Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

It's been 43 years since the hot June day in 1967 when "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" came to America for the first time. The album had been out in England since May 1st, and some of the local DJ's had gotten copies from friends there. Late at night during the month of May, some of them were playing a few of the "cuts" before the American release date.

I had been standing outside Crawford's, a home furnishing store on the corner of East 14th Street and Kings Highway, that had a small record department. They sat across the street from Benhoff's Sporting Goods, which is where I normally purchased my records. But Crawford's had something that Benhoff's lacked- an outside speaker. And they weren't afraid to use it. In this case they were blasting "A Little Help From My Friends" for several days prior to the release of Sgt. Pepper. I would stand in front of their window, looking at all the bric a brac, listening to Ringo intone "...what do you see when you turn out the lights? I can't tell you but I know it's mine."

I bought the album across the street at Benhoff's for $2.57 in mono. The stereo version was $3.17 at that time. I took that album home and wore the grooves off of it!

The album seems a bit dated now. Playing it all the way through takes some patience and an understanding of the times. 1967 was a pivotal year for music in several ways. The Beatles had been locked into that rigid "pop radio" sound of 2 minutes 30 seconds give or take some, just as everyone else had been for so many years. Bored with touring, they announced the end of touring as a band in the fall of 1966. They would, instead, work in the studio to create new sounds. Working from December 1966 until April of 1967, with only 8 track equipment, they created an album that would revolutionize the way people thought of, and made, music.

The album was a smash, setting records (no pun intended) in every category. Music would never again be confined, as it had been, within time constraints and "permissable" uses of sound. This was the precursor to The Who's "Tommy" and Pink Floyds "concept" albums of the 1970's.

And the cover was, well, let's put it this way- the "normal" album cover of the time depicted a singer, or group, in a cute pose under the title. The cover of Sgt. Pepper was filled with imagery and symbolism. It was an intriquing work of art conceived by Peter Blake at the suggestion of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. They envisioned an imaginary band, Sgt. Pepper's, having just completed a concert in a park, with the crowd standing behind them. Peter Blake then asked for a list of notable people that they would like in the collage. John chose Jesus, Ghandi and Hitler. Ringo didn't care and George wanted all Hindu Gurus.

The end result featured Charlie Chaplin, WC Fields, Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, a host of others too long to enumerate and even the wax figures of The Beatles from Madame Tussauds. Originally Mae West turned down the offer to be on the cover, replying to Brian Epstein's letter "...what would I be doing in a Lonely Hearts Club?" Only a personal letter from the Fab Four was able to change her mind.

The album went on to change the course of music, both in the way we listen to it, and the way in which we perceive it visually. It broke bounds and made a place for itself in the history of recorded music.

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