It was fifty years ago today…
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
To get a proper handle on how revolutionary Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was, it’s imperative to appreciate how far pop music came in such a remarkably brief span of time. It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s also undeniable that after June 1, 1967, nothing was ever the same again. Needless to say, this is a very good thing.
(Long story short: somewhere between the first hit of acid and the last ray of light from the disco ball, rock music got ambitious. Rock music got serious. And make no mistake, rock music got pretentious. The Beatles began imitating Bob Dylan and then (in less than two years) came into their own as unique wordsmiths. Love it or loathe it, “Norwegian Wood” is a million miles away from “Please Please Me” (thanks LSD!) and “I Am the Walrus” is a million miles from… anything (thanks LSD!). In short order, The Rolling Stones began to take things a tad more seriously, and real contenders like Ray Davies and Pete Townshend starting crafting miniature pop masterworks that engaged the mind as well as the gut. And then, emboldened, or inspired — or both — wide-eyed songwriters followed their muses, and their thesauruses, and all bets were off by the early ’70s.)
Part of rock ’n’ roll’s infectious (and mostly innocuous) appeal is the no-brainer element of its intellectual import. From its earliest days when rock lyrics were mostly an unimaginative contest to see who could say I love you without saying the words I love you (of course The Beatles broke the mold here, shamelessly cutting out all pretense and wallowing in the very shallow depths of the literal, from “She Loves You” to “Love Me Do” to “All My Loving” to… you get the picture).
Around the same time, and across the pond, The Beach Boys were busy crafting best-selling pop confections about cars, surfing and girls. Seemingly out of nowhere, and driven by the increasingly determined — and restless — front man, the group dropped Pet Sounds on a mostly unprepared world. How influential was it? Paul McCartney who, at that time, brooked competition from no other mortal not named John Lennon, was intimidated, and ultimately inspired by what he heard. In typical Fab Four fashion, he and his mates rose to the challenge with Revolver (showcasing a facility for experimentation (sitar, string quartets, enriched lyrical import and restlessness regarding convention). “Tomorrow Never Knows” could be considered the true opening salvo that foresaw the future; after this nothing was off the table, and opportunistic acts followed suit, accordingly.
But before The Beatles helped define the Summer of Love and introduce the mixed blessing also known as the concept album, they released what’s arguably the most transcendent single of all time. Not only did “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane” signify (yet another) giant step for the band, it crystallized the principle strengths of its primary songwriters. Lennon agonized over the acoustic-based (!) snapshot of youth seen through the glass surreally that “Strawberry Fields Forever” mutated into (with considerable assistance from the ever-underrated George Martin). McCartney, as always, makes it sound easy. “Penny Lane”, while being neither as oblique nor unsettling as “Strawberry Fields Forever”, is disarmingly rich in detail and the product of a songwriter firing on all cylinders. In a move that reveals McCartney’s inspired and indefatigable mind, he asked George Martin to approximate the piccolo trumpet featured in a movement from Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto, granting his whimsical reminiscence an almost regal air.
So, full of confidence, bristling with ambition and, make no mistake about it, eyes staring straight into the sun, the Fab Four did the Icarus routine. Suffice it to say, they not only survived, they transcended. Or something. And for the millionth time, it’s not necessarily how great the album is (and track by track, it’s arguably aged less well than ones that came before and after it, like many other efforts from 1967), it’s the not-so-simple fact that The Beatles ushered in a new era wherein rock music could be and appraised as art.
And while a song-by-song reassessment would seem superfluous (even this modest essay practically answers its own inevitably rhetorical question: do we really need more words written about Sgt. Pepper?), it seems necessary to remember that, as overplayed and overanalyzed as certain songs have been, some of the boys’ best work is nevertheless represented. Imagine hearing “With A Little Help From My Friends” for the first time, today. Or, even if you’ve listened to it too many times to count, savor the loping basslines McCartney uses to anchor “Getting Better”. Or, if Lennon was coasting a bit on “Good Morning Good Morning”, with “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” he gave the uninitiated a soundscape for psychedelia before most of the world knew what was soon to hit it. Even the unfairly maligned “Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite” should be noted — in addition to being a clever tone poem invoking other times and places — providing a showcase for the way the studio could (and, subsequently, would) be utilized, combining technology and ingenuity to literally create new sounds.
Or how “Fixing A Hole” somehow seems to slip under the radar, or be dismissed as a lightweight effort. For me, in addition to being yet another short burst of pop virtuosity (ho hum), it’s an extremely laid-back and convincing statement of individuality — kind of a bookend to Lennon’s “I’m Only Sleeping”. Macca, establishing himself in the driver’s seat during these sessions, may have embraced the countercultural energy of the era, but he was his own man. He didn’t name names or slag off any institutions and he didn’t need to. In one of the seminal years in rock ’n’ roll history, McCartney did not surf the wave that crested during the Summer of Love: he was the wind that helped create the wave. If “Lovely Rita” and the insufferable “When I’m 64” wore out their collective welcome many years (decades) ago, we must still marvel at the economical, emotional devastation of “She’s Leaving Home”, a composition that manages to be in front of women’s lib and anticipates the generational pushback the Hippie years would engender. And while the sitar sounds at once calculated and quaint today, let us never sleep on the role George Harrison played in bringing world music to the fore: like just about everything the group did, their work helped enlarge and expand how we understand (and hear) music.
And, for this writer, five decades has only cemented speculation that “A Day In The Life” endures as perhaps the most perfect (not to mention important) song in rock history.
The Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper, did not just issue their own indelible statement of purpose, but provided a spotlight, and credibility, for other acts, not to mention inspiring countless others to rally behind the trail they blazed. Getting to a place, inconceivable only years before, where rock music might be acknowledged as art-with-a-capital-A, is not something The Beatles did all by themselves; they were simply the biggest, loudest and most successful spokesmen for the cause. They didn’t make what happened next possible so much as they made it inevitable.
For that, we must always appreciate them, and celebrate Sgt. Pepper. A splendid time, lest we forget, was guaranteed for all.