Still Marching with Sgt. Pepper, the Beatles Mind-Blowing Music Woke a Generation and the World

Bruce was different from the rest of us. Very different.

We were mostly working-class kids who, like me, lived at home and commuted to Northeastern, trying to scrape by financially during our freshman year until we got co-op jobs to pay for our next semester. I even labored as a 15- hour-a-week mail boy while in school to earn cash to defray costs and help out my folks. 

Bruce, on the other hand, had the manner of someone from wealth, possibly old money. He was clearly several years our senior; his hair was short, and his pants and shirt were crisp. He always arrived at our political science section meetings with The New York Times in hand, which he would read intensely until the teaching assistant started class. 

Bruce never talked with any of us. As the days grew colder, he wore an expensive trench coat, a la Edward R. Murrow and the other great foreign correspondents who covered World War II, and a stylish fedora to keep away the rain.

One afternoon, while waiting in the hallway before another class was dismissed, I struck up a conversation with him. As he talked, Bruce revealed a background consistent with my suspicions. He was from a well-known New England family, whose surname adorned one of the region’s most famous prep schools. He had been living in London when the draft threatened to suck him into the war. He returned to America seeking shelter by attending college. It was too late to enroll at Harvard, where previous generations of men from his family had attended; Northeastern, however, happily admitted him.

Over the next few weeks, we continued to talk in snatches before class. One day in late May 1967, he invited me to his house in Cambridge for lunch and for what he hinted would be a great surprise. I accepted. I had never been to Cambridge, which seemed to me a far-off land of Harvard and Radcliffe students who were considerably more affluent and sophisticated than a kid from NU.

I grabbed the subway to Harvard Square and, following Bruce’s directions, came to a lovely, tree-lined street filled with large, gracious houses. I knocked on his door; Bruce’s mother opened it and greeted me warmly. She was in her early 50s, reed thin and wearing a modest, dark blue dress. His mom ushered me into a spacious kitchen where Bruce was seated at a highly polished wooden table. For lunch, she served us a thin piece of roast beef accompanied by a few string beans. This explained, I thought, why WASPs were never fat.

When we finished, Bruce hustled me into the family’s book-lined study and pointed me to an ancient, stuffed chair. On a table beside it was a headset and, nearby, an expensive looking stereo. Bruce now sprung the surprise. 

A friend had just returned from London where he had obtained the latest Beatles album. Bruce wanted to know if I had heard about it.

I was a fan, increasingly so, as their music had become more complex and adventurous. The past year had seen an explosion of creativity. In August 1966, the brilliant “Revolver” had ended with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” its opening words cribbed from the Tibetan “Book of the Dead.” The song was filled with avant garde sounds: Pieces of recorded tape were cut up and then run backward while an Indian sitar droned in the background.

Then in February 1967, “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane” were released as a double A-sided single. They were unlike any rock songs I had ever heard.

I told Bruce I had been so busy with school and work that I hadn’t been paying much attention to the Beatles next album, except I knew they had been working on it for a long time.

“Yes, that’s right,” he said and handed me “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” He smiled and added: “Enjoy. Use the headset. It is much better listening with them on. I’ll leave you alone.” 

And he disappeared.

I stared at the album cover. Under a sliver of blue sky was a pop art assemblage of dozens of celebrities and important historical and cultural figures, many of whom I recognized. Later, I would learn about the others. I quickly spotted Bob Dylan, Fred Astaire, Laurel and Hardy, Marlon Brando and Jackie Gleason. George had inserted guru Sri Yukteswar Giri; Paul had requested electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen; John had put in Lewis Carroll. 

Shirley Temple appeared in three images; the one on the bottom right wore a sweater emblazoned with the cheeky message: “Welcome the Rolling Stones.”

In front of the gathering were the Beatles. Actually, two sets of Beatles. To the left were Madame Tussauds’ wax models of the Fab Four in matching black suits and black ties circa 1964; in the center were the Beatles wearing Victorian era, psychedelically colored, marching band uniforms. They stood behind a bass drum lettered with the album’s title. Below them was the Beatles name spelled out in red flowers arranged for a funeral. Tongue in cheek, or a new reality?

