Friday, October 25, 2013

The Beatles "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"

Next in the Beatles' series of reviews, I offer my take on the granddaddy of full-blown, paisley psych, SPLHCB.

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (often shortened to Sgt. Pepper) is the eighth studio album by English rock band the Beatles. Released in June 1967, the album included songs such as "With a Little Help from My Friends", "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", and "A Day in the Life". Continuing the artistic maturation seen on the band's album Revolver (1966), Sgt. Pepper further departed from the conventional pop rock idiom of the time and incorporated balladry, psychedelic, music hall, and symphonic influences.

During the Sgt. Pepper sessions, the group improved upon the quality of their music's production while exploring experimental recording techniques. Producer George Martin's innovative approach included the use of an orchestra. Widely acclaimed and imitated, the album cover, designed by English pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, was inspired by a sketch by Paul McCartney that depicted the band posing in front of a collage of some of their favourite celebrities.

Sgt. Pepper was a worldwide critical and commercial success, spending 27 weeks at the top of the UK Album Chart and 15 weeks at number one on the US Billboard 200. A seminal work in the emerging psychedelic rock style, the album was critically acclaimed upon release and won four Grammy Awards in 1968. With an estimated 32 million copies sold, it is one of the world's best selling albums. Sgt. Pepper is considered by many to be the most influential and famous rock album ever, and has been named the greatest album of all time by both Colin Larkin's All Time Top 1000 Albums (1994) and Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time (2003). The album was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in 2003, calling it "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


By late 1965, the Beatles had grown weary of touring, and by the end of their 1966 US tour they decided to retire from live performance. Lennon commented: "We're fed up with making soft music for soft people, and we're fed up with playing for them too." Upon their return to England, rumours began to circulate that the band had decided to break up. They subsequently took an almost two-month vacation and individually became involved in their own interests. George Harrison travelled to India for six weeks to develop his sitar playing at the instruction of Ravi Shankar. In 1966, McCartney and producer George Martin collaborated on a soundtrack for the film The Family Way. Also in 1966, John Lennon acted in How I Won the War, and he attended art showings, such as one at the Indica Gallery where he met his future wife Yoko Ono. Ringo Starr used the break to spend more time with his wife and first child. In November, during a return flight to London from Kenya, where he had been on holiday with tour manager Mal Evans, McCartney had the creative idea that would first become a song, and would eventually inspire the Sgt Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band concept. McCartney commented: "We did try performing some songs off [Revolver], but there were so many complicated overdubs we can't do them justice. Now we can record anything we want, and it won't matter. And what we want is to raise the bar a notch, to make our best album ever."


When the Beatles had given up touring, Lennon said that they could "send out four waxworks ... and that would satisfy the crowds", and McCartney later explained, "We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach. We were not boys, we were men ... and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers". In early February McCartney had the idea of recording an album that would represent a performance by a fictitious band. This alter ego group would give the band the freedom to experiment musically. McCartney explained: "I thought, let's not be ourselves. Let's develop alter egos ... it won't be us making all that sound, it won't be the Beatles, it'll be this other band, so we'll be able to lose our identities in this". Martin wrote of the fictitious band concept: "'Sergeant Pepper' itself didn't appear until halfway through making the album. It was Paul's song, just an ordinary rock number ... but when we had finished it, Paul said, 'Why don't we make the album as though the Pepper band really existed, as though Sergeant Pepper was making the record? We'll dub in effects and things.' I loved the idea, and from that moment on it was as though Pepper had a life of its own".

The album starts with the title song, which introduces Sgt. Pepper's band itself; this song segues into a sung introduction for bandleader "Billy Shears" (Starr), who performs "With a Little Help from My Friends". A reprise version of the title song appears on side two of the album just prior to the climactic "A Day in the Life", creating a bookend effect. However, the band effectively abandoned the concept other than the first two songs and the reprise. Lennon was unequivocal in stating that the songs he wrote for the album had nothing to do with the Sgt. Pepper concept, and further noted that none of the other songs did either, saying "Every other song could have been on any other album". In spite of Lennon's statements to the contrary, the album has been widely heralded as an early and groundbreaking example of the concept album.


