By Hans Ebert
It’s almost become predictable and somewhat “uncool” to say that “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is, if not the best, then the most adventurous and creative Rock record ever produced and released.
Some might argue that this honour goes to “Revolver”, maybe “Dark Side Of The Moon”, Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book”, any of the early work of The Mothers Of Invention, or Brian Wilson/Beach Boys “Pet Sounds”. But when one thinks of the packaging and design work alone that went into conceptualising the recorded music, it wasn’t just a trip, it was a magical mystery tour of its own.
Designers and pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth were tremendously important in ensuring that the famous album cover was and remains as vital and interesting as the music and the concept behind the music.
This wasn’t just 10-12 new tracks by the Beatles. As the follow up to the brilliant “Revolver”, it had to be better, better, better. It was about turning off one’s mind and floating downstream and not knowing where one might end up- and which would be fine.
On the cover are Sgt Pepper and his band looking down on a grave with the words “Beatles”. It’s surrounded by marijuana plants.
The new band are dressed in colourful Edwardian-era military outfits not unlike those seen the Beatles wearing in the video for “Hello Goodbye”.
Personally, the outfits looked like a line of clothing brought out decades later by Shanghai Tang. My Lithuanian girlfriend at the time dearly wanted one of the $12,000 jackets. She got it. It was an expensive kiss off for those days. Moving right along…
Behind the “new band” are mannequins of the Beatles borrowed from Madam Tussauds and a montage of cardboard cutouts of Dylan, Diana Dors, Brando, Sonny Liston, Mae West, Einstein, Karl Marx, Fred Astaire, Aleister Crowley, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Carl Jung, Edgar Allan Poe, James Dean, Yukteswar Giri, Oscar Wilde, H.G. Welles, Aldous Huxley, Tom Mix, Marilyn Monroe etc.
The list of names were drawn up by Paul, John and George. Ringo didn’t really care. They might have been influences, others just might have made the grade to fill, maybe not all the holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, but there to simply complete a picture that was nothing more than what it was- a montage.
Believing that the Beatles never did anything without a reason, there must be those days when some of us take that vinyl out and study the album cover for hours. This was before even listening to any of the music.
It took me a number of years to realise that this record was not by the Beatles at all. It was the Beatles as Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band performing a variety of songs to an audience beginning with that brilliant introduction from the guitarist.
Sgt Pepper, using his best Little Richard voice, hoped that everyone would enjoy the show. This segues into band member Billy Shears stepping up for the jaunty- yes, jaunty- “With A Little Help From My Friends”.
Not the greatest singer in the world, Billy Shears’ singalong song with its question and answer parts and the intriguing line about “getting high with a little help from my friends”, leads audiences and listeners straight into where Lucy lives in the sky with diamonds.
We’re transported into a world where there are plasticine porters with looking glass ties and marmalade skies. Lucy could have been Lewis Carroll’s Alice, who, instead of going down the rabbit hole, took a ladder and climbed up to the sky. Imagine if Lucy and Alice ever met. Or were the same person. Think about it.
There’s “She’s Leaving Home” with its pretty top melody sung by Paul against a neo classical arrangement led by an Elizabethan sounding harpsichord hiding the far darker undertones of a daughter going to see a “man from the motor trade”.
The alter ego of John plays the role of the parents asking her, “What did we do that was wrong?” He sounds like Alec Guinness playing Fagin.
This track will live with me forever as it was part of the first acid trip taken with my best friend during our early teens. We must have been in Form Four at secondary school.
At least for myself, this trip started around 10pm at the discotheque called The Scene in the basement of the Peninsula. After around twenty something minutes of nothingness, all hell broke loose in my mind- a poster of Dick Tracy came alive and was shooting at me whereas when staring down at my cheeseburger, there was an ant army coming together to go to war.
With no idea what was going on in my friend’s head other than a silent scream, we somehow found a taxi and got back to his parents’ place where the paranoia subsided. Until “She’s Leaving Home” came on.
The hurdy gurdy man started the trip up again. This time, the mind took me to Camelot, King Arthur and Guinevere. I was reading Morte D’Arthur at the time and was fascinated by those Arthurian Days And Nights.
It was next onto a different drop off point and being shot in the back in a poker game. I still cannot sit anywhere without my back to a wall.
Then came the coup de grace where the questions asked by the “parents” became separated from the rest of the song and took me into my mother’s womb. It was quite a trip.
