anticipation. The drama critic Kenneth Tynan declared it "a decisive moment in the history of Western Civilisation." The New York Times Book Review decreed it the start of "a new and golden Renaissance of song." TIME breathlessly deemed it ""a historic departure in the progress of music—any music."

Stretching the boundaries of pop songwriting in colorful and seemingly limitless directions, the album is one of the few that can be said to have genuinely changed the world. It was a masterpiece, an essential document of the '60s, a pioneering concept album and a landmark that altered the course of pop for the better.

But enough of that. You've read enough hyperbole about the Beatles. That's not what this post is. This is a ranking—and they can't all be winners. Though every song on Sgt. Pepper's is masterful in its own way (except for one stinker—we'll get to that), we're taking on the challenge of ranking them from best to worst. It wasn't easy. Let's get to it.

1. "A DAY IN THE LIFE"

"A Day in the Life" wasn't just a mesmerizing creative peak for the Beatles. It was a creative peak for pop songwriting in general. The song has a dreamlike, drifting quality as it segues seamlessly from John Lennon's mournful verses to Paul McCartney's exquisite middle section and back again. Along the way, there are ringing alarm clocks, extraordinary avant-garde orchestral flourishes inspired by Stockhausen and John Cage, and a sustained grand-piano chord that feels like a bridge to the future. Naturally, the song frightened some people, including the BBC, which refused to broadcast it because of its purported drug references ("I'd love to tuuuurn / yoooouuu / onnnnn"). When he heard it in 1967, Newsweek critic Jack Kroll wrote that "A Day in the Life" was "the Beatles' Waste Land, a superb achievement of their brilliant and startlingly effective popular art." And he was entirely right. The song came out half a century ago, and it still sounds like it's from tomorrow. Bloody hell.

2. "LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS"

Let's get one thing clear: "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" was not code for LSD, at least as far as the Beatles were concerned. The song's trippy imagery was inspired by Alice in Wonderland and a drawing done by John Lennon's son Julian, not acid. We're going by the word of Lennon and McCartney here, though, because the single is probably the most psychedelic, pie-in-the-sky track on Sgt. Pepper's. It's also one of the most endearing and lyrically dense songs the Beatles ever recorded, and there will certainly be quite a few 50-year-old former flower children named Lucy celebrating their namesake's anniversary this week.

3. "SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND"

The opener, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," is a great and iconic rock song, which is perhaps misleading, since Sgt. Pepper's is one of the Beatles' least rocking albums overall. Ah well, who cares. The intro, with its muddled sound of an orchestra tuning up, is instantly memorable. So is the guitar work, which is spiky and distorted, and the psychedelic horn quartet interlude accentuated by the sound of a crowd's laughter. This is the song that's most directly linked to the album's titular concept: a performance by a fictional band, with each Beatle playing an alter-ego. Paul McCartney dreamed up the strange concept during a 1966 flight from Kenya to London.

4. "SHE'S LEAVING HOME"

There may be no Beatles song with a more intriguing backstory. On February 27, 1967, the headline of London's Daily Mail read, "A-level girl dumps car and vanishes." That headline inspired McCartney to write this poignant song, but what none of the Beatles knew was that they'd already encountered this teen, Melanie Coe, in the London clubs. McCartney sang the verse and Lennon, who'd hatched the idea for the chorus, sings that part. Neither George Harrison nor Ringo Starr were involved in the recording, and none of the Beatles actually played an instrument on the track: It is entirely the work of a string orchestra. The result is one of the band's most tender and beautiful songs. Composer Ned Rorem described it as "equal to any song that Schubert ever wrote." Harry Nilsson's cover of the song, released the same year, is also pretty great.

5. "WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS"

Lennon and McCartney explicitly wrote this song for Ringo to sing lead vocals, which explains its limited range. The tune's genius is in the songwriting, which features a dialogue between the drummer and his three far more musically gifted bandmates. Just listen to the opening line: "What would you do if I sang out of tune / Would you stand up and walk out on me?" What transpires is a reassurance from the three first names that precede "and Ringo" that he is accepted, while Ringo, as the song title overtly suggests, acknowledges how he "gets by." And yes, as fans of the late-'80s sitcom The Wonder Years are well aware, Joe Cocker's version is far more potent.

Trivia: The working title for the song was "Bad Finger Boogie" because Lennon composed the melody on the piano using his middle finger, as his forefinger was in pain. That title became the inspiration for the band name Badfinger, the British foursome who were signed to the Beatles' Apple record label in 1968.

6. "GETTING BETTER"

The album's sunny fourth track is simply a perfect pop song with a killer staccato guitar riff. The song was supposedly inspired by a predawn walk McCartney and his dog, Martha, took together. As McCartney watched the sun rise, he thought, "It's getting better" (whereas such an experience would have motivated George Harrison to pen a different Beatles classic, one supposes). The song's optimistic tone is undercut by John Lennon's cynical backup vocals ("It can't get any worse") as well as an autobiographical set of lyrics that Lennon contributed: "I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept apart from the things that she loved." Harrison played a tamboura, a large Indian stringed instrument, and as the song concludes you can hear producer George Martin striking the strings of a piano with a mallet.

