It was 50 years ago today, that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play and a creative explosion cemented The Beatles in music and pop culture history. The album, bursting with bizarre new sounds and classically beautiful Lennon-McCartney lyrics, shattered the music industry’s status quo. Half a century later, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains one of the most iconic albums to ever hit the charts. It’s actually relatively low on my list of favourite Beatles albums, but objectively I still marvel at its brilliance (and, let’s be honest, a Beatles album I enjoy a little less is still one I love more than any other music).
In many ways Sgt Pepper was a re-birth for the Fab Four. They’d been touring for years, playing to thousands of screaming fans who collectively made a noise louder than a jet engine. Even when they upgraded their speakers to a specially designed 100-watt series for the first stadium concert in 1965, they were drowned out by the roar of the crowd. The boys were physically and emotionally drained, as well as creatively stifled. Preceding album Revolver had seen them start to play with new recording techniques, including layering songs using dubbed four-track tapes and backwards tape loops which didn’t translate well to stage.
The decision to stop touring was far from the end, although I imagine at the time fans would have felt it was. The boys had released two full albums a year from 1963-1965, along with singles (they refused to include singles on albums). For the most part, these were songs they wrote themselves. Then there was endless live performances and two feature films. The almost year-long gap between Revolver and Sgt Pepper seems normal, in fact quite fast, compared to modern recording artists, but it was an age in the ’60s and could have seen a lesser band slip into irrelevance. Indeed this was the speculation among music journalists at the time.
Unleashed from the confines of what could be performed live, the Fab Four went wild. They layered up four-track tapes to the hilt, featured a range of different instruments and brought a full orchestra into the studio. George also returned to his interest in Indian classical style, bringing a sitar into Within You Without You (he had also included one on Love You To in Revolver). This new direction collided with the popularity of LSD use and there’s no doubt the album was influenced by a trip or two. But the psychedelic vibe of both the music and the album art signalled the cultural revolution which would envelope the later ’60s. The idea the boys were breaking free of their old selves was indicative in the inclusion versions of their younger selves, clad in their iconic matching black suits with Beatle cuts, in the collection of figures on the cover.
Listening to Sgt Pepper in the context of future albums, it feels like some of the last times Paul and John were truly collaborating as a songwriting duo. A hallmark of their partnership was the yin and yang they brought to each song, with John’s cutting wit and dark humour balancing out Paul’s softer, saccharine view of the world. On this album, it’s most notable on Getting Better and Fixing a Hole. But as the band moved forward, each member developed as an artist individually and collaborated less and less. By the time they recorded The Beatles (The White Album) it was clear John and Paul were writing solo, although they would always keep the partnership tag. Sadly, it also signalled the way the band would start to splinter.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was The Beatles part deux. It marked the second part of their career as a band where, freed by their use of drugs and without responsibilities of touring, they became uninhibited. Although they had already produced some of music’s most iconic songs prior to Sgt Pepper’s 1967 release, the album was a whole new creative direction. Although it’s not a favourite for me, I know the songs I love most on Abbey Road would perhaps never have come to fruition without this album. Fifty years on, Sgt Pepper continues to be a testament to the immense, unstoppable and unprecedented talent of The Beatles.
What’s your favourite song from the album? Listen to Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on Apple Music or buy it on iTunes.