I used to talk about the ’60s with Mrs. Davidson, the school librarian, when I was in seventh grade. She was a first generation Beatles fan and when she said she’d lend me some of her old records, the first thing I asked for was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It was the band’s eighth studio album, released on June 1 1967, a half-century ago this year. It soared up the charts back then, spending 27 weeks at No. 1 in the United Kingdom and 15 weeks at No. 1 in the United States.
Now, on it’s 50th anniversary, the album is regarded as a rock and roll touchstone, encapsulating a brief, yet important moment in pop culture that I can see and feel every time I listen to the music.
When I visited London last year, I was determined to trace the steps that led to The Beatles’ seminal album. But it all began in my seventh grade class.
“That’s the one with all of the flowers on the cover, right?” the librarian asked with a crinkle of her nose.
True to her word, she had Sgt Pepper waiting for me behind the library front desk the next day, and it was like Christmas.
The album sleeve’s corners were nicked and it smelled of age, but I carried it to and from my classes that day like an archaeologist holding a freshly unearthed artifact.
A Sgt Pepper’s Song Book
There are better songs in their catalog, and I know with George’s heart still in India; Ringo learning to play chess during the sessions; John’s acid intake at its zenith and Paul becoming the creative force of the band, that the distribution of effort was unequal.
But Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was still my favorite Beatles’ record during my teens.
Interestingly, for an album that became the soundtrack of the “Summer of Love,” not one song could be categorized as a love song.
Instead, it showed the world that the Beatles had outgrown their image and were much more interested having their music listened to, instead of screamed at.
Between the orchestra warming up before the title track, to the thundering chord that closes the album after “A Day in the Life,” plenty of moments still resonate with me.
I love the crunchy saxophones of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” the almost hip-hop feel of Ringo’s drums on the reprise and the whimsical ambiance of “Lovely Rita.”
I love John’s pessimistic “it couldn’t get much worse” response to Paul’s optimism on “It’s Getting Better.”
I love the poignant harp on “She’s Leaving Home.” I love Ringo’s charm on “With a Little Help from my Friends” and the meditative vibe George creates on “Within You, Without You.”
Eighteen years after I borrowed Mrs. Davidson’s record, I stood on the sidewalk outside of Abbey Road Studios, and I couldn’t help but hear the songs from Sgt Pepper and think of the stories behind them.
I pictured Paul and John around the corner at Paul’s Cavendish Avenue home writing “With a Little Help from My Friends.”
I saw John at a Kent antique shop during a break from the “Strawberry Fields Forever” promotional film, buying the circus poster that inspired “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”
I pictured Paul picking up a pair of salt and pepper packets for the in-flight meal on his return from Kenya and hitting upon the idea of a Sgt Pepper that spurred the record’s entire concept.
When I looked up at the roof I thought about the night they recorded “It’s Getting Better” and John, thinking he ingested uppers, accidentally dropped some acid.
George Martin, the band’s producer, arranger and mentor, saw that John was ill, but had no idea that John was tripping, according to the “The Beatles Anthology.”
“I was so innocent that I actually took John up to the roof when he was having an LSD trip, not knowing what it was,” Martin recounted in the book. “If I’d known it was LSD, the roof would have been the last place I would have taken him.”
John walked over to the building’s edge, stood just behind the 18-inch high parapet and looked up at the starry night. “‘Aren’t they fantastic?’ John said. Of course, to him I suppose they would have been especially fantastic,” Martin said.
Sgt Pepper transports me to more places than any other Beatles’ LP. I’m watching the band in Edwardian costumes in the park when I hear the ingratiating title track.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” takes me to a mind-altering world awash with visuals of Alice in Wonderland.
I’m brought to Regent Park where Paul is walking his sheepdog Martha and gets a song idea when he remembers “it’s getting better,” the phrase that Jimmie Nicol, the drummer who filled in for an ill Ringo during the 1964 world tour, used to say to reporters when he was asked how it was going.
I’m on a ladder repairing the leaky roof of Paul’s Scotland holiday home when I hear “Fixing a Hole.” I’m at a tube station newsstand reading a Daily Mail article about a teen-aged runaway when “She’s Leaving Home” comes on.
