Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Editor’s note: Stay tuned on 23 November for the essay “Sgt. Pepper Sets the Stage: The Album as a Work of Art”.
When this album was released in June of 1967, suddenly it seemed as if the always forward-thinking Beatles had revealed an entire new world of musical possibilities. The group was at the apex of their musical collaboration and enjoying renewed inspiration following their permanent move to the studio amid the chaos and despair of their final year as a live band. But while Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stands as one of the most revered and influential records of all time (musically, technically, and visually), it is certainly a very flawed release, especially following such a monumental watershed as the previous year’s Revolver.
Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting partnership was in full bloom during the last few months of 1966 and the first half of 1967, yet also beginning to show telltale signs of strain. The two songwriters were slowly beginning to part ways musically, as evidenced by the changing dynamics of each Beatle’s songs. Songs such as “A Day in the Life” and “Good Morning, Good Morning” begin to foster Lennon’s more personal approach to lyric writing, while McCartney’s invented characters abound in his compositions, and his conceptual approach seems to dominate the album. Harrison’s sole contribution, “Within You, Without You”, was conceived with virtually no input from any other members and played entirely (with the exception of Harrison’s tambura and vocal) by Indian musicians and a string section brought in by producer George Martin.
Although their union was fracturing, on much of Sgt. Pepper it never seemed stronger. “Getting Better”, “With a Little Help From My Friends”, and the title track reprise benefit from playful, rocking arrangements that demonstrate that although they’ve moved to the studio, they can still rock. This creativity and studio-enhanced spontaneity is expressed best through definitively epic closer, “A Day in the Life”, a musical tour de force that seems to compound the many awe-inspiring technical successes achieved on Revolver and its accompanying singles. The song’s lyrics and music at once sum up the band’s development and point the way into the future, as if the group is demonstrating they’ve only just begun to turn us on.
Despite such grand musical achievements, songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Fixing a Hole,” and “Mr. Kite” now sound hopelessly dated; throwbacks to the “Summer of Love”. Although groundbreaking in its incorporation of Indian classical instruments and composition, “Within You, Without You” also falls victim to the potential label of “period piece”, despite its influence over much of popular music throughout the remainder of the psychedelic ‘60s. But, although some songs on the record are relics of a bygone psychedelic age, it’s also easy to forget that these were the songs, along with others by Procol Harum, Pink Floyd, the Beach Boys and the Mothers of Invention, which gave birth to psychedelic music as a cultural force. The radical changes in the world that were underway in 1967 are summarized in the bizarre genre fusion taking place on Sgt. Pepper; music that anybody could listen to no matter what kind of music happened to be their favorite, no matter where they lived.
The idea, however, of Sgt. Pepper “the album” might just be more important than the music contained therein. The structure of the modern pop/rock album was introduced, with colossal, rousing openers and even more epic closers. The further realization of the “concept album”, utilizing characters, loose story lines, and artwork and lyrics to tie musical and conceptual ideas together became commonplace after Sgt. Pepper, inspiring an entire generation of progressive rock. The use of media hype to sell records to the public was also born out of the Beatles’ lengthy public absence while recording Pepper. The album’s revolutionary packaging also changed the game; never before had record buyers seen something so outrageous in terms of artwork production. Suddenly, album artwork could seem iconic; it could be a spectacle unto itself. When one thinks of a rock n roll album, what it means, the song sequence, the artwork, the lyrics, concepts, one thinks of the prototype set forth by Pepper.
Yet for all the pomp and circumstance associated with Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles would continue to evolve, but once again in an unpredictable fashion. Later that year with the Magical Mystery Tour film and double EP, the group would further expand upon the psychedelic sounds and imagery, before becoming disillusioned with this approach in the wake of the film’s failure. The group abandoned most of the gadgets, audio effects and hippie subject matter for 1968’s mammoth double album, The Beatles, a work that showcased more the songs of four songwriters than the work of a unified band.