It’s hardly anyone’s favorite. In fact, because it has always stolen the thunder of its beloved predecessor, Revolver, it’s an album heaped with scorn and derision by many Beatle fans. It’s been called over-produced, flashy, pretentious, self-conscious, and way too dominated by Paul. All true. Nevertheless, when The Beatles released Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band late in May of 1967, the world turned and rock music has never been quite the same.
It’s not possible to understand Sgt. Pepper apart from its place in history
Never has a work been produced more “of its time” than the momentous Beatles album that kicked off the Summer of Love. Following the group’s announced retirement from touring, and taking an unprecedented nine months to produce at the height of the public’s Beatle obsession, its arrival was greeted with such joy, relief and collective amazement that it’s been said that the release of The Beatles’ “great statement” was a moment when the entire culture fused, congregating and moving as a single unit. Hendrix opened his show the day after the release of Sgt. Pepper with a cover of the title song. Wafting out of every other window, the sound of the new Beatles music could be heard. Sprawling with ambition and color, the Sgt. Pepper album grabbed and held the fascination of the entire Western World during that idyllic summer when the power of the youth movement was cresting and the possibility of an artistic and political utopia was still a glimmering, faraway hope.
At the moment of its release, the lasting impact of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band could not be anticipated but it has proven to be one of the most influential works ever produced, certainly in rock. Quite simply, there was a world before Sgt. Pepper and a world after.
A work of sprawling artistic and sonic ambition, this was the recording that elevated the long-form “album” as a cohesive work and not just a collection of singles. With its wildly colorful cover art and cutting edge “collage” technique, plus the unprecedented inclusion of a complete lyric sheet on its back cover, the LP was received as a work of art on a par with the great art hanging in galleries and being played in concert halls, but alive and of the people. Truly a masterwork of its time and its influence can still be felt.
While not purely a concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s genesis as a project was an idea from Paul. The group could free themselves from the weight of being Beatles and the artistic pressures of topping the stunning Revolver album — they could adopt a second band persona, that of an old-time brass band with a fictional history. It’s been said that once the title song and its segue, the fictional bandleader Billy Shears’ anthem, “With a Little Help From My Friends” fades, that Paul’s concept dissolves away, but I disagree. My view is that once surrealism has been introduced and the bonds of a conventional Beatles album have been broken, the various dips into otherworldliness and whimsy create a mosaic that makes the whole of Sgt. Pepper feel like a departure. At any rate, it was received as very much a conceptual work and, while perhaps not the first concept album in history, the popularity and notoriety surrounding it certainly fueled the subsequent movement in rock to make each album’s release an event, a cohesive large scale work, if not a fully-formed concept album, a movement which persists to this day. And its loftiest aspirations spawned a whole subgenre, that of Art Rock whose ranks include Velvet Underground, Roxy Music, Bowie, Talking Heads, Kate Bush, Radiohead and so many other bands that have followed in the wake cut by The Beatles when they consciously endeavored to make their new album, not just a new collection of songs but a cohesive, long-form work of art.
And while Revolver had some pretty overtly acid-inspired songs, it was Sgt. Pepper that really ushered in the psychedelic era with its hallucinogenic imagery (“the girl with kaleidoscope eyes,” “newspaper taxis,” etc.), plus the artwork bursting with color, and the splendor of its sumptuous layering of instruments and sounds. There wasn’t a band or artist in that time releasing music that wasn’t profoundly influenced by the psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper either by its ornate, rococo layering of music, the ambitious poetics in the lyrics, or the whimsical, old-timey name of the fictional group (see 1910 Fruitgum Company, The 13th Floor Elevator, etc.). Major groups shifted gears to make relevant music in the changed world in the wake of Sgt. Pepper. The Rolling Stones put out their overtly psychedelic and ambitious Their Satanic Majesties Request, and The Who released their sprawling masterwork rock opera Tommy. In America, Hendrix released his sonically and musically ambitious double-album masterwork, Electric Ladyland. The Byrds released Fifth Dimension and the overtly psychedelic anthem Eight Miles High, and Simon and Garfunkel stepped up their game with the ambitious Bookends, as did every other band and artist on the scene in the wake of the groundbreaking 1967 release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
With all of the constant hype surrounding the album repeatedly revisited upon us with every milestone (most recently with the gala 50th anniversary reissue) the backlash against Sgt. Pepper has been constant and at times pretty harsh. The last thing this album needs is more praise but I feel the need to come to its defense. While not my favorite Beatles album either, I do think that it has come to be vastly underrated by fans of the group.
