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Sergeant Pepper, Forty Years On

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I know every other music pundit in the biz will get into the act over the next few days, doing a job on the 40th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’m not much for hopping onto media bandwagons, but this one — I can’t resist. This milestone Belongs To Me, and I know I’ll just be irritated by the gushing blather that’ll be spewed on this occasion. So let me spew mine first.

First we must establish one fact: The Beatles were the greatest rock band ever. Argue otherwise all you like, you’ll never reach consensus. Another band may be closer to your heart, for one reason or another; other bands may have had more Top Ten hits or sold more units in total; “great” can be defined any way you like. This does not change the simple fact (repeat it after me): The Beatles were the greatest rock band ever. John Lennon was right; they WERE bigger than Jesus. Anyone who was conscious in 1967 can testify to that.

Whether or not Sergeant Pepper was the best album this greatest band produced is another question. We could spend the rest of our music-fan lives debating that one (and we'd have a blast doing it). But if we’re just talking in terms of impact on the music scene, it’d be hard to beat Sergeant Pepper. I was there, I can remember how mind-blowing it seemed — a quantum leap forward, in every way possible.

The cover art alone broke all the molds. The standard pop album cover of the time was still a full-color shot of the band, maybe in some kooky pose, maybe with arty lettering for the title. Now for something completely different: A crowded, colorful display with the Beatles themselves relatively small figures at the center, standing next to their own Tussaud wax models, and – wait – is that a gravesite they’re standing next to? With funeral wreaths spelling out their name, and a left-handed floral bass? What could it all mean?

As a physical object, that LP was like a Holy Grail, all of its coded references to be pored over in full 12 x 12-inch glory. (No diagram was provided to identify those figures in 1967 – it was up to you and your friends and the public library to sort it out.) In this age of computer-manipulated images, it’s startling to remember that this was a formal studio shot, with life-sized cardboard cutouts of all those famous personages propped in place behind the live artists. The Beatles were full, willing, conscious accomplices, not some hotshot designer toiling alone at a console.

What’s more, the lyrics to the songs were printed on the back cover, as if they were legitimate poetry worth reading. No major album had provided that before. Today, when even the stupidest mumbled lyrics can be found on dozens of internet sites, it’s hard to imagine how earth-shattering this was. And of course those lyrics WERE worth reading. Lennon and McCartney had been honing their craft like mad with every previous album – hard to believe it, but “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” lay only four years in their past – but their prior outing, Revolver, contained only glimmers of the wondrous, strange things that Sergeant Pepper would contain.

Even a jolly singalong like “A Little Help From My Friends” had riddling lines like “What do you see when you turn out the light / I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.” You also got the narrative power of John songs like “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day In the Life,” with their very pointed subtexts; the rich and specific details of Paul songs like “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Lovely Rita” (it would be a shame to skip a single brisk syllable of “filling in a ticket in her little white book”); or, most of all, the surreal imagery of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” or “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Without the printed lyrics, a line like “plasticine porters with looking-glass ties” would have seemed incomprehensible, especially to us Americans. At least when we saw it written down we felt it made perfect sense.

I must stress here – this was a vinyl 33 1/3 rpm album. It was a round piece of black grooved plastic that you had to set on a turntable, to listen to the songs in sequence. I don’t know why nobody before the Beatles figured out how important this was. But this was the first rock music album that was really conceived as one piece, to be listened to as a whole. The two versions of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — hearty oom-pah band on Side 1, crunchy rock ‘n’ roll on Side 2 — were intended as a framing device; “A Day In The Life” is deliberately set afterwards, as a coda, capped with a huge orchestral chord – followed by a snippet of garbled backwards gibberish (which I can guarantee is a freaky thing to listen to late at night, in the dark).

The songs flow into one another, a shifting kaleidoscope of themes and moods and musical styles, guided by the Beatles’ gut musical instincts – which were, as usual, totally right-on. Notice how the wistful “She’s Leaving Home” gains a darker context when it’s followed by the sinister frenzy of “Mr. Kite,” ending Side 1 on an ominous note. We get up, cross the room, turn the record over; we sit back down, light up, and wait to trip out on the gauzy optimism of “Within You Without You.” It's all part of the master plan.

I still find it almost impossible to listen to these tracks out of order, even though nowadays I listen to it on CD and could skip around freely. The minute I hear the fade-out at the end of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” I’m primed for those snarky chords that lead off “Getting Better”; that jump from the woozy sitars of “Within You Without You” to the loopy music-hall strains of “When I’m Sixty-Four” is deeply satisfying to my soul.

Every song contains at least one coded drug reference; just about every song slips in at least one jab at authority, as well as some line or another advocating love and peace and harmony. These aren’t the themes of these songs; these are simply givens in the Beatles mindset — which became ipso facto the mindset of an entire generation. Sergeant Pepper carved in vinyl what had already been floating in the hipster ether; buying this album made us all part of the club.

