By Lee Zimmerman
When it was released on June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper (full name: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) became the high mark of the Beatles’ trajectory up until that point. Yet, Sgt. Pepper marked more than a musical shift. It was the culmination of a cultural transformation that had begun only a few short years before, one that purposely redefined the band entirely. Indeed, the most astonishing thing about Sgt. Pepper isn’t simply its breadth of accomplishment, but rather the fact that it only took five years for John, Paul, George and Ringo to evolve from the simplicity of “Love Me Do” to a dramatic definition of “A Day in the Life.” It was an astonishing artistic evolution by any measure, one that’s yet to be equaled in terms of growth or maturity. A rebirth of purpose, the musical marvel that is Sgt. Pepper could only find fruition in a band as prodigious as the Beatles.
No wonder then it’s been hailed as the greatest Rock album of all time, the standard for every band that’s staked its hopes on reaching a similar pinnacle of creativity and expression. Even now, when an artist boasts about having reached a peak, they often claim to have created their own Sgt. Pepper. Pepper redefined the notion of an album as a unified body of work, an artistic accomplishment as daunting as any artistic endeavor in mankind’s collective canon. Indeed, in the full spectrum of the world’s creative achievements, Sgt. Pepper retains its place in that pantheon.
It’s ironic then that the album was conceived as a kind of a cop-out. Having given up their intent to tour following their final concert at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park in August 1966, the Beatles opted to retreat to the creative confines of Abbey Road, turning introspective and self-indulgent without the need to placate the teenage whims of an audience they had long since outgrown. Mop top haircuts and gleeful innocence had morphed into the more mature trappings of mustaches and a dalliance with drugs, an iconic image that could no longer tolerate the manipulation of perfunctory performances and attempting songs that were becomingly increasing more difficult to perform in front of live audiences. Consequently, an idea was hatched to create a mythical band – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to be exact – that could become surrogate Beatles’ and give the actual foursome an excuse to retreat from the world gracefully.
While much has been made of the various narratives that weave their way through the album –tales that incorporate carnival characters, showbiz shtick, meter maids, psychedelic suggestion, disenfranchisement and dysfunction – musically the album isn’t all that dissimilar to the efforts that immediately preceded it. Revolver clearly deserves credit for etching a template, given its penchant for experimentation and woozy drug-like references. Likewise, the double A-sided single “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” marked the Beatles’ reinvention as unconventional pied pipers who redefined not only themselves, but pop music precepts in general. Curiously enough, the two songs initiated a concept that was meant to linger in the follow-up LP but later aborted, that of examining life through the prism of childhood memory. As the band opted to adopt an alter ego in the form of a classic cabaret band – a conceit spurred on by Paul McCartney, a vaudeville enthusiast from the get-go — Sgt. Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band and their inimitable master of ceremonies, Billy Shears, were born.
Indeed, imagery had never played such an essential role in an album’s conception. While every lyric has been scrutinized to uncover drug references – denied at the time, but later admitted – it was more a fanciful statement for the most part. Lennon insisted he procured the lyrics for “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” from a drawing brought home from school by his son Julian, and insisted that the words for “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite were lifted practically verbatim from a poster advertising Pablo Fanque’s Circus, which he purchased during the promo shoot for “Strawberry Fields.” Harrison’s sole contribution to the album, “Within You, Without You,” broke the mold entirely, reflecting his fascination for Indian music and mysticism while excluding the other three Beatles entirely in favor of local session players proficient on Indian instruments. (His “Only a Northern Song,” written during the same sessions, would likely have melded with the mood much better.) The album’s most riveting accomplishment, the ballad “A Day in the Life,” was inspired by a real life episode reported in the local press, in which a member of the British aristocracy took his own life and shook the sedimentary status of English nobility. Later, the phrase “I’d love to turn you on” forced the song’s banishment from the BBC, which had indicted the verbiage for supposedly condoning the use of drugs.
Musically, the album was marked by distinctive differences from the guitar-driven sound of their earlier era. Keyboards and special effects played a predominant role, with organ, melotron, harpsichords and calliopes enhancing the tones and textures. Experimentation was rampant. The culminating note in “A Day in the Life” for example, was accomplished by having McCartney, Lennon, Starr and roadie Mal Evans sustaining an E chord on three grand pianos, which was then extended into a grand crescendo. At Lennon’s insistence, a high frequency tone was added at the end, intended for only dogs to hear. A full orchestra was enlisted for the melancholy “She’s Leaving Home,” conducted by Mike Leander, who had done similar duties for the Rolling Stones and was quickly drafted into service when erstwhile producer George Martin was called away for a Cilla Black session.
