Happy 50th Anniversary to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, originally released in the UK May 26, 1967 and in the US June 2, 1967.
The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 this week and it may arguably be the most discussed, dissected and analyzed album in rock history. Its detractors are loud and very vocal about its place amongst the many diverse and influential releases that came in its wake. The album came about at a time when the generation gap widened even further and the music of the time played us into a new era. The hair got longer and bigger and the clothes, if you chose to wear them, got bolder and brighter.
Three years earlier, the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show gave the U.S. a big distraction from the horror of the Kennedy assassination. Elvis began his slow death spiral into self-parody, Motown was just getting its feet wet, and the top 20 singles of 1963 consisted of songs from Bobby Vinton, Andy Williams, Kyu Sakamoto and Little Stevie Wonder.
Now, I’m all for diversity on the pop charts, but the list was indicative of a world with one foot in Eisenhower’s ‘50s, fearful of anything resembling change and the other foot on a road trip with no map. The arrival of the Beatles changed all of that. Motown can be included in that change, but that’s another column for another day. The Fab Four took the world by storm. They didn’t look like any other band, didn’t sound like any other band plus they wrote their own songs. Yes, they did covers, but as a whole, they had a sound all their own. They stood out from the pack. They wrote beautiful songs and they were relatively safe. Or so we thought.
From 1963 to August 1966, the Beatles released seven studio albums, starred in two movies and toured relentlessly, with very little time off. By early 1966, they found their concerts to be less than rewarding. They could barely hear themselves onstage and thought the crowds were too wrapped up in the hysteria of the experience and could not care less about the music. Little did they know that a seemingly harmless article published in the March 4, 1966 edition of the London Evening Standard would speed up their desire to stop touring and get them to spend more time in the studio.
The article in question was Maureen Cleave’s interview with John Lennon, which was titled “How does a Beatle live? John Lennon lives like this.” It was a fascinating read which was exhibit A of “Lennon being Lennon.” It was this article from where the infamous “We’re more popular than Jesus now” was born. Lennon was a voracious reader and at the time he had been reading a lot about religion. The entire quote goes as follows, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
By June of 1966, while on a tour stop in Japan, opposition to the group had begun to build. During a brief stop in London, George Harrison remarked, "We'll take a couple of weeks to recuperate before we go and get beaten up by the Americans." That proved to be an understatement. Protests in the Bible Belt, half empty stadiums and the stunning realization that songs from their latest LP Revolver (1966) were impossible to play live in concert were more the enough to convince The Fab Four that touring was a thing of the past.
The reaction to Lennon’s remark was at a fever pitch. Christian groups across the south held public burnings of Beatles records. Even the Ku Klux Klan got involved with the “Beatle Bonfires.” All along the summer tour, the Beatles had to repeatedly answer questions about the quote and deal with protests outside their concert venues. The tour mercifully ended August 29, 1966 with only 25,000 fans showing up at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park. The band took a three-month break and concentrated on their own personal interests. They were eager to step away from anything Beatles related.
While on vacation with Beatles tour manager Mal Evans, Paul McCartney began toying with the idea of creating an alter ego for the Beatles and releasing an album using this new identity. He believed that it would free them artistically to experiment and take their music to different places. McCartney was also intrigued and influenced by what the Beach Boys achieved in studio with Pet Sounds and Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention. It was at this point in time that McCartney began to take control of the Beatles’ artistic direction. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band threw out the hasty assembly line method of recording albums. They were in no rush to get this album out, and their goal was to push the limits of what could be done in the studio.
The Sgt. Pepper studio sessions began with "Strawberry Fields Forever,” "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Penny Lane,” and it was the first to use a Mellotron. Beatles manager Brian Epstein was so fearful of the Beatles’ popularity waning, he insisted that ”Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane” be released as a double A side in February 1967 ahead of the album, much to the chagrin of producer George Martin. Martin called the decision to release these songs ahead of the album and not actually include them on the LP "the biggest mistake of my professional life.” Can you imagine what we’d be saying today about Sgt. Pepper had those songs been included? Those on the fence might be forced to reconsider their position.
The opening song, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” begins with the sound of an orchestra warming up to give the illusion of a live performance. The title track crossfades into what is arguably Ringo Starr’s finest Beatles moment, “With a Little Help From My Friends.” There was no such thing as sampling back then, but Martin cleverly used a recording of crowd noise from the Beatles’ concert Live at The Hollywood Bowl as a bridge between the first two songs. The album’s influence extends far beyond the thirteen tracks we’ve heard for the last fifty years. The experimentation the Beatles craved to achieve in studio is evident throughout the LP and they created a blueprint for other acts to study and learn from for decades.
As much as I hate re-releases and the bonus tracks attached to them, I urge you to give the 50th anniversary edition of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a listen. The remixes do not disappoint and with the bonus tracks, you get to listen to the studio banter and how these songs we’ve come to know and love began to take shape. Having ”Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane” included on the new release is an extra bonus. Those two songs deserved to be on the original.
On the final track, “A Day in the Life,” when Lennon sings “I’d love to turn you on,” that was our cue to follow the Beatles on to their next chapter. “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Love Me Do” were in the rearview mirror and they were not turning back or waiting for us to catch up. When the crescendo builds at the end of “A Day in the Life,” it’s as if the Mop Tops vaporized. You can hear and feel it. The band was never the same again.