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It’s been called the greatest album of all time. A majestic aural masterpiece that embodied the free spirited cultural revolution that was sweeping the western world in the late 60s. Now, 50 years on, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is still celebrated and revered as a seminal work of unparalleled significance in popular music.
To mark the occasion, we take a look at eight fascinating facts behind this masterwork that set it apart from anything before or since.
1. An astounding chart success
Sgt. Pepper’s ranks as the third top selling album in UK history (only eclipsed by Queen and ABBA), but considering it was one of only two albums from the 1960s that made the list of top 60 sellers, that ranking stands out as a remarkable achievement.
It sold more than 250,000 copies in the UK in its first days and spent just short of four years on the charts there, with 23 weeks at number one. It was the biggest selling album of 1967 in Australia too and was also number one in Canada, Germany and other European countries, while in the US it reached number three.
2. The pioneer of the “concept album”
Sgt. Pepper’s broke new ground as the first ever concept album – a notion that an album could be seen as a total cohesive and themed body of work, rather than being just a collection of songs.
At its conception, McCartney suggested that the band take on an alter ego of a fictitious Edwardian military band, hence the album’s name. This gave them licence to incorporate a vast diversity of musical styles, including rock, vaudeville, big band, jazz, avant-garde, Indian and classical music.
The theme captured a nostalgic, carnival atmosphere, enhanced by a collection of quirky characters, such as lovely Rita, Mr Kite, Lucy in the Sky and Sgt. Pepper himself.
3. Two gems that never made it
The first two songs recorded for the album (which were arguably the greatest ever in the Beatles canon) never actually made it on to the final disc.
The Beatles manager, Brian Epstein, was concerned that it was going to be almost a year between the Revolver album of mid-1966 and the release of Sgt. Pepper in May 1967, so he wanted something put into the market to maintain momentum. The result was the release of ‘Strawberry Fields’ and ‘Penny Lane’ as a double A side single.
These two gems epitomised the contrasting yet equally brilliant song writing styles that Lennon/McCartney had perfected. ‘Penny Lane’ showcased McCartney’s effervescent, optimistic pop genius, while ‘Strawberry Fields’ typified Lennon’s introspective, psychedelic virtuosity. It was the perfect precursor for the magical album that was soon to follow.
The wax figures borrowed from Madame Tussaud's for the Sgt. Pepper's artwork are still a major tourist attraction in London
4. The Wilson factor
McCartney credits Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys as the single greatest influence for the creation of Sgt. Pepper’s.
The acclaimed Beach Boys Pet Sounds album featured a broad palette of instrumental combinations, arrangements and technical wizardry, coupled with sophisticated song writing. The Beatles walked through the creative door opened by Wilson and were able to capitalise on the new-found freedom with dazzling results.
5. Breaking new ground on visuals
The musical originality of Sgt. Pepper’s was complemented by a novel approach to the visuals too. The cover art concept involved a collage of famous people surrounding the fab four who were dressed in garishly coloured military band-style costumes, while standing next to ‘Beatlemania’ styled wax figures of themselves (which had actually been borrowed from Madame Tussaud’s).
It was a radical concept in sleeve design that mirrored the inventiveness of the music. Even the idea of printing the lyrics on the back cover was an unheard-of innovation.
6. Was it really drug induced?
The folklore that built up following the album’s release included a theory that ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ was code for the drug LSD. The band whole-heartedly rejected this rumour, citing the song’s inspiration as actually being a drawing by John’s young son, Julian, who spontaneously named his picture ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’.
The Beatles don’t deny that recreational drug use was something they indulged in, but they never let it interfere with their work ethic in the studio or in their song writing.
Starr summed up this division between work and play when he said “we found out very early on that if you play stoned you get really terrible music, so when we went in the studio we were there to work”.
Sgt. Pepper's represented a massive and innovative shift in the Beatles' style – the fact they didn't intend to play the songs live allowed greater creative freedom
7. Most of all, it was about the music
Beyond all the theatrical imagery and cultural influences, however, Sgt. Pepper’s stands the test of time primarily because of its musical strength. Producer George Martin describes the growth in the songwriting capabilities of Lennon and McCartney over the five years from 1962 as simply breathtaking.
“The intro to ‘Lucy In The Sky’, for example, with its descending bass line and enchanting, music-box melody is a phrase that even Beethoven would have been proud of,” he said. “Then there was ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ – a beautiful melody that McCartney wrote using just five notes so that Starr’s limited vocal range could manage it. So simple, yet so effective.”
Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick were integral to the end result too. Their ability to improvise and invent various sounds and recording techniques with the very limited technology available then enabled the band to bring their experimental ideas to life.
8. The grand finale
Few achievements in popular music can compare with the album’s mind-blowing crescendo; 'A Day In The Life', written primarily by Lennon. Lennon’s spine-tingling vocal paints evocative word pictures based on news stories he had read.
The song then morphs, via a chaotic orchestral interlude, into a middle section, which was actually lifted from a completely different song that McCartney had written.
It then returns to the original melody before the orchestra lifts the song to its dramatic climax, abruptly punctuated with perhaps the most celebrated single E chord in music history. A stunning conclusion to one of the 20th century’s finest pieces of art.
What are your memories of Sgt. Pepper’s? Share your story below.
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(Feature image: © Parlophone Limited)