In the autumn of 1966, the Beatles wanted to call the Beatles quits; their fame had hemmed them in, surrounded them with trouble. “We were fed up with being the Beatles,” Paul McCartney said years later. “We really hated that fucking four-little-moptop approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming – we didn’t want any more.”
After their August 29th concert in San Francisco, they left live performing for good. Rumours of tension within the group spread as the Beatles released no new music for months. Up to this point, their influence had been unequivocal – their popularity had fostered myriad rival bands in the mid-1960s – but as a new, adventurous, hallucinogen-informed style of music began emerging from the U.S. (and from London bands like Pink Floyd), it suddenly seemed as if popular music might in fact bypass them. The winds were rapidly shifting. Though their most recent album, Revolver, had been their most innovative, the Beatles understood that any new work would either make or finish them; they had to record an album that would re-establish their eminence. In the process, in late 1966 and early 1967, the group would make the most important album in rock history: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. “It was great, actually,” McCartney told Rolling Stone. “Because we were done touring, people in the media were starting to sense that there was too much of a lull, which created a vacuum, so they could bitch about us now. They’d say, ‘Oh, they’ve dried up.’ But we knew we hadn’t. It was kind of cool – behind the scenes we knew what we were making, and we knew we were very far from drying up. Actually, the exact opposite was happening – we were having a huge explosion of creative forces.”
Whether the Beatles intended it or not, Sgt. Pepper came to symbolise — immediately — the ambitions and longings and fears of a generation. Since the group had emerged in 1963 and 1964, youth culture had changed dramatically. What began in those years as a consensus in taste and style — with the Beatles at its center — had transformed into a challenging worldview. Sixties rock, along with the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements and a mass willingness to experiment with marijuana and LSD, had given young people a new sense of empowerment. This moment — when the possibilities of how life could be lived and power resisted were changing — was a time of promise but also doubt and risk. No single work had yet epitomised these bold new senses of community, ideas and art. Nothing, that is, until Sgt. Pepper.
After the 1966 tour, the Beatles went on hiatus, for the first and last time in their career. On November 24th, the band members reconvened at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios in London. In the months since their final concert, they had in fact considered disbanding, but ultimately they were excited by the creative opportunities that studio time now afforded them. They wound up surprising themselves. John Lennon had written a song during the break, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which was full of odd, disjointed lyrical and structural associations, and it grabbed all of the band instantly – it was a new direction. The Beatles worked on it for weeks – which they had never done before – and in the end, they created something haunting and abstract, as well as the single greatest leap forward in popular-music history. Their new album was under way. “We could not have produced a better prototype for the future,” producer George Martin later wrote.
When manager Brian Epstein and EMI Records insisted on new material for a new Beatles double-A-sided single (it would be six months since their last release, an inordinately long period for any rock artists at that time), Martin gave them “Strawberry Fields Forever” and McCartney’s sparkling “Penny Lane,” recorded around the same time as Lennon’s song. The producer later regretted this, feeling he might have lost the cornerstones for the new album. Just the same, the pairing worked beautifully: The two songs were flip-sided memories – one haunted, the other wistful – of a time and place left behind, and for years a myth persisted that the Beatles had intended this new album as an autobiographical exploration of their postwar Liverpool youth. McCartney later disavowed the rumor: “There wasn’t any conscious we’ll-sit-down-and-remember-our-childhood,” he told Mojo in 1995.
Whether or not the Beatles were looking homeward, they were nonetheless searching for sanctuary. They wanted distance from their image, and McCartney hit on a solution: “I thought, ‘Let’s not be ourselves.'” Instead, he suggested, they could invent an identity and work from inside the conceit of an alter-ego band that was making a record. “Everything about the album,” McCartney said, “will be imagined from the perspective of these people, so it doesn’t have to be us, it doesn’t have to be the kind of song you want to write, it could be the song they might want to write.” McCartney proposed calling this stand-in group Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and he wrote a title song to introduce the premise at the album’s outset. John Lennon and George Harrison reportedly had doubts about this make-believe scenario, but neither had any alternate ideas for showcasing the new music.
