It was 40 years ago today that The Beatles changed the direction of the music business. Prior to the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album (or long-player (LP), as it was more commonly referred to back then) was considered less important than the single. True, thanks to Bob Dylan, The Beach Boys, and Frank Zappa & The Mothers Of Invention, among others, that was slowly changing. But Sgt. Pepper expedited that change in 1967.
Music historian Alan Cross recently noted that the rock and roll era can be summed up in two, distinct periods: pre-Sgt. Pepper and post-Sgt. Pepper. Ironically, in 2007, it feels like the pre-Sgt. Pepper era has returned. Singles, particularly digital downloads, are gaining momentum while full-length CDs, the format that inevitably killed off vinyl and cassette tapes, are on the decline. Like politics, music is a cyclical force in our popular culture. And it’s only a matter of time before albums once again regain the worldwide respect and blockbuster status they achieved for many decades. What isn’t known is how and when that will happen.
In the meantime, let’s look back at the record that transformed an industry. Here are some bits of trivia you may or may not be aware of:
1. Sgt. Pepper was “officially” issued June 1, 1967 in the United Kingdom and was such an enormous hit that it overshadowed the self-titled debut solo album of a short-haired folk artist named David Bowie, which was released the same day. 8 years later, Bowie released the Young Americans album. On the title track, his back-up singers reference A Day In The Life by singing the famous opening line.
2. Speaking of A Day In The Life, which was the final proper song on the album, it’s Ozzy Osbourne’s favourite track of all time.
3. The album popularized the concept album even though, as John Lennon and producer George Martin have pointed out, beyond the first two songs on side one and the last two songs on side two, there was no thematic thread connecting all the songs together. But, as Lennon noted, because The Beatles said it was a concept record, people believed them.
4. According to author Ray Coleman, who knew Lennon for nearly 20 years, John hated The Rolling Stones’ album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, because he felt it was a bad imitation of Sgt. Pepper. Majesties, which was released in December 1967, featured a 3-D cover that paid homage to Pepper’s famous cover shot.
5. Sgt. Pepper was the first Beatles studio album to feature a complete lyric sheet. The White Album was the last.
6. With the exception of the hidden track, this was the first Beatles album to be released in both North America and Europe with an identical track listing.
7. Even though it was “officially” issued on June 1st in the UK (June 2nd in North America), copies of the album were already available for purchase as early as May 26, 1967 because of high demand. How high was the demand in Great Britain? Try one million advance orders.
8. The album was first heard publicly on Radio London, a highly influential pirate station that broadcast the entire album from beginning to end on May 12, 1967 starting at 5 p.m. England time. Eight days later, DJ Kenny Everett previewed the album on his BBC Light show, Where It’s At. That same day, The BBC announced the banning of A Day In The Life. The network’s reason for forbidding airing of the song on any of its TV and radio programs? The song’s supposed promotion of drugs. The ban has long since been lifted.
9. The title of the song, It’s Getting Better, was a favourite phrase of Jimmy Nicol, the drummer who briefly replaced Ringo Starr during a tour in June 1964 after the Beatle fell ill (he needed his tonsils removed). Nicol played exactly 6 shows before Ringo was healthy enough to return. He declared bankruptcy the following year. Despite continuing to work as a drummer through the end of the decade, he would never find commercial success on his own. (Also, he didn’t die in 1988, as was falsely reported. The Daily Mail, a UK newspaper, reported in 2005 that he was long out of the glare of show business and keeping out of sight in London.) According to Beatles’ biographer Hunter Davies, “After every concert, John and Paul would go up to Jimmy Nicol and ask him how he was getting on. All that Jimmy would ever say was, ‘It’s getting better’. That was the only comment they could get out of him. It ended up becoming a joke phrase and whenever the boys thought of Jimmy they’d think of ‘it’s getting better’.” (from A Hard Day’s Write, pg. 124.)
10. Contrary to popular belief, there are only two actual drug references on the album: the line, “I get high with a little help from my friends,” from With A Little Help From My Friends and “found my way upstairs and had a smoke” from A Day In The Life. The latter doesn’t refer to marijuana but rather to an inexpensive cigarette produced by a UK tobacco company called Woodbine, which Paul McCartney liked to smoke at the time.
11. Lennon’s first born son, Julian, was deeply smitten with a girl in his nursery school. To show his affections for her, he made a picture he called Lucy – In The Sky With Diamonds. Lucy O’Donnell, who was 4 at the time, didn’t realize the artwork inspired the song of the same name until she was a young teenager. Her friends didn’t believe it was about her. Like many, they thought it was simply code for LSD. She went on to teach children with special needs, according to author Steve Turner. Today
, she’s Lucy Vodden, a middle-aged housewife still living in the UK. Julian’s famous painting had never been seen publicly until it was published in Turner’s book, A Hard Day’s Write, which you can see on page 123.
12. During an on-location video shoot for Strawberry Fields Forever, Lennon and Tony Bramwell, who worked for Apple Records (The Beatles’ label), visited an antique store in Knole Park. It was there that Lennon purchased an 1843 poster from the Victorian Era that advertised a circus put together by Pablo Fanque, the first black man to run such a business. (By the way, that wasn’t even his real name. He was born William Darby, according to author Steve Turner. Check out his unusual moustache in a rare photo published on page 128 of A Hard Day’s Write.) Much of the wording on the poster became the lyrics for Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!, although Lennon did take some liberties. It ended up being passed on to his youngest son, Sean.
13. Joe Cocker’s cover of With A Little Help From My Friends, the best known version of the song, was used as the opening theme for every episode of the hit ABC series, The Wonder Years. It first appeared on his debut album (also called With A Little Help From My Friends) in 1969 and later, on the original Wonder Years album soundtrack. It can be also heard during a scene in episode 68 of that series. (Another cover version, this one an uncredited instrumental featuring just an acoustic guitar and piano, played over the end titles.) He played it at Woodstock. It became a number one smash in the UK. Wet Wet Wet covered the song 20 years later for charity (as did Billy Bragg). As a result, over half a million pounds was raised for ChildLine, an organization that helps out abused kids. It, too, went to number one in the UK. Bon Jovi performed the song live on The Howard Stern Show in 1992 which officially ended their short-lived feud. (The band had snubbed Stern’s widely successful terrestrial radio program, one of the few shows to accept them as guests before they were famous, during a promotional tour which infuriated the New York-based comedian who frequently badmouthed them on the air.) The original title of the song was Bad Finger Boogie because one of Lennon’s fingers was hurt at the time of its composition. Biographer Hunter Davies witnessed the songwriting process firsthand. The band, Badfinger, who went on to have a hit with a Paul McCartney composition called Come And Get It, took their name from that working title.
14. In 2000, VH1 asked over 700 music industry bigwigs for their choices of the greatest rock songs of all time. The American music channel listed the top 100 vote getters and The Beatles had the most entries with nine. A Day In The Life, the only Sgt. Pepper song, was number 20. Strawberry Fields Forever, which was recorded in consideration for the album, was number 61. (Hey Jude (#9), Yesterday (#12), I Want To Hold Your Hand (#23), Let It Be (#32), Twist And Shout (#57), She Loves You (#59) and A Hard Day’s Night (#79) were the others.)
15. Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields Forever never made the cut for Sgt. Pepper as intended because EMI, their record label, wanted to release them as a double A-sided single instead. Curiously, they were later included on Magical Mystery Tour in late 1967. The only other outtake from the sessions was Only A Northern Song, George Harrison’s dig at his publishing company, which wouldn’t surface until 1969 when it appeared in the animated Yellow Submarine movie and on both soundtracks (the original release, with a handful of new Beatles tunes and George Martin’s score, and the 1999 30th Anniversary “Songtrack”, which added other Beatles songs and scrapped the orchestral numbers altogether).
16. The album cost 45,000 English pounds to produce, $25,000 in American dollars.
17. Sgt. Pepper was the only Beatles record to win the Album Of The Year Grammy. The LP won 3 additional trophies on Leap Day 1968 for Best Contemporary Album, Best Album Cover (Graphic Arts), and Best Non-Classical Engineered Album. The title song lost Best Group Vocal Performance and Best Contemporary Vocal Group to The Fifth Dimension’s Up, Up, And Away while A Day In The Life lost the Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) prize to Jimmie Haskell’s version of Ode To Billie Joe. Overall, they batted 4 for 7 that night.
18. U2 and Paul McCartney kicked off the 2005 Live 8 global series of day-long concerts on July 2nd at Hyde Park in London, England with a live rendition of the title track.
19. Production began November 24, 1966 and ended April 21, 1967. Add it all up and the album took 129 days to complete.
20. When I’m 64 was Paul McCartney’s tribute to his father, Jim, a working musician during The 1920s and 30s. The song was actually written in the late 50s not too long after he hooked up with John Lennon’s grammar school skiffle group, The Quarryman. Jim was 56 at the time of its composition. When the song finally was recorded and issued on Sgt. Pepper, Jim really was 64 years old, a total coincidence. The song can be heard in episode 47 of The Wonder Years.
21. The Sex Pistols considered paying homage to Sgt. Pepper’s hidden track by putting a short, looped version of Problems in the play-out groove on both sides of Never Mind The Bollocks. But the idea was scrapped before the album’s release in 1977.
22. Big Daddy covered the entire album in 1992 as if it were a 50s recording. A Day In The Life features bits of Buddy Holly songs and even a report of the famous plane crash that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Popper in 1959.
