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40 years ago, Sgt. Pepper taught a band to play

After all these years the Beatles seminal album is the Babe Ruth of rock

Occasionally I’ll hear an argument that Babe Ruth was overrated. Detractors contend that, measured today, he’d be just a flabby carouser whose lust for hot dogs, whiskey, females and late hours would keep him trapped in the low minor leagues, if he got even that far.

That position is misguided, because the only realistic measure of the man is to evaluate him in the context of his times. And history is clear on that: During Ruth’s era, he dominated, he changed the game, he was larger than life.

The same approach applies to countless other topics. Sometimes I will recommend an old film to a friend, like “Double Indemnity.” He or she will watch and then proceed to dismiss the heavy-handed direction, hard-boiled dialogue or the stylized acting, which will cause me to point out that, in the context of its times, that picture was groundbreaking and audacious.

All of this comes to mind because the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” considered one of the greatest albums of all time, soon will celebrate its 40th anniversary (it was released in the UK on June 1, 1967, and a day later in the U.S.). In the context of its time, “Sgt. Pepper” was a head-turning marvel. It trod new sonic territory with its experimental use of multi-track recording, with its unconventional orchestrations, with its lyrical impact both playful and profound, with its dazzling cover art and with the very sequence of the songs.

But here’s how it differs from Ruth, “Double Indemnity” and scads of other cultural landmarks: It hasn’t lost a step, it hasn’t fallen from favor. It does not need to be viewed in the context of its times in order to be appreciated. “Sgt. Pepper” is just as artistically and technically significant today as it was upon its initial release 40 years ago.

Of course, failing to view it in the context of its times would be to miss out on a lot of fun, for aficionados of popular music in general and Beatles freaks in particular.

At a turning pointIn 1966, the Beatles were done with screaming girls. They had been a hugely successful touring band, but they grew weary of the road. It wasn’t just the crowds in hotel lobbies and outside their windows, or the airport schleps, or the international customs hassles. They just couldn’t hear themselves anymore. The din of young hysterical females proved to be more formidable than their nightly performances of “Can’t Buy Me Love” and “Eight Days a Week.”

So they decided to stop touring and channel all their creative efforts into studio work.

About that time, Paul McCartney got an idea. It came to him on a flight. Amused by the sudden proliferation of bands with wacky names — Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Canned Heat — he imagined a concept album involving a fictitious band named “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” that was made up of the Beatles’ alter-egos.

What eventually became “Sgt. Pepper” the album isn’t his exact idea come to life, but it grew from that seed. And the notion of a fake group with different names — Ringo Starr was Billy Shears, for instance — appealed to the lads’ desire to escape the burden of being themselves.

Beatles fans may argue amongst themselves — everybody has a favorite, after all — but the critical consensus seems to be that “Sgt. Pepper” represented the band’s high-water mark. It came out almost a year after “Revolver,” and well after executives at Capitol Records had begun pestering George Martin for a new Beatles release.

More importantly, the recording occurred at a time when there was relative peace in the band. John Lennon wouldn’t begin his relationship with Yoko Ono until 1968. Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager who was their mortar, would die two months after the release of “Sgt. Pepper,” of an accidental drug overdose, an event that fragmented the group and accelerated its demise.

Not only were the Beatles still in a music-making frame of mind as a group, but eschewing live performances worldwide and instead confining themselves to the four walls of a studio (and/or their respective residences, which often doubled as makeshift studios) had a liberating effect. They were still held together by their immense fame and their well-earned status as pop music’s No. 1 band, yet they were antsy and eager to explore new sounds.

A place for creative freedom“Sgt. Pepper” was conceived and recorded around the time of two other seminal releases, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” and Frank Zappa’s “Freak Out,” believed to be one of the very first concept albums. The Beatles also were influenced by classical music, especially German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose image is among the many on the album cover.

Taken as a whole, “Sgt. Pepper” — a collection of 13 songs that took over 700 hours to record, a rarity for its time — is acclaimed for its overall excellence and innovation, but clearly some songs have stood out. The track most often marveled over is the climactic “A Day In The Life,” which represented the start of eight-track recordings in Britain; two four-track recorders were used together, synched up. The song is an exquisite amalgam of dreamy lyricism and musical majesty. It just sounds like an important song, even though it has a simple and ethereal feel.

But “Sgt. Pepper” is also the place where “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was given a home, as well as “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home.” It was the record that provided George Harrison with the encouragement and freedom to create “Within You Without You,” which featured layers of Indian instrument lines from the sitar, tambura and dilruba. It provided Ringo with his finest showcase as a vocalist, on “With A Little Help From My Friends.” It even was the album that bumped two now indelible Beatles tunes — “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” — off its song list and onto another release. 

There were also enough cryptic words or phrases that could easily be interpreted by conspiracy theorists to be drug references — and some may have been, conscious or otherwise — that the album was a perfect companion piece to the Summer of Love of 1967 and the entire psychedelic movement.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” stands today as the masterpiece from arguably the greatest band ever. Rather than lose stature, it continues to gain, when listened to in the context of any times