Sgt Pepper: ‘greatest ever’ album turns 50

Iconic: The band had planned to put Gandhi, Jesus and Hitler on the cover. © Paul Townsend

It was fifty years ago today that The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The magazine Rolling Stone calls it the best album ever. Does this undervalue other great music?

June 1st 1967 was the first day of the famous “summer of love”. The children born in the post-war baby boom were just becoming adults.

The hippy movement was getting stronger. The dangers of recreational drugs were little known. It was a time of prosperity and optimism.

And it was the day the Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album, which used a range of extraordinary psychedelic sounds, was an appropriate tribute to its times.

At first some reviewers were unimpressed. The New York Times called the album “busy, hip and cluttered”. But in the subsequent 50 years it has been lauded as a high-water mark of music making.

In 2003 Rolling Stone said Sgt Pepper was the best album ever, calling it “an unsurpassed adventure by the greatest rock & roll group of all time”. Eight years later the magazine also said its iconic cover, featuring the Beatles with cardboard cutouts of their heroes, was the greatest ever.

Today marks the 50th anniversary of its release, and it is once again generating vast publicity. A new mix has been released. A three-week festival is taking place in Liverpool, the Beatles’ home city. Tribute concerts are being held. The BBC is celebrating with a series of TV and radio programmes.

Sgt Pepper was radical and experimental. Hand-played instruments and analogue tape tricks created eerie sounds. Indian instruments dominated the track Within You Without You. Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite featured a steam organ.

And the album had a universal appeal. The lyrics to Good Morning Good Morning and A Day in the Life were about mundane aspects of ordinary life. Most of the songs focused on the pleasures of youth — but When I’m Sixty-Four and She’s Leaving Home spoke of the struggles facing older generations.

Now some commentators say Sgt Pepper changed music fundamentally. Music scholar Martin Cloonan says it represented “pop’s slow climb out of a cultural ghetto”. The composer, Howard Goodall, says it has influenced most music, in any genre, written in the last 50 years.

Beatlemania

It is the greatest, say some. It was far ahead of its time and packed with amazing sounds. It embodied a hopeful new era while nodding to the traditional, deferential British culture it was born from. Half a century on, the Beatles are still gaining young fans. This album has had a profound impact, which is still being felt.

That is a narrow and predictable opinion, others respond. The Beatles were hardly the only band to create anything original. The reverence afforded to Sgt Pepper devalues everything that has come since or from different traditions. And comparing albums to find the “greatest of all time” is a largely pointless task.

You Decide

  1. Have the Beatles influenced your life?
  2. Is Sgt Pepper the greatest album of all time?

Activities

  1. Work in fours. You have created your own album. Draw a cover which you could use, based on the iconic one for Sgt Pepper above this article.
  2. Choose a historical album which you find interesting. Prepare a one-minute talk to your class which explains what it was about and what it said about its time.

Some People Say...

“It is impossible to decide what is the best music of all time.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Sgt Pepper spent 27 weeks (more than half a year) at the top of the UK album chart. It has sold over 32m copies worldwide. It cost £25,000 (around £425,000 in today’s money) to make, much more than most other albums at the time. Its popularity and mystique is enduring: in 2008 the bass drum skin which was used on the front cover sold at auction for €670,000.
What do we not know?
Whether Rolling Stone was right to declare the album the best of all time. The magazine’s process was comprehensive. It asked 273 people from the music industry to vote on their choice — including artists, producers, executives, shop owners and journalists. Some of the Beatles’ other albums came 3rd, 5th and 10th. But in 2013 NME said The Queen is Dead by The Smiths was the best album ever.

Word Watch

Summer of love
In 1967 up to 100,000 mostly young people gathered in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. Many experimented with drugs and sex. They were part of an underground movement which began gaining widespread media attention in 1967.
Baby boom
Having and raising children was difficult during the second world war. Many couples had them immediately after it finished in 1945.
Optimism
In Britain in 1967 post-war austerity had eased. Homosexuality was decriminalised and abortion legalised that year.
Psychedelic
This refers to mind-altering drugs and sounds or sights associated with them. The song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, which features on Sgt Pepper, is believed to refer to LSD.
Mundane
For example, a verse of A Day in the Life says: “Woke up, fell out of bed; dragged a comb across my head; found my way downstairs and drank a cup; and looking up I noticed I was late”.
Older
It was unusual for a rock or pop group of the time to write material that appealed to older listeners.
Goodall
He has written and will present the BBC’s Sgt Pepper’s Musical Revolution on Saturday evening.

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