Fifty years ago, The Beatles gave birth to the pioneering opus that’s long been recognized as the psychedelic era’s creative zenith: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Which naturally means that the album, long regarded as the greatest of the band’s masterworks — now more commonly (and correctly) ranked below both 1965's Rubber Soul and 1966's Revolver — is getting a plush 50th-anniversary release.
Out on May 26 were single-, double-, and 6-CD versions of Sgt. Pepper, the latter boxed set containing unreleased tracks from the more than 400 hours of sessions in Abbey Road’s Studio 2. Speaking of Abbey Road, in a pinch I’d personally take that, The White Album, and Help! over Pepper. Though maybe that’s because the rococo Pepper arrangements are too familiar. I’ve heard “With a Little Help From My Friends” too many times.
We come neither to bury nor praise Sgt. Pepper, however, but to consider its cultural moment, and how it relates to our own. Pepper is just one of a series of landmark releases from 1967. Some come out of the psychedelic playbook: Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, Cream’s Disraeli Gears, Love’s Forever Changes, the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Are You Experienced. Others followed their own path: The Velvet Underground & Nico, Aretha Franklin’s I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You, The Kinks’ Something Else, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and the great Philadelphia soul man Howard Tate’s overlooked-at-the-time Get It While You Can.
However, the innocence in the 1967 culture — even as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating the year before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were shot — is best epitomized by another Beatles song, one which that wasn’t on Sgt. Pepper. “All You Need Is Love” was written for Our World, a live international satellite telecast that was the most-watched show in history at the time.