The 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has now passed, the fanfare has died down and the box sets are already dropping in price on Amazon.
In fact, the anniversary received rather less fanfare than I had been expecting and this is probably because, while the album is still rightly regarded as one of the greats, its legacy has been re-evaluated over the decades and some of the more extravagant claims for its place in history have been laid to rest.
In the 1970s, Sgt. Pepper’s was regarded by fans and rock journalists alike with the sort of uncritical reverence normally reserved for “The Mona Lisa” or” Citizen Kane”. The album was given credit for pioneering psychedelic music and being the first concept album. More commonly, it was accepted as the album that enabled pop music to move from disposable light entertainment to meaningful art form. None of these were true but in the 70s, the Beatles were still gods and their most extravagant creation was beyond reproach.
To understand why some of these claims might have gained credence you have to imagine a time when the music broadcast on radio and TV was limited, with few exceptions, to the mainstream, and to the current singles of the day. Even then, it is hard to explain why it was possible for even the most loyal Beatles commentators to ignore the vast list of Sgt. Pepper’s antecedents.
The Byrds’ album Fifth Dimension and its clearly psychedelic single “Eight Miles High” predate Sgt. Pepper’s by over a year as did “Freak Out” by the Mothers of Invention. In California, folk musicians were experimenting with LSD and producing psychedelic folk as early as 1964 when guitarist John Fahey recorded using backwards guitar tapes, and the playing of a sitar on his nineteen-minute “The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party”
While the Beatles were at Abbey Road Studios recording Sgt. Pepper’s, Pink Floyd were in the next studio recording Piper at the Gates of Dawn. In New York, The Velvet Underground had already completed work on their first album The Velvet Underground & Nico.
So Sgt. Pepper’s was not quite the pioneering album of legend although it certainly did include some fine examples of psychedelic music and introduced some of the more challenging genres to a mainstream audience.
The idea that it is a concept album is misleading because there is no real theme connecting the lyrical content of each song. It could, however, be said that it had an overall concept in terms of being an album by the Beatles’ alter egos in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Other than the opening and closing songs though, this concept doesn’t go beyond the packaging.
The packaging, however, is where Sgt. Pepper’s was very much a pioneer both conceptually and artistically. The gatefold sleeve wasn’t the first ever (as has been claimed) but was certainly a novelty in 1960s mainstream music. It was, however, the first sleeve to have the printed lyrics, and then there is the wonderful artwork by Peter Blake. Never before had the sleeve acted so perfectly as an introduction to the music and been an integral part of the experience. If Sgt. Pepper’s is indeed a concept album then it is the cover and the overall package that enables it to be so.
It would not, however, be the first concept album, whatever definition you use. Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads may well have been the first but there are many claims to this particular title. It has even been suggested that Frank Sinatra’s albums In the Wee Small Hours (1955) and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1958) were early examples and indeed the songs on each have a common, specific subject and mood.
So where does Sgt. Pepper’s sit within the Beatles’ own discography? Naturally, the Beatles themselves have been reluctant to name any album as a favorite although Ringo, when pushed, went for Abbey Road.
Again, in the 70s, a poll of music lovers would have put Sgt. Pepper’s at the top of the pile but then that was without the perspective that we have in 2017. This can be best illustrated by the release in 1973 of the “Red” and “Blue” compilation albums (“1962-1966 and “1967-1970”). Much as we all loved them at the time, I don’t think anyone would pick the same collection of songs today that were chosen by Alan Klein in 1973, a collection most notable for having only two songs from “Revolver”.
Back then, I don’t think that anyone questioned why Klein would divide the Beatles songs into two sections, the fab-four pre-Pepper collection and the supposedly more progressive collection from Pepper onwards. However, the obvious influence of songs from Rubber Soul and Revolver on the music of subsequent decades has led to a re-evaluation of those albums, which have now moved significantly up the pecking order in the eyes of most Beatles fans and the wider public. Neither Rubber Soul nor Revolver could now be just shoved in with the early stuff or left out of a compilation album altogether. In addition to “early Beatles” and “late Beatles” there is now a very important “middle Beatles” which could perhaps stretch from Rubber Soul to Magical Mystery Tour and of course, including Sgt. Pepper.
That middle albums (together with the non-album tracks) is a formidable collection of songs and the more progressive stuff starts long before Sgt. Pepper’s.
The obvious track to mention at this point is Revolver’s “Tomorrow Never Knows”, a dreamy, experimental, psychedelic masterpiece by Lennon featuring backwards guitar and drums which in 2017 is revered as one of the Beatles’ finest songs although back in 1973, Alan Klein didn’t even think it important enough to go on the “Red Album (1962-1966)”.
Revolver though is full of creativity and experiment and is a collection, which clearly challenges its illustrious successor as the Beatles’ artistic high water mark. It is almost impossible to choose outstanding tracks but “Eleanor Rigby”, “Taxman”, “Good Day Sunshine” and “Here, There and Everywhere” would earn a place on any subsequent Beatles album.
Revolver’s predecessor, Rubber Soul is the album where the Beatles really accelerated away from the fab-four era and started to experiment in earnest. Recorded two years before Sgt. Pepper’s it contains the sitar-driven “Norwegian Wood”, the dreamy “In My Life” and the high-energy “Drive My Car” among a collection of songs that let the World know that the Beatles were more than just an excellent pop group.
So although Sgt. Pepper’s is an amazing example of the Beatles’ creativity, it did not single-handedly shift the band from mop-topped purveyors of pop songs to psychedelic heavyweights. That process began with Rubber Soul and by the time that Sgt. Pepper’s was recorded had already produced some of their most creative work.
In writing about the inaccuracy of some of the many things for which Sgt. Pepper has been credited, I would not wish to detract from the fact that it is indeed one of the best albums of the twentieth century. It is certainly one of the Beatles’ best and must surely feature on most people’s list of the best albums of the 1960s. The 13 songs are consistently good with crisp, meticulous arrangements, which show none of the self-indulgence and lack of creative discipline that marred some of the Beatles’ later work. Although it cannot really be said that the album heralded the Summer of Love, it was certainly a very important component of that brief period of optimism and good will.
At 50 years old, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has stood the test of time very well and is likely to do so for a few decades yet.
Words by Simon Harper.