Friday, June 1, 2012

Rant #748: Pepper Spray

Forty-five years ago today, the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album was released.

It captured the spirit of the time. With the heralded "Summer of 1967" just days away, this album was to the burgeoning youth culture what perhaps "War and Peace" was to that earlier culture.

When released, the album shot up the charts, and became the No. 1 album in the U.S. right away.

Cited as the first real concept album--the first use of the expanse of an LP as more of a story-telling device than simply a collection of songs and singles--the record has often been called the greatest LP of all time, being a sound shot of Paul, George, John and Ringo at their creative peaks.

Paul McCartney has often said that the album was the Beatles' response to the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" LP, but "Sgt. Pepper" probably took the album concept one step further, melding pop, rock and psychedelics into a stew that no one could have predicted would have such an impact on music and culture.

But let's look at some other interesting facts revolving around that LP.

Yes, the LP came out in 1967, and the world was changing very rapidly then. Youth culture was starting to make its name known in society, and old was out, new was in--and that meant in everything, including music, fashion and even thinking.

The Beatles had come from seemingly nowhere to lead the youth brigade. The band that just three years earlier had chimed in with "She Loves You," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and "A Hard Day's Night" had expanded itself musically--and probably chemically--during this period, and now was churning out tunes that were light years beyond those bouncy ditties.

"With a Little Help From My Friends," "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," and "A Day in the Life" were eons beyond their early work, and the album influenced countless musicians to expand their reach and many others to expand their thinking.

But who was the most popular band in the world at the time?

It wasn't the Beatles, and it still wasn't the Beatles after this LP came out.

The Monkees were the world's number one rock group at that time. With the benefit of a weekly TV show and their Beatles-inspired hijinks, personalities and music, the Pre-Fab Four were selling millions of records, propelled by their reason for creation: the corporate need to tap into the burgeoning youth culture of the day.

They had had several hit singles and two number one songs by that time, "Last Train to Clarksville" and "I'm a Believer," and everything with their name on it was turning to gold.

Their first two LPs, "The Monkees" and "More of the Monkees" had already topped the charts, and their third LP, "Headquarters," followed suit.

Although they were the same ages as most of the other hip musicians of the period--in their early 20s--Davy, Micky, Mike and Peter were thought to be unhip because they were created by a corporation to produce a corporate counterpart to the Beatles.

No, I don't think the kids really cared about this (I certainly didn't), but the fact of the matter is that in the age of "Flower Power," the Monkees--the corporate creation--were outselling both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones combined.

"Headquarters"--the LP where the Monkees took control of their own musical destinies, and probably their best album--sat at the top of the LP chart in May 1967. No singles were released off the LP in the U.S., perhaps an attempt to make the album hip in the eyes of those supposedly in the know.

"Sgt. Pepper" pretty much followed suit. No singles were released off this album, either.

And when this LP was released today in 1967, youth culture made its mark, as the LP succeeded the Monkees' LP as the top album on the chart.

So Flower Power bested corporate power in this instance, but the fact of the matter is that during the heralded Summer of 1967, where Flower Power was being felt throughout the world, the Monkees remained the top recording act in the world.

"Sgt. Pepper" spent 15 weeks at number one on the U.S. album charts, and it has often been cited as the greatest, most influential LP of the rock era. The songs work together as a pastiche of the times, and listening from beginning to end, the listener also gets wrapped up in the music, much like a reader gets entwined in the words of a novel.

"Headquarters" only spent that one week at the top of the charts. The Monkees would have several other big hit singles and LPs, but by early 1969, they were pretty much done.

The Beatles, of course, continued on, and their breakup in 1970 was seen by some as the real end of the 1960s.

In 2012, we are far removed from the Summer of 1967, the time of the height of Flower Power.

But "Sgt. Pepper" still marches on, the Beatles are still in our collective hearts, and yes, the Monkees are too.

Honestly, "Sgt. Pepper" is not my personal favorite Beatles LP. I always preferred their earlier, pre-Pepper music, but I especially enjoyed their non-album LP "Magical Mystery Tour," which really was the collection of a few singles augmented by a few previously unreleased tracks.

Released in England as an extended play disk, in America, it was released as a full album. The songs don't flow as they do on "Sgt. Pepper," and that is why I think I kind of like this LP.

To me, "Sgt. Pepper" was burdened by its importance, while "Magical Mystery Tour" moves to its own beat.

But I do like "Sgt. Pepper." It is a testament to a time when we, as part of the youth culture, thought everything was possible.

Just a few months later, we found out that that was kind of a naive thought--what with the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy kind of taking the wind out of our sails, and the Vietnam War raging on--but "Sgt. Pepper" at least helped to put that thought into our minds.

I give it credit for doing at least that. The other stuff that some people credit to that LP is a bit out there, but as a remnant of a different time, it has stood the test of time, and new generations are still discovering it as we speak ...

Even 45 years after the fact.

And the fact that more than four decades after it debuted, it is still being talked about, still being discussed, and still being discovered.

That, above everything else, is the real testament to its greatness, and yes, its importance.

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