And it begins!
This is a tricky question for me, mostly because I’ve rarely listened to albums straight through. I’m one of those heathens who always listened to the radio more than anything else. I was fortunate enough to live within broadcast distance of my state’s capital city, so despite the paucity of other entertainment options in my small town — pre-Internet, no cable, under half a dozen broadcast channels (and two of them were preacher stations, which don’t count) — I still got to pick up a variety of music over the airwaves. However, I mostly kept to the Oldies stations as a kid.
I liked the randomness of it, of never knowing what you’d hear. The way that hearing your favorite song always felt like some divine blessing — music-manna falling from the sky, just for you. Putting in an album and listening to it straight through never had that same thrll, even if you knew your favorite song was on there. It was so controlled, compared to the roulette wheel of the radio dial. You spins the knob and you takes yer chances.
So I never had a very big budget for CDs, and it wasn’t a high priority. Which was just as well, because the local Kmart didn’t have a very big selection. Really, the only reason I had CDs at all was that my parents had signed up for the Columbia Record Club, and if you didn’t buy a gross of CDs every month, they’d send someone to break your kneecaps.
Still, at some point late in elementary school, I rediscovered The Beatles. I’d heard them on the Oldies station, sure, but they tended to keep to the safer tracks. “She Loves You” and “Penny Lane” and “Hard Day’s Night.” None of the more psychedelic, avant-garde stuff; you’d never hear “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” or “I Am The Walrus.” “Helter Skelter,” certainly not. “Revolution 9” was right out. And even “Strawberry Fields Forever” was, apparently, too trippy. So, as I was experiencing some pre-teen rebellion and my father was a rather conservative man with a strong distaste for all things Hippie, some of these albums became like forbidden fruit.
Which, of course, meant that I had to get my hands on one.
I couldn’t just circle Sgt. Pepper in the Columbia Record Club booklet, convinced as I was that my father would kick me right out of the house. And I didn’t have the means to go buy the CD myself. Fortunately, despite all assertions that Home Taping Was Killing Music, my grade-school peers and I had a reasonably thriving subculture of mixtapes and bootlegs.
And so it was that, one day, I smuggled home a cassette of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, courtesy of an even-more-Beatlemanic friend.
My first challenge was getting the tape into my room at all. I always just abandoned my backpack on the couch, so the obvious method of taking it into my room would be nothing but suspicious. Instead, I had to wait until nobody was looking, then transfer the cassette from pack-pocket to pants pocket, then dash from the living room to my room. It seemed a lot more daring at the time. However, that act of subterfuge had only been the first hurdle. I couldn’t just put it on the stereo — my parents would hear. If they even found me listening to the stereo with headphones on, they’d surely ask what I was listening to. Clearly, I thought, the only safe way to listen was to pop it in my Walkman, then hide under the covers, disguising myself as the usual lumpy bundle of bedsheets and pillows.
So I huddled down, flimsy headphones on my ears, the old Walkman in my hand, thinking about the strange and transgressive music I was about to hear, the album I knew was famous, but otherwise knew nothing about. I pushed down the Play button, which made that satisfying mechanical CLUNK.
However, instead of the innocuous orchestral tuning noises and hushed audience chatter, instead of the bouncy strum of the bass and the vaguely metal-prefacing screech of the guitars…
The tuning sounds sounded like alien instruments being dumped into a cave. The mutterings were bizarre chants. The bouncy strum became a low funereal dirge, and the guitar didn’t screech, but drone. I had no way to know something was wrong at the time. I had no frame of reference.
And so, for a good twenty minutes, I was convinced that Sgt. Pepper was an atonal, experimental album — probably designed to represent the feeling of being on drugs.
No wonder it was famous!
When the music slowed and slowed and finally stopped, and I opened up the blanket-fort enough to let in a sliver of light, I saw that it was no pregnant pause in a song — the batteries had died. They’d been dying all along.
Feeling somewhat like a heel, I quickly found some replacements, rewound the tape, and tried again.
