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Friday, June 2, 2017

It was 50 years ago today

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the American release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This significant anniversary got me to thinking about my own relationship with this album.

Pepper is an album I don't listen to that much anymore, and when I recently wrote a list of my favorite Beatles albums*--a challenge issued by Bill and Brian of  The Great Albums podcast (check it out if you've never heard it, it's a good podcast), I had Pepper at number seven of the 13 Beatles studio albums. This isn't to say that Pepper is a bad album--not at all. (I mean, come on, it's the Beatles for chrissakes!) It's just far from my favorite album by the Fab Four.

However, there is a time when it was about the only Beatles album I knew. If you want to put a fine point on it, and if anyone out there really cares, Rubber Soul was the first Beatles album I remember listening to straight through. That's because my older cousin Suzy went through a heavy "Beatles phase" in about 1979. Almost every summer, I'd spend a few weeks at my aunt and uncle's house in the U.P. of Michigan, and I remember my cousin listening to Rubber Soul every night before going to bed. And the reason I remember this is because Suzy had the largest bedroom in the house with twin beds, so I slept in the same room and was also lulled to sleep by Rubber Soul every night for two weeks in the summer of '79 (ish).

Sorry for that digression. Back to Pepper. As just about everyone (over the age of 40) knows, John Lennon was murdered in December 1980. I have often indicated that whenever a famous musician dies, I inevitably take the deep dive into that individual's back catalog (it just happened last week with Chris Cornell). I'd say this tendency began in December 1980. With the outpouring of grief over the loss of Lennon, I became interested in the Beatles. I had no Beatles records of my own, but my parents had two: the VeeJay single of "Do You Want to Know a Secret" b/w "Thank You Girl" (to this day, I have no idea why they owned that particular single. I need to ask them) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

My parents were fairly young when they had me in March 1968 (mom was 22, dad was 21), so they came of age in the rock 'n' roll milieu of the 1960s. However, neither one were particularly big Beatles fans, My dad told me that, as a kid from the largely blue collar "downriver" area of the Detroit suburbs, he was more into the gritty sound of the Animals and the Rolling Stones (as well as a soft spot for the squeaky clean folk of the Kingston Trio and Chad Mitchell Trio). My mom was from Rosedale Park in Detroit, and had grown up listening to a fair amount of classical, jazz, the Motown sound, Johnny Mathis, and the Beach Boys. She was 19 when the Beatles invaded America in 1964 and she viewed them somewhat disdainfully as "teen fluff." This all changed in early 1967 when the Beatles came out of their "post-touring days hibernation" as finally looking like grown-ass men with facial hair (!) and a mature sound exemplified by "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." My mom decided that she really wanted the new Beatles album as soon as it was released, and my dad obliged by presenting Pepper to her as a 22nd birthday present in June 1967.

My mom's copy of Sgt. Pepper, now in my possession.

It was this very copy of Pepper that I would obsessively listen to 13 years later. In those early days I have to admit I confused the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. For some reason, I thought that McCartney sang "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and Lennon was the voice of such songs as "When I'm 64" and "Lovely Rita." I don't know when I sorted that out, but I don't think it took too long. Then there was the music itself, unlike any music being produced in 1980/1981 to my ears. Pepper was a little world unto itself, from the orchestra warming up--only to be interrupted and superseded by electric guitars--and then onto the idiosyncratic, peculiarly and exotically psychedelically-tinged Victorian/Edwardian England of "Billy Shears" (Ringo Starr) singing "With a Little Help From My Friends," the Lewis Carroll-esque "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "When I'm 64," "She's Leaving Home," "Lovely Rita,"and "Good Morning Good Morning." The album closer "A Day In the Life" haunted me then and still--to a lesser extent--haunts me today. Of course, could I have intellectualized all of this at age 12 or 13. Probably not. I just knew that Pepper was a strange and magical record.

I can remember nights when my parents would go out and leave me along with my younger brother. This meant that I had free reign of their circa 1960 Motorola console stereo, and was free to listen to records. I'd put Pepper on and pour over the equally colorful and exotic album cover. Many of the faces I couldn't identify but would learn their identities in the following years. The lyrics are on the back cover, superimposed over a photo of John, George, and Ringo facing forward with Paul's back to the camera (as if Paul is about to conduct the band). "Late of Pablo Fanques' fair," "Henry the Horse dances the waltz," "Meeting a man from the motor trade," "He blew his mind out in a car." All sorts of strange word puzzles for this kid--yours truly--to work out in his head.

As I mentioned earlier, Pepper doesn't have the same resonance for me as it did 37 years ago. In my early college years, I took the deep dive into the Beatles' catalog and discovered that Pepper was not my favorite of their albums. Perhaps it is the most culturally significant of their records, but it comes off today as a bit more style than substance. (Having said that, "A Day in the Life" is an absolute masterpiece and is powerful now as it was in 1967). Rubber Soul, Revolver, "The White Album," and Abbey Road are greater artistic achievements. But Pepper is still an enjoyable album to revisit from time to time, and I wish it a fond 50th birthday.

*Here's the list I compiled on December 15, 2016. Ranking of the Beatles' 13 British studio albums.

1. Revolver
2. "The White Album"
3. Rubber Soul
4. Abbey Road
5. Magical Mystery Tour
6. A Hard Day's Night
7. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
8. Help!
9. Beatles for Sale
10, Please Please Me
11. With the Beatles
12. Let It Be
13. Yellow Submarine

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