It was 45 years ago today... The Beatles' Sgt Pepper inches toward the half century mark

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By the summer of 1966, the Beatles sucked. Or at least that's the way they felt for the band. "Performance, for us, it's gone downhill," Paul McCartney said of his band at the time. "Because we can't develop if no one can hear us; so for us to perform...it gets difficult each time." The pressures of being the generation-defining, teenage-girl-arousing, million-dollar-making, international entertainment sensation was beginning to weigh on the aging pop group, evidently. Touring was becoming a drag: Playing to screaming girls who didn't care about the music, death threats from the KKK and Philippine soldiers, the bathroom being your only moment of refuge.

George Harrison's new-found spirituality was conflicting with pop-stardom, and John Lennon's marriage could only take so much traveling and infidelity. The world was changing, with exciting new music, fashion and art springing up all over the London and America. All the while the boys were stuck in Holiday Inns and circles of bodyguards, unable to look over the fence and see what was happening in the generation that they were supposedly the leaders of.

McCartney -- ever the diplomatic businessman -- was committed to finishing their 1966 U.S. tour, playing the final (paying) live show of the Beatles' career in San Francisco's Candlestick Park in August of that year. Afterward, the boys went on a much-needed two-month holiday, with Harrison traveling to India to study the sitar with Ravi Shankar, McCartney writing and recording the soundtrack to a film with George Martin, and Lennon playing a supporting role in the film How I Won the War with director Richard Lester in Spain.

In the beginning, Lennon enjoyed the freedom of a Beatle-less existence (even penning the lyrics to the era-defining single, "Strawberry Fields Forever"), but soon grew lonely and requested the companionship of Ringo, who quickly came to the rescue. Being one of the biggest creative, sexual and cultural icons of the age (even surpassing heroes like Elvis Presley) wasn't bringing any peace to the 27-year-old Lennon. Songwriting was becoming a chore, and he was only able to produce small fragments, little ideas that he hoped his partner could help flesh out.

A constant flow of acid, marijuana and cocaine was wreaking havoc on his mental stability, sometimes driving the abandoned child to fall to his knees and scream at the ceiling, asking God what He wanted of him. Yet those tiny fragments of song were still brilliantly inspired, taking as much from his childhood love of Lewis Carroll's Alice as it did from the blossoming art/pop scene of Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, and newly acquainted Japanese avant-garde artist Yoko Ono.

"I was riding in John's new Rolls [Royce] and he said to me, 'I don't usually have acid for breakfast,'" Beatles publicist Derek Taylor remembers in the documentary It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. "I thought, 'Oh, that sounds awful,' like he'd had some bad food. But he said, 'And to celebrate, I'm going to play this record. Tell me what you think.'" With a coke-dusted mustache and an LSD-sizzled brain, Lennon played for Taylor the somber new Procol Harum single, "Whiter Shade of Pale."

While McCartney may have had a healthy rivalry with Lennon, he was always available to pick up the pieces of his brain-boiled buddy, helping him turn those fragments of melodies and lyrics into classic recordings. While Mac hadn't given the drug world the bear-hug that Lennon had (his two acid trips of the era were taken nearly a year after the rest of the band had turned on), he was heavily involved in the blossoming music scene and was in the center of the most inspired songwriting period of his career. Shortly after Lennon released the song "Help" (his desperate plea to be rid of all neuroses, written during his self-described "fat Elvis period"), he was reflecting with McCartney on their new album, Revolver, admitting "your songs are better than mine."

With the help of fifth Beatle and producer George Martin, the three of them were able to craft the single "Strawberry Fields Forever," shared as a dueling a-side single with McCartney's "Penny Lane." Both songs reflected on the Liverpudlian's life in a Northern Town, which was planned to be the concept for the new album -- that, and crediting the songs to a fictitious band. "Let's pretend we're not the Beatles," McCartney said in It Was Twenty Years Ago Today, musing on the band's desire to be rid of their mop-top iconography. "It was liberating. You could go in and work on a track and -- while before it would be 'here's Paul McCartney singing "Eleanor Rigby"' -- now it's 'Crazy Moondog is going to do the vocal.'"

Being the top-selling act at EMI, the boys were given unprecedented freedom for their next album. Deadlines, style boundaries, production costs and work hours were thrown out the window -- the Beatles were afforded a creative lifestyle in the studio that most bands of the era (with their "three sides a day" schedule) would have shaved their heads and traded their bellbottoms for.

"When the fab four began demanding the right to record through the night, it was the first indication that they were no longer prepared to toe the corporate line," wrote Clinton Heylin in The Act You've Known for All These Years. "On one level, their 'request' had an entirely practical dimension -- teenyboppers weren't likely to be hanging around the Abbey Road gates at midnight. But the change also reflected the increasingly nocturnal lifestyles of the band members. The all-night sessions certainly took their toll on one co-worker:

George Martin: "The Beatles and I have different ways of life. They're night people, and they don't like working in the mornings. Usually we start recording at seven in the evening and work through till three... That was the most arduous part of the LP for me. [1967]" Like the estrangement the boys were experiencing from their long-time manager, Brian Epstein (who would be dead from an overdose only three months after their new album dropped), the psychedelic boat that Lennon-McCartney were riding in was slowly drifting from the shore of their straight-laced producer.

