It’s been 50 years since The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Vulture Hound‘s very own walking Beatles Encyclopedia, Josh Langrish, takes a look at the story behind one of music’s most iconic and recognisable albums…
The creative experimentation of Revolver showed The Beatles a realm of possibility, freedom, and – most importantly – fun that was increasingly fading with regards to live performances and touring. Just two days after making Revolver, The Beatles had to tour Germany, Japan, and the Philippines. The whole thing was a drag; either the crowds continued to scream so loudly during their performances that The Beatles couldn’t hear themselves play, or – when they started performing in Japan – the audiences there was so quiet and reserved that the horrific effects of regularly performing live without hearing one another could now be heard by The Beatles themselves. Things especially nose-dived in the Philippines when The Beatles respectfully declined to perform at a private function for Dictatoress Imelda Marcos due to wanting to enjoy their only day off after continuously touring. They awoke the next day to find newspapers with the headlines ‘Beatles Snub Imelda’, an angry mob of loyalists baying for Beatle-blood for having “spat in the eye of the royal family”, and told in no uncertain terms, by hired Marcos goons, that they weren’t particularly welcome in the country anymore. Broken ribs, bloodied limbs, and a few bruises later, The Beatles and crew managed to escape.
The Beatles’ mindset at the time could be summarised by George Harrison who, after he was asked what The Beatles were planning to do now they had returned to London, said rather bitterly, “We’re going to have a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans”. This partly facetious remark became quite prescient when John Lennon infamously said in a magazine interview that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, thereby causing an uproar in the American so-called ‘Bible Belt’. The subsequent radio boycotts, death threats, and even gleeful public bonfires of Beatles records and memorabilia from incensed Christians culminated in George Harrison wanting to quit the band. After their penultimate live performance in Candlestick Park, San Francisco on the 29th of August, 1966, manager Brian Epstein reassured the four that they didn’t have to tour ever again*.
After having a well deserved three month break consisting of travelling, exploring, and absorbing, The Beatles went into radio silence for five months. After the utter fiasco of their last few tours, overblown controversies, and press interviews where The Beatles seemed utterly spent, the Press took the eight months of The Beatles releasing no new music (breaking their usual trend of pumping out an astonishing two albums a year) as a sign that the band was all but finished. The public, nor the Press had any clue what was going to happen next**.
And so, during the famous Summer of Love in 1967, on the 26th of May (UK release date) and the 2nd of June (US release date), The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
*The Beatles final live performance was technically their famous gig on the rooftop of Apple Corps, 3 Savile Row, London on the 30th of January, 1969.
** Paul McCartney rather smugly recalled journalists at the time saying “We knew this was coming folks; they’ve dried up!”
(Photo: Sgt. Pepper Press Launch Party, Friday 19th May 1967, Brian Epstein’s House, 24 Chapel Street, London)
The whole concept of the album came to McCartney during a flight back to England from Kenya in the November of 1966. The concept was simple but rather exciting; instead of having to tire themselves by having to constantly live up to people’s expectations of what The Beatles “should” be or how they “should” sound like, why don’t they create alter egos as part of an alter-ego band? That way, they can do anything they want, because then they aren’t in the figurative box that people have put them in. Inspired by fond memories of his northern childhood, and the psychedelic sound that permeated the musical landscape at that time, McCartney envisioned a rather bizarre fusion; a travelling, Romani, surrealistic marching band. They wouldn’t tour, this fictional band would in the form of a show, on an album.
Hence the opening track ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, whereby listeners are greeted to excited audience chatter, and the sound of an orchestra tuning and warming up. This is interrupted by the unusually deep, booming drumming of Ringo Starr, a scorching lead guitar riff, and a heavy metal-esque lead vocal by McCartney who introduces the band and the show. The entire opening track is underpinned by a wonderful brass section – thus instantly establishing the fusion that McCartney originally envisioned; the psychedelic rock of The Beatles combined with the nostalgic sound of a Northern England Salvation Army band. And it works.
Despite the strength of the alter-ego theme, The Beatles conceded that this narrative was only present in the opening two tracks, and the penultimate track ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’, and that all the other songs have no connection with the theme. Whilst this is true to an extent, it can be successfully argued that most of the album’s songs share the theme of their Liverpudlian/Northern England childhood.
(Photo: The Beatles rehearsing/recording ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’, 1st or 2nd March 1967, Abbey Road, Studio No. 2)
On the track ‘Getting Better’, for example, the opening verse looks back at Lennon’s school years; ‘I used to get mad at my school/The teachers who taught weren’t cool’. Throughout, a stabbing guitar repeatedly pervades the track like a metronome and doesn’t deviate in tone or key. However, this is interrupted regularly during the verses with some groovy and loose off-beat drumming by Ringo, accompanied by an alternating bass line by McCartney. The exuberance of the track in terms of vocal performance, especially during the choruses, is to be applauded, as it lifts the entire track from what might have been a relatively plain song.
