Sgt. Pepper Sets the Stage: The Album as a Work of Art

[22 November 2009]

By Thomas Blackwell

Part 1: Prelude to Pepper

The most popular group in the history of popular music made many masterpieces. George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr created artistic works of untold musical, technological and cultural significance during their eight short years together as The Beatles. Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, numerous others. But one album in particular caused more commotion than any one of their other long-players. It was an album that introduced relatively new ideas to the group’s immense audience in the form of an overall “concept,” intended to give the songs a unified, cohesive feel. This album was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, thirty-nine minutes and thirteen songs performed and packaged in the most outlandish and unthinkable way at the time. When the album was released on 1 June, 1967, in the midst of the “Summer of Love,” the world stood up and took notice, for better or worse (MacDonald, 1994).

Sgt. Pepper ushered in a turning point for the public perception of pop music. While other groups had released albums in 1966 utilizing a single, loose concept to frame the songs on the album, The Beatles brought this concept to the forefront of Western popular culture (MacDonald, 1994). By creating a concept for their album that allowed them to transcend their “moptop” image, the Beatles hoped to have their new studio creation tour for them (Martin & Pearson, 1994). The Sgt. Pepper concept would change the way the “pop album” was viewed by critics and listeners alike. The album would go on to influence countless artists, and was virtually responsible for the birth of the progressive rock genre, inspiring future groups of musicians to craft albums around different themes, stories or other guidelines (Moore, 1997).

Sgt. Pepper was something never before seen in music in 1967. The artwork and packaging alone was enough to make the record buyer consider taking a ‘trip’ with the Beatles, but the music on the vinyl record was something else entirely. For the first time on a Beatles record, every song seemed connected in some way, however small. It didn’t feel right to listen to just one song at a time; it felt right to listen to the whole album, front to back, every song.

Prelude to “Pepper”
By 1966, the group was not faring so well. The intense pace of their schedule and the rigors of Beatlemania had taken their toll on the band. Following a tour of the United States concluding on 29 August with a show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the group privately decided to stop performing live (Spitz, 2005). The group was already headed in the psychedelic direction of Pepper on 1966’s Revolver. Recorded throughout 1966, the album featured the group’s first uses of different studio techniques that would play an integral role in the recording of Sgt. Pepper (Martin et al., 1994).

The group, particularly Lennon and McCartney, also began experimenting with the sounds of avant-garde music, especially tape loops, reversed tapes and altered sounds achieved by altering the playback speed of the tapes. Inspired by avant-garde composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, The Beatles included heavy use of tape loops on Revolver (Spitz, 2005).

Utilizing new techniques and effects, the group began searching for ways to alter the sounds of conventional musical instruments. Studio engineer Geoff Emerick would play a vital role in the group’s discovery and application of new sounds. (Kehew et al., 2006). The sonic innovations and genre crossovers achieved by the group and the studio staff during the recording of Revolver set the tone for the rampant experimentalism that would take place during sessions for Sgt. Pepper.

Old Sounds, New Sounds

In terms of sonic diversity and experimentation with different forms and styles of music, The Beatles were already well versed. The group had experimented with eastern music, soul music and even classical (Greg Kot, personal interview by the author, 23 February 2009).

The Beatles had also been listening to a variety of different music throughout 1966 that would come to influence their psychedelic direction. McCartney would later recall in a 2004 interview: “But we were just doing our own thing. It wasn’t that we set out to make groundbreaking albums. The reason those records were so musically diverse was that we all had very diverse tastes” (McCartney, p.247, 2004).

The music of the underground scene, groups such as Pink Floyd, The Mothers of Invention, and AMM, and modern classical and experimental composers, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, no doubt had a subtle influence on The Beatles’ recording sessions during this period (Heylin, 2007). Harrison’s introduction to Indian music and religion in 1965 had inspired him to purchase his own sitar and take lessons (Womack, 2007), and he was also growing personally, with a different outlook on life influenced by Indian culture and music (Spitz, 2005).

