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When the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in June 1967, it impacted music the way the Big Bang did the universe, altering everything that came in its wake. The album’s innovations in production, instrumentation, genre, packaging, and lyricism expanded the expectations for pop albums. The Beatles weren’t necessarily the first to experiment with these concepts, but they provided the widest conduit yet to both the masses and their peers. Upon its release — 50 years ago in America — Sgt. Pepper’s set in motion a host of trends that revolutionized the music world. Read on for five of the most significant.
1. “Sgt. Pepper’s” played a vital role in legitimizing the concept of a concept album
The general notion of a concept album dates back to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 album Dust Bowl Ballads. A decade later, Frank Sinatra expanded on the idea with albums organized around romantic themes, like 1955’s In the Wee Small Hours. Brian Wilson tested the approach in pop with the Beach Boys’ 1966 epic Pet Sounds, but his effort initially baffled many, making it a commercial and critical disappointment. By contrast, the cohesion of Sgt. Pepper’s connected with millions on impact, blowing minds with its thematically linked songs, some of which ran directly into each other. On the two albums that preceded Sgt. Pepper’s, the Beatles had experimented with crafting an album as a whole work, rather than a collection of singles. But Pepper’s tightened the focus and maintained the mood to such a degree that it raised the bar for every ambitious artist thereafter.
2. After “Sgt. Pepper’s,” pop stars embraced alternate personas
Before Sgt. Pepper’s, rock stars merely played themselves in their songs. The Beatles blew up that approach with their 1967 release, presenting themselves instead as the fictitious “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” When Ringo sang “With A Little Help From My Friends,” it wasn’t as himself but as “the one and only Billy Shears.” The result opened fresh points of view in pop, adding new perspectives while deepening meanings. The glam-rock stars of the ‘70s, led by David Bowie, took that ball and ran with it: Not only did Bowie present himself as a character (Ziggy Stardust), he went on to create a series of them, questioning the very notion of a stable self. Pepper’s deserves credit, then, for ushering in a whole new school of pop schizophrenia.
3. George Harrison pioneered the use of Indian instruments and concepts in Western pop
Harrison had experimented with Indian music as far back as 1965 with “Norwegian Wood,” the first Western pop song to use a sitar, and he continued to use instruments from the Asian subcontinent in “Love To You” the next year. But his Sgt. Pepper’s track, “Within You Without You,” went much further. This time, Harrison didn’t just employ instruments like the tabla and sitar, aided by the Asian Music Circle — he also adopted Hindu beliefs in his lyrics. “Within You” explores the inner life, as well as its connection to a universal spirit. By that time, other stars had brought raga influences to rock, including the Byrds and Paul Butterfield. But Harrison’s use of legit Indian classical players provided the deepest integration of that sound and sensibility into the global pop consciousness yet.
4. “Strawberry Fields Forever” introduced the mellotron to rock’s instrumental arsenal
The first widely heard use of the mellotron in a pop song came in “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The Beatles intended the piece for Sgt. Pepper’s, but record company pressure forced them to release it as a single four months earlier. Still, “Strawberry Fields” is very much a piece of Pepper’s and deserves to be included in its list of achievements. The song floats on the flute-like mode of the keyboard instrument. That innovation impressed legions of musicians, starting with Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who used the device on songs like “She’s A Rainbow.” Later, the mellotron became a staple of early progressive rock bands, like the Moody Blues and King Crimson, as well as modern ones, like Radiohead.
5. With “Sgt. Pepper’s,” cover art became, well, art
Few album sleeves excited the imagination the way the packaging for Sgt. Pepper’s did. The design, by pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, juxtaposed images of high and low pop culture figures, equalizing them in a way that would make Andy Warhol proud. The album’s Day-Glo colors had the same trippy effect as the music. Better, the inside packaging included cut-outs of the Beatles in their satin Pepper’s garb, along with lapel badges and a fake mustache that could be worn by listeners to let them feel like a part of the band. Interpretations of the cover’s meaning became stoner dissertations, turning it into one of pop art’s most discussed pieces. The overall design set a new standard for album covers in the LP era, inspiring bands from Led Zeppelin to the Flaming Lips.