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50 Years Ago Today: The Beating Heart of ‘Sgt. Pepper'

Why the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' landmark album matters.

The Beatles' landmark "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" arrived on June 1, 1967, deceivingly wrapped in nostalgia, from a cover dominated by figures of eras past (Carl Jung, Edgar Allan Poe and Mae West among them) to the first line of the opening cut ("It was 20 years ago today").

But there's nothing old about the group's most celebrated album, which for a half-century and counting has resonated far beyond the massive E-chord that caps the epic final song,  "A Day in the Life."

What started as an LP about the band's childhood grew into an album for the ages. With "Sgt. Pepper," the Beatles proved looking back helps you look ahead to new heights.

That helps explain why the album's 50th anniversary warrants the seemingly endless hoopla and re-examination it's spurred. Ditto for the recently released expanded CD reissue, which brings together tantalizing outtakes and a digital version of original mono recording (if you think mono doesn't matter, just listen to "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," which swirls off the vinyl and into ears).

Let's beat the naysayers to the punch: No, the eclectic collection of tunes doesn't quite meet the concept album billing. Song for song, some will argue, "Pepper" doesn't match The White Album, "Abbey Road" or perhaps even "Revolver."

But "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" stands as the most important work by the greatest group in music history – and as rock's most influential album.

"Sgt. Pepper" earned its superlatives via sheer ambition: The idea of an old-school band inhabiting the Beatles, with Ringo Starr as Billy Shears belting "With a Little Help From My Friends," brims with imagination, whimsy and chutzpah.

So does the bold mixing of genres, from hard rockers (including the title cut, its reprise and "Good Morning Good Morning") to bouncy Musical Hall-influenced numbers ("When I'm Sixty-Four, "Lovely Rita") to the sounds of India ("Within You Without You") to the virtual invention of musical psychedelia ("Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "Fixing a Hole," "Mr. Kite").

The elaborate, trippy packaging, complete with lyrics printed on the back, marked a statement that the words mattered on songs that pushed boundaries.

Paul McCartney's "She's Leaving Home" mixed strings and stirrings, aimed at the hearts of multiple generations. John Lennon's verbal imagery in "Lucy in the Sky" ("cellophane flowers of yellow and green") floated in otherworldly ether – brought down to earth by Starr's crashing drums, which heralded the rocking hook. George Harrison combined sitars and Liverpool-meets-East-meets-flower-child wisdom ("When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there") on "Within You Without You."

Sure, "Sgt. Pepper" provided a soundtrack for the Summer of Love, but it's an album for all seasons. The disc helped spawn the likes of The Who's "Tommy" and pretty much everything by Pink Floyd, whose members were hanging around EMI's Abbey Road studios as the Beatles recorded "Sgt. Pepper."

The Beatles, unlike any band before or since, evolved at revolution speed: "Sgt. Pepper" landed just over three years after the group touched down in the U.S. amid a teeny-bopper frenzy, a milestone that spurred major anniversary celebrations in 2014. We're in a golden age of Beatle golden anniversaries that will run through their 1970 breakup.

The Beatles, though, are best measured not by time, but timelessness. "Sgt. Pepper" still sounds fresh to ears new and old. And with every listening, it gets better all the time.

Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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