It seems criminal to think that as someone who claims to be a pretty big Beatles fan that I haven't covered Sgt. Pepper in a column before, and this week aims to rectify just that.
As much as I am a Beatles fan and Sgt. Pepper is undoubtedly a legendary album, it's never been my favourite, probably due to its more-than-commercial status. The iconic album cover has adorned the walls of teenage bedrooms and record shops for the best part of fifty-three years and its impact on music's ensuing decades has been well publicised. Nonetheless, it's still an incredible piece of work, meaning it warrants an inclusion here. Sgt. Pepper's development came at an interesting time for the band, being written, performed and produced in the wake of the band's final shows in the United States. By the end of 1966, touring had taken the toll on the group, being limited to playing half hour shows before they couldn't stand the noise from the crowds of screaming girls. At the same time, the records of Rubber Soul and Revolver demonstrated that the band had become a real creative force, and an album such as Sgt. Pepper in hindsight looked like a natural progression.
It's best to think of Sgt. Pepper as a loose concept album, being held together by its opening title track and the associated reprise towards the end. As a concept album on its own, it doesn't really hold up as there's no real story, but where the stories come are in the album's individual tracks. It's provided some of the band's heaviest hitters, be them obscure gems or the more popular tracks. The opening title tune gives a real sense of a proper performance at a level the band may never have achieved live. From the tuning up of the orchestra to the crowd shuffling in, clapping and laughing, every little detail has been meticulously picked out and considered. With this, it's clear the band are setting themselves up for a grand show that goes far beyond a bandstand in Sefton Park. Everything from the gritty guitar to the three part harmony is quintessential Beatles, but it's also definitely Sgt. Pepper.
That statement goes hand in hand with the following With A Little Help From My Friends, complete with Ringo's signature droll voice. Over time, it's perhaps become one of his signature songs, largely because he did get a little bit of helps from Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. The whole song, whilst simplistic in lyrical structure, is a bit more complex than first anticipated. This is particularly true from McCartney's melodic bassline and Starr's own drumming. It's perhaps a signature of Ringo's to keep time in this loose yet flowing manner, which he achieves perfectly whilst singing - that's no easy feat.
This soon transitions into the psychedelia that Sgt. Pepper is most associated with thanks to the supposedly drug-fuelled Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. There's been some debate over the song's true origins; the less exciting story will tell you that it's inspired by a watercolour painting that son Julian brought home from school, but the more dominant narrative that has stuck says it's all about drugs. Regardless of its inspiration however, the track is a free ticket to enter the mind of one of the world's most surreal songwriters and is a landscape of weirdness with its discussion of "marmalade skies" and "newspaper taxis". Lennon, of course, was noted for having an odd sense of humour - his two early books, A Spaniard In The Works and In His Own Write, as well as various doodles from during his school days detail strange stories and nonsensical poems such as Good Dog Nigel that reads:
Arf, Arf, he goes, a merry sight,
Our little hairy friend,
Arf, Arf, upon the lampost bright
Arfing round the bend.
Nice dog! Goo boy,
Waggie tail and beg,
Clever Nigel, jump for joy
Because we're putting you to sleep at three of the clock, Nigel.
Musically speaking, Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds is one of The Beatles' premier soundscapes with its odd organ sounds and minimalistic bassline. The focus here isn't on the backing and instrumentation, but on Lennon's thought-provoking and insightful lyrics that really do bring the song to life. This psychedelia is soon contrasted by the much blunter Getting Better, a song that Lennon credited as "pure Beatles" music. In other words, it's a conflation of all members, despite holding the traditional Lennon-McCartney writing credit. As with We Can Work It Out, Getting Better's strengths are based on its detailing of the contrasting personalities of the two premier songwriters. McCartney's parts are characterised by the more upbeat, jovial elements, and Lennon's by the drab, downbeat and pessimistic lines. There's even a little bit of introspection with regards to some of what would seem like attempts from Lennon to change old and dark habits - "I used to be cruel to my woman," he sings, "I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved". The song's optimistic and happy title doesn't actually come from any of the band's constant members, unlike Ringo's crediting for coining the phrase A Hard Day's Night; Getting Better is said by reputable authors such as the eminent Hunter Davies and Ian MacDonald to have originated with Jimmie Nicol, the stand-in drummer who played on a handful of shows in Holland and Australia on the band's 1964 world tour. It's a real masterpiece when it comes to the two songwriters almost being at odds with one another throughout the track, offering a real contrast when it comes to observations of the world around them.
