By Ray Lemire
“It was twenty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play”
Actually, as hard as it may be to believe, it has been FORTY years since The Beatles released their legendary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.
The 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s were conceived in a magical span of 700 hours over five months. The Beatles began recording on Dec. 6, 1966, and finished the album on April 21, 1967, when they created the final track, an avant-garde seconds-long pastiche of sounds—including a high-pitched tone inaudible to humans put there solely to annoy your dog—that was later dubbed “Inner Groove” for its bizarre placement within the concentric circles of the LP.
Released in England on June 1, 1967 (and the U.S. a day later), Sgt. Pepper has been hailed as a true classic and is considered by many to be the greatest album ever made.
But is it?
Check out just a few of the reviews of the landmark album, and then see what the Beatles themselves thought of their effort.
The Beatles' significance is without rival. Swallowing rock music's rebellion and romanticism and regurgitating it as all-inclusive pop art encompassing their entire age, they rocketed through stage after stage of amazing creative pyrotechnics, decisively fusing high and low art.
By the time Sgt. Pepper rolled around, fatigue and crowd pressure left the band with no choice but to give up touring. Good old rock 'n' roll had always been first and foremost an on-stage, in-concert phenomenon, so it was no surprise that the new studio-based Beatles would continue their evolution since Rubber Soul even further, and end up being something other than rock. Sure enough, Sgt. Pepper was the most breathtaking and innovative piece of modern music the world had ever heard.
The collage on the cover warned the unexpecting listener that it contained a true melange of genres, while the Fab Four wax statues fossilized the formerly frivolous pop sensations, or the Ghost of Beatles Past. Skilled experimenters by now, the band combined classical and machine-made sounds to groundbreaking effect; if She's Leaving Home could have been a chamber piece done centuries before, A Day In The Life could only have been achieved with modern electronics. Although held together by its sense of imagination and invention, Sgt. Pepper was also a premonition of impending disaster - the record was primarily Paul McCartney's baby, not withstanding the fact that George Harrison's aural Indian feast Within You Without You, and John Lennon's soulful vocals on A Day In The Life were the album's high points.
---- Lars Rosenblum Sorgenfrei
With Revolver, the Beatles made the Great Leap Forward, reaching a previously unheard-of level of sophistication and fearless experimentation.
When “Sgt. Pepper” came out, it was an album that surprised people on every single level.
Sgt. Pepper, in many ways, refines that breakthrough, as the Beatles consciously synthesized such disparate influences as psychedelia, art-song, classical music, rock & roll, and music hall, often in the course of one song. Not once does the diversity seem forced — the genius of the record is how the vaudevillian When I'm 64 seems like a logical extension of Within You Without You and how it provides a gateway to the chiming guitars of Lovely Rita.
There's no discounting the individual contributions of each member or their producer, George Martin, but the preponderance of whimsy and self-conscious art gives the impression that Paul McCartney is the leader of the Lonely Hearts Club Band. He dominates the album in terms of compositions, setting the tone for the album with his unabashed melodicism and deviously clever arrangements.
In comparison, John Lennon's contributions seem fewer, and a couple of them are a little slight but his major statements are stunning. With a Little Help From My Friends is the ideal Ringo tune, a rolling, friendly pop song that hides genuine Lennon anguish, à la Help!; Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds remains one of the touchstones of British psychedelia; and he's the mastermind behind the bulk of A Day in the Life, a haunting number that skillfully blends Lennon's verse and chorus with McCartney's bridge.
It's possible to argue that there are better Beatles albums, yet no album is as historically important as this. After Sgt. Pepper, there were no rules to follow — rock and pop bands could try anything, for better or worse. Ironically, few tried to achieve the sweeping, all-encompassing embrace of music as the Beatles did here.
----Stephen Thomas Erlewine
The vast majority of the millions who bought it had never seen a gatefold sleeve, they’d never seen lyrics on the cover, they’d never seen a cover like that—a real piece of art—and they never heard music like this. The combination was so dynamic that it’s still being talked about 40 years later.
----Mark Lewisohn, author of The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions.
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.
