I must begin this blog by admitting that I was two years old when the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. I grew up already knowing the music, well aware of rock ‘n’roll through my parents’ record collections and as I grew up, my own. Music was an important part of our lives. The radio was always on in the car when going anywhere. At the house, the Beatles, Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Janis Joplin blared from the stereo system, located in the living room. My dad recorded me and my two younger brothers on eight-track tape singing along to “Joy to World” by Three Dog Night. “Jeremiah was a bullfrog! Was good friend of mine…”
I had my own stereo system in my room from an early age. I could listen to my own records in my own room (Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion was a favorite, as was the 1970s classic kid album Free to be You and Me, featuring Marlo Thomas and Mel Brooks). Later, I received rock records for my birthdays and Christmas and my great love of music took off. Growing up in an upper middle class neighborhood, I had no idea how rare it was to have your own stereo and records until I began going to school.
Although my parents didn’t have the Sgt. Pepper album, I was given the Beatles double anthology album (or blue album) as a present one year. On it was the song “A Day in the Life”. I remember being terrified of it (perhaps the crescendo in the middle did it). I was a rather sensitive child, prone to a vivid imagination and nightmares.
I’ve since lost my fear of most things, including “A Day in the Life”. With the fiftieth anniversary of the album I decided that I should listen to it from beginning to end through headphones. Over the years, I have often thought about and marveled at what it must’ve been like to experience that album for the very first time, to experience the birth of psychedelic rock. Being born into rock ‘n’ roll, it’s impossible to conceive of a time when it was new. What could that have been like?
I cued up the album and began my morning walk, a four-mile roundtrip through the better part of town, which is across the street from where I live. I concentrated on the music and the nature around me: large trees lining the streets, beautiful flowers and interesting plants, squirrels and occasional cats, birds and insects like huge, bumbling scarab beetles and monarch butterflies.
Being so familiar with the album, it was hard to listen to it with the fresh ears that I’d hoped I could. The diversity of the music on the album is the most evident thing to me. From the opening track (“Sgt. Pepper’s…”) and subsequent segue way into “With a Little Help From My Friends”, the mood seems playful, cheerful. Following is “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which John Lennon has sworn ad nauseam has nothing to with LSD, but listening to it you can’t help but put the two together. I must confess that as a twenty something-year old Deadhead in the mid-1980s, I took LSD on several occasions, but never experienced anything remotely like what is described in the song.
Onward. “Getting Better”-another jaunty number, followed by “Fixing a Hole”, a song that always really appealed to me for some reason. “She’s Leaving Home”, with its timely tale of a young girl running away to find her true life/self being sung so beautifully over that sort of rambling, Victorian-sounding music and then the strange sounds of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and that BOOM-CHA, BOOM-CHA beat behind the swirling carnival music! That must’ve been a revelation.
It is morning, but not too early, around 8:00 or so. The sun is out, there’s a nice breeze. I am looking up through the trees, seeing the streaks of rainbow sunlight pulse through and “Within You Without You” begins. I am a huge fan of Indian music as well as other Eastern sounds like Moroccan music. I listened and kept my eyes skyward and finally caught a glimmer of “that feeling”, what it must’ve been like to hear something so new and unimaginable.
“When I’m Sixty-Four”…well, when I hear that song now, I think, “Most of the people that heard that for the first time in 1967 probably ARE sixty-four or older…” I also think that I myself will be sixty-four in a mere twelve years and how impossible that seemed to me when I was twenty. “Lovely Rita”, never one of my favorites, but it never fails to make me smile and think of my own dear friend, Rita (who is not a meter maid).
“Good Morning Good Morning”, a brassy, sort of balls-out young man feeling his oats song with all those farm animals blasting off behind him. This is followed by a second, more rocking version of “Sgt. Pepper’s…” that followed by the dreaded “A Day in the Life”.
Since I have since lost my fear of the song, it’s hard for me to realize what was so terrifying about it, but it’s a snarky song, to be sure. A statement on the burgeoning state of disengagement from the world and its events, kinda like how things are today with social media. At least parts of it seem that way to me, a human who has skyrocketed from living in a world where riding your bike unattended all day was the norm and plastics were more than okay to one where kids and adults alike live vicariously through their computers and are deathly afraid of using microwaves. (I am fully aware that my perceptions about this song are wrong, by the way…)
And how about that last bit of weirdness at the end of the album? Back in its day, you’d have thought that the record was defective since that bit with the noise and the indecipherable muttering (actually Paul McCartney saying, “Never could see any other way”) stuck in the run-out groove and played over and over until the needle was picked up. Clever boys, those Beatles.
I guess the only real way for me to fully appreciate the brilliance and absolute revelation of the album is by learning of all that went into its creation. The Beatles before this time could be easily categorized as a very talented pop/rock group, but once Sgt. Pepper’s came out, the sky cracked open and people’s heads exploded with new ideas about music. Of course, there is also the time in which the album came out. Nineteen sixty-seven was the Summer of Love. Young people all over the world were dismissing old ideas and conservative ways of living, they were dropping acid and believing, really believing that if the entire world were to turn on, tune in and drop out, there would be world peace, communal living, money would no longer be valid, hunger would end and all preconceived notions would be universally and immediately dismissed. Music was a part of all of this-a big part. Back then, musicians often set the pace and tone of the times, they were a tangible part of the youth culture. People listened to them. (This could also go horribly awry, as when Charles Manson claimed that the Beatles were speaking directly to him through the White Album, also known as simply The Beatles.)
I have many friends who are older than me, who actually did experience the birth of psychedelic rock, who heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band with fresh ears and minds. I envy them because as hard as I have tried, I cannot imagine the world before it. Since those breakthrough years of rock ‘n roll, when electric guitars went freeform and wild, drums went tribal and loud and singers lost themselves in soulful self expression, there hasn’t been any movement in music as important or groundbreaking. And that says an awful lot about a great many things.