It was 40 years ago...
If your radio dial was set somewhere in the upper-80s/lower-90s while burning expensive fossil fuels this past Sunday, your local NPR station likely trumpeted the anniversary of one of the Love Generation’s touchstone events—the release of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band . To honor the album’s 40th anniversary, I pulled the original Capitol Records pressing of the LP from my wall of records, noted that its cover was as suitably abraded as that of any other 40-year-old, and dove inside to check the album’s wear.
And found a copy of Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow .
Oh, that’s right. After I’d owned Sgt. Pepper for six months I traded it (but not the cover) to my older sister’s boyfriend for an album long-since forgotten.
Through my 20s I was embarrassed that I’d made such a foolish bargain. I mean, good god, this was Sgt. Friggin’ Pepper, the cultural apex of the-most-important-generation-to-ever-trod-the-earth! How could I possibly trade this audio icon for a lesser slice of vinyl? Oh sure, I’d tried to make amends by rescuing a mono version of the Capitol pressing from a treasured record store’s Old-n-Scratchy bin and, later, purchasing the English Parlophone pressing, but the damage had been done. When it really mattered, I’d blinked.
To pay homage to the album (and my feckless youth), I placed that English pressing on the turntable and gave it a spin. And from the opening crowd noises and orchestra tuning to the closing loop-of-nonsense on Side 2’s inner band I was bored to tears.
Hang on, I know the Comments link and a post beginning with “You ignorant git” are a temptation, but bear with me a second. I know The Beatles’ history better than that of my own family. I’ve purchased more copies of Beatles albums (both commercial and bootleg) than I care to recall. And, having read Geoff Emerick’s wonderful Here, There and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of the Beatles, I understand how technically challenging and innovative Sgt. Pepper was. But, as in my youth, I’ve had enough. Not only is the damned album part of my DNA (as it is for just about anyone over 40), but when you take a good honest listen to it, it’s clear that it ain’t no Revolver . Hell, it’s not even a Rubber Soul . Yes, it holds some glorious tracks. The first three—Sgt. Pepper, A Little Help From My Friends, and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds—She’s Leaving Home, Lovely Rita, and A Day in the Life, are landmark tunes. The rest? Eh, not so much. I’ll go so far as to say that the whole concept-album-that-never-really-was-a-concept-album signaled the beginning of bad things to come—and yes, by that I mean the ill-conceived Magical Mystery Tour TV special.
Which leads me to the question that I’ve heard increasingly asked (particularly since Apple and Apple are now playing nice, McCartney’s catalog is now available for download, and DRM-free EMI tracks are out in the wild): What’s the big deal about The Beatles coming to the iTunes Store?
This question is usually asked by one of two types of people: Those Of a Certain Age who already own every Beatles single and album in multiple forms who can’t conceive of buying it again, and the more youthful members of society who wonder just what’s so damned special about their grandparents’ music.
I answer along these lines:
Bragging rights. When Microsoft launched Windows 95, it did so with the direct assistance of The Rolling Stones and their later-in-life hit, “Start Me Up.” Getting the Stones to pimp your wares was no small achievement in those pre- “Let’s hawk the product of whoever’s sponsoring our tour to keep Keith in fresh blood” days. If Mick and the boys turned up for your product launch, you had serious juice.
Having the exclusive rights to the Beatles’ catalog (even if that exclusivity lasts just a couple of weeks) pretty well lays to rest the notion that any other music service—Amazon, Rhapsody, Yahoo, whoever—is worth a spit. Couple that catalog with some flashy limited-edition gewgaw—a Beatles-branded iPod, for example—and the so-called competition goes home in tears.
The stuff still sells. The fact that The Beatles’ greatest hits collection, 1, has sold something in the order of a jillion copies indicates that this material continues to sell like hot cakes. While Those of a Certain Age have no need to purchase such a collection (yet the more devoted probably have), 1 tells us that younger people are willing to explore this whole Beatles thing in a financially significant way.
It’s likely they’ll find a way to make me buy it all again. The recently released Beatles mash-up, Love, hints that Sir George Henry Martin CBE is not averse to returning to The Boys’ master tapes and throwing a little modern technology around to wipe away the recordings’ thick coat of 60s grunge. Much of J, P, G, and R’s playing is necessarily muffled and muddled due to the limitations of the day’s recording technology and those early stereo recordings with the voices on one side and the instruments on the other are just bizarre. I’d be sorely tempted to buy it all again for a better mix that allows me to more easily discern the parts that make up these classic recordings (and I know the bass player in my band would fall all over himself to buy the catalog again to more easily pick out some of McCartney’s amazing lines).
Because it’s The Beatles. The Egyptians had their Osiris, Isis, and Ra; Ancient Greece offered its fealty to the denizens of Mt. Olympus; the Middle Ages and beyond bowed to saints and martyrs. The Love Generation and many of its descendants have The Beatles. Offered the opportunity, how could you not carry the catalog of Liverpool’s demigods?