It Was 48 Years Ago This Week

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released on June 1st, 1967—or was it the 2nd? I seem to recall that it came out at midnight on the 1st, which means it was really the 2nd. Either way, it was this week, 48 years ago.

Adding in the 20 years it had been since the esteemed band leader educated his personnel, it’s actually been a total of 68 years—this week—since Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. How McCartney was able to pin down the actual day of instruction is a mystery; I’m sure some researchers and genealogists out there would like to check his sources.

Illustration of a bandleader

Perhaps Sousa instructed Sgt. Pepper? (Edison Phonograph Monthly, January 1907)

We were talking about this subject last week at the annual conference of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC) in Pittsburgh with our friend, Elijah Wald, author of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll. If you haven’t read that book, don’t worry, it’s not a screed against the Beatles: Wald’s argument about the mop tops is that they destroyed “rock ‘n’ roll” and gave birth to “rock”—the version of popular music centered more on enjoying medicinal herbs and listening to concept albums and less on dancing.

But the book is much more: it’s a treatment of popular music through the entire 20th century. One of the most brilliant things Elijah does is to schematize the difference between a “standard” and an “oldie” (he claims not to have invented the distinction, only to have discussed it). A standard is about the song, an oldie is about the record. Unsurprisingly, we find most standards before the advent of rock and most oldies after the emergence of rock.

The other thing we find in the rock era is a turn toward artistic personalities and their craft. After Buddy Holly, a self-respecting rocker wouldn’t be caught dead singing other people’s songs (with maybe an exception here or there). You had to write and perform your own songs and create a unique, unrepeatable body of work. Somebody sings or records your song now, and it’s a lowly “cover.”

Contrast this to the beginnings of the industry, all the way through the early 1950s. If there was a hit song in the air, all the labels wanted to have their own version on the market—fast. And looking back on those songs today–the standards—we may prefer one or another but also don’t feel obliged to call one “definitive” over another. Aren’t there many great readings of “St. Louis Blues”? Which one is best? Marion Harris’ version? Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong’s? How about W. C. Handy’s version of his own composition? We don’t need to choose. Not so with “Sgt. Pepper.” Anyone other than the Beatles doing it is going to sound silly.

The reason this matters with the really old records, of course, is that it helps us put context around the problem of popularity then and now. If consumers 100 years ago didn’t care much about who was recording the big hit they wanted to hear, what are the chances that consumers today will care substantially more? Not good at all. And this means that efforts at conservation, preservation, and restoration are impeded at first blush by simple lack of familiarity with the recorded specimens of long ago. You have to be committed to saving wax cylinders in general before you can get to the problem of saving particular important items. And there aren’t too many people doing that.

But back to commemorating the auspicious events of 48 and 68 years ago. The Beatles actually had a healthy love and respect for the old standards (especially Paul and Ringo)—stuff their parents enjoyed, like Sophie Tucker—that would have gotten them pilloried by their peers at the time. On “Sgt. Pepper,” in fact, they go back even further. That song’s brass band should make you think of Arthur Pryor and municipal bands giving concerts in the park in the early years of the 20th century (animated effectively, of course, in Yellow Submarine). Then, as part of “going in and out of style,” the band in its 21st year seems to have adopted “rock” quite adeptly into their act.

When you think about it, that’s the aspiration: a love for, knowledge of, and proclivity toward all kinds of music, no matter the year, no matter the person playing it. That shouldn’t have to be a “lonely hearts” activity.

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