When I was a kid one of my favorite pastimes was to kneel in front of the antique wooden monstrosity that housed my parents’ record collection and examine at my leisure the dozens of vinyl LPs inside.
This was, as best as I can recall, a solitary hobby.
I had friends who would gladly join me for an afternoon of Atari or an impromptu whiffle ball game. But none was much interested in reading the liner notes to “The Shirelles’ Greatest Hits” or trying to deduce the meaning, if any, behind the street scene photograph on The Doors’ “Strange Days.”
The album I spent the most time perusing, though, was the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
That landmark recording turned 50 years old earlier this month, an anniversary that has prompted considerable reminiscing among its legions of fans.
I suppose it was inevitable that I would become one of those. My parents owned most of the Beatles’ albums, and on road trips we often listened to cassette tapes of their music my dad had dubbed from the records. I remember being awestruck to learn that my mom had actually attended the band’s 1965 concert at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum (or, rather, one of the concerts — the Fab Four played two shows there on Aug. 22).
It was as though I were related to someone who had been looking down the ladder when Neil Armstrong’s boot puffed up the lunar dust.
“Sgt. Pepper” is an album that most kids, regardless of their musical influences, are apt to notice. Its cover art is the most iconic image in pop music history, a colorful and eclectic collage that defines the concept of psychedelia as adroitly as John Lennon’s lyrics (and a few of Paul McCartney’s) in “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.”
My parents’ copy of the album was beginning to fray when I first came across it, the cover peeling and the vinyl disc inside bearing scratches from its many encounters with the turntable needle. The sheet of cardboard cutouts that was tucked inside the sleeve, a whimsical little bonus that included sergeant’s stripes and a moustache, among other things, was missing. But no matter how long I spent studying the other albums, which numbered about 70, I never failed to slip “Sgt. Pepper” from its slot to have another look at that cover.
As a boy I didn’t recognize most of the people arrayed around John, Paul, George and Ringo. I was, however, endlessly fascinated by the Shirley Temple doll at the lower right, clad in a sweater bearing the words “Welcome The Rolling Stones Good Guys.”
I knew who the Stones were — a couple of their records were elsewhere in the bureau — but I was still perplexed by the reference.
But of course it’s the music that matters most. And if the 13 songs on “Sgt. Pepper” weren’t as brilliant as they (mostly) are, we wouldn’t be celebrating the album’s golden anniversary as the cultural milestone that it is.
Perhaps the greatest thing about music is that it doesn’t go stale. I mean this in the broadest sense. Obviously a single song, or album, or even an entire genre of music can, after excessive exposure, lose its sonic luster for an individual listener.
What I mean is that the best music continues to inspire each generation that hears it anew. It’s why millenials have spent millions of dollars on the Beatles’ music, just as members of Generation X and the Baby Boomers did before them.
And it’s why I cherish that music even though I was born several months after the quartet was last together in a recording studio.
Yet occasionally I feel bereft that I missed the Beatles as a contemporary phenomenon. I know them only as legend, an almost mythical creation whose achievements already were tinged with nostalgia when I first encountered their genius.
I wonder occasionally, as I marvel at McCartney’s melodic bass line on “Lucy In The Sky” or at Lennon’s haunting lyrics from “A Day In The Life,” how magical it must have been, in June 1967, to slip the LP onto a turntable, gently set the stylus onto the vinyl and hear the piercing wail of the electric guitar notes on the opening track. The music was fresh then, not yet saddled with the reputation for brilliance that was destined to be its burden as, almost immediately, critics plumbed their thesaureses in a competition to define “Sgt. Pepper” as a milestone not just in popular music but in popular culture.
I wish too that I could have experienced firsthand how the album transformed, and transfixed, American society. The most famous description of this phenomenon was written by Langdon Winner, who was driving across the country on Interstate 80 in June 1967.
He portrays the “Sgt. Pepper” as a force of nature, ubiquitous in a way no mere compilation of songs could ever be today, when our diversions are so numerous and so accessible as to make 1967, a year without cable TV or cellphones or the internet, seem not so much archaic as incomprehensible.
“In each city where I stopped for gas or food — Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend — the melodies (from “Sgt. Pepper”) wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi,” Winner wrote. “It was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
I would give much to have ridden along with Winner on that journey.
Alas, none of us chooses his birth date. And so my enjoyment of “Sgt. Pepper” — and indeed, of all the Beatles’ music — is influenced, however subtly, by the reputation it amassed before I showed up with my curious eyes and untutored ears.
Ultimately, I don’t think this is any great impediment. My appreciation for “Sgt. Pepper” has shown no discernible deterioration over the decades, at any rate.
And although I don’t quibble with the widespread belief that the album is the Beatles’ most significant, it is not my favorite, nor do I believe it is their finest.
I pin my personal blue ribbon on “Revolver,” the album that came out in August 1966 to considerably less fanfare than was accorded to “Sgt. Pepper” 10 months later.
I’m not even sure, on any given day, that “Sgt. Pepper” deserves the runner up spot. Either the White Album or “Abbey Road,” depending on which I’ve listened to more recently, can knock “Sgt. Pepper” back to third or four place.
Yet for sheer cultural power, it seems to me all but inconceivable that any album will ever approach “Sgt. Pepper’s” supremacy.
Indeed in our era, when music is something most of us download and never actually touch, a collection of songs lacks the visceral thrill of sliding a record from its sleeve, its glossy surface not yet marred by a fingerprint.
Jayson Jacoby is editor
of the Baker City Herald.