It was fifty years ago today: Sgt. Pepper and the Rise of the Counterculture

Today is the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in the United States. In a country as large and diverse as this one, there will never be a true moment of national unity. But June 2, 1967 is about as close as you can ever hope to get.

In honor of the anniversary, I’m re-posting something I wrote back in college, on the relationship between The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper, and the rise of the counterculture. Apologies for the roughness of the prose; I was only 20 when I wrote it!

Sgt. Pepper and the Rise of the Counterculture

When the magazine Rolling Stone published its 20th anniversary celebration issue ranking the top 100 albums of that period, it came as no surprise to anyone that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was given the top billing.[1] The album “tops polls time and time again”[2] as the greatest album in rock history, even as many Beatles aficionados consider it to be, at best, one equal among many in the group’s output. But for the wider audience, there is less question. It’s Sgt. Pepper first, and all others second. Understanding why requires digging beneath the surface, to explore the album as a phenomenon, not simply as a collection of songs. In particular, one must be attentive to the cultural milieu in which the record dropped, a milieu that both shaped the experience of the album, and was also shaped by it.

As the role of hippies slowly grew in American society, the Beatles were increasingly drawn to the values of the counterculture, experimenting with drugs and promoting love. Sgt. Pepper reflected this change of perspective. Its songs were about expansion of the mind and soul, rejection of materialism, and dropping out of mainstream society. In this sense, the record marked a change in popular culture. But it was no mere passive observer. We still hail this record today less for what it reflected than for what it made possible. By exposing the mainstream to the values of the counterculture and by breaking all the rules about what a ‘rock album’ could do, Sgt. Pepper opened up whole new worlds.

The effect was only possible because a society existed against which the record could be placed–a society marked by a powerful postwar liberal consensus, which was beginning to stretch and fray. The Beatles did not initiate any of these changes. And yet, by dropping this transformative record at a moment of peak transition at the start of the ‘summer of love’ in 1967, they gave voice and expression to a diverse set of interests. Perhaps the blaze would have begun inevitably, but at the very least, Sgt. Pepper was a match thrown onto the waiting fire that helped to set it off.

Its release has been described as a “decisive moment in the history of Western Civilization,” and this is only modest hyperbole.[3] Its release, the fanfare, the wild anticipation, the joyful promulgation…these all finally clued in millions around the world to the changes that were underfoot. And in doing so, the record permanently expanded the cultural horizons of modernity.

The early 1960s: From Camelot to Candlestick Park

On February 9, 1964 one of the most important events of the first half of the decade took places in millions of homes across America simultaneously. Approximately 73 million people watched the Beatles make their American debut on the Ed Sullivan show.[4] Within the next few months, the country had progressed from never having heard of the band to near obsession. The adulation evoked by these four young men from Liverpool is evident in the screaming girls who drowned out the music in concerts and in the immediate integration of the mop-top haircut into contemporary fashion, but is most clearly evident in record sales. By April of 1964, “their records filled the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth positions on Billboard’s singles chart. Meet the Beatles, their first American album on Capitol, quickly became the fastest- and largest-selling LP in the history of the United States.”[5] Critics claimed that the Beatles were merely a fad, but their popularity increased with the summer release of the movie A Hard Day’s Night and the accompanying album. All told, the Beatles charted six number one singles and an astonishing seventeen top 25 songs during 1964.

Still, while the chart statistics are interesting, they tell only a small portion of the story. The Beatles were not merely the most popular band of the year.  Their emergence into the collective consciousness of America in early 1964 signified a qualitative change, as well as a quantitative one. In the words of Greil Marcus, it was a “pop explosion…an irresistible cultural explosion that cuts across lines of class and race.”[6] At another time, perhaps this effect would have been muted. But at the moment in which they arrived, the country was primed. Moreover, this pop explosion quickly transcended the boundaries of social interactions and became inextricably tied to the shifting currents of political change, both influencing and being influenced by politics.

In early 1964 the country was facing political divisions of an unprecedented scope. Civil rights protests were nearly at their peak, students around the country were beginning to think about activism, anti-nuclear groups like the Women’s Strike for Peace had leveraged their muscles to ensure ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963 and had begun pushing for constrains on the nuclear arms race. Amidst all these tensions, Americans had their dream of Camelot shattered with the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November 1963, an event which bordered on cataclysmic. The presidency was incredibly important at the dawn of the sixties. As Hodgson explains, “The years of consensus were also the high summer of the cult of the presidency.”[7] The youthful John Kennedy, in particular, embodied and exemplified the optimistic spirit prevalent at the beginning of the decade. He stood for change, the perfectibility of America, and unlimited potential. Of course, it is important to remember that the myth of Camelot only truly came into existence after Kennedy’s death. Kennedy received only 49.7 of the vote, but after his assassination, 65 percent of those surveyed claimed to have voted for him. In death, he became a martyr, who even his political opponents could not help but grieve.[8] His death forced the citizens of America to confront the possibility of breakdown of social structures. Kennedy had been a figurehead for America. When he was taken away, many Americans were plunged into disquiet.

