(Above: Odds are good that I don’t have to explain what this is.)
Much has been written, and will be written yet, about the anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. June 1 is the anniversary of the American release, as it was out in Britain for several days before that. But, from the U.S. point of view, it was fifty years ago today that the LP came out and changed the way radio looked at rock and roll, in a very real sense. My connection to the LP is a little different, and – not yet attaining the age of fifty – necessarily shorter.
(I just realized – the opening line of the first track says “It was twenty years ago today,” so it would now be seventy years since Sgt. Pepper worked with the band. Mull that over.)
The LP contained no hit singles. This was not a Beatles first; technically, Rubber Soul, as released in the U.S., yielded no Top 40 product, either. This was a record meant to be consumed all at once, and in sum total. The various stories about the LP are part legend, part reality.
-The story about the LP being inspired by the challenge to outdo Pet Sounds is debatable, but the fact that Brian Wilson was driven to a breakdown during the creation of Smile, the answer LP, is not.
-The second to the last sound on the album was intended for only Paul’s dogs to hear. It’s a high-pitched tone that occurs right before the weird sounds in the runout track. (In order to hear those, you need an original copy of the LP and a manual phonograph.) Both were re-created on the CD re-release; I suspect the tone for dogs was recorded at too low a frequency, since I could plainly hear it. (If you’ve not heard either, you can hear it – forwards and backwards – here. Warning: it’s a bit annoying, and I don’t know if in reverse it really says “Will Paul be back as Superman? I leave that up to you.)
-The story told in “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is real – sort of. John Lennon found an antique poster for a show performed on February 14, 1843 at Pablo Fanque’s Circus Royal in Rochdale. Among the acts: Mr. J. Henderson, who turned somersaults (“21 on solid ground!”), the horse Zanthus, who I believe was renamed Henry, and Mr. Kite performing with Mr. Henderson on the trampoline – “Over Men and Horses, through Hoops, over Garters, and lastly through a Hogshead of REAL FIRE!” You can see the poster here.
Now, for the “forty years ago today” part: that’s when I realized that this was a pretty significant piece of music. I was eight years old on June 1, 1977, the tenth anniversary fo the album’s release. I was also a regular listener by that time to WLS in Chicago, and not just sneaking a transistor at night to listen for another John Landecker “boogie check.” During the day on June 1 the station thought to honor the anniversary by playing songs from the album. I knew the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” track from hearing my parents play their copy of the LP but hadn’t yet paid the rest any mind. When I heard that song coming out the radio that afternoon – and not the expected strains of “Gonna Fly Now” – the #1 song on the May 28 survey – or Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” (#4), I suspected something was up. Later that evening, when I heard “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” and decided that I liked it, I sought out my parents’ copy of the LP and tracked it all the way through on my tiny little Panasonic phonograph (the one in the blog’s cover photo.)
I didn’t like all of the LP at first, but I liked most of what I heard. An eight-year-old’s musical sensibilities are partially-formed at best. (Case in point: later that summer I purchased 45 copies of Shaun Cassidy’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” and Alan O’Day’s “Undercover Angel.” There was work to be done.) Repeated plays of the LP had me giving extra listening time to “Getting Better” and “Lovely Rita” and skipping over “Within You Without You” and “She’s Leaving Home” (a song that Dick Biondi once explained to me was one of his all-time favorite recordings). I liked what I heard enough to want to hear more. The remaining Beatle LPs that belonged to my parents – Magical Mystery Tour, Rubber Soul, and Help – were all relocated to my room. (My parents had a fancy new 8-track console in the living room and didn’t miss them.) Eventually I started saving my allowance and birthday money to purchase re-issues for the LPs that were missing. Beatle mixtapes were created in high school. And, of course, in 25 years in full-time radio, I can’t begin to estimate how many of their songs I played for audiences, perhaps containing unknown eight-year-olds hearing the songs over the air for the first time.
So, while many are celebrating a major milestone today for a great LP – and rightfully so – I’m looking at a slightly different anniversary for it. If you get a chance today, put the LP on and give it a listen. Imagine hearing it through fresh ears. That’s my plan – to look for my parents’ original copy (which I still have), and think of what I’ve learned, experienced, and enjoyed in the last forty years.