It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

By AL ROMANO | Jul 12, 2017

My brother turned 19. My graduation would occur in two weeks. The hurricane season began. And a tornadic turntable event erupted: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Everyone I knew and read about had been tracking this release for weeks. My dissolving band had been talking about doing something “new,” and my blues-based heart struggled to accept it. We all bought the album, or so it seemed, and we talked it up as if T.S. Eliot had returned to life, the U.S. ex-pat poet of angst and strife. My buddies in the neighborhood also awaited Sgt. Pepper’s, without any overlay of literary pretension. Spring turned to summer. Our lives were liberated, and the Summer of Love wafted from the West.

Trying out my hippie philosophy, I brought the LP to Lincoln Park in Jersey City, where all of us could groove communally. Someone had a portable turntable. We set it up in the stone gazebo on the crest of the hill overlooking my home, where we had practiced for two years previously before an integrated, invigorating crowd of friends and fans.

We put on Side One. Three solid singles swooshed out: the title song, the ditty “With a Little Help From My Friends” (which we later changed a line of the chorus to “I’m gonna die with a little help from my friends”), and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (the LSD song that wasn’t, supposedly). At that point Eddie D, who’d ingested LSD and inhaled glue, after running around the gazebo a few times to get breathless, started to press the stylus into the vinyl.

“Eddie! What’re you doin’!”

“I want to hear Side Two” was his blissful reply. Peace and love, Eddie.

Those of us who were there, and those who love the Beatles, know the album broke barriers as well as records, sending people into long and winding roads of tape to pile on sounds in search of noisy Nirvanas. 

Side Two contained “Within You Without You,” “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Lovely Rita,” “Good Morning, Good Morning,” “Sgt. Pepper’s…(Reprise)” and “A Day in the Life,” which, I discovered on the sleeve notes for the 20th anniversary CD, began its recording life on my birthday, Jan. 19, also the nativity of Janis Joplin, Dolly Parton, Phil Everly, Robert Palmer, Edger Allen Poe and Robert E. Lee. This made Eddie’s miscue understandable. That’s a heavy lineup for any record side of vinyl, from the mystic east-west of George’s “Within You Without You,” which startled listeners as much as Side One had welcomed us, to the two-song stitching of the verses/chorus of “A Day in the Life.” The verse was created by John, the chorus by Paul.

My high school buddies all tried to analyze the T.S. Eliot tangle of “A Day,” while Eddie and my musician mates got into the aural audacities of the recording, especially the “eternal” keyboard E-major chord at the end. It was created by seven pianos, an organ and a harmonium overdubbed to keep the piano “decay” strong for the 45-second ending, according to a PBS special on the making of the album. Included between them was Paul’s earliest tune, “When I’m Sixty-Four,” written at age 19. Besides having the music-hall sing-along quality of pre-war English and American popular music, that tune also seemed to tie together a real connection in the theme-album: childhood. 

If you include the two-sided hit single “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which were recorded during this creative Lewis-and-Clark trip, there appears to be a bunch of childhood memories, wishes and desires. The two places mentioned in the single were actual Liverpudlian locales. John’s first son, Julian, had created a picture that inspired his dad to write the Lucy song. Alice in Wonderland was also a huge influence, linguistically and imaginatively, on many folks, John included. Just remember his books, A Spaniard in the Works and In His Own Write, for their puns and oddly compelling sketches.

Ringo’s vocals on “With a Little Help From My Friends” bring a youthful nostalgia to the lyrics. Even “She’s Leaving Home,” a sentimental “classical” piece that Paul croons, mentions how the young woman leaves home “after living alone/ for so many years,” suggesting a sad childhood and how “fun is the one thing that money can’t buy,” “fun” being a youthful word. “For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” another supposedly “psychedelic” song, was inspired by an antique poster John had purchased and suggested the delights of youth that a circus could deliver:  menageries, the fire-defying feats, merry-go-rounds and a calliope!

Tellingly, the title tune tells us that “it was twenty years ago today/ Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play,” and by the math, the Beatle birthdays span 1940 to 1943, meaning that, 20 years before 1967, they were ages 4 (Paul and George) to 6 (John and Ringo), about the time children begin to enjoy and play, and play at, music. So, symbolically or actually, the Beatles were performing autobiographies, lingering over their childhoods and looking at their adulthoods, and all that reality entails, or could entail.

Interestingly, the inspiration for “A Day” was the automobile death of a 21-year-old Guinness heir, a young life untimely cut short, and an acquaintance of the band, who would never get to look back at his life from the “ancient” age of 64. The final irony of youthful memories versus the reality of growing up can be heard in the chorus of “Getting Better.” Paul sings, “I’ve got to admit it’s getting better/ a little better all the time,” while John and George’s fatalistic falsettos sing, “It can’t get no worse!” Paul also mentions that “I used to be cruel to my woman/ I beat her and kept her away from the things that she loved,” but now “It’s getting better since you’ve been mine.” I guess all you need is love.

A couple weeks later, my own childhood was ending, and a day later, June 16, the first Monterey International Pop Festival gave birth to a trinity of stars (Janis, Jimi and Otis), unofficially hosted by ghostly grand wizard Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, all destined to die at age 27, by the birth of the new decade. On June 16, clutching a copy of Ulysses and a bag of clothes, I flew to Chicago to visit my oldest brother, who had turned me on to Bob Dylan among many others, and to see the blues legends alive there – Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, Buddy Guy – for a headful and heartful of sound, a real Summer of Love.

Al Romano of Manahawkin is a music fan who teaches writing at Ocean County College and enjoys playing.          


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