The Beatles album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which turns 50 on June 1, the date of its original U.K. release, has been praised over and over again as a towering rock n’ roll achievement in the Beatles canon. But could it also be compared with works by the great classical composers?
Kenneth Womack, dean of the Wayne D. McMurray School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University and author of several scholarly books on the Beatles, says it certainly could. “If I was looking for a composer to compare John Lennon and Paul McCartney to, I would probably go to Mozart,” Womack tells Variety. “But I feel bad leaving Chopin out, who has such incredible nuance and whimsy, like the Beatles. … [The music is] all over the place. The blend of humor. Even the kind of fearlessness to let themselves do ‘When I’m 64’ one year and ‘Helter Skelter’ the next. And that’s okay. They’re at home in so many styles. They play them with exuberance. There’s nothing like that.”
Another common trait between classical music and “Sgt. Pepper’s” specifically: timelessness. “That is exactly why the classical greats have withstood the test of the time; and the Beatles are doing that. And some of that glory belongs to George Martin for insisting that they be recorded in really the finest conditions possible at the times.” (Womack is also the author “Maximum Volume: The Life of Beatles Producer George Martin, The Early Years,” coming in September, the first volume of a two-part biography of Martin that goes back to the beginnings of his career.)
The Beatles’ thinking on the crafting of the album also reflected a classical sensitivity while pushing the rock ‘n’ roll envelope. “Once we’d written the main bit of the music, we thought, ‘Now look, there’s a little gap there. And we said, ‘Oh, How about an orchestra? Yes, that’d be nice,” said McCartney, musing in a 1967 Time magazine article talking about “A Day in the Life,” though he could have been referring to any number of songs on the album.
“And if we do have an orchestra, are we going to write them a pseudo-classical thing, which has been done better by people who know how to make it sound like that or are we going to write songs?” he added. “Take a guess and use instinct? So we said, ‘Right, what we’ll do is save all the arranging. We’ll take the whole orchestra as one instrument.’ And we just wrote it down like a cooking recipe, 24 bars. On the ninth bar, the orchestra will take off, and it will go from its lowest note to its highest note.”
Wilfrid Mellers’ 1973 book “Twilight of the Gods: The Music of the Beatles,” was one of the earliest attempts to look seriously, though a bit pompously, at their work, using traditional musical terms in discussing their songs and lyrics. “‘Sgt. Pepper makes the climatic point in the Beatles career, their definite breach with the pop music industry, however materially successful the disc, which in its first two weeks sold 1.5 million copies in the United States alone may have been,” he wrote. Mellers went on to equate the group’s musical progression with Beethoven, though in somewhat of a put down, he writes, “this is not to equate their briefly adolescent experience with that of Beethoven’s Promethean lifetime!”
Another bow to classical music during the sessions was the “Penny Lane” single with the piccolo trumpet solo by classical musician David Mason. According to author Walter Everett in the book “The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver Through the Anthology,” Mason was brought on board after McCartney heard him on the BBC performing Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2.
There are many others, too, some of which can be experienced through the outtakes on the Super Deluxe box set. These include the beautiful orchestration that can be heard unfettered by the violins of “She’s Leaving Home,” the intricacy of the music performed by the backing musicians on “Within You Without You” and the symphonic feeling and the multiple sections of the closing track “A Day in the Life.” In addition, the progression of takes that became “Strawberry Fields Forever” are modern-day classical music thanks to both the Beatles and producer Sir George Martin, whose resume included classical music at Parlophone Records.
Womack said his favorite track on the newly released 50th anniversary box set, which includes a new 2017 remix of the album by Giles Martin, son of the Beatles producer Sir George Martin, and Sam Okell, is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” “I like the way that Giles plated the introductory Lowrey organ matto in the way that he did. It makes that kind of surreal watercolor-like experience even greater. It’s close to ‘Here Comes the Sun.’ The vividness of that.”
The Beatles famously covered “Roll Over Beethoven,” so is the band now on equal plane with some of the greatest musical minds in history? “I think we’re right to celebrate ‘Sgt Pepper’s’ the way we do. Right now, given the sense that it did complete the elevation that they had begun with the record album as artistic statement with ‘Rubber Soul’ or ‘Revolver.’ It was completing that maneuver,” adds Womack. “It is a great example of musical color. It’s a vivid visual experience.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of the album’s release, SiriusXM’s new Beatles Channel (Ch. 18) will play the complete new album mix on Thursday at 5 p.m. ET . This will be followed by airings of outtakes and instrumental versions taken from the Super Deluxe box set Friday at 10 p.m. ET.
“The Beatles are like this great artist, however you want to look at it,” Womack says. “And they’ve been gearing up for this kind of statement. They make it and it holds up. And isn’t that the beauty of it right now?”