DCSIMG

'It was 40 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play...'

TO SNIP or not to snip...

that is the question as, 40 years on, I slide the cardboard insert sheet of unsullied cut-outs from the gatefold sleeve of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is still intact, despite occasional imprecations from my children, on delving into the dusty recesses of my vinyl collection, that they might cut out these antique relics of a more optimistic and colourful age - the curly fake moustache, the postcard of the bold Sergeant himself, and, of course, the stand-up cut-out of the Beatles, resplendent in Ruritanian finery, no longer the mop-topped, Eton-collared Fab Four, but musical iconoclasts in extravagant motley.

Picture yourself in a boat on a river

With tangerine trees and marmalade skies ...

Or, then again, picture myself as a gormless teenager, summer of 1967. I'm strolling triumphantly homeward, the eagerly awaited eighth album from the Beatles tucked under my oxter. This 12-inch cornucopia of enduring delights has cost me, so far as I can recall, 27 shillings, which transposes to around 1.35 in today's money (or 14.65 in today's values).

Outside my room there is the chirping of sparrows and, perhaps, the distant out-of-kilter chiming of an ice cream van. Beyond these parochial horizons, much has already happened in the course of the year so far: the Vietnam war rages on and, in the United States, anti-war demos are meeting with ugly police retaliation; Sir Francis Chichester has returned triumphantly from circumnavigating the world, the wreck of the Torrey Canyon has given us a foretaste of pollution to come...

For the moment, however, my personal horizons are circumscribed by 12 inches of vinyl, as I carefully lower the arm of my Dansette Bermuda and, out of the preliminary surface hiss (in mono, of course), comes the introductory stomp... "It was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play," as the song goes, but it's an astonishing 40 years since Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, on 1 June 1967, to become one of the most influential and enduring releases in the history of a music genre not noted for lengthy attention spans.

With its recurring circus and music-hall overtones, reflected by Peter Blake's now-famous cover montage, its dubbed applause (and self-deprecatory laughter), the munificent Sergeant also bestowed on an unsuspecting world that somewhat mixed blessing known as the concept album - though that was not a term I would have recognised at the time.

I had been more of a Stones and Yardbirds man, so far as such loyalties went, but the Beatles' previous album, Revolver, had already given us a premonitory earful of sitar strains and tape-loop conjuring tricks. Our ears had been further tweaked when the group, having put live performance behind them, skimmed off Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane from the Sgt Pepper sessions as singles. Clearly, wonderful things were happening at Abbey Road. London, we were assured, was swinging and all things seemed possible - or at least things which decidedly did not happen in a small town in the west of Scotland.

The scorching guitar and French horns of the opening title track gave way to the prosaic but catchy With A Little Help From My Friends, then to the languid chimes of Lucy in The Sky. Something of Alice in Wonderland there, surely, a very English psychedelia?

The marvels spun on - the lush string and harp setting of She's Leaving Home (my father, partner in a local Vauxhall agency, raising an offended eyebrow at the lines "Waiting to keep the appointment she made, Meeting a man from the motor trade"), a string section sliding sublimely through microtones with George Harrison's sitar in Within You Without You, the big-top tootle and swirl of For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Finally, the farmyard fade-out of Good Morning gave way to the climactic orchestral eruption of A Day in the Life - which the BBC banned from airplay due its presumed drug references. In a radio programme to be broadcast on BBC World Service on 1 June - titled, naturally, It Was 40 Years Ago Today, one of the classical players involved recalls those sessions as "a very special time. I don't think it could ever happen again". He describes how the producer and Beatles mentor George Martin called for the 40 orchestral players assembled for A Day in the Life to play a gradual, massive glissando, and how Paul McCartney egged them on, waving his arms in the air. There was a party atmosphere, with coloured lights, crates of beer, party hats and visiting Rolling Stones.

Back then, I didn't know what a glissando was, I only knew that the effect was astounding, and I hung on every last echo of that final, booming chord as it faded into silence (and into the much discussed babble in the record's run-out groove).

Such moments you don't readily forget, and many critics felt the same way, though not everybody was as effusive as Kenneth Tynan, who hailed the album as "a decisive moment in the history of western civilisation". The New York Times's reviewer, Richard Goldstein, wasn't so enthusiastic, pronouncing: "Like an overattended child, this album is spoiled."

In the London Times, William Mann, who had earlier hailed Lennon and McCartney as "the outstanding English composers of 1963", wrote that there was yet hope for a flagging pop scene, "and Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band provides it in abundance". The Scotsman's Alastair Clark agreed, describing the album as "a brilliant exercise in pop-song and poetry", adding that tracks such as A Day in the Life "lift pop to a creative level it has rarely reached before".

