Friday, June 2, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' landmark Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the U.S. Although nearly every aspect of the album -- from the music to the album cover to the rest of the artwork -- has become culturally iconic, let's time-travel back to a world that did not yet know any of it. Let's recall and explore the pre-Pepper state of mind.
The Revolver album was released in August of 1966, which The Beatles immediately followed up with their final U.S. concert tour. They concluded the tour in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, which famously became their last standard concert appearance as a band.
It took awhile for word to leak out to the public that the band would no longer perform live. And when it did, The Beatles' future intentions were generally misunderstood. A widely-distributed article by Tom Cullen, the European Staff Correspondent for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, declared in late November 1966, "As things stand, there is general moaning and gnashing of teeth because the fabulous foursome -- John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- have decided to go their separate ways."
While that assertion no doubt sounded dire to fans, the article admitted that "The Beatles will continue to cut records from time to time. They may even make films together." How did this square with the suggestion of a band break-up? Well, the reporter wrote, "They are unlikely ever to tour again as a group, and personal appearances are considered to be the lifeblood of popularity in the pop world."
And yet, even around the time this article was being read by disappointed fans around the country, The Beatles had already regrouped and were recording music for their next album. On November 24th, the band had convened at EMI Studios in London to begin work on their follow-up to Revolver. They began with "Strawberry Fields Forever," and would also be diligently working on "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Penny Lane" before the year was out. (Even though "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were issued as a single and not included on the eventual album, that was not the plan as work on the next album began.)
On January 22, 1967, the London Sunday Times ran a Paul quote that again suggested that band had broken up: "Now we're ready to go our own ways. We'll work together if we miss each other. Then it'll be hobby work. It's good for us to go it alone." When asked about his new moustache, Paul responded along the same lines: "It's part of breaking up The Beatles. I no longer believe in the image. I'm no longer one of the four mop-tops."
It seems like odd comments to make, as The Beatles had been hard at work recording "A Day in the Life" during the previous week. It does, however, add context to the personification of another musical group that would be somewhat of an organizing principle for Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and its usage of Beatlemania-era wax statues of themselves in the cover photo.
To reassure everyone that The Beatles were marching steadily on, the very next day (January 23rd) a band spokesman rushed out the news that a fresh single, featuring "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever," was planned for a February 17 release in the United Kingdom and somewhere around that date in the U.S., as well.
Further, a United Press International wire service report informed the public that "The Beatles are now working on another 12 numbers for their next album, to be released sometime in the spring, along with a one-hour television spectacular of their own centered on the recording."
A Honolulu DJ and newspaper columnist named Dave Donnelly (whom I will refer to multiple times due to the very interesting information about which he wrote) observed wryly in a February 1 column, "All of the premature talk of the Beatles breaking up is going to do wonders for their upcoming single." He also shared with his readers that "The Beatles -- for all the rumors and press agentry -- have been busy recording. And recording perfectionists they are, too. Brian Epstein, Beatle boss, reports that their new record is 'just superb.' The question is, for the Beatles, is 'superb' good enough"?
Two days later, Donnelly debuted the new Beatles single to his radio listeners and subsequently shared these observations in print:
As expected, it's strange. Accompanied by double string quartet plus harpsichord, the Liverpudlians have outdone themselves musically. There's even a brass section, and on Penny Lane, a wild trumpet solo. Strawberry Fields Forever is over four minutes long, and the ending is too much. It's going to take several listenings to really hear what's happening. With the Beatles world wide popularity, and with rumors of a split, this may be the record to knock off the Monkees.
(The Monkees' "I'm a Believer" was currently reigning supreme on pop charts both sides of the Atlantic.)
The single made one Massachusetts music columnist excited for the announced next album. "Be on the look out for the next Beatle's [sic] album," she wrote. "It's scheduled to be released in early spring. I'm hoping that they keep the 'Strawberry Fields Forever' theme throughout the album since this is the best material they've ever created. In any event, it will be interesting as usual to see what they do come up with."
