Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, one of rock and roll's most important albums ever, turned 50 years old last week.
The album, recorded in Abbey Road Studios Two in London, was released on May 26, 1967 in the UK and on June 2 in the US.
It's fair to say that Sgt. Pepper's introduced the 1960s to the American white middle class with its clever word play and its introduction of psychedelia into broader pop culture. One of the first, if not the first, albums that could be considered a "concept album," where all of the songs taken together form an integrated whole, Sgt. Pepper's was immediately successful on both sides of the Atlantic, rising to the top of the charts in both the UK and US.
In my own personal lore, Sgt. Pepper's is undoubtedly one of the first albums I ever heard. At the time of its release, I wasn't yet a year old, but my godfather was the noted literary critic and writer Richard Poirier. Poirier decided to write about the Beatles in the fall of 1967 and as a result, according to my mother, we listened to it over and over again.
Taking the Beatles seriously was a counter-cultural act by him. At the time, in the rarified atmosphere of that era's literary snobbery, Poirier smashed shibboleths by viewing the Fab Four's work as consequential in the same way that literature is. As Joe Holley described it in the Washington Post in 2009,
In "Learning From the Beatles," an essay originally published in Partisan Review in 1967, Dr. Poirier was one of the first commentators to argue that the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" represented an intermingling of pop and "serious" cultures that deserved close critical attention.From a man who otherwise contemplated Whitman, Emerson and Frost, Poirier's essay foretold the collapse of the boundary between "high culture" and "low culture" in our popular discourse. While today we may rue that boundary's almost total disappearance, it was nevertheless a brave and appropriate endeavor by him.
Sgt. Pepper's lives on today, its songs sitting easily on the tongues of generations of listeners, now aging, whose conscious minds were opened by the lads from Liverpool.
While the album produced many profound lines that shaped the decades that followed its release, none was quite as impactful as John Lennon's final intonement.
I'd love to turn you on.
And for all you nostalgists of the era, here's a strange but interesting video from that time ...