Whilst the likes of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds can be considered an insight into Lennon's mind, the ensuing Fixing A Hole is a look at McCartney's. Even though the both of them were part of the same band, the two men's personalities couldn't have been more different. Throughout their time together, Lennon was of course the weirder one, as demonstrated by those books and some of the strange lyrics. McCartney by comparison a realist, focusing on more traditional aspects of life. He was the last of the band to let go of love songs, threading the likes of Here, There And Everywhere and Good Day Sunshine throughout the seminal Revolver. Even though love was dropped from McCartney's repertoire of songwriting on Sgt. Pepper, there's still a focus on the more mundane aspects of life, such as when there's a hole in the roof that needs fixing.
However, whilst McCartney can be seen as the more grounded one overall, Fixing A Hole marked a turning point in his perceptions. Instead of just discussing the need to perform some maintenance on his house, McCartney uses it as a vehicle to attack those who discourage daydreaming. The song details how he's only fixing that hole to "stop my mind from wandering", and even though he's doing that, the fact the chorus allows him to go on a tangent means that it obviously hasn't worked. There's this nice little lick of harpsichord present meaning there's an argument to say that Fixing A Hole is in fact a baroque song. For Sgt. Pepper, the band dabbled in all sorts of different genres and this particular track is one of its most successful excursions.
I detailed earlier the view that even though Sgt. Pepper has no cohesive structure overall, it is the individual stories attached to songs that make it one of The Beatles' finest bodies of work. Such stories are evident on She's Leaving Home, a song so unlike any of the others both here and in their back catalogue. It's much more grown-up than any of their earlier work and is certainly indicative of the direction that their later work was heading in. There is an actual story of a girl leaving home that inspired the song, relating to teenager Melanie Coe from Stamford Hill, London who disappeared in February 1967. An issue of the Daily Mail from the time portrayed Coe as the girl "who had everything"; on the issue, her father, John, was quoted as stating "I cannot imagine why she should run away. She has everything here…even her fur coat." From this perspective, it's easy to see where the lyrics come from, but that is, of course, only a part of the story. It's the track's backing that make it such an irresistible listen, given the light strings that carry it forwards. There's nothing else apart from Lennon and McCartney's vocal, as well as those strings to marvel at, but it sure is worthwhile.
In the latter stages of Sgt. Pepper, there's a return to Lennon's weirdness on the music on Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! that, much like She's Leaving Home, takes inspiration from a published work. The song's story and some lyrics come courtesy of a poster Lennon hung on his wall at his house named Kenwood on the St. George's Hill estate where he had lived since 1964. He came by the poster advertising Pablo Fanque's circus whilst filming the videos for Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever down in Sevenoaks in Kent. The people in the songs are of course, real, with the aforementioned Mr. Kite being William Kite who worked with Pablo Fanque from 1843 to 1845, and Mr. J. Henderson referring to John Henderson, a performer known for his trampolining, clown acts and wire-walking. Interestingly, there's no mention of the "Hendersons" plural that Lennon refers to in the lyrics; John Henderson was noted to have performed with wife Agnes in a run of shows throughout Europe and Russia in the 1840s and 1850s, the same time Mr. Kite worked with Pablo Fanque.
Lennon was noted not to have been proud of the song, as he cites a lack of his own work, and the ideas merely coming from an old antique poster. On the contrary, it is not the mind of John as a songwriter that made Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! such a great song - it is the mind of him as a musician. Sticking true to the period, there's a real carnival atmosphere created by not only Lennon, but also producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. There's licks from fairground organs and calliopes that really bring the song to life that were spliced together. Martin recalls wanting to find a 19th century steam organ in a bid to make the song sound as authentic as possible. After a great deal of searching, nothing came up, and even when they all tried to experiment to create a similar sound, nothing ended up sounded right. As part of an odd venture, George Martin instructed longtime engineer Geoff Emerick to cut up the tapes into pieces with a pair of scissors, throw them up in the air and then place them back together in a random order. What followed was the song's middle that gives pure carnival confusion that resulted in one of the band's most complex yet enjoyable tracks of their career.
