For many, merely uttering, reading or hearing the phrase “Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band” instantly conjures up the other Beatles, that is, the Beatles who were not gray-suited collarless love objects, but rather, sophisticated artists with colorful moustaches. The new Beatles heralded a new era. As Sgt Pepper took hold and took over popular culture from the top down, mono became stereo and black and white gave way to riotous splashes of color. It was the new line between "then" and "now."
This was no coincidence. When Paul came up with the title for the game (if not world) changing song in late 1966, as he has said,
“We were fed up with being the Beatles. We really hated that fucking four little mop-top boys approach. We were not boys, we were men. It was all gone, all that boy shit, all that screaming, we didn’t want any more, plus, we’d now got turned on to pot and thought of ourselves as artists rather than just performers.”
So, on a trip back home from a week in Kenya on November 19, 1966 (a year to the date after the invention of another 60’s game-changer, the Pop Tart), Paul, Jane Asher and Mal Evans were stuck in the airplane cabin, playing with words. Mal asked about the “s” and “p” labels on the packets in front of him and then mentioned that, of course, they stood for “salt and pepper.” Paul, picking up the sound of the phrase, transformed it into “Sergeant Pepper.”
And so on.
As Paul later said, “It was at the start of the hippy times, and there was a jingly-jangly hippy aura all around in America. I started thinking what would be a really mad name to call a band? At the time there were lots of groups with names like ‘Laughing Joe and His Medicine Band’ or ‘Col Tucker’s Medicinal Brew and Compound,’ all that Western going-round-on-wagons stuff, with long rambling names.”
John later said (almost – but not quite — getting the facts right, in typical John fashion):
“’Sgt Pepper’ is Paul, after a trip to America. The whole West Coast long-named group thing was coming in, when people were no longer The Beatles or The Crickets – they were suddenly Fred and His Incredible Shrinking Grateful Airplanes. I think he got influenced by that. He was trying to put some distance between The Beatles and the public – and so there was this identity of Sgt. Pepper.”
Ironically, the song that was supposed to "put distance between The Beatles and the public" is the only song in the entire canon where the band refers to themselves as “us” while singing to the listener. Think about it. Paul, no matter how much the feigned gruffness and psychedelic remoteness, simply cannot help but smarmy up to the Beatles’ fans. He was, and remains, the consummate “let’s be friends” songwriter.
The track itself is also, ironically, a direct look back to the heyday of the four “mop-tops” it was supposed to bury for good and all. Although the track opens with the sounds of the orchestra tuning up before recording A Day In The Life a few weeks before (the pinnacle of the new Beatles “artistic” canon), that screaming sound at the end of the track, in anticipation of the appearance of Billy Shears is (just as you suspected), the sound of tens of thousands of prepubescent hearts breaking at a mop-top Beatles concert – from the Hollywood Bowl in August, 1965, to be exact. Less than two years later, the Sgt Pepper’s album had been conceived, recorded and released.
The idea, of course, was that “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was meant as a vehicle to allow the Beatles to play-act at being someone else, and to send that someone else out on the road instead of themselves – inspired by Elvis sending his vehicle (a Cadillac of course) on tour in 1960.
And it worked.
The album of the song’s name went on a tour that continues to this day. You don’t need me to tell you about that. Except for one embarrassing run-in with the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton about ten years later, it has been a glorious ride.
As we also know, the Sgt Pepper song was, when coupled with the song that followed, supposed to lay the foundation for a concept album about this mythical new/old band. In typical Beatles fashion, however, the strain of keeping a concept together past the two inspired opening tracks proved all too much. It became just another album. George grumpily recalled that he just went to work on the next collection of songs, despite the fact that Paul kept “going on about this other band. . . . ”
John was even more blunt. He said that his songs had nothing to do with this so-called concept, but because the Beatles said there was concept behind the album, there . . . was.
Listeners the world over donned their new headphones and filled in the blanks. They created the concept behind the collection of songs. And again, black and white became color. Mono became stereo. Sgt Pepper worked because people wanted it to work.
Paul, or whoever he was now pretending to be, also conceived the album cover. Many Beatles historians (i.e. me) believe that Paul consciously or unconsciously “nicked” the idea from a source no less direct than his own father, who had staged this shot of “Jim Mac’s Band” decades before:
That’s Paul’s Dad in the red circle, and a drum that says “Jim Mac’s Band” in the center. Look familiar?
Paul McCartney could take inspiration anywhere, from anything, and turn it into pure pop gold. And that’s what he did with an old family photo (and some salt and pepper packets). Once can almost see the reclining girl in the bottom of the picture wearing a shirt that says “Welcome the Rolling Stones – Good Guys.”
On June 4, 1967, three days after the release of the Sgt. Pepper album Jimi Hendrix opened a show at the Saville Theatre (owned by Brian Epstein) with the Sgt. Pepper title track, thus blowing away the audience – including Paul and George. Also featured on the bill that evening was another band for whom Paul could have drawn inspiration in naming the Beatles’ new alter ego “Denny Lane and his Electric String Band.” Not quite Fred and His Incredible Shrinking Grateful Airplanes, but also very much of the time.
Forty four years after it changed the world, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band continues to spark shockwaves in those who hear it for the first time.
And really, isn’t that what the Beatles – whatever they decided to call themselves, whatever they wore, whatever time of day it was – were always about?
The ukulele version expresses itself using the medium of Hip-Hop. This party is not of the mind but out of it.
The rarely seen male/female rap duo DFW (Tavi & Phes) fuze together pop and hip hop poetry to bring you the most double-rainbow Sergeant Pepper of all time. What’s "Goin’ in and out of style?"
Imagine Sly Stone, Run DMC and Funkadelic flying The Mothership to Abbey Road, picking up The Beatles’ instruments, rolling one and kicking it in and out of style.
ABOUT THE ARTIST
Their music addresses topics such as love, life, and politics, and brings an undeniable raw and honest energy to the surface. Disco Dog has been on the roster of DFW record label producers since 2004; Tavi & Phes met in college in 2000, where they formed a live hip-hop band, Illegalize, consisting of three emcees, a singer, and four instrumentalists. Post-college, Tavi & Phes continued to collaborate on various music projects, naturally co-founding the DFW record label to host their productions. The two are currently working on both independent and joint music projects, including the resumption of a band with members of Illegalize. Upcoming DFW releases include a collective Tavi & Phes EP, “The Summer EP”, and Phes’ solo album “Escape From New York."
Check them out at rawrhymes.wordpress.com