The Beatles' Timeless 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' Turns 50

Jun 1, 2017

"They've been going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile."  

But have the Beatles really ever gone out of style? Much of the iconic rock band's music seems to endure in a timeless realm and shows no sign of being forgotten.

June 1967 marked the U.S. release of one of the most influential albums of popular music ever produced, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Among the reasons for the groundbreaking album's huge popularity and influence was not only its remarkable technical ingenuity (thanks, in good part, to producer George Martin) but also its inclusive vision, uniting past and present in musical and cultural references.

Of course, there's a new re-mastering and re-release of the album to commemorate its 50th anniversary (you can read the full New York Times story here).

There's even an article on The Guardian's site about how the Sgt. Pepper re-release can help re-unite Brexit Britian with its inclusive vision of English life and culture. So we are certainly talking about an enduring influence on many levels.

One of the aspects of the Beatles' music I've always loved is their inventiveness and constant creative evolution, going beyond the two guitars, bass and drums rock-band format. Not only were they the "hippest" rock band when I was young, but as the Beatles' songs and albums got more sophisticated and artistically accomplished, my tastes and interests evolved with them, as I'm sure happened with many other people at the time.

There was the exotic sound of the Indian sitar played by George Harrison on "Norwegian Wood," the Bach-inspired piano solo (sped up to sound like a harpsichord) performed by George Martin on John Lennon's "In My Life" — both from the album Rubber Soul — and the string quartet accompanying Paul McCartney on "Yesterday," released on the album Yesterday and Today in the US.

The Album cover for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)
Credit Parlophone/EMI / Flickr

It was, however, on Sgt. Pepper that the musical embrace of the past makes its biggest impact on a Beatles record. A concept album, Sgt. Pepper was based on a fictional persona for the group — an Edwardian era military band. The creative freedom resulted in a unique mix of nostalgic sounds and moods of long-ago England, influencing songs like "She's Leaving Home" and "When I'm Sixty-Four," to the then-contemporary psychedelic era of 1967 with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

In some cases the Beatles blended new and old together, as in the title track of the album, with crowd noises, brass band and amplified electric guitars and drums. Somehow, it doesn't come across as a crass parody, but as a joyous embrace and merging of the past and present. If there is an element of parody, it is of the highest sort that depends on loving what you are poking fun at.  

Then there's a song that seems to inhabit another realm entirely: George Harrison's "Within You Without You," with its mystical lyrics based on Indian philosophy and music performed by Indian musicians using traditional instruments, plus an orchestral string section.  

The final song on Sgt. Pepper is "A Day in The Life," and much has been written about it. Lennon's existential reflections on daily life, including reading a newspaper — "The news was rather sad, but I had to laugh." — lead to a remarkable use of a 40-piece studio orchestra in a rising crescendo of sound reminiscent of the most avant-garde contemporary classical music. A more upbeat middle section of the song with McCartney is followed by a verse with Lennon singing again and then a repeat of the orchestra's vortex of sound that leads to a final crashing piano chord, fading into silence.

Nothing like this had been heard in pop music before, and the effect is still striking.

"What in the world was that?"

That's what many people thought when they first heard Sgt. Pepper in 1967, including me. My musical evolution was just beginning, but I must still agree this is one of the most important albums of popular music ever made.

And 50 years from now, some young person will hear it and ask, "What in the world was that?"           

On Saturday, June 3, at 8 p.m., WOSU TV presents "Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution," celebrating the 50th anniversary of the album's release.