We all want to keep up with the latest and greatest music news. But sometimes, it’s great to look back on all of the fantastic (and not-so-fantastic) events in music that got us to where we are now.
On May 26th, 1967, The Beatles released their landmark album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the UK. It wasn’t released in the U.S.A. until a few days later, but the original official release was 56 years ago. Every time you say something “changed music forever,” it sounds very dramatic. And yet, Sgt. Pepper isn’t an album to be taken lightly. In the U.S.A., the album spent 15 weeks at #1 on the albums charts, while in the Beatles native UK, it stayed at #1 for 22 weeks. That’s almost half a year during one of the most exciting years for new music of all time. The cover is iconic- one of the most recognizable and most parodied/recreated covers of all time. The album itself was revolutionary in both the music presented and the impact it had upon the world of concept albums.
I could talk about this album for far longer than I should, so I’m just going to pull a few topics out to discuss.
Paul McCartney has always stated that at least a portion of his inspiration for the album came from Pet Sounds (released in May of 1966). Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys had stopped touring in 1965 after suffering a nervous breakdown on tour. While his bandmates continued touring with the surf music the band was known for, Wilson stayed back and listened to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and became inspired to create Pet Sounds. The Beatles stopped touring in August of 1966, thus meaning McCartney found himself with much more time to plan his response to Wilson’s response to Rubber Soul. In addition, McCartney, like Wilson and the other Beatles, had now experienced hallucinogens, prompting his desire to create something more psychedelic.
In September of 1966, John Lennon starred in his first film without his bandmates, How I Won the War. The filming process in Spain left him incredibly reflective. He also developed an interest in the art and culture of London. These factors contributed greatly to Lennon’s approach to songwriting for Sgt. Pepper.
George Harrison considered quitting The Beatles throughout 1966, particularly after their final tour saw a death threat in Japan and life-threatening treatment in The Philippines. He attempted to quit the band and only stayed after Brian Epstein assured him they would no longer have to tour. Harrison began to pull away from The Beatles emotionally and focused on his spirituality and the teachings of Indian gurus. He also attempted to learn many Eastern instruments, which drove the musical sound of his solitary songwriting contribution to the album, “Within You Without You.” Despite Harrison’s seeming disinterest, producer George Martin identified Harrison as actually being the band member most committed to trying new sounds on Sgt. Pepper.
George Martin had long been instrumental in the studio, between his knowledge of music theory that The Beatles lacked and his deliberate commitment to ensuring songs could be replicated in concert. But now, Martin would be able to lean more heavily into his music theory knowledge to help The Beatles execute their ideas no matter how strange.
Just like that, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was set up to be introspective, conceptual, unusual, and of course, much more complex than the albums that came before it.
In November of 1966, McCartney was struck with an idea for a song about an Edwardian military band. In late November, The Beatles returned to the studio to record what many people consider to be the definitive concept album of the 1960s.
The roots of the concept album as we know it today go all the way back to Dust Bowl Ballads by Woody Gutherie. In 1940 though, Gutherie’s collection of linked songs was forced across many 78 rpm records, losing the structure that Gutherie had planned. Another early concept album was Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours, though even in 1955, Sinatra was initially denied a 12″ release. Marty Robbins finally managed to release a 12″ “concept” record in 1959 with Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Johnny Cash released two albums similarly on a theme around the same time. Rock bands started joining in around 1964, following the release of The Ventures in Space by The Ventures (the band behind “Telstar”).
Sgt. Pepper wasn’t the first concept album even by our modern understanding, but it did have the broadest cultural impact. It made the concept album accessible with a gatefold sleeve and album insert that furthered the idea of an Edwardian military band being behind this Beatles album. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” also both introduce themselves on the album and announce their departure at the end. The idea of the band becoming an alter-ego has been used often since, from David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust to XTC’s The Dukes of Stratosphear to Eminem’s Slim Shady to 2Pac’s Makaveli and even the entire work of Gorillaz. Prior to Sgt. Pepper, stage names were common and even pseudonyms were not unheard of but were primarily used to get around clauses in recording contracts. Sgt. Pepper opened a new door through which artists could travel to get away from the public’s preconceived notions of them.
Sgt. Pepper had a profound impact on the world musically also. It’s a pop record that used band and orchestral instruments extensively. It uses tape loops and sound effects. It used a broad range of instruments to create the sounds dreamt up by The Beatles. It radiated a kind of creative freedom seldom seen in early 1967, when a huge percentage of groups were still exclusively recording other people’s material and many of them (including the aforementioned Beach Boys) were still using session musicians to ghost-play album recordings the band purported to play (much of this was due to grueling tour schedules, not due to musical inability). Sgt. Pepper launched the summer of love. It officially ushered in a whole new aesthetic of counterculture and expanded the boundaries of music for many people.
Happy Birthday, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band!
–Just Emma (JustEmma@CD929FM.com)
Written by: Emma Sedam
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