The act you've known for all these years ...
It was 50 years ago today
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles, 1967
1 June 2017 is the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. There has been much press coverage of this anniversary. I suspect that the world falls into two groups. The first group contains those that are of an age to remember the album's release and of a generation to (at least potentially) appreciate it. The second group contains the rest of humanity. I am unashamedly a member of the first group. For me The Beatles were pop music; they defined the pop song and as they migrated toward rock, well, they defined that too. But I have read an awful lot of hype and nonsense over the last few weeks in the run up to what might be seen as the cultural half-centenary of the decade.
One article claims that it is "axiomatic that the 1960s gave rise to several events etched on the memories of those who lived through them." I agree that we Baby Boomers remember Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and the moon landing in 1969. But the article goes a bit far when it says that "most people who remember the 60s also recall where they were the first time they hear Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." I am quite sure this was written by someone who was not there in the 1960s.
Make no mistake Sgt Pepper is a brilliant album; it is an album that is up there with the very best … and perhaps it is the best. It is a cultural icon that built on what had come before. Popular music, like most of the endeavours of mankind, is an evolutionary affair. I could argue that Sgt Pepper could not have happened without The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds or Zappa's "Freak Out!". None of that detracts from the album's brilliance. Rubber Soul (December 1965) marked a maturing in The Beatles music that they carried forward with Revolver (August 1966). The subject matter of their songs shifted away from the simple pop of “From me to you” and “She loves you” towards the more robust subject matter of "Girl" (on Rubber Soul) and Harrison's "Taxman" (on Revolver). Sgt Pepper carried this forward. It was supposed to be a concept album but that didn't quite work out, possibly because they did not have the songs, possibly because they were exhausted after those frenetic years of touring, performing and coping with teenage adulation. Bob Dylan had opened their eyes to the possibilities of mind-altering substances. We all know that those mind-altering substances resulted in tracks like Lennon’s "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"(though Lennon denied that) and allegedly on "A Day in the Life". In fact the latter was banned by the BBC because of the McCartney-contributed bridge with the lyric "found my way upstairs and had a smoke".
I don't remember getting Sgt Pepper nor do I remember the first time I heard it. But I do remember playing it at boarding school on an old Dansette record player. The sound must have been dreadful but I suspect George Martin knew that most of The Beatle's fans did not have a sound system worthy of the name. Apparently if you played the run out of side two backwards it sounded like "L S D". Apparently. But I can tell you that it doesn't sound like anything of the sort. I know that I loved the album right away. The Beatles were different; when I bought one of their albums I knew that I would like every song, I would learn the words and learn to play it on the guitar. Sgt Pepper came beautifully packaged. The front has that wonderful cover that took so long to create because of the need to get permission from everyone whose photograph was used. On the back in black type on a red background are all the lyrics. Having the lyrics on an album in 1967 was unusual. The album was a fold out with a massive picture of the four Beatles attired in those colourfully distinctive faux military uniforms. Inside one half of the fold out was the record itself. Inside the other half was a set of cardboard cut-outs. There was a moustache, a set of sergeant's stripes and a picture card. I still have my cardboard cut-outs and they are intact.
The Beatles set out to make something original. They wanted to do something special. Lennon in particular wanted new and different sounds. Money was no object. There was no budget. They had decided to stop touring so they were a studio band. What they did had to be good. Jimi Hendrix' reaction is evidence that they got it right. On 4 June 1967, just three days after the release of the album, Jimi played the title track at the Seville Theatre in London. McCartney and Harrison were in the audience.
I had not listened to Sgt Pepper for many moons. I needed to put that right. Sitting down with a decent sound system and listening to the title track you realise just how good the arrangement is. That's partly George Martin of course but it's also partly that The Beatles were great musicians. Their harmonies could kill you in half a bar. The song segues into "A little help from my friends". I was lost in yesterday. Apparently Ringo wasn't at all happy at doing the vocals to “A little help” and struggled to get the high notes but the resulting delivery is brilliantly under-stated. Then Joe Cocker took the song where it needed to go.
There's a movie called Sliding Doors from 1998 with Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah. In it Hannah's character, James, says that "everybody's born knowing all the Beatles' lyrics instinctively. They're passed into the foetus subconsciously along with all the amniotic stuff. Fact, they should be called 'The Fetals'." I think the scriptwriter was spot on. My number two son, Sam, is a case in point. He falls into my second group of people. He's not quite 30 so he wasn't around in 1967. Out of nowhere the other day he sent an SMS that said "Dad! Did you go and queue at the record store when Sgt Pepper came out?" I had to say that I had not to which he replied "I was reading a lot about the record today. I really wish I got to experience the excitement of getting the bus to town, queuing for ages, getting a record then trekking home to listen to it." He is, of course, the last of the great retro-romantics but he makes a point. His one word description of the album is “psychedelic”. I think he’s right. He notices the significance of the costumes, what he calls “the Edwardian thing”.
The Beatles were a remarkable phenomenon. They were a cultural watershed. That there is so much press fifty years on is testament to that. But I have always held that music is a personal thing. As Al Stewart sang on "Post World War 2 Blues" (on Past, Present and Future, 1973), "Sgt Pepper was real to me" and that is all that matters. And let's leave the last word to Lennon who sings on “Fixing a hole” that “ it really doesn't matter if I'm wrong ... I'm right, where I belong I'm right, where I belong."
Nostalgia ain't what it used to be but I belong in the sixties.
Now as a little aside ... can you name all the characters mentioned in the songs on Sgt Pepper? There's a massive $20 for the person I deem to be the winner ... and I am making up the rules. You can have Sgt Pepper himself and Billy Shears for starters. Henry the Horse is not a person.