By Ray McDonald
The Beatles released “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” on June 1, 1967 in the United Kingdom. It hit the United States the following day. I was seven years old that summer, and remember walking through our local department store record section with my mother. “Sergeant Pepper” copies were stacked like cord-wood, dominating the floor space. Believe me, it was a big deal.
By late 1966, when they began work on their most influential album, The Beatles were sick of being The Beatles. Their final, tumultuous tour was punctuated by riotous controversy, after John Lennon remarked to a reporter that “We’re more popular than Jesus now – I don’t know which will go first, rock and roll or Christianity.”
When they gave up touring, The Beatles resolved to expand their creative horizons in the studio – never again would they play their old pop songs for screaming hordes of teenagers. In February of 1967 – halfway through the recording of the album – Paul McCartney came up with the idea of creating an imaginary band to deliver the members’ creative ideas.
When it arrived, “Sergeant Pepper” changed the face of pop music and the larger culture. It placed the album above the single as the preferred medium for delivering music. It embodied the spirit of psychedelic experimentation that had been brewing over the previous year…and it also sold very well. To date it’s moved an estimated 32 million copies, while “Rolling Stone” Magazine named it the greatest album of all time.
When you reach the mountaintop, what then? The Beatles, who retreated to the studio to leave their mop top past behind, found themselves splintering. John Lennon summarized their dilemma succinctly in this 1969 interview clip:
On April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney announced his departure from The Beatles, and the band effectively ended. They made wonderful music right up to the end, and to this day they exert tremendous influence on music and pop culture. Last week, Ringo Starr made headlines after announcing he was publishing an e-book of previously unseen photos. It’s out on June 12th. As “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” celebrates its 46th anniversary, let’s reflect on the moment the members became individuals…and history turned a corner.