7. "LOVELY RITA"

Perhaps the most joyous track on St. Pepper's doubles as the greatest ode to a parking attendant ever recorded. The song was allegedly inspired by a woman who issued McCartney a ticket outside Abbey Road Studios. The next time you get caught parking in a red zone, instead of letting it ruin your day, just turn it into one of the most recognizable musical daydreams in history. From the delicate acoustic guitar into to the swirling piano that brings the reverie to a close, "Lovely Rita" is a delight. We're not sure whether "When are you free to take some tea with me?" works on Tinder, but it's worth a try.

8. "WHEN I'M SIXTY-FOUR"

This is McCartney at his most whimsical and goofy. Sure, it's schmaltzy as hell—dig those clarinet flourishes—but it's great fun to sing along with, especially on the occasion of a loved one's 64th birthday. Apparently McCartney wrote the song when he was only 16. Of course, the built-in irony of singing a silly song about getting old is that eventually you're going to get old. Thankfully, McCartney never had to experience this fate, seeing as he secretly died in 1966 and was replaced by a lookalike clone. (This phony McCartney clone turned 64 in June 2006 and has many grandchildren, none of them named Vera, Chuck or Dave.)

9. "FIXING A HOLE"

McCartney had a penchant for taking life's most mundane tasks—here, fixing the roof of his farm in Scotland—and writing songs about them. It's all a day in the life. McCartney has said that he liked the idea of "fixing a hole where the rain gets in" as a "good old analogy: the hole in your make-up which lets the rain in and stops your mind from going where it will." The Beatles recorded this song at Regent Sound Studios in central London, marking the first time they used a British studio outside Abbey Road Studios, which were owned by their record label, EMI. The song is one of the bouncier pop numbers on the album and has a great guitar solo from George Harrison.

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The Beatles, (from left to right), John, George, Ringo and Paul, circa 1967. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

10. "GOOD MORNING GOOD MORNING"

The Beatles have all said that the Beach Boys' 1966 album Pet Sounds was a heavy influence on Sgt. Pepper's. The influence is especially apparent on "Good Morning Good Morning," which is bracketed by a series of literal pet sounds. The song is also an example of how exacting the Beatles were in their construction of their magnum opus. Though the outro sounds like it was recorded by tossing a running microphone into the middle of a barnyard, the animal noises were actually sequenced so that each beck and call came from a creature more intimidating than the last, with the final chicken cluck transitioning into the opening chords of the album's penultimate song, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)." With its mundane subject matter and off-kilter rhythmic shifts, "Good Morning Good Morning" might feel like one of the more trivial songs on here, but it has some genuine delights.

11. "SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (REPRISE)"

It's just a brief reprise of the great title track, except the tempo is faster and more frenetic and the lyrics slightly changed. It's hardly the most essential thing on here, but it does help tie the fictional band concept together. Plus, it's such a great song that who can complain about hearing it again? Paul's Boutique fans: Note that the Beastie Boys sampled this drumbeat in the latter portion of "The Sounds of Science." (The Beatles reportedly reacted by threatening legal action.)

Related: The Canadian dentist who wants to clone John Lennon

12. "BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR. KITE!"

When skeptics whine that Sgt Pepper's just sounds like a bunch of weird circus music, chances are they're referring to "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" Though not as memorable as some of its neighboring tracks, "Being for the Benefit" is the quirkiest and busiest song on the album. Inspired by a 19th-century circus poster promising a "grand" night "being for the benefit of Mr. Kite," John Lennon, the primary writer, said he wanted the song to have a "carnival atmosphere." It certainly does, with organs, harmonicas and glockenspiels woven together to create a woozy, dreamlike soundscape that helped contribute to the record's reputation as the Beatles' most psychedelic album. Is it a song that we're going to go back and listen to on its own merits? Probably not, but it does contribute to the dazzling gestalt that is the Beatles' greatest album.

13. "WITHIN YOU WITHOUT YOU"

Bleh. The Beatles were experimenters, to their undying credit, but not every experiment worked. The trouble with "Within You Without You" is that it never really belonged on Sgt. Pepper's in the first place. George Harrison, who wrote the song after a life-changing trip to India, was largely disinterested in Paul McCartney's concept of a fictitious band. This Hindu-inspired sitar composition slows the whirlwind momentum on Sgt Pepper's and sounds like it should have been on an entirely different album. (It was recorded in London without Harrison's bandmates present.) Worse, it's one of the lengthiest tracks on the record, and the plodding rhythms and freshman-year pothead revelations ("The time will come / When you see we're all one") grow tiresome over the course of five minutes. Harrison contributed some of the very best songs on Revolver ("Taxman") and Abbey Road ("Something," "Here Comes the Sun"), so it's unfortunate that this tune was his only real contribution to Sgt. Pepper's.

'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' at 50: Every Song Ranked | Culture