Today marks the much-discussed 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles masterpiece considered by some to be the “most important rock & roll album ever made”
McCartney’s concept of recording an entire album as the fictional Sgt. Pepper band allowed the group to explore more experimental musical choices under the guise of alter egos, making Sgt. Pepper’s difficult to categorize.
Along with taking stylistic notes from jazz, vaudeville, Indian sitar music (among other influences), the Beatles turned to Western classical music for inspiration, effectively blurring lines between “popular” and “high” art and expanding the notion of what was possible with rock music.
In honor of the album turning half a century old, here are some of Sgt. Pepper’s most classical moments:
In the crowd on the iconic cover of Sgt. Pepper’s (top row, fifth from the left), you’ll find avant-garde classical composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, nestled between comedian Lenny Bruce and vaudeville pioneer W.C. Fields.
Stockhausen, known for experiments in electronic and aleatoric music, was an influence on both McCartney—who named Gesang der Jünglinge as his favorite Stockhausen piece—and Lennon, who later used the composer’s work as inspiration for the 1968 song “Revolution 9.”
"Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band"
The first ten seconds of the album transport listeners to a buzzing concert hall, in which the tuning of instruments can be heard over the babble of a live audience. Not long after the launch into the song's famous opening guitar riff, a contrapuntal horn interlude brings in another classical touch. Following the line "So may I introduce to you the act you've known for all theses years, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the horns give a regal welcome to the fictional band and a nod to McCartney's Edwardian-era military band concept that inspired the album.
"Fixing a Hole" & "Penny Lane"
Taking cues from classical orchestration, both tracks defy traditional rock instrumentation. Beatles producer George Martin plays the harpsichord prominently featured on "Fixing a Hole." In "Penny Lane," (the track, recorded during the Sgt. Pepper sessions and released as a single prior to the album, appears on the anniversary re-release) baroque piccolo trumpet solos are sprinkled throughout. The idea for featuring the unusual instrument came to McCartney after he saw a televised performance of Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.
"She’s Leaving Home"
Like the string-driven "Eleanor Rigby" a few years prior, "She's Leaving Home" is one of the few songs in which the Beatles didn't play any instruments on the recording. Instead, a harp and small string orchestra (arranged by Mike Leander and conducted by George Martin) provide the song's accompaniment. Hear the isolated instrumental parts below- just try to resist singing along:
"A Day in the Life"
Lennon and McCartney both knew they wanted something extraordinary for the finale of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band, so they enlisted a 40-piece orchestra to play the biggest crescendo in pop music history. In the vein of avant-garde composers Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, the moment was left largely to chance. As George Martin remembers:
What I did there was to write, at the beginning of the twenty-four bars, the lowest possible note for each of the instruments in the orchestra. At the end of the twenty-four bars, I wrote the highest note each instrument could reach that was near a chord of E major. Then I put a squiggly line right through the twenty-four bars, with reference points to tell them roughly what note they should have reached during each bar... I marked the music 'pianissimo' at the beginning and 'fortissimo' at the end. Everyone was to start as quietly as possible, almost inaudibly, and end in a (metaphorically) lung-bursting tumult. And in addition to this extraordinary of musical gymnastics, I told them that they were to disobey the most fundamental rule of the orchestra. They were not to listen to their neighbours. A well-schooled orchestra plays, ideally, like one man, following the leader. I emphasised that this was exactly what they must not do...Needless to say, they were amazed. They had certainly never been told that before.