Friday, June 01, 2007

It was 40 years ago today...

On this date in 1967, EMI/Capitol Records released the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Without question, it is the most influential album of the rock and roll era, and arguably the most significant piece of Western music since Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

If you've never listened to this masterwork by the twentieth century's most important musical artist, I urge you to do so posthaste.

The Beatles began recording the album near the end of 1966. Too tired from incessant touring to even think about hitting the road again, too burned out from controversies ranging from John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" confusion to a disastrous stop in the Philippines which nearly cost the band their lives, and still by far the most popular musical act on the planet, the group decided to concentrate their efforts on recording an album of music which initially reflected their childhood memories from Liverpool, England.

The first fruits of these sessions were Lennon's achingly lovely "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane". Brilliant and far more complex than the pop music of the day, the songs were released as a 45 RPM single, quickly hitting #1 and still considered the greatest double-sided single in history.

Recording continued as the band felt free to experiment with new sounds and new approaches to pop songwriting (as well as popular drugs of the day, such as marijuana and LSD). While the Beatles toyed with their studio masterpiece, the Monkees took over the airwaves and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (with the aid of the brilliant session band known as the "Wrecking Crew") released the stunningly beautiful album Pet Sounds, which remains one of the true masterpieces of twentieth century music.

When Sgt. Pepper was released on June 1, 1967, it forever revolutionized popular culture, from the music to the artistic album cover to the thoughts, ideas, and freedom evident in the project. Music historians note that with Sgt. Pepper, popular music ceased to be music simply "to be danced to" and began to be music "to be listened to".

From the rocking intro of the title song (employing one of McCartney's all-time greatest "rock" vocals), to the brilliant simplicity of "With a Little Help from My Friends", to the psychedelic beauty of Lennon's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", to George Harrison's trip into Eastern mysticism "Within You Without You", to the dance hall memories of "When I'm 64", to the jaw-dropping experience of "A Day in the Life" (considered by many critics to be the greatest single recording of the twentieth century, and featuring perhaps the finest, most creative drumwork in rock and roll history, courtesy of Ringo Starr), and every song in between, the album is an adventure for the ears and the intellect.

If you're not a Beatles fan, you should be. If you've never listened to Sgt. Pepper, do your ears a favor and listen to it. If you've listened to it before, listen again and experience again God's great gift of music.

12 comments:

Eric said...

Unaware of the 40th anniversary, I just listened to the Sgt. Pepper's CD about half an hour ago, as I was driving home from dropping off Tara at the park and ride in Large--not far from your neck of the woods.

In my head, I'm still singing those wonderful lyrics from "A Day in the Life:"

I read the news today oh, boy
Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire
And though the holes were rather small
They had to count them all
Now they know how many holes
it takes to fill the Albert Hall

The song always makes me think back to the semester that I spent in London. I lived right across from Hyde Park. I would jog by the Royal Albert Hall five days a week. The song came to mind every single time.

Thanks for marking the anniversary. I share your fondness for the album.

Roda Zone said...

Keith...you have made a convincing argument. What do you think about the movie starring Frampton and the Bee Gees?
I always felt that Pink Floyd's "The Wall" was the most influential record I've ever heard, but you've caused me to reconsider. By the way...who the heck is Stravinsky?

Keith McIlwain said...

Stravinsky was an early twentieth century composer (Russian, I think). Rite of Spring is his masterpiece, and was very revolutionary in its day for its unusual structures, strange rhythms, and overall groundbreaking sound. Part of it is in Disney's Fanstasia, though I haven't seen that film in a while, so I can't remember the exact sequence. Stravinsky was, like the Beatles, way ahead of his time. The Rite is definitely worth a listen.

Sgt. Pepper is usually considered by critics & historians to be the best, most influential & important album ever made, though some claim Revolver or Pet Sounds should have that honor.

The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon both make the Top 40 list, but neither can really compare.

As I've said before, the Beatles mastered the album in the way that Mozart mastered opera or Beethoven the symphony. Others, like Bob Dylan or Brian Wilson, came close, but the Beatles remain at the top.

Just one man's opinion...which happens to be the correct opinion.

Eric said...

Interestingly, although Stravinsky was born in Russia, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1945. He lived in the States from 1939 until his death in 1971.

He definitely was a musical iconoclast.

Also, let's not forget that he was one of Fletch's pseudonyms: "Uh...yeah...this is Igor Stravinsky..."

By the way, may I borrow your towel? My car just hit a water buffalo?!

Roda Zone said...

Keith...you never said what you thought of the Sgt. Peppers movie with Frampton and the Bee Gees...I'm curious to know.

Keith McIlwain said...

Crap.

Frampton's OK, and I love the Bee Gees. But that movie was awful. Aerosmith's take on "Come Together" was the only decent thing about that whole project.

Roda Zone said...

Keith...thank you for affirming what I always thought about that flick. Can you give me a synopsis about what Sgt. Pepper ia about? I've listened to it many times and have it in my collection, but have never really understood the underlying theme.

Keith McIlwain said...

Essentially, it's an LSD-fueled trip into the past, led by an old band with a singer named Billy Shears. So, there are bits of older styles ("When I'm 64", "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite"), nursery rhymes ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"), and songs about the generation gap ("She's Leaving Home"), spiritual growth ("Within You Without You"), and adolescent sexual frustration ("Lovely Rita", which was also the name of my bass guitar). The album ends with an adult look back at the old days, from the view of a somewhat perverse male ("Good Morning, Good Morning") and the coup de grace, the hauntingly beautiful "A Day in the Life".

Hope this helps; what do you think its about?

Roda Zone said...

I really have no clue...All I know is that it is great music!

J. R. Miller said...

Soo.... you ike the Beatles? LOL Oh man. I remember the days when we were kids. You, Kevin, Jim, and me pretended to be the fab four. We would sing their songs all over the place. Do you remember the four of us posing for pictures in an effort to recreate different album covers? I think I have one in an old photo album somewhere...

Hey, can you help me connect two of your thoughts? Connect for me the idea of "an LSD feuled trip to the past" with the ideal that this is "God's gift." ???

Keith McIlwain said...

Well, the musical gifts of the Beatles were certainly from God. They abused their bodies with drugs, which is unfortunate. Their gifts still shone through, though, and, thankfully. Later, John Lennon got into much "harder" drugs and began down an even more dangerous path, but, again, thankfully, all four Beatles were able to get past these indiscretions of their youth (although George Harrion's tobacco smoking habit ultimately cost him his life).

In short, the musical gifts of the Beatles were from God, and were in use even while the band was abusing these gifts as well as their own bodies.

J. R. Miller said...

Fair enough brother. Thanks for filling in the blanks and clarify your post for me.