Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the 8th album recorded by the Beatles. The band's touring days had officially ended in August of 1966, and in December, the boys reunited after several months of pursuing their own individual interests.
John was finished filming his solo movie debut- a supporting role in an anti-war satire called How I Won the War. Paul had written the score of a film called The Family Way and George had made a pilgrimage to India to study the sitar under the tutorship of virtuoso (and future mentor) Ravi Shankar. Ringo, always the simplest, most down-to-earth Beatle, had spent his holiday time with his wife and newborn children.
The Sgt. Pepper album and concept basically came from Paul. Knowing full well that the Fab Four's touring days were over and that by this time the quartet had grown sick and tired of being "the four moptops,” he reasoned that they could actually assume new identities and send an album out "on tour" in their stead. The four would actually assume the identity of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and not have to worry about the pressure and strain of being Beatles anymore.
Paul had, by this time, almost by default, taken over the leadership of the band. For the past several years (long before Ringo had joined the band in '62), he and Lennon had jockeyed for the leadership of the group, but now John was fairly "indisposed" after two continuous years of "destroying his ego" with massive doses of LSD. According to John, he was "going through murder" by the early days of 1967.
Paul took over the reins for the recording of Sgt. Pepper, and the album was to be pretty much the swan song of the Lennon/Mccartney songwriting partnership, the most successful partnership in the history of popular music.
George was in the midst of being swept away by India, its religion and its music, and was becoming almost completely disinterested in any Beatles projects, thinking them unimportant and frivolous. (George was also growing as a songwriter himself and had become quite tired of being thought of as the "fifth wheel" of the group's composers, still an afterthought behind John and Paul after all these years.)
Succinctly and tellingly, Ringo was to recall the Sgt. Pepper sessions as “The time I learned to play chess.” Ringo too, as usual, took a back seat to John and Paul, but he, unlike George, had little ego and seemed to be content in the Beatles' changing circumstance.
Before the Sgt. Pepper sessions began, all four Beatles grew mustaches, the better to assume their new Sgt. Pepper "identities.” (John had also become the first Beatle to become shorn of his world-famous Beatle locks- before filming began on How I Won the War.) John had also donned his much-needed "granny glasses" in public. For years as a Beatle, the myopic Lennon had squinted out at the adoring audiences attending their concerts.
The album was to take 129 days to record (700 hours, all told), an unprecedented amount of time to record an album at the time. All four Beatles preferring long recording sessions lasting through a majority of the night. And topping it all off were the rumors, quite common at the time, that the Beatles were washed up and finished as a popular band. At many of their final U.S. concerts, the thousands of empty seats must have caught their eyes- a sight unheard of for the Fab Four in '63, '64 or '65.
Ionically, perhaps the best songs recorded for Sgt. Pepper never made it on to the album. The Beatle classic songs, Paul's “Penny Lane" and John's “Strawberry Fields" were originally recorded and intended to be on the Sgt. Pepper album, but the huge demand for a new Beatle single swept them away and they were released as a "double a-side" single, often referred to as the greatest record in rock history. Producer George Martin was never to forgive himself for excising the two songs from Sgt. Pepper, calling it "the biggest mistake of my professional life.”
The songs on Sgt. Pepper were an eclectic mix of rock 'n roll, old time music hall, psychedelic, jazz, and religious tunes. The “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” song leads off the album, as the Beatles leave their former identities and "become" Sgt. Pepper and his band.
Because of the times and probably because of the Beatles new mustachioed, flowery-clothed appearance, many songs written without the slightest thought of drugs were mistakenly taken as "drug songs" by many in the media. Yes, the entire band, especially John, were heavily indulging in recreational drugs during this period- with the possible exception of George, who was feeling his way onto the drug-free spiritual, enlightened path. The truth is the band had been using pills since their earliest days together, smoking marijuana since 1964 and taking LSD since 1965, so the "drug angle" was actually nothing new. Both the band's two previous albums, Rubber Soul and Revolver were heavily drug-influenced.