I didn’t dislike it, by any means. And it did still seem fairly far-out. “Lucy in the Sky” was as wild as I’d anticipated, and “Within You Without You” even moreso. “Good Morning Good Morning” was a catchy but brutal ode to suburbia that, decades after it came out, I could still relate to. “She’s Leaving Home” was rather depressing, and “A Day In The Life” was even more forlorn, but ended with such a nervy, cacophonous buildup, that, for a long time, I couldn’t listen to it all the way through, But none of it was anywhere near as strange as I’d thought it was during that brief bubble of time, hidden beneath the blankets.
Still, the more I listened to the album for what it was, the more I enjoyed it for what it was. I had wondered before whether I’d have appreciated The Beatles as much if I’d grown up with them. If I’d have dismissed them as firmly as I dismissed things like the Backstreet Boys. But, hearing Sgt. Pepper, I realized that The Beatles really were more than pop stars, more than a manufactured boy band. Maybe it wasn’t as avant-garde as I’d originally misheard it, but the album actually was experimental, throwing in sound effects and sitars and whole orchestras playing fierce non-music crescendos. The Beatles used their power as the biggest pop stars around to get away with breaking that very mold.
In later years, I found different albums to sneak into my room, everything from Nirvana to Pink Floyd to Ozzy Osbourne to David Bowie to Marilyn Manson. In hindsight, I don’t think my parents cared what music I listened to, at least not by the time I was in my teens. But there was something about the sneakiness that made them all sound a little better. Sitting on the bedroom carpet, door closed, headphones on, volume low in case the cord popped out, doing nothing else but listening with studious intensity. Trying to think of everything on its own merits, and also in the context of everything that had come before it and everything that came after, as if trying to put together a map of pop culture itself, of Coolness itself. Hoping I might, at last, figure out where I was — and how to get somewhere else.
Of all the songs on Sgt. Pepper, the reprise has always hit home most. It is, itself, a different version of a song already heard. Its grinding and screeching guitars seem to carry echoes of hard rock and heavy metal music still to come. The alter-ego band motif calls to mind all my unanswerable questions — what if The Beatles never became famous? What about the parallel universes where John never met Paul, or where Richard Starkey died of his childhood illnesses, never living to become Ringo Starr? What about the one where John never met Yoko, and The Beatles were playing that very night in Branson? Somewhere, maybe Sgt. Pepper really was released as half-speed avant-garde art piece. Maybe that had a different effect on that otherwise-identical culture — or maybe it made The Beatles a footnote.
So it reminds me that music can matter. It can be the soundtrack to someone’s personal life, or the soundtrack to a cultural revolution. It can become so iconic that millions know it by heart, even though thousands discover it anew every year. And yet, in the end, it’s rather arbitrary. Things could always have been different. But no matter how a work IS, the way we actually perceive it — the way we perceive anything — is informed as much by our expectations as by the work itself. I certainly had strange expectations of Sgt. Pepper – and a still-stranger first experience. It truly felt like music that fell out of a wormhole somewhere, and wasn’t meant for this culture at all. How could I not be a little let down to realize that it was all so much more mundane? And yet, how ridiculous would it be to scorn that album, or any album, or anything, for not living up to my incorrect assumptions or out-of-context first impressions? I’ve tried to keep that in mind ever since, whenever I encounter something new. Take it as it is, and in its proper context — not as I mistakenly thought it should have been.
But there’s another part to the story. A part that I never knew until maybe a decade after this incident. A deeply subjective part that, truth be told, might be the biggest factor in why I like the album so much. Not just because it makes me think about my expectations, or transgressive media, or the cycles of teenage rebellion, or relationship between art and culture, or the way everyone has some sort of baggage or priming that disposes them to perceive things differently. Rather, just because it reminds me that the world is very weird.
You see, I was in my late teens, visiting a friend’s house to help her and her family prepare to move away. She had only come to the state a few years previously, so we had never known of each other until we were in high school. But those few years we got to hang out in person were marked by ridiculous weirdness of only the highest caliber. We were taking a break from the housework efforts, discussing our usual melange of whatever was interesting at the time. And I told her this very story.
She blinked in surprise. “That actually happened?”
I swore on a stack of moose.
She, too, had smuggled home a bootleg tape of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
She, too, was in grade school at the time.
She, too, listened to it in secret — and for the very same reasons.
She, too, had even hidden under the sheets.
And yes, she, too, thought it was one of the strangest, most avant-garde albums she’d ever heard.
But hers played back at double-speed.