Landmark LP forever changed rock ‘n’ roll
June 1, 1967, was a day that forever changed the faces of both rock ‘n’ roll and popular music, as it was on that day that the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
After a performance at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park (in what proved to be the group’s final live show aside from a one-off Apple rooftop appearance in 1969), speculation began that the band was about to call it quits. However, rumors of their demise were premature (at least for a while), as the group returned with a historic album that would influence nearly everything that would come after it.
Created after the Fab Four were free from exhausting touring constraints and when their energy was focused solely on studio recording, “Sgt. Pepper’s” is a concept album that broke new ground and set the stage for art-rock acts like Queen and progressive-rock groups such as Pink Floyd, Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
When John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr first burst onto the worldwide music scene, they did so as a skiffle band that was influenced by the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly. Their fresh take on an old sound revived rock ‘n’ roll, which hadn’t been the same since Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson aka the Big Bopper were killed in an infamous 1959 plane crash.
The group’s early recordings were simple yet invigorating, but the Beatles would evolve fairly rapidly and begin experimenting with new sounds on the double whammy of “Rubber Soul” (1965) and “Revolver” (1966). “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” appeared on the former and featured Harrison, one of rock’s iconic guitarists, trying his hand at the sitar. The introduction of such a different sound seemed to signal a metamorphosis for the group. Further experimentation marked the latter album.
As the band was exploring new frontiers musically, each member was doing the same on a personal level. Lennon began experimenting with LSD, Harrison’s songwriting grew more socially conscious and McCartney, the quintessential musician, became more experimental in both respects. All of this happened under the supervision and tutelage of George Martin, the group’s (mad) genius producer.
“Sgt. Pepper’s” title track opens the LP, introducing the Beatles as the nominal characters in question to a live audience – ironic – gathered at what ostensibly is some kind of ball. McCartney sings: “It was 20 years ago today/that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play/They’ve been going in and out of style/but they’re guaranteed to make you smile.” Little did McCartney know just how prophetic that his opening lyrics would be.
Although the entire album clocks in at less than 40 minutes, people are still talking about it today, five decades after it first hit store shelves, replete with an innovative cover that featured the band in silk military uniforms and many recognizable cultural personalities of the time.
McCartney also composed the cinematic, string-laden “When I’m Sixty-Four,” a tune better suited for a Broadway musical than a pop album. Naturally, the song received revived popularity when it was featured in the film adaptation of the novel “The World According to Garp.”
Lennon’s stellar influence can be heard on such tracks as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” McCartney’s “Fixin’ a Hole” is equally as psychedelically engrossing in places. Even Starr made an indelible mark with his vocal turn on “With a Little Help From My Friends.” Really, though, regardless of how experimental it may be, each track works, is a functioning part of a whole and remains fresh to this day – save perhaps for Harrison’s droning “Within You Without You.”
Standing apart from its predecessors, though, is the monumental finale, “A Day in the Life.” In it, Lennon and McCartney trade verses in a fractured suite. Lennon constructs what appears to be a hallucinogenic trip through a daily newspaper before McCartney snaps listeners back to reality by singing more literally about a man who, burdened by the pressures of daily life, oversleeps and is nearly late to work. Lennon retakes the lead with dreamlike vocals before the track swells to a thrilling and disorienting crescendo.
As was stated previously, “Sgt. Pepper’s” represents the beginning for the art-rock and prog-rock genres, although the Beach Boys could make the same claim, having made a staggering breakthrough with the excellent “Pet Sounds” the year before. The Beatles’ LP is hailed as the one of the best in pop history, which may be too much praise, but it did overshadow its American counterpart,
The Brits’ 1967 work has its place in history, and its influence on popular music is undeniable. But it’s hard to say it’s the greatest of all time because, in my opinion at least, the band would ultimately better it with 1969’s “Abbey Road,” which sadly was the last album that the Fab Four would record together. As music fans, though, we need to enjoy “Sgt. Pepper’s” for what it is: a great album, maybe a bit dated, but one that forever changed music when the bandleader taught the band to play.