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'Sgt. Pepper' at 40

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Peppers_l

Peppers_lThere’s a lot of irony to the celebrations today of the 40th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles’ landmark record could have been the beginning of something grand, an era in which ears, minds, and imaginations opened and grew wide with possibility; in hindsight, however, it seems more like the last gasp of a vibe that, even as early as 1967’s “Summer of Love,” was already giving way to a sensibility more hollow-eyed, desperate, and mercenary. As rock critic Greil Marcus wrote in 1978, “Sgt. Pepper was a Day-Glo tombstone for its time.”

Sgt. Pepper routinely tops best-albums-of-all-time lists, and it probably will until all the rock critics of Marcus’ generation die off. I’m not sure it’s even the best Beatles’ album; track for track, its 1966 predecessor Revolver is better. Sgt. Pepper is usually called the first concept album (though I think Frank Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours had it beat by a decade) or the first rock opera (no, that would be the Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow).

Still, it’s a remarkable achievement, a song-suite that, overall,continues to offer an incredibly rich listening experience even after40 years of repeat listens. (All the more remarkable for being recordedon what today seems like fairly primitive four-track analog equipment.)If Sgt. Pepper’s pied-piper call to escape to a land of higherconsciousness ultimately failed to change the culture, it certainlychanged the way music was recorded. It pioneered the idea of the studioas a musical instrument, and it made the LP into the basic unit of popconsumption, transforming the industry from singles-driven toalbum-driven. It suggested a future of sonic and lyricalexperimentation, though almost no one would take up that flag, not eventhe Beatles themselves, who would never make another album as cohesiveas Sgt. Pepper.

Today, the notion of a work like Sgt. Pepper is hard to grasp — whocan imagine such an ambitious musical gesture, an album of largelyexperimental music that nonetheless makes a grand, inviting statementand becomes hugely popular? Thanks to the digital revolution, mixingsoftware now covers a multitude of an artist’s flaws and inadequacies,and the album as a unit is all but dead as MP3s have made thethree-minute song the basic pop unit once again. No one dares anymoreto dream as big as the Beatles did.

What must it be like for younger listeners today, the ones who don’t have Sgt. Pepperall but imprinted on their DNA, to hear it for the first time? (Beatlesproducer George Martin made a valiant effort to make the group’s musicsound new and surprising again with last year’s remix CD Love,but for most of us, it’s impossible to go back to a time before theBeatles were in our bloodstream.) Still, the original artifact beckons,waiting for new listeners to discover its whimsical, chaotic glories.Can it still awaken in them a dream of something mysterious and grand,a splendid time guaranteed for all?

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