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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the three THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Friday, June 2, 2017

GROOVE GRATITUDE (A Gift Of Music): Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Groove Gratitude (A Gift Of Music) looks back on albums I received as gifts. A gift of music can be greater than even the gift itself or the music itself, reflecting the circumstances of who gave us the record (and why) and what it meant to us, then and now. A song can transport us back in time within a single spin. But an album that's connected to a specific someone who gave you that chance to listen and experience? That album has a story to tell.

THE BEATLES
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Released in 1967
Received as a gift in late 1976 or early '77, courtesy of my parents



It would be inaccurate to say that I have a love/hate relationship with The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. There have been times when I thought it was the greatest album of all time, and other times when I thought it was the most overrated album of all time, and my level of affection for it has varied somewhat at different times over the years. But there has never been a time when I hated it. There has never even been a time when I disliked it, or considered it pedestrian. Even when I've thought it overrated, I've still thought it was a pretty goddamned good record.

I came to the album well, well after the fact. I was seven years old during the Summer Of Love; I knew The Beatles from A Hard Day's Night and "She Loves You" and "All My Loving" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand," all cherished relics of when I was a child of four in 1964. But in 1967, Batman and The Monkees meant more to me than The Beatles did.  



That would change somewhat. I never surrendered my fondness of either The Caped Crusader or Micky, Davy, Peter & Michael, but The Beatles were, without question, my all-time favorite group. As I became a more worldly adolescent music fan in the '70s, The Beatles reigned over my pop cosmology with unquestioned authority. I filled in the missing gaps of my Beatles knowledge and appreciation, moving past 1964 and early '65 into the Beatle music I'd missed in the late '60s. Rubber Soul. Revolver. "Hey Jude." "Revolution." "Lady Madonna." "Come Together." The AM stations I favored in the '70s still played oldies by The Beatles, mixed in with current hits by Badfinger and The Isley Brothers. My brother Rob and my cousin Maryanne had Beatles LPs I could borrow. The flea market had cheap, second-hand Beatles LPs I could afford to buy. I favored the earlier stuff, Beatles '65 and Beatles VI through Rubber Soul and Revolver, but I loved all of it.

Through all of this, I don't believe I heard the Sgt. Pepper album. I knew the title tune, of course, and "With A Little Help From My Friends" and "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds." I had read about "A Day In The Life," but had yet to experience it.

Four decades of accumulated mental debris has clouded the chronology of my Beatle journey; I'm aware of the fact that I sometimes change my story at the whim of fresh, conflicting memories. But I kept listening, borrowing, buying, and learning as much about The Beatles as I could. I also acquired a copy of the double-LP Blue Album, 1967-1970, possibly as a gift from my sister Denise. I still hadn't heard Abbey Road or Sgt. Pepper, but I now had a bunch of those songs, courtesy of the Blue Album. "A Day In The Life" lived up to its hype; it was epic. I brought the Blue Album to school when we did a section on popular music in my eleventh grade social studies class; Mr. Sciore (who once introduced me to a classroom visitor as "a sarcastic loudmouth") would have preferred to listen to Sinatra.



That brings us to Christmas of 1976. I've said on a few occasions that I received my copy of Pepper under the tree that year, but the story doesn't jibe. That was the year that my parents let me pick out a few records for myself, and those records were The History Of British Rock Volume 2, The Beatles Featuring Tony Sheridan, and two different collections by The Animals. I guess it's possible that Mom and Dad threw in Sgt. Pepper as a bonus gift, but it doesn't seem plausible, given the bounty of vinyl treasure I already received from Father (and Mother) Christmas.

Nonetheless, I received my copy of Sgt. Pepper right in this time frame. If it wasn't a Christmas gift, then it must have been a birthday gift, on January 17th, 1977. I was 17.

Everything is heightened when you're a teenager. I spend a lot of time belaboring that point on this blog, but it's true. I suspect I may still be a teenager, my aging body notwithstanding, because that heightened, superlative sense of Wow! has never really left me. And when I was 17, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the spinning embodiment of WOW!

The needle drops on the sound of a restless audience, a crowd of people not about to turn away, restless, excited, anxious for the show to begin. The faux live sounds are penetrated by drums, bass, and cutting guitar. Paul McCartney remembers the lessons he learned from his Little Richard records back home in Liverpool, and screams an introduction:

It was twenty years ago today
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile
So let me to introduce to you
The act you've known for all these years
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band!

Somewhere, Emerson, Lake & Palmer take notes.

Within the sound of The Beatles, an old-time trad-dad oompah band plays, the fake crowd laughs its fake laughter, oohs and aahs at the sights and sounds unfolding before eyes and ears that never existed. A crowd of people stand and stare, and clap, and whistle, and sing along, new life generated spontaneously on a twelve-inch slab of vinyl. Nothing is real? Everything's real. In the moment. In that moment. Songs flow together, breath to breath, lonely heart to lonely heart, and it ceases to be just you, alone in your room, listening to a fab new record. You're a part of it. You're there. You don't even have to close your eyes. You don't really want to stop the show.

Without pause, the title track becomes a different song, a spotlight on the amiable drummer, as Ringo Starr explains how he gets by with a little help from his friends. This then becomes "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds," John Lennon casting a mesmerizing, corporeal mirage of rocking horse people and marmalade sky. Our Paulie insists it's getting better all the time, he's fixing a hole where the rain gets in, but concedes that, for all that, she's leaving home, bye bye. Perhaps she's off to the circus? Lennon seems to think so, as he conjures the euphoric thrill of the greatest show ever under the big top, all for the benefit of Mr. Kite.

