|By Brett Weiss
Half a century ago, Paul McCartney, the so-called “Cute Beatle,” sang:
It was twenty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They’ve been going in and out of style
But they’re guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you
The act you’ve known for all these years
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Thus begins the title track and opening number of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of the most influential popular music albums ever recorded. Released June 1, 1967, on the Parlophone label in England and a day later via Capitol in the U.S., the record kicked off the psychedelic Summer of Love in grand fashion, signaling to the world that the Beatles, who had stopped touring in 1966, were ready to – once and for all – shed their reputation as the loveable boy-band mop-tops from England.
If Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966) were the albums that showed maturation and growth in the Beatles’ music, it was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that put them over the top, complete with new musical personas (at least for one record) donning psychedelic threads.
Songs like With a Little Help from My Friends, which Joe Cocker covered memorably at Woodstock; Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, a mystical number rumored to be about LSD (Lennon swore it was based on a drawing by his son Julian, and on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland); and A Day in the Life, a Lennon/McCartney masterpiece inspired by then-current events, epitomize the eclectic, yet cohesive nature of the work.
The outlandish concept for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which incorporated such unconventional (for a rock record) instruments as an organ, a grand piano and a Mellotron, and which was recorded using such studio tricks as automatic double tracking and dynamic range compression, was dreamt up by McCartney.
“Pepper was probably the one Beatle album I can say was my idea,” McCartney told Rolling Stone magazine in 1987. “It was my idea to say to the guys, ’Hey, how about disguising ourselves and getting an alter ego, because we’re the Beatles and we’re fed up. Every time you approach a song, John, you gotta sing it like John would. Every time I approach a ballad, it’s gotta be like Paul would. Why don’t we just make up some incredible alter egos and think, ’Now how would he sing it? How would he approach this track?’ And it freed us. It was a very liberating thing to do.”
In The Beatles Anthology (2002, Chronicle Books), McCartney explained how he came up with the name of the record: “It was at the start of the hippy times, and there was a jingly-jangly happy aura all around in America. I started thinking about what would be a really mad name to call a band. At the time there were lots of groups with names like ’Laughing Joe and His Medicine Band’ or ’Col Tucker’s Medicinal Brew and Compound’ – all that old Western going-round-on-wagons stuff, with long rambling names. And so in the same way that in I Am The Walrus John would throw together ’choking smokers’ and ’elementary penguin,’ I threw those words together: ’Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’ ”
Almost as iconic as the songs themselves, the album’s Grammy-winning cover is striking and revolutionary in its own right, depicting Paul, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Star in the guise of the Sgt. Pepper band, dressed in satin, military-style outfits designed by Manuel Cuevas and dyed in fluorescent colors. The Fab Four is standing behind a drum bearing the title of the album, painted by fairground artist Joe Ephgrave.
Flowers spell out “BEATLES” down below, and behind and beside our heroes is a colorful collage of life-sized cardboard models of famous people.
Robert Fraser art-directed the packaging for the album while Peter Blake and his wife, Jann Haworth, were the designers. Michael Cooper photographed the cover at Chelsea Manor Photographic Studios on March 30, 1967.
The back of the Sgt. Pepper’s album cover featured the song lyrics, which was a first for the industry. Inserted into the album was a page of cardboard cutouts of a moustache, a picture card of Sgt. Pepper, sergeant stripes, two badges, and a Beatles Sgt. Peppers Band stand-up (designed by Blake and Haworth, the original collage used to produce the insert sold for $88,000 at auction in 2012). The album’s packaging is also noteworthy for its psychedelic inner sleeve designed by “The Fool,” a Dutch design collective, and for its gatefold cover featuring the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper garb against a yellow background.
“We wanted the whole of Pepper to be so that you could look at the front cover for years,” McCartney told Rolling Stone in a recent interview.
In 1987, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on compact disc to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the record. It came packaged with a 24-page booklet featuring pictures from the cover photo shoot, along with contributions from Peter Blake and George Martin. The CD, which was the first release in that format for the Beatles, also featured a wraparound cover and a reproduction of the sheet of cardboard cut-outs.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the album, surviving Beatles McCartney and Starr, along with Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, and George Harrison’s widow, Olivia, gave their approval for a grand re-issue. It was produced by Giles Martin, the son of George Martin, and Abbey Road studios engineer Sam Okell, and it is available in several different editions.
Seeing as how this is a newspaper covering antiques, there’s no doubt some of you will be more interested in original versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band rather than the 20th or 50th anniversary re-releases. For a first pressing LP in excellent condition complete with the inserts, you should expect to pay around $200-$250. If you can find a factory sealed copy, you’ll need to shell out $1,000 or more.