Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
The year 1967 stands out for a number of reasons.
It was a powerful year for movies: the world got the likes of Bonnie & Clyde, In The Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner blowing open the doors on what was previously considered taboo in the US.
It was a powerful year for history: it was the year James Bedford died. It was also the year James Bedford became the first man in history to be cryonically preserved. It was the year the United States stepped up the war in Vietnam. It was also the year that, in the middle of race riots and violence, the world seemed to unite for a single moment in opposition to Vietnam, and the Summer of Love was born.
And if there’s one thing that was a universal language during the Summer of Love, it was the music. While established acts like The Rolling Stones and The Monkees were doing what they did best and The Who were pretending to Sell Out, the world was witness to a series of startling, psychedelic-infused debuts: Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Doors, The Velvet Underground, and Jimi Hendrix all launched their illustrious careers within those 12 months.
And yet, from today’s perspective it would be easy to write 1967 off in music as a lysergic flashpoint, a brief moment where flower power and hippie woo collectively conked rock on its moptopped head for a few years before it levelled itself out again, arising from a trippy, rainbow-infused waking dream.
That would be underestimating its influence, though. No single album can claim to be the most important one of that year in all its acres of psychedelic tuneage, but when it comes to one of the most influential, few can challenge The Beatles’ output that year, from Strawberry Fields Forever to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The story goes that Paul finally dropped acid with John, George, and Ringo, and that’s how Sgt. Pepper‘s was born. It would seem fairly obvious from the cover art alone that the concept was… colourful. Yet, at first blush, the album beneath that cover seems a bit staid, a few notable exceptions notwithstanding. The immediacy of the hooks is reduced compared to Revolver and Rubber Soul, the tunes seem at a bit of a remove due to the concept of The Beatles pretending to be another band (the titular Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club), and Harrison’s only contribution seems to be a rehash of his previous track that riffed on Indian classical sitar and tabla. Meanwhile, Paul seems to have regressed into simplistic pop affairs about fixing holes in roofs, and Ringo… well, everyone loves Ringo. He kept on being a champ.
It takes a few listens to get it, but the level of production wizardry in the middle of this drug-fuelled haze was second to none. From vertical tape splicing to (embryonic and primitive, but pioneering) dynamic compression of Paul’s bass tracks to make them the lead instrument to close-miking Ringo’s drums for a heavier presence, right down to introducing piano wobble on a honky tonk solo with editing tape, almost every track on Sgt. Pepper’s features a creatively risky production technique that in the decades after become a standard tool in the producer’s bag of tricks.
And that’s to say nothing yet about the songwriting: for every “Fixing a Hole”, there’s a “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”; for every “It’s Getting Better”, there’s a “Lovely Rita”, or a “Good Morning Good Morning”; and then there’s the final track, “A Day in the Life”.
There has been much written about this track, and for good reason: to this day, its modest beginning belies its segue to an ending that sounds as momentous as a series of trumpet blasts signalling the end of the world.
Or for that one single moment in 1967, it signalled the beginning of a new one.
The Beatles being The Beatles, however, they also ensured that the very last sounds you heard on the album wouldn’t be the resounding final piano note as it fades away, but a high-pitched tone guaranteed to irritate your dog (or cat), and a few seconds of unintelligible babble from the entire group at the studio.
I always smile when I hear that bit. It’s stupid and throw-away, and yet, I like to think that in between the gibberish syllables, what they seem to be saying is, for that one brief, coruscating moment in 1967, everyone got by with the help of their friends.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.