DUST IT OFF/THE LISTENING EXPERIENCE: The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” 45 years later

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How does one begin to talk about one of the most talked about albums in rock’n’roll, and music in general, from one of the biggest and most influential bands ever? Even the first sentence of this article is so grandiose, younger generations might go “right, another celebratory Beatles article. Great.” But there are a few reasons why people continue to celebrate the music of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.


Other albums released on June 1, 1967:
Elvis Presley‘s Double Trouble
David Bowie‘s debut
Both are not celebrated as other albums in their discography.

1967 was also a year that gave us the debut albums by Pink Floyd, The Doors, Grateful Dead, The Amboy Dukes (featuring guitarist Ted Nugent), Big Brother & The Holding Company (featuring vocalist Janis Joplin) and The Velvet Underground & Nico. What was the saying, that maybe only 5000 copies were sold of the first Velvet Underground, but everyone who did formed their own band? If that’s not influence, I don’t know what is. You also had great albums by Jefferson Airplane, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, The Young Rascals, The Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones and many more. Yet somehow, if one talks about a few of these album, the trail will lead to Sgt. Pepper. Why does it always have to be so absolute?


  • The Beatles were a pop combo, a boy band that were not meant to last, if some critics and parents had their way. When The Beatles came to the United States in 1964, it came with a promotional push from Capitol Records that did not exist a year before. In fact, when Capitol initially rejected the offer to sign them, they had to be persuaded by Parlophone Records in England to do it, that it would be beneficial for everyone involved. When they did arrive with their “long” hair, they were seen not only as a “British invasion”, but some would say an intrusion. In less than a year, there were countless Beatles tribute records (including one by Bonnie Jo Mason, who would later be known as singer/actress Cher) but also their share of anti-Beatles records. With every hate song, there was a group who looked and sounded like them, even having names that might sound like they were “bugs”. Every other label wanted to cash-in, and did so without a problem. Labels who had signed them but had lost the rights to release new music by them kept on reissuing what they had left, before their license to do so expired. By being a pop combo/boy band, they were in countless teen magazines, and were a group who would license their own merchandise, one of the first to do so. That would lead to companies illegally making their own Beatles memorabilia. It was truly Beatlemania and it seemed for a good 30 month period, not only did the United States go nuts, but the world. While countless artists have falsely claimed to have worldwide status, there’s proof that The Beatles were being heard everywhere. Groups in India, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, the Philippines, Japan, and Israel had their own Beatles knock-off bands. There were also countless Beatles fan clubs, and if for some reason being a Beatles fan in your country was considered a disgrace to your culture, you had to do it in secret/hiding.

    Covering a Beatles song was considered good promotion, and artists did not have a problem covering a song or two, releasing it as a non-LP side, or even full albums. Even Capitol Records cashed in by having their house orchestra, The Hollyridge Strings, release many albums filled with nothing but Beatles songs. Having the Union Jack on your cover made you seem hip and cool, and speaking with a fake British accent? Ooh, you were intriguing.

  • When The Beatles performed their last concert on August 29, 1966 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, the group felt it was the right type to do so. They had gained an amount of fame in three years that very few artists up to that point had ever accumulated. Rock’n’roll music wasn’t quite 10 years old when The Beatles broke through, and there wasn’t the term “rock band” just yet, or even “rock’n’roll band”. You were a “pop combo”, and The Beatles were the biggest pop combo in the world. But after playing live shows around the world for years, and not being able to hear themselves play over the screaming of fans (there were no pre-amps during those days, just the amplifiers behind them), they felt it was time to try something new. As the story goes, they decided to concentrate on staying in the recording studio and allowing their music to tour for them. Doing live shows was and still remains the bread and butter for most music artists, so for the biggest band to actually say “we had enough, no more live shows” seemed insane. For some, that meant the end of The Beatles was near, the fad was over, and 1967 would result in new fads and trends. Little did anyone know what would happen what the following year would bring.
  • The story from this point on is familiar to most Beatles and music fans. The group releases “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” as a single. Technically a double A-side, but “Strawberry Fields Forever” was the true A-side.

    The song was loved in England, but U.S. audiences thought it was too weird and freaky. On top of that, the song faded out and came back, which freaked out countless radio disc jockeys who would talk over the record when it faded out, only for the group to quickly return. American DJ’s preferred the pop-friendly (and easier to consume [read “not freaky]) “Penny Lane”, and it would reach #1 on the Billboard singles chart. “Strawberry Fields Forever” made it as high as #8.

    As the story goes, “Strawberry Fields Forever” was monumental for many in the world of pop music, allegedly becoming the start of Brian Wilson‘s mental decline when he was creating the Smile album for the Beach Boys. Both “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were originally meant to be part of the band’s forthcoming album, which was to be an album with a running theme about childhood. After the success of the single (the picture sleeve for which showed the group sporting new mustaches, a first for the band), they decided to scrap the two songs from the album and move forward.

