Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Released on May 26, 1967 in the UK and a week later in the US, this is the album that boldly launched the progressive rock era. If you lived in the US, Canada or UK, and were old enough, it was about fifty years ago today, that you first heard “Sgt. Pepper’s” play — either on a friend’s turntable, your record player or the radio.
One year earlier, The Beach Boys had released “Pet Sounds”, an album that unquestionably influenced the Sgt. Pepper album, and which has an important place in the history of progressive rock. From an interview with Paul McCartney:
“The early surf records…I was aware of them as a musical act, and I used to like all that, but I didn’t get deeply interested in it—it was just a real nice sound…We used to admire the singing, the high falsetto really and the very sort of ‘California’ lyrics.
“It was later…it was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. First of all, it was Brian’s writing. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life—I figure no one is educated musically ’til they’ve heard that album. I was into the writing and the songs.”
One important McCartney takeaway from Pet Sounds, is the liberation of the bass guitar from playing just the root notes of chords. For non-musicians, a chord can be in basic (root) position, such as C E G C for a simple C major chord, with the lowest note being C, or can be in first inversion, with the lowest note on E, or in second inversion position with the lowest note being on G. Simple pop music often sticks to the bass always playing the root note. On “Sgt. Pepper’s” tracks like “Getting Better” or “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, McCartney will sometimes play the third or fifth note of that chord — or even, in a few cases, play non-chord notes creating temporary musical tension.
Other important characteristics of progressive rock present in “Sgt. Peppers” include carefully crafted arrangements, non-traditional harmonic progressions, modal scales, unusual instruments, tape-based effects and an overall character that creates an artistically unified gestalt even though individual works vary significantly in mood and compositional techniques.
Though we may perceive a unified album, this is still a collection of individual songs, with two songs originally intended for this album, “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”, not included. “Strawberry Fields Forever” required around fifty-five hours of studio time for completion, thus setting the level of craftsmanship and attention to detail employed for the entire Sgt. Peppers album. The mellotron, an instrument used in later progressive rock albums like King Crimson’s “Court of the Crimson King”, dominates the introduction to”Strawberry Fields.” The use of unusual instrument combinations and arrangements is present in most of the songs on “Sgt. Peppers.”
The album begins with the sounds of delicately light crowd noise and a string section tuning up, just as if one were present in the concert hall for an evening at the symphony. However, this is followed with forceful electric guitar, drums, bass, and emphatic McCartney vocals with audience noise then shifting to the less restrained enthusiasm of a dance hall. This is followed by a quartet of French horns, laughter, and the re-entry of vocals and rock instruments with interspersed applause. This first song, the title song, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band” transforms, without break, to the upbeat, feel-good, relatively conventional, “With a Little Help from My Friends”; Ringo is on vocals, drums and tambourine, George Martin plays Hammond Organ, George Harrison is on lead guitar, Paul McCartney, of course, plays bass, and John Lennon and McCartney handle the chorus and supporting vocals.
The third track on side one, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, starts off with McCartney’s Bach-like broken-chord based melody and includes Harrison on tambura (a fretless, long-necked, Indian stringed instrument) with Ringo adding maracas. “Getting Better” with its pulsating intro and hints of 3 against 2 includes George Martin on amplified pianette (a keyboard instrument that had been left in the studio from a previous recording session), playing it normally by depressing keys and with mallets striking against the strings, Harrison on tambura, and Ringo on congas. The pentatonic-based “Fixing a Hole” includes harpsichord and “She’s Leaving Home”, with its wistful, affective lyrics and music, begins with solo harp, followed by bowed strings with strings, harp and Lennon’s supporting vocals providing that extra Beatles’ magic throughout.
Side one concludes with the studio-crafted masterpiece, “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, which merges various tape tricks including snippets of tape for particular musical-based sound effects and a section of tape (running at double speed) of Martin playing runs on the Hammond Organ along with Lennon on organ and McCartney on guitar. Instruments include harmonium, piano, Hammond organ, Lowrey organ, harmonica, shaker bells as well as guitar, bass and drums. Listen for the adventurous harmonic swirl and chromatic runs in the two instrumental passages at the one minute and two minute mark which include the sped up tape passage, use of tape snippets (at least one sample sounds reversed) and tape loops. Chromatic-based passages on a pipe organ or calliope, harkening back to Julius Fučík‘s famous “March of the Gladiators“, have often been used to invoke images of the circus, but Martin and the Beatles take this to another level.
On side two, “Within You, Without You”, like the earlier “Revolver” album’s “Love You Too”, invokes Indian Classical music with its use of multiple Indian instruments played by Harrison and skilled Indian musicians. Instruments include sitar, tambura, dilruba (a fretted stringed instrument with sympathetic strings) tabla, svarmandal (multi-stringed zither-like instrument) as well as several violins, two cellos and Harrison’s acoustic guitar. Lennon, McCartney and Ringo sit this one out.