Lennon and McCartney both claimed the Beach Boys’ seminal 1966 album Pet Sounds as a great influence going into the studio to make Sgt. Pepper. According to MacDonald, McCartney himself confessed, “the Beatles would need to surpass anything they had done to equal it” (p.172, 1994). The Beach Boys weren’t the only artists from across the Atlantic the Fab Four were paying attention to; according to author and journalist Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, The Beatles “were always listening” and were especially influenced by several of their American peers. They were also investigating other important albums released by American groups in 1966, including 5D by The Byrds, the debut album by Los Angeles psychedelic band Love and Bob Dylan’s masterpiece Blonde on Blonde (Greg Kot, personal interview by the author, 23 February 2009).

Part 2: Return to the Studio

Part 2: Return to the Studio

It was time apart that rejuvenated The Beatles creatively. For once, having the freedom to pursue individual goals took precedence over doing things for the good of the group. Ringo spent time with his family. Paul wrote a film score, working with George Martin. John ventured to Spain to film his role in Richard Lester’s World War II film How I Won the War. George journeyed to India with his wife to study Eastern religion and learn sitar (Womack, 2007).

When the four Beatles entered EMI’s Studio Two at Abbey Road on 24November, 1966 to begin recording their new album, they came armed with ideas, a slew of influences, and a raging desire to experiment. The first song recorded was a Lennon composition entitled “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Lennon was dissatisfied with the initial version laid to tape, so the group returned to the song in early December, recording a new backing track. Because there were two different takes Lennon wanted to use to create the final take, both of different speed and key, studio engineer Geoff Emerick decided to simply “splice,” or connect, the tapes together, correcting their speed to bring them to nearly the same pitch (MacDonald, 1994). Overall, “over forty-five hours” in the studio had gone into work on “Strawberry Fields” (Spitz, p.655, 2005).

With its many studio effects and “swimming” sound, the song sounded unlike anything the Beatles had recorded at that point in their career (MacDonald, p.174, 1994). Geoff Emerick’s final edit of the song (with the two ‘final’ versions edited together at about 1:00) has two distinct sounds. The first minute of the song is noticeably higher in pitch, while the song grows increasingly disorienting following the edit, when the pitch becomes noticeably lower transforming Lennon’s voice into a druggy, warped version of its usual self. The instrumentation of the second part consists of densely layered percussion, a jarring departure from Ringo’s sparse backing on the first minute of the song (MacDonald, 1994).

“Strawberry Fields” did in fact serve as what Martin proclaimed to be the “agenda of the whole album” (Heylin, p.117, 2007). Soon after its completion, the group was hard at work on McCartney’s first contribution to the project, coincidentally, another song about childhood landmarks from Liverpool, “Penny Lane” (Spitz, 2005).

“Penny Lane” was McCartney’s response to “Strawberry Fields Forever,” evoking the same childhood imagery and imagination. “Penny Lane” was a more upbeat and traditional sounding tune, yet was revolutionary in much the same way as “Strawberry Fields.” McCartney’s taste in classical music played a role in the creation of the song, where after viewing a performance of Bach’s “Second Brandenburg Concerto” on television, McCartney decided to write a similar melodic line for piccolo trumpet, a smaller, higher pitched trumpet, for his own song (MacDonald, 1994). According to Geoff Emerick and Howard Massey, Martin scored a beautiful “arrangement for flutes, trumpets, piccolo, and flugelhorn…oboes, cor anglais (English horn), and bowed double bass” (p.144, 2006) giving it a jovial and upbeat feel, while bell chimes sound out in response to McCartney’s line about a fireman “keeping his fire engine clean” (“Penny Lane”).  The pianos were tracked at different speeds by Lennon and McCartney, a trick which altered their overtones, thus producing a unique thick, multi-layered piano sound for the song (MacDonald, 1994).