George’s “Within You, Without You” brings me to a meditation retreat on the banks of the Ganges.
“When I’m Sixty-Four” takes me back to Paul’s boyhood home on Forthlin Road in Liverpool where he wrote the song on the family piano before he was a household name, and I’m out the door catching a bus when the bouncy middle section of “A Day in the Life” plays.
One of the main influences on Sgt Pepper was the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. Paul and John first heard the album in May 1966 when they visited Bruce Johnston’s hotel suite Bruce was in London promoting it.
“The album hadn’t come out yet, so no one in England had heard it,” Johnston said in a 2015 interview with The Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.
“I had a suite in my hotel with a big living room and a record player. They listened to it all the way through once and then asked if they could hear it again. Then they thanked me and left,” he recounted.
John and Paul were putting the finishing touches on Revolver at the time, but the next time they reconvened in the studio in November, it was clear the band was under the direct influence of Pet Sounds.
“No one is educated musically until they’ve heard Pet Sounds. It is a total classic record that is unbeatable in many ways,” said Paul in “The Great Songwriters – Beginnings Vol 2: Paul Simon and Brian Wilson” by Michael J Roberts
“Without Pet Sounds,” George Martin said, “Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened.”
This may be true, but without Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds wouldn’t have happened, either.
While the Beach Boys, with Johnston filling in for Brian Wilson, continued to tour in the autumn of 1965, Wilson, 23, who had suffered two nervous breakdowns, stayed in Los Angeles working on the musical and spiritual vision that would become Pet Sounds.
He was uncertain of his path until Rubber Soul became the catalyst for his innovative mission.
“Rubber Soul was a collection of songs that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed,” Wilson said in an interview with Geoffrey Himes, published in “Rock and Roll: An American History.”
“That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album,” Wilson explained.
Fueled by pills and good vibrations, Wilson diligently worked through January and early February 1966 with lyricist Tony Asher penning songs with sensitive themes that evoke both the passion of newly born love affairs and the disillusionment of futile romances.
He looked beyond the conventional guitars and keyboards and hired some of the industry’s best session musicians to play the backing tracks for the new material.
Breathy saxophones, rolling accordions, fading flutes, Baroque harpsichords, pounding tympani, regal English and French horns, and even some melodious oddities like a Coca-Cola bottle, a bicycle bell, and a ghostly sounding theremin are all interwoven into the album’s rich fabric.
When his bandmates returned they were taught their parts and then laid down the immaculate vocals that blanket the record.
I always dug the gorgeous harmonies that drenched the Beach Boys’ sunny tunes about surfing and California, but Pet Sounds was something different.
From the opening blissful guitar plucks of the hopeful “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the crestfallen sounds of the barking dogs and passing train of the dirge “Caroline, No,” the album is an astonishing orgy of sound.
Whether in a tenor range or falsetto, Brian’s buttery voice is superb, especially with the choir-like delivery on “You Still Believe in Me.”
I smell the crushed corsage as a young couple slow dances in the gym in “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on my Shoulder)” and inhale the brackish air of “Sloop John B.”
The wintry sleigh bells, melting vocals, and heavenly marriage of horns and strings, makes “God Only Knows” one of the loveliest songs ever heard on a pop album.
“It’s a favorite of mine… very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me,” Paul said in Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Just as Wilson used unorthodox techniques while recording Pet Sounds, so too did the Beatles and Martin on Sgt.Pepper.
To satisfy John’s need to smell the sawdust of a circus atmosphere for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” Martin got hold of old calliope tapes playing Sousa marches, chopped them up into small sections, threw them up in the air in the control room, and then randomly re-assembled them.
They placed toilet paper on combs to play on the end of “Lovely Rita.” Paul and Martin conducted the climactic orchestral glissando of “A Day in the Life” to musicians who wore evening dress, along with red noses, bald wigs and novelty glasses.
Wilson used the cream of Los Angeles session musicians, or the Wrecking Crew, as they were known; the Beatles and Martin hired musicians from the Royal Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras.
