Thursday, 26 August 2010

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1)

Ah, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – that most feted, mythologised and sentimentalised of all Beatles albums. This seems a good moment for some dry statistics, doesn’t it?

Early on in this blog, I talked about how easy it is to look at The Beatles’ career and see a steady progression, certainly as far as Sgt. Pepper, where each album is an advance on the previous one. Certainly this is true, creatively speaking: whilst I don’t think every album betters its predecessor, there isn’t a backward step on any of those first eight albums – and this path led to them making Revolver and Pepper, therefore the process was a successful one. However, this was by no means the only way it could have gone – and viewed in terms of their commercial impact, in late 1966 The Beatles were an act who had passed their peak in the UK three years ago. That’s a long time in pop music, and considering the mayfly lifespans of 1960s pop careers it was an eternity.

The Beatles had managed their decline very smartly – they were still the only act whose every single and album topped the charts, and they had lately tested that loyalty with some changes of direction – but the fact remained that their biggest-selling single was ‘She Loves You’. This is hardly surprising when you consider the saturation coverage the group had received in the summer of 1963, and the fact that any pop phenomenon only gets one shot at being the hot new thing. Generating a second groundswell of excitement like the one which shifted over a million copies of ‘She Loves You’ and kept Please Please Me at the top of the LP charts for thirty weeks (only knocked off by With The Beatles, which stayed for 21 weeks – one week shy of a full year at the top for the group) was basically inconceivable. Other acts would always be newer and, although The Beatles were still the biggest band around, they were not as big as they were. They couldn’t be.

A Hard Day’s Night also managed 21 weeks at the top, but after that Beatles records were less dominant than they had been. Beatles For Sale managed eleven in total (over three spells), Help! nine, Rubber Soul eight, Revolver seven. There are a lot of factors involved there: the LP charts became more competitive with the emergence of The Rolling Stones in 1964 and Bob Dylan in 1965, both artists who sold very well in album form (between May 1963 and January 1968, only five artists held the top spot in the UK album charts: The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, The Monkees and the cast of The Sound of Music). There’s also the simple fact that once The Beatles were established, it became more likely that people already knew whether they wanted to buy the group’s record or not and did so fairly swiftly after release. (I’d be very interested to see contemporary sales figures if anyone can point me towards them, listing numbers of copies sold per week – all you can find these days are the total sales up to the present day, which are useless. Was Please Please Me still the group’s best-selling album in 1966, for instance?)

This gradual decline may have been a contributing factor to the serious consideration the group gave to splitting up after Revolver – in addition to their well-documented frustration with the punishing tour and promotional regime, being vilified in America and so on. Had they split up at that point, I suspect that the Beatles of 1963/4 would be the version of the group that dominated in the popular imagination. It would generally be recognised that their last couple of albums featured their best work, but by splitting in 1966 they would have ensured that everyone forever remembered them as the mop-tops.

It was probably the case in 1966 that a lot of people still chiefly thought of them as the mop-tops – that early success could well have become a millstone, something they could surely never surpass. Their many fans would be well aware that their music was moving on, but could they convince those who’d gone off them, or never liked them in the first place, to see them as something new again? When even their name, The Beatles, spoke of an earlier pop era whose stars had already fallen by the wayside? They needed to pitch themselves almost as if they were a whole new act. Adopting a new name seems a facile method of achieving this, and of course there were may other aspects to the success of Sgt. Pepper – but it’s more than a curious coincidence that the record did indeed take The Beatles to new heights of success at a time when that should have been almost impossible.

Now for the dry statistics I promised earlier. Earlier in this blog I asked when it was that The Beatles stopped being chiefly the preserve of screaming teenage girls and became the preserve of chin-stroking musos. The chart performance of Sgt. Pepper suggests an answer. Where its predecessor managed to top the UK charts for seven weeks, Pepper managed an initial 23 weeks, then returned to the top three times – including Christmas and, amazingly, another week in February 1968, eight months after it came out. With a total of 27 weeks it almost outdid Please Please Me – impressive considering the general boom in album sales in the intervening years.

As noted earlier, by the time Revolver came out people generally knew whether they wanted the new Beatles album or not. The fact that, eight months after Sgt. Pepper came out, people were suddenly deciding to buy it in enough quantities to get it back to number one, strongly suggests that the album had won the group new fans in droves. It was selling to people who’d never bought a Beatles album before. Though it has undoubtedly been sentimentalised in retrospect, Sgt. Pepper was a genuine phenomenon.

No comments:

Post a Comment