Sgt. Pepper’s Timing Was As Good As Its Music

Fifty years ago, the Beatles released their masterpiece into a world ready to embrace a rock album as art.

The Beatles working in a studio.
The Beatles during a studio session for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Apple Corps Ltd.

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns 50 years old this week, and to mark the occasion, Apple Records has trotted out a deluxe reissue set, the crown jewel of which is a new stereo remix of the album by Giles Martin, son of the late Sir George Martin. The younger Martin’s mix is a revelation: For Beatles obsessives and audiophiles, it accomplishes the feat of finally delivering a stereo mix that feels both sonically and spiritually true to the original mono mix. For casual Beatles fans unfamiliar with the album’s mono mix, which has been largely unavailable during the compact disc and post–compact disc eras, the experience may well be akin to hearing the album anew, with fresh ears and a revived appreciation for what all the hype was about.

Upon its release in 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band provoked modern pop’s greatest moment of rapture, in a number of senses. The golden anniversary will surely provoke a flurry of commentary on how Sgt. Pepper was the album that changed music, a claim that is most certainly true. Just as importantly, though, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the album that made it possible and intelligible for people to say that a rock ’n’ roll album had changed music, a claim that would of course be made by many other people many other times about many other albums, albeit rarely as accurately as back in May of 1967. This had to do with at least two specific convergences, and both had only partly to do with the Beatles. The first was an evolving understanding of the potential of the LP as a pop medium, and the second was an evolving understanding of the type of language that could be used to talk about pop music.

Sgt. Pepper certainly wasn’t the first great rock ’n’ roll album, nor was it the first (or fifth, or sixth) great Beatles album. But no previous work in the genre had made the album format so central to its identity. Since being first introduced in the late 1940s, 33 RPM long-playing vinyl records had been primarily seen as belonging to more explicitly “adult” genres like classical and jazz. In the 1950s there was no real Chuck Berry or Elvis Presley equivalent to Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, nor did anyone really feel there needed to be. LPs were also intended for more affluent audiences: They were more expensive than 45s and were often marketed with an eye toward a growing audiophile lifestyle culture, in conjunction with corresponding, suitably pricey technologies such as “hi-fi” listening systems.

Sgt. Pepper was the first major rock ’n’ roll album to be released without a designated single, a song that would be sold individually in 45 RPM form, along with a B-side, and pushed to radio. There was no way to own part of Sgt. Pepper without owning the whole, and no clear indication which songs radio stations should prioritize. (In the days and weeks after the album’s release, many stations simply played the whole thing start to finish.) In dispensing with the single model, the Beatles made a clear statement about the integral importance of the LP format to the work at hand, a statement prompted by a number of material factors, the most prominent perhaps being the treatment of the Beatles’ previous LPs by Capitol Records, EMI’s North American subsidiary. Since the Beatles’ stateside breakthrough, Capitol had been issuing “American” versions of Beatles LPs that differed drastically from the British versions. (For instance, in 1966 the American version of Revolver left off “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and “Doctor Robert.”) In late 1966, the Beatles announced they were retiring from touring, and in early 1967, they reupped their deal with EMI. Among the concessions the band won was that “the material recorded under this Agreement … shall not be changed in the United Kingdom U.S.A. Canada and Mexico without the prior consent of the Manager or the Artists.” From this perspective, the unprecedented emphasis on the unity of the LP in the case of Sgt. Pepper was as much a statement of professional self-determination as it was self-conscious artistry.

But self-conscious artistry makes for better copy, and the ’60s were nothing if not a “print the legend” decade, which leads us to the second major story here, one in which the Beatles were not actual actors but were rather inspirations. The period around the release of Sgt. Pepper saw a sea change in the ways that people wrote about popular music and the venues in which that writing began to appear. In 1966, the 17-year-old Swarthmore College student Paul Williams started Crawdaddy, generally thought to be the first American rock ’n’ roll magazine, and a 22-year-old Richard Goldstein began publishing his Pop Eye columns in the Village Voice. Rolling Stone magazine was founded in 1967, the same year a 25-year-old Robert Christgau began covering music for Esquire. In 1968, 26-year-old Ellen Willis became the New Yorker’s first popular music critic.