----Rolling Stone Magazine
The "Lost" Songs
Two songs were recorded for, but ultimately dropped from Sgt. Pepper – “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” both recorded in late 1966 and early 1967. The unusually long gap between Beatles releases, combined with the group's withdrawal from touring, resulted in producer George Martin's being placed under increasing pressure by EMI and Capitol to deliver new material.
He reluctantly issued the two songs as a double-A-sided single in February 1967. In keeping with the group's usual practice, the single tracks were not included on the album, a decision Martin maintains he regrets to this day.
“Both songs, and in particular, “Penny Lane,” were filled with the imagery the boys were creating with “Pepper.” As wonderful as the album was, I still kick myself for not insisting they not be used on a single. Those two songs would have been the icing on the cake for the album. It was a dreadful decision.”
It’s Only A Northern Song (written by George Harrison) was also recorded for the album but was subsequently scrapped and used later on the Yellow Submarine album.
The Beatles On Sgt. Pepper
But what did the Beatles themselves think of Sgt. Pepper? What did they have in mind when they concocted the whole idea?
"It was an idea I had, I think, when I was flying from L.A. to somewhere. I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group. We would make up all the culture around it and collect all our heroes in one place. So I thought, A typical stupid-sounding name for a Dr. Hook's Medicine Show and Traveling Circus kind of thing would be “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Just a word game, really."
"'Sgt. Pepper' was Paul after a trip to America and the whole West Coast long-named group thing was coming in. You know, when people were no longer the Beatles or the Crickets-- they were suddenly Fred And His Incredible Shrinking Grateful Airplanes, right? So I think he got influenced by that and came up with this idea for the Beatles."
But not everyone was sold on the album
Not even every member of the Beatles
“It was a good album, you know? I rather enjoyed some of it, but it was another case of having to push just to get a song on the damn thing. Paul was raving about this being our chance to escape the Beatles myth and be someone different. But it really wasn’t. It was the same thing it always had been; Paul making the decisions. He can call it something different but for me, it was just another Beatles record.”
Ringo Starr has confessed that he prefers The White Album and Revolver over Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Starr admitted that “Sgt. Pepper can't be put down, but as a musician, I preferred Revolver, and I also preferred The White Album because we were back to being musicians.
It was like everybody got the madness out on Sgt. Pepper.”
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” - “It was my idea to say to the guys, 'Hey, how about disguising ourselves and getting an alter ego, because we're the Beatles and we're fed up. Every time you approach a song, John, you gotta sing it like John would. Every time I approach a ballad, it's gotta be like Paul would. Why don't we just make up some incredible alter egos and think, 'Now how would he sing it? How would he approach this track?' And it freed us. It was a very liberating thing to do. So I came up with the idea of this announcer introducing this famous band from twenty years ago. At the end, he introduces Billy Shears, who of course, was really Ringo”…Paul McCartney
“With A Little Help From My Friends” - “This is Paul, with a little help from me. 'What do you see when you turn out the light/ I can't tell you, but I know it's mine' is mine. The rest was Paul writing one for Ringo”…John Lennon
“Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” - “My son Julian came in one day with a picture he painted about a school friend of his named Lucy. He had sketched in some stars in the sky and called it ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.’ I swear to God, or swear to Mao, or to anybody you like, I had no idea it spelled LSD.”…John Lennon
“Getting Better” - “Wrote that at my house in St. John's Wood. All I remember is that I said, 'It's getting better all the time,' and John contributed the legendary line 'It couldn't get much worse.' Which I thought was very good. Against the spirit of that song, which was all super-optimistic... then there's that lovely little sardonic line. Typical John.”…Paul McCartney
“Fixing A Hole” - “I wrote that. I liked that one. Strange story, though. The night we went to record that, a guy turned up at my house who announced himself as Jesus. So I took him to the session. You know, couldn't harm, I thought. Introduced Jesus to the guys. Quite reasonable about it. But that was it. Last we ever saw of Jesus.”…Paul McCartney
