“Sgt. Pepper’s is the definitive Beatles record not because it contains their best music, but because it captures them at their zeitgeist-commandeering peak.”- slate.com
This week marks fifty years since the release of what is arguably the Beatles’ most iconic album: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It was the last album to be recorded before the untimely death of manager Brian Epstein and therefore the last one to be recorded in relative harmony. The Beatles had given up touring recently, fed up with what seemed like a charade (playing night after night, unable to hear their own output which was drowned by the hysterical crowds screaming themselves hoarse) and a stage format which became more and more removed from their creative direction as they hurtled through the swingin’ sixties (not a single tune from their latest Revolver LP was played on their last tour, owing to arrangements almost impossible to reproduce with their four-piece stage line up).
Paul McCartney is credited with being the chief architect for the album and its conceptual-ism. While on a flight from Kenya to London, he bounced band name ideas off of Mal Evans after being inspired by airplane packets of salt and pepper (“sergeant pepper”). Eventually, they threw one together that mimicked the style of many contemporary groups from the San Francisco Bay area: Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother And The Holding Company, etc. And thus, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was born, a fictional Edwardian-era military band as an alter ego for the Beatles.
No longer THE BEATLES, the Beatles set out to continue on the sonic adventure that grew naturally out of Revolver, eventually perhaps one-upping it. The first session saw the introduction of a new keyboard instrument called the Mellotron, which McCartney used (on the flute setting) to play the enduring and instantly recognizable intro to Strawberry Fields Forever. George Martin and sound engineer Geoff Emerick were instrumental in translating the musical vision of the songwriters into very real sounds, making the impossible possible, endlessly innovating even while using primitive four-track equipment. They pioneered many studio recording techniques which later came to be used regularly in the music industry.
For what it’s worth, Sgt Pepper might not be the best Beatles album. But it’s certainly the most sonically groundbreaking and influential one. The Beatles on Sgt Pepper, along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and producer Phil Spector, refined the technique of using the studio as an instrument, calling attention to the craftsmanship that is involved in not only the songwriting but the process of recording too.
This album is an aural tapestry cross-woven with the most disparate of genres; from British psychedelia, art rock, and baroque pop, to vaudeville, avant-garde, music-hall and classical music, both Western and Indian, it’s all in there. While it is acclaimed for being the first concept album, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Freak Out by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention is among some other proto-progressive records of the time which had an underlying theme to them much before Sgt Pepper’s came along, although Woody Guthrie was the first to introduce the general notion of a concept album on Dust Bowl Ballads(1940).
Pet Sounds (1966) by the Beach Boys, also in the same league as an early concept album, was admittedly the primary impetus for Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (While the cross-genre and aural innovation on Pet Sounds baffled many and ended up being a commercial disappointment, the latter was an immediate commercial and critical success, thus playing a monumental role in legitimizing the concept of a concept album)
What Sgt Pepper’s does have, is a loosely outlined theme. Three songs: The title track, With A Little Help from My Friends, and the reprise of the title track, which frame the record are the ones which lend a semblance of a concept to it. Most of the other songs are completely unrelated. Yet George Martin, tasked with rearranging the track-listing, admitted that they seemed to fall into place on their own.
But the truth is, the reason why this album is celebrated is that it begs to be heard as a whole album. Half of the songs on this album are not entirely remarkable on their own, yet absolutely essential to the end product. Like Pet Sounds, Sgt Pepper’s is a cohesive, thematically tied work of art, born out of the loosely conceived concept that allowed the Beatles to step out of their shoes and reach further beyond their ‘two guitars, drums, and bass’ format than they had on Revolver(1966). They were able to distance themselves from expectations and treat the album as the complete performance, complete with canned laughter and applause.
The theatrical brilliance, the songs which flow into each other seamlessly, partly due to the two crossfades used to blend songs together to give the illusion of a continuous live performance (the first pop album to do so) but largely because of thematically complementary arrangements and songwriting, together help make Sgt Pepper more than just enduring: it was a cultural touchstone that enshrined everything quintessentially British at time when Britain (and the world) was changing at a disorienting pace: author Sheila Whitely credits Sgt Pepper with “providing a historical snapshot of Britain during the run-up to the Summer of Love”.
Sgt Pepper’s broke ground not just musically: the highly striking cover of the album has been regarded as “groundbreaking in its visual and aesthetic properties, congratulated for its innovative and imaginative design, credited with providing an early impetus for the expansion of the graphic design industry into popular music, and perceived as largely responsible for the connections between art and pop to be made explicit”[Ian Inglis, 2008]
So that’s what it is: Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains monumental in the history of contemporary music because it elevated popular music to the level of art and completely blurred the lines between the two. It was the soundtrack of the Summer of Love. And it endures, and for us encapsulates the spirit of that era: the friction between the mainstream and counterculture, the unabashed optimism of the flower-power movement and presents a sepia-toned homage to the past amid the urgency of changing times.
This landmark album has seen many reissues over the years, but this year it received the landmark reissue it truly deserved.
“On 26 May 2017, the album was reissued for the album’s 50th anniversary in four different formats: a single CD, a double CD set, a double vinyl set and a six-disc super deluxe edition. The first CD contains a new stereo remix of the album produced by Giles Martin. Created using modern and vintage technology, the 2017 mix retains more of the idiosyncrasies that were unique to the original mono version of Sgt. Pepper’s.” [Wiki]
The new stereo mix by the younger Martin is incredible, to say the least. It offers a more crystalline sound, even when compared to the latest remaster from 2015. Each twang, each pull of the bow, each soaring note in harmony floats about as a ripe, distinct element: as if waiting to be plucked out of thin air. Yet it slowly settles into this vast chimerical soundscape. Finally, all the magic they crammed onto mono-tapes finds release in stereo format(which was glossed over back then). It’s a treat for modern listeners, who at last get to hear it the way it was intended to be heard!
Links to check out:
- ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ Cover Art: A Guide To Who’s Who at Ultimate Classic Rock
- The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’: The Story Behind Every Song at Rolling Stone
- Why Remix ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’? Giles Martin, The Man Behind The Project, Explains at NPR