I remember it well. It was one of those days I’ll never forget. One of those moments that is etched in my brain forever. But it wasn’t because of a tragic event. Not an assassination or terrorist attack, not a presidential election or national scandal. Not even the death of a friend or family member. It was the release of an album by a pop group. A new record from a band of musicians that had been known in America for only 3½ years at that time. It was when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club was released on the 1st of June in the U.K. and on the 2nd here in the U.S.
There hadn’t been a new Beatles album out since Revolver, ten months earlier. That was like forever when you were a kid, and a really long time in-between releases in those days. Up until that point, the Beatles averaged about two albums per year, but after they stopped touring at the end of the summer of 1966, some thought they had disappeared or were washed up. But they were taking their time, getting inspired, experimenting and using the recording studio like never before.
Then in February of ’67, they released a double A-sided single: Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane. These were the first two songs that were recorded for what would eventually become the Sgt. Pepper Sessions. On the picture sleeve and in the short films they sent out, their hair was shaggier and they sported mustaches for the first time. But the songs on the disc, especially Strawberry Fields, had such a different sound. It was music that was like a painting, containing multiple layers of sounds. A piece of mini-pop-art and psychedelia on a 7″ piece of plastic. Rather than touring like in the past, the Beatles became solely a studio band.
The Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane 45 Picture Sleeve. Released February 1967:
That spring and summer, I was studying for my Bar Mitzvah. School was out for the summer break and on that first Friday in June, I ran down to my local music shop, anticipating the release of the new Beatles’ album that day. I remember scanning the walls, searching for it above the bins of records and next to the hanging guitars and other musical instruments inside the store. It was nowhere to be found. But then I tuned towards the counter and watched as one of the store’s owners started opening a square record box. One of those cardboard containers holding 25 copies, something that would become so very familiar to me in later years when I worked in the record business.
That moment seemed like one of those slow motion movie scenes, as he pulled out a copy of the album and looked it over. I and a couple of other kids reached out towards the box, and so he pulled out several more records and handed one to each of us. WOW! What a cover! Is was so different than anything I had ever seen at the time. I turned it over to discover rows and rows of song lyrics. That was new too. I don’t think it had ever been done before. I reached for my money and the realized I was holding a stereo copy which was a buck more than the mono version. What the heck, it would sound amazing on my new Magnavox stereo. And of course…it did….
The album packaging was art-directed by Robert Fraser, designed by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth and photographed by Michael Cooper. It featured a colourful collage of life-sized cardboard models of famous people on the front of the album cover and lyrics printed on the back cover, the first time this had been done on a British pop LP. It also included a separate sheet of Sgt. Pepper cut-outs and a custom red and white inner-sleeve designed by The Fool.
Over the next week, I must have played that album 6 or 7 times a day. Over and over again, reading every lyric and studying the package, trying to figure out who all of those people were on the cover. The production was different too and the sound had an atmosphere that was entirely new to me. Songs ran together with hardly a space between tracks giving it a continuous and conceptual fee. A few months later I picked up an imported British Mono edition of the album (which was a totally different mix), and discovered that strange high pitch tone at the end of the record after the pianos fade up and out for forty seconds on A Day in the Life (a 15-kilohertz high-frequency tone put on the album at John Lennon’s suggestion and said to be “especially intended to annoy your dog“). And finally that section of bizarre backwards chatter and laughter that continued over and over in the final run-out groove of the LP, looping back into itself. Now that wasn’t on the American version!
Sgt.Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band stayed on my turntable all summer long while I studied my Bar Mitzvah portion. I would listen to George Harrison’s Indian flavored Within You and Without continuously, while I learned Shoftim from the book of Dueteronomy. The Beatles had changed dramatically since 1966 and I too was about to change and become a man per Jewish tradition. I was Bar Mitzvahed on September 9th, 1967. It was at the end the summer of love and the beginning of San Francisco’s Indian summer. Everything seemed a bit different, especially the music. It was all so wonderful!
The Bar Mitzvah scene from the Cohen Brother’s film, A Serious Man. It takes place in 1967:
Looking at and listening to Sgt. Pepper today, in 2012, it might be hard to imagine what is was like to have experienced this record in 1967. It was something totally new and unique. It was a cultural phenomenon that brought art and fashion to pop music. It’s not my favorite Beatles’ Album (Revolver is), but it is still such a majestic piece of pop music, that its importance in the grand scheme of things cannot be denied. Even if they had only given us A Day in the Life, it would have been so much.
So happy birthday to you, Sgt Pepper Lonely Heats Club Band. Let’s go for another spin….
Richard Goldstein’s infamous 1967 review of Sgt. Pepper in the New York Times can be read here.
On August 11, 1967, the Beatles were photographed by Richard Avedon at a studio in London. Psychedelic solarized effected were added to four of the images that were first published in the January 9, 1968 edition of Look Magazine in the US, and were subsequently sold as posters. I sent away for a set and still have them in my collection today.