The release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles was so monumental, so world-defining, that it can only be described as an event or a happening of the highest importance, as far as music goes. More than just groundbreaking, it was a seismic shift in musical culture. The album did not only rock the critical world, but it was a smash commercial success as well, though that was hardly a surprise coming from The Beatles. It spent 15 weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts in the U.S.; 27 weeks at the top of the charts in England. It won four Grammy’s, including the most coveted “Album of the Year” award, being the first rock album ever to do so. The previous four winners were: Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra, Stan Getz & João Gilberto, and Barbara Streisand. That was the world The Beatles were living in at the time. The New Statesman claimed this album had elevated pop music to high art. Time Magazine called it “a historic departure in the progress of music.” And it was.
What spurred The Beatles on at this moment in their career? They already had everything they could ever possibly want materially – fame, riches, women adoring them everywhere. And even artistically, Revolver was an achievement on the highest level, a high-water mark for the Fab Four. Necessity may be the mother of invention, as they say, but despite not having too many other needs, The Beatles still had the artistic need to create. There was the feeling of friendly competition, especially with The Beach Boys, whose Pet Sounds pushed even further in the artistic direction that The Beatles had themselves been pressing. The Beatles were not about to allow themselves to be topped, not when they were at the creative peak of their lives. A new, even more adventurous, even more perfect album had to be created in this competitive spirit.
From the very first, it seems that Sgt. Pepper’s was destined to be something of a concept album. However, the concept was not the one that we have come to know and love. Rather, each song on the album was supposed to be an image of something one of The Beatles remembered from growing up in Liverpool. Such was the case with the first two songs intended for the album, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” But, as we all now know, when looking on the track listing of Abbey Road, those two titles are nowhere to be found. In that sense, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band first came about via a song that was not a part of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – the shimmering, haunting, and trippy “Strawberry Fields Forever.”
John Lennon brought “Strawberry Fields” to the studio and played it for the band on his acoustic guitar. As the rest of the band donned their instruments and gave the song a go, the arrangement produced was quite a heavy rock song that George Martin did not think was necessarily the song’s most appropriate format. The band gave it another try a few weeks later, this time with horns and cellos added to the arrangement. They liked it, and yet… Lennon was not thoroughly happy. Despite the fact that the two renditions were in two different keys and recorded at two different tempos, Lennon asked Martin to splice the two versions together to form one take. “Oh, only that, John?” you can imagine an exasperated Martin replying. Martin certainly had his reservations about accomplishing this daunting task, but he made it happen by speeding up one take and slowing down the other, making the tempos virtually match, and simultaneously converting the two takes into the same exact key. The song was released with the outstanding “Penny Lane” as a double A-side single, at the insistence of a record label desperate for new Beatles material. Martin would describe not including the tunes on the LP as the biggest mistake of his career.
The actual concept of the Sgt. Pepper’s band album did not arise until halfway through the recording sessions for the work. Of course, the concept stems from the title song, which at first, nobody was particularly impressed with, besides maybe Paul, its composer. George Martin described it as, “an ordinary rock number and not particularly brilliant as songs go.” But after recording the tune, Paul broached the idea to Martin and the band of making the Sgt. Pepper’s band the theme that the whole album is based around – that the band playing is the fictional band that is mentioned in the song
It can not be underestimated how essential LSD was to the process of making Sgt. Pepper’s. Even the ordinarily straight and narrow Paul relented to the drug, It spurred on a a creative peak in the band that can hardly be matched by any other. Producer George Martin had no idea about the rampant drug use that was occurring right under his nose, as he was nose-deep in trying to realize the carnival of sounds that were being thrown his way.
Speaking of “carnival of sounds,” coming up with one was one of the major challenges George Martin faced in recording Sgt. Pepper’s, specifically the song “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Martin loved the song, which was inspired by a placard for a circus in fair which was hanging in Lennon’s house. Lennon asked for a “hurdy-gurdy” effect during the sequence when Henry the Horse is dancing his waltz. Martin made a number of attempts to achieve the sound that Lennon could hear in his head, but they were still not satisfied. Finally, Martin gathered a whole bunch of recordings of Victorian steam organs, like the kind that play carousel music, which he dubbed onto a tape, cut up, threw the pieces into the air, and then stuck them back all together again in a random order. You can listen to the result of this process by clicking the video and skipping to 1:00 in:
Then there’s “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” Considered by some to be the drug song to end all drug songs, not least of which because of the title Lucy In the Sky with Diamonds – or, LSD. But George Martin, despite acknowledging The Beatles’ use of mind altering substances at the time of the recording, claims that “Lucy” is anything but a mere drug song. Rather, he describes John Lennon’s writing as the kind of musical / lyrical equivalent to what Salvador Dali was trying to accomplish in his surrealistic painting. What’s interesting is that Paul was much more into the avant-garde art scene then Lennon, although McCartney’s lyrical style was generally based in a much more realistic tone.
“A Day In the Life” is generally considered to be the album’s grand opus; probably it’s darkest and in some ways its most serious song. Musically, the John “I heard the news today, oh boy” and Paul “Woke up, got out of bed…” sections of the song were really written separately as two songs, but in typical Beatles genius fashion, they were able to be merged into one gorgeous dream-like symphony. John wanted to have building crescendos of sound played by members of an orchestra at random, a swelling, bursting intensity of music, and Martin had to explain to him that classical musicians didn’t play that way – you actually had to write down carefully chosen notes on a page. So Martin did his best to approximate what it is that John was going for as the transition between the two major sections of the song. Skip to 1:45 to hear what we’re talking about it.
The transition from John’s almost dreamlike lyrical imagery again, and Paul’s extreme mundane description of a typical “day in the life” is one of the most brilliant moments ever recorded by the band in our estimation. The song ends on one incredible, loud, long-lasting piano chord, that may be one of the most famous single piano hits in the history of rock. (Skip to 4:22 to listen). This was accomplished by having all four Beatles – and Martin, each play a section of the chord on three pianos simultaneously. It’s almost a shocking moment, a slam on the history books, as if to say, “What do you think of this, world” – and shake the world it did, almost as did Nora when she slams the door at the end of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
With so many era defining moments on this album – the gorgeous chamber strings that accompany Paul’s breathtaking “She’s Leaving Home,” the deep spirituality that George Harrison brings to his Indian-based piece “Within You Without You,” the rampant nostalgia of “When I’m 64,” and the tension-breaking pure fun of “Lovely Rita,” it’s hard to place a finger on it’s truly best moments. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band could easily be identified by many as the crest of The Beatles career artistically – though see my other blog post on Abbey Road here – but sadly, as a band it also represents a crest from which the band would begin to plummet, as George Harrison retreated somewhat into Indian mysticism, John Lennon delved deeper into his love for Yoko Ono, and Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney beginning to get frustrated with it all, not to mention some financially disasterous times at their new record-label Apple.
Thus, Sgt. Pepper’s is probably the very very beginning of the end for The Beatles. But it’s also an early entry into the game of high-art rock music, and after almost fifty years, it’s status has not diminished one iota.
Many people still consider Sgt Pepper’s to be the best record ever made. If you don’t think so, what album would you nominate in its stead? And what’s your favorite track on Pepper – the magnum opus “A Day In the Life” or something else? As always, hit us up in the comments below, facebook us at https://www.facebook.com/TributApparel or tweet us at @tributapparel.