It’s hard to know how to talk about the importance of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band: as the seasoned rock observer for the past four or so decades, or as the young teenage girl in a mini skirt, long straight hair and too much eye shadow just about take a front row seat at impending Youth Quake—lining up on that Friday afternoon in June of 1967 to be one of the 2.5 million people over the next three months to buy the garish, colorful collage of the Beatles—all sporting proto-hippie mustaches --with a star-studded cast of cardboard cut-out heroes and cultural pariahs, including four wax renderings of the Fabs in their suits and mop top haircuts from the Beatlemania era, borrowed from Madame Tussauds. What’s important, and what I missed the first time, is the gathered mass of celebrity is crowded around a grave with statuary, an old television set, brass instruments and the Beatles spelled out in blood red flowers, trimmed by marijuana plants. It would be three more years before the Paul is Dead conspiracy theory gained steam, but this was certainly foreshadow if not a true funeral for those “four lads from Liverpool.” It marked an end of an era, and the beginning of another—and it certainly sounded the death knell for Beatlemania, and eventually three years later, the end of the Beatles all together.
But for the rest of the world, the release of the Beatles’ eight studio album on June 2, 1967, marked the official beginning of the Summer of Love, a watershed of such monumental importance that it has never been equaled, dividing culture into a Before and After, polarizing the populace into under-30s and over-30, “us and thems,” marking the ascent of the teenager, drugs, liberation and art-as-rebellion. While Sgt. Pepper wasn’t obviously subversive, there were elements of their own personal rebellion. “It was the freedom album," producer George Martin commented a decade ago. “It was about giving themselves the freedom to experiment and grow up.”
No one really believed them when they said that their August 29, 1966 show at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park marked an end of live performances for the Beatles. They were worn down by the physical exhaustion of the tours, writing songs, and then squeezing in recording times. But more they were disheartened by their live performance, unsatisfying and unrewarding, because not only couldn’t the audience hear them from the mass screaming, but the Beatles couldn’t hear themselves, throwing off their timing, their pitch, and mostly their enthusiasm. George Harrison had been most concerned with the quality of their live shows, diffidently holding himself aloof from Lennon and McCartney's comic antics and hamming at the front of the stage and focusing on trying to recreate their sound on record as closely as he could. A near-impossible task, and something that made him complain early on, that he would like to stop the tours all together. “Everything we’ve done up to now has been crap,” he commented in December 1966. But even more, the group identity of the Beatles themselves seemed to chafe at him. Something seconded by Paul McCartney who was happy to lose their identity as “the four f-ing mop tops.”
After the Candlestick Park show, the four of them went their separate ways and took a three-month break not only to lose the mop tops but to find themselves—and what they would do going forward. Harrison traveled to India and studied sitar with Ravi Shankar, Paul scored a film with their producer George Martin and visited Kenya, Ringo invested in a construction company and John made a film. On his way back from Kenya in November 1966, that included a short stop in Paris, Paul McCartney, wearing an undistinguished blue suit, glasses and a false mustache, was able to ramble through the city without being recognized, and had a tremendous time as a result. The sense of liberation was heady and gave him the spark of an idea of how the Beatles should proceed on their next project, like KISS would ride to campy glory ten years later—by creating a collective disguise. McCartney set to work creating an alter ego for the Beatles—the Lonely Hearts Club Band-- which would give them the freedom to create whatever they wanted without having to reproduce it in front of 30,000 screaming fans. This was their chance to use the studio as a fifth member of the band, or maybe sixth member, because by that time George Martin had certainly earned the title of the fifth.
