It Was Fifty Years Ago Today (An appreciation of Sgt. Pepper)
It’s been fifty years since the release of The Beatles “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the album many consider the band’s finest achievement. The album was actually released on June 2, 1967 in the United States, so I’m using the “fifty years” tag line a little loosely. Okay, sue me. A belated birthday card is better than no card at all, right?
I’ll tell you one thing: the idea that it’s been fifty years since “Sgt. Pepper” hit the record stores blows me away. Where did the time go?
In the summer of 1967, the so-called “Summer Of Love,” I was in a weird place. I was eleven years old, out of work and depressed. I’m not kidding. I had just finished a film at Disney, (which I loved), and had moved with my parents to a new neighborhood (that I hated). When you are a professional child actor, you are subjected to the same challenges and emotions as an adult, without the maturity or experience to be able to handle them. I was out of school for the summer, in a strange neighborhood, no friends, with the start of Junior High looming in the fall. I felt like a fish out of water. I needed something familiar, something to hold on to, something to correct the feeling that my world had just been turned upside down. Music had always been my anchor, my touchstone, my safe haven. I had lived and breathed The Beatles since hearing about them from my grandmother in England, long before the “Ed Sullivan Show” made them a household name in the U.S. But now, The Beatles, my Beatles, the group that had been my main source of musical inspiration for over three years had put out an album that was, well, a little weird. It wasn’t just that the music was different. Equally disconcerting was the idea that the whole thing was the result of some mind-altering experimentation with the new king of psychedelic drugs, LSD. It was a lot for my eleven-year-old brain to process.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like the album - I did, but it was a challenge. “Sgt. Pepper” was not only different from anything The Beatles had done before; it was different from anything anyone had done before. The Beatles had assumed a new identity - Sgt. Pepper’s Band - mustachioed and mutton-chopped, dressed in the wildest, hippest, psychedelic-inspired “Mod” clothing coming out of Carnaby Street. Being “Sgt. Pepper’s Band,” Paul McCartney later said, had allowed The Beatles to shed their previous image, one that had become limiting and tiresome, in order to pursue music that had no bounds of convention or expectation. The album had taken about four months to record. That was considered a long time in those days. This extended break from the public eye had prompted the British press to claim that The Beatles were finished, that they had dried-up creatively. In fact, the opposite was true. The Beatles had once again raised the bar for pop music.
So, what made “Sgt. Pepper” so special? It’s difficult to know where to begin. The songwriting, first of all, had soared to new heights of creativity. The album flows seamlessly from rock and pop, to psycheldelia, to 1920’s music hall, to East-Indian music and back again. The lyrics, at times derived from circus posters, newspaper articles or television commercials, seemed to say, “Hey, a song can be about anything.” The arrangements, created by the band with enormous contributions from producer George Martin, were ground-breaking. Geoff Emerick, only twenty-one years old in 1967, having been involved with The Beatles recordings since their first session in 1962 when he arrived at Abbey Road as a fifteen-year-old apprentice, manned the mixing desk, and pushed the envelope of EMI’s Abbey Road Studio’s capabilities to the max.
None of this would have been possible even a couple of years earlier. EMI and Abbey Road had existed since the twenties. The studio was well-known for classical recordings of the London Philharmonic and film scores, as well as pop and comedy records. The studio itself had (and has) a fantastic sound, but until The Beatles achieved their phenomenal success, EMI Abbey Road was a very stiff and stodgy place, where technicians were made to wear white lab coats, and adhere to very strict rules about the scheduling of sessions (daytime only, strictly by-the-clock), and exactly how the recording equipment was to be operated (“not too much bass - it’ll make the needle jump off the record player”). The rules even extended to the studio canteen, where a lock was placed on the refrigerator to prevent any unauthorized use. Now everything had changed. The Beatles were more-or-less free to come and go. EMI, The Beatles record company, who also owned the studio, didn’t charge the group for studio time. Sessions could start in the afternoon or evening, and run all night. Two four-track tape machines, running in tandem, captured the recordings. For the first time, (to the chagrin of the other Beatles) there were enough tracks to allow McCartney to overdub his bass guitar parts, rather than committing the bass to the initial rhythm track where, by necessity, multiple instruments were bounced to one track of the four-track machine. One can appreciate the difference this made when listening to the album; these are some of the most melodic, creative rock and pop bass lines ever played.
The effect of the album on the music world was instantaneous and monumental. Jimi Hendrix, who had recently exploded on the scene, played the “Sgt. Pepper” theme onstage immediately after hearing the album. Other artists, songwriters and producers began to experiment with tape loops, “backwards” effects, orchestras, Indian ragas, ’20’s music, and so on. The songwriting, The Beatles vocal style, McCartney’s bass and piano playing, and Ringo’s drum style, particularly his drum fills, were much-imitated on new records being made on both sides of the Atlantic.
I recently listened to the 50th Anniversary Edition of “Sgt. Pepper,” re-mixed and remastered by George Martin’s son, Giles Martin. I’m happy to say it sounds great. It’s certainly worth a listen. There are things in the new mix that pop-out like never before. To be fair, the original “Sgt. Pepper” was intended to be heard in mono. A great amount of care and time went into the original mono mix. The stereo mix most of us are familiar with was done hurriedly, as an afterthought, without the participation of any of The Beatles. So, the new stereo re-mix is really the first stereo mix of “Sgt. Pepper” to be given the full attention it deserves.
And what, you may ask, happened to the eleven-year-old Jonnie Walmsley? Well, I survived ’tween angst. Eventually, I got my feet on the ground and adjusted to my new surroundings. I dived back into music and never came up for air. In time, I got more acting work. I even made it through Junior High relatively unscathed. But, that's a story for another time.
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