Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Photo: Inside gatefold sleeve of 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'

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

The day the Beatles released ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ was the day album art was born.

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 influences “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 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 for 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.


Works Cited

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