by Johnny Black
Whatever else Sgt Pepper may or may not be, it unquestionably established, in the minds of the record-buying public, the blueprint for what a truly great album should be.
It was not the first concept album, it was not the first psychedelic album, it was arguably not even the best album The Beatles ever made, but it did set the benchmark by which all subsequent albums were judged for decades after.
The concept that sparked the album can be seen as an extension of Paul McCartney’s enduring love/hate relationship with his band’s mega-success. In 1965, in an effort to establish whether or not Beatles’ songs were hits just because of the band’s fame, he had written the single Woman for pop duo Peter & Gordon, under the pseudonym Bernard Webb, and only revealed that he was the composer after it became a hit.
By 1967, The Beatles were even more successful so perhaps it should have come as no surprise when McCartney dreamed up Sgt Pepper’s band because he now felt that, “it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group.”
As their producer George Martin remembers it, “Paul came in with this song, Sgt Pepper, and he was kind of identifying it with The Beatles themselves. We recorded the song, and then the idea came to make it into the concept for the whole album.”
Concept albums had been knocking around for years, beginning with LPs unified by having a theme – dreams, weather, travel – running through all of the songs, and continuing with notions such as the 1965 Beach Boys Party album, which pretended to be a party at which the Beach Boys just happened to be in attendance with their instruments.
The arrival of psychedelia, however, gave concept albums a shot in the arm, and The Beatles were among the first to recognise the potential of setting an entire album inside its own alternate vision of reality.
The Beatles had embraced psychedelia with Revolver, but Pepper would take several giant steps further. To achieve McCartney’s vision, they effectively took over Abbey Road’s main studio for an unprecedented 129 days during which, as staff engineer Peter Vince recalls, “We actually sat around a lot of the time doing nothing, waiting for them to come up with ideas. But you had to be there because suddenly they’d get the idea and want to go straight for it. They were the innovators of working through the night and very long hours. Prior to them, everyone went home at 10pm.”
Viewed with a critical eye, the album offers only three songs that can be regarded as truly imaginative leaps forward, those being Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home and A Day In the Life. This trio is the creative core on which Pepper’s gigantic reputation rests.
There’s also a brace of universally popular singalongs – With A Little Help From My Friends and When I’m Sixty Four. Both are very much in McCartney’s irresistibly tuneful but irrefutably lightweight tradition, although much enhanced by clever arrangements and production wizardry.
Crucially for justifying the album’s now legendary status, even the less memorable songs, Fixing A Hole, Good Morning Good Morning, Getting Better, Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite and Lovely Rita, are rendered magical and fascinating by careful attention to detail, intelligent use of sound effects and convincingly dynamic performances.
This leaves the conceptual bookends – two versions of the title song – and Harrison’s now obligatory Indian-flavoured track, Within You Without You.
Et voila – that’s Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band neatly summarised, but the whole has become so much more than the sum of those parts. Over the years, every track has been subjected to relentless analysis, scrutiny, deconstruction and dismemberment to such an extent that we now know, for example, that When I’m Sixty Four had actually been written by McCartney back in the days when The Beatles played The Cavern. Lyrically and musically, it’s Paul’s tribute to his 64 year-old dad, Jim, who had played in dance bands during the war. “It was a pastiche,” notes George Martin, “a kind of send-up of the old stuff. Paul always had that sneaking regard for the old rooty-tooty music.”
We know too that A Day In The Life, Lennon’s major contribution to Pepper, was spawned by the accidental proximity of two Daily Mail newspaper items. “I was reading the Daily Mail one day and noticed two stories,” he explained. “One was about the Guinness heir who killed himself in a car. On the next page was a story about 4,000 holes in the streets of Blackburn. Paul contributed the beautiful little lick ‘I’d love to turn you on’.”
It’s common knowledge too that a Victorian circus poster provided the lyrics for Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite; that Lovely Rita was inspired by a real encounter with a female parking warden; and that Lennon regarded Good Morning Good Morning as, “a throwaway, a piece of garbage.”
