It was 70 years ago today that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.
The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a half-century ago today in the United States. Critic Kenneth Tynan once called the release “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation.” What struck many as hyperbole way back when stands up today.
The LP, like the band behind it, succeeds by giving off an 8-to-88 vibe, with “When I’m 64” and “She’s Leaving Home” covering the octogenarian end of the continuum and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Good Morning” pleasing the younger demographic. It’s nostalgic and cutting edge and very 1967 all at the same time.
This timeless yet time-stamped quality comes across on its cover. Mae West, Aleister Crowley, Oscar Wilde, and other human curios convey a pop-culture revivalism of sorts. But the technicolor cover contrasted with the black-and-white one that preceded it, along with the shockingly hirsute faces of the former proto-boy band, announce that the times they are a changin’.
Sonically, The Beatles already announced the demarcation point between those sixties and these sixties on the previous year’s Revolver, in many ways a much more daring album than Sgt. Pepper’s, and in the trippy “Strawberry Fields Forever” single released in early 1967. One could make the argument that the best song from the Sgt. Pepper’s session never made the album. Alas, 1967 passed as the last year that 45s outsold LPs, and in those singles-oriented times, acts often regarded including individual releases on long plays as a rip off of fans, so “Strawberry Fields Forever” stayed off Sgt. Pepper’s the way Phil Spector omitted “Don’t Let Me Down” from Let It Be despite our ears objecting.
The Beatles, like The Bible, sparks a multitude of interpretations.
Cool kids imagined “Fixing a Hole” about shooting up heroin; McCartney wrote it about a leak in a roof at his property in Scotland. Lennon crafted “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” after seeing his three-year-old son’s artwork; his listeners, reading into the song’s LSD initialism, heard it as an ode to acid. Even the squares got in on the act by recasting the beautiful “She’s Leaving Home” as a song about the ugliest of topics: abortion.
The group’s perception of the world surrounding similarly did not mesh with the perceptions of the most zealous in its audience, soon among them Weatherman and the Manson Family. The lyrics strike as decidedly counter-countercultural.
Sgt. Pepper isn’t a soldier killing peasants in Southeast Asia but an entertainer wanting to take the “wonderful” audience home with him. The uniformed meter maid isn’t an establishment fascist but rather a “lovely” woman McCartney wishes to take out for tea. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” takes its inspiration not from the heady times from whence it came but from an 1843 circus poster bought by Lennon in an antiquarian shop. “When I’m 64” provides a rebuttal to the “Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30” aphoristic idiocy of the age. The protagonist of “Getting Better” used to hate his school and teachers but has “got to admit it’s getting better.” The album screams sixties yet says something else.
While sometimes regarded as a Paul album, Sgt. Pepper’s hits the ears as much as a George Martin and Geoff Emerick album. The production sounds better than anything today. The din of the orchestra pit, the crowing rooster, and the ringing alarm clock put us in the studio even as we remain in our rooms. Technology became more efficient. It did not become not better.
You don’t hear silent spaces separating songs. You do hear a United Nations of instruments: harp, glockenspiel, maracas, dilrubas, swarmandal, French horns. And then you hear something profound that makes you ponder the greatness that just passed. Lennon asked Martin for “a sound like the end of the world.” They produced it by multitracking John, Paul, Ringo, Martin, and hanger-on Mal Evans striking a chord on multiple pianos. It lingers for about 45 seconds before gibberish, in the form of perhaps the first hidden track, jars again in its juxtaposition with the profundity that preceded. The album’s finale represents the peak of not only The Beatles but of the rock era.
Other huge acts immediately recognized the magnificence of Sgt. Pepper’s. One of the first things Pink Floyd fans mention when discussing Piper at the Gates of Dawn centers around the band recording its debut at the same time in the same studio where John, Paul, George, and Ringo recorded Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Partisans of Odessey and Oracle, one of the most underrated albums of the decade, similarly never fail to note that The Zombies used some of the same equipment that The Beatles employed on Sgt. Pepper’s. A well-pregnant Mama Cass famously blared the initial pressing of the album out of the windows of her London flat at 6 a.m. (nobody complained) when The Beatles stopped by with the finished product. Days after the official release Jimi Hendrix memorably paid tribute by covering its first number.
Though Paul McCartney describes the imaginary band in the title track as “going in and out of style” for the previous two decades, The Beatles never really fell out of fashion in the fifty years that followed. Consider the strange fact that The Fab Four scored the bestselling album of the first decade of the new millennium with their “1” compilation. What World War I-era musical act commanded as much, let alone anyone’s, attention in 1967 as The Beatles do today?
Music lovers regard The Beatles as the best. But was Sgt. Pepper’s really their best? Rolling Stone, in placing it atop their canonical “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” proclaimed that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time.”
All true but in naming Sgt. Pepper’s the best album ever made Rolling Stone overlooked the fact that it does not endure, debatably, as the best Beatles album (or second or third, for that matter) or, debatably, as their bestselling album as nobody seemed to know how to count very high in the days when everybody got high. Is it their best? Who cares? It’s their biggest, and the biggest, album ever made.
The sound of records playing trumps the sound of them debated. So, play it loudly today, and thank the one and only Billy Shears, Mr. Kite, Lovely Rita, and all the rest for making the world a sunnier, more spectacular place.