When I decided to crawl out of my Beatles-hating phase in college, I went to Napster (remember Napster?) and picked up a somewhat random assortment of Beatles songs. The requirements were that they had to be songs from Sgt. Pepper or later, and I had to have heard of the song titles before. This included both versions of the song “Sgt. Pepper,” “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” and “A Day In the Life.” Upon listening to those a few times, I decided that I needed the whole album in order to put them in context.

Looking back, that was one of the best decisions I made in my entire life. It ranks right up there with going to London when I was in college and with marrying Ruthanne.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles – 6/1/1967

A revolution was ready to take place in the minds of the four members of the Beatles. All the madness and fervor the last 4 years had brought had taken a toll on John, Paul, George and Ringo. They had scaled the heights of rock and roll stardom in record time, gotten to the summit, looked out over the landscape and said to each other, “I guess we’d better keep moving.”

At that point, in mid-1966, the four of them had had enough: of rock and roll stardom, and of each other. First they did something unheard of for an act that big: they stopped touring. And I don’t mean they took a break or something; they stopped. Even today, that’s pretty weird. It causes me a little incredulity to think that the biggest, most important albums the Beatles made were after they stopped touring. John had a little part in a movie, How I Won the War, and immersed himself in the art scene. This was where he met Yoko. Where would we be if that hadn’t happened? Ringo spent more time with his wife and kids, and Paul co-wrote the score for a film, and even won an award for it. George, for the first time, went to India with Ravi Shankar for what passes for a spiritual awakening. Later, he would convince the other three to go, but more on that later.

At the heart of this, I think, is that all four of them were tired of being the Beatles, and wanted to be someone else. So in late 1966, they started doing just that. On a plane ride from Kenya to England, Paul got the idea for an alter-ego band, characters to stand in for the four of them not just socially, but also musically. On that very flight, tour manager Mal Evans asked what the S and P pots on their meal trays were, and Paul simply responded, “salt and pepper.” I think a light bulb must have turned on in his head.

The original concept for Sgt. Pepper was a concert performed by this fictional band; the four members even had alternate names, and different colored uniforms like superheroes. This didn’t take very long to get abandoned, though it didn’t completely disappear. Much of the visual aesthetic is still intact, even if most of the music doesn’t directly reflect it. My Chemical Romance was taking a page directly from the Beatles (borderline stealing) when Gerard Way invented the Fabulous Killjoys. It was a brilliant idea because it allowed the Beatles to experiment in any direction they pleased. As a result, their creativity rose to meet the opportunity.

Tomorrow: meet the Lonely Hearts Club Band.

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