What these songs don’t contain is autobiographical musings on the loneliness of stardom, or the pressures of life on the road, or the avaricious spending habits of ex-wives. No pontificating from the celebrity pulpit, either. (Lennon would get there soon enough.) Nope. These songs are about people who get up to go to jobs and catch buses and wait at turnstiles and drink tea and read newspapers; folks who mend roofs and dig weeds and knit sweaters, who come home for tea and meet the wife. (Except, er, for “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” – that one bears no resemblance to anyone’s reality, not unless you are a Victorian circus geek.) Weird as the package looked, it was an album that invited us to participate. In fact, the weird package forced us to participate – to study the cover art, to read the lyrics, to crack the code. To sing along when the singer sang his song.

Yes, the jaundiced John Lennon view of the world is in here – but it’s balanced by the bouncy pop faith of Paul McCartney, and on this record if no other, they hit equilibrium. It’s an astonishingly upbeat album, all things considered. Friends will help you get by. Newspaper taxis are waiting to take you away. Things are getting better all the time, the hole is getting fixed, and she’s finally leaving home and having fun. With our love we could save the world. Even when you’re sixty-four, she’ll still need you and feed you. I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay — a splendid time is guaranteed for all. And, oh yes, I’d love to turn you on.

And so they did.

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About Holly Hughes

  • Pedro Navarro

    Don´t loose the perspective. We are the luckiest generation, because we have had the luck to be the first to hear and value the sounds of a special group of four people who happened to have the ability and oportunity to impact the whole world with his artistic work. As simple as that.
    Many people has lived and died without having this blessing.
    Too profound by any means?

  • “meeting a man from the motor trade” — I’ve heard that it meant she was going to get an abortion. Which would mean that she grew up to be the girl in “Ticket To Ride….”

  • JC Mosquito

    Glen: “Lesser songwriters gave the mean old folks the finger. The Beatles reached out to them over the ages.”

    And then gave the kids the finger. 😉

    Seriously, I never did care for that girl from SLH – she was disrespectul & unthankful, and we don’t even know if this guy from the motor trade was any kind of prize either. I think she probably grew up to be Eleanor Rigby. And therein lies the genius – it’s said that a writer only ever writes one song (or book or whatever). I think the Beatles’ contributions to pop culture have been analysed to death – and I think the critical world has only scratched the surface.

    Oh, and it is possible she grew up to be “Her Majesty” too.

  • You almost always find something new. I was driving back from vacation with the kids a few years back and played it for them (they loved it, of course). “She’s Leaving Home” never did all that much for me, but of course as a kid I’d always related to the girl blowing off her boring parents. “She’s having fun.”

    But as a relatively new parent, this time I heard the song from the parents’ perspective. “What did we do that was wrong?” Heartbreaking. Lesser songwriters gave the mean old folks the finger. The Beatles reached out to them over the ages. Genius.

  • Love the story, dobe. My older brother was the one who brought it home to our family. He refused to let me listen to it for about 48 hours; then he couldn’t hold out any longer — he absolutely HAD to share it with someone, and I was the lucky winner. It was the same deal — we just sat and listened in awed silence.

  • dobegillis

    It was a summer evening in ’67 if I recall correctly, we had just finished dinner at My Grandmother’s house, and my Uncle had just bought Sgt. Pepper. I remember the paper cutouts, I particularly liked the handlebar moustache. My Uncle knew I was a huge Beatles fan, I received my first Album at the ripe age of 5 years old When “Meet the Beatles” came out, given to me by the babysitter Jane, who I was in love with. Any way, I was still a kid, but my uncle still invited me to come and hear it IN HIS ROOM WHERE US KIDS WERE NEVER ALLOWED. I knew this had to be BIG, REALLY REALLY BIG. So my Uncle put it on the turntable, and turned it up pretty loud on the stereo. Just like others said, we listened to it from beginning to end, and I just thought WOW that sounded cool, PLAY IT AGAIN!!. I remember the impact of the song “She’s leaving home” and how there was a slight paralel in our family going on in that I had 3 uncles all coming of age around the same time. The memory of that nite up in my Uncle’s bedroom is one of my favorite childhood memories.

  • Andrew Wendland

    The 40th Anniversary of the Oldest Intentional Album-Movie Synchronization

    Today, June 1, 2007, marks the 40th Anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles. This happens to be the album of the oldest intentional Album/Movie Synchronization. To those that don’t already know, I present:

    Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) with Mary Poppins (1964)
    – sync grade = A
    – discovered by Andrew Wendland and Todd Ellis in June 2003
    – sync length = movie length (approx. 2 hours 19 minutes)
    – start CD at the beginning of the movie after “Distributed by Buena Vista” has faded out and just as the actual movie fades in
    – repeat CD until the end of the movie

    I hope you all enjoy the masterpiece that started it all. The famous Carl Jung, who is known for his theory of synchronicity, is on the front album cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If that’s not a hint, I don’t know what is. Also, many in the music world consider this album to be the first concept album, and many concept albums are the music of the well-known syncs.

