By John W. Whitehead
“Count me out if it’s for violence. Don’t expect me at barricades unless it is with flowers.... What’s the point of bombing Wall Street? If you want to change the system, it’s no good shooting people.”—John Lennon
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
America is still wrestling with many of the same problems today—endless wars, civil unrest, campus riots, racial tensions, police brutality, divisive politics, overreaching government agencies and threats to freedom—that it struggled with 50 years ago when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
The hippies of the Sixties Generation who embraced flower power, opposed war and didn’t “trust anyone over 30” are now senior citizens who voted for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, both warmongers with greater loyalties to Wall Street than “we the people.”
The Baby Boomers—“the generation that battled over Vietnam and civil rights, that gave us the modern self-help movement and Woodstock”—have become today’s Establishment. As Bruce Cannon Gibney writes for the Boston Globe, “Let us dispense with ideas that aging flower children have substantial claims on goodness, as boomers liberal and conservative alike engaged in warrantless wiretapping, extrajudicial assassinations, gratuitous assaults on the dignity of minorities, mass disenfranchisement, the erection of a vast and useless penal state, and policies of cavalier disregard.”
And the rebellious music and anti-war message of Sixties musicians, movements and symbols have since been co-opted by corporations that have come to realize that “there was lots and lots of money to be made.” As historian Bertram Gross explains, “The counterculture became absorbed into the Establishment, functioning more and more as an arm of business operations in entertainment, clothing, foods, and foreign cars, while the New Left and the many organizations of white and black revolution collapsed into sawdust.”
In retrospect, as Rolling Stone conceded, perhaps the Sixties Generation and “1960s rock didn’t save the world—maybe didn’t even change the world enough,” but it was still a transformative time for those coming of age and trying to find their place in the world, and the Beatles played a large part in shaping that conversation.
No album was more influential than the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Indeed, when Rolling Stone announced its top 500 pop music albums of all time several years ago, perched at the top of the heap was Sgt. Pepper.
Unleashed on the world on June 1, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s, as Rolling Stone heralded, “is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, sanguinity, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time.”
More than mere music, however, Sgt. Pepper’s “formally ushered in an unforgettable season of hope, upheaval and achievement: the late 1960s and, in particular, 1967’s Summer of Love. In its iridescent instrumentation, lyric fantasias and eye-popping packaging, Sgt. Pepper defined the opulent revolutionary optimism of psychedelia and instantly spread the gospel of love, acid, Eastern spirituality and electric guitars around the globe.”
The events leading up to 1967 laid the groundwork for a social revolution powered by young people. With the young ripe for rebellion, drugs invading the country and altering people’s consciousness, and the drums of war providing a constant backbeat, it was only a matter of time before flower power and peace became the mantra of the Sixties’ generation.
In turn, the playfulness of those years led to the hippie movement and, ultimately, to an abdication of adulthood. There was a sense that there was no need to grow up anymore. But, as author Mary Gordon notes, “the flower child’s sense of wellbeing gradually disintegrated as Vietnam became more central to consciousness.”
University students and academics began believing that the Vietnam War was a direct result of the greed and lies of old men in suits and uniforms. The government—the “Establishment” that John Lennon would later refer to as “the monster”—had withheld the real story in order to do its dirty work. “I think we’re being run by maniacs for maniacal ends,” Lennon recognized.
All of these cultural streams converged in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was hailed as a major cultural event upon its release, simultaneously mirroring the angst of its age while offering a solution to the social and political upheavals of the day. The solution offered by the Beatles was a return to spirituality and love for our fellow human beings.
Sgt. Pepper’s was a declaration of change, both culturally and personally for a generation coming of age and for the Beatles, in particular, who had become weary of the endless mayhem of concerts and Beatlemania.
“We were fed up with being Beatles,” Paul McCartney would later say. “We were not boys, we were men… artists rather than performers.”
Retreating into Abbey Road studios with producer George Martin (often referred to as the fifth Beatle for his collaborative efforts “figuring out how to turn John Lennon and Paul McCartney's wilder ideas into records”), the Beatles focused their efforts on creating a concept album that would showcase their artistry and vision, while serving as a substitute for touring—a way to embark on a virtual tour with the album as the medium.
Seven hundred recording hours later, Sgt. Pepper’s was born in all its psychedelic glory, the Beatles’ most audacious and inspired leap into the avant-garde: their self-presentation as fictional characters.
