It was 40 years ago today, give or take

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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First, a quick word to Sir Paul: Yes, you were the cute Beatle. Time to move on now. The male ingenue look on your poster for your new album Memory Almost Full is, well, embarrassing. Stop it.

mccartney_poster.jpgJune 1st marked the 40th anniversary of the UK release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The thirteen tracks on this disk not only showed how far the Beatles could push the boundaries of popular music, but how far they could get their fans and the music world at large to follow. As their producer George Martin put it [and I’m stealing heavily from the liner notes here], “The Beatles definitely had an eternal curiosity for doing something different.” Recording engineer Geoff Emerick describes where that insistence on being different led them: “…everything was either distorted, limited, heavily compressed or treated with equalisation… headphones turned into microphones attached to violins… we had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way around.”

And they not only recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, they pushed what the musicians of the orchestra did as well. On a recent radio broadcast about the album, I heard how one of the key tracks, A Day in the Life, came to life. John came to Paul, saying he had part of a song he didn’t know what to do with [”I read the news today oh boy…”]. Paul also had a song he couldn’t resolve [”Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my head…”]. They ended up putting them together into a single song. Paul said to leave a 24-bar gap in the middle. When asked what for, he couldn’t say at the time. What that gap became was the cacophonous symphonic crescendo that also repeats at the end. And how they achieved it was by instructing the musicians of the London Symphony Orchestra to all start at the lowest note on their instruments and to, by the end of 24 bars, reach the highest note. With fearless innovations like this, Sgt. Pepper redefined the boundaries of what rock music could be.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this album is that all this experimentation and envelope pushing didn’t turn into some avant garde, artistically significant but ultimately unlistenable John Cage exercise. Instead it became an immediate critical and popular success. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine called it “the most important rock & roll album ever made.” I’d be hard pressed to prove them wrong.

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