June 2, 1967. The beginning of the so-called “Summer of Love”. The underground hippie culture was grooving toward the mainstream. And those four loveable mop tops, The Beatles , released their eighth album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, on America’s shores, ushering in the concept of “concept albums” that still reverberates in music today. The Fab Four were Fab no more, but genuine artists, with a little help from their friend, producer George Martin.
The Beatles had stopped touring the previous year, tired of the grind and the hysterical screaming that drowned their music out. They had done some experimenting in the studio with “Revolver”, their previous LP, but “Sgt. Pepper” was something different. Martin and the band members, influenced by both The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out!” discs, utilized then cutting edge studio techniques (tape loops, sound effects, varying speeds) and instrumentations (sitar, harmonium, Mellotron, tubular bells, even a 40-piece orchestra) to create the album’s aural mood, with The Beatles using alter egos as a Edwardian Era marching band!
None of the tracks were released as singles, although two songs that didn’t make the cut (“Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane”) were issued as a Double-A sided 45 (both were featured on their later ’67 LP, “Magical Mystery Tour”). After the hard-rocking albeit brief intro, Paul welcomes singer ‘Billy Shears’, actually Ringo crooning “With a Little Help from My Friends” (later a #1 hit for Joe Cocker). The next song, John’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, is probably the most trippy. Lennon always claimed “Lucy” was taken from a picture drawn by his young son Julian, but seriously… with lyrics like “Picture yourself in a boat on a river/With tangerine trees and marmalade skies/Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly/A girl with Kaleidoscope eyes” what else could it be about than an acid trip? “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – right John, you cheeky little devil!
“Getting Better” is an uptempo rocker reminiscent of the band’s “Yesterday and Today” period, while “Fixing A Hole” toys with major and minor keys, to good effect. “She’s Leaving Home” is a sad number about a female youth running away, with Paul and John’s vocals augmented by a lush string orchestraition. The last song on Side 1, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, has a swirlingly fun circus-like atmosphere, influenced heavily by the British Music Hall sounds the band grew up with.
Side 2 kicks off with George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You”, a hypnotic, raga-based mediation on the nature of life and being I find hauntingly beautiful. Harrison shows off the sitar skills he learned from Indian master Ravi Shankar, while accompanied by traditional Indian instruments like the tabla and tambora. “When I’m Sixty-Four” is another Music Hall influenced number, Paul’s ode to growing old together, with a clarinet used to give it an old-timey feel. “Lovely Rita” is another rocker that finds John and Paul playing both kazoo and a comb-and-tissue combo! “Good Morning, Good Morning” puts John front and center for a peppy tune compete with crowing roosters!
After a reprise of “Sgt. Pepper”, it’s time for “A Day in the Life”, the album’s most ambitious track. A drug-soaked rumination on the nature of reality, with the refrain “I’d love to turn you on”, this avant-garde inspired piece features the most famous final chord in rock, a glorious forty-second noise with three pianos and a harmonium hitting an E-Major that vibrates off into space and the album’s ending.
Equally as famous as the music on “Sgt. Pepper”, and deservedly so, is the iconic album cover by artist Peter Blake, parodied and imitated for fifty years and counting. Among those standing in the picture you’ll find the likes of Fred Astaire, author William S. Burroughs, occultist Aleister Crowley, Lewis Carroll, Marlene Dietrich, Bob Dylan, W.C.Fields , Bowery Boy Huntz Hall , Laurel & Hardy , socialist Karl Marx, cowboy star Tom Mix, Edgar Allan Poe, poet Dylan Thomas, Shirley Temple, H.G. Wells, and Mae West. Blake’s collage collected some of The Beatles’ biggest influences, and won a Grammy for Best Album Cover (Graphic Arts).
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a #1 smash, and definitely is the pinnacle of the psychedelic rock era. Fifty years on, both fans and musicians alike marvel at The Beatles’ stunning achievement, done in a time when studio tricks and sound sweetening were at a primitive level. The album has influenced everyone from Pink Floyd (“The Wall”) and The Who (“Tommy”, Quadrophenia”), to latter-day artists like Green Day (“American Idiot”), turning the ‘concept album’ (and rock itself) into an art form. It belong in any music lover’s collection, and if you haven’t heard it in a while (or, heaven forbid, ever!), today would be a good day to let The Beatles “turn you on”. (Just stay away from the wretched 1978 movie starring Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees!)