I'm told that, to mark the anniversary, current pop bands such as Oasis, Travis and the Kaiser Chiefs have recorded a latter-day version of the album, using the same equipment and engineer as the 1967 sessions. The result will be broadcast on Radio 2 on 2 June... but do I really want to hear it? I never did cut out those images on the insert sheet. But I absorbed every word of the sleeve notes and song lyrics, right down to the reminder that "This is a mono recording", and the final sign-off from Mr Kite: "A splendid time is guaranteed for all." Well, a splendid time has been had, all 40 years of it.

• For digital listeners, BBC 6 Music is celebrating the Sgt Pepper's birthday all day on 1 June.

We love you, yeah, yeah, yeah?

IN POP music, being the first person to do something is not what matters. Being the first person to do it so successfully that everyone else follows your lead - that's the trick. It's why Elvis Presley gets the credit for kickstarting rock'n'roll with That's Alright Mama in 1954. And it's why you can make a strong case that Sgt Pepper, 40 years old next month, kickstarted the idea of concept albums.

Oh yes, you can argue that Woody Guthrie was doing it in the 1940s with Dustbowl Ballads, or Frank Sinatra with 1955's In The Wee Small Hours. But Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its striking cover, fictional band conceit, and non-stop cabaret of sound, blazed a new trail.

"Concept album" is a slippery term, of course. It can mean a sequence of songs that tell a story, as with The Who's Tommy, or songs that are just thematically linked - musically, lyrically and often visually - as with Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. For many people it means awful prog rock songs that go on for ever. But however you define it, what Sgt Pepper did was establish, powerfully and decisively, the idea of the pop album as a coherent, serious artistic statement - a work of art, even - in which the presentation was as important as the music.

This idea has inspired some terrible, pretentious tosh, as earnest young men aspired to make big, important statements about the world or, quite often, the entire universe, when they really should have stuck to writing catchy songs about girls and flowers. But it has also brought us decades of themed albums that genuinely are more than the sum of their parts. My personal top ten would include Joanna Newsom's Ys, Radiohead's OK Computer and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. You'll have your own.

But is this young art form dying already? People are listening to music in a new way now, downloading one song at a time onto iPods. We are buying albums minus the songs we don't want as online downloads - no striking packaging needed - and playing the songs we do like in an order that suits us.

In another 40 years, Sgt Pepper could feel like a strange antique. Time, then, to pay a birthday tribute to classic concept albums - the good, the bad, the strange and the preposterous. We hope you like our choices.

ANDREW EATON

THE PRETTY THINGS: SF SORROW (1968)

THE charitable might feel sorry for Pretty Things' guitarist Dick Taylor. Leaving his first band to enter art college (just as they changed their name to the Rolling Stones), the group which he eventually made his name with saw their most regarded work, SF Sorrow, commercially floored by Pete Townshend a year later, with the release of his own "rock opera", The Who's Tommy. Taking its name from the central character, Sebastian F Sorrow, the record is nevertheless a lost classic, a bleak yet somewhat affected minor monolith of psych-rock which alludes to war, love and mysticism - three classic 1960s themes. This 13-song suite will surely be familiar to fans of Syd Barrett, and Townshend's more fanciful works. DP

THE WHO: THE WHO SELL OUT (1967)

ALTHOUGH technically "rock-operas", two of The Who's best-known records - 1969's Tommy and 1973's Quadrophenia - were essentially concept based, and so tend to overshadow the quality of their one real concept album, The Who Sell Out. Playing like a broadcast from a pirate radio station, the record consists of a number of unrelated psychedelic pop tunes linked by spoof adverts and public service announcements (the intended irony being that the band were making real commercial jingles at the time). It's a fairly goofy notion, but one that's supported by some of The Who's strongest material, including the thundering I Can See For Miles, and multi-parter Rael - Pete Townshend's first experiment with the sort of operatic rock style that would ultimately define his career. MJ

MARVIN GAYE: WHAT'S GOING ON (1971)

WITH this album, Gaye transformed soul music from feelgood hit parade to a genre with social consciousness and ambition. Rejecting the Motown songwriting machine, Gaye put together his own songs about poverty, drug abuse and war from the point of view of a Vietnam vet returning home to find injustice and hatred everywhere. The music is far from heavy-duty, though, but rather a heartfelt and sublimely funky soundtrack - probably the only concept album you'd ever consider putting on to get in the mood for love. This record also paved the way for protest albums by everyone from Stevie Wonder to Public Enemy. DJ

