Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band rewrote the rulebook of rock on its first release in the U.S. half a century ago, on June 1, 1967. It’s an exceptional, magnificent work, but it’s not even the finest Beatles album released in 1967.
Magical Mystery Tour, released less than six months after Sgt. Pepper, never earns a mention on the list of the best Beatles albums, because by abstruse and outdated rock-nerd standards it’s “not really an album.” The Beatles at the time were releasing music in three formats: singles; extended-play discs, or EPs; and full-length albums, or LPs. Gradually the second format disappeared and the first was folded into the third, so Magical Mystery Tour, whose first side is an EP and whose second side consists of three singles and the flip sides of two of them, is an album by today’s reckoning. Moreover, the songs on the two albums are more or less interchangeable. Both “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” were considered for the Sgt. Pepper LP, and the heavily produced, studio-sorcery feel is consistent through most of both albums.
Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery pair up beautifully: Each opens with its title track, an ebullient Paul McCartney rocker. Each features a slow, somnolent George Harrison composition (the noodling, shapeless “Within You Without You” on the earlier album, the slightly less dreary and even somewhat hypnotic “Blue Jay Way” on the later one), a satirical John Lennon tune (“Good Morning, Good Morning,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man”), some drug-inflected Lennon psychedelia (“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” on the one and both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus” on the other), a fond McCartney tribute to his parents’ generation (“When I’m 64,” “Your Mother Should Know”), a cheery McCartney pop tune that amounts to news from home (“Fixing a Hole,” “Penny Lane”), and a bursting blast of McCartney sunniness (“Getting Better,” “Hello Goodbye”).
The most glaring difference you notice when you line the two albums up is the sparseness of Lennon’s contribution to Sgt. Pepper. The half-thought “Good Morning, Good Morning,” whose inspiration lies in a breakfast-cereal commercial, is one of the weakest songs the Beatles ever recorded, and apart from that, all Lennon delivers here is two-thirds of “A Day in the Life” plus “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “Lucy.” Would you rank “Lucy” above “I Am the Walrus”? I wouldn’t; the former, despite its auspicious, tantalizing beginning, repeats its hook to the point of pounding it in, while the latter explodes into a verbally delirious, sonically polychromatic chaos. “A Day in the Life” over “Strawberry Fields Forever”? A close call, but I’d say “Fields” is the single finest Lennon composition the band ever recorded. In producer George Martin’s words, it’s “dreamlike without being fey, weird without being pretentious — nostalgia with an air of mystery.” “Mr. Kite” hardly measures up to the era-defining “All You Need Is Love,” surely one of the most satisfying album closers ever conceived and a sprightly journey from “La Marseillaise” to Paul’s sardonic invocation at the fadeout, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.” It’s a hippie anthem that, in true Beatles style, is more playful than it is plaintive.
McCartney rules both albums, but his Sgt. Pepper work tops his Magical Mystery creations. “Getting Better” and “Hello, Goodbye”? Both brilliant. Dead heat. “Penny Lane” easily bests “Fixing a Hole,” and “Magical Mystery Tour” tops the somewhat grinding “Sgt. Pepper.” On the other hand, “When I’m 64” leaves “Your Mother Should Know” in the dust, and among the lachrymose entries, the edge goes to “She’s Leaving Home” over “Fool on the Hill.” The ever-endearing “Lovely Rita” has no answer on Magical Mystery, and nor does “With a Little Help from My Friends” (which Lennon credited to McCartney but which McCartney said was a 50–50 composition). All that’s left on Magical Mystery is the throwaway instrumental “Flying.”
So: an impressive McCartney advantage on Sgt. Pepper, a major Lennon edge on Magical Mystery, but I count only three really spectacular tracks on the first album (“With a Little Help,” “Getting Better,” “A Day in the Life”), four on the second (“Hello, Goodbye,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “All You Need Is Love”). I say Magical Mystery Tour wins by a micron. No hard feelings, Sgt. Pepper: In the greatest year ever experienced by any pop-music act, that leaves you the second-greatest rock album ever recorded.
— Kyle Smith is National Review Online’s critic-at-large.