Friday, June 01, 2007

It was forty years ago today

On June 1, 1967, the Beatles released their landmark work, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and in doing so changed the course of music history. Today Sgt. Pepper is remembered not so much for the quality of its songs (though it's a good set, as a whole the LP doesn't quite reach the almost impossibly high standard set by Rubber Soul and Revolver) but for its impact upon pop culture in general, and the way rock musicians regarded their work in particular.

Although over the past year or two the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and a few other acts started to expand upon the concept, for the most part in 1967 albums were seen as a collection of potential singles held together with filler. Listeners mostly bought singles, and with a handful of exceptions, radio stations saw no point in playing album tracks. With the release of Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles helped blow these perceptions wide open. The striking thing about the LP, and what a listener in 1967 would have been most impressed with, is how the songs seem to be loosely tied together by a general theme. This was arguably the first concept album. The impression one gets is that the Beatles intended for the listener to regard Sgt. Pepper as one unified work, and not as a collection of individual songs. The decision not to release singles from Sgt. Pepper seems to emphasize that impression.

Sgt. Pepper made an immediate impact upon the rock world. Brian Wilson was so blown away by hearing the album that he canceled further work on the Beach Boys' Smile project, figuring that the perfect album had already been made and there was no sense trying to top it. The Rolling Stones, the Who, and others went to work on their own grand concepts. Sgt. Pepper defined the sensibility of the rest of the 60's and 70's, as artists and listeners alike came to see rock albums as unified works in their own right. Us kids growing up in that time thought we were too cool to listen to singles, while rock artists who felt obligated to create full-blown concepts produced a number of artistic successes, along with a fair share of intriguing failures.

Although the concept is what immediately strikes the listener, the songs had to be strong enough to support the Beatles' weighty ambitions, and they do so admirably. "With a Little Help From My Friends" is one of the Beatles' best melodies. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Lovely Rita" are nice slices of psychedelia. George Harrison provides a glimpse of his future career in "Within You, Without You", while Paul McCartney whimsically muses on aging in "When I'm 64", which must have seemed a million miles away to him at the time. The entire disc is seasoned with lyrical references like "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Henry The Horse" which caused many to regard it as a sort of drug-users Bible.

The final track, "A Day In The Life", achieves and surpasses the standards the Beatles set with their earlier work, and is simply one of the greatest songs anyone, anywhere, has ever recorded. Backed by simple accompaniment, John Lennon begins by telling the story of a young man who "blew his mind out in a car / he didn't notice that the lights had changed". The music builds to a climax in the second verse as Lennon tells about a film he saw. McCartney then comes out of this section up-tempo getting up and going to work. (Originally conceived as two separate songs, Lennon and McCartney put their ideas together during recording.) Somebody speaks as Mac is having a smoke break, and Lennon provides a dreamlike atmosphere with his "ah-ah-ah"'s backed by the horn section. Picking up the tempo again, Lennon sings the last verse - now we know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. "I'd love to turn you on", John sings one last time, and the music builds to an incredible climax as a 42-piece orchestra, multitracked by producer George Martin, builds from relative quiet to a shattering finale. If you listen closely, you'll hear Ringo Starr keep on time all the way to the very end. The final note lasts 45 seconds - the microphones were turned up so high you can hear the air conditioner running in the background at the end - and secures Sgt. Pepper as a landmark of popular culture.