McCartney has repeatedly stated that the single biggest influence on Sgt. Pepper's was the Beach Boys album Pet Sounds. The album had a profound effect on McCartney and the other Beatles, specifically the unorthodox instrumentation and complicated vocal harmonies. Sound engineer Geoff Emerick has noted how the record was often played in the studio so he and the other sound engineers could hear the sounds the Beatles wanted to achieve. It also led McCartney to develop a new melodically-focused style of bass guitar playing that would become prevalent on many of his recordings afterward. George Martin has also stated that "without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn't have happened... Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds."

The Beatles began sessions for the album in late November 1966 with a series of recordings that were to form an album thematically linked to their childhoods. The initial results of this effort produced "Strawberry Fields Forever", "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Penny Lane". "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were released as a double A-sided single in February 1967 after EMI and Epstein pressured Martin for a single. Once the single was released the childhood concept was abandoned in favour of Sgt. Pepper, and in keeping with the group's usual practice, the single tracks were not included on the LP (a decision Martin states he now regrets). They were released only as a single in the UK and Canada at the time but were included as part of the American LP version of Magical Mystery Tour (which was issued as a six-track double EP in Britain). The Harrison composition "Only a Northern Song" was also recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions but did not see a release until the soundtrack album for the animated film Yellow Submarine, released in January 1969.

As EMI's premier act and the world's most successful rock group, the Beatles had almost unlimited access to Abbey Road Studios. By 1967, all of the Sgt. Pepper tracks could be recorded at Abbey Road using mono, stereo and four-track recorders. Although eight-track tape recorders were already available in the US, the first eight-tracks were not operational in commercial studios in London until late 1967, shortly after the album was released. Like its predecessors, the recording made extensive use of the technique known as "bouncing down" (also known at that time as a "reduction mix"), in which a number of tracks were recorded across the four tracks of one recorder, which were then mixed and dubbed down onto one or several tracks of the master four-track machine. This enabled the Abbey Road engineers to give the group a virtual multi-track studio.

Relatively new modular effects units were used, like the wah-wah pedal and fuzzbox, and running voices and instruments through a Leslie speaker. Several then-new production effects feature extensively on the recordings. One of the most important was automatic double tracking (ADT), a system that used tape recorders to create a simultaneous doubling of a sound. Although it had long been recognised that using multitrack tape to record "doubled" lead vocals produced a greatly enhanced sound, it had always been necessary to record such vocal tracks twice; a task which was both tedious and exacting. ADT was invented especially for the band by EMI engineer Ken Townsend in 1966, mainly at the behest of Lennon, who hated tracking sessions and regularly expressed a desire for a technical solution to the problem. ADT quickly became a near-universal recording practice in popular music. Martin, having fun at Lennon's expense, described the new technique to an inquisitive Lennon as a "double-bifurcated sploshing flange". The anecdote explains one variation of how the term "flanging" came to be associated with this recording effect. Also important was varispeeding, the technique of recording various tracks on a multi-track tape at slightly different tape speeds, which was used extensively on their vocals in this period. The speeding up of vocals became a widespread technique in pop production. The band also used the effect on portions of their backing tracks (as on "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds") to give them a "thicker" and more diffuse sound.

"Within You Without You" was recorded on 15 March with Harrison on vocals, sitar and tambura; the other instruments (tabla, dilruba, swarmandel, and an additional tambura) were played by four London-based Indian musicians. None of the other Beatles participated in the recording. For the 17 March recording of "She's Leaving Home", McCartney hired Mike Leander to arrange the string section as Martin was occupied producing one of his other artists, Cilla Black.

The lyrics for "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" were adapted from a Victorian circus poster for Pablo Fanque's circus, which Lennon had bought at an antique shop in Kent on the day of filming the promotional clip for "Strawberry Fields Forever" there. The sound collage was created by Martin and his engineers, who collected recordings of calliopes and fairground organs, which were then cut into strips of various lengths, thrown into a box, mixed up and edited together in random order, creating a long loop which was mixed in during final production.