It was in this atmosphere that the Beatles appeared. To a society searching desperately for something to unite the nation, they became a lifeline. Collective anxiety over race tensions and the loss of Kennedy “made American youth uniquely vulnerable to Beatlemania…. what Beatlemania achieved for many young people was a restoration of the feelings of hope and sheer intensity that many feared had died forever with John Kennedy.”[9] The arrival of the Beatles demonstrated that an overwhelming sense of optimism still reigned supreme in America. In fact, it reached its true height in the years following during the Johnson administration. Kennedy’s death had tempered that optimism but not destroyed it. Having looked into the abyss, most Americans still felt secure in the future of America. Many were simply waiting for an excuse to discover something positive, to end the time of mourning. The Beatles provided that excuse.[10] Like Kennedy, they embodied charisma and the triumph of youth. Also like Kennedy, they quickly were placed on a pedestal and their fashion choices were emulated. The Beatles were the new role models and recipients of undying adulation. A reporter for the Berkeley Barb who attended a Beatles concert compared the event to a virgin sacrifice in its intensity. The girls pelted the band with jelly beans, which they had mentioned liking in passing. The band members seemed “aware of the danger and were being careful not to look at any group for too long—for fear of a rush.”[11]

This political and cultural symbolism of the Beatles was important, but it was only made possible in conjunction with the musical revolution they initiated. No matter how cute Paul McCartney looked on the Ed Sullivan Show, the Beatles would have lived out the promise of being nothing more than a flash in the pan if they had not been capable musically. Indeed, they were more than capable; their arrival in America signaled a sea change on the face of popular music virtually unprecedented in history.[12] Several factors contributed to this effect. First, the music itself was a level beyond almost anything else available. It was both more complex and more catchy, “and like nothing we had ever heard. It was joyous, threatening, absurd, arrogant, determined, innocent and tough, and it drew the line of which Dylan was to speak: ‘This was something that never happened before.’”[13] Second, the Beatles wrote almost all of their own music, something few rock bands had even attempted before. Not only did they write their own music, all four sang. For the first time, rock and roll experienced a group dynamic that lent power beyond the individual capabilities of each member.

Third, and most importantly, they appealed to everyone. The group dynamic was a primary factor contributing to this universal appeal. As Greil Marcus explains:

the sum of the Beatles was greater than the parts, but the parts were so distinctive and attractive that the group itself could be all things to all people, more or less; you did not have to love them all to love the group, but you could not love one without loving the group, and this was why the Beatles became bigger than Elvis; this was what had never happened before.

In addition, the broad range of music played by the Beatles meant that they were the most popular ‘boy band’ in history, without losing the more intellectual audience. The music was catchy which brought the young on board, but it was also the most sophisticated fare offered in popular music at the time. The ability to unite fans of multiple genres around one band gave them tremendous power to incorporate traditionally excluded elements into rock and roll. As they did so, the genre itself was forced to grow. After all, the Beatles exemplified rock music. If they played a 12-string guitar (George Harrison’s main instrument on A Hard Day’s Night) or sitar (“Norwegian Wood”), or if they released a traditional ballad accompanied by strings and one acoustic guitar (“Yesterday”) the public simply concluded that rock music had to be expanded to include these facets. Bob Dylan was popular but it wasn’t until John Lennon began experimenting with Dylanesque music (“I’m a Loser” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” for example) that it became clear folk music could also be rock music.[14] Moreover, the band did not rest comfortably with their dominance—the name of the game was constant innovation and exploration. Rubber Soul and Revolver, released in late 1965 and mid 1966 respectively, possessed a sound and coherence that would have been virtually unimaginable two short years earlier. The Beatles were “mak[ing] history by anticipating it”[15] and the rest of the world was along for the ride.

However, even as they were on top of the world, cracks were beginning to show. After more than two years of being constantly on the road, recording, and writing, the members of the band were exhausted.[16] Touring had become a chore. They had begun creating music that could not be easily reproduced in concert, particularly not when the screaming fans drowned out every other sound so that even the Beatles themselves could not hear their own instruments. Indeed, they did not play a single song from Revolver in any concert, despite the fact that it was released in the midst of their final tour.[17] Adding to their problems, before the tour Lennon made a comment that the Beatles had become “more popular than Jesus”[18] sparking outrage and backlash, particularly in the Christian South, where Beatles records were burned en masse and their shows boycotted. The Beatles were beginning to recognize the price that accompanies status as a cultural icon—they were misinterpreted, misunderstood, and hounded for interviews. The summer tour of 1966 was played almost entirely in stadiums not designed with any thought to the acoustics of a rock concert. The tour culminated in the show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966. It was the last concert they would ever play.[19]

From that point on, the Beatles’ music was “sculpted in the studio, with little thought as to whether the songs could be reproduced in concert.”[20] The album that emerged from these studio sessions was quickly deemed sacred ground, an album that almost transcended criticism.[21] In the three decades since, it has held its place at the center of rock and roll. This cannot all be attributed simply to the music. Sgt. Pepper is a superb album, certainly, but divorced from its cultural context it would be a stretch to declare it the best the Beatles had to offer. Indeed, most critics now admit that both technically and musically, Sgt. Pepper does not stand up to other sections of the Beatles catalog (Revolver, the “White” Album, Abbey Road, and Rubber Soul all declared superior by many).[22] Nevertheless, Sgt. Pepper maintains its place on the pedestal. To understand why, it is necessary to appreciate the Beatles not only as a musical group, but also as a cultural phenomenon. As the myth of Camelot began to fade from the American cultural imaginary, a new movement had begun to assert its hold on the minds of Americans, particularly young Americans: the counterculture. Just as the Beatles had tapped into the power of culture in 1964, they let the force of changing values carry Sgt. Pepper further than any album had ever been. Music and rapid social change converged in the Summer of 1967. In terms of its sound, its lyrics, its artwork, and its themes, Sgt. Pepper captures a very particular moment of transition in American history. Divorced from a recognition of this historical context, Sgt. Pepper would have been only have been an excellent album. Instead, it was a phenomenon.[23] In order to understand the album, therefore, one must examine its context. Similarly, if one desires to comprehend the full scope of counterculture, one cannot afford to ignore Sgt. Pepper.

