Welcome to Anniversary Records, a column where we reflect on records that meant the world to us way back when, and what they mean to us now. This week: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Anniversary Records: The Beatles –Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
by Chad Jewett
Arriving at the very beginning of the Summer of Love, recorded at the precise moment when the four Beatles were at their imaginative peak and studio wizards George Martin and Geoff Emerick were at their most technically exploratory, and inaugurating a new era of rock-and-roll as high art, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a singular landmark. Only a very few albums – Michael Jackson’s Thriller, The Ramones’ self-titled debut – even approach the 1967 LP’s seismic place in popular music, and even those records didn’t constitute the event that the release of Pepper did. The album came out on May 26. By May 29, Jimi Hendrix was already playing the title track live. Stories abound (apocryphal? Maybe; symbolically true? Definitely) of the LP’s 13 songs soundtracking that summer, the musical score to the high-water mark of the hippie movement, before the violence of 1968 replaced that initial utopian optimism with something more realist and biting (the MC5) or aimless (Bob Dylan) or self-parodic (Cream).
Much has been made of the fact that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, for all its psychedelia and chemically-altered surrealism, is actually the most innocent release of the band’s post-Hard Day’s Night output. The album’s signature register is that of afternoon reverie, picking shapes out of clouds. This might partly explain why history has tied Pepper so closely to the Summer of Love and its own values of an imagined world outside of an era of violence both at home and abroad. Rock-and-roll helped invent the concept of the teenager, and The Beatles helped solidify that that youthful defiance could become a lifestyle, an ethos, a way of seeing that could extend into one’s adult life. Theories abound about The Beatles helping to invent punk (the screaming, the amphetamine mania of their Hamburg days, the distortion and punch of so much of Revolver), but the idea of youthful ideals turning into lifelong commitments is one that could use more attention. If Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is rarely political (only “Within You Without You” and “A Day In The Life” have much to say in the social sphere), its willingness to insist on the value of creativity and thoughtfulness shouldn’t be overlooked.
Pepper draws on that exuberance, even if its one definite ode to young rebellion – the poignant “She’s Leaving Home” is mature and ambivalent enough to show us the broken hearts of parents as much as it shows us the brimming hopes of its teenage runaway protagonist. Otherwise, even “When I’m Sixty-Four” is actually more a 20-something’s idea of old age rather than a song about old age. Indeed, Paul McCartney asked to have his voice manipulated to sound higher, and thus younger, on the track – a trick John Lennon also put to use in “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” – a song that is both a hallucinatory tone-poem and a dramatization of a child’s drawing. “Getting Better” is about the evolution of a young ruffian; “Lovely Rita” winks with good-natured frivolity, a song that lives in the freewheeling moment that it, and the rest of the album, helped form. Indeed, as Dadaist as much of Pepper is, it’s also quite tangible – not just the Carnaby Street saunter of “Lovely Rita”, but the warm familiarity of “With A Little Help From My Friends”, the way the smoky echoes of “Fixing A Hole” match that song’s wandering musings. You can picture a location for each and every song.
If Revolver was the album where The Beatles really started to hunker down and approach the recording of rock records as something akin to modernist art, then Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the album where the quartet was at their most confident. A half-decade of received wisdom dubbing Pepper THE greatest album of all time has led to a defiant cult devotion on the part of Revolver, which was a more democratic affair (three George Harrison songs, all of them brilliant), and which does stand as a pretty ideal alchemy between the ornate, baroque textures of Pepper and Stax soul-indebted likes of 1965’s Rubber Soul at its best. Revolver is certainly one of the greatest garage rock albums of all time, and is also a culmination that saw the early Beatles’ R&B-inflected pub rock round itself into an art form. At the time, Revolver was overlooked, selling less than Rubber Soul and going completely ignored by the band’s own 1966 setlists (only the contemporaneous “Paperback Writer” got a living airing). Its place in history, until only recently, hasn’t been all that different.
