The Beatles’ eighth UK album caused a seismic shift in popular music. Recorded in over 400 hours during a 129-day period, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band helped define the 1967 Summer of Love, and was instantly recognised as a major leap forward for modern music.

The mood of the album was in the spirit of the age, because we ourselves were fitting into the mood of the time. The idea wasn’t to do anything to cater for that mood – we happened to be in that mood anyway. And it wasn’t just the general mood of the time that influenced us; I was searching for references that were more on the fringe of things. The actual mood of the time was more likely to be The Move, or Status Quo or whatever – whereas outside all of that there was this avant-garde mode, which I think was coming into Pepper.

There was definitely a movement of people. All I am saying is: we weren’t really trying to cater for that movement – we were just being part of it, as we always had been. I maintain The Beatles weren’t the leaders of the generation, but the spokesmen. We were only doing what the kids in the art schools were all doing. It was a wild time, and it feels to me like a time warp – there we were in a magical wizard-land with velvet patchwork clothes and burning joss sticks, and here we are now soberly dressed.

Even more so than its predecessor, Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band saw The Beatles pushing boundaries within the studio, creating sounds which had never before been heard. They made extensive use of orchestras and other hired musicians, and combined a variety of musical styles including rock, music hall, psychedelia, traditional Indian and Western classical.

From the fairground swirls of ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!’ to the animal stampede that closes ‘Good Morning Good Morning’, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band signalled to the world that The Beatles were no longer the loveable moptops of old, unwilling to sing simple love songs and perform for crowds who were more interested in screaming than listening.

The album was always going to have ‘Sgt Pepper’ at the beginning; and if you listen to the first two tracks, you can hear it was going to be a show album. It was Sgt Pepper and his Lonely Hearts Club Band with all these other acts, and it was going to run like a rock opera. It had started out with a feeling that it was going to be something totally different, but we only got as far as ‘Sgt Pepper’ and Billy Shears (singing ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’), and then we thought: ‘Sod it! it’s just two tracks.’ It still kept the title and the feel that it’s all connected, although in the end we didn’t actually connect all the songs up.

At the core of Sgt Pepper is the sound of The Beatles’ English background, with tales of runaway girls, circus attractions, Isle of Wight holiday cottages, domestic violence, home improvements, Daily Mail news stories, memories of school days, and favourite childhood literature – far from the riches they enjoyed as the most famous foursome on the planet, but remembering times past and wondering what the future would hold.

Prior to the release of Sgt Pepper, however, many commentators believed The Beatles to be over as a group. They had ceased touring and largely retreated from public view, and ‘Penny Lane’/‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ had failed to top the UK singles chart after its February 1967 release.

After the record was finished, I thought it was great. I thought it was a huge advance, and I was very pleased because a month or two earlier the press and the music papers had been saying, ‘What are The Beatles up to? Drying up, I suppose.’ So it was nice, making an album like Pepper and thinking, ‘Yeah, drying up, I suppose. That’s right.’ It was lovely to have them on that when it came out. I loved it. I had a party to celebrate – that whole weekend was a bit of a party, as far as I recall. I remember getting telegrams saying: ‘Long live Sgt Pepper.’ People would come round and say, ‘Great album, man.’
Paul McCartney
Published: |