IT was 50 years ago today when Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play.
Last week marked the 50th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and it came complete with industry in tow, with deluxe remastered album, new photographs, lyrics, even outtakes.
I must have been in standard five then and I don’t think I was even aware of the fact back then. In any case, we didn’t have a record player and the radio back then was generally commandeered by my mother who kept it religiously tuned to Carnatic music.
But Amir Hamzah, who lived down the road had a record player and a tolerant father and since we were classmates, invited me to listen to this “fabulous” album.
Amir was ahead of his time.
I had heard of the Beatles, of course. Which kid hadn’t heard Can’t Buy Me Love? But this sound was nothing I’d heard before, simultaneously jaunty and joyful, awesome and grand overall.
The year was 1967 and I immediately vowed two things. One, I was to learn to play the guitar and two, the radio in the house was to be forever set to the English music station of RTM. No, I don’t think it was called Radio 4 then. And, on Sunday mornings, it would obligingly play Beatles hits.
My parents didn’t quite understand my love for the group’s music. In fact, my mother thought I was crazy to like a band that sounded like “the wailing of beggars. My daughter thinks that I am my parents’ son as I think that hip-hop sounds exactly like the “wailing of beggars.”
But I digress, however, as I was talking of Sergeant Pepper’s. Described by Rolling Stone magazine as “the greatest album of all time”, Sergeant Pepper’s has been widely imitated – witness the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was released three months after Pepper – and started a craze amongst groups to orchestrate their albums.
It bridged the generation gap. Even grannies could relate to such music-hall foot-tappers as When I’m 64. And George Harrison’s hauntingly weird Within You, Without You complete with sitars, tablas, violins and harmonium was so unexpected that it compelled at least one Rolling Stone to rush out and buy a sitar.
Indeed, it also propelled Ravi Shankar to find fame in the West. During his first concert in the US, Shankar had just finished tuning his 21-string instrument when the audience applauded enthusiastically. It prompted the bemused musician to remark “if you liked the tuning so much, you’d really enjoy the real thing.”
The album is something of a small miracle as it was done wholly on a four-track machine, an analogue antique in the digital present. And yet it created sweepingly powerful sounds amid carefully well-crafted and harmonious melodies.
It contrasted Paul McCartney’s cheerful optimism to John Lennon’s sardonic putdowns as in Getting Better. Paul sings “It’s getting better all the time” and John follows up with an acerbic; “It can’t get no worse.”
And the two best songs recorded during this period – Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane – are not even in the album as they were issued before the fact, as singles.
Perhaps one reason for its enormous appeal was that Pepper is an album of joyous, unbounded optimism released during a time of relative innocence; pre-Vietnam, pre-race riots, the Summer of Love.
It is, to be sure, a work of art, one that has resisted the infirmity and the fading-away of age. “Listening to Sergeant Pepper’s now, what comes through most immediately is not the pressure the Beatles put on themselves or the musical challenges they surmounted,” mused Jon Pareles of the New York Times. “It’s the sheer improbability of the whole enterprise, still guaranteed to raise a smile 50 years on.”