On the eve of Paul McCartney's 74th birthday, the evergreen pop masterpiece that he made with his mates from Liverpool in late 1966 and early 1967 will quietly turn 49 this month. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
was released around the world in June 1967. It cost £40,000 ($67,000) and took five months to record. No singles were drawn from the album nor were there any videos made for it.
Though there was little or no advance publicity (like they ever needed it), Sgt. Pepper
exploded on the scene as a one-of-a-kind pop music greeting card that had everything from barn-yard animals to Hendrix inspired distorted guitars (Hendrix was a sensation in London but not yet known in the US). The album included orchestras playing without a score and sounds only a dog could hear. It was ridiculous. It was outrageous. But it was original, too. Some love it, some don't. But you can't forget it once you've heard it. For McCartney's bass playing alone, it's worth another listen no matter how well you believe you know it.
In June 1967, Paul was celebrating his 25th birthday with nary a thought as to what he'd be doing at age 74 (or 64). What had you accomplished by the time you turned twenty-five?
With young Geoff Emerick (age 20) engineering, The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper
had a bold new sound with deep, articulate bass, booming drums, and a collage of keyboards, tape loops, and music smears--ideas that can still be heard today in the styles of Stereolab, Radiohead, Lambchop, and many others. It was all things to all people--both whimsical and detailed, off-handed and almost desperately arranged. It was a new kind of 'Pop' music and though many have tried since, all other contenders never quite sounded as fun. It was a young person's world then, and a young person's record.
Perhaps Frank Zappa was right when he quipped that the record business was in better hands when non-rock and rollers ran the labels and let "young people" throw things in the air to see what might stick. Today, a 20-year old recording engineer would not get any where close to the world's biggest rock band and nor would most big rock bands trust a youngster to help shape their sound. Once again, rock and roll is safe, predictable, and a pawn to publicity.
What did The Beatles think of Pepper?
In later years, Ringo joked that he learned to play the game of Chess during the sessions (a lot of waiting around, in other words) but his Hal Blaine-inspired drumming was instantly copied by pop drummers everywhere (including Mr. Wrecking Crew/
Hal Blaine himself). Contrary to popular thought, John and Paul collaborated throughout the album and especially on the album's key tracks like "A Day In the Life," "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds, "She's Leaving Home," and "With A Little Help from My Friends." The first two songs intended for the album--"Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane"--didn't even make the final line-up but instead were released as singles to distract the public while the band was hard at work in the studio. And though Paul did play some guitar, George Harrison played killer leads and rhythm all over the album and there are lots of photos to prove it. So just who were these guys? And where did they go?
was not, as legend has it, a cut and paste album thrown together at the mixing board. "Sgt. Pepper's Reprise" was one take. Many of the other cuts also went down pretty quick. The Beatles--already restless and tired of EMI's rule book--even experimented by cutting a rhythm track at Regent Sound on Denmark Street where their friends The Rolling Stones cut their first record. And to the slight bemusement of the Abbey Road staff, it was clear upon hearing the tapes that The Beatles sounded
like Sgt. Pepper
wherever they went, regardless of where they recorded. True, Abbey Road played a big part in the sound. But in the end, the Sgt. Pepper
came from the spirit of the musicians, not the equipment. (But hey, if you're gonna play some Pepper
songs, you're gonna need a Casino
as evidenced in the photo above of the session for "Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," courtesy of Henry Grossman and Curvebender Press.)
Grossman took the The Beatles' photos from 1964-1968. "The only recording session of theirs I ever actually attended...was the session for Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. I took over 250 pictures that night," said Grossman in an interview with the Examiner for his photo book, Kaleidoscope Eyes. "When Paul came into the studio that evening, he started playing something on the piano, and everyone gathered around. And by the end of the evening, you wouldn't have recognized the song," said Grossman. "Even though the Beatles were a group of four very unique individuals, there was also a very strong sense of unity, a strong sense of 'we.' They worked as a team."
The Beatles never sounded like Pepper again and nor will planet Earth ever be the kind of place that could produce it. But after all these years, is it any good? Can there ever be a place like Pepper? Well, dear chaps--that's up to you. Give a listen. A splendid time is still guaranteed for all.