It was 50 years ago: Paul Howard on the sem­i­nal Bea­tles album, Sgt Pep­per.

Fifty years ago, Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was re­leased. The record ex­erted a grav­i­ta­tional pull on the en­tire decade, and changed mu­sic for­ever

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - Paul Howard

Icouldn’t keep my sticky, six-year-old fin­gers off it. I think I loved Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from the mo­ment I be­came aware of it. The colour­ful dio­rama of fa­mous fig­ures on the front. The way it opened out to re­veal – okay, let me see can I re­mem­ber who is who this time – Ringo, John, Paul . . . and Ge­orge? And then, on the back, the printed lyrics that re­vealed a world of tan­ger­ine trees and mar­malade skies, and a horse called Henry who danced the waltz, and – most fan­tas­ti­cally of all – a traf­fic war­den who was ac­tu­ally wor­thy of love.

But what I loved es­pe­cially was the card­board in­sert with the cutout mous­tache and mil­i­tary stripes that I was ex­pressly for­bid­den from cut­ting out. This was not a toy, I was told. It was the sound­track to the Six­ties. It was the most de­fin­i­tive artis­tic state­ment of a pe­riod that my mother and fa­ther re­ferred to as “the good old days” and it was to be han­dled del­i­cately and only un­der strict parental su­per­vi­sion.

Like most first lis­ten­ers to the album, I can say I was ex­posed to the hype be­fore I heard a note of the mu­sic. I un­der­stood from a very early age that it was the great­est record ever made. And, 40 years later, I’m still dis­cov­er­ing new ways in which that state­ment is true.

One of the facts about the album that still blows my mind is how quickly The Bea­tles man­aged to pull it all to­gether. There are no rules to say how long it should take to pro­duce a clas­sic album. Bob Dy­lan recorded High­way 61 Re­vis­ited in six days. Bruce Spring­steen ag­o­nised over Born to Run for 15 months, while sound en­gi­neers put sil­ver foil on their den­tal fill­ings and bit down hard to try to stay awake dur­ing 36- hour shifts at the con­sole. Van Mor­ri­son laid down the ba­sic tracks for As­tral Weeks in a sin­gle New York night.

Sea­son of op­ti­mism

Sgt Pep­per was recorded in a preter­nat­u­rally pro­duc­tive pe­riod of 120 days. In Jan­uary 1967, the Bea­tles had com­pleted only one track that would ap­pear on the album – Paul McCart­ney’s whim­si­cal mu­sic hall bal­lad When I’m Sixty- Four. By the end of May, the record was in the shops, in time to be­come the mu­si­cal score to the Sum­mer of Love, that all-too-brief sea­son of op­ti­mism when young peo­ple like my par­ents re­ally be­lieved they could change the world with their colour­ful clothes and their happy thoughts.

It could be ar­gued – and it is, of course, end­lessly – that there are bet­ter Bea­tles al- bums. For this lis­tener, Re­volver rep­re­sents a su­pe­rior col­lec­tion of songs. But Sgt Pep­per was the album that re­set the bar in re­spect of the po­ten­tial­ity of the record­ing stu­dio and, for good or bad, changed the way peo­ple l i stened to pop­u­lar mu­sic.

That it emerged from just 700 work­ing hours sug­gests that the band were pos­sessed by the unique en­ergy of the times. Or rather McCart­ney was, since Sgt Pep­per was his vi­sion. And for most of the time they spent re­al­is­ing that vi­sion, he seemed to be the only Bea­tle en­joy­ing the process. Later on, John Len­non said he grew to re­sent the album, see­ing it as a Paul McCart­ney record more than a Bea­tles one. Ringo Starr idled away hours in the stu­dio play­ing chess while Ge­orge Har­ri­son brooded at be­ing frozen out of the cre­ative process.

In­tra-band dy­nam­ics

While Re­volver was the sound of the Bea­tles all on the same page cre­atively, Sgt Pep­per re­vealed a shift in the in­tra- band dy­nam­ics, in par­tic­u­lar the tight­en­ing re­la­tion­ship be­tween McCart­ney and pro­ducer Ge­orge Martin. In the au­tumn of 1966, the pair had worked to­gether on the score for the movie The Fam­ily Way while the Bea­tles were on hia­tus and con­sid­er­ing their fu­ture to­gether.

The boy band thing was a beaten docket. All the fun had run out of play­ing to crowds who drowned out their songs with their point­less scream­ing. And any­way, mu­si­cally, since the re­lease of 1965’s Rub­ber Soul and 1966’s Re­volver, they weren’t that kind of band any more. In­spired by Dy­lan, they were be­com­ing more so­phis­ti­cated song­writ­ers, ex­per­i­ment­ing with new themes, forms, sounds and in­stru­ments. To­mor­row Never Knows, Eleanor Rigby and Nor­we­gian Wood weren’t the kind of songs to send ball­park crowds i nto a state of pants-wet­ting hys­te­ria.

