‘Sgt. Pepper’: The soundtrack of the Summer of Love
Released on June, 1, 1967, the Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” quickly became the soundtrack of the Summer of Love.
The radio airwaves that season were filled with songs by other artists — “Windy,” by the Association, and “Light My Fire,” by the Doors, topped the singles charts — but the Beatles had delivered one of the first album-length collection of songs meant to be listened to from beginning to end without stopping. The record moved into the No. 1 album spot two weeks after it was released and stayed there for the next four months.
The LP was packed with tunes that would become classics, such as “With a Little Help from My Friends” and “She’s Leaving Home,” but the four Beatles and their producer, George Martin, wove all the tunes together, with no breaks between them. The group added a touch of whimsy by pretending the record was the creation of the fictional band of the title. Thus was born a new musical genre, the “concept” album, which would go on to include “Tommy,” “The Wall” and many more.
Part of the fun of “Sgt. Pepper” was in the innovative packaging. The album cover was an elaborate tableau of an after-party for the Lonely Hearts Club Band attended by a wide array of celebrities, living and dead (the group also included the Madame Tussaud’s wax dummies of the Beatles during their earlier “mop top” phase). Artist Peter Blake cut and pasted everyone from Marlon Brando to Oscar Wilde into the gathering, and it took many baby boomers months to figure out who was who on the cover. (Now, the puzzle would be solved in a day or two on social media.)
The 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper” is being marked by a number of new Beatles books, including “In Their Lives” (Blue Rider Press), which includes essays by Jane Smiley, David Duchovny, Francine Prose and other notables.
A coffee table volume devoted to the creation of the album was published on the 50th anniversary date by Imagine! Books. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — The Album, The Beatles and the World in 1967” is the work of Brian Southall, who has worked in the British recording industry since 1973 and has written a number of books on the Beatles and the British Invasion of the 1960s.
In a phone interview, Southall says no album today could duplicate the impact of “Sgt. Pepper” because we live in a fragmented culture where everyone can download whatever music they want to listen to, whenever they want (and most consumers buy their music one song at a time). Pop radio stations that once spread the word of new records to young people all over the country have disappeared. The explosion of “Sgt. Pepper” in 1967, Southall believes, was partly a function of a culture in which there were fewer choices.
“There was less going on then. You didn’t have the multimedia of today,” Southall says. “Music was an enormous part of life. ... I remember buying the album the day it came out.”
Southall shows how Paul McCartney and John Lennon were so impressed by the innovations in the 1966 Beach Boys album, “Pet Sounds,” that they became determined to put together an album that would top it. The group decided to stop the international touring that had made them famous to devote their energies to creating albums full of complex songs they would never be able to play live.
The success the Beatles had earned with their early albums — packed with hit singles such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” — and the blockbuster films, “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Help!,” gave them the clout to experiment with new sounds and new styles of music in collaboration with Martin. Lennon, McCartney, Ringo Starr and George Harrison spent months working on “Sgt. Pepper” track by track, pushing each other to try unusual instruments and recording techniques. They brought 40-piece orchestras into the studio and then used redubbing to make the ensembles sound twice as big.
The singer-songwriters quickly moved to a place far above their peers. “The Beatles ruled the roost, even as their music developed to become more experimental and unshackled from any constraints and they evolved to produce a masterpiece suited to a time when psychedelia, love and peace were forever in the air,” Southall writes.
The author is struck by the disparity between the Beatles and Martin, who was able to put their revolutionary ideas down on tape because of his many years of experience in the record business.
“George was a genius for them, but his demeanor and manner (were very conservative). ... You could call him the fifth Beatle, but he didn’t have any interest in becoming famous. He wore a suit and tie every day; he never grew his hair out. But he knew how to get what they wanted,” Southall says of such technical feats as blending two different songs together for the album’s powerful finale, “A Day in the Life.”
The bottom line was that getting off the road and away from their screaming fans allowed the quartet to focus entirely on creating great records. Even on “Revolver,” which came out in 1966, just as they were deciding to give up touring, there are hints of the big changes that were coming.
“(On that album) you can hear them moving into an area where they are not just standing on a stage playing pop songs,” Southall says.