    Andrew Wendland

  • sooner

    Ah the White album. now yer talkin’!

    Always surprising.
    expansive. Intimate. Real. Psychedelic. Disciplined. Chaotic. Experimental. Traditional. Funny spooky comforting unsettling.
    John Paul George Ringo.

    The Beatles best.

  • “Her Majesty” is the closing fragment on Abbey Road, not Sgt. Pepper.

    BTW, I always liked the “White Album” better. Obviously it’s not such a watershed, though.

  • sr

    Dont know much about Sgt Pepper other then I like the spice on my eggs and everything else. Have you ever heard of Col Salt and the Sweetpeas? They were the best banjo band back in the turdies when I was 10 years old.

  • zingzing

    the beatles had a tough time with stereo… only abbey road and let it be sound good in it. they used far too much separation and it’s almost painful to listen to on headphones.

    same with early who stuff. bleh! on the speakers, it’s okay… but i do prefer mono versions of just about every beatles album.

  • Wonderful article, Holly. You articulate exactly why I love Sgt. Peppers so much — it is an “album,” not just a collection of pop songs.

    And you were right, we jumped on the bandwagon, too, with our own little happy birthday to Sgt. Pepper’s over at Resident Media Pundit — — including a link to help the determined find a copy of the decidedly superior Dr. Ebbett’s mono transfer of the record… odd, today, to think that the stereo version is the lesser of the two, but ’tis true, ’tis true!

  • JC Mosquito:

    Um, as I was sayin’…IMHO, postmodern has everything to do with it.

    Break on through to the pomoside!

  • Chris #54 said:… the last song is called “Her Majesty”

    Thanks Chris–gives a kinda sardonic twist to the song…

    Holly #57 says:I’d love to hear the perspective of someone who was 50 in 1967.

    That might be a tall order Holly–esp if you mean about Sgt Pepper (lol). But I do remember my dad’s reaction to “A Day in the Life”–he liked it except for the “had a smoke” reference. (At the time I thought it just referred to cigs–but now come to think of it…)

    I also remember pestering my mom, who used to listen to the “Easy Listening” station, about the fact that “my” Beatles songs were being hijacked by the 1000 Strings (or someone similar) on a constant basis. Talk about context–hearing a muzak version of A Day in the Life can be enough to drive a true Beatles fan to distraction!

    JC #55 says: Not sure what you mean by post modern here.

    See my comment to follow below!

  • JC Mosquito

    Isn’t the saying, “Don’t trust anyone UNDER 30?” 😉

  • As I understand it, Scott (and granted I’m no physicist), a quantum leap marks an abrupt change from one state to a distinctly different one. It may be a very tiny shift, but it’s of vital significance.

    Which still seems to apply to Sgt Pepper’s — especially since so many of the elements that made it a breakthrough album were already at hand; the Beatles just fused them in a new way, but the result radically changed the music landscape.

  • sooner

    Beatles are the best, but they share that spot with one other band: Radiohead.-

    “It’s getting better all the time”
    “I’m a reasonable man. get off my case”

    “all you need is love”
    “in pitch dark i go walking in your landscape”

    “when you talk about destruction don’t you know that you can count me out”
    “Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon”

    “hey jude. don’t make it bad. take a sad song and make it better”
    “We don’t want no monsters taking over”

    “limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns”
    “If you’d been a dog, they would have drowned you at birth”

    The Light wins over the people every time.

  • Please don’t say that Sgt. Pepper’s was a quantum leap.

    “A Quantum Leap”is the smallest possible incremental change. You meant a huge leap which is something completely different.

  • Those who weren’t around, or weren’t yet musically aware, when this was released can certainly still dig it. It warms my heart to hear that a 13-year-old can come to this music and love it. I’m amazed by how well it holds up for new generations. (Pet Sounds, too.)

    Since this is an anniversary, I’m really just trying to record the effect this LP had on young music fans in 1967. (Remember, back then listeners over the age of 30 were not to be trusted.) Over the decades since then, technology has altered how we experience music; the music business has changed too, and not for the better. I just wanted to dust off the album and put it back into a 1967 context.

    If I were 32 years old and had been hearing about this album as a “classic” all my life, it would be easy to take it for granted, and tempting to cut it back down to size. I had the same reaction to Sinatra for years. It’s possible to rise above the historical factors that shape our taste, but they still alter how we hear the music.

    I’d love to hear the perspective of someone who was 50 in 1967.

  • A Concerned Citizen

    Being born long after the Beatles heyday, I find it hard to refer to them as the “greatest rock band ever”. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a fantastic band and they had an unprecedented social impact — but the title just doesn’t fit them. Or any band for that matter.

    On a relative timescale, their impact was felt “yesterday”. If they’re still remembered in 100, or even 200, years with the same reverence, then I think we should start applying the title of “greatest rock band ever”.