Part of the distinction may lie in the fact that Revolver excelled at sneaking psychedelic innovations into the garage rock/Motown motif set down in Rubber Soul. “Taxman” and “And Your Bird Can Sing” certainly broach new ground – backwards guitars, oddball mixing choices, a toothier distortion – but they don’t announce themselves as terribly different animals from Rubber Soul’s “Drive My Car” and “I’m Looking Through You”. On Revolver The Beatles would try to record vocals for “Yellow Submarine” underwater, the melody for “Tomorrow Never Knows” swinging from the ceiling. On Pepper, that experimentalism became formalized, so that George Martin and Paul McCartney, in designing the orchestral cataclysms of “A Day In The Life”, had the atonal modernism of Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Stockhausen to draw on. “I’m Only Sleeping” had its brief interludes of jazzy ambiance. “Fixing A Hole”, Pepper’s great underrated classic, is psychedelic rock and baroque waltz suffused with the smoky cool of post-bop.
Revolver asked “What if?” Sgt. Pepper’s madness was more methodical. And Revolver, besides being a Mod culture icon to rival The Who’s My Generation, didn’t manage the stroke of luck that Pepper did, arriving as the perfect candy-colored accompaniment to the Summer of Love. Revolver is a perfect album. Pepper was a red-letter cultural moment, made all the more definitive by the fact that the Beatles seemed to anticipate it. “She’s Leaving Home” practically seems to see into the future, when middle-class kids, perhaps inspired at least in part by Sgt. Pepper’s itself, would begin to reject the predictable life-paths of their parents. That the hazy, dream-like “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” should coincidentally offer the acronym of “LSD” is the stuff of fate as the synthetic hallucinogenic would become as closely linked to the late-60s hippie generation as cocaine would the excess of 1970s arena rock. Sgt. Pepper’s helped create a moment it was already living in.
The idea for the album – a sort of musical revue bookended by the titular band – was as much a composite as so much of the LP’s actual music. Utterly tired with a daunting touring schedule that saw the Liverpool four-piece wholly unable hear themselves as they played to screaming baseball stadiums, all while besieged by crazed and sometimes-violent fans, death threats, the international chaos of the 1960s, and a complete inability to partake in any aspect of normal everyday life, the band was looking for a different way to be The Beatles. Touring was officially off the table. Legend has it that Paul McCartney, who often went out in disguise to avoid being mobbed, dreamed up the idea of becoming the Lonely Hearts Club Band as a similar form of anonymity. The costumes, the facial hair, the psychedelic take on Edwardian/Victorian pomp replacing the sharp nattiness of Mod culture – all of it promised The Beatles a second chance at being The Beatles, one that wasn’t so taxing. The name “Sgt. Pepper” itself came from a conversation between McCartney and touring manager Mal Evans (a play on “Salt and Pepper”) and soon a few different ideas – forming a pseudo-band, finding a way to be The Beatles without touring, early musings about a possible concept album dealing with The Beatles’ childhoods – all began to cohere into what would become the 1967 LP.
Indeed, the first two songs recorded for the album, and eventually released as a stand-alone double-A-side single, featured Lennon and McCartney offering their characteristic takes on that childhood thesis. “Strawberry Fields Forever”, Lennon’s impressionistic ode to the leafy campus of an orphanage near his childhood home, is equal parts partly-cloudy reverie and subtly turbulent disquiet. The song floats in atop Paul McCartney’s cottony mellotron and spends most of its first half in that gentle ambiance before suddenly pivoting into a noisier, more aggressive register. The fissure was actually the result of George Martin fusing together two completely different versions of the song – one plush, the other tense – and the results follow the song’s surrealistic twilight logic. “Let me take you down / ‘Cause we’re going to Strawberry Fields / Nothing is real / And nothing to get hung about / Strawberry Fields Forever.” The lyrics are non-linear, meant to evoke hazy, remembered images. The song turns from daydream to something approaching a nightmare, especially in its noisy coda, with trumpets flaring up like car horns and tape loops sounding like some odd effect from The Wizard of Oz as Lennon’s voice (intoning “Cranberry sauce”) melts across the sonic field.
