THE SUMMER OF LOVE (PART III) SGT. PEPPER
During the last week of May, 1967 history was made. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely
Hearts Club Band was released and nothing was ever the same again. That's
the impact one LP had. Music hadn't sounded like this before. The jacket
cover was discussed for weeks. The songs' lyrics were printed on the back
of the album jacket--basically declaring that the language of the songs was
as worthy of inspection and appreciation as the melodies. This was the
first rock/pop album to do such a thing.
The album, won Album of the Year, an unusual honor at a time when the Grammys were
still giving awards to the likes of Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald--not rock musicians. It
soon became emblematic of this new counter-culture movement. It was what everyone
talked about all summer.
I listened to music largely on AM radio during those years. A typical pop tune ran maybe
two-and-a-half minutes. Three chords. DJs like Murray the K or Cousin Brucie built large
followings of listeners. Sometimes they broke news with Beatles' interviews or contests for
concert tickets or sweatshirts with the station logo. One night a week they would play the Top
20 songs of that week in countdown style. At the end of the year they would play the Top
100 songs of the year. But Sgt. Pepper didn't really have songs that fit into three-minute
slots. Four of the songs were more than three minutes and two were a mind-boggling five
minutes! Plus, this was a "concept" album. People wanted to listen to it from beginning
to end. And what about George's Indian song, "Within You Without You" with George on
sitar? That couldn't be played on AM rock stations, could it? Below is a clip about the
song taken from Howard Goodall's Sgt. Pepper's Musical Revolution documentary.
Soon, the first progressive rock stations appeared--on something called FM radio! DJs played whatever they liked--these stations were largely format free. Better sound. You could play Side One of an entire album before you heard a single commercial! Radio had been transformed. My station was the
legendary WNEW-FM. My father wouldn't let me use his FM radio. But when I was sick, he gave in and let me play it. I got my own FM radio when I headed off for college.
The record was not without controversy. Notably, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
was a classic slice of psychedelia, and everyone pointed out that the three nouns
in the song's title spelled LSD! No wonder the kaleidoscopic imagery!
Composer John Lennon insisted his inspiration was nothing more than a drawing by
his young son Julian.
When Ringo sang "I get by with a little help from my friends," many thought Ringo's
friends were pharmaceutical in nature. There were many other references to a
perceived drug culture. Some places banned the playing of the record, and priests
and ministers condemned the Beatles from their pulpits.
You can get a sense of the visual imagery in this trailer for the Beatles' Yellow
Submarine film that was released a year and a half later, with the Beatles rescuing
Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. Check out the visuals for the "Lucy in the Sky
with Diamonds" sequence!
"She's Leaving Home" is a stunning achievement, most unusual for its narrative
interplay. The lyrics weave the points-of-view of the female protagonist, her
clueless parents, and an omniscient observer to create a powerful slice of life. The
harp is the dominant instrument! The clash between two generations is palpable.
"A Day in the Life" is the masterwork here. Many consider it the Beatles' greatest
achievement. It begins with John singing about images inspired by newspaper
stories ("I read the news today, oh boy") and blends into a middle eight sung by
Paul in a completely different key. Ambient sounds permeate this section (breaths,
an alarm clock), Finally the two disparate songs generate a titanic crescendo
culminating in a piano chord that reverberates for the better part of a minute.
Howard Goodall explains the harmonics and the labors to create this effect in his
recent documentary, which can be seen here:
"A Day in the Life" was widely viewed as a powerful statement on modern life in a
baffling, anxious world. It was seen as a consummate work of art. The record was
released at the commencement of "The Summer of Love", so it remains now an
historical document as much as a popular collection of inventive songs. I don't
think it is as beautiful as Rubber Soul or Revolver or, especially, Pet Sounds, but
I have to acknowledge it was more powerful and made much more of a state-
ment. It really was The Sixties. Every musical performer changed what they were
doing the moment they heard the album. It's like B.C. and A.D. There was before Sgt.
Pepper and there was after Sgt. Pepper. Enough said.