After recording Revolver, each of the Beatles headed off on their own for a few months. A break from their lives as working musicians was necessary: the Beatles’ infamous ‘more popular than Jesus comment’ had caused a major public backlash in the states. This – along with the pressures of their personal lives – had left the band exasperated.
Lennon spent his time off acting in a film. George Harrison went to India with Ravi Shankar to learn the sitar and explore Hindu teachings. Paul McCartney traveled the world and worked on a film score. Ringo spent the time with his wife and baby son, Zac.
This was 1967, and the Beatles were tired of being the Beatles. “We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach,” McCartney said of that time. “We were not boys, we were men … and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”
Fitting, then, that their new album was born out of McCartney’s idea for the band to pretend to be someone else. They would create an album as a fictional band, and be freed from the expectations that came with being the Beatles. And so, they got to work on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Cub Band.
Sergeant Pepper is an extension of the psychedelic rock hinted at on Revolver, but takes it to the extreme. If Revolver was influenced by LSD, Sergeant Pepper takes that influence to its logical conclusion: the record overflows with densely-layered production, colourful orchestral arrangements and trippy sound effects. The most famous is probably John Lennon’s warped voice on ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. These songs are more like sound collages, formed by dubbing multiple recordings over each other.
Sergeant Pepper shows the Beatles venturing far into the avant-garde. But it also shows that no one was better than the Beatles at being simultaneously experimental and populist – the album stayed at Number One on the UK charts for 22 weeks, after all.
In the decades since, Sergeant Pepper has been hailed as a milestone – perhaps the milestone – in the evolution of pop music. Rolling Stone went so far as to call it the Greatest Album of All Time.
This may or may not be the case. Either way, when the Beatles made the album, they probably had no idea it would achieve such fame and success. At the time, they were just striving to create some good new songs. And what a collection they are.
‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is the greatest Beatles song about drugs that the Beatles claim isn’t about drugs. ‘A Day in the Life’ is an apocalyptic song about a man who “blew his mind out in a car”. ‘Within You Without You’ is Harrison’s take on Hinduism and his attempt at mastering the sitar, all in one. ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ is one of pop’s greatest odes to friendship – which becomes all the more heartbreaking when considering how the relationships between the Beatles would fragment the following year.
Whether or not you think Sergeant Pepper is the best album ever, it did mark a shift in the perception of rock. What had once been considered a fad was now seen as art. Fans scoured the album’s lyrics for meaning (sometimes finding it where none existed) and the album became a kind of flower power anthem, the soundtrack to the Summer of Love. With the album, the Beatles had cemented their place as cultural icons whose music had real power, both artistic and political.
Even the cover serves as a mirror for its time. The faces represents major figures in Sixties pop culture. The inclusion of the four waxwork Beatles (in their famous mop-tops and suits) beside the real band in Sergeant Pepper costume is particularly interesting.
It places the Beatles – the real Beatles – not within the cultural pantheon, but apart from it. It seems the Beatles were aware of their place within pop culture, and were determined to be liberated from it.
Sergeant Pepper is the sound of that liberation, without losing any of the Beatles’ rock ‘n roll roar.