facebook twitter youtube google plus linkedin

Summer of Love 50 Years Later: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

Summer of Love 50 Years Later: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

In the summer of 1967, America found itself in a very similar place to where it finds itself today, 50 years later.

The country was bitterly divided, torn asunder by a generation gap; glaring racial, cultural, political, economic, educational, and lifestyle differences; a seemingly endless and possibly unwinnable war in a distant foreign land; and an increasingly unpopular president in the White House.

However, first in San Francisco, and soon spreading around the country and much of the western world, a movement blossomed where a group of rebellious dreamers were convinced they had discovered a way to reject materialism and find peace, love, and happiness.

They were called hippies and they unleashed what is called today the Summer of Love. In a 7-part series, Booming Encore is examining that special summer of 1967 and its lasting effects today. This is part 5.

By Dave Price

Although there are obviously some dissenters, the majority of critics, musicians, and knowledgeable rock enthusiasts have long contended that the Beatles’ classic album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released 50 years ago at the beginning of June of 1967, is the best LP ever created.

Sgt. Pepper’s surged to the number 1 the week it was released and quickly became the soundtrack of the Summer of Love, whether the location was San Francisco, New York, London, any large city or small town in America, Canada, or England, or indeed much of the rest of the western world.

However, just a year earlier Beatles’ fans – and even the band itself – wasn’t sure if there would ever again be any new Beatles’ music.

1966 had been a horrid year for the band, despite the release of two critically acclaimed, best-selling precursors to Sgt. Pepper’sRubber Soul and Revolver.  John Lennon’s comment that the Beatles’ were “bigger than Jesus,” had been taken out of context and prompted a tremendous backlash against the band in conservative parts of America. The constant touring and recording over the years of Beatlemania were taking a toll on Lennon and his bandmates Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr.

The band, unable to hear itself on stage over the screaming shrieks of its fans, hated playing live. When they finished the last concert of their 1966 American tour on August 29th in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, the band shocked the world with a single statement – The Beatles were done as a touring group and would never play live again. However, they promised to make music in the studio, which was the only place they were enjoying themselves musically.

The band decided to take a break, the first long vacation away from music and one another in the more than five years since they began playing daily and nightly in their home town of Liverpool. Lennon headed to Spain to star in the action/comedy movie How I Won the War. McCartney decided to travel the world. Harrison began his search for a new spirituality based on Eastern religions. Starr headed back to Liverpool to spend time with his wife and their one-year-old son.

The Beatles were now in completely new, uncharted territory. In the history of rock n’ roll there had never been a studio-only band; no one had any idea what that could – or would – turn out to be. The uncertainty prompted Harrison to say: “I guess I’m not a Beatle anymore.”

But Lennon discovered that he didn’t like movie-making without his fellow Beatles around and began working on a new composition, a rough track that would eventually become the psychedelic, ground-breaking “Strawberry Fields.”

When the Beatles reconvened in London, producer George Martin asked if anyone had anything musically to offer. Lennon played his demo. It was enthusiastically greeted by all except McCartney. Even though they were best of friends and often cowriters, there had always been somewhat of a musical rivalry between John and Paul. McCartney didn’t like that Lennon’s new idea was apparently being endorsed, while he had nothing to offer the group.

Realizing that John had taken the title of the tune from a place where he had often played as a child in Liverpool, Paul quickly came up with his own Liverpool song, “Penny Lane.” McCartney excitedly told the group that they should compose a theme-concept album about growing up in Liverpool.

But that album would never develop.

Manager Brian Epstein – who along with Martin was often dubbed the 5th Beatle – was worried. The press on both sides of the Atlantic were filled with stories about the Beatles’ breaking up. Epstein was convinced that the only way to counter those false rumors was to release a new Beatles’ product. He had the band offer a two-sided single; one side with “Strawberry Fields” and the other with “Penny Lane.”

