I know every other music pundit in the biz will get into the act over the next few days, doing a job on the 40th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’m not much for hopping onto media bandwagons, but this one — I can’t resist. This milestone Belongs To Me, and I know I’ll just be irritated by the gushing blather that’ll be spewed on this occasion. So let me spew mine first.
First we must establish one fact: The Beatles were the greatest rock band ever. Argue otherwise all you like, you’ll never reach consensus. Another band may be closer to your heart, for one reason or another; other bands may have had more Top Ten hits or sold more units in total; “great” can be defined any way you like. This does not change the simple fact (repeat it after me): The Beatles were the greatest rock band ever. John Lennon was right; they WERE bigger than Jesus. Anyone who was conscious in 1967 can testify to that.
Whether or not Sergeant Pepper was the best album this greatest band produced is another question. We could spend the rest of our music-fan lives debating that one (and we'd have a blast doing it). But if we’re just talking in terms of impact on the music scene, it’d be hard to beat Sergeant Pepper. I was there, I can remember how mind-blowing it seemed — a quantum leap forward, in every way possible.
The cover art alone broke all the molds. The standard pop album cover of the time was still a full-color shot of the band, maybe in some kooky pose, maybe with arty lettering for the title. Now for something completely different: A crowded, colorful display with the Beatles themselves relatively small figures at the center, standing next to their own Tussaud wax models, and – wait – is that a gravesite they’re standing next to? With funeral wreaths spelling out their name, and a left-handed floral bass? What could it all mean?
As a physical object, that LP was like a Holy Grail, all of its coded references to be pored over in full 12 x 12-inch glory. (No diagram was provided to identify those figures in 1967 – it was up to you and your friends and the public library to sort it out.) In this age of computer-manipulated images, it’s startling to remember that this was a formal studio shot, with life-sized cardboard cutouts of all those famous personages propped in place behind the live artists. The Beatles were full, willing, conscious accomplices, not some hotshot designer toiling alone at a console.
What’s more, the lyrics to the songs were printed on the back cover, as if they were legitimate poetry worth reading. No major album had provided that before. Today, when even the stupidest mumbled lyrics can be found on dozens of internet sites, it’s hard to imagine how earth-shattering this was. And of course those lyrics WERE worth reading. Lennon and McCartney had been honing their craft like mad with every previous album – hard to believe it, but “Love Me Do” and “She Loves You” lay only four years in their past – but their prior outing, Revolver, contained only glimmers of the wondrous, strange things that Sergeant Pepper would contain.
Even a jolly singalong like “A Little Help From My Friends” had riddling lines like “What do you see when you turn out the light / I can’t tell you but I know it’s mine.” You also got the narrative power of John songs like “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day In the Life,” with their very pointed subtexts; the rich and specific details of Paul songs like “When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Lovely Rita” (it would be a shame to skip a single brisk syllable of “filling in a ticket in her little white book”); or, most of all, the surreal imagery of “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” or “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” Without the printed lyrics, a line like “plasticine porters with looking-glass ties” would have seemed incomprehensible, especially to us Americans. At least when we saw it written down we felt it made perfect sense.
I must stress here – this was a vinyl 33 1/3 rpm album. It was a round piece of black grooved plastic that you had to set on a turntable, to listen to the songs in sequence. I don’t know why nobody before the Beatles figured out how important this was. But this was the first rock music album that was really conceived as one piece, to be listened to as a whole. The two versions of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — hearty oom-pah band on Side 1, crunchy rock ‘n’ roll on Side 2 — were intended as a framing device; “A Day In The Life” is deliberately set afterwards, as a coda, capped with a huge orchestral chord – followed by a snippet of garbled backwards gibberish (which I can guarantee is a freaky thing to listen to late at night, in the dark).
The songs flow into one another, a shifting kaleidoscope of themes and moods and musical styles, guided by the Beatles’ gut musical instincts – which were, as usual, totally right-on. Notice how the wistful “She’s Leaving Home” gains a darker context when it’s followed by the sinister frenzy of “Mr. Kite,” ending Side 1 on an ominous note. We get up, cross the room, turn the record over; we sit back down, light up, and wait to trip out on the gauzy optimism of “Within You Without You.” It's all part of the master plan.
I still find it almost impossible to listen to these tracks out of order, even though nowadays I listen to it on CD and could skip around freely. The minute I hear the fade-out at the end of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” I’m primed for those snarky chords that lead off “Getting Better”; that jump from the woozy sitars of “Within You Without You” to the loopy music-hall strains of “When I’m Sixty-Four” is deeply satisfying to my soul.
Every song contains at least one coded drug reference; just about every song slips in at least one jab at authority, as well as some line or another advocating love and peace and harmony. These aren’t the themes of these songs; these are simply givens in the Beatles mindset — which became ipso facto the mindset of an entire generation. Sergeant Pepper carved in vinyl what had already been floating in the hipster ether; buying this album made us all part of the club.
What these songs don’t contain is autobiographical musings on the loneliness of stardom, or the pressures of life on the road, or the avaricious spending habits of ex-wives. No pontificating from the celebrity pulpit, either. (Lennon would get there soon enough.) Nope. These songs are about people who get up to go to jobs and catch buses and wait at turnstiles and drink tea and read newspapers; folks who mend roofs and dig weeds and knit sweaters, who come home for tea and meet the wife. (Except, er, for “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” – that one bears no resemblance to anyone’s reality, not unless you are a Victorian circus geek.) Weird as the package looked, it was an album that invited us to participate. In fact, the weird package forced us to participate – to study the cover art, to read the lyrics, to crack the code. To sing along when the singer sang his song.
Yes, the jaundiced John Lennon view of the world is in here – but it’s balanced by the bouncy pop faith of Paul McCartney, and on this record if no other, they hit equilibrium. It’s an astonishingly upbeat album, all things considered. Friends will help you get by. Newspaper taxis are waiting to take you away. Things are getting better all the time, the hole is getting fixed, and she’s finally leaving home and having fun. With our love we could save the world. Even when you’re sixty-four, she’ll still need you and feed you. I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay — a splendid time is guaranteed for all. And, oh yes, I’d love to turn you on.
And so they did.