One major difference between Pet Sounds and Sgt Pepper is the cover.
The Beach Boys are shown feeding apple slices to goats at the San Diego Zoo. The Beatles’ is a snapshot of ‘60s pop culture that has never been topped.
Even my twelve-year-old eyes saw that it was a statement and Sgt Pepper won me over even before the record made it on to my turntable.
The cover captures both my eye and my imagination and I still get lost in the color, texture, and intellectual diversity of the collage of cutouts and surreal waxworks of actors, writers, sportsmen and scientists.
Each Beatle has a mustache, wears a satin Day-Glo military uniform, and holds a different brass or woodwind instrument. They stand before a bed of colorful flowers and a painted drum skin.
John sports the round granny glasses he wore for the film “How I Won the War” six months earlier.
The band is surrounded by an odd assortment of objects that include a ceramic Mexican tree of life, Paul’s 9-inch television set, a statue brought over from John’s house, a doll of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, a hookah, a velvet snake, a figure of Snow White, a garden gnome and a fukusuke, a Japanese porcelain figure that John bought when the band played in Tokyo.
“Paul is dead” clues are supposedly sprinkled throughout the picture and a cloth doll of Shirley Temple wears a sweater that reads “Welcome The Rolling Stones Good Guys.”
The inner gatefold photo shows the band seated in front of a brilliant yellow background, and rumor had it John and George were tripping during the shoot; so I’d examine their eyes, wondering about what they saw.
If I wasn’t scouring the busy cover as the record spun in my room, I was reading and interpreting the lyrics that were printed over another group shot on the red back cover, a first for a pop album.
The photo shoot was held at London’s Chelsea Manor Studio, and I located the two-story building on Flood Street, right off of the fashionable Kings Road, when I visited in April 2016.
Like so many other Beatle-related locations I’ve found, it was unassuming, but intriguing.
I tried the front door, but it was locked, so I looked through the door window and saw the black and white checkered hallway floor that I’d seen in outtakes of the shoot.
In the late afternoon of March 30, 1967, before one of the last recording sessions for the album, the Beatles walked through that door, across that checkered floor and into photographer Michael Cooper’s studio in the back of the building’s first floor.
After putting on their uniforms and having a quick cup of tea, they were photographed in front of artist Peter Blake’s incredible collage of life-sized cardboard cutouts of famous people, busts, flowers, dolls and manikins.
Just like when I scrutinized the album cover thirty years earlier, I analyzed the building, touched the red brickwork and black drainpipes, and scrawled some notes into my pad. But grew impetuous as I mulled around on the sidewalk, debating whether I should ask the next person to walk into the building if I could come inside for a look.
I needed to get in there and see where Sgt. Pepper was photographed.
Impatience got the best of me and I threw a leg over the back railing, pulled myself over and sneaked up to the first floor window to the left of the entrance. If I couldn’t get in the room, at least I’d have a look at where the shoot took place, I thought.
I cupped my hands and peered inside, but recoiled when I saw a young woman in a bed watching television. I stepped back as she turned to look at me and I hightailed it back to King’s Road, embarrassed that I appeared to be a peeping Tom.
Later I discovered that the Chelsea Manor Studio was converted into residential flats in the early 2000s and was suddenly reminded there were limits to my field research.
I wondered though, if the woman in the bed knew she was sleeping under the same roof where, arguably, the most famous album cover in pop music history was created. And if she did know, did she ever dream about the cover?
While reviewing my notes later that night at the Crown on Dovehouse Street, I mentioned to the barmaid that Sgt. Pepper’s cover was photographed a few blocks away.
“Sgt. Pepper? Is that the colorful one?” she asked.
“Yep. The one with the flowers. And the crowd of famous people,” I said between sips of bitter. “The studio was on Flood Street.”
The barmaid’s eyes lit up.
“My kids’ school is on Flood Street,” she said with a hint of pride, and I smiled back at her. “I’m there every day,” she added.
A small wave of envy washed up inside of me, but I realized I too was on Flood Street every day, or at least every time I played Sgt. Pepper’s and lost myself in its music.