Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band turns fifty this week, the Beatles’ innovative and historic album — it was the first rock LP to win Album of the Year at the Grammys — released on June 1, 1967. Some musicologists argue that Sgt. Pepper is rock’s first great “concept album,” and many biographers agree that its most essential concept, given the Beatles’ love-ballad, tour-driven, fame-enslaved lives, was escape. The whimsy of having the Fab Four masquerade as an Edwardian show band came to Paul McCartney as he was returning from his own masquerade, a holiday in Africa during which he had traveled incognito. The group leaped at the chance to get off the road and into the studio, where they hoped to deepen the technical and cultural complexity of their music beyond the usual pop song constraints.
For Paul and John Lennon, says Steve Turner in Beatles ’66: The Revolutionary Year, the creative work on Sgt. Pepper was also an opportunity to get back to where they once belonged:
What gave the Beatles different ambitions? It had a lot to do with their arts education — Paul studying English literature and art at school and John enrolling in art college. It enlarged their frame of reference sufficiently enough that when they came to compose music, they were able to see themselves simultaneously in the tradition of entertainers and in the tradition of painters, sculptors, film-makers, poets, novelists, and dramatists. It was surely significant that when they made up their list of influential figures for the cover of Sgt. Pepper, the actors (14), writers (11), artists (8), and comedians (6) far outnumbered the musicians (4).
Turner establishes 1966 as revolutionary based on a handful of band-shaping events — not just the release of Revolver and the beginning of work on Sgt. Pepper, but George meeting Ravi Shankar, and John meeting Yoko Ono (and making the “more popular than Jesus” comment that helped to make that year’s tour their last). Jon Savage argues in 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded that the year was a cultural cluster bomb, each of the detonations set off or amplified by a wide range of music. Each of Savage’s twelve chapters is tied to a song; for example, the chapter on the Vietnam War is tied to Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” which was released as a 45 rpm single in 1966, that being “the last year when the 45 was the principal pop music form, before the full advent of the album as a creative and a commercial force was heralded by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in summer 1967.”
The Beatles’ “Yesterday” is the top song on BMI’s list of the 50 most performed songs, 1940−90. Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” is #3, and his “Up Up and Away” is #27. For the title of his recent memoir, Webb turned to neither of these, nor to his equally popular “Wichita Lineman,” but to his 1968 hit “MacArthur Park” and perhaps the most mocked metaphor of the decade:
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again
In The Cake and the Rain, Webb describes cruising the ’60s and ’70s in the fast lane — at one point, Glen Campbell was paying him in Corvettes — alongside some of the era’s most famous musicians, producers, and personalities. For many of them, Webb included, it was a bumpy, dependency-driven ride, the cake often commingling with rain in preposterous ways. Like the time Webb and record producer-engineer Gary Kellgren turned the Magnifico, a WWII hospital ship, into a floating recording studio and invited Harry Nilsson, Micky Dolentz (from the Monkees), a handful of legendary West Coast sidemen, and an armful of hangers-on for an overnight cruise up the California coast. After an afternoon of music and margaritas, the group ferried themselves to a seaside restaurant, leaving the sixty-two-ton ship, its lights ablaze to warn away intruders, anchored at sea — or so they thought. As everyone got lost in the wine, the cocaine, and Kellgren’s stories about his recording sessions with Lennon, Jagger, Clapton, and others, someone finally looked up to see “the lights of the Magnifico just disappearing over the horizon.”
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