Paul McCartney, for his part, offered a sunnier, more chipper take on the remembrance of things past. If “Strawberry Fields Forever” anticipated the studio ingenuity of “Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite” and the theatrical experimentation of “A Day In The Life”, then “Penny Lane” served as a model for the sharp, punchy power-pop of “Getting Better” and “Lovely Rita”. As with Lennon’s contribution to the Double-A-side single, “Penny Lane” offers its share of psychedelic poetry (lines like “Behind the shelter in a middle of a roundabout / A pretty nurse is selling poppies from a tray / And though she feels as if she’s in a play / She is any way” don’t have to make sense to be among McCartney’s best), but sets it to a song that evokes Edwardian pomp in its glowing piccolo and bopping horns. If The Beatles and George Martin put days into making “Strawberry Fields Forever” into an uncanny drama, then they were obviously equally committed to making “Penny Lane” shine and glimmer like a pre-war brass bell. Nostalgia suffuses every corner of Sgt. Pepper’s, coded right into the first two songs recorded for it.
The Beatles would ultimately release “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” as a stand-alone single, inaugurating one of the great “What Ifs” of pop history. But those songs, different sides of the same bright-yet-melancholy coin, set the pace for the album that would follow. Each song was treated as its own sandbox to play around in, so that even the album’s least obviously “experimental” tracks, like “Getting Better”, still bear the marks of a group of artists utterly locked in. George Martin once recalled the band perpetually trying to make instruments sound unlike themselves, turning guitars into pianos and pianos into guitars. You can hear the idea at work on “Getting Better” with its plucky guitar jabs, the same way you can hear the band’s newfound poetic complexity as Paul McCartney offers his trademark optimism (“I have to admit it’s getting better”) even as John Lennon ripostes with his signature cynicism (“It can’t get no worse!”). The song’s bridge fills with sitars that chatter like crickets – a result of George Harrison’s expanding infatuation with Indian music and culture. Though largely withdrawn from the recording of Sgt. Pepper — to which the guitarist would only contribute one song, the breathtaking “Within You Without You” – Harrison’s expanding worldview had plenty to do with the expanding worldview of the album itself. Thus an economical pop song like “Getting Better” can suddenly swoon into an entirely different musical language, one that lends the song itself greater depth.
A similar thing happens at the end of the bouncy, psych-pop of “Lovely Rita”, a bit of winking fun that would define McCartney’s work in Wings. As self-consciously frivolous as much of the song is – along with “Mr. Kite” and “When I’m Sixty-Four”, it’s Pepper’s lightest fair — the song’s final 30 seconds suddenly take on odd minor-key overtones and odd echoing chatter, the feeling of a sunny day clouding over. You can practically hear The Beatles doubling down on their commitment to expel all traces of the ordinary from the proceedings. “Good Morning Good Morning”, a similarly simple song at its stomping garage-rock core, is also similarly marked by hidden complexities. The track’s time signature is all over the place (hidden by Ringo Starr’s confident clock-steady beat) and its horns are recorded with such close precision that you can practically hear the air vibrate on the brass. Lennon’s own voice is manipulated into an uncanny sleepiness, punctuated by the odd shocks of Harrison’s interrupting guitar solo and an odd cavalcade of animal noises that ranges from a rooster and cat all the way to an elephant – another post-facto tactic by the Beatles and Martin to elevate a sturdy pop song into Pop Art.
