It has been 50 years since the Beatles released their iconic “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, a recording that changed modern music and inspired a generation. If genius can be defined as something that stands the test of time and has universal appeal, “Sgt. Pepper’s” meets that definition. Half a century after it was first heard across America in early June of 1967, the Beatles’ seminal album still appeals to listeners across this nation and around the world.
I was almost 20 when the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album came to American shores. Like legions of other young people, I rushed to the record store and bought a copy on the day it was released — so long ago, and yet just yesterday. Then as now, you couldn’t judge a book by its cover, but you certainly could judge the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album by its cover. The album jacket was an eye-popping assemblage of Beatles John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr decked out in candy-colored ersatz military uniforms and surrounded by images of famous and influential people such as tragic comedian Lenny Bruce, artist Aubrey Beardsley, writer Aldous Huxley, boxer Sonny Liston, actor Marlon Brando and many more men and women, living and dead, who had contributed to the culture of the times.
The cover of“Sgt. Pepper’s” was the pinnacle of “album art” and the music was a revelation to all who heard it for the first time. The Beatles captured perfectly the mood of a time when the aroma of incense and the fragrance of marijuana mixed with the sounds of protest around the globe, especially in America. San Francisco bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had long been trippy troubadours for the hippie set, but the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” brought “psychedelic” music to a truly mass audience.
With songs like “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “When I’m 64,” “Lovely Rita, Meter Maid,” the haunting “A Day in the Life,” the surreal “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” and the title cut, the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album broke new ground in rock music and still transcends anything that has come since.
Imitation is called the sincerest form of flattery, and the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album spawned some worthy imitations. Shortly after the Beatles released their magnum opus in 1967, the Rolling Stones fired back with a “psychedelic” record album of their own, “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” complete with a color 3-D cover. The album was not nearly as good as the Beatles’ pioneering record and is not among the Stones’ best recordings, but it’s still worth a listen and the cover art is definitely worth a look.
Several other groups released memorable “psychedelic” sounds in the aftermath of “Sgt. Pepper.” The Animals’ “Love Is” was a double vinyl package released by that British group in 1968. “Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus” was a catchy and entertaining album released by the American band Spirit in 1970. “Tommy” by The Who was an impressive and unforgettable “rock opera” of the era.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was called the soundtrack for the “Summer of Love” when the burgeoning San Francisco “flower power” scene spread across the nation to hipster communities in New York, Chicago and Atlanta, and to dozens of American college towns including Athens.
But everything was not always lovely during the “Summer of Love.” The Vietnam War claimed hundreds of casualties, American and Asian, every week as protesters here at home bedeviled President Lyndon Baines Johnson with mocking chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ. How many kids did you kill today?”
Less than two weeks after “Sgt. Pepper’s” tunes sounded notes of peace to American ears, National Guard troops were called out to quell racial riots in Tampa and 300 were arrested in a similar disturbance in Cincinnati. More riots happened later in the summer of 1967 in Detroit, Newark, Atlanta and other cities.
Those of us alive when “Sgt. Pepper’s” came to America in 1967 can remember a time when music was both enlightening entertainment and a clarion call for change. “Sgt. Pepper’s” has often been imitated, but it will never be duplicated.
Athens columnist Ed Tant’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The Progressive, Astronomy Magazine and many other publications. Visti his website at www.edtant.com.