It Was 40 Years Ago…
No one outranks Sgt. Pepper
BY RAFER GUZMÁN
June 3, 2007
Every few years, rock critics like myself are asked to mark the anniversary of the greatest album of all time, The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." This year, with that classic disc reaching the ripe old age of 40, I had an idea: What better way to celebrate than to hear it the way it was meant to be heard - on vinyl, spinning atop a turntable?
In June 1967, when the album was released, that would have been a simple task. In 2007, however, it proved tricky. I had to make a few calls to find anyone who possessed the album, as opposed to the CD. I also had to hunt around for a turntable.
But with a little help from my friends, I succeeded - and on a warm night in late May, a group of folks gathered with me at Sabella Recording Studios in Roslyn Heights to take a journey with Lucy, Mr. Kite, Lovely Rita and the gang.
Our group ranged in age from early teens to mid-50s, providing a gamut of perspectives. Jim Sabella, 56, is the owner of Sabella Studios. John Sullivan, 43, a Garden City rock musician and novelist, brought the album, which he borrowed from a friend. Danny Ross, 22, is a budding pianist-songwriter from Melville. The youngest listener was Sullivan's 15-year-old son, Dylan, who had never heard "Sgt. Pepper's" at all.
We began by bombarding Dylan with Beatles trivia and discussing the album's backstory: In 1965, The Beatles' "Rubber Soul" lit a competitive spark in The Beach Boys, who actually held prayer sessions to ask God for an album as good. The result was their heady 1966 disc "Pet Sounds." That gave The Beatles an even higher hurdle to clear, and they did so with "Sgt. Pepper's," which was released in the United States on June 1, 1967.
We wondered why every concept album that came afterward, from Pink Floyd's "The Wall" to Green Day's "American Idiot," never surpassed "Sgt. Pepper's." We decided that The Beatles were not only brilliant, they were first.
Later bands outdid them in terms of complexity and technology, but there's no way to recreate the stunning impact of an innovation.
With that, Sabella plopped the disc onto a Thorens TD 165 turntable connected to a pair of Altec Big Red speakers, and we sat back to listen.
As the title track established the album's theme - a "concert" of sorts - Ross noted that this concept album doesn't have much of a concept. "Any of these songs could be on any of the other albums," he said. "But because they said, 'We're Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,' and because they were The Beatles, they got away with it."
Next came Ringo Starr singing the wry, slightly risque "With a Little Help From My Friends," followed by the foggy, dreamy "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Ross, who had only heard the album on CD, had an epiphany: "There are some effects in here I've never heard before," he said, noting George Harrison's distorted guitar and John Lennon's hazy vocals.
We tapped our toes to "Getting Better," then drifted into "Fixing a Hole." Next came "She's Leaving Home," a poignant short story set to music. "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" didn't elicit many comments: Perhaps the song's circus motif, so popular in the psychedelic '60s, seemed dated. [On edit: Personally, this is my favorite track on the album]
And then Sabella did something many of us hadn't done in years, and others of us had never done at all: He picked up the album and flipped it over.
Now we discussed side two's opening track, Harrison's raga drone "Within You, Without You." I judged it a weak spot, but Sullivan disagreed: "This is like the intermission during the show when I go out and get my popcorn," he said. "Then I come back, and I'm ready for a whole new thing."
The mood shifted with the jaunty "When I'm Sixty-Four," followed by "Lovely Rita," with its intentionally wobbly piano lines. Sabella held up a finger: "Right here," he said, indicating the moment when the song switches from upbeat pop tune to bizarre sexual freak-out.
That led to "Good Morning Good Morning." We got a kick out the daffy animal noises and especially the last stray chicken-cluck that morphs into a guitar-squeal, kicking off the fast-moving reprise of the title track.
Then we braced ourselves for the existential grandeur of "A Day in the Life." Of the opening drumrolls, Ross whispered, "I get the chills every time." We fell silent, concentrating on Lennon's mournful verses and McCartney's quick-paced interludes. The orchestra reached its unbearable crescendo, and at least one of us visibly shuddered at the whomping piano chord that ended the album. (Indeed, it seemed to end everything.) Lasting nearly one minute, it's perhaps the most famous final chord in pop history.
For some reason, we all turned to Dylan. "What did you think?" I asked him. I noticed he was curiously inspecting the album's colorful, gatefold sleeve, much the way kids his age probably did 40 years ago.
"It was better than a lot of the stuff I listen to," he admitted. "It was different."
Outtake from the 'Sgt. Pepper' photo sessions, 30 March 1967