Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Beatles' masterpiece, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." In polls taken by rock and roll critics, including the latest ranking in Rolling Stone magazine, Sgt. Pepper's is invariably picked as the greatest album of all time.
According to rock journalist Langdon Winner, who happened to be traveling through big cities and small towns in early June of 1967, every radio station and cafeteria juke box was constantly featuring this latest Beatles album. Stereos in Europe and America played it endlessly. Young people partied to it all night and quickly learned the lyrics to sing along. In Mr. Winner's words, "The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week Sgt. Pepper was released."
Has any music or work of art been lauded in such terms since then? This is not just another pitiful attempt at Baby Boomer nostalgia. Many current musicians — including Kanye West, Tori Amos and the Flaming Lips — still point to Sgt. Pepper's as revolutionizing the options for creating music in a studio that cannot be performed live on stage.
Sgt. Pepper's appeared as a spectacle rather than just a collection of songs. The album was the first to print all the lyrics of the songs on the back cover. The front cover was unique and expensive, featuring an array of the Beatles idols, mostly Americans, including W. C. Fields, Dion, Dylan, Brando, Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, Laurel & Hardy, Edgar Allan Poe and Mae West. Other figures, such as Gandhi, Oscar Wilde or Lewis Carroll, had enduring influences on the Beatles' social and artistic developments.
Then there is the music. Each song surprises with new sounds and stories. No longer are The Beatles singing about she loves you, he has no reply, or she has just given you a ticket to ride. A mere three years after wanting to hold someone's hand, they were focused on friendships, carnivals, meter maids, teenagers leaving home, a son's drawing that he calls "Lucy in the Sky," news items about deadly car accidents, troubles at school. Three guitars and a drum no longer suffice; Sgt. Pepper's is the first rock album to incorporate a British orchestra, Hindu chants as well as tuneful sentiments from the big band era.
There was considerable debate about how best to experience this spectacle. Some fans preferred headphones and the solitary intensity. Others insisted on the communal moment, replaying the album at a party throughout the night. Johnny Rivers referred to it in the 1973 Billboard top 20 song "Summer Rain," when he celebrates how everyone "kept on playing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."
Sgt. Pepper's admittedly has its detractors. For many critics, including devoted Beatle fans, it is self-indulgent. The Beatles now seem to present themselves as elite artists while abandoning their stature as the preeminent rock and roll band. And given their fame, this album spawned imitators ushering out all sorts of loopy and annoying psychedelic concept albums. More disappointing for others was that The Beatles were known for their candor, humor and earthiness; but Sgt. Pepper's seems less authentic, too enamored with glitzy studio techniques.
Some music and art gets discussed so much that it is difficult to experience it anew. Sgt. Pepper's falls victim to this. Still, you should try to disregard the hoopla and listen to it with fresh ears, as if the first time. When you reach the closing sequence of three songs, you begin to realize the album's power. You hear two thumping rock songs that lead into the apocalyptic "A Day in The Life." The lyrics are about everyday desperation, absurdity, insight, good cheer and joy. No wonder it made people say they were glad to be alive.
Sgt. Pepper's changed the mode of music. It still shakes the walls of modern sounds. It is to rock music what Beethoven's Ninth was to symphonic music — a masterpiece that was both a culmination and a departure point. It truly is the greatest rock album ever.
Alexander E. Hooke is a philosophy professor at Stevenson University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.