McCartney’s optimism and romantic slant continues with the track ‘Lovely Rita’. Exceptionally cheery and buoyant, its natural breeziness is achieved largely by the echoey acoustic guitar and piano. The whimsical addition of the kazoo-like paper and comb adds just enough self-aware silliness to prevent the tune itself from being rather overly sentimental and corny*. McCartney’s muse on the track is of a meter maid that the protagonist meets, and the beginnings of love between the two ordinary people. Only hardcore pessimists could dislike the song, as it is utterly oozing with summer and fun.
McCartney’s tendency to write song-stories about people’s lives and their daily routine reveals itself again on the album with the track ‘She’s Leaving Home’. What’s obvious, but still worth noting, is that ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is one of the few songs released by The Beatles to have none of The Beatles playing any instruments. But whilst the Revolver track ‘Eleanor Rigby’ exudes an existential, dreary melancholy, ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is shimmering in its sadness and beauty. The main cause of this being that the prominence of the dramatic cellos in ‘Eleanor Rigby’ are replaced with an angelic harp, modified with a rather ethereal doubling effect**. The song tells of a young girl who runs away from home, only for her parents to wake up the next morning and lament for what they could have done to have pushed her away. This is one of the main differences between Sgt. Pepper and the other psychedelic albums made at the time. Whilst most other songs displayed a hedonistic nihilism, the inclusion of songs like ‘She’s Leaving Home’ conveyed a more nuanced and mature outlook whereby the liberation and self-autonomy achieved by the young girl is offset by the distress and sadness of the parents.
*The constant vibration against the lips created by playing the comb and paper after many takes apparently caused The Beatles’ heads to go fuzzy. Engineer Geoff Emmerick fondly recalled Lennon quipping to McCartney, “It’s like going on a trip this Macca!”
**The harpist, a woman called Sheila Bromberg, recalls that McCartney had trouble in conveying exactly what sound he was going for. The leader of the string orchestra stormed out in frustration after the session went well into the night without McCartney being satisfied. After the leader left the room, there was a pause, followed by McCartney saying, “Well I suppose that’s that then”. She was paid £9 for her troubles.
(Photo: The Beatles filming the promo/music video for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ in Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent, on Monday 30th January 1967)
Whilst McCartney’s inclination as a writer was to look outward and write little stories and create worlds affectionately about people’s day-to-day lives (as he saw them as naturally charming and interesting), Lennon’s natural inclination was to look inward. He’d write stories in his songs, but would do so as a function of conveying his innermost feelings – without saying it outright. Lennon wrote obscurely, as he once said, “à la Dylan”. In the song ‘Good Morning Good Morning’ for example, he paints a picture of a man who is stuck in the day-to-day grind of domestic life. Whilst McCartney evidently romanticises domesticity, Lennon clearly makes it out to be a rather tedious, limiting, imprisoning experience. Lennon’s dislike of domestic, married life in his lyrics at the time is rather telling, considering the fact that, in the same month that work on Sgt. Pepper began, Lennon met Yoko Ono at an art exhibition at the Indica gallery in London whilst he was in a gradually declining marriage with his wife, Cynthia*. This dogmatic vibe is projected via the militaristic metronomic drumming, not to mention the acerbic lyrics that radiate Lennon’s trademarked sarcasm (‘Nothing to do to save his life call his wife in/Nothing to say but what a day how’s your boy been’), juxtaposed humorously by the upbeat, rollicking instrumentation. At Lennon’s insistence, the song concludes with a procession of different animal noises – each with the ability to scare the one that proceeded it; further evidence of the innovation and quirkiness for which Sgt. Pepper is famous.
Lennon’s childhood in Sgt. Pepper manifests via references to his school years, but mainly through his early literary influences – specifically Lewis Carroll and his Alice series. This is obviously most apparent in the dream-like favourite ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. Frequently misconstrued as a song consciously about LSD**, ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is a child-friendly spiritual prequel to ‘I Am The Walrus’. As a result, it’s utterly filled with surreal imagery and psychedelic gobbledegook, vis-à-vis the famous opening lines: ‘Picture yourself on a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies’. The hazy laziness of the track – that harps back to the vibe created in Revolver‘s ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ – is further achieved by feeding Lennon’s voice and the lead guitar through a Leslie speaker, creating a ‘swimming’ vocal effect, as well as the hypnotic Lowry organ intro played by McCartney. The mysterious “girl with kaleidoscope eyes” is emblematic of another Lennonism, whereby a number of his song’s protagonists are enigmatic women that Lennon is flummoxed – and yet enchanted by; such as the girl from Rubber Soul‘s ‘Girl’ and ‘Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)’, the girl in the song ‘Yes It Is’, and the girl in Revolver‘s ‘She Said She Said’. This fascination is perhaps Freudian – possibly stemming from the tragic death of Lennon’s mother when Lennon was 17 as the result of a car accident involving a drunk, off-duty policeman; an event and subject that Lennon constantly fixated on – both personally and lyrically – for the rest of his life.
