Sgt. Pepper Turns 50
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April 20, 2017
March 23, 2017
This June will mark the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the most influential albums ever recorded, and my personal favorite. Of the hundreds of albums I’ve listened to, not one has surpassed the Beatles’ masterpiece.
By the end of 1966, the Beatles wanted out of touring; hectic schedules and abrasive fans had taken their toll. As seen on their 1966 LP Revolver, the Fab Four were more interested in what they could do in the studio. Given their impossible touring schedule, the group couldn’t get too comfortable in the studio, because days later, they would be on a plane to another city. Now they were writing material too complex to be performed live, with arrangements too critical to the composition to be omitted in a live performance.
An incident in the Philippines was the beginning of the end for the tours. The band, exhausted from their tours and wanting downtime, declined a dinner invitation with the first family of the nation. This offended the family, and patriots of the Philippines, and the Beatles ended up losing the security of the police. Citizens aggressively followed the band to the airport and, in order to be allowed to leave the country, the band had to sacrifice the pay of the concert. Couple that with crowds so loud the band couldn’t hear themselves playing, leading to a decline in the quality of their playing, and it was clear the band was entering a new phase.
An uneventful last concert was played in August 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, and that was it. The group disappeared from the public eye for about six months, leading many to speculate about a breakup.
The band returned with a double A-side single, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” The Beatles had become a mystery, hidden in the quarters of the studio.
On June 1, 1967 (my father’s 13th birthday), Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in England. A day later (what would also become my birthday), it was released in the States. It was an instant sensation. Opening with the title track, in which Paul shreds his voice, introducing a fictional band, before joining into the group’s’ iconic harmonies with John and George. John and George are both on lead guitar, with brief brass interruptions. The song seamlessly goes into “With a Little Help From My Friends,” Ringo Starr’s shining vocal moment, accompanied by a call-and-response verse and bridge. By now, the concept album was over, but the songs don’t let up.
Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” inspired by a painting by his son, is a masterpiece in hazy imagery, alternating between mellow verses and rollicking choruses. “Getting Better,” is a quintessential Lennon-McCartney composition, with Paul singing about how his life is miserable, John chiming in “Can’t complain!” When Paul starts finding the silver lining, John counters “Can’t get no worse!” The percussive song has a hypnotizing drone. The dreaminess follows in “Fixing a Hole,” about wandering minds, led by a harpsichord and George’s distinctive guitar work.
The band slows down for the heartbreaking “She’s Leaving Home.” Only strings and John, in the role of the parents, accompanies Paul’s harrowing tale of a lonely middle-class girl who runs away. The first side closes with John’s carnival-crazed “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” filled with the sounds of a grand, if slightly demented, circus.
The second side opens with perhaps the weakest track, George’s “Within You, Without You.” George, who had been focused on both his spirituality and sitar, showcased both. It might not belong in the Beatles cannon, but the exploration of Indian sound certainly belonged on such a diverse album. “When I’m Sixty-Four,” one of the band’s earliest compositions, is finally recorded, arranged with a klezmer, dance hall sound. “Lovely Rita,” another quick ditty, is anchored by Paul’s trademark cutesy rhymes, Lennon’s relaxed background vocal, and honky-tonk piano played by George Martin.
Lennon, whose wit is only sprinkled around up to this point, is finally allowed to let his snarkiness out with “Good Morning Good Morning.” With perhaps his coolest vocal performance, Lennon sings about a suburban man who has grown docile in his cozy lifestyle and starts looking for a more lively scene. Paul lets out two blistering guitar solo, while saxophones hold down John and George’s bizarre rhythm guitar. Followed, by a brief, threeway harmony reprise of the title track, the band goes into the best track of the album, and one the best tracks by the band.
“A Day in the Life,” starts out with Lennon’s acoustic rhythm guitar and Paul’s rich piano, before John’s bone chilling vocals begin. Telling the tale of an aimless narrator, hearing about wars and suicides in the news, it is a showcase for Lennon’s lyrical talent, in which not much is said or explained, but the result is still heart-wrenching. A orchestral bridge brings us to a standard Paul diddy in the coda, before the return of a powerful Lennon, finishing his story. The orchestra repeats and the album ends on a loud E chord on the piano. Hearing this album for the first time is something I wish I could do again.
Pepper opened up a new world for music. George Martin was finally allowed to unleash his musical genius and brought these songs to their full potential.
As loved as the album is, it still has a lot of detractors, Keith Richards among them. Many saw it as the death of rock ‘n’ roll. It turned rockers into artists, and notion was decried. In fact, bashing the album and calling it overrated is seen as a cool stance today, much like how the band is seen. But, what this album really did was open up the possibilities of what a rock album could do. New sources of inspiration, diverse styles, and new songwriting techniques expanded the process of making music. Whenever I hear these criticisms, I just have to listen to the album for reassurance. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a masterpiece and an album that cannot be forgotten by time.