No 45 at 45: The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper
In the spring of 1967, rock and roll’s primary medium was the 45 RPM single. On the first of June, the Beatles changed all that with the highly anticipated release of their Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP. Though no contemporary single releases were culled from the album, its songs were given heavy AM radio airplay, at a time when FM stations were few, far between, and “underground”. Through the airwaves, those songs – including “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, “When I’m Sixty-four”, and “With a Little Help From my Friends” - burrowed their way into the collective memories of all who recall those heady first days of the “summer of love”.
Touted as rock’s first “concept” LP (though I’d give that nod to the Flamingos’ 1959 magnum opus, Flamingo Serenade), the record is presented as a concert program, featuring the imaginary band for which the album’s named. The program encompasses all varieties of music – take in the symphonic grandeur of “She’s Leaving Home”, the loopy circus march of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, and the Indian classicism of “Within You Without You”, among them. The band begins and ends the program with its own theme, leaving the audience with the mind-altering encore that is “A Day in the Life”. The broad stylistic brush with which the Beatles (and producer George Martin) crafted the LP may be the reason it received near-unanimous praise from “serious” music critics who’d previously disdained rock and roll’s perceived juvenilia. This critical success ensured the band even greater listenership, and ushered in the era when “rock and roll” morphed into “rock”.
Even without a 45 release (or due to the lack of one?), the LP sold strongly, placing it at number one on the Billboard 200 LP chart for 15 weeks in a row. The album it knocked out of the top slot - the Monkees' Headquarters – also contained no 45 sides. Though the “Prefab Four”’s third LP was recorded without the benefit of backing tracks crafted by session men - in partial response to charges against the band's phoniness - its intimate construct was no match for the epic studio production ascribed to the Beatles’ alter-egos.
Sgt. Pepper regularly tops “best albums of the ‘60’s” or “best albums of all-time” lists, if not always ranking at the top of Beatles’ fans' LP lists. (My own fave is Revolver.) Peter Blake’s legendary LP cover has inspired homage and parody countless times. Celebrations of (and attacks on) the LP can be found in numerous books, articles, and blog posts. What really counts is the music included. If you haven’t yet discovered Sgt. Pepper for yourself, check it out… it may become the soundtrack to your own “new summer of love”.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band