The Sixties were much more than a time of hippies, music, drugs and free love, the Kennedy era was dawning — and along with it, Vietnam. All these streams converged in the Beatles’ 1967 masterpiece album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. When the album was released 40 years ago today, it was a major cultural event.
“It was the soundtrack to summer, and winter for that matter,” notes author Barry Miles. “You could not get away from it.” Indeed, young and old alike were entranced…
A religious awe surrounded Sgt. Pepper. The LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, after listening to the album, reputedly said in a mystical voice, â€œMy work is finished. Now, itâ€™s out.â€ Leary actually believed he could hear the voice of God in the music of the Beatles.
David Crosby of the Byrds, a popular rock band, brought a tape of the album to their hotel room and “played it all night in the lobby with a hundred young fans listening quietly on the stairs, as if rapt by a spiritual experience.” Paul Kantner of the acid rock band Jefferson Airplane said, “Something enveloped the whole world at that time and it just exploded into a renaissance.” And as one musicologist observed: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released. For a brief while the irreparable fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
Sgt. Pepper had such an amazing impact because it simultaneously mirrored its times and offered a solution to the social and political upheavals of the time. The solution offered by the Beatles was a return to spirituality and love for our fellow human beings.
Although the album begins as a light farce, it moves to a sobering awakening. The songs are somewhat bizarre and sometimes ghoulish, but, at heart, Sgt. Pepper was a spiritual experience for an increasingly secular world. George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” quotes from the Bible and is a warning not to get lost in materialism or we will lose our souls. And if we cannot regain our sense of spirituality and love for one another, then we face a foreboding future. In fact, the album’s final song, John Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” points to the horrors of existence if humanity does not abstain from its destructive tendencies.
From Sgt. Pepper on, rock music was considered an art form. The summer of love followed. Optimism was in the air. There was hope that peace would eventually prevail and the destructiveness of humanity would end. Armed with “flower power,” young people took to the streets and demonstrated en masse against the Vietnam War.
But soon the color of the times faded to stark black and white. By 1968, student rebels around the world had adopted more militant tactics. Flower power was replaced by raised fists, as cultural heroes such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were brutally assassinated.
The Beatles too were disbanding. They were not gods, after all, and the love that once united them grew cold. Thus, by the end of 1968, it was obvious that neither the Beatles nor flower power would save the world.
But the music of the Beatles is still with us — full of hope that we can live in a peaceful world. The lesson is that good can prevail. However, we have to work for it.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at [email protected] Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.