No. 4: The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’

sgt-pepper-beatles-imageIf asked to cite a psychedelic music album, most casual music fans would reply, without hesitation: The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

The Fabs’ embrace of flower power and trippy-dopey imagery was in full bloom in the summer of 1967, when the multicolored “Sgt. Pepper” tumbled onto the world stage.

This was not, however, the Fabs’ first visit to the land of psychedelia: “Tomorrow Never Knows” from “Revolver” startled fans the summer before, with its frenzied pace and sea of tape loops. Lennon’s slithery acid-tinged “Strawberry Fields Forever” arrived as a single more than three months before, sharing the vinyl with the gentle psychedelia of “Penny Lane.”

For the Summer of Love, the gods of pop had delivered a soundtrack. “Sgt. Pepper” would change the lives of a generation or two, expanding minds young and old across the universe.

But does “Sgt. Pepper” deserve its medals as a landmark psychedelic album? Yes, certainly, but its trippy credentials do wither a bit under examination.

Of course, hallucinatory drugs heavily affected the Beatles who had been taking LSD for a year or two. The liberal use of sound effects, backward tapes and nonsensical sonics gave a veneer of strangeness to even the most conventional songs, such as “Lovely Rita.”

The idea of a rock concept album — with songs fading into each other and presenting some sort of narrative whole — was highly innovative and challenging to listeners of the day, but it was not unique, not even in Britain.

The English music-hall influence is as strong if not stronger than the pull of psychedelia. As pop artists and marketing geniuses, The Beatles knew better than to blow their constituency’s collective minds, as Lennon had in mind with “Revolution No. 9.”

A cosmos-minded mix-tape that stretches from “Revolver” to “Magical Mystery Tour” would indeed reveal the Beatles as the greatest psychedelic band of them all. Still, “Sgt. Pepper’s” rep as the nexus for these adventures remains overblown.

Here are the songs that clearly qualify for anyone’s psychedelic hall of fame:

  • Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (Lennon)
  • Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! (Lennon)
  • Within You and Without You (Harrison, playing with Indian musicians)
  • A Day in the Life (Lennon and McCartney)

That’s four out of 13 songs, leaving nine tracks revolving at various distances from the psychedelic orbit.

So why, then, does “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” qualify for top 5 placement on our list of the greatest psychedelic music albums?

The album remains a marvelous immersive experience, a journey through a sonic soundscape that welcomes and inspires all but the smallest of minds. As with works of painted art, sometimes the frame matters almost as much as the images on canvas when it comes to the aesthetic experience.

And, of course, “Lucy in the Sky” and “A Day in the Life” are as good as it ever got in psychedelic songwriting and production. (Imagine the album with “Strawberry Fields,” the original plan.)

To hear the final massive E chords of “A Day in the Life” decaying but seemingly going on forever takes us backward and forward in the same instant. No other recorded moment in rock history matches this one for drama.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” will be among those remastered and rereleased in fall 2009. For now, alas, the CD has not changed since the mid-1980s, when the first and only digital version of the psychedelic classic hit stores. As in, the release dates back to 20 years ago today (more or less). That bit of absurdity will blow anyone’s mind.

More Beatles content (updated):

Comments

  1. 15jugglers says:

    I’m thinking that in naming only four of the thirteen songs from that album as deserving of a place in the psych hall of fame you’re being a bit mean…
    What of Being For The Benefit of Mr Kite, Lennon’s trip-tinged rewording of an old fairground/music hall poster?
    And the looming day-to day-paranoia of Goog Morning Good Morning which forms a biting precursor to A Day In The Life?
    One of the problems in judging Beatles songs is that invariably they get compared against each other and so while in the whole of the Fabs output these latter two songs might rate down the list, when compared to the output of their contemporaries they vastly outshine many of the one hit wonders and flash in the pan productions. Just because there is already a plethora of Beatles songs in any list of top tracks doesn’t mean that further inclusion should be limited if its warranted and earned….

  2. 15jugglers says:

    And of course I didn’t read that Mr Kite had been included…. D’oh.
    I will open my eyes one day 🙂

    • Thanks, 15jugglers, great to hear from you.

