It was 50 years ago today. In Australia, an album was released by The Beatles with the opening lyric, ‘It was twenty years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play.’ Western culture has never been the same since.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would go on to become The Beatles’ most successful album. But it is also widely regarded as the greatest album of all time – topping, for example, Rolling Stone Magazine’s Greatest 500 Albums of All Time. Yet its success and impact spread far beyond the world of popular music. Amongst The Beatles’ heavy contribution to radically reshaping Western culture on the anvil of their talent, Sgt. Pepper was their most significant blow.
Out of favour
A critical factor in its impact were events in the year before its release, summed up by a headline about The Beatles which asked, ‘Has the bubble burst?’ After four years of Beatlemania, in which everything they touched turned to gold, by mid-1966 it seemed the adoring fans were tiring of The Beatles. For the first time, they released a single which didn’t go to number one (astonishingly, the double A sided Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane). They were playing to unfilled stadiums in the United States and received a mixed reception on tour in Asia. No matter what he had meant to say, they faced a huge backlash after John Lennon had said, ‘Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity.’
But The Beatles seemed to be tiring of the adoring fans also. Publicly they announced they would no longer be touring, performing their last live concert at the end of August 1966. Privately, they were increasingly embarrassed and frustrated by their live performances in which their musicianship seemed unimportant. They performed none of the songs of their most recent album Revolver, and the songs they did perform they felt they played badly. They clashed with their manager Brian Epstein over their exhausting touring schedule which came to a head when George threatened to quit the band if touring continued. The band members went on three month’s holidays to separate, far away places including India and Africa.
The Beatles were not alone in being burnt out by touring. Bob Dylan crashed his motorcycle in July 1966 after releasing his historic Blonde on Blonde album and after a breakneck tour. Having led the counter-cultural revolution, he now abdicated his position as leader. The vacuum seemed to be being filled by The Rolling Stones, who topped the charts with Aftermath, and The Beach Boys, who had released the impressive Pet Sounds. The Fab Four Mop tops seemed passé, quaint and spent.
On the plane back to London from his holidays, a roadie asked Paul McCartney to pass the salt and pepper. McCartney misheard him and thought he said, ‘Sergeant Pepper.’ It set off a chain of events which would culminate in the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The title track was not the first song recorded, but during its recording McCartney came up with the thought that the album could have a theme of being a concert performed by an invented Edwardian band. The genius of this was that it gave them permission to not have to be ‘The Beatles’ and the band was liberated. The band was liberated in another way too: they no longer had the pressure on them to perform and having to be concerned about how they would translate their songs from studio to stage. Consequently, far from having dried up, The Beatles were working away on their most creative and compelling compositions. Inspired by Pet Sounds, and with considerable input from producer George Martin in particular (but other technicians as well), they made full use of their seemingly limitless budget to use a vast array of (at the time) cutting edge production techniques which revolutionised the sounds they were creating.
Nowhere was the shift in The Beatles' approach more obvious than on the album cover. While their first album Please Please Me had cost a mere 400 pounds and 23 hours to produce in total, the cover alone of Sgt. Pepper cost 3,000 pounds and the album took 700 hours in the studio to produce. It marked The Beatles’ move from being mere performers to being artists as well. The album cover featured a vast array of cardboard cut-outs of Beatles heroes from philosophers like Karl Marx through to movie stars and Bob Dylan. Symbolically, Madame Tussaud’s wax effigies of the suited ‘Fab Four’ stood at the side, looking colourless and downcast. The band, by contrast, dressed as Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band in colourful day-glo and stared lovingly at the camera. It became one of the iconic images of the 20th century and elevated the place of the album cover to that of serious contemporary art.
Back in the game
Upon its release on May 26 1967 in the UK (June 1 in Australasia) it became immediately clear that Sgt. Pepper easily carried all the expectations Beatlemania may have created and more. One writer has said, with some justification, “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. In every city in Europe and America the radio stations played [it] … and everyone listened … it was the most amazing thing I've ever heard. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
Sgt. Pepper spent 22 weeks and 15 weeks at the top of the charts in the UK and the US respectively. It was played on continuous rotation by radio stations. It received the highest praise critically for transforming low brow into high end art. And more than any other album, it captured and shaped a generation, of whom there was an abundance since the post-war boom.
