The definition of exactly what a concept album is remains nebulous, but many at least nascent concept albums predate Sgt. Pepper:
- Woody Guthrie's 1940 Dust Bowl Ballads features 15 tracks, all of which describe the troubles and difficulties of life in the 1930s.
- Frank Sinatra released In The Wee Hours of the Mornings in 1955, featuring songs about loneliness and heartache, and Come Fly With Me in 1958, featuring songs about traveling the world.
- Nat King Cole released Every Time I Feel the Spirit in 1958, a collection of gospel songs, and After Midnight in 1956, in which every track is in the style of late-night jam session.
- Johnny Cash's 1959 Songs of our Soil are all about death and mortality, while his 1963 Blood, Sweat, and Tears features songs about working class labor.
- Frank Zappa's Freak Out!, released 1966, features songs that is a satire on American pop culture. In Zappa's own words, "All the songs on it were about something. It wasn't as if we had a hit single and we needed to build some filler around it. Each tune had a function within an overall satirical concept."
Additionally, the status of Pepper as a concept album never sat well with John Lennon. “It doesn't go anywhere,” he said. “All my contributions to the album have absolutely nothing to do with this idea of Sgt Pepper and his band; but it works, because we said it worked, and that's how the album appeared. But it was not put together as it sounds, except for Sgt Pepper introducing Billy Shears, and the so-called reprise. Every other song could have been on any other album” (Anthology, page 241). However, while there are no macro-scale tonal schemes (which would have to wait until Abbey Road) nor any thematic unity present in every song, the album does roughly follow a narrative of watching a single live production. The tracks help with that flow, with the opening title song followed seamlessly by “With a Little Help From My Friends”; then again at the end of the album, the stampede of animals that closes “Good Morning” leads directly into the reprise of the title track – the guitar lick starting the latter attempting to sound like the chicken cluck ending the former, with the reprise in turn segueing into the epic “A Day in the Life”.
So is Pepper a true concept album? Well, yes and no. With strong cases being made both ways, it's one of those times where each listener has to decide for him- or herself exactly what the definition of "concept album" is, and then determine if Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band fits that category. To a certain extent, the question of definition is moot. Shakespeare famously said, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", and he's right - what you call something does not fundamentally change what that something is. Like the debate over whether Pluto is or is not a planet, the definition can change the answer, but not the object.
Regardless, what Pepper did was bring the idea of a concept album to the attention of the mass media and public – it was (and arguably still is) the most famous example of one. In doing so, Sgt. Pepper legitimized the rock album just as the song “Yesterday” had legitimized the pop song two years earlier - an artistic achievement arguably unequaled before or since.
Beatles. The Beatles Anthology. Chronicle Books, San Francisco, CA, 2000.