The first track of Sgt. Pepper is bookended by a reprise near the end of the record, and this makes a nice circle. The reprise is harder and faster than the original; while the rest of the record sounds new and groundbreaking, this is straight-up rock and roll. When I talk about an album having definition, purpose and unity, this pair of songs is precisely what I mean. Sgt. Pepper doesn’t just meet all those conditions; it helps to define those parameters in the first place. Without this album, they don’t really exist. The fact that it begins and ends with a matching pair of songs is the entire thing in miniature.
Okay, I lied; it doesn’t quite end there. It caps off with what is my favorite song on the record, “A Day In the Life.” After the madcap journey of Sgt. Pepper is complete, we’re left with one last image, and “A Day In the Life” contemplates nothing less that the cycle of life and death. A news story tells of a man dying in an automobile accident (Tara Browne, an actual acquaintance of John), but John also peppers this account with references to his own life, particularly his role in the movie How I Won the War. The first section ends with the line, “I’d love to turn you on,” invoking the phrase popularized by LSD guru Timothy Leary, “tune in, turn on, drop out.” Paul later confirmed in an interview that this was, in fact, a reference to drugs.
On to the second section: an orchestral swell, and the song shifts emotional colors. Paul’s voice tells a rather ordinary story of a student getting out of bed, running to the bus, and then smoking in the school hallway. After the serious account of someone’s death, life goes on. We’re really only very small, and life flows on within us and without us. Sound familiar?
I’ll admit that the third section is a mystery to me. It’s based on another news story about the potholes in a British town, and I can’t figure out what it has to do with the rest of the song. If you can, good for you.
About forty seconds after “A Day In the Life” fades out, there is a quiet, high-pitched tone. It’s almost imperceptible to humans, but dogs would find it very annoying. John apparently liked the idea of more than just humans reacting to his music. The final moment of the album is another innovation that has lasted even to this day. The first secret song ever is a collection of voices and nonsense. It’s located on the absolute inner ring of the vinyl. When the needle reaches that point, it repeats in an endless loop until the needle is picked up. There is normally silence in this part, but not on Sgt. Pepper.
When I played the album for Ruthanne, her face during this secret song was priceless. She was confused, discombobulated, and a little disturbed.
The influence and impact of Sgt. Pepper can’t be overstated. Were it to never exist, popular music would look incredibly different. Nearly every artist has been influenced by it in some way, even if they don’t realize it. I can see shades and shadows of it in almost every album that comes after it. But all of that only matters because of one thing: it’s good. If Sgt. Pepper weren’t excellent in the formalist sense, it certainly wouldn’t have the amazing trickle-down effect that it does. Because of this, Sgt. Pepper can be enjoyed on two levels: its game-changing effect on every future aspect of the popular music industry, and its own multifaceted merits.