June 1, 1967, to be exact; the day the cultural axis of the Western Hemisphere is altered by a singular artistic event. The Beatles, the most celebrated, imitated and dissected entertainers on the planet, release their eighth studio album.
It is true that anything released by The Beatles is a momentous event, especially an album, which used to mean a bunch of desperate songs thrown together for 40 or so minutes around one hit single to wrest money from impressionable teenagers. The Beatles turned it into a cohesive collection of musical and lyrical insights into the artists and their times. However, this one is made far more significant due to four (as in Fab Four) key elements that will indelibly mark its dramatic impact and widespread influence: timing, arrogance, creativity and grandeur. It is those ingredients that make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band unquestionably the most important aural, visual, and especially cultural rock…ahem…artistic statement of its time.
In the decades that follow June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s will be heralded, with very little protest, as the greatest artistic endeavor of the twentieth century. Enough of this hyperbole eventually results in a serious backlash of “highly overrated” and for a time it is hardly considered even The Beatles’ best work, just the fawning reverberation of sophistic Baby Boomer miasma. Yeah, enough of goddamn Sgt. Pepper’s, what about..?
Yet what is missed by those who insist on Top Lists and the unofficial results of critical barstool geek spats is the historical space the album carved for itself above and beyond the music found therein or the musicians who wrote, performed, produced and released it. Simply put, after Sgt. Pepper’s what once existed in the art form and its genre could no longer do so without acknowledging it. So incredibly dense and concussive was its force and meaning it would spawn an entire age of replication, homage and satire. It would place interior dialog, social commentary, psychedelic hippie fashion, Indian spirituality, and a mash-up of generational call-to-arms meets mind-altering self-expression into to-do list for poets, musicians, performance artists, painters, graphic designers…(gasp for breath) and such and so forth forevermore.
And it is especially important to remember that unlike other seismic shifts in, say, literature, Moby Dick, or film, Citizen Kane—both considered horrendous failures upon their release but are now accepted as signature expressions of their art forms—there would be no gradual recognition of this fact. It happens on June 1, 1967. The day Sgt. Pepper’s made the world anew.
Like its birth in the opening years of the 1960s, a magical, turbulent, youth-infused era of revolution, experimentation and liberation, and its arrival in America, smack in the middle of the century it dominated, The Beatles’ instinct to capture the moment is unparalleled.
Consider that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts ClubBand arrives 10 months after the band plays live for the last time, closing the book on an unparalleled level of global mania to begin an unprecedented era for a performing act to, well, not have an act, but instead retreat into art for art’s sake; no more showbiz in the showbiz—no more mop tops, fancy boots, matching suits, screaming girls, Ed Sullivan, Shea Stadium, Hollywood Bowl, Queen’s Command Performance. For the first time in popular music it will be the music and its packaged presentation that becomes the impetus, execution and result.
In those months away, the band would exhale from its achievements over the past three years of miraculous popularity and creative evolution, the evidence of which is found on their previous two albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver that explored maturation and alienation, spirituality and drug-induced mind expansion sending musicologists to the thesaurus and contemporaries like The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys to the woodshed. Every rock artist (the roll part would be discarded as some middling kiddie form in the wake of the new guideposts The Beatles had built) would be shaken to the core. All of them almost immediately began experimenting frantically to keep up. Beach Boys Svengali, Brian Wilson, would infamously descend into near madness creating a masterwork he called Pet Sounds, which then made dizzy the two main composers in The Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
By late 1966, McCartney is immersed in London’s growing avant-garde underground, while Lennon is entranced by a portentous Japanese performance artist, and lead guitarist George Harrison is lost in the hills of East Bengal and its hypnotizing Hindustani rhythms. While for his part drummer Ringo Starr is just happy being Ringo Starr, they all move swiftly from marijuana to LSD to escape the crushing effects of celebrity and become creative individualists; helping them come to grips with the emerging world bazaar of like-minded egalitarian hedonists they’ve inspired.
The time has come to distill this into an imprint, and with the coming year of war, assassination, and indistinct revolution, it would be a welcomed moment frozen in time.
The entire Beatles universe squeezes into Studio B of EMI’s Abbey Road complex in the form of six supremely talented and motivated men at the peak of their abilities.
