Sgt. Pepper – A Rock Music Masterpiece Turns 50

A Brief One by Doug Draper

Posted June 1st,  2017 on Niagara At Large

‘It was 50 years ago today – on June 1st, 1967 for all those fans who lived in The Beatles’ home country of England, and June 2nd for the rest of us across North America and around the world.

By the time Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released 50 years ago this June – on the eve of what would be a ‘Summer of Love’ swirling with the sounds of Jefferson Airplane, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix and Otis Redding catching fire at the Monterey Pop Festival – fans of The Beatles were starving for a new album by the group.

It seemed, for fans at the time, that an eternity had passed since the release of The Beatles last album, Revolver, the summer before. To that point, the group’s North American label, Capital Records, had released one album after another since the group first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show three years earlier, and chart-topping singles were almost overlapping one another.

So as the last single, featuring Eleanor Rigby and Yellow Submarine from the Revolver album, faded from the charts in the fall of 1966 following a months’ long run, Beatles lovers were getting antsy for more.

What’s going on, many asked. Are they breaking up?

“I remember clearly a music critic surmising that because no one had hear from us for a while, The Beatles had dried up,” wrote Paul McCartney for the liner notes of a remastered CD edition of the Sgt. Pepper’s album issued nine years ago. “We worked on happily in the knowledge that this one gentleman was about to be proved well and truly wrong.”

Did that ever turn out to be true!

In February of 1967, under pressure from record company executives to release something to quench fans’ thirst and, of course, to keep money flowing in to the company’s coffers, The Beatles released a single with two songs originally intended for Sgt. Pepper’s. The songs were Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields which sounded like almost nothing the group had ever released before.

The “wow” response to those songs raised anticipation to a fever pitch by the first of June when the needle lowered down on the first, now-iconic notes from George Harrison’s guitar before McCartney lead in with; “It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. …”

All these years later, the album that would become a soundtrack for the Summer of Love, a template for The Who’s ‘Tommy’, Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ and so many other concept albums to come and a bar setter for every group of musicians striving to make the grade from then on in, is listed at the top of Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 greatest albums of all time.

In their reasons for ranking the St. Pepper album at the top, the compilers of Rolling Stone’s list had this to say –

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, song writing, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll band of all time.

“From the title song’s regal blasts of brass and fuzz guitar to the orchestral seizure and long, dying piano chord at the end of ‘A Day in the Life’, the thirteen tracks on St. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club B and are the pinnacle of the Beatles’ eight years as recording artists.

John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Rings Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence.”

Rolling Stone might have added George Martin’s name to the line above for the ingenious ways he, as producer of the album, was able to create sound effects never before heard on a pop record, and doing it before the days of computers that make the job easier, but the results often nowhere near as magical.

My first memory of hearing the music on Sgt. Pepper goes back to the day before it was released in Canada and a Buffalo radio station managed to call in to a station in England to get them to play the final track on the album, ‘A Day in the Life’.

As we came to the part of the song (keeping in mind that it was the first time anyone on this side of the pond, including the Buffalo DJ, had ever heard it) where violins were used to create a whirlwind building up to what sounded like that twister that swept Dorothy and Toto off to the Land of Oz the DJ assumed t something had gone wrong with the trans-Atlantic signal until Paul McCartney came in with the words; “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head. …”

‘Oh, there we go,’ interrupted the DJ. ‘We have the signal back again.

I leave you with that remembrance as an example of how transforming and mind altering the sounds on that album were at the time and may still be, all these later.

I have four copies of the album in my music collection, including the original vinyl copy I bought with money I saved up from cutting a neighbour’s lawn in the days following its world-wide debut 50 springs ago.

I will celebrate this anniversary of Sgt. Pepper by giving that original vinyl record another spin on the turntable now and see if I can remember how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.

You might want to give Sgt. Pepper another spin too.

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 “A politician thinks of the next election. A leader thinks of the next generation.” – Bernie Sanders

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2 responses to “Sgt. Pepper – A Rock Music Masterpiece Turns 50

  1. I heard that “Sgt. Pepper” is what Paul McCartney thought he heard from a passenger on a plane who asked for the “salt and pepper”. Any truth to this? Anyone?

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  2. Linda McKellar

    I recall the same impression of “A Day in the Life”. I listened to it on a UK station via a shortwave radio (a real fan eager to hear new songs!) and thought I had lost the signal. I kept “twiddling with nobs” trying to fix it. What kind of weird noise was that!!!!!!

    Carla, there was also an idea that “Sergeant Pepper” came from a police officer who was part of their security group in Toronto whose name actually was Sergeant Pepper. The same security group gave Paul four OPP patches, one of which he wore on the sleeve of his jacket in the famous photo.

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