Two watershed sounds of a watershed year
In 1967, the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the Beatles fired back-to-back broadsides on our expectations. And changed everything.
It’s starting to happen, little by little, our remembering of the events of the watershed year, 1967. Between now and the end of the year, we’ll note more than a few anniversary retrospectives, revisiting the March on the Pentagon, the race riots in Detroit, the first Monterey Pop Festival, the riots in Newark, the Biafra civil war; the riots in Cairo, Ill., and Durham, N.C.; the appointment of Thurgood Marshall as the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice; the dawn of the Haight-Ashbury scene; Hair’s premiere on Broadway, the release of In the Heat of the Night … and the riots in Cambridge and Memphis and Milwaukee.
“Jim Marshall 1967,” a retrospective of cultural events of the year through the eyes of the renowned rock photographer, just closed at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. But like the next wave coming in off the ocean, two more revisitations are happening now, one of them a full-on sonic reimagining of everything we heard before.
Are You Experienced? (released May 12, 1967) by the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released in the UK May 26, ’67, in the US June 2) by the Beatles both put the world on notice that the dovetailing of culture, innovation, technology and opportunity that made the decade what it was fast becoming had reached some wild zenith, a high point of creativity. They stand as signposts, benchmarks of the time, two serial musical events that presaged the future and announced to a still wary, curious general public the era that was, even then, at its apogee, very nearly over.
These two cultural upstarts — the Liverpool band that bottled the zeitgeist only three years earlier, and the Seattle guitarist who transformed the palette of his instrument and the sound of rock music like no one before or since — brought out records back to back … and changed everything.
All the innovation in the world won’t help you if no one’s listening. Neither record would have mattered — maybe neither record would have happened — if there wasn’t a public ready to receive it. By 1967 rock as art form had been confirmed in the mind of the public; the latitude and permissions of society had evolved enough in other spheres of the social life to make open minds at least possible. The public was ready for the distillation of rock’s best practices, the music in its highest and best use.
Hendrix and the Beatles rose to the occasion. And 50 years later, we still hear the broadsides they fired on our expectations.
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From that tree-ring distance, certain things about Are You Experienced? become clearer than ever: its embrace of violence and danger, depression and sexuality, dreams and the flights of the imagination — all of it in a sonic context no one could have imagined. Hendrix had able fellow travelers in Noel Redding, a fluid, nimble bass player, and Mitch Mitchell, a drummer whose machine-gun precision helped give their sound a fearsome energy. But the Jimi Hendrix Experience was Jimi’s vision, start to finish, and never more purely executed than at the beginning.
“Purple Haze,” of course, set the table, and the terms of engagement. The first track on the album established the scape of Hendrix’s daring, and revealed the comfort and confidence he already had in his style of playing, and the vision underneath. This first single from the album, heavy with the virtuosity of Hendrix’s guitar at full throttle, was just right for radio, with the brevity and punch to be heard and remembered above the radio menagerie of Animals, Byrds, Monkees, Hermits and Stones.
On “Third Stone From the Sun,” a spirited psychedelic sprint across Jimi’s universe, Jimi is your guide as an extraterrestrial visits earth (“May I land my thinking machine?”), ultimately deciding that it’s not worth saving (“to you I shall put an end, and you will never hear surf music again.”). In one nearly seven-minute track, Hendrix already points the way to the fusion of rock and jazz, marking roads for Miles Davis, John McLaughlin and others to pave in the years to come. The song brilliantly morphs rock with jazz, hummable melody with dissonant invention. It’s in this early manifestation of greatness that Hendrix seems to have exploded fully formed as a creative entity.
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“Manic Depression” and “I Don’t Live Today” hold up as explorations of the dark places in Hendrix’s psyche, places he would revisit over the next three years. And the ballad “The Wind Cries Mary” maintains its grip on the heart, its emotional temperature hasn’t dialed back at all; this, among Jimi’s most tender compositions, is as lyrical, dreamlike and soulful today as it was a half-century ago.
“Foxy Lady,” a still-swaggering chestnut, deceptive in its earnest simplicity, long ago started its long run toward becoming the bar-crawlers’ anthem it’s turned into over the last 50 years. But the song, and the album as a whole, announced more than themselves.
With Experienced? Jimi Hendrix made a statement — one made not that often since — that a black man was taking charge: of this band, of his music, of his life and his vision. With his first record, Hendrix dared to presume agency — creative and racial, sexual and financial — in a flashpoint era when lives of black Americans were under unprecedented siege.
Maybe no other song on the album gets that point across quite like “Hey Joe,” the Experience’s cover of a song by folk singer Billy Roberts. To hear it now from a remove of 50 years is to rediscover a brittle gem of a song inhabited by misfits and loners; a wide-open Western space. Within a tale of domestic violence and vengeance, Hendrix & Co. fashioned a taut, muscular soundscape, stark, languid, desert. Sergio Leone dreamscape on acid.
Hendrix delivers the lyrics, weaving between singing and speaking in a dreamlike confessional state. And one of defiance: Hendrix, the bad brutha from central casting, makes a proclamation of violence — “I gave her the gun, I shot her!”
Later, in a resonating parting shot, Hendrix delivers the lines that solidified his allegiance with African Americans, in ’67, that crucible year, well before most of black America had the good sense to realize or care who Hendrix was or what he was saying: “Ain’t no hangman gonna — he ain’t gonna put a rope around me! You better believe right now!” The fictional crime within the song paled in comparison with the real-life crime against black America.
Hendrix knew what was coming; he knew they’d be after him. And that year he also knew what was Next on the calendar; he said as much at the Saville Theater on June 4, 1967, when he and the Experience played the title song from the album everyone on the planet had been waiting for.
