The Beatles retired from touring in August 1966, started recording again that winter and by June 1967 Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their eighth album, was out in the world, redefining what pop music could be and do. Yes, one of the most famous and best-selling albums of all time is hitting the half-century mark.
After Paul McCartney came up with the original idea for a song featuring the fictional Sgt Pepper on a flight from Kenya to London in November 1966, the band decided to take on the alter egos for a whole album. Recorded at Abbey Road Studios over a 129 day period Sgt Pepper was an immediate success, staying at the top of the UK charts for 27 weeks and top of the US charts for 15 and it was the first rock album to win the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1968. Critically it was a hit too, with many publications hailing it as a historic masterpiece, and Rolling Stone even awarded it the top spot on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list in 2003. And it did all of that even without ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Penny Lane’, which were both dropped from the album tracklist and released as a double A-side single instead.
Still regarded as one of the defining albums in music history, Sgt Pepper is also perhaps the most well known concept album ever. Taking on the Sgt Pepper characters allowed The Beatles to be much more musically experimental, knowing that they wouldn’t be performing the tracks live. The tracks were mastered without the customary pauses between songs (not unusual now but a first at the time) to make it sound like one continuous record and a performance in itself. The album marked a distinct shift in who The Beatles were – the suits and moptop haircuts were out, sixties psychedelia, eastern spiritualism, drugs and moustaches were in.[URISP id=89868]
The cover, designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, featured a play on the military fashion popular at the time as well a collection of famous faces of the era, including Marlon Brando, Laurel and Hardy, Marilyn Monroe, Sonny Liston, Oscar Wilde, Bob Dylan and Lewis Carroll. The cover was particularly significant for linking the music to art and to the time period in a way that hadn’t been done before, making it an integral part of the album experience. Sgt Pepper doesn’t exist without that sleeve.
Sgt Pepper is an album that is totally of its time. It truly captures the spirit of the summer of love yet it has endured for fifty years, and it’s getting a massive re-issue to celebrate the anniversary, so you can listen to it in a whole new way.