A Little Less Dangerous Music

Today is the 40th anniversary of the release of the greatest album cover of all time. 


According to “The Internet Beatles Album,” the cover to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band started out like this:

The post, which is about five years old, has all kinds of data, particularly about the odd different versions of the album that were released in censorious countries like Malaysia, which didn’t like the drug references:

Also, you can see three parodies of the cover — by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the Rutles and the Simpsons, which did it twice. 

In this day of celebration, I’m not reading too many mentions of this version:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Not even Steve Martin could stay away from such a horrible project?  Although Martin’s “completely unhinged” performance, along with Billy Preston’s and Aerosmith’s were judged by the New York Times’ Janet Maslin as the highlights of the film.  

As for me:  I liked Sgt. Pepper better than any other Beatle album up to that point, although I that’s not saying anything, because I much preferred the Kinks, the Rolling Stones and, yes, even the Monkees, to the Beatles — when I was 10.  I only begrudgingly admitted enjoying songs like “Day Tripper” and “Paperback Writer.”  I was a young contrarian.  I read news stories about the Beatles’ imminent decline hungrily.

All those stories came out before Sgt. Pepper, however.  Time magazine did a big story about the new Beatles’ album announcing the maturity of rock as an art form on the same level as classical symphonies.  This got my father’s attention, so he brought the album home.  It absolutely blew my mind. I listened to it over and over again, staring at the cover.

Now I’m a Beatles fan who knows all their albums by heart.  My favorite shifts, but it’s seldom Sgt. Pepper.  I love Revolver, which was more pathbreaking both musically and socially.  I love the funkiness and mood swings of the White Album.  The second half of Abbey Road might be the most sustained minutes of brilliance in the band’s entire repertoire.

Sometimes I think Help! is the most perfect Beatles album. How can you argue with a record that introduced “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and their last and best cover version of an old-school rocker, “Dizzy Miss Lizzie?”  I love hearing the Beatles play together as a four-piece rock band.  From the artistic heights of their last several albums, it’s often forgotten how great a little combo they were; but I keep going back to their early albums and singles to hear that in-the-pocket groove they could get into, especially when they covered the 50’s rock n’roll, rockabilly and R&B they all loved (“Matchbox,” “Twist and Shout,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Money {That’s What I Want},” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Bad Boys,” “Long Tall Sally.”)

You certainly don’t hear the Beatles playing as a band on Sgt. Pepper.  And that’s what really so amazing about it.  They had four tracks to work with.  Four.  The layering of overdubbed instruments and sound effects must have been complicated as hell.  The result is, however, shimmeringly beautiful and amazingly light on its feet. It’s a real turn-up-the-volume kind of album, music that fills the air with a rich busyness behind its sing-a-long melodies.   It’s not an encouragement to take psychedelic drugs, as some believed back in the 60’s; it’s an approximation of the experience, one that works even for those who abstain.  The music opens inside your head like a multi-colored field of flowers.  

And, 40 years ago, starting on this day and for months thereafter, a global audience shared that experience. 

Far. Out.  ∞♥∞♥∞♥∞♥∞♥


3 thoughts on “A Little Less Dangerous Music

  1. So, was Magical Mystery Tour more of the “you have to take the stuff to understand this” record?

    And then, did the Beatles return to form, Sgt. Pepper, or was there no longer any way to get back home, as Sir Paul might have said?

    I’m also trying to remember…was it pretty public during the whole process of making Sgt. Pepper what the Beatles were up to, or did it hit the market by surprise?

  2. Pre-LP hype? I don’t think there could have been too much. This kind of information wasn’t treated as news anywhere, with the possible exception of the British music press and publications like Billboard.

    What we did have, a few months prior, was the double-A-side single, “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever,” which were recorded at the same sessions — although I don’t know if that fact was known at the time.

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