By Richard E. Altman
On June 1st 1967 I was still a boy of 13 in Queens, New York. Walking past the neighborhood Mays Department store that doubled for our local record store (“Every day is a sale day at Mays”), I noticed an odd-looking album cover in their window.
Odd because it looked kind of old-fashioned…and at the same time new and kind of trippy (though I’m pretty sure that was not yet an adjective in common usage, if at all). Not quite sure I would even have understood what trippy meant on June 1, 1967. The cover was populated by all sorts of dolls, wax figure likenesses and life-size cutouts of famous people, assembled around what appeared to be a grave.
It certainly looked like no other pop album cover I’d ever seen.
The album of course was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” now about to celebrate the Golden Anniversary of its release with a mega series of remixed, re-releases. When I heard it the first dozen or so times, I knew the cover was the least of this album’s oddity.
Unlike pop records that tapped into teenage angst, the heartache of a breakup or of unrequited love, Pepper spoke to me in ways my soon to be 14-year old brain was only beginning to understand. And it wasn’t just me. The album was having the same effect on people much older than me. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen…even 20-year olds were stunned by what they heard.
And musicians, from my friends in neighborhood bands (and those who wanted to be in neighborhood bands) to the pros with recording contracts and their own cadres of screaming fans (screaming fans still being in vogue), all recognized the game-changer when they heard it.
“Pepper” was it.
Soon the Stones would come out with their trippy album cover “Their Satanic Majesty’s Request” (though the disc inside was not nearly among their best);” John Fred and His Playboy Band would make the singles chart with “Judy in Disguise,” largely because the lyric was reminiscent of “Lucy in the Sky,” and Johnny Rivers would immortalize the “Summer of Love” as the “Summer of Pepper” with lyrics in his hit, “Summer Rain.”
“All summer long we spent dancing in the sand/And the juke box kept on playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
That summer of love I went to a “sleep away camp” in upstate New York. It was a “Performing Arts” camp which meant, in addition to the arts and crafts and horseback riding and raids on the girls’ bunks, we put on plays and took classes in fencing and mime and set painting and even photography. It also meant that record players were in ample supply, as were copies of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
“Pepper” was the soundtrack to the summer and by its end we knew each song by heart and, having pored over the lyrics printed on the back cover, we absorbed its nuance, its frustration, its disillusionment and in counterpoint to all that seriousness, its whimsy. Sgt. Pepper emphatically ushered out the old and heralded the arrival of the new. And we were the new.
Sgt. Pepper was a rite of passage.
I am approaching my 64th birthday now as I was approaching my 14th birthday back in the summer of ’67. I know better than to think that The Beatles were being prophetic on my account when they recorded “When I’m 64.” They were being ironic…for all of us…those who would turn 64 with them, and those who would turn 64 with me, fifty years hence. They were being wistful perhaps for the prosaic simplicity of our working class/middleclass priorities and expectations.
Yet the lyric – the story more accurately – of “When I’m 64” is not prosaic…at least not in the unromantic sense of the word. I realize that now, as I approach 64. What is more romantic than spending one’s waning years with the one you love… the one you spent all those earlier years scrimping and saving with? What is more romantic than celebrating family while bouncing grandchildren on your knee? Or going for a holiday, just the two of you, somewhere lovely but not too expensive.
So I look back on Pepper much as I do another creative rite of passage that I experienced a few months after hearing the album. That event was a book on my High School sophomore required reading list. I hated required reading lists because too often the books required were downright dreary and dull. Yet our teachers assured us they were classics…or at the very least, “important.”
The sleep-inducing nightmare book for me was “Washington Square” by Henry James. I wonder whether the book’s heroine, the rebellious Catherine, who seeks only happiness and love over her father’s better judgement, might in 1967, have been the disenchanted girl seeking happiness and love that was immortalized on Pepper’s “She’s Leaving Home.”
No surprise: the required reading book that was to be my second rite of passage was J.D. Salinger’s “the Catcher in the Rye.” I didn’t know people wrote like that. I didn’t know writing could reach inside of me so precisely and profoundly. Oh sure the school tried to ruin it by dissecting it and discussing the symbolism of the red hunting cap instead of feeling it. But I felt it. It was then that I knew that I had to write.
