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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

It was 40 years ago today that "Sgt. Pepper" taught the world that rock 'n roll could be more than four chords and a dance beat. The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was released on June 1st, 1967 in the U.K., and a day later here in the U.S.

Reporter Paul Ingles reminds us what an event that was.

PAUL INGLES: It was the last week in May. Seventeen-year-old Leslie Samuels Haley(ph) just got her driver's license and was trying to be careful as she rolled through Park Avenue traffic in Manhattan to pick up her mother. As usual, she was flipping between AM stations.

Ms. LESLIE SAMUELS-HALEY (Resident, Manhattan, New York): I think it was WMCA radio in New York. First and exclusive, we have the new "Sgt. Pepper" album.

(Soundbite of song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")

Ms. SAMUELS-HALEY: I picked up my mom. I said be quiet. Don't say a word. I will drive safely. But I'm listening to this.

(Soundbite of song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Lead Singer, The Beatles): (Singing) It was 20 years ago today when Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

Ms. SAMUELS-HALEY: If you're not comfortable, take a cab. I'll get home.

INGLES: Like millions of fans, Haley had been waiting 10 months for a new Beatles album. Not a long wait these days, but in the mid-1960s, U.S. fans had been getting a new album from the band almost every three months. And many saw them perform every summer.

(Soundbite of Beatles' concert)

Mr. LENNON: We'd like to sing - wow. Well, we'd like to sing a song now. Can you hear me? Can you hear me?

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

INGLES: Fans who saw the Beatles on their summer 1966 tour did not know it would be their last. Paul McCartney told the British press later that year that the Beatles were fed up with touring.

Mr. PAUL McCARTNEY (Bass Guitar, The Beatles): It's gone downhill, performance. If we're not listened to, then - and we can't even hear ourselves. Then we can't improve.

INGLES: At EMI studios in London, McCartney and band mates John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr met with producer George Martin and engineers Geoff Emerick and Phil McDonald, to tell them they were giving up the road. Howard Massey co-wrote Geoff Emerick's recent memoir.

Mr. HOWARD MASSEY (Author; Educator): Geoff had a very clear memory as did Phil McDonald of everyone gathering around the console in the control room, and John very excitedly explaining to George Martin that this - that they were going to go for something really, completely different with this album because they were no longer constrained by having to think in terms of playing any of these songs live anymore.

Mr. LENNON: Dub the mic on the piano quite low. Just keep it in like maracas, you know. You know those old pianos.

INGLES: Instead of knocking out a new song in just a few days, The Beatles spent weeks layering ever more intricate soundscapes over their songs, and making their fans wait and wait.

DJ Bruce Morrow, Cousin Brucie to his listeners, was on 7 to 11 at night on WABC-AM in New York at that time.

Mr. BRUCE MORROW (DJ, WABC-AM): We were a little worried. There was - no product. There was no Beatles record. The Beatlemaniacs were getting very worried and the guys that are on the air like your Cousin Brucie - where are my Beatles?

(Soundbite of song "Strawberry Fields Forever")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) Let me take you down 'cause I'm going to strawberry fields. Nothing is real.

INGLES: In February 1967, the first of The Beatles' studio-only creations came out as a single, "Strawberry Fields Forever" backed by "Penny Lane." When the "Sgt. Pepper" album arrived at radio stations, neither song was on it. In fact, the LP was released without any singles. Since singles were all the top 40 stations played then, DJ Bruce Morrow says AM was forced to play album cuts, but not all of them.

Mr. MORROW: We - in those days, we were very paranoid about the FCC and about the government and Justice Department coming down on quote, "drug-related lyrics." I mean, we were so crazy we couldn't play "With a Little Help From My Friends."

(Soundbite of song "With a Little Help From My Friends")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) Oh I get by with a little help from my friends. Mmm, I get high with a little help from my friends. Mmm, I'm gonna try with a little help from my friends.

INGLES: The songs AM radio was afraid to play could still be found on the air in some cities though. More young listeners like Pete Fornatele(ph), a college student in '67, heard the rest of "Sgt. Pepper" on the then lowly FM band.

Mr. PETE FORNATELE (Disc Jockey): The commercial FM station in New York, which was WOR-FM, started playing "A Day In The Life".

(Soundbite of song "A Day In The Life")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) I read the news today, oh boy.

Mr. FORNATELE: And you know, that song has been a part of our lives for 40 years now, but try to think what it was like hearing that for the first time. It was a mindblower.

(Soundbite of song "A Day In The Life")

INGLES: Fornatele was a DJ too - already playing rock album cuts for his college station, Fordham University's WFUV. In some ways, college radio was leading the way. At the time, commercial FM was primarily the poor stepsister of AM. Few people had FM receivers, so station owners simply simulcast their AM signals. When the FCC told them to stop in 1966, they were still unconvinced that FM could make money so they just let their FM DJs play whatever they wanted.

Unidentified Disc Jockey: So what do you say we join The Beatles, and let's work on our heads.

Mr. ANTHONY DeCURTIS (Editor, Rolling Stone Magazine): "Sgt. Pepper" obviously lent itself to that.

INGLES: Rolling Stone magazine's Anthony DeCurtis grew up in New York and had made the shift from AM to FM.

Mr. DeCURTIS: I very specifically remember our late-night DJ in New York playing "Fixing a Hole" on the radio and just reading the lyrics.

Unidentified Disc Jockey: The Beatles' "Fixing a Hole" where the rain gets in and stops their mind from wandering. I guess maybe having your mind wander is good. Mr. DeCURTIS: Those were the kinds of experiences that you could have and that FM radio and its burgeoning format made possible, that "Sgt. Pepper" made possible. It was a kind of perfect storm of cultural events.

INGLES: FM radio became the medium where new rock music was presented and discussed in a serious way. And at home, people listened to this album differently. Howard Massey was 14 when he sat down with a friend to hear it for the first time.

Mr. MASSEY: I think we played the entire album all the way through three or four times before either of us spoke to each other and started discussing it. Now, I'd never had that experience with any album ever before. It wasn't a collection of songs. The effect as a whole was - you felt as if you'd been on some incredible journey.

(Soundbite of song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.

INGLES: And fans got to go deeper into the journey following along with the lyrics, which were printed on a Beatles album for the first time. And that album jacket with over 70 historical figures crowded together became the topic of much analysis and discussion. It's a discussion that hasn't stopped in the ensuing 40 years. Critics both praise Pepper for ushering in an era of thoughtful rock and blast it for inspiring a host of pretentious excursions by other bands.

And some, like Jim Fusilli, who writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, feel too much weight has been placed on "Sgt. Pepper's" shoulders.

Mr. JIM FUSILLI (Writer, Wall Street Journal): If the question is, does "Sgt. Pepper" matter? You know, it matters like "The Simpsons" matter, or it matters like chocolate chip mint ice cream matters. Our life might be diminished without it, but I don't believe that many lives have been saved by "Sgt. Pepper". I just think it's a terrific rock album and it stood up very well over the years. Whether it will continue to stand up when all of us who were alive in 1967 are gone remains to be seen.

INGLES: "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was certified gold within two weeks of its release. Today it's number 53 on the recording industry's bestseller list. Ahead of it, two Backstreet Boys albums, Britney Spears and Kenny G.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Ingles.

(Soundbite of song "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band")

SIEGEL: You can hear more music from "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at our Web site, npr.org.

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