The Crumbling of Consensus and Rise of the Counterculture

The dominant myth of the post-war American society was the liberal consensus. As Hodgson writes: “it is impossible not to be struck by the degree to which the majority of Americans in those years accepted the same system of assumptions.”[24] Among these assumptions were a shared belief that America had achieved the perfect society and all major arguments over ideology had been resolved, an overwhelming confidence in “the omnipotence of American power,”[25] and faith in continued growth as the solution to all potential domestic problems.[26] Parallel to this mood of domestic optimism ran a deep anxiousness about communism in the outside world. If America had achieved internal perfection, the only threat could come from outside. These fears were compounded by the increasingly prevalent belief that Communism was inherently expansionary, explained clearly in George Kennan’s Long Telegram. Kennan argued that the Soviet Union, as a dictatorship, needed continual external conflict to convince the people they were in danger. Out of this fear of the Soviet Union grew the Cold War. [27]

Terry Anderson connects the liberal consensus and ideology of containment to social values in American society by focusing on the overarching notion of security: “The desire for security…created a chilling climate in the nation during the first years of the 1950s—a cold war culture.”[28] The single uniting theme for all aspects of cold war culture was conformity.[29] American society during this time placed a premium on the acceptance of authority in exchange for security, resulting in the privileging collective security over individualism.[30] The specter of McCarthyism quelled virtually all criticism. Even more important than fear, the cultural obsession with removing all square pegs who did not force themselves into round holes gave Americans little room to even discover alternative lifestyles or political choices. The majority of students in college simply did not care about the issues, or if they did care, knew better than to criticize openly for fear of retribution.[31] Those who did not fit into the mold were ignored, passed over for jobs, promotions, and social benefits. The cold war culture infused every layer of society. The parents of the ‘baby-boom’ generation placed unprecedented importance on finding the good life for their children. Having lived through the depression, they saw the new liberal consensus as a means for giving their children chances they had never been offered. Anything that called into question consensus was therefore construed as a threat to the family, the building block of American society.

While these issues played out socially, cold war culture, as the name implies, was created by a particular set of political circumstances. While the feminists would not coin the phrase ‘the personal is political’ until 1969, the concept was well understood much earlier. Indeed, the most important cultural changes of the 1960s were closely tied to the important political changes. Moreover, the opposite side of the same coin—‘the political is personal’—demonstrates how the liberal consensus was able to infuse the entire American society with notions of conformity and authority. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when the political factors underpinning the consensus began to unravel, the cultural foundations of consensus also frayed.

Probably the most important legacy of the early sixties was the growth of activism, particularly the civil rights movements. By highlighting social inequities, poverty, discrimination, and violence, the civil rights movement called into question the myth of the liberal consensus. A huge portion of America began to reveal themselves as manifestly unable to gain the supposedly universal benefits of growth due to social and political structures. Making this dispossession visible contributed a great deal to the eventual cracking of consensus. Liberals were able to incorporate civil rights in the short term, describing it as a temporary aberration that could be repaired with legislation and government spending on poverty legislation (Johnson’s ‘Great Society’ programs). In the long term, however, the civil rights movement’s unwillingness to accept partial solutions in the form of legislation and their demand for equality upset the stable balance that had secured consensus. Authority no longer held sway.

The civil rights movement also played an important role in the formation of the counterculture by providing an outlet for student activism. Civil rights protests taught students that dissent could be effective in creating change, and “served to make them more sensitive of their own civil rights. Problems in society had to be confronted and resolved, not blamed on imaginary subversives or outside agitators, and that called for student activism.”[32] Students who participated in the Freedom Summer in Mississippi returned home with messages of activism and rebellion. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley is the most famous example of the dissemination of dissent throughout mainstream American society. Mario Savio’s famous speech makes these connections clear: “Last summer I went to Mississippi to join the struggle there for civil rights. This fall I am engaged in another phase of the same struggle, this time in Berkeley….The same rights are at stake in both places—the right to participate as citizens in democratic society.”[33] By the mid-sixties, the baby-boom generation had swelled the numbers of students in college to never-before-seen levels. The children of the cold war culture were becoming adults and discovering millions in a similar position. For the first time, they began to recognize the collective power of students to create political change.

While the importance of civil rights and student protests that grew out of the early sixties should not be underestimated, the counterculture did not achieve many gains until the Vietnam war began to take hold of the national consciousness. The first wave of civil rights criticized the liberal consensus to a certain extent, but it also relied on several of consensus’ tropes: optimism for the future, the belief that equality is achievable, the hope that government action could alleviate social problems. Despite a decade of struggle, the liberal consensus was still the defining characteristic of American society in 1965. By 1968, the mood of the country had fundamentally shifted.[34] This rapid change could only have come from the interference of an outside force—in this case, Vietnam.

The first casualty of the war was economic in nature. The cost of funding the war began to take its toll as the engagement dragged on. The air war alone cost thirty billion dollars a year by 1966, and the economy could not keep up, despite promises by economists that Johnson would be able to fund both guns and butter.[35] The rising threat of inflation promised an end to the purportedly infinite growth, even as it required cuts in Johnson’s Great Society programs. It soon became clear to many activists that the gains they had achieved only a year or two before were not set in stone. The recognition that rights were transient and reliant on political tides led many activists to question whether protest or activism had really accomplished anything more than a short reprieve.

Also contributing to disillusionment was the continued escalation of the war. In the eyes of many, the war was immoral and inhumane, waged against a third world country who posed no threat to the United States. An activist wrote: “What’s happening is that a whole generation is starting to say to its parents, ‘You can no longer get us to kill & be killed for your uptight archaic beliefs.”[36] However, despite countless protests, anti-war marches, and demands for change, more troops were sent over every month and violence continued to escalate. For the first time, activism had failed to produce any noticeable response. Many began to question whether the system could be changed. Young people who opposed the war were therefore faced with a choice, “A young man could either go along with the establishment and join the military, fight the machine by protesting and resisting the draft, or drop out. The first two had not stopped the war.”[37] A small but important minority changed tactics, abandoning protest, and instead electing to ‘drop out’—rejecting mainstream values in entirety.[38] While the number of dissidents was small, their defiance posed a significant threat to the consensus of mainstream values. These few formed the basis for the counterculture which eventually grew to affect all of American society.