They had changed as peo­ple, too. As Dy­lan ob­served when McCart­ney played him an early press­ing of Sgt Pep­per: “Oh, I get it – you don’t want to be cute any more.”

The penny had dropped much ear­lier with their fans. The shirts and ties and col­lar­less suits were gone. Like teenagers, the Bea­tles were sud­denly choos­ing their own clothes and show­ing signs of be­ing not quite as ac­qui­es­cent and ea­ger to please as they were in their younger days. In fact, by the strict be­havioural stan­dards that man­ager Brian Ep­stein set for them, they were be­ing pos­i­tively sedi­tious, grow­ing fa­cial hair, call­ing out the prime min­is­ter and the leader of the op­po­si­tion (by name!) in Tax­man – and were those in­takes of breath in Girl re­ally the sound of some­one tok­ing on a joint?

When McCart­ney con­ceived the idea for Sgt Pep­per in the au­tumn of 1966, the album had be­come the thing. Be­fore the mid-1960s, LPs served no more am­bi­tious pur­pose than to cap­ture on vinyl the best live takes of a bunch of songs per­formed in a record­ing stu­dio – usu­ally sin­gles that fans had al­ready bought, grouted with infe- rior filler and B-sides. But in the sum­mer of 1966, in the space of six weeks, the re­lease of three al­bums that still fea­ture in the top 10 of most au­thor­i­ta­tive All Time Great­est polls ( The Bea­tles’ own Re­volver, Dy­lan’s Blonde on Blonde and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds) re­de­fined the album as a piece of art and the rai­son d’etre for most se­ri­ous bands.

In­no­va­tions in record­ing tech­nol­ogy were chang­ing the game. Pet Sounds was Brian Wil­son’s at­tempt to best Rub­ber Soul and to cap­ture on vinyl the sounds he heard in his head when he was stoned. And it was Pet Sounds that set the bar for McCart­ney when, on a flight home from a hol­i­day in Kenya, he came up with the con­cept for an album pro­duced by a band of mu­si­cal al­ter­nates – he even­tu­ally de­cided on an Ed­war­dian march­ing band – who, shorn of their Fab Four egos, were free to ex­per­i­ment cre­atively.

While the mu­sic would be pro­gres­sive, McCart­ney – the most sen­ti­men­tal Bea­tle – wanted the theme of the album to be nos­tal­gic, fea­tur­ing songs in­spired by their north of Eng­land child­hoods. The early ses­sions, in De­cem­ber 1966, yielded three: McCart­ney’s When I’m Sixty-Four and Penny Lane and Len­non’s phan­tas­magor­i­cal mas­ter­piece, Straw­berry Fields For­ever.

But then EMI, pos­si­bly still in de­nial over the new di­rec­tion the band were tak­ing, de­manded a sin­gle to keep the Beatle­ma­ni­acs happy. Martin of­fered them Penny Lane and Straw­berry Fields, which were re­leased as a dou­ble-A side in Fe­bru­ary 1967. It was the first Bea­tles sin­gle in four years to fail to reach the num­ber one spot in the UK – it was kept off the top by En­gel­bert Humperdinck’s Re­lease Me – and EMI be­gan to have se­ri­ous mis­giv­ings about the new psychedelic sound com­ing out Abbey Road Stu­dio Two.

The up­shot of this was that two of the band’s great­est-ever com­po­si­tions, which fit­ted the theme per­fectly, failed to go on the album, an al­most crim­i­nal act of mu­si­cal mis­ap­pro­pri­a­tion that Martin re­gret­ted for the rest of his life.

Pre­ferred ver­sion

These days, of course, we can all use drag and drop to cre­ate our own pre­ferred ver­sions of Sgt Pep­per. My own re-mas­ter­ing of the album puts Penny Lane and Straw­berry Fields at the be­gin­ning of side two and con­signs When I’m Sixty- Four and Har­ri­son’s in­con­gru­ous, sitar-led ser­mon, Within You With­out You, to my com­puter’s trash bin. It’s a mat­ter of per­sonal taste, of course. But it is ex­tra­or­di­nary to think that, by the end of 1966, the Bea­tles still didn’t have the fi­nal artis­tic call over what sin­gles they re­leased and which songs went on their al­bums.

