It Was Fifty Years Ago Today
On June 1, 1967, the Beatles launched the Summer of Love with the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The record took the world by storm and is generally considered the greatest album of the psychedelic era. For its fiftieth, its owners have presented a remastered stereo version in a massive boxed set, including “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane.” These two songs were the first products of the sessions. The record company released them as a single ahead of the album, but the two masterpieces belong with the Pepper collection. Like the balance of the songs chosen for the album, they are not about Love at all.
The Beatles came off the road for the last time in summer 1966. They were exhausted and frustrated. Their final concert in San Francisco marked the end of six years of non-stop performing, from local shows in Northern England, to a couple of career-shaping residencies in Hamburg, and finally to international fame. They rose to unprecedented heights of celebrity through the engine of late 20th century media and commerce. It was called Beatlemania, and it wore out the four Liverpool boys at its center.
They went their separate ways when the tour ended. George Harrison went to India to study Indian music and philosophy. John Lennon went to Spain to make a movie, and Ringo Starr followed. Paul McCartney remained in Swinging London mostly, diving into the contemporary art and music scene. By this time, the Beatles were experienced, having experimented with LSD. When they reunited in December to record, they were changed by their separation, their time alone and the oncoming maturation of their mid-twenties.
The Lonely Hearts Club of the title describes well the content of the collection. Love had been at the core of their recordings until “Revolver,” their previous release. This new work barely touched on the word or the subject. “Sgt. Pepper” is about alienation, isolation and the absence of love. It’s a work of personal transition.
The body of songs is framed by a self-titled introduction, which turns out to be the only conventional rock music on the album. “Sgt. Pepper” rocks, however, except when interrupted by a wind band interlude you might have heard on a Village Green evening in pre-electric England. Each song within the frame is a unique sonic world, in its own genre: some pastiche (“When I’m Sixty-Four”), some completely novel (“A Day in the Life”). The overall sound contains more keyboard and synthesized sounds (generated by a mellotron — an analog proto-synthesizer) than their ringing guitar sound. For “Sgt. Pepper,” the recording studio itself was an essential instrument.
George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” is the physical and the metaphysical heart of the record, opening side 2. It is the fullest expression of George’s interest in Eastern culture. Harrison divides the world into those who see themselves in isolation and those through enlightenment who see us as one, bound together by the force of universal love; not the love of “She Loves You.”
The songs speak to the manifestations of separateness: yearning (With a Little Help From My Friends), self-absorption (“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”), rumination (“Fixing a Hole”), actualization (“Getting Better”), separation (“She’s Leaving Home”), escapism (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”), loneliness (“When I’m Sixty-four”), hedonism (“Lovely Rita”), and angst (“Good Morning”).
“A Day in the Life” actually stands outside the frame of the album, coming after the bookend of the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise. The song opens in what feels like a dream state. The middle section is queued by an alarm clock, sending the dreamer off into his daily routine- that is, until he had a smoke, someone spoke and he retreated back into a dreamworld. The album roars to a cacophonous orchestral din before closing on a simple C major chord which decays into silence.
Postscript: I’ve been asked why this entry came to an abrupt conclusion. Geoff Emerick was the Principal Engineer for the sessions which produced Sgt. Pepper. His role in creating this masterpiece was in estimable. Being present at almost all 700 hours of recording, his comment on the work carries considerable weight. In his book, “Here, There and Everywhere,” he says:
Sadly, Pepper was the last Beatles album where all four band members worked like a team. There would still be good days ahead, but they would occur less frequently. The cracks were beginning to appear and tensions were starting to bubble to the surface.
Excerpt From: Emerick, Geoff. “Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles.”