When Henry the horse danced the waltz…
by Jeremy Miles
It was 50 years ago today that Sgt Pepper taught the band to play – well give or take a day or three. On Thursday 1st of June 1967 I was 16-years-old and like most of my schoolfriends made a beeline for the local record shop to hear The Beatles’ newly released album. Little did we know at the start of what would become known as the Summer of Love that music, and indeed a whole bunch of other things, would never be quite the same again.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may not have been the greatest album ever recorded but it was one of the most innovative, inventive and influential. It was unlike anything anybody had ever heard before and it caught the spirit of the time perfectly. Listening now to the remastered 50th Anniversary edition I realise that it gave us a soundtrack to an era and, as the 1967 Summer of Love morphed into the 1968 Year of Protest, the album stayed with us.
One needs to understand the historical context. Revolution really was in the air. In London, Paris, Berlin, Rome, San Francisco, Chicago and New York, social and political activists were gathering strength. A network of underground magazines and the word on the street kept everyone informed. Even those of us who still had to do our homework before we could pretend to possess any anarchic leanings were briefly convinced that we were going to stop the war in Vietnam, halt the ‘bread-heads’ in their tracks, feed the hungry, house the homeless, destroy racism and usher in an age of global peace, love and understanding.
Hopelessly naive perhaps but baby boomers, born during and just after the end of World War II, were a force to be reckoned with and determined that a change was gonna come. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was their music – a central part of the soundtrack of those heady, idealistic months.
In retrospect it seems strange that the album came to epitomise the spirit of youth internationally. It was after all extraordinarily British. It’s thematic rock, whimsical pop and lush arrangements were peppered (no pun intended) with unashamed references to English music hall, fairgrounds, traffic wardens, the popular BBC TV sit-com Meet the Wife, a well-known British cornflake advert and holidays on the Isle of Wight alongside a shimmering wash of psychedelia and a touch of Eastern mysticism.
It’s almost impossible all these years later to remember the initial impact of hearing astonishing tracks like A Day in the Life, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite but they were jaw-dropping in their aural imagery created by wizardry in the studio that was breaking new ground. I do however recall, early on, marvelling at the sound that seemed to somehow get right inside your head. We had been primed of course. Earlier in the year the first two sessions from the Sgt Pepper recordings – Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane – had been released as a double A sided single. They never made it onto the final album but they were very much a part of the project.
The album had the distinct advantage of worrying the more paranoid parts of the establishment who seemed intent on finding it in some way subversive. Headlines about Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds being code for LSD started a frenzy of speculation about possible drug references in the lyrics. The Beatles looked on in bemusement and insisted that they were blameless. It was of course brilliant publicity and forever endeared both the band and the album to the counter-culture.
It’s easy to forget that the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album may have become an album of choice for hippies, yippies and bedsit revolutionaries but it actually pre-dated the era of flying cobblestones and fighting in the streets by several months. It was rooted in a more innocent times and recorded during the first half of 1967, just a couple of years after John, Paul, George and Ringo first started shaking off the shackles of being a perennially mobbed mop-top boy band.
Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was and is an extraordinary recording which captured a special moment in the history of the 20th century, an era that in the UK at least, emerged blinking into the 1960s suffering from a bad case of arrested development. After two World Wars and major economic recession the nation was still run by politicians and captan’s of industry who were essentially still Edwardian in attitude and outlook. Something had to give. It was helped by the fact that compulsory military service ended in 1960, coinciding neatly with the first generation of teens and 20s to have money in their pockets.
The Beatles arrived just in time to offer a psychological springboard for a generation inspired by rock ’n’ roll and the glittering seemingly unreachable world of the American Dream. On the other side of the Atlantic lifestyles glimpsed through TV, the movies and magazines, looked more glamorous, cars were bigger, music was brasher. The new generation of Brits wanted some of the action. Fed up with playing second fiddle they soon realised that The Beatles were at the vanguard of a youth movement that would even impress the yanks.
The Fab Four couldn’t miss. The band were a perfect mix of talent and personalities that existed during a brief but highly creative moment in time. Having landed a recording contract with stuffy old EMI Records they were allocated a producer who had previously been responsible for comedy and novelty records.
As far as the rather haughty EMI bosses were concerned it was all that this untamed beat-group from Liverpool deserved. It just so happened that George Martin was a creative thinker with a genius for sound design that had never been given full reign before. Add to that the quiet but determined counsel of manager Brian Epstein and the unique set of circumstances that led to the development of the experimentations that created the Sgt Pepper sound were in place. So many things about it were groundbreaking, from Peter Blake and Jann Howarth’s cover to the fact that it was the first pop album to have its song lyrics printed on the sleeve.
Sadly Brian Epstein died less than three months after Sgt Pepper’s release. He was just 32-years-old. Though Magical Mystery Tour, the White Album, Abbey Road and Let it Be were still to be recorded and released, Epstein’s death was the beginning of the end for The Beatles. It is astonishing that, half-a-century after its release, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band remains unique in its ability to conjure up the feeling of a special moment in time. It doesn’t contain The Beatles best songs and as I’ve already said, it certainly isn’t their best album. That accolade, in my opinion, belongs to Revolver which was recorded and released a year earlier. But it is without doubt a landmark in both social and musical history. The fact that 50 years after its release we are analysing and reappraising its impact says it all.