How the Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ Changed Music Forever

Iconic album, a flawed masterpiece, turns 50 this year and is still tremendously influential

by Greg Hartman | Updated 20 Mar 2017 at 6:51 AM

Beatles fan Rob Menish still remembers the first time he heard the album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

“It was ‘When I’m Sixty-Four,'” Menish said, referring to the ninth song on “Sgt. Pepper,” the Beatles’ eighth album. “It wasn’t the Beatles’ version, it was somebody on a show my parents were watching. It was a lot of whimsy and sound effects, and I hated it. My dad — who was absolutely not a Beatles fan — told me it was really a pretty good song, but this lady wasn’t singing it right. He encouraged me to find and listen to the original. Pop didn’t know it — but he started me on the right path.”

June 1 marks the 50th birthday of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Menish became an accomplished and eclectic music aficionado in his own right, working in Nashville as a recording engineer, drummer, vocalist, bass player, and songwriter. But the Beatles, especially “Sgt. Pepper,” will always be one of his first loves.

June 1 will mark the 50th birthday of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” still considered a groundbreaking, influential album, not only in the Beatles’ catalog but also as one of the most important albums ever recorded. It’s No. 1 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 special edition “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” it’s one of the best-selling albums in history, and it’s included in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry — among numerous other accolades and awards. What is it about this particular album that has made such a mark on music?

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It’s widely regarded as one of the first-ever concept albums — even though it isn’t.

The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and “The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out!” were two of the first true concept albums, yet both preceded and influenced “Sgt. Pepper.” Nevertheless, Rolling Stone’s Andy Greene credited “Sgt. Pepper” with kicking off the album era; it’s also credited as one of the first art rock and progressive rock albums, opening the door for Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and “The Wall,” The Who’s “Tommy,” and rock operas such as “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

“Sgt. Pepper” does have many of the classic features of a true concept album: the extended-form songs, the band’s refusal to release any singles from it, the crossfading between tracks, and so on. But the Beatles themselves insisted “Sgt. Pepper” wasn’t a concept album. Drummer Ringo Starr pointed out that besides the first two songs (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “With a Little Help From My Friends”) and the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise toward the end, the album has no consistent theme at all.

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Indeed, two of its original songs — “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” — were released several months early due to record company pressure and were left off the album, while “When I’m Sixty-Four” was written way back in the Beatles’ Cavern Club days.

"Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn't go anywhere," John Lennon said in 1980, as quoted in David Sheff's book "All We Are Saying." "It works because we said it worked."

"It is not a concept album. Really, it's not," Menish told LifeZette of his beloved Beatles album. "But it is a cohesive work and it deserves to be played top to bottom."

The album was one of the first to consider production quality as important as writing and performing, a signature of the Beatles' style and a concept that has heavily influenced pop music today.

The Beatles quit performing in public for good in 1966 (among other reasons, they said no one could hear their music by that point because of the incessant screaming of fans). So "Sgt. Pepper" was the first album that gave them the twin luxuries of not worrying about performing the songs on stage and of having all the time and resources they wanted in the studio. With its featured 40-piece orchestra, the East Indian classical musicians, the vaudeville and circus music, the aleatoric crescendos and advanced sound-shaping signal processing, it's doubtful the album could have ever been performed on stage at all.

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"Sgt. Pepper" captured and defined 1967's "Summer of Love" and the belief that rock music was progressive social expression, not just entertainment.

"The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the 'Sgt. Pepper' album was released," Rolling Stone's Langdon Winner wrote in 2002. "In every city in Europe and America the radio stations played it, and everyone listened. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."

For weeks during the summer and fall of 1967, stations played "Sgt. Pepper" around the clock, often from start to finish — something unheard of today.

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However, the social elements of the "Summer of Love" — free love, drugs, rejection of war and materialism — stemmed from music and sources outside and before the Beatles and "Sgt. Pepper"; the Beatles rarely addressed politics or current events in their music at all.

Yet "Sgt. Pepper" remains the soundtrack for the summer of love to this day. The belief that music could be a unifying force stronger than war, poverty, and other social ills was perfectly captured by the album; its iconic music and imagery have transcended Western pop culture and become an icon of mutual listening pleasure that will no doubt transfix music fans for generations to come. It's fair to say "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" is a flawed masterpiece, but a masterpiece nonetheless — one that should enjoy pride of place in any music collection.

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