Even those who did not entirely separate themselves from the mainstream were forced to reconsider their tactics and the purpose of their struggle. The war made clear the interconnections between violence in the third world, violence in Mississippi, and the suppression of participatory democracy throughout the country. Criticism began to focus on broader questions. Instead of protesting about single issues, activists called into question the entire structure of American capitalism and democracy. Youths were increasingly alienated from liberal values. In The Making of a Counter-Culture Theodore Roszak, both a participant in and a reporter on the counterculture,[39] documents this time. A complex combination of social, economic, and political factors together formed the technocracy, “that social form in which an industrial society reaches the peak of its organizational integration.”[40] As young people began to see these interconnections and the system behind them, a new consciousness began to emerge, uniting students and hippies in their common distaste for the technological and material obsession that dominates industrial societies.

These cultural forces were not entirely new. The Beats in the 1950s rejected rampant conformity and the loss of individualism. However, the beats were oppositional and reactionary, opposed to particular components of American society. In contrast, members of the counterculture in the late sixties were opposed to the central and essential nature of cold war culture and proposed an entirely new set of values and social arrangements. For example, rather than protesting Vietnam, hippies were concerned with shantih, “the peace that passes all understanding, and fills in the psychic dimensions of the ideal. If investigating the life of shantih has little to do with achieving peace in Vietnam, perhaps it is the best way of preventing several Vietnams from happening.”[41] In response to the alienation inherent in mainstream society, they proposed that individuals search within themselves, claiming that “the greatest battlefield of them all is right within you, in that treasure-room called consciousness.”[42] The effort to expand consciousness led many to experiment with a variety of mind-altering substances.[43] Drugs also served a means of blocking out modern society. Hippies often adopted a much more open conception of love and sex, claiming that traditional prudery inhibited “free love out of wedlock, any time, without guilt.”[44] In contrast, they proposed a simple model for making decisions: ‘if it feels good, do it.’ Unable to find an atmosphere conducive to these ideals, many began to flee their parents, and “by the end of the decade about 800,000 young Americans were traveling in Europe while over a million were thumbing throughout the nation.”[45] Of course, the counterculture cannot be pigeonholed. Many people considered themselves to be participants in the counterculture without adopting all, or even most, of these ideas. Indeed, a defining characteristic of the counterculture was its defiance of easy categorization and fluidity of membership. Still, the common theme that ran through all countercultural experiences was an “emphasis on recapturing direct, immediate, and uncontaminated bodily and sensory experience.”[46] For these people, contemporary existence was not genuine. Too mediated by consumerism and cold war culture, Americans were unable to experience life to its fullest.

The emergence of the counterculture took place gradually—there is no date on which one can declare that the counterculture was born—but it is clear that by the beginning of 1967, the tensions had reached a fever pitch. Amidst one of the most tumultuous years in American history, the political and cultural foundations of consensus began to crack. For many in the sixties generation, 1967 was “the moment when their own youth reached a dazzling and careless apogee. Nineteen sixty-seven may have been the year of napalm and sudden death: it was also, for an entire generation, the year of “love,” “peace,” and “flower power.”[47] The counterculture first gained national attention less than a month into the year at the ‘Human Be-In’ in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Nearly twenty thousand hippies, anti-war activists, activists, and other interested parties gathered together to discuss various countercultural themes including love, peace, life, and unity.[48]

This event paved the way for a variety of events and happenings in San Francisco helping to cement that city’s status as the place to go for those interested in the counterculture. The run-down Haight-Ashbury district was settled by hippies and as its fame grew, it was “swelled with the arrival of draft-dodgers, disaffected stu¬dents and social drop-outs by the thousand.”[49] On April 5, Grayline Tours began touring the Haight-Ashbury scene. On April 15 in New York, over 400,000 people gathered for a march from Central Park to the UN protesting the Vietnam war, marked by speeches from Martin Luther King, Jr., Stokely Carmichael and Dr. Spock. The force driving these events was similar: dissatisfaction and frustration with the military-industrial complex. Meanwhile, the United States began air strikes on Hanoi and inflation began to seep into the American economy. Like water piling up behind a damn, the pressure of alienation and discontent in America continued to grow. Still, the counterculture were hardly national news. The pressure may have been building but the dam had not yet burst. A final push was necessary.

Coming to Terms with the Counterculture through Sgt. Pepper

During the chaotic months of early 1967, anticipation over the upcoming Beatles album continued to grow. The double sided “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields Forever” single was released on February 17 to critical and popular acclaim. Both songs were introspective looks at Lennon and McCartney’s childhood. “Penny Lane,” a pure pop gem that continued to push musical boundaries with a piccolo trumpet solo, was filled with strange characters: a banker so wedded to his stolid image, he refuses to wear a raincoat despite the taunts, a fireman washing his engine, and a nurse “selling poppies from a tray/And though she feels as if she’s in a play/She is anyway.” “Strawberry Fields Forever” modeled its sound on the ‘heavy’ music which had begun emerging from San Francisco and was filled with psychedelic sounds and imagery overlaid onto cosmic musings. As Lennon later explained: “What I’m saying, in my insecure way, is ‘Nobody seems to understand where I’m coming from. I seem to see things in a different way from most people.’”[50] Both songs were pure brilliance, exemplifying the Beatles movement towards music of the counterculture without abandoning their ability to produce universally popular music. Seeing the single as an example of what was to come, fans waited with baited breath for an entire album.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Sgt. Pepper produced the most hype about a rock album in musical history to that point. The Beatles, the pioneers of the new wave of rock and roll, the band that consistently pushed the envelope, were devoting six months to produce a new album. “Stories began to appear not only in the pop press but in the daily papers. The record, unheard, was everywhere.”[51] When Sgt. Pepper was finally released on June 2 (June 1 in the United Kingdom), the hype only increased. The album more than lived up to its promise, catalyzing millions of people across America and around the world to question their most fundamental assumptions about music, politics, and culture. America was given, for the first time, a sympathetic assessment of countercultural values from prominent spokesmen.

