Couldn’t they leave well enough alone? Do the Beatles need any more money? Isn’t Capitol/Universal flush enough? How dare they mess with our memories.
Assuming you were there the first time around, when “Sgt. Pepper” engrossed us and changed our perceptions of what was and what could be.
That’s right, it was 1967. Almost nobody was buying albums! It was still a singles world, dominated by AM radio, within the year underground FM radio would start in San Francisco, but FM didn’t penetrate the heartland for nearly five years, maybe more. The point being, “Sgt. Pepper” was a REVOLUTION!
It was not on the radio, because there were no singles. As for the two prior LPs, “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver,” their UK iterations had hits, the material was darker, more expansive than what had come before, but it wasn’t all of a piece, it didn’t all hang together, “Sgt. Pepper” came from outer space, it was unexpected.
And word did not spread immediately. What I hate is the rewrites of history. Like the Beatles were successful because they were a respite from JFK. NO! The Beatles would have been successful at any time, because they were just that damn good, furthermore the youth were bursting at the seams, to break the walls of control of their parents. To say it had to do with JFK is like intimating that Michael Jordan was so damn good because Bill Clinton became President, huh?
As for the remix… It’s great that gems come out of the vaults, not that anybody listens to those double-CD Beatles packages from decades back, only collectors and uber-fans, but when you mess with the essence… Hell, they still can’t agree whether Roger Maris broke the home run record, since he played in 162 games instead of Babe Ruth’s 154, and then the steroid-enhanced brutes topped that and no one even talks about home run records anymore, that’s what happens when you can’t agree on the rules, when you mess with the rules, which is what’s so great about music, it’s laid down and that’s it. The creator dies but their records live on. Come on, listen to some Buddy Holly, he’s still alive on wax, he’s an inspiration.
So “Sgt. Pepper” comes out and a small fraction of Beatle fans buy it. And back then sales were anemic compared to the MTV/CD era, people had less money, they depended upon the radio. So when you bought the LP, you were a party of one. It’s like watching “Game Of Thrones” if it weren’t on HBO and you’d never seen an episode previously and there was no internet. You’d tell the people you came in contact with, but getting someone to buy an LP unheard is nearly impossible, and when you play something for somebody they usually don’t get it, you’ve got to marinate in it yourself, bask in the tunes, let them unfold.
Now of course there was the cover. And sure, there were a bunch of personages on it, but that wasn’t the story, that was the ERA! Of pop art, of minimalist art, of black lights and psychedelia. Art was the fashion of the era, and it wasn’t about sales/money, it was about testing limits and the Beatles were part of it and wanted to push the envelope. So sure, you looked at who was depicted, but you were even more impressed by the fact that the Beatles were playing a role. Only a few years before there were no gatefold albums, there was only a picture on the cover and an inner sleeve promoting other acts on the label. The Beatles had taken over the complete package, they were standing apart, that was what was so confounding and influential, it’s like they resigned from the game to create a new game. And for all those who prefer “Abbey Road” or the White Album, you have to know, they were nowhere near the artistic breakthrough, they were song collections, “Sgt. Pepper” changed the course of history, suddenly everybody else wanted to make an album-length statement, hell, everybody wants to make an album-length statement to this day, BECAUSE OF SGT. PEPPER!
So what exactly was this? The Beatles or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?
And the opener, the title cut, rocked in a way the band usually did not. This was long before heavy metal, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and eventually Black Sabbath and Metallica. This was uncharacteristic, but in the pocket. This was Paul exhorting like he used to when he imitated Little Richard, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” hearkened both forward and backward, and you never ever heard it on the radio, never.
As for “With A Little Help From My Friends”… Ringo needed friends? It was the insecurity that resonated. How he just needed someone to love.
And then “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”… No one even knew what LSD was, this was before every young American read Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” All we knew was this was a dreamy song sung by the most emotive Beatle, who always seemed to believe what he was singing, and it made you want to drop out and join the circus. Never forget, the Beatles caused kids to question all their precepts, to jump the tracks, no Beatles, no San Francisco and Summer of Love.
I used to get mad at my school
The teachers that taught me weren’t cool
They’re holding me down
Turning me ’round
Filling me up with your rules
HUH? Only scant years before the Beach Boys were singing we should be true to our school, we got no truth in popular culture, and suddenly the Beatles were singing what we felt inside, calling a spade to spade, with optimism underneath. There’s the sixties right there, the younger generation thought about the possibilities, it wasn’t millennials saying they’re mired in debt and they’ve got no future, the world was our oyster!
As for “Fixing A Hole”… How many times did you have to listen, to contemplate the lyrics, this wasn’t a straightforward ditty, this was a vision from beyond, a place where you wanted to go, where you questioned EVERYTHING!
And leaving home… We were misunderstood, people were voyaging from the homestead in droves. Your parents weren’t your best friends, they didn’t get you, you wanted to cast off the reins.
“Mr. Kite” was part of the concept, ethereal and otherworldly, the words and changes resonated.
As for “Within You Without You,” if you got it immediately, you’re lying. But if it was on a Beatles album it deserved our trust, we had to listen, we had to unpack it, we had to get it. And sure, some boomers were old, in their early twenties, but most were just teens, this Eastern philosophy was new to them, they knew the Beatles had gone to India, they wanted to know what it was all about.
But they never thought they’d be 64, they just listened and bopped their head.
But you fell in love with Lovely Rita, were woken up by the rooster in “Good Morning Good Morning” and after the reprise, which was brief but even more energetic than the original opening anthem, you were forced to contemplate at length how many holes it took to fill the Albert Hall.
WHAT WAS THAT?
No one listened to “Sgt. Pepper” and immediately pronounced it a classic, it was just too different. But because funds were limited, you flipped the record over and played it again and again until it revealed itself. AND IT DID! There were no clunkers, you developed favorites, you learned the lyrics, and you started to break away from the paradigm, you were no longer a slave to the radio, you’d been set free.
Hell, it wasn’t until the White Album that the paradigm permeated the public at large, when everybody bought the double LP not caring whether there was airplay or not, but they’d been primed by “Sgt. Pepper” and the cascade of imitators. And everybody seems to forget that the White Album cover was, white that is, as a rebellion against overspending on artwork, the music had to speak for itself. That’s right, the Beatles were innovators, testing limits, not doing market research afraid of pissing off potential customers. They didn’t come to you, YOU CAME TO THEM!
But now they’re coming to us. With this inane remix.
It’s just not the same. It’s not like “Sgt. Pepper” wasn’t released in stereo to begin with. And it was the wash of sound that knocked you down and overwhelmed you. It wasn’t about the individual voices or instruments, but the entire passion play you were exposed to.
Fifty years ago.
I kinda get anniversaries, not that the Beatles, or “Sgt. Pepper,” have been forgotten.
But in this era of streaming the focus on the original would have been good enough. A few minutes with the remix and you’re offended and tune out. As for the extras, you can’t even listen through, they’re curios. But when you put on the original LP, you’re brought back to what once was.
When music was the hottest art form in the world.
Practiced by men secure in their abilities and vision.
Who decided to push the envelope, creating the modern music business in their wake.
That’s how it was, don’t let them rewrite history.