Sgt. Pepper's, 40 years on
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On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the US release date of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, here's a thoughtful column about how/why Beatles songs last.
It was 1967 and I'd brought the Sgt. Pepper's album to the Pentagon march with me, but hadn't yet played it. i played it that first time the evening before the march at a little house in maryland. there are some lfeelings you remember for a lifetime. that was one of them. i knew instantly the beatles had created a new phase of rock and roll. maybe this would be called classical rock!?
"The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released.. . . . At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food — Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend — the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young."
- Langdon Winner (he was a music journalist when he wrote that, today he's a professor of political science (Berkeley '66, '67, '73))
(Of course, when you read that quote, you immediately understand just why younger people hate Baby Boomers with a hard, gemlike flame. Still, I do remember the phenomenon that Winner describes: it really was remarkable.)
Being an "X'er" as opposed to a "boomer", i guess im more inclined to agree with Jim DeRogatis asessment of the album in his Kill Your Idols book...not that I have some sort of generation bias,as 99.9 percent of the music i love is from the 50's 60's and 70's...but Sgt. Pepper....i just cannot get into it...my least played beatles LP by a long shot...
it is possible that you had to be there for Sgt Peppers to make sense. You had to have heard Revolver, and Rubber Soul, and wondered where these people would take music. You had to have lived in a world before Sgt Peppers.
And you had to have taken a lot of LSD.
I'll make the unoriginal mention of Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head as the best book on the subject, which manages to be appreciative and critical at the same time, and in places is very well-written indeed. There's not much fan hyperventilating and no empty academic airs.
You know, Arctic... That's pretty much the funniest post in a sort of unintentional fashion that I've seen in quite some time. I just read the DeRogatis book today (unconnected to what's happening here entirely, it was a book that I randomly grabbed from the shelf) and one of the recurring refrains from the the book is that the individual writers were tired of hearing that "you just had to be there".
When I was younger, there were a lot of things I got tired of hearing that turned out to be . . . well . . . true.
I do not mean to say that the artistic judgments and perspectives of subsequent generations on the art of a particular period are not valid. Certainly they are. But my belief, as a sort of tail end child of the 60s (I was 13 in 1968) is that that era had a very particular cultural context, for lack of a better term right at the moment. Although I could do without hearing "When I'm 64" ever again, overall, I think that in order to really get Sgt. Pepper (warts and all, including the degree to which some of the folks on the San Francisco scene thought they'd been ripped off), you had to be there. I just think that's the case. Whether the album as a whole stands up to the test of time is of course an individual (and generational) assessment. Personally, I could probably listen to "A Day in the Life" every day for the rest of my life. Once every month or two would do for Lovely Rita, though.
Well, but doesn't "You had to be there" sort of disqualify Sgt. Pepper as "great" if you accept the common definition whereby great art speaks universal truths through depiction of a specificity?
Me, I'm more of a Satanic Majesties girl myself. Or Zen Arcade, actually.
Scratch, a fair point, but I think what you've supplied us is "a" common definition of "great," rather than "the" common definition.
I think greatness can come from capturing the spirit and context of a specific moment and capturing it brilliantly. I think Sgt Pepper did that, but you might not know it if you weren't in on that specific moment.
Sgt. Pepper works best within the context of the full flow of the Beatles' work, as Arctic pointed out (a year ago!), at least in my opinion. I think, though, that it's also fair to assign "greatness" to art that had tremendous positive impact in its day and lasting influence as well.
At any rate, you can chose to label Sgt. Pepper as a "great" album or not, of course. I'm simply saying that I understand why people of subsequent generations might not get the album's greatness, or wondeerfulness, or super-duper-osity, or whatever word you like! To me it's a great album. C'est la vie!
Well, I think quibbling over the grammatical article is, um, quibbling, but I agree with your point that great art equals lasting influence and positive impact. It never loses its appeal for great numbers of people, whatever their reasons. Isn't it amazing how we just never get tired of some things? There are albums I've been listening to regularly and often for 20-25 years, and books (this is LibThing, after all) that I reread annually. Now that's great art! :-)
eta "Super-duper-osity" = best word of the year 2009, January edition.
I wasn't quibbling over article use, but rather using that as a way to express my opinion that there is more than one "common definition of 'great.'" Of course, there's no point in quibbling over whether or not I was quibbling. Otherwise, we seem to be in agreement on everything else!
Wasn't there a new wave band called the Quibbles? If not, there should have been.
For those of you who may be so inclined, Anne Fadiman was the editor of a book titled Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love. The last essay, by David Michaelis is not about a book, but the back of the Sgt. Pepper's album. It's one of the more interesting essays in the book.
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