Of course, that left the Beatles with no idea what to do for a follow-up album. According to Beatles’ lore, it was McCartney who came to the rescue.  For a long time, he had been toying with the idea of creating a fake band with an exotic name. But nothing seemed to fit. Then, on a long flight from Africa, he looked down at the tray of food he was preparing to eat and saw a salt shaker and a pepper shaker. Suddenly an idea clicked. Salt and pepper. You could call the group Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Using that moniker, the Beatles could pretend to be some other band and do whatever it wanted. They could journey through all different styles of music with characters and settings they would create. Invigorated, the band and Martin began work began on the new album, which when released would change rock music forever.

Today, the album might not seem quite so revolutionary.

But given the primitive-by-today’s recording abilities available in 1967, each track became an immediate how-did-they-do-that marvel. In fact, some of new techniques Martin, the studio engineers, and the Beatles devised then are still in use currently.

Here is a track-by-track look at some of the highlights of the making of Sgt. Pepper’s:

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”

Credited as a Lennon/McCartney composition, this song, since the concept of Sgt. Pepper’s was his, is very much Paul’s. Can you imagine how astounded he must have been when just days after the album’s release, he and his fellow Beatles heard Jimi Hendrix perform his own tribute version of the song in a packed London venue?

“With a Little Help from My Friends”

This song was composed for Ringo to sing since he always had one song on each Beatles’ albums. It was a written in a question-and-answer format: “What would you think if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me? Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song. And I’ll try not to sing out of key.” The idea of Ringo, never a great singer, singing out of tune here is interesting. He had great trouble reaching the very last high note of the song. But the rest of the Beatles worked with and encouraged him. So, in a real way, Ringo did indeed get “high” with a little help with my friends. Because of the word high, this was interpreted by some as one of the Beatles’ drug songs.

“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”

This one was the trippiest tune on the album and, of course, many contended that it was about acid or LSD – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds – and described the hallucinogentic visions of a drug-induced trip. However, Lennon consistently denied it, claiming the idea came from a painting by his young son, Julian. When Lennon asked Julian what the painting was about, he was supposed to have replied: Lucy in the sky with diamonds. While that may be true, knowing Lennon and his sly wit, I think he might be offering some alternative facts here.

“Getting Better”

This song reportedly came from a comment from drummer Jimmy McNicol, who on one early Beatles’ tour, filled in for an ailing Ringo Starr. After every concert, John and Paul would ask McNicol how it was going. He always replied the same way: “It’s getting better.” Like many of the songs on the album, this was composed mostly in the Abbey Road studio. It’s serves as a perfect example of how Lennon and McCartney, when they wrote together, often counterbalanced each other’s weaknesses by offering a different view. When Paul cheerily sang “it’s getting better all the time” that optimism was countered with John sing chiming in “it couldn’t get much worse.”

“Fixing a Hole”

This song, because of the word fix, was mistakenly identified as yet another Beatles drug song – in this case “fixing” with heroin. But McCartney says the song is really about “fixing your mind with new ideas,” which was exactly what so many members of the new, younger generation were trying to do.

“She’s Leaving Home”

One of the greatest songs about the generation gap ever written. With the advent of the hippie culture, the subject of running away was extremely topical in 1967. McCartney based the song on a newspaper article he read about an actual runaway where the father was quoted as saying, “I cannot imagine why she would run away. She has everything here.”  The song features great word play. Notice the comparisons between the word “bye” and “buy.” The song also perfectly captures the alienated feelings of so many young people with descriptive lines such as “she’s leaving home after living alone for so many years, ”fun is the one thing that money can’t buy,” and “something inside that was always denied for so many years.” While McCartney offers the girl’s point of view, Lennon’s responds as a type of Greek chorus, offering the view of the parents, who simply can’t grasp why their daughter would abandon them for “a man in the motor trade.”

“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”

The best song ever to come directly from the pictures and words on a real Victorian-era circus poster. Lennon discovered the poster featuring the Hendersons, Pablo Fanque, and, of course, Mr. Kite in an antiques shop, bought it, and was inspired to write a song about their circus adventures. Lennon said he tried to write the song, which includes half-speed runs to give it a carnival feel, so listeners “could smell the sawdust of the circus.”

