It Was Fifty Years Ago This May

By Kenneth Wait

Editor note: The following article, originally entitled It Was Thirty Years Ago This May,was the very first piece to be published on VintageRock.com on June 1, 1997. The reason this assignment fell to Kenneth Wait is simple: He was probably the biggest Beatle fan you could ever met. He had more Beatles bootlegs, outtakes, remasters, and knew more assorted minutiae about the band and it members than your average Beatlemaniac. Yeah, he loved the Beatles. And, as you will learn, he had some insightful ideas about the Fabs, the general atmosphere of their day and the years that followed until the end of the 20th century. Although Ken passed away in 2005, his words on the Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and the aftermath live on.

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Sgt. Pepper's saw the light of day...The last week of May, in fact, employees of Electric & Music International were pressing, packaging and shipping a phonograph record (& yes, an 8-track tape) whose profound effect on an unsuspecting public is unparalleled to this day. Not since WWI had such a small incident snowballed to proportions epic as the Summer of Love. So, like the assassination of the Kaiser in the great war, the release of the Fab's eighth studio effort acted as a catalyst for a chain reaction of events which will flow long into the next millennium.

It wasn't just in the early sixties that music popular with kids & teens alike was frowned upon by adults and seasoned musicians. The Beatles were considered a very big flash in the tin pan alley crowd. Still, many youngsters (plus a few classically trained composers & critics) saw through the hype, not only to predict the group's popularity had no ceiling, but the longevity of their music would outlast the band by more than two decades.

In a bizarre metamorphosis that began with the Help larva, the Rubber Soul pupa, Revolver's shedding of the cocoon & the maiden voyage/test flight of the new-improved (& enlightened) Beatles on June 1st 1967... Gerry's Pacemakers & Herman's Hermits were left for dead. Dispensable pop music gave way to timeless pop art. Underground & counterculture became above ground pop culture. Law enforcement collectively became the man (& "yes sir" became "f*ck you pig!") Bankers in suits grew mustaches and let down their hair as the strains of Billy, Lucy and Rita blasted from office buildings, cars, hi-fi & stereo speakers as the cosmic unconsciousness spread like herpes at the free clinic (or violence at the '68 DNC, graft at any RNC, rumors of McCartney's demise, etc.). Hell even my grandma dug When I'm 64. To cop the tritest cliche‚ in Pepperland - The world was turned on its collective ear.

The Korean conflict, Kennedy's administration, Buddy Holly and Elvis' reign on the charts were all long behind us. On the other hand, Vietnam, Jimi Hendrix & Cream had yet to make their full impact. The big bang transforming Wally & Beaver into Abbey & Jerry (or Kerouac & Ginsberg into Kesey & Gravy) never stood a better chance to happen. I think the Pope even turned into the Maharishi for a couple of days (& I'm not talking Tim Pope & Yogi Berra!!!).

Opinions towards music, politics, religion, cinema, fashion, authority, the military, the ecology, women's & civil rights (don't forget the media)were instantly thrust to the foreground in everyday conversation by the biggest demographic in the world-America's youth. The Beatles (having conquered the new world three short years before) were the ultimate vehicle for this bloodless coup, complete with a canon of mouthpieces, soapboxes & high horses (not to mention an uncanny ear for melody, harmony & lyric). Lennon may have always wanted to turn us on overnight. I wonder if he fully realized how close they came (early Beatlemania notwithstanding).

Many other small details set Sgt. Pepper apart from its contemporaries, like first gatefold jacket, first lyrics reprinted by permission, first rock & roll LP with no frills (silence) between songs on each side...The music was the most sophisticated and well thought out of their catalog to date. There's almost an arrogance on Pepper absent from all its predecessors. It's as though they know this effort is their piece' d' resistance (even though Revolver & Abbey Road get my personal nod for that honor).

Just like Alfred Hitchcock, their work blossomed the most, at the time in their careers when many artists should have been just about washed up & finished. Everybody knows that John didn't lose it until Sometime in NYC, George until Extra Texture, Paul until McCartney II, & Ringo (of course) never lost it...In fact, Paul seems to have died creatively at the exact moment of Lennon's assassination. Just like the baby boomers became more cynical and grew up overnight after Kennedy's murder, us "pre-genXers" still feel empty without Dr. Winston. A void that for many gets larger & darker every year...In my life I love you more...

As the 1990s march on to close out the decade & century, there seems to be a small return to the hippy ways that sent this country in its current downward spiral. If there's something more to it than retro-nostalgia, maybe this time the enlightenment will stick. So next time you hear noise like the Black Crowes or Pearl Jam, think of what your elders must've thought when they first heard "She Loves You" (or "Tomorrow Never Knows" or "She's So Heavy"). But then they heard the soothing melodies of "Helter Skelter" & "Revolution 9" (or #6) & discovered the error in their ways!?!

Seeing the current trend toward commercialization & mass marketing all art forms, the time sure is right for another big-bang...When movies are pre-screened & test marketed to death, an advance audience stands more chance of affecting the outcome of a film than the Sr editor!!!

Lethal Weapon VII Directed by........Joey Demographic

Imagine how Sgt Pepper's would've sounded if the Fabs believed their press clippings (or the guys at the record label)...

And speaking of clippings the one industry suffering most from consolidation is the MEDIA...My favorite programs, papers, & magazines all seem to be bought out by big corporations...The content ultimately suffers & becomes so watered down & diluted that no substance remains and diversity goes out the window. The same substance & diversity that make the Beatles and their work so special and timeless. This big business merging seems especially common among news organizations today. Remember when you could pick up two different metropolitan newspapers & get two different takes on the same story?!? Not anymore. Remember when Rolling Stone was more like the BLAST or High Times? Now it 's another ET Weekly or People clone. How 'bout when they reviewed Country Joe & the Fish, not Hootie & the Blowfish? Boy, I feel old... But that's why we're here... Adding opinion, diversity & substance to a world wide web so busy, it might forget why we love this music in the first place...& (barring hostile takeover) we even plan on keeping up with the great tradition (that died w/bell bottoms & truly separates the 60s from the 90s) of the underground press... I know this tradition is reserved these days for militia & new world order types, but hey even Dexy's Midnight Runners didn't last forever...

Be sure to take some time off your computer this June to turn off the lights, burn a number and listen to the album that started it all.

For additional reading, refer to the following:

  • "With A Little Help From My Friends" by George Martin, St. Martin's Press
  • "All You Need Is Ears" by George Martin, St. Martin's Press
  • "It Was Twenty Years Ago Today" by Derek Taylor, Fireside Publishers
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