Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and 1967:
The Beginning of the Revolution
THAT subtitle might seem like a bit of a bold statement…
but there are two reasons for doing this feature. For one, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band will turn fifty in June. It is scary to think of anything turning fifty, not least a remarkable album that seems as fresh today as it did back then. I have been a little down on music and struggle to find anyone that innovative and progressive. Maybe most genres have been covered and, like a scientific breakthrough, it is much harder breaking ground and doing something genuinely startling. In fact, I was struggling to think of the last album that came out of nowhere and knocked me back – maybe Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly back in 2015. That album, to me, spoke for a black generation competing against police brutality, oppression and discrimination. Instead of producing a series of angry, aimless songs: what we got is a transcendent, epoch-defining statement from a stunning lyricist and performer. Since then, there have been remarkable albums but few that really take the breath. I was thinking about an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and a period when a mini-Big Bang sort of occurred. The Beatles’ eighth studio album was, in effect, one of the first real concept albums – it spent fifteen weeks at number one and elevated Pop to masterful, unseen heights. You can toss the hyperbole and sentiments around all you want: its legacy and impact cannot be underestimated. It scooped four Grammy Awards and seen as one of the most influential albums of the 1960s. Before I explain the importance of the album – and the other works that came out in 1967 – I wanted to give some backstory and insight into the record itself. Me and my family are divided when it comes to declaring our favourite Beatles album. My mum (and dad to an extent) will always favour Revolver: the psychotropic touches and beautiful melodies; that focused and perfect album that covers so much ground and contains no weak spots. I always root for 1965’s Rubber Soul. To me, it is the beginning of The Beatles’ rise and their all-originals album that saw them progress and take brave new steps.
Perhaps there are not the biblical moments like Tomorrow Never Knows or Taxman; the elegance and tenderness of Here, There and Everywhere but there are some incredible songs. I love the youthfulness and the breeziness of Drive My Car and Norwegian Wood; the sway and seduction of Michelle – even the underrated and Lennon-hated chorus of Run for Your Life. I can see an argument for every Beatles album, to be fair. There is a lot of affection for Abbey Road but in terms of importance and landmark; Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is The One. By August 1966, The Beatles had retired from touring and were holidaying – recovering and recharging the batteries. The album began with McCartney and an idea of a Victorian brass band: a sort of marching troupe that had that olde-world carnival sound and something quirky and whimsical. It built from there and given impetus by the before-album recording of the twin masterpieces Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane. That double A-side (the best in history) showed what form the four were in. The fact there were not included on the album shows what a standard the Liverpool group had at the time – just imagine if the album did have those two peerless tracks on it!? It is an Art-Rock album and another creative step from the group. Following the romantic and personal albums like Rubber Soul to the more experimental and daring Revolver – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band brought all that together and pushed the envelope even more. Everything about the album sounds radical and foreshadowing. Few bands, at that time, would dare to employ a forty-piece orchestra or have that ominous, endless piano note at the end of A Day in the Life. That album cover – from a band who created stunning covers for Abbey Road and their eponymous record – topped all of that with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. It has been dissected for decades and remains one of the most parodied and stunning album covers ever. It was not just the visual aspects that were at their peak. The production and musicians hired for the recording sessions were immense. Aside from that orchestra, just listen to all the instruments and sounds in that album. The double-side-release transformed music and showed what was truly possible.
Recording the album between 1966 and 1967, it grew out of the experimentation and energy of Revolver – almost a continuation in a lot of ways. It was at this time Paul McCartney was establishing himself as The Beatles’ dominant creative force. This dynamic and struggle helped lead to the dissent and tension that would begin for The Beatles – that downward spiral that ended in Let It Be’s sloppy and fraught sessions. That golden time for the band would crystallise in an album that was one of the more harmonious and all-inclusive. George Harrison started to become more confident as a songwriter – Within Without You was his only composition but one of the finest he had ever penned. What is remarkable (among other things) about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is it looks to the future but is concerned with capturing the spirit of the time. That Summer of Love/freedom vibe was wafting in the air like a delirious perfume. Because of that, there is a general vibe of unity and brotherhood; frequent drug references/terms (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, although misinterpreted, was seen as a paen to L.S.D.; With a Little Help from My Friends has that dope-reference cheekiness) came in and there was a definite scent of the 1960s. Not all the songs were as easy and kicked-back. Fixing a Hole has its legends and background – a man that turned up at McCartney’s house, having a breakdown, was brought to the studio and sat in the corner where he promised to be quiet – and stems from that old analogy (a hole in the road where the rain gets in). Getting Better has that optimistic McCartney verse that is then counterbalanced by Lennon’s cynical “Can’t get no worse” interjection – a typical slice of downbeat humour as McCartney recalled. It showed the contrasting personalities of the songwriters but it much more than that – listening to the drone lines and the guitar work through that track! Another example of the band reinventing the wheel and doing what had rarely been done.
That first time had that blend of humour and fantastical with more serious and introspective. McCartney’s title track introduced the ring-leader, Billy Shears (Ringo Starr) and welcomes people into the ‘show’ – the start of the concept and the acts for the evening. You get those trippy/1960s’ tracks like With a Little Help with My Friends but something like She’s Leaving Home. That song is the domestic drama that sees the daughter flying the nest having lived there for so many years. The way they are interspersed and programmed is amazing: one hears the bookends of flight and fancy (Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite completes things) and a nice balance of emotional and spirited. The second side kicks off with that Harrison composition: When I’m Sixty-Four and Lovely Rita are two traditional English pieces that could only come from McCartney. Showing his gifts as a character writer and observational lyricist; both songs have that step and energy with lyrics that paints pictures and raise smiles. Good Morning Good Morning (Lennon’s baby) recalls the experimentation sentiments of Revolver and showcases the ability and consistency Lennon possessed at this time – although his contributions are fewer than, say, Revolver. That concept piece is reprised (penultimate) and that leads to the swansong, A Day in the Life – but more on that later.
