30 May 2017

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band turns fifty

From The Sampler, 7:30 pm on 30 May 2017

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not just one of the biggest-selling albums in history; it might also be the most culturally significant. To mark the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ classic, Nick Bollinger discusses its impact, legacy and how it rates today, with Split Enz founder Mike Chunn, producer Ed Cake and teenage critic Toby McWilliams.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band cover

It was twenty years ago today

Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…

When Paul McCartney came up with those lines, the twenty years since the fictional Sgt. Pepper “taught the band to play” must have seemed to him like a long time ago. Yet it is now fifty years since The Beatles made that recording.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band changed the way people thought about the long-playing record, about pop music, and perhaps other things as well. It remains the biggest-selling Beatles album ever. People who had never bought a pop album before knew they had to buy this one.

On its release in June 1967, Sgt. Pepper seemed custom-made for the era. In the northern hemisphere the so-called Summer Of Love was at its height. Ideas about drugs and liberation, free love and cosmic consciousness that had been percolating in places like Haight Ashbury and London were reaching critical mass.

Meanwhile in Auckland, future Split Enz founder Mike Chunn was boarding at Sacred Heart College.

“They released them late in New Zealand, so we heard about this ‘psychedelic’ album, but we’d just wait for it to turn up. I caught the bus in to Queen Street from boarding school and went to Lewis Eady’s… and the entire wall was covered in the covers of Sgt. Pepper’s.

“There were things that immediately took our attention. The lyrics were on the cover! That was the first time we’d ever seen lyrics to a song. You read them and thought, ‘they’re about very odd things.’

“You took the record out of the sleeve and there were no [dividing] bands, so you didn’t know where you were putting the needle. The Beatles did that because they could do whatever they liked, and thought, no we don’t want you just putting the needle down at the start of the song, you’ve got to play the whole side. So it became a complete and total work.”

Sgt.Pepper’s was widely imitated. Within months the Rolling Stones had made Their Satanic Majesties Request, even donning similarly pantomime outfits for the cover.

It also had an effect on music beyond the pop world.

“I think the Beatles definitely had an influence on Miles Davis, someone you’d think wouldn’t be influenced by The Beatles,” says record producer and musician Edmund McWilliams, also known as Ed Cake. “Particularly in the production and the engineering, where they were starting to get more post-modern on it, and throwing things around. Miles Davis and [producer] Teo Macereo were doing a lot of tape editing and a lot of effects.”

Today, albums by artists as diverse as Adele and Drake sell in impressive numbers, but do they define the cultural moment in the way Sgt. Pepper did?

“I wouldn’t really be the best person to ask,” says Toby McWilliams, a 15-year-old Western Springs student, who has written about music for the Off The Tracks blog. “I mostly listen to music from the 60s and 70s. I just would have loved to have been 15 in 1967 so I could experience having that kind of anticipation for the music that I like.”

Of course The Beatles had an advantage in being first. No one had made a pop album like Sgt. Pepper before. As good in their fields as Adele or Drake may be, you could see them as simply refining genres that are already well-served.

The Beatles, by contrast, were inventing – or at least radically re-inventing – a genre.

That was then. But are the current celebrations of Pepper just boomer-driven nostalgia, or does The Beatles’ milestone still have something to offer present and future generations, who have more music to choose from than ever?

Toby McWilliams thinks so. “So many of the things that they were doing, that are normal now, they were pioneering. I think that makes [hearing] their albums a different experience.”

More Beatles stories from RNZ:

  • Across the Universe - The Beatles (Part 4)
  • Sir George Martin - In My Life
  • Things We Said Today: The Beatles influence on New Zealand songwriters