By late 1966, The Beatles had given up their touring days and wanted to be more creative in the studio. Paul McCartney came up with a completely original idea: for their new album, the Beatles would pretend to be a band called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This gave the guys a lot of freedom while recording because, as Paul later said, "You could do anything when you got to the mike or on your guitar, because it wasn't you." Although only three songs on the album actually have anything to do with Sgt. Pepper and his band, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is still rock & roll's first "concept album."
The Beatles also experimented with the artwork for their new album. The well-known cover features John, Paul, George and Ringo in brightly-colored military outfits with a cardboard cutout audience made up of such diverse figures as Albert Einstein, Shirley Temple, George Bernard Shaw, and even wax figures of the Beatles themselves. Each Beatle was asked to make a list of who they would want to be at Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band's concert, and artist Peter Blake and his gallery dealer Robert Fraser also made lists. Some of John's choices were Jesus, Ghandi, and Hitler, but they did not make the actual cover. Mae West almost did not appear on the cover, as she initially refused, saying, "What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?" But she changed her mind and agreed to appear after the Beatles wrote her a personal letter.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the first album to feature printed lyrics to all the songs on the album sleeve, and it was the first to have something other than a plain inner bag (it had a psychedelic sleeve). It also was one of the first albums to have a gatefold sleeve, and it even came with cardboard cutouts. Unfortunately, the CD does not come with any of these things besides the lyrics. The booklet does include some information about the songs, along with pictures of the Beatles in their Sgt. Pepper outfits. It is interesting to note that John's hands are down his pants in almost every picture.
Recording for Sgt. Pepper began in December 1966 with the song "When I'm Sixty-Four" and ended in April 1967. This period of about 130 days was the most creative for the Beatles and probably the most important in rock & roll history. When the album was originally released on vinyl, it was unique as it was two continuous sides of music without pauses between the songs.
So Sgt. Pepper was the first concept album, it was the first to have complete lyrics, its cover was original and influential, etc. But is the music any good? Well, Pepper almost always appears on top album lists, often at number one, and is widely considered the Beatles' masterpiece. It is their top-selling album after Abbey Road, and the songs on the album are among the best the Beatles ever did.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band acts as the introduction to a concert by Sgt. Pepper's band, with sounds of audience applause and laughter. Paul starts the song off by introducing "the act you've known for all these years," then John and George join in by greeting the audience. "We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/ We hope you will enjoy the show/ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band/ Sit back and let the evening go." This song ends with Paul saying that the singer, Billy Shears, will be singing a song, then we go straight into...
With A Little Help From My Friends. Ringo Starr, a.k.a. Billy Shears, sings lead on this one and plays drums. Paul plays bass guitar and piano, George shakes a tambourine, and John and Paul provide backing vocals. John and Paul wrote the song for Ringo, with a working title of "Bad Finger Boogie." The song originally began with the line "What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and throw tomatoes at me?" Ringo did not wish to sing this line, though, fearing that if the Beatles went on tour again, he would be bombarded with tomatoes. "With A Little Help" is a midtempo song which is basically about the importance of friendships. "I get by with a little help from my friends/ Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends/ Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends." After all, what are friends for if not to help you get high?
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is one of the stranger songs on Pepper. The song caused a huge controversy because the initials spell out LSD, and the lyrics certainly seem as if they could be about an LSD trip, speaking of tangerine trees, kaleidoscope eyes, cellophane flowers, and the like. John Lennon, the song's primary writer, actually wrote it after seeing a picture his son Julian brought home from school, which he called "Lucy in the sky with diamonds." In addition to singing the song, John plays lead guitar, leaving usual lead player George Harrison to play his sitar. Paul plays the Hammond organ and bass guitar, and Ringo is on drums of course. The song has a trippy feel to it, thanks mainly to the strange lyrics and the addition of the sitar. "Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain, where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies/ Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers, that grow so incredibly high."
Getting Better is a happy little number written and sung by Paul, who plays bass guitar. John and George share lead guitar duties, with George also on tamboura. Ringo plays the drums and the bongos, and this is a pretty upbeat song about how great things are. I like when John says "It can't get no worse" in response to Paul's "I've got to admit it's getting better, a little better all the time." Basically, the song is about how Paul "used to be angry young man, me hiding me head in the sand," but now things are getting better.
Fixing A Hole is another Paul composition. The song is reportedly about a house that Paul bought that was in poor condition, with a hole in the roof where the rain could get in. Originally, it was believed that this song was about drugs, which were used to help Paul's mind wander where it was meant to. "I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go." The music for this song is really cool, mixing a harpsichord, maracas, guitars, and drums. Paul sings lead, with John and George backing him up, and George has an awesome guitar solo.
