Go to the archives

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

By Joe DePreta
Published: Jun 04, 2017
Category: Rock

Guest Butler Joe DePreta, a frequent contributor to Head Butler, is a New York marketing executive and writer on cultural trends. He wrote a riveting take for Butler on Lennon: The Man, the Myth, the Music, The Definitive Life. He’s been published in Rolling Stone, MediaPost, AdWeek and other publications. He’s currently finishing his first novel, “The Final Lapse.”

It was 50 years ago this week that “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released, and, as the cliché has it, popular music has never been the same. Only the sociological conceits have been updated — “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” is now automatically connected to Trump’s America. (The reflex answer: apparently not.) But although this anniversary of what Rolling Stone calls “the greatest album of all time” has generated plenty of armchair analyses for all, “Sgt. Pepper” has — for me, anyway — an overwhelmingly personal impact, blessedly void of political blather.

The album’s emotional revelation for me was eerily similar to a pivotal scene in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” Young William, Crowe’s alter ego, was seeing his older sister make her escape from a controlling and judgmental mother. As she kisses her little brother adios, she whispers in his ear, “Look under your bed. It will set you free.” When he goes upstairs, he opens a valise, to reveal…

… yes, key groundbreaking albums. Of course, William goes on to be a top music critic for Rolling Stone, having reached his own epiphany.

I picture myself in 1967, a Catholic schoolboy, happy (seemingly) and immersed in sports, admiring girls from afar, bucking up to the occasional ruler thwacks from Nazi nuns from hell, and losing myself in music. Music, the mystical connector of the wild hearts of the young.

And then came the Seminal Day. I was following a pretty, older girl out the exit of St. Mary’s elementary at the end of another day of tension-filled threats interrupted by respites like English class and recess. Out of her book bag, a kaleidoscopic image peeked out: the top half of an album cover. In the middle of a mosaic suffused with iconoclasts (i.e. Mailer, Monroe, Burroughs, others) stood the Beatles in iridescent Nehru jackets. They appeared regal yet irreverent, a death-becomes-us kind of look in their eyes: an album cover as art installation.

But it was what waited on vinyl that would eventually free me from the soul-numbing bondage of parochial school and its narrow judgments, as well as the confections of mommy-approved, candy-colored pop. [To buy the remastered CD of “Sgt. Pepper” from Amazon and get a free MP3 version of this album, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

It has been widely reported that Brian Wilson’s “Pet Sounds,” a conceptual tone poem to teenage love and the loss of innocence, had a major influence on the creation of “Sgt. Pepper.” Its songs were uniquely linked by intricate production and harmonies, of isolation and the swift passing of the Kennedy era. It was unlike anything heard before, an incongruous juxtaposition of upbeat tempos matched with melancholy longing, a critical if not commercial achievement at the time. (Mainstream American ears are often late to the progressive party.)

Lennon and McCartney, along with genius producer George Martin, reportedly listened to “Pet Sounds” twice in one sitting. They were then inspired to… well, beat the Yanks. Cloistering in the Abbey Road studio to escape Beatlemania and create something otherworldly, the result changed the popular music ecosystem, and how we would listen to music, forever.

I convinced my working class parents to give me the money to buy “Sgt. Pepper” the next day. I can still recall walking into the Phonograph Shop, taking the album out of the rack, hands shaking with anticipation. The back cover listed the tracks. The song titles alone conveyed mystery, adding to the ambiguity of the cover design. What is this? Who is Sgt. Pepper? I had an odd premonition from the surface that, once I got to the essence, something extraordinary would present itself. Finally home, it took me a long time to get the cellophane off the album jacket — there was considerable anxious fumbling, great care taken not to taint the cover design. When I finally placed the record on the turntable, I put on the headphones, a sacrosanct gift from a much older sibling… and went into a trance for the next 40 minutes.

Some songs sounded like they were the words or poets, the music often symphonic. Others spoke to me with an “If you don’t get it, fuck off” sort of challenging esoterica. Still others were invitations to play them over and over until every note became my bridge from boredom and suppression to a pathway that led to critical thinking and a sense of freedom. Even if my thinking at the time was naive, or my interpretations juvenile, it was pure deliverance just by getting me to think at all — a link to legitimate art and independence, an invitation to look for meaning in music that would help shape an intellectual curiosity the nuns were incapable of shaping.

The defining moment of the album, then and now, is the final track, “A Day in the Life.”

While “Sgt. Pepper” is a concept album with an underpinning of cautious optimism, “A Day in the Life” closes the album with foreboding and despair, a dystopian final piano chord with a seemingly endless sustain. Its intent is still debated. But the song goes on forever.