  • Well, we all know the impact of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album that has always been analyzed from the moment the first review was printed. It gained a buzz from various musicians/close friends to The Beatles who were able to obtain test pressings/acetates of the album-to-come. The “summer of love” hadn’t quite sparked yet, but the album has now become a staple when it comes to mentioning the summer of 1967, with many wishing the connection would stop. Reason? There have been many who have said that The Beatles were never really a part of those who celebrated/participated in the summer of love, that it was bands like the Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and The Doors whose music was a part of what was in the air, along with the sounds of Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground.

    What Sgt. Pepper also did was somehow change the way pop music was looked at. With a new “wave” in sound came a new look, and with that came a new breed of critics. If pop music was “toss off” music for teens who could buy their 45 rpms and throw it around in their rooms like plates, then what to make of a group who were actually saying “we want you to listen to this album was if it was a concert, as if this was a show being presented to you”? Jazz artists have always recorded albums as if they were bringing you a concert, making sure it started off with something powerful, keeping you interested throughout, and then ending with something that kept you coming back for more. Rock’n’roll artists were slowly changing how albums were programmed and thus heard, but for the most part, a long playing (LP) album was just a coaster with 11 to 14 songs, not really done with much thought other than “we have new music, let’s sell it”. People felt that Sgt. Pepper was an important piece of music, and that it should be treated as “serious art”, and that alone has left many resentful of the album and perhaps The Beatles themselves. Fans loved the rawness of rock’n’roll, the potential of sex, drugs, and dancing the night away. With Sgt. Pepper, things started to get more business-like, a bit more corporate, and that did coincide with record labels also becoming more firm with how they ran their business. In the early 90’s, there was a great garage rock band called The Mummies who would release music on their own label, Pre-B.S.. I had interviewed one of them for a fanzine I did in the 90’s, and I asked about the name of the label. They felt that before the “bullshit” happened in rock’n’roll, the music was a lot better, vibrant, and festive. The Mummies were representatives of the ruthless rock’n’roll, before the bullshit. What did they view as “bullshit”? A certain British group sporting mustaches, which changed the dynamic of what people wanted out of their rock’n’roll. In other words, Sgt. Pepper was an album that sparked the start of bullshit music.

    Can an album that has been celebrated for 45 years be considered “bullshit”? Let’s be realistic: not everything has to be liked. Just because someone is celebrated doesn’t mean everyone has to agree. Again, look at all of the bands that made themselves known for the first time in 1967, all of the great debuts, all of the artists who released new music. 1967 is so much more than Sgt. Pepper and yet it somehow goes back to an album based on a group of musicians that did not exist, but wanted to go on tour in place of the real group that did not. Regardless, the album had done its damage, for better or worse, and the world would never be the same. It would be #1 on the Billboard Album Chart in the U.S. for 15 weeks, and #1 on the UK Album Chart for a massive 27 weeks. Even with no singles released from the album, radio stations would play each song as if it was a single, “forcing” fans to buy the full album. The album was meant to be listened to as a whole in one sitting, like a concert performance, and that would help to change the way music fans listened to their rock’n’roll. For better or worse.

  • The facts on how The Beatles recorded the album with only 4-tracks is a story onto itself. It lead to countless musicians and producers wanting to do the same within the limitations, leading to many innovations in recording studio technology in the next five years. But even if you don’t get technical about the music or the songwriting, why does this album hold up so well? Then again, some will say that out of the more celebrated Beatles albums, this is one that has not aged well. I feel it has aged gracefully and while it can be “of its time”, it too is very timeless. Some of the arrangements are meant to sound like that on purpose, things are deliberate. Sgt. Pepper is meant to represent the youth of The Beatles, and thus the sounds of the 40’s and 50’s were meant to date its sound from day 1. Day 1. The way it was used and mixed, along with sounds of audio tape moving backwards, tablas and sitars, and an orchestra dubbed a few times to create an orgasmic cacophony, was very much due to the expertise of producer Sir George Martin along with Paul McCartney‘s keen ear for arrangements, for as the other Beatles were at home or elsewhere, McCartney was becoming a studio rat wanting to know how the studio worked. Being someone who also loved orchestras, symphonies, and a bit of the experimental and avant-garde, he brought all of these elements into what would become Sgt. Pepper. Some of the things brought in were deliberate, other things were happy accidents, but it ended up creating one of the biggest happy accidents in rock’n’roll.
  • Regardless of what the music is or isn’t, the album continues to be a starting point for fans who want to find out more about its music, influences, and how The Beatles got from “Love Me Do” and “P.S. I Love You” to “A Day In The Life”. It also leads them out of The Beatles circle and into every other avenue of music. You don’t even have to be a fan of The Beatles to understand its mystique, you might even hate it, but it has a place in history as the bridge from one level of creativity and awareness to another, something that had not been considered to be something a rock’n’roll artist could or should do. No one cared, rock’n’roll stars were meant to offend and make young girls cry.
  • As for me, perhaps my fascination began with my dad, who was The Beatles fan of my family, but he did not play their records at home. Their music was always on the radio, as if they were new songs, but I grew up in a post-Beatles world. I heard all of the solo material, but as a kid I was also aware that people wanted these four people to reunite and become one. I don’t remember what was the first Beatles song I heard, but one of the first that struck me first and foremost was “Eleanor Rigby”. My dad went to his friend’s apartment for a bit of “smoking” and he had the red 1962-1966 album. I asked if I could borrow it, he wasn’t sure if a 9 year old kid could handle a record, but my dad said “he is okay”. I borrowed it. After a week, I had to return the record but asked if I could borrow it again. He said sure. I still have that album. I’m not sure if it was because I was hearing a rock band doing a song that sounded nothing like rock’n’roll, or if the string played by an eight piece orchestra created something that sparked something in me. I didn’t quite understand who Eleanor Rigby was or her role, or why people were lonely. It wasn’t an emotionally sad song, it just sounded cool, and I think I felt if “Eleanor Rigby” was this cool, what else did these Beatles do.

