It’s too bad that I came across Sgt. Pepper for academic reasons. Not that school had anything to do with it, because when I was fifteen or sixteen I decided that if I was ever going to learn anything about music, I was just going to have to teach myself. (It’s worth noting, however, that I never officially embarked on some kind of musical quest. It just kind of came naturally.) Something you may be surprised to hear me admit: until Rolling Stone published their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, I had never heard of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I figured something by the Beatles would top the list, but I was only familiar with their excellent compilation 1, which houses none of Sgt. Pepper’s’ 13 songs. (As an aside, isn’t it incredible that 1 manages to be so amazing without any songs from Sgt. Pepper, The White Album or Rubber Soul?)
The obligatory question: is Sgt. Pepper the greatest album of all time, as Rolling Stone claims? To answer that, I have to first address a perhaps more pertinent question: is Sgt. Pepper even the Beatles’ best album? I think most would agree that at least Revolver is better. I would argue that Rubber Soul is maybe their most important one, at least musically, since they would never again display such obvious growth. Abbey Road might be their grandest; The White Album their messiest yet most diverse. So the question remains: is Sgt. Pepper the greatest album of all time? My answer: undoubtedly. Its release was a defining moment in the development of modern Western civilization, and no other album can come close to touching it because of that. In my introduction to this list I wrote:
I’ve actually been reading a lot recently about a theory about generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. It’s pretty long-winded and complicated so I won’t go into too much detail, but basically there are four types of generations, with each generation spanning roughly 20 years, and each entire generational cycle (called a saeculum – Latin for “a long human life” or “a natural century”) lasts roughly 80 years. They have been able to document this cycle repeating for centuries. It’s a pretty compelling theory, to say the least, and it’s worth a look when you’ve got the time.
I mention it because it provides important context. It explains why a major crisis occurs every 80 years or so (9/11 and the war on terror and subsequent economic meltdown, the Great Depression and World War II, the Civil War, the Revolutionary War, the Glorious Revolution, etc.) and also why a major spiritual awakening occurs every 80 years or so and occurs right smack in between crises. The last awakening was during the ‘60s and ‘70s, which featured rock and roll and pop music at its height. There’s a reason why music actually was better back then. We as a people were experiencing an artistic renaissance.
There are four “seasons” to each generational cycle: a High, an Awakening, an Unraveling, and a Crisis. Our current generational cycle, the Millennial Cycle, began when World War II, the previous cycle’s crisis, ended. The world was broken, shattered by a world war, the largest economic collapse the world has ever seen, and a second world war with an ending punctuated by no less than the first (and so far, only) use of nuclear warfare. But somehow we emerged the victor as a superpower, and society quickly solidified during an “I Like Ike” post-war High. The curtain would lift on the Cold War, however, under the more-fragile-than-he-appeared JFK, whose Cuban Missile Crisis fiasco and ultimate assassination ended an era of American optimism as history (particularly the subsequent Vietnam War) increasingly played out on newly purchased black-and-white television sets.
The Kennedy assassination was one of the most seismic moments of twentieth century America, as (at least according to my parents) it used to be you could ask anyone where they were when they heard about it. (Now, most people are too young, and 9/11 has largely replaced the Kennedy assassination as the subject when that question is asked.) But within months, Beatlemania had swept the nation and the Millennial Cycle’s Awakening was in full swing. In just a few short years, a true social revolution had taken hold, with mind-expanding drugs and free love spreading rapidly among youth in Western culture. Rules were being broken, the Establishment was collapsing, and Sgt. Pepper, the album that broke all the rules musically (e.g., the conceit that the Beatles were pretending to be a different band, which allowed them to creatively do whatever they wanted), legitimized it all.
Not only did it kick start the Summer of Love when it was released on June 2, 1967 (though many stores in the UK released it as early as May 26), but it was a global event, a phenomenon of astounding magnificence. (It’s also worth noting that Sgt. Pepper was the first Beatles album to be released with the same track listing in the UK and US.) By all accounts the world stopped turning when the album dropped. It was really the first album to be an event and sell like it did. Nowadays an international release is par for the course — so much so, in fact, that it’s impossible to imagine the music industry surviving without being able to lean on international markets. (The television and film industries are likewise propped up by non-domestic revenue streams. Today’s ultra corporate reality just seems so much harsher.) I was reading through Eric Clapton’s autobiography a few years ago and, well, his description of what happened when Sgt. Pepper was released is pretty awesome:
It was at the Speakeasy, around this time, that I had my first LSD trip. I was in the club with my girlfriend Charlotte when the Beatles came in with an acetate of their new album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Shortly after, the Monkees wandered in, and one of them started handing out these pills, which he said were called STP. I had no idea what that was, but somebody explained that it was a superstrong acid, which would last for several days. We all took it, except for Charlotte, who we both agreed should stay straight in case of any emergency, and shortly after that, George gave the DJ the acetate to play. Even though I was not overawed in the least by the Beatles, I was aware that this was a very special moment in time for anyone that was there. Their music had been gradually evolving over the years, and this album was expected by everybody to be their masterpiece. It was also supposedly written under the influence of acid, so it was an amazing experience to be listening to it in the condition we were in. (p. 84)
His comments about the experience on the next page are also, uh, interesting:
I stayed high for three more days. I couldn’t sleep and was seeing the most extraordinary things. Without Charlotte’s guidance I probably would have gone mad. Most of my vision seemed to be through a glass screen with hieroglyphics and mathematical equations painted on it, and I remember I couldn’t eat meat because it looked just like the animal. For a time I was a bit concerned about whether it was ever going to wear off. (p. 85)
Times were just different back then. As much as I wish I had been around to experience rock & roll’s greatest years, I’m probably just as glad that I grew up in an age where literally everything is at your fingertips. It’s a fair trade off. It may mean I’ll never know what the cultural climate was like when Sgt. Pepper was released, because like I said at the start, it really is too bad that I listened to the Beatles’ albums for academic reasons. It just means that while I like their albums a lot, they’ll never mean as much to me as 1, and while 1 had an enormous impact on me (it was how I discovered the Beatles), it wasn’t eligible for this list.