Fifty years ago today Sergeant Pepper told the band to play, and the Beatles did!

2017 is the year of Canada’s 150th birthday and the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s inauguration of the Reformation and, as I found out a few weeks ago, it is the 30th anniversary of the release of U2’s ‘Joshua Tree’, one of the greatest rock ’n roll albums of all time. I did go to the anniversary concert in Vancouver where they played every track uninterrupted and in order after an introductory set and a very long “encore” complete with sermon and song. Speaking of great albums, June 1 [UK] and June 2 [USA] was the release of another ground-breaking rock ‘n roll album: ‘Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ by the Beatles. And since I am a huge Beatles fan, I include some excerpts from Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s complete Beatles discography published in 1975.

“Sgt Pepper is surely the Beatles greatest technical achievement and, if hindsight reveals many of its contrivances, they weren’t apparent in June 1967, the high water mark of the psychedelic era. Where ‘Revolver’ left off, ‘Sgt Pepper’ begins: it is a stupefying collage of music, words, background noises, cryptic utterances, orchestral effects, hallucinogenic bells, farmyard sounds, dream sequences, social observations and apocalyptic vision, all masterfully blended together on a four track tape machine over nine agonizing and expensive months. Its concept formula expanded the entire horizon pop album structure, although it still boiled down to a selection of twelve songs plus a reprise of the title track. This concept, sold with the aid of its extraordinarily lavish gatefold sleeve, escalated the business of LP recording and marketing into a kind of album race with groups vying each other to see who could spend more money and take more time over their next presentation.

‘Pepper’ was the first of these spectaculars—and also the best, though its imperfections have aged badly, probably due to the overall self-consciousness with which ex-hippies now view their immediate past. But like The Bhagavad-Gita and The Lord of the Rings, it is inextricably associated with that past.”

Carr and Tyler continue with a picturesque analysis of each song. They really dig some songs, e.g. “Lennon’s ‘Mr. Kite’ again reveals John as a mischievous psychedelicatessen: cascading calliopes and celestes recapture the surreal atmosphere of the carnival.” They detest others, e.g. ‘Within You and Without You’ is described as “no more adventurous than the average soundtrack on a very average Bombay produced movie.” I agree with them that the finale, “A Day in the Life”, is a brilliant piece of musical fusion. “In origin, it was two separate songs—Lennon’s had no middle and McCartney’s had no beginning, so the two were skillfully fused together to create one of the great studio masterpieces of the era: a piece of music which has been interpreted as no less than a vision of the Day of Judgment.”

The album was the climax of the Beatles career and the turning point from a touring to a studio band. Fifty years later and mystery still surrounds Sergeant Pepper. It was so intended: the enigmatic cover, the psychedelic sounds, imaginative [drug induced?] and playful lyrics, along with new production techniques for the time. It is worthy of a 50th anniversary celebration!

 

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