She's Leaving Home is another song from Paul, who sings lead and duets with John for the choruses. They sound very nice together, and the music is beautiful, with session musicians playing strings and a harp (none of the Beatles play the instruments on this one). This song is about a girl who seemed to have everything but has run away from home in order to have some fun. "She (we gave her most of our lives), is leaving (sacrificed most of our lives), home (we gave her everything money could buy)." I didn't really care for this song at first, but now I really love it.
Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite! has an interesting story behind it. In an antique shop, John came across a poster from the 1800s advertising a circus. The poster mentioned Mr. Kite, the Hendersons, Pablo Fanques Fair, and Henry the Horse, all of which showed up in the song. Ringo keeps a steady drumbeat throughout, and John plays a Hammond organ at the same time that producer George Martin is playing a Wurlitzer organ. There are also guitars and harmonicas, and the song just sounds really cool, and it does have a circus feel to it. "Messers K. and H. assure the public their production will be second to none/ And of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz!"
Within You Without You is George's only song on the album. Originally, "Only A Northern Song" was recorded for Pepper, but it was later removed to make room for more of John and Paul's contributions. "Within You Without You" contains bits of Eastern wisdom George picked up while learning how to play the sitar in India. None of the other Beatles appear on the track; all the music was done by Indian musicians, and George actually dubbed his vocals in later. "When you've seen beyond yourself, then you may find peace of mind is waiting there/ And the time will come, when you see we're all one and life flows on within you and without you."
When I'm Sixty-Four was written by Paul, and he actually wrote the melody for it when he was only 16 years old. This song sounds like something from the 1920s or 1930s, and it is a nice midtempo number. Paul gets his chance to shine by singing lead and playing bass guitar and piano. John assumes lead guitar, Ringo is on drums, and John and George provide backing vocals. In this song, Paul is asking if he will still be needed when he's 64. Strange to think that there are only two more years till he turns 64, and Ringo has already reached that age. "If I'd been out till quarter to three, would you lock the door/ Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?"
Lovely Rita is a song that Paul wrote upon seeing a newspaper article about a meter maid who had just retired. The song is not that great, but it features some interesting music. Paul sings and plays bass guitar, Ringo is on drums, John and George play acoustic guitars, and John, Paul, and George also use comb and paper. There's also a honky-tonk piano melody about halfway through. I know, comb and paper, guitars, drums, and honky-tonk shouldn't work, but the Beatles manage to pull it off. "Lovely Rita meter maid, nothing can come between us/ When it gets dark I tow your heart away."
Good Morning Good Morning was written by John after Paul encouraged him to contribute some more songs. This is definitely not one of the better songs on the album, and John later called it "garbage." While I wouldn't go that far, I still usually hit the skip button when it comes on. A rooster crows at the beginning, and there are lots of animal sounds at the end of the song. The chorus is the highly original "Good morning, good morning, good morning." The music is better, though. Paul has a cool guitar solo, Ringo does a good job drumming, and the session musicians' horns sound nice. It's an okay track, just not up to the standards of the other songs on here.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise) is a faster version of the title song. Paul, John, and George sing, thanking the audience but saying that it's now time to go. The guitars sound great, as do Ringo's drums, and the song is complete with cheering from the audience at the end. "We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, we hope you have enjoyed the show/ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, we're sorry but it's time to go."
A Day In the Life was written primarily by John, with some help from Paul. John and Paul wrote "A Day In the Life" while reading the newspaper and pieced the song together from the articles. This is a slow, mellow song which begins with John singing and strumming an acoustic guitar, followed by some orchestral music. An alarm clock sounds, and Paul sings a verse from another song he had been working on. The song ends with an orchestral buildup, followed by John, Paul, Ringo, and Beatles roadie Mal Evans simultaneously striking a piano. This is an excellent song, and probably the best on the album. "I read the news today oh, boy/ 4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire/ And though the holes were rather small, they had to count them all."
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is easily one of the most influential, innovative albums in music history. The Beatles set new standards for writing, recording, and even cover art with this album, and it is an essential part of any music fan's collection.
Other Beatles CDs
With the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night, Beatles For Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (The White Album), Yellow Submarine (Songtrack), Abbey Road, Let It Be, Past Masters Volume One, The Beatles Anthology 1, The Beatles Anthology 2, The Beatles Anthology 3, Free As A Bird (Single), Real Love (Single), Let It Be... Naked