John and Paul, whose prolific compositions continue to soar beyond scope, George, whose own songs have found transport in their comet’s tail, the dutiful and wholly underrated drummer, Ringo, the band’s producer and musical Sherpa, George Martin, and an instinctual sonic worker-bee engineer, Geoff Emerick, fill the magnetic strips of the Studer J37 four-track reel-to-reel with sounds never before heard. And I write that with no trepidation, as I defy anyone to find anything that sonically resembles the spastic calliope tape-looped instrumental break in Lennon’s “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or the sitar/orchestral call-and-response in Harrison’s “Within You Without You”. The eradication of monetary, time-frame or creative parameters means that no one can stop The Beatles but themselves.
Freed from the hindrance of having four instruments present their vision on stage, they deem the whole Beatles thing too narrow a framework from which to work. They will be something else, literally and figuratively. The alter-ego of Sgt. Pepper and his band (complete with uniforms and fictional characters like Billy Shears and Lucy in the sky with her diamonds, the voices of troubled parents and the drone of chanting mystics), which comes with an introductory theme song in case you were expecting something else, allows them to be anything they wish.
The transformation begins with musical memoirs. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, which share their humble beginnings draped in psychedelic notions. Every heroic epic needs an origin story, and this groundbreaking double-A side single would act as precursor for the Pepper experience with its eerie Meletron openings and Bach trumpets, boldly declaring “behind the shelter in the middle of a roundabout” that “nothing is real”.
Its spectacular success, supported visually by promotional films (perhaps the first ever music videos) reveal the band’s new look—facial hair and vivid clothing with long coats and flowing scarves—obliterating the monochromatic ensemble that conquered the planet and replacing it with trippy avatars that provide the group free reign to turn the studio into both palette and stage.
It took The Beatles 10 hours to record their first album. It would take 700 hours over six months to bring Sgt. Pepper and his band of lonely hearts to life.
It opens with the tuning of a quaint orchestra beneath the murmur of an expectant crowd and ends in an apocalyptic hum. Along the way there are stops on a river with tangerine trees under marmalade skies, a traveling carnival, and a glimpse through the walls of illusion; penetratingly illuminating slices of life as seen by extraordinary commentators—a little girl who runs away from home, a young man ruminating on love in advancing age, an insecure soul whose machismo has kept him from true happiness, and still another who witnesses a fatal car accident that somehow makes him laugh.
On Sgt. Pepper’s The Beatles will introduce thematic cohesion (concept album, anyone?) to pop music. A song cycle that connects exploration to an understanding of humanity through the use of global instrumentation and sophisticated melodies that soar above the drudgery of their subjects’ loneliness, confusion and insecurity with an eye (and ear) aimed at a higher meaning; achieved, by the way, in merely 39 minutes and 52 seconds of listening. Not bad for an epic.
According to both Emerick and Martin in their memoirs—Martin would pen a detailed account 40 years later and tour his lecture, “The Making of Sgt. Pepper’s”, in 1999 that I would attend at New York’s prestigious Town Hall with my long-time friend and colleague, Chris Barrera, in which he plays naked tracks and duly explains the team’s numerous intricate recording techniques—the mission for Sgt. Pepper’s is to push every possible boundary; technically, lyrically, and, of course, musically. It is, in the end, the sound of the album that shakes the foundation of the rock esthetic. It is also crucial that the songs will have little to no breaks between them; they flow, as if a singular statement. Thus, The Beatles achieve a soundtrack worthy of the demigods they’ve become—bigger than Jesus and all that—signaling not only The Summer of Love but a road map for Prog Rock that will dominate the next decade.
It seems redundant to list the songs again, but suffice it to say, whenever you listen to Sgt. Pepper’s, no matter how many times you may have already done so there is still something at which to marvel. For me it is always “A Day in the Life”; a remarkable feat of songwriting (Lennon being Lennon in his detached surrealism while McCartney is soooo melodiously McCartney), performance (this may be the finest effort of expressive rock drumming ever), production (the reverb on Lennon’s voice alone set against the sheen of the acoustic guitar and the percussive piano flourishes is enough to induce chills, but the dissonant orchestral crescendos…come on!), and mood (a central dynamic for the entire album). Sgt. Pepper’s forever sets the standard for a great album; a memorable opening to an engaging final song of Side One (remember sides, kids?), a stark open to Side Two, and a startling coda.