23. Jimi Hendrix stunned Paul McCartney during a 1967 concert in England by playing the title song only days after the release of the album.
24. EMI were not happy about the proposed cover (the cardboard cutouts of famous figures, in particular) but, for the most part, Peter Blake, the man responsible for putting it all together, was able to bring it to life. The iconic shot was captured March 30, 1967. He requested that The Beatles come up with a whole list of names to choose from for the cutouts. Adolf Hitler and Jesus Christ were on that list but both cutouts were removed for fear of further “offending” Americans who were pissed at Lennon’s “We’re bigger than Jesus” remark the previous year. Also, because of this, Gandhi’s face was painted out. (Look for the black space to the right of Marlene Dietrich.) Actor Leo Gorcey’s cutout was removed entirely (He was to be featured beside The Varga Girl and one of the Bowery Boys. You’ll just see a space that exposes the blue background on the actual cover.) because he requested money. (EMI were worried that others would make similiar demands, hence their objection to the cover.) The only drug paraphenalia featured is a hookah which is right in front of the wax figurine of George Harrison. The inclusion of Marlon Brando in his Wild One costume is particularly sly. (He’s right above the wax “replica” of Ringo Starr, who looks more like Pete Townshend than the former Richard Starkey.) A group of characters in the movie inspired the name of the band. Unfortunately, the band thought it was the name of one of the gangs. “The Beetles” were actually their girlfriends.
25. Like Rubber Soul in 1965, no singles were issued from the album.
26. Sgt. Pepper would never have existed were it not for Pet Sounds, the highly acclaimed Beach Boys album which, itself, was inspired by Rubber Soul. (When Pet Sounds was issued in May 1966, The Beatles were almost finished working on Revolver and only one song on that record was directly influenced by Wilson’s opus: Here, There, & Everywhere.) Among the Sounds references on Pepper: the use of animal noises on Good Morning Good Morning, the high pitched tone at the end of side 2 (Lennon’s idea) that only dogs could hear (This was a “response” to Brian Wilson’s dogs barking at the end of Caroline, No. Speaking of that song, Wilson’s vocals were sped up in order to make him sound younger, on the advice of his father. The Beatles used that technique on When I’m 64 and Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.), the use of an orchestra on A Day In The Life, the general atmosphere of melancholia throughout much of the album and the distinctive sounds during the verses on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (which sound like they were inspired by You Still Believe In Me). When Wilson heard The Beatles’ response to Pet Sounds, he became crestfallen. However, he wasn’t completely deterred. He started writing material for the next Beach Boys LP, “a teenage symphony to God”, he would famously call it. But the sessions proved difficult, thanks to Wilson’s deteriorating mental health. As a result, Smile would become the most famous unreleased album in music history. (Smiley Smile, a reworked version that included Good Vibrations, would surface in September 1967. A number of the unreleased tracks – some original, some re-recorded – would surface in official and bootleg releases over the following decades.) He would re-start the project nearly 40 years later and release the new, completed recordings as a solo album, even reinstating the original title. Back in 1967, however, Sgt. Pepper proved to him that he could never successfully compete with The Beatles on such a grand scale ever again.
27. It’s been claimed that on older model record players, if you play the hidden track backwards, you’ll hear one of The Beatles saying, “We’ll fuck you like Supermen.” The Beatles have categorically denied putting any hidden messages in that hidden track (although McCartney has said you can clearly hear that line) which was recorded April 21, 1967, the last day of production. It took two hours to record the silly chattering (McCartney’s idea) that follows the high-pitched tone. Only two seconds were actually used. It it not clear what is actually said. It only appeared originally on the first British vinyl pressing because it was so difficult and time consuming to put on record. It had to be manually manufactured on each individual disc and it had to be done precisely or it would ruin the 12″ vinyl. It would not be released in North America until 1980 when it was credited as “Sgt. Pepper’s Inner Groove” on The Beatles Rarities. (The high-pitched tone wasn’t included.) In 1987, for the first time, the complete mystery track was included on every CD edition of the record where it plays for about 20 seconds.
28. According to episode 6 of the home video version of The Beatles Anthology mini-series (originally aired in 3 parts on ABC in November 1995), George Harrison was not a fan of the album. He ultimately contributed only a single track, Within You Without You, which reflected his burgeoning interest in Indian music. No other Beatles appeared on it. Harrison invited some Indian musicians to play instead.
29. Mike Nesmith of The Monkees, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones, and Jagger’s then-girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, attended the orchestra recording session for A Day In The Life on February 10, 1967. If you listen closely to those sections of the song, you can hear George Martin counting in the background. (You can hear his echoey voice a lot better on Anthology 2.) The other parts of the song were recorded first and as a result, they needed to allow space for those particular bars to be filled in later. Because the album was originally recorded in mono, once everything was laid down and mixed, there was no way to erase Martin’s voice without affecting the finished song. Curiously, background chatter can be heard on Pet Sounds, as well. Because it was also recorded in mono, actual conversations that took place during the making of the album couldn’t be removed, either. (However, they were excised for the stereo version of the album which was included in The Pet Sounds Sessions box set in 1997. The stereo Pet Sounds has since been reissued twice: in 1999 and 2006.)
