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© 2002 by Carl Schonbeck

It was easier at twenty. When the Beatles’ most famous work was first released on CD in June of 1987, Paul McCartney’s opening shout of “It was twenty years ago today….” could almost seem prognostic (those behind the digital boom certainly hoped so anyway). But now, Sgt Pepper at the age when one can legally become President? Unthinkable. A Lonely Heart’s Club Band starting to think about sending their kids to college? Not possible. Yet it’s true. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns thirty-five this summer.

Of all the Beatle’s album releases, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has perhaps undergone the greatest amount of revision over time. Upon its release in 1967 it was, of course, a stunning success (though some critics, not to mention Bob Dylan, were soured on the Fabs baroque direction). Through the 1970s and 1980s it regularly topped greatest record of all time polls. As a younger generation discovered the group during the 1990s, however, its previously untouchable perch was often challenged, especially in Britain, by the albums that immediately preceded and followed it. Revolver was often said to contain better songs and more cohesive band chemistry, while the so-called White Album was hailed (rather late in the day) as a monumental, if chaotic, collection of rawer musical styles (the traditional view had usually seen Pepper and Abbey Road battling it out for top honours). Few if any would deny that Sgt Pepper is a fantastic piece of work, but what it means today is not always so clear. The truth is that the Beatles’ most famous record is both their most misunderstood and hardest to judge outside of the period in which it was created.

While the Beatles were never immune to what was happening around them, be it folk-rock or the British blues boom, Sgt Pepper is their record most rooted in the time and place it was made. This was not by chance. Earlier albums had been made on the run around touring schedules and a numbing succession of hotels and press conferences, while post-Pepper releases all showed the strain of a group struggling against ever-greater individual ambitions. With the band’s decision to cease playing live following their nearly disastrous 1966 world tour, from which Lennon’s “bigger than Jesus” flap and their “snub” of the Marcos regime in the Philippines were but the two most famous incidents, the Beatles, in their own minds at least, ceased to be Beatles in the one collective mind sense the moment they stepped offstage for the last time in San Francisco. What is often forgotten about those loveable, smiling mop tops is that from 1963 to 1966 they were one of the most ruthlessly efficient showbiz moneymaking machines in history. This and Beatlemania itself often resulted in John-Paul-George-and Ringo being more secluded than Howard Hughes and having little time to savour what was happening outside the show business bubble that had grown around them. In the thirty months the Beatles would remain together after the release of Pepper, they would have time to explore the world around them, but the art resulting from this would, more often than not, be reflected through a four-way prism. Sgt Pepper captured a special moment (late ‘66/early ’67) when each group member went his own way to find himself and catch up on what was happening (John acted, took LSD and read the newspaper, Paul threw himself into the swinging London art avant-garde scene, George went East, Ringo hit the pub etc.) but then allowed his experiences to be used in creating something greater than the sum of the parts. This was the glory of Pepper. Be for better or worse, it would never happen again. And while it would be the first time the Beatles recorded over a period of months (in this case four), it would be the last time Lennon and McCartney collaborated closely.

Today it is well documented that, of all the Beatles, Paul McCartney was the most tuned into what we now associate with hip London circa1967: the art galleries, the deep conversations, the nightclubs and “happenings,” not to mention the occasional naivety, elitism and false optimism of that time. This fact results in Pepper being both the easiest to date and McCartney-heavy of all the Beatles’ records, with all that this implies. You find craft, breathtaking arrangements, hooks galore (though probably not quite on the same level as his Revolver work) and great vocals but also the type of fluff (the title track, “Lovely Rita”) that probably wouldn’t have passed muster on Revolver. It is a paradox that much of what makes Pepper great also makes it sound dated. It is the Beatles’ most self-conscious work and most of this is due to Paul. It’s almost as if he wanted to show London and the rest of the world how well he’d digested the lessons on Stockhausen, underground cinema and De Kooning given to him by Jane Asher and his pals at the Indica Gallery. It must be said, however, that the record is perhaps the only instance where tunes associated with McCartney dig deeper into the soul than those written by Lennon. While none of the songs on Pepper are really penetrating on an emotionally personal level (this soundtrack to the Summer of Love is the only Beatles’ record not to contain a traditional love song), songs like “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole” show us a young man making no bones about trying to find himself (though on the former it was John who provided the lines about being violent in his youth). John’s soul searching would come over the next few years; for now he was the dream weaver.

