By Leonard Novarro
There are dates that will live forever.
For my parents, it was Dec. 7, 1941. For most Americans, it is Sept. 11, 2001. For my generation, there were three, all equally tragic: the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.
For me, personally, there was a fourth — an incredibly joyous one. That was the release of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” an album that will be admired and revered by anyone who appreciates great music. As one writer put it: “Pretty much every living human in the Western world has grown up with the Beatles — whether you love them (the correct position, come on), hate them (who are you, people?), or pretend to hate them to get a rise out of people (you probably don’t care for pizza either, right?), you certainly haven’t escaped them.”
This June marks the 50th anniversary of the release of this groundbreaking album. True, some say Frank Sinatra’s “In The Wee Small Hours,” recorded in 1955, was the first concept album. But while its collection of songs focused on love and loneliness, “Sgt. Pepper’s” theme is about life, death and everything in between. It was a revolution not only in theme but in how sounds and how sound effects are interwoven.
What makes it even more remarkable: Where music today has access to unlimited tracks because of the digital revolution, in 1967 the state of the art was four tracks, necessitating one series of musical intonations, voice, guitar, piano, bass, to be layered over a multitude of other sounds so they could come out as one.
In fact, the opening track, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” employs crowd noises, brass bands and more, while “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” whose words were taken from a Victorian circus poster, adds the sounds reminiscent of a circus, including Wurlitzer organ.
“Good Morning, Good Morning” is a rhythmic revolution in itself, with time signature changes and the incorporation of large brass sounds. On top of that, add the sounds of a neighborhood waking up — dogs barking, other animal sounds, car horns blaring and more.
There is the clever, fun side in both “Lovely Rita” and “When I’m Sixty-Four”; and the completely experimental in “A Day In the Life,” which weaved two distinctive songs together while employing a symphony orchestra and closing with several people in the studio simultaneously slamming the final note on different pianos for a crescendo effect. Then there was George Harrison’s “Within You Without You,” one of the first-ever bridges between Eastern and Western music.
“Pepper” also contained the hauntingly beautiful “She’s Leaving Home” by Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s psychedelic “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds,” which is not about LSD but conceived from a drawing by his son Julian.
There is so much more to be said about what is esteemed by many to be the best record album ever produced.
For me, this release was extra special because of my involvement with music at the time. With a fellow veteran, Vinnie Leary, we formed a seven-piece band that was supposed to sound like Chicago and the Fifth Dimension with a touch of Bob Dylan. Thank God, it didn’t.
“Sgt. Pepper” did that.
For me, it was a grueling time. I reported to work at a Staten Island, NY, newspaper at 5 a.m., got off at 1 p.m., napped until 4 p.m., rehearsed with the band until 7 p.m., then was off to what we called “the city,” Manhattan, to play as the house band at Trudy Heller’s nightclub, a hangout for celebrities at the time. It was not unusual to see Liz Taylor pop in with Richard Burton, along with Warren Beatty and other Hollywood types.
One day a week was set aside for a full day of rehearsal. It was on one of those days when Vinnie came bursting through the front door: “You gotta hear this,” he demanded, setting up the phonograph and popping on the album. I remember precisely the time — 6:15 p.m. — because all seven of us sat there until sometime after three the next morning, listening to the album over and over. That’s when we decided we no longer wanted to be Chicago-Fifth Dimension-Dylan. But ourselves. We wrote our own songs and spent the next three years on and off recording. The musical career, however, ended with an offer of a job in journalism in Orlando, which eventually brought me to San Diego.
But the Beatles’ story does not end there. In fact, it is only beginning for a new and budding generation of Beatles fans — our grandchildren, twins Norah and Raya, 8, and Rhys, 7. They were introduced to the Beatles by their father, Dave, a musician like myself. Each has a favorite Beatles song, and they can recite the entire Beatles biography. Recently, a former colleague at the San Diego Union-Tribune told how his granddaughter, 7, became an adoring Beatles fan, while similar accounts have been popping up in reminiscences about the release of this mythic, idealized album.
As someone once said: “Everything old is new again.”
Leonard Novarro is co-founder of Asia Media America and the Asian Heritage Society. He is a frequent contributor to Times of San Diego.