This album also makes heavy use of keyboard instruments: a grand piano is used on tracks such as "A Day in the Life", a Lowrey organ is used for "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", a harpsichord can be heard on "Fixing a Hole", and Martin played a harmonium on "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!". An electric piano, upright piano, Hammond organ and glockenspiel can also be heard on the record. Harrison used a tambura on several tracks, including "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and "Getting Better".

The thunderous piano chord that concludes "A Day in the Life", and the album, was produced by assembling three grand pianos in the studio and playing an E chord on each simultaneously. Together on cue, Lennon, Starr, McCartney and assistant Mal Evans hammered the keys on the assembled pianos and held down the chord. The sound from the pianos was then mixed up with compression and increasing gain on the volume to draw out the sound to maximum sustain.

British pressings of the album (in its original LP form that was later released on CD), end with a 15-kilohertz high-frequency tone (put on the album at Lennon's suggestion and said to be "especially intended to annoy your dog"), followed by an endless loop of laughter and gibberish made by the run-out groove looping back into itself. The loop (but not the tone) made its US debut on the 1980 Rarities compilation, titled "Sgt. Pepper Inner Groove". However, it is only featured as a two-second fragment at the end of side two rather than an actual loop in the run-out groove. The CD version of "Sgt. Pepper Inner Groove" is actually a bit shorter than that one found on the original UK vinyl pressing. The sound in the loop caused some controversy when it was interpreted as a secret message. McCartney later told his biographer Barry Miles that in the summer of 1967 a group of kids came up to him complaining about a lewd message hidden in it when played backwards. He told them, "You're wrong, it's actually just 'It really couldn't be any other'". He took them to his house to play the record backwards to them, and it turned out that the passage sounded to him very much like "We'll fuck you like Superman". McCartney recounted to Miles that "we had certainly had not intended to do that but probably when you turn anything backwards it sounds like something ... if you look hard enough you can  make something out of anything". When the album was repressed for LP release in 2012, it took several attempts to successfully reproduce the run-out groove effect.


Concerns that lyrics in Sgt. Pepper referred to recreational drug use led to several songs from the album being banned by the BBC. The album's closing track, "A Day in the Life", includes the phrase "I'd love to turn you on". The BBC banned the song from airplay on the basis of this line, claiming it could "encourage a permissive attitude toward drug-taking". Both Lennon and McCartney denied any drug-related interpretation of the song at the time, although McCartney's later comments in The Beatles Anthology documentary regarding the writing of the lyric make it clear that the drug reference was indeed deliberate.

"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" also became the subject of speculation regarding its meaning, as many believed that the words of the chorus were code for LSD. The BBC used this as their basis for banning the song from British radio. Again, Lennon consistently denied this interpretation of the song, maintaining that the song describes a surreal dreamscape inspired by a picture drawn by his son Julian. However, during a newspaper interview in 2004, McCartney was quoted as saying:
'Lucy in the Sky,' that's pretty obvious. There's others that make subtle hints about drugs, but, you know, it's easy to overestimate the influence of drugs ... Just about everyone was doing drugs in one form or another and we were no different, but the writing was too important for us to mess it up by getting off our heads all the time.
— Paul McCartney
At other times, though, McCartney seems to have contradicted himself. "When [Martin] was doing his TV programme on Pepper," McCartney is quoted as saying, "he asked me, 'Do you know what caused Pepper?' I said, 'In one word, George, drugs. Pot.' And George said, 'No, no. But you weren't on it all the time.' 'Yes, we were.' Sgt. Pepper was a drug album."

