Why Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Was The First Ever Concept Album

James Hill /
May 31, 2017 / Music

In 1967, the Beatles, at the height of their prowess and creative development, released Sgt Pepper’s lonely hearts club band. 50 years later, the album is due for re-release along with a plethora of trinkets and memorabilia. This includes: single and double CDs, a new box of four CDs and two DVDs (containing videos and 5.1 surround mixes of the original album) and of course, a trademark double LP.

Importantly, this album was not only representative of a radical shift in pop-culture – it marked a crucial turning point in the influence of pop music as a genre. This was not a type of music that could be broken down into the Merseybeat of the early 60’s, skiffle or indeed the bouncy melodies of the kinks. This was ‘pop’ music, this was the oeuvre solidified into a concrete, powerful form. This is the first concept album.

Let’s begin with the album cover. The iconography of this piece of art, because art is what it is, represents the apotheosis of the 60’s flower power and free-love movement onto an album sleeve. The aesthetically vibrant and colourful uniforms worn by all 4 of the Beatles are psychedelia unchained, presenting a unified presence which for a brief period coalesced the fragmented nature of politics, social unrest and economic vibrancy that accompanied the end of the 1960’s. The various celebrities which adorn the chimeric cover include for instance, W. C. Fields, Carl Jung, Edgar Allan Poe, Fred Astaire alongside Marilyn Monroe, William S. Burroughs and of course, Oscar wilde. This alone was and is ground-breaking, the album cover typically in the years preceding tended to be simplistic and devoid of artistic innovation.

Now, for the first time ever, there was an album not only featuring a cadre of powerful songs but also a line-up of figures which defined the cultural zeitgeist of the period. The nonchalance of imposing all these famous figures is perhaps a true sign of the beatles’ incredible ability to unite all generations into one flawless piece of work. For instance, the expressive and pioneering mix of techniques texturize the entire album. In the new, revamped version the hallucinogenic and swirling ‘Lucy in the Sky’ is imbued with a sense of gravity defying effects, the searing vocals are given new life. Also, the relatable context of the album is built upon assiduously, for instance in ‘Getting Better’ the confessional and psalmodic lyrics and flaws of the titular hero is evolved with nuance and aplomb. This is just two of the tracks from this album yet each one glows like a shining diamond in the sky. For example, the rhapsodic ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’ is a song which feels thunderous and fraught with emotion. The thundering drums of Ringo Starr and the impressive guitar arrangements from McCartney and Harrison throb with newfound coarseness. The mono 3-D restructuring of tracks such as these bely an impressive work which 50 years on, still feels as resonant as ever.

Producer George Martin’s and engineer Geoff Emerick’s liberally applied the contouring of sound via the inspired application of sound shaping signal processing. This is augmented intelligently by the implementation of a 40-piece orchestra whose aleatoric crescendos and recurring leitmotivs are echoes of Wagner’s Das Rheingold and the great operatic works of the preceding century. Influences, which might have been lost in previous recordings are developed in full and nuanced detail. For example, the vaudeville tones of ‘Lovely Rita’ are tangible in the new remastering, the music hall sensibilities developed in a new coherent manner which would not seem out of place in early Chaplin. The avant-garde is significantly present in the warm yet dissonant ‘when I’m sixty-four’ and in this sense, we hear the future echoes of Talking Heads’ remain in light.

Without a doubt, the spacious sound which erupts from the new remastering is effective and daring. The listener gains a newly realised respect for the experimentation present in the world’s first true concept album. Undeniably, the 2017 mix recalls the minutiae and idiosyncrasies which defined the original mono version of Sgt. Pepper’s with such grace and style.

Indeed, from my critical perspective, one cannot ignore the symphonic poetry which imbues every nook and cranny of sonic expression on this album. The remastering effort acts as a potent reminder of the lasting impression of this album. It acts not only as a reminder of the unity of the beatles prior to their dissolution but also a stark awakening to the influence of the concept album on popular music. From the works of Born to Run to OK Computer and even to the environs of hip-hop with YeezusLemonade and To Pimp a Butterfly, the beatles’ influence is everlasting. This 50th anniversary reissue of Sgt Pepper’s is a resounding and innovative aide-mémoire of the sheer technical and experimental genius of lennon, mccartney, Harrison and of course, who could be forgetting, ringo.

Get Volume #18 here.

Words by James Hill

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