There was more. When I opened the album, a centerfold closeup of the four Beatles stared back at me. Also, there was a full-size cardboard insert containing five cutouts: a mustache, a large portrait of the sergeant, two badges of Sgt. Pepper and the drum, and sergeant’s stripes. 

And on the back of the album were all the song lyrics, something no album had ever provided. 

When I finished exploring the packaging, I put on the headphones and dropped the needle. From the first notes through the most electrifying songs — “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” “Within You, Without You,” “She’s Leaving Home” to the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club (Reprise)” — I was swept away by the brilliance of music and the words. 

But nothing prepared me for the final song. It was as if T.S. Elliot had decided to collaborate with Igor Stravinsky. “A Day in the Life” was a dark tale of modern life, of suicide and the loss of empire, of hollow people and the daily pressures of life all told in a little over five minutes. The song was held together by an optimistic refrain, “I’d love to turn you on,” accompanied by a sonic sound that took the top of my head off. It ended on a crashing chord, created by three pianos struck simultaneously, lasting more than 40 seconds.

When the song finished, I couldn’t move. I was stunned, drifting for some moments. It was if my soul had been hit with a hammer. Bruce entered, grinning. 

“Great album, wasn’t it?” 

“Yes,” I mumbled, at a loss for words.

I don’t remember how we passed the time after I listened to the album. I do remember walking down the tree-shrouded street in a daze. I left Harvard Square and returned to Northeastern. 

Then, the album hit America. For the next few weeks, I could walk down Huntington Avenue and hear “Sgt. Pepper” being played everywhere, a phenomenon replicated on college campuses around the country. The Summer of Love was being heralded by the album of the century.

The Beatles would produce two more great albums before they broke up. John Lennon would be assassinated in 1980; George Harrison would die from lung cancer in 2001. Paul and Ringo would carry on, occasionally teaming up at a concert or on an album.

But the Beatles never died out, or even really disbanded. 

In 1995, Apple, the company they formed, released “The Beatles Anthology,” which contained two new songs, “Free as a Bird” and “Real Love,” based on demo tapes of compositions by Lennon. In 2000, Apple created “1,” a compilation of all the Beatles No. 1 singles. It became the best-selling album of the first decade of this century. “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The Beatles” (aka the White Album) and “Abbey Road” each have been reissued in 50th-anniversary editions.

In 2019, Spotify announced that its subscribers that year had downloaded Beatles songs 1.7 billion times, of which 30 percent were by listeners 18 to 24 years old, and 17 percent by people 25-29. Last year during the height of the pandemic, “Here Comes the Sun” was downloaded 350 million times from Spotify. A check of YouTube videos reveals that Beatles songs total well over two billion hits.

And this fall, director Peter Jackson is set to release “Get Back,” a new documentary about the Beatles final year together, revealing their unbroken bond even at that fractious time in their career.

But statistics are beside the point. Looking back, what “Sgt. Pepper” demonstrated in its cover and in its music was that there was no longer a divide between high art and popular art; that four working class lads from Liverpool could aspire to highest level of creativity and imagination. The musicologist Howard Goodall compared them to Bach and Beethoven and dubbed the Beatles the most important composers of the 20th century.

“Sgt. Pepper” helped me realize that there was no difference between Bruce and me, nor between the kids at Northeastern and Harvard. All people, of whatever background, could achieve greatness. 

Less than a month after the release of “Sgt. Pepper” on May 26, 1967, the Beatles performed on “Our World,” the first, live international satellite television broadcast, which was seen by 700 million people, according to some estimates.

Seated in a studio in London, surrounded by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Keith Moon, Marianne Faithful, Eric Clapton and Graham Nash, and accompanied by a group of classical musicians, the Beatles sang, “All You Need is Love,” which began: “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done/ Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.” As the song ended, the title’s words mixed with the exultant sound of two piccolo trumpets and the joyful expression that inspired my generation and continues for all those that have followed:

We Love You,

Yeah, yeah, yeah.