Sgt. Pepper and the Beatles: It Was Forty Years Ago Today

By Olivier Julien | Go to book overview

Chapter 3
Sgt. Pepper’s quest for extended form

Thomas MacFarlane

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is widely regarded as the first true concept album in popular music. However, Sgt. Pepper is not quite what it appears to be. Despite the recurrence of the title track, there is little evidence of the kinds of melodic or harmonic relationships one would normally expect in an extended form.1 Instead, the group chose to employ an overarching thematic concept in an apparent effort to unify individual tracks.

It seems now that the Beatles were effectively saying, ‘Look everyone! Concept albums are possible. This (Sgt. Pepper) isn’t it, but it proves that it’s possible’. In retrospect, this ingenious strategy helped them buy the time necessary to explore questions regarding formal space on a sound recording. The resulting album can thus be viewed as the first step in a two-year process of experimentation that culminates with the extended form of the Abbey Road Medley.

The following discussion will consider the music of the Beatles within the context of popular music and culture between 1962 and 1970, paying particular attention to the production of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The implications of this work will then be examined with regard to sound recording and emergent musical structures on subsequent Beatles albums.


In the town where I was born

The Beatles formed in the seaport town of Liverpool, England in the late 1950s. Following World War II, the prosperity Liverpool had enjoyed during the early part of the century was clearly on the wane. In an interview given on 5 August 2003,

1 ‘Extended form’ corresponds to the term ‘cyclic form’, which the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians describes as: ‘Music in which a later movement reintroduces thematic material of an earlier movement … Beethoven (An die ferne Geliebte, Piano Sonata in A, Op. 101), Schubert (Piano Trio in E♭, Fantasia in C for violin and piano) and Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique) laid the foundations on which Mendelssohn, Schumann, Liszt and Franck elevated cyclic principles to great importance, associated with the widespread application of thematic transformation and the desire for greater continuity between separate movements, all methods of establishing a tighter cohesion in multi-movement forms. Since the 19th century cyclic form has been adopted as a regular stock-in-trade of musical structure’ (MacDonald 2001). The organic elements evident in a preliminary analysis tend to correspond to the Grove definition of cyclic form, and thus suggest the presence of a complex organizational structure at work within the. Abbey Road Medley.

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