Forty-five years ago Friday an event took place that shattered Western pop culture and changed it forever.
The Beatles released their much-anticipated album “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” -- a record widely regarded as the greatest and most influential piece of pop music of all time.
For the Beatles, the record represented a kind of point of no return – after having relinquished touring (they had become so big by 1966 that they had no financial nor practical incentive to tour any longer), they could spend lengthy hours, days, weeks and even months in the studio indulging at their own discretion.
More importantly, they no longer had to adhere to the stale image of being wholesome, cheeky, clean-cut chaps who sang about teenagers in love. Quite the contrary, by ‘Pepper’ they were hairier than ever, moustachioed and looked quite dazed and cynical about fame, wealth and their incomprehensible power over the youth of the world.
Given their unprecedented popularity, The Beatles could now freely discuss sex and drugs (and any other controversial topic) without fear of compromising their careers and present themselves as they really were (well, almost).
However, I must say, that while ’Pepper’ is undoubtedly a tremendous record, it has not aged well over the past four- and-a-half decades, nor was it really as ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘innovative’ as I once thought.
For example, as far as The Beatles’ experimentation with drugs was concerned, they were indulging in illegal narcotics at least two years before ‘Pepper’ was even conceived. The album ‘Help!’ from 1965 (when they still looked like the nice lads next door) was recorded in a haze of marijuana smoke, while their next album from later that year, the magnificent ‘Rubber Soul’ was practically an ode to cannabis.
Their subsequent entry from 1966, ‘Revolver’ went ever deeper into drug-induced consciousness, with trippy songs like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ and ‘Rain,’ among others.
But it appeared that the Beatles (or perhaps their image-conscious manager, Brian Epstein) wanted to go slow in revealing to the world that the most popular musicians on the planet were zonked out of their minds half the time.
Thus, ‘Pepper’ was the culmination of a lengthy and hidden process --- perhaps the record seemed shocking at the time to the public partially because the album cover presented an entirely new iteration of the Fab Four (in wildly colorful, psychedelic gear, and even pretending to be “another band”).
As a lifelong Beatles fan, I have always had mixed feelings about the ‘Pepper’ album, and do not share the public’s inexhaustible admiration of the record. My ‘suspicions’ and skepticism were confirmed when I read about the circumstances behind its recording.
‘Pepper’ is not really a Beatles record – rather it was a Paul McCartney/George Martin extravaganza (with the other three Beatles merely serving as studio musicians).
Indeed, the entire idea behind ‘Pepper’ was Paul’s and he was the only Beatle who has championed the record in subsequent years.
John Lennon was particularly hostile to the record for the rest of his life, complaining that the “concept” (of the Beatles being another band) was never fully developed and he had never warmed up to the idea anyway.
For John, he was at a crossroads anyway -- due to his crippling drug addiction and his unhappy dull suburban marriage to Cynthia, his control of the group was slipping away (a vortex that Paul happily and aggressively filled).
George Harrison, already deeply resentful of Paul’s overbearing domination of recording sessions, was also less than enthusiastic about the album.
The generally good-natured Ringo Stare even complained that he spent much of the marathon six-month ‘Pepper’ recording sessions playing chess with the technicians or bored out of his mind while McCartney and producer Martin meticulously created magic in the control room with special effects and other recording gimmicks.
Thus, the cracks in The Beatles’ facade were already starting to show – and they would explode within the next two years.
But the truly amazing thing was that, while the group was clearly moving away from each other amidst enormous amount of grumbling and feuding, the last two years of their career features an astounding production of pop music that will last forever – Magical Mystery Tour, The White Album, Abbey Road and the eternally classic singles Hey Jude and Let it Be, among other gems.
‘Pepper’ was in a sense, the beginning of the end for the greatest pop music group the world has ever seen.