Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Below we look at the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Sgt. Pepper). Made by the British band The Beatles, or the Fab Four, as they were also called, it has been very popular for decades. We offer some facts about the album, a personal account about the times from Frank Johnson and a review of the album by the influential music magazine Rolling Stone.

The album was released in the UK on June 1 1967. It is regarded by critics and fans alike as the most influential album of all time. It was recorded at the famous Abbey Road studio over 129 days and was the band's eighth album. Beatlemania, screaming girls at concerts, was on the wane, so the Beatles were looking for something new. Paul McCartney had the idea of doing the whole album as if Sgt Pepper was a real band. It was a completely self-contained album meant to be played and experienced from start to finish. This type of album came to be called the concept album.

Beatlemania! (Copyright: Scanpix)Beatlemania! (Copyright: Scanpix)

One critic went so far as to say that the album was "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation". Quite a claim indeed about music written by four working-class lads from Liverpool. The album won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the first rock album to do so, and Best Contemporary Album in 1968. The album is ranked No 1 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

The front cover features a colourful collage of life-sized cardboard models of famous people including Hollywood figures, politicians and more: Marlon Brando, Karl Marx , Marlene Dietrich, W.C. Fields, Diana Dors, Bob Dylan, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sigmund Freud, Aleister Crowley, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Lenny Bruce. 

Personal account
Frank Johnson is a "child" of the 60s. What hair Frank has left is white now and he has a little ponytail, perhaps his statement that he is still a "hippy" in the soul. In the following personal text, he remembers the sixties and the album that had the greatest effect on him.

I grew up in the 60s and found them to be exciting times. But then I suppose all teenagers find their time exciting because so much personal stuff is going on, you know, first love, first sexual encounter, adolescent "pains", breaking up with first love, making new friends and expanding your boundaries. I think the 60s were especially exciting though because I felt our generation, at least for a while, really tried to make a difference, and really believed we could make a difference. 

This was a time before personal computers and mobile phones. When we got together and talked in clubs, coffee houses and places like that. This was the counter revolution, the love generation, a back-to-nature rejection of the modern consumer world. We felt we really threatened "the establishment" as we called our parents' generation and the authorities. Just think, what would happen to war if we refused to join the army! But it is the sad truth of our world that at the same time the slogan was "MAKE LOVE NOT WAR" and we seriously talked about ways of making the world a peaceful place for everyone, it was also the time when the Vietnam War escalated and when the "troubles" in Northern Ireland came to a head. It's what they like to call a real dichotomy, the 60s has a split personality. Our hopes were eventually dashed, and when the selfish me-first-generation took centre stage with President Ronald Reagan leading the way, we became just a lonely footnote in history.

The 60s was the time of protest singers, people like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Tom Paxton and many, many more. We would go to coffee houses and listen to folk singers whose songs were packed with social criticism. But the band and the album that really stands out for me in the 60s, what we call the seminal work, was Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Sgt. Pepper). It was something much more than a collection of songs. It really felt like this was an album we were waiting for. With this album the Beatles introduced Eastern music to Western culture, at least to my generation, and it broke new ground in many ways, a real thinker's album with good music as well. Before this album the Beatles had been cute pop singers that all the girls screamed over. But with Sgt Pepper the Beatles showed a social conscience and a new awareness of all the alleged evils of the consumer society, and a new awareness of who we are and our place in the world.

They brought a new look, new clothes, new ideas, new lifestyle and a sense of hope. I wonder how many thousands of young people decided to go on a trip to India because of the influence of the Beatles. This album kept the spirit of the 60s alive and promised new directions in music and thought. This was never an album to dance to, for that we had the Rolling Stones, another British band, but it influenced a whole generation like no other album has ever done. 

A review of the album
Rolling Stone magazine established a list of the 500 best albums of all time. Here is their review of Sgt. Pepper; voted the best album ever made.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. From the title song's regal blasts of brass and fuzz guitar to the orchestral seizure and long, dying piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life," the thirteen tracks on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles' eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.

Issued in Britain on June 1st, 1967, and a day later in America, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is also rock's ultimate declaration of change. For the Beatles, it was a decisive goodbye to matching suits, world tours and assembly-line record-making. "We were fed up with being Beatles," McCartney said decades later, in Many Years from Now, Barry Miles' McCartney biography. "We were not boys, we were men . . . artists rather than performers."

At the same time, Sgt. Pepper formally ushered in an unforgettable season of hope, upheaval and achievement: the late 1960s and, in particular, 1967's Summer of Love. In its iridescent instrumentation, lyric fantasias and eye-popping packaging, Sgt. Pepper defined the opulent revolutionary optimism of psychedelia and instantly spread the gospel of love, acid, Eastern spirituality and electric guitars around the globe. No other pop record of that era, or since, has had such an immediate, titanic impact. This music documents the world's biggest rock band at the very height of its influence and ambition. "It was a peak," Lennon confirmed in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview, describing both the album and his collaborative relationship with McCartney. "Paul and I definitely were working together," Lennon said, and Sgt. Pepper is rich with proof: McCartney's burst of hot piano and school-days memoir ("Woke up, fell out of bed . . . ") in Lennon's "A Day in the Life," a reverie on mortality and infinity; Lennon's impish rejoinder to McCartney's chorus in "Getting Better" ("It can't get no worse").

"Sgt. Pepper was our grandest endeavor," Starr said, looking back, in the 2000 autobiography The Beatles Anthology. "The greatest thing about the band was that whoever had the best idea – it didn't matter who – that was the one we'd use. No one was standing on their ego, saying, 'Well, it's mine,' and getting possessive." It was Neil Aspinall, the Beatles' longtime assistant, who suggested they reprise the title track, just before the grand finale of "A Day in the Life," to complete Sgt. Pepper's theatrical conceit: an imaginary concert by a fictional band, played by the Beatles.

