Making 'Sgt. Pepper', Part 4: Enjoying the Show
    • MONDAY, JUNE 05, 2017

    • Posted by: Robert Steiner

    Welcome back to ‘Making Sgt. Pepper,' a four-part miniseries in honor of the legendary album's 50th anniversary. Part 1 covered the inspirations behind the album, Part 2 discussed the music itself, and Part 3 dissected the album's iconic cover. Today's final part will be an epilogue of sorts, discussing what happened after the album's release, and why it's remembered today as the sound of the Summer of Love.

    The Beatles could have put out literally anything for their eighth studio album, and people would have definitely listened. While gossip tabloids were quick to report that the band's retirement from touring and their half-year without new music surely spelled breakup, they were still the biggest band in the world. People would literally stop what they were doing for even the promise of a new Beatles tune. In that regard, Sgt. Pepper was likely always going to have some degree of success based on reputation alone, even it was a mediocre record. Luckily, Pepper wasn't a mediocre record, and it was far from a commercial dud.

    It was, in fact, a revolutionary record, one that no one expected from the same band behind "Love Me Do" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" – except, of course, for the band themselves. "After the record was finished, I thought it was great," Paul remembered in The Beatles Anthology, "And I was very pleased because a month or two earlier the press and the music papers had been saying, ‘What are The Beatles up to? Drying up, I suppose,' So it was nice, making an album like Pepper and thinking ‘Yeah, drying up, I suppose. That's right!'" The album debuted in the UK firmly at number one in the charts, and remained there for an unprecedented 22 weeks straight. Though the BBC famously banned handful of songs from the radio, stations in the US and Europe dedicated entire programs to playing the entire record uninterrupted from end to end. Pepper quickly became inescapable, but it worked out because many people seemed content with playing the record forever.

    The album was critically praised for being the most unique and creatively spectacular album of the year, if not the decade, but that isn't to say it had its naysayers. Richard Goldstein's New York Times review is the most high-profile and infamous negative review, offering some fantastic one-liners like "The sound is a pastiche of dissonance and lushness," and "Like an over-attended child, ‘Sergeant Pepper' is spoiled." But the occasional bad review didn't stop listeners from emptying out record store shelves, and it definitely didn't phase the band from stopping what they had created. "In those days, reviews weren't very important, because we had it made whatever happened," John said in an interview collected as part of Anthology, "Nowadays, I'm as sensitive as shit, and every review counts. But those days, we were too big to touch. I don't remember the reviews at all."

    In the long run, both good and bad reviews weren't of much importance, because what happened in the wake of Pepper became much bigger than the music, perhaps bigger than even the band had anticipated. The world was on the cusp of great change by the summer of 1967: Timothy Leary published The Psychedelic Experience three years before, which helped promote and popularize recreational drug use on a major scale, particularly with LSD. Though the Johnson administration had quietly begun to escalate military presence in Vietnam, many still felt that the war's end was on the horizon. San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district rose to prominence as a mythical utopia that welcomed all walks of life to its society of love, equality, and easily accessible psychedelics. Most importantly, a whole generation of Baby Boomers was turning 20, and these idealistic young adults wanted something more than what was promised by their parents' post-WWII lifestyle.

    Hope for the future was in the air in '67, and the day-glo hippie movement was poised to spread beyond the underground. So whether or not it was intentional, releasing Pepper on the first day of June couldn't have been better timing. These free-loving, optimistic kids suddenly had a soundtrack that matched their outlook: Playful, adventurous, unfettered, a desire to extend youthful euphoria into adulthood. Though Pepper started as the band's personal statement of free, artistic expression, the album in turn echoed the sentiment of the generation growing up with them. In these kids' eyes, the biggest band in the world had declared their support for peace, love, and uninhibited individuality, and just like that, the floodgates were opened. The Summer of Love had begun, and it was spreading across the world.

    It would be shortsighted to say Pepper was the first psychedelic rock album; the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and the Mothers Of Invention's Freak Out! were already released in 1966. But Pepper is one of the most important albums of the era because it brought everything we remember about the Summer of Love– the hippie idealism, the artistic freedom, the eye-popping fashion, the blatant defiance of societal expectations– to the forefront of popular culture. "There was definitely a movement of people," Paul said in Anthology, "All I'm saying is: we weren't really trying to cater for that movement- we were just being part of it, as we always had been. I maintain the Beatles weren't the leaders of the generation, but the spokesmen." In true trendsetter fashion, the same kids who grew out mop tops and bought "Beatle Boots" in 1963 were now growing mustaches and wearing colorful outfits in 1967.

    More importantly, artists and bands were now willing and able to experiment with their own work on a mainstream scale. "Sgt. Pepper seemed to capture the mood of that year, and it also allowed a lot of other people to kick off from there and really go for it," said Ringo in Anthology, and he wasn't wrong: After years of obscurity and struggling to get by, a young Jimi Hendrix now had the platform for his brand of music, something that was too surreal for rock n' roll and too abrasive for jazz or blues. He moved to London in 1966, recorded his debut album, and by 1967, was one of the biggest artists of the era. The Rolling Stones, always one to take the Beatles' lead, released their take on psychedelia, Their Satanic Majesty's Request, and though that period of their career didn't last long, it helped further legitimize the movement in the mainstream. Bands like Cream, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and countless others that channeled this new, wild sound found massive success beyond local scenes, and soon, 20-minute guitar jams, sitars, and anthems of peace and love became all the rage.