Ay, here’s the rub.
But for that one time in 10th grade, I have never picked up a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” and read it again. Not once. Not even tempted. Why? Because reading it the first time was like catching lightening in a bottle for me. Reading it again…with 20…30…40…50…64 year old eyes and the experiences those eyes have seen, might lessen the memory. I might find that it is not as great a read as I recall it to be. So “Catcher” remains a seminal a force in my life, pristine in my memory. My recollection of that book is I think where Salinger meant it to be…in the context and the awakening of a 14 or a 15-year old consciousness. Revered, but not re-read.
It gave me great and terrible pause back in 1980 when John Lennon was assassinated, that the one who did it — who shall go nameless — was carrying a copy of “Catcher in the Rye” as if it were his Bible. That was as close as I ever came to picking it up “Catcher” again. To see why he committed so horrific a crime. Then I realized, it didn’t matter why. The deed was done and there could be no good reason, no explanation that would ever mitigate the murderous act.
I mention this in the context of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band because unlike the book I would not re-read, I have worn through vinyl copies of the album in both mono and stereo; purchased its first CD iteration back in the late 1980s; the more recently remastered CD (as part of the grand digitally remastered Beatle box set of 2009) and now…I am staring down the prospect of getting the newly remixed, super deluxe six disc box set, complete with outtakes, new mix, stereo mix, mono mix, 5.1 surround sound mix, book, posters and a DVD documentary on the making of Sgt. Pepper.
Fifty-weeks after Sgt. Pepper was released, in May of 1968 I maneuvered myself into a press conference with John and Paul. They were announcing the formation of their own record company, their own group of companies in fact. The entity would be known as “Apple,” (which now explained the mysterious small-print credit on the back of the Sgt. Pepper album).
The “Apple” Press Conference, May 14th 1968, New York City. John looking directly down into my Kodak Instamatic camera, perhaps thinking, “what’s this kid doing here?” Photo Copyright: Richard E. Altman
I brought my copy of “Pepper” with me in hopes that they would sign the glorious gatefold sleeve picture of the band. John demurred. “Don’t start the ball rolling,” he said to me. I didn’t understand and went on to ask Paul. John said to me again, “Don’t start the ball rolling.” Now I understood. I got it…the adults were not immune. Had John or Paul signed for me, the floodgates would have opened and many — even members of the jaded New York Press corps in that room — would have stormed the Beatle barricades, pushing pads and pens at the two “for my daughter/ sister/girlfriend/wife.” Never for themselves of course, Too cool.
The ball did not roll and I never got the album signed.
Over the years as I saw the four Beatles individually, things did get signed. John signed a copy of his book of poems and short stories, “In His Own Write,” to me, adding his caricature sketch of John and Yoko to the inscription. Yoko gave me an inscribed copy of her book, “Grapefruit” with an inscription in Japanese that translates to “Even the swan for all its beauty cannot change colors against the blue of the sky or the blue of the sea.” A music book signed to me by Paul, a CD booklet from Ringo and a photograph from George round out the mementos of a misspent youth.
But I digress.
I still listen to Pepper. It doesn’t fail me. It still even surprises me. Because as is true of any great work of art, what you get out of it has largely to do with what you bring to it. Call it frame of reference…call it context…call it what you will. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is still a revelation to me.
It’s easy not to hear a familiar song or album when its playing. I mean to really hear it. We know it, we sing along with it, dance around, play air guitar or air drums…perhaps even air keyboards; We lead the band and anticipate the next track on the album. In so doing we enjoy the nostalgia of the music but miss out on what it brings to us in the here and now. Fifty years after its initial release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is still bringing it. If you listen, you can hear it.
Does “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” describe an LSD trip? We certainly thought so back in the day and many of the period’s psychedelic illustrations and artwork had some reference to “Lucy” at their core. John said, no. It was a child’s fanciful piece of artwork done by his son Julian depicting a classmate named Lucy O’Donnell. As the story goes, John asked Julian what the picture was and young Julian replied, “it’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds.”
