In two weeks, on June 1, we will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the release of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” And next week, Sirius radio will be launching its much-hyped Beatles station (Channel 18). Although I doubt we will be experiencing a return to Beatlemania as many of us, including me, knew it in the mid-1960s, there will nevertheless be lots of attention paid to the Fab Four and their continuing influence on popular culture. Coinciding with these two landmark events is the recent publication of what I consider to be the best Beatles book ever (forgive the superlative)–Rob Sheffield’s DREAMING THE BEATLES: THE LOVE STORY OF ONE BAND AND THE WHOLE WORLD (2017). I am glad that Sheffield has turned his attention from Duran Duran long enough to confront the Beatles. Not THE Beatles, mind you, but what has become YOUR or MY Beatles (it seems everyone has a different version).
Unlike other Beatles “experts” (and there are many out there), Sheffield isn’t all that interested in presenting us with yet another blow-by-blow account of the Beatles in the context of their times. Instead, he sets out to explore what the Beatles have come to mean since their breakup in 1969; one of his chapters, for instance, is titled “The Ballad of Eighties Beatles vs. Nineties Beatles.” And I don’t know of any other Beatles book that dares to make a comparison between the Fab Four phenomenon and the outrageous contemporaneous 1960s success of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Contemplate this passage from Sheffield’s book, if you will: “. . .it makes sense that Clampettmania happened at the same time [as Beatlemania]–both were soothing fantasies that spoke to post-JFK anxieties about the state of the nation. . . .Jed is John, Granny is Paul, Ellie Mae is George, and Jethro is Ringo. Mr. Drysdale is George Martin, Miss Hathaway must be Brian Epstein, and The Andy Griffith Show is the Rolling Stones–which is probably where we should depart this line of inquiry.” I agree.
One of Sheffield’s chapters focuses on what he calls the “list-geek gene,” which has to do with our obsessions with making lists–everything from To Do lists (that never get completed) to the all-too-familiar lists of the best movies, TV shows, books, websites, apps, and albums. Needless to say “Sgt. Pepper” tends to make the top of most every best albums list (the “toppermost of the poppermost” in Beatles lingo). Every album released since June 1, 1967 has been played in the shadow of “Sgt. Pepper.” Some musicians have self-referenced the album, most notoriously Terrence Trent D-Arby who described his 1987 album “Introducing The Hardline” as “better than Sgt. Pepper.” Modesty was obviously not one of his most admirable talents. Interestingly enough, Sheffield’s favorite Beatles album is “Rubber Soul” and mine is “Abby Road” (all tracks except for “Octopus’ Garden”). And way back in the 1960s I found myself siding with the Stones more often than with the Beatles. Oh, the blasphemy. But I do think “A Hard Day’s Night” is one of the best films ever made.
Although I hope I don’t have a dominant list-geek gene, I have compiled a list of albums I think bear comparison to the Pepper album, not in content, but in their significance as historical and musical mileposts. According to Beatle scholar Mark Lewisohn, who is in the process of writing the second volume of his massive Fab Four TMI biography, “Sgt. Pepper typifies the year of 1967 and, as such, must rank as a masterpiece, for surely the prime objective for any piece of music is that it captures the time of its recording.” This is the spirit in which the following non-chronological list was compiled. So, here goes . . . . .
Pianist Glenn Gould’s masterful, and controversial, interpretations of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (recorded twice, in 1955 to launch his career and in 1981 as he was approaching the end of his life). And, speaking of Bach…
Walter/Wendy Carlos’ pathbreaking Moog synthesizer recording, “Switched On Bach” (1968) that showed us a glimpse of what Bach would be doing had he lived to be two hundred and eighty-three years old.
The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” (1966), the album often reputed to be the inspiration for “Sgt. Pepper,” just as Brian Wilson was influenced by “Rubber Soul” and The Ronettes’ single “Be My Baby” (1964–also a favorite of The Beatles, who always wished they were members of an American girl group). My nominee as Best Album Of The Sixties.
“The Velvet Underground And Nico” (1967), an album I didn’t listen to until the 1990s, and one I probably wouldn’t have fully understood or appreciated in 1967 when I was listening to “Sgt. Pepper,” and The Doors.
The Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” (1967). Sorry, but if I had to pick my favorite 1967 album, this one would have to surpass “Sgt. Pepper.”
“Will The Circle Be Unbroken” (1972), an album featuring a stellar cast of country and bluegrass legends and put together by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, was largely responsible for the roots revival of the 1970s and is still pretty stunning if you like that sort of thing.
Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” (1975), is the album that defined “Outlaw Country” and established Nelson, in my mind at least, as a jazz artist. This is Willie’s homage to “Sgt. Pepper.”
Speaking of jazz, two albums–Mile Davis’ “Kind of Blue” (1959) and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (1965)–didn’t influence me at the time of their releases, but have become touchstones for my later musical sensibilities.
Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1982) is really more about the recording genius of producer Quincy Jones than it is about Michael Jackson’s considerable talents (and don’t forget Vincent Price’s cameo on the title tune).
Yes, we have to include Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon” (1973) which has never left our (un)consciousness and has been adopted by nearly all genres of music, including bluegrass and jazz covers.
I can remember when your were considered a social outcast if you didn’t own a copy of Carole King’s “Tapestry” (1971), an album that defines the early Seventies as well as anything, and despite its well-worn familiarity, still manages to move me, especially when I hear Carole’s version of “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” (rivaled only by Roberta Flack’s rendition).
When I remember 1974, I hear two pieces of music in my head–The Hues Corporation’s pre-disco “Rock The Boat” (recorded in 1973, released in 1974) and Joni Mitchell’s beautiful and haunting jazz-infused album “Court And Spark.”
My friends and family marvel that I find Taylor Swift’s “1989” (2014) to be one of my favorite albums; in fact, I find much of today’s music to be as good, if not better, than the music I listened to “back in the day.” So much for nostalgia. Been there, done that.
Well, that’s my list, which, if I were compiling it next week, would be completely different.
Getting back to “Sgt. Pepper,” I highly recommend your reading Clinton Heylin’s definitive THE ACT YOU’VE KNOWN FOR ALL THESE YEARS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF SGT. PEPPER AND FRIENDS. And, yes, listen to the album, especially to “She’s Leaving Home” and “A Day In The Life.”
See you next week.