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Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (album)

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Beatles Sgt Pepper album cover art
Today, over forty years have transpired since the world first heard "It was twenty years ago today", and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is still playing — and still generating as much discussion as it did back then in that celebrated 'Summer of Love'.

Whether or not it was The Beatles' best album is a matter of taste and opinion, but it's undoubtedly their best known, as evidenced by estimated sales of over thirty million copies worldwide. It picked up four Grammies at the time, and has since gone on to top Rolling Stone's 'All-Time 500' list and the HMV Millennium Poll, to name but a couple of accolades.

With the certainty that they wouldn't be touring any more, although never publicly announcing the fact, the band realised that they were now free to continue with the experimentation of Revolver to the nth degree. Once again, George Martin and Geoff Emerick (with — at times — a host of assistant technicians) were required to come up with the production techniques needed to capture this acoustic vision, and to incorporate the phenomenal range of instrumentation — over sixty 'outside' musicians participated in the project. 'The Beatles insisted that everything on Sgt Pepper had to be different', said GE.

It's worth remembering, too, in our digitally mastered age, exactly what they had to use back then, in order to meet the requirement. Abbey Road's four-track analogue stereo tape machines — along with the few primitive effects gadgets available — were relentlessly exploited, distorted, abused and defiled in the sculpting of Sgt Pepper's soundscape. 'It very soon took on a life of its own', affirmed GM.

The original, loose idea of linking it all via an alter-ego band concept was quickly dropped: only the title track and second song really carry the theme, along with the "Reprise": though Mr Kite did fit the bill quite nicely, too. It was actually Neil Aspinall who had come up with the idea of using 'The Sarge' as the compère for the show, only to be told — no prizes for guessing by whom — that 'Nobody likes a smart-arse!' Poor Neil: what else was a stoned roadie supposed to do, with no roadying to be done, if not to come up with stoned suggestions?!!

Nevertheless, the segueing of the tracks, with virtually no discernible gap between them, did serve to make it some kind of a congruent entity — as well as being a completely unprecedented innovation. Lennon, at least, had wanted to do it with the previous LP, 'But they [EMI] wouldn't wear it'. It also meant that Capitol couldn't mess around with the sequence for the American release this time (aside from omitting the Playout Groove, that is...)

The Beatles were starting to call the shots at EMI/Parlophone, too. It's significant that they had — for the first time — avoided the pressure of providing a new 1966 Christmas release (the Oldies But Goldies collection being put out to fill the gap). For Pepper, the band themselves pretty much decided the recording schedules. As McCartney put it, 'We gradually became the workers who took over the factory'. With just the recording sessions for the album clocking up an estimated 700 hours over the course of six months, from November '66 to April '67, the take-over was big time. To put it into a little more perspective, it had been just four years before that they had been afforded ten whole hours to record Please Please Me.

It also marked the beginning of Paul's increasing dominance within the group. The initial 'Sgt Pepper' concept was his, as are the vast majority of the songs (seven — compared to three of John's and one of George's, with two Lennon/McCartney co-writes). He was also the one pushing for extra takes most of the time, his prime objective being to outdo the aural sophistication of The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, released the previous year. It was he, too, who collaborated with Blake, Haworth and Cooper in the evolution of the sleeve design.

Macca certainly seemed to be experiencing something of a creative peak at the time: perhaps the acid was finally beginning to kick in? Also, by his own admission, he was "doing a fair bit of coke at the time", which would certainly account for a heightened level of pushy self-confidence. Or was he simply 'a new and better man', following his reported demise?!!

John was probably too spaced out to argue (or maybe just daydreaming about a certain Japanese artist he'd recently been introduced to...) George's spirit was certainly still in India. He also confessed to finding the overdubbing "assembly process" — as opposed to actually playing together as a band — to be rather tedious: though he did recognise the quality of the finished product. The ever-affable Ringo, in contrast, was happy enough to go along with whatever was going down: 'Sgt Pepper was great for me, because it's a fine album', he recalled, 'But I did learn to play chess while we were recording it!' With a little help, clearly.
"Sgt Pepper was great for me, because it's a fine album. But I did learn to play chess while we were recording it!"
— Ringo

Paul was also planning a TV special, based on the album, but that never got past the filming of "A Day In The Life".

Along with "Lucy", the grand finale was instantly banned by the BBC, on the grounds of their perceived drugs references. Paul's notorious ITN news interview — 'Yes, we've taken it, but you don't have to broadcast it' — came just a couple of weeks after the album's release, and so the whole world knew that The Beatles had been taking LITSWD... A fortnight later, their four signatures (along with Eppy's) adorned a petition for the legalization of cannabis, published by The Times.

The sleeve of the record, of course, had to be as complex and innovative as its contents. Paul was persuaded against using a painting by the Dutch hippie collective The Fool (later responsible for the Apple Boutique mural) by Robert Fraser (in whose gallery John had been introduced to Yoko), putting him in contact with Peter Blake. Thus was born the collaboration between Britain's leading pop group and its leading pop artist.

Adolf Hitler cut-out as part of the original crowd on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album

Adolf Hitler (shown behind designer Peter Blake) was scrapped from the final version of the Sgt Pepper cover by a jittery EMI
As the idea grew like Topsy, it was Smart-arse Aspinall who was despatched to countless London libraries and bookshops to track down photos of the 70-odd band invitees, which were subsequently copied and blown-up to make lifesized plywood cut-outs. The bizarre mix of music, movie and literary idols, together with a few philosophers and gurus, came from lists drawn up by three of of the four (Ringo abstaining): though Lennon's typically perversely opposed choices of Hitler, Gandhi and Jesus were excluded at EMI's request. The company was already having kittens over the cost of it all, and the possibility of lawsuits; obliging the band to write personal letters to everyone included, or their representatives, in order to obtain permission. The corporate spoilsports also blocked plans to include packets of free gifts, limiting it to a sheet of cardboard cut-outs. The jitters got to Brian Epstein, too: in what was to be his final memo to the boys, he instructed: "Brown paper bags for Sgt Pepper..."

Blake and his wife Jann Haworth spent a fortnight putting the collage together. The uniforms were custom-made, the wax Beatles borrowed from Tussaud's and other improvised props gathered, all to be photographed by Michael Cooper in a suitably laid-back late-night session. His portraits also graced the gatefold (itself an unusual format back then) and backsleeve, which also pioneered the practise of including the lyrics. Clues to Mr McCartney's recent defunction abound, for those who wish to see them as such.

One of the criticisms most commonly leveled at the album is that, being so inextricably linked to all the hair and flowers that was growing around it that summer, it now sounds more dated than most of the other Beatleworks. "More of an icon than an album", I've seen it described somewhere. "Nevertheless" (to cite Sgt Rutter), it's a testament in itself that the LP still infallibly manages to float you back on a stream of tea to those distant heady days — regardless of whether you were actually there at the time, or were even born. As Paul put it:

"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".

Pepper is is their encapsulation of that mood, turned on by handfuls of hallucinogens: the sounds and colours of the moment; its ideals and idealism, philosophies and fun.

We hope you will enjoy the show.

Sit back and let the evening go.

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