“It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds…” Young Julian Lennon’s actual artwork that inspired his Dad to create –intentionally or otherwise — the greatest psychedelic anthem of the 1960s.
Sadly, Lucy Vodden nee O’Donnell died of Lupus in 2009 at the age of 46. But her place in music history is secure even if we still debate John’s claim of coincidence in the song’s LSD acronym. Hell, historians are still discussing who modeled for the Mona Lisa. One of the great things about great art is it provokes interest, inquiry and discussion. Sometimes, it even marshals a bit of social change.
For the purposes of Sgt. Pepper, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the start of the journey we’re about to take across two sides of vinyl, with all the fun house, tunnel of love distortions that life throws at us captured in its grooves.
So in the end, what made, or rather what makes Pepper, “Pepper?”
It can be summed up by the album’s final track: “A Day in the Life.”
The album carries us through the days in many lives, as The Beatles’ fictional band introduces us to the singer Billy Shears who gets through life with a little help from his friends (don’t we all?) and the indecorously diamonded (and possibly psychedelic) high-flying Lucy.
Next comes the admittedly optimistic assessment of our personal evolution; a look at how we live our life; treat others and the general state of our humanity. It’s a yin/ yang self-appraisal: “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better, getting better all the time (it can’t get much worse).”
On to do battle with the everyday banalities…Fixing a hole from whence distractions rain –other people and other things — that keep us from focusing on what’s really important in life. Let those people – the ones who have their opinions of me and everything else; who protest and “disagree” ad nauseum “but never win,” think their thoughts. For better or worse and whether they like it or not, “I’m right where I belong.”
Why did Pepper resonate so strongly with a 14-year old and still have something powerful to say to 18- or 20- year olds back in ’67? The answer may well be found in “She’s Leaving Home.” Wrenching for daughter and parents alike but as inevitable as day into night, here is the family navigating change as their child seizes her adulthood and departs without a word, save for a letter of farewell “she hoped would say more.”
Will these parents be the couple doting on each other at 64? Will this girl who left home to find herself ever find her way back? Will she be the one who brings Vera, Chuck and Dave to visit their grandparents? In the old days of vinyl, you had to stay tuned to side 2.
We are told that our departing girl is among other things seeking a little fun in her new life. What better place to find fun than in a circus…a carnival…a sideshow “on trampoline,” no less. Historically we know that this Lennon lyric — “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite — is a bit of found poetry, with much of the lines cribbed from an actual Carney poster. Still it provides a needed moment of frivolity (if not quite joy) following the sobering subject of the previous track.
As a kind of footnote to the finished album, the Pepper sessions included two other seminal Beatle songs that were not included on the final album. Rather, they were rushed to market as a “Double-A-Sided” single, meaning both sides were chart climbers, presumably to slake consumer demand for new product while the masterwork was being created. The “45” in question was “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Both songs were a nostalgic, quaint and offer poignant reminiscences of the Beatles’ boyhood haunts in Liverpool.
Ironically, had “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields” been integrated on to the album – without having to displace any other track (unlikely, given the constraints of vinyl in 1967), Pepper’s literary cousin might be Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” with Liverpool (and a dash of London) standing in for the mythical Grover’s Corners.
The strains of George’s sitar on “Within You Without You” no longer seem strange or foreign to me…they belong right where they are. And George’s lyrical power within his own canon, remains unsurpassed on that song. It is a haunting plaintive paean to our relationship with our self and with others; our place in the universe and the understanding of our own mortality.
One of the beauties of The Beatles music was that regardless of how big they got, how iconic they became, they never outgrew or forgot their working class, lower middle class upbringing in a country that is ever so class conscious. MBE awards, subsequent knighthoods (well, one anyhow) and even an International Airport (another one-off honor) bear witness to their cross-class appeal.
The Beatles posing with their Madame Tussaud selves in London. They would reunite with their wax dopplegangers on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” as they bid adieu to their “mop top” image.
During The Beatles Royal Command Performance back in 1963 John sheepishly asked “the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands and the rest of you, if just rattle your jewelry…”
So it is the next two songs celebrate – no not celebrate, chronicle is more apt – the lives of people not born to the entitlement of upper class society, nor embraced by them based on achievement (as The Beatles were and are).