DAVID BOWIE: THE RISE AND FALL OF ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS (1972)

THE most celebrated, seductive rock star alter ego of all time was born on this concept classic about a Martian messiah offering rock'n'roll salvation to an Earth facing obliteration. As you do. The exotic Ziggy came to define the gender-bending glam rock era but the album's influence was much more far-reaching - a million kids' horizons were blown wide open when Ziggy played guitar. David Bowie had arrived as a musical force but, virtually consumed by the character he created, he killed Ziggy off at the peak of his popularity, ensuring rock immortality for the enigmatic alien, who was sporting a lightning flash on his face 25 years before Harry Potter. FS

YES: TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS (1973)

WITH their pseudo-classical musical style and keyboardist Rick Wakeman's odd penchant for sparkly capes, English eccentrics Yes typify for many everything that was wrong with progressive rock. It's fitting then that they were the architects of the genre's most divisive release.

Comprising four tracks, each based on a Shastric scripture and clocking in at an average of 20 minutes, Topographic Oceans represents to some the very high-water mark of conceptual prog: erudite, ambitious, avant-garde.

To everyone else it's sprawling, self-indulgent pap - not least Wakeman, who apparently spent most recording sessions for the album playing darts, and quit the band shortly after its release. MJ

GENESIS: THE LAMB LIES DOWN ON BROADWAY (1974)

LONG before Genesis were but a vehicle for critically unfavoured drumming goon Phil Collins, showman extraordinaire Peter Gabriel led them to early acclaim amid the almost ridiculously pompous era of "progressive rock". If those words don't cause an involuntary shudder, the chances are you're already a fan of this tale of Rael, a schizophrenic New York street kid. As with all prog offerings, this massive double album is overwrought, over-emphasised and wildly melodramatic, yet rock classicists - and those who have the patience - will still find many moments to savour. Ironically, this creative zenith saw Gabriel quit the band, and it was sharply down the spout from there. DP

PINK FLOYD: THE WALL (1979)

NOT just a double album, The Wall was an ber-concept taking in music, animation by cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, a movie starring Bob Geldof, flamboyant live shows and now a forthcoming Broadway musical (yes, really). The Floyd cut their teeth on earlier conceptual works, including Dark Side of the Moon, but pushed the boat out with The Wall, telling of alienation and madness in a story thankfully low on prog staples such as bombast, capes and dragons, but high on intelligent lyrics, great melodies and killer riffs. With sales currently pushing past 30 million, this is surely the most successful concept album ever. DJ

KATE BUSH: THE NINTH WAVE (1985)

WE'RE cheating a bit here since this is only half an album, the second side of Hounds of Love. But it's an extraordinary thing, and a rare example of a woman entering concept album territory (though Tori Amos has done it too). The Ninth Wave's seven rich, sometimes nightmarish, songs tell the story of a woman adrift at sea, desperately trying not to fall asleep, knowing she could drown if she does. As she drifts in and out of consciousness, she dreams she is skating on a lake, where she catches sight of her own face under the ice; then that she is a ghost back in her family's home; then that she is a witch. At one point she dances a jig. As moving as it is eccentric, there's still nothing else quite like it. AE

BRIAN WILSON: SMILE (2004)

THE greatest unfinished album of all time, until Brian Wilson got round to finishing it. There will be those for whom the 2004 release will never live up to the version they imagined in their heads for three decades - scraped together from various demos Wilson was working on before pressure, drugs and his own perfectionism sent him over the edge. Van Dyke Parks' lyrics are often impenetrable, but Smile, the story goes, is a musical journey across America from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, taking in the nation's entire history along the way, from the first white settlers to 1960s drug culture. How this squares with Wilson's description of it as a "teenage symphony to God" has always been unclear, but its sheer musical ambition, then and now, is rare for a "pop" album, on a level with George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. AE

THE STREETS: A GRAND DON'T COME FOR FREE (2004)

MIKE "The Streets" Skinner sang about "a day in the life of a geezer" on his debut hit Has It ComeTo This? On The Streets' second album, he extended his documentary gaze over a longer period, charting the fluctuating fortunes of a protagonist who loses his money at the betting shop and then loses his girl thanks to a holiday fling. Over the course of 11 songs, he flirts, goes clubbing, argues, boozes and sobs - all over a consummate collage of hip-hop, soul, rock and electronica. Arctic Monkeys presented their own indie riff on the kitchen sink song cycle on their debut album Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not which followed the course of a typical day and night out in their native Sheffield. FS

 
 
 

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