Celebrating the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper's' 50th anniversary
If ever there was one album every music lover should have in their collection, it would be the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Released in the United States on June 2, 1967, the album marked a sacred moment for music. Spanning 13 tracks at nearly 40 minutes, it represents the Beatles at their most creatively ambitious. The songwriting, musicianship, performances, arrangements, album artwork, production, and the mixing all combined to make a bold statement, one which many argue legitimized the album as a true art form.
The LP ultimately took home the Album Of The Year GRAMMY, the first in an endless string of album accolades that has included induction into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame and the prestige of the top spot on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
A half-century after its release, Sgt. Pepper's … is getting the deluxe edition treatment, affording fans an opportunity to rediscover the seminal album all over again. The golden anniversary also doubles as a time to reflect on this influential work that continues to impact songwriters, musicians, artists, and studio technicians across multiple generations.
Following, a panel of GRAMMY-winning and -nominated musicians and studio professionals examine the profound and lasting impact of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, united by their reverence and ongoing awe for the achievement of this timeless work.
Steve Lukather (GRAMMY-winning guitarist: Toto, Ringo Starr All-Starr Band): I was 11 the first time I heard it. It was like in The Wizard Of Oz, where it goes from black-and-white to color. My mouth was open the whole time. We'd never heard otherworldly sounds like this. People have to remember: It's 2017 now and everyone's jaded. It was unlike anything we'd ever heard on this planet, like aliens had landed in the backyard.
Nancy Wilson (GRAMMY-nominated guitarist/vocalist: Heart, Roadcase Royale): I was 13 when Sgt. Pepper came out, a tender young teenager. [My sister] Ann and I were totally swept into this cultural phenomenon that was going on with the Beatles since their first album. We didn't want to be the Beatles' girlfriends. We wanted to be them.
Butch Vig (GRAMMY-winning producer: Nirvana, Foo Fighters): I was 12 when it came out. My art teacher played it in our class. It had quite an impact on me. I knew of the Beatles but I'd never heard anything like it before.
Al Di Meola (GRAMMY-winning guitarist): I was 13 the first time I heard Sgt. Pepper. I was completely blown away. It was on constant rotation on my little record player in my room.
Ed Cherney (GRAMMY-winning producer/engineer/mixer, Recording Academy Producers & Engineers Wing Co-Chair): I was 17 when it came out. Me and my friends took a hit of acid, and went to our friend's bedroom because he had a hi-fi. We listened to it from beginning to end. Nobody said a word from the first needle drop. I remember my soul escaping from my body because I was so thrilled listening to this. When it was over, none of us spoke. We just turned the record over and listened to it again from side one.
"It was unlike anything we'd ever heard on this planet, like aliens had landed in the backyard."
Bob Ezrin (GRAMMY-nominated producer: Alice Cooper, Pink Floyd): I was 18 when I first heard it. I was already married with an infant son. Suddenly, the universe was shrinking around me; my teenage years were over, and no longer was life a wide open expanse of possibility. But in June of 1967 I could put on this album and escape into a fantastical, technicolor land of wondrous characters, curious places and complex emotions, with music that bore all the tastes and smells of the whole wide world.
Rick Nielsen (guitarist, Cheap Trick): I was 18 the year it came out. It was exciting. I remember thinking, "Holy cow!" [They] had gone from "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to this stuff. This wasn't their first album; the previous ones were all extraordinary. But this was a step forward, this was different.
Joe Walsh (GRAMMY-winning guitarist, Eagles): I was 20 when Sgt. Pepper came out. I lived with two other guys, each of us in different bands that played downtown Kent, Ohio. Those were the wild and crazy days, so we set up two Marshall amplifiers in the living room, and hooked the turntable up to the amps. We laid down on the living room table between the two amps and listened to it all night. It blew our minds, and then became the only thing that mattered, listening to that, for many weeks.
Al Schmitt (GRAMMY-winning producer/engineer: Paul McCartney, Diana Krall): The first time I heard it I was in the studio with [fellow producer] Tommy LiPuma. I'd already been in the business for a long time, and I sure knew about the Beatles. But Sgt. Pepper, it was jaw-dropping. We thought, how did they do that? We were blown away. It was unbelievable.
Vig: I bought it that week at the local record store and started listening to it with headphones, over and over again. It didn't sound like a band playing together in a room. Instead, each song took us into a completely new world.
Wilson: Artistically, it was a sea turn. They had been working up to it and Sgt. Pepper was the ultimate big left turn for music at the time. And everybody went left. It was mind-blowing.
Lukather: I wondered where all these sounds came from. Where is the magical place where this can happen?
Cherney: I think it was the most powerful musical experience I've ever had, the first time I heard it. The rest of my life and career became trying to make things as exciting and as compelling as that.
Ezrin: This was the audio equivalent of Walt Disney's Fantasia: a momentous piece of work that pushed the boundaries of composition and technology and that opened people's ears, minds and hearts to a whole new level of fascination and connection with just sound.
