Thursday, June 01, 2017

It’s Getting Better All the Time: 50 Years of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

I was probably around 12 years old when I got my first copy of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, perhaps just a little earlier.

That’s the age -- 12 -- of the protagonist in my new novel Obsessica. Have had some more readers and a couple of very nice reviews over on Amazon since the last time I brought it up over here. I’m actually in the middle of getting the ebook version together, and also have some other plans to promote it a little more going forward -- more on that soon.

I was chatting with someone about the book and stumbled into an observation about 12-year-olds. It’s an idea that might well have come from the narrator of Obsessica, who is writing as an adult about something he experienced when he was that age.

“We’re all 12, really, or thereabouts,” I said. “That is, there’s a point in there somewhere before we’ve grown up when we become who we end up being, and no matter how much we change after that we can’t really leave behind that first-finished-draft of ourselves.”

If that’s true, it matters that I was around 12 when I first listened to and loved Sgt. Pepper.

Later I would learn more about the Beatles, reading books and like many engaging in a kind of protracted study of every little detail of their history, including all things Sgt. Pepper. But well before that more intellectual engagement took place came the deep impression caused by many, many listenings back when I was a kid -- back when the record, like other things I experienced, inevitably became part of who I am.

I love the songs. All of them. And the idea. During their first few years of recording and performing, the Beatles provided a kind of template for the whole concept of a “band” (at least in the realm of popular music). Then with Sgt. Pepper they invented a fictional version of themselves to enable even greater experimentation.

They were already larger than life by then. But Sgt. Pepper was an even greater revelation -- about what the Beatles could do, and about what could be done by others, too.

In the title song, Sgt. Pepper is a character described as having “taught the band to play.” Like a mentor or muse or something. Which, of course, is what the album has served as for countless bands and musicians and people who yearn to be creative in other ways.

People talk about it being a “concept album” which it is. To me the analogue is a short story collection like Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio, Nine Stories, or What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Different episodes, different characters, different moods, all connected by common thematic threads relating a particular ethos and vision emanating from the artist.

Sgt. Pepper features a variety of characters and voices and perspectives, complemented by the many different styles -- rock, blues, music hall, psychedelic, vaudeville, classical, traditional Indian, avant-garde -- all made to fit inside so-called “pop” formats.

The variety was more than enough to stimulate my still forming brain, with the record almost feeling like one “novelty” song after another. It’s rocking and relaxing, moving and melodramatic, catchy and complex, funny and frightening.

I suppose it’s true that an impressionable 12-year-old probably experiences these things more deeply than a cynical adult. But there I was, listening to Sgt. Pepper over and again on the stereo console, ensuring that decades later I’d still be thinking these thoughts and feeling these feelings when listening again.

I’ve written here about the Beatles many times before, including telling the story of my father playing the Red and Blue albums on eight-track player that came with an old Plymouth Valiant, and going with Vera to see the Cirque du Soleil show Love, and going to see Cheap Trick perform the whole of Sgt. Pepper, also in Las Vegas.

And (I must not omit) describing the card game I invented last year called “Sgt. Pepper,” a Badugi variant. Here are the complete rules:

Pulling out my Sgt. Pepper LP today, I’m finding tucked inside a copy of the fan mag The Beatles Monthly, dated June 1987. Yes, I’m old enough to remember when it was twenty years ago today the Beatles released their album that begins with the lyric “it was twenty years ago today.”

And now it’s fifty years ago today, the LP being released in the U.K. on June 1, 1967 and in the U.S. the next day. And everyone is listening to and talking about Sgt. Pepper and acting like kids again.

And I’m setting the needle down to listen -- again -- knowing even before the orchestra starts warming up that it’s guaranteed to raise a smile.

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