Although “Strawberry Fields” would be released as a single by the Beatles’ label, Parlophone, in February 1967 (MacDonald, 1994), four months prior to the release of Sgt. Pepper, George Martin claimed the song “set the agenda for the whole album” (Heylin, p.117, 2007). Martin later regretted telling Beatles manager Brian Epstein about the songs: “These songs would, I told him, make a fantastic double-A-sided disc – better even than our other double-A-sided triumphs, ‘Day Tripper’/‘We Can Work it Out’, and ‘Eleanor Rigby’/Yellow Submarine.’ It was the biggest mistake of my professional life” (Martin et al., p.26, 1994). While these two tracks technically mark the beginning of the group’s new studio-based career, they were not included on the album due to EMI policy at the time (Spitz, 2005). Instead of performing take after take of the same finished song in an attempt to get the right version for the album, the Beatles would now use the studio time at their disposal to construct songs layer by layer, and literally build them up with each subsequent overdub.

“Penny Lane” was followed by the recording of McCartney’s charming ode to vaudeville music, “When I’m Sixty-Four” (Martin et al., 1994). McCartney’s lyrics for the song tie into the first proposed concept of an album of “Northern Songs,” featuring songs that were “progressive” yet used the sounds of the past (in this case, a chorus of clarinets) to touch upon the group’s upbringing in Liverpool (Heylin, p.116, 2007). According to Spitz, Emerick and Martin even sped up the tape while recording Paul’s vocal, in order to obtain his desired effect of sounding “younger…a teenager again” (p.668, 2005).

The “concept” was a principal device in keeping the album separate from the rest of the group’s discography. According to Clinton Heylin, the group, McCartney in particular, preferred to have a concept or theme for the sole purpose of making Sgt. Pepper “stand out from what came before” (p.116, 2007). McCartney said in a 1967 interview:

“We realized for the first time that someday someone would actually be holding a thing they’d call ‘The Beatles’ new LP’ and that normally it would just be a collection of songs with a nice picture on the cover, nothing more. So the idea was to do a complete thing that you could make what you liked of; just a little magic presentation.” [1967] (Heylin, p.116, 2007)

McCartney initially devised an embryonic idea for a concept album while traveling around France in September 1966. In order to ‘escape’ his famous image so he could enjoy his trip, McCartney donned a disguise to remain incognito (Spitz, p.643, 2005). According to Spitz, the disguise led McCartney to an idea: “if he could disguise himself on vacation and travel about unnoticed, then why not all the Beatles?” (p.643, 2005) McCartney would later explain the concept: “‘I thought, Let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter-egos so we’re not having to project an image which we know’” (quoted in Spitz, p.643, 2005). Later, during a flight from Africa to London, Evans and McCartney were discussing band names, according to Spitz, “mimicking the variety of groups that were just coming into vogue: The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Lothar and the Hand People” (p. 643, 2005). Evans then picked up miniature salt and pepper packages and gave McCartney the idea that would spur the entire concept for the record: “‘Salt and Pepper’” (p. 643, 2005). McCartney, in an effort to create one of his own “West Coast” band names, “threw the words together: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Aspinall et al., p. 241, 2000).

Different songs recorded during the sessions would serve as launching points for new conceptual ideas for the album. “With a Little Help From My Friends” was one such song, along with the title track, which introduced another concept to the project. The two songs open the album by giving the listener the feeling of being at a live concert by a musical group. George Martin claimed the Beatles and the production team “‘had to start with the song that gave the illusion of a concept’” (quoted in Heylin, p.175, 2007). Ironically, to create this atmosphere of a live concert Martin used a portion of audience applause taken from a recording of the Beatles’ own recording of a 1965 show at the Hollywood Bowl (Heylin, 2007).

