When Sgt. Pepper arrived

Earlier this year I listened to the remastered, reissued Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – an album that was released six years before I was born. The first thing that struck me was how similar it was to Nevermind by Nirvana. No, really.

Nirvana had been making some waves but the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit on MTV it made me stop and turn and stare. What was this? It wasn’t heavy metal, it wasn’t indie rock, it was new, and once I managed to get a copy of the album it stayed on my stereo, on repeat, loudly, for several weeks. It was the soundtrack for my first winter at college and to this day still invokes memories of student unions and drunken nights of experimentation, it also opened the door to another band that has never left me, Pearl Jam (who had released their first album a month prior).

I grew up listening to Queen. A band I latched onto in my parents LP collection, nestled alongside my Dads folk albums, and a plethora of singer/songwriter records (Sedaka, Joel, Manilow), ohhh and that copy of a Saxon album. I’ll skip past the bit where I totally ignored my Mum’s Beatles albums because the covers ‘looked like old music’ (don’t worry, I’ll come back to the Beatles soon).

Of all those early Queen albums ‘Jazz’ is the abiding memory; that weird black and white spiral cover, and the range of songs was what grabbed my attention – Fat Bottomed Girls, Dreamer’s Ball, Bicycle Race, Jealousy, Don’t Stop Me Now. This was a rock band play jazzy piano bar numbers? Silly songs about riding bikes? And to this day the drum riff in Fat Bottomed Girls still gives me goosebumps. It was a good grounding for my first forays into the world of popular music.

Queen ‘The Works’ was the second album I ever bought (the first was Adam & the Ants, Friend or Foe) and they remain a firm favourite, the type of band I love to sing a long to because I know all the words. Yet despite the emotional link to my childhood their songs never really spoke to me and as I grew into an adolescent I found their heaviest tracks didn’t rock hard enough and their later tracks all seemed a little too radio friendly (I prefer early Queen, gimme Sheer Heart Attack over The Miracle any day).

I was kind of stuck in my musical habits, but it was Top of the Pops and the Top 40 on the radio that was my gateway for those years. Iron Maiden were next up on the list – I can probably still remember all the words to every song on Piece of Mind – as I explored a heavier sound, gravitating towards big stupid guitar riffs like many a young teenager.

Having a parent who is a secondary school teacher also, occasionally helped. Imagine my 14 year old surprise when I walk into the family kitchen to find my Dad doing the dishes whilst Appetite for Destruction is blasting from the cassette deck because ‘the kids at school were listening to it’. The opening stuttering loops of Welcome to the Jungle is also on the list of goosebump moments.

Heavy Metal had me for a few years, but it wasn’t until 1991 when an 18 year old me first heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. That distorted, fuzzy, broken guitar ripped through the airwaves, and a visceral voice attacked the chorus and OMYGODWHATISTHIS was all I could manage. Over and over, the bass thumping, the drums thudding, volume at 10. We had moved on to CDs now, insert disc, set to repeat, repeat, repeat.

I’d never felt anything like it, never heard anything like it, and it felt new and, as cliched as it now sounds, it felt real. This raw, beautiful, screaming voice, those soft and loud songs, the pop sensibilities that kept getting ripped up and stomped on. Nirvana were the Queen I had longed for and I had only had to wait 10 years for them.

Fast forward to 2017 and whilst it was Nirvana that dragged me to my musical home, it was Pearl Jam that stuck with and grew with me. They fed my desire for meaningful words to sing, for dark songs for darker days, for uplifting anthemic beats and howling guitars. Sonically they were in the same dirty world as Nirvana, a basement growl thrust into the ether, but then THAT VOICE came booming and hollering at me from inside my own head.

I’ve only seen them live once and I will happily, joyously admit that I wept big fat tears and adopted the lyrics of the opening song of the set into my heart once again. Release Me, sings Vedder, howls Vedder, his throat ripping my heart asunder. As I flashed back to those first listens, curled up in my old bedroom, my teenage angst writ large. A matter of timing for sure, a happy coincidence of lyric and emotion, something I’ve rarely felt since, at least not until a little band called Elbow and a man called Guy Garvey reached into my heart and my soul, pulling line after wonderful line for his songs.

I veer to playlists more and more these days but sometimes it’s good to go back to an album or two. In ‘Ten’ by Pearl Jam and ‘Nevermind’ by Nirvana, you have two of my Desert Island discs. Sgt.Pepper would have to be another, yet it wasn’t one of those buried in my parents collection (my Mum preferred their early stuff, she was that screaming, hysterical teen). I discovered it years later.

There’s been a lot written about the remastered release that was issued earlier this year and whilst it’s not quite like listening to the album for the first time back in 1969 it is definitely a markedly new sound for a well worn friend.

But stop and try and imagine something.

Imagine you are that child who is starting to explore music. Who has the lay of the land, can pick out reggae from soul from folk from classical. Who has a framework within which to work, a way of discovering related artists and songs.

Now, can you imagine what it must’ve been like to listen to Sgt.Pepper for the first time?

Listening today feels a bit like stepping into a time capsule, but not back to 1969, instead we are transported to an entirely different reality, taken through wonderous vistas, fantastical places and everyday melancholy. Each song is a perfect example of itself and I never tire of listening to it, even more so with this new release as you are able to pick out individual instruments and voices much better than before.

There hadn’t been an album like that before and whilst each song is memorable in it’s own sense, the format and construction was so completely new to the mass audience it was presented to it must’ve been utterly, wonderfully, bemusing. Imagine taking your new Beatles LP home, pouring over that album cover, reading the sleeve notes, before sliding the dark vinyl from its sleeve and dropping the needle and OMYGODWHATISTHIS!

Will we ever get another Sgt.Pepper, another Nevermind moment? As music skews away from the mainstream more and more, and pop music is continually filtered and processed down, I have to wonder if future generations will experience the same kind of bewildered awe that some of us have been lucky enough to experience.

Albums (not tracks) that land with an impact are few – Beyonce’s Lemonade springs to mind – and typically the impact these days is not purely musical, it requires a level of culture resonance and weight for an album to make a big impact on the masses.

But I know that somehow, from somewhere, an album will arrive.

Everyone will stop.

Everyone will listen.

Everyone will react.

And I just hope I’m still around to hear it too.

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