Corresponding to the rise of these young voices was an increased attention to pop music from older, more established writers and thinkers in equivalently venerable publications. A little more than a month before Sgt. Pepper was released, Leonard Bernstein appeared on CBS to present an hourlong special called Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, in which he heralded an unprecedented musical movement “of, by, and for the kids” and set out to answer two questions: “One, why do adults resent it so, and two, why do I like it?” Taken as a whole, there was a growing sentiment that it was time for rock ’n’ roll to be taken seriously as a subject of criticism and intellectual celebration.

Released into a cultural environment increasingly interested in trumpeting rock ’n’ roll’s virtues as art, Sgt. Pepper, with its self-conscious maturity and readymade narrative of erstwhile-boy-band-ascends-to-adulthood, was a musical masterpiece that doubled as a masterpiece of timing. The Washington Post published two reviews of the album on the same day: The first called it “a musical infinity” and “a miraculous metamorphosis of dozens of Eastern and Western musical ideas,” while the second opened with the breathless declaration, “Music may never be the same again.” In the Times of London, renowned theatre critic Kenneth Tynan called the LP “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.” In an essay for the Partisan Review titled “Learning From the Beatles,” literary critic Richard Poirier declared: “Sgt. Pepper isn’t in the line of continuous development; rather, it is an eruption. It is an astounding accomplishment for which no one could have been wholly prepared.” Writing in the New York Review of Books in January of 1968, classical composer Ned Rorem compared the band with their contemporaries and mused that “The Beatles’ superiority, of course, is finally as elusive as Mozart’s to Clementi: both spoke skillfully the same tonal language, but only Mozart spoke it with the added magic of genius. Who will define such magic?” A mere two years earlier, the thought of critics like these writing about rock ’n’ roll in these terms would have struck most people as unthinkable, if not laughable. Sgt. Pepper may have convinced a lot of people that rock ’n’ roll albums could be high art; it certainly convinced a lot of people that it was OK to write about them as though they were.

And no album was more instrumental than Sgt. Pepper in turning the long-playing album into rock music’s benchmark for artistic legitimacy: In June of 1968, the New York Times wrote that “It may or may not be true that ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ has made the themeless rock LP all but obsolete, but certainly no one can minimize the influence of the Beatles’ masterwork in terms of album conceptualization, intellectualism and structure.” This was, of course, an enormously consequential development—one of the most popular radio formats of post-1960s America would soon be known as “album-oriented rock.” It also wasn’t without its downsides, most notably that it left artists whose labels were hesitant to back full-length works out in the cold. This disproportionately affected R&B artists, whose labels often held racist beliefs that black audiences would only buy singles. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was hugely influential among many black musicians, particularly Otis Redding, who wrote “(Sittin’ On) the Dock of the Bay” while listening to the album incessantly, and Stevie Wonder, who has frequently cited Sgt. Pepper as a watershed in his own musical development. But if Redding or Wonder had attempted to make a full-length work of Pepper’s scope and ambition in 1967, they almost certainly would have been rebuffed by their labels—indeed, even in 1971, when Wonder was embarking on his journey to becoming the greatest album artist of the 1970s, he had to fight Motown for the right to gain such autonomy over his own work. (Redding died in a plane crash only six months after Sgt. Pepper’s release.)

But all of this resides somewhere outside of Sgt. Pepper itself, and rather in all the claims that have been made for it, and all the uses it’s been put to by a world still grappling with its legacy. One of the most challenging things about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is that it too often becomes hard to really hear the music through all the noise, an ironic statement considering the Beatles’ abandonment of touring that preceded the album’s creation was partly due to their own frustration over being unable to hear themselves over screaming crowds. And of course it wasn’t all just right place, right time. There’s a singular majesty to this album, from the first distorted burst of guitar squawl on the album’s opening title track all the way through its closer, “A Day in the Life,” a recording that even a half-century on flatly defies belief. The great achievement of Giles Martin’s new mix is offering this for a new century and new generations, recovering the sense of discovery, hearing for the first time the act you’ve known for all these years. It might have come along at exactly the right time, but 50 years later, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has never sounded more like the masterpiece it always was.

Read more in Slate about the Beatles.