From Joan Peyser's "The Beatles and the Beatless," Columbia University Forum, Fall 1967, Volume X, Number 3, copyright 1967 by the Trustees of Columbia University, as reprinted in The Age of Rock, edited by Jonathan Eisen, copyright 1969, Vintage Books edition, pages 130-132:
Sergeant Pepper is an extraordinary work, not just comparable to a new sonata or opera, but far more important. It is a work of art that has sprung from unexpected, nonart roots. The salesman's comment was appropriate: "Sergeant Pepper" is to be listened to in the concert context and the Beatles set the tone right away. The beginning of the album simulates the sounds in a concert hall before a performance. Musicians tune instruments, people talk and move around, and an air of expectation prevails.
To the accompaniment of a distorted old-time English music hall sound, the Beatles begin Side I; their business is show business:
It was twenty years ago today,
Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play . . .
Side I is about illusion. The Beatles sing of particular methods people use to hide the truth from themselves. Ringo wears the stripes. He is Sergeant Pepper, the lonely outsider, the nonintellectual of the group who, as he concedes in the first song following the theme, gets by "with a little help from my friends." In a dialogue between the narrator and the sergeant, Ringo is asked:
Would you believe in love at first sight,
Yes I'm certain that it happens all the time . . .
Drugs are the subject of "I'm Fixing a Hole" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," an acrostic of LSD. Lavish verbal imagery and tonal distortions obtained by electronic manipulation suggest the visual hallucinations associated with "acid":
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies . . .
More familiar refusals to face the truth are treated in "Getting Better," a conventional rationalization, and in "She's Leaving Home." After their daughter has fled the house her parents sing:
We gave her most of our lives . . .
We gave her everything money can buy . . .
While the narrator chants, in contrapuntal fashion:
She's leaving home after living alone
For so many years.
Side I concludes with a return to the most obvious fiction of all: show business. The subject of the final song, "Mr. Kite," was inspired by an old-time theater poster.
Side II begins with a piece by George Harrison. It is the album's longest song, built on Indian ragas, and explicitly describes what Side I was all about:
the space between us all and the people who
hide themselves behind a wall of illusion.
The next three numbers treat life without drugs or hypocrisy. The Beatles sing of the sterile, ritualized roles people play. The first song wryly mocks the activities of an elderly couple; the second is a spoof on romantic love. A whore in Liverpool, who procures through her daytime trade as a meter-maid, was the inspiration for "Lovely Rita."
In a cap she looked much older
And the bag across her shoulder
Made her look a little like a military man . . .
The third describes, in desolate terms, the disonance [sic] of an ordinary day:
Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in
Nothing to say but what a day, how's your boy been . . .
There follows a reprise of the Sergeant Pepper theme with a stunning difference. Sergeant Pepper is no longer the raucous fun man, promising smiles and good times. Avoiding the initial expression of these empty hopes the band starts shouting "Hup, two, three, four," pounding out the beat and the ultimate truth of Sergeant Pepper's inner life:
Sergeant Pepper's lonely [repeated four times].
Thus Lennon and McCartney, the group's guiding spirits, commit themselves to the philosophy that Eugene O'Neill expressed in The Iceman Cometh--that man cannot live without illusion. The last song, "A Day in the Life," suggests that man cannot live with it either. It is a moving work, a desperate reflection of contemporary life, a song Newsweek described as the Beatles' "Waste Land."