The Beatles had included references to drugs in their previous work but the issue had never received nearly as much attention as was given to the songs on Sgt. Pepper. Drugs took on increasing relevance when Paul McCartney admitted only two weeks after the album’s release that he had taken LSD, shocking the world. Once the announcement was made, people began searching for places on the album where the drug’s influence could be seen. While drugs were mentioned explicitly several times (“I get high with a little help from my friends” and “I’d love to turn you on,” for example), many listeners claimed to have ‘discovered’ dozens of additional allusions. The furor over “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” demonstrates this self-fulfilling prophecy. After the album was released, people noticed that the first letters of the main words in the title spelled LSD. Combined with the psychedelic sound and imagery, many were convinced it was an intentional drug reference. However, Lennon has stated on multiple occasions that it was simply lifted from a drawing his son Julian had shown him. The images were “from Alice in Wonderland. It was Alice in the boat….It was purely unconscious that it came out to be LSD. Until somebody pointed it out, I never even thought of it.”[52] McCartney has confirmed the story, pointing out that he even saw Julian Lennon’s drawing with the title.[53] A host of other drug themes were purportedly discovered including stories “about Henry the Horse being heroin”[54] (despite the fact that Lennon had never even encountered heroin at that point) and claims that “fixing a hole” meant getting a fix with a needle.[55] While no concrete evidence existed that these were ‘drug songs,’ many fans saw them as such. Indeed, since a song only has cultural meaning insofar as it defined by its listeners, they became drug songs regardless of whether they were supposed to be. The Beatles became a vehicle for transmission of the counterculture’s emphasis on drugs, providing an excuse for a cultural revolution even if they had no intention of starting one.

While drug references were important, they often serve to obscure the far more important message of Sgt. Pepper: expansion of the mind. Drugs were one mechanism for personal development, but they were not the only one. When Lennon sang “I’d love to turn you on” what he “really wanted was to turn you on to the truth rather than just bloody pot!”[56] Indeed, if the album has any ‘theme’ it is this: turning their listeners on to the truth of alienation and the destruction of identity in modern society. It was a deliberate provocation intended to call into question the entirety of modern society, the Vietnam war, and people’s refusal to understand reality. “Fixing a Hole” was not a drug song; instead it was about finding the strength to say no to “all those pissy people who told you, ‘Don’t daydream, don’t do this, don’t do that.’ It seemed to me that that was all wrong and that it was now time to fix all that. Mending was my meaning. Wanting to be free enough to let my mind wander.”[57] Harrison’s “Within You, Without You” spoke to a reality existing beyond the individual that could only be reached by spirituality. Denying the Western vision of the individual as a consumer and possessor of property it declared: “And to see you’re really only very small/And life flows on within you and without you.”

Implicit in this attempt to expand the mind were the quintessential counterculture messages: love, happiness, and fun. Spontaneity was privileged over ordered life. Order was seen as little more than condemnation to drudgery. The Beatles drew out these values by painting everyday objects, people, and values in magical terms. As McCartney says: “We always liked to take those ordinary facts of northern working-class life, like the clock, and mystify them and glamorise them and make them into something more magical.”[58] Fixing a leak, going on a date with a meter maid, and heading to the show to see Henry the Horse dance a waltz all took on a supernatural quality under the influence of the Beatles lyrics and sound. As Allen Ginsberg stated: “After the apocalypse of Hitler and the apocalypse of the Bomb, there was here an exclamation of joy and what it is to be alive. . . . They have decided to be generous to Lovely Rita, or to be generous to Sgt. Pepper himself, turn him from an authority figure to a figure of comic humor, a vaudeville turn.” [59]

No countercultural idea was left untouched. Free love and decreasing inhibitions about sex were dealt with in “Lovely Rita,” a song about lust for a meter maid who is “an easy lay,”[60] closed with the sounds of a simulated orgasm. In addition, it called attention to changing gender roles (Rita pays the bill). The thousands of children who ran away from home and dropped out were given center stage in “She’s Leaving Home.” McCartney wrote the song after reading in the newspaper about a girl who had left home, a perfect example of art imitating life. The poignant “lyrics struck a particular chord at a time when unprecedented numbers of young people were running away from home, heading for communes and squats, setting up home together with lovers, going on the hippie trail.”[61] The “suburban torpor”[62] of everyday life in the technocracy was skewered in “Good Morning, Good Morning.” The first line casually writes off a man on death’s door. The theme continues to develop as the song “casts a jaundiced eye on the banalities and everyday tragedies of modern urban life.”[63] Few songs have better drawn out the numbness of modern life. However, the pulsing sound and sly irony in Lennon’s voice suggests that even amidst the drudgery of the depersonalized modern life, one can find hope. Each verse concludes with the line, “I’ve got nothing to say but it’s okay,” a message that the problem is not middle class life, but rather people’s obsession with finding order.