What isn’t always appreciated, however, is the context in which Pepper was being made. While The Beatles were undeniably in the vanguard of psychedelia, they were certainly not blazing that path alone. To name just a few, The Byrds in Los Angeles, Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco and the Velvet Underground in New York, were all pushing back the musical frontiers, and there’s no doubt that McCartney in particular kept himself well abreast of what those Transatlantic innovators were up to.
Rather closer to home, the Pink Floyd were actually in Abbey Road working on their debut album, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, at precisely the same time as the Beatles were making Pepper.
On learning that they were next door, Paul, George and Ringo dropped in to say hello, and the Floyd’s co-manager, Andrew King, remembers the visit. “The Beatles came through to have a look at us. McCartney, dressed in a loud, yellow-checked overcoat, was very friendly and encouraging but we also went through and saw them mixing Lovely Rita. We didn’t stay long though, because the atmosphere was … well, it was a very bad vibe in there.”
Pink Floyd’s other co-manager, Peter Jenner, has noted, “I’m sure The Beatles were copying what we were doing, just as we were copying what we were hearing down the corridor.”
Elsewhere in Abbey Road, the Pretty Things were in the early stages of recording tracks for their rock opera S.F.Sorrow. “There really was no sense of competition,” states Pretties’ guitarist Dick Taylor. “Lennon was always very supportive and I seem to remember we borrowed Ringo’s snare drum at one point. We all shared an interest in experimenting with sound and it wasn’t about rivalry.”
One major advantage that The Beatles had over bands like Pink Floyd or the Pretty Things was the size of their budget. Depending on whose figures you choose to accept, recording Sgt Pepper cost between £25,000 and £100,000, either of which were staggering amounts in those days. And, naturally, the most extravagant album in rock history would have to be clad in the most extravagant cover.
On 30 March The Beatles came together in artist Peter Blake’s Chelsea studio to have their picture taken for the cover. Work on that cover, an ambitious life-sized collage of the Beatle’s heroes, had been proceeding for some time before their presence in the studio was required. Brian Epstein’s personal assistant, Wendy Hanson, had spent an entire week doing nothing but obtaining clearances from celebrities who were to be included. “I spent many hours and pounds on calls to the States. Fred Astaire was very sweet; Shirley Temple wanted to hear the record first; I got on famously with Marlon Brando, but Mae West wanted to know what she would be doing in a Lonely Hearts Club.”
Needless to say, employing an artist of Blake’s stature to transform this revolutionary album cover idea into a fully-fledged artwork didn’t come cheap but, as he recalls, “The Beatles were at their absolute peak. If we decided to do something, they could go to EMI and say, 'This is what we want to do'. If they said 'No', then EMI wouldn't get the record. They were very powerful, so it meant that we could break through lots of barriers.”
Part of the cover’s impact derives from the fact that it is a double-sized gatefold sleeve, but Blake claims that this was a pragmatic rather than an artistic decision. “It was going to be the first double-album,” he says. “It ended up as only one record, but it was a double-sleeve. They thought that there would be more material but there wasn't enough for two records, so then we compiled this sheet of things you could cut out, the Sergeant's stripes and the like, for inclusion in one of the pockets.”
Released on 1 June 1967, Pepper soared to No1 in the albums chart two days later, a slot it held for 22 weeks, selling so well that it even turned up in the singles chart at No21.
Their Abbey Road neighbours, Pink Floyd, obviously could not hope to match that kind of success when their debut album, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, was released a little over two months later.
Riding on the success of their first major hit single, See Emily Play, the band had moved into Studio 3 at Abbey Road to work on the album, which would prove to be the first and last flowering of the genius of the band’s acid-fried leader Syd Barrett. “Working with Syd was sheer hell,” says EMI engineer Norman Smith. “I don’t think I left a single Floyd session without a splitting headache. Syd never seemed to have any enthusiasm for anything. He would be singing a song and I’d call him into the control room to give a few instructions, then he’d go back out and not even sing the first part the same, let alone the bit I’d been talking about.”
