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50 years ago, ‘Sgt. Pepper’ rocked the musical world

By David Shaw

Some rock-and-roll albums never grow old.

By now you’ve heard the buzz surrounding “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the landscape-altering Beatles record that turns 50 this week. What better occasion than now to reflect on such a timeless masterpiece, a grand work of songcraft filled with mischief, grief and fun.

Released on June 1, 1967, in Britain and a day later in America, “Sgt. Pepper’s” has been praised and panned by critics on both shores. Riddled with drug references — some intended, some not — it’s not for everyone, but maybe it is.

Widen the lens just a little and discover 38 minutes of history unfolding before our eyes. From the playfully inviting, self-titled opening number to the haunting, final chord of “A Day In The Life,” the Beatles take us on a hippy-trippy joyride as they morph from the yeah-yeah-yeah Fab Four into sophisticated, tech-savvy songwriters.

This is where it happened, where they tinkered with accepted norms and did things in the studio that hadn’t been postulated. Produced by sonic wizard George Martin, “Sgt. Pepper’s” opened musical horizons and shattered boundaries. Without it there’s no Genesis, no ELO, no Yes, no “Dark Side of the Moon.” It ushered in the so-called Summer of Love and signaled a changing society. More than 12 million copies later, it remains one of the best-selling and most important albums of our lifetime, a companion to our history.

So next chance you get, lend a grown-up ear the Beatles’ eighth LP. What follows are a few insights and anecdotes that surround the almost-serendiptous making of “Sgt. Pepper’s.” We hope you will enjoy the show.

   

Start with the cover. It remains iconic and off-beat, a crowded collage depicting 57 enlarged photos of living and deceased personalities — the “lovely audience” referenced in the album’s opening track — along with wax figures of the early Beatles and John, Paul, George and Ringo sporting satin, English military uniforms.

Legend has it that each of the Beatles and a few friends were asked to submit lists of proposed candidates. Lennon’s included Stuart Sutcliffe, the group’s former bass player who had died tragically five years earlier, and writers Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde. Also remembered is Albert Stubbins, a former high-scoring Liverpool soccer player.

McCartney requested beat poet William Burroughs and Hollywood song-and-dance man Fred Astaire. Harrison opted for Bob Dylan, comedian Lenny Bruce and psychiatrist Carl Jung — along with Indian spiritualist Mahatma Gandhi, who was deemed too controversial by record-company brass and removed. Also suggested but scrapped were images of Christ, Hitler and Elvis Presley, a group favorite considered too revered for inclusion.

It’s quite a collection. There’s actress Mae West — third from the left on the top row — who initially rejected an invitation to appear, citing “What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club band?” She was persuaded to sign on after Beatles manager Brian Epstein forwarded a personal letter.

Shirley Temple-Black appears twice — once as a child actress and again as a cloth figure doll wearing a sweater that pays homage to the Rolling Stones. She requested to hear the album before consenting, which wasn’t possible, but did receive autographed copies for her children.

Other notables include actors Marlon Brando and Tony Curtis, philosopher Karl Marx, boxer Sonny Liston, singer Dion di Mucci and physicist Albert Einstein. The hand above McCartney’s head belongs to novelist and short-story writer Stephen Crane, who died at age 28 in 1900. Resembling a priest blessing the dearly departed, it helped fuel the “Paul is dead” theory that soon manifested. So did the yellow flowers arranged to form a left-handed bass guitar over a Beatles grave at the base of the cover and the O.P.P. patch on McCartney’s uniform in the album’s double-truck centerfold. Misinterpreted by conspiracists as “Officially Pronounced Dead,” the patch was purchased in Canada and stood for “Ontario Provincial Police.”

As far as we know, only one personality unsuccessfully requested monetary compensation for appearing on the cover. Actor Leo Gorcey — “Slip” of Bowery Boys fame — wanted $400, so his image was painted over and lives on as an additional palm tree branch.

Lastly, and contrary to public belief, there isn’t a row of marijuana plants above the word BEATLES. Appropriately, they are among the many species of peperomia plants.

   

Musically, “Sgt. Pepper’s” may have captured the Beatles at their post-mania best. They were no longer a touring band, and the album reflects them at their most creative, most unified, most progressive juncture. Over 129 days and some 400 studio hours, they produced an album that stands alone, one that’s influenced all subsequent generations. “Sgt. Pepper’s” is filled with snapshots of everyday whimsy, parental despair and 19th-century festiveness — all packaged as a time-tested piece of art.

Why not celebrate and give it another spin? See if you agree, that all these years later, it still matters.

Here are a handful of lesser-known beliefs, anecdotes and hopefully confirmed facts about the album:

Sgt. Pepper’s won the 1968 Grammy for “Best Album Cover.” Designed by the husband/wife team of Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, it cost 3,000 pounds to produce — a far cry from the going rate of 50-60 pounds.

Beginning July 1, 1967, it spent 15 weeks atop Billboard’s U.S. sales chart. It replaced “Headquarters” by the Monkees and was knocked from the No. 1 position by Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” on October 14.

David Bowie’s self-titled debut album was also released June 1, 1967. It went nowhere.

Three songs were banned by the British Broadcasting Company for subliminal drug references. Lennon insisted “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” — evoking the acronym LSD — was simply a psychedelic nursery rhyme about a pastel drawing his 4-year old son Julian brought home from school. “A Little Help From My Friends,” a Lennon-McCartney number created specifically for Starr to sing, was rebuffed for containing the lyric about getting high with a little help from his friends. And “A Day In the Life” — the album-closing gem that blends Lennon’s verse and chorus with McCartney’s middle-eight bridge — was removed from the BBC playlist because McCartney utters “made my way upstairs and had a smoke.” His explanation centered around London’s double-decked buses, where cigarette smoking was only permitted on the upper level.

Lucy O’Donnell, the girl in Julian Lennon’s drawing, died from Lupus in 2009. The original piece of artwork is today owned by former Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.

The final, crashing chord of “A Day In the Life” is an E major struck simultaneously by five pairs of hands on three grand pianos. It took nine takes to record and hangs in the air for about 45 seconds. The Beatles originally planned to hum the closing note, but opted for something more dramatic.

Side 1 closes with “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” a playful tune inspired by an 1843 poster Lennon purchased during the sessions for Sgt. Pepper’s. Enveloped by carnival sounds created with organs, harmonicas, a harmonium and reassembled tapes of a calliope, the song is a musical advertisement for Pablo Fanque’s Circus. Fanque was Britain’s first black circus owner. A splendid time was guaranteed for all.

“When I’m Sixty-Four” was McCartney’s tribute to his father, written in the late 1950s. The Beatles often played an instrumental version during power outages in their Liverpool/Cavern days. “She’s Leaving Home” was based on a headline-grabbing story in the Daily Mail newspaper about a runaway teenager. She was found safe 10 days later.

Three songs were recorded and left off Sgt. Pepper’s. Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” and McCartney’s “Penny Lane” each recalled childhood memories, but were released as a double A-sided single in February 1967, three months before the album. Seems the record company was pressuring the Beatles for something to market while the LP was progressing. Also omitted was George Harrison’s “Only A Northern Song,” a recorded complaint about the record company that later appeared on Yellow Submarine.

So there you have it, for better or worse. “Sgt. Pepper’s” is a collection of 13 songs, each a treasure in its own way, that continues to enthrall musicians and fans around the world. Fifty years ago it was considered groundbreaking, mind-bending and original. Today it simply belongs to all of us — and never gets old.

For the record, David Shaw’s favorite Beatles’ album is “Abbey Road,” the last recorded by the group.

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