If McCartney was the most “tuned in” of the Beatles during the making of the record, then it’s equally well documented that by 1967 Lennon was the most “tuned out.” Having met Timothy Leary in London a year earlier, he took the acid guru’s advice regarding “dropping out” to heart. Not that “out” was all Lennon was dropping. By his own later admission, he ingested massive amounts of LSD and the damage done to his ego by the drug, together with his stifling suburban existence, cost him his dominant position in the Beatles (of course all of the Beatles were heavy pot smokers in this period). Lennon could thank his brilliant mind and street survival instincts for his not crashing like famous casualties such as Syd Barrett and Skip Spence, but for the moment, it was Paul cracking the whip musically. It’s not surprising, perhaps, that one of the first things Lennon tried to do following the Beatles’ break-up was put Paul’s supreme moment in its place. Sgt Pepper in many ways remains a Lennon oddity. With the exception of the (if you ask me) vastly underrated “Good Morning, Good Morning,” home to one of the Beatles’ finest rock grooves and snidest of Lennon vocals, there is very little that is either personal or particularly rocking. At the same time, it contains what many consider to be his greatest piece of work, “A Day in the Life.” Lennon later referred to songs like “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” as “watercolours” and it is an apt description, though the latter at least has a bluesy edge that gets better with age. If McCartney was intent on creating a circus/carnival atmosphere, Lennon was going to make sure it contained the proper spooky edge. Another odd thing about the album is how controlled he sounds, as if the massive amounts of chemicals floating through his bloodstream had cut off large currents of real emotion. This was a marked contrast to his drug-fuelled exuberance on Revolver songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “She Said, She Said.” Yet his singing, especially on “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day in the Life” is among his most moving. Several of John’s best moments vocally here are actually backups sung on jaunty numbers such as “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “When I’m 64.” Pepper is the least “Lennon-like” record in the Beatles catalogue.

Perhaps the greatest myth about Sgt Pepper is that it was a concept album. While it is true that the songs on it sound strange outside the album context, Tommy it is not. That does not mean, however, that it did not start out as a conceptual work. Actually, Lennon and McCartney had originally intended Pepper as an album loosely based around their childhood but the idea soon broke down, especially when Brian Epstein insisted that “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” be released as a single in January 1967. These two great songs would have been central to the concept theme and taken the place of lighter fare. Somewhere in an alternate universe, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Lovely Rita” turned up on Magical Mystery Tour. George Martin’s decision to allow the removal of the two songs, which he later called “the worst mistake I ever made,” guaranteed that the world would never hear the record as the Beatles had originally intended it. By removing one of John Lennon’s most personal and important pieces of work, it also assured that Pepper would be seen above all as Paul’s creation. The “Sgt Pepper’s Band” and Ringo as Billy Shears ideas were really an attempt to give a sense of cohesiveness to an otherwise unconnected collection of songs.