This theme was continued in the wide range of ‘rules’ broken and new ground explored by the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper. Because they had abandoned touring, the members of the band could experiment with studio tricks to a significantly greater extent than ever before. Sounds that had never been heard before on a rock album included the 24 bar pastiche on “A Day in the Life” where an orchestra was invited but given virtually no guidance—they were merely instructed to start with their instrument’s lowest note and end up with its highest note.[64] “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite” sounded like a circus, an effect generated by snipping the master tape into pieces and randomly reassembling it.[65] Spoken words and sounds also adorned the album including the laugh track on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the montage of sounds from the end of “Good Morning, Good Morning.” For the first time, avant-garde art became intertwined with popular music. In addition, a variety of genres was meshed together. “Within You, Without You” drew from Indian music, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)” was a good old-fashioned rocker, and “When I’m Sixty-Four” hearkened to the music of the 1920s. McCartney has described the tune as “very tongue in cheek,”[66] but if anyone other than the Beatles had released the song, the humor would have been difficult to see. The genuine love McCartney felt for old-fashioned schmaltz shone through even as he winked. Before Sgt. Pepper it would have been unimaginable for a rock and roll band to include such music. It soon became clear to those who listened that the ‘rules’ no longer existed and rock music was whatever could be made of it. When the Beatles released the album, it forced the entire country to pay attention to what could be done with music.

The album also paved the way on other fronts. It was the first to run straight through without pauses allowing every song to flow into the next, facilitating the myth that it was a ‘concept’ album. It was the first to come with lyrics printed on the sleeve forcing people to recognize that the words in songs could be genuinely meaningful. The cover itself has become one of the most famous pieces of pop art created in the 20th century. Peter Blake was commissioned to produce it, adorning the record jacket with a mélange of popular figures, political leaders, and counterculture visionaries rubbing elbows with each other. The mass of people invoked the countercultural ideal that everyone could exist together, establishing connections through music. In the corner, one can even see the Beatles themselves (circa early sixties) attending Sgt. Pepper’s concert. With the cover the Beatles declared that they had taken on a new identity: they had become Sgt. Pepper’s Band. This suggested an entirely new conception of identity to listeners. Regardless of social background, race, gender, class, or any other line, one’s identity was alterable and fluid. One need only decide to join the counterculture and it was done. To a generation that had been raised on the notion that background established one’s place and questioning was not allowed, this was a tremendously empowering idea.

Sgt. Pepper and The Catalysis of the Counterculture

Sgt. Pepper was more than a reflection of the counterculture, however; it also became a focal point for the rapid expansion of the counterculture. As Lennon explained, “In a way we’d turned out to be a Trojan Horse….The Fab Four moved right to the top and then sang about drugs and sex.”[67] The Beatles knew they had tremendous power and used that with the direction purpose of trying to “wake up as many people as we could.”[68] Accordingly, the release of Sgt. Pepper was an event of almost unprecedented scale, partly an accident of converging cultural forces, but also coordinated by the Beatles, Brian Epstein, and EMI. By tapping into the tremendous force of alienated youth culture, they created an album capable of changing the world. Aware of the breathtaking achievement they had accomplished in producing Sgt. Pepper, they released the album as a challenge, announcing that it would be made available for airplay a week before the official release date at midnight on Sunday. However, any station which played it even a minute early was threatened with the revoke of all future rights to play the disc. Moreover, Sunday at midnight was hardly an ideal time to attract listeners, especially since most stations traditionally shut down for service at that time. Nevertheless, they played it over and over, many for hours or even days straight. Greil Marcus goes so far as to claim that “Sgt. Pepper, as the most brilliantly orchestrated manipulation of a cultural audience in pop history, was nothing less than a small pop explosion in and of itself. The music was not great art; the event, in its intensification of the ability to respond, was.”[69]

Put simply, the album blew its listeners away. During the summer of 1967, Sgt. Pepper was ubiquitous. Langdon Winner put it well, saying: “The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released…For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”[70] Everyone was listening which generated, perhaps for the first time, a common ground for discussion about the values and goals of the counterculture. In doing so, it created an outlet for all the pent up energy that had been contained in San Francisco to burst into the national consciousness. Suddenly, the counterculture was not just something that happened to other people, it was the Beatles and therefore it was on the radio all day every day and fused into the mainstream American cultural imagination. A voice had emerged from the chaos to speak for the counterculture, and what had only a month before been nothing more than a loosely affiliated group of fringe youths dissatisfied with mainstream values became a national force.

Inspired by what they learned of the counterculture, hundreds of thousands of people took the opportunity to travel to San Francisco. The Beatles promised enlightenment, love, happiness, and understanding, and their “music became a mirage, receding like the horizon, its myriad sounds crystallized in the need to travel, and keep traveling, westward.”[71] Like a siren song, Sgt. Pepper drew these dissatisfied youth toward San Francisco. This created another shared cultural event—the journey across America. Langdon Winner was one of the many weary travelers: “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-fl. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.”[72] With the help of the Beatles, a variety of social and cultural factors coalesced, and the ‘Summer of Love’ was spawned.

This was possible only because the Beatles were genuine participants in the counterculture. McCartney had visited San Francisco in early 1967, each of the Beatles had been turned on to the drug culture, they had begun to speak out against Vietnam, and they were truly concerned with peace, love, and happiness. Sgt. Pepper could not have existed divorced from its cultural and historical grounding. It was intimately tied to 1967 and the shifting patterns of American and British consciousness. Precisely because it was so dependent on those currents, it became a powerful symbol. As Starr pointed out, “Sgt. Pepper seemed to capture the mood of the year, and it also allowed a lot of other people to kick off from there and to really go for it.”[73] The album and the counterculture were locked in a mutually constitutive embrace—each fed the other, making the combination far more powerful than either would have been alone.

