There are not that many records that are as iconic as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. From the sequencing of the psychedelic picturesque songs to the visual equivalence of its historical-collage cover art, the album embodies the youthful anticipation of the highly imaginative 1960s counterculture.
By 1968, the Fab Four had explored the inner-sanctum of their boundless creativity, and now the next step was to create a fresh new canvas for them to redefine their musical language.
One of its most celebrated accomplishments and why it was critically acclaimed was that it bridged popular culture to high art. It is considered by some to be one of the first concept albums; it did much in the way of introducing the creation of an album as an art form; it introduced ideas of psychedelia, mysticism, Indian music, avant-garde, vaudeville, and music hall into popular culture while combining all these ideas into one cohesive vision.
Although the album has since been revered as one of the greatest embodiments of the summer of love, McCartney has maintained that the Fab Four were the messengers, more so than the creators of this era. “The mood of the album was in the spirit of the age, because we ourselves were fitting into the mood of the time,” he once said. The idea wasn’t to do anything to cater for that mood – we happened to be in that mood anyway. And it wasn’t just the general mood of the time that influenced us; I was searching for references that were more on the fringe of things.”
Poignantly adding, McCartney continued: “The actual mood of the time was more likely to be The Move, or Status Quo or whatever – whereas outside all of that there was this avant-garde mode, which I think was coming into Pepper.”
By creating an alter-ego for the band, it allowed the Fab Four to write for a different persona. “I thought it would be a very interesting idea for us to assume alter egos for this album we were about to make. It was quite liberating,” Paul McCartney said, according to Radio X.
McCartney also added: “We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top approach. We were not boys, we were men … and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”
How did The Beatles come up with the concept of Sgt. Pepper?
According to Beatles mythology, it was McCartney who came up with the idea for the record. Macca was coming back from a trip abroad with their roadie, Mal Evans, and while en route on an aeroplane, Evans asked McCartney to pass the salt and pepper, but did so by mumbling.
Macca recalls the story: “I was coming back from a trip abroad with our roadie, Mal Evans, just the two of us together on the plane,” he said. “We were eating and he mumbled to me, asked me to pass the salt and pepper. And I misheard him. He said [mumbles] ‘saltandpepper’.”
Macca continued the story: “So we had a laugh about it, then I started thinking about Sergeant Pepper as a character. I thought it would be a very interesting idea for us to assume alter egos for this album we were about to make. It was quite liberating.”
For John Lennon, however, the concept behind the album was not a shared vision; it was completely a McCartney idea. “All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with this idea of Sgt Pepper and his band; but it works ’cause we said it worked, and that’s how the album appeared,” said John Lennon according to the Beatles Bible, also adding: “But it was not as put together as it sounds, except for Sgt Pepper introducing Billy Shears and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album.”
Lennon admits that Sgt. Pepper’s represented a ‘peak of sorts’, but while it may have been a creative peak for McCartney, it was more so a drug one for Lennon – the bespectacled Beatle was using LSD a lot during this time. ‘A Day in the Life’ touched upon this and they, of course, denied that the song or even the album at large was ever about drugs, but it certainly did see the Fab Four at an all-time creative high.
George Martin added along the lines of this: “I think Pepper did represent what the young people were on about, and it seemed to coincide with the revolution in young people’s thinking. It was the epitome of the Swinging Sixties. It linked up with Mary Quant and miniskirts and all those things – the freedom of sex, the freedom of soft drugs like marijuana and so on.”
Who is the real Sgt. Pepper?
While we know that The Beatles developed an alter-ego of a fictitious band, namely Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a psychedelic marching band clad in Edwardian-era via flower-power military outfits, the question still remains: Who exactly is Sgt. Pepper?
The image of Sgt. Pepper is based on the visage of a real historical military figure: James Melvin Babington, according to the author Bruce Spizer and his book, The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper: A Fan’s Perspective. “You knew about Beatle cards, but in the UK they had military history cards. And Major Gen. Babington was also one of these people that was on a card,” Spizer said according to a Variety article by Steve Marinucci.
Spizer added, “So I think the artists got the idea to have the ‘Sgt. Pepper’ cutout card from those cards and out of those cards picked this one as their model.”
Where did the Fab Four get their Sgt. Pepper outfits?
Paul McCartney described where they got their military outfits from as according to Beatles Bible: “For our outfits, we went to Berman’s, the theatrical costumiers, and ordered up the wildest things, based on old military tunics. That’s where they sent you if you were making a film: ‘Go down to Berman’s and get your soldier suits.’ They had books there that showed you what was available. Did we want Edwardian or Crimean?”
Adding, “We just chose oddball things from everywhere and put them together. We all chose our own colours and our own materials: ‘You can’t have that, he’s having it…’We went for bright psychedelic colours, a bit like the fluorescent socks you used to get in the Fifties (they came in very pink, very turquoise or very yellow). At the back of our minds, I think the plan was to have garish uniforms which would actually go against the idea of uniform. At the time everyone was into that ‘I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet’ thing; kids in bands wearing soldiers’ outfits and putting flowers in the barrels of rifles.”
If the Fab Four gave up their identity for a fictitious one, what happened after Sgt. Pepper? Some would maintain that this is where the beginning of the end started.
We go into full detail about how and why The Beatles broke up, here.