If asked to cite a psychedelic music album, most casual music fans would reply, without hesitation: The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The Fabs’ embrace of flower power and trippy-dopey imagery was in full bloom in the summer of 1967, when the multicolored “Sgt. Pepper” tumbled onto the world stage.
This was not, however, the Fabs’ first visit to the land of psychedelia: “Tomorrow Never Knows” from “Revolver” startled fans the summer before, with its frenzied pace and sea of tape loops. Lennon’s slithery acid-tinged “Strawberry Fields Forever” arrived as a single more than three months before, sharing the vinyl with the gentle psychedelia of “Penny Lane.”
For the Summer of Love, the gods of pop had delivered a soundtrack. “Sgt. Pepper” would change the lives of a generation or two, expanding minds young and old across the universe.
But does “Sgt. Pepper” deserve its medals as a landmark psychedelic album? Yes, certainly, but its trippy credentials do wither a bit under examination.
Of course, hallucinatory drugs heavily affected the Beatles who had been taking LSD for a year or two. The liberal use of sound effects, backward tapes and nonsensical sonics gave a veneer of strangeness to even the most conventional songs, such as “Lovely Rita.”
The idea of a rock concept album — with songs fading into each other and presenting some sort of narrative whole — was highly innovative and challenging to listeners of the day, but it was not unique, not even in Britain.
The English music-hall influence is as strong if not stronger than the pull of psychedelia. As pop artists and marketing geniuses, The Beatles knew better than to blow their constituency’s collective minds, as Lennon had in mind with “Revolution No. 9.”
A cosmos-minded mix-tape that stretches from “Revolver” to “Magical Mystery Tour” would indeed reveal the Beatles as the greatest psychedelic band of them all. Still, “Sgt. Pepper’s” rep as the nexus for these adventures remains overblown.
Here are the songs that clearly qualify for anyone’s psychedelic hall of fame:
- Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (Lennon)
- Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite! (Lennon)
- Within You and Without You (Harrison, playing with Indian musicians)
- A Day in the Life (Lennon and McCartney)
That’s four out of 13 songs, leaving nine tracks revolving at various distances from the psychedelic orbit.
So why, then, does “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” qualify for top 5 placement on our list of the greatest psychedelic music albums?
The album remains a marvelous immersive experience, a journey through a sonic soundscape that welcomes and inspires all but the smallest of minds. As with works of painted art, sometimes the frame matters almost as much as the images on canvas when it comes to the aesthetic experience.
And, of course, “Lucy in the Sky” and “A Day in the Life” are as good as it ever got in psychedelic songwriting and production. (Imagine the album with “Strawberry Fields,” the original plan.)
To hear the final massive E chords of “A Day in the Life” decaying but seemingly going on forever takes us backward and forward in the same instant. No other recorded moment in rock history matches this one for drama.
“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” will be among those remastered and rereleased in fall 2009. For now, alas, the CD has not changed since the mid-1980s, when the first and only digital version of the psychedelic classic hit stores. As in, the release dates back to 20 years ago today (more or less). That bit of absurdity will blow anyone’s mind.
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