Staring at the album cover and seeing the band member played by Lennon crying, didn’t help quell the anxiety. Neither did the music hall soft shoe shuffle of “When I’m 64” and the optimism of Sgt Pepper telling us that “It’s Getting Better”. This was lost with the cynical answer back that “it couldn’t get much worse”. And the band played on…
“Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite”, meanwhile, ended Side One with Sgt Pepper taking us through the circus wonderland where there’s the promise of a show tonight on trampolines. Who exactly was Mr Kite? Maybe we were never meant to know? Probably someone as high as, well, a kite, who guided us through freaks, merry-go-rounds and magic mirrors where nothing was quite what it was meant to be. It was like a psychedelic Nightmare Alley dressed in sheep’s clothing.
Side Two opened with George’s “Within You, Without You”. With its Eastern melody and rhythms and time changes and no other Beatles involved, this would have been shrugged off as a curiosity piece of hippiedom. The laughter at the end seemed to be saying that the audience didn’t quite know what to make of it, but didn’t want to ask.
On this second side of the record, we were introduced to the meter maid known as “Lovely Rita”, which climaxed with different sound effects and some very heavy sexual breathing and a cock crowing before Sgt Pepper and his band returned to bring the curtain down on the show and hoped that we had enjoyed the show. But it wasn’t over.
This is when one feels the lights going down and a certain nervous energy in the air. It’s ominous and going where no other pop group, including the Beatles, has gone before. It’s a heady mix of Truman Capote, the Profumo scandal and a mini movie playing in one’s head starring flower children doing cartwheels across the floor.
It also features Ringo Starr at his creative best and happy to play a co-starring role on drums that adds an eerie shade of film noire to the recording before all those pianos come crashing down at the same time on the one chord.
“Day In The Life” was actually two snippets of songs, each written separately by John and Paul. Being the studio genius that he was, Producer George Martin, with help from the very much overlooked recording engineer Geoff Emerick- though not credited on the record, he received the Grammy in 1967 for Best Sound Engineering-made both songs come together.
This was done through very clever editing and changing the pitch of the vocals. It’s no doubt why, the arrangement for the track is credited to John, Paul and George Martin. The influence, musical and studio knowledge of the producer is heard throughout the record.
Whatever Paul, George and John might have heard playing in their heads during this time of psychedelia and psychedelics and wanting to turn the world on, George Martin (and Geoff Emerick) took on the challenge of making the unreal real and taking everyone down that rabbit hole again to see what else was there.
As for the Beatles, this was very much Paul’s record. It was his show. It was his bass guitar that was the lead instrument on so many tracks, especially on “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”. It was only recently did I learn that he recorded his bass parts with Geoff Emerick AFTER everything else had been laid down.
The idea to create an alter ego and become Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was also his. This happened when “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” were turned into a double A Side single urgently needed as a Beatles release by their label Parlophone. This changed the entire musical direction for the new record.
This work of art known as “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” happened by creative minds coming together and making music with four track machines and pushing the boundaries of what more could be done with them- bumping tracks, looping, changing the speed of sound and using that thing called intuition mixed with inspiration and absolute self belief.
Les Ford made recording history years earlier through multi tracking the vocals of Mary Ford plus his guitar parts. But one had to have an ear for music for any of this to happen. One had to have talent.
None of these original mothers of invention depended on push button gadgetry, formulaic Instamatics and with there being no social media to add any unnecessary layers.
Sure, it was a different world in 1967. That was fifty three years ago. It was a simpler time and not without its problems, but, at least, there was a purity and creativity and clarity to where music was heading.
Seeing how music was making so many inroads in daily life inspired us to look at the opportunities open to us.
While writing this chapter and verse and which will hopefully be part of something more than a Facebook post, I had a Zoom call with a longtime friend from the days when we were knee deep in the music industry. We covered much ground.
He mentioned the speed and freedom to create music these days that never existed before and the opportunities to just get it all out there.
Something my friend said, stuck with me. How, because of so much “shit” out there, that it’s okay to make mistakes. No one hears much of this music anyway. That if need be these A&R mistakes can be fixed and released again.
In other words, if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. There’s absolutely nothing to lose because the odds are that no one has even heard what was uploaded onto whatever online platform.
With Sgt Pepper, there was no time for the Beatles and those around them to think about maybes and making mistakes. There were no one algorithms to tell you what was working and what wasn’t.
It was about pride in ownership, incredible self belief, challenging one’s self, competition for the greater good of all, and always, great honesty.
Think about it.
#SgtPepper #Beatles #psychedelia #PaulMcCartney #JohnLennon #RingoStarr #GeorgeHarrison #GeorgeMartin #GeoffEmerick #art #music #creativity