The title track then segues into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” carrying on the live performance concept by introducing Ringo as the bandleader of Sgt. Pepper’s band, Billy Shears. This idea was proposed by cover photographer Peter Blake (Heylin, 2007). Starr himself admitted after the album was released that “‘the original concept of ‘Pepper’ was that it was gonna be like a stage show…We did it for the first couple of tracks and then it faded into an album’” (quoted in Heylin, p.171, 2007). A reprise of the title track occurs at the end of the album preceding “A Day in the Life,” with the Lonely Hearts Club Band reappearing to bid the audience farewell (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967).

Ringo’s vocal style is particularly well suited to the upbeat instrumentation of jangly guitars and piano. The song is a commentary on love and friendship, with the other three Beatles offering encouraging backing vocals that seem to support Ringo/Billy Shears as he takes the lead (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967).

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” follows, plunging Sgt. Pepper’s band into a vivid dream world, complete with psychedelic imagery of “plasticine porters with looking glass ties” and girls “with kaleidoscope eyes” (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967). The song is impressive sonically, with heavily treated instruments complimenting Lennon’s Technicolor imagery in his lyrics, which he admitted were heavily influenced by Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” (Heylin, 2007). McCartney performed the song’s distinctive keyboard introduction not on a harpsichord, as the sound would suggest, but on an electric organ heavily altered by electronic effects in an attempt to achieve the chiming bell tones of a Celeste (Hertsgaard, 1995).

“Getting Better” finds the group returning to the supportive themes of friendship visited in “With a Little Help From My Friends,” with Lennon’s background vocals seemingly encouraging or even provoking McCartney (Hertsgaard, 1995). The song is an anthem for the sixties, a time of new ideas and new beginnings; McCartney likely referring to the end of the Beatles’ touring days (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967).

The group also would play with texture by adding tape loops to songs. Small clips of sound were used to change the feeling of songs or bring them to a close. Harrison’s raga “Within You Without You” utilized a brief clip of laughter culled from a tape out of the EMI studio archives entitled “Volume 6: Applause and Laughter,” inserted at his insistence to lighten the serious mood of the piece (Lewisohn, 2003). “Volume 35: Animals and Bees” and “Volume 57: Foxhunt” were also used to add dogs, roosters and various farm animals to “Good Morning Good Morning” (Lewisohn, 2003).

One of the most critical uses of tape effects during the sessions would take place during the recording of Lennon’s “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” According to Spitz, Lennon desired a “fairground sound” to go with lyrics he had written based on a 19th century circus poster he had purchased from an antique shop, and called upon Martin to assist in the creation of such an atmosphere for the recording (pp.668-669, 2005). Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick then set about using tapes to simulate the sounds of an old-fashioned steam organ, due to prohibitive costs of renting and programming one for the session (Spitz, 2005). Emerick once again played the innovator; after retrieving tapes of marches played on steam organs, he cut them into small pieces, tossed them in the air, and reassembled them in a random order, overdubbing them onto the existing rhythm track to achieve the desired effect (Lewisohn, 2003).

The Beatles used their newfound artistic license to write in a more abstract manner, wrapping personal thoughts and feelings in lyrical sheets of realistic imagery. Lennon’s commentary on suburban life, “Good Morning, Good Morning,” was inspired by a television commercial for Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, and he decided to analyze his supposedly comfortable life in his Weybridge mansion in an “ironic” and “sarcastic” way he never had thought about before, according to Martin and Pearson (pp. 71-73, 1994). “She’s Leaving Home” had an exclusively classical sound, utilizing a string section as the sole instrumentation, but for the lyrics, McCartney turned to the local newspaper for inspiration, using an actual story that had run in the Daily Mail on February 27, 1967 (Heylin, 2007). The story was about a family whose daughter “had run away,” and Lennon and McCartney arranged the vocals to represent both sides of the incident (p.162, 2007). Lennon’s “A Day in the Life” would also reference a story from the local newspaper, this time about a wealthy heir to the Guinness fortune who had died in a car crash (Spitz, 2005).