You can dissect the song and each moment to find such depth and talent within. You get Ragtime and Music Hall in McCartney’s When I’m Sixty-Four; Psychedelia in Lennon’s Good Morning Good Morning – it has unusual 5/4, 4/4 and 3/4 time signatures – and Indian mysticism in Within You Without You. Lovely Rita is Baroque and fairground waltz in other moments. There is this competing movement of Summer of Love/Flower Power and ostensibly British values. McCartney’s songwriting borrows from George Formby and artists of that oeuvre whilst Lennon dips more into the sounds of sounds of The East and experimental sides. McCartney was no slouch with regards experimentation but the two songwriters showed their different sides throughout. There is charm and brilliance together with seriousness and the epic. It is an album whose two sides are different in sound – the first side being strongest in my view – but both hangs together superbly. It is that Sgt. Pepper suite and idea that gives it the hook and centre: you follow the concept from start to finish: all the characters and drama; the love, romance and mind-melting drugs. It captures all the movements, spirit and life at the time. It is a timeless album that is at-once The Beatles but represents everyone. Completing that album is that extraordinary, multi-part epic, A Day in the Life. It is a combination of Lennon’s lyrics and input with brilliant McCartney interjection. Lennon, looking at the news, T.V. and film gained inspiration for the themes sung in the song – holes in Blackburn, a film about the war; politician blowing his mind out in a car etc. – whilst McCartney provides that aside: waking up and falling out of bed; dragging a comb across his head, etc. That dreamy, come-on (“I’d love to turn you on”) follows before the strings rise and the atmosphere gets heavy. It is a song impossible to decompose and properly understand: a sensational experience and aural revelation that makes good use of that forty-piece orchestra – all culminating in that slammed piano note at the very end (McCartney, Lennon; Starr and Mal Evans (road manager) all hitting that E major chord).
Many can claim different years in music seemed to define the art. I argue 1994 is a time when music peaked whilst overs see 1979 as pivotal. I can see a lot of validity for those who bat for 1967. Not only was the world’s biggest band at their very peak: something was happening in the world that, today, seems foreign. Summer of Love was happening this year and, instead of being an excuse to smoke dope and get together – it resonated with musicians who created some of the best music we have seen. Whilst The Beatles encompassed the movement more directly than The Velvet Underground: their album with Nico was renowned for its experimentation and bold lyrics – looking at drug use, prostitution and sexual deviancy. Critics at the time ignored it completely – maybe it was too raw and antithesis to the free spirit and come-together vibes of the time. Perhaps too dark and controversial: it is an album that was given huge retrospective acclaim; one of the greatest albums ever. Lou Reed’s exceptional songwriting and the dynamic between the band – Nico adding those exotic and unique vocals – makes it an album that keeps on revealing truths all these years down the line. Psychedelia, cosmic masterpieces from Cream (Disraeli Gears) and The Jimi Hendrix Experience (Axis: Bold as Love) was a peak for 1960s guitar music – titans of the form showing just how iconic and talented they were. Both those albums are deep and rich with power, emotion and potency. Established British bands like The Kinks and The Who delivered early-career masterpieces. The former brought us Something Else whilst The Kinks gave us The Who Sell Out. Pink Floyd – not to be outdone and ignored when it comes to Psychedelia – produced the sublime The Piper at the Gates of Dawn – whilst Dylan continued to craft exquisite albums – John Wesley Harding a faultless record that contained All Along the Watchtower (Hendrix latching onto it and producing that immense cover). The quality and contrasts of 1967 can be distilled into two albums: Captain Beefheart’s mad, bad and dangerous Safe as Milk; Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Maybe I am being wistful and subject to nostalgia – despite the fact I wasn’t born – but see 1967 as the year music really hit its stride. In a way, it was the explosion that led to the brilliant music that followed. How many great albums of the 1970s – 1990s would have occurred was it not for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or The Velvet Underground & Nico?! Not only did the adjacent and concurring love movement leading to some natural (and unnatural!) highs but the support between musicians was extraordinary. With The Beatles putting out that experimental masterpiece: others were looking at them and following suit; pushing their music and doing things that has never been done before. The music of 1967 has a few weak albums but, by and large, it is quality, innovation and evolution. If you consider the 1970s as the best decade for music you’d have to ask whether it would be as strong were it not for bands like The Beatles. I wanted to commemorate (a bit early) the fiftieth birthday of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as the moment music was really born – it changed and grew into something that has endured and inspired this far down the tracks. Whilst many fans of The Beatles would argue there are better albums than Sgt. Pepper’s’; there are none more important and relevant. I still favour Rubber Soul and would put Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band below that and Abbey Road. I adore the thing but do not get the same feeling I get from Rubber Soul. That said, I acknowledge there is a lot more to love and obsesses over (with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). The album is preparing for its big birthday and, in three months, will hit that big 5-0. Scary to consider but a timely reminder of how stunning and important 1967 was. I would love to see something happen like the Summer of Love and a real explosion in fantastic music. Whilst it might not hit the same quality and timelessness as 1967-made albums; we need to see something that gives music a much-needed vitality and movement. We could learn from the example of 1967 and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and rebel against the scary world in which we live. If we all joined up and created some counter-cultural expression of love and togetherness; that could, in turn…
CHANGE the music world for the better.