    Like Elvira Black said — I guess you just had to be there to really appreciate them entirely.

  • JC Mosquito

    Re: comment 49: see comment 32 re: Sinatra’s 1950’s albums. Concept albums have been around for a while.

    RE: comment 54:
    “As for those who disagree with you–perhaps some of them were not around at the time. A post-modern analysis by anyone who didn’t experience the era firsthand just isn’t the same…”

    Not sure what you mean by post modern here. But in this particular case, if you mean people who weren’t listening to Sgt. P when it was released, it’s of no issue. Someone who was 13 years old at the time would’ve had a different perspective from someone who was 50 anyways. In short, just because a reviewer or commenter is older doesn’t mean their position is any more (or less) valid than anyone else’s – just different (and I know you didn’t say “better,” but I just wanted to be clear on that).

    In any case, it’s officially the 40th anniversary, so Happy 40th to the boys in the band (wherever thy may be!).

  • ^To the above comment, the last song is called “Her Majesty”

    I’m only 13 but the Beatles are my favorite band, and Sgt.Peppers is my favorite album along with LOVE, this article is cool, and written so well, good job holly.


  • Great piece, Holly. I wholeheartedly agree–the Beatles were indeed the greatest. For me, nothing else came close. Sgt. Pepper came out when I was 10, and I’d already been buying all their albums and singles as soon as they hit the stores since I was six, if memory serves.

    Speaking of song sequence: Abbey Road side two was just one continuous “songs within a song” excluding the first track (“Here Comes the Sun”) and the last little coda (uncredited as I recall–“Imagine she’s a pretty nice girl,etc). That seemed like an unprecedented pop concept at the time (though perhaps it wasn’t), but in any case, listening to any of side 2 out of sequence just isn’t the same.

    As for those who disagree with you–perhaps some of them were not around at the time. A post-modern analysis by anyone who didn’t experience the era firsthand just isn’t the same–and the Beatles were a huge part of what defined the sixties, arguably the most uber modern era of the modern 20th century. In any case, bravo for a great tribute.

  • kim

    “narrative power of John songs like “She’s Leaving Home””

    “She’s Leaving Home” was a Paul song not johns. Johns counterpoint singing did make the song but even that was a Paul (and George Martin) ideal.

  • Altmont

    Its always fun to listen to people argue about Sergeant Pepper lol. It was a great album no doubt. But when I think of concept albums, Pink Floyd always comes to mind as the artists who really got the idea right. I like some of the people here prefer Revolver over Sergeant Pepper. Just seems to have a better flow to me. However, none of this really matters to me. I was always a bigger fan of Keef and Mick anyways lol.

  • Sergeant Pepper sparked a lot of inspiration and creativity for musicians. Our web site Love Across Borders tries to do the same for poets.

  • “I don’t know why nobody before the Beatles figured out how important this was. But this was the first rock music album that was really conceived as one piece, to be listened to as a whole.”

    Pet Sounds was the first album to put emphasis on sequential consumption…McCartney has often publicly declared that Pet Sounds was the reason Sgt. Pepper was made. IJS.

  • Jim

    Beatles are the best, but they share that spot with one other band: Radiohead.

  • herbert

    I was not alive when this was released and (i am not young at heart at 29) I like your description of this phenomenom (of the release of this album). Although one point i’d like to make is, lets not root for bands like they are some sort of sports home team. Appreciate the music and hope others do as well. BTW I have sung every song in my car many times….

  • Great tribute to The Beatles, who I even consider the greatest band on earth. My parents passed on their love for anything Beatles to me, and it is one that I hope to pass onto my children.

    Sgt Pepper’s album is definitely one of my all-time favourite albums. It always will be.

  • JC Mosquito

    Don’t forget to blow out the candles – heat warps vinyl.

  • RoRo

    Brilliant! Instead of writing a speech you threw a birthday bash for the album. Loved all the smart details delivered in a fun, flowing way. You seem to recreate some of the strains of the songs with your writing so that I want to log off afterwards and play the record.

    …OK…they were the most INFLUENTIAL band. How about that? There’s a “best-ish” quality there… 😉

  • Exactly Zing. That was a unique time inasmuch as the most artistically challenging music was also the most commercially successful. Personally, I miss it. It’s so much work to find the best stuff out there these days, when back then all you had to do in many cases was turn on your radio.

    I can’t believe for example that I just discovered Porcupine Tree this past month. And right now, I’m scrambling to play catch up (four CDs from the catalog and a live DVD bought this week). And I’m supposed to know about these things. Why isn’t this band absolutely HUGE as they should be?

    Anyway, I digress—but do you see what I mean?

    A record like Sgt. Pepper or Pet Sounds today is something which would have to be sought out probably on the Internet. Imagine how different history would have been if that were the case back then.


  • JC Mosquito

    And now they’re not buying it – it’s easier to burn it off the net.

