‘Sgt. Pepper’ at 50: The record that changed the album and rock music

WASHINGTON — It’s been 50 years since listeners were introduced to Billy Shears, Lovely Rita, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and the rest of the cast of characters that make up “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the album that cemented the Beatles’ reputation and expanded minds about what rock & roll, and the record album itself, could be.

Meredith Rutledge-Borger, curator of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in Cleveland, told WTOP that the album “really changed the way we listen to music.”

“Sgt. Pepper” was “one of the first albums that was conceived as a single piece, as a concept album,” Rutledge-Borger said.

It took nine months to record and cost roughly $1 million, which is considered relatively normal these days but contrasts sharply with the group’s debut album, ”Please Please Me,” which was recorded in about 13 hours, Rutledge-Borger pointed out.

The outlay of time and money was “unheard of,” Rutledge-Borger said, and the packaging of the album reflected that. “They put that much investment into making the music, so of course they were going to make an incredibly extravagant packaging for it.”

The gatefold cover was revolutionary for the time, with the front depicting a collection of pop-culture icons from Marilyn Monroe to James Dean to wax figurines of the Beatles themselves, as well as less-known figures such as Karl Marx, James Joyce and sculptor H.C. Westermann. Rutledge-Borger argued that the military-style uniforms the Fab Four wore, reflective of the marching-band alter ego the Beatles created for the album, constituted a foreshadowing of the kind of garb pop stars have worn ever since, most notably Michael Jackson.

Taken all together, Rutledge-Borger said, the record “kind of reinvented albums as a work of art. It changed the way that people thought about rock musicians, and it changed the way that those musicians thought about themselves. Instead of just being pop stars who were writing silly love songs, they became artists creating art.”

She added that the Hall of Fame has the “largest artifact-driven exhibit of Beatles items in the world,” including the original lyric manuscript for “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds.” The collection also has three articles of clothing, including the jacket Lennon wore on the worldwide broadcast of “All You Need is Love,” which wasn’t on “Sgt. Pepper” but was recorded at the same time and “really captured the essence of the Summer of Love,” Rutledge-Borger said.

The popularity and the critical stature of “Sgt. Pepper” has waxed and waned over the years. In 1998, a Melody Maker poll of musicians, DJs and journalists named “Sgt. Pepper” the worst album of all time. The Guardian’s Richard Smith in 2007 called it “if not the worst, then certainly the most overrated album of all time. … Hearing someone say ‘Sgt. Pepper’ is the greatest album ever made is like hearing someone say the Mona Lisa is the world’s greatest painting.”

And on Monday, Amanda Marcotte wrote in Salon that though “Sgt. Pepper” was “a good pop record,” she added that the case for its significance reflected “the point when rock stopped being the music of girls and started being the music of men.”

“[I]t helped cement this notion that music for girls is silly and music for men is artistically significant. It’s a notion that is doubly appalling because history shows, time and time again, that girl-tastes are the ones that are ahead of the curve,” she wrote, citing disco as the clearest recent example.

Rutledge-Borger said one of the Beatles themselves agreed at one point: “For a while John Lennon kind of badmouthed it, talking about how it wasn’t all that. And it influenced a lot of critics, 20 or 30 years after the record was released, to kind of downgrade it.”

Still, she said, “50 years on, I think we can appreciate it for the masterpiece that it is, that really changed our culture.”

WTOP’s Neal Augenstein contributed to this report.

Rick Massimo

Rick Massimo came to WTOP, and to Washington, in 2013 after having lived in Providence, R.I., since he was a child. He's the author of "A Walking Tour of the Georgetown Set" and "I Got a Song: A History of the Newport Folk Festival."

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