In 1967, the Beatles recorded and released their most enduring work: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Technically started at the end of 1966 after the band had quietly stopped touring, Sgt. Pepper took a then unprecedented 5 months to record, leading media to taunt that the Beatles had finally dried up. Those who either worried or rejoiced at the possibility of a Beatles’ failure had picked a significantly wrong moment to do so.
But the recording of Sgt. Pepper, in many ways, also pushed the Beatles further apart. Ringo felt incredibly left out during recording, and George continued to feel (legitimately) as though John, Paul, and George Martin were not taking his songs and ideas seriously. Meanwhile, John and Paul’s own compositions were being composed mostly separately, and their individual songs clearly showed the different directions in which they were starting to drift.
Then, not long after the album’s release, the Beatles faced tragedy. Their trusted manager and friend, Brian Epstein, was found dead of a drug overdose. With the band left reeling from the personal loss and panicked at the confusion over the finances and all other business matters, Paul tried to pull the group back together over his pet movie project. But the rest of the band largely viewed it as a power grab, and anyway, the film Magical Mystery Tour wasn’t very good. The disjointed, psychedelic, and mostly plotless film was almost universally panned upon first showing on television, marking the Beatles’ first major artistic misstep.
The year of the Beatles’ most legendary and ambitious recording was thus also the year of both their greatest failure and greatest trauma. And though they technically remained together for two more years, 1967 has accordingly also been traced as the year that the Beatles started to break up.
1. A Day in the Life
It’s probably pretty well-known by now that I view A Day in the Life not just as the best Beatles song of 1967, and not merely the best Beatles song, but as the best song, period. It’s routinely cited as the greatest of all Lennon/McCartney collaborations, and that’s with good reason. Paul took John’s unadorned acoustic work in progress and helped him turn it into a masterpiece of epic and legendary proportions. But for me, 1967 was a year of John, and this song is not an exception to that rule. For he is the reason that I mostly dearly love this track. While I wouldn’t trade Paul’s middle eight or the spectacular brilliance of the orchestra for anything in the world, it is John’s simple guitar and the serene, haunting echo of his voice that take me to another world, all on their own.
2. Strawberry Fields Forever
The 1967 list is one that flows quite nicely — from the best song of the Beatles’ career, to what I view as the second best. Even with Tomorrow Never Knows coming before it, Strawberry Fields Forever startled many listeners. And when they saw the surreal accompanying promotional video, most couldn’t help but ask themselves what had happened to their beloved Beatles.
One of the finest compositions of John Lennon’s inestimable career, Strawberry Fields Forever is named for a childhood hangout, and features lyrics about the confusion and disillusionment of adult life. Droning mellotron, backwards drums, melancholy orchestral arrangement, and distorted vocals create a dreamlike, hypnotic texture. The unwittingly brilliant decision by John to splice together two different recordings — featuring two different keys and two different tempos — was impossibly, effectively, and almost imperceptibly executed by George Martin and Geoff Emerick, and nearly ensured that there will never be another track quite like it.
3. I Am The Walrus
Famously written as nonsense in response to people who John felt were too deeply analyzing his lyrics, I Am the Walrus just plain works. From the discordant opening piano chords, to the spooky, swirling strings, to the disconcerting audio of a King Lear performance, the pieces all fall unexpectedly into place. And John truly sells lines like “sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come” and “expert texpert choking smokers, don’t you think the joker laughs at you?” through sheer force of will. Goo goo g’joob!
4. Penny Lane
Penny Lane makes up one half of the greatest single ever released — and it couldn’t sound more different from the song it shared A-side status with, Strawberry Fields Forever. For inspiration, Paul also turned to his childhood in Liverpool (though John was actually the one who lived in the Penny Lane area). But instead of dark and ominous, Paul’s track is so bright and breezy that it almost shimmers. His vocal is lovely, but it was the choice of a piccolo trumpet solo — and the amazing performance by David Mason — that provides the perfecting touch.
5. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
This trippy track was very likely assisted by LSD, but that doesn’t mean it was inspired by it. John always maintained that the title of his son Julian’s drawing was the culprit, and the man could never keep a lie going for that long, especially one so inconsequential. With the delicate, mesmerizing Hammond organ in the forefront, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds is perhaps the most iconic song of the Beatles’ psychedelic period. The distant vulnerability of John’s vocal and jolt of Ringo’s drums pounding through the break between each verse and chorus also both assist in rendering the track particularly memorable.
Bonus Track(s): Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / With a Little Help From My Friends
Okay, I’m going to admit up front that this final pick is kind of cheating. But I’m allowing it for a couple of reasons — firstly, it’s a bonus track, and secondly, I consider neither song fully complete without the other. Also, if The Beatles: Rock Band can get away with us, so can I, right?
The opening of Sgt. Pepper is epic, and no list about 1967 would be complete without it. The title track is a classic rock song filled with badass guitar licks and awesome harmonies. In fact, it’s a strong enough song to trick you into thinking you’re actually listening to a concept album. The illusion is propped up by the lead into Ringo singing as Billy Shears, in perhaps the greatest vocal of his career, and most definitely of his Beatles work.
Which 1967 songs would have made it on your list? Notably missing from this one are tracks such as She’s Leaving Home, Baby, You’re a Rich Man, Hello, Goodbye, and All You Need Is Love. View a full list of 1967 Beatles songs here, and leave your own choices in the comments.