First and foremost, the album is a masterpiece of sound
With the deft use of two 4-track recorders it’s notoriously the first album to push the boundaries of layering and overdubbing to the limit. The combined technical skills of engineer Geoff Emerick and producer George Martin, as well as the creativity of the Beatles themselves, all of which were gaining in power with every subsequent album, came to a culminating head on Sgt. Pepper. The process by which layers of multiple tracks were “reduced” (meticulously combined and mixed down to a single track to free up tracks for more layering) required the utmost skill and commitment, a task met with great artistry and skill by the collective genius of this crew. In today’s world of recording with an endless supply of tracks, it remains a marvel that so much clarity and intention was achieved in a 4-track environment. It was The Beatles’ moonshot, and it remains a stunning achievement, a milestone in pop music production.
I also view Sgt. Pepper as a pinnacle of musical eclecticism, a hallmark of Beatles music from nearly the beginning, but brought to a towering height on this, their great artistic manifesto. We are treated to heavy beat music in the title track, old-time dance hall music with When I’m Sixty Four, circus music with Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, a generous helping of authentic Indian orchestral music, a light classical piece, as well as the whimsical psychedelia of Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds and the kaleidoscopic folk-rock setting of the epic finale, A Day in the Life.
The lyrics are equally ambitious. We meet the members of the fictional band, as well as Lovely Rita, the fearless Mr. Kite, and the equally fearless protagonist of She’s Leaving Home who horrifies her parents by audaciously stepping into the real world (her mother responds to her empowerment with the unforgettably clueless, “How could she do this to me?”), and we get John’s clever retort to Paul’s “It’s getting better all the time (it couldn’t get much worse).” All through the album’s journey, the narration shifts between the real and the surreal until the final song, which slips laconically in and out of a dream. The whole album has a “collage” feel which mirrors the technique of the cover art and helps to unify this highly eclectic work, no easy task.
And the songwriting, while admittedly only reaching the stratosphere in John’s major contribution, the stunning A Day In the Life which anchors the album, is, with a couple of exceptions (in my opinion the other two John songs from the collection), nothing short of excellent. With the exception of George’s Within You and Without You, the remainder of high points on the album are Paul’s songs, and they are some of my personal favorites.
But the performances are probably the most overlooked aspect of the brilliance of the Sgt. Pepper album. Yes, Sgt. Pepper is mostly a Paul-written album, but it is still from the period when all four Beatles contributed their ideas and hearts to each song, the White Album’s “solo album” approach being two albums in the future. The songs of Sgt. Pepper benefit from being performed and sung by The Beatles as a unit, the value and joy of which cannot be dismissed.
And finally, a word here about the bass playing
Without the need to tour and with unlimited access to the Abbey Road studio, Paul took the time to meticulously overdub the bass part for each song, and the effect is stunning both in terms of sound and performance. Take a listen to the album and focus on Paul’s virtuoso bass playing, and you’ll never hear Sgt. Pepper the same way again.
A lot of Beatle fans name Revolver as their favorite. I can never decide between Rubber Soul or the White Album. And there’s Abbey Road to consider and even my dark horse favorite, Magical Mystery Tour. But even without acknowledging its merits, just on the album’s place in history and its undeniable and indelible influence on the music that followed in its wake — an influence felt to this day — we’d have to put Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in that very exclusive group of recordings, Rock Albums that Changed the World. Let’s continue the conversation in the comments section.
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