Thursday, 1 June 2017

It Was 50 Years Ago Today Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band Was Released

It was 50 years ago today that The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in the United Kingdom. It was released the following day in the United States. It received widespread critical acclaim at the time. It also picked up a number of awards, including five Grammy Awards (Album of the Year, Best Pop Vocal Album, Best Engineered Non-Classical Album, Best Graphic Arts Album Cover, and Best Contemporary (R&R) Performance). Since then it has regularly made lists of the greatest rock albums of all time. In 2012 Rolling Stone ranked it at no. 1 on its list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time".  In his book  All Time Top 1000 Albums, author Colin Larkin also ranked it at no. 1. In 2010 Consequence of Sound ranked Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band at no. 8 in its list of the "Top 100 Albums Ever". In NME's list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" it ranked at no. 14. In 2003 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was added by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is certainly the stuff of legends, and over the years millions of words have been written about the album. Ten years ago I wrote a detailed post on the occasion of its 40th anniversary (you can read it here). Of course, there has always been debate over whether Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is truly a concept album (I will state emphatically that however one stands on the issue, it was not the first concept album). It was Sir Paul McCartney who suggested that The Beatles record an entire album as if they were another band entirely. To this end, he wrote the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". The Beatles grew moustaches and donned the famous Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band costumes for the album's cover. That having been said, John Lennon always argued that his songs had nothing to do with the "Sgt. Pepper" concept, while Ringo Starr has said that only "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "With a Little Help From My Friends", and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" were conceptually connected.

Despite John Lennon and Ringo Starr's words to the contrary, an argument can be made that a common thread does run through most of the songs on the album, even John Lennon's songs (perhaps especially John Lennon's songs). The album begins with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", with its music hall sounds. Even with its psychedelic imagery, "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" brings to mind the British tourist towns on the coast--Blackpool viewed through a psychedelic lens. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" continues with the similar theme of circuses, while other songs ("Fixing a Hole", "Getting Better", "She's Leaving Home", "When I'm Sixty-Four", "Good Morning, Good Morning", et. al.) touch upon everyday, British life. In my humble opinion, really the only song that has absolutely nothing to do with the "Sgt. Pepper" concept is George Harrison's "Within You Without You". Of course, another one of George Harrison's songs recorded at the time had a bit more to do with the concept--"Only a Northern Song" delas with the act of playing a song itself.  It would be included on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. Regardless, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may perhaps be considered an album that one member (Sir Paul McCartney) intended to be a concept album and an album for which other members (John Lennon, George Harrison) simply wrote songs that they thought had nothing to do with the concept, but in the end became a concept album anyway.

Ultimately it might not be particularly important whether Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is a concept album or not, as it had an impact immediately upon its release. In the United Kingdom it debuted at no. 8 on the British album chart based on pre-orders alone. It spent 27 weeks at the top of the British album chart. In the United States it spent 15 weeks at no. 1 on the Billboard album chart. To this day it remains one of the best selling albums of all time.

My Sgt. Pepper pinback button
I know that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band certainly had an impact on me. I had just turned four years old when it was released, so I really don't remember anything about the album's debut. That having been said, while no singles were released from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, radio stations played many of the songs from the album as if they were singles. "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", "With a Little Help from My Friends", and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" remain among the earliest snogs I remember hearing on the radio. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would be the first album I ever bought with my own money. I bought it at the department store P. N. Hirsch when I was 13 years old. I still have the album, as well as the cardboard cutouts that came with it. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would remain my favourite album throughout my childhood. It would only be when I was an adult that it would be overtaken by another Beatles' album, Revolver.

Of course, I would not be the only one that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would have an impact upon. Indeed, the album had an impact on popular culture even before it was released. The producers of Yellow Submarine (1968) had access to The Beatles' songs on the album even as it was being recorded, so that ultimately the album and its imagery would largely shape the animated feature film. Indeed, the band of the album's title even play a pivotal role in the movie.  The album had been out for only a little less than a year when a snippet of the song "Good Morning, Good Morning"appeared in the Monkees episode "Mijacogeo", also known "The Frodis Caper".


Since then every single song on the album has been covered multiple times. Indeed, it was only three days after the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band that Jimi Hendrix performed the song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at the Saville Theatre in London. Since then the entire album has been covered by various artists. In 2009 Cheap Trick performed the entire album live at the Las Vegas Hilton for two weeks. A live album, Sgt. Pepper Live, was released that December. The Flaming Lips covered the entire album in 2014 with their album With a Little Help from My Fwends.

Aside from Yellow Submarine songs from the album have appeared in numerous movies and TV shows. The atrocity known as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978) allegedly took its inspiration from the album and included several horrible covers of songs from the album, as well as other Beatles songs. The far superior musical Across the Universe (2007) also featured songs from the album, as well as covers of other Beatles songs, all of which are excellent.  Other films to feature various songs were The Neon Palace (1971--"A Day in the Life") and Shampoo (1975--"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds").  TV shows have also featured songs from the album. Perhaps the best known of these is The Wonder Years, which used Joe Cocker's 1968 cover of "With a Little Help from My Friends" as its theme song. The video game The Beatles: Rock Band included several songs from the album, including the album's title track and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Other songs from the album would be made available as downloadable content.

Of course, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band's biggest impact would be on popular music. In his book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald expresses the idea that The Beatles' adoption of alter-egos in colourful costumes would have an influence of glam rock in the Seventies, a subgenre of rock music well known for its outrageous costumes. Carys Wyn Jones in the book The Rock Canon expressed the idea that The Beach Boys' album Pet Sounds and The Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band marked the beginnings of art rock. Allan Moore in his book The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band put forth the idea that with its experimentation in the studio and in The Beatles' efforts to expand rock music beyond three minutes songs, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was pivotal in the development of progressive rock. In the book Beatlesongs, William J. Dowlding wrote, "Sgt. Pepper not only changed pop music, but transformed how we perceived that music and, in a very literal sense, how we perceived ourselves." The album certainly had a widespread influence on rock music, and it played a role in the development of such diverse subgenres as power pop and heavy metal.

Whether Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the greatest Beatles album ever made, let alone the greatest album by anyone ever made, will always be up for debate (my candidate would actually be The Beatles' Revolver), but the overall impact that the album has had over the years really is not a matter for debate. No other album has ever loomed quite as large as Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in The Beatles' legend. And no other Beatles album has quite had the impact that Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band did. The over all quality of the album might be up for debate, but the fact that it changed popular music and had an impact on pop culture really cannot be.

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