The other day I popped in my remastered Sergeant Pepper CD to my car system driving home from somewhere. That led me to thinking about why this album resonated so massively in June 1967, in the UK where it was recorded and released, and then around the world, and ever since. But particularly why this had such a profound cultural impact in the UK, in the summer of 67.
What struck me was that the Beatles were one of the first generations coming of age after the War, and that the Second World War was really World War Part Two, so effectively England had been in a war culture since August 1914. This meant that the culture had evolved to survive, to win the war, but had become stuck at that point. Which left the new generations with a need for something that made sense, that rang the bell. Of course it started out with rock and roll, but the talent of the Beatles was to take it beyond and weave a musical synthesis that combined two main elements, which together provided an antithesis to the wartime consciousness, an antithesis that was longed for and delightedly received.
These two elements were a nod back to the pre 1914 era, and an appeal to the natural mind, the mind of the child.
To get past the war, one way was to go back before the war, before the First World War. Sergeant Pepper's band clearly look that part, their colourful uniforms redolent of a pre 1914 brass band playing in a park somewhere in Paris, London or Berlin. At this time, in London, old uniforms became fashionable. Even Jimi Hendrix was seen wearing some bright coloured military threads. And colour was the thing; definitely not khaki. From a combat point of view, suicidal, but for display, these uniforms were quintessentially pre-1914, before it all got serious - red, gold and lots of plumes and feathers and buttons. This harking back also comes out in the music. Did the Beatles consciously plan all this? No; it's art. it's intuition, it's taking the pulse of the times and supplying the need as only artists can. So, "For the Benefit of Mr Kite", "When I'm Sixty Four" and the Billy Shears song, plus of course "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and the reprise all have echoes of pre 1914 music hall, "It's wonderful to be here, it's certainly a thrill, you're such a lovely audience, we'd like to take you home with us, we'd like to take you home". That is what the album was doing, taking us home to an era when there was fun, colour and laughter, before the Holocaust.
Then there was the Raj; another escape from the drab gray post-war austerity era, escape to the East. It helped that EMI, their record company, had an Indian branch, made available to George for "Within You Without You". The sinuous sounds of sitar and tabla suggested a drift into another realm, where we could move and float away from the drab strictures of Post War Britain. The cultural ripples of this album were part of a broader work of cultural renaissance, rediscovering Oscar Wilde, velvet jackets, Aubrey Beardsley, Art Nouveau, "Alice in Wonderland", William Morris and other pleasures and decorations from before the guns of August.
The second element it struck was the appeal to the natural mind, the original mind, the mind that was there before civilization and its discontents got hold of it, and which could be reached through dream, through memories and fantasies of childhood, and through meditation. A lot has been made of drugs such as LSD, but I think that is somewhat beside the point. The issue is this original mind, however it is reached. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" obviously is part of this quest; the song title, of course, came from John's son Sean, at that time a very young child. In the song a newspaper taxi shows up - "Climb in the back with your head in the clouds and you're gone". Where have you gone? Into the natural, original mind where the world is minted anew. "I'm fixing a hole, where the rain gets in, and stops my mind from wandering, where it will go". Where will it go? Into the original mind, the mind of the child, the mind you had before you knew too much, the mind that provides both a refuge and a way out of the Post War cultural baggage. This is the solution of the new generation; Mum and Dad struggled hard all their lives to get by ("never a thought for ourselves"), but we're leaving home to find "something inside that was always denied for so many years", something that only be found by the wandering mind.
These two themes, pre 1914 and the natural mind, and the way they are addressed directly and indirectly, seemed to me to throw light on the exceptional cultural revolution associated with this album, many times claimed to be the number one rock album of all time. Anyway, as I drove home through the backroads of California, it still hit the spot with me.
My own contributions to musical culture can be found on Soundcloud, Mik W. Moore