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CLASSIC ’60s: The Beatles – ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Influenced: Love, Jimi Hendrix, Grateful Dead, The Byrds, The Zombies, Simon & Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Bee Gees, David Bowie, 10cc, E.L.O., Fleetwood Mac, Roxy Music, Big Star, Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers, U2, Prince, R.E.M., The Jam, XTC, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The La’s, Pavement, Primal Scream, Saint Etienne, Teenage Fanclub, Belle & Sebastian, Jeff Buckley, Oasis, Blur, The Verve, Super Furry Animals, The Beta Band, Elliott Smith, Weezer, Spoon, The Shins, Animal Collective, Coldplay, The Killers, Kaiser Chiefs, Arctic Monkeys, MGMT, Tame Impala, Temples, Wolf Alice, Blossoms, The Lemon Twigs

Influenced by: Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Phil Spector, Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Ravi Shankar

For a great many years and to almost all music fans and rock journalists, it was always an unmovable article of faith that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles’ revolutionary eighth album, is The Greatest Album Ever. Full Stop. No Argument. Along with other long-playing masterpieces of the previous year, such as Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and the Fab Four’s own Revolver, it was credited with bringing popular music into the realm of legitimate art alongside jazz and classical, as well as opening up the possibilities of the studio itself in the construction of music with mass appeal. It spent 27 weeks at the top of the UK albums chart, has sold more 32 million copies around the world, and won four Grammys the following year, including the first ever Album of the Year prize for a rock record. ‘Iconic’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

However, around the time of punk and the genre’s iconoclastic, ‘year zero’ ethos when it came to the past, present and future of rock, the reputation of Sgt. Pepper’s came to be regarded as a sacred cow that deserved to be slaughtered. Indeed, many hardcore Beatles fans have subsequently come around to the idea that Sgt. Pepper’s isn’t quite the untouchable shibboleth of rock fandom that it had been held out to be, and critical consensus began to shift toward the view that 1966’s Revolver was actually The Beatles’ best album.

Many others subsequently felt that rock ‘n’ roll had lost touch with its roots by 1967, and that Sgt. Pepper’s represented the worst of that excess. Musicologist John Kimsey, writing in 2008, said that the preservation of authenticity has always been a guiding tenet of rock music and suggests that this was the reason many purists denounced Sgt. Pepper’s in that respect, accusing it of “marking a fall from primal grace into pretence, production and self-consciousness”. Critics point to the back-to-basics rock leanings of ‘The White Album’ the following year as evidence that even the Fab Four themselves thought the same thing.

So why did this critical revisionism happen? And what is actually the truth about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? The truth is, there is no album in rock’s vast canon and varied history that has such a freighted reputation as this. No other long-playing record has received such universal praise, been written about and analysed, been the subject of pub debates, or been abused so savagely by its subsequent detractors as Sgt. Pepper’s. You probably have a view on it, or have at least been told about it one way or another, even if you haven’t sat down and listened to it before.

IMPACT

Value judgements aside, what absolutely cannot be denied is that Sgt. Pepper’s is among the most important albums in history. It is simply impossible to imagine the subsequent course of rock as it has panned out over the last 50 years if Sgt. Pepper’s had never existed, and what guitar music would sound like now. Of course, the same evolutionary milestones would have been reached eventually, but the whole process would have been much slower and less urgent.

Sgt. Pepper’s is what is known as a game-changer – a moment in popular culture that raised the bar for everybody in the industry. No longer would a couple of hit songs and ten casually recorded fillers be enough to constitute a great album – every other artist now had to think on a grander and more ambitious scale. Even the Fab Four’s long-standing commercial rivals The Rolling Stones scrambled to make their own version of Sgt. Pepper’s, failing dismally by releasing the extremely questionable Their Satanic Majesties Request six months later.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were past masters of writing effortlessly catchy pop songs by this point, but with Sgt. Pepper’s they took an arms-open stance with regard to other genres, embracing the influences of avant-garde music, Western and Indian classical music, vaudeville and music hall to make a landmark recording in the history of British psychedelia. It also acted as a huge catalyst for the development of progressive rock over the next decade, as artists were unafraid to add musical and thematic complexity to tracks and to link individual songs together with a unifying concept. As such, it played a crucial role in the evolution of the album format as we have come to know it over the last half-century – such was Sgt. Pepper’s impact, the LP is still the predominant way that music is marketed and sold to the public, despite the demise of the physical format and the rise of file-sharing.

PROLOGUE

The idea for Sgt. Pepper’s came together gradually in the aftermath of what turned out to be The Beatles’ last ever formal gig at Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29th August 1966. The increasing complexity of the group’s songs, their inability to hear each other properly on stage and the harrowing experience they had endured in the Philippines meant that performing live had become practically difficult and mentally unattractive to the band after nearly four years of punishing schedules. The group went on a three-month hiatus, during which each member took time to explore their own individual interests.

