Actually, it was 50 years ago last week, but why split hairs over a major cultural happening? I am here referring to the release (in the United States — it had come out a week earlier in the United Kingdom) of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” by the Beatles.
You’d have to have been living in a cave the past half-century to know nothing about this album. Or to have been unaffected by the musical and cultural changes it sparked: it marked a revolution in studio recording techniques, popular songwriting and rock music, and was the semi-official opening of the “Summer of Love” cultural coming-out of 1967.
I was 17-about-to-turn-18 at that time and, 50 years on, I try to put myself back in that place and remember my reaction to the latest album by what had been my favorite band for the previous three-plus years. It’s hard to sort it out now, because there was so much going on in my life at that time.
High school graduation was only a few days in the future, and I hadn’t really figured out what happens next, other than I was going to college. I had a new girlfriend, and this was serious enough that marriage waited a year and three weeks in the yet-to-come (and divorce lurked in the year after). The Viet Nam War was killing off thousands of young Americans not much older than I.
By the spring of ’67, I wasn’t quite as Beatles-obsessed as I was a couple years earlier. I was growing out of teen fanhood, and my musical interests had expanded to include other forms of popular music, although they were still pretty much limited to Top 40 AM.
And the Fab Four, while still immensely popular, and becoming more creative and influential, weren’t quite as omnipresent. While they had released as many as 10 singles a year in ’64 and ’65, there were only four new 45s in ’66.
Ditto for albums: the Beatles put out five LPs in ’65, but only two the following year. When “Sgt. Pepper’s” came out in June of ”67, they hadn’t released an album since early August of the previous year.
The August ’66 release was “Revolver,” which gave us a taste of what was coming. The Beatles had ceased touring and performing that year, and devoted their energies to creating studio albums, and it showed in “Revolver” (which in turn had been presaged by ’65’s “Rubber Soul), which at the time seemed about as impactful as a pop music LP could be.
I’m not sure when I first heard the music from “Sgt. Pepper’s,” because none of the songs were released as singles contemporaneously. (Although we had had a taste of where the Fab Four was going a few months earlier, when the double-sided single “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Field Forever” was released. Those songs were supposed to be part of the album, but the record company wanted a new Beatles 45 in early ’67; plus, not including singles on the LPs had been standard practice for their record companies.)
Still, I likely heard “Sgt. Pepper’s” on AM radio. (The FM rock phenomenon had only started the year before, and hadn’t yet arrived in southern Wisconsin was barely underway at that point.) According to the Wikipedia entry on the LP, radio stations interrupted their regular programing to play the album non-stop, sometimes in its entirety; WLS-AM out of Chicago, which is what I mostly listened to back then, no doubt was one of them.
Nor am I sure when I got the album, or if I ever actually had a vinyl copy. Beatles singles and albums were Christmas presents from my parents back in the mid-60s, but that tradition had perhaps ended by the time I turned 18. Didn’t get a real stereo system until later in ’68, and didn’t buy that many albums until the year after.
I listened to friends’ copies of the LP, and of course closely studied that groundbreaking album cover. By the mid-70s, I had a reel-to-reel copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” courtesy of friends. (My wonderful wife bought me the remastered Beatles collection on CD last decade, so I have a digital version now.)
Come to think of it, I’ve probably listened to “Sgt. Pepper’s” less than “Abbey Road” or “the White Album” over the years. Which brings us to the contemporaneous critical reaction to the 1967 album, and later assessments.
Several important critics — to me, that’s an oxymoron, but that’s a topic for another day — ripped “Sgt. Pepper’s” at the time, for among other things being a lot of studio trickery and gloss covering inferior songs. Later retrospectives bash it for being the most overrated album of all time.
It was highly rated, then and more recently; as of 2012, Rolling Stone magazine still ranked it No. 1 on its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All time.” With more than 32 million copies sold worldwide, it is one of the top-selling LPs in history.
“Sgt. Pepper’s” was the first rock LP to win an Album of the Year Grammy, one of a number of such awards it claimed in 1968. Fourteen years ago, the Library of Congress placed it in the National Recording Registry, reserved for works that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
The negative critiques, and the rankings and records sales, too, perhaps miss the point, which may be underlined by the personal experiences with the album noted above. “Sgt. Pepper’s” was revolutionary musically, but it’s bigger impact was as a landmark in our culture, and a bookmark in the lives of those who lived at the time it came out.