As an album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band touched the world and separated the Fab Four from virtually everyone else on the music scene at the time.
In the final part of our series of roundtable discussions, our gathered collection of Beatles experts take on the album that is arguably considered to be greatest recorded achievement of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
FHM: What kind of anticipation was there leading up to Sgt. Pepper’s release? Had “Tomorrow Never Knows” from Revolver sort of whet the appetite for what was to come?
Bill King (Editor, Beatlefan): “No, I don’t think so. What really fueled that was the double single of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane.’ Those were released in February of 1967, and they sort of fueled anticipation for Pepper, which was released in June. Then, not long after hearing it, you see them on Hollywood Palace in the promotional films for the songs with mustaches and capes and everything, and it was, like, ‘Yeah, this is the new Beatles.’”
Allan Kozinn (Journalist, Music Critic, Teacher): “‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ was the next step from ‘Tomorrow Never Knows.’ In ‘Strawberry Fields,’ you’ve got backwards drums. You’ve got Swarmandal, which is George’s Indian Zither. You have an incredible score by [producer] George Martin for brass and strings. You also have these two versions of the song linked together. You could tell that something was going on with The Beatles, which really leads into Pepper. You have to consider that and ‘Penny Lane’ part of Pepper.”
Steve Maranucci (Writer for Billboard, axs and Goldmine): “Everybody, especially adults, freaked out with Sgt. Pepper, because they all looked so different. I mean, the look of The Beatles on Revolver wasn’t all that different from what they had looked like, but here… If you think back to the ‘60s, it was a lot more conservative than it is now. People liked The Beatles because they were cute, they were charming, they were… inoffensive. I think that’s a good word. When they moved into the Sgt. Pepper era, they were different. It was obvious they had grown up, that they weren’t the same guys, and they were doing things that you wouldn’t want your kids to do.”
Bill King: “The Beatles were defying the way it was usually done, which was that you stayed pretty much within your parameters. You milked it for as long as you could and then you were sort of a has-been. But they kept changing and evolving and doing something different and the show biz world didn’t know how to handle that.”
Al Sussman (Executive Editor, Beatlefan; Author, Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Shaped A Generation): “At the time there was no knowledge of what the title of the album was and whether or not it was going to be a kind of concept album, but little things made the anticipation for it just grow and grow. That’s why when it actually did come out, it became such an event.”
Scott Mantz (Critic, Access Hollywood): “Sgt. Pepper is the last true album that they recorded together as a band. It's the last album where they collaborated together as a band. They had achieved freedom on August 29, 1966 when they decided on no more touring. So they all disperse and do their own things for a little bit. John films Richard Lester’s How I Won The War, Paul records the score with George Martin for The Family Way, George goes to India, and Ringo’s just sort of being Ringo. They reconvene at Abbey Road, they’ve got mustaches and colorful clothes. Clearly they went through a transformation; they let themselves go a little bit and their individual personalities came out a little bit more. For the first time since Beatlemania kicked off they did not have a long player in stores for the holidays. What they did have was probably the greatest single of all time with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ backed with ‘Penny Lane,’ because they were gonna record an album with songs nodding to their childhood in Liverpool.”
FHM: Sgt. Pepper is called the first ‘concept’ album. John, of course, went on record saying that it was only a concept album because The Beatles told us it was a concept album, and that in reality it wasn’t.
Bruce Spizer (Author, The Beatles And Sgt. Pepper: A Fans’ Perspective): “They started off with songs kind of being a nostalgic look at their past, and then ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane,’ which were recorded for the album, ended up being released as a single. If you put those songs back into the lineup, it really is much more of a concept album. It’s unfortunate that those songs were not included, because when you’re trying to stack up where Sgt. Pepper stands as far as The Beatles’ best work, if you add those two songs to it, then it makes it a much stronger album.”
Allan Kozinn: “Paul goes off on a trip and while he’s on the plane he’s thinking, ‘Okay, we’re sick of being The Beatles. How are we going to get around that? Why don’t we pretend we’re another band?’ He brought that concept back. I don’t know to what degree the rest of them took it seriously, but they shaped the album that way as if this is a performance by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. You have the title song, the reprise coming back at the end, and ‘A Day In The Life’ comes after the reprise. Is that part of the show or isn’t it? Is it a commentary on something? You don’t know what to make of that, because it’s not really a concept album. It’s pretending to be a concept album. They put together the cover as if they are, in effect, Sgt. Pepper’s band and The Beatles are next to them. You’ve got that insert with the sergeant stripes that you can cut out and put on, the picture of Sgt. Pepper and all of that. I guess that’s why people think of it as a concept album, because the package is such an incredibly unified thing, but the songs have nothing to do with each other. There’s nothing like there is on Rubber Soul where you can hang them together around some theme. There’s no theme here.”
Bill King: “It’s only a concept album because of the way it was presented. The album cover, the starting out like it’s a performance by the band and winding up with Sgt. Pepper again at the end before you go into “A Day In The Life.” That and the lack of a clear gap between the tracks—that was the concept. Paul’s concept of this imaginary band I don’t think many of us really bought into at the time. It was The Beatles with mustaches and cool uniforms, but it’s still The Beatles. The other band concept was a mind game Paul played with himself. It was sort of the production that was what I think really wowed a lot of us at the time in that it was so layered and complex. We weren’t used to that. We were used to the voices and the instruments and that’s pretty much it.”
Ken Michaels (Host, syndicated Beatles radio show, Every Little Thing): “The other songs really have nothing to do with Sgt. Pepper, but they thread together so well. The Beatles even early on were into the sequencing of their songs; properly placing them in such a way where it flowed. So it wasn’t a concept in terms of one idea that Sgt. Pepper is taking you on this journey, because it wasn’t. But the songs flow together so well in such a way that it’s an artistic statement unto itself. It led the way for other albums being concepts or songs, where the song sequencing mattered quite a lot.”
Bruce Spizer: “I think it’s revolutionary in that it’s one of the first times, at least in rock, that you have a concept album. And if you break down the songs themselves, many of them are absolutely brilliant. “Sgt. Pepper” is a great rock and roll song; Paul’s vocal on that is one of his top rock vocals and that’s really saying something in and of itself. “With A Little Help From My Friends” is a catchy, sing-along type song. “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” is a kind of psychedelic classic and then, of course, “A Day In The Life” is just an incredible way to end an album. That to me sounds like the end of the world when you have that build up and then the final chord.”
Al Sussman: “There are people of my age who can remember where we were and what we were doing the first time we heard the album, either on the radio or after getting it, bringing it home, sitting down and listening to it for the first time. That’s not the case with every Beatles album. Even after all of these years, the memory of that is so fresh because of the fact that it was an event. And it was followed three weeks later by the debut of ‘All You Need Is Love.’ It was an incredibly exciting time; a time where it seemed that every week, some great new record was coming out, either a single or an album.”
Scott Mantz: “It is an album that defines a year. June 1, 1967, when it first came out, the hippie movement was going strong, it was the Summer Of Love. A year later, you have the chaos of 1968 with Bobby Kennedy assassinated, Martin Luther King assassinated, you had riots going on around the world, and Vietnam was definitely turning for the worse. In the midst of all that chaos, you have an album of chaos called the White Album. It’s just amazing how every Beatles album defined when it came out. With The Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night defined the Beatlemania of the early 1960s, which was also the last vestige of idealism that hung around from the late 1950s. Once you get into Rubber Soul and Revolver, and definitely Pepper, that is when the ’60s really became the ’60s, and it peaked with Sgt. Pepper.”
Look for our final piece on The Road to Sgt. Pepper on Tuesday, May 23rd.