It was 40 years ago this week—to be precise, June 1, 1967, in Britain, a day later in the former colonies of America—that the Beatles changed the world.
Of course, the Beatles had changed the world many times before, but the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was different.
It was called “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization,” one of its tunes (“She’s Leaving Home”) was credited with being one of the three great songs of the 20th century, and in the week after the album came out, “the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
Because those comments were made by, respectively, the Times of London‘s noted critic Kenneth Tynan, New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein and New Yorker writer Langdon Winner, they signified the acceptance and triumph of Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles in the arts—and adult—community.
Young people, meanwhile, thought the album was “cool” and “far out.”
Sgt. Pepper emerged in a context of great creative experimentation in rock ‘n’ roll and social upheaval.
The Beatles themselves had led the way in 1965 and `66 with their path-breaking Rubber Soul and Revolver albums. Bob Dylan, having moved from folk to rock, burst the limitations of the two-minute song. The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and the Mothers of Invention’s Frank Zappa broke new ground with Pet Sounds and Freak Out. And the Beatles’ friends and rivals the Rolling Stones were keeping pace with their Aftermath and Between the Buttons albums.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were also as much a part of the youth movement of the `60s and affected by it personally as they were key influences upon it. Resistance to illegitimate authority, the generation gap, the use of recreational drugs, a freer attitude toward sexuality and a communal ethos are all given new expression in Sgt. Pepper.
The album also broadened the sound of rock music, as the Beatles supplemented the usual rock instrumentation of guitar, bass and drums with instruments as new as the mellotron and as old as the Indian sitar and the strings, woodwinds and brass of a classical orchestra. Producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick brought in vintage sounds of Victorian bands along with experimental recording methods.
Sgt. Pepper was one of the first rock albums to open like a book and to print all of the song lyrics. No singles were released from it; it is intended to be listened to as a whole.
The album spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and to date has sold 11 million copies. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 1 in its “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”
Here’s an A-to-Z guide that will help explain what it was all about.
SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND
“A Day in the Life”: The Beatles’ opus and album closer, its existential lyrics were written and sung primarily by John, with Paul supplying the bridge. A 40-piece orchestra was brought in for several sections, including the climactic ascending cacophonous scale, which is followed by a lengthy piano chord played simultaneously on multiple pianos by Paul, John, Ringo, George Martin and Mal Evans. The song was banned by the BBC over the line “I’d love to turn you on.”
“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”: According to John, he was in an antiques store where he saw an 1843 poster advertising a forthcoming show by Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royale. He bought the poster and sang words from its text while playing the piano, and eventually had a song.
Photos of many famous and not-so- famous people are included on the album’s front cover collage. Known internally as “People We Like,” among those appearing are actors (W.C. Fields, Diana Dors, Marlon Brando), writers (Edgar Allen Poe, George Bernard Shaw), comic Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Karl Marx and former Beatle Stu Sutcliffe.
Drugs: All four members of the band were regularly smoking marijuana while making Sgt. Pepper, and John was frequently taking LSD. Alleged references to drug use are in “A Day in the Life” (“I’d love to turn you on,” “found my way upstairs and had a smoke”) and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (the initials LSD). Some also cite drug references in “Fixing a Hole” and “With a Little Help From My Friends.” In most of these cases, the Beatles denied any intentional references to drugs.
Emerick, Geoff: Staff recording engineer for EMI Records at the Abbey Road Studio, he worked with the Beatles throughout their career.
“Fixing a Hole”: Paul wrote and sings lead on this light but slightly melancholy number, based in part on home improvements he had made to his Scottish farmhouse.
“Getting Better”: An optimistic song by Paul, it features some of the best harmonies on the album, by Paul, John and George.
“Good Morning, Good Morning”: The acerbic side of John comes through in this song, supposedly inspired by an irritating Kellogg’s Corn Flakes commercial on TV.
Harrison, George: The band’s lead guitarist had a relatively small role in the making of Sgt. Pepper, contributing only one song, “Within You Without You,” and even being replaced by McCartney on lead guitar for the title track.
Indian music: George’s interest in Indian music and philosophy is shown on his “Within You Without You,” which uses such Indian instruments as the sitar, dilruba, svarmandal, tabla and tambura.
June 1 and 2, 1967: Release dates for Sgt. Pepper in Great Britain and the United States, respectively.
Keyboards: A variety of keyboards are played on the album, including piano, Hammond organ, organ, harmonium, harpsichord, Virginal (a miniature harpsichord), pianette, Mellotron (tape loops played by a keyboard) and tapes of steam organs and calliopes.
Lennon, John: The undisputed leader of the band during its early years, through a combination of disinterest, unhappiness and drug use John was withdrawing and letting Paul take on a greater leadership role during the songwriting and recording of Sgt. Pepper. Still, his contributions to the album are crucial: writing and singing lead on “Good Morning Good Morning,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and most of “A Day in the Life.” He also co-wrote “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and contributes guitar and harmony vocals throughout.
“Lovely Rita”: A jaunty number by Paul, supposedly based on an encounter he had with a traffic warden in St. John’s Wood. John had the idea for the comb-and-toilet paper kazoo orchestra.
“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”: A dreamy song by John, filled with colorful and fantastical imagery, it was assumed to be influenced by hallucinogens and was banned by the BBC. But John always insisted the song was based on something else. “This is the truth,” he said. “My son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around. I said, `What is it?’ and he said, `It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and I thought, `That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote a song about it.”
Martin, George: The Beatles producer throughout their career, he plays a major creative role in creating, performing, orchestrating and recording the songs and sounds of Sgt. Pepper.
McCartney, Paul: Paul became the principal leader of the group during the recording of Sgt. Pepper. In addition to writing and singing lead on “When I’m Sixty-Four,” Fixing a Hole,” “Lovely Rita,” “Getting Better,” “She’s Leaving Home” and the title cut, and co-writing (with John) “A Day in the Life” and “With a Little Help From My Friends,” he plays lead guitar on the title song. He also worked closely with producer Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick throughout the 129-day recording effort.
No touring: At the time they recorded Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles had gotten fed up with live performances and decided they would do no more touring and concentrate instead on recording.
Outtakes: John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul’s “Penny Lane” were among the first songs recorded for the album, but George Martin and manager Brian Epstein, under pressure from EMI for Beatles product, decided to release the tracks as a two-sided single and took it off Sgt. Pepper. George’s “Only a Northern Song” was also left off the album because of its poor quality (it shows up on the soundtrack for the animated movie “Yellow Submarine.”
Paul is dead: Supposed “clues” to the rumor, or urban legend, that Paul McCartney died in a car crash during the recording of Sgt. Pepper and was replaced by a lookalike include: in “Strawberry Fields,” John allegedly says, “I buried Paul,” at the end of the song; the flower arrangement on the front cover suggest a funeral; in the band photo on the back of the album jacket, Paul is the only Beatle not facing the camera; lyrics on the album allegedly refer to Paul’s accident—“Wednesday morning at five o’clock” (the supposed time of the accident), “Nothing to do to save his life,” “He blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the light had changed.”
Queen Elizabeth II: For the album photo in which The Beatles posed in their Sgt. Pepper costumes, George and Paul wore the MBE medals the Queen gave them in 1965.
Rolling Stones, The: The album cover includes a Shirley Temple cloth doll wearing a sweatshirt reading “Welcome The Rolling Stones, Good Guys.”
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (the song): A pioneering foray into what would become known later as “heavy rock” or “heavy metal,” this McCartney-penned number, which is reprised as a bridge into the concluding “A Day in the Life,” features Paul’s tough-sounding lead vocal, a raucous guitar break (by Paul, rather than George), ultra-powerful drumming by Ringo and the addition of four French horns.
“She’s Leaving Home”: Paul’s “generation gap” song, about a teenager who’s run away from a stultifying existence at home, and the parents who can’t understand why she left. The accompaniment is played entirely by a 10-member string section, with no rock instruments.
Starr, Ringo: The Beatles’ drummer does perhaps his most varied and sophisticated work on this album. He sings the lead vocal on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
Tracks: Sgt. Pepper was recorded on four-track tape recorders at Abbey Road Studio, but through the use of dubbing and other recording techniques the band was able to use many additional tracks while constructing their songs.
Underwood, John: A classical viola player, he appears on “A Day in the Life” and “She’s Leaving Home.”
Vera, Chuck and Dave: Paul’s fictional grandchildren mentioned in “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
“When I’m Sixty-Four”: Paul wrote most of this jaunty, music hall-style number when he was a teenager in the early 1960s during the band’s sojourn in Hamburg, Germany.
“With a Little Help From My Friends”: One of the last true collaborations by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, this was Ringo’s featured vocal on the album, the one in which he’s introduced as Billy Shears. The lyrics reflect a spirit of unity among the band members, and the band’s sense of solidarity with the international youth counter-culture. The working title was “Bad Finger Boogie.”
“Within You Without You”: George’s sole composition on the album, it reflects his growing interest in Indian music and philosophy, particularly his view that modern society had become spiritually bankrupt.
XTC: The English rock band led by Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding was deeply influenced by the Beatles generally and Sgt. Pepper in particular.
“Yellow Submarine”: The 1968 animated feature includes an outtake from Sgt. Pepper—George’s “Only a Northern Song”—and references to Billy Shears.
Zappa, Frank: Paul referred to Sgt. Pepper as “our Freak Out,” indicating the influence of the 1966 debut album by Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention. And in 1968, Zappa and the Mothers released We’re Only in It for the Money, a parody of Sgt. Pepper.
Sources: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band CD jacket/booklet; The Beatles, The Beatles Anthology; Ian MacDonald, Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties; Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey, Here There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles; Mark Lewisohn, The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions; Philip Norman, Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation; George Martin, with William Pearson, Summer of Love: The Making of Sgt. Pepper; Paul Is Dead Web site; Carl Schonbeck essay, “Stating Points of View: Sgt. Pepper at 35”; Annie Zaleski, “Andy Partridge”.