Perhaps the ultimate musical statement of the Beatles’ career was made in Lennon and McCartney’s powerful song that was chosen to close the album, “A Day in the Life.” Emerick later recalled the group came into the studio with only small parts of the song written and ready to record; the group wanted to “get it down on tape and then finish it later” (Emerick et al., p.146, 2006). The song took shape as the group worked out the arrangement in the studio, with little accidents or unintentional additions often remaining in the song after one Beatle would express a liking for the mistake. (Emerick et al., p.149, 2006).

The most stunning feature of the song was the orchestra recorded for the middle section. The idea for the orchestra came from Lennon, who, according to Emerick, desired “some kind of sound that would start out really tiny and then gradually expand to become huge and all-engulfing” (p.152, 2006). After a discussion, it was decided to hire the orchestra and have them improvise by playing from the lowest notes to the highest notes in their respective instruments’ ranges, which would create a swirling, cacophonous buildup of sound (Emerick et al., 2006). Because of the attitudes present in working orchestra musicians at the time, a very prestigious job in the music industry, the Beatles decided to turn the session into a party, encouraging a loose atmosphere in an attempt to persuade the orchestra (musicians who do not typically improvise) to play at random to achieve the chaotic sound envisioned for the middle section and the ending (Emerick et al. 2006).

Five different improvisations were ultimately edited into the final track, giving the illusion of over 200 orchestral instruments playing at once (Spitz, 2005). Following the orchestral spiral, copied and inserted at the end of the song, the Beatles, assistant Evans and George Martin then recorded a massive “E” chord, played simultaneously by all participants on three grand pianos and allowed to sustain for slightly over one minute, which would serve as the final note in their new studio creation (Spitz, 2005).

As a final eccentric detail for their new opus, the Beatles decided to end the album with additional sonic madness collected on the run out groove, the final groove of a vinyl record where it would normally stop playing and the needle would retract, or the listener would have to take the needle off to stop the record. A 15-kilocycle whistle, which is a frequency so high-pitched only dogs can hear it, was inserted just before the nonsense (p.253, 2003). On subsequent stereo and compact disc versions of the album, the runout groove noise and the 15 kilocycle tone are only heard briefly before fading out, bringing the album to a bizarre but utterly unique finale (Emerick et al., 2006).

After months of recording, the band finally completed work on the album in April 1967. Martin and the group then had another important task to be done before the album’s release: sequencing the songs. Martin was tasked with giving the songs an appropriate running order. He did know he had to pair the opening title track before “With a Little Help From My Friends,” as the former mentioned the “Billy Shears” character, bandleader for the Lonely Hearts Club Band, who sings “With a Little Help From My Friends” (Martin et al., 1994). Martin had also determined from the outset that the piano chord ending “A Day in the Life” would have to close the album, because the chord “was so final that it was obvious nothing else could follow it.”

This prompted Martin to place the reprise of the title track second to last, coming before “A Day in the Life” (p.148, 1994). Smaller details also determined Martin’s placement of the songs. The laughing at the end of “Within You Without You” prompted Martin to follow it with McCartney’s “jokey” “When I’m Sixty-Four” (Martin et al., 1994). A tape loop of a chicken squawking at the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning” coincidentally had a pitch similar to a noise made by George Harrison tuning his guitar at the very beginning of the title track reprise, giving Martin the idea to blend the two together (Martin et al., 1994). He would later admit the album seemed to fall together much by itself, “When it came to compiling the album, I tried to edit it together in a very tight format, and in a funny kind of way when I was editing it it almost grew by itself; it took on a life of its own” (p.150, 1994).

According to Kehew and Ryan’s comprehensive account of the Beatles’ recording practices, “Recording the Beatles,” an estimated 700 hours of work went into the recording of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with the band spending 45 days between January and April of 1967 in the studio (Kehew et al., 2006). The album was produced at a total cost of about £25,000, an unbelievable amount for the recording of the average pop album in 1967, according to producer George Martin (p.168, 1994).

