Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band has received much acclaim for being the first “concept album”, an album in which a single idea unifies the entire recording (as opposed to most albums, which are simply collections of songs without such an overarching principle). In the case of Sgt. Pepper, that concept was the simulation of a live performance by a fictitious band. But Pepper was not the first concept album.
The definition of exactly what a concept album is remains nebulous, but many at least nascent concept albums predate Sgt. Pepper:
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.
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This blog is a workshop for developing my analyses of The Beatles' music.