With Straw­berry Fields, Len­non felt he had shot his cre­ative bolt, which pre­sented him with a prob­lem when the band re­turned to the stu­dio af­ter Christ­mas. McCart­ney was flush with new ideas for the al-

While Re­volver was the sound of the Bea­tles all on the same page cre­atively, Sgt Pep­per re­vealed a shift in the in­tra-band dy­nam­ics The up­shot was that two of the band’s great­estever songs, which fit­ted the theme per­fectly, failed to go on the album

bum. Get­ting Bet­ter, Fix­ing a Hole, She’s

Leav­ing Home – they poured out of him, which re­flected the hap­pier men­tal space he was in­hab­it­ing com­pared to his song­writ­ing part­ner. With his girl­friend away in the US, McCart­ney was lead­ing a bach­e­lor life in Lon­don, at­tend­ing open­ings and hap­pen­ings, swing­ing with the hippest of hip cats and gen­er­ally em­brac­ing the avant-garde. Do­mes­tic en­nui

Len­non, by con­trast, was mired in a life of do­mes­tic en­nui in sub­ur­ban Surrey, with a wife and child he would soon aban­don. While he hated writ­ing songs to or­der, he re­alised that, un­less he got to work, he would have noth­ing on t he album, sug­gest­ing that the real cre­ative ri­valry be­hind Sgt Pep­per wasn’t be­tween McCart­ney and Wil­son but be­tween McCart­ney and Len­non.

It’s in­ter­est­ing that all of the songs that Len­non pro­duced in the weeks that fol­lowed were in­spired by do­mes­tic things or items he hap­pened to have to hand. Be­ing

for the Ben­e­fit of Mr Kite! was prompted by an old cir­cus poster he bought in an an­tique shop; Good Morn­ing Good Morn­ing by a TV ad for Kel­logg’s Corn Flakes; Lucy

in the Sky with Di­a­monds by a paint­ing his son, Ju­lian, did at school; and A Day in the

Life by a tabloid news­pa­per re­port of a bit- ter child cus­tody bat­tle in­volv­ing the widow and mother of Tara Browne, the Ir­ish- born Guin­ness who had in­tro­duced McCart­ney to LSD.

All four Bea­tles had used acid by then. Len­non was a vo­ra­cious con­sumer, al­though he ab­stained dur­ing the record­ing of the album. And while Sgt Pep­per would be­come the record that de­fined the psychedelic era, and the sound­track to a sum­mer in which young peo­ple turned on, tuned in and dropped out in their droves, it was cre­ated by mu­si­cians who were stoned rather than hal­lu­ci­nat­ing.

The record’s re­lease, on May 26th, 1967, was greeted by the kind of hype that had never be­fore at­tended the re­lease of a pop record. To Ken­neth Ty­nan, writ­ing in the Times, it was “a de­ci­sive mo­ment in the his­tory of civ­i­liza­tion”, while Rolling Stone said that not since the Congress of Vi­enna in 1815 had the world felt so uni­fied by a sin­gle event.

Revo­lu­tion­ary op­ti­mism

Cul­tur­ally, if there was a point of grav­i­ta­tion that the 1960s was pulling to­wards, then Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was it. It cap­tured the revo­lu­tion­ary op­ti­mism of a gen­er­a­tion on both sides of the At­lantic by man­ag­ing to be quintessen­tially English in its sub­ject mat­ter, yet West Coast Amer­i­can in its sound; pro­gres­sive in its mu­si­cal am­bi­tion, yet ret­ro­spec­tive in its t hemes; an album that could be e nj oyed by any­one, stoned or straight. Fifty years on, there might not be such a strong con­sen­sus among mu­sic lovers as to its sta­tus as pop mu­sic’s great­est mas­ter­piece. The ar­gu­ment is some­times made that

Sgt Pep­per marked the mo­ment when pop­u­lar mu­sic lost the plot, that the album in­spired a lot of over- wrought, over- pro­duced mu­sic that re­quired punk to come along and try to blow mu­sic back to Year Zero.

But I’m en­am­oured by it as much to­day as I was when my trem­bling, six- year- old hands first slipped the record from its cover. When I lis­ten to it now, from the orches­tral throat-clear­ing that pre­cedes the ti­tle track, to the ta-da of the fi­nal piano chord of A Day in the Life, I try to imag­ine how my par­ents must have felt when they first lis­tened to it – a record that chimed with the happy spirit of the times and made peo­ple feel that the world had slipped ever so slightly on its axis.

The Bea­tles at the EMI stu­dios in Abbey Road, as they pre­pare for ‘Our World’, a world-wide live tele­vi­sion show broad­cast­ing to 24 coun­tries with a po­ten­tial au­di­ence of 400 mil­lion. PHO­TO­GRAPH: BIPS/GETTY IMAGES Stoned

Above: The Bea­tles per­form Rain and Paper­back Writer on Top Of The Pops in June 16th, 1966; in­set be­low: an au­to­graphed man­u­script of John Len­non’s lyrics for A Day in the Life, the fi­nal track on The Bea­tles’s 1967 album Sgt Pep­per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. PHO­TO­GRAPH: MARK AND COLLEEN HAY­WARD/REDFERNS

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