On June 1, 1967, the unthinkable happened – the world was changed by a record album – a rock record album. Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by – oh, come on, you know this:
How many people can hum even two bars of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony, or Mozart’s 30th? I recently played 60 seconds of these to an audience of 700 — including many professional musicians — but not one person recognized them. Then I played a fraction of the opening “aah” of “Eleanor Rigby” and the single guitar chord that opens “A Hard Day’s Night” — and virtually everyone shouted the names.
Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know, more Boomer mewling and puking about how wonderful we had it musically. Because we did…
Most readers know the history – The Beatles spent six months in the studio (an unheard of amount of time in 1967 – recording started in the fall of 1966 after the famous “farewell to touring show” at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, CA, and continued until roughly March of 1967). The famous collage cover, conceived by Peter Blake, caused problems – Mae West, the legendary sex symbol, for example, refused to be part of the cover, asking “What would I be doing in a lonely hearts club?” (She relented after receiving handwritten letters from all four Beatles.) The album, when released, left most listeners (including this one, not quite 15 at the time) dumbstruck.
To paraphrase Samuel F.B. Morse’s famous first telegraph message, many of us wondered, what hath The Fabs wrought?
We were but to learn.
First, there was no single. NO SINGLE. In 1967. When what everybody listened to – and bought (although this pack ice was already beginning to break) were Singles. Singles were what AM radio was all about. “The Lucky 20,” the ONE HOUR PER DAY of radio devoted to “youth music” as it was called by my hometown radio station, played only singles.
And there were no singles on Sgt. Pepper. From The Beatles. Whose singles ate everybody else’s up. Whose singles were why my friends and I listened to “The $%#@#$ Lucky 20” as we usually referred to it.
So what happened?
Here’s what happened – in the night, when the great American AM stations like WABC in New York and WLS in Chicago took over the airwaves from the local stations (most of which went off the air at sundown – no, I’m not kidding) – they played cuts from the album. And they did so for subsequent Beatles albums, as well as albums by other “important artists.” So after Sgt. Pepper, playing cuts from artists’ albums became a standard practice – one that fledgling FM rock stations ran with over the next few years – and Album Oriented Rock radio was born….
Then there was the critical reception. The Times of London ran two full pages on Sgt. Pepper. Times critic Kenneth Tynan called the album, “a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization.” Critics at major newspapers all over the world joined in the effusion, Geoffrey Stokes of Village Voice proclaiming that “listening to Sgt. Pepper album one thinks not just of the history of popular music, but of the history of this century.”
And as for the music “establishment”: Sgt. Pepper was the first rock album to win the Grammy as “Album of the Year.”
Everybody joined in heaping praise on the record – Allan Ginsburg gave talks in which he explicated the song titles as if they were a poem; Timothy Leary used the album as the “text” for talks with college students in which he claimed that the album was an artistic expression of his mantra, “Turn on, Tune in, Drop Out.” Oral Roberts warned his flock of true believers that The Beatles were, to quote John Lennon from A Hard Day’s Night, “leading this country to galloping ruin.”
It was crazy, in other words. Even in my little hometown in the American South, everywhere you went, kids were playing Sgt. Pepper. We knew something new had happened. How? Don’t know. But we knew….
Daniel J. Levitan, psychologist and music professor at McGill University, in a commentary in the Washington Post, seeks to explain why, both scientifically – and aesthetically:
To a neuroscientist, the longevity of the Beatles can be explained by the fact that their music created subtle and rewarding schematic violations of popular musical forms, causing a symphony of neural firings from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex, joined by a chorus of the limbic system and an ostinato from the brainstem.
To a musician, each hearing showcases nuances not heard before, details of arrangement and intricacy that reveal themselves across hundreds or thousands of performances and listenings.
Levitan also makes this point:
Great songs seem as though they’ve always existed, that they weren’t written by anyone. Figuring out why some songs and not others stick in our heads, and why we can enjoy certain songs across a lifetime, is the work not just of composers but also of psychologists and neuroscientists. Every culture has its own music, every music its own set of rules. Great songs activate deep-rooted neural networks in our brains that encode the rules and syntax of our culture’s music. Through a lifetime of listening, we learn what is essentially a complex calculation of statistical probabilities (instantiated as neural firings) of what chord is likely to follow what chord and how melodies are formed.
If you by some wild mischance don’t know Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, you should. Maybe it’ll say to you what it’s said to so many of us:
With our love-we could save the world – if they only knew.
Try to realize it’s all within yourself
No one else can make you change
And to see you’re really only very small,
And life flows ON within you and without you.
It could get better all the time….