Well, tomorrow really. But from a merchandising point of view, these lyrics couldn't have been more prophetic, or more appropriate, even if it's technically 20 years minus one day since Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, since the Beatles unleashed "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" on an anxious, if somewhat suspecting public. Tomorrow stores around the world will make available the CD version of what was recently voted the greatest album of all time by a worldwide panel of critics -- even though it's probably not even the best Beatles album, ranking behind "Rubber Soul," "Revolver," "The Beatles" (also known as "The White Album") and "Abbey Road."

Of course, today's critics would have a hard time matching the hyperbole of two decades past, when the London Times' Kenneth Tynan called it "a decisive moment in the history of Western Civilization," and when Newsweek, calling the Beatles "England's new poet laureate," defined "Sgt. Pepper" as a pop "Wasteland," a "thematic and structural equivalent of Eliot's poem, a desperate reflection of contemporary life."

Classical composers were sought out to confer legitimacy: Leonard Bernstein called "She's Leaving Home" one of three great songs of the century, while Ned Rorem, in the New York Review of Books, insisted that "the best of these memorable tunes compares with those by composers from great eras of song: Monteverdi, Schumann, Poulenc." James Poirier, in Partisan Review, went even further, saying "sometimes these songs are even better than Schumann ... no one is ever in danger of reading too much into the lyrics of these songs."

And in the New Yorker, Landgon Winner insisted that "the closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the 'Sgt Pepper' album was released. For a brief while, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."

Or at least in the minds of some critics, apparently in shock that a work of art had emerged from such insidious nonart roots.

One magazine called the album's release "an 'Oz'-like moment when things go from black and white to color" (an appropriately psychedelic sentiment), while another suggested that "listening to 'Sgt. Pepper,' one thinks not simply of the history of popular music but the history of this century."

Actually, listening to "Sgt. Pepper" today (on record or CD), one hears an intriguing album that has dated more than most of the Beatles work, with artifices and weaknesses seeming more transparent even as its masterpieces are confirmed and reclaimed. One tends to listen to it nostalgically, rather than critically, and usually in the context of its release -- the Age of Aquarius, the heyday of counterculture idealism, musical and mystical exploration. "Hair" had recently opened on Broadway, the Monterey Pop Festival would take place in two weeks; free concerts and peace demonstrations abounded. "Sgt. Pepper" was the perfect sound track for the Summer of Love.

But 1967 was also the year of Beatles' manager Brian Epstein's death (in October), and by early summer, flower power was beginning to have competition from more violent elements of the antiwar movement. There were ghetto uprisings in Newark and Detroit. And even though nostalgia tends to elevate "Sgt. Pepper" to a warm, hallowed place in the heart, the album itself predicts the transition from the optimistic idealism of the mid-'60s to the angry and despairing attitude of the rest of the decade, when the generation gap yawned wider than it ever had.

There were some other fine -- even "seminal" -- albums released in 1967 (from Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground, among others). But more than any other record, "Sgt. Pepper" encapsulates the communal mood and the adventurousness of the times from which it sprang.

"So may I introduce to you

The act you've known for all these years ... "

By 1967, the Beatles were trying to come to terms with an awful burden -- being Beatles. The hysteria was bad enough, but worse was the knowledge that four Liverpudlians could shape popular consciousness, whether they wanted to or not. Just as they themselves had outgrown the juvenile obsessions of their early material, the Beatles were desperate to work beyond conventional song matter, to open up their audience to new ideas.

In former Beatles publicist Derek Taylor's new book about this era, the familiarly titled "It Was 20 Years Ago Today," poet and Fugs founder Ed Sanders points out that the "Sgt. Pepper" album "brought into popular music a broader spectrum of concerns -- birth, death, sex, money, politics and religion -- and it was kind of interesting, four good singers talking about love, life and death in a way that nobody else was doing."

They were, in many ways, just part of a large vanguard of writers, filmmakers, social scientists and spiritual searchers looking for genuine identity, questioning the meaning of society. It was a common concern in the mid-'60s; the Beatles were simply able to give it a populist voice.

Yet it was also a greater challenge for someone in the Beatles' position than for fringe artists. After the enormous success they'd had, and the ground they'd already broken, the pressure to create something complex, profound and innovative that would both enlarge and transcend their previous work must have been staggering.

Still, like Mr. Kite, they were ready "to challenge the world." The Beatles knew people would buy anything they put out, but they needed to please, please themselves. True, as reviewers of "Sgt. Pepper" pointed out, there was an enormous distance between "I want to hold your hand" and "I'd love to turn you on," but the group's need to move from the physical to the cerebral was just as great.