The Floyd’s co-manager, Andrew King, seemed to see a different side to Syd. “It was the most intensely creative time of Syd’s life. He was not like a dominant band leader so much as he was Hale-Bopp and they were dragged along in the tail. I remember watching him mixing on a four-track desk and he played it like it was an instrument.”
Whichever version is true, Piper At The Gates Of Dawn, its name drawn from Kenneth Graham’s The Wind In the Willows, was destined to prove a one-off, a completely unique listening experience. Barrett’s songs are peopled by dwarves, scarecrows, fairies and weird felines, drifting through fantastical landscapes conjured up by a veritable sonic kaleidoscope of strange electronic noises, stuttering guitar rhythms and curiously looping drum patterns.
Co-manager Peter Jenner has, however, pointed out that the carefully constructed songs on the album bear very little resemblance to what Pink Floyd did on stage, because, “If we'd put out what we were playing live, it wouldn't have sold fuck at all.” Jenner states that only the extended spacey instrumental, Interstellar Overdrive, resembled a live Pink Floyd track. “They played it twice,” he says, “one version recorded straight on top of the other. They double-tracked the whole track. Why? Well it sounds pretty fucking weird doesn't it? That big sound and all those hammering drums.”
Nudged along by Pepper and Piper, even the Rolling Stones decided to go trippy on their next album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, but the results were patchy in the extreme.
The best tracks were lavishly produced, convincingly weird-sounding songs about cosmic journeys, alienation and the future, with more than a hint of Pink Floyd in their ever-shifting electronic landscapes, but guitarist Keith Richards has since admitted, “I liked a few songs, like 2000 Light Years, Citadel and She’s A Rainbow but, basically, I thought the album was a load of crap.”
A harsh judgement, perhaps, but it certainly didn’t feel like a real Stones album. Not even its $25,000 state of the art 3-D cover image – clearly intended to out-weird Pepper – could dispel the uncomfortable feeling that The Stones had merely seen a bandwagon passing and were struggling to clamber aboard.
(Source : by Johnny Black, first published in the book Albums by Backbeat Books, 2007)
Paul Weller : Sgt. Pepper had the biggest impact on me. It was the first album I bought. I must have been about nine. The change from Revolver was incredible; it was like Pepper was in colour, and everything before that was black-and-white. Revolver was just three guitars and drums, but this was something else entirely. The production was a big part of the whole thing, obviously, but things like the lyrics were really different and quite strange.
Billy Childish : Sgt Pepper signalled the death of rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll is meant to be full of vitality and energy, and this album isn't. It sounds like it took six months to shit out. The Beatles were the victims of their success. This is middle-of-the-road rock music for plumbers. Or people who drive round in Citroens - the sort of corporate hippies who ruined rock music. I bought it the day it came out: it was ideal for a seven-year-old. These days, well, it's my contention that it represents the death of the Beatles as a rock'n'roll band and the birth of them as music hall, which is hardly a victory. The main problem with Sgt Pepper is Sir Paul's maudlin obsession with his own self-importance and Dickensian misery. (Paul McCartney is the dark one in the Beatles, not John Lennon, because he writes such depressing, scary music.) It's like a Sunday before school that goes on forever. It's too dark and twisted for anyone with any light in their life. Then again, when he tries to be upbeat, it rings false - like having a clown in the room. The best thing about the album was the cardboard insert with some medals, a badge and a moustache. But the military jackets they wore on the front made them look like a bunch of grammar-school boys dressed by their mummy. When I was in Thee Mighty Caesars we did a rip-off of the sleeve for an album called John Lennon's Corpse Revisited, featuring the Beatles' heads on stakes. This isn't the greatest album ever made; in fact, it's the worst Beatles album up to that point. Live at the Star Club trounces it with ease.
(Source : interview in The Guardian, June 15, 2007)