The years have seen John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison all distance themselves from the concept at work on Sgt. Pepper’s, with Lennon declaring that his four songs – “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”, “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “Good Morning Good Morning” and “A Day In The Life” have nothing to do with the album’s reported organizing thesis of a fictional concert by a fictional band. Yet “Mr. Kite” and “Good Morning” and “A Day In The Life” contribute more than most of McCartney’s songs to the album’s conceit. “Mr. Kite”, a psychedelic waltz written from a Victorian circus poster, comes the closest to what one would guess the Lonely Hearts Club band actually sound like, arriving like a paid musical advertisement during an evening of assorted entertainments. The same goes for “Good Morning”, itself inspired by a Kellog’s Corn Flakes ad. “A Day In The Life”, arriving as the album’s poignant, operatic close, earns some of its drama from being so different from the bulk of Sgt. Pepper’s cheerier surfaces. Indeed, even Harrison’s “Within You Without You”, with its non-Western instruments and defiance of pop norms, reads like an especially far-out interlude in a sweeping variety show when heard amongst the Technicolor diversity of Sgt. Pepper.
The titular bookending theme songs offer ambiance (the anxious crowd noise at the intro, rousing applause at the end) and a glimpse of The Beatles pushing the fuzzed-out garage-rock of Revolver the farthest they’d take it before Magical Mystery Tour introduced softer pop and more diffuse psychedelia as the band’s defining sounds. The lyrics to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” are almost entirely functional – there to introduce McCartney’s idea of a make-believe band on a make-believe stage – but the way they dovetail into “With A Little Help From My Friends”, one of the album’s two best songs, is transcendent. “Biiiiiilllllyyyyyy Sheeeeeaaaaars!” So goes our introduction to Ringo Starr’s humble balladeer, headlining a song written by McCartney and Lennon together (an increasing rarity from 1966 on) as a star turn for the drummer. The song’s chiming, effervescent pop (more of those “Penny Lane” guitars jabbing away like the top keys of a music hall piano) is a keen match for Starr’s “aw shucks” performance, and the drummer gives a charmingly workmanlike reading to lines like “Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song / And I’ll try not to sing out of key.” As with so much of Pepper, the friendly exterior of “With A Little Help From My Friends” is full of sudden spikes of subversion (“I get high with a little help from my friends”). The composition itself is a masterpiece, from McCartney’s melodic, bubbling bass to the song’s spotless, sunny production to the call-and-response bridges that turn Harrison, Lennon and McCartney (“Could it beeee anybody?”) into a pep-rally for Starr. By 1967, The Beatles were absolute masters of pop music, rivaled only by the Hitsville team at Motown Records, and its worth musing on the fact that “With A Little Help From My Friends – one of the Fab Four’s dozen-or-so best – has more than a little Motown in its recipe, even as Motown was, by 1967, partaking in some of the psychedelia that the Beatles had popularized.
But all of Sgt. Pepper’s many-splendored adventurousness, its high-definition study wizardry, its pop instincts and its rebellious experimentation is capped off by a closing ballad that cools that dazzling brightness into a more somber, shadowy register. “A Day In The Life”, a pensive bit of reportage courtesy of John Lennon with a jaunty plot-twist from Paul McCartney, is the single greatest song The Beatles would ever record. The high-water mark of pop-as-modernism, the culmination of a long-forming collision between 20th century art music and the cunning ingenuity of mass culture, “A Day In The Life” feels like an album unto itself, a dense coda to an LP already stuffed to the gills. In order to pull it off, McCartney, Lennon, Martin and Emerick would have to practically invent a new musical language, tasking a hired orchestra of seasoned professionals to deliberately play out of sync and out of tune to create the song’s twin symphonic cacophonies. When cued, each musician would begin at their lowest note and work their chaotic way to the highest, with express instructions not to play in time with their fellow performers. Essentially, The Beatles and their producer asked veterans of classical musical to throw away 100 percent of their classical training.
