The Beatles: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Parlophone, 1967)
by Joshua B. Hoe All Time Albums Series
Three things about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart's Club Band
1. It was released two months before I was born (but still had a huge impact on me).
2. It was my first album (I think my Aunt gave it to me as a gift when I was very young). And so, I have, without question, listened to it more than any other album ever
3. For some reason it was remade into a movie starring the Bee Gee’s (and Steve Martin) - something I will never entirely understand. It was a spectacularly terrible movie.
The End Of Music, The Beginning of Music
Sgt. Pepper’s is most famous for showing that the studio could function as another band member, as an instrument of communication.
Up to this point, recording was really just a way of capturing live performance (so that everybody could hear what singers and bands were doing live).
In many ways, recording albums and singles was seen as advanced PR for live performances (oddly enough that has kind of come full circle now).
Sgt. Pepper’s success showed that the recording process itself could be important in the shaping of the sound of music.
This certainly had been demonstrated before, but the Beatles were not trying to use the studio to capture performance (and it was The Beatles, that alone made it more significant).
Oddly enough, in many ways, this development was the genesis of punk music (so, thank you for that "The Beatles").
In the 70’s, taking the ball and running with it, many producers and artists went “studio crazy” turning every song into a rock opera.
Turning every single into a triple.
Turning every solo into a concerto unto itself.
It was this excess that led many young punks to crave a return to the roots of rock and roll.
It was this excess that birthed punk as a counter-movement.
Most of today's music, the vast majority of truly popular music, is made at a console today (using computer software and the studio in fusion to replace the need for annoying things like musicians etc).
Sometimes that is a great thing, often it is a terrible thing. Sergeant Pepper’s (and Pet Sounds) was the genesis of this as well.
A Story of Love and Hate
Even at the time, or around the time rock writers like Lester Bangs blamed the album for destroying Rock and Roll.
That said, The Beatles could play, and write, and played live.
And, in fairness, the songs on Sergeant Pepper’s are genius and still hold up really well today.
They have emotional cores, they are about things (perhaps more about people and moments but still about life), and at the end of the day they have impact (A Day in the Life still very powerful).
And, technology like pro-tools has democratized music so that poor kids from the inner-city with no formal music training can make millions producing music consumed by people all over the world.
Some people have a physical instrument, some people have a turntable, and some people have a laptop with pro-tools etc.
I know I spend a good deal of time complaining about canned performances, but, recording is different.
I think it is a good thing that people no longer have to master an actual physical instrument through access to actual Master players anymore.
I love that people can learn to produce watching Youtube videos.
I love that the power of quality production is available to anyone who can afford a laptop and some software.
That does not mean that I want my performances canned.
I still prefer that my live performance be performed live.
Whatever you do, do it live, operate without a net.
But, at the same time, I am glad everyone can make music.
My Kiddy Record Player
I probably listened to Sergeant Pepper’s thousands of times as a kid.
I listened so often on my all-in-one, mono speaker, kid record player that I destroyed the album (I was not so good with the tone arm).
I remember that cool feature where the tone-arm would automatically return and start the album again forever until you stopped it.
You would only stop it because you were tired of listening or because you wanted to hear the other side of the record (yup, records had two sides kids).
Listening to Sergeant Pepper's With A Child's Imagination
The mythology of this album meant a great deal to me as a kid.
I remember wondering at the time why an actual band, would want to present themselves as a set of fictional alter-egos.
I am not sure I could have explained it that way at the time, but, it seemed endlessly interesting that they were fictionally representing themselves and juxtaposing their alter-egos against pictures of pop culture icons on the cover (there was also the odd feeling that it seemed like a memorial - with the flower arrangements and the appearance that they were wax figures etc).
I loved the music, I was always ready to march around knowing that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band was in the house and ready to play.
I had no idea who “The One And Only Billy Shears” was (Ringo apparently), but, I was happy he was arriving :).
I think Sergeant Pepper's is unfairly criticized for not being culturally important.
Not only did it presage the dominance of the studio but it’s songs also were all about making the personal political. Songs like “Fixing a Hole” and “When I’m 64” and especially “A Day in the Life” seemed to be about real people.
About the loneliness of real people, about social isolation, and about older people facing the onslaught of modern life.
“Getting Better” seemed to be about facing loss with positivity (and the remnant of sadness that remains).
Of course, at the time, the songs just made me think about things that would never have occurred to me, like, “What will I be like, when I’m 64?”
Who the heck is this "Mr. Kite", and why would I want a song written about him?
This was actually one of the great things about starting recorded music with this album, it inspired a billion internal discussions about the meaning of art in my young head.
For the first time, art became interactive for me...Part of a dialog between me and the music and the words.
I wondered how the songs applied to my life, if I agreed with the sentiments, if I felt the same way etc. I played along on my snare drum sometimes too (I fashioned myself a drummer at this early age).
I will always remember Sergeant Pepper's mostly for being the album that got me started being curious about music.
Curious not just as a passive listener, but also as a participant.
I learned that listening could be active.
A Day In The Life
“I read the news today..oh boy”
I still consider A Day In The Life to be the greatest last album track ever.
The sad strumming, the dark piano, the haunting vocal…
“He blew his mind out in a car” and ”a crowd of people stood and stared”
Maybe, no line has ever captured modern life as well. It describes 24 hour news cycles, Twitter, and Fox News could all be considered a crowd of people staring at the carnage.
Then the alarm rings, and we grab our coat and hat and go about our days, as if we all live in worlds within a worlds.
“...and I went into a dream”
What is the dream, what is real, we turn, we see someone…..
“I’d love to turn you on”
And, then the massive build...and boom, piano chords, it’s over.
Is that all there was.
Is that all there is.
Is life just a cycle of worlds within worlds, is the meaning in the moments or is there more.
Very few songs have ever covered our existential condition, the accidental moments, the never ending repetition, and the cruelty of pop culture all in one short thought provoking cocktail.
Even 44 years after I first heard the song, it still makes me emotional and makes me wonder about myself, about the nature of existence, and about meaning itself.
It is emotional and profound and confusing and cryptic in the best possible way.
The Age Old Debate
Generally, I have always been more of a Rolling Stones person than a Beatles person.
What I mean by this is that at any particular time, I am more likely to casually listen to The Rolling Stones than I am to listen to The Beatles.
But, in truth, I am not sure the RS ever reached any moments as ambitious or strong as the Beatles best string (Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Peppers).
A good way to explain what I am saying, I am still trying to decide which Rolling Stones album to include in this series but I never for one second considered any other Beatles album.
I have more good times with The Stones for sure, but they never made me think about the nature of things like The Beatles did.
I am not sure it really matters, both groups have more quality memorable songs than any other modern artists do. Not sure it matters that much who wins.
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the album that made music a dialog not a monologic discussion between myself and the artists.
It is the album that made me an active instead of a passive listener.
The album that made me think more deeply about music.
Just or fun, I will put the other album from that same period that used the studio just as brilliantly as another instrument here:
What is your opinion of Sgt. Pepper’s or the Beatles? What is your take on Beatles vs. Stones? Let us know, leave a comment.