Fifty years ago this month, what is regarded by Rolling Stone Magazine as the greatest album of all time was released – The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” Airing on PBS is a BBC produced show called “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution,” hosted by musician Howard Goodall.
The show is worth the watch as Goodall highlights the innovation and storytelling behind the album. Being a musician, he demonstrates a few items of note and highlights what then was truly cutting edge. In essence, The Beatles had grown tired of touring where they and their fans could not hear their music over their screaming fans. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr wanted to get their creative juices flowing back in the studio and, boy, did they ever.
Working with record producer George Martin, The Beatles told a series of stories about their youth and observations about current life. They blended instruments such as the harmonium, which was a small organ for churches, with piccolo trumpets with sitars with nine pianos playing at once.
I don’t want to steal the thunder of the show, but let me highlight two items . To me, the most avant grade song is “A Day in the Life,” which blends a McCartney song about daily routine with a Lennon song about select news of the day. But, to blend these two songs together, they needed a bridge. So, they used a concept called accidental music and had fourteen orchestra members start at the lowest note possible and build slowly to a certain common level giving the musician the option of being just below, at or above that level. It was pure genius.
The second item is the song “Within you, without you,” by George Harrison. He actually played and orchestrated Indian musicians to play in a somewhat Western style. Goodall had some musicians play the song in an Eastern style, which produces a different sound, But, he notes Harrison wanted to blend two cultures together introducing Indian music to westerners. He felt westerners were not ready for a total immersion. It is fascinating.
There are many surprising observations that show how cutting edge this album was. The fact that some history and actual people and places are recurring themes makes the music live even more. “Penny Lane” is an actual place, “When I’m 64,” was about McCartney’s father, “Lovely Rita,” was an actual meter maid, and “Strawberry Field Forever,” was an actual park where Lennon played when he was young. It should be noted that while recorded at the same time, “Strawberry Field Forever” and “Penny Lane,” were released as a two A-sided single as Brian Epstein, their manager, did not want too much time to elapse since their previous release, so they were not on Sgt. Pepper.
Please give the album a listen again or for the first time. And, do watch the PBS special either here or on the BBC. “We’re Sgt. Pepper’s one and only lonely hearts club band,” they sang toward the end.