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At age 50, The Beatles' 'Sgt. Pepper' still matters

Let me get this out of the way: I don’t consider "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to be the Beatles finest album. I would give that honor to "Abbey Road," and I would point to the almost absurd amount of masterful diversity that fills the double-record we know and love as "The White Album" as a worthy contender for runner-up.

And yet, there is simply no denying the brilliance of "Pepper," an album that turns 50 on almost the exact day that I myself mark that milestone. I've been listening to the album for 45 years, and can recall crawling around in the living room of the family home hearing this magical music and somehow knowing-without-knowing that I wanted a piece of this, that by hook or by crook, my life would be lived in that technicolor world summoned by the album's seamless flow of vivid tonal and verbal imagery.

In some ways, that's exactly what happened.

Why did "Pepper," an album that moves with a complete lack of self-consciousness between hard rock, tin pan alley pop, British music hall frivolity, entrancing Indian drones, druggy psychedelia and ethereal ruminations on the generation gap, mean so much to the world it was released into in 1967? And why does it still mean something all these years on, when Paul McCartney is closer to 80 than he is to 64?

Despite its dog-eared reputation as a glassy-eyed paean to hippie-era optimism, "Pepper's" enduring resonance resides in its ability to summon a universe in which both abundant light and deep darkness coexist, a world that is "getting better all the time," as McCartney sings, precisely because, via John Lennon's response, "it can't get no worse."

The album begins with McCartney's scene-setting title tune, his attempt to assume alter egos for the Fab Four in order to welcome listeners to an upbeat imaginary rock show, and it ends with Lennon's acid-addled, ennui-ridden observation of a day in the life of someone, it seems, he would rather not be.

Along the way, we get Ringo Starr's affable spotlight "With A Little Help from My Friends," George Harrison's sitar-guided ode to separation from the material world, "Within You Without You," and several of the finest songs Lennon & McCartney would ever write ("Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds," "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite," "Fixing A Hole").

Calling this a "concept album," as has been done far more often than we should be comfortable with, is more than a stretch. What we really have is a series of vignettes, snap-shots and one-act plays that conjure feeling and emotional reaction far more than the revelation of any over-arching theme.

That "Pepper" was embraced as emblematic of summer-of-love-type feelings and the psychedelicized new dawn is understandable, for the Beatles were experimenting with LSD at the time, and its effects are impossible to miss in the music. The sense of infinite possibility afforded by acid trips, when coupled with the musicians' abundant talents and the limitless studio time they had at their disposal, lent the album a sunniness belied by many of the lyrics. This felt like a new dawn. Why? Because a new dawn was needed, and here was one possible portal.

And yet, there's not much of a hippie factor here. The music is incredibly disciplined, complex, and not at all "jammy". "Pepper" is as much about craftsmanship, virtuosity and an unbridled belief that rock music could and indeed should be considered high art as it is about getting stoned and feeling groovy, man.

Making "Pepper" was incredibly liberating for the Beatles themselves, of course. They now dressed however they wanted to, they had stopped touring, they weren't trying to be cute or to appeal to your mum, they took drugs while writing and recording, and they spent as much time as they pleased pursuing every single idea, no matter how whimsical, tangential, or far-fetched, to its logical conclusion. That this didn’t end up sounding like drugged-out self-indulgent twaddle can be credited to the incredibly high standards of songwriting and musicianship displayed throughout. Producer and arranger George Martin's contributions shouldn't be under-estimated, either.

The late Martin's son Giles is the man responsible for this deluxe anniversary remaster, and college theses could be written about the magic he has worked on Ringo's drum tracks alone.

"Pepper" has never sounded better, and it sounded pretty incredible in the first place. The bonus tracks - alternate takes, demos and works in progress - are a fascinating curio, but far more significantly, Giles Martin has remastered both "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," originally released as a single and not included on the "Pepper" album, though they were recorded during the same sessions.

Yes, the "Pepper" remaster sounds bloody fantastic. This whole anniversary effort is not merely a cash-grab. It's both a celebration and an updating.

People still care about "Sgt. Pepper" today for many reasons, nostalgia not least among them. Most prominent, though, is the inescapable fact that this album set the high watermark for what rock music was capable of being. It made incredible ambition sound at once like a lot of fun and like a serious mandate.  Nearly everything worthwhile that came in its wake owes it a debt of gratitude.

email: jmiers@buffnews.com

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