Wilson: The night before Sgt. Pepper came out, the entire record was played on the radio. It was a super event, being glued to the radio and hearing the whole album. It was a life-altering event for Ann and I. We had to be the first in line to pick up the album. So that very next day we had it in our hands. We put it on the family stereo in our family living room and just immersed.
Schmitt: It sounded amazing. So many effects that they used were great. I had my assistants try to figure out how they did certain things. It changed the way I looked at recording because of what they did, the chances they took. It was revolutionary.
Ezrin: While they demonstrated that almost anything could be done now in the studio, they also demonstrated that only certain things ought to be done to preserve and enhance the essence of each great song.
Cherney: It opened our eyes to music on so many levels, introducing us to vaudeville, show tunes, westerns, and Indian music. There's not a bad note, a bad lyric or anything out of place.
Lukather: Everything about the album, including the artwork, was amazing. These were the days when we would spend endless hours staring at albums, and now we got this, with all wild and colorful pictures, and the lyrics for every song printed out. It was a total statement. It was like taking a journey. It's a piece meant to be listened to from top to bottom.
"This was the audio equivalent of Walt Disney's Fantasia: a momentous piece of work that pushed the boundaries of composition and technology."
Nielsen: Sgt. Pepper changed everything in terms of recording. You couldn't just make an album with a guitar, a bass and a drum anymore. You needed more.
Wilson: Sgt. Pepper was, in its entirety, a cohesive piece of art from top to bottom. It took you through a journey. When you got through listening to it, you felt like you got to live in their world, and meet every character in it, and be part of their town. You got to live in Beatletown! For the duration of it. And each thing leads into the next, so the way they segued the songs and blended the colors into the next song, was ingenious.
Di Meola: The way they incorporated sounds and orchestration was so far ahead of anything that had ever been done before, and done so well. The mixing was brilliant, and especially helpful for me. The production ideas forever impacted me. I'd always think about how the Beatles would mix and pan certain sounds.
Walsh: They didn't really know what they were doing. And because of that, they had no boundaries. George Martin would tell them, "No, you can't do that." But they would insist, and experiment. They broke tradition and all the norms, and changed the way people made albums from then on.
Lukather: We had Brian Wilson and [the Beach Boys'] Pet Sounds on this side. Everyone was trying to one up one another, and that was a positive thing, because nobody's record sounded the same.
Wilson: Pet Sounds inspired and informed Sgt. Pepper. It was all about experimentation and pushing the limits. Everything was culturally at such a peak, and there was so much to push against, that the young generation was trying to push against the old stodgy cultural mores and limits. It was a lot more stodgy in those days. The Beatles were really brave, and at the helm of something completely uncharted. And they got there.
Lukather: Even if you took away the production, it is amazing. The performances of each individual player, and the songs and the vocals, were all magical. There's a reason these guys were the Beatles. They were really good. They weren't flashy and shredding. What they have is songs and creativity that have yet to be matched. This is still the standard that we all look to.
Vig: We take for granted that they were fantastic musicians, and the performances on Sgt. Pepper are stellar. Besides John, Paul and George bringing in great songs, they were also contributing arrangement ideas. Between them, their producer and engineer, they were in a perfect creative storm.
Lukather: Ringo was an amazing drummer. He invented these crazy-a** drum parts and drum fills that, prior to that, never had been done. He invented the whole way modern drummers play. He is so creative, and the way he plays, it swings, it grooves. He invented the way people perceive the drums, especially in early rock and roll.
Walsh: Because this was four-track, the Beatles played together as a band. It was about getting a performance and building on that. Very rarely now do a bunch of people get in the room together at the same time and play together. Nowadays it's just one guy on a computer making it perfect. But perfect music doesn't sound good. There's no mojo.
Lukather: George's playing was everything to me. More than the songs or the singing, it was about the sound of his guitar. He played for the song. He came up with great parts, and wrote beautiful music. He had a very distinctive sound. His economy of notes, and the way he played, the finesse of it, is something you can't learn. You can learn the notes. But there's a certain touch and feel and heart that goes into it.
"Sgt. Pepper changed everything in terms of recording. You couldn't just make an album with a guitar, a bass and a drum anymore."
Walsh: It is when Lennon and McCartney broke on through with their songwriting. They had no boundaries. They'd come off the road, and didn't want to be the Beatles anymore. They wanted to reinvent themselves. They couldn't play live anymore, couldn't hear themselves with all the people screaming. So they invented a new band: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. And by doing this, they changed the way songs were written. I mean, "A Day In The Life" is more than a song. It's a collage of songs.
Schmitt: "A Day In The Life" was, for me, the number one cut on the album. It was incredible. What they did with the orchestra on that was amazing. A lot of that credit goes to George Martin for being able to do the orchestrations for that and for recording it, and the Beatles for allowing it. They were into anything at that point. If someone said they should try something, they would go for it.