Ringo sings “A Little Help From My Friends,” a Lennon/McCartney melody which, like several Sgt. Pepper songs, was later accused of promoting the use of drugs (in one chorus, Ringo sings “I get high with a little help from my friends”).
John's “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was actually inspired by an innocuous picture drawn by his five-year-old son Julian of a classmate named Lucy. Nonetheless, the song was widely interpreted as promoting LSD. (That's “Lucy,” “Sky,” and “Diamonds" standing for LSD, get it? Obviously the "in,” "the,” and "with" were irrelevant.) Even Paul's “Fixing a Hole,” a light lilt about Paul repairing his home, was interpreted as an ode to heroin (the "hole" was a heroin fix).
The album ends with perhaps the finest song ever composed by John and Paul: “A Day in the Life.” Written as an homage to the boys' pal, Guinness heir Tara Browne, who had recently died in a car accident, this song was actually banned by the BBC because of the lyric “I’d love to turn you on.”
Less controversial songs filled the album, including John's “Good Morning, Good Morning" (inspired by a Kellogg's corn flakes commercial), John's “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" (inspired by an 1843 poster John had purchased at an antique shop) and Paul's “Lovely Rita" (a tribute to a real meter maid who had given him a ticket).
“Getting Better" is a catchy John and Paul joint composition (no pun intended) which mirrors almost perfectly their individual personalities i.e. Paul the ever-hopeful optimist (“It's getting better all the time") and John's stark, bleak outlook (“It cant get no worse”).
“When I’m Sixty-Four" was the oldest song on the album, it had been written by Paul McCartney when he was 15 years old.
“Within You Without You" was George's one contribution to Sgt. Pepper and is almost universally regarded as the album's biggest "clinker.” A droning, flat Indian hymn sung almost mournfully by George, strangely it was always to be one of John Lennon's favorite Beatle songs.
For the album's cover, each Beatle was asked to write up a list of people they wanted included. The images ran the gamut from Bob Dylan to Marilyn Monroe to Edgar Allan Poe to Aldous Huxley to Laurel & Hardy. John had wanted both Adolf Hitler and Jesus (possibly in propitiation because of his recent 1966 controversial declaration that the Beatles were "bigger than Jesus.” Both requests were denied.
George requested several Indian gurus and mystics. Ringo opted out, saying “Whoever the other's choose is fine with me." The characters chosen were featured on the Sgt. Pepper cover, amongst the four Beatles, decked out themselves as the Sgt. Pepper band.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1, 1967 in the UK, a day later in the US. Although the first American review, from the New York Times, was a major pan, the critics almost unanimously hailed the album as extraordinary and revolutionary. Sgt. Pepper was also dubbed the first-ever "concept album," a claim Lennon was to always deny and refute. The album hit number one on the British charts and was to remain there for an incredible 27 weeks. (15 weeks at #1 in the States).
To this day, Sgt. Pepper is one of the biggest selling albums of all time, with over 32 million sold. Nominated for seven Grammy Awards, it garnered four.
Interestingly, although it was almost unanimously acclaimed, at the time of its release, as "the greatest album of all-time,” unlike almost any other Beatles record or album, Sgt. Pepper's status has slightly dropped in the past several years (it was, however, still voted the #1 album of all-time by Rolling Stone magazine as recently as 2003).
Some feel it is now a bit dated and that other Beatle albums i.e. Revolver,” Rubber Soul, Abbey Road or the white album (The Beatles) now rate superior to the once much-vaunted Sgt. Pepper. John himself always said he always preferred the white album to Sgt. Pepper. Maybe they're right, who's to say? Like all art and aesthetics, beauty does, indeed, lie in the eye (or the ear) of the beholder.
No matter which is "the best,” like so much else the Beatles gave us, Sgt. Pepper is a fascinating, unique and wonderful listen. To those who have heard it (that is any human being from my generation) you know what i mean. And to anyone reading this who have never experienced the magic of Sgt. Pepper, do yourself a favor.
“A splendid time is guaranteed for all.”