With one especially grim event dominating the headlines at the expense of everything else this week (an event that has already been covered in three out of the last four posts), I am actively seeking alternative subjects to lift the spirits a little and serve as a necessary distraction. A good anniversary ordinarily suffices, so why not? Long-term readers may recall a post from last summer in which I marked the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ ‘Revolver’, so it seems only fitting I should follow suit with the half-century of that landmark LP’s sequel. The actual anniversary fell yesterday (May 26), but what’s in a day? And what can I add to all the endless column inches that have been written about ‘Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’? Well, I’ll give it my best shot.
As I was born the year the album was released, I am of the generation that grew up in its shadow; as a tiny tot watching Slade and Sweet on ‘Top of the Pops’, this curious, rather quaint relic of another era resting in my parents’ LP collection hardly seemed relevant and yet it remained the yardstick by which innovative pop music was measured throughout the 1970s – or at least until a new generation temporarily usurped the reverential millstone it seemed to have become around the necks of anyone seeking to take pop forward with the same hunger The Beatles themselves had achieved a decade earlier.
It was hard for an eleven-year-old viewing ‘Are Friends Electric?’ on TOTP and rightly seeing it as the defining cutting-edge sound of the fast-moving moment to appreciate the impact of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the listening public twelve years previously. It seemed to have no bearing on what I was hearing. After all, I had been raised in a pop culture in which there were clear demarcation lines – Serious Rock ala Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Genesis in the album charts/Pop ala Abba, 10cc and ELO in the singles charts; it mattered not that both camps were capable of matching the other when it came to their respective musical merits; the way the divisions were sold to the record-buying public was a direct result of the late 60s split ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ indirectly led to.
Earlier in the same year that ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ was released, the last pop package tour of any real note took place; coming to a theatre near you for the princely sum of a few shillings, it was possible to see a bill featuring The Walker Brothers, Cat Stevens, Engelbert Humperdinck, The Move – and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. If it seems an inconceivable line-up now, it began to dawn on those who attended the tour that it was pretty inconceivable even then. But it’s not hard to see why some enterprising promoter put the bill together. There was no ‘Rock Circuit’ then and no festival schedule of the kind we take for granted today.
The Beatles, The Stones and everyone who had made a mark in the mid-60s had all trod the boards with multiple showbiz crooners on such packages; that was the way things had been done since Rock ‘n’ Roll had been imported into the UK in the mid-50s. It was only when it became obvious that very different audiences were buying records that had all been labelled ‘Pop’ that the error of the promoter’s ways became apparent.
As late as 1968, in the BBC TV presentation of Cream’s farewell concert at the Albert Hall, the band are constantly referred to by the narrator throughout as ‘Pop’. ‘Rock’ as a term that drew a distinction between King Crimson and Clodagh Rodgers appears to have come in shortly afterwards. But the release of ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ on the eve of ‘The Summer of Love’ marked the beginning of this division; the breadth of ambition and refusal to be constricted by what could and couldn’t be done saw the Fab Four blur boundaries and serve 1967 up in one all-encompassing Psychedelic soufflé. There was so much to choose from on there that other artists took separate snippets from it that they could build careers around without needing to acknowledge what they didn’t get.
For everyone who enjoyed ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ or ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’, there were just as many who opted for ‘Within You, Without You’ and ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. After ‘Sgt Pepper’s’, few attempted to present such a wide canvas again. Sub-genres abounded in its wake and there was no unifying force drawing all those disparate elements together once John, Paul, George and Ringo had abdicated.
The effective ‘trailer’ for what The Beatles had up their sleeves had come at the beginning of 1967 when, amidst rumours that their retirement from the stage meant they were finished, they released the double A-sided single, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’/’Penny Lane’. The initial idea for a concept album on the theme of childhood that these two tracks were the intended starting pistol for meant they never made it to ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ when the concept was abandoned. McCartney’s breezy, optimistic ode to a nondescript Liverpool street possessed the same uplifting suburban sing-a-long spirit as The Kinks’ ‘Sunny Afternoon’ from the year before, whereas Lennon’s dreamy, druggy, surrealistic reimagining of a childhood haunt adhered to no previous formula on 45. It was telling the single was kept from the top spot by Engelbert’s ‘Release Me’; but as a taster for what was to come, it suggested The Beatles were far from finished.
When the long-awaited follow-up to ‘Revolver’ hit the record racks at the end of May 1967, it seems ridiculous now that the gap between the two albums was less than ten months; but the industry as it had been up to that point demanded two LPs a year and perhaps three or four stand-alone singles in addition. The Beatles yet again refused to bow to convention; they didn’t need to; they were imbued with such confidence and, yes, arrogance, that they could do whatever the hell they liked. The sleeve of the album, so instantly recognisable that it has been parodied more times than I care to mention, reflected this attitude; as did the fact they printed the lyrics on the back of it and that they didn’t release any of its songs as singles. They didn’t need to. The album sold as many copies as any single would have and in turn transformed the LP into what would become the premier art form of the next decade.
What’s easy to forget in the glut of anniversary waffle that will no doubt swamp the media over the next week or so is that this was a record release categorised as ‘Pop’ that was produced by four young men, none of whom were yet thirty, and yet was as adventurous a recording as any emanating from fields the critics had previously praised, such as Avant-Garde Classical or Jazz. It demonstrated Pop could outdo any other genre, however fragmented Pop itself would soon become as a result of the dazzling variety The Beatles were offering.
In an age when the Tin Pan Alley sensibilities The Beatles helped overthrow have been reinstated with little in the way of resistance, it’s somewhat sad to realise that half-a-century ago, the Svengali had been shown the door and the creative lunatics had taken over the musical asylum. To be an inmate there remains preferable to Care in Cowell’s Community.
© The Editor