For me, it was the most innovative, imaginative and trend-setting record of its time.
-George Martin, Producer
There are many who argue that The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (released 1 June 1967) is the greatest rock album of all time. There are those who will argue otherwise. However, it is undeniable that this album changed rock and roll for all time. Revolutionary musical, political and conceptual ideas power the 13 tracks known to the world as Sgt Pepper.
Sgt Pepper marks a definitive change in the group's persona. Prior to this, all Beatles albums, and some would say all LPs*, were merely collections of individual songs printed on one disc. Sgt Pepper, however, actually had a central idea powering the album, leading many to label it the first concept album (this is poppycock - very little of the album actually had anything to do the album's concept, but there was one, and that's what's important).
The concept, quite simply was this: There exists a fictional combo by the name of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the entire album is simply a set from their 20th anniversary concert.
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
This title track begins with the sounds of an orchestra tuning pre-performance. It goes on to give a brief history of and introduce the band. Much of the song is self-reflective, such as the line 'They've been going in and out of style / But they're guaranteed to raise a smile,' a blatant dig at their critics at the time. A classic rocker, the power from this song carries through the rest of the LP.
With a Little Help from My Friends
There is no conventional pause between 'Sgt Pepper' and 'With a Little Help.' Rather, at the end of 'Sgt. Pepper,' voices announce 'Billy Shears,' the hypothetical singer of the next song, (this is also considered to be a 'clue' in the Paul is Dead rumour) and the second track begins. This much-covered little number features a lead vocal by Ringo Starr (John Lennon usually tried to make sure Ringo got a song onto each album), and a loping bass line.
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds
Commonly acknowledged as the birth of psychedelic rock, many have accused this dreamy song of having drug references (which it does), citing the initials LSD. This is actually a coincidence, the entire song having been derived from a picture Lennon's son Julian drew in class. An artist himself, John was proud of his son's work, and asked Julian what the name of the drawing was, whereupon he replied 'Lucy in the sky with diamonds.'
An often forgotten song, 'Getting Better' is nothing extraordinary, but does include diverse instrumentation, and is musically very good. John's lyric 'It can't get no worse' in the chorus nicely provides counterpoint and balance to an otherwise optimistic song.
Fixing a Hole
Another underdog from the middle of the first side, this McCartney composition features interesting lyrics and a tasteful lead guitar line.
She's Leaving Home
This track has no Beatle instrumentation, but rather a string ensemble, written by freelance producer/arranger Mike Leander* with Paul's guidance. Often criticised for being too 'soft,' this song resembles 'Eleanor Rigby' from Revolver.
Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite
This song was inspired by an old circus-poster John bought at an antiques shop, and most of the lyrics are directly drawn from it. The curious 'carnival' noises were obtained two ways. The very fast organ scales were recorded an octave down and then played back at double-speed. Other circus-like noises at the end of the track are classic player-organ tunes that George Martin literally had cut up (recording engineer Geoff Emerick physically cut the tape containing the recordings into four foot strips) and taped back together randomly. Early 'sampling,' you might say.
Within You Without You
This is the only Harrison song to appear on the album. A track with heavy Indian influences, all instruments except for the sitar are played by outside musicians. This song was George's second real attempt to meld Indian and Western music (the first being 'Love You To'), and provides an interesting start to the second side of the LP.
When I'm Sixty-Four
A much-loved/much-hated song dealing with aging, 'When I'm Sixty-Four' is a bouncy little number. This bounciness is mostly attributable to the fact that the entire track has been sped up to make Paul's voice sound younger. Put your LP on a turntable with adjustable pitch, and find out what the original recording sounds like.
This track featuring the now famous meter-maid seductress is a catchy, excellently-written song. The strange swooping noises in the first verse are made by a home-made kazoo (wax-paper and a comb).
Good Morning Good Morning
Filled with animal noises, this song explores a day about town. With a beautiful guitar solo, complex rhythmic patterns, excellent drumming, insightful lyrics, and horn overdubs, this song is just plain good.
Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)
This song begins with a rooster's crow (from 'Good Morning Good Morning') which turns into a guitar note, thus once again avoiding the conventional pause between songs. Essentially, 'Reprise' is just a new verse from the title track, main difference musically being that while the first track was heavily horn-based, the closing 'Sgt Pepper' is guitar-driven, and in fact has no horn overdubs. The reprise's lyrics return us to the concept, and acts as the closing number for the 'set.' The last track on Sgt Pepper to be recorded, 'Reprise' feels a bit like an afterthought, but fits very well, and begs to be played at speaker-blowing volumes. In fact, when recording this song, the Beatles played their instruments so loudly that they each had to record in isolated studio rooms to avoid sound leakage.
A Day in the Life
With a short applause from the 'audience' at the end of 'Reprise', the piano immediately leaps into the chords of 'A Day in the Life.' Initially written about the death of the Guinness child1, whom the Beatles knew, it goes on to illustrate other news articles lying around on John's desk, as well as referring to the movie John had just finished filming in Spain, How I Won the War. The bridge to this song is a piece that Paul had been working on independently, which was then incorporated as a fitting middle-section. When they recorded 'A Day in the Life,' the Beatles left a twenty two bar section between the 'A' part and the bridge to be filled later. This space was overdubbed on by a 24-piece orchestra which played a sliding, purposefully unco-ordinated crescendo over John's lyric 'I'd love to turn you on, the very lyric that contributed to the BBC's decision to 'moderate' this song for being a 'marijuana dream.' A repeat of this was then played at the end of the piece, which gave way to a single piano chord, for which the levels were turned louder and louder as it was played, effectively creating a dying chord which lasted a full 48 seconds, providing a stunning close to the album.
The Physical Album
Sgt Pepper being as innovative as it was, it only seems fair to list some gimmicks, conventions, practises, and eccentricities that appeared on the Sgt Pepper LP.
Pepper was the first album to have printed song lyrics, now a standard convention. At the time, however, it was a major breakthrough, as the record companies had previously prohibited printed lyrics in an attempt to boost lyric-book sales.
It was also the first album that didn't include pauses* between its songs.
It also incorporated for the first time ever, anything other than a plain inner sleeve. The first pressing of the album came with a psychedelic inner sleeve design designed by a Dutch group, 'The Fool,' who also painted the side of the Apple Corps building, as well as John Lennon's limousine. This design can be seen in the booklet that comes with the CD version of the album.
Sgt Pepper was among the first albums to have a gatefold sleeve, as with a double album.
Inside the album, was a cardboard sheet containing cut-outs of a moustache, a picture card, stripes, badges, and a stand up.
On the inner groove of the UK version of the album, exists a few seconds of 15 kilocycle tone (basically a dog whistle), followed by several seconds of random recorded Beatle rubbish. This meant that those with an auto-return on their record player would never hear these sounds, but those without could listen to them eternally (or until the needle wore through the vinyl). The compact disc version of the album includes several repetitions of the sound sample, before fading out after the end of 'A Day in the Life.'
Of all of Sgt Pepper's unusual physical aspects, the most unusual, the most copied, and by far the most stunning is that of the cover. The Beatles knew from the beginning that they didn't want a regular album cover for Pepper, and when a gallery dealer by the name of Robert Fraser suggested to Paul that they have a fine artist design their cover, they asked Peter Blake to create the cover:
Paul and John said I should imagine that the band [Sgt Pepper] had just finished the concert, perhaps in a park. I then thought that we could have a crowd standing behind them, and this developed into the collage idea.
The 'collage' idea was that there would be a group of people, role models and friends, standing behind 'Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.' Each Beatle made a list of people he'd like to have in the audience, and Peter Blake collected photos of them, made life-sized cut-outs of them, and set them up in photographer Michael Cooper's studio. People and images appearing on the cover were vast, including (among many, many others) Marilyn Monroe, Lewis Carrol, Shirley Temple (twice), Laurel and Hardy, Marlon Brando, Mae West, Edgar Allen Poe, Bob Dylan, Fred Astaire, wax models of the Beatles, floral arrangements, various instruments, garden gnomes, and a television set. Standing in front are The Beatles, dressed in brightly coloured uniforms and holding instruments. It remains to this day one of the best known and most impressive album covers of all time.
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