    It was a hopeful time to be an artist and a young person, and with the Beatles at the helm, it seemed that the age of romance and individuality could only get better, or at least, could get no worse. But we all know that, despite the best intentions and aspirations, the Summer of Love didn't last forever, and before the hippie era even ended, there were deep cracks under the surface that proved the movement was never going to last.

    Though Paul, John, and Ringo all enjoyed the culture at the time, George, who was never fully on board with Pepper to begin with, was the first to question the Summer of Love's apparent societal harmony. In August 1967, he visited Haight-Ashbury with his then-wife Patti Boyd, whose sister was living there at the time. "I went there expecting it to be a brilliant place, with groovy gypsy people making works of art and paintings and carvings in little workshops," he remembered in Anthology, "But it was full of horrible, spotty drop-out kids on drugs, and it turned me right off the whole scene." Though the Haight started off as a beacon of for young people, the reality was that San Francisco's homeless population was at crisis levels because of all the teenage runaways flooding the streets, and the easy access to acid left many kids burned out beyond repair. "It certainly showed me what was really happening in the drug culture. It wasn't what I'd thought– spiritual awakenings and being artistic– it was like alcoholism, like any addiction," he remembered.

    This experience in San Francisco became foreshadowing for the coming years, as the hazy veil of 1967 faded by the year's end to reveal the harsh reality of war, prejudice, and societal unrest. Any hope of the Vietnam War ending by the end of the 60s died with the Tet Offensive, which greatly escalated the battling and sent US public support for the war to an all-time low. There was too much injustice going on in the world to ignore, so many young people took action and demanded social change through protest. While there were many peaceful demonstrations, things became increasingly violent as tensions over the war mounted both at home and on the front. All of a sudden, it was in bad taste to retreat to your inward fantasies and sing about a make-believe world, which left bands like the Beatles in an awkward position.

    Having made a point to never get involved in politics, the band noticeably struggled to adjust to the changing times, as many looked to the "spokesmen of a generation" to reflect their concerns with the world. But the reality was that the Beatles had always been storytellers, giving listeners a brief escape from everyday life for a few minutes of love, happiness, and music. Unfortunately, young people didn't want escape in 1968; they wanted a voice. John became the most politically active of the four, staging protests with his new girlfriend Yoko Ono and writing songs like "Revolution," but even then, the Beatles failed to make their political opinions known, and that angered a great deal of people who looked up to them. By 1968, the public truly began to turn on the band, criticizing them for not commenting on current events while most other popular artists already had.

    As if the public's caustic gaze wasn't enough, the band also was slowly caving in from the inside. The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein, who had kept the band's lives in order since the very beginning, died suddenly in 1968, leaving the four aimless and fending for themselves for the first time in their careers. Without Epstein's guidance, they made a number of massive business mistakes, from the chaotic money-pit that was Apple Records to Lennon/McCartney losing all their publishing rights, which they have yet to fully regain to this day. During all of this, Paul continued to push for more creative power, as he started to do on Pepper, which caused the others to push back, as they felt they were becoming mere sidemen in Paul's band. They tried to ease tensions with a mediation retreat in India, but it didn't help much, and by the recording sessions for the next album, the four were working in separate studios.

    The resulting 1968 self-titled album is the antithesis of Pepper: Disorganized, aimless, and though still bursting with creativity, there's a sense of darkness and resignation across the whole album. Most striking of all, the album's cover is completely white; an unassuming blank slate devoid of the glowing brightness of Pepper. ‘The White Album' is the Beatles at their most unfiltered, containing both the absolute best and absolute worst songs they ever recorded, but at the time, the album was the most polarizing the band had ever created. Though some praised it as another example of unmatched creativity, many felt frustrated that the band was still attempting to retreat to fantasies while it was no longer the time or place to do so.

    Coinciding with the changing times, ‘The White Album' marks the end of the band's psychedelic era and the beginning of the final part of the band's story, one filled with fighting, broken relationships, and inevitably, a breakup. Paul tried to rally the band behind another one of his ideas– a back-to-basics, live-recorded album tentatively titled Get Back– but the band was done with letting Paul run the show. The four fought for the sessions' entirety, which eventually became 1970's Let It Be, and though they settled their differences for one last spectacular breath on 1969's Abbey Road, they didn't last much longer after that. On April 10th, 1970, Paul formally announced his departure from the band, and just like that, the Beatles ended with the decade they were so instrumental in defining.

    It's these later events, and the violent close to the 60s, that cause Pepper to be remembered, more than anything else, as a time capsule. A product of such a specific period in history, it's an album that's both timeless and yet could never be made in any other era. Even though the hippie utopia wasn't meant to be, Pepper remains a reminder of the glimmering hope young people felt at a time of unpredictable change, and 50 years on, it remains the pinnacle of musical expression. Even though it's not a youthful record by age, the record still seems to have a lot of life: The newly released remasters sound absolutely stunning, and for the first time since the 60s, Pepper is back on top of the charts.

    It's an interesting time to be revisiting this record, considering all that's happed after it was released and where the world is today. Like in 1968, 2017 may not seem like the time for escapism, but what people forget is that Pepper serves a much greater purpose than distraction. Even with its fantastical tendencies, Sgt. Pepper is a fine example of self-discovery, the result of four men looking for inward peace through outward expression. Even today, no matter what's going on in the world, just about anyone can relate to finding oneself, defining who you are for who you want to be and not what others project on you. Even though the sound of 1967 didn't last, Pepper survives and thrives because it continues to inspire self-expression half a century later. It was a long journey to make this album, and it's been a long journey since, but the show featuring Billy Shears, Lucy, and Mr. Kite goes on to this day, and will hopefully keep going for years to come.

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