It Was 50 Years Ago Today

(alternative sleeve from the brand-new version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; an outtake from the most celebrated album cover ever done)

Sgt. Pepper taught The Beatles to play. June, 1967. ‘Twas one of those glorious moments to be young and alive. I was just about to go into my Manitoba grade 12 departmental exams when the album arrived in Winnipeg around June 1.

The previous three albums, Rubber Soul–a ground-breaking acoustically-driven Euro-sounding album, had come out in the winter of ’65-’66, followed by Revolver in the summer of ’66, and Yesterday and Today (in Canada) in the winter of ’66-’67, along with the Januaryish-Februaryish releases of  “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Penny Lane”, and “Paperback Writer.”

The Beatles had given up performing live and the last aforementioned three songs along with “Tomorrow Never Knows” signalled that they were changing their sound and style bigtime. They had used feedback creatively on “I’m Only Sleeping” and radio clips on “Tomorrow Never Knows”–a ‘deep’ title suggested by Ringo btw. As well, they were using band music and arrangements on Revolver, “Strawberry” and “Penny”.

But no one, but nobody remotely guessed that they would do the second concept rock album (The Who was first with Tommy), or expand listener consciousness as much as they did on this landmark album. The band arrangements were there again as was the psychedelic imagery and subject matter. But their songwriting had now reached its peak along with Ringo and George’s work and contributions.

The album had humor (audience laughter, social criticism, sarcasm, references to pop culture, animal sound effects); it featured harp and sitar, violin arrangements, Existentialism, mellotron, circus organs, amazing use of echo, and the most memorable single piano chord ever played in music by several people to end-punctuate the album.

Paul wrote most of the album: “Sgt. Pepper’s”, “Getting Better”, “Fixing a Hole”, “She’s Leaving Home” (a classical music piece with lyrics), “When I’m Sixty-Four”, “Lovely Rita”, and the bridge in “A Day in the Life”. Lennon wrote “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “Good Morning”, and most of “A Day in the Life”. George’s contribution was the powerful Eastern-inspired arrangement “Within You, Without You”, which cleverly blended violins and Indian instruments. And George Martin, as usual, deserves the lion’s share of credit for the final sound, facilitating everything the group wanted and asked for, as well as playing some keyboards and writing arrangements which helped raise the bar set by the basic songs.

Did I say it was impossible to study or focus on mundane stuff like finals with the soundtrack of this album playing in my ear 24/7? It was a revelation, too, to hear the album at my friend Lorne’s place. He had the best stereo setup of all my friends, and this was definitely an album to be savoured in stereo with separated parts, sounds, and kinesthetic effects. The latter is on full display in “Good Morning, Good Morning” as animal sounds alternate from the speakers and a fox hunt runs across from one side to the next. There were also delicious swirling effects on “Mr. Kite”, George’s song, and “A Day in the Life”. None of this kind of thing had ever been done on a pop record before.

Well, shrewd marketing with the release of the overpriced, but interesting nonetheless 50th anniversary album package. You get a new stereo mix, a mono version, 2 CDs of outtakes showing how the songs developed (the best part of the audio materials), a Blu-Ray and DVD version of how the album was made, along with 3 promotional featurettes/videos of “Penny”, “Day” and “Strawberry”. The latter three reflect the Carnaby and psychedelic atmosphere of the time.

I enjoyed the trip down memory lane on what I still consider to be the best rock/pop album of all time. The humorous opening of the title song with a rock base; Ringo’s catchy “With a Little Help from My Friends with its straight-ahead, strong backup vocals; John’s far-out imagery with modified sounds in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”; the peppy “Getting Better” with its falsetto call-backing and Eastern droning (an early favorite for me); Paul’s moody “Fixing a Hole”(an ultimate song for loners and thinkers), “She’s Leaving Home” (with its clever use of Lennon’s overlapping vocals); “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” (a spacey, nightmarish answer to Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”); “Within You, Without You” (the second-most challenging song to realize on the album); “When I’m Sixty-Four” (which Paul wrote as a teenager); “Lovely Rita” ( a ad-libbish free-for all); “Good Morning, Good Morning” (inspired by and spoofing a Kellogg’s corn flakes ad, replete with over-the-top sound effects); and “A Day in the Life” (arguably the album’s masterpiece of social commentary and 100% targeted at youth of the day).

50 years, eh? And still one of the great musical trips and odysseys ever.

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