It was fifty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile
It was indeed 50 years ago today that The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the U.S. on June 2, 1967. It was released in the U.K. the day before.
No other album defined the soundtrack of the Summer of Love better than Sgt. Pepper. It captured the fantasy, psychedelics, love, and drugs of 1967. Especially with the last song “A Day In The Life” which urged “I’d love to turn you on.”
In 1967 I was on a school field trip to San Francisco. Directly across the street from Ghirardelli Square was a record store where I bought my copy of Sgt. Pepper. It felt almost scandalous to bring it home to my small town because “everyone knows it’s all about drugs,” or so people thought. I did now know it at the time but that was not entirely incorrect, as we’ll see.
Last week the six-disc boxed set 50th Anniversary (Remix) Edition of Sgt. Pepper was released by Giles Martin, the son of the original Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin.
For the Beatles, Sgt Pepper was a departure on a couple of levels.
- Studio: In 1966 the band stopped touring after their last performance in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park and had 10 months before Sgt. Pepper. Starting on November 24, 1966, they had the luxury of spending lots of time in the studio producing the album, finishing it on April 21, 1967. They could spend 4 days laying down “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” as Paul combined a number of presets to his Lowrey organ, including harpsichord, vibraharp, and music box. They spent 24 sessions and 700 hours recording and mixing the album.
- Fantasy: The Beatles were able to pretend they were another band, less famous to be sure, who could feature the heroes of that fantasy band on the album cover. Paul recalls
“I thought it would be nice to lose our identities, to submerge ourselves in the persona of a fake group… thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers… Let’s develop alter egos.”
Artist Peter Blake put together the album cover. His idea was that this fantasy band had just finished a concert in the park and their audience joined them afterward.
George picked Indian gurus Babaji and Paramahansa Yogananda, John picked Albert Stubbins, Aldous Huxley, Stuart Sutcliffe and others, Paul picked William Burroughs, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Stockhausen and others, and Peter Blake chose W.C. Fields, Tony Curtis, Shirley Temple and others. The crowd of icons was chosen. It took a letter from the Beatles to persuade actress Mae West to let her picture be used on the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album cover. At first, West refused, saying,
“What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?”
Double-A side Record
The Beatles had fallen off the top of the charts in the U.S. The Monkees were now the “mop top” group that had climbed to the top. The Beatles recorded two songs as the first two of three songs done at the same time as Sgt. Pepper, but Beatles manager Brian Epstein decided to release them as a single ahead of the album; “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” were nostalgic tunes about their youth in Liverpool. I’ve visited these sites and have written about them previously. Both songs were enormous hits. I recall the Ed Sullivan show featured a “video” of the band doing the songs. It seemed somewhat disappointing, as we were used to seeing the Beatles live on his show 3 years earlier, as I’ve written about before. They just missed achieving the #1 spot on the charts behind Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me.”
In the U.S. the Beach Boys had released the Pet Sounds concept album. The Beatles admitted that they were inspired by it. Paul said in 1980
“That was the album that flipped me. The music invention on that album was, like, ‘Wow!’”
There was a mutual admiration between the two groups. John said:
“Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere. All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with this idea of Sgt. Pepper and his band, but it works, because we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared. But it was not put together as it sounds, except for Sgt. Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album.”
With A Little Help From My Friends
Because John had injured a finger on a piano at this time, the song he and Paul wrote for Ringo was called “Bad Finger Boogie,” thought the name was changed before release to “With A Little Help From My Friends.” Two years later, the British rock band Badfinger took their name from that song and recorded for the Beatles’ Apple label. Two of their songs were by the Beatles. “Come and Get It” was written and produced by Paul and “Day After Day” was produced by George.
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
John Lennon insists that in 1967 his three-year-old son Julian had made a drawing of one of his classmates, Lucy O’Donnell. When his father asked him what it was Julian said:
“It’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
John continued to insist this for years. People didn’t buy it, the LSD in the name of the song and the psychedelic images argued against it. Even Paul had referred to it as one of the drug songs on the album. John said he was inspired by the surrealism of the “Wool And Water” chapter of Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass where Alice floats down a river in a rowing boat by the Queen who has changed into a sheep. (By the way, Carroll floated down a river with a little girl at Christ Church College, Oxford. You can find the Sheep Shop there too.) “Plasticine ties” came from The Goon Show on TV.
A Day In The Life
Initially, the song was about a news story John had read regarding the automobile accident of Tara Browne, a young aristocratic elite who was the great-grandson of the brewer Edward Cecil Guinness. Then it was spliced together with an unfinished song Paul had written about his school days. With words like “smoke,” “dream,” and “turn-ons” the track was banned from radio play in many countries.
Hence, it became the quintessential drug song of the Summer of Love.
A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For All
Was Sgt. Pepper successful? Less than 2 weeks after it was released in the U.S. it was a certified gold record. It debuted on Billboard Magazine at number 8 on the album chart, the next week it was #1 displacing the Monkees’ album. It topped the charts for 15 straight weeks and remained in the top 5 until January of the next year. It sold 11 million copies in the U.S, 32 million worldwide. It won 4 Grammy awards.
If all that wasn’t enough, to top it all off at the height of the Summer of Love, on June 25, 1967, the Beatles released the anthem of flower power with their song “All You Need Is Love” broadcast live on TV in 25 countries to over 400 million viewers. The single was included in the U.S. version of the album Magical Mystery Tour, and in the animated movie Yellow Submarine.
Even Johnny Rivers’ December 1967 hit “Summer Rain” repeats the line “… everybody kept on playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian