The Beatles' influential 'Sgt. Pepper' album is a half-century old
Posted May 23
There are many things these days that remind me I’m an old codger:
Having a store clerk call me “pops” or a waitress refer to me as “dear.”
Hearing a song lyric shout “get down,” and thinking about how hard it will be to get back up again.
Being irritated by kids on my lawn. (Just kidding about this one. But, really, stay off.)
And acknowledgments of milestones that remind me I was there.
So it is with the 50th anniversary next week (June 1) of the Beatles’ seminal recording “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which will be celebrated with two new books devoted to its creation and impact, and, of course, the album itself being re-released in several editions on both CD and vinyl, with bounteous bonus features that range from unreleased alternate versions of the songs to promotional videos to T-shirts.
Fifty years? Really?
Oh, I believe in yesterday. (No, wait, that’s from an earlier album.)
Obviously, I was a big Beatles fan in the 1960s (along with everyone else in the world) and had all their records — back in the days of 33 1/3 rpm vinyl albums and 45 rpm vinyl singles (with that giant hole in the middle).
I grew up in Southern California and graduated high school in 1966, and I’ve written before about seeing the Beatles that summer in concert at Dodger Stadium, on Aug. 28 to be precise. Who knew it would turn out to be the band’s penultimate concert performance on their final tour? (The Fab Four’s last concert was held the next day at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.)
That tour was in support of the Beatles’ “Revolver” album, and we didn’t hear from them again until mid-February in 1967, when the single “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” came out.
It was their first single release since “Yellow Submarine”/“Eleanor Rigby” the previous summer, and both of those songs were also on the simultaneously released “Revolver.”
Since the Beatles had been releasing two albums each year, their next was anxiously anticipated — but “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields” came and went, and no album followed.
Fans were getting itchy.
In May 1967, I was attending Long Beach State College (before it was a university) and local radio stations began announcing that songs from the Beatles’ next album would soon be played in advance of its release. Then, one day, as I pulled into the parking lot, “A Day in the Life” began to play.
I was so fascinated that I stayed in my car and listened to the entire track — a surprising five-and-a-half minutes in length (when most songs played on the popular AM radio stations were between two and three minutes).
It was fun but not very good for my studies. When the disc jockey (as we called radio personalities back then) promised to play it again, I skipped school that day, drove over to Pacific Coast Highway and headed down to the beach to listen to my little transistor radio.
Talk about music taking you away from it all.
The rest is well-known. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a phenomenal success, of course, and became so influential that it signaled a sea change for rock ’n’ roll, from the design of the album cover to the songs, especially “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Within You Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Lovely Rita,” “A Day in the Life” and the title tune. (“Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” however, were nowhere to be heard.)
Still, despite the album’s clever conceit — that the songs are sung and played by the fictional Edwardian-era military band of the title — whether “Sgt. Pepper” is really a concept album has long been a matter of debate.
Not only is each track lyrically unique — as opposed to pushing a theme or story, like The Who’s rock opera “Tommy” does — but each song is in a different style, influenced by everything from early English music halls to carnival calliopes to Eastern mysticism to contemporary psychedelia.
Even if you don’t consider it a true concept album, however, there’s no denying that “Sgt. Pepper” certainly popularized the notion among mainstream listeners and emboldened later pop/rock musicians to experiment with the form.
So how does “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” hold up today?
Don’t ask me. I love it, but then, due to the circumstances of my initially hearing it, I’m obviously not without bias. Hey, we all have certain pieces of music that we love, more because of where we were in life when we first heard it than due to any artistic accomplishment.
And if I’m going to be completely honest, I listen to “Rubber Soul” more often than “Sgt. Pepper.” But that’s just me.
There’s no denying “Sgt. Pepper’s” place in history. And there’s no denying that it’s still a lot of fun to listen to, just as it was 50 years ago.
There’s also no denying that all of this makes me feel old.
But as I listen to the album while writing this, it also makes me feel energized.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.