In keeping with its allegorical content, the Sgt. Pepper sleeve made its own emphatic impact. The Beatles were dutifully garbed as marching band musicians and positioned in front of an elaborate set designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth and subsequently photographed by Michael Cooper. Along with personal paraphernalia strewn out before them, a collage was created featuring reproductions of dozens of historical figures from the worlds of pop, politics, cinema, literature and philosophy. The icons included Marlene Dietrich, Carl Gustav Jung, W.C. Fields, Elvis Presley, James Dean, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe, Aldous Huxley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Sigmund Freud, Aleister Crowley, Edgar Allan Poe, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, William S. Burroughs, Marlon Brando, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Lenny Bruce, and the Beatles’ original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe. Lennon had also pushed to have Mahatma Gandhi, Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ included (the latter as a snide reference to his infamous Beatles being more popular than Jesus comments of the year before). Gandhi and Christ were ultimately omitted, but a Hitler stand-up was not only created but included, although it was blocked from view in the final set-up. There was also a shout-out to their friendly rivals, the Rolling Stones, courtesy of a Shirley Temple doll emblazoned with a most gracious greeting. Later that year, the Stones would return to complement by referencing the Beatles on the cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request, an album many considered as a direct steal from Sgt. Pepper’s palette. (It’s worth noting that manager Brian Epstein was so worried about creating the same sort of furor that arose from the band’s infamous “Butcher Cover” for Yesterday and Today, that in his final instructions prior to his overdose he instructed that a brown bag cover be prepared for Pepper.)
Needless to say, Sgt. Pepper took the world by storm. Within days of its release, Jimi Hendrix had appropriated the title track for his live set, inspiring awe from Lennon and McCartney after they witnessed its initial performance. When McCartney played a test pressing of “A Day in the Life” for Brian Wilson in L.A. prior to its release, Wilson was so shaken and outright intimidated that he abandoned work on what he hoped would become his musical masterpiece, the legendary and tragic Smile. Sgt. Pepper went on to garner four Grammys a year later, including Album of the Year, the first time that honor had ever been bestowed on a Rock record. Sales followed suit, with 32 million copies worldwide. It spent a total of 201 weeks on the British charts, 23 of them at Number One. In time it would become Britain’s second best selling albums of all time, eclipsed only by Queen’s Greatest Hits.
Too bad that awful motion picture had to be added to its legacy.
Other early June highlights in music history
* Dolly Parton moves to Nashville, TN, the day after she graduates from high school. – June 1, 1964
* The Rolling Stones arrived in New York to begin their first tour in the U.S. – June 1, 1964
* John Lennon and Yoko Ono record “Give Peace a Chance” with Tommy and Dick Smothers, Derek Taylor, Murray the K and Timothy Leary among the chorus. — June 1, 1969
* What else should they call it? John Cale, Brian Eno, Kevin Ayers and Nico recorded the live LP June 1, 1974. – June 1, 1974
* He’s still the new boy. The Rolling Stones begin their first tour with new guitarist Ron Wood. – June 1, 1975
* David Ruffin of the Temptations dies in Philadelphia of a cocaine overdose. – June 1, 1991
* They never learn. Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots is arrested for drug possession in New York. – June 1, 1998
* Dion & The Belmonts reunite for a final show at Madison Square Garden. – June 2, 1972
* Bruce Springsteen’s album, Darkness On The Edge of Town, is released. – June 2, 1978
* They tried to tell him she was too young: Bill Wyman marries 19-year-old model Mandy Smith. They divorced 2 years later. – June 2, 1989
* “The Hollywood Palace” hosts the first appearance of the Rolling Stones. – June 3, 1964
* Doors are opened! The Doors “Light My Fire” is released. – June 3, 1967
* George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” is banned by the BBC. – June 3, 1987
* Willie Nelson releases his Who’ll Buy My Memories – The IRS Tapes LP. The album was made up of songs that had been seized by the U.S. government and would go towards paying off his $16 million tax bill. – June 3, 1991
* The Searchers release their debut single “Sweets For My Sweet.” – June 4, 1963
* Bruce Springsteen releases Born in the U.S.A. – June 4, 1984
* The body of Jeff Buckley is found floating in a harbor. He had disappeared the previous Thursday while swimming in a Memphis harbor. – June 4, 1997