Part 3: Out of the Studio, Into the Record Shop

Part 3: Out of the Studio, Into the Record Shop

Hype, speculation and marketing played prominent roles in the success of Sgt. Pepper in the summer of 1967. The Beatles had been in the studio for close to seven months, and it had been nine months since their final performance in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966 (Hertsgaard, 1995). The world was curious; their interest was piqued: What had they been up to? More importantly, was it any good?

The rampant studio experimentation of the past seven months had birthed a musical document as peculiar as its unorthodox artwork. The Beatles had managed to tap into the creative well the advances made on Revolver had only hinted at; the effects used somewhat sparsely on Revolver now encrusted entire songs.

Sgt. Pepper was a creature of anticipation on the part of the Beatles’ audience. According to author and journalist Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune, the passage of time would serve as a major factor in the album’s success and almost universal critical acclaim, but contemporarily “the key was the hype that preceded it” (Greg Kot, personal interview by the author, 23 February 2009). No one had never spent so much time in the studio before Sgt. Pepper recording sessions and, according to Kot, the viewpoint instilled into the collective mind of the record-buying public was simple: “they spent 9 months in the studio, so it must be good” (Greg Kot, personal interview by the author, 23 February 2009).

The album’s sound and presentation introduced the wider public to the psychedelic sounds and moods of 1967’s counterculture. According to Hertsgaard, the album’s release was “a huge cultural event,” one that mirrored the changes rapidly taking place in popular culture (p.213, 1995). The cover, its design, and the outfits the group wore, and the addition of lyrics printed on the back of the record sleeve all confirm this notion.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band received almost universally positive reviews upon its release, with many reviewers acknowledging the group’s unique new musical direction. William Mann in The Times (London) was so moved by the musical leap in sound that he described “With a Little Help From My Friends” as being “…the only track that would have been conceivable in pop songs five years ago” (p.96, 1967). Mann also described the songs as setting an example for other musicians: “Any of these songs is more genuinely creative than anything currently to be heard on pop radio stations, but in relationship to what other groups have been doing lately Sgt. Pepper is chiefly significant as constructive criticism, a sort of pop music master class examining trends and correcting or tidying up inconsistencies and undisciplined work, here and there suggesting a line worth following” (p.96, 1967).

Christopher Porterfield for Time called the Beatles “messengers from beyond rock n roll,” hailing them for “leading an evolution in which the best of current post-rock sounds are becoming something that pop music has never been before: an art form” (p.103, 1967). Journalist Derek Jewell of The Sunday Times wrote equally praising words about the album, calling it “a tremendous advance even in the increasingly adventurous progress of the Beatles,” and pointing out that different emotions played significant roles in the album’s lyrics and music, calling the tone of the album “humorous, sympathetic, skeptical and often self-mocking. Musically, it is always stimulating” (Martin et al., p.153, 1994). Jewell’s review, perhaps most importantly, asked a fundamental question about the content,  “The Beatles are now producing performances, not music for frugging to. Will the kids follow?” (Martin et al., p.153, 1994).

“The kids” did indeed follow the fab four into the unknown. The album sold 250,000 copies in its first week on sale in the United Kingdom, eventually selling 500,000 copies in the UK by the end of June and going on to stay at the top of the charts for 27 weeks. Sgt. Pepper also sold 2,500,000 copies in the United States by the end of August 1967, having been at number one on the charts since its release (Martin et al., 1994).

One review, however, was extremely negative, so much that it caused an uproar in both the music and journalistic worlds. Richard Goldstein’s review of the record for the New York Times scathingly attacked what Goldstein referred to as “the obsession with production,” and he derided the album for “a surprising shoddiness in composition…” (p.98, 1967). Goldstein also described certain musical flourishes on the album, such as the orchestral buildup in “A Day in the Life,” as resembling “a drug-induced ‘rush’” (p.100, 1967). Goldstein’s review did mention “A Day in the Life” in an otherwise positive light, calling it “a deadly earnest excursion in emotive music,” later referring to it as “one of the most important Lennon-McCartney compositions,” and “a historic Pop event” (p.99, 1967).

