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Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band revisited

George, Ringo, Paul and John. Photo/Alamy

Half a century ago the Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Graham Reid considers the album and its reissue.

The mythologising of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 50 years ago to almost universal acclaim, began back in March when the BBC’s Ian Young hailed it as “the greatest and most important album in rock”, which “regularly comes towards the top of lists of the greatest albums ever made”.

Well, that may once have been true. But today, Pepper songs are rarely played on radio, and recent polls of the public and critics don’t rate it as the greatest album of the rock era. Most don’t even consider it the Beatles’ best album.

Last year, Britain’s Uncut magazine placed their Revolver from 1966 in second place behind the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds from the same year, their 1968 double album (aka The White Album) fifth and 1965’s Rubber Soul at 15. Pepper only made it to 21.

In the past two decades, Pepper has rarely been in any top 10, and in the late 90s’ Q magazine poll of “The 50 Best British Albums Ever” – topped by Oasis’s Definitely Maybe – it didn’t appear at all.

Perhaps the reason for the relegation of this masterpiece of production and pop innovation, which captured the zeitgeist during Britain’s Summer of Love, is that the world moved on and the landmark Pepper slipped into the preserving amber of cultural history.

In 2010, Robin Gibb observed, citing the Beatles’ classic single Strawberry Fields Forever released ahead of Pepper, “If I turn the radio on, I hear about four or five Bee Gees or Gibb brothers songs every day, but not the Beatles … Beatles’ music is very fixed in its time, the psychedelic music of the late 60s … Stayin’ Alive doesn’t sound out of place, but Strawberry Fields would.”

Shooting the Pepper cover.

And Pepper was also idiosyncratically British. In the US, the mantra of the hippie era was Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in and drop out” to lengthy guitar solos while dressed in buckskin or flowing dresses.

Psychedelic and summery Britain in 67 – as Pepper exemplified – was very different: visually it was a melange of Edwardian foppery and recycled militaria (the Beatles’ band uniforms on the Pepper cover), cool whimsy and a studied eccentricity that, in music, tapped into such British traditions as brass bands, music hall (Paul McCartney’s When I’m 64) and dreamy pastoralism.

It’s notable that there are few guitar solos on Pepper, but brass and orchestral instruments are everywhere.

Whereas American hippies took the counterculture seriously – giving rise to “the Woodstock Nation” – in Britain it was looked upon with wit and scepticism and the dressing-up as a bit of a jape. That mood – and the place where Indian and esoteric philosophies plus consciousness-altering drugs such as LSD converged – was captured by George Harrison in It’s All Too Much, written at the time of Pepper but not released until two years later: “Show me that I’m everywhere and get me home for tea.”

That domesticity on Pepper – an album made by four men with partners – is evident in She’s Leaving Home, With a Little Help from My Friends and Lennon’s world-weary “I read the news today/I saw a film today” from A Day in the Life, all of which sat alongside Lennon’s LSD-infused reverie Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and Harrison’s spiritually inclined Within You Without You with an Indian ensemble, the latter closing with laughter to undercut its philosophical earnestness.

Years before David Bowie and Madonna’s shape-shifting careers, the Beatles effected a remarkable career reinvention in 1967. Pepper’s iconic cover – their colourful new selves and the former Fab Four standing side by side, seemingly around a grave bearing their name – was light years from the austere black and white cover of With the Beatles three and a half years before.

From the album’s title and lyrics (“We’re Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band …”) to the diverse and complex music within, Pepper reset the parameters of what was possible within pop music. This was LSD-influenced music as a kaleidoscope of colours, imagery, characters and complex studio production.

Just how complex is revealed in the various iterations of Pepper’s current reissue where expanded editions come with previously unreleased versions and out-takes. They remind us just how musically inventive the Beatles and their producer, George Martin, were.

Remixed by Martin’s son Giles with Ringo Starr’s dexterous, angular drumming and some vocals more central, the stereo Pepper has more presence and sounds more present tense. A double-disc version offers the album reconstructed from alternative takes. Stripped of swirling psychedelics and cut-up tapes, orchestration and in some instances lyrics, as on She’s Leaving Home where we can hear Mike Leander’s elegant string arrangement, the music is evocative, unpredictable and sometimes downright strange. Or disarmingly simple, as in McCartney’s reductive piano on Penny Lane.

There are also early versions of Lennon’s Strawberry Fields Forever before studio alchemy changed it from slightly anxious folk-rock into a dreamily disembodied psychedelic classic. This extra material may be for obsessives, but the Pepper songs, arrangements, layers of production and often penetrating lyrics are testament to the crucible of creativity these young men, the oldest still only 26, inhabited.

In these days of streaming and downloads, music arrives without visual or tactile reference points. Pepper comes from a time when people scoured lyrics and photos for clues and signposts. And it supplied them.

It may not be “the greatest and most important album in rock” but – Robin Gibb’s comments accepted – even at this distance, it remains a defining statement of its era. And a terrific headphone experience.

A small note on the back cover read: “A splendid time is guaranteed for all.” That time may be a British summer half a century ago, but in its courage, ambition, scope and suggestion of possibilities, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is also oddly timeless.

And, even now, rather splendid.

The remixed Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Universal) has been reissued as a single CD, double CD, double vinyl, and a box set of four CDs with a DVD, booklet and memorabilia.

This article was first published in the June 10, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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