The needle lifts. What? How can the side be over already?!

The mystic hum of Indian music invites us back inside. Many will skip over George Harrison's meditative "Within You Without You" on subsequent spins, and your humble blogger would be among them for a while, until the song's beguiling, subtle magic eventually completes its spell, capturing the heart forever thereafter. The determinedly old-fashioned "When I'm Sixty-Four" meets no such resistance in these quarters; what some find maudlin and trite, this one finds romantic and endearing. Lennon's shimmering pop wail introduces the tale of McCartney's attempt to seduce a lovely young meter maid named Rita, and possibly make it with her sisters, too. Paulie's a cad, but he's a cute li'l cad. Lennon himself then goes on walkabout, scattering pet sounds and ditching the work day in favor of skirts with which to flirt, and maybe a bowl of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. Good morning! Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band returns to the stage, thanks us once again, and bids us adieu.

They haven't even left the stage when a quietly strummed acoustic guitar signals us to remain fixed in our positions.

"A Day In The Life" is a masterpiece of pop music. It implies far greater depth and meaning than it possesses, but no one should really care about that. Listen. Feel. Read the news today, oh boy. Wake up. Fall out of bed. Drag a comb across your head. Try to discern from a headline just how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Turn on. Turn. On.

A final chord drones for infinite seconds. Finally, infinity lapses. The needle lifts again (though you may need to get up and lift the damned thing yourself). Your voyage has ended.

Whoa!

Like very few records before it, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club Band crafts an illusion of a singular experience, an album-length narrative. It's not really a narrative--it's just a bunch of Beatles songs, strung together impeccably--but it fools you into believing there's more to it than that. I'm perfectly fine with that subterfuge.

Is it the greatest album of all time? I don't think it is. The Beach BoysPet Sounds, an album which predated and undeniably inspired Pepper, is my usual default choice for that all-time honor. Is it The Beatles' best album? No. Abbey Road is better. Revolver is better. Rubber Soul is better, in either its UK or US incarnations. I hold The Beatles' collective work from 1964 through 1966, A Hard Day's Night through Revolver, to be nonpareil, the greatest compact body of work ever created in pop music or rock 'n' roll. Sgt. Pepper is great, but there are other records even greater (including, say, The Village Green Preservation Society by The Kinks).

But Sgt. Pepper remains unparalleled as an album event. I can't even imagine what it was like to hear it for the first time in June of 1967. It was a unique communal convergence, never to be duplicated. Its impact was immeasurable, instantly moving rock 'n' roll from the realm of pop music into the heavy environs of what I call capital R rock as capital A Art.

I do not necessarily believe that this move to presumed maturity and sobriety was entirely a good thing. If you ask me if I'd rather hear an extended rock suite dripping with intellect and philosophical ambition, performed with precise, virtuoso accomplishment, or Chuck Berry wail on "Johnny B. Goode," I'm gonna go with the duck-walkin' guy playin' his guitar like a-ringin' a bell, every friggin' day of the week.

That misses the point, though. Rock 'n' roll doesn't--or at least shouldn't--demand all or nothing. You can dig Yes and The Ramones, The Grateful Dead and The Archies, the early Kinks and the concept-album Kinks, "I Can't Explain" and Quadrophenia. You can dig whatever you want to, and you can dismiss the silly notion of there being any such thing as a guilty pleasure in pop music. The Beatles didn't grant you that right with the creation of Sgt. Pepper--you always had that right--but The Beatles did expand the possibilities of what a rock 'n' roll artist could do. Sgt. Pepper was an immense part of that.



I have two favorite lines from songs dissing Sgt. Pepper. In "Gotta Have Pop," Segarini sings that he "loved The Beatles up to Sgt. Pepper/Then they ruined pop for what could be forever." The Dictators phrased it even more firmly in "Who Will Save Rock And Roll:" "June 1st '67/Something died and went to Heaven/I wish Sgt. Pepper never taught the band to play!" Neither Segarini nor The Dictators hate Sgt. Pepper; in fact, Scott Kempner of The Dictators once sent me a message specifically to make sure I understood that his group loved Pepper but hated some of its after-effects. I would absolutely agree that we can't blame a work of art, nor even a mere crass bit of commerce, for the sins committed by less capable hands seeking to copy its magic.

I'm pretty sure that Sgt. Pepper was the next-to-last album my parents ever gave to me; Alive II by KISS was the last one, Christmas 1977. After that, they reasoned that they couldn't possibly figure out what crazy sound I might be into, and switched to different gifts. I'm grateful for all the records they gave me over the years, from the 45s they used to buy me at J.M. Fields through LPs by The Royal Guardsmen and Lesley Gore and The Raspberries, plus The Animals and KISS, and a British Invasion set, and four or five albums by my favorite group, The Beatles. I'm grateful for the love of music I inherited from them; our tastes differed, but they always supported my effort to find my own sound. They offered me a lot of support in a lot of areas, and those gifts can never be forgotten or repaid.

At this writing, I have not yet purchased any of the 50th anniversary Sgt. Pepper releases. I'll probably give in and get the two-CD version. We'll see. I have the 2009 CD, which replaced the 1987 CD. Nothing's ever replaced the vinyl copy I received as a gift when I was a pimply teen. I still have it, and I have no intention of relinquishing it. From my parents' generosity to my turntable, the promise remains intact: A splendid time is guaranteed for all. Thanks, John. Thank you Paul, George, and Ringo, and George Martin. And thank you, always, Mom and Dad. You gave me everything money can't buy.



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