At the same time, "Sgt. Pepper" was envisioned as the Beatles' final escape from public performance. They hated concerts, because they couldn't be heard above the screaming. "Rubber Soul" and the previous year's "Revolver" had both contained dollops of adventurous pop, and the Beatles didn't perform any of these songs on their final tour in 1966 (though it wouldn't really have been that difficult). But much of the music on this new album would be far too complicated even to attempt live.

So "Sgt. Pepper" was designed (later in the game than most people realize) as a continuous concert -- to be heard. "We hope you will enjoy the show," the Lonely Hearts Club Band sang. "You're such a lovely audience, we'd like to take you home with us." Or, in reality, vice versa.

Resorting to the isolation of the studio, the Beatles offered ironic counterpoint to the opening "one, two, three, four" count off on the first song on their first album, "I Saw Her Standing There." They'd done it then because they wanted that record to reflect their live performance. Four years later, when they count off in the reprise of "Sgt. Pepper," there's another awareness in place -- "it's getting very near the end."

Indeed, though much great work was to follow, 1967 was the last great year, and "Sgt. Pepper" the last album, of internal harmony and cohesiveness for the Beatles. The disputes and negative creative tension that would be recorded in the film "Let It Be" were mostly absent and the group's synergy at its height, making the whole superior to the sum of its parts. Individual Beatle contributions would be more defined on subsequent albums, where personal and musical differences abounded.

"I've got to admit it's getting better

A little better all the time ..."

"Sgt. Pepper" certainly didn't come out of nowhere. Its antecedents were audible in "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver," both of which suggest the range and subtle unity of "Sgt. Pepper" without hinting at its innovations. The serious musical experimenting and the expanded intellectual perspective had begun with "Tomorrow Never Knows," the last track on "Revolver" (for which John Lennon had wanted 1,000 chanting Tibetan monks to enliven lyrics taken from the Tibetan Book of the Dead).

But the real evidence was two songs that would have been on "Sgt. Pepper" had Brian Epstein not panicked and insisted on the release of two of the first three tracks recorded for the album -- "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" -- so the group wouldn't be out of the public eye too long. Because Epstein also believed that previously released singles shouldn't be included on albums, they didn't make it to "Sgt. Pepper." They would have just made it more of a masterpiece; instead they acted as a warning shot to the music public's consciousness.

Though "Sgt. Pepper" is now celebrated as the first "concept album," it is so only loosely -- and the original concept was to offer a Beatles look back at Liverpool. But the songs that resulted from that idea are as different as McCartney's and Lennon's efforts to make sense of their pasts. McCartney had come from a stable family environment, and his "Penny Lane" was nostalgic, affectionate pop, flush with light and specificity. Lennon's family history was troubled, and "Strawberry Fields Forever" was more somber, trippier, wary of a life where "nothing is real."

As the anticipation built in the spring of 1967, unmixed, unsequenced tapes started circulating in music business and radio circles. Some stations played individual cuts, and the momentum started to build, to the point that the prerelease orders were for 1.1 million copies -- a remarkable figure in that time.

On their end, the Beatles were working hard in the EMI Studio with their longtime producer, George Martin. Where their first album had cost $400 and had been recorded in 585 minutes, this one would consume 700 hours and $75,000 (a lot in 1967; about standard for a promotional video today).

Because the Beatles moved so quickly from folk instinct to fine art (there is really no match in rock history), they were able to move from catchy but formulaic songs to serious works whose musical and lyric techniques were more fully developed, and whose instrumentation was becoming increasingly exotic.

The "Sgt. Pepper" concept was arrived at about halfway through the sessions, but except for the "Sgt. Pepper" theme and reprise, there was no real unity. No matter how they've melded together in our consciousness, these 12 songs had separate identities. It was McCartney's idea to frame them as a concert, and to further distance the package from the past by creating the mythical "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." In Derek Taylor's book, McCartney recalls that "we started to realize there weren't as many barriers as we thought, we could invent another persona for the band. Let's pretend we're not the Beatles. That was a pretty big dare, you know, and it changed everything."

And, George Harrison would say, it was the drugs of the day, mostly marijuana, that helped the band "find new meanings in old equipment." Indeed, even though the studios of the day were relatively primitive, "Sgt. Pepper" was sonically innovative. It was George Martin who guided the Beatles through various explorations, including background noises, dissonant sounds, orchestral effects and experimental electronic techniques.