    Interesting – the “concept album” by My Chemical Romance is one of the most popular rock albums of the past 6 – 12 months. Is there a parallel with Sgt. P… a “concept album” whose parts are greater separately than as a whole? Or a better concept album than Sgt. P anyways – and if so, who cares?

  • zingzing

    “You can’t help but yearn for those days when the likes of the Beatles, Brian Wilson, The Stones, Dylan and everybody else were constantly raising the bar and trying to one-up each other on records like this and Pet Sounds.”

    ahh, glen, i know you aren’t so naive. musicians are still trying to raise the bar all the time… it’s in the nature of the game. the difference was that, for a while, people bought it.

  • Hard to believe it was “forty years ago today” this album was released. And I still never tire of it. You can’t help but yearn for those days when the likes of the Beatles, Brian Wilson, The Stones, Dylan and everybody else were constantly raising the bar and trying to one-up each other on records like this and Pet Sounds.

    Thanks for taking us back Holly.


  • zingzing

    oh horseshit, holly. you’re the one arguing for some great unifying significance to the sgt pepper. i’m the one arguing against it, remember?

    i don’t want it to be anything. what makes you think i want it to be something, when all i’m doing is tell you what it isn’t?

    it’s just not the be-all, end-all of albums like you seem to want it to be.

    to boil it down: there is no overarching theme, any more than dozens of other albums that came before it. it does have a rudimentary structure that was (quite rightly) abandoned. it is not the first album meant to be listened to from start to finish. it was not conceived, except briefly at the beginning, as a full album. it is just a collection of songs that are very well put together.

  • You slay me, zing. You keep wanting this album to be something it isn’t; I’m just happy it exists.

    Love that story, Razza. Once in college a friend and I sat down and listened to all the Beatles LPs in sequence, starting at noon one day and ending at midnight. We had pretty much this same reaction when we got to Sgt Pepper, even though it was an album we both considered we knew very well. It just blindsided us, all over again.

  • JC Mosquito

    The histoire of the making of Sgt. P doesn’t collapspe as well as your Plastic Ono Band review, zinger. ‘S ok – I’m glad you mentioned Sinatra’s concept albums for Capitol – maybe I’ll pull those tonight too.

  • zingzing

    my god! it was!

    you can’t say jig-gery pok-ery!

  • zingzing

    sorry, but that was supposed to be one big comment. there was a banned word. if it wasn’t “j-i-g-g-e-r-y
    p-o-k-e-r-y,” then i don’t know what it was…

  • zingzing

    whatever flow the album has is because THIS IS THE BEATLES and they knew how to make albums. like most of what the beatles did, they were flying by the seat of their pants.

    the beatles were fantastic songwriters and musicians (not virtuosos by any means, but still great), and they were in a difficult period at this point. what with being the most famous people on earth and growing as individuals and apart as a group, they were questioning everything they knew. they were searching for answers.

    sgt pepper, holly, is a perfect example of your “record that hangs together because the songwriter/artist is in a certain phase of his life.”

  • zingzing

    here’s what happened:

    the beatles were going to make an album about childhood. so penny lane and strawberry fields were recorded. but then they were released as a single, and as singles weren’t usually put on british albums at the time, they scrapped that idea. then paul, having heard pet sounds and freak out, got the idea for an album with a theme… some idea behind it. but he wanted it to be more than just “the sorrow of love” (pet sounds) or “america is stupid” (freak out), he wanted it to have characters, and an overriding structure.

    he also wanted to escape from the beatles, so he concocted a fake group which the beatles could play on the next album. so the lonely hearts club banned was created. he wrote the title track and told john about the idea. john shot him down, they recorded the album, and at the last minute, paul wanted to record the title track’s reprise. so they did.

  • zingzing

    “zing doesn’t think this album holds together.”

    not true. it holds together just fine. it’s just not any major leap into the concept album… anymore than pet sounds (or early beach boys) or sinatra’s early 50s work, or anything else.

    if it’s just people searching for answers, how does that make it any different than the kinks’ character studies?

    i’m definitely not saying sgt pepper doesn’t have its own flow. i’m just saying it’s not some major conceptual break-through. i think people attach a lot of meaning to it that isn’t there because of the flimsy structural bits that are rather tacked on.

  • JC Mosquito

    HH: “But there is a thematic thread running through all the songs. Each song/narrator/character professes to have found The Answer, whether it be fellowship or family or drugs or sex or showbiz or anger management or dropping out or finding oneness with all mankind.”

    Well, Holly, I must say you’re the first person I’ve met to offer any kind of thematic unity theory that makes sense to me – congrats! You get the Possible Deepest Insight of the Night prize (as usual, no cash value, just license to be a smarty pants for the next few hours!). Next time I pull that I’m going to listen for that theme – just off the top of my head, I think you might be right.

    But I won’t tonight – I’m going to listen to Todd Rundgren’s Fow the Want of a Nail (featuring Bobby Womack on co-lead vocals) over and over for about an hour – there’s a secret buried in there somewhere…..

