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

Thomas Blackwell

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.

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).

Next Page

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.