It's inevitable. A quarter century has come and gone, and a once-valued LP gathers metaphorical dust.
The more time passes, it seems, the harder it is to hear it. It's not just wear and tear on the grooves, mind you. It's a problem with the music, so it appears, or the artwork or packaging or something...you're not quite sure what. Once hailed as a groundbreaker, it now looks...well, a little dim. If you're a card-carrying member of the sixties generation, you may be loathe to admit that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" doesn't seem so bright anymore. If you're a younger Beatles fan, you may wonder what all the fuss was about. Isn't "Revolver" clearly superior?
Maybe after so many years, you begin to wonder whether history has played some kind of trick. The questions and doubts keep emerging, and if you don't ask them yourself then someone---maybe your own child---is bound to ask *you*. Where is its fabled genius? Why does it fail to stand as a "concept album" after all these years? Why, to some ears, has the LP lost its luster? Have our very memories been altered?
First, a parable.
Back in the sixties I had a friend who hated her parents. Heavens, *how* she hated her parents. And to pay them back for all her years of heartache and frustration---for all the imagined/real transgressions they had committed against her very soul---she announced one day that she intended to become a drug casualty. She would transform herself from an A-student in her senior class, and a traditional Good Girl who wore sweater sets and penny loafers and never once talked back to anyone, to an acid-head. She announced her intention to start with LSD and work her way downward from that. No matter how we tried to dissuade her, to suggest that there might be other alternatives---even leaving home was safer than the rocky unknowns of hallucinogenics---she would have none of our warnings. She did what she said she would do, and from the day of her first trip she was like a different person... she *was* a different person, with a new name and a new, vacant stare to match. Not many of her trips were visionary, alas; but seeing new vistas had never been her intent.
It's struck me over the years that the Beatles made a similar attack on their past with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and if you want to call *that* the concept of the album, it's a reasonable thesis. Otherwise "Sgt. Pepper's" is hardly a concept album in the classic sense. That sense seems to require works of this category to provide a linking theme from song to song, much the way The Kinks' "Face To Face" (1966) did---a series of ditties about the rough life of being a rock star. Rock historians often give Ray Davies the nod for creating the first concept album, outside of soundtracks and theater music which by nature tell a tale (and by the look of things, The Kinks may hold the record for the most concept-albums ever!)
"Sgt. Pepper's", or whatever album it was once intended to be, had had, at one time, a true concept-album framework, back when "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever" were newly on the drawing board. The idea was to make an LP that would explore the Beatles' past---specifically Lennon and McCartney's childhood and young adult experiences in Liverpool. But once the two prime songs were lifted and released as singles (to meet Christmas scheduling) in November 1966, the focus of the LP was altered.
True, the songs that *do* exist on the album are bracketed by the Boys' collective alter ego, the Lonely Hearts Club Band of the title. But those fantastical fellows had precious little presence in the heart of the LP. If you're looking for any thread on which to hang your concept-theory, I suppose it could reflect the inner workings of a middle-class chap---a man who can't get along without his friends' help, whose cheery optimism admits it couldn't get much worse, who lusts after the distant Rita and has nothing to say (but it's okay).
But not everything fits. Such a guy would never have tangerine dreams, nor find Eastern mysticism in his soul, nor speak in the arcane lingo of Mr. Kite and crew, nor woo a working-class lass with quaint visions of an Isle of Wight holiday (if it's not too dear). The various personae of the songs do not add up to a coherent whole.
And after more than twenty-five years of concept albums as a genre---with great technological and audiophonic leaps into new atmospheric realms--- it must be rather hard to understand what all the hoopla was about re: the good Sgt. and his band. Rock and roll history is an accelerated time line, and what seemed innovative just last year could seem entirely passe now. An event twenty-five years ago is more or less ancient history!
Maybe we're concentrating too much on the classic definition (whatever it is) of the concept album, and judging "Sgt. Pepper's" by standards that are inappropriate. Even Lennon himself was dismayed at this appellation: "`Sgt. Pepper' is called the first concept album, but it doesn't go anywhere...." (Playboy Interviews, 1980).
