It was twenty 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
Rock & Roll in the late ’60s was exemplified when 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 rock & roll 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.
Several years ago, 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.
In this, the final article in the series on the 55th anniversary of the Summer of Love, I’ll discuss the significance of Sgt. Pepper as it kicked off that iconic summer of sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
Rock & Roll Music Just Before the San Francisco Summer of Love
But first, to put this in context, as I mentioned in my introductory article, the rock and roll concert that was a prelude to the Summer of Love was The Monterey Pop Festival, held south of San Francisco on June 16 – 18, 1967. Some of the performers featured well-known acts and newcomers:
The Who, Grateful Dead, the Animals, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Otis Redding, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Association, Canned Heat, Moby Grape, Booker T. & the M.G.’s, Johnny Rivers, Eric Burdon and the Animals, Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Ravi Shankar, Country Joe and the Fish, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
This summer of 1967 saw one of the most fertile times of popular and rock and roll music in American culture. It would presage the 1969 Woodstock concert.
Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner said
“Monterey was the nexus – it sprang from what the Beatles began, and from it sprang what followed.”
Departure for Rock & Roll
For The Beatles, Sgt Pepper was a departure on several levels.
Studio: In 1966, the band stopped touring after their last performance in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, ten 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 four days laying down “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” as Paul McCartney combined several 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 could pretend they were another band, less famous, to be sure, who could feature the heroes of that fantasy band on the album cover. Paul recalled:
“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.”
Sgt Pepper Album Art
Artist Peter Blake and Jann Haworth put together the album cover ( and won the 1967 Grammy Award for Best Album Cover, Graphic Arts for their work). It cost a ridiculously large amount to create the artwork: £3,000, back when most album art cost £50. Blake’s idea was that this fantasy band had just finished a concert in the park, and their audience joined them afterward.
Each Beatle picked who they wanted on the album cover:
- John Lennon chose Albert Stubbins, Aldous Huxley, Stuart Sutcliffe, and others
- Paul McCartney selected William Burroughs, Marlon Brando, Fred Astaire, Stockhausen, and others
- George Harrison picked Indian gurus Babaji and Paramahansa Yogananda
- Ringo Starr said, “Whatever the others say is fine by me,” and didn’t suggest anyone
- Peter Blake chose W.C. Fields, Tony Curtis, Shirley Temple, and others
The crowd of icons was chosen. Those pictured who were still living were contacted to get permission to use their image. Shirley Temple wanted to hear the entire album before she would commit. 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 Rock & Roll 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 simultaneously 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 in Liverpool and have written about them previously. Both songs were enormous hits. I recall the Ed Sullivan TV 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 three 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.”
Beach Boys and Rock & Roll
“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 Lennon 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.”
Beach Boy frontman Brian Wilson, when asked to name his favorite record ever, said:
“I’d have to say ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
When Paul McCartney was asked about his favorite song, he replied
“[The Beach Boy’s] ‘God Only Knows’ is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it.
Brian Wilson was inspired to write that song after hearing The Beatles’ Revolver.
Where did the name Sgt. Pepper Come From?
Paul recounts the story about a discussion in November 1966 with a friend on a plane:
“We were having our meal and they had those little packets marked ‘S’ and ‘P’. [My friend] said, ‘What’s that mean? Oh, salt and pepper.’ We had a joke about that. So I said, ‘Sergeant Pepper,’ just to vary it, ‘Sergeant Pepper, salt and pepper,’ an aural pun, not mishearing him but just playing with the words.”
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 Starr was called “Bad Finger Boogie,” though 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 Harrison.
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 on this for years. People didn’t believe it; the LSD in the song’s name 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 T.V.
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? It was a certified gold record less than two weeks after it was released in the U.S. It debuted in 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 following year. It sold 11 million copies in the U.S. and 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 T.V. 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
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