    They would damage my brain for life. When my mom created my first savings account, I eventually withdrew all of what I had left and bought Beatles 45’s at Music Box Records in downtown Honolulu. It wasn’t just the music that moved me, I wanted to know more and The Beatles became the first group that I became “nerdy” for, wanting to know who did what, how, and why, and every little aspect that I could find at book stores. The reason I became a record collector was the fact that I might be able to find a Beatles 45 with one extra T in their name, and I could sell it for $200 or more. In elementary school, I carried a Beatles discography book (All Together Now) that my friends said looked like I was carrying the bible. I not only wanted to know about the music, but felt I had to know catalog numbers, session people, release dates… if there was a possibility to find something new, something more, I had to know that more. When I found out one of my dad’s best friends had a Ravi Shankar album, I had to borrow that album too. It was the Capitol pressing of Three Ragas, and while I knew that Shankar helped to inspire George Harrison move deeper into Indian music, culture, and spirituality, I started to enjoy Indian classical music on its own merits. Again, one door leads to many doors, and it was never ending.

    Oh, as for my first copy of Sgt. Pepper? My dad gave me money to buy a copy at DJ’s Sound City at Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu, probably for $6.99 or $7.99, late 70’s/early 80’s purple label variation. I was sold. As someone with parents who loved swap meets, I clearly remember going to the Aloha Flea Market and seeing someone with a mono pressing of Sgt. Pepper, which I had known at the age of 11 that it was different from the stereo mix. I asked how much it was, and the guy was selling it for $5. Most swap meet records would go for a dollar or less, but $5? I asked my mom, and she said no. I held the album in my hand, saw that the catalog number was MAS-2653. I knew, from reading my Beatles “bible”, that MAS-2653 was mono, while SMAS-2653 had an S at the beginning to signify Stereo. I wanted it, even though it was just to listen. I couldn’t get it. Years later, I saw another copy of that album at a used record store for $75. I would eventually find a beat up copy of the mono pressing, sans cover, for under a dollar. I’ve heard the mono mixes since then, but still, to be able to just have it, U.S. or UK, doesn’t matter…

  • Looking back, it’s an album that represented a lot in the world of music, and perhaps the world, or at least it became a market in time for what happened back in 1967. I did not exist in 1967, but I know there have been times where I said “if there was a time machine, I’d love to be able to exist in a world right before Sgt. Pepper was released.” As I got older and understood world and cultural politics, I wonder if someone with my racial mixture would be able to explore music in the same way I do in the 21st century. Or would someone like me be considered as exotic as the Nehru jacket or a tabla? All I can do is wonder “what if?”

    Realistically, the album just shows what happens with passion, drive, and creativity can be used for something that was not meant to be celebrated as it is today, 45 years later, but merely as what was to be next for those four kids from Liverpool. Let’s hope it continues to excite and delight people in 2067. For a younger generation who wonder why albums that are 45 years old, by a group who haven’t been together in 42 years, continues to be praised as if it was something sacred: simply open your mind and listen. Forget the hype, forget the myths, and just listen. This was a collection of 13 songs that drove people to delight, because this was a boy band who decided to show that had been grown-up for a long time. Now it was time for everyone else to realize that too. It was by a group who felt they had the world, but wanted to see what happens if they pushed everyone’s limits and expectations, including themselves. That’s the beauty of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. For better or worse, it exists. Listen or not.

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