Although I don’t remember for sure, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is likely the first Beatles album that I ever listened to in its entirety.
I was three days shy of my sixth birthday when the first Beatles album was released in the USA. And though I was too young to make musical buying decisions, watching the birth of Beatlemania wasn’t completely lost on me. I still have those black-and-white TV images in my head of young girls screaming in such a frenzy that the music could scarcely be heard. I may not have understood the significance, but I knew it was something big and crazy.
Over next few years, I was familiar – as was anyone in this country – with those early songs: “Please Please Me” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” et al. were inescapable staples on the radio. But my parents were not big Beatles fans (whose were?) and no Beatles vinyl had ever touched our turntable.
When Sgt. Peppers came out in 1967, I was nine – still not old enough to make the financial and musical decisions in the family. So it was likely a couple of years after its release that the album found its way to the household stereo (and probably my sister – two years my elder – who made the purchase).
I was in Jr. High at the time, still too young to completely understand Sgt. Pepper’s artistic and historical impact. But I listened. A lot. I could sing along with every song on the album, I knew their order – side one and side two, and I always, always listened till that last note faded completely on “A Day in the Life.”
So Sgt. Pepper’s was my real introduction to The Beatles. True that I’d heard many of their early songs, watched them on TV, maybe even saw “HELP!” before then. But this was the first deliberate action I had taken toward getting to know their music.
Most significantly, it was the first music in our house that didn’t belong to my parents. It was my music, my sister’s music, my generation’s music.
In the movies, coming of age usually happens in an instant: a traumatic event, an epiphany, and the boy becomes young man. In real life, it is most often a series of small steps that carries us on that journey. Steps so seemingly insignificant that it isn’t until we can look back on them that we recognize them.
And that’s what I see when I look back at Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Choosing it over my Dad’s Johnny Cash or Chet Atkins albums, internalizing the music and the mystique of the album, confrontations with Mom over drug-related lyrics. And eventually, exercising my own judgement to build my very own record collection.
It doesn’t sound like much, but like I said, small steps.
I’m old enough now that I’ve watched all four of my kids go through the same process; each eventually settling on music and artists that they can call their own. In that sense, I share that experience with each of them.
In another sense, my experience is different. I have a connection to my experience that they do not have. I have the album. I can go to the shelf and lay my hands on a tangible, beautifully artistic, iconic symbol of those small coming-of-age steps.
It’s not my intention to bash the current generation’s music distribution methods. I use streaming services all the time and I love the convenience they provide. But it’s just nice to be able, fifty years later, to hold the same album, examine the familiar artwork, read the long-since-memorized lyrics and let the memories and feelings come and wash over me.