  • zingzing

    hey editor! what’s banned word #12446?

  • Razza

    I actually won a copy of Sgt Peppers in a radio contest so was privaledged to receive it a couple of days before release. A few friends and I sat down in front of an old stereo and put it on. We hardly said a word until the last chord of “A Day in the Life” faded. I remember we all looked at each other and said a collective, “Wow!” We were then woken out of our trance for a second or two by the inner track gibberish, before sitting in stunned silence, until one of the group said, “That’s amazing, I’ve got to hear it again, quick put it on!” We played it a few times that night and all we could do next day was tell friends the amazing thins we had heard. We were all sixteen at the time and that’s the impact the album had on us….to think it was 40 long years ago…..

  • Okay, I get it — zing doesn’t think this album holds together. I happen to disagree, but I don’t want to go into a long English-major-y explication.

    True, it does not have a plot; that would make it a rock opera rather than a concept album. Anybody see the Robert Stigwood movie? It did NOT work because a fakey plot had to be cooked up.

    But there is a thematic thread running through all the songs. Each song/narrator/character professes to have found The Answer, whether it be fellowship or family or drugs or sex or showbiz or anger management or dropping out or finding oneness with all mankind. The musical styles do not “match” because each one is suited to whatever quest that character has chosen.

    And for the record, I do not question the brilliance of Revolver at all. There are days when I prefer it to Sgt Pepper. There are days when I prefer the White Album. There are even days when I prefer Beatles ’65…

  • dancestoblue

    I thought that Days of Future Passed by The Moody Blues was released before Sgt. Pepper but a fast check on wikipedia tells me that I was wrong; it was released in December 1967. I think it was much more a ‘concept album’ than Sgt Peppers.

    I’m not saying it’s better; far be it from me to argue for or against any art. But it is another early ‘concept album’ that rarely gets mentioned.

    I still love listening to ‘A Day In The Life’, I still get blown out of my shoes; forty years later Lennon still reaches in and gets hold of my heart and my head and gives them both a twirl.

  • Mat Brewster

    Great article Holly! I’ll agree with some of the others in that I much prefer Revolver and even Abbey Road over Peppers, but you made me want to pull it out and listen to it all night long.

  • ardee

    Just a quick follow up about my thougts on Pepper vis a vis Revolver. While I concede Pepper being an artistic breakthough I just think that Revolver has aged better through the years. The songs are so timeless they still sound fresh. A lot of those songs could be hits in 2007. In fact “Tomorrow never knows” sounds like it could be recorded the day after tomorrow.

  • zingzing

    the dog whistle is right before the inner groove. you can hear it on the compact disc quite easily.

  • ardee

    Great essay. I agree about the historical significance of Pepper and I love it but for my money Revolver is the Fab’s all around best album (it had a clever “revolutionary” album cover too). Just as a historical note the “snippet of garbled backwards gibberish (which I can guarantee is a freaky thing to listen to late at night, in the dark)” was the so called inner groove. The idea was when the album side was over the tone arm would circle in a records inner groove until it was lifted off. The Beatles figured why not record something to put there. If the listener had too much tea it could play for hours. Lennon claimed that there was even dog whistles to give the dogs something to listen too.

  • JC Mosquito

    Zing – I don’t see She’s Leaving Home as melodramatic – I mean it comes off as melodramatic with all that symphonic stuff, but I think at heart it’s a sad song whose subject matter gets played out in many variations across the world in real life. Kids grow up, and move away. And life goes on, but not necessarily life as we once knew it.

    I’d like to hear it solo vox et pianoforte.

    Regardless, you are right – Mr. Kite – whatever. I think the cut up tape loops for the organ solo is the most interesting thing about that song.

    As I’ve said before – take all the Beatles 1967 recordings, and you’d have a great album – Strawberry Fields, Lucy, Day in the Life, Walrus (Lennon was on a tear that year) – add the best Paul songs, a George or two, and you could have 10 – 12 absolute killer songs and undisputably the greatest album ever made.

    Then again, maybe it’s better this way – if the best band ever made the best album ever, there wouldn’t be much point writing or recording any more music, would there be?

  • zingzing

    jc– i get what you are saying. but i don’t agree. she’s leaving home is a domestic melodrama. and the music follows that up. it perfectly suits the song. which does nothing to suit the concept album, as there is no concept. what has this got to do with what comes next… mr. kite, is it?

  • JC Mosquito

    I mean a bad job of parallelling.

  • JC Mosquito

    Hmm… how else can I explain it? Suppose you find a nice shade of color for painting your living room. I’m no decorator, let’s make up a colour – Sahara Brown f’r instance (hey, maybe there is such a colour!). You get a nice paint job, but then you go about making every single thing in your room some kind of brown. It might be too much – in fact it your original Sahara Brown might just become unnoticeable amongst the other earthtones.

