Sunday, May 28, 2017

Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper' Album

Photo by Luiz Fernando Reis (Bealtes cor 36 on Flickr) 
Creative Commons License -


The Beatles made history with their music. In fact, they made history with almost everything that they did in the 1960's. That is why their music, and their legacy, has endured far longer and far stronger than that of any other band that was around during that era. Even bands that can be said to have had comparably large popularity and/or influence - and it is a select few like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Who and the Rolling Stones, maybe - cannot be said to have laid the groundwork for all of rock and roll, and indeed, pop culture, for many years to come after, like the Beatles did. 

Think about it. The Beatles reached levels of popularity in the early 1960's in Britain on a level that no one had seen before. Then, they were the first of the British Invasion bands to make it big in America, and the cameras and radios followed their every move when they visited in early 1964. Their performances on the Ed Sullivan Show revealed the extent of their popularity to the entire nation, as throngs of screaming teenage girls virtually drowned the music out. It was like that for several years, too. When they did the first outdoor concert, which happened to be the first stadium concert, at Shea Stadium in New York City, the crowd actually did effectively drown them out. Yet, everyone had a good time, and outdoor concerts would become a thing. 

Indeed, the Beatles produced more hits than anyone else, and many of these now are classics that have withstood the test of time. 'Yesterday' is the most covered song in history, and 'Hey Jude' is often considered the greatest rock song in history. Those are only two of their most memorable songs, and they have an enormous library of popular songs to choose from in their repertoire, and that is just as The Beatles. Their solo careers also were tremendously successful, as well. None of them ever had to deal with serious obscurity, or anything, for their legend was secured by simply being a part of the most legendary rock band in history.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Beatles was that they were able to completely change styles, and did so seamlessly. It was not viewed as some kind of cop out or sell out. When you think of the Beatles, you might think of their mop top days, when they were singing before those throngs of teenagers at the Ed Sullivan Show, or before the assembled crowd at Shea Stadium. Or, you might think of a few years after that, when they were doing all of those movies, and just beginning to experiment a bit more with their music, yet while still retaining that older influence and feel. Or, you might think of the later Beatles, with longer hair and facial hair, and clearly experimenting with drugs. They were kind of the first band to include guitar distortions, although the first one seems quite mild by way of comparison to what was to come just a couple of years later. They started to push the boundaries a bit with Revolver, an album that began to sound quite different than anything that they, or anyone else, had done before. And they experimented more and more over time, adding influences from India, and growing ever freakier still.

When you think about them performing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand' during their first visit to America in February of 1964, and then you think about their image and their songs in their last albums, such as the White album or 'Abbey Road,' the changes are quite remarkable. Really, it both looks and sounds like two different, probably even radically different, bands altogether. That is what was arguably most amazing about this particular band, their seemingly effortless ability to transform themselves and their image successfully. Tons of bands have tried the same things, with considerably less success.

Of course, most people point to the 'Sgt. Pepper' album as the major breakthrough of this transition. The last vestiges of those earlier, seemingly more innocent Beatles that they had been before were essentially broken with this album. It tested the bounds of their abilities in terms of musicianship, experimentation, lyrics, etc.. Even the cover art was unique, unlike anything that had come before! And frankly, it was a great album, destined to be a huge influence on pretty much all the rock 'n roll music to come, and that point in the 1960's was ripe for an explosion of creative new music, and new sounds. 

We are now celebrating the 50th anniversary of this legendary album! That's right, it has been fully half a century since it was released, and made such an indelible mark on many musicians, and perhaps even on popular culture in general. The Beatles were experimenting on almost every level (yes, with drugs as well), and they slowly but surely were growing more activist, as well. This was perhaps necessary, as the 1960's were obviously a famously turbulent time, particularly in the United States, but really around the world. The Civil Rights movement was going full swing, JFK was the first and biggest of a strong of political assassinations that more or less tapered off with JFK's younger brother, RFK. Students were holding peace rallies and sit-ins. In France, in Czechoslovakia, and other countries, there were near revolutions. And, of course, there was the scourge of the Vietnam War, casting a shadow over all of this, on many levels.

Music, and art in general, was an outlet for the frustrations and fears and hopes and dreams of people back then, especially young people. And the Beatles were probably the biggest of these activists musicians, learning their lesson from Bob Dylan. Before long, John Lennon was having bed ins and came up with the anthem, 'Give Peace a Chance.' It was a new day, and the Beatles stepped up and not only lived up to their times, but indeed, rose above it, to give people of all political and social stripes not only hope, but some great music to enjoy now for well over half a century!

Here's to the 50th anniversary of one of the greatest rock albums of all time - 'Sgt. Pepper!"

Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper' at 50: John Lennon's Accidental 'Getting Better' Acid Trip by Jordan Runtagh, May 19, 2017:

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