Sunday, June 03, 2007

It Was 40 Years Ago Today: Rocks Seminal and Defining Moment Celebrates Another Anniversary.

The date was June 1, 1967, and it represented for rock fans what the birth of Christ represented for Christians: the demarcation point between what was and what would forever be. In all honesty, however, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was not the first of its kind; nor were the Beatles the first to cross over that threshold of what was to become known as album rock. Two years earlier, Bob Dylan had graced us with Bringin’ It All Back Home, followed closely by Highway ’61 Revisited. In December of that year the Beatles would release Rubber Soul; this was the album that Brian Wilson couldn’t get out of his head for six months. No, the birth of Christ would be an inaccurate analogy to the release of Sgt. Pepper's. A more appropriate comparison would be the Declaration of Independence. Any decent historian would tell you that by July 4, 1776, the Colonies were already at war with England – in deed the War had started in Boston Harbor a year earlier. The Declaration was more a formality, sort of an announcement to let the world know what had already begun. Sgt. Pepper, meet Thomas Jefferson!

Yes, far from being rock’s AD moment, the release of Sgt. Pepper’s, like that July Fourth signing, announced to the industry that the status quo had changed. For as critically acclaimed as those earlier albums had been, they were still considered the exceptions to the rule. Prior to 1967, the record industry still considered the LP to be an accessory to its bottom line. If an artist or group had more than two or three strong songs on an album it was considered a bonus; of more importance was how many hit singles the record company could cash in on. No matter how well received an album was, a dearth of hits meant trouble from the label. The Beach Boys found this out when they released Pet Sounds in 1966. Capitol thought they were getting Surfin’ Safari, Wilson gave them Revolver, Part Deux. The label felt betrayed, and though Wilson convinced them to let him release Wild Honey in 1967, Capitol never seriously promoted the album. Payback can be a bitch.

What the Beatles did was nothing short of revolutionary. Not even Dylan – who has always been thought of as a bit of an eccentric, even among his admirers – could’ve pulled this off. [In deed, one could argue that from a pop music standpoint, despite the critical acclaim he was receiving, Dylan was doing more for the careers of the Byrds and Peter, Paul and Mary than himself.] It was the Beatles who almost overnight not only convinced an industry to rethink how it viewed the record album, but single-handedly set the ground rules going forward. No more would artists or groups be permitted the luxury of getting by with a hit single or two. The goal now was to record a complete album of material. Filler, long the mainstay of the industry, would now be shunned. Those who couldn’t keep up were relegated to the auspices of what would soon be known as bubble gum music.

Consider the transformation. In 1967 alone, notwithstanding Sgt. Pepper’s, the top albums of the year included the following: Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced?; Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man; Otis Redding, Love Man; The Beach Boys, Wild Honey; The Velvet Underground and Nico; Buffalo Springfield, Again; the Hollies, Evolution; and Stevie Wonder, I Was Made To Love Her. All of them A minus or better. Take away Dylan, the Beatles and the Beach Boys from 1965 and 1966 and you wouldn’t have gotten more than half a dozen good albums combined, and one of them, the ByrdsMr. Tambourine Man, owed as much to the brilliance of Dylan as to the genius of Roger McGuinn. By the end of the 1969, what started off as the decade of the 45 rpm, would end up being defined as the era of the album. In less than a couple of years the industry went from "I Want To Hold Your Hand" to "Hey Jude." Talk about a 180!

Not even the Stones, long the perennial kings of blue-collar, R&B rock and roll, could resist. Both Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were testimonials to what Sgt. Pepper's had wrought. Ironically, though they often referred to themselves during the ‘60s as the greatest rock and roll band of all time - Jagger goes so far as to actually call them "the greatest fucking band of all time" on Hot Rocks - the Stones would actually wind up inheriting the mantle from the Beatles. They’ll deny it to their graves, but Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street owed more to Rubber Soul than to Out of Our Heads. The evolutionary process that began in 1965 as an experiment, by 1967 had become standard operating procedure. And all because of one album. Go Figure.

So the next time you play Sgt. Pepper’s consider, if you will, not just the brilliance of the album, but the significance of its arrival. 40 years is a long time in music and a lot has changed since then. Most of the genres that we listen to today owe their heritage to what four lads from Liverpool - John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr - brought about, and more to the point what they forced on a reluctant, but ultimately grateful industry.

No comments: