By Jay Jay French
JUNE 2, 1967.
It was 50 years ago that day, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…
In Beatle history, as it specifically regards my peers in the U.S., our world changed on February 9, 1964 when The Beatles performed on Ed Sullivan. That date was the Big Bang of pop music, pop culture and, more specifically, guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll bands.
There, however, remains a date in Beatle history that, in some ways, was even bigger and more influential. It was the June 2, 1967 date, the day that “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released in the U.S. (it was June 1 in the U.K.).
As amazing and unbelievable as it is for me to write this, we are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the most ambitious and groundbreaking pop musical journey ever put on vinyl — and know that I am, in fact, 64.
To me and many Beatle ologists, “Sgt. Pepper” was the final statement in a “middle period” trilogy of Beatles releases that pushed the very limits of what was considered pop music.
The transformation began December 1965 with the release of “Rubber Soul,” followed eight months later with “Revolver,” and peaked a mere 10 months after that with the release of “Sgt. Pepper.”
It’s important to note that it has become fashionable of late for some critics to elevate “Revolver” to the “Greatest Beatle Album Ever” and, in the process, dismiss “Sgt. Pepper” as some kind of overblown and pretentious experiment.
I love “Revolver.” There is much to admire about the songs and recording technique, but… to deny the placement of “Sgt. Pepper” at No. 1 in the pantheon of historically, sociologically and artistically important Beatle releases, I politely say, “nonsense!”
The release and impact of ‘Sgt. Pepper” remains isolated, and culturally beyond reproach, musically and experimentally as a benchmark in time for all that ‘60s pop music represented, and it does so not only because of the music contained therein but it also had the advantage of the greatest timing one could have asked for. It appeared to be the portal in which we all entered the 1967 hippie-proclaimed “Summer Of Love” and The Beatles, dressed in Sgt. Pepper matching outfits, were marching all of the worlds hippies straight into it!
But let’s take a step back to February 1964, only 39 months earlier. (Yes, 39 months. Think about that.) We as consumers of a certain age, who lived through the excesses of the ‘70s, got used to artists taking longer and longer to make a single album. Three years didn’t seem to be much time between releases. But in the 39 months prior to the release of “Sgt. Pepper,” The Beatles record label Capitol released 10 Beatle albums in the U.S.; throw in United Artists’ soundtrack to “A Hard Day’s Night” and you have an astounding amount of explosive, commercially-huge and musically-groundbreaking rock ‘n’ roll the likes of which has never been (and probably never will be) duplicated in such a short amount of time by a single artist.
Just 39 months traversed the cultural pop music landscape from songs of innocence (“I Want To Hold Your Hand”, “She Loves You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love”) to “Sgt. Pepper”’s heartbreak of McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” or the closing plea of “I’d love to turn you on” in “A Day in the Life”, one of the most incredible experiments in pop/tragedy confluences to come crashing down all around you to end the magnum opus.
I was 14 years old when it was released. Every Beatle album released prior to “Sgt. Pepper” (except “Meet The Beatles,” which was bought by my parents) was bought by me, taken home and listened to in solitude, at least for the first couple of days.
Not so “Sgt. Pepper.”
“Sgt. Pepper” was a communal occasion.The radio stations blared the release date and it seemed that everyone I knew was aware of the significance of the this album. It felt like all the kids in my neighborhood assembled at the Manhattan apartment of a friend, who had a big enough living room to hold all of us. Someone opened the cellophane, took the album out and immediately passed around the album jacket.
No one had ever seen a jacket quite like this before! We stared at all the people on the front cover (all the cultural references) behind the band members who were dressed in marching band outfits. And that gatefold! We saw all the printing on the back and quickly realized that these were the lyrics to the songs. No back cover ever looked like that before! And then… the music.…It seemed that nothing ever sounded like this before!
The songs seemed to be woven together in some kind of story, yet to be figured out. Listening to “Sgt. Pepper” was, in short, overwhelming.
What were The Beatles telling us?
Was this the beginning of a new secret society of those ‘in the know.’ We played the entire album in silence and after the last chord from “A Day in the Life” there was a huge sigh of enlightenment. About what … well, I couldn’t really tell you except that, looking back now and trying to remember that moment, it seemed like some universal communication designed to enlighten the world was just handed to us.
This was how 1967 really began.
June 2, 1967 was really the day that pop culture transformed from the pop music fad machine of the past and into the creation of an era of musical development and creativity that, 50 years on, still resonates with the force of a tsunami affecting just about anyone who calls themselves a musician.
Nobody in 1967 brought with them the music of 50 years earlier: 1917 (except maybe, ironically, The Beatles,, and Paul McCartney with his music hall influences).
“Sgt. Pepper” stands as the best of the best. The pinnacle of what could be achieved both musically and technically (as it applies to recording studio innovation and techniques) in the year 1967.
The album hit at the exact cultural epicenter of everything that the ‘60s represented: Music, art, politics and rebellion. And if you were a teenager during that time, it felt like a music bomb had exploded as everyday seemed to introduce yet another incredible artist. And it seemed that it all began on June 2.
June 2, 1967. It was 50 years ago that day that Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.
This is the classical music of our generation and it will resonate, like Beethoven, Bach and Brahms for many years to come!
Happy 50th, “Sgt. Pepper”!
Jay Jay French is the founding member, guitarist and manager of Twisted Sister. Now We’re 64! is French’s bi-monthly, Beatles-related column for Goldmine. French is also a motivational speaker and writes a business column for Inc. com.