Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band:
“It Was Fifty Years Ago Today…”
THERE are entire music careers that would not bring together…
Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, fairground noises and tape manipulation. That is only really skimming the surface of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album was released fifty years ago today (in the U.S.) and is, rightfully, being given a lot of exposure and celebration. Howard Goodall is producing a special documentary on the album: he will deconstruct the songs and show exactly what went into recording each number. It is mind-boggling thinking about the fastidiousness, time and passion needed to make those fabled and iconic songs. Take the title track(s) and you hear the circus roar and the carnival begin.
Today, one might appropriate that sensation through technology and all manner of software. It might be hard conceiving such a sonic banquet but its execution would not be too difficult.
For The Beatles – Paul McCartney, especially, in this case – the reverse would be true. One imagines he imagined that song pretty freely but getting everything in his head down on tape would have been a real feat. I use the word ‘tape’ because, in 1967, the world’s greatest band had the same limitations as everyone else. The four-track recorded and basic technology was what they had at their disposal. I was listening to a radio interview earlier Howard Goodall conducted that explained how Strawberry Fields Forever – which was scheduled to be on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band but released as a double A-side (with Penny Lane) instead – and how they got that trance-like sound. It appears like there are two tracks playing at different speeds but, in essence, it is two different-recorded pieces with one slowed down. Play them in isolation and one is decidedly accelerated and high-pitched. To create that wooziness; that livelier version was slowed and mixed to create a drugged and fantastical sound. Penny Lane, with all its bells, whistles and effects would have been a logistical nightmare.
I run down the tracklist and see few songs that have that simple, easy Beatles sound that defined their earlier work. Before then – or up until Revolver, at least – they were used to the three-minute Pop songs and getting albums recorded pretty quickly. As they approached Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Clubs Band; there was a feeling this had to be a different creation from a new band – hence the alter egos the Fab Four utilised for their landmark record. They would spend long nights in the studio and ensure every song they crafted pushed the limits. Even less-complicated songs like Lovely Rita and Getting Better, if you listen hard, would have taken a huge amount of effort.
The reason I love the album is how it pushed technology – and the extraordinary progressive result that followed. Few bands at the time would have dared anything like that: the fact it has become part of music history shows what a big deal it is.
It has had such an effect, not only on those who were alive when the album was released but musicians today. I was born way after it was released but found it of my own volition. It was not shoved down my throat and I was not pressured into listening. Discovering it and hearing all the complexities unfold was a huge revelatory moment. The more time has gone on, the more I get from the L.P. There are those who claim it is overrated and not the best Beatles album and, in terms of quality, they might be right. I prefer Rubber Soul and Revolver but feel Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is receiving such attention is how forward-thinking it was. You can quibble whether all the songs are good and how consistent it is but one cannot deny how important it is.
If we address the quality side of things, there might be a couple of songs one could live without – Within Without You and When I’m Sixty-Four have not won everyone – but I feel every moment on the album, is crucial and part of a wider collage. Take one brick out the wall and the structure becomes vulnerable and less formidable. Depending on your tastes and needs; there is going to be something to wet the appetite. It is a time when we should not be debating the merits of an album’s individual songs but recognising why it is so special to people. If you want to ignore Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band then the hoopla will be over very soon. If, like me, you want to take everything in, keep your eyes peeled for all the documentaries, dedications and shows that will be happening across national radio and T.V. Today, we take albums for granted in the sense we have technology at our hands and so much music at our disposal.
Fifty years ago, bands like The Beatles had modest equipment so relied on their own imaginations and innovation.
I honestly feel no band today could create an album like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because it seems like a challenge. You get artists who throw a lot into the mix but few who take such a broad and varied approach to genres and themes. Either an act is personal and singular or more interested in characters – rarely does one integrate the two. The Beatles had that charming figures and stories but could mix it in with emotional, affecting numbers; addled and trippy numbers and something more settled. I believe nobody would take the risk and push their own limits that much. Maybe there would be commercial consequences or critical haughtiness but that is why The Beatles did what they did – not repeating what had gone before and genuinely trying to change music. This is what they did and, in the proves, have compelled generations and dared them to be bolder and braver.
PHOTO CREDIT: The Beatles Book Photo Library
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band finds supporters and critics when you judge it on quality alone. As I said, it plays second-fiddle to Rubber Soul but the highlights of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are more impactful than any other album. A Day in the Life, especially, was never topped in terms of its impact and effect. It is John Lennon at his finest and, aside from McCartney’s wonderful bed-head interjection, ranks as one of the greatest songs ever. She’s Leaving Home and Getting Better are considered some of the band’s best work and they are not exactly without peers – there are plenty of songs on the album that get into the head and provoke multiple listens.
It is rare, in an age where we look for the immediate, to take the time to deconstruct and celebrate an album.
Sure, The Beatles’ 1967 opus was not the only extraordinary album to come out around that time – why not give the spotlight to other albums from that time?! I feel we should applaud every one of those classic albums but there was something extraordinary and life-altering about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Some people at the time were saying it was as significant as J.F.K.’s assassination (in 1963). That might seem like hyperbole but the album really did make that big a noise. Music has heard nothing like it which was not only exciting and inspiring for musicians at the time but shook up the limits of the studio. Artists no longer needed to rely on a rather limited and stringent work method: they could experiment more and test the limitations of the day’s technology. Others remark bands, because of The Beatles’ example, became self-indulgent and put out sub-par records. That is not The Beatles’ fault whatsoever. Of course, every revolutionary thing will have copycats and those who feel they can do better. It is debatable whether any artist has rivalled what The Beatles did in 1967 but the fact musicians today and learning from it and adapting it into their music is wonderful.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was not an experiment to placate the feverdream imaginations of substance-high musicians who wanted to over-indulge and prat about. It was the world’s biggest band taking a huge commercial and creative gamble. Critics assumed the band had split or gone off the radar. Today, the biggest artists can take years between albums and people think nothing of it. You couldn’t be The Beatles – with their turnover and fan demands – and spend THAT long recording anything. The fact Revolver came out in 1966 shows there wasn’t a massive chasm between albums – Magical Mystery Tour’s soundtrack was released in 1967, too, so the boys were really unproductive mood! If they smashed out an album pretty quick, it might be more consistent in terms of its sounds and quality but would it be as monumental and ground-breaking as Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? Of course not and that, I contest, is why The Beatles should be congratulated and celebrated. Yes, the album has its critics and to anyone who thinks it is overrated and unfairly revered: I, myself, will admit the quality is not as high as several of their albums.
I feel no album before or since pushed music on in the same way – certainly not as unexpectedly.
It is a stunning work from four men (and producer George Martin) who wanted to do something wonderful and new. Few could have predicted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band would endure fifty years down the line but that it has. Take the next few days to enjoy all the various programmes and chats about the album. Hearing from the likes of Howard Goodall (who I recently shared a studio with whilst being interviewed by BBC Radio 5) and the unravelling of the music – how various songs were layered and constructed – not only explains what a huge achievement the album was but it teaches you about music and sound itself – which most of us take for granted. Educational, progressive and utterly extraordinary: Sgt, Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band changed the world in 1967 and…
IS still doing so in 2017.