The first time I would hear Sgt. Pepper’s in its entirety, as intended, was at around 10 p.m. on June 1, 1977, on its tenth anniversary. New York’s rock station, WPLJ, or maybe it was WNEW, played it at the top of the hour all evening. I caught the last playing. For the first time (even with all the music I had heard up to that point, most of it sparked by The Beatles) lying in bed with tightly snug headphones I could see this music, not just listen to it. It was like a great film that I could relive in my head. In other words, I think I got it.
Everyone gets it. Well, nearly everyone. There is some bitching from the odd reviewer who thinks this is all a bit much. This again recounts Sgt. Pepper’s greatest achievement: it hits the ground running.
Much of it thanks to its design; the first album to print the lyrics, the band dressed in their Pepper military garb, and the colors, ooh-boy, the colors. The cover, art-directed by Swingin’ London trendsetter Robert Fraser and photographed by the omnipresent Michael Cooper, is not merely iconic; it literally celebrates the concept of iconicity. The Beatles surrounded by their heroes, the faces of the century, artists and athletes and dignitaries and characters, even their own wax figures. It is hard to imagine the impact of this until you spend a little time perusing album covers of the day; it is like Dorothy wandering out of her Kansas black and white into Oz. It is three-dimensional sensory overload.
The release comes with communal overtones. For the first time labels in both the UK and America launch a Beatles album at the same time (June 2 in the States), with no difference in the track listing, alternate titles or covers. Suddenly it is Sgt. Pepper’s. Period. Right now. The sights and sounds of something new and exciting. Fans and other artists play it simultaneously through open windows, blasting it over rooftops and into the streets while pouring over the lyrics and singing along to the infectious tunes; “I get high with a little help from my friends!”—“It’s getting better all the time (It can’t get no worse!)!”—“Lucy in the sky with diamonds!”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band debuts in the UK at number one—where it solidly remains for 22 consecutive weeks—selling 250,000 copies during the first seven days. Soon it would eclipse everything that came before it in terms of sales and impact (Beatles or otherwise). It will sell nearly three million by year’s end in the U.S. and eventually top 11 million. On June 6, Jimi Hendrix, who has exploded onto the British music scene, opens a concert with the title track as The Beatles and seemingly the whole of the hip, young, tuned-in glitterati look on. It is a triumph, an alchemic achievement in art, fashion, music, influence, statement, and homage. And it will not have to wait to be understood as such. It is immediate, like a storm. More like an eclipse.
Sgt. Pepper’s becomes something like the ’27 Yankees; so uniquely magnificent it is used as a demarcation of sorts, as in, “It’s not like it’s Sgt. Pepper’s or anything” or the obligatory “this is Michael Jackson’s Sgt. Pepper’s”. It would make the record album so important it would render the single release to merely a prelude. It would cement rock music as an indelible link to the other musical movements of centuries past. It would refine the entire culture into a single resonant day. And it would begin to erode the band that made it happen.
On May 19, Beatles manager Brian Epstein hosts a release party packed with the beautiful people, hangers-on and journalists, as the album blasts forth stunning everyone. John, Paul, George and Ringo arrive decked out in their 1967 best; psychedelic ties and fur coats and ruffled shirts amidst an absurd shower of balloons and confetti as fancy drugs and drink flow. Paul meets American photographer, Linda Eastman, whom he would marry in due time and announce in the British press that he is dissolving the group in a torrent of lawsuits. Before this, John would disappear into Yoko Ono and reduce The Beatles to some kind of existential prison. George trades the trappings of fame for Eastern philosophy. Ringo keeps being Ringo.
Before the end of the year they would lose their beloved manager, Brian Epstein (apparent drug overdose), produce their first flop, the opaque Magical Mystery Tour film, follow a lascivious mystic, put out a series of solo efforts crammed into a double album that inspires ritualistic murders, and before imploding, play an afternoon concert on a roof of their offices that is shut down by police. They would still make some pretty damn great music, but it appears that Sgt. Pepper’s would not only be The Beatles’ apex, it is their swansong—at least in terms of solidarity between its members, its support group and its fans, all of which on June 1, 1967, figured it would go on like this infinitely.
After all, “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is more than a seminal Beatles album or the creative height for the rock and roll elite; it is a pristinely captured moment of hope. This, above all, is why it matters 50 years hence. One wonders if something from 1917 had remotely mattered as much on June 1, 1967.