In addition to its cover the album was bursting with innovation. One first was that there were no gaps between the songs giving the impression of a continuous concert. A vast array of new production techniques including alternating the speed of the recording, flanging singer’s voices, multitrack recording to name but a few – were used to produce a genuinely ground-breaking sound. Yet unlike so many first attempts at technical wizardry, the personality of the artists was not drowned out but rather enhanced by the technology. In particular, The Beatles’ trademark sense of humour was evident throughout the album, never more clearly than after the final chord was struck to A Day in the Life – a high pitched sound which could only be heard by dogs ended the album, and then, on records, during the ‘run out groove’ which usually ticked away on record players that didn’t have automatic return, laughter and muffled conversation could be heard.
Perhaps one of the more obvious innovations was the writing of the lyrics of the songs on the inside cover. As one writer put it, ‘inscripturating The Beatles' words; fans pored over them and treated their words as sacred.’
Variety, unity, controversy
The songs themselves were eclectic, to say the least. Apart from the album’s eponymous opening track and its reprise were ten songs of extraordinary variety. There was a rock song about the repetitiveness of domestic life borrowed from a cereal commercial (Good Morning Good Morning), an Indian classical song accompanied by a plethora of Indian instrumentation which reflected Hindu philosophy (Within You Without You), a song about an Edwardian era circus, a novel vaudeville style song aimed at parents (When I’m 64), a guitar-less ballad about a run-away child (She’s Leaving Home), and a song whose initials spelled LSD and which sounded very much like a drug trip (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds).
And yet for all the extraordinary variety of songs on the album, there was a certain cohesion. While Lennon insisted they worked hard to eliminate obvious drug references in the songs, subtle and not so subtle references peppered the album. In addition to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, which was banned by the BBC for apparent drug references, A Day In The Life was also banned due to the phrase ‘I’d love to turn you on’ being believed to encourage drug use. Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite! was also banned since ‘Henry the Horse’ was felt to refer to heroin. But even amongst songs which weren’t banned, there were references to getting high, taking tea and digging weeds which looked suspiciously like references to cannabis use.
But there was a deeper unity to the album than the expression of psychedelia; there was the reason behind it, namely, the search for meaning. Ringo said of the bands’ experimenting with drugs, “We have got almost anything money can buy. But when you can do that, the things you buy mean nothing after a time. You look for something else, for a new experience.” Nothing communicated this better than the song’s closing masterpiece A Day In The Life, which, acting as a coda, interpreted the entire album as escaping from the mundanities of day to day life.
Searching for more
The inclusion of the Self Realisation Gurus on the cover and the song Within You Without You stemmed from the same search. “We made our money and fame, but for me that wasn’t it,” George Harrison said. “It was good fun for a while, but it certainly wasn’t the answer to what life is about.”
In this, a theme of Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band overlaps with the search for meaning in the book of Ecclesiastes (which, significantly, had been recently sung by The Beatles’ US counterparts The Byrds in their hit Turn! Turn! Turn!). Ringo could just as well have said along with the writer of Ecclesiastes, “I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone before me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.” (Ecclesiastes 2:8-10)
The conclusion drawn from this search, captured by songs like Good Morning Good Morning and A Day In The Life, echo that of Ecclesiastes too. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (2:11)
The dream fades
The subsequent impact of Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band on western culture was immense. Christianity hasn’t gone, nor has it vanished and shrunk as Lennon prophesied. In many areas beyond the West it has expanded enormously. Rock & roll, on the other hand, looks increasingly like the music of a distinct culture from generations past.
Nevertheless, when Billy Graham toured New Zealand in 1959, less than 1 per cent of the population identified as having ‘no religion’. In the most recent census in 2013, more than 42% identified as having ‘no religion’. It is a statistic that could be repeated across the Western world. While there is a vast array of reasons for that staggering change within two generations, few, if any, led so many away from traditional religion in the West than The Beatles. Sgt. Pepper didn’t simply offer an alternative form of music; it offered an alternative way of life and view of the world.
Like so many utopian visions, it was one which the reality of human experience has dismantled. The great high which Sgt. Pepper introduced, promoting a brighter future through a counter culture, was soon brought crashing down. In August, their manager Brian Epstein died of a drug overdose. Lennon also later acknowledged that Epstein’s death perhaps sowed the beginning of the end of the band, and would himself admit to suffering terribly because of drug use. With Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Lennon, who had recently met Yoko Ono, resented McCartney’s increasing leadership and artistic control of the studio albums, while George Harrison and Ringo Starr felt more like session musicians than members of a band. The Beatles would still release four more brilliant albums, yet it would only be a little over two years before they would record together for the last time, and divorce for good soon after. If the love was all that was needed, The Beatles didn’t have it. Or if they had love, it wasn’t all they needed. Perhaps faith in Jesus, whom Lennon had wanted on the cover, and hope which can overcome even Hitler, whom Lennon also wanted on the cover, were needed after all.