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

From A to Z: The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ at 40

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

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

“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.”

B

“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.

C

Celebrities: 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.

D

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.

E

Emerick, Geoff: Staff recording engineer for EMI Records at the Abbey Road Studio, he worked with the Beatles throughout their career.

F

“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.

G

“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.

H

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.

I

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.

J

June 1 and 2, 1967: Release dates for Sgt. Pepper in Great Britain and the United States, respectively.

K

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.

L

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.”

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