READ MORE: The Beatles // Rubber Soul at 50 years old

Abbey Road had become their safe space and, about halfway through the writing process and following the recording of the title track ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ in February 1967, Paul McCartney had the idea of an ‘alter ego’ group, a fictional Edwardian-era military band with a contemporary psychedelic name. Such a concept would allow the invented group to ‘tour’ the album for them and also allow them greater licence to experiment in the studio.

Having said that, this rather grandiose concept only holds together for its first two songs and the reprise of the title track half an hour later. The rest of the album is a diverse and, for the most part, stunningly inventive and different-sounding record than virtually everything else in the pop music canon in 1967, miles ahead of virtually every competitor bar Jimi Hendrix and Brian Wilson.

SUBSTANCE

The freedom from touring and licence to experiment in the studio led to a very different-sounding record to all previous Beatles releases. Up to and including Revolver, the group sounded extremely practiced and well-drilled on record, a manifestation of the necessity to get the job done as quickly as possible so that the new material could be toured and replicated live. On Sgt. Pepper’s, that was no longer a requirement. Studio sessions were open-ended and block-booked so that McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr could come and go as they pleased and record when they wanted to.

As a result, the songs were assembled piece by piece as studio creations rather than traditional ‘takes’. In the studio, producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick collaborated closely with the band on all sorts of technical trickery that had simply never been used on a pop record before. Modular effects units were used; automatic double tracking of sounds amplified the effects of certain instruments; signal processing was utilised liberally, including compression, reverberation and vari-speeding, to get much more mileage out of conventional instruments.

The practical upshot of all this was a sound that Beatles fans hadn’t heard before, a clean break with their own past. Gone were the mop-topped, blockbusting chart-toppers who produced all those three-minute wall-of-sound pop masterpieces of the early to mid-‘60s, replaced by a studio-based act creating much more three-dimensional, symphonic songs sprawling over a massive canvas.

It was a stunningly bold move to have made in the context of the sixties, in which pop musicians were still regarded as light entertainers rather than serious artists. They had so much to lose, and the way forward as a career path was not certain, purely because almost nobody had ever tried such a thing before.

The conceit of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is set up brilliantly with the album’s opening track, and arguably best-known song. McCartney acts as a master of ceremonies in introducing a Vegas-style light entertainment band, a sly dig at those who had presumed back in 1963 that this would be what The Beatles would be doing four years later. This segues into ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’, the album’s traditional ‘Ringo song’ and by far and away the best Beatles song that he took lead vocals on. It scans as a little twee fifty years later, but its outlook is so sunny and adorable that it’s impossible not to be swept away.

The groundbreaking closing track ‘A Day In The Life’ stands as a kind of shorthand for its parent album, and was the personification of The Beatles’ teamwork. While Lennon’s surreal lyrics about “four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” made up the body of the song, leading the BBC to ban the track because of the drug-explicit refrain “I’d love to turn you on”, McCartney supplied the middle-eight narrative section. It was also McCartney’s interest in avant-garde composers like Stockhausen that inspired the “orchestral orgasm”, as it was dubbed by George Martin, at the end where an entire orchestra played each of their instruments from the lowest note to the highest note over 24 bars, which Lennon described as “a sound building up from nothing to the end of the world”. Nothing else like it had been tried before.

READ MORE: The Beatles // Help! at 50 years old

There’s not actually that much else on Sgt. Pepper’s that stands up to ‘A Day In The Life’, but a handful come close. John Lennon’s trippy ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, despite the long-standing interpretation that it was a reference to the hallucinogen LSD, was actually inspired by a drawing done by Lennon’s four year old son Julian. It’s a show-stopping track that created much controversy at the time, and its sense of dreamlike haziness and altered consciousness was something that hadn’t been heard before on any previous Beatles records.

George Harrison only had one track on Sgt. Pepper’s, but used it wisely with the striking ‘Within You Without You’, which saw him explore his fascination with Indian music and culture in general. Some found it to be a case of overkill, but its core message of rejecting materialism and embracing communal responsibility seemed to resonate with the wider themes of Sgt. Pepper’s and the Summer of Love.

McCartney once again excelled at his character-based songs, with the mid-album piece ‘She’s Leaving Home’ unfairly unloved now and in dire need of rediscovery by the public. Perhaps this was because it didn’t scan as a counter-cultural generational statement as its sympathies lie with the parents of the runaway teen, who has left home for “fun”. But if you add this up with McCartney’s other oddly conservative song here, the music hall-inspired ditty ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ and Lennon’s carnival-esque ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!’, you can see just why The Beatles had such a large appeal – they could be extremely humanistic and sympathetic, rather than divisive and angry. This would be something they would revisit in 1968 with the thoughtful ‘Revolution’.

