It was 40 years ago today…

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….

12 replies »

  1. I can’t tell you how often I wish we lived in a world where music could change … EVERYTHING. At this point, I wonder if it’s even possible anymore for an album to change MUSIC. When was the last time that happened – NEVERMIND? Before that, maybe U2? But even they had nothing remotely like the impact that SGT PEPPER’S did.

    What do you think is the best we could hope for? And is there a band alive right now that could accomplish it?

  2. although born after (not much, but still) this amazing album was recorded and let out into the world, it will reign as one of my favorites forever. i have argued many times over which was the better Beatle album – Sgt Pepper or Revolver? – but i will still go down saying *this* one is the best. as a child, i had an apple single of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” which just sent me over the moon with the odd lyrics (the Beatles’ lyrics of this era were just made for us kids who grew up watching sesame street every day – seemingly nonsensical, easy to remember, and fun to sing at 8 years old) my favorite song on the album, though? it has to be “Fixing a Hole”:
    “I’m fixing a hole where the rain gets in
    And stops my mind from wandering
    Where will it go”
    a simple philosophy that partially shaped my perspective on the world.
    love it and always will.

  3. I still remember every pop and skip on my sister’s copy.
    Western culture, such as it is, has become too fragmented, amorphous, and media-pillaged and infected for an album to have this kind of effect again. Heck, I’d be happy with a protest song that caught on.
    Also, right-wingers still suck.

  4. I have always said that if I were to leave snivilization with one and only one album it would be Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

    The author didn’t mention all the urban ‘myths’ (?) surrounding this alum as well, such as on the back cover where Paul is the only one NOT facing the camera (because it wasn’t Paul . . . Paul himself has said in interviews he was stuck in traffic). And of course the Billy Shears mention (Billy won a Paul lookalike contest) in the theme track. There’s plenty more (the guy holding his hand over ‘Paul’ on the front of the cover is supposedly a sign pronouncing someone as dead).

    Growing up in the 80’s I went through the typical pop and punk, but it was when I bought Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that I think I finally found my musical stride, and a few other things. 😉

  5. First, yeah I knew about the thing with Hendrix, Sam – Paul’s told that story a number of times. And I don’t need no stinkin’ radio station to tell me – I was there, dude…. 😉

    Second, all that “urban myth” stuff that Jack mentioned, belongs to the times themselves. I’m more interested here in the musical/cultural impact – couldn’t get everything in if I’d made the post ten times as long. 😉

    Third, NoOneYouKnow might be right that the culture’s too fragmented for such a galvanizing moment around a band/album/song – but he/she might be wrong, too. Hell, everybody feels so disjointed and separated, it’s human inclination to move back to the other side of the spectrum. And music is always a gathering/uniting force….

    Finally, Sam, do I see a band out there that might do something like what The Beatles did with Sgt. Pepper? I can’t name one at this moment, but it would need these characteristics:

    1) It would have to sweep in unexpectedly – and defy conventional wisdom – and create a kind of hysteria about itself – tough go, now, in our hyper-mediated climate, but I believe still possible.

    2) It would have to see its popularity not as a sign to play it safe and maximize profits, but as a signal to push itself – and its audience – toward reconceptualizing – that’s what “Pepper” is – a reconceptualizing of what a rock album could be.

    3) Its members would have to live the difficult lives that The Beatles lived (constant scrutiny, etc.) and still be able to do the work needed to produce such a ground-breaking and galvanizing work.

    Is there a living band? U2 has the talent, but I don’t know about the drive anymore as musicians. REM is over. Nirvana is gone. There’s no one else around who’s even close to the level of these bands, is there?

    So we wait to see if a band rises up. I just have a feeling about these Millenials…I believe they may have the “musical DNA” – and a mindset – that might allow such a group to emerge.

  6. There is one band with the talent and the balls, but it’s an established Xer band, not an emerging new talent: Green Day.

    I keep hoping that U2 has another moment in them, but we haven’t seen extended greatness from them since ACHTUNG BABY. There have been some extended very good moments and a few great songs (the single out now with the video of all the rock legends is the stuff of magic – if they could sustain that for an entire record it would be 5 stars out of the box). But that’s not enough. And besides, they’re old. We’d have to be talking about somebody NEW.

    Right now, the best of the new bands are people like Franz and Killers. Killers have the ambition – SAM’S TOWN was absolutely grand in its attempt, although the result wasn’t as mythic as I’m sure Flowers hoped it would be. And past that, the best bands out there are working off in “genre” styles. I can show you great in trip-hop and industrial, but that’s always going to be marginal in our current market.

    So there’s no hope. Of course, it probably looked that way in 1961, too….

  7. I agree with Sam – Green Day is the only existing band I’m aware of that could even come close, as they did with “American Idiot.”

    But Sgt. Pepper’s greatness has never been equalled, and after 40 years I’m afraid it never will be in my lifetime. It was the music itself, of course, but also so much more that is unlikely to all come together at one moment in time again. There have been similar albums in time – The Clash’s “London Calling,” and Green Day’s “Idiot,” for example, but nothing that has so completely captured the spirit of the moment.

    That’s OK by me – I’m old – but I really do feel for the kids these days.

  8. I feel like there have been times when the MUSIC was there, but the society wasn’t. Look at what U2 did with WAR, UNFORGETTABLE FIRE and JOSHUA TREE. The music to change the world was certainly there – I’m not sure any band has ever produced three in a row that exceeded that level. And they did exert some force – if you go back to the late ’80s, U2 mattered in ways no band has mattered since (including Nirvana). And look at Springsteen – he was close, but I think got scared and ran from it.

    But there’s only so much the band can do. You can’t lead them what won’t be led….