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‘Sgt. Pepper’ turns 50, still blowing minds

The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” is being reissued for its – gasp – 50th anniversary.
The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band” is being reissued for its – gasp – 50th anniversary.

Wait. What?

It can’t be so, but it is. It’s really been 50 years since the Beatles first released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

In case you’ve somehow missed the news, the landmark album is now being re-released in a razzle-dazzle remix version put together by Giles Martin, the son of famed Beatles engineer George Martin.

The new package, put together by Apple Corps, Capitol Records and Universal Music, includes single and double CD’s, a boxed set including four CDs and two DVDs and a double LP that includes various takes of the classic tunes.

The mind – like the bank account – reels.

“Sgt. Pepper” was originally sold in England on June 1, and released the following day in the United States.

I remember the vibe surrounding the eagerly anticipated album. As high school kids in San Francisco, a friend and I talked our way into 1260 KYA, the local rock radio station, to hear famed disc jockey Tom (“Big Daddy’’) Donahue play it at midnight. (They were even kind enough to lend us earphones; this was before Donahue migrated to KSAN, where he led the underground radio movement.)

I remember the vibe surrounding the eagerly anticipated album. As high school kids in San Francisco, a friend and I talked our way into KYA, the local rock radio station, to hear famed disc jockey Tom (“Big Daddy’’) Donahue play it at midnight.

It blew our minds, as they say. From the opening conceit of the mythical “band’’ who facetiously would “like to take you home with us, we’d love to take you home’’ to the majestic closing cadenza of “A Day In the Life,’’ we knew we were in for something completely different. I was 17.

The San Francisco Sound was just taking off, with the rise of bands like Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. Paul McCartney’s tour manager reportedly came up with the Sgt. Pepper name in homage to such nostalgically named groups, and as a way to identify the military band concept the music-hall-worshiping musician envisioned.

Later that year, George Harrison would stop by “Hippie Hill” in Golden Gate Park, strumming a few chords for the crowd on a guitar someone passed him when he was recognized.

By that time, the Beatles had stopped performing; their last live show was at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966. They could no longer hear themselves play over the screams, and the band’s image had been damaged by John Lennon’s flip remark that “we’re more popular than Jesus right now,’’ which sparked death threats and record burnings, particularly in the Deep South.

They were deeply into psychedelics, too, reflected in the haunting refrain, “I’d love to turn…you…on…” – a lot catchier than Tim Leary’s proselytizing on the same theme.

The album also marked a cultural turning point for the rest of us.

By the end of 1968 America’s cities would be in turmoil. Leaders would be assassinated. Protests against the Vietnam War would be larger and angrier. Even Dylan would go electric. I would join the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention and temporarily drop out of UC Berkeley, alienated by the seeming irrelevance of academia.

After “Sgt. Pepper,” anything could be changed by anybody – your hair, your consciousness, your politics. The Beatles didn’t even have to sound like The Beatles, and they could still make history with a record.

And if not quite the game-changing masterpiece seen at the time – in retrospect, it certainly doesn’t rival “The Wasteland,’’ as some asserted – “Sgt. Pepper” was up there with Dylan’s dystopian vision of “Desolation Row.”

It was a departure, and a declaration of independence – a far cry from the earthy, blues-based sounds of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and even Elvis, who had initially inspired the Mop Tops and their scowling British partners in crime, The Rolling Stones. (Interestingly, the Stones’ own “concept album,’’ “Her Satanic Majesty’s Request,’’ was a critical and commercial failure.)

They were reaching higher, literally and artistically – from Lennon’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’’ which seemed equally inspired by Lewis Carroll and illicit substances, to Harrison’s cosmic consciousness in “Within You Without You,’’ a droning ditty with enduringly rich Indian instrumentation.

Yet there also was a sweetness, a lack of guile to “With a Little Help from My Friends’’ and seeming throwaways such as “When I’m Sixty-Four’’ and “Fixing a Hole’’ that, leavened with Lennon’s sophisticated angst, made for an unbeatable combination.

Was it also a creative dead-end?

Maybe. Certainly The Beatles never surpassed it. Song for song, it’s arguable that “Rubber Soul’’ and “Revolver’’ were more consistently successful.

But “Sgt. Pepper’’ caught a mood; it said something new at the exact time that people were ready to hear it.

To paraphrase the Stones, it may not have been rock and roll (exactly), but I like it. Still. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul Wilner is a Monterey-based journalist who writes frequently on popular culture. He can be contacted at paul.wilner@gmail.com.

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