Cover artwork

The Grammy Award-winning album packaging was art-directed by Robert Fraser, designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, his wife and artistic partner, and photographed by Michael Cooper. It featured a colourful collage of life-sized cardboard models of famous people on the front of the album cover and the lyrics printed in full on the back cover, the first time this had been done on a rock LP. In the guise of the Sgt. Pepper band, the Beatles were dressed in custom-made military-style outfits made of satin dyed in day-glo colours. The suits were designed by Manuel Cuevas. Among the insignia on their uniforms are: MBE medals on McCartney's and Harrison's jackets, the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom on Lennon's right sleeve and an Ontario Provincial Police flash on McCartney's sleeve.
The centre of the cover depicts the Beatles standing behind a drum skin, on which are painted the words of the album's title. The skin was painted by fairground artist Joe Ephgrave. A collage depicts around 60 famous people, including writers, musicians, film stars, and (at Harrison's request) a number of Indian gurus. The final grouping included Marlene Dietrich, Carl Gustav Jung, W.C. Fields, Diana Dors, Bob Dylan, Issy Bonn, Marilyn Monroe, Aldous Huxley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sigmund Freud, Aleister Crowley, T. E. Lawrence, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Sir Robert Peel, Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Marlon Brando, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, and Lenny Bruce. Also included was the image of the original Beatles' bassist, the late Stuart Sutcliffe. Pete Best said in a later NPR interview that Lennon borrowed family medals from his (Best's) mother Mona for the shoot, on condition that he did not lose them. Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ were requested by Lennon, but ultimately they were left out. A photo also exists of a rejected cardboard printout with a cloth draped over its head; its identity is unknown. The final cost for the cover art was nearly £3,000 (equivalent to £46,104 today) an extravagant sum for a time when album covers would typically cost around £50.


The album is often said to be a huge influence in the development of progressive rock music, and rock music generally. It has been included in numerous lists about progressive rock albums and influences. Nick Mason, drummer of pioneering progressive rock group Pink Floyd has said himself that Ringo's drumming on the album has hugely influenced him.

The album was also featured on Classic Rock magazine's list "50 albums that built Prog Rock".

A Day In The Life, the last track on the album, is often cited by music critics and reviewers as maybe the first ever progressive rock song, due to it's complex arrangement, structure and sound that was unheard of in rock music at the time. Phil Collins, drummer of the prog-rock band Genesis has said this of Ringo's playing on the song: "Starr is vastly underrated. The drum fills on the song 'A Day in the Life' are very complex things. You could take a great drummer today and say, 'I want it like that.' He wouldn't know what to do."

Critical reception

Professional ratings
Review scores
Allmusic5/5 stars
The A.V. ClubB+
Robert ChristgauA
Crawdaddy!5/5 stars
The Daily Telegraph5/5 stars
Encyclopedia of Popular Music5/5 stars
Pitchfork Media10/10
The Rolling Stone Album Guide5/5 stars
Upon its release on 1 June 1967, Sgt. Pepper received critical acclaim. Various reviews appearing in the mainstream press and trade publications throughout June 1967, immediately after the album's release, were generally positive. In The Times, prominent critic Kenneth Tynan described Sgt. Pepper as "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation". Richard Poirier wrote "listening to the Sgt. Pepper album one thinks not simply of the history of popular music but the history of this century."
In a negative review, Richard Goldstein of The New York Times found the album "spoiled" and felt that it "reek[ed]" of "special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent". After he was criticized for his review, Goldstein published a response a month later, in which he said that he was worried "as a critic" that the album was not on-par with the best of the Beatles' previous work, despite being "better than 80 per cent of the music around today". He called it an "in-between experience, a chic", and felt that when the novelty of its production tricks wears off, "and the compositions are stripped to their musical and lyrical essentials, Sergeant Pepper will be Beatles baroque—an elaboration without improvement". Robert Christgau of The Village Voice wrote in an article at the time that the album is "a consolidation, more intricate than Revolver but not more substantial. Part of Goldstein's mistake, I think, has been to allow all the filters and reverbs and orchestral effects and overdubs to deafen him to the stuff underneath, which was pretty nice, and to fall victim to overanticipation." He called the album "a dozen good songs and true" in a 1977 retrospective review, and stated, "Perhaps they're too precisely performed, but I'm not going to complain."