Sgt. Pepper transformed rock music from a musical diversion into an art form—one that remains revered to this day. Although the album begins as a light farce, it moves to a sobering awakening. At heart, Sgt. Pepper was a spiritual experience for an increasingly materialistic world.
George Harrison’s “Within You, Without You,” the centerpiece of the album, is a warning not to get lost in materialism or we will lose our souls:
We were talking
About the love we all could share
When we find it
To try our best to hold it there
With our love, with our love
We could save the world
If they only knew.
We were talking
About the love that's gone so cold
And the people who gain the world
And lose their soul
They don't know, they can't see
Are you one of them.
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.
In fact, “A Day in the Life” sets the other songs on the album and the Beatles’ career in perspective. A collection of vignettes that are somewhat tragic, the song is punctuated with the phrase “I’d love to turn you on”—either a reference to drugs or the need to tune in to the Beatles’ message. No doubt drugs were an intended reference in “A Day in the Life.” As author Mark Hertsgaard writes, “Indeed John and at least one other Beatle were tripping—or flying, as John put it—during the photo session for the Sgt. Pepper album cover.”
The Beatles underscored the verses of that final song with a dark, tumultuous orchestra crescendo. McCartney had wanted to include an instrumental passage with the avant-garde feel of musician John Cage and others, a spiraling ascent of sound, beginning with all instruments, each climbing to the highest in their own time. Lennon wanted the song to end with “a sound like the end of the world.” Thus, the Beatles simultaneously struck an E-major chord on three grand pianos, drawing out the sound as long as possible with electronic enhancement. The effect of the crashing E-major chord, followed by some 53 seconds of gradually dwindling reverberation, brings to mind nothing so much as the eerily spreading hush of the mushroom cloud-visions of nuclear holocaust.
The cover art for Sgt. Pepper, now one of the best-known works of pop art, was as mind-blowing as the album’s contents. Created by Peter Blake, the album cover represented the first fusion of pop art and pop music. Distorting the line between fantasy and reality, Blake placed the Beatles, who were dressed in Victorian band uniforms, among notable historical figures and artists past and present—some of whom were handpicked by the Beatles—including George Bernard Shaw, Edgar Allen Poe, Aldous Huxley, Lenny Bruce, Mae West and Bob Dylan.
In this way, art romanticizes celebrity. The cover, an homage to the Beatles’ late live stage career, with the figures arranged in a funereal pose as if attending a graveside memorial, was also a harbinger of the earthshaking changes to come for the Beatles and the world at large.
“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 approached Sgt. Pepper with a religious awe. The LSD evangelist Timothy Leary, after listening to the album, reputedly said in a mystical voice, “My work is finished. Now, it’s out.” Leary actually believed he could hear the voice of God in the music of the Beatles.
David Crosby of the popular rock band the Byrds brought a tape of the Sgt. Pepper album to the band’s 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 musicologist Tim Riley 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.”
The Summer of Love followed in the wake of Sgt. Pepper’s release. Optimism filled the air, the almost tangible 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.
By 1968, however, the radiance of that golden age had already started to fade. Student rebels around the world adopted more militant tactics. Flower power was replaced by raised fists. Cultural heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr. 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.
By the end of 1968, it was clear that the Beatles were not going to save the world.
Yet the music of the Beatles remains with us as a poignant reminder that we all have a part to play in bringing about a world dedicated to peace and love. And the greater lesson of their music—that evil does not have to triumph and that good can prevail if only we can step beyond our self-interest—is one that we each must learn in our own time and in our own way.
First, as John Lennon cautioned, we have to stop playing the government’s games.
As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, all of the many complaints we have about government today—surveillance, militarism, corruption, harassment, SWAT team raids, political persecution, spying, overcriminalization, etc.—were present in Lennon’s day and formed the basis of his call for social justice, peace and a populist revolution.
The answer to oppression, injustice and tyranny is the same today as it was 50 years ago: if you want freedom, you have to begin by freeing your mind. That will mean rejecting violence, politics and anything that divides.
“You gotta remember, establishment, it’s just a name for evil. The monster doesn’t care whether it kills all the students or whether there’s a revolution. It’s not thinking logically, it’s out of control,” warned John Lennon. “When it gets down to having to use violence, then you are playing the system’s game. The establishment will irritate you – pull your beard, flick your face – to make you fight. Because once they’ve got you violent, then they know how to handle you. The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”
Or in the more lyrical words of George Harrison:
When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find
Peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come
When you see we're all one
And life flows on within you and without you.