Side two continues with the English music hall influenced “When I am Sixty-Four”, written originally by McCartney on his home piano at age 15 or 16. The original recording was in C Major but McCartney had George Martin raise this up a semitone by speeding the tape so that the song is now in the less common key of D flat. For me, this track stands out as a relief point against the rest of the album, pairing nicely with McCartney’s “Lovely Rita”, and adding an important contrast that elevates this entire album. Not everyone, including John Lennon supposedly, had the same opinion. Listen for the tubular bells played by Ringo and the trio of clarinets arranged by George Martin.
“Lovey Rita” starts off with upbeat guitar and typical Beatles’ backing vocals (“aaahhh”) punctuated nicely by Ringo. Listen for the return of those trademark backup vocals and drums at the 1 minute mark followed by Martin’s honky-tonk-style piano. This slightly distorted piano sound was created by applying tape to the tape capstan to create a wobbly distortion. Also listen to the paper and combs before the vocal phrase “”When it gets dark I tow your heart away”, as well as the John Lennon coda that makes an effective transition to the crowing rooster in “Good Morning.”
John Lennon’s “Good Morning” was evidently inspired by the Kellogg’s Corn Flake Jingle (“Good morning, good morning, the best to you each morning”.) It opens up like a march with accompanying saxophones, followed by Ringo’s heavy-step snare and continues with a marching-band ethos laced here and there with electric guitar and, at the end, animal sounds including dogs, cat, lion, trampling horses and what could very well be the start of a fox hunt, heralded by French horn.
The title track returns, creating energy midway by modulating up a whole tone from F Major to G Major, the key of the opening of “Day in the Life”, which immediately follows. If one is not convinced this album heralds in the era of progressive rock, such an assertion can easily be supported by the five and half minute (short by the average length of later progressive rock songs), multi-section “Day in the Life” with orchestra, harmonium, harp, piano, and alarm clock. Take note of the skyrocketing orchestra passage that binds Lennon’s section (ending with”But I just had to look having read the book. I’d love to turn you on.”) to McCartney’s “Woke up, fell out of bed….” As described in the NY Times: “Mr. Martin’s solution was to take a page out of the playbooks of classical composers like John Cage and Krzysztof Penderecki, who at the time were creating works in which chance played a role. Mr. Martin hired 40 symphonic musicians for a session on Feb. 10, and when they turned up, they found on their stands a 24-bar score that had the lowest notes on their instruments in the first bar, and an E major chord in the last. Between them, the musicians were instructed to slide slowly from their lowest to highest notes, taking care not to move at the same pace as the musicians around them.”
Those with CD versions of this will be missing the last track of the album: the approximately two-second-duration inner grove, which was intentionally ignored by automatic turntables and could only be played on manual turntables. Another feature of the original UK Parlophone LP, not evident on CDs and some US pressings, is that the tracks do not have the typical pop album separation between them and thus the surface of the record is similar to a classical record.
With the Beatles no longer interested in live performance appearances, part of the intent of “Sgt Peppers” was to go beyond music that could be recreated live. The production values and layering of sound influences many later recordings, particularly of notable mention is Queen’s “Night at the Opera.”
People are certainly entitled to have differing opinions on whether “Sgt. Pepper’s” is truly a concept album. The reprise of the title song before “Day in the Life” is not enough to automatically make this so. The songs more or less share similar production values, but clearly are not on a single topic or share melodic or harmonic material. Perhaps if there is a concept, it is the general intent, as on The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” album, to produce a unified set of songs that achieve both a stylistic identity and set a standard of quality that ultimately influences other musicians. For the sake of argument, let’s concede that “Sgt. Peppers” is indeed a concept album.
If we do then agree it is a concept album, it is certainly not accurate to call this the first concept album, as Zappa’s “Freak Out” was released in 1966 and jazz had several concept albums before this including John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” from 1965 and Dave Brubeck’s 1959 “Time Out”. There were actually a significant number of themed jazz and exotica albums released in the fifties and one may have to go back to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album, “Dust Bowl Ballads” to find the first themed record album. If one considers the medium of the “record album” as the means of recording music and the collective music as either a concept or not, then one then finds thousands upon thousands of earlier examples of concept music including Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” of 1918, Gustav Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony”, Robert Schumann’s Kinderszenen (Scenes From Childhood”), Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Franz Josef Haydn’s “Philosopher Symphony”, Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and numerous operas, including Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, which was first performed in 1607 and still performed today. That’s just western music. Concept music can be traced back to many cultures of all continents including the American Indians, many African tribes, Balinese dance-drama and music from the 6th Century operas of the Northern Qi Dynasty of China. And, for all we know dolphins and whales may have developed concept music long before humans ever roamed the earth. (Yes! An opportunity to promote “The Beluga Beliefs” website.)
It’s not the concept album that puts the Beatles in good company, it is the quality of the work, a true group effort of excellence by Paul McCartney, George Martin and the rest of the Beatles.
This is music that transcends the times of the mid sixties and is appreciated now by more people than ever. Such is how we identify great music: it stands the test of time and is accessible and appealing to people from many different cultures and backgrounds.
TRACK LISTING (from Wikipedia)
Track lengths and lead vocals per Mark Lewisohn and Ian MacDonald.