The first notes went to tape on December 6th, 1966: two takes of McCartney's music-hall confection "When I'm Sixty-Four." (Lennon's lysergic reflection on his Liverpool childhood, "Strawberry Fields Forever," was started two weeks earlier but issued in February 1967 as a stand-alone single.) But Sgt. Pepper's real birthday is August 29th, 1966, when the Beatles played their last live concert, in San Francisco. Until then, they had made history in the studio -- Please Please Me (1963), Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) -- between punishing tours. Off the road for good, the Beatles were free to be a band away from the hysteria of Beatlemania. McCartney went a step further. On a plane to London in November '66, as he returned from a vacation in Kenya, he came up with the idea of an album by the Beatles in disguise, an alter-ego group that he subsequently dubbed Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "We'd pretend to be someone else," McCartney explained in Anthology. "It liberated you -- you could do anything when you got to the mike or on your guitar, because it wasn't you."

Only two songs on the final LP, both McCartney's, had anything to do with the Pepper character: the title track and Starr's jaunty vocal showcase "With a Little Help From My Friends," introduced as a number by Sgt. Pepper's star crooner, Billy Shears. "Every other song could have been on any other album," Lennon insisted later. Yet it is hard to imagine a more perfect setting for the Victorian jollity of Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" (inspired by an 1843 circus poster) or the sumptuous melancholy of McCartney's "Fixing a Hole," with its blend of antique shadows (a harpsichord played by the Beatles' producer George Martin) and modern sunshine (double-tracked lead guitar executed with ringing precision by Harrison). The Pepper premise was a license to thrill.

It also underscored the real-life cohesion of the music and the group that made it. Of the 700 hours the Beatles spent making Sgt. Pepper (engineer Geoff Emerick actually tallied them) from the end of 1966 until April 1967, the group needed only three days' worth to complete Lennon's lavish daydream "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." "A Day in the Life," the most complex song on the album, was done in just five days. (The oceanic piano chord was three pianos hit simultaneously by ten hands belonging to Lennon, McCartney, Starr, Martin and Beatles roadie Mal Evans.) No other Beatles appear with Harrison on his sitar-perfumed sermon on materialism and fidelity, "Within You Without You," but the band wisely placed the track at the halfway point of the original vinyl LP, at the beginning of Side Two: a vital meditation break in the middle of the jubilant indulgence.

The Beatles' exploitation of multitracking on Sgt. Pepper transformed the very act of studio recording (the orchestral overdubs on "A Day in the Life" marked the debut of eight-track recording in Britain: two four-track machines used in sync). And Sgt. Pepper's visual extravagance officially elevated the rock album cover to a Work of Art. Michael Cooper's photo of the Beatles in satin marching-band outfits, in front of a cardboard-cutout audience of historical figures, created by artist Peter Blake, is the most enduring image of the psychedelic era. Sgt. Pepper was also the first rock album to incorporate complete lyrics to the songs in its design.

Yet Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the Number One album of the RS 500 not just because of its firsts -- it is simply the best of everything the Beatles ever did as musicians, pioneers and pop stars, all in one place. A 1967 British print ad for the album declared, "Remember Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Is the Beatles." As McCartney put it, the album was "just us doing a good show."

The show goes on forever.


Using your own words, explain what the following phrases mean in the sense that they are used in the texts above:

  • really believed that we could make a difference
  • the establishment
  • the 60s had a split personality
  • lonely footnote in history
  • a new awareness
  • ultimate declaration of change
  • such an immediate titanic impact
  • No one was standing on their ego
  • Away from the hysteria of Beatlemania
  • It liberated you
  • Just doing a good show

In groups go on the internet to find out more about one of the people whose cardboard likeness appeared on the album cover. Present your famous person to the class.

Marlon Brando, Karl Marx , Marlene Dietrich, W.C. Fields, Diana Dors, Bob Dylan, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sigmund Freud, Aleister Crowley, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy and Lenny Bruce.

Each decade tends to be defined by one iconic album which has massive influence on the world of music, and for the 1960s it was Sgt Pepper. Teen Tools, a music magazine, recently crowned the seminal albums for each decade from the 50s:
1950s - Elvis Presley (Elvis Presley)
1970s - The Dark Side Of The Moon (Pink Floyd)
1980s - Thriller (Michael Jackson)
1990s - Nevermind (Nirvana)
2000s - Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not (Arctic Monkeys)

The critic states "While it's still too early to fully proclaim this the most influential album of the decade, it certainly encapsulates the changes that music has undergone in the digital age. It became the fastest selling debut album in UK history on its release in January 2006, largely as a result of the hype generated about the Sheffield band on the internet. The Monkeys who were first to use the power of the web."
Discuss in class whether you agree with this last choice. Make a class list of the ten top albums of this decade and then vote on your favourites. Make percentages that you can refer to. Then write a letter to the editor of this magazine agreeing or disagreeing with its choice.

The review is another type of writing genre. A review is an evaluation of a book, movie, drama or performance. Writers of reviews generally use a lot of adjectives (just look at the review of Sgt. Pepper) and the review will normally offer a recommendation, should you read the book or buy the album?
If you are reviewing an album you should:
·        Listen to the music many times
·        Ask yourself how effective, catchy the music is?
·        Do the lyrics say something to you?
·        Does the music touch you or does it sound forced, pretentious or just too simple?
·        Do the songs effect your emotions or make you think?
·        Consider how the record fits with other works by the artist
·        What do think the artist has accomplished?
·        Perhaps compare it to other works

Choose one of your favourite albums and try your hand at writing a music review.

Cappelen Damm

Sist oppdatert: 14.07.2008

© Cappelen Damm AS