Others were still confused about the band's future. In a "Platter Chatter" column in a Van Nuys, CA, newspaper, the writer declared, " 'Strawberry Fields Forever' may be the last record for the Beatles, since they are due to pursue their own careers sometime in the immediate future."
Honolulu's plugged-in Dave Donnelly wrote on March 11, "A one hour special is being filmed in conjunction with the release of the new Beatle album, tracks of which the Beatles are now recording." He continued,
Typical of the film is a recent session at the E.M.I. Records studio in London. There were 41 of the Great Britain's finest classical musicians in formal evening dress. They are backing the Beatles on at least one track in the new album. Also seen (besides the Beatles and their wives) will be Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful, Donovan and Gipsy Dave, Keith Richard and Monkee Mike Nesmith (who just happened to be in town). There were seven cameras handy, and any of the guests could film away to their heart's delight. Apparently some daring film editor will try to construct something out of the madness, but the results may prove surprising. The new album certainly will.
The earliest indication I've been able to locate of the title of the Fab Four's next album was from April 14, in the Ottawa Journal:
Would you believe "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band?" That, my friends, is the title of the next album by The Beatles. The LP, which so far has taken seven months to record, is almost finished. Among the tracks are "When I'm 64," a novelty number in the early phonograph style featuring Paul McCartney; "A Day in the Life," a John Lennon solo in which he is backed by a 41-piece orchestra; "Good Morning, Good Morning," John and Paul dueting with musical accompaniment from Sounds Incorporated; "She's Leaving Home," arranged by Mike Leander and using string; and "Sergeant Pepper's Blues." "Meter Rita," is another John Lennon solo incorporating three four-track machines which took a month to prepare. Another gimmick of the number is a comb and paper played backwards! The uncompleted tracks are a George Harrison composition which he sings accompanied by Indian instrumentation; and Ringo's solo which hasn't yet been written. The album won't include 12 tracks since some of the numbers are of considerable length. It will be released in May.
(In fact, Ringo's solo -- "With a Little Help From My Friends" -- was not only already written but had been recorded on March 29th and 30th. "Within You Without You" had also already been completed in early April.)
While the title of "Lovely Rita" was misreported and it's unclear to what "Sergeant Pepper's Blues" was referring, the brief album overview is fairly accurate. The intrepid Dave Donnelly relayed much of the same information to his readers the following day, although he had one Lennon song listed as "Good Morning Good Morning Good Morning," and mentioned that "Both sides of the current ["Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane"] single may be included."
On April 21, the Detroit Free Press cautioned fans to remain patient. "Although the Beatles' album is scheduled for May release there may be a delay since they want to add pictures and souvenirs to make it into a deluxe package," it reported.
While, famously, no single was released from the Sergeant Pepper album ("Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were excised from the album after they were issued as a 45), some advance music did leak out. Dave Donnelly in Honolulu was playing one song from the album on his KPOI radio show and he discussed it in his April 22 column in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
The new Beatle song which has been receiving much airplay is called A Day in the Life, and features John Lennon and a 41 piece orchestra. It's a fantastic record, and far removed from their earlier I Wanna Hold your Hand efforts. The song, which easily fits into the category of "pot pop," will included in the next Beatle album, "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." The L.P. won't be released for several weeks, due to problems with the album jacket. If this track is any indication of what the rest of the album is going to be like, and it probably is, then the L.P. could be the wildest pop album ever made by a name group. Flash: The new Beatle single will be called L.S. Mummble-Bee and sounds like a take off on the old Lucky Strike commercials, with psychedelic overtones.
This final detail, about the new single by The Beatles, was inaccurate. "Capitol is pretty annoyed at tapes being played of what is supposed to be a new Beatle single," said The Ottawa Journal on May 5. "The wax most stations are playing does come from the new Beatles album" -- presumably referring to the recording of "A Day in the Life" as mentioned by Donnelly -- "and was in all probability stolen from EMI. But the flipside most uninformed deejays are touting as The Beatles isn't the Beatles at all but a British comedy duo called Dudley Moore and Peter Cook."
Oops. The "L.S. Bumble Bee" was its correct title and was a then-new single by Moore and Cook satirizing psychedelia in general with a nod towards the Beach Boys specifically.
