Guaranteed to Raise a SmilePop music, psychedelia and nostalgia fused together in the album that defined the 1960s
It was 50 years ago (this June) that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” redefined pop music. Since then, the Beatles have been going in and out of style, but the best of the album’s songs, and its winning conceits, still are guaranteed to raise a smile. Universal Music Group, which owns Capitol Records, is marking the anniversary by issuing a multi-disc box set. There is also a box-full of books intended to reintroduce to us the act we’ve known for all these years. Brian Southall, a pop journalist when the band was together, handled publicity for EMI in the 1970s. Mike McInnerney designed the sleeve of the Who’s “Tommy.” Lavishly illustrated, their books reflect the synthesis between pop entertainment and thoughtful art that the Beatles were after.
Kenneth Tynan called the release of “Sgt. Pepper” in June 1967 “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.” Keith Richards has called “Pepper” a “mishmash of rubbish.” Both are right. “Pepper” abounds in weak compositions ( Paul McCartney’s “Fixing a Hole”) and shallow sonic novelties ( John Lennon’s “Good Morning Good Morning”). But in music, as in comedy—and in both when Ringo is singing—timing is all.
Mr. McCartney has explained “Pepper” in Hegel ian terms. “The mood of the album was in the spirit of the age because we ourselves were fitting into the mood of the time,” he once mused. The 1960s formed the Beatles. The Beatles, with a little help from their friend, producer George Martin, made “Sgt. Pepper.” Now “Sgt. Pepper” defines the ’60s.
“Pepper” was not the first concept album, only the biggest. In 1955, Frank Sinatra had pioneered the form with “In the Wee Small Hours”—and Sinatra, unlike the Beatles, sustained his concept past the third track. Nor is “Pepper” the Beatles’ best album. Three-fourths of the Fab Four agree on this. Ringo’s favorite is “Abbey Road.” George preferred “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver.” John, who doubted whether “Pepper” was a concept album at all, listed three of its tracks—“When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Lovely Rita” and “Good Morning Good Morning”—among his least favorite Beatles’ numbers. Only Paul prefers “Pepper.”
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band By Brian Southall
Imagine!, 192 pages, $30
Sterling, 176 pages, $24.95
Blue Rider, 300 pages, $23
Imagine!, 192 pages, $30
Sgt. Pepper at FiftyBy Mike McInnerney, Bill DeMain & Gillian G. Gaar
Sterling, 176 pages, $24.95
In Their LivesEdited by Andrew Blauner
Blue Rider, 300 pages, $23
During the sessions that produced “Revolver,” the album they recorded earlier in 1966, the Beatles had reinvented pop production: beefing up the drums with “close-miking” and the vocals with automatic double-tracking, as well as anticipating samples with tape loops (“Tomorrow Never Knows”) and reversing the tapes (”Rain”). They now had the sonic means and the studio time to be artists, not just mop-topped entertainers.
Mr. McCartney wanted to beat the Californians—to produce an album with better production than the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” a bigger concept than Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out!” The name and military uniforms of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are Edwardian equivalents of the buckskin nostalgia of San Francisco hippy bands like Quicksilver Messenger Service. A band of “alter egos” suited the Beatles’ wish to escape pop celebrity.
In breaking away, the Beatles broke the mold. The screaming audience on “Sgt. Pepper” was recorded at a Beatles’ concert, but the Lonely Hearts Club Band would never tour. The “Pepper” package reworked the uniforms and vaudeville patter of the Beatles’ stint as teen idols. It also recast Mr. McCartney’s gift for traditional songwriting as collage and even pastiche—modernism for the mass market.
We see the past through a glass darkly, or even a glass onion: Two songs that undoubtedly are of “Sgt. Pepper” are not on it, Lennon’s sublime and innovative “Strawberry Fields Forever” (original name: “It’s Not Too Bad”) and “Penny Lane,” a jaunty toe-tapper from Mr. McCartney’s one-man Tin Pan Alley store. The band’s manager, Brian Epstein, wanted to maintain the band’s profile between albums, so in February 1967 the two tracks were issued as a single with two A sides. In Britain, this was also the first Beatles’ single in four years not to reach No. 1; Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Release Me” stopped it. With the press pondering the band’s decline, Epstein insisted that neither track be on the new album. George Martin was to call his assent to this plan “the biggest mistake of my professional life” (this from the man who recorded Celine Dion ).
Beatleheads and historians will already own Mark Lewisohn’s “Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” (1988), which annotates every twang, pluck and thud, and Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head” (1994, revised 2005), which interprets the Beatles’ music through the social and cultural changes of the ’60s. The two new “Pepper” books by ’60s survivors provide further insight into the era.
In “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” Mr. Southall describes the “Pepper” dialectic by dividing his book into a musical “A-side” and a historical “B-side.” The A-side has flattering biographies of the protagonists and a quick summary of the “Pepper” sessions. The B-side has short and tidy essays on key topics like “The Rise of Psychedelia” and a month-by-month summary of the period 1966-68.
