Friday, June 01, 2007

It Was 40 Years Ago Today

June 1, 1967. It was the dawn of the Summer of Love. Things were simpler - sort of. Lyndon Johnson was in the White House. The Vietnam War was in full swing. The St. Louis Cardinals were on their way to the World Series, where they would take on the Boston Red Sox, in the midst of their "Impossible Dream." The Green Bay Packers had won Super Bowl I earlier in '68 - but it wasn't called "The Super Bowl" yet. My parents were enjoying life the home that they had bought just three and a half years earlier. They had one daughter and one son...and I was still about 17 months away from joining the world.

And the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The debate will always rage. Is it the greatest album ever? Some prefer Pet Sounds, or Nevermind, or The Joshua Tree. Some will say that it's not The Beatles best album, choosing the "White Album", or Revolver.

Personally, I'm a "White Album" guy, just because I think it's often too easy to pick good old Sgt. Pepper. So yeah, my favorite Beatles album is probably the "White Album" but when you come right down to it, Sgt. Pepper is the greatest album ever.

It had everything, and was ahead of its time. Brilliant album cover art? Check. Lyrics on the back? Check. A gate-fold with a picture of the band? Check. Even (in the right editions) cut out art? Check!

Of course, this is just the appetizer. Look at the cover.

Had anything like that EVER been seen before it? We won't even delve into the "Paul is dead" clues that are littered all over it. Just the sheer magnitude of it - the cut out pictures surrounding the band, flowers - the color! Little known fact: John Lennon wanted a cutout of Hitler to be in the picture, but was vetoed. Probably a good call.

Now, pick up that vinyl thing. You know - the record. Yes, it's a CD now, but it didn't initially have all of the songs in one shot. Of course, you had to turn over the record, or cassette. Here's the album order (each link opens up the songs' entry on Wikipedia):

Side One
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" – 2:04
"With a Little Help from My Friends" – 2:46
"Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" – 3:30
"Getting Better" – 2:49
"Fixing a Hole" – 2:38
"She's Leaving Home" – 3:37
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" – 2:39

Side Two
"Within You Without You" – 5:07
"When I'm Sixty-Four" – 2:37
"Lovely Rita" – 2:44
"Good Morning Good Morning" – 2:43
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)" – 1:20
"A Day in the Life" – 5:33

(All songs written by John Lennon/Paul McCartney, except "Within You Without You", which was written by George Harrison)

Imagine you've put the needle on that record for the first time. Right off the bat, you're mesmerized by the title track, with its crowd noise, horns, and acoustics, it's like few things ever heard. Here is this fictional band that you will be spending the next stretch of time with, and they will be glad to entertain you. Soon you hear perhaps the dawn of psychedelia with "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds." Check out "She's Leaving Home" with its plucking strings and harp. Then finish the first side with a trip to the circus. Unreal.

Side two kicks off with Harrison's "Within You Without You", a strange rock song for the time drawing on George's fascination with Indian themes and instruments. From that we turn to McCartney's sweet "When I'm Sixty-Four." Then following a reprise of the title track, we're smacked right in the solar plexus by the opus "A Day in the Life", which upon further study reveals that it is truly two songs - one by Lennon and the midsection by Macca. To top it off, the listener gets the remarkable combo of the orchestral noise and that final E-major chord, played on three different pianos.

In fact, if you are so inclined, read about the entire album at Wikipedia. Wikipedia has its flaws but I think you'll find hours of fascinating reading.

The album's impact on pop culture has just been amazing. Many lines from the songs are often stated today and are quite memorable. For me, I can't say the name "Rita" without that person being "lovely" or a "meter maid." Consider some others:

"I read the news today...oh boy"
"It was 20 years ago today."
"I get by with a little help from my friends"

The album has been parodied, mocked, criticized, and adored. Still everybody knows it, and when it finally hits the digital age (and it's coming soon), it will move into another generation.

Like so many other things in our culture, we take it for granted. Sometimes we have to step away and hear or see or read things as fresh as possible, thus giving them another chance. I've had to listen to The Joshua Tree again and get rid of my past feelings about it to finally appreciate it. Elton John had become a cartoon to me, but a review of his 60th birthday concert a few weeks back reminded me of his greatness - especially pre-1980. I'm sure you have examples of the same kind of thing where you had a bias, or just didn't like something for whatever reason. For many, they hate The Beatles, and Sgt. Pepper. I implore you, as we sit here on the 40th anniversary of its release, to give it a fresh listen. At that point, with a free mind, you might understand what we've all been amazed by. Even I need to hear it again from time to time because, like I said, we take it for granted.

It's going to get another listen from me today.

Happy Birthday, Sarge.

1 comment:

Sean G. Kilkelly said...

I'm also a member of the "White Album" club.