Why Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a decisive moment for Western civilisation
PHOTO: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon and George Harrison at the album’s launch in 1967.
It is axiomatic that the 1960s gave rise to several events so vividly etched on the memories of those who lived through them that they still remember what they were doing at the time.
President Kennedy’s assassination is the obvious example.
Another is the first moon landing. In the case of the latter, everyone was doing the same thing — watching it on television.
Most people who remember the 60s also recall where they were the first time they heard Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The Sgt Pepper concept
Sgt Pepper appeared on June 1, 1967, and was an early example of the “concept album”.
The Beatles’ albums had steadily become less like compilations of individual songs, and more like integral statements in which the songs were related to each other, as William Mann was among the first to point out.
Mann was the chief music critic of The Times, and he had taken to reviewing the Beatles’ albums on release, just as he would the premiere of a new work by a modern classical composer, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen.
In his review of Sgt Pepper, he told his readers to expect, “sooner or later”, the pop equivalent of Schumann’s Romantic song cycle, Dichterliebe.
The Times’ theatre critic, Kenneth Tynan, called it “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation”.
It was McCartney’s baby
Although the album contains some of John Lennon’s best-known songs (including Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and A Day in the Life), Sgt Pepper is very much a Paul McCartney record, and most of the songs are by him.
There’s a bright, poppy quality to the album, thanks to songs such as Fixing a Hole, Lovely Rita and Getting Better, though the last has an interpolated Lennon line (“Can’t get no worse”) to bring it down to earth.
By the same token, McCartney provides A Day In The Life with a dose of levity just at the point where it might be thought to be taking itself too seriously: “Woke up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” is all Paul.
The original idea of the album was that the Beatles were not “The Beatles” but the “Lonely Hearts Club Band” of the title.
In this guise, they would introduce themselves and their guests and play a set of songs, musical-hall style.
Somewhere along the line, the original idea seems to have become scrambled, but there remain vestiges of the Sgt Pepper conceit: in the opening song and subsequent introduction of singer “Billy Shears”; in the oom-pah accompaniment to McCartney’s When I’m Sixty-Four; and in Lennon’s Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, whose words were taken, almost verbatim, from a Victorian circus poster.
That famous album cover
Designed by the artist Peter Blake, the cover design shows the four Beatles dressed in brightly coloured military uniforms, clutching musical instruments.
These members of Sgt Pepper’s band are surrounded by a throng of on-lookers among whom are waxwork dummies of the Beatles themselves.
The rest of the crowd consists of effigies of Beatle heroes, including Karl Marx and Carl Gustav Jung, Aldous Huxley and Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allan Poe.
The handful of women among the 70-odd faces are pin-ups and sex symbols like Mae West and Marilyn Monroe (though, strangely, Shirley Temple makes three appearances).
One of the more surprising figures on the cover — top left, between Lenny Bruce and W C Fields — is Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose avant-garde compositions, especially his electronic music, had recently begun to fascinate McCartney.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has what is probably the most famous record cover in history, yet its really significant feature was not the photography on the front, but the words on the rear.
Today we take such documentation for granted, but Sgt Pepper was the first pop album to publish its song lyrics in this manner, and the implication is obvious: the Beatles expected their new record to be listened to with the same kind of attention commonly given to classical music.
In 1963, their first album, Please Please Me, had been recorded in a little under 10 hours; Sgt Pepper took 129 days.
The Beatles now required a correspondingly greater investment of time and effort from their listeners.
I know that many people around the world grew up with the Beetles as did I. My first concert, my first album, my first rock movie all were the Beetles. I remember vowing to myself that I was not going to scream like those silly other girls did. I found myself screaming along with every other teen in the venue. It was hypnotic and no one could respond in any other way. At least I have never known anyone who confessed to different behavior.
I have been to many rock concerts since those days. I have seen George Harrison, may he rest in peace, and Paul McCartney in concert. Ringo please come to Asheville, NC. I feel that musically we have lived in a magic age that found its roots in the 60’s revolution and then blosssomed out and created a garden full of amazing composers, singers and musicians. I wish to thank them all for providing the soundtrack of my life.