Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the seminal and legendary album by The Beatles, which not only seemed to crystallize the band, but also the entire sensibilities of the youth of the globe during the mid to late 1960s, celebrates its 50th anniversary today.
Released in America on June 2nd, 1967, and a week or so earlier in the band’s native UK, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has become such a recognizable force in pop cultural history, it’s almost like a brand, a headquarters where so many musical and cultural influences spawned. From its rich and vibrantly complex yet totally welcoming cover to the same adjectives applied to the wide range and scope of music, which almost acts as a primer for every single style of music up to that point in musical history (pop, cabaret, vaudeville, psychedelia, straightforward rock) and even acting as a blueprint to just the around the corner genres that followed (like progressive and even acid rock), Sgt. Pepper is a true artifact of a time long gone and yet still acts as a straight arrow pulse right in contemporary society, whether it’s for novelty’s sake or reality’s sake.
The record has meant so much to so many people over so many decades that by now, it’s as old of a shoe in world of pop culture as anything else that is at its apex. The songs included on the record are like a greatest hits album. Mostly all Beatles albums are now of course, but there’s something about the lasting and importance of the power of Sgt. Pepper that elevates it to a higher league for most and that would include about 95 percent of Beatles fans past, present, and future. While to some, your humble narrator included, it’s not their absolute best album; albums which led to the creation of Pepper, like Revolver, and albums which took some of the aural, literal, and fantastical themes of Pepper and brought it to its absolute peak like Abbey Road, are the more superior offerings. But that said, however, only Sgt. Pepper seems to be the release in the Beatles canon that was almost like when the Torah was first released, something that was wholly loved and dissected, almost immediately, by a wide range of the world.
Along with the music there’s the album’s iconic cover, richly textured in multi-colors of the band in full regalia, showcasing a “lonely hearts band” fully playing the alter ego that The Beatles were on this album. The group stands in front of a mock crowd made up of blow-up likenesses of all stripes of people, ranging from Karl Marx to Bob Dylan to Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, Lenny Bruce to W.C. Fields, to legendary scribes like H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, and William Burroughs and countless others (Jesus and Hitler were suggested, but turned down ultimately). The whole package in general is more than just a standard musical release; it’s a sprawling, endless array of patchwork, a physical collage of sights and sounds, right down to the cutouts that were included in the original packaging. It also has the distinction of being one of the first albums to ever sport lyrics on its back cover.
But the music is the main course to the oeuvre that was all the aforementioned here. From the opening quiet which swells into the din of an audience in what sounds like a music hall, ready to witness the majesty of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, to the final note, — an exclamatory piano chop, which sustains itself for over a minute — and all in between, it is, what must have been for sure for those lucky enough when they heard it for the first time upon taking it out of the album jacket in Jun 1967, an experience unlike any other. It was an experience which led to other experiences for many, a self-awakening individually and collectively, with a kind of organic education that parents and authority figures could never, ever have taught. It acted like a roadmap to growing up in the counterculture of the 1960s, just on the crest of “The Summer of Love,” if not the progenitor of it, in many ways.
So many classics come from this album, an album in which the sessions also spawned the arguably greatest single A/B side The Beatles ever released, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” Both songs already set the tone for Sgt. Pepper, (and released as a standalone 45 single, separate of Pepper completely), both with deep messages: self-introspection (“Strawberry Fields”) and using one’s memories of simpler times to create inner peace (“Penny Lane”).
On Pepper, songs and styles interweave endlessly: the title track and the reprise (which is an especially cooking number, replete with uninhibited lead guitar by George Harrison); Ringo Starr’s wonderfully almost off-key vocals on the communal “With A Little Help From My Friends”; the aching and tastefully string-laden “She’s Leaving Home,” in which Paul McCartney tastefully waxes poetic about a stifled young girl who is shackled by her home life and one day decides to run away for the better; the slapdash “Fixing A Hole,” and the wonderfully quirky nod to old-style Vaudeville, “When I’m 64.” Harrison also contributes “Within You Without You,” which is a true musical crystallization of all the Western Indian culture he’d had been soaking up full aplomb at the time as well.
But in a way, as always arguably, it’s the work of John Lennon that really sets the tone and puts the album over the top. His contributions vocally on Pepper, as evidenced on the circus like celebratory “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” and the got-the-inspiration-from-a-radio-cereal-commercial “Good Morning Good Morning,” are stellar. But it’s the two remaining Lennon pieces on the record that are still considered the absolute highlights in the Beatles storied career: “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and especially “A Day in the Life,” in which Lennon solidifies himself as a tunesmith for that age and for the ages, taking what he showcased on Rubber Soul and Revolver and pushing it even further into the musical ether.
“A Day in the Life” is a magnum opus unlike any other, in a way, even in the Beatles’ entire musical canon. Starting with a simple yet powerful guitar line, which eventually explodes into a full on orchestral crescendo that explodes right back into the kind of quiet, silent current that opens the track in a way, “A Day in the Life” is about an observation of a man who reads a newspaper in which a horrific car accident was reported, which leads into daydreaming while under a possibly cannabis-induced spell. It is the kind of song that leaves the listener breathless when its finished, transcendent of their own surroundings. A radio staple even with its longer than typical single length, “A Day in the Life” is at once chilling, gripping, and ultimately satisfying in every stretch of the imagination and light years beyond it, something which remains very much like the entire Sgt. Pepper album itself.
Come experience or re-experience “the act you’ve known for all these years.” A new special 50th Anniversary Edition, which showcases the record in glorious updated sonic quality and is full of unreleased and alternate takes and versions of the memorable songs, is now available. The new edition acts as a bridge for generations in a way, the past and the present coterie of Beatles fans, from the lightest to the zealous stalwarts and Beatlemaniacs, to all come together to celebrate not only a milestone of a record, but now, what is the record’s milestone. 50 years on, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band needn’t worry anymore if we are going to enjoy the show — we have and we always will, now more than ever. We always get by with a little help from our friends after all.