The results were iconic, with the first hair-raising sonic boom introducing the almost hilariously contrasting whimsy of Paul McCartney’s ragtime bridge. The second orchestral swell ushered in the album’s equally famous ending – a pounded out E chord held for nearly a minute, the result of more ingenuity on the part of George Martin, who slowly raised the microphone faders to capture every last bit of melody from the pianos and organ pounded by The Beatles. But in between those moments of high concept derring-do and technological invention was a song so heartbreakingly human, so devastatingly personal, that even with the studio fireworks The Beatles and company would dream up, the attention still remains glued to John Lennon’s thoughtful, reedy performance. A composite of newspaper stories – a young socialite dead in a car wreck; a scandal involving unrepaired roads; a sly nod to a film Lennon himself had just starred in – glued together into a collage of modern confusion and existential exhaustion, “A Day In The Life” was Lennon’s definitive statement. A Lewis Carroll fan forever enamored with turning words into playthings, Lennon used that skill to underline a kind of tired sadness rather than a pithy wit. “I read the news today / Oh boy.” The weariness there is expressed as much by how Lennon sings it – with a frayed-nerve vulnerability — as by what he sings. “A Day In The Life” takes its melancholy newspaper headlines and turns them into refracting visions – a fact that cements its place on an album constantly doing the same – that then circle back around to Lennon’s protagonist.
The Beatles made a sport of rolling their eyes at the pretentious academic parsing that Sgt. Pepper would eventually be submitted to, but “A Day In The Life” reads for all the world like the traumatized post-war modernism of Virginia Woolf. Life Woolf’s 1927 masterpiece Mrs. Dalloway – itself a story of fashionable London haunted by the reverberations of World War I and the confusion of a new modern era – Lennon stacks up voices, characters, asides, stirrings from the other side. When McCartney’s jolly interloper arrives in the song’s middle section, it recalls similar interruptions in Mrs. Dalloway, moments of unselfconscious good cheer or surreal brightness: “Woke up, fell out of bed / Dragged a comb across my head.” Where Lennon’s verses twist themselves in ghostly knots, McCartney’s solo simply lives, moves, breathes. It makes Lennon’s sections all the more striking to see the waking world swirling around them, unawares. When he re-enters, the orchestra pipes up for a second; Starr rumbles in with a handful of brilliant fills marked by confident precision; Lennon’s final lines are hurried along at a new pace for a final verse that speeds along a highway full of potholes: “Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”. It’s a throwaway line that doubles as the final stroke of realism that defines “A Day In The Life” as the exacting character study that it is. Lennon consistently shows rather than tells, and the fact that his narrator momentarily chases away dark thoughts with a hollow joke is surprisingly haunting. Soon the orchestra balloons back into full trumpeting pandemonium before that final chord rings the album away.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would prove the last time that The Beatles truly worked together as a team. Paul McCartney would continue to further take the reins of the quartet with Magical Mystery Tour – a trippy conceptual art film and accompanying EP. While the album was great, the film was not, and the effort of making a movie for a group of novices would create tensions that grew following the death of their manager Brian Epstein and heated up over disagreements surrounding the band’s Apple brand and their involvement with the Transcendental Meditation guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Those conflicts boiled over during the recording of The White Album. By that point, The Beatles were recording their individual songs in different studios. Things only got worse during the abortive “Get Back” sessions (eventually salvaged as Let It Be). Indeed, it’s telling that when approached by Paul McCartney to record one last great album, producer George Martin stipulated that he would only do it if the process was serious, if it was committed. If it was like Pepper. Abbey Road, with its orchestral B Side and its psychedelic A Side, reverberated with the creative spark of Sgt. Pepper, but that earlier album’s whimsy was gone, and its sadness and angst was multiplied. Songs like “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” – tracks that would have been perfectly at home on Pepper – were replaced by a moodier aura, one that produced brilliant work like “Come Together” and “You Never Give Me Your Money”, but which seemed to sound the final knell for the optimism of the psychedelic sixties that Pepper had inaugurated.
Yet Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band endures because it seems to believe so purely in its own spirit, and in the promise of art as a way of living in a difficult world. Few albums made formal experimentation so fun; few albums are so comprehensive in building the rich space in which they unfold. You can hear The Beatles trusting each other, themselves, you. As an ode to imagination, Pepper is unparalleled.