The review was so controversial, Goldstein’s publisher issued a rebuttal, and other journalists attacked his position, including influential critic Robert Christgau, who wrote an article challenging the position for Esquire in December 1967, proclaiming, “I attribute his review to a failure of nerve,” also pointing out that Goldstein’s review had received “…the largest response to a music review in its [The New York Times’] history” (pp. 116-17, 1967).

Influence:
The grand scale of The Beatles’ achievement with Sgt. Pepper also reflected in the way it impacted their peers in the world of pop music. In the wake of Pepper, other groups made adventurous records, armed with the latest studio effects and heavy doses of “chemical inspiration,” hoping to trump The Beatles (Heylin, 2007).

The Rolling Stones spent much of 1967 in between court appearances and ingesting gargantuan quantities of LSD while recording Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, a psychedelic response to Sgt. Pepper (Heylin, 2007). Upon its release in December 1967, Satanic Majesties was immediately written off in John Landau’s review in Rolling Stone magazine: “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, despite moments of unquestionable brilliance, put the status of the Rolling Stones in jeopardy” (Landau, 1968, 10 February). The album had a cover photograph depicting all five members draped in psychedelic garb, looking like wizards out of some twisted fairy tale; the image was eerily similar to the Sgt. Pepper cover. The songs seemed to have some vague concept involving a concert or stage performance, and the album featured a song serving as an introduction, “Sing this Altogether,” with a reprise at the end of side one entitled “Sing this Altogether (See What Happens)” and even a grand finale, “On with the Show” closing out the album (Their Satanic Majesties’ Request, 1967).

The conceptual side of Sgt. Pepper also moved many bands that would come to popularity in the years after the Beatles’ demise as a group. Many groups adapted the idea of a “concept album” and crafted all varieties of stories around an entire album or double album’s worth of music. The Moody Blues were perhaps the first group post-Sgt. Pepper to do so, with their Days of Future Passed album, also released later in 1967. This album featured the Moodies playing with the London Festival Orchestra as a backing group, with lyrics and an overall concept centering on the times of day (Moore, 1997). The Who would release the incredibly successful Tommy double album in 1969, which was billed as a “rock opera” by Who leader Pete Townshend and focused on the life and times of a pinball-playing “deaf, dumb and blind” boy (Moore, 1997; Tommy, 1969). Concept albums drove the progressive rock movement of the 1970s with strong influence from classical and jazz music.

Bands like Yes, Genesis, Rush and Jethro Tull released albums with strong central concepts, often involving characters and a storyline told through the lyrics (Moore, 1997). The unique organization of the songs on Sgt. Pepper would go on to strongly influence these concept albums. After the release of Sgt. Pepper it became common for albums to be structured according to how the songs fit together sonically, with an album requiring certain landmarks that would make the album more accessible and listenable as a complete recording. Sequential details such as the presence of a loud or stimulating energetic opening song and a compelling, epic closer became a sort of unspoken industry standard when sequencing albums (Moore, 1997).

Many critics today agree that the Beatles, along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and famed producer Phil Spector, would refine the technique of using “the studio as an instrument” during the recording of Sgt. Pepper, drawing attention to the craftsmanship going into the recording of the songs more than the actual quality of the songwriting itself (Greg Kot, personal interview by the author, 23 February 2009). This detailed approach to music making is still very much in vogue today and has been since 1967 through the expansive works of bands such as the Flaming Lips, Nine Inch Nails, My Bloody Valentine, and Spiritualized, as well as the production techniques of Brian Eno (Greg Kot, personal interview by the author, 23 February 2009). The album was universally recognized as being sonically groundbreaking, eventually winning a Grammy award for Best-Engineered Record of 1967 (Martin et al., 1994).

