Fifty years in the life of Sgt Pepper and his band

The iconic cover is credited for bridging a cultural divide between popular music and modern art.
The iconic cover is credited for bridging a cultural divide between popular music and modern art. / SUR
  • Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was lauded by critics and described as a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation

When The Beatles entered studio two of the Abbey Road recording studios in North West London on 24 November 1966, there were rumours that the band were about to break up.

The greatest rock band in the world had seen poor audience attendance during their previous tour of the USA, and they lived in fear for their lives following John Lennon’s comments about The Beatles being “more popular than Jesus”.

However, just when it seemed as though the bubble had burst, The Beatles released what is considered the most important rock and roll album ever recorded.

Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the group’s eighth album and this pioneering recording is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year.

Released on 26 May 1967 in the UK and on 2 June 1967 in the USA, it was an immediate commercial and critical success. It was lauded by music critics for its innovations in music production, song writing and graphic design.

Spending 27 weeks at the top of the UK albums chart and 15 weeks at number one in the US, Sgt Pepper has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling albums in history.

The Times described the album as “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization”. Newsweek called it a “masterpiece” - comparing the lyrics of A Day in the Life to T. S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land.

Concerns that some of the lyrics on the album referred to recreational drug use led to the BBC banning several songs from British radio, including A Day in the Life and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite was also refused airtime because the lyrics mention Henry the Horse; censors speculated that Henry was a drug dealer.

The iconic album cover is credited for bridging a cultural divide between popular music and modern art and it was the first LP to include all of the lyrics on its back sleeve. The cover, depicting The Beatles posing in front of a tableau of celebrities and historical figures, was designed by the British pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth.

A collage of photographs and waxworks depict a diversity of famous people, including Marilyn Monroe, Laurel and Hardy, Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carroll. Lennon apparently wanted to add Adolf Hitler and Jesus to the list, but his suggestions were rejected.

While the picture of the man depicting Sgt Pepper on the album cover looks like a fictitious character, he was actually a real person. His name was James Melvin Babington, a British army officer who served during the Second Boer War.

The idea was conceived after Paul McCartney came up with the idea for a song about an Edwardian era-style military band; although the group were halfway through the recording before they decided they should release an entire album that would represent a performance by the fictional Lonely Hearts Club Band. Afforded the luxury of a nearly limitless recording budget, The Beatles adopted an experimental approach to recording, spending more than six-months and 25,000 pounds creating their masterpiece.

While continuing the artistic maturation seen on their preceding release, Revolver, the band experimented with psychedelia, incorporating Vaudeville, circus, music hall and classical Indian music.

Sgt Pepper was the first pop album to be mastered without the momentary gaps that are typically placed between tracks. The songs were blended together to give the impression of a continuous live performance, making it widely regarded as the first true concept album in popular music.

There are some who believe that The Beatles might not have been quite as inspirational as first believed. Freak Out, by The Mothers of Invention, has often been cited as having influenced Sgt Pepper, while others claim that the recording was inspired by The Beach Boys’ 1966 album, Pet Sounds. Paul McCartney is said to have had great admiration for The Beach Boys and George Martin suggested that without Pet Sounds, Sgt Pepper may never have happened.

The album did, and still does, have its detractors, one of whom is Rolling Stone Keith Richards who denounced the album as “a mishmash of rubbish”.

Fifty years after its release, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is still considered culturally and historically significant, for it was the record that instigated the beginning of the Album Era.

A new version was reissued for the 50th anniversary and this is said to retain more of the idiosyncrasies that were unique to the original mono version.