There were so many innovative bands during the mid-sixties, all playing with the concept of what could be achieved via a piece of vinyl rotating at about 33 rotations per minute in their own unique way. Out of all of those now legendary bands, The Beatles stand high above the rest as perhaps the most innovative band of their time. While their entire discography is beyond comparison, their “middle four” albums (from Rubber Soul through Magical Mystery Tour) are where they really began to evolve, all changing the way we perceived music in their own individual way. All four of these albums are bright, technicolor-tinged, creative pieces that countless aspiring musicians, intellectual thinkers, and casual listeners have been built their musical practices on for 50 years. They formed the backbone of the counter-cultural movement of the late 60’s and inspired their counterparts who took direct cues from these albums in terms of musical style, direction and possibility in the studio. Their influence was so direct and so immediate that you can hear how things changed every time they put a new record out into the world just by listening to the music that came directly after it. While an argument can be made as to what the best Beatles record is, out of all the astounding records that the Beatles made in only about eight years, no studio release was more important in modern musical history than Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released 50 years ago this week.
When looking at Sgt. Pepper, it is important to consider a few important events that had happened to the Beatles in 1966 that would shape their music and attitudes towards being in the group. Of course, they released a studio album, Revolver, alongside one of their best non-album singles in “Paperback Writer/Rain,” which saw the band expand the folk-rock sound of Rubber Soul into garage and acid rock. But, that was just the tip of the iceberg. The band sparked a minor controversy when their label had to recall all copies of their American release, Yesterday and Today after negative public reaction to their “butcher cover.” Later that year, the Beatles gave their last planned performance on August 29th, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. The final show came as a relief to the band, especially George Harrison, who during the plane ride after the show was overheard saying: “That’s it. I’m not a Beatle anymore,” obviously referencing the new found feeling of freedom and self-identity that he and the rest of the band could now pursue with no touring obligations. Out of the four individual Beatles, John Lennon had perhaps the most interesting year. After infuriating numerous religious fans in the United States during the summer with the not-smart-to-say-out-loud but absolutely true line that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus now,” he would also meet Yoko Ono on November 9th, 1966 at an art gallery in London, and play a supporting role in the movie “How I Won the War.” As it happens, all of these aforementioned events would go onto set the stage for a triumphant 1967 for the group.
Off the backs of yet another career altering and whirlwind year, The Beatles returned to the recording studio with producer George Martin on November 24th, 1966, originally planning to create a series of songs that reflected and spoke of their childhood. Lennon returned from filming with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” while McCartney brought “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty Four.” All three of these songs that continued to push the boundaries of what was possible in the recording studio. “Strawberry Fields” backed with “Penny Lane” would be released as a single on February 13th, 1967 under pressure from their label for a new release (you can read much more about that specific release here). It wouldn’t be until after this single release that the concept of the band creating alter egos, i.e, the basis for Sgt. Pepper’s framework, would take off – despite the fact McCartney had first thought of the idea on an airplane ride previous to recording on November 19th, 1966.
McCartney introduced the rest of the band to this idea about halfway through recording Sgt. Pepper, and having been inspired by the likes of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and the Mothers of Inventions’ Freak Out!, the concept was brought to life, and the revolutionary album as we know it today was born.
In reality, the majority of Sgt Pepper does not rotate around the lives of a fictional band – instead that concept only truly shows itself during the title track at the beginning and the reprise of the same track close to the end, but it provided a framework for the band to play around with, and helped them expand their musical wings without worrying about their label as The Beatles. Recording the album took around four to five months total, starting with the aforementioned sessions for “Strawberry Fields” and ending on April 21st, 1967. This was an extraordinary amount of time for the band to be holed up in the studio (for comparison, closer “A Day in the Life” took 34 hours of studio time, while their first album, Please Please Me, was recorded start to finish in about 13 hours), but with no touring schedule and no film in development, they were free to take as much time as they needed to create their vision. The relatively long time between album releases, and the fact that “Strawberry Fields”/”Penny Lane” did not make #1 in the UK made many in the press speculate that the Beatles time as the biggest band in the world may be running out.
