It’s Getting Better All The Time: Artists on the Legacy of ‘Sgt. Pepper’
The Beatles’ iconic record, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, turns fifty years old today (June 1), but it’s clear that its impact has not dimmed a bit over the last half-century. A Special Edition reissue of the record just hit shelves, and musicians of all genres cite The Beatles’ perhaps most ambitious record as an influence.
We spoke with a cadre of artists about the record and its effect on their lives and careers. Read on for more from Wayne Coyne, Robyn Hitchcock and more.
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Wayne Coyne (The Flaming Lips)
My older brothers — they were the perfect age for Sgt. Pepper’s. When it came out, they were growing out their hair and their lives were being changed by what The Beatles were saying, so we would listen to The Beatles a lot. Two of my older brothers would be in the bedroom next to my bedroom. They put up these really thick black velvet curtains and you could pull the curtains and be in complete darkness at any time of the day. They would sit in there, quite often smoking pot. They did a lot of drugs, but they smoked pot to Beatles music — especially to Sgt. Pepper.
At the time, they were listening to it on an 8-track tape and they didn’t know it at the time, but one side of their stereo didn’t actually work. Most of the things that they would play through the stereo system, you couldn’t really tell that there was a left channel and a right channel; it all sounded sort of similar. But Sgt. Pepper would be one of those albums where if you didn’t have the left channel and the right channel working properly, you would hear a drastically different version of the song.
So the song that we were most affected by would be the ‘A Day in the Life’ track. My brothers and myself [knew about the] hoax that Paul McCartney was dead. [So] we would have this sort of really dark, psychedelic vibe about most of the music, but especially ‘A Day in the Life,’ where John sings, ‘He blew his mind out in a car.’ Our young minds were very much absorbed in all of that serious [stuff], death, drugs — all that sort of stuff. And when we would listen to that song in a very dark room, and when that one stereo side didn’t work, John Lennon’s voice simply fades out. We were like, ‘Only John Lennon would do that.’ We would give it all this deep meaning and this powerful symbolism.
It didn’t occur to me until a couple of years later that, ‘Oh, their stereo wasn’t working.’ For me, some of the scariness of it and the mystery of it and the strangeness of it was gone.
Dale Crover (The Melvins)
I probably had the record when I was around six years old; it was a hand-me-down from my brothers. There was a big chip in the side of the record, so…I missed the first downbeat of the music before the whole record started. Yeah, I had that one really early on. I’ve always said that that’s in my top ten favorite records of all time. And it still sounds good today. I can listen to it forty-four years later, and, for me, it still sounds good.
And I know someone who was on the front cover! Not only once — but twice! Shirley Temple. Our bass player, Lori Black, who used to be in the band quite a while ago — Shirley Temple is her mom. Not too many people can say, ‘I know someone who was on the cover not once but twice.’ [Shirley Temple] was on it as herself and then there’s a doll of her.
Evidently she wanted to hear the record before it was released, just to make sure that there was nothing weird, which I think is funny. [The Beatles] took a picture of [Lori] with her mom and dad and The Beatles — and she’s sitting on Ringo’s lap. She was a little embarrassed about it — just the way that she was dressed was a little too girlish for her. But she’s sitting on Ringo’s lap. How cool is that?
Robyn Hitchcock (The Soft Boys, The Egyptians)
The Beatles were always a very universal act. It wasn’t specialist music. It wasn’t the property of intellectuals and dissidents. It wasn’t for people like me; it was for everybody. [And then they] made this record that hipsters wanted to listen to, and the groovers, and the levitators, and the mystics, and the hippies, as well as the straights — the people who were going to join the army, and who were going to become bankers, and whose grandchildren were going to grow up and vote for Donald Trump. Everybody was lined up there for this record to come out.
So it was eagerly anticipated. I bought my copy on June the first; I still have it. Some people had expensive stereo systems — I just had a portable record player, so I heard it as if it was on a transistor radio. But it was everywhere and it was appealing.
It was pop, but there was no single, so it wasn’t on the top twenty radio that we had in Britain. It was promoted as a world in itself. [The Beatles] were astonishingly prolific in 1967. You know, we were really spoiled. It made being fourteen into a real joy. The Beatles were moving forward, but not in a way that was too hard to follow.
Sgt. Pepper was rich. Sgt. Pepper, it was done as a lark. ‘Look everybody, this is June the first, 1967 and one day this will be twenty years ago and one day this will be fifty years ago,’ and I’m one of the lucky people who became a musician and can give interviews about it. It’s fantastic. If I’d known when I was fourteen that I was going to be rung up [to talk about] Sgt. Pepper I would have said, ‘Hang in there, Robyn, it’ll all be worth your while.’
