Wednesday, June 20, 2007


The other date was June 1st, the 40th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In Between Days, a character expatiates about hearing the album when it first came out (also his first acid trip):

"Peter began to describe how the period ushered in by Sgt. Pepper marked him for life, his memories so vividly entwined with the music: how he saw each image in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” finely etched in his mind, colored like a high Renaissance comic, the night he first tripped. “She’s Leaving Home”: there it was in a nutshell -- leaving the family womb, looking for fun, a life on one’s own -- sketched by those weird, weepy strings that made their first appearance on “Eleanor Rigby” and provided an unnerving presence in the Yellow Submarine film. “Mr. Kite,” with its eerie carnival atmosphere, as if the events described were normal occurrences in the lunatic circus tent of the psyche. “Within You, Without You,” its sitar creating a sense of transcendence in odd counterpoint to its ironic lyrics -- and to this day “Fixing a Hole” conveyed to Peter everything best about the detached bliss of drugs."

Peter speaking: “'Tod came east for our graduation and brought the acid with him, just in time for the release of Sgt. Pepper. He told us how David Crosby had played a demo of the album in an apartment house near Berkeley and blew everyone’s minds, all the neighbors grooving on what was clearly the most brilliant album ever made. The Beatles destroyed all previous assumptions about what pop music could be. And for the first time the older generation tried to grasp the attraction of this music, beginning to see rock’n’roll as a cultural form rather than simply a get-rich formula, a way of selling fads to kids.

'Funny that it should be that record -- because the hipsters knew that Sgt. Pepper was the drug culture turned commercial, a testament to the common currency of the chemical revolution. As Tod insisted: to understand where the world was going, the squares had best drop a few hits of acid and climb deep into their own skulls. That was the challenge, the test of one’s inclusion in the Movement. And Pepper was the perfect album for the first ‘experience.''"

The story Peter tells is the story of the album in its time, as I've heard it told. My own involvement with the album dates from ten years after its release. I like other albums by The Beatles better -- in fact I prefer most of the songs on Magical Mystery Tour, which is heresy because MMT isn't really an album at all but a collection of singles and a British EP, made into "an album" for U.S. release. Purists will object. Whatever. I never bought Sgt. Pepper as some kind of "concept album" anyway. The idea of doing a kind of autobiographical record, supposedly suggested by McCartney and producing the two greatest tracks of this era of Beatlesdom, "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," was eventually dropped. With CDs, it's fun to arrange a program of all the tracks from Pepper and MMT together and get something like the epic of the era. The main thing about Pepper is that The Beatles were mainly a singles (or song by song) band, but this album, even more than its predecessor Revolver, has a great feel for transitions between songs.

I do attest to the album's centrality for the legacy of The Beatles. Listening to it in my teens, high, I liked all the sinister aspects of the album, amused by the fact that The Beatles were never simply about childlike innocence. The fact that we all listened to them as children sometimes causes us to forget that. Even a song as straightforwardly sunny as "When I'm Sixty-four" has that hanging line sung with a tinge of wavering sanity, "you'll be older too..." And great lyrical touches like "It really doesn't matter if I'm wrong/ I'm right / Where I belong / I'm right / Where I belong" -- which is to say I'm correct in the correct place -- offer fine aporias. Like the double entendre of "Life goes on within you and without you." I agree with Peter that the album is "a trip." Few albums really are. And since kids are pretty much tripping all the time anyway, well, it goes altogether now.

It's getting better all the time (it couldn't get much worse)
--John Lennon / Paul McCartney, "Getting Better" (1967)

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