“All summer long we were dancing in the sand Everybody just kept on playing ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.” –from “Summer Rain” written by James Hendrix, recorded by Johnny Rivers.
It was May 26, 1967. If there was going to be a summer blockbuster that summer, it wasn’t going to be a movie. It was going to be an album. Many of us baby boomers were like Millennials, waiting for the release of the latest “Harry Potter”. Instead of standing in line at the bookstores, we waited by our radios. Come midnight, American stations were going to play the new Beatles release.
It had been almost a year since their last album, “Revolver”. We weren’t sure what we would get but we were hungry for some new music from the boys from Liverpool. They had come a long way since their audition with George Martin on June 6, 1962. With seven albums under their belt, we weren’t sure what they would give us. But we were rooting for them. Our ears were about to enter the cinematic wonder of Pepperland.
Earlier in the year, there had been the musical equivalent of movie trailers for the album. In February, they released the forty-five singles, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”.
Finally, everything went quiet on the radio. Then there was the sound of an audience shuffling in its seats. An orchestra tuned up with the fastest orchestra tuning in history. With a barely heard “Roll Over”, Paul struck up the band. Guitars, a strong drum beat, then Paul’s voice announced “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Then he introduced the “one and only Billy Shears”. The Beatles were giving the listener the illusion they were at a live concert.
Like a big band singer from the swing era, the debonair Billy Shears (Ringo) stepped to the mic. He sang one of the Beatles’ best-known anthems, “With a Little Help From My Friends”. Next came John’s surrealistic “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds”. A drawing by his three-year-old son inspired its lush images (Margotin, location 5441).
In the past, the Beatles occasionally created fictional characters. These included songs like “Eleanor Rigby”, “Paperback Writer”, and “Taxman”. But these characters and their stories littered “Sgt. Pepper”. In addition to Billy Shears, Lucy and Sgt. Pepper, there was Mr. Kite, the Hendersons, Henry the Horse, Pablo Fanque and Lovely Rita. There was the girl and her parents in the poignant “She’s Leaving Home”. The character in “Good Morning Good Morning” took his marching orders from the rat race. Unlike any album we’d heard before, there was a cinematic effect to the songs. Each song had the feel of a mini-film.
The songs introduced and broadened themes normally not found in popular music. This was due to their encounter with Bob Dylan and his songs. Paul shared his optimism in “Getting Better” and “Fixing a Hole”. John and the band created a circusy number in “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”. With “When I’m Sixty-Four”, Paul questioned the lasting nature of relationships. There’s the poignant “She’s Leaving Home”. In “Within You Without You”, George gave us a summary of the Indian spiritual philosophy he embraced. The music reflected the influence from a multitude of musical styles. Then at the end there was the pièce de résistance. The symphonic “A Day in Life” might be thought of as the Beatles “Ode to Joy”.
When we finished that first listen, we realized John was right. On “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, he promised, “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.” That June night in 1967 left many of us speechless. It was like Christmas, Halloween and the Superbowl all rolled into one.
When we purchased the album the next day, imagine our surprise. Not only were there great songs, there was the cover. There with the Beatles were the images of eighty-five personalities on it. Future generations would play “Where’s Waldo”. That summer we played “Who’s That”. Radio stations gave out prizes for those guessing the famous, and some not so famous, people.
For five months in 1967, Producer George Martin, Sound Engineer Geoff Emerick and four working class guys changed musical history. They showed musicians how to play the recording studio like a musical instrument.
With the album, rock ‘n’ roll entered the Space Age. The Beatles had burst loose from the earth bound “She loves you”. Now they entered the heavens with the Saturn rocket that was “Sgt. Pepper”. They created what “Rolling Stone Magazine” considers the number one album of all-time.
With a trilogy of records, “Rubber Soul”, “Revolver” and “Sgt. Pepper”, the Beatles made albums matter. After “Sgt. Pepper”, singles were no longer cool. Now an album had to be thought out. Artists couldn’t throw together a hit single with a bunch of mediocre songs anymore. Every song had to matter. Album rock had arrived.
If the Beatles had stopped with “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, they would be considered one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands of all time. But they didn’t stop. They had to go and outdo themselves. They had to go and make a masterpiece. They had to go and create “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. In doing so, they became Masters of their Musical Universe.
In an interview with Timothy White, George Harrison summed it up for the rest of us: “There seems to be a running thread here about music and its powerful hold, eh…We who love music, we love the people who make it, we love the sound of it, and we love what it does to us, how it makes us feel, how it helps us love”.
Unfortunately, the Beatles never again accomplished what they did on “Sgt. Pepper”. That is, not until they gave us “Abbey Road”.