“The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things…”
I’ll leave it to you and Lewis Carroll to decide who was the Walrus and who was the Eggman and whether or not Paul is dead. But today, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album is fifty years old. That fact alone deserves a resounding “How can that be?”
You can read all about the birthday of this seminal work in a million places on the internet. There are thousands of musical experts and recording industry kingpins who can tell you what it was like from where they sat. I’d rather try to accomplish something I’ve not yet been able to do, in conversations with younger people who ask about Sgt. Pepper. I’ve not yet been able to explain what it was like from our end and why it was so important—the experience of young people who were listening to music in 1967.
To understand it fully, you must understand not what was, but what wasn’t. And what mostly wasn’t was exploration and experimentation in popular music. If someone had suggested to Elvis Presley that he create his next album based on an imaginary band, they would have been ushered out of the recording studio. If Fats Domino had been asked to add a sitar and a French horn to his sound, well, it simply wasn’t done. If a recording star had “made it,” the “sound” of that star wasn’t altered; it simply wasn’t done. Nor was the image of the star changed in any way—album art wasn’t art. It was always a photo of the artist, usually in a suit and tie or a nice dress; Music was, and is, a business. The product belonged on the cover. If you were a successful artist, you didn’t change what had made you successful. You “danced with the one what brung you.”
Obviously, the Beatles were popular. We had grown up with them. We waited for each new album and they hadn’t failed to please us. But they were beginning to change from the four lovable mop-topped and innocent balladeers crooning “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” to older people who wanted to talk–or sing–about important things. In 1965 they had released Rubber Soul and we realized that they were changing. What we thought was long hair wasn’t long at all. And they weren’t dressing like quadruplets. They had individual personalities, and Lennon was singing about sleeping over in a girl’s apartment in “Norwegian Wood.” The Beatle boots were gone. And what was that sound? Someone said it was a sitar, an Indian guitar-like instrument. McCartney recorded “Michelle,” which is now so well known it’s elevator music. Things were changing.
The next year, in 1966, they released Revolver (still one of my personal favorites) and we knew that wherever we were going, this was the voice that would tell us about it. The subject matter of unrequited love in “Eleanor Rigby” and methamphetamine-dealing physicians in “Dr. Robert” were just, well, unprecedented. Nobody did this. At least not until now. The album art by Klaus Voorman broke all the rules; part line drawing, part collage and part photographs. Didn’t look like any album we’d seen before.
I have often tried to make this clear; we weren’t sure what was happening, but we knew something was. Never, I suspect, had an entire buying public (translate as everyone older than ten and younger than 30) been so focused on “the next album.” I doubt it ever will be again.
I suppose it’s hard to imagine making a trip to the local record store each day, just to ask “Is it in, yet?” Downloading was how you got cattle off a truck. Finally the “new album” arrived and sold out everywhere. We were all tearing the cellophane cover off at nearly the same time.
What was this? There they were, wearing military band-style uniforms, looking at what appeared to be a grave with “BEATLES” written in red flowers, surrounded by a host of celebrities. Most of us decided it was a grave. They were saying goodbye to the four mop-tops. All that before hearing the first track. So then, of course, we listened.
It needs to be said that the music stands well after fifty years; it’s as good as it ever was–perhaps better. It would be easy to discuss each track on the album, but most of you know them or have heard them at least once. Some of us have heard them thousands of times. The recording techniques were ground-breaking, but you can learn about that from a gazillion places. Today, they would sound commonplace to us and there’s a reason for that: they are commonplace today. But never, before, had we listened to anything like it. I do not believe that a musical group today could create something with the seismic shift of Sgt. Pepper. I don’t think it can be done again.
Each of us has had the experience of hearing an old song and remembering where we were, who we were with, what was happening when the song was released. With Sgt Pepper, for an awful lot of us, it was the turning point for everything that followed.
You can like the music or not; there’s a generation of people my age for whom it’s almost gospel. But no one can deny that this was the day the music changed.