It was 51 years ago… that the Beatles disappeared, shunted to the side by an Edwardian military band. The Lonely Hearts Club Band, taught to play by Sgt. Pepper two decades before. On their golden anniversary, the most famous band in the world’s most famous alter-egos still capture the imagination…
“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”
THE ALBUM COVER OF SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND MAY JUST BE THE MOST FAMOUS PIECE OF POP ART EVER PRODUCED. The Peter Blake and Jann Haworth composition is both a perfectly captured instant and a bold attempt to set popular culture in time and space. It’s two, three and four dimensional. Famous faces assembled in the physical montage range from Karl Marx to Max Miller, HG Wells to Oscar Wilde. Objects range from a garden gnome to a Mexican candle stick. From the 19th century, Edgar Allen Poe stands in the middle, Sir Robert Peel to the left and Lewis Carroll to the right. Two faces are painted out, Mahatma Gandhi at the request of EMI; Leo Gorcey because he churlishly, or wisely, requested a fee. From the Beatles early career, Stuart Sutcliffe dolefully stares at the camera from the far left. At the front right, a stone statue belonging to John Lennon became the physiognomy of Sgt. Pepper himself. But what of the band he taught to play, 20 years ago?
“That’s a funny place to put a goldfish bowl” – George Harrison, Yellow Submarine
There they are in the middle. Behind the drum skin carefully, if grammar-challengingly, emblazoned with the band’s logo by fairground artist Joe Ephgrave (that would sell for $670,000 four decades later). Decked in alternate hats, and different, brightly stylised military outfits, the four band members stare mirthlessly from the centre of the assembled great, good and censored. In their hands they carry, from left to right, French horn, trumpet, cor anglais, and flute. This four-piece might look familiar, but they’re not the Beatles. You can tell, because of the instruments. Oh, and because the Fab Four stand just to their left. Frozen in mop-topped Beatlemania – if you think they’re not looking quite themselves you’d have to take that up with their guardians at Madame Tussauds.
Thanks to Lennon, there’s a nod to the rapid ascent of that other band right at the heart. He asked Mona Best, owner of Liverpool’s Casbah Club and mother of Pete, the drummer famously dropped on the cusp of their ascent, if he could borrow her father’s war medals to wear. He later returned them safely along with the cash box trophy, immortalised in the floral ‘L’ of the band’s name on the cover.
Just left of centre, in-between the wax Paul McCartney’s grey suited elbow, and the moustached John Lennon’s day-glo green funny bone, it might as well be New Year’s Eve 1966, a sharp turning point in the perpetually evolving career of the band. Or perhaps a bit earlier…
End of the road
“Cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell”
The Beatles stopped touring in August 1966 after a difficult Asian tour fed into a tumultuous American one. John Lennon’s comments to The Evening Standard in March 1966, comparing the band rather favourably to Jesus, led to protests and ominous undertones at a nearly cancelled concert in Memphis. But it was in Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29 August that the Beatles road trip ground to a halt. For safety, Beatles concerts were staged in arenas. But flooded with supernatural screaming from the moment the Fabs appeared to long after they left the stage, the band couldn’t hear each other or their instruments. For a four-piece built on harmony, steadily shrugging off the pop star tag in favour of ground-breaking musicianship, the number was up for live performance that night. And as Ringo later recalled, for no one more than Lennon.
Frustrated, exhausted, and unhappy with their direction after a gruelling but prolific four years in the public eye, the Beatles immediately embarked on their second three-month holiday of 1966. Both breaks proved seminal. The first break prologued the fusing of the Beatles’ pop musicality with experimentation; the second cemented those experiments in the cultural bombshell of Sgt. Pepper.
Somehow, the early break had accelerated the Beatles’ already fast-developing sound, with recording of the extraordinary Tomorrow Never Knows falling at the beginning of the Revolver sessions that April.
During the autumn break, Lennon was drawn to a film role in How I Won the War while furthering his journey to LSD-fuelled mind expansion. At an art launch he met Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney stuck to the studio, developing his knowledge of classical music while working on a soundtrack with producer George Martin. George Harrison headed to India to hone his Sitar skills under Ravi Shankar. Ringo Starr spent some quality time with his family, probably bought a car, and joined Lennon on location in Spain for a holiday where it was “damn hot”.
For the most part then, the defining influences and direction of the Beatles’ latter career were taking shape. Things had changed. Their new album would be the proof. The band’s earlier break led directly to touring and recording of their seventh album. By November 1966, Abbey Road studios had turned from a stop on a conveyor belt to a refuge from the maelstrom. They could focus solely on recording their eighth LP as tours fast retreated to history. With a broad canvas ahead of them instead of a road, an uninterrupted, unprecedented, five months in the studio lay ahead. Their experimentation was primed to reach its next stage.
As George Harrison reminded us, “We were inventing things you know, don’t forget”.
