Friday, 26 May 2017

Fifty Years Ago Today: Sergeant Pepper

by Mark Richardson

It was fifty years ago today.

May 26th 1967 saw the appearance of a record that was utterly unlike anything people had seen before. It had a strange and jokey title, a cover that was full of unexpectedly familiar and unfamiliar faces all jammed together and it was by a band that people knew well but, well, this?  What is it?

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band absolutely came out of nowhere. No one had seen it coming, and when it did arrive it was utterly unlike anything anyone had heard or seen. Even the title was from nowhere: Paul McCartney misheard "pass the salt and pepper" on a plane flight as "sergeant pepper" and that set him thinking on the flight about whether it was an idea or if it could be a song. Out of that came the next step: how about it being a Band like the Beatles, but not the Beatles?

The group had reached the stage that they found being the Beatles almost intolerable. Ringo Starr refused to stay in the band unless they stopped touring, and none of them disagreed: touring had been unbearable, constantly underprepared and running from one venue to another, constantly assailed by friends and enemies seemingly everywhere, all wanting a piece of them. The studio was a sanctuary, and they were ready to make the most of it. They all wanted it make something that nobody had ever heard before, and supported by the producer genius George Martin, they did.

It had an incalculable effect. It remains the highest-selling album from the 1960s, it influenced countless bands thereafter, and it continues to represent some of their best ever work.

One thing it isn't, is what Wikipedia regards it as: rock. No it is not. Whatever it might be, it is not a rock album. If it is anything, it's an art object, one that has a classic piece of 1960s art by Peter Blake, and which has the most definitive E chord at the end, an art object ending with a chord to end all music. It's art but not as we knew it. 'Rock' is entirely inadequate as a label here.

Listen to Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, A Day In The Life, Within Without You and She's Leaving Home and marvel at how familiar they might be but also just imagine what it must have been like to hear them for the very first time. Lucky them. Fifty Years. Imagine!

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