Dave Helling

Dave Helling: Celebrating the day that Sgt. Pepper taught us all to play

The real theme of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a statement of possibility. Look, the Beatles told us, at what we’ve done. Guess what we’ll do next.
The real theme of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a statement of possibility. Look, the Beatles told us, at what we’ve done. Guess what we’ll do next.

I got my first copy of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” for Christmas in 1967, about seven months after its official release. I was 12 years old.

My parents had no idea what they were buying. They told me later they bought the record on the recommendation of a clerk, who no doubt giggled at the idea of subverting the morals of another suburban preteen by selling the album to his unwitting parents.

No matter. Like millions of Americans, I was thrilled with the work, which is 50 years old Thursday.

It’s hard to explain how incredible “Sgt. Pepper” sounded five decades ago. It was promoted as the first rock ’n’ roll “concept” album, which was sort of true.

It was mostly a collection of songs. Even the Beatles eventually downplayed the alleged unified theme of the tracks.

Fifty years of history and the stream of reissues and books and TV shows have taken much of the mystery of the album away.

But the reaction to the record remains fresh in my mind. We were amazed. How did they do this? What will they do next?

This was a common reaction to popular culture and politics in the 1960s and not limited to the Beatles. Each week brought a fresh astonishment on the radio or at the movie theater or on television.

In study halls and cafeterias we would whisper: Have you heard the new Four Tops single? Did you see that Bonnie and Clyde movie? The Smothers Brothers said what?

Talent had something to do with this, but the media environment played an important role. There were three commercial TV stations, two pop radio outlets and two newspapers in Kansas City. We were exposed to popular art but only intermittently in weird bursts of media attention.

That meant new art was a surprise. The Beatles have mustaches? Wow.

It’s impossible to imagine such an environment today. Americans are bombarded daily with thousands of tweets and videos, blogs, Snapchat, Instagram, Reddit.

You can find music of your choice on your phone. The up-and-down of analog popular culture now resembles a cacophonous digital hum, a constant, inescapable presence.

And each new outrage can be quickly replaced by something else. Which is another way to say we can no longer be amazed by a work of popular art.

That isn’t a judgment about quality. There are still phenomenal movies, books, paintings, records — some probably better than “Sgt. Pepper.”

But none of those works seems unique, unusual, exciting. We’ve seen it all before. Yesterday. On Twitter.

None of us would willingly return to pre-internet days, even if we could. The digital revolution has changed the world in countless important ways — only cranky baby boomers would reject it.

But there is a price. Lose amazement, and you may stop seeking possibility: the belief that a new sound, a new approach, a new idea is just around the corner.

That was the real theme of “Sgt. Pepper”: a statement of possibility. Look, the Beatles told us, at what we’ve done. Guess what we’ll do next.

That promise crumbled, of course, wrecked by squabbling over money and fame. But listening now, we’re reminded that “Sgt. Pepper” was subversive, inviting all of us to ponder what might be possible. That’s what I’ll recall when I play the record tonight.

Somewhere, that clerk is still smiling.

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