    But a good decorator would tell you how much brown, what shades, and what other complementary colors bring out the nice paint for which you just spent big dollars.

    Does that help, or am I do job of parallelling?

  • zingzing

    “Which Rodgers and Hammerstein cast album falls into the rock music category? Last time I saw The King and I, it was NOT about Elvis.”

    true. i forgot the “rock music” qualification for a moment. dig the residents reference though.

    “I guess there’s a fine line here between a record that hangs together because the songwriter/artist is in a certain phase of his life, and one that is structured deliberately as a progression of ideas.”

    and sgt pepper wasn’t a true concept album either. there is no story, there is no concept. and it wasn’t really structured at all. it’s a totally false construct. they wanted to make it look like it had some flow, but even the barebones construction they put together is obviously flimsy. even the who sells out holds together better, mostly because they keep up the pretense throughout the album instead of just hinting at it at the beginning and the end.

    “I will grant you Freak Out…but when Sgt Pepper’s came out, absolutely nobody I knew had heard Freak Out.”

    my dad had it. and he was no musical adventurer. and he lived in nowhere, minnesota. so someone must have heard it. maybe someone named paul mccartney? yeah, that’s who… (the system won’t let me put in a reference for you, but it’s well documented.)

  • Tennynche

    Nice commentary Holly.

    Came over from Digg. I am an unashamed Beatles fan, born several years after SPLHCB. And while I enjoy the album as much as the next Beatles fan, I think I have to agree with the folks who are downplaying its musical accomplishments.

    What it should be recognized for, as a subset of The Beatles themselves, is its uncanny ability to bring the crest of the musical moment to the masses.

    The Beatles were not the best musicians, or the best songwriters (although close), but they with George Martin knew exactly what, when, why and how to bring the newest pop music ideas to the greater population. English pop…check. Indian musical stylings… check. Electronic distortions and pyschedelia…check. Heavy metal…check. Theme albums…check. And the list goes on. They were rarely the first or even the best at any given thing, but they knew what it took to make it popular.

  • The above was in response to the “She’s Leaving Home” question, BTW.

    Thanks for your analysis, zing. I guess there’s a fine line here between a record that hangs together because the songwriter/artist is in a certain phase of his life, and one that is structured deliberately as a progression of ideas. Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue could be called a concept album too, if that’s where you’re going with the term. Ray Davies writes Something Else as an entire album of suburban vignettes because he’s preoccupied with living in suburbia at the time, and of course it’s a great album, but is it a concept album per se?

    Which Rodgers and Hammerstein cast album falls into the rock music category? Last time I saw The King and I, it was NOT about Elvis. Anyway, that’s an excerpt of a coherent work of art, not an end in itself. By that standard, Selected Arias from The Marriage of Figaro could be a concept album too.

    I will grant you Freak Out…but when Sgt Pepper’s came out, absolutely nobody I knew had heard Freak Out. I certainly hadn’t. It simply did not factor in the general reaction at the time, 40 years ago. I can dredge it up now and say, “oh wow man,” but I’d be faking it as a credible historical reaction.

  • Sorry, I still don’t get what you’re driving at here. It’s a sorrowful song about a failed relationship; the strings add to the wistful air, while the counterpointed vocals drive home the fact that she and her parents are on two different planets. This seems totally appropriate to me and not offbeat at all. Does it sound like forced nostalgia to you?

  • zingzing

    “Waiting for you to enlighten us as to who did it earlier, zing. Whenever you’re ready. ”

    FREAK OUT. i already said that. it’s an album by the mothers of invention. came out in 1966.

    as a concept album, sgt pepper barely holds together. all it does is reprise the title track and mention billy shears as the singer of the next track. other than that, it has no thematic unity. it is a false construct. yes, it is all good. some tracks flow into each other. that’s been done before. take any rogers and hammerstein musical. the first velvet underground album was recorded and ready for release (and held up in court over a photograph) before sgt pepper was released and is more groundbreaking in lyrical and musical content. pet sounds is more solid. the kinks put out stronger albums around the same time with more thematic unity.

    sgt pepper was actually the first beatles album in a few years that WASN’T a massive leap forward. the recording techniques just involved a saturation of revolver-era ideas. the songwriting had slipped.

    not knocking the album–it’s a great album–but the importance of the album has been greatly inflated since it was released. it’s not as if the beatles were the only group heading in this direction. they just happened to be the beatles, and therefore did it as well as anyone could hope to.

  • JC Mosquito

    Holly – please note that I said She’s Leaving Home is a beautiful, well arranged song. It’s similar to Eleanor Rigby in its tone & arrangement. My problem is that it’s very beauty becomes part of the “so, what offbeat thing will we do with this one?” mentality of Sgt. Pepper. On any other album it would have been a refreshing break, like E. Rigby, like Yesterday, liek Good Night, but here the arrangement doesn’t seem to serve to purplse opf the song: instead, it serves the purpose of the concept album.