Hittin’ on the meter maid…Good, solid working class girl. Affecting good manners and propriety to get her to agree to “take some tea” only to stick her with the bill. Like the man in “Norwegian Wood” from a year and a half earlier, she’s working, he apparently is not. No middle class, “man pays the check” mores in play here. Lovely Rita picks up the tab for dinner. In Rita’s world, is this the cost of getting a man in her life?
“Took her home, I nearly made it…” Does she still live at home with her parents? Does she have a curfew, only slightly missed? “That’s OK…Meet the family. These are Rita’s sisters…”
Or does she room with her sisters in their own flat with all the personal freedoms that may entail. In which case “I nearly made it, sitting on the sofa with a sister or two” can easily conjure an image of an almost orgy. Rorschach do your worst.
From a Meter Maid to what sounds like the more exciting day in the life of a policeman, perhaps a Doctor or an EMT. Still it devolves into dull routine and boring blather. The meaningless, perfunctory, parroted salutations, “Good Morning, Good Morning,” are underscored by a soundtrack of barnyard greetings of no particular meaning…to us at least. Do we really mean “I wish you a good morning,” any more than we give a damn whether God blesses you or not after a sneeze?
It’s just auto-response…convention without conviction.
Jaded by the repetition of impersonal life and death, our police or medical first responder assess the situation and matter-of-factly resigns the play. “He’s dead…nothing to do now but to “call the wife in” to cry over her deceased husband. Business to them, but it’s sure as hell personal to her. Standing awkwardly in the background or perhaps even stepping out of the room to give this newly minted widow some privacy, the small-talk begins…One Doc to another…or one Cop to another…“how’s your boy been.”
On goes the day…desperate for something to make it seem worthwhile. Going by the old school…To what end? Gonna relive past glories? Think of passions and ideals long since strangled? Or simply wonder how it all went so wrong, so quickly. Suddenly the work day ends and life begins anew. Work is not my life. It’s what I do to pay for my life. Suddenly it’s great to be alive…to have fun. To have purpose…even if that purpose is no greater than giving someone the time of day.
The Sgt.’s band is back center stage and the clipped countdown commences… “1-2-3-4” cues that great thumpin’ kick bass and snare beat…The show is over…time to go…hope you had the splendid time we promised. “Get home safe…” Ah but wait…life again intrudes…reminds us that even when we’re having fun or just going about our mundane, every day business, events can change in a millisecond.
The critical seamlessly melds with the trivial…a man dies in a traffic accident because he was not paying attention…was he “somebody?” The story is followed by an inventory count, a survey of municipal potholes. How bad are the roads in Blackburn Lancashire? 4,000 holes by golly…enough to fill the Albert Hall. Another “real world” measurement equivalency the media condescendingly uses for those of us too dense to figure it out any other way. The Brits have “Albert Hall,” we’ve got the number of “football fields” as our dumbed-down yardstick.
Finally the crashing discordant crescendo of the piano brings a finality to this day in the life…this album in the lives. In the end, no one gets to finish out the day. Or to quote George, “Life flows on within you…and without you.” And all that is left is the squeak of the piano bench in studio two at Abbey Road.
The power of Pepper remains 50-years on, partly because boomers are nostalgic and have the bucks to shell out for another copy of an album they already have. But also because it speaks of life’s timeless truths and the human experience, wherever one is now.
And so as I approach 64, the reality of being needed or being irrelevant; of being a relic of a bygone era or a still vital contributor, weighs heavily at times.
Whether we’re deconstructing Pepper, aligning and exploring its messages, or re-mixing the sacred tapes made 50-years ago on a four track tape recorder into 5.1 surround sound, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stands as a musical milestone that revolutionized the concept and expanded the canvas of what a pop or rock or jazz or blues album could be. Significantly, it remains a cultural touchstone as multiple generations (especially mine) come to terms with their frustrations with how the previous generation (or the following generation) sold out or screwed things up.
Does the Sgt. catch the kids before they fall? Sometimes I suppose he does. For me the Sgt. sounded reveille. It was an awakening. And it was a revelation, Like that book I won’t re-read.
The Pepper in the Rye.