The conceptual side of Sgt. Pepper has also enjoyed an influential status among critics and musicians. The creation of alter egos and toying with personae not only gave the Beatles much-needed freedom to experiment musically, but has also driven other bands to uncharted territory. The concept of stepping outside everyday life and becoming someone else entirely had great influence on the Glam Rock of Kiss and David Bowie. In 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins released a sprawling concept album dealing with the life and times of a rock band in much the same way as Sgt. Pepper and “his band.” According to Kot, this album’s ambitious concept was “a definite tip of the hat to Sgt. Pepper” (Greg Kot, personal interview by the author, 23 February 2009).

Sgt. Pepper brought attention to the entire album as a work of art, instead of simply focusing on each individual release of singles for radio play. The album’s massive success and lack of radio-ready singles would help persuade other artists and businessmen in the music industry to place more focus on albums. George Martin, one of the men who played an instrumental role in the direction of the musical masterminds behind Sgt. Pepper, believed the album’s diverse influences came together to create “the first example of a new sort of music, a classical/rock crossover music…” (p.137, 1994). Martin also admitted that he viewed the album as “contemporary art” at the time of its release, mainly due to the variety of influence “from jazz, folk music, rock n roll, rhythm and blues…” (p.137, 1994). The sheer number of different, and often disparate, musical influences made the album stand out from everything that preceded it in pop music. Western classical coexisted with Indian classical, rock n roll with traditional music hall songs, jazz with avant-garde, all within the boundaries of single songs. The album’s diversity would herald a new, all-inclusive aesthetic for pop albums that would follow.

Afterward:
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a cultural entity unlike anything seen before it. As an album, it had several effects that were wide-ranging and in some cases which have persisted in the years since its release. The use of innovative recording techniques and technology set precedents for the music industry still being followed in recording studios today. The level of detail and dedication to the craftsmanship of the album has influenced countless producers, engineers and musicians in all genres of music.  The “hype” marketing strategy has been used ever since by record labels to generate publicity and album sales, not only for established and successful artists, but also new musicians who haven’t yet emerged in the industry.

Yet modern critics remain divided between love and hate for Sgt. Pepper. Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis and Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot both revealed in interviews conducted for this project that they personally dislike the album. According to DeRogatis, “Revolver broke more ground,” and the studio-heavy psychedelic direction the group began to pursue on that album was driven to overkill by the Beatles by the time they entered the studio to begin work on Sgt. Pepper just a few months after its release (Jim DeRogatis, personal interview by the author, 5 March 2009). DeRogatis maintains the album has sustained its level of popularity due to “baby boomer nostalgia that posits Pepper as a key cultural cornerstone,” and that the album today “has much more to do with hype than with music” (Jim DeRogatis, personal interview by the author, 5 March 2009). According to both Kot and DeRogatis, the common thread among the album’s detractors is that the album’s popularity and “groundbreaking” label is simply due to the fact that the album was recorded by the Beatles (Kot and DeRogatis personal interviews by the author).

While many still remain divided on its impact, the Beatles themselves would be able to move on into further uncharted territory in their remaining three years as a group. While the psychedelic party continued on the album’s follow-up, the uneven Magical Mystery Tour double EP, released in December 1967, the group ultimately abandoned many of the studio embellishments that characterized Sgt. Pepper for a mostly stripped down, back-to-basics approach on 1968’s The Beatles.

The album was at the time and remains today a unique artistic document. It is representative of the time during which it was created, yet also foreshadowed a musical future filled with endless possibilities, limited only by the technology in a recording studio and the creativity and ingenuity of the human mind. Sgt. Pepper, in its entirely unique way, wholly altered the perception of the pop album and the idea of how far a musical work of art could reach.

Reference List

Reference List

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Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/115779-sgt.-pepper-sets-the-stage-the-album-as-a-work-of-art/