Sgt. Pepper was so useful as a symbol of the counterculture because it stood for radical revision to conventional thinking. No longer could rock and roll be scoffed at as just a trend of the young. Sgt. Pepper was the final proof that the young people won their “biggest bet ever against the supposedly better judgment of [their] elders….[The album] forced even the most skeptical adult critics to admit that rock and roll could be art.”[74] This transformation of the scope of popular music facilitated broader changes in two ways. First, the rapidity of change in a popular medium was staggering. The stagnant arena of popular music had transformed into the cutting edge of creative art in a few short years. For many, this implied that other cultural and political institutions could be fundamentally altered to the same degree. Second, after Sgt. Pepper the working class was able to participate in cultural formation. Sgt. Pepper was a sign that art no longer had to be boring or inaccessible; it could be fun. Nothing could lend more support to the counterculture than the idea that the pursuit of personal development could be achieved without sacrificing pleasure. The line between high and low culture became hazy or disappeared entirely, a landmark accomplishment for alternative lifestyles and cultures.

It should come as no surprise that art ended up playing such an important role in America during the Summer of Love. The line between culture and politics is far more indistinct than often understood. This has been true throughout history, from the role of the bard in Medieval cultures through the racial politics triggered by the infusion of jazz into white culture. However, in the late sixties, the connections became so clear that everyone in America could see the power of music at work. John Sinclair, one of the primary defenders of rock and roll as revolutionary, wrote: “Rock and roll music is one the most vital revolutionary forces in the West—it blows people all the way back to their senses and makes them feel good, like they’re alive again in the middle of this monstrous funeral parlor of western civilization.”[75] If cold war culture and the liberal consensus were intrinsically linked, the damage done to conformity by rock and roll could not help but implicate the political manifestation of consensus. The counterculture spread by music because music was, quite simply, the most important factor in shaping the identity of many baby-boomers. As Morris Dickstein argued, “Though changes in the other arts reveal the sixties and expose its sensibility, rock was the culture of the sixties.”[76] A few quotations from those within the counterculture should demonstrate this point:

“Rock music…is responsible more than any other single factor in spreading the good news”
“Sound, like sex and the magic weed, is a turn-on”
“For our generation music is the most vital force in most of our lives…It’s most beautiful aspect is that it gets to millions of people every day, telling them that they can dance and sing and holler and scream and FEEL GOOD”[77]

Unlike any other revolution in history, the explosion of the counterculture was made possible by the desire to have fun. There was no need to entice followers with talk of class struggle or racial justice. Those were factors, certainly, but for the most part they followed naturally from the desire to feel good. As a band like the Beatles began to instill rock and roll with a political conscience, their listeners were already receptive to the message. Rock and roll was also important insofar as it became a concrete example of what counterculture visionaries strove for. It was not enough to drop out, they argued. Instead, they were interested in what could be created to replace the technocracy. As Lennon explained, “It’s not drop out, it’s drop in and change it.”[78] In the rapidly changing world of popular music, the participants in the counterculture could see alternative futures playing out before their eyes.[79]

The brief flare that was the countercultural revolution was intimately tied to the ebbs and flows of popular culture. The Summer of Love was made possible by the growth of Edenic myths which were by ephemeral and dissipated almost before they had time to form. The Beatles were exemplars of utopianism, “for the sixties were a period that believed in magic and innocence…[and] the Beatles were its most playful incarnation.”[80] This utopianism reached its crest in Sgt. Pepper so it should come as no surprise that this coincided perfectly with the first explosion of the counterculture. The latent power in hippie culture helped shape American culture in a profound way, but, like the Beatles, had mostly dissipated into bickering and lost dreams by the time the seventies began. “I was the dream-weaver but now I’m reborn/I was the walrus, but now I’m John/And so dear friends you’ll just have to carry on/The dream is over” John Lennon sang in 1970 on his first solo album, and the world understood. The dream ended almost before it began, but for a brief moment, the cultural power of the Beatles was able to fundamentally shift the foundations of American culture.

Sgt. Pepper, then, was very much a product of the counterculture, but it also became the impetus for the radical expansion of that culture from a fringe group to mainstream America. This dialectic generated a positive feedback loop, where the counterculture gained power from popular art and art gained relevance from its role as a recorder of change. This feedback reached a fever pitch in 1967, creating a tremendous well to be tapped. At this historic moment the most popular band in the world had just produced their masterpiece, a timely reaction to the events swirling around them. Sgt. Pepper was not entirely unique. In a sense, it merely echoed the values, assumptions, shared notions of identity felt by tens of thousands of people in the mid-Sixties. However, it was unique in the effects it generated. Before Sgt. Pepper was released, the forces building in San Francisco were primed but lacking the spark to start the fire. With its release, an entire generation recognized the magic of the era captured for eternity in 45 minutes of music. Hundreds of thousands were then inspired to live out the Beatles vision. The movement grew into a profoundly political role, but many of its roots can be found in the profoundly cultural act of listening to a rock album. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that because of the Beatles, millions were able to encounter alternative cultures and thus find their political selves.