This Carrollian bent is sustained via the Lennon piece ‘Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite!’; inspired by a Victorian era poster for a circus that Lennon found in an antiques shop in Sevenoaks, Kent whilst they were filming the promo/music video for ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Lennon couldn’t resist the surrealistic possibilities in terms of lyrics and sound that the poster presented (not to mention a further opportunity to evoke nostalgia for the North via the days of vaudeville performance and old fashioned entertainment). The result is an almost overwhelming soundscape of wurlitzers, steam organs, and calliopes all spliced together, creating a mischievously discombobulating and dark drug-induced carnival atmosphere – in which Lennon is its demonic host. This astonishing atmosphere was created in a stroke of genius by Beatles engineers Geoff Emerick and Neil Aspinall, as well as producer George Martin after Lennon requested them to make it so that he could practically “smell the sawdust”***.
*There are conflicting accounts of how John and Yoko met. Whilst one is that they first met at the Indica gallery off Duke Street in Mayfair, London for Yoko’s ‘Unfinished Paintings And Objects ‘ art exhibition, the other is that in 1965 Ono was gathering original music scores from various musicians for a book that John Cage was making and approached McCartney, who then directed her towards Lennon (who apparently gave her his handwritten lyrics for Rubber Soul’s ‘The Word’).
**Lennon was genuinely surprised when the LSD reference in the title was pointed out. Despite him being on LSD for a lot of 1966/67, the title of the song actually came from his son Julian after he showed Lennon a drawing he did at school called ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’.
***Lennon frequently gave the sound engineers vague instructions for his songs, having once asked George Martin to make one of his songs “sound like an orange”.
(Photo: The Beatles enjoying a tea party in Knole Park, Sevenoaks, Kent for the promo/music video for ‘Penny Lane’ on Tuesday February 7th, 1967)
The album concludes with what is widely considered to be the greatest musical work that The Beatles ever produced; ‘A Day In The Life’. Simultaneously intimately reflective and cosmically epic, the song drifts through the wistfully melancholic Lennon verse, laden with a haunting echo that induces chills up the spine, concerning a sad story read in the newspaper about a car crash, and a war film about the English army, which then seamlessly segues into an orchestral crescendo that gradually builds and builds – eventually reaching biblical levels of noise. The whole tone of the song then transforms into a playful McCartney jaunt about waking up for the bus, only for the introspectively sad Lennon verse to return, as well as another orchestral crescendo, climaxing with an E-major chord played on three different pianos by five people; the sustain resonating for over forty seconds. Encapsulating the effortless charm and routine of day-to-day life and the simplistic pleasures that one should appreciate on one hand, whilst exploring the philosophical significance of death and the unfathomable magnitude of reality itself, ‘A Day in The Life’ is somehow humble and yet monumental at the same time. It’s hard to fully comprehend or appreciate its significance as piece of music, even fifty years on.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band exhibits The Beatles at the apex of their musical creativity, and at the peak of their power and influence. Their genius can be found in every facet of the album; from the way it effortlessly incorporated classical music into what was a mainstream pop record, the revolutionary studio techniques that irrevocably changed how all albums would be made from then on, the shear variety of genres shown throughout the album (from the war-time ditty of ‘When I’m Sixty-Four, to the Indian George Harrison composition ‘Within You, Without You), as well as the inventive use of a plethora of unique instruments (such as the Lowrey organ, mellotron, french horn, harmonium, harpsichord, etc*). Its innovation, combined with its cultural impact at a time when there was an international, cultural movement means that it seems unlikely that we’ll witness something quite like this album ever again**.
The reprise on the album has The Beatles hoping that the listener “has enjoyed the show”. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy the show – we will, evermore.
*Sgt. Pepper owes a debt to The Beach Boys’ album Pet Sounds – of which McCartney was a huge fan. McCartney frequently applauded Pet Sounds’ use of a wide variety of unique instruments. Apparently the song ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ caused Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys to pull over when he heard it on the radio. When his friend in the car asked him what the problem was, Wilson allegedly replied “They got there before me. They did it. They reached the sound I wanted”. For many, the majesty of Sgt. Pepper became too much for Wilson to handle and compete with, who then proceeded to scrap the much awaited Beach Boys album Smile – eventually leading to a mental breakdown.
**It is worth noting that, up until Sgt. Pepper, the UK and US had different album compositions for each Beatles album – much to The Beatles’ frustration. The fact that Sgt. Pepper was the first Beatles album wherein the US and UK audiences were hearing the exact same album, with the same tracks, in the same order further adds to this notion of Sgt. Pepper being representative of the ‘Summer of Love’, insomuch as it promotes unity, connectivity, and being one with one another.
Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Edition is out now via download, CD, vinyl, and special edition box set.