Freed from the burden of touring, the band's desire to experiment grew as they recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
, beginning in December 1966. Recording engineer Geoff Emerick recalled their insistence "that everything on
Sgt. Pepper had to be different. We had microphones right down in the bells of brass instruments and headphones turned into microphones attached to violins. We used giant primitive oscillators to vary the speed of instruments and vocals and we had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way round." Parts of "A Day in the Life
" required a forty-piece orchestra. Nearly seven hundred hours of studio time were devoted to the sessions. They first yielded the non-album double A-side
single "Strawberry Fields Forever"/"Penny Lane
" in February 1967; Sgt. Pepper
followed in June. The musical complexity of the records, created using only four-track recording technology, astounded contemporary artists. For Beach Boys
leader Brian Wilson, in the midst of a personal crisis and struggling to complete the ambitious Smile
, hearing "Strawberry Fields" was a crushing blow and he soon abandoned all attempts to compete.
Sgt. Pepper met with great critical acclaim. In 2003,
Rolling Stone ranked it number one among its "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" and it is widely regarded as a masterpiece.
Jonathan Gould describes it as a rich, sustained, and overflowing work of collaborative genius whose bold ambition and startling originality dramatically enlarged the possibilities and raised the expectations of what the experience of listening to popular music on record could be. On the basis of this perception, Sgt. Pepper became the catalyst for an explosion of mass enthusiasm for album-formatted rock that would revolutionize both the aesthetics and the economics of the record business in ways that far outstripped the earlier pop explosions triggered by the Elvis phenomenon of 1956 and the Beatlemania phenomenon of 1963.
Sgt. Pepper was the first major pop album to include its complete lyrics, which were printed on the back cover. Those lyrics were the subject of intense analysis; fans speculated, for instance, that the "celebrated Mr K." in "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" might in fact be the surrealist fiction writer Franz Kafka. The American literary critic and professor of English Richard Poirier wrote an essay, "Learning from The Beatles", in which he observed that his students were "listening to the group's music with a degree of engagement that he, as a teacher of literature, could only envy." Poirier identified what he termed the "mixed allusiveness" of the material: "It's unwise ever to assume that they're doing only one thing or expressing themselves in only one style ... one kind of feeling about a subject isn't enough ... any single induced feeling must often exist within the context of seemingly contradictory alternatives." McCartney said at the time, "We write songs. We know what we mean by them. But in a week someone else says something about it, and you can't deny it. ... You put your own meaning at your own level to our songs". Sgt. Pepper's remarkably elaborate album cover also occasioned great interest and deep study. The heavy moustaches worn by the band swiftly became a hallmark of hippie style. Cultural historian Jonathan Harris describes their "brightly coloured parodies of military uniforms" as a knowingly "anti-authoritarian and anti-establishment" display. On 25 June, the band performed their newest single, "All You Need Is Love", to TV viewers worldwide on Our World, the first live global television link. Appearing amid the Summer of Love, the song was adopted as a flower power anthem. Two months later the group suffered a loss that threw their career into turmoil. After being introduced to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, they travelled to Bangor for his Transcendental Meditation retreat. During the retreat, Epstein's assistant Peter Brown called to tell them Epstein had died. The coroner ruled Epstein's death an accidental overdose, but it was widely rumoured that a suicide note had been discovered among his possessions. Epstein had been in a fragile emotional state, stressed by both personal issues and the state of his working relationship with the band. He worried that they might not renew his management contract, due to expire in October, based on discontent with his supervision of business matters. There were particular concerns over Seltaeb, the company that handled merchandising rights in the United States. Epstein's death left the group disorientated and fearful about the future. Lennon said later, "I didn't have any misconceptions about our ability to do anything other than play music and I was scared." He also looked back on Epstein's death as marking the beginning of the end for the group: "I knew that we were in trouble then. ... I thought, we've fuckin' had it now."