Picking over Pepper

Remember the media hoopla surrounding Sgt. Pepper’s 20th anniversary, which was marked by its appearance on CD? Even Richard Goldstein, the Village Voice critic who stood alone with his 1967 dismissal of Pepper, reversed his opinion in Rolling Stone. In the intervening years, people seemed more inclined to agree with his earlier opinion. Thus, the 30th — and now 40th — anniversary of Pepper seems marked with the sense of the occasion people reserve for the arrival of a new Ace Hardware circular.

Could it Pepper comes with too much paisley baggage, in contrast to The White Album, which promised nothing on its sleeve, delivered nothing in the way of utopian unity and does considerably better in Greatest Album of All Time polls? Or can it be that many of Sgt. Pepper’s accepted innovations are now known to come from somewhere else? Here’s a rundown.

1. First concept album

2. First album with crossfaded tracks

The Manhattan Tower — Gordon Jenkins (1945): This album combined narrative, dialogue, sound effects and songs and was programmed with no gaps between songs when it jumped from 78 to LP format. Clearly this is the album you should blame for the Moody Blues!

3. First fake live album by nonexistent band

4. First album to explore dead celebrities

Concert in the Sky — Teddy Phillips and His Orchestra with the Jack Halloran Choir, Ken Nordine, narrator (1957): Sgt. Pepper for the Eisenhower crowd! Its hysterical chorale opening announcement that "This is the concert in the sky!" is followed by someone pretending to be the late Mildred Bailey singing "That Ol’ Rocking Chair" from high atop a star (like you-know-who in the sky with diamonds). Before rock ’n’ roll heaven, there was big-band heaven ("It seems so eerie and weird when everyone stood up and cheered/For Eddie Duchin stopped the show") and following a pageant of afterlife musicianship, the show ends on a rather morbid note, with ominous drums pounding and a voice on a megaphone sounding a roll call of deceased musicians. Despite narrator Nordine’s insistence that they’re all smiling and happy, the saintly stiffs pick "It’s a Lonesome Old Town (Now That You’re Not Around)" as their final number. Some great gig in the sky!

5. First fake live album with a reprise of opening track

The Peppermint Twisters — Joey Dee & The Starliters (1961): Scepter Records took Dee’s studio recording of "Shimmy Baby (Part 1)" and plastered it with a continuous 15-second loop of nightclub crowd banter and glasses clinking, which takes on a Chinese Water Torture precision after the second go-round. The album ends with "Shimmy Baby (Part 2)" which was "Shimmy Baby (Part 1)" inserted in again.

6. First established band pretending to be another band

In 1965, Frankie Valli pinched his balls with two clamps instead of one and, with the two-octave Minnie Mouse increase, the Four Seasons released three goofus singles as "The Wonder Who?"

7. First band to wear different colored suits

According to their bio, the King’s Singers, a chorale group from Cambridge formed in 1965, wore "corduroy jackets of interestingly different colors and cut" and "bowties whose patterns were incompatible but daring." And "sensible black shoes."

8. First obviously LSD-inspired record

In 1957, ’shroom researcher (yeah, right!) Gordon Wasson recorded a psilocybin mushroom ritual with a Mexican witch doctor and released "The Mushroom Ceremony of the Mazatec Indians on Folkways Recordings. Guess folkies don’t complain when Indians and Mexicans "go electric."

9. First band to sprout moustaches simultaneously

Unless you want to count when the Andrew Sisters went through menopause.

10. First album cover commissioned by a fine artist

Lonesome Echo Jackie Gleason (1955): The Great One commissioned Salvador Dali to paint a mind-bending cover and the two posed together on the rear sleeve. How surreal it is!

11. First album cover to have no superimposed lettering whatsoever

Andy Williams Sings Steve Allen (1959)

12. First group to construct an elaborate set for an album cover

Satan is Real — The Louvin Brothers (1958): The gospel duo drove to a rock quarry and recreated the fiery inferno of hell using kerosene, some old tires and a red 12-foot plywood cutout of Beelzebub with pitchfork and fangs. And they didn’t win a Grammy for this?

13. First group to give props to Aliester Crowley on an album cover

Way before Ozzy lauded his evilness, the Beatles placed Mr. Crowley in Pepper’s celebrated audience. But maybe we should skip the middleman and give this one to the Louvin Brothers for Satan is Real too.

14. First album to contain "Paul Is Dead" clues

Paul Robeson: Die Gross Stimme (c. 1965): Misunderstood German greatest hits collection.

15. First album vundled with goodies inside

Chubby Checker’s Biggest Hits (1962): Extras included a sturdy 12-by-12-inch color pullout portrait and eight "peel-off pics" of Chubby — stickers before they even had a word for ’em!

16. First appearance of cannabis on a record cover

David Peel and Country Joe & the Fish can arm wrestle over this one since it’s been discounted that the row of plants in front of the Sgt. Pepper bass drum is not cannabis. First appearance of basil, maybe?

17. First pop album to print the lyrics on the cover

Sing Along With Mitch — Mitch Miller & the Gang (1955).

18. First recording artist to adopt alternate persona for an entire album

Hank Williams as Luke the Drifter (1955).

19. First album cover where artist has back to the camera

Inside Out — Bobby Darin (1967): He’s kissing some bird at his front door.

20. First album cover where band holds up instruments it can’t play

Surrealistic Pillow — Jefferson Airplane (May 1967).

21. First album to open with sounds of tuning up

Headquarters The Monkees (May 1967).

22. First pop song to mention "turning on"

"She’s A Woman" — The Beatles (1964): "Turn me on when I get lonely …"

23. First pop song title with L.S.D. initials

The Blues Magoos had a song in 1966 called "Love Seems Doomed," with the first letters purposely italicized so no one would miss the point. They repeated this gimmick on their second album with the song "Albert Common Is Dead."

24. First pop song with a fake fadeout

"Do You Love Me" — The Contours (1962).

25. First album with varispeed vocals on nearly every cut

Let’s All Sing with the Chipmunks (1959).

26. First album with phasing effects on more than one cut

The Big Hurt — Miss Toni Fisher (1958): The first known use of phasing in the recording process.

27. First song banned by the BBC for explicit drug lyrics

"My Friend Jack" — The Smoke (Feb. 1967).

28. First song to combine Western string arrangement with Indian music

"From Me to You Fantasy," one of the Ken Thorne instrumentals on the Beatles’ U.S. Help soundtrack, mixes Bond movie music with sitar squiggles.

29. First song with "I Get High" in the lyrics

According to Dylan, he heard the Beatles’ singing "I get high" on "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and assumed every Beatle must get stoned.

30. First pop record with dirty message at the end

Four months before Sgt. Pepper’s run-out groove said "We’ll fuck you like Superman" if you played it backwards, Brenton Wood’s "The Oogum Boogum Song" said "suck out the pussy" if you played it forward.

31. First record to combine circus music with outer space

Bozo and His Rocket Ship (1947).

32. First pop song with an orchestral freakout

"This Magic Moment" — The Drifters (1960).


Eight Undisputed Sgt. Pepper Innovations

33. First album to end with a 43-second piano chord

34. First album cover to risk litigation from Leo Gorcey

35. First album blamed for Their Satanic Majesties Request

37. First beatles album John lets Paul have his way

38. First pop album with rude run-off groove message

39. First album to waste studio time getting music out of a comb and tissue when the group just could’ve used a kazoo

40. First album with a chicken that turns into a guitar! Serene Dominic is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]

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