For McCartney in particular, this tactic opened up opportunities. Though Lennon eventually earned a reputation as the Beatles’ primary avant-gardist, McCartney had been the original pioneer along these lines. For some time, McCartney had been pursuing an interest in the musical vanguard, studying and listening to modernist composers like John Cage and attending performances by Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine in London’s burgeoning Spontaneous Underground scene. McCartney biographer Barry Miles later wrote that McCartney would tell Lennon of his musical ideas, and that Lennon would push him to do them. McCartney was in effect setting out to challenge the division between the high arts (classical music) and the lower ones (rock & roll), and that ambition, as much as anything about Sgt. Pepper, had significant consequences.
McCartney’s gambit gained him the upper hand in the Beatles. He had already brought avant-garde approaches to Revolver, but with Sgt. Pepper, engineer Geoff Emerick later wrote, McCartney was emerging as the band’s “de facto producer.” Lennon later concurred, “I was … in a real big depression in Pepper, and I know that Paul wasn’t at the time. He was feeling fall of confidence. I was going through murder.” (George Martin also felt that Lennon might have been jealous of some of the attention the producer gave to McCartney’s music and ideas.) Despite Lennon’s personal crisis – he felt dissatisfied with his private life and contused about his artistic purpose – he remained enthusiastic, as eager to push conceptual boundaries as McCartney. According to Richard Lush, an Abbey Road engineer interviewed in Mojo, Lennon said that what he sought foremost in the project was “nothing normal. … I want to sound different today, nothing like I sounded yesterday.” Also, the Beatles insisted on closed sessions. They rarely allowed visitors; they didn’t want anybody cribbing their ideas.
These dynamics meant that Sgt. Pepper would have two immediate lives: its famous public life and a trickier inner reality that had an unforeseen outcome. There were other elements mingling with all this as well – chief among them an influence the Beatles had long kept hidden. “When [George Martin] was doing his TV program on Pepper,” McCartney recalled, “he asked me, ‘Do you know what caused Pepper?’ I said, ‘In one word, George, drugs. Pot.’ And George said, ‘No, no. But you weren’t on it all the time.’ ‘Yes, we were.’ Sgt. Pepper was a drug album.”
The Beatles had been introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan in 1964 and had used the drug steadily since. But psychedelics – which they were now taking – proposed chancier, more intense possibilities. The first two band members to take LSD – Harrison and Lennon – ingested the drug unknowingly, at a dinner party in 1965. The acid had scared but also beguiled them. Lennon felt his songwriting initially benefited from psychedelic experience (“She Said She Said” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” from Revolver, and “Strawberry Fields Forever” were all informed by LSD consciousness). But by the time of the Sgt. Pepper sessions, according to many accounts, Lennon was taking the drug so frequently, and experiencing its ego-shattering effect so constantly, that he sometimes felt he was disappearing within his band and within himself. McCartney had initially been wary of sharing LSD with the others, but one evening Lennon had a bad reaction to an LSD dose, and that finished the night’s work. McCartney took Lennon to his home nearby and then took LSD himself to try to again draw closer to his songwriting partner. It was an intense night when both saw the bond of their mutual love, and both saw the divergences that would break them apart. “It was a very freaky experience,” McCartney said years later, “and I was totally blown away.”
The effect of psychedelics on Sgt. Pepper became a subject of argument as soon as the album was released. For some, LSD permeated everything about the record. This was most obvious in Lennon’s vivid depiction of an acid trip, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” Drugs were also seen – frivolously or not – to inform “With a Little Help From My Friends” (drugs bring the friends together, or are in fact the friends themselves), “Fixing a Hole” (taken by some outraged moralists as a reference to injecting heroin) and “Getting Better” (personal improvement brought about by the euphoric drug state). In the end, the Beatles were aiming for invention. Hallucinogens may have been an influence, but so were ambitions of freedom and experimentalism – ideals that were central to the momentum of the 1960s; The nature of that moment was to push for new possibilities.