"At some point during these interminable sessions, Martin would confide in Beatles publicist Tony Barrow 'that this [album] was the most indulgent thing he and The Beatles ever did,'" wrote Heylin. "He went further, stating 'We are only able to do this kind of stuff because the group is so uniquely successful that nobody among the EMI hierarchy dare challenge what we are doing.'"

Martin wasn't the only one unhappy with the direction of the Beatles. George Harrison had stated that year that he "didn't enjoy being a Beatle any more. All that sort of Beatle thing is trivial and unimportant." Harrison's embracement of Transcendental Meditation made him look upon all the work of his band as silly, a sentiment that can be found in his first contribution to the record with "It's Only A Northern Song," a clear mocking of McCartney's Northern theme. "It doesn't really matter what chords I play, or words I say... cause it's only a northern song," he sings, Harrison's lyrics almost exactly mimicking an argument he'd have with McCartney two years later, captured in the documentary Let It Be.

Needless to say, McCartney didn't care for the song and it would not be included on the album -- only to be released years later on the Yellow Submarine soundtrack. Ringo was also feeling somewhat left out, often stating in interviews that he became very good at chess during the recording of the album. "Paul's opinions and ideas tended to prevail with The Beatles," remembers Tony Barrow, "particularly on matters of musical policy, such as whether a new number was worth recording . . . I didn't see any of the others resist him."

It can be assumed that the band's frustrations with their de facto leader were squelched by the acknowledgment that he was delivering some of the best material of they'd heard from him. The album's title track, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," introduced the fictional, psychedelic brass band with a vaudevillian theatricality, perfectly setting the tone for an album that was to be experienced as a whole, as opposed to a collection of songs as the medium has previously been viewed.

This effect is expertly executed on the following track, "With A Little Help From My Friends," so well that it's nearly impossible to separate them (so much so that whenever radio or film -- such as in Yellow Submarine -- played the opening track, they inevitably had to include its successor immediately after).

McCartney's career-peak songs, like "Fixing a Hole," "She's Leaving Home," "When I'm 64" and "Lovely Rita" were undoubtedly arresting and expertly produced and structured, though they really had nothing to do with the theme of Sgt. Pepper and his Lonely Hearts band. Perhaps it was the consistent use of cocaine in the studio, or the anarchic bursts of creativity coming from all directions, but the "concept" of this concept album is fairly non-existent, especially when considering that it nearly defines the genre itself.

Same with Lennon's contributions "Good Morning, Good Morning," "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," all seem to stand alone, independent of each other and the theme of the record. The last two Lennon was mostly unhappy with, often claiming that he busted them out quickly simply because it was time to write a song (how many songwriters would kill to have such casual talent?) but the latter was a truly inspired ode to the surrealist aesthetic Lennon had embraced since childhood.

Indeed, if there was a consistent theme to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the nucleus of it can be found in "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," the title of which, Lennon had nothing to do with. "I went up to John's house in Weybridge," McCartney recalls. "We were having a cup of tea, and he said, 'Look at this great drawing Julian's done. Look at the title!'" Written in a child's scrawl at the bottom of the page, Lennon's son Julian had written the words: "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds."

For the rest of his life, Lennon denied that while writing the song he was aware that Lucy, Sky and Diamonds had an acronym in LSD, though it was lost on no one where the inspiration for this song -- with its "tangerine trees and marmalade skies" -- were coming from. The entire album, in fact, was littered with references to the psychotropic lifestyle the boys had embraced like a school-days crush: From getting "high with a little help from my friends" to the proclamation "I'd love to turn you on," there was no denying what they were up to. Paul McCartney: "When we were talking about "cellophane flowers" and "kaleidoscope eyes" and "grow so incredibly high," we were talking about drug experiences, no doubt about it."

The LP cover further expanded the album-as-whole-entity theme, displaying a pop and intellectual cast of historical icons (from Monroe and Dylan to Freud and Huxley) surrounding the Beatles dressed in day-glow military outfits, simultaneously enforcing the Pepper characters and satirizing the British government, who had awarded the band prestigious MBE medals years earlier (McCartney and Harrison are sporting theirs in the picture). Today, when aging rock fans bemoan the iPod generation's absence of music as a physical product, it is album sleeves like Pepper (and, perhaps, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and Nevermind the Bullocks: Here's the Sex Pistols) that their sentimental minds are harkening back to.

Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1, 1967, the perfect date to grace the blooming Summer of Love with a soundtrack for its terrific highs and terrible lows, arming its inhabitants with a document that proclaimed to anyone outside their turned on world: "it's fine if you don't get it. You're not supposed to get it. Because this is for me. For us. For my generation."

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes for this piece were taken from The Act You've Known For All These Years: A Year in the Life of Sgt Pepper and Friends by Clinton Heylin.

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