50 years ago today: celebrating the anniversary of ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’

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I joined Gale in December 2014 as Digital Product Editor, working particularly on our Early Arabic Printed Books from the British Library and Stuart & Cumberland Papers from the Royal Archives projects. I’m a qualified archivist and before joining Gale I worked in the Universities sector for nearly 10 years, so I’m delighted to continue working with Archives and Academics in a role that has broadened my horizons and introduced me to new challenges.

“Garner, Richard, Education Editor. “‘Sgt Pepper’ guaranteed to raise a smile on GCSE syllabus.” Independent, 14 May 2015, p. 15. The Independent Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4rQeL0. © Independent Print Limited”

It was 50 years ago this week that The Beatles issued their ground-breaking album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The third biggest-selling album in the UK (and the top-selling when compilation albums are removed) [1] it remains one of the most influential and recognised albums 50 years after its release (although personally, I prefer Revolver). I took a look back through the collections in Gale Primary Sources to see what I could find out about this iconic album.

The earliest mention of a ‘Sergeant Pepper’ in the collections is found in a story from 1840 in ‘The Penny Satirist’, titled ‘Adventures of Hercule Achille Victor Hardi, or Guiana, in 1772’, and this is in fact a misprint for the name ‘Pipper’. There are various sergeants peppered (sorry) around the archives in the 19th century, including one who won a shooting tournament in 1861, but whilst interesting, they are irrelevant to my search. After narrowing my date range I also realised the album was referred to in the press as both ‘Sergeant Pepper’ and ‘Sgt. Pepper’, so I used an OR search to cover both.

I thought I would look first at how Sergeant Pepper was received at the time of its release, so focused purely on 1967. The earliest result features a preview of the album in the ‘Sunday Times’ on 14th May 1967, in which the accessories that accompanied the album – postcards, badges, a false moustache – are outlined, as well as the record label EMI’s slight misgivings about the album cover:

Davies, Hunter. “Hot Pepper.” Sunday Times, 14 May 1967, p. 13. The Sunday Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4pGhh4. Accessed 12 May 2017.

The first actual review of the album is found in the ‘Daily Mail’ on 19th May, in which Virginia Ironside concludes that “[the Beatles] have achieved what no other pop group has yet done, which is to exist on their music alone” (“What’s happening to the Beatles?” Daily Mail, 19 May 1967, p. 8). Ten days later ‘The Times’ published a fascinating essay about the state of pop music leading up to the publication of Sgt. Pepper, describing the album as “a pop music master class” (William Mann, “The Beatles revive hopes of progress in pop music” ‘The Times’ 29 May 1967, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4pGir2). It is a testament to the Beatles’ constant and encompassing popularity that Sgt. Pepper was recognised and accepted as an innovative concept album upon its release, rather than slowly gaining critical acclaim. By contrast, one can barely find a mention of the Beach Boys’ ‘Pet Sounds’ or Dylan’s ‘Blonde on Blonde’ from contemporary sources.

Next I thought I’d look at how the album went on to be received after its launch in 1967. I figured most articles post-release would have been timed with anniversaries, and indeed this theory is borne out by graphing the terms “Sergeant Pepper” and “Sgt Pepper” on Gale’s Primary Source’s Term Frequency feature, where we can see spikes in 1972, 1977, 1987, 1992, 1997 and 2007. One must exercise caution here though; I had assumed the spike visible in 1980 must be related to John Lennon’s murder, and while there are certainly articles pertaining to that event in the results set, the majority of them are relating to a horse that ran in several races that year! The dramatic spikes in 1972 and 1974 also revealed themselves to be listings for the play “Crete and Sergeant Pepper” by John Antrobus, which debuted in 1972 and was performed again in 1974:

There are plenty of results here to show how Sgt Pepper has been received in the 50 years since its release. Compare for instance, Brian Appleyard’s conclusion that “For once, the hype is probably right. Sgt Pepper will last forever” in his essay ‘We didn’t notice the delights had changed’ (Times, 13 June 1992, p. 32[S1]+. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4rKpn9), against Philip Norman’s assessment that “Twenty years on, it seems positively quaint” (“When love was all you’d need.” Times, 30 May 1987, p. 13. The Times Digital Archive, tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/4rLfo2). For me though, as a Beatles fan from childhood, I will always associate Sgt Pepper with many happy hours of spotting faces on the album cover and playing with the false moustache.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_albums_in_the_United_Kingdom