In which I reflect on a gathering in Central Park to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper
With the “Beatles 50” decade (that is, a series of Beatles-related 50th anniversaries) fast coming to a close, I sit listening to the special remaster of Abbey Road, which is everything I could want and more. But as this is Throwback Thursday, I’d like to commemorate an exciting event at which I was present: New York City’s Pepper Day 2017, a celebration to honor the release of the seminal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
1 June marked half a century since Rolling Stone’s Greatest Rock Album hit the market on both sides of the Atlantic. I and my musically-inclined friends and associates anticipated the anniversary well in advance. Various ideas crossed my mind for a proverbial tip of the hat, including a joint graduation party (college for me, high school for my sister) requiring guests to dress as personalities found on the sleeve—and featuring my sister, me, and our parents as the militarily-clad Fab Four.
Like that was going to happen. The closer the big day came, the clearer the need for a more definitive plan became to me.
Halfway through the spring semester, a Beatles-scholar professor lent me his copy of Beatleness, a book by sociologist Candy Leonard which catalogues the unique cultural experience of fans growing up alongside the band in the sixties. Among many fascinating facts, I learned of the biannual Fest for Beatles Fans—and of International Pepper Day, a celebratory listening party organized by the man behind the Fest, taking place at the Strawberry Fields memorial in Central Park on the day in question.
What more definitive plan could there be? My father and I set out for the city the morning of, navigating the serpentine Upper West Side in the opposite of our usual route. We arrived with plenty of time to spare before the official noon commemoration, so we strolled across the expanse of the park, soaking in its early-summer glory under leafy brush and nearly cloudless sky, until finally we settled in for the big event. Said event consisted of…about a hundred people. Colorfully clad, florally bedecked, and peacefully minded people, no doubt, but a small group. I couldn’t help wondering if this was the place.
Then a girl in long tie-dye pants and crowned with a wreath of flowers handed me a button—a LOVE button—and I knew it was.
The lot of us clustered around the marble IMAGINE circle in the center of the memorial, in a reverent hush, and more or less stayed there for the next hour as the organizer played the new remaster on a small speaker connected to his phone. I found it almost unfathomable that the technology of music production and consumption could have come so far in half a century. Every so often we swapped positions to provide everyone with a closer listen. And I won’t say it felt like hearing the album for the first time—not least because we’d listened to the original and two different cover versions on the trip down—but to be surrounded by people whose passion vibrated as palpably as mine did was something else. The energy in that circle electrified me. I spoke with total strangers, a feat for someone with her share of social hang-ups, and felt understood. It was an atmosphere of goodwill and camaraderie that I imagined resembled Woodstock, albeit on a smaller (and less muddy) scale.
That atmosphere was sustained as the album ended and we segued into what the organizer, a beneficent older gentleman, called “the jam session.” This consisted of several musicians in the crowd bringing out their instruments and playing through the album in their own style.
Of course, they needed singers. No rendition of the album could be complete without those fantastic lyrics.
Enter me. Alongside the organizer and the guitarist of a local band, I took a tambourine and sang my way through every song without missing a word. We harmonized brilliantly on “With a Little Help from My Friends.” Eventually I was at the helm of the singing group, and a man I later understood to be the producer Mark Hudson joined me on “Getting Better.” He had tie-dyed his beard. I couldn’t remember the last time I had smiled so continuously; it had been hours on end.
That afternoon was proof that it is getting better all the time. And although I missed the recent Fests in Chicago and New York, despite encouragement from the people I met that day, the event is now on my radar permanently. (Let’s see when I get there, or when an outpost comes to Europe.)
I acquired Sgt. Pepper on CD one Christmas when I was very young and unable to appreciate its genius. Sometimes things take a while to percolate. Don’t ever dismiss a piece of work: it might never mean anything to you, but it might.