Listening: 76 years since Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play

The stereo and mono versions of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

If, in 1967, it had been 20 years ago that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, it has now been 76 years. This spring marked the 56th anniversary of the release of arguably the Beatles’ finest hour.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the first Beatles album that was released in the United States with the same track list as the United Kingdom. The suits at Capitol Records did not trust the customers to accept the U.K. versions; also, if you only put 11-12 tracks on an album, you can release more albums and hence make more money than if you put 13-14 songs on the album. 

When the Beatles renegotiated their recording contract prior to Sgt. Pepper, they stipulated that Capitol had to stop doing things like removing three songs from Revolver or starting Rubber Soul with one of the songs they had withheld from Help! instead of “Drive My Car.” And so North Americans finally got a full blast of the Beatles as the Beatles intended — and what a blast it was.

In recent years some folks have downplayed Sgt. Pepper and argued that Rubber Soul and Revolver were even more groundbreaking, and now that a generation of U.S. fans have been exposed to those two albums as originally envisioned, I can see where such a case can be made. But in the context of the times, when Rubber Soul and Revolver were cannibalized to make extra albums like Beatles VI or Yesterday and Today, it really wasn’t until Pepper that we experienced the full impact of a Beatles album over on this side of the pond.

And so here’s a toast to the album that changed, if not everything, at least a significant percentage of how we looked at, and listened to, popular music in the 1960s. There was music before the Beatles and after the Beatles, and there was music before Sgt. Pepper and after Sgt. Pepper. From the opening sounds of the crowd chatting as the orchestra tunes up, through the smashingly mind-boggling 37-second chord that concludes “A Day in the Life,” this album is a master class in how to reinvent pop music.

It’s a great album, and after all these years, I have to admit it’s getting better — getting so much better all the time.

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