It began with the ground-breaking double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane, the perfect balance of Lennon and McCartney across two sides of a disc… or rather it didn’t. As well as being beaten to the number one slot by Engelbert Humperdinck’s Please Release Me, those November and December 1966 recordings never made it onto an album. Blocked by manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin’s noble if misguided belief that fans shouldn’t have to pay for a song twice. In the middle of the two recordings the whimsical ditty When I’m Sixty Four was laid down, described by McCartney as “Goony”, as in Goon Show, it was a sign that something theatrical, if not tongue-in-cheek, was afoot. 64 was to be the first album track of the sessions and it proved one thing: While Sgt. Pepper challenged, crossed, and smashed musical and production barriers, there was more to it than a technological revolution. As much as the Beatles had won their new ability to concentrate on studio work, they also needed to carve out a new creative space.
Pass the Sergeant
“One of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time”
In fact, inspiration for the band’s innovative approach came in the same month that recording sessions began, although they would take some time to take form. It was on plane from Kenya to London, and all thanks to a condiment.
As McCartney tells it, he was grabbing a bite with band roadie Mal Evans when he, “mumbled to me, asked me to pass the salt and pepper. And I misheard him. He said ‘saltandpepper’. I go, ‘Sergeant Pepper?’ I thought he said, ‘Sergeant Pepper’. I went, ‘Oh! Wait a minute, that’s a great idea!’ So, we had a laugh about it, then I started thinking about Sergeant Pepper as a character.” (Paul McCartney, 2017)
McCartney developed the concept almost immediately, visualising Pepper as leader of an Edwardian band, attending an award ceremony in a northern English town. Anachronistically, they took their moniker from the trend for long rambling band names and hippy culture that was breaking out across the west coast of America and had fascinated McCartney on the Beatles’ recent tour. His sketches developed the band’s military uniforms alongside a floral clock. That vision resembles the result, but it was to be moulded by necessary and inspirational collaborations over the next six months.
First, there were his band mates. As the zeitgeist unfolded, it was clear that the need to remove themselves from their past was universal. As McCartney put it, “I thought, let’s not be ourselves. Let’s develop alter egos”. They were trying to “get away from ourselves”. In the grip of exploratory mind-opening, Lennon was quietly content to let McCartney take the lead, and Paul threw himself into the concept.
But it was only after the recording of the song Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the February of the recording sessions that McCartney’s brainwave truly developed, and the first rock concept album sprang to life. Two songs had already been recorded, including 64 and astonishing, iconic album closer A Day in the Life; another of the session’s perfect fusions of McCartney and Lennon in one composition.
The Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band track was an experimental step back from the more rounded, modern songs the Beatles recorded during 1966, but it managed to achieve something quite different. It fused a heritage, variety nostalgia with heavy rock. As a ripping, challenging sound as much as a rhythmic throw-back, it’s timeless. With the segue into With a Little Help from My Friends and McCartney’s introduction of singer Billy Shears, Ringo was the only member of the band’s alter-egos to be named (perhaps purposefully laying hints for emerging Beatles conspiracy theorists), and the concept was set. For a whole two songs.
Almost all the LP’s songs, including Good Morning, Good Morning and Lovely Rita carry the sense of acutely observed British sentiment. There’s a catching and uplifting joyousness in the mixture of dreams, (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Fixing a Hole) and mundanity, often in the same number. It’s a step away from the contemporary feel that had characterised the band’s previous albums, but not a step back. Those expecting a uniform concept after the opening two tracks are left wanting. Come the album’s end, it’s only in the title track and its reprise that an attempt at fluid continuation is present. And Billy Shears’ one and only song was a late-recording, written under pressure from the band’s label EMI in March 1967. The reprise followed at the suggestion of the Beatles’ friend and future head of Apple Corp Neil Aspinall. As Lennon wryly told him at the time, “nobody likes a smart arse”. But it was a masterstroke. That euphoric final recording of the session is not only one of the greatest songs containing multiple “Whoops” of all-time, but one of the album’s highlights. It would have taken the final slot had A Day in the Life’s final chord not been so, well, finite.
The classic embrace
“Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to”
It wasn’t surprising that Sgt. Pepper was highly anticipated, it was a Beatles record after all. What was and still is surprising is the euphoria that met the zeitgeist of its release, five days earlier than scheduled, on 26 May. The band was ecstatic with the result, but the society around them also seemed to be waiting with open arms to receive what Times critic Kenneth Tynan would soon call a, “decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation”. It managed to fit 1967 like a key.
It may not be many Beatles fans’ favourite album, but it’s culture’s. It swept the western world, in an instant, dominating the airwaves in the late spring. Few things walk into the status of instant cultural icon, so how did it manage it?
