Monday, May 29, 2017

Sgt Pepper: Utopian Visions

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Beatles album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band.  Most commentators have written on whether it was the "greatest" Beatle album and then smugly tell you it's the most overrated music ever made. Let's not even go there.

To quote Peter Fonda from The Limey (1999):

Did you ever dream about a place you never really recall being to before? A place that maybe only exists in your imagination? Some place far away, half remembered when you wake up. When you were there, though, you knew the language. You knew your way around. *That* was the sixties. (Pause)

No. It wasn't that either. It was just '66 and early '67. That's all there was.

By that logic, and a fine logic it is, the release of Pepper marked the end of the 1960s, prophecy of some new age.  Certainly not the age that followed, nor the one we are in now, but someday maybe.

German philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote of how systems destroy radical ideas by making them banal.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's happened.  The Beatles, those mop top rascals who sent shockwaves of fear into nascent red America, are now about as offensive as a Friends rerun.

But Pepper survives as a Utopian vision, as Ian MacDonald's brilliant study of the Beatles Revolution in the Head pointed out, the album created a civilizational "contact high." 

So listen to Sgt. Pepper. Step into the time machine. Enjoy the philosophical interplay between John and Paul on "Getting Better" or George's jaunty guitar on "Fixing a Hole." Picture the imaginative characters Mr. Kite, Lovely Rita, Billy Shears, or Lucy in the Sky. "Within You, Without You" stands alongside anything in the New Testament. 

The first twelve tracks are mere rehearsal for the magisterial conclusion of "A Day in the Life." MacDonald wrote of the song:

The message is that life is a dream and we have the power, as dreamers, to make it beautiful (230).

Listening to Sgt. Pepper in 2017 cannot be experienced the way it was in 1967, yet the magic remains.  As the Beatles themselves said on the opening track, "they've going in and out of style, but they're guaranteed to raise a smile."