The Beatles Sgt Peppers
Photo: Gatefold inner sleeve of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'

When a Concept Became a Problem: Reconsidering the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

Humdrum, high and low, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sounds like a swirling, strident loss of pre-modern innocence.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The Beatles
26 May 1967

It released on 1 June, at the dawn of the Summer of Love. Langdon Winner (The New Yorker) wrote that it was the closest that Western civilization had come to unity since the Congress of Vienna. It spent nearly three years on the UK charts and topped them for 27 weeks. Eleven million copies sold in the US and 32 million worldwide. It received four Grammies: Album of the Year, Best Contemporary Album, Best Cover, and Best Engineered (Non-Classical), for Emerick. Abbie Hoffman said that there were two events outside of his circle that he never forgot: “One is JFK’s assassination. The other was where I was when I first heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

For such a forward-looking record, it’s undoubtedly traditionalist. Superficially it has all the trappings of a technicolor Edwardian military band under the order of Owsley Stanley, but on a closer listen, the lush and hazy strains are staunchly provincial and decidedly sympathetic to the Reefer Madness generation. The BBC banned the epic “A Day in the Life” on the grounds that lyrics like “I’d love to turn you on” were promoting modern dissipation. On the contrary, it’s stunningly regressive: nostalgic scenes of old London abound in an ode to the suicide of a Guinness heir who was close to Paul, as Lennon mourns a simpler world not seen through the grey of mass media. 

“When I’m Sixty Four” is a sepia jig of middle-class life scrimping and saving for the sake of grandchildren on one’s knee. Staid army brass overwhelms electric distortion on the title track. “Good Morning Good Morning” consumes itself with suburban mantras. The dream girl in “Lovely Rita” is a cop, and “Fixing a Hole” is an eerie music-hall ballad about domestic improvement. There’s the peppy dismissal of domestic abuse in “Getting Better”. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” is a tape-spliced tune of Victorian sawdust and steam-organ haze. Lennon (always) insisted that “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was an ode not to LSD but to a drawing by his son. “She’s Leaving Home” is a maudlin waltz for the plight of a runaway teen’s parents. 

However tongue-in-cheek, the delivery is a sincere rejection of the generation gap: “We gave her most of our lives / Sacrificed most of our lives / We gave her everything money could buy… We never thought of ourselves / Never a thought for ourselves / We struggled hard all our lives to get by.” Sgt. Pepper relentlessly maintains the old world as an enduring source of comfort and the only thing that endures at all between workaday rushes and mind-altering escapes. Humdrum, high, and low, the album sounds like a swirling, strident loss of pre-modern innocence.

The exceptions to this lysergic Nixonism are Harrison’s rapt raga, “Within You Without You”, and Ringo’s droll ditty, “With a Little Help From My Friends”. In fact, George didn’t like Sgt. Pepper. After getting beyond “all this ‘me, us, I’ stuff” in India, the sessions “felt like going backwards”. He recorded one more piece, which Martin rejected from the album, “Only a Northern Song”. It was a dig at the Beatles’ publishing company, Northern Songs, in which John and Paul were shareholders of 15% while George and Ringo held 0.8% with no copyrights. Ringo quite liked recording Sgt. Pepper; he taught himself chess with all of his spare time. He wondered whether criticism and praise of the record were so severe because there was nothing to compare it to.

Tom Philips (Village Voice) called it “the most ambitious and most successful record album ever issued.” Conductor Leonard Bernstein declared “She’s Leaving Home” one of the three great songs of the century. Composer Ned Rorem claimed it was equal to anything that Schubert wrote. William Mann (The Times) declared “With a Little Help From My Friends” the only track that would have been conceivable five years ago. Timothy Leary proclaimed the Beatles “the wisest, holiest, most effective avatars the human race has ever produced.” Jack Kroll (Newsweek) called them “Britain’s new Poet Laureate” and could only compare the record to Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. Robert Somma (Crawdaddy) commended them backhandedly for making acid “as palatable and mind-blowing as Congress.” Derek Jewell (The Sunday Times) was just content that they no longer made “music for frugging to”. The John Birch Society averred a Communist conspiracy, convinced that Sgt. Pepper was proof of “an understanding of the principles of brainwashing.” Brian Wilson gave up on his next album after hearing it, convinced that nothing could top it.

Richard Goldstein of The New York Times—the same Goldstein who interviewed a histrionic Wilson in a cigarette haze, watched a shitfaced shaman by the name of Jim Morrison slur through “Five to One”, kissed Janis Joplin, and met a pre-fame Lou Reed courtesy of Andy Warhol—wrote that Sgt. Pepper was spoiled with production like an over-attended child. Compared with “Love You To” and “Eleanor Rigby” on Revolver, “Within You Without You” smacked of a cliché all the minor scales in the Orient couldn’t deepen, and “She’s Leaving Home” was burlesque at best, emaciated at worst. Halfway between prayer and put-on, Harrison oozed over the sitar like melted cheese. Goldstein’s photographer was Linda Eastman, soon to be Linda McCartney. He confessed decades later that the left speaker on his stereo had been busted.

Nevertheless, he had a point: “At best, the songs are only vaguely related.” The first song, an introduction of Billy Shears reprised toward the end, cuts into the next track seamlessly (this shortened banding, Goldstein said, was the album’s “one evident touch of originality”) as an Eeyore-voiced Ringo assures us that he gets by with a little help with his friends. But the other songs are vaguely related at best. Lennon admitted that they could have been on any other album. Sgt. Pepper is less of a concept album than a proof of its possibility. If any formal rule drives the record, it’s the studio itself. With no expectation of touring the songs, the epauletted, satin-suited army alias allowed the Beatles to prioritize studio experimentation.

Imitations came in droves: the Who shed their socks and sandals and released the rock opera Tommy (1969), the Rolling Stones found enough time between benders and court dates to record Their Satanic Majesties’ Request (1967), the Moody Blues made Days of Future Passed (1967). No band worth their hash pipe ever made an album with a dull cover again. Frank Zappa parodied the groupie still-life collage on the cover of the Mothers of Invention’s pointedly named We’re Only in It for the Money (1968). Rock as we know it owes itself to Sgt. Pepper, made when rock had scarcely torn itself from the shadow of pop. Its success oriented the music industry from the production of singles to the production of albums.

It not only codified rock musicians as serious artists (as distinguished from popular performers) but rock critics as serious journalists. When Sgt. Pepper was released there were no music magazines to speak of that weren’t fanzines or underground press. As reputable publications began to print rock commentaries in the late ’60s regularly, the Beatles were the foremost focus. This new genre led to the birth of magazines entirely dedicated to critical music review, most eminently Rolling Stone.

Now, after decades of punk-, disco-, metal-, grunge-, and hip-hop-flavored resistance, rock approaches pop once again. Sgt. Pepper’s genius—to have used the studio itself as an instrument—is today a matter of course. The mind boggles to imagine a new release with half the notoriety that this album has garnered, but perhaps this is a testament to its sway. Its musical impact is getting better all the time (or, in Lennon’s words, it can’t get no worse).

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