Friday, 1 June 2007

It Was 40 Years Ago Today...

It was 40 years ago to day that The Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was first released. It was released in the United Kingdom on July 1, 1967, then released here in the United States the next day. Contrary to popular belief, it was not the first concept album. There are several that predate it. It was not even the first rock concept album; however, arguably it is the most influential.

By late 1966 The Beatles had retired from touring. The band found themselves frustrated that no one could even hear them playing over the hordes of screaming fans. At the same time their sheer fame and the occasional controversy they provoked (they actually received death threats after a comment regarding the current popularity of Christianity from John Lennon after an interview with British reporter Maureen Cleave was grossly misinterpreted in the United States) caused realistic concerns for their safety. No longer touring as they once had, The Beatles now had more time to spend in the studio. Their album Revolver, recorded from April to June 1966, was the first album on which they were able to lavish the kind of attention that comes with not constantly touring. The result was a revolutionary record which introduced a number of stylistic advancements and a new sophistication to rock music. Like Revolver, The Beatles would seek to cover new ground with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It was Paul McCartney who suggested that The Beatles should record the album as if they were another band entirely (hence "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"). The Beatles grew out their hair, grew facial hair, and even donned colourful band costumes for the album's legendary cover. Of course, not every single Beatle followed the concept through to the end. John Lennon was adamant in saying that the songs he wrote for the album had nothing to do with the concept. That having been said, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band would seem to have become a concept album regardless of whether the others followed McCartney's lead. Much of the album, from "For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" and "When I'm 64" smack of Vaudeville and such old time entertainments as carnivals. Psychelia also played a large role on the album, particularly in the songs "Lucy in the Sky With the Diamonds" and "A Day in the Life." To complete the concept, the album came with cardboard cutouts featuring a picture of Sgt. Pepper, a moustache, badges, and sergeant stripes. In many ways, it is as if the album was recorded by someone other than The Beatles, but at the same it could only have been recorded by them.

Among other things, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band introduced a number of technical innovations. It was one of the earliest popular albums to use the Mellotron, essentially a sample playback keyboard. Using a whole bank of magnetic tapes, the Mellotron could play back samples of any number of sounds (from orchestral sounds to sound effects). Like Revovler before it, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was one of the first albums to use automatic doubletracking or ADT (using synchronised recorders and an electronic delay, ADT could duplicate a sound instantly, simultaneously, and nearly exactly). It also used such techniques as flanging (an audio effect created by mixing two identical sounds together, but one delayed by a matter of milliseconds) and other forms of phasing (in which the same part is played on two different instruments, but with one gradually moving ahead of the other). Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band also used varispeeding, in which which various tracks on a multi-track recorder are recorded at different speeds. The album also made extensive use of reverberation, echo, and reverse tape effects, and snippets of sound, as well as instruments not usually found on a rock album (clarinet, harpsichord, harmonium, sitar, and so on).

The look of the album was almost as revolutionary as its contents. The legendary cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was created by art director Robert Fraser in conjunction with Paul McCartney. It was designed by pop art legend Peter Blake. It featured The Beatles dressed as "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" standing amidst a crowd of cardboard cutouts portraying their heroes from pop culture (over 70 of them). EMI's legal department was concerned that the cover could result in lawsuits and required every single celebrity to be contacted for their permission. Mae West initially refused, asking "What would I be doing in a lonely heart's club?" She relented when The Beatles personally wrote her.

Musically, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was among the best albums The Beatles ever recorded. The title song was among Paul McCartney's best work, a simple, straightforward, guitar driven song with the sort of appeal that none other than Jimi Hendrix incorporated into his act. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is arguably John Lennon's masterwork, a travelogue of colourful images that some thought described an acid trip. "Good Morning, Good Morning" was an aggressive song by Lennon, describing the typical day of a typical Englishman. "A Day in the Life," one of the last true Lennon/McCartney collaborations, was a revolutionary song inspired by stories from the Daily Mail. The album hardly features a misstep, except possibly for Harrison's "Within You, Without You," which I have never found particularly listenable (Why didn't they use "Only a Northern Song" instead?).

Upon the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In fact, some commentators and critics considered the album to be a milestone. Kenneth Tynan of The Times called it "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation." Drug guru Timothy Leary went even further, describing listening to the album as a religious experience. With regards to the charts, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band debuted at #8 on the British album charts and stayed at #1 for 23 straight weeks. In the United States it spent 15 consecutive weeks at #1 on the Billboard album chart. It won the Grammy for Best Album of the Year, becoming the first rock album to do so. Since then it has ranked on many lists of the greatest rock albums of all time, often in the #1 spot. In 2003 the American Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry of historically important recordings.

The album did meet with some controversy. Rumours have persisted not only that "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" describes an LSD trip, but that the song's title is an anagram for the drug itself. The BBC banned "A Day in the Life" for alleged drug references. In more conservative quarters of the United States the album provoked some truly bizarre accusations. There were those who insisted that "Fixing a Hole" was about heroin, although it seems fairly obvious it is about plumbing repairs, while there were those who insisted that the "man in the motor trade" mentioned in the innocent song "She's Leaving Home" was an abortionist, despite no real evidence to support the claim!

The influence of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would be far reaching. While many artists (notably folk singer turned rock star Donovan, The Byrds, and Jefferson Airplane) explored psychedelia before The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would lead more musicians into the genre. And while there had been concept albums prior to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and there were even concept albums in development as the album was being recorded, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band arguably encouraged the development of the form greatly. The album would ultimately expand the range of instruments permitted in rock music and changed the presentation of rock albums forever. While Revovler was arguably more revolutionary, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may well have had a more lasting impact.

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