2017-06-15 / Arts & Entertainment News

Reflections on Sgt. Pepper at 50

ARTS COMMENTARY

It was 50 years ago this month when we first heard “It was 20 years ago today/ Sgt. Pepper taught his band to play.”

It’s difficult to believe, but the Beatles’ iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was first released in June 1967.

I was just a little kid in elementary school, but one of my older brothers bought the album. And so I got to hear it, over and over again, in all its complete glory.

It was magical.

Psychedelic.

Different.

Epic.

It was the Beatles experimenting, turning rock ’n’ roll inside out and upside down again.

We examined the album, note-by-note, sound-by-sound, lyric-by-lyric, trying to decipher its mysterious clues.

There they were, the Fab Four — John, Paul, George and Ringo — familiar faces, but dressed in these glow-in-the-dark neon-colored uniforms. The strange front cover with that crowd of people; the red back cover that gave us not only all the lyrics, but Paul’s back.

And the crazy sounds!

The way songs seemed to blend into the next.

The opening of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” sounded as if it were recorded inside of a melting music box.

Farm animal noises on “Good Morning, Good Morning.”

George’s mystical sitar on “Within You Without You.”

That mind-blowing extended note at the end of “A Day in the Life.”

All these unexpected sounds.

It sounded circus-y. It sounded old-fashioned and yet like nothing else we’d ever heard before.

Everyone, parents and grandparents included, sang “When I’m 64,” yet the BBC banned “A Day in the Life” because of the line “I’d love to turn you on,” claiming it encouraged drug usage.

The summer before, the Beach Boys had released “Pet Sounds” with its sweet, melancholic songs and complex, unusual sounds: a bicycle bell, barking dogs, a locomotive whistle. “Pet Sounds” was the Beach Boys’ response to The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul.”

“Sgt. Pepper” was the Beatles’ response to “Pet Sounds.”

The bands kept trying to top each other, encouraging each other to greater musical heights in friendly competition.

“Sgt. Pepper” is the No. 1 album in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The magazine called it “the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time.”

It was on the charts then, and it’s back on the Billboard Top 200 charts now, at No. 3, with a reissued, re-mastered edition. (The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition four-CD boxed set of the landmark album will set you back $117.99 plus tax.)

In recognition of the album’s 50th anniversary, www.rollingstone.com ran a series of articles about it. (It also has a reproduction of the Victorian circus poster from which John Lennon created the lyrics almost verbatim for the song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”) NPR’s “All Things Considered” talked about the album’s anniversary. PBS aired a documentary, “Sgt. Pepper’s Musical Revolution.” Papers from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times ran stories about it. Even Forbes magazine had a story about it.

And while there are countless books about the Beatles, three new ones have recently been released about “Sgt. Pepper.”

In May, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: The Album, the Beatles, and the World in 1967” ($30, Imagine) by Brian Southall was released. And also in May, Beatles expert Bruce Spizer, author of eight previous books about the band, released the ninth: “The Beatles and Sgt. Pepper: A Fan’s Perspective” ($29.98, 498 Productions LLC).

And this month, “Sgt. Pepper at Fifty: The Mood, the Look, the Sound, the Legacy of the Beatles’ Great Masterpiece” ($24.95, Sterling) by Mike McInnerery, Bill DeMain and Gillian G. Gaar was released.

Alter egos and last notes

Becoming Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a way for the Beatles to liberate themselves from fans’ and critics’ expectations. According to Paul McCartney (in Paul Du Noyer’s book, “Conversations With McCartney”), “... we were fed up of being ‘The Beatles’… It was so bloody predictable. I said, …’Why don’t we pretend that we’re another band?’ Make up a name for it, make up alter egos, so we can make a whole album from the point of view of this other band.”

So instead of thinking, what would John do or what would Paul do, they would ask, “What would the far-out side of you do? Rather than the marketing man’s dream.

“You could get away from those constrictions of the record company … It freed us to make more daring decisions than you’d normally make.”

In his book “Love For Sale: Pop Music in America,” David Hajdu writes: “According to McCartney, the original idea was for the album to tell the story of one man, the fictional Sgt. Pepper, from birth to death. Abandoning that, the Beatles took up the notion of performing under an alias, the Lonely Hearts Club Band that they portray on the cover art, with the album’s songs representing the imaginary group’s repertoire.”

But, that doesn’t quite hold together, Mr. Hajdu says, pointing out George Harrison’s raga “Within You Without You” and the grand orchestral sounds of “A Day in the Life.”

And as for that long, extended, last note, Mr. Du Noyer says in his book that McCartney was influenced by avant-garde musicians John Cage and Karlheinz

Stockhausen. To create that note, the Beatles asked the orchestra to start at the lowest note on their instrument and go to their highest note over the span of 15 bars — and play that at any speed they wished.

“It’s like Brian Eno, a little set of instructions, written on a piece of paper.”

When he explained it to the musicians, they were puzzled.

But, McCartney notes, “… the string players stayed together, like a herd of sheep” but the brass didn’t care and played at their own speed.

Mr. Hajdu recalls the first time he heard the Sgt. Pepper album, and how he realized it had changed music — and the way we listened to it — forever. A friend of his sister’s had come over with a portable record player and the album. Mr. Hajdu listened from the hall outside his sister’s room, sneaking peeks through the slightly open door.

“… I could barely process what I was seeing,” he writes. “The girls had set up the record player on the floor, sat around it and listened to the album from start to finish, barely speaking. I had never before witnessed such concentrated, deferential attentiveness to any art and had never seen teenagers so quiet, outside of church. This was a social ritual wholly unlike the giddy jerking and frugging to 45s that I had seen before.”

He quotes McCartney again: “We didn’t have to be good little boys and do what the grown-ups told us anymore. We were all grown up ourselves.”

And while each new generation discovers the Beatles, the generation that heard each new album when it was released — on vinyl — grew up with the band.

We’re all grown-ups now.

Many of us have children and grandchildren.

We’ve buried parents and friends. We’ve buried two Beatles: John and George.

But the music still sounds good, of its time, yet timeless.

It’s not necessarily a nostalgic thing, though of course that comes into play.

The music still sounds as fresh and exciting and new as it first did.

And that’s the mark of true, lasting art. ¦

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