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.
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.