* Gene Vincent releases “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” – June 5, 1956
* Dake Hawkins releases “Susie Q.” – June 5, 1957
* Robert Zimmerman graduates from high school in Hibbing, MN. He later changes his name to Bob Dylan. – June 5, 1959
* David Jones and The King Bees release their first record, “Liza Jane.” David Jones later became known as David Bowie. – June 5, 1964
* A Friends indeed! James Taylor’s cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend” is released. – June 5, 1971
* Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” is released.– June 6, 1960
* The Beatles audition for producer George Martin of EMI Records. – June 6, 1962
* Not so familiar Faces. Rod Stewart signs a solo recording contract with Mercury Records. – June 6, 1969
* “The Ed Sullivan Show” airs for the last time. It was canceled after 23 years. Gladys Knight and the Pips have the dubious distinction of being the musical guests. – June 6, 1971
* John Lennon and Yoko Ono appear on stage for the first time since 1969 when they join Frank Zappa for a show at the Fillmore East. — June 6, 1971
* David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars is released. – June 6, 1972
* Now that’s nasty! A Federal judge in Florida declares that 2 Live Crew’s “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” LP was obscene. – June 6, 1990
* The Rolling Stones’ first record, “Come On,” is released. – June 7, 1963
* Roy Orbison’s first wife Claudette is killed in a motorcycle accident. – June 7, 1966
* Johnny Cash debuts his own network show on CBS-TV. – June 7, 1969
* Blind Faith makes its British debut with a free concert at London’s Hyde Park. – June 7, 1969
* Chuck Berry is charged with three counts of tax evasion and appears the same day at the White House at the request of President Jimmy Carter. – June 7, 1979
* The ground breaking ceremony is held for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, OH. – June 7, 1993
* Say what? Prince changes his name to an unpronounceable symbol – June 7, 1993
* The Rolling Stones release “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” – June 8, 1968
* A Yes man no more: Rick Wakeman leaves Yes to pursue a solo career. – June 8, 1974
* Bruce Springsteen marries Patti Scialfa. It’s Springsteen’s second marriage. – June 8, 1991
* He must have A LOT of explaining to do! Jerry Lee Lewis takes out a full-page ad in Blliboard to explain his second divorce and third marriage to his 14 year old cousin Myra.
— June 9, 1958
* Tony Bennett makes his debut in Carnegie Hall. – June 9, 1952
* Brian Jones announces he’s leaving The Rolling Stones because he doesn’t agree with the band’s musical direction. In truth, he was asked to leave due toi to dysfunction – June 9, 1969
* An honorary Doctorate in Music is given to Bob Dylan by Princeton University. He later recounted the event in the song “Day of the Locusts.”– June 9, 1970
* The Beatles release the single “A Hard Days Night” and the album of the same name. – June 10, 1964
* Paul McCartney and Wings set a record for an indoor concert crowd when 67,100 fans gathered in Seattle, WA. – June 10, 1976
* The Rolling Stones release their seminal live album, Got Live If You Want It. – June 11, 1965
* Janis Joplin debuts on stage at the Avalon ballroom in San Francisco. – June 11, 1966
* David Bowie’s single, “Space Oddity,” is released to coincide with the first lunar landing. – June 11, 1969
* The Rolling Stones release Some Girls. – June 11, 1978
* Hey, Bo Diddley! Bo Diddley releases “Go Go Bo Diddley.” – June 12, 1959
* The Rolling Stones release their definitive single — “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”. – June 12, 1965
* Her Majesty is a pretty nice girl: The Beatles receive their MBE awards at Buckingham Palace. – June 12, 1965
* Sadly, time hasn’t helped… John Lennon and Yoko Ono release Some Time In New York City. – June 12, 1972
* Mick Taylor joins The Rolling Stones, replacing Brian Jones. – June 12, 1969
* Christine McVie, formerly of Chicken Shack, releases a solo album and then announced her retirement from music. She later resurfaces with Fleetwood Mac, — June 13, 1970.
* John Lennon makes his last TV appearance to sing “Imagine.” – June 13, 1975
* Am easy [ill to swallow. Alanis Morissette releases Jagged Little Pill. – June 13, 1995
* Elvis Presley graduated from L.C. Humes High School in Memphis, TN. – June 14, 1953
* The Beatles record “Yesterday,” in effect Paul McCarntey’s first solo single. – June 14, 1965
* Bob Dylan records “Like A Rolling Stone.” – June 14, 1965
* The Grateful Dead release their Workingman’s Dead LP. – June 14, 1970
* You want fries with that? The first Hard Rock Cafe opens in London. – June 14, 1971
* The “No Nukes” concert takes place at The Hollywood Bowl. – June 14, 1981
* Henry Mancini died at age 70. – June 14, 1994
* Jan & Dean’s “Surf City” is released. – June 15, 1963
* Peter Green leaves John Mayall’s Blues Breakers to form Fleetwood Mac. – June 15, 1967
* Nirvana’s first album Bleach is released. – June 15, 1989