That idea set McCartney free, and he started to write songs that harkened back to his childhood in Liverpool, penning “Penny Lane,” and then unearthing a song he wrote when he was 16, “When I’m 64.” That enthusiasm, and need to be the best at whatever McCartney did, inspired Lennon to write “Strawberry Fields Forever,” about a fete Lennon’s Aunt Mimi used to take him to as a child.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were released as a double A-sided single in February 1967, in an effort to keep the Beatles persona in the public’s mind, but for the first time in four years, it was the first Beatles single not to reach number one. Because of that, Beatles manager Brian Epstein told George Martin in no uncertain terms that neither track appear on the upcoming album. Something that Martin has said was “the biggest mistake of my professional life.” Especially, because most of the songs on this album were not among the Beatles’ best. Even George Martin commented that, “[Sgt. Pepper] It’s not a great song.”
The 129 days it took to record Sgt. Pepper was really a series of experiments and expressions of abject sonic ingenuity-- not all of them successful. But to be clear, they were no longer the inoffensive, even melodic band who might be a little superficial in their songs, who dealt more in matters of the heart than in the turmoil going on in the world. Now that had all changed, not only by the desolate, haunting and flat out strangeness of “A Day In The Life,” the album’s high water mark. The risks they took, from Harrison’s 5:06 long Indian opus “Without You Within You,” to the animal sounds on Lennon’s almost throwaway, “Good Morning, Good Morning,” kicked open the door for other bands to take equally new risks in the studio, and extended the boundaries of what you could get away with on a rock album. This was the time for unbridled self-expression. Hell, three of the songs on Sgt. Pepper were banned: “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” “ Fixing A Hole” and “A Day In The Life” because the BBC feared the line, "I'd love to turn you on" would encourage drug use. But people were already taking drugs and listening to the album, in fact, almost everyone had “kaleidoscope eyes” in those days.
While the conceit of Sgt. Pepper was that it was a concept album, in that it was made by a fictitious band called the Lonely Hearts Club band, only three of the album’s 13 songs bolster the theme: the title track, “With A Little Help From My Friends,” where Ringo Starr assumes the persona of Billy Shears, and the “Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band” reprise, which bookends up the idea. But really, the other songs don’t have any connection at all and have nothing to do with bolstering with the idea of the escapades of Sgt. Pepper and his band. But it was a declaration of independence, with each of the band members using their own now individualized image as the framework for their music pointing them in the direction that they would eventually go on April 10, 1970 when Paul McCartney publically announced he was leaving the Beatles. The irony was, the very thing that gave Sgt. Pepper its uniqueness, its exploration of new technology, the ripping and unexpected guitar excursion by Harrison on the title track, and his exploration into Indian mysticism on “Within You Without You,” Lennon’s torn-from-the-headlines-inspired songs—“She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day In the Life,” the experimentation in the studio, creating a proto-phasing effect on Lennon’s voice to give it a trippier sound on “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the strange unnerving 24-second silent gap at the end of “A Day In The Life,” or even John Lennon ingesting LSD on the second day of recording—ultimately was what demolished the Beatles. Together—albeit, unhappily together—they stood. But divided, and individualized they fell.
But thanks to even more modern technology and the dedication of Sir George Martin’s son Giles Martin, Sgt. Pepper has been given new life. The album is newly mixed by Giles Martin and Sam Okell in stereo, sourced directly from the four-track masters and guided by the original, Beatles-preferred mono mix produced by his father, George Martin.
The epochal Grammy-winning records have been remixed by Martin and engineer Sam Okell, who went back to the original tapes in order to create new stereo and 5.1 surround mixes for the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Anniversary Edition and has added additional session recordings. This is the first Beatles album to be remixed and expanded since the 2003 release of the very excellent Let It Be…Naked.
Martin and Okell used the mono version of the record, issued at the very same time as the original stereo time, adding some significantly different sonic treatments of some of the album’s songs. The animals are louder on “Good Morning, Good Morning,” while “She’s Leaving Home,” shape-shifted a little in terms of pitch. Even better, there are outtakes, mistakes, or just mostly John Lennon ruminating over a take or asking for ice water on a croaky take of “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.” Definitely worth the entire price of the Anniversary edition! --Jaan Uhelszki