“She’s Leaving Home” - “I wrote that. My kind of ballad from that period. My daughter likes that one. One of my daughters likes that. Still works.”…Paul McCartney
“Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” - “That song was a straight lift. I had all the words staring me in the face one day when I was looking for a song. It was from this old poster I'd bought at an antique shop. We'd been down to Surrey or somewhere filming a piece. There was a break, and I went into this shop and bought an old poster advertising a variety show which starred Mr. Kite. It said the Henderson's would also be there, late of Pablo Fanques Fair. There would be hoops and horses and someone going through a hogs head of real fire. Then there was Henry the Horse. The band would start at ten to six. All at Bishopsgate. Look, there's the bill-- with Mr. Kite topping it. I hardly made up a word, just connecting the lists together. Word for word, really.”…John Lennon
“Within You Without You” - “The words are always a bit of a hangup for me. I'm not very poetic. 'Within You Without You' was written after dinner one night at Klaus Voorman's house. He had a harmonium, which I hadn't played before. I was doodling on it when the tune started to come. The first sentence came out of what we'd been doing that evening... 'We were talking.' That's as far as I got that night. I finished the rest of the words later at home.”…George Harrison
“When I'm Sixty-Four” - “I wrote the tune when I was about 15, I think, on the piano at home, before I moved from Liverpool. It was kind of a cabaret tune. Then, years later, I put words to it."…Paul McCartney
“Paul's, completely. I would never dream of writing a song like that. There's some things I never think about, and that's one of them.”…John Lennon
“Lovely Rita” - “It was based on the American meter maid. And I got the idea to just... you know, so many of my things, like 'When I'm Sixty-Four' and those, they're tongue in cheek! But they get taken for real! But I say, 'Will you still feed me when I'm 64?' That's the tongue-in-cheek bit. And similarly with 'Lovely Rita' --the idea of a parking-meter attendant's being sexy was tongue in cheek at the time.”…Paul McCartney
“Good Morning Good Morning” - “Garbage. One of the worst songs I ever wrote. I was never proud of it. It was written lounging about at home and took inspiration from a Kelloggs Corn Flakes TV advert with the jingle 'Good Morning, Good Morning’”…John Lennon
But perhaps Lennon sold himself short on this one. Listen carefully at the end of the song as it fades out amidst a flurry of animal noises. You can hear the power chain of life: from rooster to cat to dog to sheep to horse to lion to elephant, before finally finishing with several sounds from a fox hunt and a final caw of the rooster. Brilliant stuff!
“Sgt. Pepper (Reprise)” - “We needed to find a way to end the damn thing, so Neil (Aspinall) suggested we just reprise the original song as a fitting arch to the storyline.”…John Lennon
“A Day In The Life” - “I was writing the song with the 'Daily Mail' propped up in front of me on the piano. I had it open to the 'News In Brief' or whatever they call it. There was a paragraph about four thousand holes being discovered in Blackburn Lancashire. And when we came to record the song there was still one word missing from that verse... I knew the line had to go, 'Now they know how many holes it takes to --something-- the Albert Hall.'”…John Lennon
“The Inner Groove” - A ten minute brainstorm resulted in adding a few seconds of gibberish and funny noises to the LP's inner groove. The result of this would be that people with cheap record players would experience the sounds over and over again, until someone lifted the stylus off the record. People with automatic players would only hear a few seconds of the sounds before their stylus returned to it's base.
Engineer Geoff Emerick did the recordings, chopped the tapes up, randomly putting them back together again. The tapes were then re-recorded backwards and mixed for both mono and stereo.
Whatever fans may say, Emerick insists there are no hidden meanings on the inner groove.
“Run-Out Groove” - Paul came up with the idea of adding a high pitch whistle, especially for dogs, on the spiral run out groove. This occurs after the final piano chord and just before the few seconds of gibberish on the inner groove. The sound was recorded at the same pitch as a police dog whistle.
Although the album received praise for it’s creative concept approach, John Lennon later laughed that off.
“It doesn’t go anywhere. It worked because we said it worked.”
Perhaps that is true, but if Sgt. Pepper did nothing else, it inspired a generation of musicians, all of whom tried to duplicate Pepper’s success. To date, none have.
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