Ultimately, the totality of the production transcends any individual songs. If "Sgt. Pepper" heralded a new age of studio expressionism, it also inspired a new era of studio overproduction. While it gave us the Who's "Tommy," it also produced the Rolling Stones' embarrasment, "Their Satanic Majesties Request," which was even more psychedelic than "Sgt. Pepper," right down to a 3D cover that couldn't mask the 1D songwriting and production.

"What would you think if I sang out of tune,

Would you stand up and walk out on me ..."

With "Sgt. Pepper," the Beatles' image changed, as they all grew mustaches and Lennon adopted his eventual trademark, wire-rimmed glasses. There was a feeling the Beatles were stepping out of the picture, not just to become the Lonely Hearts Club Band, but to cease being the Fab Four. On Peter Blake's fabled cover, the Lonely Hearts Club Band is front, center and somber; the innocent moptops (wax dummies from Madame Tussauds) seem light years away.

The music inside dealt in different ways with the Beatles' loneliness and isolation, as if there were lots of Eleanor Rigby faces by the door. It also dealt with the pervasive emptiness of modern life, with the different methods people use to hide the truth from themselves (the empty cliche's of "Good Morning," the generation gap in "She's Leaving Home," where parents' money can't buy them love).

And how about a radical interpretation of the "Sgt. Pepper" reprise: a social, rather than a musical, one? It's only a slight variation, but the line "Sergeant Pepper's lonely" is repeated over and over, with emphasis on the "lonely," before resolving into "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It's as if at album's end, the guaranteed smiles or splendid times have slipped away and Billy Shears has been humbled by the reality expressed in the songs between. Then it's off with the show and on to "A Day in the Life," the profound, and for many, disturbing final cut.

"Sgt. Pepper" may have lacked an explicit design, real story line, central metaphor and recurring motifs; but as critics have long suggested, it had an internal coherence: There was an implied mood, generally somber. Because of this, and in part because the songs were connected (sometimes awkwardly) by the elimination of banding, we tend now to hear "Sgt. Pepper" as a whole. No singles were ever released from it, though the two songs Epstein removed in advance were Top 10 hits. And its charm as a concept-album-by-default was reinforced by the Beatles' next album, "Magical Mystery Tour," which was both pre- and mis-conceived.

Heard now, a number of "Sgt. Pepper's" songs are unimpressive: the circus cacophony of "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!"; "Good Morning, Good Morning," with its rash of rationalizations; and "Within You Without You," which one unkind critic wrote off as "George Harrison's latest excursion into curry and karma." Others are charming, but slight: the infamous "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"; "Lovely Rita," which forever changed England's traffic wardens to meter maids; "Fixing a Hole"; and "When I'm Sixty-Four" (Paul McCartney, as it happened, wouldn't have to wait half that long to find that some people -- including John Lennon -- didn't still need him).

Among the songs that hold up well are Ringo Starr's lone vocal showcase, "A Little Help From My Friends"; "She's Leaving Home" (though this tear-jerker is a less intense clone of "Eleanor Rigby"); the jolly "Getting Better"; and of course, "A Day in the Life, the album's major statement and extended pop song.

The "unbanding" idea not only set the Beatles outside the rock mainstream, but broke the constraints of the pop album format. Lennon was concerned that the Beatles had gone too far, that the public would reject "Sgt. Pepper." When the album came out, Britain's News of the World agreed, saying that "quite deliberately the Beatles are ignoring the oldest mixed metaphor in show business -- 'When you discover what the people want, don't rock the boat' " and as a result, "they could very likely lose the foundation of their support."

There's hollow laughter at the end of "Within You Without You," as if Harrison were trying to undercut his own mystical cliche's. Even "A Little Help," generally perceived as a classic of positive pop, finds Ringo uptight and insecure, afraid the audience will walk out and abandon him -- or laugh in his face -- if he sang out of tune.

"I read the news today oh boy

About a lucky man who made the grade ... "

They didn't walk out, of course. "Sgt. Pepper" sold 2 1/2 million copies in its first three months, and the figure has since grown to 15 million copies worldwide. It topped the charts for 15 weeks, and remained on them for the next two years.

And those sales figures really didn't reflect the album's impact, or listeners' obsessions, the hours and energies spent analyzing, dissecting, interpreting -- not just the lyrics (the first time rock lyrics were printed on a back cover) and the music, but even the front cover. This was a lot less obtuse than it seemed, actually: a collage of favorite historical, literary and entertainment figures interspersed with assorted gurus, a cast of characters who, as critic Joan Peyser wrote, "infused the imagination of the living about the possibilities of other ways of living, of extraordinary existences, of something beyond a day in the life."