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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles’ eighth studio album, has a more than vaguely conceptual bent to it: it’s nominally a performance within a performance, a gathering of vignettes at an exhibition. People have debated for years whether it’s a concept album in the strictest sense of the phrase, which is almost beside the point. What’s so affecting now, with 50 years of hindsight, is its swerves between the imaginary and the documentary, the impossible and the everyday. Sgt. Pepper put on display, maybe like no Beatles album before, the darkness and light embodied in the Lennon-McCartney tandem of worldviews.
The aspirational, relentlessly sunny aspect of “Lovely Rita” and “Fixing a Hole” (almost certainly dominated by Paul McCartney) is contrasted with the snarky realism (“Good Morning Good Morning”) and wry, downbeat poignancy (“A Day in the Life”) that were John Lennon’s trademarks.
But you never knew for sure where the one began and the other left off. It was all a testament both to their range as musicians and their relationship as friends that Sgt. Pepper worked so well, its parts meshed so seamlessly.
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At its best it was a weave of genres and visions. Sgt. Pepper’s self-improvement trilogy — “Getting Better,” “Fixing a Hole” and “She’s Leaving Home” — has its proper place amid the trippy classic “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”; “Within You Without You,” George Harrison’s bold experiment with ragas and Indian classical music; and “With a Little Help From My Friends,” still deceptively winning in its embrace of friendship, after all these years (and Ringo Starr’s voice better than I remembered).
You know the order of the songs by heart; one follows the other follows the other, like the parts of a Swiss watch. You can also gauge, track by track, the changes in the album’s overall mood; doing that, you discover one of Sgt. Pepper’s more unsettling dimensions (something most of us were too preoccupied to notice all those years ago).
Despite its general cheerfulness, Sgt. Pepper is an album liberally laced with pondering of mortality. Consider “Good Morning Good Morning” (death in the opening lyrics). Or “A Day in the Life” (death in the opening lyrics). Or the overall live-life-to-the-fullest spiritual message of “Within You Without You.” Even the jaunty, home-body friendliness of “When I’m Sixty-Four” is tinged with the intimation of something ending.
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It was no casual flirtation for this band. Three months after Sgt. Pepper was released, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ major domo of a manager and the one responsible for orchestrating their rise to fame, died of a barbiturate overdose at the age of 32. Mal Evans, the Beatles’ genial bear of a road manager and all-around assistant, was killed by Los Angeles police in January 1974. Lennon was murdered outside his home in New York City in December 1980.
That subconscious preoccupation with mortality may be, perversely enough, part of the album’s original appeal and its continued embrace by the culture and the public: apart from the rest of the catalog, this was the first Beatles album to fully (if self-consciously) address something close to the full scope of the human condition, the universal facets of our lives, what we’ve all got in common, sooner or later, like it or not.
The power of Sgt. Pepper has a new punch. Giles Martin, son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, helmed a complete, top-to-bottom remixing of the album. Released on May 26, the new stereo version of the original stereo and mono classics reinvigorates the music we thought we’d committed to memory.
A track-by-track comparison of Sgt. Pepper new and previous yields stunning differences. Drum and vocal parts lost in the audible wilderness of the previous releases aren’t so much revived as given their rightful place in the proceedings — closer to front and center. Found.
The Beatles’ vocal tricks, inspired recording techniques, and novel choices of instruments are startlingly apparent (now that you can hear what’s always been there). It adds up like never before, giving us something rare as the album itself. Despite the cliche, it’s true: The Giles Martin remix is an opportunity to hear Sgt. Pepper again, for the first time.
Speaking to Variety before the reissue, Giles Martin had his own take on what Sgt. Pepper was all about: “That’s what this album is: it’s four friends making an album and saying ‘screw you’ to the world.” But that’s not right — hell, that’s what the Sex Pistols did, 10 years after Sgt. Pepper came out.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band has too much love in it, too much pride of ownership to be that indifferently assembled. The album that for many defined the 60’s came from that curiosity shop of the Beatles, arrived as a kind of parting valentine, and an apotheosis of sorts. It may or may not be their best album, but it’s their greatest album, the one where the band’s creative reach is more or less equal to its grasp.
Giles Martin recognizes the power of Sgt. Pepper, understands how over 50 years, people everywhere have taken spiritual possession of this album. They own the album where it counts: in their hearts and in their heads. He also understands that, if you’re going to keep great music out of the museum, you bring it forward for fresh generations. Martin gets that tug-of-war between the present and the past:
“The thing is, there’s no such thing as a perfect mix or a perfect record. You listen to records like “Fresh” by Sly & the Family Stone, which are technically really badly mixed records — I mean, you can hear a telephone ring halfway through — and they sound great. It’s all about people pushing up faders and the guts of it, which is what makes a great record. We live in a perfect audio world now where everything’s tuned and pitched and put in time. And I think human frailty is part of the beauty of it.”
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There’d be other records to come, of course: Magical Mystery Tour, out later that year, and following the same blissed-out trajectory as its predecessor; the so-called White Album, a more brittle, expansive, willfully experimental collection; Abbey Road and Let It Be, records that took us further down a long and winding road away from the dizzying sweetness of the past, a road from which we knew there was no return.
But Sgt. Pepper was in some ways a high point: the last sunny blast of brightness before the era of the ’60s fell into black days of its very own (days the album subliminally presages). It was a cultural signal crossing that everyone could read and make sense of; whether they liked the album or not almost doesn’t matter.
Now as then, people recognize Sgt. Pepper may have been that last peaceful conjunction of cultures in the ’60s, that last time we all met and joined hands, performed our own open-heart surgeries and confessed our human frailty and at least tried to sing together … before everything shifted again and we were shuttled each of us onto our different tracks and mostly you went your way and I went mine … before — to borrow from a later Beatles song — we decided that “you say hello, and I say goodbye.”