Photographs include the Studer four-track recorder on which “Pepper” was taped, acidheads writhing on a floor, Hendrix torching his guitar at Monterey three weeks after the release of the album and (the true wonder of the age) England winning the 1966 World Cup. Mr. Southall’s book will be a handy primer for children and an aide-mémoire for boomers who have entered senescence without ever leaving their adolescence.
“Sgt. Pepper at Fifty” is a deeper social and cultural history. Mr. McInnerney, abetted by music journalists Bill DeMain and Gillian G. Gaar, works from outside in, from the “mood” of Swinging London to the “look” and “sound” of “Pepper,” and thence to the “legacy.” This quartet of themes hits the sweet spot. On the “mood,” Mr. McInnerney ranges expertly across British social history from 1960 to the album’s launch: pirate radio, drugs and the intimate, intoxicated world of London’s hip avant-garde find mention, as do such figures as poet Jeff Nuttall, photographer John “Hoppy” Hopkins, journalist Barry Miles and the art dealer John Dunbar, at whose Indica Gallery John Lennon met Yoko Ono in November 1966.
Mr. DeMain’s chapter on the “look” gives a thorough account of Peter Blake’s design for the “Pepper” album cover but also takes in the psychedelic era’s revival of late-Victorian and Edwardian fashions and the Victoria & Albert Museum’s influential celebration of Aubrey Beardsley in May 1966. Ms. Gaar’s chapter on the “sound” includes just enough trivia about how George Martin and the Beatles weaved in and out of styles.
Recording “With a Little Help From My Friends”—working title “Bad Finger Boogie”—Ringo refused to sing the line, “Would you throw ripe tomatoes at me?” because he feared that, should the band return to touring, audiences would take it as an invitation. “Within You Without You,” George Harrison’s masterly sitar feature, begins side two of “Sgt. Pepper” because George Martin rejected Harrison’s “Only a Northern Song.” Mr. McCartney, the son of an old-time musician, had written “When I’m Sixty-Four” in 1957 or 1958; finally he placed it on a record.
Most of the album’s tics and tricks had been used to better effect on “Revolver.” The great exception is “A Day in the Life.” Its splicing of two different song fragments depicts the polarity of the Lennon and McCartney styles and anticipates the divergence that would break up the band. The grandeur—the muffled thunder of Ringo’s fills, the reference to an empty Albert Hall, and the orchestra that fills up the song’s climax—is essential to the composition. And in the months after the album’s release, Mr. McCartney’s addition to Lennon’s opening section, the provocative “I’d love to turn you on,” became a synecdoche for the Summer of Love.
Still, most of the sounds of “Pepper” are better than most of its songs. This may be why only “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day in the Life” appear in Andrew Blauner’s “In Their Lives.” Twenty-nine authors and musicians—New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik gets the inseparable “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane”—testify to the personal meaning of 30 Beatles’ songs. Most of the essays record childhood epiphanies and adolescent disillusions. It is as though the Fab Four were America’s babysitters, elder siblings explaining the adult world.
The novelist Mona Simpson recalls dancing with her mother to “Sgt. Pepper” as “kindred spirits, wild fans.” Fifty years later, she holds Mr. McCartney’s lyric to “She’s Leaving Home” as a mirror to the past. Meanwhile, the Beatles were so much a “semipermanent part of the aural environment” in 1970s New York that Thomas Beller was surprised to find out that they were English. Associating “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” with his father’s death from cancer, Mr. Beller interprets the song’s lyrics as caught between “staying within the world of innocence and parents and family and taking a trip.” Yet Lennon’s psychedelic doggerel clearly advocates the latter course.
Only a few contributors transcend solipsism: Mr. Gopnik, despite inventing a chord called a “major fifth,” is good on the cultural context. “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” express the British Invasion’s deep “strain of English nostalgia”: childhood memories inspired threnodies for England’s dying industrial cities.
“Pepper” endures not just because it caught the mood of the Summer of Love, or because it married pop music to the modernist techniques of the collage and the tape loop, or because it sounds quaintly futuristic. “Pepper” endures because it entered the past so quickly. On June 25, 1967, little more than three weeks after the album’s release, the Beatles joined Maria Callas and Picasso in the first live international satellite broadcast, for which they performed a new song, “All You Need Is Love.” The event initiated our age of simultaneous global media and announced the triumph of television.
Like its Edwardian costumes and parping brass, “Pepper” was a colorized document from history—from a past in which music, not the visual image, could still change the world.
“Life,” Hegel said, “is essentially the concept which realizes itself through self-division and reunification.” The Beatles split up, but their look and sound are inescapable, forever joined. Today it is not necessary to own the Beatles’ albums. They are here, there and everywhere, a part of everyone’s consciousness—at least for now.
Because tomorrow, as Ringo said, never knows.
—Mr. Green is a historian, critic and jazz musician.