How Sgt. Pepper Taught the Bands to Play

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Since its release on June 1, 1967, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has been so overrated, it’s practically underrated. The album’s reputation doesn’t so much precede it as supersede it: Like the monoloth that periodically appears in 2001: A Space Odyssey to mark the crucial turning points in the evolution of human civilization, Sgt. Pepper has come to represent this massive, immovable talisman that looms untouchably over the course of modern pop history. It’s emblematic of so many Big Events—the Summer of Love, the elevation of rock ‘n’ roll into art, the embrace of the studio-as-instrument, Chris Martin’s more dubious wardrobe choices—that it’s easy to forget it’s a relatively compact, 39-minute record comprising 13 pop songs, only two of which go beyond four minutes, and some of which are pretty goofy.

Sgt. Pepper‘s oft-cited standing as rock’s first concept album is somewhat overstated—it’s more like the blueprint for one, establishing the template (the opening vignettes, the scene-setting sound effects, the character role-play, the reprises, the grandest of finales) that contemporaries like The Pretty Things and The Who would later flesh out with proper narratives on S.F. Sorrow and Tommy, respectively. And for an album that’s considered a watershed moment in psychedelic rock, Sgt. Pepper can be a stridently buttoned-up, old-fashioned record—for one, if its opening lyric is to be believed, it’s an album pining for the glory days of 1947. Many of its signature sounds—from the orchestral crescendos and harpsichord flourishes to the sitar drones and tabla grooves—were produced by instruments that have existed for hundreds of years. It’s an album full of loving odes to police officers, the eldery, and circus sideshows. Its most pointed examination of teenage rebellion—“She’s Leaving Home”—is sung from the perspective of the weeping parents who’ve suddenly turned into empty nesters.

But Sgt. Pepper‘s great achievement is how it made such quaint sources and subject matter sound utterly surreal. It’s a postcard portrait of a bygone England as rendered by Dali. And thanks to its cinematic 360-degree sound design, it was the closest you could get in 1967 to strapping on a VR headset. While Sgt. Pepper may have presented The Beatles as a surrogate band—granting successors like David Bowie and Elton John the license to create their own alter-egos—the album didn’t so much teach other artists how to step into character as how to step outside their prescribed roles and processes. It showed rock bands they could still exist as rock bands even after they got bored of making rock music.

And yet, for all the fundamental sea changes that Sgt. Pepper’s represents, it’s an album that has been perpetually plundered for simple musical ideas as much as grand philosophical ones. It’s actually the rare record that was already influential before it was even completed: While making their debut album, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, down the hall at Abbey Road, the members of Pink Floyd listened in as The Beatles recorded “Lovely Rita” and imported some of its sonic techniques to “Pow R. Toc H,” which plays like an abstract instrumental remix. Following Sgt. Pepper’s release, pretty much every ’60s rock band of note was hiring an orchestra, polishing off a trumpet, or learning the sitar to embellish their own magnum opus. Soul singers like Otis Redding and Stevie Wonder were inspired to leave traditional R&B behind to explore more musically expansive and emotionally introspective songwriting. And outsider acts like The United States of America were pushing Sgt. Pepper’s sound-collage ethos into more avant-garde terrain.

By the early ‘70s, Sgt. Pepper’s ornamental essence could be felt in the theatrical prog of Genesis, the avant-glam of Brian Eno and Sparks, and the chamber-pop detours of iconoclasts like John Cale and Big Star’s Alex Chilton. And though punk momentarily put a moratorium on lavish rock records, Sgt. Pepper’s ideas would be imported into the alternative-rock arena through art-pop eccentrics like the Soft Boys and XTC. In the ’90s, Sgt. Pepper spawned the most bloated of Britpop anthems, gave lo-fi dreamers like The Olivia Tremor Control the confidence to go widescreen on a Super-8 budget, and led grunge stalwarts like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots on a yellow-bricked path to the pop charts. And around the turn of the millennium, Sgt. Pepper’s heady textures and lockstep Ringo rhythms began seeping into the dance tent thanks to artists like the Chemical Brothers, The Avalanches, and Caribou.

At this point, it’s hard to even think of Sgt. Pepper as a Beatles album. It’s a readymade toolkit for any band that’s attempting to go “serious,” whether it’s the New Kids on the Block hot-stepping around trilling trumpets on “Tonight” or Panic! At the Disco outfitting their arena-sized emo with bouncing-ball piano lines on “Nine in the Afternoon.” But Sgt. Pepper is so overflowing with ear candy that its tiniest details have been spun into songs by artists who aren’t even attempting to make their own Sgt. Pepper. While the lift-off section of Bowie’s “Space Oddity” is clearly modeled after the symphonic tornado of “A Day in the Life,” Elliott Smith’s “Colorbars” keyed in on the windswept, shuffling piano chords that The Beatles used to lure us into the storm. The clipped one-note guitar stabs of “Getting Better” power Sloan’s “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” and Ween’s “Even If You Don’t,” while the same song’s droning fuzz-chord finale reverberates through both the pristine power pop of Badfinger’s “No Matter What” and the mouldy-basement murk of Guided by Voices’ “2nd Moves to Twin.” Even songs coming from completely different worlds gradually reveal their debt—Nine Inch Nails’ “Disappointed” may begin as tense minimal techno, but it eventually opens up to accommodate wondrous string-section sweeps that harken back to George Harrison’s sitar-spun Sgt. Pepper centerpiece “Within You, Without You.”

Fifty years on from Sgt. Pepper‘s release, it’s nigh impossible to imagine another rock album ever being so central to the pop-cultural conversation again. And in the 21st century, the standard for masterpiece records has shifted away from Sgt. Pepper‘s studio-sculpted perfection to sonically chaotic, emotionally fraught albums—be it Kid A or To Pimp a Butterfly—that grapple with the anxieties of modern life rather than provide a fantastical escape from them. But while the impact of Sgt. Pepper‘s glorious collision of rock ‘n’ roll, classical, psychedelia, Indian music, barnyard sounds, and proto-Pro Tools tape-splice construction is felt less acutely today, it nonetheless continues to reverberate out into distant realms. This playlist reveals at least 50 ways that Sgt. Pepper taught bands to play, riding the ebb and flow of its influence from the late-’60s to today.