      “Mr. Kite” is on the psychedelic list, as you note …

      … as for “Good Morning Good Morning,” I’d say it comes down to how much your mind is blown by assorted farm animal sounds. Other than that, it’s a rock song (with tuba!) to these ears. But everything on that album is a bit tipsy, eh?

      When it comes to the Fabs, I love ’em all, psychedelic or not.

      Well, maybe not “Mister Moonlight” …

      Looking forward to your next comments!

      • Zolly Tabb says:

        Mr. Moonlight is a classic Bossanova song even Harry Belafonte would be proud of! Broaden your horizons Abel.

  3. within you without you is a rare trippy song

  4. Astroman says:

    Abel, that’s the best description I’ve ever read when discussing the Psychedelic worthiness of “Sgt. Pepper.” Even though I generally describe it as not only the best Psychedelic album but also the best album of all time in any genre, I have also made, though much less eloquently than yourself, the same arguments as you (including the same songs you listed as truly Psychedelic, minus “Mr. Kite,” but now that I think about it all those swirling organs are pretty trippy).

    However, after reading a lot of the posts on this site, I’ve come to realize that it’s all subjective to the listener, what is truly Psychedelic or not. It’s all in the ear of the “behearer,” if that makes any sense. The Lemon Pipers’ “Green Tambourine” could be too far-out for some people, and dismissed as Psychedelic Muzak by others. The thing about “Sgt. Pepper” is what it may lack in actual Psychedelic music, it more than makes up for with ATTITUDE.

    And you were spot-on with your assessment that it’s an immersive experience. It’s like a Firesign Theatre album; it may not all be amusing, but it IS all entertaining. And “Sgt. Pepper” is the same way regarding Psychedelia. It’s the total experience that’s important, I think. I’ve never been on a “trip,” but from what I hear it’s not all Lava Lamps, White Rabbits, and wallpaper melting on to the floor. There are a whole range of emotions experienced: subtle and intense, revelatory and reflective, playful and serious. And “Sgt. Pepper” is exactly the same. Furthermore, it’s also a perfect snapshot of that point in time. It inspired and also reflected those times. Well, thanks for letting me ramble. And keep up the good work here.

  5. Thanks, Astroman, always great to hear from a thoughtful reader. This was one of the first posts on Psychedelic Sight, glad to see it’s held up. I think “Mr. Kite” earns its stripes with the lyrics as much as anything –” Over men and horses hoops and garters/Lastly through a hogshead of real fire” and all. Like some Fellini film. As for the album, “A perfect snapshot of that point in time,” you’ve nailed it there.

    My fondest memory of this album (aside from the first play) was playing it for my kids on a long car trip. They were young, but I had waited until they were old enough to get it. They loved it, of course, and I listened with new ears, in awe again.

  6. SirRealistic says:

    “Fixing a Hole” is definitely a psychedelic track, both in terms of soundscape and lyrics. “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in / And stops my mind from wandering / Where it will go…” I also think it’s the best song on the album after “A Day in the Life”. It seems quite underrated and overlooked whenever people write about “Sgt. Pepper”.

  7. Bubblegum. Take a trip with the Dead to the dark star instead

  8. The original concept of the album was to be a fictional band putting on a sort of a review or concert, thus the name of the band became the album title, but they seemed to have lost interest in continuing the concept after the introduction of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band that surged into the introduction of Billy Sears singing A Little Help From My Friends. They did tack on the Sgt Pepper reprise at the end to try and tie everything together, but songs between were pretty much independent statements of their own instead of a continuing narrative flow.

    I guess it could be argued that they were all comments on social issues of the day, but I say they are a bunch of Pop songs presented by the best Pop band of the day in a new (at the time) and dramatically different way, and yes, some were definitely psychedelic, a style they had been flirting with since Revolver.

Speak Your Mind

*

Psychedelic Sight via email

Be sure to respond to confirmation message!

Click here to SUBSCRIBE TO PSYCHEDELIC SIGHT