However, it was true that tapes of Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had "leaked" to some radio stations. (A common enough occurrence in the internet age, but also not unheard of 50 years ago.) Donnelly reported in a later column that, according to a legal representative from The Beatles' U.S. label, "several copies apparently had been made from the originally pilfered one and came into the hands of about a half dozen stations across the country, all of which have now agreed to stop playing the album. One Los Angeles station needed a court suit to be persuaded, but others of us were more easily convinced."
Donnelly further editorialized:
While it is our opinion that two weeks of heavy air promotion for the album would be beneficial to later sales, the men at Capitol (who after all own the album and have not authorized its release) think otherwise.... Without a doubt, the Capitol decision makers underestimate both the public and the album in question. "Sgt. Pepper" will not only become the probably best selling album of 1967 (despite the furor over premature release) but will make a kind of milestone in pop music. From the psychedelic overtones of "A Day in the Life Of..." to the 1930's spoofing of "When I'm 64" to the lyrical and musical beauty of "She's Leaving Home" which is probably the finest single recording ever made by the Beatles or anybody else in the pop field for that matter.... There are no traditional "pop" songs in the album, no conservative cop outs to youth. This is a package for the musically mature, and we can only wait patiently until the album cover problems are overcome and the ban is lifted before once again dishing up the fantastic Beatles in their most fantastic venture to date.
Prophetic words, as it turned out.
Meanwhile, back on April 27, The Guardian in England published a preview of the forthcoming album from a highbrow musical perspective:
Stockhausen is one of the improbably, if conscious, influences on the Beatles' latest LP, "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," due to be issued on May 19. The last LP, "Revolver," issued last summer, pointed the way to avant-garde influence, but according to George Martin, the Beatles' recording manager, this one goes much farther towards abstract music, and there are "lots of odd accompaniments." The influence of Eastern music is again important (George Harrison rehearsed a full five-piece Indian group for one track) and all these developments reflect much more sophisticated musical taste in the moustachioed period. The odd title of the record is simply that of the first number.
Dave Donnelly heard the influence of drugs in the new album, as written in his May 6 column:
The new pop lyrics are reflecting the influence of drugs on young people. Witness "A Day in the Life" by the Beatles. And another cut from the forthcoming Beatle album, "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," contains the lyrics "forty thousand purple holes in my arm." These are the cleanies -- the Beatles. Wonder what the new album by the baddies -- the Rolling Stones -- will be like.
One can only assume his "purple holes" line is a mangling of "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire" from "A Day in the Life," despite the suggestion that it is from a different song.
Donnelly also broke the news of the album's track listing on May 17, and while it turned out to be inaccurate, it remains a fascinating (if perplexing) running order for the album:
1 - SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, sung by Paul
2 - LOVELY RITA, sung by Paul
3 - GOOD MORNING, GOOD MORNING, GOOD MORNING, sung by John
4 - WHEN I'M 64, sung by Paul
5 - A DAY IN THE LIFE OF..., sung by Paul and John
6 - SHE'S LEAVING HOME, sung by Paul and John
7 - FIXING A HOLE, sung by Paul
8 - GETTIN' BETTER, sung by Paul
9 - WITHIN YOU - WITHOUT YOU, sung by George and at 5:11 is the longest Beatle song to date.
10 - LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS, sung by John
11 - BEING FOR THE BENEFIT OF MR. KITE, sung by John
12 - SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND (Reprise), sung by Paul
13 - WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM MY FRIENDS, sung by Ringo
Donnelly also reported that the release date had been pushed back to June 1, and that the cover art was causing the delay. "It's a complicated fold out affair," he wrote about the cover, "not unlike those in children's books and valentines, so we won't be able to do it justice by printing a picture of it."
An unrelated article in The Honolulu Advertiser later described the album's bonus elements. "Naturally, the musical contents (now silenced because of legal action by the recording firms) are explosive. But wait until you see the double-wallet cover. It will include four pages of Beatle pics, words of all songs (hurray! a first!), a postcard of Sgt. Pepper, a cut-out moustache for fan use, two badges, a pair of sergeant stripes, a stand-up photo of the four fellas dressed like members of Sgt. Pepper's Band. It's like Christmas coming early."