Things don't really calm down from that point with Harrison's first excursion on Sgt. Pepper continuing on from the Indian influences he'd first come across on both Rubber Soul and Revolver. However, Within You Without You takes it to a whole new level. With the song, Harrison and the rest of the band were able to bring a world music influence into Sgt. Pepper and also increase the prominence of Indian classical music. As a result of the song's vital Indian influences, it takes on a completely different form to anything else here and is where the band can be found at their most spiritual. With its optimistic lyricism, the track captured the sentiments of the Summer of Love exactly - "With our love we can save the world", he sings, whilst discussing in another section that "the time will come when you see we're all one/And life flows on within you and without you". It's the sense of unity that the song creates that has this universal application - there's always been a lot to learn from the band, and Within You Without You marks their moral high point.
Things do change back to the more upbeat and jovial thanks to McCartney's comedic When I'm Sixty Four. Some may argue that it's more representative of the band's earlier work with its playful story and comedic melody, being marked out as more akin to songs on Help! than Sgt. Pepper. However, it is exactly this reminder of the what the band used to do that makes When I'm Sixty Four such a fan favourite. It's got this relatability that something like Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite! doesn't and even those such songs are completely different, there's still the same enjoyment factor with both. Many decades ago, it was customary for people to have pianos in their front rooms and when family came round to have a bit of a singalong and a laugh together - When I'm Sixty Four, with its bouncing melody and everyday subject matter fits in perfectly with that working class fun and acts as a pertinent reminder of a bygone age.
This reminder most likely comes from McCartney's dad, Jim, who the song is said to have been written for when he turned 64 in December 1966. However, it's actually one of Paul's first real attempts at writing, being written when he was just sixteen. When the song was written, the McCartney family were living at 20 Forthlin Road in Allerton, south Liverpool, and it is here where a young Paul started writing and dabbling in music. With his dad in a jazz band, the innovatively titled Jim Mac's Jazz Band, it was only a natural progression for Paul to enter the world of music. There was a piano in the front room of Forthlin Road, which Paul recalls family members playing whenever they came round, and the music hall influence of When I'm Sixty Four likely originated from those sing-songs in the McCartney household. He's not the only person to have talked about the impact of one particular piano, as the late great Chas Hodges, of Chas & Dave, detailed the fact his mother wasn't half a good pianist, and in fact, the Chas & Dave track That Old Piano tells the entire story - "Friends would come to see us on a Saturday/They'd sing their favourite songs while my old mother played".
The following Lovely Rita marks the only time on Sgt. Pepper where any of the band members write an explicitly love-driven song, with McCartney discusses a narrator's affection for a traffic warden, known to Americans as a "meter maid", hence the song's inclusion of that particular term. As with pretty much every Beatles track, there's multiple different stories as to how Lovely Rita came to be. To some, it originates from a female traffic warden named Meta Davies issuing a parking ticket outside Abbey Road. As opposed to getting annoyed, McCartney expressed his feelings in a song. The name of Rita simply came around by him saying "Well, she looked like a Rita to me.". The man himself however has refuted this claim, stating that it categorically "never happened." On the matter, Paul said "It wasn't based on a real person. I think it was more a question of coincidence … I didn't think, 'Wow, that woman gave me a ticket, I'll write a song about her.' Never happened like that." Even then, John Winn writes that it came from Mike McCartney, Paul's brother (later Mike McGear as part of The Scaffold), when visiting him in Liverpool, and hearing the term "meter maid" there. Regardless of whichever story lays claim to the truth, the song itself is a simple ditty by comparison to the rest of them and acts as a bit of light relief in a similar way to When I'm Sixty Four does.
The Lennon weirdness soon returns with Good Morning Good Morning, which draws its inspiration from a television ad for Kellogg's Corn Flakes from the time. Relating to this, Lennon stated that when writing, he used to have the television on in the background at a low volume. He heard the Kellogg's advert and then proceeded to write a song about it. It's littered with the boredom of living a normal life, being constrained by normality which, rather ironically foreshadows Lennon's own period of bringing up son Sean as a 'househusband'. There is an argument to be made that on Good Morning Good Morning that Lennon's providing an outlet for his frustrations in marrying Cynthia and living in suburbia.
