Last week, I was conducting one-on-one interviews for a group of stations we work with. A 32 year-old guy named Christian (pictured below) walked into the conference room sporting a Jimi Hendrix concert T-shirt. As our discussion progressed, he told me how much he loves vintage rock, driven by a nagging feeling he missed out on something special because he was too young to experience the '60s music phenomenon. In the qualitative research I've done, combined with the ratings and perceptual studies I've seen, there are a lot of young guys like him all over the country.
The truth is, he actually did miss a lot. As someone old enough to have enjoyed that music in “real time,” the memories sometimes obscure and even embellish the reality of what was really going on back then. Part of the story was the many groundbreaking historic moments 50 years ago. Race riots, the Vietnam war, and other big events dominated newspaper headlines.
But in the world of music in 1967, the major buzz was the release of another Beatles album. Back then, these events were reminiscent of the debut of an Apple iPhone, complete with long lines of fans who had to have the record on the very first day it went on sale. But the Beatles' iconic “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, released a half century ago, became an even bigger thing. Today, there's a lot of hoopla surrounding the golden anniversary of this record. And for good reason.
So over the long holiday weekend, I took a moment to stop and think about its import and impact – what it meant to music, society, culture, and radio back then – and what it means to us today.
When “Sgt. Pepper's” came out, the Beatles were already the biggest thing going, selling millions of albums and dominating radio airplay. America loved the Fab Four, so when they “broke format” and released “Sgt. Pepper's,” it was more than just a musical fork in the road. It became a cultural turning point.
The Beatles disrupted themselves. And they did it at a time when they were the most popular band on the planet. “Revolver” was released in 1966, one year earlier, and it was a brilliant piece of work.
But “Sgt. Pepper's” blew up the band's consistent, familiar repertoire, forcing Beatle fans to sit up and take notice. Gone were the simple melodies, the love ballads, and the 2:30 radio-friendly songs. Instead, this album broke the mold, and paved the way for rock bands to redefine and reinvent themselves. Around that time, George Harrison was quoted by biographer Hunter Davies:
“I don't personally enjoy being a Beatle anymore.”
George was an important force on the album, singlehandedly introducing new sounds. In the grooves, the Beatles reinvented themselves with “Sgt. Pepper's” – not once, but several times. The debut of the sitar on “Within You Without You” was one of many firsts brought to the band by George, inspired by Ravi Shankar.
Interestingly, some of the Beatles' core fans were appalled at the album. It was too weird and psychedelic. It wasn't lovable or cute. Songs like “A Day In The Life” were textured, cacophonous, different, and not Top 40 AM radio-friendly. They stirred up conversation as fans debated the blurry stories buried deep within the vinyl.
And it wasn't just the music – it was the look, the packaging, and the album art. This was an LP you sat down with, you stared at, you thought about, and you discussed. It was carefully sequenced, songs sequed into each other, it was themed out, and it told stories. Up to that point, most albums were exercises in stringing together a bunch of songs around a hit single or two – enough music to fill two sides of a 33⅓ record album. “Sgt. Pepper's” was a concept album, with themes that stretched the boundaries of rock as we knew it.
Just gazing at the montage of people on the cover scene became its own conversation. Who were all those faces, what did they symbolize, and what compelled the Beatles to choose them? Of course, it was not possible to Google the album or discuss it on Facebook, so you had to work it out for yourself. While obvious faces like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Stan Laurel, and Bob Dylan jumped out, identifying Oscar Wilde (pictured left), Huntz Hall, Lenny Bruce, and James Joyce was considerably more challenging.
BBC Music has created a wonderful series of videos, going into their vast archives and breaking down each of the faces on the album cover with short videos. That would have come in handy 50 years ago.
If there was such a thing as going viral in 1967, “Sgt. Pepper's” achieved it. While many music critics believe other Beatle albums were better musically (“Abbey Road” is often mentioned), “Sgt. Pepper's” ought to win the award for most groundbreaking album – ever.
Oddly enough, the Grammys got it right. “Sgt. Pepper's” won album of the year in '68, and designers Jann Haworth and Peter Blake took top honors for best album cover.
“Sgt. Pepper's” was a sure sign the Beatles burned out on being the Beatles, long before the rest of us did. And unlike most bands that would have been content to continue releasing hit albums regurgitating their patented sound, “Sgt. Pepper's” was a message to their millions of fans:
“We're moving over here now and taking a very different journey. You're welcome to join us. But if not, you have our wonderful older albums to enjoy.”
The travelers who made the episodic trek often ended up becoming Classic Rock fans, while those who stayed behind, preferring the more melodious sound, innocence, and simplicity of “She Loves You” and “Eight Days A Week” tended to gravitate to Oldies stations. It was like after years of mainstream comedies, the Beatles released a foreign film – without the subtitles. Not everyone “got it.”
“Sgt. Pepper's” was the gateway drug (in some cases, quite literally) to Pink Floyd, Yes, and rock that went well beyond hit singles and mainstream airplay at powerhouses like KHJ, WLS, and CKLW.
But that's why the Beatles were…the Beatles. Always leading, never following, they took us on a trip that has continued to this day. The seeds of FM radio's rise were firmly planted with that album, fueling a group of upstart revolutionary stations on the chance to be different and even counter-culture.
The Beatles albums that followed – “Magical Mystery Tour,” “The Beatles” (White Album), “Yellow Submarine,” “Abbey Road,” and “Let It Be” – all continued the journey, moving further away from being fab, and scoping out new musical and cultural turf.
It is impossible to imagine another album (or video or film) that could possibly have the sweeping impact “Sgt. Pepper's” did. And that's why this breakthrough album is worth celebrating, whether you grew up with the Beatles or you discovered this masterwork at some point later on like many thirtysomethings have done.
For me personally, the album signaled a music transition, opening me up to bands and albums that would become a catalyst for my own career in radio, and later, the development of the Classic Rock format.
For young guys like Christian, it is a point in time he'll never personally know, but he can still enjoy and appreciate through classic recordings like “Sgt. Pepper's.”
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” brings a lytic from the title track to mind:
“It's certainly a thrill.”
P.S. Yes, Christian is sporting “the old English D” – the symbol of Detroit. Yet, these intervews took place more than 1,000 miles away, and Christian told me he never lived in the Motor City. He's just a fan of the Red Wings and Tigers. Go figure.