It was 40 years ago this month — June 1, 1967, in Britain, June 2 in the U.S. — that the Beatles changed the world. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club...
It was 40 years ago this month — June 1, 1967, in Britain, June 2 in the U.S. — that the Beatles changed the world.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was called “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization,” one of its tunes (“She’s Leaving Home”) was credited with being one of the three great songs of the 20th century, and in the week after the album came out, “the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
Because those comments were made by, respectively, the Times of London’s noted critic Kenneth Tynan, New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein and New Yorker writer Langdon Winner, they signified the acceptance and triumph of “Sgt. Pepper” and the Beatles in the arts — and adult — community.
Young people, meanwhile, thought the album was cool and far out.
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“Sgt. Pepper” emerged in a context of great creative experimentation in rock ‘n’ roll and social upheaval.
Resistance to illegitimate authority, the generation gap, the use of recreational drugs, a freer attitude toward sexuality and a communal ethos were all given new expression in “Sgt. Pepper.”
The album also broadened the sound of rock music, as the Beatles supplemented the usual rock instrumentation of guitar, bass and drums with instruments as new as the mellotron and as old as the Indian sitar and the strings, woodwinds and brass of a classical orchestra. Producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick brought in vintage sounds of Victorian bands along with experimental recording methods.
“Sgt. Pepper” was one of the first rock albums to open like a book and to print all of the song lyrics. No singles were released from it; it is intended to be listened to as a whole.
The album spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and to date has sold 11 million copies. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it No. 1 in its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Here’s an A-to-Z guide that will help explain what it was all about.
A — “A Day in the Life”: The Beatles’ opus and album closer, its existential lyrics were written and sung primarily by John, with Paul supplying the bridge. A 40-piece orchestra was brought in for several sections. The song was banned by the BBC over the line “I’d love to turn you on.”
B — “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”: According to John, he was in an antiques store where he saw an 1843 poster advertising a forthcoming show by Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royale. He bought the poster and sang words from its text while playing the piano, and eventually had a song.
C — Celebrities: Photos of many famous and not-so-famous people are included on the album’s front cover collage. Known internally as “People We Like.”
D — Drugs: All four members of the band were regularly smoking marijuana while making “Sgt. Pepper,” and John was frequently taking LSD. Alleged references to drug use are in “A Day in the Life” (“I’d love to turn you on,” “found my way upstairs and had a smoke”) and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (the initials LSD). In most of these cases, the Beatles denied any intentional references to drugs.
E — Emerick, Geoff: Staff recording engineer for EMI Records at the Abbey Road Studio, he worked with the Beatles throughout their career.
F — “Fixing a Hole”: Paul wrote and sings lead on this light but slightly melancholy number, based in part on home improvements he had made to his Scottish farmhouse.
G — “Getting Better”: An optimistic song by Paul, it features some of the best harmonies on the album, by Paul, John and George.
H — Harrison, George: The band’s lead guitarist had a relatively small role in the making of “Sgt. Pepper,” contributing only one song, “Within You Without You,” and even being replaced by McCartney on lead guitar for the title track.
I — Indian music: George’s interest in Indian music and philosophy is shown on “Within You Without You,” which uses such Indian instruments as the sitar, dilruba, svarmandal, tabla and tamboura.
J — June 1 and 2, 1967: Release dates for “Sgt. Pepper” in Great Britain and the United States, respectively.
K — Keyboards: A variety of keyboards are played on the album, including piano, Hammond organ, organ, harmonium, harpsichord, Virginal (a miniature harpsichord), pianette, mellotron (tape loops played by a keyboard), and tapes of steam organs and calliopes.
L — Lennon, John: The undisputed leader of the band during its early years, through a combination of disinterest, unhappiness and drug use John was withdrawing and letting Paul take on a greater leadership role during the songwriting and recording of “Sgt. Pepper.” Still, his contributions to the album are crucial: writing and singing lead on “Good Morning Good Morning,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and most of “A Day in the Life.” He also co-wrote “With A Little Help From My Friends,” and contributes guitar and harmony vocals throughout.
“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”: A dreamy song by John, filled with colorful and fantastical imagery, it was assumed to be influenced by hallucinogens and was banned by the BBC. But John always insisted the song was based on something else. “This is the truth,” he said. “My son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around. I said, ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and I thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote a song about it.”
M — Martin, George: The Beatles producer throughout their career, he played a major creative role in creating, performing, orchestrating and recording the songs and sounds of “Sgt. Pepper.”
McCartney, Paul: Paul became the principal leader of the group during the recording of “Sgt. Pepper.” In addition to writing and singing lead on “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Fixing a Hole,” “Lovely Rita,” “Getting Better,” “She’s Leaving Home” and the title cut, and co-writing (with John) “A Day in the Life” and “With a Little Help From My Friends,” he plays lead guitar on the title song. He also worked closely with producer Martin and engineer Emerick throughout the 129-day recording effort.
N — No touring: At the time they recorded “Sgt. Pepper,” the Beatles had gotten fed up with live performances and decided they would do no more touring and concentrate instead on recording.
O — Outtakes: John’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and Paul’s “Penny Lane” were among the first songs recorded for the album, but Martin and manager Brian Epstein, under pressure from EMI for Beatles product, decided to release the tracks as a two-sided single and took them off “Sgt. Pepper.”
P — Paul is dead: Lyrics are supposed “clues” to the rumor, or urban legend, that Paul McCartney died in a car crash during the recording of “Sgt. Pepper” and was replaced by a look-alike.
Q — Queen Elizabeth II: For the album photo in which the Beatles posed in their Sgt. Pepper costumes, George and Paul wore the MBE medals the queen gave them in 1965.
R — Rolling Stones, The: The album cover includes a Shirley Temple cloth doll wearing a sweat shirt reading “Welcome The Rolling Stones, Good Guys.”
S — “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (the song): A pioneering foray into what would become known later as “heavy rock” or “heavy metal,” this McCartney-penned number, which is reprised as a bridge into the concluding “A Day in the Life,” features Paul’s tough-sounding lead vocal, a raucous guitar break (by Paul, rather than George), ultrapowerful drumming by Ringo and the addition of four French horns.
Starr, Ringo: The Beatles’ drummer does perhaps his most varied and sophisticated work on this album. He sings the lead vocal on “With a Little Help From My Friends.”
T — Tracks: “Sgt. Pepper” was recorded on four-track tape recorders at Abbey Road Studio, but through the use of dubbing and other recording techniques the band was able to use many additional tracks while constructing their songs.
U — Underwood, John: A classical viola player, he appears on “A Day in the Life” and “She’s Leaving Home.”
V — Vera, Chuck and Dave: Paul’s fictional grandchildren mentioned in “When I’m Sixty-Four.”
W — “When I’m Sixty-Four”: Paul wrote most of this jaunty, music-hall-style number when he was a teenager in the early 1960s during the band’s sojourn in Hamburg, Germany.
X — XTC: The English rock band led by Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding was deeply influenced by the Beatles generally and “Sgt. Pepper” in particular.
Y — “Yellow Submarine”: The 1968 animated feature includes an outtake from “Sgt. Pepper” — George’s “Only a Northern Song.”
Z — Zappa, Frank: Paul referred to “Sgt. Pepper” as “our ‘Freak Out,’ ” indicating the influence of the 1966 debut album by Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention. And in 1968, Zappa and the Mothers released “We’re Only in It for the Money,” a parody of “Sgt. Pepper.”