30. Rolling Stone paid homage to the famous cover in 2006 when it put together a special 3-D front page for its 1000th issue. It features important pop culture figures from the last 40 years including The Beatles.
31. Fixing A Hole is not about heroin. It’s actually about Paul McCartney’s frustrations with a leaky roof in a dilapidated Scottish farm house he purchased sight unseen in June 1966 on the advice of his accountant. Despite being a dump, McCartney and then-girlfriend Jane Asher (a famous red-headed British actress who he would be briefly engaged to) found the perfect place to escape the pressures of fame. According to author Steve Turner, not many people knew he lived there on the west coast of Scotland and as a result, not a single fan bothered them.
32. Sgt. Pepper was the first album the band made after quitting touring for good in 1966.
33. Melanie Coe was the inspiration for She’s Leaving Home. She was a troubled teen who ran away from her parents after being tired of constantly fighting with them. She had been missing for a week by the time her story was mentioned in the February 27, 1967 edition of The Daily Mail. (Coe told author Steve Turner that her parents found her about a week and a half later and took her home.) McCartney read the article and mostly got the details right in the song’s lyrics. (His only errors? Coe didn’t meet a guy from “the motor trade” (he actually worked in a casino) and she really left home sometime in the afternoon while both her parents were working, not in the morning while they were home in bed.) She was a regular dancer on the British TV series, Ready Steady Go! On October 4, 1963, the same day The Beatles made their debut on the program, she won a mime competition. McCartney actually presented her with an award for her efforts, which he had forgotten about when he wrote the song. Coe ended up marrying that croupier she met at age 18 to permanently escape her home life but the marriage only lasted a little more than a year. Afterwards, she briefly lived in the United States before finally returning to England where she resides today.
34. Rolling Stone writer Langdon Winner travelled across America in early June 1967 and reported in a famous essay that no matter where he went, someone was playing the album. The most famous line from the piece? “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ was released.”
35. It is not known how many copies were actually sold worldwide since the album was issued 24 years before the implementation of Soundscan, the technology that accurately keeps track of every music purchase. A conservative estimate of between 10 and 20 million copies bought in the last 40 years might not be far off the mark.
36. Rolling Stone magazine named it the best album of the last 20 years in a 1987 issue. Nearly 20 years later, it topped another list, The 500 Greatest Rock Albums Of All Time, in the same magazine. A 2006 British survey placed it at number one on its list of the Top 100 albums of all time in honour of the 50th anniversary of the UK Album Chart. Curiously, in 1998, a poll in Melody Maker magazine named it the worst album of all time.
37. John Lennon references Meet The Wife, a 1963 black and white English sitcom that aired on BBC Television, in the song Good Morning Good Morning. According to this article
, it’s the only time a TV show was ever name-checked in a Beatles song. By the way, the title of that song was taken from a jingle used in a British Kelloggs’ Corn Flakes TV ad.
38. On the sixth season finale of American Idol, a number of past Idol winners and the Top 12 finishers of 2007, paid tribute to a number of tracks off the album. 2002 winner Kelly Clarkson sang Sgt. Pepper backed by Aerosmith’s Joe Perry on guitar, 2006 winner Taylor Hicks did A Day In The Life, 2005 winner Carrie Underwood performed She’s Leaving Home, and 2003 winner Rueben Studdard did Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds. The Top 12 collaborated on With A Little Help With My Friends.
39. The BBC announced
plans in April 2007 to invite current bands to re-record songs from the album for a special anniversary program to be aired on June 2nd. Oasis and The Killers are among the participants for the BBC Radio 2 program.
40. The album inspired the infamous movie of the same name which featured Alice Cooper, Aerosmith, Steve Martin, George Burns, Peter Frampton, Bonnie Raitt, The Bee Gees and many others. Released in 1978 and loosely based on a 1974 off-Broadway production called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band On The Road, the MGM musical was a critical and commercial disaster. Not a single Beatle appears in the movie. It was quite a comedown for The Bee Gees, in particular. The previous winter, they were riding high on the success of Saturday Night Fever, one of the biggest selling and acclaimed movie soundtrack albums of all time, which was also Gene Siskel’s favourite movie. They performed most of the songs on the Sgt. Pepper soundtrack (now available on CD) which also includes covers of tracks from Abbey Road. (Lovely Rita and Within You Without You, not to mention the hidden track, were the only Pepper tracks not performed.) The movie is available on DVD.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, June 1, 2007