I was a seven-year-old when Sgt. Pepper’s came out. I remember staring at the cover while I listened to the vinyl. The packaging fascinated me as much as the sound of it. I knew then the guitar riff in the intro of the first song was one the greatest licks ever recorded on a guitar. I don’t know how I knew, but I just did without anyone telling me.
I was transfixed with the string quartet on ‘She’s Leaving Home,’ and the sound of Paul McCartney’s voice on it. I loved the imagery in ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ I loved the drumming on the latter, and I didn’t know why. I just knew I loved it. Prince had to be influenced by this record when he made his Around the World in a Day album. You could trace the ancestry of many of your favorite albums and it would trace back to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The story I heard all my life was that that Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys before completing Sgt. Pepper’s, and was trying to compete with Brian Wilson’s level of artistry. And Brian Wilson was influenced by Rubber Soul, which was influenced by American rhythm and blues, and the family tree of pop record classics go on and on. Creative competition is healthy for the art form.
Funny to think that as a kid hearing ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ you thought you’d never meet anyone other than your grandparents who would ever get to be that old. I loved the less obvious songs, ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,’ ‘Lovely Rita’ and ‘Fixing a Hole.’
I owned a book called the The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics, and looking at the pictures set onto my consciousness a surrealist and forbidden palette that was like Disney on opium. (There was a naked meter maid illustration with men in bowler hats going down a playground slide wrapped around her body like it was a feather boa.) The songs were so imaginative that they sparked a feast for the senses. The Fab Four were a band in which every member was a genius in his own unique way, and then the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. They were all too good to stay in a band.
We can thank Sir George Martin for inspiring and guiding the Fab Four: from a live band that started out singing covers and simple Mersey beat songs toward fully reaching toward the outward bounds of their creativity. We all owe The Beatles and George Martin nothing less than deepest respect for setting the bar at that level.
Stan Demeski (The Feelies)
Unlike many of my peers, I don’t hate the LP or think it ruined rock music, etc. However, most of it really isn’t rock music, pop music would be a better classification if we need to do such things – and it’s far from my favorite Beatle LP.
I was six or seven years old when it came out and while my older siblings liked The Beatles, we were geared toward 45 singles purchases. LPs came a bit later. We did not have it and the singles from those sessions were not on the LP. So I didn’t really hear the LP until about 1972. My older brother took me and several of his friends, crammed us into his Dodge Dart, and off we went on a camping trip to the Delaware Water Gap. Most music-oriented people had 8-track players in their cars at that time, so the first time I heard the complete Pepper was on 8-track on this car trip.
I thought it was great, very psychedelic and very trippy. A year or so later, I got a vinyl copy and started learning how to play along on the drums. And to be upfront, my favorite thing about the LP is Ringo’s drumming. Specifically: the tom fills on ‘A Little Help from My Friends.’ Yes, it’s not the best song, but the overall feel and those fills save it from being a throwaway. The 3/4 note drum hits leading to the chorus in ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’… pure genius as far as I’m concerned. And the great thing is you know he didn’t think about what to play. He just did it.
The overall feel and drum part on ‘Lovely Rita.’ Again, not the best song, but the drum and bass tracks save it for me. The drum fills on ‘Good Morning.’ It’s kind of a wacky song and form to start with. Ringo’s 16-note snare fills help it make sense. And again, he plays a single quarter note fill at a few places that’s totally perfect. On this song, I think it’s bass drum and crash cymbal. He did a similar one on ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ and ‘Hey Jude’ on just the hi-hat.
The first four measures of ‘Sgt. Pepper Reprise.’ The perfect drum part, time and feel. I still can’t tell what percussion instrument plays along. It’s sounds like maracas or a real dark tambourine?
So while I never need to hear ‘She’s Leaving Home’ or ‘When I’m Sixty-Four’ ever again, and I won’t buy the super deluxe reissue, I will still be listening to selected tracks. In the early mono mix version, please and thank you.
I grew up with my dad listening to Motown — and we only listened to really early Beatles. But then, on my own, I started getting into later Beatles in high school. My dad didn’t have any of those records. Definitely, Sgt. Pepper totally turned my world upside down. It takes you to a whole other world. Like everyone who hears Sgt. Pepper, I was obsessed with ‘A Day in the Life,’ and I figured it out on piano. Every day after school I would play that song for fun on my parents’ electronic Yamaha piano. I had never heard anything like that song — ever.
Mike Montali (Hollis Brown)
Sgt. Pepper’s, one of the greatest albums ever. I remember buying this record as a kid, just seeing the album cover and thinking, ‘There is nothing else like this out there.’ Then to put it on and listen to the amazing production, and how the songs are insane. To me, this record is The Beatles really going for it, more so than their other albums, which felt a bit more safe and natural. This record was them going all out and firing on all cylinders. It’s the best band ever operating at the highest level. Changed my life.
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