Vol. 2, Issue #10 June 8th - June 21st, 2007

Tiger Beat From Hell
By: Wilhelm Murg

Sgt. Pepper at Forty

June 1st marked the fortieth anniversary of the release of The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which is universally considered a defining recording in the history of western music. It became the soundtrack to “The Summer of Love” and made the world reconsider the boundaries of pop music, not only musically, but also in everything from packaging to audio engineering. Some call it the first “concept album,” but I’ve always disagreed that it was a concept album to start with - it’s not even a classical song cycle - but the consistency of it’s rich and imaginative production gives a feeling that such desperately different songs go together.

I was twelve when I discovered the album. What struck me was how you could actually enjoy it all the way through. Even the so-so songs, to my tender ears, like “Getting Better,” “She’s Leaving Home,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four,” were still fascinating in their arrangements. There are still moments that are breathtaking, like Paul McCartney’s yell and piano solo in the middle of “Lovely Rita,” the stillness of the opening of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and the three big highpoints; the indeterminate keyboards in “The Being for The Benefit of Mr. Kite,” the exotically spiritual “Within You Without You,” and the apocalyptic “A Day in The Life.” I once heard a tribute band, Flower Power, perform “A Day in the Life” live with the Tulsa Philharmonic, and you don’t realize how head splitting the orchestral part is until you hear it live.

However, as many graying rock critics go on about how it is the most influential rock album of all-time, I always feel a bit of outrage. I was about six when “Sgt. Pepper” was released, and I resent the idea that the “greatest” album was decided on before I even got a vote. I can’t imagine being born decades after the fact and being told such a thing. David Bowie, Willie Nelson, Pink Floyd, The Sex Pistols, Michael Jackson, Black Sabbath, Nirvana, and N.W.A. each created just as much of a revolution in their time, in their own respective genres. Even “Meet the Beatles,” the group’s first U.S. album, caused a major change in music that’s hard to eclipse, and personally, I always thought “Abbey Road” was a more interesting album.

“Sgt. Pepper” was a nostalgic album to begin with, partially inspired by images from old circus posters and dancehall tunes with it’s iconic remembrances of heroes from the past on the cover. Ironically, McCartney and Lennon’s separate takes on nostalgia, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” respectively, were recorded for the album, but they were released ahead of time on a single instead, due to pressure from Capitol Records to get new “product” out before the public.

What really keeps the album at the forefront is the nostalgia that, even if only for a few seconds, the hippies thought they were going to change the world, when in fact they couldn’t even stop the Vietnam War. The best thing anyone could hope for was that the people at the gathering of the tribes at in San Francisco’s Summer of Love would take things from that experience back to their home communities. That really didn’t happen (in fact the world seemed to get more conservative once the baby boomers “grew up.”) The whole Summer of Love experience left a lot of hippies homeless, strung-out, knocked up, and looking for a leader by the end of it all. The world seemed to go mad shortly thereafter with riots, assassinations, senseless deaths, a seemingly never-ending war, and an overall feeling of failure. Even The Beatles couldn’t keep it together in such an atmosphere. Lennon himself only had thirteen years left to live before a lunatic gunned him down in the
“Greatness,” when you are talking about aesthetics, is a popularity context, and the baby boomers out number any generation that came before or after them. The truth is that music, like all media today, is so fractured that we are literally in the twilight of the superstars. The AllMusic Guide lists over 150 subgenres of rock music alone; there is no one group, like The Beatles, that everyone is watching, and thus such an entity will probably never exist again. Even if someone releases a masterpiece that’s a hundred times more interesting than “Sgt. Pepper,” it will never have as large of an influence; there are too many channels and we each tuned to a different one. The Beatles really win by default.

Perhaps “Sgt. Pepper” is the greatest album because it holds the largest group memory, both real and false; even the young Republicans of 1967 can use the right drug, and sit back and “remember” the golden age that never really existed. I have a fuzzy memory of that summer, with the exception of some guys not going to the barber shop and a few news reports and some magazine articles, I don’t think that much of the “Love” made it back to Oklahoma. In fact little existed until the marketing of hippie chic kicked in around 1969 and 1970, once the dream was over.

So is “Sgt. Pepper” the “greatest” album ever recorded? It’s stupid to compile art in such numbered categories. It’s really, really good, it inspired a lot of people, and it’s something you ought to check out, if you haven’t already. But don’t forget about the thousands of other recording that have been released in the intervening years.

With the A.D.D. of popular culture it’s questionable whether the sixtieth anniversary will even be noticed. By that time the hippies will look like the old vaudevillians that used to go on about how the black-faced Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer to ever have lived. My only hope is that if we do celebrate the sixtieth anniversary we won’t be in another never-ending war. The fact that we’re in one now, as we celebrate the fortieth anniversary, shows how little we have bothered to learn from the sixties.

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©2007 NONCO Media, L.L.C.