WILMINGTON — John Keene vividly recalls being 15 years old in June 1967 and first experiencing the much-anticipated new Beatles album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on his basement stereo.
He described the music as “riveting and mind-blowing” as he looked back a half century to what is popularly recognized as a watershed mark in music and an important touchstone in popular culture. Several years ago, Rolling Stone magazine selected Sgt. Pepper as the most important record album ever.
Keene shares his expertise in popular culture and society while teaching courses — including one on the Beatles — at Wilmington College’s Cincinnati Branch.
Capitol Records released Sgt. Pepper June 1, 1967, and the 50-year anniversary has brought about not only a re-mastered version of the album with lots of extras, but also an enhanced interest in the Beatles’ seminal work via documentaries, news features and even the launching in May of an all-Beatles channel on SiriusXM satellite radio.
In 1967 with Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles tapped into a perfect storm in which, as Bob Dylan said, “The times they are a changing,” as the post-war, youth movement was seeking its own identity by challenging societal norms in its belief that anything was possible.
Kenne said the album was “the culmination of progressivism in art and technology.” Indeed, the success of the American space program created expectations of technological advances throughout society, and popular music was evolving at a breakneck speed as evidenced largely by what the Beatles and Dylan had already created.
“No one had ever heard anything like Pepper before, plus those songs were very relatable and tuneful, but were recorded in ways that were unprecedented,” he said. “It was as shocking as hearing Louis Armstrong or Elvis Presley when they broke onto the national scene.”
Keene noted that music in the pre-1980s era was an “audio experience” rather than what became the MTV-influenced, visual experience we know today in which the storyline depicted in songs is laid out for the listener/viewer.
“With the Beatles (music), one can conjure up their own storyline, so I would say that Pepper actually invited people inside the songs as opposed to having those song-stories laid out for them by corporate entertainment interests,” he added.
Sgt. Pepper is popularly viewed as the first “concept album” in that the songs were purposely placed in a particular order that serves to help tell a larger story.
“The Beatles wanted Pepper to be experienced as a whole statement unto itself,” Keene said, adding that the group was adamant about secrecy surrounding the album — no singles released or leaked music to radio stations before June 1 — so the listener could embrace the album as a pristine experience.
The Beatles approached the recording of Sgt. Pepper in the persona of being another band (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely hearts Club Band) in which their audience would have no preconceptions of what to expect. The album began, “It was 20 years ago today, Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play…,” and took the listener through numerous melodies and image-evoking scenarios (“With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Fixing a Hole,” Within You, Without You,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” etc.), which were bookended by a reprise of the opening track.
“It was pretty mind-blowing by the time I got to the ‘Sgt. Pepper Reprise.’ Then to go into ‘A Day in the Life’ as a song placed after the album appeared to be over was especially riveting,” Keene said, about the John Lennon/Paul McCartney masterpiece that certainly represents an apex of the composers’ powers as songwriting collaborators.
Keene believes the album remains an important piece of art and a significant part of the history and culture from the 1960s.
“I think the music holds up because it’s honest — how often do honesty, independence and technological innovation happen at the same time?” he said, noting that, however, he finds it “rather pathetic” that Sgt. Pepper hasn’t been surpassed in 50 years of popular music, at least in Rolling Stone’s estimation.
“You have to ask why or, better still, what forces have suppressed anything from taking what the Beatles did — 50 years ago — to the next level? Why hasn’t this benchmark album been
surpassed despite the great songwriting talents like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel being dominant in those years?” he said.
Keene, at least partially, answered his own question. Sgt. Pepper — like the band itself — ultimately transcended popular music and even the popular culture that they dominated during the seven years between first hitting it big in England in 1963 and breaking up in early 1970.
“Maybe it’s because the Beatles were a cultural experience in addition to a musical one,” he said. “The artist is also a product of their times, so it’s fair to speculate if Pepper would have been over everyone’s head had it come out in 1965 rather than ’67.
“The Beatles set the bar at a certain level that had to be acknowledged if not met — there was simply no way to pretend that Pepper didn’t exist after June 1967, even if one’s music was not in the same style.”
Possibly, it’s also that the great group left its multitude of admirers wanting more when they broke up. After Sgt. Pepper, there was an expectation the group would continue to define the possibilities in popular music. While they produced many of their greatest songs after Sgt. Pepper, no other Beatles album was embraced like Sgt. Pepper for its revolutionary impact.
“Since the Beatles’ follow-up, the White Album, went off in a completely different direction, I think the Beatles may have even consciously thrown the gauntlet back to others to define what the future would hold,” Keene said, noting Dylan never wanted to be “the voice of his generation,” so he chose to shed that perceived responsibility.
“I think the Beatles did the same.”