Written by Mark Williams
Released in the UK on 26 May 1967, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was The Beatles’ eighth studio album. Unbelievably, this was just four years after their debut LP, Please Please Me, with its cover versions and mostly run-of-the-mill originals, recorded in just 13 hours (Pepper’s took five months).
For some, Pepper’s remains The Beatles’ best LP (I can never decide between Pepper’s and Revolver). A true creative high watermark, it blew conventional thinking about pop music out of the water. A truly seminal record, it’s impossible to think of 1960s without thinking of Pepper’s, the soundtrack to the Summer of Love, when the world was invited to turn on, tune in and drop out.
Greatest ever LP
Pepper’s spent a staggering 27 weeks at the top of the UK charts and 15 weeks at number one in the USA. None of the LP’s songs was released as a single, although Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane were released in February 1967 as a mouthwatering double A-side taster of the delicious smorgasbord to follow.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named Pepper’s number one in its 500 greatest albums of all time and The Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature describes it as “the most important and influential rock and roll album ever recorded”.
Before its 50th anniversary re-release in remixed, repackaged, extended form earlier this year, more than 5m copies had been sold in the UK, making Pepper’s the best-selling studio album in UK chart history. Worldwide, 32m copies have been sold (out of a total Beatles tally of more than 800m LPs). So, what can businesses learn from Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?
1. Always look forward
Never happy to rest on their laurels, The Beatles continually looked to the future, challenging boundaries in pursuit of new ideas. Lennon may have famously once remarked that avant-garde was “French for bullshit”, but Pepper’s really was experimental and even more ahead of its time than The Beatles’ previous LP, the psychedelic masterpiece Revolver, with its drug influences, “Dalai Lama chanting from a hilltop” vocals, tape loops (yep, in 1966), Indian influences and backwards guitars. A huge seller on both sides of the Atlantic, within months of Revolver’s release The Fabs set out to craft an even more progressive record. They would never settle for trying to recreate their past until their final studio LP, Let It Be (1970).
2. Dare to be different
The Beatles’ contemporaries must’ve been shocked on first hearing Pepper’s. It must have sounded outrageous (the mighty Brian Wilson, Beach Boys songwriting genius, reportedly was so overcome that he wept when he first heard A Day In The Life). Most reviewers struggled to adequately describe Pepper’s – there hadn’t been anything like it. The Beatles had the courage and self-belief to go out on a limb and totally set themselves apart in 1967, not only in the way they sounded, but also what they said and how they looked. In music and in business, fortune favours the brave and daring to be different can totally wrong-foot your rivals.
3. Be innovative
In 1966, The Beatles became musical revolutionaries. They refused to tour any more, so didn’t need to write songs they could play live. They could even adopt a different persona (an Edwardian military band), giving them the freedom to experiment. On Pepper’s, they made music you listened to rather than danced to, which was unheard of for a pop group.
Mixing so many musical styles on one LP is hugely innovative, as is the production, thanks to the genius of Sir George Martin and the band. Examples include using a range of studio and sound effects, as well as the fêted 40-piece orchestra crescendo and spine-tingling sustained E major chord that sublimely brings A Day In The Life to its end. An eardrum-piercing high-frequency tone was also added at Lennon’s suggestion “to make dogs bark”. And harpsichord, harmonium, harp, French horns and clarinet, as well as sitar, tambura, tabla, swarmandal and dilruba (all South Asian) are among the more unusual instruments used on Pepper’s.
And much of the LP’s lyrics are hugely innovative. A Day In The Life (probably one of Lennon’s greatest works, although McCartney weighed in with the jaunty “middle eight”) was inspired by LSD and newspaper headlines. Its dreamlike lyrics take in the suicide of “a lucky man who made the grade”, the English Army winning a war, “4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire” and knowing “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall”. The barefaced drug references (eg “I’d love to turn you on”) are light years away from 1965’s I Feel Fine. In early 1967, few bands were singing about tangerine trees, marmalade skies, newspaper taxis and girls with kaleidoscope eyes.
4. Create a strong brand
Pepper’s is probably the most recognisable LP cover ever. It won two Grammys for its design in 1968. A collage of notable figures (57 life-size cut-out photographs and nine waxworks), with The Beatles centre, dressed in their celebrated bright, satin, military-style uniforms, pop artists Peter Blake and Jann Haworth designed the sleeve, guided by a McCartney sketch. The cover art is reported to have cost £3,000, a huge sum when £50 would have been more usual at the time. Like all good branding, the Pepper’s cover sets it apart, while it’s eye-catching and memorable, authentically evocative of where the band was at in 1967. Has there ever been a better LP cover? Probably not.
Such was The Beatles’ departure on Pepper’s that, incredibly, some contemporary reviewers hated the LP – it was just too much of a “freak-out” for some. New York Times critic Richard Goldstein famously wrote: “There is nothing beautiful on Sgt Pepper. Nothing is real and there is nothing to get hung about”. Here Pepper’s offers another important business lesson – you can’t please all of the people all of the time. What do the critics know, eh?
Mark Williams is a freelance editorial consultant, writer and SME content specialist with over 25 years' experience. He contributes to The Guardian Small Business Network and planned and wrote the Start Up Donut website. As well as award-winning magazines and websites, his writing has featured in national newspapers and Sunday supplements. As shown by this blog, he is also an unashamed Beatles fanatic! We are delighted that Mark has given us his permission to re-produce this blog, the original of which was published on LinkedIn. You can find out more about Mark's work on his website: www.markiwilliams.com