Looking Back, What Are We To Make of Sgt. Pepper's?

Few record albums have quite the same grasp on the soul of an aging “Baby Boomer” as does the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ask “where were you when you first heard the album?” and their answer will be as detailed as would be the answer of a WW II veteran when asked where and how he first learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor, or a younger person, “where were you when you first heard about the Twin Trade Towers?”

It thus comes as some shock to most “boomers” when they learn that among younger generations Sgt. Pepper’s is not held in universally high esteem.

This aging rocker recently confronted that fact on a forum popular with guitarists of all ages. The negative comments about the album certainly called for a response. But what response? Can an older person who came of age during the sixties make one that is fair and unbiased? I had to try. But first I had to think.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was, and is, to my generation, more than a record album or (later) CD. It was, and is, for many, the punctuation point that marked a major change in our society: the period at the end of the sentence that was the fifties.

To a younger audience this would have to be explained.

Most American youths growing up in the 1950s knew a stability and security that is today unimaginable. We didn’t lock our doors, we wandered freely without fear and we (this may be the hardest part to imagine) completely trusted our government. Those of us growing up at that time accepted this as the natural state of human affairs. It was our world.

All of that changed in what seemed to be but a moment: JFK’s assassination, followed by the nation’s involvement in the horrors of the Vietnam War. Which side one took is/was not the issue here (although we would have argued that at the time), it was the fact that we took sides against one-another.

Suddenly many of us felt in our heart that we could trust no one except our friends — guys and gals just as shocked and bewildered as we were.

And then came the Beatles of Sgt. Pepper. No longer just mop-topped musicians there to entertain us (“and now for the youngsters in our audience…” -Ed Sullivan), but our voice.

Thus when we – those of my generation — listen to a song such as “She’s Leaving Home” or “A Day in the Life”  we hear it, even now over 45 years later, in the context of those times — and we re-experience our emotional state then through such songs. That is equally a wrenching and a glorious experience. It is our pain John, Paul, George and Ringo are/were singing and playing about. It is our fears and hopes and dreams they are/were expressing.

That is half of the story, but only half. What about the music itself? It is that which younger people hear and experience when they put on the album, CD or (more likely these days) play the sound file. How shall it be judged?

In the end that is what will matter — the music itself — not the remembered angst, or the feelings of belonging, of now-arthritic folks who are, or shortly may be, walking with canes. And in that light Sgt. Pepper’s is found to be, frankly, a mixed bag.

“She’s Leaving Home” – which seemed so touching and real to boomers at the time — is in truth, well, rather trite, both lyrically and musically, especially when compared to, say, the Beatles earlier song “Eleanor Rigby.”  “When I’m Sixty-Four” comes off as sweet, nostalgic pop, little more.

But other songs on Sgt. Pepper’s, when looked at from this distance, still hold up as art. “A Day in the Life” remains without peer, musically inventive and imaginative, an example of great storytelling through the use of seemingly unrelated images.

George’s “Within You and Without You” is sublime, both in his use of words and musical expression – and this is so whether or not one buys into its Eastern message.

Put aside the history. Put aside the emotional connection. Put aside the inter-generational politics. Decide to just talk about the music and you can talk about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band for hours. And that fact itself tells us that Sgt. Pepper’s was and is a monumental album.