Residue from the “childhood” idea can be seen, nonetheless, throughout the record. For a work hailed as being so “modern” when it was released (it was so above all in its production techniques and idea of album as art), Pepper is absolutely swimming in references to an old world that was fast disappearing or existed only in the Beatles’ imaginations. Britain may have ruled the airwaves in 1967, but much of Pepper refers back to a time when Britannia ruled the waves. This was what many Americans failed to understand about the record; Sgt Pepper is the most English of the Beatles’ creations and, in turning away from America towards their Liverpool childhood, they came face to face with a world that still had more in common with Charles Dickens than say, James Dean. The album title may have recalled the then West Coast penchant for colourful group names, but the brass band concept could have only come from Albion. “She’s Leaving Home” is basically a Victorian morality play set to music that would have been equally appreciated a hundred years earlier. The lyrics to “Mr. Kite” were taken by Lennon nearly verbatim from a 19th century circus poster. Long forgotten words such as “somersets” (somersaults), “garters” (banners) and trampoline in its old meaning as a wooden springboard betray the origins of their source and add an air of hazy mystery. He could have put the lyrics in a swinging 1960s context but liked the feeling created by the original words. Likewise, Paul’s “When I’m 64” (a song dating back to their Hamburg days) pays homage to the 1920s “rooty-toot” music his father loved, but the language and feel are more Noel Coward than Hoagie Carmichael. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” has more in common with the opium dreams of Lewis Carroll than with early Pink Floyd or the Jefferson Airplane. “With a Help From My Friends” and “Fixing a Hole” deal with neighbourliness and self-motivation respectively (though with some admittedly late ‘60s touches), both sturdy middleclass Victorian/Edwardian values if there ever were any. Even George’s “Within You, Without You, “ for many the album’s low point with its Indian drone and sermon-like lyric, could be said to hark back to another time. Indian mysticism was nothing new in England, having been a passion among the upper classes for at least two centuries. India is never far away in the works of Kipling or Conan Doyle. The bright, garish colours of the album cover, so essential to the feeling of the music inside, could seem to recall Victorian pre-Raphaelite painting. The moustachioed Beatles themselves, even without their marching band uniforms, look as if they were from another era. Paul is the cultured young Victorian about London, always ready to knock out a music hall standard. John is the eccentric ex-teacher who treasures his Lewis Carroll collection and a dab of opium every now and then. George is the dashing young captain with her majesty’s forces in India who has taken an interest in the local culture and religion. Ringo is the dependable craftsman you see working around the City. By presenting so much that was pre-rock and even pre-20th century, the Beatles invented an entirely new reference in music.

So anyway, what does it sound like today? Put baldly, Sgt Pepper is very competent British pop music that displays a dizzying amount of influences. Most of it is good; some of it is great. Surely, “A Day in the Life” must fall under the latter category. Lennon’s vocal, Starr’s masterful drumming (the most underrated feature of this collection along with McCartney’s breathtakingly melodic bass work), Martin’s orchestral arrangement and those sad, strange lyrics make a strong case for this song being the best the Beatles ever did. “She’s Leaving Home” has an exquisite melody, beautiful interplay between the voices of Paul and John and a strong narrative line (both of these songs were inspired by newspaper stories). “With A Little Help From My Friends” was applauded by everyone from LBJ to Joe Cocker and features Ringo’s best vocal along with some of Paul’s finest bass playing. “Within, Without You” gives the record a heartfelt spiritual (George’s cry of “If they only knew….” is arguably Pepper’s most passionate moment) and an incredible George Martin string arrangement. And the Sgt. Pepper reprise showed that the Beatles could still lay it down with a 4/4 beat, two guitars and a bass; it’s one of their best rockers hidden away on a rather unrocking album. Listening today you notice how fast the thing goes by: 39:43 with hardly a break between the songs. You notice that George, beyond a couple of nice guitar solos and his Indian piece, is hardly available for comment. You notice the influence it still has today, notably on Beck, XTC, the Chemical Brothers and other studio based acts. Above all, you notice that this motley collection of very well produced pop songs, none of which really seems complete away from the others, still has the power to take you to that strange, magical place somewhere in the cracks between past, present and future. Is Sgt Pepper the Beatles’ best record? For sheer number of classic songs probably not, but for capturing a special time and its ability to take the listener somewhere very different from where he or she was a moment before putting it on, Pepper still reigns supreme. Pretty cool cover too. Nice work lads.

Carl Schonbeck is an American musician and freelance writer who resides in Milan, Italy. He’s originally from Boston. His love of the Beatles and other great rock artists of the ‘60s and ‘70s began at the age of 15 when he took up the guitar. He played in New England bands throughout the 1980s and moved to Italy in 1990. In the past decade he has had various songs recorded and in 2001 recorded an album with Grammy winning producer Scott Mathews. Currently he writes for various magazines and websites while shopping his songs.
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