At the same time, there’s no question that drugs might affect how one viewed meaning and social convention. The album’s most important songs, “She’s Leaving Home,” “Within You Without You” and “A Day in the Life” all reflected unorthodox standpoints. “She’s Leaving Home” was McCartney’s sympathetic portrayal of a runaway girl and the parents she abandoned – the only track on the album that dealt directly with a social dilemma. “Within You Without You” was George Harrison’s sole track on the album, and demonstrated another influence on the Beatles. Harrison had been the odd man out in the group, and he was the first to turn against its fame. But at the Pepper sessions he felt renewed by a months-long stay in India and by his study of Eastern philosophy’s doctrine of rising above the ephemeral. Indeed, Eastern thought’s beliefs in transcendentalism seemed well-suited to the emerging counterculture disillusioned by modern principles. “Within You Without You” was Harrison’s entreaty to the audience he had almost walked away from: “We were talking/About the love that’s gone so cold and the people/Who gain the world and lose their soul/They don’t know/They can’t see/Are you one of them?” Over the years, “Within You Without You” has been derided for sermonising, but it is hard to imagine Sgt. Pepper without the track. On an album that is about moving beyond limits, Harrison’s stately contribution came the closest to articulating that aspiration in idealistic terms.
“Within You Without You” and “She’s Leaving Home” were essential to Sgt. Pepper‘s meaning – they held out a sense of compassion, of hope – but “A Day in the Life” was more complex and disturbing. The song was primarily Lennon’s composition – no matter his doubts about himself and Sgt. Pepper, he ended up providing the album’s crowning moment. In Lennon’s original draft, “A Day in the Life” was a lovely and forlorn soliloquy, but just as with “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the other Beatles and producer Martin saw a chance to make something unparalleled. Lennon’s account of a man so sick of modern life that he mourned for it was full of ambiguous images, but along with a lulling musical tow, they built calmly to a sense of dread and epiphany. Lennon asked McCartney for a middle part to the song – it needed a diversion that would lead away from, then back to, the core theme of desolate yearning. McCartney offered a fragment he’d been playing with, but he also thought of a way to make the song’s crucial shifts both mesmeric and disorienting: an orchestra playing a measured, ascending chaos. Lennon loved the idea, Martin thought it was excessive, but in the end the songwriters prevailed, resulting in what may be the finest recording in the Beatles’ catalog. In their ultimate collaboration, Lennon wrote his most meaningful song and McCartney realized his best avant-garde ambitions.
Though it was recorded before any of the album’s other tracks, “A Day in the Life” found its place at the album’s end, after the imaginary band had come and gone. But the song wasn’t a coda rather it was a requiem for both Sgt. Pepper and for its vision of sanctuary. As the track opens, Lennon tells of a man who “blew his mind out in a car.” It may be an act of suicide, maybe a drug-induced illumination, but either way the singer can’t look away: It isn’t a man who has died but an age that can’t be abided and can’t be walked away from. From there the music turns into an inchoate swirl, and another singer, McCartney, tries to deliver us from the news into a dream of bearing everyday life with narcotic insensibility, but Lennon’s voice won’t allow misleading hope. He insists on deciphering the modern farce, and then the orchestra drives the performance off the known map of the twentieth century. “A Day in the Life” exists in the space between unawareness and disenchantment – the space that the times now moved in – and it closes with the most famous moment in 1960s music: a single chord played by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Martin and assistant Mal Evans across several pianos at once, reverberating on and on, like a possibility without resolution. It was the abyss at the end of the dream, the void that the dream had to somehow surmount. As that eventful chord lingered and then decayed, it bound up an entire culture in its mysteries, its implications, its sense of providence found and lost. In some ways, it was the most stirring moment that the culture would ever share, and the last gesture of genuine unity that we would ever hear from the Beatles.
