Subscribe to our newsletter

(Credit: Alamy)

Music

Why did The Beatles record ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ twice?

@TylerGolsen

The major change that accompanied The Beatles’ eighth studio album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was startling during its contemporary release. It’s easy to forget now that The Beatles have been canonised to a greater extent than any band in history. Still, when The Beatles first started getting weird, the response from audiences wasn’t unanimously positive. The reception towards ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, one of the most experimental songs ever released by a mainstream act at the time, was polarised: the song failed to reach number one in either the US or the UK, which was unheard of for a Beatles single in the mid-to-late ’60s.

So when The Beatles doubled down and fully embraced the eclectic styles of “Art pop” (which wasn’t even really a genre tag at the time) on Sgt. Pepper’s, there was a small but vocal contingent who viewed the album negatively. Positive contemporary reviews aren’t hard to find, but neither are surprisingly vitriolic contemporary pans, most notably Richard Goldstein’s 1967 review that appeared in The New York Times. By the 1980s, rock criticism had begun to turn on Sgt. Pepper’s, and it remains one of the pre-eminent examples of a work of art that gets uniform praise, then a backlash to that praise, then a backlash to the backlash, repeating on and on until the end of time.

Regardless of where you fall on in terms of personal enjoyment of Sgt. Pepper, the album was undeniably innovative. The Beatles were still using four-track technology at the time, which is mind-boggling considering the kaleidoscope of sounds that are on tracks like ‘A Day in the Life’ and ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’. Influences from musique concrete, the use of tape manipulation, and the adaptation of effects like automatic double-tracking and the use of Leslie speakers were improved upon from their initial experimental uses on Revolver. The album even introduced a fairly new idea: the narrative conceptual connection within the album’s songs.

To be fair, Sgt. Pepper’s isn’t really a concept album. In fact, the only songs that are even vaguely connected are the opening title track, ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, and the reprise of the title track before ‘A Day in the Life’. Even John Lennon played off the notion that Sgt. Pepper’s is a full concept record, telling David Sheff in 1980, “Sgt. Pepper is called the first concept album, but it doesn’t go anywhere … it works because we said it worked.”

Even though it’s only a minute and a half long, the reprise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ does quite a bit of heavy lifting, tying the loose concept of Sgt. Pepper’s together, structurally if not totally thematically. Intended as a simple “goodbye song” since the band already had an introductory song, according to band assistant Neil Aspinall, the reprise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ fit perfectly with the ambitious nature of the record as a whole: most of the songs were directly inspired by baroque music, and one of baroque’s cornerstones is the use of the reprise.

The truth was that the album era hadn’t officially kicked off until The Beatles made Sgt. Pepper’s. The band’s own albums had been chopped up and resequenced by EMI for domestic and foreign release before Sgt. Pepper’s, but The Beatles refused to allow any tempering or substitutions for the first time. They also declined to release any singles from the album, preferring that it remained listened to and judged as a whole work rather than from song to song. The reprise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ is the ultimate illustration of this desire: it doesn’t work unless you’ve listened to the whole album (or at least the full-length original) before getting to it. It’s only a snippet of music, but it’s essential to solidifying Sgt. Pepper’s as a stand-alone piece of art.

That being said, ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)’ isn’t as innovative or transgressive as any of the other songs on the album. In fact, it’s hardly a song at all. But it is a strange twist on the original: slightly faster and mostly in a different key, the reprise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ is a bizarre mutation of its original form, not just a repetition of it. The reason behind its creation might have been simple, but the reprise was still groundbreaking just because reprises simply hadn’t been used in pop music before. So when everyone from Frank Ocean to Phish includes song reprises in their works, a direct line can be traced back to the innovation of The Beatles.