In his Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Colin Larkin wrote that the album "turned out to be no mere pop album but a cultural icon embracing the constituent elements of the 60s' youth culture: pop art, garish fashion, drugs, instant mysticism and freedom from parental control." In a 1987 review for Q, Charles Shaar Murray commented that the album "remains a central pillar of the mythology and iconography of the late '60s." Anthony DeCurtis of Rolling Stone argued that it "revolutionized rock & roll" and that its "immensely pleasurable trip has earned Sgt. Pepper its place as the best record of the past twenty years." DeCurtis found it to be "not only the Beatles' most artistically ambitious album but their funniest" and cited its "fun-loving experimentalism" as the album's "best legacy for our time." By contrast, Christgau said that, "although Sgt. Pepper is thought of as the most influential of all rock masterpieces, it is really only the most famous. In retrospect it seems peculiarly apollonian—precise, controlled, even stiff—and it is clearly peripheral to the rock mainstream", and asserted that "the 'concept album' idea was embodied more fruitfully—and earlier in Rubber Soul." Mark Kemp of Paste wrote similarly, "for all its sonic richness, Sgt. Pepper remains one of rock's most overrated albums—its songwriting isn’t nearly as consistent as Revolver's, and its storyline is abandoned after the first two tracks and artificially reprised near the end."

Commercial performance

The album also received popular acclaim. It was a global hit, with huge sales in Europe, North and South America, Africa, Japan, Australia, and even on the black market in the Soviet Union, where their albums were very popular and widely available. In the UK it debuted at number eight and the next week reached number one where it stayed for 23 consecutive weeks. It was knocked off the top by The Sound of Music on the week ending 18 November 1967. Eventually it spent more weeks at the top, including the competitive Christmas week. When the CD edition was released on 1 June 1987, it reached number 3. In June 1992, the CD was re-promoted to commemorate its 25th Anniversary, and charted at number six. In 2007, commemorating 40 years of its release, Sgt. Pepper again re-entered the charts at number 47 in the UK. In all, the album spent a total of 201 weeks on the UK charts, and is the third biggest-selling album in the UK chart history behind ABBA's Gold: Greatest Hits and Queen's Greatest Hits. Sgt. Pepper won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, the first rock album to do so, and Best Contemporary Album in 1968. Sgt. Pepper is one of the world's best selling albums, with 11 million RIAA certified copies sold in the US. The album won Best British Album at the first Brit Awards in 1977.

Frank Zappa, whose Freak Out! was cited as an influence on the album, accused the group of co-opting the flower power aesthetic for monetary gain, saying in a Rolling Stone article that he felt "they were only in it for the money."


Sgt. Pepper has been named on many lists of the best rock albums. In 1997 Sgt. Pepper was named the number one greatest album of all time in a "Music of the Millennium" poll conducted by HMV, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998 Q magazine readers placed it at number seven, while in 2003 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 10. In 2005, the album was ranked number 1 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The publisher called it "the most important rock & roll album ever made ... by the greatest rock & roll group of all time." In 2006, the album was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best albums of all time. In 2002, Q magazine placed it at number 13 in its list of the 100 Greatest British Albums Ever. The album was named as one of Classic Rock magazine's "50 Albums That Built Prog Rock". In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. In July 2008 the "iconic bass drum skin" used on the front cover sold at auction for €670,000 (US$879,000). In November 2009, the entire album was made available to download for The Beatles: Rock Band on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii. The game disc already had the album's title track, "With a Little Help from My Friends", "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", "Getting Better" and "Good Morning Good Morning"; the download provides the remaining tracks from the album. On 30 March 2013, a rare, signed (by all four Beatles) copy of the album was sold at Dallas-based Heritage Auctions to an unnamed buyer from the Midwestern United States for $290,500.

Just think, in 1986, at Chicago's Beatlefest, I could have purchased at auction, a copy of "Help!" signed by all four Moptops for a measly sum of $700! I'd be freaking rich now!

SPLHCB will always remain the benchmark of all things psychedelic, and, as it was being released in June of 1967, more concoctions were brewing in the psychedelic cauldron known as Abbey Road Studios, this time helmed by former Beatles engineer Norman Smith.

More on that later (think Pink)...

Keep your buzz on and your freak flag flying! Peace!

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