There’s something about the album’s timing, composition, vision, fusion of music, art and theatre, Britishness and sentiment. Although it’s occasionally colder than Revolver, and predicts the aloof dislocation of their later albums, The Beatles crafted an optimistic celebration in what George Martin called the pinnacle of their collaboration. It was both utterly fantastic and entrenched in times past. It’s not a clash of time and culture but a gathering of all times. On the cover, taking vocals in two songs, maybe three, was the Edwardian band that couldn’t possibly celebrate its 20th anniversary in the late 1960s; that couldn’t possibly entertain hard rock with French horn and flute. Sgt. Pepper, for all its darker tones and occasional disconnected hubris – step forward John Lennon – was taken in a big hug by a generation eager to adopt an instant classic. Each song pushed music production, but as an expectation not an aim. Extraordinary flows through every song, but often in a terribly modest way.
Technical limitations were broken while they brought modulation from classical music to popular, expanded horizons from the old English home town to India. New techniques were invented through hard-worked, old school practicality. In a way, Sgt. Pepper invented himself, because he had to. While staring into the kaleidoscope: yes, Sgt. Pepper is where the mundane sits alongside the imaginary, and backed by two sides of roaring tunes, complement each other.
The band concept isn’t strong, soon falling apart on a linear listen. But the creation of a rock concept is another trick Sgt. Pepper slipped easily into culture. In the parenthesis of the first and penultimate track there is enough space for the band to ease out of their natural personas. It’s the apparently lazy pursuit of that persona concept that aids Sgt. Pepper longevity. As the eponymous band dips in and out, most famous for their role on the album’s cover, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band manage to be simultaneously dated, modern and timeless.
And the band’s fans were ready to roll with that. It’s not like the floral signature of “Beatles” isn’t one of the overriding features of the distinctive cover. But the Fab Four had already done more for the concept of personas than the world realised.
Prior to the Beatles, most well-known figures who’d carved a foothold within popular music were solo artists, or an outstanding frontman, guitarist, or both who would emerge from a group to strike out on their own. The Beatles, however, set the template for a four-piece in band lore. So definitively in fact, that none of the many four pieces that have followed in their wake have achieved the balance of the original.
None of those considerable four-pieces that inherited the formula in the decades that followed managed to balance such distinct personalities. It was a delicate balance in the Beatles’ case: the quiet one, the funny one, the pretty one… By A Hard Day’s Night (1964), the band was playing with their split personalities across songs, album covers and film. The dissolution of the Beatles in 1970, in a worn acrimony that fate would never reconcile, was there from the start. Those balanced personas could be unbalanced. Sgt. Pepper was the culmination of their optimum balance.
Over the next year the Beatles would adopt other minor personas, including cover star Lewis Carroll’s Walrus (“The Walrus was Paul” as 1968’s Green Onion tells us), and other characters in the extraordinary film and album concept Magical Mystery Tour (following hot on the heels of Sgt. Pepper in 1967, shortly after Epstein’s death).
In Yellow Submarine, the animated band (avatars of a real band uninterested in completing their film deal with United Artists) would set off to rescue their alter-egos and all Pepperland. But after the tumultuous, legacy defining cultural moment of Sgt. Pepper it’s telling that the next time the band recorded an album on this scale (the following year, after the misjudged road trip of Magical Mystery Tour), the album cover would be a simple, reactionary white.
Pepper creates himself
Perhaps the roots of The Lonely Hearts Club Band were stitched into the fabric of 1962’s Beatlemania and destined to burst out at some point. The Beatles inadvertently created the importance of persona in popular music in their rapid ascent. Just half a decade later, Sgt Pepper saw them combine it with the comfortable homogeneity of music past.
Glam bands would later seize the persona and concept that Sgt. Pepper hinted at to attract fans. There’s a marvellous coincidence, no doubt infuriating for one side of the equation at the time, that David Bowie’s debut album was also released on 1 June 1967. But as contrary as some parts of the Sgt. Pepper album is, personas were a natural way for the Beatles to distance themselves from their fan base. Back to McCartney, getting the okay the Beatles way:
“I just talked to all the guys and said, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ They liked it and I said, ‘It will mean, when I approach the mic, it’s not Paul McCartney. I don’t have to think this is a Paul McCartney song’. So, it was freeing. It was quite liberating.”
As manager Brian Epstein was reported as saying at the band’s decision to abandon live touring in 1966, “What am I going to do now?” He didn’t give up trying to convince the band to return to the road, but he never succeeded in his lifetime. Brian Epstein would die almost exactly one year after their final performance at Candlestick Park, having overseen their rise to being the most famous band in the world, and their creation of one, if not the, greatest fictional bands of all time.
And not turning up for most of the album, was one of the Lonely Heart Club Band’s greatest moves. We still enjoy the show.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 50th Anniversary reissue
1966: Revolver at 50, Jokerside.com
You Gave Me the Answer Sgt. Pepper special, Paulmccartney.com
The Beatles, Hunter Davies
Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald
Sgt. Pepper Forever, BBC Radio 2
First published on Niume on 26 May 2017.