My feeling is that what the Beatles were trying to do with "Sgt. Pepper" was analogous to what my friend tried to do with her life: wrench it from one gear into another, abruptly, to make a point to those who would not listen. The majority of fans wouldn't listen to the Beatles, who'd been dropping hints for several LPs that major personal changes were afoot. It took something like "Sgt. Pepper's" to bring *us* up short.
This was a true revolutionary act, perpetuated by a group that had, for four years already, been wrapped up in the cycle of pop-star phenomena, but whose artistry belied its image. This was a serious move. Musicians at the height of their fame (or one of their heights) deciding not to tour anymore (though they didn't tell us that in so many words)---that took great courage! And it also took initiative to invent for themselves new images that had nothing to do with the Beatles, to mock their former selves on their album cover. The pop ideal was all holy to Brian Epstein; but it was yesterday's papers to the four former moptops, who needed to move beyond their haircuts.
More than just another Beatles LP (which, it has been argued, is not up to the musical standards of the two preceding it), "Sgt. Pepper" was an expression---almost a battle-cry---of change. It was less an innovation than a popularizer of transformation. And during 1967 there was a fair amount of transforming going on, the seeds of which had been sown a year or more earlier in music and images from the American west coast.
True, "Sgt. Pepper" was the Boys' most technologically-advanced work for its time...but unless you read Lewisohn's gloss page by page, who is likely to hear its innovation? Four-track recording seems, in retrospect, fairly primitive; and peculiar one-time studio tricks, like knitting animal noises together or throwing tape fragments into the air, hardly became industry standards. :-)
The real trick, for a newcomer to the album, is understanding its importance in context, in its time. Great art, I've heard it argued, should transcend its era, should communicate its message by substance alone. That's all very well, but I don't see many people these days reading "King Lear" without footnotes. :-) I suppose we've almost reached a point where "Sgt. Pepper" needs its own glossary, where a vocabulary of context is essential. Otherwise it's too easy to dismiss the LP only on the basis of its songs. To each his/her own, of course; frankly, I find Paul's songwriting contributions (not his production or conceptual vision!) less compelling here than John's incisive, media-based irony. But that's not all there is to "Sgt. Pepper"!
Maybe a current-day listener---someone who wasn't there when it made its debut---could access its hidden artistic code by experiencing some of the wonder of its birth. Or an older listener---a person who can recall what the world was like when "Sgt. Pepper" appeared---can rebuild that former awe. For there was once awe a-plenty. Contemporary artists in 1967---musicians, painters, writers---found the album complex, visionary...an expression of a modern-day renaissance. It stopped the creative hand of at least one prominent surf-pop songwriter, who despaired of ever reaching similar heights. It caused the pop music world to slow and cease its spin. For when the LP came forth---when it appeared at midnight on June 1st on radio stations around the world, when people snapped open the cellophane and set vinyl to stylus---during those seminal moments of play, that first hearing, there was no other sound but this one.
All this is still a part of the phenomenology of "Sgt. Pepper". You might not have any luck perceiving it if you listen to the songs alone... and arguably that's a failing, if you maintain the music should carry the totality of possible experience. But IMHO that's asking too much of the music. :-)
The world changed when it heard this album, and you need some of that erstwhile world in your head to hear it fully. That's not an indication of artistic weakness, but rather a tribute to its complexity. This was a special offering from the Fabs. "Sgt. Pepper" is an amalgam of their world and ours in the midst of revolution. As such, it's a collection of songs different from the Boys' previous greats---songs like "She Loves You", "A Hard Day's Night", "Norwegian Wood" (pick your own favorites), which (one fervently hopes) will stand the test of time. "Sgt. Pepper" stands *for* its time. It's a reaction *to* change and a catalyst *for* change, influenced by as well as influencing the cultural and sociological upheavals of the sixties. That's no small achievement.
For those of you who can't recall that era firsthand, you might enjoy a perusal of Derek Taylor's "It Was Twenty Years Ago Today", in book form or BBC video documentary. Twenty years, twenty-five years...hell, it's a milestone, no matter how you look at it. :-) And whether you *were* a sixties survivor or nowadays just travel there as a tourist, it's nice to refresh your sense of that historic time.
But for those of you who have retained it all---who remember revolution in the air---just one simple listening may do it. Make sure the lights are dim; don't answer the phone. Take your choice: vinyl or CD, mono or stereo. Sit down and let the album do its work. Let your memories do the rest.
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