McCartney had wanted to include in every album a packet of goodies from Woolworths, surprises to match the surprise of the album itself. Brian Epstein had hoped for a much simpler packaging concept; he didn't want to deal with releases, permissions and possible lawsuits from the parade of celebrities on the cover. Having a premonition of death just before a spring flight to New York, he scrawled out a will with one last wish: "plain brown paper bag for 'Sgt. Pepper.'

Flawed though it may appear today, "Sgt. Pepper" certainly seemed brilliant, innovative and revolutionary in 1967. It was a swirl of remarkable production, eclectic instrumentation and stylistic variety -- rock, classical, folk, Indian, music hall, vaudeville, electronics -- that somehow hung together. In terms of song topics and structures, it kicked off a great period of free expression and experimentation, not just musically but socially, as people began translating the freedom of the Beatles and "Sgt. Pepper" into personal terms.

It was the counterculture's first publicly certified work of art, and caused many people -- adults in particular -- to begin taking rock seriously. It was the first rock album that many people bought, and the critical reaction affirmed the music's status as the populist medium of the decade.

The music business itself was deeply affected: "Sgt. Pepper" confirmed the album format and reshaped recording and marketing techniques all around. It became a staple of the emerging FM format known as progressive radio, and, as the ultimate "head" album, was a boon to the headphone industry. "Sgt. Pepper" got endless end-to-end play on radio (this, of course, before the days of rampant home taping).

And it helped foster an emerging subspecies -- the rock critic. In an age when rock records were seldom reviewed in daily papers or magazines, "Sgt. Pepper" forced coverage out of the hands of skeptics and highbrow cultural protectionists and into the camp of true believers.

Until then, "rock journalism" meant fanzines and the underground press. But Rolling Stone, which celebrates its own 20th anniversary in the fall, came to life not all that long after Jann Wenner's 2,000 word essay on "Sgt. Pepper" was rejected by High Fidelity as being "too hyperbolic." (Hi Fi's house critic, Gene Lees, dismissed the album as being "authentically insignificant," which along with the New York Times review -- "dazzling but ultimately fraudulent" -- represented most of the bad press it would get.)

If people have attachments to particular songs on "Sgt. Pepper," they usually come together over "A Day in the Life." Standing apart from the rest of the album, even though it segues from the reprise, it is in the nature of an afterword, physically and creatively distinct, a sobering separation from the Lonely Hearts Club Band's theatrical fantasy. While there is a certain amount of playfulness of melody and lyric inside that fantasy, "A Day in the Life" gets back to the horror and confusion of the everyday world.

As unified as the song now seems, it was stitched together from separate Lennon and McCartney song scraps, with Lennon's distanced, disconnected observations and plaintive delivery dominant. When "the crowd" turns away from the scene of an accident, it's a stinging metaphor for the totality of despair that isn't relieved by the album's last line, "I'd love to turn you on."

After the controversy over that line and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," McCartney somewhat disingenuously insisted that the Beatles wanted "to turn you on to the truth rather than pot," but it's still hard not to see "A Day" as a deliberate provocation (the London Philharmonic Orchestra's two chaotic passages suggest drug rushes) as well as a brilliant art song.

Of course, everyone also remembers the doom-filled tonic chord that ends "Sgt. Pepper" and that seems to stretch interminably, though it's only 45 seconds long. It was made by the Beatles and George Martin sitting at three pianos, hitting the breathtaking chord while engineer Geoff Emerick slowly jacked up the soundboard levels as the sound naturally decayed into the resonance of infinity, the sound of silence.

If "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were previews, the follow-up singles were just as revealing. With the caustic "Baby You're a Rich Man," the Beatles seemed to concede that they had reached a crucial stage in their careers and lives:

"How does it feel to be one of the beautiful people?

Tuned to a natural E, happy to be that way

Now that you've found another key, what are you going to play?"

A month after "Sgt. Pepper's" bleak evocation of social despair, John Lennon produced a powerful antidote: "All You Need Is Love." Then as now, it seemed a pipe dream, but it did encapsulate some of the counterculture's idealism, just as McCartney would a year later with "Hey Jude" (who "made it better").

On 1968's so-called "White Album," the Beatles seemed to step back into themselves. Even the official title, "The Beatles," underlined that concession. The songwriting here and on "Abbey Road" (George Martin's candidate as the best Beatles album) may have been better; certainly some songs from those two albums have stayed fresh a little longer. But for one album, at least, with "Sgt. Pepper," the Beatles had transcended their rock roles.

A year later, on the long and winding road to fragmentation, they were back to being simply entertainers, a possibility suggested in "Good Morning, Good Morning:"

"Nothing has changed, it's still the same."

Except that everything had changed, and it never would be the same again.