The London Times news service further discussed the album's cover in an article titled "Way-Out Record Cover Due for Beatles' Next LP":
EMI, naturally enough, has been a bit worried about the expense of publishing the cover. "The art work alone cost 50 times more than the art work on a normal LP," says Sir Joseph Lockwood, chairman of EMI. "But it's their best ever record and I hope we'll sell about seven million. I'm sure everyone will want one as a unique souvenir.
The Times also discussed the array of famous faces used on the cover photo.
It is all very harmless and nobody could possibly object to anything, but EMI has been a bit upset. It made them take Gandhi's face out, just in case anyone would think the Beatles were attacking him in some way. "there are millions of people in India who might be offended," says Sir Joseph.
"We simply had the idea of Sergeant Pepper," says Paul Mccartney. "He is a mythical band leader, and this is the record of his show, plus the sort of hand-out material he would give out."
"He would be a cult figure and he would have pictures of other cult figures in the background. We chose people who are our heroes. The trouble is, people start looking for deep psychological reasons, and of course they find them."
On May 20, the Michigan newspaper The Battle Creek Enquirer ran a feature on The Turtles ("Turtles Explain Why They Are 'Happy Together' ") in which it was revealed that the Los Angeles group had gotten their hands on an advance copy of the Sergeant Pepper's LP. "The new Beatle album, not yet on release, was discussed by members of the group," reported the Enquirer, "who were sent an advance copy. Howard [Kaylan] describes some of the cuts on it as being 'the most completely psychedelic songs I've ever heard.' "
That same day, the Associated Press distributed a story that the BBC had decided to ban "A Day in the Life" from U.K. airwaves. The story explained that,
The Beatles criticized the ban Friday night at a dinner party at the home of their manager, Brian Epstein, to celebrate the release of the new album, scheduled for June 1. McCartney said "The BBC have misinterpreted the song. It has nothing to do with drug taking. It's only about a dream."
"The laugh is that Paul and I wrote this song from a headline in a newspaper. It's about a crash and its victim," said Lennon.
"How anyone can read drugs into it is beyond me. Everyone seems to be falling overboard to see the word drug in the most innocent of phrases."
For their part, the BBC spokesperson was quoted as saying, "We have listened to this song over and over again. And we have decided that it appears to go just a little too far, and could encourage a permissive attitude to drug taking."
As the release date neared, the London Times reviewed the album on May 29, giving a rundown of the then-current pop scene and then scanning through Sgt. Pepper's track listing:
Fixing a hole is cool, anti-romantic, harmonically a little like the earlier Yesterday and Michelle; She's leaving home is a slow waltz reminiscent of old musical comedy but with a classically slanted accompaniment for harp and string quartet, and with ironical words about a minor domestic tragedy (the text, which are of consistently lively poetic interest, are printed in full on the back cover). There is a neat vaudeville number, When I'm 64, which comments pointedly on this old-time vogue and its relevance for modern beat song. George Harrison's Within you without you carried the manner of Indian music farther into pop that ever before.... Psychedelia can be diagnosed in the fanciful lyric and intriguing asymmetrical music of Lucy in the sky, as well as the sound effects of Lovely Rita (she is a parking meter warden), and the hurricane glissandi of A day in the life which has been banned by the B.B.C. for its ambivalent references to drug-taking.... I greatly enjoy the five-bar phrases of Good Morning Good Morning which is something like a novelty number; and the tidy simplicity and shapely bass-line of A little help from my friends, the only track that would have been conceivable in pop songs five years ago. Any of these songs is more genuinely creative than anything currently to be heard on pop radio stations.
Finally, on Tuesday, May 30th, with the U.S. release of the album imminent on June 2, 1967, Harold V. Cohen ran a brief item in his "At Random" column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "Aside to the John-Paul-George-Ringo Cult: B-Day is Friday. That's when the new Beatles album comes out."
The rest is history.