Fixing a Hole
On a day where I could beat the (already) dead horse of the Super Bowl halftime show yesterday….I’m happy to say I’m not going to bother.
Instead, let’s talk about the anniversary of the date when The Beatles began working on the album that changed everything: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It was fifty-three years ago today that The Beatles began working on this landmark project. I’m sure at the time, they didn’t realize what significance the album would hold in history. Sgt. Pepper changed everything, and not just for The Beatles, but for rock and roll.
Now, I know what some of you may be thinking. “Rhonda, there have been a LOT of albums that have changed music. To say that this one should be held above all else…you clearly don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Maybe not…but I’m going to give it my best shot to prove it’s significance!
Meet the Beatles
Let’s talk about the Beatles, to begin with. Prior to Sgt. Pepper, The Beatles weren’t taken terribly seriously by critics here in the States.
They certainly weren’t fab!
The LA Times, for instance, started with their hair, calling it “bizarre shrubbery”, following up by saying they had a “kittenish charm that drives the immature, shall we say, ape.”
William F. Buckley, a critic for the Boston Globe, said that The Beatles were “god awful, appallingly unmusical, dogmatically insensitive to the magic of art.”
Newsweek predicted their swift end, saying that because they had no talent – they would be so forgettable that they’d just “fade away”.
Some of the most damning comments were directly connected to the fact that they had a teenage following. While the words “boy band” were never printed in black and white – the insinuation was certainly there.
The Science Newsletter wrote in February of 1964 that “The Beatles follow a line of glamorous figures who aroused passionate cries and deep swoons. Most prominent in the 1940’s was Frank Sinatra, and in the 1950s Elvis Presley. Their glory passed when they got too old to be teenager’s idols, or when teenagers got too old to need them. The same, it is predicted, will happen to the Beatles.”
The Nation wrote on March 2nd of the same year that “The reaction at Carnegie Hall was not a real response to a real stimulus… The full house was made up largely of upper-middle class young ladies, stylishly dressed, carefully made up, brought into town by private cars or suburban buses for their night to howl, to let go, scream, bump, twist, and clutch themselves ecstatically out there in the floodlights for everyone to see and with the full blessings of all authority; indulgent parents, profiteering businessmen, gleeful national media, even the police. Later they can all go home and grow up like their mommies, but this was their chance to attempt a very safe and private kind of rapture.”
With a little help
As you can see, in 1964, the Beatles were not the darling of critics. Their fans certainly weren’t taken seriously, and the band’s music was barely mentioned. It was just as though since the band’s most vocal and ardent fans were female – they couldn’t possibly be any good. (sound familiar???) However, in 1967, as Sgt. Pepper shot straight to number one on the Billboard Top LP chart for fifteen weeks, critics began to change their minds. Rock and roll wasn’t something for teenagers, it wasn’t about teen idols and bubble gum. No, rock and roll began being taken seriously.
Let me try and condense about twenty five years’ worth of the history of rock music into a few paragraphs. First of all, let’s review where we were on a cultural level. Eisenhower became President during the 1950’s, and the “clean-cut American” image was paramount. Short hair for boys, long hair for girls, belts and slacks for boys, skirts for girls. Leisure time became plentiful for American teenagers. That meant plenty of listening time for music, after school hangouts at the soda shop, football games, and socializing. The music played at the soda shop, on American AM Radio, was considered “pop”.
Pop music was a sort of music that didn’t require good speakers. It was meant for mass-market consumption, which, when combined with the rise of the youth culture (due to an increase in leisure time), created a real youth market for popular music for the first time in history. The popular music of choice? Rock & Roll.
Waiting to take you away
The earliest Rock & Roll stars, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis for example, were rooted deeply in rhythm & blues, a sound developed by African-American musicians. That music found a new audience in white teenagers, much to the chagrin of American adults. It was seen as dangerous, a bad influence on kids who, for the first time in history – had measurable leisure time on their hands. We can say that the adult imagination ran amok with ideas of juvenile delinquency, premarital sex, socializing between races, and so on. It frightened the powers-that-be to have such music touted and fed to America’s youth. What to do?
As 1960 loomed ever closer, those early rock & roll stars began to disappear from the charts and media. Elvis joined the Army, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry both dealt with scandal. During that time, teen idols began to marketed to teens by those same well-meaning adults who feared for the children. (yes, there is sarcasm intended!) These idols were a replacement for the more lurid content disappearing from the charts, ever so timely.
Teen idols (typically white, almost always male) also performed rock & roll, but it was a whitewashed, bubble gum version that was far more synchronous with the Eisenhower “All American”, clean-cut culture of the day. Idols such as Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell became household names. Considered pop (meaning popular) music, it was played on AM radio, mass-marketed, and became accepted by the mainstream. Essentially during this period, rock & roll and pop were considered to be the same thing – although clearly, you and I can probably hear a significant difference between the music of Elvis or Chuck Berry, and that of Pat Boone or Dion.
When I’m Sixty-Four
Along came 1964, the year that Meet the Beatles arrived. If you were to listen to that music, it would sound similar to the pop music of the period. Teenage fans, primarily female, embraced the band as their new idols, and critics unleashed their own distaste, as I shared earlier.
What was it about Sgt. Pepper that turned the tides? It is regarded by musicologists as one of the earliest (if not the first) concept albums. There was a definite difference in the sound between songs like Getting Better, Fixing a Hole, or She’s Leaving Home and earlier pieces like All My Loving, off of Meet the Beatles. The music more mature, less formulaic, much deeper and textured. Stylistically, Sgt. Pepper borrowed from everything: vaudeville to classical music, and everything in between. Make no mistake, I value the album for it’s genius. It is one of my very favorite, and it definitely lent itself to every album that followed. However….
Music historians, when asked about the difference between Rock & Roll and Pop, point to the release of this album. After Sgt. Pepper, Rock music was elevated to a pseudo-art form, while pop was relegated to the masses. Rock was considered scholarly, pop was held as the “fast food” of music. The idea of pop changed. It became as much about image as talent. More importantly, rock was for (mostly) male listeners, who cared about sound quality, understood the art, and took it seriously. Females, on the other hand, cared more about the look and the branding…or so they say. They would eventually “grow out” of listening to music when they became wives and mothers.
And it all started, largely so anyway, with Sgt. Pepper. It is an album that both changed music and culture, forever.