When the Beatles finished Sgt. Pepper in late April 1967, they had spent four months and $75,000 on the project – unprecedented investments at that time – and they knew that what they had created was something different from anything they had done before. But nobody was prepared for what would happen with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The record sold 250,000 copies in Britain in its first week (500,000 by the end of June) and 2.5 million in the U.S. by late August. It topped the U.K.’s charts for 27 weeks and held the Number One spot in America for 15 weeks. These figures were unmatched up to that time.
This is to say that Sgt. Pepper hit a nerve in popular culture as nothing before had; it was era-defining and form-busting, and intentionally or not, it caught and emboldened the mood of the times. The album’s opening clangor, with a strident guitar cutting across the pomp of an antiquated brass band, was a herald of change: Old was giving way to new – and that sound, that value, was suddenly everywhere. “For a brief while,” critic Langdon Winner famously wrote, “the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.” Real or not, this was seen – and is largely still remembered – as an occurrence of, or a call to, community. In some ways, the Beatles had represented this ideal, fused with the value of generational change, all along: They had made plain since their arrival that we had entered a different age, that young people were now free to invent themselves in completely new terms. With the Beatles we witnessed the social and cultural power that a pop group and its audience could create and share, and because Sgt. Pepper was all about new heights, possibilities of all sorts felt boundless. Fuelled by the momentum of the Beatles and others, rock & roll became collusive with the social and political disruptions of the 1960s. Lennon later said, “Changing the lifestyle and appearance of youth throughout the world didn’t just happen – we set out to do it. We knew what we were doing.”
But Sgt. Pepper‘s moment couldn’t carry on, nor could it keep and hold the Beatles. It only intensified the necessity for Lennon to break free. He had given in to and supported McCartney’s desires for the album, but Lennon thought they were writing more and more from different perspectives. McCartney was composing everyman narratives and celebratory calls; Lennon was writing from what he saw as a more authentic and troubled personal viewpoint. “Paul said, ‘Come see the show,'” Lennon said later. “I said, ‘I read the news today, oh boy.'”
The others seemingly never excused McCartney for his governance of Sgt. Pepper, even if it was their eminent moment. In later years, all the Beatles but McCartney would distance themselves from the album. Harrison and Starr said they often felt unoccupied at the sessions, mainly waiting to play what they were needed to play (though Starr’s work on the album redefined the sound and art of rock drumming).
Over the years, Sgt. Pepper‘s reputation has risen and fallen and risen again partly because subsequent generations haven’t wanted to be limited by the notion that the exemplars of the 1960s can’t be surmounted. But it’s also because, rightly or wrongly, Sgt. Pepper is now seen largely as McCartney’s feat, and in revisionist views of the Beatles, McCartney’s genius has been relegated as less compelling than Lennon’s. None of this can really take away from Sgt. Pepper‘s moment or from its lasting worth, though it certainly deepens the enigma at the heart of the album: that the Beatles wanted to turn us on, but they also wanted to keep us at a remove (who can blame them, given that one crazed fan murdered Lennon in 1980 and another stabbed Harrison at the end of 1999?). The masses had chased the Beatles into the refuge that was Sgt. Pepper, though the album only drew those same masses closer by stirring them, speaking for them. The Beatles enabled a momentary ideal of kinship that they themselves perhaps never really intended to take part in, and that their own union wouldn’t survive.
But the Beatles couldn’t help it: After all, they wanted the world to hear what they had done. Their greatest flair had always been for rising to the occasion of history. They never did that more memorably or more meaningfully than with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper was part of a moment when the 20th century was opening up to reveal the potentiality within, then just as quickly closed off that promise. The album exemplifies that moment because Sgt. Pepper is also the story of the season in which the Beatles depicted a place they would not go beyond. Neither would anybody else. An age that was a moment was lost and it was never coming back.