On June 2, 1967, my parents spent the day in the car. They were in Pennsylvania then, bored witless in the town of State College, where my father was getting an MBA from Penn State because it seemed like a better option than getting drafted and going to Vietnam, and my mother was working toward her (never finished) Ph.D. in German because they kept paying her more to be a graduate student than she could make being a secretary. I happen to know that they spent June 2 in the car because that’s the date that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in the United States, and I grew up with the story of how my parents drove around all day, listening to radio reports on the progress of the truck bearing the precious records to the local store.
As I got older and began to explore the Beatles for myself, I came to wonder just what it was about Sgt. Pepper that made it such a phenomenon. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a great record. It deserves massive praise, and I love it dearly. It’s just that I couldn’t figure out why it was Sgt. Pepper and not its predecessor, Revolver, that got all the attention. Just like Sgt. Pepper, Revolver delves into Indian music, features a string quartet, has socially conscious lyrics and makes explicit reference to psychedelia. What did Sgt. Pepper have that Revolver didn’t?
A complete US release, that’s what. From the enormously helpful beatles-discography.com, I learned that the American release of Revolver is missing “I’m Only Sleeping,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” and the all-important “Doctor Robert,” all three of which were released on Yesterday … And Today instead. Considering that the full version of Revolver is only 34 minutes, the truncated US release would have been barely more than an EP.
Sgt. Pepper, by contrast, was famously a complete album, not just a collection of songs. In fact, it was the first Beatles record that was the same in the UK and the US. And it benefitted from association with the singles that came out around the same time and were being talked up as part of the Sgt. Pepper sessions. In particular, “Strawberry Fields/Penny Lane” had come out in February, and people thought of them as part of Sgt. Pepper even though they weren’t on the final album. Likewise, “All You Need Is Love/Baby You’re a Rich Man” came out in July to much fanfare, so it would have been part of the blitz of radio play that accompanied Sgt. Pepper, which in turn was part of a tremendous sense of excitement around the Summer of Love.
So, as I had long suspected, the awe with which Sgt. Pepper is regarded, compared to other Beatles records, had as much to do with the particulars of time and place as with the actual music.