“Within You, Without You.”

This George Harrison composition marks the first time a real Indian raga makes it on to a rock album. Harrison, captivated by both Indian music and religion, had created a sitar sound on guitar for Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood.” By now, however, he could play the actual Indian instrument. The song blends eastern and western influences and some critics say it was one of the key songs that gave birth to a fascination with world music in England and the United States.

“When I’m Sixty-Four”

McCartney has claimed he actually wrote the melody for this catchy, cabaret-type tune on the piano when he was about 15.  During the Beatles early years, Paul would play an unfinished acoustic version when the band’s amplification broke down. The song is written in the form of a letter from a young man who is trying to coax a young lady into promising him life-time devotion – “Will you still need me? Will you still feed me? When I’m 64.” At the time, it was difficult for the Beatles and their young listeners to imagine being 34, let alone 64. However, when he performs the song today, McCartney is 75, 11 years older than the “ancient” age proposed in the song.

“Lovely Rita”

Paul wrote this song after hearing the phrase meter maid. He gave his imaginary meter maid the first name Rita, then added the description lovely. As youngsters, the Beatles had played toilet paper pocket combs and, recalling that fun sound, thought it would fit perfectly in the bouncy Rita tune. It did.

“Good Morning, Good Morning”

At the time of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, Lennon readily admitted that he had become “the lazy” Beatle.  He didn’t venture far from home and was drawing inspiration from such homebody things as newspapers and daytime TV shows. In fact, it was a television commercial for Kellogg’s corn flakes containing the line “good morning, good morning, the best to you each morning” that gave John the idea for this song.

“A Day in the Life”

This is the most remarkable, ambitious track on this classic album. Prior to its release, there had been nothing like it in the rock world. Lennon got the initial idea for the song from a newspaper article about a car crash, which prompted him to think about mortality. Another idea taken from real life events reported in a newspaper article was the 4,000 holes in Blankburn Lancashire. While the song was Lennon’s concept, McCartney contributed the middle section “got up, got out of bed, dragged a comb across my head” from a song he was working on. This is the one song that the Beatles, who were heavily experimenting with drugs at the time, agreed did portray the taking of drugs. With lines such as “I’d love to turn you on” such a claim would be hard to deny. George Martin says he’s sure the line “went upstairs and had a smoke” referred to the Beatles disappearing from time to time in the studio to smoke marijuana before resuming recording. Perhaps the most legendary part of the song is it’s fading ending, which seems to go on forever. Actually, the Beatles decided to have the ending include 24 bars, one for each hour of the day. During the finale, the Beatles used an actual 40-piece orchestra, but the orchestra was dubbed an additional 4 times, making it sound as if the music was coming from a 200-piece ensemble. For the interminable final chord, multiple pianos being played by multiple piano players were employed.

After months of innovative creativity and trial-and-error work, Sgt. Pepper’s, as it has come to be called, was finally completed and mastered. It was released on June 1, 1967 to instant awe and acclaim. The Beatles had shown just what kind of incredible rock music could be created in a studio. And, although the band indeed would never tour again and actually only play a final roof-top performance in London for the Let It Be album, John, Paul, George, and Ringo continued to create some of the greatest and most popular rock music ever heard until the band officially broke up in April of 1970. John Lennon was killed outside his New York City apartment by a crazed fan in 1980. George Harrison died of cancer in 2001. Today, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, in separate touring bands, continue to bring live Beatles classic songs to old and young Beatles fans around the world so they can enjoy their own summers of love. Oh yeah, the Beatles were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Author’s Note: Some background and the majority of factual support for this article came from a series of lectures I attended delivered by Scott Freiman, a Beatles and audio expert, on the Flower Power Cruise earlier this year. If you’re interested in the Beatles, recording, or classic rock music in general, you should check out Freiman’s impressive website Deconstructing the Beatles.

Next Post: As Autumn falls on San Francisco, the Summer of Love there comes crashing down from its high

The following two tabs change content below.
Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.