[1] “Rolling Stone Lists,” no date listed, <>
[2] Gary Finn, “This Week’s List Of The Top Albums Of The Century,” The Independent, December 30, 1999, 5
[3] Philip Norman, Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation, (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1981), 290
[4] Mark Hertsgaard, A Day in the Life : The Music and Artistry of the Beatles, (New York : Delacorte Press, 1995), 66
[5] Charles Kaiser, 1968 In America : Music, Politics, Chaos, Counterculture, and the Shaping of a Generation, (New York : Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988), 197
[6] Greil Marcus, “The Beatles,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by J. Miller, (New York: Random House, 1976), 175
[7] Godfrey Hodgson, America In Our Time: From World War II to Nixon What Happened and Why, (New York : Vintage Books, 1976), 99
[8] Hodgson 5
[9] Kaiser 197
[10] Paul Kohl, “A Splendid Time Is Guaranteed For All: The Beatles As Agents Of Carnival,” Popular Music and Society, Winter, 1996
[11] Patricia Oberhaus, “Artist Tells of Virgin Rites at Beatle Bacchanal,” Berkeley Barb, Vol. 1, No. 5, September 10, 1965
[12] The only event remotely similar is the growth of rock and roll in the early 1950s. That, however, was not controlled so completely by a single person or band. Even Elvis only popularized the genre but did not fundamentally alter it.
[13] Marcus 175
[14] Marcus 178
[15] Marcus 176
[16] Harrison points out in the Beatles Anthology that after Candlestick Park, the Beatles had played over 1400 shows in the previous five years. The band was exhausted and simply looking for relief. Beatles Anthology, (San Francisco : Chronicle Books, 2000), 229
[17] Steve Turner, A Hard Day’s Write, (New York : HarperCollins, 1994), 99
[18] Lennon, Beatles Anthology 223
[19] excepting, of course, the concert from the rooftop on January 30, 1969. Beatles Anthology 321
[20] Turner 99
[21] Robert Christgau, “Secular Music,” Esquire, December, 1967, 283. Christgau felt it necessary to defend Richard Goldstein’s choice to give Sgt. Pepper a bad review, describing the universal castigation Goldstein had faced for daring to criticize.
[22] Carl Schonbeck, ““STATING POINTS OF VIEW”…SGT. PEPPER AT 35,” 2002,
[23] Schonbeck
[24] Hodgson 67. For a detailed discussion of the liberal conensus, see Hodgson 67-98
[25] David Halberstram, “To Achieve a Victory” ” in Major Problems In the History of the Vietnam, McMahon (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1995), 226
[26] David Schmitz, “LBJ and the Liberal Consensus,” in Lecture Notes, 10/6/00
[27] Schmitz, 10/6/00
[28] Terry Anderson, The Movement and the Sixties: Protest in America from Greensboro to Wounded Knee, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1995), 15 (italics in original)
[29] Schmitz 10/6/00
[30] Anderson 17
[31] Anderson 18
[32] Anderson 100
[33] Mario Savio, “An End to History,” Humanity, no. 2, December, 1964, quoted in America in the Sixties: Right, Left, and Center, A Documentary History, edited by Peter Levy, (Wesport, Conn. : Praeger, 1998), 131
[34] David Schmitz, Consensus Crumbles: The Antiwar Movement, in Lecture Notes, 11/1/00
[35] For example a report from Gardner Ackley, the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, concluded, “Our economy has lots of room to absorb a defense step up.” (Gardner Ackley, letter to Lyndon B. Johnson, 30 July 1965)
[36] Keith Lampe, “From Dissent to Parody,” Liberation, December, 1967, 20
[37] Anderson 247
[38] Schmitz, 11/1/00
[39] Indeed, many credit Roszak with coining the term ‘counterculture’ in the first place.
[40] Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and its Youthful Opposition, (Garden City, New York : Doubleday, 1969), 5
[41] Roszak 66 (italics in original)
[42] Anderson 263
[43] Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy, (New York : Putnam, 1968)
[44] Anderson 260-261
[45] Anderson 264
[46] Philip Slater, The Pursuit of Loneliness, (Boston, Beacon Press, 1970), 90
[47] Norman 280
[48] Ralph Gleason, San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1967, 41
[49] Norman 281
[50] John Lennon, quoted in The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, edited by David Sheff, (New York : Playboy Press, 1981), 140
[51] Marcus 176
[52] Lennon, quoted in the Playboy Interviews 161
[53] Paul McCartney, Beatles Anthology 242
[54] Lennon, quoted in the Playboy Interviews 163
[55] Norman 293
[56] Tim Riley, 1988, “A Day in the Life Examined,”
[57] Paul McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, edited by Barry Miles, (New York : H. Holt, 1997), 314-315
[58] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 305
[59] Ginsberg, quoted in Kohl
[60] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 320
[61] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 317
[62] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 320
[63] Hertsgaard 220
[64] Paul McCartney, Beatles Anthology 247
[65] Hertsgaard 218
[66] McCartney, quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 319
[67] Lennon, quoted in Hertsgaard 198
[68] Harrison, quoted in Hertsgaard 199. That the Beatles knew their strength is made clear in a variety of interviews. For example, Lennon stated, “Changing the lifestyle and appearance of youth throughout the world didn’t just happen – we set out to do it; we knew what we were doing.” (quoted in Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now 293)
[69] Marcus 176
[70] Langdon Winner, quoted in Marcus 176
[71] Norman 293
[72] Winner, quoted in Marcus 176. This experience hits close to home. My own family, moving from New England to Seattle, drove across the country during the summer of 1967. My father tells me that he can remember stopping at gas stations all along I-90, from busy metropolitan streets to the dusty plains of Montana, and hearing Sgt. Pepper playing.
[73] Ringo Starr, Beatles Anthology 253
[74] Richard Corliss, “A Beatle Metaphysic,” Commonweal, May 12, 1967, 234. Also see Thomas Thompson, “The New Far-Out Beatles,” Life, June 16, 1967, 100
[75] John Sinclair, “Rock and Roll Is a Weapon of Cultural Revolution,” The Fifth Estate, December, 1968, quoted in Taking it to the Streets: A Sixties Reader, edited by Bloom and Breines, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1995), 301
[76] Morris Dickstein, Gates of Eden: American Culture in the Sixties (New York : Basic Books, 1977), 185
[77] Anderson 245-246
[78] Lennon, quoted in Hertsgaard 197-198
[79] Sinclair 302-303
[80] Dickstein 210

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