The reference to "tea and Meet The Wife" details Lennon's boredom within a word where people are running around doing what they like - "Everyone you see is full of life/It's time for tea and Meet the Wife". Such boredom came at a time when his relationship with Cynthia was becoming increasingly strained and his discussion of "Watching the skirts, you start to flirt, now you're in gear" is indicative of the fact Lennon was beginning to see the stale side of his first marriage and maybe wanted something else, and he was constrained to just sitting down and watching a BBC sitcom of the time. Of course, that would come when he met Yoko Ono at an art exhibition some months later. His feelings come to a head with the dismissive "I've got nothing to say, but it's okay" signifying that there's nothing worth talking about - it's almost a resignation of defeat and a realisation that this is what his life could end up being if he stuck around with Cynthia and Julian.
Sgt. Pepper's final two tracks are a mixture. First comes a reprise of the opening title tune, detailing how the band hope we've enjoyed the show, and of course, it's evident that people enjoyed it with the sky-high sales figures the record has garnered. It's best therefore to think of its final track, A Day In The Life, as a proper encore. There's none of this "Oh, we've saved our biggest hit and play it for you now" about it; A Day In The Life is the kind of encore song that makes people lean forward and marvel at its brilliance. As with Being For The Benefit OF Mr Kite!, A Day In The Life is one of Sgt. Pepper's most complex offerings, and it's all the better for it. It's their finest example of storytelling, even surpassing the likes of the satirical Taxman and elegant She's Leaving Home; whilst Sgt. Pepper isn't really a concept album by trade, A Day In The Life is evidently where the band focused their efforts in bringing a progressive rock element to their sound.
Much like She's Leaving Home before it, A Day In The Life borrows its various tales from newspaper cuttings of the time - when Lennon states that he's "read the news today, oh boy", there's no question he did. The whole car crash scenario is partially in reference to Tara Browne, heir to the Guinness empire, who, in December 1966, crashed his Lotus Elan in South Kensington under the influence of drink and drugs. Supposedly, he collided with a parked lorry having failed to see a red light at the junction of Redcliffe Square and Redcliffe Gardens. Some artistic liberties were taken, spinning the story of Browne to fit a politician instead who the crowd gathered recognised, although "Nobody was really sure/If he was from the House of Lords". Later on, the mention of Lennon seeing a film where "the English army had just won the war" is traditionally seen as being a reference to his own involvement in Richard Lester's war comedy How I Won The War with Michael Crawford.
The track gained notoriety with its apparent drug references that got it banned by the BBC, limiting Kenny Everett's ability to play it on the Light Programme at the time of the song's release. The ban received a whole lot of backlash from both songwriters, especially given that the whole band aligned themselves firmly within Britain's drug culture of the time, even going as far as taking out a full page ad in The Times to voice their support, along with sixty or so other signatories, for the repeal of the band on marijuana. Despite the band's popularity, they had seen in the United States the backlash from comments from Lennon in the press about the band apparently being bigger than Jesus that fans could soon turn. This time the comments came courtesy of Paul, who in an ITN interview in June, confirmed that he had taken LSD, a comment first made in a Life magazine interview beforehand. This received major backlash, leading it to be condemned by Ian MacDonald some years later as a "careless remark". Even with its notoriety to broadcasters, there's no denying that A Day In The Life, thanks to its multiple parts, flowing melody and intriguing storyline is one of the band's finest pieces of work, and a track that gets better with every single listen.
It's very easy to see why Sgt. Pepper is seen as such an iconic album on the surface with its innovative production techniques, odd selection of songs and its lasting impact on the world of music. However, taking a deeper dive into its individual tracks makes you appreciate that impact even more. Even though it isn't my favourite Beatles album, its impact cannot be overstated and, like a fine wine, is one that gets better with age. Few albums constitute a full-on listening experience, and Sgt. Pepper is the record that people learn from when it comes to production, storytelling and songwriting. It's an absolute masterpiece.
If you want to pick up a copy, I’ll leave an Amazon link here: https://amzn.to/3ppfWfJ
Or, if you’d prefer, here’s a Spotify link:
More musical magnificence to come next week!
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