To say that the Beatles beat the odds commercially and proved the critics wrong with Sgt. Pepper is a bit of an understatement. Upon its release, it received overwhelming critical acclaim, and hit #1 on the album charts on both sides of the Atlantic (in the UK, it stayed at the top for 27 weeks, in the US, 15 weeks). It was the first rock album to receive the Grammy Award for Album of the Year. It was also the album that officially kicked off the “Summer of Love.” While it’s reputation became diluted in the years following, (mainly because people saw the album as indulgent while they themselves were living in times of political upheaval and discontent), The Beatles would distance themselves from the psychedelic boom they helped create only a short time later with them moving towards a roots-based, bluesier sound by 1968, while simultaneously touching on more personal and political themes in their lyrics.
50 years is a lot of time to grasp, especially for someone half that age. In terms of sheer time passed, it was 50 years between the invention of the toggle light-switch (you know, the thing with the on and off) and the release of Sgt. Pepper – the same amount of time between the release of Sgt Pepper and you sitting on your computer or phone reading this. That’s an astounding thing to think about. Older generations who listened to Sgt. Pepper at the time of its original release had lived through the great depression, two World Wars, and saw themselves as part of a rapidly changing world. Nothing like The Beatles had ever happened before, and nothing with as much audacity as Pepper had ever been released (at least not in the mainstream). Even though the groundwork had been laid in the decade prior to its release, Sgt. Pepper was the real introduction to a new world in musical terms, representative of the new generation’s way of thought and societal norms. It’s hard to think of many albums that can check all those boxes in the past five decades.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first piece of music that could be considered “higher art,” something to be intently listened to, criticized, and studied. On the surface, it’s a series of thirteen pieces of music that spanned genres and fit perfectly together into one semi-cohesive theme. But Pepper is more than that – it’s about the smaller moments that make you appreciate how much work and technological prowess was put into this – the little sound effects like a champagne pop after the line “Had a laugh/and over dinner” in the warm psychedelia of “Lovely Rita,” the dampened, booming drums in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” the pitch-perfect harmonies of Lennon and McCartney working together flawlessly alongside the jagged guitars of “Getting Better,” the pulsating Indian groove of “Within You Without You,” the music hall-stylings of “When I’m Sixty Four,” the surreal instrumentation of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” that final, spine tingling E major chord after being transported into two different worlds in “A Day in the Life,” the dog-whistle and creepy nonsense babbling at the end run out groove – all of this (and so much more) in just under 40 minutes of running time.
So much innovation and influence, and yet there’s a strong argument that it still isn’t “the best” Beatles album.
Fifty years after its original release, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band still sounds like a once in a lifetime work. The production methods created and utilized during these sessions, including the splicing of tapes to create tape loops, playing with track speeds, as well as double-tracking (also called flanging) have been widely utilized in every recording studio since. In addition, unusual instrumentation such as the mellotron, organ, and tamboura, still hold up as well as they did back then, and, even if Sgt. Pepper ended up being terrible in some alternate universe, the invention and utilization of these techniques alone would still be considered groundbreaking.
Despite its intricate production and the aura surrounding it, it is best described as just being happy, relaxing, and interesting music to listen to. That fact makes listening to Sgt Pepper with attentive ears is one of the most rewarding experiences in all of music. Even I’m still finding new things that I had not noticed before that adds to my listening experience (ever notice the laughing at the end of “Within Without You?” Me either). Technologically superior, remarkably influential and important to modern music, and now celebrating it’s 50th anniversary, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will always be a cornerstone of pop music and will be there to encourage musicians, artists, and performers to think outside the realm of possibility.
Listen to all the songs The Beatles recorded during 1967 here: