'Pepper' an album to beat the band

December 31, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

It was 30 years ago this year that the Beatles gave us reason to cheer.

I could have let 1997 slip by without paying homage to the 30th anniversary of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album, but I feared John Lennon's ghost would have haunted me forever. Here, then, is a tribute to the most extraordinary album of perhaps the most extraordinary music group of all time.

I didn't hear "Sgt. Pepper" until two years after the album hit the charts. I graduated from Baltimore City College in 1969 - rumor had it my departure was more in the nature of a parole - and took a job in the mail room at the Johns Hopkins University's Milton S. Eisenhower Library. I wasn't what might be called a Beatles fan. I was more of a Temptations man.

But 1968 changed all that, as you might expect from the most dreadful year in American history in the second half of the 20th century. It started with the Tet offensive of the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong in the Vietnam War, when Americans started to get the uneasy feeling that our political leaders had been lying to us from day one about the nature and purpose of the conflict. Then came the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, the televised police brutality at the Democratic Convention in Chicago and the election of Mr. Integrity himself - Richard Nixon - to the White House.

The only thing that got me through the year with some semblance of my sanity remaining was a Beatles tune called "Hey Jude." It went to No. 1 on the charts and was the Beatles' best-selling record. "Hey Jude" provided, if only for fleeting moments, respite from the constant news of war, assassination and internal unrest. As 1968 mercifully drew to a close, I had made up my mind to listen to more of the music by these four British lads.

One day on my lunch break at Hopkins, I wandered into the library's audiovisual room. Glancing through the assorted albums, I stumbled on "Sgt. Pepper." The album cover had always intrigued me. Gone was the Beatles' clean-cut look: the long but neatly trimmed hair, the sports coats and ties they wore when they made their historic appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1964. Now the quartet was in full hippie mode: psychedelic suits, longer hair and mustaches. Surrounding them on the cover were images of assorted famous and not-so-famous people. The most curious to me was the image of former heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.

"What," I had wondered when I had first seen the album cover, "is Sonny Liston doing on the front of this album?" Everything I had read about the Beatles indicated they were Muhammad Ali fans. Ali had taken the title from Liston in February 1964 - ironically enough, just about the same time John, Paul, George and Ringo hit these shores, took the country by storm and sent thousands of prepubescent white girls into hysterics. There are film clips of Ali and the Beatles gleefully joking and clowning. One story had Ali quipping to the foursome, "You guys are not as dumb as you look."

"No, but you are," John Lennon shot back.

So why Liston instead of Ali on the "Sgt. Pepper" cover? One Beatles documentary suggested that the people appearing on the cover are all folks each of the quartet expressed an interest in meeting personally. Lennon, the story goes, was curious about Adolf Hitler but wisely went along with the decision to leave Der Fuhrer off the album cover.

So it was with glee that I put "Sgt. Pepper" on the turntable in the audiovisual room and listened. First I was intrigued, then mesmerized. Repeated daily lunch meetings with "Sgt. Pepper" soon had me hooked. Every song - from the title cut to "Within You, Without You" to "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" to "She's Leaving Home" to "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" - was a winner. These guys had recorded an album in which every tune was, or should have been, an out-of-the-park hit. There had been nothing like it in rock music, and hasn't been since.

Eleven years after I first listened to "Sgt. Pepper," Lennon was gunned down and killed outside his apartment house in New York. I stood with hundreds of others in Baltimore's Hopkins Plaza to express outrage at Lennon's death. Each Sunday, I celebrate Lennon's memory by tuning in to "Beatle Brunch" on WQSR-FM.

During a course in classical music I took at Towson University in the early 1980s, the instructor assured us the works of Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven would live forever.

"What songs from today will people be listening to 200 years from now?" he asked.

"They'll be listening to the songs of John Lennon and Paul McCartney," I answered quickly and unashamedly.

Pub Date: 12/31/97

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