Ezrin: "A Day In The Life" may be the greatest piece of writing and production in the history of modern recording. It is flawless in its storytelling, from the perfect lyric and melody to the truly moving performance to the unrestrained brilliance of the arrangement, to the sound of everything, especially the voice. I listen with my jaw open and eyes wide every time I hear it, and I'm still deeply moved by it after 50 years of listening.
Wilson: I loved "Within You Without You" [by George] so much. It was like walking into the temple with George. He's sitting cross-legged playing his hurdy-gurdy. I remember thinking, "Now, I know George more deeply." Up to then I thought he was just giving lip service to spirituality and God. But here was this song that brought you straight into [his] deeper vibration. It was so beautiful how it created this mood of a chant and a meditation inside the song. And at the end of this very dark, heavy and personal song, there is laughter. As if to say, "Wow, that was fun. Now let's get a back to the program at hand!"
Nielsen: Musically, a lot of these songs are quite complex. "For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite," which John wrote, is really odd musically. It is complicated to play. But I love it.
Wilson: "When I'm Sixty-Four" is that music-hall style, which Paul did so well. But it's only one style he did so well. The range of that is really impressive.
Di Meola: "She's Leaving Home" is a beautiful song. That melody, even without the lyrics, stands on its own.
"It is when Lennon and McCartney broke on through with their songwriting."
Wilson: "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" mirrors exactly what it felt like in those days to be tripping, or to take some mind expansive thing. If you had that album cued up, and you were high, it made even better sense.
Di Meola: Having Ringo sing "With A Little Help From My Friends" was a show of camaraderie. Such a strong song, you think they would want to do it on their own. It sounds tailor-made for Ringo, but it wasn't. It was just an idea to have him try it, and it worked.
Wilson: "Fixing A Hole" is one of my favorite Paul moments ever. He has an uncanny capability to write something that seems light-weight at first, but then you realize there is more there than you knew. It is so melodic. A beautiful thing about what he does, as a songwriter, is that he's got a wink and a nod, and yet he speaks of something painful, having a hole where the rain gets into your own life. He's a master at deceptive simplicity.
Walsh: The technology, the whole concept of stereo, and multitracking, was just starting to explode, and that collided with them using everything they had used so far. In the old days, you would record the whole band at once. We'd just gone from Sun Records, one track, to this. If the drummer was too loud, you moved the mike. Now anything was possible, and nothing was ever the same again.
Di Meola: It has impacted me my whole life, though I am a jazz player, because of the emphasis on melody and composition. I relate more to the Beatles than anything in jazz.
Cherney: I think it made me want to spend a life trying to be in the studio and make music like them. I can point to a lot of my peers, and know it did the same thing to them.
Di Meola: This music became more intricate and interesting than before. The lyrics became psychedelic, romantic and more dreamy. When I hear it, it is so nostalgically beautiful, but it's also music that I listen to still today. And I love it. I'm crazy about it.
Vig: Anyone who makes modern recordings, at some point, has borrowed their ideas.
Lukather: Look at what they did in just a handful of years: the growth of the creativity, the songwriting, the performances, the uniqueness, and the message. They transformed the whole world. They made us think different.
Vig: Sgt. Pepper raised the bar. The songs were great but the production took it to a completely new level. It revolutionized modern studio recording.
Lukather: If there were no Beatles, there wouldn't be anybody else.
Ezrin: It was a watershed moment in human culture. It was a time when technology was just about to burst its restraints and the world was suddenly united by popular culture.
Cherney: It touched us all so deeply, and in a way I don't think music or art has ever really touched us before.
Ezrin: It wasn't an album. It was a magic door into the imagination, and it was all done with music and sound.
Cherney: Last night I listened to it all the way through. I remember every note, every solo, every lyric, every word, every part, every Ringo fill. It's wild. It's the greatest rock and roll record of all time. It opened my eyes.
Walsh: Every now and then, when I get tired of what I hear on the radio, I put on Sgt. Pepper. And I am reminded of just how great it can be.
"Sgt. Pepper raised the bar. The songs were great but the production took it to a completely new level. It revolutionized modern studio recording."
Wilson: The whole album is embedded in my DNA.
Lukather: It's one of the greatest albums ever made. They're going to be writing about the cultural effect of the Beatles on the planet earth, and about Sgt. Pepper, for centuries.
Walsh: It changed everything. In terms of what was possible. It made everybody look at what we had been doing, and made it seem prehistoric.
Cherney: Compared to Sgt. Pepper, modern music sounds like it was made through a kazoo.
(Writer Paul Zollo is the senior editor of American Songwriter and the author of several books, including Songwriters On Songwriting, Conversations With Tom Petty and Hollywood Remembered. He's also a songwriter and Trough Records artist whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including Art Garfunkel, Severin Browne and Darryl Purpose.)