“At the time Sgt Pepper was released,” the American writer Langdon Winner once recalled, “I happened to be driving across the country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food – Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend – the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi… For a brief while, the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the west was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
How far away it all seems. On 26 May the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (it actually falls on 1 June) will be marked by the release of remixed and repackaged versions of the original album. With his characteristically jolly humility, Paul McCartney insists in the latest issue of Mojo magazine that “it’s just a record – but it’s gained in notoriety over the years”. The truth is that Sgt Pepper might be the most confident, boundary-pushing record British rock musicians have ever created, and it is worth revisiting – again.
We might also think about the era the album crystallised, and its long legacy. Sgt Pepper is not quite the quintessentially psychedelic, love-and-peace artefact of historical cliche: streaked through its multicoloured dazzle is a very Beatle-ish kind of melancholy, partly rooted in the band’s decidedly unpsychedelic postwar childhoods. But the wider cultural moment, and the Beatles’ place at its heart, were indeed replete with beads, bells and a wide-eyed optimism.
Three weeks after the album came out, the band were the biggest attraction in the world’s first global satellite TV show, singing All You Need Is Love to an audience of as many as 350 million. Meanwhile, on both the US west coast and in swinging London, young people on the cutting edge really were trying to push into a future very different from the one their parents had envisaged.
The so-called counterculture may not initially have reached much beyond its urban nerve centres and campuses. But the basic ideas Sgt Pepper soundtracked soon acquired enough influence to begin no end of social revolutions. A new emphasis on self-expression was manifested in the decisive arrival of feminism and gay liberation. Countries and borders came a distant second to the idea of one world.
Such shibboleths as marriage until death and a job for life were quickly weakened. Once the leftist unrest of 1968 was out of the way, the shift continued away from the old-fashioned politics of systems and social structures towards the idea of freeing one’s mind – everything coloured with an essentially optimistic view of the future.
Two years after Sgt Pepper’s release, a young graduate at Wellesley College, a women-only institution in Massachusetts, gave a speech. “Our prevailing acquisitive and competitive corporate life, including tragically the universities, is not the way of life for us,” she said. “We’re searching for more immediate, ecstatic, and penetrating modes of living. And so our questions, our questions about our institutions, about our colleges, about our churches, about our government continue.”
Her name was Hillary Rodham, and her journey says a lot about where 1960s values eventually led us. To quote the music writer Charles Shaar Murray, the line from hippy to yuppie was not nearly as convoluted as some people subsequently liked to believe – and once the love decade’s more ambitious alumni reached positions of power, the origin of many of their ideas was as clear as day.
Their professed distaste for corporate values fell away, but the hippy individualism summed up in the future Hillary Clinton’s insistence on “immediate” and “ecstatic” ways of life lived on, as did a questioning attitude to tradition, and to the stifling limitations of the old-fashioned nation state.
After the anti-60s backlash symbolised by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, by the mid-90s such ideas were shaping a new political establishment, embodied by Bill Clinton, and Blair and Brown’s New Labour. “I am a modern man, from the rock’n’roll generation. The Beatles, colour TV, that’s my generation,” said Blair. Clinton honked away at his saxophone and ended his rallies with a song by Fleetwood Mac.
It is not hard to read across from these politicians’ ideals to what they soaked up in their formative years. In 2005 Blair, who fronted a long-haired band while at Oxford University, told the Labour party conference that people should be “swift to adapt, slow to complain – open, willing and able to change”. Collectivity was yesterday’s thing; against a background of globalisation and all-enveloping liberalism, government’s job was to encourage individuals to be as flexible and self-questioning as possible.
‘John Lennon’s response to the rebels of ’68’: the Beatles make Revolution rock
Go back 50 years, and you perhaps hear early stirrings of those ideas, soaked in patchouli oil and put to tape at EMI’s Abbey Road studios. Try George Harrison’s Indian-flavoured Within You Without You: Try to realise it’s all within yourself/No one else can make you change. Or what about John Lennon’s response to the rebels of ’68 in Revolution (on the so-called White Album)? You tell me it’s the institution/Well, you know/You’d better free your mind instead. As for a picture of globalised utopia, after the Beatles had broken up, Lennon released that saccharine anthem Imagine, with its key line: Imagine there’s no countries.
And now? “If you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere,” says our new prime minister. If we do indeed live in the post-liberal times endlessly analysed in academic papers, it is the inheritance of the 60s that is in question. For sure, many of the changes that originated then have become irreversibly embedded in millions of lives. Attitudes to marriage, sexuality and matters of race are seemingly more liberal than ever; wherever you go, you’re never very far from the whiff of marijuana smoke.
But the dominance of post-60s individualism and globalisation is being weakened by the resurgence of collective identities meant to have withered away: class, nation, region. And if the events of 2016 and 2017 are anything to go by, political success now often goes to people whose values appear the polar opposite of the old counterculture.
Duty, nationhood, and regular trips to church: whatever values Theresa May affects to represent, they are surely redolent of a world that existed long before the 1960s (consider also her parliamentary record, which includes votes against equalising the age of consent, gay adoption and the repeal of section 28).
Last year, a New York Post article contrasted Hillary Clinton’s embodiment of the “campus 1960s” with the sense that Donald Trump was an unexpected throwback to the Rat Pack, those macho exemplars of everything the hippies wanted to sweep away. Trump, said the author, represented “pre-Feminist Man, the guy who brags about never having changed a diaper and expects subservience from his wives”.
Sgt Pepper arrived two decades after the second world war’s end: roughly the same historical distance that separates the Brexit/Trump age from the high point of the Clinton/Blair era. Given a 21st-century polish, the album’s music sounds as thrilling as ever, though with a bittersweet sense of a credo suddenly falling victim to a counter-revolution.
On the last track of the old side two, the bell-like piano chords that begin A Day in the Life used to sound like the death knell of all the inward-looking, fusty, moralistic ideas the Beatles came to do away with. How strange to tune in half a century later and find all that stuff back – with a vengeance.