As The Beatles’ iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band celebrates its 50th anniversary, Sarah Harford looks at the album’s influence and legacy.
It may have been “twenty years ago today that Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play”, but it’s now been fifty years since the Beatles introduced their groundbreaking album to the world on 1 June 1967.
It has just been announced that the album will be reissued next month on CD and vinyl. This special edition will include a new stereo mix of the classic songs, and some previously unreleased tracks.
“It’s crazy to think that 50 years later we are looking back on this project with such fondness and a little bit of amazement at how four guys, a great producer and his engineers could make such a lasting piece of art,” said Paul McCartney in a press release.
So what made Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band such a “lasting piece of art”, and why are we still listening to it today?
The concept album
For much of the 1960s, record companies focused on 45 rpm singles because they were cheap and easy to mass produce, making them affordable for the teenage target market. Most albums at that time were comprised of prominently placed hit singles and filler tracks.
However, with producers such as Phil Spector opening up an entirely new sound world, popular music was starting to become more complex, and so the aspirations of musicians and record companies began to change. Many groups had a desire to heighten the importance and scope of an album.
The Beatles were at the forefront of this change. Although they were constantly developing their sound and showing that they had more ambitious creative aims than many of their contemporaries, the 1966 album Revolver was a turning point for the band.
More than just a collection of pop songs about love and relationships, Revolver was a cohesive sonic exploration of life and death which pushed the boundaries of what could be achieved in an album.
That same year, however, The Beach Boys also released their most ambitious album to date. With its use of musique concrete, new recording techniques, and a clear musical concept running throughout the album, Pet Sounds challenged The Beatles to raise the bar further.
And so in the months which followed, the group came up with the idea for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The concept for the album was that The Beatles would imitate a fictional band, and that this record would serve as their concert.
This creative departure was largely made visually rather than musically. Sgt. Pepper has the most elaborate cover of all The Beatles’ albums, showing the group assuming their new aliases, dressed in psychedelic neon Edwardian regalia. Their mop-tops have been replaced by shaggy hair and moustaches, as they stand amid a crowd of their heroes, which includes figures as diverse as Einstein, Gandhi, Marilyn Monroe, and Stockhausen.
While album cover design might seem secondary to musical concerns, the elaborate packaging of Pepper enhanced the concept of this album. It marked it as something new, special, and avant-garde.
Although several of Sgt. Pepper’s tracks became well-known hits for The Beatles, none of them were officially released as singles, showing that they were only intended to be listened to as part of the album as a whole.
‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is the set piece of the album which shares its name. The first track announces the concept with great vigour, situating The Beatles within this imaginary group, and echoing the visually dramatic cover art. Beginning with sampled audience ambient noise, it sets the scene for what is to come and places the listener firmly into the psychedelic world of Pepper.
Then we encounter a varied set of character pieces (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, ‘Lovely Rita’) and more introverted works (‘Getting Better’, ‘Within You Without You’), alongside tracks which would prove to be classic hits (‘When I’m Sixty-Four’, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’).
But the idea of Sgt. Pepper is not forgotten, and the concept is referenced again before the end of the album. The penultimate track, an up-tempo reprise of the opening, serves to close the fictional concert as the band announce that ‘we’re sorry but it’s time to go’ and ‘it’s getting very near the end’, before fading into the finale ‘A Day In The Life’.
The album’s five and a half minute closing number was significantly longer and more ambitious than anything The Beatles had previously recorded, and is easily the highlight of Sgt. Pepper.
‘A Day In The Life’ combines two contrasting sections about real world life: John Lennon sighs over the tragic events he reads about in the newspaper, while Paul McCartney sings an upbeat verse detailing his daily routine. The two are joined together by an avant-garde orchestral idea, which spirals out of control as the dizzying track continues, before a single piano chord puts an end to the chaos of Pepper.
It can be argued that the album loses its grand concept along the way, and that at times Sgt. Pepper is more style over substance. However, the album’s real cohesion has more to do with the production value behind these tracks.
The Beatles ceased playing together live in 1966. This allowed the group to become more focused on using new experimental studio techniques to create sounds which couldn’t necessarily be replicated live.
EMI allowed the group to record at Abbey Road for four months, during which time they experimented with multi-tracking, overdubbing, fade-ins, reversed playback, and tape echo. These techniques were highly innovative at the time, and allowed for more complex timbres and structures to be created.
As a result of the diverging interests of the group members the musical material is phenomenally wide-ranging, from George Harrison’s use of Indian instrumentation, to Lennon’s exploration of psychedelic sound and imagery. Yet these influences were all brought together to create a single coherent album.
Overall, it was part of The Beatles’ progression away from the social dance-oriented nature of pop music, towards more of a social commentary and a purely artistic output.
In 2012 Rolling Stone placed the album at the top of their definitive ‘500 Greatest Albums of All Time’ list. The magazine described Sgt. Pepper as ‘the most important rock and roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology.’
Although it could be said that Pepper may not be as strong as its groundbreaking predecessor Revolver, or that its tracks are not as experimental and memorable as some of those which would be heard on The White Album the following year, it still holds a special place in music history.
Its influence cannot be underestimated as it introduced technical and conceptual revolutions into the popular music sphere, fragments of which can be heard in Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground, The Who, and so many others even today.
The Beatles were much more than just a successful pop group. Their work on Sgt. Pepper marked the true beginning of the recording artist as the band began to create sonic environments that couldn’t be reproduced live, and started to focus heavily on the recording process at Abbey Road.
More than anything, this album is a cultural milestone. It is a distillation of the spirit of 1967 and a sign of changing times, but somehow still manages to resonate fifty years later. And so the legacy of the Lonely Hearts Club Band plays on.