It was this ability to house such different sounds underneath their umbrella and still make it work that made Sgt. Pepper’s such a groundbreaking record. Yes, there were radically innovative techniques being attempted left, right and centre, which makes it the pinnacle of the British psychedelic movement, but mixed up with it is a curiously old-fashioned sense of tradition, one that sees The Beatles pay homage to the grey, buttoned-down austerity that characterised their 1940s and 1950s childhoods in northern Britain. Pop writer Bob Stanley described it as “lysergically enhanced parlour music”.

Less a month after its release, The Beatles unleashed another new song in the shape of ‘All You Need Is Love’, which was telecast to 400 million around the globe as part of the pioneering ‘Our World’ broadcasting project, and which many regard as the popular apex of the Summer of Love’s utopian sentiments. If nothing else, it irrevocably sealed The Beatles’ reputation as restless geniuses, never resting on their laurels for one moment. Even in the immediate afterglow of their greatest artistic triumph, when even those who had still dismissed Lennon and McCartney as throwaway pop peddlers as late as 1966 were finally giving them the credit they deserved, they were still looking to the future.

VISUALS

No analysis of Sgt. Pepper’s would be complete without a mention of its legendary artwork, which is probably the most parodied images in popular culture of the last 50 years, with everyone from Frank Zappa to ‘The Simpsons’. Designed by pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth and extrapolated from one of McCartney’s sketches, its explosion of colours and intricate detail made it a truly eye-catching package. Featuring Bob Dylan, Marlon Brando, Oscar Wilde and the Fab Four’s own waxworks from Madame Tussaud’s (Jesus, Hitler and Gandhi were proposed but not allowed), the band stood at the front in day-glo military-style uniforms as the fictional Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Opened up, there was all manner of extras inside such as cut-out Sgt. Pepper moustaches, a cut-out stand of the band, military ‘wings’ and pictures of the band, which collectors were of course careful not to actually move. Furthermore, the full lyrics for the album were printed on the back cover, the first time this had ever been done with a rock LP. As a piece of marketing, the packaging for Sgt. Pepper’s was pricey – it cost the modern day equivalent of £28 when it went on sale – but the like the music it contained, it raised the bar for everybody else out there.

LEGACY

As well as its immeasurable impact, Sgt. Pepper’s marked the start of an internal shift in power within The Beatles, with Paul McCartney beginning to emerge as the dominant creative force and starting to take the initiative in the studio over the direction of the recording process. Of course, this came at a cost, with Lennon feeling increasingly marginalised despite still contributing career-best works until the end of the Beatles’ career, but never again would they sound quite as joined-up, all pulling in the same direction, as on Sgt. Pepper’s. 1968’s The Beatles (a.k.a. ‘The White Album’) was, to all intents and purposes, four solo albums stitched together, while Let It Be had to be shelved temporarily and revived by Phil Spector.

Notwithstanding the occasional co-operation on their brilliant swansong Abbey Road, this was the end of an era, something also signalled by the death of their mercurial manager, Brian Epstein, from a drug overdose in August that year. Devastated by the loss of such a close member of their coterie – Epstein was the person often referred to as ‘the fifth Beatle’ – the group attempted to look after their own business interests without taking on another manager, forming Apple Records and attempting to diversify their investments by opening a boutique in Baker Street, which quickly closed. The strain of this certainly did not help with intra-band unity.

Many Beatles fans now argue that, despite Sgt. Pepper’s obvious importance, the likes of Rubber Soul and Revolver are better records song-for-song. Looking at it from that point of view, you could even argue that the Magical Mystery Tour project, released as a six-track EP in Britain but as a full-length album in the United States with the likes of ‘Hello, Goodbye’, ‘All You Need Is Love’, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’ to bulk it out, is a superior effort in terms of average quality of song.

Indeed, the back-to-back trio of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ that appear near the end of the album do seem to be a little lightweight and disposable, in pure songwriting terms, in comparison to the rest of the record. Rubber Soul and Revolver do not have such sequences; but then again, they do not also have show-stopping peaks like ‘A Day In The Life’.

READ MORE: The Beatles // Revolver at 50 years old

In any case, regardless of which view you take, focussing on this aspect is to miss the point of Sgt. Pepper’s entirely. What is important is the ambition and scope that The Beatles had at this point in their career: their willingness to use the studio as an instrument in its own right, their desire to experiment with instruments and technology to a far greater extent than any other pop artist had before, as well as using the album format in order to make an artistic statement of intent. That is why, in spite of its numerous naysayers, it is worth honouring in 2017 – a time when, more than ever, the album format itself is under threat.

Listen to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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