THE BEATLES’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album was released 50 years ago this week.
Brian Southall has written a new book chronicling the making of the seminal album. He told Murray Scougall the Honest Truth about Sgt Pepper.
What is your background?
I was a journalist on a local paper in Essex in the ’60s before moving on to work at Melody Maker and Disc and then, from 1973 to 2003, A&M Records, EMI Records and Warner Music.
Since then I have written 16 books about music.
What made you want to write this book?
I was keen on celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper in some way and the idea of also looking back at 1967 – which was an extraordinary year – brings, I hope, an extra dimension to the book. Creating it with an A and B side, like an old album, was a fun way of doing it.
It takes a look back at the creation of, and reaction to, Sgt Pepper and where The Beatles were at in 1967, plus a trawl through some of the major political, social, sporting and cultural events that made the headlines.
Where did the album name come from?
The name Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was something Paul McCartney came up with.
He was influenced by the weird band names coming out of San Francisco at that time – Country Joe McDonald & The Fish, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Electric Prunes etc.
The name “pepper” seems to have two origins, either from a sachet of pepper Paul saw on a plane trip or the US drink Dr Pepper – we may never know which.
How much did world events influence the album – or vice versa?
Much of what was going on in San Francisco’s hippy world of love and peace and psychedelia had an impact on the record as that movement and its music hit the UK. Importantly, there was also The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, which Paul had heard and wanted to top. The Sgt Pepper album then became a major influence on other bands and producers.
What was the critical and public response?
In general the critical response was favourable, with Times’ critic Kenneth Tynan describing it as “a decisive moment in Western civilisation”, Time magazine suggesting it was “a historic departure in the progress of music” and Esquire calling it a “masterpiece”. There were a few dissenters but overall the media loved it, as did the public as it went to number one in the UK for 23 weeks and 15 weeks in the US.
Any unusual stories about the making of the album?
I was surprised that sleeve designers Peter Blake and Jann Haworth did not hear any music from the album before they started work on the extraordinary album cover.
Secondly, I was surprised to learn there was a remote possibility of The Beatles actually performing Sgt Pepper live in a one-off show at the Saville Theatre, owned by their manager Brian Epstein, but 1960s technology would not enable them to recreate the album on stage.
What’s your favourite track from the album?
It has to be A Day In The Life. It was extraordinary when I first heard it in 1967, with lines about “4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” and somebody “blowing his mind out in a car” and a having a “smoke” on the top deck of a bus. Then I learned it was almost two songs written separately by John (beginning and end) and Paul (middle and piano bridge) put together by George Martin to create a masterpiece.
Anything else you can tell us about the album artwork?
The cover cost a record £3000 and Blake and Haworth were seemingly commissioned around the middle of March 1967. The final cover photograph was taken on March 30, so it was all done very quickly in about two weeks.
It was interesting to note The Beatles themselves seem to have chosen only around a dozen of the characters on the sleeve with the rest coming from Blake, Haworth and art gallery owner Robert Fraser.
Why has the album’s influence remained so strong?
It was an important album when it came out as it hit new highs in terms of songwriting and record production, which continue to be referred to today. It changed the rules in many ways and is one of the few albums that people still remember where they were when they first heard it.
Will we ever see an album being so impactful again?
I don’t think we will and that’s partly because we are now in a multimedia world where everything is more freely available.
Back then a new Beatles album was a major event and it was something you had to have in order to get the full impact and be able to discuss with your friends.
There have been very few, if any, acts that have dominated the global pop world in the same way as The Beatles.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Album, The Beatles And The World In 1967 is available now from Carlton Books.