It was forty years ago today: the release of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. "It's certainly a thrill," the Beatles sang; but listening today, much of the thrill is gone--except for one song. Still, it's easy to remember that day--June 1, 1967--when the first thing we saw was the cover: a collage featuring the Beatles surrounded by cut-out figures of their heroes and other celebrities, including wax figures of themselves two years earlier, when they were the lovable moptops. Rock had never been so smart.
As for the music, rock had never been so big, so free, with so many ideas and feelings and so many different sounds. The lads from Liverpool wanted to "raise a smile" with the irresistible whimsy of Paul McCartney's "When I'm Sixty-Four" and "Lovely Rita, Meter Maid." But they also told vivid and true stories like "She's Leaving Home," a song about the parents of a runaway girl.
Critics quickly ran out of superlatives: Geoffrey Stokes wrote in the Village Voice that "listening to the Sgt. Pepper album one thinks not simply of the history of popular music but the history of this century." In the Times of London, no less than Kenneth Tynan described Sgt. Pepper as "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilization." He didn't seem to be kidding.
Listening to the CD forty years later, the concept behind this concept album now seems a bit lame: The lads take on the identity of old-time music hall entertainers for a kaleidoscopic tour of popular styles of the century--marching bands, circus music, folk songs, jazz hits. Some of the cuts are pretty bad, particularly John Lennon's "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite," with elaborate circus sound effects and not much else. Lennon's song about the world of LSD, "where rockinghorse people eat marshmallow pies," is cloying.
But one song today seems stronger than ever: Lennon's "A Day in the Life." As the cut begins, "the curtain falls on Pepperland," Tim Riley wrote, "just as another is raised on the sobering stage of the real world." The opening line, "I read the news today, oh boy," is dense with meaning now, especially the way Lennon sings "oh boy," which sounds sad, vulnerable and puzzled. It makes me remember hearing the news of his murder on December 8, 1980, and also reading the news from Saigon the summer the album came out, and seeing the news from Baghdad today.
The singer is reading the newspaper, about a man killed in a car accident, while "a crowd of people stood and stared." One death, in a summer when thousands were dying in Vietnam. In place of the big rich sound of the rest of the album, the instrumentation here is stark and simple: guitar, bass, piano and percussion.
Then we hear a dissonant orchestral cacaphony, and then an alarm clock goes off, and the bewildered and subdued John is replaced by the perky Paul, waking up and heading out, blissfully ignorant of the world's terrors.
Then we're back with Lennon--is this just a nightmare? The next news story is about the puzzle of "four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire." Lennon tosses in a joke--"now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall"--but it's hard to laugh after the news about the man who was killed.
Lennon's last line is "I'd love to turn you on. " But this isn't the happy turn-on of Ringo's "I get high with a little help from my friends"--it's more like turning on to escape a hopeless world, to get away from the nightmare of "a day in the life."
Then comes that concluding orchestral crescendo, one of the most dissonant and most famous in popular music, followed by a crashing fortissimo piano chord in E major, followed by a long, slow fade--forty-three seconds of utter finality.
"A Day in the Life," with its confusion and quiet horror, follows the youthful fun of the rest of Sgt. Pepper. Together they express so much of what we call the '60s: As one speaker in the documentary Berkeley in the Sixties put it, "so much life, so much death; so much possibility, so much impossibility."
Jon Wiener, a contributing editor of The Nation and a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of several books, including Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, Professors, Politics and Pop and Historians in Trouble. He lives in Los Angeles.
© 2007 The Nation