It was fifty years ago today . . .


This summer marks the 50th anniversary re-release of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a recording so unlike any other of theirs up to that date that it brought about a major shift not only in the band's image but society as a whole. Fans were made inclusive not only as listeners, but comrades in a sort of generational battle; politics, ageism, the war, sexual freedom, drug experimentation, etc. Having said that, Sgt. Pepper was a huge step away from their usual body of work, so much that some said it felt contrived and had been made only for commercial reasons. With John's controversial remarks in a British rag "We're more popular than Jesus now" a year before, the band was indeed up for renewal.

With touring over, the need to consider what sounded good with four instruments was gone and the band's inspirations went wide: the rafters weren't the limits, the Universe was, and wielding such a producer/arranger as George Martin they could get any sound they wanted. Contrived wasn't the right word for what they were doing. More like, inspired. Unhinged.

But what many people don't know is that the album was a love letter to Brian Wilson, head of The Beach Boys, an American counterpoint with hot rods and bikinis as his cultural backdrop. Brian was an offbeat genius with a knack for the macabre melody, but often he turned out soft and safe versions of his psychopathy. Paul McCartney says the album Pet Sounds, released in May 1966, was an inspiration for him and the rest of the band because of it euphonious layers, but what's funny is Pet Sounds was a love letter to Rubber Soul, released in 1965. Then consider Smile a response to Sgt. Pepper--it's an unending correspondence, like a pony express rider galloping back and forth between sound-waves.

Pet Sounds was never truly given its full credit as an inspiration, or as an album. The painstakingly layered tracks are often tuned out for its Coppertone beach jingle catchiness, but those who admire the work admit there's something hypnotic and intense that goes far beyond the outer layers. The songs are tightly written, the vocals divine, and there's almost a sad confessional quality to the whole thing. Within the layers a man descends into madness, but in the most beautiful way.

When I hear Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, I hear playfulness laughing in the face of war and social upheaval. I hear change and gypsy caravans riding through a grim Victorian street. But I also hear Brian Wilson's impeccable soul-baring genius, like a cricket dying out within a late fall blizzard. Now it is summer, the Summer of Love, and soon everything transforms into a meadow and the gates of a new world open wide.

If you love one, you should listen to the other.

Thanks for reading and I wish you a wonderful day!


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