It was the new album by The Beatles, released in the USA on the 2nd day of June in 1967. It was one of the fab four’s most loved and most hated works.
It was not rock music, really, not like its predecessors. Aside from critics, few fans noted how little it rocked.
In 1967, few consumers of The Beatles’ catalog realized that most pop music that deserved to be called rock was blues in disguise, owing everything to uncredited black American artists. The origins of rock and roll were still an open secret in 1967, relegated to the rhythm and blues basement and the jailhouse, to keep its growing industrial potential strong. A sure way to limit a record’s chance of success, to this day, is to label it “blues.”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a consumer product in the form of a thirty-three and a third RPM Long Player. Like all LPs, it was sequenced as two separate sides — which lose much of their impact in the versions available in our digital and streaming world, though this one stands out (to collectors) as being the first from The Beatles to be presented unmangled by their American label, Capital. (Was there ever a more appropriate name for an American record company?)
It may be true that everyone who bought it loved it and immersed themselves into it. “Everybody kept on playing” it, Johnny Rivers sang in his November 1967 hit single, Summer Rain.
It was among the early entrants in a new generation of mass-market pop music “concept albums” packaged in gorgeous gatefold covers with the lyrics right there for all to follow along, dissect, and interpret.
John Lennon remarked that “Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere.”
It was not the first pop concept album. Some argue The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds might be the first such product of that generation, though there were pop and folk music concept albums available in the 1940s and 50s.
Some make a case for remembering Sgt. Pepper as the beginning of progressive rock, which says as little about prog as giving Jethro Tull the first Grammy for heavy metal says about that genre.
The music industry buzzed about the radical absence of any hit singles to propel sales, yet it flew into #1 on the album charts throughout that “summer of love.” In the UK, it was #1 from June 10 to November 18, preceded and succeeded at that spot on the charts by none other than The Sound of Music soundtrack LP. Dough is dear.
It was a mustached and satin-clothed marketing campaign. It came with a sheet of “Sgt. Pepper Cut-Outs” which many purchasers literally cut up, as one would do with a fashion magazine or a set of paper dolls. My copy inexplicably came with two such sheets, so I too cut one up.
It was a disposable pop confection, designed to separate fans from their money until the next truffle was released. After I spent $4.98 on Sgt. Pepper, I sealed a $5 bill in an envelope to save for the next one, but when Magical Mystery Tour arrived, its price was $5.98, and when the white album arrived, it was double that.
No one realized then that, like a bottomless box of tissues, each of The Beatles’ albums would spawn a stack of reissues, each generation of the product swanked up and retooled to suit the tastes of aging collectors and new audiences.
The disposable art ethos of the concept album was not invented by or for The Beatles. Record companies like EMI, Decca, and Columbia were masters of it, so while The Beatles were cutting and pasting Sgt. Pepper together, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Donovan, The Kinks, The Byrds, and various other acts were doing the same, following in the footsteps, knowingly or not, of Woody Guthrie and Frank Sinatra, clearing the way for The Pretty Things, Pink Floyd, Genesis, The Talking Heads, Devo, Radiohead, etc.
The track that closes the album is probably the least disposable, most artistically interesting of the bunch, yet it was quickly banned by the BBC for its last line’s possible drug reference (“I’d love to turn you on”).
Mass-market successes are concocted by the music industry specifically as hopeful pot-boilers (and the same is true in the book, movie, and digital game industries). That does not mean these products are conceived and delivered without inspiration, talent, and craft. Talented craftsmen like George Martin were quite capable of spinning throw-away songs like Fixing a Hole, Mr. Kite, When I’m Sixty-Four, Lovely Rita, and this collection’s title tracks into sweet-enough morsels to prevent most listeners from noticing the vapidly flat pretensions of the songs. If you think I am exaggerating, show me a good cover of any of those selections. Out of the album’s 12 songs, only With a Little Help from My Friends had great success in cover versions. There is no Yesterday or Eleanor Rigby on Sgt. Pepper, though She’s Leaving Home might have been intended to be.
Even so, the references to what seemed like impossibly long timelines (“it was twenty years ago today” and “when I’m sixty-four,” the pseudo-Victorian outfits and all those old faces on the cover) gave it an immediate cloak of nostalgia that evoked past movements and hopeful traditions to sustain survivors of the draft and the Viet Damn War through to adulthood.
Political criminals of those days, Nixon and LBJ, may rot in hell (with Kissinger, Cheney, W, and Trump joining them soon), but the one and only Billy Shears has gotten by.
Meanwhile, I am now but a few days from declaring that I am, officially ,”handy, mending a fuse, when your lights have gone.”
Keith Richards probably should recuse himself, but he has declared Pepper “a mishmash of rubbish.”
Frank Zappa produced a Mothers of Invention product titled We’re Only in It for the Money which pointedly referenced the Sgt. Pepper package, turned inside out, proving that being in it for the money was no guarantee of commercial success.
They’ve been going in and out of style, but The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper was not aging very well. Lots of fans now consider Pepper‘s predecessor, Revolver, to be The Beatles’ creative apex.
Though he wasn’t born until his father had finished supervising every song The Beatles ever recorded as a band save the last one (I Me Mine, by which time the fab four could no longer stomach working together in the confection biz), Giles Martin’s new reconstruction from the original session tapes goes a ways toward making the 50-year-old Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album more palatable. (You can hear Giles Martin talk with Terry Gross about his remix work.)
If you are a fan of The Beatles, and Sgt. Pepper in particular, you really should have a close listen to the new mix. It is sharply, refreshingly, ringingly stereophonic, and it may be available via your favorite record store or soon-to-be deneutralized network streaming service.
Yours sincerely, wasting away.