First listen: ‘Sgt Pepper’ is the comfort and escape we need today
I now know Ringo is my favourite Beatle, and who’s to blame for The Flaming Lips
George Martin, Neil Aspinall, John Lennon and Paul McCartney at Abbey Road studios during The Beatles’ recording of ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’. Photograph: Henry Grossman/Govinda Gallery
When my editor asked if I had ever listened to The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band from start to finish, I immediately answered with: “Is this a trap?” To my knowledge, I never had but to admit that felt like heresy.
The reason? All we needed, other than love, as a guide to the most influential band in music history was on 1, a compilation of The Beatles’ number one singles. It had everything except the contents of Sgt Pepper’s, which released no singles but changed how we consume albums. Dedicating a weekend to the Sgt, I learned that Ringo Starr is my favourite Beatle, they still liked each other but hated what they’d become, and we finally know who’s to blame for Wayne Coyne.
Prior to the conception of Sgt Pepper, the Liverpudlians were exhausted and were very, very sick of the “four little mop-top boys approach”, according to Paul McCartney’s biography Many Years from Now. Like every pop act to follow, there comes a day when playing it safe just isn’t satisfying any more.
Their hard day’s nights were automated and, after a hectic American tour, George Harrison was threatening to quit until they reached a bargain with their manager in 1966 to stop touring. With no touring schedule, they went hell for leather in the studio and developed the alter ego of a military band that had a grá for the sitar – maybe too much on the meandering Within You Without You.
With the elimination of a live audience, they created one on the opening track, applauding the rumblings of an orchestra warming up, breaking the fourth wall. “You’re such a lovely audience/ We’d like to take you home with us,” they sing, with a melody that B*witched seem like they stole on the bridge of their 1998 single Rollercoaster.
The world had changed enormously in the four years since The Beatles released their first album.
Sgt Pepper feels like a parting gift from The Beatles of old, a contribution to their mythical status
To reflect that, they hung up their tailored suits, grew their hair out even more and a few years deeper into John Lennon and Harrison’s committed LSD voyage, one that started on 1965’s Rubber Soul and 1966’s Revolver. They were now more in tune with those protesting Lyndon B Johnson and the Vietnam War than their initial audience. I read the news today, oh boy.
Released on June 1st, 1967, Sgt Pepper soundtracked the Summer of Love and even though the psychedelic inclinations (that bloody sitar again) influenced Pink Floyd, The Flaming Lips and launched a thousand Tame Impalas, even now it’s the tender moments on Sgt Pepper that stand out the most.
Take for example the recording of With a Little Help from My Friends, the Wannabe of its day, written in a lower key for Starr by Lennon and McCartney. A nervy singer, Starr was cheered on by his pals in the wee hours of the morning as he trundled through his verses and hit that key-change, even though tensions in the band were on the rise.
Or the innocent creation of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, which was inspired by a picture Lennon’s son Julian painted of his friend Lucy, a picture he proudly showed to McCartney and Starr. A child’s drawing pulled Lennon out of himself and the fact that he, a man so embroiled in hallucinogenics, didn’t notice that the title spelled out LSD is sweet. It might be typical of someone out of his bin, but sweet all the same.
Without The Beatles, it’s hard to know what state we’d be in. Possibly clanging music pots with a destitute look in our eyes, chanting “the rhythm is gonna get you” as a threat, rather than an invite. Their eighth album in the space of five years, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band feels like a parting gift from The Beatles of old, a contribution to their mythical status.
Even though the world was in chaos and the band was beginning to crumble, Sgt Pepper is full of inside jokes and shows signs of camaraderie. It was the beginning of the end and 50 years and one first full listen later, it’s the comfort and the escape we need today.