“It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…”
Fifty years ago on June 1, the Beatles released their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, just in time to blare out of boarding school and college dormitory windows across the country as students boned up for final exams. Songs like “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” (with its suggestion of psychedelia), “Getting Better,” and “When I’m 64” became instant hits. I had just turned 15 then and am 65 now, but those songs remain as clearly embedded between my ears today as they were in 1967.
The album took over 400 hours in the studio to complete and combined influences of Indian, vaudeville, music hall, orchestral, circus, avant-garde, and, of course, rock music, as well as pioneering sound shaping signal processing techniques to produce its revolutionary effect.
The Sgt. Pepper album was also packaged innovatively, in a glossy double wallet designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, featuring the Beatles in their Edwardian Sgt. Pepper military marching band uniforms surrounded by people they admired, including various gurus, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe, Aubrey Beardsley, Sonny Liston, Laurel & Hardy, W. C. Fields, H. G. Wells, Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, and Dylan Thomas. (Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ were requested by John Lennon but rejected.) When asked why Elvis Presley was not represented, Paul McCartney, who took the creative lead on the album, said, “Elvis was too important. He was Elvis the King.”
Two songs that had been written for the album, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane,” were released early as a double A-side single that February and not included, which Beatles manager George Martin later called “the biggest mistake of my professional life.”
Sgt. Pepper’s was the first Beatles album to be released simultaneously worldwide. It became the anthem of the flower-power movement that culminated in the Summer of Love. Ultimately selling over 32 million copies worldwide, in 2003 Rolling Stone named it number one of the greatest 500 albums of all time. Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner recalled that the release of Sgt. Pepper occasioned “the closest Western civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. In every city in Europe and America radio stations played it… For a brief while the irreparable, fragmented consciousness of the West was united, at least in the minds of the young.”
New stereo-mix CDs and deluxe editions have just been released to celebrate the anniversary this month—and, listening to them this time around, I don’t have to worry about failing my Latin exam.