  • If you take a look at my blog you can notice that I’m listening the Beatles since the day I was born, 33 years ago.

    Almost all the elements that people use to mention to celebrate Peppers you can find on Revolver (the cover, the new sounds, the new lyrics), this is the LP that separeted the history in before and after …

    Of course, Peppers is great, but my inspiration is Revolver.

  • Waiting for you to enlighten us as to who did it earlier, zing. Whenever you’re ready.

    Joe, I dug out my turntable just to enjoy that mono mix again. I’m not obsessed by those audiophile distinctions like some folks are, but for this little window of time, it was significant. Most of us kids at the time did have crappy little record players, and 45s were mostly in mono (most UK albums of the time kept singles distinct from LPs, and didn’t even put those tracks on albums). Not everything that was retroactively stereo-ized worked better in stereo…

  • zingzing

    “But this was the first rock music album that was really conceived as one piece, to be listened to as a whole.”

    not true! at all. freak out.

  • The Beatles, (with the help of this immensely creative album), influenced/revolutionized vocal and instrumental music performance, the music business, recording techniques, film, fashion, religion, politics, how kids looked at the world, and popular culture in general.

    We’ll never see the like again.

  • Joe

    This post made me feel really old…I’m 52 and remember the release of Sgt. Pepper as clearly as it happened yesterday. My best friend and I were major Beatles freaks and had to be the first ones on the block…

    There is an interesting aspect of this record that most younger people have never experienced. My first copy of the LP was a monophonic copy, because the cheap phonograph I owned could handle the sound of mono records better. I always had a feeling that the sound of the mono release was different in some way to the stereo release. Not because all the sound came from one speaker, but in the overall sound presentation.

    Years later, I discovered that their producer, George Martin, actually did mix their LPs differently for mono and stereo. If you have to opportunity to hear Pepper in mono, do it. The experience is quite remarkable.

    One standout difference is in Lucy in the Sky. Te mono mix has an almost fuller sound, almost Spector-ish, and it swirls over the listener in a far more “psychedelic” way than the stereo mix. In fact, I was so enamored of that sound, it actually took me a long time to get used to hearing Lucy in stereo.

    I don’t believe there’s a commercial mono release on CD, but I know there were bootleg versions floating around for a while.

  • John

    I never get tired of listening to it and especially now that I got a hold of the DTS version….awesome.

  • Good catch, Barbara, thanks. Maybe that’s why it comes across as so sincere…though John’s nasal rendition of the parents’ voices obviously imprinted more strongly for me!

    I see now that my CD liner notes annotate who wrote each song. Back in the old days (now I’m really sounding like my parents) they were all simply credited “Lennon-McCartney” and you had to guess.

  • Barbara

    She’s Leaving Home is a Paul song and not John, although he did add a few lines.

  • Heh heh. The Monkees are underrated, I’ll grant you that. “More of the Monkees” — had they even started playing their own instruments by then?

    Taking potshots at the Beatles is always risky, sure. But sometimes it’s just as risky to reassert how great they were. Too often we take them for granted, and everybody has their own secret real favorite band, and the Beatles get put on some untouchable pedestal and forgotten about. It makes better copy to tear them down.

    The phrase “just another Sgt. Pepper gimmick” baffles me. I think it’s fair to say that “She’s Leaving Home” was thoroughly heartfelt, and charted fresh emotional territory for the rock song; it’s the first song I know that portrayed both sides of the generation gap and really laid bare how unbreachable it seemed. (Roger Daltry stuttering “My Generation” sounds petulant next to this.) What about it strikes you as gimmicky?

  • JC Mosquito

    Last time I had anything to say about the Beatles on bc I took a lot of flak precisely because they are the best, or at least the first among equals in the great pantheon of rock bands. I understand why you hold Sgt. Pepper close & dear, but I’m from a (slightly) different era. I won’t quibble about its great artwork or enduring influence, or stellar production techniques, but musically, it’s not their best album; in fact, it’s not even a great album on its own merits.

    Lucy in the Sky and Day In the Life are beyond brilliant, but the rest is fairly mundane – at best, some average tunes propped up by good production & playing, at worse, self indulgent and unfocused second rate tunage.

    Some of it could’ve been reworked – the Anthology series has the backing track of Good Morning before the horns were added. She’s Leaving Home is a beautiful song with a great string arrangement, but it comes across as just another Sgt. Pepper gimmick.

    Like I said – maybe if I was there at the time I would’ve got it – it wasn’t really my generation. I remember 1967, tho’ – I got More of the Monkees for a birthday present. As important or influential as Sgt. P? Not a chance. A better record than Sgt. P? Hmmm….. well, it does have Steppin Stone, I’m a Believer, She, Mary Mary, Look Out (Here Comes Tomorrow)….

  • Nancy

    Awesome article on Sgt Peppers. One of my favorite beatles albums. I think they changed the world!

  • Beautiful tribute!